February 28, 2015 - Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Deuteronomy 26:16-19
Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 7-8
Matthew 5:43-48

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.

February 27, 2015 - Friday of the First Week of Lent

Ezekiel 18:21-28
Psalm 130:1-8
Matthew 5:20-26

“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 fa├žade 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.

February 26, 2015 - Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25
Psalm 138:1-3, 7-8
Matthew 7:7-12

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.

February 22, 2015 - Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Isaiah 55:10-11
Psalm 34:4-7, 16-19
Matthew 6:7-15

Our God is not deaf. He is not asleep. He is not far away from us. Our God is not busy. We have so much difficulty imagining an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal God that we invent difficulties that do not exist. We imagine that God must be too busy running the whole universe to listen to us. God is not like us. He is more attentive to each of us than we are to ourselves. He knows the life history of every mosquito. He knows when a hair falls off our head. We cannot fathom how attentive he is to us.

God does not hear us because we pray to him. He hears every word we speak all day long; he knows every thought we think. We may be tempted to imagine that when we turn to God in prayer, it is like picking up the phone and calling him. Not at all! We are more like a toddler picking up a toy phone and calling our father who is sitting right there watching us. God does not hear us better when we are in church or when our hands are folded or when we are looking up at a particular corner of the ceiling or shouting at the sky.

God is not inattentive, but we are. The difference between when we pray and when we are not praying is not God’s attention to us but our attention to God. Sometimes we wonder whether God is hearing our prayer. This is certain: he is. Our real concern should be with whether we are hearing him. God is with us always, hearing every thought, feeling, and word, but, when we finally turn to him, we act like he does not know us. We think that prayer is all about God, but, paradoxically, it is all about us. When we pray, we are not contending with an absent God but with ourselves: with our selfish, stubborn, obtuse natures.

When we pray, we may use many words or few, we might repeat a prayer or speak freely to God, we may invoke God’s name or ask a Saint to pray for us, we might read the Scriptures or sit in silence hoping to hear the Spirit speak within us, but we should not pile up words, as the Gentiles do, thinking that in their many words they will be heard. We are not trying to be heard; we are trying to hear.

February 23, 2015 - Monday of the First Week of Lent

Leviticus 19.1-2, 11-18
Psalm 19.8, 9, 10, 15 Resp. John 6:63b
Matthew 25.31-46

When it comes to saving for retirement, all the financial advisors agree: save early and save often. It would seem that the point of working is to produce a retirement account. As for your IRA or 401K, I cannot say, but for the most important retirement account we have, this advice stands. We have an account in heaven. The interest rate is phenomenal, and the market is never going to crash. There is a kingdom there that has been prepared for us from before the foundation of the world. There is a room there with your name on it, waiting for you to move in. We need to build up that account though; we need to start making deposits. God’s bank tellers are all around us: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, strangers, the imprisoned, the sick. Whatever we deposit with them is going to be credited to our account.

The Church sets before us the fourteen works of mercy. The seven corporal works and the seven spiritual works. The seven corporal works include the six that Jesus mentions here and, because groups of seven are kind of the thing, adds burying the dead. A good practice this Lent would be to make sure that we do something for all seven. Feed the hungry, whether in person in a soup kitchen or by sending money in the rice bowl or donating to the food shelf. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked, and not only with your cast-off clothing that you wanted to get rid of anyway. Visit those in prison. Welcome the stranger, particularly the homeless, perhaps not into your own home, depending on your circumstances, but into a home. Visit the sick, especially the forgotten people in nursing homes. And bury the dead, come to a funeral, especially of someone who would not have had many people come.

Do these works of mercy generously, not as if only trying to check off a list. Do these works of mercy gladly, not only because people need your help, but because you need to be merciful. Do these works of mercy unreservedly, without too much concern for the worthiness of the recipient: be willing to be taken advantage of. When we arrive at the day of judgment, we do not want to be shocked by how low the balance is in our account. Start saving up now; make regular deposits. Save early and save often.

February 21, 2015 - First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9.8-15
Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9 Resp. 10
1 Peter 3.18-22
Mark 1.12-15

Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side? We’re told that rainbows are merely illusions, light refracted into its constituent parts by water droplets, but people do not write songs or poems or myths about light refracted by water droplets. They write songs and poems and myths about rainbows.

