Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Light of the World

On a talk show one morning, a blind man was promoting a book he had written about his life. During the interview, he talked about how he considered his blindness to be a "blessing in disguise". He told the woman interviewing him that, since he was not able to see her,  he could not judge her by how she looked or by the clothes she wore. The only idea he had of her was from the words she spoke and the sound of her voice. And so, with his heart, he could "see" her - the real her - better than those who could see her with just their eyes.

Being able to see something with our eyes and being able to understand it with our mind and heart are two different things. There are many things we see and yet do not understand. There are many times as well that our eyes get in the way of our understanding because of prejudices we may have against those of a different race or those of a different economic or social status.

In today's first reading, God sends the prophet Samuel to Jesse's house to choose a king for Israel. If Samuel had relied just on his eyes, he would have picked one of Jesse's older sons. But, Samuel was listening to God. Samuel did not choose based on what his eyes told him, but what God told him. As God says to Samuel: "Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart." And so, having trusted God and not his eyes, Samuel anoints David as the next king of Israel. It would turn out that David would be Israel's greatest king. Later on in Scripture, God will say of David that he is a "man after my own heart." It is from David that the Messiah would be born.

Jesus also understood very well how seeing is not always believing. He knew that, though people saw him with their eyes, they did not always understand who he was. In today's Gospel reading, we find that it is the blind man who comes to really see Jesus for who he is and to testify to him as the Messiah. The people who should know better - the religious leaders - cannot get past their own squabbling to really see with their heart who Jesus is. They are too concerned with maintaining control and their authority to see that Jesus is the Messiah they have been longing for. 

As we look now at our life, do we really see what's going on? Do we grasp the grace which God is showering us with everyday? Do we notice the beauty of the day? Do we notice when someone needs our help? Do we know what are children are up to? And, if we see it, do we understand it? Do we see God taking us beyond the appearances into the reality, into the truth?  

There are a lot of reasons we might want to stay in the dark and not see. There is a lot of ugliness in the world such as war and famine. There is a lot of sadness in the world. If we were really to see it, we might feel overwhelmed. We might not know what to do. Or maybe for the first time we might actually be shaken out of the comfortable little world we have made for ourselves and feel as though we needed to do something about it. It is fear that keeps us in the dark. It is fear that so often keeps us from wanting to see.

However, when we choose to stay in the dark, we also miss out on what is beautiful about the world. We do not see the people who give of themselves to make the lives of others better. We do not see the children whose purity of heart reminds us of the goodness which surrounds us. And we fail to see God working in powerful ways to bring food to the hungry and comfort to the afflicted.  

Even the healthiest eye needs light to see. Jesus is our light. He is light for the world. We do not need to hide in the cold night of fear. We do not need to cower before the seemingly endless problems of our lives and of our world. We have in Jesus a Savior who helps us to see ourselves and see our world as God sees it. God sent Jesus to the world to be its light because God thought that we were worth saving. Each one of us is precious in God's eyes. God has paid a high price to secure our salvation - the price of His only Son. How wonderful each of us must be that God was so moved to rescue us from sin and death. And, if we are that precious in God's eyes, what a tragedy it is when any one of us suffers.

When we start to see ourselves and our world in this way, how can we not, then, be moved with the same love to reach out to those who are hungry, to those who are homeless, to those who mourn?

There are many in this world who live in darkness because of fear. Many of them are desperate for light, but don't know where to turn. We know where the light is. We know that Christ is our light. We received that light at our baptism. It is by that light that we live. It is by that light that we see as God sees. How could we ever close our eyes and return to the darkness of fear, now that Christ has given us his light? And, how can we not bring that light today into a world shivering in darkness?  

Friday, March 28, 2014

Jesus is Waiting

She was an outcast, a nobody. Whenever she walked by, people would pretend they did not see her or whisper gossip to one another about her. She would never be invited to any parties or gatherings in the town. If she had any children, they too would have no friends. The other children would have been warned not to play at their house or go near them. She did not have a friend in the world.

For this reason we find her walking alone at the hottest time of the day to get water from Jacob’s well. At noon she hoped that everyone would be inside their homes avoiding the heat. She would not have to put up with the stares of the people in the street. And at the well she would not have to deal with the awkward silence that would come over everyone as soon as she approached.

