March 8, 2015 - Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 20.1-17
Psalm 19.8, 9, 10, 11 Resp. John 6:68c
1 Corinthians 1.22-25
John 2.13-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 7, 2015 - 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 6, 2015 - 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 whom 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 in the history of the world 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 5, 2015 - 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 4, 2015 - Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent

Jeremiah 18:18-20
Psalm 31:5-6, 14-16
Matthew 20:17-28

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

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

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

March 3, 2015 - 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 2, 2015 - 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 21, 2015 - First Sunday of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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