Friday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s Readings

It would be so much easier if we could define our own righteousness. If we could choose who to reach out to and who to ignore, life would be good, wouldn’t it? If we could hold grudges against some people and only have to forgive some people, we would easily consider ourselves justified. But the Christian life of discipleship doesn’t work that way.

That’s where the Pharisees went wrong. They were able to define their six hundred and something laws in such a way that if you just kept your eye on those, you were okay. Empty legalism replaced true righteousness and lip service replaced true worship. Jesus wasn’t having any of that. Our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees or we have no part in the Kingdom of heaven. It’s that simple.

So when we bear grudges, we murder. When we label people and then write them off, we are liable to judgment. Because justice and righteousness in the Kingdom of God isn’t about looking squeaky clean, it’s about being clean inside and out, changing our attitudes, changing our hearts, renewing our lives.

If Lent purifies us in this way, we can truly pray with the Psalmist, “with the LORD is kindness and with him is plenteous redemption.”

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

If we take one thought out of Lent this year, it should be this: we need a Savior.

Even before Jesus’ time, Esther knew this. Esther’s adoptive father Mordecai was a deeply religious man. His devotion incurred the wrath of Haman the Agagite, who was a court official of King Ahasuerus of Persia. Mordecai refused to pay homage to Haman in the way prescribed by law, because he felt that it was idolatry. Because of this, Haman developed a deep hatred for Mordecai, and by extension, all of the Israelite people. He convinced King Ahasuerus to decree that all Israelites be put to death, and they cast lots to determine the date for this despicable event.

Meanwhile, Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, is chosen to fill a spot in the King’s harem, replacing Queen Vashti. Esther never had revealed her own Israelite heritage to the King. Mordecai came to Esther to inform her of the decree that Haman had proposed, and asked her to intercede on behalf of her own people to the King. She was terrified to do this because court rules forbade her to come to the king without an invitation. She asked Mordecai to have all of her people fast and pray, and she did the same. The prayer that she offered is beautifully rendered in today’s first reading.

Esther knew that there was no one that could help her, and that it was totally on her shoulders to intercede for her people. Doing this was a risk to her own life, and the only one that she could rely on was God himself. Her prayer was heard, her people were spared, and Haman himself was hung from the same noose that had been prepared for Mordecai and all his fellow Israelites.

God hears our own persistent prayers. We must constantly pray, and trust all of our needs to the one who knows them before we do. We must ask, seek and knock of the one who made us and cares for us deeply. But most of all, we must always be aware that like Esther, we all need a Savior.

Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

Today's readings

This generation is an evil generation;
it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it,
except the sign of Jonah.

In all fairness, I think it should be noted that even though Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, he was a very unwilling sign to be sure. Not only did he prefer to take a ship anywhere but Nineveh and end up getting swallowed by a big fish, even after this wonderfully successful preaching, he sat under a shade plant and lamented the mercy God had on the Ninevites.

But, that said, he was indeed a wonderful sign to the Ninevites. And they didn't require from him miracles and wonders. They heard his word – the word of the LORD – and reformed their ways, they straightened up their act. That's what Jesus is extolling here. It didn't take anything but hearing the word of the Lord for those evil Ninevites to turn to God for mercy. But the Israelites, who had in Jesus a much better sign than that of Jonah – a very willing sign for one thing – they still demanded a whole side show to test his words.

What about us? What does it take for us to make a change in our lives? Has God been trying to get through to us, but we keep holding out for some kind of sign? Shame on us when we do that – and most of us do at some point. We, like the Israelites, have a wonderful sign in Jesus, and we would do well to take up our own crosses and do what the Lord asks of us.

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Today's readings

Ancient sources say that we are to pray the Lord's prayer at least seven times daily. Why? Because the Lord's prayer in all its wonderful simplicity reminds us that God is God and we are not.

To those of us who are concerned with our own prestige and dwell on our own ego, the Lord's prayer says "hallowed be God's name." When we would like all of our problems solved on our own terms and everyone to do things our own way, the Lord's prayer says, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…" For those times when we over-consume the goods of the earth, or want more than we can afford, or covet things we don't need, the Lord's prayer says, "give us this day our daily bread" – because that's all we need. For us sinners who prefer to hold grudges against others, the Lord's prayer says, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." And when we stray into all sorts of temptations and give in to all the wrong things, the Lord's prayer says "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

The Lord's prayer is powerful in all its simplicity. Whether we say it seven times a day or even just once, we need to say it with full thought of what we are asking of our God. And God will hear and answer that holy prayer.

Monday of the First Week of Lent

Today's readings

Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.

Today's readings represent what I think is the scariest instruction we have in the Gospel. And that is that we have to be clear about the lengths the Gospel demands that we go. It's easy to see people as panhandlers, con artists, and the like. But the Gospel demands that we see these people as Christ. The first reading makes it clear: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD."

If that doesn't strike fear into the heart of everyone who has passed by a brother or sister in need, I don't know what would. And I would be willing to bet that all of us here – including yours truly – has passed up an opportunity to serve a brother or sister in Christ in some way. In doing that, we have neglected to serve Christ himself, and he is the LORD.

