Tuesday, March 28, 2017

5th Sunday of Lent

Last week, the 4th Sunday of Lent, marked the halfway point of the season… Laetare Sunday… one of only two times during the year where the presiding priest wears rose colored vestments instead of the seasonal purple.  This week we begin to sense the end of Lent is near.  In horse racing terms we’re rounding the final turn heading into the stretch.  The last Sunday before Palm Sunday.  For many people, the end of something usually means death, but as our readings teach us, it is actually much more…

Ezekiel 37:12-14
Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Romans 8:8-11
John 11:1-45

We open with a reading from the prophet Ezekiel.  While not often read during the Liturgical cycle, Ezekiel is considered one of the major prophets, and his message is as unique as his calling.  Ezekiel, having been born into the priestly class, received his call to prophecy 10 years into the Babylonian Exile.  This makes him the first Israelite prophet to receive his call outside of Israel, and is often referred to as the “Father of Judaism” because as both a priest and a prophet, his writings had a major influence on the post-exilic practice of the faith.  Today’s passage from Ezekiel comes from his “Vision of the Dry Bones.”  Through this vision we see hope for the restoration of Jerusalem.  To our Christian ears this reading would seem to deal with the doctrine of resurrection, but that is not the focus of the reading.  Rather, it is a literary device used to show the hope of the restoration of Israel… a sentiment echoed by our Psalm as we sing “with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.”  In keeping with our focus on Baptism, the symbol of “restoration” is clear… it is through Baptism that we are redeemed for the Lord… washed clean of our sin.

Our second reading comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In this passage Paul explains that we are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, and by having the Spirit within us, we become more than flesh.  We are, people of the resurrection… an Easter People.  Again, remembering our Baptism, Paul says “Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”  Our Baptism is what brings us to Christ, becoming part of the Body of Christ.

Finally in our Gospel, unique to John, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus.  As with our Gospels for the past two weeks, John goes to great lengths to give us the initial setup… by explaining who Lazarus and his family are, how important they are to Jesus, and how fearful the Apostles are at going near the city (noting that this story follows just before the Passover celebration and the Gospel’s final discourses before the Passion).  Again, John is using “the slow reveal” so that he can impress upon us the importance of this moment.  As with everything in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ actions are deliberate… waiting before going to see Lazarus, the responses of both Mary and Martha, Jesus’ not going into the house or the tomb.  All these elements are meant to show Jesus’ power (through God) over death, and that this evidence should be irrefutable.  Just as Jesus shows God’s power to overcome death, our own Baptism is a sign of rebirth, a resurrection to new life in Christ.

Final Thoughts:
Death = Life.  If I had to reduce all of Christian understanding down to one equation, it would have to be this.  Yet to many of us this looks impossible, like  2 + 2 = 5.  It’s counter-intuitive.  But anyone who has studied advanced mathematics and statistics knows that a seemingly simple mathematical expressions can mean different things depending on the variables and the context of the equation.  So too with our Christian understanding.  In fact, the very nature of our Christian ethos is counter-intuitive.  Perhaps the best way to explain this is with the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

If I had to explain our Christian belief to a child, I would have to say it’s like “opposite day.”  Whatever you think is “right” or “normal” Christians believe the opposite.  When someone hits you, you don’t hit back, you “turn the other cheek.”  When someone wants your tunic, you don’t fight him for it, you give him your cloak as well.  When someone hates you, you must love them.  Even today, in what some proclaim to be our “Christian” nation, what is practiced isn’t necessarily what is preached.  Christ challenges us to do better.  To do more.  As Lent nears its conclusion, we are challenged to look beyond the status quo.  We are reminded of the life giving water, the revealing truth of light, and that God, through Christ, can bring everlasting life.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

4th Sunday of Lent

Our journey through Salvation History continues as we enter the 4th week of Lent.  Not only are we exposed to some pivotal moments in our journey of faith, but in remembering our Baptism, we continue to reflect on the symbols and meanings of this Sacrament:

