Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Repent and Believe

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 anyway.

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.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rise Up and Walk!

Every newly elected president enjoys a "honeymoon", a grace period of about 100 days during which time other politicians and the press refrain from criticizing the incoming administration. Not only is it an expression of good will, but it emphasizes the fact that, despite our different philosophies and agendas, we all share a common purpose which is to strengthen the nation. However, we can be sure that after those 100 days, the sniping and the partisan rhetoric will come back in full force to the public square.

Over the past month we have been reflecting on the first few days of Jesus' public ministry, when he emerged from his hidden years as a carpenter in Nazareth and began preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God. Like a newly elected president, Jesus has been enjoying a "honeymoon" of sorts. The people are fascinated by the authority of his preaching, and his power to heal has attracted the sick from the surrounding countryside. For the most part, the religious authorities are allowing him to speak in the synagogues. The whole area is gripped with excitement over the miracle worker from Galilee.

But in today's gospel, we begin to hear a hint of the controversy which will eventually lead to Jesus' crucifixion and death. When Jesus tells the paralytic man that his sins are forgiven, the Pharisees wonder to themselves, "Who does this man think he is? God alone has the power to forgive sins!" After the initial excitement and curiosity over the power Jesus shows, it is natural for the people to begin to wonder just exactly who this man is. Is he a prophet or something more? Is he the Messiah or something more? Or is he, as we have come to believe, the Son of God who has come to forgive our sins and bring us the hope of everlasting life?

The Pharisees are indeed right that God alone has the power to forgive sins. And so they sense that Jesus is making a claim that no other man has ever made before. Jesus is claiming to somehow be like God. Naturally, it would make the Pharisees uneasy about Jesus.

If Jesus' power to forgive sins was hard for them to believe and understand, certainly his power to heal was undeniable. After shocking the Pharisees by telling them what they were thinking, Jesus commands the paralytic man to stand up and walk. Jesus offers the cure as confirmation that he indeed has the power to forgive sins and that he has a special relationship to God.

Today's gospel reading is not only about the beginning of Jesus' problems with the Pharisees. It also offers us one of the most moving stories about the lengths one man and his friends were willing to go to meet Jesus. As the reading tells us, the crowd around Jesus was so large that the paralytic man and those carrying him could get nowhere near him. Rather than hang their heads in defeat and head back home, they climb up on the roof, open up a hole big enough for the man to fit through and lower him down to Jesus. Jesus, impressed by their effort and the faith it demonstrated, offered them all the forgiveness of their sins.

Though I'm sure they were thrilled to meet Jesus in person and were happy to have their sins forgiven, they probably were expecting something more from Jesus - namely, that their friend would be restored to full health. Jesus, however, sees it quite differently. For Jesus, a fully healthy body is no help if the soul is sick because of sin. As he would say in another place, "It is better to go to heaven with only one eye, then to be cast in hell with both eyes." And he says in another place, "What good would it be for a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul in the process?" Jesus came to teach us that what is wrong with the human race is not that we get sick, not that we suffer and not that we die. What is wrong with us is that we sin. What is wrong with us is that our relationship with God is broken. And that is why Jesus came - to repair our relationship with God the Father.

The men in the gospel reading went to great lengths to bring their friend to meet Jesus. But what lengths did Jesus go to grant us the forgiveness of our sins? First, he became human like us in the womb of Mary. Then he lived a fully human life, most of it as a carpenter in Nazareth. Then he was willing to suffer and die on the cross. Our sins must be an awful thing indeed if they required Jesus to suffer and die to assure us of forgiveness. And God's love must be even greater than we could ever hope for or imagine if he was willing to offer his only Son up to death to bring us into a loving friendship with him.

Each of us made some effort to be here today. There are some young families who had to prepare diaper bags and bottles of formula to be here. There are some elderly who walked up and down stairs with great discomfort and pain to hear God's word today. We each made that effort with some expectation. To all of us, no matter what effort we made or no matter what we may be seeking, God holds forth the promise of forgiveness. God wants each of us to recognize that the answer to the longing of our hearts is nothing less than to be reconciled to God. And to be reconciled to God requires no more effort than to ask for his forgiveness, to make a sincere confession of our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to live with a firm purpose through God's grace to not repeat our sins. Getting right with God requires no more than that. Jesus has already taken care of the hard part by dying on the cross for us.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Lepers are a group of people mentioned often in the Bible which we in the twenty-first century have a hard time relating to. Like tax collectors and Pharisees, we do not run into lepers in our daily lives. Thankfully, advances in medicine have made this horrible disease less frequent and more manageable.

