Sunday, February 26, 2012

Repent and Believe in the Gospel

1st Sunday of Lent:


    Today in the gospel we hear the rallying cry of the whole season of Lent: repent and believe in the gospel. Today we hear the very first words from the mouth of Jesus. These are the first words he speaks as he begins his ministry in Mark's gospel. So I cannot help but believe that they must have formed the heart of his message. In a sense these words are the core of the Christian message. Repent and believe.

    I don't think it is accidental that these two commands are given together: repent and believe. I don't think it is possible to do one without the other. First, repent is certainly on our minds during the season of Lent. While it is important to move away from sin all year long, Lent seems like a perfect opportunity to do some real soul-searching. I truly believe that God pours grace upon his church in the season of Lent like no other time of year. It is truly a season of conversion, of repentance. I find it inspiring that the whole church is doing the same thing. Right now all of us are supposed to be looking into our hearts and acknowledging our faults. This can be a painful and humbling thing to do, but I take comfort in the fact that we are all doing it together. And, what do we find when we search our hearts and examine our consciences? We find that we are all sinners. Sorry, but we are all weak and we are all fragile, we all commit sin, we all have need for repentance. If you searched your heart and conscience and found no sin you either need to look harder, or you are a canonizable saint. Although one thing the saints seem to have in common is that they all recognized themselves as sinners. For example, St. John Vianney, who is the patron saint of priests, was renowned for his holiness and simplicity of life. He was also known to spend 14 hours per day hearing confessions. Another priest once asked him why he was so popular: why are you such a great confessor? St. John Vianney said if he was a great confessor it was only because he was a great sinner. We are all sinners. So, we recognize that we are sinners, now what? Repentance means that we need to turn away from our sins, but this is easier said than done. Haven't I just been saying that we are all sinners; we are all weak and frail. Don't you think if we could move away from sin on our own, we would do it?

    This is where the second part of Jesus' message comes in. Repent, yes, but believe in the gospel. And what is the gospel: God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son so that all those who believe in him might not perish, but might have eternal life. Or as our reading from St. Peter's letter today puts it: Christ suffered for sins so that he might lead you to God. Jesus came to help us, to heal us. He knows we are sinners, he knows we are weak and frail. But, Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, Jesus came to save the world. But, he never takes away our freedom. Salvation is certainly a free gift from Christ, but he gives it to those who look for it.

    So, repentance and faith go hand in hand. By repentance we realize we need a savior. In faith, we recognize that Christ is that savior. By faith we realize that sin is an obstacle to our relationship with Christ, by repentance we identify these obstacles and seek their removal. Repentance without faith seems hopeless, but faith without repentance seems empty. The two must always go together in our lives because they came together from Christ. 2000 years ago Jesus preached the good news and today as we come forward to receive Christ in this Holy Eucharist on this first Sunday of Lent he tells us the same thing: repent and believe in the gospel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday at Marian High School:

Ash Wednesday 2012:

Today we begin Lent. Ash Wednesday: we receive ashes and hear: remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Kind of depressing isn't it? Why this focus on ashes? I think ashes are a great way to describe life without God. Because without God in our lives we are nothing, without God we come from nothing and we head toward nothing. But, with God there is life, with God there is hope, with God there is love. We start Lent with ashes because we should have a desire to have more than ashes. These ashes remind us that we should desire new life. But, Lent is a time of penance. The Church tells us that if we want new life, it will come through penance.

This shouldn't really surprise us if we think about it. Lent is a season where we prepare to celebrate the great triduum, where we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. Lent prepares us for Easter. So, if this is a season to prepare ourselves to celebrate the resurrection, it should look like the cross of Jesus. Because the resurrection is only possible after the crucifixion. Jesus is our model in all things, and the new life of the resurrection could only happen by way of the cross. In a similar manner, the new life that God wants to spring up within us this Lenten season will come about if we embrace this season of penance. Lent is not supposed to be fun, Lent can and probably should be a difficult season of suffering. But this suffering leads to new life.

Jesus describes for us today the three components of penance: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Every single one of you should make a resolution in each one of these three camps. And, remember my rule that I tell you every year: it should be difficult enough to be a sacrifice, but simple enough that you can do it for 40 days.

    Prayer: make a commitment to giving time to prayer. Make it concrete. Don't say: I want to pray more this year... That is not concrete enough. But, don't say: I'm going to pray 10 rosaries everyday... You will never get that done. A good commitment for High School kids is 10 minutes. Make a commitment this year to spend 10 minutes per day in the Chapel here at Marian. You could make it before school, after school, during lunch. Try to make a concrete commitment to a chunk of time and stick to it. Or go to Mass: we offer Mass after school every Tuesday and before school every Thursday: one great spiritual practice for Lent would be to go to Mass an extra day every week. I know it is a big sacrifice to stay after school or to get here early, but remember that the new life God wants to give you will grow through penance and self-sacrifice.

