Good News: It Doesn’t Have to be This Way

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Isaiah 43:16-21

Psalm 126

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

Prayer of the Day: Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness, and your grace waters our desert. Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing you are doing, that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love given to all through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:18-19.

“Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14.

So much of our living is done out of the past. Geopolitics is driven by ancient historical blood feuds dating back to the middle ages and before. We struggle in this country with the heritage of inequality, injustice, systemic racism and ethnic cleansing rooted in our founding and built into our government, educational institutions and workplaces. The wounds of our tortured past continue to fester and erupt into violence. This last week we have witnessed the worsening of a conflict born of Russian imperialism and western nationalism, a shameful show of raw racism on the floor of the United States Senate and a flood of new legislation aimed at dehumanizing gay, lesbian and transgender folk. Now, as we stand once again on the brink of what could erupt into yet another world war, I have to wonder whether the human race ever makes any progress on any front. It seems as though we are caught in a retributive vortex of prejudice, resentment and violence that has no end. If, as is often said, the arc of the universe bends toward justice, it is a long arc indeed and the bend is often impossible to discern. These days I find that my prayers often echo that of Abbot Dom Zerchi, a protagonist in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s novel, Canticle for Leibowitz:    

“Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix, in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America– burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again. Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?”[1]

The Prophet Isaiah’s answer to Dom Zerchi’s (and my) lament is a resounding “no.” “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord, “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” The Lord goes on to say through the mouth of the prophet, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” That is a big ask. As painful as the past might be, it is hard to let go of it. “Remember the Alamo” “Remember Pearl Harbor,” “Remember 9/11.” “I’ll never forget what she did to me.” “I can’t just erase his hurtful words.” As much as it hurts us, there is something about past wrongs that clings to us. There is something perversely comforting in nursing them, rehearsing them and wallowing in self pity over the pain they cause. It takes courage we too often lack to reach past centuries of personal and cultural animosity to forge new and better relationships. Repentance is hard work. It is not for the faint of heart.

It is harder still to believe that the future holds anything really new. Ours is a cynical age, an age that looks with suspicion and outright contempt upon any claim of newness and hope. Perhaps that is why Jesus’ remark in our gospel lesson to the effect that “You always have the poor with you” has been so tragically misconstrued. John 12:8. Jesus tells us that there always will be those in our midst who are vulnerable and unable to care for themselves. He does not say that these people must invariably live in poverty and misery. We are not to understand that poverty is inevitable and so fighting to eradicate it is a waste of time. To the contrary, as anyone familiar with the Torah (as Jesus clearly was) would understand, care for the poor is the corporate responsibility of any just and righteous society. See Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 15:7-8. There is no rational reason why anyone should be without food, shelter, medical care, dignity and respect. The earth is capable of providing for everyone’s need (though not everyone’s greed); forgiveness and reconciliation, individually and globally, are real; life, not death, has the final word. The gospel truth shining through the call of Abraham and Sarah to found a nation of blessing; the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and the resurrection of Jesus is simply this: It doesn’t have to be this way.

Lenten practices, to be sure, are not a “new thing.” Our disciplines of prayer, fasting, alms and liturgy reach back to the time of the matriarchs and patriarchs. Yet they are designed to focus our gaze on the future, on the God whose reign breaks into our present age, turning our expectations upside down, revolutionizing our perspectives and rearranging our priorities. The startling truth is that the power of evil hit a dead end at the cross. There violence, cruelty and death did its worst. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to crack the Son’s unwavering trust in the Father. It wasn’t enough to extinguish the Father’s love for the world God made. It wasn’t enough to erase the image of God in humanity. Jesus’ resurrection released a new thing into the world, a God factor challenging the reign of the past over the future. The old assumptions, beliefs and expectations still are not enough to extinguish God’s new thing. Do you still not perceive it? 

Perceiving “newness” is recovering the capacity to be surprised. It is to recognize the possibility of breaking with the past, believing in a tomorrow that is not merely the product of yesterday. For a world imprisoned in and driven by its past, there are no surprises. What will be is nothing more than a continuation of what is. This lack of surprise, says poet Conrad Aiken, amounts to death. Our Lenten practices are designed to prepare us for the surpise of Easter Sunday.

When You Are Not Surprised

When you are not surprised, not surprised,

nor leap in imagination from sunlight into shadow   

or from shadow into sunlight   

suiting the color of fright or delight   

to the bewildering circumstance   

when you are no longer surprised   

by the quiet or fury of daybreak   

the stormy uprush of the sun’s rage   

over the edges of torn trees

torrents of living and dying flung

upward and outward inward and downward to space

or else

peace peace peace peace

the wood-thrush speaking his holy holy

far hidden in the forest of the mind   

while slowly

the limbs of light unwind

and the world’s surface dreams again of night

as the center dreams of light   

when you are not surprised

by breath and breath and breath

the first unconscious morning breath

the tap of the bird’s beak on the pane

and do not cry out come again   

blest blest that you are come again   

o light o sound o voice of bird o light   

and memory too o memory blest   

and curst with the debts of yesterday   

that would not stay, or stay

by death and death and death

when you are not surprised

death of the bee in the daffodil

death of color in the child’s cheek

on the young mother’s breast

death of sense of touch of sight

death of delight

and the inward death the inward turning night

when the heart hardens itself with hate and indifference   

for hated self and beloved not-self

when you are not surprised

by wheel’s turn or turn of season

the winged and orbed chariot tilt of time   

the halcyon pause, the blue caesura of spring   

and solar rhyme

woven into the divinely remembered nest   

by the dark-eyed love in the oriole’s breast   

and the tides of space that ring the heart

while still, while still, the wave of the invisible world   

breaks into consciousness in the mind of god

then welcome death and be by death benignly welcomed   

and join again in the ceaseless know-nothing   

from which you awoke to the first surprise.

Source: Collected Poems (Random House Inc., 1970). Conrad Potter Aiken (1889 –1973) was an American writer and poet honored with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He was United States Poet Laureate from 1950 to 1952. His published works include poetry, short stories, novels, literary criticism, a play and an autobiography. Aiken had a troubled childhood. His father murdered his mother and then committed suicide when he was only eleven years old. After his parents’ deaths, Aiken was raised by his great aunt and uncle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He attending Middlesex School and then Harvard University. At Harvard, he edited the Harvard Advocate along with the renowned poet, T. S. Eliot. The two became lifelong friends. Aiken was thrice married and fathered three children. After spending time in England and Cambridge Massachusetts, Aiken finally settled in Brewster, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. There he ran a summer program for writers and painters named after his antique farmhouse, “Forty-One Doors” Despite having lived for many years abroad and receiving recognition as a Southern writer, Aiken always considered himself an American New Englander. You can read more about Conrad Aiken and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] Miller, Walter M., Jr., Canticle for Leibowitz, (c. 1959, pub. by HarperCollins). Set in a Catholic monastery in the desert of the southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, the book spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz preserve the surviving remnants of humanity’s scientific knowledge until the world is again ready for it.

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