The Fourth Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny II

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy is all about vision and sight and light and darkness.  All of these, dear friends, are things that we certainly take for granted.  Think about it: we don’t appreciate the gift of light until that dark and stormy night when the electricity goes out and we’re fumbling around in the darkness trying to remember where it is we put that new package of batteries for the flashlight.  We likewise take for granted our own ability to see.  I think of my Aunt Mia, who several years before she passed away lost her sight and had to learn how to see things in a new way.

When I hear today’s first reading, it always makes me think of my dad.  He was the kind of Irishman who never knew a stranger.  We couldn’t go anywhere without running into at least one person he knew.  But he didn’t just know them, he knew their story.  And so if someone were to complain about someone he knew, he would always be able to tell them something good about that person, because Dad saw the best in them.  That’s the kind of vision we are all called to have for one another: we need to see the best in them, we need to see Jesus in them.

So what about this miracle story in the Gospel today.  I have to just say it, who cares?  I mean, it’s nice for that man born blind who can now see, but I mean, he lived two thousand years ago, so what business is it of ours if he can see or not?  Why take up so much time with this reading?  Well I’ll tell you why we should care: we should care because the man born blind is us.  We all have affected vision: none of us sees others or even sees ourselves as God does.  So we have to decide today if we are the man born blind who is easily and quickly healed, or if we want to be the Pharisees who, at the end of the day, never regain their sight because, well, they just don’t want to.

So maybe you’re asking the same question those Pharisees asked, “surely we are not also blind, are we?”  Well, of course we are.  We are, first of all, born blind.  We don’t have a way of seeing the Truth that is in front of us; we can’t acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ and the King of our lives.  It takes holy baptism to cure that born blindness in us.  Secondly, we have a kind of blindness that affects us all through our lives.  We often lose our vision and wander off the path to life.  We are affected by temptation, by cyclical sin and by the darkness of our world.  That’s why we have Lent: to realize our brokenness and to accept the healing power of Christ.  Lent calls us to remember that we are dust, that we are broken people fallen into sin, but it also proclaims that none of that is any match for the power of Christ risen from the dead, if we just let him put a little mud on our eyes.

Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision.  We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision.  Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see.  Our Elect, who are here with us today, will experience that in a very literal way this coming Easter Vigil.  In baptism, our inherited sin and evil is washed away; the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World.

We see that light shine brighter and brighter in today’s Gospel.  During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer.  At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him.  Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, after he has been unceremoniously thrown out of the synagogue, he meets Jesus again and testifies that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship.  As he sees more clearly, his faith becomes bolder.

We make this same journey ourselves.  From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith.  We grow in the way that we see Jesus through our lives.  Think about it: our faith when we were young is not the same faith that works for us later in life.  At one point Jesus is a friend walking with us on life’s path; later on he might be a rock that helps us in a particularly stormy time of life.  Still later, he might be the one calling us to become something new, something better than we think we can attain.  Jesus is always the same, but we are different, and Jesus is with us at every point of life’s journey, if we open our eyes to see him.

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.”  That’s why we’re wearing these rose-colored vestments today.  We are now pretty much half way through Lent, and with eyes recreated by our own trips to the pool of Siloam – the waters of baptism – we can begin to catch a glimpse of Easter joy.  It kind of reminds me of the last section of the Exsultet that we will hear proclaimed on the evening of the Easter Vigil. That last section tells us:

May this flame be found still burning 
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

Christ’s peaceful light changes everything. It clears up the darkness of sin and evil, and allows all of us blind ones to see the glory of God’s presence.  All of us have, indeed been born blind.  But you know what?  We’re not supposed to stay that way.

The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Baptism at Mass

Today’s readings

Today’s readings about the two widows highlight the plight of widows in the ancient world. Without a husband, they would necessarily depend on their sons to help provide for them and keep them safe, and so when these two sons died, the widow was vulnerable and very likely would become destitute. But Elijah and Jesus both recognize their plight and, without even being asked, move to right the wrongs of the situation. Restoring their sons to life, they have really restored the life also of those widows, for God is rich in mercy!

Today we celebrate the baptism of a child, and so maybe it’s hard to see how raising two people from the dead can relate to that, but I believe these readings are really all about baptism! Whenever we see death and life in the Scriptures, we really should think about holy baptism, in which our mortal bodies, dead in sin, are raised up to new life in Christ. I’ll be blessing the water of the font in a few minutes, and here are some of the words of that blessing:

May this water receive by the Holy Spirit
the grace of your Only Begotten Son,
so that human nature, created in your image
and washed clean through the Sacrament of Baptism
from all the squalor of the life of old,
may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children
through water and the Holy Spirit.

