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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things we ought to give up for Lent

A surface reading of Catholic blogs lately has made me ponder the purpose of these things. Since it’s Lent, I thought maybe all of us, bloggers or readers, could resolve to give up some things:

  • The use of the phrase “put the smackdown on…” in reference to religious leaders. For example, “Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul or Cardinal N. or Bishop N. or Father N. put the smackdown on liberals or gays or liturgical musicians or abortionists or anyone else.” Such an image is tantamount to religious “my father can beat up your father-ism” and is totally unbecoming and unflattering to a man who has given his life to be a servant of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself did not delight in putting the smackdown on anyone, which is not the same thing as saying he condoned everyone’s behavior. For example, look at how he dealt with the moneychangers in this week’s Gospel.
  • The ridiculing of anyone who does not share one’s own liturgical sensibilities, most especially one’s own liturgical music preferences, which can be quite subjective. You don’t have to agree with everyone, and you don’t even have to like their music. But ridiculing a brother or sister in Christ does violence to the Church (which is, after all, the whole point of the words of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, “By the ministry of the Church…”) and is completely incompatible with worshipping Christ in the Liturgy.

I noted in another place that such resolutions would likely result in empty blogs (and I guess even message boards) here and there, but maybe that’s a good thing. Lent is a time for conversion; would that we all would pursue that conversion in word and action during these forty days. Perhaps then we could approach worship of the Lord in the Paschal triduum with renewed hearts and minds (cf. Rite of Penance, 13).

I do not wish the sinner to die, says the Lord,
but to turn back to me and live.
(Ezekiel 33)

Reconciliation Practicum, Day 1

I heard my first “fake confession” in my Reconciliation Practicum class today. I have to say it was pretty scary, but also an awesome feeling at the same time.

It brought me back to a time probably eight years ago or more now, when I was going through a crisis of faith. I thought seriously about joining a non-denominational megachurch in our area. I was really torn on the issue, and almost did it, but, as usual, God sent a big sign. One of the nights I was there, the minister, who was obviously an ex-Catholic, spoke of his experience of the sacrament as a child. I remember him saying something like “… and then the priest forgave my sins, or at least that’s what he said he did …”

His very disparaging comments about the Sacrament of Penance were really jarring to me. I know I thought at the time that what he was saying was certainly not my experience. At that point, I knew I could not live without the sacraments of the Church, and well, here I am now.

Preparing to hear confessions, to be on really holy ground with people who bare their souls and are seeking God’s forgiveness. I know how awesome this sacrament has been in my own life, and I feel so very blessed to be given the opportunity to celebrate that sacrament with God’s people. It’s an awesome prayer, absolution:

God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, +
and of the Holy Spirit.

I know how much hearing that prayer of absolution has always meant to me, and how different the world looks to me when I have been absolved. God truly longs to reconcile all the world to himself, one soul at a time. What a blessing to have the opportunity to be part of that.

First Sunday of Lent: Getting Lent Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ash Wednesday

Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

One of the ministry things I have been involved in during my time in seminary is as a fire chaplain. I work for one of the local fire departments, and sometimes go to the scenes of ambulance calls or fires. Last year on Ash Wednesday, we were called to the scene of a fire. I went with one of my friends who also is a fire chaplain for the department. The fire was at a four-unit condominium, and it was looking pretty bad. When we arrived, we checked in with the Chief, and he told us that the families were in an apartment across the street. We headed that way and spoke to some of the family members who were home at the time and started to be sure that their needs were being taken care of. After we had talked with them for a time, I started a conversation with the woman in whose apartment we were all gathered. I asked her if she knew any of these people before the fire. She told me that she didn?t and I thanked her for opening her home to the victims of the fire. She said she wouldn?t think not to do something like that. And I believed her: she had on a sweatshirt that said, ?What would Jesus do?? Now we have all heard the WWJD thing a million times and I wonder if it even means anything to anyone anymore. Theologians also tell us that in some ways that?s the wrong question to even ask. But as I was there with this nice woman who opened her house up to us all, and with fire fighters and police officers coming in and out with snowy and wet boots, I wasn?t so sure that WWJD was completely pass鮠 It struck me that in asking what Jesus would do, maybe we can grow in our relationship with Jesus so much so that we do the work he wants to do right here and right now, without even stopping to think about it. After all, at this time, we are all his hands and feet, and he works through us to give people a place to gather while their house is burning, or he works through us to show his presence in our world in thousands of ways every single minute of every single day. Today?s first reading and Gospel talk about fasting and almsgiving, which are appropriate topics for this first day of Lent. Above all, these readings tell us that we can?t get all caught up in the show of it all. Our fasting, our almsgiving, our service ? all of these can?t be done just so people can see it and think well of us. No, we must do these things as naturally as someone who has made it their prayer to live every day doing what Jesus would do, and living as people who have come to know their Lord in a way that they can do that without a moment?s hesitation. Indeed, these kinds of ?hidden? works of fasting, almsgiving and prayer should be natural for us who know the Lord and live as people who have been redeemed by him in this very acceptable day of salvation. So maybe our question to one another ought not to be ?what are you giving up for Lent this year?? Maybe it would be better to ask ?how are you using Lent to come to know the Lord better?? And maybe in doing that we will fast, because fasting helps us to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can?t provide. Maybe in doing that we will give something up, because in denying ourselves we can be open to the many ways God wants to bless us. Maybe our way of coming to know the Lord better will be through prayer, or reading a book of Scripture during Lent, because prayer and Scripture are ways that Jesus reveals himself to us all the time. Or maybe our way of coming to know the Lord better will be through some kind of service to others ? maybe even something we?ve never done but have been asked to try ? because in service we can come to see that God does things in us we could never do on our own. But whatever it is we are called to do in these forty days of Lent, let us not waste this time in any way and let us not make a big show of it. The time to grow in our spiritual life ? to come to know our Lord Jesus Christ better ? is now, today, right this very minute. Let us not put it off because indeed now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bringing Friends to Jesus

