April 1, 2012 - Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Today's Readings

We begin Holy Week today. During Holy Week we remember the last week before Jesus’ death. Holy Week is the prototype of all the weeks of the year. Thursday is always a good day for Eucharistic Adoration, since it was on Holy Thursday at the Last Supper that Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Every Friday of the year is a day of abstinence from meat. In addition to this small sacrifice, each Friday in general ought to be devoted to a more serious attitude, since Good Friday was the day that Jesus died for our sins. Every Saturday is devoted to the Blessed Mother and to silence, since it was on Holy Saturday that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb silently, and it was on Holy Saturday that our Blessed Mother was at home, mourning for her son, believing that he would rise. Every Sunday is a day of rejoicing, since on Easter Sunday Jesus rose from the dead. For this reason, we all come to Church every Sunday in hopes that we too will rise.

Why do we today then, on a Sunday, read out the Passion of Jesus Christ? It seems out of place, since Jesus did not die on Palm Sunday and it seems inappropriate, since Sunday is supposed to be a day of rejoicing. Partly, the reason is just practical: not everyone can be here on Good Friday and the Gospel next Sunday, on Easter, will not make much sense without the Gospel today. Jesus cannot rise without having first died. This is not the whole reason though.

It is indeed fitting to read the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ today. We must realize that the triumphant arrival of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem was one with his death on the Cross. On Palm Sunday, Jesus climbed up Mount Zion; in his passion, he climbed Mount Calvary. On Palm Sunday, Jesus was carried into Jerusalem; in his passion, he walked carrying his cross. On Palm Sunday, a crowd lined the streets to praise our Lord; a crowd lined the way of the cross too. On Palm Sunday, the crowd took off their cloaks and laid them on the road to honor Jesus; before the cross, Jesus was stripped of his cloak. On Palm Sunday, everyone praised Jesus, calling out “Hosanna!” In his passion, Jesus was insulted, mocked, and laughed at.

Palm Sunday is the key to understanding the Passion, and the Passion is the key to understanding Palm Sunday. We stand with palms in our hands because we want to worship God and give him the honor that is his due. We also stand as sinners. We are the reason that Jesus died on the cross. We praise God and ask forgiveness. On the one hand, we imagine that we are already up in heaven praising Jesus. On the other hand, we allow the demons to pull us down to Hell. Are we part of the crowd praising Jesus or are we part of the crowd demanding that he be crucified? Both. Let us not imagine that we are so good that we would never have gone along with his death. Every time we commit sin, we stand with the crowd yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Indeed, his blood is on us, and that blood saves us.

March 31, 2012 - Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today's Readings

It is so sad to see the convoluted logic of the Pharisees. Jesus is healing people. Jesus is converting sinners back to following God. Jesus is raising dead people back to life. The Pharisees are worried how they can put a stop to all of it. It will be very difficult. His life, his words, and his miracles are all very convincing. Of course, the Pharisees could have just been convinced. If they had just believed that Jesus was the Messiah, they would not have had to work so hard to prevent others from believing.

They seem more worried with preventing the Romans from coming and destroying Jerusalem than with whether Jesus was actually the Messiah. Their worries are not unfounded. Forty years later, a false Messiah would start a war with the Romans, and Jerusalem would be destroyed, and the Jews forced to leave. The Pharisees were right about the consequences of a false Messiah, but they seem to have lost real hope in the coming of the actual Messiah.

They had become cynical, whereas a Christian needs to be trusting. They had lost hope, whereas a Christian lives by hope. They loved themselves and their positions and their situation, whereas a Christian must love God above all things and their neighbors as themselves. The words of Caiaphas, “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people” are said with the lowest intention: to betray an innocent man because his words and actions might not be looked upon favorably by the persecuting Romans. Caiaphas has turned into a collaborator.

However, the words of Caiaphas are also, St. John tells us, a prophecy. Caiaphas was the high priest, and God would use him for God’s own purposes. It is better for us that an innocent man should die in our place. It is better, for us, that Jesus gave up his life to save ours. It is better, not because we should be such cowards that we gladly see someone else die for our sins, but because if we died for our own sins, we would not have risen again, but when Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, the innocent for the guilty, he had the power to lay his life down and take it up again. It is better for us that an innocent man should die instead of the whole world, but only if that innocent man can, by his death, destroy death.

March 30, 2012 - Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today's Readings

We see in the Gospel today how carefully St. John emphasizes that Jesus was always in complete control of his situation. Even when he was surrounded by Jews with rocks in their hands, ready to arrest him, he escaped. It was not yet the right time. Jesus’ hour was near but had not yet come. Even though there were plots against Jesus from all sides, even from one of the Apostles, no attempt against Jesus could have succeeded unless he chose to hand himself over to them. Each person, from Judas to Pontius Pilate, acted of his own free will, yet each played a role in God’s plan. This does not remove their guilt. God used their evil intentions to accomplish our salvation. Nevertheless, they would never have been able to arrest Jesus and kill him without his permission.

God will use us for his good purposes. Our choice is not whether we will help God or hurt him. We will be part of his plan for the world; this is not our choice. Our choice is whether we will cooperate with God and be rewarded by him or fight against God and do his will in spite of ourselves. We can follow Jesus, or we can pick up stones. We can stand with Jesus at the foot of the Cross, or we can hammer in the nails. We can ask Jesus to remember us, or we can insult him. Jesus is going to die on the cross, the play is written; we must choose which part we will take.

Jesus is suffering and dying right now, when any member of the Body of Christ is suffering and dying. Members of his Body are starving right now. Members of his Body are thirsty right now. Members of his Body are lonely right now. Members of his Body are homeless right now. Members of his Body are sick right now. Members of his Body are naked right now. The poor will always be with us, that is certain, but will we be the ones who ignore the poor or the ones who serve them? Will we be like St. Francis and serve the poor with our whole lives or like the rich man who ignored Lazarus at his front door? Both roles are available. There will be heroes; there will be villains. Which role will you take? Who do you want to be?

March 29, 2012 - Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today's Readings

Quantum physics teaches that certain events are uncertain until observed. This is most easily described with the case of Schrödinger’s cat, an experiment to bring the uncertainty of quantum physics into our everyday experience. He designed a box, inside of which there is a cat and a poison that may or may not be released, depending upon an atomic event. Quantum physics says that, until someone looks inside the box, the cat is in some sense both dead and alive, it is not definite until you see it. Schrödinger’s cat leads to all sorts of scientific and philosophical questions, among which is whether we could pray for the cat before opening the box, since we cannot pray for a dead cat.

Jesus tells us today: “before Abraham came to be, I AM.” At first, this sounds like bad grammar, but it is actually just very careful grammar. “Before Abraham came to be” refers to an actual period of time. Jesus is saying, about this period of time, not “I was” but “I AM.” He is not saying that he existed back then. He is saying that he is existing back then. As Jesus stands talking with the Jews, he is also back before Abraham existed, he is also right here, right now in this church. For God, the creation of the world and the end of the world are all at once. This phrase, “all at once”, is a very good phrase for understanding God’s perspective. He sees all at once. He lives all at once. He exists all at once.

So we can pray for the cat. When we pray, our prayers go outside of time to God, who can put them back into time whenever they are needed. Take the Titanic as an example. We cannot pray that the ship will not sink, since we know that it did, but we can pray for the people on the ship, since we do not know what happened to each of them, and our prayers will be effective. Consider the case of suicide. When a person commits suicide, there is a critical moment, after they have killed themselves, before they die, when they need to repent and be reconciled to God. St. John Vianney once told a woman who came to him in confession about her husband, who had committed suicide, “Between the bridge and the water, he prayed a Hail Mary. He is in Purgatory now. Pray for him.” Where there is uncertainty, there is the possibility of prayer. Our prayers right now can affect a critical moment at any time in the past, because they travel from us through God, who is outside of time. If there is something you want to pray for, find the uncertainty and do not be afraid to pray.

March 28, 2012 - Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today's Readings

There are two kinds of fire we use at church: candles and charcoals. There is a major difference between these two kinds of fire. Fire is something external to the candles; only the wick at the top burns. Fire is something internal to the charcoals. It is harder to get a charcoal going than a candle, but, once it is lit, every bit of a charcoal burns at once. Wind has different effects on each type of fire. When we carry a candle outside, we have to hold our hands around it, and still the wind will come up from behind and blow the candle out. Charcoal, however, cannot be blown out. The more the wind blows, the more the charcoal glows red-hot; the fire is increased by the wind.

