Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 233

Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
It fears not the heat when it comes,
its leaves stay green;
In the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit.
We should read Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus with sadness. He tells a story that is all too familiar. We read about it in the newspapers daily; we see its depictions in film and TV; we grieve as it’s reenacted in our families.
Armchair theologians will speculate that an all-good God would not condemn anyone to hell. But we watch as strangers, acquaintances and friends consistently choose the worst. They’re lives spiral downward into disappointment, pain and misery. And it’s so unnecessary.
Lent calls us to contemplate the life of virtue, especially as we follow the Virtuous One. Jeremiah’s psalm, echoing Psalm 1, describes Jesus and his disciple.
Jesus is the one who trusts in the LORD. We have only to contemplate the state of his mind as he traveled toward Jerusalem. He knew very well how this trip would end; and yet he knew with even more conviction that he must obey the Spirit that guided him. Bethany, Jerusalem, the Cenacle, Gethsemane, the high priest’s chambers, Herod’s palace, Pilate’s court, the soldiers’ quarters, Calvary: these were the sites he must visit.
We might suppose he was not anxious. Had he not prophesied that the Son of Man would be raised up on the third day? But what did those words mean? Could anyone describe the Resurrection in advance? For that matter, can anyone describe it since then? Jesus hoped in the Lord.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream...
We often speak of the cross as the Tree of Salvation. The roots of the cross stretch to the flowing waters of God’s wisdom. Its leaves are green; and it bears abundant virtue even during the drought. Its opposite is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil with its forbidden fruit.
The tragic story of the rich man and Lazarus reminds us that many prefer forbidden fruit. They choose their own destruction. Disciples of Jesus feed on the Tree of Life which is the cross. Perhaps some people will observe our green leaves and abundant fruit and turn back to the Lord.

Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 232

"Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?”
They said to him, “We can.”
He replied,
“My chalice you will indeed drink,
but to sit at my right and at my left,
this is not mine to give
but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

As we approach Holy Week we hear Jesus' ominous prophecy about "the exodus he will undergo in Jerusalem." But during this second week of Lent the Church directs our attention to our own understanding of and attitudes about discipleship. 
Saint Mark was the genius who tied the stories together, the story of Jesus' prediction of his suffering and his teaching about discipleship. Saints Matthew and Luke followed his example when they accepted his short text and appended more material. We know nothing about the suffering and death of Jesus if we are not willing to pay the cost of discipleship. 
In today's gospel Jesus challenges his feckless disciples, the sons of Zebedee, "Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?" 
Of course, they insist they can. What are they thinking? Very likely they are eager to undertake a struggle against earthly powers. They're are ready for what, centuries later, would be called a revolution. They want to upend the order of things, to overturn the rulers of Rome and Jerusalem and establish a kingdom more to their liking. They suppose they can be Jesus' lieutenants, sitting at his right and left. 
Of course the congregation who hears this gospel already knows that Jesus will be crucified between two nameless criminals. The sons of Zebedee and their ambitious mother have already dismissed, or totally ignored, his words:
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem,
and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests
and the scribes,
and they will condemn him to death,
and hand him over to the Gentiles
to be mocked and scourged and crucified,
and he will be raised on the third day.”
How can anyone suppose he is a disciple if he dismisses Jesus' shocking prediction? But we do it all the time. 

To follow Jesus we should begin with the assumption that we don't know where this adventure will end. Whatever we suppose, we can assume it's wrong. No one knows the future and the one who thinks he knows is the biggest fool of all. 

This is at least part of the reason we daily ask God to lead us not into temptation. We pray that we will not be asked to pay too high a price, that the chalice of which we drink will not be as bloody as that of Jesus. Natural flesh trembles at the thought of death; few can imagine themselves dead, or the world going on without them. 

Sometimes I meet patients in the hospital who are prepared to die. Something in their body or mind or heart has said, "It's coming to an end." They have heard that quiet word and surrendered to it. More than a few Veterans have said, "I've had a good life. I am grateful to God for the time I've had." or words to that effect. 

