Tuesday, March 29, 2011

From the heart

Once again in the gospel today Jesus raises the bar on us.

When we the of Lent, we think of penance and forgiveness. Usually, that means we do our penance we receive forgiveness. This can in some way be a sled-centered exercise.

Today's gospel once more calls us out of ourselves and reminds us of how, as creatures created in the image and likeness of God and part of the body of Christ, we are called not only to be recipients of God's forgiveness but transmitters.

Taking it one step further this gospel reminds us that this forgive me transmit cannot be pro forma, mechanical, or superficial. We must forgive "from the heart." We must forgive as God's forgives.

Forgiveness not from the heart is like the apology we were forced to make as children. We would say "I'm sorry", but in a tone that communicated anything but contrition. We say we have forgiven someone even as we are recounting for the 25th time, what they did to us. If we're telling people about it, have we really forgiven.

To Jesus reminds us that it is not enough for us to acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness we have to give it, and give it from the heart.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Can it be so simple?

The first reading today addresses what may Christianity's most difficult marketing problem; it's too simple. All you have to do is look at the supernatural that people are attracted to, and how it is portrayed in movies.

In the first reading today we find the main character naaman the leper who walks away when he is told that all he needs to do is go down to the river and bathe. Naaman wants incantations, waving hands, and some kind grueling demand. When he is told that all he has to do is bathe in the river, he walks away. Thankfully, his servants reason with him.

Today even some Catholics find the return to the original simplicity of Roman Liturgy too simple. With The simplest of bread (flour and water), wine and water, and simple words of consecration Christ becomes present in our midst. The penances given in confession tend to be simple prayers. Each sacrament a simple gesture, words, and some simple matter (eg. water or oil). Even the prayer, fasting, almsgiving required for Lent can seem too simple.

What we can loose sight of is that it's not about us, it's about God: God's power, God's grace, God's love. Do we have to do something? Yes. But the center always remains God's action, not ours.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


“Why do you recite my statutes, and profess my covenant with your mouth,
Though you hate discipline

While we may not say that we literally hate discipline, I dare say that none of us really find it a positive word. We like even less the participle "disciplined," as in "I remember being disciplined by my teacher."

Two thoughts should be kept in mind:
1) We cannot divorce disciple from discipline. If we want to be one we have to have the other.

2) There is a way we use the word in a positive way, even a virtuous way, "self-disciplined"

The gospel today gives us two simple choices: to exalt ourselves or humble ourselves. It also reminds us how God will respond to each choice.

We may think we don't walk around exalting ourselves but I would suggest that when we critique others, and put down their words or actions, what we are really doing is precisely exalting, lifting up, ourselves.

When we are in the car and critique someone else's driving, are we not really saying,"I'm a better driver than them." In our workplaces how often do we make comments that would suggest that we really do believe we work harder or better than so-and-so. Even if it is objectively true it is still exalting ourselves. Would we not be better served by looking to the example of those better than ourselves and learning from them. Unless of course we are so arrogant we believe "there is no one here who works harder or better than me."

Self-exaltation can be an insidious sin. Studies show that men spend 2/3 of their conversational time talking about themselves. How much of the other 1/3 is spent critiquing someone else, which in an indirect way can be talking about yourself, exalting yourself, like the Pharisee "I thank you God that I am not like the rest of men...."

The gospel reminds us that we are all going to find our way to humility ultimately. We can either humble ourselves, or be humble. The former sounds less painful than the latter. Just my opinion.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Marking in the Seasons

Today Afghanistan and Iran they mark the beginning of their new year نو روز, literally the "new day." For the rest of us we mark the first day of Spring, the day after the vernal equinox.

Christianity like its parent Judaism, did not invent its liturgical feasts out of whole cloth. As Pope Benedict XVI points out in his book Jesus of Nazareth, they took many of the aspects of the nature religions that preceded them and gave them new meaning.

While the U.S. Bishops Conference decided to not celebrate the "Ember Days" any longer, much of the Catholic world still marks the four seasons of the year with these celebrations. These were days of fasting that kept us mindful throughout the year that everything we have comes as gift from God. To quote the preface, "All times and seasons obey your laws" The ember days continue to be celebrated in more rural areas where people have remained more in touch with the cycle of the year.

