Holy Thursday, Mass of the Lord’s Supper

(Exodus 12:1-8.11-14; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15)

Lent begins in the dead of winter. But the word does not mean “winter.” It means “springtime.” Lent takes us from winter to springtime, from slavishness to self-control, and from selfishness to consideration of others. Some say that we shouldn’t give up anything for Lent but concentrate our efforts on charitable works. But we need to do both -- deprive ourselves of comforts and attend to others’ needs -- so that we might become more sensitive human beings.

On Holy Thursday we receive a similar dual mandate. In the second reading, St. Paul’s tells us how Jesus instituted the Eucharist on the night before he died. He took bread and wine, gave thanks for both, and said, “This is my body…This cup is the new covenant of my blood. Do this…in remembrance of me.” Out of obedience to Jesus’ “Do this...” we celebrate mass this evening and every day with the exception of tomorrow, Good Friday.

The washing of feet is the second of Jesus’ Holy Thursday commands. Interestingly, the foot-washing tradition appears only in the Gospel of John where Jesus does not offer bread and wine on the night before he dies. Does this gospel ignore the Eucharist? Not at all; only John gives the “Eucharistic discourse,” Jesus’ long reflection on eating his body and drinking his blood. We all remember his mystical words, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”

At the last Supper in the Gospel of John instead of taking bread, Jesus takes a towel and ties it around his waist. Instead of pouring wine, he pours water into a basin and begins to wash his disciples’ feet. Then he tells them something much like, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He says, “…as I have done for you, you should do for each other.” Of course, Jesus does not mean that on one day each year the priest should wash a few parishioners’ feet, much less that all of us wash each other’s feet everyday. No, he intends that we serve one another.

How do we do that? Workers should do the best job possible for the company as well as for its clients. Employers should strive to provide health care benefits and other essentials for human dignity. Retired people should not think of time as exclusively their own but dedicate it to God and neighbor. Parents should take care in providing the right mix of soft and tough love so that your children grow into caring and conscientious persons. Children should do their chores and study before watching television.

We’ve all heard the slogan, “You are what you eat.” It reminds us to limit our intake of calories and fats. But we Catholics take the slogan a step beyond. When we eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood, we have his life within us. This life moves us from slavishness and selfishness to self-control and consideration of others. It enables us to fulfill Christ’s command to serve one another. It gives us eternal life.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesday of Holy Week

(Isaiah 50:4-91; Matthew 26:14-25)

In Italy abstaining from meat on Wednesdays as well as Fridays is not unheard of. Of course, the Friday penance commemorates Jesus’ death on the cross. The Wednesday observance similarly recalls Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, his disciple.

Although all four gospels speak of the betrayal, Matthew gives the most detail. He speaks of the amount that Judas is paid – thirty pieces of silver – a paltry sum, especially when one considers how vengeful the Jewish leaders feel toward Jesus. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus tells his disciples not to take any silver with them as they preach the Kingdom of heaven. Here Judas takes thirty pieces to turn in the kingdom’s principal preacher. Even more indicative of Judas’ contempt is his calling Jesus “Rabbi” after Jesus predicts his betrayal. Jesus told his disciples not to call anyone “rabbi” (23:8), but Judas feels no pang in defying the Lord’s admonition. Of course, Judas’ betrayal brings about his desolation. As Jesus suggests would happen, Judas hangs himself and his name is recalled with the same infamy as that of Hitler or Pot Pol.

Ironically, some have tried to justify Judas over the centuries. In one novel Judas is portrayed as a kind of co-redeemer because his action brought Christ to the cross. Often these days Judas is seen as doing no more than denying Christ as Peter does. Peter also commits a terrible sin, but he acts out of fear where Judas’ motive is malice or, at best, greed. We should see the possibility of our acting as ignominiously as Judas. We may betray associates for money or for pleasure. Even more seriously, we may betray Christ by openly behaving in obscene or violent ways. Judas is one person we want to avoid imitating.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tuesday of Holy Week

(Isaiah 49:1-6; John 13:21-33.36-38)

During Holy Week each year we recall the four sections of the second part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah known as the “Servant Songs.” We heard a small section of the third “Servant Song” on Sunday, the first song yesterday, and the second song today. Tomorrow we will listen to the whole third song and on Friday, the last “Servant Song.” The “Servant Songs” prefigure Jesus, God’s beloved son, who humbly lays down his life for others.

