The Most Holy Trinity: Solving the Mystery

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed is a good mystery. When I have the chance to just read what I want to read, it’s almost always a mystery novel. I read Agatha Christie all the time growing up, and I’ll often go back to some of her stuff even now. My love for mysteries probably explains why I like to watch “Law & Order” and “CSI.”

If you enjoy mysteries too, you know that the mark of a good mystery is when it doesn’t get solved in the first six pages. It’s good to have to think and rethink your theory, right up until the last page.

Today’s Solemnity of the Holy Trinity is just such a mystery, I think. This is an opportunity for us to once again ask the question, “Who is God?” We could say “God is love” or “God is good.” But that’s all in the first six pages. And those answers bring up more questions than they solve. We know that the Trinity means that we believe in one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But then we would have to explain how one plus one plus one still equals one, and our human minds are at a loss.

If we’re honest, we have to begin our discussion of the Trinity by acknowledging that there’s a lot we don’t know about God. God is incomprehensible, too big for our limited wisdom to encompass, above us and beyond us and invisible to us; too wonderful for us in a very real way. We have yet to see God face-to-face, and until that happens, I don’t think we’ll never know God completely.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know God at all. Because we’ve been given clues to who God is here and there, and each time we are open and ready to receive those clues, we come to know God in new ways. We’ve seen God active in the Old Testament. Moses points out today the magnificent holiness of God who created us, appeared to Moses himself in the burning bush, and led them victorious out of Egypt into the promised land. The God of the Old Testament is a God who passionately loves his chosen people and intervenes time and time again to bring them back to Himself, when they had wandered away.

In the New Testament, the most obvious clue is in the person of Jesus. Jesus, the Son of the Father, who was present with him in the beginning when the heavens and earth were created, came from heaven to walk the earth, to experience our human condition, to die our death, and in so doing, to help us to know God. In Jesus, God again is a God of love, who seeks out the lost and heals the sick and raises the dead, and who forgives the sinner. In Jesus, we see the ultimate intervention of God in human history to bring his wandering people back to him, by sacrificing his own life on the cross, and rising triumphant over the grave.

In both the Old and the New Testaments, we have countless clues to who God is. But Scripture isn’t the only way we come to know God. We can see clues in the other people God puts in our lives, when the love which God has for his people is lived out in action. There is a clue each time we reach out to the poor, lonely, or oppressed. Another clue is revealed each time we forget our anger and forgive a hurt or wrong. We find still another clue each time we give of our time or our talent to build another person up. Once again, in all of these ways, it is God’s love that helps us to know God in a new way.

Another thing we know about God is that popular notions of who God is are often not helpful clues. God is not One who blesses the rich and the powerful at the expense of the poor and oppressed. Instead, God raises up the lowly and feeds the hungry. God is not the stern dictator who looks for the slightest infraction of the law to condemn the sinner. Instead, God reaches out to the sinner with readiness to forgive that goes beyond our wildest imaginings. God is not the God of easy religion who gives facile and impractical advice to complex problems. Instead, God is with his people in good times and in bad and gives us wisdom to tackle every situation.

More than anything, God is the One who is with us always, as the Gospel says today, until the end of the age. This God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, this God who is infinitely beyond us, this God who created us and who sustains us, this God who laid down his life for us and sent his Spirit to enliven us, this God is God who is with us always, never leaving us, bringing us back to himself, and raising us up time and time again. What more could we hope for?

And that, brothers and sisters in Christ, may be the closest we can come to solving the mystery of who God is for now. Maybe we won’t be able to explain all of the mysteries of God and the Trinity, but if we know that our infinitely loving God is always with us, perhaps we know enough. Because ultimately God is not a philosophy or an idea or a word we can define. Ultimately, God is a relationship: the Son proceeds from the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. I think it was St. Augustine who said that the Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved and the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son. God is love itself; a love that goes beyond the imperfect love we can offer; a love that is with us always.

