How do you make an old, immediately familiar story fresh and illuminating? The priest at the Sunday vigil I attended this weekend managed to do so with the Ten Commandments.
After acknowledging the way most of us think of the Ten Commandments — either as a list of rules we had to learn when preparing for our first reconciliation or as cinematic splendor in a Charlton Heston movie — he commented that the Greek word for the commandments, decalogue, was really meant to convey short, pithy information about God’s will.
Keeping with that brevity, he proceeded to name the one word at the heart of each of the ten. “I am the Lord your God…” is about priority. Honoring one’s mother and father is about wisdom. Not bearing false witness against one’s neighbor is about truth.
The homily was beautiful, because it moved past the rote, follow-the-rule connotation we have projected onto the commandments and got at their heart. It spoke to the spirit of the law rather than the letter. When talking about adultery, for example, he focused not on social politics, premarital sex or hookup culture but rather on seeing both one’s own and another’s body as a sacred gift from God.
I left mass thinking about what single words might best sum up the Lenten season. “Purify” came to mind; our fasting or new efforts to commit to God seem on some level to be about cleaning house. “Preparation” is another; Lent distinctly leads to something else, namely Holy Week, Easter and all the drama of the passion, death and resurrection.
For me, however, the best word for Lent is “return.” Lent is about returning to something elemental, essential and even raw in our faith lives. Doing something for Lent — whether it is praying or reaching out to loved ones — is designed to help us get there, while giving something up for Lent can assist in clearing away the non-essentials that might be getting in the way of our arriving.
Ash Wednesday mass often includes the hymn “Return to the Lord.” What is wonderful about Lent and the entire spiritual experience is that we are constantly being invited to do just that, one word at a time.