The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Cycle C Readings)

Today’s readings

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.

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, is a symbol of the Church. We see the Church also 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 renew ourselves in 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, I’m sure that would be a pretty bad thing. But I’m also 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.

Sometimes parishes have removed the holy water from church during Lent in a kind of fasting. This is exactly why you shouldn’t: Lent is all about baptism, all about God’s mercy, all about being renewed and refreshed and healed in God’s grace. Think about that the next time you put your hand into the holy water font and stir up those waters of mercy. Be healed and made new; go, and from now on, do not sin any more.

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

If we take one thought out of Lent, it should be this: we need a Savior.

Even before Jesus’ time, Esther knew this. Esther’s adoptive father Mordecai was a deeply religious man. His devotion incurred the wrath of Haman the Agagite, who was a court official of King Ahasuerus of Persia. Mordecai refused to pay homage to Haman in the way prescribed by law, because he felt that it was idolatry. Because of this, Haman developed a deep hatred for Mordecai, and by extension, all of the Israelite people. He convinced King Ahasuerus to decree that all Israelites be put to death, and they cast lots to determine the date for this despicable event.

Meanwhile, Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, is chosen to fill a spot in the King’s harem, replacing Queen Vashti. Esther never had revealed her own Israelite heritage to the King. Mordecai came to Esther to inform her of the decree that Haman had proposed, and asked her to intercede on behalf of her own people to the King. She was terrified to do this because court rules forbade her to come to the king without an invitation. She asked Mordecai to have all of her people fast and pray, and she did the same. The prayer that she offered is beautifully rendered in today’s first reading.

Esther knew that there was no one that could help her, and that it was totally on her shoulders to intercede for her people. Doing this was a risk to her own life, and the only one that she could rely on was God himself. Her prayer was heard, her people were spared, and Haman himself was hung from the same noose that had been prepared for Mordecai and all his fellow Israelites.

God hears our own persistent prayers. We must constantly pray, and trust all of our needs to the one who knows them before we do. We must ask, seek and knock of the one who made us and cares for us deeply. But most of all, we must always be aware that like Esther, we all need a Savior.

Monday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

People often balk at the mere suggestion of being called to personal holiness.  Oftentimes, this is wrapped up in a misplaced and false humility, that kind of humility that says that since I’m good for nothing, and so there is no way I can even come close to being like God.  Yet the fact of the matter is that we are made good by our Creator God who designed us to be like himself, perfect in holiness.

And if that seems too lofty to attain, Moses and Jesus spell out the steps to getting there today.  Clearly, personal holiness is not simply a matter of saying the right prayers, fasting at the right times, going to Church every Sunday and reading one’s Bible.  Those things are a good start and are key activities on the journey to holiness, but using them as a façade betrays a lack of real holiness.  Because for both Moses and Jesus, personal holiness, being holy as God is holy, consists of engaging in justice so that hesed – the Hebrew word meaning right relationship and right order – can be restored in the world.

Every single command we receive from Moses and Jesus today turns us outward in our pursuit of holiness.  Our neighbor is to be treated justly, and that neighbor is every person in our path.  Robbery, false words, grudges, withholding charity, rendering judgment without justice, not granting forgiveness and bearing grudges are all stumbling blocks to personal holiness.  All of these keep us from being like God who is holy.  And worse yet, all of these things keep us from God, period.

The law of the Lord is perfect, as the Psalmist says, and the essence of that law consists of love and justice to every person.  If we would strive for holiness this Lent – and we certainly ought to do so! –  we need to look to the one God puts in our path, and restore right relationship with that person.

The First Sunday of Lent: Remember Who You Are

Today’s readings

It’s really easy for us to forget who we are. That’s what all that tempting in the desert was all about. The devil wanted Jesus to forget who he was, what he came to do, and so then have power over him. He would have Jesus forget that real hunger is not satisfied by mere bread, but must be satisfied by God’s word. He would have Jesus forget that there is only one God and that real glory comes from obedience to God’s command and from living according to God’s call. He would have Jesus forget that life itself is God’s gift and that we must cherish it as much as God does.

And he wants us all to forget that stuff too. During this time of Lent, these 40 days in the desert for us, the devil wants us to forget that we can give up things we don’t truly need and depend on God to give us that which is so much better. He wants us to forget that we can give sacrificially to those in need and depend on God to satisfy our own needs. He wants us to forget that time spent in prayer is not a waste of time, that making time for God helps us to make time for everything important.

But just as Jesus didn’t forget who he was, we can’t forget either. We can take comfort when we are tempted because we know our Savior was tempted too. We can take courage in the desert, knowing that we don’t have to be out there all alone; that our Savior is there with us, giving us strength and example and direction.

This Lent needs to be first and foremost a remembering of who we are, so that we can be all that God wants for us. If we can accomplish that in these forty days, we will certainly attain an Easter of unending joy.

Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

In a sense, you know, we’re doing this wrong. We just heard Jesus give very explicit directions to his disciples that they were not to make a big deal about their fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.  They were to go to their rooms, close the door, and let it all happen before God alone, who sees what is hidden, and will repay them.  This directive is also given to us, who strive to live as Jesus’ disciples.

But we might have to say that we come here today to get marked with the cross so that others will see it.  If we have ashes on our forehead, then Mom will know we went to church.  Or if we don’t have ashes on our forehead, people at work might say things like, “Hey, I thought you were Catholic…”  So I think we have lost sight of what the ashes mean.

Why, then, the ashes?  I think the key to understanding the practice comes from the prayers that we say when we get the ashes.  The minister would say one of two prayers during this action.  Either:

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Or:

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Both of the prayers call on us to metanoia, which is a Greek word meaning “to change one’s mind.”  It’s kind of like the Apple commercials telling us to “think different.”  So Ash Wednesday, and really all of Lent, calls us to change our minds: we need to remember that we are dust, and we need to repent and believe.  

Remembering that we are dust, and that one day we’re going to return to that dust is sobering.  But it’s the truth.  None of us is getting out of this life alive, at least in the physical sense, and we need to remember that death is there and can come at any time.  That forces the question, then, how should we be living? We want to be living as people who are travelling through this life, on a journey to heaven.  We want to live as people who are destined to live in the Kingdom of God.

Repenting and believing in the Gospel sounds easy, but it really isn’t.  First of all, it means we have to repent, that is, we have to acknowledge that we aren’t living rightly, and work with all our hearts to change that.  Then we have to believe in the Gospel.  That means we have to live as if the Kingdom of God is at hand, because it is.  So we have to do good to others, we have to pray to God who wants a personal relationship with us.  We have to turn away from the things of the earth because they are so much less fulfilling than are the things of heaven.

So when we receive ashes today, there’s a lot at stake.  It’s not a badge of honor or a mark of attendance, it’s a sacred promise.  It’s a promise to take up the crosses in our lives and change the parts of our lives that have relied all too heavily on the paltry things of earth.  It’s a promise that we will acknowledge our sins, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and then live differently in the future.  It’s a promise that we will fast, give alms, and pray so that we can live worthily in the Kingdom.  It’s a promise that we will take on the ashen ugliness of our mortality, because God promises us the glowing radiance of resurrection.

So the ashes today aren’t just a one-off. It’s not just getting the ashes and then saying “see ya next year.”  The ashes mean a whole lot more for us believers.  And receiving them today means we will take up the cross, not just this Lent, but all of our lives.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

The joy of last week’s Laetare Sunday begins to fade a bit as we get into this fifth week of Lent. Now the Passion of our Lord is clearly in view. Maybe in your church, statues of the saints, Mary, and even Jesus on the Cross are covered by violet or red cloths. This indicates the very somber tone of these last days of Lent.

Today’s Gospel could almost start with that sinister music: “Dun dun dah!” You know what I mean. The tone is very nerve wracking: some random people come looking for Jesus and when the Apostles tell him, the responds “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And not in a good way. That glory is going to entail his death, and clearly the hour for that is fast approaching. That’s going to cause some grief in Jesus and the Apostles, “But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.”

But it’s not just Jesus’ hour. It’s our hour. We know he bore the cross, but it’s our cross too. Jesus came to identify himself with us sinners: And so the hour is those many “hours” that we have to face. The hour when we are at the bedside of a dying loved one. The hour when we get a call in the middle of the night from or about our child. The hour when we are let go from the job we’ve worked at for years. The hour when we’ve made that mistake that costs us everything. The hour when we’re at our wits’ end and everything is crashing down around us. The hour when we ourselves have that frightening diagnosis. Jesus came for that hour, that precise hour. He didn’t have to do it, “But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.”

He doesn’t wave a magic wand and make it all go away. But he does walk through it with you. As heavy as that cross may be for you, it would be heavier if not for Jesus. As dark as the hour is for you, it would be darker without the Light of the World. You’re not alone. Never alone. Because it was for your hour that he came. To redeem the suffering of the world, and to give us the Way to a better home.

Monday of Holy Week

Today’s readings 

There are two things going on in today’s Scripture readings. First, we have the Jews, and now Judas among them, who are very jealous of Jesus and are seeking to arrest and kill him. And not just him, but anyone who encourages people to believe in him, like Lazarus in today’s Gospel. In these holy days, it’s not safe to be around Jesus.

Second, we have Mary, who pours out the most expensive thing she has for love of the Lord. She gives no thought to the expense, to what seems like waste, but instead gives it all out of love for her Lord.
For Jesus’ enemies, it was all about them, and not at all about the God they supposedly believed in and served. But for Mary, it’s about Jesus, and she understands in some way where this is all headed.
So we have the jealousy of the Jews and the cowardice of Judas against the love and generosity and even courage of Mary. In these Holy days, we are called to be Mary, to courageously pour ourselves out in love and generosity, even when the jealousy of the world around us would try to make us feel like it’s best we didn’t make waves.

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