Saturday of the First Week of Lent

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Saturday of the First Week of Lent
Deuteronomy 26:16-19  +  Matthew 5:43-48
February 27, 2021

“So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus focuses our attention on how to love our neighbor.  As a backdrop to His words today, we ought to keep in mind Jesus’ two great commands:  to love God and to love our neighbor.  We also need to remember His parable about the Good Samaritan, and its point concerning who exactly our neighbor is.

Jesus is teaching us not only not to hate our enemies, but to consider them our neighbors.  To help us appreciate this, Jesus points to the impartiality of God’s treatment of human beings even on the natural level of life:  “your Heavenly Father… makes His sun rise on the bad and the good”.  So also His Son died and rose for the bad and the good on the supernatural level.

The last sentence of today’s Gospel passage sums up this section from the Sermon on the Mount:  “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Here we see Jesus drawing His two great commands ever closer.  We cannot love our God any more than we love our neighbors.  If I am excluding others from the definition of “my neighbors”, than to that extent I am excluding God from my life.  This is so because God extends His love to every person.  No person can ever be “God-forsaken”, but only “me-forsaken”.  But if I forsake another, it’s not only that other’s loss, but mine as well.

Lent 1-6

Friday of the First Week of Lent

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Friday of the First Week of Lent
Ezekiel 18:21-28  +  Matthew 5:20-26
February 26, 2021

“Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.”

When you take up a passage of Sacred Scripture, remember that the passage may have several different meanings.  At a single sitting, you would likely only ponder one particular meaning, so as to keep your focus.  But after you’ve spent many months and years in prayerful reflection upon the Bible, as you come upon a passage that you’ve reflected upon before, you ought to consider whether there’s an additional meaning that you haven’t previously considered.

The Church has an ancient practice of looking within any particular Scripture passage for four different types of meaning, or “senses”.  Not every passage will bear all four, but we need to look for all four when we take up any given passage.  These four senses are:  the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.  Without explaining what all four of these are, simply consider today’s Gospel passage in regard to the last of these four senses, the anagogical.

Simply put, the anagogical sense of Scripture takes the literal meaning of a passage and considers what it reveals about “the Last Things”.  The Last Things are Heaven and hell, death and judgment.  So while today’s parable might seem at first hearing only to relate to how a Christian ought to act in this world, the anagogical sense shows how the same parable also applies to life after death.  Reflect, then, on how Jesus’ words following the parable—“Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny”—teach us about the nature of God’s justice in requiring Christians who have been saved by God’s grace to undergo purification in Purgatory before being capable of sharing in the fullness of divine love in Heaven.

Lent 1-5

The Second Sunday of Lent [B]

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The Second Sunday of Lent [B]
Genesis 22:1-2,9,10-13,15-18  +  Romans 8:31-34  +  Mark 9:2-10
February 28, 2021

So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.

When we gaze at the Transfiguration, we notice something odd in this passage.  It’s found in its last two sentences.  If this passage had ended two sentences earlier, with the voice of God the Father speaking of His “beloved Son”, the passage would have ended on a high note, leading us to worship Jesus in adoration.  Instead, the two final sentences make us wonder what Jesus is up to.

First, St. Mark tells us that:  “As they were coming down from the mountain, [Jesus] charged [Peter, James and John] not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  This is another of those common cases in the Gospel accounts of Jesus wanting His disciples to keep His full identity a secret.  The evangelist then tells us that these three “kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.”

This questioning shows that they don’t understand what the Transfiguration is all about.  There’s another point in this Gospel passage that also shows their ignorance, and that’s the exclamation that Peter makes to Jesus:  “Rabbi, it is good that we are here!  Let us make three tents:  one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter’s suggestion is so simple that we might overlook what he means.  Tents mean something different to us today.  Tents mean camping, recreation, and relaxation in the great outdoors.  Tents in ancient days—when many persons and extended families were nomadic—meant putting down roots, staking a claim, and not moving on.  So tents to Peter meant permanence.  They meant having arrived.  But this is where Jesus has to call Peter to a better way.

Peter was like someone who had invested in the stock market and suddenly seen one of his stocks skyrocket to 100 times the purchase price, motivating him to sell it.  He couldn’t imagine anything greater, so he wanted to get out while the getting was good, and rest where he was.

The problem for Peter was that Jesus had no plans to rest.  Jesus had a journey to make.  He didn’t come into this world for rest and comfort.  So Peter, likely reluctantly, followed Jesus back down the mountain, knowing that He had to stay with Jesus if he ever wanted to see such brilliance, beauty, and glory again.

