March 22, 2014 - Saturday of the Second Week of Lent

Micah 7:14-15, 18-20
Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

“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 21, 2014 - Friday of the Second Week in Lent

Genesis 37:3-4, 12-13, 17-28
Psalm 105:16-21
Mathew 21:33-43, 45-46

Perhaps you have noticed that this week, we have seen a lot of death and almost-death. Abraham was going to kill Isaac. 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 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 20, 2014 - Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1:1-4, 6
Luke 16:19-31

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 19, 2014 - Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary

2 Samuel 7:4-5, 12-14, 16
Psalm 89:2-5, 27, 29
Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22
Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24 or Luke 2:41-51

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, 2014 - Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
Psalm 50:8-9, 16-17, 21, 23
Matthew 23:1-12

“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 17, 2014 - Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Daniel 9:4-10
Psalm 79:8-9, 11, 13
Luke 6:36-38

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 suggest 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 16, 2014 - Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 12:1-4
Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22
2 Timothy 1:8-10
Matthew 17:1-9

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 15, 2014 - 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.

March 14, 2014 - 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.

March 13, 2014 - 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.

March 12, 2014 - Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

Jonah 3:1-10
Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19
Luke 11:29-32

No one is beyond the forgiveness of God: not the people of Nineveh who, 3000 years later are still remembered as being particularly cruel, nor King David who killed a trusted soldier in order to cover up the affair with his wife. God will not spurn a humble, contrite heart. There is no sin which God will not forgive. The sins we have committed are not preventing us from being saved, but our defense of sin is. God wants to forgive us, but we hide our sins. No one can hide their sins except from themself. All our sins are being done in full sight of heaven and hell. God wants to forgive us, but we have excuses for why we committed the sin. God wants to forgive us, but we say that what we did is not a sin. God wants to forgive us, but we would rather pretend that we do not need forgiveness.

God is infinitely good. The smallest sin we ever committed is, therefore, an infinite offense. If we understood the enormity of God’s love for us, we would understand why there can never be a small sin. No matter what we have done, whether or not we would be judged by the world as very bad people, we need hearts contrite and humbled.

How will our hardened hearts become contrite, humble hearts? Only God’s grace can do this, but we accept this grace when we repent. Repenting means confessing our sin and committing to never do it again. We are in constant need of repentance because we are constantly failing. We must repent today and every day until we die. The alternative is to accept sin into our life, to stop fighting against evil, to compromise our soul; the alternative is a heart impenitent and proud.

Heaven is full of prostitutes and murderers and drug dealers and thieves and adulterers; the saints, with only one exception, were all sinners with contrite, humble hearts. When we are before the judgment seat of God, we will not need to defend our sins. Indeed, we must not try to defend the indefensible. It will not matter on that day how many sins we committed or what they were. Only our accuser will be concerned with that. It will only matter whether we repented of all of them. We are guilty; our only hope is forgiveness.

March 11, 2014 - 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.

March 10, 2014 - Monday of the First Week of Lent

Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18
Psalm 19:8-10, 15
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.

March 9, 2014 - First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Psalm 51:3-6, 12-13, 17
Romans 5:12-19 or 5:12, 17-19
Matthew 4:1-11

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, worshiping 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, 2014 - Saturday After Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:9-14
Psalm 86:1-6
Luke 5:27-32

In the first reading, God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, tells Israel the proper understanding of the Sabbath. The point of the Sabbath is not so much to rest as to, for one day, do the work of God instead of our own work. God tells his people to “honor it by not following your ways, seeking your own interests, or speaking with malice.” This is also a good description of what Lent should be about. The true spirit of Lent, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, is embodied in this idea of turning our back on our own interests. Of course, most people will still have to work during Lent at a job which serves their own interest. Not everyone can take 40 days of vacation to serve the poor. Still, just because a person cannot do something entirely does not mean they ought not do it partially. We would all greatly benefit if, for the next 40 days we all stopped following our own pursuits and began serving.

How easy it is to follow our own pursuits! Even many who claim to follow God only follow him after serving themselves. Jesus said to Levi, “Follow me.” How easy it would have been for Levi to have cleaned up his work and collected all the money sitting out on the table, first taking care of Levi’s priorities before getting around to Jesus, but, instead of telling Jesus to wait just a minute, without a thought for anything in front of him, “leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him.” The miracle recorded today is that Levi forgot. Levi forgot about the work he was doing. He forgot about the money he had collected. He forgot about whoever was next in line at the customs post. He forgot about his own interest and followed Jesus.

Again, not everyone can drop what they are doing to follow Jesus. Not everyone, but some can. Could you, like Levi, forget everything, leave it all behind and follow Jesus? Perhaps, like the rich young man, you would need to sell everything, close up shop, and then follow Jesus. Perhaps you are already where you belong, and what is left is to wake up every day and follow Jesus by doing your work with great love. The main thing is to follow Jesus, completely abandoned to his will, not doing what seems good in our own mind but having the mind of Christ.

March 7, 2014 - Friday After Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-9
Psalm 51:3 -- 6:18-19
Matthew 9:14-15

The Gospel today reminds us of the special experience of the disciples of Jesus. They did not need to fast because he was there. If they wanted to pray, they could just go find Jesus and sit at his feet and listen to the words he spoke. In the Gospels, Jesus only appears to us when he is saying or doing something of great importance, but the disciples lived with him every day. They ate dinner with him. They slept wherever he was sleeping.

The fact that the disciples did not fast teaches us about fasting. Fasting is supposed to create a longing within us. This longing is always present, but we usually answer it with food or television or other diversions. This longing is a longing for God. We only answer it with lesser things because it is difficult to know God in this world, but, if God were present as Jesus was present to his disciples, we would never eat when we were not hungry, we would never zone out with television.

If a hungry man cannot get food, perhaps he will chew on bark or something else to pass the time, but, when he has food, he will throw away the bark and begin to eat. So we also, when we get to heaven and live in the presence of God, will throw away whatever we have used to quiet our longing for God. Here and now it is painful to throw these things away, since it is easier to eat a bag of potato chips than to pray for an hour. Still, we force ourselves to 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 to not 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.

March 6, 2014 - Thursday After Ash Wednesday

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1:1-4, 6
Luke 9:22-25

“If anyone wishes to come after me….” How gently does our Savior invite us! Who can hear this offer and refuse? “If anyone wishes to come after me….” I do. What do I need to do? “…they must deny themself and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Here is that Lenten trio again: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

“They must deny themself” We do this through fasting, not only from food but also from all of the pacifiers we use to quiet our souls’ longing for God: entertainment and comfort and other pleasures. When we deny ourselves we experience a kind of suffering, but this suffering can be very addictive; it is actually joy.

“Take up their cross daily” Sometimes, when people talk about this verse, they speak of our cross as our suffering. Anything from arthritis to disabilities to other people can be called a cross. This is a half-truth. The central mystery of the cross is not that Jesus suffered and died, but that he suffered and died for us. A cross is not whatever difficulties we have in life. Everyone has difficulties. We take up the daily cross when we embrace suffering in order to assist another, either directly or by offering some suffering to God for them. Indeed any suffering we experience in life can be a cross, but only if we embrace it and offer it. We are most conformed to the cross when the work we do for others is the source of our suffering. Agreeing to help someone we dislike can be a way of the cross; from beginning to end we may be suffering physically or mentally or with wounded pride. Take up such crosses daily.

“Follow me” To follow someone simply means to be with them, wherever they go. Our way of being with God is prayer. Prayer is a conversation we have with God, and, like any good conversation, includes both speaking and listening. As we converse with God, chains will bind our heart to him. Then, no matter where the world goes, we will stay close to him.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can seem cold and theoretical. Jesus is inviting us, in a personal way, to take up these essential spiritual practices. Above all, he is drawing our attention to the fact that he himself has taken them up already. In our Lenten journey, when it is difficult, we should remember that we are coming after Jesus.

March 5, 2014 - Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18
Psalm 51:3-6, 12-14, 17
2 Corinthians 5:20 -- 6:2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Jesus told us to love God above all things and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Love is the heart of Christianity, but our love is weak and disordered. We do not love God with all our heart and soul and strength, so we need to spend time in prayer this Lent. We do not love our neighbors who are created by God, our brothers and sisters, so we need to give away that which we love more than them, our money and our time. We do love ourselves, but we love ourselves in the wrong way; we should love ourselves like parents, with some discipline, having our best interest at heart, but, instead, we love ourselves like bad grandparents, over-indulging ourselves with candies and toys, so we need to start refusing ourselves treats sometimes. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are good for us, and they should hurt if they are going to work. Our souls complain about being unselfish. Do not give in to the complaints! Our souls warn us that this is too much, too much prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; it will kill us: without selfish indulgence, we will die. Good! Let us die. Let us be nailed to the Cross with our Savior. Then, when Easter comes, he can raise us up.

Our souls are flabby and out of shape. The combined effect of all the sins we commit is puny, scrawny, pathetic souls. We are in serious need of spiritual exercise: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. If we make feeble attempts, we will get feeble results. It is 44 days from now until we celebrate the Easter Triduum, we get 4 days of introduction and then, on Sunday, the 40 days of Lent begin. The lazier we are, spiritually, the rest of the year, the more seriously we should look to these days as a time of intensive effort and training for our soul.

“The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” If Satan could convince us to not fast at all this Lent, he would. If not, he will try to get us to fast in a silly way, to give up chocolate chip cookies for Lent, and we will eat brownies instead, or, perhaps, we obey the abstinence from meat on Fridays by having a feast of shrimp and lobster. If we are not taken in by any of this, the last temptation comes: “to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” To fast and pray and give alms in order to impress people. If we are going to make this intensive effort, we had better be sure that we are doing it for the right reason. If we fast and tell people about our fasting, if we give to the poor our money or our time and make certain that the world is aware of our generosity, if we pray so that others will see us, all that effort will be wasted. Only our pride will be strengthened; our souls will be weakened further.

