Hosea 2:14b, 15b, 19-20
Psalm 102:1-2, 3-4, 8 and 10, 12-13
2 Corinthians 3:1b-6
February 26, 2006
Monastery of the Glorious Cross, O.S.B.
Today is Quinquagesima Sunday: Holy Pascha is but fifty days away. In three days, Ash Wednesday will be upon us and, with it, the beginning of Lent. Speaking through the mouth of Hosea his prophet, the Lord calls us to another Lenten sojourn in the desert. “Behold, I will allure her, says the Lord, and bring her into solitude, and speak to her heart” (Hos 2:14).
You will have recognized the very passage from Hosea that we heard on February 10th for Saint Scholastica. The connection is striking because Holy Father Benedict teaches that, “the monk’s life ought at all seasons to bear a Lenten character” (RB 49, 1). The approaching days of Lent are given us that we might be led into solitude, there to have our hearts pierced and, yes, broken, by the word of Christ. Compunction and contrition: the pierced heart and the broken heart.
The heart pierced by the Word, the heart broken by the Word, becomes a heart capable of what Saint Benedict calls, “the joy of spiritual desire” (RB 49:7). The Lenten character of Benedictine life at all seasons is the joy of spiritual desire. A heart pierced and broken by the Word becomes capable of joy. This is the movement of Psalm 50, a psalm, the Fathers tell us, of spiritual resurrection: from the broken heart to paschal “rejoicing and gladness” (Ps 50:10).
The journey is not accomplished overnight. The history of God’s relationship with his chosen people is a stormy love story. The saga of his love for humanity is marked by a series of crises: crises provoked not by a capricious God, but by the roving eye and inconstant heart of a people given to repeated infidelities. God is faithful in His love and constant in his choice. “The mountains shall be moved, and the hills shall tremble; but my mercy shall not depart from thee” (Is 54:10), says the Lord.
Nothing can cause God to nullify his covenant. Nothing can make him abandon the people upon whom he has set his heart. “I have loved thee, and I will give men for thee, and people for thy life. Fear not for I am with thee” (Is 43:4-5).
The Bible, to express the bond by which God is joined to his chosen people and the chosen people joined to God, speaks of covenant: a solemn “coming together.” Covenant involves risk. What if one party should advance only to find that the other has not responded to the invitation? It is the classic drama of the bridegroom left standing at the altar, waiting for the bride who will never show up. In God’s covenant with his people, the great risk-taker was God. How completely astounding it is that an unchanging God, constant in his undying love, should propose covenant to a fickle people marked by change, inconstancy, and the lure of strange gods.
The metaphor of covenant necessarily calls up that of marriage. God is the suitor. God is the bridegroom. God is the lover. The setting of his betrothal to the chosen people is the wilderness of the Exodus. “The Lord’s portion is his people: Jacob the lot of his inheritance. He found him in a desert land, in a place of horror, and of vast wilderness: he encircled him, and taught him: and he kept him as the apple of his eye” (Dt 32:9-10). In the desert where everything is unfamiliar, strange, and even hostile, God proposes marriage, and the chosen people learn the meaning of love.
In the desert Israel, the bride, learns to lean upon the mercy of the Bridegroom. “Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?” (Ct 8:5) In the desert she learns to look to him in her every need: hunger, thirst, loneliness, and disease. In the desert, she learns to cry to him in her distress and to return to him after every shameful lapse. “Return, O Israel to the Lord, your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the Lord” (Hos 14:1-2).
For anyone who professes to be a follower of Christ, the solitude of the desert is inescapable. There is no way around it. It is necessary. There is nothing romantic about the desert; it is arid, unattractive, frightening, inhabited by fierce dragons and menacing vipers. It is the place of a terrible solitude and, at times, of total disorientation. It stretches endlessly in all directions and, if there were at one time any signposts, they are buried deep beneath its sands. For all of this, the desert is the place where it pleases God to woo us and win our hearts for himself alone.
There are all sorts of deserts: illness, bereavement, imprisonment, failure, misunderstanding, broken relationships, and the solitude forced upon us by life’s changes. Paradoxically solitude can co-exist with life in community. Even within marriage there are zones of solitude about which one’s spouse can do nothing. Solitude can make a person or break him. There are those for whom solitude is a bitter thing leading to despair. And there are those for whom solitude, while painful, becomes a space of communion with God and of healing.
The desert is the trysting place of God and the one upon whom he has set his love. This is why, crazy as it may seem, there are, in every age, men and women who choose the desert. They do so out of an inner certainty given by the Holy Spirit that the Bridegroom Christ waits for them there.
In today’s gospel, Christ identifies himself as the Bridegroom. The Church is his Bride. To the Church Christ has pledged and given his undying love. Christ withholds nothing from the Church, not even his own Body and Blood. All that is his belongs to her. To every member of the Church, male and female alike, to monastics, and to layfolk living in the world, Christ offers spousal intimacy with himself. The call to divine intimacy is not reserved for the select few; the invitation is universal, inclusive, all-embracing. “Abide in me, says Jesus, and I in you” (Jn 15:4). This is not the fleeting intimacy of a moment; it is the enduring intimacy that only a lover who is God and a God who is a lover can offer.
All who are baptized share in the Church’s bridal intimacy with the Lord and yet, for so many, there is no question of intimacy, no great passion, no burning love, but instead a dull routine, a religion of low maintenance, of cheap grace, and of deadly legalism. What is it that keeps us locked into a lifeless routine? What is it that prevents us from grasping our side of the covenant? More often than not, it is fear: fear of the unfamiliar, fear of the uncharted, fear of the unknown, and, above all, fear of change. Fear of having one’s heart pierced. Fear of having it broken. And yet, the psalm of spiritual resurrection makes it clear: there is no other way. “A contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. . . . To my hearing thou shalt give joy and gladness: and the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice” (Ps 50: 19, 10).
While the Eucharist is offered and given for all, it is tasted inwardly only by those who approach it with hearts pierced and broken. By partaking of the Body and Blood of the Bridegroom Christ, we consent to covenant and we consent to change. This, perhaps, is the miracle that lies at the heart of the Eucharist the change of bread and wine into the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Christ, of course but, because of this, and by it, our own change, by the power of the Holy Spirit, into a people whose life “at all seasons bears a Lenten character” (RB 49:1), a people who, “with the joy of spiritual desire, look forward to holy Pascha” (RB 49:7). This is the change to which we will be asked to commit ourselves on Wednesday. The ashes on our heads will be but the outward sign of hearts pierced and broken. Remember the three Lenten C’s: Compunction, contrition, and covenant. May God who calls us into the desert preserve us from refusing his covenant for fear of the risk.