Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent
Isaiah 55:10-11  +  Matthew 6:7-15
February 20, 2018

“If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.”

When we look at the Our Father in the context of Saint Matthew’s Gospel account, it’s striking that the first topic that Jesus discusses after handing over this prayer to His disciples is the forgiveness of sins.  This is not surprising, but it is striking.  The Our Father is sometimes considered to be a compendium of the Gospel.  So then, after giving us the “treasury” of the Lord’s Prayer, the Lord begins to teach by discussing the reality of sin.

Challenge those who dismiss either Lenten penance, or the Christian belief in sin itself.  But recognize, at the same time, that Jesus’ words following today’s Gospel passage point us not only beyond our own sins, but even point us beyond the divine Love that we see when we look at the crucifix.  Jesus points us outwards, to “those who trespass against us”.  As Christians, we are defined not by our own sins, nor even—in the end—only by God’s love.  In the end, we are defined by the manner in which we turn to others and forgive them as we have been forgiven by God the Father, by means of the very love by which He has forgiven us.

Monday of the First Week of Lent

Monday of the First Week of Lent
Leviticus 19:1-2,11-18  +  Matthew 25:31-46
February 19, 2018

“Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus describes a real, future event:  the Last Judgment that will take place at the end of time.  To describe this future event, He uses the metaphor of sheep and goats.  Then Jesus describes the difference between these sheep and goats.  This difference is one of the most important teachings of the Gospel.

Historically, there have been many disputes between Protestants and Catholics about the role of faith, and the role of good works, in the life of the Christian.  By which of them do we enter heaven?  The Catholic Church, from the first century, to the sixteenth century, to today, has taught that—if you make it to Heaven—it will be because you bore both faith and good works.  Each is indispensable, not only for personal salvation.  Each of them is indispensable for the perduring of the other.  Faith does not perdure unless it is manifested through good works, while works without faith do not lead to eternal salvation.

Jesus’ description today of the Last Judgment—which He spoke two days before the Passover during Holy Week [see Matthew 25-26]—makes it seemingly impossible to deny the role of good works in the Christian’s entrance into Heaven.  Nonetheless, beyond any disputes that might still go on today, we need before disputing the meaning of the Christian Faith simply to live the Christian Faith.  Jesus calls us to live the Christian Faith by seeking Him in the disguise of the poor, in all the forms that poverty takes.

The First Sunday of Lent [B]

The First Sunday of Lent [B]
Genesis 9:8-15  +  1 Peter 3:18-22  +  Mark 1:12-15
February 18, 2018

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Do you ever feel that you’d enjoy a retreat from the hectic nature of life?  Consider the word “retreat”.  It has both positive and negative connotations.  In a positive sense, especially when we speak of a place as a retreat, we’re speaking of a place of relaxation and rest.  But when we use the word “retreat” as a verb, it implies some sort of weakness and defeat, at least temporarily.

Lent, as a season of our yearly Christian life, is a retreat in both senses.  Today’s brief Gospel passage is only four verses long.  In the first verse we hear:  “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert”.  Reflect on the two Persons mentioned in this verse.

“The Spirit” is, of course, the Holy Spirit:  the Third Person of the Most Blessed Trinity.  There are many ways to describe the Holy Spirit.  One of the more famous is to describe the Holy Spirit as the Love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father.  The Father and the Son are, in fact, “one in being” or “consubstantial”, in and through this very exchange of divine love.  Their reciprocal, mutual Love for each other (that is, Each giving Himself to the Other) is the Third Person of the Godhead.

It is this divine Love that “drove Jesus out into the desert.”  That might seem odd to say, that it was divine Love that drove Jesus into an intensely hot, arid place where for almost six weeks He faced temptations from the devil.  How can such a driving force be seen as Love?

One of the verses written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved” clarifies this truth.  In his first letter, St. John the Beloved Disciple declares:  “In this is love:  not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us, and has given us His Son as a sacrificial offering for our sins.”   Here is the heart of Lent and Easter:  the primacy of God the Father’s Love.  Before any love of ours for God—in fact, in the face of our choice to positively reject God’s love—God the Father made a choice to send His Son down from Heaven, into this world of sin, in order to be a sacrificial offering for our sins.

