Sunday Scriptures — Lent C 3, Feb. 28, 2016

The first reading — Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15 — tells of God’s call of Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses had fled from Egypt, where he had been raised in the royal household, because he feared that his killing of an Egyptian who was striking a Hebrew would become known. He had married Jethro’s daughter Zipporah. First God gets Moses’ attention with the miracle of the burning bush that was not consumed by the flames. God identifies himself as the God of the ancestors of the Hebrew people. He is concerned for them and listens to their prayers. On the past couple of Sundays we have heard of God’s covenant with Abraham and a synopsis of the history of Abraham’s descendants until their arrival in the promised land. Moses will lead them from Egypt to that promised land.

He asks God what his name is because knowing someone’s name was thought to create a bond and give some sort of power over him. If Moses can tell the Israelites God’s name, it will prove that God is supporting him. God’s response has been explained in various ways — I am for you, or it is my nature to exist, or I am self-sufficient and you can’t control me. The Hebrew of the name “I am” is transliterated “YHWH,” and it is considered so sacred that it is not to be pronounced aloud. Instead, when a it is encountered, the reader says “Adonai,” which means “Lord,” instead of pronouncing the name. (I’ve noticed that at least some Jewish people nowadays refer to God with the title “HaShem,” which means “the Name.”)

God is not only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he is also the God of this people descended from them.
In the responsorial Psalm — Ps 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11 — we meditate on God’s mercy and goodness to us. His saving deeds through Moses are an example of his merciful love in action.
The second reading — 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12 — presents the events of the exodus and desert experience of the Israelites as a “type” (prefiguration) of elements of Christianity and draws a moral lesson for the hearers. Passing through the Red Sea is interpreted as prefiguring the Christian’s being set free from sin through baptism. But just as the Israelites could be punished when they disobeyed God, baptized Christians need to realize that they don’t “have it made:” they need to live holy lives.
In the gospel — Luke 13: 1-9 — Jesus gives a warning which is echoed by Pau in the reading from Corinthians: we need to repent, that is turn away from whatever evil is in our lives and be holy in all we do. He makes it clear that when disaster strikes, it is not God punishing sinners. There are sinners who don’t get “punished” in that way. But while God is patient with us, always seeking our conversion and giving us grace to convert — like the gardener with the fig tree — eventually our lives will be over, and if we still haven’t turned to God, we will not go to him then. Lent is a time when the call to repentance is especially urgent.


Sunday Scriptures — Lent C 2, Feb. 21, 2016

W. S. Gilbert begins one of the songs in HMS Pinafore with the line, “Things are seldom what they seem.”

Gilbert was writing almost 150 years ago, in a class-conscious England and the singer is hinting that the captain of the Pinafore belongs by birth to a lower class than that of a high-ranking naval officer. But even if social class is not as important to us in America today as it was to the British of Queen Victoria’s day, we can certainly understand that appearances can fail to tell the whole truth about someone.

Jesus’ disciples knew him. They knew him as a great teacher, miracle worker, and man of prayer. The events of today’s gospel reading — Luke 9:28b-36 — occurred, Luke tells us, about a week after Peter professed faith in Jesus as Messiah. Now, as he prays — as he is in conversation with the Father — Peter, James, and John see a truth about him that they hadn’t known: his glorious splendor. It should help them deal with his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and with his crucifixion and death.

The Transfiguration showed the apostles that Jesus was not what he seemed. He was much more than the great man they already knew. And how about us? Nobody knows us fully, so we may be more or less than we seem to others. Are we less than we seem? Are we more than we seem? Hopefully, like Jesus, we’re more than we seem. On Ash Wednesday we heard Jesus’ warning not to do good things just to gain admiration, but to pray, fast, and give alms without calling attention to ourselves. If we do good deeds in order to win praise, we are among the people Jesus calls hypocrites, and we are less than we see. But if we don’t care about being admired for what we do, other people may know that we are good people because our outward conduct will give good example, which it should, but they will not all know the full extent of it, which is fine. Often at wakes and funerals, I hear things about a person which show real goodness, but which were done without great publicity. They did the good they did, but didn’t care if everybody knew it or not. That’s part of what I mean by being more than we seem.