What Peter did not know at that point, but which you and I know, is where the rest of the journey is going to take Jesus and Peter.  Jesus implicitly tells Peter where they’re headed when He charges the apostles “not to relate what they had seen… [until] the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

It was probably fortunate that Peter did not know that “rising from the dead” meant Jesus rising on the third day after being nailed to a cross.  If Peter had known this, he would likely have run away, even after having witnessed the Transfiguration.  In the end, of course, Peter did run away, simply after Jesus’ arrest.

Nonetheless, at this point in their journey, Jesus planted that seed in the apostles’ minds, and it began to germinate during the remainder of Jesus’ public ministry.  Whenever in their memories they saw the sight of the Transfigured Jesus, they also must have heard that strange phrase:  “rising from the dead”.  Jesus helped them always to link these two:  “rising”, and “death”.  In other words, there is no Resurrection without death.  There is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday.  There is no empty tomb without the Deposition of the Body of Christ within the tomb.

All of us, I’m sure, would admit that our Lenten resolutions, as well as what the Church demands regarding fasting and abstinence, are small sacrifices compared to Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.  If we recognize this as true, we can see that only God’s grace can conform our lives to the life, suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus.  Our small sacrifices are only the kindling that allows the wood of the Cross to set ablaze with the fire of God’s love in our hearts.

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

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Thursday of the First Week of Lent
Esther C:12,14-16,23-25  +  Matthew 7:7-12
February 25, 2021

“… how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”

When a Christian is a beginner in the spiritual life, most of his prayers are likely prayers of petition.  As he grows in spiritual maturity, fewer of his prayers will be petitions.  More of his prayers will be of the other three types of vocal prayer:  contrition, thanksgiving and adoration.

However, is one of the goals of the spiritual life to no longer offer prayers of petition?  Should you strive to reach the point where you no longer “need” to offer petitions?  Would this even be possible?

In the secular culture that surrounds us, independence is prized.  Standing on one’s own two feet is a hallmark of personal identity.  But Christian growth is marked by becoming more like a little child.  This occurs as one realizes one’s deep and abiding—indeed, everlasting—dependence upon God the Father.  One doesn’t, strictly speaking, grow in dependence upon God, for one can never be anything but fully dependent upon Him.  One grows, rather, in one’s awareness of this dependence, as well as one’s comfort in resting in His providential care.

Childers, Milly, 1866-1922; Girl Praying in Church

Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

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Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
Jonah 3:1-10  +  Luke 11:29-32
February 24, 2021

“Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.”

Signs are important in the Christian journey.  Jesus speaks of two signs in today’s Gospel passage.  He says that both Jonah and the Son of Man are signs for others.  But Jesus says more.  He explains that “as” Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, “so will” the Son of Man be a sign to “this generation”.

So we need to ask first how it was that Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites.  The Old Testament Book of Jonah presents Jonah in two ways.  First, Jonah preaches the need for repentance throughout Nineveh.  Second, he is thrown overboard into deep waters and is swallowed by a large fish where he spends three days, all because he is the scapegoat for the affliction facing his shipmates.

Given all this, how does Jonah foreshadow Jesus serving as a sign to Jesus’ own generation?  First, Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God.  This proclamation always begins with preaching the need for repentance and conversion.  His preaching, however, along with His saving works, inevitably lead to His condemnation.  Jesus rhetorically asks His co-religionists, “I have shown you many good works from my Father.  For which of these are you trying to stone me?” [John 10:32].  This reflects what the Beloved Disciple declares in the prologue of his Gospel account:  “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” [John 1:11].

Jesus’ rejection reaches its climax on Good Friday.  Yet we need to reflect upon the plain fact that Jesus’ rejection continues today.  His rejection, which the story of Jonah foreshadows, is shared in today by each faithful member of Christ’s Body who lives and breathes in this fallen world.  At His Last Supper Jesus declares to His disciples, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first” [John 15:18].

Jonah - Sistine Chapel

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

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Tuesday of the First Week of Lent
Isaiah 55:10-11  +  Matthew 6:7-15
February 23, 2021

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

Our prayers of petition add nothing to God:  neither to His knowledge of us, nor to His love for us.  God cannot love us more than He already does. Likewise, He knows everything about us, better then we know ourselves.  He knows our past lives, our current thoughts, motives and actions, and our destiny.  So if we offer our petitions to God, since we do so not for God’s sake, we must do so for our sake.  But in what sense is this true?

If our petitions are answered as we wish, then the act of petitioning God beforehand helps our little minds understand our dependence on God:  that every good thing comes from him, not from ourselves.

If our petitions are not answered as we wish, because what we wish is contrary to what God wishes for us, then the act of petitioning God helps our little hearts turn towards Him and ask questions about our own desires, and how we might need to reform them.  Hopefully this helps us enter more deeply into God’s Heart and His desires for us.