Just as Jesus said to the dead man in today’s Gospel, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” so he says to all who are baptized, “Be raised up, be washed clean, take possession of new life!” And so in the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath and the son of the widow of Nain, we see the precursor of holy Baptism, in which God in his great mercy is re-creating the world anew and bringing new life to those whose bodies were dead in their mortality. Baptism is the great gift of new life that our Lord gives to his Church. It is a participation in his own death and Resurrection, in which death and sin are rendered impotent, and we are given new life.

And so, as we hear of life restored to those who were thought to be dead, it is so appropriate that you bring your child here for baptism. In this sacrament, he receives new life in Christ, who wills that all children should come to him and be made new. As you continue to bring your child here to Church for Mass and religious instruction, God will continue to pour out his mercy and grace and give him a life made new in the Holy Spirit.

Raising children these days can be difficult, as we all know. There are so many competing voices out there, so many opportunities for a young person to be tempted away from God, Church, and family. But the good news is that you aren’t expected to raise your child on your own. You are promised in this sacrament of Holy Baptism the grace that will help you in your task as parents, and as he is initiated into the Church today, you receive the promise of the Church’s help in teaching him and helping him to know God and his love.

The Psalmist today sings of this hope that we have in Christ and in this sacrament. He sings:

I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.

There is no death that can overcome our new life in Christ. Praise God for the gift of our baptism which raises us up and makes us new!

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I have to say, when the Scriptures talk about prayer, I get a little uneasy. Not because I don’t like to pray, or think prayer is a bad thing. But more because I think mostly we misunderstand prayer, and usually a brief mention in the readings can do more harm than good. This week’s Gospel is a good example of that. The line almost at the end of the reading is the culprit: “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.”

Really? Anything? I don’t know about you, but I personally have an example of something that my friends and I had been praying about, and just this week it was denied. You can probably think of examples too. So what are we to make of this? Well, I’d like to make three points.

First, in the line right after this, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Notice how he says, “in my name.” So it’s not like a couple of us can get together and pray for something crazy and hold God accountable for granting it. If we’re gathered in anything less than the name of Jesus, we’re in the wrong place, and you don’t get what you want, or even what you need, when you’re in a place other than where Jesus is.

Second, reflecting on that same line, I would point out the last phrase: “there am I in the midst of them.” Sometimes God doesn’t answer all our prayers in the way we think he should. But he definitely always answers them with his presence. Sometimes that leads to resolution of a problem that is greater than we could have imagined. Sometimes it makes us a stronger, more faith-filled person. And sometimes the answer to a prayer means that we have to change, not the situation. So the abiding presence of our God, most perfectly experienced in community, when two are three are gathered in his name, is the most important answer to every prayer.

Finally – and I can’t say this often enough, nor stress it strongly enough – prayer is not a magic wand. You might read in this brief little passage that all you have to do is pray and you get it. Prayer is always experienced in relationship: relationship with God and relationship with others. That’s why this brief little passage mentions praying together, and praying in Jesus’ name. Those are important points, and it’s best not to overlook them.

Prayer is a relationship, prayer is work – sometimes hard work, prayer is a way of life for the disciple of Jesus. We enter that relationship at our Baptism, and it’s our task as disciples to nurture that relationship our whole lives long.

The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

For each of the deadly sins, there is also a life-giving virtue.  Today, our readings focus on humility, which is the life-giving virtue that is the antidote to pride.  Of the seven deadly sins, pride is usually considered the original and the most serious of the sins.  Pride was the sin that caused the angel Lucifer to fall from grace to become the devil.  Pride was the sin that caused our first parents to reach for the forbidden fruit that was beyond them, all in an attempt to know everything God does.  A good examination of conscience would probably convince all of us that we suffer from pride from time to time, and sometimes even pervasively, in our own lives.  It’s what causes us to compare ourselves to others, to try to solve all our problems in ways that don’t include God, to be angry when everything does not go the way we would have it.  Pride, as the saying goes, and as Lucifer found out, doth indeed go before the fall, and when that happens in a person’s life, if it doesn’t break them in a way that  convinces them of their need for God, will very often send them into a tailspin of despair.  Pride is a particularly ugly thing.

But, if you’ve been paying attention to our readings during these summer months, we have been building up a kind of toolbox for disciples.  We’ve had prayer and faith and some others in that toolbox, and today we are given the tool that unlocks the prison of pride, and that tool of course is humility.  But when we think about humility, we might associate that with a kind of wimpiness.  When you think about humble people do you imagine breast-beating, pious souls who allow themselves to be the doormats for the more aggressive and ambitious? Humble people, we tend to think, don’t buck the system, they just say their prayers and, when they are inflicted with pain and suffering, they just “offer it up.”