1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a
Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Our first reading is from 1st Book of Samuel.  Samuel, as you may remember, was the last of the Judges, and to whom the people of Israel came to ask for a king.  This was not what God wanted, but he granted their request, and Saul is appointed as the first King of Israel.  At this point in the narrative, Saul is getting on in years, and the people need a successor.  None of Saul’s sons are suited to the task, so God points Samuel to David, whom he anoints as the chosen one.  But how does this story fit with our Psalm, which has us singing, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”  This well known Psalm reminds us that God is our shepherd.  David, who was out tending sheep when Samuel came calling, was also charged to be a shepherd to lead his people back to God.  Just as David recognized God, we too must recognize that God is the one in whom we should turn for all our needs.  As for how this reading connects with Baptism… this is seen in the oil with which David was anointed by Samuel.  We too are anointed with oil as we are baptized… anointed to be priests, prophets, and kings, as was David, as was Christ.

In our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the evangelist exhorts them to ‘live as children of light”  for as he says, “everything exposed by the light becomes visible.”  For Paul, darkness is all too real, having been struck blind by his first encounter with the risen Christ.  That blindness and darkness is exposed and brushed aside by the truth and light that is found in Christ.  Paul reminds us that we were “once darkness,” but through the light of Christ we “arise from the dead” and are redeemed.  Light also plays a role in our Baptism.  During the Rite of Baptism we receive “the Light of Christ” in the form of a candle that has been lit from the Easter Candle.  When we are baptized, we become “children of light.”

Our Gospel, again from John, tells the story of the man born blind.  As with the story of the woman at the well from last week, we witness a story of conversion – a man’s journey, literally, from darkness to light.  Jesus does not accept the common understanding that a person’s ailments are the result of their sin, or the sin of their family.  Instead, he takes this opportunity to challenge everyone’s notion of blindness and light.  The blind man was marginalized not only by the Pharisees, but by all the people… What we would call a “social sin,”  where the actions and policies of an entire society are found to be “in the darkness.”  This passage not only challenges our notion of right and wrong, cause and effect, but is meant to force us into action for those issues that society may not readily want to face – to bring them into the light.  Through Baptism we are also brought from darkness to light. 

Final Thoughts:

St. Paul teaches us to be “Children of Light.”  Paul sees light as an antibiotic to all that is dark, base, and sinful.  Exposing everything to the light reveals its nature – ugly or beautiful – allowing us to see it for what it is, and to reject it or accept it accordingly.  The symbols of Baptism are meant to be cleansing.  The water, the oil, the white garment, the lighted candle, are meant to reveal how the Sacrament removes our sin and makes us a new creation.  The season of Lent is an opportunity to shed light on our lives.  To see where we have fallen short, to seek forgiveness, and renew our relationship with God.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

3rd Sunday of Lent

We are now deep into our Lenten season of reflection, and from this Sunday through to Palm Sunday, our readings take on much deeper meaning as we continue our journey through Salvation History.  In fact, the Church has found this cycle of readings to be so important, she has chosen them to be used specifically for the RCIA in the Scrutiny Rites.  As we are in Cycle A this year, the entire Church gets to have an encounter with these powerful readings…

Exodus 17:3-7
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
John 4:5-42

We open a reading from the book of Exodus.  At this point the Israelites have escaped Pharaoh and his army having crossed the Red Sea.  They are now free, but have yet to reach Mount Sinai.  They are traveling through the “wilderness,”  a barren stretch of land between the sea and the Sinai.  Food was running out so the Lord gave them manna.  Now the water is running out and there is none to be found, so the refugees are crying out to the Lord and to Moses for water.  After all they’ve been through, they are now beginning to think that leaving Egypt, where they were slaves, was a bad idea.  Even with their grumbling, however, the Lord, through Moses, provides them with water.  Thinking back to the Sacrament of Baptism, the water references are obvious.  This God-given water is a source of life.  But if we are to reape the benefits of this life-giving water, we must also put our trust in God.  This need for trust is reflected in our Psalm as we sing, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

Our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  This letter is one of the most important of all the Epistles in the New Testament, as noted by its placement right after the book of Acts of the Apostles.  Unlike Paul’s other letters, this letter isn’t so much addressing specific problems within the community as it is presenting the overall aspects of the faith – like an early catechism for the Church.  Rome is also a mixed Church… mostly Gentile, but with a small population of Jewish converts.  In addressing both these communities we read about how we have been “justified by faith.”  We now have peace with God through Jesus.  For us we see this same justification through Baptism.  Not only does our Baptism bring us into God’s grace, but that grace also brings us hope through the Holy Spirit.

