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Today’s observance of Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Instead of Christians receiving ashes traced upon their foreheads in the sign of the cross, the priest will sprinkle ashes on their heads while admonishing those gathered, Remember, that thou art dust and into dust shalt thou return. Since I’m moving ever closer to that dust, I wonder how the austerities of Lent originated. During my long life, significant changes occurred in 1963, with the publication of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Even lesser austerities are practiced today.

Research reveals that in 321 AD, the Council of Nicaea promulgated the practice of Lent for the universal Church. And St. Jerome (d. 420) and the church historian Socrates (d. 433) also assumed the apostolic institution of the forty days of fasting before the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

Further research into this question over ensuing centuries, however, reflects conflicts: the length of the fast, whether to fast on Saturdays and Sundays, amounts of food, when to eat, what to eat, where to fast—culminating in councils and official decrees filling libraries.

Such reveal the woeful grasp of the instinctual world of our humanness and of Jesus’s Kingdom living—found in the Eight Beatitudes, as well as in the Twelve Steps. Practicing any of them deflates egos and promotes humility and obedience of heart, antidotes for the Covid-19 scourge and for so much more. Such flowerings do occur, even during Lent, itself derived from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, meaning “Spring.” So no need to give up anything, instead, receive graced direction. It’s always there…

At 3:30 A.M., three glimpses into my psyche woke me: Christmas, Jane Schaberg, and ghettos. I had no recall of the dream story associated with these images, but chose to work with them.

Christmas, not in the sense of holidays with parties, gifts, and family gatherings, has always evoked rich associations with the Sacred, recognized and revered as a child. The Son-of-God-made-Man has companioned my efforts to incarnate in this existence, given my reluctance, from the womb, to do so. Gospel teachings, hidden within Twelve Step living, have opened me further to my humanness and still contributes to “the joy of living,” the result of practicing Step Twelve. When my end time comes, I will have substantive gifts to surrender to the Sacred. Today’s Christmas heartens me deeply.

My surprise in seeing Jane Schaberg (1938 – 2012) in my psyche also stirred me. I still remember her astounding insight of loving God with her whole mind, a passion that led her to advanced theological studies and worldwide attention for her biblical articles and books, all the while teaching at Detroit-Mercy University. I still hear the roar of her laughter as I write these lines. Another companion to help me along …

And ghettos, the third image that visited me in my dream—For decades, my work with home care elderly patients exposed me with ghetto living in New Orleans, Houston, and St. Louis where I had lived. From these spirits seasoned by poverty, poor health, backbreaking work, and other hardships, I leaned about acceptance, humility, and faith in God. Yet, my learning is far from finished as my impoverishment still rankles. This is working out …

“To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened (Luke 13:20-21). Jesus likens this pedestrian image to the kingdom of God, an image unique in his teachings and often expressed in parables.

During the time of Jesus, Palestinian women always put aside moldy bread or leaven—a kind of poison—for the daily baking for their families. Only the smallest amount was used for their loaves that ballooned in the morning sun.

But Jesus speaks of this woman hiding leaven in three measures of flour, enough flour to fill a warehouse with bread—an absurd exaggeration, until his listeners catch on. Jesus is referencing humankind’s relation with God, in all his disguises. Such parables inflamed the imaginations of his listeners: they would remember.

I, too, had a similar response to the parable, one that recasts my terminal illness in a different light.

Like the leaven hid in the flour, terminal disease hides out in my lungs, imperceptibly hardening their airways and compromising my breathing—a slow process, admittedly, but relentless in its damage. Yet, paradoxically, this disorder continues expanding my passion for communion with God, within this mysterious kingdom.

Just as the fire of the bake oven transforms the leavened dough, the fire of diminishment transforms the psyche: both, critical processes to be endured. This is Kingdom living, both here and hereafter.

A small fire at night.

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