But Jesus described himself as “humble of heart,” and I dare say we wouldn’t think of him as such a pushover.  He of all people, took every occasion to buck the system – that was what he came here to do.  But he was indeed humble, humbling himself to become one of us when he could easily have clung to his glory as God.  He was strong enough to call us all, in the strongest of terms, to examine our lives and reform our attitudes, but humble enough to die for our sins.

And so it is this humble Jesus who speaks up and challenges his hearers to adopt lives of humility in today’s gospel reading.  The “leading Pharisee” had obviously invited people who were important enough to repay the favor some day – with one obvious exception – Jesus was decidedly not in a position to repay the favor, at least not in this life.  So he tells two parables, one exhorting the guests not to think so highly of themselves that they take the best positions at table, and another exhorting his host to humble himself and invite not those who are in a position to repay his generosity.  The guests were to humble themselves, and the host too, by inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” – and know that because they cannot repay him, he would be repaid at the banquet of the righteous in heaven.

We don’t know how the guests or the host responded to Jesus’ exhortation to practice humility.  We do, however, know that Jesus modeled it in his own life.  Indeed, he was not asking them to do something he was unwilling to do himself.  When he said, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” he was in a way foreshadowing what would happen to him.  Humbling himself to take up our cross – our cross – he would be exalted in the glory of the resurrection.

The good news is that glory can be ours too, if we would humble ourselves and lay down our lives for others.  If we stop treating the people in our lives as stepping stones to something better, we might reach something better than we can find on our own.  If we humble ourselves to feed the poor and needy, to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten, we might be more open to the grace our Lord has in store for us in the kingdom of heaven.

In today’s Liturgy we are focusing on baptism, not just N.’s, but also recalling our own.  In baptism we were united with Christ, and that means that we are called on to live lives of humility and grace, living the gospel and following the way that Jesus himself walked through life.  We want to be in that “resurrection of the righteous” that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel, and so we reject pride and embrace humility, taking up our own crosses, and leaving it to God to exalt us on that great day when he brings everything to fulfillment.

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Tonight’s readings

Dear Brothers and Sisters, how good it feels to say “Alleluia” tonight!  Ever since we put the acclamation of our Resurrection joy away some forty days ago, we have been yearning for the opportunity to celebrate, once again, the fullness of our salvation.  And this is the night!  This is the night when Jesus Christ breaks the prison-bars of death and rises triumphant over the grave!  We have kept vigil for the fullness of that promise to be revealed, and now, here we are!  How could we do anything less than shout “Alleluia” with all of our joy?!

Tonight, we have gathered in the oppressive darkness of the world around us.  The sadness of sin and death, culminating in the death of our Savior, seemed for a time to have triumphed.  We know, only too well, that it was our sins that brought Jesus to the Cross: it was indeed our infirmities that he bore, our brokenness on display for all the world to see.  So as we gathered in a dark Church or out on the dark piazza, we certainly must have felt that sadness in a special way.  But we know the whole story, don’t we?  And because we do know the whole story, even in our experience of sadness, there is that expectation, that part of us that knows that joy is on its way.

As we have gathered over the last three nights to let the story of our salvation unfold, we have had an ever-heightened sense of yearning for the story to come to its fruition.  And tonight, we are treated to an even greater dose of that.  Tonight, we have heard stories of God’s desire to bring us back to him.  We have seen that time and time again, God has broken through the history of our brokenness, has triumphed over the lure of sin, and has redirected his chosen ones to the path of life.  We have recalled that God created everything to reflect the resplendent goodness that is God; we have seen Abraham, on the cusp of inheriting the promise of eternity for all his descendants, called upon to sacrifice his only son to show his love, only to have it all turned on its head when God promises to provide the lamb for the sacrifice, that lamb that is the foreshadowing of a Savior; we have seen Moses lead the people out of the Egypt that has held them slaves to sin, through the desert of desolation and yearning for God, safely through the waters of the Red Sea which flowed back to wash all their sins away, that journey that is the prefiguring of the sacrament of Baptism; then the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel have called us to come to the water, to be nourished freely and cleansed of our impurities.

Tonight we have heard in reading after reading, that God will absolutely not ever abandon his loved and chosen ones to sin and death.  We have heard that God initiated the covenant and pursues it forever, never forcing us to accept his will, but willing that we should follow him and accept his mercy.  God has provided the lamb of salvation, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world.  God has gone to the cross and been in the tomb and descended to hell – there is nowhere that is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, there is no place, no depth to which God will not go to redeem his beloved creation.  God’s mercy endures forever!

