Fourth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings
[These readings were used for the Mass of the Second Scrutiny.]

When Dad was alive, we pretty much couldn’t go anywhere with him and not have him find someone there that he knew. He’d been a softball coach for over 25 years, had been a catechist at church, and helped with the youth retreat for many years. So it often seemed like he knew everyone everywhere we went. Sometimes it was kind of annoying, to be honest. We had a schedule, but he had to stop and catch up with whoever it was he recognized. To us, they were all strangers, but to Dad, they were so-and-so’s brother, or the girl he coached fifteen years ago, or the son or daughter of someone he knew from church. Not only that, but Dad was able to see in them talents or gifts that they sometimes didn’t know they had. He brought out the best in those he coached, and after he died, many people told us how he encouraged and challenged them to do wonderful things. We knew he did those things for us, of course, but to know how he saw great things in others was a real blessing.

Dad had the kind of vision that God wanted from Samuel in today’s first reading. It’s easy to get caught up in seeing people from the outside, but God’s vision goes way beyond that – to the heart, to what makes the person whole and holy. Eliab was the logical choice for king of Israel. He was strong, mature, and good-looking; he would be charismatic enough to lead the people. But that’s not what God was looking for. He was looking for a man with a good heart, and David was that man. He too made a “splendid appearance” but that appearance went through to the core of who he was, and that was the vision God had for Israel.

Today’s readings are filled with images of vision – blindness and sight, light and darkness. And it’s our second reading today that points to the problem: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Notice how it does not say “You were once in darkness” – no, it says, “You were once darkness.” We were once darkness itself, plagued by the darkness this world can so often bring upon us, engaging in the darkness that keeps us from seeing the heart of others but instead keeps us focused on their outward appearance or first impression. But, as that line also points out, we have the antidote – we have the Lord who makes us light – and not just people in the light, but people who are light itself. This is the crux of what the scriptures are getting at today.

The vision theme is really played out in today’s Gospel reading. We have here the man born blind, and his healing. So I imagine you’ll all be surprised to know that this story is not about the healing of the blind man. Sure, that’s how it looks on the surface, but just like Samuel, we are being called to look a little bit deeper. Yes, Jesus heals a blind man. He does that rather quickly, actually, like in the first minute of the story. Then we spend all the rest of that story standing there listening to something else. And that something else is the real story here – that something else is the healing of the formerly-blind man’s darkness from the inside out.

Notice the progression. He is sent to Siloam to wash and on coming out, he can see. He then is questioned by the people who knew him as a blind man about whether he was in fact the man who was blind. He replies “I am.” Then he has this to say about Jesus: this man called Jesus restored my sight, but I don’t know where he is now. Simple as that. Later he is questioned by the Pharisees, and when they suggest Jesus is a sinner because he does not respect the Sabbath, the blind man rejects this and says “he is a prophet.” He is questioned a second time by the Pharisees, and this time he goes a little further, he suggests that he is a disciple of Jesus, and when he meets Jesus after being thrown out of the synagogue, makes a beautiful confession of faith and says, “I do believe, Lord.” His faith has grown from being in total darkness, to recognizing Jesus as a man who healed him, to seeing him as a prophet, to acknowledging him as Lord and God. He has grown in his faith.

So that, I would suggest, is the real story here. We have a story of a man who has grown in his faith. Just like last week, if you came to the nine o’clock Mass, we had the story of the woman at the well. It wasn’t just a story about a woman who gave Jesus a drink of water. It was a story of a woman who came to know Jesus more deeply, and realized that she was really thirsting for that living water that only Jesus can give.

There are a couple of details in the story of the healing of the blind man that are worth noticing. First, he is sent to the pool of Siloam to wash the clay off of his eyes. So the detail here is that there is water involved. Whenever we see water mentioned in the Scriptures, it usually reminds us of a certain sacrament – what sacrament is that? Right, baptism. So what’s involved here is a baptismal moment, in which a man who was formerly plagued by darkness is now redeemed and re-created and comes to new life and light through the sacramental remedy of baptism. The name of the pool – “Siloam” – is significant. We are told that it means “sent.” So by washing in the pool of Siloam, the man receives baptism and is then sent forth into his true vocation. This is a mirror of our own baptisms in which the blindness that we are born with is washed away in the pool of baptism and we are sent forth to be people of light.