This attempt to deconstruct the rainbow, to explain it away, is a danger in our modern scientific world. The danger is that we see through everything and soon there is nothing to look at anymore. “The rainbow is merely refracted light. Rainbows are only illusions.” No. It is not only or merely anything. It is a gigantic stripe of every color that goes from one side of the sky to the other. If a person sees through a rainbow, then they no longer see the rainbow. Someone who can look at a rainbow and not see a rainbow is blind.

This problem of seeing through is particularly a modern problem, but humans have always suffered from this blindness. St. Peter writes in the second reading today that baptism is not merely the removal of dirt from the body. Somebody might see a baptism and say, “That’s it? That’s all? Just a little water, a quick bath?” They have seen through the baptism, so they cannot see the baptism. They cannot see a person saved through water and the Holy Spirit.

Is love merely a chemical reaction in the brain? No. There may be such a reaction, but it is not the essence of love. If you want to know about love, ask someone who has loved, not a neuroscientist. Is the Mass merely a lot of unnecessary words and rituals? Is the Eucharist just bread and wine? If you want the truth, you cannot ask someone who has seen through it all. You need someone who has seen the truth, the ineffable, wonderful, amazing truth.

That is Jesus in our Gospel today. He went out into the wilderness to fast for 40 days, the first Lent, and he came back with a vision for the people of Galilee: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” Jesus could see what we blind people miss. He constantly prayed and fasted. He is God, of course, and knows the Father and the Holy Spirit perfectly, but he also made certain that his human nature was able to see what we look right through. In fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, Jesus brought his human nature into right relationship with God.

Perhaps it is clearer how the other two practices of Lent relate to our relationship with God. If we want to be close to God, obviously we should pray, talking to him and listening to him. And almsgiving means serving the people he created. If I love God, I will pray and help others. These two are clearly important, but perhaps it is less obvious that if I love God I will not eat meat or give up desserts.

But fasting is the tool by which we are able to see the reality of the symbols. Like when we look at a drop of water through a microscope and see all sorts of living creatures swimming around that were invisible before, or we look at the sky through a telescope and see planets and stars and galaxies where there seemed to be nothing, if we are going to see to the reality of things, we need a tool; not a telescope or microscope but something else. That something else is fasting, and it is so very essential to the Christian life. How does fasting allow us to start seeing new things? It is not that if we fast long enough we will eventually start hallucinating. There are people who do that in other religions, but that is not the goal of Christian fasting. The good effects of fasting last even after you begin eating normally again.

For us, fasting is based on a hunger that is present in every human soul. Atheist or Christian or whatever religion, the hunger is present because God put it there when he created us. We experience hunger pangs of this spiritual hunger. It is painful to have a desire that cannot be filled. So we try to answer the hunger with various things: food, entertainment, alcohol, whatever. This hunger is why we eat too much. This hunger is why people get drunk. This hunger is why people jump out of airplanes and ride rollercoasters. This hunger goes under many names, but above all it is called Boredom. O wonderful boredom, the realization that I am not satisfied with what this world has to offer!

If we sit on the couch with a bag of potato chips, watching TV, we might quiet this hunger for a little while, but not very long. If a starving person cannot get food, perhaps they will chew on gum or something else to pass the time, but, when they have food, they will throw away the gum and begin to eat. So also, when we get to heaven and live in the presence of God, we will throw away whatever we have used to quiet our longing for God here on earth. But what if the hungry person forgot that hunger was for food and kept chewing gum when there was food available? Or what if a person forgets that the longing of their soul is for God and tries to find their happiness in the trifles of this earth? We must fast so that we do not forget what we really want, so that we do not forget what the longing is really for.

As we fast this Lent and rediscover our longing for God, we must be careful not to find a substitute for what we have given up. Particularly if you have given up television or the internet, you may find that you have literally hours of extra time each day. Now is not the time to become an avid reader of novels. Use the time for the other Lenten practices: prayer and almsgiving. Help those in need. Read the Scriptures. Spend some time in Adoration. If our fast is the kind of fast that God loves, it will turn us outward to God and to our neighbor.

Then, we will be able to see. A person who has not spent time fasting cannot see the love of God, but we can. We will look at rainbows and see a promise given thousands of years ago. We will look at the Eucharist and see the Body and Blood and Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we imitate Jesus this lent and fast for 40 days, we will begin to feel something. When our hearts are burning because we refuse to settle for anything less than God, when our whole bodies are on fire with desire, then we will walk around with our eyes wide open, then we will be able to see.