Sunday, March 31, 2013

Rejoice! He is Risen!

There was a girl whose favorite movie was based on the life of Christ. Almost every afternoon, she would ask her grandmother to sit on the couch with her to watch it. During the scene of the crucifixion her eyes would well with tears as the soldiers nailed Jesus to the cross. However, after Jesus had died and was placed in the tomb, she would turn to her grandmother with a broad smile and say, "Here comes the good part!"

Over the past week we have remembered the tragic events surrounding the death of Jesus - how he was condemned by his own people and put through a torturous death. However, today, Easter Sunday, we come to the "good part" of the story because death would not have the last word. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has shaken off the shackles of death and achieved for us the reward of everlasting life.

The word "gospel" means "good news". From the earliest days of our faith, the story of Jesus has been called the "good news" because it ends with his victory over death in the Resurrection. Today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles offers us one of the first Christian sermons ever preached. It is given by Peter at the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. And what is his sermon about? The resurrection of Jesus from the dead. More than anything else, believing that Jesus rose from the dead is what defined someone as a Christian.

Is the resurrection just an event that took place over two thousand years ago, or does it continue to have meaning for our lives today? How does his victory over sin and death change our lives today in the twenty-first century?

Again, it is today's first reading that gives us a clue. Unfortunately, we have read only a part of Saint Peter's sermon. If we were to read the whole passage, we would discover that, when he is done preaching, the people are so moved that the Holy Spirit descends upon them and then they are all baptized by Peter. The message is clear. It is through our baptism that the new life of the Risen Lord takes hold of our heart.

Saint Paul picks up this theme in the second reading from the letter to the Colossians. Through our baptism, we have been raised with Christ. We must now set our hearts on the things of heaven. What does that mean? It means that everlasting life is not something we reach only after death. Rather, through baptism, we are already enjoying the gift of eternal life. It will come to its fullness in us when we enter heaven, but it is a reality that is already at work in us in a hidden way through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Whenever we choose forgiveness over bitterness and belief over doubt, the new life of heaven is at work within us. Whenever we stand up for the rights of others rather than remain silent and whenever we face our difficulties with confidence that God will see us through them, the Risen Lord is alive and active in our hearts. Whenever we give of our time and money to benefit others and whenever we bring comfort to those who are suffering, the Kingdom of God is gaining another victory over despair. We must bring the Risen Lord who is alive in our hearts into the lives of everyone we meet by our words and example so that God's victory over sin and death can continue to extend itself throughout our world.

One of the Church's great saints, Saint Augustine, wrote: "We are a resurrection people and 'Alleluia' is our song!" This Easter day is the highlight of our year as Christians because the good news is centered on and revolves around the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Even so, our lives as believers must also center on and revolve around the eternal life that is ours through the sacrament of Baptism. Whether we were baptized as infants or later in life, it was the defining moment of our lives because if forever marked us and set us aside as children of God. Furthermore, it infused our soul with the Holy Spirit who is the very life of our risen Savior.

At this Mass, we will renew the vows of our Baptism. We will recommit ourselves to living the new life of faith in the resurrection through the power of the Holy Spirit. We will vow to extend God's victory over sin and death by taking up the battle against the forces in our culture which promote immorality and which undermine the dignity of every human person. And we will join with believers throughout the world in proclaiming with our lips and with our lives: Jesus Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Stories of Salvation

Whenever families get together for picnics or during the holidays, it is inevitable that stories about the past are told. We remember the members of our families who are no longer with us. We laugh at the jokes they told or the silly things they used to do. The older members of the family tell stories about how their parents immigrated from another country or found work. No matter how many times we hear those same old stories, we cannot help but laugh or cry over them all over again. We never grow tired of telling or hearing about our past because they remind us of who we are and where we came from. Stories are like mirrors not only showing us our past but giving us a direction for our future.

Tonight we gather as a family of faith to tell the story of our salvation. All these tales both in the Old and New Testaments have been meticulously written down and passed on to us through the centuries so that we could have a record of all the marvels the Lord has worked for his people. We remember tonight how God created us from the dust of the earth and gave us dominion over all creation. However, we disobeyed him and lost Paradise. Many centuries later, as our people grew in number, we were enslaved in Egypt, forced into hard labor to build the cities of the pharaohs. But God took pity on us and through Moses led us out of slavery into a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet still we disobeyed, looking to foreign gods for salvation. And so, God sent his prophets to pass on another promise to us. He would send a Messiah who would cleanse us of our sins and place God's own Spirit within us.