Fasting: we all know that this is where we give stuff up for Lent. But I once heard someone say: this year I'm not giving up anything for Lent, I'm going to be more loving. Great! You should love all the time: give something up for Lent! Fasting teaches us something that we rarely learn anywhere else: self-denial. Self-denial is something that we struggle with as human beings. In fact, if we were better at self-denial we would still be in the Garden of Eden. If you can give up sweets, or soda, or Facebook, or texting during Lent you will exercise that self-denial muscle which can be quite weak in all of us. With that muscle to help you, you can be more loving and more charitable the rest of the year.

Finally, giving of alms. Alms are money. Some of you have jobs, consider giving a portion of your paycheck each week to the poor. But, many of you don't have jobs. Consider supporting Eric's promise. This is a great way to live a simpler life, help the poor, and deepen your relationship with God.

I am absolutely convinced that God wants to do something amazing in your life. Let this be the year you make a commitment to Lent. Let this be the year you allow Christ into your life. No matter how you feel about your relationship with God right now, give Lent a chance. I guarantee that after 40 days of penance you will know yourself better and, more importantly, you will know God better. We are about to receive ashes, which are a powerful reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. But with God in our lives we have something more.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Behold I am doing something new… for Lent

7th Sunday OT 2012:

    In today's first reading we hear something quite interesting: forget the events of the past, behold I am doing something new. This would have sounded quite radical at the time it was first spoken. As best we can tell, this passage was first written at the time of the Babylonian exile. Remember that the people were forcibly removed from their homeland, and Jerusalem was in ashes. This was the darkest period of the people's existence. So, the prophet is here to give them a message of hope. But, he tells them to forget the past. The past to which the prophet refers would have been the Exodus, when God saved his people from slavery in Egypt. It would have been impossible for a Jew during the time of the Exile to forget about the Exodus, any more than we would forget about the Resurrection. The Exodus made them who they were. Just as the Resurrection is the historical event that causes Christianity, so the Exodus was the historical event that made the nation of Israel.

    But, God says I am doing something new! Christianity and Judaism are historical religions. We do not base our faith on some enlightened notions of good or evil. We did not invent our religion. Rather, we are rooted in time. We believe in a person, Jesus Christ. We believe that he rose from the dead. We believe that he sent his disciples into the world to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Ours is a concrete, historical faith. It is rooted in time, in real events. But, there can be a pitfall in a religious faith like ours. Because we base our faith on the real person of Jesus, who did real things many years ago, it is easy for us to let our faith seem distant and remote. We believe in Jesus, but he lived a long time ago. All the sudden our faith, based in concrete reality, can seem like a story in a book. Our faith is historical, but it is not simply stuck in the past. Behold, I am doing something new. In fact, God did something new. He brought his people out of exile and back into Jerusalem. So while their faith was certainly based on the action of God in the time of the Exodus, God asked them to be ready for his new action in their lives. The same is true for us as well.

    Think about the gospel passage today. It is easy to think of it simply as a story set in the past. But, Christ wants to make this happen even today. We hear of healing and of forgiveness. Christ certainly continues to bring us healing and forgiveness. Put yourself in this story, allow it to come alive for you. Jesus did not just want to bring healing and forgiveness 2000 years ago, but he continues he be present to us throughout history. Jesus wants to do something new.

    I think this is a great way to think about Lent. As you all know Lent starts on Wednesday. And while it is certainly important to celebrate one of my personal favorites (Fat Tuesday), it is not too early to begin thinking about our commitment to Lent. Lent is a time of renewal, a time of preparation. We spend 40 days preparing to celebrate the feast of the Resurrection. I think Lent is a particularly beautiful way to be sure that the Resurrection is not simply an event in the past. Every year we put ourselves through the desert of Lent so as to celebrate the springtime of Easter. God wants to do something new in your life this year. The people in today's Gospel had to tear through the roof to get to Jesus in order to find healing and forgiveness. I think this is a good way to think about our Lenten activities of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, because they allow Christ into our lives. Lent is a time to open up to Christ, for behold, he wants to do something new our lives.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The compassion of Christ

6th Sunday OT 2012:

    In today's gospel we get an insight into the person of Jesus Christ. We see in him compassion for the suffering of the leper. There are a couple of features of today's gospel that really highlight Jesus' compassion.

    First, it says that when Jesus sees the leper he is moved with pity. Jesus is not impartial to human suffering. John Paul II once said that although God allows suffering, he does not enjoy it. God doesn't cause suffering, he didn't create suffering. He allows it but he is not impassive; rather Christ is God's response to human suffering, he overcomes suffering and death by his own passion, death, and resurrection. The word Mark uses in the gospel today is particularly powerful. Our English translation says that Jesus was moved with pity, but the Greek word says something like: Jesus' bowels shook. In other words, in the presence of suffering Jesus is moved on a very deep level.

