The Fourth Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny II

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy is all about vision and sight and light and darkness.  All of these, dear friends, are things that we certainly take for granted.  Think about it: we don’t appreciate the gift of light until that dark and stormy night when the electricity goes out and we’re fumbling around in the darkness trying to remember where it is we put that new package of batteries for the flashlight.  We likewise take for granted our own ability to see.  I think of my Aunt Mia, who several years before she passed away lost her sight and had to learn how to see things in a new way.

When I hear today’s first reading, it always makes me think of my dad.  He was the kind of Irishman who never knew a stranger.  We couldn’t go anywhere without running into at least one person he knew.  But he didn’t just know them, he knew their story.  And so if someone were to complain about someone he knew, he would always be able to tell them something good about that person, because Dad saw the best in them.  That’s the kind of vision we are all called to have for one another: we need to see the best in them, we need to see Jesus in them.

So what about this miracle story in the Gospel today.  I have to just say it, who cares?  I mean, it’s nice for that man born blind who can now see, but I mean, he lived two thousand years ago, so what business is it of ours if he can see or not?  Why take up so much time with this reading?  Well I’ll tell you why we should care: we should care because the man born blind is us.  We all have affected vision: none of us sees others or even sees ourselves as God does.  So we have to decide today if we are the man born blind who is easily and quickly healed, or if we want to be the Pharisees who, at the end of the day, never regain their sight because, well, they just don’t want to.

So maybe you’re asking the same question those Pharisees asked, “surely we are not also blind, are we?”  Well, of course we are.  We are, first of all, born blind.  We don’t have a way of seeing the Truth that is in front of us; we can’t acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ and the King of our lives.  It takes holy baptism to cure that born blindness in us.  Secondly, we have a kind of blindness that affects us all through our lives.  We often lose our vision and wander off the path to life.  We are affected by temptation, by cyclical sin and by the darkness of our world.  That’s why we have Lent: to realize our brokenness and to accept the healing power of Christ.  Lent calls us to remember that we are dust, that we are broken people fallen into sin, but it also proclaims that none of that is any match for the power of Christ risen from the dead, if we just let him put a little mud on our eyes.

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.  Our Elect, who are here with us today, will experience that in a very literal way this coming Easter Vigil.  In baptism, our inherited sin and evil is washed away; the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World.

We see that light shine brighter and brighter in today’s Gospel.  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, after he has been unceremoniously thrown out of the synagogue, he meets Jesus again and testifies that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship.  As he sees more clearly, his faith becomes bolder.

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.  We grow in the way that we see Jesus through our lives.  Think about it: our faith when we were young is not the same faith that works for us later in life.  At one point Jesus is a friend walking with us on life’s path; later on he might be a rock that helps us in a particularly stormy time of life.  Still later, he might be the one calling us to become something new, something better than we think we can attain.  Jesus is always the same, but we are different, and Jesus is with us at every point of life’s journey, if we open our eyes to see him.

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.”  That’s why we’re wearing these rose-colored vestments today.  We are now pretty much half way through Lent, and with eyes recreated by our own trips to the pool of Siloam – the waters of baptism – we can begin to catch a glimpse of Easter joy.  It kind of reminds me of the last section of the Exsultet that we will hear proclaimed on the evening of the Easter Vigil. That last section tells us:

May this flame be found still burning 
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

Christ’s peaceful light changes everything. It clears up the darkness of sin and evil, and allows all of us blind ones to see the glory of God’s presence.  All of us have, indeed been born blind.  But you know what?  We’re not supposed to stay that way.

The Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings
For the Rite of  Acceptance Into the Order of Catechumens

Worry will absolutely kill us, if we let it.  As a pastor and confessor, I hear worry from people all the time.  Worry about job issues or money in general, worry about illnesses or the grieving of loved ones, worry about children and other family members, worry about relationships gone wrong.  Then you could also worry about crime and war and terrorism and the economy and just about our country or world in general.  There’s plenty to worry about, and most of us worry about something, sometime, maybe even all the time, in our lives.

