Sunday, February 28, 2010

This Is My Chosen Son; Listen To Him.

Second Sunday of Lent
Reading I
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18

The Lord God took Abram outside and said,
“Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram put his faith in the LORD,
who credited it to him
as an act of righteousness.
He then said to him,
“I am the LORD who brought you
from Ur of the Chaldeans
to give you this land as a possession.”
“O Lord GOD,” he asked,
“how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
He answered him,
“Bring me a three-year-old heifer,
a three-year-old she-goat,
a three-year-old ram, a turtledove,
and a young pigeon.”
Abram brought him all these, split them in two,
and placed each half opposite the other;
but the birds he did not cut up.
Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses,
but Abram stayed with them.
As the sun was about to set,
a trance fell upon Abram,
and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.

When the sun had set and it was dark,
there appeared a smoking fire pot
and a flaming torch,
which passed between those pieces.
It was on that occasion that the LORD
made a covenant with Abram,
saying: “To your descendants I give this land,
from the Wadi of Egypt
to the Great River, the Euphrates.”
+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 27
The Lord is my light and my salvation.
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom should I fear?
The LORD is my life’s refuge;
of whom should I be afraid?
The Lord is my light and my salvation.
Hear, O LORD, the sound of my call;
have pity on me, and answer me.
Of you my heart speaks; you my glance seeks.
The Lord is my light and my salvation.
Your presence, O LORD, I seek.
Hide not your face from me;
do not in anger repel your servant.
You are my helper: cast me not off.
The Lord is my light and my salvation.
I believe that I shall see the bounty of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD with courage;
be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD.
The Lord is my light and my salvation.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Reading II
Philippians 3:17—4:1
Join with others in being imitators of me,
brothers and sisters,
and observe those who thus conduct themselves
according to the model you have in us.
For many, as I have often told you
and now tell you even in tears,
conduct themselves
as enemies of the cross of Christ.
Their end is destruction.
Their God is their stomach;
their glory is in their “shame.”
Their minds are occupied with earthly things.
But our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also
to bring all things into subjection to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters,
whom I love and long for, my joy and crown,
in this way stand firm in the Lord.
Luke 9:28b-36

Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying
his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him,
Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory
and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions
had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory
and the two men standing with him.
As they were about to part from him,
Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened
when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen.

WE ARE FACED in today's readings with a paradox of our Christian faith - we belong here and we do not belong here. It is in this world and through this world that we are to find our God. Yet, this is not our permanent home; we are pilgrims on a journey to a more permanent dwelling place, a place of total union with our God of Truth and Love. That is the goal of living and we need to keep it constantly before our eyes. It is so easy to get obsessed with things on the way: our career, our financial security, the education of our children, the house we want in some desirable area... These are mere stepping stones to a life beyond. We must not, like Lot's wife, look back nostalgically at the past and become petrified into stone. Life, as one writer put it, is like watching a movie. One cannot cry out: "Stop! I want to stay in this scene!" No, the movie goes on. And life goes on. And it is important to know where it is headed.

Both the First Reading and the Gospel speak of striking interventions by God in people's lives. Let us take the Gospel first.

A moment of truth
Luke today gives the story of the Transfiguration, a story that can be found also in Mark and Matthew. It is important to be aware of where it comes in the Gospel account.

Just before this, Peter, in the name of his fellow-disciples, had made the dramatic acknowledgement that Jesus, their teacher, was the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior King expected by Israel. It must have been an awesome and heady moment for them all to realise that they, among all their fellow-countrymen, should be privileged to be his chosen companions. One can imagine how they began to have visions of power and glory because of this relationship (not altogether unlike rebels on the run who suddenly find their leader is now president of the country).

Brought down to earth
But almost immediately afterwards, they are brought very rudely down to earth. Jesus begins to instruct them about what it will mean to be companions of the Messiah. There will be no great palaces, there will be no prestigious offices. On the contrary, things will from that very moment seem to go very wrong. The Messiah, their Jesus, will become a hunted figure, hunted not by foreigners but by the rulers of his own people. He will be arrested, tried, tortured and eventually executed.

This was not the expected scenario for the Messiah's appearance on the world's stage and it quite clearly left the disciples in a state of shock and total incomprehension. It just did not make sense and Peter, surely reflecting the feelings of his companions, objected strongly. In return, he got a good scolding, "Get behind me, Satan!"

A privileged experience
It is in this context that the scene in today's Gospel takes place. Three of Jesus' most intimate disciples are brought to "the mountain". We do not know which mountain but, in general, mountains in Scripture are holy places, places where God is especially felt to be present. Although traditionally Mount Tabor is identified as the mountain in question, it really does not matter. Here Peter, James and John have an experience of Jesus totally transformed in his appearance. The light of God shines through him.

Suddenly he is accompanied by Moses and Elijah, two pillars of the Hebrew Testament, representing the Law and the Prophets, the whole Jewish tradition. Luke says they spoke with Jesus of his coming experiences in Jerusalem. What is obviously implied is that Moses and Elijah fully recognized what would happen to Jesus as totally in conformity with the tradition they represented.

"Heavy with sleep"
The disciples, however, are still not fully understanding what is happening; they were "heavy with sleep" (as they would be later in the Garden) but just managed to keep awake (which they failed to do in the Garden). (Their sleep is paralleled by the experience of Abram in the First Reading.)

As Moses and Elijah seemed to go away, Peter - impetuous as ever - blurted out: "Master, it is wonderful for us to be here! So let us make three tents [shrines], one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." The Gospel comments that Peter did not know what he was saying. Clearly, this scene was not for keeps. It was wonderful for them to be there but there was another world, another reality awaiting their Master - and them also.

Then, even as Peter spoke, a cloud came and covered them with a shadow and "the disciples were afraid". Naturally! This was no morning mist. They recognised the cloud immediately as the close presence of God himself. And they heard God speak from the cloud: "This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him." First, there was the support of Moses and Elijah and now Jesus gets the solemn endorsement of the Father himself.

Listen to him." They are being told to remember the words Jesus just told them about the Messiah, who would be rejected, suffer and die shamefully. If they cannot understand and accept those words, they do not know the real Jesus, they cannot be his disciples. As Jesus will say later, "A grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies." The suffering and death of Jesus are the seeds of new life for all of us.

After the "voice" had spoken, they found themselves with Jesus alone, the same "ordinary" Jesus they always knew. But they kept silent. They had nothing to say but much still to learn and to understand about the Person and the Way of Jesus. What they needed was the gift of faith and total trust in Jesus and in God.

Abram's experience
There are some parallels in the experience of Abram. Abram (later to be called Abraham) had been asked to leave his homeland and to go and live in a strange place. If he did so, he was promised a great future for his family and descendants. Without any further guarantees, Abram sets out. His readiness to put his trust in God's word became legendary in the tradition of Israel and is echoed again in the New Testament. "Abram put his faith in the Lord, who counted this as making him justified," that is, putting him right with God.

But, although ready to do what God asked of him, Abram asked for some confirmation. He was told to make an offering of some animals and to cut the animals in half, putting one half on each side. At sunset, as Abram fell into a deep sleep and as the sun set and darkness came on, a blazing furnace and a firebrand (signs of God's presence) came between the divided offerings. From this experience Abram knew his trust in God was justified. He never lived to see the day when his descendants were as numerous as the stars but if only he could see now how his God is worshipped "from the rising of the sun to its setting" (Third Eucharistic Prayer) by countless people in every corner of our planet.

Our transfiguration
There is still one thing we need to consider and that is how these Lenten readings are to touch our own lives. The key linking the First Reading and the Gospel is the passage from the Letter to the Philippians in the Second Reading.

The transformation or transfiguration of Jesus that the disciples experienced was not simply something they were to see and experience as happening to him alone. It was also an invitation for them to undergo a transformation and transfiguration of their own.

