Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lenten Reflection: First Sunday of Lent

Cycle B
(Gn 9:8-15; 1 Pt 3:18-22; Mk 1:12-15)

One of the qualities that marked the life of Christ was compassion. He saw someone sick or in need and he responded with compassion. The crowds were hungry on the mountain and he responded with compassion. He came across someone seeking forgiveness and he responded with compassion. As disciples of Christ, we want to try to model that behavior in our own life and cultivate a spirit of compassion. However, we often get compassion confused with pity. And pity, trying to pass itself off as compassion, is anything but that. In fact, in the Buddhist tradition, pity is seen as the enemy of compassion. Pity says something like this, “What she is going though just horrifies me and I feel sorry for her.” Being repelled by what someone else is dealing with, we actually separate ourselves from that person and maybe even feel a bit superior.

Compassion, on the other hand, is based on love and it draws us deep into others’ lives to walk with them in their pain. It also makes us vulnerable to one another, taking us deep into some of the most profound human experiences. Interestingly, the Buddhist term for compassion is karuna, which means “quaking heart.” And the corresponding term from the New Testament—compassion as Jesus understands it—is splanknizomai, which means “moved to the bowels”—moved to the very center of who we are. Given that, it’s not surprising that compassion has such a profound effect on us and bonds us strongly to another. Consider someone who has entered your life with great compassion at a time when you have been particularly hurting. Or consider a time when you may have done this for another. The bond forged in those moments is not easily forgotten. How could it be, when you have shared such vulnerability; when your hearts quaked together and your souls were stirred to their very foundations?

On this first Sunday of Lent, we hear a familiar and predictable passage from St. Mark’s gospel...a passage that speaks to us, albeit briefly, about Jesus’ temptations in the desert. It was a time of great vulnerability when Jesus came to realize his life was not his own and one of gthe great lessons he learned in the desert was that he could count on the compassion of the Father not only in that moment, but throughout his ministry. The first reading, as well as the reading from the First Letter of Peter recalls Noah and the great flood as a sign of baptism, which saves us from sin and death. In compassion, God gives us this sacrament which frees us from a lifetime of slavery to sin and holds out to us the possibility of eternal life. More, Peter also tells us that out of compassion “Jesus went to preach to the spirits” bringing his saving presence to those in Sheol, a world of no hope, no life, and no God. It was the darkest possible place of the human condition and there, he bought love and compassion. Having come to know the compassion of the Father, Jesus “pays it forward” and wants us to know that we can rely on his compassion not only in our moments of desolation, but in all the moments of our life.

Similarly, we who rely on and are the beneficiaries of the compassion of Christ, are to show cultivate and show compassion to other. These Scriptures remind us that whatever else we do during these weeks of Lent, we would do well to consider them as a particular time of compassion—entering into the human condition with an engagement that moves us to our depths. The traditional three practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving move us in that direction. We pray so that we can more enter more deeply into relationship with the God who has called us into being and seeks to draw us into his love. We fast to bond with the two billion people around the world who go to bed hungry each night. We give alms to free ourselves from greed and become free for union with those in great need...who have no choice but to do without, sometimes because of our having too much. Lent is a time to be especially mindful of our capacity for compassion. It calls us, like Christ, to enter more deeply into human existence with great vulnerability and great live with a quaking heart.

— Fr. Anthony M. Criscitelli, T.O.R.