Feb 25, 2020

Mardi Gras - Ash Wednesday and Lent

The Word, Ash Wednesday:

Today we mark the day before Ash Wednesday as a traditional day of final celebration before we begin the more solemn weeks of our annual season of penitence and personal conversion called Lent. As Lent has been marked by Christians since the early centuries of the Church we see this as a time of grace. It is also a very special time for our folks in RCIA as our catechumens and candidates - all preparing for their final walk towards the reception of the sacraments of initiation and their profession of faith as we welcome them as our newest Catholic/Christians.  So, its a time for all of us and how we live this Lent does indeed make a difference in how we live the rest of the year as missionary disciples of the Lord.

People seem to be more health conscience now so I'm not sure that the tradition of giving up candy is as meaningful.  But if that's truly a sacrifice for you, by all means. Certainly to refrain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and all Friday's of Lent is not only required but even more so an important united sacrifice that we make as Church.  To refrain from food on those days, except for what is necessary, is an even greater self-imposed penance that can help us to refocus on our Christian priorities. The Church has no requirement about eating fish on Friday's during Lent, just that we refrain from meat. Its amazing how many of our fast food establishments seem to offer new fish sandwiches during this time.  That's fine to eat seafood but it does not mean that going to a fine seafood restaurant and to enjoy a crab stuffed salmon dinner is some sort of sacrifice - hardly.  So, if its a Friday during Lent maybe it's time to substitute that for a more simple meal. 

So, pray more often, be more charitable and self-sacrificing for the sake of another, be more ready to forgive and to will the good towards another out of Christ-like love, make peace with someone you may not be at peace with, and whatever creative sincere sacrifice you may offer all helps us to make room for God in our life. Go to confession no matter how long it has been, participate in the stations of the cross on Friday's or other Lenten opportunities at your parish such as a parish mission or retreat. Attend morning Mass at least one additional day each week or more if possible. Most parishes have a morning Mass early enough on your way to work or if not, then maybe a neighboring parish does. We have such rich spiritual treasures always available but we need to use them.

So, on this final day, "Fat Tuesday," we prepare.  Traditionally the term fat Tuesday refers to cleaning out the cupboard, the refrigerator of dairy products and fatty foods but it can also be a reference to cleaning out our souls of all that is sinful.

God's peace to all of us during this holy season and may we be open to receive the graces offered as we journey towards the glory of Easter.

Merciful God,
you called us forth from the dust of the earth'
you claimed us for Christ in the waters of Baptism.
Look upon us as we enter these Forty Days
bearing the mark of ashes,
and bless our journey through the desert of Lent
to the font of rebirth.
May our fasting be hunger for justice;
our alms, a making of peace;
our prayer, the chant of humble and grateful hearts. 
All that we do and pray is in the name of Jesus,
for in his Cross you proclaim your love
forever and ever. 

(Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers)

Feb 22, 2020

7th Sunday: Love as our framework

(Jesus preaching: Tissot)

"So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect"

Matthew 5: 38-48

Our Scriptures this Sunday bring us further along the road of Jesus' moral teaching.  This week the fundamental call to love one another, in particular to "love your enemies" and "to pray for those who persecute you" present a great challenge to our natural desire to get back at those who do us wrong.  It is a call to non-violence of which we have seen powerful examples in history: the early Christian martyrs of our Church, Mahatma Ghandi, and in our own country Martin Luther King have been historical examples of peaceful protest, in the face of oppression and forced evil upon the innocent.  Our present day peaceful marches for the right to life are a perfect example of an application of Jesus’ teaching.

While we may acquaint such events as acts of social justice, Jesus’ teaching applies to our everyday lives, marching or not.  Our Lord was not so much a social activist with political ties but rather offers all of humanity a new insight on how we are to live in this world.  As followers of Christ, we have a particular responsibility and opportunity to show the world what Jesus meant for all. His call to act with non-violence in the face of evil is a powerful position to take the higher road of love as a guide. Yet, even more basically to respond to harm with generosity: turn the other cheek, go two miles, give when asked, love your enemies.

Yet it brings up the question we may ask about how difficult and realistic this teaching may be.  How is it possible to love your enemy; to turn the other cheek in the face of aggression? When we feel we are criticized unfairly or our reputation is defamed or someone we care about is harmed by another, our natural reaction is defensive with a desire to seek revenge. So, am I supposed to be a door mat?

