I came across this poem while I was on retreat last summer. It moved me deeply. Every year on Ash Wednesday I tend to give the same exhortation. I encourage fasting and discourage dieting. Fasting has to do with the soul, not extra fat.
Fasting jolts me out of my own complacency by feeling the ache of hunger. It helps me feel the daily poverty of so many in the world. When I look into the window of Maison Kaiser with my mouth watering I think of the hundreds of millions who would have to use an entire week’s salary to buy a single croissant.
When I fast I think of original sin. Why do a few have so much, and a multitude so little? When I fast I look at the cross and ask why? When I fast my soul is unsettled, yet I feel more alive. I see the world more clearly. I hope this poem touches your soul as deeply as it touched mine.
What does the bag lady give up for Lent?
she hugs the edge of pew set in shadow uncoveted by the pious and shifts her bones to rearrange ache, wipes her nose frosted in scab on an unkind sleeve, swims in the pain of throbbing corns signaling rain, cradles in her lap her lifeline sack, maternal as a tiger.
does she, as the priest exhorts, promise to fast for 40 days? does she, for Jesus’ sake, offer up butter on popcorn colored bubbles in her evening bath? does she, with Joan-of-Arc zeal, abstain from cream in her breakfast coffee and Pepperidge Farm muffins of apple and spice, and the necessary dab of chived sour cream on her daily baked potato?
does she make all things new by rising at five from cool, crisp sheets of patterned rose to sink in prayer in Persian nap? does she walk the other mile at Friday Stations in tight safe slippers avoiding the blood does she send her cloak as Martin of Tours to prove she is sister to one who shivers?
what can Lent mean to one who sits sleeping in the last back pew, sits dreaming of warmth and fresh rye bread, sits unheeding through let-us-greet and reflect and adore and repent and clasp hands in peace? what can she tithe of secrets stored in the paper vault, scorned by thief ignored by moth? one-tenth of a can of kippered sardines, black oozing banana, Saltine clones immaculately conceived hermetically sealed astutely retrieved from a discarded bowl of chili at Wendy’s?
what can she share except her inch of crucifix
By Ethel Marbach as printed in the St. Anthony Messenger, April 1982
Chapter five of Matthew’s Gospel ends with a declaration by Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” He then proceeded to push every one of the laws to a radical conclusion. He extended “you shall not kill” to “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” “You shall not commit adultery” became “everyone who looks at a
woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce” became “whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery.”
These statements are jarring, to say the least. Was Jesus exaggerating to make a point? Or should these statements be taken literally? I think if we link them to his opening statement: “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it” we can get a much clearer, and deeper, understanding of his teaching.
Jesus was taking the law, the Ten Commandments and their endless interpretations, and transformed it – fulfilled it. Matthew began chapter five with Jesus listing the new commandments. “How happy are the poor in spirit…How happy are the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, how happy are the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers.” Jesus transformed the old law from “You shall not” to “how happy you can be.” We read these last Sunday.
Today’s gospel is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, and really challenges us to take a giant spiritual step. Jesus opened the door to joy. If we follow Jesus’ example by not living for ourselves, but for others, the “thou shalt nots” of the old law easily give way to the joy of the beatitudes. “Thou shalt not” leads to a spirituality based on divine judgment. The beatitudes lead to a love of self and love of neighbor, and a wonderful knowledge that we’re loved unconditionally by our heavenly Father.
The Romans had the saying, “Nil utilius sole et sale.” There’s nothing more useful than sun and salt. They believed that salt was the purest element of the earth because it came from the most basic components of creation: sun and water. Plutarch said that meat was a dead body and would decay, but that when salted and dried it was given a new soul.
Salt was the most common preservative. Not having refrigeratin, meat and fish were salted and could be stored for long periods of time. Every once in a while, friends of mine treat me to a dinner of homemade baccalao, salted cod fish. So, we’re still using salt as a preservative today. But let’s face it, is there anything worse that a salt-free meal? Salt is a gift from sun and water, and it makes life so much better.
There was another use for salt. This is foreign to us but important for us to understand. In the ancient world only the wealthy enjoyed the luxury of a personal oven. Communities shared an outdoor oven. They were made of stone, fired up and kept going for long periods of time so that the families of the village could make use of them. The inside of the oven was lined with packed salt that provided excellent insulation and efficiently retained the heat. The salt would have to be changed periodically as it would corrupt from the heat and would be thrown onto the pathways.
We’ve put together a few ideas about the use of salt during Jesus’ time. Now, let’s think about the meaning of his statement to us: “You are the salt of the earth.”