There are two kinds of Christians in the Church: candles and charcoals. There is a major difference between these two kinds of believers. The Holy Spirit is something external to candles; only a little part of their life is burning with love. The Holy Spirit is something internal to charcoals. God’s grace is at work in us to get the charcoal going, to have every part of our lives on fire. Suffering and persecution has a different effect on each type of fire. Candles are always in danger of going out; the pastor has to keep a careful watch on them, and still some idea will blow in from somewhere and the fire of the candle blows out. Charcoals, however, cannot be blown out. The more they are threatened, the more they believe; their love is increased by suffering.

King Nebuchadnezzar threatened Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He became furious. If they were candles, the love of God would have been blown out under such threats. Instead the three men say, “If our God whom we serve can deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; may he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods, nor worship the golden image which you have set up.” Their faith was absolute. Their love was all-consuming. We should pray and work so that we can become charcoals like them. In truth, we are all candles trying to become charcoals. May the blazing fire of God’s love consume every part of us, destroying what is unworthy, leaving behind red-hot coals, indistinguishable from the fire itself.

March 27, 2012 - Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today's Readings

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. The serpent was a sign of contradiction. The people were being killed by serpents, and they could only be cured by seeing the serpent. So too Christ is a sign of contradiction. He took away death by dying. He took away sin by suffering the greatest sin ever committed.

If anyone was bitten by a serpent, they looked at the bronze serpent on a pole and they were saved, but the bronze serpent was only a symbol. Even if the people were saved from the bite, they died eventually. Jesus Christ is the reality which was symbolized. When we look upon Jesus, and we believe in him, we are saved forever.

This difference is important. The symbol worked partially, and it worked simply by looking. The reality works fully, but merely looking is not enough. We must believe also. What do we have to believe? Jesus says, “If you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” The Pharisees want him to finish the sentence. They ask, “Who are you?” Jesus repeats the phrase again, “I AM.”

This is how God refers to himself. When Moses asked God for his name, God said, “I am who am.” God was saying that he does not participate in the universe. He is the foundation of the universe. He is the one essential fact. Everything else could have not existed, but God just IS. He was never created. There never was when he was not. There were a lot of things when I was not. The world got along just fine (at least, as fine as it ever has) before I came along. Back then, I did not exist, but many people did.

Jesus is telling the Pharisees that he has always existed and will always exist. When this Earth did not exist, he did. When this Earth stops existing, he will continue existing. This is what we must believe when we look at the Cross. We see, with our eyes, a man, totally defeated, a dead man, but we believe in our hearts that that man could never be defeated. We believe that he will win every battle. If we see him dead, we can know for certain that he has just gone to fight death, and he will emerge victorious.

March 26, 2012 - Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Today's Readings

We could not have been saved by an alien. If God has simply created Jesus the way that he created Adam, then Jesus would have been an alien. Even if he looked like us and talked like us and seemed like us in every way, he would not have been human, he would be human 2.0. This is why Eve could not be made out of dirt like Adam, but had to be made out of Adam’s body. So she could be bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Some people imagine that Jesus was placed inside of Mary, but this is incorrect. Jesus took his humanity from Mary, he was conceived in her, his DNA was her DNA, his body was made out of her body. Thus Jesus could save us, because his death and resurrection would only save us if a human, one of us, died and rose.

But God would not simply use a person. He respects the dignity of the nature he created. Though he created us and everything we have is his, he will not take our human nature without permission. In that moment, after Gabriel had asked, before Mary had answered, the whole world stopped, held its breath, and waited anxiously. What would she say? Everything depended on this moment. We are under the heavy burden of sin, and nothing can save us now except God, but God will not act without the permission of a girl. The salvation of the world depended in that moment on the generosity of one person. Anyone else would have said “no” or at least, “let me think about it for awhile” but Mary did not. She was courageous. She was generous. She said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary is the mother of Jesus, and therefore the mother of God. As the mother of our Savior, she would deserve our deepest respect. She is also the mother of the Church, since Jesus, from the Cross, gave her to his beloved disciple. As our mother, she deserves our devoted love. She is the first and best disciple, the prototype of the whole Church. Our relationship with Mary should be one of respect, devotion, admiration, emulation, veneration. Jesus is our Savior, and he is Mary’s Savior too, all because she said yes.

March 25, 2012 - Fifth Sunday Of Lent

Today's Readings

There are two ways by which we draw near to God: religion and revelation. Religion is how we try to approach God. Revelation is how God approaches us. Religion is like building a tower up into the clouds. Revelation is like when the clouds come down to the ground as a fog. Religion is like beginning with hunger and looking for food. Revelation is like seeing some amazing food and discovering then that it was exactly what you wanted. Either way leads to the meal.

Religion exists because when a human considers themself, they realize that something is missing. Religion begins with a question. That is why there are so many religions in the world although they all have some basic similarities. We are hungry and looking for something. Each religion is an attempt to answer this question we find inside of ourselves. Each religion is the best human attempt to approach God. Some people climb on top of a mountain. Some people sacrifice animals or even humans. Some people fast and pray. They are all trying to have a relationship with the unseen God.

Revelation is different because it begins with an encounter. Moses was minding his own business when he saw the burning bush. Abraham was going about his day when the angels of the Lord stopped by for dinner. Mary was working at home when Gabriel appeared and told her what God had planned.

We see this same revelation in the Gospel today. The Greeks did not want more religion. They had lots of religion. They wanted to meet Jesus. They must have seen him as part of a crowd and were blown away by what they saw. They wanted to meet him.

In the first reading, God tells Jeremiah that the days are coming when he will make a new covenant with his people. The old covenant began with a revelation, but it was a revelation about religion. Ten commandments, hundreds of laws, animal sacrifices: the Jewish religion was in some ways like every other religion. The difference was that the laws and the sacrifices had been given by God, not invented by humans. The new covenant would not be just another religion. God was talking about the greatest revelation in the history of the universe: Jesus Christ.

Does this mean that religion is bad and revelation is good? No. A revelation is useless if people are not prepared for it. In the Gospel today, God spoke from heaven, glorifying his name. The crowd thought that it was just thunder. Only some could hear the voice. At various times a crowd followed Jesus. They realized that he was a revelation because they saw the healings and the multiplication of the bread and fish, but they were not ready for the revelation; they left as soon as they could not understand.

The history of religion was a preparation for one girl to have a revelation, an encounter with Jesus Christ. After her, a few others came to know him. When his hour came, and everything was ready, he accomplished the perfect religious act. We could not build a bridge between earth and heaven, no matter how much we tried. Instead God dwelt among us, and when his hour came, he built a bridge for us by means of his Cross.

Christ Jesus, in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and petitions with strong crying and tears to him who was able to save him from death, was heard for his godly fear. Though he was the Son of God, by being obedient even in suffering, he became a perfect human. Now, he is the author of eternal salvation for everyone who obeys him.

This is why the Christian religion is different from every other religion. We too have laws, but we are not trying to please God with our obedience of the laws. That was always impossible and now Jesus has done it for us. We are trying, by obeying the laws, to see Jesus. And when we disobey the laws, we confess our sins, and then Jesus forgives us. This is what is amazing: whether we are good or bad we encounter Jesus. We see him as we become more obedient, more like him, and we see him when, though disobedient, we seek forgiveness.

It is like a child and their parent. There are two ways for a child to be close to their parent: either by becoming more like them or by running into their arms. We advance in holiness when we avoid sin because we are becoming more like God, and we advance in holiness when we are forgiven because we are running into his arms.

Christians also still have ritual actions like other religions. It is part of the Christian religion to come to Mass on Sundays and other holy days and to pray. But all of our rituals, genuflecting and kneeling and holy water, icons and statues, incense and songs and Latin prayers, anointing with oil and laying on of hands, are about being prepared for an encounter with Jesus. Before, the mystery was essential because God was mysterious. Now the mystery is necessary so that we do not begin to think that he is not mysterious. We have to leave behind the ordinary things lest when he speaks to us we only hear thunder.

Now the law of God is in our hearts, and the love of God totally embraces us. Our goal is not to reach out by superior intelligence to make sense of gods who ignore us. Our religious goal is to be humble enough to hear God when he speaks. Our religious goal is to love other people enough that we finally begin to forget ourselves. Our religious goal is to become as nothing in the face of the revelation.