The summer before my Dad died in December 1980, he told my brother he would not see another summer. No one knew he had cancer at the time; the symptoms would not appear for another several months. Sometimes some people know in advance. 

After recognizing the foolishness of Zebedee's sons we can admire their willingness. They don't quite understand what he says to them, nor do they comprehend the Spirit that has drawn them to the Messiah, but it is the right Spirit. 

As we approach the altar daily and weekly, to drink from his chalice and eat his flesh, we pray that his Spirit will prepare us for whatever may come. 

Toward the end of his life, Saint Francis of Assisi grew very confident of his vow of obedience and he advised us: 

Holy obedience confounds all bodily and fleshly desires and keeps the body mortified to the obedience of the spirit and to the obedience of one’s brother and makes a man subject to all the men of this world and not to men alone, but also to all beasts and wild animals, so that they may do with him whatsoever they will, in so far as it may be granted to them from above by the Lord.
Hopefully, this Season of Lent teaches us that same willing obedience. 

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 231

“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.

In her book, Inside the KingdomCarmen bin Laden describes the Muslim religion in Saudi Arabia as a religion unable to criticize itself. Her brother-in-law, Osama bin Laden, was admired, if not emulated, by his family for his extreme devotion to Allah. They would never say anything against him, or make the suggestion that perhaps he was getting carried away with his piety. She also described how her ex-husband and the bin Laden family scrupulously observed the religious rules so long as they were in Saudi Arabia; and flouted them whenever they left the country. They didn't seem to think their gambling, whoring and imbibing vast quantities of alcohol in Paris was hypocritical.

I am not familiar enough with Islam to say whether her description is true. Surely such an ancient religion with a history of great contributions to culture, art, science and learning has some facility in self-critique. But I am reminded of Christianity's struggle with the same issue.  

If Roman Catholic had built into its structures a tradition of self-criticism the Protestant Reformation might have been avoided. Unfortunately, the Reform, when it came, did not have its intended effect. 

We still rely entirely upon our hierarchy to guide the Church from the top down, with few structures to push back when leadership drifts from its principles. The pope can rein in an errant cardinal or bishop, and bishops can discipline priests; but who reins in a troublesome pope? Or even a pope who suffers dementia? 

Conciliarism, the notion that a council of bishops might challenge the papacy, is whispered occasionally in the halls of academia. But it's a very scary idea. After the First Vatican Council accepted Pope Pius IX's decree of papal infallibility, the bishops began to discuss conciliarism. At that moment the Holy Father rose up and intoned the Te Deum, ending the council and the conversation. It would not resume until the Second Vatican Council. But they didn't get very far. After they established so many reforms in the liturgy, religious life and so forth, they decided to let well enough alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. 

Now that Pope Benedict XVI has retired, I wonder if the cardinals in top-secret conclave discuss the issue. They might make a strong suggestion to their appointment that he plan his retirement in advance. You know the press will be on him like a pack of hounds, asking about it. Might they discuss "term limits," that American institution that curtails the authority of our Commander in Chief? Will they contemplate a "balance of powers" as we are supposed to maintain between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government? Will they encourage freedom of speech and of the press among Catholic institutions? 

These structures of self-criticism in the Church would find solid foundations in the gospels. Apparently there were many "pharisees" in the early church. That's why we hear Jesus' diatribes against them. The evangelists would not have recounted Jesus' arguments with the Pharisees if hypocrisy had been purged from the communion of saints. 

The Catholic Church does have its canon law, which protects some of the rights of Christians. Individuals have a right to a good reputation; they have a right to be confronted by their accusers and there should be more than one accuser to build a case against someone. A man and woman have the right to marry if there are no legal, physiological or severe psychological problems to hinder them. 

But clearly, it takes centuries for some ideas to develop into solid traditions and legal infrastructures in both civil and church law. It took almost nineteen centuries for most Christian nations to agree that slavery is a crime against humanity. Few nations fully embrace the equal rights of women. Since the Second Vatican Council the right of people to participate in decisions that affect them is gaining headway. 