The English word Ember comes from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, which means revolution or cycle. While we may no longer fast for three days before the start of each new season year in the U.S., perhaps as we see the flowers beginning to bloom, and the warmer days beginning we should stop today and give thanks to God for the simple beauty of creation.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Book worth reading

While I usually reserve this space for reflections on the scripture. I have just begun one of the funniest and most interesting books I have read in a long time, and those who know me know I read a lot of books.

Judeo-Christian anthropology has taught us for centuries about the interconnectedness of human beings. Now science seems to have caught up with what we have always known. David Brooks, best known for his political commentary has just published a book entitled The Social Animal. In it he is able to take what could be a huge amount of dry statistical data and recast it in a format that is both humorous and insightful. I would hope that the occasional coarse language can be forgiven.

Brooks lays out the surprising characteristics that cut across boundaries of language and culture and shows how from the moment we begin to form in our mother's womb we are relational beings. While I must admit that I am still in process of reading his book, I have read enough that I feel confident in recommending it to those who are looking for a deeper insight into the human person.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Cainsian School of economics

Since the economics down-turn many of the commentators seemed to have locked of the phrase "Keynsian economics," without any real idea who John Maynard Keynes was or what he taught. As a priest my fear is that I hear more and more people taking the position I would call "Cainsian Economics". In the book of Genesis after Cain kills Abe,l God asks him where his brother is, and he answers with the famous response, "Am I my brothers keepers?"

We forget that this not a legitimate question but the dodge of a murderer. And the answer to his question is, "yes!" We cannot simply take the attitude of Cain and try to wash our hands of responsibility to care for others especially the poor.

Prayer, fasting, and works of charity are at the center of our observance of Lent. Today's gospel reminds us that these acts are essential to our salvation. Whenever we do them for the least, we do them for Christ, and when we don't do them for the least we don't do it for Christ. To put it simply Jesus takes the way we treat the poor and needy personally.

Perhaps it's time to go back and re-memorize the two great lists of our tradition: the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. So here they are.

Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Shelter the homeless
Visit the sick
Visit those in prison
Bury the dead

Admonish sinners
Instruct the ignorant
Counsel the doubtful
Comfort the sorrowful
Bear wrongs patiently
Forgive injuries
Pray for the living and the dead

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shabat Shalom

Today's first reading reminds us of the importance of keeping the Sabbath holy.

If you hold back your foot on the sabbath
from following your own pursuits on my holy day;
If you call the sabbath a delight,
and the LORD’s holy day honorable;
If you honor it by not following your ways,
seeking your own interests, or speaking with malice
Then you shall delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will nourish you with the heritage of Jacob, your father,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

While for Christian the obligation is transferred from Saturday to Sunday, the day of the Lord, the obligation is no less binding. In his 1998 Apostolic Letter Dies Domini, Pope John Paul II reminded us "Every seven days, the Church celebrates the Easter mystery. This is a tradition going back to the Apostles, taking its origin from the actual day of Christ's Resurrection — a day thus appropriately designated 'the Lord's Day"

The obligation to keep the sabbath is not simply some arbitrary requirement of the Old Testament or the Catholic Church but is rooted a deeper understanding of the human person. We were not made to run 7 days per week like some machine. We need the sabbath, what the Holy Father describes as a day of "Joy, Rest and Solidarity." Perhaps this Lent is a time for us to restore the place of Sabbath in our life.

Shabat shalom is the traditional greeting on the Sabbath, perhaps if we live the Sabbath, we can have the Shalom.

Friday, March 11, 2011

First Friday

The first of the Fridays in the season of Lent is here and today we will abstain from eating meat. One of the things I have always found fascinating is that if you look at many of the most popular ethnics foods from around the world it is in fact the food of the poor, non-meat proteins. Pick your favorite from pastas to beans and rice to falafel.

People in nations around the world have found ways to eat without the big slab of meat, mostly because they have no choice. Today over 41,000 children will die of hunger. Lack of vitamin A kills one million children a year.