Revelation should make us become religious. If someone loves Jesus but hates religion they seem to be saying that they love Jesus but they do not want to be anything like him. That is an unacceptable response to the revelation. Seeing Jesus rightly must make us want to be more like him. And if someone loves Jesus and hates religion, by which they mean the religion of other people, they need to learn humility. I am trying to be like Jesus. You are trying to be like Jesus. Everyone who is trying to be like Jesus is part of my religion. If I point to them and say, “You are failing to be like Jesus” they could point to me and say, “you are failing too.” I love Jesus, therefore I am religious.

March 25, 2012 - Fifth Sunday of Lent with Scrutinies

Today's Readings

Today is the day of the third scrutiny of the elect. When the catechumens hear that there are going to be three scrutinies, sometimes they are concerned. “How exactly are we going to be scrutinized?”, they wonder.

The first thing that should be said comes from St. Paul: for who knows what pertains to the human except the spirit inside of them? These scrutinies are not of something external. We are not going to scrutinize your hairstyle or the way you dress or any of those things that matter to the world. We are not even going to attempt to scrutinize your soul because we cannot see it. The only person who can scrutinize you is you. The point of these scrutinies is for you to scrutinize yourself. You are hoping to be baptized in a couple weeks, so scrutinize yourselves and see whether there is anything else you should leave behind as you approach the baptismal font.

The scrutinies are for you the elect, but they are also for all of us who have been baptized. For the candidates for Confirmation and for all of us here. As the scrutinies are read, we should scrutinize ourselves. If we are perfectly happy with everything we see, we should probably look more closely. When we find something that is not good, we should turn it over to God. We have such a normal desire to turn a blind eye to our faults. We must scrutinize ourselves.

God wants to save us, and he does not want to do it halfway. He wants us to be perfect. How perfect? Perfect like he is perfect. This is impossible for us to accomplish, but it is not an impossible goal. We must not ever be satisfied with less.

We just sang today: “With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.” Not some half-baked redemption. The fullness of redemption. Not some watered down redemption. The fullness of redemption. Not some just good enough, best that could be done, what more could you possibly expect redemption. The fullness of redemption. With the Lord there is mercy and the fullness of redemption. Mercy for when we sin; the fullness of redemption so that we may sin no more.

If anyone is afraid that there is something in their life that is beyond the power of God, be not afraid! Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and he will raise our mortal bodies also. “Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and have you rise from them.” If God can raise the dead, what else can he do? This is the point of the Gospel today. If he can resurrect a man, dead and in the grave for four days, what could possibly be beyond his capability?

Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise.” It sounds like the sort of thing people say at funerals all the time. When we see someone who is mourning, we do not know what to say. We are helpless to help, so we have certain catchphrases: “I’m sorry for your loss.” “He was a good man” “Well, he is in heaven now.” Martha seems to think that Jesus is just saying something polite, so she accepts his condolences: “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus reminds her, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Here Jesus is saying one of those things that proves he was not just a nice teacher. “I am the resurrection and the life” is not something someone slips casually into conversation. Who but the almighty God could say that? And if the person who said that also died for us on the Cross, he will give us everything we need besides. He will give us mercy, and he will give us the fullness of redemption.

March 24, 2012 - Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today's Readings

The Pharisees have put together an argument that seems unassailable. No prophet is supposed to come from Galilee, certainly not the Christ. Even the crowd knows that the Christ comes from Bethlehem. Everybody knows that. Therefore, Jesus is not the Christ. They tell Nicodemus, when he suggests that they should listen to the words of Jesus before making a judgment, “Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” Perhaps someone had gone to great lengths to prove this fact, perhaps writing a detailed paper on the topic. In the end, none of this matters, since Jesus was born in Bethlehem and only moved to Galilee later in life. This is a good example of how we can be wrong while feeling like we are right. The Pharisees concentrated so hard on the fact that no prophet would arise from Galilee that they forget to make sure that Jesus was from Galilee. Complex arguments, solidly built, can be defeated by one little fact.

Thank God we are not called to judge others. When we see someone doing something, there is no need for us to judge them. Unless we know the exact details of their life, we are forced to presume so many things in order to make a judgment. This is equally true with regard to our neighbors and to public figures. How many times I have heard someone speak about the President or members of Congress as if only the most evil intentions could explain their actions, as if anyone we disagree with must also be a terrible person.

The difficulty in judging rightly should give us pause when we have to make judgments about students or children or employees. We should realize how limited our judgments are; even if we have to judge actions or results, we never can judge people. People are simply too complex; there are too many unknown factors. Only God, who knows each of us better than we know ourselves, can judge a person. He is the searcher of heart and soul, so only he can be a just judge.

Sometimes we need to make judgments, but we must always remember that these judgments are conditional and quite possibly wrong. The greatest of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is wisdom. By this gift, the judgment of God is revealed to us. We should earnestly pray for wisdom, that God will inform us of what we need to know in order to do his will more effectively.

March 23, 2012 - Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today's Readings

The first reading today, from the book of Wisdom, is amazing. Written over 100 years before Jesus was born, it perfectly describes the events of Jesus’ death. Through this reading, we enter into the psychology of the Pharisees and priests who wanted Jesus put to death. In the book of Wisdom, they are called “the wicked.” I suppose that when they read the book of Wisdom they never imagined that they would be “the wicked”.

The wicked cannot stand the just one. They say, “Merely to see him is a hardship for us.” They are jealous. They know their own faults, the ways in which they are failing to live up to the training of their youth, but they put up with their faults, hiding them as much as they can. Then the just one appears, and it is as if Joe Mauer showed up at the company softball game. Now nothing is hidden. They look terrible by comparison.

There is a children’s book where a girl gets a wish and she wishes to be the best player on her basketball team. Her wish is granted. When the next game arrives, the girl is still a mediocre player, but all the stars have lost their talent. She was now the best player simply because everyone else has become horrible.

Only an immature spirituality can be jealous. If I see that others have made more progress than me in the love of God and purity of heart, I rejoice. The more God is praised, the better. When I consider my sins, I hope that I am the worst in the world, I hope that everyone else is at least better than I am. If someone can preach better than I, praise God! If someone can heal the sick by laying on hands though I cannot, praise God! If someone can raise money better than I, praise God! If someone can pray better than I, hearing the very voice of God, praise God! If someone can forgive others more quickly than I can, praise God!

In the pursuit of holiness, we should run, not walk. Indeed, we should run so as to win, with all our strength, but if, as we are running as hard as we can, someone else passes us at an incredible speed, praise God!

March 21, 2012 - Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today's Readings

Jesus explains to the Pharisees why they should believe in him. He begins by saying “If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is not true.” This cannot of course be taken in the sense that Jesus would lie about himself. Jesus does not ever say, “I am the Christ”, because he does not need to. Peter says it, and then Jesus confirms it. When he is asked whether he is the Christ at his trial, he says, “You say that I am.” In other words, only the Christ would be accused of being the Christ without ever having said it. Where did the idea come from? Jesus was not raising an army. He never fought a battle. He never called himself the Christ.

Jesus says that John the Baptist witnessed to him. The Pharisees thought that John the Baptist was an impressive prophet, since he fit the idea in their minds better. He fasted and lived in the desert and was killed by the king. It must have seemed very strange to the Pharisees that this great and holy man testified that Jesus was the Christ. Jesus is reminding them of this contradiction: they all thought that John was a prophet, but they did not believe his greatest prophecy.

Also, the Pharisees could see that Jesus never sinned; they could see the healing and other miracles; they could see the sinners repenting and following Jesus. If I told you that I was the Messiah, you would all laugh, since I am not that impressive, and if I did not tell you, it would never enter your mind that I was. When Jesus says that his works are one of the witnesses, he does not just mean his miracles, but everything he ever did. People could see that he was not like them. Today we see the works of Jesus in his saints; we see sinners live extraordinary lives. We know that someone greater must be at work.

The third witness is the Father. St. Peter did not know Jesus was the Christ because he figured it out, but because the Father revealed it to him. Faith is strongest when there are no reasons behind it, when we simply believe. There are times when we are so filled with the love of God that, without being able to explain why, we just laugh at the idea that there is no God.

March 21, 2012 - Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent.

Today's Readings

“Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?” How I wish this were a rhetorical question. Of course, we know that it is a real question and that the answer is yes. There are mothers all over the world who forget their infants, who are without tenderness for the child of their womb. Millions of children are murdered each year in our country with the permission of their mothers. Some mothers may be honestly confused. Some mothers may believe the irrational lie that the humanity of their child depends on the child’s location. It is difficult to believe though that millions of otherwise rational people could hold such an irrational belief. In truth, most of these murders happen because of selfishness.