Let us pray until we fall head-over-heels in love with God. Let us give away our money and time until we begin to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us fast until our love for ourselves is no longer self-indulgent. When we look out and see the canyon between us and heaven, we want to move forward, we want to take the leap of faith, but we are afraid, afraid of many things, but especially frightened that we will begin to live a new life and soon fail and be laughed at for ever trying. Lent is our training ground, our opportunity to try out the life of the Saints. If we cannot be perfect all year-round, let us be perfect for forty days straight.

March 2, 2014 - Sunday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 49:14-15
Psalm 62:2-3, 6-9
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

Trust is the highest regard one person can have for another. I may like somebody, I may even love somebody, but, until I trust somebody, I am holding something back. Trust is fundamental to human relationships, but misplaced trust can be fatal. If I am going to trust someone completely, they need first of all to be competent. I would not trust any four-year-old to drive a car. Second, they must have my best interests at heart. Even if I find someone competent, they have to care about what happens to me and they have to desire for me what is good.

No one but God fits this definition perfectly. No one else is perfectly competent and perfectly desires our good. It would seem like we should all trust God completely out of our own self-interest, yet how rare such trust is! So many people decide instead to trust the god Mammon, money. Why do we trust Mammon? Well, money is competent. It can do 95% of what we need done in life. It can provide food and shelter and clothing and entertainment. Money is like a genie in a lamp: a billion dollars can provide a lot of wishes. Does money have our best interest at heart? Money does not really have anything at heart, but it does obey us. The problem is that money is only as smart as we are. Money cannot take better care of us than the best human mind money can buy, and that is only if we know who to turn to for advice.

So even though God can do anything and money can only do lots of things, and even though God knows what is good for us even when we do not, and even though God loves us and wants to care for us and money does not care about anything, many people still choose to worship money: they praise money, they spend hours each day thinking about how to acquire money, their morality is based on how to get money. At first, it seems like a strange mistake. God is more powerful than money. God is smarter than money. God loves us completely, and money does not love us at all. Why would anyone choose to trust money instead of God?

It could only be stupidity. There is a stupidity in us due to original sin. We would rather have things our way than the best way. Like a child who is upset because, instead of receiving candy for dinner, their parents have made delicious, nutritious dishes, we cannot see past whatever we think we want in order to understand that God will only give us the best.

There is another kind of stupidity in us. We hear everything that Jesus says about how God will provide for us, how God will not leave us to starve. We hear from the Lord that even if our mother forgets us, he will not forget us. We are told not to worry. We believe that Jesus is God. We believe that he would not lie to us or pretend something was true that was not. We believe that God loves us. And then we do a kind of bad logic in our head; we put all this on a shelf called religion and get back to real life. Religion is a silly thing if it does not apply to real life.

Something inside of us says that it is all well and good to believe these things but they are not reliable. When have we ever attempted to rely on them? Trusting in God does not mean that, if I sit home doing nothing, food will appear magically, as if God wanted us to be lazy. Trusting in God does not mean that I can be foolishly wasteful with what I have and expect that God will support my bad habits. But trusting in God does mean something. It means that, if I work hard, according to the abilities that God gave me, and I live my life as God tells us to live, and I consciously rely on God, not having him be a magician in the back of my mind who I forget about until I need something, then I never need to be afraid, I never need to worry.

A person who lives like this, trusting God rather than money, will probably not have many of the so-called nicer things in life, but are giant TVs and granite countertops worth all the worrying? They will probably not end their life with a large balance in their bank account, but it is not as if we can take it with us. They might not ever be able to retire. It is fascinating that in our culture we presume retirement as a kind of right, but, in the Gospel, the only time retirement is mentioned Jesus says, “You fool!”

Jesus is telling us that we have to choose between a life where we live basically for ourselves and a life where we forget ourselves and just live. If we trust in God we need to give up on the American dream: the idea that we will live a life substantially different than what we were born into. If we will trust in God, we see this life as a training ground for the next life rather than looking for a place to rest in this world. We may have joys in life, and that can be good. We may do very well because of some circumstances, and we can thank God for it. The difference is whether our whole life is designed around how to get ahead, or if we just live one day at a time, making plans but not holding on to them, never thinking that we cannot do what is right because of our material needs, never thinking we have arrived somewhere where we earned the right to stop serving our brothers and sisters or to stop serving God.

I want to point out the second reading here. While the other readings were about how we need to trust God, in the second reading St. Paul points out how God trusts us. This is particularly amazing, considering how untrustworthy we are. God could just run the world all by himself, but he lets us cooperate “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” This shows that he has destined us for great things. We are like teenagers with our learner’s permit, and God is letting us drive. You let your children drive because you want them to become mature adults with good driving skills. God is getting us ready for real life, which has not begun yet, but it will begin soon.