But Jesus tells us today to cut that out.  Worrying does not solve our problems.  And what we worry about is so often not the most important thing in the vast scheme of things.  What I love in this passage is that Jesus provides us with the antidote to all that worry: We don’t need to waste time on worry because God’s providence is infinitely greater than our worry.  We are worth far more than the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.  God takes care of them, and he will take care of us.  Maybe not in the exact way we would pick, but always with love and his strong, abiding presence.  Even if a mother were to forget her child, as Isaiah reassures us today, God will never forget us.

So now that we have the worry out of the way, what do we do?  I think sometimes that’s why so many of us hang on to worry – because that’s the only thing we know.  But Jesus says that we should put an end to the worrying so that we’ll have time for the one thing that really matters: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.”  Because when we possess the kingdom of God, brothers and sisters, we possess everything we could ever possibly need.  More than the birds of the air have, more than the lilies of the field possess; the kingdom of God is the pearl of great price.

Today we have the opportunity to focus on that.  Jordan and Clinton have come here seeking the kingdom.  In the midst of those things that are going on in their lives, they have realized that there was something they were lacking and that could only be filled up by the presence of God.  In our gathering today, we pledge to support them in prayer and to walk with them on the journey.  Even better, their journeys give us pause to look at our own journeys of faith and maybe give us the encouragement to take a step closer to the cross if we have be lax or have laid it down.

So now they have been admitted to the Order of Catechumens, and I’d like to say a word or two about what that means.  Catechumens are those who are preparing for baptism and are not infants.  Non-baptized people ordinarily do not have rights within the Church, but catechumens, even though they are not baptized, do.  Catechumens have the right to the Sacraments, particularly and firstly baptism, of course.  They also have the right, even before baptism, to be married in the Church if they are preparing for that.  And finally, they have the right, God forbid, to a Church funeral and Christian burial.

They won’t be catechumens long, however.  Because next week, they will go to the Cathedral in Joliet to be chosen for the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation by Bishop Conlon.  Then we will call them “the Elect.”  They have all the same rights, and election signals that they have entered into the final, more intensive, preparation for the Sacraments, which is called the period of “Purification and Enlightenment,” and focuses on their spiritual preparation for the Sacraments.

All of these leads to the Easter Vigil, in which they will enter the waters of Baptism for the cleansing of their sins and their joining to the Body of Christ and His Church.  I hope that you will continue to keep them in their prayers, along with Jett Davis and Sylvia Spangenberg, who are also catechumens at this time.  May God bring them closer to himself as they approach the Sacraments, and may God bring us all together one day to eternal life.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Scrutiny III)

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. The action is, of course centered around Jesus, and as I tell our school children, if on a religion test they write something about Jesus, they should always get at least partial credit! 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.

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 catechesis 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.

But 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.

This reading is 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 this morning, 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.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Scrutiny II)

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy calls us to clear up our clouded vision and become people of light.  The gospel gets at that pretty quickly, healing the man born blind in the first couple of minutes of what is admittedly a pretty long reading.  And that’s a good thing because, honestly, who cares about the man born blind?  I know that sounds terrible, but he lived a couple thousand years ago, and he was healed, so you know, good for him, but how does that affect us?  I’ll tell you how it affects us: the man born blind is us.  We all have affected vision: none of us sees others or even sees ourselves as God does. The first reading then is a wake-up call to us.  And we have to decide today if we are the man born blind who is easily and quickly healed, or if we want to be the Pharisees who, at the end of the day, never regain their sight because, well, they just don’t want to.

So maybe you’re asking the same question those Pharisees asked, “surely we are not also blind, are we?”  Of course we are.  We are, first of all, born blind. We don’t have a way of seeing the Truth that is in front of us; we can’t acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ and the King of our lives. It takes baptism to cure that born blindness in us. Secondly, we have a kind of blindness that affects us all through our lives. We often lose our vision and wander off the path to life. We are affected by temptation, by cyclical sin and by the darkness of our world. That’s why we have Lent: to realize our brokenness and to accept the healing power of Christ.  Lent calls us to remember that we are dust, that we are broken people fallen into sin, but it also proclaims that none of that is any match for the power of Christ risen from the dead, if we just let him put a little mud on our eyes.

