Sunday, February 25, 2007

1st Sunday of Lent

1st Sunday of Lent
C cycle

Reading 1. Deuteronomy 26: 4-10
Reading II. Romans 10: 8-13
Gospel. Luke 4: 1-13 (Temptation in the Desert)

As we begin the season of Lent today's first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy reminds us to look back and reflect on who we are and where we came from. It doesn't take much of an imagination for us to realize how close we are to the Israelites in the time of Moses. After bringing up their offerings to the altar, Moses tells them to declare:

My father was a wandering Aramean
who went down to Egypt with a small household
and lived there as an alien.

Most of us are descendants of aliens who came to America in the last two centuries. Like the Israelites, our ancestors were fleeing oppression and hunger at home and they thought that America was a "land flowing with milk and honey." Like the Israelites they brought their God and their religion with them even though both encountered prejudice and opposition. They built families, homes, schools, and churches and handed down to their children a better life than they had ever known. They became in the words of the Bible a "nation great, strong and numerous."
There was always the danger that success might tempt us to turn our backs on God and our religion and make us forget where we came from and where we are going. Temptation is the subject of today's gospel. Even though the gospel readings go through a three year cycle, the reading for the first Sunday of Lent is always the account of our Lord's temptation in the desert.

Luke begins this account by noting that Jesus, "filled with the Holy Spirit," returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil." This episode then follows almost immediately upon the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan where a voice from Heaven had proclaimed, "Thou art my beloved Son, in Thee I am well pleased."

Luke says that Jesus fasted for 40 days and then the devil appeared to Him and presented Him with three different temptations. Lucky for us that we are such small fry or such easy marks that the devil doesn't have to personally bother with us. Our temptations are not so dramatic. One of the greatest Christian authors of the last century, C.S. Lewis, wrote a book entitled, "The Screwtape Letters," in which he described how a petty bureaucrat from Hell tried to tempt a young man with the mundane, ordinary temptations that we all experience in our lives.

Nevertheless, the Devil tempts Jesus in ways that we all can understand. Please note however that despite all attempts today to glamorize the Devil, our tradition has always believed that he is a liar. In fact, he cannot help but lie or otherwise distort the Truth. Even when he quotes Scripture, as he does here, he cannot help but twist the meaning. By the way all of our Lord's responses are quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy, the source of today's first reading. Our Lord is the Truth, the Devil represents the complete absence of Truth.

The first temptation deals with our basic human needs. Of course, it's not just about food and hunger. It's about all the things that we think that we must have to sustain our standard of living. Maybe we don't all want to be millionaires but we all know how the frantic search for the things of this world can destroy our basic human relationships. As our Lord said, "One does not live on bread alone."

The second temptation deals with the search for "power and glory." Lying again, the Devil claims that all the kingdoms in the world have been given to him and that he will give them to Jesus "if you worship me." Every day in the newspapers we read about some politician, CEO, athlete or entertainer who is in trouble with the law. Most of us are not such big shots but we know of the power struggles that go on in our own families, our schoolyards, our businesses and even in our churches.

At the Jordan John the Baptist said that he must diminish so that the Lord could increase. It is just the opposite with the search for "power and glory." Again from Deuteronomy;
You shall worship the Lord, your God, and Him alone shall you serve." What more incentive do we need to attend Mass this Lent!

In the third temptation the devil takes our Lord to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem looking down over the parapet 450 feet straight down to the Kidron valley. He says prove your faith in God by throwing yourself down for doesn't Scripture say angels will support you. He quotes the Psalm we used in today's Mass and from which the popular hymn "On Eagles' wings" is taken. Jesus says that spectacular stunts are not the way we prove our faith. Do not tempt the Lord your God.

About faith it would be good to go back to today's second reading from St. Paul.
"if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead,
you will be saved.

It doesn't matter whether we're Jew or Greek, or whether our ancestors came from a county in Ireland, or a town in Italy, or a tribe in Africa, or a village in Asia, for "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

Sunday, February 18, 2007

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. 1 Samuel 26: 2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23
Reading II. I Corinthians 15: 45-49
Gospel. Luke 6: 27-38 (love your enemies)

Today's gospel continues St. Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount which we began last week. Here we encounter Jesus's famous command to "love your enemies." Perhaps this is the reason the Church gives us the story of David and King Saul in today's first reading.

The movies have distorted our vision of Bible history. In most Hollywood biblical epics the characters all look so noble. They wear flowing robes or tunics, live in gorgeous palaces, and speak with beautiful English accents. For today's episode, set as it is in the desert of Ziph, it would be better if we tried to imagine ourselves in an American western or in one of the Italian Spaghetti westerns.
King Saul, the King or Chief of the Israeli tribe, has led his warriors out into the desert in pursuit of the upstart warrior, David. The old king is envious of David's victories in battle and his growing popularity within the tribe and he has set out to capture and kill him. After Saul and his men pitch camp for the night, David and his right hand man, Abishai, evade the sentries and enter the Israeli camp. The two find Saul sleeping and Abishai urges David to take advantage of the opportunity, "Let me nail him to the ground with one thrust of the spear..."