Our homeland
Paul says in today's reading, "For us, our homeland is in heaven", that is, the goal and destination of our life is to be one with God. There is no other goal. "And from heaven [i.e. from God] comes the Savior we are waiting for, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body. He will do that by the same power with which he can subdue the whole universe".

How is that transformation or transfiguration to take place? By listening to Jesus, listening to all that he invites us to be and to do, however much it may seem to go against the conventions we were brought up on. It means especially listening to those words which caused such difficulty for Peter and his companions and integrating them into our own vision of life. It means having a total trust in walking his Way, a total trust that only his Way brings me into full union with God, the source of all Truth, Love, Happiness and Peace.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

Saturday, February 27, 2010

So, Be Perfect, Just As Your Heavenly Father Is Perfect.

February 27, 2010
Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Reading I
Deuteronomy 26:16-19
Moses spoke to the people, saying:
“This day the LORD, your God, commands you
to observe these statutes and decrees.
Be careful, then, to observe them
with all your heart and with all your soul.
Today you are making this agreement with the LORD:
he is to be your God
and you are to walk in his ways
and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees,
and to hearken to his voice.
And today the LORD is making this agreement with you:
you are to be a people peculiarly his own, as he promised you;
and provided you keep all his commandments,
he will then raise you high in praise and renown and glory
above all other nations he has made,
and you will be a people sacred to the LORD, your God,
as he promised.”
Today’s reading comes from the last part of the Book of Deuteronomy, which is also the last of the five books forming the Pentateuch and containing the covenant laws by which the lives of observant Jews were guided.

Moses reminds the people of the solemn agreement that has been made between God and them. And the declaration is that he will be their God only as long as they “walk in his ways and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees, and hearken to his voice." It is a mutually binding contract. He will be their God on condition that they observe his laws and customs with all their heart and soul. If they do that they will stand out among all peoples as a people consecrated to their God and outstanding in their virtue.

However, the reading has to be read in the later context of the Gospel, which spells out more clearly just what are the commandments and statutes that really count. The emphasis in the Law of the Old Testament was very much on external observance of rules and regulations. The emphasis in the Gospel is very much on the interior attitude and on mutual relationships between God, other people and oneself.

Today’s Gospel passage on loving even one’s enemies in particular shows how far God’s commands are to be observed.

Nevertheless, the basic message stands: he is our God and we are to walk in his ways and to listen to his voice. That is the covenant that has been made between God and his people.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 119
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Blessed are they whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.
Blessed are they who observe his decrees,
who seek him with all their heart.
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
You have commanded that your precepts
be diligently kept.
Oh, that I might be firm in the ways
of keeping your statutes!
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
I will give you thanks with an upright heart,
when I have learned your just ordinances.
I will keep your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
+++ +++ +++ +++
Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies,
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you,
what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers and sisters only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Today’s passage, like yesterday’s, comes from the Sermon on the Mount. The two are not unrelated: both speak of dealing with people with whom we have difficulties.

It is a passage which many find difficult, too idealistic or just downright meaningless. The Mosaic Law said that one must love one’s neighbour. It does not actually say we should hate our enemies but in practice such hatred was condoned. Jesus rejects that teaching outright for his followers. We are to love our enemies and pray for them.

How can we possibly do that? It is important that we understand what ‘love’ here means.

In Greek it is the word agape, a deep concern for the good of the other that reaches out even if there is no return. It is not sexual, physical love, eros, nor is it the mutual love of intimate friendship or that between marriage partners, philia.

‘Enemy’ here means those who do harm to us in some way. It does not include the people we turn into enemies because we don’t like them. The true Christian does not have this kind of enemy.

The main reason Jesus gives for acting in this way is that that is what God himself does. God has many friends and many who are opposed to him, yet he treats them all exactly the same, his agape reaches out to all indiscriminately just as the welcome rain falls and the burning sun shines with equal impartiality on every single person.

Elsewhere we are told that God IS love, it is his nature; he cannot do anything else. And that love is extended EQUALLY to every single person - to Our Lady, Mother Teresa, to the murdering terrorist, the serial killer, the abusive husband, the pedophile… The difference is not in God’s love for each of these people but in their response to that love.

Jesus tells us that we must try to love people in the same way. It is important to note that he is not telling us to be "in love" with those who harm us or to like them or to have them as our friends. That would be unrealistic and unreasonable to ask.

But if we just care for those who are nice to us how are we different from others? Even members of a murder gang, people with no religion or morals do the same. But we are called to imitate the God in whose image we have been made.

And is it so unreasonable to love, to care for, to have genuine concern for our enemies and pray for them? One presumes, as we have said, they are enemies in the sense that they are hostile to us even though we have not provoked them in any way. True Christians, from their side, do not have enemies. For someone to be my enemy, it means that person really hates me and may wish to do harm to me or may already have harmed me in some way.

What do I gain by hating that that person back? Then there are two of us. Why should I allow another’s person’s hate to influence my feelings towards them? A person who hates, is a person who is suffering, a person who is doing more damage to himself - rather than to the supposed enemy. As the gospel says, another person can hurt my body but not my inner self.

And, if he or she does harm me, they only harm themselves as well, even if they get a twisted pleasure in the short term. If I have a true Christian spirit I will reach out in compassion to that person. I will want that person to be healed, healed of their hatred, healed of their anger, and to learn how to love.

Surely it is much better and makes more sense to pray for that person than to hate them back. To bring about healing and reconciliation rather than deepen the wound on both sides.

What Jesus is asking us to do is not something impossible or unnatural. It is the only thing that makes sense and will bring peace to me and hopefully in time to the person who is hostile to me. We can literally disarm a hating person by acting towards them in a positive and loving way and refusing to be controlled by their negative attitudes. “Bless are the peacemakers; they will be called children of God.”

“So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Obviously, this is an ideal that we can only reach out to. But it is a call to do our utmost to imitate God in extending our goodwill impartially and unconditionally to every single person. This is not just a commandment. When we reflect on it, it is simply common sense and it is as much in our own interest as it benefits others.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Go First And Be Reconciled, Then Come And Offer Your Gift At The Altar.

Friday of the First Week of Lent

Reading I
Ezekiel 18:21-28
Thus says the Lord GOD:
If the wicked man turns away
from all the sins he committed,
if he keeps all my statutes
and does what is right and just,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.
None of the crimes he committed
shall be remembered against him;
he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced.
Do I indeed derive any pleasure
from the death of the wicked?
says the Lord GOD.
Do I not rather rejoice
when he turns from his evil way
that he may live?

And if the virtuous man turns
from the path of virtue to do evil,
the same kind of abominable things
that the wicked man does,
can he do this and still live?
None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered,
because he has broken faith and committed sin;
because of this, he shall die.
You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!”
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair,
or rather, are not your ways unfair?
When someone virtuous turns away from virtue
to commit iniquity, and dies,
it is because of the iniquity
he committed that he must die.
But if the wicked, turning from the wickedness
he has committed, does what is right and just,
he shall preserve his life;
since he has turned away
from all the sins that he committed,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.
The prophet Ezekiel today makes a double point.

On the one hand if the man who has done evil genuinely repents of what he has done he will be totally forgiven. “All the sins he committed will be forgotten from then on; he shall live because of the integrity he has practised.” Because it is God’s desire that we should live rather than die. On the other hand, if the formerly good man turns to a life of sin, he will die in his sin. Some may object that that is not fair. Why should he be punished when he did so much good in the past?

There was a tendency among the people of the Old Testament to believe that people were not only guilty of their past sins but even of the sins of their parents. We remember, in John’s gospel, how Jesus was asked whether the man born blind was that way because of his own sin or the sin of his parents. Chronic disabilities - blindness, paralysis, deafness and the like were often seen as punishment for sin. When the paralysed man let down through the roof came to the feet of Jesus, the first thing Jesus said to him was: “Your sins are forgiven.” And his subsequent healing was taken as proof that indeed his sins were really forgiven, because the cause had also been removed.

