Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

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

Today’s first reading is taken from the end of the second part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  It shows God about to act on behalf of His people mired in Babylon.  No more will they have to bear insults and prejudice from their overlords.  God will send them home to Jerusalem with the utterance of His word. 

In the gospel Jesus assures his disciples that the Father is ready to assist them as well.  Their prayers do not inform God of their needs nor catalyze Him to act.  Rather their prayers prepare them to receive humbly what God is about to give.  In 2010 thirty-four Chilean miners were trapped after an underground explosion.  They were of different faiths and no faith, but they began to pray together.  “We are not the best of men, Lord,” they prayed, “but have mercy on us anyway.”  All the miners survived the ordeal.

Lent is time to relearn how to pray.  We come to God humbly knowing that He can help us in our need.  We look to Him as our loving Father ready to give us what we request.  And we pray diligently, not allowing our minds to wander or our hopes to wane.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Monday of the First Week in Lent

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

In the urge to give as much assistance to as many people as possible, helpers sometimes miss what is most important about a work of mercy.  If they do not treat people in need with respect, they may even being doing them harm.  Respect literally means to look twice.  It is to see in the other not just another man or woman in need but a human person with feelings, ideas, and relationships.  In light of today’s gospel, respect means to see the person in need as a substitute for Christ.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society makes respect a priority.  It heartily recommends that provisions not be handed to the needy in centers of distribution but be brought to the places where they live.  In this way not only do real needs become apparent but also a sense of concern is conveyed.  Truly helpful relationships are fostered because the people involved develop more than a superficial knowledge of one another.

It is usually not hard for us to provide services to the needy.  Sometimes, indeed, we receive remuneration for doing so.  But what the Lord wants of us in assisting the poor is to treat them as we would treat him.  That is, we are to respect them by attending to their emotional and spiritual as well as their physical needs.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday after Ash Wednesday

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

Some always question whether fasting is a worthwhile activity.  After all, if it does any good, the benefit is not readily seen.  Many even advisenot to fast during Lent but to do something of more obvious merit.  Today’s first readings indicates that helping the oppressed is what the Lord wants most of all.  But the gospel hints, at least, that giving up food is sometimes required.

Why is fasting a good thing to do?  Three reasons have been long proffered in favor of fasting.  First, fasting takes one’s attention from lustful objects and demonstrates one’s self-control.  It is true – the more we think of food, the less will our minds wander to sex.  More importantly, however, fasting raises one’s mind to God.  The distress it causes makes one naturally look to God for relief.  Finally, fasting is an act of penance which satisfies for sins.  As the Letter to the Colossians says, one can join his or her suffering to Christ for the benefit of the Church.  A fourth reason for fasting may be added.   One can show love for God by refraining from what he or she enjoys.  A man shaved his head when his wife was undergoing radiotherapy for cancer as an expression of solidarity with her.  So people can think of their fasts as a way to express solidarity with Christ in the desert.

All adult Catholics are required to fast during Lent.  We should not eat any meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of the season.  We should also refrain from eating more than three times on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  In these ways we show ourselves as members of a community on the way to renewal.  Few people would say that these mandated practices comprise a great challenge.  We might also augment our fasting by, for example, abstinence from sweets or alcohol.  Such sacrifice will not hurt us  Quite the contrary, they will likely enable us to emerge even stronger from the Lenten journey.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

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 means not taking on the responsibility of birthing a child so that they may pursue personal ambitions.  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 also future ones will thrive.  As is his custom, Jesus radicalizes Moses’ message.  He tells his disciples that life comes when they lose their lives for his sake.  This loss surely entails some sacrifice of personal ambition and may require prematurely letting go of biological life.  But these are small forfeitures in comparison to the promise of happiness in eternal life.

Made at Baptism and renewed in every Eucharist our choice has been for Jesus’ way to life.  But have we been faithful to that selection?  During Lent we test ourselves and make all necessary adjustments.  We should foresee ourselves securely on the road to full life by Easter.   

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

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

 For a number of years now Protestants have taken up the custom of imposing ashes.  Certainly not all Protestants, but those from the mainline churches – Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans – are not unlikely to be seen wearing this Lenten sign.  There is no reason for Catholics to be jealous.  It is, after all, a sign of sinfulness, which is prevalent in the churched as well as the unchurched.  But all who wear ashes need be concerned that they are duly determined to change their sinful ways.

There is a story about a man who gave eulogies at funerals.  For a fee the eulogizer would make up something nice to say about the dead.  At one funeral he said that a scoundrel was an honest man who treated everyone fairly.  The people reacted to what was being said with indignation.  But it was not the lies that upset them, but that they admired the scoundrel for his wickedness!  They did not want to think of him as having reformed or, at one time of his life as acting virtuously.  Wearing ashes today with no intention to move from sinfulness to righteous ways is like admiring the scoundrel for his wickedness.

