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.

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.

Men’s Ministry Lenten Breakfast Talk: How Do Men Observe Lent?

Last night, I was in church for the Living Stations.  The junior high kids were leading it and they did an awesome job.  They even got me to shed a few tears along the way.  I’m half Italian: we just do that!  But what was it that got to me and caused those tears:

  1. 1. That the kids took it seriously and were very reverent and prayerful?
  2. 2. Was it the story of salvation, in awe and wonder that God would send his Son to die that horrible death for me?
  3. 3. Or was it that I was hoping and praying those kids are being touched by the meaning of what they were doing?

And the answer is yes, all of that:  As the father of this big family, my heart is moved in all of those ways and more.  That’s what fathers do.  And so I’ve been reflecting on Lent and what that means for men.  How is it that we men observe Lent?

Maybe I should ask, how is it that we men should observe Lent?  Because I know that we live busy lives, and we can scarcely give Lent a second thought if we’re not careful.  But that does nobody any good: not us, not our families, not our communities or workplaces.  If we want to be the best we can for all of them, we have to let Lent permeate who we are and what we do.

And it’s a quandary with which I’m familiar.  When I worked in my pre-seminary days, if I didn’t put prayer on my to-do list – literally – there would be no prayer.  And when there was no prayer, I was not at my best at work, I was not at my best with anyone.  Lent gives us the opportunity to take stock of this and turn it all around.

Reading: Isaiah 64:4-7

I probably don’t have to pound home that point from Isaiah: we have become like unclean men.  The opportunities to go wrong abound, don’t they?  We intend to be men of integrity, but business is complicated.  We intend to love our families into heaven, but we’re tired, we’re busy, and we just don’t always have the patience.  Our sins abound, and we don’t intend that – we so wish we could turn back to God once and for all.  Would that he might meet us doing right.  Maybe that can happen this Lent.

Here’s a question to think about – we will discuss it later, but for now, just think:  have you ever had a really significant Lent: a time when you felt a new springtime in your faith, a time when you grew as a man and really came to know the plans God had for you?  If so, when was that, and what was it that got to you?

(Pause a minute or two.)

I think Lent encourages at least five manly traits, and I want to reflect on those a bit.  Then I want to take a look at the three habits that Lent demands of us.  Finally, without stomping too much on Dr. Muir’s presentation coming up, I want to take a brief look at three men of Lent and reflect on what they model for us.

So first: five manly traits that Lent encourages.

First, Lent encourages us to be men of prayer.  Yes, men of prayer are men who pray, but not just men who say prayers.  Men of prayer are men who:

  • • pray first and often
  • • look around them and see God’s hand at work
  • • are grateful for their gifts
  • • look for an opportunity to worship
  • • experience the sacraments
  • • teach their families how to pray, how to have a relationship with Jesus
    • o We never go alone to the kingdom … we are supposed to take everyone with us, especially our families!

Second, Lent encourages us to be men of faith.  Men of faith know that God is with them in good times and bad.  Men of faith have that relationship with Jesus that helps them to relate well with others.  Men of faith are courageous, and tenacious, and confident, but they are never arrogant.  Humility marks men of faith because they know the source of their strength.  This is not a false humility that makes them doormats for everyone who wishes to take them on.

Third, Lent encourages us to be men of charity.  This might not mean what you think it does.  It’s not primarily about giving money to the poor, or even doing good things for other people.  Yes, these are acts of charity, but what I mean by being men of charity takes us to the Latin root of the word, caritas.  Caritas is a kind of self-giving love, a love that looks for the good of others, a love that sometimes finds its expression in works of charity, but is always characterized by putting the other one first.  Men of charity are men who have a strong, burning love for God that translates into the way they love their families, spouses, children, co-workers, employees, everyone God puts in their path.  Men who exhibit this charity certainly do not overlook another’s faults, but gently and firmly corrects them because he knows that setting the person right is what is best for them.  Charity sometimes means saying no, or not yet; it means saying do this even though you don’t think you want to.  Think how often God does that to us!

  • • Example from my life: my parents urging me to go on a retreat or be part of a group.

Fourth, Lent encourages us to be men of integrity.  Men of integrity exhibit what we generally refer to as “character.”  These are men who do the right thing even though someone isn’t breathing down their neck or micromanaging them.  Integrity is what we all want to say that we have.  But integrity is definitely difficult to always achieve.  Because integrity means walking away from a lucrative business deal because it doesn’t feel right.  Integrity means setting priorities for yourself and your family that are probably counter-cultural, like saying no to sports or activities that make it impossible to go to Mass or to spend adequate time with our families.  Integrity means we are as good as our word, that we can always be relied on to do the right thing.  God does not want to be a micromanager: he wants to set us on the right path and have us walk it every day.  Men of integrity do that.

Finally, Lent calls us to be men of grace.  This doesn’t mean we are able to burn up the dance floor, it means rather that we are aware of God’s action in our life, that we live by that action, and that we spread it on to others.  Grace says that everything we have is a gift, no matter how hard we think we’ve worked for it.  Grace says that we are sinners, men who have committed sins and are guilty of every possible offense against God, but even so we are loved and forgiven and called and blessed.  Grace says that God is infinitely greater than our sins, that there is no way that we can fall so far that God can’t reach us, that he longs to pull us up out of the waters of death and give us life that lasts forever.

