Thursday, February 22, 2018

Flooded With Mercy

The story of Noah and the flood is one of the best known and fascinating narratives in the Old Testament. Not only is it a gripping saga about a family trying to survive a devastating natural disaster in an ark filled with animals, it is also a tale about the destructive power of sin and God’s desire to save us.

The book of Genesis tells us that, when God saw the wickedness on the earth, “[He] was sorry that he had made humankind....” (Gen 6:6). These words sound harsh to us today; however, God does not utter them out of anger and contempt. Rather, He says them out of profound grief. The people whom He breathed His own life into and created to be “very good” had turned out to be wicked. God is saddened by the sinfulness of His people.

This story gives us some insight into how sin offends God. Our Heavenly Father is all good and He created us to be good also. However, when we sin, we reject the goodness God placed within us and choose something less. To use a very mundane example, imagine putting our time and effort into cooking a meal and it ends up getting burned. It would be natural for us to feel disappointed that it did not turn out to be as delicious as we imagined. In much the same way, we disappoint God when we are not the good and holy people He created us to be.

Because sin offends God who is “all good and deserving of all our love”, it warrants punishment. In civil society, when laws are broken,  a fine or jail sentence is handed out to restore justice. Just so, when God’s commandments are broken, a punishment must be inflicted to bring the evil doing to an end so that no one else may be harmed. In the story from Genesis, that punishment comes in the form of a devastating flood.

However, the story does not end with sin and punishment. For all the terror and destruction the flood inflicted on earth, the point of the story is that God wants to save us, not punish us. For that reason, He commanded Noah to build the ark to protect his family and to give His creation a fresh start. When the waters recede, He makes a covenant - that is, a sacred promise - that He will never destroy His creation again. God makes that promise on His own initiative because He wants a relationship with the people He created. In the end, God is willing to put aside His right to punish us so that He can loves us and  be loved by us in return.

The ultimate sign of God’s desire to save us comes in the person of Jesus Christ. He took upon Himself the sins of the world and endured the punishment we deserve by dying on the cross. Any good works or any penance we might perform over a lifetime could never begin to make up for the offense against God that only one of our sins causes. However, because Jesus never sinned, His offering on the cross is pure. Also, because as God, Jesus is infinite, the blood He shed on the cross can be extended to all people who ever lived and ever will live. It can never be used up. There will never be a point where the wickedness of humanity will exhaust all the forgiveness that flows from the cross of Jesus Christ.
The forgiveness of sin, therefore, comes through Jesus Christ. He has paid the price of salvation for us, a price that we could never have paid on our own. Because of the cross, sin has no more power over us. It has no claim on us. And, just as new life and a new creation followed the flood, so new life and a new creation flow from the cross of Jesus Christ. Because He rose from the dead, Jesus not only conquers sin but the ultimate punishment, death. Not only are we offered the forgiveness of our sins through the cross but everlasting life with God in heaven.

How are the graces and merits of Jesus’ death on the cross applied to us? How do we get credit for what Jesus has done? Through baptism. Saint Peter makes this clear in today’s second reading. Just as God saved Noah and his family from the waters of the flood, so we are saved through the waters of baptism. At our baptism, the death and resurrection of Jesus was applied to us. Our sins were forgiven and we were given faith through the Holy Spirit which makes us children of God and empowers us to live good and holy lives. The new creation and new life of the cross and resurrection of Jesus flow to us through the waters of baptism.

However, baptism is not magic. We have to live out the victory of Jesus over sin and death in our everyday choices. We have to reflect in our character and in our actions the goodness and holiness which is fitting of a child of God. Like Jesus, we have to struggle against temptation. In the face of injustice, we have to right wrongs and protect the vulnerable. We have to serve others with the power that God gives us. Ultimately, baptism is not a one-time event but a lifestyle in which we place ourselves in God’s hands and commit to doing His will.

We no longer have to fear punishment. We do not have to be defeated by sin. We do not have to despair because of the shortness of our lives on earth. Sin and death have been defeated on the cross. Everlasting life is offered to us through the resurrection of Jesus. This everlasting life which is ours through baptism is not something we will reach only at the end of our lives. It is a power which is at our disposal even now to defeat temptation, to fight injustice and to do good. It is simply a matter of drawing on it when we need it. Then we will be truly living out our baptism and experiencing the victory of Jesus every day.  

