Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Open your ears

One of the most frustrating things deaf children will do is close their eyes when you fuss at them. We close our eyes and input stops.
Once I was with a deaf child and his family in a very noisy place and when I said something, he said "Just close your ears." I then had to explain the impossibility.
On further reflection, while we cannot physically close our ears, we can and do close them to things we do not want to hear.
The people of Nineva listened and responded, and did do quickly.
Can we follow their example?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pick you limit

In today's gospel we are given the Our Father, which if you look closely contains 7 petitions, from "hallowed be thy name" to "deliver us from evil." It's worth noting that Jesus only felt it necessary to repeat one, the one dealing with forgiveness.

Immediately after the our father we get

If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.

Every time we pray the Our Father we ask for God to offer us only limited forgiveness, to forgive us only as much as we forgive.

Is there a limit to God's forgiveness? Yes. And each one of us gets to choose our own personal limit. Every time someone wrongs us we have an opportunity to raise or lower the limit. The more we forgive the more we will be forgiven. The more we stay mad, and hold a grudge, the lower it goes.

Today if something happens, even something small, that offers you the chance to forgive, do it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

More than not eating meat

Today is the first Friday in Lent and not eating meat on Friday seems to be one aspect of Lent we are best known for. What few Catholics realize is that we are still supposed to abstain from meat in Friday every week of the year, or substitute some other penitential practice.. That last part seems to have gotten lost in the minds of most Catholics. All we heard was "outside of lent you can now eat meat on Friday." Another example of how we all have conscious and unconscious selective hearing.

The point of the reading from Isaiah today is that none of these acts mean anything in isolation. They must be linked to a larger life committed to not simply loving God in the abstract but showing that love through our care of the one creature made in God's image and likeness.

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.

Here Isaiah is not suggesting that actual fasting be abolished in favor of the above, but reminding us that more is required.

With the economy being what it is, the local outreach centers, food pantries, clothing closets are all in need of assistance. Lent is the perfect time for us to look right in our own neighborhood and ask how we can help. Perhaps this weekend or next is the time to clean out the closets. Throw away the junk, and give away those clothes that are still good but you never wear anyway.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Life and Death Decisions

In this second day of Lent our first reading is the stark choice offered by God in the Book Deuteronomy.

"Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom....
Choose life.

In reality all day every day we are making life and death decisions. With every choice we make we take another step toward one or the other.
Look for example at the so called seven deadly sins:
pride, greed, envy, anger, gluttony, sloth and lust.
Now look at their corresponding virtues:
humility(humilitas), generosity(charitas), kindness (humanitas), patience, temperance, diligence(industria), and chastity.
BTW, a married couple is considered chaste,as long as they are faithful; the word doesn't mean what some think.

Each time we choose one of these 14 we are taking a step one direction or the other.

Perhaps this Lent we can focus on the virtues, look for those opportunities we have during the day to take a step toward life. This list is by no means complete but it is a could place to start. Perhaps with practice by the end of Lent some will even be habits.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The journey begins

For those of us between ages 18 and 59 today is not only a day of abstaining from meat but also a day of fasting.

The internet is filled with articles about various and sundry fasts, some based in actual science, some that are just plain dangerous. All of them proclaim the health benefits of fasting. For that reason, I thought it important to point out the fundamental difference between the fasting we do today and any of those fasts.

Our fasting today is not meant to be of any physical benefit. Our fasting today is not about solidarity with the poor. Our fasting today is one thing, an act of penance, plain and simple.

The goal of penance is not only that the sin be forgiven, but that we experience true conversion of heart. In the words of the catechism, the Christian "should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the "old man" and to put on the "new man."

As we emerge from this Lent at Easter let us pray that our penance be truly effective and we be able to say, "I feel like a new man", Christ.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Importance of Friends

Lent, a Season of Penance. While we may not use the word penance much anymore, it is as necessary to life as food and water.
The trouble is that it forces us to acknowledge a reality we would rather forget. It forces each of us to say the sentence, "I am a sinner."
The only way we can avoid that sentence is to say, "I am perfect."
Speaking for myself, I am not perfect; I am a sinner; I need to do penance.
There, that wasn't all that hard; was it?

Once we face that reality, then we can see Lent not as a chore but a gift, a time the church marks out each year for us to do penance.

Traditionally the Church recommends three categories based on the Ash Wednesday gospel: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Before you choose your penance for this year, I would suggest a close look at today's gospel. Because the date for Easter varies, the gospel for the last Sunday before Lent varies. Today we have the healing of the paralytic in Mark.

