Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent

The people of Judah and the citizens of Jerusalem said, "Come, let us contrive a plot against Jeremiah. It will not mean the loss of instruction from the priests, nor of counsel from the wise, nor of messages from the prophets. And so, let us destroy him by his own tongue; let us carefully note his every word."

The Founding Fathers of the United States, mostly deists, regarded Jesus as a great teacher, like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Siddhartha Buddha and Muhammad. That strain persists in American Christian religion. We are far less eager to recognize Jesus as a prophet who challenges our thinking, customs and institutions. With that mindset it is almost impossible to know him as the prophet whose suffering and death open the way of salvation.
Must the Teacher be crucified before we comprehend his teaching? The deists scoff at such an idea, "Why should that make any difference? If his teaching is reasonable it will persuade us!" Like the romantics who orchestrated the Terror of the French Revolution, their god was Reason.
Practicing Christians are also known to resist prophecy, especially through changing times. As each generation assumes its place, with its own experience, fears and hopes; with new ideas and new technologies, old assumptions crumble like old buildings. Antiquated institutions disintegrate because they have little appeal and make no sense to an emerging generation.
But the Prophetic Spirit of Jesus is "ever ancient, ever new." It renews the Church traditional message, leaders and institutions despite their best efforts to cling to old, familiar ways.
In my seventieth year, I see a future spirituality which will recognize the suffering prophet. It may appear in an age of persecution against Christians and Catholics. It will not suppose that "might makes right," or that success is God's will. It will celebrate the love which makes sacrifice and expects no thanks, which commits for a lifetime, whose ambition is nothing this world can understand. Tattoos will be permanently inked on the heart, not on the skin.
This traditional spirituality will remember that the Father has surrendered "all authority in heaven and on earth" to the One who might have summoned legions of angels; but, in fact, uttered no word in self-defense. Jesus will not appeal to consumers who want their religion without hardship. He will not be marketed as a triumphant warrior; he will be despised as a loser.
Let us go with him to Calvary.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Lectionary: 231

Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.

"I am not a role model!" declared Charles Barkley, professional basketball player for the Chicago Bulls. I don't follow professional sports but I had heard of Barkley as a particularly rough character: talented, aggressive and foul-mouthed. As I understand he was the captain at a time when every winning team was built around a super-star. With his statement he acknowledged he is  a role model, like it or not; and young athletes do emulate his attitudes and behavior .
Human beings are not like owls or many male felines, solitary predators which avoid society. We herd like cows, flock like sheep and pack like wolves. We watch each other to determine which way we'll go and how we'll behave.
As religious persons, we look for successful patterns in our community. Parents, relatives, teachers, ministers and priests shape our thinking and open pathways we readily follow. Catholics even memorize prayers both personal and liturgical, along with all the gestures and postures. When I conduct a funeral I watch closely to see how many people will make the Sign of the Cross with me. Their response tells me what to expect for the next forty-five minutes. Some congregations need a lot of coaching; others move like graceful dance partners. Our prayer, even in private, is always shared and communal.
By the time Saint Matthew's Gospel appeared the Church already had much experience of corrupt, inept and foolish leadership.  No matter how how hard we try to select, train and ordain our leaders, there will be trouble. Checks and balances become unchecked and unbalanced because we make those kinds of choices; we cannot escape our human nature. Saint Paul's letters tell us much about "Judaizers" and "super apostles." Saint Luke, although he usually accentuates the positive, tells us of simony and duplicity. The Pharisaic tradition could not be excised from the early church; egotism, avarice, anxiety and scrupulosity still accompany the Gospel. And so Matthew's Jesus instructs the struggling faithful, " and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example."
As faithful people we look to our leaders for instruction and example, but we should also pray for them because we know they are fallible human beings who might mislead us. We don't want to cultivate distrust or suspicion, but neither do we want to be naive or gullible. We see the shortcomings of our leadership just as clearly as we see our own. We hope they utilize the Sacrament of Penance as readily as we do; and perhaps, more so.
Saint Paul often asked his people for supporting prayers as he traveled, suffered tribulations and addressed unknown people. On one occasion he relied on the Galatians to nurse him back to health, though they hardly knew him. We consider him saved but he expressed anxiety for his personal salvation in 1 Corinthians 9:
Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadow boxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
We're on the same team; we're in this together. Whether we like it or not, we're role models for each other: priests for their congregations and congregations for their priests.

Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Lord, great and awesome God,
you who keep your merciful covenant toward those who love you
and observe your commandments!
We have sinned, been wicked and done evil;
we have rebelled and departed from your commandments and your laws.
We have not obeyed your servants the prophets,
who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes,
our fathers, and all the people of the land.
Justice, O Lord, is on your side;
we are shamefaced even to this day....

Chagrin, I suppose, is the word for that feeling of having done wrong and realizing it was not necessary; and no power in heaven or earth can make it undone. Creatures doomed to live in the eternally present, we cannot change the past. Nor, for that matter, do we have much control of the future; especially in the face of all those good intentions which came to nothing.
In our first reading from the Book of Daniel, the authors look back on the history of God's fidelity and human sin. The Jews had a particular gift for history, especially because they could recall their sins and those of their ancestors. Their memory was not clouded by illusions of their ancestors' past greatness. They remembered, "You keep your merciful covenant toward those who love you...."
In this divine dance with our Covenant Partner we are continually stumbling; and it's never an accident: "We have sinned, been wicked and done evil...."
We may find ways to evade that responsibility. We say, "It was an accident!" "I didn't mean to." or "They made me do it."But there are no accidents in human life. We are responsible for our actions and their consequences.
Sometimes our best intentions  and most careful plans blow up in our faces and terrible things happen. Sometimes what  ensues is unavoidable and inevitable. The God who made this Earth with its earthquakes, hurricanes and blizzards understands that. When we own our responsibility the Lord forgives.
But sometimes for reasons beyond comprehension we choose to do wrong. Especially, we  revert to bad habits with the full realization that nothing good can come of this behavior. We've been down this road before and we know where it goes. We cannot expect it will come out differently because we know it won't.
Justice, O Lord, is on your side;
we are shamefaced even to this day....
Occasionally the incident may show that the decision I thought I had made was not made so well as I thought. I didn't actually turn over a new leaf. We are creatures of time and it takes a long time to develop a new, good habit.
Chagrin tells me that my hope does not rely on the promises that I make. My good intentions will never amount to anything, even those few that are not disappointed. Rather, I hope in God's mercy. God knows my frailty, impatience, distrust and disease; and I know that God is faithful.

Second Sunday of Lent

If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?

Each year, on the Second Sunday of Lent, we hear a synoptic account of the Transfiguration. Every third year we hear the Genesis account of Abraham's offering of his son -- "your only son whom you love" -- on Mount Tabor. Our scriptures and traditions see an immediate link between these incidents. Abraham has offered his only son; God's only son was offered in sacrifice for us.
Both passages are emotionally and spiritually overwhelming. They stagger the mind, leaving us reeling with what-just-happened? They clearly describe life-changing incidents in the life of Abraham, Peter, James and John; they are presented to us for the same reason. We have heard these stories; our lives must be marked by them.
But how do we begin to know what they mean? For that, the Church offers a third incredibly important passage of scripture, words from Romans 8: "If God is for us, who can be against us?"
Some people are skittish about "God for us." Fearful of being separated from coworkers, schoolmates, neighbors and acquaintances, of being singled out for special treatment, they ask, "Is God not for everyone?"
But this is no time for skittishness. The same readings have commanded us to "Listen to him." You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you!
Approaching Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter, we contemplate God's mercy. It is not a karma-like preference for good over evil; or a faint bias for mercy. It is immediate and demanding, "Listen to him!"
To every question the answer is given, "...will he not also give us everything else along with him?"
In Holy Week you will see something which will erase every doubt about Goodness from your mind. Have you been told human life is meaningless? That the Earth is only a lucky planet; and that human life, a happy accident? Have you been told that you don't matter, that nothing really matters? That there is no particular reason for your existence? In the face of atomic bombs, mass historical movements, catastrophes and plagues you may feel like that.
But in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, you have seen that God is for us, and you have heard the divine command, "Listen to him."
Therein lies the purpose of your life. Enthrall to the Divine Command, like Abraham approaching Mount Tabor, you trust in a purpose which is beyond comprehension, and a God who is beyond human control or imagination.

Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Lectionary: 229

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

If we consider the Enormity of Original Sin during Lent, as I did in this blog yesterday, we must also consider the Enormity of God's mercy. The Mercy we find in the Holy Trinity is so rich and superabundant it cannot be contained within God but must overflow into our attitudes, manners and behavior: 
Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Christian mystics have often spoken of this indwelling of God in our humanity. We may be possessed by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who take up residence in us; but never in an unpleasant or unfree sense. The Christian remains, like each Person of the Trinity, absolutely free. Nor might it be considered fun or enjoyable; nothing so crude at that. Rather, God's indwelling is blessed and the Servant of God is content to move in the Spirit.
In that Spirit she hears the Lord's word, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute youMeeting hatred she may feel sorrow for her enemies but cannot take it personally. It has nothing to do with her. Meeting opposition she persists as the Lord persists, or she waits as the Lord waits. She has all the time in the world. Missions unaccomplished will be accomplished in God's time and in God's way. Nothing worth doing can be accomplished by one person in one lifetime. 
The blessed see beyond the horizons of religions, denominations and sects "for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust." 
These matters, too, are beyond human scrutiny. Our concerns are much simpler: the eyes of servants on the hand of their masters, like the eyes of a maid on the hand of her mistress, so our eyes are on the LORD our God, till we are shown favor. Psalm 123

Friday of the First Week of Lent

Lectionary: 228

None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered, because he has broken faith and committed sin; because of this, he shall die. 

With the "me too" movement, the United States is undergoing another periodic purge of wicked people from entertainment, politics and business. Spasms like this are described in King David's Psalm 101:8 
Morning after morning I clear all the wicked from the land, to rid the city of the LORD of all doers of evil.
We have seen this urgent rush to righteousness in the Catholic Church with the exposure of pedophile priests and the bishops who protected them. Attempts were made in the 1960's to rid the country of "conservatives"; more recently, of "liberals": although the definition of either has never been clear. There was also the Red Scare of the McCarthy Era when "Communists" were discovered in American society.    
Society must exercise these periodic cleansings to restore a sense of righteousness to an otherwise satisfactory system. 
Meanwhile the plagues of gun violence, suicide, pornography, abortion and chemical addictions continue unabated. These evils, whose roots are enmeshed with those of sexual abuse, cannot be eradicated even by the decrees of King David. 
They have their roots in that Original Sin which is largely denied by a secular society. It will disappear when the world is made safe for democracy. 
In the meanwhile, Jesus urges us to "Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court." You don't want to get caught up in the machinery of justice: 
"...your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released until you have paid the last penny."
The doctrine of Original Sin assures less pretentious people that we cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that. The roots of evil run deep in everyone; in the newborn child and the dying patient; in the prisoner on death row, in you and me. I may feel better about myself with the killing of defenseless citizens on death row, or the neutralizing of "terrorists" in Syria but neither effort changes the reality of evil in my heart. 
Lent invites us to consider our enormous guilt and the greater mercy of the Crucified Lord who pleads for us:
Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But this one offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God; now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool. 
For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated. The holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying: “This is the covenant I will establish with them after those days, says the Lord: ‘I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them upon their minds,’” he also says: “Their sins and their evildoing I will remember no more.”

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle

I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ....

Now there's a fascinating expression we might overlook as we're looking for something else: "...and witness to the sufferings of Christ..."

