Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Lectionary: 244

Then he returned to Cana in Galilee,
where he had made the water wine.

The day after Laetare Sunday we are still in festive mood as we hear the Prophet Isaiah and  Saint John’s Gospel.

Isaiah’s prophecy sounds the note of the day, 
Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth…

I was not enthusiastic about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but there was one moment that almost made it worthwhile. That was when the suffering Lord said to his Mother, “See, Mother, I make all things new!” In that incident we saw Jesus’ freedom, generosity and joy. 
The things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind.

Is it better to forgive or forget? When I discuss this with the wounded souls in the VA substance abuse program, they generally agree we should not forget. You don’t get over injuries by forgetting about them, neither the physical or psychological kind. We must remember and allow the forgiveness to come upon us.
But, eventually, with healing we do forget old hurts. When they’re called to mind years later, we often don’t remember why we got so upset.  God remembers everything of course. History cannot be erased. But the grace of God allows us to see the blessings that emerged unexpectedly and undeservedly from even heinous crimes.

For I create Jerusalem to be a joy

and its people to be a delight;
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and exult in my people.

In the spirit of Isaiah, Jesus promises joy to his betrothed. Today’s gospel recalls Jesus’ changing water to wine, an extraordinarily happy event. Something new and unexpected is happening. Not only is it amazing that water becomes wine; it is delightful that the joy of marriage, which seemed exhausted and spent, has been revived with the excellent wine of the Holy Spirit. 

See, I make all things new. 

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Lectionary: 31

Then Jesus said,
“I came into this world for judgment, 
so that those who do not see might see, 
and those who do see might become blind.”

Today is often called "Laetare Sunday," meaning "rejoice!" We are half-way through Lent; our salvation is closer than when we first heard Jesus calling us to "Turn away from sin and believe the Good News."

Our readings today are addressed to a Church which is preparing for the Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation of its new born. Even as we pray with and for them, we pray God will find us worthy to receive new members. 

The standard of our worth is how well we see the light. 
You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.Live as children of light...

In our religion light and the ability to see are metaphors for knowledge and wisdom. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit we should see as God sees and know as God knows. This is precisely why we have been sent to our respective nations, to live in that light and to say what we see clearly. 

  • We know the unborn child is made in the image and likeness of God, with dignity and holiness. It should be given every opportunity to live and grow to maturity. 
  • We know marriage is a covenant between a man and woman and not subject to divorce. Anyone who considers divorce an option is not married. 
  • Marriage is not about friendship; it is deeper than that. 
  • Marriage is a narrow gate and few can enter it.  
  • Children have a right to know their own parents and live with them in their own home. 
  • Children have a right to education, to develop their potential and to prepare for a life of service to others. 
  • We know that God is worthy of trust, love and praise. No created thing, not even the self, is worthy of such devotion. 
  • The elderly and infirm have a right to our care and concern -- regardless of the cost. 
  • We know that people with disabilities are gifts of God and belong among us. 
  • We know that God provides for those who believe in Him. 
  • We know that every human being has the right to find God through whichever channels the Spirit leads. No one should be coerced into faith.
  • We know we are sinners, that treachery is lodged deeply in every human heart. 
  • And so forth. Our instincts, guided by the Holy Spirit, keep showing us more and more beautiful, challenging truths about our human nature. 

In a post-modern, post-Christian age when most people don't miss God or mourn his death, we do not expect to be greeted hospitably. Like Jesus in Jerusalem, the very presence of Christians represents a crisis. If we said nothing they would still know we challenge their culture of death. 

Rather, we invite our children, friends, co-workers and neighbors to come to the light and see how beautiful they are in the Eye of God. 

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent

Lectionary: 242

What can I do with you, Ephraim?
What can I do with you, Judah?
Your piety is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that early passes away.
For this reason I smote them through the prophets,
I slew them by the words of my mouth;
For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice,
and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

The Prophet Jeremiah observed, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (NIV) (NABRE)

We should ponder his words all the more deeply today. After "the death of God" comes the death of human nature. We cannot know who we are without knowledge of God; we cannot fathom our inclinations to evil. Because God is dead and unmourned, marriage is unmoored; babies, manufactured by unnatural breeding; refugees, unwelcome; and genocide, standard operating procedure.