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The popular Catholic writer, Scott Hahn, begins his book, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, with a story from the 1983 earthquake in Armenia which killed 30,000 people. A father had just dropped his son off at school when the devastating earthquake hit. He ran through the streets yelling out his son’s name. When he arrived at the school it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. He called his son’s name out again and again, “Armand! Armand!” but he could not find him. Some of the bystanders put their arms around him and told him that it was no use. There was no hope of finding any of the children alive.

However, the father remembered the promise he made to his son that if anything should happen to him, he would be there to save him. So the father went over to the pile of rubble that had been his son’s school and started to dig. He cleared away bricks, chunks of asphalt and broken glass. At first, some of the bystanders tried to help him. But as the hours went on, they abandoned him telling him that it was no use. But the father, driven by the promise he made to his son, would not let up. Ten, twenty hours passed and he was still at it clearing away as much debris as he could and yelling out his son’s name.

He continued his efforts well into the next day even though the police came by to tell him there was no hope. Finally, after over thirty hours of digging, he called out his son’s name and heard a faint voice calling out from under the rubble,  “Papa, Papa!” Digging with even more fervor and calling out his son’s name, he was able to reach the place where he and several of his classmates were,  rescuing all of them. Everyone was amazed and overjoyed. Young Armand turned to his classmates and told them, “See. I told you my father would keep his promise.”

This moving story cannot help but make us think about our Heavenly Father. No matter what, He keeps His promises. There is nowhere we can go that He cannot find us. There is no trouble we can get ourselves into that He cannot lift us out of. If an earthly father can take such care to keep his children safe and rescue them when they are in danger, what lengths will our Heavenly Father who is love itself not go to rescue, save and comfort us?

Today’s first reading from the book of Genesis gives us a beautiful example of one of God’s promises. After rescuing Noah and his family from the flood, God seals a covenant with them promising never to devastate the earth again. As a sign of His promise, He paints a beautiful rainbow across the sky. God makes a promise that He will not punish His people but save them. He will treat His people tenderly rather than harshly. He will show compassion rather than judgment.

Throughout the Old Testament, our Heavenly Father made many other promises as well. The greatest of these promises is that He would send a Messiah, a Saviour, to free His people from their sins and deliver them from death. For many centuries the people of the Old Testament held firm to that promise. They knew that God was faithful and that He would keep His promise no matter how long it took.

When Jesus appears on the scene in Galilee preaching the good news, His first words are, “This is the time of fulfillment.” With Jesus, all of God’s promises are fulfilled. Through His death, we are delivered from our sins. Through His resurrection, we are delivered from death. Through the gift of His Spirit, we live with our hearts set on the things of heaven. And when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, we will receive the inheritance of eternal life He has kept for us in heaven from the beginning of time. God is a Father who keeps His promises. And all of His promises are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

As we begin our Lenten journey, it is important for us to keep our hearts and minds focused on this great love our Heavenly Father has for us. Though this is a time for us to mourn our sins and to strengthen our resolve for doing good through penance, we must never lose sight of why we want to rid ourselves of sin. Sin displeases God. It offends the One who has shown us so much love. If He did not love us, our evil-doing would not hurt Him as much as it does. As we meditate on His fatherly care for us, it makes us even more determined not to hurt or offend Him again. We may be able to change our behaviour through fear or guilt, but love is the most powerful motivator. It is love that should be motivating and driving whatever penances or acts of self-denial we undertake throughout these forty days.

All  the promises God made to the people of Israel He now extends to us through faith in Jesus Christ, His Son. They are given to us through our baptism, as Saint Peter reminds us in today’s second reading. Through that great sacrament, our sins are forgiven and God’s Holy Spirit takes up His home within us. It gives us the right to be called sons and daughters of God and to inherit all the promises He makes to those who love Him. We should call to mind our baptism every day and lay claim to God’s promise that He will be there to save us whenever we call. He is a Father who keeps His promises. No matter what happens, we can be sure of that. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018


The Bible is rich with imagery and symbolism. Today's readings offer us the symbol of the rainbow - the sign God placed in the sky of his promise to never destroy the world he created. We also read about the desert which the Bible uses as a symbol of the place where we encounter God.

In the Bible, not only do things have symbolic value, but numbers do as well. For instance, the number seven is a symbol of the covenant. And when Jesus chooses twelve apostles, it is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel.

One number that has great symbolic value in Scripture is the number forty. For the ancient Hebrews, the number forty represented change and transition. When the Jews left their bondage in Egypt to enter the Promised Land, it took forty years, symbolic of Israel's transition from an enslaved people to a kingly people. Today's first reading recalls for us the great flood when it rained for forty days and forty nights. This is symbolic of God's desire to transform the world from a place of wickedness to a place of justice. And, in the gospel, Jesus is compelled by the Spirit to spend forty days in the desert doing battle with Satan. Jesus' forty day retreat was symbolic of his transition from a hidden life in Nazareth to a public ministry of announcing God's Kingdom which will eventually lead to his death and resurrection.

This past Wednesday, we began the forty days of preparation called "Lent". They are forty days of change for us. Like the Jews who traveled forty years in the desert, we are to spend these forty days transitioning from slavery to sin into the freedom of the Spirit. Like Jesus who spent forty days in the desert, we are to do battle with the devil by facing our weaknesses, our temptations and our sins. These forty days are meant to change us.

To help us maximize these days of preparation for our great celebration of Jesus' death and resurrection, the Church gives us three practices - three tools - so that we may overcome our weaknesses and temptations. They are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Prayer is simply communicating with God. Whether we pray the rosary, read the Bible or spend time quietly before the Blessed Sacrament, prayer is about tuning our minds and hearts to God's voice so that we will be ready to respond to him when he calls. To pray, all we need is time, a quiet place and a willing spirit. God will provide the rest. If these forty days are going to be a time of growth for us, we all need to make extra time for prayer. And that will require sacrifice whether it means skipping our favorite TV program, waking up earlier in the morning or taking time out of our lunch break. But we can be sure that if we make the time, God will bless us with much insight and consolation.

Fasting is the practice of going without food as a sacrifice. There are two days in the year when all healthy Catholics are asked to fast - on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting is a powerful tool in our struggle against sin and temptation because it trains us to say "no" to our desires and impulses. It also helps us to grow in sympathy and compassion for the poor who go without food every day. Fasting also helps us in our prayer because it slows our bodies down making us better able to concentrate. And so fasting must be an important element of our Lenten journey.

Finally, Almsgiving means giving money to the poor. Jesus teaches us that our religious practices are meaningless unless they help us to grow in love and compassion for our neighbor. Giving to the poor is one of the highest forms of sacrifice because what we give up actually benefits another person. It is also an act of faith by which we recognize that everything we have comes from God and belongs to God. It is a very good practice during Lent to take whatever money we may save from our sacrifices, whether it is ordering water instead of beer with dinner or not going out to eat on a particular day, and donating that money to a charity. By thinking more about others and their needs, our heart becomes more like Jesus', and we grow in love and faith.

These forty days are a time of transition and change in preparation for the celebration of Jesus' death and resurrection during Holy Week. They are a time for us to go into the desert with Jesus to face our temptations and sins. The desert is a symbol of the place where we encounter God. But it is also the place where people can get lost and die! By using the tools of prayer, fasting and alms giving, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit will help us to grow beyond our slavery to sin and make real in our hearts the freedom we are called to by our baptism.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Learning Compassion

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism named after an Austrian pediatrician, Dr Hans Asperger, who first diagnosed it in 1944. Those who live with this syndrome experience an inability to read facial expressions or understand other people’s feelings. In effect, they are blind to the emotions of the people around them. Because of this, they have trouble entering into and maintaining relationships.

Despite those difficulties, those with Asperger’s syndrome can still be highly functioning and successful.

