The Third Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny I: Give Us Living Water

Today’s readings

Note: This homily was for the Mass at which the RCIA Elect were present for the First Scrutiny, so particular readings are used for that.

What is it going to take to quench the thirst that you have right now?

We’re lucky; we live in a part of the world where we can reach for all sorts of things when we’re thirsty. There is soda of all kinds, beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages, and all kinds of hot drinks like coffee and tea. But not all of them are appropriate all the time. For example I love coffee, tea and occasionally a good glass of wine. But after I’ve exercised or done some kind of strenuous work, or walked outside when it’s hot, none of those things can help me. In those moments, I need a cold glass of water. Our bodies are made up largely of water, and so when that level is low, there’s only one thing that can quench our thirst.

So again, what is it going to take to quench the thirst that you have right now?

There’s a lot of water in today’s Liturgy of the Word. The Israelites, near the beginning of their forty year journey through the desert, are beginning to miss some of the comforts of home, like water! So when they complain to the Lord, he gives them water in the desert. And let’s not downplay this: it’s pretty amazing – they had water in the desert! And in our Gospel today, our Lord stops along his own journey to get a drink of water from the Samaritan woman – and this whole interaction is less about Jesus’ physical thirst than it is about other kinds of thirst in the story – but more on that in a bit.

We always have to think about why the Church is giving us these particular readings on this particular day. Why is it that we have part of the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert in our first reading, and the rather strange story of the interaction with the woman at the well in the Gospel today? Well, (no pun intended) whenever there’s this much water being mentioned in the readings, we need to think of a particular sacrament, and that sacrament of course is Baptism.

Now maybe it makes a little sense. We have our Elect with us today, and they are preparing to receive baptism at the Easter Vigil. But even that’s not the whole story. Because this reading is for all of us. Lent itself is about baptism, and even if we’ve already been baptized, there’s still work to do. We are still being converted to become more like our Lord every day of our life. That’s what Lent is all about – getting back on the path and going a little farther forward. Lent points out for all of us that we’re still thirsty.

So again, what is it going to take to quench the thirst you have right now?

For the Israelites, it’s hard to know what was going to help them. They’re just at the beginning of their journey and already they’re complaining. They get thirsty and the first thing they do is complain – notice carefully, they complained, not prayed – and tell Moses that they’d rather be back in Egypt in slavery than out wandering around in the desert with nothing to quench their thirst. And it’s not like the slavery they experienced in Egypt was a minor inconvenience – it was pretty horrible and if they missed their quota even by a little bit, they were severely beaten. But sometimes it’s better the devil you know: sometimes we get stuck on what we’ve become used to and have given up yearning for something more.

For the woman at the well, there’s a lot stacked against her and there is no reason Jesus should have been talking to her. In fact, the disciples, when they return and witness it, aren’t really sure what they should make of it. Because in that culture, nobody talked to Samaritans – it would be like striking up a casual conversation with an Isis member. And for a man to speak to an unaccompanied woman was unthinkable. But Jesus knew she was thirsty – see it wasn’t about his thirst at all, rather, as Saint Augustine tells us, Jesus was thirsting for her faith.

It’s a pretty weird conversation, to be honest. But in talking about her five previous husbands and the Samaritans’ practice of worshipping on the mountain, Jesus was pointing out how her own search for something to quench her thirst was so far pretty futile. She was looking for love in all the wrong places. The five men she was married to represented a history of failed attempts at finding love. And the guy she was shacked up with now represented the fact that she’d pretty much given up any hope of ever finding true love. But the fact that Jesus knew all this without her saying a word about it woke her up a bit. And so then they go on to talk about how the Samaritans worshiped. They were looking for God on the mountain, but the thing is, the God they were looking for is the same Love that she had been searching for in her relationships, and he was standing right in front of her now.

So what is it that is finally going to quench the thirst you have right now?

Are you going to stay in the slavery of your former way of life, or do you want to journey on to the Promised Land? Are you going to continue to be content with failed or broken or impure relationships, or are you going to refresh them with Living Water? Are you going to continue to leave God up on that mountaintop where he doesn’t get in the way of your daily life, until you need something? Or are you going to look him in the eye and ask him to give you what you really need so you’ll never thirst again?

Because for the Israelites, it wasn’t really water they needed. They needed a renewed relationship with God. And the woman at the well didn’t need those guys who weren’t leading her to right worship. She needed Living Water. In fact, she became so convinced of it that she left her bucket behind – that bucket that symbolized her former way of life.