God the Father loves you, not in spite of your sins, but in and through your sins.  God the Father, out of love for you, sent His Son into this world.  The goal of this mission was for the Son to be crucified on Good Friday, so as to open the gates of Heaven for you.  For His part, Jesus accepted in Love the mission His Father gave Him:  the mission to be a sacrificial offering on the Cross.  It’s this Love that drove Jesus into the desert, and to the top of Calvary.  The Son’s total acceptance of, and self-identification with His Father’s love for you as a sinner led to that truth which we heard St. Paul proclaim in the Second Reading on Ash Wednesday:  “For our sake [the Father] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God in Him” [2 Corinthians 5:21].

Lent is a retreat with Jesus into the desert of Jesus’ love for us:  the love in which Jesus becomes our sins.  On the one hand, this is a retreat in the negative sense, because it’s an honest admission of our human weakness and even defeat, at least temporarily.  But we also retreat with Jesus into the desert because He is our Captain.  This is the positive sense in which Lent is a retreat.  Lent is a blessed time, even a joyful time, because here, in the desert, we are with Jesus.  His Presence here makes this time in the desert a thing of beauty.

This desert is for your soul what fire is for gold:  a purification.  The love of your life is meant to be one with God the Father’s Love, just as Jesus’ Love is one with the Father’s Love.  The Holy Spirit is meant to be the driving force of your life, driving you each day into the missions on which the Father sends you, even those that are deserts in your earthly life.

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Saturday after Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:9-14  +  Luke 5:27-32
February 17, 2018

“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.”

The older we get, the more often we find ourselves visiting the doctor.  The older we grow, the more types of doctors we visit, for ailments of different parts of our bodies.  But the average Joe, when he begins to sense a serious sickness, weighs in his mind two counter-balancing dislikes.  He weighs the potential for the sickness becoming worse against the hassle of scheduling a trip to the doctor’s office, with all that entails both beforehand and afterwards.

Consider all this as an analogy to sin.  In today’s Gospel Jesus says that “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.”  In the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus often condemns the self-righteous, who don’t believe they need a doctor:  these are they who say regarding their spiritual lives, “I’m just fine!”

Jesus also shows, in His words and deeds, the need for a good shepherd to reach out to the lamb who is lame, lost or sick.  Maybe the lamb even avoids the shepherd and pulls away when it sees the shepherd coming towards him:  these are they who say, “Please don’t bother about little old me!”

The irony of today’s Gospel is that the self-righteous likely need Jesus more than do those whom they accuse of sinfulness.  We are all of us—sinful men, women and children—in need of a Savior, even one who shepherds us towards Calvary to find the remedy for sin and death.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Friday after Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:1-9  +  Matthew 9:14-15
February 16, 2018

Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high!

Does God need a hearing aid?  If not, what accounts for some voices not being heard on high?  Since it’s not due to some weakness in God’s hearing, it must be due to some weakness in our voice.

“Making your voice heard on high” has a two-fold meaning.  Objectively, our words have to “befit” God:  whatever we ask for must be truly good.  Were we to ask God for something evil, the petition would fall on deaf ears (metaphorically speaking).   Even more than simply not being evil, though , what we ask from or offer to Him also has to be something that God Himself wants.  This requires that the will of the person praying must be in accord with His providential Will.

Subjectively, we ourselves must truly want and mean what we offer to God.  That might seem foolish to suggest:  how could we not do so?  Yet if we examine our spiritual lives closely, we’re likely to see that in the name of being a “good Christian”, we sometimes go along with what others ask of us, or what we think is expected of us.  We offer to God prayers that are not truly rooted in our own human will.  This is not “befitting God” either, because in this a Christian presents a false self to God:  in prayer—in offering up “my voice” to the Lord—the Christian is meant to give his true self to God, even as sinful as he may be.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Thursday after Ash Wednesday
Deuteronomy 30:15-20  +  Luke 9:22-25
February 15, 2018

“Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom.”

The setting of the First Reading is the Exodus:  a period in Israel’s history that corresponds to Lent.  As the Israelites wandered for forty years, so the Church walks with Jesus through the desert of Lent.  But the Exodus is a journey that courses between two even more significant events:  Israel’s Passing Over the Red Sea to escape slavery, and Israel’s Passing Over the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.

These three—crossing over the Red Sea, the Exodus, and crossing over the Jordan—can symbolize the whole Christian life:  crossing over the Red Sea, our baptism; the Exodus, our Christian life on earth; crossing over the Jordan, our death and (hoped-for) entrance into Heaven.  The middle of these—the Exodus—corresponds, then, both to the Season of Lent and our Christian life on earth.  Each illuminates the other.