But here Ezekiel is affirming that sin is something that belongs to the individual. And that it is a person’s present dispositions, and only these, that determine God’s judgement.

One thing that comes out clearly in the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, is that God has a very short memory. Far from being a defect, it is a quality that very much favors us.

The person God sees is the person that I am now. What matters are my relationships with him now. The past, good or bad, is forgotten. There is not a divine account book with credits and debits that have to be balanced out at the end of the day.

Judas a chosen apostle was lost because of the final choice he made in life. The murderous brigand on the cross with Jesus repents and goes straight to heaven.

Some may complain that “what the Lord does is unjust”. But the reading makes the situation clear: “When the upright abandons uprightness and does wrong and dies, he dies because of the wrong which he himself has done. Similarly, when the wicked abandons wickedness to become law-abiding and upright, he saves his own life.” It is not God who condemns us. It is we who make the choice to be with God or to alienate ourselves from him. And God recognises our choice.

So we too need not be anxious about our past. All that matters is how I relate to God today and each day. And the choice to be with God or away from him is all ours. If today I reject God, directly or through the way I relate with those around me, then, however virtuous I have been in the past, I have put him out of my life. If, on the other hand, today I choose God, then I have nothing to fear whatever I may have been guilty of in the past.

For our own reflection, we can be consoled that, no matter what we did in the past, it will have no effect on our relationship with God provided we reach out to him here and now. On the other hand, there is no room for complacency. Our past good record can be completely undone by our turning away at any time.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 130
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
If you, O LORD, mark iniquities,
LORD, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered.
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
I trust in the LORD;
my soul trusts in his word.
My soul waits for the LORD
more than sentinels wait for the dawn.
Let Israel wait for the LORD.
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
For with the LORD is kindness
and with him is plenteous redemption;
And he will redeem Israel
from all their iniquities.
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
+++    +++    +++    +++
Matthew 5:20-26
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I tell you, unless your righteousness
surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother, Raqa,
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’
will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly
while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent
will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released
until you have paid the last penny.”
Today’s readings are about repentance for the wrongs we have done and the guarantee of God’s mercy.

This gospel passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount and is the first of six so-called “antitheses” where Jesus contrasts the demands of the Law with those of the Gospel. Virtue for the scribes and Pharisees was largely measured by external observance of the law.

For Jesus that is not enough. For him real virtue is in the heart. There was a commandment not to kill but Jesus says that even hatred and anger, violence in the heart (often expressed by abusive language) must be avoided. Furthermore, we cannot have one set of relationships with God and another set with people.

So, it is no use going to pray and make our offering to God if we have done hurt to a brother or sister. I must leave my gift at the altar, and first go and be reconciled with my brother or sister. Only then may I come to offer my gift.
I cannot say I love God if I hate a brother or sister. “If someone says he loves God, but hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20) and “As often as you did not do it to the least of these you did not do it to me.” Repentance has to be expressed both to God and the person I have hurt. I cannot be reconciled to one and not to the other.

We have something like this in every celebration of the Eucharist although, in practice, it can be very superficially done. At the beginning of the Communion, we together recite the Lord’s Prayer in which we all say: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” How often are we conscious of saying those words and how often do we really mean them?

Just after that, we are invited to share a sign of peace with those around us. Again, this can be done in a very perfunctory way. But the meaning of this gesture is that we want to be totally in a spirit of union and reconciliation with each other before we approach the Lord’s Table to break together the Bread which is the sign of our unity as members of his Body.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.

Thursday of the First Week in Lent
Reading I
Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25

Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish,
had recourse to the LORD.
She lay prostrate upon the ground,
together with her handmaids,
from morning until evening, and said:
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac,
and God of Jacob, blessed are you.
Help me, who am alone and have no help but you,
for I am taking my life in my hand.
As a child I used to hear
from the books of my forefathers
that you, O LORD, always free
those who are pleasing to you.
Now help me, who am alone
and have no one but you,
O LORD, my God.

“And now, come to help me, an orphan.
Put in my mouth persuasive words
in the presence of the lion
and turn his heart to hatred for our enemy,
so that he and those who are in league with him may perish.
Save us from the hand of our enemies;
turn our mourning into gladness
and our sorrows into wholeness.”
Esther, a Jewish woman and queen to King Assuerus (in Greek, Xerxes) of Persia, used her influence to avert a massacre of her people by the Persians. As she prepared to enter the presence of the king she made the prayer in today’s passage.

She prays to God to stretch his protecting hand over his people and to help her particularly in the task she has to do. She acknowledges her weakness and that, without God’s help, there is nothing she can do. But she, so to speak, reminds God of the promises he made long ago to his chosen people, chosen as a “lasting heritage”. It is a prayer of pure petition.

She knows that she and her people are totally in God’s hands. She does not threaten or try to manipulate God or bargain with him. She leaves the outcome entirely to him.

While we are encouraged by today’s Gospel to ask, to search, and to knock as a way of acknowledging our total dependence on God. At the same time, whatever we ask for, like Esther, we leave the outcome totally in his hands. As Jesus prayed in the Garden: ‘Father, not my will but yours be done.’
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 138
Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.

I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with all my heart,
for you have heard the words of my mouth;
in the presence of the angels I will sing your praise;
I will worship at your holy temple
and give thanks to your name.
Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.
Because of your kindness and your truth;
for you have made great above all things
your name and your promise.
When I called, you answered me;
you built up strength within me.
Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.
Your right hand saves me.
The LORD will complete what he has done for me;
your kindness, O LORD, endures forever;
forsake not the work of your hands.
Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Matthew 7:7-12
Jesus said to his disciples:
“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.
Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asked for a fish?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father
give good things
to those who ask him.
“Do to others
whatever you would have them do to you.
This is the law and the prophets.”
Today’s readings are about prayer, specifically prayer of petition.
Today’s gospel sounds marvellous. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find…” It seems all I have to do is pray for something and I will get what I ask for. And yet, we all know from experience that that is simply not true. I pray to win the lottery but don’t even get one of the minor prizes. I pray for the recovery of a person with cancer but the person dies. What is happening? Is Jesus telling lies? Are there some hidden conditions that we are not aware of?

I believe the answer lies in the second half of the passage. First, Jesus asks whether a father would offer a stone to his son asking for bread or whether a snake would be offered instead of a fish. “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him.”

In other words if we human beings, in spite of our shortcomings, care for the well-being of our children, then surely God, who is all good, will be infinitely more caring. The problem is not that God does not answer our prayers; the difficulty is that we tend to ask for the wrong things. We do not give a child a sharp knife to play with even though, when we refuse to do so, he throws a temper tantrum and gets angry with us. A good parent, of course, will try to give the child something else which satisfies its real need at the moment.

Jesus is saying that God will give “good things” to those who ask. In fact, as Jesus says elsewhere (Matthew 6:8), God already knows all our needs so it is not necessary to tell him. Then why pray at all? The purpose of prayer is for us to become more deeply aware of what our real needs are.

The things we ask for in prayer can be very revealing of our relationship with God and with others, it can be very revealing of our values and our wants (which are very different from our needs). The deepest prayer of petition will be to ask God to give us those things which are most for our long-term well-being, those things which will bring us closer to him and help us to interact in truth and love with those around us. It is a prayer to be the kind of people we ought to be. It is difficult to see that prayer not being answered.

It may be useful for us to look at the prayer of petition of Jesus in the garden and how it was answered. Paul in the second letter to the Corinthians also shares an experience of petitionary prayer which he made (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) and the surprising answer that he got.

