Tuesday of Holy Week

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading contains four of the most chilling words in all of holy Scripture: “And it was night.”  Those narrative words come just after Judas takes the morsel and leaves the gathering.  But the evangelist didn’t include those words to tell us the time of day.  In John’s Gospel, there is an overriding theme of light and darkness.  The light and darkness, of course, refer to the evil of the world that is opposed by the light of Christ.

So John isn’t just telling us what time it is.  When he says, “and it was night,” he is telling us that this was the hour of darkness, the hour when evil would come to its apparent climax.  This is the time when all of the sins of the world have converged upon our Lord and he will take them to the Cross.  The darkness of our sinfulness has made it a very, very dark night indeed.

But we know that this isn’t how the story is going to end.  This hour of darkness will certainly see Jesus die for our sins.  But the climax of evil will be nothing compared to the outpouring of grace and Divine Mercy.  The darkness of evil is always overcome by the light of Christ.  Always.  But for now, it is night, and we can almost feel the ponderous darkness sending a shiver up our spines.

In these Holy days, we see the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. But may we also find courage in his triumph over this fearful night and burst forth with him to the brilliant glory of resurrection morning.

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

This is it.  Today’s liturgy brings us to the place we’ve been journeying toward all during Lent.  These past forty days have seen Jesus tangle with the established religion, all the while healing the sick and preaching repentance.  We have participated in that by receiving absolution in Confession, participating in our parish mission, taking part in our Project Passion Prayer experience, and by our fasting and works of charity.  And so it seems quite fitting that our Mass today begins on a high note: with Jesus entering triumphantly into the city of Jerusalem.  But just three chapters later in Mark’s Gospel, all of his good work becomes his undoing as he is arrested, tried and put to death.  It doesn’t seem right or just, does it?

We know that’s how life is.  We offer our works of charity and fasting and prayer and we hope for a better life, but sometimes that’s not how it works out.  Sometimes we too end up denounced, the victims of gossip and calumny, or we spend ourselves doing good for others, all the while walking a difficult road in our own lives with illness, family issues, job troubles or financial worries.  And so we have to take up that rough, heavy cross and travel to our own personal Golgothas.  Perhaps, then, today we find ourselves in all-too-familiar territory, and find it difficult to hear.

The trouble is that the Cross is an in-your-face reminder that pain is part and parcel of our life of salvation.  Jesus did not come to take away our pain, he came to redeem it.  Not only that, he came to take it on himself.  Far from being embarrassed by our sin and pain, Jesus took it to the cross, redeeming our brokenness, and leaving us an everlasting promise that there is no pain too great for our God to bear and there is no way we can ever fall so far that our God can’t reach us.  Jesus took our every hurt, our every pain, our every sin, our every shame, our every resentment, our every emptiness, and left them all there at the foot of the Cross.  So if we find the Cross and Golgotha a difficult place to be, maybe it’s no wonder.

I know there are many among us now who are carrying pain with them each day.  I hear it all the time, whether it’s the patient in the hospital who’s been away from the Church and estranged from their family and is facing death, or the young parent who wants to live a spiritual life but the demands of family and perhaps a job are all that he or she can accomplish in a day.  For some it’s very serious stuff: the diagnosis of an illness that is frightening, the loss of a loved one, the ending of a job or career, or even a marriage.  Broken relationships, upheaval in our lives, uncertainty in our future are crosses that are so very familiar to so many of us.

But as horrible as those things are to deal with, and as dejected and frustrated and fearful as they may make us feel, the one thing we should never entertain is a feeling of loneliness.  Because for all of us who are hurting in any way, all we have to do is look at the Cross and realize that there is nothing our God won’t do for us.  No, it’s not pretty, and God may not take away our pain right away, but he will never ever leave us alone in it.  In fact, he helps us bear it, and ultimately, he will raise us up out of it.  As we enter this Holy Week, we are reminded gently that the cross, while significant, is not the end of the story.  Yes, we have to suffer our own Good Fridays; but we confidently remember that we also get an Easter Sunday.  And that is what gives us all the confidence to take up our cross and journey on.

These are not ordinary days – they are absolutely not for business as usual.  I beg you all to enter into these Holy Days with passion, with prayerfulness and in faith.  Gather with us on Holy Thursday at 7:00pm to celebrate the giving of the Eucharist and the Priesthood, and the call to service that comes from our baptism.  On Good Friday at 3:00 in the afternoon, we will have the opportunity once again to reflect on the Passion, to venerate the cross that won our salvation, and to receive the Eucharist, which is our strength.  Finally, at 8:00 on Holy Saturday night, we will gather outside to keep vigil for the resurrection we have been promised.  We will hear stories of our salvation, we will celebrate our baptism and welcome five people into our family, rejoicing in the victory of Christ over sin and death.  No Catholic should ever miss the celebrations of these Holy Days, for these days truly sustain our daily living, give us the grace to take up our little crosses day by day, and gift us with strength to continue the journey.

