Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent

 

Let us see whether his words be true;
let us find out what will happen to him.
For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes.



Good Friday is still two weeks away but our scriptures are leading us already into the vortex of violence that is the Passion of Jesus.

Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom describes the thinking of “the wicked,” of those who despise “the just one. “

There is something eerily familiar about their conversation. We’ve all heard people complain about the “goody-two-shoes” whose mild manner, pleasant disposition and unwillingness to engage in gossip irritates those around her. Friendly vulnerability seems to invite mockery.

This passage from Wisdom evokes high school memories. I’d like to think most adults have outgrown that stage of development; but in the workplace or the social setting there are some holdovers who still look for victims. For whatever reason they never grew up. They still think it’s cool to be vicious.

This Old Testament passage raises uneasy fears in me. What if there are societies where the wicked set the tone for everyone else? Unchallenged, they look for people to belittle, snub and torment.

The movie Hidden Figures gently evoked painful memories of a not-distant past when African-Americans lived in a hostile country. The intelligent, attractive women in the film had to continually guard their thoughts and feelings when associating with white colleagues.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement tells us things have changed little in many parts of the United States. It is still dangerous to be DWB -- “driving while black.”

The advances of the Muslim religion in Europe and the United States may be in direct response to the cloud of suspicion that hovers over the them. If “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” as Tertullian said, suspicion and ostracism may actually encourage Christians to reconsider and join Islam. Courage is always more attractive than cowardice.

In the land of the free and home of the brave the courageous are willing to live with a minority status; they are also willing to challenge the violent attitudes of their contemporaries. 

Bu today patriotism must challenge a rising tide of nationalism; the two are diametrically opposed. The Second World War should have persuaded us to shun those atavistic attitudes. Patriots finds nothing amusing or attractive about violence. They support and promote the four freedoms of speech, of worship, from want and from fear especially when those freedoms are challenged by the wicked.

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Lectionary: 247

You search the Scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf.
But you do not want to come to me to have life.



Today's readings from Exodus and the Gospel of John describe two intense arguments. In the Old Testament text we hear Moses strenuously defending his ungrateful people before the God who has been dishonored. He must use mighty powers of logic and reason to persuade God to restrain his punishing arm.

In the New Testament text we hear Jesus appealing to his Jewish opponents to see and hear the testimony of Saint John the Baptist, of Jesus' works, of the Father who clearly enables his works, and of the scriptures, especially Moses.

In the face of all these witnesses can any reasonable person deny Jesus' authority as Messiah and Lord, as the Son of God? But they do not want to come to him to have life.

Despite our claims to be reasonable, we're more often guided by our fears and desires. This season of Lent, with its call to prayers, fasting and almsgiving, reminds us of how reluctant we are to follow the evidence we see and the persuasive arguments that makes sense of that evidence. Not even the best trial lawyer, laying it all out in careful order, could persuade those who do not want to come to him.

In the first reading we realize that God has listened to reason. The Lord who is all-powerful, who need bow to no one and no thing, submits to reason and shows mercy to his people. This prefigures the humility of Jesus who will submit to religious and civil authorities, who will stand trial and be condemned, who will be crucified not for his sins but for ours.

We pray that we also see and hear the testimony, listen to reason, repent of our sins and welcome the saving, merciful authority of Jesus.

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Lectionary: 246

In a time of favor I answer you,
on the day of salvation I help you;
and I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people,
To restore the land
and allot the desolate heritages,
Saying to the prisoners: Come out!
To those in darkness: Show yourselves!


The Church reveres the Prophet Isaiah as one who foresaw most clearly the identity and mission of the Messiah. When Jesus studied the Prophet’s words he found himself. It was as clear to him as an old photograph of myself would be to me. There was no denying or avoiding the person who gazed at him through these ancient prophecies; there could be no evasion of his mission.


During Holy Week, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday we will hear Isaiah’s four “Suffering Servant” passages that most clearly describe the Messiah, but today’s selection suggests the good things to come:
“I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people.”

Jesus, the Son of God who has come to live among us, who is both entirely divine as God the Father is divine, and unquestionably human as the son of Mary, is the bond – the covenant – between us and God. Embracing him we meet God. Embracing him we meet everyone whom he has embraced in a sacred assembly.

Isaiah says the Messiah will restore the land. I recently finished a book by psychiatrist/philosopher Paul Tournier, published in English, in 1957. He mentions three relationships of the self: with God, others and the self. He overlooked the all-important relationship with the Earth. Only in the last half-century have we begun to see more clearly that we are desecrating the Earth. We had no idea burning fossil fuel, which seemed providentially available for all our energy needs, might wreak such havoc. Nor did we imagine how our demand for energy might grow exponentially. What seemed a simple matters of economics has become a spiritual crisis, and without the wisdom and courage of the Messiah, we will destroy our own mother planet. 

