Friday, February 24, 2012
But, then, one day, the man came in and ordered only two beers. The bartender poured them with a heavy heart certain that something must have happened to one of the brothers. Word flew around town and soon prayers were being offered for the soul of one of the brothers. The next day, when the man came in and ordered again just two beers, the bartender said, "The whole town wants to offer condolences to you for the death of your brother. You know-the two beers and all..." The man thought this for a moment, then replied, "You'll be happy to hear that my two brothers are alive and well... It's just that I, myself, have decided to give up drinking for Lent.”
“Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.” That is a passage from a book that I read not long ago called Home by Marilyn Robinson. It is the sequel to her very successful book Gilead. If you haven’t read either, they are well worth your time to pick up – great Lenten reading. Home is a sort-of prodigal son story as it tells of Jack, the black-sheep of the Boughton family, who returns home after many years to reconcile with his father and come to terms with the mistakes he’s made in his life. But, when I read that particular passage, I couldn’t help but think how fitting a description it is of our annual Lenten journey. “Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.”
Lent, after all, is a journey that is all about coming home to the constant and eternal faithfulness of our God. And this is the message in our Gospel passage from Mark today. Mark gives us a familiar story; that of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, but Mark gives us the Cliff’s Notes version of it. We’re more accustomed to Matthew’s rendition which gives us the details of each of the specific temptations between Jesus and the Devil. But, Mark’s version cuts to the chase. We hear only that Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, that the Devil tempted Him and angels served His needs. And, then, we hear from Jesus, who say, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Don’t be fooled by the brevity of this proclamation. Although Matthew gives us more detail, even this brief statement in Mark is packed full of meaning. Jesus, first tells us to “repent.” What does it mean to repent? We often think of the word “repent” in terms of sorrow. When we repent we are sorry for what we’ve done or what we’ve failed to do. That is true enough, but repenting, especially in its Lenten sense, has an added quality to it – the quality of return. When we repent, we leave our former ways and return to the ways of the Lord. Our sorrow for our sins doesn’t leave us in our sin. We don’t say “I’m sorry for my sins,” and then just keep on sinning. Rather, when we repent, we recognize that we have wandered, to use the language of my book, and that we need to we turn ourselves back around; not only express sorrow for our sins, but go back in the direction of home; in the direction of God. When we repent, it is the very beginning of the journey of return.
Secondly, Jesus tells us to “believe in the Gospel.” This belief is the effect of our repenting, our turning around, because you see for the believer, the Gospel is our home. When we turn away from sin, the home we return to is the home of the Gospel. We all know that the word Gospel means literally, “Good News.” Our return home is for us the good news of our salvation, the good news that God loves us, God cares for us, God desires us to be reconciled to Him; God wants us to come home. Whenever we are far from that home, God stands at the door just waiting for our return. So Jesus says, don’t just listen to that Good News, don’t merely consider it, but He commands us to believe it; He commands us to live it; to live in it, as we would our home. Hold that Good News in the certainty of our hearts with the knowledge that what we have heard proclaimed is true! We have wandered away from that Good News and during Lent we come to learn what it means to come home.
“Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful.” My friends, we may find ourselves here today feeling any of these things – weary or bitter or bewildered; maybe other things – overwhelmed, tired, sinful, even far from God. But, God calls each of us today to come home once again; to be renewed in His love and in His grace; to leave behind our sins; to turn around and head towards God once again; to be the people He created us to be. Just like in most prodigal son stories, there is nothing so great that would ever keep the Father from welcoming us back into our home. How strongly our God wants our own 40 days to bring us back into closer, more intimate relationship with Him.
So, my brothers and sisters, come home this Lent; return to God with all your heart; repent and believe the Gospel; the Good News that God loves you, that God cares for you, that God wants to hold you so very close to His loving and forgiving heart.
“Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.”
May God give you peace.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Ash Wednesday is one of the most beautiful and curious celebrations. It is beautiful as God once again calls us to conversion as He does each year. We begin a communal 40 day great retreat that will lead us all the way to Easter. But, it is a little curious too. Today is a big day in Catholicism. Masses will be full everywhere as people come to receive their ashes. And yet, Ash Wednesday is NOT a Holy Day of obligation. Not one of us is obligated to be here today as we are each and every Sunday. And yet it is unthinkable to even the most marginal Catholic to miss their ashes. There are probably many reasons for this, but let’s think about a few today.
One day, a man got a call from his doctor, telling him that he had lung cancer. The doctor told him that there was nothing they could do. The man hung up the phone, and looked at his family, seated around the kitchen table, stunned by the news. And yet, the man smiled. “Be of good cheer,” he said, “None of us gets out of this world alive.” My friends, I think this is the same message that Ash Wednesday says to us. It is the great leveler.
Today, we are not brilliant or creative or dynamic or strong. We are not beautiful or powerful. We are not rich or poor, healthy or sick. We are not young or old. We are just simple sinners. We are made of dust, and to dust we will return.
Almost a year ago, we began the Easter season with a roaring fire outside of the Church – we re-lived the creation of the universe, and it exploded into hundreds of points of light: small, bright candles that were held by everyone in the church. We sang: “Christ Our Light, thanks be to God.” And we were made new. Now, it is a year later minus 40 days, and we are left with ashes. So for this one day we will bear that mark -- the remnants of a great blaze, the residue of a fiery faith that maybe has cooled, that isn’t as strong as it could be.
And for this day, we will let others see this mark, as a sign of repentance, and humility, and humanity. As the day goes on, we’ll forget about it, and suddenly catch sight of ourselves in a mirror, and realize: We are dust. And to dust we will return. And we will see others like us on the street and think: we have plenty of company.
Ultimately, that is all we are in this earthly life: dust. But we dream to be more. We know we can be more. And so we make this 40-day journey – joining Jesus in the desert – to strive to be better than what we are, and become what we hope to be. To become more than dust – to become, in fact, light. Burning, brilliant light. And so we join the psalmist and sing: “Be merciful Lord, for we have sinned.” We begin this long walk into the wilderness. Because we are dust. And to dust we will return. We wear this mark, if only for this day, as a reflection of where we came from, and where we are all destined to go.
But we are reminded of something else, too: it is the middle that matters. It is that lifetime stretching in between that matters. What will we do with that time? How will we live? What will we be? These 40 days are a blessed opportunity to carry those questions in our hearts – and in answering them, reconcile ourselves with one another, and with God. Let me recommend three things we can all do this Lent – one personal, one communal and one universal.
First, the personal. You know that even as I share these words, God is putting something on your heart that He wants you to leave behind. It isn’t the simple and superficial practices of giving up sweets or eating between meals. Perhaps it is something major and challenging like giving up the desire to gossip and tear others down; giving up the anger and rage that control your life; turning away from problems with drink, even drugs or pornography. Whatever it is, you know God is calling you to something specific, something personal, something that desperately needs to change if you are going to grow in holiness. Whatever this personal thing is, God calls us to prune ourselves, like we’d prune a plant, so that we may grow better in His sight.
Next, the communal. During Lent, we have many additional opportunities for our community to gather in prayer. We have daily Mass. We have repeated opportunities for Confession so you can purify your soul. We have Stations of the Cross on Friday night so we can meditate upon the sacrifice Christ made for us. If we are going to successfully navigate this time of penance and prayer, we need to do it together. We need to pray together, prepare together. We need each other. We can help each other. None of us should make this Lenten journey alone. Let’s travel together towards Easter joy.
Finally, the universal. This is a time to care about our community and our world. Use the money you are saving by giving something up this Lent and give it to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the needy. Find a worthy cause to give of your time, your talent or your treasure this Lent. Our small sacrifice can have a big impact on the lives of others elsewhere. Give not merely coins and dollars, but love and quite literally, life.
So, these are the things we can do – something personal, something communal, something universal. Let us pledge ourselves wholeheartedly this Lent that this may be a true and effective season of faith in our lives.
