White Mass for Healthcare Workers

Today’s readings: Lamentations 3:17-26 | Romans 8:18-30 | Mark 16:15-20

One of the most important things I’ve ever learned about the healing ministry of the Church is summed up in one of the lines in our Gospel reading this evening:

“They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

And let’s notice carefully who Jesus says will do these things.  Is it just Jesus himself, or the apostles, or great saints?  Is it only priests or people who do ministry?  No, not at all.  It’s all of us believers.  

These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.

This is really the basis for all of the Church’s teaching on healing.  At the core of our belief is that believers have the ability to do great things, not of their own power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Those who believe are so caught up in the life and activity of God that their gifts go out and accomplish God’s purpose in the world.  That is what we celebrate tonight.  That believers in the field of healthcare put their gifts and talents at the service of God’s desire for healing.

Tonight we also call on God’s grace and blessing to healthcare workers, because while their work is never easy, the COVID-19 pandemic only makes things more difficult.  In some ways, healthcare workers are the only faces the sick get to see in these days, because visits from family, friends, even priests is severely limited, if not impossible.  All of us know the value of those visits.  The psychological boost of seeing friendly faces, hearing comforting words, and partaking in prayer and the sacraments does a lot in the healing process, and now those remedies are not that available.  This places a great deal of added strain on those who are working endless shifts and doing their best to be the face of compassion to those in their care.

While the rest of us can never know the burden healthcare workers bear in these days, we can enter into solidarity through prayer and encouragement.  It’s up to all of us to hold up the healers, to be the face of Christ to them, whose hands, words, and hearts Christ is using right now to do his healing work.  Tonight we will offer a blessing to them and entreat our God to keep them well, keep them strong, and help them put an end to this pandemic disease that causes the misery they see daily, once and for all.

We could have read tonight from many Gospel passages in which our Lord heals someone of an illness.  And to those who have watched someone die of this illness many times, those readings may have echoed hollow in some ways.  If God can heal a leper in Jesus’ day, why can’t he heal this poor woman gasping for breath in her last days?  If he can make a lame man walk or stop a twelve-year hemorrhage, why can’t this poor man get up out of his bed and be well?  Those are hard questions, and we all grapple with the implications of that all the time: if not for patients, then for loved ones.  Illness and death are completely unfair.  Sometimes the healer does everything possible and still the patient dies.

Those are horrible times, but know this.  Know that God weeps with you.  Because while he allows sickness, disease, war, hunger, poverty, sin, and death, he never wills them.  The consequences of our fallen world take nothing away from God’s love for us, nor does he inflict them on us.  Even in our darkest moments, God walks with us and enables us to do all we can.  On those occasions when all you can do is not enough to make a person well, know that all that you do gives healing in other ways.  In these days especially, your care for them may be the only Jesus they get to see right now.  Our God who never wants anyone to die alone and uncared for is using you in these moments to give comfort and grace.  That’s an amazing privilege.

And the support you receive from many other workers is part of God’s healing work in the world too.  The sick must be fed, and have clean linens and clean rooms.  Broken equipment needs to be fixed.  Facilities need to be adapted so that they can be used in ways they weren’t originally intended for.  This all takes the work of dedicated workers who, like the doctors, nurses and other care givers, are putting themselves at risk in order to take care of those who are sick.  It takes a village to heal the sick and to comfort the dying.  God’s healing grace is active in every person who answers the call to work among the sick.

Today’s readings paint the picture of the situation in which we find ourselves.  Saint Paul writes to the Roman Church in a time of persecution, and he takes note of the sufferings that many of them were enduring.  In all of that, he calls on them to have hope in God.  Hoping is more than just a wish upon a star: hope is a theological virtue that, while never denying what’s going on, knows that the power of God is never limited by suffering.  We may not see the immediate fruits of hope, but then that’s not how hope works: hope never loses confidence that God is in control.  The writer of Lamentations speaks of hope as well, insisting that he has reason to have hope because God’s faithful mercy is renewed each morning.

And so we faithful ones forge on in hope, knowing that COVID-19 is not forever.  Nothing gets to be forever except God’s grace and mercy and love.  And so, while disease is a fearsome thing, we don’t owe it our fear.  If we use that energy instead to hope in God’s goodness, and know that he is at work in us, he can then use us to renew the face of the earth. Even now, the Spirit groans within us, giving voice to our deepest longings, as we wait for our bodies to be redeemed, and our prayers to be answered, and our illnesses to be healed.

