Monday, April 15, 2019

Testing our motives

The political commentator George Will once wrote that the largest growth industry in America was the manufacture of “synthetic indignation”, people acting as if they are upset and concerned about a particular issue. 

In today’s gospel we see an example of synthetic indignation on the part of Judas. Jesus goes to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with an expensive oil. 

Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” 

Suddenly, Judas is acting like the head of the parish social justice committee. 

But so there is no confusion, the gospel goes on to explain.

He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.

While hopefully no one reading this is embezzling like Judas, it does remind us that we need to examine our motives. All of us can look for an excuse to justify our behavior. 

We humans are funny creatures. When we don’t want to do something, we can always find an excuse.  When we do want to do something, we can always find a way. 

What excuses do we use for not taking time to actually pray or read the Word of God?
What excuses will we come up with for not going to the Holy Week liturgies?
What excuse do we use for not contributing to the work of our local parish?

Like Judas, we always ground our excuse in some truth. Should we be concerned for the poor? Absolutely. Was that really Judas’s motivation? Not really. 

In these last days of Lent, there is still time for us to take the hard look at ourselves, and test our motives for the choices we make or the attitudes we hold. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Nine more days

We are coming down the homestretch of Lent. 

In the gospel today we are reminded once again that everything is a matter of perspective.

Jesus says a very simple declarative sentence. 

When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM

What is the lifting up? Crucifixion. That’s right Jesus refers to his murder as a lifting up.  Jesus turns it all upside down.

- Jesus is I AM, that is, God.
- the Cross is His thrown.
- the. Crucifixion is his Exaltation, his lifting up over the people. 

Some people will ask why we Catholics wear crucifixes, why we have them hanging everywhere.

Blame St. John.  It is his Gospel above all that transforms the image of death into an image of healing and life. 

 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up,

We should be very careful before we judge some event in our lives as good or bad, blessing or curse.  Truth is, we can never be sure. 

Perhaps rather than labeling a situation, the best thing we can do is hold on tight to our faith, trust that Jesus is with us in every moment, and know that with him we will not only get through but come out better. 

Monday, April 8, 2019

Ten more days

Perhaps you are looking back on Lent and thinking how it didn’t go as you had planned. On Ash Wednesday we all have the best of intentions. We make decisions about prayer, fasting, and charity. We take home our Operation Rice Bowl boxes and there they sit. It’s not too late. 

Lent ends on Holy Thursday. With the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we begin the Easter Triduum. That means that, as of today, there are 10 more days left in Lent. There is still time to dig in and make this a fruitful Lent. 

The readings for this last full week of Lent move away from the usual pattern. Each day we read from a different book. 

Today we hear the story of Sussana, a woman who some could call a victim of her culture and the legal system of the time. 

In the story a group of men decide to trap her into having sex with them. 

the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us; give in to our desire, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that you dismissed your maids because a young man was here with you.

The Jewish law requires a minimum of two witnesses. Roman law would follow the custom, with the dictum, “One witness is no witness.” 

More problematic was the list of people who could not be witnesses. Maimonides lists ten classes of persons who are not competent to attest or testify, namely: women, slaves, minors, lunatics, the deaf, the blind, the wicked, the contemptible, relatives, and the interested parties.  

The reason for the exclusion of women was grammatical. The noun for witnesses in the Old Testament is always masculine. This placed a woman at the absolute mercy of two men or more. 

Sussana decides that the only real judge that matters is God. 

In the short run this means great pain and humiliation for her. She is accused and forced to go to trial, with all the public scandal that would have accompanied this. We can imagine the chattering of the people, particularly because she was beautiful. She will get the death penalty if convicted. 

God stirred up the holy spirit of a young boy named Daniel, and he cried aloud: “I will have no part in the death of this woman.” All the people turned and asked him, “What is this you are saying?” He stood in their midst and continued, “Are you such fools, O children of Israel! To condemn a woman of Israel without examination and without clear evidence? Return to court, for they have testified falsely against her.

