Friday, March 1, 2013

Friday of the Second Week of Lent

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

Parents of drug addicts sometimes tell the sad story of how they had to lock their doors on their addicted children.  After repeated instances of having their household treasures stolen to support a drug habit, they said, “Enough is enough,” and refused their troubled children entry into their homes.  In today’s reading from Genesis we hear the story of Joseph’s brothers treating him with even greater disregard than some drug addicts manifest toward their parents.

Not all his brothers conspire to kill Joseph.  Rueben, the eldest of the lot, shows some compassion by suggesting that they hold him prisoner while he figures out how to send him home safely.  Another brother, Judah, seems to have a similar sentiment, but his suggestion that they sell Joseph to Ishmaelite traders may be read as an attempt to realize a profit while ridding themselves of their nemesis.  In sum, the motive of all the brothers, save Rueben, is treachery.  They exemplify the dark side of humanity in crying need of renewal.

We are coming to the middle of Lent.  Hopefully, we have noticed by now that our motives are often not just mixed but wickedly perverse.  Perhaps we dislike seeing friends and family members receiving credit.  Perhaps we show cruelty to people when we know that we can get away with it.  Now is the time to repent of this wrongfulness and to beg God’s grace.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

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

The “bosom of Abraham” has a history outside Christianity.  “Bosom” in biblical times referred to the chosen place at the right of the host during a festive gathering.  There is a glimpse of this in the Gospel of John where the beloved disciple sits close enough to Jesus that he can talk to him privately.  In today’s gospel the poor Lazarus enjoys such intimacy with Abraham.

The passage presents a frightful warning to those who ignore the plight of the poor.  They will be judged as unworthy of eternal rest.  It is not that they cling to the Law of Moses and refuse to believe in Jesus but they ignore Moses whom Jesus is bringing to fulfillment.  Is Lazarus rewarded just because he suffered want in the world?  The gospel tempts us to believe this, but it should be taken for granted that he lived in accordance with the Law and therefore welcomed Jesus’ message of the advent of God’s kingdom.

Abraham is the exemplar of faith in the Old Testament.  If we truly believe, then we follow God’s command to care for the poor.  Not doing so – mistreating or even ignoring the poor in our midst – indicates not just our lack of charity but a defect in our faith.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent

(Jeremiah 18-20; Matthew 29:17-28)

All people want to be admired.  They do not care to be overlooked, much less disparaged.  Rather, they hope to be respected and perhaps even looked up to.  Parents will want distinction for their children, especially if they have failed to achieve it themselves.  It does not come as a surprise, then, that the mother of James and John tries to procure seats of honor for her two sons in today's gospel.

But it is unfortunate that she chooses this moment to make her request. Jesus has just revealed the tragic course that he will follow: betrayal, false condemnation, severe torture, and cruel execution.  One would hope that he be given support as he walks this gruesome road.  But that is not to come at this point from his apostles.

Their obtuseness, reasserted in the outrage with James and John rather than concern over the prediction of their own misdeed, should make us aware of our own complicity in Jesus' passion.  Many of us have a hard time recognizing our sinfulness.  Like the apostles, we prefer to seek edification in the eyes of others rather than acknowledge our pride, dishonesty, and avarice. Now, seeing the myopia of the apostles, we should confess these faults and others as the sins Jesus died to have forgiven.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tuesday of the Second Week in Lent

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

“Power tends to corrupt,” Lord Dahlberg-Acton wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton wasn’t condemning the possession of power since it is necessary to bring about anything that is worthwhile. But he was cautioning his friend that having power entails responsibility because it could as easily be used for evil as for good.

In the gospel Jesus comments on the abuse of power by the scribes and Pharisees. He criticizes their way of exploiting the prestige – a kind of power -- they have for purposes of self-aggrandizement. He then forbids all titles of prestige among his followers.

The question is frequently asked, “If Jesus prohibits the titles of ‘father’ and ‘Master’ (teacher) and ‘Rabbi,’ then why have at least the first two terms been used in the Church for centuries?” Although an argument may be made in defense of the titles by examining the context of the gospel passage, it seems most honest to say that the Church, the ultimate interpreter of Scripture, determined early on that she would not insist upon a literal following of Jesus’ words here. The case is like the Church’s acceptance of oaths even though Jesus specifically prohibits them (Matthew 5:34-37). The Church believes that the title of “father,” used out of respect for the training, dedication, and experience of priests, is legitimate. The Church also holds that priests, like worthy fathers of families, should serve their people tirelessly, selflessly, and judiciously.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday of the Second Week of Lent

(Daniel 9:4b-10; Luke 6:36-38)

Father Gilbert Hartke directed the famous drama program at Catholic University of America in Washington for decades. He was genuinely loved by his students. At his funeral the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was filled with admirers. Besides his accomplishments as a director, Fr. Hartke was notable for the admirable quality of never saying a bad word about anyone. He practiced what Jesus preaches in the gospel today.