Let us not be deceived. The selfishness that has led to 100 million dead children in our country is so pervasive in our culture that even if we stand up for life and protest against the horrific crime, the selfishness at the heart of the crime lives in our hearts too. If I try to express the selfishness in a phrase it is: “I deserve what I want.” Abortion is not the problem. It is one symptom of the real problem: selfishness. We get an idea in our head of how our life ought to go, and anything that stands in the way of this dream must die.

The cure to selfishness is faith, hope, and love. If this world were all we had, we might be justified in holding on to our little idea of happiness even at the expense of others, but we have something else, we have the promise of God: “I will never forget you.” If we believe this promise, we will have hope. Hope lets us see this world not as it seems, the end-all of our life, but as it is, a short training exercise. After 40 trillion years in heaven, will it matter whether we got to go to prom or college or got the job we wanted? No, none of this will matter. If we see according to hope rather than fear, we will be able to love. What does it mean to waste 20 years and care for a child? Why should we be afraid of wasting our whole life serving others and never getting what we wanted? When we believe in God’s love, we hope in him and not in this world, only then are we free to love without restriction.

March 20, 2012 - Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent.

Today’s Readings

Ezekiel sees the river of God’s mercy, flowing out of the temple, into the world. At first Ezekiel is trying to measure God’s mercy: 1000 cubits by ankle-deep, 1000 cubits by knee-deep, 1000 cubits by waist deep. Finally, Ezekiel can no longer measure God’s mercy. He can only swim in it.

Wherever this river goes, every living creature shall live. This seems sort of redundant, a tautology, but Jesus says “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” Life is not just an on-off switch: on the one hand, a person can live, or on the other hand, a person can live abundantly. The trees bear fruit every month, and their leaves never fade. The trees are being watered by God’s mercy. Because of this water, their fruit is good for food and their leaves are good for medicine. These are amazing trees, or, rather, this water is amazing water. They are alive, and other living trees seem dead. We must discern: are we alive? We walk and talk, but are we alive? The wages of sin are death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus. Are we earning death or accepting life?

If we want to be alive, if we want the water of God’s mercy, we have to be merciful. Being merciful means sharing the burden. Mercy comes after justice. It does not remove justice. Mercy does not allow injustice. Justice creates a burden and then mercy shares it. If someone is bad at their job, justice fires them, then mercy finds them a job they can do. If a person commits murder, justice sentences them to prison, then mercy visits them there. A beautiful image of mercy is a mother, who, seeing that her son’s room is a mess, tells him that he cannot go out to play until it is clean, and then helps him clean the room.

I meet many people in my work who are in difficult situations, and often it is amazing how many poor choices they have made that have led to their situation. We could judge them: "We have worked hard; have they?" But, thanks be to God, we have no call to judge the vast majority of the world. When we see someone suffering under a burden, all we have to do is share in it. When we choose to be merciful, we share in their poverty and allow them to share in our riches. That way, God, who has already shared in our poverty, will allow us to share in his riches.

March 19, 2012 - Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today's Readings

The first understanding that most people have about today’s Gospel is that Joseph thought he had been betrayed by Mary and so decided to divorce her. The list of reasons why this is nonsense is very long, but we can consider the major points today.

When Mary told Joseph she was pregnant, did she tell him about the angel Gabriel? Yes, without a doubt she did. Did he think she was lying? No. The Scripture says that “she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” Her pregnancy and the manner of conception were both revealed to Joseph at the same time.

Indeed, long-standing tradition tells us that Joseph was a widower who was marrying Mary in order to take care of her as she devoted her life to God. What is without doubt from Mary’s own words in Luke is that her marriage was always intended to be unconsummated. Joseph was not a hot-tempered youth who felt betrayed. The intention of this marriage was always that Joseph would be caring for Mary without being intimate with her.

Now we should be able to see what really happened. Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit with a child who would be called the Son of the Most High God. His response was like Peter’s years later, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Joseph was afraid. He had taken on the great responsibility of caring for this perfect girl, but he had not realized that he would also have to care for God’s own Son. This was too much. Joseph was a righteous man; the fear of God was in him. Joseph is humble: he knows that he is neither capable nor worthy of being the stepfather of Jesus.

His dream now takes on a new meaning. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, for it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” The angel does not disagree that Joseph is unworthy or that he is unable, by himself, to care for Jesus. The angel reminds him that this is a work of the Holy Spirit. There is no reason to be afraid. God will provide. No work is too much, even for us sinful people, if God is accomplishing the work through us. We never need to be afraid of what the Holy Spirit wants to do in our lives.

March 18, 2012 - Fourth Sunday Of Lent

Today's Readings

Today is Laetare Sunday, which means “Rejoice Sunday”. Today is the first day of the fourth week of Lent. So, three weeks done is 21 days, and there are 19 days left until the Easter Triduum. We are halfway through! I hope these days of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving have been fruitful. Do not stop or slow down. When a runner reaches the halfway point of a race, they rejoice, but they keep running. So we too should rejoice but keep running this race.

Another reason to rejoice today is because we see the work God is doing in our lives. If we have truly committed ourselves this Lent to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we should be starting to see the fruit of our labors, that the free gift of grace is able to do more. These forty days provide an opportunity for God, and he is always going to take advantage of an opportunity to save us. We are trying to listen to him. We are trying to love ourselves less and our neighbors more. We are trying to be perfect, and he, who wants us to be perfect, is using this effort to effect real change in our souls.

It is not we who are accomplishing this change, lest we should boast. But God cannot accomplish the change unless we are trying to be perfect. We try, and he accomplishes. God built the road, we are just driving on it. We are not saved by works, for our works are insufficient, but they are necessary.

Just as a car does not move because I push my foot on a pedal slightly: it moves because of the gas and the engine and the design, but until I do press down slightly, the car will not go anywhere, so too we do not actually accomplish our salvation by means of the little works we do, the fasting and the praying and the almsgiving, but without them we are not saved. So it is correct to say that this Lent we are saving ourselves because we are finally making use of the grace of God.

The goal of all this is effort is to believe in Jesus. God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. If you are looking for something to believe or someone to believe in, I can recommend Jesus, but it is not easy to believe in Jesus.

Whoever believes in Jesus will not be condemned, but everyone who does wicked things hates the light. If I believe in Jesus but do wicked things, will I not be condemned or will I hate the light? If someone hates the light, and Jesus is the light, then they cannot believe in Jesus. So clearly, it is not possible to believe in Jesus and still do wicked things.

But this is contradicted in reality all the time! O that it was true that every Christian acted righteously! We know for certain that there are wicked Christians, and not only people who are weakly associated with Christianity. There have been traitors and murderers and thieves and all kinds of other wicked people who have seemed to be strongly devoted to their religion.

Believing in Jesus must mean something other than going to Mass on Sunday and something other than saying the right words and even something other than a particular feeling of faith, for wicked people often appear to lack nothing of these normal religious attributes.

No, the kind of belief in Jesus that leads to eternal life must be something else entirely, something the saints had in common. I can say that I believe in someone and merely mean that I think that they exist, but I can also say that I believe in someone and mean that I trust them, that I put myself on their side and commit myself to their cause. That is what it really means to believe in someone.

If believe in Jesus, I believe that he will not fail me, I believe that his commands are true and good, and I believe that my happiness comes from him and nowhere else. If I have not merely faith about Jesus but faith in Jesus I am making a statement about how my whole life will be structured. It is this kind of faith that has the power to save.

If I believe in God, this faith has to change my whole life. The ancient Israelites forgot how important God was. They thought that he would not mind if they sinned. He sent them prophets to warn them, but they ignored the prophets, so he sent a different kind of messenger: the King Nebuchadnezzar, who came and destroyed Jerusalem, and carried the Israelites back as slaves.

We should not imagine that the situation is any different now. God does not expect less of us. He expects more from us because we have been given more grace. If he was not willing to preserve Jerusalem, his holy city, when the inhabitants had given themselves over to sin, he will not have any special protection for America or any other country. The citizens of Jerusalem thought they were safe because of their allies and their strong walls and their other defenses, but an empire arose from nowhere and conquered them easily.

We are being confronted by some difficult decisions: do we believe in America or do we believe in Jesus? This does not have to be a contradiction, but it slowly is becoming one. America has risen, and someday it will fall, but Jesus is forever.

Do we believe in the general opinion of society or do believe in Jesus? There are a lot of voices that call traditional morality “extreme”. And then there is a constant buzz that says that Jesus cannot be trusted, that we have to make certain allowances, certain indulgences, certain reasonable adaptations. We call it “updating” Christianity, but that is only because we live in a culture obsessed with have everything up-to-date. There has always been a voice opposed to Christianity. Do we believe in that voice, or do we believe in Jesus?