Today’s second song tells of how Jesus is named in his mother’s womb. We remember the words of Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation that Jesus was to be called “Son of the Most High.” The prophet’s words that the servant is to be a “sharp-edged sword” remind us of Jesus’ preaching which divides the people into those who would accept him as God’s definitive revelation and those who find his words too much to bear. Finally, we believe that the prophecy of the servant’s authority not being confined to Israel but becoming a light to all nations is fulfilled as the apostles spread the name of Jesus throughout the world.

The Servant Songs reveal God’s plan of salvation. God has not chosen to bring the world together by force of arms or through a universal philosophy. Rather, He spreads His fatherly love to all humanity through the preaching of Jesus Christ. We accept God’s plan by letting go of desire to dominate others and by foregoing the count of how many countries are Catholic or what percentage of a population goes to church on Sundays. No, it is giving of ourselves daily in loving obedience to the Lord that we become part of God’s plan.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday of Holy Week

(Isaiah 42:1-7; John 12:1-11)

When Judas grumbles that the nard used to anoint Jesus might have been sold with the proceeds going to the poor, he commits an error common today and perhaps throughout history. Judas, like many of us, fails to recognize Jesus as a poor person. Marked for immenent death, Jesus suffers a particularly virulent form of poverty for even the rich need time to enjoy the consumption of their wealth.

Jesus tells Judas that the poor will always remain on the earth. In another gospel passage Jesus says that he too will be with his people “always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). We do well to connect these statements with another saying of Jesus perhaps even more familiar, “...whatever you did for one of these least brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). These quotations remind us that Jesus remains among the poor so that if we would treat him well, we must take care of the needy.

The “preacher to the papal household,” Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., considers service to the poor part of true Eucharistic devotion. He writes that in adoration of the Eucharist, Catholics worship Jesus as true God, and in assisting the poor, we worship him as true human. To exemplify Jesus’ close identification with the poor, Fr. Cantelamessa cites a final episode in the life of the famous French Catholic philosopher, Blaise Pascal. As he lay dying unable to keep down even a tiny part of a host as Viaticum, Pascal proposed a workable substitute. He asked that some poor persons be brought into his presence. Since he could not communicate with the Head, he said, then he would “communicate at least with the body.”

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(Jeremiah 2010-13; John 10:31-42)

Very recently the Catholic Church in Germany has been rocked by a clerical abuse scandal. Over one hundred victims have come forth claiming that they were sexually molested by priests. As the president of the German episcopal conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, admitted, sexual abuse is a heinous crime. It is especially outrageous within the ranks of the Catholic Church because she preaches restraint of passions and because priests take a public vow of celibacy.

In today’s gospel Jesus provides the basis for our redoubled effort to avoid scandal. He tells his persecutors that they are to believe because of the works that he performs. Because all Christians are part of Christ’s body, Jesus implies here that we also are to draw non-Christians to belief by our actions.

