Tag Archives: Lent

4TH SUNDAY IN LENT, 2017

If you are familiar with my homilies of the past months or of the past several years, there’ll be no surprise in my telling you that I am convinced that the experiences of these biblical persons we hear about in every Sunday Mass were no different from our own with regard to God’s involvement in our human lives.

I do not believe that they heard clear, verbal commands anymore than we do. Their knowledge of God was, just like our own, that of faith and trust in an unseen, unheard God. The main reason we honor and revere them is that, in the most trying situations, they lived by faith in that invisible, inaudible God.

And we can be sure, by the way, that it was exactly the same for Mary and Joseph and the apostles and early disciples — no matter the literary liberties the sacred authors used in their writings. These were persons of very strong faith. They’d hardly be worthy of our admiration and imitation if all they had to do was take verbal directions from mysterious inner voices and follow them step by step. Their greatness, instead, was in their believing when they could not see, could not hear, the divine presence. They managed, somehow, to trust a God who would reach out to them in the most subtle ways, who would be in and around them, but perceived only through the lens of faith, trust, and belief.

Have you ever tried to explain to anyone why you believe in God? And do you know why that’s so hard to do? It’s because we can’t, and we don’t, embrace God; quite the contrary, it is God who embraces us. We can’t comprehend the mystery of God’s presence in our lives. God is with us like the air we breathe so as to remain alive, the atmosphere that sustains us simply by our inhaling it. Maybe that’s why one of the most ancient symbols of God’s presence to humanity is the cloud.

Jesus’ encounter with the blind man, which we heard in today’s gospel excerpt, ends in an almost ominous way. He says to the devious Pharisees: If you were really blind, you’d be blameless; but since you claim that you see, when actually you have made yourselves blind and deaf to the God who lives within you, you live in sin.

If we’re willing to let the lesson sink in and think about it, we recognize at first that it contains a disturbing question, one we may rather not consider. The question is, is it possible that with all our busyness, even our admirable, constructive activity, we remain, at least partly, blind and deaf to the Creative Spirit?

If Lent is making any inroads into our lives, has it at least been a time during which we have tried to achieve an inner stillness in which we have given God the chance to speak to us? Are we becoming more open to the wisdom and insight that can come only as the gift of God? Do we want our love to be deeper, nobler, more beautiful and creative? Do we want to know better what we should be doing?

Not even God can put all that, and more, into a mind and heart that are shut tight.

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3RD SUNDAY IN LENT, 2017

I will never forget the French movie, “Of Gods and Men”, the true story of seven Trappist monks missioned in Algeria, doing their best to serve the poorest people of that violent area. Radical Islamist terrorists were routinely murdering the townspeople, many of whom had become friends of the monks. The monks knew that their own lives were very much in danger of the same fate. After intense discussions about what they should do, they unanimously decided to stay put and, in imitation of Jesus, to let happen whatever would.
This event was only 11 years ago, so some of you may remember that the seven monks were all beheaded.

Their leader, Father Christian, left his last testament, part of which I share with you now. He wrote:

If it should happen one day — and it could be today — that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems to encompass all the foreigners living (here) in Algeria, I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world and even in that which would strike me blindly.

And then, incredible as it may seem, he addressed the unknown Islamic militant whose sword would kill him and he wrote:

And you, too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, yes, for you too I say this thank you…to commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God.

In today’s Gospel excerpt Jesus and a very confused woman were talking about water with two different meanings. The thirst he mentioned wasn’t for water in the ordinary physical sense, but for eternal life and love and goodness. He wasn’t trying to snag her as a convert to “save her soul.” He was hoping to open up to her a new way of living in this world linked with the life that endures beyond death, a way that draws from the wellspring of God’s loving presence in all of us, all the time.

Five consecutive husbands and a live-in boyfriend had not made her a happy person. Would she now allow herself to take what Jesus was offering — not freedom from the daily trudge to the well, but a clear, compellingly attractive image of the Creator God, who had been so badly misrepresented throughout all of human history?

The martyred monks of Algeria understood Jesus’ message well, and they had made it the governing principle of their lives. They lived and died by it in inner peace, abiding joy, and eager anticipation of the surprises of the Spirit they believed lay ahead.

Lent is a time for us to increase our charity to others, to give thanks for the countless blessings we possess, and to think more about the foundations of our own lives, about the standards by which we judge and act.

