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 Beloved Disciple 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 the end of the story.  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.

In these Holy days, we see the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. May we find courage in the way he triumphed over this fearful night and burst forth with him to the brilliant glory of morning.

The Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Suffering, Redemption and Glory

Today’s readings

The talk of mourning and death in today’s Liturgy of the Word reminds us of a couple of really important life principles. The first is that we will have to suffer and mourn in this life, because this life is riddled with sorrows. We saw that clearly in Orlando this past week, and the truth is we see it all the time on the streets of Chicago. The second life principle is that Jesus embraced suffering himself, and did not come to make it go away. And finally, suffering was something our Lord redeemed, changing it from a dead end to a path to glory. The Gospel today in particular addresses these principles.

The story begins with a lesson on who Jesus is. Our own self-identity is something many of us spend a lifetime trying to figure out. Our identity is important to us: it tells us how we fit into the social structure as well as what makes us unique from others. Until we really know who we are, we are very unlikely to accomplish anything of importance or even be comfortable in our own skin. And so when Jesus asks the disciples “Who do the crowds say that I am?” it is a question with which we all resonate on some level, at some time in our lives.

Now, I’m not suggesting Jesus was having an identity crisis, or even that his notion of who he is was developing. Clearly, his asking that question wasn’t so much for his own information or even to see where he was in the social structure of Israel, but he was nudging the disciples to come to an understanding about what was going on. Jesus knows who he is and why he is here, but it’s for us and for those first disciples to begin to see Jesus in deeper ways.

The answers the disciples give to that question are interesting. John the Baptist risen from the dead, Elijah returned from the whirlwind, or that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Clearly he had no parallel on earth at the time; all their answers involved the return of someone from the dead or the beyond. The reason this is significant is because, at the time, the possibility of there being anything beyond death or any kind of resurrection was in great dispute. The Pharisees believed in a life after death, the Sadducees did not; that is the reason many of the Gospel stories show those two groups in opposition to each other.

But the real significant part of their answers lies in what is going on in the disciples’ minds as they answer Jesus. You can almost hear the excitement in their voices. They had been seeing Jesus healing diseases and casting out demons. Not only that, they had just returned from their own missionary journey in which Jesus gave them authority to do those same things. Clearly they were in the presence of a superstar, and his charisma was rubbing off on them. They were ready for the glory, and they will get it, but not in the way they’re expecting.

Now Jesus wants to dig a little deeper. “But who do you say that I am?” he asks them. Peter speaks for the disciples and gets the answer right the first time: “The Christ of God.” I think he answers that with deep reverence and awe, but unfortunately, he didn’t know the half of it.

Jesus affirms his correct answer, but then goes on to reveal what that means for him. Yes, he is the Christ of God, but the Christ isn’t what they had anticipated. This was not going to be simply some glory trip. The Christ would have to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and then … then be raised from the dead. And that whole being killed part is the sticking point, but it’s absolutely necessary, he can’t be raised from the dead if he isn’t killed; that’s not a step one can skip.

This all had to be pretty hard for them to digest. But it’s nothing compared to what Jesus reveals next. Those disciples who thought they were on the glory train could also expect to suffer:

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

We don’t get to skip a step either. We too will be called to the cross. If we want eternal life, we have to be willing to give up this life. There is no resurrection without a cross; there is no Easter Sunday without a Good Friday. Not for Jesus and not for his disciples, not even for you and me.

We know that suffering is part of life. We have experienced illness, injury, pain, loss of a job, death of a loved one, physical or psychological abuse – the list is long. Just in the past week, our nation has suffered so much loss. So often all this suffering seems pointless. We might even be tempted to quarrel with God: if God is loving, why to innocent people have to suffer, why do we have to suffer? Why can’t it be the guy who cuts us off in traffic while he’s drinking coffee with one hand and talking on a cell phone in the other?

The truth is, the justice of suffering is beyond us. We don’t know why bad things happen to good people. Suffering can often seem so capricious, so random, so devoid of meaning. And it is, if we let it be. You see, sometimes we just get it wrong. We sometimes think that Jesus came to take away suffering and we get mad when that’s not what happens. But if Jesus came to take away suffering, he certainly wouldn’t have had to go through it himself. He didn’t come to take away suffering, but to give meaning to it, to redeem it – to come to glory through it.

