Sunday, February 28, 2016

Soul Food

            3rd Sunday of Lent

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.


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).

Saturday, February 20, 2016


                                   2nd Sunday in Lent

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. 

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


Monday, February 15, 2016

Temptation in the Desert

      1st Sunday of Lent 


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." ###

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

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fishers of Men

                                    5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    C cycle

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.

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