Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Samaritan Woman

Annibale Carracci: Christ and the Woman at the Well

3rd Sunday of Lent: A cycle

On this third Sunday in our Lenten season the readings all deal with the subject of faith. Even the responsorial Psalm says, "If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts." This saying is always associated with the famous incident at Massah and Meribah where the Israelites "grumbled" against Moses and the Lord.

In today's reading although the people have escaped from their captivity in Egypt, they are stranded in the desert and dying of thirst. They complain to Moses:

Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?
Was it just to have us die here of thirst
with our children and our livestock?

Because of their thirst the people lost their faith in Moses and even in God. They wondered, "Is the Lord in our midst or not?"

In today's gospel account the Samaritan woman fails to see the Lord in her midst even when she comes face to face with Him. In the first two Sundays in Lent the Church presents us with big, dramatic events in the life of Christ--the Temptation in the Desert and the Transfiguration. But today and next week we will encounter two ordinary people like ourselves. This week's story is about a woman going to draw water from a well. Next week's story will be about a blind beggar.

We all should be aware of the social background of today's gospel from St. John. The Samaritans were descendants of Jews who had intermarried with non-Jewish settlers hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. They were regarded by the Jews as traitors and idolaters because they had added some of the foreign beliefs and practices to their Judaism. In addition, it was rare, even scandalous, for a Rabbi to speak to a strange woman in public.

So we can understand the woman's response to Jesus when He asked her for a drink of water. "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" Our Lord replies that if she only understood who was facing her, she would be asking Him for living water. Why can't she believe? So many others when they encounter our Lord seem to instantly believe. Is it because He is a Jew? Is it because He is a man? Is it because He is not what she expects the Messiah to be like? Or maybe, she's like us and just doesn't expect that at this time and this place she can at last find Goodness and Happiness.

Today's excerpt from St. Paul's letter to the Romans is his most famous statement about faith. .

Since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have gained access by faith
to this grace in which we stand...

I won't try to add any more words to the millions of words that have been written about "justification by faith." I will only say that St. Paul as a result of his own conversion was sure that all of us, whether we know it or not, have been given the gift of faith by virtue of our Lord's great act of love on the Cross. Faith is not something that we get by reading books, or by praying, or by hearing some persuasive speaker. It is a gift that has been given by God. Indeed, it is only because we have faith that we are able to hope and love in the midst of all the suffering and sorrow in the world.

However, we can deny or lose this great gift of the Spirit of God and when we do, hope and love will disappear from our lives. We can say like the Israelites in the desert, "Is the Lord in our midst or not?"

We don't have to look far to find this attitude in our own time. Whenever some natural disaster occurs, there are always those who ask why God could have allowed it to happen. Some will even go so far as to blame God as if He were responsible. It's even more faith shattering when the disaster strikes close to home in the suffering or death of a loved one.
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. As St. Paul said,

But God proves his love for us,
in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Reading 1. Exodus 17: 3-7
Reading II. Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
Gospel. John 4: 5-42 (the Samaritan woman).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Transfiguration of Christ

Raphael: Transfiguration

2nd Sunday of Lent: A cycle

This year we are in the A cycle of readings which have been employed by the Church ever since the Second Vatican council. In this cycle the first reading for each of the Sundays in Lent marks one of the highlights of the history of the nation of Israel. Last Sunday we had the familiar story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This Sunday we have the calling of Abraham. Next Sunday, it will be Moses and after that the calling of David.

No one in the history of Israel was more revered by our Lord than Abraham. The highest compliment Jesus can give to someone is to call him a "true son of Abraham." It was Abraham's faith, his willingness to follow the Lord's direction no matter what the cost or sacrifice, that set him apart. In today's reading the Lord tells Abraham to set out into the unknown on a great adventure.

Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk
and from your father's house to a land that I will show you.

His mission will be not only to make Israel a great nation, but also to be a "blessing" to "all the communities of the earth."

