While in the seminary I and a few friends went to a Ukrainian Rite Catholic Mass. Ukrainian Rite Catholics are in communion with the Pope so we are free to attend Mass at their churches. All the prayers and hymns were in Ukrainian. There was lots of incense, bells were rung many times and the priest celebrated Mass with his back to us. After Mass we were invited to the basement for coffee and donuts. The Priest and the tiny community couldn’t have been more friendly or welcoming. What I remember most about that Mass was communion time. The altar bread they used for consecration was cut into tiny little cubes. And when we went up to receive communion the priest gave us communion on a tiny spoon. After placing the body of Christ into the precious blood we received the Eucharist on that tiny spoon by tilting our heads back and opening our mouths wide. And the priest placed the Eucharist into our mouth. Walking back to the pew I couldn’t help but think about how baby birds open their mouths in the very same way when they are being fed. And so back at my pew I meditated on that. And maybe that’s weird, or maybe not. After all, our Lord is sometimes represented by the symbol of a Pelican. We have one on our tabernacle. The pelican is always shown surrounded by its babies. Ancient men and women once thought that in times of famine when food was scarce pelicans would pick at their breasts until they bled. The blood was then used to feed the hungry babies. So we can see how the pelican came to represent Christ who feeds us with his blood, who fills us with his precious blood.
Now what made me think of baby birds as I was walking back to my pew in that Ukrainian church was a pair of barn swallows that would build their nest every summer on the lamp next to our front door. They were very messy and my mom always threatened to knock the nest down, babies and all. But I always promised to clean up after them. And I eventually did. As a youngster I was very fascinated by this little family of birds I’d watch them unseen from the window for long stretches of time. And one thing I noticed about those baby birds was the size of their mouths. They were huge, and when they were opened up wide, compared to the rest of the body the mouth was greatly out of proportion. And to look into those mouths was to see a whole lot of emptiness just waiting to be filled.
Now our goal during these forty days of lent is to open ourselves up wide, and to empty ourselves of any sinful disorder so that we can be filled by our Lord, we want to create a whole lot of emptiness so that we can be filled by our Lord’s grace. Now we are at the beginning of this forty day period and last week someone asked, “Why forty days in Lent?” When we look at the number forty we see it repeated often in scripture. It rained for forty days and forty nights. Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments for forty days. The Israelites wandered around the desert for forty years. All of these forties are a necessary and not so comfortable prelude
preparing for something new to take place.
It’s very interesting that it takes forty weeks for a baby to develop. It takes forty weeks before new life can emerge from the womb. In Noah’s case it’s the rebirth of a sinful world that had been cleansed by the raging flood waters. In Moses’ case it was the birth of the people of the covenant. For the nomadic Israelites it was the start of a new and settled existence in the Promised Land. And for Jesus his forty days in the desert prepared him for his public ministry of proclaiming the Gospel of New life with our Father in Heaven. A new life reconciled from sin.
Jesus went into the waste of the desert to make it once again a garden of paradise. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, once lived in that garden but their sin took that garden from them and turned it into the desert, a desert with hatred, division, violence, and a lack of love. But Jesus came and went into that desert to make it a garden again. From the very beginning God intended a garden for all of us he intended for us a life in the good, a life in the right, and a life lived in justice. He intended a rich garden for every one of us. A remnant of that Garden, the good that God created, was saved on the Ark but our Lord now is the definitive Ark. In his person creation is remade in his image. The wild beast and the angel the bodily and the spiritual are joined together anew.
St. Athanasius once wrote that, “God became man so that men might be made God.” God had divinized us by uniting us with Christ in baptism. Just as Jesus took on our human flesh, so it is God’s plan that we humans would take on Jesus’ divine likeness. This doesn’t mean we become little gods, it means that God’s Holy Spirit can transform us can transform us so much that we begin to think and act, to live and to love just as Jesus did. When Jesus took on human nature, he not only lowered himself to become like us; he also raised us up to become like him.
So during these forty days we sit with Jesus in prayer, we go to him in the Sacraments and we fast from whatever distracts us we fast from whatever makes our soul a desert. We fast from judging, gossiping, anger, bitterness we fast from whatever distracts us from God so that we create a whole lot of emptiness and longing within our soul, opening ourselves up wide to be filled with God’s garden of grace and power. To be filled with God’s own life.
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley