April 2, 2017 Fifth Sunday in Lent

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Apr 022017
 

 John 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33b-45

The sisters of Lazarus sent word to Jesus, saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” He became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

It’s funny the things you remember from your childhood. When I was about five, I had a recurring nightmare from watching the movie “Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy.” Some of you may have seen it. In the movie there was this Egyptian mummy wrapped in strips of cloth, holding his hands out in front of him as he staggered quickly after the two hapless comedians, trying to grab them. I could just envision that mummy coming after me. Terrifying stuff to a little kid.

That was the image I had of Lazarus coming out of the tomb as depicted in our Gospel lesson, wrapped in cloth, arms outstretched, staggering and stumbling from the tomb. However, I have a new sense of this narrative after I read a reflection by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled “The Dress Rehearsal.” She writes:

“You can still visit Lazarus’s tomb in Bethany. It’s a little way up from the church that bears his name.  You just go out the front door, turn left, up the steep cobblestone road, and look for the Lazarus souvenir and gift shop on the right.”

“Directly across the street you can see the entrance to the cave, enclosed by metal railings. For a small fee, you can walk down the winding steps into the wet cellar where the old grave site is—a small round opening in a rock wall down around knee level.”

“You have to bend almost double to get in, and coming out requires real gymnastic ability. There is only one way to do it: you come out head first, with your upper body already out while your feet are still finding the three small steps—looking up as you straighten up, trying not to scrape your back.”

“If it really is Lazarus’s tomb, then he did not come out of it like a man walking out of prison. He came out of it like a baby being born again—first his poor wrapped head, then his bandaged hands, and finally his feet.”

This is helpful. Assuming that this is the tomb of Lazarus, then he didn’t come out of the tomb standing up and staggering like the mummy in the old Abbot and Costello movie. Rather he emerged like a new born baby from his mother’s womb. This lesson is about the interplay between the hope of resurrection and the need to be “born again” as John tells us in the 3rd chapter.  There is a strong interconnection between rebirth and resurrection, between baptism and resurrection.

In this passage from John, we learn of suffering and death and the hope of resurrection. We know that Jesus and Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus were all friends. There’s a strong probability that they were of a common age, somewhere around 30.  Lazarus was felled by some unknown, unnamed illness. And although we are told that Jesus really loved the guy, we note in the text that Jesus deliberately waited 2 days before heading off to see him. He wanted to make sure that he was dead before he went to call.

When he got to Bethany two days later, He found that his friend Lazarus had been dead 4 days. According to Jewish custom, this meant that Lazarus’s body had officially begun to decay and that his soul had departed.  Martha hears that Jesus is at the edge of town and she storms out to meet him. She’s really upset and she confronts him with these words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  There is reproach and grief and anger and disappointment and a whole lot of hurt in these words.  The one who could have made a difference did not, and Martha wants to know why.

Some of you may have wondered the same thing. Someone you love ventures near the edge of life and you turn to Jesus for help. You, like Martha, turn to the only one who can pull your loved one from the ledge of death. You implore Jesus to lend a hand. Martha must have thought, “Surely Jesus will come. Didn’t he heal the paralytic? Didn’t he help the Leper?  Didn’t he give sight to the blind? And they hardly knew him. Lazarus is his friend. We’re like family.” “Doesn’t Jesus come for the weekend? Doesn’t he eat at our table? When he hears that Lazarus is sick, he’ll be here in a heartbeat.”

But he didn’t come. Lazarus got worse. She watched out the window. Jesus didn’t show. Her brother drifted in and out of consciousness. “He’ll be here soon, Lazarus,” she probably promised, “hang on.” But the knock on the door never came. Jesus never appeared. Not to help, not to heal, not even to bury. And now, four days late, he finally shows up.  The funeral is over; the body is buried and the grave is sealed. Martha’s reproach echoes through the ages.

How many parents of SIDS (sudden infant death) babies have cried out, “Lord if you’d only been here, my arms would not be empty.  How many young wives grieve over the bodies of their husbands— victims of snipers and suicide bombers? How many young children can’t figure out why mommy will never come home again?

The grave unearths our view of God.

Why is it that for many of us, when we face death, especially when it’s an “unfair,” an “unjust” death, our view of God is challenged? And that in turn challenges our faith; and that in turn leads to grave questions? Why is it that all too often we interpret the presence of death as the absence of God? As a result when Christ doesn’t respond as we would like, if he lingers, we may get angry and reproachful? Resentment replaces belief. Or we may become resigned and passive. “It’s God’s will and something shrivels inside.”