The sexual abuse scandal has advanced our awareness of systemic sin. Perhaps the day is at hand when Christians can challenge religious authority without fear of recrimination. 

In the meanwhile we practice self-rebuke with our Sacrament of Penance. But, so long as I examine my own conscience without the assistance of others, the fox is guarding the hen houseI can expect little change. I don't often ask friars, friends, family or colleagues "What sins should I confess?" I leave it to my enemies to do that, on the rare occasion that I listen to them. 

On a warm, bright winter day
small blades of grass sprout in a gravel road.
During this season of Lent 2013, we invite the Lord to expose our hypocrisy in whatever ways God sees fit. Historic changes are afoot. May they penetrate my heart also. 

Monday of the Second Week in Lent

Lectionary: 230
We have sinned, been wicked and done evil; we have rebelled and departed from your commandments and your laws. We have not obeyed your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, our fathers, and all the people of the land. Justice, O Lord, is on your side...

In the ever-evolving world of spirituality, the current word is awareness. The votary seeks to be aware of what is happening within her and around her. Awareness is paying attention to the road while you drive. Even if you are listening to the radio or reciting your rosary you see and respond to things going on out there, because a moment’s inattention can be fatal. Awareness is watching your temperature rise during a difficult conversation and counting to ten before you respond. Awareness is honoring the feelings and sensibilities of people with whom you disagree. The list is endless, as is the challenge of awareness.

The Christian, especially during the Season of Lent, wants to be aware of his and her sins. This is a special privilege given to God’s chosen people, and we are grateful to the Jewish nation who introduced this awareness to the world.

The doctrine of sin can be confusing because it encompasses two different definitions. On the one hand, sin recognizes the reality of evil. Human beings choose to do wicked things, and they often know these acts are wicked. Any normal human being knows the difference between right and wrong. This "natural law" is the foundation of all civilized society. It’s not a revealed doctrine; it’s just common sense. Murder is evil; adultery is wicked; stealing is wrong. Only a person who has given himself over to Satan would disagree with that.

For the Christian and the Jew, sin also marks the boundaries of our covenant with God, “Thou shall not...!” (Muslims have not retained this theology of covenant.) Because we belong to God and are called to be holy as God is holy, we have certain obligations beyond the Natural Law. We cannot worship an alien god; we must show mercy to “widows, orphans and aliens;” we must “keep holy the Sabbath”; and so forth. These rules don’t apply to everyone in the world and the world cannot discover them by deep introspection. They’re revealed to us by the Lord who has set us aside to be his Beloved People.

The Spirituality of Awareness reminds us that we miss a lot of what is going on. It can help me to recognize both my duties and my neglect of duties, which is sinful. Awareness reminds me of what people around me expect, and that I may select a response from many possible reactions.

For instance, I might realize my outdated habits offend younger people, and I should change my ways. For example, I don’t call anyone over fifteen a girl. Women can call each other girls; men cannot. Young lady is more acceptable. I can live with that!

An awareness of sin, sinful tendencies and sinful desires, and a readiness to atone for all behaviors both wicked and foolish help us to adjust gracefully to the 
world around us. 

We were, after all, sent to be a blessing, not an embarrassment. 

Second Sunday of Lent

Lectionary: 27

When the sun had set and it was dark, 
there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces. It was on that occasion that the LORD made a covenant with Abram,
saying: “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”