Living in God’s promise to us is another part of being more than we seem.

The first reading —Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18 — tells of God’s covenant promise to Abram/Abraham. Last week we heard of how the descendants of Abraham went down to Egypt few in number, became a great nation, were liberated by God from the oppression of the Egyptians, and finally took possession of the Promised land, centuries after God made the covenant with Abraham. Meanwhile they were more than they seemed, in the sense that they were the heirs to the promised land. But they were growing into it.

St. Paul tells us in the second reading — Philippians 3:17-4:1 — that Jesus will transform our bodies into copies of his glorified body. We haven’t arrived there yet, but we are growing into it, if we let sanctifying grace work invisibly in our spirits. Living in that promise is part of being more than we seem. Just as Abram had to trust that God would keep his promise, we have to trust God’s promise to us. Abram had his vision. We have the Transfiguration and the Resurrection which it foreshadowed.

During Lent we get ready to celebrate Easter. More accurately, we strive to become more than we seem, by turning away from the evil which always tries to creep into our lives, to grow in love of God and neighbor by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The more successful we are, which means the more we accept and cooperate with the graces God offers us this Lent — the more we listen to the whispered suggestions of the Holy Spirit — the more Easter will be a season of joy.

So as we continue to slog through these forty days, we can always recalibrate, reset our spiritual GPS if necessary. I know as I look back on the first week and a half of Lent, I get the feeling there should be more to it: I should be doing more. We can all ask ourselves: What’s working? What isn’t? Should we be trying harder? Were we completely unrealistic in some of our plans? Should we add something? If it’s going well, of course that’s fine. Basically, we all should arrive at Easter and be more than we seem, closer to the Transfiguration that is promised us, filled with joy.

Sunday Scriptures — Lent C 1, Feb. 14, 2016

Our first reading — Deuteronomy 26:4-10 — gives us a profession of faith which was to be recited when the Israelites offered the first fruits of their harvest every year. It begins with Abraham, the “wandering Aramean,” and goes through the history of the people of Israel, through the Exodus the the settlement in Canaan. This annual profession is a form of anamnesis: a commemoration which makes the participant present to the divine action which is commemorated. This is also the intent of the Passover Seder and of the Mass.

Every Sunday, we recite our profession of faith, and it is the faith which Paul proclaims in the second reading — Romans 10:8-13 — Jesus is Lord; God raised him from the dead. This faith, when it is real, when it has its effect in how we live, is what saves us. We believe in what God has done for us ever since he called Abraham to be the ancestor of his people, and culminating in Jesus’ saving action.

Our faith doesn’t make everything perfect in this life. The Israelites were oppressed in Egypt and wandered in the desert. We have our own trials and difficulties. We have our temptations, as today’s gospel — Luke 4:1-13 — tells us Jesus did. He shows us that temptations are part of life. But with God’s help, we can overcome them.

In particular, we see Jesus being tempted to abandon the path he needed to follow: to assure his own comfort and convenience by turning the stones into bread; to become the political messiah with earthly power whom many people expected the messiah to be; to give instantaneous proof that he enjoys God’s favor, rather than slogging through three years of ministry among the people and delivering the message of God’s love and the call to live, day in and day out, in that love. It led to the glory of the resurrection only through the cross.
The responsorial psalm — Ps 91:1-2, 10-15 — has prepared us to deal with the temptation Jesus experiences. The devil quotes verse 12 at Jesus. But as we reflect on the other verses we realizes that it is our holding fast to God, and not listening to the devil’s temptations, that brings ultimate security.

Ash Wednesday

The beginning of Lent is generally known in English as Ash Wednesday (which is a good translation of its Latin name: feria quarta in cineres). It takes its name from the custom of putting ashes on the heads of the faithful.
Ashes.  Putting ashes on one’s head or sitting or lying in them (often accompanied by the wearing of sackcloth) was a customary way of expressing grief recorded in the Old Testament. See, for example, 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 42:6; Isaiah 61:3; Jeremiah 6:26; Jonah 3:6.

