Second Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

I think that two words sum up what we are being told today in our Liturgy of the Word: WAKE UP.  There is a lot of waking up going on: Abram falls into a deep trance and is enveloped in terrifying darkness, he then wakes up to see God ratifying the covenant.  The disciples on the mountain have fallen asleep as Jesus prayed, and they wake up to see our Transfigured Lord conversing with Moses and Isaiah – symbols of the Law and the Prophets.

We too are called to wake up.  We too have once been enveloped in a terrifying darkness. The light of the Gospel and the joy of the sacraments banishes that darkness, if we but move forward in faith. The problem is that so many times we get dragged back into that darkness. It’s so easy to return to sinful ways, bad habits, patterns of brokenness, the shame of addiction. We want what we don’t need. We seek easy answers rather than work through the tough times. We make Gods out of success, and money, and pleasure, rather than honor the God who compassions us through failure, poverty and pain. We see to all our own creature comforts with little regard for the poor, oppressed and marginalized. We return over and over and over again to the terrifying darkness of sin in thought, word, and deed. Lent reminds us that we cannot survive living that way. We must confess our sins and wake up to be children of light.

Waking up to the call of God in our lives, we are called to be light to others.  We have to be willing then to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  God’s compassion has been poured out on us so that we can then be compassionate to others. That compassion demands that we have concern for every person God puts in our path, that we take time out of our busy and hectic schedules to listen to a hurting coworker or look in on a sick neighbor. God’s love has been poured out on us so that we can love as he has loved us. That love demands that we discipline children with patience, that we honor and respect our parents, that we go the extra mile to share the gifts we have been given. We must wake up to live as God’s people.

We are a people who have been given so much. God has reached out to us in great love and mercy and has taken the initiative to form a covenant with us, first with the sacrifice of Abraham, and in the last days through the blood of Jesus, poured out on the altar of the Cross. We deserve none of this, because we as a people and as individuals have turned away from God over and over again. But over and over again, God has sung to our spirit, giving us grace, and called us to be sons and daughters of light. But we have to wake up and receive it.

Pastoral Care of the Sick: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s readings: Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12; Psalm 25; James 5:13-16; Matthew 8:5-17

I first met Tom probably a few weeks after I started my first assignment as a priest at St. Raphael’s back in the summer of 2006.  He was a young man, probably around my age, and was suffering the effects of cancer.  His family had called because he wanted to see a priest and I had gone to anoint him at the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital.  They didn’t think he was going to make it through the day, but just at the moment I got there, he had woken up and was talking to the family, the first time he had done that in a couple of days.  I waited a while, then went in to talk to him, and after a while I did what we’re going to do today: I anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord, praying over him, just as St. James tells us we should do in today’s second reading.

During the conversation with Tom and his family, I learned that one of Tom’s favorite verses of Scripture was Isaiah 53:5, which is right out of today’s first reading: “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.”  Throughout his illness, Tom, a man of great faith, had prayed the closing words of that verse – “By his stripes we were healed” – every day at 3:00, the traditional time when we believe Jesus gave his life for us, enduring stripes and torture and the agony of the cross to heal our brokenness and give us access to the kingdom of God.  He asked everyone he knew to pray for him in that way, and I promised I would do so.

I visited with Tom a couple of other times during his illness.  About a month after I first met him, Tom passed from this life to the next, right around 3:00 in the afternoon, just after praying those words that had sustained him during his illness.  In the homily at his funeral, I noted that there are all kinds of healing, and that I truly believed Tom had been healed in the greatest way that God can offer us, by bringing us to the Kingdom.  By His stripes, Tom had indeed been healed.  Tom was the first person I ever anointed and his was the first funeral I ever celebrated.  I’ll never forget what a faithful man he was, even during his most difficult days.

We gather together today to celebrate the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  The Church has this sacrament because of those directions from St. James: the sick are to call on the priests of the Church, and they are to anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer of faith, we are told, will heal the sick person, and the Lord will raise that one up.  And if the sick have committed any sins, they will be forgiven.

The Church has this sacrament also because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities.  He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt.  God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects.  This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

And we know that Jesus cared deeply for the sick and the suffering.  Large portions of the Gospel – including today’s Gospel reading – see Jesus caring for the sick, responding to their faith, healing them from the inside out.  The sick sought him out, they called out to him as he passed along the way, they reached out to touch just the tassel of his cloak, their friends brought them to Jesus, even lowering them down from a hole in the roof if the crowds were too big.  He was moved by their faith, always responding to them, healing not just their outward symptoms, but also and perhaps most of all, the inner causes of their illnesses, forgiving their sins, and giving them a place in the Kingdom.