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.  Our Elect, Brandon, will experience that in a very literal way this coming Easter Vigil.  In baptism, our inherited sin and evil is washed away; the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World.  We see that light shine brighter and brighter in today’s Gospel.  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. As he sees more clearly, his faith becomes bolder.  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.  We grow in the way that we see Jesus through our lives.  Our faith when we were young is not the same faith that works for us later in life.  At one point Jesus is a friend walking with us on life’s path; later on he might be a rock that helps us in a particularly stormy time of life.  Still later, he might be the one calling us to become something new, something better than we think we can attain.  Jesus is always the same, but we are different, and Jesus is with us at every point of life’s journey, if we open our eyes to see him.

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.”  That’s why we’re wearing these rose-colored vestments today.  We are now pretty much half way through Lent, and with eyes recreated by our own trips to the pool of Siloam – the waters of baptism – we can begin to catch a glimpse of Easter joy.  It kind of reminds me of the last section of the Exsultet that Deacon Chris Lankford will proclaim on the evening of the Easter Vigil. That last section tells us:

May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

Christ’s peaceful light changes everything. It clears up the darkness of sin and evil, and allows all of us blind ones to see the glory of God’s presence.  All of us have, indeed been born blind.  But we’re not supposed to stay that way.

The Third Sunday of Lent: Scrutiny I

Today’s readings

Note: This homily was for the Mass at which the RCIA Elect was present for the First Scrutiny, so particular readings are used for that.  All other Masses used the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, including Jesus clearing the temple courtyard.

What is it going to take to quench the thirst that you have right now?

We’re lucky; we live in a part of the world where we can reach for all sorts of things when we’re thirsty. There is soda of all kinds, beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages, and all kinds of hot drinks like coffee and tea. But not all of them are appropriate all the time. For example I love coffee, tea and occasionally a good glass of wine. But after I’ve exercised or done some kind of strenuous work, or walked outside when it’s hot, none of those things can help me. In those moments, I need a cold glass of water. Our bodies are made up largely of water, and so when that level is low, there’s only one thing that can quench our thirst.

So again, what is it going to take to quench the thirst that you have right now?

There’s a lot of water in today’s Liturgy of the Word. The Israelites, near the beginning of their forty year journey through the desert, are beginning to miss some of the comforts of home, like water! So when they complain to the Lord, he gives them water in the desert. Which is pretty amazing – they had water in the desert! And in our Gospel today, our Lord stops along his own journey to get a drink of water from the Samaritan woman – and this whole interaction is less about Jesus’ physical thirst than it is about other kinds of thirst in the story – but more on that in a bit.

We always have to think about why the Church is giving us these particular readings on this particular day. Why is it that we have part of the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert and the rather strange story of the interaction with the woman at the well today? Well, (no pun intended) whenever there’s this much water being mentioned in the readings, we need to think of a particular sacrament, and that sacrament of course is Baptism.

Now maybe it makes a little sense. We have our Elect, Brandon, with us today, and he is preparing to receive baptism at the Easter Vigil. But even that’s not the whole story. because this reading is for all of us. Lent itself is about baptism, and even if we’ve already been baptized, there’s still work to do. We are still being converted to become more like our Lord every day of our life. That’s what Lent is all about – getting back on the path and going a little farther forward. Lent points out for all of us that we’re still thirsty.

So again, what is it going to take to quench the thirst you have right now?

For the Israelites, it’s hard to know what was going to help them. They’re just at the beginning of their journey and already they’re complaining. They get thirsty and the first thing they do is complain – not pray – and tell Moses that they’d rather be back in Egypt in slavery than out wandering around in the desert with nothing to quench their thirst. And it’s not like the slavery they experienced in Egypt was a minor inconvenience – it was pretty horrible and if they missed their quota even by a little bit, they were severely beaten. But sometimes it’s better the devil you know: sometimes we get stuck on what we’ve become used to and have given up yearning for something more.

For the woman at the well, there’s a lot stacked against her and there is no reason Jesus should have been talking to her. In fact, the disciples, when they return and witness it, aren’t really sure what they should make of it. Because in that culture, nobody talked to Samaritans – it would be like striking up a casual conversation with an Isis member. And for a man to speak to an unaccompanied woman was unthinkable. But Jesus knew she was thirsty – see it wasn’t about his thirst at all, except, as Saint Augustine tells us, Jesus was thirsting for her faith.

