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 personally 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 merely 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 key 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 – right relationship and right order – can be restored in the world.

All the commands we receive from Moses and Jesus today turn 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.

Men’s Ministry Lenten Breakfast Talk: How Do Men Observe Lent?

Last night, I was in church for the Living Stations.  The junior high kids were leading it and they did an awesome job.  They even got me to shed a few tears along the way.  I’m half Italian: we just do that!  But what was it that got to me and caused those tears:

  1. 1. That the kids took it seriously and were very reverent and prayerful?
  2. 2. Was it the story of salvation, in awe and wonder that God would send his Son to die that horrible death for me?
  3. 3. Or was it that I was hoping and praying those kids are being touched by the meaning of what they were doing?

And the answer is yes, all of that:  As the father of this big family, my heart is moved in all of those ways and more.  That’s what fathers do.  And so I’ve been reflecting on Lent and what that means for men.  How is it that we men observe Lent?

Maybe I should ask, how is it that we men should observe Lent?  Because I know that we live busy lives, and we can scarcely give Lent a second thought if we’re not careful.  But that does nobody any good: not us, not our families, not our communities or workplaces.  If we want to be the best we can for all of them, we have to let Lent permeate who we are and what we do.

And it’s a quandary with which I’m familiar.  When I worked in my pre-seminary days, if I didn’t put prayer on my to-do list – literally – there would be no prayer.  And when there was no prayer, I was not at my best at work, I was not at my best with anyone.  Lent gives us the opportunity to take stock of this and turn it all around.

Reading: Isaiah 64:4-7

I probably don’t have to pound home that point from Isaiah: we have become like unclean men.  The opportunities to go wrong abound, don’t they?  We intend to be men of integrity, but business is complicated.  We intend to love our families into heaven, but we’re tired, we’re busy, and we just don’t always have the patience.  Our sins abound, and we don’t intend that – we so wish we could turn back to God once and for all.  Would that he might meet us doing right.  Maybe that can happen this Lent.

Here’s a question to think about – we will discuss it later, but for now, just think:  have you ever had a really significant Lent: a time when you felt a new springtime in your faith, a time when you grew as a man and really came to know the plans God had for you?  If so, when was that, and what was it that got to you?

(Pause a minute or two.)

I think Lent encourages at least five manly traits, and I want to reflect on those a bit.  Then I want to take a look at the three habits that Lent demands of us.  Finally, without stomping too much on Dr. Muir’s presentation coming up, I want to take a brief look at three men of Lent and reflect on what they model for us.

So first: five manly traits that Lent encourages.

First, Lent encourages us to be men of prayer.  Yes, men of prayer are men who pray, but not just men who say prayers.  Men of prayer are men who:

  • • pray first and often
  • • look around them and see God’s hand at work
  • • are grateful for their gifts
  • • look for an opportunity to worship
  • • experience the sacraments
  • • teach their families how to pray, how to have a relationship with Jesus
    • o We never go alone to the kingdom … we are supposed to take everyone with us, especially our families!

Second, Lent encourages us to be men of faith.  Men of faith know that God is with them in good times and bad.  Men of faith have that relationship with Jesus that helps them to relate well with others.  Men of faith are courageous, and tenacious, and confident, but they are never arrogant.  Humility marks men of faith because they know the source of their strength.  This is not a false humility that makes them doormats for everyone who wishes to take them on.

Third, Lent encourages us to be men of charity.  This might not mean what you think it does.  It’s not primarily about giving money to the poor, or even doing good things for other people.  Yes, these are acts of charity, but what I mean by being men of charity takes us to the Latin root of the word, caritas.  Caritas is a kind of self-giving love, a love that looks for the good of others, a love that sometimes finds its expression in works of charity, but is always characterized by putting the other one first.  Men of charity are men who have a strong, burning love for God that translates into the way they love their families, spouses, children, co-workers, employees, everyone God puts in their path.  Men who exhibit this charity certainly do not overlook another’s faults, but gently and firmly corrects them because he knows that setting the person right is what is best for them.  Charity sometimes means saying no, or not yet; it means saying do this even though you don’t think you want to.  Think how often God does that to us!

  • • Example from my life: my parents urging me to go on a retreat or be part of a group.