James Elder Robison was diagnosed with Aspergers as a child. His inability to relate to his classmates made him the butt of jokes and the target of bullies. Nonetheless, despite not going to college, he taught himself  engineering and had a lucrative career creating sound effects for rock and roll bands throughout the 1970’s. He also helped design and create some popular electronic toys. Later on, he started a successful business  renovating expensive cars.

It was after writing his memoirs in the book Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Aspergers that Robison became famous and was a frequent speaker at college campuses. After one of those  speeches, he was approach by neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone who was testing out a means of curing Aspergers by stimulating parts of the brain with electromagnetic currents. With his background in electronics, he was eager to participate.

Over a six month period, Robison received weekly treatments. Though the effects of the treatment were limited, there were times when he was able to recognize emotions in others for the first time. He describes the experience as having ESP. Not only was he able to share joy and happiness with others but he was also able to feel their anxiety and stress. Before his treatments he would have been oblivious to the struggles of those around him. Now he was almost brought to tears as he read worry and fear on their faces. Though the effects of the treatments were temporary, the experience changed him forever.

While only about 37 million people worldwide are estimated to suffer from Asperger’s syndrome there are many millions more of us who live with a spiritual Aspergers. Though we are perfectly capable of relating to other’s emotions, we get so wrapped up in ourselves and our own concerns that we are blind to the needs of those around us. Years of self-centeredness have made us incapable of sympathizing with the sick, the poor and the persecuted. Because our minds are filled with noise, we are no longer able to hear God’s voice calling us to change.

Lent is a treatment for our spiritual Aspergers. It is a time to set ourselves aside and turn our attention first of all to God and then to those around us, especially those who need our help. The spiritual practices of prayer and self-denial that we undertake during these weeks are meant to open our eyes to the joys and anxieties, triumphs and fears of those who cross our path.

By fasting, we are awakened to the millions of people in our world, many of whom are children, who regularly go without food. Through prayer, we open our hearts to the God who made all people in His image and likeness and hear His call to serve Him in others. And through almsgiving, we do something positive to alleviate the suffering of others and so experience, maybe for the first time, the joy of doing good.

Lent is not a time to prove how disciplined we are or to lose weight to fit into our Easter clothes. Rather it is a time for us to take the focus off ourselves and our petty concerns and begin to really care for others. Like James Elder Robison who for the first time was able to experience the emotions of the people around him, the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving will awaken us to the sufferings of our brothers and sisters and motivate us to help carry their burden and alleviate their pain.

Today, God offers this treatment for our spiritual Aspergers to us. Let us embrace it enthusiastically so that we can be transformed into people who love and forgive others just as we have been loved and forgiven by our Heavenly Father. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Costly Change Of Heart

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who served in Germany during World War II when Hitler was in power. Inspired by his Christian faith, he spoke out against the Nazi regime. His resistance led to his imprisonment and eventual death by hanging.

During his brief life, he wrote several books, the most influential of which was The Cost of Discipleship. In it,  he reflected on the Sermon on the Mount and what it meant for Christian life. Following Christ is costly. It requires a total commitment of ourselves to His Kingdom. The cost of following Jesus is nothing less than our very lives. It is no doubt that it is because of Bonhoeffer’s willingness to give his life in witness to the dignity of every human person that this book has become such a classic.

One of the most powerful sections of his book is the chapter in which he distinguishes “cheap grace” from “costly grace”. He explains that cheap grace “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.” He goes on to write that cheap grace seeks out Jesus without the commitment to pick up His cross and follow Him.

On the other hand, “costly grace” is what the disciples experienced when they left their nets behind to follow Jesus. It is the willingness to bring our thoughts, words and deeds in line with the demands of the gospel. It requires exchanging our bitterness for forgiveness, our apathy for love and our indifference for compassion. Costly grace takes responsibility for living a good Christian life even when it means that others will reject and ridicule us.

This message is especially important to us who gather here today to begin our Lenten journey. During these forty days we will commit ourselves to making sacrifices in preparation for the great celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. Lent is one of our Church’s great treasures. However, it is very easy for us to fall into the trap of making our sacrifices an “empty show” as Jesus warns us in today’s gospel.  On the outside, we may appear to be following the rules but, on the inside, our hearts are not changing. When that happens, when we settle for cheap grace, there is no real and lasting benefit to these forty days.