In today's first reading, Hosea hears of Israel's repentance and mocks it. "Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away."

How often do parents hear their children swear they will not drink or use drugs again, and know they're lying? How often do betrayed spouses hear their mates promise endless fidelity and know they're 
incapable of telling the truth? Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that evaporates in sunlight. 

People lie because they do not know Truth. They would not know Truth if it bit them on the leg.

To know Truth we must cultivate a relationship with God, which takes time, dedication and effort. We must be willing to learn unpleasant truths, especially about ourselves, our families, churches and nations. We must understand that history doesn't begin each morning; that the past is always present and is often unreconciled. 

As Job said, "We accept good things from the Lord. Should we not accept the bad as well?"

Knowing God is not only pleasant; it is sometimes painful like a cross, and confusing like a dark night. Those who pray because it makes them feel good drop off along the way. They are like seed planted in shallow soil. Without roots, they wither in the scorching light of God. Even by the end of Lent, six short weeks, they've quit.

The one who prays must be ready to be smitten by the prophets and slain by the word of my mouth. Wisdom is the knowledge of one's own innumerable betrayals.

Jesus, in today's gospel, recommends to us the prayer of the Publican. "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." We should say no more.

Friday of the Third Week of Lent

Lectionary: 241

Jesus replied, “The first is this:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength

The second is this:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater than these.”

If you stroke a magnet with a pin several times the pin will be magnetized. The iron molecules in the pin, still cohering to one another, will be realigned by the magnetic force until the whole structure is converted. 

If I reflect on this gospel often and with devotion, each part of my distracted self will be realigned to the love of God. How beautiful that thought is. It is a promise of everlasting life. 

We are deep into Lent now. The choirs in our churches are rehearsing their Easter songs. Carrier services are delivering palms and tapered candles. "Environmental committees" are completing their plans for the Vigil Services. The catechumens are praying intently with their sponsors in preparation for Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation. Christians are confessing their sins in preparation for the renewal of the Baptismal Vows. Day by day, with each prayer and with each sacrifice for the love of others, we become more ready to walk with Jesus to Calvary. 

Perhaps the readings of Lenten Fridays are chosen with particular attention to the approach of Good Friday. Certainly what happened on That Day makes no sense if we do not have some grasp of today's gospel: "You shall love the Lord your God...." and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 

No one in his right mind would imagine himself undertaking the crucifixion with the dedication and composure of Jesus. He died under the most appalling circumstances and yet the Centurion -- a man who had seen many men murdered, killed in battle and crucified -- would say of Jesus, "Truly this was the Son of God." His was the most graceful death in history. 

Although I would not imagine dying in that way, the dual command of Jesus opens a window to my understanding of how he died. My love of God and neighbor, though far from complete, allows a glimpse of Jesus' total gift of self. He did this in love, with his complete assent. As he insisted, "No one takes my life from me. Freely I lay it down and freely I take it up again." 

Approaching Calvary, we can leave ourselves behind. There is no need for self-blame, self-recrimination or self-judgment. Forgetting self I will be amazed and grateful at the Beauty of His Death. 

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

Lectionary: 240

This is what I commanded my people:
Listen to my voice;
then I will be your God and you shall be my people.
Walk in all the ways that I command you,
so that you may prosper.

Recently we marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Internet. As one who remembers party lines and five digit telephone numbers, it's hard to believe the Internet is only twenty-five years old. But that wonder is only one of the innumerable changes we have witnessed in the last quarter-century. 

If we ever had a pretty good map of the future we don't today; and maps are being replaced by robotic voices that tell us when and where to turn.

We need a Voice -- not of a machine but a Person -- to guide us. 

My Dad died more than thirty years ago. One day I found my mother listening to his recorded voice. I asked her, "Does that sound like him?" She assured me it did. I did not recognize it. My father's voice had become unfamiliar to me. 

To listen to God's voice we must be familiar with it. It's easily shouted over and forgotten in the cacophony of today. 
Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people.
It's not enough to say I studied religion at one time. It's not enough to go by what the sisters or priests said fifty or seventy years ago. They spoke in the Holy Spirit to their time. We must listen to that Spirit in our time, an age those ancients could never have imagined. 