Shortly after the Vatican Council the Catholic Church in the United States received the new Lectionary of Sunday and weekday readings, which used the New American Bible (NAB) translation. Everyone of a certain age remembers this reading from the Book of Genesis, because the "smoking fire pot" was translated as a "smoking brazier." Invariably, the lay readers mispronounced the noun. Those halcyon days ended when the NABRE arrived with its less interesting fire pot.
The Book of Genesis says nothing about Abraham's first encounter with God, "The LORD said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you...." (Genesis 12: 1) How God spoke to Abraham is not described. Was it a dream, a vision, an audition, or what? We only know that Abraham obeyed. Several adventures follow that simple beginning, including Abraham's rout of the kings and Melchizedek's blessing. 
Today's story begins with more detail, "the LORD came to Abram in a vision...." A conversation follows as the childless Abraham questions God, “Look, you have given me no offspring, so a servant of my household will be my heir.” This conversation within a vision develops into a mysterious, terrifying epiphany:
As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great, dark dread descended upon him.
A smoking fire pot and a blazing torch pass between Abraham's slain animals and the liturgy of Israel begins. An altar will appear later, when Abraham's attempts to sacrifice his son Isaac. 
I think we should read this passage as the foundation of our tradition of worship. It is, at this point, very primitive. Much will be revealed to later generations in the coming centuries: altars, vestments, singers, and so forth. But already, in this story, we have animal sacrifice, trumpeted voices, fire (candles), and smoke (incense) and a procession. 
Abraham's response is also important: stunned, attentive silence. He listens to God's voice and receives the promise that is freely given. He can hardly do otherwise, so amazed is he. 
The epiphany on Mount Tabor to Peter, James and John is similar; and their response is the same. Again God appears in a cloud, and thunders a proclamation. Again the disciples are stunned into trembling silence -- despite Peter's attempt at conversation.
Each time we enter a church building and prepare to celebrate the Mass, a sacrament or the Hours we should remember the "great, dark dread" that fell upon Abraham and the silent fear of the disciples before Jesus' transfiguration. This is not a friendly conversation between friends. You need not expect God to throw an arm around your shoulder and say, "How's it going, buddy?" Those kinds of prayers have their place; we call them devotion. But this is liturgy, which is altogether different. 
Liturgy is a life-changing experience. We emerge from the sacred trance with its fiery cloud and thundering voice as different people. Now we understand that...
...our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior,  the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things  into subjection to himself.

Saturday of the First Week of Lent

For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers and sisters only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In a nation and culture that professes multiculturalism, where people are free to embrace their preferred values, the practice of religion can become a hobby. Attending Sunday and weekday prayer services and bible study groups, reading spiritual literature, and visiting sacred shrines: all these strike some people as quaint pastimes. Even works of mercy like volunteering in a soup kitchen or women's shelter strike some people as good deeds for those who are so inclined -- but not required for a "good life." 

Even when we bring great zeal and conviction to these practices, can we clearly show we are different from those who passionately collect and maintain firearms? Both "hobbies" are guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, and both arouse fierce arguments about their purpose in an ever-changing world. 

How does the practicing Christian fit in our world? Is our presence required? Does our witness make a difference? 

We should consider these questions during Lent for this is the season when our manner and behavior are altered by our religious beliefs. 

I have to confess that working as a priest-chaplain in the secular environment of the VA Hospital has induced a healthy shock in me. I meet many wonderful, inspiring men and women; but I meet more "Catholics" who feel no compelling need to attend church. Invariably they say they pray and believe in Jesus; and invariably I accept their claims; but I don't believe them. Their "faith" makes no difference in their personal lives or in the world around them. Religion is only a hobby for them, and they have found far more interesting ways to spend their time and energy. 

One of the friars here at the Mount spoke of his first year in the Franciscan novitiate. He told his sister that he was spending a lot of time in the chapel with daily Mass, the Divine Office and communal meditation. She replied, "Isn't that what you're supposed to do?" Why would that be a surprise to the novice entering religious life? But, after completing that novitiate year, even the professed religious -- the professional religious -- forgets that he has vowed himself to a Life of Prayer. Many of us become so busy with our work we forget to do our work. 

Recently, Archbishop José Gomez, responding to the crisis in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, reminded his Church of the "universal call to holiness:"

All of us need the grace of a new conversion. This is what Lent is for. 
We need to be transformed once more by the person of Jesus Christ and the power of his Gospel. We need to live our faith with new sincerity, new zeal, new purpose and new purity. We need a new desire to be his disciples.
I cannot say it enough: We all need to rediscover the essential message of the Gospel — that we are children of a God who loves us and who calls us to be one family in his Church and to make this world his Kingdom, a city of love and truth.
The challenge we face — now and always, as individuals and as a Church — is to resist the temptation to only follow Jesus “half way.” We should never settle for mediocrity or minimum standards in our life of faith. There are no “good enough” Christians, only Christians who are not doing enough good. 
Clearly, relegating religion to professional religious has failed. The Protestant Reformation recognized that failure centuries ago as it challenged all Christians to heed the universal call to holiness. 

