Thursday of the Second Week of Lent: Letting Go of Passing Things

Today’s readings

I’m going to say something that is probably going to make you think I’m wrong. And that is that the great sin of the rich man was not the sin of neglecting poor Lazarus. Sure, that was certainly bad, but his greatest sin, I think, was that he trusted in himself instead of in God. That’s the deadly sin of pride, and the Fathers of the Church often tell us of the devastating effects of it. So for the rich man, well he had everything he thought he needed in life, and he trusted in himself and in his own means to get it. But he never had a relationship with God; he didn’t see that as something he needed. You don’t see him praying in the story or even giving thanks to God for his riches. All you see is him doing is enjoying what he has amassed, to the neglect of the poor.

So later on in the story, in death, he wants the good things God will provide for those who trust in him, people like Lazarus for example.   Lazarus has suffered much, and as the Old Testament Prophets proclaim, God is especially close to the poor and needy, so now he is exalted. But the rich man isn’t. He has already made his choice, and unfortunately now, trusting in himself doesn’t bring him anything good.

So the problem with this is that we are often the rich man and not so much Lazarus. We have a lot of stuff, we are blessed on earth more than most of the people in the world today. But sadly that often puts us at odds with the things of heaven. We can’t reach out for those when we’re holding on to the passing things of this world. We can’t take the hand of Jesus when we’re juggling the stuff life throws our way. That’s why fasting is so important during Lent, as well as almsgiving: both bid us let go of passing things so that we can have, like Lazarus, things eternal. Both bid us trust in God, not in ourselves and other human beings. Jeremiah says it plainly today: “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” But, conversely, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD.”

So the question is, in whom do we trust? In ourselves? In other people? Or in God? “Blessed are they,” the Psalmist says today, “who hope in the Lord.”

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

The prophets of the Old Testament were always pretty clear about the fact that God was sick and tired of people trying to claim righteousness but not really being righteous. The idea of keeping the letter but not the spirit of the Law, of fasting and praying with the express idea of getting these things over with so one could return to cheating the poor was repugnant – is repugnant – to our God. The prophets cried out full-throated and unsparingly that worship of God was not a part-time endeavor, that the time for “business as usual” was over.

In Hebrew, the word for “righteousness” is tseh’-dek, which has the connotation of right relationship. This was the theme of the prophets: that right relationship, a relationship directed toward God and toward others, was the only thing that could ever deliver 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 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:

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!

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

The readings for these early days of Lent have been teaching us how to accomplish the various disciplines of Lent – which really are the various disciplines of the spiritual life.  Today’s discipline then, I think, would be persistence in prayer.  In the first reading, we have Queen Esther, who is really between a rock and a hard place.  The king does not know she is Hebrew, and worse than that, if she goes to the king without being summoned, she could well lose her life.  But, Mordecai, the man who was her guardian and raised her as his own daughter, revealed to her that the king’s advisor had planned genocide against the Jews, and she was the only person in a position to beg the king to change his mind.  So today, she prays that her life, as well as those of her people would be spared.  Esther prayed for three days and nights that her prayer would be answered, and her persistence was rewarded.  She received the reward that Jesus promised when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Which is nice for her and the Israelites, certainly, but how many of us have prayed persistently to God that he would answer our prayer and have yet to be answered?  I think most of us at some point or another have experience the exasperation of prayer unanswered, or at least prayer that seems to be unanswered.  We can be so frustrated when a loved one is ill or unemployed, or whatever the issue may be, and God seemingly does not hear.

But the discipline of prayerful persistence is not like wishing on a star or anything like that.  There’s no magic to our words.  We may or may not be rewarded with the exact gift we pray for; in fact, that rarely happens.  But we will always be rewarded with the loving presence of our God in our lives.  In fact, it could well be that God’s answer to our prayer is “no” – for whatever reason – but even in that “no” we have the grace of a relationship that has been strengthened by our prayerful persistence.

The Psalmist prays, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.”  This Lent, may the discipline of persistence in prayer lead us to a renewed and enlivened sense of the Lord’s will and presence in our lives.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear;
though as for that, the passing there
had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no feet had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.

This poem, as you may recognize, is “The Road Less Traveled,” by Robert Frost, and it was always one of my favorites.  Today’s readings speak, more or less, to the same sentiment, but with a more radical and crucial twist.  Frost’s opinion is that both roads are equally valid, he simply chooses to take the one most people don’t.  But the Gospel tells us that there really is only the one valid path, and that certainly is the road less traveled.  We commonly call it the Way of the Cross.