Believing in Jesus is not easy. It is a decision we make and a decision we fight for every day. In every action we say what we believe in and we decide what we will believe in.

March 17, 2012 - Saturday of the Third Week of Lent

Today's Readings

In the Gospel today we have two men who go into the temple to pray. Actually only one man went into the temple to pray. The second one, the tax collector, “prayed”, but the first one, the Pharisee, Jesus says “He prayed to himself.” One man goes into the temple to pray. The other man goes into the temple to talk to himself. One man goes into the temple for a good reason. The other man goes into the temple without a good reason.

Why does the Pharisee need to go into the temple to talk to himself? He could have stayed home and talked to himself. He could have gone for a walk to the store and talked to himself the whole way there. He must have thought that he was talking to God. We should know the difference between talking to God and talking to ourselves: God is interested in different things than we are. God is not interested in hearing our gossip. He is not interested in our belittling other people. He is not interested in hearing how wonderful we think we are. If we are talking about these things, we are only talking to ourselves.

The Pharisee begins well. He says, “O God, I thank you.” It’s all downhill from there. He says, “I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” What makes him think that he is so different from the rest of humanity? Every one of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The Pharisee judges the rest of humanity so that he can ignore himself. He mentions the sins that he has not committed so he can ignore the sins that he has.

Indeed, when we pray we should thank God that we have not committed every sin that we had the opportunity to commit, knowing that the root of every sin is there in our hearts; only grace has saved us. Then, we should seek forgiveness for the sins we have committed. If anyone says they have not sinned, they are a liar, lying above all to themself. The Pharisee calls the rest of humanity dishonest, but who is more dishonest than the man who thinks that he is not like the rest of humanity?

We are sinners. We need mercy. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”


March 15, 2012 - Friday of the Third Week of Lent

Today's Readings

“For the ways of the Lord are straight, and the righteous walk in them; but the sinners stumble in them.” In the paths of the Lord, there is nothing to trip us up. There are no rocks; there are no curves. Nothing could be easier than to do what is right. But we sinners! We bring our own stumbling stones with us. We put obstacles in our own way, trip over them, and yell at God.

How much trouble our sins cause us! When we are tempted to sin, we imagine that we want to sin, but when we have sinned, we regret it. Our lives would have been so much easier and more pleasant without sin. Imagine if you had never sinned. We would still have troubles, but our worst troubles (our shame, our betrayal of others, our failure to live up to our own standards) are all our own doing.

When a sinner goes to hell, there is no need for them to be punished there. Sinners bring their own stumbling stones with them. Imagine any sin. Imagine repeating it uncontrollably for the rest of forever. Imagine a glutton: eating and eating until they throw up, and then continuing to eat. Imagine a wrathful person: screaming and yelling and complaining, stomping around and shouting their head off forever. Imagine a lazy person: lying on a couch, watching television, nothing on, nothing at all, just static, but they never stop watching. We sinners do not need fire and brimstone. Hell is boring. Do we imagine that our sins will keep us interested for the next ten trillion years? What about the ten trillion after that?

There is healthy food, and there is unhealthy food. It is not hard to know what food we should eat. It is not hard to eat healthy food. Still, millions of people are sick because of how they eat. It is not hard to exercise, to walk a few miles every day. Still, millions of people are weak because they never do.

Our bodies are not so different from our souls. It is not hard to do what is right: to love God above all and love our neighbors as ourselves. If we wrote down a list of everything we should do tomorrow, in order to be perfect, it would be easy to write, and there would be nothing on the list that we were incapable of, yet how hard it is to actually do good.

March 14, 2012 - Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

Today's Readings

Many times, prayer is described as talking to God, but this is the less important side of prayer. “Thus says the LORD: I commanded my people, saying, Listen to my voice.” God knows everything. He even knows what is in our hearts before we do. Still, he listens to us. We know very little. (This is not a statement of false humility; we really know very little.) Even the most educated person does not know the answer to simple questions like, “How can I be happy?” We should be sitting before God, eagerly straining to hear what he has to say.

When we listen, we are exposing ourselves to being convinced. When we listen to sitcoms on television praising sin, we should not imagine that we are unaffected. When we listen to gossip or mean words, we should not suppose that we are above the person speaking. Satan loves the pride in us which, at the same time, prevents us from listening to God’s teaching and encourages us to presume we are immune from the evil influence of evil speech.

The voice of God is not very loud. Our free will is as fragile as a house of cards; if he spoke too forcefully, it would be destroyed. We can only hear his voice when we have turned off the television and the radio. Even then, the sounds we listen to all day reverberate in our mind. We could sit in a silent church, but the voice of God will still be shouted down by a voice in our head that is concerned with those many unimportant details that consume our lives. God is so very polite. He will never interrupt any other speaker. He waits until every other voice is silent, and then he speaks.

When he does speak, God does not say many words. He told St. Francis, “Rebuild my Church.” He said to St. Augustine, “Take and read.” He said to Mother Theresa, “I thirst.” He said to St. Paul, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” So many of the saints point to an experience of hearing a few words, perhaps a whole sentence, perhaps even a very short conversation, which changed their lives. Their whole life’s work became simply a matter of following what these words called them to. God has two or three words for you also. If you heard them, your life would be changed completely.

March 14, 2012 - Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent

Today's Readings

What Moses praises today is a mere shadow of the glorious truth fulfilled in Jesus Christ. While he is right to say that no pagan people have a religion as wonderful as the Law that was handed down to him on Mt. Sinai, we Christians have truly received grace in place of grace.

He asks the Israelites, “What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” Yet God is closer to us than he was to them. He spoke to Moses face to face, but he lives in our hearts. The Israelites were gathered into the People of God, but we are the Body of Christ. The Lord taught Moses to call him by his name, “I am who am”, but Jesus Christ taught us to call God “Our Father”. The Israelites could not even stand to look at the glory of God reflected in the face of Moses, but we look upon God with unveiled faces. The Spirit of the Lord descended on 70 elders, although Moses wished that all the Israelites would become prophets, but we have all received the Holy Spirit, who speaks to us from within. God chose one man and his sons to be priests and to offer the sacrifices to him each day, but we all participate in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ as we present our own bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. Moses asked the Israelites, “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”, but the new law is the Holy Spirit, who is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful. For the law brings wrath, but grace brings salvation for all people.

So if the Israelites needed to take care and be earnestly on their guard not to forget a light that shone in the darkness like a candle, how much more must we take care and be earnestly on our guard not to forget the sunshine that illuminates the whole world. If the Israelites were duty-bound to teach their children and the grandchildren about God’s care for them in the desert, how much more are we bound by grace to proclaim to the whole world that God loves us and has built a kingdom where we can be with him forever.

March 13, 2012 - Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

Today's Readings

When they were translating the Gospel today, they decided to use the phrases “a huge amount” and “a much smaller amount” instead of using the numbers and the ancient currency that is actually mentioned. Something is lost in the translation. No adjective, certainly not a mere “huge” can describe the debt of the first servant. If we do a rough equivalency to modern money, the amount was approximately 2 billion dollars. Billion, with a “b”. We might wonder how exactly a servant came to be 2 billion dollars in debt to his master. Why did the master keep loaning him money? How did the servant waste so much?

The story is clearly pointing to our relationship with God. If I consider how much God has given me, I recognize that no value is sufficient to describe it. Who could pay a ransom for their life? Besides life, I might try to add up the value of the air I breathe and the water I drink. What is the value of an hour? Of a day? If I try to do a rough equivalency into modern money, I find that I have indeed borrowed well over 2 billion dollars worth so far. What do I have to show for this massive investment that God has made in me? If I were to compare the love with which God has loved me and the love with which I have loved God and my neighbor, I find that, like the servant, I am bankrupt.

The joy of being forgiven should be unequal to the lesser joys of this world. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would rejoice, but I would still be unable to pay God back for all the grace that I wasted. When we see people on television jumping and screaming, expressing uncontainable excitement, because they have won some few million dollars, we Christians are put to shame. Where is our excitement? Why are we not jumping up and down? We should rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances. People should be asking us the reason for the hope that is within us.

This joy was what the servant lacked. When he met the other servant, who owed him about $5000, he should have laughed and cried. Imagine caring about $5000 when you have been forgiven 2 billion! Imagine caring about the little ways people hurt us when we have been forgiven all our sins!

