Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Lectionary: 222

If you call the sabbath a delight, and the LORD’s holy day honorable; If you honor it by not following your ways, seeking your own interests, or speaking with malice.
Then you shall delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth...

"My way doesn't work for me!" What a surprise that is, especially to the one who crooned with Frank Sinatra, "I did it my way." 
As usual, the King James Version says it best:
...not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words, then you shall delight yourself in the LORD... (Isaiah 58:14)
Lent is that season when we consider the Lord's ways and the possibility -- as unlikely as it might seem -- that I may be wrong.
Philosopher John Macmurray described the critical moment when the infant realizes there are other sentient beings in the universe. First they discover they cannot have what they want when they want it in the manner they want it; and that others are making decisions that affect them intimately and personally. They are fed, clothed, sheltered, and comforted by others and cannot provide these things for themselves. That is, perhaps, too obvious to the infant. 
But when they realize, "OMG! What I wanted was not best for me, and this Big Person knew that when I didn't!" -- that is an Awakening Moment. 
If the child is then willing to work in partnership with the Other -- providing that the Other is also wise enough to recognize the child's integrity as An Other -- they develop that amazing, graceful ability to work with others, to play on the same team and achieve shared and meaningful goals. 
When I was a pastor and more familiar with children, I knew some who could fairly leap onto my hip as I lifted them. They seemed to weigh nothing. Other children lacked that ability; they were hoisted onto my hip like a sack of potatoes. Injuries could follow!

Faith begins when we realize that God is also wiser than me, and wiser than all of us! There is, in fact, a God who is not a figment of our projected imagination. A God whom we did not create because we can't explain everything. This is not the scientist's "God of the Gaps," nor even a God of Wonders who explains my experience of awe. 
No, this is the God who gives us the Holy Spirit who recognizes Jesus as the Son of God the Father. As Saint Paul carefully explained in 1 Corinthians 3:
Now in regard to spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be unaware. You know how, when you were pagans, you were constantly attracted and led away to mute idols. Therefore, I tell you that nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, “Jesus be accursed.” And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the holy Spirit.
This Spirit spoke to Simeon in the temple and John the Baptist in the Jordan River. The old man took the Baby in his arms and said, 
"Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation....
And the Baptist declared: 
I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit. Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”
Someone once asked me, "How does Christianity compare to other religions?" "There is no comparison!" I said. 
If other religions suppose there should be a god somewhere, that's fine for them. But Christians celebrate the Lord who reveals his Otherness to us, and will not allow us to compare him to other gods.
See now that I, I alone, am he,and there is no god besides me.It is I who bring both death and life,I who inflict wounds and heal them,and from my hand no one can deliver. Deuteronomy 32:39

During Lent we ask the Lord to give us that Spirit, and to make us more willing to be guided by the Spirit. My way doesn't work for me. I tried it and it failed me. I cannot trust my own impulses and desires. My emotions are suspect. Even rationality -- the god revered by the French Revolution -- often fails me. 
As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord!

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Lectionary: 221

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless....

As a chaplain in the VA I sometimes ponder our peculiar species. King Lear, discovering the naked and apparently mad Edgar, described us, "Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal."
Indeed for many thousands of years -- most of our time as a distinct type of great ape -- our human ancestors lived in Africa with no clothing, subject to the heat of day and the chill of night. Subject also to whatever parasite, disease or injury might befall them. Had they not cared for one another with whatever medicines and succor they could offer, we would not be here today. 
We were not created to make war with each other, nor to cheat, swindle, and steal from one another. We have managed to classify ourselves into ranks of royalty, aristocracy, and peasantry but these rankings are neither necessary nor natural. They are the unfortunate side effects of complexity and specialization; they inevitably cheapen the whole glorious experience of being created in God's image. 
Our purpose is to care for one another. The American passion for competition makes no sense whatever if it overwhelms cooperation and mutual assistance. The CEOs who are afraid to lose, who manipulates the rules and lobby the legislators so that they never lose, are the real losers. And they sabotage our survival.   
We must care for one another. Universal health care is not a socialist ideal; it's how we have always survived. It's also the nexus where the Gospel and Nature meet, where divine wisdom and common sense embrace and kiss. 
Lent reminds us of what Natural Law has always told us, and of the insistent teaching of Revelation. Care for everyone, regardless!
If we are blinded by Original Sin and paralyzed by concupiscence, we shall have no excuse for our self-destruction when the Lord appears to judge the nations. 

