The Most Holy Trinity: What is God like?

Today’s readings

There’s a little Christian Science church in the town where I grew up, on Main Street, just north of the downtown area.  They don’t anymore, but they used to list their upcoming sermon topic, followed by the line “All are welcome.”  Imagine my surprise when one day, the topic was going to be eternal punishment.  So the sign read: “Eternal Punishment.  All are welcome.”  Yeah, I had to drive around the block to make sure I read that right!

Usually though, the topics weren’t very specific.  So one time the topic was going to be “God.”  I thought that will either be the world’s longest sermon, or it won’t really come all that close to talking about God.  The problem with God as a topic is that you’re painting with a pretty wide brush: anything you say can be right, but it also might not even really finish the job.

I feel like today’s topic of the Most Holy Trinity has me faced with that same dilemma.  It takes a lot longer than I’m able to talk to really get that topic covered, and still we probably won’t understand it very well.  Our limited vocabulary just gets in the way.  But let’s see how far we can get.

There was a time when I got invited to speak to a religious education class about God.  I had the teacher ask them the week before to write down their questions about God so that I could help them with the things they really wondered about.  One of the questions, at first glance, seemed kind of a halfhearted effort to get an assignment done, until I really thought about it.  That question was, “What is God like?” and I think that young person was really onto something.

In the end, we can say a whole lot of things about what God is like, but again our vocabulary gets in the way.  We can say God is like goodness, and that would be right.  But not in the way we think of things or even people as good.  Because our view of goodness has to do with how useful it is, and God’s goodness goes way beyond that.  We can say that God is like beauty, and that too would be right.  But not in the way that the world views beauty, which is limited and selfish and sometimes objectifying.  God’s beauty goes far beyond what we could ever imagine.

But there is something we can say about what God is like that gets us a little closer to understanding the Most Holy Trinity, at least insofar as we can understand that holy mystery.  When I preach to the children in our school, I often tell them there is one thing that they have to know about God, and if they know it, they know a lot about what God is like.  And that one thing is that God loves you.  I tell them that’s so important that if they’re ever stumped on a religion test, they can write “God loves me” and it will be worth at least half credit.  The teachers love when I say that!

But even that is hard to understand, because God, who is love itself, his love goes beyond anything we can conceive of.  His love looks like what happened on that cross.  His love embraces us even in our ugliest moments.  His love is powerful enough to burn away all of our flaws and make us new creations in his image.  His love really, truly keeps the world in motion.

And our readings today tell us that love is a lot of what God is like.  The greeting I gave you at the beginning of Mass comes to us from the end of today’s second reading: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  In that greeting, Saint Paul mentions every member of the Holy Trinity, “God” referring to God the Father.  And he describes that Trinity as a loving communion that fills us with grace.  Pretty awesome!  That’s echoed in our Gospel reading, in which the very famous line from John 3:16 tells us what God is about, and what the Gospel teaches about God: “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.”  God’s love wants us all to come to eternal life, and so he sent his only begotten Son to come and take the punishment for our sins, and in the process breaking the power of sin and death to control our eternity.  Memorize that line, friends.

Love is an apt description of the Holy Trinity, even for Saint Thomas Aquinas who famously described the Trinity in that way.  The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is that love between the Father and the Son.  For Aquinas, the Trinity is a loving relationship, and I think that’s helpful to us who exist in relationships.

Sometimes, we need God to be Father: correcting us, wanting the best for us, calling us to be who he meant us to be.  If we let him, the Father’s love burns away all the parts of us that are not praiseworthy and sets us ablaze to become new in his image.  Sometimes, though, we need God to be Son: a brother who picks us up when we have fallen far down, one who walks with us in the darkness of whatever is going on with us, one who leads us to the place where God’s love can encompass us.  And sometimes we need the Holy Spirit, whose love literally inspires us to be who we were meant to be, to live as new creations, and to desire nothing outside of God’s love.  We need God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit in different ways at different times.  God doesn’t change: he’s always Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But we change, needing him in different ways all through our life.