Then, in the fullness of time, the promises were fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. He performed mighty works and revealed the love and mercy of God. However, in our blindness, we put him to death by nailing him to a cross. Yet God raised him on the third day. Because of his death, we have the forgiveness of our sins and through his resurrection we have the promise of everlasting life by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Just as God created us by breathing life into Adam, so he gave us a new and everlasting life by breathing his Holy Spirit into us. This is the story we recall today - that God has conquered sin and death through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, these stories are not about what God did for other people many centuries ago. Rather, this is our story. These mighty works were performed for us so that we might have friendship with God and know eternal life. That is why we never grow weary of hearing them over and over again, like the stories our parents tell and that we pass on to our children. That is why they have been preserved for us. That is why our heart fills with joy and our eyes well with tears whenever these readings are proclaimed. They are the mirror reminding us that we are children of God washed clean of our sins and empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit to live a good and virtuous life.

We entered our biological family through natural birth. Our mothers carried us in their wombs for nine months, and we were born into a family which nurtured us and brought us to adulthood. On the other hand, we entered the family of faith through a rebirth. That rebirth came through the waters of baptism. Through that powerful sacrament, we became members of the family of God, members of the Church. We have nourished ourselves on God's word and on the sacraments. It is now time for us to become adults in the faith, to take our rightful place in the family of God. It is up to us now to pass these stories down to a new generation of believers so they too can know what God has done to save them.

It is through our baptism that God's promise of a new life through the resurrection of Jesus became a reality for us. Therefore, we will renew the vows of our baptism tonight. Having heard the stories of God's mighty deeds, let us take those vows up again with renewed purpose. Bathed in the light of the glory of the resurrection, let us stand and tell the world who we are - daughters and sons of the God who created us, who led us out of slavery, who raised Jesus from the dead and who even now fills the earth with his Holy Spirit.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Safety in God's Will

Father Tim Vakoc was serving as a parish priest in Minnesota when, in 1996, he felt a call to become an Army chaplain. It was not an easy decision to make. It meant leaving a parish that he had grown to love. It meant being away from his family and friends. But he accepted it as God's will for his life and felt at peace with his decision.

In the years that followed, he served overseas in Germany and Bosnia saying Mass for the troops, hearing their confessions and baptizing their babies. Then during the Second Gulf War, he was sent to Iraq serving troops within a five thousand square mile area. When his sister asked him whether he was afraid to be in such a dangerous part of the world, he responded in a letter to her saying, "The safest place for me to be is in the center of God's will. If that means being in the line of fire, then so be it."

In October of 2004, Father Vakoc was returning to his base after saying Mass in the field when he was struck by a roadside bomb. In the blast, he lost one of his eyes and suffered severe brain damage. Five years later, after many surgeries, he finally succumbed to his injuries, dying in June of 2009.

He freely chose to accept God's will, even though it put him in harm's way. He followed the example of Christ by risking his life to serve others. And he continues to serve as an example for us of what it means to follow Christ to the end.

Doing God's will is not always easy. Jesus himself had to struggle with accepting God's will. Sweating blood, he begged his heavenly Father to take the cup of suffering from him. As the second reading tells us, "he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death." But in the end, he accepted God's will for him. He did it out of obedience to his heavenly Father and out of love for us. During the Last Supper, he assured his disciples that no one would be taking his life from him. Rather he would be handing himself over freely to those who would crucify him. And so he does not run away when Judas leads the soldiers to him. He rebukes Peter for cutting off the ear of the high priest's slave. He stands silent before Pilate refusing to defend himself although he is innocent. And though he has the power to call down the angels of heaven to free him, he allows himself to be beaten, mocked and nailed to a cross out of love for us and obedience to God's will.