By wearing ashes we promise to change our ways.  They are not a sign that shows that we are Catholics or even Christians.  They are a sign of shame like the student who brings home a report card with straight D’s.  As the student will pledge to her parents that she will make every effort to raise her grades next term so should we work to expunge sins from our lives.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time 

(James 1:12-18; Mark 8:14-21) 

The Letter of James is often said to counterbalance the Letters of St. Paul where the latter emphasizes faith as the sole necessity for salvation.  James says in contrast that unless one does good works, her or his faith is  in vain.  In today’s passage James corrects another frequently misunderstood dictum in Scripture. 

In the “Our Father” Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “’Lead us not into temptation…’” Is he implying that God might tempt people to sin as a lustful young man might tempt his date into his apartment?  Pope Francis recently commented that this would be impossible since God is like a loving father.  James also dismisses the idea lest people use God as an excuse for sinning. 

Nevertheless, Jesus’ prayer has real meaning.  God allows humans be tried until their faith is about to break.  Parents who have suffered the loss of a child know what a trial of faith is like as do the lonely who feel drawn to ruinous pleasures.  When we find ourselves in such a crisis, we should cling to James’ advice.  He says that God created us in love and will provide the means to overcome all threats to our salvation. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(James 1:1-11; Mark 8:11-13)

Puerto Rico had a solemn Christmas.  The territory was devastated by two hurricanes last year.  Its economy was struggling to keep people from moving away.  The storms forced many more to take up their belongings and move away.  Puerto Ricans will hear James’ words in today’s first reading as applying especially to them: “…when you encounter various trials…know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

The Letter of James is sometimes criticized for hardly mentioning the Lord Jesus.  There are two references to him, but more significantly the letter relates the same teaching as the gospel.  Today’s passage, for example, contrasts the rich faith of the poor person to the often poor faith of the rich.  In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus calls the poor “blessed” because they more likely trust in God for their livelihood.

Natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes challenge us deeply.  Nevertheless, they are often instructive.  They teach us that relationships are more valuable to have than lots of things.  More specifically, they show that our relationship with God matters most.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(II Kings 11:29-32.12:19; Mark 7:31-37)

The prophet Isaiah tells of Israel’s deliverance from bondage.  He mentions a sign: the ears of the deaf will be opened and the tongue of the dumb will sing (Isaiah 35:5-6).  The prophecy is being filled in today’s gospel.  Jesus breaks the barrier that is preventing the deaf man from hearing.  Similarly, Jesus’ spitting on the man’s tongue frees it to speak clearly.

But the people react only with astonishment.  They cannot make the realization that Jesus is God’s anointed one.  Perhaps if he had a band of warriors to accompany him, they would make the connection.  It is how we react when an especially clever magician brings a series of rabbits from an old top hat.  We just ask, “How did he do that?”  Of course, the magician is performing a sleight of hand.  But Jesus has really come to free us from our ways of acting poorly.

Jesus is here to help us in every situation.  He generally chooses not to overpower what is causing us difficulty.  More often he strengthens us to find peace in doing the will of the Father.  We should not be timid in asking his assistance.  Coming to mass early to recall our intentions for him puts our focus on where it belongs most. We need never doubt Jesus’ desire to strengthen us. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Kings 11:4-13; Mark 7:24-30)

Where Solomon in today’s first reading cannot set a limit on pleasing others, Jesus shows himself capable of doing so in the gospel.  The wise Solomon has grown foolish with age by pandering to the wishes of his foreign wives.  He allows them to offer sacrifices to gods who do not exist.  He thus offends the Lord who insists, “Thou shalt not have strange gods beside me.”

In the gospel Jesus retreats to a border area so that he might rest.  But people there have heard about him and come to him for help.  He tries to put off the pagan woman, but she persists.  In the end her belief in Jesus overcomes his need of rest.  He heals her ailing daughter of the unclean spirit.  Jesus demonstrates once again that there is no limit to his love.  Ultimately he will die on the cross to show the vastness of that love.

We should not hesitate to go to Jesus with our needs.  He will help in every case.  We may not experience what we ask of him, but we will turn out stronger and more complete human beings.  Even non-Christians can go to Jesus with their requests.  After all, whether people believe it or not, he is ruler of all the universe.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Wednesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Kings 10:1-10; Mark 7:14-23)

As we prepare for Lent, we might ask ourselves the following questions: How can the Church’s prohibition of eating meat on Lenten Fridays be justified in light of today’s gospel?  If Jesus really meant that “’that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile,’” how can it be a sin for a Catholic to eat meat on a Lenten Friday?