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT, 2017

It’s clear that it is the woman —Eve — who is the primary evildoer in the ancient story of the creation of the world that we’ve just heard once again from the Book of Genesis. She was attracted, we are told, by the forbidden fruit because it seemed to her that eating it would enable her and her mate to acquire the awesome power of the Creator.

After all, hadn’t the serpent told her that God was deceiving her by saying that she and Adam would die if they ate that fruit? Wasn’t that obviously a poorly disguised way of God protecting God’s exclusive power?

Eve took the bait and then the fruit, ate it, and gave some to her husband, who foolishly trusted her. The fantastic fable goes on to inform us that they both lost their innocence and began the world of sin and shame that we have inherited.

The Scriptures, the bible, are the product of both human and divine authorship; in order to encounter what is of God in them, we have first to deal with the human element, which often enough is false. And so we have animals that speak, God creating humans the way an artist molds pottery, and much later the devil taking Jesus to high places, tempting him with the gift of all the kingdoms he sees.

In the passage in today’s liturgy we are told that it is the woman who leads the man into sin and death. It would be impossible to assess how much damage that passage alone has done in the course of human history by painting women as a source of corruption of men and by leading men to regard women as naturally inferior to themselves.

We have chosen to be Christians because we believe that Jesus, above all other human beings who ever existed, shows us how to be the humans we were created to be. Lent is that special time of the church year that invites us to examine our conduct, our lifestyle, our version of being human — and to compare it with the model we see in Jesus.

Attempts at changing our behavior, our habits of so many years, I’m sure you agree, will be a far greater penance than giving up candy or alcohol or movies for the 40 days of Lent.

Why not start with that most basic matter of how we honor and respect and listen to each other as equals before our creator — or how we don’t? Why don’t we work, starting today, on the prejudices and mindsets we’ve inherited or learned along the way? Why don’t we try to be humbly and sincerely open to what others tell us about our offensive behavior and the attitudes it reveals?

That passage from the Book of Genesis and the bad rap it seems to have given women isn’t really about two historical persons. They are fictional and it is a story, a fable, in which those characters are really you and I. It’s we who tend to do what pleases us, all else notwithstanding. You and I who may never have fully outgrown our infancy. Deep down, we want to be like God — totally independent and autonomous. That’s what the Scriptures warn us about: we are creatures, never more and never less. But our creatureship is not to be regretted. It should be cherished because we are the creatures of God’s infinite love! And what is promised us is an eternal share in the Creator’s own life!

What more could we live for than that!?

8TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

I think it’s true to say that the fasting we do during Lent, the next one only a few days away, is really more like dieting than it is the death-defying penance taken on by those stalwart souls in times past and even today. Cutting down on food and drink at any time is certainly commendable for people like us overfed Americans.

Denying ourselves various pleasures as penance for our sins is a good thing; however, originally, fasting, in our Christian tradition and in other religions as well, had a much deeper purpose, and that was, by cutting off all nutrition, to enter into direct dependence on the power of God to sustain life. It was a way of experiencing more immediately the vital connection between God and oneself. (This explains, by the way, the apparent absurdity of the Gospel line that informs us that Jesus was hungry after his 40-day fast in the desert. We tend to think or say, Well, who wouldn’t be famished after more than a month without food? But if we think of him as the mystic that he was, who enjoyed an uncommonly profound intimacy with God, we can accept the possibility that he was so intensely absorbed in communion with the Creative Spirit that his bodily needs were in a way suspended and adequately satisfied by the direct, unmediated union with God.)

Such encounters with God are still experienced by some few persons of different religions, but they have to be undertaken only as prompted and sustained by the Holy Spirit, who alone can lead one into such a desert place. Wise spiritual direction is absolutely essential in such cases.

Yet, we all need to become more aware of our essential dependence on God. It’s one thing to know that intellectually: to be aware that we have not created ourselves. But it is something entirely different to feel that relationship and to allow it to influence the actions and major decisions of our life. That is what Jesus is talking about in today’s familiar gospel account. He says that we must be so convinced of this lifeline between God and ourselves that we will not worry, beyond reasonable concern, about our jobs, our food, our clothing, our tomorrows. Our life, he says, is to be marked by careful attention to our responsibilities and duties on the one hand, and on the other hand a child’s carefree assumption that its parents will provide all that is necessary — and much, much more.

Our first priority, Jesus teaches us, must be the advancement of God’s kingdom here on earth; that is to say, contributing toward building a condition of love and peace and justice and mercy for all. That is where our energies must be primarily placed, and then all else will follow as needed. The Father loves and cares and gives without fail, ever!

