Many books of the Bible attempt to get our attention. Sometimes this is done through signs and wonders; other times through the ordinary events of life. One way or another, the prophets have attempted to bring people back to God through a change of heart.
Lent is highly focused on a change of heart, a metanoia. Time in the desert, accompanied by fasting and prayer, is meant to peel away the layers that keep us asleep. The desert with its harshness wears away whatever shields us from the basic things of life.
The image of a fig tree is prominent in the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent. The tree has not been producing fruit, and so it is thought to be useless. Jesus uses this fig tree as an image of what sometimes happens in our lives. During certain periods, we might have the same habits and even worship and pray as we always have, but our lives are not bearing fruit. A sense of uselessness or aridity can settle in. We might begin to believe that our usefulness has passed.
Just as in the Gospel reading, we have an advocate who wishes for our life to be sustained and fruitful. The example of the fig tree in the Gospel gives us direction about what to do during those times. Instead of abandoning ourselves or others in hopelessness, we are asked to till the soil and do what it takes to nurture the life of this fig tree. These images that are offered to us in the Scriptures were more familiar to the people of Jesus’ time than they are to us, but there is still much wisdom available to us.
Now is not the time to despair. Now is not the time to brood over past hurts or focus on the negativities of life. Now is the time, especially in periods of fruitlessness, to seek the sources of nourishment that we are offered. To nourish yourself or someone else who is living in a very arid time of their lives, seek only to spend time with the best of resources. Give up junk TV, wasted time on the Internet and reading material that has no depth. Spend time with people who live fruitful lives and not with people who sit around and gossip, complain or are filled with prejudice and hate. These are the ways that we can become more fruitful in our lives. Cry out to God for nourishment. Have conversations with God that are real instead of conversations that share only what you think is perfect and good. Let the emptiness of your heart be cracked open to the mercy in the forgiveness of God.
Many of our parishes and religious organizations offer special gatherings during this time of year. Take advantage of those, even if you’ve never participated. Some gatherings might be accessible at home via livestreaming. Instead of ignoring what God is bringing to your attention, pay even more attention to it and learn about this part of yourself. There is much wisdom to be learned in these desert times.
Many of our parishes are blessed with people who are seeking communion in the Catholic Church through the RCIA process. They come before us in our Sunday assemblies so that they may be blessed and sent forth to read the Scriptures, to be instructed in faith and to grow as a community of believers. They are placed before us so that we can be making the same choices in our own lives. We bring them before us, not to embarrass them, but to remind us that we, too, are called to deeper conversion. What can you do right now, even as you are reading these words, to become more converted to Jesus Christ and the life He asks us to lead? Now is not the time to make excuses or to put off to tomorrow what needs to be done today. As the Scripture says, “now is the acceptable time and now is the day of our salvation.”
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.