So I ask, if this applies to you, “Haven’t you lost enough without losing your faith as well?” Especially in the dark times, sinking in the swamp of grief, we need to cling to the words of hope that Jesus shares with Martha. When he tells her that her brother will rise again, she says, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” But Jesus corrects her. Here I would like to use another word than “believe.” The Greek term “pisteuo,” which is usually translated as “believe” can also mean “trust.” Consider this translation: “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. “whoever trusts in me, even though he die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die. Do you trust this?” (John 11:25-26)

Jesus does not say that he has power to give resurrection and life.  He says that “He Is” resurrection and life. In him, resurrection and life are a present reality, not just a future hope. Those who trust this have eternal life, no matter what happens to them. St. Paul tells us in the 6th chapter of Romans that we have died with Christ in our baptism and through those self-same waters of baptism we have risen with him—present tense.

This is very different from the promise of a future reward. And it is soon to be demonstrated in what He is going to do with Lazarus. He is about to prove that Lazarus is alive and well, even though his body has lain four days in a tomb.  He is about to call his friend Lazarus back from the living heart of God, so that those who think he is dead can think again.

And then Jesus must repeat this whole scene with the other sister, Mary. Please note that everyone in this story is focused on preventing death, while Jesus is focused on outliving it.  When he sees Mary weeping, along with her friends, it says in our translation this morning that he “became perturbed and deeply troubled.” The Greek is more visceral than that. It’s enebrim Esato. The passage literally says—“Jesus snorts.” He shrieks; he cries out; he sheds tears, less in grief and more in frustration. They don’t get it and it aggravates him.

He then takes a breath, and then like any good teacher, Jesus decides to show them what he means instead of repeating himself, over and over again. “I am the resurrection” he had just told them.  Ok then, let me show you what that means. After thanking the Father for what is about to happen, he commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb.

Lazarus emerged, more like a baby being delivered than a mummy, but there is wrapped shroud cloth encasing his body. And then Jesus commands the people to “Untie him and let him go.” This is a pun. Not only is Lazarus to be freed from the burial cloth, he is to be freed from the misconception of death.

So, in conclusion, Jesus is serious when He says, “I am the Resurrection, and I am the Life.” Not later, but right now. We are reborn by water and the spirit in sacrament of baptism. And because of this, it’s important to note that eternal life is not something we wait around for, it is something we begin living immediately as we are still dripping from the waters of baptism. The question for us is not so much that we believe it but do we really trust that this is true?

 

March 26, 2017 4th Sunday in Lent

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Mar 262017
 

 

John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38S

As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth. He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” — which means Sent —.  So he went and washed, and came back able to see.  His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is, ” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.”  They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees.  Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath.  So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.  He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.”  So some of the Pharisees said,  “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.”  But others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?”  And there was a division among them.  So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?”  He said, “He is a prophet.”  They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?”  Then they threw him out.  When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”  Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him.

As we draw close to the end of our Lenten journey, I want to spend some time in reflection.  I’ve been thinking of the year 325AD, the year of the first great ecumenical council in the town of Nicea in present day Turkey.  It was an assembly of bishops from all over the Christian world who gathered to do some housekeeping about Church structure and lines of authority, and most importantly, to set straight the thinking of a Deacon named Arius who taught that Jesus was a creation of God rather than a full manifestation. They penned a statement of belief with these words about Jesus: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made…” They used the Greek word homoousias to affirm in that creed that Jesus was of the exact same substance as God; therefore he was not only fully human, he was and is fully God. We now use the word consubstantial, a deliberately distinct word, to deliberately convey the significance and the mystery.

Pious tradition tells us that there were 318 bishops there, from the British Isles to the Arabian Dessert. They engaged in a preparatory 40-day period of fasting and prayer and penance, much in the tradition of the Holy people of scripture: Moses, Elijah and of course Christ Jesus himself. Some of the bishops had been tortured and mutilated in the persecutions of the Roman Emperors Maximin and Lucinius. They wore their infirmities as badges of honor. They had suffered for the sake of Christ and his Church—and it showed.

Today there are bishops who are maimed like those bishops at Nicea. Some who have fallen into the hands of ISIS and Al-Qaeda are still suffering greatly. But not all are the victims of Islamic extremists. One, Ignatius Cardinal Kung of Shanghai, was released some 30 years ago after spending 3 decades in a Chinese prison. He was reportedly surprised to learn that the Church’s Friday meat abstinence had been changed to apply only to the Friday’s of Lent. Evidently he did not think that this was an improvement. While his interment had been a perpetual Lent, a constant period of self-denial and self-offering, he thought that the mortifications, large and small,  of his brothers and sisters in the West had been sustaining him;  when in fact it had been found that it was the other way around.

The bishops of Nicea knew the consequences of mortification, the grief when it was inflicted, and the grace when it was voluntarily embraced. Today, the practices of self-maiming are not to be done. But there is something about pain that is not avoided, along with general self-denial that is intertwined with holiness. The Catechism states: The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.  [The one] who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. [One] never stops desiring what [is already known] (CCC #2015)

To give an appropriate amount of time to hold close the tender and painful aspects of faith, the bishops of Nicea decided to extend to 40 days that period which had been 3 days of penance right before Easter. They also decided that this penitential season should be a time of preparation for Catechumens, those to be baptized as well as a period of overall instruction for the faithful. Through the years, the nature of the Lenten Fasts and penances varied. It was not until the 7th century in Western part of the Church that Ash Wednesday was added so that Lent would last the full forty days, because Sundays were exempt.

There is something about Lent that is not for the sentimental. I think that is because the Christian faith is not for them either. As is said so often, Cafeteria Catholics who pick and choose the aspects of faith they wish to obey and to follow, embrace an easy, fast food version of the heavenly banquet and this picky self selection is neither feast nor fast.

Thomas Merton, another convert from the Episcopal Church, recalled in The Seven Story Mountain that before he became a Catholic, his Easter consisted of an abbreviated service of Morning Prayer followed by an egg hunt on a manicured lawn. This reminds me of something that one of my former parishioners said to me: “Church is what you do in your spare time.” Sadly, that seems to apply to many Catholics as well.

There was a time when Church—and Lent specifically—determined the course of one’s life. It is not supposed to be convenient. Lent was once known as the “truce of God.” Alms-giving was flaunted. Wars were suspended. Executions were postponed. People offered the entirety of their lives to God, at least for this one season.

And ironically, Lent is an occasion to sin. Just as Jesus was tempted by his time in the dessert, so are we especially tempted during Lent. St John Chrysostom preached: God does not impede temptations, first so that you can be convinced of your strength; secondly, that you may be humble, not proud; thirdly that the devil, who may doubt whether you have truly abandoned him, will be certain of that fact; fourthly, so that you may become strong as iron, understanding the value of the treasures which have been granted you.

Mortification and ascesis, pain and self-denial, things that humble us and keep us off balance are offered to us to be cherished, even hugged, especially during Lent.

As an example, I look back on Pope St. John Paul’s infirmities prior to his death. They surely must have been a great mortification. The sight of the Holy Father so debilitated by his disease makes him an icon of Lent and as he gave us his blessing with trembling hands, we can rejoice that he is an icon of the Resurrection, our hope in the midst of terrible occurrences.

It is these unsought mortifications that are so much more difficult than the self-prescribed ones.

As I get specific for us, I think of the different kinds of mortifications. Traditionally they are things of the flesh, disease in particular.  St John Paul’s Parkinson’s disease comes to mind immediately. But I think also of broken relationships: family members who are estranged, loved ones who hold the faith in contempt, grandchildren that flaunt sin as though it were approved by God.

Like all pain, it is best treated as something we “offer up,” something that is most appropriate on our Lenten journey. It is a reminder less of who we are and more of whose we are.

Let us emulate the man born blind in today’s Gospel lesson. We sit in our own private darkness and beg, not of others, but of God. And we pray that he will say the word, and sight will be restored. And then all we can behold is Glory. Until that day we will keep “offering it up” and no matter how many times we take it back, regroup and offer it up again, and again, and again if need be.

 

March 19, 2017 3rd Sunday in Lent

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Mar 192017
 

John 4:5-42

Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there.  Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well.  It was about noon.  A woman of Samaria came to draw water.  Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.  The Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”  —For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.—Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink, ‘  you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”  The woman said to him, “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water?  Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?”  Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”  Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.”  The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.”  Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true.”  The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.  Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain;  but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.  God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”  The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.”  Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one speaking with you.”  At that moment his disciples returned,  and were amazed that he was talking with a woman, but still no one said, “What are you looking for?”  or “Why are you talking with her?”  The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done.  Could he possibly be the Christ?”  They went out of the town and came to him.  Meanwhile, the disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.”  But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”  So the disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?”  Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.  Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’?  I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest.  The reaper is already receiving payment and gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together.  For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps.’  I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”  Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me everything I have done.”  When the Samaritans came to him, they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

