March 17, 2019
The Second Sunday in Lent
(Philippians 3:20-4:1; Luke 9:28-36)
Head down to South America during Lent and drop into a restaurant on a Friday night and you’ll likely be confronted with a curious menu choice. In these largely Roman Catholic countries you might expect to see some kind of fish listed, given the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays. But, you will not find fish.
In the seventeenth century, South American Catholics who found themselves in a unique environment outside the abundant fishing waters of the North Atlantic decided to petition Rome for a different dining option during these holy days — something they longed for like Americans look forward to turkey on Thanksgiving.
That dish you’re enjoying on a Friday night in Caracas? Well, it does spend a lot of time in the water, it swims and dives really well, and it has webbed feet, so it’s kind of like a fish — except that it’s a mammal — a rodent, to be exact. It’s a capybara, a 100-pound water-dwelling rodent of unusual size.
I’m guessing it tastes like chicken. Seems to be what people say most of these odd delicacies taste like, so I suspect this would be the same. We seem to have a lot of things that “taste like chicken” in the world!
You can imagine the folks in the Vatican scratching their heads about this request when it came in nearly four centuries ago. They’d probably never heard of a capybara. Neither have most people outside of a visit to a zoo or some obscure nature show on Animal Planet. It’s a delicacy in South America, though, so you can see why people would want to celebrate the holidays, or observe Lent, by sharing some roasted … well, you get the picture. I am sure they turn their noses up at our hamburgers.
That’s not the only bizarre feast item that our faithful Catholic friends around the world have petitioned to add to their Lenten menus. Over the years and in different places, beavers, geese, puffins, assorted marine animals and even muskrats have been approved, though as one Michigan bishop put it, anyone who is chowing down on muskrat is “doing penance worthy of the greatest saints.” I personally think that is true of all the aforementioned menu items. I would add chopped liver and fish to this list. Yuck!
It’s interesting to read how the natives and colonists of lands far from the center of the Christian world began to indigenize their practices and diets to suit their present surroundings. But while the forms and menus change and adapt, it’s the message that remains the same. Lent reminds us that what goes into our bodies is less important than what we take into our spirits/souls and that no matter where we find ourselves, whether dining on muskrat in Michigan or capybara in Colombia, we are all part of one kingdom made possible by the sacrifice of one Lord. We do well to remember that we all eat something that someone else would detest.
Lent is a time to remember who we are. Nothing wrong with observing Lent by observing certain practices and disciplines — even those that may involve eating water hogs. What’s critical, however, is that we remember where we come from.
Like anything that we read in the Scriptures, we some context and background to the passages, and today’s Epistle reading is an example of one.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is essentially a word of encouragement to fledgling Christians living the colonial life. In 42 B.C., about 100 years before Paul put pen to parchment, Roman generals Antony and Octavian (who became known later as Augustus, the emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth) had won a great battle near Philippi during the Roman civil war, which occurred after the death of Julius Caesar. Having won the battle and with no further fighting necessary, the two generals found themselves feeding a large army which had nothing to do. Rather than risk taking that many soldiers back to Rome in the midst of a volatile political environment where loyalties could easily shift, the generals gave the soldiers the land in and around Philippi as a reward for their service, thus making it a colony of Rome.
Paul himself had planted the Christian church in Philippi and understood the colonial dynamics at work. Acts 16 reveals the wonderful story of the merchant Lydia who first responded to the Gospel (Acts 16:11-15) but also the conflict that Paul and Silas had with the city officials over their conversion of a local fortuneteller — a conflict that landed them in jail, from which the two missionaries were miraculously sprung by an earthquake.
Rather than take their escape, Paul and Silas refused to leave. As Roman citizens, they claimed the right to a fair trial from the officials in this Roman colony. The very mention of their Roman citizenship caused the magistrates to change their tune very quickly and the missionaries were escorted away from the prison (Acts 16:16-39). It was salvation by citizenship!
When the Philippians opened this letter from Paul, they would have understood that he was indeed one of them, be they Roman citizens, Jewish converts or subjugated people. Paul was a worthy example. While Paul’s words here sound a bit self-important to our postmodern sensibilities, we have to remember the context. Paul himself is trying to imitate Christ, who is the primary model for the life of faith. For Paul, imitation wasn’t about flattery, but about faithfulness.