So to answer that student’s question, “What is God like?” is a challenge.  Because God looks different to us at different times in our lives.  It’s only after this life has brought us to the kingdom when we’ll really know what God is like, as we see him face to face.  So I think I’ll leave you with that question, brothers and sisters.  What is God like?  I imagine it depends on what’s going on in your life, what your prayer has been like, and what your hopes and dreams are.  But it’s a question we should often pause to consider.  So pray about it this week.  What is God like?

Thursday of the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If you’ve ever been to one of our school Masses here at Notre Dame, you know that I’m almost always telling the children that God loves them.  I feel like that might be the most important thing we ever learn about God; and that if we learn it – really learn it – then it can get us to heaven.  And we see that today in our readings: love is very definitely the theme of today’s Liturgy of the Word.  This week we have been hearing readings from the book of Tobit, in which we have the only Scriptural appearance of Saint Raphael the archangel.  And today we hear about him entering the story, in the guise of the person of Azariah.  Tobit and Tobiah and all the rest don’t know he’s an angel yet, but that will become clear enough when the blessing of love wipes the cataracts away from Tobit’s eyes, and everything becomes clear to him.

And we know that it is love that can do all these things.  There’s a lot of sadness leading up to today’s first reading.  Tobit has contracted cataracts, and the doctors have only made it worse.  Sarah has had six potential husbands, all of whom have died on the wedding night.  But we will see that love will clear up old Tobit’s vision, and love will let Tobiah survive his wedding night.  Love can heal Tobit’s and Sarah’s broken hearts.  And love can reveal that the power of God works in all of our lives, in all of our hearts.

Sometimes we need an angel – literally a messenger of God – to come to know that.  During our lives, we can go through periods that are just awful and seem to be devoid of any joy.  But love won’t let that be the final answer for any of us.  Just as the angel Raphael took the form of Azaraiah and was a blessing to Tobiah and Sarah, so too there may be angels in our own lives, in the form of family or friends or caregivers that end the cycle of sadness in the same way that God’s blessing ended the cycle of death for Sarah’s husbands.

Tobiah and Sarah sang a song of praise to God and said “Amen, amen” before going to bed for the night.  They woke up the next morning to rejoice in God’s love in the same way that we can, if we will but realize that there is no commandment greater than the commandment to love God and one another.  Death cannot and will not ever win the battle over love.

Friday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  That would be, the most reassuring thing we could hear from our Lord!  To know that you’re on the right track — that your thoughts and heart’s desires are in line with God’s will — that would be a wonderful thing to know.  And today’s Scriptures give us the roadmap for finding that reassurance.

Step one is repentance. The prophet Hosea wrote of Israel’s repentance.  Israel, as a nation, as we well know, had turned away from the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  They had turned to the false gods of their neighbors and had worshipped idols.  Hosea’s prophecy had been all about calling them back, urging them to return to the Lord who loved his people and yearned for them like a spurned lover.  In today’s first reading, Hosea prophecies the promise that God will accept back his wayward lover and will restore the people of Israel to his own loved possession.

Step two is to hear the voice of God.  “If only my people would hear me,” the Psalmist says, “and Israel walk in my ways, I would feed them with the best of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would fill them.”  God longs to fill his faithful people with everything that they need to sustain life and live their faith.  All we have to do is hear his voice, to follow his commands, and walk in his ways.  This hearing the voice of God requires a steadfast faithfulness that will not be enticed by strange gods or flashy idols.  There is a single-mindedness that is called for here: the faithful are called not to hear God as one voice among many, but to hear God alone.

And step three is love.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus famously boils the commandments down to two: love of God and love of neighbor.  Again, there is an underlying single-mindedness: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  Love of God and neighbor isn’t a third or fourth priority, if we ever get around to it.  Love is prime: love must the first inclination of the heart, thought of the mind, and action of life.

What does it take for us disciples to be not far from the Kingdom of God?  It takes a Lent of repentance, a desire to hear and meditate on God’s Word and his presence in our lives, and then to love like there was nothing else to do in the whole world.  Maybe we’re not there yet, all of us, as we approach our Easter joy.  But at this mid-point of Lent, maybe we can come a little closer by asking God for the desire to change our hearts.

