Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

At the heart of our practice of prayer has to be trust in God. We don’t – or shouldn’t – need signs to convince us of God’s love and care for us.  But don’t we do that all the time?  Aren’t we just like those Galileans looking for a sign?  We might be hesitant to take a leap of faith that we know God is calling us to make, but are looking for some kind of miracle to get us off our behinds.  We might know that healing in a certain situation will take some time, but we want God to descend, wave a magic wand, and make it all go away.

But just as the royal official trusted that Jesus could cure his son, so we too need to trust that God in his goodness will work the best for us, in his time, in his way. Isaiah tells us today that God is about to create a new heavens and a new earth, where there will always be rejoicing and gladness. But how hard is it for us to wait for that new creative act, isn’t it?  We just really want to see that big picture now, please, we want to know what’s on God’s mind and where he’s taking us.  But that’s not how God works is it?

It can be hard for us when we look around for blessing and don’t see it happening on our timetable.  We forget, sometimes, that a big part of the grace comes in the journey, even when things are really painful.  The Psalmist says, “O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world; you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.”  Notice how he does not say that God shielded him from going to the nether world.  But the nether world was not the end of the Psalmist’s story.

We don’t know where God is taking us today – or any day, for that matter.  We have to trust in our God who longs for our good, just like that royal official.  And we have to believe in the power of God to raise us up, just as he raised his Son from the dead.  We all long to celebrate our Easter Sundays, but our faith tells us that we have to get through our Good Fridays first.

Feel free to remind me of this homily on my next Good Friday.

Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s readings: Isaiah 61:1-3a, Psalm 147; Romans 8:18-27, Matthew 8:5-17

I had the opportunity yesterday, as I often do, to visit with two parishioners who are ill and hospitalized.  In their illness they, along with their families, did as we should always do: they called on the priests of the Church to come and give them the sacraments of healing and be present to them at a difficult time.  We do that as a Church because we are convinced that it is only our faith that can give us solid foundation when we are sick or dying.  It takes an act of faith in God’s care for us to really navigate illness and pain.

This Mass is that act of faith.  In the Anointing of the Sick, the Church proclaims courageously that there is no malady that cannot be addressed by our God; that he can take on whatever ails us, bind up whatever is broken in us, and bring forth something new, something beautiful, something perhaps unexpected.  Today we gather as the Church and place our faith in the healing of our God.  We acknowledge that the healing God brings us doesn’t always make all of our illness go away, but we also don’t rule that out.  We trust that God, who sees the big picture, knows what is best for us and desires that we come to the greatest good possible.  We also trust that God’s grace is enough to help us address illness, infirmity, pain, suffering, and the ardors of medical treatment.  We know that our God walks with us in good times and in bad.

Our readings today help us to express the faith we place in this wonderful sacrament and in the healing that Christ brings us.  In the Gospel, Jesus is amazed by the faith of the centurion who trusts that Jesus’ healing can transcend time and space and that “just the word” of Christ would bring that healing to his servant.  His is a faith we use to express our own faith in the healing power of the Eucharist whenever the priest raises the host and cup: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  These words remind us also that healing is not just a physical thing.  The soul and the spirit have to be healed in so many ways, from the evils of sin to the sadness of infirmity – Christ’s healing power addresses our brokenness from the inside out, and that power is so beautifully manifested in the Eucharist we celebrate.

The second reading is solace for weary pray-ers.  Especially during times of illness, it can seem like we pray and pray and pray, and there is no answer, or little answer, even silence from our God.  We may also feel so overwhelmed by our situation that we don’t know how to pray.  I myself felt that way in my second year of seminary when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer within a month of each other.  I had no idea what to say to God any more, and the only thing I could do was groan “Help!”  And that was enough.  The Holy Spirit took care of the rest of my praying, as did so many of my classmates who came to pray for me and with me.  I did not know how to pray as I ought, but the Spirit certainly interceded with groanings I could not manage to express.  That happens often during times of illness and crisis.  But faith says that we don’t have to have all the right words, because our faith is enough and our God knows what we need.

And so in our faith, we gather today to express the prayers of our hearts, perhaps prayers we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another.  We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us.  The Apostle Saint James tells us that we should turn to the Church in time of illness, calling on the priests to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord, knowing that God desires healing, and that the prayer of faith will save the sick and raise them up, forgiving them their sins.

The Church has this sacrament 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 when they are men and women of faith.  This ministry is also provided by our many Ministers of Care, people who 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 and his care for 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, even in your darkest hours.  We have faith that 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 every healing moment is a miracle, made possible by God’s great love poured out on us when we make an act of faith.

The Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Today’s readings

Fear keeps us from doing all sorts of things the Lord wants for us.  If we would truly let go of our fear and cling to our God, just imagine what he could do in us and through us.  Ahaz was King of Israel, a mighty commander, but yet was so afraid of God and what God might do that he refused to ask for a sign.  Perhaps he knew how far he had strayed from God’s commands, and he was afraid to engage God on any level.  He would prefer to cut himself off from God rather than give himself over to the amazing power of God’s presence in his life and his rule.  Because of that perhaps, he never lived to see the greatness of God’s glory.

But his weakness did not disrupt the promise.  In the fullness of time, God’s messenger came to a young woman named Mary and proposed to accomplish in her life the sign for which Ahaz was too afraid to ask.  She too was initially afraid, pondering what sort of greeting this was.  She was also confused, not knowing how what the angel proclaimed could possibly take place in her life.  Our reaction to God’s mysterious will for us is quite often the same, isn’t it?

The difference, though, was that Mary heeded the initial words of the angel that have resounded through Salvation history ever since: “Do not be afraid.”  And, thanks be to God, Mary abandoned her fear and instead sang her fiat, her great “yes” to God’s plan for her, and for all of us.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  These words are reminiscent of what the Psalmist sings today: “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”

And we know what happened from there.  Mary certainly knew that none of that could be accomplished through her own efforts, but she absolutely knew that God could do whatever he undertook.  Nothing would be impossible for God, and she trusted in that, and because of that, we have the great hope of our salvation.  We owe everything to Mary’s cooperation with God’s plan for our salvation.

And so the promise comes to us.  We have the great sign of which Ahaz was afraid, but in which Mary rejoiced.  We too are told that God can accomplish much in our own lives, if we would abandon our fears and cling to the hope of God’s presence and action in our lives.  Can we too be the handmaids of the Lord?  Are we bold enough to say, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will?”  All we have to do is to remember the first thing the angel said to Mary: “Do not be afraid.”

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

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, I think, was that he trusted in himself instead of 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.  You don’t see him praying in the story or even giving thanks to God for his riches.  All you see is him enjoying what he has amassed, to the neglect of the poor.

Now in death, he wants the good things God will provide for those who trust in him, people like Lazarus for example.   Lazarus has suffered much, and as the Old Testament Prophets proclaim, God is especially close to the poor and needy.  But the rich man has already made his choice, and unfortunately now, trusting in himself doesn’t bring him anything good.

So the question is, in whom do we trust?  Blessed are they, the Psalmist says today, who hope in the Lord.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Many people who have been away from the Sacrament of Penance for a long time have said that they were afraid to come back to the Church because they felt like their sins defined them.  That they walked around with some kind of scarlet letter on their persons.  I think this is the experience that Isaiah is getting at when he says, “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.”

Our sins do not define us, but our repentance does.  And that repentance has to include a commitment to justice for those we have marginalized: “redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.”  Our penance and our righteousness has to be approached in humility, remembering that those who humble themselves will be exalted.  Our repentance has its reward, as the Psalmist tells us: “To the upright I will show the saving power of God.”

Saint Patrick, Bishop

I used to be upset that Saint Patrick’s Day always happened during Lent.  I’d have to postpone the celebration of my favorite saint until Sunday, especially if it fell on a Friday, because we just didn’t have corned beef on Friday, you know.  But as I’ve grown older, I appreciate that Saint Patrick’s Day is in Lent, because I think Saint Patrick is a compelling Lenten figure.

Lent, of course, is a time of conversion and renewal of faith.  Saint Patrick’s life was one of conversion.  Listen to these words from the beginning of his famous Confession:  “And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance.  And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”

And so we have here a rather compelling story of conversion.  We who are sinners ourselves might well relate to his reminiscences of a disaffected youth.  He writes, in his famous Confession of an unmentioned sin, dating from before he was ordained, even before he was living a Christian life.  The sin was apparently known to a friend of his – a friend who lobbied for him to become a bishop, and then 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, and for a second chance to live his life the right way, is an example for all of us, a grace that we could all long for especially in these Lenten days.

St. Patrick had to weather so many storms in his life. He was kidnapped and enslaved, he worked in mission territory among people who at times were hostile to the Christian way of life, he was betrayed by a friend and besieged by fellow clergymen who were jealous of the success of his ministry and critical of the way he did it.  But through it all, he was grateful for the power of God at work in him.  The faith that led him to be that way was nourished on a strong friendship with God.

Some say St. Patrick never wrote his famous “Breastplate” or “Lorica” prayer.  Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t, but I tend to think it’s the kind of thing he would have prayed, every morning, to remind himself of the source of his blessing, to call on God’s protection, and to center himself to look for Christ in every person in every moment.  Maybe that prayer can do the same thing for all of us, too; here are some excerpts from it:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through the confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the Judgment Day.

I arise today
Through 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.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

So, there’s our mission statement for Lent: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Our righteousness needs to exceed that of everyone else, or we will be missing out on the kingdom of God.

So how far do we go with 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?

Well, 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 – that’s what’s really at stake in all these situations.

Who do I need to forgive today?