Though she expected to be alone, there was someone at the well waiting for her. A Jewish man. At least he would not speak to her, or so she thought. What she did not know was that Jesus was there waiting for her. This man knew her loneliness. He knew all the choices she had made in the past which now haunt her, leaving her with no friends and no peace. What she also did not know was that He was the only one who could make everything right for her.

With the purest of intentions, Jesus begins to seduce her. He intrigues her with His offer of living water. In her mind, she thinks that if she could get this living water she would never have to come to the well again and face the other women of the town. But Jesus is talking about an even greater gift than that. He is offering her a refreshment that she has never known and could never imagine having. He is offering her peace with God, a relationship with Him that can sustain her. He is offering her a new life based not on shame and loneliness but on awareness of God’s love and freedom.

The woman is overwhelmed by what Jesus tells her. Forgetting her shame, she now no longer avoids the people of her town but runs up to their homes knocking furiously on their doors beckoning them to come to the well and meet the one who told her “everything she had ever done.” Though they may have thought she was crazy, they did come out to meet Jesus and they eventually believed in Him.

As the town’s greatest sinner, she was the most unlikely person that Jesus would meet. Even more, she was the most unlikely person to carry His message to others. But she was precisely the one whom Jesus chose. She was precisely the one whom Jesus sought out, because His delight is in finding the lost, in rescuing those most in danger and in bringing love to the most abandoned.

Like the woman going to the well, we have come here to this church today looking for something. Perhaps we are lonely and feel that we do not have a real friend in the world. Perhaps we are burdened with shame, haunted by the sins of our past and frightened that we lack the strength to not repeat them in the future. Perhaps our hearts have grown cold and hard and we need faith, hope and love to rejuvenate them. Perhaps we are tired from all the responsibilities of life and just need to rest.

Jesus is waiting for us here. In fact, Jesus has been expecting us. He wants to refresh us with the living water - His word which revives us and His Holy Spirit who sustains us. He wants to reassure us that He knows everything we have ever done. He understands the burden of shame we carry, but He loves us anyway and He wants us to put that burden down for good. If we give it to Him, He can carry it for us instead. If we have been feeling distant from God, He wants to teach us how to worship in Spirit and in Truth. We know that His word is truth and that when we gather here with other believers the Holy Spirit is among us. Finally, He wants us to know that He is the Messiah, the Saviour of the World. He is the One we long for. He is the One we have been searching for to soothe the aching of our hearts. He is here, and He is waiting for us.

Just as the Jews wandering in the desert found water in the most unlikely of places - a rock - and just as Jesus chose the most unlikely of persons - a sinful Samaritan woman - to carry His message, so we will find Jesus in the most unlikely of places and the most unlikely of persons. If we have found God to be elusive or fulfillment to be beyond our reach, it could be that we have been looking everywhere else except where He can be found. It could be that we have to slow down and begin opening our eyes to everything and everyone around us. God loves us, He is waiting for us and He is looking for us. It could be that we just have not noticed it yet. One thing we can be sure of is that when we do slow down, open our eyes and begin to notice it will be a surprise.

How will we know when we have met Jesus and have found the spring of living water? We will know for sure when we want to share it with others, when we want to tell our family, friends and neighbors all that God has done for us so that they can share our joy. Joy - a contagious, overflowing joy that we cannot keep to ourselves - is the sure sign that God is living within us. If that joy is still elusive, all we need do is ask Jesus for the gift of living water. He has been waiting a long time to offer it to us. Let us lay down our burden of shame, our fears and our doubts believing that just as He loved us enough to die for us on a cross He will not refuse us the living water our hearts long for. Then let us open our eyes to marvel at all the surprising ways in which He will answer our prayer.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Are You Thirsting For?

What are you thirsting for?

What unfulfilled dreams drive you? What unrealized goals motivate your actions? What is the “something more” that exceeds your grasp and pushes you to try harder?

All of us in the pit of our being live with an unmet need. At times we experience it as anxiety or restlessness. It can be the lingering feeling of disappointment when we reach a milestone that does not seem to satisfy us the way we expected. We know that we are made for great things, for that “something more”. However, no matter how hard we look, it manages to elude us.

In today’s gospel, Jesus meets a woman who was thirsting for that “something more”. Her drive for love and intimacy took her through five marriages. As if that were not enough, she was living with a man who was not her husband. There is no doubt that she was restless and unsatisfied.