The passage ends with the so-called Golden Rule - “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Note that it is expressed positively rather than negatively and that makes a considerable difference. The negative version can be observed by doing nothing at all; not so the positive version. Although it is a separate saying it can be linked with what Jesus says about petitionary prayer. If we expect God to be kind and generous to us, surely we are expected to be equally kind and generous to those who come asking our help.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Heart Contrite And Humbled, O God, You Will Not Spurn

Wednesday of the First Week in Lent
Reading I
Jonah 3:1-10
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time:
“Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you.”
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD’s bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing,
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,”
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh,
he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe,
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.
Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh,
by decree of the king and his nobles:
“Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep,
shall taste anything;
they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.
Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth
and call loudly to God;
every man shall turn from his evil way
and from the violence he has in hand.
Who knows, God may relent and forgive,
and withhold his blazing wrath,
so that we shall not perish.”

When God saw by their actions
how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil
that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.
Jonah, probably not a historical figure, is one of the most attractive characters in the Bible. Although he is listed among the Minor Prophets, his book is more a cautionary tale than prophecy in the strict sense. There is an underlying humour through the whole book of Jonah which one does not often find in the Old Testament. The book also indicates a softening of attitudes by the Jews towards Gentiles. They were not totally beyond God’s compassion and mercy.

Jonah is asked by God to go east to preach to the pagan people of Niniveh, the capital city of Assyriah, described as being so big that it took three days to walk across it. Archaeological excavations indicate that the later imperial city of Nineveh was about 13 km (8 miles) in circumference or a larger area comprising a four-city complex (‘Greater Niniveh’) which would have been about 100 km (60 miles) in circumference. However, we are not dealing with a historical document and the idea is simply to say that it was a huge city with an awful lot of people - all unbelievers in the true God.

However, instead of doing what God tells him, Jonah takes a ship and goes west - in the opposite direction. He cannot believe that God could show mercy to such wicked pagans. After a huge storm threatens to sink the ship and all on board, the crew become aware that Jonah, in disobeying a mission from his God, is the cause of all their trouble. So he is unceremoniously dumped overboard where he is promptly swallowed by a huge fish (traditionally, a whale). Even the whale does not particularly enjoy the presence of Jonah and, after three days, coughs him up on the shore.

By now Jonah begins to get the message that God means business and he reluctantly proceeds to go and preach to the people of Niniveh, a city synonymous with paganism and idolatry. He threatens the city with destruction if the people do not change their ways. “Only 40 days more and Niniveh will be overthrown.” The 40 days is reminiscent of the Flood, God’s punishment on a wicked world, which lasted 40 days or of the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. The Hebrew expression for ‘overthrown’ is also an echo of the ‘overthrowing’ of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by a special act of God.

To Jonah’s great surprise there is an immediate response to his call for penance. “They believed in God”. In today’s Gospel, Jesus mentions this unexpected conversion and compares it with those Jews who refuse to believe in him.

From the greatest to the least, the citizens of Niniveh begin to fast and wear penitential sackcloth. Even the king “took off his robes, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes”. Even animals were not to be given food. Inclusion of the domestic animals was unusual but expressed the urgency with which the Ninevites sought God’s mercy. Even then, forgiveness seemed too much to hope for. “Who knows? Perhaps God will change his mind and relent and renounce his burning wrath so that we shall not perish.”

The result was that God did indeed look kindly on their efforts to change their ways and relented. The threatened punishment for their wickedness was not inflicted. Clearly, repentant Gentiles were also the object of God’s love and forgiveness.

The thrust of this story seems to be that, contrary to traditional Jewish belief (of which Jonah himself was an example), “wicked” Gentiles could respond to God’s call and change their ways.

This is an anticipation of what would happen in the early Church, where the first Jewish Christians gradually came to realise that the Gospel call was extended to people everywhere.

For us, at this time of Lent, it is a reminder of our need to repent, both in the sense of being truly sorry for all the wrong we have done and the good we have failed to do and to reflect on how our lives can be brought more in line with the call of the Gospel. It is also a time to reflect on our attitudes to non-Catholics and non-Christians or ex-Christians. Jesus himself says that we will be surprised at the number and kinds of people who will go before us in his Kingdom. Let us make sure that we will be among them. Lent is a time to make the right preparations.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 51
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Luke 11:29-32
While still more people gathered in the crowd,
Jesus said to them,
“This generation is an evil generation;
it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it,
except the sign of Jonah.
Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites,
so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
At the judgment
the queen of the south will rise
with the men of this generation
and she will condemn them,
because she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
and there is something greater than Solomon here.
At the judgment the men of Nineveh
will arise with this generation
and condemn it,
because at the preaching of Jonah they repented,
and there is something greater than Jonah here.”
Today’s readings are about doing penance for our sins and they are linked by the name of Jonah.

In Mark’s gospel the crowds are often shown as recognising God’s presence in Jesus better than the Scribes and Pharisees do. In Luke, however, they are sometimes shown as people curious to see signs and wonders but without any real commitment to following Jesus.

So today we are told that “the crowds got even bigger” and Jesus spoke to them. But what he said was not very flattering. “This is a wicked generation; it is asking for a sign.” The only sign they will get will be the sign of Jonah. Jesus, like Jonah, is a call to repentance and radical conversion. And Jesus implies that many of his listeners are not ready or willing to hear that call. They don’t need any signs; Jesus has been giving them an abundance of signs through his teaching and healing work.

On the judgment day, they, the chosen people of God, will be surprised to see the Queen of the South rise up because she, pagan that she was, came a long distance to listen to the wisdom of Solomon - and Jesus is someone far superior to Solomon. They will be surprised to see the people of Niniveh, pagans that they were, rise up because they repented at the preaching of Jonah - and Jesus is far greater than Jonah.

We too, who claim to be God’s People, may be surprised to see who will be called to God’s side on judgment day because they heard and followed God’s word according to their capacity. The question is: where will we be on that day? Thomas A Kempis, the writer of a famous medieval treatise, called The Imitation of Christ, asked that very same question. He was worried about whether he would persevere in serving Christ to the very end of his life. He said he was told in answer to his prayer: “Do now what you would like to have done then, and you will have nothing to worry about.”

Where will I be on the Day of Judgement? The answer to that question can be decided by me this very day and every single day from now on.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Forgive Us Our Offenses As We Forgive Those Who Have Offended Us.

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent
Reading I
Isaiah 55:10-11
Thus says the LORD:
Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
This short reading comes from the last chapter of the second part of Isaiah, known as Second Isaiah (chaps. 40-55). It is also known as the ‘Book of Consolation’ because it speaks with hope and encouragement of the approaching end of the Jewish exile in Babylon, in contrast to earlier prophecies which rather emphasised the punishments which Israel had merited by her infidelities.

We are reminded that God has his plans for the world and they will not be frustrated. Those plans are not arbitrary. They are for the wellbeing of all creation. He is the loving Father to whom we pray with confidence, described in the Gospel reading about the Lord’s Prayer.

The prophet expresses these ideas in language that is truly poetic. The inevitability of God’s Word being realised is like that of the gentle rain that makes the earth fertile and fruitful and so produces the seed that provides the bread on which we live. "So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it."
+++    +++    +++    +++  
Psalm 34
From all their distress God rescues the just.
Glorify the LORD with me,
let us together extol his name.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
From all their distress God rescues the just.
Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,
and your faces may not blush with shame.
When the poor one called out, the LORD heard,
and from all his distress he saved him.
From all their distress God rescues the just.
The LORD has eyes for the just,
and ears for their cry.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
From all their distress God rescues the just.
When the just cry out, the LORD hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
From all their distress God rescues the just.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Matthew 6:7-15
Jesus said to his disciples:
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans,
who think that they will be heard
because of their many words.
Do not be like them.
Your Father knows what you need
before you ask him.

“This is how you are to pray:
Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

“If you forgive men their transgressions,
your heavenly Father will forgive you.
but if you do not forgive men,
neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”
Jesus tells us here not to babble endless prayers as if somehow by so doing we can bring God round to our way of thinking. (Read Elijah and the priests of Baal: 1 Kings 18:25-29.) Some religious groups, too, would keep calling their god by all his different names, hoping that by hitting on the right one he would listen. There is no need to do this because God knows our needs before we ask. Why then do we need to pray at all? The praying is not for God’s sake but for our own. It is important for us to become deeply aware of our needs and of our basic helplessness and total dependence on God. We also need to learn just what God wants of us so that we can do what he wants.