Today the church forces us to stop and think about what we eat and what we throw away. In the US approximately 27% of the food available for consumption is thrown away. The EPA estimates that we generate 30 million tons of food waste per year. Imagine how many we could feed, if we were only a bit more careful with what God has given us.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mardi Gras not Mardi Gros

I recently overheard someone explaining that it was called Fat Tuesday because people would splurge just before Lent. It wasn't the appropriate place to explain that the "fat" in mardi gras is not fat as in obese but fat as in LARD.

In the 21st century we in the Western Church have reduced Lent to giving up something, and not eating meat or Friday. The name mardi gras reminds us that Lent historically had a much greater impact on daily living. Not only was meat forbidden throughout the entirety of Lent but all products from animals which would have included eggs and all dairy products. Mardi Gras was the last day cooking with eggs, milk or Lard which is why things like pancakes, and doughnuts are associated with this celebration.

Tomorrow we begin the three traditional practices of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving found in tomorrows gospel from Matthew 6. For those who want to do the absolute minimum, it is true that our law only requires fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence from meat on Fridays. The law was not altered to suggest we do less but to allow each of us to behave as adults and chose an appropriate penance that fits us. For some people eating seafood as opposed to meat all during lent would be a pleasure, and in many parts of the modern world certain cuts of meat are the protein of the poor, and seafood is a luxury. The Second Vatican Council may have over-estimated the maturity of the average Christian, and those in charge of catechesis often did a poor job of explaining the changes.

This year let us be the adults the Church hoped we would be. Let each of us choose appropriate forms of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that we can live throughout Lent, as our penance for the past, and our hope of on-going conversion.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Something Old, Something New

Today the church recalls the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity probably two of the most well known names of the early martyrs. The first was a young mother from a wealthy family and the second her pregnant slave.

It is difficult not to see a connection between these brave women who held their ground and died for what they believed in what we now call Tunisia, and the women who even as I write this are risking their lives to stand up for what they believe in the same land and across North Africa. One of the surprising factors in the news-making events in Africa and the Middle East has been the prominent place of women.

While the protests are not religious per se they are an expression of one aspect of our belief in divine and natural law. As Catholics we believe that all human law must be measured against a higher law. The source of our basic rights is not the constitution but God. When we proclaim our belief in the sanctity of all human life, we simultaneously proclaim our belief that there exists fundamental rights that belong to every human being.

Eighteen centuries ago two women were martyred for refusing to surrender their god-given right to be Christians in the Roman empire. Let us pray that Perpetua and Felicity's intercession continue to empower not only women but all those who are struggling for those fundamental god-given human rights.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Actions speak louder than words

As many of you know, I did not grow up in the Catholic Church; I grew up Baptist. In the baptist church the closest one might get to movement was clapping your hands.

Imagine my surprise when I got to the Catholic Church and found it difficult to keep with the constant motion:stand for this, sit for that, kneel for the other, make the sign of the cross, bow your head, genuflect, cross yourself three times at the gospel, and don't forget to dip your finger in the holy water and cross yourself on the way out. Then there were the incense, the lighting of candles, the processing, and the visiting of statues,(keep in mind my first experience of Catholicism was in Nicaragua). As a 16 year old boy all of this seemed odd at best, part of the ritual of the Catholic Church and the word ritual to us was not a good one.

Today's readings however remind us once more that what we do in church is practice for what we do in the rest of our lives. Throughout the liturgy we not only listen to the word of God, but the words are accompanied with actions. As the gospel reminds us, saying "Lord, Lord",professing faith with our mouth alone, is not enough.

We are physical creatures as well as spiritual, what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell has an impact on our being. Why did the teacher in school tell us to sit up and pay attention?-posture(action) matters. Every study shows that how people dress for work or school changes how they behave, and our behavior defines who we are. When we tell a lie, we make ourselves a liar.

In the Catholic Church our liturgy uses a combination of words and actions; we use all of our senses so that the grace of God may reshape us into the image of Christ, that we may leave the church and put his words into action.

Who will be saved?

"Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them"