Then maybe the most impossible demand: “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Come on now! I’m far from God’s perfection; I’m a sinner. But, the real power here is that Jesus speaks about the love of God and how to love as God loves. That is what should be made more perfect in us. St. Luke more specifically states to be “merciful” as God shows mercy.  To love in the face of hostility is to be merciful as God shows mercy, even to the unjust.

So, when Jesus says to "love your enemies “is he implying that we must feel affection for them as you would for your spouse, which is our popular understanding of love. In the case of our Lord, he supports a non-violent response to violent action.  We are not called to be door mats or wimps but to respond in a peaceful way. 

Our first reading from Leviticus to “take no revenge and cherish no grudge . . .” encourages a balanced approach but measured by the principle of non-violence.
To love our enemies is to not engage in an extreme response:. ”If you should injure my brother, I don’t send my friends to kill your family.”

It is better and wiser to seek peace rather than to continue the evil perpetrated upon me or others. It is right to stand up in the face of evil and respond with ones integrity in tact rather than give in to dishonor or humiliation from another.

In the Middle East the virtue of honor was sacrosanct.  To be humiliated and dishonored would be shocking.  To “turn the other cheek” is a way of saying that “I will not be overcome by your insult.” Our Lord implies that even these acts of dishonor really mean nothing. So, I respond with no ill will toward you; no eye for an eye which just continues the round of aggressive behavior. Rather, I wish you no harm and offer a hand of forgiveness.

What means everything is the power to love peacefully. You can slap me on the face, take my tunic, force me to walk the extra mile but it all really means nothing.  What matters is the power of my witness and the force of love to bring conversion.  My love must be universal and not selective.  This is what must be perfected in us and if so we have learned to love as God loves.  

Yet we know there is a price to pay. The martyrs of our Church are held in such high esteem because they stood as witnesses to the higher truth of their faith rather than cower in submission to aggression.  While they paid for this with their lives, their witness to this love only caused the Church to grow all the more.  This is the higher road to walk in which I maintain my personal dignity which they tried to destroy and it is possible through the grace of God.

So, it is that we put no limits on our love for others.  It’s not about how we may personally feel about them or their politics or their opinions but rather that we are all brothers and sisters joined by a common humanity.  As God makes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, so too our honor and respect, our love for each other, should have no limits.  However, my own self-defense and by nations of citizens is not excluded by Jesus’ teaching.

Is this the road to perfection?  Can we then be perfect as our heavenly Father?  Well, in all truth conversion is a process, of course.  At St. Paul reminds us today, “you belong to Christ.”  Such high expectations by Jesus are only ultimately possible through the grace of God given to us. We know we are not perfect and will most likely never be so, yet to enter the process of embracing this way of reverence for others certainly offers us the road map to achieve holiness before God.

So, you may want to pray for those who have hurt you; forgive so that you may find peace in your heart; avoid revenge that would inflict more damage and perpetuate the hurt. We say it so often that love is the foundation of the Christian character. Yet, how often do we truly love as Jesus teaches?

In sharing the Eucharist together we share in the love of Christ, his body and blood, poured out for us. 

Grant almighty God, 
that, always pondering spiritual things, 
we may carry out in both word and deed
that which is pleasing to you. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Mass)  

Feb 15, 2020

6th Sunday: The essence of the Law

"I have come not to abolish but to fulfill"

Matthew 5: 17 - 37

The easiest explanation of sin that I think I’ve heard is to define sin as “missing the mark.” It’s an example I’ve used in teaching children and parents of children preparing for their first Eucharist but also in many other applications, including my own life.    

What we are saying is that God has provided for us a reference point on which to stand in order to live his law of love.  He essentially is saying that if we stay on this point, this mark, and within its boundaries, we will have a life of harmony with one another and with him.

However, like Adam and Eve, we often wonder what’s “out there.”  Why should I not eat this fruit even though I have plenty to eat from elsewhere? Let me go and find out. And so human sin was the result of an independent use of our God given free will. While God has offered us so much we still decide now and then that our will is what we follow rather than his. Today, Sirach reminds us: “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses will be given him.” What could be clearer than that? The rest is human history as we say and it all indicates why God wants us to stay on the mark he has set for us.