The ashes we will receive on our foreheads today will do no good if our souls are not also seared with sorrow for our sins. It does no good for us to give up sweets if, in our hearts, we are indulging in bitterness. Going without meat on Fridays does not please God if we are also going without compassion for those who never have meat on their tables. Any extra devotions we may take on this Lent will have no meaning if we do not also take on devotion to our neighbor. Following the rules will get us nowhere if we are not also following Jesus. Without a real interior change of heart, nothing we do will please God or do us any good.

The point of our Lenten sacrifices is not to prove to God how good we are. Neither do we reflect on our sinfulness to beat ourselves up. Rather our prayers and sacrifices during this season help us to search our soul in an honest way. Through them, we come to realize how much we need God. It is only when we confront our weakness that we learn to rely on His strength. It is only when we seek to carry the cross that we learn the power of His resurrection. It is only when we realize how powerless we are to change ourselves that we can open our hearts to the grace of real conversion that He offers us.

The prophet Joel calls us in today’s first reading to “rend our hearts not our garments”. The point of this Lenten Season is to become more like Jesus not just in our exterior actions but in our interior attitude. The real change of heart that God is calling us to is costly. However, if we let Jesus in during these days and allow Him to work within us, it will pay great dividends. Our hearts will be relieved of the burdens of bitterness and grief. We will experience peace and joy as God’s presence in our lives becomes more palpable. With each passing day, our sacrifices and prayers will become less about “giving something up” and more about “loving God more.” Then we will really experience what Lent is all about - growing in intimacy with Jesus and experiencing the power of His resurrection in our daily lives.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Building A Home Worth Living In

Paul was about to lose everything.

When the economy was good, he made a lot of money as a building contractor. But he overextended himself buying cars, eating out at expensive restaurants and taking lavish vacations. Now that his work had slowed down, he was left with a huge mortgage and credit card debt that he knew he could never pay off. His personal finances created so much tension in his home that his wife eventually left him. Finally, the bank foreclosed on his home and he had nowhere to go until a friend offered to let him live in his basement.

A client whom Paul had done work for in the past heard about his dire situation and decided he would try to help him. He had a piece of land sitting vacant and decided to hire Paul to build a house on it. He immediately agreed and was excited to finally have some work. At the same time, Paul was not sure when he would work again so he wanted to make as much money at this job as he could. He cut corners on the construction to save money and pocket the difference. Though his client provided good quality materials such as granite countertops and hardwood flooring, he would sell them to other contractors and buy cheaper quality products instead. At the end, it was not the house he agreed to build but a much inferior product. He figured he would probably never see this client again so he was happy just to make whatever money he could out of the project.

When the construction was complete, Paul went to the client’s house to deliver the keys to him. However, the client surprised him when he said, “No. You keep them. I am giving the house to you.” Paul was shocked. “What do you mean?” he asked. The client answered, “Well I knew you were struggling and I had this piece of land which I wasn’t using, so I figured I would help you out by not only giving you some work but providing a home for you to live in. It is yours.” Stunned by his client’s generosity, Paul was left speechless. At the same time, he realized that if  he knew he was going to end up owning the house, he would have done a much better job building it.

Today, we begin the great season of Lent. Forty days to reflect on our lives as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a time for us to think about what kind of house we are building for ourselves. What are we doing with the materials God has sent us? Are we using them as he intended or are we trading them in for cheap substitutes? Are we putting our best effort into building a life that is pleasing to God or are we just trying to get by with as little work as possible? At this point in our journey, are our lives something that we can be proud of or have we really made a mess of things? These days give us time to look over what we have done, to repair what is broken and to resolve to do a better job going forward.

The key to building a strong home is first laying down a firm foundation. The foundation of our lives is Jesus. He created us and sustains us with His grace. He provides everything we need to build holy and good lives. If our lives are not what we want them to be, if we are not happy with the direction in which our lives are headed, the first thing to do is turn to Him. He will provide the answer. Once we fix our relationship with Him through confessing our sins, doing penance and resolving not to sin again, the other broken things in our lives will start to be repaired. These forty days of Lent, above all else, are a time for us to get back to what is most basic, our relationship with our Lord.

When our homes need repair sometimes it is very tempting just to make cosmetic changes and not fix the real problem. For example, if we have a hole in the wall, we may want to just hang a picture up to cover it rather than do the work of plastering the wall and repainting it. The same is true of our spiritual lives. We may show up at Mass, not eat meat on Fridays and sacrifice something small throughout these weeks of Lent out of a sense of obligation rather than out of a desire to make our lives pleasing to Jesus. We think we may be “covering our bases” but in the end we are really cheating ourselves. We are missing out on the opportunity to make a real change in our lives. Jesus explicitly tells us in today’s gospel that He is looking for more than outward expressions of faith. Rather He is looking for real, heartfelt conversion. He does not just want a change in our behaviour, but a change in our heart. That can only happen if we come to Mass and make sacrifices not out of a sense of duty but out of a sense of love. It can only happen when we allow Jesus to touch our hearts and change us.

That is what Jesus expects from us during this Lenten season. And it is possible because He has already provided us with all the materials we need to build lives that are pleasing to Him. Have we settled for cheaper substitutes? Have we failed to give Him our best effort in return for all He has done for us? As Saint Paul tells us, now is the time to change that with God’s help. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Smeared With Ashes

Every day, each of us, before going to school or to work, makes an effort to look our best. We shower, shave, put on make-up and fix our hair so that others will see us at our best. We want to make a good first impression. We want people to think the best of us and to like us.

So what sense does it make for us to come hear today and put ashes on our forehead?

What we are telling our God and ourselves by this gesture of smearing ashes on our foreheads is that we recognize that despite all our efforts to look our best, we are at our core sinners. Despite our best efforts, we lie and gossip. We are sometimes jealous and petty. Though we try to keep all that hidden from others so that they will think we are "nice", we recognize that we cannot keep it hidden from God. He sees us as we really are. 

There is something more to this gesture, however, than feeling badly about ourselves. Rather we are expressing faith in the God who loves us despite our sins and failings. We live our lives with a suspicion that if people knew what we really thought and how we really felt, they would stop liking us. And so, we are always hiding behind a mask of polite talk and good manners. But God knows who we really are. He reads the thoughts that we keep hidden from others. He sees what we do behind closed doors. And he loves us anyway. He sees our sins and offers to forgive us nonetheless. 

Throughout his life, Jesus was keenly aware that people were not always what they seemed. He was able to see hypocrisy in the hearts of those who seemed to be good and goodness in the hearts of tax collectors and prostitutes. All of them needed to change. All of us need to change. 

That is why Jesus insists that we are to do our good works in secret. He knows how much we need the approval of others. He knows how easy it is for us to use religion and good works as a way of making ourselves look good rather than as a way of growing closer to our heavenly Father.

Today we are beginning the season of Lent - forty days of penance in preparation for the great feast of Easter. Along with not eating meat on Friday, we will each make some sacrifice during this time. It has been an ancient tradition of the Church that we give something up during Lent as a sign of our desire to change. Our sacrifice, however, has to be something more than an exercise of will power if it is to be pleasing to God. Otherwise, it can have the effect not of humbling us before our heavenly Father but of making us even more proud so that we say to God, "Look what I was able to do!" Instead, our sacrifice must have the effect of helping us to recognize that we are sinners in the eyes of God and yet loved just the same.  Our sacrifice must have the effect of helping us to say "no" to our tendencies to lie, to gossip and to hurt others and "yes" to our desire to love others, to serve others and to forgive others.

Today is a new beginning for us. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, "This is the acceptable time. This is the day of salvation."  No matter how we may have sinned in the past, God is giving us yet another opportunity to turn to him and renew our friendship with him.

When we receive ashes on our foreheads today, let us keep this in mind. God knows us as we really are and loves us just the same. We can only please him by humbly accepting his love and pledging to do whatever it takes to live as he commands. If we do this in the secret of our heart, then the God who sees what is hidden will shower us with his grace and love as we journey to the feast of the resurrection of Jesus.