At one time devout Catholic families prayed urgently that some of their own children would be called to priesthood, the convent and the monastery. They took enormous pride in supporting celibacy by the gift of their children. 

But, if that era has passed, as it seems to have, then we can only suppose the Holy Spirit is demanding that every Catholic get serious about her faith and its practice. We can do without C and E's who crowd our churches on Christmas and Easter. There is enough dead wood in the Catholic population to start a forest fire, if only we would catch fire. the LORD is making this agreement with you: you are to be a people peculiarly his own, as he promised you; and provided you keep all his commandments, he will then raise you high in praise and renown and glory above all other nations he has made, and you will be a people sacred to the LORD, your God, as he promised.”

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Apostle

Lectionary: 535
I exhort the presbyters among you...
Tend the flock of God in your midst,
overseeing not by constraint but willingly,
as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly.

Lay folks -- Catholics, Christians and others -- often suppose the Catholic Church is a highly disciplined and extraordinarily efficient organization. They think that priests, bishops and cardinals ask "How high?" when the pope says "Jump!" Some few of us wish it were so; unless, of course, I'm the one being told to jump. 
When people ask me how the authority in my Franciscan Community works I explain, "They tell me where to go and I tell them where to go. And then we talk." 
The truth is, at least here in the United States, most priests, brothers and sisters are citizens and there are few constraints on our freedom. When a priest decides to get in his car and drive away, to marry and take a secular job, his bishop or religious superior can do little about it. If he has taken valuable goods with him he might be pursued as a thief. If he wants payment or a pension for his years of service he'll be reminded of certain documents he signed several years ago, when he took vows or accepted ordination. If he decides to set up his own "Catholic" church the bishop's lawyers can block his use of the word "Catholic." 
Beyond that the priest is a free citizen, as are the religious monks, nuns, sisters and brothers. Often those who leave obedience must fall back on their family resources to begin a new life; but, if they leave soon enough, they generally manage pretty well. A few like to remain in the area as gadflies to the local church, drawing disenchanted Catholics with them into their mini-congregations. 
But, by and large, the Roman Catholic Church is held together by our willing obedience. Young people who consider joining the ranks of the Church's leadership as priests, brothers or sisters often suppose the hard part is celibacy. It is a challenge at first, for the first several years. 
As the years pass the real cross is obedience, and that's as it should be. Experience and age convict one of one's own opinions; habits are calcified; expectations become assumptions and privileges become entitlements.For most of us, the bishops and superiors are regarded as friends at first. They are former teachers, heroes and mentors; and then classmates. Later on, they become young whippersnappers. 
Eventually obedience becomes more than a distant ideal; it evolves into a thorn in the flesh. The reality of passing years digs into one's life. Aging shears away possibilities, the idle daydreams of living on one's own and pursuing one's own interests. 
The Book of Exodus has a useful verse: Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.(Ex 1:8) After four hundred years in Egypt, the Hebrew descendants of Abraham had learned to take their freedoms for granted. Suddenly their prospects changed dramatically. There was no rationality to the change. It was not deserved or predictable. But it was as real as politics. 

I knew a friar who reflected on the coming of a new guardian to his community. "It was like the difference between night and day."
As we celebrate the "Chair of Saint Peter" we thank God for the gift and cross of obedience. Every Catholic must come to terms with the reality of the Church. Some are challenged by our teachings on marriage. (As far as I can tell, marriage has always been and always will been subject to controversy.) Some feel disenfranchised by our teachings on abortion and birth control. 
Sadly, some are marginalized by racism, sexism and other bigotries in the pews and among the clergy. I think especially of the African-Americans who were welcome to attend the Catholic Churches -- so long as they stayed in the back and received the Eucharist after everyone else. Those strictures disappeared only in the 1970's. Their courageous witness to our Most Blessed Sacrament will remain so long as the story is told. 
Obedience to church authority is probably a cross for everyone at some point in their life. But it is also the Glory of Jesus shining brightly throughout the centuries. Not without reason do we sing, 
Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim,Till all the world adore His sacred Name.
Led on their way by this triumphant sign,The hosts of God in conquering ranks combine. (Refrain)
Each newborn servant of the CrucifiedBears on the brow the seal of Him Who died. (Refrain)
O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree,As Thou hast promised, draw the world to Thee. (Refrain)
So shall our song of triumph ever be:Praise to the Crucified for victory. (Refrain)