The second little detail is the answer the man gives when he is first questioned by those who used to know him as the blind man. He is asked whether he is indeed the man who was born blind, and he says, “I am.” That probably is a familiar Scriptural phrase for you. Because whenever you hear it, it’s always in reference to God. When Moses asks God who he should say sent him to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, God says, “tell them I Am sent you.” In the Gospel of John, the phrase “I am” is used many times, but only by Jesus and in relation to himself. Except for this one time. Here it is used by the man re-created from darkness to light. Why would that be? Well, nothing in the Gospels is ever an accident, so we can dismiss that thought – it’s certainly no mere coincidence.

What I think it means is that this man is presented now as another Christ, who has been healed and forgiven and converted from darkness to light and now sent into the world to witness to his faith and draw others to faith in God. And here, then is the real story, finally. The story is about all of us. We are the “other Christs” who are washed clean and recreated from darkness to light in baptism, and are called on to deepen our faith throughout our lives, and to spread the light to every corner of the dark places in which we live. We have to be people who reject the devil’s darkness: we have to reject seeing and labeling people in negative ways, reject racism and hatred, reject violence, terrorism, war and crime, reject the idea that life is expendable, we have to simply reject the darkness this world calls us to in all its forms. We have to go to the pool of baptism and allow God to recreate us as people of light.

We do this together with our Elect, those who will receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist at Easter. As they come before us for the second scrutiny today, we reflect on the darkness in our own lives and we set it before the One who is light itself, the source of the light that we receive at baptism, and we renew our pledge to be the “other Christs” who will spread the light in our world – in our workplaces, our schools, our communities, wherever it is that God puts us. Because God intends to recreate those places, and all the people who are in them, with his wonderful light as well.

Physical blindness isn’t nearly as destructive as the blindness that comes from stubbornly resisting the light. There is no sin in physical blindness. But we cannot – indeed we must not – remain as the Pharisees, saying “we see just fine, thank you.” That is the way sin remains. Just like the man born blind, we have to acknowledge our own darkness in order that it would be exposed to Christ’s wonderful light.

Solemnity of St. Joseph

Today’s readings

Today, of course, we celebrate the feast of St. Joseph, husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus Christ. He is the patron saint of fathers, of workers, and of the Church. Obviously, he was a very special man. It wasn’t happenstance or an accident that he was put in this very special role. He was, of course, of the line of David, but he was also chosen to be the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus for a reason.

In Joseph, we see so many wonderful virtues. We see righteousness. He was a devout follower of the law. Even his initial unwillingness to take Mary into his home shows that he was a man who walked in the way the Law taught. But righteousness means more than that. It means following whatever way puts us in right relationship with God and others. His righteousness went beyond mere observance of the Law, and followed in the way God laid out for him, as uncertain as that must have been.

In Joseph, we see justice. He was a hard worker, and a skilled carpenter. He obviously gave what his customers asked, or he wouldn’t have continued in business for very long. He was also just in his dealings with Mary, accepting her into his house because of God’s command.

In Joseph, we see faithfulness. He practiced his faith and was obedient to God. He protected his family from hardship and oppression, and evil intent. He raised his Son and taught him the Law. He was faithful to Mary.

The real gift of this celebration of St. Joseph is that he is a great model for our faith. Men particularly don’t often have role models of faithfulness and righteousness, but in St. Joseph we have all of that. Joseph is the patron of fathers and of workers for a reason: in him we see both of those vocations raised to glory because St. Joseph was a man who lived his faith in all of his life.

When we find faithfulness difficult, we have Joseph to look to for help. Through his intercession, may our work and our lives be blessed, and may we be found faithful to the word of the Lord.

Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Do you ever wonder if it could be said of our nation, “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people?” The scriptures today make it clear that it is by following the commandments of the Lord that a nation will be judged as wise and intelligent. Part of that is because great laws are common sense: they are part of the social contract by which we must live if our society is to continue. So we can’t condone murder, theft, or anarchy, or there won’t be a society to live in, much less a society to be judged as wise and intelligent.

But today’s scriptures seem to require more than just mere observance of the social contract. Following the Lord’s laws requires that we care for the most vulnerable among us, including the unborn, the poor, the marginalized, the stranger, the widowed, and all those who are forgotten. We must care for them, because God certainly cares for them, and he will judge us as a nation on how we have observed these commandments.

Even laws do not free the faithful from observance of the commandments. One cannot break a commandment to avoid breaking a law. And one clearly cannot teach others to break the commandments for any reason. The Divine Law is the foundation for all other law, and is the basis of our judgment. Today’s readings are clear: if we are to be judged wise and intelligent, if we are to inherit everlasting life, we must live the Lord’s commandments and teach others to do the same.

St. Patrick, Bishop

Gospel Reading: Matthew 25:31-45

“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.”

These are the words St. Patrick uses to begin his famous Confession, something many saints have done. But perhaps none of them has done so in the same style as St. Patrick, he using rather rudimentary Latin to write the work, and being much more brutally honest than you’ll see from most other works of confession. What you get from St. Patrick’s Confession is the life story of a man who was completely taken by love of God and dedication to his mission.

And, honestly, that he took up the mission at all is a little bit of a miracle. Having been brought to Ireland originally against his will, and finally having been delivered from it, one would think that he would be content to spend his days nearer to his family – who missed him terribly and feared for his life – but that’s not what he did, of course. He didn’t even harbor any bitterness against his first, indentured stay in Ireland. He writes: “Believe me, I didn’t go to Ireland willingly that first time – I almost died here. But it turned out to be good for me in the end, because God used the time to shape and mold me into something better. He made me into what I am now – someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care about others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.”

I think what is compelling for me – maybe for most of us – in the story of St. Patrick is that it is a story of conversion. He writes of an unmentioned sin of his youth, dating from before he was ordained, even before he was living a Christian life. The sin is known to a friend of his – a friend who lobbied for him to become a bishop – who later betrayed him to his superiors. Patrick has long since moved on from where he was at the time this sin was committed, he is an older man now, looking back on youthful indiscretions, 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.”

So many of us can look back on the sins and indiscretions of our youth too. That Patrick could do it with gratitude in his heart for the strength God had given him is an example for all of us, a grace that we could all long for especially in these Lenten days of repentance.

Another thing that comes through so clearly in the Confession is, of course, Patrick’s love for the Irish people and dedication to his mission: “How wonderful it is that here in Ireland a people who never had any knowledge of God – who until now have worshiped idols and impure things – have recently become a people of the Lord and are now called children of God. You can see that the sons and daughters of Irish kings have become brothers and virgins for Christ.” He is in awe of the work God has done among the people since he has given himself to ministry there.

And the thing is, he could have walked away from Ireland all those years ago and never looked back. Who could have blamed him for distancing himself from the land where he was enslaved, and nearly died? But in the faces of the people of Ireland, he saw the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill and imprisoned, and would not walk away. Instead, as the Gospel today directs us all, he ministered to their needs, as far as we know, until his dying day.

Dedication to the mission is something I always admired in Fr. Mike O’Keefe. He told me often that being a priest was the only thing he ever wanted to do. And he served Christ and his people well in over fifty years of priesthood. I’ll never forget when I wanted to tell him that I was finally going to seminary after many years of his encouragement. I called to make an appointment – which he couldn’t do for three weeks. So, of course, he heard about why I was coming to talk to him in the meantime. When I got there, he said, “I think I know why you’re here, because I had lunch with our vocation director last week. But I’ll let you tell me!”

