Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

Back when I was in seminary, I was a fire chaplain for one of the local fire departments.  On Wednesdays, we only had one class, and since it was Ash Wednesday and our teacher was a pastor of a parish, he was obviously busy, so we had the whole day free.  I went with my friend Jeff, who was a chaplain with me, to the station to see how things were going and to spend some time doing some ministry there.  When we got there, though, there really wasn’t anyone around.  The receptionist told us they had all gone out on a fire call, and it looked pretty big.

So Jeff and I got the address and headed out to the scene of the fire.  This was the first major fire I ever worked on, and it was pretty big.  A whole four unit apartment building was in flames.  Checking in with the fire chief, he told us that the families were in an apartment building across the street.  We went there and introduced ourselves.

We talked to the families that were there for a while, and then had to get some other information, and during a lull, I asked the woman whose apartment we were trampling with our wet boots if she knew these families before.  She said no, but she wouldn’t have thought of not opening her home to neighbors in trouble.  I noticed she was wearing a sweatshirt with the letters WWJD on it – what would Jesus do? And I thought, well she obviously knew the answer to that question, and was not afraid to live it.

Again, that was Ash Wednesday that year, and it made a big impact on me.  I realized it was so important for me to live those four letters – WWJD – during Lent, and really all year long.  But doing that is a process.  You have to develop new attitudes, new habits – new habits of the soul.  This Lent is all about doing that for us.

We are called to repent, to break our ties with the sinfulness and the entanglements that are keeping us tethered to the world instead of free to live with our God. Our Church offers us three ways to do that during Lent.  First, we can fast.  We can give up snacks, or a favorite food, or eat one less meal perhaps one day a week, or we can give up a favorite television program or activity.  Fasting helps us to be aware of the ways God works to sustain us when we’re lacking something we think we need.  The whole idea of fasting is that we need to come to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide, and provide better than we could ever find in any other source.

Second, we can pray.  Sure, we’re called to pray all the time, but maybe Lent can be the opportunity to intensify our prayer life, to make it better, to make it more, to draw more life from it.  Maybe we are not people who read Scripture every day, and we can work through one of the books of the Bible during Lent.  Maybe we can learn a new prayer or take on a new devotion.  Maybe we can spend time before the Lord in the Tabernacle or in adoration.  Maybe we can just carve out some quiet time at the end of the day to give thanks for our blessings, and to ask pardon for our failings.  Intensifying our prayer life this Lent can help us to be aware of God’s presence at every moment of our day and in every place we are.

As part of our Lenten practice of prayer here at Saint Mary’s, we are invited to participate in Project Passion, which is a 30 day challenge to give 15 minutes a day to prayer and reflection on a Gospel passage.  We’ll be doing it on our own, praying each day as we are able.  But we will also be doing it together, each of us reflecting on the same 30 passages throughout Lent.  All the resources, including the reading and daily guided meditation podcasts in English, Spanish, and Polish, are available on our website,, and on the Parish App.

Project Passion Cards are being passed out throughout the day today at all exits of the Church.  We encourage every adult to take a card with them and to take the challenge to give 1% of their day to the Lord in prayer.  There is also a handout with a summary of other Lenten opportunities this year at St. Mary Immaculate.

Finally, we can give alms or do works of charity.  We can visit a soup kitchen or go out to collect groceries for the food pantry.  Maybe we can devote some time to mentoring a child who needs help with their studies, or volunteer to help in our school or religious education program.  Works of charity might be a family project, choosing an activity and doing it together.  When we do works of charity, we can learn to see others as God does, and love them the way God loves them and us.

And none of this, as the Gospel reminds us today, is to be done begrudgingly or half-heartedly.  None of it is to be done with the express purpose of letting the world see how great we are.  It is always to be done with great humility, but also with great joy.  Our acts of fasting, prayer, and charity should be a celebration of who God is in our lives, and a beautiful effort to strengthen our relationship with him.

It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty day retreat that will bring us all closer to God.  Our collect prayer calls this a “campaign of Christian service.”  Lent is a time to pay more attention to the ways God wants to bless us and respond by giving blessing to others.  May we all hear the voice of the prophet Joel from today’s first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart!”

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 Beloved Disciple 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 the end of the story.  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.

In these Holy days, we see the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. May we find courage in the way he triumphed over this fearful night and burst forth with him to the brilliant glory of morning.

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.  Over the course of this week, we will gather 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 the Lord’s Passion, to venerate the Cross which was the altar on which he sacrificed his life for ours.  And on Saturday, we will gather on the piazza at 8pm to recount the stories of our salvation and welcome the Resurrection, baptizing new believers into the faith, and 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.

And we begin that on a seemingly triumphant note.  Jesus enters Jerusalem, the city of 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 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.  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.

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 a sad situation, to be sure. 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.

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today’s readings
“When you lift up the Son of Man,
then you will realize that I AM…”

Just as the saraph serpent was lifted up on a pole in the desert for the people to see, and thus live, so the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, was lifted up on the cross for the salvation of the world.  In these late Lenten days, the Church is looking to the Cross, looking toward Jerusalem, knowing that the hour of the Lord, in which he would pay the dear price of our salvation, is near at hand.

With hearts filled with gratitude, we come to this Eucharist, with our eyes fixed on our Lord lifted up for us, who pours himself out for us again and still.  When we see him lifted up, we remember that he is “I AM,” our crucified and risen Lord, and whenever we look to him, we are saved from all that ails us, from our sins and brokenness, and we ourselves are lifted up to eternal life.

Our challenge in these late Lenten days is to be that icon of the Cross, like the saraph serpent, to whom people can look and find healing and salvation. We have to be the image of Christ crucified so that the world can become whole.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

“Lord, by now there will be a stench.”