We can see in the cross that the path to glory and the path to life leads through suffering to redemption. There’s no way around it. The cross Jesus took up will be ours to take up daily if we wish to follow Jesus to eternal life. He is the Way: if we want to get to heaven we have to follow his path. Our own identity as disciples and followers of Christ is bound up in the ugliness of suffering and the agony of the cross.

That flies in the face of our culture that wants us to take a pill for every pain and medicate every burden. Jesus says today that that kind of thinking is simply losing our lives trying to save them. The rest of life passes us by while we are self-medicated beyond our pain. But, if we lose our life for the sake of Jesus, if we take up our crosses and follow him, if we bear our burdens and our sorrows and our pain and our brokenness, if we join our sufferings to the suffering of Christ on the cross, then we too can experience what he did: the glory of eternal life. That was the only hope of those first disciples, and it is our only hope too, fellow disciples of the Lord.

Thursday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

One of the amazing truths to ponder in this season of Advent is the nature of and reason for the Incarnation. Why did God choose to save the world by entering into it as a creature? Why did he assume our fickle, broken flesh in the lowliest form: an infant born to a poor family?

There is a theological principle that says something like “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.” Christ had to assume, that is, take on all of our weaknesses, so that he would be able to redeem all of our brokenness. What great comfort it is that our Advent leads to the Birth of a Savior so wonderful in glory that the whole universe could not contain him, but also so intimately one of us that he bore all our sorrows and grief. It is amazing that God’s plan to save the world took shape by assuming our own form, even to the point of dying our death.

That’s what I thought about as I reflected on today’s first reading. Israel was pretty low and lacking in power, in the grand scheme of things. Almost every nation on earth was more powerful than them. Yet they were decidedly not unnoticed by God – indeed they were actually favored. God’s plan for salvation takes place among the weakness in all of us. God notices that weakness, takes it on and redeems it in glory.

That’s the good news today for all of us who suffer in whatever way. God notices our suffering, in the person of Jesus he bore that same suffering, and in the glory of the Paschal Mystery, he redeemed it. God may not wave a magic wand and make all of our problems go away, but he will never leave us alone in them.

And it all started with the Incarnation. The birth of one tiny child to a poor family, in the tiniest region of the lowliest nation on earth. God can do amazing things when we are incredibly weak.

Good Friday: Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion

Today’s readings

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Last night, I talked about the cross, and how, while brutal and inconvenient and ugly, it is the way to salvation for all of us. We see that so poignantly on this Good Friday, when we remember the Lord’s Passion, we venerate his Cross, and we receive the gift of Holy Communion to sustain us in these somber days. Our Lord’s complete gift of self, his act of emptying out his will so that he could fully embody the will of the Father, this is our hope and our salvation, and it is only possible through the brutal, ugly Cross.

Our world hates the Cross. I talked a bit about that last night, too. We want instant gratification, and we don’t want to go through a lot of hassle to get it. We seek instant remedies to pain, quick ways to get rich, instant service at any establishment according to our whim. We don’t like to wait, we don’t like to endure pain, we don’t like to suffer in any way. But as St. Augustine once said, “God had one Son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.”

Today we see that, taking up our crosses at our Lord’s command is going to involve suffering in this life. It did for Jesus, and so we have no right to assume that won’t be the case for us. Jesus never came into this world to take our suffering away; he came to redeem it. He’s not going to wave a magic wand and make your problems go away, but he will endure them with you, taking up the Cross with you, giving his life with you and for you. And most importantly, as we’ll see tomorrow night, he will redeem your suffering to eternal glory. That, dear ones, is the Paschal Mystery, and we absolutely have a share in it.

So think about your worst problem right now – call to mind whatever you may be suffering. Or call to mind the suffering of others: a loved one who is battling cancer, or a friend who is unemployed or underemployed. Perhaps call to mind those who are homeless, or those who go without much food every day, even while we dread keeping the Paschal Fast! Whether it is your suffering or the suffering of others, bring that to the cross as we venerate it shortly. And know – know – that that suffering does not go unnoticed by our God; that it never is willed for its own sake. And know that our Lord walks through it too, bringing it at last to its eternal redemption.

Suffering is the way to glory for all of us who take up our crosses to follow our Lord. Pope Saint John Paul II said it well: “There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us. And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection. This is our faith. This is our witness before the world.”

