Sunday, March 25, 2012

3rd Scrutiny

5th Sunday of Lent 2012:

Today we hear of the raising of Lazarus. We see the fulfillment of the prophecy of Ezekiel: Jesus is opening the graves of the dead and calling Lazarus to come out. This reading is one of the more popular readings for funeral masses. Whenever I die, this is the reading I want read at the funeral. This story has an amazing way of capturing the human experience with death. We can all sympathize with the sisters: Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died. This captures well the pain and anguish that we go through when we encounter the death of someone we love: God why did you let this happen? But, Martha follows it with a wonderful statement of faith: I know my brother will rise on the last day. This is a perfect summary of our faith in Christ. We know that Christ has power over death. We know that through his own death and resurrection, Christ has set us free. We know that all those who believe in him will never die. This is our faith. So while we might question why God would allow suffering and death, our faith fills us with hope, not only for our deceased loved ones, but for ourselves as well. And who cannot help but be moved by hearing about our Savior weeping with the family. I find this to be a powerful consolation in difficult times. Christ is right there with us. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but he is not distant or aloof. Rather, Christ is right beside us in good times and in bad times.

So for all these reasons, this gospel makes a wonderful reading at funerals. But, today we read this in a different context. Today we will celebrate the 3rd rite of scrutiny for our elect. I find it interesting that the Church has given us this reading for those about to be baptized. First, it is important to see in Jesus the one who has power over death. All of the catechumen should see in Jesus our savior, the one who can give us eternal life. Surely, this is an important reason as to why they are coming to baptism. But, I want us to think a bit about Lazarus. We see that Lazarus dies, is called out by Jesus, and then lives again. I cannot help but see this as a symbol for baptism. Even since the time of St. Paul, baptism is seen as a little death. If we have died with Christ, we shall live with Christ. Just as Lazarus was buried in the tomb, our catechumens will be buried in the tomb of baptism. Then, when they are washed free of their sins, Christ will call them forward from the tomb. He will order the burial clothes of their old way of life removed, and Jesus will set these catechumens free to live a new kind of life.

Of course, those of us who are baptized already should see ourselves as having died to our former way of life. We have been freed by our Savior. We are dead to sin, and alive in Christ.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Laetare Ierusalem

4th Sunday of Lent 2012:

Laetare Sunday is one of the 2 Sundays during the Church year where we don pink, or if you prefer Rose, colored vestments. We do so as a way to mark the fact that while we are still in Lent, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The word Laetare comes from the entrance antiphon from today's Mass: Rejoice Jerusalem. So even though we are in the midst of a penitential season, a season that began with the somber reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return, the Church is reminding us to be joyful. Remember that joy is not the same thing as bubbly enthusiasm. Rather, joy is the peace of heart that comes from a relationship with Christ our Savior. Joy comes from faith in the gospel of Christ.

So, in a way, Laetare Sunday is meant to be a bit of a pick-me-up. I don't know about you, but I'm sort of getting tired of Lent by this time. I wish I could have some sweets! I miss singing the A word during Mass. I'm about ready to be done with all this Penance. This Laetare Sunday is the Church's way of saying that Lent can be long and hard, but that we practice penance as a way to prepare ourselves to celebrate the joys of Easter. It is a time to purify our intentions, to regroup and refocus our penance for the final push to Easter. If we have lost our enthusiasm for Penance today is a day to regain it.

What a beautiful reading the Church gives us to renew our enthusiasm for Christ, only most famous passage in the Bible: John 3:16 God so loved the world. And one of my personal favorites: John 3:17 Jesus did not come to condemn but to save. These two passages form, in many ways, the very heart of the gospel. God loves the world and he sent Jesus here to save the world, to save each one of us. This is truly a remarkable statement, especially to people who may think that God is aloof and distant; rather, God loves us and sent Jesus to save us. Hopefully this moves our hearts with love for God. To hear the Good News of salvation should move us to want to accept it. To hear about God's love for us should move us to love him in return.

But there is one important feature to today's gospel we cannot neglect. Sure, John 3:16 and John 3:17 form the heart of the gospel, namely God's love, but listen again to how this love makes itself known: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the son of man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Love is manifested in the cross. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus not to condemn but to save, but this love comes to us precisely in the suffering and death of Jesus.

This gets me back to the season of Lent. Lent is a time of struggle, a time of purification, a time of penance. Lent is a time of sacrifice, of self-denial, of almsgiving. Lent is a time to enter into the sufferings of Christ. And, it is precisely through our suffering, our penance and self-denial, that we enter into the suffering of Christ, and in this way we are prepared to enter into the great Joy of Christ at Easter.

In our own lives we live out the paschal mystery, namely that God loves the world, he sends Jesus to save us, Jesus shows this love on the Cross, which leads to the resurrection, which fills the world with Joy. Love leads to joy, but it gets there by way of the cross. Hopefully our lives are motivated by love for God, and don't we want to share forever in the joys of the resurrection in the kingdom of God? But we too get there through suffering, we too get there through the cross. Our love for God will lead to the joy of Easter, but only by going through this season of Lent, which is how a season of penance is lived as a season of Joy. We are getting close to Easter, no wonder the church reminds us to rejoice.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

10 Commandments = a life of love

Today we hear the 10 commandments. Hopefully we all have these commandments memorized. They provide a guide in the moral life. I know that most of us make use of the sacrament of Confession during the season of Lent. The 10 commandments give a wonderful examination of conscience and a way to prepare for the reception of God's mercy.