That’s one of my favorite lines in scripture.  It begs the question I want you to pray about this week, which is, “What in your life really stinks?”  Because we have to have that stench washed away in order to really live.

If you know my preaching, you’re not going to be at all surprised about this, but I have to tell you honestly, our Gospel reading isn’t about Lazarus.  Yes, he got raised from the dead, so good for him, but he isn’t the center of action in the story.  In fact, he’s dead for most of the reading, so he doesn’t play a major part.   Our Gospel today is about Jesus, who through baptism and grace is the remedy for all that stinks in our life.

So Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is ill.  He knows that Lazarus will die, and he knows that he will raise Lazarus up, so very much like the rest of John’s Gospel, Jesus is in full control.  He delays going to see Lazarus because it will give him the opportunity that will increase faith in the other players in the story.  So when he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days.  That’s an important detail because it tells us that Lazarus is really, really dead.  The Jews believed that the soul of a person hung around for about three days, but after that, well, he or she was gone forever.  So if Jesus had raised Lazarus on the second day, no big deal.  If on the third day, that would have been a foreshadowing of himself.  But on the fourth day, he raises up someone who is really, really dead: someone just like us.

So just like the man who was born blind last week, we are born dead, in a way.  I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but stay with me.  We are born dead in our sins, and there is nothing we can do to raise ourselves up out of it except for the grace of God.  So the movement in our Gospel today is from life that is so mired in sin that it stinks, to life that is so free of death that burial bands and tombs cannot contain it.

During Lent, we have been journeying with our catechumens, who are now called the Elect, as they prepare to be baptized, confirmed, and receive first Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil.  Much like them, there are three groups of catechumens in today’s Gospel.  The first group is Mary and Martha, those friends of Jesus that are part of John’s Gospel a few times.  Here, the rubber meets the road in their faith.  Here, like so many of us, they have something tragic happen in their lives, and now they have to grapple with whether their faith helps them with that or not.  Mary is so troubled that she doesn’t even go out to meet the Lord until her sister tells her a white lie that Jesus was asking for her.  Both she and Martha, when they first see Jesus, complain that he should have come sooner so that he could have saved Lazarus.  But Martha has a little faith.  She says very importantly that “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  That’s the beginning profession of faith.  She knows that Jesus has power over life and death.  So then they have a little catechetical dialogue about life and death and eternity, and at the end of it, Martha professes that Jesus is the Son of God who was coming into the world.  The sisters move from their grief, to faith in Jesus, even before he accomplishes the miracle.

The second group of catechumens is the Apostles.  God bless them, they’re still trying to make sense of Jesus.  We can’t be too hard on them, because they’re a lot like many of us who are trying to be men and women of faith, but don’t really have all the facts right now.  “Let us also go to die with him,” Thomas says.  And they will, of course: they have to go through the cross before they see and understand Jesus fully.  We too will have to take up our own crosses before we can understand the salvation that Christ has won for us.

The third group of catechumens is the Jews.  A bunch of them are weeping with Mary, and they go with her to see Jesus.  Along the way, they complain that if he could heal the man born blind like he did in last week’s Gospel, why couldn’t he have healed Lazarus?  But seeing the miracle, they come to believe, in the very last verse of this long reading.  They are a lot like those of us who are skeptical for a long time, but see something wonderful materialize in the life of another and finally decide there’s something to this Jesus that’s worth believing in.

Key to all of these catechumens is that, in order to move to belief, they had to have some kind of stench in their lives washed away.  For Martha and Mary, they had to see past their grief.  For the Apostles, they had to get over themselves and realize that Jesus was in charge.  For the Jews, they had to get past their skepticism and let him perform miracles among them.  For all of us, on the journey of faith, some kind of stench has to be washed away, in order to come to full faith in Jesus.  And that stench is, of course, sin.  The way it gets washed away is in baptism.

So if you take away anything from today’s Liturgy, let it be this: this reading is really all about baptism, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Is it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection?  Well maybe a little.  But it is more about baptism.  Because baptism is a kind of death.  As Saint Paul says in our second reading today, baptism is the kind of death that gives life to our mortal bodies.  It’s hard for us to imagine that kind of thing when the baptisms we’ve seen are just a mere pouring of water over a baby’s head.  But baptism in the early church was full submerging in water while the formula was pronounced, after which they came up out of the water gasping for air.  Believe me, they got the connection of baptism with death and resurrection!

Baptism is what washes away the stench in our lives.  It does that with original sin, and if we live our baptism by participating in the sacraments, it does that with the sins of our daily life.  The sacrament of Penance is an extension in a way of the sacrament of Baptism, in which the sins of our lives are completely washed away, leaving us made new and alive in ways we couldn’t imagine.

So today, Jesus sees us dead in the flesh, stinking of our sins.  But he calls us forth in baptism, rolling away the stone of sin that keeps us from relationship with him, releasing us from the burial-bands that bind us, and calling us to new life.

So maybe in these closing days of Lent, we still have to respond to our Lord’s call to live.  Maybe you haven’t yet been to confession before Easter.  We have confessions all day on Tuesday, and you can come to any of the penance services we have.  We have school confessions at 10:45, and will be hearing confessions until around noon.  Then we have religious education family confessions at 4:45, and a parish penance serve at 7pm.  Come to any of them that fit your schedule.  If you miss that, we will have confessions after the 11:30 Mass next Sunday until all are heard.  And finally, we will have confessions a week from Tuesday, during Holy Week, at 3:00 until all are heard.  We invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths.  Wherever you find yourself at this point of Lent, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave.  Lent ends just before Evening Prayer on Holy Thursday.  That gives us around ten and a half days to take up our Lenten resolutions anew, or even make new ones, so that we can receive new life in Christ.  Don’t spend these days in the grave.  Come out, be untied, and be let go.

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, but I’m 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.