March 28, 2011 - Monday of the Third Week of Lent

Today's Readings

God is often not what we expect. If we worshiped a human idea, we would never be surprised, but we worship a living God who is greater than us. Part of his greatness is his capacity to surprise us. We are never going to figure God out. When he commands something, we can obey him, even if we do not understand him. We sometimes have to obey God blindly: not because we have shut our eyes but because we cannot comprehend what we see. This may sound disturbing to modern people, that we will obey someone whom we do not understand.

There may have been a time when blind obedience was more acceptable. Naaman does not seem to understand it, but his servants do. Perhaps they were used to following commands that they did not understand. We modern people are more like Naaman: we, each one of us, think of ourselves as commanders. We will not accept a politician who assures us that we simply do not understand the issues of global finance or international relations, who tells us to go along with a plan that seems bad to us. Perhaps this skepticism is good. We have learned that no human person can be trusted. There may not be anyone in this world so intelligent that they really understand all the issues and so virtuous that they are beyond corruption, and if there is, they are not running for political office.

This skepticism, however, should not be extended to our relationship with God. Here is someone we can trust. He understands everything perfectly, and he loves us completely. Once we have come to believe in God, we should not stumble when we do not understand his ways. We should not expect to understand him. He is God. We are not.

It is not wrong to think about God’s ways and try to make some progress in understanding him. God did give us intelligence so that we could understand. We should not expect, though, that we will understand everything about God or that we have to. Our first reaction to the incomprehensible should not be to try and fit it within our limited frameworks. True understanding does come, as a gift of the Holy Spirit. In the meantime we can simply obey; we can safely presume, if not easily, that God is right, that we have something to learn, that God does not need us to teach him anything.

March 11, 2012 - Third Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

Zeal is the willingness to kill in order to force people to keep God’s law. In the time of Jesus, zealots were an established group of people who held to this willingness. They looked back to Phineas, the great-nephew of Moses, who stabbed a spear through a man and the woman he was breaking God’s law with. They looked back to Matthais Maccabbees who, when he saw a Jew about to sacrifice to a pagan god on the altar, killed that man on the altar instead. In the modern day we call zealots “terrorists” like those mobs of Muslims that killed and burned because a comic was drawn about the violence of Muslims and their founder Mohammad or because some copies of the Koran were accidentally burned.

In the Gospel today, Jesus is the one with zeal. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Today, unlike any other Gospel reading, we see Jesus with a weapon in his hand. Consider what that looked like: Jesus turning over tables, whipping the sheep and the oxen and their owners, spilling coins all over. This was the Jesus that the zealots wanted. Here he is using violence to make sure that God’s commandments are obeyed.

That is of course the difficulty with commandments. It is difficult enough to obey them ourselves, but when we see someone else who not only fails to obey but actually does not intend to obey, there is a kind of crisis. Will we decide that we do not care? Then the commandments must not be so important after all, so why do we bother trying to obey them? Or we could use violence and threats of violence to oblige the others to keep the commandments, in which case we are a zealot.

Consider the issue of abortion. God says “Thou shalt not kill” but there is murder happening in our country with the permission of the government. A million babies every year are murdered, some of them just one block away from here. What options do we have? If we really believed that abortion is murder, would it not be correct to be violent? If I saw a small child being murdered, I would absolutely use violence to defend them. Yet I hear that murders are occurring every day, 2500 murders a day, and I do nothing. WWJD? Should we make a whip of cords and drive the evil out of our society? Perhaps we should be zealots, like Jesus.

There is another option though. We could turn the other cheek. We could choose to suffer the wrong that others do, never breaking our own commitment to the commandments. In fact, Jesus is showing us today about another way to be a zealot. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Zeal for your house will destroy me. That is not the way that zeal is supposed to work. Zeal meant being willing to kill and use violence, but Jesus is saying that he is willing to be killed, to be consumed. “Destroy this temple”, he says, meaning the temple of his own body.

This is a different kind of zeal, one unknown to the terrorists and the zealots. Instead of inflicting suffering, it chooses to suffer. Jesus came to this earth because we were doing wrong things. He did not come with a sword to compel us to do what is right, though, as he demonstrates today, he could have. He came to die on the Cross.

If the commandments of God were merely arbitrary commands, there would be no way to enforce them except through violence. God is stronger than us, so he can force us to do as he chooses. But this is not how God acts. Indeed, the few times in the Old Testament that God uses violence to enforce his will (the destruction of Sodom, the death of Korah, etc.) only emphasize how rarely that is the case. Usually God does not send fire from heaven to punish the wicked. When Adam and Eve sinned, he made them leave his garden, but he gave them a field to live in. God does not treat us like his enemies; he treats us like his children. And if God will not send fire down to destroy every Planned Parenthood and every other den of evil in this world, he does not need us to do it for him.

No, the commandments of God are not arbitrary; they are for our own good, and disobedience of the commandments is its own punishment. I do not obey the command “Thou shalt not kill” because I am afraid of the legal consequences or because I am worried that God will smite me down. I obey that command because I do not want to be a murderer. I do not want to be a thief. I do not want to be an adulterer or idolater or filled with envy.

When I look at Jesus, I see that he was a great man, and I wish that I could be more like him, not in the miracles he could work or in the following he had but in the way that he could keep the commandments. He lived his life like someone who knew the purpose of living. I wish I could be like that. He did not come to this earth to force me to be like him. He does not have to. I want to be like him, though I am too weak to be very much like him.

Once upon a time the sun and the wind got into an argument about who was stronger. They decided to settle things with a test. “Let us see who can force that man over there to take off his coat”, said the wind. The sun agreed. So the wind blew with all its strength, but the harder the wind blew, the more the man held on to his coat. Then it was the sun’s turn. He shone down strong and soon it was very warm and the man removed his coat.

The Zealots had zeal but violence is not convincing. Jesus knew that if he suffered and died for my sins, I could not resist loving him. This is how the weakness of God is greater than the strength of the human. I do not need God to force me to keep his commandments, though I do need him to help me. If someone tried to violently force me to follow a religion, I would resist, but since someone loved me so much that he was willing to die to save me, I am very interested in learning more about that love.

March 9, 2012 - Saturday of the Second Week of Lent

Today's Readings

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.” This line is kind of funny, but it is an accurate depiction of how we try to bargain with God. If the father is running any kind of responsible household, he will immediately turn down this job application. Not that it is even an application. The son presumes that he is doing something very humble by saying, “treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers”, but it is a very arrogant statement. He is commanding the father to hire him.

The son cannot be hired as a servant. He can only be accepted back as a son. We can never earn our way with God. If he wants servants, he has the angels. We can only be accepted as children of God. A sinner trying to come back to the Father can never make up for their sins, but they will always be a child of God.

The other son is also thinking like a bad servant rather than a son. He has never accepted the mission of the father as his own. The joys of the father should be the joys of the son. The sorrows of the father should be the sorrows of the son. God’s family is different than human families: we are never going to grow up and move out on our own. We need to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Jesus became like us in all ways but sin, so we must become like him in all ways we can. We must become sharers in the divinity of him who shared in our humanity.

All our labors in this world will be useless if we have not first conformed our will to the Father’s will. If we are secretly working for ourselves, we will build up resentment at God. If we want to be saints (and we do want to be saints) then we must give up any idea of progress in this world, any expectation of young goats, and take on the mind of Christ. Accepting our role as sons and daughters of our Father means seeing as God sees and loving what God loves, without jealousy or ambition. We cannot be independent and we cannot be servants. We cannot be anything more or less than children of God.

March 9, 2012 - Friday of the Second Week in Lent

Today's Readings

Perhaps you have noticed that this week, we have seen a lot of death and almost-death. Abraham was going to kill Isaac. They were planning to kill Jeremiah on Wednesday, which was also when Jesus told his disciples that the Son of Man would be killed. Yesterday, Lazarus and the rich man both died. Today, Joseph’s brothers were going to kill him, the favorite son of Jacob, and, in the Gospel parable, the landowner’s son is killed. This all culminates tomorrow in the parable of the Prodigal Son whom the father says was dead and is now alive again.

This is all symbolic of Jesus, which his prophesy makes clear. Jesus is the beloved son who was sacrificed. Jesus was the prophet who so offended the leadership of Israel that they wanted to kill him. Jesus was our brother who we killed because we were jealous of how much our Father loved him.

We know that we will die. Some people live with that knowledge more present to them than others. When we are healthy, we rarely think of death. When we are young, death seems as impossible as growing old. Yet death will come. Death is the universal human experience. We speak different languages; we eat different foods; we live under different governments; but everyone has died or will die. Death is a brick wall that no one can go through. It ends every project, every hope, every plan. Is it impolite to speak about death? If we ignore it, will it go away?

