Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

When it comes right down to it, we have a choice. We can choose life or death, blessing or curse, the way of the Cross or the way of the world. The choice that we make has huge consequences, eternal consequences. The stakes are big ones, and we must choose wisely.

Many of us can probably recall some point in our lives where we had to make that choice of what we were going to do with our lives, what we wanted to be when we grew up. That choice can be so confusing, so painful, so difficult to make. When it finally worked for me was when I finally gave it over to God and asked that he challenge me in a big way. That’s when I felt the call to go to seminary, which really surprised me, and I really resisted that at first. But when I finally gave in, when I finally decided to do what God asked me to do, the choice was much easier. We all need that kind of guidance from the Holy Spirit, and that’s what gets us through those difficult choices in our lives.

The command from Deuteronomy is clear: “Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.” The way of the Lord is life-giving, the way of the world is death. The way of the Lord is blessing, the way of the world is curse. The passing pleasures of the world are nothing compared to the eternal pleasures of God’s way. The trials we may experience in this life when we choose to follow God are passing things, and give way to great grace and peace.

Jesus asks us today to make a choice to take up our crosses and follow him. That’s not always so appealing on a day-to-day basis. There is great suffering in the cross. But, as he says, what profit is there for us if we gain the whole world but lose our very selves? Blessed, the Psalmist tells us, is the one who walks in the way of the Lord and follows not the counsel of the wicked. May we all this day choose life, that we and our descendents might live.

Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings [from the Ash Wednesday Service of the Word]

Behold: now is the acceptable time!
Behold: now is the day of salvation!

We have come here today for all sorts of reasons. Lots of us may still have the remnants of old and bad teaching that you have to come to Church on Ash Wednesday and receive these “magic” ashes or something horrible will happen to you. When you don’t come to Church on a regular basis, you lose contact with God and the community, and yes, that is pretty horrible, but not in a superstitious kind of way – nothing that we celebrate here is magic. The real reason we come to Church on this the first day of Lent is for what we celebrate on the day after Lent: the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday. Through the Cross and Resurrection, Jesus has won for us salvation, and we are the grateful beneficiaries of that great gift. All of our Lenten observance, then, is a preparation for the joy of Easter.

Lent calls us to repent, to break our ties with the sinfulness and the entanglements that are keeping us tethered to the world instead of free to live with our God and receive his gift of salvation. Our Church offers us three ways to do that during Lent. First, we can fast. We can give up snacks, or a favorite food, or eat one less meal perhaps one day a week, or we can give up a favorite television program or activity. Fasting helps us to be aware of the ways God works to sustain us when we’re hungry. The lack of television provides us with a silence that can be filled by God’s presence. The whole idea of fasting is that we need to come to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide, and to cut our ties with anything that keeps us from God.

Second, we can pray. We already must pray every day and attend Mass every Sunday, not to do so is seriously sinful. But maybe Lent can be the opportunity to intensify our prayer life, to make it better, to make it more, to draw more life from it. Maybe we are not people who read Scripture every day, and we can work through one of the books of the Bible during Lent. Maybe we can learn a new prayer or take on a new devotion. Maybe we can spend time before the Lord in the Tabernacle or in adoration, especially during our 40 hours devotion we’ll have next week. Maybe we can just carve out some quiet time at the end of the day to give thanks for our blessings, and to ask pardon for our failings. Intensifying our prayer life this Lent can help us to be aware of God’s presence at every moment of our day and in every place we are.

Third, we can give alms or do works of charity. We can save money for Operation Rice Bowl, or perhaps help to provide a meal at Hesed House, or join the St. Vincent dePaul Society. Maybe we can devote some time to mentoring a child who needs help with their studies, or volunteer to help in our school or religious education program. Works of charity might be a family project, perhaps volunteering at a soup kitchen together, or shopping together for items to donate to Loaves and Fishes. When we do works of charity, we can learn to see others as God does, and love them the way God loves them and us.

