A few years ago, the priest ended his Ash Wednesday homily with the command to “Have a joyous Lent!” I do not know if anyone else in the crowded church was as astonished as I at this exhortation. But incrementally, I am beginning to peel back the infinite paradoxes and contradictions of this faith of ours. One that mandates joy while immersed in terrible sorrow, fear, loss, betrayal, even death.
The March 4, 2019 Office Reading of the Liturgy of the Hours is from the book of Job and follows yesterday’s bizarre conversation between God and Satan where Lucifer sets out to convince God that his beloved, faith-filled human Job is only devout because of his prodigious blessings from God. Take them away, claims Satan, and this beloved man will blaspheme you.
When Job suffers the loss of all his wealth, including his children, livestock and property without cursing God, the devil ups the ante. And God allows Satan to inflict Job with horrific bodily torment.
He struck Job down with malignant ulcers from the sole of his foot to the top of his head. Job took a piece of pot to scrape himself, and went and sat in the ash-pit. Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you now still mean to persist in your blamelessness? Curse God, and die.’ ‘That is how foolish women talk’ Job replied. ‘If we take happiness from God’s hand, must we not take sorrow too?’ And in all this misfortune Job uttered no sinful word.
Most scholars agree that the book of Job is less about a historical man named Job and more about what Moshe Greenburg beautifully explains is, “about the transformation of a man whose piety and view of the world were formed in a setting of wealth and happiness, and into whose life burst calamities that put an end to both... The book is not merely an exposition of ideas, a theological argument, but the portrait of a spiritual journey from simple piety to the sudden painful awareness and eventual acceptance of the fact that inexplicable misfortune is the lot of man.”
Although it is the oldest book in both the Torah and the Bible, Job’s unwarranted sufferings pierce the hearts of contemporary Christians. He feels like a mirror ro me.
Whether our pain is caused by the crumbling of beloved ideologies, morals, and institutions or watching loved ones waste away breath by breath as cancer eats her away, we Christian Catholics are called to see the hand of God amidst the darkness.
Greenburg’s excellent article cuts to the heart of those of us living amidst depravity that seems to be feeding on itself. “Through nature, God reveals Himself to Job as both purposive and nonpurposive, playful and uncanny, as evidenced by the monsters He created. To study nature is to perceive the complexity, the unity of contraries, in God’s attributes, and the inadequacy of human reason to explain His behavior, not the least in His dealings with man.
"For it may be inferred that in God’s dealings with man, this complexity is also present–a unity of opposites: reasonability, justice, playfulness, uncanniness (the latter appearing demonic in the short view). When Job recognizes in the God of nature, with His fullness of attributes, the very same God revealed in his own individual destiny, the tumult in his soul is stilled. He has fathomed the truth concerning God’s character: he is no longer tortured by a concept that fails to account for the phenomena, as did his former notion of God’s orderly working.”
What must we do in the light of a Complexity and Will that we cannot possibly fathom?
- Intentionally, deliberately, determinedly, turn our gaze inward.
- Steely-eyed staring at ourselves.
- At our own sinfulness.
- Those judgmental thoughts lurking in our minds galvanized by those who do not see as we see.
- Declaring war on our attraction to gossip by broadening our definition of it...along the lines of Pope Francis’s recent comments in a homily this past Sunday: “We are specialists at finding the bad things of others, without seeing our own [faults],” he said, which often leads to gossip and speaking badly about others.
Lent could not come at a better time for me. Forty days to ponder these strange correlations of joy and sorrow; sin and mercy; good and evil. Four weeks in which to slow down. Withdraw. Work on what Anselm Gruen calls “waste removal for the world by cleaning up anger and resentment.”