The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

I don’t know if it’s ever easy to listen to the news any more.  Unrest in the middle east, abuse scandals in the entertainment industry and political arena, crime in our cities, and so much more.  And all of those are the man-made problems: they are byproducts of the reign of sin in the world.

And so as we enter into Advent this year, I think we Advent more than ever. We need Jesus to come and put an end to all our foolishness, to fix all our brokenness, and heal all our sin and shame.  I am guessing the followers of Saint John the Baptist felt the same way.  They dealt with all the same stuff that we do: corruption in government, poverty, racism, and crime – none of this is new to our day and age, unfortunately – it never seems to go away.  And so they did what I think has to be a model for all of us today: they came to John, acknowledged their sins, and accepted the baptism of repentance.

They came to John, because at that point, Jesus wasn’t in full swing with his ministry, and they were seeking something new and something good.  We then, might come to Jesus in the same way, come to the Church, seeking something good and something new.  And then, like them, we have to acknowledge our sins – personal sins and those in which we participate as a society.  And then we have to accept the process of repentance.  We can’t keep sinning; we have to repent, literally be sorry for our sins and turn away from them, as we turn back to God.  That’s an important Advent message for every time and place.

It genuinely strikes me that, if we’re ever going to get past the bad stuff going on in our nation and our world, if we’re ever going to finally put an end to whatever sadness this world brings us, we have to begin that by putting an end to the wrong that we have done.  That’s why reconciliation is so important.  What each of us does – right or wrong – affects the rest of us.  The grace we put forward when we follow God’s will blesses others.  But the sin we set in motion when we turn away from God saddens the whole Body of Christ.  We are one in the Body of Christ, and if we are going to keep the body healthy, then each of us has to attend to ourselves.

So today, I am going to ask you to go to confession before Christmas.  I don’t do that because I think you’re all horrible people or anything like that.  I do that because I know that we all – including me – have failed to be a blessing of faith, hope and love to ourselves and others at some point, and I know that so many people struggle with persistent sins, nasty thorns in the flesh, day in and day out.  And God never meant it to be that way.  He wants you to experience his love and mercy and forgiveness and healing, and you get that most perfectly in the Sacrament of Penance.

So speaking of confession, here’s one of mine: There was a time in my life that I didn’t go to confession for a long time.  I had been raised at a time in the Church when that sacrament was downplayed.  It came about from what I came to realize was a really flawed idea of the sacrament and the human person.  But the Church has always taught that in the struggle to live for God and be a good person, we will encounter pitfalls along the way.  We’ll fail in many ways, and we will need forgiveness and the grace to get back up and move forward.  That’s what the Sacrament of Penance is for!

One day, I finally realized that I needed that grace and I returned to the sacrament.  The priest welcomed me back, did not pass judgment, and helped me to make a good confession.  It was an extremely healing experience for me, and now I make it my business to go to the sacrament as frequently as I can, because I need that healing and mercy and grace.  And you do too.  So please don’t leave those wonderful gifts unwrapped under the tree.  Go to Confession and find out just how much God loves you.

When you do find that out, you’ll be better able to help the rest of the Body of Christ to be the best it can be.  When your relationship is right with God, you will help the people around you know God’s love for them too.  That kind of grace bursts forth to others all the time.

This year, we have plenty of opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance.  We have a Reconciliation Service scheduled for Thursday, December 21 at 7:00pm.  We are also hearing confessions twice a day every Saturday until Christmas: after the 7:30am Mass, and again at 3:00pm.

If you have been away from the sacrament for a very long time, I want you to come this Advent.  Tell the priest you have been away for a while, and expect that he will help you to make a good confession.  That’s our job.  All you have to do is to acknowledge your sins and then leave them behind, so that Christmas can be that much more beautiful for you and everyone around you.  Don’t miss that gift this year: be reconciled.

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.”

Advent Penance Service: The Light of God’s Mercy

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26 | Luke 3:1-6

I’ve been speaking to the second grade children about reconciliation as they prepare for their first Confession this coming Saturday. One of the images I’ve given them to picture sin is to imagine it as a huge boulder, which stands between them and God. Because of that boulder, we can’t get to God, can’t talk to him or walk with him. When we try to move the boulder, well, we just can’t, because it’s way too big and heavy for us. So what is it then that will actually move the boulder? And the answer is God’s mercy.