It was Thoreau who wrote of people living “lives of quiet desperation.” He may have been thinking of a low grade depression or a chronic boredom we can’t seem to shake. It may have been torpor or lethargy; the French have a word, ennui, it means a deep seated sense of unease, you’re constantly out of sorts, there’s a great weariness. Perhaps there are so many unmet hopes, dreams that are unfulfilled. It may be associated with aging or poor health, strained or even broken relationships, job dissatisfaction, troubled finances, the current political scene, world affairs, even the weather. Perhaps it stems from “low self esteem” or old fashioned ‘burn out.’ Often it’s tied in with grief. Brain synapses may be misfiring. Other aspects of our body chemistry may be out of whack. The point is, no one is immune from being emotionally off balance, of having unfulfilled expectations, personal pain and a sense of unease, a life “of quiet desperation.”

There may have been too much attention paid to the voice of the devil when he whispers in your ear “you’re no good, you never were any good, you never will be any good.” Most of us get over it; some do not.  Where are these folks? In a pew here in St. Mary Parish?  It’s anywhere and everywhere. It can be any of us, but especially it’s these folks:

Anyone who is told that she, or he, is not needed or wanted.

Anybody who is convinced that no one really cares.

Anyone who has been given more blows than caresses.

Down at the mission? At a battered women’s shelter? In a nursing home. In prison? It’s anyone who’s received unremitting criticism, but never a chance—or even a kind word.

Victims of resentment and futility. It’s anyone who’s done some really stupid—perhaps evil stuff— and folks remember and aren’t letting it go.

You know what it’s like to have no one sit with you at coffee hour.

You’ve wondered what it would be like to have one good friend.

You’ve been in love and were burned so badly, that you aren’t ever going to do that again!

Or maybe you’ve tried to find love in all the wrong places— with all the wrong people—in all the wrong ways.

We can look at the woman in today’s Gospel lesson. We don’t know her name, but we know some things about her.  She is a Samaritan, one of those mixed race northerners whose ancestors were both Hebrew and Assyrian, great enemies whom the Jews viewed as undesirable aliens. These Samaritans believed that God should be worshiped on Mt. Gerazim and not in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jewish troops destroyed the temple at Mt. Gerazim in 128 BC and the consequent hostilities still festered.

  • This unnamed woman at the well in today’s Gospel lesson knew the sting of racism—she knew what it was like to be unwelcomed and unwanted.
  • She has been married to five men. Five. Did they all die or was she divorced? She was probably divorced from at least one of those guys, because if she had been widowed—most likely it would have been mentioned in the text. But we don’t know. Either way, she was left alone.
  • Five different marriages and all the different beds, all the different abandonments, those who walked out or died or who divorced her. I would guess that she knew the sound of slamming doors.

It reminds me of that old Willie Nelson song:   “The last thing I needed the first thing this morning, was to have you walk out on me.’

This Samaritan woman knew what it is like to love and not to have it returned. And we know from the text that she isn’t married to her current partner. Was it his idea, or was it hers? Again we don’t know. All we know is that they are “co-habituating” which is the polite term.

Let’s look more closely. A few lines down from the beginning we see that the time of this encounter between Jesus and this woman was about noon. This raises the question, “Why hadn’t she come for water in the early hours of the morning with the other women?” Maybe she had, and perhaps she had just returned for an extra jar on a hot day.  Probably not. I’m guessing it was to avoid the catty remarks.

  • “Here she comes. She’s got another man.”
  • “Watch your husbands.”
  • “Shh. She’s listening.”

We can only guess; the text doesn’t say. All we know is that she is drawing water at noon, a very unusual hour and she encounters Jesus. He was obviously a Jew and he looks directly at her and she becomes uneasy, even suspicious. Jesus then asks her for a drink of water. “Uh, huh.” She was too street wise to think that this was just a request for water. Her intuition was right. He was interested in more than just water. He was interested in her heart and her soul.

They talked. She probably thought something like, “When had a man talked to me so intimately and not tried to hit on me?” He tells her of water that quenches not the thirst of the throat, but the thirst of the soul.

Something hit home. Oh, my, she wanted that. About a quarter of the way into the passage, she says, “Sir, give me this water so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” My guess is that her response is primarily about avoiding this particular well where embarrassment abounds. Anyway, Jesus then said, “Go call your husband and come back.”  Her heart must have sunk. Here he was, a holy Jew who spoke to her with respect— to her, a Samaritan woman—a suspect foreigner.

A lie probably flashed through her mind, but she told the truth. He was kind in a way that invited honesty. “I do not have husband,” she said.  She probably held her breath, waiting for his response.