And if the Scriptures make anything clear about God today, it’s this: that this love cannot be hoarded within ourselves. God’s love cannot be contained in us any more than God can be contained in one time or place or people. God’s love must be shared by the believer with people of every time and place, teaching them to observe all that he commanded us, and baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

We Christians must continue to provide clues of who God is for others, until that great day when we will see God face-to-face and all the mysteries will be solved once and for all. On that great day, we can sing with the psalmist, “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be His own.”

Pentecost: Jesus is Lord!

Today's readings

 

PrayerCard

 

We've gathered today on the Solemnity of Pentecost … one of my favorite feasts of the whole year. Today, we have one last opportunity to celebrate the joy of the Easter season. For fifty days, we've been celebrating our Lord's resurrection, his triumph over the grave, and his defeat of sin and death. We've been celebrating our salvation, because Christ's death and resurrection has broken down the barriers that have kept us from God and has made it possible for us to live with God forever. In the last week, we've been celebrating our Lord's Ascension, with His promise that though He is beyond our sight, He is with us always. And today, today we celebrate the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on the Church, who breathes life into nothingness to create the world, who recreates the world with power and might, and who pours out the power of forgiveness on a world hardened by sin.

The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruah, with is the same word they use for "breath." So the Spirit who hovered over the waters of the primordial world also breathed life into our first parents, giving them not just spiritual life, but physical life, and life in all its fullness. The psalmist today makes it very clear that this Holy Spirit is the principle of life for all of us: "you take back your spirit, they perish and return to the dust from which they came; when you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth" (Ps. 104:34).

It is this same Spirit that is poured out on our world, which often times doesn't look very life-giving. This world of darkness of sin, of war and terror, of poverty and injustice, of sickness and death; this world can be recreated daily when the Spirit is poured out on hearts open to receive Him. This Spirit bursts forth from the believer into action: working in various forms of service, works and ministries to proclaim, not just in word, but most importantly in deed, that "Jesus is Lord" (1 Cor 12:3).

It is this same Spirit that is given to create the Church as Jesus breathes on the apostles on the evening of that first day of the week. In today's Gospel reading, the Holy Spirit is given for the reconciliation of the sinner. Our Church picks up this theme in the Sacrament of Penance when the words of absolution tell us that "God, the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins." Because it is in the forgiveness of rivalries, it is in the healing of broken relationships, it is in the restoration of peace and in the pardoning of sinners that God's plan for creation is most fully realized.

That same Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters at the creation of the world now hovers over the Church. The apostles first received that Holy Spirit, but now it is poured out on us as well. Nothing that is truly good can be conceived of, nor realized apart from that Holy Spirit. As the sequence tells us today: "Where you are not, we have naught, nothing good in deed or thought, nothing free from taint of ill." It is the Spirit who gives life, both physical and spiritual. It is the Spirit who speaks in our prayer, putting those prayers in our hearts in the first place, and uttering all of our inexpressible groanings when we cannot pray ourselves. It is the Spirit who gives gifts to enliven our works and ministries. It is indeed the Spirit who gives us faith to cry out, "Jesus is Lord."

Having gathered today in this place on this great Feast, we now pray for not only an outpouring of that Holy Spirit, but also for the openness to receive that Spirit and the grace to let that Spirit work in us for the salvation of the world. We, the Church, need that Holy Spirit to help us to promote a culture of life in a world of death; to live the Gospel in a world of selfishness; to seek inclusion and to celebrate diversity in a world of racism and hate; to effect conversion and reconciliation in a world steeped in sin. Brothers and sisters in Christ, if people in this world are to know that Jesus is Lord, it's got to happen through each one of us. One life and one heart at a time can be moved to conversion by our witness and our prayer. Let us pray, then, that the Holy Spirit would be able to do all that in us.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen. Alleluia

Sixth Sunday of Easter: God’s Transforming Love

Today's readings.

I realized this past week that this would be my last homily as a deacon.  Time has certainly flown by, and next week I’ll be attending the Ordination of a friend in Texas, and the week after that is my turn.  Since this is my last homily as a deacon, I am very happy that I get to preach on these particular readings, because they contain some of my favorite lines in all of Scripture.  We could certainly spend hours delving into the theological meanings of all that we’re told today, but well, I wouldn’t do that to you in my last homily as a deacon!

