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.

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

“Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.”

“Covenant”.  The secular world doesn’t use this word very much.  You might hear this word “covenant” used to describe homes in a gated community.  It’s called a “covenant community” to give an idea of the community’s exclusiveness and high standards.  But in the Bible, the word “covenant” refers to something very different.

In this Sunday’s Responsorial refrain, the Church sings:  “Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.”  When the Latin Bible translates this verse, it uses the Latin word testamentum for what we in English call a “covenant”.

Another place that Sacred Scripture uses that word is in Luke 22:20, a verse heard at every Mass.  In Latin, this verse quotes Jesus at the Last Supper saying:  “Hic calix novum testamentum est in sanguine meo, qui pro vobis funditur.”  In English, the same verse might be translated:  “This chalice is the new testament in my blood, which will be shed for you.”  At Mass, of course, the words we hear at the Consecration are:  “… this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

So there’s a close connection between the words “covenant” and “testament”.  But how can the English word “testament” help us to understand the meaning of the word “covenant”?  In the Old Testament of the Bible, God enters into several different covenants, including His covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and David.  But above all, when we reflect on the “Old Covenant” of the Bible, we’re talking most often about God’s covenant with Moses, and through Moses, with the People of Israel.

The Law of God in the Old Testament, which sets parameters or boundaries to living out this covenant, is the Mosaic Law:  the Law of Moses.  This “Old Covenant” was one of protection, by which God would show His fatherly love for His people.  Through this “Old Covenant” God drew His People together into one body, and promised to remain with them and to secure a place for them on earth.

As we reflect on this, we can hear some similarities between this “Old Covenant”, and what we live out as Christians in the “New Covenant”.  But there are substantial, dramatic differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament:  the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant”.

The more important difference between the Old and New Covenants concerns sin.  Through the Old Covenant, God expressed His fatherly love for His People.  Their sins were shown and pointed out to them, the way that a father is responsible for pointing out to his teenage son the son’s sins and failings, whether the son appreciates his father for doing so or not.  But this Old Covenant was also a preparation for the New Covenant.

A few Sundays ago in the Breviary, the Church prayed the words of St. Augustine, who in reflecting upon the Letter to the Galatians points to those Christians who “still wanted to be under the burden of the law.  Now God had imposed that burden on those who were slaves to sin and not on servants of justice.  That is to say, God had given a just law to unjust men in order to show them their sin, not to take it away.  For sin is taken away only by the gift of faith that works through love.”

Jesus established The New Covenant by means of His Death on the Cross.  In the Sacrifice of the Cross, Jesus took every human sin into Himself, such that He became sin, to use the phrase that Saint Paul used in the Second Reading on Ash Wednesday, where he tells us that “For our sake [God the Father] made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” [2 Cor 5:21].

Each Christian entered into this covenant at his or her baptism.  On Easter Sunday, we will renew the vows of this baptismal covenant.  On that morning, we will rejoice that Christ has given His life so that we can have a new life.  We will rejoice that because we give our lives to God, our lives have meaning:  a meaning that God will continue to reveal to us more each day, as we walk faithfully in the footsteps of our Savior.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Thursday after Ash Wednesday
Deuteronomy 30:15-20  +  Luke 9:22-25
February 18, 2021

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

There are three steps to Jesus’ counsel in today’s Gospel passage.  Jesus explains to us:  “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  Each of the three steps within this counsel is necessary to entering into the mysteries of Lent.  They are like three legs of a stool:  if you remove one leg, the stool will not stand.

Many Christians are willing to make sacrifices during Lent:  they are willing to deny themselves chocolate, or television, or even Facebook!  But Jesus says that to follow Him, we have to deny ourselves much more:  each of us has to deny his very self.  But what does this mean?

We can’t answer that question until we understand how we define the human self.  For many of us, our self is self-defined, because we believe in what the culture around us tells us about being a “self-made man”.  To experience deeper conversion in our lives, we have to allow God to define the terms of our lives.

But denying one’s very self is only the first step.  The second step is for the Christian to take up his cross “daily”:  not just during Lent; not just once you’ve got life figured out; but “daily”.  Crosses can come into our lives from many different places:  from our own foolish mistakes, from the evil choices of others, or from the loving and merciful will of a Father who knows what is best for us.  There are many situations in our lives as Christians that allow us to bring about goodness into this world, if only we are willing to bear our crosses daily.

