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.

The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Baptism at Mass

Today’s readings

Today’s readings about the two widows highlight the plight of widows in the ancient world. Without a husband, they would necessarily depend on their sons to help provide for them and keep them safe, and so when these two sons died, the widow was vulnerable and very likely would become destitute. But Elijah and Jesus both recognize their plight and, without even being asked, move to right the wrongs of the situation. Restoring their sons to life, they have really restored the life also of those widows, for God is rich in mercy!

Today we celebrate the baptism of a child, and so maybe it’s hard to see how raising two people from the dead can relate to that, but I believe these readings are really all about baptism! Whenever we see death and life in the Scriptures, we really should think about holy baptism, in which our mortal bodies, dead in sin, are raised up to new life in Christ. I’ll be blessing the water of the font in a few minutes, and here are some of the words of that blessing:

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.

Just as Jesus said to the dead man in today’s Gospel, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” so he says to all who are baptized, “Be raised up, be washed clean, take possession of new life!” And so in the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath and the son of the widow of Nain, we see the precursor of holy Baptism, in which God in his great mercy is re-creating the world anew and bringing new life to those whose bodies were dead in their mortality. Baptism is the great gift of new life that our Lord gives to his Church. It is a participation in his own death and Resurrection, in which death and sin are rendered impotent, and we are given new life.

And so, as we hear of life restored to those who were thought to be dead, it is so appropriate that you bring your child here for baptism. In this sacrament, he receives new life in Christ, who wills that all children should come to him and be made new. As you continue to bring your child here to Church for Mass and religious instruction, God will continue to pour out his mercy and grace and give him a life made new in the Holy Spirit.

Raising children these days can be difficult, as we all know. There are so many competing voices out there, so many opportunities for a young person to be tempted away from God, Church, and family. But the good news is that you aren’t expected to raise your child on your own. You are promised in this sacrament of Holy Baptism the grace that will help you in your task as parents, and as he is initiated into the Church today, you receive the promise of the Church’s help in teaching him and helping him to know God and his love.

The Psalmist today sings of this hope that we have in Christ and in this sacrament. He sings:

I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.

There is no death that can overcome our new life in Christ. Praise God for the gift of our baptism which raises us up and makes us 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.