And that is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. Strictly speaking, it is not a prayer to be recited. It is a way of praying; it is a list of the things we need to pray about. And it is less our telling God what we want him to do than making ourselves aware of the ways by which we can become more united with him. It is a very challenging and, in a way, a very dangerous and daring prayer to make.
Our Father: God is the source of all our life and all we have and are. We say ‘our’ and that ‘our’ includes every single person. And, if God is the source of life  for every human person then each one of them, without even one exception, is my brother or sister.

May your name be held holy,
Your Kingdom come,
Your will be done on earth as in heaven: The three petitions are really saying the same thing. Obviously, in one sense we cannot make God’s name more holy than it is. But we do need to respect that awesome holiness and that is more for our sake than God’s. The petition can also be a petition that God make his name holy by showing his glory, in this case by bringing about the Kingdom in its fullness.

We want God to be loved and respected and worshipped by all - not in some future life but here and now, on earth. We want the loving and compassionate Reign of God to be fully accepted by people everywhere as part of their lives, individually and corporately. We want God’s will for this world to be also the will of people everywhere.

Clearly, all this has to begin with ourselves. The coming of the Kingdom is not just the work of God alone; it is the result of us cooperating with him in the work. What am I doing in my life now for the realisation of that Kingdom?

Give us this day our daily bread: A prayer that our needs be satisfied for today. A prayer that rules out excessive anxiety about the future. But how are those needs to be satisfied? Do we expect manna to drop from the skies? And what about that little word ‘our’ again? Does it just mean me, my family, our community, our town, our country - or much more? Is this not a prayer that we all work together to ensure that no one goes hungry? Yet we know that millions do go to bed hungry every night and even more suffer from an unhealthy diet. And most of it is the result of human behaviour and neglect. This prayer reminds us that changing that situation is the responsibility of all of us. Another dangerous prayer.

Forgive us our trespasses, 
as we forgive those who trespass against us: As youngsters, when we first heard the word "trespass" and "trespasses", we probably thought of the sign on an abandoned building in the city, or on the neighbor's lawn, in the countryside.  The King James version  "Forgive us our debts" isn't any clearer for children who don't owe money to anyone.  This is the only petition which is spelled out more clearly at the end of this passage. “If you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.” This is is another dangerous thing to pray for: Father, don't forgive me my sins unless I am willing to forgive those who have sinned against me. I really should not say it unless I am ready. And, if I am not ready, I need to pray hard for a forgiving heart. (cf. Matt 18:21-35, about the unforgiving servant.)

Lead us not into temptation, 
but deliver us from evil:   A final plea that God’s help will be with us all the way. It is an admission of our basic impotence to set things right in our own lives and in the world. Given the challenges of the rest of the prayer, we need all the help we can get.

If this prayer Jesus taught us were to really enter our heart and minds, we would become deeply transformed people. So let us stop babbling it as we often do and really pray it, phrase by phrase - and live it.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

Monday, February 22, 2010

I Will Give You The Keys Of The Kingdom Of Heaven.

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Apostle
Reading I
1 Peter 5:1-4
I exhort the presbyters among you,
as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ
and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed.
Tend the flock of God in your midst,
overseeing not by constraint but willingly,
as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly.
Do not lord it over those assigned to you,
but be examples to the flock.
And when the chief Shepherd is revealed,
you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
+++    +++    +++   +++  
Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for years to come.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Matthew 16:13-19
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi
he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,
but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The Gospel from St Matthew records a dramatic moment in the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. They are at Caesarea Philippi, an area which significantly was home to both Jews and Gentiles, and Jesus begins by asking them what they heard people saying about him. They gave various answers, such as that he might be John the Baptist (returned from the dead after his beheading by Herod), or Elijah (who was expected to return to earth to herald the imminent coming of the Messiah), or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Jesus then asks them: “But who do you say I am?” It is Simon who speaks up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It was a very special moment for all of them. Up to this the man whom they had simply called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Teacher’ was now acknowledged as no less than the Messiah, the Christ, the one anointed as the Saviour-King of Israel. In reply, Jesus tells Simon that what he has said are not simply his own words but are a revelation of God to him. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” There then comes the solemn mandate and promise. Simon is now given a new name. “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it.” There is a play on the words ‘Peter’ and ‘rock’. The word for ‘rock’ in Greek is petra (petra) and Peter is ‘Petros (petros). There is an irony in the name because it carries more than one meaning. For Peter is called to be the firm foundation of the new community but, before that happens he shows himself to be a stumbling block trying to frustrate the mission of his Master, showing himself to be one of the weakest of the disciples. Nevertheless, Jesus gives him his mission: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven (of God). Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven (i.e. by God); and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (i.e. by God).” After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, it is his community under the unifying leadership of Peter which will have the mandate to continue the work and mission of Jesus. They will be, literally, the voice of Jesus.

In the First Reading which is from the Second Letter of Peter (although almost certainly not written by him) we have advice on how Church authority is to be exercised. Peter speaks to community leaders as a “fellow presbyter (or elder)” and as one who was a personal witness of the sufferings of Jesus and hence looking forward to share in his risen glory. He tells them to take care of their flocks as good shepherds, drawing them but not forcing them and not pursuing their own personal gain but with enthusiasm for their well-being. “Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock.” Words applicable to every position of leadership in the Church be it pope, bishop, priest or lay leader. Then “when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

So, the over all message of today’s feast is of generous and eager cooperation of all members of the Christian community in building up the Body of Christ as a sacrament of the Kingdom throughout the world.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Be With Me Lord, When I Am In Trouble.

First Sunday of Lent
Reading I
Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Moses spoke to the people, saying:
 “The priest shall receive the basket from you
and shall set it in front of the altar
of the LORD, your God.
Then you shall declare before the Lord, your God,
‘My father was a wandering Aramean
who went down to Egypt with a small household
and lived there as an alien.
But there he became a nation
 great, strong, and numerous.
When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us,
imposing hard labor upon us,
we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers,
and he heard our cry
 and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
He brought us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and outstretched arm,
with terrifying power,
with signs and wonders;
and bringing us into this country,
he gave us this land
flowing with milk and honey.
Therefore, I have now brought you the firstfruits
of the products of the soil
which you, O LORD, have given me.’
And having set them before the Lord, your God,
you shall bow down in his presence.”
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 91
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
say to the LORD, “My refuge and fortress,
my God in whom I trust.”
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
No evil shall befall you,
nor shall affliction come near your tent,
For to his angels he has given command about you,
that they guard you in all your ways.
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
Upon their hands they shall bear you up,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
You shall tread upon the asp and the viper;
you shall trample down the lion and the dragon.
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
Because he clings to me, I will deliver him;
I will set him on high
because he acknowledges my name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in distress;
I will deliver him and glorify him.
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Reading II
Romans 10:8-13
Brothers and sisters: What does Scripture say?
The word is near you,
in your mouth and in your heart
 —that is, the word of faith that we preach—,
 for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.
For one believes with the heart and so is justified,
and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
For the Scripture says,
No one who believes in him will be put to shame.
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek;
the same Lord is Lord of all,
enriching all who call upon him.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Luke 4:1-13
Filled with the Holy Spirit,
Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert
for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here,
for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and:
With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time.
We have now entered the great season of Lent. For those of us who are old enough to remember, Lent in the past was not, in some respects, a time we looked forward to. Fasting and abstinence, not to mention other forms of penance, were in force and it was a serious business. Easter was looked forward to with real anticipation. Our attitudes to Lent tended to be on the gloomy and negative side. Perhaps nowadays we have gone to the other extreme where Lent hardly means anything at all. "You mean Lent has started already. Really, I had no idea! Easter will be on top of us before we know where we are and I haven't bought a thing!"