Now all you have to do is glance through the rest of the Book of Samuel to see that David is no pacifist. He is a warrior who never shrinks from killing. Yet in this case he draws back--"for who can lay hands on the Lord's anointed and remain unpunished." Anointing with holy oils was the sign that the King had been chosen by God, that the King was in fact God's representative on earth. David seems motivated here more by fear of the Lord than by love of his enemy.

Let's turn now to the gospel passage where Jesus is once again being so impractical. How unnatural He sounds. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, give your tunic as well as your cloak, do not demand repayment, lend money without expecting repayment.

But is it so impractical? Let's look at some examples from our own daily life especially since we are about to enter the season of Lent. Maybe the Sermon on the Mount contains some things that we can do right now. First, what about love our enemies? Now we don't have to look to Iraq or Afghanistant to find enemies. Our enemies are right here in our midst. Children, how many times have you fought with your own brother or sister in the last week? How many fights have you had about who sits where in the family car?

It's good to give up candy for Lent but it would be even better to give up selfishness and share with your brothers and sisters. As we get older this advice is even more important.

Give to everyone who asks of you,
and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.

In fact what family could function well unless if follows this advice. Husbands and wives who hold anything back in their relationship are doomed to failure. Is this the reason why so many marriages fail today? For Lent let's resolve to intensify our love. Let's bring the spirit of St. Valentine's day into Lent.

In athletics how often do we read of selfish stars who refuse to help their less talented teammates. This selfishness starts even in little league. When I was a softball coach I learned that sooner or later the ball would be hit to the worst fielder on the team and usually at a crucial time. The teammate that we fail to help could cost us a championship.

Really, isn't our Lord saying that hatred and anger hurt us more than the people we hate. I knew a man who never forgave his sister for failing to pay back a small debt. Who was hurt? What good did his grudge do for him? How many of us have not spoken with our own brothers and sisters for years over some trivial slight? The best thing that we could do this Lenten season would be to get on the phone and just say hello.

Our Lord promises us that if we act miserably, we will be miserable. If we act generously, we will become generous. He has said that His yoke is easy and His burden light. Look how he let's us off the hook and opens up the way to happiness:

Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down,
and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.

He isn't naive or impractical. He knew that workers were paid in those days by filling their aprons with grain. Bosses liked to get away with filling the aprons loosely because packing it down and shaking the air out would benefit the workers.

As St. Paul says in the second reading, we all bear the image of the earthly Adam, but our Lord Himself is the heavenly Adam and if we choose, we shall also bear His image. Let's make sure that this Lent we do not take the spear and nail the Lord's Anointed One to the Cross.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Jeremiah 17: 5-8.
Reading II. I Corinthians 15: 12, 16-20.
Gospel. Luke 6: 17, 20-26 (Beatitudes)

One of the problems that the Church faces today is that we have lost the meaning of words which were once perfectly clear. For example, I think that "salvation" is one of these words. I would bet that most people don't think of salvation as a goal. However, if we were to discover that salvation only means "happiness" then it's a different story. Who wouldn't want to be happy, especially if the happiness was forever or eternal.

How many best sellers today deal with the search for happiness? How many TV programs are devoted to the same subject? Yet today, despite our advanced technology, our great wealth, and our educational achievements, there is still so much unhappiness in our world.
Happiness is the subject of today's readings from Scripture. It has been said that there are three steps on the stairway to happiness. First, we have to recognize that we can't achieve it on our own. We are finite or imperfect. We just are not equipped with the ability or the tools to do it on our own. This is the message of the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah. In fact, it is the principal message of all the great Old Testament prophets.

Cursed (or unhappy) is the one who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the Lord....

Blessed (or happy) is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose hope is the Lord.

In other words, when we seek happiness through money or power or fame or sex or recognition we are bound to fail. Just read the newspapers every day. I know someone who hates her job so much that it is literally making her physically and psychologically ill. Yet, she can't bring herself to leave it because even though she is financially secure, she thinks she needs even more money. She is so unhappy!

In the gospel today Luke brings us the famous Sermon on the Mount. Right before today's reading our Lord had gone up to a mountain to pray. Afterwards he had called his disciples to him and chosen twelve to be His apostles. That's where we begin today. "Jesus came down with the twelve" and began to teach "a great crowd of his disciples and a large number of people" who had come from near and far to hear this wonder worker.

He preaches the "Beatitudes." Beatitude, blessed, bliss all mean happiness. The second step to happiness is to be open to the truth when we hear it. Whenever Jesus speaks to his disciples, we can be sure that He is speaking to us. Luke says "raising his eyes toward his disciples he said,

Blessed (or Happy) are you who are poor...
Blessed (or Happy) are you who are now hungry...
Blessed (or Happy) are you who are now weeping...
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!