Isaiah's Messiah will say to the prisoners, "Come out!" Prisons, of course, are built of fear. We use them to protect us from bad people, and to protect bad people from us. Without them we might randomly, mercilessly destroy those we fear. “Stand your ground!” would become the law of the land as we gunned down every suspicious person.

The Messiah says to us, “Come out” of your fear. You don’t need it anymore. To those in darkness, “Show yourselves.”

Aldous Huxley called his dystopian novel, "A Brave New World." Indeed, the world eagerly awaits the courageous leadership of Christians, under the banner of Christ, who will lead us out of fear to freedom.


Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent




Once more he measured off a thousand (cubits),
but there was now a river through which I could not wade;
for the water had risen so high it had become a river
that could not be crossed except by swimming.
He asked me, "Have you seen this, son of man?"





The mystery of Lent grows inexorably deeper; we have to swim to get across it. But a swimmer remains on its surface; he does not risk drowning by diving into its bottomless depths.


The swimmer in today's gospel seems in no particular hurry to be healed. He invariably arrives late in the pool of Bethesda, and someone else has already been healed. What would happen to this old man if he accidentally fell in first?


What would  happen to us if we accidentally plumbed the depths of Lent, of our sins and of God's Mercy?


But God does not permit such accidents. Our healing begins with God's mercy and continues with our willingness. His mercy is an ever-open door, a standing invitation which is frequently announced, "Come to me...!"


God will not invade our persons without a welcome, no more than a surgeon would act upon an unwilling patient. His mercy begins with the freedom he has given us, without which we lose our human dignity.


"Have you seen this, Son of Man?" the angel demanded of Ezekiel. Have you seen this superabundant river of freedom? In this stream you will no longer belong to your fears, nor to the expectations and restrictions of people around you.


You will know abandonment in a desert of solitude as grace pulls you from family, friends and colleagues; you will know shame and remorse as your memories finally catch up with you. You are, after all, the only person on Earth with these memories, with your story.


You will know -- this will come to you -- the particular affection God has for you. It is manifest in the breath you take each moment, in the "now-here-I-am" that breaks over you like the waves upon our stranded swimmer.


In Saint John's fifth chapter we meet a solitary Jesus. He is the obedient Son of the Father, suspected, despised, isolated by the "authorities" because he has authority in himself, an authority that astounds and confuses those around him.


Where does this man get such freedom? they ask. How dare he! He is not the establishment. He comes and goes apparently as he pleases, but actually as the Holy Spirit directs him. He is no more guided by his own impulses than he is by those of others.


His disciples too will take up their mats and walk even on "Sabbath" when freedom is not permitted. They are guided by an impulse which is not willful.


Lent calls us away from the world around us. Amid a crowd doomed to follow its primitive instincts, the penitent hears the voice which asks, "Do you want to be well?"

Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent



 

Lo, I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
The things of the past shall not be remembered
or come to mind.


As we have passed the midway mark of Lent our expectancy grows. Something is about to happen. Late March and April put the winter of barren trees and brown grass behind us. We can leave our overcoats and gloves at home. They “shall not be remembered.”

Sometimes, when someone tells a story he feels conscience bound to say, “Spoiler alert!” But nothing can spoil the surprise of Holy Week and Easter. The superficial joy of the mobs in Jerusalem is still deeply troubling; the mystery of the Last Supper remains incomprehensible; the horror of Good Friday always overwhelms; and Easter – what can we say when everything has been said and its significance still lies beyond words?

Once again, in today’s story from the Gospel of John a routine miracle, described without the special effects of lightning, thunder and earthquake, invites us to look more closely at the Lord. He doesn’t even lay hands on the sick; he just tosses off a few words and goes on his way.

The story prepares us for the coming spectacle. We’re going to have to look deeply into the events surrounding the Lord. Non-believers will see nothing unusual. A rabble rouser was crucified by an edgy Roman authority after hearing complaints from local quislings. The rebel’s loyal following turned vicious when he disappointed them. He was crucified without incident; and the body, usually left suspended for days or weeks to dry in the harsh sunlight, was quietly removed.

Disciples of the Lord will be left with little more than a word – “He is risen.” There is no sign, no evidence but an empty tomb, which can mean anything.  There is a community of believers who refuse to be dispersed, even when they’re ostracized, persecuted and murdered.