Fourth, Lent encourages us to be men of integrity.  Men of integrity exhibit what we generally refer to as “character.”  These are men who do the right thing even though someone isn’t breathing down their neck or micromanaging them.  Integrity is what we all want to say that we have.  But integrity is definitely difficult to always achieve.  Because integrity means walking away from a lucrative business deal because it doesn’t feel right.  Integrity means setting priorities for yourself and your family that are probably counter-cultural, like saying no to sports or activities that make it impossible to go to Mass or to spend adequate time with our families.  Integrity means we are as good as our word, that we can always be relied on to do the right thing.  God does not want to be a micromanager: he wants to set us on the right path and have us walk it every day.  Men of integrity do that.

Finally, Lent calls us to be men of grace.  This doesn’t mean we are able to burn up the dance floor, it means rather that we are aware of God’s action in our life, that we live by that action, and that we spread it on to others.  Grace says that everything we have is a gift, no matter how hard we think we’ve worked for it.  Grace says that we are sinners, men who have committed sins and are guilty of every possible offense against God, but even so we are loved and forgiven and called and blessed.  Grace says that God is infinitely greater than our sins, that there is no way that we can fall so far that God can’t reach us, that he longs to pull us up out of the waters of death and give us life that lasts forever.

The truth of grace is this:  on one day in time, let’s call it December 25, of the year zero… (footnote Fr. Larry Hennessy).

Men of grace are aware of their sinfulness and bring it to the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis; they are grateful for the gift of forgiveness and celebrate it at the table of the Eucharist.  Men of grace enthusiastically pass the faith on to their families, keenly aware of their vocational responsibility to help their spouse and their children get to heaven.  Men of grace witness to others by being men of prayer, men of faith, men of charity and men of integrity!

Another question to think about – of the five manly traits, which do you find most present in your life?  What do you think got you there?  Which do you find least present in your life?  What do you need to do to pursue it?

So now, three Lenten habits: fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

Fasting helps us to:

  • • give up what we truly do not need
  • • let go of things that keep us tethered to the world, to our own self-interest
  • • find in our hunger that there is nothing we hunger for that God can’t provide.

Almsgiving helps us to:

  • • realize that we are not the center of the universe, and also we are not alone
  • • see other people as God sees them and love them as God does.

Prayer helps us to:

  • • find God in the midst of our business, brokenness, despair
  • • have a relationship with God that sees us through good times and bad
  • o Joke about the guy who was going through a hard time and looked at the Bible randomly for some help
  • • see God’s work in our lives

A question to think about:  What’s your Lenten plan?  How will you implement fasting, almsgiving and prayer in your life?

Men of Lent

Peter: Matthew 14:22-33

  • o A man of fledgling faith
    • ♣ courageous, tenacious
  • o A man of grace
    • ♣ fallen and forgiven

Paul:  Philippians 1:19-26

  • o A man of converted faith (his past)
  • o A man of grace (knows who is in charge, where he is being led)
  • o A man of charity (is concerned about others, and fruitful labor)

A question to think about:  Which of these men inspires you most?  Why?  What can you take from his life to create a powerful life-changing Lent?

Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

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 or something horrible will happen to you, or maybe you even think that getting ashes on Ash Wednesday is what makes us Catholic.  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.  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: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.  So first, we fast.  We 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 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.  Some people say they don’t have to give something up for Lent because they would rather do something good and focus on the positive.  I’ll tell you right now, it doesn’t have to be one or the other; in Catholic teaching, it’s always both/and.  You can give something up to strengthen your relationship with God, and do something good to strengthen your relationship with others.

Second, we pray.  We already must pray every day and attend Mass every Sunday; those are obligations that we have as people of God.  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 adoration.  Maybe we can just carve out some quiet time at the end of our busy days 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 give alms or do works of charity.  We can donate money for organizations that feed the poor, or perhaps help to provide a meal at a soup kitchen.  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 to help in our food pantry together, or shopping together for items for our 40 Cans for Lent campaign.  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!”

Friday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings give us a look at an age-old argument over the concept of justification by faith alone.  Not only does James have to deal with it in his community, but during the protestant reformation, this concept was a major stumbling block which has only recently been healed – somewhat.  As tends to be the case with arguments like this, the quibble is largely over semantics.  I think we agree with the basic concept.