God delights in the freedom of will that we possess as a natural part of who we are, because it gives us the opportunity to freely choose to love him, as he freely chooses to love us.  But he knows that same free will can and will also lead us astray, into sin, into evil.  The free choice to love God is a greater good than the absence of evil, so not imbuing us with free will was never an option.  Instead, evil and sin and our fallenness are redeemed on this most holy of all nights, this night which “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”

And thus it is fitting that this night is the night when we focus on Baptism.  Everything is in place: the waters of the Red Sea are parted, the pillar of fire glows to the honor of God, we are led to grace and joined to God’s holy ones of every time and place, Christ emerges triumphant from the underworld and the sin of Adam is redeemed forever.  And so Korrin, our Elect, in a few moments will enter the waters of Baptism from the west: that place of the setting sun, renouncing the prince of darkness, professing faith in God, dying with Christ in the waters, emerging to new life, triumphant with Christ on the east, and encountering the bright morning star whose light blazes for all eternity.  We will hold our breath as the waters flow over her, and sing Alleluia when she is reborn, crying out the praise of God with all the joy the Church can muster!

Our joy will continue to overflow as she and Brian, our candidate for full Communion with the Church, are Confirmed in the Holy Spirit and fed for the very first time with the Eucharistic Bread of Life and Cup of Eternal Salvation.  God’s mercy has once again triumphed and brought two wonderful young people into the family of the Church and the community of our parish.  God’s goodness shows forth all its splendor in so many wonderful ways on this most holy of all nights!

This is the night that redeems all of our days and nights.  This is the night when sin and death are rendered impotent by the plunging of the Paschal candle, the Light of Christ, into the waters of Baptism.  On this night, everything is turned upside-down; sin and death no longer define who we are as human beings; the forces of evil search in vain for darkness in which to cower, because the bright morning star has washed the darkness away.  On this night, the waters of Baptism kill death, wash away faults and wickedness, give refreshment to those who are parched for holiness, and bring life to all who have withered in the desert of brokenness.

And so, may the flame of our joy, blazing against the darkness of the world’s night, be found still burning by the Morning Star:  the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ our Lord, God’s only Son, who coming back from even from the depths of death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever!  Amen!

The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings

Do you know the date of your baptism?  I know the month of mine, but have to admit I’m not really sure about the date.  But when was the last time you even thought about your baptism?  Most of us don’t remember much about our baptism day, having been to young for it to really register in our memories.  In some ways, our lack of knowledge about our baptisms is sad, because baptism is, we believe, a radically life-changing event.

In the sacrament of baptism, our sins are washed away.  For those of us baptized as infants, that means our original sin.  For those baptized as adults, that also includes any personal sins committed up to that time.  Baptism also gives us the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which fills us with grace to participate in the mission of Christ in this world.  So those waters of baptism are powerful ones: they wash away our sinfulness and give us the grace to be who we were created to be.

Today, Jesus himself is baptized.  Which is odd: he certainly didn’t need to be cleansed from sin, which was the type of baptism John the Baptist was doing.  But there was a reason for it.  Jesus told John to allow it for now.  This was how Christ desired to be one with us, to be manifest to us.  By entering the waters of baptism, Jesus makes those waters holy.  When we then enter the waters of baptism, we are made holy – that never could have happened if Jesus had not been baptized.  By being baptized, Jesus identifies himself with sinners; pledges to be one with them and make salvation possible.  Today’s Gospel story is an incredibly significant event.

So if Jesus Christ identified himself with us sinners through baptism, then we who have been baptized must also identify ourselves with him. We must manifest him in the world through living the Gospel and following in his ways. Today we hear in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles that Jesus, having been anointed with the Holy Spirit, “went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.” That’s the model he set for all who would be baptized as he was. So we baptized ones must do the same.

It is easy to see how we can go about doing good. There are thousands of opportunities to do that in our lives. Children and young people can do good by obeying their parents, being kind to brothers, sisters and friends, attending to their school work, and praying for those who are needy. Adults can strive to lead godly lives, raising families in peace, working diligently at their jobs, and being of service to the community. Every day there is an opportunity to do good in ordinary and extraordinary ways. All we have to do is decide to live our baptismal call and do it.

Healing those oppressed by the devil might seem harder to do. But there are lots of ways to cast out demons. Teaching something to another person is a way to cast out the demons of ignorance. Reaching out to an elderly neighbor is a way to cast out the demons of loneliness. Educating ourselves on the evils of racism is a way to cast out the demons of hatred. Bringing food to the food pantry, or volunteering at a soup kitchen or loaves and fishes is a way to cast out the demons of poverty and hunger and homelessness. Visiting the sick, or picking up medication or groceries for a sick neighbor, is a way to cast out the demons of illness. We have opportunities to heal those oppressed by the devil all the time. All we have to do is decide to do it.

Today we are called upon to remember our baptism, and perhaps to think about it in a slightly different light.  We should remember that our baptism was made possible by Christ’s baptism and above all by his saving sacrifice.  Given that extraordinary price, we must always be mindful of how important that baptism is.  We can live our baptism every day: all we have to do is decide to do it.