And we continue to trust in our Lord who promised that believers would lay hands on the sick and they would recover.  Whether they recover their health, or recover their faith, or recover their relationships, they will recover what God intends them to recover.  That’s not up to us, any of us.  Hoping in God, however, and trusting in the faithfulness that renews us each day, I urge you all to continue to lay hands on the sick, put your gifts at the service of God’s mercy, and trust that he will recover what needs to be recovered.  The Lord always makes good on his promises when we live out of hope.

Because Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

This illness is not to end in death,
but is for the glory of God,
that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

As I’ve been praying during this COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been struck by two things.  First is that God, who never sets in motion the evil that happens to us (including this crisis), intends to do something in us during this time.  We will have to wait and see what that is, all the while being faithful disciples who trust in God’s mercy.  The second striking thing in my prayer is that God wants us, in this mournful time, to rediscover and come to rely on the virtue of hope.

Now, virtues are those habits and dispositions that lead us to what is good (CCC 1804). There are generally a couple of different kinds of virtues: human virtues (like prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) and theological virtues (like faith, hope and charity).  Of these, hope is the virtue that recognizes our desire for happiness in this life and the next, which is an aspiration placed in our hearts by God himself (CCC 1818).  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this virtue of hope causes us to “desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1817).

Hope is that virtue that gets us through the difficulties of this life with a view toward what is to come.  It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, and not the light of an oncoming train!  Hope is so necessary in every moment of history, in every society and in every person’s life.  Hope is all the more necessary in moments of crisis, like this one.  Hope holds fast to the belief that we are travelers in this world, that we are not home yet, and that the best is yet to come.  We Christians hold fast to the knowledge that the Resurrection is the primary source of our hope, testifying that we have the invitation to life eternal, and the abiding presence of our God who made us for himself.

This illness is not to end in death,
but is for the glory of God,
that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

Those are crazy words.  They really are.  I think that, at least in years past, when we have heard these words, we just sort of accepted them as no big deal.  I mean, we’ve all heard the story a million times, right?  But those were crazy words, and the disciples, I think, would have received them as such.  I can almost imagine them doing a mental eye-roll!  And I think, these days, we might be the ones rolling our eyes: we’ve seen so many die of this awful virus in the last weeks.  This illness seems, very much, to end in death.

And so it was for Lazarus, too, friends.  I mean, he did really die.  That’s the whole point that was made by Martha’s seemingly-obvious, and perhaps even humorous comment, “Lord, by now there will be a stench.”  The belief was that, after three days, the dead person was really, really dead, and they weren’t coming back.  Lazarus has been in there four days, so it was reasonable to know that he’d be stinking of death.  But, Jesus insisted that they roll away the stone so they could see the mercy of God.  And so they did.

And the dead man came out.  That’s another one that we sort of gloss over in our millionth reading of this familiar story.  But let’s not underplay what is, actually and intentionally, an amazing miracle!  Someone who was stinking of death, having been rotting away for four days, got up and walked out of a tomb.  It’s a miracle of hope.  The dead man came out!

It doesn’t take too much imagination for Christian faithful people to see the foreshadowing in this story.  Jesus, too, will really die, and he too, will really rise, although in a different way.  Both of these episodes of a dead man walking out of a grave remind us to take up hope in the real knowledge that it is God who has control over life and death.  They remind us to hope in the knowledge that death is not the end.  They remind us to hope in the Christian conviction that God never intends the evil that befalls us, but allows it that we might hope in his mercy.  

God is doing something important during these days of quarantine and suffering.  Let’s not miss them.  The word “Lent” means “springtime,” and I believe that this can be a new springtime of faith for us.  This springtime can enliven hope in us, when we had given ourselves to the deathly cynicism of a world encrusted in the stench of materialism, self-centeredness, and entitlement.  So we cannot give in to any sense of doom or despair.  God is, always and forever, in control.

Will there be suffering?  Yes, and, I’m sorry to say, plenty of it.  This illness is touching all of us in some way and none of it is pleasant.  But let’s remember that Lazarus died of an illness, and Jesus died after suffering indignity, a scourging, and an ignominious, tortuous death on a cross.  But in each of those cases, God used suffering to unleash mercy, and glory, and a flood of grace.  God is calling us to the virtue of hope, brothers and sisters.  We know that this time of suffering will unleash mercy, glory and grace as well.  Because we have hope.  God is in control.