On Tuesday, we began the Holy Year of Mercy, called for by Pope Francis. During this year, we will have the opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy in very deliberate ways. We will have opportunities, as we always do, to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, forgiving offenses. But we’ll also be called to enter into mercy, through the sacrament of Penance, which is what brings us here tonight.

Pope Francis, in the document that called for the Year of Mercy, spoke of Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy, a truth that he says may as well sum up the Christian faith. Then he says that we need to contemplate God’s mercy constantly and in many ways. He writes:

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (Misericordie Vultus, 2.)

So mercy is that reality that bridges the gap between God and humanity, smashing the boulder that I asked the second grade children to imagine. This evening’s readings speak of the ministry of mercy, perhaps taken up in a special way by Saint John the Baptist. In our Gospel, he traveled through the whole region to proclaim not just any baptism, but a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That proclamation speaks of what is necessary for mercy to be able to work, and that is repentance. God wants to show us mercy, but we have to seek mercy out, open our hearts to mercy. Because mercy changes us. It makes us a new creation, it gives us that salvific grace that restores our friendship with God.

It’s no secret that our world is a dark place, now as much as ever. Our God’s mercy lights the fire that obliterates the darkness. And thus Isaiah can proclaim that “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.” Because mercy also changes the world. When our sins are forgiven, the world – or at least our corner of it – is a harbor of mercy, and that light helps others to find the way too.

Indeed, 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. This light of mercy 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.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight.  We receive the light of God’s mercy 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 all of 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, the light of God’s mercy 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.”

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

This fall, it was a real pain trying to get in and out of my driveway at the rectory, let alone into our parking lot here at church. The village had torn up the streets in order to rebuild them. It was a huge inconvenience then, but the streets are nice to travel on right now. My dad used to say that there are tearer-uppers and fixer-uppers when it comes to road construction, and apparently there are ten times as many tearer-uppers as there are fixer-uppers. Now, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but when you’re sitting in a traffic jam, it starts to make real sense!

We live in this area where there are just two seasons: winter and road construction, and so when we hear the prophet Baruch say “God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God,” well, we may just cringe a little bit. But I think we can sure relate to the experience.

At the time of the Babylonian empire, whenever the monarch traveled workers would precede him leveling the ground and filling in ditches to make the way smooth for his chariots. So that explains Baruch’s prophecy, and also the prophecy of Isaiah that St. Luke quotes in today’s gospel: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” And it’s easy for us to extrapolate that in order to prepare the way for our monarch, Jesus Christ our king, we would want the way to be smooth and pristine too.

But for us, the roadwork isn’t so much the topography of the countryside as it is the topography of our spiritual lives. We all have rough spots, crooked ways and assorted obstacles on our spiritual paths. Our intentions to be friends with God may be good, but often we have lost our way or been stuck in a kind of spiritual traffic-jam. Our goal is communion with our friend, Jesus Christ. Our best intentions are to get there. Our frustration is that often we are derailed and never seem to reach the goal. But the promise is that God will indeed bring that good work to fulfillment, as St. Paul says in today’s second reading, and we will then rejoice in our salvation with all God’s holy ones.

But all of that presupposes that we are clear about the fact that we need a Savior. We need God’s mercy. Wherever we are on the journey to Christ, whatever the obstacles we face, God promises to make it right through Jesus Christ – if we will let him. We may be facing the valley of hurts or resentments. God will fill in that valley. Perhaps we are up against a mountain of sinful behavior or shame. God will level that mountain. We may be lost on the winding roads of procrastination or apathy. God will straighten out that way. We may be riding along on the rough and bumpy ways of poor choices, sinful relationships and patterns of sin. God will make all those ways smooth. And all flesh – every one of us, brothers and sisters – we will all see the salvation of God. That’s a promise. God will forgive us all of our sins. But we have to be open to the experience.

And so, in the spirit of encouraging that openness, I want to make a very personal invitation. If you find that you have quite a bit of unfinished road construction to do in your spiritual life, I invite you to take care of it this Advent. The Sacrament of Penance is where we Catholics level those mountains, straighten those winding roads, and fill in the potholes that have derailed us along the way. And we have plenty of opportunities to do that. This Thursday, we will have our Advent Reconciliation Service, with a number of priests available to hear your confession. We also have First Reconciliation on Saturday, and invite all the parents and families of our second graders to go to confession along with their children. And each Saturday we have confessions from 3:45 to 4:30. So you have many opportunities to be open to the “baptism of repentance” that John the Baptist was preaching, and to make the way straight once again for the coming of the Lord in your own life.