We’re all on a journey. The journeys of our Elect don’t end at the Easter Vigil when I pour water over their heads – it just starts there. All of us together are journeying on to the Promised Land of eternal life. And the only way we’re going to get there is by drinking deeply of the Living Water and allowing the One who gives it to us to lead us. And to get started on the journey, we’re going to have to leave Egypt, and our buckets, behind.

Saturday of the Second Week of Lent: He Welcomes Sinners and Eats with Them

Today’s readings

That Jesus would welcome sinners and eat with them is obviously a huge deal.  There was thought that associating with sinners made one complicit in the sin; so the audacity of such an action was sinful in and of itself, at least as far as the religious leadership was concerned.  But as an act of mercy, it’s grace unlike anything else.  And the significance for us is understandable.  Jesus still welcomes sinners and eats with them.  If that were not true, none of us would be here for the Eucharist today, would we?

Something that often gets overlooked in this very familiar parable is that both of the sons are sinful.  It’s obvious that the youngest is sinful: taking half of his inheritance before his father is even in the grave, living a life of dissipation and sexual excess, using up all that money in a short time, content to eat among the swine which no good Jew would even think about touching, and finding himself very, very broken.  But the so-called good son is sinful too.  On his brother’s return, he refuses to go into the house to welcome him back, and takes his father to task for showing mercy and love.  In the Gospel, failure to forgive is itself sinful.

Both sons are sinful in their own way.  Both need the father’s love and mercy and forgiveness.  And both receive it.  Far from the way a proper Jewish father would act, he runs out to meet both sons where they are.  Protocol would have them come to him, and not he to them.  But he comes out twice: once to meet the younger son who is on the way back to him, and once to meet his older son who refuses to come in.

There is often discussion on where we find ourselves in this very familiar parable.  Are we the sinful son?  Are we the good son?  Are we the father?  It probably depends on the day – we might be like all of them at one time or another.  I don’t think that’s what matters here.  What matters is that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them – in our case, feeding us with the finest bread and wine which are of course his very own Body and Blood.  Without this grace, we would have no life – salvation would only be a pipe dream.  But because this grace is very real, we have the opportunity to gather here at the Table of the Lord, and one day, please God, at the great heavenly banquet.

Praise God today for his forgiveness, mercy and grace.  Praise God that he welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

I’m going to say something that is probably going to make you think I’m wrong. And that is that the great sin of the rich man was not the sin of neglecting poor Lazarus. Sure, that was certainly bad, but his greatest sin, I think, was that he trusted in himself instead of in God. That’s the deadly sin of pride, and the Fathers of the Church often tell us of the devastating effects of it. So for the rich man, well he had everything he thought he needed in life, and he trusted in himself and in his own means to get it. But he never had a relationship with God; he didn’t see that as something he needed. You don’t see him praying in the story or even giving thanks to God for his riches. All you see is him doing is enjoying what he has amassed, to the neglect of the poor.

So later on in the story, in death, he wants the good things God will provide for those who trust in him, people like Lazarus for example.   Lazarus has suffered much, and as the Old Testament Prophets proclaim, God is especially close to the poor and needy, so now he is exalted. But the rich man isn’t. He has already made his choice, and unfortunately now, trusting in himself doesn’t bring him anything good.

So the problem with this is that we are often the rich man and not so much Lazarus. We have a lot of stuff, we are blessed on earth more than most of the people in the world today. But sadly that often puts us at odds with the things of heaven. We can’t reach out for those when we’re holding on to the passing things of this world. We can’t take the hand of Jesus when we’re juggling the stuff life throws our way. That’s why fasting is so important during Lent, as well as almsgiving: both bid us let go of passing things so that we can have, like Lazarus, things eternal. Both bid us trust in God, not in ourselves and other human beings. Jeremiah says it plainly today: “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” But, conversely, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD.”

So the question is, in whom do we trust? In ourselves? In other people? Or in God? “Blessed are they,” the Psalmist says today, “who hope in the Lord.”

Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

These readings for the weekdays of Lent are especially challenging, aren’t they?  They’re supposed to be.  They speak of what it means to be a disciple and take up the cross, and they speak of it with urgency.  We have to be willing to have our whole world turned upside-down; to do something completely against our nature; to let God take control of the life we want so much to control.

