Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

I think most of the time, we really need to be reassured that we are in the hands of God.  Things here on earth can be pretty uncertain on a daily basis.  The state of the economy, wars being fought all over the globe, terrorism and natural disasters, the disrespect for human life, antagonism toward Christ-like values, all of this makes us feel pretty uncertain, at best.  Add to that the stuff that affects us directly: illness, death of a loved one, unemployment, family difficulties, our own sins – all of this may find us asking the question from time to time, “Where is God in all this?”

That’s why it’s so good to hear Jesus say today:

My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.

This does not, of course, mean that life is going to be easier for us, or that we won’t still be challenged in this world. But it does give us confidence that we are on the right track, and that our ways are being guarded.  With this confidence, we are expected then to be disciples.  We are expected to go forth and do what God asks of us, ministering to those in need, reaching out to the broken, preaching the Good News just by the way that we live our life.

We can live and preach the Gospel with confidence, we can be called Christians as our brothers and sisters in the first reading were for the first time, knowing that God has our back.  Whatever we may suffer in this life for the sake of Christ will more than be rewarded in the life to come.  And the good works we do here on earth, as small as they may seem to us in the face of such adversity, are never for nothing: God takes our efforts and makes them huge advances in the battle for souls.

Jesus says that the Father is greater than all, and that all of us, safe in the Father’s hands, can never be taken from him.  Praise God for his providence and mercy and protection today.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

There’s a lot of talk about water in these readings today, and when that happens, we know that it means the talk is really about baptism.  We ourselves are the sick and lame man who needed Jesus’ help to get into the waters of Bethesda.  The name “Bethesda” means “house of mercy” in Hebrew, and that, of course, is a symbol of the Church.  We see the Church also in the temple in the first reading, from which waters flow which refresh and nourish the surrounding countryside.  These, of course, again are the waters of baptism.  Lent calls us to renew ourselves in baptism.  We are called to enter, once again, those waters that heal our bodies and our souls.  We are called to drink deep of the grace of God so that we can go forth and refresh the world.

But what really stands out in this Gospel is the mercy of Jesus.  I think it’s summed up in one statement that maybe we might not catch as merciful at first: “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.”  It’s hard to imagine being ill for thirty-eight years, but I’m pretty sure missing out on the kingdom of God would be that one, much worse, thing.  There is mercy in being called to repentance, which renews us in our baptismal commitments and makes us fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-36 | Psalm 27 | Matthew 5:13-16

During this time of year, there’s a lot more darkness than I’m sure most of us would like to see. The daylight fades very fast, and there’s a lot of cold and cloudy days. And so, as joyful as this season is supposed to be, it can be so hard for many people. And then there’s the thought of another year coming to an end: some people look back on the year, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been. And we could probably do without all the news of war, crime and terrorism here and abroad. So if we feel a little dark right now, we’re not alone.

But the struggle between light and darkness is what Advent is all about. The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts. This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

In Advent, God meets all that darkness head-on. We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light. Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world. Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].” This is a light that changes everything. It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world. We do that symbolically with the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath which represents the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior. But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory. We are here tonight to take on that darkness and shine the light of Christ into every murky corner of our lives. The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us with those we have wronged, reconciles us with the Church, and reconciles us most importantly with our God. The darkness of broken relationships is completely banished with the Church’s words of absolution. Just like the Advent calendars we’ve all had reveal more and more with every door we open, so the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ to fuller view within us whenever we let the light of that sacrament illumine our darkness.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight. We receive the light by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way. Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in our hearts. Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined by the light of God’s healing mercy.

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us. The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ. As we approach Christmas, that light is ever nearer. Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Monday of the Thirty-second Week of Ordinary Time 

Today’s readings

“Increase our faith,” indeed! How often have you had that same reaction to the marvels of God happening in your life? I think about the many times I have had the Spirit point out something I should have seen all along because it was right there in front of my face. Increase my faith, I pray.

Because, as Jesus tells us today, there are many things that cause sin, and they will inevitably happen. But how horrible to be tangled up in them, right? Whether we’ve caused the occasion for sin, or have been the victim of it, what a tangled mess it is for us. Maybe we have made someone so angry that their response was sinful. Or perhaps we have neglected to offer help where it was needed and caused another person to find what they need in sinful ways. Or maybe we’ve said something scandalous or gossiped about another person and those who have overheard it have been brought to a lower place. None of that makes anyone involved happy; everyone ends up deficient in faith, hope and love in some way. The same is true if we were the ones to have fallen into the trap of an occasion of sin. Don’t we just want to kick ourselves then? 

This is what the Psalmist was talking about when he prayed, “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.” Because when we are tangled up in sin, or brought low by suffering of some kind, we would do well to long for a glimpse of our Lord’s beautiful face. And God hears those words and answers them, because we can never fall so far that we are out of God’s reach. Listen to some more of the Psalmist’s excellent words today: 

Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD? 

or who may stand in his holy place? 

He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,

who desires not what is vain. 

