First Sunday of Lent
February 18, 2018
by Marina McCoy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
Marina McCoy is an associate professor of philosophy at Boston College, teaching ancient Greek philosophy and in the PULSE program. She is also mom to both a BC alum and a current BC student, and her husband works at BC's McMullen Museum of Art. Her books include Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy and Literature (Oxford University Press). Marina also volunteers, visiting inmates who form the Lay Dominican community at Norfolk Prison, and writes a monthly column on spirituality for Loyola Press at https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/. She recently did "basic training" in spiritual direction at the BC School of Theology and Ministry as part of her sabbatical.
Genesis 9: 8-15
Psalm 25:4-9 1
Lent is a season of both increased contemplation and action. In Lent, we are encouraged to pray a little more devotedly, and act in love towards others—especially those most in need—a little more faithfully.
In the Gospel reading for today’s liturgy, Jesus goes into the desert for a period of forty days before he embarks on his ministry. In the Old Testament, too, Moses fasts, both before he gives the people of Israel the Ten Commandments and to intercede for the sins of the people when they worship an idol (Deut. 9:9, 18). In Mark’s gospel, right after Jesus leaves the desert, he preaches the good news, heals people of their illnesses, and calls others to come and be with him (Mark 1:14-45). Jesus’ time alone in the desert prepares him to be with others in his preaching, healing, and friendship.
For us, too, time in solitude with God helps us to live well and be in relationship to Jesus. To contemplate is to take time to look at something in an unhurried, slow way. In Lent, we are invited to take the time to contemplate God. This might seem like an activity reserved only for a few; for example, a “contemplative” religious who undertakes extended periods of prayer every day as part of the rhythm of her daily life. But contemplation is for everyone.
Human beings are natural contemplators. Think of a mom or dad who gazes lovingly at their baby as he sleeps, doing nothing but watching the gentle rising and falling of the baby’s chest and the sweetness of a cherubic face. Or we might spend time looking at the glint of light reflected off of newly fallen snow, or feel wonder at the unexpected beauty of the shape of a tree bereft of its leaves, its branches reaching to the sky like outstretched arms. We might find our anxiety washed away by the sounds of crashing waves on an ocean beach. Even taking photos with an iPhone could be contemplative, if it slows us down enough to notice a Presence, to love it, and want to share it. Indeed, contemplation naturally leads into action, because love is a gift that cannot be contained. After admiring a sleeping baby, we might be a little more patient when he wakes up and cries, even if it is the middle of the night!
Contemplation, in other words, is about learning how to see the love that is always present in our daily lives, and to look lovingly in return. The Jesuit Walter Burkhardt, S.J., described contemplation as a “long loving look at the real.” The challenge for many of us may be around that word “real.” We are invited to find God not only in sleeping babies and beautiful natural scenery, but also hidden in the difficulties of life. But how can we find God in the midst of family illness, broken relationships, physical or emotional pain, or seemingly intractable social injustice? The answer is to look for the places where there is love. Where is the light of God’s love shining through, whether as a small glint visible only around the edges, or as a brighter beam suddenly breaking through the darkness?
Only if we can set aside at least a little time in our routines to pray do we have room to see and to hear. Just as we cannot rush through admiring a child’s drawing that he has brought home from school, or enjoy the view from atop a mountain unless we stop our hiking for a bit, contemplation of God in every circumstance of our lives—happy and unhappy— requires time. We might think that our own age has an especially rushed pace of life, but Jesus also faced these kinds of choices. Shortly after his time in the desert, Mark describes Jesus as surrounded by many people who desire healing. Jesus goes off to pray in solitude in the midst of all of this ministerial action (Mark 1: 35-37). He gets up very early to pray while it is still dark, far from other people. Eventually, Simon Peter and his friends come to find Jesus, and tell him that everyone is “seeking” him (Mark 1:37). They seek him and want to see him. So as Jesus is contemplating his Father, the disciples are also “looking for” Jesus. Everyone is looking for God, because they see a world in need of healing.
By looking at the person of Jesus and contemplating him, we learn what God’s love looks like. Throughout this season of Lent, we might spend time considering Jesus in the Gospel to discover more about what love looks like.
Our actions, though, also inform our insight. What do we see: are we aware of social injustice or do we deliberately turn a blind eye? Who do we see: do we seek out those who are sometimes invisible, or only the powerful and conventionally beautiful? How do we see: do we see with the eyes of mercy or only judgment?
In Lent, we are especially encouraged to undertake the corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit those in prison, bury the dead, and give alms to the poor. When we act in these loving ways, it may fundamentally shift the way that we see the presence of God in our world.
Perhaps we will spend time with a community of people that is often invisible—for example, men or women in prison who feel isolated not only by the physical walls of prison but also the social walls that prevent their participation in ordinary society. Or maybe spending time at a soup kitchen will awaken us to see the widespread problem of food insecurity, and to be motivated to work for structural change. Or perhaps, as a friend of mine recently experienced, as we share a sandwich with a person who is homeless, we discover that Christ is not so much in we who serve, but visible in the face of the person who is sitting across the table.
How this Lent do I hope that contemplation and action might open my eyes and heart to love?
Suggestions for Prayer and Practice:
- Set aside a short period of time to pray in solitude daily in Lent. Perhaps it is early in the morning before anyone else awakens or taking a few minutes’ walk midday. Parents of young children often have to get creative to find this kind of time. Perhaps one can walk in nature with a child in a jogging stroller, or even escape to the bathtub at the end of the day while a spouse watches the kids!
- Take a gospel, such as the Gospel according to Luke, and read through it slowly over the course of Lent. How does Jesus show us what love looks like?
- Practice a corporal work of mercy regularly this Lent. Consider choosing one that places you in relationship to a different community of people. See http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/jubilee-of-mercy/the-corporal-works-of-mercy.cfm
- Learn about the Society of Jesus and a life of “contemplation in action” in the book Contemplatives in Action by William Barry, S.J., and Robert Doherty, S.J., or as part of the journey of Jesuit formation here: https://www.beajesuit.org/
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