Monday of the Third Week of Lent

Lectionary: 237

When he read the letter,

the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed:
“Am I a god with power over life and death,
that this man should send someone to me to be cured of leprosy?
Take note! You can see he is only looking for a quarrel with me!”

We can well imagine the distress of the king of Israel upon receiving the letter from the king of neighboring Syria. These royal neighbors were usually at odds and Israel always came out the worse. 

But we might also suppose, "Didn't the king know about Elisha and his authority to heal? Why wasn't his immediate, instinctive response to send Naaman the Syrian down to Elisha in the Jordan Valley?" 

Obviously, his immediate reaction was defensive. A friend came to me once several years ago to discuss a problem. He said, "Now Ken, try not to get defensive." As if...! Neither one of us came out of that room satisfied. 

The King and I were locked into ourselves, feeling like everything in the world is my problem and my responsibility; and "Why is everybody always picking on me?" 

Recently I listened to several long stories of defensiveness at the hospital. Trying to help the woman out of that suicidal attitude I finally asked her, "Where are all these stories going?" 

They were circling around the vortex of suicide. Given all these awful things happening to her, why not kill herself? I spoke to her about "walking back these victim stories to their source," perhaps to discover a moment when she was free, happy, and responsible. She might yet rewrite the story of her life with a role for Our Savior. 

In today's gospel we can see that Jesus is not a victim in that psychological sense.
They rose up, drove him out of the town,and led him to the brow of the hill upon which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.But he passed through the midst of them and went away.
The Baptized who belong to his body the Church with himself as our head do not react defensively to challenges. We know in our bones that we were commissioned only to turn our problems over to the Lord. HIs problems are not ours. If he wants us to do something more than that, he'll tell us, as Elisha told Naaman to go wash in the River Jordan. 

I was sent once to a parish that, like many others, was rife with troubles. It wasn't long before I appeared in the chapel and said, "Lord, you've got a problem here! What are you going to do about it?" 

Third Sunday of Lent

Lectionary: 30

I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians. 

Today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus describes that cardinal moment in Salvation History when God entered time to save us from sin, futility and death. He gave Moses a new name by which his people may address him. 

In our alphabetic language we translate the word as YHWH, and refer to it as the tetragrammaton. We do not know how to pronounce the Hebrew word and should not attempt it out of reverence for the Jews who bequeathed this treasure to us. Our Bibles usually translate it as "Lord." 

But we know something of its meaning: "I am who am" or "I will be with you." 

I call this a cardinal moment in Salvation History because until now, the Hebrew slaves had no name for their god except El Shaddai: 
Then God spoke to Moses, and said to him: I am the LORDAs God the Almighty (El Shaddai) I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but by my name, LORD, I did not make myself known to them.
I met a fellow who told me he doesn’t pray because he is sure God has no time for him. He was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school but the God he was taught was distant, aloof and preoccupied. This is a fellow who attends Mass weekly and takes part in parish activities. But he has never learned the Name by which he might call on God. Or, more accurately, he does not understand that he has been given that extraordinary privilege by his Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation. 

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Benedict XVI, wrote that the Greeks had discovered by their philosophical sciences there should be a supreme being but they had no name for that god until Christianity arrived with its Jewish traditions. 
We model our behavior -- and ourselves -- after the gods we worship. But if we neither know God's name nor call upon our Saving God by that name we can only imagine ourselves as cold, distant lovers (i.e. parents who provide food, shelter, clothing, toys, money but no affection).

Saint Paul tells us today, 
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud.... 
We do not have to live under the cloud of ignorance about the concerned, affectionate God who has come down to save us. We do not have to imitate a cold, distant, aloof god who has better things to do in his vast universe than pay attention to our petty affairs. 

Lent is the season, the moment of opportunity, when we shake off our fears of El Shaddai and approach the Lord Jesus with the confidence of injured children in sore need of attention. 

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?

