Monday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Why is the human heart so much opposed to hearing the truth and acting on it? I remember as a child I used to hate it when my parents would tell me something and turn out to be right. If the truth be told, I probably still struggle with that a little today. Who wants to hear the hard truth and then find out that it’s absolutely right? The pride of our hearts so often prevents the prophet from performing his or her ministry.

The message of Lent, though, is that the prophets – all of them – whether they be Scriptural prophets, or those who spoke the truth to us because they want the best for us – all of these prophets are right. And our task during Lent has to be to give up whatever pride in us refuses to hear the voice of the prophet or refuses to accept the prophetic message, and instead turn to the Lord and rejoice in the truth.

The prophets of our native land – those prophets who are closest to us – are the ones we least want to hear. Because they know the right buttons to push, they know our sinfulness, our weakness, and our brokenness. And we desperately want to avoid being confronted with all that failure. Yet if we would hear them, then maybe just like Naaman, we would come out of the river clean and ready to profess our faith in the only God once again.

Athirst is my soul for the living God – that is what the Psalmist prays today. And that is the true prayer of all of our hearts. All we have to do is get past the obstacles of pride and let those prophets show us the way to him. Then we would never thirst again.

The Third Sunday of Lent [A]

Today’s readings

Winter is always rough on people, health-wise.  If it’s not the flu, then it’s some sort of virus making its way around.  That’s been true this winter for sure.  Staff members here at church and people in my family have been coming down with one form or another of seasonal illness, and I was glad I got my flu shot this fall.  But this week it was my turn: despite the flu shot, I had a fever, fatigue and some light-headedness that made me think it was a sinus thing cranked up a few notches.  It’s been hard to shake it.  One thing you learn when you have a fever or something like that is that you should drink a lot of water.  But eventually, that becomes tiresome: you get sick of drinking just plain water, no matter how good it may be for you.  So this week I supplemented it with tea, of course, and I even gave myself permission to do something I don’t do very often, and that was to drink some soda – 7up or ginger ale mostly. And those drinks tasted better than just plain water, for sure, but because they are 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 are all about water.   When the Church talks about water, it sees something different than most of the world does.  Water is a striking image in the literature of our religion: when we hear of water, maybe we think about the waters swirling around before creation, or the waters of the great flood.  During Lent, we might think often about the waters of the Red Sea, through which the Israelites passed as they fled from slavery in Egypt.  We might think of the water that flowed from the Temple in Isaiah’s imagery, that gave life to all the world.  And of course, as we near Good Friday, we cannot help but remember the water and blood that flowed from the side of Christ, giving life to the Church.  And then we could think sacramentally, couldn’t we?  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.

 

The 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.  Read the whole story of the Exodus – it’s a good Lenten thing to do – they never ran out of water, 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?”  What a ridiculous question!  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, to misuse another water metaphor!  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, or something that would quench her unsated thirst.  She didn’t even know what she was seeking, and yet she was thirsty all the time.

 

And all of this would be very sad if she hadn’t just found the answer to her prayers, the source of living water.  One of my favorite hymns is a hymn written by Horatio Bonar in 1846 called “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.”  This hymn is sung all during the year, but I think it may be the quintessential Lenten Hymn.  One of the verses speaks beautifully 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, isn’t it?  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.  The readings for this Sunday are particularly chosen for the First Scrutiny in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.  So if we had anyone becoming Catholic in our parish, which we don’t this year, we would be reflecting in a particular way on their upcoming baptism.  The Catechumens of the Church in these Lenten days are, like the Samaritan woman, coming to know this Jesus who is the source of life-giving water.  Since we have no Catechumens in our parish this year, I want us to reflect on two things.

 

The first thing is to reflect on our own baptisms.  Because we 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.  As we approach Easter, then, we should reflect on our own baptisms, perhaps received before we could even understand or remember them, but certainly renewed as we have journeyed through life.  Those baptisms have called us to a particular way of life, leaving behind the buckets of life in the world and the well that can never really quench our thirst, so that we can embrace Jesus the Lord, our source of life-giving water.  He alone gives us water in such a way that we will never thirst again.