Now, having said that, I fully understand that there are many of you here who have not been to confession in many years. I get it. I myself was away from the sacrament for years before God worked on me and brought me back. So here is Father Pat’s “Consumer’s Guide to the Sacrament of Penance:” If you have been away a long time, it will be hard to go back, but take that leap of faith anyway. Be honest with the priest and tell him that it’s been years. Even tell him if you’re not sure how to make a confession. If he doesn’t welcome you back warmly and help you to make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and find a priest who will. Because it’s my job to help you make a good confession. And it’s a privilege and a responsibility that I take very seriously. Nothing must stand in the way of you receiving God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness, because it is a gift too precious to miss.

That’s what Advent is about. The coming of Christ in our world isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago. Advent means that Christ is coming into our world today, and every day, if we would just open our hearts and smooth out a place for him. God becomes incarnate in our world every time someone turns back to him and repents of his or her sin. God’s love comes to birth every time we accept the gift of forgiveness and the unfathomable grace of the Eucharist. Advent means that Christ is Emmanuel, God-with-us NOW. Advent means that the salvation and forgiveness that God promises us is available to us NOW.

The truth is, brothers and sisters in Christ, we come to this holy place to this sacred Liturgy, each of us at different places in the spiritual road. Our goal – all of us – is to advance on that road, tackling the obstacles that face us, and defeating our sin by the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy. There may only be one unforgivable sin: the sin of thinking that we don’t need a Savior. When we rationalize that we’re basically good people and we’re okay and that there is nothing wrong with our lives or our relationships, then we’re lost. It’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive us this sin, it’s more that we refuse to have it forgiven. If Advent teaches us anything, it’s got to be that we all need that baptism of repentance that John the Baptist preached, that we all need to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts, making straight the paths for his return to us.

On Tuesday, we begin the Holy Year of Mercy. What better way to begin than by experiencing God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Penance? The Psalmist sings today that “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” I pray that you all find that out in the Sacrament of Penance this Advent season.

9-11: Taking the Wooden Beams Out of Our Eyes

Today’s readings

When I hear today’s Gospel reading, I think about my dad. When he was alive, he was a guy who seemed to know everyone. Anywhere we went, he’d find someone he knew, even on vacation! But he wouldn’t just know their names, he’d also know something about them. He would know their talents, stuff they were good at; he’d also sometimes know if they were going through some kind of difficulty or hard time. But most often, he always was able to see what was good in them.

That’s the kind of thing I think Jesus wants us to do in our Gospel reading. He wants us to know each other as brothers and sisters, instead of seeing everyone’s faults and sins and downfalls. Because we all have those things. And if we focus on them, we’ll never be the children of God we were created to be. He uses the hyperbole of seeing a splinter in the other person’s eye but missing the wooden beam in our own. We all have sins and downfalls, but we all have grace and blessing. We’ve got to look for that, look for the best in people, because that’s what makes us children of God.

Fourteen years ago today, right around this time in the morning, I was in my room in seminary. Most of the other guys in my class had a class at that time, but I didn’t. So I was working on some homework, and then decided to go online and read some of the news. The first headline I saw said something like “Airplane Collides with World Trade Center.” I turned on the television and saw the tower down, and thought it had to be some kind of horrible accident. Then I saw the second plane fly into the second tower, and at that point everyone knew something terrible was happening. I will never forget that horrible moment.

Over the course of the following days, we came to know that over three thousand people died that day, including many police and fire fighters. And our world has changed a lot ever since: there is more security when you get on an airplane, more security everywhere, it seems. And if we would listen to what Jesus is telling us today, maybe things like this wouldn’t have to happen.

Even this week, a Sikh man was attacked right near here in Darien, because the attacker thought he was a terrorist. We have to learn to take the wooden beams out of our eyes so that we can see each other as brothers and sisters. Only then will we become everything that God intends for us.

Today on this fourteenth anniversary of 9-11, we should do a lot of things. We should study what happened that day so that we won’t repeat the mistakes that were made. We should remember those who gave their lives that day, especially those who tried to help the victims, and we should pray for ourselves and all people that we can become peaceful people who love the Lord and see each other as brothers and sisters, without all those splinters or beams in our eyes.