What did her life-long search for love and belonging get her? Much heartbreak. With each of those failed marriages she must have felt devastating rejection and numbing shame. She had become an outcast in her village. That is why she sets out at the hottest hour of the day in the desert to draw water from the well. She hoped that she would not bump into the other women of her town. She hoped to avoid their condescending stares and mocking whispers.

All her life, she thirsted for love and belonging, but found herself heartbroken and alone.

And so, in the middle of the desert, underneath the blazing midday sun, whom does she find waiting for her at the well? Jesus.

She is amazed that he would even speak to her. Not only does he speak with her, it turns out that he already knows her. Though he knows her soul and reads its secrets, he does not ridicule or blame her. Rather he wants to be her friend. He makes it clear that he alone can provide her with the water she so desperately needs. He alone can quench the thirst she has been suffering with for so many years. She believes and runs back to the village leaving her water jug behind. She has found the love she was craving and wants to tell everyone about it.

Has your thirst for love and belonging taken you to places you should not have gone? Have you looked for friendship from people who could only take from you and who left you with less than you started with? Has your shame weighed so heavily upon you that you are convinced you do not deserve to be treated any better?

Have you finally had enough? Are you ready to let your thirst lead you to the one who has the power to really satisfy you?

God placed that emptiness within each one of us so that we would search for him. He is the only one who can fill it. Just as we thirst for him, Jesus thirsts for us. He longs for us to come home to him. We can be confident that he will not condemn us or heap more shame on us. Rather, he will heal our broken hearts and fill them with joy. He will restore our dignity, our freedom and our sense of meaning. We will no longer be groping in the dark for that “something more” that has eluded us. Rather we will have a personal relationship with the one for whom our hearts were made.

On the cross, Jesus cried out, “I thirst”. Blood and water flowed out from his pierced heart so that our thirst could be satisfied. Turn to Jesus, then. Be fed by him. Know the peace that he alone can give. And go from this place in joy to tell others so that they can receive the living water that only he can give.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Going to the Well

I'd like you to take a minute and think about the teachers who made a difference in your life. If you're like me, I remember those teachers not because of what they taught, but because of how they taught. A good teacher does more than lecture students and spoon-feed them raw data. Instead, he or she tries to draw out from them an understanding of the material and an ability to relate that information to real life. By engaging them in the learning process, a good teacher not only teaches students what to learn, but teaches them how to learn.

Like a good teacher, Jesus did not get his point across with lectures or by assigning book reports. Instead he encountered people face to face and sought to draw out faith from them.

In today's gospel, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. Under the hot, noontime sun, he sees an opportunity to draw faith from the well of this woman's soul. By speaking to her and asking her questions, Jesus guides her through a gradual understanding of who he is. At first, she recognizes him to be a Jew. When he offers her living water, she asks if he is "greater than our ancestor Jacob". Then, when Jesus tells her that she has had five husbands, and that she is living with a man who is not her husband, she recognizes that he is a prophet. Finally, when Jesus tells her that true followers will worship in spirit and in truth, she asks him if he is the Messiah. Elated at her new discovery, she drops her water jug and runs off to the village to tell the people that she has found the Messiah. Like a good teacher, Jesus did not just tell her who he was, but revealed himself to her gradually in a way that she could take to heart.

But not only is there a change in the woman's understanding of who Jesus is, there is a change in the woman herself. Remember that Jesus told her that she had had five husbands and that she was living with a man who was not her husband. That's probably why she was at the well at the hottest time of the day, to avoid the other women in the town who would look down on her. She was the town harlot, a public sinner, who lived as an outcast. But now that she had encountered the Messiah and come to believe in him, she went from being the town sinner to being a herald of the good news. She leads the people of the village out to meet this man "who told her everything she ever did!"

We are now in our third week of Lenten prayer and sacrifice. Through our prayer, bible study and works of charity we have sat at the foot of our teacher, Jesus, and learned from him. By his presence in our lives, we have come to a deeper understanding of who he is. We may know in our minds that Jesus is our Messiah, but to have it change our lives is another story. Like a good teacher, Jesus is patient with us. He knows it will take time for our understanding of him to penetrate our hearts and to make a real change. The important thing is that we keep going to the well, that we keep seeking out Jesus, that we keep learning from him. Jesus will not deny us the living water when we approach him with sincerity and humility.

