Ash Wednesday 2016

Lectionary: 219

We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, 
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

It is beyond imagination that the Father should make "him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him." 

What on earth does that mean? 

Saint Paul speaks in ontological language. He doesn't use descriptive language, saying that Jesus sinned or was guilty of sin, but he was made sin. He is sin. 

That we might be the righteousness of God. 

Adam and Eve were tempted to be like God, and sinned in their audacity. They grabbed at what is offered freely to us "in him." 

Through penance -- that is, by living the life of Jesus in the communion of his Spirit -- we are made splendidly beautiful, with our innocence restored. 

Lent is that season when we remember the innocence of our First Communion, when the little girls wore gleaming white shoes, gloves, veils and dresses; and the little boys wore polished shoes, white shirts and navy blue suits and ties -- with our cowlicks cowed into submission. 

Could I ever be that innocent again? Yes, in a manner of speaking. Though the Lord will not destroy the bitter memory of sin, he will restore us to full communion among the saints. In that day we will wonder about those dark hours, "What was I thinking?"; and we will know deep assurance, "I have put away those sinful inclinations." 

With ontological assurance I will say, "I am not like that any more." and "My being proclaims the greatness of the Lord." 

During Lent we hear God appealing to us to be reconciled to God. On this first day of forty we should ask the Precious Lord (to) take my hand, lead me on. We ask the Father and the Son to sweep us up in the Spirit of the Season, a spirit which is both sad for our sins and glad with relief -- that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

I don't know what it is, but there it is
on a street in the heart of London. 
Lectionary: 330

LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below; you keep your covenant of mercy with your servants who are faithful to you with their whole heart.

“Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you,
how much less this temple which I have built! 

There may have been eyebrows raised in the ancient near-east as King Solomon consecrated his signature temple to the One God of Heaven and Earth. 

The assembly must have comprised more than the dignitaries of the Jewish nation. Solomon had struck marriage-treaties with foreign nations and his many wives, with their eunuchs and maids, continued to worship their foreign gods in Jerusalem. 

Perhaps there were other ambassadors from those nations, and a few spies, reporting directly to the Pharaoh in Egypt and the king in Damascus. 

Judah and Israel, under King Solomon, just wasn't big enough to claim to build a house for the Supreme Being of the Heavens and the Earth. More powerful neighbors with more splendid temples might have snickered at the audacity in Jerusalem. 

But faith has its own way of making statements about God. The heart thrilled with divine visitation sings alleluias and hosannas and cannot be denied its certainty that, "God has looked upon me in my lowliness." 

Poets and sages throughout the centuries have been wonder-struck at the miracle of God's humility. The God who created "billions and billions of galaxies" abides in the tiny places we afford him. 

The English poet John Donne, celebrated that mystery in the second sonnet of La Carona
Salvation to all that will is nigh ;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo ! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb ;
Saint Francis also celebrated with astonishment the wonder of God's appearing before us in the Blessed Sacrament: 
Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest! O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity!
O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! The Lord of the Universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation he hides himself under an ordinary piece of bread! 
(Sisters and) Brothers, look at the humility of God, and pour out your hearts before him! Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by him! Hold nothing back of yourselves for yourselves, that he who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally!

Let us enter the Season of Lent with Francis' exhortation ringing in our ears. No one can be more humble than God, but as we acknowledge and claim our sins we can at least share our humiliation with the Crucified One. 

Monday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 329
A wintry day in Florida

Whatever villages or towns or countryside he entered,
they laid the sick in the marketplaces
and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak;
and as many as touched it were healed.

In today's gospel Saint Mark vividly describes the world's desperate need for healing. As Jesus disembarked in Gennesaret the people "scurried about the surrounding country and began to bring in the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was." 

These many centuries later, by all accounts, we are still as desperate for healing. I meet people in the VA hospital who have a list of illnesses "as long as your arm!" I wonder how on earth do they manage with diabetes, COPD, heart disease, colostomies, catheters, oxygen tubes and so forth. Moving from one room to another is a major accomplishment, and these same people visit four and five doctors each week. 
How they would scurry on walkers and wheelchairs if Jesus were to pull up on a nearby shore with a miracle cure! 

But we might be astonished to see the crowds appearing around him because we habitually don't see the sick. They don't entertain us on television or in movies. They don't sell alcohol or tobacco. Despite the great risks many face in walking to the bathroom, they don't compete in extreme sports. They're not seen strolling in parks or along lake shores and beaches; they rarely appear in shopping malls or churches. You have to go to certain places -- to hospitals, clinics and medical offices -- to see suffering humanity.

