Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saturday of the 1st Week of Lent

This Gospel is one of the times when Christ's words let me off easy. “Love your enemies” - I don't really have any. Some people who dislike me, sure, but that's not quite on the same level. “Pray for those who persecute you” - no problem, after I finish laughing off their trick-question “proofs” against Christianity. This one comes easy. Nothing to it.

Nothing to it...until I stop and look at a Cross. At the One who loved His enemies even as they crucified Him, and prayed for His persecutors...whom I stand among; a point made explicit in Holy Week liturgies. Or I read of people such as Immaculee Iligabiza, a Rwandan woman who survived the genocide while her parents, her brothers, her friends were brutally murdered – who survived it intact, body and soul, by praying for and truly loving those who sought to find and kill her. And I know I do not, of myself, have that strength. This is where I get off, this is what I can't do, this is what I subject myself to Lent in order to learn. Lent is not something undertaken as self-hatred or self-punishment, it's a time of grace, to learn to love as Christ loved us.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday of the 1st Week of Lent

How can a good God send anyone to Hell? Surely a God who loves us would never do that! “The Lord's way is not fair!” What seems like a very recent claim is a very old one indeed. The answer, of course, is that God does not make the decision; we make it for ourselves. A virtuous man may turn to evil, and the Lord takes no pleasure in the death of one such. It is our ways and not God's, so far as the two are opposed, that are unfair.

The converse is that a wicked man may well turn to a life of virtue, and in that the Lord will rejoice. It is again the covenantal theme of life/death, expanded upon. Jesus, in the Gospel, draws the point out from prosperity in this life to prosperity in the next. We are to be more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees, the experts at all the outward forms and shows of religion; there is more to virtue than that. Anger, being a motive for killing, is as bad as the killing itself.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thursday of the 1st Week of Lent

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find.” We're given the exemplar of this in Esther, a Jewish queen of Persia who stood between her people and yet another persecution. She'd been away from Israel since she was a child, and her prayer reflects that simplicity of relationship to God. She's alone and orphaned and, calling on what she remembers from her childhood, she cries out to God. It's the uncomplicated plea of a daughter needing her father's help. Our prayer need be no more than that: our Father “will give good things to those who ask Him.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wednesday of the 1st Week of Lent

At the preaching of Jonah, Nineveh was very fast to repent - quite probably the citizens were aware of their sins as sins but simply had no impetus to change their ways, and no God to change them for. Jonah's message must have spread through the town like fire, one person to the next ahead of his ability to proclaim it to them; even the king was told, and lost no time in donning sackcloth.

Contrast that to the Israelites and their leaders – they were so convinced of the rightness of their ways that they would not listen. It was not God's prophet but God Himself who spoke to them, and they still ignored Him. “An evil generation seeks a sign,” and an evil generation will receive a sign.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tuesday of the 1st Week of Lent

“[My word] shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” Christ, the Word of God, was sent to do the Father's will and achieve a particular end: our salvation. Along the way, He cured some illnesses but not all. He drove out some demons and raised some people from the dead: but not all. He did not refuse those who came to Him for that, but He did not leave behind Him a world freed from every sickness and trouble. That was not then His mission. Like Christ, we too have a particular mission, and we live it out amidst the need and trouble that meet us almost at every turn. We cannot do everything, and trying is more likely to end up with us doing nothing.

Another purpose of Lent is to follow Christ into the silence of the desert – a place apart, where the noise of the world does not come. It's a place to ready ourselves, to more clearly hear what the Lord asks. “I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart, and there she shall answer.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday of the 1st Week of Lent

“Be holy, for holy” - but you are God and we are only sinful man. “You shall not shall not bear hatred for your shall love your neighbor...I am the Lord.” But we are only sinful man. There is a distance we cannot cross, there is only so far we can go in answering the commands of the Lord. The Psalmist today prays a litany of simple trust in the goodness of God – other days, he speaks of how very far from that goodness he is.

In Christ, the distance is crossed; not by us but by Him, by Emmanuel, 'God-with-us'. “Thus says the Lord” becomes “Amen, I say to you”. “I am the Lord” becomes “You did it to Me.” The Lord God of Hosts has become the least among us.

