Homilies Lent

Tuesday of Holy Week

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading always leaves me with a chill running down my spine.  Those four words: “And it was night” grab me every time.  These are the words that come just after Judas takes the morsel and leaves the gathering.  But let’s be clear: the evangelist didn’t include those words to tell us what time it was.  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 when John 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.

Maybe we can relate to the darkness in a more tangible way these days.  With the specter of COVID-19 looming over everything, one wonders when we’re going to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  These days, the darkness of illness and death make this a very dark night too.

But we know that none of this is how the story is going to end, don’t we?  COVID-19 will eventually pass.  Even our experience of death and sin isn’t a permanent thing.  Sure, the 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 feel the ponderous darkness sending a shiver up our spines.

I keep trying to look forward to the end of this health crisis and to imagine the day when I’m talking to you and not a camera.  I can’t wait for that day.  This is a dark time in our world, but it doesn’t get to be our permanent reality.  Right now we have to stay home, for our loved ones, for the vulnerable ones, for the people who come after us.  But we’re safe, and we have the promise of the presence of the Lord in our lives.

In these Holy days, we see all kinds of darkness: the darkness of this illness, 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.

Homilies Lent

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

And so it begins.  We who have been keeping Lent these forty days are coming to Lent’s fulfillment.  We know it’s been a most interesting and, well, different Lent.  I mean, that’s about the best we can say of it, right?  I keep thinking back to Ash Wednesday with the throngs of crowds who came in and out of the church all day for our Masses and prayer services.  I, for one, didn’t have an inkling of the fact that, less than three weeks after that, our whole world would have gone crazy.  And now we’re sheltered in place, keeping our social distance, really fasting in a whole new way.  We’re fasting from social interaction, we are fasting from sacraments, we are fasting from in-person worship and prayer, we’re fasting from touch and embrace and so much more.  

In these days, though, I know I have had occasion to reflect on the things that really matter.  I’ve been sustained by the presence of God in my life, giving me strength to confront challenges I never thought I could handle, or would have to.  I’ve prayed with people over the phone for the first time I can remember.  I’ve found new ways to tell family, friends, and parishioners how much I love them.  

Over the course of this week, we will gather – virtually, of course – several times to mark the events that have won our salvation.  On Thursday, we will gather at 7pm to celebrate the Lord’s Supper: that night when he gave us the Eucharist and the priesthood so that he would be among us until the end of time.  On Friday, we will gather at 3pm to revisit our Lord’s Passion, to adore from our homes the Cross which was the altar on which he sacrificed his life for ours.  And on Saturday, we will bless our Easter food at 11am and then come together, virtually, at 8pm to recount the stories of our salvation and welcome the Resurrection, rejoicing with all of the Church on that most holy night.  No Catholic should ever miss these incredible liturgies: they are in fact the reason we are a Church and they highlight our mission in the world.  If you struggle to find the meaning in life, these celebrations will help you on the way.

I want to encourage you to enter into these celebrations in your homes.  On Thursday, perhaps have bread and wine on a table near the place you’re watching Mass.  Share it after Mass not as Eucharist, of course, but as a remembrance of what Jesus set forth for our salvation.  On Friday, have a cross nearby that you can reverence during the Adoration of the Holy Cross part of the liturgy.  On Saturday, light a candle as we will at the beginning of Mass to recall that Christ is the light that burns through the darkness.  I encourage you to take the journey through Holy Week in a special way, with fervent prayer for a cure for this virus that we might be together again.  Let us keep that as our special intention during our Holy Week journey together.

Today’s Passion reading recalls what Jesus came to do in our world.  Just a few days before our reading took place, Jesus had entered Jerusalem, the city of the center of the Jewish religion, the city he has been journeying toward throughout the gospel narrative, and he entered to the adulation of throngs.  Cloaks were thrown down in the street, the people waved palms and chanted “Hosanna.”  It seemed like Jesus’ message had finally been accepted, at least by the crowds who had long been yearning for a messiah 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 he 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 message that was particularly welcome; 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 was made clear?  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.  It was me.  Because it’s my sins that led Jesus to the Way of the Cross.  It’s my sins that betrayed him; it’s my sins that have kept me from friendship with God.  And so he willingly gave his life that I might have life.  And you.

He gave himself for us.