The verse from this gospel that always gets my attention is: When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Child, your sins are forgiven."
It is the faith of the friends that saves the paralytic.
So often, even in our penance, we can be egocentric, me praying for God to forgive ME. While that is certainly a good and necessary thing, this gospel reminds us that even in our Lenten penance we need to be other directed.

In these last few days before Ash Wednesday, as we decide on our penitential practices for this Lent, perhaps as can look to the example of the friends in today's gospel. Who will we be friend to? For whom will we offer our penance?

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Child, your sins are forgiven."

Saturday, February 18, 2012

You kiss your mother with that mouth?

A good old southern question asked of someone with a foul mouth. In fact, in the first reading today St. James gives one of the harshest descriptions possible of the mouth. We often uses the worse cursing to refer to a list of "bad words." He goes much further in his notion of what constitutes foul language.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters,
for you realize that we will be judged more strictly...
In the same way the tongue is a small member
and yet has great pretensions.

Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze.
The tongue is also a fire.
It exists among our members as a world of malice,
defiling the whole body
and setting the entire course of our lives on fire,
itself set on fire by Gehenna.
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature,
can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,
but no man can tame the tongue.
It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With it we bless the Lord and Father,
and with it we curse men
who are made in the likeness of God.
From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.
My brothers and sisters, this need not be so.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

All are created equal

But if you show partiality, you commit sin

This may be one of the most difficult exhortations in the Bible.  As human beings we all have people we prefer to be with, people we care more about.   
While St. James warns his people about partiality toward the rich, we can also in church see a naiveté towards the poor that is unwilling to critique any of the choices that poorer people make. 
St. James calls us to an attitude of NO PARTIALITY, a true recognition of the equal dignity of every human being.
Even when well intended we can speak of groups in ways that reveal underlying prejudices in ourselves. When we speak of Hispanics or Latinos, for example, we can forget there are 20 countries in the area we refer to as Latin American, and inside each country there are certainly multiple cultures and often multiple languages, and more than 500,000,000 individuals. There is no such thing as Hispanic Culture (in the singular) any more than there is a single Catholic Culture.
For sociological study purposes we group and generalize but James reminds us today that we must continue to always honor the unique human life created by God at the moment of the conception of each person.  Each equal loved by God.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Temptation on Valentine's Day

In the Letter of James we hear something that may come as a surprise to many. Too many people still generalize the story of Job and think the temptations that they experience are "the work of the devil" or even "God is testing me." James gives us a simpler but less satisfying answer to the question.

No one experiencing temptation should say,
"I am being tempted by God";
for God is not subject to temptation to evil,
and he himself tempts no one.
Rather, each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire.
Then desire conceives and brings forth sin,
and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.

That's right; temptation comes from our own desire. The reason I call it a less satisfying explanation is that it gives us no room to put the blame on anyone or anything outside our own self.

James gives a simple track of temptation: desire -> sin -> death.

The simple truth is that in our own hearts we desire things that are not good, and things that are not good for us.

The good news is that while the temptation doesn't come from God the answer to it does. God's grace can help us to deal with the desire that we feel. St. Thomas would point out that grace helps us to know what is right, desire what is right, and actually do it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Medical Question

Rarely do I hear enter into the political arena, but with the latest Obama administration decision, I just can't keep silent.

For more than twenty years as a priest and child of working class parents,I have watched the elderly and the poor on a monthly basis be forced to choose between their medications and groceries. The co-pays can often add up to huge sums.

My own mother died of the complications of diabetes and congestive heart failure and until the very end there were "out of pocket costs."

Now we will have a class of drugs which insurance companies are required by federal law to provide free of charge, no co-pays. Are they for cancer, HIV, or even diabetes or depression? No. They are contraceptives. Really?

Should insurance companies be required by law to provide some drugs absolutely free of charge to some populations? Perhaps. But is this really where we should start?

Perhaps I am misinformed. Perhaps the law already requires insurers to provide their poorer subscribers with free medicines for life threatening illness. But to my knowledge this will be a first.

As you read this there are people with insurance all over the country who will not fill their prescriptions because the don't have the money, and with this compromise the only drug they would be able to walk into the drugstore and get absolutely free is a contraceptive.

I'm confused by our priorities.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Yes, but

Today we here some of the most hash sounding words of Jesus in the gospel:
For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.
This response from Jesus to the Greek mother of a sick child seems on the surface to be heartless. What we need to understand is a basic principle in how Judaism and in fact Jesus dealt with those who would be followers.
We can erroneously get the notion that Jesus simply throws the doors open and says, "Ya'll come." In fact, Jesus following Jewish tradition challenges those who would follow him, from what he says to the woman today, to when he tells the rich young man he must sell everything he has.