As Saint Luke wrote his narrative of the Holy Spirit -- it might be called "Luke/Acts" -- he accentuated how the times had changed between the dispensation of Jesus' ministry and the post -Resurrection dispensation. The same Holy Spirit governed both eras but the disciples needed a much larger map. Where Jesus traversed only Palestine, they would cross the Hellespont into Europe, and the Sinai into Africa. Where he had spoken only occasionally to gentiles, they would warmly greet, baptize, catechize and commission gentiles as apostles, prophets and evangelists. 

Some of the old Jewish Christians complained; there were terrible arguments and some sectarian splintering. Those who listened to the Holy Spirit remained with the Church; the others wandered off into history and were never heard from again. 

During this Season of Lent/Easter we pray that God will speak to us often, and that we will listen eagerly for that familiar, beautiful voice. 

Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent

Lectionary: 239

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.

The challenge of Christianity, especially in our post-modern age, is to celebrate the Person who lives at the very heart of all reality.

Our fascination with machines has to wane someday. If the Solar System seems like a marvelous machine caught up within an even more amazing Milky Way machine, the resemblance fails to say everything that must be said about astronomy. There is much that machinery cannot explain.

Turning our telescopes inward we will notice that plants, animals, fungi and other life forms -- despite our initial estimates -- also bear little resemblance to machines. The human being is not a machine; not even close.

The individual human being is made in the image and likeness of the Person who is God. That mysterious resemblance cannot be reduced to a metaphorical machine.

The Romans created aqueducts to carry water into the city; centuries later European cities created pipes and sewers to carry water out of the cities. They also created pumps and valves to facilitate the systems. 
A brilliant insight led William Harvey to posit that blood flows through the human body like those amazing water mains and sewers. The heart, he said, is like a pump with valves.  

Edison and Tesla and other geniuses created electrical systems to bring current into factories, businesses and homes. Around that same time, doctors realized the nervous system is something like an electrical grid, carrying messages hither and yon.
More recently, some people suppose the human brain is an amazing "carbon-based" computer! 

As we created more and more clever machines we supposed we could understand the human body as a machine. I remember one Veteran who complained "My mechanic can fix my car; why can't the doctor fix me?" 

Because you're not a machine. The analogy is clever but it falls far short of the reality.

At the heart of all reality is the unfathomable mystery we dare to call God. In fact, God is a community of three persons in one God. Each person is God, yet there is only one God. The reality of God is too subtle even for mathematical formulas like "one" and "three." 

This "person" is not fate, luck or karma. It is not blind, unfeeling or remorseless. God gives and God takes away. God chooses. Machines don't choose; they only do as they're programmed. Sometimes people act like programmed machines. Some counselors, teachers, politicians, and judges do only as their told by the reigning ideologues. Some Christians can only recite religious formulas to their children. But their formulas have no heart and no authority. As human beings they fail; their programs enslave them like machines.

In the person of Jesus we recognize the One who calls reality out of nothing and into being. He has not come to follow a mechanistic program of rules, laws and formulas. He says "
I have come not to abolish (the Law and the Prophets) but to fulfill..."  

Our following of Jesus can never be formulaic or mechanical. My faith sharing with authorities, peers and children must express the truth about who I am and about the God who has shown himself to me. 

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Lectionary: 545

“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight.
Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll,
behold, I come to do your will, O God.’”

During the Season of Lent we pause to consider Jesus’ human nature. He cannot save us unless he is fully human.

To be human means to be grounded in a certain time and place. The scriptures insist he was born “in the fullness of time.” That means Jesus could only be born of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, in Bethlehem during King Herod’s reign when Caesar Augustus was emperor.

Likewise, our salvation depends upon our willingness to accept the “body you have prepared for me.” Sin is the temptation to be something other than what we are, to be gods. We would be powerful like tyrants, brilliant like scholars, skilled like surgeons, beautiful like models, famous like pro athletes, and loved like entertainers – in short, like gods. Further, we would like to stand above and outside of time; and to have all knowledge of good and evil. We should know truths that are timeless and eternal.

We find ourselves living in the quotidian now. It is only one place and one time and each moment demands a choice which cannot be undone. I do not have the wisdom of the ages because I am an American male, age 65, white, educated, Roman Catholic, ordained, employed, and reasonably healthy. Each trait limits my awareness. I don't know what it is to be married, a parent or grandparent, a member of a minority race. I wasn't born in Rome, Russia or Peru.