Third Sunday of Lent [Scrutiny I]

Today’s readings

NB: This homily is based on the readings from cycle A, which was read just for the Mass of the Scrutiny.

Last year about this time, I got the flu – bad.  It was one of those rare occasions when I was so sick, I couldn’t even get out of bed.  I had a fever, chills, aches and pains, the whole deal. When it was at its worst, I was trying to drink a lot of fluids, which is pretty much the only thing you really can do when you have the flu. So I drank a lot of water, but as time went on, I got sick of drinking a lot of water. So I supplemented it with tea, of course, but I even gave myself permission to do something I don’t do very often, and that was to drink some soda – 7up mostly. And that tasted good, the 7up, but because it’s sugary, sooner rather than later I’d be thirsty again, and the only thing that really helped was – water.

I thought about that experience as I was preparing today’s homily, because this set of readings, which are being used just for this Mass because of the Scrutiny we will pray in a few minutes with our RCIA Elect, these readings are all about water. Whenever we see this much water in the Sunday readings, we should always think of a certain sacrament. Guess which one? Right, baptism. And so we’ll talk about that in just a minute, but before we go there, let’s take a minute to get at the subject of thirst. That, after all, is what gets us to water in the first place.

The Israelites were sure thirsty in today’s first reading. After all, they had been wandering around the desert for a while now, and would continue to do so for forty years. At that point, they were thinking about how nice it would have been if they had just remained slaves in Egypt, so that they wouldn’t have to come all the way out here to the desert just to die of thirst. Better slaves than dead, they thought. The issue was that they didn’t have what they thirsted for, and had not yet learned to trust God to quench that thirst. So Moses takes all the complaining of the people and complains to God, who provides water for them in the desert. Think about that – they had water in the desert! And they had that water for as long as they continued to make that desert journey. They never ran out, they didn’t die of thirst, God proves himself trustworthy in a miraculous way. The end of the reading says they named the place Massah and Meribah because they wondered, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” Can you imagine that?  God had led them out of slavery in Egypt with great miracles and signs, and is guiding them through the desert with a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night.  Is the LORD in their midst or not?  Obviously, the answer was “yes.”

Which brings us to the rather curious story we have in the Gospel reading. If we think the story was all about a woman coming to get a bucket of water, then we’ve really missed the boat. This story asks us what we’re thirsting for, but at a much deeper level. Did Jesus really need a drink of water? Well, maybe, but he clearly thirsted much more for the Samaritan woman’s faith. Did she leave her bucket behind because she would never need to drink water again? No, she probably just forgot it in the excitement, but clearly she had found the source of living water and wanted to share it with everyone.

In the midst of their interaction, Jesus uncovers that the woman has been thirsting for something her whole life long. She was married so many times, and the one she was with now was not her husband. She apparently couldn’t find what she was thirsting for in her relationships.  She was worshipping, as the Samaritans did, on the mountain and not in Jerusalem as the Jews did. And every single day, she came to this well to draw water, because her life didn’t mean much more than that. She was constantly looking for water that would quench her, and yet she was thirsty all the time. Kind of reminds me of having the flu.

And all of this would be very sad if she hadn’t just found the answer to her prayers, the source of living water. There is a hymn written by Horatio Bonar in 1846 called “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” that speaks to this wonderful Gospel story.  We’re going to hear it in a few minutes as part of our scrutiny, but I want to focus on the words of that hymn because they relate to today’s Gospel story:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,

“Behold, I freely give

the living water; thirsty one,

stoop down and drink, and live.”

I came to Jesus, and I drank

of that life-giving stream;

my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,

and now I live in him.

And that’s exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman. She drank of the stream of Jesus’ life-giving water, and she now lived in him. She couldn’t even contain herself and ran right off to town, leaving the bucket of her past life behind, and told everyone about Jesus. They were moved to check this Jesus out, initially because of her testimony. But once they came to know him as the source of life-giving water, they didn’t even need her testimony to convince them; they too lived in him now.

Today’s Scriptures plead with us on the subject of conversion.  The Israelites were wandering through the desert learning to trust God, being converted from the Egypt of their past sinful lives to the Promised Land of God’s inheritance.  The Samaritan woman was being converted from the stagnant water of her own past life to the living, life-giving water of new life in Christ.

Remember that I said earlier that, whenever you see this much about water in the readings, the point is always baptism.  Conversion is necessary before baptism can happen.  And that’s what brings us here today. Lent, if we give ourselves to it, is totally about our baptism and our need for life-long conversion. For those among the Elect, that’s quite literally true. Our elect have been walking the desert journey to come to God’s promise just as the Israelites did. And they, like the Samaritan woman, have come to know the source of life-giving water. Just four weeks from yesterday, they will stand before us, have water poured over their heads, and receive what they have been thirsting for all this time.