It’s a pretty weird conversation, to be honest. But in talking about her five previous husbands and the Samaritans’ practice of worshipping on the mountain, Jesus was pointing out how her own search for something to quench her thirst was so far pretty futile. She was looking for love in all the wrong places. The five men she was married to represented a history of failed attempts at finding love. And the guy she was shacked up with now represented the fact that she’d pretty much given up. But on some level, the fact that Jesus knew all this without her saying it woke her up a bit. And so then they talk about how the Samaritans worshiped. They were looking for God on the mountain, but the thing is, the God they were looking for is the same one that she had been searching for in her relationships, and he was standing right in front of her now.

So what is it that is finally going to quench the thirst you have right now?

Are you going to stay in the slavery of your former way of life, or do you want to journey on to the Promised Land? Are you going to continue to be content with failed or broken relationships, or are you going to refresh them with Living Water? Are you going to continue to leave God up on that mountaintop where he doesn’t get in the way of your daily life, until you need something? Or are you going to look him in the eye and ask him to give you what you really need so you’ll never thirst again?

Because for the Israelites, it wasn’t really water they needed. They needed a renewed relationship with God. And the woman at the well didn’t need those guys who weren’t leading her to right worship. She needed Living Water. In fact, she became so convinced of it that she left her bucket behind – that bucket that symbolized her former way of life.

We’re all on a journey. Brandon’s doesn’t end at the Easter Vigil when I pour water over his head – it starts there. All of us together are journeying on to the Promised Land of eternal life. And the only way we’re going to get there is by drinking deeply of the Living Water and allowing the One who gives it to us to lead us. It does mean that we’ll have to leave Egypt, and our buckets, behind.

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Tonight’s readings

Dear Brothers and Sisters, how good it feels to say “Alleluia” tonight!  Ever since we put the acclamation of our Resurrection joy away some forty days ago, we have been yearning for the opportunity to celebrate, once again, the fullness of our salvation.  And this is the night!  This is the night when Jesus Christ breaks the prison-bars of death and rises triumphant over the grave!  We have kept vigil for the fullness of that promise to be revealed, and now, here we are!  How could we do anything less than shout “Alleluia” with all of our joy?!

Tonight, we have gathered in the oppressive darkness of the world around us.  The sadness of sin and death, culminating in the death of our Savior, seemed for a time to have triumphed.  We know, only too well, that it was our sins that brought Jesus to the Cross: it was indeed our infirmities that he bore, our brokenness on display for all the world to see.  So as we gathered in a dark Church or out on the dark piazza, we certainly must have felt that sadness in a special way.  But we know the whole story, don’t we?  And because we do know the whole story, even in our experience of sadness, there is that expectation, that part of us that knows that joy is on its way.

As we have gathered over the last three nights to let the story of our salvation unfold, we have had an ever-heightened sense of yearning for the story to come to its fruition.  And tonight, we are treated to an even greater dose of that.  Tonight, we have heard stories of God’s desire to bring us back to him.  We have seen that time and time again, God has broken through the history of our brokenness, has triumphed over the lure of sin, and has redirected his chosen ones to the path of life.  We have recalled that God created everything to reflect the resplendent goodness that is God; we have seen Abraham, on the cusp of inheriting the promise of eternity for all his descendants, called upon to sacrifice his only son to show his love, only to have it all turned on its head when God promises to provide the lamb for the sacrifice, that lamb that is the foreshadowing of a Savior; we have seen Moses lead the people out of the Egypt that has held them slaves to sin, through the desert of desolation and yearning for God, safely through the waters of the Red Sea which flowed back to wash all their sins away, that journey that is the prefiguring of the sacrament of Baptism; then the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel have called us to come to the water, to be nourished freely and cleansed of our impurities.

Tonight we have heard in reading after reading, that God will absolutely not ever abandon his loved and chosen ones to sin and death.  We have heard that God initiated the covenant and pursues it forever, never forcing us to accept his will, but willing that we should follow him and accept his mercy.  God has provided the lamb of salvation, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world.  God has gone to the cross and been in the tomb and descended to hell – there is nowhere that is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, there is no place, no depth to which God will not go to redeem his beloved creation.  God’s mercy endures forever!