The third step of the Lord’s command is to follow Him.  That is to say, we should recognize where the first two steps are leading us.  If we deny our very self, and take up our cross each day, then we are headed with Jesus to Calvary.  That’s where Jesus will lead us, if we follow Him.  We do not need to be frightened by this, because if—like Our Blessed Mother and the Beloved Disciple—we walk with Jesus to Calvary, He has promised that we will experience the joy of His Risen Life, a life which is deeper than any suffering, and everlasting.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-18  +  2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2  +  Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
February 17, 2021

“For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin ….”

One way to meditate upon the whole of Lent is to allow our Lenten journey—including our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—to be a means to enter into the priesthood of Jesus Christ.  Every baptized Christian shares in this priesthood, and the baptismal priesthood shapes every other call that God gives.

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, through 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 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 both together in Himself, where the former destroys the latter, for us men and for our salvation.

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time [I]

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time [I]
Genesis 6:5-8;7:1-5,10  +  Mark 8:14-21
February 16, 2021

He said to them, “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.  We see such a portrait in today’s Gospel passage.  This 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 ourselves, 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 as an analogy.  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 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, not with the leaven of the Pharisees, but with the leaven of the Eucharist.

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time [I]

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time [I]
Genesis 4:1-15,25  +  Mark 8:11-13
February 15, 2021

He sighed from the depth of His spirit and said, “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 show his recognition that even His divine words do nothing for one unwilling to listen in 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 both arms of Jesus’ Cross, which form His single command to His disciple to follow Him.  The horizontal arm is the call to love our neighbors as oneself.  The vertical arm is the call to love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind.  Living out the latter opens our hearts to further grace from the God who is love.  The Sign of the Cross is the sign that every generation needs to seek.

The selfishness of sin shows our need to cooperate with God’s grace to conquer the power of sin.  Sin is conquered first through faith, further through hope, and perfectly through charity.  We are invited to share in this perfect love of God through the Holy Mass.  When we are sent forth from Mass, we take and offer this same love to our brothers and sisters within our daily lives.

Saturday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time [I]

Saturday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time [I]
Genesis 3:9-24  +  Mark 8:1-10
February 13, 2021

Then, taking the seven loaves He gave thanks ….

That the miracle described in today’s Gospel account foreshadows the Sacrament of the Eucharist is clear.  What could get overlooked, however, is an action of Jesus only briefly described in the midst of this miracle.  The evangelist explains that “taking the seven loaves [Jesus] gave thanks, broke them, and gave them….”

Jesus’ act of giving thanks here is described by the evangelist with the Greek verb “eucharisteo”.  It’s from this word that the English word “Eucharist” derives.  Likely we think of the act of thanksgiving as being part of what the Eucharist is about, but it’s another thing to recognize that this most blessed of the Sacraments is named after the very act of giving thanks.

In contrasting the four most basic types of vocal prayer—petition, thanksgiving, contrition and adoration—thanksgiving is not the most selfless.  Adoration focuses more solely on God in His own goodness.  Thanksgiving regards what God has done for me, not for His own glory.  Nonetheless, without thanksgiving, we cannot advance to prayer of adoration.  Giving thanks for what God has done for one allows one to enter into the humility necessary for praying in adoration before God.

Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time [I]

Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time [I]
Genesis 3:1-8  +  Mark 7:31-37
February 12, 2021

… the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

The first chapters of the Book of Genesis are the first chapters of the Bible as the foundation of a house is its first layer.  They’re not just the first of many, but those on which the others rest.  These chapters offer keys which unlock the meaning of so many passages of Scripture that follow.

In the First Readings of today’s and tomorrow’s Masses, we hear of mankind’s Original Sin.  Today’s First Reading presents its commission; tomorrow’s, its immediate consequences.

We might reflect upon the fact that it takes six verses in this narrative before the woman commits the original sin.  Four things occur beforehand:  the serpent asks her a question; she responds; the serpent refutes her response; and the woman reasons her way to the commission of the sin.

Our own sins may not concern the eating of fruit, and a serpent may not be our tempter, but the dynamics between the serpent and the woman are key.  The serpent did not motivate the woman to act impulsively.  Rather, the serpent used (or rather, abused) reason to sway the woman’s intellect.  She freely choose to sin, believing entirely for herself that her sin was a good.  We ought to consider these five verses as a sort of examination of conscience for ourselves.

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46  +  1 Corinthians 10:31—11:1  +  Mark 1:40-45
February 14, 2021

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 the ordained 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 through their examples and 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” [John 17:20-21].

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.