“For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”  I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty ominous to me.  Because there have been plenty of times when I’ve failed to give someone a break.  The measure I sometimes use ends up being a bar set pretty high, and I would sure hate to have to leap over that bar myself.  But that’s what Jesus is saying we will have to do.

The real measure of compassion is the compassion of God himself.  He is our model, He is the measure for which we are to strive, His example is how we are to treat each other.  But when we do that, it means we can’t judge others harshly.  It means that we have to see them as God does, which is to say that we have to see Jesus in them and to see the goodness in them.   And that’s hard to do when that person has just cut you off in traffic, or has gossiped about you, or has crossed you in some other way. But even then — maybe especially then — we are called to stop judging others and show them the compassion of God.

“Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins.”  That is the prayer of the Psalmist today.  We are given the promise of forgiveness, but we are also warned that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven either.  The measure with which we measure will in turn be measured out to us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to try real hard to give people a break today.

Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent / Saint Patrick

Today’s readings

I used to be upset that Saint Patrick’s Day always happened during Lent.  I’d have to postpone the celebration of my favorite saint until Sunday, especially if it fell on a Friday, because we just didn’t have corned beef on Friday, you know.  But as I’ve grown older, I appreciate that Saint Patrick’s Day is in Lent, because I think Saint Patrick has a lot to say to us about Lent.

Lent, is a time of conversion and renewal of faith.  Saint Patrick’s life was one of conversion.  He wrote about that in his famous Confession, which was a work that talked all about his life of faith.  Listen to what he said at the beginning of it:  “And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance.  And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”

And so we have here a great story of conversion.  Because we are sinners too, right?  I think that it’s so important for us to see that the great saints didn’t start out that way.  They were sinners, but they just kept on trying to be better, to be holier, to come to know and love God more.  Saint Patrick writes of an unmentioned sin, dating from before he was ordained, even before he was living a Christian life.  The sin was apparently known to a friend of his – a friend who lobbied for him to become a bishop, and then later betrayed him to his superiors.  Patrick had long since moved on from where he was at the time this sin was committed, he is an older man now, looking back on the mistakes he made as a youth, and not bearing any ill-will toward those who would rub his nose in it, he thanks God for the strength he has since gained: “So I give thanks to the one who cared for me in all my difficulties, because he allowed me to continue in my chosen mission and the work that Christ my master taught me.  More and more I have felt inside myself a great strength because my faith was proven right before God and the whole world.”  It’s just like what we heard from Ezekiel in today’s first reading: If the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die. God wants us to turn back to him, always.

Saint Patrick had to weather so many storms in his life. He was kidnapped and enslaved, he worked in mission territory among people who at times were hostile to the Christian way of life, he was betrayed by a friend and besieged by fellow clergymen who were jealous of the success of his ministry and critical of the way he did it.  But through it all, he was grateful for the power of God at work in him.  The faith that led him to be that way was nourished on a strong friendship with God.

One of my favorite things that we have from Saint Patrick is known as the “Lorica” or “Breastplate” prayer.  Some say he didn’t actually write it, but I think he did, because it was the kind of thing that he would have written, given the faith that he had. It’s a great prayer of deliverance from evil and reliance on the power of God:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through the confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the Judgment Day.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of demons,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

What a wonderful prayer, a prayer that we would recognize Christ in every part of our day, no matter how little or big a thing we are doing. That we would recognize Christ in every person in our lives, and that we would recognize Christ wherever we are.

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

If we take one thought out of Lent, it should be this: we need a Savior.

Even before Jesus’ time, Esther knew this. Esther’s adoptive father Mordecai was a deeply religious man. His devotion incurred the wrath of Haman the Agagite, who was a court official of King Ahasuerus of Persia. Mordecai refused to pay homage to Haman in the way prescribed by law, because he felt that it was idolatry. Because of this, Haman developed a deep hatred for Mordecai, and by extension, all of the Israelite people. He convinced King Ahasuerus to decree that all Israelites be put to death, and they cast lots to determine the date for this despicable event.

Meanwhile, Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, is chosen to fill a spot in the King’s harem, replacing Queen Vashti. Esther never had revealed her own Israelite heritage to the King. Mordecai came to Esther to inform her of the decree that Haman had proposed, and asked her to intercede on behalf of her own people to the King. She was terrified to do this because court rules forbade her to come to the king without an invitation. She asked Mordecai to have all of her people fast and pray, and she did the same. The prayer that she offered is beautifully rendered in today’s first reading.

