Oscar Wilde once wrote that “every Saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”. He means of course that no Saint was born freed of sin, bar the Virgin Mother, and no sinner is completely void of redemption while he remains breathing. Ezekiel’s words in these verses tell us the same thing: repent and enjoy God’s lavish mercy and love, or sin and incur the justice of God as death and destruction.
There are two questions put forth here: can a sinner repent and what will happen to his sins, and can a just man sin and what happened to his just actions and former life lived out in justice? Ezekiel’s answer is: if a man repents of his sins then he shall live, and if a just man sins and dies in sin then he must suffer God’s justice upon him. Fascinatingly, Ezekiel anticipates the people’s objection: “But that’s not fair! Why should a man who lived in sin all his life be forgiven while a man who lived all his life in justice be punished for a moment of weakness?!” To this, the Lord responds that a thing is not done that which is not finished (factum non dicitur quod non perseverat).
Our entire life-span on earth is but a journey. While we still draw breaths we are still trotting about on this journey. Thus, when a wayward traveler realizes that he is heading the wrong way and corrects it so that he may reach the Final Destination, he must be said as having left the mistakes behind him and he may yet reach that Final Destination given that he continues on the right path. However, if a traveler who has been following the right path makes a wrong decision at a junction and follows the wrong path, we can in no way say that he’s going to reach the Final Destination following the erroneous path that he is on. Further, we cannot say that the good decisions that he’s made with regards to the right paths in the past should deliver him to the Final Destination despite him being on a path that does not currently lead there.
And so because a thing is not done that which is not finished, we must always be attentive to take the best road towards the Lord. His justice is tempered with mercy to forgive the repentant sinner, but it is insufferable for the impious. And impiety is our own doing, not God’s.
Today’s reading comes from chapter C of Esther, a Septuagint addition: EST C:12, 14-16, 23-25
In ESL class in sixth grade we studied idiomatic expressions and adages. One particular adage that caught my attention was, “there are no atheists in foxholes”. The idea that when it comes to the final hour that a person would turn to a deity is not a perplexing one – I am Vietnamese after all, and growing up in Viet Nam everyone I knew worshiped some kind of deity. What was interesting to me at this point was that it took people to the final hour to relinquish their wanting to control everything over to fear and thus must place hope in something they believed to be improbable or impossible. I say this because growing up, all people I know worshiped all the time. They entrusted everything to their deities because their simple peasantry knew instinctively what we “learned and progressive people” do not: that many things are out of their control.
Queen Esther’s prayer to YHWH in this reading ought to remind us Christians of one very crucial bit of our faith: our deliverance and very salvation is reliant upon the grace of the Ever Living God. And if we can (and must) entrust the Lord with our lives and our salvation, we must also entrust to the Lord every facet of our lives. It would be silly for a manager to trust someone who reports to him with a very important task, but not trust him with a mundane and minute one. Christ reminds us of this in Luke’s Gospel: “Do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. “For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds!”
Let us trust the Lord with everything that we are and everything that we have.
Happy Thursday of the first week of Lent, friends!
Faith is more than just trust, but trust is an inherent and paramount dimension of faith. The entirety of the Old Testament text recalls moments of fidelity and moments of infidelity from the Israelites to YHWH and His enduring faithfulness to them. When the Israelites trusted YHWH they flourished, and when they did not they suffered. Here, Isaiah reminds us that whatever suffering they endured was not because of YHWH’s unfaithfulness to His word; rather, they suffered because they did not keep their promises to Him. Whatever YHWH promised He will do for the Israelites, He did. Was it not Him who delivered them from Babylon as promised?
What about His promise to us in the new covenant? There is no doubt that His promise has been fulfilled. He promised us freedom from the slavery of sin and death. He has kept His promise: he exchanged his tears from this freedom; he paid the ransom with his flesh and sinew; he bought us this freedom with his very own body. As for us, we must learn to trust in Him. Trusting in YHWH requires that we have no backup plans like the Israelites who worshipped YHWH but also Baal and Asherah for needs that they think YHWH might not be able to provide. Trusting in God means that even the very fundamental thing we need for living – our daily bread – is something we ask Him to provide.
Fasting is an ancient discipline, and one that Israel took up order to show YHWH their faithfulness. But this passage gives us a glimpse of the hypocritical attitude that the Israelites had when it came to fasting. They supposedly fasted for YHWH, but they were unhappy when He took no notice of their fasting – an act, instead of offering as a gift, they considered a mighty service they were providing the Divine. They charged YHWH with impartiality when He found no pleasure in their fasting.
Isaiah does not mince his words here. They afflicted themselves but sought no relieve for those who were afflicted. They fasted in order to provide an external image of discipline and love for YHWH, but their interiority was filled with disorder and chaos. Yes, they performed the right “acts”, but they persisted in their sins. They demanded forgiveness by YHWH, and yet provided no forgiveness of their own to others. They fasted in order to accuse others of not fasting, rather than fasting for themselves. This was their hypocrisy and YHWH hated it: “You cannot fast as you do today, and expect your voices to be heard from on high.”
And so Isaiah’s words here should provide us with a good measure for our own Lenten practices. Why are we doing the things that we are doing? Or why are we giving up the things that we are giving up? Is it so that we can change, or is it so that others may take notice? Are we doing it for the sake of growth in our own relationship with the Lord, or is it for our own benefit? This is a matter between each person and God, and God is one who knows the depths of every heart so let us pray that when the Lord finds our hearts that he may be pleased with our fasting and prayer.
We are reminded in today’s Gospel reading that the path towards God is often one that requires the carrying of crosses. The world offers convenience and ease as temporary fulfillment for our permanent thirst. These drinks require our returning to them over and over again because they do not fully satiate our thirst. None of us are strangers to these drinks. However, Christ’s words are clear: the way of the Lord is difficult and tough, but while the body aches the soul rejoices. And just as St. Monica prayed and waited patiently for the young Augustine to turn from his wayward ways, God, our parent par excellence, remains in waiting for our return to Him. Allow Ellen Gilbert’s words from Prodigal to be our own words to God and guide us back to Him this Lent:
Like a bird that trails a broken wing, I have come home to Thee; Home from a flight and freedom That was never meant for me.
And I, who have known far spaces, And the fierce heat of the sun, Ask only the shelter of Thy wings, Now that the day is done.
Like a bird that trails a broken wing, I have come home, at last… O hold me to Thy Heart once more, And hide me from the past.
Indeed, the wisdom of Augustine’s felix culpa allows us to understand that there is hope in a fallen world that seems hopeless. And at no other time during the liturgical year are we reminded this more than on Ash Wednesday: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. In the these very words uttered is an unmistakable hope that every Christian clings on to: this returning to dust does not mark the end, but rather the very beginning of an eternal reality that has been awaiting him since he was first formed in his mother’s womb. Praying, Repenting, and Fasting are ways that the Christian is called to prepare himself for this eternal reality.
Richard Crashaw’s A Song of Divine Love reflects so beautifully the hope of the Christian as he faces his return to dust. On this Ash Wednesday, let us reflect upon Crashaw’s words along with this question: how am I preparing myself to meet my God when the day comes?
Lord, when the sense of thy sweet grace Sends up my soul to seek thy face, Thy blessed eyes breed such desire I die in love’s delicious fire. O Love, I am thy sacrifice. Be still triumphant, blessed eyes. Still shine on me, fair suns, that I Still may behold though still I die.
Though still I die, I live again, Still longing so to be still slain; So gainful is such loss of breath, I die even in desire of death. Still live in me this loving strife Of living death and dying life: For while thou sweetly slayest me, Dead to myself, I live in Thee.