“Community doesn’t mean just being with one another; it means being for one another.”
By Jerry Creedon
System Faith Animator
We have just begun our Lenten journey. From where we stand the road ahead looks daunting, forty days without the things that we have convinced ourselves to go without! One consolation is that we are not setting out on this journey alone. The first reading at Mass on Ash Wednesday reminds us dramatically of this. The reading comes from the prophet Joel who lived nearly twenty five hundred years ago. It is an exhortation to the people literally to pull themselves together in the face of a terrible crisis, a plague of locusts which has “transformed a land of Eden into a desert waste” (2:3). To survive this catastrophe the people must come together
and turn their lives around. “Even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” The people are not called to appease an angry God; they are invited to rediscover the God of mercy: “Return to the Lord, your God; for he is gracious, and abounds in steadfast love.” And they are exhorted to do this together.
All are included. Each belongs. “Gather the people; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy; let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, also weep.” Let the pastor, too, be smeared with ashes!
Maybe Joel’s reading is not merely a call to repentance as we usually understand it. Perhaps he is telling us that in order to rediscover the God of love or, more precisely, the love of God, we need first to find one another. We are witnessing these days too much of what my friend Alan Watts calls “over-againstness.” As we begin our Lenten journey let us turn our thoughts to what Watts calls “goes-with-ness.”
The Lenten journey begins in the desert. That is where we find Jesus on the First Sunday of Lent, locked in a forty-day combat with the devil. “He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” Now, as Pope Benedict XVI told the people gathered in St. Peter’s Square on the day of his papal inauguration on April 24, 2005, there are many kinds of desert. “There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life.” We are all familiar with these deserts. They are to be found in our own backyards. They are to be found in our own school-yards. Perhaps they are to be found in our own experience. And Jesus was “led by the Spirit” into the desert so that he might lead us, like the Israelites of old, out of the desert. We are all familiar with the image of Jesus carrying a lost sheep on his shoulders. The image comes from Luke’s parable about the shepherd leaving the ninety nine sheep to go in search of one who had strayed. “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulder and rejoices.” This is the very passage on which Pope Benedict bases so much of his inaugural papal homily. “The human race” he tells us, “every one of us, is the sheep lost in the desert which no longer knows the way… Jesus takes it upon his shoulders and carries our humanity; he carries us all.” Talking about the symbolism of the Pallium, a stole woven from pure wool and placed, as part of the inaugural ceremony, on the Pope’s shoulders, Pope Benedict explains: “What the Pallium indicates first and foremost is that we are all carried by Christ. But at the same time it invites us to carry one another.”
Joel’s Ash Wednesday message that each belongs is also a reminder that no one is exempt. Community doesn’t mean just being with one another; it means being for one another. As St. Paul told the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” The Samaritan woman whom we meet at the well on the third Sunday of Lent may turn out to be my next door neighbour. The crippled man waiting for thirty eight years for someone to help him into the healing waters of Pool Bethzatha, whom we meet on the Fourth Tuesday of Lent, may well be the needy student who has slipped through the cracks because he or she, like the man in the gospel story, “had no one to put me into the pool… while I am struggling to make my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” The hungry Jesus in the desert may, for all we know, be the poor fellow holding up that cardboard plea for help at the corner of Main and Dundurn.
The prophet Isaiah many centuries ago told us what fasting is all about: “Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” This caring for one another is what Pope Francis calls “holiness” in his Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, (Rejoice and Be Glad). But we can care for one another only if we are aware of one another, if we find one another, if, like the Little Prince, we see each other with the heart, if we heed Joel’s Ash Wednesday rallying cry to gather together
as one. Isn’t that what Jesus prayed for to his Father before he died: “That they may be one?” That should be our Lenten prayer too, that our Lenten journey will be a march together
from the desert to the Mountain of Transfiguration, where God will change our Ash Wednesday mourning into the community laughter and boundless joy that become the whole of creation’s hymn of praise.
“What life have you, if you have not life together? There is no life that is not life in community. And no community not lived in praise of God.” (T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock).
Let us pray. O God, you make your light shine in the darkness of life, so that we see no longer darkness but shining light, transform the very things that weigh heavily on our spirits into sources of joy for our hearts and peace for our world. Transfigure our struggling selves into a community resplendent with your glory. Together we make our prayer through Christ Our Lord. Amen.