Yet if our petitions are not answered as we wish because what we wish is something we are not ready for, then the act of petitioning God helps our little souls to grow in their capacity and desire for God’s good gift.  We hear St. Augustine speak to this holy need in the Office of Readings during the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time:

“The whole life of a good Christian is a holy desire.  Now what you long for, you do not yet see:  however, by longing, you are made capable, so that when that has come which you may see, you shall be filled.  For just as, if you would fill a bag, and know how great the thing is that shall be given, you stretch the opening of the sack or the skin, or whatever else it be—you know how much you would put in, and see that the bag is narrow—by stretching you make it capable of holding more.  So God, by deferring our hope, stretches our desire; by the desiring, stretches the mind; by stretching, increases its capacity.  Let us desire therefore, my brethren, for we shall be filled.”

Lent 1-2

The Chair of St. Peter the Apostle

The Chair of St. Peter the Apostle
1 Peter 5:1-4  +  Matthew 16:13-19
February 22, 2021

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven ….”

Peter is one of those saints so important to the life of the Church that he has more than one feast day during the year.  Today is the feast of “The Chair of St. Peter the Apostle”.

The chair is a symbol of authority.  Jesus refers to this in Matthew 23:2-3, when He commands and warns the crowd and His disciples:  “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.  Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.”  Of course, Moses must have had an awfully big chair for all the scribes and Pharisees to be able to fit into it… unless this “chair” is metaphorical, referring to the teaching and judging office that Moses held in the Name of God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus declares to Simon:  “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”.  The name that Jesus gives to “Peter” is a second metaphor for an office of teaching and judging, but to drive the point home, Jesus uses a third metaphor by speaking of the “keys of the kingdom of Heaven”.

The “power of the keys” is used in many ways:  some are specific to the Office of Peter (that is, the papacy), while others are shared with those ordained to priestly ministry (for example, the Sacrament of Confession).  Jesus mediates the grace of His Death and Resurrection to us through the ministry of mere human beings.  These human leaders of the Church have been chosen by God, and so we pray for them, that they might always be faithful ministers of God’s grace.

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Saturday after Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:9-14  +  Luke 5:27-32
February 20, 2021

Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.

During Lent, any time that you hear the word “way” you ought to think of the Via Dolorosa:  the “Way of Sorrows”.  This is the way from the city of Jerusalem to the top of the hill of Calvary, where Jesus’ feet and wrists were nailed to a cross.  For the Jews in ancient days, Jerusalem was the greatest city on the face of the earth.  It was as close to Heaven as you could find on earth.  Little wonder, then, that the city of Jerusalem was often used in the Scriptures as a “type” or symbol for Heaven.  This is where the phrase “the heavenly Jerusalem” comes from.

Jerusalem was so great a place that anyone who resided there would rarely leave it.  If they did, it would only be for a serious reason.  But to go outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and travel up to the hill of Calvary in order to be crucified:  there was a particular shame in this.  Going outside of Jerusalem to be killed by the state was symbolic of being an outcast in death.

So you can see how this way—the Via Dolorosa—was not only a way of sorrow, but of shame as well.  No wonder that most of the apostles weren’t willing to walk the Way of the Cross behind their Master.

But this is the “way” that the Psalmist foreshadowed:  “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.”  It is a way of contradiction, because it leads from a city of life, power and strength, to a barren hilltop of death, weakness and impotence.  It is not a way that any right-thinking person would want to go, if he learned about what’s important from the teachers of this world.

But Our Lord has a unique way to teach us:  a way that we learn only in the process of following Him.  This way leads to mercy, forgiveness and—through mercy and forgiveness—divine love.  For all the times that we are tempted by our culture to cultivate bitterness, anger and resentment against those who have hurt and harmed us, Our Lord invites us to follow Him along a different way.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Friday after Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:1-9  +  Matthew 9:14-15
February 19, 2021

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit ….

Both John the Baptist’s disciples in the Gospel Reading and the house of Jacob in the First Reading are thoroughly focused upon themselves.  The people of the house of Jacob seem to be fasting as a way of gaining leverage in their negotiations with God.  John’s disciples want to know why Jesus’ disciples don’t have to fast in the same way they do.

In both readings God is trying to make clear what the purpose of fasting (or, in fact, any type of penance) is.  On the surface, when we fast we are imitating Christ, who fasted for forty days in the desert.  Whenever we carry out works of penance by denying something we want, we are imitating Christ who denied his own life for our sake.

But on a deeper level, through our penance we are clearing out our souls.  We are clearing out of our soul those desires which serve only ourselves.  The more and more we remove these desires, the more room there is in our soul for the desires of God, the fruit of which are the works that He wants to accomplish within us and through us.

Lent is about preparing our souls to accept the Cross of Christ in our own lives.  When we seek to follow in the footsteps of Christ, we ourselves are led to Calvary, where with Mary and the apostle John we gaze upon our God who died for us.  At the foot of the cross we learn humility and gratitude for the sacrifice Christ made on the Cross for us.