I often tell the children in our school that if there’s just one thing they ought to know about God, one thing they ever learn about God, and that is that God loves them more than anything, that would be enough. It’s the thing that I hope they remember me saying, because that’s the message I feel called to proclaim. God’s love is the most important thing we have in this life, the most precious gift we will ever receive.
It is true gift, because there’s nothing, not one thing, that we can do to earn it. Filthy in sin as we are, we certainly don’t do it. And entitled as we can sometimes be, there is no way we can ever say that we have a right to it. But we get it anyway. God freely pours out his love on us sinners, not because we are good, but because he is.
God loves us first and loves us best, and it’s a love that will totally consume us, totally transform us, if we let it. It’s a love that can break our stony hearts and transform our sadness into real joy. It’s a love that can change us from people of darkness to real live people of light and joy. It’s a love that obliterates the power of sin and death to control our eternity, and opens up to us the glory of heaven.
And even if we live our lives passing from one thing to the next and barely noticing anything going on around us, we have to pause and appreciate God’s love on this most holy morning. This is the morning that confounded Mary of Magdala; it’s the morning that got Peter and John out of their funk and sent them running. It’s the morning that John finally starts to get what Jesus was getting at all this time. He saw and believed.
He saw that his Lord was not there, that death could not hold him. He saw that the grave was no longer the finality of existence. He saw that Love – real Love – is in charge of our futures. He saw that there is real hope available to us hopeless ones.
“To him all the prophets bear witness,
that everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”
That quote, from Saint Peter’s testimony in the Acts of the Apostles, today’s first reading, is the Easter faith to which we are all called. We have to stop living like this is all there is. We have to stop loving our sins more than we love God. We have to live like a people who have been loved into existence, and loved into redemption.
That means we have to put aside our disastrous sense of entitlement. We have to learn to receive love so deep that it calls us to change. And we have to love in the same way too, so that others will see that and believe.
We’ll never find real love by burying ourselves in work or careers. We’ll do nothing but damage our life if we seek to find it in substance abuse. We’ll never find love by clinging to past hurts and resentments. We are only going to find love in one place, or more precisely in one person, namely, Jesus Christ. We must let everything else – everything else – go.
Today, Jesus Christ broke the prison-bars of death, and rose triumphant from the underworld. What good would life have been to us, if Christ had not come as our Redeemer? Because of this saving event, we can be assured that our own graves will never be our final resting places, that pain and sorrow and death will be temporary, and that we who believe and follow our risen Lord have hope of life that lasts forever. Just as Christ’s own time on the cross and in the grave was brief, so our own pain, death, and burial will be as nothing compared to the ages of new life we have yet to receive. We have hope in these days because Christ is our hope, and he has overcome the obstacles to our living.
The good news today is that we can find real love today and every day of our lives, by coming to this sacred place. It is here that we hear the Word proclaimed, here that we partake of the very Body and Blood of our Lord. An occasional experience of this mystery simply will not do – we cannot partake of it on Easter Sunday only. No; we must nurture our faith by encountering our Risen Lord every day, certainly every Sunday, of our lives, by hearing that Word, and receiving his Body and Blood. Anything less than that is seeking the living one among the dead.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
“You shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:28). I love that last line from the last of the Old Testament readings we heard tonight. There is a covenant, there has always been a covenant, there always will be a covenant. God created us in love, and he loves us first and best. No matter where we may wander; no matter how far from the covenant wemay stray, God still keeps it, forever. We will always be his people and he will always be our God. If I had to pick a line that sums up what we’re here for tonight, what we’ve been here for these last 40 days of Lent, that would be it.
Over the past couple of days, as we have observed this Sacred Paschal Triduum, which comes to its denouement tonight in this Vigil of vigils, we have been on a journey to the Cross. We get that direction from Holy Mother Church, as She sets the tone for this Triduum in the lines of the Entrance Antiphon, which we heard way back on Holy Thursday Evening. That antiphon was this:
We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.