God delights in the freedom of will that we possess as a natural part of who we are, because it gives us the opportunity to freely choose to love him, as he freely chooses to love us.  But he knows that same free will can and will also lead us astray, into sin, into evil.  The free choice to love God is a greater good than the absence of evil, so not imbuing us with free will was never an option.  Instead, evil and sin and our fallenness are redeemed on this most holy of all nights, this night which “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”

And thus it is fitting that this night is the night when we focus on Baptism.  Everything is in place: the waters of the Red Sea are parted, the pillar of fire glows to the honor of God, we are led to grace and joined to God’s holy ones of every time and place, Christ emerges triumphant from the underworld and the sin of Adam is redeemed forever.  And so Korrin, our Elect, in a few moments will enter the waters of Baptism from the west: that place of the setting sun, renouncing the prince of darkness, professing faith in God, dying with Christ in the waters, emerging to new life, triumphant with Christ on the east, and encountering the bright morning star whose light blazes for all eternity.  We will hold our breath as the waters flow over her, and sing Alleluia when she is reborn, crying out the praise of God with all the joy the Church can muster!

Our joy will continue to overflow as she and Brian, our candidate for full Communion with the Church, are Confirmed in the Holy Spirit and fed for the very first time with the Eucharistic Bread of Life and Cup of Eternal Salvation.  God’s mercy has once again triumphed and brought two wonderful young people into the family of the Church and the community of our parish.  God’s goodness shows forth all its splendor in so many wonderful ways on this most holy of all nights!

This is the night that redeems all of our days and nights.  This is the night when sin and death are rendered impotent by the plunging of the Paschal candle, the Light of Christ, into the waters of Baptism.  On this night, everything is turned upside-down; sin and death no longer define who we are as human beings; the forces of evil search in vain for darkness in which to cower, because the bright morning star has washed the darkness away.  On this night, the waters of Baptism kill death, wash away faults and wickedness, give refreshment to those who are parched for holiness, and bring life to all who have withered in the desert of brokenness.

And so, may the flame of our joy, blazing against the darkness of the world’s night, be found still burning by the Morning Star:  the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ our Lord, God’s only Son, who coming back from even from the depths of death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever!  Amen!

The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time [C]

Today’s readings
The parts in brackets were done at the 5pm Mass which included the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of the Catechumenate.

Today’s readings remind me of one of my favorite theological facts: we were all created for something.  I think it takes the better part of our lives sometimes to see what that purpose is, but rest assured: God has a purpose.  In our first reading, God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you…”  Those words are spoken to the prophet Jeremiah, but also to all of us.  God has personal knowledge of every person he has created, and dedicates each one of us to some special purpose.

It’s an important thing for us to hear in this day and age, I think.  Sometimes I think we take the cynical scientific position that each life is a happy accident.  Molecules have just come together in the right way, and so here we are.  Whatever becomes of us, then, is either fate: something we inevitably take on, or happenstance: we take on the persona of whatever is expedient at any given time.  So if all that is true, then there doesn’t have to be a God, or if there is one, he has set things in motion and stepped back to observe our progress like someone viewing an exhibit at the zoo.

But our faith teaches us that none of that is true.  Faith tells us that God is really active in the world, that he has personally created each one of us, that he desires our happiness, that he gives us grace to become what he created us to become.  That doesn’t mean that every life will be easy and that there will never be suffering or pain.  Sin is a consequence of free will, and the evils of disease and disaster and sadness all run through the world as a consequence of that.  If God desires our happiness, Satan certainly desires us to be unhappy, even unto eternity.

So if there is purpose to our lives, and if God desires that we be happy, then that purpose is well expressed in today’s second reading from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  This letter is certainly familiar to anyone who has been to any number of church weddings.  It’s easy to see why so many couples would choose that reading: the romantic nature of the love they have for one another wants a reading as sweet and beautiful as this to be proclaimed at their wedding.  But I always tell them that they should be careful of what they’re asking for.  Because the love that St. Paul speaks of is not something that you feel, it’s more something that you do.  Or, even better, something that you are.