Our Gospel for this Sunday (and for the next two Sundays) steps away from Matthew so we can focus on three very important stories from John’s Gospel.  This week, the story of the Woman at the Well.  Compared to most of our readings, these Gospel passages are quite long passage, but this length is necessary to give us the gradual revelation of their truth.  In this week’s story, Jesus is traveling though Samaria (the region of the former Northern Kingdom) where he meets a Samaritan woman drawing water from the town well.  Through their conversation we not only learn the woman’s story, but she and her community learn that Jesus is no ordinary man.  Like our own journey of faith, this is a story of discovery, through gradual revelation.  Again we see water as a focal point of the story, reminding us again of the waters of Baptism.  But this is just a starting point for us.  Like the woman, we eventually leave our water jar behind so that we can discover and experience the Gospel that Jesus brings.

Final Thoughts:
It seems to me that another theme we get from these readings is “are we there yet?”  That famous line I’m sure we’ve all uttered as kids sitting in the back seat of the car eager to get to our destination.  There is a certain weariness we’re all starting to feel at this point in our Lenten journey.  We’re not quite yet to the halfway point, but already we want it to be over.  In our first reading the Israelites in the wilderness are beginning to wonder if leaving Egypt was a good idea.  In our second reading the Church in Rome wondering why following this Jesus Christ is so important.  In our Gospel, the woman at the well, weary of her life, sees no way out of her situation.  Even the Apostles in our Gospel seem to be growing weary of Jesus taking this side-trip to Samaria, a place where they know they are not welcomed.  Are we there yet?  How do we push past these point in our lives?

Our readings provide the answer.  Perseverance and trust.  Sticking with it even though it seems like it’s hopeless.  Trusting in God that he will fulfill his promises.  Not everything comes to us all at once… a lesson that seems ever harder to understand in this world of instant gratification.  God embraces what story writers call “the slow reveal.”  Like our Gospel story.  She can’t take Jesus at face value.  That’s too much.  Instead she takes things one step at a time, as should we.  Giving ourselves the chance to digest what we’ve experienced before moving on to the next moment.  Our journey through Lent and our Story of Salvation is slow and deliberate, allowing us the time needed to digest one piece before moving onto the next.  Patience, perseverance, and trust will see us though.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

2nd Sunday of Lent

On this second Sunday of Lent we continue our journey through Salvation History, focusing on those people and their lives that reveal to us God’s loving and saving grace.  Lent is also a time to prepare for or remember our baptism, so with that in mind, let us turn to our readings:

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
2 Timothy 1:8b-10
Matthew 17:1-9

We open with a story from the book of Genesis where we are introduced to the first great patriarch, Abraham.  Of course, he hasn’t yet received this new name.  At this point in the story, he is introduced as
Abram, son of Terah, and is called by God to go forth from his land and from his relatives to a land that God will show him.  All this with the promise that the Lord will make of him a great nation.  God is essentially asking Abram to give up everything based on a promise of great blessings.  This reflects a great deal of trust that Abram must have in God’s promises.  Trust that is reflected in our Psalm as we sing, “Lord, let our mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.”  But where is the reference to baptism in this story?  Just as Abram was chosen and blessed, we are all chosen and blessed by our baptism.  During the Rite of Election as the catechumens are called down to approach the bishop, we sing, “you are chosen, you are blessed, you are a sign of God’s love.”  Just as Abram was chosen.

Our second reading is from Paul’s second letter to Timothy.  Timothy as you may remember, was a protégé of Paul’s and a leader in the community in Ephesus.  Paul reminds Timothy (and us) that though there may be hardships, we can find strength in God, and his saving grace is proved in the risen Christ.  As for how this passage reminds us of baptism, we hear it in these lines, “He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works, but according to his own design.”  We do not “earn” baptism.  It is a gift freely given, and must be freely received.  Through our baptism we are both made holy and called to be holy, washing away any previous sin (including original sin) and following the way of Christ.