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

The story is quickly coming to its climax. Jesus’ claims of divinity are really starting to rile the Jews. They have placed their hope in Abraham and the prophets – great men to be sure – but seem to have forgotten about the promise of a Messiah, and so they totally miss the Christ who is standing right in front of them. It’s an extremely sad situation. But it is also quickly becoming dangerous for Jesus. These are the ones who will stir up the trouble at his trial and get them to release Barabbas, putting Jesus on the cross instead.

And I feel like it’s necessary to make a quick aside here. We have heard and will hear many references to “the Jews” in John’s Gospel. This wording was used for centuries to make anti-Semitic comments and policies seem like they are legitimate, blaming the Jews for killing the Lord. But this is John’s Gospel, and Jesus is in full control. He knows what is in their hearts. The Jews may indeed want to take his life, but Jesus instead willingly lays it down. Because that was his mission; that is his mission – to give himself completely for our salvation, and the salvation of the whole world. And honestly, if we want to blame someone for sending Jesus to the cross, we know only too well that we don’t have to look any further than our own sinful hearts.

What we see in today’s Liturgy of the Word, ultimately, is that God made a promise to Abraham, and, in the person of Jesus Christ, kept that promise. Abraham was made a mighty nation, God’s promises have always been kept, and we have salvation in Christ. That’s our Good News today, and every day really. As we enter the somber days ahead, we have the joy of keeping the end of the story clearly in mind, that Resurrection that Abraham himself so longed to see.

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

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

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

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

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

There’s a lot of talk about water in these readings today, and when that happens, we know that it means the talk is really about baptism. We ourselves are the sick and lame man who needed Jesus’ help to get into the waters of Bethesda. The name “Bethesda” means “house of mercy” in Hebrew, and that, of course, 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 enter, once again, those waters that heal our bodies and our souls. We are called to drink deep of the grace of God so that we can go forth and refresh the world.

But what really stands out in this Gospel is the mercy of Jesus. I think it’s summed up in one statement that maybe we might not catch as merciful at first: “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” It’s hard to imagine being ill for thirty-eight years, 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.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.” Sometimes this Sunday is celebrated by the wearing of rose-colored vestments, rather than the Lenten violet.  Laetare Sunday reminds us that even in the “heaviness” of Lent, there is reason for rejoicing.  And today’s readings do deal with some heavy topics, but clearly and always through the lens of rejoicing in God’s mercy.  So that’s how I would like to look at today’s Liturgy: what in the world gives us cause to rejoice today, here and now, in our own lives?

In a few weeks, the Mass of the Easter Vigil will begin by telling us all the reasons we should rejoice.  That Mass begins with the sung Easter Proclamation called the Exsultet, which tells the whole story of God’s mercy and sings God’s praises.  It is sung in the darkened church, proclaiming that, even in the darkness of our world, the light of God’s mercy still reigns and has power to overcome everything that keeps us from the true Light of the world.  It begins: Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!

That proclamation of the Exsultet almost seems out of place in our world today.  All we have to do is pick up a newspaper to be convinced of the darkness that pervades our lives.  Wars and terrorism claim the lives of innocent people and young soldiers alike.  Crime in its many forms takes its toll on our society.  Injustice and oppression still exist in our own nation and abroad.  The poor still hunger and thirst for the basic necessities of life.  And then we could look at the darkness that seems to reign in our own lives.  Sin that has not been confessed.  Bad habits that have not been broken.  Love and mercy that have been withheld.  All of these darken our own lives in ways that we don’t fully appreciate at the time, but later see with sad clarity.  Our world and our lives can be such dark places in these days.  But to that darkness, the Exsultet sings: Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.

You see, this darkness is exactly the darkness in which the people of Israel found themselves in today’s first reading.  Notice what that reading says about the people – it’s not flattering at all!  It says “in those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”  Note particularly the use of the word “all” in that first sentence: had just some of the people been unfaithful?  No: all of them had.  Did they practice just some of the abominations of the other nations?  No: they practiced all of them.  But God in his mercy sent them messengers and prophets to warn them away from their sinfulness.  Did they listen to them? No – and not only did they just not listen to them, but they ridiculed and derided those messengers of God, “despised his warnings and scoffed at his prophets.”  Certainly God would have been justified in letting his chosen people go to hell in a hand basket.  But he didn’t.  Though he punished them with exile for a time, he brought them back to their own land to worship their God once again.  When darkness seems to affect even the Church, the Exsultet calls out: Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.