One of the greatest prayers of my heart is that I would be able to see people as Christ sees them. Some days I'm good at that, and some days I'm not. But the idea is to keep making the prayer, and keep trying to live it. This doesn't mean we have to be the soft touch who gives in to every plea – honest and dishonest. But it does mean we have to be willing to reach out to those in need with the same love that Christ has for them. Because he is the LORD.

We who approach the Altar today to receive Christ in the Eucharist must be willing to receive Christ also in our brothers and sisters. More than that, we have to be willing to be Christ to them. Because he is the LORD.

First Sunday of Lent: Remember and Proclaim

Today’s readings

Back in May, I was starting to pack up the vast array of stuff that had accumulated in my room during the five years I lived at Mundelein Seminary. I was sorting through files, books, clothes, belongings, the whole mess. This was not a task I really enjoyed, of course – I don’t think anyone really likes having to pack and move. When I thought about why I disliked packing so much, I realized that part of it is that I didn’t like the overwhelming task of going through everything to decide what would come with me and what wouldn’t. But another part of it, for me, is the emotional attachment that we have whenever we live somewhere for a while. Well, one afternoon during my packing, I happily came across a scrapbook that had been given to me by my coworkers just before I moved on to seminary, five years earlier. I stopped to look through the book, and all the memories of that time of my life came back to me. I laughed, I cried, and well, I didn’t get much packing done that afternoon!

Everyone has their own memories. Whether it’s scrapbooks or photo albums, or even just stories shared at the dinner table, we treasure the memories of the people, places and events that have made up our past. Those memories make up who we are now, and have helped to shape the people we will be in the future. It’s important for us to revisit those memories from time to time: to find the scrapbook, to flip through the pages of the photo albums, to tell the great family stories around the dinner table. Memories are meant to be shared, to be retold, and to be treasured. Memories make us who we are, whether as individuals, or as families, or as nations, or as a Church.

In today’s readings, we are called to look again at the memories that we have as a people. The first reading has Moses instructing the Israelites on how to present their offerings to God. It’s not just the sacrifice that’s important here, it’s why the sacrifice is made in the first place. Which is why Moses tells them to re-tell the story: that their father (probably Jacob) was a wandering Aramean, whose household was tiny, but that God preserved them and made of them a great nation in a land flowing with milk and honey. That’s why they bring the first fruits of their crops as gifts for the Lord. Retelling the story is an occasion of gratitude and the sacrifice is made with great joy.

The Gospel reading is kind of the negative portrayal of remembering. Because the devil would like nothing more than for Jesus to forget who he was and why he was here. He would have Jesus forget that real hunger is not satisfied by mere bread, but must be satisfied by God’s word. He would have Jesus forget that there is only one God and that real glory comes from obedience to God’s command and from living according to God’s call. He would have Jesus forget that life itself is God’s gift and that we must cherish it as much as God does.

But Jesus won’t forget. He refuses to turn stones into bread, remembering that God will take care of all his real hunger. He refuses to worship Satan and gain every kingdom of the world, remembering that he belongs to God’s kingdom. He refuses to throw away his life in a pathetic attempt to test God, remembering that God is trustworthy and that he doesn’t need to prove it.

In the second reading, St. Paul calls the Romans to remember their own faith. He reminds them that the word that was preached to them is not something far off and remote, but is very near to them: on their lips and in their heart. Their salvation comes from the Lord, and the Lord can be trusted with their eternal lives. So, St. Paul says, it is fitting for the Romans to remember this and to proclaim it in their lives.

The way that we live our memories as a Church is through Liturgy. In the Liturgy of the Word, we hear the stories of faith handed down from generation to generation. These are the stories of our ancestors, whether from the Old Testament or the New. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we re-present the story of Christ’s Passion and death, and as we do that, it becomes new for us once again. There’s a part of every Eucharistic Prayer that recalls Jesus’ suffering and death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. This is called the anamnesis, which is translated as recollection, or remembering, but is perhaps best rendered as a re-presentation. Because our remembering as a Church isn’t just some kind of fond reminiscence, it’s not just a recalling of some events that happened hundreds of years ago, no … our anamnesis is a re-presentation of Christ’s passion and death and resurrection, the whole Paschal event that saved us and made us the people that we are. When we as a Church gather to remember, we are there, right in and among that saving sacrifice that made us God’s own people once again.

This Lent our community is developing habits of faith, hope and love – habits of the soul. Today, the habits suggested by our Liturgy of the Word are remembering and proclaiming. We must be people who remember who we are, who remember our stories, who remember our ancestors in faith, and who remember, above all, the salvation we have from Christ’s Passion, death, and resurrection. We must also be people who proclaim what we believe. We must confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord, we must proclaim that Christ is our salvation, we must shout from every place where we find ourselves that God is faithful and just and that everyone who turns to God will be saved.

