Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent
Wisdom 2:1,12-22  +  John 7:1-2,10,25-30

So they tried to arrest him, but no one laid a hand upon Him, because His Hour had not yet come.

Today’s Gospel Reading might not seem very dramatic.  There is more said about Jesus than there is said by Him.  A good part of the reading is the evangelist describing Jesus’ moving about and avoiding conflict.  Yet the final sentence of this passage heightens the setting of all that is said and done here.

In the Gospel Readings this past Tuesday and Wednesday, we heard two reasons for His enemies to threaten Him.  Today’s passage sees Jesus acting and speaking in the face of this danger.  Yet despite attempts to arrest Jesus, “no one laid a hand upon Him, because His Hour had not yet come.”

This “hour” is key to St. John’s account of the Gospel.  The evangelist isn’t referring to a chronological hour of sixty minutes.  He’s talking about the point within human history when God will destroy the power of sin and death.  Each of the signs that Jesus works during the “Book of Signs” foretells the events of Jesus’ Hour, and all of His teaching describes His reason for undertaking His Hour out of love.

Crucifixion 8

The Fifth Sunday of Lent [C]

The Fifth Sunday of Lent [C]
Isaiah 43:16-21  +  Philippians 3:8-14  +  John 8:1-11

For His sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish ….

Lent focuses our attention upon human sin, but always against the backdrop of divine mercy.  Never think about your sins without first reflecting on God’s merciful love for you.  Likewise, never think of God’s love for you without also recalling the depths to which Jesus sank to pour that love into your sinful heart.

It’s in light of this two-fold perspective—human sin and divine mercy—that we listen to Saint Paul today.  In today’s Second Reading, St. Paul preaches to the Philippians about several stark contrasts:  about loss and gain; suffering and power; death and resurrection.  For example, he explains to them:  “For His sake I have accepted the loss of all things, and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him”.

In our ordinary lives, we tend to think of morality only in terms of good and evil.  That is the foundational distinction:  to do the good and to reject the evil.  If we don’t accept in our minds this most basic moral distinction and shape our choices accordingly, we have little hope of reaching Heaven.

However, that most basic moral distinction between good and evil is a foundation, on top of which we as Christians are meant to build.  St. Paul gives us tools to build our moral lives towards Heaven:  or as he puts it, “to continue [our] pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”

The challenge in rising to a higher level of moral growth is to be single-hearted in our pursuit of God.  To be single-hearted is—in the words of Jesus’ beatitudes—to be “pure of heart”.  Of course, some might assume that Jesus’ statement “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” [Mt 5:8] is referring to sexual purity.  In fact, Jesus is saying not only that, but much more as well.

When gold is tried in fire, impurities are burned away.  The gold becomes more pure, which is to say that it becomes more “gold-like”, which is to say that it becomes more itself.  It’s the same with an individual human person—such as yourself—when you purify your heart of foreign desires:  that is, desires foreign to the nature of the human heart.

In the language of the First of the Ten Commandments, when you purify your heart of “strange gods” (or “alien gods”), your heart becomes more pure.  Your heart becomes more “human-like”, which is to say that you become more who God created you to be.  It’s as simple as Saint Augustine’s famous confession to God:  “You stir man to take pleasure in praising You, because You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”

Of course, we’re tempted in the modern world to dismiss the First Commandment as irrelevant.  After all, who among us actually worships “alien gods”?  We’re not like the ancient Greeks and Romans who worshipped Aphrodite and Jupiter, Mercury and Athena.  So how can you and I usefully hold up the First Commandment before our lives, to see if our hearts are single-hearted:  that is, pure in being focused on God alone?

Before even answering, some might reply that it’s impossible for a regular Christian—who is married and has children—to be focused on God alone.  There are too many other things to worry about in life!  A similar reply might be made by a parish priest, who can hardly spend all day in prayer given his administrative responsibilities.  However, those replies would miss the point.  The First Commandment does not command us to be cloistered monks and nuns.

The First Commandment guides our lives in commanding that the whole of human life be held up to the light of God’s love.  This includes everyone and every thing in our lives.  It’s because created things are good that God wants them in our lives.

Every thing and everyone is meant to mirror God’s love to us, not to serve as a mirror in which we gaze on our own self.  This contrast is the contrast that Saint Paul draws in our Second Reading, between “the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus” and considering “everything as a loss”.  Accepting this loss as St. Paul encourages is how we build on the foundation of the moral life, upwards towards the life of God Himself.