But, these 10 commandments are often misunderstood. I think we all know what the commandments ask, but do we understand why? The commands are easy to teach: you shall do this, and you shall not do this and this… But, they can be hard to follow. Often times these 10 commandments can become a burden, they can seem oppressive. For some people it might be sufficient to simply know about the commands in order to fulfill them. But, for many of us we need a better explanation. I know when I was a kid I would ask my parents for something: Mom, can I go to the neighbor's house? She would say, "no." I would say, "Why?" She would say, "because I said so." Now, I always listened to my Mom, but I was never satisfied with that answer, I always wanted a fuller explanation. The same is true of these commands, why should we follow them?

Listen again to the first line: I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt. The people have a special relationship with God, which began with his intervention in their lives. Here is what God says a chapter earlier in Exodus: Exodus 19:4-6 You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. 5 Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. So, the Lord had done amazing things for them and he chose them to be his special possession if they do what? Follow the commandments. The commandments do not drop out of heaven. Rather, the commandments always come in context: God first chooses Israel, he frees them from slavery, he leads them through the desert, and he initiates a special permanent relationship with them by covenant. The commandments then serve as a guide for the people: if you want to be my people, if you want to love me in return for everything I have done for you, follow these guides. If we ever ask the question "why" when it comes to the 10 commandments, the answer is Love. God first loves us, following the commands is the way we love God in return.

The whole moral life is a life of love. It begins with God's love and ends with us loving God. This is why Paul preached the way he did, he says: we proclaim Christ crucified. That's because on the cross we see love as he gives himself to us. This is why the cross is at the absolute center of Christianity, this is why the cross should be at the center of our lives. Because the Cross, and the great love that it shows, is the source of Christianity and the inspiration needed to follow the commands. If we see the moral life and its commands as arbitrary rules imposed on us from above, they will always be a burden. But if we see them as a way to return a tremendous love, they become a joy.

I think that many of us probably find ourselves somewhere in between. The laws are not a terrible burden, but they are not quite a joy either. Perhaps, like the Temple at the time of Jesus, we are in need of some cleansing. Our hearts need to be purified so that we can love Christ more fully. Jesus is waiting for our invitation. If we let him, Christ will come into our hearts and cleanse them the way he did in the temple. Jesus knows us very well, as St John says, Jesus did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well. He knows our hearts, he knows our struggles and our temptations, but if we open our hearts to him, he will lead us down the pathway of love.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Si Deus pro nobis, quis contra nos

2nd Sunday Lent 2012:

    If God is for us, who can be against us. Si Deus pro nobis, quis contra nos. This was the motto of my seminary, the Pontifical College Josephinum. So over my years there I had many opportunities to reflect on these words: If God is for us, who can be against. Truly, God is for us. Sometimes people get the mistaken notion that God is out to get us, that he is waiting to condemn us. Nothing could be farther from the truth. God is for us, and the cross is the proof.

    Our readings today help us to understand more fully the great mystery of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Today's transfiguration story shows forth the glory of Christ, the son of God. In the presence of his disciples he is changed, he shines forth in his glory appearing with Elijah and Moses, God's heavenly prophets. The voice of the Father can be heard: this is my beloved Son. This passage of Mark's gospel helps to set the stage for what is to follow: this is Christ, the son of God, the beloved. And, it is precisely this son who will be persecuted, it is this son who will be arrested, mocked, scourged, tortured, and crucified. The son of God, who today is arrayed in glory, will soon be covered in sweat and blood. The son of God who today shines forth on the mountain top will be buried in a tomb. We should see a great tension in all of this: there is a huge disparity between who Christ is and the death he suffers. He is the source of life, and he was put to death.

Yet, this is how we know that God is for us. Jesus is his only beloved Son, but just like Abraham, he does not withhold his son, but rather is willing to sacrifice him. Abraham showed his love for God in his offering of Isaac, and God shows his love for us in the sacrifice of Christ. This is why Paul can say what he does: if God is for us, who can be against us. God does not look to condemn us; rather, he sent his son to save us. The cross shows the lengths that God is willing to go in order to bring us salvation. So, if we ever wonder if God can forgive our sins, look at the Cross. Perhaps we think that there isn't enough mercy for us, look at the Cross. Because today as we ponder the transfiguration of Jesus we get a glimpse into who Christ is: the beloved son of God. And we remember that it is precisely this son who was given for us. God's love and mercy is more amazing than we can possible imagine, for he sent his son Jesus to suffer and die so that we might live.

As we contemplate this great love, aren't we moved to respond? How do we love God in return for such a great love? Listen again to the voice of the Father: this is my beloved Son, listen to him. Listen to Jesus. Do we hear his voice? Are we attentive to the ways Christ speaks to us? It is certainly true that we have many "Transfiguration" type moments in our lives. I'm sure we can remember some time when God seemed to break through and reveal himself to us. Those are great times to listen to Christ.

But we do not stay on that mountain, we cannot build those booths, tempting as it may be. Rather, we come down the mountain, we return to our normal lives, with Jesus walking beside us in more hidden ways. But that doesn't mean that Jesus stops speaking to us. Jesus speaks to us through Holy Scripture, through the voice of the Magisterium of the Church, he speaks to us in our hearts and minds in our prayer. Here at this Mass Jesus speaks to us in the liturgy of the Word, and he comes to us in His Blessed Sacrament. As we draw closer to the Cross of Christ during this season of Lent, we listen to the voice of Christ. His message is always the same: God loves you, and wants to bring you salvation, life, hope, and peace. For truly, if God is for us, who can be against us.