Friday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Today’s readings remind us that Lent is no time for “business as usual.” It’s not enough for us to merely claim to be righteous, because righteousness, literally a right relationship, means that righteous actions must back our lofty words. And so today we are called to a righteousness that surpasses the scribes and Pharisees, a righteousness that goes beyond our words and our reputations and what we want people to think about us. The righteousness that Jesus calls us to today is a righteousness that starts where everything must, and that is in the heart.

Today’s Gospel comes from the somewhat scary “but I say to you” section of Matthew’s Gospel. Here, Jesus reiterates the teachings of Moses and then “kicks them up a notch.” That means that harsh words, grudges, anger, backbiting, gossiping and slander share equal dishonor with outright murder. They all, Jesus tells us, violate the fifth commandment, because they all start with the same murderous inclination of the heart. The one who has harbored these evil thoughts and actions must repent of them and seek reconciliation before offering his or her gift at the altar, or the offering will be tainted, ruined, and ultimately rendered sacrilegious.

Ezekiel’s prophecy in the first reading is good news for those of us who have gone astray. His prophecy holds out the possibility of a second chance for us sinners and calls us to a fundamental change of life. Even if we have been known for our wicked deeds, we have the opportunity to repent and change our hearts and lives. Just so, the one known for his righteousness may indeed turn from his righteous ways. But life or death depends on what we have chosen in the end. If we have repented, God will forget our wickedness and treat us with mercy. But if we have turned from righteousness, we will have forgotten God’s mercy and instead find everlasting death.

The Psalmist today rejoices in God who is trustworthy with his mercy and forgiveness. In this time of Lenten repentance, we can have confidence in our God who longs to bring us back:

For with the Lord is kindness
and with him is plenteous redemption;
And he will redeem [all of us]from all [our] iniquities.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

The prophets of the Old Testament were always pretty clear about the fact that God was sick and tired of people trying to claim righteousness but not really being righteous. The idea of keeping the letter but not the spirit of the Law, of fasting and praying with the express idea of getting these things over with so one could return to cheating the poor was repugnant – is repugnant – to our God. The prophets cried out full-throated and unsparingly that worship of God was not a part-time endeavor, that the time for “business as usual” was over.

In Hebrew, the word for “righteousness” is tseh’-dek, which has the connotation of right relationship. This was the theme of the prophets: that right relationship, a relationship directed toward God and toward others, was the only thing that could ever deliver true peace.

This is the call of Isaiah in today’s first reading. God makes it clear through Isaiah that showy fasting, mortification and sacrifice is not what God wants from humankind. God, who made us for himself, wants us – all of us, and not just some dramatic show of false piety, put on display for all the world to see. God doesn’t want fasting that ends in quarrelling and fighting with others, because that destroys the right relationships that our fast should be leading us toward in the first place.

So, if we really want to fast, says Isaiah, we need to put all that nonsense aside. Our true fast needs to be a beacon of justice, a wholehearted reaching out to the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. As we get into our Lenten practices these days, we too might find that our self-sacrifice ends up pushing us away from others, and ultimately from God. That’s not a sign to give it up, but maybe more to redirect it. If we give up something, we should also balance that with a renewed effort to reach out to God and others. Right relationship should be the goal of all of our Lenten efforts this year. And we can truly live that kind of penitence with joy because it comes with a great promise, says Isaiah:

Your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

Thursday After Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear;
though as for that, the passing there
had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no feet had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.

This poem, as you may recognize, is “The Road Less Traveled,” by Robert Frost, and it was always one of my favorites.  Today’s readings speak, more or less, to the same sentiment, but with a more radical and crucial twist.  Frost’s opinion is that both roads are equally valid, he simply chooses to take the one most people don’t.  But the Gospel tells us that there really is only the one valid path, and that certainly is the road less traveled.  We commonly call it the Way of the Cross.

Moses makes it clear: he sets before the people life and death, and then begs them to choose life.  Choosing life, for the Christian, means going down that less traveled Way of the Cross, a road that is hard and filled with pitfalls.  And maybe the real problem is that there is a choice.  Wouldn’t it be great if we only had the one way set before us and no matter how hard it would be, that was all we could choose? But God has given us freedom and wants us to follow that Way of the Cross in freedom, because that’s the only way that leads to life; the only way that leads to him.

Our Psalmist says it well today:

Blessed the one who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.

Monday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We’re still in the opening chapters of human history in our first reading, and in these opening chapters we see some of the less beautiful parts of human nature. The first reading reads like an exposition of deadly sins, and these sins have continued to plague humanity ever since.

We start with envy, as Cain laments that his offering was not accepted with the same favor as was his brother, Abel’s. We move from envy to murder, with Cain committing the very first fratricide, killing his very own brother. From there, we go to apathy, as Cain rejects the opportunity to be his brother’s keeper. And then we meet false witness, as he lies about the murder that he committed. And if all of that isn’t enough, Cain then complains about his punishment as if it was something he didn’t deserve. If he’d only tried repentance, or expressed sorrow for his sins, or even accepted responsibility for what he’d done, maybe things would have turned out differently.