More than laying down the New Law, Jesus is describing the new creation which his followers will become given the grace of his resurrection. They will stop condemning others but stand ready to forgive their sins. They will practice generosity not so that they may receive in return although in fact they will experience more benefits than they imagined.

One of the characteristics of post-modernity is criticism. As a way of avoiding commitment, people today criticize just about every social institution. Only the loosest associations -- perhaps the list of friends on Facebook -- escape this tendency to disparage and dismiss. But this is not the way of Jesus' community of faith. Although we do not close our eyes to others' faults and much less to our own, we try to understand and forgive them.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle

(I Peter 5:1-4; Matthew 16:13-19)

After celebrating all presidents on Presidents’ Day, American Catholics should have no problem understanding the purpose of today’s feast. The Chair of Peter refers to those who occupy St. Peter’s seat of authority – the popes. Over the centuries, 265 men have sat on that throne of responsibility although the number is disputed because of irregularities during the Middle Ages.

With Pope Benedict’s announcement of retirement, the world has come to realize that the Chair of Peter it is hardly a ceremonial position. One news correspondent in Rome says that each cardinal going into the conclave to elect a new pope prays that the winner will not be he. Although part of the reason may be humility, the newsman says it is mostly because like most people, cardinals look forward to a peaceful old age.

It is said that on Presidents’ Day, Americans go shopping. What then should we do on the Feast of St. Peter’s Chair? The obvious answer is to offer a prayer for the man who holds the office. He must always teach wisely, offer the sacraments piously, and decide judiciously. Some outside the Roman Catholic Church denounce him as an anti-Christ. Some within the Church betray him. Yes, he is assured of Jesus’ own prayer (cf., Luke 22:32), but he is all too aware of his own human limitations and faults.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

(Esther C:12.14-16.23-25; Matthew 7:7-12)

The young man was late for a crowded event. Because parking was tight in the downtown area, he said a prayer that he would find a space quickly. Surprised but hardly astounded, the man saw a car pull out of a parking place after riding hardly a block more. God always seemed to answer his prayers when the man turned to Him in need.

Jesus teaches us the same lesson in the gospel. He does not hesitate to call God our “Father” as well as his. As any father, God provides for our needs. “Do we have to ask Him?” we wonder. Not really, but recognizing our dependence on Him makes us more like His only-begotten son, Jesus.

The evangelist attaches to Jesus’ exhortation to pray the challenge that we care for one another. As in the “Our Father” where we ask God to forgive our offenses as we forgive others, we are to care for others as we ask God to care for us. This only reiterates what we just said: God’s true daughters and sons act like Jesus.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

(Jonas 3:1-10; Luke 11:29-32)

Religious people have a way of speaking about converts that seems to betray the biblical meaning. Converts are those people who change their religious affiliation. They may have been raised Methodists and have become Catholics. Or they may have been raised Catholics and have become Muslims. The readings today offer a deeper sense of the word.

Although neither the Old Testament nor the gospel reading actually uses “convert” or “conversion,” both have it in mind when they speak of people changing their wicked ways and repenting. Conversion is a change of heart, a new way of living. Alcoholics Anonymous is an association of converts pinning their hopes for sobriety on the grace of God working through the company of fellow travelers. Francis of Assisi was a convert from a bourgeois lifestyle to blessed poverty. So was Ignatius of Loyola who gave up the cavalier life of a soldier to become the Lord’s servant.

During Lent all Christians are called to conversion. But we often find it difficult to recognize how this will take place. It is not that the changes needed are too large to tackle. Rather they seem often too small to bother with. To overcome this obstacle we should isolate one area that calls for a change. For example, we will no longer curse while driving. Then we should describe the behavior that might replace the bad habit. For example, we will offer a short prayer instead of ranting. Finally we have to apply the resolution to the vice daily, and we are likely to see conversion happening faster than we thought possible.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

(Isaiah 55:10-11; Matthew 6:7-15)

Most parents teach their children manners by withholding something that the children want until they utter the correct word. We all know the dialogue. “You want a piece of cake?” the parent tells the child, “Then what do you say?” When the child responds correctly and the cake is passed, the parent will finish the lesson: “Now what do you say?” It does not seem off the mark to say that Jesus gives his disciples a similar lesson in today’s gospel.