The letter from St. John in today’s second reading has one of the most fundamental principles in all of theology: God is love.  We all probably learned that somewhere early on in our religious education, and it probably filled us with warm feelings at the time.  But we might also agree that the whole idea of “God is love” can be a little trite, the stuff of greeting cards and bumper stickers, perhaps it has become almost meaningless to we who have become jaded with the whole idea of what love is. 

But the love that is God isn’t any of the things we think of when we think of love.  This love isn’t a mere warm feeling for another person, it isn’t a synonym for “like,” it isn’t physical, emotional or intellectual love at all.  The Greek word that is translated “love” here is agape – a word you may have heard – and maybe “love” isn’t even the best way to translate it, but that’s all that our English provides.  Agape love is love that lives for and acts for another person; agape love is, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

This is, after all, what Jesus did for us up there on that cross.  The most perfect way that God could show God’s love for us is for His only begotten Son to be born among us, to suffer and die to pay the price for our sins, and to be raised up to new life that lasts forever so that the barriers of sin and death that had kept us from God’s love would be obliterated.  This agape love is love that is not destroyed by sin nor limited by death; it is a love that is impossible to horde but must be given away; it is a love that does not let distinctions like race or religion or class or way of life divide us: it is a love that is as limitless as God is, because God Himself is that love.

This agape love that is God’s very essence is a love that completely transforms us.  This love makes our salvation possible and once it has done that, it bursts forth from us to others in order to make their salvation possible too.  Peter was transformed by this love in the first reading, and finally came to the realization that this love was not limited just to Jews but also must embrace the Gentile world as well. 

Because God’s love transforms us, we are no longer slaves, as Jesus says, but now God’s friends.  Our slavery to the passions and vices and limitations and longings of our flesh can all be transformed by God’s love into the kind of obedience that brings us true joy.  God’s agape love forgives sin, heals brokenness, and raises us up to be God’s friends.  God’s love sends us transformed lovers out to love others and to help them find friendship with God too.  This love makes us sharers in the very love and life of God.

Because God’s love transforms us, we can do the thing that is not in our nature: we can lay down our lives for others.  Just as Christ laid down his life on the cross, so we can give of ourselves, often at great cost, to raise children, to serve the poor, to care for the elderly and the infirm, to shelter the homeless and teach the young.  All of the things that will never make us rich or famous but which will raise up another person in need are possible because of God’s transforming love.

When we’ve loved others in this way, and when we see them reach out to others in love, we know that God’s love continues to transform our world and continues to raise us up and make salvation possible for more and more people every day. 

Having been transformed into God’s friends, we are commanded to love one another as we have been loved by God.  God’s love came to us at the incredible price of the life of Jesus Christ, and loving one another will demand a great price from us as well.  But we can be confident in our ability to lay down our very lives for others because we are being transformed daily by our God who is love itself.

Second Sunday of Easter: Peace Be With You

Today's readings. 

Why is it that you're here today?  Is it because your faith is what carries you through the highs and lows of life, because you need to worship in order to be empowered to live?  Is it because the Word of God and the life-giving Eucharist is central to who you are and vital to the service that you give?  Is it because your prayer life begins and ends in the gathered community that has its source in Christ?  Is it because you came to the 9:30 or 11:30 in the Chapel last Sunday and you heard the deacon give an incredible homily and you just couldn't stay away?

Or are your motives a little less lofty?  Are you here because your parents pestered you until you gave up and came to Mass?  Are you here because that's what you always do on [Saturday Evening] Sunday Morning?  Are you here because you are afraid of having to confess that you didn't come?  Are you here because you are lonely, or had nothing else to do, or are desperate that God change your life?

The good news is that if our reason for being here today is less than perfect, we have ten patron saints locked up in that room in Jerusalem.  For fear of the Jews they are together, clinging to one another, mourning their lost friend, wondering what would happen to them, and trying to make sense of the empty tomb that Mary Magdalene, Peter and the beloved disciple found earlier that day. 