Yet, our readings this Sunday on one level seem harsh.  Sirach speaks of God who “has set before you fire and water . . . life and death, good and evil . . .” Then Jesus in what is likely the toughest part of the New Testament uses some strong imagery as he minces no words: “whoever is angry at his brother will be liable to judgment . . . settle with your opponent quickly . . . thrown into prison . whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart . . .”  Then the clincher: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out . . . if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off . . .”

Leaving no stone unturned, he speaks to the marriage covenant: “whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery . . .” Finally, “let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more is from the evil one.”

Where do we go with this?  In light of today’s more tolerant, independent and permissive culture we may find these words way off the “mark.”  Surely God is not so strict, demanding, unbending and judgmental.  Or so it seems on the surface of things.  However, we must see this great wisdom of Christ as coming from a perspective of love and mercy; of how we are to live in harmony with one another and with God.

That harmony is marked by God’s law which is inside the circle of the mark he has set for us.  Notice here Jesus consistently speaks: “You have heard that it was said” and follows with “But I say to you . . .” You have heard and followed the law of God given to Moses and passed on to his people.  Now I come to fulfill, to flesh out that law and apply it to social relationships.  In effect, to touch on the core cause of sin and to attend to that before it grows more deadly. For example, anger which is the source of murder, lust which can lead to adulterous behavior, etc.

Yet, it is not a black and white application for we, because of Adam and Eve’s original choice, must work to achieve this level of goodness and perfection that staying on the mark provides for us. Yet, we know the danger of rigidity and the sad result of being too lax. 

Human weakness being what it is, Jesus counsels us about the danger of straying too far away from the center. Most of us live in the gray area of life and Jesus was well aware of that.  We know the ideal but live in the real.  The everyday distractions and challenges work very hard to lure us away from the mark and towards what may seem easier or more attractive at the moment.

But the wisdom with which Jesus teaches in our Gospel, as harsh as the imagery may seem, is good for us to know just how far we could go without his invitation to holiness and the gift of knowing what will bring us to live in harmony with God and our neighbor.  That sin is a reality and leads to brokenness and a death of the spirit. 

Marriage means something for example and Jesus teaching today on adultery and divorce is meant to remind us that fidelity in the marriage covenant is the better choice in keeping with God’s law.  Aside from physical and moral danger, which clearly indicates that one of the spouses is deficient in their consent of marriage, it is better to live in mutual love and respect. I know of one couple in my parish married for 74 years! Yes, to the same person.  If that isn’t faithfulness and patience endurance I don’t know what is!   

Living in peace with our brother and sister, to seek forgiveness and to reconcile differences is the meaning of God’s commandment to not kill.  For we can kill the reputation of another, we can kill the friendship we enjoy with another, we can bring great scandal to another.  Make peace first then when you offer your gift it is truly sincere.

Jesus has raised the moral bar high not to make it difficult but to show us the way to freedom.  All these come down to Jesus’ own summary of the law:  Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself.  If we can do that, if when we stray away from the mark and come back, and not be content with mediocrity, then we can be wise disciples of the Lord.  As Sirach reminds us today:
“If you choose you can keep the commandment, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live . . .” As St. Paul reminds us in his teaching on the virtues, we can live “a more excellent way of life.”

In the Eucharist this weekend, before you offer your "gift," make peace with anyone you may feel estranged from for any reason.  If you cannot contact them personally, then make a vow to do so as soon as possible.  If your marriage was not in the Catholic Church, visit your Pastor to see about having that marriage bond blessed and sacramentalized. God invites us to choose his mark on which to stand.  Peace.

May this oblation , O Lord, we pray,
cleanse and renew us
and may it become for those who do your will
the source of eternal reward.
Through Christ our Lord

(Prayer over the offerings)

Feb 8, 2020

5th Sunday - Salt, light and the difference we can make

Today, we are warned that too much salt is unhealthy.  We look at the salt content of food we buy yet we know that we need a certain amount in our diet.  We use it to give flavor to food but we’re also concerned about its effect on our blood pressure and water retention. Still, I like salt on my food – what about those salt and vinegar potato chips?  Delicious, in moderation of course. 

In the same way, we are concerned about the general cost of energy so we use new forms of light that are developed for lower energy yet shine with equal brightness such as in LED lighting. So our comparisons these days seem based more in science or common everyday use with no particular life changing qualities. Yet from the Gospel today we hear something more “earthy” as Jesus often used.

