Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Grain of Wheat

                                    5th Sunday of Lent

Today’s first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah refers to a new covenant between the Lord and his people. We are all familiar with the Old Covenant. It was written on stone tablets and we still refer to it as the Ten Commandments. You know, you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not bear false witness, or you shall not covet your neighbor’s goods to name just a few.  

Writing 600 years before the time of Christ, the Prophet pointed out that the people had repeatedly broken or ignored the agreement they had made. However, they will get another chance but this time the covenant will not be written on stone but on our very hearts. Heart is, of course, a symbol or metaphor for our souls, or our whole being, to put it in modern terms.

The way of the Lord will be in us as if it was part of our genetic makeup.

I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts… No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord. All, from the least to the greatest, shall know me…
It will form our conscience and no one can say that they can’t distinguish right from wrong. We can, however, refuse to listen to our hearts or darken them to the point where we think we can get away with anything. Today’s responsorial psalm asks,
 Create a clean heart in me, O God.

So, what is the nature of this new covenant? It is clear from the teachings of Jesus that it is built upon the old covenant but goes much further. Its commands no longer apply to members of your own family, tribe, or nation. Moreover, the understanding of the commandments goes much deeper. Not only are we to love our neighbor as ourself but also to love our enemies. A clean heart will tell us that anger is not far from killing, or that lustful thoughts are not that different from adultery.

We know that when the Jews of the time of Christ heard Jesus expound on the nature of the new covenant, and on their blindness to its real teaching, they reacted bitterly. We shouldn’t look back and blame them, however, because most of us today find it as difficult to see or hear the message. We don’t like to talk about the seven deadly sins anymore but that doesn’t mean they have gone away in our enlightened age. Is our world free of pride, lust, gluttony, avarice, anger, envy, and sloth? 

In today’s gospel St. John gives us the reason why Jesus had to die on the Cross. It’s as it his enlightened teaching and parables were not enough to convince. Even the healings and incredible miracles were not enough to convince people then and now. He came to sacrifice himself to save us from ourselves by showing us that the sacrificing of our own selves was the way to true happiness.

"Amen, amen, I say to you,
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
It remains just a grain of wheat,
But if it dies, it produces much fruit.
Whoever loves his life loses it,
And whoever hates his life in this world
Will preserve it for eternal life."

I’m not saying that we have to die on a cross like the poor martyrs still being persecuted in many parts of the world today. But a clean heart will tell us that we have to give up selfishness and self-centeredness even if it only means being more considerate of the person right next to us. It is not just the vocation of priests and nuns to give up their own desires and ambitions for the sake of others; it is the vocation of each one of us.

Paradoxically, Jesus tells us that only when we do so, will we truly find our own self. In today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews we see that the suffering of Jesus on the Cross culminated in his Resurrection. Our own little sacrifices during Lent should remind us of all the sacrifices that we have been called to make in our lives. As we approach Holy Week, we should reflect on the real possibility that we have been carrying the Cross along with Jesus on our own journey through life.


Reading 1. Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Reading II. Hebrews 5: 7-9
Gospel. John 12: 20-33 (a grain of wheat)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

God So Loved the World

                                    4th Sunday of Lent

Station of the Cross
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*

It is not uncommon for people to question or lose their faith in God because of the evil in the world. Whether it is a great natural disaster, or a personal experience of pain and suffering, they ask, “How could God allow such pain and suffering to go on?” When there is no answer to the question, they either blame God, or claim that God does not even exist.

In today’s reading from the ancient book of Chronicles, it is clear that the Jews blamed themselves for the destruction of their homeland, and their subsequent enslavement by their enemies. Not only had they engaged in infidelity and abominable practices, but also they resisted all attempts to warn them about their misdeeds.

But they mocked the messengers of God,Despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets…

The biblical writer speaks of a compassionate God whose compassion turned to anger when warnings were ignored and despised. I don’t know if anger is the right word even though some use passages like these to imagine a stern, unforgiving God who hurls lightning bolts at those who step out of line. Actually, this is an image of God that comes from the pagan gods.

In today’s gospel St. John presents us with a different vision of God. After being questioned by Nicodemus, one of the Jewish leaders, Jesus predicted his own suffering, death, and resurrection. As we approach Holy Week we might wonder why Jesus had to suffer and die? What did he do wrong? What sin did he commit? It is a great mystery.

This passage from John, one of the most famous in the Bible, indicates that compassion and love rather than wrath and anger are the reason for the Passion of Jesus. He suffered and died so that we would not have to suffer and die. God gave his Son so that we would not have to give our own children. We would not even have to sacrifice birds and other animals. Here are the words.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,So that everyone who believes in him might not perishBut might have eternal life.