Ash Wednesday is marked in many churches by the largest crowds of the year, larger than Christmas and Easter. They certainly fill my humble hospital chapel, in part because Christmas and Easter are holidays and Ash Wednesday is not. 

But if you only go to church one day of the year, Ash Wednesday is the day to do it. That's when we choose to stand with the Church in our sins and ask for God's mercy. 

Throughout the Season of Lent we remember the God who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance. We receive ashes on our foreheads as signs of God's blessing. Our remorse for our sins, grief for the harm we have caused, and acts of atonement are the surest signs of God's election. 

We are God's people; that should be apparent to everyone. 

This morning we have heard the story of the Prodigal Son. This very foolish, thoughtless young man cashiered his place in his father's house, taking his share of his father's projected estate with him. But he could not rid himself of his father's genes. Had anyone from his hometown spotted him feeding pigs in a foreign country he would certainly have said, "Aren't you so-and-so's son? What are you doing here?" 

We can well imagine the pain that chance encounter might have caused. It's bad enough to be desperately poor, but to be recognized as the son of a prosperous family, come down for no good reason, would be scalding. 

And yet that pain is itself a blessing and the sign of a blessing. It must drive him back home. He is still beloved; he cannot extract his father's genes from his own body. His features give him away even in a pig sty.
Our Lady of La Leche
in Saint Augustine Cathedral
Fortunately, as Jesus tells the story, the young man came to his senses. We can say his father's common sense, from its genetic hiding place within, prevailed; and he abandoned the sty to return home. 

He probably still reeked of pig as his father rushed to him. I grew up near pig farms and there's no mistaking that stench. He needed a bath and entirely new clothes, and probably a headshave and delousing. And let's throw some perfume on him for a few more days until we get the swine out of his sweat. 

We are God's children. We have sinned; we cannot deny it. Nor can we deny our lineage. 
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.

Friday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 234

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them. And although they were attempting to arrest him, they feared the crowds, for they regarded him as a prophet.

The more familiar I become with the real world in which I live the more familiar becomes the scriptures. Which is to say, "It's political." 

Clearly many people regard politics as a game with winners and losers. If they hate the game perhaps they're the losers. 

But politics is life; it's how we manage to live with one another in a complicated, dynamic, mysterious and sometimes terrifying world. 

Those who see politics as a game see friends and enemies. But if politics is how we live together, it's about the just apportionment of resources and opportunities to everyone. 

In today's gospel, the chief priests and Pharisees hear Jesus speaking a hard truth and they fear losing the game. They know only one way to deal with him: arrest, accusations, condemnation and complete removal from the game. If that includes something as cruel and disgusting as crucifixion, so be it. 

Jesus speaks fearlessly to these gamers because he knows something they do not: the game is over, God has won. Those who believe that fear nothing. 

There will be a just apportionment of resources and opportunities. The only ones who will suffer losses on that day will be those who stood in the way of justice. Clinging to what is useless garbage, they will be cast down with their treasure intact. 

But those who stood with Jesus in their poverty will sing, " the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes."

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 233

‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded
if someone should rise from the dead.’

This story of the rich man and Lazarus is one of the saddest of Jesus' parables. It ends with a tormented, clueless sinner lost in the netherworld, suffering in "these flames." 

He seems none the wiser for his conversation with Abraham. Narcissistic and stupid, he still regards Lazarus as one of his domestics who should endure the flames of hell to bring him a drop of water to "cool my tongue." 

He believes he has been unfairly condemned because he was not warned about the consequences of his senseless way of life. But he was warned; he simply refused to hear what Moses and the prophets said to him. 

Jesus does not add a footnote to his parable. There is no suggestion that the rich man will ever escape his torment. Rather he goes on in the next chapter to say to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur."
The judge has spoken. "Next case!" 

I have heard people say they don't believe there is a Hell. They suppose God is too good to permit people to rot in hell forever. That's a strong argument but I don't find evidence for it in the scriptures; and I am reluctant to tell God what he should do. I am more inclined to take his warning seriously. 