Biology determines much of our destiny. I could not be a jockey or a basketball star. But neither do I suffer diabetes, heart disease or obesity. I am however, hard of hearing.

Every human being is a creature of time and space. It is absurd to wonder what you might have been had you been born a century earlier or later, or in some more exotic place.

The Gospel teaches us there is one man who has transcended time and space by his willingness to be the child of Mary and Joseph in first century Galilee. Obedient to the Spirit of God he announced the Good News, healed many, taught many and antagonized some. He acted in complete freedom and complete obedience to the God he called Abba.

Only by obedience to the same Spirit in our own time, place and bodies, can we aspire to such transcendence.

Monday of the Third Week of Lent

Lectionary: 237

They rose up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill
on which their town had been built,
to hurl him down headlong.
But he passed through the midst of them and went away.

Jesus’ warning, though well-intended, was not well received. He urged his people not to take their blessings for granted. You would think they might appreciate the warning. They should consider the dangers of presumption and entitlement and acknowledge their debt of gratitude to their gracious God. They should remember their many sins – the innumerable missed opportunities for generosity; the many times they took advantage of the weakness and foolishness of others; and the moments when they fulfilled their duties haphazardly, without full attention – and thank God he had sent them such a Savior.

But the Galileans were in no mood for Jesus’ reminder. It’s not hard to imagine why. Their country was occupied by a Roman army that supported the wealthy, influential and powerful and ignored the needs of the people. The alien soldiers despised the Jews and were known to ransack their homes and villages, killing men, women, children and livestock. The natives wanted a redeemer who would improve their lot, not someone who would tell them, “Be grateful for what you’ve got.”

Feeling victimized and abandoned, they wanted no reminders of their traditional hospitality to the victim and the stranger. “Charity begins at home!” they might have said to Jesus. “We’ll take care of our needs first, and then we’ll spare some change for others.”

Since prehistoric times the instinct for survival has propelled human beings to migrate. Sometimes they do it with an army to lead them, as the Mongols conquered Asia; more often they arrive defenseless and empty handed. Often they are not welcomed by the country’s occupants. 
The Eye of Providence
Jesus presented himself in our world as an outsider. Although his hometown was Bethlehem by Joseph’s family, he grew up in Egypt and Nazareth. As an adult he left his home in Capernaum to wander, following the tortuous path that led to Jerusalem and Calvary. He knew the plight of the migrant personally. He knew the have-nots are often more generous than the haves; they know God's mercy. 

More importantly, Jesus knew that God provides for his people and for those who welcome his people. What you do for the least of my disciples you do for me. We would do well to contemplate that mysterious sign on our dollar bill, that reminds us of our Providential Father. 

Third Sunday of Lent

sunshine and water flow in a rocky creek
Lectionary: 28

Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it
for the people to drink.”

On this Third Sunday of Lent we consider the life-giving water which Jesus gives us. The story begins with water flowing from a rock in the desert. The Hebrews had escaped the slavery of Egypt but lived a precarious hand-to-mouth existence in the Sinai Desert. Unaccustomed to putting faith in God, they wondered how they could live without provisions for tomorrow and the next day.
The lesson of the desert, of course, was God's providence. He provided manna for bread, quail for meat and water from a rock. Eventually they noticed their clothes didn't fall into tatters nor didtheir feet swell.
Saint Paul, following an ancient Jewish legend, imagined the miraculous rock rolling from place to place, as the Hebrews wandered in the desert: they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. (Romans 10:4) This wonderful rock apparently rolled behind the nomads like a faithful dog.

In any case, as Paul says, the rock is Christ, the superabundant fountain of eternal life. If the rock traveled with the wanderers it is one more sign of God's travelling with his people. YHWH leads his people through the desert (a column of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night) and so long as we remain with him we are blessed. When we wander into trouble, sin and despair, he follows like a good shepherd to bring us back. God says to us as Ruth said to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go.”