It doesn't matter what brings us together in this sacred place, because what really matters is that at least we are together; at least we are here.  And it really is an act of faith to come together every week.  More so now, perhaps, than ever before.  It would be so much easier to give in to the many scandals that keep people from the Church these days.  It would be far easier for all of us to give in to the embarrassment of being Catholic that we surely must feel every time we turn on the news these days.  It might even be understandable to find someplace else to worship, or for priests not to wear their Roman Collars in public, or for seminarians to give up pursuing the vocation to which they've been called.  But, for whatever reason, we didn't, and because we are here, together, with all of our fears and embarrassments and frailties, our Lord, in his Divine Mercy, can break through all those locked doors and say to us as he said to the Ten: "Peace be with you."

It might be easy to give poor Doubting Thomas a hard time, but it cannot be so for those of us who come here with all our fears and doubts and uncertainties.  Because it is Thomas who speaks for us these days, when we would just as soon find some reason to write off what we've been taught and to do something else.  For those of us with modern minds who cannot and will not believe merely on the word of others, Thomas, who would not believe on the mere words of the Ten, is our spokesman.  For everyone for whom seeing is believing, Thomas's resolve to withhold judgment until he saw the Lord's hands and side is our statement of faith – such as it is.

And I think I can understand Thomas's behavior here.  For whatever reason, he was missing from the group when the Lord came and appeared to them that first time.  He certainly must have felt left out, and perhaps hurt that he was not given the same gift that they were.  And we must remember that the Ten were all unbelieving before they saw Jesus' hands and side too: only upon seeing that were they able to exclaim: "We have seen the Lord!"

Thomas was given the opportunity to have a much more intimate experience of the Risen Lord than did the other ten.  He alone was invited to reach out and touch Jesus in his brokenness:  "Put your finger here," Jesus says, "and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side."  Here again, Thomas is invited to the faith in the same way that we are this Easter day, because we too will have the opportunity to reach out and touch our Risen Lord, broken and bruised, in the Eucharist in a few minutes.  As we take the Body and Blood of our Lord, perhaps we will hear the faith of Thomas crying out, "My Lord and my God!" 

It is very important, I think, to notice that every time Jesus breaks through the locked doors, he offers his peace.  In the very same way, Jesus is breaking through whatever it is that is locking us up these days and saying, "Peace be with you."  The peace that Jesus offers is not just the absence of whatever conflict we are experiencing, but more so, a wholeness that binds up our brokenness, heals our wounds, and calms the cries of our doubts and fears.  We have to know that it is that peace that leads us back to this sacred place, despite whatever it is that we think has brought us here this day.  It is that peace that helps us recognize our Lord, triumphant over the grave, who silences the doubt that we all experience when we are broken and our lives are crazy, and our world is a mess, and our Church is in disarray. 

It is that peace that brings us together to meet our Risen Lord, and which empowers us to go out in the same way the disciples did, to forgive and comfort and bless and heal and feed and love everyone in the Name of Christ.  We must remember that many have not seen the Risen Lord but may come to believe because of us.  And it is truly a sign of the Risen Lord, brothers and sisters in Christ, when we overcome our embarrassments and scandal and are united with each other. It is a sign of the Risen Lord when we, with all of our fears and doubts and imperfections, continue to serve others in the name of Christ.  When we do that, perhaps others will see the presence of Christ in us and exclaim with Thomas, "My Lord and my God!"

So, whatever it is that has brought you here this day, please hear the words of the Risen Lord as he breaks through the locked door of your own woundedness: "Peace be with you."

Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday): Rejoice!

I preached two different homilies this weekend: one for the regular Sunday (Cycle B of the Lectionary) and the other for the Second Scrutiny (which uses Cycle A of the Lectionary).  Both are given below.  I took special care to mention Laetare Sunday, the concept of rejoicing, which I looked at through the lens of the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation, which is sung at the Easter Vigil Mass.  The lines in bold are from the Exsultet, and yes, I sang them, which was a little scary at first (who on earth sings their homily?), but it worked out okay.

