Sunday, March 19, 2017

Grace as necessary gift

We who are alive in the 21st century should have an even deeper appreciation of today's gospel than the original heater. After all, we understand at a much deeper level the biological importance of water and its importance not only to human life but to all life. Without water there is no life. I still find it hard to grasp that my body is more than 60% water. Without food we can survive around 3 weeks. Without water we would be lucky to survive one.

So it is with God's grace. Our souls need grace the way our bodies need water — even more so perhaps. After all, the soul cannot die. The condition it can end up in is worse than death. We call it hell.

What Jesus is offering the woman at the well is nothing less than a share in his divine life. We call that grace. Jesus is offering her the grace that leads to eternal life. This grace comes to us above all in the sacraments.

Here we American Catholics need to be very careful. With an over abundance of zeal we can turn the sacraments into the equivalent of merit badges, something to be earned, something to be given to only the pure of heart.

The catechism says that,"Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life." It is not that we hear the call, respond to it, and then are worthy to receive grace. The grace is what enables us to respond in the first place. The preface for today's mass reminds us,

For when he asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink,
he had already created the gift of faith within her
and so ardently did he thirst for her faith,
that he kindled in her the fire of divine love.

It wa God's grace at work in her that enabled her to respond. It is true that we must be "rightly disposed" to receive sacraments, but that proper disposition cannot be reduced to a checklist. It is something to be discerned by those entrusted with the care of souls. After all, there is no more precious gift that one can receive than the grace of God. That is why the church is so careful about how sacraments are celebrated and how we prepare to receive them. But in our zeal we must never forget that the free and unmerited quality of grace. "Lord I am not worthy...."

Grace — water for the soul. In this Lenten season let us drink fully and often, especially through the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist. And if there are obstacles in our lives, choices that we have made that are irreconcilable with the gospel. There is no better time to al least begin to move those obstacles so that we can get to the well. Jesus can prepare us in the same way he prepared the woman at the well. When Jesus named her grave sin, she did argue. Tradition tells us that she went back and changed her life and became a saint in the early Church. Now is the time for us to change, to turn away from sin, to turn toward the well and receive the water of eternal life.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Day without Judgement

As we begin a new week, we are told,

Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.

We have heard this reading so often that the gravity of it may not register as it should. Perhaps if we write the other side we can hear it better.

Judge and you will be judged. Condemn and you will be condemned. Do not forgive, and you will not be forgiven.

We have all grown up so much on the image of the last judgement that we simply assume that judgement is inevitable. And yet, unless Jesus is lying, we can be spared that judgement. All we have to do is stop judging. Easier said than done. But it can be done. Like everything it requires practice.

The easiest first step may be external. When that judging thought about someone else enters our mind, stop it before we speak it or write it. Don't let it into the external world. If we stop nourishing our judgements thoughts over time they will die. We can turn not judging into a habit.

Does this mean that the temptation to judge and condemn will go away? No. In this life we are always going to face temptation, but we can make huge progress. And there is no better time than Lent to do.

Start with one day. Today. Try your best to live this one day without speaking or writing one judging or condemning comment about another person. It is not impossible, if we believe.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Keep it simple

In today's gospel we hear what is possibly the best known and simplest summary of the Christian rule for all human interactions.

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets

And yet, this one sentence, as simple as it is, seems to be very difficult for us to live, either individually or collectively.

In the 20th century we dreamed of how technology would help us to span great distance and close the gaps between distant peoples.

In the 21st century what we experience is ever increasing isolation, and decreasing amounts of face to face communication. With the growing amount of self-service and online activity the requirement that we actually speak face to face with another person has all but vanished. Those tiny interactions( the gas station, the bank, the store ) in which we practiced the skills of civility or manners have slowly faded away. Email, voicemail, and texting allow us to fire off comments from a distance that we perhaps would not say face to face, and online posts and "comments" provide a safe haven for our most base and often cowardly acts. Technology that should help bring us together has enabled each of us to retreat into our own customized world, and deep down people feel more alone than ever.

As we hear the golden rule it is not only a reminder to us about how we are to interact but also a reminder about our basic human need to interact.

It is not good for the man to be alone.

Even the most introverted need not virtual but actual human interaction. As we strive to life during Lent, perhaps before we fire off another email or text it is time to pick up a phone, or even walk down the hall or into the other room and look someone in the eye, smile and speak to them face to face showing the respect that every person deserves. And if you are more comfortable texting, perhaps you should give up that comfort for Lent.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Lost Virtue

In addition to Friday, Wedensday was historically a day for fasting in the Church. And so, it is not surprising that today's first reading is Jonah's entrance into Nineveh  and the call for repentance and fasting.  It is easy for us to overlook the important details at the center of this story.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.

Sometimes we fail to understand the significance of these details because we think of the "world of the Bible" as if it were a different world than the one we inhabit. It was not. Human nature has not changed greatly over the centuries, and the quest to have and keep power was as real as ever. If anything it was even more necessary then for a king to never show weakness. And yet the king of Nineveh did.