Jews and Christians use ubiquitous water to signify the presence of God. It is the rain which comes down upon the desert; like the Word of God, it is met by a spontaneous, joyous outburst of new life. Jewish Essenes ritually washed in a desert pool to cleanse themselves of sin; John the Baptist invited thousands of people to repent of their sins in the Jordan River. Jesus would give the last drops of his blood and water for our salvation when a soldier pierced his chest with a lance.
The Blessing of Baptismal Water during the Easter Vigil recalls the chaotic waters of creation, the destructive water of Noah’s flood, the saving water of the Red Sea, the merciful water of Saint John’s Jordan River and the birth water that flows from Jesus’ side.
May this water receive by the Holy Spirit
the grace of your Only Begotten Son,
so that human nature, created in your image,
and washed clean through the Sacrament of Baptism
from all the squalor of the life of old,
may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children
through water and the Holy Spirit.
Water’s presence in today’s gospel – Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman – is no accident. Both come to Jacob’s well – actually a cistern which could hold only stale, storage water – looking for refreshment; they leave thoroughly satisfied with the spring-like Living Water that bubbled up during their conversation. The woman is so satisfied she leaves her bucket by the well. Jesus is so refreshed he will not eat his disciples' provisions.
Their conversation signifies the spiritual dimension of Baptism as she undergoes conversion. First she approaches Jesus as a flirtatious woman with a sordid past.  Realizing he is a prophet she reveals her deep longing for the Messiah. When he says "I am he," she goes back into the village to share her experience.  Finally, the village confirms her message, saying:
“We no longer believe because of your word;
for we have heard for ourselves,
and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”
The villagers, we can suppose, are as surprised by the woman’s conversion as they are by the presence of Jesus.
In the story of the Samaritan Woman we discover the freshness of the Gospel. God wants life for us, full, spring-water life. His is not the old water of stone water jars or Jacob’s cistern. His “eternal life” lasts a moment and does not end. It is a grateful spirit that delights in being and belonging, in knowing and conceiving God. It is content with the past, satisfied with the present and eager for the future. 

His Spirit/water excites the woman and her people like dance music spreading from the musicians' instruments to the ears, thence to the brain, synapses and nerves throughout the whole body. As we approach Easter we too beg the Lord, "Give us this living water!" 

Saturday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 235

Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency,
And will again have compassion on us,
treading underfoot our guilt?
You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins;
You will show faithfulness to Jacob,
and grace to Abraham,
As you have sworn to our fathers
from days of old.

The story of the prodigal son and his father is used often during Lenten Penance services. It is a universal favorite for all Christians, the source of many moving sermons, songs and stories. 

It's origins, of course, are in the Old Testament. Jesus did not need to rewrite the Scriptures when he fulfilled every jot and tittle of it. 

The prophet Micah pondered the sins of Israel, the punishment of Babylonian Captivity and their deliverance. 

His words today reflect the spirit of a man who, despite the corruption in government and business which he saw, their institutional lack of mercy for widows, orphans, the displaced and the poor, and the violent consequences he expected, Micah knew a God who removes guilt and pardons sins. 

He could speak of doom to his contemporaries and yet find solace in his prayer, and bring solace to anyone who would listen to him. 

When the wrath fell upon the city, many would turn away from God, as they do today. They would complain that God has abandoned his people; God is unjust in his punishments. "What did we ever do to bring this violence upon ourselves?"

In the purity of his encounter with God, Micah knew they still refused to see their guilt. 

Each of us must seek that knowledge of God. It is there in the Our Father and the Hail Mary. It is there in Mass attendance. I see it on the faces of people as they stand before the altar. Only that reassurance of God's Goodness can sustain us when trouble comes -- as it always does. 

Friday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 234

They sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.

To put it gently, Joseph was a prig. Even his own father, who loved him dearly and favored him over his eleven brothers, rebuked his arrogance. 

But he didn't deserve what they did to him. 

It would be easy to say he brought it on himself and he had it coming. Joseph didn't go along to get along. He made himself stand out from the others. 

Why he should take that attitude is mysterious. It would be easy to blame the parent Jacob but there were surely enough warnings -- both verbal and non-verbal -- from his brothers. He ignored them. 
He would pay a bitter price for his foolishness. Perhaps, as he waited in the desert cistern for deliverance, or as he was dragged into slavery, or as he lay in an Egyptian prison he had time to think about his family, to remember his father's warnings and to repent. 

Betrayal, it seems, is more than a fact of life. There is purpose to it. From the sin of Adam and Eve, through the killing of Abel and Judas' betrayal, God makes betrayal serve his purpose. 

