lent The Sánchez Archives

Year C

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Conversion, A Daily Effort

EXODUS 3:1-8, 13-15
1 CORINTHIANS 10:1-6, 10-12
LUKE 13:1-9

Few of us will have a burning bush experience to hand on to our children and grandchildren. One of the most poignant events recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, Moses’ encounter with God over the bush that was on fire but not consumed, represented a turning point in his life. From that time onward, he recognized God’s call, turned toward God in a thoroughgoing conversion and thereafter lived accordingly.

Few of us will experience conversion as dramatically as Paul did on the road to Damascus. A tireless persecutor of Christians, his encounter with Jesus so changed him that he became an avid defender of the faith and apostolic founder of countless churches throughout the Roman Empire.

Few of us have had as checkered a past as Mary of Magdala. When she met Jesus and answered the call of God extended to her by Jesus, she left behind a life of sin and excess to minister to Jesus and the disciples (Luke 8:2).

Few of us will undergo as radical a change of heart, mind, will and life-style as did Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.); called by God, he left his mistress of fifteen years, his position as Chair of Rhetoric at Milan and returned to his Christian faith in 387 C.E. For the rest of his life, he wrote and taught prolifically in defense of the faith he had once rejected.

Few of us come to God as Francis of Assisi did; he abandoned an extravagant and pleasure-oriented life to devote himself to the service of the sick and poor. Denounced by his father as a madman and disinherited, Francis founded a religious Order whose members shared in his missionary efforts.

Although few of us will ever know such dramatic conversion experiences, nevertheless all of us have been called by God to a change of heart, mind, soul, will and strength that is authentically reflected in our every word and work. Seldom dramatic, and often, even plodding and picayune, the hard-work of conversion requires a daily and continually renewed effort. Conversion is not a once-and-forever type of change, in which sin is forever blasted out of our lives; rather, conversion is a moment-by-moment chipping away at sin while steadily growing stronger in our capacity to resist it. Most importantly, conversion is not a self-help project which we ourselves initiate; conversion is a response to the compelling, loving, forgiving call of God. Conversion is not engineered by merely human efforts; it is empowered by God’s saving and sanctifying grace.

In his book entitled, Living Strings (Morehouse Publishing, Ridgefield, CT: 1994), Michael Whelan describes conversion as a “homecoming” prompted by three human experiences: (1) a changing perception of God, self and the world; (2) a shift in one’s center of gravity; and (3) a decision about the future of one’s life. Whelan does not deny the essential role of grace in the process but emphasizes “the role of the stuff of human existence that gives the truly human shape to that experience.”

Human perceptions change as a part of the process of growing to maturity. At times, great trauma or life-altering events bring about a radical alteration in these perceptions. As believers, our perceptions of God, self and others must necessarily be illuminated by the light of Christ. Through baptism, we consent to shift our center of gravity and the basis of our security to Christ. From that frame of reference, we are well equipped to make decisions about the future of our lives.

In today’s scripture readings the gathered assembly of believers is encouraged to examine their own experiences of conversion as these compare to those of our ancestors in the faith. The Lucan Jesus in the gospel warns against thinking that another’s need of conversion is greater than our own. Rather than soothe an uneasy conscience by pondering another’s guilt, each believer is called to recognize his/her own need for reform and to do what we must to answer that need.

Paul, in his first letter to the church at Corinth (second reading), suggests that disciples of Jesus would do well to learn from the mistakes of their ancestors in the faith so as not to fall into the same pattern themselves. As our Lenten preparation proceeds and our anticipation of Easter heightens, so also must our efforts at daily conversion.

EXODUS 3:1-8, 13-15

Many of the old Reformed churches of Europe and some of their successors in the United States chose as their motto a phrase which described the burning bush in today’s reading from Exodus: “Nevertheless, it was not consumed” (v. 2). By way of explanation, members of these churches suggested that every chapter of the history of the church should conclude with this sentence. After each onslaught of false teaching, schism, persecution, corruption and apostasy, Christians should be able to say of the church, “Nevertheless it was not consumed!”

Although the reason for its endurance was not stated, believers can attribute the survival of the church to its composition. While the living entity known as the church or people of God has clay feet due to its human members, it is not consumed because of the abiding presence of its divine head. It was this very presence that Moses encountered in the desert near Horeb (another name for Sinai).

Identified as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (v. 6), the divine presence assured Moses of an awareness of the sufferings of his contemporaries, foretold a rescue, and renewed the promise of the land flowing with milk and honey which had been made to the patriarchs (v. 8).

Moses’ desire to become more intimate with the divine presence, i.e., to know the name of God, is understandable. As one who would figure very importantly in the rescue and resettlement of those enslaved in Egypt, he wished to know, in whose name, and therefore, by whose authority, he was to proceed. Although some have suggested that Moses’ request as a desire to gain control over God (because the ancient Near Eastern peoples believed that to know the name of another was tantamount to having control over them), it is probably more accurate to see Moses’ request as a desire to share in God’s authoritative power.

Enigmatic and confusing, the divine response has been variously interpreted. In the Vulgate, Jerome rendered the unpointed (i.e. with no vowels) sacred tetragrammeton, YHWH, as “I am who am.” The LXX or Septuagint reads, “I am he who is.” A form of the Hebrew verb, hayah or “to be”, Exodus 3:14 is probably more correctly understood as “I am what I am” or if transposed into the third person, as in the text, “I am who causes to be what comes into existence.”

Setting grammar and linguistics aside for a moment, and taking into account the history of salvation, Moses, the Israelites, and all who came after them, would learn who God is by attending to the creative and causative divine presence continually being revealed among them. The presence whom Moses encountered at the burning bush would become named and known through each unfolding event of human history. A dynamic identification, the divine name continues to be spoken in our midst today; the weeks of Lent afford an opportunity for deeper awareness and more attentive listening.

