|Would You Like Some Figs with Your Whine?
The Third Sunday of Lent.
Lessons from the tertiary dominica, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Exodus 3: 1-8, 13-15.
• Psalm 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11.
• I Corinthians 10: 1-6, 10-12.
• Luke 13: 1-9.
When the alternate lessons from the primary dominica are taken:*
• Exodus 17: 3-7.
• Psalm 95: 1-2, 6-9.
• Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8.
• John 4: 5-42 or 5-15, 19-26, 40-42.
Lessons from the dominica, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Ephesians 5: 1-9.
• Psalm 9: 20, 4.
• Psalm 122: 1-3.
• Luke 11: 14-28.
The Third Sunday of the Great Fast & of the Veneration of the Holy Cross;** and, the Feast of Our Venerable Father & Confessor Basil, Fellow Ascetic of Procopius.
Lessons from the triodion, according to the Ruthenian recension of the Byzantine Rite:
• Hebrews 4: 14—5: 6.
• Mark 8: 34—9: 1.
9:07 AM 2/28/2016 — In the film Lawrence of Arabia there is a scene where Lawrence, played by Peter O'Toole, has been summoned to the office of his commanding general, played by Jack Hawkins, and a reporter, played by Arthur Kennedy, asks Claude Rains' character, “Is the man in trouble?” and Rains responds, “I assume so. We all have troubles”; which, of course, is not an answer, but is profoundly true. There are very few of us who can say that our journey through this valley of tears—as the “Hail, Holy Queen” puts it—is a happy-go-lucky waltz through life. The temptation, of course, is that we personalize our troubles and presume that they are directed personally against us because of some sin or some failure on our part, and if we could only identify it and deal with it all our troubles would go away. Remember when our Lord encountered the Man Born Blind, and His disciples asked him, “'Master, was this man guilty of sin, or was it his parents, that he should have been born blind?' 'Neither he nor his parents were guilty,' Jesus answered; 'it was so that God’s action might declare itself in him'” (John 9: 2-3 Knox).*** It's the same question they ask Him in today's lesson, just with different circumstances: an uprising among the Jews in our Lord's adopted home province of Galilee had been put down very violently by Pilate, and some sort of construction accident in Siloam had killed eighteen people while they were building some sort of tower or monument at the sight of Jacob's Well; so, the presumption of their question to Him is the same as in the case of the Man Born Blind: what did all these unfortunate people do to deserve all this?
This presumption, of course, is an exercise in the sin of pride, and our Lord challenges it in the first half of today's Gospel lesson:
Do you suppose, because this befell them, that these men were worse sinners than all else in Galilee? I tell you it is not so; you will all perish as they did, if you do not repent. … do you suppose that there was a heavier account against them, than against any others who then dwelt at Jerusalem? I tell you it was not so; you will all perish as they did, if you do not repent (Luke 13: 2, 4-5 Knox).
In other words, while it is true that all suffering in this earthly life is the result of sin, this does not mean that our own sufferings are the results of our own sins; and, I say that this is an exercise in the sin of pride because it's based on the presumption that the negative effects of God's permissive will are so personalized that what we do in this life effects us and us alone, without reckoning upon the Communion of the Saints or our participation in the effects of Original Sin.
Life in this world is hard, but not because of anything we've done personally, but because of the effects of our fallen nature and the concupiscence that goes with it. As our Lord points out, the Galileans and the people at Siloam were punished, yes, but not because of each of their individual sins, but because of the sins of all Galileans and all Siloamites; and, the repentance he exhorts upon them is a repentance that must take place within the whole of those societies. It only becomes personal when we realize that the conversion of a society is linked to the personal conversion of each and every soul within it; and, we contribute to the conversion of society by, first of all, converting ourselves.
The second half of the Gospel lesson is a parable, and a rather simple one: the fig tree that doesn't bear fruit is cut down and thrown away; not a lot of mental gymnastics needed to figure that one out. But the important part of this lesson is how dangerous it can be to become too introspective. This, also, is an exercise in pride—and for the same reason—because it presumes that everything that happens to me is because of me. It's an exercise in a lack of understanding of Catholic dogma because it denies the effects of Original Sin and our link to the Communion of the Saints. I suffer in this world not because I am a sinner, but because I happen to live in a sinful world. We chafe at that because it isn't fair: why should I have to participate in the negative effects of the sins of others? Because that's the way it is. That's what Original Sin was all about.
We often betray our sin of pride and our lack of understanding of Original Sin in the manner in which we sometimes make our confessions: we start crying to the priest about how hard our life is and how difficult it is to cope, either because we have mistaken the priest for some kind of psychologist or counselor, or—which I think is more likely—we're just obsessed with ourselves and presume that everything that's gone wrong with our lives has to do with us; and, this prevents us from making a truly good confession. We don't go to confession to get practical advice on how to cope with our problems; we go to confession to be absolved of our sins, and all the priest has to know to do that is what we did and how many times we did it, as far as we can remember. And I sometimes suspect that the reason so many people wait so long to go to confession, or avoid going to confession, is because they don't really understand what they're supposed to do there, or what they're supposed to be there to receive. It's purpose is not therapeutic, it's sacramental; it's there to give Grace. Use it as some sort of free counseling session, and it becomes nothing more than a form of therapy with religious overtones, and the imparting of sacramental grace in absolution suddenly seems secondary, if it's remembered at all; we leave confession not convinced that we've been forgiven and grace has been restored, but simply feeling better about ourselves—a nebulous benefit at best which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with eternal salvation.
While it should be consoling to know that our problems are not directed at us personally, the sin of pride is a persistent monster: we all want to think that we're special, and to learn that our personal problems have less to do with ourselves and what we've done than they do with a fallen nature we share with everyone else takes that away from us. The question is: do we have the humility to accept the fact that it really isn't all about us?
Confession is a big part of Lent, as you know; even more so during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. So, let's make a resolution that, the next time we sit down to make a good examination of conscience in preparation for confession, we'll do it this time without the overtones of self-pity, without rehashing for the priest—or even for ourselves—what So-and-so did to tempt us to say that uncharitable word, or what aches or pains caused us to be grumpy and disagreeable, or how depressed and distracted we are because of work or family problems and so we fell prey to some sin of impurity, or whatever. “Merciful and gracious is the Lord,” says today's Psalm, “slow to anger and abounding in kindness” (Psalm 103: 8 RM3). His forgiveness is His gift to us. If only we could learn to accept it without whining and moaning about why we need it.
* The Roman Missal Third Edition provides the option of always reading the Gospel of the Samaritan Woman and its associated lessons on this Sunday as provided in the primary dominica; when done so, a Preface to the Canon proper to it is also used. This homily is based on the lessons from the tertiary dominica.
** In the Byzantine Tradition, certain Sundays of the Great Fast commemorate certain spiritual concepts or saintly individuals. The Third Sunday is always dedicated to the veneration of the Holy Cross. Ordinarily, a simple wooden cross (not a crucifix) is placed on the Holy Table before Vespers the evening before, then carried in procession and venerated by the faithful at Matins. In parish churches where these hours are not celebrated, this procession and veneration may take place at the Divine Liturgy.
*** The footnote provided by Msgr. Knox is worth repeating: “The disciples may not have known that the man was born blind; and [the] Greek may be interpreted as meaning, 'Did this man sin (and go blind)? Or did his parents commit some sin, with the consequence that he was born blind?'”