EZ 18:25-28; PHIL 2:1-11; MT 21:28-32
As I looked back on the 25 years that have passed since I entered religious life, Sept. 15, 1992, I searched for something that would capture my experience and pretty quickly I thought about the Dayenu, a song of remembrance and thanksgiving in the Hebrew tradition that is part of the Haggadah the script/text that is used for family celebrations of the Passover seder meal.
The following reflection on the Dayenu, taken from Why on This Night? by Rahel Musleah, gives creative expression to my experience. It says (and I quote) . . . “Picture a box tied with a beautiful bow. Open it . . . It’s a present you’ve been dreaming of! Wait . . . there’s more inside: Another box with a second gift. ‘How many kindnesses you show me!’ you say. Inside the second gift there’s a third. ‘This is beyond my hopes!’ you exclaim. Inside the third gift there’s a fourth and then a fifth – a whole series of gifts. ‘If you had given me just one gift,’ you say, shaking your head in disbelief, ‘that would have been enough. But for all these gifts I say, thank you.’ The text goes on to say . . . “On Passover we remember the many gifts God has given us. If God had just taken us out of Egypt and given us the gift of freedom we’d been dreaming of, that would have been enough. Dayenu! If God had lead us across the Red Sea and hadn’t taken care of us in the desert for forty years, that would have been enough. Dayenu! If God had given us Shabbat without giving us the Torah, that would have been enough. Dayenu! If God had given us the Torah and hadn’t led us to the land of Israel, that would have been enough. Dayenu! But God gave us all these gifts and more. And for that we say, thank you!”
Now, with the sentiments of the Dayenu in mind, there are three particular gifts that form and shape our lives as women religious – prayer, community, and ministry. Each is a source of great blessing and today’s readings provide images that raise up each of these gifts for further reflection.
In the first reading, we find the prophet Ezekiel who speaks for God in conversation with the House of Israel. “Thus says the Lord: You say, ‘The Lord’s way is not fair!’ Hear now, House of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?” Being in conversation with God is the heart of prayer. It could be said that the first present that is opened in religious life is the gift of prayer. If my religious life had only offered me exposure to meditation, contemplation, the Liturgy of the Hours, my annual retreat, spiritual direction, integration days, theological reflection, the labyrinth, journaling, scriptural reflections, lectio divina, spiritual reading, mandalas, haiku and nature as gateways to silence and to deepening oneness with God. That alone would have been enough. Dayenu!
In the second reading, scholars tell us, Paul invokes a series of qualities which essentially characterize life “in Christ” and so should regulate community relations. He says, “Brothers and sisters: If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for their own interests, but also for those of others.” The Christ Hymn lifts up the selflessness of Christ Jesus who emptied himself to the point of death on a cross.
Perhaps the second present that is opened is the gift of community. If my religious life had simply offered me the opportunity to be part of something much bigger than myself; to engage in Community Assemblies, Gatherings and committee work where we are inspired to set directions that address social, economic and ecological justice issues; to stand in awe of all those who have gone before me, those who stand around me and those who will carry the flame of charity to the next land of promise; to share community with others who have common values and who hold all things in common; to be part of the Collaborative Novitiate of the Charity Federation; to participate in Vincentian Family Gatherings with others who embrace the Charity charism; to celebrate and live the paschal mystery of life, death and resurrection together, in many ways, on many levels, knowing that entering deeply into relationship with one another means that we live, die and rise together; to rub shoulders with each other, learning to be in relationship with a diverse group of women, navigating idiosyncrasies and being open to the issues that arise that challenge us to explore self-understanding and contemplative dialogue as pathways for conversion; to be stretched to accept new circumstances and to cross personal and cultural boundaries. That alone would have been enough. Dayenu!
In the Gospel, we join Jesus in his ministry of teaching. He addresses the chief priests and elders, pronouncing their guilt. The two sons represent the faithless leaders and the faithful outcasts. The vineyard is the House of Israel. The shocking paradox that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kindom ahead of the others is the heart of Jesus’ teaching. The faithless leaders believe they are righteous and have no need for repentance. The faithful outcasts know they need to repent. The first son says, “I will not” but later changes his mind and goes. The other says, “yes” but does not go. Jesus is direct in his teaching ministry, it is a challenge to face the chief priests and elders, but he is clear – “when John came you did not believe him; tax collectors and prostitutes did, yet even when you saw that, you did not change your mind and believe.” In considering our call to ministry we must ask: How do I respond to the call of God? Do I say no and then go? Do I say yes and later decide it’s too risky or too far or that’s for someone else to do, or that doesn’t apply to me?
A third present to be opened then is the gift of ministry, the call to respond, to take action. If these 25 years of religious life had only been a means to experience the challenges and the joys of ministry, home visits to those who are unable to join the community for the Eucharist, religious education, music ministry, exercising fiscal responsibility, assisting in opening a child development center, directing ministry for the Catholic Deaf Community, engaging in advocacy as the Director of the Diocesan Department for Persons with Disabilities, working side by side with Administrators of our Congregational Ministries as they grapple with practical and inspirational mission moments, at times in rapid succession, challenge upon challenge, grace upon grace, blessing upon blessing. That alone would have been enough! Dayenu! But there is a fourth, a fifth, a whole series of presents still to be opened, some include the hopes of the unfolding story that is ahead. And for all these gifts I say thank you!
Today, here, we are participating in a prayer of remembrance and thanksgiving as we listen to and ponder the Word of God and as we receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. May we become what we receive, deepening our oneness in Christ and a life of joyful commitment.
Imagine you have an empty box, pretend it’s a beautiful present. Now open it. Some of the gifts God has given you are inside. What do you find?