As we gather here today and ponder the mystery of the cross - the mystery of a God who loved us so much that he sent his Son to die in our place - we must ask ourselves, how freely do we embrace God's will for our lives? When we are faced with difficulties and suffering which is beyond our power to alleviate, how do we respond? Do we choose fear or faith? Do we allow our suffering to make us bitter and miserable? Or do we unite our sufferings with those of Christ and experience his power to free us from despair? Do we live as victims, lashing out and blaming others for our misfortunes? Or do we live in freedom, accepting the burdens of life when they are God's will and forgiving those who hurt us as Jesus did?

On the cross, Jesus left us a tremendous example of obedience, love and trust. More than that, he showed us the face of a God who cares about our suffering and chooses to suffer along with us. When we embrace God's will with obedience and love as Father Vakoc did and as Jesus did, then we can carry our cross without the additional burdens of shame, bitterness and anger. Then the peace of Christ can take hold of our heart, and God's victory over sin and death - the mystery we celebrate on this Good Friday - will be a reality in our day-to-day lives.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Thursday

On June 19, 2009, the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated the year of the priest. It would be twelve months dedicated to spiritual renewal of all those serving in priestly ministry, a time to pray with greater intensity for an increase in vocations to the priesthood, and an opportunity for all of us to express our gratitude for the gift that priests are to the Church and to the world.

All of us, no matter what our faith journey has been like, have many reasons to be thankful for the gift of the priesthood. We have all, at one time or another, grown in our faith because a priest taught us something about the love and mercy of God which touched our hearts and challenged us. Many of us became more active in the Church because a priest invited us to be a lector, to go on a retreat or to help teach religious education. Priests have been by our side when we have baptized our babies, been married or buried our loved ones. They have shown up at the hospital many times in the middle of the night when we or a family member has been in an accident. And we have counted on priests most especially to be there every Sunday to give us the most precious gift of all, the Body and Blood of Jesus, our Savior.

Holy Thursday gives all of us a wonderful opportunity to pray for the priests who have served us - both the living and those who have gone on to their heavenly reward - and to show them our love, appreciation and gratitude for all they do to spread the good news of Jesus' love.

On this night, we begin the three most sacred and solemn celebrations in the Church's calendar. Today, Holy Thursday, we commemorate Jesus' last supper with his disciples, his agony in the garden and his eventual betrayal by Judas. It is on this night that Jesus left us the great sacrament of his love - the gift of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. He tells his disciples very clearly that the bread they are eating is his body and the wine they are drinking, his blood. Through the centuries the Church has never failed to hand on this mystery to each generation of believers in fidelity to Jesus' command, "Do this in remembrance of me."

The reason this tremendous gift of the Eucharist has been so faithfully handed down to us through the ages is because of another gift which Jesus left us on the night of the Last Supper - the gift of the priesthood. When Jesus said to his disciples, "Do this in memory of me," he gave them the power to turn bread and wine into his body and blood, and so the gift of the priesthood was given to the Church. This is because the Eucharist and the priesthood go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other. Without priests there would be no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist there would be no need of men specially consecrated to offer the sacrifice of Jesus' body and blood. And so Holy Thursday has traditionally been a commemoration not only of the institution of the Eucharist as a perpetual memorial of Christ's death and resurrection, but a commemoration also of the tremendous gift of the priesthood.

And so, on this night when we celebrate the sacrifice Christ endured to save us, let us remember in our prayers the men who sacrifice themselves everyday so that we may have access to the mysteries of our faith. Let us pray for the men who everyday follow the example of Christ who came not to be served but to serve. And let us raise up in prayer as well those men who are preparing themselves through prayer and study to one day also be ordained and serve the Church as priests. We need good, holy and faithful priests if we are going to live our faith in all its fullness and enjoy all the gifts of grace God intends to shower upon us.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Holy Week Mysteries of the Rosary

1. The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

Mt 21: 1-10; Lk 19: 29-40; Jn 12: 12-19; Mk 11:1 - 11

2. The Anointing at Bethany

Jn 12: 13-25; Mk 12: 15-18; Mt 21: 12-17; Lk 19:45-38

3. The Cleansing of the Temple

Mk 12: 15-18; Jn 2: 13-25; Mt 21: 12-17; Lk 19: 45-48

4. The Washing of the Feet

Jn 13: 1-17

5. The Agony in the Garden
Mt 26: 36-46; Mk 14: 32-42; Lk 22: 39-46

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord

Our faith as Catholic Christians comes down to this: Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins and, on the third day, rose again.

