Thursday of the Second Week of Lent: Mass for the Pope

Today’s readings

The great sin of the rich man may not have been the sin of neglecting poor Lazarus, although that was certainly bad.  His greatest sin, though, was that he trusted in himself and not in God.  He had everything he needed in life, because he was able to trust in himself to get it.  But he never had a relationship with God.  Now in death, he wants the good things God will provide for those who trust in him, people like Lazarus for example.  But he has already made his choice, and unfortunately now, trusting in himself doesn’t bring him anything good.  Blessed are they, the Psalmist says today, who hope in the Lord.

Today we also celebrate the last day of the pontificate of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.  Benedict is a man who truly has trusted in God, and has continued to do so in his last days.  Rather than cling to power in his last days, as his health deteriorates, he has trusted in God to lead the Church and has resigned the pontificate, which has been rather unprecedented in recent centuries.

And so we give thanks today for the leadership of Pope Benedict, for his strength and spirituality and intellect, all of which have allowed him to serve God and the Church with grace as pope, as a cardinal before that, and a theologian.  Like the one of whom Jeremiah speaks in our first reading, Benedict’s life has been fruitful and has given life to the Church.

As we look forward to the election of his successor, we pray that the Spirit will continue to guide the Church in the years ahead.  Blessed are we who hope in the Lord!

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.”

The Second Sunday of Lent [C]

Today’s readings

One of the best Lenten reminders that I can think of comes in today’s second reading.  Here, Saint Paul tells the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven.”  We know how true this is.  We may have made homes here, and experienced our lives thus far here on earth, but the truth is we are just passing through this place.  Our true citizenship is in heaven, and it is the goal of all our lives to get there.  That’s why Lent is so important: this season reminds us of where we are going and gives us the opportunity to get there, if we have been off the path, which we all have in some way.  That’s the Lenten message of repentance and it’s the reason for our fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

We see that message throughout today’s Liturgy of the Word.  In the first reading, God promises Abram – later to be named Abraham – that he would make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  Abraham placed his faith in that promise, and God sanctified it by making covenant with him.  In the Gospel, Peter, John and James get to see a little bit of the heavenly inheritance when they experience the transfigured Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, the personification of the Law and the Prophets.  On this Transfiguration Sunday, we can catch a glimpse of where we’re going, and hopefully be energized anew to pursue that inheritance.

The way that we pursue it is the essential Lenten discipline of repentance.  Here we recognize the fact that we have wandered from the path to our reward, ask God’s pardon, receive the mercy and are restored to the inheritance promised to Abraham and made perfect in the covenant carved out of the sacrifice of Christ.  That’s why we have Lent each year: we get the opportunity to repent, refocus and get back on the way. [We celebrate that this morning with Brian, our candidate who is preparing for Full Communion with our Church and will soon take part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time.  As he prepares for that sacrament, we can see our own need for God’s healing mercy.]  The alternative to repentance is truly life in hell: and it’s not so much that God sends us there, but more that we choose to go there by shutting God out and not receiving the gift of mercy that he longs to pour out on us.

I’d like to illustrate this by plucking out one of the story lines in the musical, Les Miserables.  I had seen the stage version, but went on New Year’s Day to see the movie version with a priest friend, and it reminded me once again of the incredible truth that the story proclaims.  Of the musicals that I have seen, this is truly my favorite.  If you haven’t yet seen it, you should, and please know I’m not spoiling the whole thing for you.

The story begins with the release of the central character, Jean Valjean, from prison.  But even as he’s released, he finds out from his jailer, Javert, that he really will never be free.  He must carry papers that show that he was a convict for his entire life.  Now, one might argue that this would be appropriate if he had, say, murdered someone.  But we learn that his crime was a very excusable one: he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her child.  For that, he served nineteen years in prison, and would be on parole for the rest of his life.   The jailer, Javert, is the other central character here.  He felt Valjean’s sentence was a just one, and he could say that because his idea of the law was very black or white: either you did what was right, or you could go to hell – literally.

As the story unfolds, Valjean quickly learns the gravity of his plight.  He can hardly find work or a place to stay, because the papers that he has to carry have him branded as a criminal, and even if someone would take him in or give him work, they were going to cheat him, knowing that he could not complain.  He is eventually taken in by the local bishop, who gives him a meal and a place to stay.  He treats Valjean kindly, but Valjean doesn’t know how to receive it.  So he gets up during the night, takes some of the bishop’s silver, and heads out.  He is quickly brought in by the police who take him to the bishop and tell him that Valjean claimed the items were a gift.  The bishop, surprisingly, not only backs up his story, but says that Valjean had “left the best behind” and gives him two silver candlesticks.  As the police leave, the bishop tells Valjean that he has been given grace in order that he might “become an honest man” and serve a higher purpose.  That’s how grace works; we must receive it and then share it.

So that’s what Valjean does.  He uses the money to start a business, which employs many people who would otherwise be poor, and he becomes the mayor of the town.  But he learns that Valjean has continued to pursue him, and although he originally thought the mayor was Valjean, it turns out another man had just confessed to his crimes and is that very day being sentenced.  He comes to Valjean to ask his pardon and offer his resignation for allegedly mistaking Valjean for, well, Valjean.  At this point, Valjean could have ended Javert’s long career and pretty much ended his life.  But he doesn’t do that; he goes to court and confesses so that the innocent man won’t have to pay for his crimes.