This was my homily for yesterday. It had a lot to do with the topic of friendship and how God is incarnate in our friends — that’s just been on my mind and heart a lot lately, and this Gospel just really spoke to that.

I can hardly believe it but we’re just now into the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel. All this time since Christmas, we’ve been reading from Chapter one. And if you’re like me, Christmas seems like a long time ago now. If we look back at what we’ve heard in these weeks since Christmas, we probably remember a lot of healings that Jesus did. And today is no exception from that. Today, Jesus heals a man who was suffering from paralysis. What is interesting about Jesus’ healing of the paralytic is that his first effort is not to heal the paralysis, but to heal something that is perhaps even more paralyzing in his life and in ours: sin.

The whole exchange here between Jesus and the scribes is interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that they still don’t get it. For all of the healings he did, and as I said, we’ve heard a lot of them in the last few weeks; they still don’t quite understand what Jesus came to do. So Jesus says to the man, “your sins are forgiven.” In those days, if someone was ill or afflicted, it was thought to be the result of sin. So Jesus goes beyond just healing the physical paralysis—which is nothing more than a symptom of the problem—and goes right to the heart of the matter: he heals the brokenness in the man’s life that is the result of sin. Jesus was doing something much greater than anyone expected him to do. They just wanted the man to be healed physically; but Jesus goes them one better: he heals the man from the inside out. As Isaiah says in the first reading, God is doing something really new here, and they need to open their eyes and see it.

Second, it’s easy enough to say, “your sins are forgiven.” But it’s hard to know if that really happened, right? I mean, when your sins are forgiven, your hair doesn’t change colors. Sin doesn’t cause spots on your body that magically disappear when you’ve been forgiven. It’s hard to know what forgiveness of sins looks like, and this is part of the problem the scribes have with Jesus. He says, “Your sins are forgiven” easily enough, but how can they be sure he’s done anything? And they believed that forgiveness of sins was reserved to God alone. They were right about that, but they missed the fact that they were looking into the face of God. They just didn’t get it.

What strikes me most, though, about today’s Gospel, is the way the paralytic came to Jesus. He is carried by four of his friends. They bring him to Jesus for healing and are met with what must have been a pretty irritating obstacle. They couldn’t even get into the house where Jesus was preaching because of all the people crowded in there. There were so many people, they couldn’t even move a little to make an aisle to bring the man in. But they didn’t say to the man, “well, we tried; maybe we’ll come back another time.” No, they climbed up onto the roof, ripped a hole in it, and lowered their friend down in front of Jesus as he was preaching. Can you imagine the audacity of that? They destroyed a person’s roof and interrupted Jesus’ preaching. I just want to let you know that if that happens during today’s homily, we’ll be taking up a second collection to repair the roof… But the point is that these four very good friends did not allow a simple obstacle to get in the way of their desire to bring their friend to Jesus. They had come this far and weren’t about to give up so easily.