As a neat contrast, and to add to our image of God, today’s brief passage from Isaiah describes God’s love as womanly, maternal, exceeding that of even the tenderest mother. It reassures us that our confidence is well placed and will never be shamed by denial. God does not merely tolerate us, he implies: we do not have to be clever and aggressive to get an open hearing and a favorable judgment. God has loved us into existence and God’s love continues to be our life!

Lent is soon upon us. It can be a time of foolish, wasted effort if our intent is to buy God’s favor with the coin of our prayers and penances. But it can be instead a time in which we become more alive, more free and creative, by saying yes to this God who enfolds us in unconditional, everlasting love!

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT 2016

Whenever Gospel accounts of Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert are proclaimed, I think of Mark’s version, which includes the phrase, “after which he was very hungry,” and Luke’s “at the end he was hungry.”  I used to find those words curious, if not amusing.  And I’d think, “Well, who wouldn’t be hungry after nearly six weeks without food?”  But I learned that there is far more to the statements than at first meets the eye.

First of all, a possible and very plausible interpretation of the story is that the number 40 is symbolic and not to be taken literally.  That number is used elsewhere in the Scriptures and refers to the 40 years the Jews are said to have wandered in the desert under the leadership of Moses.  Its inclusion in this scenario might be to identify Jesus as a second Moses, or as the one that Moses’ life pointed toward.

But, the purpose of Jesus’ fast: what was it?  I believe that it was his desire to be sensitized to the mission of his life, to understand its objective and implications, and to assent to it without compromise, no matter what lay ahead.  He must have suspected, maybe clearly knew, that there were unspeakable sufferings he would have to endure.  As many of his followers did much later on in history – one among the most recent, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – he had the premonition of an early and violent death.  He was free to say yes or no to the whole project; his conversation with God in the desert had to assure him that yes was the right response and that the Spirit of God would lead him through it and into eventual victory.

The course of our lives is pretty well set by this time, I assume you adults agree.  What then is the point of our doing anything remotely like what Jesus did?  In answer, the same verb comes to my mind: we need to be sensitized to the tasks of our lives that are ours now or that lie ahead.  We need to respond with a firmer-than-ever yes.  We need to get more in touch with the sufferings of our fellow human beings and realize that we can and should help.  Whatever it is that we are giving up or doing during Lent, it can make us think more tenderly about those close to us whose personal sufferings we can alleviate and also those, both near and far, who are cruelly deprived of even the most basic requirements of human life.  And then, feeling their misery and pain and hopelessness, we can resolve to do something, however small, to make a positive difference in their lives.

Sister Wendy Beckett is that charming English nun you used to see quite regularly on PBS giving the most interesting talks on the world’s great art masterpieces.  She wrote once, “Lent is the time for working out what you are meant to be doing, what in your life gets in the way…You may realize with a jolt that you are basically indifferent to God…Whatever it is that needs to be changed in your life, now is the time to find out what it is and summon the courage to address it.  The ‘penances’ of Lent are not meant to destroy our innocent pleasures but to keep us aware of God.”

HOMILY FOR EASTER, 2015

Easter is, of course, the celebration of Jesus’ passage from life through death to life and his promise that we shall experience the same transition.  That’s why we inscribe on the tombstones something like, “Until We Meet Again.”  That would make no sense at all if we were not convinced that our beloved dead continue to live after their biological deaths, and that we will too.

I am grateful to a Maryknoll priest, Father Joseph McCabe, who emailed me from Russia a few years ago with a reminder of what we experienced between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.

At the outset, he wrote, we were invited to accompany Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness for the same purpose of communing more deeply with God.  We needed to do that because the busyness and distractions of our daily lives easily make us forget that God is constantly present in and with us.  We were encouraged to face up to the remnants of bad habits, especially with regard to our treatment of others.  We were urged to resolve again and more firmly to imitate Jesus’ gentleness, forgiveness, patience, and compassion.

In the second week, we heard in the Scripture excerpts that we are wildly loved sons and daughters – something that so many of us still don’t really believe.   But the Scriptures insisted that it is true: we are loved unconditionally, despite what we’ve done or didn’t do.  Move on, we were urged, feeding on the strength that comes from knowing we are loved by our Creator, no matter what.

The third week of Lent challenged us with the problem of maintaining control over our anger and devoting all our energy to doing what is right in every situation, guided by our own well-formed consciences.  Live thoughtfully, we were counseled, because each moment here on earth is precious and unrepeatable.