Jesus still does this today.  He still walks with us in our suffering, whether we are to be cured or not, letting us know that we don’t suffer alone.  He still responds to our faith, curing our brokenness and healing our sinfulness.  If he judges that it is best for us, he heals our outward symptoms too, perhaps even curing our diseases, and he gives us all a place in the Kingdom, if we have the faith to accept it and to receive the healing he brings us.

Jesus continues his healing mission through the Church in our day.  Certainly the priests provide the sacraments to the sick and the dying.  But also, the entire people of God are called to the corporal work of mercy of caring for the sick.  Every act of mercy and every prayer for the sick is part of the healing work of Jesus.  Doctors and nurses and therapists and other caregivers also provide the healing ministry of Jesus, particularly if they are men and women of faith.  Today, after Communion, our parish will commission nine new Ministers of Care, people who will visit the sick and bring them the Eucharist in their homes, in hospitals, and in nursing homes.  The Church’s ministry to and with the sick is the visible sign of the love of God at work in our world to all those who are suffering.

We don’t know if you all will walk out of this holy place healed of all your diseases.  But we can promise that you will be freed from your sins, healed from the inside out, and that your Lord will always walk with you in your suffering.  Just like for Tom, the healing will come at some time in some way, of the Lord’s choosing, for your good, and for the glory of God.  That’s why we are here today.  That’s why we celebrate this beautiful sacrament with you today.  We know that our Lord deeply desires to heal us.  And we know that Tom was absolutely right in his profession of faith in our Lord’s goodness: by his stripes we were healed.

Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Well, how far are we supposed to take that?  Love our enemies?  Pray for those who persecute us?  I mean, that’s real easy to hear until we actually think about it, isn’t it?  Those people who gossip about us, cut us off in traffic, make a ruckus in our neighborhoods until all hours of the night, tell off-color jokes in social situations – well it’s nice to hold onto a grudge against them, isn’t it?  And are we supposed to be forgiving of terrorists, and all those people who hate us and our way of life?

Yes, we are.  We are if we want to be called children of our heavenly Father.  And who doesn’t want that?  Who knows: maybe when we stop letting them irritate us and instead begin to pray for them and even forgive them, maybe then we will start seeing them in a new light.  They might not change, but we will, and we need to be concerned about our relationship with God.

Who do I need to forgive today?

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 we are called to pray them today that God’s will would be accomplished in every place, starting with in our own lives.

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

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, apostle

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the feast of the Chair of St. Peter the apostle. This is a feast that commemorates Jesus giving the servant authority of the Church to St. Peter, as we heard in today’s Gospel. This is a special day of prayer for the Pope, the successor of St. Peter among us.

It’s important to remember that Peter was not chosen because he was perfect, but instead because he was faithful. Even after he denied Jesus, he turned back and three times professed his love.  That’s an important lesson for us during this Lenten season.  We too may have failed our Lord time and time again, but he always gives us the opportunity to turn back, to profess our love, and to be part of his mission once again.

In today’s Scripture, Saint Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the One who comes in God’s name. Making that proclamation is the task of the Church in every place, and in every age. We disciples are called to faithfulness, just as Peter was, we are called to conversion, just as Peter was, and we are called to witness to the authority of Christ in every situation: in our Church, yes, but also in our workplaces and in our homes. With the Lord as our shepherd, there is nothing we shall want in any situation.

First Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

Perhaps the greatest sin of modern times, maybe of all time, is that we sometimes forget who we are.  Politicians forget that they are elected officials, given the trust of the people they serve, and so they become embroiled in a scandal or sell themselves to special interest groups.  Church leaders forget that they are ordained by God for holiness and so they give in to keeping up appearances, and bring scandal to the Church.  But it’s not just these people; all of us fall to this temptation at one time or another – maybe several times – in our lives.  Young people forget that they have been raised in good Christian, loving homes, and in their quest to define themselves, turn away from the values they have been taught.  Adults forget that they are vocationally called to love their spouse and their children and so get caught up in their careers to the detriment of their family.  Think of any problem we have or any scandal that has been endured and deep at the core of it, I think it stems from forgetting who we are.

Forgetting who we are changes everything for the worse.  It makes solving problems or ending scandal seem insurmountable, because we have to constantly cook up new solutions to new problems, because we’ve gone in a new direction on a road that never should have been traveled.  That was the scandal of Eden, and the scandal of the Tower of Babel, among others.  Once we’ve forgotten who we are and acted impetuously, it’s hard to un-ring the bell.

One of the consequences of forgetting who we are is that we forget who God is too.  We no longer look to God to be our Savior, because we instead would like to solve things on our own.  Perhaps we are embarrassed to come to God because we are deep in a problem of our own making.  We see this all the time in our lives: who of us wants to go to a parent or boss or authority figure – or anyone, really – and tell them that we thought we had all the answers but now we’ve messed up and we can’t fix it and we desperately need their help?  If that’s true then we’re all the more reluctant to go to God, aren’t we?