The Church bows its head in shame for all the sexual abuse of children that has come to the surface in recent years. Accordingly, Archbishop Zollitsch apologized to all the victims. However, the Church hopes that objective reviewers will not lose confidence in her divine commission. Over the years and still today the Church has given a tremendous testimony to charity. She has raised no doubt tens of millions of children in orphanages, educated probably hundreds of millions in her schools, provided spiritual guidance to billions of people through her preaching, and administered divine assistance to similar numbers in the sacraments. Normal human frailty can account for the abuse, which nevertheless must not be tolerated. Can anything but God’s own authorization be attributed to this record of accomplishment?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

(Isaiah 7:10-14.8:10; Hebrews 10:4-11; Luke 1:26-38)

The Bible asserts the dignity of all persons by noting that the first humans are created in the image of God. But assuredly human dignity is raised a few notches by the mystery on which we meditate today. Jesus, our Creator whose being we reflect, becomes one of us whose life we are to emulate. We call today’s feast “The Annunciation,” but, as is done in some parts of the world, we can say that it is the Feast of the Incarnation. Today we celebrate the eternal Son of God taking flesh within the womb of the Virgin Mary.

There are myths of gods taking human form in other religions. But what makes Jesus Christ so different is, ironically, his ordinariness. Yes, being virgin-born is certainly unique, and we have marvelous accounts of his power over nature. But there are no fantastic stories of his repelling arrows and slaying armies. Even Jesus’ cures and certainly his standard operation are like those of other Jewish prophets and rabbis. Indeed, in many ways he is just like us.

It is the chain of events at the very end of his life that manifestly separates Jesus from everyone else. He surrenders himself to be humiliated, tortured, and executed even though he is innocent of any crime. Then he is raised from the dead as a validation that his self-sacrifice is neither fatalistic nor quixotic but ordained on High. It demonstrates God’s plan to elevate humans even higher than their exalted status over the rest of creation. Now we can glimpse the reason for our emulating Jesus. Doing so will lead to our sharing in his resurrection from the dead and in his eternal life.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wednesday of the Fifth Week in Lent

(Daniel 3:14-20, 91-92, 95; John 8:31-42)

In a movie about the revolution in Nicaragua some years ago, a peasant boy tells an American helicopter pilot that he wants to fly. The airman takes the boy for a ride in his helicopter, but the flight does not satisfy the boy’s desire. He explains that he wants to fly like a bird flies, not to be just transported in a flying machine.

Although the vignette is meant as a metaphor for Nicaragua’s yearning to be free of foreign dominance, it also illustrates the lesson that Jesus gives in the gospel today. The Jews think they are free because they are not enslaved by anyone. But this is limited freedom. Jesus would provide them full freedom where they could not only walk wherever they wish but act as righteously as they deeply desire. It is the freedom of Van Cliburn at the piano or Kim Yuna on ice skates.

As Jesus says, freedom comes from accepting him as God’s Son. He brings the rule of heart that disengages us from attachments to fortune, fame, and force and sets our sites on eternal life. Most importantly – for redirecting our lives is a monumental task – he imparts his Holy Spirit to us. The releasing of His Spirit is what we await during the coming Easter season.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Lent

(Numbers 21:4-9; John 8:21-30)

Jesus tells the Pharisees that when they lift him up, they will realize who he is and that he has done what the Father wills. Jumping to that scene, however, we have difficulty finding any such awareness among the Jews. What is going on?

John the evangelist only subtly shows Jesus’ divine sonship on the cross. He notes that Pilate has a sign printed in three languages proclaiming Jesus “the king of the Jews.” This tells us that, like-it-or-not, the Jews have to face the fact that an objective authority acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed king of Israel. Also, Jesus’ last words, “It is finished,” indicate his identity. “The “It” here refers not only to his life but also to his mission from the Father of redeeming the world. Although the Pharisees “realize” this evidence in as much as they objectively see it, most will not be swayed. Indeed, only one of their numbers comes forward professing belief in Jesus. Nicodemus, whom we remember from an earlier encounter with Jesus, steps on the scene at this time with enough burial spices for a king.

