The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This weekend we continue our preaching series at Saint Mary Immaculate called “A Crash Course in Catholicism.”  Please continue to pray for the success of this preaching series, and for the openness for all to receive the grace God is pouring out on us in these days.   So far we have spoken about the fundamental Good News of our faith that we are saved by Jesus Christ.  God did not abandon us in our sinfulness, but in love sent us His Son, Jesus, to free us from sin and death by His own life, death and resurrection. God desires our salvation and healing.

In following God’s plan, we connect our lives to His through prayer, which we spoke of at length last week.  Hopefully over the past week you’ve had a chance to reflect on the way you pray, why you pray, and perhaps even tried some new way of prayer.

So this week, we are reflecting on our call to discipleship, our living of the Good News of Jesus Christ in such a way that it is infectious to others.  This call to discipleship isn’t just for Sundays, or even primarily for Sundays, but an everyday decision to follow Christ and walk in the way he has marked out for us.

Looking at the parable in today’s Gospel reading, I’m going to be very bold and say, 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, of all people, 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. The text even says that the prayer he prayed, he said to himself.  Did you catch that?  Not to God, but to himself!  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.

So who here was the disciple?  It would seem like it would have been the praying, fasting Pharisee.  But is it?  Discipleship involves discipline – they have the same root word – a discipline that binds oneself to God and is committed to real change.  The Pharisee was self-righteous: he prayed to himself, did what made himself look good, it was all about him.  The tax-collector, on the other hand, had a righteousness that came from the mercy of God.  Because he depended on God, he was able to find forgiveness, bind himself to mercy, and go home justified.  Disciples don’t follow themselves, they follow Jesus.  They don’t pray to themselves, they follow Jesus.  They aren’t righteous in themselves, they are righteous in Jesus.

Disciples aren’t perfect – certainly the tax-collector was not – but disciples are open to conversion, open to a true change in their lives that allows the mercy of God to make them a new creation.  Disciples think of everything in terms of their walk with Christ and living the Gospel.  They do it every day, not just Sunday.  When a decision needs to be made at work, they think about Jesus’ example and how the decision might affect others.  When deciding where to spend their family’s resources, they think about the good they are called to do.  When working through a relationship issue, they think about where God is in that relationship and direct their energies in that way.  Disciples see themselves first and foremost as sons and daughters of God, and everything else in their lives falls in line with that identification.  They may not be perfect, but they are open to being perfected.

Disciples find themselves in the Church, receiving the Sacraments the Church offers them in order to perfect their lives of faith.  They receive the mercy of God in sacramental confession, and they live on the strength of God by receiving God’s Word and the Body and Blood of our Lord at Mass.

Just like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we have come to this holy place 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?

I want to give you the opportunity to pray with this today…

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

Saturday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sin is exhausting.  Just like the barren tree was exhausting the soil.  Anyone who has struggled with sin, or a pattern of sin, in his or her life 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 from family, friends, and all those whose spiritual companionship we need in order to grow as Christian men and women and flourish in the world.  That goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, who suddenly became aware of and ashamed of their nakedness in the Garden of Eden, and to Saint Paul who prayed over and over to get rid of his “thorn in the flesh. ” So when we are exhausted by sin, we should not be surprised.  That’s just the way sin works.

But we don’t have to be content with that either.  Our God continues to cultivate our soil and fertilize our lives with the Sacraments.  And, as Saint Paul tells us in the first reading today from his letter to the Romans, sin doesn’t get the last word.  Those who did not know Christ had to live according to the law, with all of its precepts and principles and technicalities.  But the law doesn’t sanctify a person, it only makes them more aware of their guilt and unworthiness.  That’s why God sent his only Son into our world.  It is only through our relationship with Jesus Christ that we can ever be cleansed, only through his sacrifice on the Cross, that we can ever be reunited with our God.