Cycle A Readings: For the Second Scrutiny Mass

Whenever I read today’s first reading, I always think of my father. Dad has a way of seeing in people things that others don’t see. There’s almost nowhere we can go with Dad where we don’t find someone he knows – I think it’s an Irish thing: he never met a stranger. This can be very irritating when we have a thousand errands to do and Dad’s chatting with someone he knows while we’re hauling the groceries out to the car. But his vision is certainly a gift from God, and so many people are grateful for what he’s seen in them, and have been inspired to do things they never thought they could because of that vision.

That’s the kind of vision that is required in today’s first reading. Jesse and Samuel were all taken by Eliab, who was tall and good looking and radiating confidence. Surely Eliab must be the one to be anointed king. But God had them slow down and realize that he hadn’t chosen Eliab, or any of the other of Jesse’s seven sons. He had chosen David: the lowly little kid out tending the sheep. It turns out he made an even more splendid appearance than Eliab or any of his other brothers. What was truly splendid was what God saw: his heart. The beauty of what was inside him qualified him to be the special king of God’s choosing.

I always pray for vision like that. It’s so easy to go with what we like to see. We tend to hang around with people who are like us and are drawn to activities that give us pleasure. We collect the things that look nice to us and tend to create the kind of world we’d like to see. But that first reading calls us to overcome this blindness and catch the vision that God uses: a vision that sees to the very heart of people and the world. When we fall short of having that kind of vision, we are afflicted with a kind of blindness that severely afflicted the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” That’s the crucial question in today’s Gospel. You don’t have to do a great deal of study to figure out that the blindness Jesus is talking about is not mere physical blindness, but the Pharisees don’t get that. Which is why they are truly blind.

Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision. We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision. Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see. In baptism, the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World. During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer. At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him. Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship. We make this same journey ourselves. From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith. The vision that worked for us when we were young no longer suffices and we must be set aside old ideas to make room for newer, bolder proclamations about the power of Christ’s light in our lives.

From another point of view, this Gospel reading is almost comical. Here are the disciples and all the religious authorities – the Pharisees – standing around discussing amongst themselves this man born blind. First, the disciples wonder how it is that he came to be blind and asked Jesus if it was the man’s sin or his parents’. Then we have the Pharisees fretting about the man being cured on the Sabbath. And next they’re questioning everyone they can find to see how it is the man came to see. While they are discussing the matter to death, Jesus is quietly not only healing the man’s physical blindness, but also attending to his faith. And at the end of it, they’re all still wondering how this came to be.

It’s the behavior of the Pharisees that illustrates what Jesus considers to be true blindness. Physical blindness is easy enough to overcome; but this blindness that starts in the heart tends to remain, just as it does in the lives of the Pharisees when we leave them at the end of today’s Gospel. They, like Samuel and Jesse in the first reading, would do well to remember that the source of true sight is God himself, who sees into the heart.

This reading is a wonderful point of reflection for us during Lent. We are called to look back at our baptisms and see once again the Christ who cleared our eyes and longs to overcome whatever darkness reigns in us. During Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect on the parts of our lives where our vision is severely limited, and allow Jesus to help us move into real light. Lent is the time to journey with our Catechumens and renew ourselves in the faith, clearing away whatever prevents us from seeing Christ and responding to his grace in our lives.

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. However, I decided to pass on the opportunity to purchase rose-colored deacon vestments for the one time in my life that I’d ever get to wear them! But still, this is Laetare Sunday, and it reminds us that even in the “heaviness” of Lent, there is reason for rejoicing. It might be good, then, to ask ourselves, 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 – 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: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ our King is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!

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: Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!

What’s great about the Exsultet, I think, is the kind of “in your face” attitude it has about joy. Yes, the world can be a dark place, but it is no match for the light that Christ brings to the world. Yes there is sorrow and sin and death, but they are no match for the joy of Eternal Life, the life that comes only from Christ’s triumph over the grave. Of this kind of joy, the Exsultet sings: What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer? Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave, you gave away your Son.