But before going to the gospel, we should note what the first reading proclaims. Isaiah assures us that every word proceeding from the mouth of God is efficacious. Therefore, we can trust not only what Jesus will tell us but also that the prayer he teaches will effect the requests it makes. Jesus says that we are to ask our Father in heaven to make manifest on earth his will. Further, he prepares us to participate in the manifestation by committing ourselves to forgive the wrongs others do to us.

But, then, why don’t we see the world at peace and ourselves free from the clutches of evil? Perhaps it is because we are too anxious. It is happening, however, although until the coming of Jesus the Kingdom of God on earth will always be in process. We can perhaps glimpse it as we become less spiteful when wronged and as nations decide to spend more on education and health and less on arms.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday of the First Week in Lent

(Leviticus 19:1-2.11-18; Matthew 25:31-46)

In a reflection on the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., the Preacher of the Papal Household, makes a disturbing realization. He says that we can love ourselves in the wrong way! That is, we can overindulge our appetites or seek misguided goals – vice and not virtue. If we wish these things on others, we do them a disservice. In the gospel today Jesus spells out true ways to show love of neighbor.

Jesus outlines what has become known as the “corporal works of mercy” in a dramatic way. He says that when we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, etc., we actually are rendering service to him. There is a scholarly debate regarding the deprived people with whom he identifies himself. Are they missionaries who speak in his name or are they all people in dire need? Although those who in all humility bring God’s word to the people bear Jesus within them, it would be rather narrow-minded to limit Jesus’ intent to only these. He came to embrace the whole world in our suffering, and because he is God who cares for those society ignores, he reaches out especially to the poor and helpless.

All human actions should be guided by the virtue of prudence. It may not be wise to give cash to the beggar at the corner. But we can open our hands as well as our wallets to provide for street people. There are a million ways to render assistance to Jesus as he describes himself here. All involve sacrifice. Lent is the time to figure out and to do what we can.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday after Ash Wednesday

(Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 9:14-15)

Fasting – Isaiah in effect denies it in the first reading today, and Jesus delays it in the gospel. There is, therefore, cause to wonder about its worth.

Medics often demand that patients fast before undertaking certain procedures. Of course, people needing to lose weight regularly fast for salutary reasons. Religious traditions, despite the reservations of the readings today, have long considered a way to purification. Not only does it allow the body to purge itself of contaminants; it represents a victory over one’s often excessive appetite.

Catholics in Lent are bound to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. That is, only on these two days are we not allowed to eat between meals. But individual, more strenuous fasting is encouraged. Skipping a meal and even passing an entire day without eating can express genuine love for the Lord. Still, God has decreed that the fasting that pleases Him most is working so that all may enjoy the freedom without which fasting cannot be a willful act of love but an inescapable necessity out of want.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

(Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 9:22-25)

According to a famous legend, when the Alamo in Texas was being besieged by Mexican forces, the officer in charge, William Travis, drew a line in the ground with his sword. He told the remaining defenders that each had to choose for himself whether to leave the compound, evidently with safe passage, or to cross the line and fight the Mexicans until death. In the readings today both Moses and Jesus figuratively draw such a line in the sand.

In the first reading Moses gives the Israelites a clear option. They may choose life by living according to the Lord’s commandments in the land which they are about to enter. On the other hand, they may ignore the commands, worship the gods of the native peoples, and lead dissolute lives. Jesus’ option is similar. His disciples may either imitate his self-denial in pursuit of divine love or they may follow their own often selfish instincts.

Each Lent we are to renew our decision to follow Jesus. Like athletes training for competition, we discipline our bodies to respond to what our minds enlightened by grace know is right. Of course, it is hard at first. Not drinking coffee or not daily kneeling to say the rosary seems like self-punishment with an unforeseeable end. But we soon realize that time passes quickly, that the sacrifices have palpable benefits, and that Jesus is at our side for support. Lent is not the drudgery that some imagine. Rather it is the springboard to new life.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday

(Joel 2:12-18; II Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6.16-18)

Hester Prynne is the heroine of the American classic, The Scarlet Letter. She lives in colonial New England. After marrying an older man who leaves her for long periods, she allows herself to be seduced. When she gives birth to a baby, the town condemns her. Her penalty is that she is to wear a red letter A for adulteress on her clothing at all times. Stoically bearing the mark of disgrace, she goes about town with her daughter eking out a living by assisting others. As years pass, the townspeople forget about Hester’s crime. They only admire the care that she bestows on everyone and come to think of the A on her clothing as meaning angel.