Increase our faith, Lord, for we are the people that longs to see your face 

Monday of the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The leader of the synagogue had it all wrong, and he of all people should have known what was right. God always intended the Sabbath day to be a day of rest, yes, but also of healing, also of mercy. There is no way that we can rest if we are in need of those things. The woman in the story was plagued by a demon that kept her bent over for eighteen years. Some translations of this passage say that she was “bent double.” So she wasn’t just slouched over or bent part way, but more like this, bent in half, for eighteen years! For eighteen years she never had a moment’s rest from this demon. Not only that, because she was bent double, people never even really saw her – really looked her in the eye.

We find great healing when we rest, and so the healing of a person who had been plagued for so long by a demon that she was bent over double from the weight of it, that healing had every right to take place on the Lord’s Day, the Sabbath Day of rest. Who are we to decide when someone should be healed? That grace comes from God, and his mercy comes on his timetable, not ours. The Sabbath has come and gone for us this week, but as we head into the workweek this day, it would be wonderful if we could take a moment to plan for the coming Sabbath day of rest. We too are offered healing and mercy if only we would ask for it, if only we would rest in the Lord.

(Image by Doris Klein)

The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The thing is, you know, the Pharisee was quite right. His righteousness was beyond reproach. He has been innocent of greed, dishonesty and adultery. He has been more pious than even the law requires. Fasting was only required once a year, on the Day of Atonement, but he fasts twice a week. Tithes were only required to be paid on one’s earnings, but he pays them not only on his earnings, but also on all of his possessions, basically, he paid the tithe on his total net worth. He was probably quite right about his own righteousness, and he may well have been right about the failures of righteousness in the tax collector as well.

And, in those days, tax collectors were despicable human beings. There was no taxation with representation, so the tax collectors worked for the Romans and were in league with the foreign occupation. They were told what they had to collect, and whatever the collected over and above that was theirs to keep. Now certainly, they were entitled to some income, so a modest markup would have been understandable – that was how they were paid. But mostly the modest markup was far from modest, and often bordered on extortion. The tax collector in our parable today does not deny that he has participated in those activities. He does not even pray about anything he has done except for one thing: he has sinned. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says.

Both of these men were right in what they said about themselves. From an objective point of view, they have presented themselves honestly before God and everyone. So what’s the problem? Where has the Pharisee gone wrong and how did the tax collector end up justified?

It’s pretty easy to see what went wrong when we step back and look at the nature of their prayers. The Pharisee uses the word “I” four times. It’s all about him. The tax collector does not use the word “I” at all; he uses the word “me.” What’s the difference? Think back to your grammar lessons: “I” is the subject, “me” is the object. So, for the Pharisee, it was all about what he had done through his own righteousness, and not about what God had done or could do. For the tax collector, it wasn’t about him at all. He acknowledges his sinfulness and asked God to have mercy. And that’s the second difference. The tax collector asks for something, namely mercy, and receives it: he goes home justified. The Pharisee asks for nothing, and that’s just what he gets: nothing.

So I think today’s Liturgy of the Word is asking us a very important question: have you been aware of your need for a Savior? Because sin is exhausting. Anyone who has struggled with sin, or a pattern of sin, in their lives can tell you that. Those who have been dragged down by any kind of addiction or who have tried to work on a character flaw or striven to expel any kind of vice from their lives often relate how exhausting the sin can be. Sin saps our spiritual energy, weakens our resolve to do good, and causes us to turn away in shame not only from God, but also from family, friends, and all those whose spiritual companionship we need in order to grow as Christians. That’s just the way sin works.

But today’s Liturgy gives us very good news. Sirach says in today’s first reading that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” We see that very clearly in the parable in today’s Gospel. The lowly tax collector cannot even bring himself to raise his eyes to heaven. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says. It is the perfect Act of Contrition. He acknowledges his sin, he prays for God’s mercy. And God responds. He can go home justified.

Just like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we have come to this holy placed to pray today. What is our prayer like? Are there sins that have become a pattern for us? Do we have addictions that need to be worked out? Have we failed in some way in our daily life? What dark corners of our lives desperately need God’s light and God’s mercy? In what ways do we need a Savior? Have we asked for God’s mercy, or have we been like the Pharisee, asking for nothing and receiving exactly that?

Pray the tax collector’s prayer after me: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: It’s All About Mercy

Today’s readings

Mercy. It’s all about mercy – thank God.

You may have heard that little voice that tries to tell you how unworthy you are. “You’re a sinner, how can you sit there in church?” “Don’t tell me how to live my life; you’re worse than I am!” “How can you even ask God to forgive you after everything you’ve done?” That little voice might come from someone we know, or maybe it’s just that nagging voice in the back of your head. But we’ve all heard it in some way or another at some time in our lives. In a way, the voice is right. We are sinners. There is no denying that. Saint Paul makes it very clear in today’s second reading: “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners,” he says. “Of these I am the foremost.” That’s true of all of us, certainly. But at a very fundamental level, the voice is dead wrong. Because we are never unworthy of mercy, we are never far from God’s love.

