Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

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

Residents of Austin, Texas, refresh themselves in Barton Springs Pool near the center of town.  The pool is fed by an underground spring which keeps the water at a cool but stable seventy degrees.  Barton Springs Pool is a place of rejuvenation that is reminiscent of the healing waters in both readings today.

The prophet Ezekiel describes a symbolic river springing from the Temple to give life wherever it flows.  The medicinal plants it irrigates will heal the people of the sin that they have contracted.  The gospel mentions a pool in the area of the same Temple.  However, its water is eclipsed by Jesus himself who is the eternal fount of life.  Jesus’ healing of the hapless paralytic comprises one of the wonders in the gospel meant to foster belief among the people.

Although we may resent being compared to the paralytic, we need the Lord every bit as much as he.  We are incapable of healing ourselves.  We need Jesus to direct us to rise from our sinfulness, to take hold of our lives, and to walk in his light. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent

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

Last year during his Holy Thursday mass Pope Francis made an extraordinary gesture.  He washed the feet of two young women and one Muslim.  He obviously intended the action as a sign to the world that Jesus Christ has come to serve all people. In today's gospel, Jesus also gives a sign to the world.

In curing the official's son from a distance, Jesus shows to the people of Galilee that he is the one sent from God to heal the world.  The time is coming soon when he will hang on the cross to take away human guilt.  As the first reading from Isaiah intimates, God is about to do great things on behalf of humanity.

Still some of us doubt the good news in the gospel.  We tire of being told that Jesus has saved us from our sins when we find ourselves ever struggling with same temptations.  Perhaps our problem is that we fail to turn to the Lord with these needs.  We will find his grace strengthening our spirits when we turn to him to reform our sinful ways.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday of the third Week of Lent

 (Hosea 14:2-10; Mark 12:28-34)

 The popular children’s book The Giving Tree tells how an apple tree benefits a man from childhood to old age.  In youth the tree provides a boy food and a place of recreation.  As he grows older, the tree becomes a man’s source of income and lumber.  And in old age the tree supports the elder’s need for rest.  In today’s first reading the prophet Hosea speaks of Israel having such gracious qualities as the “giving tree.”

 The Lord says that after its chastening, Israel will return to His justice.  It will look to neither idols nor allies for salvation, but find the path of righteousness. Then it will flourish like cedar, cypress, and olive trees.  The prophet’s poetry is given more meaningful expression in Jesus’ description of God’s greatest commandments as love of God and neighbor.

 Love of others seems like a simple lesson, but it takes most of us a lifetime to figure out.  Even children demonstrate greed and vindictiveness.  It is a practice that originates in the Word of God, is conditioned by suffering, and is nurtured by prayer. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

 (Jeremiah 7:23-28; Luke 11:14-23)

 Hesed is the Hebrew word for steadfast love. It epitomizes God's disposition toward humans and belies human relations with God. Where God is always merciful, ready to forgive human failings, people almost invariably evade completion of God's will. As the Lord tells Jeremiah in the first reading, "Faithfulness has disappeared..."

What is true in Jeremiah's time applies to Jesus' day. In today’s gospel some refuse to accept his message with the excuse that Jesus is in league with the devil. It characterizes as well the position of many today who will not acknowledge that humanity has been spared of sin through the cross of Jesus.  They deny the  reality of sin saying that human actions are not free, or they ignore the cross questioning its efficacy.

We can do better. Formed by Jesus' teaching, we can be faithful to the covenant that he established between us and the Father. Yes, it will entail measurable sacrifice as anything worthwhile does. But it foresees an immeasurable reward because its guarantor is the ever faithful God.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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 25, 2014

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

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

“What if Mary said “no” to Gabriel?” the proponents of human freedom like to speculate.  “Can anyone resist the efficacy of grace?” defenders of divine authority counter.  In a reflection on Sandro Botticelli’s painting of the Annunciation appearing in America magazine last year, Professor Jerome Miller shows how the artist reconciles these two issues. 

