Tuesday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks to us about being ready.  And now’s as good a time for that as any, especially since we are getting so close to the end of the liturgical year.  The liturgical year ends on the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King of the Universe, which this year is celebrated on November 26th.  What we are going to start noticing in the readings from now until then is a decided interest in how all of time will be wrapping up.  Theologians call that “eschatology,” which is the theology about the end times.

Now, to be clear, we don’t know when the end of time will actually happen.  God in his providence keeps the big picture on that to himself, which I think is good, or we would be constantly worried about it.  But today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us that we can’t be complacent either.  We have to have our spiritual houses in order lest the master return and find us slacking off and give his blessings to more diligent servants.

It’s easy to slack off on our spiritual service when things are going well.  The urgency to our prayer wanes and we’re easily distracted.  But even when things aren’t going so well, we can be bogged down in the mire of whatever we’re dealing with and forget to attend to the faith that sees us through.  So the issue is being prepared: girding our loins and lighting our lamps, so that when the Master returns, we’re ready to go.

For us this might mean a return trip to the Sacrament of Penance if it’s been a while, or perhaps signing up for the Bible Study if we have been meaning to do that, or even just taking the Bible down off the shelf and reading a few verses each night before bed.  Whatever we haven’t been doing, whether it’s Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or a renewed dedication to the Holy Rosary, it’s time we got on it.  It might even mean taking time out of our busy schedules to be of service to those in need.

God wants to take us with him and he’s very patient, but we have to do our part.  We have to be diligent and ready.  We have to be eager to say with the Psalmist, “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.”

Monday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I love the little line in the gospel reading that says, “Take care, then, how you hear.”  It almost seems like a throw-away line, but really, I believe, it’s an essential instruction from Jesus.  We disciples are to take care how we hear.  Not what we hear, although that’s probably part of it, but how we hear.

So how do we hear the words of the gospel?  Do we hear them as something that seems nice but doesn’t really affect us?  Do those words fly over our heads or go in one ear and out the other?  Do we hear them at Mass, and then live however it is we want, leave the same way we came, ignoring what we’ve just heard?

Or, do we really hear the Word of the Lord?  Does the gospel get into our head and our heart and stir things up?  Do the words of Jesus get our blood flowing and our imaginations racing?  Does hearing the gospel make us long for a better place, a more peaceful kingdom, a just society?

We believe that the Word proclaimed is the actual presence of Christ.  We are not just hearing words about Jesus, we are hearing Jesus, we are experiencing the presence of God right here, right now, among us.  If we open the door of our ears and our hearts, we might just find God doing something amazing in us and through us.

Take care, then, how you hear.

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So today our Gospel, at the end of it, talks to us a bit about what prayer looks like.  And that reminds me of one of my favorite little stories.

So this person was not a real person of faith, but they were going through some hard times.  So since everything else she tried didn’t work, she decided to pray about it.  Not knowing really where to start, she reached for the old Bible that was up on a shelf in her room, took it down and dusted it off.  She said, “Okay God, I need to hear you tell me how to fix this situation.”  So she decided to point to a verse and see if that was God’s answer.  She opened up the Bible and did just that and then read it: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.”  That was pretty horrifying, and she didn’t think that could possibly be what God was telling her, so she decided to try again.  Opening to a different place, she read the verse: “Go thou and do likewise.”  Now it was getting personal, but she decided to try one more time: “Go and do quickly what you must do.”

I have to say, when the Scriptures talk about prayer, I get a little uneasy.  Not because I don’t like to pray, or think prayer is a bad thing.  But more because I think mostly we misunderstand prayer, and usually a brief mention in the readings like we have today can do more harm than good.  The line almost at the end of the Gospel reading is the culprit: “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.”

Really? Anything? I don’t know about you, but I personally can think of examples – plenty of examples – of times where I had prayed with friends or family for something and ended up not getting it.  You can probably think of examples too.  People tell me all the time, “Father, I have prayed and prayed about (fill in the blank), and I never get any answer, it doesn’t seem like God even hears me.”  Have you ever thought that?  Lots of us have.  So what are we to make of this?  Why would Jesus make a promise like that if he wasn’t prepared to deliver on it?  Well, I’d like to make three points about prayer that maybe will help with that conundrum.

First, in the line right after this, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  Notice how he says, “in my name.”  So it’s not like a couple of us can get together and pray for something crazy and hold God accountable for granting it.  That would be absurd; I’m sure you realize that.  If we’re gathered in anything less than the name of Jesus, we’re in the wrong place, and you don’t get what you want, or even what you need, when you’re in a place other than where Jesus is.

Second, reflecting on that same line, I would point out the last phrase: “there am I in the midst of them.”  Sometimes God doesn’t answer all our prayers in the way we think he should, or in the way we would like him to.  God isn’t a divine vending machine.  But he definitely always answers them with his presence.  Sometimes that leads to resolution of a problem that is greater than we could have imagined.  Sometimes it makes us a stronger, more faith-filled person.  And sometimes the answer to a prayer means that we are the ones who have to change, not the situation, or the other people, or whatever is going on.  So the abiding presence of our God, most perfectly experienced in community, when two are three are gathered in his name, is the most important answer to every prayer.  And even if it’s the only answer, it surely is enough.