They might be called conspiracy theorists except their attitudes are precisely the opposite; they are optimistic, open-hearted, generous and confident in the face of skepticism. Where some conspiracy theorists suspect the machinations of an evil organization, Christians see the hand of God clearly revealed.

They see a spring time in human affairs – new heavens and a new earth. Things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. All changed, changed utterly:  A terrible beauty is born.

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Lectionary: 31

Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light."



The Easter Vigil is celebrated after sunset on Holy Saturday; most dioceses determine that at 8:00 pm. Usually, by the time the paschal fire is lit, darkness has settled in the neighborhood and the stained glass windows of the church provide little light to the interior. 

The congregation meets outside the church where the paschal fire is already burning. The presider blesses the fire, and then the Paschal Candle; and then, following the "Light of Christ," the congregation files into the church, each person carrying a candle. 

That burning taper represents many things: the light of faith, the personal testimony of the one carrying the candle, the community whose many candles illuminate the church, and so forth. The light itself is yellow-warm, not harsh but reassuring. 

When everyone has settled in place, the congregation continues to hold their candles as the priest, deacon or cantor sings the Exultet
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God's throne! Jesus Christ, our King, is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation! 
Today's gospel is all about light and darkness, blindness and vision. The story presents in a straightforward manner, a miracle. In this account, instead of the universal amazement and delight we have come to expect of miracle stories, bystanders are skeptical, indifferent or hostile; and the young man whose sight has been restored reacts to their suspicions defensively. This is a more realistic account of how a jaded society reacts to a clear sign of God's mercy. 

The story resembles some of the late Old Testament stories as found in the books of Tobit, Esther, Ruth, and the Genesis story of Joseph. God is neither seen nor heard in those stories; rather the faithful protagonists must work out their salvation by trusting in God and acting faithfully by their moral code. In this story, Jesus, entirely on his own initiative, heals a blind man. Then he disappears while the drama unfolds, only to reappear at the end to reveal himself to the healed man and to scold his skeptical opponents. 

The healed man, who seems to know nothing of the Lord except his name, models the response of the faithful Christian. He is not skeptical, suspicious, frightened or hostile like those around him. He insists upon his own experience -- "I was blind but now I see!" -- and by his testimony becomes a witness for Christ. 

Hearing the gospel, we can readily identify with this unnamed new Christian. Jesus -- who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life -- effects a change in our lives which penetrates to our very core and radiates outward. He is a Light in the lantern of our hearts, shining through our gestures and demeanor, attitudes, words and actions. 

Our witness begins not with a recitation of the catechism (Who made me? God made me!); or a mathematical demonstration of God's creative power (What are the odds?); but with a story about myself: "I was blind; now I see. I was lost; now I'm found." 

With the Church we bring our light to shine in darkness with every confidence that the darkness cannot overcome it. 

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Lectionary: 545


By this "will," we have been consecrated through the offering of the Body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Nine months before Christmas, although we find ourselves in the penitential season of Lent, we must stop everything and celebrate the conception of Jesus Christ, when the Virgin welcomed the Word of God. The first to hear the Gospel, she conceived him in her mind even as she conceived him in her body. She is not the Redeemer but we could not be redeemed without her pure act of generosity. 

The Church was racked with controversies during its earliest centuries. Opinions were rife about Jesus Christ. Who was he? Was he only a man? Was he a spirit who looked like a man? When he died on the cross did he really die, or was he only making it look like a death to inspire our imitation? Was he the son of God as we are all sons and daughters of God, or something else? 

Everybody had an opinion and most of them were wrong. It's true. During the middle of the fourth century most Christians -- including the Emperor Constantine and his powerful government -- believed a heretical doctrine about Jesus. They insisted that Jesus was a demigod, basically a creature placed in charge of the rest of creation and salvation. It was his job to inspire people to godlike behavior. They should earn their salvation by doing good and avoiding evil. 

Fortunately, through the very obvious influence of the Holy Spirit, the leading bishops of the church knew we cannot save ourselves no matter how well-intentioned we might be. Our salvation must penetrate to the core of our being, beyond the range of our thoughts, attitudes and intentions. We must belong to Christ not by our will but by our baptism. This cannot happen if the Son of God is not God, or if he is not fully human. If we are to be enfleshed into the flesh of Jesus he must have human flesh like our own. We must be baptized into his flesh; we must eat his flesh and drink his blood. 

The bishops at Nicea condemned the heresy known as Arianism, and several of its variants. They expressed our beliefs in the Nicene Creed and used all of their political, social and religious influence to bring the Church back to the true faith. 

That's why, in the middle of Lent, we must stop everything and celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. We remember the Angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary....