The Second Sunday of Advent: Be Reconciled

Today’s readings

I don’t know about you, but this week, when I heard that New York was going to announce whether another police officer was indicted or not for the death of a suspect, I pretty much held my breath. After seeing all that has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri, I just feared the worst. And none of it is good. Crime is a problem, and so is racism; all of this comes about as a byproduct of the reign of sin in the world.

And so as we enter into Advent this year, I think we need it more than ever. We need Jesus to come and put an end to all our foolishness, to fix all our brokenness, and heal all our sin and shame. I am guessing the followers of Saint John the Baptist felt the same way. They dealt with all the same stuff that we do: corruption in government, poverty, racism, and crime – none of this is new to our day and age. And so they did what I think has to be a model for all of us today: they came to John, acknowledged their sins, and accepted the baptism of repentance.

They came to John, because at that point, Jesus wasn’t in full swing with his ministry, and they were seeking something new and something good. We then, might come to Jesus in the same way, come to the Church, seeking something good and something new. And then, like them, we have to acknowledge our sins – personal sins and those that we participate in as a society. And then we have to accept the process of repentance. We can’t keep sinning; we have to repent, literally be sorry for our sins and turn away from them, as we turn back to God. That’s an important Advent message for every time and place.

It genuinely strikes me that, if we’re ever going to get past the events at Ferguson or New York, or if we’re ever going to finally put an end to whatever sadness this world brings us, we have to begin that by putting an end to the wrong that we have done. That’s why reconciliation is so important. What each of us does – right or wrong – affects the rest of us. The grace we put forward when we follow God’s will blesses others. But the sin we set in motion when we turn away from God saddens the whole Body of Christ. We are one in the Body of Christ, and if we are going to keep the body healthy, then each of us has to attend to ourselves.

So today, I am going to ask you to go to confession before Christmas. I don’t do that because I think you’re all horrible people or anything like that. I do that because I know that we all – including me – have failed to be a blessing of faith, hope and love to ourselves and others at some point, I know that so many people struggle with persistent sins, little thorns in the flesh, day in and day out. And God never meant it to be that way. He wants you to experience his love and mercy and forgiveness and healing, and you get that most perfectly in the Sacrament of Penance.

There was a time in my life that I didn’t go to confession for a long time. I had been raised at a time in the Church when that sacrament was downplayed. It came about from a really flawed idea of the sacrament and the human person. But the Church has always taught that in the struggle to live for God and be a good person, we will encounter pitfalls along the way. We’ll fail in many ways, and we will need forgiveness and the grace to get back up and move forward. That’s what the Sacrament of Penance is for!

One day, I finally realized that I needed that grace and I returned to the sacrament. The priest welcomed me back, did not pass judgment, and helped me to make a good confession. It was an extremely healing experience for me, and now I make it my business to go to the sacrament as frequently as I can, because I need that healing and mercy and grace. And you do too. So please don’t leave those wonderful gifts unwrapped under the tree. Go to Confession and find out just how much God loves you.

When you do find that out, you’ll be better able to help the rest of the Body of Christ to be the best it can be. When your relationship is right with God, you will help the people around you know God’s love for them too. That kind of grace bursts forth to others all the time.

This year, we have plenty of opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance. Those of you who have a second grader receiving the sacrament for the first time can also receive the sacrament when they do, next Saturday. Then our parish reconciliation service is Tuesday, December 16th at 7pm. Finally, on the weekend just before Christmas, on Saturday the 20th, we will have four priests here from 4:00 to 5:00 or until all are heard. We will also hear confessions after all of the Masses on Sunday the 21st. And if none of those fit in your schedule, or if you would prefer to go to another parish, we will be publishing the schedules for other parishes in the bulletin.

If you have been away from the sacrament for a very long time, I want you to come this Advent. Tell the priest you have been away for a while, and expect that he will help you to make a good confession. All you have to do is to acknowledge your sins and then leave them behind, so that Christmas can be that much more beautiful for you and everyone around you. Don’t miss that gift this year: be reconciled.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

Back in the sixth century before the birth of Christ, the Israelites were in a bad way.  They had been separated from their God by sin: against God’s commands, they had betrayed their covenant with the Lord and made foreign alliances, which he had forbidden them to do.  He forbade this because he knew that as they made these alliances, they would give in to the temptation to worship the so-called gods of the people they with whom they allied themselves.  As punishment, God separated them from their homeland: the cream of the crop of their society was taken into exile in Babylon, and those left behind had no one to lead them and protect them.  Because they moved away from God, God seemed to move away from them.  But he hadn’t: I think it was really they who had exiled themselves from God.  In today’s first reading, God shows them that he still loves them and cares for them, and promises to make them a new people . I love the line: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?”  God would indeed bring them back and create their community anew.