A week later, we heard about God’s merciful attitude toward an ancient people who, we were told, “added infidelity to infidelity” in their shameful conduct.  It reminded us of what we learn every day about our present world, like this past week’s slaughter of 147 innocent people in Kenya. The gospel passage that Sunday brought to some minds the image of a sports stadium and a fan holding up a placard that reads “John 3:16” – “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone might have eternal life.” Another message of hope and encouragement!

(I begin every funeral Mass with the words of a friend and colleague, Father Joseph Nolan, a teacher at Boston College: “Creator God, do not allow us ever to fear death, not if we are really the sisters and brothers of Jesus, who, when he was dying, called you Father and found in your love the place of ultimate surrender.”)

On the fifth Sunday in Lent, as the church approached Holy Week and the Easter Vigil baptism of adult candidates, the emphasis was on our own status as baptized Christians.  Faithfulness to the way of Christ in all the situations of our own lives, we were reminded, would sometimes be costly, as Jesus’ own fidelity was costly beyond measure.  But we’d have to die many little deaths along the way, the wise old Church taught us, preparing us to undergo the big and final death that awaits us all.  That biological death, the late and venerable Jesuit Father Karl Rahner wrote, would end in a “shattering shout of joy” as we discover that the emptiness of death is actually “filled with the mystery of mysteries we call God, filled with God’s pure light and all embracing love.”

We believe it happened to Jesus and that it has happened to all who have died.  We believe that it will happen to us.

That’s why we can and should live here on earth with enthusiasm, making this short journey as full and as beautiful as it can possibly be.

And that’s why we say, Happy Easter!!

HOMILY FOR 4TH SUNDAY IN LENT, 2015

Only a few days after my brother’s death three years ago, I was at dinner with my sister and her family, when she asked, of no one in particular, “Where do you imagine Bob is now?”  Good question, which happens to coincide with the theme in each of today’s three readings: the perfect life that we believe awaits us after death as pure gift of God’s infinite love.

In the first reading, from the Hebrew Bible, the crimes of a sleazy nation are punished by God, who then establishes a rule of justice and peace and love.  (Keep in mind, by the way, that belief in life after death was not the faith of the Jewish people for many, many centuries.  It developed slowly and somewhat sporadically right up to Jesus’ time.)

In the passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, we find immense hope in the assurance that a loving God lifts us even out of death.  Paul says we are given what he calls “a place in the heavens.”  His essential message seems to be that, even while we are struggling through this often difficult, painful life, we have a secure place reserved for us in the wonderful life that awaits us after death.

That last sentence, I know, is the “pie-in-the-sky” statement that invites the ridicule of non-believers.  And that shouldn’t be hard for us to understand.  After all, atheists and we have two diametrically opposed points of view. Nonetheless, we can live in mutual respect, realizing that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved.  So we believers speak of it as pure gift.

But what should concern us is that we not use our belief in perfect life beyond death as an excuse for not investing as energetically as we can in this present life on Planet Earth.  In other words, we mustn’t remain uninvolved in the things of earth because we think they don’t matter as compared with what lies ahead.  The only existence we know is this one, and it too is gift of the Creator, who makes us co-creators in the constant development of life.

And then, the Gospel, that intriguing, fragmentary conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, with its assurance that Jesus’ mission is not to condemn and punish us but to save us even from self-destruction.   What he offers is ours for the taking – no strings attached.  We have only to accept it, claim it, count on it, allow it to influence our thinking and our deciding.

I’m one of those persons who are extremely sensitive to the weather: a cloudy, gray day dampens my mood, while a bright, sunny day lifts my spirit and makes everything and everyone look beautiful.  To believe in everlasting life is to live in such a light, which suggests how indescribably glorious must be the life-giving light of Jesus seen in full intensity!

A while back, I celebrated Mass several times with a group of Catholic men who are gay.  I was deeply moved by their quiet devotion, their humble confidence in the love and mercy of Jesus, their firm faith as they received him in Eucharistic Communion.  Oppressed as they so often are, even by those who call themselves Christian, they live in expectation of God’s salvation, and they are confident that Jesus loves them just as they are.

I used to think that I knew a lot more when I was much younger!  What I’m certain of now is that God loves this whole universe because it is God’s creation.  I believe that it all moves on to life in some form by way of union with the Creator God.  And I know that I must live every minute of my short time here on earth in ways that are consistent with that conviction.