No. We will acknowledge death. We will spend 40 days preparing to die, for we are in the season devoted to death. By fasting and almsgiving we are trying to let go of this world. By prayer we are grasping at the world to come. These days culminate in the Easter Triduum, which begins with the dying and death of Jesus Christ. Death is not the end. The Triduum ends in resurrection.

The master sent servant after servant to collect the harvest, but some they mistreated and others they killed, but the master did not give up on the land. He sent his son and they killed him too. What will the master do? He will raise his son from the dead and continue trying to get the fruit he desires. Nothing will stop the master from getting what he wants. He is relentless. He is unbeatable. The love of God is unstoppable.

March 24, 2011 - Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Today's Readings

It is not clear to us exactly where the people in the reading are. We are told that Lazarus “was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” However, Abraham died a long time ago and, as far as we know, went to Sheol, the place of the dead, like everyone else who died. The rich man is in Sheol, but he is experiencing great sufferings, which was not the usual description of that place. We know that he is not in hell, because we see him worrying about his five brothers, whereas hell is a place of complete selfishness.

Perhaps they are all (Abraham, Lazarus, and the rich man) in Sheol, but Abraham and Lazarus are in the part where they are waiting for Jesus to come and take them to heaven after he dies, while the rich man is in the part for people who will go to hell. In that case, things are only going to get worse for the rich man. If we would go to hell for being rich, we here are all in trouble. All, except the very poorest people in our country, live a life more luxurious than the rich man. True, we do not have servants, but our food is more sumptuous and our clothes are more impressive.

However, Abraham too was a rich man, and he is not suffering. Perhaps we would say that the problem is that the rich man never helped Lazarus. Abraham, however, does not draw the rich man’s attention to this failure, nor to the disrespectful way that the rich man is still treating Lazarus. He calls him “my child” and asks him to remember the difference between the life of Lazarus and his life. The problem seems to be that the rich man never suffered.

Perhaps the rich man was in the section of Sheol for those who would go to heaven when Jesus came and got them, but who needed to suffer first, similar to what purgatory is now. Before any sinner can go to heaven, they need to suffer for their sins, even after being forgiven. Some people suffer in this life; some people suffer in the next. We should take our suffering in this life and avoid it later. Hours spent on our knees in prayer or days of fasting or serving others who we could avoid all sound better than the torments that the rich man was experiencing.

March 7, 2012 - Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent

Today's Readings

Jesus always knew what was going on. He was not caught up in events beyond his control. Even before he went to Jerusalem, he not only prophesied his death and resurrection, but even described how it would all take place. When we hear the story of his passion in a few weeks, we must keep today’s Gospel in mind. Jesus did what he did on purpose. Nothing could have been done to him if he had not allowed it to happen. There is nothing he suffered that he did not choose to suffer. This does not take away the guilt of those who betrayed him and condemned him and scourged him and mocked him and crucified him; they also chose to do what they were doing. Jesus, however, must be seen throughout all this as one who came “to give his life”, not someone who had it taken from him.

What does it mean for Jesus “to give his life as a ransom for many”? A ransom is the price paid to a captor for the freedom of the captives. Who is our captor? Satan. Sin. Death. We sold ourselves into captivity for a fruit. We were meant to be free. We were supposed to be kings and queens of this earth. Instead, we have spent the majority of human history in captivity. Satan demanded the life of an innocent man for ransom, and Jesus paid it with his own life. Only he could pay it, because he was the only innocent man. His life could not be taken from him, but he could lay it down. What Satan did not know was that, having laid it down, he could take it up again.

The ransom has been paid, so Satan is forced to release us, if we will be free. Jesus unlocked the door of the dungeon that is sin, but we have to choose to walk out. This should not be difficult, the choice to leave sin behind, but we are enamored with the little comforts that we have found in this filthy prison cell. We must somehow work up the courage to leave! How foolish we look, choosing to stay in the dark, dirty prison, rather than go out into the light. We hear voices, whispering, enticing us to stay. We are frightened of what “going out” means. So we stay, in sin, ransomed prisoners who will not leave.

March 6, 2012 - Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Today's Readings

“Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” It seems at first glance that we are guilty of letting a human tradition stand in the way of the words of our Lord. It seems that way at second glance too. We cannot say that Jesus was wrong, and we cannot say that Matthew did not faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ really taught.

There are some little tricks that people use to explain this, but they are not satisfactory. True, we call our male parent, “Father”, but Jesus is talking about titles that religious people take on. True, we do not use the exact word that Jesus condemns, since he did not speak English (the word “father” had not even been invented yet), but this seems too legalistic. Jesus is saying that we should not call anyone by the same name that we use for our male parent, no matter what language. True, Jesus says “call no one on earth your father”, and we do not call anyone “Our Father” except God, but why do we come so close to breaking the command?

However, and this is a big however, the use of “Father” as a title for religious leaders goes back as far as the Church herself. The desert monks of the early Church were called “Abba”. St. Paul himself says that “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” We did not just discover the Gospel of Matthew yesterday. Even St. Jerome, 1600 years ago, struggled to interpret this verse in light of the tradition. It seems strange that this tradition grew up in a Church which always read the Gospels. The people who first started calling a priest or a monk “father” knew what Jesus had said.

One reason why tradition is so essential in the Church is that the members of the early Church understood better the literal meaning of Jesus’ words. They were closer to him culturally and historically. If they, reading this Gospel just as we do every year, did not think it was a contradiction to call religious leaders “Father” who are we to disagree? But if we do keep calling people on earth “Father”, we do so acknowledging our one Father in heaven. Let us “bow our knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.”

March 5, 2012 - Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Today's Readings

In fairy tales, not the Disney versions but the originals, a common trope is that the king will ask the wicked person for advice on how to punish a wicked person. The wicked person misunderstands who the punishment is for and advises a particularly horrific punishment. Then the king tells the wicked person that they will be punished exactly as they said. There is some poetic justice in how the person is forced to suffer their own sentence. I often wondered why they never realize in time that they have been caught and suggests some very light punishment.

Jesus warns us that we are going to suffer this poetic justice. Hopefully, we hear his words in time to save ourselves. If our King asks me how a sinner should be treated, I am going to say that he should be forgiven if he is even a little bit sorry and then welcomed into heaven. These cannot be mere words: I need to start treating sinners that way since that is how I want to be treated. Jesus tells us that the measure with which we measure will be measured out to us. In other words, we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us, because that is in fact how it will be done unto us.

When we do something wrong, we are usually quick to talk about mitigating circumstances. It is truly a saint who takes absolute responsibility for their own sins. Even if we accept responsibility for our sin, we who fall far short of righteousness quickly begin to explain why it was not really so bad after all, until we are confessing merely that we misheard or misunderstood or were misunderstood: “I am very sorry that you were offended by what I said.” How rare is the person who can say “I’m sorry” without adding soon after “Although, it was not really as bad as you make out.”

So it is that we are very good about making up excuses for ourselves. We should stop that. But, at the very least, we should start using this marvelous talent with other people. Not pretending that bad is good, but making every excuse for the person who has sinned against us. When someone cuts you off in traffic, presume that they are on their way to the hospital. When someone snaps at you, presume they have a very bad headache. When we measure out punishment, what seems like a tiny dose given to another will look enormous when it is directed back at ourselves.

March 4, 2012 - Second Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

Abraham loved God so much that he was willing to give his most precious, the son that he loved, to the Lord.

I could say that, but it is a very dangerous thing to say. So long as no one is taking me seriously, so long as religion is nothing more than a game we play, saying words that mean nothing at all, all will be fine, but if someone makes the dreadful mistake of actually acting on the ideas contained in Scripture, I am in trouble. I could preach about how wonderful it is that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, and how we need to be willing to give everything to God, and then someone will go home and sacrifice their children. We all would consider them a monster, but they could say, and rightly so, “I wanted to give God everything.”

That is not what happened in the reading today. If someone ever tells you that there is any virtue in killing your children as a human sacrifice because you love God so very much, do not believe them. Our religion is not composed of a lot of stupidity said in solemn language. So let us begin with the antidote to complex stupidity: simple truths. It is wrong to kill innocent people. God does not want human sacrifices. If you think that God is asking you to kill someone to please him, stop and get medical care.