The Israelites were in exile, but exile can take so many forms.  And Saint Paul had a good sense of that.  For him, the exile was anything that was not Christ; a sentiment we should embrace.  Saint Paul knows that he has not yet taken possession of the glory that is promised him by Christ, and so he wants to leave behind the exile of the world and strains forward to all that lies ahead, the goal and prize of God’s calling in Christ.

Which brings us back to the woman caught in adultery.  We certainly feel sorry for her, caught in the act, dragged in front of Jesus and publicly humiliated.  But the truth is, just like the Israelites in the sixth century before Christ, she had actually sinned.  And that sin threatened to put her into exile from the community; well, it even threatened her life.  The in-your-face reversal in the story, though, is that Jesus doesn’t consider her the only sinner – or even the greatest sinner – in the whole incident.  We should probably wonder about the man with whom she was committing adultery; that sin does, after all, take two.  And as serious a sin as adultery certainly is, Jesus makes it clear that there are plenty of serious sins out there, and they all exile us from God.  As he sits there, writing in the sand, they walk away one by one.  What was he writing?  Was it a kind of examination of conscience?  A kind of list of the sins of the Pharisees?  We don’t know.  But in Jesus’ words and actions, those Pharisees too were convicted of their sins, and went away – into exile – because of them.

Sin does that to us.  It makes exiles out of all of us.  The more we sin, the further away from God we become.  And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Jimmy and Suzy went to visit their grandparents for a week during the summer.  They had a great time, but one day Jimmy was bouncing a ball in the house, which he knew he shouldn’t be doing.  It didn’t take long for the ball to hit grandma’s favorite vase, knocking it off the table and breaking it.  He picked up the pieces and went out back and hid them in the woodshed.  Looking around, the only person who was around was his sister Suzy.  She didn’t say anything, but later that day, when grandma asked her to help with the dishes, Suzy said “I think Jimmy wanted to help you,” giving him a rather knowing look.  So he did.  The next day, grandpa asked Jimmy if he wanted to go out fishing.  Suzy jumped right in: “He’d like to, but he promised grandma he would weed the garden.”  So Jimmy weeded the garden.  As he was doing that, he felt pretty guilty and decided to confess the whole thing to grandma.  When he told her what had happened, grandma said, “I know.  I was looking out the back window when you were hiding the pieces in the woodshed.  I was wondering how long you were going to let Suzy make a slave of you.”

That’s how it is with sin: it makes a slave of us, and keeps us from doing what we really want to do.  It puts us deep in exile, just as surely as the ancient Israelites.  And it doesn’t have to be that way.  You see, it’s easier than we think to end up in exile.  All we have to do is a good examination of conscience and then think about the way those sins have affected us.  Have they made us feel distant from God, family and friends?  Have they caused us to drift in our life and not feel God’s presence in times of hardship?

Exile is heartbreaking.  And to the exile of sin, God has three things to say today:

First, “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.”  That sounds like something that’s easy to say but hard to do.  But the fact is, once we have accepted God’s grace and forgiveness, that grace will actually help us to be free from sin.  Of course, that’s impossible to do all on our own.  But God never commands us to do something that is impossible for us, or maybe better, he never commands us to do something that is impossible for him to do in us.  God’s grace is there if we but turn to him.

Second, God says: “Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.”  Once sin is confessed and grace is accepted, the sin is forgotten.  God is not a resentful tyrant who keeps a list of our offenses and holds them against us forever.  If we confess our sins and accept the grace that is present through the saving sacrifice of Jesus, the sins are forgotten.  But it is up to us to accept that grace.  We truly have to confess so that we can forget what lies behind and be ready for the graces ahead.

Third, God says: “See, I am doing something new.  Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  We are the ones who get stuck in the past, always fearing to move forward because of past sins, hurts, and resentments.  We are called today to be open to the new thing God is doing in our lives.  The way to open up is to confess our sins and get rid of the past.