Because of this boy who himself cannot be a witness under the law, the men are separated and questioned. One says they were under a mastic tree, the other says under an oak. The men are therefore convicted of perjury. Under the law of the time, if you were convicted of perjury, the penalty you attempted to inflict on another was inflicted on you. The men were put to death. 

Unfortunately in our modern legal systems things do not always work out so neat and tidy. And then we have the court of the Internet.

More than ever the examp,e of Sussana is worth our attention. She chose to focus not on the court or on what people would say. She focused solely on the judgement of God. The only truly just Judge. The judge who unfailingly sees the truth. 

In these last ten days of Lent, perhaps it is time for each of us to look deep inside and ask how we would stand before the judgement seat of Christ. Of what would we stand convicted?

Th good news is that Christ has given us a way, even when we are guilty of sin, to have it expunged. We call it the Sacrament of Penance, confession. Through Pennace and yes Indulgence, God washes us clean and restores us. 

Let us fearlessly face our sin and in trust embrace the mercy of God. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

What do we want?

Today we reach chapter 5  in the Gospel of St. John.  Jesus has gone to Jerusalem and there, at the pool called Bethesda, Jesus encounters a man who has been disabled for a very long time. The precise nature of his condition we do not know. Nor do we know how long he has been this way. Whatsoever the case, Jesus asks what would appear to be a very strange question,

Do you want to be well?

What is stranger is the fact that we never get the answer to that question. Instead of answering, the man changes the subject. 

Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.

For any of us it is easy to get comfortable with where we are, even when it is a very uncomfortable place. In our present culture, being a victim can be a badge of honor. 

The good news is that Jesus heals the man in spite of himself.  

He doesn’t touch him. He doesn’t make magic mud. He simply gives him three commands. 

Rise. Take up your mat. Walk. 

The man doesn’t answer the question. He never expresses faith. He doesn’t even know who healed him. He is as ignorant as he can be. And Jesus healed him anyway. 

It is easy for us to think that it is about us. That we need to be the subject of the sentence – I need to have faith –I need to ask God. We forget that it is always God’s work, God’s plan.  We are at best lowly cooperators. 

The man in the story didn’t know much. But he did have sense enough to obey. He got up, took his mat, and walked. He didn’t just wallow in his condition. 

Can we hear the voice of Jesus commanding us? Will we obey? Do we want to be healed?

Monday, April 1, 2019

The one humanity

We know that it is through faith that we are saved.  But we make the mistake of confusing faith with individual professions of faith. 

The Bible begins by telling us that God created a single humanity (adam) of which we are all a part. It was only sin that fractured that humanity. 

In our culture, we tend to worship the fracture. We focus on the individual. Everything can be customized to meet your individual needs. 

Today’s gospel reminds us that while sin may have fractured the common humanity, it could not be broken. 

In the gospel it is the son who is in need of healing. But we hear nothing about his faith. As is often the case with us human beings, the ones most in need of help are the ones least willing or able to ask for it. 

It is the father who goes for help. It is worth noting that even this father’s faith is seriously flawed. He thinks that Jesus needs to go and do something. He thinks there needs to be some spectacle. He forgets that in the beginning God merely spoke and it all came into being. 

Jesus finds the people’s desire for spectacles frustrating. 

Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.

But despite that, the faith of the man is enough. 

“You may go; your son will live.” The man believed what Jesus said to him and left. 

The faith of the man saved the son. 

How easily we forget.  Faith itself is a gift from God. He gives it as we need it. 

What do we do? As with all gifts, we merely accept it and are grateful. 

On this Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent. Can I look inside and find my faith?  Perhaps for some it is right at hand. Perhaps for others it has fallen into some dusty corner of your soul. Wherever it is, pick it up and embrace. Show it to the people around you. And most of all say thank you. Be grateful for the gift of faith. Your faith may also heal someone in need. 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Week 4

As we begin week 4, we are told to be glad. The symbol of that joy is the rose color that we use in vestments and decorations. But isn’t it strange to rejoice in the middle of Lent? Not at all.