“You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world.”  Interesting comparisons Jesus makes in the Gospel this Sunday from Mt 5: 13-16. While we may think of ourselves as compared to other things such as a particular animal as in “gentle as a lamb” or “strong as an ox” or “fast as lightning” or “slow as a snail” or “a voice like thunder” or maybe “a voice clear as crystal” I generally haven’t heard that we compare ourselves to a common daily flavor enhancer.  Likewise, to imagine that we shine like a light may require some explanation.

Jesus’ use of these images is important for he means them in a different context. He means this as a reminder of our need for true conversion. Here, the Gospel continues the image of Jesus as a wise and practical teacher in this continuation of his famed Sermon on the Mount.  He offers guidance on the Christian life for his followers to those who will hear him and pay attention. After speaking of the “poor in spirit” and the “merciful” and “peacemakers,” he now indicates the effect of living in such a way as his disciples in his use of salt and light metaphors.

In ancient times, salt was precious and was even used as payment for services rendered. We may imagine it was a kind of gold for barter and trade and valued widely. One would be “worth their weight in salt.” It was expensive and also used for its preservative quality.  We know that it melts snow and ice on roads and gives flavor to foods. Salt had many implications for its value and usefulness. 

So too Jesus reminds us to not be “bland” and lukewarm Christians but give “flavor” to our Christian faith.  Preserve the faith passed on to you and be energized by it.  Recognize the importance of attracting others to follow the Lord and his Church.  If we Christians/Catholics are just blah, same old same old, exhibiting no fervor or excitement about following the Lord, then why would anyone join us?  What would be the attraction?

A Christian who simply keeps his faith quiet and private, never sharing in the joy of the Gospel or being a man/woman of conviction in the way of the Lord, is ineffective and tasteless Jesus implies: “But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Ouch but true!

By comparison, if only we would be as committed to, as excited about our faith as so many are about sports events; just think what a powerfully “salty” community we might have.  Just think of the Super Bowl or the Olympics or a favorite college football team.  While a good game is indeed fun, we sure have no tasteless fans there.  How does such an event compare with your experience of Sunday liturgy or your latest encounter with a fellow parishioner or your most recent discussion about the faith? What role did you play and how flavorful were you with another?  ?  While no one wants to turn Sunday Mass into a wild football game still the point is made.

The image of light is clearer.  Jesus teaches, “. . . your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” so that others can see and be attracted to the Lord. Not fascinated with ourselves and all the good we supposedly do but rather find a welcome to Christ and his way in the Church.

The first reading from Isaiah offers concrete ways to give flavor and light to our faith:
Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them . . . then your light shall break forth like the dawn . . .” Love lived out in concrete behavior towards others is the point Isaiah makes and that becomes the light we shine. Jesus later refers to such acts of human compassion as the measure of justice and judgement upon all of us in Mt 25: 14- 30: “whatever you do to the least of my brothers/sisters, you do to me.”

So our readings this Sunday have an especially practical application to how we live out the Gospel values laid before us. How we exist in this world with purpose and meaning. This is a kind of wisdom literature from the Son of God himself. To be a genuine and effective disciple of the Lord and an effective Catholic witness to the faith, we must be distinctive salt and a shining light, each in our own way according to our ability.

The bottom line is that Jesus desires that his kingdom values become a force to humanize the world in which we live.  God knows the world we live in today is violent, broken, politically divided with disrespect and vindictiveness.  If we live the way of the Beatitudes we become an alternative force to heal and humanize the world around us as we await the kingdom to be fulfilled in Jesus’ coming at the end of time.

Our weekly assembly makes this clear as we refer to the Holy Eucharist as “food for the journey,” the Bread of Life and we are sent forth at the end to “Announce the Gospel of the Lord” or to be Christians who are “glorifying the Lord by your life.” In the end it is Jesus himself who sends us out on his mission.  How salty will we make ourselves and how bright will we shine? 

I ran across the following reflection from the writing of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred during the celebration of Mass as a very salty and clear witness to the faith in 1980 in El Salvador:

Light from Light

“A Christian community is evangelized
in order to evangelize.
A light is lit
in order to give light.
A candle is not lit to be put under a bushel,
said Christ.
It is lit and put up high
in order to give light.
That is what a true community is like.
. . . It is not just an individual conversion,
but a community conversion.
It is a family that believes,
a group that accepts God . . .”


(from, The Violence of Love:
Archbishop St. Oscar Romero)