Jesus knows this is hard for us to accept, so he tells us three stories. Each of these stories is intended to shock us into seeing how radical God’s mercy really is. Now, honestly, to all of us who are far removed from the culture and everyday life of people in Jesus’ day, we might not get how shocking they are, until we really think about it.

In the first story, he asks a ludicrous question: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” The answer to that question is approximately zero! Because if he leaves the other ninety-nine behind to go after the lost one, he’ll have ninety-nine new problems when he returns! They’ll all be gone. So better to cut your losses and keep the other ninety-nine together. But God is not like the prudent shepherd. He will relentlessly pursue us when we wander astray and become lost and will not rest until he has us – all of us – back in the fold.

The second story isn’t quite as crazy, but it’s still a little out there. “What woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it?” On this one, it kind of depends. It depends upon the value of the coin. If it’s a small coin, it will probably cost more to buy oil for the lamp than the coin is worth, so better to wait until the sun comes up, and then sweep the house. One coin doesn’t matter so much that it can’t wait until the light of day. But God is not like that. Finding the lost one among us is absolutely urgent, and we are always worth the lamp oil.

Then we have the wonderful, very familiar parable of the prodigal son, which I prefer to call the parable of the very forgiving Father. Because I think the main character here is the father, and not the son, not either of the sons. Look at how forgiving the father is: First, he grants the younger son’s request to receive his inheritance before his father was even dead – which is so presumptuous that it really feels hurtful. Kind of like saying, “Hey dad, I can’t wait until you’re dead, give me my inheritance now, please.” But the father gives him the inheritance without ill-will. Secondly, the father reaches out to the younger son on his return, running out to meet him, and before he can even finish his little prepared speech, lavishes gifts on him and throws a party.

There is a tendency, I think, for us to put ourselves into the story, which is not a bad thing to do. But like I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to identify with the hard feelings of the older son sometimes. But let’s look at these two sons. First of all, I’ll just say it, it’s not like one was sinful and the other wasn’t – no – they are both sinful. The younger son’s sin is easy to see. But the older son, with his underlying resentment and refusal to take part in the joy of his Father, is sinful too. It’s worth noting that the Father comes out of the house to see both sons. That’s significant because a good Jewish father in those days wouldn’t come out to meet anyone – they would come to him. But the Father meets them where they are and urgently, lovingly, pleads with them to join the feast.

So, both sons are sinful. But remember, this is a parable, and so the characters themselves are significant. They all symbolize somebody. We know who the Father symbolizes. But the sons symbolize people – more specifically groups of people – too. The younger son was for Jesus symbolic of the non-believer sinners – all those tax collectors and prostitutes and other gentile sinners Jesus was accused of hanging around with. The older son symbolizes the people who should have known better: the religious leaders – the Pharisees and scribes. In this parable, Jesus is making the point that the sinners are getting in to the banquet of God’s kingdom before the religious leaders, because the sinners are recognizing their sinfulness, and turning back to the Father, who longs to meet them more than half way. The religious leaders think they are perfect and beyond all that repenting stuff, so they are missing out.

So again, it’s good to put ourselves in the story. Which son are we, really? Have we been like the younger son and messed up so badly that we are unworthy of the love of the Father, and deserve to be treated like a common servant? Or are we like the older son, and do we miss the love and mercy of God in pursuit of trying to look good in everyone else’s eyes? Maybe sometimes we are like one of the sons, and other times we are like the other. But the point is, that we often sin.

But our response has to be like the younger son’s. We have to be willing to turn back to the Father and be embraced in his mercy and love and forgiveness. We can’t be like the older son and refuse to be forgiven, insisting on our own righteousness. The stakes are too high for us to do that: we would be missing out on the banquet of eternal life to which Jesus Christ came to bring us.

And where does that bring us if not to the sacrament of Penance? We have heard the voices in our head or the voices of others. We have sinned, we are not worthy of the Father’s love. But he wants to love us anyway. All we have to do is turn back, by going to confession and being forgiven of our sins. We have fallen; we have failed; we have sinned, but the antidote to that poison is the great healing river of God’s mercy.

I don’t think we can adequately reflect on God’s mercy without recalling the horrible event that happened in our nation fifteen years ago today. On that horrible morning, terror was unleashed on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, on the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania. Those of us old enough to remember definitely remember how we felt on that horrible day. Fear, anger, sadness, overwhelming grief. How could something like that happen, and what kind of monsters could unleash such evil? It’s really hard to see how mercy can apply to people like that.

Honestly, I don’t know how you deal with the justice of that situation. There are some questions that we’ll never be able to answer on this side of the life of heaven. But we do know that we have been called to mercy: mercy for ourselves and mercy for others. Anger and fear serve no useful purpose and lead to nothing good.   But while we hold people accountable for the horrible things they have done, we trust God to give mercy to all of us, because dwelling on anger and fear harm us more than others. We pray for those who have been hurt by the horrors of that day. We pray for the conversion of those who live only to inflict evil. And we pray that God’s mercy will change all of us, making the world a place where things like 9-11 never happen again.

It’s all about mercy. Thank God.