In a few moments we will have ashes put on our foreheads. Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter the ashes are a sign that we have sinned. We have loved ourselves too much and have served God and neighbor too little. Along with wearing ashes today, we should redouble our efforts to fast, pray, help others, and provide for the poor this Lent season. Then when we ask God’s forgiveness, He will erase our sins from the ledger like the people lose memory of what Hester’s A originally meant. Again like Hester, people will recognize us for our virtues, not for our faults.

So let us joyfully take up the disciplines of Lent knowing that they will lead to our renewal. A generation ago some preachers recommended that people should focus on only positive practices during Lent. That advice, though sincerely made, seems to lack full understanding of how severely sin has affected humans. We should, as well, discipline the desire for constant gratification of our appetites. Efforts on both fronts will draw us closer to God.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 1:20-2:4a; Mark 7:1-13)

Sometimes on Saturday mornings around large cities small groups of people walk on the sidewalks of streets where walkers usually are alone and at that very few. “What’s going on?” one wonders. Then it is noticed that the men among the walkers wear hats and have beards. The conclusion is quickly reached: these are Orthodox Jews duly observing the Sabbath which for them means no strenuous activity, not even to the extent of driving a car. The custom is taken from today’s reading from Genesis.

Orthodox Jews take seriously the phrase that God made the seventh day holy by blessing it and resting from work. They see it as a time apart signifying their freedom. That is, aware that humans may be enslaved as much by inner impulses as by exterior forces, they demonstrate their mastery over the obsession “to get things done” by desisting from all kinds of work. Furthermore, they recognize the Sabbath as foreshadowing the eternal life which God is preparing for His faithful when no one will have to work anymore.

Christians, of course, have transferred the Sabbath to Sunday, the eighth day signifying their new creation in Jesus’ resurrection. But we retain much of the meaning of the Jewish tradition. We don’t have qualms about driving at least short distances on Sunday, but we too know that the day is best spent in the Lord’s company at church and then in joyful repast with family and friends.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes

(Genesis 1:1-19; Mark 6:53-56)

A young man was dying of cancer. When the medical system seemed unable to save him, his mother took him to Lourdes. There they experienced a miracle of sorts. The man died not long afterward their return, but witnessing the faith of so many pilgrims took away both the mother’s and the son’s fear of death. In the gospel Jesus himself provides a similar source of relief.

Jesus does not have to touch those who came to him for healing, let alone pray over them. The text quite clearly says that the people only had to touch “the tassel on his cloak” to be cured. Obviously, the evangelist wants to express the power of Jesus over the forces of destruction.

Today, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, is also World Day of the Sick. The sick are invited to both pray to Jesus for physical and spiritual support and to suffer with Jesus for the salvation of others. We might think of our relationship to the sick as having a similar dual character. As Jesus healed their infirmities, we visit the sick in solidarity. And as Jesus was tortured and crucified, we see in the sick his image and offer to them whatever help we can give.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 13:1-8; Mark 6:14-29)

Charlie and Pauline Sullivan have been working for reform in prisons for over thirty years. They have founded an organization with the acronym CURE to unite people -- mostly loved ones of the imprisoned -- with the same concern. The involvement of many hands and the tireless work of Pauline and Charlie along with their generous spirit have moved legislators to implement some of their ideas. Charlie and Pauline exemplify what the Letter to the Hebrews today exhorts: “Be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment…”

As in other New Testament epistles, the Letter to the Hebrews ends with a paraclesis or exhortation that the readers act in consonance with the faith that has been proclaimed. As Jesus entertained guests in his home, so too must Christians welcome strangers. As he relieved the burden of the oppressed, so too much Christians share their load. As he was faithful and free, so too must Christians uphold the sanctity of marriage and not get obsessed with making money.