    Second comes the exchange with the leper. Again we see the compassion of Jesus. We hear in the first reading that lepers had to dwell apart, that they had to shout unclean and that they had to keep others at a distance. Notice that Jesus is not afraid to reach out. He is not afraid to bridge the gap between himself and this leper; rather, Jesus reaches out and touches the leper with great love. Then their conversation is quite beautiful. Unfortunately, our translation limps along a little bit here. What we hear is: if you wish you can make me clean, Jesus responds I do will it, be made clean. But if we were to put it into more modern English we might translate it: If you want to, and Jesus replies: I do want to, be made clean. This is why Jesus is here: he wants to heal this man. Jesus has a great desire to restore humanity to its original purity. Jesus has a great desire to heal human suffering. He has a great desire to overcome sin and death. In fact, this desire is so strong that it causes him to reach out and touch this leper, and it is this same desire that even takes Christ to the Cross. If we ever wonder about the love and compassion of Jesus, if we are ever curious about his desire to bring healing to the world we need look no farther than the cross, which is the love Christ has for us.

    Our story in the gospel today shows us the love and compassion of Jesus, who is moved with pity at human suffering, who reaches out to touch the leper because he has a strong desire to bring health and salvation to the world. But, of course, Jesus compassion has not ended. Jesus still desires to reach out and touch each one of us. He is still moved with pity at the sight of human suffering. He wants to bring this healing to every one of us. So, I think we need to emulate this man in the gospel. The first thing we hear is that he came to Jesus, kneeled down, and begged him. What a beautiful description of the spiritual life! First, come to Jesus. Find him. Spend time with him. We know for sure he is right here in the holy Eucharist, spend time with him. Kneel down, which is an image of worship. We come here to holy Mass to worship and adore Christ. Beg him, share with him our needs and desires: Lord I need healing from sickness, weakness, sin, suffering, you name it: beg Christ to reach out and touch you. Christ literally died for you because his love is so strong, we should keep this in mind as we come into his presence to experience his love and compassion.

    Once we experience the love and compassion of Christ, it has to change us. After we approach Jesus like the leper in the story, we have to become like Christ. Paul says imitate me as I imitate Christ. This is a tall order. Here in the Eucharist Christ gives us everything, even his very body and blood. After we receive this love, we are called to imitate it. After we have been touched by Christ, it is our job to go out and touch the lives of others.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Our hearts are restless…

5th Sunday OT 2012:

Humans are passionate animals. In fact, this might be one of the many features that separate us from the rest of creation. We are full of desires, passions, and interests. We desire family, health, success, pleasure, happiness, etc. Very often people interpret the Church as being against desire. But, this is certainly not true. Rather, as Christians we believe that at the root of every human being is a desire for God. That while our desires and longings probably need to be purified and directed to their ultimate goal, that Goal is union with God. St. Augustine said it so well when he said: you have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

This is why I think we have an inkling in our hearts that there is more than just what we see in this world. There is more to life than simply desiring wealth and prosperity. There has to be something more. Of course, that something more is Christ. Even if a person does not recognize it, we are all searching for Christ. The words of St Peter are as true today as they were when he first spoke them, Lord, everyone is looking for you. From hardened atheists to non-Christians to the pope, we all have one thing in common, we all have a desire for union with God. We were made for communion with God and we will never be happy without it.

This is precisely why Jesus came among us. Christ has a longing for us. He knows that we are looking for him. He knows that we are incomplete without communion with God. He knew that because of Original Sin there was a separation between God and man, but in Jesus, God came in search of us. Jesus says today: to the other towns I must go. Christ is filled with compassion for us, he has a longing desire for communion with us. Christ has come to look for each one of us. He knows that there are many of us here who feel like Job at times, because of the pain and suffering we sometimes experience in this life we might feel like we will never be happy again. Yet in Christ we can find life and peace even in the midst of suffering. Even if we don't recognize it, in Christ we find the fulfillment of our desires.

This desire is what brings us together today. It's why we come here to Mass. Hopefully we don't come here simply to fulfill some obligation, not simply because if we don't we are afraid we might go to hell. Rather, we come here because we have a longing for Christ. We come here because we have found, in Jesus, the fulfillment of all our desires. Here in this Holy Eucharist Christ continues his rescue mission. Here at this Holy Mass Christ is looking for us. Here at this Mass Jesus finds us in Holy Communion. Here at this Mass we find Jesus, who is that eternal spring that satisfies our deepest longings.

And, with this encounter comes a responsibility. Listen again to the words of St. Paul: an obligation has been imposed upon me and woe to me if I do not preach the word. Once we have found Christ, once Christ has found us, once we recognize in him the amazing fulfillment of our desires, we realize that this is too good to keep to ourselves. As Christians, as men and women who have been found by Christ, we want to help others find Christ. Jesus came on a rescue mission, he was a missionary sent from the Father. But, his mission has not ended; rather, he entrusts it to us. This is not an easy task. Paul says: I became all things to all people, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. This is not simply something for St. Paul, this is not simply something for religious or missionaries, but this is the vocation of every Christian.