The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter has fallen this year deep in the season of Lent, and we are preparing to witness the sufferings of Christ. A culture disinterested in history, obsessed with personal experience and individualism might say, "I wasn't there; I wasn't even born yet; it doesn't matter to me."
Lent must wean us off that atrophied way of thinking. We were there. Especially in Lent we walk the fourteen Stations of the Cross. We recite the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. We remember Good Friday as if it were yesterday.
Throughout our history the Holy Spirit has refreshed our memory -- our impressions -- of that Day. Saint Francis of Assisi, refused the gift of martyrdom by a Muslim ruler, was granted permission to tour Jerusalem and walk the Via Dolorosa. His friars brought the custom back to Europe, erecting "stations" in churches and shrines, indoors and out, throughout Europe and the world. They wanted everyone to know what the man had suffered for our salvation. 
Renaissance painters and sculptors, newly alive to the humanist spirit, described the physical suffering of Jesus in graphic detail. This fascination with Jesus' pain was something new. Until then European Christians imagined Jesus, Mary, the Apostles and the saints as sitting on heavenly thrones, shrouded in comfortable glory. The devout begged for mercy from these all-powerful, benevolent patrons but no pictures, statues or stained glass windows suggested to them that their patrons had ever suffered poverty, abuse or hardship. Francis and the Renaissance opened that door.
With the Black Death, when a third of Europeans died in sudden agony, imagining the suffering of Christ became morbid and sometimes maudlin. Well into the twentieth century artists competed with each other to describe the horror of the cross in increasingly ferocious detail. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Cross reflected that strain. Gibson, the actor of cinema violence, knew what his audience wanted; but it was neither the first nor last effort to display the Passion.
Disciples of Jesus don't have to brutalize the imagination but we are called to witness the sufferings of Christ. We were born of the baptismal water that flowed from his chest; our mission began when he handed over the spirit to the Woman and the Beloved Disciple. Because you were there, a witness of the suffering of Christ, you can speak to the world of God's mercy.

Wednesday of the First Week in Lent

At the judgment
the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation
and she will condemn them,
because she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
and there is something greater than Solomon here.

Two weeks ago, on the fifth Wednesday of Ordinary Time, we heard about the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon. The Hebrew Scriptures, from Deuteronomy onward, are very sure of God's blessing, and that we have something greater here. Despite the fact that Solomon's reign -- the high point of Jerusalem's wealth, power and influence -- was not all that glorious; and that Solomon's kingdom couldn't hold a candle to the power, wealth and influence of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece or Rome; they still believed they were extraordinarily blessed by the Living Presence of God. They believed nations should come from the end of the earth to worship in their temple and study their wisdom.

Christians have inherited that confidence. It's reflected in the story of the magi who came from afar, seeking the newborn king of the Jews. Upon seeing him with Mary his Mother they were filled with joy and presented him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It's reflected also in that most serious command, "Make disciples of all nations."

Saint Paul warned his Galatian disciples about another gospel in the strongest possible language. The "gospel of multiculturalism" might be called such, especially the doctrine that "We're all alike and everybody worships the same God." That teaching doesn't fit our faith; nor does it honor those who practice other religions.

Recently I read an article that said we should recognize the "faith" of Jews and Muslims, but faith is a Christian word. It assumes certain beliefs, enunciated by our creeds; and especially the Pauline doctrine of "salvation by faith." Jews observe the Law of Moses. Muslims practice Islam, meaning submission. There are strong resemblances in these words but not many Christians would insist upon "observing the Law" and fewer Christians or Jews would say they practice submission. Faith, observance and submission have very different resonances to these "Abrahamic" religions.

Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, Native American and traditional African religions are even more unlike Christianity. If we attempt to describe their beliefs, removed from their rituals, customs, practices, ethos, food and daily practices, we misinterpret them entirely. Only Christians, with our creeds, would dare to describe religion as a "belief system."

In fact, from my reading, I am hard pressed to say if the word religion can actually describe all the "religions" of the world, much less the many gods and the rituals that call upon those gods. The Buddhist "religion," for instance, has no god although it honors Siddhartha Buddha as the holiest of men.

The "gospel of multiculturalism" is sorely misguided; it threatens the blessing of our gospel, disrespects the sensibilities and pieties of other people, and sabotages the duty we have to announce our Joy to the world.

Our zeal, however, does not begin with the conviction that we're right and everyone else is wrong. It must draw upon a much deeper source of gratitude for God's mercy -- a mercy given to undeserving, indeed disreputable sinners. When I consider my sins I realize I have no right to speak to anyone of God; I can do so only by God's commission, with thankfulness and enormous reverence.