What is leprosy? It is a horrible disease which attacks the whole body leaving ugly open sores on the skin. These sores typically ooze pus and create an awful stench. We know today that the disease is not as highly contagious as people in Jesus' day thought. But imagine their reaction seeing a leper. Not only would they have been revolted by the sores and the stench, they would also have been gripped by the fear that, if they got anywhere near them, they too would catch the disease and spend their lives as outcasts.

Because of the fear and disgust that lepers inspired, people in the ancient world went to great lengths to keep them as far away as possible. They were not allowed in the villages or to enter public places. Wherever they went they had to shout out, "Unclean! Unclean!", to warn people that they were passing by. Add to that the fact that people generally considered leprosy a punishment for sin. And to be afflicted with so horrible a disease, the sin they committed must have been great! So they were looked upon not only with disgust, but with contempt. Even their families would not acknowledge them. Because they were unable to enter the temple to make sin offerings for themselves, they must have felt rejected by God as well.

For lepers there was no hope of ever living any kind of a normal life, of having a family or of worshiping God with the rest of the community.

Then Jesus appears on the scene. It is for this reason that he came - to be hope for the hopeless. The leper in today's gospel would have already heard the stories of Jesus' power to heal and the wonders he was working throughout the town of Capernaum. It was a light of hope in the midst of an otherwise dark existence. Before approaching Jesus, he would have had to have shouted out, "Unclean! Unclean!", as required by the law. Those around Jesus would have quickly run away holding their noses and probably putting their hands over their children's eyes so that they would not be disgusted by the sight. But Jesus is not revolted by the poor man, but welcomes him. The leper drops to his knees begging Jesus for the gift that will change his life forever, the gift of healing. Because of his faith, Jesus grants his request and sends him on his way to fulfill all the hopes and dreams that such a horrible disease had stolen from him.

We in the twenty-first century would like to think that we are more sophisticated than the people in Jesus' day who treated lepers with such superstition and contempt. But a good, hard look at our society tells us something different. It has become common nowadays to abort a baby if it is diagnosed with Downs syndrome or any other birth defect in the womb. We are told that such children are "burdens". Add to that the growing opinion that the elderly, the handicapped, those in comas and the terminally ill should be given a "right to die". We are told that they too are a "burden" and that there is no quality to their lives. What we are really saying is that we do not want to be bothered with having to pay for them or having even to see them. We do not want to be reminded that we too will someday ourselves be old and infirm. For all our technical advances, we have not made much progress in valuing the lives of every human being. In fact, the people of Jesus' day would be shocked and horrified at the way we treat the unborn and the elderly.

How different the gospel message of Jesus is! He came to bring hope for everyone. In Jesus' eyes there is no one so disgusting that they are beyond being loved. There is no one so sinful that they cannot be forgiven. The healing that Jesus most wants to perform in our midst here today is not so much to take away our suffering and illnesses, but to transform our hearts so that we look at that pain in a new way. God has the power to transform suffering. When we offer any kind of hardship or pain to him, then we become like Jesus who offered his suffering on the cross for the salvation of the world. Instead of causing despair, suffering can actually bring us peace and even joy when we realize that God can use it to bring forgiveness and reconciliation to us and to others. If we are caring for someone who is suffering or if we are suffering ourselves, we need not feel like outcasts or burdens. On the contrary, those who offer their sufferings to God in faith provide more blessings for the world than we can ever know.

Again, it is important to remember that suffering is not good. We should try to ease suffering whenever possible. But when pain is unavoidable, we can offer it up to Jesus and watch him use it in powerful ways.