As we look forward to Lent, we might think of this holy time as an opportunity to deepen our efforts in the ways suggested by the Letter to the Hebrews. Jesus has won for us the grace to act like him. Now we have to avail ourselves of occasions to do so.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Thursday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 12:18-19.21-24; Mark 6:7-13)

In workshops on preaching the late Ken Untener, bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, used to say that the homily should last no more than four minutes. Untener reasoned that mass in a Catholic church has much that speaks to the people besides the homily. The readings themselves are usually self-evident. The stained glass windows tell their stories. The hymns relate a message. And the prayers convey much meaning.

The Letter to the Hebrews today refers to the Christian liturgical assembly – what we call the mass. Like Bishop Untener’s description of mass in a Catholic church, it speaks of a setting of peace and light. It is where we meet Christ in a unique way. The mass differs dramatically from the Hebrew assembly in the desert. That was a terrifying experience because God had to soften and shape an unruly lot so that they may live more like His people.

Still, sometimes we grow weary of the mass and feel tempted to skip it for a Sunday. If the irregularity becomes a norm, we would be making a mistake worse than riding in a car with faulty brakes. It is not that everyone in church is a saint, but we come here to be reminded that sainthood is our destiny. Even more importantly, here we listen to the Word of God and receive the nourishment of Christ’s body so that we may act as we are destined to become.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Memorial of Saint Paul Miki and companions, martyrs

(Hebrews 12:4-7.11-15; Mark 6:1-6)

There seems to be no bottom to the depths that humans can go in torturing others. Dr. Tom Dooley in the 1950s wrote of finding Vietnamese peasants with chop sticks hammered into their ears. Americans have recently used waterboarding which causes the victim to experience the sensation of drowning. At the end of the sixteenth century the Japanese shogun had St. Paul Miki’s and twenty-five others’ ears cut off. Then they were paraded through streets as a warning to their countrymen of the consequences of becoming a Christian. Finally, they were crucified with their abdomens and hearts pierced.

Although Christianity was forbidden in Japan, the faith did not die. The blood of Paul Miki and companion seemed to take root so that when Japan became open to the West in the nineteenth century, over two hundred thousand Christians were practicing the faith. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews today reflects such a phenomenon. The author exhorts his readers not to give up the faith that their ancestors shed blood to maintain.

Although contemporary humans like to think of themselves as enlightened, an honest appraisal will note that torture and religious persecution are still prevalent. Unfortunately faith in Jesus’ message of peace and forbearance is waning. More than ever the world needs Christ, not just lip service paid to the gospel, but conversion of heart to his way.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Memorial of Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr

(Hebrews 12:1-4; Mark 5:21-43)

It is said that there was a rivalry in ancient times between the Church of Rome and that of Sicily. Each claimed that its martyrs were greater. The universal Church has honored these claims by including their representative saints in the first Eucharistic Prayer. Today the Church honors St. Agatha, a virgin and martyr, hailing from Sicily just as three weeks ago it celebrated St. Agnes, a Roman virgin-martyr.

Sicilians say that Agatha was tortured and died in prison in the middle of the third century. A year after her death, when Mount Etna was about to explode, the people asked Agatha’s intercession with the Lord. The volcano did not erupt, and the people credited their safety to her.

The reading from Hebrews today mentions a “great…cloud of witnesses” who stand as models of a faithful life. The reference is properly to the great personages of the Old Testament, but we can think of it as including saints like Agatha who endured death rather than abandon faith in Christ. As today we live in a society where faith wanes, we should consider the “cloud of witnesses” and strive to emulate their commitment to Christ.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Monday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 11:32-40; Mark 5:1-20)

In the final scene of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, the protagonist appears in a dream. She has been convicted of heresy, executed, but then exonerated and even made a saint. She now proposes that she work a miracle and return to her people. But no one in the dream thinks it a good idea. They say that the world is not ready for saints like her. The gospel passage today has a similar conclusion.

Jesus has just resolved one of the Gerasene territory’s biggest problems. The man who was possessed by demons and terrorizing the people now sits as graciously as a butterfly. You would think that the people should thank Jesus and invite him to dinner. But they ask him to leave their area. True, the taming of the strongman did result in the loss of a herd of pigs, but the reason for the people’s desire that Jesus distance himself lies deeper. His evident holiness makes them painfully aware of their own sinfulness. Rather than ask for mercy, they ask that mercy move on.

We may not directly ask Jesus to leave, but our response to Jesus’ presence may be little better. We often refuse to acknowledge him and choose instead to worry about our problems and perhaps curse our rivals. But he is there to cast out the demons in our lives that get us worked up. We only have to open ourselves to him.