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.

St. Scholastica

St. Scholastica, Virgin
I Kings 12:26-32;13:33-34  +  Mark 8:1-10
February 10, 2018

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 seven sacraments is named after the very act of giving thanks.

In contrasting the four 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 purely 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 grow in the humility needed to adore God authentically.

February 9, 2018

Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
I Kings 11:29-32;12:19  +  Mark 7:31-37
February 9, 2018

He ordered them not to tell anyone.

Perhaps the difficulty that many of us modern persons have with prayer is nothing more than the fact that we’ve forgotten how to have a conversation with anyone, much less with the Almighty.  In the Gospel today, we see Jesus take aside a man who is both deaf and mute.  Jesus heals him of his ailments.  Jesus tells those around them not to speak of the miracle.  But immediately, they proceed to do just that, and the more He orders them not to, the more they do it.  These people, maybe, are examples of what happens during our own prayer:  there is praise of God, words spoken about God, and even words spoken to God.  But all these words drown out Jesus’ demand to be silent.

The English word “obedience” comes from the Latin word which means “to listen”.  These people in the Gospel refuse to listen to what Jesus is telling them, and so, even in praising Jesus, they are disobeying Him.

In our prayer, in our conversation with God, we should listen at least twice as much as we speak.  More importantly, we should listen first, before beginning to speak to Him.  Silence, though, can be deafening.  Were we to stop saying what we want to say, we might lose control of the conversation, and there would be no telling what we might hear in that silence.  Perhaps what God has to say to us would be difficult for us to hear, and would demand self-sacrifice from us.

February 8, 2018

Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
I Kings 11:4-13  +  Mark 7:24-30
February 8, 2018

“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

St. Mark the Evangelist tells us that a Greek woman—that is, an outsider—came to Jesus and “begged” Him to help her daughter.  This woman, despite not being a Jew—despite not being among that people of the Covenant, who had been waiting for the Messiah to come—nonetheless cried out to Jesus for help.  But what happened when she cried out to Jesus for help?

Jesus essentially calls the woman and her daughter dogs!  He says to this outsider, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”  The “children” Jesus is referring to are the children of Israel, the ones the Father sent Him to teach, while this woman is an outsider, a “dog”.  But why is Jesus talking this way?

Scripture scholars tells us that our English translation “dogs” doesn’t fully capture what Jesus says.  The actual word is more gentle, and specific, meaning “puppies”:  something adorable, if pesky.  The woman’s response to Jesus shows that she knows what Jesus is up to, and is willing to play along.

God knows you better than you know yourself.  God demands faith from us, even when we believe we have none.  He is willing to “pull” our faith out of us—we might even say that He is willing to test us—in order to purify our faith.  Jesus knows what sort of faith this woman has.  He is willing to draw it out, because without faith on this woman’s part, He will not work a miracle.  Pray for the sort of confident faith that this woman has to banter with God and to recognize that your being an outsider is not an impediment to the grace God wishes to give you.

February 7, 2018

Wednesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
I Kings 10:1-10  +  Mark 7:14-23
February 7, 2018

The mouth of the just murmurs wisdom.

Today’s Responsorial comes from Psalm 37.  The refrain—“The mouth of the just murmurs wisdom”—is the beginning of one of the Entrance Antiphons for the first Mass from the Common of Doctors of the Church.  Such luminaries as St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas inspire us with their dedication to wisdom.  They sacrificed of themselves in order to be instruments by which God could communicate His wisdom to others.  How can we understand this refrain in regard to ourselves on this weekday in Ordinary Time?

One of the notable features of this passage from Psalm 37 is that it actually speaks more directly about the Lord than about “the just”.  Why is this?  The psalm makes it clear that the Lord is the source of all that is good in man.  The refrain demonstrates this:  the just man “murmurs wisdom” and “utters what is right” because the “law of his God is in his heart”.

This message from Psalm 37 stands in a certain contrast to Jesus’ words in the Gospel.  Jesus speaks at length, and quite unflatteringly, about what comes from “within the man, from his heart”.  He mentions 13 evils, though one gets the impression that He could just as easily have continued.  Here Jesus is describing the fallen human heart that does not have the law of God within.  Jesus wants us to realize our utter need for the law of grace if we are to transcend our fallen selves, and serve as instruments of God’s Wisdom.