During that conversation, he talked about his coming here from Ireland to go to seminary. He went to Mundelein Seminary, where I would be going all these years later. “It was a prison!” he said. Despite that rather dubious encouragement, he wrote a letter of recommendation for me that the rector of the seminary told me was the most beautiful of those letters he remembered reading in all his years of evaluating applicants to the priesthood. Fr. Mike’s continued encouragement of me through my seminary studies helped me to continue to long for the day when, well, when I’d be standing here. A few weeks before my ordination to the priesthood, Fr. Mike asked me to be the deacon for his 50th Anniversary Celebration. Then, just a few weeks later, he was present for my ordination and First Mass. I was so honored to celebrate that time with him.

Fr. Mike was a gentle, Irish soul who encouraged so many in the faith during his time as a priest. He tried to get me to come to this Irish Mass in the years that I was ordained, to celebrate with him. I had parish duties that kept me away, unfortunately, but he was able to get me here by a little gentle prodding from heaven, and I’m so honored to be here to celebrate my favorite saint, and to celebrate a man who did so much to encourage my vocation.

St. 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. He’d hear nothing of us showing up here once a year for an Irish Mass. Instead, he’d have us celebrating our Irish heritage through daily communion with our God who longs to bless all our days.

Some say St. Patrick never wrote his famous “Breastplate” or “Lorica” prayer. Maybe not, but I tend to think it’s the kind of thing he would have prayed, every morning, to remind himself of the source of his blessing, to call on God’s protection, and to prime himself to look for Christ in every person:

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 the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

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.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
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.

Amen.

Third Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings
[N.B. This homily was given for just the Mass where the Scrutiny was done with the RCIA Elect; readings for other Masses were different.]

The flu has been making its rounds in our area, as you probably know. We’ve had dozens of school kids out, and plenty of staff members too. This week was my turn, and I hope it doesn’t return any time soon – I’m still feeling the effects of it. But when it was at its worst, I was trying to drink a lot of fluids, which is pretty much the only thing you really can do when you have the flu. So I drank a lot of water, but as time went on, I got sick of drinking a lot of water. I know it doesn’t taste like anything, but I got sick of the taste of water! So I supplemented it with tea, of course, but I even gave myself permission to do something I don’t do very often, and that was to drink some soda – 7up mostly. And that tasted good, the 7up, but because it’s sugary, sooner rather than later I’d be thirsty again, and the only thing that really helped was – water. I drank a lot of water this week!

I thought about that experience as I was preparing today’s homily, because this set of readings, which are being used just for this Mass because of the Scrutiny we will pray in a few minutes with our RCIA Elect, these readings are all about water. Whenever we see this much discussed about water in the Sunday readings, we should always think of a certain sacrament. Guess which one? Right, baptism. And so we’ll talk about that in just a minute, but before we go there, let’s take a minute to get at the subject of thirst. That, after all, is what gets us to water in the first place.

6a00fad68ab80d00040109d0f54710000f-500piThe Israelites were sure thirsty in today’s first reading. After all, they had been wandering around the desert for a while now, and would continue to do so for forty years. At that point, they were thinking about how nice it would be if they had just remained slaves in Egypt so that they wouldn’t have to come all the way out here to the desert just to die of thirst. Better slaves than dead, they thought. The issue was that they didn’t have what they thirsted for, and had not yet learned to trust God to quench that thirst. So Moses takes all the complaining of the people and complains to God, who provides water for them in the desert. Think about that – they had water in the desert! And they had that water for as long as they continued to make that desert journey. They never ran out, they didn’t die of thirst, God proves himself trustworthy in a miraculous way. The end of the reading says they named the place Massah and Meribah because they wondered, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” Obviously, the answer was “yes.”

Which brings us to the rather curious story we have in the Gospel reading. If we think the story was all about a woman coming to get a bucket of water, then we’ve really missed the boat. This story asks us what we’re thirsting for, but at a much deeper level. Did Jesus really need a drink of water? Well, maybe, but he clearly thirsted much more for the Samaritan woman’s faith. Did she leave her bucket behind because she would never need to drink water again? No, she probably just forgot it in the excitement, but clearly she had found the source of living water and wanted to share it with everyone.