I can hear someone arguing with God in a spiritual sitcom, "You're kidding, aren't you?" 

He's not kidding. 

This parable of the rich man and Lazarus is about entitlement. Dives never saw it coming because he, his brothers and his friends -- an elite group of people from among the thousands he might have preferred -- habitually and intentionally ignored the Word of God. They set a chasm between themselves that Lazarus and his dogs could not cross. 

Observers are warning us today: 

  • Who are your friends? 
  • To whom do you listen? 
  • Who do you ignore? 
  • What advice are your select advisors giving you? 
  • Do you search for differing opinions on the Internet, or your own opinions? 
  • Are you listening to your enemies and what they say about you? 
As a priest, I might add: 
  • Did you choose your church or accept the one given to you? 
  • Did you choose your priest or minister, or the one sent to you? and finally,
  • How did you choose where you live? Was it on the principle of "location-location-location" or did the Lord send you there? 
Even the rich man might tell us at this point, "He's not kidding!"

Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 232

Heed me, O LORD,
and listen to what my adversaries say.
Must good be repaid with evil
that they should dig a pit to take my life?


It's often said, "When the gods want to punish someone, they answer their prayers." In other words, we humans are notorious for asking for the wrong thing. We want what is bad for us and shun that which is best.

In today's scripture Jeremiah asks, "Must good be repaid with evil?" Jeremiah was a very young man, perhaps a teenager, when the Spirit of Prophecy fell on him and he was recognized by the people and rulers of Jerusalem as a man with divine authority.

Unfortunately, that did not mean they welcomed his pronouncements or followed his counsel. There was a host of other prophets who contradicted everything he said. In fact, because his authority was truly divine, he was routinely ignored, snubbed and punished. By his teaching and the manner of his life and death he is considered the most Christ-like of the ancient prophets. As the young man Jesus became familiar with the story of Jeremiah he saw his own doom.

Jeremiah asks, “Must good be repaid with evil?” Or, as today’s cynics say, "No good deed will go unpunished."

Broadly speaking, most religious people figure, “If I do the right thing, the Lord owes me blessings. And if I do wrong the Lord will punish me.” That conventional religious wisdom makes perfect sense.

But Jesus promises just the opposite. He leads us through Lent to Good Friday. On the road we hear his less than reassuring words, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first."

Our communion of prayer, fast and abstinence with Jesus is a communion with all those who do not have enough to eat, who are treated unfairly, who live beyond the edges of society and the conventional protections of a highly advanced, technological society.

Whenever we invoke the presence of Jesus, whether during the Mass or in private prayer, we should notice the needy crowds who still flock to him. if we are not to be shoved out and away from him in the jostling commotion, we must greet them with the same reverence he showed to them.

Lent insists we must become more aware of the privileges we take for granted, the entitlements that were given to us but not to others. We might consider how willing we are to fight for these "rights" when they are nothing more than unearned, undeserved advantages bestowed arbitrarily by an unjust world:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.

The guarantee of our faith is not easy street or happy days; it is communion with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

We seem to fear the least threatening dangers and ignore the most threatening. Last summer it was the Ebola virus; now it’s the Zika virus. Several years ago we were ostracizing people suspected of HIV although it takes a good deal of intentionality to contract that nasty bug. Terrorism -- another threat to our health -- remains a perennial favorite of politicians and the news media, although its direct impact is minimal. 

Meanwhile, we ignore the real threats: heart disease, lung disease, addictions, diabetes, guns – all the life-style related illnesses. 

But the worst threat of all, and perhaps the easiest to address, is that of which God speaks in today's first reading:

Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil; learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.

… if you refuse and resist,
the sword shall consume you:
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken!

This is the greatest irony about the predicaments, problems and crises we create: they can so easily be avoided. Whether it's the collapse of our infrastructure, the environmental crisis, gridlock in the federal government or any number of other issues: there are reasonable solutions -- all involving sacrifice -- that could be enacted if we had the political will. 

