Saturday, March 10, 2012

Third Sunday of Lent - ALREADY!

Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the greatest saints who ever lived. When he first started on the path of holiness, he wasn't sure what God wanted from him. One day, he found an old church that had been abandoned and was falling apart. It was called the Church of San Damiano. He poked through the ruins and found half buried in the dirt a beautifully painted cross. He pulled it from the ground, propped it up against some rocks and began meditating on it. As he entered deeper and deeper into prayer, he heard Jesus speak to him from the cross. "Francis", our Lord said, "rebuild my Church which you see has fallen into ruins." Francis assumed that Jesus was speaking about the church of San Damiano. So he began gathering stones to rebuild the abandoned building. Seeing his efforts, others began to join him. However, soon young Francis came to understand that Jesus did not mean that he wanted him to rebuild the church building made of stones but to build up the Church which is the People of God. And so he gathered together the men who had been helping him and started the Franciscan order dedicated to living Jesus' teaching in the fullest way possible in poverty and joyful witness to the good news. Francis learned from his experience that what Jesus wanted from him was not so much to renovate buildings but to renovate minds and hearts through the power of the gospel.

In today's gospel, we see the temple leaders fall under the same misunderstanding that Saint Francis did. When they asked Jesus what right he had to clear the moneychangers from the temple, he responded with something of a riddle: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days." Like Saint Francis of Assisi, the people thought he was talking about the temple building. But Jesus was talking about his body which will rise from the dead three days after he is crucified. Jesus is the new temple. He is the new lamb of sacrifice. His body is the place we worship and the offering we make to God for our sins. Like Francis, Jesus will rebuild the temple, but not with stones. He will rebuild it with people, the people who believe in him, follow him and live as he lived. We are the new temple.

From ancient times, the Church has been referred to as "the Body of Christ". Saint Paul first raises the idea in his letter to the Romans when he writes, " Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Rom.12:5). What Saint Paul wants us to understand is that, through our baptism, we become interconnected in a way that we cannot see or sense, but that is nonetheless real. Just as all the body suffers when just one part of the body is hurting, so all God's People scattered throughout the world, in some mysterious way, share in each other's joys, pains, struggles and consolations. Because of this mystical union, I am strengthened by the good works that other Christians perform even if I never actually see them do it. At the same time, I am weakened by the sinfulness of others. Just as Jesus taught and Saint Francis learned, we are each parts of a body, the Body of Christ. And so we belong not only to Christ, but also to each other.

Each of us is called to help Jesus rebuild the Church which is his body. Like the different parts of the body, all of us will have a different role in the Church's mission of preaching the good news. But one thing is true for each and every one of us no matter what our station in life may be. Each of us is called to build up the Church by living a holy life. If the sacrifices, prayers and good works I perform can strengthen the Church, then I must take every opportunity I can find to do good. In the same way, if my sins weaken and demoralize the body of Christ, then I must avoid sin at all costs.

Today's first reading recounts for us the Ten Commandments. God delivered the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel during their 40 years in the desert. They were meant to guide the people as they established themselves in the promised land. By following God's law, it was to be clear that Israel was different from other nations which worshiped many gods and had immoral customs and practices. Instead, Israel would be God's special people, a holy people. We who are inheritors of the promise made to Israel and who believe in the Messiah are also called to be a holy people by following God's commandments. We are called to be different and to shine forth the light of God's word in a world full of darkness.

We are always talking about what it would take to bring more people to the Church and to get them more excited about their faith. Sometimes we think it will take playing livelier music or preaching more compelling sermons. Some people even think the Church should compromise on some of her teachings to make the Christian life seem less demanding. For all that talk, the one thing that each of us could do to draw more people here every week is to live our faith and to be holy. If we do that, people will sit up and notice. They will see that there is something special going on here because of the holiness of our lives. They will see our peace and joy and want it for themselves. The most riveting sermons and the most uplifting music will not draw a single person here if our lives are not beaming with the holiness that comes from Jesus.

We are approaching the midpoint of our Lenten journey. We can start to feel weary as the weeks drag on. But we can always rely on Jesus for strength. The knowledge that we are connected to him through the mystery of the Church which is his body inspires us to draw inspiration and encouragement from him. And we can be encouraged knowing that our good works are somehow bringing strength to others around the world who need it. We are working together to build up the Body of Christ through the power of the Spirit until that day when we will enter the heavenly temple to live with God forever.

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