The Cross of Jesus is brutal, ugly and harsh. It embodies the horror of all our suffering. We might hate to look at it, hate to take it up, but there is no glory without it.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Scrutiny II)

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy calls us to clear up our clouded vision and become people of light.  The gospel gets at that pretty quickly, healing the man born blind in the first couple of minutes of what is admittedly a pretty long reading.  And that’s a good thing because, honestly, who cares about the man born blind?  I know that sounds terrible, but he lived a couple thousand years ago, and he was healed, so you know, good for him, but how does that affect us?  I’ll tell you how it affects us: the man born blind is us.  We all have affected vision: none of us sees others or even sees ourselves as God does. The first reading then is a wake-up call to us.  And we have to decide today if we are the man born blind who is easily and quickly healed, or if we want to be the Pharisees who, at the end of the day, never regain their sight because, well, they just don’t want to.

So maybe you’re asking the same question those Pharisees asked, “surely we are not also blind, are we?”  Of course we are.  We are, first of all, born blind. We don’t have a way of seeing the Truth that is in front of us; we can’t acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ and the King of our lives. It takes baptism to cure that born blindness in us. Secondly, we have a kind of blindness that affects us all through our lives. We often lose our vision and wander off the path to life. We are affected by temptation, by cyclical sin and by the darkness of our world. That’s why we have Lent: to realize our brokenness and to accept the healing power of Christ.  Lent calls us to remember that we are dust, that we are broken people fallen into sin, but it also proclaims that none of that is any match for the power of Christ risen from the dead, if we just let him put a little mud on our eyes.

Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision.  We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision.  Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see.  Our Elect, Brandon, will experience that in a very literal way this coming Easter Vigil.  In baptism, our inherited sin and evil is washed away; the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World.  We see that light shine brighter and brighter in today’s Gospel.  During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer.  At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him.  Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship. As he sees more clearly, his faith becomes bolder.  We make this same journey ourselves.  From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith.  We grow in the way that we see Jesus through our lives.  Our faith when we were young is not the same faith that works for us later in life.  At one point Jesus is a friend walking with us on life’s path; later on he might be a rock that helps us in a particularly stormy time of life.  Still later, he might be the one calling us to become something new, something better than we think we can attain.  Jesus is always the same, but we are different, and Jesus is with us at every point of life’s journey, if we open our eyes to see him.

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.”  That’s why we’re wearing these rose-colored vestments today.  We are now pretty much half way through Lent, and with eyes recreated by our own trips to the pool of Siloam – the waters of baptism – we can begin to catch a glimpse of Easter joy.  It kind of reminds me of the last section of the Exsultet that Deacon Chris Lankford will proclaim on the evening of the Easter Vigil. That last section tells us:

May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

Christ’s peaceful light changes everything. It clears up the darkness of sin and evil, and allows all of us blind ones to see the glory of God’s presence.  All of us have, indeed been born blind.  But we’re not supposed to stay that way.

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Today’s readings

Today’s celebration reminds us that Lent has been taking us somewhere, and now we see where that somewhere is: Calvary. These days have led us to the cross, which is a place to which, quite frankly, few of us ever want to go. The Psalmist today captures the feeling of our hearts as we arrive here at the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

And haven’t we all asked that question at least once in our lives? As we sing those words, they can quite frankly bring back painful memories, whether they be memories of past hurts, or reflections of current ones. Maybe it’s the time when you were sexually abused and felt abandoned because you were convinced no one would believe you. Maybe it’s the time you received a frightening diagnosis and you felt abandoned because you couldn’t enter into daily life with the same carefree attitude you previously had. Maybe it’s the occasion of the death of a loved one and you felt abandoned because everyone on the planet seemed joyful, except you. Maybe it’s the time you were laid off from your job and you felt abandoned because it seemed that no one valued your skills and talents.

And so we pray with the Psalmist, with Jesus, and with every person who has ever felt lost and alone: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” It’s natural that we would prefer to avoid the cross. It’s painful, it’s embarrassing, and it ultimately alienates us from the world. But, the cross is what joins us to Christ. Christ did not shun the cross on the way to accomplish his mission. He took up that cross, died on it, taking with it all of our pain, all of our shame, all of our loneliness, all of our abandonment, all of our sin, and most of all, our death.

Without the cross, there is no resurrection. Not for Jesus, and so also, not for us. Jesus certainly had his moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when the knowledge of his impending death filled him with dread; so it will be for us, countless times when we are called on to take up the cross. But as we enter this Holy Week, we are reminded gently that the cross, while significant, is not the end of the story. There will be a resurrection for Jesus, and so also a resurrection for all those who believe in him, have faith in him, and follow him. And that is what gives us all the confidence to take up our cross and journey on.