The quibble was that some people felt that they could earn their salvation by doing enough works.  This degenerated particularly in the years prior to the reformation to a feeling that one could literally buy salvation by giving money to the Church.  The corruption that was bred in that atmosphere is largely what caused the rift in the Church.

The truth is this: nobody can ever work hard enough to earn his or her salvation.  There is no way we can ever even begin to atone for the enormity of our many sins, or get to heaven by our paltry human efforts.  Only God can give us salvation, and it is just that: a gift.  Completely undeserved, totally unearned; it is only by the will of God that we are saved.  But we have to be receptive to the gift, and the way that we get there is by faith.  People of faith have a relationship with God and the Church which makes it possible for them to receive the gift that God wants to give them.

But there is also a certain amount of truth that says that faith spurs us on to action.  Indeed, any kind of so-called faith that allows a person to sit idle and not respond to the needs of others is a fraud.  A faith that says I don’t have to gather with others to worship because I can do that just as well on my own is no faith at all.  Faith spurs us on to action in charity and worship, because that is what faith does.  So, as Saint James well says today, faith without works is useless.

Jesus was pretty clear on that point, and we see it in today’s Gospel: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  Denial, taking up the cross, following after Jesus – which really means doing what Jesus did, all of these are works that a person does because he or she has been moved by faith.

We need both faith and works, but only those works that are genuinely spawned by our lively faith.  When we have embraced both aspects of salvation, we will be very near to the kingdom of God!

Monday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

St. James today encourages us to consider it all joy when we experience trial.  I don’t know about you, but that’s not the emotion I usually find in frustrating or fearful circumstances.  And considering that the people to whom James was writing were probably being persecuted, they probably weren’t overjoyed at their trials either.  But the spiritual principle is that when one’s faith is tested, ones learns perseverance, and learns to trust in God.

But that presupposes that we will remain faithful in the midst of trial.  The minute we stop looking to our Lord for help in times of difficulty, perseverance and trust in God go right down the tubes.  The Pharisees in the Gospel had not yet learned faithfulness.  They kept their eyes on the minutiae of the Law instead of on God, and so they lost sight of faith and everything that was of true importance.  They were fearful; they wanted a sign, but they would never get a sign because they were always looking in places other than God.

Faithfulness is a difficult thing.  When we are tested, it’s so easy to want to throw in the towel and leave behind everything we believe in.  I have been there myself, but thankfully I still had prayer and people praying for me.  I think we’re all in that place at some time or another in our lives.  It’s easy to be faithful when there are no trials, but faith in times of trial produces the perseverance and lively faith that gets us through life.  And we definitely should consider that all joy.

The Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings

In ancient days, a diagnosis of leprosy was a death sentence.  And that’s not just because they didn’t know how to treat the disease.  They didn’t, but what was really horrible is the way the lepers were treated.  First of all, they were called lepers – not people – so being labeled as such stripped them of the personhood, and put them on the same level as a virus that needed to be eradicated.  They were cut off from the community, so they would have no community or even family support.  They were forbidden to worship with the community, so they must also have felt cut off from God.  And so it went for those who contracted leprosy: sick and alone, they were left to survive as best they could, or just to die.

The worst part of it is that most of the time people didn’t actually have leprosy: the ancients’ lack of scientific knowledge led them to label as leprosy any kind of skin ailment.  The rules for dealing with people with these diseases were based on fear: they didn’t want to contract the disease themselves, so the “clean” ones ostracized those with disease, treating them as if they didn’t exist.

Jesus, obviously, didn’t agree with that kind of way of “treating” the illness of leprosy.  He didn’t really have any more scientific resources at that time to treat the disease, but it wasn’t the disease he was concerned about.  No, he was concerned about the person, not the illness.  And so he does not take offense when the leper breaks the Levitical law that we heard in our first reading and actually approaches Jesus.  Jesus, too breaks the law by reaching out to touch him and saying, with an authority that comes from God himself, “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

The thing is, we don’t treat lepers very well today, either.  I don’t mean people who have the actual disease of leprosy – that is actually very treatable, even curable, in this day and age.  What I mean is that there are a lot of leprosies out there.  Some people tend to ostracize a loved one when they contract a difficult disease, like cancer.  They can’t bear the thought of death, or they don’t like hospitals, or they feel powerless to help in these situations, so they stay away.  Hospitals and nursing homes are full of people who never receive a visit from family or friends.  Our pastoral care ministers could probably tell you many heart-breaking stories with that theme.