This was what the apostles preached as they made their way through the Roman Empire spreading belief in Jesus. This is what countless martyrs gave their lives to witness to. This is at the center of everything we do as followers of Jesus.

Without our belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus, everything else - our prayers, sacrifices and good works - would have no meaning. No amount of good we do can replace the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross. Without that faith, our lives would be left without purpose and without meaning.

On this day, we join the crowds that welcomed Jesus triumphantly into the holy city, Jerusalem. With them we wave palm branches acknowledging that he is our Savior. We invite him into our homes and hearts with enthusiasm and joy knowing that he comes to free us from our sins and from the power of death.

At the same time, we remember with profound sadness that his entry into Jerusalem is the first step toward his eventual death on the cross. This same crowd which cheers him on will turn on him and reject him. They will cry out for him to be crucified. One of his followers, a friend and apostle, will betray him. Another apostle will deny even knowing him. The religious leaders will denounce him to the Roman authorities. And the Roman authorities will torture and put him to death. It is as if the whole world has conspired to cast God out of his own creation.

At this Mass, we must also remember that, like that crowd, we too have rejected Jesus. It was for our sins that he died. And every time we choose to sin whether by thought, word or deed, we cry out with the people, "Crucify him! Crucify him!". Like the people of Jesus day, we are often just as quick to reject Jesus as we are to welcome him.

We remember this, however, not to fill ourselves with shame, but to call to mind his great love. While we were sinners, when we were lost in our ignorance, Jesus came to save us. He stooped down from heaven so that we could know God in all his glorious mercy. This is the message of Saint Paul in today's second reading. Jesus made himself a slave so that we might be free. He became human so that we could have friendship with God. He died so that we might live. And he rose in glory so that we might rise to new life with him. This is why we wave palm branches and celebrate even though we know in our hearts that we are sinners. The forgiveness, the peace, the joy we long for is riding into the city. He is Jesus.

Some have said that no one in human history has ever suffered as greatly as Jesus did when he was put to death. While there is no way of knowing how true that may be, there are a few things about his death that are certain. No one else in human history was ever as innocent as Jesus was. And no one else in human history ever embraced his death with the same love as Jesus embraced his. Though he did not deserve to die, he allowed himself to be nailed to the cross out of love for us. And he continues to offer us his love and mercy no matter how many times we turn away from him.

We have relived the passion and death of Jesus as recounted to us in Scripture. It is a story which continues in our day. Jesus continues to suffer in those who are sick, in the poor, in those who are unjustly imprisoned and in those who are persecuted for their beliefs. He is at the side of those who are hungry and lonely and sad. Now that we have seen what our Savior has suffered for us, will we go into the world and relieve the sufferings of those we meet? Like Simon the Cyrenean, will we help Jesus carry his cross by bringing food to the hungry and visiting the sick? Will we unite our daily hardships with the sufferings of Jesus on the cross and so transform our suffering into a source of salvation for the world? If so, we will discover that Jesus - the conqueror of sin and death - continues to be alive and active in our world. We will come to understand just how deep his love for each human being is. And we will experience in our hearts and homes the joy of the salvation which he spilled to his precious blood to win for us.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Fifth Sunday of Lent

With two world wars and numerous other violent conflicts, the twentieth century was the bloodiest in all human history. So it is no surprise that it was also the bloodiest century for the Church. In fact, more people were put to death because of their faith in the last century than in all the previous centuries of Christianity combined.

One of those martyrs of the twentieth century was Saint Maximilian Kolbe.

He was born in Poland in 1894 and ordained a priest in 1918. After several missionary trips to Japan, he returned to his native Poland at the time of the German invasion and occupation. He worked tirelessly to give shelter to refugees and to help Jews escape the Nazi persecution. However, he was caught by the Gestapo and sent to the notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz, in 1941.

While there, a prisoner had escaped from the camp. The guards rounded up ten men and sentenced them to be starved to death in punishment for the successful escape. However, Father Kolbe, knowing that one of the men had a family, offered to take his place. The guards agreed, and he was sent into the cell with the other men. All the while, he prayed and sang songs to encourage the men to stay strong. He and three other men were able to hold out for three weeks. However, the guards, unwilling to wait any longer for him to die, gave Father Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He died in August of 1941 in the place of another man.