This illness is not to end in death,
but is for the glory of God,
that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Caiaphas had no idea how prophetic his words were. Actually, as far as the intent of his words went, they were nothing but selfish. The Jews didn’t want to lose their standing with the Romans. As it was, they had an uneasy peace. The Romans pretty much let them practice their religion as long as there wasn’t any trouble. But they knew that if everyone started following Jesus, the Romans would give preference to the new way, in order to keep the peace. The religious leaders couldn’t let that happen, so they began plotting in earnest to kill Jesus, planning to find him when he came to celebrate the upcoming feast day, which they were certain he would attend.

It’s a time of high intrigue, and for Jesus, his hour – the hour of his Passion – is fast approaching. That’s so clear in the Gospel readings in these last days of Lent. In just a few hours we will begin our celebration of Holy Week, waving palms to welcome our king, and praying through his passion and death. It is an emotional time for us as we know our God has given his life for us, the most amazing gift we will ever get. It is also a time of sadness because we know our sins have nailed him to the cross.

But, this is where the significance of Caiaphas’s words brings us joy. Yes, it is better for one person to die than the whole nation. God knew that well when he sent his only Son to be our salvation. Jesus took our place, nailing our sins and brokenness to the cross, dying to pay the price those sins required, and rising to bring the salvation we could never attain on our own. Caiaphas was right. It was better for one person to die than for the whole nation to die. Amazing as it seems, that was God’s plan all along.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny III (Cycle A Readings)

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 this: “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.   Our Gospel today is about Jesus, who gives us baptism and grace, those helps that are 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 that sinfulness 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.

During Lent, we have been journeying with our catechumens, who are now called the Elect, as they prepare to be baptized, confirmed, and receive first Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil.  Much like them, there are three groups of catechumens in today’s Gospel.  The first group of these scriptural catechumens 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 catechetical dialogue 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.

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 get past the stench of their grief.  For the Apostles, they had to get over the stench of trying to figure things out and realize that Jesus was in charge.  For the Jews, they had to get past the stench of 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.

So if you take away anything from today’s Liturgy, let it be this: this reading is really all about baptism, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Is it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection?  Well, okay, yes, maybe a little.  But it is more about baptism.  Because baptism is a kind of death.  As Saint Paul says in our second reading today, 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.

So maybe in these closing days of Lent, we still have to respond to our Lord’s call to live. Maybe you haven’t yet been to confession before Easter.  We have confessions tomorrow at 2:00pm until all have been heard, then Friday at 6pm, and Saturday at 3pm.  Come to any of them that fit your schedule.  If you miss that, please check the bulletin today for a schedule of confessions at parishes around us.  We invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths.  Wherever you find yourself at this point of Lent, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave.  Lent ends just before Evening Prayer on Holy Thursday.  That gives us around ten and a half days to take up our Lenten resolutions anew, or even make new ones, so that we can receive new life in Christ.  Don’t spend these days in the grave.  Come out, be untied, and be let go.

Monday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We’re still in the opening chapters of human history in our first reading, and in these opening chapters we see some of the less beautiful parts of human nature. The first reading reads like an exposition of deadly sins, and these sins have continued to plague humanity ever since.

We start with envy, as Cain laments that his offering was not accepted with the same favor as was his brother, Abel’s. We move from envy to murder, with Cain committing the very first fratricide, killing his very own brother. From there, we go to apathy, as Cain rejects the call to be his brother’s keeper. And then we meet false witness, as he lies about the murder that he committed. And if all of that isn’t enough, Cain then complains about his punishment as if it was something he didn’t deserve. If he’d only tried repentance, or expressed sorrow for his sins, or even accepted responsibility for what he’d done, maybe things would have turned out differently.

But, in this opening act of human history, we also see God’s mercy. Because of justice, God does not remit the entirety of Cain’s punishment, but he does decree that even his death would be unacceptable. Maybe we should think about that in regard to the death penalty: if even God doesn’t condone the murder of a murderer, then who are we to do that? So God marks Cain, as we all are marked with God’s presence at our baptism. So even in this very early story of our history, we can see that baptism was always intended for our salvation.