Jesus thirsts. Jesus thirsts to have us know him and to live a life of intimate friendship with him. He also longs to quench our thirst for hope and truth. We are gathered here today to worship in Spirit and in Truth. Our worship is guided by the Holy Spirit who was poured into our hearts at our baptism. And, we worship in the truth revealed to us in the Gospels and taught to us by our master, Jesus. If we open our hearts this day to that truth and to that Spirit, Jesus will draw from the well of our hearts a living water which is the promise of everlasting life with him in heaven. And, we will leave this place forever changed.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Highs and Lows

When a man and woman first fall in love, they cannot get enough of each other. As often as possible, they spend time together. In their conversations, they want to learn everything about each other. As trust grows, little by little they reveal different facets of their personality. They become increasingly comfortable being themselves as they learn to accept one another.

As time goes on, the deeply felt emotional moments begin to fade and the near ecstatic experiences of love become fewer and fewer. If the couple marries, the glow of romance gives way to the demands of everyday life - maintaining a household, earning a living and raising children. Though the feelings might not seem as intense, the love itself does not go away. Rather it is growing stronger as it grounds itself not just in emotion but in a total, lifelong commitment.

The same is true with our spiritual lives. As we fall in love with Jesus, we want to spend increasingly more time with Him in prayer. We pour over the Bible and other books trying to learn as much as we can about our Savior. At Mass or at adoration, we experience intensely deep emotions, even breaking down into tears as our Heavenly Father’s love becomes more and more real to us.

However, with time, those emotional highs become fewer and fewer. We experience dryness in our prayer and often find it a chore rather than a joy. If we are involved in the Church, we may begin to wonder if our efforts are making any difference. We may doubt that we are making any progress in the spiritual life at all. However, like a married couple, our faith is growing deeper and basing itself not on emotions but on a real commitment to Jesus, His word and His Church.

Today’s readings offer us stories about intense spiritual experiences and the hardships that followed them. .

In the first reading, we hear the call of Abram. In a mystical vision, God reveals Himself to the man who would be the father of the Israelite people.  God promises to make Abram the father of a great nation, though he is an old man. No doubt, this spiritual experience was very intense for Abram. However, it came with a condition. He had to leave his ancestral land to travel to a far off place where God’s promise would be fulfilled.  

This mystical experience, then, was followed by many years of traveling. He and his wife, Sarah, endured many hardships making their way from Ur to Canaan. They suffered famine, witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and dealt with all the dangers involved in traveling in the ancient Near East. We also know how much God tested Abram’s faith, especially when He asked Him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. There must have been many times when Abram wondered whether he had done the right thing in leaving his homeland and he must have been tempted to go back. However, the mystical experience of God and His promise gave him the strength to continue. Through it all, Abram trusted in God’s promise. He did not always have intense mystical visions but, nonetheless, he remained faithful to God in his everyday life.

The second example comes from the gospel account of the Transfiguration.

Jesus invites Peter, James and John to join Him in prayer on Mount Tabor. It is an invitation they had probably accepted numerous times as they followed Jesus. However, this time would be different. Jesus is transfigured before them, Elijah and Moses appear, and the voice of God is heard booming from a bright cloud which overshadowed them. In the intensity of the experience, they fall to the ground, trembling with fear. In a privileged moment, they witness Jesus in all His glory as the Son of God. However, just as soon as it begins, it is over. In a short while, they are walking down the mountain with Jesus who is telling them to keep the mystical experience to themselves.

By showing Peter, James and John the mystical vision of His glory, Jesus was strengthening them for the hardships that would follow. Once they left the mountain, they would be traveling to Jerusalem where Jesus would be put to death. The disciples would have their faith tested as Jesus was arrested, dragged through the streets and finally put to death. They would wonder whether they had made a mistake in believing in Him and following Him. By showing them His glory, Jesus hoped to encourage them in their faith, to help them believe that He was in control and that He really would rise again in three days as He promised.

Unlike Abram and the disciples, few of us have been blessed with intense mystical experiences. However, most of us have sensed God’s presence in a particularly tender way at one time or another. We may have been overcome with a feeling of His care. In our prayer, we may try to recapture such moments, trying to recreate the experience which gave us so much consolation and peace. However, those experiences are a gift. God gives them to us when we need them. There is no way to repeat them. We have to simply wait until our Heavenly Father feels it is time to grant them to us again.