And none of this, as the Gospel reminds us today, is to be done begrudgingly or half-heartedly. None of it is to be done with the express purpose of letting the world see how great we are. It is always to be done with great humility, but also with great joy. Our acts of fasting, prayer, and charity should be a celebration of who God is in our lives, and a beautiful effort to strengthen our relationship with him.

It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty day retreat that will bring us all closer to God. May we all hear the voice of the prophet Joel from today’s first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart!”

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In our first reading today, we have an instruction on the virtue of integrity. Integrity is that virtue by which we show that we are who we say we are, that we are in our secret moments what we are in our public ones, that we walk the walk and talk the talk. Our first reading speaks of the blessings of a life of integrity: “Compassionate and merciful is the LORD; he forgives sins, he saves in time of trouble and he is a protector to all who seek him in truth.” Seeking the Lord in truth is the cornerstone of integrity, because to be people of integrity we have to find him in the simplicity of our hearts.

Integrity requires steadfast faith and careful study: “incline your ear and receive the word of understanding, undisturbed in time of adversity.” If we seek the Lord’s will and open our minds and hearts, we will receive that will in God’s time. Exposing our hearts and minds to Scripture and meditation will allow God to form us in his ways.

Integrity requires patient acceptance of our station of life: “Accept whatever befalls you, when sorrowful, be steadfast, and in crushing misfortune be patient…” Being people of faith is easy in good times, but being people of faith in hard times requires character, and allows God to hone that faith to be a source of real strength.

Integrity requires trust in God: “Trust God and God will help you; trust in him, and he will direct your way…” Trust is following God, not knowing where he will lead you, but knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that wherever he leads you will be for the greatest possible good.

Integrity requires humility too, as the apostles found out when they reached Capernaum. It doesn’t take any integrity to declare oneself the greatest, it requires integrity to know that any greatness that we might have is really a sharing in the awesome greatness of our God.

The Psalmist instructs us today: “Commit your life to the Lord, and he will help you.” May that commitment be a commitment to integrity and a sharing in the life of God.

St. Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

Today’s readings

St. Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the apostles. He is known to have accompanied St. Ignatius of Antioch to Rome to confer with Pope Anicetus concerning the celebration of Easter, which was quite a controversy in that time. He was known to be a man of faith and wisdom, that wisdom of which our first reading speaks: “He has poured her forth upon all his works, upon every living thing according to his bounty; he has lavished her upon his friends.”

It was wisdom that allowed him, at the age of 86, to accept martyrdom with the peace of a life lived with integrity and in the faith of Jesus Christ. Having been placed in the pyre for his execution, he prayed: “I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among these in Your presence this day, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as You did prepare and reveal it beforehand, and have accomplished it, You that art the faithful and true God. For this cause, yea and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest, Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, through Whom, with Him and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and ever and for the ages to come. Amen.”

It is said that the flames did not even scorch him, that instead they formed a dome around him, and from it there was a pleasing aroma, like fine incense. He was later executed by being thrust through with a lance, with the praise of God on his lips. I’m not sure I could do that! Like the demon in the Gospel reading that could only be expelled by prayer, a martyrdom that horrible could only be accepted with prayer. And the glory that comes from that sacrifice is life eternal in the kingdom of God. The Wisdom of God leads us to prayer today; may that prayer bear fruit in our lives beyond anything the world can offer us.

Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the graces that I have here at the parish is that whenever I go to parish meetings, we always pray through the Gospel for the coming Sunday and discuss it. The Spirit works through the community, and more often than not, I’ll start thinking about the readings in a different light than I might have all by myself. This week I met on Monday with the finance committee, and so as we prayed through this Gospel, I had my finance committee thinking cap on. So my first thought was, well, the place where Jesus is meeting is too small by far, so we’re going to have to initiate a building campaign, and that’s going to be a lot of work. The second thought was, great, they’ve cut a hole in the roof and now we have to pay to have that fixed! I did not share those thoughts out loud and, thankfully, the Spirit was working in the folks on the committee, who expressed much more pious thoughts!