Firstly, he demonstrated a willingness to listen.  He could have easily dismissed Jonah. He could have denounced his message. After all, Jonah was telling the people of Nineveh that they were on the wrong path. He could have  had him executed for stirring up the people. Instead he was willing to listen to the criticism.  The king not only listened but accepted personal responsibly.  He did not try and blame others (as Adam attempted to blame Eve).

Secondly, he committed to changing directions.  His actions of rising from his throne and laying aside his cloak demonstrated his acknowledgment that being a king did not make him incapable or error or sin. His covering himself in sackcloth and ashes was a very public manifestation of contrition and desire for conversion.

As a king he had to have understood how some might see this as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to attack, to seize power. A king sitting in sackcloth and ashes was an unimaginable sight.   How would it look to the people? Some had to think it was undignified. And yet this king did it. He was able to do it because he possessed the virtue of humility.

This story puts before us some very basic questions. Do we really believe in being humble –outside of Church? And do we want leaders who publicly manifest humility?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Believing in the invisible

Today we hear the Lord tell us through the prophet Isaiah,

So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

This concept of the power of God's Word is seen throughout the scriptures all the way back to the very beginning of Genesis where God creates the universe by speaking.

It is important to note that it is the spoken word that contains this power, the word that "goes forth from my mouth." So often when we use the phrase the word of God we immediately think of the Bible. We want to limit ourselves to the written Word. It would be a grave mistake to think that God did to speak before or after the revelation contained in scripture. But our tendency to limit God's speaking to the Bible is really part of a larger problem, our modern tendency to limit reality to what we can perceive.

From a scientific point of view we know that the human visible spectrum of light is only a small portion of a much larger whole. There are animals that can see what is invisible to us. The same is true of sound. The range of frequencies that we can hear is actually quite small. And yet, if we cannot see it or hear it with our eyes, ears or technology; we tend to doubt its presence. It's not really real. Invisible reality is relegated to the realm of science fiction and fantasy. And God is in heaven.

When we walk into a church and we see the tabernacle, what do we see? Can we see with the eyes of faith? Many Christians have become so trapped at the level of the material visible world that they have given up all together on the concept of Christ being truly present in the Sacrament. Even many Catholics find it hard to believe what their eyes cannot see. They see the tabernacle as only a shiny box. The idea of church as sanctuary, place of the Holy, has all but vanished.

One of the things we all need to give up for Lent is skepticism. We must give up our narrow-minded view of the world. We must remember just how much of reality exists beyond the limits of our senses. If we cannot perceive the Holy in a church or chapel, how can we ever hope to perceive it in the world.

The paradox of our faith is that the most real things in the universe, the eternal, are also the invisible.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Hearing the call

In these first four days before the first Sunday of Lent the Church eases us into the season. In today's Gospel we are reminded by Jesus of something which we all know and will say, but i'm not sure how fully we believe it. Jesus tells the Pharisees:

I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.

We will very easily say that we are all sinners, but deep down inside, if we are honest, there is a self-righteous streak in everyone of us. We tend to minimize our own sins and aggrandize the sins of others.

We act as though online sin is less sinful than live sin in the world. We will say things online we would never say to a person's face.

We depersonalize sin, and bemoan the decaying culture or the media, as if they are something apart from us. We, the people, are the culture; and the media gives us what we want to see and hear.

We forget that sin is always personal. It is the choice of an individual to act contrary to God's law. Sin is always in the first person. I know right from wrong and I willfully choose to do wrong.

For the next 5 1/2 weeks every time we get the urge to criticize another person, we should spin that critical light around and point it at our self. Lent is about naming our sins, all of our sins not just the ones we are comfortable naming, feeling true sorrow for them, and confessing them.

When we are willing to plumb the depths of our sins, then we will understand today's gospel and we will indeed hear the merciful voice of Jesus calling.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


As we spend this first day of Lent fasting, perhaps it is good for us to slow down and listen carefully to the words of today's collect.

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.

Campaign of Christian service, battle against spiritual evil, weapons of self-restraint. These are all images that many 21st century Christians can be uncomfortable with. We like to think of peaceful Jesus. Images of war are difficult for us to embrace. But if we look closely we notice that, as Jesus so often does, he turns the image on its head.

The battle is not against some human foe. It is the internal battle against spiritual evil, the battle we fight each day to avoid sin. The weapons are not guns, but the weapon of self-restraint. The campaign is not to retake some piece of land, but is a campaign of Christian service, a turning away from caring for self, and a focus on caring for others.

Today we do indeed begin a war, but our greatest enemy in this war may we'll be our self: our habitual ways of thinking and behaving, our tendency to focus on our own needs, wants and desires.

Our culture tells us to do what makes us happy. Self-restraint is truly counter-cultural and may we'll be the word we need to remind ourselves of every day of Lent.