Ash Wednesday

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

“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 Eighth Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
1 Peter 1:10-16  +  Mark 10:28-31
March 1, 2022

“Many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

St. Mark the Evangelist doesn’t offer details about Peter stating that Jesus’ disciples have given up everything to follow Him.  But Jesus surely reads Peter’s heart before replying.  Jesus is speaking to us disciples in the 21st century, as well.  He offers a direct explanation of the logic of discipleship, and then sums up His teaching with a brief saying that we can meditate upon at length.

Is there some regret in Peter’s heart as he lays bare the sacrifice he’s made to follow Jesus?  Jesus explains that both in this world and the next, a disciple’s sacrifice bears fruit.  In “this present age”, material sacrifices are compensated by the superabundance shared in by the church.  All the more, “in the age to come”, eternal life with Jesus is the consequence of following Him.  Jesus’ logic lays bare what St. Francis of Assisi expressed in his canticle:  “It is in giving that we receive, and in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Jesus gives us a brief saying to sum up the logic of discipleship.  “Many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  This seems to respond to Peter by saying:  love your God and neighbor first, and your neighbors will care for your earthly needs, and God will care for you eternally in His love in Heaven.

Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
1 Peter 1:3-9  +  Mark 10:17-27
February 28, 2022

“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!”

Why is it hard “for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God”?  The Church does not teach that human wealth is evil in and of itself.  While some mistakenly think that Scripture says that money is the root of all evil, the correct quote from Saint Paul is that “the love of money is the root of all evils” [1 Timothy 6:10].

Nonetheless, that begs the question:  what is it about the love of money that turns the wealthy away from the Kingdom of God?  The Church teaches that pride is chief among the seven “capital sins”.

The “love of money”, then, must directly relate to pride.  Human wealth tempts the wealthy person to sin against both God and neighbor:  against the former because the wealthy person is tempted to feel no need for God; against the latter because the wealthy person is tempted to feel superior to the neighbor with less human wealth.  Money is enticing because so many different things can be possessed and accomplished by it.  But as with every material thing, money is meant to offer the Christian opportunities to serve both God and man.

Saturday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Saturday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time [II]
James 5:13-20  +  Mark 10:13-16
February 26, 2022

“Let the children come to Me; do not prevent them ….”

Today’s Gospel passage immediately follows yesterday’s in Mark.  In yesterday’s passage Jesus spoke the truth that marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power, because through God’s power, husband and wife “are no longer two but one flesh” [Mk 10:8].  In today’s passage Jesus becomes indignant and declares:  “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Is it a coincidence that this passage immediately follows Jesus’ teaching about the sacred integrity of Marriage?  The Church has taught for some two thousand years that openness to the begetting and rearing of children is integral to the growth of every marriage:  the intentional exclusion of this goal dissolves the integrity of the particular marriage.

Some might say that these two Scripture passages should not be linked.  Some might say that the point of today’s passage is that each Christian is called to be “child-like”.  In any case, marriage between two persons truly in love with each other and with God will bear the innocence and love for life seen in the child-like.

Friday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Friday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time [II]
James 5:9-12  +  Mark 10:1-12
February 25, 2022

“So they are no longer two but one flesh.”

Today’s Gospel passage (corresponding to Matthew 19:1-9) is the springboard from which Saint John Paul II began his series of reflections titled “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body”.  This revolutionary series is often commented upon, but rarely read itself.  Even less often read are the words of Jesus at the end of today’s Gospel passage.

Divorce is commonplace in our society.  Many see it as a “necessary evil”, while others see it as a positively good choice or option.  However, Jesus is very clear.  Divorce from a valid marriage and subsequent remarriage is morally equivalent to adultery, with the difference that while adultery is a mortally sinful act, remarriage after divorce results in a mortally sinful state of life.

Nonetheless, Jesus puts this condemnation within a positive context.  He explains why marriage cannot be dissolved by any human person.  To claim the power to dissolve a marriage is to claim power over God.  To claim this power is to deny the essence of marriage:  that two have become “one flesh.”

The Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]

The Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Sirach 27:4-7  +  1 Corinthians 15:54-58  +  Luke 6:39-45
February 27, 2022

“Remove the wooden beam from your eye first ….”

When you make your nightly examination of conscience, and prepare monthly for the Sacrament of Confession, there’s a simple way to recollect yourself.  After all, if it’s been a long day or an even longer month, you might feel unsure how best to assess your efforts—and failures—to live your life in Christ.

This simple means of self-recollection is to remember that all the commandments of the spiritual life converge in Jesus Christ.  What does this mean?  Back up a minute and look at the bigger picture of the Ten Commandments.

Remember that God inscribed the Ten Commandments upon two tablets.  One tablet bears the first three commandments, which teach us how to love God.  The other tablet bears the latter seven commandments, which teach us how to love our neighbor.  All the commandments converge in Jesus because Jesus alone is both God and man.