Thursday of the First Week in Lent

Lectionary: 227

Save us from the hand of our enemies;
turn our mourning into gladness
and our sorrows into wholeness.”

Jews celebrate the annual feast of Purim by reading the Book of Esther, and New York Jews often hire a well-known comedienne to interpret it for them. It is a funny story. One rabbi summarizes the story as, "They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let's eat." Their mourning has turned to gladness and their sorrows into wholeness. 

Christians too should rejoice in stories of deliverance, whether we're celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation on Juneteenth, or Independence Day on July 4. 
Lent, for all its penitential acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, is a joyous season. 

During these forty days we wrap the Gospel of God's Love around us like a prayer shawl and consider how deeply and passionately and resolutely God saves us.
We remember how close our God is to us, and that God hears our every prayer. In fact we would not pray at all if the Spirit of God did not prompt us to prayer. 
Jesus urges us to prayer:
Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 
Perhaps many of us have suffered when we asked for something. We were given stones when we asked for bread and serpents when we asked for fish. But those responses were not prompted by God's spirit. 

Conversion means unlearning those bitter lessons and relearning the Good News of Jesus. This healing must reach deep into every forgotten corner of our memory. The infant who was never touched as she lie in an incubator during those long desperate weeks must invite God's caress. The child who was molested must welcome the word that she is still desirable and beautiful in God's sight. The soldier who suffers nightmares from wartime experience must permit the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance and Marriage to heal and integrate those painful stories into the Gospel of one's life. 

Jesus urges us to persist in prayer until those healings are complete; even if -- and especially -- if that takes a lifetime. 

Purim, with its memories of three thousand years of anti-Semitism, from the Fall of Jerusalem to the Shoah, might well be a tragic festival. But faithful Jews will not let those stories end in grief. God is with them. And God is with everyone who asks. 
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things
to those who ask him.

Wednesday of the First Week in Lent

Lectionary: 226

Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.”
When the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

What happened to Jonah in America is sad. Theologians and scientists have debated whether a man could be swallowed by a fish (or a whale or Leviathan) and survive for three days in the acids of the monster's stomach. I'm sure that Jesus never had to deal with such sophistry when he warned the people of Capernaum of their eminent danger. They understood the message clearly even if they put no faith in the messenger. 

The Gospel of Sin and Condemnation is the Gospel of God's intense, personal and demanding love for every person, for every people and nation, and for the very world in which we live. All is God's creation. All is God's profound expression of perfection and beauty. As a homeowner might invest himself in the complex, time-consuming and taxing work of building a home for his family, wife and children, so has God created us. Because the home is an expression of care and concern, the homeowner can not bear to see it destroyed. Even its neglect insults the homeowner's investment. 

Many people suppose that God really doesn't care about them or their doings. They look at the universe of "billions and billions of galaxies" and at the "millions and millions of years" and think, "Why should God care about me? Surely he has better things to worry about." 

Not only do they underestimate God's infinite capacity for particular love, they thoughtlessly demean themselves, supposing their own well-being is of no lasting importance. Even when they care for themselves they build that self-concern on the presumption that there is no one else who cares for them. 

The doctrine of Sin and Condemnation insists that God's Eye sees and God's Heart cares. "His eye is on the sparrow!" The doctrine also assures us we can know this love as clearly as Jesus heard the Voice of God over the Jordan River, "You are my beloved Son. On you my favor rests." 