Esther knew that there was no one that could help her, and that it was totally on her shoulders to intercede for her people. Doing this was a risk to her own life, and the only one that she could rely on was God himself. Her prayer was heard, her people were spared, and Haman himself was hung from the same noose that had been prepared for Mordecai and all his fellow Israelites.

God hears our own persistent prayers. We must constantly pray, and trust all of our needs to the one who knows them before we do. We must ask, seek and knock of the one who made us and cares for us deeply. But most of all, we must always be aware that like Esther, we all need a Savior.

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

The prophet Isaiah and Jesus speak today about the great power of words. Isaiah speaks specifically of the power of God’s word, a word that will not return empty but will go out and accomplish the purpose for which God sent it.  We see the word that the prophet speaks of here, of course as the Word – with a capital “W.”  That Word is Jesus Christ who comes to accomplish the salvation of the world, the purpose of God ever since the world’s creation.

The prayer that Jesus gives us today, the classic prayer that echoes in our hearts in good times and in bad, is a prayer with a specific purpose in mind.  That prayer, if we pray it rightly, recognizes that God’s holiness will bring about a Kingdom where his will will be done in all of creation.  It begs God’s forgiveness and begs also that we too would become a forgiving and merciful people, just as God is merciful to us.  Finally, it asks for help with temptation and evil, something with which we struggle every day.

Today’s readings are a plea that God’s will would finally be done.  That his Word would go forth and accomplish God’s purpose.  That his will would be done on earth as in heaven.  As we pray those familiar words, they can often go past us without catching our attention.  But today, maybe we can slow down just a little, and pray them more reflectively, that God’s will would be accomplished in every place, starting in our very own lives.

Because to God belongs the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever.

Monday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

People often balk at the mere suggestion of being called to personal holiness.  Oftentimes, this is wrapped up in a misplaced and false humility, that kind of humility that says that since I’m good for nothing, and so there is no way I can even come close to being like God.  Yet the fact of the matter is that we are made good by our Creator God who designed us to be like himself, perfect in holiness.

And if that seems too lofty to attain, Moses and Jesus spell out the steps to getting there today.  Clearly, personal holiness is not simply a matter of saying the right prayers, fasting at the right times, going to Church every Sunday and reading one’s Bible.  Those things are a good start and are key activities on the journey to holiness, but using them as a façade betrays a lack of real holiness.  Because for both Moses and Jesus, personal holiness, being holy as God is holy, consists of engaging in justice so that hesed – the Hebrew word meaning right relationship and right order – can be restored in the world.

Every single command we receive from Moses and Jesus today turns us outward in our pursuit of holiness.  Our neighbor is to be treated justly, and that neighbor is every person in our path.  Robbery, false words, grudges, withholding charity, rendering judgment without justice, not granting forgiveness and bearing grudges are all stumbling blocks to personal holiness.  All of these keep us from being like God who is holy.  And worse yet, all of these things keep us from God, period.

The law of the Lord is perfect, as the Psalmist says, and the essence of that law consists of love and justice to every person.  If we would strive for holiness this Lent – and we certainly ought to do so! –  we need to look to the one God puts in our path, and restore right relationship with that person.

The First Sunday of Lent: Remember Who You Are

Today’s readings

It’s really easy for us to forget who we are. That’s what all that tempting in the desert was all about. The devil wanted Jesus to forget who he was, what he came to do, and so then have power over him. He would have Jesus forget that real hunger is not satisfied by mere bread, but must be satisfied by God’s word. He would have Jesus forget that there is only one God and that real glory comes from obedience to God’s command and from living according to God’s call. He would have Jesus forget that life itself is God’s gift and that we must cherish it as much as God does.

And he wants us all to forget that stuff too. During this time of Lent, these 40 days in the desert for us, the devil wants us to forget that we can give up things we don’t truly need and depend on God to give us that which is so much better. He wants us to forget that we can give sacrificially to those in need and depend on God to satisfy our own needs. He wants us to forget that time spent in prayer is not a waste of time, that making time for God helps us to make time for everything important.

But just as Jesus didn’t forget who he was, we can’t forget either. We can take comfort when we are tempted because we know our Savior was tempted too. We can take courage in the desert, knowing that we don’t have to be out there all alone; that our Savior is there with us, giving us strength and example and direction.

This Lent needs to be first and foremost a remembering of who we are, so that we can be all that God wants for us. If we can accomplish that in these forty days, we will certainly attain an Easter of unending joy.

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