Professor Miller writes that as Gabriel hails Mary, God comes to her not in control of the future but as the future.  At the same time both summoned and attracted, Mary willingly responds favorably to the divine possibilities in the present that this future holds.  In other words, she concedes to the will of God to bear His son so that the world may be freed from sin.  The magnificence is not just in the theology but in Botticelli’s conception of it.  He paints a hunched Gabriel pointing a hand of urgency to the young woman and a curved Mary relating both an awe of and openness to God.

Professor Miller points out that God hails all of us, like Mary, by name and presents us with His future.  Our openness to his word, which is another way of saying the grace in our hearts, shapes our response.  Moved by grace to respond favorably to God’s beckoning, we let go of egotism and respond in love to the needs of others. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday of the Third Week of Lent

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

The number of Christians in the Middle East is dwindling rapidly.  A generation ago counting about ten percent of the population in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine, they have been depleted drastically by Muslim radicalism abetted by indifferent Western governments.  The trajectory resembles Jesus’ fate in today’s gospel.

Sadly, Jesus is rejected by his townspeople.  He has just inaugurated his ministry with a reading from Isaiah to which the citizenry of Nazareth responded favorably.  Then the people started questioning, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” as if it were incredible that, originating among them, Jesus would have authorization from on high.  So Jesus exposes their refusal to believe in him as consistent with the way Israel has treated its prophets from time immemorial.  Then he leaves the scene taking his message to where it may be heard.

We must take care not to reject Jesus as well.  It can happen from paying lip service to Jesus’ commands on Sunday and living daily for ourselves.  Yes, he challenges the ways of the world which attract us.  But following him, we gain a friendship which will lead us through all our troubles to a lasting joy.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday of the Second Week of Lent

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

Today’s gospel demonstrates a very important principle of Christian use of Hebrew Scriptures or, more exactly, the Old Testament.  Some may ask why the Hebrew Scriptures matter.  Indeed in the early Church a famous heretic named some claimed that they didn’t and wanted to get rid of them.  But those Scriptures help Christians understand their Lord.

It is not only that the Old Testament gives Jesus’ background so that we know the books that Jesus read and the heroes whom Jesus emulated.  Also, Christians read the Old Testament as leading up to Christ.  The characters and the images that these Scriptures employ become types for Christ. Type here is a technical term meaning the piece of metal which presses against ink to leave an image on paper.  What’s truly important, what is read and transmits wisdom is not the type but the image.  In this way the Church sees Joseph of the first reading today as a type of Christ who is delivered into the hands of foreigners but eventually saves his people.  “The stone that the builders rejected,” mentioned in today’s gospel, is another example of a type that refers to Jesus as the cornerstone of God’s whole creation.

Often the Old Testament challenges us.  It is much longer and more arcane than the New Testament.  It can even seem outrageous to read aloud.  Nevertheless, we must study it if we are to know and love more our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thursday of the Second Week in Lent

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

A recently published book about cyclist Lance Armstrong gives an anecdote about the fraudulent champion’s penchant for consumption.  On Armstrong’s ten million dollar estate stands a giant oak tree with its branches extending toward his Spanish colonial mansion.  The tree was not originally in its present, grandiose location but was transplanted there from another place on the property at the cost of $200,000!  Although spending so much money on a vain endeavor is hardly Armstrong’s worse fault, it does contemporize the scene in today’s gospel of irresponsible opulence.

The rich man in Jesus’ parable sins neither by having great wealth nor even by having a disproportionate amount in comparison to others.  No, his fault is neglecting the poor man at his door.  Certainly he had enough resources to feed a hundred beggars, but he did not even notice the one that was in his midst.  As Abraham indicates at the end of the story, the man is so blinded by his fortune that he cannot see in the poor the ones whom Jesus continually admonishes his hearers to assist.

