Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent

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Sister Anne Shepard | February 20, 2021

Every Lent is an invitation to change our lifestyle, “to keep our manner of life pure and wash away in this holy season the negligence of other times.” (RB 49:2) Last year at this time, none of us could anticipate what lifestyle change would be for us.  It has been dramatic, for some more painful than for others.  At first, when we were all confined to our rooms, we couldn’t pray or eat together.  What loneliness and sadness not knowing what would happen or how long it would last.  Absence from family members when we know they are lonely, in pain, facing diminishment, essential workers, absence from our own sisters because of the separation by the Dooley/monastery sliding doors, lack of attendance in person for volunteer or salaried ministries, limitations to physical movement to the campus and the river- to name a few- are all changes from our usual lifestyle.  Our routines came to an abrupt halt in mid-March last year.  In the middle of Lent.  We weren’t even sure how or if we would be able to celebrate the Triduum in community.  Remember?

As Benedictines we vow “conversatio”, repentance, change. Barbara Reid suggested that our Lenten lifestyle change includes “minds and hearts turning from anything that inhibits the full flourishing of the divine intent for creation and turning toward the source of divine love.” (Italics mine)  The time for change is now.  We are more flexible changing than we were a year ago because our lifestyle has changed.

Growing up, I never knew my grandparents.  During Easter week, April 1919, at the tail end of the third strain of the influenza pandemic, my father’s infant brother Eamon, mother, Katherine, and his grandmother, Ellen, died of complications from the flu.  My grandfather was a widower left with six children to raise, the youngest was only two years old. First, he had to bury the three loved ones who died.  He sent his two sons to boarding school and his four girls to be raised by his unmarried aunts.  My father didn’t talk about the experience, but his younger brother and sisters did, relaying how hard it was for them.  They judged my grandfather to be aloof and not warm.  Evidently, my grandmother was the heart and soul of the family.  However, now I think and understand that my grandfather was probably heartbroken and may have seemed lost, a sentiment that we can empathize with these days.  My grandfather’s lifestyle changed instantly and so did that of his children.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.… He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people.” (Heb 4:15) According to the anonymous author of the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus, our source of divine love, was like us in weakness, but not sin.  Really?  Do you wonder what His weaknesses were?  I do.  If Jesus were incarnate today would he be a computer nerd or one who struggles with technology?  Was his weakness impatience with the guys he was with, the impetuous, the doubter, the traitor, the liar, etc.? Did he have arthritis, back or joint pain, or intestinal problems?  What were the weaknesses?  We know that Jesus was contemplative and possibly an introvert. He was always trying to escape, to get away to pray alone.  Sometimes he told people he healed to not tell others.  But he also learned to do well, perhaps thrive, in large groups and with crowds.  He was tested morally and physically, we are told, and as a fully human being, he can sympathize with weaknesses.  The change he wanted us to internalize by his being human is that he loves us in our weakness.  He gets it.  And he loves us.

And finally the story about my 29 years old friend Dr. Paul Judd, MD, PhD.   He was a researcher, ethicist, and teacher at the Universidad Catolica Lumen Gentium, the Catholic University in Mexico City.  Before beginning his studies three years ago to become a medical doctor, he answered God’s call to be a medic for the Red Cross efforts in Syria.  Returning home with a serious shrapnel gash in his leg, he volunteered last year for another Red Cross mission.  However, instead, he stayed in Mexico City to be one of the country’s top scientific researchers for a COVID-19 vaccine.   He set aside his aspirations to practice medicine for the time being.  He died of COVID on January 30th.   Over 400 relatives and friends were on a zoom celebration of his life telling stories of how he impacted them.  He was never inhibited from doing his part to contribute to the divine intent for creation.  He was a messenger of the good news of Christ for his colleagues, family, friends, and students.   

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The evangelist Mark challenges us to change our lifestyles and believe the good news. Like Jesus who goes to Galilee to carry on the work began by John the Baptist, like Paul who stayed the course as a researcher, we too are not naïve about the high cost of choosing to accept and spread the good news.  

Repent and believe the good news.  Repent because you are the good news.