Because, in any relationship, love is a choice.  If it were just a feeling that you automatically had for someone close to you, it would be so much easier.  If love happened automatically like that, there would be no abusive relationships.  Young people would never turn away from their families.  Parents would never neglect their children.  Spouses would never separate.  We wouldn’t need the sixth commandment, because no one would ever think to commit adultery.  Priests would never leave the priesthood because their love for their congregations and the Church, and above all, for God, would stop them from any other thoughts.

And that’s why St. Paul has to tell the Corinthians – and us too! – that love is patient, kind, not jealous, and all the rest.  In fact, that passage from St. Paul defines love in fifteen different ways.  Because love absolutely has to address pomposity, inflated egos, rudeness, self-indulgence, and much more.  All of us, no matter what our state of life, must make a choice to love every single day.  If you are married, you have to choose to love your spouse; if you are a parent, you have to choose to love your children.  Children must choose to love their parents; priests have to choose to love their congregations, and the list goes on.  Love is the most beautiful thing in the world, but love is also hard work.

As today’s Liturgy of the Word unfolds, we can see that love – true love – makes demands on us, demands that may in fact make us unpopular.  In the first reading, Jeremiah is told that he was known and loved by God even before he was formed in his mother’s womb.  That love demanded of him that he roll up his sleeves and be a prophet to the nations.  God gives him the rather ominous news that his prophecy won’t be accepted by everybody, that the people would fight against him.  But even so, Jeremiah was to stand up to them and say everything that God commanded him, knowing that God would never let him be crushed, nor would God let the people prevail over Jeremiah.

For Jesus, it was those closest to him who rejected him.  In the Gospel today, while the people in the synagogue were initially amazed at his gracious words, soon enough they were asking “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” as if to say, “Who is he to be talking to us this way?”  When Jesus tells them that his ministry will make God’s love known to the Gentiles – those whom God had supposedly not chosen – it is then that they rise up and drive him out of the city, presumably to stone him to death.

So we have been created in love, created to love, and created for love.  God is love itself, love in its most perfect form, and out of that love, he set us and the world and everything there is into being.  Out of love for us, God continues to be involved in our lives and in our world, giving us grace, and revealing himself to us when we seek him with all our hearts.  And when we seek him with all our hearts, we do that out of love for God, which is in fact God’s gift to us!  Love is a complex and beautiful thing and love is the purpose of our lives.  Love is a still more excellent way than anything we have in the world!

[God continues to love so much that he calls people to come close to him every day.  Today we celebrate with Korrin her call to become part of God’s family in our Church.  Today, she has joined the order of catechumens, one of the ancient orders of the Church.  Unlike unbaptized people who are not catechumens, Korrin and other catechumens have rights in the Church.  They have a right to assistance as they grow in faith by learning about the teachings of the Church and participating in works of service in the parish.  They also have a right to be married in the Church and to receive Christian burial, which we hope won’t be necessary any time soon!

[Korrin’s call is an important one for us to witness.  As we see her grow in her faith, we recognize that God continues to call all of us to grow closer to him as well.  Her journey, which we will observe in the public rituals of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, calls us to continue the journey wherever we find ourselves on it.  God’s love continues to call Korrin and all of us to grow closer to him each and every day.]

May the call of all of our lives remind us that we are all embraced in God’s love, and that because of God’s love, we all must decide to love in our own way, according to our own vocation and station in life, every single moment of our lives.  May our love for God, our love for others, and our love for ourselves permeate and give new purpose to a world that has forgotten love, and forgotten how to love rightly.

The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Rite of Welcoming of Candidates for Full Communion

Today’s readings

There are a lot of experts out there.  And those experts will be happy to give you their opinion.  Really, there is no shortage of places these days from which you can get information.  Television, print media, and especially the internet – God knows what we did before the days of Google! – all of these will gladly disgorge information on just about any topic, and so the days of searching high and low for information are pretty much long gone.

But one has to wonder about the quality of the information that we get.  Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true!  We know that.  And ask any teacher and they will probably tell you that they are sick of students quoting Wikipedia and their lot.  Even if a site isn’t intentionally giving poor information, there’s almost no way to verify what they’re telling you, unless they have provided proper sources or footnoted their claims.