At the same time, we should not be looking for such intense experiences. They should not be the goal of our prayer. We should be thankful when they do come, but we should also remember why God gives them to us. He gives them to strengthen us in times of temptation, to encourage us in time of hardship and to remind us of His love when we are feeling abandoned or overwhelmed.

As we enter another week of Lent, we recommit ourselves to the sacrifices we have promised to undertake. They too will strengthen us to face temptation. When we begin to feel weak, when it seems that we cannot go on, when we are tempted to abandon it all, that is when we should call to mind all the gifts which our Heavenly Father has bestowed on us. Also, we should be quick to share with others the joy and consolation we have experienced in prayer and in good works. Our God stands with us, ready to give us what we need on our journey to everlasting life.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Second Sunday of Lent

Saint John Vianney tells the story of a parishioner of his who, after Mass, would sit in church staring up at the tabernacle. He asked him one day, “What is it that you are doing when you pray?” The man answered, “I look at Jesus, and he looks at me.”

There are few definitions of prayer as simple yet as beautiful as that. Prayer, at its heart, is looking into the face of God, seeing his beauty, contemplating his love and allowing ourselves to be changed by his grace and power.

Because all of us are called to know and love God, prayer must be a part of our life. It does not have to be complicated or difficult. It is a simple matter of opening our hearts to God and allowing him to touch us.

Today’s gospel reading - the story of the Transfiguration - gives us some clues as to how all of us can grow in our spiritual lives. They are steps which we need to take in our journey of prayer. First, we must climb the mountain; second, we must look upon Jesus; and third, we must go  back down the mountain to tell others what we have seen.

First, we must climb the mountain. In today’s gospel, before revealing his glory to Peter, James and John, Jesus first leads them up a high mountain. Climbing a mountain takes a good deal of effort. There is always the danger of falling off a cliff or running into a wild animal. Also, it is very tiring because the higher one climbs, the thinner the air is and the harder it becomes to breathe. Peter, James and John must have wondered to themselves why Jesus was taking them on such a demanding hike. Whatever it was that Jesus wanted to show them or tell them, couldn’t he have chosen someplace easier to get to?

The apostles’ experience teaches us something very true and profound about the spiritual life. God does not reveal himself until we are willing to make the hard journey up the mountain. That mountain could be a sin that we have to overcome, an unhealthy relationship in our lives or sickness. Every difficulty and challenge we experience is an invitation from God to climb the mountain so that he can reveal his glory to us. Like the apostles, we may not understand why God has put those obstacles in our path and made things so hard for us. However, if we ask him, he will give us the strength to endure whatever may come. And, with time, we will see and be amazed by God’s mercy.

The second truth of the spiritual life which today’s gospel teaches us is that we are meant to see the vision of God. Unlike the apostles, we do not see Jesus face to face. How, then, do we get a glimpse of him in all his glory? The central and most important way is in the Mass. At every Eucharist, the Risen Lord is truly present in our midst. When the readings are proclaimed, it is Jesus’ voice that we hear. The bread and wine we offer are truly transformed into his Body and Blood. They are not merely symbols, but Jesus himself in his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. When we receive the Eucharist, we touch the body of the Risen Lord just as the apostles did, and we are transformed by him.

For that reason, the Sunday Mass is an indispensable part of our Christian life and spirituality. While it is very good to read the Bible, pray the rosary and contemplate the beauty of nature, none of those activities compare with the gift offered us in the Eucharist. While those activities can give us some insight into Jesus and his love, they cannot actually give us Jesus himself as the Eucharist does. There is no substitute for the real, life-changing encounter we have with the Risen Lord in the sacrament of his Body and Blood which we receive every Sunday.

The third truth of the spiritual life is that we cannot stay on the mountain. We have to go back down to witness to others the Jesus we have come to know.

The experience the apostles had of Jesus was overwhelming. It filled them both with awe and fear. Understandably, Peter does not want it to end. He wants to stay there, camping out with Jesus, Elijah and Moses forever. But Jesus does not allow it. The vision of his glory comes to an abrupt end, and he leads them back down the mountain to continue preaching the good news and healing the sick.

Many times when we are praying and feeling God’s presence all around us, we do not want it to end. We want to stay basking in the warmth of God’s love. That is entirely natural because we were created to praise God and never feel so much “at home” as when we are praying. But it is not enough. The spiritual life is never just a private affair. From worship, we must go into service. We have to bring the love of God we have experienced to others. We must come down the mountain and point out the way to encounter God to others so that they may share our joy.

The spiritual life is not only for priests, deacons and nuns any more than food and exercise are meant only for professional athletes. All of us are called to cultivate a deep life of prayer in whatever way suits our lifestyle, personality and calling in life. No matter what our individual prayer lives look like they will all have some characteristics in common. They will require us to climb the mountain of sacrifice and self-denial, they will lead us to gaze upon the face of Jesus and they will lead us back down the mountain to some type of service to our neighbor. All of these aspects of the spiritual life will revolve around the Mass which is the source and summit of our Christian life.

As we look upon the face of Christ, we will be changed by the vision of his glory and will begin to reflect that light to everyone we meet.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Forbidden Fruit

“Forbidden fruit tastes sweet”, or so the saying goes. When someone tells us that there is something we cannot do or something we cannot have, it automatically becomes appealing to us.

We know how true this is just from these first few days of Lent. Whatever we have sacrificed during these forty days all of a sudden tempt us in ways they did not before. Out of the blue, we cannot imagine how it will be possible to get through the day without a piece of candy or a glass of wine. During the year we may have no trouble having fish for dinner, but as soon as we begin abstaining from meat on Fridays we begin craving hamburgers, pulled pork sandwiches and chicken enchiladas.

It is human nature to desire what is forbidden to us.

The devil knows that and uses it to his advantage. In today’s first reading, from the book of Genesis, the serpent draws Adam and Eve to the tree that God has forbidden them to eat from. He invites them to look at it, to see how lovely the fruit is and, eventually, to taste it. He whispers to them that God does not want them to enjoy themselves. He tells them that if they do taste the fruit it will make them more knowledgeable and more powerful.

Unfortunately, we see just the opposite happen. Because they disobey God, Adam and Eve experience shame at their nakedness. They become self-conscious and uncomfortable in their own skins. Not only do they lose friendship with God but they lose their home in Paradise. The devil used the lure of forbidden fruit to cheat Adam and Eve of everything they had and held dear.

Looking at ourselves, we can see how the drama of Adam and Eve’s sin has played itself out in our own lives. We fell into temptation because we believed the lie that sin would liberate us from the constraints of our parents’ morality, that it would empower us to live the way we wanted to and that it would give us pleasure and fulfillment. Sadly, we discovered just the opposite. Choosing sin left us in bondage to addictions. It poisoned our friendships. It saddled us with guilt, remorse and shame.

Thankfully, by turning to God we learned that we could break free from the allure of forbidden fruit. We discovered that by confessing our sins, we could leave our shame and guilt at the foot of the cross. By reading the Bible daily and receiving the sacraments, we became empowered to make healthy, holy choices that gave us the fulfillment and peace we were seeking. As we grew in our faith, the lies of the evil one were exposed to us and we found it increasingly easier to not fall into his trap.

All this is possible because of Jesus’ victory over the devil. Saint Paul tells us that sin entered the world through Adam and all of us fell victim to it. However, through Jesus, forgiveness and reconciliation have now become possible to each of us. By His victory over the devil, each of us can know true freedom from sin, unhealthy habits and the grinding shame they inflict on us.

In today’s gospel, Saint Matthew tells us that Jesus goes into the desert specifically “to be tempted by the devil.” What He is doing is drawing the devil out from the shadows. Like a good soldier, He is forcing the enemy to reveal himself where there is nothing to hide behind. In the desert, the devil’s lies and deceptions are brought into the blazing heat of day. And Jesus defeats the temptations one by one causing Satan to make a hasty retreat with his tail between his legs. In the desert, Jesus won the victory for us and makes it possible for us to recognize the devil’s lies and defeat them ourselves.

The devil’s first temptation has a lot to teach us in this Lenten season. It would not have been a sin for Jesus to change stones into bread. He would be doing nothing wrong. However, Jesus had been fasting for forty days. Fasting was the way that Jesus was strengthening Himself to face the evil one. By saying “no” to food, He would then be strengthened to say “no” to temptation. The devil knows this and wants to undermine Jesus’ self-control and willpower.