In the end, Joseph saw that. He said to his brothers,  
"But now do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you. The famine has been in the land for two years now, and for five more years cultivation will yield no harvest. God, therefore, sent me on ahead of you to ensure for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt." (Genesis 45) 
During Lent we consider our own betrayal of God's hospitable mercy. I have been given so much and returned so little. I have looked out for myself first, and then thought about others. I have sinned. 

What purpose there is to my sin I cannot and need not imagine. Certainly no good can come of my deliberately evil act. The Church insists "Two wrongs don't make a right," and "The end does not justify the means." I cannot justify my sinful actions by their consequences, not even by fortunate consequences. 

God alone will make it whole and turn it to good purpose. God is good. 

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 233

More tortuous than all else is the human heart,
beyond remedy; who can understand it?
I, the LORD, alone probe the mind
and test the heart,
To reward everyone according to his ways,
according to the merit of his deed,

Recently, at the VA, I attended an information workshop about "patient-centered care." You might assume every hospital is patient-centered but this plan differs from the "problem-centered care" of traditional medicine.
You go to the doctor who asks, "What's wrong?" You tell him what's wrong and he says, "Let's fix that!" 
But where did that problem come from and why is it there? In my experience of hospital patients in the VA and in the University of Minnesota Hospital (1995-96) most of the problems -- not all -- are caused by poor life-style choices. 
Patient-centered care is at least aware of those "styles" and is willing to address them with the patient. The questions might be asked, "Why do you smoke? Do you want to quit?" and "How can we help?" The problem may be alcohol, overeating, idleness, sleeplessness, or stress. These and many other problems can be addressed; all have a spiritual dimension. 
Rightly did Jeremiah observe, "More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?" 
The gospel today confronts us with the growing gap between the rich and the poor. It is, as Abraham observes, impassible: "Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’"
The rich man, traditionally called "Dives," has a life-style problem. He never noticed the problem and never imagined the crisis until it blew up. Then it was too late. Like many hospitalized patients, he is suffering acute, unbearable pain. His suffering was preventable but he never imagined it might happen. 
Like many patients, he claims he was never even warned; but he was, by Moses and the prophets, whom he ignored. Abraham's remark makes it clear his problem was a religious/spiritual one. The crisis and the judgment were preventable, like a great many cancers, congestive heart ailments, COPD, etc. 
Today's gospel might seem to speak only to the problem of rich and poor, but human life is never that simple. Health issues mingle with financial ones; personal problems become familial; ignorance and illiteracy have political dimensions, as do sexual relations. Our "problems" respect no boundaries. 
The LORD, alone probes the mind and tests the heart to show us how to live well. Certainly too much wealth is bad for the body politic and the individual human body. Wallis Simpson was wrong, one can be too rich and too thin. We should heed the warnings. 

Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary

It was not through the law
that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants
that he would inherit the world,
but through the righteousness that comes from faith.
For this reason, it depends on faith,
so that it may be a gift,…

Christians love our paradoxes and the Catholic faith, in particular, cherishes them. Joseph is the husband of Mary but not exactly the father of Jesus. But he is Jesus’ father in more ways than one: he is the husband of Jesus’ mother, his “foster father” as we call him; and he gives to Jesus the rightful title, “Son of David.” More importantly, Joseph deserves the title “Father of Jesus” because he shares the “righteousness that comes from faith.”

Sometimes amateur theologians doubt Jesus’ claim to full human fellowship because he was born of the Virgin Mary. They would say he is not “like us in all things but sin” because he is not the son of a human male. That is an interesting argument but it fails to give credence to the faith of the evangelists. They and the early church recognized Jesus as fully human because he is the son of Mary, and fully divine because he is virgin born of the Holy Spirit. There were plenty of pagan myths about gods who appeared to be human. But Jesus from his birth to his burial was obviously a man, vulnerable to cold, hunger, sleeplessness and pain like every other human being. He received this gift from his beloved mother. Because he was fully human, he could not strip himself of his human body when it proved inconvenient, as a legendary god might do.

Joseph gives Jesus lineage in the royal House of David and, with it, the religious faith of “Abraham and his descendants.” With faith comes the gift of righteousness; Joseph and Jesus were righteous men because of their faith in God. That is no mean inheritance to give to the Son of Mary.