But the rest of us, too, find conversion and baptism in our Lenten journey. Lent, as is often pointed out, means “springtime” and during Lent we await a new springtime in our faith. We await new growth, we look for renewed faith, we recommit ourselves to the baptism that is our source of life-giving water. We have what we are thirsting for, and Lent is a time to drink of it more deeply, so that we will be refreshed and renewed to live with vigor the life of faith and the call of the Gospel. These Lenten days take us to Easter and beyond with water that we can pour out in every time and place where God takes us. The life we receive in baptism can revive a world grown listless and jaded and make it alive with springs of refreshment that can only come from the one who gives us water beyond our thirsting, that follows us in our desert journeys, that springs up within those who believe.

The Israelites wondered, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” As we see the waters of baptism refreshing our Elect, and as we ourselves are renewed in our own baptism, we can only answer that question with a resounding “YES!”  So – is the LORD in our midst or not?

The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings

Let’s reflect on two things today: the violence and the voice.

First, the violence.  Back on the first Sunday of Advent we read from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  That particular reading was focusing on how bad things had become.  People were cheating one another, especially the poor and the powerless.  Corruption was just kind of accepted as the way things were.  Worst of all, people had become rather callous or indifferent to it all; they were jaded and just accepted that bad was the new good.  I was thinking that the things Isaiah lamented could well be lamented in our own day.  The poor seem to get poorer, and more powerless, especially today as companies fail through the greed of a few, affecting the livelihood of thousands.  Corruption in our government has led to scandal in the highest office in our state.  And worst of all, we’re not surprised by any of it any more.

On that first day of Advent, Isaiah wrapped up his lament of all that nonsense with the frightening words: “Would that you would rend the heavens and come down.”  It’s a pretty violent prayer that he’s praying.  Isaiah is acknowledging that very little is going to attract our attention any more, so the best God can do is to violently tear open the heavens, a kind of barrier between God and us, if you will, and come down.  Only by God’s walking among us and being one of us can things ever be made right.  We need that kind of violent act of God because nothing else has worked.  The flood didn’t work, the wandering in the desert didn’t work, the captivity in Babylon didn’t work.  Maybe those things worked for a while, but we fickle humans soon forgot the lessons we learned in those momentous events.  To get our attention and keep it, something truly earth-shattering, or rather heaven-shattering, had to happen.

Today we celebrate that that’s exactly what happened.  We gather here today on the last day of the Christmas season, during our continued celebration of Epiphany that began last Sunday.  Epiphany means “manifestation:” we celebrate that God appeared among us, was made manifest among us, became one of us.  Last week’s epiphany was the three magi coming to meet the Christ child with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They worshipped the child who would be king, would be our priest, and would die for our sins.  Today’s epiphany finds Jesus to be an adult, approaching the rivers of the Jordan for baptism.  As he enters those waters of baptism, he isn’t really changed or made holier by those waters.  No, he makes the waters holy by entering them himself.  Through this act, all of the waters of baptism, including the ones that bathed you and me, have been made holy.  And most importantly, that violent act that redeemed us happened: coming up out of the waters, the heavens were torn open – those are the words Mark uses here – “torn open.”  The barrier between God and humanity is sundered now, God has entered human history once again and in a decisive and heaven-shattering event.

Second, the voice.  The voice in our Gospel story continues the epiphany, that voice comes from those heavens which have been torn open.  First, the Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, and then the voice roars out of those open heavens: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  For that brief moment, we see the entire Holy Trinity together at one moment.  We have Jesus coming up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descending upon him, and the Father’s voice roaring out of the heavens.  The epiphany is complete: God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are made manifest at the waters of the Jordan.  God has valued his creation of humanity so much that he appears among us in force, in the completeness of the Trinity, with all of the love that that Holy Trinity gives to us.

Significant here is what the voice says in that moment.  “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  In saying that, the Father confirms the manifestation of his Son in  the world, gives him a Father’s blessing, and empowers his work of redemption.  The words are words of mission – being the Son means that he represents the Father in every act and word.  Now I don’t know about you, but I didn’t hear any voices at my baptism.  At least I don’t think so; I was a baby.

But probably even those who were baptized as adults don’t remember any kind of extra special voice.  But the thing about baptism, is that we’ve all heard that voice at numerous times since, haven’t we?  Whenever we were faced with choices: the easy way out or the way of integrity; the truth or a lie; an opportunity to help someone, or move on; an effort to correct a wrong or turn a blind eye – didn’t we hear an interior voice reminding us who we are by our baptism?  “You are my beloved child with you I am well pleased.”  Didn’t we pray for guidance to make the right choices and strength to follow through on our decisions?