When he was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church, the man whose life he saved was at the Mass. Pope John Paul II said of Saint Maximilian Kolbe in his sermon, "By laying down his life for a brother, He made himself like Christ."

What Saint Maximilian Kolbe did by taking the place of a man condemned to die is exactly what Jesus has done for each one of us. Because each of us has sinned and offended God, we deserve death and eternal punishment. However, because of his great love for us, God sent his only Son, Jesus, to die in our place. Jesus was innocent, yet he stepped forward to suffer a humiliating death so that the punishment for sin would fall on him and not on us. Because Jesus has died for us, we can be assured that we will find mercy and forgiveness from God despite the sins we have committed.

The fullness of the love and mercy which Jesus came to bring is on display in today's gospel reading. A woman who had been caught in adultery is dragged before Jesus. The penalty for her sin is that she be stoned to death. We can only imagine the shame and fear she felt. However, while the crowd stands in judgement over her, Jesus takes another posture. He stoops down. He brings himself down to her level. He refuses to stand in judgement of her. It was not to condemn sinners that Jesus came, but to bring them the Father's love and mercy. And so he scatters the crowd with his famous words, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone."

It is interesting that the gospel begins by telling us that Jesus had just spent the night praying on the Mount of Olives. If the name sounds familiar, it is because it is the same place where Jesus will experience his agony in the garden. As Jesus sees the woman dragged to him, he probably cannot help but think that soon this same crowd would be dragging him to judgment before Pontius Pilate. He probably cannot help but think that soon he will be made to stand beaten and humiliated before this same crowd as they shout out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Jesus knows all too well how bloodthirsty a crowd can be. He refuses to condemn the adulterous woman, no matter how grave her sin. Instead, he offers to die in her place by accepting the tortures of the cross. She can walk away free, because he has taken upon himself the punishment for her sin.

We can very often feel shame and guilt like the adulterous woman. However, the crowd that condemns us is not always other people who have dragged us out and pointed fingers at us. Rather, the crowd is most often voices within us that criticize and accuse us. They are messages we have internalized over the years from parents, teachers and our peers. Those voices tell us that we are not good enough, that we can never be truly holy because of the sins of our past. They tell us that we do not deserve to be forgiven and do not deserve to be loved. They tell us that we are so broken that not even God can fix us. Those voices try to isolate us from God and convince us that we can never have the joy, peace and freedom he promises to those who love him.

When the voices of the crowd and the stones of their condemnation are bearing down on us, we need to fly to Jesus. He alone can dispel all those negative messages and replace them with the good news of God's love and forgiveness. When we have sinned, it is not the time for us to avoid Jesus but to run to him and beg for his mercy. We can count on him to take our shame away and give us his peace, to take away our guilt and replace it with his joy, and to take away our despair and give us the hope that can only be found in him. We need not fear because he has taken on himself the punishment which we deserve. The one who gave his life to save us will spare nothing in order to restore our friendship with him. We can count on him to treat us with kindness and mercy no matter how shameful our sins may be.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

God is Rich in Mercy

Jesus never gave a title to his most famous parable which we hear proclaimed today. It has come to be known as "The Prodigal Son" because of how thoroughly the son wastes his father's inheritance. Many scholars, however, have suggested that the parable should be called, "The Forgiving Father" because Jesus goes to such lengths to describe how joyful the father was upon seeing his son home and how ready he was to welcome and forgive him.

However, most of us listening to this parable today will most readily identify not with the prodigal son nor with his forgiving father but with the other son who stayed behind. We can feel his disappointment and anger when he learns that his brother has come home and that, instead of getting scolded or being made to pay the money he squandered back, his father is actually throwing a party for him. We feel the hurt in his voice when he says, "For years I have slaved for you, and you have never given me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends." He reminds us of ourselves at times when we felt overlooked and unappreciated despite our best efforts. If it were up to us, the parable would not be titled "The Prodigal Son", nor "The Forgiving Father" but rather, "The Forgotten Son."