We should not be any more dismayed by the Pharisees rejecting Jesus than by our own contemporaries. After all, Jesus conquered no empires like Alexander the Great. Nor did he write works of wisdom like Aristotle. Even his mighty deeds were not testified by any other than his followers. Why then do we accept Him as God? Certainly there is something to the fact that those followers died in making their testimony. But we believe also because he has acted in our lives. His words, which his disciples recorded, have given us a solid foundation. More than that, when we have called upon him, he has met our needs – not just once but repeatedly. We cannot help but hand over ourselves to him.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday of the Fifth Week in Lent

(Daniel 13:1-9.15-17.19-30.33-62; John 8:12-20)

Law-and-order advocates believe that stricter laws, tougher judges, and more prisons are the best ways to limit crime and bring harmony to society. They would praise the sagacity of Daniel in the first reading today who ferrets out two culprits willing to see an innocent woman stoned to cover up their crime of lust. Such hardliners are not likely to approve of Jesus’ more daring way to bring about justice.

In the Gospel of John Jesus repeatedly announces that he has not come to judge the world. Not that his judgment would be defective; it would just be insufficient. Judging would bring reprisals against everyone. But God loves the world and does not want to condemn it. He sends Jesus to save the world by offering himself at the appointed time. He will turn human hearts to what is good by graciously allowing himself to be crucified. Those who come to believe that his self-sacrifice demonstrates God’s love for the world will have eternal life. Those who deride such sacrifice are doomed to darkness.

We have entered into what used to be called Passiontide when all images were covered in Catholic churches. Our minds and hearts are to focus on Jesus supreme sacrifice. Once again, he gives himself willingly to be tortured, reviled, and killed so that we might be justified.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Solemnity of St. Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary

(II Samuel 7:405a.12-14a.16; Romans 3:13.16-18.22; Matthew 1:16.18-21.24a)

“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees,” Jesus proclaims on the mountain, “you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Perhaps Jesus discerned this new righteousness by observing his foster-father St. Joseph.

In today’s gospel Matthew tells us that Joseph is a “righteous man.” The measure of his righteousness is seen by his not allowing Mary to be exposed to shame. There exist motives for him to do so. We can imagine Joseph’s sense of outrage upon learning that his betrothed is pregnant by another. Also, it is reasoned that he would be able to keep Mary’s dowry if he divorces her publicly. But Joseph, as Jesus recommends throughout his sermon on true righteousness, moves secretly so that only God sees his good deed.

As we know well, Joseph’s accepting responsibility for Mary and Jesus involves ever greater sacrifices. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, Joseph must take his family to Egypt as refugees. Also, since Mary remains a virgin, Joseph foregoes sexual intimacy. Nowhere in the gospel does Joseph say a word, much less utter a complaint. He is the quiet hero who exemplifies the implicit righteousness that Jesus comes to bestow on all humans.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Thursday of the Fourth Week in Lent

(Exodus 32:7-14; John 5:31-47)

“The world is too much with us,” the poet William Wordsworth lamented two hundred years ago. If anything, the presence of the mundane has increased in the interim. Because of its inherent goodness, the world has been first glorified and then idolized. Thus, we see many people hankering after the super-lottery and new pharmaceutical aphrodisiacs.

Of course, the condition is much more than two centuries old. It befalls the Israelites in the desert as the reading from Exodus today indicates. The golden calf stands at once for God and a pagan deity. Its luster is supposed to convey the awesomeness of God, but, defying God’s prohibition of craven images, the calf becomes a testament to the human inclination to divinize wayward desires.

As Moses pleads with God for mercy toward the Israelites, Jesus argues with the people to accept his testimony. His miracles have shown that he is from God. His words have transmitted divine wisdom. But the people, forever desirous of demonstrations of power, fail to recognize Jesus’ prophecy. Heeding his arguments, we need to do better. We not only have to accept Jesus as God’s emissary but have to recognize him as “true God from true God,” to be followed completely and unreservedly.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Lent

(Isaiah 49:8-15; John 5:17-30)

No song expresses the glory of the Irish more than “Danny Boy.” It speaks of their love, their fidelity, and their religion. Danny – who is he? a son, a friend, possibly a sweetheart – leaves his homeland but cannot forget it or his people. He will return and pay his respects to both. And if that return is delayed, then the visit to his people will take the form of a prayer, an “Ave,” for the dead.