At those decisive and testing moments did we turn to God for help?  Because the violence and the voice should be strong enough hints about God’s love for us to do that.  Or have we ignored the violence and the voice, turned instead toward more selfish motives, and become just as jaded as those Israelites who needed Isaiah to pray that God would rend the heavens and come down?

Jesus’ baptism today is a decisive event.  It meant mission for him: God had the special act of human redemption to accomplish in the person of Jesus.  It meant authority for him: as God’s Son he had the authority of the Father to accomplish what desperately needed to be.  Our own baptisms mean mission and authority too.  We are given a mission of some kind – something specific God wants us to accomplish.  And we have the authority to do that mission by being called sons and daughters of God.  In our own baptism God says to us too: “You are my beloved Son – You are my beloved daughter, and with you I am well pleased.”  The rite of baptism says that explicitly.  After the act of baptism by water, the priest or deacon says, “They are now called children of God.”

And so, on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this Epiphany day, this last day of the Christmas season, we celebrate vocation – the realization that every one of us has a mission as the result of our baptism.  We know that every person has a vocation. Every person is called on by God to do something specific with their life that will bring not only them, but also others around them, to salvation. Parents help to bring their children to salvation by raising them in the faith. Teachers help bring students to salvation by educating them and helping them to develop their God-given talents. Business people bring others to salvation by living lives of integrity and witness to their faith by conducting business fairly and with justice and concern for the needy. The list goes on. Every vocation, every authentic vocation, calls the disciple to do what God created them for, and helps God to bring salvation to the whole world.

And so, to celebrate this week of Vocation Awareness, I invite you to do three things.  First, encourage people to embrace their God-given vocation.  Invite them to consider life as a priest or religious brother or sister.  Parents and grandparents are especially important in helping children know that a religious vocation is a viable option for them.  But everyone can encourage someone they know to embrace the vocation God has given them, whatever that vocation may be.  Second, I invite you to pray for vocations.  Pray for more men to accept the call to priesthood and men and women to accept the call to the religious life.  Pray for those preparing for their vocations: priests and religious in formation, and couples preparing for marriage.  Pray for the faithful living of all holy vocations in the world as a way to build up the kingdom of God.  And third, live your own vocation – whatever it may be – well.  When we do that, we’ll never have to worry about a priest or religious shortage, because if we all live our vocations faithfully and in holiness, then that witness will provide vocations of every kind to build up the Church.

It’s all about the violence, and the voice.  God cared enough for us to rip open those heavens and come down.  And he continues to speak to all of us through our baptisms: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well-pleased.”

CREEDS Retreat Conference III: Salvation through the Cross and Resurrection

Scriptures: Matthew 27:33-56; Matthew 28:1-10

Godspell: “Finale”

Ask a bunch of church type people what their favorite celebration of the Church year is, and inevitably most of them will tell you that it’s the Paschal Triduum.  That period from the evening of Holy Thursday to the Evening of Holy Saturday, celebrating the giving of the Eucharist and the establishment of the Church on Holy Thursday, observing the memorial of our Lord’s Passion and the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, and cutting loose – in a Liturgical way of course – with the Vigil of all vigils – the great Easter Vigil Mass with its service of light, proclamation of the Exsultet, extended Liturgy of the Word, Baptism of catechumens and celebration of the Eucharist – that three-day Day of all Days is by far the most incredible of all the days of the Church year.

I remember my very first time going to the Easter Vigil Mass.  I was in high school, and a friend of ours was being received into Full Communion with the Church.  I was hooked – the joy of that night was palpable, all the more so in welcoming someone who was a friend into the Church which was my home.  If you’ve been close to anyone received into the Church like that, you know what I mean.

Typically, the Church lets it all loose on these wonderful days.  We pull out all the stops, have all the best music, exquisite decorations, incense, processions, reverence beyond anything we display all year long.  And for good reason.  As the Exsultet sings,

This is the night,
when first you saved our fathers:
you freed the people of Israel from their slav’ry,
and led them dry-shod through the sea.

This is the night,
when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin.

This is night,
when Christians ev’rywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.

This is the night,
when Jesus broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.

These are the central mysteries of our faith.  Without the Cross and Resurrection, none of the rest of it makes any sense.  Without the gift of salvation, the Incarnation is just an act of divine curiosity or snooping.  Without salvation, even the creation of the world is meaningless.  But salvation was always God’s plan from the very beginning.  There was never a time when God was making it up as he went along.  Age after age, we were sent prophets and given miracles and we constantly turned away from God.  We had created this huge chasm between us and God that kept us apart.  But all those prophets and miracles prepared us for the coming of our God, for the incredible act of divine grace that would re-create the world in astounding ways.