I know how deeply attached I have been to my opinions, habits, fears and resentments; I know how reluctant others might be to reconsider their ways or hear a new Word from God. If I say anything of my faith it's by invitation from those who might want to hear, for as long as they want to hear.

If we respect others as Jesus has respected us, if we care for others as Jesus cared for us, they will come to us as the Queen of Sheba travelled to Jerusalem to hear the wisdom of Solomon. And they will find a greater than Solomon here.

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

"If you forgive men their transgressions,
your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men,
neither will your Father forgive your transgressions."

The Lord's Prayer rightfully enjoys enormous respect in every Christian tradition. It seems to have developed early and rapidly in the early church. Saint Luke offers a first draft; Saint Matthew presents the masterpiece. Because it is comprised of short expressions, it is easily recited by congregations in any language. Even a gathering of different languages can pray together, "each in his own tongue!" The Catholic is especially familiar with the prayer because we recite it six times during the rosary, at every Mass, and during Morning and Evening Prayers.
But the Spirit will never let us range very far with warm, fuzzy feelings; the Lord's immediate teaching after his prayer brings us up short, "If you forgive men their transgressions...."
In our western philosophical tradition we like to draw a distinction between the ideal and the real. In response to Jesus' warning about forgiveness we might reply, "Ideally, we should forgive; but realistically we don't. And that's okay because the ideal is only an ideal; by definition it's not attainable." Thus do we nullify the Word of God.
God knows nothing of these "ideals." His commands are quite real; as real as fences, walls and land mines -- and other people. In the ideal world of western philosophy other people don't actually exist. Descartes' cogito -- "I think therefore I am!" -- allows for only one. It's corollary -- "You exist if I think you exist." -- works well for narcissists.
The command of Jesus to forgive stands as a continual, urgent reminder every time we recite his wonderful prayer. There are other people in my life and my personal salvation is enmeshed with theirs. We cannot trip lightly over, "...forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Against whom do I hold a grudge? How deep is my resentment? How long have I held it? How much longer do I intend to hold it?
Does anyone hold a resentment against me? What can I do to bring our relationship back into communion?
The Lord's Prayer does not recognize ideals; they are human fictions with limited utility.
The Lord's Prayer does recognize the urgent, undeniable need we have for communion with other people. Resentments, like disease, have no place among us; nothing good comes of them. When they occur we should postpone our worship until they are resolved; "Leave your gifts at the altar...." If that's not possible we can certainly recognize the crisis. This situation is not acceptable.
One of God's greatest, most delightful and -- ironically -- most common signs of his mercy is my willingness to go first and be reconciled... and then come and offer your gift. With love the most difficult tasks are easy; without love, the easiest problems are intractable.

Monday of the First Week of Lent

Then they will answer and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?'

In Jesus' parable, ironically, the wicked and the just ask the same question: "When did we see you...?" The wicked simply never noticed anyone other than themselves. The needy, the poor, the despised, the alien and stranger did not deserve their attention. They did not exist in their world. If they noticed anyone it was the wealthier, the more influential and powerful; and they envied them.
The just wonder "When did we see you?" because they were simply doing what comes naturally to anyone inspired by the Holy Spirit. They saw a hungry person, they fed him. They saw the unclothed, the homeless, the sick, the imprisoned and offered whatever help they could. They didn't do it out of piety, for religious reasons. I think that's why, in Jesus' parable, they don't specifically recall caring for the Lord.
They acted generously because human nature, inspired by God's Spirit, acts generously. Without God's spirit, human nature is unnatural.
This is why the Catholic Church recognizes the possibility of salvation for "people of good will" in every nation, regardless of their religion.
And this is why we must announce the gospel to every nation, because knowledge of Jesus Christ -- of his humble birth, simple life, compassionate ministry, defiance of wicked authorities, terrible crucifixion and glorious resurrection -- reveals the Way of God most clearly. We don't have to do anything but be human, realizing that we can be fully human only when we're filled by the Holy Spirit. When we're "washed in the Blood."
Those who worship a god of supreme, overwhelming, irresistible power -- whether they call themselves Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist -- have not heard the story of Jesus. They will not recognize him in the Day of Judgment, nor will he recognize them.