Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Just as the saraph serpent was lifted up on a pole in the desert for the people to see, and thus live, so the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, was lifted up on the cross for the salvation of the world.  In these late Lenten days, the Church is looking to the Cross, looking toward Jerusalem, knowing that the hour of the Lord, in which he would pay the dear price of our salvation, is near at hand.

With hearts filled with gratitude, we come to this Eucharist, with our eyes fixed on our Lord lifted up for us, who pours himself out for us again and still.  When we see him lifted up, we remember that he is “I AM,” our crucified and risen Lord, and whenever we look to him, we are saved from all that ails us, from our sins and brokenness, and we ourselves are lifted up to eternal life.

Our challenge in these late Lenten days is to be that icon of the Cross, like the saraph serpent, to whom people can look and find healing and salvation. We have to be the image of Christ crucified so that the world can become whole.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s readings

Yesterday I presided at the funeral of the mother of one of my friends. It was a beautiful gathering because she and her sister basically took the last few weeks off of their work commitments to be with her during her last days. Not everyone can do that, but it did give them a lot of peace. What also gave them peace was that their mother was anointed during her illness, which prepared her for her entry into eternal life.

Saint James tells us: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call on the priests of the Church and let the priests pray over them in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick persons and the Lord will raise them up. And if they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them.” And so this is the charge that the Church uses to direct the Anointing of the Sick. 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. There is nothing that can take away God’s love for us.

I love the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading:

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.

Our lives can bring us all sorts of pain and illness; so much so that we can get mired in all of that and forget that the current page that we’re on is not the end of our story. God is always doing something new. It might take a leap of faith, which is perhaps uncomfortable, but God even brought forth water in the wasteland of the desert for his people to drink during the Exodus. He can certainly bring us to something new and better than what we’re currently enduring. That’s the theological virtue of hope.

In today’s familiar Gospel reading, Jesus heals the woman caught in the act of adultery. Sure he saved her from being stoned to death, but that’s not the healing I’m talking about. The healing came in his last words to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” He has healed her from the woundedness of her sins. Jesus saw what was really broken in her, whatever it was that brought her to this sad day, and he set her free from it, and called her to repentance. Because it is repentance that opens us to God’s mercy and any real healing.

And so it’s our need for healing that brings us together in faith today. 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 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.

Large portions of the Gospel 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.

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Sometimes it’s hard for things to get through to us, isn’t it? Well, it’s always been that way, apparently. One of my friends in seminary used to say that the Israelites had a pillar of cloud leading them by day, and a pillar of fire by night. So how come they couldn’t believe that God would take care of them? What more did they need?

Today’s readings speak of that dilemma. The people did not, in fact, believe Moses or they never would have made the golden idol. They didn’t believe Moses in his day, nor Jesus in his day. In the Gospel, Jesus indicts the Jews for their disbelief: They didn’t believe John the Baptist, they didn’t believe Moses, and he knew they definitely wouldn’t believe him. It’s hard to believe when you’re confronted with a truth that turns your world upside down. And they preferred the orderliness of their ignorance over the beautiful messiness of the Gospel.

Salvation isn’t supposed to be that hard. God reaches out to us in every moment; all we have to do is recognize that and respond to it. We don’t need glitzy human testimony – or we shouldn’t. We have the Lord poured out for us Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. How blessed we are to have such testimony to God’s love and mercy . May we accept that mercy today and always. May we turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

There’s a lot of talk about water in these readings today, and when that happens, we know that it means the talk is really about baptism. We ourselves are the sick and lame man who needed Jesus’ help to get into the waters of Bethesda. The name “Bethesda” means “house of mercy” in Hebrew, and that, of course, would be the Church. We see the Church too in the temple in the first reading, from which waters flow which refresh and nourish the surrounding countryside. These, of course, again are the waters of baptism. Lent calls us to renew ourselves in baptism. We are called to enter, once again, those waters that heal our bodies and our souls. We are called to drink deep of the grace of God so that we can go forth and refresh the world.

But what really stands out in this Gospel is the mercy of Jesus. I think it’s summed up in one statement that maybe we might not catch as merciful at first: “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” It’s hard to imagine being ill for thirty-eight years, but I’m pretty sure missing out on the kingdom of God would be that one, much worse, thing. There is mercy in being called to repentance, which renews us in our baptismal commitments and makes us fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

The book of Daniel the Prophet is one of my favorite books of Scripture. If you haven’t read that book, that would be a great one to take in during Lent. It won’t take terribly long, but be sure you read it from a Catholic edition of the Bible because other editions won’t contain the whole thing.

The story goes that Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael were in the king’s court along with Daniel. They had been well-educated and cared for, and in turn advised the king on matters of wisdom and knowledge. They were better at doing this than anyone in the king’s court, except for one thing. The king, who worshiped idols, had crafted an idol that each person in the kingdom was to bow down and worship several times a day. But Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael were good Jews and would only worship God alone. So they were bound up and cast into the fiery furnace, to their certain demise.

Now you may know this as the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, which were the names the king gave them when they entered his service. If you know the story, then you know the flames did not harm them, and an angel appeared in the furnace to protect them. During that time, Azariah prayed the beautiful prayer we have in our first reading. He acknowledges that his people have been sinful, but prays that God would deliver them because the people currently have no prophet or anyone who could lead them. God’s deliverance of Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael from the fiery furnace is a symbol of God’s planned deliverance of the people from their captivity, which in turn is a symbol of God’s deliverance, through Jesus Christ, from our captivity to sin.

We forgiven and delivered people have to be people of forgiveness, though, as we hear in today’s Gospel. Our own redemption is never complete until we untie the others in our lives whose sins or offenses against us we have bound up. Until we forgive from our hearts, we will never really be free from the bondage of sin. That doesn’t mean we have to be doormats and take abuse from other people. It just means that we let go of the hurt and forgive as we have been forgiven. This is a great project for the Holy Year of Mercy.

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