This is, in part, because we don't want to see them in public and they know it; and in part because they don't want to be seen as needy and defenceless. But they are our people and everyone of us faces the near-certainty of disability and disease. Most of us invite it by our lifestyle choices.

The Lord looked on our suffering humanity with compassion. As the crowds rushed to him in Gennesaret he knew the free gift of his healings would cost his life. He did not hesitate. 

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 75

For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon.

Perhaps more significant than the fact of our awareness of the cosmic is our consciousness of having to be aware of it, as if there were an imperative, a compulsion to pay attention to that which lies beyond our grasp.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish rabbi and philosopher of the mid-20th century begins his book, Man is not Alone: a philosophy of religion, with those words. 

On this Sunday before Ash Wednesday, it is good to reflect on our capacity for wonder. 

Our first reading recalls Isaiah's astonishment as he beheld the Presence of God in Solomon's Temple, a building which has been called one of the eight wonders of the ancient world. As he and his colleagues were marching through another ritual of smoking incense, blaring trumpets and thundering drums with the priests and acolytes marching around and singing songs -- just another day in the life of a temple priest -- Isaiah beheld Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts. He felt at that moment what Rabbi Heschel described as "a compulsion to pay attention...." 

He may have fallen to his knees before that revelation which only he could see. Perhaps those around him stumbled over him and wondered what's happening to our staid, disciplined brother Isaiah. If he was looking up at the ceiling perhaps they looked up too -- and saw only clouds of incense -- where he saw Seraphic Angels circling in dizzy spirals and crying, HOLY, HOLY, HOLY. 

Fortunately, his experience was not that unusual. If he was the only priest so blessed on that particular day he was not the first to experience God's grandeur. For many, if not most, human beings have similar epiphanies. Jewish and Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic liturgies, with their long periods of silence, are intentionally open to revelations of God. And we know the Lord can speak to anyone at any time in such a manner, 
Rabbi Heschel again: The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike. Some people sense this quality at distant intervals in extraordinary events; others sense it in the ordinary event, in every fold, in every nook; day after day, hour after hour.... Slight and simple as they may be -- a piece of paper, a morsel of bread, a word, a sigh -- they hide and guard a never-ending secret: a glimpse of God? Kinship with the spirit of being? An eternal flash of a will? 
If modern secular society disapproves and tries to disprove such experience it fails pathetically. Even our entertainment industry, greedy as it is, must admit that millions of people are often Touched by an Angel

Today's gospel also invites us to open our minds and hearts to the Ineffable. What could be more mundane than the ordinary work of a tradesman like that of Peter and his brothers? Where hobby fishing is relaxing and refreshing, professional fishing is back-breaking toil. Where the hobbyist hopes to catch a trophy the professional hopes to meet expenses. What he doesn't expect is a boat swamped with fish at the command of a landlubber. 

Peter was so astonished he went down on his knees -- up to his shoulders in leaping, squirming fish -- to say "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." 

Fortunately, the Lord would no more leave Peter than the Lord of Hosts would destroy the Prophet Isaiah. Instead he commanded Peter, "Do not be afraid." 

The human being is certainly capable of wonder. But am I ready for that moment? 

As we enter Lent, we need not be afraid of that Ocean of the Ineffable which lies beneath the keel of our consciousness. Willing to peer into mystery we might even glimpse "an eternal flash of a will."

Memorial of Saint Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs

Lectionary: 328

The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request. So God said to him: “Because you have asked for this– not for a long life for yourself, nor for riches, nor for the life of your enemies, but for understanding so that you may know what is right– I do as you requested. I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now....

King Solomon's record in the Bible is checkered. He is admired as the wisest of kings, and reviled for compromising with pagan nations. He was said to have a thousand wives, a regular Genghis Khan, and to have worshipped the gods of these foreign women. Today's scripture passage honors the former memory, the righteous king who ruled with the wisdom God gave him. 

Perhaps everyone in the world agrees that a government should reflect the "Just World Hypothesis." Honest and fair dealings with one's family, neighbors, friends and strangers should be both protected and rewarded. No one should be punished by the government for doing right. 

That assumption also hopes that wickedness is punished by an honest and fair government. Even if a racist government maintains the bigotries and segregations of society, the oppressed who don't make trouble should be treated fairly; and vicious, violent people should suffer for their crimes. 

Inevitably, we learn "It ain't necessarily so." We learn that many lawyers who argue before judges are not fighting for truth or justice; they are only trying to win their case. No matter how right your case might be, you will probably lose if your lawyer is incompetent. In fact, you're probably better off with an unscrupulous lawyer on your side. 

And yet we pray that the government, founded upon a worthy constitution, might reflect God's justice and mercy. 