It's not easy to be human. The Buddha figured that out; Jesus proved it on the cross; the Church has never tried to hide that. 
Unfortunately the American experiment, hijacked by a market/consumer economy, promises that life should be comfortable, easy, fun and without real challenges. (Those who wish may create their own faux challenges.) They tell us, "You deserve a break today." 

No thanks. 

The Lord, who loves us tenderly and stands ready to guide us every step of the way, makes no empty promises. Nor does he make empty threats. And yet, we prefer to listen to impotent, distant enemies, and overreact to their threats.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, seeing the ecological damage and waste of human beings during the industrial revolution, wondered, "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" Why indeed do we not pay attention to the voice of our Savior? 

The real threat comes to us as an invitation from one who loves us far more than our enemies hate us. Jesus urges us, not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.
The first thing God says to us is, "Do not be afraid." Those who hear his voice know what to do. They fear nothing.

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Apostle

Lectionary: 535

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

As I reflected on today’s feast I considered the three crowns the pope used to wear, signifying his duties as Bishop of Rome, Patriarch of the Western Church and Pope of the Universal Church. Then I looked up “patriarch” in the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia and decided to take another tack.
Historians may argue this but we seem to be living in a second “axial age.” Today’s technological, environmental, social, economic, and political changes are so overwhelming it seems the Earth is shifting on its axis. Every tradition, law and institution we have ever known must be reconfigured and reinvented or dropped into the dustbin of history.
But we have it on faith that the Church with its Gospel will remain until the end of time. Given that confidence, Christians are tempted to ignore the times, supposing that “We’ll get back to normal pretty soon.”
It’s not going to happen. Pope Saint John XXIII knew that when he called the bishops to the Second Vatican Council. That council called for every religious institution to reexamine its life and rediscover its founding spirit. Many institutions have vanished in the interim, some are struggling and a few are enjoying new vitality.
One of those changing institutions is the papacy. Pope Paul VI began the process of simplifying when he gave his tiara to the poor of the world. (It now resides in a reliquary in Washington DC.) He also added about 40 cardinals to the traditional number (72) and initiated a retirement age. The only duty of the College of Cardinals is to elect the pope, so that change was significant. But Pope Benedict XVI made the most important move when he voluntarily retired. Hopefully, he delivered us from the frightening specter of a disabled, demented pope who might live twenty years past his ability to guide the Church during this axial age.
What comes next? I certainly don’t know. (I notice that Pope Francis met with the patriarch of Russia lately, known as the Russian Pope.)
But I am sure we will be guided by scripture passages such as we hear on this feast:

  • Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah: Jesus knew the church needs the guidance of one person. Leadership comes from neither a mob nor a committee. As Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.”
  • flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father: Not everything that God says resides in the past. Often our Father directs us through the present moment with a word, an insight or an impulse. Jesus recognized his Father’s presence in the words of his impulsive disciple.
  • you are Peter. A new name is a new identity and a new relationship. This is the only disciple Jesus renamed. (Paul never discarded his Hebrew name Saul.) With his new name Peter was recognized as the spokesman for the apostles and stepped into the role of leadership after Jesus’ ascension.
  • upon this rock: We understand Jesus’ wordplay to refer to Peter’s declaration of faith, which is essentially our relationship to God and to one another.
    I cannot control God or anyone else but I can believe in others. I can act as if God will provide and that I will discover God’s providence in expected and unexpected places.
  • I will build my Church. Although the Father speaks to each of us in the solitude of our hearts, no one comes to God alone. We are bound together in a most sacred communion we call Church.
  • and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. God the Creator and Lord of History remains faithful to his church even through an axial age.

    It may not be easy to remain faithful to the holy way God has given us; nor is there any reason it should be; but we trust that God still guides us under the headship of Peter.