We do it to Him; similarly, as we saw yesterday, we do it with Him. We do it in Him; we do it for Him. We do it because He did it with and to and for us. We fast and prepare ourselves because He did. We reject the promises of the devil, we confess that the kingdom and the power and the glory are the Father's, because He did. We love Him because He first loved us.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lenten Sermon of St. Peter Chrysologus, Doctor

There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.
Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

Let this be the pattern for all men when they practice mercy: show mercy to others in the same way, with the same generosity, with the same promptness, as you want others to show mercy to you.

Therefore, let prayer, mercy and fasting be one single plea to God on our behalf, one speech in our defence, a threefold united prayer in our favor.

Let us use fasting to make up for what we have lost by despising others. Let us offer our souls in sacrifice by means of fasting. There is nothing more pleasing that we can offer to God, as the psalmist said in prophecy: A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God does not despise a bruised and humbled heart.

Offer your soul to God, make him an oblation of your fasting, so that your soul may be a pure offering, a holy sacrifice, a living victim, remaining your own and at the same time made over to God. Whoever fails to give this to God will not be excused, for if you are to give him yourself you are never without the means of giving.

To make these acceptable, mercy must be added. Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.

When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

God asks much; He also gives much, and the harshness of yesterday's reproof is submerged in the beauty of today's promises. If Israel does as He asks, they “shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails.” In any desert city, you can tell the wealthy area by the trees and lush grass. It's wonderfully green, and refreshing, and enormously costly. And it's what God is promising to all of his people, always – this abundance that most of them can scarcely imagine. If they honor the Sabbath, if they do not follow their own ways...

...if they follow Him. Today's Gospel is the calling of Levi/Matthew, who was considered wealthy by Israelite standards but had gained that wealth precisely through “oppression, false accusation, and malicious speech.” Those were the stock in trade for men of his profession, who dealt with the Romans against their own people. If the Lord, through Isaiah, was not speaking to such as he, then the Lord was not speaking to anyone. It is sinners whom He calls to repentance; sinners who will “delight in the Lord”. By the time of Christ, that's been forgotten. The Pharisees, the leaders, are the righteous followers of the Law, and in their eyes, they are the only ones that matter, the only ones that God would ever deal with. They've forgotten the people who God called in the Old Testament, continued to call in the New, and still calls today – for those who will answer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday after Ash Wednesday

When I was working at a thrift store, we had a toy section that parents would use as a play area for their children while they shopped. (The effort it took to keep that area clean would in itself make a wonderful metaphor for the effort we are undertaking in Lent.) One little girl came up to the cash register, carrying a stuffed animal and a piece of play money she'd gotten out of some game or other. She handed the toy to me, then held out the “money”; I took it and pretended to put it away, then gave her back the toy, all with very great ceremony to match her earnestness. She went away beaming – she'd done all the right things, just like Mommy, and the toy was hers. Of course it wasn't, and she wasn't carrying it when they left.

Israel, in today's first reading, is that child. They've done all that God asked of them, they've gone through all the right motions and done all the right things...why isn't God doing His part? “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” Through the prophet they have their answer: they are fasting, but there is no reality behind it, it is a counterfeit. “Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” They have abandoned the Law: a fast that ends with quarreling is no fast at all. More, the fast that God wishes is not merely a matter of making oneself hungry, but of answering the need of those who are already hungry; those who have no clothing, no home, who are imprisoned, who are oppressed. If any of that sounds familiar, it should; we will soon meet the New Testament version of this.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

“I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.” It's a choice common to the Old and New Covenants, and today we hear the terms of both. Moses, speaking on God's behalf to Israel, lays out the terms very simply and clearly. Obey God's commandments; love Him and walk in His ways; if you do so He will bless you and you will prosper in the Promised Land. If you turn aside from His way to follow other gods, you will perish. Not easy to carry out, Israel will yet fail time and again - but clearly stated.