It might seem a little odd to reflect on the Cross – triumph or not – on this holy night. I mean, surely we’ve moved on, haven’t we? We came here for resurrection and want to get on with our lives. Just like we tend to rush through our grieving of loved ones – to our own psychological and spiritual peril, by the way – so too we want to rush through our Lent and particularly our Good Friday and Holy Saturday, so that we can eat our Peeps and chocolate bunnies and call it a day.
But we disciples dare not let it be so. Because certainly we know how we got here to this moment. We know that we would never get an Easter Sunday without a Good Friday, that we can’t have resurrection if there hasn’t been death, that we there isn’t any salvation if there hasn’t been a sacrifice.
And there sure was a sacrifice. Our Lord suffered a brutal, ugly death between two hardened criminals, taking the place of a revolutionary. He was beaten, humiliated, mistreated and nails were pounded into his flesh, that flesh that he borrowed from us, through the glorious fiat of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He hung in agony for three hours and finally, when all was finished, he cried out in anguish and handed over his spirit. Placed in the tomb, he descended into hell. Collecting the souls of the blessed ones of old, he waited while earth mourned and disciples scattered and everyone wondered what happened to this Christ, this Anointed One, this One who was supposed to be their Messiah.
And then came the morning. The Sabbath was over, and the sun was rising in the east on the first day of the week, and the women came with spices to prepare their Lord for burial. But they couldn’t: he has been raised! He is not here! Our Lord is risen and death is defeated! The menacing, ugly Cross has become the altar of salvation! The Cross, that instrument of horror, has triumphed over every darkness thrown at it, and we can– and we should – do no less than praise our God with all the joy the Church can muster!
We have journeyed with our Jesus for three days now. We ate with him, we prayed through the night with him, some of us at seven churches. We saw him walk the way of the Cross and tearfully recalled his crucifixion. We reverenced the Cross, joining our own crosses to his. Now we’ve stayed up all night and shared the stories of our salvation, with eager excitement at the ways God has kept that covenant through the ages. A roaring fire shattered the darkness, and a candle was lit to mingle with the lights of heaven. Then grace had its defining moment as Christ shattered the prison-bars of death and rose triumphant from the underworld.
It’s so important that we enter into Lent and the Triduum every year. Not just because we need to be called back from our sinfulness to the path of life – yes, there is that, but it’s not primary here. What is so important is that we see that the Cross is our path too. In this life we will have trouble: our Savior promises us that. But the Cross is what sees him overcome the world and all the suffering it brings us. We will indeed suffer in this life, but thanks be to God, if we join ourselves to him, if we take up our own crosses with faithfulness, then we can merit a share in our Lord’s resurrection, that reality that fulfills all of the salvation history that we’ve heard in tonight’s readings.
Our birth would have meant nothing had we not been redeemed. If we were born only to live and die for this short span of time, how horrible that would have been. But thanks be to God, the sin of Adam was destroyed completely by the death of Christ! The Cross has triumphed and we are made new! Dazzling is this night for us, and full of gladness! Because our Lord is risen, our hope of eternity has dawned, and there is no darkness which can blot it out. We will always be God’s people, and he will always be our God!
And so, with great joy on this most holy night, in this, the Mother of all Vigils, we rightfully celebrate the sacrament of holy Baptism. Our Elect will shortly become members of the Body of Christ through this sacrament which washes away their sins. Then they will be confirmed in the Holy Spirit and fed, for the first time, on the Body and Blood of our Saving Lord. It’s a wonderful night for them, but also for us, as we renew ourselves in our baptismal promises, and receive our Lord yet again, to be strengthened in our vocation as disciples.
We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.
We are and always will be God’s people. God has made new his glorious covenant through the resurrection of our Christ. And so, having come through this hour to be sanctified in this vigil, we will shortly be sent forth to help sanctify our own time and place. Brightened by this beautiful vigil, we now become a flame to light up our darkened world. That is our ministry in the world. That is our call as believers. That is our vocation as disciples. “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 forever and ever. Amen.”