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Lectionary: 220

Then he said to all,  “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

I've read a bit about Buddhism and yoga and have experimented with some of their practices. One fascinating exercise is "one nostril breathing." Assuming a comfortable seated position, I pinch my nose to close one nostril, then inhale and exhale one breath. And then, I release that nostril to close the other one, and repeat. 
Back and forth, back and forth, one nostril, then the other, and wait for nothing in particular. At first it seems I cannot keep this up very long; I'll be short of oxygen and have to gasp to regain my equilibrium. But as the time passes, I realize I am still here, still short of oxygen, but not gasping, panting, or fainting. I am just acutely aware of my breath. 
I experience the imminence of death; I must breathe to live. If I don't get the air I need, I will perish within a few minutes. 
Sometimes, in meditation, with or without pinching a nostril, I inhale and exhale and experience a pause when I don't have to inhale immediately. I am "good" for a little while. In the interval I have a kind of freedom. I think, "Shall I breathe now, or wait a little while?" I don't have to wait till I am desperate, but I can say to myself, "I think I will breathe now. Ahh! That's very nice." 
We have heard Moses today reminding us to "Choose life!" Breath is life and these exercises remind me to breathe and thank God for breath. I know people who want to improve the experience of breathing with tobacco, marijuana, or vapor. Without much knowledge of these practices, I still think the most satisfactory way to breathe is without pollutants. 
"Choose Life!" Moses said, and Jesus added the word daily. There is no time like the present. 
Lent reminds us of this critical moment; it confronts us with a crisis. "Now is the acceptable time!" I must breathe now. I cannot put it off till tomorrow. I must repent today; tomorrow may be too late. 
Lord, thank you for this moment of grace. Help me to accept this moment, and this opportunity, so that I might be alive tomorrow to accept the graces and opportunities that come tomorrow. 
Freedom, like grace, is always this moment. It cannot be put off till tomorrow. 

Ash Wednesday 2020

Lectionary: 219

Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people...."

Recently, in a discussion about telephoning widows, sons, and daughters of recently deceased Veterans, the chaplains were advised not to initiate such calls. HIPAA regulations are engineered to protect patient information and confidentiality. Americans are dying of loneliness and we're prevented from speaking a consoling word by concerns about their privacy. 

Today's first reading from the Prophet Isaiah urges us to come out of our fatal privacy and assemble as the People of God. We are God's assembly, his congregation, the people whom the Lord has chosen to do penance for our sins and the sin of the world. 
No one does this alone. The Christian always prays as a member of the Body of Christ. The Catholic prays in communion with Mary, the saints, all the angels, and the entire Church, living and dead. 
Our Lenten practices are simple, as befitting a people from every part of the Earth. We might not agree on many universal forms of penitential expressions, but we can fast between meals and abstain from meat today, and on the Fridays of Lent. This universal practice expresses our solidarity first with one another, and then with those who have little to eat. Of course diabetics and persons with other health issues are exempt, but they should develop their own ways of participating in this universal practice. 
...And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,and make not your heritage a reproach,with the nations ruling over them!Why should they say among the peoples,‘Where is their God?’”
I often think of Abraham's failed attempt to save the "cities of the plain," Sodom and Gomorrah. Had there been fifty good people among them, for Abraham's sake, fire would not have fallen upon them, nor the column of smoke have risen from them. Even ten good people would have made a difference. But one man and his messy family could not do it.
"Fasting, and weeping, and mourning" are not solitary chores; we do this together.

"Spare, O Lord, your people..." We don't have to go far to discover the threats. If they only accosted our way of life, which changes beyond recognition every few months, we might ignore the threat. But we're looking at addictions to alcohol and pain medication, which afflict every class, religion, and nationality. And at suicide, an impulse that arises suddenly and unexpectedly among the apparently normal people. And at climate change, affected by anthropocene forces beyond anyone's control.
We cannot save ourselves. We can only beg God to spare your people and, with us, the whole Earth. 
Let us pray. 

Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his landand took pity on his people. 

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Cleanse your hands, you sinners,
and purify your hearts, you of two minds. Begin to lament, to mourn, to weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.

On this Shrove Tuesday we can welcome Saint James' scolding. He directs us through the narrow gate into Lent.
Much of our Christian religion, which formulated its earliest teachings in the Greco-Roman world, is intentional, rather than emotional. When the Apostle urges us to "Let your laughter be turned into mourning." he is not berating us for being in a good mood. He is not chastising us for being happy.
Rather, he is directing us to enter the Spirit of the Season intentionally. Even if someone has just told me the funniest joke I've heard in my life, and I can hardly stop giggling when I think about it, I should enter the funeral parlor quietly, out of respect for the grieving family. Americans do the same thing when, at the beginning of any major sporting event, they stand up and reverently listen to the Star Spangled Banner. We're not clowning around, winking at each other, or play-conducting the music. We're thinking serious thoughts about the flag, the defense of the country, and those who have paid the ultimate price. Assuming these poses is an intentional act to fit the moment; it is not suppressing our emotions or artificially arousing our feelings. 
Entering Lent, the Church invites us to lament, mourn, and weep. We consider the Passion of Christ, beginning with his willingness to be baptized with us for the forgiveness of sins. He shares the cup of our helplessness as we can neither save ourselves nor cease doing evil. We are indeed immersed in a sinful world and it is impossible to avoid the contagion of guilt. With us he experiences confusion, anxiety, and abandonment; they are the price of freedom and the consequences of love. He will understand our sadness when we murmur, "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. He will embrace the anguish of the parent who must say to the child, "I am sorry; I did the best I could with what I had." He knows the guilt of the survivor, the remorse of the penitent, and the pathos of the compulsive who cannot control their impulses. 
Entering Lent, we go with the Lord into this dismal history of human failure and reckless foolishness. We restrain the impulse to throw the first stone because he is standing by the woman, and she is one of our own. We might be moved to tears, even as we're moved by a patriotic anthem or a funeral dirge. But that's not necessary. Lent is deeper than our feelings; and an emotional reaction can distract us from our purpose. LIke the opera singer who sings a sad aria before a weeping theater, we are not carried away by the emotion. Rather, Lent takes us to the Heart of Christ and Communion with Our Father, a silence that is very deep, peaceful, and blessed. 

