Friday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

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

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

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

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

What does it take for us disciples to be not far from the Kingdom of God? It takes a Lent of repentance, a desire to hear and meditate on God’s Word and his presence in our lives, and then to love like there was nothing else to do in the whole world. I’ve been reflecting on the fact that this is the lentiest Lent I can ever remember, or want to have again! But the fact that we all have to keep social distance and stay home to contain COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to slow down, to quiet ourselves, and to make things right. And our Scriptures today give us a way to do all that.

Friday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Today’s readings remind us that Lent is no time for “business as usual.” It’s not enough for us to merely claim to be righteous, because righteousness, literally a right relationship, means that righteous actions must back our lofty words. And so today we are called to a righteousness that surpasses the scribes and Pharisees, a righteousness that goes beyond our words and our reputations and what we want people to think about us. The righteousness that Jesus calls us to today is a righteousness that starts where everything must, and that is in the heart.

Today’s Gospel comes from the somewhat scary “but I say to you” section of Matthew’s Gospel. Here, Jesus reiterates the teachings of Moses and then “kicks them up a notch.” That means that harsh words, grudges, anger, backbiting, gossiping and slander share equal dishonor with outright murder. They all, Jesus tells us, violate the fifth commandment, because they all start with the same murderous inclination of the heart. The one who has harbored these evil thoughts and actions must repent of them and seek reconciliation before offering his or her gift at the altar, or the offering will be tainted, ruined, and ultimately rendered sacrilegious.

Ezekiel’s prophecy in the first reading is good news for those of us who have gone astray. His prophecy holds out the possibility of a second chance for us sinners and calls us to a fundamental change of life. Even if we have been known for our wicked deeds, we have the opportunity to repent and change our hearts and lives. If we repent, God will forget our wickedness and treat us with mercy.

The Psalmist today rejoices in God who is trustworthy with his mercy and forgiveness. In this time of Lenten repentance, we can have confidence in our God who longs to bring us back:

For with the Lord is kindness

and with him is plenteous redemption;

And he will redeem [all of us]from all [our] iniquities.

Advent Penance Service

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-26 | Psalm 27 | Matthew 3:1-12

How often do we all have sins that we would like to see go away and leave us alone already, but then go back and do the same things again?  We can’t just say, “oh, sorry” and then move on and never give our sins another thought.  But at the same time, we can’t dwell on them, either, or they’ll never leave us.  It’s a fine line we walk, for sure.  

Saint John the Baptist illustrates the issue.  At that time, it says that everyone was flocking to him: “Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan.”  They heard his call to repent and embrace the kingdom of heaven.  But apparently, also tagging along were a large number of Pharisees and Sadducees, and John saw that their repentance was not genuine.  He demands that they all produce good fruit as evidence of their repentance.

And well does he demand this, because repentance has to look like something.  It has to be metanoia: a complete change of mind and heart, really a turning around to head in a new direction.  It can’t be doing the same thing time after time and expecting something new to happen – that’s not how it works.  It’s important to see that this metanoia does NOT imply hanging on to our sins and feeling terrible about ourselves because of them.  Indeed, to really turn around, you have to let go of what’s binding you: surrender and renounce the sin and accept the grace of forgiveness.

That’s a very Advent-y disposition, really.  Advent is a time of expectation of something new, something uniquely wonderful, something world-shattering and life-changing.  In order to really enter into Advent, we have to be willing to be changed ourselves, to have our world shattered, so that we can make a place for the wonderful gift of Jesus to be born in our hearts.

God’s presence doesn’t require much: a stable and an empty manger will do.  But if we’ve used the manger to store up our past sins and our impure desires and our fear of real change, then Christ can’t enter in and give us grace and mercy.  We have to, have to, have to turn around, head in a different direction, renounce our past brokenness, and clear out the way for Jesus to be born in us and change our everything.

Which is what brings us here tonight.  Please God don’t let us be that brood of vipers that wants to put on the act of repentance, but help us really repent.  Help us to turn around and head in the direction the star points out to us, which will lead us to your presence in our lives, every time.

Thanks be to God he never stops looking for that empty manger in our hearts.

Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent / Saint Patrick

Today’s readings

I used to be upset that Saint Patrick’s Day always happened during Lent.  I’d have to postpone the celebration of my favorite saint until Sunday, especially if it fell on a Friday, because we just didn’t have corned beef on Friday, you know.  But as I’ve grown older, I appreciate that Saint Patrick’s Day is in Lent, because I think Saint Patrick has a lot to say to us about Lent.