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Palm Sunday is, quite honestly, a feast with a bit of a split personality. We start out on a seemingly triumphant note. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the Holy City, and the center of the Jewish religion; the city he has been journeying toward throughout the gospel narrative, and he enters it to the adulation of throngs. Cloaks are thrown down in the street, the people wave palms and chant “Hosanna.” This is it, isn’t it? It seems like Jesus’ message has finally been accepted, at least by the crowds who have long been yearning for a messiah, an anointed one, to deliver them from foreign oppression.
Only that wasn’t the kind of salvation Jesus came to offer. Instead, he preached forgiveness and mercy and real justice and healed people from the inside out. He called people to repentance, to change their lives, to hear the gospel and to live it every day. He denounced hypocrisy, and demanded that those who would call themselves religious reach out in love to the poor and those on the margins. It wasn’t a welcome message; it wasn’t the message they thought the messiah would bring.
And that’s what brings us to the one hundred and eighty degree turn we experience in today’s second gospel reading, the reading of our Lord’s Passion and death. Enough of this, they say; the religious leaders must be right: he must be a demon, or at least a troublemaker. Better that we put up with the likes of Barabbas. As for this one, well, crucify him.
Who are we going to blame for this? Whose fault is it that they crucified my Lord? Is it the Jews, as many centuries of anti-Semitism would assert? Was it the Romans, those foreign occupiers who sought only the advancement of their empire? Was it the fickle crowds, content enough to marvel at Jesus when he fed the thousands, but abandoning him once his message made demands of them? Was it Peter, who couldn’t even keep his promise of standing by his friend for a few hours? Was it the rest of the apostles, who scattered lest they be tacked up on a cross next to Jesus? Was it Judas, who gave in to despair thinking he had it all wrong? Was it the cowardly Herod and Pilate who were both manipulating the event in order to maintain their pathetic fiefdoms? Who was it who put Jesus on that cross?
And the answer, as we well know, is that it’s none of those. Because it’s my sins that led Jesus along the Way of the Cross. It’s my sins that betrayed him; it’s my sins that have kept me from friendship with God. Those sins could have kept me from friendship with God forever, but God’s love would not have that be that way. And so he willingly gave his life that I might have life. And you.
He gave himself for us.
Caiaphas had no idea how prophetic his words were. Actually, as far as the intent of his words went, they were nothing but selfish. The Jews didn’t want to lose their standing with the Romans. As it was, they had an uneasy peace. The Romans pretty much let them practice their religion as long as there wasn’t any trouble. But they knew that if everyone started following Jesus, the Romans would give preference to the new way, in order to keep the peace. The religious leaders couldn’t let that happen, so they began plotting in earnest to kill Jesus, planning to find him when he came to celebrate the upcoming feast day, which they were certain he would attend.
It’s a time of high intrigue, and for Jesus, his hour – the hour of his Passion – is fast approaching. That’s so clear in the Gospel readings in these last days of Lent. In just a few hours we will begin our celebration of Holy Week, waving palms to welcome our king, and praying through his passion and death. It is an emotional time for us as we know our God has given his life for us, the most amazing gift we will ever get. It is also a time of sadness because we know our sins have nailed him to the cross.
But, this is where the significance of Caiaphas’s words brings us joy. Yes, it is better for one person to die than the whole nation. God knew that well when he sent his only Son to be our salvation. Jesus took our place, nailing our sins and brokenness to the cross, dying to pay the price those sins required, and rising to bring the salvation we could never attain on our own. Caiaphas was right. It was better for one person to die than for the whole nation to die. Amazing as it seems, that was God’s plan all along.
Today’s readings: Hosea 11:1, 3-4, 8e-9 | Psalm 23 | Romans 8:14-17, 26-27 | Matthew 6:9-13
Today we did the RCIA presentation of the Lord’s Prayer to the Elect at our evening Mass. There are special readings for that, as above.
Where do you go when you’re at the end of your rope?
Bob was not accustomed to praying and didn’t really have a relationship with God. But life, as it often does to us, started piling up: job concerns, health scares, relationship problems – everything. And so he knew he couldn’t make it all work on his own. So in his desperation, he looked at the old Bible he got for his first Holy Communion, and took it down off the shelf. Dusting it off, he realized he didn’t know where to turn so he decided to just open it up, point to a verse, and see what God had to say to him. So that’s what he did, and on opening the Bible, he read “and Judas went off and hanged himself.”