Most likely, Jesus intended the overlooked son to be at the center of his parable of mercy. However, he might have described him as "The Unforgiving Son" or "The Ungrateful Son."

Let's remember why Jesus told the parable in the first place. The Pharisees had been grumbling that Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and prostitutes - not only speaking with them, but going into their homes and eating with them. He did what no good and pious Jew of his day would ever dream of doing - making friends with those who broke the laws of their ancestors.

Now, the Pharisees of Jesus' day were very good and sincere people. They prayed and fasted much more than the law required them to do. They set up synagogues so that those who could not travel to Jerusalem would have a place to worship. They gave generously to the poor. In their minds, they were the epitome of what a good Jew should be just as the son in the parable believed himself to be the kind of son his father wanted.

However, Jesus was a curiosity to them. He spoke with authority and worked miracles giving sight to the blind and raising the dead. But, at the same time, he ate with public sinners. In their minds, if he were truly a prophet or the Son of God, he would know to avoid the company of tax collectors and prostitutes. Also, he would be telling the Pharisees how good they were and would be holding them up as an example for the people to follow. Instead, he criticized the religious leaders, frequented the homes of sinners and invited fishermen to be his disciples.

The Pharisees were truly good people. However, their religious observance filled them with pride. It gave them a sense of entitlement and superiority. It made them judgemental. They forgot that they too were sinners who were forgiven because of God's mercy. Because of this, they were unable to forgive and show mercy to sinners. They were the ungrateful and unforgiving sons who would miss out on the celebration because they could not share their father's joy that the prodigal son had finally returned home.

We find ourselves about one month into our Lenten observance. Some of us have been able to keep our Lenten sacrifice up without falling. Some of us may have cheated a little here and there but are doing our best to keep it up. Still others of us have given up on it all together. The success of our Lenten sacrifices, however, is not in showing how disciplined and determined we can be. It is not an exercise of will power. Rather, the success of our Lenten observance will be the effect it has on our hearts. Are our prayers, fasting and sacrifices making us more loving and more forgiving? Are our hearts growing in compassion for others? Are we recognizing the face of Christ in everyone we meet, especially those who are difficult to love? If so, then our Lenten practice is having a good effect in our lives.

If, on the other hand, our success at staying away from sweets for forty straight days is making us grow in pride and causing us to be judgmental of others, then we have not learned the lesson of God's mercy. What God wants more than perfect discipline and perfect obedience is perfect love. Whenever we feel a sense of superiority or a judgmental spirit coming upon us, we must fly to God and ask him for the gift of humility so that we can grow in the knowledge of his mercy. Otherwise, we will find ourselves out in the cold, like the unforgiving son who did what his father asked of him but who never really knew how good, forgiving and merciful he was.

Jesus suffered and died for each one of us. There is no one who is so good that Jesus did not have to die for him or her. We are all in the same situation - sinners who have no other hope except in the mercy of God. Today, Jesus continues to welcome sinners and eat with them. We are those sinners, and we gather around this table to receive his body and blood. It is a celebration of mercy and forgiveness that has gone on for centuries. It is a celebration which is repeated in heaven whenever people repent of their sinful ways. With the knowledge that we are truly unworthy but loved nonetheless, let us go from this place to put into practice the tender mercy of our Heavenly Father.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Influencing Society

A few years back on a Friday evening, my wife and I walked into an Applebees Restaurant in Fall River for supper. We expected a long wait, but were surprised to find the restaurant nearly empty. When we mentioned it to the waitress she replied, “Oh, this is typical for a Friday in Lent.”

Since then I have noticed that many restaurants do try to accommodate Catholics who faithfully observe the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent. Jillian’s Restaurant in nearby Swansea has changed its sign promoting $2.00 drafts and replaced it with “We now have a Lent menu.” And McDonalds rolled its new “fish bites” on Ash Wednesday. All this in response to loyal Catholics practicing their faith.

Now imagine if Catholics were just as zealous and faithful when it comes to issues that really matter. What if we insisted that our government protect the dignity of all unborn human life? What if we demanded that our legislators honor the sanctity of marriage? What if we unfailingly held politicians accountable for their failures to see that justice is done for the poor? What if we made the common good our highest priority whenever we stepped into the voting booth? Then we would witness a real and lasting change in our society that would accomplish much more good than making sure that scrod and haddock are offered as special at our favorite restaurants.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Third Sunday of Lent

Does God punish us? Is every bad thing that happens to us retribution for a sin we may have committed? Was the earthquake in Haiti punishment for the practice of voodoo? Did the people who died on 9/11 deserve to because of the injustices the American government has perpetrated? Is every natural disaster and every act of war a direct punishment from God on those who suffer from them?

We might not admit to such sentiments out loud in polite company, but very often we think that way. How many times have we said to ourselves, "good enough", when something unfortunate has happened to someone who has hurt or offended us? And how many times when we have been the victims of violence or misfortune have we wondered what we have done wrong to deserve the hardships we are experiencing.

It is called "blaming the victim." It is a mentality that tries to make sense out of natural disasters or random acts of violence by claiming that those who suffered them somehow deserved it. When we allow ourselves to think that way we are claiming that every misfortune is an act of God's wrath bringing down punishment on evildoers. Such thinking is sinful because it blasphemes God who is merciful, good and all-loving. It also is a sin against charity because we are failing to show compassion to those who are suffering. Finally, it is a sin against justice because it takes the blame away from those who really deserve it.

Jesus never accepted the idea that his Father was a vengeful, punishing God. He rejected the notion that poverty and sickness were signs that a person had sinned. Instead, he touched the leper, healed the blind and brought strength back to the legs of the lame. He came to reveal to us that God does not desire to punish us, but to heal and save us. For this reason, he never treated the sick and the poor as sinners. In fact, he said that the poor, the hungry and those who mourned were blessed in the eyes of his Heavenly Father because it was to just such as these that the Kingdom of God would be given. What's more, he assured us that each of us would be judged by the way we treated those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus is speaking with his disciples about some tragic events. Some of his own countrymen - fellow Galileans - had been sentenced to death and their blood was then used in a sacrifice to a pagan god. And in Siloam in the city of Jerusalem, eighteen men - all of them sons, husbands and fathers - had been killed when a tower crumbled down on top of them. Jesus asks his disciples whether they deserved such horrible deaths. Were there not worse sinners in Galilee and Jerusalem? Jesus refutes the idea that their tragic deaths were direct punishments from God. But he leaves his disciples - and us - with a stern warning. If we do not reform - if we are not converted from our sinful ways - a far worse punishment awaits us.

What can Jesus be talking about? If God is not going to punish us in this life for our sins, then who else has the power to do so?

Very simply, Jesus is warning us that sin is its own punishment. By its very nature, sin damages us. It separates us from our Heavenly Father who is our supreme good and the source of our joy. It makes our hearts grow cold and blinds us to the needs of those around us. Sin damages our relationships, our friendships, our marriages and our families. When we make bad choices, we put ourselves in danger of suffering a tragedy which no natural disaster and no act of violence can match - that of eternal separation from God.

Any of us who have turned away from a life of sin know how true Jesus' words are. Many of us wasted years of our lives believing that the only way to happiness was by filling ourselves with the pleasures that this world offers. We compromised our integrity, traded away our self-respect and trampled over the feelings of others thinking it would bring us success and contentment. All it left us with was regrets, emptiness and bitterness. It was not God who had abandoned us, but we who had abandoned God. Finding ourselves so far from him and his love, we wondered if we could ever find our way back. But God is merciful. He helped us to realize that there is nothing we have done that cannot be undone. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven and no wound that he could not heal. His desire was not to punish us, but to have us turn back to him and find joy and peace once again through a personal relationship with him in his Church.

We are midway through our Lenten journey to Easter. We are called by God during these days to turn away from sin and believe in the good news. The good news is that we do not find in Jesus a God who seeks to punish us, but one who was willing to die - to take on the punishment we deserve - so that we could live. Today is a day of decision. Will we look to the world and the gratifications it promises or will we believe God's promise that he is our only and supreme good? Will we live only for ourselves or will we give ourselves in service to the poor, the hungry and the sick? Our merciful God is willing to wait for our answer, but not forever. Let us make the decision today to follow him with our whole hearts. Only then can we begin to experience the joy and peace that he alone can give.