The disciple is called to make life taste good. Our relationships must be respectful, supportive,caring and filled with joy. The work that we do must be honest and true. It must be performed with care and caring for the good of the human family.
Thinking about the salt used in the communal ovens Jesus may have imagined the commitment and endurance necessary to be a disciple. He spent his life selflessly giving himself to the people who were like “sheep without a shepherd.” He would eventually pour out his life on the cross, emptying himself in love. Following his example, Jesus asked his disciples to burn themselves out in love and ministry.
Salt was the purest element and essential to life. I would think Jesus was telling us, that as his disciples we, too, must be pure and essential to life. In the sermon on the mount he said, “How happy are the pure of heart for they will see God.” When we hear the word “pure” we generally think about sexual behavior, but that doesn’t capture the enormity of this teaching. To be painfully practical, we’re living in a society that has abandoned the purity of the truth. Phrases that wage war against truth like “fake news” and “alternate facts” ring out every day, it seems. Jesus was asking his disciples to stand in opposition to the world – to maintain purity of heart.
The authentic disciple must never loose sight of Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate. His words should ring in our ears. “I came into the world to bear witness to the truth and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.” Pilate’s closed heart tragically responded: “What is truth?”
There are many Pilates in positions of power throughout the world. Today, each and every disciple is called to stand in contradiction to them. We offer the life that truth brings. Some among us who are called to a prophetic ministry may meet the same fate as Jesus. But through us, the truth will continue to reach out, offering life, offering healing, offering a vision of a new world. As his disciples we must never forget his words to us. “You are the salt of the earth.”
Eight days after his birth, Jesus was circumcised and given the Hebrew name Joshua. We refer to him by the Greek translation of his name, Jesus. His circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and Jewish people. That day Jesus became a Jew.
Three weeks or so later, his parents brought him to the temple in Jerusalem for another ceremony, the redemption of the first born. It was a simple ceremony recalling that all life belonged to God. A small amount of money, five shekels, was given to the priest to buy back the child. That ceremony was followed by another one involving the child’s mother who was considered unclean for forty days after the birth of a baby boy. A sacrifice was required to conclude that period. She offered the sacrifice of the poor, two turtle doves or two young pigeons.
Mary and Joseph came to the temple to fulfill these dictates of the law. They were surprised when a man suddenly walked over to them and asked to hold their child in his arms. He looked like a kind and holy man and had a beautiful smile. Mary handed him her baby boy. The man, Simeon, broke out into a poetic rhapsody. “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
As beautiful as his words were, Mary and Joseph must have wondered what this was all about. They didn’t know that he had had an interior vision in which the Holy Spirit promised him that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Christ with his own eyes. Today was the day! He must have been weeping as he spoke those words. He concluded with a prophecy that he spoke directly to Mary. “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
If this wasn’t enough, immediately after, an eightyfour year old woman who was a prophetess, came forward and intensely fixed her gaze on the child. She left them and began to speak “about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Israel.”
After they had performed their religious duties, Mary and Joseph returned to their home in the Galilean town of Nazareth. The gospel writer concluded his narrative of Jesus’ infancy with a short note. “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. It’s a lovely story we’ve read today, but what’s the deeper message Luke is trying to convey to the people of his day and to us? The Jewish world had been anticipating the emergence of a messianic military leader who would usher Israel into a golden age. Luke was introducing this long-awaited leader, but he was very different from what everyone expected.
There was great power all around this messiah, but it wasn’t military power! The announcement of his birth came to the poor and lowly. Mary was told that he would be “the Son of God,” and through him a new world order would emerge. Angelic messengers invited Mary and Zachariah to participate in God’s marvelous plan. A chorus of angels announced his birth to poor shepherds with the words: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Simeon, the mystic, proclaimed Jesus “the glory of Israel,” and surprisingly, “the light,” not only for Israel, but for the whole world – Jews and Gentiles alike! Anna the prophetess, continued the proclamation of the good news that the shepherds began after seeing him in the manger. “She spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Luke was telling us God is among us – he calls him Emmanuel which means “God with us.” Nothing can be the same anymore. The light of God’s revelation has appeared in the person of Jesus, the Christ!
This feast we’re celebrating today, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, reminds us that Jesus Christ was the divine Light. That Light will never be extinguished no matter what trials and tribulations the world experiences! It’s traditional, today, to bless candles and to process around the church with them. So today we will light candles and present them to families with newly born children. This is to remind each and every one of us to follow the example of the shepherds, Simeon and Anna in proclaiming the presence of the Light. Let’s pray today that we, and these new-born children, will continue to carry God’s Light throughout the world.