3rd Lent [A] 1999

Fr. Charles Irvin

Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2,5-8; John 4:5-42

If you’ve heard the soundtrack for the Broadway show Les Miserables you may remember a song sung by Fantine that is a lament. She sings a sad song to her lost youth, her lost innocence, her lost beauty. It reflects a song many of us have in our hearts as she sings:

I had a dream that life would be
So different than the hell I’m living,
So different now than what it seemed,
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

Once upon a time, way back in my early twenties, my heart was full of a song like that. I thought I wanted to die, my life would never be happy again.

What causes us to sing a song like that, to be filled with despair? What murders our dreams? And what, perhaps, is killing your dreams – or the dreams of someone you know and love?

The first reading in today’s Mass, the reading from the Jewish Testament’s Book of Exodus, presents us with a whole tribe of people feeling that burden, that depression, that despair. Only a little while earlier God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, protected them and saved them from Pharaoh’s pursuing armies by parting the Red Sea for Moses and swallowing up Pharaoh’s army in those same waters. Moses spoke to them of God’s love for them and pointed to God’s Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, that was soon going to be theirs. Yet here they are wallowing in self-pity, hurting and angry at God, and worst of all longing to return to slavery back in Egypt.

Back to Egypt? Back to slave labor? Back to a land of death? Unimaginable – yet true. It took God a few weeks to get these Israelites out of Egypt and it would take God forty years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. How could this be? And how is it that our own depression and despair can call and lead us back into the slavery of wallowing in our self-pity? For many it leads to the bondage and slavery of drug addiction, to alcoholism, to sex addiction, addiction to shopping, gambling, overeating and what have you. Self-pity is powerfully addictive.

We need to observe that these ancient Hebrews were remembering the past as better than it really was. Hindsight isn’t just 20/20 vision, it’s seeing things through rose colored glasses. If you don’t believe me then recall these same sort of memories you’ve heard expressed:

“When I was your age I walked to school and back every day. It was six miles walking to school, and six miles back. And our teachers smacked us when we were out of line – they didn’t take any nonsense. And when we graduated from school we could read, we could write, and we could do our numbers. Kids have it too easy these days.”

“When I was a kid we never, ever, missed church on Sunday. And we always had a big Sunday dinner; the whole family was there. We didn’t run around all day on Sunday doing all sorts of stuff. We went to church, we stayed at home, and we were family.”

“When I was a kid we worked four hours before sunrise doing chores, worked in the fields until after sundown, and studied by candlelight to midnight. Kids these days have it too easy – they don’t know the value of hard work.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with women these days. I had my babies. I didn’t take drugs to dull the pain. And women went back out to work in the fields the next day.”

Well, you get the picture. Memory cuts out all of the bad stuff that happened, and magnifies everything good. The past is painted in colors of glory. School days were brighter, marriage was easier, kids behaved and life was gentler. The Depression? The Second World War? The drunkenness? The family fights? The cheating on our wives? The cheating on our husbands? All of those things get washed down and painted in muted colors.

The other big cause for despair is to take the condition in which we presently find ourselves and then claim that life is always going to be this way. Things will never change, we say to ourselves. We’ll always be too fat, ugly, geekish, unattractive, unloved, lonely, trapped in our job, trapped in a bad marriage, trapped in whatever we find ourselves right now. That’s what the Hebrews were saying to Moses. Get us out of here and take us back into Egypt. At least there we had the Nile and Pharaoh provided us with food. Sure we were slaves, but things were a whole lot better then than they are now out here, even with our freedom.

Does the present look bleak to you now? Well, don’t repeat Israel’s mistake. The condition in which you find yourself now doesn’t have to be the situation in which you’ll find yourself in the future. The present doesn’t put handcuffs on you and imprison you. God still has His power and with that power your life can change. Remember, always remember, that without God you are powerless and can do relatively little. Without God you can accomplish nothing. But with God there is nothing you cannot accomplish. With God’s power there’s a whole lot about your future that will change. Are you lonely? Are you sick? Without a job? Discouraged with your marriage, with your career? With God, things change.

If God can produce water from a rock, he can provide you with all that you need to move on toward your own Promised Land. And always remember that with God, every journey moves forward, moves on into the future. With God things never stand still and just remain always the same. God is a God of change. All of the beautiful and great Sacraments of our Church are all moments of change. Think about it. Every sacrament is a sign of change, a moment of grace, a promise that looks ahead to what can be in our future. And remember, too, that God wants us never, never to go backward into Egypt.

Our Catholic Faith, our religion, is a religion about what can be, not what simply has been. And our religion is certainly not about celebrating only where we’re at right now in our present. Oh, no. We are here, processing in line to Holy Communion, because we are on a journey, a journey toward God and toward all that He dreams we can be. That’s why our churches have doors – so that we can receive here what God wants us to have and then take that out into our world to make it a better place, and to take that into our future so that we can be in a better place.

In the Broadway show, Les Miserables, Fantine sang her sad song of lament, her dirge to her lost past.

I had a dream that life would be
So different than the hell I’m living,
So different now than what it seemed,
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

But Jesus Christ descended into hell and now is risen from the dead, victim no longer. He lives now in the life His father dreamed he could live. And God offers that all to you, right here, right now, in a life you can live in Holy Communion with him, a life that will take you into your future, into your Promised Land.

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”