Monday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

People often balk at the mere suggestion of being called to personal holiness.  Oftentimes, this is wrapped up in a kind of misplaced and false humility; that kind of humility that says that I’m no good; there is no way I can even come close to being like God.  Yet the fact of the matter is that we are made good by our Creator God who designed us to be like himself, perfect in holiness.

And if that seems too lofty to attain, Moses and Jesus spell out the steps to getting there today.  Clearly, personal holiness is not merely a matter of simply saying the right prayers, fasting at the right times, going to Church every Sunday and reading one’s Bible.  Those things are key on the journey to holiness, but using them as a façade betrays a lack of real holiness.  Because for both Moses and Jesus, personal holiness, being holy as God is holy, consists of engaging in justice so that hesed – right relationship and right order – can be restored in the world.

All the commands we receive from Moses and Jesus today turn us outward in our pursuit of holiness.  Our neighbor is to be treated justly, and that neighbor is every person in our path.  Robbery, false words, grudges, withholding charity, rendering judgment without justice, not granting forgiveness and bearing grudges are all stumbling blocks to personal holiness.  All of these keep us from being like God who is holy.  And worse yet, all of these things keep us from God, period.

The law of the Lord is perfect, as the Psalmist says, and the essence of that law consists of love and justice to every person.  If we would strive for holiness this Lent, we need to look to the one God puts in our path, and restore right relationship with that person.

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.”

This past Sunday, I was coming down with the upper respiratory infection I now am getting over.  It really came on suddenly, with a vengeance, and I was thinking last weekend if I took care of myself it would all go away quietly.  On Sunday night, my mother told me, “you better go to the doctor.”  I thought, no, I’ll just wait a couple of days and it will go away.

Well, it didn’t.  Monday it was much worse, and I took Mom’s advice and went to see my doctor.  I’m glad I did because I’m actually making progress and feeling a little better each day.  But to get there, I had to admit that I was sick, that I needed a physician, which is exactly what our Gospel reading calls us to do this morning.

That one line is significant: “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.”  Anyone who has battled an addiction will tell you how true it is.  You cannot make any progress is wellness in any aspect of life if you don’t admit you’re sick.  And we all have difficulty doing that sometimes, I think, and much to our demise.

It’s important that we learn to do that in the spiritual life.  If you don’t think you need a physician for your spiritual life, congratulations, you can skip Lent.  In fact you don’t even need a Savior!  I say that in jest, but really it’s true.  Jesus is very clear today: he came to call sinners to conversion, and that includes all of us.  All of us, myself included, maybe even foremost among all, need conversion in our spiritual lives.  And the good news is that Jesus gives us Lent to do just that.  Be converted, be healed, be made whole so that the glory of Easter can brighten our lives.

So our reflection this morning is two-fold.  First, where and how do I need the Divine Physician in my life right now?  And second, invite him in and let him heal us.

Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Scholastica, Virgin

Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Scholastica, who is known as the sister of Saint Benedict.  Some traditions speak of them as twins. Pope Saint Gregory the Great tells us that Benedict ruled over both monks and nuns, and it seems as if Saint Scholastica was the prioress of the nuns.

So what we know about Saint Scholastica is what we have from Saint Gregory, and his account tells us of a spiritual kinship between she and Benedict that was extremely close.  They would often meet together, but could never do so in their respective cloisters, so each would travel with some of their confreres and meet at a house on the property of the monastery.  On one such occasion, the last of these meetings together, they were speaking as they often did of the glories of God and the promise of heaven.  Perhaps knowing that she would not have this opportunity again, Scholastica begged her brother not to leave but to spend the night in this spiritual conversation.  Benedict did not like the idea of being outside his monastery for the night, and initially refused.  With that, Saint Scholastica laid her head on her hands and asked God to intercede.  Just as she finished her prayer, a very violent storm arose, preventing Benedict’s return to the monastery.  He said: “God forgive you, sister; what have you done?”  She replied, “I asked a favor of you and you refused it.  I asked it of God, and He has granted it.”

Three days later, Saint Scholastica died.  Saint Benedict was alone at the time, and had a vision of his sister’s soul ascending to heaven as a dove.  He announced her death to his brethren and then gave praise for her great happiness.  Just like Saint Scholastica, we are called to spend our days and nights in contemplation of our Lord and discussing his greatness with our brothers and sisters.  We don’t often do that, though, do we?  What a pleasant change that would be from some of the conversations we have!

Saint Scholastica had a very close relationship with her brother, but also a very close relationship with her Lord, who granted her prayer because of her faith.  As Lent approaches next week, this would be a good time to re-examine our relationships, both with our brothers and sisters, but also with our Lord.  What is it that we need to do during Lent that would strengthen these relationships and bring us into fuller communion with Christ?

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The women in today’s Liturgy of the Word give us contrasting views of the spiritual life. In our first reading, the women give us the example of what not to do. Solomon, known for his wisdom and dedication to God by building the temple, is soon seduced by the foreign women he had married to abandon God. They entice him to abandon the worship of the one, true God in order to worship and adore their so-called gods.