Friday of the Third Week of Lent


 …when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him,
"You are not far from the Kingdom of God."
And no one dared to ask him any more questions.


This conversation between a scribe and Jesus concluded a series of discussions that had not been half as friendly. Suddenly, it seems, his critics realized Jesus stood squarely within their ancient tradition, and that his answers to their challenges could not be refuted. There was at last a peaceful rapprochement as the opponents contemplated the greatest commandment.

If my reading is correct, it fits Saint Mark's pattern of surprising us with the unexpected. Jesus' opponents, at this point, have been more than defeated; they have had to admit he is right! To ponder this miracle, try to remember the last time you actually won an argument and your opponent admitted you were right! (If memory serves me, it was back in nineteen-something.) 

Their final challenge involved the "greatest commandment" of Moses' law. Certainly, we must render unconditional, unrestrained love to God. That's almost a no-brainer; a "softball," to use political jargon. The second one is like it, however, and that's a surprise: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

In the Christian dispensation, the two laws are linked like inhaling and exhaling, like a single breath. No one should dare suppose he observes one without the other.

The measure of my love for God is my love for others. That principle humiliates my pretensions. 

But there are people who say we need not love God, that we should invest our energies in the well being of others. I think the same principle must apply, "The measure of my love for others is my love of God." 

Without that sobering thought, the ego lies hidden in one's "love" for either one or the other. Whichever I prefer, God or my neighbor, the preference -- the act of preferring -- betrays the presence of self. 
 
The east end of Lake Mt St Francis
in winter, with ducks
The love of neighbor without the love of God will inevitably attempt to "do well by doing good." Why shouldn't I also enjoy the fruits of my labor? A lot of sales people sold painkillers in the name of doing good; some of them have been prosecuted, some have fled to Canada. 


Likewise, the love of God -- or "Jesus" -- without the love of neighbor may fill one with many sentimental thoughts but the isolation is treacherous. 

Led by the Spirit the Christian pays attention to God and to the neighbor. She is led from prayer to action and from action to prayer. Both loves are challenging, both are satisfying. The self may rest in the assurance that, although my love must always be inadequate, God's mercy will complete what my love cannot. 

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

Lectionary: 240


Some of them said, "By the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he drives out demons."
Others, to test him, asked him for a sign from heaven.
But he knew their thoughts and said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?

Today’s gospel describes Jesus’ opponents in a desperate situation. Confronted with his undeniable authority over demons and his transparent goodness they resort to bald faced lies. Their followers must then make their own decisions: will we follow our recognized, accepted leaders despite their obvious confusion and blatant dishonesty, or will we accept an unknown rabbi from Galilee?
Jesus’ argument is persuasive, a divided kingdom cannot stand. Once his opponents are discovered telling lies to cover their incompetence and obtuseness they are obviously cashing out their last credibility. Worse, the entire nation and society is threatened. A society cannot long endure contrary truths.
We saw the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late seventies and eighties. The Communist Party had maintained a fictitious authority for seventy years, continually digging themselves deeper into falsehood. Their promises were rarely fulfilled; their hopes often disappointed. Communism was, as the Catholic Church had taught in the 19th century, a bad idea. It counted on the generosity of too many people, and dismissed the doctrine of Original Sin. 

The vast majority of people only want to get along and are willing to overlook a certain amount of nonsense. They understand that leaders are only human and, like everyone else, make false promises. But eventually even the forbearance of the vast majority cannot lubricate a broken system; it must grind to a noisy stop.
The world dodged a bullet when the Soviet Union collapsed. They had the nuclear weapons to destroy the world and did not.
Today we watch with horror as the president of the United States tells bald faced lies for no apparent reason. He does it habitually and impulsively, even when – as in his accusing President Obama of wiretapping his phones – his accusation means that some investigators and at least one judge thought he, Mr. Trump, might be committing treasonous acts.
At least as distressing is the behavior of his staff and party who fail to name his lies for what they are. Some called for congressional action to investigate something that never happened and never could happen!
A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. People might ask, "Will the United States also choose not to destroy the Earth before it comes apart?" We have far and away the most dangerous military on Earth. 
No one knows where this will end but Christians should certainly begin to flood the churches and pray, “Spare us, O Lord. Spare your people, be not angry with us forever.” Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo: ne in aeternum irascaris nobis.


P.S. On this day, in 1993, I was hit by a truck. I am grateful that God spared my life, and to everyone who prayed me through that adventure.

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.