Think of the number of times you’ve wanted to do the same thing. Remember when you longed to open that dark, bolted door of your secret sin that you were ashamed to tell even your confessor? If you’ve ever had the same kind of anxiety, pay particular attention to the next line.

Jesus said, “’You are right in saying ‘I do not have a husband;’ for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband. What you said is true.’” There are no secrets from Jesus.

Think about what Jesus didn’t say, though.  There was no criticism, no contempt, no anger. No “what kind of a mess have made of your life” lecture. She must have been overwhelmed. And then the most remarkable part of this passage occurred. To her, this Samaritan woman, Jesus reveals his identity for the first time. He said, “I am the Christ.”

Suddenly all the sham, all the broken relationships and adultery, all the loneliness, all the fear, all the ‘snake’s belly low self-esteem’ was gone. She was free. In verse 28, we have one of those ‘throw away’ lines that is terribly important.  The text says “The woman left her water jar and went into town.”

Look at what she left behind: The water jar! She left her burden with the Messiah. She was free. St. Augustine reflected on this passage and said—the water jar is the fallen desire…that draws pleasure from the dark wells of the world, but is never satisfied for long. Conversion to Christ moves us, like the Samaritan woman, to renounce the world, leave behind the desires of our earthen vessels, and follow a new way of life. (Tract on John 15, 16, 30) 

Shifting gears, as I ponder all this, I am reminded that not all of us carry this kind of burden, but we all are required by the Church to go to confession this time of year. Many do not. Some may be overwhelmed by their sin and they are afraid to go. Confession is a wonderful antidote.

But many others don’t go for other reasons. Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith in the recent addition the Catholic Herald in England writes:

“..it is not hard to go to Confession. People sometimes say things like ‘I don’t know the words’ or ‘I don’t know what to say.’ You do not have to get your story right before you go to confession; you just have to be honest. The only thing you have to say is the truth. You have to talk as if to God, the One who knows you best. The only real thing you need to take with you is a sense of your own sinfulness and an awareness of your sins.”

“It is a lack of this last that keeps people away from confession, I think, rather than embarrassment or fear. They no longer feel guilty because they have reasoned that they are nice people and that the things they do are somehow ‘OK’ because God ‘doesn’t mind’. How to cure that mentality? I suppose the best way would be to read the Bible and find out what God is really like. One might like to start with these verses from Exodus, where God gives this description of Himself:’

The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless… (Exodus 34:6) ‘That hardly sounds like a God who does not mind transgression. God is moral, and His glory consists in the revelation of His moral goodness. Compared to Him, we are all weak and fallible and not as good as we could be.’ With this in mind, let us all get ourselves off to Confession this Lent. (Catholic Herald Mar.17, 2017)

Sometimes I think it is easier for people who are gross sinners, like the Samaritan woman, who are well aware of their sins and their need to come to Christ and offer him those sins. It is the folks who live pretty good lives who have trouble. They too may live lives “of quiet desperation” but they don’t look at any of it as a result of sin but often sins are there, frequently sins of omission, and by not confessing them they miss out on all that wonderful grace.

Today we once again celebrate the one who lifts our burdens and sets us free. We may get pretty desperate but our baptismal promise tells us that we are his and his love will never cease. If you’ve ever questioned this, especially during a time of quiet desperation, I would remind you once again of the gift God has given us through Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

 

March 12, 2017 2nd Sunday in Lent

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Mar 122017
 

Matthew 17:1-9

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Mt. Tabor is a large, round hill in central Galilee. It’s the place that pious tradition tells us is the site of the Transfiguration. When you go there today with a party of pilgrims, you have to get out of your bus and take a taxi to the top. They say that God is especially pleased with Mt. Tabor taxi drivers, because more praying occurs in the few minutes hurtling up and down those narrow mountain roads than in all the rest of the day or probably the week. Aside from being a holy place, the view is spectacular.

Jesus and his three friends, Peter, James and John, obviously didn’t take a taxi and they didn’t go up the mountain for the view. On top, they experienced something so very extraordinary, so hard to believe, that even the most skeptical New Testament scholars agree that something historical happened there. There is no doubt in the mind of the Church that something profound occurred and it is proper for us to reflect on it and revere it this day.

Few incidents in the gospels are so difficult to speak about as is the Transfiguration; it is a great mystery. It’s not that we can understand nothing about it, but what we can understand will always be less than the whole. The Transfiguration yields its secret only if we embrace the mystery. To do so we must reflect on the symbols.  We’ll look at six:

        the high mountain;

        the appearance of Moses and Elijah;

        the three tents or booths which Peter wants to erect;

        the cloud;

        the heavenly voice and the consequent affirmation of Jesus’ authority

        the dazzling whiteness of Jesus’ clothes and face.