Because Christ is at the center of that prayer, the “Hail, Mary,” it would not be said in vain. Indeed, for the Irish as for all Christians, life is Christ. He enables us to love truly now and to ultimately triumph over the forces that condemn the dead to oblivion. The gospel today expresses this two-fold victory by Jesus saying that the Son gives life to whomever he wishes and that those in tombs will hear his voice and come out.

Tuesday, March 15, 2010

Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Lent

(Ezekiel 47:1-9.12; John 5:1-16)

“...I think the river is a strong brown god,” T. S. Eliot wrote in his masterpiece, The Four Quartets. The evangelist John would reverse the idea. The river is not a god, but God is like a river. In today’s gospel he portrays Jesus with all the healing power of the river Ezekiel describes flowing from Jerusalem’s Temple. The paralytic at the Sheep gate, as sorry a dolt as we find in the gospels, is saved by this God.

Hopefully we have noticed that Lent has just taken a sharp turn. Its time to contemplate sinfulness has passed. Now it sets our sights on redemption. The executor of that grace comes to us as one like ourselves but as powerful as a river. We can return to Eliot’s elegant poem for instruction: “The point of intersection of the timeless/With time, is an occupation for the saint...For most of us..., there is only the unattended/Moment, the moment in and out of time, ...These are only hints and guesses, /Hints followed by guesses; and the rest /Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” We have but twenty days to pray, observe, discipline, think, and act so that we may recognize Christ when he passes over us offering salvation.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent

(Isaiah 65:17-21; John 4:43-54)

Younger Next Year is one of many books promising a longer, healthier life. Its principal idea is that a proper regime of diet and exercise decreases your “biological age” even as your “physical age” advances. Although a good mix of diet and exercise should grant almost anyone a longer life, the concept of “biological age” is, at best, subtle. One can hardly arrest the whole process of aging. Similarly, we have to think hard about what Isaiah means when he promises that there will be a time when dying at a hundred would seem a short life.

We should understand the prophet to be expressing himself poetically, not literally. That is, Isaiah is commenting upon one’s spiritual life, not physical life. He means to say that in the new creation we will maintain the glory of youth and the wisdom of the aged. Death will be of no concern for us because we will have encountered the source of eternal life.

It may be hard to believe, but the new creation has already begun. Jesus has conquered death even though its cold reality swamps us at times. Humans will be dying until Jesus comes as he promised, but physical death need not be the last utterances of a person’s existence. When we give ourselves over to him, we enter the new creation. He buoys our lives to float above the currents of sin that would destroy us. At death he will give us spiritual life in its fullness. No one can say exactly what this will be like except that it will be like Jesus’ own life. Meanwhile, we should feel younger just by giving ourselves over to him.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday of the third Week in Lent

(Hosea 14:2-10; Mark 12:28-34)

A number of years ago a Jesuit theologian wrote a disturbing article entitled, “The Eclipse of Love for God.” He said that what was one primary to our Christian faith -- our love for God -- is now often dismissed. Some, he said, replace the love for God with love for neighbor. Others, he continued, believe that the command to love God is only another way of stating the need to love oneself! Gratefully, the theologian advised that the commandment to love God still stands and can be fulfilled.

“How?” we might ask. Pope Benedict has suggested that we show our love for God by refraining from things that we enjoy. Foregoing desserts for God’s sake, for example, shows one’s love for Him. We also show our love for God by being faithful to prayer and worship. Many wonder how God permits catastrophes like the one that has befallen Haiti. Fervent prayer in these cases indicates that we love God and recognize his sovereignty over creation even though we do not and cannot comprehend His ways.