The Psalmist this morning says that we absolutely cannot profess God’s commandments and sing his praises, without also accepting God’s discipline and following God’s word. A sacrifice of praise is a life lived with integrity, and that is the sacrifice that God wants of us in every moment.

The Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time: All Souls Remembrance Mass

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel reading presents us with perhaps thefoundational principal of living the Christian life: love of God and love of neighbor.  We love God with great fervor because he loved us into existence.  And God teaches us how to love: to love him and to love others; in fact we manifest our love of God in very real ways by loving others.  Loving others is what brings us here together this morning as we celebrate our annual Mass of Remembrance for those who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith.  Our love of them doesn’t end when they leave us; and it is that love that intensifies our grief.  And so we gather this morning to remember and to take solace in God’s love for us, knowing that the grave is no obstacle to love, and that death has been defeated by our Savior who loves us more than anything.

One of my most vivid childhood memories was when I was just about nine years old. My grandfather on my mother’s side, who had retired just a few months earlier, was diagnosed with cancer. There wasn’t so much that could be done about cancer in those days, so he wasn’t expected to live long. And so one night, as the oldest of the children, Mom and Dad came to my room to talk to me about Grandpa. That was the night I learned about life and death, sadness and grief, love and pain. We cried a bunch, hugged a lot, and talked about how we were going to miss him.

I went to the wake and funeral with my family, because that’s what we did when a loved one died. My parents could have shielded me from that experience in many ways, as so many parents unfortunately do, but they chose not to, and I’m glad they made that decision. Death and grief aren’t things we actively seek, but we can’t be afraid to meet them head on, girded with faith, and confident of the hope we have in Christ Jesus.

I still miss Grandpa to this very day. He had a wonderfully silly sense of humor that never failed to make me laugh and probably rubbed off on me, to be honest; he made a homemade ravioli that blew away anything I’ve ever eaten since; he came from Italy and made a beautiful life for his family, and the stories of that have been an inspiration to me every day. The same is true of all of my grandparents, all who have gone on to the Kingdom, all of whom I miss and all of whom were a great example for me.

I miss Grandma Mulcahy when I’m planting flowers in my Mom’s garden, because she did that better than anyone, and while she did, we would talk about Ireland and I would hear about life in the “Old Country.” I miss Grandma Mastrodonato – Mom’s Mom – when I’m out in a public setting and see people doing crazy things because she always enjoyed people watching and listening to others. I missed Dad’s Dad a lot in my job previous to seminary, because he built the monstrous printing press that was, at the time, printing a job for my one of my best customers.

And I miss Dad, so very much. When I’m having a rough day, I just want to sit down and talk, knowing he’d listen and understand, and support me in whatever way I needed. And there are aunts and uncles who have gone on to the Lord, too. All of these characters have been inspirational to me in some way, and I find that the grieving, while it may dissipate a bit, never seems to completely go away. I don’t think it’s supposed to. Because when we have loved much, the passing away of one we have loved leaves a hole in our life that just doesn’t go away. That doesn’t mean that our life comes to an end: we move on, as move on we must, but always with a sense of loss, hopefully tempered with fondness for the relationship we had, hopeful of a reunion in heaven one day.

We come together today to pray for our deceased loved ones that they may be purified of any sin so that they can enter the kingdom of God.  Praying for the dead recognizes that all of our lives here on earth are not perfect, and the only way that we can attain the saving grace necessary for life in heaven is by turning to our Savior who gave his life for us.  Our second reading today gives us confidence that we can do this, and that his sacrifice on behalf of our loved ones, and of us, is sufficient, because his is a priesthood that never passes away.  He offered himself once for all, and that is enough, if we turn to him and ask his mercy.

In a few moments, I will sing words that have comforted me so many times in my sorrow.  They are the words of the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer: “Indeed, for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended, and when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.” This echoes the words of the Prophet Isaiah who confidently proclaims: “The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces; The reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth; for the Lord has spoken.”

During November, the Church continues to remember those we prayed for on the second day of this month, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. And for this remembrance, I have chosen to reflect on our experience of grief, and I’ve done that because it’s an experience we all have, on some level, at some time in our lives. I want you to know how very natural grief is, and how very blessed an experience it is. We must always remember that blessed experiences aren’t always pain-free. Our God never flees from our brokenness, instead he has chosen to redeem it.  That is why he offered himself willingly for us.