So what was going on in that reading? Abraham knew that God was going to stop him. That story is about faith. Abraham had a promise from God: Isaac will give you grandchildren. Isaac had not yet had any children. So Abraham knew that even if he took Isaac up on the mountain, God would save him. Even if Abraham stabbed Isaac through the heart, God would save him. Even if Abraham killed Isaac, God would raise him from the dead. Abraham knew, as he walked up the mountain with Isaac, that Isaac would yet have children. He believed the promise. He had no doubt, and, therefore, he had no fear.

The position that Abraham is in with respect to God, is the position that Isaac is in with respect to Abraham. Consider that time period. There was no government. There was no social structure other than the family. Isaac did not go to school. There was no such thing as a book. Isaac learned everything he knew from his father and mother. For all he knew, every father marches their son up a mountain and ties them to a load of wood. What was going through Isaac’s mind? I imagine that he thought that his father was performing a secret ritual, something symbolic. He trusted that his father was not going to kill him. He knew that his father loved him.

This is also Abraham’s position with God. He has seen more of the world, but his relationship with God was like nothing ever seen before. He knew that the Egyptians worshiped statues, but he also knew that those gods were different than his God. How did he make sense of all these messages from God? We do not know. We should not imagine him anachronistically, as if he knew all that we know about Moses and Jesus. That is all the future to him. He only has a voice which speaks to him and makes promises. He had learned to trust these promises completely.

So Isaac goes up the mountain not knowing exactly what will happen on the top but trusting that his father loves him and will not harm him. Abraham goes up the mountain not knowing exactly what will happen on the top but trusting that God would never break his promise to provide children through Isaac. God demanded that Abraham take Isaac up that mountain knowing what would happen at the top. Why did God do this? Perhaps God was showing us ourselves. When Adam took the fruit from Eve and ate it, he was demanding that Jesus be killed. Every time we sin, we demand that God send Jesus to die for our sins.

Usually the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is considered as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus. Isaac carried the wood on his back; Jesus carried the Cross on his. Isaac was a beloved son; Jesus was the Beloved Son. Abraham said to Isaac that God would provide the sacrifice; Jesus was the sacrifice that God provided. And remember that Jesus was, according to the flesh, a descendant of Isaac. His DNA was taken, across 2000 years, from Isaac, so Jesus is, in a sense present, in Isaac.

However, as the Church shows us today by this choice of readings, that story also foreshadows the Transfiguration. In the Gospel today, Jesus climbs a mountain with Peter, James, and John. On the top of each mountain, a glorification occurs. The voice speaks from heaven. To Abraham the voice said, “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants like the stars of the sky and the sands on the seashore.” Abraham goes up the mountain as just another man, but comes down the mountain as our father in faith.

To Jesus, or rather, to his disciples, the voice said, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” As great as Abraham is, and as great as the promise that was made to him was, this is a greater statement signifying that Jesus is greater than Abraham. God made a promise to Abraham, but about Jesus he merely stated a fact and gave a command. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

Or rather, since he was speaking to the disciples, he does make a promise. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” is a promise. Abraham may have wanted many descendents, but we wanted a savior. By those words God gave us what was his. “This is mine”, he begins. Then he says, “now he is yours to listen to.” This statement contains the mystery of the Gospels: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”

When Abraham took his son up that mountain, he was declaring himself to be for God 100%. He was a servant of God. He was devoted. He trusted God and believed his promises. God said, “March your son up a mountain” so Abraham got up early the next morning and set out. Likewise, when God sent his Son into the world, he was declaring himself to be for us 100%. Brothers and sisters, if God is for us, who can be against us? Since he did not spare his own Son, but handed him over for us all, will he not give us everything else along with him?

March 3, 2012 - Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Today's Readings

So when Jesus says, “Be perfect”, what does he mean? I suppose he could mean, “be really not so bad after all” or “accept your imperfections as part of who you are”, but I actually think he meant “Be perfect.” My difficulty is that I fail utterly at being perfect, so what then?

Perhaps Jesus, knowing that I will fail to achieve this standard, sets it high anyway to tell me to be satisfied with nothing less. He wants me to be unusual, to do more than the others do. Not a little more, but a lot more. I am not to be satisfied until I am perfect, and, since I am never perfect, I am never allowed to be satisfied with my current level of love; I am never able to say, “I love enough.”

The command to be perfect stands on its own. Even if I am not perfect and have not been perfect and have no reasonable expectation of achieving perfection in the future, I am still commanded to be perfect. The command never goes away. The Pharisees loved to know the limits of commands, where they could stop obeying, but this command is unlimited. Some psychologists would say that this is unhealthy obsession with perfection, that I should learn to love myself just the way I am, but I cannot. I want to love myself just the way I could be.

On the other hand, Jesus might mean this not so much as a command as an offer. These sorts of phrases are always in advertisements. You know: “Live in Florida” or “Be beautiful.” The advertisement is saying, “It is possible to do these things if you take advantage of what I am offering you.” Then Jesus’ words would mean that if we love our neighbor and our enemy, we will become perfect. Love has the power to perfect us.

I know that I will never be as perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect. No matter how perfect I ever become by the grace of God, God will be more perfect. Jesus does not compare our perfection to our Father’s perfection because that is reasonable goal for us, but because we should look at our Father who loves us and want to be just like him. God made the rocks to be rocks and the flowers to be flower, and God made the angels to be angels, but he made humans to be gods, sons and daughters of the Most High.

March 2, 2012 - Friday of the First Week of Lent

Today's Readings

“If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?” We have just repeated this verse several times, but it really does need to be hammered into our heads. We are not good enough; no one is. The world is not divided between the virtuous and the wicked, between the good and the bad. We are all bad. We might not have killed anyone, or committed a crime that would send us to prison. We might be what the world calls “a basically good person”. This does not matter. We know the reality behind the façade we show the world. We not only make mistakes, doing or saying something before thinking about it, but we consciously make bad decisions. We are not perfect and anything less than perfect is not good enough.

The first reading demonstrates the problems we face. The wicked man can easily convert, and his whole life is forgotten in favor of his new attitude. Likewise, the virtuous man can easily fall and do something wicked and his whole life is forgotten because of his sin. These are not two different men but one man. We should each recognize ourselves in these portraits, how easily we go from wickedness to virtue and back. A person can, in the course of an hour, sin and convert and sin again.

Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. These were people who tried as hard as they could to be good, to follow every law. We are not going to beat the Pharisees at their own game. We need something different. We have something different in humble repentance. In the first reading, the wicked man who repents is saved but the virtuous man who falls is condemned. If we see ourselves as “basically good”, we are going to fall. Pride comes before the fall.

If we acknowledge our wickedness, if we admit that we do not love God as we should and we do not love our neighbors nearly as much as ourselves, we are on the path to repentance. Humility comes before the conversion. The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are rooted in Christian spirituality. The first step, “We admitted we were powerless—that our lives had become unmanageable”, is not some special status of alcoholics. This is the attitude that we all must have in the face of sin.

March 1, 2012 - Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today's Readings

The condition that Jesus sets today for receiving the gifts of God is asking. Ask and it will be given to you. God gives good things to those who ask. Why do we have to ask? The desire has to precede the gift. If we receive a gift that we do not want, we thank the giver politely and then put it on a shelf. The gifts of God are not made for shelves. God is not holding back a gift until we ask for it nicely. His hands are forever extended, ready to give, but he will not shove the gift down our throats.

Jesus speaks of a gift today, not wages. We cannot earn the gift of God, otherwise it would not be a gift. This does not mean, however, that we have nothing to do. We have to prepare ourselves for the gift. If we bought a dress for a woman, not in her size but in the size that she ought to be, she would not be able to receive the gift until she had gotten into shape. This sounds rather offensive and mean-spirited, and so it would be coming from a normal giver, but God has all kinds of gifts for us that will not fit us now. He is anticipating what we can become, not what we are.

When St. Francis prayed that God would show his love, he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his hands and feet. If he had received that gift before his conversion or too soon afterward, it would only have confused him and either increased his pride or discouraged him altogether. Imagine the gifts that God has planned for you that will not fit now. These are not gifts for you alone, but for the whole Church: gifts of healing and prophecy, gifts of suffering and martyrdom, gifts of faith, hope, and love.

We should celebrate whenever we see spiritual progress, wherever we see it. Not only will the praise of God be greater, but we are closer, as a Church, to the next gift. There are amazing gifts just around the next bend, if we will make progress. We stand here, playing with mere toys, afraid to take the next step. We need to start seeking and finding the next foothold in our spiritual life. Our progress, which is measured in love of God and neighbor, is so little, so far.