Jesus’ response to the scribe’s insight in the gospel is telling. He says that the scribe is “not far from the Kingdom of God” because he recognizes the necessity of loving God. Doing it – loving God above all things – will place him squarely in the heart of that Kingdom.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wednesday of the Third Week in Lent

(Deuteronomy 4:1.5-9; Matthew 5:17-19)

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost wrote at the beginning of a famous poem. We might change “wall” to “law” and come up with a similar truth. Laws(like walls) can obstruct the good as well as serve it. For example, privacy laws can make clerical visits in hospitals problematic. It seems that the apostle Paul had little use for law. He wrote the Letters to the Galatians and the Romans refuting the need for Christians to be circumcised as the Jewish Law prescribes.

Still laws are necessary. They guide us in the pursuit of the good. Without some laws, at least, we would likely make repeated mistakes and hurt people in the process. We also need laws to protect us from the unscrupulous who would not allow common respect for others inhibit their desires. In the readings today both Moses and Jesus extol the Law which God has given to the Israelites. Moses believes that there are no statutes and decrees more just than those contained in Israel’s Law. Jesus finds the same Law binding until all things come to pass. Then how can Paul dismiss it so forcefully? And why do we not practice that Law today?

The Ten Commandments have always served as a guide to morality and still bind Christians. It is true, however, that the ritualistic parts of the Law have lost their force because with Jesus’ death and resurrection all things indeed have come to pass. Finally, we should not understand Paul as rejecting the Law completely but as saying that alone the Law has proven ineffectual at producing the righteousness of salvation. For that, he says, we need the grace of Christ.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tuesday of the Third Week in Lent

(Daniel 3:25.34-43; Matthew 18:21-35)

Last month the New York Times reported that “My Way,” the song that Frank Sinatra popularized, has caused fights in karaoke bars in the Philippines. There are no scientific explanations of the violence, but it is believed that the song’s lyrics exude arrogance which provokes reaction. Those words do seem to contradict the Lord’s way as demonstrated by Azariah in the first reading today.

Azariah lives with other Jews in Babylonia. Their homeland has been sacked, and they have been deported. Azariah acknowledges that by not living in the Lord’s ways, the people brought the devastation upon themselves. Now he beseeches God for mercy on all. In so doing, Azariah offers the sacrifice which the prophets called for – hearts contrite and lowly.

Especially during Lent we strive to live what Azariah prayed. First, we acknowledge our sinfulness – not only personal shortcomings but those of the communities to which belong as well. Then we rededicate ourselves to the Lord’s way. There is room for some individualization in repentance if we like to think of ourselves as doing things “my way.” But let us make no mistake, putting too much emphasis on ourselves will like lead away from, not toward, the Lord.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday of the Third Week in Lent

(II Kings 5:1-15ab; Luke 4:24-30)

Dostoyevsky’s famous “Grand Inquisitor” denies the faith he is entrusted to defend. Because he believes that Christ offered too much freedom, he dismisses Christ’s teaching in order to gain full human allegiance of the people by offering them bread and showing them authority. It is shocking to realize that the inquisitor is a cardinal of the Catholic Church – a priest and probably a bishop.

The story may critique Communism which Dostoyevsky saw on the horizon, but it also warns us of the possibility of our rejecting Christ. We identify ourselves as Christians, but do we accept the Lord’s teaching? Do we support others in humility, or do we “put others down”? Do we use our resources to assist the poor, or do we strive to accumulate as much as possible for ourselves? Do we pray frequently and fervently, or is our prayer limited to the times and places dictated personal habit and social custom?

In the gospel today the people of Jesus’ own town reject him. They cannot accept the fact that he has worked wonders in other places but refuses to do so among them. It is certainly possible that we reject Jesus as well. We would likely do so in the furtive ways indicated above, not by direct action as happened in Nazareth.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday of Second Week in Lent

(Genesis 37:3-4.12-13a.17b-28a; Matthew 21:33-43.45-46)

Pairing the Old Testament reading with the gospel today reveals Joseph as a prototype of Jesus. Like Joseph, Jesus is betrayed by his own people, handed over to foreigners, and suffers hardship despite his being innocent of crime. Also, both the story of Joseph and that of Jesus turn out glorious. Joseph thrives in captivity, and Jesus rises from the dead.