The same temptation can happen to us, especially during Lent. The sacrifices and good works we are undertaking teach us good habits of self-control and willpower. They teach us how fulfilling it is to do good and control our emotions and desires. The devil knows this and will whisper to us that it will not hurt to take a break from our disciplines, that it will not harm anyone if we cheat on our resolutions. He hopes that if he can get us to fall to these small temptations we will be more vulnerable to serious temptation.

We have to fight those deceptions of the evil one, as small as they may seem. Remembering that Jesus has already won the victory for us in the desert, we can draw on His strength in our own temptations. The same Spirit that drove Jesus into the desert to do battle with Satan lives in us to vanquish all the his deceitful tactics.

At the same time, if we do fall because of our human frailty, we do not have to carry a burden of shame. We can turn to Jesus for forgiveness and for the strength to try again. Rather than believe the lie that our Lent is ruined because of one mistake, we can get up again and recommit ourselves to building up good habits and stronger discipline through our Lenten practices and sacrifices.

Just as Adam and Eve had everything they could ever want provided for them in Paradise, so we have every spiritual blessing in the heavens at our disposal through the Holy Spirit. Though Adam and Eve lost Paradise through their sin, we can never lose our friendship with God. Even when we fall, we can turn back to Him and expect mercy and forgiveness. Most importantly, we do not need to fall into temptation and sin at all because Jesus empowers us to fight it with the weapons of faith, love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity and self-control that He offers us. Strengthened by all these gifts we can know His victory in our lives and our homes.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Resisting the Evil One

Because of certain television shows and movies that have recently come out, there has been much talk in the media about demonic possession and exorcism. Movies and television shows can sometimes exaggerate the power of the devil. Watching them, we can be led to believe that demonic possession can happen to anyone for any reason at all. The truth is that possession by the devil is very rare and only occurs when people welcome a demon into their lives through some occult activity. The Holy Spirit which we received at baptism protects us from that kind of demonic activity in our lives. Though the devil is real, we have nothing to fear from him if we are living good and holy lives.

Though we should not fear the devil, we also should not take him too lightly. We should be aware of his presence and action in the world and alert to how he tries to lure us away from God. We only have to look around  to see how real the devil is and how powerful his influence over the world is.

Though demonic possessions and attacks are rare, the devil’s other activity is very common. He mostly tries to attack us through temptation. We see this truth on display in today’s readings.

The first reading from the Book of Genesis gives the tragic account of the original sin. The serpent convinces Eve that God is lying to them, that they will not die if they eat the fruit. Eve, instead of running away, decides to look at the tree. It becomes desirable to her, and she is captivated by the allure of knowing good and evil. By succumbing to the temptation, our first parents lost Paradise.

The story of the original sin has much to teach us about our own experience of temptation. As in the garden, the devil always starts out by calling God a liar. He whispers to us that what God calls “sin” is really not going to hurt us. He tries to convince us that the Church’s rules do not come from God but are made up by a bunch of old men.

To resist temptations of this sort, we must be firmly grounded in our knowledge of the Bible and the Church’s teaching. When we do not understand why the Church teaches that a certain act is sinful, we must read up on it or ask someone knowledgeable to explain it to us. Everything the Church teaches comes directly from the word of God and is the result of centuries of the accumulated wisdom of saints and scholars. We should never just dismiss any teaching of the Church just because we do not understand it. When we do that, we open ourselves up to  temptation.

The story of the original sin also teaches us that we must run from temptation whenever we are faced with it. Besides listening to the serpent in the first place, the mistake Eve made was to look at the fruit and begin to desire it. By doing so, she already decided in her heart that she would disobey God.

There are many ways that we open ourselves up to temptation by putting ourselves in places where we should not be. It can be by watching television, by websites we choose to visit or by the friends we choose to hang around with. We should avoid any situations which may lead us into temptation and run from them.

Today’s gospel reading gives us great hope, because sin and temptation are not the end of the story. Jesus goes to face Satan in the desert, to withstand his temptations and to win the victory over him. Through Jesus, we too find strength to overcome the devil in our lives.