Tradition meant everything to our Jewish ancestors, especially in the time of Christ. Repeatedly conquered from the east and the west, forced to learn foreign languages and use foreign currencies, despised by their governors who preferred the elite society of Rome and Athens, the Pharisees, especially, clung to their traditions. And that was all about the Law of Moses and the prophets.
Jesus was acutely aware of their anxiety but he had to pour new wine into new wineskins. His disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, knew the law and the prophets had been more-than-fulfilled by his passion, death, resurrection and ascension.


We are undergoing similar upheavals in our day. Although our nation is not occupied by a foreign power, our religious traditions are severely challenged by the dominant, secular culture. It’s values are power, individual liberty, consumerism and entertainment. Inevitably, given those values, it is plagued with family disintegration, chronic loneliness and abandonment, depression, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide.
To live here Christians have had to surrender much of our traditional belief. Reluctantly we admit the universe was not created in seven days, that the Garden of Eden and its inhabitants are mythological, that Noah’s great flood never happened in any historical sense, and – most importantly – Christians cannot determine which values should govern America. Slowly we're coming to grips with the facts that the word God does not appear in the Constitution and the United States was never supposed to be a Christian country.  

As the 21st century breaks over us, Catholics in particular must pour new wine into new wineskins. Many of our old wineskins don't even hold water. 


Personally, I am delighted to celebrate our religious tradition, especially the Mass, recalling that its origins are prehistoric. Catholics throughout the world of every language and many ways of life pray together, united in one communion, regardless of the countries or nations in which they reside. Their first identity, conferred by the Sacrament of Baptism, is in Christ; and secondly, they owe allegiance to differing governments. 


Gratefully, I preside over the ceremony of life and try to articulate each word and each syllable of each word, in the spirit of Jesus who said "not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place." 

I have no doubt the Holy Spirit will gather people in prayer a thousand years from now, and even until the end of time. Pouring the wine of the Holy Spirit into new wineskins, they will affirm the faith we pass onto them, that Jesus has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets by his death and resurrection. 

Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent



Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart;
for I am gracious and merciful
.

Today’s first reading presents Azariah’s prayer from the Book of Daniel. Of the 211 words only four allude directly to the sins of Israel, “…because of our sins.” The rest of the prayer recalls God’s shepherding care of his people and their sorry plight.
The book was written many years after the Babylonian Captivity; their current plight was religious persecution following the Greek invasion. Like the Christians of Europe and the Muslims of Africa and Asia, builders of the Greek empire thought it reasonable to impose one religion on all their subject nations. One religion would reinforce the empire's spiritual infrastructure and lend divine authority to its laws.

The Jews, however, didn’t buy it. Their God would not give up on them, nor would his Spirit allow them to quit on him. They had been through too much – from slavery in Egypt to the glory of Solomon’s rule and the humiliation of a second exile – to abandon their history and be absorbed into an ahistorical, mindless groupthink.
Throughout their history and ours, the Jews have always been that pariah people who will not and cannot accept everything that secular authorities tell them. They know there is only one God and it’s not Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, Louis XIV, Stalin, Hitler or the American Constitution.
And so, while Azariah alludes to the sins of the Jewish nation, the real problem is the oppression of conquerors, and the solution is God’s mighty hand:
“Deliver us by your wonders,
and bring glory to your name, O Lord."
The people of God, both Jewish and Christian, are always tempted to go along to get along, to believe what their fellow citizens believes, to obey whoever rules the land, and suppose their conformity satisfies God. The crisis comes when Christian nations war with one another, Protestants on Protestants and Catholics on Catholics. How do their pastors explain this scandal to the faithful?

Many thoughtful Christians simply quit attending church. Nominally believing in “God,” they find other values to celebrate like family, laws and patriotism. They suppose these values are universal and the one God should agree.

Azariah’s prayer recalls those martyrs, Jewish and Christian, who continue to worship God even in a foreign land. To be faithful we must remember we are strangers and sojourners, just passing through this particular nation, on our way to the Kingdom of Heaven. We should be a blessing to our nation without embracing its sins.

Solemnity of Saint Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Lectionary: 543


Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.




This solemn feast of Saint Joseph gets bounced around a lot during the Season of Lent. It should be celebrated six days ahead of the Marian solemnity of the Annunciation. She must be at least betrothed before she conceives the Messiah. But this year, March 19 falls on Sunday and we cannot overlook a Sunday of Lent, so it's put off until Monday. Sometimes, when Easter falls very early in March, Saint Joseph must wait until after the Octave of Easter, the ninth day after Easter.


But isn't that what husbands and fathers do? Certainly, I don't recall my Dad being upset about being overlooked or taken for granted. A United States Marine, he had served in the South Pacific during World War II. Surviving that, he regarded every day as a gift.