Now, obviously, we know God didn’t want Bob to go off and hang himself like Judas did. But the point here is that Bob was doing it wrong: you can’t choose not to have a relationship with God and turn to prayer only when everything else fails. That’s never going to work. Prayer, for the believer, is an ongoing conversation with the God who longs to be intimately involved in our lives. And so, the important thing is to work on that relationship first.
That’s why we are presenting the Lord’s Prayer – one of the great treasures of our faith – to you, the Elect, so late in the process. You’ve been in this for a year or more, or almost two for the children, and we are less than two weeks away from the Easter Vigil, that night on which you will receive the sacraments. And only now do you receive this treasure of prayer. Why? Because you had to work on the relationship first. Praying authentically isn’t something you can do right away. You have to come to know Jesus and in him, see the Father, before you can have that intimate conversation that we call prayer.
And the prayer we are giving you isn’t just any old collection of words. This is the prayer that our Lord Jesus himself gave to us. He literally says “this is how you are to pray.” And in that prayer, he covers all kinds of different prayers. “Hallowed by thy name” is a prayer of praise to God who is the source of all holiness. “Thy kingdom come” is a prayer that our world would be transformed into what God intends it to be. “Thy will be done” is a prayer that opens ourselves up to God’s will for us and allows him to enter in and do what is best. “Give us this day our daily bread” is a prayer that we would be filled up, not so much with what we want, but what we truly need, each and every day. “And forgive us our trespasses” prays that we would be forgiven for the many ways we turn away from God, both in what we do and what we fail to do, while “as we forgive those who trespass against us” prays that we would be as merciful as God has been merciful to us. “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” is a prayer that we would continue to walk in God’s ways, and not give ourselves over to the evil one.
It’s a wonderful, complete prayer, and a prayer that very significantly begins with a statement of relationship: “Our Father…” We pray not to a distant God who created us and then backs off to watch us get messed up in our own foolishness, but instead to God our Father. That’s the kind of relationship God wants us to have with him: one that depends on him as a child depends on a parent, a relationship that sustains us and advocates for us in our need, but also corrects us in our wandering, and shields us from what is truly evil. It’s a relationship that we can’t live without, a relationship that is there on our best days and also when we’re at the end of our rope. It’s a relationship that the Church wants for all of you, so that you’ll never have to decide how to use that dusty old Bible you’ve left up there on the shelf.
Remember: this is how you are to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven…
Back in the sixth century before the birth of Christ, the Israelites were in a bad way. They had been separated from their God by sin: against God’s commands, they had betrayed their covenant with the Lord and made foreign alliances, which he had forbidden them to do. He forbade this because he knew that as they made these alliances, they would give in to the temptation to worship the so-called gods of the people they with whom they allied themselves. As punishment, God separated them from their homeland: the cream of the crop of their society was taken into exile in Babylon, and those left behind had no one to lead them and protect them. Because they moved away from God, God seemed to move away from them. But he hadn’t: I think it was really they who had exiled themselves from God. In today’s first reading, God shows them that he still loves them and cares for them, and promises to make them a new people. I love the line: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?” God would indeed bring them back and create their community anew.
The Israelites were in exile, but exile can take so many forms. And Saint Paul had a good sense of that. For him, the exile was anything that was not Christ; a sentiment we should embrace. Saint Paul knows that he has not yet taken possession of the glory that is promised him by Christ, and so he wants to leave behind the exile of the world and strains forward to all that lies ahead, the goal and prize of God’s calling in Christ.
Which brings us back to the woman caught in adultery. We certainly feel sorry for her, caught in the act, dragged in front of Jesus and publicly humiliated. But the truth is, just like the Israelites in the sixth century before Christ, she had actually sinned. And that sin threatened to put her into exile from the community; well, it even threatened her life. The in-your-face reversal in the story, though, is that Jesus doesn’t consider her the only sinner – or even the greatest sinner – in the whole incident. We should probably wonder about the man with whom she was committing adultery; that sin does, after all, take two. And as serious a sin as adultery certainly is, Jesus makes it clear that there are plenty of serious sins out there, and they all exile us from God. As he sits there, writing in the sand, they walk away one by one. What was he writing? Was it a kind of examination of conscience? A kind of list of the sins of the Pharisees? We don’t know. But in Jesus’ words and actions, those Pharisees too were convicted of their sins, and went away – into exile – because of them.