There is some doubt whether Jesus actually made a statement to the effect that Jews could eat non-kosher foods.  More likely -- many scholars say -- the words were added to Jesus’ teaching on sins of the heart.  After all, the evangelist Mark wrote for a primarily non-Jewish community who had to be reassured that they did not have to follow Jewish dietary laws.

It is also true that what defiles a person is not simply the act of eating pork or shellfish but the defiance of God’s authority.  For this reason Jesus does condemn arrogance in this same passage.  Considering the action in this way legitimizes the Church’s capacity to bind its members on matters such as fasting and attending mass.

It is also likely that we often think much differently than Jesus.  We are usually concerned about doing the minimal amount to achieve our goal.  So we ask, “Is abstinence necessary?”  Or, “How about confession; do I have to go if I have not committed any mortal sins?”  Jesus, on the other hand, wants us to love God with all hearts.  Living in his way, we will likely abstain from more than meat on Lenten Fridays, and avail ourselves of confessions more than the Church-mandated once a year.  We will readily make sacrifices of time and energy to know him better.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Memorial of Saint Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs

(I Kings 8:22-23.27-30; Mark 7:1-13)

The woman was upset with the Church when her son was told that he could not have his wedding at a garden ceremony.  She reasoned that if the Church allows mass to be celebrated in a home, it could permit weddings wherever the couple wished.  But most bishops insist that weddings be done in a sacred space to underscore the sacred covenant of marriage.  In his prayer that comprises the first reading today Solomon asks a question pertinent to the issue.

The king prays: “’Can it indeed be that God dwells among men on earth?  If the heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!’”  Solomon has come to the realization that God is not confined to the holy place that he has constructed.  Yet he knows that the temple raises minds and hearts to God with its lofty walls, statutes of cherubs, and perennial sacrifice.  He would say that when the temple reminds people of God’s closeness, it fulfills his purpose.

Everything on earth may be a sacrament connecting us with God, but many of those things may distract our attention from Him.  Temples and churches generally avoid the ambiguity.  We are wise like Solomon to follow his lead of praying that God watch over our churches.  People need places set apart to remind them of God’s grandeur.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Memorial of Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr

(I Kings 8:1-7.9-13; Mark 6:53-56)

The word incense is the past participle form of the Latin verb incendere meaning to burn.  Incense is often burned as an offering to God.  The smoke that it gives off rises as a symbol of human desire to come into the divine presence.  The sweetness of its fragrance is meant to please the Lord. 

In today’s first reading incense rises in Solomon’s temple for the first time.  It is an important occasion.  Now people have a special place to make offering for their sins.  Solomon even declares that God dwells in the cloud of smoke that results from their sacrifice.  In the story of Israel, however, the people do not stop sinning.  The prophets then prescribe a more effective offering than incense.  The people are to be “humble and contrite in spirit” trembling at God’s word (Isaiah 66:2).

Such a person was today’s patron, Saint Agatha.  Although little is known with certainty beyond her dying as a martyr, there is a late story that describes her sacrifice.  Agatha was a Sicilian beauty who professed her virginity to the Lord.  The Roman prefect became enamored of her and had her tortured for refusing to give in to him.  Soon afterwards she died in prison.

Fortunately we will not be called to make the supreme sacrifice for God.  But we can and should make small sacrifices of prayer, patience and charity regularly.  These works, as the psalmist says, rise to God like incense.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Presentation of the Lord

(Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-32)

Not just in present times have priests given scandal to the people.  Aaron, Moses’ brother and high priest of Israel, fashioned the golden calf as an object of worship.  In this case the people might not have been scandalized, but certainly Moses was.  Moses burned the idols, ground its remains, and forced the people to consume them.  Later, Hophni and Phineas, the priest sons of the high priest Eli, took undue portions of the people’s sacrifices for themselves.  But, of course, not all priests are bad.  In any case they perform the necessary service of offering sacrifice for the sins of the people.  Today’s feast celebrates Jesus Christ as the supreme high priest of God.

In the gospel Jesus is seen entering the Temple of God, his rightful sanctuary as high priest.  In time he will offer the perfect sacrifice – his own body and blood for the salvation of the world.  The Letter to the Hebrews especially alludes to this act in today’s reading.  He is named “the merciful and faithful high priest” who suffered “to expiate the sins of the people.”

Through our incorporation in the body of Christ we participate in Jesus’ priestly sacrifice.  When we pray, deny ourselves for Jesus’ sake, or assist the needy, our sacrifice joins Jesus’ death on the cross.  We then become priests with Jesus.  Our good works help him make up for the sins of all.