Our Gospel from Matthew is the story of the Transfiguration… when the glory of Christ is revealed to Peter, James, and John up on the mountain.  During that moment Jesus stands before them in brilliant light, with Moses and Elijah standing at his side,  two of the most trusted prophets called by God.  It is a powerful moment, and the Apostles are almost speechless.  Not only does this show the mutual trust between Jesus and his chosen disciples, but with the voice of God coming from the cloud shows us the Father’s trust in his Son.  It is a pivotal moment in the Gospel as Christ’s true nature is revealed.  Our baptism is also a moment of transfiguration.  We cease to be what we were and become someone new.

Final Thoughts:

Trust is a funny thing.  It comes so naturally to us when we are born, as if God placed it in our DNA.  A child’s trust that his parents will care for them.  A trust in a friend or a sibling we know will always be there for us.  But trust can be, and often is, betrayed.  As we get older we tend to be much more cautious about giving or receiving trust because we’ve all been burnt before.  That kind of experience makes us stingy with trust.  But we need to be careful, because if we’re too stingy, we can find ourselves missing the important "calls" in our lives.  You’ve probably heard the saying, “Let go and let God.”  The story of Salvation, and in particular our readings for this week, remind us that God can be trusted.  That the promise of Jesus and the Gospel can be trusted.  That the promise of salvation through our baptism can be trusted.  We are no different than all the others we’ve read about today... Abram, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, John, Paul, Timothy, and even Jesus.   They had their doubts, but they were able to put those aside for the voice of God.  There are times where we too must put our trust in that voice, for only then will we find that our call from God is genuine, and that his love does not disappoint.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Give up Church for Lent?

A very interesting article was posted in today's Angelus email.  Give up Church for Lent. 

Obviously the headline is meant to grab you, but the message is important, not just for this Lent, but for many other times too...

Those of us who work in ministry, and especially for those who are employed by the Church, it is all too easy to get caught up in the politics and palace intrigue that surrounds the institutional Church.  The Church, in many ways, is no different than any other  government or corporation or family, where we can get lost in the minutia of the day-to-day, and forget the larger picture... and in our case, the picture can't be any larger... building a relationship with God through his creation.

I have heard many Catholics complain about certain aspects of the institutional church, and I too have gotten caught up in this.  In working with adults who seek to join the Church, through the RCIA or other conversion process, some complain that their family or friends don't understand how they could join an institution that is so corrupt.  What I need to constantly remind people is that they need to separate the institution from their faith.  Their faith in God, and the relationship that is built and strengthened through the Sacraments... going to Mass, receiving the Eucharist, finding moments for prayer and reflection, having that regular conversation with God.  Remembering that Christ taught us to serve, not be served.

I remember back when the film "The DaVinci Code" came out.  I remember reading articles from the press about how the so-called revelations from the story shook Catholics to their core... that their beliefs were called into question.  Many parishes and ministry groups and parent groups held meetings and workshops talking about this because it was on everyone's mind.  The first point that needed to be made, of course, was that this was a work of fiction.  This was not real.  I also liked to remind people that there's no possible way the Church is organized enough to pull off such a scheme.  Most of our own parishes can't keep their parish calendars and school calendars in sync, so how could we possibly keep such a big secret for so long.

But once we get past the "work of fiction" idea, it opens the gate for some interesting conversation.  Suppose the premise of the film (and the book) was true?  How would that change the core aspects of our faith?  God is still God.  Christ still lived and taught and preached... still suffered, died, was buried and rose from the dead.  The Holy Spirit came and continues to guide us.  The Mass nor any of the Sacraments lose their grace or meaning.  It changes nothing. 