Apparently, though, some of the Philippians had skipped the lesson Paul was trying to teach. Rather than embrace the example of Christ, they became “enemies of the cross” through their self-indulgence, gluttony and by “setting their mind on earthly things” (3:18-19). Paul’s accusation reflects a similar argument he laid out in 1 Corinthians 5-6, where members of the church held Christian beliefs but engaged in immoral practices, gorging themselves in self-indulgent lifestyles rather than following the humility and emptying spirit of Christ.
By contrast, Paul reminded the faithful Philippians that their identity was not to be bound up as citizens of a sinful and self-serving world, but to remember that their “citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). To put it another way, they were colonists who were living in this place but still faithful to their homeland. That’s not to say that as the faithful, we’re simply slumming it here on earth, biding time until we go back to our true home in heaven far away.
As citizens, we are to colonize earth with the culture of heaven. And, as Paul said, it is from heaven that “we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” who will ultimately defeat the powers of this world that assail us, transforming “the body of our humiliation” to conform to “the body of his glory.” Therefore, Paul urges the Philippians (and us) to “stand firm” and continue to live and work as citizens of God’s kingdom.
Lent is about opportunity. Lent gives us a significant opportunity to renew our heavenly citizenship papers no matter where we find ourselves on earth. It’s a time for us to check in, put aside those tempting indigenous treats, and ask God for guidance with our own appetites. Fasting and abstinence can be helpful disciplines for doing that, but rather than just thinking about taking things away during Lent, we should be adding some as well — like prayer and journaling, serving others intentionally, or engaging other disciplines that get us thinking beyond ourselves.
We may not jump into Lent by asking for permission to eat capybara à la king, but we should be asking for new perspectives on how we might bring a bit more heavenly culture to our little corners of the world. It’s not a time for splitting hairs about what we can or cannot eat, what we can or cannot do, what we must or must not give up — although these are certainly not bad things to explore. Instead, it is more about a re-examination of what it means to be faithful in a “land” where we’re essentially misplaced citizens.
Lent is also an opportunity for Christians to discuss what it is that unites us rather than divides us. While we work in different denominational tribes and colonize different patches of ground, we need to recognize that we are all citizens of the same kingdom. Lent may be a great time to look around and invite others from different denominations and churches to join in a celebration of citizenship. It is also a time for us to reexamine our prejudices of non-Christian faiths – such as Muslim as is apparent by the terrorist attack in New Zealand.
So to repeat what I said earlier: Lent reminds us that what goes into our bodies is less important than what we take into our spirits and that no matter where we find ourselves, whether dining on muskrat in Michigan or capybara in Colombia, we are all part of one kingdom made possible by the sacrifice of one Lord.
After all, as Paul reminds us, we are all looking for a Savior — the One who was, who is, and is to come. Someday, we’ll all be sitting down together at a great banquet table with the King as the host.
Can’t wait to see what’s on that menu! Maybe Brownies – a la – mode!
And BTW – Happy St. Patrick’s Day!! Luck of the Irish to you me lads and lasses!
Let us pray.
For the victims of the terrorist shootings at the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques; may the victims rest in peace eternal, the survivors heal quickly and completely both physically and emotionally and that all families involved be comforted. We pray to the Lord.
That governments take a more asserted stance and action to stop terrorism throughout our world. We pray to the Lord.
That the Church will stand before the world without stain or blemish, holy and obedient to God’s word. We pray to the Lord.
For the whole world; that our days may truly become the acceptable time of grace, salvation, and peace. We pray to the Lord.
For sinners and the neglectful; that in this season of reconciliation they may return to Christ. We pray to the Lord.
That this season of Lent will be a time of deeper conversion for our parish. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are downhearted or are burdened with difficulties; that they may experience the transfiguring power of God. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to keep our eyes on Jesus, and truly live as citizens of heaven. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Most merciful Father, you did not spare your own Son but handed him over for us. May we always listen to him, and trust that you will always give us what we need. Help us this Lent to know that what goes into our bodies is less important than what we take into our spirits and souls. And in so doing, we become much closer to you and your Son and the Holy Spirit. May our week ahead be a blessed act of contrition and observance of humility toward you and all we meet. We ask all these things, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA