March 27, 2011 - Third Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

We were just singing, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Whose voice? The voice of the Lord, full of power and splendor. The voice of the Lord that created the earth and can destroy it. The voice of the Lord, which is sometimes heard in a burning bush and sometimes heard in thunder and sometimes heard in a soft whisper. The psalmist warns us, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

We would not need this warning if we were not in danger of doing exactly that, of hardening our hearts. I often think that I would love to hear the voice of the Lord more often. If I went outside today and a voice came, whether as thunder from the sky or as a small whisper, telling me what God wanted, step by step, I would gladly follow it. So I think, but the psalmist warns me that if today I heard his voice, I would be in danger of hardening my heart.

We hear the voice of the Lord speaking today to the Samaritan woman. She has many opportunities to harden her heart. She goes out to the well with a bucket to get water for herself. The voice of the Lord speaks: “Give me a drink.” She could have refused him the water. She could have been intent on her own needs. We too will hear the voice of the Lord asking for our help. We will hear voice of the poor asking us for help. We might resent this, thinking only of our needs. We cannot put off helping the poor until we have first taken care of ourselves. We have to be open to the voice of the Lord speaking from an unexpected source.

The Lord speaks to the woman again, offering living water that would free her from thirst. She opens her heart to this offer and asks for this living water. Jesus says, “Go call your husband and come back.” He shows her that he knows about her sins. She could have hardened her heart and asked Jesus what business of his it is whether she has had 100 husbands. When we hear the voice of the Lord, we might not like what he has to say. It may draw attention to our failures. It may make demands on us, that we abandon a way of life which is not acceptable to the Lord. Throughout this dialogue, the Lord contradicts the woman, calls her ignorant, points out her sin, and offers what he seems incapable of giving. The woman could have responded by hardening her heart and rejecting what he said, or she could have opened her heart to the truth, as she did.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The psalmist is basing his warning on the events of the first reading today. The Israelites in the first reading are not unlike us. They seem like a very frustrating set of people to work with, and so God found them, hard-headed and hard-hearted, just like us. They ask Moses today, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” They seem to have a very short memory. Moses did not make them leave Egypt. They were slaves in Egypt. They asked God to release them from their slavery. God sent Moses to fulfill their prayer, to lead them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey. Nobody made them leave, they gladly marched out of Egypt.

The Israelites heard the voice of the Lord speak, but their hearts were hardened by thirst. If God gave us everything we wanted, at the instant we wanted it, for 99 days, on the hundredth day, if there were a delay in getting what we wanted, we would complain loudly. The Israelites are not wrong in their desire for water. Two million people, wandering in the desert, are in desperate need of water, but, instead of turning to the Lord in their need, instead of waiting for him, instead of trusting that he would provide what they needed, they grumble and blame Moses for making them leave Egypt.

And these Israelites should not be confused about whether God was really behind the mission. The locusts, the frogs, and the flies, the hail and fire, the darkness that covered the land, and the other plagues should have clarified this. If not, then the way that the Red Sea split in two and allowed them to cross on a dry sea floor with walls of water on either side ought to have been final confirmation. After all that, did God really intend for them to die of thirst in the desert?

We too struggle when God does not seem to be answering our prayers immediately, but if he did answer our prayers as soon as we asked, we would quickly forget where the answers were coming from. When all is going well, we forget about God. It is too easy to go through our daily routine without remembering how completely we depend on God. We begin to think that we are getting along fine and that God is a minor character in our life. Suddenly a roadblock appears in our way, and we cannot get around it or over it. After trying everything else, we turn to prayer. If God answered our prayers immediately, we would soon begin to depend entirely on ourselves again.

During such times, when we are in desperate need, when we pray as if for the very first time, we can learn hope. Specifically, we can learn to place our hope in God. Such hope does not disappoint because it is based in God’s promise to us. The Israelites should have hoped in God who promised to take them to the Promised Land. He was not going to let them die of thirst on the way there. The promise of God to us is the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Jesus Christ died for us, not because we were good, but because he loved us even though we were not. After his death and resurrection, an act of utmost love, he gave us the Holy Spirit, who is love, to dwell within our hearts. After all that, will he not keep his promises to us?

The Holy Spirit is God’s promise to us. If we were to try and express this promise in words it would be: “God loves us and will always love us.” When we come up against any struggle, when we find ourselves in the middle of the desert without water, this hope, this promise, should be enough to get us through anything. God has not promised that we will be rich in this world. He has not promised that we will be free of sickness or suffering. He has not promised that this life will be free from trouble. On the contrary, he has said, “In this world you will have trouble.” He has promised us persecutions. We will have sorrows in this life, but God loves us and he will always love us. He will not abandon us, and he will bring us to heaven if we want to go there. This is our hope, and this hope cannot disappoint.

March 20, 2011 - Second Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

One week into Lent is a tough place to be. We have five weeks left until Easter. Around this time we begin to look longingly at the indulgences that make up our life the rest of the year. It seems as though we ought to be further along than just beginning the second week. At least, I hope this is how you feel. If not, if Lent is going along easily, if you forgot that it was Lent, then you probably are not doing enough for Lent. Lent is only easy if we are already perfect or if we are not doing it. The point of Lent is to die. On Easter, Jesus rose from the dead. If we want to rise with Jesus this Easter, we will need to be dead by then.  Lent ought to be killing us: that is how you know it is working.

How glorious it is then that the Church gives us some refreshment today. Not the mistaken refreshment of those who think that Sundays are a day off from Lent, as if Jesus took a day off each week during the 40 days in the desert. No, man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. The readings today, the Word of God, provide our example, encouragement, and refreshment.

We begin with a good example in Abraham who, at the Word of God, left his home and traveled across the whole Middle East. Abraham believed that God would fulfill his promise. We can only begin to imagine the sacrifices he made. It was 25 more years before the promise began to be fulfilled with the birth of Isaac. God has made promises to us also. He promises us that if we leave our lives behind, he will give us far more than anything we ever gave up. We should believe this promise.

After the example we get encouragement and advice. St. Paul tells us, “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” We are not supposed to use our own strength. There is a strength that comes from God and it is stronger than we are. We prayed in the psalm today: “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.” Lent is not a time where we learn to trust in ourselves. If the fasting of Lent or the additional work and prayer we do were done with our own strength, then Lent would make our pride and self-reliance grow. If, instead, we do everything with the strength that comes from God, then our reliance on God will grow, our love for God will grow.

 Then we arrive at the refreshment. The Gospel today is the Transfiguration, as it always is on the Second Sunday of Lent. The Transfiguration is such a beautiful image, like an eyewitness account of heaven. All of salvation history is present on the mountain. Moses, who wrote down the Law, was there. Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets, was there. Jesus, son of David, King of Israel, was there. Peter, who was the first pope and wrote two letters of the New Testament, was there. John, who wrote a Gospel and another letter, was there. James, the first apostle to be a martyr was there. God is present: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father speaks; the Son, Jesus, shines forth like the sun; and the Holy Spirit is present as the bright cloud.

The Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” What a wonderful relationship between the Father and the Son. We were supposed to have perfect families like that too, but sin ruined it. Imagine, children, if your parents were perfect. Perhaps I am surprising you, when I warn you that they are not; perhaps you have already figured that out. But if they were perfect, it would be easier to always obey them. And parents, imagine if your children were perfect. How much easier it would be to be their parent! Our families are not perfect, because we are not perfect, but for now, let us just stay on this mountain, and imagine.

Peter was so happy to be on the mountain that he did not even know what to say; he only knew that he wanted to stay there. I wonder whether he interrupted Moses or Elijah, who were conversing with our Lord, with his offer to set up tents.  Years later, Peter recalled this moment in a letter, reminding people that he was actually there on the mountain, that he had really heard the Father’s voice say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Life was good, that day, on top of the mountain. It was as close to being in heaven as a person can experience on the earth. If we sit and contemplate that image, of Jesus shining like the sun, surrounded by saints, we can share in that taste of heaven.

We will probably have to wait until heaven to see heaven. When we see Jesus shining like the sun, surrounded by the saints, it will be on the other side of whatever death is out there waiting for us. But we do have a sort of mountain we can visit: right here at Mass. We will not see Moses or Elijah or Peter, James, and John, but we will read about them, and Jesus too. Jesus will be present, not in shining white garments, but hidden under the forms of bread and wine. The apostles spent time with Jesus every day, but his true identity, which was usually hidden, was revealed on the mountain. We can receive the Eucharist every day, and we believe that Jesus’ true identity is hidden in these symbols of bread and wine, which actually are the Body and Blood and Soul and Divinity of our Lord, the same Jesus Christ who was transfigured on the mountain. Indeed, the apostles saw Jesus on that mountain, but we, when we receive the Eucharist, are united to him in our bodies.

When we come here each week, it is like climbing the mountain. The world still exists out there, but we can forget about it for a little while. We should savor this time we spend with God. We cannot set up tents, though. We have to go back into the world. Jesus had to come down from the mountain and go die on the Cross. We have got five more weeks of Lent, and then the rest of life, before heaven.

March 13, 2011 - First Sunday of Lent

In the beginning the world was perfect. God made it. God makes perfect things. Everything was perfect. Adam and Eve were in the garden, and life was very good. You know the story. There was lots of fruit, and they can eat any of them except one. If they eat that fruit, they will die. We might want to ask God why he even made that fruit. God might ask us where we were when he was creating the universe. God does not need to explain himself, and we probably would not understand him if he did. It was completely reasonable for there to be one tree out of a whole garden that was not for eating. Let us not try to pass the blame around here.

Eve was deceived into thinking that she should eat the fruit on the tree that was not for eating. So she ate it. Then she gave some to Adam. He was not deceived. He knew that eating the fruit would lead to death. So why did he eat it? Perhaps, seeing that Eve had eaten the fruit and would therefore die, he decided to throw in his fate with hers and ate as well, the original Romeo and Juliet. Whether he was afraid of life without Eve or afraid for her and what she would suffer, he decided to go with her into sin.

This was a mistake. When we think about all the evil in the world from his time until now, Adam’s romantic gesture seems kind of stupid. God had made the world perfect, and, up to that point, the world was perfect. Through this mistake, death came into the world. It was like throwing a hammer into perfect clockwork. Death was not a punishment by God. The world was no longer perfect. Cain will kill Abel. Even those who are not killed will die as a result of their bodies breaking down. The error having been made, death just comes right into the world.

Adam was supposed to be king of the world, so, when he sinned and let death into the world, “death reigned through him.” Adam was up here in the garden of Eden. When Eve fell, maybe there would have been some way to help her back up, but, when he jumped down after her, there was no chance. Adam and Eve were both down in imperfection now, and so are all their children, including us. It is only logical that, if the parents fall, their children, whom they have after the fall, will be down where their parents are. We all have to live now down in imperfection, because we have no way to get back up to perfection.

“From Adam until Moses” people were killing each other, committing adultery, lying, coveting, stealing, worshipping false gods, and they were unhappy. We were not made to live in imperfection. When God gave Moses the law, people still did all those things, but now they knew what was making them unhappy. The law is like turning on the light in a filthy room: the light cannot clean the room, but at least we know where all those smells are coming from.

We need something then that can get us back up to perfection. No one on earth can because we all are imperfect. Even when God flooded the earth and only Noah and his family came through, the sin came through with them. Even though Noah was a righteous man, he was not perfect. The solution is a perfect man. The solution is Jesus Christ. We see in the Gospel today that he is perfect. Satan gives him three chances to make an error, but Jesus does not fall for any of them.

These were some serious temptations. Jesus “fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.” There is an understatement. Fasting for forty days is going to make a person very hungry. “Turn these stones into bread.” Jesus knows that he can do it too, but he does what is right and continues fasting. Jesus is standing on top of the tallest tower in Jerusalem. “Throw yourself down; the angels will catch you.” He knew that they would too. He could do it just for the fun of it, or to see if it was true, but he does not. Now Jesus is on top of a very high mountain. “Bow down and worship me and I will give you everything you see,” Satan says. What would you do for a million dollars? What would you do for all the power and riches in the world? Would you worship Satan? I mean if it was a real offer, would you? We worship him for less all the time. We worship him every time we sin. Jesus does not.