Yet Lent has always been one of the key periods of the Church year and it would be a great pity if we were to forget its real meaning. In fact, that is what we ask for in the Opening Prayer just before we sit down to listen to the readings: "Father, through our observance of Lent, help us to understand the meaning of your Son's death and resurrection and teach us to reflect it in our lives." Really, the whole purpose of Lent is beautifully summarized in that prayer - to understand the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus and to live that out in our own lives.

The period of Lent is six weeks to help us do precisely that. The Church provides Lent almost like an annual retreat, a time for deepening the understanding of our Christian faith, a time for reflection and renewal, a time to make a fresh start.

In the First Reading of today's Mass, Moses speaks to the Israelites at the end of their forty years wandering in the desert and he prepares them for their new life in the Promised Land. That is what the Lenten season is meant to do for us also.

Traditionally on this First Sunday of Lent the Gospel speaks of the temptations of Jesus in the desert. Jesus has just completed his forty days of preparation in the desert and he now faces one more test before he begins his mission. This incident takes place between the baptism of Jesus and the start of his public mission, beginning (in Luke's gospel) at Nazareth.

In the early centuries of the Church, Lent was seen as a time of beginning. It was - and again now is - a time for forming new converts, preparing them for their formal entry into the Church community by baptism and confirmation during the celebration of Jesus' resurrection at the Easter Vigil. Today, in fact, is their day of Election. Our catechumens are entering the last six weeks of preparation for Baptism. Let us pray for them and be in solidarity with them during this time.

For those of us who are already baptized, it can equally be a new beginning. Often we prefer to stay with the known and the familiar, even though it does not give us great satisfaction. We can settle into a routine kind of Christianity that goes on basically unchanged from year to year. It is not very inspiring but we stick with it rather than risk the unknown that radical conversion can bring.

Rather than just seeing them as three consecutive temptations happening almost simultaneously at a particular moment, we should perhaps see them as three key areas where Jesus was tempted to compromise his mission during his public life. They were not just passing temptations of the moment but temptations with which he was beset all through his public life.

The first temptation (to change stones into bread) and the third (to jump from the top of the Temple) try to turn Jesus away from his role as the Servant-Messiah to become an eye-catching, self-serving superstar. "Follow me because I am the greatest." The second temptation (to worship the devil who can give power and wealth) tries to entice Jesus away from the true direction of all human living - the love and service of God and his creation. He is being lured from setting up a Kingdom of love and service to controlling an empire of minions.

The forty days in the desert eating nothing reminds us of Moses doing the very same. At the end Moses received and proclaimed the message of God (the Law) just as Jesus will go on to make his mission statement in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). Also, the replies that Jesus gives to the Evil One are all from Deuteronomy (one of five books attributed to Moses) and his temptations correspond to those which afflicted the Israelites on their desert journey. The difference is that the Israelites succumbed but not Jesus.

All in all Jesus shows himself totally faithful and trusting in God and thus qualified for his role as Messiah. And these temptations are made to sound all the more reasonable because the Messiah was expected to bring bread down from heaven, to subject other kingdoms to Israel and to perform a dazzling sign to prove his credentials.

When we think of temptations, we tend to think of sexual sins, telling lies, losing our tempers, gossiping about people's (imagined) faults, getting angry, feeling resentment and the like. But the really dangerous temptations are to want material wealth for its own sake (the ability to turn anything into money ['bread']), to want status (everyone looks up to me), and power (I can manipulate people and things for my own ends), things which are seen as going with wealth, power and status.

These are dangerous because they reduce other people and even the material world to things that can be used purely for my personal gain. They are dangerous because they create a world and a society in which everyone has to compete to get as much for themselves as they can. In such a rat race world, a minority corners to itself a disproportionate amount of the world's goods while the majority is left without what they need. Above all, such people are dangerous because they can create the prevailing creed of the society in which we live. They believe that undiluted happiness comes with winning millions in the lottery. They believe that the ownership of what they have acquired is absolute. But there is no absolute ownership of anything.

The world, the Kingdom that Jesus came to build, has a different set of values altogether. And it is those values we will be considering all during Lent. Many Christians are chasing the idols of wealth, status and power just as fanatically as their non-Christian brothers and sisters. But, in fact, these are non-Christian, even anti-Christian, ambitions. They are not the way of Jesus, they are not the way of the Kingdom, nor indeed are they the way to a fully human, fully satisfying life for anyone.

This is what today's Gospel is about. This is what Lent means as a time of reflection and a time of re-evaluating the quality and direction of our lives. A time for reconsidering our priorities both as Christians and human beings. A time to re-affirm our conviction of the equal dignity of every single human person.

Says the Second Reading today: "Those who believe in him will have no cause for shame, it makes no difference between Jew and Greek. All belong to the same Lord who is rich enough, however many ask for his help, for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." It is a scandal and a crime then when some of us actively prevent brothers and sisters having access to the material, social and spiritual goods of God's creation.
Finally, before we leave today's Gospel, let us not overlook its final sentence: "The devil left him to return at the appointed time." The battle with evil was not over for Jesus. It will occur again and again at various stages in his life, right up to and especially at those last hours in the garden and on the Cross.

For us, too, the battle against evil never stops. The selfishness, the greed, the anger and hostility, the jealousy and resentment, above all the desire to have rather than to share, to control rather than to serve will continually dog us. We and our children are caught up in the competitive rat race without even knowing it.

Our only success in life can be what we achieve in building not palaces or empires but in building a society that is more loving and just, based on the message of Jesus, a message of truth and integrity, of love and compassion, of freedom and peace.

That is why we need this purifying period of Lent every year. If, in past years, we let it go by largely unnoticed, let this year be a little different. Let it be a second spring in our lives. Let it mean something in our discipleship with Christ.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Reading I
Isaiah 58:9b-14
Thus says the LORD:
If you remove from your midst oppression,
false accusation and malicious speech;
If you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday;
Then the LORD will guide you always
and give you plenty even on the parched land.
He will renew your strength,
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring whose water never fails.
The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt for your sake,
and the foundations from ages past you shall raise up;
“Repairer of the breach,” they shall call you,
“Restorer of ruined homesteads.”
If you hold back your foot on the sabbath
from following your own pursuits on my holy day;
If you call the sabbath a delight,
and the LORD’s holy day honorable;
If you honor it by not following your ways,
seeking your own interests, or speaking with maliceB
Then you shall delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will nourish you with the heritage of Jacob, your father,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
The Scripture lessons as we enter the Lenten season could hardly be clearer. It is not just a time for focusing on ourselves by giving up things and perhaps even feeling smug about it. It is a time to look beyond ourselves and to find God there.

Earlier in the passage we read today, Isaiah comments on complaints being made by people that though they are fasting God is not taking any notice. The reason is, says Isaiah, is because while they are virtuously fasting they continue to exploit their workers and get involved in fights and quarrels.

If we call on the Lord for help, he will hear us but there are conditions. We must be rid of any form of oppression, false accusations or malicious speech. We need to share our bread with the hungry and console the afflicted.

Then light will shine in our lives and “the gloom shall become for you like midday”. We will become like “a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails”.

There is a further call to spend the Lord’s day in a more reverent manner. It is a time to refrain as far as possible from our daily concerns and make it more a day for quiet reflection and a time to remember God’s gifts to us. “Then you shall delight in the Lord.”

Lent, then, is really a time for us to reflect on the meaning and direction of our lives and to consider what changes are necessary not just at this time but for the year ahead.

+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 86
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.
Incline your ear, O LORD; answer me,
for I am afflicted and poor.
Keep my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God.
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.
Have mercy on me, O Lord,
for to you I call all the day.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in kindness to all who call upon you.
Hearken, O LORD, to my prayer
and attend to the sound of my pleading.
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.
+++ +++ +++ +++

Luke 5:27-32

Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And leaving everything behind,
he got up and followed him.
Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house,
and a large crowd of tax collectors
and others were at table with them.
The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying,
“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”
Jesus certainly made strange choices in his prospective followers. Today when we look for “vocations” we tend to search among committed and well-balanced Christians. Today we see Jesus picking someone who was regarded as an immoral money-grabber, a religious outcast.