And leprosy doesn’t apply just to sick people.  People who are different in any way are subject to ostracization: people who have different color skin than us, people who are not Catholic or not Christian, people who are homosexual, people who are poor or homeless.  All of these we treat from a distance, keeping them outside the community, outside of means of support, outside of the love of God in just the same way the ancients dealt with lepers.  We have a tendency to label people and then write them off.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad God doesn’t treat broken people that way.  Because then I might be cut off because of my many sins.  We all have something in us that is unclean, and it would be woe for us if God just wrote us off.  He doesn’t.  He reaches out to touch us to, exactly where we are at, without fear of contracting the illness of our sin himself, and heals us from the inside out.  “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

Our religion, thankfully, has rituals for the things that infest us.  When we are sick, there is the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  When we are sinful, there is the sacrament of Penance.  We call these the sacraments of healing, because they do just that: give us God’s grace when we are sick or dying, and his forgiveness and mercy when we have sinned.

Many people misunderstand the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  No longer do we think of that as something to be done at the last possible moment.  It should be done as soon as it is known that a person is gravely ill.  We rely on doctors to tell us that.  It should be done before someone has serious surgery.  It should be done when a person is suffering from mental illness of any kind.  It might be done more than once: when a person is first diagnosed, for example, and then again when they are near death, or when the illness is worse in any way.  It should be done at a hospital or nursing home, or in a person’s home, or even here at church.  Wherever the person is or is most comfortable.  We are also having a Mass with Anointing of the Sick during Lent here in church.  The sacrament provides grace to live through an illness, or mercy on the journey to eternity, sometimes even healing if that is what God knows to be good for the person.  Please don’t wait until a person has just moments left to send for a priest, don’t be afraid to ask us to anoint you before surgery, and don’t assume that if you’re in the hospital, we will know – they can’t really tell us that any more.

As for the Sacrament of Penance, there are many opportunities to celebrate that sacrament: Saturdays at 4pm, during Lent we will have a Penance Service, and we’ll also have Confessions before the Mass of the Anointing of the Sick I just mentioned.  You can also always call a priest for an appointment if you need to.  The problem can sometimes be that a person feels embarrassed to go to Confession if they’ve been away from the sacrament for a long time.  Don’t be.  It’s our job to help you make a good Confession, and we are absolutely committed to doing that.  Your sins don’t make us think less of you; in fact I always have deep respect for the person who lowers his or her defenses and lets God have mercy on them.

These are wonderful sacraments of healing.  God gives them to us because he will not be like those living in Levitical times.  Just as he reached out to the leper in today’s Gospel, so Christ longs to reach out and touch all of us in our brokenness, in our uncleanness, and make us whole again.  As the Psalmist sings today, so we can pray: “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.”   Praise God for Jesus’ words today: “I do will it.  Be made clean!”

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The women in today’s Liturgy of the Word give us contrasting views of the spiritual life.  In our first reading, the women give us the example of what not to do.  Solomon, known for his wisdom and dedication to God by building the temple, is soon seduced by the foreign women he had married to abandon God.  They entice him to abandon the worship of the one, true God in order to worship and adore their so-called gods.

Marrying into the families of the foreigners among them was a real problem for the Israelites.  When they did this, they were soon led astray and picked up the pagan customs of the world around them.  It’s kind of a metaphor for what can go wrong in our spiritual lives.  If we keep our eyes on Christ and follow the way he has laid out for us, we can progress in our devotion.  But the minute we start looking at other things, we can soon be distracted from the straight and narrow.

On the other hand, we have the wonderful Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel.  She knows exactly where to look for salvation and she persists in it.  When it seemed that Jesus was not interested in helping her daughter, she persisted because she knew that Christ alone could heal her daughter and expel the demon.

Once again, there’s a deeper message here.  I don’t think any of us believes that Jesus wasn’t interested in healing the woman’s daughter.  I just think he knew her faith and wanted to give those who were in the house where he was to see that faith.  The story gives us, too, the opportunity to asses our own faith in God, not looking to other things or foreign gods to bring us salvation.  If these women teach us anything in today’s readings, it’s that we need to be focused on our God alone.