For a long time in my young life, I didn’t go to confession.  I didn’t think I needed to.  I grew up in that whole time of the church when it was all about how you felt about yourself.  Garbage.  I knew something was wrong when I was in my young adulthood and felt lost.  I took a chance and went to confession at a penance service, and the priest welcomed me back.  In that moment, I knew exactly the new thing God was doing in me, and it felt like a huge weight was lifted off of me.  In fact, I was released from the exile of all my past sins and hurts.

I never forgot that, and whenever anyone comes to me in confession and says it’s been a long time since they went, I am quick to welcome them back.  Because that’s what God wants, and it’s a great privilege for me to be part of that.  He wants to lift that weight off of you, to end your exile.  All it takes is for you to see that new thing he is doing in you, and to strain forward to what lies ahead.

So we have just a few times left to receive that grace before Holy Week and Easter.  On Monday evening at 6:30, we will hear confessions until all are heard.  Saturday, as usual, we will hear confessions from 4:00 to 4:45pm before Mass.  And next Sunday, Palm Sunday, we will hear confessions after the 7:30, 9:30 and 11:30 Masses until all are heard.  Would that we would all take this opportunity to forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead.  God is doing a new thing in all of us these Lenten days.  Let us all be open to it.

Lenten Penance Service

Today’s readings: Romans 5:12, 17-19; Matthew 26:20-25

In Jesus Christ, we have absolutely everything that we need for the forgiveness of sins, except one thing.  In Jesus Christ, we have our God who became man.  We have in Christ the Saving Sacrifice, his life poured out on us to take away the penalty of our sins and nullify the sting of our death.  Not only that, but Jesus Christ strengthens us with the gift of his Holy Spirit, who enlivens in us the desire to be close to our God and to put our sins behind us.  That Holy Spirit gives us the grace not just to know and confess our sins, but also the grace to avoid the sin ahead of us.  In Christ, the way to forgiveness is open.  We have all we need – except one thing.

 

And that one thing is the thing that must come from within us, namely, repentance.   Because once we repent of our sins, turn away from them, and confess them, we can then accept God’s grace and mercy, and become a new people, marked by faith, hope and love.  But repentance is a choice that’s up to us; it’s a habit we have to develop, because it’s not a habit that we see demonstrated much in our world.  Our world would rather take mistakes and put a positive “spin” on them so everyone saves face.  But that’s not repentance.  Our world would rather find someone else to blame for the problems we encounter, so that we can be righteously indignant and accept our own status as victims.  But that’s not repentance.  Our world would rather encounter an issue by throwing at it money, human resources, military intervention, lawsuits or legislation.  But that’s not repentance.

 

Our Gospel tonight shows us what happens when we forget repentance and penance and the grace of reconciliation.  Despair over our own sins blinds us to the mercy of God that has been staring us right in the face, walking with us all along the way.  In our own desperate and fumbling attempts to make all that is wrong in us right, we make ourselves miserable, we give up on what is good, and we betray our Lord, again.  But we can’t be like Judas, trying to save face – “Surely it is not I, Lord?”  We have to learn the rich virtue of repentance, we have to become people of repentance.

 

But where and to whom do we look to become that people?  World leaders are no help at all, and even if the media were to see an example of repentance, I’m not sure they’d give it much play.  So that’s no help.  Perhaps in these Lenten days, the Liturgy of the Word can be our teacher.  We might look at the wayward son’s interaction with the Prodigal Father, or perhaps the woman at the well who left her jug behind to live the new life.  We might look at the woman caught in adultery or even at the “good thief” crucified with Jesus.  All of these got the idea and turned from their sin toward their God and received life in return.  This is the habit of repentance that we have been called to develop in ourselves.

 

The only thing our God wants to do is to forgive sinners.  Not just once, not twice, not even seventy-seven times, but rather as many times as we fall – so long as we repent and turn back to him, the source of grace and the font of salvation.

 

And that’s why we’re here tonight.  God is aching to pour out on us the grace of his forgiveness and to bring us to his peace beyond all of our understanding, and we have chosen to come and receive it.  We have chosen to be a people marked by faith, hope and love.  We long to develop that habit of repentance which allows us to receive the new life God has always wanted for us.  The only thing God wants to do is to forgive sinners.  So let us now as a community of faith examine our conscience and repent of our sins.

 

Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Susanna’s story is one of the most eloquent and deeply moving in the Old Testament Scriptures.  In it we see the wisdom of the prophet Daniel, as well as the mercy and justice of God.  But sadly, we also see in this story the fickleness of the human heart and the evil and treachery that makes up some of our darker moments.  Susanna’s story serves well as a backdrop for the woman caught in adultery, whose sin was loosed by Jesus.