Homilies Lent

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

This illness is not to end in death,
but is for the glory of God,
that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

As I’ve been praying during this COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been struck by two things.  First is that God, who never sets in motion the evil that happens to us (including this crisis), intends to do something in us during this time.  We will have to wait and see what that is, all the while being faithful disciples who trust in God’s mercy.  The second striking thing in my prayer is that God wants us, in this mournful time, to rediscover and come to rely on the virtue of hope.

Now, virtues are those habits and dispositions that lead us to what is good (CCC 1804). There are generally a couple of different kinds of virtues: human virtues (like prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) and theological virtues (like faith, hope and charity).  Of these, hope is the virtue that recognizes our desire for happiness in this life and the next, which is an aspiration placed in our hearts by God himself (CCC 1818).  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this virtue of hope causes us to “desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1817).

Hope is that virtue that gets us through the difficulties of this life with a view toward what is to come.  It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, and not the light of an oncoming train!  Hope is so necessary in every moment of history, in every society and in every person’s life.  Hope is all the more necessary in moments of crisis, like this one.  Hope holds fast to the belief that we are travelers in this world, that we are not home yet, and that the best is yet to come.  We Christians hold fast to the knowledge that the Resurrection is the primary source of our hope, testifying that we have the invitation to life eternal, and the abiding presence of our God who made us for himself.

This illness is not to end in death,
but is for the glory of God,
that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

Those are crazy words.  They really are.  I think that, at least in years past, when we have heard these words, we just sort of accepted them as no big deal.  I mean, we’ve all heard the story a million times, right?  But those were crazy words, and the disciples, I think, would have received them as such.  I can almost imagine them doing a mental eye-roll!  And I think, these days, we might be the ones rolling our eyes: we’ve seen so many die of this awful virus in the last weeks.  This illness seems, very much, to end in death.

And so it was for Lazarus, too, friends.  I mean, he did really die.  That’s the whole point that was made by Martha’s seemingly-obvious, and perhaps even humorous comment, “Lord, by now there will be a stench.”  The belief was that, after three days, the dead person was really, really dead, and they weren’t coming back.  Lazarus has been in there four days, so it was reasonable to know that he’d be stinking of death.  But, Jesus insisted that they roll away the stone so they could see the mercy of God.  And so they did.

And the dead man came out.  That’s another one that we sort of gloss over in our millionth reading of this familiar story.  But let’s not underplay what is, actually and intentionally, an amazing miracle!  Someone who was stinking of death, having been rotting away for four days, got up and walked out of a tomb.  It’s a miracle of hope.  The dead man came out!

It doesn’t take too much imagination for Christian faithful people to see the foreshadowing in this story.  Jesus, too, will really die, and he too, will really rise, although in a different way.  Both of these episodes of a dead man walking out of a grave remind us to take up hope in the real knowledge that it is God who has control over life and death.  They remind us to hope in the knowledge that death is not the end.  They remind us to hope in the Christian conviction that God never intends the evil that befalls us, but allows it that we might hope in his mercy.  

God is doing something important during these days of quarantine and suffering.  Let’s not miss them.  The word “Lent” means “springtime,” and I believe that this can be a new springtime of faith for us.  This springtime can enliven hope in us, when we had given ourselves to the deathly cynicism of a world encrusted in the stench of materialism, self-centeredness, and entitlement.  So we cannot give in to any sense of doom or despair.  God is, always and forever, in control.

Will there be suffering?  Yes, and, I’m sorry to say, plenty of it.  This illness is touching all of us in some way and none of it is pleasant.  But let’s remember that Lazarus died of an illness, and Jesus died after suffering indignity, a scourging, and an ignominious, tortuous death on a cross.  But in each of those cases, God used suffering to unleash mercy, and glory, and a flood of grace.  God is calling us to the virtue of hope, brothers and sisters.  We know that this time of suffering will unleash mercy, glory and grace as well.  Because we have hope.  God is in control.

This illness is not to end in death,
but is for the glory of God,
that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

Homilies Lent

Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

This homily was for the school children. I recorded a Liturgy of the Word for them to see during the time when they’d usually have a school Mass, but can’t now because of COVID-19.

When I was a young person – many years ago now! – in my town, it mattered where you lived.  If you were on one side of the tracks, it meant you had money and people thought that was impressive.  If you lived on the side of the tracks that I lived on, though, you weren’t rich and so people sometimes looked down on you.  Thankfully, years ago, they tore up the tracks, but I think that kind of thinking still happens: not just in my home town, but all over.