And so we are confident, because we know that death only separates us from those we love for a short time, and that death never has the last word because Christ has triumphed over death. The beginning and end of everything is Christ, and Christ is with us in our first moments, and also in our last. He is with us in our pain and with us in our joy. He helps us to remember our loved ones with love that continues beyond our death and beyond the grave. Grief and loss and pain are temporary things for us. Love is eternal, love never ends, love can never be destroyed by death, love leads us all to the great glory of the resurrection and eternal light in that kingdom where Christ has conquered everything, even death itself.

Therefore, it is with profound sadness, but also with ultimate trust in Almighty God that we commend our loved ones to the Lord, knowing that his mercy is great and that his love will keep us united at the Eucharistic banquet until that day when death is conquered and sadness is banished and we are all caught up in God’s life forever.

Eternal rest grant unto all of our loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

The Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Our readings today, I think, are very poignant and to the point.  As a pastor, I see a lot of suffering, and it breaks my heart when my parishioners are going through hard times.  Whether those hard times are brought about by death or sickness, or by relationship problems, or by poverty or job circumstances, or whatever it is, those hard times can be a real test of faith. The very first words of today’s Liturgy of the Word reach out and grab us: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.”  And perhaps we already knew that.  Perhaps we know that God does not intend our death or our suffering, but the really hard thing for us is that he permits it.  Why is that?  Why would God permit his beloved ones to suffer so much here on earth? This is one of those sticky questions that sometimes make people doubt their faith.

When I was in seminary, I worked as a fire chaplain the last couple of years.  We were called out one wintry night, just before Christmas break, to speak to some medics who had extracted a nine-year old child from a badly mangled car, only to have the child die on the way to the hospital.  These medics were from a neighboring fire department, so we didn’t know them, and I didn’t have too much hope that the conversation would go well. But, to my surprise, these men did open up and expressed the frustration they felt.  One of the men was Catholic and he was the one who had the task of extracting the child from the car.  His enduring question was, why did this innocent child have to suffer and die?  It was a long evening of conversation that really centered around faith that provided some consolation, although it could never really erase their sadness.

Which brings us to today’s Gospel.  Two people reach out in very different ways to end suffering and provide healing.  One is a man, who approaches Jesus and falls at his feet, begging the teacher to heal his daughter.  The other is a woman, who dares not make herself known, who sneaks up behind Jesus to touch his clothing.  The situations were different, but what unites them is their faith.  They have faith that reaching out to Jesus in their own way will bring them the healing they desire.

And there was a pretty serious leap of faith involved for the hemorrhaging woman.  Touch was her enemy.  She had suffered much at the hands of many doctors.  Not only have their ministrations failed to heal her, but they have also left her penniless.  And to touch anyone in her state of ritual impurity makes them ritually unclean too.  So she is totally marginalized: she is a woman in a patriarchal society, afflicted by an enduring and debilitating illness, she has no money to take care of herself, and she is unable to be part of the community or participate in worship.  Things could not have been worse.  Finding the courage to reach out to Jesus, even in her impure state, she is healed by her faith.

Now please note that that same faith was lacking in the people who were attending to Jairus’s daughter.  Even if they believed that Jesus could cure her illness, she is now dead, and so his assertion that she is merely “sleeping” meets with ridicule and scorn.  So Jesus has to throw out the faithless ones so that they would no longer be an obstacle.  The child cannot reach out to Jesus so he reaches out to her, taking her hand, and raising her up.

So it’s as simple as that.  An act of faith on the part of the hemorrhaging woman and the synagogue official provide healing and restore life. But how realistically does that match our experience?  I am guessing that those medics threw up a prayer or two in addition to all of the life-saving actions they performed on that nine-year old when he was in the ambulance with them, but the boy still died.  How many of us have prayed faithfully, constantly, only to be met by seemingly deaf ears?  We don’t even have the same opportunity as Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman.  We can’t reach out and touch Jesus in the flesh.  So I would never stand here and tell you that one simple act of faith is all it takes to make all your problems go away.  I always say that faith is not a magic wand.

But I will also say this: as I have walked with people who have suffered, those who have reached out to Jesus in faith have not gone unrewarded.  Maybe their suffering continued in some way, or even in some cases got worse, but in Christ they found the strength to walk through it with dignity and find peace.  Maybe Jesus won’t always stop the bleeding of our hurts and inadequacies and woundedness.  But through his own blood, he will always redeem us.  We who are disciples need to make those acts of faith if we are to live what we believe.  For those medics I spent the evening with, the conversation of faith didn’t bring the boy back, but it did provide them with healing and peace and a sense that in God’s time, all would be made right.