Tax collectors were despised on two counts: first, they were seen as venal collaborators with the hated colonial ruler, the Romans, for whom they were working; second, they were corrupt and extorted far more money than was their due.

But Jesus knows his man. At the sound of the invitation, Levi drops everything, his whole business and the security it brings him. It is very similar to the fishermen leaving their boats and their nets. He then goes off after Jesus. Where? For what? He has no idea. Like Peter and Andrew, James and John before him, in a great act of trust and faith, he throws in his lot with Jesus whatever it is going to mean, wherever it is going to bring him. In Luke’s gospel particularly, the following of Jesus involves total commitment.

Then, as his last fling so to speak, he throws a party in his house for all his friends, who of course were social rejects like himself. The religious-minded scribes and Pharisees were shocked at Jesus’ behaviour. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” they complained to the disciples.

Jesus answers for them. Only the sick need a doctor, not the healthy; Jesus has not come to call the virtuous, but sinners, to repentance. Jesus’ words can be read in two ways. On the one hand, there is no need to preach to the converted. Which is what we do a lot of in our Christian churches. What is needed is to reach out to those who are lost, whose lives are going in the wrong direction, who are leading a self-destructive existence.

And surely that is what the Church needs to be about today. There is a lot of the Pharisee among us still. We are still shocked if we see a priest or a “good” Catholic in “bad” company and often jump to hasty and unjustified conclusions. “A priest/sister should not be seen in such company.” As a result the Church is in many cases very much confined to the church-going fringes of society.

Jesus’ words can also be taken in a sarcastic sense. His critics regarded themselves as among the well and virtuous. In fact, they totally lacked the love and compassion of God reflected in Jesus. Their “virtue” did not need Jesus because they were closed to him anyway. We remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple. It was the one who acknowledged himself as a sinner and wanted God’s mercy who won God’s favour.

We too need to be careful of sitting in judgment on others, taking the high moral ground and claiming to be shocked at certain people’s behaviour. All of us, without exception, are in need of healing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Heart Contrite And Humbled, O God, You Will Not Spurn

Friday after Ash Wednesday
Reading I
Isaiah 58:1-9a
Thus says the Lord GOD:
Cry out full-throated and unsparingly,
lift up your voice like a trumpet blast;
Tell my people their wickedness,
and the house of Jacob their sins.
They seek me day after day,
and desire to know my ways,
Like a nation that has done what is just
and not abandoned the law of their God;
They ask me to declare what is due them,
pleased to gain access to God.
“Why do we fast, and you do not see it?
afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?”
Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits,
and drive all your laborers.
Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
striking with wicked claw.
Would that today you might fast
so as to make your voice heard on high!
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
A magnificent and, in many ways, a frightening passage from Isaiah. It points to where true religion is to be found.

We have here a wonderful prophetic call in the spirit of those great prophets who lived in the post-Exile period. The call is for an inward spirit to match outward observance. A call that pervades Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel and is found touched on in today’s Gospel.

“Lift up your voice like a trumpet blast.” Big feasts and the beginning of fasts were proclaimed by a trumpet. At Mount Sinai God’s voice is compared to a trumpet blast. Actually, only one day, the Day of Atonement, was prescribed for fasting but there could be other days to commemorate some national disaster. Today our Ash Wednesday fills a similar role, a day when many of our churches are packed.

The people are asking God to come near. They are calling out for just laws. They want to have their fasting and their penances noticed by God. On the surface, they seem to be so religious, so pious and docile, but all the while they are neglecting to do what God really wants. “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” they ask plaintively.

God, through the voice of his prophet Isaiah, gives them a powerful response, one they hardly expected. Instead of praise, they get condemnation.

O yes, they fast all right but at the same time they keep “doing their own things”. They do business on their holy days and oppress their workers. They fast but at the same time quarrel and squabble and physically abuse the poor.

Is this what God wants? Is this real fasting and penance? Looking miserable, “hanging your head like a reed” in a show of abject humility, lying in the midst of sackcloth and ashes? Is it all these very pious acts that God cherishes and wants?

The kind of fast that the Lord wants is something altogether different. It is

releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke,
setting free the oppressed,
sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless,
clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.

These words were written thousands of years ago; in our enlightened age they still apply fully. They contain a proclamation that will be repeated by Jesus both in his words and actions. It is by doing these things that we will really be in the spirit of Lent. It is a lot more than keeping the fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday or than giving up things like sweets or smoking.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 51
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Matthew 9:14-15

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,
but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them,
“Can the wedding guests mourn
as long as the bridegroom is with them?
The days will come
when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast.”


Today's Gospel more than once contrasts the lifestyle of Jesus with that of John the Baptist. In today’s passage we see the disciples of John the Baptist (John himself never questions anything that Jesus does) asking Jesus why they and the Pharisees fast regularly but his disciples do not.

The reason Jesus gave was because it was not normal to fast when the bridegroom was still around. He is the Bridegroom and, as long as he was present, it was a time for celebration. Fasting is a sign of mourning and would be as inappropriate at this time of joy, when Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom, as it would be at a marriage feast.

But there is more than that. Jesus in his life pointed his disciples to something deeper and more important than fasting, namely, reaching out in compassion to others bringing joy, comfort, healing into people’s lives. Fasting can be very self-centred, as in the case of the Pharisees. “See how holy I am!” (We saw that in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday.) Jesus expects more than that.

But Jesus does say that when the bridegroom is gone, when Jesus is no longer visibly present, his disciples will fast. At that time, it will be appropriate to fast as a sign of penance and purification. There is a place for asceticism and even penitential acts. The Church (and every other major religion) has recognized that over the centuries.

But it is the reaching out in caring love that is most important. Without that, fasting has no value.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I Have Set Before You Life And Death, Blessing And Curse. Choose Life!

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Reading I
Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses said to the people:
“Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.
If you obey the commandments
of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments,
statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God, will bless you
in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts
and will not listen, but are led astray
and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish;
you will not have a long life on the land
that you are crossing the Jordan
to enter and occupy.
I call heaven and earth today
to witness against you:
I have set before you life and death,
the blessing and the curse.
Choose life, then,
that you and your descendants may live,
by loving the LORD, your God,
heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.
For that will mean life for you,
a long life for you to live
on the land that the LORD swore
he would give to your fathers
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 1
Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
Blessed the man who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.
Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
He is like a tree
planted near running water,
That yields its fruit in due season,
and whose leaves never fade.
Whatever he does, prospers.
Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
Not so the wicked, not so;
they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
For the LORD watches over the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked vanishes.
Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Luke 9:22-25
Jesus said to his disciples:
“The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders,
the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me,
he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily
and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there
for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?”

The readings today offer a clear choice between the way of death and the way of life.

The First Reading comes from near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy just before it relates the last actions and the death of Moses. It is in a section known as the ‘Third Discourse’, that is, a third discourse attributed to Moses. Only Deuteronomy speaks of a covenant made in Moab, an area to the east of the Dead Sea and the last territory which the Israelites passed through on the way to the Promised Land. It is complementary to that made at Horeb, where the Decalogue was given to Moses.

Today’s reading offers a choice between life and death. “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse.” Life is to be found by totally accepting the way of life that God proposes, “if you love the Lord and follow his ways”.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you: I am offering you life or death… Choose life…” In other covenants outside that of the Old Testament, it was common to name a list of gods who served as ‘witnesses’ to its contents. The covenant between Yahweh and his people was witnessed by both heaven and earth.

The way to life that God offers is not one that much of the world proposes. In fact the world sees God’s ways as limiting when, in fact, if properly understood, they are truly liberating. The life that God offers is not freedom to indulge in every desire and pleasure - pursuit of wealth, uninhibited sex, indulgence in drugs, legal and illegal, prescribed or non-prescribed… Day after day people’s lives are being destroyed by these things.