We hear God's reassurance in our practices of Penance, especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation; but also in our Eucharist and daily prayer. We can "live and move and have our being" in that reassurance. It is as certain as the ground beneath our feet and the gazillion stars in the sky. 

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down And do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, Giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

In today’s gospel we learn Jesus’ discipline of prayer. The story is told of the desert father who taught a promising young disciple the Lord’s Prayer. He was disappointed when the young man did not return the next day. When he finally met him again, many years later, the old teacher asked why he never came back. The reply: “I have never finished studying the one prayer you taught me.”
As Jesus is the Word of God Incarnate, the Our Father is the Spirit of God verbalized. To know this prayer is to know God’s heart; to say this prayer is to breathe the Holy Spirit. It does not return to God void; it achieves the end for which God sent it.
This is why Christians recite the prayer so often and Catholics include the prayer in our rosary. It teaches us to know the Father of Jesus, and to approach the “Throne of Mercy” with confidence. Encouraged by Jesus, impelled by the Spirit, we have no fear as we bring our needs before God. Very often we realize that we have truly left them at his feet to dispose of them as he chooses. Having asked God’s blessing on this or that problem, we leave it with God as our life rushes on to other worries and concerns.
Periodically I like to take the Lord’s Prayer to my prayer bench and sit with each syllable of each word, one syllable per breath. My mind has to be pretty fresh in the morning to stay focused that long, but it allows me to surrender every other thought to God. I certainly can’t solve my problems with anxiety. So I gently, persistently give them over to our-fa-ther-who-art-in-hea-ven-hal-lo-wed-be…. 
There is no need to finish the prayer, or to repeat it hundreds of times. It is good simply to sit with the Prayer of Jesus as it waters the earth, making it fertile and fruitful.

Monday of the First Week of Lent

Lectionary: 224

A preening bluebird
You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove him,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”
Recently I had a quarrel with a patient at the Veterans Affairs Hospital. Sometimes the patients can be hurting or in distress and their pain turns to anger, which they take out on the staff. But this was not the case. It’s not hard to stay with a man in pain even when he’s angry at the world and blaming it on me. No, with that particular Veteran, I had a bone to pick. I didn’t think he was giving me the respect I am due.
In other words, this quarrel was entirely my fault.
Later, another chaplain who (by the grace of God) happened to attend that session, wondered what I was transferring to that young man. Why did I take revenge and cherish a grudge against that particular Veteran?
I need not divulge all that to my readership, but I will say I realize all the better how mysterious is the life of another human being. I cannot know what goes on within the mind of another person no matter how well I might know him. What does he think? How does she feel? What preconceptions shape a person’s reactions and response?
If the core of another human being’s life is so opaque to me, then I am certainly not qualified to judge her. I cannot imagine what it is like to be anyone but myself; and often I cannot understand myself! How many times have I asked, “What was I thinking?”
I know what I was thinking during that recent quarrel because I thought I knew what he was thinking. I thought I could see through his closed eyes and quiet manner. But everything I thought about him was nothing more than my own thoughts, fears, uncertainty and anxiety. It had nothing to do with him. I don't know the man from Adam.
The Book of Leviticus, one of the core books of the Bible, teaches God’s holiness code. This is how you are to be holy: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself!”
As I recall that incident I remember that the love of another human being begins with the encounter of Other -- a mysterious existence that is not myself. He is not here to please me, to understand me, or to agree with me. To love another human being is to respect the integrity and holiness of an Other's existence, with his or her own genetic code, history, formation, preferences, fears, traumas, pleasures, desires and so forth....
As we settle into this season of Lent, I remember my own personal definitions of Penance: "I am not God. Thank God!" and, "Have mercy on me, a sinner."

First Sunday of Lent

There is greenery
even in the depths of winter.
Lectionary: 24

Because he clings to me, I will deliver him;
I will set him on high because he acknowledges my name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in distress;
I will deliver him and glorify him.