Second Sunday of Lent

Lectionary: 27

The Lord God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

There is something oddly refreshing in the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a story which we hear every year on this second Sunday of Lent. Part of that refreshing experience is the passage from Genesis which concerns the Patriarch Abraham.

The ancient ancestor of Jesus set the pattern for his and our relationship with God; that is, faith. This mysterious, undefinable quality is the only way to know God.

We might suppose today’s readings describe another way to know God, his direct appearance to us. Surely Abraham knew God after the “deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him” and he saw “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces” (of sacrificed flesh.)

Surely Peter, James and John knew Jesus was God after his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, a vision so astonishing and terrifying they could tell no one about it.

Saint Paul described similar experiences. He often spoke of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. But he also spoke in the third person of his ecstatic trip to the third heaven:

I know someone in Christ who, fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows), was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this person (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter. About this person, I will boast, but about myself I will not boast, except about my weaknesses.  

He makes light of the incident. It happened fourteen years ago and was only to the third heaven; his opponents the “super apostles” claimed more recent, more outrageous journeys into more distant spaces of God’s inner world. Saint Paul insisted he could not boast of those incidents perhaps because he had suffered so many setbacks in the meanwhile: beatings, imprisonment, hunger, thirst, sickness, deprivation, contempt, and so forth. Only a madman would cling to his memory of ecstasy in the light of so much suffering.

In his book Man is not Alone, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of the challenge of faith:
Many of us seem to think faith is a convenient short cut to the mystery of God across the endless, dizzy highway of critical speculation. The truth is that faith is not a way but the breaking of a way, of the soul's passageway constantly to be dug through mountains of callousness. Faith is neither a gift we receive undeservedly nor a treasure to be found inadvertently.

We do not stumble into achievements. Faith is the fruit of hard, constant care and vigilance, of insistence upon remaining true to a vision; not an act of inertia but an aspiration to maintain our responsiveness to Him alive.

Just as men are unable to notice the most obvious phenomena in nature unless they are anxious to know about them -- as no scientific insight will occur to those who are unprepared -- so are they incapable of grasping the divine unless they grow sensitive to its supreme relevance. Without cleanliness of will the mind is impervious to the relevance of God....

The art of awareness of God, the art of sensing HIs presence in our daily lives cannot be learned off-hand. God's grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes comes the ability to grasp the theme.

If our Christian tradition insists that faith is a gift we receive undeservedly, the Rabbi will insist that it also requires “constant care and vigilance, of insistence upon remaining true to a vision.”
Given his experience, Saint Paul could not have disagreed with his fellow Jew.
In today’s gospel, Jesus appears discussing with Moses and Elijah the “exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” He would not easily endure his trial, the mockery of the high priests, soldiers and crowds, his scourging, crowning with thorns, carrying the cross, crucifixion and death. His exodus and final victory would be like silver refined in a crucible, purified seven times.
If you and I have been faithful we can admit it’s not been easy, even as we insist we are grateful for the gift, and freely admit it came not through human effort but from God. It has sometimes been downright terrifying, though we don’t often dwell upon those anguished hours.
When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. John 16:21
In Lent we remember the anguish so that our joy – refreshed -- might be complete at Easter.

Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Lectionary: 229 will be a people sacred to the LORD, your God, as he promised.”

Jesus' words holy (in Saint Luke's version) and perfect (in Saint Matthew's) have been troublesome in my experience, and probably since the day he uttered whichever he said.

I grew up trying to be Perfect in order to please the parents, teachers, and bigger kids on the playground. In the end, somewhere after I developed OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), I realized these authorities were implacable! They weren't happy to start with and there was nothing this kid could do to please them. 

To make matters worse, I was supposed to please a God who, by all accounts, wasn't very happy. 

It didn't help that (I was told) Our Unhappy God might be pleased by certain impossible deeds and by avoiding certain unavoidable thoughts, words and deeds. Somewhere in college, attitudes was added to that relentless list. There's no room for bad attitudes in God's kingdom.  

