Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lift high the Cross!

LAETARE – The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Having the bronze serpent in my coat-of-arms is as good as any reason for not letting pass by, without comment or reflection albeit a short one, this beautiful Sunday (Cycle B) with the Gospel of St. John (3:14-21).

The Second Reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (2:4-10) offers us the key for this Sunday’s message, as joyful a message as can be imagined:

“This was to show for all ages to come, through his goodness towards us in Christ Jesus, how infinitely rich he is in grace. Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it.”

Would it be dumbfounding to say it once and for all and let it take hold of us to the very depths of our being, that the initiative of restoring us to lost innocence was and always has been God’s in Christ? If I had to build my Lenten observance or reflection around something would it be too little to recognize myself as “God’s work of art”? I think the expression is “cooperating with God’s grace” as opposed to concentrating on hygiene or searching for the ultimate wellness seminar or success guru (if anyone still believes in such these days).

I remember the one and only time I baptized a four year old boy in the only language he really understood: German. I celebrated the baptism at a time when I was still pretty well tongue-tied in German. For him, I repeated over and over again during the liturgy the truth that through his baptism into Jesus he was now a child of God. Some weeks later his mother, not yet baptized at that point came and told me that since that Sunday she had often caught her little son at play singing to himself: “I am a child of God”. She said to me, “Father, I want to become a child of God, too”. She had experienced the gentle persuasion of joy, Laetare!, her four year old and Jesus had wrapped her in their freeing embrace! Such beautiful experiences come too seldom or maybe we just miss them for the gentleness with which they can pass us by.

Even after so many centuries, after two millennia of Gospel presence, Jesus’ words still cut to the quick: “…that though the light has come into the world men have shown they prefer darkness to the light…” Second Chronicles explains the seventy years of the Captivity of God’s People in Babylon as the required period of restitution for infidelity upon infidelity: for all those Sabbath rests which the people had stolen from God, all those Lord’s Days not observed or not returned to Him in thanksgiving for His many blessings upon the people He had chosen as His own, Exile from the Land for as long as was needed to reclaim those Sabbaths. Chronicles quotes the prophet Jeremiah to explain this suffering decreed such that the once scorned prophets might have their day before the Persian Cyrus could decree at God’s behest that the Temple was to be rebuilt and saving history could resume its course in the Land.

The “how come”, the “why” of Laetare, of our rejoicing this Sunday is all too clear: “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” “The Son must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert…” The challenge is the same as that facing the people in the desert doomed to death by the serpents’ venom, by their deadly bites. We must lift our gaze to the Son lifted up on the Cross for our salvation. No amount of dietary restrictions, pills, latex, Himalayan berries or Egyptian cotton, deep breathing or positive thinking is to satisfy us if we would indeed leave the darkness which covers the people, who continue to sit in the shadow of death. Upon the Cross with Christ we are caught up to eternal life. Just as was the case with the bronze serpent, what may seem to human perception to be futile or even death dealing is rather what gives life. By His Wounds we are healed.

A lot of journalists, commentators, self-assured political figures and supposedly successful or self-made types have been hurling abuse at our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI especially over the last coupe of months. Other people have been verbally carving up his curia into small pieces. These people all have advice to give on how the Pope could “do it better”. Personally, I think he and Jesus are doing a great job at world-class level of what my little four year old German boy with Jesus did for his mother in freedom. How else do you give the hope that there is such a thing as joy, lasting joy? Laetare!

“Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.” (Spe salvi, 1.).

O let my tongue cleave to my mouth if I remember you not!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Give us Your Son!

Second Sunday of Lent – 8 March 2009

Whenever we focus on the Transfiguration of Our Lord we mention Jesus’ will, which is one with God the Father’s Will, to prepare His closest followers for the scandal of the Cross. These days as I travel or have occasion to look at celebrity news and notice the number of people sporting big lovely crosses or crucifixes around their necks or even wearing rosaries around their necks (shirt or no shirt?), I worry that the Cross of Christ has not only been deprived of its scandal but perhaps of its meaning as well. What’s that pop artist doing with a rosary around his neck? Why is that pretty little lady on the airplane wearing such an elegant gold necklace which resembles a rosary even though from the shape of the “beads” it wouldn’t be much good for running through your fingers? Maybe their mothers put them around their necks with a fervent prayer to keep them safe for God… I cannot and will not judge.