Hopefully, since Ash Wednesday, every day we have done some penitential act. Hopefully, we have increased our daily prayer time. We have looked for extra ways that we can be charitable. And if you have not, we still have two and a half weeks of Lent. It’s never too late to start. 

If your parish is using cycle A, you are hearing today about the man born blind. He is all of us. Because of original sin, we were all born blind. Only faith, which is itself a gift from God, and the grace of baptism can heal our blindness. 

But truth be told, it never heals completely in this life. Only in dheaven Willy be have spiritual 20/20 vision. Part of our problem is that we think we see, we think we know, and we judge.  We judge based on our partial vision. 

Even for us who are baptized believers, St. Paul tells us, 

Now we see dimly as in a mirror, then [in heaven] we will see face to face.

It is our partial blindness that can often lead us to sin. We think see. We think we know. We think we know what we need. We think we know what is best for us. We don’t.  We need to keep the limits of our vision in mind. 

Firstly, to remind us that we need a guide.  We need to pray every day for the Holy Spirit to help us to see, to help us to know, to help us choose wisely. 

Also, we need to remeber our partial vision whenever we judge another person. We need to remind ourselves that we never see the whole picture. Only God sees that. 

As we age our physical eyesight fails just a bit more.  Let us pray that as our physical eyesight fail, God may increase our spiritual eyesight. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

At the end of week one

Perhaps you have had a great first week of Lent; perhaps you have already “failed” at the Lenten tasks you set for yourself. Whichever the case, today that week comes to an end and we look forward to tomorrow, the Second Sunday of Lent. 

On this last day of the first week, the gospel could make us throw up our hands and give up, as Jesus tells us to be “perfect.” It’s seems impossible until we remeber that the text uses teleios, and not anamartetos.  We are commanded to be perfect not sinless. 

Perfect in the Greek or Latin sense means complete. It grows out of the understanding that when each of us was created by God, he already had in mind the person we were meant to be, there is a goal (Greek-telos). For each of us that goal is both unique and identical.   We each fit into God’s plan in a unique way. On the other hand, the goal is the same for all of us, oneness with Him. 

In this season of Lent, we use bodily discipline, fasting. We use prayer. We use charity. All of these serve a double purpose. 

In the first place, we look back. We do them as Penance for sins committed. 

In the second place, we look forward. We use the discipline of Lent to help us focus, so that we might adhere more closely each day to path that God has marked out for us, the path on which we walk with Christ. There is no discipleship without discipline. 

Tomorrow we begin week two. Take some time today to plan how it will be even better than week one. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Simplicity of prayer

When I was a child, we would tense up if grandma Bess was the one to say grace. My family we your average Baptists. We used “God is great.God is good...” grandma would pray spontaneously. She would go on and on, as the mashed potatoes got cold. 

Fifty years later I now hear Catholics who, in a grass is always greener mindset, think they now need to abandon rote prayers, as if something they make up on the fly is more “real” prayer. They forget what Jesus himself tells us,

In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. 

Even more Jesus tells us why.

Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 

God does not need me to tell him what to do. He does not need to see me beg like a child desperate to have his way.

Some will claim that they are praying in the spirit.  St. Cyprian in writing about the Our Father says

What prayer could be more a prayer in the spirit than the one given us by Christ, by whom the Holy Spirit was sent upon us? 

In this Lenten Season, let us spend more time in prayer,  but let us also keep our prayer simple. Prayer is not us telling God what we want; it is the lifting of our mind and heart to him. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

The same struggles

In yesterday’s gospel we heard about temptation. Today we pick up with an interesting list of commands, interesting for the specific subjects they address. It is a basic principle, that laws are given to address problems. If there is a law forbidding something, then you can bet it was a problem in the community. 