Moses makes it clear: he sets before the people life and death, and then begs them to choose life.  Choosing life, for the Christian, means going down that less traveled Way of the Cross, a road that is hard and filled with pitfalls.  And maybe the real problem is that there is a choice.  Wouldn’t it be great if we only had the one way set before us and no matter how hard it would be, that was all we could choose? But God has given us freedom and wants us to follow that Way of the Cross in freedom, because that’s the only way that leads to life; the only way that leads to him.

Our Psalmist says it well today:

Blessed the one who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Have you noticed that the readings for these early days of Lent have been teaching us how to accomplish the various disciplines of Lent, which really are the various disciplines of the spiritual life? Today’s discipline then, I think, would be persistence in prayer. In the first reading, we have Queen Esther, who is really between a rock and a hard place. The king does not know she is Hebrew, and worse than that, if she goes to the king without being summoned, she could well lose her life. But, Mordecai, the man who was her guardian and raised her as his own daughter, revealed to her that the king’s advisor had planned genocide against the Jews, and she was the only person in a position to beg the king to change his mind. So today, she prays that her life, as well as those of her people would be spared. Esther prayed for three days and nights that her prayer would be answered, and her persistence was rewarded. She received the reward that Jesus promised when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Then again, how many of us have prayed persistently to God that he would answer our prayer and have yet to be answered? I think most of us at some point or another have experience the exasperation of prayer unanswered, or at least seemingly so. We can be so frustrated when a loved one is ill or unemployed, or whatever, and God seemingly does not hear.

But the discipline of prayerful persistence is not like wishing on a star or anything like that. There’s no magic to our words. We may or may not be rewarded with the exact gift we pray for. But we will always be rewarded with the loving presence of our God in our lives. In fact, maybe God’s answer to our prayer is “no” – for whatever reason – but even in that “no” we have the grace of a relationship that has been strengthened by our prayerful persistence.

The Psalmist prays, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” This Lent, may the discipline of persistence in prayer lead us to a renewed and enlivened sense of the Lord’s will in our lives.

The Word from Father Pat

May this water receive by the Holy Spirit
the grace of your Only Begotten Son,
so that human nature, created in your image,
and washed clean through the sacrament of Baptism
from all the squalor of the life of old
may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children
through water and the Holy Spirit.
Blessing of Baptismal Water, Easter Vigil Mass

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

One of the wonderful things about Lent and Easter is that these holy seasons help us to understand just what it is that we believe about the necessity of Baptism.  Because if Baptism is just a nice little ritual that precedes a family party, it’s hardly of any consequence, indeed it’s not necessary at all.  And if that’s true, Lent and Easter aren’t really necessary either.  But if we truly believe that Baptism is the integral washing away of our sinfulness so that we may be made worthy of the life of heaven, then there’s nothing that should get in the way of it, and these holy days are of utmost importance.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve begun taking a look at the texts for the celebration of Holy Week.  As you know, the new Roman Missal re-translated everything, including all of the texts for those holy days.  What is disconcerting, but also in some ways refreshing, about the new translation is that it doesn’t beat around the bush about our need for Baptism.

Looking at the text above, from the Blessing of Baptismal Water on the Easter Vigil, the text speaks about the new life the Baptized receive.  Nothing too shocking about that.  But notice how it refers to the life before Baptism: “from all the squalor of the life of old.”  Well, that seems a little harsh, doesn’t it?  Really, squalor?

It’s not so different from the language of the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation: “This is the night that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.”  Worldly vice and the gloom of sin are hardly things we want to think about, but we all know they’re there, and the only chance we have of being delivered from them is by being united to Christ through Baptism.

So yes, squalor is part of the human condition.  If humanity weren’t in such disarray, Christ would never have had to die on the Cross.  But thank God he did, or we’d be mired in that squalor for all eternity.  God forbid.

People are often taken aback by the language of Ash Wednesday, that leads us into this holy season: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Dust?  Yes, that and squalor!  “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  Repent?  Yes, we all need to repent from the gloom of sin and worldly vices.

Catholic theology is based on the premise that we pray what we believe.  So the words of Lent and Easter might come across as a little harsh on the human condition, but that’s only because the human condition is actually pretty harsh, left to itself.  Thanks be to God it isn’t ever left to itself: Baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ makes possible deliverance from all that dust and gloom and squalor and vice.

I’ve found myself bristling a bit at some of the new language.  Thank God!  I need to bristle and come to new awareness of the awesome deliverance that we celebrate during the holy days and the real gift that is our Baptism.  All that bristling will make the “Alleluias” of the Easter season that much more poignant!

Yours in Christ and His Blessed Mother,

Father Pat Mulcahy

The Third Sunday of Lent [B]

Today’s readings

Most of us have probably experienced at least one time in our lives when it seemed like our whole world was turned upside-down.  Maybe it was the loss of a job, or the illness or death of a loved one, or any of a host of other issues.  It probably felt like the rug was pulled out from under us and that everything we believed in was toppled over.  Kind of like the table in front of the altar, like the story we just heard in the Gospel.

You may have heard the interpretation of this rather shocking Gospel story that says that this is proof that Jesus got angry, so we shouldn’t feel bad when we do.  That sounds nice, but I am, of course, going to tell you this interpretation is flawed.  First of all, there is a big difference between the kind of righteous indignation that Jesus felt over the devastation of sin and death that plagues our world, and the frustration and anger that we all experience over comparatively minor issues from time to time.  It might make us feel better to think that Jesus acted out in the same way that we sometimes do, that he felt the same way we do about these things, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

So feeling better for being angry isn’t the theme of this reading, or the intent of today’s Liturgy of the Word.  And I do think we have to take all of the readings as a whole in order to discern what we are being invited to experience.  Our first reading is extremely familiar to us all.   The ten commandments – we’ve heard them so often, violated them on occasion, perhaps we don’t even think they’re relevant any more.  But the mere fact that they are read at today’s Mass tells us that the Church says they are.  And while every one of them is certainly important, one of them stands out as having top billing.  And that one is the very first commandment: “I, the LORD, am your God … you shall not have other gods besides me.”

That one commandment comprises the whole first paragraph of the reading, a total of thirteen lines of text.  I think that means we are to pay attention to it!  It’s the commandment that seems to make the most sense, that it’s the most foundational.  We have to get our relationship with God right and put him first.  But this commandment is rather easy to violate, and I think we do it all the time.  We all know that there are things we put way ahead of God: our work, our leisure, sports and entertainment, and so many things that may even be darker than that.  Don’t we often forget to bring God into our thoughts and plans?  Yet if we would do it on a regular basis, God promises to bless us “down to the thousandth generation!”

Saint Paul is urging the Corinthians to put God first, too.  He complains that the Jews want signs and the Greeks want some kind of wisdom, but he and the others preach Christ crucified!  We are a people who want signs.  We almost refuse to take a leap of faith unless we have some overt sign of God’s decision.  And we are all about seeking wisdom, mostly in ourselves.  If it makes sense to us and it feels right to us, it must be okay to do.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  We get tripped up in our own wisdom and sign-seeking all the time, then we wander down the wrong path only to end up several years down the road, wondering where it all went wrong.

And then we have the really challenging vignette at the end of the Gospel reading.    Jesus knows how long it took to build the temple.  But he wasn’t talking about the temple.  He was talking about his body.  His body is the new Temple, and that was the Temple that would be torn down and in three days raised back up.  Because Jesus is the new Temple, none of the money changing and animal selling was necessary.  It was all perfectly legitimate commerce for the old temple worship.  But worshipping the new Temple – Jesus Christ – would require none of that, and so he turns it all upside-down.

It’s not easy to put God first.  It’s not easy to glory in Christ crucified.  What a horribly difficult and unpopular message to have to live!  But that’s what we are all called to do if we are to be disciples of Jesus, if we are to yearn for life in that kingdom that knows no end.  Glorying in Christ crucified, putting God first, that’s going to require that some time or another, we are going to have to take up our own cross too, and let our entire lives be turned upside-down.  God only knows where that will lead us: maybe to a new career, maybe to a fuller sense of our vocation, maybe to joy, maybe to pain.  But always to grace, because God never leaves the side of those who are willing to have their lives turned upside-down for his glory.

There’s no easy road to glory.  You don’t get an Easter without a Good Friday.  Jesus didn’t, and we won’t either.  Our lives will be turned upside-down and everything we think we know will be scattered like the coins on the money-changers’ tables.  But God is always and absolutely present to those who pray those words the disciples recalled:

Zeal for your house will consume me.