Third Sunday in Lent

Scripture Readings: Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15;  1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12;  Lk 13:1-9        

Our monastic way of life has many beautiful descriptions. It’s called a school of the Lord’s service, a school of love, the angelic life, the house of God, and a life giving way. But did you know that St. Bernard calls it an earthly dunghill?

That metaphor accurately describes one of my first work assignments at New Melleray.  I had to shovel out horse manure that was two feet deep in one of our barns. I thought I would die. Now, after living on a farm for over sixty years, I appreciate the nutrient value so rich in nitrogen, manifested by that pungent odor, and how necessary it is if a field is going to yield an abundant harvest.

St. Bernard uses the metaphor of a dunghill in his sermon for the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul1 in which he compares members of his community to trees in an orchard that God blesses with,
1. the free rain of his heavenly consolations
2. the hoe of discipline
3. and the dung of poverty and abjection

He writes, “Dung is not very attractive to the eye, but it is very useful for bearing fruit. We should not be repelled by its ugliness if we wish to make our land fruitful. For it is out of the ugly heap of dung which we spread on the fields that beautiful sheaves of golden corn spring up. … We who dwell in this earthly dunghill, (the monastery!), also have the rain of heaven given to us, i.e. devotion in prayer, joy in chanting the psalms, the sweetness of meditation, and the comfort of the Scriptures.

We all like the blessings of cool summer rains on a hot sultry day, but the hoe of discipline and the dung of correction are not so appealing. St. Bernard writes, “I am occasionally obliged to hoe about certain trees and to dung them… This certainly is an unpleasant task, yet one I dare not neglect because I am not ignorant that the unfruitful tree will suffer more from the axe than from the digging of the hoe; it has more to fear from fire than from dung. Accordingly, I am sometimes compelled to reprove and to scold.

So, if the abbot or one’s parents or one’s spouse vigorously hoes the ground you stand on, and spreads manure ankle deep, take heart, it means you’re not dead wood, but a tree worth fertilizing, a tree that is being prepared for a rich harvest. If they use less fertilizer, perhaps you would bear less fruit, or even be cut down and thrown into the fire.

I wonder if the child Jesus ever had to clean out the barn where Mary and Joseph sheltered their mule. Being a country boy, it wouldn’t have bothered him.  I think he probably enjoyed spreading manure around the fig trees in their yard and looked forward to the good fruit it would produce.

Let us not be afraid of the hoe of discipline and the dung of correction. United with the heavenly rain of God’s blessings we, too, will bear much fruit.

1. St. Bernard’s Sermons for the Seasons and Principal Festivals of the Year, Vol. 3, The Carroll Press, Westminster Maryland, 1950, 201.



Third Sunday in Lent

Scripture Readings: Ex. 20:1-17; I Cor. 1:22-25; Jn. 2:13-25

Our country has experienced a sad litany of shootings of innocent persons, many of them at schools as well as in theaters or work places. The tragedy at Parkland, Fl, seemed different because of the immediate aftermath of impassioned outcries from the students who survived the shooting. We heard their demands for action and their commitment to dedicate themselves to continuing active concern.

They exhibit the response of many survivors of tragedy. Their lives have been deeply impacted and changed, and they now seek external changes that will respond to their new sense of reality. It becomes a question of actively resisting the horror they have experienced or else going numb. There is a sense of urgency and of not being able to do otherwise.

This is a form of passion that takes over and overwhelms. It takes us out of what had been “normal” and plunges us into a deeper level of the movements of life. What had seemed important now becomes secondary or peripheral. We are brought to the service of something which transcends us and yet totally involves and engages us. The sufferings, defeats, and losses that MAY BE inevitable never impede the force and energy that come from this passion. It seems to ride at a deeper level. But it does put us at odds with the dominant culture and its values. It upsets the tables.

The dominant culture permits passion at a superficial level. These forms of passion can be exchanged for another when the mood   passes. Versatility and an almost promiscuous flirtation with objects of interest keep the market solvent and churning. You are free to vent your steam on call-in shows or even march in protest, but ultimately your passions are your own concern. The only worthwhile commitment is the commitment to your own interests and well-being. The imperatives of the Ten Commandments which we heard can become “options” which are less and less serviceable for those who want to prosper in our society.

How do we respond to a person moved by passion? Do we give them a wide berth and wait for the air to go back to normal? Billy Graham who just died seemed to have an impact on people of all walks of life. Was it his passion that attracted others? Do we recognize the passion in world leaders? In popes? In our parents? Are we touched by a sense of envy that they are living with a wholeness that escapes us? If we are preoccupied with a determination to avoid suffering and pain, we will never dip into that level of our own lives where passion becomes alive and is raised up. Our sufferings and passivities immerse us in a world beyond our control and management. They can seem to be humiliating defects and vulnerabilities that need to be covered and defended. Paradoxically, the one word passion unites both our suffering and the energy of committed dedication to transforming ourselves and our world. Passion knows that it must suffer because it is living from a depth which is at odds with the dominant culture. Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. It is living from the foolishness and weakness of God. The very life of one who is impassioned proclaims a Christ crucified.

The gospel text can be trivialized into a moment of pique or irritation by Jesus and then used as an exoneration of our own slips into bad temper. Most of our experiences of anger are explosions of our own egos and are divorced from any commitment to values that transcend ourselves. Jesus is not play-acting in an attempt to get everyone’s attention. He is not “acting out.” He is en-acting the very passion of God as it confronts those who would trivialize religion, those who would substitute manageable transactions for access to the sacred and the holy. The greatest sacrilege maybe committed by those who turn religion and ritual into superficial and external motions and neglect to offer any commitment or passion, any baring of their own hearts and lives to the meeting with God in his house.

Our gospel this morning mentions the Passover twice. Jesus came to celebrate the Passover. We are here to celebrate the same Passover when the hand of God deliberately freed his people from slavery and domination. We, like the people of the Hebrews, like the students of Lakeland, are survivors. We have been spared as a people who should have a long memory. His disciples remembered that he had said this and they came to believe. We are slow to acknowledge the impact that Christ’s death has had in our lives, slow to act out of the freedom which can lie buried in our hearts, slow to feel the passion that has changed our lives and could transform our weakness and foolishness into a proclamation of Christ. The freedom of the Father is the root of the passion of Christ. His passion wants to be met with our own sufferings, the reality of our lives. Together we can celebrate the Passover. Or do we still give Him wide berth, set the tables upright again and restack the coins. Do we remain those to whom Christ could not trust himself?