Thursday, First Week of Lent

Scripture Readings for March 9, 2017:

Esther C 12, 14-16, 23-25, Psalm 138: 1-3, 7-8, Matthew 7: 7-12

Today’s readings appear to be quite clear about what they are trying to tell us. Rely on God, when you are in need, call to God for help and God will answer and turn your mourning into gladness. It is important for us to recognize our need for God. In more ways than we may care to admit we are dependent on God and should seek God’s help especially when we are desperate, feeling alone or overwhelmed. That is an important fact of the spiritual life.

However, the difficulty I think is we’ve all had times in which we needed help or wanted God to help someone who was clearly in need and the problem we faced or the good we prayed for didn’t happen. So I think the question is, why does Jesus tell us in very plain language that “everyone who asks, receives and the one who seeks finds and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened?” No doubt you have prayed for someone who was dying and they did not recover. You have prayed for people who needed food and assistance yet their needs went unmet. How are we to understand what Jesus and the Psalms say when we read, “I called for help and you answered me.”

I have often heard people try to deal with this situation by saying that God did answer their prayer but God said no. I think there may be other ways to think about this that are closer to what our faith is trying to tell us.

Jesus says in the Gospel, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Consider Deuteronomy 4:29-30, talking to the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, God says,

“When you have grown old, when you have grown corrupt, doing what Yahweh regards as wrong and so provoking his anger you will vanish from the country which you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will be utterly destroyed. Yahweh will scatter you among the peoples, only a small number will remain.

If however, from there, you start searching once more for Yahweh your God, if you search for him honestly and sincerely, you will find him. You will suffer everything I have said but in the final days you will return to Yahweh your God and listen to his voice.”

 What this passage suggests is that God isn’t promising the Jewish people a rescue from their devastation, but rather an open door to welcome them home when they seek to be close to him.

I think that we have too readily thought of this asking, seeking and knocking in terms of our physical needs and current situation. I think what Jesus is talking about is deeper. His is a view to our outlook and attitude towards life, our trust in God. Will we be overwhelmed and give up or no matter what happens will we make the best of it? Even if “the best” means working through really difficult situations. I don’t think God promises us that life will be easy, or that he will rescue us from physical peril. I do think God offers us the chance for life to be rich, full of wonder, beauty and meaning. God says if we come looking we will find life offers us that outlook, a faith that allows us to see the big picture and be happy with our place in it. Isn’t that what we really want, a life of meaning, to see where good comes from. To know that we counted for something, that we made a difference in this world. I think we can all put up with difficult and even devastating times if we knew the result was worth it.

Let me give you one simple and concrete example. We’ve all seen stories on TV about the family whose house is destroyed but no one is hurt. All they can say is how glad they are that all the kids are OK and they’ll figure out what to do next because they’re so glad everyone is still together. That’s the kind of deeper meaning and values that are addressed by the seeking that Jesus is talking about. When everything has gone wrong with the way we think things should be and we can we still see that life itself is good and worth living then God has opened the door and we have been given what we were looking for.

Ash Wednesday

Scripture Readings for March 1, 2017:

Joel 2:12-18, Psalm 51: 3-6, 12-14, 17, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2,

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Is anyone confused by today’s gospel? Jesus says in three different ways, don’t parade your religious practices around for others to see: don’t trumpet your alms giving, don’t make a show of your praying, and when you fast don’t make it appear like you are fasting. Yet here we are at Ash Wednesday and many of us will receive a great big cross of ashes on our foreheads. That isn’t exactly praying behind closed doors where no one will see. You can be sure everyone is going to see ashes all over your forehead.

So why does this reading question public displays of almsgiving, prayer and fasting when that is exactly what Lent asks us to do? Perhaps this story of Jesus teaching about traditional acts of piety isn’t about being modest or unassuming in our religious practices?

The first thing I noticed when I spent time praying with this reading was the repetition of the word, hypocrites. We have three different religious practices, almsgiving, prayer and fasting. But we have one type of behavior that keeps getting criticized, being a hypocrite. Whatever Jesus may be saying about almsgiving, prayer and fasting we know he finds fault with hypocritical behavior.

Every time the almsgiving, prayer or fasting is secret or hidden, it is rewarded by God.  When it is done for others to see, it is considered hypocritical behavior. I think, Jesus is saying the key to the value of our actions is the attitude we have in doing it. Unlike the hypocrite, our thoughts, our feelings, the hidden inner, secret part of us should match what we do in the open.

Jesus isn’t promoting hiding our almsgiving but rather a giving to others that expresses our real concerns. Jesus isn’t against public prayer he wants our prayer to be about who we are. Jesus isn’t worried people will know we are fasting, he wants us to fast as a way to focus on what we may too often ignore, those inner feelings or attitudes we hide even from ourselves. Jesus wants us to ask ourselves, are we hypocrites? Do we live based on what we believe? Or do we cover our true feelings with phony behavior? Perhaps, it is what we hide deep inside that should concern us most?