Finally – and I can’t say this often enough, nor stress it strongly enough – prayer is not a magic wand.  You might read in this brief little passage that all you have to do is pray for something and you get it.  “God help me win the lottery.”  Not so fast.  Prayer is always experienced in relationship: relationship with God and relationship with others.  That’s why this brief little passage mentions praying together, and praying in Jesus’ name.  Those are important points, and it’s best not to overlook them.

Prayer is a relationship, prayer is work – sometimes hard work, prayer is a way of life for the disciple of Jesus.  We enter that relationship at our Baptism, and it’s our task as disciples to nurture that relationship our whole lives long.

Thursday of the First Week of Lent 

Today’s readings 

If we take one thought out of Lent this year, it should be this: we need a Savior.

Even before Jesus’ time, Esther knew this. Esther’s adoptive father Mordecai was a deeply religious man. His devotion incurred the wrath of Haman the Agagite, who was a court official of King Ahasuerus of Persia. Mordecai refused to pay homage to Haman in the way prescribed by law, because he felt that it was idolatry. Because of this, Haman developed a deep hatred for Mordecai, and by extension, all of the Israelite people. He convinced King Ahasuerus to decree that all Israelites be put to death, and they cast lots to determine the date for this despicable event.

Meanwhile, Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, is chosen to fill a spot in the King’s harem, replacing Queen Vashti. Esther never had revealed her own Israelite heritage to the King. Mordecai came to Esther to inform her of the decree that Haman had proposed, and asked her to intercede on behalf of her own people to the King. She was terrified to do this because court rules forbade her to come to the king without an invitation. She asked Mordecai to have all of her people fast and pray, and she did the same. The prayer that she offered is beautifully rendered in today’s first reading.

Esther knew that there was no one that could help her, and that it was totally on her shoulders to intercede for her people. Doing this was a risk to her own life, and the only one that she could rely on was God himself. Her prayer was heard, her people were spared, and Haman himself was hung from the same noose that had been prepared for Mordecai and all his fellow Israelites.

God hears our own persistent prayers. We must constantly pray, and trust all of our needs to the one who knows them before we do. We must ask, seek and knock of the one who made us and cares for us deeply. But most of all, we must always be aware that like Esther, we all need

Monday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So the disciples are waiting for Jesus to come down the mountain after the Transfiguration.  They have attempted to cure a man’s son from the hold of a demon, but they were apparently unable to do so.  This seems to have led to an argument between them and the scribes.  You can almost feel Jesus’ exasperation.  Both the disciples and the scribes should have been able to do something for the boy, but they couldn’t.  Why?  Because instead of praying, they argued about it.  “This kind can only come out through prayer,” Jesus tells the disciples when they ask why they were ineffective.

I often wonder, with more than a little fear, how many demons I could have cast out – in myself and in others – if I had a little more faith, if I prayed a little more than I do.  There are, of course, all sorts of demons: demons of illness, demons of cyclical sin, demons of impure attachments, demons of homelessness, poverty, and marginalization, and so many more.  Think of all the demons we could cast out if we just had more faith, if we prayed more fervently.

Sometimes, when we are trying to overcome some problem, the last thing we think to do is pray, when it should absolutely be the first.  The disciples were guilty of it, the scribes were, and we are too sometimes, if we’re honest.  And all of us should know better.  I know that I myself can think of a number of problems I’ve tried to solve all by myself, when it would have been so much more effective to first turn them over to our Lord.  We can’t just cut God out of the picture and rely on our own strength; that never works – our own strength is so fiercely limited.  We have to turn to the tools we have been given: faith and prayer.  And we can start by saying with the boy’s father: “I do believe, Lord; help my unbelief.”

Saint Josaphat, Bishop & Martyr and Notre Dame Day of Service

Today’s readings

This morning we gather in the presence of a merciful and compassionate God, not a dishonest judge. We gather in prayer knowing that those prayers are heard and answered in God’s way, in God’s time. The exercise of perseverance in prayer is not so much to change God’s will as it is for us to come to know God’s will and to further our relationship with him. People of faith get answers to their prayers all the time: maybe not the answers they expected, but always the answers that are for their good, in the long run.

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Josaphat, a sixteenth century Basilian monk and Orthodox bishop of the church in what is present-day Belarus. He joined five other bishops in a cause seeking reunion with Rome. Other Orthodox monks, however, did not want union with Rome; they feared interference in liturgy and customs. But over time, using synods and other instruction, he was able to win many of the Orthodox in that area to the union. But the fight was far from over. A dissident faction of the church was formed, and they fomented opposition to Josaphat. Eventually the mob murdered him and threw his body into a river. The body was recovered and is now buried in St. Peter’s basilica. Josaphat is the first saint of the Eastern Church to be canonized by Rome.

So Josaphat’s mission of unity in the Church continues to this day. This task requires open dialogue and discussion, but also persistence in prayer. Every day more and more doors are being opened, and we continue to have faith that one day, Josaphat’s mission, and the mission of so many others, will finally achieve unity and will re-establish the one Church that Jesus came to establish.

Today, on our Day of Service, we take our persistent prayer and manifest it in our work. As we come together to visit the nursing home or Ronald McDonald House, or make cards for those in military service, or make rosaries for the sick, our presence and concern may be the way God is answering someone’s prayers. As we engage in whatever we have signed up to do today, God may give us gifts that answer prayers we didn’t even know we had in our hearts. One thing is certain: when we pray persistently and work for the kingdom of God, God can take our faith and do great things with it. He did with Saint Josaphat, and he will with us.

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.”