I am struck by the Eucharistic imagery at the end of today’s Gospel.  Jesus comes to the home of Jairus and finds his daughter asleep in death.  He reaches out to her, touches her, and raises her up.  Then he instructs those around her to give her something to eat.  We gather for this Eucharistic banquet today and Jesus comes to us, finding us asleep in the death of our sins.  Because we are dead in our sins, we can hardly reach out to touch our Lord, but he reaches out to us.  He takes our hands, raises us up, and gives us something to eat.

We come to the Eucharist today with our lives in various stages of grace and various stages of disrepair.  At the Table of the Lord, we offer our lives and our suffering and our pain.  We bring our faith, wherever we are on the journey, and reach out in that faith to touch the body of our Lord.  We approach the Cup of Life, and whatever emptiness is in us is filled up with grace and healing love, poured out in the blood of Christ.  As we go forth, glorifying the Lord by our lives this day, all of our problems may very well stay with us, remaining unresolved at least to our satisfaction.  Our suffering and pain may very well be with us still.  But in our faith, perhaps they can be transformed, or at least maybe we can be transformed so that we can move through that suffering and pain with dignity and find peace.  And as we go forth, perhaps we can hear our Lord saying to us the same words he said to the woman with the hemorrhage: go in peace, your faith has saved you.

Tuesday of Holy Week

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading contains four of the most chilling words in all of holy Scripture: “And it was night.”  Those narrative words come just after Judas takes the morsel and leaves the gathering.  But the evangelist didn’t include those words to tell us the time of day.  In John’s Gospel, there is an overriding theme of light and darkness.  The light and darkness, of course, refer to the evil of the world that is opposed by the light of Christ.

So John isn’t just telling us what time it is.  When he says, “and it was night,” he is telling us that this was the hour of darkness, the hour when evil would come to its apparent climax.  This is the time when all of the sins of the world have converged upon our Lord and he will take them to the Cross.  The darkness of our sinfulness has made it a very, very dark night indeed.

But we know that this isn’t how the story is going to end.  This hour of darkness will certainly see Jesus die for our sins.  But the climax of evil will be nothing compared to the outpouring of grace and Divine Mercy.  The darkness of evil is always overcome by the light of Christ.  Always.  But for now, it is night, and we can almost feel the ponderous darkness sending a shiver up our spines.

In these Holy days, we see the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. But may we also find courage in his triumph over this fearful night and burst forth with him to the brilliant glory of resurrection morning.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.” Sometimes this Sunday is celebrated by the wearing of rose-colored vestments, rather than the Lenten violet.  Laetare Sunday reminds us that even in the “heaviness” of Lent, there is reason for rejoicing.  And today’s readings do deal with some heavy topics, but clearly and always through the lens of rejoicing in God’s mercy.  So that’s how I would like to look at today’s Liturgy: what in the world gives us cause to rejoice today, here and now, in our own lives?

In a few weeks, the Mass of the Easter Vigil will begin by telling us all the reasons we should rejoice.  That Mass begins with the sung Easter Proclamation called the Exsultet, which tells the whole story of God’s mercy and sings God’s praises.  It is sung in the darkened church, proclaiming that, even in the darkness of our world, the light of God’s mercy still reigns and has power to overcome everything that keeps us from the true Light of the world.  It begins: Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!

That proclamation of the Exsultet almost seems out of place in our world today.  All we have to do is pick up a newspaper to be convinced of the darkness that pervades our lives.  Wars and terrorism claim the lives of innocent people and young soldiers alike.  Crime in its many forms takes its toll on our society.  Injustice and oppression still exist in our own nation and abroad.  The poor still hunger and thirst for the basic necessities of life.  And then we could look at the darkness that seems to reign in our own lives.  Sin that has not been confessed.  Bad habits that have not been broken.  Love and mercy that have been withheld.  All of these darken our own lives in ways that we don’t fully appreciate at the time, but later see with sad clarity.  Our world and our lives can be such dark places in these days.  But to that darkness, the Exsultet sings: Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.