So how does Lent and receiving ashes today help? Why the emphasis on almsgiving, prayer and fasting during Lent? The practices of Lent are meant to break into our patterns of behavior. Just as Joel called for trumpets to blow, just as Paul said this was the day of salvation, we need something to get our attention. Coming to get ashes, not eating meat today and on Fridays in Lent, giving money or our time to others, adding a time to pray or changing how we pray during Lent gets our attention so we can practice doing what God’s asks of us. We are being asked to make it intentional so it can become part of who we are.

To use a baseball analogy, think of Lent as our annual spring training. Lent is about getting ready for the regular season. In every sport we understand that to play the game involves learning the skills, doing the drill to get it right. We need to practice what we are going to do during the game so it is part of us. Lent is practice for the game of everyday Catholic life.

We all know everyday life is responsible and rigorous. It is taking care of our children, making decisions at work, building loving relationships, figuring out what is the most important use of our time. The question Jesus poses is: will what we do each day match our Catholic faith? Will what we do, match our innermost feelings and attitudes? What we do with Lent could make a difference. Make the decision to do something different in Lent, put in the practice it takes to make a difference every day.

Tuesday of Holy Week

Today’s Scripture Reading

Isaiah 49:1-6, Psalm 71:1-6, 15, 17 John 13:21-33, 36-38

We are in the midst of Holy Week. This week contains the events that are the core of our faith. Jesus goes to Jerusalem to announce the coming of God’s reign and the authorities are so challenged by him that they successfully organize his death on the cross. What looked like the end of Jesus turned out to be the beginning of God’s reign, where life triumphs over death.

However, the story of Holy Week is more than a retelling of an historical event. It is God trying to tell us something about what God wants. So let’s begin with the first reading which is part of the scriptural groundwork for the events of Holy Week. Today’s reading from Isaiah is the second of four descriptions of the servant of God. We hear Isaiah tell of the servant being called from the womb from the very beginning of life, about being formed as a weapon of God, about calling Israel back to God, about toiling in vain but then with God as his strength being a light for the world. As Christians we have come to apply all this to Jesus as the ideal servant of God. That certainly is a valid understanding. However, I want you to notice that this section is written in the first person with only the end being the voice of God. What I want you to consider is that the wording makes it easy to apply what is said to the reader, to each of us. The reading says, “The Lord called me.” We need to take that seriously, each one of us. We are the ones who God has honed into a sharp edged sword and protected so we could bring distant peoples back to God. We have been made glorious in the sight of the Lord and God is our strength. The scriptures always tell us what God wants for each of us. Jesus is the perfect example of what Isaiah is describing but it didn’t end with Jesus. If it had we wouldn’t be believers today. We are the people of far distant lands. From Jerusalem, Massachusetts is pretty much the end of the earth. Jesus was only the first of the servants of God, we need to continue what has been passed on to us. We need to hear Isaiah and John as a personal message directed at us.

So if we accept that Isaiah is calling us to be a light to the nations and continue to spread God’s salvation what can we take from today’s Gospel? I think it offers a view of the challenge of following Jesus. Judas and Peter have both been with Jesus as part of his inner circle of Twelve closest supporters. Individuals Jesus called personally, just like God has called each us to believe in Jesus. Yet now when Jesus is in Jerusalem to confront the seat of Jewish faith and to call them to reform, Judas can’t go along. He decides to abandon Jesus. He chooses another path. Peter on the other hand when confronted with the challenge of an unknown journey says he is ready for anything, even death to support Jesus.

I think we face these kinds of decisions all the time in our lives. We’re not sitting in a room with Jesus as he eats with us but we come to be fed by him and believe he shows us the way to a better life. The question is, can we be faithful, will we stay the course as events present themselves in our lives. We probably aren’t going to turn our backs on Jesus as Judas did. But it may be hard to remember that grand enthusiastic acts aren’t the answer either. Everyday decisions at home and at work may say more about the kind of person we are. We know Peter denied Jesus three times the same night he promised to fight to the death for him. So we may not always follow through as we would like but Peter is a great example of the ability to accept forgiveness and stay the course. We need not give up because at times we fail. Rather we should take to heart what Isaiah says, “Though I thought I have toiled in vain, and for nothing, spent my strength … I am made glorious in the sight of the Lord and God is now my strength.” We need to consider that we were made from the beginning to be servants of God, precious in God’s sight, formed and called by God. Can we accept God’s call? Can we see ourselves as precious and will we say, “Yes, I’ll try.”