Stealing, lying, theft– these are reaffirmations of things already addressed in the 10 commandments. But then Leviticus veers into what we think of as more modern territory, the treatment of the disabled, the rights of workers, the ways we are to judge others, the spreading of slander. Today’s passage from Leviticus even dives into what we call “sins of omission”. We are reminded that we cannot stand idly by when our neighbor ‘s life is in danger. 

Then we are reminded that there are sins that reside in the inmost parts of our heart: hatred and grudges. 

In a short reading today we are reminded that we must look at all four categories of sin we confess at Mass: thoughts, words, what we have done, and what we have failed to do. 

On this Monday of the first full week of Lent, perhaps it is a good take to find some quiet time and place to do a thorough examination of conscience looking at all four kinds of sin. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

A world without sin

More and more our culture has moved away from the language of religion. Some of this is being done based on particular reading of the non-establishment clause in the constitution. Much of it – as a flight from the guilt that churches are accused of heaping on people in the past. In this flight from religion one of the words we have thrown out is the word “sin.”  There is just one problem. People continue to do bad things. 

Without the word sin, we paint ourselves into a corner. How do we deal with wrongdoing? The only word, the only lens we have left for viewing bad behavior is “crime.” We then move to criminalize it. We ask the law to do what law was never meant to do. And when that fails we then move to public shaming (the online world which inflicts the life sentence). 

Perhaps we would be better off calling sin “sin.” Sin names to quality of the behavior. It identifies the violation of the moral law.  The advantage is that the word sin also admits of contrition, repentance, and forgiveness. 

Today’s first reading begins with the words, 

To the penitent God provides a way back.

Imagine if, here in Vrginia, we called the recent “blackface” scandal sin. 

The offender woud express contrition, do some appropriate penance, and receive forgiveness. The offense is not ignored. Nor is it simply left hanging out there, hanging over the person’s head forever. It is punished for what it is. There would be a way back.

St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that,

all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. 

When we forget this truth, we become judgmental, unforgiving.  Wednesday we begin Lent, 40 days in which we are called to judge no one but ourselves. 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Fill in the plank

In the gospels Jesus uses examples from ordinary life as metaphors for much deeper spiritual realties. In today’s gospel he goes to an example which not on carpenters but anyone who had ever worked with wood would know, the splinter on the eye. 

Our eyes are incredibly sensitive, even the smallest particles can be unbelievably painful. Our reflexive reaction is to close our eye the second we perceive anything getting near it. For some of us, even trying to put eye drops in becomes a challenge. The eye just wont stay open. 

Let something get in our eye and, no matter how small, it feels enormous. Our eyes start to water and we can’t see. Jesus takes this painful common experience and expands on it. 

In the parabole, the tiny speck is not in our own eye, but in the eye of our brother or sister. In our own eye is a dokos, a support beam, the kind one uses in construction. 

It is interesting how Jesus plays with  “charity”. Except it is not real charity, it is that fake charity which is really judgement. We claim to be concerned for our brother or sister because they (not we) are  on the wrong path. We claim to want to help them.

Jesus once again reminds us that we have to start with ourselves. We must remove the beam from our own eye. Our vision must be healed before we can presume to see and remove the speck from the eye of our brother or sister. 

The process requires several steps:
     First, we must feel the pain of the plank in our own eye. 
    Then we must get it removed. Often this will require the help of others. 
    But then there will be a hole and much damage to our vison. The hole must be healed which can only be done by the grace of God. 
    Then having lived the experience of conversion, we can lead other. 

In the upcoming season of Lent. We are each called to examine our lives, to find the plank, the beam, in our eye. If you think you don’t have one pray harder for God to reveal it or ask a loved one who will tell you the truth. 

We all have them.our tendency is to reverse the story. We put the beam in the other person’s eye and the speck in our own. Lent is a time for honesty. 

Prayer, fasting, and charity. Those are the tools we need to pry the board loose. And then God can fill the space created with love giving Grace. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Who is consecrated

In the Catholic Church we use the phrase “consecrated life” to talk about those who are professed to a life of poverty, chasity and obedience. While it is a useful designation, it can too easily let the rest of us off the hook.