Lent began as a time for catechumens’ immediate preparation for baptism at Easter. Soon it also became a time of penitential preparation for the reconciliation of notorious sinners with the Church, which would also take place at Easter. The bishop would put ashes on the heads of the penitents as they began this season.

Over the course of centuries the public reconciliation of penitents morphed into the private reconciliation of sinners. Concurrently, the public penance of sinners in preparation for reconciliation at Easter became the preparation of all (who are all sinners) for Easter; and the ashes of the penitents became available for all as a sign of sorrow for sin.

It is worth noting that with this history and significance of the ashes, wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday does not violate Jesus’ precept in Matthew 6:16-18. The ashes do not say we are fasting; they say we are repentant sinners.
Scriptures. The readings for today’s Mass approach Lent under different aspects. The first reading — Joel 2:12-18 — has a community aspect to it. The Lord calls for the wayward community to engage in a collective act of penance: fasting and assembling (with no exceptions) to pray for mercy. God is sure to be merciful to the people that turns to him in that way. The psalm refrain, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned,” continues the community vision, but the actual verses — Ps 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 & 17 — are the words of an individual penitent. We acknowledge that our personal guilt is an element of the community’s.

The second reading — 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 — looks not at sin itself but at reconciliation with God. Lent is a day of salvation, a time of grace, when we can come to participate in Christ’s divine righteousness because he has taken on our sin, removing the obstacle between us and God.

Finally, in the gospel — Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 — Jesus warns us against the hypocrisy of doing good things just for the sake of winning admiration from others. (The omitted verses are the ones where he gives the Our Father as the model of prayer.) Note that he doesn’t say “If you give alms … pray … fast,” but “When you give alms, pray, fast.” These three things must be part of every Christian’s life, and not just for Lent; but the Church considers them the primary disciplines of Lent. In other words, we are to do them more intensively and more intentionally during Lent. We should give alms more. This can include acts of kindness and supplying the needs of others even beyond things of monetary; we can help by giving of our time and our talents. We should deepen our life of prayer, adding maybe a few minutes of prayer or Bible reading to our daily routine. Fasting is what creates the idea of “giving something up for Lent.” It has value in reasserting that we are in charge of our appetites; it says that we don’t absolutely need these things; it says God is more important than these things which we enjoy; and what we save by not buying the things we give up can and should become part of our almsgiving — the fast isn’t so we can spend on ourselves in some other way.

Sunday Scriptures — OT C 05, Feb. 07, 2016

This Sunday’s readings all present us with people called by God who recognized their unworthiness but answered the call.
In the first reading — Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8 —the prophet receives his call. First he has a vision of God. He is terrified because he realizes how incompatible his own sinfulness is with God’s holiness. But once he learns that he is forgiven and cleansed of his sin, he volunteers to be God’s envoy.
The apostle Paul proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus — 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. He lists people who have seen the risen Lord, including himself as the last of the list. This leads him to note that as a persecutor of the Church, he was nnot worthy to be counted as an apostle, but God chose him, and Paul’s effectiveness the the working of God’s grace.
In the gospel — Luke 5:1-11 — the miraculous catch of fish has an effect on Peter similar to Isaiah’s reaction to the vision of God. Peter realizes that he is in the presence of a holiness that is incompatible with sin — that his sinfulness makes him unworthy to be in Jesus’ presence. But Jesus dismisses that reaction. Not only is Peter to have no fear: Jesus has chosen him and his partners to catch men, rather than fish. Their response is as prompt as Isaiah’s; they immediately leave everything to follow Jesus.
In our responsorial psalm — Ps 138:1-5. 7b-8 with refrain from verse 1c — we praise God for hearing us and caring for us. We implicitly promise to spread knowledge of God’s greatness.
Baptism gives Christians the duty to participate, like Isaiah and Paul, in Jesus’ work of proclaiming God’s word, both in our way of life and in our words that witness to our faith. We can be assured of God’s merciful forgiveness for all our sins and of his grace enabling us to do what he has planned for our role in proclaiming his word.