Sin does that to us. It makes exiles out of all of us. The more we sin, the further away from God we become. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
Jimmy and Suzy went to visit their grandparents for a week during the summer. They had a great time, but one day Jimmy was bouncing a ball in the house, which he knew he shouldn’t be doing. It didn’t take long for the ball to hit grandma’s favorite vase, knocking it off the table and breaking it. He picked up the pieces and went out back and hid them in the woodshed. Looking around, the only person who was around was his sister Suzy. She didn’t say anything, but later that day, when grandma asked her to help with the dishes, Suzy said “I think Jimmy wanted to help you,” giving him a rather knowing look. So he did. The next day, grandpa asked Jimmy if he wanted to go out fishing. Suzy jumped right in: “He’d like to, but he promised grandma he would weed the garden.” So Jimmy weeded the garden. As he was doing that, he felt pretty guilty and decided to confess the whole thing to grandma. When he told her what had happened, grandma said, “I know. I was looking out the back window when you were hiding the pieces in the woodshed. I was wondering how long you were going to let Suzy make a slave of you.”
That’s how it is with sin: it makes a slave of us, and keeps us from doing what we really want to do. It puts us deep in exile, just as surely as the ancient Israelites. And it doesn’t have to be that way. You see, it’s easier than we think to end up in exile. All we have to do is a good examination of conscience and then think about the way those sins have affected us. Have they made us feel distant from God, family and friends? Have they caused us to drift in our life and not feel God’s presence in times of hardship?
Exile is heartbreaking. And to the exile of sin, God has three things to say today:
First, “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.” That sounds like something that’s easy to say but hard to do. But the fact is, once we have accepted God’s grace and forgiveness, that grace will actually help us to be free from sin. Of course, that’s impossible to do all on our own. But God never commands us to do something that is impossible for us, or maybe better, he never commands us to do something that is impossible for him to do in us. God’s grace is there if we but turn to him.
Second, God says: “Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.” Once sin is confessed and grace is accepted, the sin is forgotten. God is not a resentful tyrant who keeps a list of our offenses and holds them against us forever. If we confess our sins and accept the grace that is present through the saving sacrifice of Jesus, the sins are forgotten. But it is up to us to accept that grace. We truly have to confess so that we can forget what lies behind and be ready for the graces ahead.
Third, God says: “See, I am doing something new. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” We are the ones who get stuck in the past, always fearing to move forward because of past sins, hurts, and resentments. We are called today to be open to the new thing God is doing in our lives. The way to open up is to confess our sins and get rid of the past.
For a long time in my young life, I didn’t go to confession. I didn’t think I needed to. I grew up in that whole time of the church when it was all about how you felt about yourself. Garbage. I knew something was wrong when I was in my young adulthood and felt lost. I took a chance and went to confession at a penance service, and the priest welcomed me back. In that moment, I knew exactly the new thing God was doing in me, and it felt like a huge weight was lifted off of me. In fact, I was released from the exile of all my past sins and hurts.
I never forgot that, and whenever anyone comes to me in confession and says it’s been a long time since they went, I am quick to welcome them back. Because that’s what God wants, and it’s a great privilege for me to be part of that. He wants to lift that weight off of you, to end your exile. All it takes is for you to see that new thing he is doing in you, and to strain forward to what lies ahead.
So we have just a few times left to receive that grace before Holy Week and Easter. We have confessions on Friday at 6pm, and Saturday at 3pm. Come to either of them that fit your schedule. If you miss that, please check the bulletin today for a schedule of confessions at parishes around us. Would that we would all take this opportunity to forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead. God is doing a new thing in all of us these Lenten days. May we all be open to it.