A few years ago, an American actress, singer and former model from Memphis was given a rare and unusual honor. This woman, Cybil Shepherd, was asked to name the twin hippopotami born at the Memphis zoo. The only problem was that the mother hippo, Julie, wouldn't let anyone close enough to the babies to determine their gender. Apparently the two 40 pound babies paddled or walked just under Julie and nobody wanted to upset a momma who weighs more than 4000 pounds by getting too close.
I don't know exactly what a hippo does to protect her young but I am certain it wouldn't be pleasant to be on the receiving end. The result of the protective hippo was a long delay in naming its offspring. In any case it didn't seem to matter a whole lot. (For all you curious readers, they ended up naming the babies "Splish" and "Splash")
Julie continued to care for her babies: feeding them, protecting them, keeping them close to herself and away from danger. And the babies, untroubled by their nameless state, didn't stray from Julie. As young and simple-minded as they were, they still knew a good thing when they saw it: - that good thing being a two-ton, funny-looking, grey and pink creature who seemed to always provide them with just what they needed. Why would they wander far from that?
In some respects, hippos, cats, and just about any other animal you'd care to mention know more than people. The young at least have enough sense to stay close to momma; close to food, protection, warmth, and nurture. You won't find kittens turning away from the warm fur they know so well. Chicks don't stray far from the protection of the hen's wings. Such behavior would be counter to their nature--counter to the natural order God created.
I know we might explain such behavior simply as instinct, but for all of that, even the least intelligent animal young stays close to the one who gave them life; they cry out to the one who nurtures and protects them.
But what about people? Now, that's another story! Only human beings stray; only the children of God exhibit the unnatural behavior of turning away from the love and protection of the God who made them.
In today’s readings, we hear once again, the promises of our all-loving and protective God. To an elderly and child-less Abraham, he promises to make a countless nation and to provide them with fertile and beautiful land in which to grow and prosper. Our Big brother in the Faith, St. Paul, reminds us that we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven and because of that, Christ will take our lowly, weak selves and transform them into the glory that he himself enjoys. And finally, in the gospel, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain to pray and is filled with a brilliant light. God the Father speaks to them and lets them know that Christ is his beloved Son, they should listen to him. And the glory and the transformation that they see in Christ is something that will be shared with them if they remain faithful.
These are incredible promises! And if they were made by anyone other than the Most High God, they would certainly be too good to be true. But they are made by the One who made the universe; the One who sent his only-begotten Son to suffer and die for each and every person that has ever walked this earth. These promises are real, they can and have been kept in a way we could never have imagined and certainly never deserved. Even if we look at it from a purely practical point of view, we have a really good thing going! We have a God who wants to protect us from sin and death, he wants to heal our wounds and feed us with every good thing to build up soul and body. He even wants to take these lowly, mortal bodies and transform them into something that will last forever with him in the perfect happiness of heaven.
So what is missing in this offer from God? What is it that we can possibly hope to acquire away from him? Why do we risk wandering from God and losing his assurance of spiritual safety and peace?
In his promises to us, God provides all that we need but not necessarily everything we want. When we wander from the safety of his protection, it is often to seek our own ambition or to resist the responsibilities that are part and parcel of following him. The pleasure or power or freedom we experience apart from God only last for a short time before remorse and emptiness come calling. So many of us spend too much of our lives trying to fill this void with things or people other than God. But what will really satisfy us is already waiting to embrace us with the open arms of forgiveness and healing.
Lent is a time to come back to Him and to his Church, which he founded to protect us and keep us safe. It is not simply a period of depriving ourselves of things we like. It is a time to be reconciled and reunited with God, a joyful season of forgiveness and growth, where we lay aside the things that separate or distract us from the Lord. In this time of grace, God moves toward us as well. He wants us back, he wants us close to him, he wants to provide every good thing that we need.
Nothing can overcome the love God has for us, it is more fierce and powerful than that 2-ton hippo. It is more tender than a mother’s love, it stops at nothing to bring us back. But he always respects our freedom and allows us to decide. As we continue through this Lent, let us appreciate the gift of love we have been given. Let us look constantly at the crucifix to remind ourselves of what God is prepared to do to keep us safe and close to him. And finally, let us remember to stand with the Lord, who is our shelter and safety, because he will always provide for our need and calm our every fear.