Sunday, March 25, 2007

5th Sunday of Lent

5th Sunday of Lent
C cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 43: 16-21
Reading II. Philippians 3: 8-14
Gospel. John 8: 1-11 (Woman caught in Adultery).

Remember last week when we read the story of the Prodigal Son, the Father said to his other son,

we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.

That same theme is continued in today's readings. Isaiah speaks of the desert coming to life again in the same way that our own streets and yards are coming to life again now that springtime is beginning to flower and the dead of winter seems to be over. Isaiah tells the people of God to forget the past for the Lord is "doing something new."

If the subject of last week's gospel was the Prodigal Son, this week's could be the Prodigal Daughter. However, the story of the woman caught in adultery is not a parable. It is a real life occurrence with life and death consequences. Jewish law required that a woman caught in adultery be stoned to death. If she was married or engaged the man involved would also be put to death. If she was unattached, the man usually got off unpunished. People in the ancient world did not think such discrimination unfair. This is one of the ways in which the teaching of Jesus represents such a break with the world before Christianity. Jesus and his followers raised women to equality with men and held men to the same standard.

In today's touching story Jesus literally saves the life of the accused woman. Next year at this time the reading for the 5th Sunday in Lent will be the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. In many ways today's story is just as miraculous. Do you recall another incident where Jesus was dealing with a paralyzed man. He told the poor man that his sins were forgiven but the onlookers murmured in disbelief. In reply, he asked them what was easier to do--to forgive sins or to work a miraculous cure? To prove that he had the power to do both he told the man to pick up his mat and walk.

Today, he saves the woman's life by freeing her from her accusers. "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Then he saves her life from her past. St. John tells us that when the crowd drifted away Jesus was left alone with the woman. This is probably one of the few times in the gospels when Jesus is left alone with anyone. Now it was a scandal in those days for a Jewish man, especially a rabbi, to converse in public with a woman. Nevertheless Jesus speaks with her.

Let's put ourselves in the picture and imagine that we are the woman. He asks, "Has no one condemned you?" We reply, "No one, sir." Then he wipes the slate clean. The past is forgotten, and a new life can begin. He says,

Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.

We live today in awe of psychology and psychoanalysis. Practically everyone who writes to Dear Abby or Ann Landers is told to see a counselor. Unfortunately too many of those counselors only encourage people to go back into the past and find the hidden causes of all their problems. Maybe you had an abusive or neglectful father, maybe a domineering mother. We are told that we cannot get on with our lives until our past life is encountered. For some people this means that they will never escape their past and the wrongs that they have committed or the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them.

This is why we should take a few moments to revisit today's difficult second reading from St. Paul. For Paul there is no looking back. All his past life, his training, his accomplishments, even his sins, he has come to regard as "so much rubbish." Like Isaiah, like the woman caught in adultery, he has been given a new life. He doesn't claim to be saved like a born again Christian. Rather, he has been given a chance to begin a new life. It will not be easy, he will have to endure suffering, he will make mistakes, and it will take a lifetime.

Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind
but straining forward to what lies ahead,
I continue my pursuit toward the goal,
the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

4th Sunday of Lent

4th Sunday of Lent
C cycle

Reading 1. Joshua 5: 9a
Reading II. 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21
Gospel. Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 (The Prodigal Son).

Now that we are more than half way through the penitential season of Lent, the Church interjects a moment of joy into the season. Today is traditionally called "Laetare" Sunday from the Latin word for joy. Just as he does on the third Sunday in Advent the priest will put aside his purple vestments signifying sorrow and penance and put on the pink or rose vestments which symbolize joy. Today we get a glimpse of the joy that will be experienced when we reach our final goal.

The first reading from the book of Joshua indicates that the people of God after 40 years of wandering in the desert have finally reached the promised land. Slavery in Egypt, that land of shame and depravity, has been left behind. The Lord tells Joshua, "I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you."

The theme of reconciliation and joy is continued in today's gospel account of the Prodigal Son. Try to think of a story in all of human literature that is more famous or well-known than this one. Take a moment.... War and Peace? I don't think so. Little Red Riding Hood? No. Hamlet? Who? Harry Potter? I'm sorry but no one will remember or read it 20 years from now. The Good Samaritan? Close, but I still give the nod to the Prodigal Son. Here we are in the 4th Sunday of Lent, at the onset of another Springtime, and the Church pulls out of its seemingly inexhaustible treasure trove, the greatest parable of them all.

It is hard to mistake the meaning of this parable. The Scribes and Pharisees had been complaining that Jesus, "welcomes sinners and eats with them." Before giving us the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke gives us two other short stories. Jesus asked which of them would not behave like a man who left his flock in search of one lost sheep out of a hundred. "When he has found it, he lays it upon his shoulders rejoicing." He calls his friends to rejoice with him "because I have found my sheep that was lost." In the same way, He asks, "what woman, having ten drachmas, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?" The lesson is clear. "There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance."

Only after these stories does our Lord relate the story of the man and his two sons that we heard today. The story is so familiar that I would just like to make two points. First, the compassion of a father or mother toward a child is a reflection of the love that God has for all of us. Like God's love it never fails even after the child has grown and become independent. Secondly, the road home begins when the son who had squandered his inheritance accepts responsibility for his actions and places the blame squarely upon himself. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son."

Many of us will find it difficult to accept the message of this parable. Is it possible to live in a family and not regard your siblings as rivals for your parents love and affection? How often are the parents' efforts directed toward the child who causes the most trouble? Who can't sympathize with the other son in today's story?

Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat
to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
to him you slaughter the fatted calf."

Our Lord knows what goes on in our own families. He even knows how when we are angry or hurt we will say "your son" and not "my brother." Notice the father's answer. He says, "we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life."

Today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians is also about reconciliation. In fact, Paul says that God has "given us a ministry of reconciliation," and that He is "entrusting to us the message of reconciliation." Paul calls us "ambassadors for Christ." Now in days gone by communication and transportation were no where near as quick or easy as they are today. In those days ambassadors played a much more important role than they do today. They stood in the place of the King or ruler who sent them. When they pled the case of the King in a foreign land, it was understood that it was the king himself who was speaking. An embassy was regarded then as it still is today as a part of the home country. That is why in diplomacy an attack on an American embassy abroad is the same as a direct attack on America.

As ambassadors of God we have a really important role. We represent Christ to the world about us. The real sin of the Prodigal Son was that he squandered his inheritance in a foreign land. Rather than converting the foreigners, he was converted by them. Our inheritance is not money or wealth. It is the gifts or talents that have been given us by God. Lent is the time for us to be reconciled to the Father so that we can take our part in restoring all things to Christ.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

3rd Sunday of Lent
C cycle

Reading 1. Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 10: 1-6, 10-12
Gospel. Luke 13: 1-9. (the unfruitful fig tree).

In today's first reading from the Book of Exodus we have the famous story of Moses and the burning bush. The Lord calls Moses from the fiery bush and tells him that He intends to free the people from their slavery and bring them to the promised land. Moses, however, is afraid that the Israelites might reject this news as well as his own leadership for the people would want to know who is sending him to lead them on this perilous journey. He says to the Lord, "if they ask me, 'What is his name?' what am I to tell them?"

As we enter deeper into the holy season of Lent we should put ourselves into the place of the Israelites and ask the same question. First we must know that it was considered impious for an Israelite to even use the name of God. We find it easy today, for reasons we shall see later, but for the Jew it was a dangerous expression of familiarity. To ask the name of God was really to ask, Who or What are you?

God's reply, "I am who am," is best left to the theologians for an explanation. We can only imagine that Moses must have felt that he had encountered something that he had never heard of before in the land of Egypt. He could no longer believe that there were many gods, or that God was a kind of nature god like Zeus or Neptune. Still less could he believe God could be some kind of idol. Even today we still have childish or hopelessly inadequate notions of who God is. For many of us the God of Moses and the Israelites is the Father, pictured by artists as an old man with a long white beard. It's hard to get this image out of our minds. Some even lose their faith because they can only imagine God as an angry, vengeful power ready to zap us as soon as we step out of line.
Some people like to take natural catastrophes or great human tragedies like 9/11 as signs that an angry God is punishing us. Our Lord specifically rejects this superstition in today's gospel. Our Lord says that the Galileans whose bodies were cruelly desecrated by the Roman governor were not necessarily sinners. Often the good will meet the same fate. In the same way our Lord (who seems well up on the news of the day) indicates that those poor people who were killed when a tower fell on them were by no means "more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem."

In other words when tragedy strikes, whether natural or man-made, we should be careful not to draw the wrong lesson. Our Lord knows that we live in a dangerous world and that bad things can happen to us. He is telling us to live each day or year as if it will be our last and to make the most of it.

To drive the point home, our Lord tells the parable of the fig tree that would bear no fruit. This story always reminds me of something that occurred in my own life. Years ago I had an elderly Italian man as a client. Periodically I would visit him and his wife at their home to go over their financial situation. Like many Italians he loved his garden. His prize possession was the largest chestnut tree that I have ever seen. One day I happened to tell him that I loved chestnuts or castagnas and he gave me two little shoots to plant in my own back yard. I did and within a few years they had both grown to a good height. As the years went by however they bore no fruit and so one day I mentioned it to my client and he offered to come up and have a look at them. After I showed him the shells with no fruit inside, he walked around the trees a bit and said practically the same thing that the gardener said in today's parable:

"leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future."