Hundreds of years ago, St. Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.” This day, my friends look at the ashes, but think of the fire. And let us pray, this Lent, to set the world ablaze.
May God give you peace.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Our gospel passage today from Mark is one of the many remarkable stories of the miraculous healings that we see Jesus perform over and over again. Jesus is moved with pity in this encounter with a man suffering from leprosy, merely touches him and he is miraculously healed. But there is something curious in this passage that you may have noticed, and it is a feature that is unique to Mark’s Gospel, frequently in scenes where Jesus performs a miracle.
But, there are a few theories. One theory holds that perhaps Jesus didn’t feel the time had come to make a public display of the power given him by the Father. Although ready to heal, He wasn’t ready to go public. Another theory speculates that Jesus was concerned that His miracles might be misunderstood as magic or tricks, rather than manifestations of God's love. Yet another theory speculates that perhaps Jesus was concerned that people would focus on the miracles and miss the important message of God's love and forgiveness that went with them. Miracles are meant to support the message of God’s Kingdom, not to overshadow it.
Personally, I have my own theory of the Messianic Secret. Let’s look at the passage again. We heard, “He said to him, ‘See that you tell no one anything,’” But, then look at what comes immediately after this command to keep quiet, “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.” Jesus gives this command to silence, and the immediate reaction is to run to the mountain tops and proclaim what Jesus has done.
Now I don’t know about you, but in my experience there is one sure-fire way to get the word out about something. Go to one person, give them all the details and then say, “This is a secret. Don’t tell anyone.” By nightfall, it will have spread far and wide. In our Franciscan community we even have a saying for this clandestine communication network. We say, “Telephone, telegraph or tell-a-friar!” Jesus knows we just can’t keep a secret.
So, my own personal theory of the Messianic Secret is that this is the ingenious way that Jesus helps to accomplish His goal of proclaiming the news of the Kingdom in an age long before newspapers, television and the internet.
But perhaps even more than this, I think is the realization that sometimes things are just too incredible to be contained. That no matter how much or how strongly we are told to keep things quiet, there are some things that simply must be proclaimed from the roof tops. The bottom line is that people like the man in our story had such a profound experience of God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s power that it was literally impossible to keep it quiet. Imagine this man, if you will. He has lived probably for years with leprosy; a disease that is impossible to hide. People would have noticed the disfiguration of his skin. Suddenly, all of that is gone. Surely they are going to ask, “What happened to you?” And it would be impossible for this man to say, “Nothing.” Or, “I can’t really talk about it.” Of course, he is going to “publicize the whole matter” as Mark tells us.
God’s goodness is too awesome, too powerful, too overwhelming to keep to ourselves. And, I think this is the way it is supposed to be. God wants the same reaction from us as we see from this man healed by Jesus. This requires two things of us – first, an openness to be witnesses to God’s goodness to ourselves and those around us. Sometimes we would rather name something as random or a coincidence, or never take the time to count our blessings. Secondly, we need the courage to proclaim that goodness. When was the last time you shared with another person God’s goodness to you?
Our challenge is to continue seeing the marvelous things Jesus does for us every day, and acknowledge the salvation He has won for us. There is no reason to keep the joy to ourselves. In fact, Jesus encourages us to share it with all we meet. Let us each commit to finding at least one person today to whom we can tell about a wonder Jesus has performed in our lives.
God has worked miracles in our midst. But, shhh, it’s a secret. Don’t tell anyone.
May God give you peace.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Saturday, February 4, 2012
Why do we suffer? Our Scriptures today call us to reflect upon the very real and challenging and common experiences of life – suffering. We heard about this right from the first reading in the perhaps most iconic story of suffering and its meaning in the story of Job. We heard his desperation, “Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” Job lost everything; his land, possessions and even his family, besides a plague of boils and other horrors. Listen to the anguish in his words, “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? ... I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me….My days come to an end without hope…I shall not see happiness again.”
Job reminds me of the mother of a close friend of mine who passed away a number of years ago. Her name was Adele and she had many Job-like moments in her life. She lost her father when she was very young, her brother died at age 16, she had 7 miscarriages before finally carrying a baby to term in her 40s, she suffered through cancer, heart attacks, lost her kidneys and had to undergo dialysis for years, and she suffered from diabetes that in the end required the partial amputation of a leg. She had sufferings that could give Job a run for his money and she could have very easily said like him, “I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me.” But, Adele never spoke the words of Job. Instead she said regularly, “Don’t waste your suffering. Offer it up and unite it to the suffering of Christ.” Even when faced with amputation, she didn’t ask how she could avoid the pain and suffering that procedure would entail; she didn’t ask why this was happening to her. Instead she asked, “What does God want me to do with this suffering?” And before she was taken into surgery, she prayed thanking God for the use of her legs all those years, for carrying her around, and allowing her to be a good mother. She was an incredible witness of faith to the transformative power of suffering. It’s one thing for someone who has not suffered to tell you to “offer it up,” but it’s quite another thing when someone who really knows suffering, who’s walked the walk, to tell you the same thing.
The famous dramatist Paul Claudel said poignantly of suffering, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with His presence.” You see, for we who believe in Christ, suffering is never without meaning. With the eyes of faith, in our suffering we can be united with Christ in the one great act of redemption. What our world forgets in this no pain day-and-age is that suffering is an opportunity to be united with Christ in the greatest moment of the history of the world – we can be united with Him on that cross and in the salvation of the world. Souls can be redeemed and saved and prayers answered when we direct our suffering, offer it up, to this spiritual end. And, importantly, in our suffering, we are not alone. Jesus is right there by our side carrying the cross with us.
We know that suffering and pain are part of the human condition. They are not caused by God. The wrong question to ask in the face of suffering is, “Why did God do this to me?” God didn’t do it to us. Suffering is part of being human. When we accept that reality we become open to another possibility – an opportunity to invite God into our suffering to transform it – to fill it with His presence.
In our Gospel today, we hear about the compassion of Jesus as he cures Peter’s mother-in-law and then all who asked for healing. But, many of those who went to Jesus were looking for him for the wrong reasons. They were looking for Jesus simply to get what they wanted – something merely external. They weren’t interested in what Jesus came to give. Jesus says in our Gospel, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” He came to proclaim the Good News, to invite everyone to let God reign in their hearts and lives, to reconcile us with God and with one another. Jesus is interested in our physical welfare, but the spiritual must come first. Like the people of Capernaum we come to Church with our various problems of soul and body looking for Jesus. What we first need to do is to set our hearts on Jesus and the Good News and trust that the rest will unfold according to His plan.
In his own death, Jesus showed us how to face suffering and all the other evils we will inevitably meet during the course of our life. He showed us that suffering can have a purpose – even if we don’t understand it.
I’ll end with another example, that of Pope John Paul the Great, who also gave us an incredible example of purposeful suffering as he approached his own death. Pope Benedict reflected on John Paul’s final days this way: “No Pope has left us an amount of texts as he has left us; previously, no Pope was able to visit, as he did, the whole world and speak directly to the people of all the continents. But at the end, he was given a path of suffering and silence…With his words and deeds, he gave us great things; but no less important is the lesson he gave us from the chair of suffering and silence.”
Jesus calls us to seek Him first, to seek His Kingdom first. Jesus calls us to never waste any suffering that comes our way. We can offer any suffering in our lives to God. We can ask him to accept these sufferings as our share in the Cross of Christ, as our small contribution to Christ’s work of salvation. We can be united with Him as He unites Himself with us in our struggles. The more we are able to do this, the more we begin to see with the eyes of faith, and find the happiness of the Kingdom. In you and with you, suffering becomes glory, and the true meaning of our lives is revealed.
May God give you peace.