Jesus, by his obedience, conquered death and took his rightful place as king of the world. He can now offer the free gift of grace to anyone. Through Adam death entered the world, through Jesus life entered the world, but “the free gift is not like the fall.” If Jesus just brought us back to perfection, just undid the fall, we would sin again, fall again. The solution of God is greater than the mistakes of men. Jesus Christ is going to reign; he will never fall; he is perfect forever. We do not want to reign ourselves; we want to reign through him. He reigns, and, we, by “receiving the abundance of grace and the gift of justice” become united to him. He is the head; we are the body. So long as he is perfect, we get to reign, and he is always going to be perfect. No matter how imperfect we are, he is still perfect. He is like the superstar who can take this ragtag team of nobodies to the championship.

We just need to be united to Jesus. We need to be on his team. This can only be done by Jesus. He is the perfect one, only he can rescue us by his grace and his free gift. We, for our part, have to receive the gift. We have to despise the imperfections around us. We have to despise the imperfections within us. We have to let our desire for perfection rule our lives. Whatever is holding us down here, we will have to give up. Are you dissatisfied with this world? Do you want more out of life? Good! This Lent, we can cut every chain that holds us to this world and cling to Jesus instead. Then, when he rises, we will rise with him.

March 8, 2011 - Tuesday of the Ninth Week in Ordinary Time

The Gospel begins with the Pharisees and the Herodians together. These two groups despised each other, but they are willing to come together for the common cause of making Jesus look foolish. They begin by complimenting him on his integrity and honesty. Then they ask a question which they were sure there was no good answer to. This question of paying tax money to a government that uses it for evil is a very difficult question, requiring a nuanced answer. Surely, they think, Jesus will have to take a side in the debate either for taxes or against them, or look like he cannot answer a simple question.

Jesus asks, “Why are you testing me?” Indeed, why? They are not really looking for an answer to a difficult question. They are not even testing him to see if he is really wise. Their only motivation is to make him look foolish. Nevertheless, he uses this question as an opportunity to give one of the most memorable teachings in the Gospel: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

What belongs to God? Jesus’ criterion was that the coin is stamped with the image of Caesar. What is stamped with the image of God? We are. In his image and likeness, he created us. Jesus is not teaching that we need to balance in our lives the demands of God and the demands of government. We should give what is worthless (money) to the government, but give to God our whole selves.

We in 21st century America are in a different political situation than the Jews of the 1st century. We have the ability, some more than others, to change what our government does with the tax money. It is not wrong to work, as some people are right now, so that the government does not fund evil corporations like Planned Parenthood. We do not need to leave government entirely in the hands of nonbelievers. However, we should be careful to follow Jesus’ instructions to never give away ourselves, who are stamped with the image of God. In our support for pro-life causes, we should not give ourselves to some agendas, nor, in our support for our immigrant brothers and sisters, should we give ourselves to the opposite side. We, made in the image of God, and the Church, with Jesus as our Head, are too valuable to be given to anyone but God.  

March 7, 2011 - Monday of the Ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Usually, this week, we would have been reading all through Tobit, but, since Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, we will only get two readings from Tobit before we give it up for the special Lenten readings, which is somewhat unfortunate, as Tobit is one of the most fun books of the Old Testament. Those who are scholars of literary criticism and such things usually say that Tobit is one of a few books where a fictional story is recorded in Scripture. It would be like finding the book of Cinderella.

Most of Scripture cannot be fictional. The Gospels are not fictional nor any part of the New Testament. Exodus cannot be fictional since, if Moses did not really bring the Hebrews out of Egypt, most of what comes after that would make no sense at all. God is always reminding Israel that he brought them out of slavery, which would be just a lie if he had not really done it. Some of the stories of the Old Testament are rather fantastic, but this is no evidence that they are fictional, since one of the main characters is God. It might be unbelievable that enough bread and meat for 2 million people fell from the sky every night for 40 years, until we hear that God did it. It might be hard to imagine the Red Sea splitting in two so that the Hebrews could cross on dry land, but it is not hard to believe that God did it. God is either God, and can do anything at all, or he is not. It is kind of funny to suggest about any miracle that it would have been too hard for God to do. Nothing is too hard for God to do; he is God.

So the events of Tobit might have happened: the angel and the fish livers and the secret nighttime burials. It is not impossible though that a fairy tale should end up in the Bible, not as an essential part of salvation history, but, like Tobit or Esther or Jonah, as a story. In this case, the stories are like extended parables; the moral of the story, the lessons that are learned are the truth. Did Tobit really exist? We do not know. Perhaps, in heaven, we will meet the real Tobit someday. What is certain is that it is quite a good story, worth sitting down and reading sometime all the way through.

March 6, 2011 - Sunday of the Ninth Week in Ordinary Time

At a quick glance, the second reading, from St. Paul, seems to disagree with the words of Jesus in the Gospel. St. Paul says that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Jesus says that “only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” “will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Obviously, if St. Paul and Jesus really disagreed, we would follow Jesus. Even St. Paul would side with Jesus in such a disagreement. However, we are not speaking here about the personal opinion of St. Paul, but the inspired Word of God, coauthored by St. Paul and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit and Jesus are not going to disagree, because they are both going to be right and truth cannot disagree with truth.

It is important as we contemplate the Word of God that we consider the meaning of the individual words. St. Paul uses the word “justified” in the second reading today, and this word is often defined loosely in our mind, but it has a very specific meaning. The “fy” part means “to make”, so “Just-ify” means “to make just”. A just person is someone who does what is right. So, when we are justified, we are made into people who do what is right. St. Paul is saying that we are made into people who do what is right by of our faith, not because we are following laws. Jesus is saying that we will only enter the kingdom of heaven if we do what is right. There is no disagreement at all between them. Sometimes the most important part of theology is just making sure we understand what everyone is saying.

St. Paul is letting us know about a change that took place because of Jesus. In the first reading, Moses is telling the Hebrews how important the law is: “Take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead.” The Pharisees took this literally; perhaps you remember when Jesus admonished them for widening their phylacteries. A phylactery is a small pouch that contains some words of the law. The Pharisees would tie one pouch on their arm and one on their forehead. The words of Moses, the Torah, the Law, was the center of Jewish religion.

St. Paul is telling us that the works of the law cannot make us just. As long as a person needs to be told not to kill their neighbor and not to commit adultery, they are not just. A truly just person does not wish they could commit murder or adultery but then not do so because of the commandments. There is an obscene film out right now, that is being advertised all over. The premise of the film is that husbands are just waiting for permission from their wives to commit adultery. What a sad marriage that would be! Someone who wants to commit adultery, not just is tempted to but would gladly do it if they could get permission, is an very immature person.

All of the laws are for the immature. So long as we need to be told, “Thou shall not steal” we had better listen to it and follow it. So long as we need to be told to honor our parents, we should remember that commandment. But the Christian life should not consist of walking through this world aimlessly, trying not to step in any sin. A good person just honors their parents. A good person does not steal. A good person does not commit adultery or murder. And a good person does not spend their life wishing they could disrespect their parents and steal and kill and commit adultery. We need to be good people. We need to be just.

No matter how hard we try, though, we can never make ourselves just. We need to be justified. We “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus.” Justification is not something we do; it is something done to us. We are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Does this mean that all we have to do is believe in Jesus, and he will justify us? No. There are many examples throughout history of believing Christians who were not good people, and if we doubt the examples, Jesus confirms the possibility. He says that there will be many people who call him Lord, who prophesy, who drive out demons, who do mighty deeds in his name, but are not just, are not doing what is right.

Actually Jesus never says that these people were really doing the great works; it was their opinion that they had accomplished such things. Whether God chose to use them as his instrument for good despite their lack of real faith, or if they were deluding themselves with false prophesying and false casting out of demons, we have no way of knowing. What we do know is that, either way, we do not want to be like them. We want to have real faith; we want to be justified.  Faith trusts God. Faith does not believe in him and then wish he was not always getting in our way. When we have faith we are not afraid, not afraid that we are going to miss out on some experience or fun because we are following God. Faith believes that God can and will fulfill his promises, and God has promised us everything good.

Justification is a process. We are not going to go to bed tonight and wake up perfectly just tomorrow. We will not be perfectly just until we get to heaven. For many of us, justification will largely take place in purgatory, where we “will be saved, but only as through fire.” This does not mean that we should put off justice until then, but only that our work here will be imperfect. In truth, we ought to be anxious to be just. When see the progression of justice in ourselves, not only as we begin to do good and avoid evil, but also as we realize that we hate sin, we are happier people. We begin to be repulsed by the idea of committing a sin, rather than begrudgingly obeying a law we do not understand. Life begins to have meaning. We Christians are not aimless wanderers through this world but adventurers. We have a destination: heaven, perfection. We should have begun the journey already. We should not waste any more time.

March 5, 2011 - Saturday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

We have often heard Jesus say that we must have the heart of a child. Children are selfish, greedy, and lazy. In other words, they are human just like us. We do not need to idealize children as perfect little angels. What we do want to admire and emulate is their simplicity. Not the simplicity of understanding. It is good that we come to understand the world around us better as we age; this is called wisdom and is the gift of God. The essential characteristic of a child’s heart which we want to preserve in ourselves is the simplicity of expression called sincerity. There is no one as sincere as a small child, often to the mortification of their parents. It is a sad day when a child learns pretense, not merely to lie but to become a lie.

In the Gospel today we see the stark contrast between the absolute sincerity of Jesus and the cynical pretense of the scribes, Pharisees, and elders. They ask Jesus a question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus promises to answer the question if they answer his seemingly unrelated question: “Was John’s baptism of heavenly or of human origin?” They huddle up and discuss his question. Now we see cynicism at work. These religious leaders are not trying to discern the truth; they are trying to win a game. In fact, as they are discussing this among themselves, they reveal that they already heard John the Baptist point out Jesus as the Messiah. They have completely lost their capacity for sincerity: they cannot ask a sincere question; they will not give a sincere answer.

Sincerity is not everything; it is not praiseworthy to be sincerely a jerk. We need sincerity together with a desire to be perfect. Sincerity can be terrifying, opening wide all the curtains on our soul, letting the world see our hopes and fears, our successes and failures. Sincerity means not putting on a mask every morning; when we are sincere, we reveal our real self to the world. Then we must work to make ourselves better. When we have a fault we can leave it be, or try to conceal it with insincerity, or we can try to cure it in our soul. Our object is neither to be sincerely bad nor to be insincerely good. We want to be perfect, actually perfect.

March 4, 2011 - Friday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Again today we have Jesus making extraordinary claims about what we are capable of if we would only believe. On the surface, it seems that Jesus is claiming that we should have more confidence; his words seem to support those who promote crazy theories like “The Secret”. If we take Jesus’ words out of context, they seem to say that insanity is impossible, that anyone who believes they can fly can in fact fly. This is plainly untrue. Otherwise, children with active imaginations would always be flying around.

If we put the words of Jesus back into context, we can see their meaning more clearly. Jesus begins by saying, “Have faith in God.” Thus, it is faith in God and not faith in ourselves that makes the difference. He does not say that if we believe in ourselves, then we can do it. He says that if we believe in God, then “it shall be done for” us. So Jesus is not saying that every irrational belief will make us powerful. Even if we do pray, expecting God to accomplish something for us, it may not happen. The evils of this world are a mystery, and many times Jesus tells us that we Christians should not expect to be exempt from them.

The faith that Jesus presents encompasses our lives. He tells us that when we go to pray, we should forgive anyone who has done us harm, so that God can forgive us. This faith is bigger than a state of mind: it includes forgiving and being forgiven. This faith requires completely conforming our lives to God’s will. The only way we can have absolute faith that God will do what we are praying for would be if we already knew that what we are praying for is God’s will. When a soul is truly at one with God, a prayer of petition and a prayer of thanksgiving are the same prayer. In this case, we become instruments of God’s will rather than God being a genie granting us wishes. The more we conform our will to God’s will, the more we can exercise his power in this world. God wants us to become these perfect instruments who can move the mountains he wants moved. If we want this kind of power, and we should since it is God’s gift to us, the first step must be to embrace God’s will completely.

March 3, 2011 - Thursday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Sirach is praising God in the reading today. He is showing us how we can miss how wonderful God is if we just take everything for granted. He reminds us “How beautiful are all his works! even to the spark and fleeting vision!” We can look at something as simple as a spark and realize the greatness of God. Our tendency is to not think about such things, or, if we do enjoy sitting and watching a campfire, we forget that what we are watching is the creation of God. When we contemplate God, we often think of him as if he were just one more character in this universe, but, in reality, he existed before the universe and time, and he created everything from nothing: inventing every law of physics, every color, every idea, every creature that exists. When we invent something, we copy God. Some human beings invented the cell phone, but God invented sound and radio waves and plastic and electricity and light, and, of course, the human brain that thought of putting all these things together.