Today’s Liturgy is a call for all of us to attend to our vision. Do we see others as God sees them? Do we even see ourselves as God sees us? How do we see Christ at work in our lives and in our world? Where we encounter obstacles to the clear vision that we must have in this darkened world, we should set them aside and allow Christ to anoint our eyes so that we can see as God sees, this God who sees into the heart. Then as the darkness that exists in our own lives 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 the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all humankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Cycle B Readings: For the regular Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Lent

 

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. However, I decided to pass on the opportunity to purchase rose-colored deacon vestments for the one time in my life that I’d ever get to wear them! But still, this is Laetare Sunday, and it 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 – 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: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ our King is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!

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: Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!

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, O Mother Church! Exult in glory! The risen Savior shines upon you! Let this place resound with joy, echoing the mighty song of all God’s people!

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 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 Jesus Christ broke the chains of death, and rose triumphant from the grave.

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! What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer? Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! 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 power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride.

On this Laetare Sunday, let us remember that even in the darkness of our world as it is, we can remember the joy of the Light that is to come. Let us reflect on God’s everlasting mercy, which is stronger than sin and death. Let us respond to the compassion that God has shown for us, his chosen people. Let us 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 the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all humankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Third Sunday of Lent: Zeal for Your House will consume me…

I think today’s Gospel story is very strange to many of us. It presents Jesus in a light that we don’t often see – kind of a violent light, in fact. I’ve often heard this story explained as a kind of justification for anger: that Jesus in his humanity was exhibiting the very human emotion of anger. And that would be comforting, I think, for all of us who struggle with anger, if that was what the story was about – but it’s not.

In fact, nowhere in today’s Gospel does it say that Jesus was angry. We guess that from his behavior, but that’s not what was going on. The disciples figured it out – most likely after his resurrection – by remembering the words of Scripture, zeal for your house will consume me. He was demonstrating zeal, not anger, and that’s a whole different package of emotions.

So what was really going on here?  First, we should note that these merchants were not conducting their business inside the temple, as we tend to think of it. No, they were making their transactions in the outer parts of the temple, where commerce related to the Temple was permitted. Second, we have to understand that they were providing a needed service. People would come to make their pilgrimage to the Temple, and that pilgrimage required them to do two things: to offer an animal sacrifice, and to pay the Temple Tax. Some of them would travel quite a distance to get to Jerusalem, and for them it would be impractical to bring along the animals for the sacrifice, if they even owned those animals to begin with. So it made sense for them to purchase the animals outside the Temple, then go in to offer the sacrifice. Also, the coins that were in general use bore the image and inscription of Caesar, which was considered idolatrous – those coins would have been inappropriate currency with which to pay the Temple Tax. So they needed to exchange the coins outside the Temple. Given all this, the sellers of oxen, sheep and doves, and the moneychangers, were all providing a needed and legitimate service. So what was the problem?

Zeal for your house will consume me. That’s what the disciples remembered afterwards. Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand. That Kingdom required a worship that went beyond mere legalism, beyond being able to make a pilgrimage, buy an animal for sacrifice, pay the Temple Tax, and be done for the year. Worship and sacrifice in the Kingdom of God needed to take the form of a specific way of life, a way of life that Christ modeled for us on the Cross, the kind of sacrifice that comes from laying down our lives for others. So the days of needing people to sell sacrificial animals and exchange currency outside the temple were over: instead, people needed to reform their lives.Which brings us to the matter of the Ten Commandments in today’s first reading. For us, it can be easy to just tick them off and feel like we’ve done our duty. We went to Church this week, we didn’t kill anyone, we didn’t rob any banks and didn’t lie in any court proceedings. So we must be okay. But to that kind of thinking, Jesus fashions a whip out of cords, cracks it to get our attention, and says, ‘not so fast’’

Because worship in the Kingdom of God requires much more than that. Those Ten Commandments aren’t cancelled, but they are raised to a higher standard. They look completely different. That standard means that not having any other gods looks like putting God first in every situation, that success and security and comfort aren’t the be-all and end-all of our existence. It means that not taking the Lord’s name in vain looks not just like avoiding blasphemy, but also that we honor God in all our speech, that we not curse one another in the parking lot after Mass. It means that keeping holy the Lord’s day is not just coming to Mass and leaving God behind when we walk out of here, but of truly taking the day for rest and worship, to renew our relationship with God and prepare for the week ahead. It means that the kids’ soccer game or baseball game does not take the place of Sunday worship.

