March 22, 2014 - Saturday of the Second Week of Lent

Micah 7:14-15, 18-20
Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.” This line is kind of funny, but it is an accurate depiction of how we try to bargain with God. If the father is running any kind of responsible household, he will immediately turn down this job application. Not that it is even an application. The son presumes that he is doing something very humble by saying, “treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers”, but it is a very arrogant statement. He is commanding the father to hire him.

The son cannot be hired as a servant. He can only be accepted back as a son. We can never earn our way with God. If he wants servants, he has the angels. We can only be accepted as children of God. A sinner trying to come back to the Father can never make up for their sins, but they will always be a child of God.

The other son is also thinking like a bad servant rather than a son. He has never accepted the mission of the father as his own. The joys of the father should be the joys of the son. The sorrows of the father should be the sorrows of the son. God’s family is different than human families: we are never going to grow up and move out on our own. We need to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Jesus became like us in all ways but sin, so we must become like him in all ways we can. We must become sharers in the divinity of him who shared in our humanity.

All our labors in this world will be useless if we have not first conformed our will to the Father’s will. If we are secretly working for ourselves, we will build up resentment at God. If we want to be saints (and we do want to be saints) then we must give up any idea of progress in this world, any expectation of young goats, and take on the mind of Christ. Accepting our role as sons and daughters of our Father means seeing as God sees and loving what God loves, without jealousy or ambition. We cannot be independent and we cannot be servants. We cannot be anything more or less than children of God.

March 21, 2014 - Friday of the Second Week in Lent

Genesis 37:3-4, 12-13, 17-28
Psalm 105:16-21
Mathew 21:33-43, 45-46

Perhaps you have noticed that this week, we have seen a lot of death and almost-death. Abraham was going to kill Isaac. Yesterday, Lazarus and the rich man both died. Today, Joseph’s brothers were going to kill him, the favorite son of Jacob, and, in the Gospel parable, the landowner’s son is killed. This all culminates tomorrow in the parable of the Prodigal Son whom the father says was dead and is now alive again. This is all symbolic of Jesus, which his prophesy makes clear. Jesus is the beloved son who was sacrificed. Jesus was our brother who we killed because we were jealous of how much our Father loved him.

We know that we will die. Some people live with that knowledge more present to them than others. When we are healthy, we rarely think of death. When we are young, death seems as impossible as growing old. Yet death will come. Death is the universal human experience. We speak different languages; we eat different foods; we live under different governments; but everyone has died or will die. Death is a brick wall that no one can go through. It ends every project, every hope, every plan. Is it impolite to speak about death? If we ignore it, will it go away?

No. We will acknowledge death. We will spend 40 days preparing to die, for we are in the season devoted to death. By fasting and almsgiving we are trying to let go of this world. By prayer we are grasping at the world to come. These days culminate in the Easter Triduum, which begins with the dying and death of Jesus Christ. Death is not the end. The Triduum ends in resurrection.

The master sent servant after servant to collect the harvest, but some they mistreated and others they killed, but the master did not give up on the land. He sent his son and they killed him too. What will the master do? He will raise his son from the dead and continue trying to get the fruit he desires. Nothing will stop the master from getting what he wants. He is relentless. He is unbeatable. The love of God is unstoppable.

March 20, 2014 - Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1:1-4, 6
Luke 16:19-31

It is not clear to us exactly where the people in the reading are. We are told that Lazarus “was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” However, Abraham died a long time ago and, as far as we know, went to Sheol, the place of the dead, like everyone else who died. The rich man is in Sheol, but he is experiencing great sufferings, which was not the usual description of that place. We know that he is not in hell, because we see him worrying about his five brothers, whereas hell is a place of complete selfishness.

Perhaps they are all (Abraham, Lazarus, and the rich man) in Sheol, but Abraham and Lazarus are in the part where they are waiting for Jesus to come and take them to heaven after he dies, while the rich man is in the part for people who will go to hell. In that case, things are only going to get worse for the rich man. If we would go to hell for being rich, we here are all in trouble. All, except the very poorest people in our country, live a life more luxurious than the rich man. True, we do not have servants, but our food is more sumptuous and our clothes are more impressive.

However, Abraham too was a rich man, and he is not suffering. Perhaps we would say that the problem is that the rich man never helped Lazarus. Abraham, however, does not draw the rich man’s attention to this failure, nor to the disrespectful way that the rich man is still treating Lazarus. He calls him “my child” and asks him to remember the difference between the life of Lazarus and his life. The problem seems to be that the rich man never suffered.

Perhaps the rich man was in the section of Sheol for those who would go to heaven when Jesus came and got them, but who needed to suffer first, similar to what purgatory is now. Before any sinner can go to heaven, they need to suffer for their sins, even after being forgiven. Some people suffer in this life; some people suffer in the next. We should take our suffering in this life and avoid it later. Hours spent on our knees in prayer or days of fasting or serving others who we could avoid all sound better than the torments that the rich man was experiencing.