Opportunities abound for us to help the poor.  Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, St. Vincent de Paul Society, and ten thousand other charitable organizations call on us for assistance.  But certainly our efforts should go beyond almsgiving.  We also need to rub shoulders with the poor, to hear their stories, and to share with them a vision of a society where all people live with human dignity.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

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

Gordon Cosby died last year.  He was the pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. for many, many years.  It has been said that Gordon never wrote a book, talked with a President, or traveled around the country preaching.  But he enabled other people to do so by his wisdom, faithfulness, and pastoral care.  Gordon never wanted to be called “Reverend” and told people who want to apply the title to him to just say “Gordon.” Certainly Gordon Cosby typifies the kind of community member that Jesus has in mind in today’s gospel.

Jesus’ words may challenge traditional concepts of Church authority.  He seems to be calling for an egalitarianism that only groups such as the Quakers have in their assemblies.  But throughout the Gospel of Matthew Jesus maintains a role of leadership for his twelve apostles.  What today’s passage means then is that the apostles and their successors should be first in service of others, not first in line for privilege.  Like Pope Francis they are to spend themselves building up the People of God.

Jesus’ commands apply to all members of the Church.  We are to serve one another in love.  There should be no pretentiousness among us, but we should look at one another and see Jesus.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Monday of the Second Week of Lent

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

A leading oncologist made a serious mistake in surgery.  He removed a sliver of tissue from the wrong rib of a patient.  When he verified that he committed the error, instead of covering up his mistake, the doctor apologized sincerely to the patient.  In turn, the patient did not react in anger but appreciated both the doctor’s candor and contrition.  God is even more satisfied with Daniel’s confession in today’s first reading.

“We are shamefaced,” Daniel reiterates.  Israel has not been faithful to its covenant with the Lord.  Rather the people have sinned intentionally by seeking profit over justice and marrying foreign women with strange gods rather than their own people.  Daniel, however, knows that God is merciful to anyone who sincerely expresses contrition.

It is often hard to admit our faults.  We prefer to justify our offenses by saying that we really did not mean to do anything wrong.  Such a pity!  Whereas God is always ready to forgive, the people whom we try to impress by our self-confidence are likely to dismiss us as arrogant when we never apologize from the heart.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday of the First Week of Lent

(Ezekiel 18:21-28; Matthew 5:20-26)

Tolerance is surely a “sign of the time.”  Western society calls its members to live without hostility toward people of different races, beliefs, and national origins.  As hopeful as tolerance is in some places, it does not meet Jesus’ standard for his followers as expressed in today’s gospel passage.

The context is the Sermon on the Mount.  In it Jesus calls for an inner conversion that goes far beyond a cessation of firing arms.  He wants his disciples to make every effort to love their enemies.  In this passage, he tells them to reconcile with brothers or sisters with whom there has been enmity.  But it must be remembered that a brother for Jesus is more than a sibling or even a community member.  It is every human person since all humanity has God as Creator.

John Allen tells the story of Sr. Leonella Sgorbati, an Italian religious, who was being targeted by radical Muslims for running a hospital in Somalia.  One day the radicals came to kill her.  The sister’s Muslim driver threw his body before her and was hit by the assassins’ first bullets.  But Sr. Leonella was not protected for long and took several shots as well.  The blood of the – Christian and Muslim -- mingled together.  As she was dying, Sr. Leonella’s last word was “Perdono,” Italian for “I forgive.”  Both Sr. Leonella and her driver showed the kind of love for others that Jesus preaches to us on the mount.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

(Esther C12:14-16; 23-25; Matthew 7:7-12)

Why do people pray? The age-old question is probably made more by unbelievers than by believers. Still, the faithful need to ask themselves if they think that they might change God’s will by their efforts.  Is He not changeless?  If so, then why bother to seek His helpim??

Yet prayer is the most urgent of Christian actions.  Christians cannot help but pray because it is the Holy Spirit that is prompting them to pray from within.  Their prayers do not change God, but through their prayers God is changing them.  First, He moves them to seek His help.  Then they discover resources within themselves to meet the demands they face.  Finally, they find possibilities outside them at every turn to help them.  It has been wisely said that God’s posture toward pray-ers does not change with their prayer.  It always remains one of pure love.