Lent, is a time of conversion and renewal of faith.  Saint Patrick’s life was one of conversion.  He wrote about that in his famous Confession, which was a work that talked all about his life of faith.  Listen to what he said at the beginning of it:  “And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance.  And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”

And so we have here a great story of conversion.  Because we are sinners too, right?  I think that it’s so important for us to see that the great saints didn’t start out that way.  They were sinners, but they just kept on trying to be better, to be holier, to come to know and love God more.  Saint Patrick writes of an unmentioned sin, dating from before he was ordained, even before he was living a Christian life.  The sin was apparently known to a friend of his – a friend who lobbied for him to become a bishop, and then later betrayed him to his superiors.  Patrick had long since moved on from where he was at the time this sin was committed, he is an older man now, looking back on the mistakes he made as a youth, and not bearing any ill-will toward those who would rub his nose in it, he thanks God for the strength he has since gained: “So I give thanks to the one who cared for me in all my difficulties, because he allowed me to continue in my chosen mission and the work that Christ my master taught me.  More and more I have felt inside myself a great strength because my faith was proven right before God and the whole world.”  It’s just like what we heard from Ezekiel in today’s first reading: If the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die. God wants us to turn back to him, always.

Saint Patrick had to weather so many storms in his life. He was kidnapped and enslaved, he worked in mission territory among people who at times were hostile to the Christian way of life, he was betrayed by a friend and besieged by fellow clergymen who were jealous of the success of his ministry and critical of the way he did it.  But through it all, he was grateful for the power of God at work in him.  The faith that led him to be that way was nourished on a strong friendship with God.

One of my favorite things that we have from Saint Patrick is known as the “Lorica” or “Breastplate” prayer.  Some say he didn’t actually write it, but I think he did, because it was the kind of thing that he would have written, given the faith that he had. It’s a great prayer of deliverance from evil and reliance on the power of God:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through the confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the Judgment Day.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of demons,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

What a wonderful prayer, a prayer that we would recognize Christ in every part of our day, no matter how little or big a thing we are doing. That we would recognize Christ in every person in our lives, and that we would recognize Christ wherever we are.

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading is very interesting, I think. The beginning of the passage names important people at that particular time in Israel: Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and also the high priests: Annas and Caiaphas. Finally it names John the Baptist, who was, at that particular time in history, heralding the unveiling of God’s plan for salvation.  Luke does all this to say that, while the Word of the Lord came to John, who was pretty obscure, and many thought was crazy, still that Word came at a particular point in history, a time they could remember and observe.  God was getting real in their midst, and John wasn’t so much crazy as he was on fire.

His message was a message of change, which no one likes.  So it’s no wonder they labeled him crazy and made him take his message to the desert instead of the city and the temple precincts.  Better that than actually changing their lives.  That would be unthinkable!  But John’s message is clear.  God wanted to burst into their midst, and they we didn’t make changes, they were going to miss it.  It’s a message as pertinent and poignant now as it was then.

Because we are a people who could use some time in the desert.  Now, I don’t mean we should go to an actual desert or even take a trip to Las Vegas! I mean, we need to calm down and find some peace in our lives, because with all the craziness and busy-ness of our lives, we stand a pretty good chance of missing the Advent of our Savior as all the people back then did.  We might be just as impatient with a John the Baptist as the people were then.  Who wants to hear the word “repent?”  That means a real change in our lives that we are often not willing to make.

I remember several years ago when we first had the new Roman Missal.  It was Ash Wednesday, and one of those prayers changed too.  Instead of saying “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” we now say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  I had not one but two people who were very angry with me when I said that to them.  That word “repent” hit a nerve and they were quick to protest that repenting was not something they needed to do.  But we all do, friends.  Me included. Repent means turning around and going in another direction.  Because we all get off track here and there in our lives.  Repent means turning back to God, our God who is waiting to break into our lives and be born among us this Advent.

John is really clear about what kind of repenting needs to be done.  If we are going to prepare a way for the Lord, we are going to have to make straight the winding roads: stop meandering all over the place, and walk with purpose to communion with the Lord.  We are going to have to fill in the valleys and level the mountains, because God doesn’t come in fits and spurts, showing up every now and then for a mountain top experience and then taking his leave when times bring you down.  He’s there always and forever.  We are going to have to make those rough ways smooth, because every time we’re jostled around on those rough roads, we stand the chance of getting thrown off the path.  We have to repent, to change, to become vessels in which our Lord can be born so that all flesh can see God’s salvation in us.

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. Every Saturday we have confessions at 3pm until all are heard. Next Saturday we also will be having them after the 7:30 morning Mass.  And finally, on Sunday the 23rd, we will have several priests to hear your confession after the 12:15 Mass until all are heard. 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.