In today’s first reading from Hebrews we hear,

He who consecrates and those who are being consecrated all have one origin. Therefore, he is not ashamed to call them “brothers” 

It is a reminder that while men and women religious are “consecrated” to Christ in a particular way. All Christians are “consecrated” at our baptism. We are washed clean in the water. We are filled with the Holy Spirit. We are anointed with Chrism. That anointing is renewed at confirmation. 

We are all consecrated, call into oneness with the sacred, with the Holy. This is why a daily prayer life is essential for the Christian. In prayer we are drawn deeper into that oneness. 

Our prayer needs to be routine, in the best sense of that word. Daily prayer cannot be something we do when we feel like it. All of have rituals, routines that we do every single day without even thinking about it. We shower, we dress, we brush our teeth, we drink coffee. We get in the car we turn on the radio. Look at the routines of your life and ask, is prayer on the list?  If it isn’t, it should be, it can be. 

Every habit begins the same way, repetition. We repeat something long enough it becomes a habit. The habit over time finds its place in the routine. 

On the day of our baptism, we were consecrated to the Lord. We love the idea of being brothers and sisters of Jesus. We can forget that the title comes with demands.  In this first week of ordinary time, let us look at the place of prayer in the ordinary part of our lives. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Living the ordinary faith

Today we begin the first week in ordinary time. There is not first Sunday in Ordinary Time, it was replaced by the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. For the next month, we will be carefully reading our way through the Letter to the Hebrews. 

For me it is one of the more interesting books of the New Testament because its origins are obscure. It is not called “The Letter from St. Paul to the Hebrews,” because we don’t know who wrote it. Nor do we know when or to what “Hebrews.” And yet, despite the lack of such information, the early Christians considered it canonical, official, part of the revealed word of God. The human author was of little importance. 

In some ways it is the perfect letter to read as we move into ordinary time. It is easier to live our faith on the great solemnities like Christmas or Easter, or even during seasons like Lent. It is much harder to live our faith day in and day our in the ordinary progress of life. As we read our way through the Letter to the Hebrews we will discover that the main problem it deals with is exactly this.

The Letter to the Hebrews is not primarily about holding on to the faith during persecution.  It is primarily dealing with the challenge of perservence when the demands of being a Christian seem to be too much. Striving for holiness can be exhausting. It is much easier to simply go with the flow, live like everybody around you.  

The letter opens by reminding us precisely who Jesus is. It reminds us that Jesus was not one more prophet. Jesus is not one more spokesperson for God. Jesus is God. 

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through the Son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe

In our creed we repeat God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; and yet, at times we still don’t seem to get it. Yesterday’s gospel was not Jesus listening to the voice of God; it was the Son listening to the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit, all three equally God. 

In Jesus humanity has a direct, immediate encounter with God. In Jesus we are not only told but shown directly by God wha we are required to do, if we want to have eternal life. And we cannot grow tired of it. We cannot give up. Daily we must continue to strive for holiness. 

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Constant binary choices

From the time we wake up until the time we fall asleep, life is a constant series of choices. What we can overlook is that every choice has a moral component. 

In the first reading today, St. John in his usual, direct fashion continues to discribe that act of choosing in the starkest possible lainguage. As he describes it, we are either children of God who do not sin, or children of the Evil One who sin. What distinguishes us are our actions. They are either evil or righteous. For St. John, there is no third, middle category. All our actions are one or the other. 

Perhaps we need to be forced to sort our actions this way.  

In the book Ther magical art of tidying up, the author uses this same methodology. She forces clients to take, for example, all of their shirt and put them in a pile on the floor. Then, one by one, they have to pick them up and decide, keep or don’t keep.  You keep only the ones you will actually wear. 
There is no third option of shoving it in the back of the closet or basement. 

St. John wants to us look at all of our choices in that same fashion,  In every choice, I choose evil or just. 