As the Psalmist says today, we are the people who long to see God’s face.  Because nothing else will heal us.  Even if our sin makes us want to turn away and hide, we cannot hide from our God – indeed we dare not hide from our God if we ever want to be unburdened of the exhausting weight of our sinfulness.  At this Eucharist, we celebrate our Lord who cares enough about us to bring us back unstained to the banquet of the Kingdom.  We open ourselves to his mercy, revealing our brokenness, our sinfulness, our shame and our unworthiness.  He opens himself to us in love, binding up that brokenness, erasing the sinfulness, healing our shame and lifting up whatever in us is unworthy.  Jesus Christ is our salvation and our redemption.  Our sins do not define who we are before our God, and we who receive him in the Eucharist today do not ever have to settle for being exhausted by our sins.

Tuesday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I think we get a more vivid picture of today’s Gospel if we’ve ever had the task of weeding a good-sized garden. I’ve done it plenty of times.  It’s not a task I really enjoy, but it is kind of good in that when you finish a job like that, you can look at it and see something good happened. There’s a sense of accomplishment. But discerning what is a weed and what is a plant is sometimes a difficult task.

That’s the kind of question the disciples had for Jesus today.  Jesus had just told them several parables about the kingdom of God, and this one was all the way back on Saturday of last week in the liturgy.  To refresh our memories, the story basically went that the landowner sowed good seed in the field, but when it started to grow, weeds came up too.  His laborers asked him about it and he said, “An enemy has done this.” So they wanted to pull up the weeds, but the master said to let them grow together until harvest time, lest in pulling them up they also accidentally pull up the good plants. They could then be pulled up and burnt at harvest time.

Now I think a good gardener might quibble with the analogy.  But that’s not the point.  The point is good news, and the good news is this: however much we may resemble the weeds from day to day, Jesus gives us the time to grow into much lovelier plants during our lives.  He doesn’t blot us out of the book of life for one transgression.  But the warning is that we only have so much time until the harvest.  If we are going to turn to the God who sowed us and provide good fruit, we need to do it now.  If we wait until the harvest, it may well be too late.  Our God gives us the freedom to choose to be the good seeds in the field of the world, blessed are we who choose to grow that way.

Saturday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There are a lot of pitfalls on the road through our spiritual lives.  We ourselves experience that all the time.  Making our confessions, we have a firm purpose of amendment, but it seems like the devil knows that, and so we barely make it to the parking lot and there’s a new temptation or frustration.  Those pitfalls in the spiritual life are many, and frequent, and exasperating at times.

Jesus said it would be so. Listen to what he says in the Gospel reading again:

The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man
who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.

Did you catch that? The Kingdom of heaven will be like that. It will be planted with good seed, but the enemy will sow weeds.  That’s still the Kingdom of heaven.  So when we are frustrated by the pitfalls we encounter, we can at least take some relative comfort in that our Savior said it would be like that, and we’re still in the Kingdom of heaven.

But what we can’t do is accept that to the point that we decide we can participate in it and still be forgiven.  We can’t love our sins and expect God to save us.  That’s called presumption, and it too is a sin, and a pitfall in the spiritual life.  God is a God of justice; he sees that kind of nonsense and calls it what it is.

So here’s the take away. Yes, there will be pitfalls in the spiritual life.  But when we run into them, it doesn’t mean we’re not still in the Kingdom of heaven. What we have to do is call them what they are, repent, reform our lives, and call on God’s mercy.  But we can’t presume God’s mercy so that we give ourselves permission to sin.  We have to love God more than our sins; love eternity more than today’s passing pleasures. We have to be like the Psalmist today who prophesies that God will take care of the things we worry about if we place our worship in the right place:

“Offer to God praise as your sacrifice
and fulfill your vows to the Most High;
Then call upon me in time of distress;
I will rescue you, and you shall glorify me.”

Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Caiaphas had no idea how prophetic his words were. Actually, as far as the intent of his words went, they were nothing but selfish. The Jews didn’t want to lose their standing with the Romans. As it was, they had an uneasy peace. The Romans pretty much let them practice their religion as long as there wasn’t any trouble. But they knew that if everyone started following Jesus, the Romans would give preference to the new way, in order to keep the peace. The religious leaders couldn’t let that happen, so they began plotting in earnest to kill Jesus, planning to find him when he came to celebrate the upcoming feast day, which they were certain he would attend.