“The whole of our Christian life on this earth is a Lenten journey.”  That claim might seem depressing if we didn’t fully appreciate what Lent signifies.  If we focus on the deprivation involved in sacrifice, then we miss why we make the sacrifice.  If we focus on Lent as an end in itself, we forget that Lent is actually a means to a greater end.  Why make sacrifice during Lent?  The end of this sacrifice is our rejoicing.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-18  +  2 Cor 5:20–6:2  +  Mt 6:1-6,16-18
February 14, 2018

For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin….

In today’s First Reading is a verse that’s also chanted within one of the antiphons for the Blessing and Distribution of Ashes.  “Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, stand between the porch and the altar and weep and cry out: Spare, O Lord, spare your people” [see Joel 2:17; Esther 4:17].  This sentence speaks to the Old Testament priest’s role among God’s People.  First, it reveals that the Old Testament priest physically stands between the porch and the altar—between God’s People and the place of sacrifice to God—to act as the Prophet Joel describes.

There, the Old Testament priest weeps and cries out on behalf of God’s sinful people.  While this weeping and crying is not part of his official “job description”, which in fact centers on the offering of sacrifice, these actions are clearly bound up with the priest’s role as mediator.  This is true because the sins of God’s People are the reason that he stands where he does:  between them and the Lord God, weeping, crying, and finally offering sacrifice.

Yet while this Old Testament background is important, the Church proclaims this verse from the Prophet Joel today in order to point our attention to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

One phrase in particular from today’s Second Reading forces us to reckon with the depth of Jesus’ priesthood.  What does Saint Paul mean when, speaking about God the Father and the Son, he states that “For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin”?  This saving truth reminds us about three distinct forms of humility that Jesus accepted for our salvation, by which He stands between sinful man and the divine Father.

First, we need to reflect upon God the Son humbling Himself to become human at the Annunciation.  Jesus stands between God and man as True God and true man.  For scriptural meditation on this saving mystery during Lent, we might use the prologue of St. John’s Gospel account, or the canticle of Christ’s humility found in the second chapter of Philippians.

Then, more than thirty years after His conception, this divine Word made Flesh offered up His life on the Cross.  We need to reflect upon Jesus’ humility on Calvary.  Upon the Cross, Jesus is not an Old Testament priest, crying and weeping and offering a dumb animal in sacrifice.  In humility, the Word made Flesh sacrifices His own Body and Blood, soul and divinity.  To reflect on this saving mystery, we might use the Passion narrative from any of the four Gospel accounts.

But be careful!  Within this second form of Jesus’ humility dwells a third:  a mystery that we must not underestimate.  Again, in speaking about the Father sending His divine Son to save us, the Apostle declares:  “For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin”.

Often when we meditate upon the Passion of the Christ—say, for example, during the Stations of the Cross—we are impressed by how awfully man’s sins affect Jesus.  We might imagine the Cross as “containing” our sins, so that the physical weight of Jesus’ heavy cross symbolizes the spiritual weight of all mankind’s sins.  Or we might imagine each lash from the Scourging at the Pillar as representing an individual sin.  But while those images may help us meditate upon the meaning of the Passion, St. Paul is saying something even more profound.

God the Father made His divine Son “to be sin”:  not only to carry sin, or be wounded by sin, but to be made sin.  Jesus, who from before time began was true God, stands not only in the place of sinners, but in the place of sin.  This is where He offers sacrifice as a new and everlasting priest.  His stance between merciful grace and man’s sins brings together both in Himself, where the former destroys the latter, for us men and for our salvation.

February 13, 2018

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
James 1:12-18  +  Mark 8:14-21
February 13, 2018

“Do you still not understand?”

Frustration in and of itself must not be a sin, or Jesus—according to the portraits painted by the evangelists—would not be divine.  Today’s Gospel passage ends with a question from Jesus.  While we can be sure that Jesus’ next action involved compassion, we might instead back up and reflect on this passage in terms of our selves, inasmuch as we often imitate the disciples in this passage.

There are two things lacking in these disciples.  First, they “had forgotten to bring bread”.  This is a practical omission on their part, and surely each of us can relate to it.  But this is not Jesus’ real concern.

Instead, when Jesus enjoins the disciples to “guard against the leaven” of the Pharisees and Herod, the disciples take Jesus’ words literalistically rather than in the analogical manner in which He meant them.  In other words, the disciples were so concerned with physical hunger that they couldn’t see past it.  They couldn’t see that Jesus was speaking about something far more important:  the spiritual means by which the Pharisees and Herod, on the one hand, and Jesus on the other, considered spiritual growth to take place.  Pray today that your very real practical concerns about life might never obscure the even more important spiritual needs that require your tending today.