This forgetting who we are, and forgetting who God is, is the spiritual problem that our readings are trying to address today.  Moses meets the people on the occasion of the harvest sacrifice, and challenges them not to make the sacrifice an empty, rote repetition of a familiar ritual.  They are to remember that their ancestors were wandering people who ended up in slavery in Egypt, only to be delivered by God and brought to a land flowing with milk and honey.  And it is for that reason that they are to joyfully offer the sacrifice.

St. Paul exhorts the Romans to remember who Jesus was and to remember his saving sacrifice and glorious resurrection.  They are to remember that this faith in Christ gives them hope of eternity and that, calling on the Lord, they can find salvation.

But it is the familiar story of Christ being tempted in the desert that speaks to us most clearly of the temptation to forget who we are and who God is.  The devil would like nothing more than for Jesus to forget who he was and why he was here. 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.

But Jesus won’t forget. He refuses to turn stones into bread, remembering that God will take care of all his real hunger. He refuses to worship Satan and gain every kingdom of the world, remembering that he belongs to God’s kingdom. He refuses to throw away his life in a pathetic attempt to test God, remembering that God is trustworthy and that he doesn’t need to prove it.

The way that we remember who we are as a Church is through Liturgy. In the Liturgy of the Word, we hear the stories of faith handed down from generation to generation. These are the stories of our ancestors, whether from the Old Testament or the New. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we re-present the story of Christ’s Passion and death, and as we do that, it becomes new for us once again. There’s a part of every Eucharistic Prayer that recalls Jesus’ suffering and death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. This is called the anamnesis, which is translated as recollection, or remembering, but is perhaps best rendered as a re-presentation. Because our remembering as a Church isn’t just some kind of fond reminiscence, it’s not just a recalling of some events that happened hundreds of years ago, no … our anamnesis is a re-presentation of Christ’s passion and death and resurrection, the whole Paschal event that saved us and made us the people that we are.  In this anamnesis we remember that our God is madly in love with us, and that through his Son Jesus, gives himself to us completely, refusing to live in eternity without us, loving us into salvation, and making us a people of grace.  When we as a Church gather to remember, we are there, right in and among that saving sacrifice that made us God’s own people once again.

And so we come to this holy place on this holy day to remember that we are a holy people, made holy by our God.  We remember who we are and who God is.  We rely on the Spirit’s help to reject the temptations of Satan that would call us to forget who we are and instead become a people of our own making.  We have come again to another Lent.  Lent is a time of conversion.  For the people in our Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – RCIA – it is a time of conversion from one way of life to another.  For the rest of us, Lent is a time of continued re-conversion.  Our Church teaches us that conversion is a life-long process.  In conversion, we see who our God is more clearly and we see ourselves in a new, and truer light – indeed we see who we really are before God.

That is life in God as it was always meant to be.  Remembering our God, remembering who we are, we have promise of being set on high, as the Psalmist proclaims today.  This Lent can lead us to new heights in our relationship with God.  Praise God for the joy of remembering, praise God for the joy of Lent.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

A lot of people say they aren’t giving up something for Lent, they’re just going to try to do something nice for people.  When it’s that vague, I often think that means they’re doing nothing at all for Lent, which is sad.  But, I usually tell people it doesn’t just have to be one or the other.  Indeed, today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us that it should actually be both.

Fasting is important because it helps us to see how blessed we are.  It is important because it helps us to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide.  Fasting teaches us, once again, that God is God and we are not.  This is important for all of us independent-minded modern-day Americans.  We like to be in charge, in control, and the fact is that whatever control we do have is an illusion.  God is in control of all things, even when it seems like we are in chaos.  Fasting teaches us that we can do without the things we’ve given up, and that God can provide for us in much richer ways.  Fasting is absolutely essential to having an inspiring, life-changing Lent, and I absolutely think that people should give things up for Lent.

But giving something up for Lent does not excuse us from the obligation to love our neighbor.  This falls under the general heading of almsgiving, and along with fasting and prayer, it is one of the traditional ways of preparing our hearts for Easter during Lent.  We might be more mindful of the poor, contributing to food pantries or homeless shelters or relief organizations.  We might reach out by actually serving in some capacity, like Feed My Starving Children, or spending an hour at PADS.  We also might give the people closest to us in our lives a larger portion of the love that has been God’s gift to us.

Today’s first reading reminds us that fasting to put on a big show is a sham.  Fasting to bring ourselves closer to God includes the obligation of almsgiving and prayer.  Together, these three facets of discipleship make us stronger Christians and give us a greater share of the grace that is promised to the sons and daughters of God.