Monthly Archives: March 2009

A Generous Heart: the Gift of Lent

“In John’s gospel the Lord says: By this love you have for one another, everyone will know you are my disciples. “

St. Leo the Great, in a reading for today, says this is your test for Lent.  Do you find love for others growing within you? Especially, do you find yourself more forgiving towards those who have offended you and more generous to those in need?

If you do, then do not doubt God’s presence within you.

The saint particularly recommends love for the poor. “No act of devotion on the part of the faithful gives God more pleasure than the support that is lavished on his poor.”

You say you don’t have much to give.

Lack of resources isn’t a factor.  We don’t have to be wealthy to be generous to those in need. “ A generous spirit is itself great wealth.”

We need generous spirits today, don’t we?  They can be the hands of Christ, “who multiplies bread by breaking it and increases it by giving it away.”

“The greatest treasure will go to the one who has kept the least for himself. The holy apostle Paul tells us: He who provides seed for the sower will give bread for food, provide you with more seed, and increase the harvest of your goodness, in Christ Jesus our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.

Lord, give us generous hearts.

The Man Who Came By Night

John 3, 14-21 4th Sunday of Lent

After Jesus cleanses the temple and says prophetically he himself is its replacement, Nicodemus comes to see him by night. He’s a Pharisee, an important person in Jerusalem, probably connected with the temple worship, and no doubt worried what people would think if they saw him with Jesus by day. In fact, other Jewish leaders in the city were thinking of putting him to death.

But despite coming to Jesus in the darkness, Nicodemus is not a slave of the dark. He’s looking for light. Maybe he’s not the bravest person in the world, but he’s an honest questioner, searching for the truth. Jesus does not point out to him his miracles, his healings, the crowds he draws, to establish his credentials. It’s not success stories he tells Nicodemus. It’s a story of a tragedy turned into victory.

Nicodemus would have recognized the story Jesus tells–a story from the epic desert journey of the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land when they fell into unbelief and doubt and were bitten by snakes causing many of them to die.

Then, a serpent was lifted up on a staff, and they were healed at the sight. It will not be Jesus’ successes that bring Nicodemus to believe in him. He would soon see Jesus lifted up on a cross and, by God’s grace, he came to believe. God’s mercy and love were there before him, healing all who needed forgiveness.

The Pharisee, a leader in Israel, doesn’t hide in the dark any more; along with Joseph of Arimithea, another Jewish official drawn to Jesus, Nicodemus boldly goes to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body and they bury it in a  tomb nearby. The mystery of the Cross brought Nicodemus to believe.

We go to you through questions, Lord, sometimes with our doubts. Like Nicodemus we often go to you in the night, but you do not mind receiving us then. For with you “the night itself is like the day.”

As long as we do not love the darkness, you listen and reach out. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but might have eternal life.”

Teach us wisdom through your cross.

The Great Commandments

Mk 12:28-34

One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him,”Which is the first of all the commandments?”
Jesus replied, “The first is this:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
The second is this:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, Teacher,” the scribe says to Jesus, who spoke of loving God and loving neighbor.
He was among the representatives sent by the Roman-backed Jewish priestly leaders to discredit Jesus after his symbolic attach on the temple. Mark describes the attempts by the scribes–scholars skilled in religious matters –to trap Jesus in chapters 11 and 12 of his gospel.

But this scribe is different. The familiar words he’s heard so often seem to touch his heart as Jesus speaks them.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength…Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s more important than the temple sacrifice and worship you’re working to maintain.

There’s no evidence that the scribe left everything to follow Jesus, but he’s told he’s ‘not far from the kingdom of God.” What became of him, we wonder?

We may not be far from the scribes, though. We lose sight of what’s important too.  We get used to even the holiest things and defend ourselves with questions as they did.

Jesus engaged them, however. Will he not engage us this Lent, stirring our hearts, our souls, our minds, and renewing our strength with his truth?

Let me hear your voice, your unfamiliar voice– I don’t listen to you enough.
Though unseen, you are always with me,
Though unrecognized, you care for me and all the world.
Feed me with the best of wheat and honey from the rock,
As once you led your people out of Egypt,
Lead us to your truth.