Marrying into the families of the foreigners among them was a real problem for the Israelites. God had forbidden them to do so, and when they did this, they were soon led astray and picked up the pagan customs of the world around them. It’s kind of a metaphor for what can go wrong in our spiritual lives. If we keep our eyes on Christ and follow the way he has laid out for us, we can progress in our devotion. But the minute we start looking at other things, we can soon be distracted from the straight and narrow.

On the other hand, we have the wonderful Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel. She knows exactly where to look for salvation and she persists in it. When it seemed that Jesus was not interested in helping her daughter, she persisted because she knew that Christ alone could heal her daughter and expel the demon.

Once again, there’s a deeper message here. I don’t think any of us believes that Jesus wasn’t interested in healing the woman’s daughter. I just think he knew her faith and wanted to give those who were in the house where he was to see that faith. The story gives us, too, the opportunity to assess our own faith in God, not looking to other things or foreign gods to bring us salvation. If these women teach us anything in today’s readings, it’s that we need to be focused on our God alone.

Saint Agatha, Virgin Martyr

Today’s readings

Historically speaking, we know almost nothing about Saint Agatha other than the fact that she was martyred in Sicily during the persecution of Decius in the third century.  Legend has it that Agatha was arrested as a Christian, tortured and sent to a house of prostitution to be mistreated. She was preserved from being violated, and was later put to death.  When Agatha was arrested, the legend says, she prayed: “Jesus Christ, Lord of all things! You see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am—you alone. I am your sheep; make me worthy to overcome the devil.” And in prison, she said: “Lord, my creator, you have protected me since I was in the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Now receive my spirit.”

The stories of the early virgin martyrs like Saint Agatha do two things.  First, they remind us of the unsurpassed greatness of a relationship with Christ.  If they could believe in Christ when it would have been so much easier—and life-saving—to do so, then how can we turn away from God in the trying moments of our own lives, those trials which pale in comparison to the martyrdom they suffered?  But even those relatively minor sufferings which we may bear can be the source of our salvation.  We should look to the saints like Agatha to intercede for us that we may patiently bear our sufferings and so give honor and glory to God.  Second, these stories always point to Christ.  Even though we could get caught up in honoring a saint who stood fast for the faith to death, still that same saint would have us instead be caught up in honoring Christ, the one who was their hope and salvation.

Saint Agatha’s martyrdom is a participation in the “sprinkled Blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” of which the writer of the letters to the Hebrews writes.  She was joined inseparably to Christ in both her virginity and her martyrdom.  Her example calls us to join ourselves to Christ inseparably as well, in whatever way we may be called upon to do it.  May our prayer in good times and bad always be the same as that of Saint Agatha: “Possess all that I am—you alone.”

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The reality of suffering is something of a mystery for us.  Today we hear it in our first reading: Job, the innocent man, has been the victim of Satan’s testing: he has lost his family and riches, and has been afflicted physically.  His friends have gathered around and given him all the stock answers as to why he is suffering: that he, or his ancestors, must have sinned and offended God, and so God allowed him to suffer in this way.  But Job rejects that thinking, as we all should: it is offensive.  Even if we accept that our sins have been great, this reduces God to a capricious child who throws away his toys when he tires of them.

That’s not Job’s God and it’s not our God either.  And we still have that notion of suffering among us, I’m afraid.  Many people think they are being punished by God because of their sins when they are suffering.  And there is some logic to it: our sins do bring on sadness in this life.  Sin does have consequences, and while these consequences are not God’s will for us, they are a result of our poor choices.  But God does not penalize us in this way by willing our suffering.

In fact, God has such a distaste for our suffering, that he sent his only Son to come and redeem us.  Jesus was one who suffered too, remember: being nailed to the cross, dying for our sins – but even before that, weeping with those who wept for loved ones, lamenting the hardness of heart of the children of Israel, being tempted by the devil in the desert, even understanding the hungry crowd and miraculously providing a meal for them out of five loaves and a couple of fish.  Jesus felt our affliction and suffering personally, and never abandoned anyone engaged in it.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is found healing.  First Peter’s mother-in-law, and then those who came to him at sundown.  In this reading, Jesus is a sign of God’s desire to deal with suffering.  We do not deny the presence of suffering and the tragic in our lives, in fact, we do what we can to overcome it.  But while Jesus deals with suffering and cures illnesses in these stories, he doesn’t eliminate all pain from the world.  In the same way, somehow, we deal with the suffering that presents itself to us, and its causes as we can, and are left with the awesome mystery of what remains.

But the key here is that we care for those who suffer.  Indeed, we are partners with them in their suffering.  This weekend we kick off our annual diocesan Catholic Ministries Annual Appeal which funds the various ministries of the diocese of Joliet.  We at Saint Mary’s depend on these ministries to help us: educating seminarians like Ramon, our new intern; and supporting the efforts of our school and religious education program.  In addition, through the efforts of Catholic Charities, housing is provided for those who are in need, and meals are served to the hungry.  We are blessed that we can come together as a diocese to provide these services, to be “Partners in Caring” for all those in need.

We can’t make all of the suffering in the whole world go away.  But we can do the little things that make others’ suffering a little less, helping them to know the healing presence of Christ, together.