We know little of the husband of Mary. He is mysteriously silent through all his adventures. When the Angel appeared in a dream and told him, "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home." he did so. When the Angel reappeared and told him to take the child and his mother into Egypt he got up that very night and hurried away, abandoning his reputation, career and family to eke out a living in a foreign land. We hear nothing of their stay in Egypt. Finally, two more dreams direct them to Nazareth, rather than to Joseph's house in his native Bethlehem. Saint Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph sought the child in Jerusalem and found him in the temple. She had something to say to the impulsive twelve-year-old but Joseph was characteristically silent.


Saint Joseph's silence speaks powerfully to us today. Everyone has something to say about everything. Or, as they, "There's a lot more said than done."


Joseph certainly watched the political situation. He knew there was trouble in Jerusalem after hearing the magi's story. He knew Archelaus was no better than his father King Herod and they could not return to Bethlehem. Saint Matthew doesn't say that Joseph despised Herod or his son; there is no suggestion of his joining or sympathizing with the Zealots who would plot against their rulers. Rather, he took his family and fled, as millions of people are fleeing from violence, hunger, disease and homelessness today.


Saint Joseph is surely the patron of refugees in Europe and the so-called "illegal aliens" in North America. He would understand why many are unwilling to share their security with his people. They are frightened and have no faith in God. And he would continue to search for a safe, quiet place for his faithful family.


Pray for them and for those who stand in their way.

Third Sunday of Lent

My very long poem in heroic couplets
about the Samaritan Woman
Lectionary: 28


"Go call your husband and come back."
The woman answered and said to him,
"I do not have a husband."
Jesus answered her,
"You are right in saying, 'I do not have a husband.'
For you have had five husbands, 
and the one you have now is not your husband.
What you have said is true."



Those who have the privilege to work directly with people -- bureaucrats, counselors, medics, ministers, police, politicians, salespeople, teachers, wardens, warriors and so forth -- are not doing their jobs if they're not taking risks. There is something about the human encounter that requires stepping beyond oneself into the unknown, into the mystery of another person. 

In today's gospel, Jesus stepped into it in a big way when he told her everything she had done. I use that expression "stepped into it" intentionally because human interaction is messy. In the case of this lovely Samaritan woman, it's almost sordid. And yet there is no other way to accomplish his life and work. 

If he were simply a teacher of truths like Plato, Buddha, Muhammad and Confucius he could keep to the high road, above the confusion and distress. He could hand down wise proverbs and people would be in awe of him. They would say, "What a wonderful mind that man has!" and "How superior he is to our messy ways." Some would emulate him, thinking they too might attain the high road. Others would despise him, though not openly, for distancing himself from human contact. They would say he doesn't understand real people. 

Jesus certainly met both admiration and contempt but he was neither seduced by the one nor repelled by the other. In his own desire to know -- that is, to save -- each person, he was more interested in their well being than what they thought of him. 

Isn't that what those-who-have-the-privilege-to-work-directly-with-people do? (I might add parents, children, family and friends to the list.) If they are genuine in their concern for others they're not especially worried about whether they're appreciated or despised. The best teachers are not always admired; the best ministers are often fired; the best politicians are respected only by an honest electorate, usually after they're dead. Which parents were never detested by their children? 

The woman in this story also takes great risks as she accosts the stranger. First she approaches him alone without the protective security of other women; then, rather than silently answering his demand for water, she flirts with him. When he reveals that he knows way too much about her, she doesn't run. Instead she reveals her own secret longing for a messiah. Despite her reputation -- her life was probably the most entertaining event in town -- she has a deep soul. She wants more. That's why she has run through six men already and found no satisfaction. That's why she is chatting up Jesus, her seventh man. (Remember, 7 is a sacred number.) 

As a chaplain in the VA hospital, I meet that longing in many ways. It may be a plea for relief from physical distress and pain. It may be thirst for alcohol, hunger for drugs or the sad loneliness of divorce. It is not satisfied with the ubiquitous television in the bedrooms and lounges. It is only met, if at all, by people with courage. 

Mysteriously and marvelously, at the end of the conversation as the disciples returned to Jesus with food and drink, the Lord and the Samaritan were satisfied. She left her bucket by the cistern; she seemed to have no further need for water. And he declined to eat saying, "I have food to eat of which you do not know."

This meeting required enormous courage of both Man and Woman. She drank his living water; he said, "It is finished."

Saturday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 235


After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need.