We are here today, each of us, like the lepers in Jesus' day. As beggars and outcasts, we come to him because he is our only hope. Jesus is offering us words that can transform us through the gospel, his body which is broken to heal us, and his blood which is spilled to save us. At this Eucharist, let us offer whatever suffering, hardship or difficulty we have together with the bread and wine on the altar. If we approach Jesus with lively faith, he will work a wonder in our life, and we will leave this place rejoicing and telling of his mighty deeds to everyone we meet.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Setting Time Aside

Many people compare their everyday lives to running on a treadmill. They are always busy, always on the go, but never getting anywhere. Such people find themselves getting up in the morning, going to work, coming home to take their children to whatever after-school activities they may have, grabbing supper on the road, and then going to bed only to start the cycle over again the next morning. Others have unfulfilling jobs that leave them drained at the end of the day. The only thing they have to look forward to is the weekend or their next vacation. After years of living on this "treadmill", people begin to question the meaning of their lives and wonder if all the activity is worth it.

In today's first reading, Job expresses some of the same sentiments. As he puts it, "Life on earth is a drudgery." Remember that Job, in a series of tragedies, lost his wife, his children and all his possessions. In his grief, he couldn't find the strength to pick himself up from the ground. In a near state of shock, he compares his life to that of a slave or hireling who has no share in the profits of his work. These are sentiments we can very easily share, especially during these dark and cold February days.

While Job poses the problem, Jesus provides the solution. In today's gospel, Jesus has had a very long day. The people of Capernaum, hearing that he had the power to heal and cast out demons, were bringing the sick to him while he stayed at the house of Peter's mother-in-law. When everyone had finally left, Jesus slips away by himself to a deserted place to pray. He needed time away from the crowds and the demands of the people to spend time alone with his father.

For Jesus, prayer was a source of strength. All the power to preach the good news, to heal and to cast out demons came from the time he spent praising and adoring his Father in secret. Like all of us, Jesus needed to step aside from his busy, demanding life to take stock of his Father's presence and love.

There was once a woman who found herself in much the same situation we have been describing. She had fallen into a rut. Life seemed to lose its wonder and joy. A friend told her about the power that prayer has to transform our lives and strengthen us. So she began waking up an hour earlier every morning to give it a try.

At first, she would just sit on her couch with a blanket around her not knowing how to begin. Sometimes she would just look out the window at the street light. But with time she began finding that she felt less stressed and less anxious during the day. She began noticing the needs of others around her and would bring their intentions into her daily prayer. Though at first she worried that getting up earlier would leave her with less energy during the day, she actually found that because prayer was revealing to her a deeper sense of purpose, she felt more motivated than ever. And, because she was less stressed, her marriage also improved because she was less irritable around the house and picked fewer fights with her husband.

If we are going to live lives marked by peace and joy, prayer is vitally important to us. It will bring clarity to our minds when we are confused and calm to our spirits when we are anxious. Prayer is like an incubator cultivating faith, hope and love within our spirit.

The reason most people give for not praying is that they do not have enough time. With such hectic lives, the last thing they want is to add another activity to their day. But what those who make the effort to carve out some time for prayer in their day immediately discover is that, instead of ending up with less time, they have more! It could be that they feel more energized because of a new sense of purpose. Sometimes prayer gives people a new perspective on life so that they cut out of their schedule activities that are less important. Whatever the reason may be, it demonstrates an important rule of the spiritual life: God cannot be outdone in generosity. If I give God twenty minutes of my time, he is going to give me forty minutes back. Whatever we give to God - whether it be time, money or talent - we get back in return many times over.

Another reason that people are often afraid of prayer is that they think that they don't know how to pray. They don't know what to do during those twenty minutes. Saint Paul knew very well himself how difficult prayer was. In fact, he taught that none of us knows how to pray as we ought. But through our baptism and confirmation, we have each received the gift of the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit prays within us and guides us in our prayer. This demonstrates another important rule of the spiritual life: Prayer is not something we do, but something that God does in us. The same God who plants in our hearts a desire to pray will teach us how to pray if we put time into it daily.

We are here today giving God an hour out of our week because we believe something important happens here. We believe that Jesus is speaking to us through the Scriptures we proclaim and giving his very life to us through the gift of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. We are here today because we believe that our lives are about much more than what we do day in and day out. Our lives are rather about who we are - children of God made in his image and likeness. By making daily prayer along with Sunday Mass the foundation of our lives, we will see ourselves being renewed and transformed daily by God's presence and power. Our lives will be marked, not with monotony or drudgery, but with the joy and peace which come from the Holy Spirit.