The word he uses for evil is poneros. It comes from the word for pain. Is the action hurtful, to self or other? All our actions have consequences. What we say, what we eat, how we spend our free time – all things have some lasting impact on ourselves or others. Even a smal injury is an injury or in the words of St. John, evil.

Our other choice is dikaios, righteous, in accord with God’s law.  

All day every day each of us must decide, through our actions, whose child we are: child of God or child of the Evil One.  

The language sounds stark or even extreme, but perhaps we need that kind of language to keep us on the right path. 

Friday, January 4, 2019

Retreat Day Four

Today is the fourth day of a retreat by the bishops of the US called for by Pope Francis. The very fact that they are beginning with a retreat is a great sign that this time they are on the right path. The other great sign is the letter a Pope Francis sent to them as they begin the retreat. 

In the letter he addresses, with his usual directness, “the crisis of credibility” and the “culture of abuse.”  He addresses the all to common church as “evangelization business”model that we often see in the U.S. We have too often fallen into what he calls the “trap of functionalism and efficiency that govern the business world.” He is blunt about the seeking places of honor, jealousy, envy and machinations that are present in the Church. 

But he also reminds us that these things are not new.  We have only to read our Bibles and we will find that these issues have been with the Church from its beginning — James and John seeking to sit at His left and right. 

As Pope Francis reminds us, our current crisis will not be solved by creating more committees or redoing the org chart. Many people cried out when “Rome wouldn’t let the bishops” (that’s how it was portrayed) pass new rules. Pope Francis understood that binders filled with regulations will not solve the problem, unless there is first a true conversion of heart, a change in mind-set (metanoia). It is not a problem of “self-preservation, defensiveness” (the diocesan attorneys) or “marketing or strategizing to regain lost prestige” (the PR consultant); it requires pastors, shepherds whose first concern is the flock and a “collegial awareness of our being sinners in constant need of conversion.”

Will our bishops emerge from this retreat ready to remove the plank from their own eyes?  On a human level, it is completely understandable that every bishop is afraid of being sued, afraid of having to join the list of those who have filed for bankruptcy. Of course it will be embarrassing to admit what they knew and when they knew it and no one wants to be the one to “rat out” a brother bishop.  But sins of omission, when we fail to act, can often be the worst. 

Let us pray for our bishops. From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected. May they be given the courage to look inward. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The AntiChrist

Of those of us old enough to remember the Omen, few of us will ever forget the child that turned out to be ''the AntiChrist."  Unfortunately, too many of us never moved beyond the sci-fi version to actually reading The First Letter of St. John that explains who the antichrist really is. 
Whoever denies the Father and the Son, this is the antichrist. 

As St. John explains it, the antichrist is not a supernatural being with powers like one of the x-men.  It is a regular human being like you or me. In Monday's reading, he even used the term in the plural, 

so now many antichrists have appeared. 
Thus we know this is the last hour. 
They went out from us, but they were not really of our number;
if they had been, they would have remained with us. 

Clearly they were members of the community, but members who, as St. John describes it, never really bought into the message of Jesus Christ, and ultimately ended up leaving the Church.  

While the supernatural movie version is more entertaining and, perhaps, more interesting, what St. John is talking about is much more applicable to our daily lives.  If we're not careful any one of us could become the antichrist.  While we may not come right out and deny Jesus Christ, we can if we are not careful deny Christ by our actions. We can become complacent and accept sin as if it were not sin.  This is what gives scandal, when people see Christians apparently not even trying to be better. 

The Pope addressed this when he quite directly said, 

How many times have we witnessed the scandal of those who go to church and spend all day there or attend every day, and later go on hating others or speaking ill of people. This is a scandal,...It would be better to not go to church. Live like an atheist. 
If you go to church, then live like a son, like a brother, like an authentic witness, not a counter-witness.
All of us fall short of living the fullness of the gospel. We give into the passions and temptations of earthly life.  But when we do, we must acknowledge our sin, go to the Sacrament of Penance, and strive each day to more fully live the gospel. Tomorrow should always be better than today.