You see, this darkness is exactly the darkness in which the people of Israel found themselves in today’s first reading.  Notice what that reading says about the people – it’s not flattering at all!  It says “in those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”  Note particularly the use of the word “all” in that first sentence: had just some of the people been unfaithful?  No: all of them had.  Did they practice just some of the abominations of the other nations?  No: they practiced all of them.  But God in his mercy sent them messengers and prophets to warn them away from their sinfulness.  Did they listen to them? No – and not only did they just not listen to them, but they ridiculed and derided those messengers of God, “despised his warnings and scoffed at his prophets.”  Certainly God would have been justified in letting his chosen people go to hell in a hand basket.  But he didn’t.  Though he punished them with exile for a time, he brought them back to their own land to worship their God once again.  When darkness seems to affect even the Church, the Exsultet calls out: Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.

Back at Christmas time, we heard the beginning of the Gospel of John giving us reason for our exultation: even in the darkness of our world, the Light shines through.  John proclaims: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Today’s Gospel reading is from John also, and shows us the source of that light: Jesus Christ who is lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.  This line refers to a passage from the book of Numbers [Num. 21:8-9] in which the people were complaining about the way God was feeding them in the desert.  So he sent seraph serpents among them, and people were being bitten and falling ill and dying from their venom.  As a remedy, God told Moses to mount one of the serpents on a pole, and anyone who had been bitten would get better if they looked at the serpent lifted up on the pole.  John compares this to the remedy that we receive for our many sins when we look upon our Savior, lifted up on the pole of the Cross.  But even better, the lifting up of the Son of Man is the Resurrection: God the Father raising Jesus up from the dead, to destroy the power of sin and death in our world.  Either way you look at it, the joy is irresistible: the darkness of our sin and the finality of our death are destroyed when we look upon Jesus our Savior lifted up for us.  Of this, the Exsultet sings: This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.

Which brings us to the heart of today’s Gospel reading, maybe even to the heart of the whole Gospel.  That would be the line: “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  If you have seen any sporting event, in person or on television, you have seen the reference to that line: posters that read “John 3:16.”  And clearly, that is the heart of the Gospel for all of us: that God
so loved the world – not just the good part of the world, the pristine part, the beautiful part – but every part of the world.  He loves the parts of the world that are polluted, or embattled by crime, or rife with injustice and oppression, or debilitated by sickness and disease, or destroyed by war, or mourning death, or lamenting sin.  That is not to say that he loves the pollution, crime, injustice, or any of that.  But he loves the world – the whole world – despite all that darkness.  He loves the world for what he created it to be, he loves us as the people he made his own.  And to that world, that people he loves, he sends his only Son, his beloved, so that we might not perish in our darkness or disease or injustice or sin and death, but might have eternal life – the life he longs for each of us to share with him.  Any other message would be completely disappointing, and our God does not disappoint!  Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.  O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

Lent is certainly a time for us to be mindful of the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s call.  Last week’s look at the ten commandments provided each of us, I think, with plenty of reflection on how we can better live God’s call.  But this week’s Gospel puts all of that in perspective for us: we don’t dwell on our sins and shortcomings just to remind ourselves how miserable we are; we reflect on our sins and shortcomings because we know that God can transform them.  We don’t strive to become better people in order to be worthy of God’s love for us; we strive to become better people because God loves us and that love calls us to a much better way of living.  Today’s Liturgy says to us that yes, we have sinned; yes, we have fallen short; yes, we have been hard-hearted; yes, we have failed to respond to God’s love; yes, in particular we have failed to show that love to others.  And yes, we are deserving of punishment for our sins.  But, our God, who is rich in mercy, forgets the punishment and remembers compassion for the people he created.  He sent his only Son to redeem us and bring us back from our darkness into everlasting light.  Our God even uses the darkness and transforms it to be a source of Resurrection for his people.  At that Easter Vigil a few short weeks from now, we will remember that The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.

On this Laetare Sunday, we remember that even in the darkness of our world as it is, we can remember the joy of the Light that is to come.  We reflect on God’s everlasting mercy, which is stronger than sin and death.  We respond to the compassion that God has shown for us, his chosen people.  We live that mercy and love in our own lives, sharing it with others.  Then as our own darkness is transformed to light, maybe our little corner of the world can know compassion amidst sorrow, comfort amidst mourning, mercy against intolerance, love against hatred, and the peace that passes all of our understanding in every place we walk.  May we carry the flame of God’s love into our world to brighten every darkness and bring joy to every sorrow.  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.  Amen.

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