NOTE: As always, Deacon Greg Kandra, over on his blog, The Deacon's Bench, has addressed the attack on our religious liberties in an excellent fashion. Take a moment to read:
Sixty years ago, in the spring of 1952, Congress was in the middle of a long and controversial investigation into Communists in Hollywood. The House Un-American Activities Committee was summoning writers, directors, and actors to Washington to get them to “name names” of people they knew with ties to the Communist party. One of those they subpoenaed was the playwright Lillian Hellman.
Hellman declined to do what the committee asked, writing to the chairman words that became instantly famous. She wrote: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
Over the course of her life, there’s a lot that Lillian Hellman got wrong. But on this issue, she was right.
Now, 60 years later, her words are as relevant as ever. For once again, conscience is in the news. The American conscience, and explicitly the Catholic conscience, is being challenged. Worse than that, it is being dismissed.
Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that all but a few employers will be required by law to provide health coverage that includes, free of charge, all forms of contraception. This includes the morning-after abortion pill and sterilization services.
There are no exemptions for Catholic hospitals, colleges, schools or charities.
It is impossible to overstate the seriousness of this.
In a statement released last week, Bishop DiMarzio didn’t mince words. He put it bluntly: “We should be outraged.”
Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan said: “Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.”
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles called it “probably the most expansive decision on the part of the US Federal government ever,” and added “I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience than this ruling.”
The toughest and angriest reaction came from Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik. In his weekly newspaper column he wrote – and I quote – ““It comes like a slap in the face. The administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, ‘To Hell with you!’ There is no other way to put it.”
Other religious groups have been afforded exemptions in similar circumstances. Quakers, the Amish and Christian Scientists, among others have had their religious principles respected when it comes to health care. But as Cardinal-designate Dolan explained: “By its decision, the Obama administration has failed to show the same respect for the consciences of Catholics and others who object to treating pregnancy as a disease.”
Let me put this another way: what this means is that the Catholic Church will, by law, be required to cooperate with practices that for centuries it has held to be gravely immoral.
The USCCB and bishops around the country are encouraging Catholics to write to their representatives, to sign petitions, to make their objections known.
I’d like to add to all that something else — a response that, amid all the anger and alarm, I think has gotten far too little attention. Bishop DiMarzio mentioned it in his statement, and it is central to this Sunday’s gospel. It is available to every one of us. And it may well be the most powerful action any of us can take.
In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus was overwhelmed by the demands of the world – people seeking healing, hoping for miracles – he got up before dawn and went away by himself. And he prayed. There, in conversation with his Father, he was renewed. He was revived. He was given strength to do what he had to do – to take his gospel to other villages, out into the wider world.
That is our calling, as well. But we cannot do it without God’s help.
In the weeks and months to come, we need, more than ever, that same sense of spiritual renewal, and that same sense of purpose.
And: we need to pray.
To pray for wisdom in our leaders. To pray for guidance. To pray for strength.
We need to pray for our country. Especially now.
So, add this intention to your prayers. Pray that this ruling will be reversed. Pray that our elected leaders will respect the Catholic conscience, and our Catholic beliefs. Devote a decade of the rosary to this. Offer a fast. Give up something for Lent for this intention. Take this in your heart to God and pray that our freedoms will be preserved and protected.
This goes far beyond whether or not someone agrees with the Church’s teachings about birth control and abortion. But this is, in a fundamental way, a life issue. This is about respecting the most personal and private aspect of human life: the conscience. This is about protecting it. Honoring it. Defending it.
A great saint to remember is St. Thomas More, who gave his life for his conscience. When Pope John Paul declared him the patron of statesmen and people in public life, he wrote: “The defense of the Church’s freedom from unwarranted interference by the State is at the same time a defense, in the name of the primacy of conscience, of the individual’s freedom vis-à-vis political power. Here we find the basic principle of every civil order consonant with human nature.”
My friends, this is so central to our human nature. It is about our fundamental rights as human beings, as Catholics and, yes, as Americans.
It is about who we are. What we cherish. What we believe.
In 1952, Lillian Hellman said: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
Sixty years later, neither can we.