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.