And then we have to live that way. We have to be the scrapbook. We have to be the photo album, we have to be the story that is told at the dinner table. Our actions can proclaim our faith in the Christ we remember. Our service to our brothers and sisters in need can shout to a world that needs to hear it that God has concern for the poor and the needy. Our very lives can be an anamnesis of the God who is our salvation, and of our Christ who pours out his life for us at every Eucharistic feast. We are a people called to remember and to proclaim that our God is faithful and alive in our midst.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s Readings

In Hebrew, the word for “righteousness” is tseh’-dek, which has the connotation of right relationship. Indeed, it was the whole idea of right relationship that was preached continuously by the prophets. That right relationship was one that should be directed toward God and toward others. To live in right relationship with God and others is the vision of true peace.

This is the call of Isaiah in today’s first reading. God makes it clear through Isaiah that showy fasting, mortification and sacrifice is not what God wants from humankind. God, who made us for himself, wants us – all of us, and not just some dramatic show of false piety, put on display for all the world to see. God doesn’t want fasting that ends in quarrelling and fighting with others, because that destroys the right relationships that our fast should be leading us toward in the first place.

So, if we really want to fast, says Isaiah, we need to put all that nonsense aside. Our true fast needs to be a beacon of social justice, a wholehearted reaching out to the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. As we get into our Lenten practices these days, we too might find that our self-sacrifice ends up pushing us away from others, and ultimately from God. That’s not a sign to give it up, but maybe more to redirect it. If we give up something, we should also balance that with a renewed effort to reach out to God and others. Right relationship should be the goal of all of our Lenten efforts this year. And we can truly live that kind of penitence with joy because it comes with a great promise, says Isaiah:

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

Chair of St. Peter, Apostle (Feast)

Today’s readings | Today’s feast

Every Christian disciple ought to love St. Peter, a man who was zealous with his faith and his words, even if his words and actions seemed to lag a bit behind. One of the most famous examples was his walking on the water. You know the story, seeing Jesus walking about on the water at night, he calls to him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you across the water.” Jesus says, “Come.” Peter sets foot on the water and begins to walk, but soon enough he notices the waves and the wind and begins to falter, sinking into the water. Jesus, of course, reaches out and pulls him out. Peter seems here to be a failure, but at least he tried to put his faith into action. I would suggest that there may have been eleven bigger failures who were not even brave enough to get out of the boat in the fist place.

Another example, the one in today’s Gospel, is when Jesus asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” And they all had plenty of examples. When he asked, “But who do you say that I am?” it was Peter who responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Then just a few verses later, after Jesus tells them that he must suffer and die, Peter rebukes Jesus, and Jesus says famously, “Get behind me, Satan.” Peter is on top of the heap one moment, and cast down the next. But at least he had courage enough to speak up for his faith, even if that faith was slightly flawed.

The biggest failure Peter had, though, was after the Last Supper. Having pledged to stand up for Jesus no matter what, he denies three times that he even knows his friend and Lord. When the cock crows, he remembers that Jesus predicted his failure, and he breaks down and cries. But after the Resurrection, it’s Peter – the one who denied his Lord three times – who has the opportunity to profess his love three times. “Do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.”

And it’s the feeding of those sheep that we celebrate today. The chair of St. Peter commemorates the faith that Peter professes in today’s Gospel. A faith that is admittedly not quite perfect, but a faith that is perfected by Jesus after the Resurrection from the dead. Because of this profession of faith, Peter receives the servant-authority of the whole Church, which is passed on in his successors. This is an authority that makes the popes the servant of the servants of God, the one who has the direct line of teaching going back to the Apostles themselves.

We servant disciples can celebrate Peter in a special way today. Our faith is a lot like Peter’s most of the time, isn’t it? It is a faith that is strong, but not quite perfect. We say the wrong things sometimes, sometimes we miss the opportunity to witness, often we don’t follow through in action. But Jesus is continually perfecting that faith in us so that we might come to truly believe and truly live as his own.

Ash Wednesday II

Today’s readings [Prayer Service]

Ash WednesdayA couple of years ago 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 day free. I went with my friend Jeff, who as also a fire chaplain, 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 when I got there and saw this four unit condo on fire, I said something like, “Oh my gosh! That building’s on fire!” Jeff thought I was nuts, I think, but we pressed on and checked in with the fire chief. We asked where the families were, and he indicated an apartment building across the street. So 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 and stuff 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, she obviously knew the answer to that question, and was not afraid to live it.

That was Ash Wednesday two years ago, 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 hungry. The lack of television provides us with a silence that can be filled by God’s presence. 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, especially during our 40 hours devotion we’ll have next month. 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.

Third, we can give alms or do works of charity. We can save money for Operation Rice Bowl, or perhaps help to provide a meal at Hesed House. 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, perhaps volunteering at a soup kitchen together, or shopping together for items to donate to Loaves and Fishes. 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.

This Lent, through a book you can purchase here or at a bookstore, and using our parish website, we are being challenged to develop habits of the soul. I’ve read that it takes 21 days to build a new good habit. With the 40 days that Lent provides, maybe we can all focus on one thing we could do to make our lives more joyful, or more prayerful, or more charitable. Whether we give something up to escape the entanglements of the world, or whether we perform acts of charity to love more freely, or whether we pray in new ways to become more thoughtful, we can build the habit that will last a lifetime, a habit that will lead us to the joy of eternal life.

It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty day retreat that will bring us all closer to God. 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!”

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