 

In the Bible, mountains symbolize both remoteness from ordinary worldly affairs, and nearness to God. Moses received the Ten Commandments atop Mt. Sinai. Elijah staged his dramatic battle with the false prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus ascended a mountain to teach his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5-7). And in John’s Gospel our Lord withdraws to a mountain to pray following the feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness (Jn 6:15).

At the Transfiguration, Moses symbolizes the Law and Elijah the Prophets, the two great sources of authority in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Together they point to Jesus as the one who fulfils all the hopes and expectations of God’s people. Jesus is greater than either of them, greater than Moses and Elijah together, greater than even the Law and the Prophets.

The three tents or booths Peter wants to erect are reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Booths, a joyful autumnal celebration that recalls the time when God’s people lived in tents during their desert wanderings. The Feast of Booths also looks forward to the joy of the end-time when God will visit his people and complete the blessings promised in the covenant he made with Moses in the wilderness.

The cloud is most striking. Repeatedly in the Holy Scriptures the cloud symbolizes God’s presence. During their desert wanderings the Children of Israel were led onward by a cloud. Mt. Sinai was enveloped in a cloud when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. A cloud received the risen Lord at his Ascension.

The voice from the cloud on Mt. Tabor repeats the words heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Here, however, the words are addressed not to Jesus, but to his disciples. The concluding words, “Listen to him,” remind us of Moses’ prophecy: A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kindred; that is the one to whom you shall listen.(Dt. 18:15)

The Transfiguration of Jesus himself is the most striking of the symbols. It is a great mystery because, though it happened in time, it opens a window onto a world beyond time. For a brief moment, there on the mountain, the veil between time and eternity, the sacred and the profane, between earth and heaven, is lifted. Peter, James and John catch a glimpse of the invisible world of God. The concluding words, “Listen to him,” express the significance of the mystery for all of us.

We, the friends and followers of Christ Jesus are the company of those who listen to his words, who follow his instructions. Jesus does not grant to us, demand of us, any more than he granted to and demanded of Peter, James, and John. We live less on the mountaintop of great spiritual experiences, and more in the valley of life’s ordinary duties. So very, very infrequently do we see dazzling visions from beyond. Instead we listen for Jesus’ voice.

Jesus speaks to us in many ways: in the Scriptures, in prayer, in the teaching of his Church, through the circumstances of daily life, especially in the lives of the poor and homeless. He speaks to us in the promptings of conscience.

In the world to come, it will be different. There we shall see the Lord. In this world, however, we live by faith, and not by sight.

For a moment, before the descent of the cloud, the three disciples of Jesus saw their Master transformed beyond anything they could have imagined. It was as if his humanity and divinity had no limits. The Transfiguration is a manifestation of Christ’s divinity, from a moment breaking through the veil of his humanity. But it is more. It also shows us our potential to become holy. As we are told in 2 Peter 1:4, we are to “share in the divine nature.” It is something that happens to saints and eventually to all the Faithful—if not here, then in purgatory.

If the goal of the spiritual life is to grow in holiness, then the more we progress, the more we participate in God’s own life. When our journey reaches its end, and we have been stripped of all the obstacles to holiness, God’s life will become our life, and we shall be one with Christ, one in Christ. It’s what it means to part of the Body of Christ. It’s what it means to be crucified with Christ. St. Paul said: I live no longer… but Christ lives in me [and I in him] (Gal. 2:20)

We eagerly anticipate that day when our earthly pilgrimage beneath an often overcast sky will yield to the uninterrupted vision of God’s glory. We too shall shine with an unearthly light, the light that shines from the face of Christ Jesus: our Master, our Savior, our Redeemer, but also our best friend. We shall have reached our true homeland, the heavenly city which (as we read in The Revelation to St. John of Patmos) needs neither sun nor moon, “for the glory of God gives it light, and the lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21.23).

But until that day our holiness is not complete. So now I invite you to consider a seventh sign: It is the interlocking of the Transfiguration with the Crucifixion:

It’s really quite striking. Envision yourself here on Mt. Tabor. You are with Peter, James and John and this time you are here for the view. Suddenly Jesus glows with glory; it is overwhelming. And then mysteriously you look across the way and into the future to Golgotha. There you see Jesus is revealed in shame, executed like a common criminal. Here on Mt. Tabor his clothes are shining white, there they have been stripped off and soldiers are gambling for them.

Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes, representing the Law and the Prophets, there he is flanked by two brigands, representing the level to which human beings have sunk in rebellion against God. Here a bright cloud overshadows the scene, there darkness has come upon the land. Here Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is, there he is hiding in shame after denying he even knows our Lord. Here is a voice from God himself, declaring that this is his “Beloved Son,” there, a pagan soldier declares in surprise, that this is “truly the Son of God.”

In many ways, Tabor explains Golgotha and the Crucifixion explains the Transfiguration. We can better come to grips with each of them if we ponder them side by side. We learn to see glory in the Cross, and we learn to see the Cross in glory.

This story of the Transfiguration is a story of beauty and laughter and above all love. And as we know, the Crucifixion seems to bring ugliness and grief and despair, only to be transformed three days later by the greatest example of beauty and laughter and love, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

We must embrace both if we are to be truly holy. And the Glory of God and the humiliation of the Cross must be clasped together, so we can have a deeper understanding of what it means to be holy. Let us embrace this especially as we continue on our Lenten pilgrimage.

 

March 5, 2017 First Sunday in Lent

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Mar 052017
 

Matthew 4:1-11

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.

This first Sunday of Lent features the story of Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness. His hair is still wet from his baptism by John. The words from the Father must have been ringing in His ears: “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then bang, the really hard times begin. As soon as Jesus comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove alights on his head and then leads him into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

This time in the wilderness was meant to toughen Jesus, much as it toughened the children of Israel as they wandered for 40 years before crossing the Jordon into the Promised Land. It is really important to note that although Satan did the actual tempting of Jesus, it was the Spirit of God who led him into the desert. God himself does not tempt, but he will put us in positions in which we are tested to try our mettle and to strengthen us. The difference between Satan’s tempting and God’s testing is not always clear to us, but the motivations are polar opposites: Satan wants to destroy us and God wants to build us up, not only for our own sakes, but to toughen us so that we can be useful for the kingdom. Let’s look at this passage from the fourth chapter of St. Matthew more closely.

Note in the first verse it says: At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.

This is a gross understatement. Forty days and forty nights without food and water makes one more than hungry; it would kill regular folks. This was a kind of cosmic boot camp. It was a time of toughening to make Jesus better able to withstand all the subsequent attacks of the enemy as he drew near to the time of crucifixion.

For example, think about the flies. One of the titles of Satan is “Beelzebul,” which is literally “Lord of the Flies.” From what I understand, the flies in that part of the world are unbelievable. Put yourself in Jesus’ sandals: you’re striving to be faithful and you have been completely deprived of fluids and nourishment for 40 days and nights; your defenses are trashed, your resistance is at rock bottom, and then you are bombarded by all the flies of hell, circling your head, buzzing in your ears, trying to crawl up your nose, landing on your eyes. I think flies are special tools of the enemy.

And then there are the Holy Land’s equivalent of chiggers and mosquitoes, the biting and itching would be enough to drive one crazy. And then there were the incredible changes in temperature, often 70 degrees or more in a 24 hour period.

It was a brutal time, and then Jesus was really attacked. Matthew tells us that Satan hit him with 3 specific temptations: 1) There was the temptation to turn rocks into bread; 2) there was the temptation to jump off the top of the Temple to show that the Father would send angels to protect him and to keep him from harm, no matter the situation or circumstances and 3) there was the temptation to be more wealthy and powerful than anyone in history, the only requirement was for Jesus to shift his allegiance from the Father to Satan.

We need to take a couple of things into account: First, these temptations for Jesus were real. As a fully human being, He could have succumbed to any and all of them; second, these and other temptations make him very empathetic and supportive of us when we are tempted and it makes him very forgiving when we succumb to those temptations. He knows how strong they are. In Hebrews 4:15 we are told that Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” That means he knows the tug of every lure of sin imaginable, without actually committing the sin. Without exception, the nasty and the petty, the brutal and the cruel, the thoughtless and the apathetic, the selfish and the spiteful, the downright mean and blasphemous, the self-indulgent and immoral, these and many, many more temptations have tugged strongly at Jesus, but he never succumbed to any of them.

Let’s now look at these three specific temptations that are in today’s Gospel lesson.

The first temptation about turning stones to bread speaks of the temptations of appetite. Satan takes normal and good desires and twists them. For example, hungering for food can make one a glutton, and in our self-preoccupation we then can easily ignore the hungry. But appetites deal with so many other issues as well: sex, money, power, prestige, all kinds of drugs. Each of us knows the tug of wanting something more than we need or that we ought to have.

