Lent is quite a bit different in the Maronite Church. Whereas the Sunday readings in the Roman Church vary from year to year, Maronites move through the same series of miracles on their trek toward the paschal commemoration of Our Lord’s death and resurrection.
We begin with Cana Sunday (Jn. 2:1-11). At first, it may seem odd to start Lent with a wedding, but it’s actually a very fitting choice. The whole purpose of fasting and repentance is to prepare ourselves for union with God, so that on the last day we will be judged worthy of Heaven and hear, “Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). We pray that through our fasting, God’s grace will transform the water of our human efforts into the wine of divine favor. And of course, we acknowledge that the Blessed Virgin Mary is our constant intercessor before Jesus Christ, ever reminding her Son that when the faithful run short on good deeds, “They have no wine” (Rev. 2:3).
Cana Sunday leads immediately into Ash Monday, just as it did in the ancient Church. On Ash Monday, we recall the mortality and frailty of our fallen humanity. “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Without Jesus, we have no life.
During the late middle ages in Europe, Ash Monday was moved to Wednesday to make room for one last big feast before the Lenten fast. Fat Tuesday holds much the same spiritual meaning for Romans as Cana Sunday does for Maronites. Both prefigure and anticipate the festivities of paradise.
After Cana Sunday comes the Cleansing of the Leper (Mk. 1:35-43). Sin, more than a moral fault, is a spiritual disease. Like leprosy makes the body numb and prone to injury and decay, sin deadens the senses of the soul and draws it into deeper and deeper sorrow. Jesus alone can cleanse us of our sin. But we are not to use our newfound health as an opportunity to fall again into the exact same kinds of sickness. “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). “Be free, yet without using freedom as a pretext for evil, but as slaves of God” (1 Pt. 2:16). “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt. 11:28-30). That is why our Lord sternly warned the leper not to fall into sin. Physical disease, though not always, can sometimes be symptomatic of an interior spiritual problem.
After the Cleansing of the Leper comes the Healing of the Hemorrhaging Woman and the Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter (Lk. 8:40-56). Jesus Christ is the Great Physician. He can cure physical and spiritual illnesses that no one else can. He can even raise the dead. Sometimes, we all can feel like the sins of our past have made us unclean and unfit for contact with other members of Christ’s Church. We can feel a lot like the hemorrhaging woman did who, because of Jewish law, was not allowed to touch or be touched by anyone. Through the Sacraments, Jesus can remove our uncleanness. “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane” (Acts 11:9). Jesus can even envigor souls that have fallen asleep in sin and death, just like he brought back Jairus’ daughter. “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Eph. 5:14).
On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11-32). People are often afraid that God is mad at them and wants nothing to do with them. They couldn’t be more wrong. “Return to me—oracle of the Lord of hosts—and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 1:3). “I will heal their apostasy,” says the Lord, “I will love them freely; for my anger is turned away from them” (Hos. 14:5). Again, God says about the one who repents, “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” (Lk. 15:22-24).
Lent is an excellent time to turn back to God and participate in the life and love of Jesus Christ. Go to confession and be happy. Jesus is ready and willing to lift your burden and his Father wants to see your face again. All you have to do is ask and receive. “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Lk. 11:11-13)? As long as you’re still breathing, it’s never too late to turn back to God.
On the Fifth Sunday of Lent, we celebrate the Healing of the Paralytic (Mk. 2:1-12). The spiritual paralysis brought on by sin is far worse than any physical paralysis. However, we who are earthly often do not have the eyes to see or the ears to hear. Like the Pharisees, we must be convinced of spiritual realities by physical signs. “Which is easier,” Jesus asks us, “to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’” (Mk. 2:9)? We who are carnal answer the question wrongly; it is sin, not paralysis, that is more difficult to heal. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” says our Lord, “nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9).
Luckily, our God is a loving God, ready to meet us where we are and provide the physical signs and healing we all so desperately need—though not always in the way we anticipate.
Another touching aspect of the Healing of the Paralytic is the mention of the paralytic’s friends. “They came bringing to [Jesus] a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying” (Mk. 2:3-4). When we can no longer walk, our friends can walk for us. When we no longer have the strength to believe, our friends can believe for us. “When Jesus saw [the friends’] faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven'” (Mk. 2:5).
This is why the Bible says elsewhere, “Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help. So also, if two sleep together, they keep each other warm. How can one alone keep warm? Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken” (Ec. 4:9-12). How blessed then was the paralytic, who had not three friends, but four friends to carry him to our Lord and Healer!
On the sixth and final Sunday of Lent, we recall the story of Blind Bartimaeus (Mk. 10:46-52). The name Bartimaeus means “son of the unclean.” It was probably a hurtful nickname given to the man by those who believed his condition to be a curse brought on by the sins of his father. For the Torah says, “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in kindness, forgiving iniquity and rebellion; yet certainly not declaring the guilty guiltless, but punishing children to the third and fourth generation for their parents’ iniquity” (Num. 14:18).
But rather than being accursed and blind, Bartimaeus was blessed and had the eyes of faith. “On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, son of David, have pity on me'” (Mk. 10:47). Bartimaeus rightly perceived the identity of the Messiah who was to save the whole world, and his humility cleansed any impurity that might have been holding his spirit back from racing to meet our Lord. God healed him so that his exterior condition might match the noble condition of his heart. “Jesus told him, ‘Go your way; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way” (Mk. 10:52).
We are not the product of only our environment or parentage. Within each of us is the God-given ability to write our own destiny and be our own person. That is why the Bible says elsewhere, “Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son. Justice belongs to the just, and wickedness to the wicked” (Ezk. 18:20). Anyone who thinks that physical illness must always be the result of sin is gravely mistaken. Some mysteries of human life are impenetrable this side of eternity.
In my next post, I will talk about how Maronites celebrate Holy Week.
Want to read more posts by Geoffrey Miller, Obl. OSB? Head over to his personal blog at Lest We Forget Ourselves for faith, fun, and controversy.