 

This morning’s Liturgy of the Word calls us to right wrongs, to be completely honest and forthright in our dealings with others, to seek to purify our hearts of any wicked intent, and most of all to seek to restore right relationships with any person who has something against us, or against whom we have something.  So basically, these readings are the spirit of Lent.  Our prayer this day is that God’s mercy and justice would reign, and that God’s kingdom would come about in all its fullness, starting first and foremost in our own hearts.

 

The Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

I think that if you took a survey, nearly everyone would want to say that they are righteous, that is, that they do the right thing.  But I also think that survey would reveal how amazingly different each person’s definition of righteousness would be.  One person’s idea of righteousness might be that they do what everyone else is doing – how could that be wrong?  Everyone does it.  Another person’s idea of righteousness might be rather selfish: they do what’s best for them, or for their family – they take care of number one.  Still another view of righteousness might be that one picks and chooses a set of rules by which they decide to live their lives, and never deviate from them to one side or the other.  This view, of course, was the view of the Pharisees who had over six hundred such rules by which to abide.

If you’re wondering what’s wrong with any of these, today’s Scriptures have the answer.  Jesus tells us that none of these self-righteous positions is going to cut it: those who follow him have a much more strenuous rule of life, and we call that rule the Gospel.

Do you count yourself among the blessed because you’ve never murdered anyone or participated in an abortion?  Well, that’s a good start, but if you’ve harbored anger against another person, if you have refused to forgive them, if you have marginalized a person because of their race, or their language, or their religion, or their sexual orientation, or because of a physical disability, if you have belittled people by sarcasm or bullying, if you have hated another person in any way at any time, then you’ve murdered them in your heart, you’ve violated the fifth commandment, and that’s not okay.

Do you feel righteous because you’ve never had extramarital relations with another person?  Great, but that’s just a start.  If you have had lustful thoughts about another person, if you have looked at pornography, or fantasized about a relationship with another person; if you have nurtured a relationship that is improper in any way, then you have violated the sixth commandment, and it’s time to turn back.

Do you feel that your word is good as gold because you have never lied under oath?  Again, it’s a good start, but if you’ve told a lie of any kind in any situation, even a white lie in most circumstances, if you have not told the whole truth when the truth was called for, if you have misrepresented the truth in any way or have not lived what you believe and profess, then you have violated the eighth commandment and have been dishonest to some degree.

These are not words of comfort today, are they?  I bring these all out in my preaching today because Jesus makes them urgent.  I do it with a sense of deep humility, because I know that I have failed in some of these things more times than I’d care to admit.

Jesus tells us today, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That seems pretty harsh.  The Scribes and Pharisees had those six hundred or so laws by which they lived their lives, and some of them were pretty nit-picky if you ask me.  So how can we ever hope to enter the kingdom of heaven?  It just seems like an impossible task, doesn’t it?

But what Jesus is asking of us isn’t to come up with a list of a whole lot more nit-picky rules.  Jesus is asking us to embrace the spirit of the law, and to live it with integrity.  That too is daunting, but the good news about choosing to live that kind of righteousness is that it comes with grace.  It comes with the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on us to live the Gospel.  We have to pray for that grace every day, and we have to strive to live the rather rigorous righteousness that Jesus calls for in today’s Scripture readings.

As the writer of Sirach in our first reading tells us, this kind of righteousness is a choice that we must make.  He says,

He has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.

When we make the wrong choice, or fail to make the right choice, we have sinned.  But we know that our sins are not who we are and are not who we are called to be.  We have the Sacrament of Penance to set us back on the right path and to wash our sins away.  If you haven’t made a confession in a while, now is the time.  Take advantage of the healing grace our Lord longs to pour out on you.  I’m always amazed at how much joy I feel when I have gone to confession.  It’s the only cure for our unrighteous thoughts, words and actions.

Jesus gives us an incredible challenge in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  But he does not leave us without the grace to live it out.  We just have to choose, every day, to live the Gospel.  We have to pray, every day, for the grace to do that with integrity.  And when we fail, we have to receive the Sacrament of Penance so that the grace to do better will be poured out in our lives.  It’s not the easiest way to live our lives, but it is the most blessed.  As the Psalmist says today, “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”