Down in Taylor Country, Kentucky, where the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains rise, there was some farmland belonging to my grandfather, given to his people by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, as reward for their serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. The farmhouse on this property abuts against a hill rising several hundred feet behind it, and at the foot of this hill, close to the house, can be found a spring of cold water dripping out of the hillside, into a carefully constructed basin built by my father in 1937 or thereabouts, a process that I observed. This was a more convenient arrangement for gathering water than tramping over to the well, some considerable distance away. It may still be there, though times have changed. But it was a valuable asset in those days.
And in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range running the length of the state of California can be found, next to Pasadena, the village of Sierra Madre, within which the Passionist Retreat House of Mater Dolorosa can be found, perched against these hills. Given the perennial scarcity of water in that area, a Passionist Brother named Joe discovered and excavated a water source in the rise behind the retreat house, in 1959, constructing a basin for collecting a pool of cool, fresh water, much along the lines of the one in Taylor country. I offered some minimal help in this project. It still waters the land.
These water references help to appreciate the promises made by the prophet Isaiah in today’s readings as he alerts his readers to what the Lord will do on their behalf: He will “…satisfy your thirst in parched places…” so that “…you shall be like a watered garden, like a flowing spring whose waters never fail.” This was quite a bonus for doing what they ought to have been about anyways, such as removing burdens from others that they had wrongly imposed on them, and stopping malicious speech against them, or abusing the holiness of the Sabbath, disregarding their duty to God while pursuing their own interests.
What an attractive bargain for us television addicts promised, in the frequent ads interrupting the programming, a variety of medicinal benefits from products presented there, with always a lengthy proviso that we do so at our own risk of suffering any number of fearful consequences. Thankfully, Isaiah, as God’s prophet, presented no such scare tactics to his “audience”, but simply promises of good benefits to follow.
And a similar transaction occurred between Jesus and Levi (or Matthew, as we know him), as Jesus passed by the latter’s customs post. Jesus was not in any way judgmental of this tax collector, regarded by his fellow Jews as a despicable “collaborator” with the Roman occupation force. Jesus simply invited him: “Follow me”, and Levi, “…leaving everything behind…got up and followed him”. Levi’s obvious thirst for something better than what he was doing led to his own voluntary response to what was an opportunity of a lifetime for him: he “…gave a great banquet for him (Jesus) in his house…”
So we have benefits presented us today, with no threats about serious problems attached. This is an attractive scenario for beginning Lent: no downside involved other than the effort at digging into the side of the hill where the cool water can be found to slake our thirst.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.