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent
Exodus 32:7-14  +  John 5:31-47

“… these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.”

Jesus’ words today seem somewhat harsh, as they often seem in St. John’s Gospel account.  Jesus’ words to the Jews confirm that they are lacking in faith, unwilling to believe in the Good News that Jesus is preaching.  As we, the members of the Church, draw closer to Good Friday, we ought to ask whether we fully believe in the power of the Cross in our lives.  Do we believe that in suffering we can find redemption?  Do we believe that there is a meaning to all the suffering that we are constantly experience (often, of our own making)?

Jesus asserts that there is meaning in suffering, and that His Cross most perfectly reveals that meaning.  But to those with weak faith, Jesus’ words don’t suffice, so He offers four witnesses who testify to the Truth of who Jesus is.  John the Baptist, the miracles of Jesus, the Scripture, and God the Father each testify to what Jesus is saying, just as they will each testify to the sacrifice that Jesus will offer on Good Friday.  Saint John the Baptist, Jesus’ miracles, and the Scriptures all foretold the mystery that Jesus would in time reveal on the Cross, but it is God the Father Himself who will give ultimate meaning to the Cross.  The Father grants this meaning in raising Jesus from His suffering and death.

In saying all this in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is preparing us to receive the Eucharist:  that is, to share in the Sacrifice of the Cross sacramentally.  He knew that many people would reject His teaching on the Eucharist, and that in doing so they would be rejecting Jesus Himself.  In the Cross we find our redemption, and in the Holy Eucharist we have the opportunity to willingly and lovingly participate in Christ’s self-offering to the Father.  We must have the confidence that the Father loves us—his adopted sons and daughters—as He does His only-begotten Son.  In our own lives, we must have confidence that our sacrifice will be acceptable to God the Father.

Lent 4-4

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent
Isaiah 49:8-15  +  John 5:17-30

“Amen, amen, I say to you, the Son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing”.

In these latter weeks of Lent, each weekday’s Gospel passage comes from St. John’s account of the Gospel.  These are proclaimed in sequential order, but they’re not always consecutive:  each does not necessarily follow the previous day’s passage.  For example, this Thursday’s Gospel passage ends with John 5:47, the last verse of that chapter.  The following day’s Gospel passage begins at John 7:1.

However, there are days within these latter weeks of Lent when the Gospel passages are consecutive.  In fact, from Monday through Thursday of this fourth week of Lent, the Gospel passages immediately follow one after the other.  This is especially important to keep in mind regarding today’s Gospel Reading.  In fact, for the sake of appreciating the context of today’s passage, we ought to back up to the latter two verses of yesterday’s Gospel Reading.

After Jesus healed the man at the pool of Bethesda, the “man went and told the Jews that Jesus was the one who had made him well.  Therefore, the Jews began to persecute Jesus because he did this on a sabbath.”  That sheds light upon the first two verses of today’s passage:  “Jesus answered the Jews:  ‘My Father is at work until now, so I am at work.’  For this reason they tried all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but he also called God his own father, making himself equal to God.”

So in yesterday’s and today’s passages, we hear two rationales for the attempts made to kill Jesus, attempts that reach success in His crucifixion on Good Friday.  It’s easy for us to explain these rationales as false:  after all, Jesus as God is Lord of the Sabbath, and Jesus didn’t make Himself equal to God but was begotten by God the Father from eternity as His co-equal Son.

However, better than our explanations are Jesus’ own words.  St. John’s account of the Gospel is especially rich in Trinitarian doctrine.  Reflect, then, upon Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel Reading as a way for you, as one of the Father’s adopted children, to learn more about the Father who in all things wants to draw you closer to Himself.

Easter 5-5 Trinity Botticelli

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent
Ezekiel 47:1-9,12  +  John 5:1-16

Therefore, the Jews began to persecute Jesus because he did this on a sabbath.

It was divine love that moved Jesus to heal the sick man in today’s Gospel passage.  It was this love that motivated Jesus to risk incurring the wrath of the Jewish people by healing this man on the Sabbath.  Sadly, even the man who is healed by Jesus does not quite understand Him.  When the healed man is confronted by the Jews about the “inappropriateness” of this miracle being performed on the Sabbath, he does not give faithful witness to Jesus’ love for Him.  Instead, he lamely tries to pass the buck to Jesus so that he himself is not blamed.