There’s a lot of paralysis going on in these readings. In the first reading, it’s the whole nation of Israel that is paralyzed. They are in captivity in Babylon, and their oppression is pretty cruel. They longed for God to come and rid them of their exile, as he had when they were slaves in Egypt. Where are God’s mercies of the past? When will their exile come to an end? Isaiah speaks to them words of consolation today. God will not just lead them back to their land, making a way through the desert and a river through the wasteland. But he is also doing something new: he will deal with the root cause of their paralysis: sin. It was sin that led them into slavery in Egypt, it was sin that led them to captivity in Babylon. So if they are to be truly freed, truly healed of their paralysis, they need to be forgiven of their sins. And it is only God who can do that, so he takes the initiative to do that new thing among them. Praise God!

The paralysis in the Gospel is more literal, but also works on the figurative level here too. The center of attention might seem to be the paralytic, but really it’s Jesus. Jesus has the crowds captivated, preaching words that have them spellbound. So much so, that he can hardly move, for all the crowds around him! Seeing this, the paralytic’s friends take bold action: they haul him up onto the roof, make a hole in it, and lower him down, right in the midst of Jesus and his hearers. You have to imagine that the crowds are on the edge of their seats – except there probably wasn’t room for any chairs – and they were just waiting with eager anticipation to see what Jesus would do now. Who could heal a paralytic? Jesus speaks curious words: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” – What on earth can that mean? Who has the audacity to say he can forgive sins? Why doesn’t he just heal the man as the man had hoped for?

But Jesus is doing something new too. These last several weeks, we have been hearing about Jesus healing all sorts of people, including a leper just last week. And through it all, he’s been telling them to keep it quiet – not that they did! – because he wasn’t healing people just be known as a wonder worker. He’s trying to get at the root cause of the people’s paralysis, the real disease and not just the symptom. And that disease is, of course, sin. “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Those are the words he speaks to the paralytic, because he insists on healing the man from the inside out. The physical paralysis was nothing, the really paralyzing thing was sin. Sin paralyzes us all from time to time. It affects our prayer life, our vocation, our relationships. It holds us back, it keeps us from moving on to what God intends for us. When we are paralyzed by sin, nothing good can come to us, nothing good can even be seen in us or by us. Sin is quite literally deadly. And so, yeah, Jesus can heal a man’s paralysis, but whoa, he can even heal the sinfulness of the whole human family. Now that’s a wonder worker! Healing the world of sin was the whole reason for Jesus being here in the first place. Praise God!

We are here today on the precipice of a new season of the Church year. This Wednesday is the beginning of our Lent, the beginning of that time of year when we all have the opportunity to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. It’s a forty-ish day retreat for us; we can take stock of those sins that have held us back, and bring them to our Jesus who came that they might be blotted out. And we know that, as good as our lives tend to be, as faithful as we try to be, we have, on occasion, blown it, both individually and as a human family. We have missed opportunities to be of service. We have held on to grudges and past hurts. We have broken relationships through the distractions of lust in its many forms. We have taken what belongs to others, maybe not giving an honest day’s work for our pay, or taking credit for work that was not ours. We have stolen from the poor, either by not making an effort to reach out to them, or by wasting resources. We have deprived God of the worship due to him, either by missing Mass for yet another soccer game, or by being inattentive at Mass or forgetting our prayers. We have taken the lives of others by allowing abortion to continue its pandemic spread through the world, or by not caring for the sick, or by allowing racial bigotry to go unchallenged. We have dishonored our parents and ancestors by allowing the elderly to die alone, or by allowing the cost of health care to be beyond what people can pay. You get the idea – our personal and communal sins have been myriad, and they have paralyzed us for far too long.

But our Lent is a gift to us. Our ashes remind us that we will not live forever, so the time to open ourselves up to change is now. We will have these days to concentrate on fasting, almsgiving and prayer. This is a gift, but also a responsibility; it is likewise sinful to ignore the opportunity completely. Our fasting might be food, or it might be something else that consumes us, like television or the internet. Our almsgiving can consist of any or all of the traditional ways of time, talent, and treasure. Our prayer can be communal or personal, devotional or reflective, whatever it is that is going to lead us face-to-face with Christ. This is also a time to rid ourselves of the sin that binds us, to hear those wonderful words spoken to us as well: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” We have so many opportunities planned for the Sacrament of Penance, that if you cannot find a time to go to Confession, you’re just not looking hard enough!