Talk about the weight of the universe! 

The ultimate burden was ordination to the priesthood, when I should please -- or at least not displease -- everyone who appeared in church or walked down the street, who drove on the highway or walked on the sidewalk. 

No wonder I had a nervous breakdown in 1981. Or was it 1978? There were several; not all have been tabulated. 

My only hope was that I might slip in under God's notice among the crowd of Catholics and Christians with whom I associated. 

Actually, that's not a bad plan. 

When Jesus says "You shall be holy (perfect)" he is speaking to the Church, to the community of believers; those who have been washed in the water that flowed from his side; who have eaten his flesh, drank his blood and drawn his breath. This is the community that also acknowledges its sins corporate and individual; and receives time and again assurances of his tender mercy. 

This is the community which stands with Mary Immaculate at the foot of the cross, and overhears his words to her, "Behold your children!" even as we are told, "Behold your mother." 

Finally, I learned to accept the healing love of my parents, family, friars, friends, fellow Catholics, and colleagues along with the consoling touches, smells, tastes, sights and sounds of God's good earth. I also learned to forgive these far-from-perfect people. (If I had ever found a perfect church it would not have been perfect after I joined it.)

We are holy in God's sight -- and beautiful and delightful -- because the Father has looked upon us through the gentle eyes of our brother Jesus. 

Friday of the First Week of Lent

Lectionary: 228

...go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

When the Name of God is mentioned there are three attributes we most often associate with him: power, knowledge, goodness. The Church, witnessing the collapse of the Roman Empire and the return of barbarity, celebrated and promoted human authority. In those days, they were emperors, kings, their armies and the aristocrats they appointed to rule. How they garnered such power was less important than that they should maintain security and peace. ("We'll worry about justice and mercy later.")  

Gradually the mystery of the Holy Trinity was set aside during those chaotic centuries and God the Almighty, All-Benevolent and All-Knowing reappeared. Perhaps there was also the winking and nodding understanding that God the Father is that particular god while God the Son and God the Holy Spirit submitted obediently to His Benevolent Rule. (I found the "God" who appears in Milton's Paradise Lost insufferably arrogant. Such was the god of empire. Satan seemed far more attractive.) 

Eventually that god would be discovered as pathetically weak. If God is so good, wise and powerful, why do the innocent suffer? Why are there wars? Can God prevent us from destroying all life on this speck of Earth in the vast universe? 

Clearly, we need an even more powerful god than the one we've known. 

During the twentieth century, theologians began to reexamine the doctrine of the omnipotent god. Hans Urs von Balthazar, in his book Credo, describes God the Father: 
"When the New Testament refers to him in many passages as “almighty,” it becomes evident from these that this almightiness can be none other than that of a surrender which is limited by nothing—what could surpass the power of bringing forth a God “equal in nature,” that is, equally loving and equally powerful, not another God but an other in God...? ...It is therefore essential, in the first instance, to see the unimaginable power of the Father in the force of his self-surrender, that is, of his love, and not, for example, in his being able to do this or that as he chooses. And it is just as essential not to understand the Father’s love-almightiness as something darkly elemental, eruptive, prelogical, since his self-giving appears simultaneously as a self-thinking, self-stating, and self-expressing (Heb 1:3): The Logos, the Word that contains every sense in itself, is their product. Just as little is the Father’s “all-mighty” self-testimony something compulsive; rather, it is also the origin of all freedom—once again, not in the sense of doing as one chooses, but in that of superior self-possession of the love which surrenders itself."
Power is not proven by doing whatever one wants to do but by the willingness to surrender all of one's power, for if the all-powerful God cannot totally and utterly discipline himself -- even to the point of utter submissiveness before an inferior -- he is a most pathetic being.

That's deep stuff. Let's bring it home: In today's Gospel Jesus instructs us to go first and be reconciled..., and then come and offer your gift.