The Church, that perfect gathering of the faithful through Christ should not be confused with the Institutional Church, which carries with it all the human flaws and failings of any human organization.  If people come to me with doubts about the Holy Spirit at work in the world I only need to remind them about the Institutional Church which has managed to survive these 2017 some years.  As empires have come and gone, the Church still survives, despite her many mistakes and failings.  I like to say that if not for the Holy Spirit, we humans would have destroyed the church long ago.

So this Lent, give up the institutional church.  Come to Mass.  Celebrate the Sacraments.  Our faith is so much more that it cannot be contained, and join in the dance that truly is "church."

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

1st Sunday of Lent

When you think of the season of Lent, what do you think of?  When you ask this of most Catholics, they will usually say that it’s a season of penance, for giving something up, for prayer and for giving alms.  These are right, of course, but not entirely.  According to the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy promulgated from the Second Vatican Council, “The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery.”  While those who are preparing for Baptism use this season of Lent as a period of “Purification and Enlightenment,” all of us Catholics are called to remember our own Baptisms as a primary focus for Lent in addition to penance.  With that emphasis in mind, let us see how baptism plays into our readings for this first week of Lent:

Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

As would be fitting for the beginning of Lent, our readings also start at the beginning with the creation of man and woman, and their fall from grace.  In a passage from the book of Genesis, we learn first of how the Lord God created Man and placed him in the Garden of Eden.  Then the text skips ahead to the story of the woman and the serpent, and how he entices the woman and the man to eat of the forbidden fruit.  This is the familiar story of man’s fall from grace.  Why is this story important on this particular Sunday?  The Easter Proclamation we hear at the Easter Vigil…the Exsultet, tells us.  In the line where we sing “O necessary sin of Adam.”  Why do we say “necessary?”  Because without it we would not have salvation through Jesus Christ.  This sin of Adam is the not so much man’s fall from grace as it is the beginning of our story of salvation.  A salvation entered into through our own free will, just as our baptism, entered into freely, is the beginning of our own salvation.  And just as baptism cleanses us of sin, it does so with God’s grace, for as our Psalm reminds us, God’s mercy is there for the asking as we sing, “be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” 

Understanding our story of salvation is also key to understanding the importance of Jesus Christ.  This is exactly what St. Paul is explaining in our second reading.  Here Paul gives us a very succinct outline of the story of salvation and the entire purpose of our ministry, first by recalling Adam’s sin, but how it is through Christ that we are redeemed.  While it is an important lesson, it is also an example of Paul’s sometimes very convoluted writing style, spanning some 30 lines within only 4 sentences, so you may wish to take it very slowly and go through it several times so you can better see his point.

Our Gospel from Matthew gives us another “origin story” – the beginning of Jesus ministry as marked by his temptation in the desert.  This is the quintessential Catholic understanding of Lent.  Jesus is lead into the desert to face the devil.  As we hear the narrative unfold, it is interesting to note the wordplay between the Devil and Jesus, and how both of them use Scripture to justify their arguments.  Remember, Matthew is speaking to a primarily Jewish audience, so the verses they are quoting are well known to them.  Also for Matthew this is an opportunity to remind us of the epic nature of this battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.  Jesus is not just another prophet, he is the chosen one, the Son of God, the champion of the forces of light.  But where is the reference to baptism in this story?  Remember what happens just before Jesus goes out into the desert?  He is baptized by John, giving him the strength to face the devil and begin his mission.

Final Thoughts:
You’re never too old to learn something new.  And no matter how far you go in your spiritual journey in the Church you will always find new revelations.  For years I have taught and been taught that Lent is a season of penance.  It was only after attending a workshop this past weekend at the Religious Education Congress that I learned that our Lenten focus on penance is secondary to a focus on our Baptism.  This two-fold character of Lent, it’s dual nature, as clearly defined in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and should not be ignored.  This period of Purification and Enlightenment is not just for those Catechumens going through the Rite of Election… it’s for all of us.  Dr. Jerry Galipeau, who lead the workshop on baptism (and wrote the book on implementing the RCIA) challenged us to use this Lenten season to focus on the theme of baptism as we proceed through the readings and Rites of the season, and in doing so, find a greater depth of understanding.  A chance to come to know, as he said, how our own baptism changes everything.  Come join me on this journey.