 

The second thing is to commit ourselves as a parish to the task of evangelization.  Just because we have no Catechumens this year doesn’t mean that there is nobody unbaptized among us.  We all know people who need to know the Lord.  Maybe they are unbaptized, maybe they are baptized in another Church, or maybe they are just not practicing any religion.  But because we know the source of life-giving water, they we know that everyone should be drinking of that water.  We have to bring the message to them.  Maybe not by preaching on the street corner, but more by the witness of our lives.  We might also need to extend the invitation, bring someone to Mass, encourage them to join us.  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?”  Surely we cannot be as unbelieving as they were.  We see the marvels God does for us, we experience the assurance of our faith in good times and in bad.  We see lives changed as they embrace the faith.  So how would we answer the question, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?”  Absolutely, yes he is, always and forever.  Amen.

 

Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading is one that gives me pause, to say the least.  The whole notion of the measure that we use will be the measure that God uses to measure  is more than a little a little scary. Think about it: how often do we fail to give people a break? How often do we forget that the person who just crossed us may be having trouble at home, or might be facing the illness of a loved one, or any number of things.  Those mitigating circumstances may not excuse bad behavior, but they may explain a lapse in judgment.  God gives us grace when we go through those things; we should do no less.

 

We confess our sins and long to be forgiven, just like Daniel did in today’s first reading. And our God longs to forgive us those sins. But God’s expectation is that the mercy he has shown us will be the mercy we show to others.  We are called to the same perfection that is present in God himself.  The crux of that perfection is love and mercy.  We know what it looks like, because God has given those to us.  We then need to imitate that in our lives.

 

If we would pray with the Psalmist today, “Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins,” then we should be willing to let go of the sins others have committed against us.  It’s not easy, but the letting go frees us in much better ways than vengeance ever could.

 

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

 

Feast of Saint Patrick

What always amazes me about our Gospel story is the response of the fishermen to our Lord’s command.  I wonder if they knew him or knew of him before this incident, because it’s amazing that these exhausted fishermen, who were calling it a day, let Jesus get on board their boat, and then proceeded to take him fishing when they had already done that – to no avail – all night long.  Yet they do it, and they catch this amazing amount of fish, which, Jesus tells them, is just a foreshadowing of the number of men and women they will be catching for the kingdom of God.

 

This is a great reading for us as we celebrate Saint Patrick today, because I think it’s kind of an icon of his life.  Here was a man who had been abducted from his home and dragged off to Ireland to work as a slave.  He labored for many years before he was able to escape and return to his home and family.  Yet as exhausted and traumatized as he must have been, he heard our Lord’s call to go back to Ireland and be a fisher of men and women.  It’s almost too much to ask, but one never says “no” to our Lord!

 

Saint Patrick 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 way, 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 once lobbied for him to become a bishop, and 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.

 

Saint Patrick’s “Lorica” prayer, known often as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, is a wonderful prayer for these Lenten days.  As we pray his words, we can reflect on the wonderful things God has done for us, and on examine our consciences to become the people God has created us to be.  What follows now, is my reflection on this beautiful prayer.

 

Saint Patrick prays:

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.

These words remind us that we are part of a community.  Our sense of community comes directly from the Triune community that is God himself.  In all of our dawning days, we are called to be caught up in the life of God so that we can give life to the world.

 

Saint Patrick prays:

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.

These words remind us that Christ is our life.  We who have died and rose with Christ in baptism are now caught up in the life of Jesus our Savior.  His death and resurrection have paid the price for our sins, and there is nowhere that we can go that we are beyond his reach, beyond his grace.

 

Saint Patrick prays:

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.

These words remind us that we are never alone.  God surrounds us with angels, saints and people of faith that lead us through the storms of life and keep us connected to God himself.  There is no way we would have the strength to navigate life as righteous people without the example of holy men and women and the intercession of the heavenly hosts.  And the good news is, we never have to.  We are not alone on the journey.