(photo: Thomas Kinkade)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

In Word and in Deed

All of us have wondered what it would be like to meet Jesus in person. What if we could actually speak face to face with our Savior? What would he look like? What would he say to us? How would we feel as he looked into our eyes and spoke to our heart?

Today's gospel tells us about a group of people who actually had the opportunity to meet Jesus and how it changed their lives forever.

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue of Capernaum. Saint Mark tells us that the people were astonished as they listened to him. They were riveted by his words because, unlike anyone they had ever heard before, he spoke with authority. Not only was he interesting to listen to, but his words penetrated their hearts and illuminated their minds. No one had ever spoken to them with such conviction and meaning.

And their astonishment would only grow, because not only did Jesus demonstrate his authority by the words he spoke, he also showed his power by the actions he performed. In this case, a man possessed by a demon was sent into a fit of convulsion when Jesus spoke. The demon knew very well who Jesus was, the Holy One of God. Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of the man with a shriek. The scene must have left everyone in the synagogue shaken and confused. I think we can say with confidence that the people had never seen anything like that before! The authority of Jesus' words was backed up by the power of his actions.

None of us will ever have the opportunity to meet Jesus face to face in this life. That does not mean, however, that we can no longer be astonished by his words or by his works. Jesus is still among us exercising his authority in a powerful way through the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit. He continues to speak to us with authority through the Bible, and his power over sin and evil is powerfully present in the Sacraments.

Let us take a look at how each of us can meet Jesus and be transformed by reading the Bible and receiving the Sacraments.

First, Jesus continues to speak with authority to the world through the Bible. As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Though it was written by men in the language and imagery of their time, it was inspired by the Holy Spirit to such a degree that we can truly say that God himself is its author. In the Bible, we experience the authority of God's Word teaching us the truth about his love and calling our hearts to change. By reading and studying the Bible, we come to understand God in a way that we otherwise would be unable to. Because it is God's inspired word, when we read it privately at home or hear it proclaimed at Mass, it is Jesus himself we are hearing. And so, any of us who have ever wished that we could hear Jesus speak to us should read and study the Bible everyday.

There was a man once who decided to read the Bible from cover to cover. He came across many sections that he couldn't understand, but he kept on going. He simply thanked God for the parts that he could make sense of and asked for help understanding the more difficult sections. That is the way we have to approach the Bible. It is not always easy to read and understand. Rather than be overwhelmed by it, we should start slowly by maybe focusing on the Sunday readings or the daily Mass readings. There are many Catholic magazines such as The Word Among Us which are great helps in guiding our study of Scripture. However we may decide to approach it, the Word of God is indispensable in the spiritual life of all believers.

Second, we encounter Jesus' continuing authority over sin and evil through the Sacraments. Each Sacrament is a real encounter with Jesus. While we meet Jesus in the Bible through words, we encounter him in the Sacraments through signs. These signs are not just symbolic of Jesus' presence and action, they really give us the grace that they signify. For instance, the waters of baptism really grant the forgiveness of sin and make us children of God. Through the Sacrament of Confession, we really receive the forgiveness of our sins. And in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, bread and wine really become the Body and Blood of Christ. It is not just symbols that we receive when we come up to communion, but the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Risen Jesus himself. When we take to heart the mystery of Christ's presence and action in all the Sacraments, how could we not want to receive them as frequently as possible to be transformed by the power of our Savior?

The Sacraments, however, are not magic. For us to have our lives changed by the light and power that the Sacraments offer us, we must strive to live lives that are pleasing to God. We saw in the gospel reading today how the demon shouted out when Jesus walked into the synagogue. That is because Jesus and the Devil cannot be in the same room together. They are mortal enemies. Just so, we cannot welcome Jesus into our lives and continue to hold grudges, gossip, lie or steal. There can be no compromise with sin if Jesus is to have a place in our hearts. It is certainly not easy, and we can never be totally free of sin in this life, but the Sacraments are given to us precisely for this reason - to give us both the desire and strength to change and to make us examples of Jesus' love to everyone we meet.

None of us can hope to meet Jesus face to face in this life. But each of us will one day stand before his throne of glory to give an account of our lives. If we take to heart the Word proclaimed to us today and receive him in the Sacraments with faith, we can trust that we will be ready to receive his mercy and forgiveness when he comes again in glory.