Christ, in speaking of the New Covenant, turns that basic choice on its head. To walk in His way is to follow Him to the Cross. Saving your life is losing it; losing your life is saving it. There's no sense in it but there it is. It's been pointed out that of the Apostles, the only one who did not face martyrdom was also the only one who stood beneath the Cross. Christ was not speaking only to the Apostles, though, but to all: we all face the same choice, and we face it not once only, but daily. It comes in moments and encounters so small we hardly notice them at all, nor know the effect they have. Sometimes the way to the Cross leads us to other towns and lands, as when Christ left Israel for Samaria. More often, we need only follow Him down our own street, we need only look around us in our ordinary day-to-day.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Lent does not start out with the story of the Fall. Nowhere in the next forty days will we hear that account. Instead, we're plunged into the middle of the story: we don't hear of what was but what is, of the cycle of sin/repentance/restoration/sin set into motion by the Fall. God has promised to break the cycle but it hasn't happened yet; Israel is, as usual, in a desperate situation. Fast – mourn – repent and turn back to God. Again. Perhaps He will relent. Again.

Joel sounds an urgent call to repentance; so too does Paul, as we are thrown into a new part of the story. The cycle is broken; God has heard us. Do you not know what He has done for us? Be reconciled to Him! Now is the acceptable time! Now. Not once we have time – this is the time.

We will have time later to slow down, to let Lent sink into us, to seek to comprehend the mystery. But this is not that time: this is a time for action. Christ calls us to prayer, to fasting, to charity towards our neighbors – today especially, answer that call. We will never be more clearly marked by our sins and our salvation than we are today, with ashes in the sign of the Cross. We will never stand so obviously as ambassadors for Christ, God appealing through us to a world that does not know Him. Now is the time – let us take advantage of it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Time that is Given - Lenten reflections

My parish asked me to do a small booklet of Lenten reflections, based of course on the daily readings. Starting today (with the introduction), I'll be posting them here. Taking all of the Lenten readings in two or three sittings gives a shape to the whole that maybe we miss when they are spread out; hopefully some of that is captured here. Either way, happy Mardi Gras - and a blessed Lent!


In the Eastern Rites, Lent is known as a time of “bright sadness”: a time of mourning into which slowly dawns the light of the Resurrection. Taken another way, those two words can be seen to weave together two vastly different strands of prophecy concerning the Messiah. We celebrate the first in Advent, as we look with joy towards the coming of Christ: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon guide our feet into the way of peace.” The prophecies of Isaiah seem poised to come true: Israel will be restored, Jerusalem shall be raised high and all the nations shall be drawn to her; God will write His law on our hearts and His spirit will guide us in matters so small as walking left or walking right.

In Lent, we pick up the second thread. We remind ourselves of why He came, and we find little to rejoice in. There is a middle part to that verse: that dawn will “shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” Again the prophecies of Isaiah echo down: there will come a “suffering servant”, upon whom will be laid the guilt of us all, by whose stripes we will be made whole. And it is the guilt of us all: “if we say we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Again and again over the next forty days, we will hear the call to repentance, to fasting, to prayer and almsgiving, coupled always with hope in God's mercy.

Lent is indeed a time of bright sadness. It is our journey with Christ from the feast of Cana to the feast in the Upper Room. The victory has been won for us, and yet we are waiting for it. We wait with Israel, yearning towards a promised redemption in which the Lord will be our God and we will be His people. We wait with that same Lord in the desert, weakened and battling temptation. We wait alongside those readying for baptism and union with Christ. We wait with Paul, in prayer and fasting, imploring God to remove from us the blindness of sin. We wait, marked with the ashes of our false hopes, called anew to be in the world but not of it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

For the Forgiveness of Sins

“You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?”
"We can.”
“My chalice indeed you will drink."


My chalice – held out to you,
A servant's offering.
My chalice – the wine of Cana,
Abundance of life's joy.
My chalice – of living water,
Flowing for you always.
My chalice – gift of the Father,
For the Son to accept.
My chalice – covenant in my blood,
A ransom for many.
My chalice – soured vinegar,
Strange tasting victory.
My chalice – for you also to drink,
A share in my Kingdom.

A sidetrack I took in the Lenten booklet I'm writing. Call it a preview.