Fancy Dinners

Last Sunday, we read how Jesus was asked if only a few people would be saved, and Fr. Neil used that Scripture to remind us that hell is real, and it is a real possibility for everyone. This week we move forward a chapter in the gospel of Luke, and we get a parable on what you might call “dining room etiquette.” Last week, we got reminded that there is a Heaven and a Hell. This week, we get a little bit of instruction from our Lord on how to get to heaven and enjoy eternal life.

From the parable and from the other readings today, we are presented with two approaches to life with others and to following God’s commandments. In the parable from today’s gospel, Jesus gives a lot of practical advice on what to do when you’re invited to a fancy dinner. It’s all very prudent. Rather than going and sitting in the best seat, go sit in the lowest seat and thereby increase your odds of being promoted. It sounds like a very good and humble approach to human status.

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Lord Teach Us to Pray

In the gospel that we read today from Luke, we are given the scene where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and he gives them the Our Father. This is one of the first prayers we learn as Christians. And we recite it daily and even many times in the course of the day.

The Lord’s Prayer is directed to the Father: Our Father. Praying to the Father should be familiar to all of us who participate in the Mass, for every opening prayer we hear at Mass, indeed most of the prayers in the Missal, is directed to the father, it is prayed through the son, and it is offered in the Holy Spirit. The model of prayer given to us by Jesus is the model the Church uses in its liturgies, and it is a model for us in our private prayer: we should be willing to direct our prayers to our Heavenly Father.

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Lenten Disciplines

This is the last Sunday before we start the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday. If we have not already been thinking about them, we need to think about the Lenten disciplines of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting that we will begin in a few days.

The scripture for today directs our minds to the deeper meaning of those Lenten disciplines. Lent is about much more than not eating goodies, and adding the Stations of the Cross to our Fridays, and putting spare change away for the poor. These are all good things, but they are not ends in themselves. Lent has an end, and Lent has a purpose. The readings today give us clues to that end and to that purpose.

Anyone familiar with the Church calendar knows that Lent ends with the Easter Vigil Mass on the night of Holy Saturday. In one way, that is the end of Lent. The end in time, so to speak. But what about the end as in the reason we do what we do during Lent? What is the end purpose and spiritual end of Lent?

The reading from Sirach today offers an answer: “tribulation is the test of the just.” Sirach is full of wisdom, and he expresses his thoughts in simple language, as he says, “As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in tribulation is the test of the just.” If you remember the art class project to make a clay bowl, the teacher always warned us to knead the clay thoroughly because air bubbles might mean the bowl would explode when it was heated in the kiln. Heating in the kiln proves the bowl is ready for use. Heating in the kiln is how the bowl can become fully formed for its purpose.

Well, we are the clay and God is the potter, and he gives us chances to be tested under tribulation. We know he loves us, for we can think back in our lives to the times when he met us where we were. We were lonely and he sent an angel of friendship. We were in need, and he sent an angel of generosity. We were tied up in lives of habitual self-destruction, and he sent an angel of strength to pull us up and set us on our feet again.

God loves us enough to meet us where we are, and he loves us even more, for he does not want us to stay there. After rescuing us, He invites us to walk with him on the journey of our lives, so that we can meet him where he is at the end of the journey.

And Lent is a time to practice those things that will prepare us to meet him at the end of our lives. Sirach uses the image of sifting today: “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks.” The journey of our lives involves a lot of being shaken in our sifter so that the earthly attachments can fall out and the devotion to God can remain. Hear again Sirach’s words: “in tribulation is the test of the just.”

We want to be counted among the just when Jesus comes in judgment, so we should really try to welcome tribulation because it is the test of the just. We are the clay in the kiln, waiting for the day when we can be taken out of the oven and put where we were made to be. But we are not actually clay, are we? We are human persons, endowed with intellect and will. We choose to try to be numbered among the just, and we seek understanding on how to achieve our goal.

That’s where the Lenten disciplines come in.

Fasting is not an end in itself; it is the means to an end. In our secular world, fasting is a form of dieting. In the Christian world, fasting is a form of prayer through self-denial. We give up something we may rightfully have so that we can be more conformed to Christ. Christ gave up everything for us, and his self-sacrifice is our model and how God made us to be.

Prayer is pretty straightforward, but it is not an end in itself; it is the means to a closer relationship with God.  God made us to be in close relationship with Him. St. Paul, in one of his letters, told us to “pray without ceasing.” Most of us do not meet that standard, but that is the end God made us for. And Lent gives us a set time in the year to add to our prayer lives and get a little bit more conformed to Christ.

Almsgiving is also not an end in itself; the intention of the giver is very important. All our talents were given to us by God, and he gives his gifts freely and joyfully. Lenten almsgiving is a chance to practice liberality in our giving of money. I know a couple of guys who have always gripped their money tightly. We are pretty sure that when they both grabbed the same penny and pulled, they invented copper wire. All of us are tempted into gripping our money too tightly. Lent is a time to loosen our grip on money and grow in generosity so that we are more like the eternally generous God who made us.

Lent is six weeks long, with 40 days of fasting. It’s almost a perfect tithe of a year. Maintaining these disciplines will stretch us, and there will be days in Lent when we might regret giving up coffee or ice cream or whatever else we gave up. At those points, let us be reminded by the words of St. Paul in today’s epistle.

“be always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Lent is a season of prayer. Lent is a season of preparation for the gift Jesus came at Christmas to give us: the gift of redemption on the Cross on Good Friday and the joy of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Our Lenten labors are the work of the Lord, and we do not labor in vain when we do them.

The purpose of our lives is to know, to love, and to serve God, so we can be with him in the next life. He continually comes down to our level and helps us in our struggles. Lent is a time to focus on being ready to meet him on his level. God’s level is Heaven, where there is no money and no eating. So in Lent we work to lessen our attachments to earthly things through almsgiving and fasting. In Heaven, there is constant prayer to the Lamb upon his throne, so in Lent we work to become more comfortable with more prayer.

We are about to receive our Lord at Holy Communion, and we will receive innumerable graces in the sacrament. Let’s use Lent as a time of grace to conform ourselves more closely to Christ through self-sacrifice and prayer.

The Law of the Lord v. the laws of men

Our reading from Nehemiah today is the story of the day when the Israelites have been allowed to return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. Ezra the priest brings out the books of the law and reads from them. The Books of the Law told the Israelites how they should live if they wanted to be faithful to the God who gave them life. We read in the story today that “all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.” And, after the reading, “all the people, their hands raised high, answered, ‘Amen! amen!’”

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Babylonian Captivity

The prophet Jeremiah was sent by the Lord to warn the Hebrews about the impending Babylonian exile. He served as a prophet for more than 40 years. There are 52 chapters of Jeremiah, which is immediately followed by five chapters of his Lamentations. His message was so sad, he was called the weeping prophet and he gave us the word “jeremiad” which is a long list of woes or lamentations. If you have to be a prophet, you would much rather be Jonah with three days inside a fish and a short, successful preaching ministry than to be Jeremiah with 40 years of preaching to a community that rejects you, persecutes you, and ultimately ends up where you warned them they would go if they did no change their ways. The prophet Jeremiah had a pretty bleak ministry.

Jeremiah was telling the Hebrews they would be sent to Babylon for a couple of generations if they did not change their ways, and they did not, so they were exiled for 70 years. But even in the midst of serious troubles, even when our troubles last a long time, we still have faith and hope. In the reading today, from chapter 31, we hear Jeremiah preach faith to the doomed Hebrews. He promises, “They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them, so that none shall stumble.”

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Fire Pits

gehennaHere on the 26th Sunday in ordinary time, the readings have a seriousness of tone that will continue through the first couple of weeks of Advent. In the reading from Saint James, and in the teaching from Jesus in the gospel, we are challenged to take seriously the reality of Gehenna.

So what is Gehenna? The answer to this question is like so many other answers to questions that believers raise, multifaceted. And that’s why I want us to focus on the reality of Gehenna rather than the many alternative explanations for Gehenna. But let’s start with some of those alternative explanations. One that you will hear is that Gehenna was a trash pit, and like many trash pits it was always burning. In this explanation, Jesus was referencing a local physical place to remind his listeners of the importance of being a good person. Other explanations are that Gehenna was the place where sacrifices to Moloch were made. Moloch was the local God of the Canaanites to whom live children were sacrificed by throwing them into a pit of fire.

Three times in the gospel story Jesus contrasts Gehenna with life. So it may be true that Gehenna was a trash pit, and it may be true that it was the place of sacrifice for the pagan god of Moloch, but Jesus uses this imagery as a contrast to life. And when Jesus speaks of life, he is speaking of eternal life. So Gehenna is eternal death. The church has come to describe that eternal death as Hell.

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No Middle Ground

The last line of the Gospel is quite challenging. “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” [Mk 7:23]

With these strong words, Jesus is reminding the Pharisees and scribes, and he is reminding us today, that the human person is an integral thing. We are not, as Fr. Neil explained a few weeks ago, a spirit trapped in and essentially separate from our material body. We are one thing: body and soul and mind united.

Jesus’s list shows us how mental sins are linked to physical sins. Greed, malice, deceit, envy, arrogance are all mental states; they are the evil thoughts that come from stony hearts. From those mental states come the evil actions: murder, theft, unchastity, blasphemy. Every kid has tried the “The Devil Made Me Do It” defense when caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but every parent knows that we used our minds to decide to put our hands in the cookie jar. As Jesus said, the evils come from within, and they defile.

Where the Greek pagans sought to separate the spirit from the body, the Jews and the Christians understood the two are integrated in one whole person. St. James reminds his readers that we must have an integrated relationship with our Lord, too. He says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” That part about self-delusion is so important. We cannot say we love Jesus on Sundays and that’s the last time he is part of our day until next Sunday. Jesus is particularly hard on the Pharisees because their words do not match their deeds. They honor him with their lips but their hearts are far from him, as Jesus rebukes the Pharisees with a quote from the prophet Isaiah.

God looks at our hearts as he considers our deeds. We cannot compartmentalize our relationship with Him. At the end of the day, either he is our Lord or he is not. That’s the point Moses is making in the reading from Deuteronomy. If he is my Lord and Master, then I should obey his instructions. If he is not, then I should stop pretending. He knows what’s going on in my heart. Even if I am able to deceive my neighbor, I cannot deceive God. That’s what the word omniscient means. It means He knows everything. So we should stop faking our faith if our hearts are not united to His.

Struggling with our faith is not the same thing as faking our faith. Jesus is hard on the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, but he is gentle with the father of the possessed boy in chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel when he cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief.” He shows the rich young man that despite his regular acts of religious devotion he still loves his money, and the young man walks away. But he responds to the nagging prayer of the Phoenecian woman when she tells him even the dogs get scraps from the table. Our God can hear any honest sentiment from us: it’s okay for us to complain about injustice, to wonder why God seems so far from us, to want a better life, to whine about our troubles and to pester him to give us good things. His willingness to listen is endless. He’s always there when we look for him. And he will always hear what we have to say. But He does not want to hear platitudes and insincere praise. He can see right through that.

That’s what Moses is driving at with his statement to the people. They can either do what God tells them to do and receive all the blessings he has in store for them, or they can go off on their own. That’s what St. James is driving at with his invitation: either humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls, or don’t. Maybe these Scriptures are what inspired the Yankees catcher Yogi Berra to say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” 

There is no middle ground. If we believe God is who he says he is, then we receive his Word and our lives are transformed by that Word. We hear and we obey. We do what we are told. Our obedience is our path to docility and humility, and they pull us even closer to God, and we are no longer hearers only but also doers. Our thoughts and our actions are in greater harmony with God’s will and his plan for our lives. We are becoming the human persons he made us to be: integrated rather than separated between mind and body. We do the good things we do because our hearts are no longer stony but transformed into godly hearts that are close to God. Just as evil acts come from wicked minds, the merit of our good deeds comes from the state of our hearts. We are no longer disjointed as the Pharisees were, saying one thing but doing another. We are integrated in mind and body and soul, truly God’s children.

As we prepare to offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, let us put at the foot of the altar all the times we tried to manage our relationship with God and recommit ourselves to just being his children. When we come forward for Holy Communion, let us be praying that we truly do commune with Him, that our wills become one with his will, that our hearts and minds and bodies be fully integrated according to God’s plan for our lives.

Life and Death

Today’s readings are about life and death, from the musings of Solomon in the Book of Wisdom to the story of Jairus and his daughter from the Gospel of Mark. Solomon directs our gaze to the origins of death, and the Gospel story makes it clear that the God of Life has the ultimate power over death.

Connecting back to the Creation story in Genesis, Solomon remembers that we were not made for death but for life. He writes, “For  God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.”

When we say that we were made for life and not for death, it’s useful to remind ourselves what those words mean when we use them in this context. For Christians, God is life. In response to a question from his disciples, Jesus says, “I am the truth, the way, and the life.” And in the Transfiguration, Jesus’s glory is revealed as being so white that no fuller — a person who cleans and bleaches clothes — that no fuller could ever duplicate. In the Transfiguration, the disciples get to see, for just a moment, what real life looks like. Thus we understand that when Solomon says we were made to be imperishable he is saying that we were made for life, that we were made for God. God made us to be close to him and to be with him in the fullness of life. Made in His image, we were made to enjoy a close relationship with him.

If that is life, then what is death? Death is the absence of life just as evil is the absence of God’s goodness. Evil is not a thing; evil is the lack of a thing or the absence of a thing. The thing that is missing is God himself. Sometimes theologians describe evil as a privation, which is a fancy word for the absence of something or the lack of something. Evil is the lack of God’s goodness, and death is the lack of his Life.

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Standing Up for Truth

Two weeks ago on the Baptism of the Lord, Father preached about how all of us through our own baptism are called to the three-fold ministry of Jesus Christ. In our own way, we are priests, prophets, and kings. The Priest offers sacrifices and prayers to God for others. And we can do that personally, offering our little sacrifices and prayers so that we and the whole world can grow in holiness. We go to the King for justice. And in our own lives, all of us can stand for justice; we can do little things to promote justice in our families and neighborhoods. And finally, the job of the Prophet is to speak what God has told him to say. Many times, the prophet doesn’t want to say what God tells him to say, and we certainly see that in the story of Jonah in the Old Testament today. But God makes His prophets speak; he makes them stand up for truth. He makes them stand up for truth even if they may encounter danger for doing so.

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