The irony of these events is that there is no “blame” here, except for that manufactured by those who wish to condemn Jesus.  Nonetheless, this guilt, like the true guilt of all mankind, is passed on to Jesus, and He accepts it, for He can make all things new in Himself.  He can even use an occasion such as this to bring glory to God.

Saint John is not, in narrating this “third sign” of the Book of Signs, focusing upon a miracle of physical healing, though that is what this passage seems to be about at first glance.  Certainly the man in today’s Gospel passage is healed of his ailment.  But on the other hand he incurs a much more serious moral ailment in accepting false guilt for Jesus’ miracle and passing that guilt along to Jesus.

It is in the Temple that Jesus confronts this man for a second time—as He spoke twice to the royal official in yesterday’s gospel.  In the first encounter between these two men, Jesus speaks the truth but is not understood.  In the second encounter, something even more powerful takes place.  It is in the Temple—the scene of today’s First Reading—that Jesus speaks a much more important truth, reminding the healed man that he has sins that must be given up.

It was not for physical healings that Jesus came into this world.  The Word of God became flesh so that He could offer His Flesh and Blood on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins.

Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda

Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent
Isaiah 65:17-21  +  John 4:43-54

“Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.”

The Fourth Sunday of Lent—sometimes known by the Latin name “Laetare Sunday”—is roughly the mid-point of Lent.  Before this mid-point, at the weekday Masses of Lent the Gospel Readings are taken from non-sequential chapters among the first three Gospel accounts.  For example, on the first four days of Lent, the Gospel Readings are taken from Matthew 6, Luke 9, Matthew 9, and Luke 5, respectively.

During the Fourth Week of Lent, the respective Gospel Readings are taken from John 4, John 5, John 5, John 5, John 7, and John 7.  If you notice a pattern, you see what the Church is up to.  In fact, this pattern continues through Monday of Holy Week, when the Gospel Reading is taken from John 12.

How do these chapters—from John 4 to 12—prepare us for the sacred events of Holy Week?  Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel Reading offer a clue:  “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.”  Following the prologue of St. John’s Gospel account, the first half of the account is often called “The Book of Signs”.  In a better world, where people held stronger faith, signs and wonders would not be needed.  But with compassion for our human weakness, Jesus works signs throughout the chapters of John 4 to 12.  The signs point to an even greater work that Jesus will accomplish through the Sacred Triduum, which the Lord foretells in today’s First Reading:  “Lo, I am about to create new heavens / and a new earth”.

Lent 4-1

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent
Hosea 6:1-6  +  Luke 18:9-14

“… for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled ….”

Jesus cautions us in this morning’s Gospel passage.  Even as we pray to God, our words of thanks can easily turn in on ourselves.  The Pharisee did not give thanks to God for the gifts God have given him.  The Pharisee did not give thanks to God for the good that the Pharisee had been able to do for others.  The Pharisee gave thanks for himself, because in his own eyes he was “not like the rest of men.”

In the person of the tax collector, Jesus is teaching us of the primacy that humility plays in the spiritual life.  Before the tax collector can give thanks, he knows he must first beat his breast and ask pardon from God.  Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector realizes that he is just like “the rest of men”.  In humility he pleads God for mercy.

Through this parable, Jesus is teaching us a basic lesson about the spiritual life.  In his own person, however, he teaches us something even more important.  Jesus himself was not at first “like the rest of men”.  Rather, “for us men and for our salvation / he came down from heaven: / by the power of the Holy Spirit / he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”  Before he came down from heaven he was true God; after the Annunciation, He was both true God and true man.

Before we give God thanks for our salvation, we plead to Him for mercy.  But before we plead to God for mercy, we give Him thanks for having sent His sent to become human, to show us how to be humble.

Lent 3-6

The Fourth Sunday of Lent [C]

The Fourth Sunday of Lent [C]
Joshua 5:9,10-12  +  2 Corinthians 5:17-21  +  Luke 15:1-3,11-32

“But now we must celebrate and rejoice ….”