I want to continue reflecting on our doctrine of the Holy Trinity, especially in the light of today's parable, known as "The Prodigal Son." 
The first definition of prodigal is, "spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant." That being the case, we might also dub this parable, "The Prodigal Father." He surely knew his son would run through his large inheritance in no time flat, but he lavished a fortune on the boy nonetheless. 
I wonder if Jesus -- in his human nature -- experienced some anxiety as he turned to God in prayer. I see parallels between him and his fictional wastrel. Jesus is also the Son of a fabulously wealthy father. He has gone off to "a foreign country," our world which is the farthest place from heaven this side of Hell. And he has wasted his divine inheritance on loose women: first, Israel; and then the Church. 
If love always requires courage, then Jesus must have felt he was running some risk in preferring the poor, the despised and the deplorables. 
On Good Friday he will return to heaven, a sorry mess. We can imagine the Father greeting the Prodigal and seeing his gaping wounds, his naked poverty, and his humiliation. "What on earth happened to you?" 
When the Father begot the Son, when the Speaker spoke the Word, that Person disappeared into an infinite distance. The Father could only wait for an echo of the Word to return, and the first sound he heard was, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
The Father has poured himself out in love, emptying himself in a total expression of generosity; and his expression is The Word. 
The Son too in total, eager, willing obedience to his Father, has poured himself out in love. We have seen the fluids -- blood, water, breath -- flow from his body in complete kenosis, self-emptying. 
In his cry of despair we find even the confidence of the privileged Son has disappeared. If he is saved by the mercy of God it must be after he has lost all hope, after he has no reasonable confidence that the Father should take him back. 
In Jesus' parable the derelict does not suppose his father will reinvest him as a privileged scion of the house. He can imagine nothing more than being "one of your hired workers." 
I believe love always comes as a pleasant surprise, even to the deserving. (It certainly comes as a surprise to me, the undeserving.) Only one who feels himself entitled would not be surprised at love. Jesus must have been astonished at the reception he received upon entering the Father's presence. 
And we have already heard how "pleased" the Father is with Jesus. He loudly declared it twice: once over the Jordan River and again over Mount Tabor. Finally, he has greeted the Prodigal Son into Bliss with ecstatic joy. His satisfaction is infinite, embracing even us in his joy. 
We share that expectant joy as we approach Holy Week and Easter. For us that expectation is still edged with anxiety. Our prayers, fasting and almsgiving are practiced in hope that we might be counted among the children of God around the Altar of God's Son. 

Friday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 234

Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, 'They will respect my son.'


In the last few years I have read several books about the mystery and doctrine of the Holy Trinity. My interest began partly in response to the resurgence of Islam. 
I hope I am not, and never become, Islamophobic. The United States has a rare opportunity to prove to the world the superiority of democracy as we welcome Muslims from abroad, and as many natural-born Americans embrace the ancient religion. 
Islam gave birth to one of history's great civilizations; it contributed much to the world's arts, sciences, medicines and civilization even while European Christians hacked at one another with sword and pickax, and the Mediterranean was a war zone between Europe and Africa. 
The doctrine of one god makes eminent sense and lent itself easily to a unified empire with a common religion and language. If the Muslim Empire spread by the sword it was civilized by its religion. 
Many Americans, scandalized by, and weary of, the sectarianism of Christianity, find the simple doctrine of one supreme deity reasonable and appealing. They have never been persuaded of the Holy Trinity and find little appeal in the idea of three persons in one god. How is that supposed to make sense? 
I have discovered through my reading that the doctrine is truly scriptural. Those churches that deny its biblical foundation have simply ignored the story of the ancient struggle between Arianism and Catholicism. Unwilling to do the work, or too enamored of their own preconceived opinions, they say the word trinity is not found in the Bible and therefore they dismiss it. Some bring an agenda to the discussion, such as the submission of wives to husbands. 
Their specious arguments are not new; the bishops who defined the doctrine addressed the same objections eighteen centuries ago; and they used the very scriptures these latter day skeptics ignore. The ancient Fathers of the Church had to contend with philosophical preconceptions of their day as we do today. They found clear indications of the doctrine, if not the very word, in every book of the Old and New Testaments. Trinity was simply a definition to clarify what the scriptures attest, that God the Father sent God the Son and God the Holy Spirit; and there is only one God. 
Studying the doctrine we see more clearly the shortcomings of Islam. Muhammad announced a merciful and gracious god who dwells in supreme solitude, utterly removed from the human drama. There is no relationship in Allah, and no relating to him except in abject humility. Allah is understood as supremely good, powerful and wise but, controlled by his own supreme power, cannot humiliate himself before men. Why would anyone -- god or man -- who is supremely powerful surrender his advantage, especially when he can do so much good for pathetic human beings? But Allah's benevolence is without sacrifice; it costs him nothing. Islam cannot imagine what Jesus has done for us. 
The allusion in today's gospel to the Father and the Son is one more reminder of God's superabundant love for us. He gave his only beloved son for our salvation, even unto death, death on a cross.  
But there is no salvation for the human being without God's supreme sacrifice of his Son. The bishops of Nicea saw that clearly. Allah's benevolence cannot purify the infinite depths of the human soul; it can only whitewash the exterior. 
Islam encourages Muslims to give generously to the needy; and we should admire their generosity. Our God insists that we should "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus."
True, this is impossible for human beings. We are incapable of such sacrifice. But in God the Holy Spirit all things are possible, as our martyrs have proven.