 

Saint Patrick prays:

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.

These words remind us that the very earth we inhabit is a gift from God.  The sun gives its light, the moon radiates its force on our world, the winds and the sea tend to our needs, the earth provides its rock solid foundation for our lives and our homes.  All of these hold us in God’s firm and gentle hands.

 

Saint Patrick prays:

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.

These words remind us that there is a battle going on out there.  Just as in Saint Patrick’s day, so too today we have false prophets, heresies, idolatries and corrupt knowledge.  Though we are powerless to fight that battle, God gives us the words to speak, the ears to hear, and the power of his might to deliver us from all who wish us ill.

 

Saint Patrick prays:

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.

These words are the essential Lenten discipline.  God is God and we are not.  We need God in very real ways, not just when we are at the end of our ropes, but primarily in the every-dayness of our lives.  We need Christ because every day there is a battle for our souls, and we can’t save them of our own power.  And so Lent calls us to see Christ as Saint Patrick did: before and behind us; above and beneath us; on our right and on our left; in our resting as in our activity; in every person we encounter and most especially in the depths of our own hearts.  Christ is everywhere, filling our lives, beckoning us to repentance, urging us to follow him.  Christ wants us to be fishers of men and women.

 

Saint Patrick’s prayer ends as it began, with words that catch us up into the Trinitarian community that is our God, so that we can reach out and be community to others:

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.

 

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, 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, we need to look to the one God puts in our path, and restore right relationship with that person.

 

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 positive.  When it’s that vague, I often think that means they’re doing nothing at all for Lent, which is sad for them.  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 our food pantry or a homeless shelter or relief organization.  We might reach out by actually serving in some capacity, like at a soup kitchen, 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.

 

Saints Perpetua and Felicity, virgin martyrs

Today’s readings

Saints Perpetua and Felicity and their companions lived in the late second and early third century, during a time of intense persecution of Christians by Emperor Septimius Severus.  Perpetua was a young, beautiful, well-educated, noblewoman of Carthage and mother of an infant son.  Her father was a pagan and her mother a Christian.  Her father pleaded with her to deny the faith and save her life, but she refused and was imprisoned with her baby at age 22.  She wrote “When my father in his affection for me was trying to turn me from my purpose by arguments and thus weaken my faith, I said to him, ‘Do you see this vessel—waterpot or whatever it may be? Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am—a Christian.’”  Perpetua wrote the beginning of a chronicle of their executions, which was finished by eyewitnesses.

 

Despite threats of persecution and death, Perpetua, Felicity (a slavewoman and expectant mother) and three companions refused to renounce their Christian faith. For their unwillingness, all were sent to the public games in the amphitheater. Felicity gave birth to her baby just three days before the games.  Perpetua and Felicity were beheaded, and the others killed by beasts.

 

During the so-called games, the saints went peacefully to their fate.  As with so many martyr’s accounts, it is written that they hardly felt the pain of their torments.  The eyewitness writes: “Without being asked they went where the people wanted them to go; but first they kissed one another, to complete their witness with the customary kiss of peace.  The others stood motionless and received the deathblow in silence, especially Saturus, who had gone up first and was first to die; he was helping Perpetua. But Perpetua, that she might experience the pain more deeply, rejoiced over her broken body and guided the shaking hand of the inexperienced gladiator to her throat. Such a woman – one before whom the unclean spirit trembled – could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed it.”

 

Today’s Gospel parable, of course, foretells the death of Jesus symbolized by the son of the landowner.  Just as the tenants did not respect the landowner’s son, many did not respect Jesus and he went to his death.  Those martyrs, like Perpetua and Felicity and their companions, join in the sufferings of Jesus in a very real way.  They call us to give of ourselves as deeply as we are able so that we might join in Christ’s suffering and death – and thus his glory – also.  As the eyewitness said of the martyrs, “Bravest and happiest martyrs! You were called and chosen for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  May we find ourselves caught up in that glory too.