St. Thomas More wrote a work titled The Sadness of Christ in the Tower of London while awaiting execution.  In this work, he meditates on the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

St. Thomas More’s most striking question in this work concerns a contrast.  He contrasts the range of emotions that Jesus experienced during His Passion against the experience of many of the Church’s martyrs as they faced martyrdom.  Those holy martyrs joyfully rushed to their deaths, eager to be torn to pieces by lions or the like.

Jesus, on the other hand, felt “the most bitter feelings of sadness, fear and weariness in His mind”, St. Thomas More wrote.  Given this contrast, Jesus appears much weaker than the martyrs.  But how could Jesus—our Lord and our God—be less holy than His own saints?

The answer, of course, is that Jesus was not less holy than His saints.  The problem lies in our falling into the trap of thinking that feelings make one weak, or that some feelings are superior to others.  This trap is set for us all the time by movies and advertisements that present a false picture of human nature.

One falsehood that’s often presented about human life is that we’re meant always to pursue pleasure, and always to flee from suffering.  This is false.  In fact, to think that you’re always meant to pursue pleasure, and always to turn away from suffering, is a poison.  The Crucifix is its antidote.

Nonetheless, many people use this so-called “pleasure principle” to guide the decisions of their adult lives.  A famous example would be the Prodigal Son in today’s Gospel passage.  The difference between the Prodigal Son and so many of us today is that the son at last came to his senses.

Reflect back, then, on the contrast between Jesus in His Passion and those joyful martyrs.  The martyrs might seem more virtuous or holy than Jesus because of the positive emotions they experienced in the face of death.

But here you need to ask two questions.  Why did the martyrs experience joy in the face of death?  In turn, why did Jesus experience such seemingly negative emotions—and to such a profound degree—in the face of His death, so much so that He sweat blood?

Those joyful martyrs were given an extraordinary gift of grace.  Like all gifts that are given to saints, it was not given them only for their own sakes.  Their ultimate reward would come after death, not as they faced death.  Their gift of joy was given them so that their joy might inspire others who could see in their joy their faith in the power of Jesus over death.

So given that those martyrs received extraordinary grace, what can we say about Jesus’ sorrowful Passion?  Why did Jesus experience such “bitter feelings of sadness, fear and weariness in His mind”?

In the writings of the Church’s saints about Jesus, there’s an old saying:  “What was not assumed, was not redeemed.”  In the early Church there were heretics who promoted the false belief that Jesus was not a real human being, and the false belief that He had some human qualities but not a full human nature.

These heretics asked:  what would Jesus need with a human mind when He had divine, omniscient Intelligence?  What would Jesus need with a human will when he possessed the divine, omnipotent Will?  What need at all would He have to experience “negative” emotions?

To the contrary, the Church declared that Jesus had a full and complete human nature:  He possessed a human mind, will, intellect, and experienced the full range of emotions.  Had he not possessed these elements of human nature, they would not have been redeemed through His death and Resurrection.

Jesus could have chosen to experience the same joy as those martyrs who rushed to their deaths.  But Jesus chose instead to experience the emotions that you and I, poor ordinary sinners, feel when experiencing betrayal, torments, and suffering of all sorts.  Jesus chose to identify with us by experiencing our weakness.

The graces of Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection are manifold.  They not only have the power to aim and order our earthly lives towards Heaven.  They also have the power to bring about order within us.  The graces of Jesus’ Passion, death and Resurrection are the wellspring of every true and lasting joy in life.

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent
Jeremiah 7:23-28  +  Luke 11:14-23

“… whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Unity is one of the four marks of the Church.  When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we profess that the Church that Jesus founded is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.  Today’s Gospel passage speaks about the general sense of unity in an intriguing way, yet also in a way that we can apply to the life of the Church.

Jesus’ words today are intriguing because He directly contrasts His own followers and those who follow Satan.  Jesus rhetorically asks:  “if Satan is divided against himself,

how will his kingdom stand?”  If you’ve ever pondered the course of salvation history, you might have puzzled over why God has given to Satan such great reign over mankind.  Why does God allow Satan to exist at all, much less to have such sway over human lives and human history?

We may not know until the end of time all the reasons for God’s providential allowance of evil within this world.  Nonetheless, Satan and his legions are divided, for it’s in the very nature of evil and those who serve evil to be self-centered and incapable of working towards unity in any lasting manner.  God is one, and those who serve God and sacrifice themselves for His holy will will become, by His grace, united to Him.