March 19, 2014 - Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary

2 Samuel 7:4-5, 12-14, 16
Psalm 89:2-5, 27, 29
Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22
Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24 or Luke 2:41-51

The first understanding that most people have about today’s Gospel is that Joseph thought he had been betrayed by Mary and so decided to divorce her. The list of reasons why this is nonsense is very long, but we can consider the major points today.

When Mary told Joseph she was pregnant, did she tell him about the angel Gabriel? Yes, without a doubt she did. Did he think she was lying? No. The Scripture says that “she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” Her pregnancy and the manner of conception were both revealed to Joseph at the same time.

Indeed, long-standing tradition tells us that Joseph was a widower who was marrying Mary in order to take care of her as she devoted her life to God. What is without doubt from Mary’s own words in Luke is that her marriage was always intended to be unconsummated. Joseph was not a hot-tempered youth who felt betrayed. The intention of this marriage was always that Joseph would be caring for Mary without being intimate with her.

Now we should be able to see what really happened. Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit with a child who would be called the Son of the Most High God. His response was like Peter’s years later, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Joseph was afraid. He had taken on the great responsibility of caring for this perfect girl, but he had not realized that he would also have to care for God’s own Son. This was too much. Joseph was a righteous man; the fear of God was in him. Joseph is humble: he knows that he is neither capable nor worthy of being the stepfather of Jesus.

His dream now takes on a new meaning. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, for it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” The angel does not disagree that Joseph is unworthy or that he is unable, by himself, to care for Jesus. The angel reminds him that this is a work of the Holy Spirit. There is no reason to be afraid. God will provide. No work is too much, even for us sinful people, if God is accomplishing the work through us. We never need to be afraid of what the Holy Spirit wants to do in our lives.

March 18, 2014 - Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
Psalm 50:8-9, 16-17, 21, 23
Matthew 23:1-12

“Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” It seems at first glance that we are guilty of letting a human tradition stand in the way of the words of our Lord. It seems that way at second glance too. We cannot say that Jesus was wrong, and we cannot say that Matthew did not faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ really taught.

There are some little tricks that people use to explain this, but they are not satisfactory. True, we call our male parent, “Father”, but Jesus is talking about titles that religious people take on. True, we do not use the exact word that Jesus condemns, since he did not speak English (the word “father” had not even been invented yet), but this seems too legalistic. Jesus is saying that we should not call anyone by the same name that we use for our male parent, no matter what language. True, Jesus says “call no one on earth your father”, and we do not call anyone “Our Father” except God, but why do we come so close to breaking the command?

However, and this is a big however, the use of “Father” as a title for religious leaders goes back as far as the Church herself. The desert monks of the early Church were called “Abba”. St. Paul himself says that “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” We did not just discover the Gospel of Matthew yesterday. Even St. Jerome, 1600 years ago, struggled to interpret this verse in light of the tradition. It seems strange that this tradition grew up in a Church which always read the Gospels. The people who first started calling a priest or a monk “father” knew what Jesus had said.

One reason why tradition is so essential in the Church is that the members of the early Church understood better the literal meaning of Jesus’ words. They were closer to him culturally and historically. If they, reading this Gospel just as we do every year, did not think it was a contradiction to call religious leaders “Father” who are we to disagree? But if we do keep calling people on earth “Father”, we do so acknowledging our one Father in heaven. Let us “bow our knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.”

March 17, 2014 - Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Daniel 9:4-10
Psalm 79:8-9, 11, 13
Luke 6:36-38

In fairy tales, not the Disney versions but the originals, a common trope is that the king will ask the wicked person for advice on how to punish a wicked person. The wicked person misunderstands who the punishment is for and advises a particularly horrific punishment. Then the king tells the wicked person that they will be punished exactly as they said. There is some poetic justice in how the person is forced to suffer their own sentence. I often wondered why they never realize in time that they have been caught and suggest some very light punishment.

Jesus warns us that we are going to suffer this poetic justice. Hopefully, we hear his words in time to save ourselves. If our King asks me how a sinner should be treated, I am going to say that he should be forgiven if he is even a little bit sorry and then welcomed into heaven. These cannot be mere words: I need to start treating sinners that way since that is how I want to be treated. Jesus tells us that the measure with which we measure will be measured out to us. In other words, we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us, because that is in fact how it will be done unto us.

When we do something wrong, we are usually quick to talk about mitigating circumstances. It is truly a saint who takes absolute responsibility for their own sins. Even if we accept responsibility for our sin, we who fall far short of righteousness quickly begin to explain why it was not really so bad after all, until we are confessing merely that we misheard or misunderstood or were misunderstood: “I am very sorry that you were offended by what I said.” How rare is the person who can say “I’m sorry” without adding soon after “Although, it was not really as bad as you make out.”