In today’s gospel Jesus urges his disciples to pray for what they need.  The first reading pictures the Jewish Queen Esther of Persia doing that as she prepares to meet with her husband, the king of Persia.  Her prayers lead to the salvation of her people as she unmasks the maliciousness of its persecutor.

Wednesday, March 12, 2013

Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

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

The Book of the Prophet Jonah has become one of the most popular readings of the Old Testament.  For one thing it has a short, fascinating narrative.  For another, it highlights the contemporary value of tolerance for other peoples.  Also, as today’s gospel relates, Jesus used the story to teach about his own mission.

Jesus refers to the great conversion that takes place with Jonah’s preaching.  A city-state perhaps as large and as notorious as Mexico City today is imagined.  Jonah might have been a reluctant preacher, but evidently his words had great power.  He inspired everyone to change heart and conform to God’s ways.  There are no historical records that such a repentance ever took place in Nineveh or anywhere else.  Nevertheless, Jesus intends that his own preaching cause such a dramatic turnabout in Israel.

God can so change us with no effort on our part.  But more often we become more kind and holy through our cooperation with God’s grace.  In any case we should ask God’s assistance so that the change be inward and not just outward, that it be permanent and not just temporary.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

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

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel comprises what scholars call a parenesis.  This Greek term means a spiritual exhortation with a program of moral imperatives.  The section begins with Jesus explicating the goal of life, which is always happiness or beatitude.  It proceeds with his heightening the Law of Moses to embrace the imperatives of a truly God-like lifestyle.  After elaborating the goal and the way of life, Jesus indicates in today’s gospel the assistance that is necessary to proceed.

Addressing God confidently by calling Him “Father,” the “Lord’s Prayer” beseeches God to create an environment where one may act righteously.  In a world where God’s name is revered, His kingdom is realized, and His will accomplished, walking an extra mile and loving one’s enemy do not seem like such daunting tasks.  Then the prayer asks for more specific aids: bread, both the natural and supernatural kinds; forgiveness of faults, which plague people even in a truly just society; and liberation from trials that may unravel the entire good one has endeavored to produce.

Many of us say the “Our Father” rather unthinkingly throughout the day.  It is good that the words pass through our heads so frequently because when we find ourselves in dire need, they will direct us to where our help come from.  It is also eminently beneficial that we reflect on the words once in a while so that we may realize how we need our Father’s assistance if we are going to act like Him.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Monday of the First Week of Lent

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

Fr. Henri Nouwen was perhaps the most noted spiritual writer in English during the last quarter of the twentieth century.  In his final years he often wrote of L’Arche, the movement uniting in community persons with severe disabilities with caregivers.  In one essay Fr. Nouwen described his service in an L’Arche community to an almost helpless youth named Adam.  Although a priest for decades with an unparalleled appreciation of the spiritual life, Nouwen learned from the young man the meaning of today’s gospel.

 Adam may not have had many alternatives; nevertheless, he allowed Nouwen to take care of him.  He evidently maintained his composure even when he was in pain from his caretaker’s awkward assistance.  In any event Adam proved himself like Jesus in that in being helped, he brought his helper a “peace that the world cannot give.”  The lessons were simple and yet profound.  First, Adam revealed to the author that what is truly important is a human person’s being not his success.  Second, Adam showed that what makes a human person an image of God is not the mind that comprehends reality but the heart that lets go of preoccupation with self to embrace another in love.  Finally, Adam demonstrated the importance of community since, like everyone else, he needed others to survive but, unlike most people, he was unable to hide that truth.

During Lent God invites us to find His Son in others.  The more we assist suffering people, the more we will recognize that it is Jesus whom we are caring for.  In so doing, he lifts us from our own misery to the joy of his company.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday after Ash Wednesday

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

Some wonder about the need to fast.  They point to Isaiah’s critique of Judah’s fasting in the first reading today and say working for social justice is what God requires.  For them serving sandwiches in a soup kitchen is a much better practice of Lenten piety than not eating ourselves.