Recently the Church added to our Eucharistic prayers a phrase, “with blessed Joseph her spouse.” I heard no particular reason given for this adjustment to the most central prayer of the Catholic Church. 

It may be a response to the crisis of marriage and parenting. Too many children are being raised by single mothers and elderly grandparents. Saint Joseph reminds fathers, “You have to be present to win!”

Presence requires a full commitment to the mother of your children, meaning marriage with its vows of fidelity, loyalty, dependability and devotion. Children have a right to grow up in the same house with their biological parents, who demonstrate faith by their married love.

In the story of Saint Joseph, sketchy as it is, we learn of a man who made enormous sacrifices for “the child and his mother.” (see Matthew 2:11,13,20,21) Not only did he set aside his misgivings about the conception of her child, he abandoned his livelihood, connections and family in Bethlehem to take them into Egypt, and then to Nazareth. For their sake Joseph became a homeless exile, a political refugee among the millions who wander the earth.  

In our time, when families are torn apart by economic forces, political disruption, and the dubious search for personal satisfaction, Saint Joseph appears as one who silently sacrificed everything for the sake of “the child and his mother.”

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Come now, let us set things right,
says the LORD:
Though your sins be like scarlet,
they may become white as snow;
Though they be crimson red,
they may become white as wool.
If you are willing, and obey,
you shall eat the good things of the land;
But if you refuse and resist,
the sword shall consume you:
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken!

In today’s gospel Jesus describes a church with an inverted hierarchy; that is, a church whose leaders act as servants to its members. This sounds practical and doable. Given a reasonably good start, successive generations of bishops and priests should be able to find and select candidates who are eager to serve. The membership should expect and demand that kind of leadership, weeding out those who don’t fit.

Hard experience has shown the actual practice requires more than a good start and due diligence. We also need large dollops of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Vow of Poverty has sometimes generated fabulously wealthy monasteries and friaries, a church of servant leaders may be crippled by avarice.  

Democracies deal with this problem by developing parties who criticize one another. They continually suspect their opponents' motives and detect hidden agendas in their opponents’ plans. Historically the Church encouraged vowed communities to act as critics within the leadership, pitting religious against diocesan clergy, and vice versa. Pope Innocent II saw that potential in Saint Francis’ community of “little brothers.” The system managed imperfectly until the Reformation when the rise of nationalism spawned widespread rebellion against Rome. Unfortunately the new generation of Protestant churches and sects proved to be just as fallible as the traditional Church.

Today it is easy for the Christian to surround herself with people like herself. We have created homogenized suburbs of look-alike, think-alike, vote-alike agreeable people – who don’t know their own neighbors. Religious differences are compromised by a conspiracy of silence. We select news media that agree with our views from the thousands of radio, cable and Internet options. We can even avoid conflict by marrying someone of the same sex! In such an environment who will tell you your faults?  Certainly not the political and spiritual leaders we elect and support. 
Even the time honored examination of conscience too much resembles the fox guarding the hen house. 

History, if it demonstrates anything, shows we can devise no foolproof system of checks and balances, loyal opposition, or self-critiquing leadership. Sin runs far deeper than any system we can devise. It is, to borrow an expression from Alcoholics Anonymous, “cunning, baffling and powerful.”

Individually we must continually seek God’s guidance, be suspicious of our own motives and receptive to the criticism and opposition of others. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.”

Lent is a good time to ponder this cul-de-sac.  Where do we go from here? Who will point out our sins and help us turn back to God?

Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.

Monday of the Second Week in Lent

Saint Patrick’s Day

Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.

I am struck by a comic/tragic dimension of this teaching: Although I know that judging others is entirely wrong, and that it usurps God’s preeminent authority, I do it anyway. I am so much more enlightened than the millions who don’t even know they should not judge others; but that enlightenment has so far done me little good.

Recently I read a book about the beginning of World War I. It occurred to me that, the more I know about a complex situation the less opinionated I am. I am shocked by the violence and horror of World War I but I am not inclined to judge the “sleep walkers” who brought it about. They were only mortals like me, with limited understanding and little scope for effective change. There were ideologues among them but none worse than the people I see in state and national governments today.  Each was serving his own nation as a true patriot; none took any particular pleasure in warfare.