Life, now and in the future, consists in hearing, assimilating and living out the way of life that God proposes. Today, God offers us the clear choice between life and death. He leaves the choice up to us.

Today's gospel reading is also about death and life. It begins with Jesus foretelling what is going to happen to him. Intense physical suffering, mental suffering through total rejection by the leaders of his own people, and a brutal execution. But all will lead to resurrection and a new life that can never be taken away.

Jesus goes on to say that anyone who wants to be one of his followers must be prepared to walk the same path, carrying their cross after Jesus. Perhaps we should emphasise that we are to carry our cross which will be different from the cross of Jesus and from that of other people. And Luke adds that it is something we must be prepared to do every day.

Of course, it is a call which goes against many of our normal instincts. Renouncing self goes against our desire to advance ourselves in the eyes of others. Who does not want to preserve their life? Self-preservation is a deep instinct. But self-preservation is not the same as self-advancement. Jesus is saying that a life spent focused only on ourselves and our self-advancement is ultimately a recipe for self-destruction. We are bound to be disappointed.

The only way to live is, like Jesus, to offer our lives for the benefit of others in love, in caring, in solidarity, in compassion, in justice. This is the only way truly to find ourselves and to come out winners. What is the good of winning the whole world - becoming incredibly rich and famous - and to lose one’s integrity, one’s self-respect, one’s dignity as a person, one’s happiness?

Our world - Christian and otherwise - is covered with statues and images of people who gave their lives for others, for causes and values greater than themselves. They are our heroes and our models.
And first among them is Jesus, dying in apparent failure and ignominy on the cross. We now see that cross as a victorious symbol of the greatest love that one can show for brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Be Merciful, O Lord, For We Have Sinned.

Ash Wednesday
Reading I
Joel 2:12-18
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind him a blessing,
offerings and libations
for the LORD, your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD,
weep and say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
Then the LORD was stirred
to concern for his land
and took pity on his people.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 51
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion
wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Reading II
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2
Brothers and sisters:
We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin
who did not know sin,
so that we might become
the righteousness of God in him.
Working together, then,
we appeal to you
not to receive the grace of God in vain.

For he says:
In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.
Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense
from your heavenly Father.

When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues
and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know
what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray
in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

The first reading is from the prophet Joel of whom very little is known. His name is shared with about a dozen other Old Testament figures. Internal evidence would seem to indicate that he lived in Judah during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 BC). The majority of historical references in his book, in which there is no mention of Assyria or Babylonia, would point to a period between 400 and 350 BC. He is regarded as a ‘cultic' prophet, that is, he exercised his ministry within the life of the Temple. Today's reading comes from the earlier part of the book in which Joel sees a plague of locusts which ravaged the country as a sign of God's judgement on his people and hence a time for repentance. "Fasting, weeping, mourning…" Fasting was required once a year on the Day of Atonement but also in times of calamity (as with a plague of locusts). It was a sign of penitence and submission to God by a sinful people. Today's passage is an eloquent and beautiful call to repentance. "It is Yahweh who speaks - Come back to me with your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning… Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn.." Why? Because Yahweh "is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent". (This is in contrast to the prophet Jonah who early on in his mission complained that God was too easy on sinners, especially Gentile sinners.)The passage is a solemn call to repentance. Repentance here is not just sorrow for the past but a call to a complete change of life. The emphasis is on inner change, not outward observance - "Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn".

For us, too, Lent is better observed by an inner change in our way of life than merely the external ‘giving up' of minor pleasures. A change that will continue well beyond Lent and become a consistent pattern of our living.It is certainly not a time for fear. Our God is a loving God. "He is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent." This is almost a chorus line that echoes through the Old Testament. So we can approach God in the greatest of confidence. But repentance in the Scripture is not just feeling bad about the past and looking for forgiveness.It is about bringing about a complete change of thinking, a new way of seeing our lives, moving forward on a different track. What the Gospel calls a metanoia, involving a radical change in the way see our life and the direction in which it ought to go. How to benefit from the goodness of the Lord? "Sound the trumpets in Zion! Order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, call the people together…the community…the elders…the children…even infants at the breast… Let the bridegroom leave his bedroom and the bride her alcove…let the priest, the ministers of Yahweh, lament. Let them all cry out for pardon and forgiveness." All are called together for a common show of repentance, peoples from their homes, newlyweds from their bedchambers, even the priests making sacrifice in the Temple. It is a time for everyone to leave their sinful ways - from priests to children - and to repent with deepest sorrow. God is reminded that they are his people. If they are reduced to shame, outsiders will be driven to ask: "Where is their God?" Just the question that people often ask when disasters strike - Where was God when his people died by the million in the Nazi concentration camps? Where was God when the Twin Towers were struck? When thousands died in the tsunami of Southeast Asia? When a close relative died, the innocent victim of a driving disaster…? The question to ask most of the time is not: Where was God? but Where were we? In Joel's case, the Lord did reply. The prayer is answered; the plague ceases. Yahweh, jealous of his own people, takes pity on them. Let us pray that this Lenten season will help us to see the world and to see life as God sees it. The wonderful Scripture readings of Lent will help us.

The second reading is a powerful appeal from Paul to the Christians of Corinth which fits in perfectly with the beginning of the Lenten season. First, he reminds us that we are "ambassadors for Christ". It is through us, through our words and actions, that God is seen by the rest of the world. That is a tremendous responsibility and something to be seriously reflected on especially during this Lenten season. Secondly, Paul points out that, for our sakes, God made Jesus, who was altogether without sin, "to be sin". In this sense, that Jesus, the altogether sinless One, willingly endured the effects of sin and evil, especially through his suffering and death on the Cross. His purpose in doing that was that "we might become the very holiness of God". In other words, we too are called to walk the same Way that Jesus did, to be ready to suffer and die as he did. In this more than by any other thing we might say or do, we truly become ambassadors for Jesus Christ. So Paul begs the Corinthians (and us) that this tremendous act of God's love enacted through his Son, Jesus, be not in vain. Lent is a time for us to contemplate deeply the meaning of Jesus' life, suffering and death for each one of us and to reflect what changes it calls for in the way we live our lives of discipleship now. "Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!" For the Christian the time of conversion and change is always NOW and never more so than during the great season of Lent.

In today’s Gospel, taken from Matthew, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the three central acts for the devout Jew: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The only fast actually laid down in the Mosaic law was that of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:31) but in later Judaism the practice of regular fasting was common. The Gospel tells us that John the Baptist used to fast and he was contrasted with Jesus who ate with sinners (which does not mean that Jesus did not fast). The Pharisees also fasted regularly.

For Christians too these acts are all proper to the Lenten season. And all three can profitably be incorporated in some way into our lives during these six weeks. We might think about devoting some time to praying (not just saying prayers) every day, and learning more about methods of prayer. Most of these recommend spending 20 minutes twice a day in prayer. That may seem a lot but many of us, even in a busy day, do not have a problem with spending an hour or more on a TV program. For some it may be possible to pray in a small group together with shared prayer.

There are now in most places only two official fast days in the whole of Lent. Some people would never think of fasting although they may be on a diet which is even more stringent than what the Church asks. Fasting can consist of doing without something we do not really need, even if we are over the age for fasting: alcohol, nicotine, snacks and tidbits… Sometimes it is harder to let go of these things than to eat fish - especially if you like fish!

And do not let us forget to share something of what we have with those who are in need. Why not take the money that would be spent on that fancy meal you decided to forego and give it to those who do not know where their next meal is coming from? If you have given up movies for Lent or any other indulgence, again let the money saved be diverted to the really needy.

The Gospel today emphasizes the importance of doing all these things quietly and without ostentation. No one should even know we are praying more, sharing more or doing without things. Once we draw attention to ourselves doing these things, they have lost their real purpose which is to bring us closer to God and his ways.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits