Pretty in Pink

LaetareIncipit

This is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and you have probably noticed that we swapped out the regular Lenten purple vestments for these special rose colored vestments. The Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as “Laetare” Sunday because Laetare is the first word in Latin of the entrance antiphon for today. It means “Rejoice!”

Years ago, before we began to sing hymns at the start of Mass, the first word you would have heard would have been the cantor singing “Rejoice!” As the procession moved toward the altar, the people and the choir would sing the entrance antiphon. Since an entrance hymn is more common today, this Sunday is better known for the very well-known parable of the prodigal son, which we just read.

We’ve all heard many times the story of the younger son who desires right now the inheritance that will be his when his father dies at some point in the future. We see the hard justice of that younger son blowing through his inheritance on various forms of dissipation. We nod in acknowledgment at the younger son’s growing wisdom, when he realizes that the servants at his father’s house have a better life than he has, and he commits to swallowing his pride, and going back home, and asking to be treated not as a son but as a servant. We understand the father’s joy at seeing his son, and we marvel at his immediate forgiveness of the son’s misbehavior, and we can see the love behind the decision to reclaim the boy as his son despite the bad things he has done. We can empathize also with the older son, and his peevishness when he learns that the prodigal son is welcome back into the family. And we can sympathize with his sense that justice does not seem to have been served.

You may have heard other preachers recast this story as the parable of the loving father, for the father’s act of love and mercy is the hinge of the parable and his words of welcome give it its power. I’m going to go in a different direction today. I am struck by the theme in the readings today of the power of God’s word to cause change. This is Laetare Sunday, or “Rejoice” Sunday. The power of God’s word should cause us to rejoice.

In the first reading from the book of Joshua in the Old Testament, the Israelites have crossed the Jordan River and are now in the promised land. And the Lord said to Joshua, “today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” With the word of the Lord, the sins of the Israelites are wiped away. They can go into the new land rejoicing, just as we were called to come into the Lord’s house today rejoicing.

We chanted today from the 34th Psalm, and one of the verses reads: I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. The voice of the Lord freed me. The word of God has more power than the strength of any single man or indeed of all men combined together. The Psalmist rejoices at his deliverance, just as we should be filled with joy as we head toward the Passion of our Lord in a couple of weeks.

St. Paul, in the second letter to the Corinthians, tells those Christians, “the old things have passed away.” When we put on Christ, when we confess Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Savior, when we call on the word of God, the old things of our lives have passed away. The word of God makes all things new.

The parable of the prodigal son shows the same power of the holy word and the joy that it brings. Remember why Jesus chooses to tell this parable. Jesus tells this parable in response to complaints from the good religious people of the day that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. These good religious people were in those days trying to follow the Mosaic Law, which detailed the many ways a person could become ritually unclean and outside of the law and therefore officially, a sinner. And tax collectors were the worst kind of sinners. Tax collectors were empowered by the Roman state to shake down the people of the region to whatever degree was needed to bring in the revenue they had promised to Rome. The religious leaders were like the older brother in the parable: not joyfully living the law but grimly following the letter of the law.

At the invitation of Jesus, these sinners — and even worse, tax collectors — are invited to share a meal with the famous Rabbi. It’s a scandal. When you think of the older brother’s reaction to the father’s decision to welcome back into the family the younger brother, it’s the same sort of scandal as having a meal with sinners. The older brother’s outrage is understandable.

It is the word of the father in the parable of the prodigal son that has removed the reproach from the younger son. When the father tells the servants to bring the finest robe and put it on him, and to put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, it is the same as the Lord saying to Joshua, “today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” The younger son experienced the words of the psalmist: “I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” The father joyfully answers the younger son and delivers him from all his shame and humiliation.

Our God is calling to us. If we approach him, and if we listen to him, in humility, he will share his word and make all things new in our lives. This is the power of the sacrament of reconciliation. We go in that box and we declare our faults, and in the person of Christ the priest shares the word of reconciliation, and breathes new spiritual life into us. This is the power of the sacrament of baptism. Our godparents declare for us our faith in God, and the minister shares the words of baptism, and breathes new spiritual life into us. This is the power of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Standing in the person of Christ, the priest says the words that Christ said at that first mass on Holy Thursday, and we receive into our bodies the bread of new life.

This can be the power of Christian charity. With the father in the parable of the prodigal son as our model, we can make all things new in our families and in our lives when we choose the word of mercy, or the word of love, or the word of peace, when there is injustice or discord. St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians implores those people on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God. If we are reconciled to God, we can be his instrument of peace and mercy.

Our God is calling us to rejoice here in midst of the penitential season of Lent. Laetare Sunday is not like a holiday of pretty pink in the middle of penitential purple. It’s not a day off. It’s a reminder that we are called to joy even as we follow Jesus Christ to the Cross on Calvary. It is our Lenten joy that will make Palm Sunday the beginning of Holy Week rather than the beginning of a death march. It is this joy in the power of the mercy of God and his Word that will make Good Friday a solemn exaltation of the Holy Cross rather than a gruesome day of execution of an innocent man.

Rejoice today on Laetare Sunday while we wear rose vestments. Rejoice tomorrow when we put on purple. Rejoice all the way through the Passion of Our Lord because the Word of God brings with him new life.

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From the fullness of the heart

This is the eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, and this year it is the last Sunday before we start the penitential season of Lent. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Today’s readings really drive home the importance of prayer as the foundation of a life in Christ.

You’ve probably been told that you should not judge a book by its cover, but when you go into the bookstore, it’s the cover that catches your eye. Publishers know this. That’s why they spend so much time designing the cover the book. Romance novels seem to have a couple embracing. Thrillers have a completely different look, and political memoirs are always at least 800 pages. You kind of know what you’re getting into by the cover of the book.

Jesus uses parables and everyday images in his teaching because they are easy to grasp but also have very deep meanings. Instead of books and their covers, He uses fruit trees. He tells his disciples that nobody picks figs from a thornbush. Of course they don’t. You know it’s a fig tree because you find figs on it, and you find thorns on a thornbush. Continue reading

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Our Fortified City

Orthodox_icon_of_Prophet_Jeremiah_large

We read in Jeremiah today of a promise made to the prophet as he is sent out on his mission. The promise is that God knew him and loved him from all eternity, and as God sends Jeremiah out, he tells the prophet he is a fortified city. Jeremiah must gird himself with his traveling gear, but he goes knowing he can take on the opponent, in confidence of the strength of his city defenses. And the Psalm continues and expands on that, a song to God as the refuge, the rock and the fortress.

God is our rock against the accusations, and the lies, and the temptations of the Devil. Only in God will we find the strength we need to defend ourselves against the Devil. Satan will never stop hunting us. He is the model for all those Terminator movies: a soulless, untiring, pursuer of his target, and he will crush that target upon acquisition.

Now we know today that Jesus defeated Satan through his death on a Cross and the resurrection at Easter. We know Jesus won the battle, but somehow Satan did not acknowledge that defeat. Satan has not given up his pursuit of us, 21 centuries after that day at Calvary. We are still hunted by the devil, but Jesus did not leave us utterly alone. We are, in many respects, right where Jeremiah and the Psalmist found themselves. We must rely on the Lord to be our sure defense against the power of the Devil. Continue reading

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The Wedding at Cana

This past Sunday was the second Sunday in Ordinary time, and the Gospel reading in Year C was the story in John 2 of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding.  When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” (And) Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told them, “Fill the jars with water.” So they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they

took it. And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from (although the servers who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him. [John 2:1-11]

Mary figures prominently in this story.  I am always struck by Mary’s role as an intercessor and as Mother of the Church, both of which are found in this story.  In her role as intercessor, she alerts Jesus when the people are in need.  Here they need wine ifthe_marriage_at_cana_decani the wedding feast is to continue according to custom.  Those of us who pray “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death” know from this Bible story our entreaties to her are efficacious and appropriate.

 

Mary instructs the people at Cana to “do whatever He tells you.”  This is also her word to the Church: “Obey the Word.”  The Bible can be reduced to two words: Love and Obey.  We do not fully understand the first word and we understand all too well the second word, so God gives us the whole Bible to help us comprehend the former and embrace the latter. Mary’s immaculate conception is to me the only sensible explanation for her lack of difficulty in obeying God.  Full of grace, she was not structurally inclined to challenge God or disobey Him.  As Mother of the Church, she encourages us to overcome our structural inclinations and obey the Word.

The message of hope and promise in the changing of water into wine in the story of the wedding at Cana is that if we choose to do whatever He tells us, He can transform the ordinary into something extraordinary.  Just as the servants dared to draw out some of the water they had just put in a stone jar and take that water to the wine steward for tasting, so are we called to obey Him even if what He tells us to do is foolishness to the world.  That this is not easy is implied in the story.  The servants knew they were taking water to the wine steward for tasting, yet they did it.  They knew a miracle had taken place when the wine steward remarked on the wine’s quality.  The wine steward made a comment on the normal ordering of wines at a party, but the servants saw something far more interesting and important.  Ordinary things are made extraordinary and even Holy when lives are led in obedience to God.  By doing whatever He tells you, you will see Him more clearly, just as the servants saw more clearly than did the wine steward.  Nothing could be more ordinary than pouring water into a jar, yet this is the story we tell when we move into the season of Epiphany when the Son of Man is made manifest.  We tell this story because this pouring of ordinary water was done by people open to the power of God, and that openness played a significant part in the power of the first miracle of Jesus.

Mary’s encouragement must be powerful, for the servants knew they were taking water to a wine steward but did it anyway.  When we react with dismissal or condescension upon hearing that someone else payed for Mary to wrap her mantle of protection around him, let us be reminded of how her mantle protected and strengthened the faith of the servants at the wedding in Cana.

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The human person

I had a nice conversation with a young adult whose sister will be married in a few months to a wonderfully kind and fun young man. My young conversationalist is a man of simple faith, not one who attends church on a regular basis but one who believes in the Christian God. Like so many believers who don’t work particularly hard at growing in a intellectual understanding of their faith, my conversationalist does not have a good way to frame the various emotional struggles he sees in himself and in his family.

When these types of questions come up, they rarely come up in a quiet, thoughtful, convenient time and place. My conversationalist shared his observations at a cocktail party, where people were talking and laughing and drinking about surface things rather than deep things. I tried to share in ways that I hoped he would understand a basic understanding of who we are as human beings.

I shared with him, as I share with many, my reflection on the selection of St. Peter as the rock of the Church. On the night of Jesus’s passion, Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. One can make a good argument that the sin of Peter that night was no less than the sin of Judas that night. The difference between Peter and Judas was that when Peter realized what he had done, he wept and eventually sought reconciliation with his God. Judas, on the other hand, despaired of reconciliation and took his own life. Yet it is St. Peter, a model of weakness, to whom Christ gave the keys to the kingdom of God.

I shared with my conversationalist that there is an Old Testament parallel to St. Peter in the person of King David. At the time of year when he as King should have been out campaigning, he was lounging around the castle and the sight of a pretty woman bathing led him to commit the sin of adultery. He compounded that sin with the sin of murder when he arranged for his lover’s husband to be killed in battle. Yet King David was the model King, the one whose heir everyone was looking for.

Just as Saint Peter sought reconciliation when he realized his sin, King David was filled with contrition when the prophet Nathan pointed out to him the seriousness of his crimes. Psalm 51 is the song David wrote revealing his sorrow at his sin and his confidence in God’s acceptance of his confession.

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The King is Coming as an Infant

The_Embrace_of_Elizabeth_and_the_Virgin_MaryThis is the fourth and last Sunday of the season of Advent. Advent is the season in the church year when we anticipate the coming of the King. The King is coming. We know he is coming in the flesh in just a few days, when he comes as a little baby born in a manger because there was no room at the inn. We know he is coming in all his glory at the end of time, when the world as we know it ceases to be, and he makes a new creation and gathers into his heavenly kingdom all who loved him. And we know he is coming each and every day in how we choose to live the days that he has given us.

Why did our king choose to come in the flesh in the way that he did? The Christmas story is perhaps the best-known story in all of human history. We have been reminded in the readings over the last few weeks and today that he was born in meek and humble circumstances. Our Advent season has been a season of waiting for the coming of the King. The history of the Hebrew people was one sustained experience of waiting for the coming of the King, the descendant of David whose rule would be everlasting, and whose kingdom would never end. Continue reading

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Real Progress Under the Real King

pilgrimsprogressWhen we think about the progress of our lives, we often have major milestones that we point to. And once we reach them, we have a sense of having moved forward or up a step. For example, when we are young, we spend a long time in elementary school pointing to and waiting for high school. When we enter the ninth grade, we have a sense that we have moved forward one step or up one rung on the ladder of life. And then we point towards the next thing. Perhaps it is college or technical school.

This pattern continues throughout the rest of our lives. For a long time there is the sense of climbing and progress. We climbed through our childhood education towards more education and then the beginning of some kind of career. We then climbed through our career. There comes a point, however, when we sense that the climbing or ascent is largely over, and we enter a period of neither up nor down but we know the descent is already beginning. This frequently comes when our work career and our marriage has reached a level of stability, and this is often the time when we have some kind of midlife crisis.

We can have the same sense in our faith lives as Christians. Many of us had some kind of spiritual experience that reminded us that God wants us and loves us and saves us. We burn like a candle during this exciting early stage of our faith journey. We might crack open our Bibles and read the good news, and we might open our Catechism and devour the teaching of the Church.

It’s exhilarating as we grow in knowledge and wisdom and in faith. There comes a point, however, when we realize we are going over the same territory again and again. Certainly in the confessional, we notice we are asking forgiveness for the same patterns of sin, and we might wonder where that sense of progress went. Some lose their sense of progress and they begin to enter a mid-faith crisis, where they wonder what it all means and why it’s so often the same thing over and over again. Continue reading

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