St. Joseph

For awhile, I’ve been studying a television preacher on one of the cable stations we get– Doctor Harold Camping, who is predicting the end of the world on May 21, 2011.  He’s found this news in the Bible, he says, and tries to prove it through fast and far-fetched calculations. He’s against churches and their services and their sacraments, like baptism. The age of the churches is over, according to him, just believe in the bible, it’s all there.

Questioners call in and he ends the session thanking them for sharing, but there’s not much sharing going on. It’s Dr. Camping’s monologue.

He’s not interested in recent biblical scholarship either. His main point is to get ready for May 21th by living a good life, otherwise you’re going to be burned to a crisp.

Today’s the feast of St. Joseph and I’m sure Dr. Camping isn’t interested in saints either. In fact, when he talks about the bible, he pays little attention at all to the people in it. The bible is just for us, waiting for the world to end.

But a world of witnesses produced this book, and Joseph was among them. He’s a guide, not only to the bible but the faith it represents. He’s a “son of David,” whom God calls from the small village of Nazareth to play an intimate part in the birth and life of Jesus.

In fact, in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, Joseph is more prominent than Mary. He provides Jesus with a genealogy going back to Abraham. He is told by the angel not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife; he shouldn’t divorce her as Jewish law called for, and he should name the child, Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.”

After the visit of the Magi, he’s told to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Then, the angel tells Joseph to return to Israel after Herod’s death. Finally, he makes his home in Nazareth in Galilee, where his family would be safer away from Herod’s heir, Archelaus, who ruled in Judea.

Clearly, according to Matthew’s gospel, Joseph has a major role in the birth and early life of Jesus Christ. Is that role over?
“Whenever the divine favor chooses someone to receive a special grace, or to accept a lofty vocation, God adorns the person chosen with all the gifts of the Spirit needed to fulfill the task at hand,” says St. Bernardine of Siena in the readings for today’s feast.

“This general rule is especially verified in the case of Saint Joseph, the foster-father of our Lord and the husband of the Queen of our world, enthroned above the angels. He was chosen by the eternal Father as the trustworthy guardian and protector of his greatest treasures, namely, his divine Son and Mary, Joseph’s wife. He carried out this vocation with complete fidelity until at last God called him, saying: ‘Good and faithful servant enter into the joy of your Lord.’”

St. Bernardine goes on to say that the church today honors Joseph as the fulfillment of the “ noble line of patriarchs and prophets” of the Old Testament. Christ honors him in heaven as he did on earth.

“Remember us, Saint Joseph, and plead for us to your foster-child. Ask your most holy bride, the Virgin Mary, to look kindly upon us, since she is the mother of him who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns eternally.”

Joseph was blessed with a wonderful interior faith. I don’t think he was too interested in calculating the end of the world.

Prayer, Fasting and Mercy

The sermon on prayer, fasting and mercy in today’s reading by St. Peter Chrysologus, the 5th century bishop of Ravenna, is a reminder not to forget what this season is about.

Prayer, fasting and mercy are joined together; they are one, the saint says. “They give life to each other…Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives…Don’t separate them; they can’t be separated. If you have only one and not all of them together you have nothing.”

Prayer knocks at the door of an ever-present God, whom we so easily forget. We must keep the God who made us and saves us before our eyes and let God inform how we live and act.

Fasting reminds us our common human condition. We are all poor.  Fasting is an effort we make to experience the human condition, especially as it’s reflected in the poor of this world. It counters our tendency to independence and isolation.

Too often today, I feel, fasting becomes a self-help project.  Maybe we can lose a few pounds and be a healthier person, and so in the end it all comes down to us.

That’s why mercy follows prayer and fasting.  It’s the gift of life and love that we give to others.
Without mercy–a better way to describe almsgiving, I think– prayer and fasting are ineffective.

“Give to the poor and you give to yourself. “

The Cleansing of the Temple

I developed my homily yesterday about Jesus cleansing of the temple using some of the material from my previous post, and I began by inviting the people to see what the temple area is like today.

“If you were fortunate to go to Jerusalem today–maybe “fortunate” isn’t the way to see it, given the upheaval there now– you would see where the Jewish Temple, the place described in our gospel today, once stood, where Jesus once prayed and where, as our gospel today says, he drove out the buyers and sellers.

A guide would surely lead you to the “wailing wall,” the ancient temple’s western wall, where Jews today pray according to their religious traditions. That wall was part of the platform for the former temple.