The standard that Christ sets means that honoring one’s father and mother is not just a commandment for the children: it means respecting authority in all its forms whether it be one’s aging parents, or the Church, or one’s boss or any other lawful authority. Thou shall not kill means that we don’t murder or procure an abortion, but also that we respect every single person’s life. It means we avoid racism and don’t bear grudges, because doing those things is like already murdering a person in our hearts. Thou shall not commit adultery is now a commandment not just for married folks, but for all of us, and calls us to live chastity no matter what our state in life, no matter what our sexuality. Not stealing is easy if it means just not robbing a bank, which most of us don’t do. But Jesus’ standard means that we don’t take anything that isn’t ours; that we put in an honest day’s work for a day’s pay, or if we are employers, that we give our employees a salary and benefits that allow them to care for their families, because to do anything less is to steal the food off their tables.

Jesus’ way of living the Ten Commandments means that not bearing false witness requires us to take a stand for the truth in every situation. It means that not coveting our neighbor’s spouse means that we live lives immersed in purity and avoid pornography, lewd talk and anything that leads us to impure thought and action. It means not coveting our neighbor’s goods will see us rejecting ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and instead to use the gifts with which we’ve been blessed to take care of our own real needs, and also the real needs of others, particularly the poor. You see, zeal for God’s house must consume us also.

It’s a high standard that Jesus calls us to live, and if you’re like me, it can be real frustrating when we fall short time and time again. But today’s Liturgy tells us that we can call on our God whose perfect law refreshes our soul and gives joy to our hearts. God longs to show us the way to live and worship in the Kingdom of God, and makes it possible for us to leave our brokenness and failure at the foot of the Cross, and to be nourished with the bread of life. God longs to transform our worship and our sacrifice and our lives so that we can have eternal life in the Kingdom of God that is at hand, here and now.

First Sunday of Lent: Getting Lent Right

Let’s start today with a survey. How many of you have given something up for Lent? And how many of you are happy about that? How many of you would say that giving something up for Lent brings you closer to God?

I think a lot of people – myself included – have given something up for Lent because they felt they had to. It may even be that we’ve wanted to give something up for Lent because we figured that in these forty days we had the opportunity to make ourselves better. But I think we have that all wrong. I’m not saying you shouldn’t give something up for Lent – in fact I think you should, but for maybe a different reason, and we’ll come back to that. But what I think we have wrong is the whole idea that we can, or even that we should, make ourselves better during Lent. Today’s readings tell us that it’s the other way around: God wants to use this time of Lent to do something amazing in our own lives.

The part of today’s Liturgy of the Word that really stands out for me is the Gospel. Matthew, Mark and Luke all have this same story of Jesus being tempted in the desert. Matthew takes eleven verses to tell the story, and Luke takes thirteen. But Mark, who we have just read, gives us the story in just two verses. We might suspect that Mark is giving us the “Reader’s Digest Version,” that we’re missing something here. But that’s not quite the case. In those two verses, Mark makes some pretty important points and it would be good for us to slow down, hear them again, and not miss anything.

The first point Mark makes is that Jesus is driven into the desert and its temptations by the Spirit. I don’t know about you, but when the Bishop said, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” to me on my Confirmation day, I never pictured that Spirit gifting me with a visit to the desert to confront my temptations. No, I pictured that Spirit as one of comfort and peace, and maybe you did too. But honestly, the Spirit gives us difficult experiences all the time. If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have any prophets, all of whom had to say some very difficult things to people who didn’t want to hear it. If that weren’t true, nobody would ever take up the leadership of a community during difficult times. So it’s no big stretch that it’s the Spirit who drives Jesus out into the wilderness to confront temptation.