The truth of grace is this:  on one day in time, let’s call it December 25, of the year zero… (footnote Fr. Larry Hennessy).

Men of grace are aware of their sinfulness and bring it to the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis; they are grateful for the gift of forgiveness and celebrate it at the table of the Eucharist.  Men of grace enthusiastically pass the faith on to their families, keenly aware of their vocational responsibility to help their spouse and their children get to heaven.  Men of grace witness to others by being men of prayer, men of faith, men of charity and men of integrity!

Another question to think about – of the five manly traits, which do you find most present in your life?  What do you think got you there?  Which do you find least present in your life?  What do you need to do to pursue it?

So now, three Lenten habits: fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

Fasting helps us to:

  • • give up what we truly do not need
  • • let go of things that keep us tethered to the world, to our own self-interest
  • • find in our hunger that there is nothing we hunger for that God can’t provide.

Almsgiving helps us to:

  • • realize that we are not the center of the universe, and also we are not alone
  • • see other people as God sees them and love them as God does.

Prayer helps us to:

  • • find God in the midst of our business, brokenness, despair
  • • have a relationship with God that sees us through good times and bad
  • o Joke about the guy who was going through a hard time and looked at the Bible randomly for some help
  • • see God’s work in our lives

A question to think about:  What’s your Lenten plan?  How will you implement fasting, almsgiving and prayer in your life?

Men of Lent

Peter: Matthew 14:22-33

  • o A man of fledgling faith
    • ♣ courageous, tenacious
  • o A man of grace
    • ♣ fallen and forgiven

Paul:  Philippians 1:19-26

  • o A man of converted faith (his past)
  • o A man of grace (knows who is in charge, where he is being led)
  • o A man of charity (is concerned about others, and fruitful labor)

A question to think about:  Which of these men inspires you most?  Why?  What can you take from his life to create a powerful life-changing Lent?

Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

Behold: now is the acceptable time!
Behold: now is the day of salvation!

We have come here today for all sorts of reasons. Lots of us may still have the remnants of old and bad teaching that you have to come to Church on Ash Wednesday or something horrible will happen to you, or maybe you even think that getting ashes on Ash Wednesday is what makes us Catholic.  When you don’t come to Church on a regular basis, you lose contact with God and the community, and yes, that is pretty horrible, but not in a superstitious kind of way.  The real reason we come to Church on this the first day of Lent is for what we celebrate on the day after Lent: the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday.  Through the Cross and Resurrection, Jesus has won for us salvation, and we are the grateful beneficiaries of that great gift.  All of our Lenten observance, then, is a preparation for the joy of Easter.

Lent calls us to repent, to break our ties with the sinfulness and the entanglements that are keeping us tethered to the world instead of free to live with our God and receive his gift of salvation.  Our Church offers us three ways to do that: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.  So first, we fast.  We give up snacks, or a favorite food, or eat one less meal perhaps one day a week, or we can give up a favorite television program or activity.  Fasting helps us to be aware of the ways God works to sustain us when we’re hungry.  The whole idea of fasting is that we need to come to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide, and to cut our ties with anything that keeps us from God.  Some people say they don’t have to give something up for Lent because they would rather do something good and focus on the positive.  I’ll tell you right now, it doesn’t have to be one or the other; in Catholic teaching, it’s always both/and.  You can give something up to strengthen your relationship with God, and do something good to strengthen your relationship with others.

Second, we pray.  We already must pray every day and attend Mass every Sunday; those are obligations that we have as people of God.  But maybe Lent can be the opportunity to intensify our prayer life, to make it better, to make it more, to draw more life from it.  Maybe we are not people who read Scripture every day, and we can work through one of the books of the Bible during Lent.  Maybe we can learn a new prayer or take on a new devotion.  Maybe we can spend time before the Lord in the adoration.  Maybe we can just carve out some quiet time at the end of our busy days to give thanks for our blessings, and to ask pardon for our failings.  Intensifying our prayer life this Lent can help us to be aware of God’s presence at every moment of our day and in every place we are.

Third, we give alms or do works of charity.  We can donate money for organizations that feed the poor, or perhaps help to provide a meal at a soup kitchen.  Maybe we can devote some time to mentoring a child who needs help with their studies, or volunteer to help in our school or religious education program.  Works of charity might be a family project, perhaps volunteering to help in our food pantry together, or shopping together for items for our 40 Cans for Lent campaign.  When we do works of charity, we can learn to see others as God does, and love them the way God loves them and us.

And none of this, as the Gospel reminds us today, is to be done begrudgingly or half-heartedly.  None of it is to be done with the express purpose of letting the world see how great we are.  It is always to be done with great humility, but also with great joy.  Our acts of fasting, prayer, and charity should be a celebration of who God is in our lives, and a beautiful effort to strengthen our relationship with him.

It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty-day retreat that will bring us all closer to God.  May we all hear the voice of the prophet Joel from today’s first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart!”