So it is that we are very good about making up excuses for ourselves. We should stop that. But, at the very least, we should start using this marvelous talent with other people. Not pretending that bad is good, but making every excuse for the person who has sinned against us. When someone cuts you off in traffic, presume that they are on their way to the hospital. When someone snaps at you, presume they have a very bad headache. When we measure out punishment, what seems like a tiny dose given to another will look enormous when it is directed back at ourselves.

March 16, 2014 - Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 12:1-4
Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22
2 Timothy 1:8-10
Matthew 17:1-9

One week into Lent is a tough place to be. We have five weeks left until Easter. Around this time we begin to look longingly at the indulgences that make up our life the rest of the year. It seems as though we ought to be further along than just beginning the second week. At least, I hope this is how you feel. If not, if Lent is going along easily, if you forgot that it was Lent, then you probably are not doing enough for Lent. Lent is only easy if we are already perfect or if we are not doing it. The point of Lent is to die. On Easter, Jesus rose from the dead. If we want to rise with Jesus this Easter, we will need to be dead by then. Lent ought to be killing us: that is how you know it is working.

How glorious it is then that the Church gives us some refreshment today. Not the mistaken refreshment of those who think that Sundays are a day off from Lent, as if Jesus took a day off each week during the 40 days in the desert. No, man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. The readings today, the Word of God, provide our example, encouragement, and refreshment.

We begin with a good example in Abraham who, at the Word of God, left his home and traveled across the whole Middle East. Abraham believed that God would fulfill his promise. We can only begin to imagine the sacrifices he made. It was 25 more years before the promise began to be fulfilled with the birth of Isaac. God has made promises to us also. He promises us that if we leave our lives behind, he will give us far more than anything we ever gave up. We should believe this promise.

After the example we get encouragement and advice. St. Paul tells us, “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” We are not supposed to use our own strength. There is a strength that comes from God and it is stronger than we are. We prayed in the psalm today: “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.” Lent is not a time where we learn to trust in ourselves. If the fasting of Lent or the additional work and prayer we do were done with our own strength, then Lent would make our pride and self-reliance grow. If, instead, we do everything with the strength that comes from God, then our reliance on God will grow, our love for God will grow.

Then we arrive at the refreshment. The Gospel today is the Transfiguration, as it always is on the Second Sunday of Lent. The Transfiguration is such a beautiful image, like an eyewitness account of heaven. All of salvation history is present on the mountain. Moses, who wrote down the Law, was there. Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets, was there. Jesus, son of David, King of Israel, was there. Peter, who was the first pope and wrote two letters of the New Testament, was there. John, who wrote a Gospel and another letter, was there. James, the first apostle to be a martyr was there. God is present: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father speaks; the Son, Jesus, shines forth like the sun; and the Holy Spirit is present as the bright cloud.

The Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” What a wonderful relationship between the Father and the Son. We were supposed to have perfect families like that too, but sin ruined it. Imagine, children, if your parents were perfect. Perhaps I am surprising you, when I warn you that they are not; perhaps you have already figured that out. But if they were perfect, it would be easier to always obey them. And parents, imagine if your children were perfect. How much easier it would be to be their parent! Our families are not perfect, because we are not perfect, but for now, let us just stay on this mountain, and imagine.

Peter was so happy to be on the mountain that he did not even know what to say; he only knew that he wanted to stay there. I wonder whether he interrupted Moses or Elijah, who were conversing with our Lord, with his offer to set up tents. Years later, Peter recalled this moment in a letter, reminding people that he was actually there on the mountain, that he had really heard the Father’s voice say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Life was good, that day, on top of the mountain. It was as close to being in heaven as a person can experience on the earth. If we sit and contemplate that image, of Jesus shining like the sun, surrounded by saints, we can share in that taste of heaven.

We will probably have to wait until heaven to see heaven. When we see Jesus shining like the sun, surrounded by the saints, it will be on the other side of whatever death is out there waiting for us. But we do have a sort of mountain we can visit: right here at Mass. We will not see Moses or Elijah or Peter, James, and John, but we will read about them, and Jesus too. Jesus will be present, not in shining white garments, but hidden under the forms of bread and wine. The apostles spent time with Jesus every day, but his true identity, which was usually hidden, was revealed on the mountain. We can receive the Eucharist every day, and we believe that Jesus’ true identity is hidden in these symbols of bread and wine, which actually are the Body and Blood and Soul and Divinity of our Lord, the same Jesus Christ who was transfigured on the mountain. Indeed, the apostles saw Jesus on that mountain, but we, when we receive the Eucharist, are united to him in our bodies.

When we come here each week, it is like climbing the mountain. The world still exists out there, but we can forget about it for a little while. We should savor this time we spend with God. We cannot set up tents, though. We have to go back into the world. Jesus had to come down from the mountain and go die on the Cross. We have got five more weeks of Lent, and then the rest of life, before heaven.