It’s a time of high intrigue, and for Jesus, his hour – the hour of his Passion – is fast approaching. That’s so clear in the Gospel readings in these last days of Lent. In just a few hours we will begin our celebration of Holy Week, waving palms to welcome our king, and praying through his passion and death. It is an emotional time for us as we know our God has given his life for us, the most amazing gift we will ever get. It is also a time of sadness because we know our sins have nailed him to the cross.

But, this is where the significance of Caiaphas’s words brings us joy. Yes, it is better for one person to die than the whole nation. God knew that well when he sent his only Son to be our salvation. Jesus took our place, nailing our sins and brokenness to the cross, dying to pay the price those sins required, and rising to bring the salvation we could never attain on our own. Caiaphas was right. It was better for one person to die than for the whole nation to die. Amazing as it seems, that was God’s plan all along.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Cycle C Readings)

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.  We have confessions on Friday at 6pm, and Saturday at 3pm.  Come to either of them that fit your schedule.  If you miss that, please check the bulletin today for a schedule of confessions at parishes around us.  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.  May we all be open to it.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny III (Cycle A Readings)

Today’s readings

“Lord, by now there will be a stench.”

That’s one of my favorite lines in scripture.  It begs the question I want you to pray about this week, which is this: “What in your life really stinks?”  Because we have to have that stench washed away in order to really live.

If you know my preaching, you’re not going to be at all surprised about this, but I have to tell you honestly, our Gospel reading isn’t about Lazarus.  Yes, he got raised from the dead, so good for him, but he isn’t the center of action in the story.  In fact, he’s dead for most of the reading, so he doesn’t play a major part.   Our Gospel today is about Jesus, who gives us baptism and grace, those helps that are the remedy for all that stinks in our life.

So Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is ill.  He knows that Lazarus will die, and he knows that he will raise Lazarus up, so very much like the rest of John’s Gospel, Jesus is in full control.  He delays going to see Lazarus because it will give him the opportunity that will increase faith in the other players in the story.  So when he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days.  That’s an important detail because it tells us that Lazarus is really, really dead.  The Jews believed that the soul of a person hung around for about three days, but after that, well, he or she was gone forever.  So if Jesus had raised Lazarus on the second day, no big deal.  If on the third day, that would have been a foreshadowing of himself.  But on the fourth day, he raises up someone who is really, really dead: someone just like us.

So just like the man who was born blind last week, we are born dead, in a way.  I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but stay with me.  We are born dead in our sins, and there is nothing we can do to raise ourselves up out of that sinfulness except for the grace of God.  So the movement in our Gospel today is from life that is so mired in sin that it stinks, to life that is so free of death that burial bands and tombs cannot contain it.

During Lent, we have been journeying with our catechumens, who are now called the Elect, as they prepare to be baptized, confirmed, and receive first Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil.  Much like them, there are three groups of catechumens in today’s Gospel.  The first group of these scriptural catechumens is Mary and Martha, those friends of Jesus that are part of John’s Gospel a few times.  Here, the rubber meets the road in their faith.  Here, like so many of us, they have something tragic happen in their lives, and now they have to grapple with whether their faith helps them with that or not.  Mary is so troubled that she doesn’t even go out to meet the Lord until her sister tells her a white lie that Jesus was asking for her.  Both she and Martha, when they first see Jesus, complain that he should have come sooner so that he could have saved Lazarus.  But Martha has a little faith.  She says very importantly that “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  That’s the beginning profession of faith.  She knows that Jesus has power over life and death.  So then they have a little catechetical dialogue about life and death and eternity, and at the end of it, Martha professes that Jesus is the Son of God who was coming into the world.  The sisters move from their grief, to faith in Jesus, even before he accomplishes the miracle.

The second group of catechumens is the Apostles.  God bless them, they’re still trying to make sense of Jesus.  We can’t be too hard on them, because they’re a lot like many of us who are trying to be men and women of faith, but don’t really have all the facts right now.  “Let us also go to die with him,” Thomas says.  And they will, of course: they have to go through the cross before they see and understand Jesus fully.  We too will have to take up our own crosses before we can understand the salvation that Christ has won for us.