Now that Jesus was tempted at all should be very comforting for all of us. Let’s take another survey: who here has ever experienced any form of temptation in their life? It doesn’t matter if it was a second piece of chocolate cake or something much uglier, and I don’t want you to say what it was out loud, but who here has ever experienced that? So that Jesus experienced temptation should be a source of comfort for all of us who have had to go through that ourselves. Now this survey, I just want you to think about in your head, so you don’t need to raise your hand. I want you to think of one temptation that has been particularly difficult for you in your life. When you have that in mind, think about all your attempts to deal with it. Would you say that it is true that if you worked hard enough, that temptation would go away? Or would you say that sometimes it would go away, and other times it would take over even worse? If you’re like me, sometimes you have your good days and sometimes you have your bad days, and temptation is always with you no matter what.

But here’s what I think is very interesting in today’s Gospel: Mark never says that the temptations stopped after Jesus left the desert. From that, we can assume that Jesus had to deal with temptation every day, just like you and I do. That’s what we mean when we say that Jesus was fully human: he dealt with all of the same temptations that we do. It might seem like it was no big deal because he was always victorious over that temptation, but make no mistake: that was never a done deal. He had to struggle with temptation in the same way that we do. Even in the last moments of his life, he was tempted to abandon his mission – we know about the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed that the cup would pass him by. We know he ultimately accepted the Father’s will, but we also know he agonized to the point of sweating blood over the temptation to give it all up. Jesus was tempted in the same way that we have been. To say anything else is simply not true.

So to those of us who have struggled with temptation and have often been defeated by it, Jesus comes to stand with us. To those of us who are feeling defeated by temptation right now, Jesus comes to redeem us. If our temptations seem like permanent fixtures in our lives, so is God’s love and forgiveness. That’s what we see in the rainbow of God’s covenant with Noah. That rainbow was a sign of the covenant, but not a sign that Noah and his descendents would see it and live up to their part. No – it was a sign that when it appeared in the heavens, God would see it and remember his mercy and his promise never to wipe out humanity again. The rainbow isn’t a symbol of what we are going to do, but of what God does for us, time and time again.

And so we can take courage, I think, that Jesus stands with us. We can go out into the wilderness of our own temptations knowing that, even though we have to go through it, we don’t have to go through it alone. All we have to do is call to mind the rainbow and God’s covenant with Noah and we’ll know that God is intensely devoted to the love of his people. All we have to do is look up at that cross and we’ll know that Christ came to redeem our suffering and put an end to death. All we have to do is approach the Eucharist today to know that God longs to feed us with nothing less than the body and blood of his only Son. Today’s Liturgy quite rightly reminds us that there is no part of our own life that is too ugly for God, and there is no way that we can fall too far for God to reach out to us. Today’s Liturgy reminds us that Lent is not about what we can do to make ourselves better people, but that Lent is about the great lengths to which God will go in order to have us at his side for all eternity. That’s why Lent is a joyful season. Yes, joyful.

So our efforts during these forty days should not be so much about making ourselves better people. That may be an admirable goal, but it’s not what Lent is ultimately about. We should take this time to find ways to open ourselves more to God’s love. And that’s why I think we should all give something up for Lent. Maybe giving something up will create a hunger in us – that hunger may be the result of fasting from food or some particular food, or from giving up television or the internet, or whatever it is that has us believing that we can take care of our own hungers and fulfill our own needs. If giving something up makes us hungry in some way, we can live with that hunger knowing there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide. And giving up some of the stuff that clutters our lives may open us up to the wonderful gifts that God is longing to give us.

So I think that’s the motivation we have to have in giving something up for Lent. If we give something up and then prayerfully reflect on the blessings God gives us each day, we might find ourselves receiving much more than we’ve ever imagined. And in the end, if we approach Lent this way, we won’t have to worry about making ourselves better people, because Lent will make us better people through the power of God. We will become people who are open to the love and the healing, redemptive presence of God in our lives; people who can face their own temptations and inadequacies and not be defeated by them; people who are so richly blessed that we cannot help but let those blessings flow into the lives of other people as well.