And the same is certainly true for those who would give us opinions on religion.  I can hardly count the number of religious opinions I have been given that began with the words “In my opinion…” or “I think…” If you hear someone start a comment on religion or morality with those words, you have my permission to stop listening to them, because quite frankly, it’s very likely going to be a waste of your time.  When it comes to matters of faith and morals, one’s opinions don’t really matter; what is important is what is truth.

In today’s Gospel, the people are astonished at what Jesus was teaching them.  They couldn’t believe their ears.  And what is striking about that is that they are astonished because Jesus was obviously preaching with authority, “and not as the scribes.”  That’s a pretty sad condemnation of the scribes of the day, because the scribes were charged with copying the Scriptures and making sure the faith was taught to all people.  If they couldn’t be trusted to speak the truth, well then, who could?

What is astonishing for them is that they finally found the One they could trust: the One who spoke with authority.  Jesus didn’t give them some lame opinion or say “I think…” No, he gave them revealed truth, revealed in his words, and in his miracles, and ultimately in his sacrifice.  The religious leaders of his day might not like what he was saying to them, but they certainly could not refute the Truth he preached.

And that Truth wasn’t just for that one time and place.  That Truth is authoritative today.  Against the widespread opinion that one can be “spiritual but not religious” – whatever that means; against those who think that human life is expendable, or that it can be manufactured for research, or that it can be regulated by government mandate; against those who think that matters of conscience and freedom of religion don’t matter when they become inconvenient; against those who think that any religion is just as good as another, or that religion should never tell people what is right and wrong – against all these lies, Jesus’ Truth stands eternal.

Today, our Candidates for Full Communion with the Church have joined us and we have welcomed them.  We are one in Baptism, because our Creed proclaims one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  But they wish to draw nearer to Christ and to be one with us in the Eucharist, to be Confirmed in our faith.  They will receive these sacraments soon, and today we pledge to journey with them.  Together, we embrace the Truth our Christ reveals and we proclaim the truths that make us one Body, one Spirit in Christ.

Our Psalmist today reminds us that if today we hear God’s voice, we should not ever harden our hearts.  As we continue our worship today, may we renew our commitment to seek the voice of God in every moment, embracing the Truth that is revealed to us.  And may we be a people who open our hearts to that truth, and eagerly live it and proclaim it by the way we live our lives.

Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Why are we still here?????

Have you ever thought about that?  Why is it that Jesus has been so long in returning?  Why hasn’t he come back to put all things to their proper conclusion?  Why do we still have wars being fought all over the earth?  Why is there still terror, and death, and sadness, and pain?  Why do our loved ones still suffer illness?  Why do relationships still break down and why do people still hurt one another?  Why can’t God just wrap things up and put an end to all this nonsense?  Why can’t we all go home to be with our Lord and our loved ones?

If you relate to those questions, then you probably can relate to the readings that we have from the prophet Daniel and from Mark’s Gospel today.  These are what we call “apocalyptic writings” which are usually written to give people hope in the midst of very hard times.  So you can see why they would be so important to us today.  Because we have hard times of our own, don’t we?  I would venture to guess that everyone sitting here is either affected in some way by the economic downturn, or else they know someone who is.  Do you know someone whose son or daughter was stationed at Fort Hood?  Judging from the number of funerals we have had here lately, I would say that a lot of you have lost loved ones recently, or know about someone who has.  And that’s to say nothing of the day-to-day stuff like relationships ending, and the darkness of our own sin.

When these things confront us, who among us wouldn’t call to mind the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel?  “The sun will be darkened,” he says, “and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  It often seems like our whole world is falling apart, and we are desperately looking for some sign of hope.

They are hard readings today, really kind of dark in nature.  They remind me of the darkness of the days that we have at the end of the year.  The sun sets a lot earlier than it did, and the skies are often cloudy.  It’s a darkness we can almost feel, and these readings that we have at the end of our liturgical year really echo that sentiment for me.