It is not merely difficult for us to comprehend that God created the world from nothing at all, it is impossible. We like to think that our minds can understand anything. If something does not make sense to us, we want to just reject it as unimportant. How logical it is though that what is most important in the universe would not be completely comprehensible! Just because we cannot wrap our minds entirely around God does not mean he does not make sense; it just means that our minds are not big enough.

We are not alone. Sirach says that even the angels fail to recount all the wonders of God. Our minds are like the minds of infants compared to the angels, yet God is as far beyond them as the unlimited is beyond the limited. We can only praise God as we are able. We must never, however, presume that the idea of God in our minds is anything but a shadow. We are safest when we say only unlimited things about God: God is the greatest, God is the highest, God loves us perfectly forever. In heaven we will have all of eternity to dive deeper and deeper into the mystery of God, never reaching the end.

March 2, 2011 - Wednesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

The apostles are making some progress. They still have a distance to go, as is clear from what follows, but it is impressive that, when Jesus told them that he was going to Jerusalem to be mocked, to be spit upon, to be scourged, and put to death, James and John ask to be given positions of prominence in his kingdom. It is not clear that they understood totally what it would mean to drink the chalice that Jesus would drink and be baptized with his baptism, but they were eager to bet everything they had on Jesus, no matter what. Some of the crowd following Jesus to Jerusalem, a motley group of the poor and lower-class with a few wealthy women mixed in, without weapons, might have been doubting the whole enterprise; James and John see the same group, with Jesus at the head, and just want to make sure that they have a good position locked up in the kingdom that would inevitably result.

They displayed great faith, but something was still missing, and their question becomes an opportunity for us all to learn something about what it means to be great. James and John were not unwilling to do the hard work: they were following Jesus, even to be spit upon and scourged. They merely wanted to be sure of the reward at the end. They wanted to be something great, and, thinking with minds of this world, they asked for a position of greatness. Jesus told them, and us, that the positions of greatness in the Kingdom of God are not merely handed out as rewards.

Jesus is telling us that, in the world, the weaker serve the stronger, because the stronger are able to force the weaker to do so, but in the Kingdom of God, the stronger serve the weaker, because they are the ones able to serve. This is simply one way that our world has gotten things completely backward. The strong man should carry the weak man, but we expect the weak to carry the strong. In the Kingdom, we serve our brothers and sisters who are in need; the angels, who are stronger and smarter than us, serve us; and God, who is infinitely strong, serves all of us. If we want to be great, we need to do great things: we should find someone who needs our help, and then help them. 

March 1, 2011 - Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Jesus makes us impressive promises today: One hundred times the houses! One hundred times the brothers and sisters! One hundred times the mothers! One hundred times the children. One hundred times the lands! And persecutions too! This last promise might draw us up short, but if we are following Christ we should not expect anything less. The cross is an inseparable part of the Christian life. There are those who point to the Gospel today and say that Jesus is promising us prosperity, that Jesus is promising that if we give away the little that we have, we will be made rich in this world. Jesus does say that, but the riches that he offers are not the riches of Mammon whom he just told us to hate. The idea that God became man and died for our sins on the cross so that we would have a trick we could use to get a new car is absurd. We cannot get God to do our bidding against his will: not by directly asking him and certainly not by bribing him with the trifles that we have in this world.

If persecutions do not come, we clearly have not given up everything and followed Jesus; he promises that he will send us persecutions if we do. If we wanted to do well in this world, we would not be happy with this offer, but, if we want to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, then we will embrace suffering as we fill up in our bodies what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.   

God, like the good Father that he is, will always do what is good for us, even if we do not understand, and there is nothing so good for us as persecution. Persecutions are the workout of the spiritual world. Trying to live the Christian life without suffering would be like trying to live our natural life without exercise.  Heaven is like the Olympics. We will not get in to heaven until we can do the spiritual equivalent of running the mile in 4 minutes and lifting 500 pounds, until we look at our enemies and love them, until we love God with all our strength. Heaven is not for the mediocre; God will make us extraordinary, if we want to be extraordinary.