This reading reminds us of St. Matthew's account today of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Traditionally, the gospel for the first Sunday is Lent is the story of the temptation of our Lord in the desert. In the same way, the Church has always reserved the second Sunday in Lent for the account of the Transfiguration.
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. In the previous chapter of his gospel Matthew had related how Jesus had fed 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, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Our Lord commends Peter and says, "thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church. But then He reveals the mission of the Christ:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem
and suffer many things...and be put to death, and on the third day rise again.

Characteristically, Peter cannot accept this shocking news and our Lord rebukes him--"get behind me Satan"

Immediately after this prophecy of our Lord's suffering and death, Matthew goes to the scene of the Transfiguration where we get a glimpse of the Resurrection. "Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother. and led them up a high mountain by themselves," just as He would later do in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the mountain,

he was transfigured before them,
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.

Matthew tells us that two other great figures from the history of Israel appeared to Jesus and conversed with Him. In his account St. Luke tells us that Jesus was speaking with them of the "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; ...listen to 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.

Today's second reading is from St. Paul's letter to his disciple, Timothy. Paul is telling Timothy to "bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God." During Lent we should put ourselves in Timothy's place. Paul's words are meant for all of us. .

Right before the Transfiguration, after Jesus had spoken of his crucifixion, He told the 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.

Reading 1. Genesis 12: 1-4a
Reading II. 2 Timothy 1:8b-10
Gospel. Matthew 17: 1-9 (Transfiguration)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Gospel: Temptation in the Desert

1st Sunday of Lent: A cycle

Ever since the Second Vatican Council the Church has employed a three year cycle of readings in the Liturgy. The cycles are simply labeled A, B, and C. In the A cycle the gospel readings are usually taken from the gospel of St. Matthew. The B cycle features the gospel of St. Mark, and the C cycle the gospel of St. Luke. However, the Church has always used the account of the Temptation of Christ in the desert for the first Sunday in Lent.

Today's first reading is also about temptation. It is the story from the Book of Genesis about the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In this ancient reading we get a clear picture of the nature of temptation. It is clear that in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had everything they could have desired. The trees were "delightful to look at and good for food." It reminds us so much of our own society where we live in the richest country in the history of the world, and enjoy the highest standard of living of any people on the face of the earth. Still, it is not enough and so many of us seek "the forbidden fruit."

We don't need serpents to tell us that anything we want to do is ok, that everything is permitted and that nothing can harm us. I just think of the headlines in the newspaper about the young drug addict accused of the cold-blooded murder of two innocent jewelry store owners. His mother is also a heroin addict. Isn't it possible to imagine the scene over 25 years ago when she--only a teen age girl--was tempted by some snake to experiment with drugs. Did the tempter say, "your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods." Certainly, there have been plenty of songs and films saying pretty much the same thing over the past 25 years.

It's not for nothing that the Church contrasts the story of the temptation of the first man and woman with the temptation of Christ. Matthew begins his account by noting that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, "to be tempted by the devil." This episode 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."

Matthew 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, just like all tempters he cannot help but lie or otherwise distort the Truth. Even when he quotes Scripture, as he does here, he twists the meaning. 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."

In the second 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 and urges Him to "throw yourself down." Maybe we don't think that it's serious when temptation stares us in the face, but sometimes when it does we are on the brink of the precipice with the rest of our life on the line. Our Lord's words should be a guide to us all. "You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.

The third 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 will prostrate yourself and 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 workplaces 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." Once again, our Lord quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy; "The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve." Of course, the best way to worship is available to us at Mass each and every day during Lent. Let's try to take a half hour out of our hectic schedules during the week to humble ourselves before the Lord.

Our Lord's words show us the way to true happiness. But as St. Paul points out in today's second reading something has gone horribly wrong. We were created to live in a beautiful paradise but when sin entered the world, pain and sorrow and even death were the result. Lent gives us an opportunity to get back on track. It gives us an opportunity to examine our lives and see how far we have succumbed to the temptations that constantly face us. There is hope if we follow the example of Jesus, for through His sacrifice, "acquittal and life came to all."

Reading 1. Genesis 2: 7-9; 3: 1-7
Reading II. Romans 5: 12-19
Gospel. Matthew 4: 1-11 (Temptation in the Desert)