Many have noted that this was an awfully strange way to save the world.  Certainly our God did not have to debase himself to take on our corrupt human nature, but he did.  He didn’t have to come and take on all our human frailty, walking our walk and living our life, but he did.  He certainly did not have to die our death, the most miserable, humiliating death reserved for the lowest of the low and the commonest of criminals, but he did.  And because he did, God raised him up, destroying death and its miserable chains forever.  Because of this great act, as the Preface to the  Eucharistic Prayer for funerals tells us, “For those who believe in Christ, life is changed, not ended.  When the body of our earthly life dwells in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”

I think Godspell appropriately gets the earth-shattering nature of the Cross, but pretty much soft-pedals the Resurrection.  As the Gospel readings show us, both events included violent earthquakes.  That’s because in those two events, everything changed – everything.  But the movie does make a strong point that even though God died – and make no mistake, God did die on that Cross – even though God died, God lives forever through the Resurrection: “Long live God!”  Curiously the singing at the end of the movie moves from “Oh God, you’re dead” to “Long live God” to “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” to “Day by Day.”  I think that’s interesting, and I think there’s something very right about it.

In the Resurrection, Christ lives forever, paving the way for us to do the same.  And because he lives forever, we need to prepare the way for the Lord day after day after day, or “Day by Day,” if you will.  The end of the movie mimics the rather cyclical nature of our Church year.  And it is very true that the Salvation event, the Paschal Mystery, brings us back to the Advent of Christ in whole new ways.  Preparing the way of the Lord is not something we do just in the four weeks of Advent.  It is the project of a lifetime, the project of the ages of the Church, a project to be lived out day by day as we see God more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly.

At my mom’s house we have one very simple ornament for the Christmas Tree.  Among all the others, you’ll find it hanging on a back branch to remind us of the truth of it all.  It’s a nail, a spike really, hung from a green ribbon.  It reminds us that at Christmas we celebrate something that doesn’t get wrapped up until the Easter days.  The wood of the Christmas tree and the wood of the manger become the wood of the Cross.  Birth leads to death leads to Resurrection leads to re-creation.  All things are made new.  The misery of a dark world is replaced by Christ, the light of the world.  The grace of this wonderful mystery makes possible our flame of faith.  The Exsultet says of that flame:

May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Fifteenth Sunday: Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens

This was the alternate homily that I gave at 10:45 Mass, during which we accepted a young man into the Order of Catechumens.

 

In the ancient Church, there were several so-called orders within the assembly.  The main group or order was, of course, the believers.  These had been baptized and had come to accept Jesus Christ, to live within the Church and celebrate the sacraments.  Other orders included the Order of Widows, those women whose husbands had died and had no supporting family members.  These women were taken care of by the community, and in turn served the community as they were able. Another order was the Order of Penitents.  These people had sinned publicly, usually through some violation of the sixth commandment, and were unable to partake of the sacramental life of the Church.  They usually confessed their sins, and were given a lengthy penance to accomplish, and then were reunited with the Church on Holy Thursday.
The other order, which we still have today, is the Order of Catechumens.  These are unbaptized people who desired to become one with the Church and live the life of faith.  This is the order into which we accept Aaron today.  His search for Truth has led him here to us, and we have accepted him in our ritual.  This rite of acceptance into the Order of Catechumens is one that symbolizes a kind of first official step for Aaron.  He has been inquiring into the faith and now wishes to join us.  His formation will continue in the months to come, and he will be baptized, receive Confirmation and First Eucharist at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night.  

We are blessed to have Aaron with us today, because his presence indicates that our faith is alive and vibrant.  His presence shows us that God still searches for his people, calling them out of darkness into his own wonderful light.  As he continues to journey toward baptism, he will be with us in the assembly, being dismissed with candidates for Full Communion, until that day when they can all join us at the Table of the Eucharist.  

We accept Aaron publicly today, not just for his benefit, but also for ours, and for two very specific reasons.  First, we as a community have a responsibility to bring the faith to all people until the day of the Lord’s return.  It’s not just the RCIA team and catechists, not just the priests and staff, but the entire community that makes this happen.  Our faith must be a witness to Aaron and to others that Christ is alive among us and longs to lead us all to salvation.

Second, we have a need to grow in our own faith.  Every day, we come up against new obstacles, new darkness, and our faith must shine light into all of these situations.  We have a need to come to know our Lord Jesus in more intimate and meaningful ways.  And so Aaron isn’t journeying in faith alone here; we are all journeying and growing with him.

Just like that seed that found its rootedness in the good soil, so too may our own faith, and Aaron’s, take root in the good soil of instruction and prayer and earnest longing for Christ.  May God’s Word go forth from us and never return to God void, but instead achieve the end for which he sent it, yielding a harvest of a hundred or sixty or even thirty fold.