To make a long story short, it worked and the tree began to bear fruit. Unlike the people we read about in today's newspapers, we have been given another chance to bear fruit. The time of Lent coincides with the coming of Spring. How many of us will be buying our lawn fertilizers, and getting out our spreaders in the next few weeks? What's the best kind of fertilizer to get for our souls?

Being born Catholic is not enough. Reception of the sacraments in our youth is not enough. St. Paul tells us in the second reading of the Israelites who perished in the desert even though they had been baptized, and received the same spiritual food, and the same spiritual drink. Just as we know that every year the lawn and the hedges are going to come up again, we know that life will present us with problems and opportunities each and every year.

In sports, last year's champion often fails to even make the playoffs this year. In business, your sales goals are reset every year and it doesn't matter what you did last year. Children, you might have been a big shot in junior high but now you are a lowly freshman in high school.

Therefore, let's take stock of our situation this Lent and start by being thankful that we have been granted another year to bear fruit. Because our Lord took flesh and died for our sins, we can now feel free to call Him by name. He is the gardener waiting to fertilize us with His grace. Let's follow St. Paul's advice:

Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

2nd Sunday in Lent

2nd Sunday of Lent
C cycle

Reading 1. Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
Reading II. Philippians 3:17-4:1
Gospel. Luke 9: 28b-36 (Transfiguration)

At one point in the gospels our Lord refers to someone, I believe it was Nicodemus, as a "true son of Abraham." It was probably the highest compliment our Lord ever gave to anyone for Abraham was the father of Israel, the people of God. In today's first reading Abraham "put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness." As a result the Lord makes a kind of agreement--a covenant--with Abraham that is meant to last forever. Because of his faith the Lord will give to Abraham and his aged wife, Sarah, the son they had longed for all their lives.

Later in the story, however, the Lord asks Abraham as a sign of faith to sacrifice his only son in much the same way as he had sacrificed the animals in today's reading. Abraham obeyed but just as his knife was set to strike, the Lord intervened and stopped him. Thank goodness! What would we think of a God who could allow a man to kill his own son?

Instead, we see in today's gospel that the Lord is going to sacrifice His own Son so that our sons and daughters might live. St. Luke in chapter 9 of his gospel gives us the story of the Transfiguration. Just as the Temptation in the Desert has always been the subject of the first Sunday in Lent, the Transfiguration of our Lord has always been the subject of the second Sunday in Lent.
Jesus is far along in His mission when the Transfiguration occurs. He has given the Sermon on the Mount, healed the sick, driven out devils, and raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead. Now in chapter 9 Jesus feeds the multitude with five loaves and two fishes. After this incredible miracle, He asks the disciples, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" Peter answers, "the Christ of God," and our Lord then reveals the mission of the Christ:

The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief
priests and Scribes, and be put to death, and on the third day rise again."

Immediately after this prophecy of our Lord's suffering and death, Luke goes right to the scene of the Transfiguration where we get a glimpse of the Resurrection. "Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray," just as He would later do in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as in the garden they fell asleep, but while "He was praying, His face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white." The three disciples then awoke to behold Him in His glory standing with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures in Hebrew history.

Our reading says that Jesus was speaking with them of his "exodus" that He was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. The word "exodus" is full of meaning. Moses led the Israelites out of slavery to the promised land--Jesus was about to do the same for us. Older translations say that Jesus was speaking of "his death, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem."

Finally, a cloud envelops them and they hear a voice just as they did at the Baptism of the Lord saying, "This is my beloved Son; hear Him." The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus are linked to the covenant that the Lord made with Abraham and his spiritual descendants. We are the true sons and daughters of Abraham when we hear the Word of the Lord and believe.

In today's second reading from the letter to the Philippians, Paul is telling us to be true to the covenant and conduct ourselves "according to the model you have in us." He knew that in his time as well as in ours, many "conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ."

Their end is destruction.
Their God is their stomach;
their glory is in their "shame."
Their minds are occupied with earthly things.

But for those who "stand firm in the Lord," they will receive a promise similar to the one made to Abraham:

He will change our lowly body
to conform with His glorified body...

When Jesus spoke of his own crucifixion, he also told his disciples and us that we must also bear our cross.

If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For he who would save his life will lose it; but he who loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but ruin or lose himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory..."

This is why our little sacrifices during the forty days of Lent are so meaningful. They are a reminder that it is impossible to stand firm in the Lord without sacrifice of some kind.