A disciple of Jesus who aspires to be God-like ("holy") is always ready to apologize and always ready to forgive. This authority over oneself comes from God and emulates God. The one who refuses to forgive or apologize clings to the trappings of power and righteousness but is exposed as an undisciplined, self-willed child. 

That disciple bears little resemblance to the Lord who forgave and pleaded for his tormentors even as he died. 

Thursday of the First Week in Lent

Lectionary: 227

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. 

Apparently the author of the New Testament "Letter of Saint James" was familiar with these words from the Gospel of Matthew. He responded to those who had asked and not received: 

You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
The Lord taught his disciples to pray, and to pray both persistently and confidently. We should go before God boldly because we know and personally experience the suffering, disappointment and abandonment of human nature. Nothing that is human, as the Church of the Second Vatican Council declared, is foreign to us. 

When we pray we pray as his disciples and that is why we're confident. We are impelled by the same Holy Spirit which drove Jesus into the desert to fast, into solitude to pray, into the villages to heal and into Jerusalem to die. When we pray we speak for ourselves and we speak for others because we're all in this together. 

Our urgency must be that of God's own spirit. Recently, at the VA hospital, I was sent by one part of a feuding patient's family to negotiate with other members of the family. I went in confident and cocky and came out with my tail between my legs. 

As soon as I got in there I knew I was in trouble. My behavior was downright bizarre. At one moment I was sympathetic; the next, I was rude. I realized I had not been sent by God but by angry souls who only wanted what they wanted when and as they wanted it. I was acting not like a priest but like a hero! I also suspected the dying patient had set up this game, playing one side against the other for reasons I would never comprehend. I reported back to the family, "There are always things left undone when a patient dies." For sure I was not going to be the hero who resolved their vendetta.  

We can expect many of our petitions to be rejected by the Lord, and we can hope to learn from the experience. If "you ask but do not receive", (it's) "because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions." In my case it was to feed my egoistic self-image as hero. 

We do well to study the prayer of Esther. Like Jesus and all the martyrs, she was willing to lay her life on the line. Our prayers must be driven by the same Spirit. Cleansed of ego, we want only what God wants and only when God wants it, be it now or a thousand years hence. 

Wednesday of the First Week in Lent

Lectionary: 226

At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.”

Some years ago, when my brain was much younger, I memorized the King James Version of the Book of Jonah. It’s only five brief chapters and moves quickly as a story. There is plenty of space for comic interpretation in its telling. I recited it before an audience only once or twice; even for a priest a captive audience is not that easy to find. I preferred the KJV for the majesty of its language and it’s still accessible to the modern hearer. 
Jesus uses the story as a warning but we can wonder if his audience was amused by his references to the Queen of Sheba and the Reluctant Prophet. Clearly, Jesus is not amused. He fears for “this evil generation” that might be despised by the Queen of Sheba and, worse -- condemned by the Lord.

It is easy to prophesy gloom and doom. There are very few days when good news completely overwhelms grim fears of the future. Demagogues exploit that unease; a fearful populace readily consumes their half-truths and distortions. He only needs to say what “the enemy” might do or might be capable of.

But the future rarely unfolds as badly as the pessimists expect; somehow we muddle through, our hopes intact. We're still more likely to be struck by lightening or drive over a collapsing bridge than to be assailed by a terrorist.

What does Truth say to us today, in these scripture passages?

During Lent we should take the warnings to heart. We need not expect that “The End is Near;” but we should act as if it might be. We should not close out our bank accounts and give everything to the poor, but we might reconsider tithing. Knowing that most medical dollars purchase only a six week extension of life, we might update our Advanced Directives. We might take a long look at our consumption of food, entertainment and fossil fuels and ask if this “life style” reflects God’s mercy to the least among us.

Whether the end comes tomorrow or a thousand years hence, Justice will come, the unfortunate consequences of sin are upon us, and Mercy has already overwhelmed us.