1 CORINTHIANS 10:1-6, 10-12

In last week’s second reading, Paul held himself out to the Corinthians as an example that they could imitate because he, in turn, had given himself fully to imitating Christ. This week, Paul encourages his readers to learn a lesson from the less than good example of their ancestors, and refrain from doing likewise. No doubt, Paul would agree with George Santayana who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. . .”, and with Norman Cousins, who wrote, “History is a vast early warning system”, as well as with Aldous Huxley, “that people do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

In his letter to the Corinthian house churches, Paul referenced that period of Israel’s history which was spent in the wilderness en route to Canaan, the promised land. Fresh from generations of enslavement, the refugees from Egypt were specially cared for by their liberating and saving God. Provided with spiritual sustenance (God’s presence and guidance), nevertheless, they found reason to complain. In order to help his Christian readers to draw the analogy between the experiences of Israel and their own, Paul compared the crossing of the Sea of Reeds to baptism and the rock which provided life-giving water to Christ (v. 4). The spiritual food and drink enjoyed in the wilderness was a prelude to the eucharistic food and drink which the Corinthians were privileged to enjoy. Paul concluded that the demise of some of the desert sojourners was due to their grumbling and “wicked desires” (v. 10) while advising his readers not to conduct themselves similarly.

Omitted from this excerpted text is the reference to the golden calf. Paul quoted from Exodus 32:6, “They sat down to eat and drink and they rose up to play” from Exodus 32:6 in 1 Corinthians 10:7. As Kevin Quast (Reading the Corinthian Correspondence, Paulist Press, New York: 1994) has pointed out, some of the Corinthian Christians were dabbling in idolatry as did the Israelites in the desert. On the one hand they were sharing in the body and blood of Christ in the breaking of the bread (1 Corinthians 10:16-17); on the other hand they were also sharing in the cultic meals of pagan worship.

Warning that these rituals were mutually exclusive, Paul advised the Corinthians to “watch out” lest they fall (v. 12). Paul’s words also reach out to warn his contemporary readers that neither can they have it both ways. Conversion to Christ and baptism into the community of the church requires continual effort in order to keep from backsliding into old habits or taking a detour into the alluring ways of the pagan or occult. Moreover, the process of daily conversion should include a sense of gratitude for the gifts with which God guides our way. Just as the manna, quail and water from the rock did not automatically effect virtue and holiness in those who received them, neither can the gifts of baptism and Eucharist magically create perfect Christians. Only by cooperating daily with God’s empowering grace, and by daily and gratefully appropriating the gifts that are ours through baptism and the Eucharist will we become all that we have been called to be.

LUKE 13:1-9

In one of his letters, Thomas Merton wrote, “We are not converted only once in our lives, but many times; and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ. But while we may have the generosity to undergo one or two such upheavals, we cannot face the necessity of further and greater rendings of our inner self, without which we cannot be free.” In commenting on Merton’s statement, Emilie Griffin (Turning, Reflections on the Experience of Conversion, Doubleday and Co. Inc., New York: 1982) said that yielding again and again to God’s call to conversion takes a special kind of courage. After each miracle of growth God works in our lives, we are grateful but we are also inclined to shut the door after it, as if it were all we could expect or tolerate. Perhaps this was the attitude of Jesus’ listeners as recorded in today’s gospel.

Believing that they had already responded to God’s call, they “shut the door” and were content that they had done enough. In their contentment, they cast a critical eye on those around them, whom they thought had not yet “arrived”. After all, they reasoned, if misfortune had come to those Galileans killed by Pilate, and to the eighteen killed in Siloam, God must have allowed it because they were so sinful. Without correcting the popular, but erroneous notion, that tragedy was a deserved punishment for sin, Jesus warned his listeners against comparing themselves with others, and of growing lax concerning their own need for reform. Rather than interpret their own escape from personal tragedy as a divine comment on their perfection, Jesus suggested that their time and energies would be better spent in preparing to meet their Maker.

Jesus clarified his point through the parable of the fig tree. A well-known symbol for Israel (see Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1; Jeremiah 8:13, 24:1-10), the fig tree provided both fruit and shade for humanity, and a place for birds to nest. After planting, the fig tree was expected to produce fruit after three years; if it did not, it was cut down and replaced with another. In Jesus’ parable the vinedresser gave the barren tree another year and extra care in order that it might produce fruit. Through this parable, Jesus implied that the divine vinedresser was about to come in search of fruit in Israel. Would there be any to be found? Like the tree left for yet another year to grow, Israel had been blessed with many chances and opportunities for conversion. Those who chose to ignore these would find themselves liable to the same fate as the barren fig tree.

As its second level of development, this parable warned the believers of the Lucan community of the eighties C.E. against growing nonchalant and lax while awaiting Jesus’ second advent. Contemporary Christians, still awaiting Jesus’ return, might appreciate this parable as an impetus toward growth and conversion. A special season of growth, the six weeks of Lent provide an annual opportunity for turning again to God and in that turning to bear fruit in faithful service. Indeed Lent is such an important opportunity that one spiritual director once said, “A Lent missed is a year lost from the spiritual life.” However the fact remains that this could be the last Lent or even the last day we spend on earth. Because tomorrow may never come, the gift, which is today, must be used as well and as wisely as possible.

[NOTE TO USERS: This archive is available for use without charge, but it remains the property of the author and under copyright with Celebrations Publications. Users are permitted to print individual Sunday commentaries for pastoral use, but are prohibited from downloading or copying files or printing any portion of this for sale or distribution.]

e-mail the Celebration editor at patmarrin@aol.com

Copyright © 2000 Celebration Publications

Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
Celebration Publications
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111