We know what it’s like to become irrational, even foolish and destructive in our desires. Sometimes we are able to curb these temptations; often we are not. Sometimes we are bold in succumbing to the temptations of appetite, sometimes we are sneaky. The temptations of appetite often are tools of the devil.

Jesus reminds us that we don’t live on the fulfillment of appetite, but on the message of love and kindness and faithfulness and self-sacrifice that God calls us to observe.

The second temptation is what I like to call the temptation of vertigo, in this specific case the anxiety about falling from a great height, of being off balance, of being fearful. I’m particularly sensitive to this one. I’m subject to vertigo and I know full well the irrational component of it.

When looking down from a great height, I tend to grab hold of things and hang on tightly as my knees buckle and my hands sweat; my breathing gets short, my heart pounds. Jesus was placed on the temple and it was a dizzying height and I think that he suffered from vertigo. Vertigo, and other fears are not sins in themselves, but the intense fear can lead us to be obsessed with control because we are in the grips of fear, sometimes irrational fear. And consequently our perceived need to be safe, to be in control, often trumps everything else. And when we have inordinate control issues, it is very difficult to be faithful, and it can quickly lead us to sin. We are much more concerned about ourselves and our own agendas than we are in serving and loving God and those who are in need.

More subtly, for mature Christians who have control issues, we tend to be especially susceptible to sins of omission, of not doing things we ought to do. Sometimes, especially when we are tired, we want to passively control things by being unavailable. We may not actively resist, but we will disappear. When we opt not to do something that God wants us to do, it is serious sin; it is the sin of omission. We want to stay safe, or we want to avoid hassle or we just want to do something other than what God wants us to do.

There’s another temptation here regarding the desire to be in control; it’s the temptation to do something foolish and see what God will do to take care of us. I often think of it in terms of driving; it’s summed up in famous last words “buckle up, I want to try something” or “this car can stop on a dime” or “bet I can beat that train to the crossing.”

It’s used other ways as well. We can be in the middle of some serious sin, perhaps with another person and we’ll think: “What we’re doing is no one else’s business” a phrase that is often used when committing sins of appetite. It’s all about being in control and actively or passively refuting God’s desires and requirements for our lives.

The third temptation that is common to all of us is the temptation to idolatry. Satan showed Jesus all the nations of the world and said that they would be his if he, Jesus, would bow down and worship him, Satan. There are many interesting nuances here. For example the term worship comes from the Middle English word “worth ship” which means that we are assigning “ultimate worth” to someone or something. It is establishing what is most worthwhile in our lives. Often we do this with subtleness and perhaps even unconsciously.

I’ve found the best indicator of what we consider to be most worthwhile in our lives and therefore what we are most inclined to worship can be determined by our checkbooks and our daybooks. Where and how do we spend our time and on what do we spend our money? Who or what do we shortchange? All too often it’s the specific things of God.

We can be so tied up with the affairs of the world that we seem always to be running late and running short. We have trouble trying to change our lives or our values or priorities. To address this we often take short cuts. Doing the Holy Things of God will often take a back seat to other obligations and desires.

That was part of the subtle temptation Satan placed before our Lord. You see that Jesus, as Lord of everything, would one day have all the nations of the world—and consequently all the power and wealth of the world would be His. So Satan tempted him to obtain them before it was time. You can hear the implied temptation: “Jesus, you don’t have to go through all the pain and turmoil of being mocked and scorned, of taking on all the sins of the world, of being crucified. The Father wants you to go through unbelievable pain. You can skip all that. I’ll give you incredible pleasure and power right now. All you have to do is worship me instead of him. Let me set the agenda for your life. God’s ways are too demanding, too rigorous.”

How often do we want to take short cuts or try to shortchange God? We want quick fixes. We want the power and the glory, or at least we want to avoid the pain and the hassle. These are temptations for us all. We are tempted to put our ultimate worth on something that we want, not necessarily something that God wants. In so doing, we are very subtly worshipping something other than God. We are all tempted to do that.

I closing, I want to remind you that these temptations are common to us all. We are tempted by our appetites; we are tempted with vertigo and the power of fear and the need to be in control, we are tempted to worship things other than God, to find other things more worthy in our eyes than Christ and his Church.

On this First Sunday of Lent we are presented with these temptations which can easily lead us to sin. They are worthy of our reflection, to see how they affect our lives, and then we ought to pray to discern how we can thwart them. We do live in a permissive age. Folks tend to be headstrong and especially inclined to sin. May this Lent be a season of deep repentance for us all and may we look with great anticipation to the Paschal Mysteries and the Glorious Resurrection.