Valjean escapes the grasp of Javert and goes on to take in Cosette, the young daughter of a dying woman.  He pledges to her mother that Cosette would want for nothing, and he raises her as his own daughter.  This has him pretty much constantly on the run, always looking over his shoulder for Javert.  Fast forward a bit to the revolution, during which Javert works as a spy and is caught by the student revolutionaries.  Valjean helps them, and is promised a reward.  He says that he wants nothing except to dispatch their prisoner.  And it’s here that Valjean offers grace to Javert for the second time in the story.  He lets him go and pretends to fire a gun at him, making the revolutionaries think he is dead.

Javert continues to pursue Valjean, swearing that he will “never rest” until he sees him “safe behind bars.”  Later, after watching Valjean slip away yet again while extending mercy to a dying revolutionary, Javert confronts the issue of the grace that Valjean shows juxtaposed with what he thinks of him personally.  He wrestles with why Valjean would choose to show him mercy, when he could have taken his life and had his vengeance.  Unable to make sense of that, he realizes that he is already in hell.  And he’s right – when we cannot accept grace, we have shut God out and are, in fact, in hell.  That’s what hell is.  At this point, all Javert could do was die, and so he commits suicide.  In the movie version, that’s done in a rather jarring fashion, too.  For me, this is the saddest part of the story, bar none – and that says a lot, because I usually shed quite a few tears when I see the show.

So there are two paths here.  We can take Javert’s path, in which we refuse mercy to others and to ourselves, and trust instead in our own beliefs.  When these don’t turn out to hold water, the realization is that this is hell, and all we have left to do is die.  Or we can take Valjean’s path, accepting grace, using it to change our hearts and our lives, and live the life we were meant to live: a life that seeks out others and extends them mercy.  The lesson here is that mercy transfigures us and puts us back on the path to our heavenly inheritance.  Valjean eventually gets to see that, but I won’t spoil the end for you.

This Lent, I propose that we take Valjean’s path, and use our fasting, almsgiving and prayer to get back on the path to heaven.  I propose that we celebrate God’s mercy by taking part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  We have lots of opportunities for that.  Mondays at 6:30, we hear confessions until all are heard.  On Saturdays, we hear them from 4pm to 4:45.  This coming Saturday, we have our morning of healing and will be hearing confessions from 10am to 11, when we’ll celebrate our Anointing of the Sick Mass.  And we have the Parish Lenten Penance Service coming up next month.  Please be sure to go to confession sometime during Lent.  You’ll be amazed at how much you, and the world around you, can be transfigured by God’s mercy, and you’ll find all the world to be clothed in dazzling white.   It’s an experience not to be missed, and while Javert thought his was the “way of the Lord,” the Sacrament of Reconciliation truly is.

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Have you noticed that the readings for these early days of Lent have been teaching us how to accomplish the various disciplines of Lent, which really are the various disciplines of the spiritual life? Today’s discipline then, I think, would be persistence in prayer. In the first reading, we have Queen Esther, who is really between a rock and a hard place. The king does not know she is Hebrew, and worse than that, if she goes to the king without being summoned, she could well lose her life. But, Mordecai, the man who was her guardian and raised her as his own daughter, revealed to her that the king’s advisor had planned genocide against the Jews, and she was the only person in a position to beg the king to change his mind. So today, she prays that her life, as well as those of her people would be spared. Esther prayed for three days and nights that her prayer would be answered, and her persistence was rewarded. She received the reward that Jesus promised when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Then again, how many of us have prayed persistently to God that he would answer our prayer and have yet to be answered? I think most of us at some point or another have experience the exasperation of prayer unanswered, or at least seemingly so. We can be so frustrated when a loved one is ill or unemployed, or whatever, and God seemingly does not hear.

But the discipline of prayerful persistence is not like wishing on a star or anything like that. There’s no magic to our words. We may or may not be rewarded with the exact gift we pray for. But we will always be rewarded with the loving presence of our God in our lives. In fact, maybe God’s answer to our prayer is “no” – for whatever reason – but even in that “no” we have the grace of a relationship that has been strengthened by our prayerful persistence.

The Psalmist prays, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” This Lent, may the discipline of persistence in prayer lead us to a renewed and enlivened sense of the Lord’s will in our lives.

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, and so 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 – and we certainly ought to do so! –  we need to look to the one God puts in our path, and restore right relationship with that person.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

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

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

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

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

Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

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

This is the way the prophet Joel calls the Israelites, and all of us, to repentance.  Repentance is an important spiritual theme for Lent: in fact, if it were not for our need for repentance, we wouldn’t need Jesus, he wouldn’t have to have taken on flesh, he wouldn’t have to suffer and die.  But he did, and he did that not just because religion in those days was out of whack, or that people in that time were more in need of repentance than people in other times, including our own.  He did that because we all have need of repentance, now just as much as always.  Each of us is probably not evil to the core, but we all have things we need to let go of and move away from, so that we can return to the Lord.  That’s repentance, and that’s what Lent is all about.

It’s so much a part of Lent that one of the two instructions we can give when someone comes to us for ashes is “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  The other, of course, is “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  I tend to use both of these, alternating between the two, and letting the Holy Spirit decide who hears each.   I do that because I think they are both fitting reminders for us as we enter into holy Lent.  We have to keep repentance, and our own return to dust one day, in our minds and hearts so that we can long for the salvation God wants to bring us.

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.  Giving things up, spending more time in prayer and devotion, dedicating ourselves to works of charity, all of these help us to deeply experience the love of Christ as we enter into deeper relationship with him.  That is Lent, and the time to begin it, as Joel tells us, is now:  Now is the acceptable time!  Now is the day of salvation!

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!”