Friday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time 

Today’s readings

God never forgets how much he loves us. If this weren’t so, I don’t think any of us would be in existence. God loves us into life and loves us through our life and one day, if we let him, will love us into eternal life. The people of Israel had to know this better than anyone. Ezekiel today reminds them that God loved them enough that he would remember the covenant he had made with them, the covenant that they had broken many times, and that he would pardon them for all they had done. Because he loved them.
The question the Pharisees asked Jesus in the Gospel today had nothing to do with love, which is odd because it was a question about marriage. Or, actually, the converse of marriage: divorce. They were asking not because they wanted to know about how to love better in their relationships, but rather because they were trying to trick Jesus into some Moses-bashing. But Jesus has none of that, reminding them of the indissolubility of love.
Many things can be forgotten. God forgets things all the time – namely, our sins. But love can never be forgotten. God never forgets how much he loves us, and we dare not forget how much we love him, and because we love him, how much we love one another. That love may require all kinds of forgetting: forgetting past hurts, forgetting resentments, forgetting what we think we deserve. It’s that “letting go” that I spoke about yesterday.
May we all forget what we have to so that love is the only thing we can remember, and may we all go together, one day, to eternal life.

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

I love it when engaged couples pick this reading for their weddings. Not just because it’s sentimental, all talking about love and everything. I like it because of the way it talks about love. Because it would be easy enough to say that if we just love each other a little more, everything will be fine.

But Jesus reminds us that this is not how love works. And that sentiment is not at all what he had in mind when he said “Remain in my love.” The word “remain” here is a translation of the Greek word meno, which is a word that connotes an abiding presence, a rootedness at one’s core. “Remain” is too passive a word, kind of like sitting around and doing nothing, all covered with the love of God. I think the better translation would be “live and breathe always in my love.”

And that’s what Jesus goes on to say. “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” So this remaining in Jesus’ love involves keeping his commandments. Do you remember what those commandments were? Well, they revolve around love. In Matthew’s Gospel, when the scholar of the law asks which of the commandments was the greatest, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Putting God and neighbor first in the same way as Jesus did for us is what this kind of love entails. And note carefully that the way Jesus put us first was by laying down his life on the cross. Remaining in Jesus’ love, the command he gives us today, involves loving others in a sacrificial way, putting aside our own interests and ambitions at times, dying to self, so that we can give life to others.

But this is not to make ourselves martyrs or even grumpy Christians. This love leads to true joy, because in many ways it takes away the worry of having to think about ourselves. “I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.” And so it is with great joy that we remain in Christ’s love; loving others as he has loved us – sacrificially and unconditionally. And with this great love, as the Psalmist says, we “Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.”

The Fifth Sunday of Easter: I Love You Period!

Today’s readings

One of the most exciting lines in today’s Liturgy of the Word comes in the second reading: “The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” The book of Revelation is all about the persecution of the early Christians, and it looks forward to the day when God would put all that persecution to an end. People were dying for the faith, being forced to give it up or be cast out of the synagogues. That left them open to the persecution of the Romans who demanded that they take up the worship of their pagan gods or face death. They were a people looking for newness, healing, and re-creation. So it is with great hope, then, that John reports what is heard in his vision: “Behold, I make all things new.”

There is a clamor for newness, I think, in every age and society. We are a people who could use some re-creation even today. Look at the way our own faith is received. The voices of death have such a foothold that they have many faithful Catholics believing that babies can be aborted in favor of personal choice. Sunday family worship takes a further back seat to soccer games, baseball, and other activities, as if worshipping God were just one possible choice for the many ways people could spend the Lord’s day. Rudeness and hurtful language are used in every forum, and we call it entitlement. Prayer is not welcome in almost any public location, for fear that someone might be offended by our religiosity. Concern for the poor and needy, and a longing for peace and justice are bracketed in favor of capital gain. And that is to say nothing of those Christians in the Middle East, especially Syria, who face danger and death for living their faith. We Christians today are persecuted just as surely as the early Christians, whether we pay for it with our lives or not. We Christians today are in need of hearing those great words: “Behold, I make all things new.”