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 233


Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'"


Recent research has challenged the assumption that reasonable people make reasonable decisions. Case in point:

If you were buying an electronic device for $200 from a certain department store, and learned you might purchase the exact same device for $150 in a store three miles away, you'd probably make the trip; and then tell all your friends how you saved fifty bucks. 

But if you were purchasing a new car for $25,250 and learned you might buy the exact same model for $25,200 in a store three miles away, you would probably just skip it. Fifty dollars in either case but the persuasion of saving money worked only in the first instance.

People -- the Pharisees in today's parable -- don't always act in their best interest, even when the logic of doing the right thing is irrefutable.
More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9
The Church has always believed our faith in God is reasonable. Fools scoff at God's revealed truth; the wise welcome it. They say things like: 

  • Caring for the poor, the exploited and marginalized makes eminent sense. 
  • We can't afford not to give our tithe to the Church. 
  • Paying taxes is a privilege.
  • We begin each day in prayer and each week in church. 
  • As married couples we fight to save our marriage, not to destroy it. 
  • ... and so forth. 
The foolish can use logic too, but not to their advantage, as we hear in today's gospel. The doomed rich man complains that his brothers should be warned; he insinuates to the Just Judge that he wasn't warned. No doubt he had innumerable reasons for neglecting "Moses and the prophets," the worship of God and the mercy he owed to Lazarus. But reason failed him as it always fails the foolish. There's no cure for stupid.

During Lent we ask our hearts are we listening to the revealed wisdom of God or the tortured rationality of the foolish. 

Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent


Lectionary: 232

Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Domesticated animals don't seem to mind their dependence on human beings; many seem to prefer it. Some will wander off the street looking for an owner. But the human being cannot abide slavery even when he has no choice but to submit.

The slave's obedience to a master is always fraught with danger for both parties, and they live in continual fear of each other. Only the most deluded "owners" could think their slaves are happy.
The human being is meant for freedom; that is our justification and our redemption. When the Christian invokes the sacred word salvation, he is actually speaking of freedom.

But freedom is less a right than a gift we give to one another. It is an oblation we give and receive and give again.

I have only as much freedom as others give me. I cannot run screaming through the hospital. That is not permitted. I may however offer the Sacraments of Eucharist, Penance and Healing to the Catholic Veterans. I greet the staff and hug some of them. I am not permitted to hug all of them; that's a liberty they have not permitted to me, though they might to others.

The adolescent might ask, "Why can't I do anything I want to do?" The answer is simple, "...because we won't let you."

Rights are never guaranteed and the language of rights is always ambiguous. Our American Constitution honors the "rights" of free speech, the press, assembly and religion but it says nothing about the right to work, education or health care. Can a human being survive -- much less thrive -- without work, education and health care?

A lot of patriotic citizens salute the flag for its symbol of rights and yet refuse to grant their neighbors freedom.  Even the right to stroll through certain neighborhoods by "persons of color" may be interrupted by the fearful police.

The language of rights only muddies the water. We should discuss how much freedom we are willing to give one another. We should admit we are afraid of granting very much to some people, even as we realize we have allowed too much freedom on others.

Are free inoculations against measles and mumps too much freedom? Should we give health care to anyone who needs it, regardless of ability to pay, race, religion or criminal record? Is the freedom to buy, sell, trade, own and fire a semi-automatic machine gun too much freedom? The United States has the largest prison population of any nation on earth. We not only incarcerate more people; we have the highest percentage of prisoners of any nation on earth. The inevitable cost of too much freedom is an enormous prison system. 
Is that the real meaning of, "Freedom is not free." 

The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He willingly surrendered his freedom that we might walk away from our fears, guilt and shame and live with the freedom of God's children.

Those who believe him will find the freedom in their hearts to permit liberty to others. Those who don't believe in him must live in fear for the little freedom they enjoy.