We kind of see it in today’s Gospel reading.  The people of Jerusalem see Jesus walking about openly, and they look down on him.  “But we know where he is from.”  Kind of like, we know what side of the tracks he lives on, so why should we think he is the promised Messiah?  Jesus sets them right: he is “from” God the Father, who sent him into the world.  That’s his true home, and because that’s his true home, he can offer the Father’s forgiveness, the Father’s mercy, the Father’s love.

The people’s attempt to write Jesus off because they knew where he was from was their attempt to deal with the change of life he called people to.  Yes, he offered the Father’s love and mercy, but he also called them to change their lives, to live the right way, so they could live forever in the kingdom.  That’s real love and mercy there: calling people back to the way that leads to heaven.  But people don’t like to change, so they scoff at where he’s from.

In our first reading today, a group of wicked people do the same kind of thing.  They say, “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us, he sets himself against our doings, Reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training.”  They don’t like that the “just one” professes to be a child of God.  But he is. In fact, even though this is the Old Testament and the book of Wisdom didn’t specifically speak of Jesus, it is, in fact, talking about Jesus.  Jesus is the just one, the Son of God, who calls us to turn around from what we are doing and turn toward the way that leads to heaven, that leads to life.

So that’s what our readings are calling us to do today.  It’s a great message for Lent, because Lent is about repentance, about “turning around” and walking in the way that leads to eternal life.  We all want to go to heaven one day.  Lent, and today’s readings, show us the way to get there: we just have to follow Jesus, even if what he asks us to do isn’t easy.

Now, I want to say a word or two about what’s going on these days.  I know it’s hard for you to understand why you can’t come to school, why you can’t be with your friends.  I know that because it’s hard for me to understand too.  I miss you all and your families so much.  But what we are doing right now is what is best for everyone.  We want everyone to be safe and healthy, and this is the best way to do that, for right now.  I look forward to the day when you’re back here and we can celebrate together.  Until that day, I want you to know that I am praying for you, and that I love you.

And please don’t ever forget that God loves you, always and forever.  Nothing can change that.  I’ve been encouraging everyone to do three things so that we can be together soon: stay well, stay safe, and stay home.  

Baptism Homilies Lent

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

This feels like a little bit of deja-vu for me, because I just did a video lesson on holy water for the school kids yesterday.  Water is so important to us, and we see a lot of water in these readings.  Water refreshes us, sustains us, cleans us.  And people are saying that drinking water, if you get the COVID-19 virus can wash it into your stomach where it gets destroyed.  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’m drinking plenty of water anyway!

But when the readings talk so much about water, what we are being led to is a reflection on 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.  It’s hard to imagine anything being worse.  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.  I can’t wait for this virus situation to be over so that we can once again fill up the holy water fonts, and the pews, and rejoice together in our baptism!  

So I encourage you all to not take holy water for granted.  Think about that the next time you put your hand into the font and stir up those waters of mercy.  Be healed and made new; go, and from now on, do not sin any more.

Homilies Lent

Friday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  That would be, I think, the most reassuring thing we could hear from our Lord!  To know that you’re on the right track — that your thoughts and heart’s desires are in line with God’s will — that would be a wonderful thing to know.  And today’s Scriptures give us the roadmap for finding that reassurance.

Step one is repentance. The prophet Hosea wrote of Israel’s repentance.  Israel, as a nation, as we well know, had turned away from the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  They had turned to the false gods of their neighbors and had worshipped idols.  Hosea’s prophecy had been all about calling them back, urging them to return to the Lord who loved his people and yearned for them like a spurned lover.  In today’s first reading, Hosea prophecies the promise that God will accept back his wayward lover and will restore the people of Israel to his own loved possession.

Step two is to hear the voice of God.  “If only my people would hear me,” the Psalmist says, “and Israel walk in my ways, I would feed them with the best of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would fill them.”  God longs to fill his faithful people with everything that they need to sustain life and live their faith.  All we have to do is hear his voice, to follow his commands, and walk in his ways.  This hearing the voice of God requires a steadfast faithfulness that will not be enticed by strange gods or flashy idols.  It’s important to note that we have to do step one first: we can’t hear God’s voice if we’re caught up in our sins.  There is a single-mindedness that is called for here: the faithful are called not to hear God as one voice among many, but to hear God alone.

And step three is love.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus famously boils the commandments down to two: love of God and love of neighbor.  Again, there is an underlying single-mindedness: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  Love of God and neighbor isn’t a third or fourth priority, if we ever get around to it.  Love is prime: love must the first inclination of the heart, the first thought of the mind, and the first action of life.