The good news is that as an Easter people, we can already see the newness that is God’s re-creation of our world. We know the story of our salvation: This world was steeped in sin and we are a people who, though created and blessed by our God, time after time and age after age turned away from our God. Every generation turned away in ways more brazen than the last. We are the heirs of that fickle behavior and we can all attest that our sins have led us down those same paths time after time in our own lives. But God, who would be justified in letting us live in the hell we seemed to prefer, could not live without us. So he sent his only Son into our world. He was born as one of us and walked among us, living the same life as ours in all things but sin. He reached out to us and preached the new life of the Gospel. And in the end, he died our death, the death we so richly deserved for our sins. And not letting that death have the last word in our existence, he rose to a new life that lasts forever. He did all that motivated by the only thing that could ever explain away our fickle sinfulness, and that motivation is love.

I give you a new commandment: love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.

The love that Jesus is talking about here is not some kind of emotional infatuation that fades as quickly as it grows. It is not a love that says “I will love you if…” Perhaps you have heard it yourself: “I will love you if you remain faithful to me.” “I will love you if you are successful in school.” “I will love you if you meet all my own selfish expectations.” “I will love you if you ignore my imperfections.” “I will love you if you become more perfect.” But the kind of love that says “I will love you if…” is not love at all. If God loved us if… we would be dead in our sins and there would be no reason to gather in this holy place day after day. If God loved us if… we would have nothing to look forward to in the life to come.

No, God does not love us if… God loves us period. As we know, God is love. God is love itself, love in all its perfection. Love cannot be experienced in a vacuum, so God created us to love him and for him to love us. We are the creation of God’s love and God cannot not love us! The kind of love Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel can only be summed up by the cross and resurrection. Jesus takes our sinfulness and brokenness upon himself, and stretches out his arms to die the death we deserve for our unfaithfulness. It wasn’t nails that held him to that cross, it was love, and we are totally undeserving of it. Even greater then, is the gift of the Resurrection in which we see that, because of love, death and sin have lost their sting. They no longer have the last word in our existence, because our God who is love itself has recreated the world in love.

And with this great act of sacrifice that restores us to grace, Jesus also gives those who would be his disciples a commandment: Love one another. Which sounds like an easy enough thing to do. But the second line of that commandment gives us pause and reminds us that our love can’t just be a nice feeling. He says to us: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” And we know how he has loved us, don’t we? Whenever we forget, all we have to do is look at the nearest crucifix. Our love must be sacrificial. Our love must be unconditional. Our love cannot be “I will love you if…” but instead, “I love you period.” Our love must be a love that re-creates the world in the image of God’s own love.

We live in a world that is broken and dark and evil at times. But our God has not abandoned us. Taking our death upon himself, he has risen triumphant over it. In spite of our unfaithfulness, he has re-created us all in his love. So now we disciples must continue his work of re-creation and love the world into a new existence.

“Behold, I make all things new.”

The Third Sunday of Easter: Do You Love Me More Than These?

Today’s readings

What Satan wants is a community of disciples so mired in their sins, that they do nothing to foster the Kingdom of God and live the Gospel. Bookmark that thought, because I’ll come back to it in a bit.

I love today’s Gospel because it features one of my favorite characters, Saint Peter. Saint Peter has been inspirational to me because, despite being called to do great things for God, he does a lot of messing up and often has to pick himself up and start all over again. Today’s Gospel reading has him trying to figure things out. He’s very recently been through the arrest and execution of his Lord, only to find out that he is risen, and has appeared to various disciples, including Peter himself. I think today’s story has him trying to make sense of it all and figure out where to go from here. But he’s trying to figure it out in the midst of having fallen again, since he denied even knowing the Lord three times on the night of Holy Thursday.