But if it’s the length of time since you last received that sacrament that is paralyzing you, then you need to hear what I always tell people about the Sacrament of Penance: Don’t let anything stop you. When you go into the confessional, tell the priest: “Father it’s been years since my last confession, and I might need some help to do this right.” If he doesn’t welcome you back and fall all over himself trying to help you make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and go find a priest who is more welcoming. Because it is my job to help you make a good confession, it is my job to make sure the experience is meaningful for you, it is my job to make you want to come back, and I take that very seriously. I know that Fr. Ted does too.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that you cannot let anything stop you from being healed of what paralyzes you. If need be, make a hole in the roof so that you can end up right at the feet of Jesus. Lent is our gift from God, that opportunity that he initiates to do something new among us. Let’s not ever turn away from that gift. Our staff had a retreat day this week, and in it we heard these words from the Rule of St. Benedict which I think tell us everything we should learn from today’s Liturgy of the Word: “Let no one follow what he thinks profitable to himself, but rather that which is profitable to another; let them show unto each other all … charity with a chaste love. Let them fear God, … and prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He bring us all together to life everlasting. Amen.”

Saturday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” The writer of the letter to the Hebrews sums up for us this notion of faith, which can be so difficult to wrap our minds around. What I love about the definition of faith that comes to us in this passage is that it seems to be telling us what we at some level already know: faith is a heritage. The passage speaks of the faith of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, all stories we can readily read in our Old Testament, stories of men who had to really take a leap of faith because what they hoped for was unseen. Only God could fulfill all their hopes and longings.

The same, of course, is true for us. We are living in difficult times. There is uncertainty in the economy to the point that probably none of us can say that we don’t know someone affected by layoffs, devalued stock, or a dwindling economy. There is uncertainty in the world, with wars being fought almost everywhere we can think of, and especially our own men and women fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our own state has political issues to the point that it’s hard to know which politicians are honest and which are not, and we almost hate to turn on the television and hear of how deep the scandal has grown. We have our own personal family uncertainties, maybe loved ones are sick, or are suffering from depression. Maybe relationships are strained.

For all of us who live in these uncertain times, Jesus offers us hope. We get a glimpse today at what we hope for and cannot now see: Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James and John. This is a foretaste of the glory of the Resurrection, a glory that Jesus knew when he rose from the dead, and a glory that we yet hope for. It’s not pie in the sky: we know that our promise in Christ is greater than any of the difficulties our time can bring us. We know that faith is our heritage, and that that faith has led all of our forebears through times as difficult or more difficult than this. Today, we have the promise of things hoped for and evidence of things unseen: Christ is our hope, yesterday, today and for ever.

Thursday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In the aftermath of the great flood, what’s left is what God wants us to know is important: life. Life is the way we participate in the essence of our Creator God. And that life is so important that absolutely nothing could completely blot it out – not even the waters of the flood. What humankind had done to bring on the flood was not enough for God to allow that deed to completely blot out all life from the face of the earth. Indeed, God preserved life in the Ark so that, even in its impure and imperfect state, it could be brought to perfection in these last days.

These last days came about through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. What the flood could not wash away was cleansed completely by the blood of the Lamb. Unfortunately, Peter and the Apostles did not yet understand that. Jesus rebuked Peter not just because he was slow to get the message, but more because his kind of thinking was an obstacle to the mission. The mission is about life – eternal life – and nothing must interfere with it.

We are the recipients of the command to be fertile and multiply. This command is not just about procreation of life, but also about life in the Kingdom of God. It was always God’s plan that we would not only populate the earth, but populate heaven as well. That’s what we were created for, and that’s why God would sooner allow his Son to die on the cross than live without us. That’s what that rainbow sign of the covenant was about – when we see one, may we remember the love of God.