But I think that’s the point.  A lot of fundamentalist folks have spent the greater part of their lives trying to figure out when all these things would take place.  They want a day and time when the end will come, and they sometimes tell us they have figured it out, only to have the time come and go, and they have to return to their lives, if they can.  But these readings aren’t supposed to be a roadmap.  They are supposed to accompany us when our lives are as dark as the autumn nights.  The message they give us is one of hope.  No, we will not be spared the disappointments, frustrations, and sadness that can sometimes come in our lives, but we never ever ever have to go through them alone.

God will be with us.  He will, as the Gospel tells us, “gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.”  As the prophet Daniel tells us, “At that time [God’s] people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book.”

And so that is why we are here today.  That’s why we are still here.  We are here to allow God to gather his elect, and we are here to help him do that. To that end, we have gathered eight of our brothers and sisters today, to welcome them and support them in their journey to become one of us.  Two of them are now promoted to the Order of Catechumens.  Catechumens are those being instructed in the ways of the faith.  This pertains specifically to those not baptized.  At the Easter Vigil Mass, they will receive all three of the Sacraments of Initiation: baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist.  Catechumens have rights in the Church: they can receive a Christian burial if they are called home before the Sacraments can be administered; they can be married in the Church sacramentally, and they have a right to the sacraments.

The others being welcomed today are candidates for full communion with us.  They have been baptized, some Catholic, some not, and so they already share with us the foundation of grace and are being called to confirmation and first Eucharist to complete their union with us.

If we take the readings today seriously, and I think we should, then these eight people are simply a nice start.  We know that one day, we won’t still be here, that Jesus will return to complete all things and initiate the reign of God’s kingdom.  And we want everyone to be there.  In many ways, we cannot any of us go if we all don’t go.  It’s not just “me and Jesus.”  Salvation is not an individual thing, it’s something we all receive together.  And that’s why we have the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.  That’s why we actively reach out to those not among us and call them to communion with us.  We need to gather up all God’s people so that, one day, we can all be seated around the banquet of God’s people in heaven.

Back to my first question, then.  Why are we still here?  We’re still here because there is work still to be done.  There are many more people to gather from the four winds so that their names can be written in the book of life.  God is still working salvation among us; we need to cooperate with that saving work.  It’s not going to be easy, and some days may seem oppressively dark, but we are never alone.  Heaven and earth might pass away, but God’s word is forever.  It will not pass away.

Easter Thursday

Today’s readings

The time between Easter and Pentecost is often referred to as the period of Mystagogy. Mystagogy is a Greek word meaning “looking back on the mysteries.” It is a time of unpacking what we have just been through, and coming to see, with eyes enlightened by faith, the meaning of things we may never have noticed before.

The disciples in today’s Gospel reading are beginning that period of Mystagogy. They have seen the risen Lord, and now things they wondered about are all starting to make sense to them. Remember, they didn’t have the Gospels to guide them like we do; they had to live through all of this and it’s so clear from the readings of Lent and especially Holy Week that they were confounded by what Jesus was doing and what was happening to him. They were horrified and disillusioned and grieved by his death. But now, seeing him risen from the grave, they are beginning to make sense of it all. As the Gospel says today, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” and they came to see how the Scriptures applied to Jesus.

This is a special period for those we just received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. They will use this time of Mystagogy to grow in their new-found faith. It will be a time for them, too, to look back on the mysteries. They will reflect on their faith journey that began in childhood and eventually brought them here. They will reflect on the wonderful rites they have experienced, from the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens, to their Election by the Bishop early in Lent, to the Scrutinies we witnessed with them, all the way to their Baptism, Confirmation and First Eucharist on Holy Saturday night. They will see God at work in their lives and make sense of things they may have been confused about before.

But this Mystagogy isn’t just limited to the disciples and our Neophytes. We are all mystagogues. Mystagogy, I think, is a life-long process, and all of us, converts and cradle Catholics alike, spend the rest of our lives unpacking the mysteries, reflecting on our lives of faith, coming to see who Jesus is for us in whole new ways, appreciating more deeply the love and grace poured out on us every day. Every day is a new opportunity for Mystagogy, and an opportunity to exclaim with our Psalmist today, seeing the wonderful mysteries that have unfolded for us, “O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!”