But, in this opening act of human history, we see God’s mercy. God does not remit the entirety of Cain’s punishment, but promises that even his death would be unacceptable. Maybe we should think about that in regard to the death penalty: if even God doesn’t condone the murder of a murderer, then who are we to do that? So God marks Cain, as we all are marked with God’s presence at our baptism. So even in this very early story of our history, we can see that baptism was always intended for our salvation.

The Psalmist this morning says that we absolutely cannot profess God’s commandments and sing his praises, without also accepting God’s discipline and following God’s word. A sacrifice of praise is a life lived with integrity, and that is the sacrifice that God wants of us in every moment.

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Blessed are those who fear the Lord,” the Psalmist tells us today.  And today as our example of those who fear the Lord, we have two women.  And we begin with the creation of the first woman.  God has created all the creatures of the earth: land, water and air, yet none of these are found to be a suitable partner for him.  And so it takes a new creative act of God, putting the man to sleep – putting things on pause for a moment, as if to make things right.  The only suitable partner for the man had to be someone who was made of his same flesh, and so one of his ribs is taken to form the basis of the woman.  How significant it is that his partner is made from a bone right next to his heart!  And only with this astounding new creation is all of creation complete.  In the present, the work of creation goes on all the time, of course, largely because man and woman were created to participate in that creation together with their Creator.

The second woman we meet today is the Syrophoenician woman.  She is a woman of great faith – persistent faith even!  Not only does she want Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter, but she is convinced that he is the only one that can make it happen.  Her faith and her persistence give us a model for our spiritual lives. For us disciples, a strong faith in Christ means never questioning his ability to act for our good, and never letting anything – not even the technicalities of a perceived mission – get in the way of acting on that faith. We too are called to steadfast faith, and persistent prayer.

The Nuptial Blessing from the Rite of Marriage prays for the bride: “May she always follow the example of the holy women whose praises are sung in the scriptures.”  There are many such wonderful examples, of course, and today’s are just two of them.  They give all of us a shining example of what our faith should be like.  May all of us – women and men! – follow their example.

Our Lady of Lourdes

Bernadette Soubirous was a sickly young woman. But on February 11, 1858, her entire life changed when a beautiful lady, clothed in white, with a rosary over her arm and a yellow rose on each foot, appeared to her and said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” In the years since, the site of those wonderful apparitions, Lourdes, has been a place of pilgrimage and healing, but even more of faith. Church authorities have recognized over 60 miraculous cures, although there have probably been many more. To people of faith this is not surprising. It is a continuation of Jesus’ healing miracles—now performed at the intercession of his mother. Some would say that the greater miracles are hidden ones. That is, many who visit Lourdes return home with renewed faith and a readiness to serve God in their needy brothers and sisters.

Many continue to be healed in body, mind and spirit today. Maybe it’s the remission of cancer, or deliverance from the flu. Perhaps the intercessor was Saint Blaise, who we recently remembered, or Saint Peregrine, or Our Lady of Lourdes who we celebrate today. However it is accomplished, healing is the ministry of our God. Sometimes an illness is not cured, perhaps it even grows worse or is terminal, and so maybe the healing that God intends in that situation isn’t the physical one we hope for, but instead some spiritual gift or growth in faith. God answers our prayers in all sorts of ways, though the prayers of many intercessors; a person of faith takes comfort in that.

In 1992, Pope Saint John Paul II proclaimed today as the World Day of the Sick, “a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one’s suffering for the good of the Church and of reminding us to see in our sick brother and sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying and rising, achieved the salvation of humankind.” In our prayer today, we remember all of those who are sick, and we offer our own illnesses and frailties for the accomplishment of God’s will in our world.

Saint Scholastica, Virgin

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Scholastica, who is known as the sister of Saint Benedict. Some traditions speak of them as twins. Pope Saint Gregory the Great tells us that Benedict ruled over both monks and nuns, and it seems as if Saint Scholastica was the prioress of the nuns.

So what we know about Saint Scholastica is what we have from Saint Gregory, and his account tells us of a spiritual kinship between she and Benedict that was extremely close. They would often meet together, but could never do so in their respective cloisters, so each would travel with some of their confreres and meet at a house nearby. On one such occasion, the last of these meetings together, they were speaking as they often did of the glories of God and the promise of heaven. Perhaps knowing that she would not have this opportunity again, Scholastica begged her brother not to leave but to spend the night in this spiritual conversation. Benedict did not like the idea of being outside his monastery for the night, and initially refused. With that, Saint Scholastica laid her head on her hands and asked God to intercede. Just as she finished her prayer, a very violent storm arose, preventing Benedict’s return to the monastery. He said: “God forgive you, sister; what have you done?” She replied, “I asked a favor of you and you refused it. I asked it of God, and He has granted it.”

Three days later, Saint Scholastica died. Saint Benedict was alone at the time, and had a vision of his sister’s soul ascending to heaven as a dove. He announced her death to his brethren and then gave praise for her great happiness. Just like Saint Scholastica, we are called to spend our days and nights in contemplation of our Lord and discussing his greatness with our brothers and sisters. What a pleasant change that would be from some of the conversations we have, I am sure! If we would do this, we too might find as the Psalmist says today, how wonderful our God is, in all the earth!