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 coming in our lives.

Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Quite honestly, this Gospel story is a little strange, maybe even surprising.  I was particularly struck by what the messenger said to Jesus when he asked him to come to the centurion’s house: “He deserves to have you do this for him.”  As if any of us is ever worthy of God’s mercy!  To his credit, the centurion must have heard of this, because he hurries to Jesus to set things right: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.  Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.”  And what he says also explains why he sent a messenger to come to Jesus instead of coming himself.  For his part, Jesus is impressed with the man’s faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says.  And so the healing of the man’s slave takes place at once.  It’s an interesting exchange, to be sure.

We have the privilege, every time we gather for the Eucharist, to echo the centurion’s faith.  The prayer that we say, just before we come to the Altar for Holy Communion, says this: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  And saying those words out loud is so important at that moment in the Mass.  Unless we truly believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are sufficient for the healing of our souls, unless we truly know that we are completely unworthy of God’s mercy, then we don’t have the faith necessary to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.

But when we do enter into that moment of Communion with hearts open in faith, everything changes for us.  True healing can come about, and we can return to our daily lives and find our souls healed with the grace that prepares them for whatever this world brings us.

Thursday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel parable is admittedly a bit of a head scratcher.  It almost seems to portray our God in a rather unfavorable light, comparing him to a capricious king who destroys whole cities after being snubbed by some invited guests, and then tosses out a visitor who seems to have come to the banquet poorly dressed.  But obviously, that surface-level reading of the parable is inadequate, and so we have an invitation to read perhaps a bit deeper.

Put very plainly, the banquet is the Eucharist, given for all.  The wedding is the marriage of God with his people, which makes us one with him and opens up the possibility of eternity for those who accept it.  Those guests who refused to come were the leaders of the Jewish people, who should have been looking for the feast and should have welcomed it with eager longing.  But instead they mistreated and murdered the servant-messengers, who were the prophets who announced God’s reign and helped forge the covenant.

Those then who were pulled in off the streets to share in the banquet are everyone else who hears the Word of God and responds to it.  The guest thrown out for improper attire are those who accept the invitation of Christ with their lips, but remain clothed in the filthy garments of worldly desire and ambition instead of giving themselves to the marriage completely.

So, if it’s not already obvious, we are among those pulled in off the streets.  We have heard the Word of God and know his desire to be one with us.  The question is, what kind of garments have we been wearing?  Are we clothed in that white garment of pure desire for God that is given us in Holy Baptism, or have we cast that beautiful vesture aside for the filth of the world? If it’s been the latter, filthy garment we have been wearing, today’s message is that it is time to wash them white in the Blood of the Lamb, the one who came to give his life that we might be wedded to him for all eternity.

Saturday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Return and live!”

This is very good advice from the prophet Ezekiel.  He was preaching to a nation that was steeped in sin, and whose sinfulness was passed on from previous generations.  But unlike the punishments of old, where God punished those who sinned for many generations, Ezekiel proclaimed that God was going to do something new.  He was going to punish only those who did wrong, and bless those who did right.  If the son sinned, it was not the father’s fault, and if the mother sinned, it was not the daughter who would pay the price.

We might call that “personal responsibility,” a notion that doesn’t get as much adherence these days as it ought to.  Now if the son sins, the parents sue the person who punished the son for it.  Nothing is anyone’s fault; no one has to step up and take responsibility for what they’ve done.  Or at least it sure seems that way.

Ezekiel would take us all to task for that philosophy.  Our God is Truth, and we should live that truth every day of our lives.  So if we’ve wandered from that, Ezekiel has the remedy today: “Return and live!”

Thursday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel is an impetus for the third Luminous Mystery of the Rosary: the proclamation of the Kingdom of God with its call to repentance.  Jesus charges his Apostles to go out and proclaim that the Kingdom is at hand, with all its accompanying signs and wonders.  We have to understand that this is the Church’s main job in every time and place.  We are now the ones who have to proclaim the Kingdom of God and call people to repentance by the witness of our lives.

We are now the ones called to drive out demons, cure the sick, and all the rest.  We do this by being Christ’s presence in a world that is sorely in need of it.  We drive out demons by casting the glorious light of Christ into every dark corner.  We cure the sick by reaching out to those who are ill, looking in on them, caring for them, bringing the Eucharist to them.

We also have to understand, though, that sometimes our efforts won’t prove fruitful.  Sometimes our peace won’t be received because the other person is not peaceful.  All we can do is do our best, offer Christ, and move on if that’s not accepted.  And we have to trust that God will give us everything we need on our journey.

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