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 341

But the wisdom from above is first of all 
then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace
for those who cultivate peace.

Saints Paul and James, as they describe the life of the Christian, often create lists of virtues. I think especially of 1 Corinthians 13 and Paul's description of love. And his recitation in Galatians of the fruits of the Spirit. 
It is pleasant to create these lists and reflect upon them. Each item seems to flow from the heart to the mind to the paper as the author furiously tries to keep up with the length and height and depth of God's mercy. 
"Think about these things" Saint Paul said as he finished his list in the Letter to the Philippians. "Then the peace of God will be with you."
My friend Tony used to call me a pest-imist, as I enumerated all the problems in the world, the church, and our superiors in the seminary. What good could come of such negativity? 
People sometimes claim they're just being honest when they complain but their honesty is facile; it comes too easily. Cynicism is not courageous; nor is it honest. Any attitude that fails to acknowledge the Presence, Goodness, and Power of God is neither true, dependable, nor realistic. 
With our daily prayers we cultivate peace. We invite the Lord to be Lord of our minds and hearts and actions. We welcome the Spirit to direct our attitudes and imagination toward the Truth which is never apparent to the irreligious, the frightened, or the faithless. 
This train is bound for glory, and we're happy to ride with the Lord. 

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

“You have heard that it was said..., But I say to you..."

Ordinarily, on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, in the A-cycle, we hear the beginning of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, beginning with:
When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying..."
followed by the Eight Beatitudes. Several following Sundays give us more passages from that "Sermon." This year, because that Fourth Sunday fell on February 2 (the Feast of the Purification) we missed that particular passage. So here we are, three weeks later, immersed in Jesus' first great teaching.
Whatever response we might give to these chapters in Saint Matthew's gospel, the first thing we should notice is his authority. In today's gospel he says six times, “You have heard that it was said..., But I say to you..." 
We can well imagine some of the crowd saying, "Who is this guy?" Religion, by its nature, is traditional; it comes with the suggestion that This has always been; these are eternal truths and values set in stone. We expect our religious authorities to say what they always said, what we have always heard. 
If the world outside the Church is continually changing and always in flux, the world within the Church should never change. It is stable, predictable, and reassuring. The religion continually reminds a distracted people of who they are, who they have always been, and who they must always be. 
The Pharisees offered that kind of religion. It was the Law of Moses; it was unchanged and unchanging. The Jews, more so than other nations, had a sense of history. They knew there was a time when God had not chosen a people, a time before Abraham and Sarah. But there was no science of history to try to locate that patriarchal couple within the secular world. They did not have an existential sense of history happening continually. If there was technological progress, as there was, they did not expect progress. What they saw of history, they didn't like. Change was not welcome. It augered the decline of morals and the deterioration of social norms. The past was better than the present, and the kids today! What can we do with them?
So when Jesus stands up and declares, "You have heard it said... but I say to you!" they have to wonder, "Who is this guy and where does he come from?"
Two thousand years later, the religion of Jesus has also collected all the hoary tradition of the Pharisees and their Law of Moses. Even my generation, which seemed to welcome change in the 1960's, looks askance at some religious developments of the twenty-first century. "Now just a minute...!" we might want to say to ordained women, gay marriage, and gender transition.
I, for one, who chafed under the strictures of tradition in the middle of the last century, often appeal to the authority of tradition, "We've never done it that way!"
However, the Spirit of Jesus, ever ancient, ever new, leads and guides us into the future. The Spirit intones Jesus' historic words, now deeply imbedded in our tradition, "You have heard it said... but I say to you."
New inspirations, ideas, and institutions often appear untraditional. I toured an art exhibit featuring the painter Whistler (known for his portrait, "Whistler's Mother"). HIs contemporaries were astonished at the outlandish oriental influences he introduced to his paintings. When I saw them a century later, they looked entirely European; I had to be told of their oriental forms and colors. They seemed entirely traditional, especially when compared to "modern art," -- which is also rooted in tradition.
So long as we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus while remaining confident of Mary, the pure virgin mother who is the Church, we needn't worry too much about the changes. Our faith assures us of eternal salvation, and it promises that future generations -- our dear children -- will also hear and welcome the Everlasting Word.