But fasting is an age-old way of expressing love.  Through it one lays aside attention to her own needs, to assist others.  People deny themselves of sleep – a form of fasting -- to attend to a sick friend through the night.  Others do not eat as a kind of social protest to express solidarity with a group suffering persecution.

We do not fast –at least for religious reasons –as an exercise of our endurance.  No, we attach fasting to a felt need like expressing compassion for a group in distress or showing love for God.  We rightly see fasting along with almsgiving and prayer as part of a three-stranded rope that supports the heaviest tension.  We fast and pray.  We fast and give our food (or the money saved by not eating) to the poor.  In these ways we please God and neighbor.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

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

“Choose life.”  We have all seen bumper stickers with this anti-abortion message.  No doubt, people who feel burdened by an unexpected pregnancy find the message ironic.  To them life is being liberated from the responsibility of a child so that they may pursue their own felt needs.  Life, then, is one of those simple words with a range of meanings. 

In the reading from Deuteronomy today, Moses exhorts the Israelites to “choose life.”  He has in mind God’s righteousness that promises to benefit both individual and community.  By following God’s commandments not only the present generation but future ones as well will thrive.  As is his wont, Jesus radicalizes Moses’ message.  He says in today’s gospel that life comes when we choose to surrender ourselves to God’s love as he does.  This may mean even a renunciation of biological life, but his promise is for  unimagined, eternal in God.

We have chosen Jesus’ way to life.  But have we been faithful to that selection?  During Lent we test ourselves and make all necessary adjustments to renew the choice.  We can foresee ourselves safely back on the road to full life by Easter and happily partaking of it in the resurrection of the dead.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

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

As silver tarnishes with time, we lose our baptismal innocence.  Our appetites deceive us in wanting more pleasure, power, or prestige than our due.  Our minds also can lead us astray.  Often we think that we might do a little evil in order to achieve a significant good.  This is the justification for artificial contraception.  But the resultant harm often enough lies beneath the surface and may not reveal itself for eons.  In any case, sin not only destroys us inwardly through the loss of innocence, but our downfall like silver that has lost its shine also results in others not being drawn to God.  In the second reading St. Paul asks us to reverse the process.

Paul could hardly be more attention-grabbing than when he writes that Christ became sin to save humans from their sinfulness.  He is not implying that Jesus was a kind of Robin Hood himself doing evil in order to bestow something good on humanity.  Rather he is saying that Jesus was executed as a criminal at the hands of a totally corrupt humanity represented by the jealous Jewish leaders, the brutal Roman authority, and the cowardly disciples.  Paul tells the Corinthians that they have been spared the necessity of such errant behavior.  They only have to take advantage of the gift by recognizing their sins.

The same is our task during Lent.  We first ask ourselves what sins are weighing us down – lust, harsh judgment, perhaps lying and cheating.  Then we confess our faults in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Finally, we use the rest of the forty days doing a penance that sets us on the road to reform.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Peter 1:10-16; Mark 10:28-31)

Mardi Gras, of course, means Fat Tuesday.  In Europe and South America the day and period leading up to it is often called carnival, which comes from Latin words meaning plenty of meat.  Both expressions have the same implication: Christians gorge themselves on rich food as they contemplate the forty-day fast that lies ahead.  Of course, what may have once been an innocent way to see that no good food is wasted has turned into – at least, in some cases – an orgy.  One might ask if hardcore participants in today’s festivities will also really partake of the long penance to come.

The first reading today views Mardi Gras revelry with a gaunt eye.  It warns readers to “live soberly” so that they do not shun the grace that Jesus merited.  It further recommends that Christians strive for holiness – a quality of God that diverges from worldly decadence.

Our excitement today should not be limited to having a full meal at six and perhaps a nightcap before midnight.  We should also be thinking of how we will show our love for the Lord in the weeks ahead.  He has given us life and sustained it in myriad ways.  We might fast from sweets or perhaps pray regularly in front of an abortion clinic as a token of our appreciation.