A guide would surely point out what an engineering marvel Herod the Great, the temple’s builder, achieved. How did he quarry these immense stones and put them in place!  This place was a wonder of the ancient world.

Your guide would lead you up to the temple mount itself where the ancient temple buildings once stood. He would point out some of the stones from the building burned and leveled by Roman armies in the year 70 AD, when the Romans destroyed the city.

You would also see the great golden domed Moslem shrine that stands in the place of the Jewish temple and the mosque that stands on the platform where the temple once stood.

You would see firsthand some of the tightest security in the world in place. This is a sensitive area where the least incident could lead to a political explosion heard around the globe.

Then, your guide might take you to the southern part of the temple area, where archeologists have uncovered the stairs that Jewish pilgrims took to enter the temple in the time of Jesus. You would see the baths where they purified themselves with water before entering this sacred place.

Surely, your guide would tell you. “Jesus walked up these stairs.” And as today’s gospel says, he walked towards the place where people were buying and selling and created an incident.”

A number of people after Mass remarked that they had never realized what consequences the cleansing of the temple had for Jesus. It was the act that decided his fate.

Some asked also about the role of the Jews in his death.  There are recent stories in the media about this. Is the Catholic Church holding the Jews responsible?

No. It isn’t. I wonder if an analogy can be drawn from our present involvement in Iraq. Should the American people be held responsible for the barbaric torture of people in our war there? I hope not.

I think the temple incident clarifies that question. I believe the guardians of the Jewish temple, the elite who benefitted economically and politically from this important religious place, who were tied to the Roman establishment of the day, were the prime movers who brought Jesus to his death.

It’s important not to lose sight of the fundamental reason Jesus wanted to cleanse the temple. It signified God’s presence and guidance of his people.  First, God is present in us as individuals : “Don’t you know that you are the temple of God and his Spirit dwells in you.” Jesus himself recognized this usage.

But God is present in our world and all its institutions too. The psalms often proclaim that God is king of all the earth. That doesn’t mean just the physical world. Our businesses, our schools, our political structures, our cities and nations are God’s too; he wishes them to be holy and just and true.

It’s a temptation today to give up on our institutions, to criticize and blame them.  We as individuals and the institutions that make up our world are always in need of reform.  We are not perfect, but we must strive to be, guided by God and his grace.

3rd Sunday of Lent

In Jesus’ time, the temple was the center of Jewish life and worship. Its long history began when King Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem in 960 BC,  in the city founded by his father, King David. Within it he placed the Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets on which the commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai were inscribed.

The temple was a holy sign of God’s presence and continual guidance of his people.

Solomon’s temple suffered a grave blow when it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Rebuilt by the Jews under the Persian ruler, Cyrus, it was threatened again in 167 BC when Antiochus Epiphanes tried to end Jewish worship in it and substitute a cult of his own. A fierce Jewish revolt under the Maccabees regained its possession and the temple was rededicated to the worship of God in 164 BC.

In 20 BC Herod the Great began a massive rebuilding of the temple on a grand scale as a sign of his own Jewish piety and to impress his overlords, the Romans. Herod’s temple — its ruins can be seen today in Jerusalem — stood till its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD. Jesus worshipped there, while it was still being built.

Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, which three gospels report, was a startling and provocative act. Certainly, his words about destruction triggered an alarm for the guardians of this venerable place and caused them to take steps to stop this trouble-maker from Galilee. If he overturned the tables in the entrance way and drove people out, what would he do next?

But Jesus claimed that he himself was the new temple; he was the new lawgiver who came to fulfill God’s command of love. He is God’s presence; the Word dwelling among us and in whom we dwell.

Lent calls us to personal reform, but doesn’t it call for reform and rededication of institutions as well? We may think right away of some of the world’s secular institutions that need it–like banks and governments. But how about our churches, parishes, our religious communities–don’t they need reform too?

Is this action of Jesus a reminder that God sees the whole world as his temple, and wants it to be a place of  justice and truth?

As once you came into the temple, come to us, Lord Jesus,
and cleanse us from all that makes us unholy.

Silence the noise that prevents us hearing you,
and help us see when we are blind.
Turn over the barriers that block your word,
drive away the distractions that stop our awareness of you.

Give us the wisdom of your commandments.
For you command only what is good,
We are temples of the living God,
help us to know who we are.