In the midst of their interaction, Jesus uncovers that the woman has been thirsting for something her whole life long. She was married so many times, and the one she was with now was not her husband. She was worshipping, as the Samaritans did, on the mountain and not in Jerusalem as the Jews did. And every single day, she came to this well to draw water, because her life didn’t mean much more than that. She was constantly looking for water that would quench her, and yet she was thirsty all the time. Kind of reminds me of having the flu.

And all of this would be very sad if she hadn’t just found the answer to her prayers, the source of living water. There is a hymn written by Horatio Bonar in 1846 called “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” that speaks to this wonderful Gospel story:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one,
stoop down and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.

Which is exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman. She drank of the stream of Jesus’ life-giving water, and she now lived in him. She couldn’t even contain herself and ran right off to town, leaving the bucket of her past life behind, and told everyone about Jesus. They were moved to check this Jesus out, initially because of her testimony. But once they came to know him as the source of life-giving water, they didn’t even need her testimony to convince them; they too lived in him now.

But remember that I said earlier that, whenever you see this much about water in the readings, the point is always baptism. And that’s what brings us here today. Lent, if we give ourselves to it, is totally about our baptism. For those among the Elect, that’s quite literally true. Our elect have been walking the desert journey to come to God’s promise just as the Israelites did. And they, like the Samaritan woman, have come to know the source of life-giving water. Just four weeks from yesterday, they will stand in that font outside in the narthex, and receive what they have been thirsting for all this time.

But the rest of us, too, find baptism in our Lenten journey. Lent, as is often pointed out, means “springtime” and during Lent we await a new springtime in our faith. We await new growth, we look for renewed faith, we recommit ourselves to the baptism that is our source of life-giving water. We have what we are thirsting for, and Lent is a time to drink of it more deeply, so that we will be refreshed and renewed to live with vigor the life of faith and the call of the Gospel. These Lenten days take us to Easter and beyond with water that we can pour out in every time and place where God takes us. The life we receive in baptism can revive a world grown listless and droopy and make it alive with springs of refreshment that can only come from the one who gives us water beyond our thirsting, that follows us in our desert journeys, that springs up within those who believe.

The Israelites wondered, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” As we see the waters of baptism refreshing our Elect, and as we ourselves are renewed in our own baptism, we can only answer that question with a resounding “YES!”

Saturday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

That Jesus would welcome sinners and eat with them is obviously a big deal in his day. 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. We take it on faith 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. 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. 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.

Much is often made 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 at the great heavenly banquet.

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

Friday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Jesus tells us today a parable about himself – he is the son whose inheritance the tenants wanted to steal. And that’s how the leaders of Judaism saw it in those days. If Jesus were out of the way, they’d still be able to “corner the market” on religious leadership, unchallenged by his Gospel. They’d have all the blessings of religious leadership all to themselves. Because no one likes a challenging messenger, the religious leaders no more than the parable tenants no more than Joseph’s brothers. But for those of us who stop to hear what they have to say, the blessing is more than we can imagine. Yes, they challenge us, but we never grow if we are not challenged. So the question is, who is the challenging messenger in our own lives, what is their message, and are we ready to hear it?

Thursday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes we can be such arrogant little creatures. We presume that the blessings we have now are due to our own wonderful merit, and forget all about the grace of God. So how often have we been like the rich man, sumptuously dining on the good things God has given us as if they were the fruits of our own creation, and ignoring all the while the Lazaruses at our door? Jeremiah makes it clear how welcome that kind of behavior is in the kingdom of heaven: “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” Blessed instead, the Psalmist tells us, are those who hope in the Lord. We should celebrate our blessings for what they are: gifts of God, gifts to be shared with those in need. “For the LORD watches over the way of the just, but the way of the wicked vanishes.”

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