Tomorrow is the pre-Triodion Sunday of Zacchaeus / Sunday of the Canaanite Woman. The present essay marks the first in our Lenten Reflections 2020 series. 

Image result for orthodox monk walking up mountain"Ascending a great height or embarking on a long journey is a dominant theme of the Songs of Ascents (Ps 120-134). It is no wonder that the church Fathers found in this group of songs the appropriate “entrance” hymns into the season of repentance.

Like climbing a mountain, committing to a season of repentance jettisons us into an unknown adventure even in times when the world’s conflicts and strife draw us to despair.

As the Jews of the Exile learned, lamentation is God’s gift in the face of hopelessness. It calls us to a radical and profound action. Hopelessness causes two destructive responses. I can stew in cycles of despair, encircling into tighter and tighter circles of “giving up.”  I say “I’m done” with politics, church, family, work, “those people,” and finally, myself. I can equally grind in anger, raging against an ever-encroaching foe who seems to threaten my very way of life. I cut off all associations with perceived enemies and limit my alliances to the few who share my views.

At times like this, these songs sung during the lenten Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts draw us to ‘the dream” (Ps 126:1). The Bible presents a challenging, alternative view of humanity. Its idealism often butts heads with the ever present and ever pressing demands of the way things really are. In the Gospels, the conflict is revealed to include seemingly irresistible and invisible powers that continue to possess human societies and human wills.

Yet, Jesus exhorts his followers to keep on trusting in the Lord alone. Every week, and within human societies racked in violence, greed, exploitation, and gross inequities, Christians all over the world appeal to their Father and dreamingly beseech: Thy Kingdom, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Just as the ruined one of Psalms 130 and 131 sent up his appeals to God with the smoke of the olah sacrifice, and as Jesus does even nailed to the cross, so we continue the prayer taught by our Lord. Radically, we ask that God’s way on the earth begin in our own transformation away from the kingdoms of men and toward God’s Kingdom. We ask that God empower us to live into His rule. We ask God to reverse the destruction of this world in us:

Give us this day our daily bread. Enable us to live with enough and give enough so that this world’s inequities are eliminated.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Give us the courage to cancel debts and have mercy on those who are enslaved by insurmountable debt.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Help us to direct our desires toward You, and teach us the ways of self-giving love so that we can reverse our scandalized relationships, violent rivalries, and destructive envy.

Repentance requires the shuttering of lots of influences, distractions, concerns, and desires. It may seem like the wrong response to our world. Yet, on the way our hope is renewed and our faith invigorated. We join with the scribes of ancient Scriptures who discovered and rediscovered God’s astoundingly positive posture toward us usually in the least of positive times.

A time of repentance, like embarking on an expedition, requires the shutting down of business as usual in order to yield to a different and greater priority. But this is only half of the formula. It also requires an openness to adventure and discovery. That kind of openness requires the willingness to leave our worlds and kingdoms behind and for good. Even though most of us will resume our “normal” way of life after Lent, we will be changed. We become antsy and resistant to the normalcy of our violence. We become uncomfortable and less tolerant of violence, greed, and inequity, and view God’s Kingdom of justice, righteousness, truth, and love as the new norm.

A season of repentance is the Church’s gift to us.  It can and should be, but every year, we must decide once again to embark on the expedition from Babylon to Zion and from the shores of Galilee to the cross and the empty tomb. On every step along the way, it requires a willingness and discipline to abstain and focus, but even more so, it demands an openness to the fulness of life that can only be found in “the Mighty One of Jacob.”

Open to me the doors of repentance, O Life-Giver, according to Thy great mercy.

The author has adapted this reflection from his As Though We Were Dreaming: A Commentary on the Songs of Ascents for Lent.
See Lenten Reflections: An Invitation to Write if you would like to write for this series.

Keith Ruckhaus holds a PhD in Old Testament Theology from the University of South Africa in Pretoria. In addition to the book from which the above reflection is adapted, he has authored Wicked Rich, Wicked Poor: The Economic Crisis in the Book of Job, and regularly posts articles on his website, Amos Ephrem Chronicles. He is an active member of the SS. Cyril and Methodius Russian Greek Catholic community in Denver CO.

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