So, in an effort to figure things out, he goes back to what he knows best, which is to say he goes fishing. And he takes some of the others with him. And, as is very typical of Peter’s fishing expeditions recorded in the Gospels, he catches nothing even though he’s been hard at it all night long. It’s not until the Lord is with them again and redirects their efforts, that they eventually pull in an incredibly large catch of fish. Jesus then invites them to dine with him, using one of my favorite commands in all of Sacred Scripture, “Come, have breakfast.”

Then we have this very interesting, and in some ways tense, conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus takes him off to the side after breakfast, and just as he redirected Peter’s efforts while they were fishing earlier, now he redirects Peter’s efforts in his life. There are a couple of points of background that we need to keep in mind. First, just as Peter three times denied his Lord on the night of Holy Thursday, so now Jesus gives him three opportunities to profess his love and get it right.

Second, the Greek language has a few different words that we translate “love.” Two of them are in play in this conversation. The first is agapeo, which is the highest form of love. It’s a love that always wills the best for the other person, a love that is self-sacrificing and enduring. It’s the love that God has for us. The other kind of love that is used here is phileo, a bit lower form of love that is something like a strong affection for someone else. Where agapeo is an act of the will, phileo is more of a feeling. Many scholars don’t see this as an appreciable difference and say John in his Gospel just uses two different words to mean the same thing. But I think John is careful with language, and the two uses mean something, as we will see.

So the conversation begins, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” That’s literally a loaded question, so let’s look at it. First of all, Jesus calls Peter “Simon, son of John.” But Jesus is the one who changed his name from Simon to Peter. So this seems to be a bit of a rebuke: Okay, Peter, if you’re just going to revert to your former self and pretend you haven’t known me the last three years, then I’ll just use your old name. I’m sure Peter didn’t miss the inference. Then at the end, “do you love me more than these?” Scholars have a lot of opinions on what “these” are: Do you love me more than you love these other guys? Do you love me more than these other guys love me? Do you love me more than this fishing equipment, the tools of your former life? It doesn’t matter what he meant by “these,” the effect is the same: Peter is called to a higher love, which is evidenced in the word Jesus uses for love, which is agapeo. Peter responds, acknowledging Jesus’ omniscience, “Lord you know that I love you.” But he uses phileo, perhaps acknowledging that he is not capable of the agapeo kind of love. And he’s probably right about that, since sin does diminish our capacity to love. He receives the response “Feed my lambs,” of which I’ll say more later.

The conversation continues in the same manner, using the same forms of the word “love” in both the question and the response, and ending with the injunction, “Tend my sheep.” But the third question is interesting. Jesus asks the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” But this time Jesus uses the word phileo, as much as to say, “Okay, Peter, do you even have affection for me?” And Peter seems to get the inference, because he responds emotionally: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And he’s right: Jesus does know. But Jesus needed Peter to know it too. Jesus, in his Divine Mercy, has healed Peter, forgiven his sins, and helped him to remember his mission, redirecting his efforts to “Feed my sheep.”

Because if Jesus hadn’t done this, Satan would have won. He would have had that community of disciples so mired in their sins, that they do nothing to foster the Kingdom of God and live the Gospel. And then we wouldn’t be here today, would we?

And let’s be clear about this. We, like Peter, all have a mission to accomplish. We all have some part of the Kingdom to build. We may not be the rock on which Jesus will build his Church, but we are indeed part of it. And we are all affected by our sins. We have all denied our Lord in one way or another by what we have done and what we have failed to do. And so the Lord in his mercy says to us today, “Patrick, do you love me?” “Susan do you love me?” And we respond with whatever love we’re capable of. In that moment, Jesus redirects our life’s efforts too, so that we can do what we’re called to do. We, who have been purified by our Lenten penance, are now called to the life of the Resurrection, in which all God’s lambs are cared for, and all his sheep tended.

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion: The Way of the Cross

Today’s readings

I saw a little comic on Facebook yesterday that had two panels. The top panel was entitled “your way” and showed a stick figure on a bicycle traveling a straight road to the finish line. Smooth sailing, or bicycling, whatever. The bottom panel wasn’t so simple. The same bicyclist had to travel a very treacherous road, filled with rocks, mountains to climb, ditches to avoid, an ocean to cross, and many other obstacles. That panel was entitled “God’s plan.” The only thing that panel was missing was the Cross, and well might it have been there.