Jesus came as a healer. He said his yoke was easy and his burden light. He criticized those who put unnecessary burdens on the shoulders of others. He urged his disciples not to condemn or judge others. He told them to heal the suffering, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry.
I know of a young man who ridiculed his mother's religious faith because of the suffering that her mother, his grandmother, had to endure at the end of her life. "Where was your God when Nana was suffering?"  The answer to his question was staring him in the face. His mother had taken care of her mother every day and stayed with her throughout her suffering. She was one of those rare individuals who absolutely refused to place her mother in a nursing home. The young man also must have known that his mother, a Catholic, had also spent countless hours consoling a Jewish friend who had lost a young child. Why couldn't the young man see the Lord in his midst in the faith of his own mother?

Just like our Lord she gave of herself for her mother, her friend, and for her son.

In today’s second reading St. Paul, who regarded himself as one of the greatest of sinners, shows that his own personal experience of the Risen Lord made him understand that God was a God of love.

God, who is rich in mercy,Because of the great love He had for us,Even when we were dead in our transgressions,Brought us to life with Christ…

Jesus did not regard pain and suffering as a good thing or even a necessary evil. Wherever he could he healed, and urged his followers to do the same.


*Image by Melissa DeStefano

Reading 1. 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23.
Reading II. Ephesians 2: 4-10.
Gospel. John 3: 14-21 (God so loved the world…)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Ten Commandments

                                    3rd Sunday of Lent***

The Ten Commandments are the subject of today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. Although we think of these commandments as relevant to all people at all times, they were given particularly to the Jewish people on their wandering in the desert after they had escaped from slavery in Egypt. We might want to think of the Commandments not as a spiritual guide but as a practical guide to survival during their journey.

How could this people, made up of different families and tribes, survive during this time of adversity? It is clear that the first step would be to remember that they were all united in the service and worship of one God. Unlike the Egyptians and the other pagan peoples encountered on their journey, they would not have many gods, especially those obviously false gods made of wood or stone.

Moreover, they would have to behave in a certain way to each other in order to survive. On their journey, they would have to set aside one day for rest, a rest that would be shared by all. No one, even their slaves and animals, could be required to work on the Sabbath. This is good practical advice which we would be well advised to follow today.

They would have to remember their obligation to their own parents. How can you have a working, well-functioning society if children don’t respect and honor their parents, or grown children do not care for their infirm parents? If this elemental bond is broken, what other bonds can remain? Moreover, they will have to respect their other tribesman. They must work together. How will they survive if they kill each other, fail to respect their marriage bonds, bring false charges against their fellow travelers, or desire what does not belong to them?

We know that many of them did not keep the commandments. Even their leaders often failed. King David coveted another man’s wife and connived to have her husband killed in battle. King Ahab coveted another man’s property and his wife, the notorious Queen Jezebel, showed him the way to get rid of the poor farmer.

In the time of Jesus it was much the same. Today’s gospel account of the cleansing of the Temple illustrates the anger of Jesus at their failure to follow the commandments. He drove those who sold animals for sacrifice out of the Temple area because they had made the house of God into a marketplace.  The buying and selling of animals had become like the worship of idols.

The most significant part of this passage comes at the end. The evangelist tells us that many had come to believe in Jesus because of the signs he had worked but that Jesus knew they did not understand his message.

But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all,And did not need anyone to testify about human nature.He himself understood it well.

Sadly, he understood human nature. He knew that his contemporaries as well as the Jews from the time of Moses had often failed to live by the Commandments, and that human nature would make us all today likely to stumble and fall. In his letter to the new Christian community at Corinth, St. Paul had noticed that even these recent converts had trouble living in harmony with one another.

Paul told them to concentrate on Jesus who died to redeem our fallen nature. Just like the Jews of old, we too demand signs or miraculous deeds. Just like the Greek philosophers of old, we look for wisdom or human reason to solve all our problems. Modern culture regards much of what Christians believe and do as superstitious, irrational, or unreasonable.

Jesus expanded on the Commandments. He applied them not just to one tribe but to all people. He told us not just to love our neighbor but to share our love with strangers. He told us that not only was killing forbidden but that anger was just as bad as killing. He told us not only to avoid adultery but to not even think about it. The idols of the Greeks and Romans were nothing compared to the idols we have created. We worship athletes, entertainers, and celebrities. We even have a popular show called American Idol.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians are as valid today as they were 2000 years ago.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,And the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.


Reading 1. Exodus 20: 1-17
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 1: 22-25.
Gospel. John 2: 13-25 (cleansing the temple)

***For the third Sunday in Lent the readings of the B cycle our A cycle may be used at Mass. The above is based on the readings for the B cycle. Sorry for the lateness of this post.