What does it take for us disciples to be not far from the Kingdom of God? It takes a Lent of repentance, a desire to hear and meditate on God’s Word and his presence in our lives, and then to love like there was nothing else to do in the whole world. I’ve been reflecting on the fact that this is the lentiest Lent I can ever remember, or want to have again! But the fact that we all have to keep social distance and stay home to contain COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to slow down, to quiet ourselves, and to make things right. And our Scriptures today give us a way to do all that.

Homilies Lent RCIA

The Third Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

This Mass was streamed live on Facebook in lieu of people attending Mass in person, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Is the LORD in our midst or not?

I remember a time a while back when 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.

It’s not so different now, is it?  I think a bottle of water is worth about $37 on the open market.  With the COVID-19 situation taking a toll on all of us, it’s little things like water that remind us that we can’t take anything for granted.

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 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? Maybe, or maybe she 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 sang it as our opening song and 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 life-giving 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, should certainly answer that question with a resounding “YES!”  The Lord is, and always has been, in our midst.  Our thirst has been quenched, our souls revived, and now we live in him.

Homilies Lent

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

And someone, of course, did rise from the dead – Jesus himself. That last line was a bit of foreshadowing. And many among the scribes and Pharisees remained unpersuaded. The Kingdom of God demands trust in God, not in ourselves , not in any human beings. Our own resources are laughable in the face of the salvation and compassion and mercy poured out on us through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. But we have to be persuaded of that. Our Savior did, in fact, rise from the dead to put an end to our death. If we are persuaded by that, we don’t need to trust in anything or anyone but him.

Homilies Lent

Friday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Today’s readings remind us that Lent is no time for “business as usual.” It’s not enough for us to merely claim to be righteous, because righteousness, literally a right relationship, means that righteous actions must back our lofty words. And so today we are called to a righteousness that surpasses the scribes and Pharisees, a righteousness that goes beyond our words and our reputations and what we want people to think about us. The righteousness that Jesus calls us to today is a righteousness that starts where everything must, and that is in the heart.

Today’s Gospel comes from the somewhat scary “but I say to you” section of Matthew’s Gospel. Here, Jesus reiterates the teachings of Moses and then “kicks them up a notch.” That means that harsh words, grudges, anger, backbiting, gossiping and slander share equal dishonor with outright murder. They all, Jesus tells us, violate the fifth commandment, because they all start with the same murderous inclination of the heart. The one who has harbored these evil thoughts and actions must repent of them and seek reconciliation before offering his or her gift at the altar, or the offering will be tainted, ruined, and ultimately rendered sacrilegious.

Ezekiel’s prophecy in the first reading is good news for those of us who have gone astray. His prophecy holds out the possibility of a second chance for us sinners and calls us to a fundamental change of life. Even if we have been known for our wicked deeds, we have the opportunity to repent and change our hearts and lives. If we repent, God will forget our wickedness and treat us with mercy.

The Psalmist today rejoices in God who is trustworthy with his mercy and forgiveness. In this time of Lenten repentance, we can have confidence in our God who longs to bring us back:

For with the Lord is kindness

and with him is plenteous redemption;

And he will redeem [all of us]from all [our] iniquities.

Homilies Lent

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

The readings for these early days of Lent are focused on teaching us how to accomplish the various disciplines of Lent – which really are the various disciplines of the spiritual life. The whole point is that we enter more deeply into the spiritual life during these days of Lent, with a view toward growing in holiness. Today’s discipline then, I think, would be persistence in prayer. 

In the first reading, we have Queen Esther, who is really between a rock and a hard place. The king does not know she is Hebrew, and worse than that, if she goes to the king without being summoned, she could well lose her life. But, she needs to go to the king to plead for the lives of her fellow Hebrew people.  So today, she prays that her life, as well as those of her people would be spared. Esther prayed for three days and nights that her prayer would be answered, and her persistence was rewarded.  She received the reward that Jesus promised when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

We, too, bring many prayers to our relationship with God.  We may or may not be rewarded with the exact gift we pray for; in fact, that rarely happens. But we will always be rewarded with the loving presence of our God in our lives. In fact, it could well be that God’s answer to our prayer is “no” – for whatever reason – but even in that “no” we have the grace of a relationship that has been strengthened by our prayerful persistence.

The Psalmist prays, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” This Lent, may the discipline of persistence in prayer lead us to a renewed and enlivened sense of the Lord’s will and of his loving presence in our lives.