As we enter the Season of Lent each year, the Church gives us this story of Jesus in the desert. We see a man weakened by fasting, isolation and loneliness. His mind may be distracted by these trials. Isolation and suffering have a way of breaking down our best resolutions, our self-assurance and our loyalty to loved ones. God, friends, family, politics, social concerns, vows and promises: all seem remote in the wilderness. The self is dry, unattractive, irresolute and unfocused.

Just as this self-imposed exile is coming to an end, the rabbi Satan arrives to debate with the rabbi Jesus. Their conversation is framed as a contest between two bible-quoting scholars. Both know the Law of Moses very well, but only one knows the Spirit.

Their debate reflects the unending controversy about how the scriptures should be interpreted. So long as there are Jews, Christians or Muslims in this world, we will debate the meaning of the Sacred Word. The texts were written long ago and we are always trying to understand how we should live in this new age – whether it be the first century A.D., or the 15th or the 21st. Despite the fact that some people are scholars of the Bible and far more are completely illiterate, neither scholars nor illiterates can agree on what the scriptures say, much less what they mean. We can’t even agree on what books should be in the Bible!

If all that sounds very tiresome, it is! One can enjoy this debate only on a full belly, within the comfort of warm, dry clothing, a secure home, good friends, and steady employment. A mild intoxicant might also help.

None of which were available to Jesus. He was hungry, thirsty, dirty, and lonely; and, though he speaks courteously with Satan, he is not in the company of a trusted friend. Only his intense grasp of God’s word can save him from the nagging, persistent tempter. Fortunately, Jesus not only knows the word of God; he is the word of God! His knowledge of precisely what to say is more than intuitive. Despite his wretched condition after forty days in the desert, the Son of God is an inexhaustible fountain of authority, wisdom and power. He has only to open his mouth and Satan will fall like lightning from the sky.

Many themes come together in this wonderful story. We hear of Jesus’ weakness as a human being, and of his temptation. We see the challenge of Satan which does not end with this conversation. He has departed only “for a time.” The dialogue reflects the endless arguing of Jewish rabbis which, to gentile ears, is pointless. They seem to argue for the sake of argument, but Jesus is the end of all argumentation.

Finally, we encounter the authority of Jesus. It slams Satan in the face even as it wraps around us like a mother’s blanket. There is “healing in his wings.”

In our world today there are a great many religious arguments. Everyone has an opinion about religion. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it means nothing to practicing Christians. Jesus’ authority and that which he has given to the Church lay controversy to rest. We have more important things to do in Lent: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
When he leads us into the wilderness of Lent, with its penitential practices and its promise of glory, we go. We might pause to explain to puzzled neighbors why we do penance during this season, but not long enough to dally in the road. 

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Lectionary: 222

hoarfrost in a hay field
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”

Our Christian faith is steeped in riddles, conundrums, enigmas and mystery. How is that he has come not to call the righteous but sinners? Who does he expect to gather into churches, assembly halls, and houses of prayer? 

I read of a Texas sheriff who habitually rode around town with jailbirds and ex-cons. The hard-working, gun-toting, tax-paying, church-going citizens complained about his company; but he said, "How else should I find out whose doing what?" They voted him out of office anyway. They needed a more respectable, less effective sheriff to represent their ethos. 

The doctrine of election is always enigmatic. Why does God choose these particular people? Deuteronomy explores the question: 
For you are a people holy to the LORD, your God; the LORD, your God, has chosen you from all the peoples on the face of the earth to be a people specially his own. 
It was not because you are more numerous than all the peoples that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you; for you are really the smallest of all peoples. 
It was because the LORD loved you and because of his fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your ancestors, that the LORD brought you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)
As does Saint Paul: 
Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 
Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. (I Corinthians 1: 26-29) 
As I read this it seems to me, I should prefer the company of the foolish, the weak, the lowly and despised if I want to associate with Jesus. The Anglican priest/poet George Herbert said it as well as anyone could:


HAVING been tenant long to a rich Lord,
      Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
      And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancell th' old.
In heaven at his manour I him sought:         
      They told me there, that he was lately gone
      About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.
I straight return'd, and knowing his great birth,
      Sought him accordingly in great resorts;  
      In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
      Of theeves and murderers: there I him espied,
      Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, & died.