That got me to thinking about how friends can bring us to Jesus. I just finished final exams, thank God. One of my classes this past quarter was called “Friendship and the Moral Life.” In that class, we discussed the virtue of friendship. Friendship is a special kind of charity, or love, in which the two people in the relationship desire the Good of the other person most of all. This is not a friendship of utility where people are related because they can give each other a ride to work or something pragmatic like that. And it’s decidedly not some kind of misguided relationship where two people are “partners in crime.” This is the kind of relationship where two people encourage each other in the spiritual life and literally bring each other to Jesus. There are examples of this here and there in the saintly literature, most especially between St. Thérèse of Liseaux and Maurice, a seminarian. Through their relationship, Maurice was encouraged by Thérèse to stick with his formation for priesthood, and he was eventually ordained. And Thérèse herself admitted that their correspondence helped her to see her life in a different light and made her desire to be with Christ all the stronger. This kind of friendship is a gift from God, which we can all receive, but we must also nurture those friendships in our life.

This past week, between writing like a million pages of papers that were due in the last days of the quarter, I took some time to pack away some of the books on my shelves that I won’t be using in the next eight weeks. This coming quarter is my last one at Mundelein, and I wanted to get a head start on packing up so that I won’t have to move everything in May. When I was packing up those books, I came across a book of memories that was made for me by my friends at the place I worked before I went to seminary. I hadn’t seen that book in maybe five years, so I stopped to page through it. There were pictures and stories and notes from all of them. I laughed and I cried. But most of all I remembered all of the support and encouragement they gave me when I was getting ready to go to seminary. In some ways, I don’t think I’d be here now if it weren’t for them, and for the support of so many other friends and family who literally brought me to Jesus throughout my life, and in a special way while I was discerning my vocation. They literally brought me to Jesus, who was able to heal me of the paralysis I was having with regard to my vocation. As I think about all those folks, I realize with a great deal of humility how blessed I have been with that special kind of friendship that has always led me to Jesus.

Think of that for a moment. We are all called to bring each other to Jesus. That’s why God gives us our friendships. We have to be the people who challenge and support each other and help each other to grow. To what extent are our friendships like that? Supporting each other is generally easy to do, but how often do we challenge each other when the other needs it? I’m not talking about picking fights with each other, but rather of helping each other to become what God has called us to be.

And think too about the friends in your life. Who are those who have brought you to Jesus? Who are those who have challenged you to grow and supported you when you were hurting? Who are those who have pointed out and celebrated the gifts you have? Who are those who have pushed you to become something more than you could have on your own; something more than you ever thought you had potential to become? Maybe they were teachers or parents or family or classmates or coworkers or mentors. But whoever they were, they were that gift God gave you, and they were the people who ripped open the roof and lowered you down to Jesus so that he could heal whatever was paralyzing you in your life and keeping you from growing. Take a minute to think of them today, thank God for them, and as we offer our gifts at the altar today, place them before the altar that they too might be brought to Jesus in whatever way they need that today.

The Nature of Friendship

One of my courses this quarter is called “Friendship and the Moral Life.” I just turned in the final paper for the class, and the introduction to the paper was a reflection on friendships in my life. I thought that those three paragraphs were worth blogging about…

One of my great concerns about coming to seminary five years ago was the issue of friendship. I liked my life just fine the way it was: I had a good job, a growing spiritual life, and plenty of good friends. So uprooting myself and leaving all that behind was naturally a little frightening. But if I am honest, I would have to admit that those same friendships I was loathe to leave behind were the same friendships that were pushing me forward. These were the same friends who were not only not surprised when I told them I was going to seminary, but were in fact incredibly supportive.

The grace of friendship, however, has not been something I have left behind when I drove through the front gates of the seminary. God has certainly provided some extremely important friendships that have seen me through my formation. Those friends have also seen me through some very difficult times, including the month in first theology when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer. I am certain now that I would not have stayed in the seminary were it not for them, and one of the spiritual insights that I remember from that time is how blessed I felt to have been in seminary at the time, because the support those friends gave me was more than I could have hoped for at any other time of my life.

The incredible grace of friendship has been a constant source of support and encouragement for me, but has also been a force that has kept me focused on doing God’s will in my life. These friends have supported me, but also on occasion called me to task, challenged me, and helped me see who I am through more objective eyes. As my friends have become more a part of my life, I have felt challenged to grow and to become a stronger servant of God than I would have otherwise. And I know that, even for some years before I came to seminary, I have always linked friendship with faith. I have experienced friendship as an icon of Incarnation: my friends help me to know God’s presence in my life and in the world.