Though Jesus overcomes Satan, the temptations he undergoes are very real. In fact, he will be faced with them not only in the desert but at other times and places. The basis of Satan’s temptation, though, is one that we often have to face. What the devil is telling Jesus by tempting him to turn stones into bread is that he should not have to suffer. Never mind what God’s plan is; there is an easier way.

Very often, the devil tempts us in much the same way. He seduces us with the idea of convenience. He will tell us that it is much easier to sleep late on a Sunday morning than to get up and get everyone ready for church. It is easier to cheat on an exam than to study. Other times, the devil will try to flatter us saying, “You have already done enough. You deserve a break. Just this one time won’t kill you.” And of course, the one time becomes two times and then three times. Before we know it, we are locked in a sinful pattern of behavior.

The way to combat this subtle ploy of the devil is to build up good habits. The more we pray, the more we attend Mass, the more we avoid people who spread gossip, the easier it will be to make good choices. It will become second nature to us. We will be making good and holy choices without having to put much thought into them. And that gives the devil less room to stick his nose in and disrupt us.

It is true. The devil is active in our world trying to deceive us into choosing sin. But Jesus has conquered the powers of darkness and gives us the strength to overcome temptation as well. And, if we do fall through our human weakness, we can go to him for forgiveness. Though he never sinned, he does understand our weakness because he also is human. We must never fail to pick ourselves up when we sin and start over with our eyes fixed on Jesus. With him, nothing is impossible.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Come Home

Tom Peterson worked as a corporate advertising executive for over twenty-five years. Like many young entrepreneurs, the drive for success eclipsed many other parts of his life. His faith was among the first things he sacrificed on the way up the corporate ladder. Though he was raised Catholic, he stopped going to Mass and paid little attention to his spiritual needs.

Then in 1997, feeling that he needed to make a change in his life, he accepted an invitation to go on a weekend retreat. As he describes it, he had a powerful “reversion” experience. That is, he rediscovered the beauty and depth of the Catholic faith he had abandoned so many years earlier. He realized that the emptiness and lack of fulfillment he had been feeling was really a yearning for a living relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.

With a new fervor for his faith, Tom decided that he wanted to reach out to other fallen away Catholics to share with them all the Church has to offer. And so, along with a few others, he founded “Catholics Come Home”, a non-profit group that seeks to promote Catholic evangelization and the sanctity of life through the internet, television and radio. You may have seen some of their commercials on television. Through their website, they invite Catholics to learn more about their faith and to share it with others. To date, Catholics Come Home has reached over 200,000 fallen away Catholics. Parishes that have used their program of evangelization have seen mass attendance increase by as much as ten percent.

Tom Peterson and the rest of the staff at Catholics Come Home seek to live out the words of Saint Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “We are ambassadors for Christ....Be reconciled to God!” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they have been blessed with much success.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are popular times for Catholics to come home to their faith and the Church of their youth. There are only a few other days of the year when Catholics - no matter how long it has been since they have gone - feel a tug within their hearts to return to Church. That is because we know that no matter how long it has been, no matter what kind of lives we have led, no matter what sins we may have committed, we can always come home. We will always be welcome. We will always find forgiveness. This is the meaning of today’s gathering and why it is so popular among so many Catholics.

All of us here today - myself included - are in the same boat. No matter how much or how little we live our faith, no matter how knowledgeable or ignorant we may be about Church teaching, we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. For all of us it is a day to embrace his offer of mercy and to pledge to live the gospel with renewed focus and fervor.

If there is anyone here who has been away from the Church, please know that you are welcome here and that we rejoice to have you with us. I urge you to look more deeply into your faith, to learn about it and try with God’s power to live it. The Catholics Come Home website is a good place to start. There are many other resources online that could be of help and any number of books as well. But nothing can substitute going to confession and hearing the words, “Go in peace; your sins have been forgiven.” And nothing can replace the feeling of community and fellowship you will experience by getting to know others who are living their faith. The best way to do that is by becoming involved in our parish in any way you feel comfortable. There is much depth and richness to our Catholic faith, and we are excited to help everyone discover it.

Today is the beginning of forty days of renewal leading up to our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Throughout these days, we will imitate our Lord who struggled against temptation in the desert. The ashes which will mark our foreheads are a sign that we are sorry for our sins and ready to change. With God’s help, we can come home and make a new start.