As Christians we know that King Solomon was asking for a measure of Holy Spirit, that impulse which directs Jesus and his disciples. This "Third Person of the Holy Trinity" is just and merciful; for justice without mercy is not justice, and mercy cannot be unjust. 

Human beings, driven as we are by fears, ambitions, misgivings and misunderstandings -- often preoccupied with ideologies, prejudices and unresolved bitterness -- cannot see clearly enough to govern ourselves. We need God's spirit. And so we pray with Solomon for our government, its bureaucrats and its citizens. 

Memorial of Saint Agatha, Virgin and Martyr

Lectionary: 327

But when Herod learned of it, he said,
“It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.”

The Gospels describe Herod differently, especially with this particular verse. Matthew and Mark describe him as superstitious and afraid. He thinks that John has reappeared as Jesus. Saint Luke's Herod says bluntly, "John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?"

Mark and Matthew's description is not unlikely as Romans in general were superstitious. Livy, in his History of the Punic Wars, cites many of their odd practices. (If you haven't read it yet you're in for a real treat.) Herod was Jewish, a descendant of the heroic Manichees,  but a Roman toady and perhaps more familiar with Roman superstitions than his own religion. 

It seems that Herod was especially vulnerable because he had very mixed feelings about John the Baptist, as our narrative shows. The prophet had openly condemned his marrying his brother's wife; Herod had little choice but to shut down his operation in the Jordan River,  But he also liked the man and didn't have his uncle's (King Herod the Great) ruthless ability to destroy opponents without a second thought. 

He apparently had many second thoughts after his murder of John and the girl's carrying the ghastly head on a platter during one of his bacchanalias. 

This rather long discursus, appearing in all three synoptic gospels, describes the decadent life of the idle rich in Jesus' time. Herod was not a major player in the governing of his people. The Romans ruled through the procurator Pontius Pilate and the soldiers at his disposal; Herod only provided the appearance of Jewish autonomy. He could collect some taxes, pay his bodyguards and party with his family and sycophants -- those creepy parasites who always fasten themselves to the wealthy -- even as the poor looked on in bitter disappointment. Rome could ignore his obscenities so long as he didn't oppose their rule or irritate too many people. 

But sometimes even a puppet king has a troubled conscience. It would not force him to change his ways but it could haunt him with the possibility that God's justice might, just might, someday fall upon him. Perhaps he had heard enough of the Hebrew scriptures to suppose that,
‘The Lord will judge his people.’and It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:30-31)
Twenty centuries later we still hear rumors of grotesque decadence among the idle wealthy. They might not dance for decapitated heads but, for all the responsibility that comes with wealth, they don't give a wiff for the hardworking poor or the helpless needy. If anyone suggests they should, they cry "Classism!" and push their shame back on their critics. 

Who knows? Perhaps their idleness is tormented with occasional nightmares of financial ruin. Perhaps they feel both haunted and hunted by the Hound of Heaven as they party in their gated communities behind armed guards. 

Thursday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 326

Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.

Jesus' disciples were so surprised, amazed and elated at his resurrection, and the Church forever remains so encouraged, delighted and wonder-struck that perhaps we can be forgiven for not remembering what he said when he arose.

He didn't say, "I'm okay!" like a 19th century stuntman, 20th century daredevil or latter day Xtreme Athlete who survives a tumble over Niagara Falls or a fifty mile drop from outer space. 

He didn't say, "I'm okay" because he was never the center of his own existence. Rather,he said "Go into the whole world and tell the good news."  

Even his Resurrection was not all about him. It was his obedient response to God the Father who sent him to us. 

The name Jesus means savior and the name Christ means anointed by the Holy Spirit. Who is Jesus Christ? He is the Savior sent by God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. His name is his identity and yet even his name is not about him; it points away from him to the Father and to us. 

The "individual" who thinks only for himself and about himself will be mystified by Jesus. Nothing about him will make sense to one whose center is himself. 

We adore Mary's Son -- and rightly -- because he is God's gift to us, because he has loved us as his own people, and because he gathers us in the Spirit as His gift to the Father.

When we hear, as in today's gospel, of Jesus sending us out two by two we understand that we are filled with the Spirit that compelled him from Heaven into our world. It drives us as it drove him, from our comfort zones into the dangerous, fascinating, needy, beautiful world. 
(Married couples especially might take this "two by two" arrangement to heart. Marriage is not about the couple; it's about the good news they are sent to announce to their children, church and neighbors. Their love for one another is essential to their message, of course, because by it they demonstrate the integrity of God's love.)

Accepting his appointment to GO, we remember that Jesus' passion, death and resurrection is not just for me. It's for everyone. 

He rose from the dead to send us to the dead and announce life.