The third group of catechumens is the Jews.  A bunch of them are weeping with Mary, and they go with her to see Jesus.  Along the way, they complain that if he could heal the man born blind like he did in last week’s Gospel, why couldn’t he have healed Lazarus?  But seeing the miracle, they come to believe, in the very last verse of this long reading. They are a lot like those of us who are skeptical for a long time, but see something wonderful materialize in the life of another and finally decide there’s something to this Jesus that’s worth believing in.

Key to all of these catechumens is that, in order to move to belief, they had to have some kind of stench in their lives washed away.  For Martha and Mary, they had to get past the stench of their grief.  For the Apostles, they had to get over the stench of trying to figure things out and realize that Jesus was in charge.  For the Jews, they had to get past the stench of their skepticism and let him perform miracles among them.  For all of us, on the journey of faith, some kind of stench has to be washed away, in order to come to full faith in Jesus.  And that stench is, of course, sin.  The way it gets washed away is in baptism.

So if you take away anything from today’s Liturgy, let it be this: this reading is really all about baptism, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Is it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection?  Well, okay, yes, maybe a little.  But it is more about baptism.  Because baptism is a kind of death.  As Saint Paul says in our second reading today, baptism is the kind of death that gives life to our mortal bodies.  It’s hard for us to imagine that kind of thing when the baptisms we’ve seen are just a mere pouring of water over a baby’s head.  But baptism in the early church was full submerging in water while the formula was pronounced, after which they came up out of the water gasping for air.  Believe me, they got the connection of baptism with death and resurrection!

Baptism is what washes away the stench in our lives.  It does that with original sin, and if we live our baptism by participating in the sacraments, it does that with the sins of our daily life.  The sacrament of Penance is an extension, in a way, of the sacrament of Baptism, in which the sins of our lives are completely washed away, leaving us made new and alive in ways we couldn’t imagine.

So today, Jesus sees us dead in the flesh, stinking of our sins.  But he calls us forth in baptism, rolling away the stone of sin that keeps us from relationship with him, releasing us from the burial-bands that bind us, and calling us to new life.

So maybe in these closing days of Lent, we still have to respond to our Lord’s call to live. Maybe you haven’t yet been to confession before Easter.  We have confessions tomorrow at 2:00pm until all have been heard, then Friday at 6pm, and Saturday at 3pm.  Come to any of them that fit your schedule.  If you miss that, please check the bulletin today for a schedule of confessions at parishes around us.  We invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths.  Wherever you find yourself at this point of Lent, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave.  Lent ends just before Evening Prayer on Holy Thursday.  That gives us around ten and a half days to take up our Lenten resolutions anew, or even make new ones, so that we can receive new life in Christ.  Don’t spend these days in the grave.  Come out, be untied, and be let go.

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.

Monday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We’re still in the opening chapters of human history in our first reading, and in these opening chapters we see some of the less beautiful parts of human nature. The first reading reads like an exposition of deadly sins, and these sins have continued to plague humanity ever since.

We start with envy, as Cain laments that his offering was not accepted with the same favor as was his brother, Abel’s. We move from envy to murder, with Cain committing the very first fratricide, killing his very own brother. From there, we go to apathy, as Cain rejects the call to be his brother’s keeper. And then we meet false witness, as he lies about the murder that he committed. And if all of that isn’t enough, Cain then complains about his punishment as if it was something he didn’t deserve. If he’d only tried repentance, or expressed sorrow for his sins, or even accepted responsibility for what he’d done, maybe things would have turned out differently.

But, in this opening act of human history, we also see God’s mercy. Because of justice, God does not remit the entirety of Cain’s punishment, but he does decree that even his death would be unacceptable. Maybe we should think about that in regard to the death penalty: if even God doesn’t condone the murder of a murderer, then who are we to do that? So God marks Cain, as we all are marked with God’s presence at our baptism. So even in this very early story of our history, we can see that baptism was always intended for our salvation.

The Psalmist this morning says that we absolutely cannot profess God’s commandments and sing his praises, without also accepting God’s discipline and following God’s word. A sacrifice of praise is a life lived with integrity, and that is the sacrifice that God wants of us in every moment.

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