Back at Christmas time, we heard the beginning of the Gospel of John giving us reason for our exultation: even in the darkness of our world, the Light shines through.  John proclaims: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Today’s Gospel reading is from John also, and shows us the source of that light: Jesus Christ who is lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.  This line refers to a passage from the book of Numbers [Num. 21:8-9] in which the people were complaining about the way God was feeding them in the desert.  So he sent seraph serpents among them, and people were being bitten and falling ill and dying from their venom.  As a remedy, God told Moses to mount one of the serpents on a pole, and anyone who had been bitten would get better if they looked at the serpent lifted up on the pole.  John compares this to the remedy that we receive for our many sins when we look upon our Savior, lifted up on the pole of the Cross.  But even better, the lifting up of the Son of Man is the Resurrection: God the Father raising Jesus up from the dead, to destroy the power of sin and death in our world.  Either way you look at it, the joy is irresistible: the darkness of our sin and the finality of our death are destroyed when we look upon Jesus our Savior lifted up for us.  Of this, the Exsultet sings: This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.

Which brings us to the heart of today’s Gospel reading, maybe even to the heart of the whole Gospel.  That would be the line: “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  If you have seen any sporting event, in person or on television, you have seen the reference to that line: posters that read “John 3:16.”  And clearly, that is the heart of the Gospel for all of us: that God
so loved the world – not just the good part of the world, the pristine part, the beautiful part – but every part of the world.  He loves the parts of the world that are polluted, or embattled by crime, or rife with injustice and oppression, or debilitated by sickness and disease, or destroyed by war, or mourning death, or lamenting sin.  That is not to say that he loves the pollution, crime, injustice, or any of that.  But he loves the world – the whole world – despite all that darkness.  He loves the world for what he created it to be, he loves us as the people he made his own.  And to that world, that people he loves, he sends his only Son, his beloved, so that we might not perish in our darkness or disease or injustice or sin and death, but might have eternal life – the life he longs for each of us to share with him.  Any other message would be completely disappointing, and our God does not disappoint!  Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.  O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

Lent is certainly a time for us to be mindful of the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s call.  Last week’s look at the ten commandments provided each of us, I think, with plenty of reflection on how we can better live God’s call.  But this week’s Gospel puts all of that in perspective for us: we don’t dwell on our sins and shortcomings just to remind ourselves how miserable we are; we reflect on our sins and shortcomings because we know that God can transform them.  We don’t strive to become better people in order to be worthy of God’s love for us; we strive to become better people because God loves us and that love calls us to a much better way of living.  Today’s Liturgy says to us that yes, we have sinned; yes, we have fallen short; yes, we have been hard-hearted; yes, we have failed to respond to God’s love; yes, in particular we have failed to show that love to others.  And yes, we are deserving of punishment for our sins.  But, our God, who is rich in mercy, forgets the punishment and remembers compassion for the people he created.  He sent his only Son to redeem us and bring us back from our darkness into everlasting light.  Our God even uses the darkness and transforms it to be a source of Resurrection for his people.  At that Easter Vigil a few short weeks from now, we will remember that The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.

On this Laetare Sunday, we remember that even in the darkness of our world as it is, we can remember the joy of the Light that is to come.  We reflect on God’s everlasting mercy, which is stronger than sin and death.  We respond to the compassion that God has shown for us, his chosen people.  We live that mercy and love in our own lives, sharing it with others.  Then as our own darkness is transformed to light, maybe our little corner of the world can know compassion amidst sorrow, comfort amidst mourning, mercy against intolerance, love against hatred, and the peace that passes all of our understanding in every place we walk.  May we carry the flame of God’s love into our world to brighten every darkness and bring joy to every sorrow.  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.  Amen.

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Today’s Scriptures address another one of the ways that we fallen human beings tend to avoid the truth. Sometimes, when we are confronted with the truth, we attack its source. If we cast doubt on the one bringing us the truth, then we don’t have to follow his or her words, right?

The prophet Jeremiah takes the nation of Israel to task for this in today’s first reading. These are a people who have heard the truth over and over. God has not stopped sending prophets to preach the word. But the Israelites would not listen: in fact, most often, they murdered the prophets. They preferred to live in the world, and to attach themselves to the nations and their worship of idols and pagan gods. They had been warned constantly that this was going to be the source of their demise, but they tuned it out. They “stiffened their necks,” Jeremiah says, and now faithfulness has disappeared and there is no word of truth in anything they say.

Some of the Jews are giving Jesus the same treatment in today’s Gospel. Seeing him drive out a demon, they are filled with jealousy and an enormous sense of inadequacy. These are the men who were religious leaders and they had the special care of driving away demons from the people. But they chose not to do so, or maybe their lukewarm faith made them unable to do so. So on seeing Jesus competent at what was their duty, they cast a hand-grenade of rhetoric at him and reason that only a demon could cast out demons like he did.