The road to happiness is not the easy road. Once we're open to the Truth we can then take the third step and apply it in our own lives. The man who marries must give up his own ambitions and dreams, his own life, for his wife: and she must do so also. Parents give up their lives for their children. Who ever said that would be easy? Priests and religious give up their lives in the service of others. St. Paul says that single people even have a greater responsibility or opportunity for self sacrificing love.

I know that today there are many people both Christian and non-Christian who regard Jesus as only a teacher albeit one of the great ones in human history. I suppose that if such people would only follow the teachings of Jesus they would then be able to lead happy and productive lives. However, this point of view tends to downplay the importance and significance of our Lord's Passion, Death, and Resurrection. I think that part of the concern about the film, The Passion of the Christ, stems from an unwillingness to face the fact that Christ was crucified and that He then rose from the dead.

No one in history appreciated the teaching of Jesus more than St. Paul. But Paul always insisted that his preaching was about Christ crucified, and that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then His teachings alone could not have brought us happiness. As he said to the Corinthians in today's reading, "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain..." For us like the early Christians in Corinth this is a great mystery. Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? But for St. Paul Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Jewish prophecies. Christ's resurrection was the proof that He was the Lord of Jeremiah and the other prophets. He suffered to bring us happiness.

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose hope is the Lord.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8.
Reading II. I Corinthians 15: 1-11
Gospel. Luke 5: 1-11 (Fishers of Men).

Today might very well be called Vocation Sunday. The word vocation comes from the Latin word "vocare" which means to call. In each of the readings today, someone is called and in each case it is someone who feels unworthy or unable.

In the first reading Isaiah has a vision of the heavenly Throne surrounded by angels and he is filled with fear. Isaiah says,

Woe is me, I am doomed!
For I am a man of unclean lips,
living among a people of unclean lips....
Then one of the angels--and angels are always sent by God--around the throne flies to him and touches his mouth with a flaming ember and heals him. "See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged." Then Isaiah hears the Lord asking, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" and answers the call, "Here I am,...send me!"

In today's gospel from Luke, chapter 5,
we hear the story of the calling of the first Apostles, in particular, Peter. Now in the previous chapter Luke recounted that Jesus had already worked his healing powers on many people in Galilee. It was this reason that led the people to crowd around him at the lakeside. One of his cures had been Peter's own mother-in-law and so it's no wonder that Peter allowed our Lord to use his boat and followed his directions.

I love St. Peter. He is always impetuous, headstrong, and without guile. He is the prototype of all the great comic sidekicks in literature, from Don Quixote's Sancho Panza to Luke Skywalker's robots. "No, master," they always say, "we can't go there, we can't do that." In this case Peter thinks that the Lord is being a little impractical when He asks him to put out into the deep and lower his nets. "Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,..."

Peter's astonishment at the incredible catch of fish reminds us of the fear that Isaiah felt. He falls at the knees of Jesus and says, "Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man." Jesus answers with the famous call, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men." I must confess that in this instance I prefer the old translation, where these fishermen are called to be "Fishers of Men."

Whatever the translation, they still responded to the call--"they left everything and followed Him."

Finally, in the second reading St. Paul reminds the Corinthians of his own calling. Recalling all those who had seen Christ after His Resurrection, he says.

Last of all...he appeared to me.
For I am the least of the apostles,
not fit to be called an apostle,
because I persecuted the church of God.

Isaiah, Peter, Paul, they all recognized their unworthiness or weakness, but all came to realize that God's grace would give them the strength. As Paul said, "I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.

We would make a mistake if we believed that vocations are only for priests and religious. Peter, James, and John were fisherman. Paul although extremely well educated was a tentmaker by trade. Today's readings are for all of us. We all have our vocation or calling in life.

Another mistake would be to think that we're not ready or prepared. Who would ever enter into one of life's great callings if they had the slightest idea of the trails and tribulations that they would encounter on life's journey? Peter and Paul did not go through a long period of training or study before they were called. That would come afterwards. When our Lord appeared to them they recognized that they were not ready but they couldn't resist Him.

Finally, another mistake would be to look inside of us for the call. Today's readings tell us that the call will usually come from outside. Our Lord appears to Peter at the side of the lake and to Paul on the road to Damascus. We should not expect to hear some kind of inner voice. In another place in the gospels our Lord tells us that when we did the least thing for one of our brothers, we did it for Him. In the same way when we hear someone asking us to do something or to undertake some task, we might consider that the Lord is speaking through them.

I'll never forget my dear aunt Nan. She had no children of her own but when my mother died when I was only 11 she stepped up and became a virtual mother to myself and my two younger brothers. Didn't the Lord speak to her through her widowed brother and three young nephews. Like Isaiah she responded, "Here I am."

If today you hear His Voice, harden not your hearts.