In other words, to love Jesus as God is to fulfill the first three commandments.  If we do this authentically, then we love God the Father and the Holy Spirit with Jesus.  Likewise, to love Jesus as a fellow human is to fulfill the latter seven commandments:  if we do this authentically, then we love all our neighbors in Him.  This isn’t to say that we don’t at times need to focus our love specifically upon God the Father and the Holy Spirit, or upon individual neighbors.  But all of our loves, and all the ways in which we love, converge in Jesus Christ.

This Sunday’s Gospel passage offers a concrete example.  The imagery with which Jesus preaches seems only to be about loving our neighbor:  specifically, a sinful (“blind”) neighbor.  But since the two great commands of Jesus—to love God fully, and to love our neighbor as our self—converge in Him, we are not to look down on our sinful brother, but rather to look up at him.

Looking up to our sinful brother is possible by means of the Christian virtue of humility.  Christian humility is in one sense nothing more than honesty.  Both my brother and I are sinners.  We are equal in this.  But Jesus calls me to serve my brother as if I were serving Jesus Himself.  For this reason, from my state of sinfulness, I look up at my sinful brother.  From this stance, I may help him remove the splinter from his eye.

But how can I see Jesus in a sinner?  Jesus, of course, never sinned, yet God the Father “made [Jesus] to be sin”—in the phrase of St. Paul [see 2 Corinthians 5:21]—so that in my sinful brother I can see Jesus as the one whom I am to serve.

We think of Jesus carrying the Cross so that each of us can love God more easily.  Not as often, likely, do we think of how Jesus carrying the Cross can help each of us love our neighbor more easily.

Consider humility from a different perspective.  After all, it’s easy to be humble before God.  God is the Almighty Lord, eternal and all-knowing.  I, on the other hand, am a sinner whose failures show me every day how weak and ignorant I am.

The latter seven commandments can be more demanding, for we often convince ourselves that we don’t “owe” anything to our neighbors, least of all our love.  But the love who is God can reach down into the human will and conform it to His divine will, so that the human person loves as Jesus loves from the Cross.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “Charity means pardoning the unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all.” On Calvary, Jesus sacrificed His Body and Blood, soul and divinity not only for His Blessed Mother, the Beloved Disciple, and St. Mary Magdalen. He just as willingly sacrificed His whole self for those who nailed Him to the Cross, beat the crown of thorns into His Sacred Head, and scourged Him at the pillar.

All of the commandments of the spiritual life converge in Jesus Christ.  Jesus reveals to us the love who is the Most Blessed Trinity, and through Jesus we share in that love.  Jesus reveals to us who man is called to be, but Jesus also through His vocation reveals the depths of human sinfulness, and through His love we embrace the sinner in Christ crucified.

Thursday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Thursday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time [II]
James 5:1-6  +  Mark 9:41-50
February 24, 2022

You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.

Today’s First Reading from the Letter of James makes the apostle sound like an Old Testament prophet.  While St. James is eminently practical throughout his letter, today’s passage focuses squarely on a condemnation of wealth.  More specifically, the apostle condemns those who “have stored up treasure”.  He makes clear that this wealth belonged to those who labored on behalf of the rich one.

St. James uses an ironic metaphor in taking aim at the wealthy.  He warns them:  “You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.”  He is comparing them here to the fattened calf, which in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is sacrificed for the penitent sinner, the son who turns back to his merciful father.  They do not realize that their indulgence is preparing them for the slaughter of eternal punishment.  St. James’ warning is a call to repentance:  to convert from being the fattened calf to being the penitent son.

By contrast, “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”  He will be their defense on the Day of Judgment.  This is the Father of the repentant because He is the Father of “the righteous one” who on His Cross has won the victory for the repentant.

St. Polycarp, Bishop & Martyr

St. Polycarp, Bishop & Martyr
James 4:13-17  +  Mark 9:38-40
February 23, 2022

If the Lord wills it ….

Today’s First Reading from the Letter of James focuses our attention on a single phrase that we could profitably reflect on throughout this entire week.  St. James encourages his listeners to preface any announcement of their future plans with the phrase, “If the Lord wills it….”

This is a simple phrase.  But we tend today not to prefer what is simple.  We think that complexity is somehow part of everything that’s successful.  Perhaps such thinking is a variation on the false idea that “more is better”.  The more plans we have, surely the more we will accomplish in life.  Don’t we tend to believe that accomplishments are the goal of our life on this earth?

“If the Lord wills it…” we need to do it.  If the Lord wills a course of action for us, then He is with us in its accomplishment.  Indeed, it is He who accomplishes it, with us as His “accomplices”, or perhaps better, the instruments in His Hand.  If the Lord does not will a course of action, we ought to ask if we are wasting our time.

The middle temptation is to think that the Lord does not really care how we lead our lives, or what courses of action we take.  But when we realize the depth of our Lord’s love for us, we cannot fail to recognize the extent of His direction for our lives.  When we realize this, discernment becomes more important to our earthly lives.

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, 2022

“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.

Perugino_Christ_handing_keyes_to_st_peter detail