We will likely hear the word of truth today. Maybe it will come in these Scriptures, or maybe later in our prayerful moments. Maybe it will be spoken by a child or a coworker or a relative or friend. However the truth is given to us, it is up to us to take it in and take it to heart. Or will we too be like the Jews and the Israelites and stiffen our necks? No, the Psalmist tells us, we can’t be that way. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

The Second Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

What would you give up for love?

Today’s first reading puts poor Abraham in an awful position. Remember, he and Sarah were childless well into their old age. And it is only upon entering into relationship with God that that changes. God gives them a son, along with a promise, that he would be the father of many nations.

And so put yourself in Abraham’s place. After rejoicing in the son he never thought he’d have, God tells him: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.” It’s not a suggestion, it’s not an invitation, it’s an order. Abraham knows that it’s only because of the gift of God that he has Isaac to sacrifice in the first place. But many of you are parents: what would you do?

The reading omits a chunk in the middle that is perhaps the most poignant part. Abraham packs up his son, travels with some servants, and he and Isaac haul the wood and the torch up the mountain. Isaac asks him: “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Can you even begin to imagine the anguish in poor Abraham’s heart? And yet he responds in faith: “My son, God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” Which, of course is true. God had provided Isaac, who was intended to be the sheep. But Abraham couldn’t have known that God would intervene.

We could get caught up in the injustice here and call God to task for asking such a horrible thing in the first place. Why would God test poor Abraham so? Why would he give him a son in his old age, only to take him away?  What purpose did that have? But we have to know that the purpose of the story is to illustrate that God does have salvation in mind. Yes, God would provide the lamb. It was never going to be Isaac; it’s not even the sheep caught up in the thicket – not really. We know that the sheep for the burnt offering is none other than God’s own Son, his only one, whom he loves. The story is ultimately about Jesus, and his death and resurrection are what’s really going on in today’s Liturgy of the Word.

But let’s also be clear: Abraham trusted God and was willing to give up the thing he’d probably die for – his own son. So what are we willing to give so that we can demonstrate – to ourselves if no one else – our trust in God’s ability to love us beyond all telling? For Lent, we’ve given up chocolate, or sweets, or even negative thinking or swearing. Maybe we’ve not done well with them, or maybe we have even given them up.  But we need to see in Abraham’s willingness that our sacrifices are important; they mean something.

Jesus goes up a mountain in today’s readings too – and he too sees that he is to become the sheep for the sacrifice – sooner rather than later. That was the meaning of the Law and the prophets of old, symbolized by Moses and Elijah. But knowing that, and knowing what’s at stake, he does not hesitate for a moment to go down the mountain and soldier on to that great sacrifice. He willingly gives his own life to be the sheep for the sacrifice, because leaving us in our sins was a price he was not willing to pay.

There are a lot of things out there for us that seem good. But the only supreme good is the life of heaven, and eternity with our God. Think of the thing that means everything to you: are you willing to sacrifice that to gain heaven? Are you willing to give everything for love of God?

Because, for you, for me, God did.

God did that for us.

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 kind of misplaced and false humility; that kind of humility that says that I’m no good; 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 merely a matter of simply saying the right prayers, fasting at the right times, going to Church every Sunday and reading one’s Bible.  Those things are key 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 – right relationship and right order – can be restored in the world.

All the commands we receive from Moses and Jesus today turn 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, we need to look to the one God puts in our path, and restore right relationship with that person.

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.”

This past Sunday, I was coming down with the upper respiratory infection I now am getting over.  It really came on suddenly, with a vengeance, and I was thinking last weekend if I took care of myself it would all go away quietly.  On Sunday night, my mother told me, “you better go to the doctor.”  I thought, no, I’ll just wait a couple of days and it will go away.

Well, it didn’t.  Monday it was much worse, and I took Mom’s advice and went to see my doctor.  I’m glad I did because I’m actually making progress and feeling a little better each day.  But to get there, I had to admit that I was sick, that I needed a physician, which is exactly what our Gospel reading calls us to do this morning.

That one line is significant: “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.”  Anyone who has battled an addiction will tell you how true it is.  You cannot make any progress is wellness in any aspect of life if you don’t admit you’re sick.  And we all have difficulty doing that sometimes, I think, and much to our demise.

It’s important that we learn to do that in the spiritual life.  If you don’t think you need a physician for your spiritual life, congratulations, you can skip Lent.  In fact you don’t even need a Savior!  I say that in jest, but really it’s true.  Jesus is very clear today: he came to call sinners to conversion, and that includes all of us.  All of us, myself included, maybe even foremost among all, need conversion in our spiritual lives.  And the good news is that Jesus gives us Lent to do just that.  Be converted, be healed, be made whole so that the glory of Easter can brighten our lives.

So our reflection this morning is two-fold.  First, where and how do I need the Divine Physician in my life right now?  And second, invite him in and let him heal us.