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.

You heard me quote that, the Entrance Antiphon for this Sacred Paschal Triduum, in my homily last night. Last night I reflected on the scandal of the Cross, and today I’d like to continue the discussion by reflecting briefly on the Way of the Cross. Lots of us are familiar with the Way of the Cross: we come to the Stations of the Cross on Fridays of Lent and reflect on them; perhaps we even reflect on them privately in our homes, or here at church, or outside of church on the back piazza. Whenever we’ve prayed the Stations of the Cross, maybe like me you’ve found it tiring to stand and kneel and genuflect in fourteen different stations. But I can assure you the first person to have traveled the Way of the Cross didn’t have it anywhere near as easy.

As we reflect on the Passion of our Lord, the Way of the Cross becomes quite clear to us. It involves betrayal, injustice, and abandonment. It required prayer, focus, and love.

The betrayal was easy to see. Judas is disgruntled, or disillusioned, or greedy, or some combination thereof, and so he looks for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to the authorities. They were delighted and most willing to pay Judas. And there begins the injustice: the tainted motives of the Sanhedrin, the cowardice of Herod and of Pilate. Our Lord is railroaded to his death. And then begins the abandonment: Peter denies him, the disciples fall asleep, they all flee when he’s arrested. Because our Lord has taken all of our sin on himself in this moment, he rightly feels abandoned, a living hell on earth: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps. 22:2)

But it’s important that we get this right today. John spells it out quite clearly throughout his Gospel narrative: Jesus did not get dragged kicking and screaming to the Cross – no, he willingly gave his life that we might live. And that required prayer: uniting himself totally with his Father, he took on his Father’s will. It required focus: Jesus never took his eyes off the Father, he was completely focused on what he came to do and why he came to do it. And it required love. And this is the part I can’t stress strongly enough, Brothers and Sisters: our God loved us so much, that even the betrayal, injustice and abandonment could not stop him from bringing us back to him. His great love and mercy required that his only Begotten Son would pay the price for your sins, and my sins. He willingly gave his life for us – because he loved us beyond anything we could imagine or dare hope for.

That was Jesus’ Way of the Cross. But it’s important to know that we have our own crosses too, and while they might not be what God would like to give us in his love, he allows them in his mercy. The Way of the Cross is the way disciples live. And so we too will suffer from betrayal: when friends let us down, or coworkers take advantage of our compassion, or when our bodies stop doing what we need. We too will suffer from injustice: when someone pre-judges us, or when we give so much to a relationship without anything seeming to come in return, or when our jobs are eliminated. And we will also endure abandonment: when nobody comes to our defense, or when our illness causes them to pull away. Some days it may even seem like God has abandoned us.

But our prayer will tell us otherwise. Prayer is the fuel disciples use to navigate the Way of the Cross. Prayer helps us to focus, and when we keep our eyes on Jesus, we can see where the road is leading us. And that focus helps us to embrace the cross in love, joining our sufferings to those of Christ, who deeply longs to lead us to eternity.

Because the Way of the Cross might require death, but it doesn’t end there. Good Friday is good for a reason. And in our deepest sufferings, we can always take comfort that our Savior has gone there before us, and has blazoned the trail that leads to life.

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 Fifth Sunday of Lent: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s readings

Yesterday I presided at the funeral of the mother of one of my friends. It was a beautiful gathering because she and her sister basically took the last few weeks off of their work commitments to be with her during her last days. Not everyone can do that, but it did give them a lot of peace. What also gave them peace was that their mother was anointed during her illness, which prepared her for her entry into eternal life.

Saint James tells us: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call on the priests of the Church and let the priests pray over them in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick persons and the Lord will raise them up. And if they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them.” And so this is the charge that the Church uses to direct the Anointing of the Sick. We do that as a Church because we are convinced that it is only our faith that can give us solid foundation when we are sick or dying.  It takes an act of faith in God’s care for us to really navigate illness and pain.