February 12, 2018

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
James 1:1-11  +  Mark 8:11-13
February 12, 2018

“Why does this generation seek a sign?”

Do we search for heavenly signs as assurance that we are on the right path in life?  Today’s Gospel passage, brief and to the point, ought to make us realize how pointless such a search is.  Jesus’ sigh—“from the depth of His Spirit”—speaks volumes.  His departure from the midst of the Pharisees does in fact serve as a sober sign of His recognition that even His divine words do nothing for one unwilling to listen to Him in faith.  Christ asks us to dedicate each day to him in faith.

A life which is not dedicated to God ends up being a selfish life, a life that excludes both God and one’s brothers and sisters.  This sort of life is opposed to the very practical counsel that Saint James offer throughout the course of the epistle that we begin today to hear at daily Mass.  This sort of life leads to one being a “man of two minds, unstable in all his ways.”

That fate will be ours unless we are willing to cooperate with God’s grace to conquer the power of sin.  Sin is conquered first through faith, and perfectly through charity.  We are invited to share in this perfect love of God through the Mass.  When we are dismissed from Mass, we take and offer this same love to our brothers and sisters within our daily lives.

The 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Lev 13:1-2,44-46  +  1 Cor 10:31—11:1  +  Mk 1:40-45
February 11, 2018

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

St. Paul’s words in our Second Reading take on a very practical meaning for Christians.  Saint Paul exhorts the Corinthians:  “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”.  Reflect on how these words apply to Christian fatherhood in both the Sacrament of Marriage and the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Start with the vocation of priesthood.  If you’ve ever gotten into a debate with non-Catholics about Jesus’ command, “Call no man on earth your father, for you have but one Father in heaven” [Mt 23:9], there are many Scripture verses from St. Paul that you might have quoted in reply.

For example, earlier in the same letter that today’s Second Reading comes from, Saint Paul explains how the Corinthians have one father.  He squarely preaches to them, “You might have thousands of guardians in Christ, but not more than one father… it was I who begot you in Christ Jesus” [1 Cor 4:15].  It’s hard to imagine—if you were to interpret Holy Scripture in a literalistic sense—any words that more directly contradict Jesus’ command to “call no man on earth your father” than what St. Paul says about himself:  “You might have thousands of guardians in Christ, but not more than one father… it was I who begot you in Christ Jesus”.

Yet St. Paul’s words at the end of today’s Second Reading only seem to raise further questions.  He commands those listening to him:  “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”  Why doesn’t St. Paul just say instead, “Be imitators of Christ, as I imitate Christ”?

But these words of St. Paul don’t contradict Jesus’ command to call no man on earth one’s father.  They deepen the revelation of Jesus.  Christian fathers, whether in the home or in the sanctuary, are called to say by their examples and their words:  “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

Christian fathers can lead their children into the life of Christ more or less effectively.  You might describe the difference between less effective and more effective Christian fatherhood by calling one “mere imitation”, and the other “living imitation”.  We know that the English word “imitation” is itself ambiguous.  We sometimes use the word “imitation” negatively, to imply that something is phony, a counterfeit or a knock-off (for example, “imitation leather”).  On the other hand, we believe the proverb that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.  This ambiguity sheds light on the difference between two ways that fathers can imitate Christ, and lead their children to do the same.

On the one hand is “mere imitation”.  “Mere imitation” is not necessarily bad, but it is limited, and it’s much less than what Jesus asks for from Christian fathers.  An example of “mere imitation” would be an imitation of a great historical figure.  For example, you see a book titled The Leadership Secrets of George Washington.  This title implies that perhaps you too could be a great leader if you were to copy Washington’s actions.  We might also take this tack with Jesus, but Jesus wants human fathers not merely to copy Him from the outside looking in.

On the other hand is a “living imitation”.  This is what St. Paul is exhorting the Corinthians to.  This is what Jesus prays to God the Father for at the Last Supper:  “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

The “living imitation” that Christian fathers offer their children begins with those fathers abiding in Christ.  Jesus speaks about this at length at the Last Supper [see John 14-17].  This is an imitation of Christ from the inside, looking out with love upon one’s children.  God Himself calls fathers—and of course, mothers also—to live as examples for their children to imitate.  They first do so by teaching their children how to abide in God’s Presence, and how to allow Christ to abide within them.