Tuesday, February 28, 2012

First Sunday of Lent

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 practises - 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, walking 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 giving up 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 on a daily basis. 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 may be 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 almsgiving, 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.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

You Can Make Me Clean

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 5, 2012

Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

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.