I invite you all to enter into these Holy Days with passion, with prayerfulness and in faith. Gather with us on Holy Thursday evening to celebrate the giving of the Eucharist and the Priesthood, and the call to service that comes from our baptism. On Good Friday afternoon and evening, we will have the opportunity once again to reflect on the Passion, to venerate the cross that won our salvation, and to receive the Eucharist, which is our strength. Finally, on the evening of Holy Saturday, we will gather to keep vigil for the resurrection we have been promised. We will hear stories of our salvation, we will celebrate our baptism as we welcome new members to our family, seeing them fully initiated into the life of the Church, rejoicing with them in the victory of Christ over sin and death. No Catholic should miss the celebrations of these Holy Days, for these days truly sustain our daily living and give us the grace to take up our little crosses day by day.

Second Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

You know, that last line of today’s Gospel reading always gets me thinking “well what did they think ‘rising from the dead’ meant?” Of course that’s easy for us to say, with the eyes of people who know how the story ends, but Peter, James and John didn’t have that vision quite yet. When you think about it, up to this point, they’ve been basking in the glory of Jesus’ fame. They too have been excited to see what Jesus will do next: what miracles he will work, what healings he will affect, what wonderful words he will speak. They have kind of been caught up in the excitement of the crowds who have been following Jesus, at times not understanding things any better than anybody else. Until now.

The Transfiguration is kind of a defining moment for Jesus and his closest disciples. They see Jesus and with him Elijah and Moses … symbols of the Law and the prophets. This gives them a little light, a glimpse of the real Jesus, an insight into who he was that they didn’t have before. And, honestly, it’s an unsettling glimpse. Things had just gotten started and were going well. They weren’t ready to talk about how it was going to end. Jesus had just started speaking to them about his passion and death, and they weren’t ready to hear it.

And now here they are, on the mountain, and they get to see how things were going to be after Jesus’ death and resurrection, only they weren’t ready to see that just yet. But just because they’re not ready doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen, sooner rather than later. The Gospel story is at a turning point now. God is revealing to Jesus’ closest followers the exact nature of Jesus’ mission in the world. He hasn’t come just to work miracles, say wonderful things, and make people feel good about themselves. He has come to turn the world upside down and make of it a place … well a place that it was always supposed to be in the first place.

And the way that would happen is by his passion and death … there is no getting around that. And as difficult as that may be for his closest friends to hear, they have to hear it and come to terms with it. This experience of the Transfiguration was supposed to give them hope that Jesus’ passion and death wasn’t the end, that God still had wonderful things in store for Jesus, for them, and for the world.

This is where that first reading comes in. Abraham and Sarah, as you might remember, were childless until God intervened in their lives at a very old age. Finally, they receive Isaac, a real gift from God, a sign that the promise that God made to Abraham – that he would be the father of many nations – would be fulfilled. And now, God asks him, – no, tells him – “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.” So now Abraham has to weigh his trust in God’s promises against the loss of his only beloved son. And we heard how the story ended, God did not allow Abraham to harm Isaac, but instead provided a lamb for the sacrifice himself.

What we miss in this reading is the conversation between Abraham and Isaac on the way. At one point, Isaac asks, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the holocaust?” I can’t imagine how heartbroken Abraham was in that moment. His answer might have been misdirection, or maybe it was faith: “Son, God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.”

There’s a wonderful song by Michael Card which makes the symbolism very clear here today:

God will provide a Lamb
To be offered up in your place
A sacrifice so spotless and clean
To take all your sin away

And Abraham was absolutely right – God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice – the perfect lamb, Jesus Christ. He came to suffer and die for our sins, and that’s significance of today’s Gospel event. The world never looked so bright as it did on that Transfiguration day on top of the mountain. But that’s not the last glimpse of that kind of light. That light was just a tiny sample of the glory of the Resurrection. And the Resurrection was just a sample of the Glory of God’s heavenly kingdom, for which we all yearn with eager anticipation as we muddle through here on the other side.

This is a chance for us all to see in Christ what Peter, James and John did. It’s a chance to see what Abraham did up on that mountain. God did what he asked Abraham to do – he offered his only son. To take all your sin away.