We have a saying, “Never judge anyone until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” In other words, the more you know the less opinionated you become. The Lord, whose knowledge and compassion are limitless, has full authority to judge; but seems reluctant to condemn anyone.  Rather, he causes his sun to shine on the good and the bad; his rain falls on the just and the unjust.

In prayer and the practice of daily examen, we become aware of how quick we are to judge others; experience teaches us how often we judge wrongly. Wisdom teaches us to refrain from judging. She says, “Let it go; let it be; God will work it out in God’s own time.”

Even the daily examen, in which I review my day and the “spirits” that guided my reactions, thoughts and behavior, teaches me to think kindly of myself. If I did wrong I probably didn’t intend harm. If I intended harm I thought it was for the best. If I didn’t intend the best, God in his mercy hears my prayer and forgives me when I ask. I need not carry this regret forever. If I expected better of myself the Merciful God has shown me my true self, a loved foolish sinner. If I don’t condemn myself, the Lord will not condemn me either.

We can learn not to judge others; it takes a lifetime. We can learn to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Taking God’s hand with one hand and the cross with other, we follow where he leads us.  

Second Sunday of Lent

Lectionary: 25

And he was transfigured before them; 
his face shone like the sun 
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.

In the 17th chapter of Saint John's Gospel, we hear Jesus praying to his Father for and about us,

I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

Unlike the synoptic gospels (Mathew, Mark and Luke) Saint John's Gospel has no "transfiguration" story except the crucifixion. There Jesus' prayer -- that they may see my glory -- is fulfilled.

For those who need a less subtle sign, the Synoptic Gospels provide the Transfiguration, with Peter, James and John as witnesses. Before he is crucified we see his face shining like the sun and his clothes as white as light, and we hear a "voice come from heaven." With that vision still fresh in our minds we may be ready to witness his passion and death.

We often envision the good life as escape from trouble. The modern illusion of the good life is doing whatever you want to do without harassment or restriction. If there is a challenge, it's one of one's own choosing. Extreme sports,  for instance, cultivates that notion of freedom, where the dangers are predictable and manageable. If the sportsman gets killed by an avalanche, his buddies say, "He died doing what he wanted. It doesn't get any better than that." They see glory where common sense sees only narcissism and a wasted life.

During Lent Christians turn away from inane ideas of the good life and "lift high the cross." We want to appreciate the glorious victory Jesus has won and we want to know how we should follow in his footsteps.  

The cross especially challenges religious misconceptions that seduce many American Christians. Ross Douthat, in his book Bad ReligionHow We Became a Nation of Heretics, identifies several popular "heresies," including fundamentalism, syncretism, Gnosticism, solipsism, messianism, utopianism, apocalypticism, nationalism and the gospel of prosperity. (This book makes excellent Lenten reading if you are inclined to understand sin as more than a personal problem.)

Douthat points to the prosperity gospel, for instance, which promises success, ease and comfort to the devout. Huckster’s readily exploit the downhearted and gullible with this Gospel of Success. More sophisticated but equally gullible people might embrace the gospel of personal satisfaction, which promises physical fitness, financial success and good relationships to those willing to work hard. (Church attendance is optional.) Patriots readily buy Christian nationalism with its doctrines of freedom, democracy and the American Way of Life. Entwined with that is the heresy of determinism and the belief that God has revealed the future to us. Ideologues envision a future of guaranteed “rights for people like me."

The Cross is a gateway for those willing to follow Jesus. On this Transfiguration Sunday the Father of Jesus gives us one simple instruction. “Listen to him!” If you think you know what he is saying, you are not listening; you’re thinking. If you think you know what the cross means, you’re thinking, not listening. If you are not dazzled by his appearance – stunned into silence and holy fear – you’re not listening.

To listen to Jesus you will have to walk with him as he travels to Jerusalem and Calvary. He does not stand still, nor does his Church. He doesn’t explain every step of the way to reassure the hesitant; he marches.

At times you will think “I know where this is going”, but you will be wrong. Can the bride and groom kneeling before the altar know where this is going? Only vaguely. Can the candidate prostrate before the bishop on his ordination day know where this is going? Or the novice on her day of investiture? Not likely. 

Our only assurance is the prayer of Jesus, “that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”