Both narratives also remind us that our destiny is not in the hands of those people who may do us harm. God will make the ultimate decision regarding our lives. Whether we look out over the city from a spacious office or sweep floors in the basement, we want to live in a way that gives Him glory. We then may hope that God, forgiving us our faults, will recognize our good efforts and redeem us from any predicament, even death itself.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thursday of the Second Week in Lent

(Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 16:19-31)

A few years ago a photograph of a sugar-cane cutter appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. His black skin shines with the same glow that emanates from the picture of the Sacred Heart hanging behind him. He dark eyes show both peace and suffering.

The photographer writes a few words concerning her subject. She says that he took her into his dilapidated one-room home and made her his guest. She adds that she has met many people whose lives were not easy, but never one with as much dignity as this sugar-cane cutter. She concludes by noting that he never looked ashamed or self-absorbed; rather, he spoke to her directly through compassionate eyes.

The readings today speak of the human heart. They tell us that one is blessed if her heart is open to the Lord’s commands to practice justice and to be merciful. Contrarily, they warn us of a heart that fixates on the human desires of domination and animal pleasure. The photograph of the sugar-cane cutter insures us that we need not be wealthy to have our hearts in the right place. Indeed, it indicates that we often find among the poor hearts instructed in the Lord’s ways.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wednesday of the Second Week in Lent

(Jeremiah 18:18-20; Matthew 20:17-28)

The desolation that Jeremiah feels after overhearing his countrymen plot his demise points to Jesus’ discouragement in the gospel. The latter knows that he must go to Jerusalem where he will be apprehended, abused, and executed. The fact that his disciples don’t understand the direness of his situation but concern themselves with questions of status must disappoint him deeply.

Jesus, however, does not wallow in self-pity. Rather he uses the disciples’ obtuseness to deliver a lesson on status. He tells them that they will be true followers to the extent that they consider status as an opportunity to serve others. He is laying the foundation for what many understand as noblesse oblige. This concept asserts that nobility have an obligation to use their wealth and authority for the benefit of the poor and needy.

Today Americans celebrate one who eminently lived out Jesus’ lesson on status. St. Katherine Drexel came from a banking family which endowed her with a considerable fortune. She used her money to establish a religious congregation dedicated to the care of native and African-Americans. She also gave herself completely to the effort by visiting missions in remote places across the United States over more than three decades. Today she is considered a patron of social justice for her uncompromising dedication to minorities.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tuesday of the Second Week in Lent

(Isaiah 1:10.16-20; Matthew 23:1-12)

In his short story “Counterparts” author James Joyce shows how authoritarianism is passed on from one person to another and from one generation to the next. The story begins with a worker being berated by his boss for not having finished his work. The worker then insults his boss and must either seek his forgiveness or lose his job. When he goes home that evening the worker takes out his troubles on his son. The child has let the fire extinguish on which he was to cook his father’s supper go out. The man begins to beat him while the boy pleads for mercy.

In the gospel today we find Jesus putting an end to authoritarianism among his followers. They are to treat one another as equals without any class distinctions. There are to be no “fathers” and “mothers,” or “masters” and “mistresses” among them. His intention is not very different from that of the founders of the United States who put aside all titles of royalty. Everyone was to be just “Mister” or “Mistress” (Mrs.). Evidently, strict egalitarianism -- authoritarianism’s complete opposite -- has proven impossible to maintain. In both church and state we find honorary distinctions among people although in America it cannot be said that they proliferate.

Still we must not dismiss what Jesus proposes for his church. If we call priests, “father,” and religious women, “sister,” we should not see these distinctions as means of privilege but as reminders of service. As a father, the priest should cheerfully give his time and energy to the spiritual growth of the church. Sisters also must provide wisdom, example, and encouragement in support of the people of God.