His words to the woman in the gospel were a test to find out if her faith was real or just a passing fancy.

Jesus loves us as we are, but at the same time constantly demands that we change. Grace is a free gift from God, but it requires a response.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Inside Out

Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.

With these words in today's gospel Jesus reoriented the focus of faith. It should be said from the outset that this one verse cannot and should not be taken out of a larger context so as to suggest that faith is a purely interior exercise.

Jesus is dealing with the particular phenomenon that he saw in his time. At his time he witnessed many who were almost exclusively focused on the externals: food, clothing, etc. in a way that did not get to the "heart" of the matter.

Jesus offers as the starting point the heart of the person. From the heart in his language will come forth not simply what we say and do (external actions) but the intention that motivates those words and action, why we do what we do.

If we look at the words of the confiteor we will see that the words are in a particular order: thoughts, words, what I have done, what I have failed to do. It starts with the interior and radiates out. While our faith must express itself in action, those actions must have the right motivations.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Prayer of Solomon

As we continue to read the story of Solomon, today he asks a question that will later be at the center of the Christian Faith.

"Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth?"

Our answer is of course a resounding yes.

We can often forget how the theft and disappearance of the ark, as well as the destruction of the temple changed forever the Jewish faith. All one has to do is visit the remnant of the wall of the temple that remains to understand its profound significance.

Today's reading ends with Solomon's prayer:

"May your eyes watch night and day over this temple,
the place where you have decreed you shall be honored;
may you heed the prayer which I, your servant, offer in this place.
Listen to the petitions of your servant and of your people Israel
which they offer in this place.
Listen from your heavenly dwelling and grant pardon."

For us who are Christians this prayer is most appropriate when we walk into a church and we see the candle that marks the place where the Eucharist is reserved. Do we even acknowledge the fullness of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist anymore?

As a priest I watch people day after day walk into the chapel at our Chancery, or into one of the parish churches and rarely do I see anyone even acknowledge the tabernacle, or who is present in it. No genuflection, no bow, hardly even a glance toward it.

Why is this a big deal? If we have lost the ability to recognize and revere the presence of God in a church or chapel, how can we hope show reverence and respect for the Holy Spirit in her other temple, us, in the street or at work.

Gestures like bowing and genuflecting may seem small matters, but like the use of expressions like "please" and "thank you" they reflect a deeper attitude. And the practice of these small gestures can over time reshape our interior self.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Looking for the Ark

The first reading today describes the setting up of Solomon's temple and the Ark of the Covenant. According to this reading the Ark contained the two tablets of Moses from mount Horeb. The point of contact with the divine. This became for the people of Israel the dwelling place of God. The foundation for our concept of tabernacle. The temple, the Holy of Holies, the Ark at its center.

The loss of the ark was a devastating blow to the community, and there are a variety of legends as to where the ark went.

For Christians the new Ark was, first of all, Mary who carried the child Jesus in her womb. In our churches the tabernacle is where we keep the Eucharist, the Body of Christ.

We can in fact go one step further. For Christians each of us, by virtue of our baptism, are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of God.

The people of Israel handle the Ark with care and reverence and hopefully in each of our churches we treat the Eucharist and tabernacle with reverence and respect. The next question is do we treat our bodies with the same respect.

While the healthcare debate is complex, one factor which we must recognize is our own behavior. Despite all we know there are still those who smoke. Childhood obesity is at an all time high. Do we even think of these as moral choices? It's not simply a matter of good health, it's respecting the dwelling place of God.

Friday, February 3, 2012

It's ok to waffle

Yesterday we blessed candles, today we use those candles to bless throats.
How appropriate that the gospel today is the famous story in which Herod in an unthinking moment promises his daughter anything she wants, then is too proud to renege when what she wants is the head of John the Baptist.

In our modern political arena the cardinal sin now seems to be changing your mind. Now any change of direction by a person is labeled waffling. We used to call it conversion. When did admitting you were wrong become something a leader must never do?

What Herod promised was just plain stupid. He said it without thinking. We all do this. The proper response is not to defend or rationalize, but to apologize.
We have the sacrament of Penance in the Catholic Church, because we understand the importance of saying, "I was wrong." Those two words from the confiteor "mea culpa" used to be commonly used in English.

Today as we bless throats, we are reminded how important it is that we think before we speak. Truth be told, no matter how hard we try, there are going to be times when we are wrong, there are going to be times when we say things that are stupid. We are human.

The important thing is how we respond. Can we acknowledge our errors, and change? The only time waffling is wrong is when you go from doing right to doing wrong.