Let’s pray for Benedict XVI (and thank God for his remarkable legacy). Let’s also pray for his successor. But since Christ who is the Holy One of God has not left the Church we must turn our gaze back to the Season of Lent and leave the cardinals to do their jobs. The secular culture would have us waste time speculating about the pope, but Catholic life during Lent runs deeper than that.
In the First Reading for today, Moses is called by the Holy God: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Even the great Moses had to take off his shoes in such a place. Moses was meeting the axis of his life and this God is a holy God. Furthermore “it pleased Him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness.”(Vatican II) That holiness becomes the basis for our possibility. God willed to share this god-defining quality with us in Jesus Christ who “stands as the author and consummator of this holiness of life.”(Vatican II)
By singing the psalm – and not having someone else do it for us – we publicly claim the truth of our relationship with God. We sing: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all my being, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” This is how we rightly stand before God. The verse begins to show the meaning of taking off our shoes.
But all is not well in the Kingdom.
The season of Lent is a time when secular distractions have to be put aside with the aim of working to turn away from the effects of Original Sin. Pope Benedict explained of those effects that:
man is weakened by an intense influence, which wounds his capacity to enter into communion with the other. By nature, he is open to sharing freely, but he finds in his being a strange force of gravity that makes him turn in and affirm himself above and against others: this is egoism, the result of original sin. Adam and Eve, seduced by Satan’s lie, snatching the mysterious fruit against the divine command, replaced the logic of trusting in Love with that of suspicion and competition; the logic of receiving and trustfully expecting from the Other with anxiously seizing and doing on one’s own (cf. Gn 3, 1-6), experiencing, as a consequence, a sense of disquiet and uncertainty. How can man free himself from this selfish influence and open himself to love?
Moses before the Buring Bush by Domenico Fetti, c. 1614
This is as neat a summary of the curse of sin as you can find. Sin has not departed because we are living in the twenty-first century. Sin has not departed because we are “doing social justice ministry” or any other substitute for worshipping God in holiness. If anything egoism is rampant. That is what is bringing this age to its end.
Into this murky picture steps Saint Paul with the story of the Israelites (the People of God) whom Moses led.(Second Reading) He emphasizes the terrible difficulties that they experienced saying: “These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” The People established in holiness (us at our Baptism) are rotten with egoism. It is never fashionable to acknowledge this, but it has all but disappeared from view in our self-satisfied times. Take off your shoes.
Lastly, in the Gospel Jesus challenges the crowd – which is still us today. Pilate’s troops had killed some Galileans who were offering sacrifice. Jesus’ response was: “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” Repentance is rediscovering the holiness God has given us. Not doing this will be lethal.
Then comes Jesus’ parable of the fig tree. It was not producing any fruit. The owner (God) wants it cut down. The gardener (Christ) begs for more time. The final concession by the owner is, in Jesus’ words: “leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.” Cutting the tree down is final.
Nevertheless, this Lent we too have been given time. We could have been dead by now. Life today is as unexpected as it has always been. Are we one people who serve God in holiness? It is time to own up to the fact that we are not – and do something about it.
Take off your shoes. This is holy ground.