This Mass is that act of faith.  In the Anointing of the Sick, the Church proclaims courageously that there is no malady that cannot be addressed by our God; that he can take on whatever ails us, bind up whatever is broken in us, and bring forth something new, something beautiful, something perhaps unexpected.  Today we gather as the Church and place our faith in the healing of our God.  We acknowledge that the healing God brings us doesn’t always make all of our illness go away, but we also don’t rule that out.  We trust that God, who sees the big picture, knows what is best for us and desires that we come to the greatest good possible.  We also trust that God’s grace is enough to help us address illness, infirmity, pain, suffering, and the ardors of medical treatment.  We know that our God walks with us in good times and in bad. There is nothing that can take away God’s love for us.

I love the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading:

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.

Our lives can bring us all sorts of pain and illness; so much so that we can get mired in all of that and forget that the current page that we’re on is not the end of our story. God is always doing something new. It might take a leap of faith, which is perhaps uncomfortable, but God even brought forth water in the wasteland of the desert for his people to drink during the Exodus. He can certainly bring us to something new and better than what we’re currently enduring. That’s the theological virtue of hope.

In today’s familiar Gospel reading, Jesus heals the woman caught in the act of adultery. Sure he saved her from being stoned to death, but that’s not the healing I’m talking about. The healing came in his last words to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” He has healed her from the woundedness of her sins. Jesus saw what was really broken in her, whatever it was that brought her to this sad day, and he set her free from it, and called her to repentance. Because it is repentance that opens us to God’s mercy and any real healing.

And so it’s our need for healing that brings us together in faith today. We gather today to express the prayers of our hearts, perhaps prayers we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another. We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us. The Church has this sacrament because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us. Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities. He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt. God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects. This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

Large portions of the Gospel see Jesus caring for the sick, responding to their faith, healing them from the inside out. The sick sought him out, they called out to him as he passed along the way, they reached out to touch just the tassel of his cloak, their friends brought them to Jesus, even lowering them down from a hole in the roof if the crowds were too big. He was moved by their faith, always responding to them, healing not just their outward symptoms, but also and perhaps most of all, the inner causes of their illnesses, forgiving their sins, and giving them a place in the Kingdom.

Jesus still does this today. He still walks with us in our suffering, whether we are to be cured or not, letting us know that we don’t suffer alone. He still responds to our faith, curing our brokenness and healing our sinfulness. If he judges that it is best for us, he heals our outward symptoms too, perhaps even curing our diseases, and he gives us all a place in the Kingdom, if we have the faith to accept it and to receive the healing he brings us.

Jesus continues his healing mission through the Church in our day. Certainly the priests provide the sacraments to the sick and the dying. But also, the entire people of God are called to the corporal work of mercy of caring for the sick. Every act of mercy and every prayer for the sick is part of the healing work of Jesus. Doctors and nurses and therapists and other caregivers also provide the healing ministry of Jesus, particularly when they are men and women of faith. This ministry is also provided by our many Ministers of Care, people who visit the sick and bring them the Eucharist in their homes, in hospitals, and in nursing homes. The Church’s ministry to and with the sick is the visible sign of the love of God at work in our world and his care for all those who are suffering.

We don’t know if you all will walk out of this holy place healed of all your diseases. But we can promise that you will be freed from your sins, healed from the inside out, and that your Lord will always walk with you, even in your darkest hours. We have faith that healing will come at some time in some way, of the Lord’s choosing, for your good, and for the glory of God. That’s why we are here today. That’s why we celebrate this beautiful sacrament with you today. We know that our Lord deeply desires to heal us. And we know that every healing moment is a miracle, made possible by God’s great love poured out on us when we make an act of faith.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday: The Road Less Traveled

Today’s readings

When I hear today’s readings, I very often think of the poem, “The Road Less Traveled,” by Robert Frost. It goes, of course, like this:

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.

I think of that poem because 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.