This Sunday’s readings, which include an abbreviated account of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, our father in faith, brought home to me that even yet today, familiarity or no with the Crucifix, the challenge is one of gaining a real appreciation of the scandal involved, yes, in the Cross of Christ and thereby in the notion that God did not spare His Only Son but delivered Him up for the sake of all of us. “Sacrifice” as in the case of Abraham prepared to offer that of his son, Isaac, which serves for us in the Church as the prophecy of the sacrifice of Jesus, the notion of “sacrifice” itself is really that which leaves us dumbfounded. Either we don’t understand sacrifice and therefore it doesn’t even come across our monitor or we don’t understand it and are repulsed by the very thought of this something we don’t understand but which seems to weigh as heavy as a big wooden cross upon our shoulders, threatening to sap our lifeblood and all we would classify as quality of life.

In a sense, I guess you could say that we still haven’t claimed for our own one of the most important lessons which Pope John Paul II of blessed memory had to teach us. We marveled at how he very simply, directly and confidently invited young people to embrace the Cross of Christ. We marveled because it worked, in the sense that young people responded positively to his invitation. Despite evidence of a method tried and true, we seem to shy away from doing the same, or at least a goodly portion of this world’s preachers shy away from singing the “Ecce Lignum Crucis”. We seem to flee the glance of a frivolous young world as quick to hang a rosary around its neck as it is to tie different pieces of colored yarn to its wrist or around its ankle. Even without the jewelry, one wonders how we (the “saved”?) deal with the great mystery of Christ’s sacrifice.

“With God on our side who can be against us? Since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that he will not refuse anything he can give. Could anyone accuse those that God has chosen? When God acquits, could anyone condemn? Could Christ Jesus? No! He not only died for us – he rose from the dead, and there at God’s right hand he stands and pleads for us.” (Romans 8:31-34)

St. Paul evidently had to spend some time explaining the notion of Christ’s sacrifice as well. Faithful and faith-filled though he was, Abraham learned much on Mount Moriah, knife almost to his only son’s throat, learned much about God whose love went beyond all he could have asked or imagined. Even Mount Tabor and witnessing the glory of God on the face of His Beloved Son did not thoroughly inoculate Peter, James and John from the terror which seized them in the Garden of Olives and held them tight about the throat all the way to Calvary and the Grave. “With God on our side… could anyone condemn?” Just try and fathom this wondrous gift without a stumble or two!

A Lenten wish or prayer for Sunday II of this beautiful time of grace? If it had to be just one, it’d be that many more of us, young and old, might be grasped by the hand and led to the top of Mount Moriah, to the top of Mount Tabor. I’d wish us all that terrible experience of God the Father’s boundless love for us, manifest in Christ, and freeing us to place ourselves upon the Altar holding nothing back, upon the Altar with the Son offered up once and for all. Wouldn’t it be absolutely great if “Peter Pan” or “Miss Tinkerbelle” touched that rosary resting there on his or her heart and saw the Law and the Prophets fulfilled for our salvation. Wouldn’t it be unspeakably powerful if “nature’s child” discovered himself or herself as “God’s child”, eternally and absolutely loved? And wouldn’t it be even more clamorously and thunderously profound if pocketed and pursed rosaries became a font of meditation and that Crucifix on our wall or dashboard might encounter our glance and fill our hearts with wonder and praise yet before Week II becomes Week III?

Sacramentals: The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1667) says: “These are sacred signs… By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.”

Lord, let the notion of “sacrifice” become accessible to your people. Help us to open wide our hearts and give us back Your Son as grace and gift, just as You gave Isaac back to Abraham as beloved son and so much more.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lenten Program

Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
Stella Maris Parish, 4 March 2009, Kingston, Jamaica

The preaching of Jonah and the wisdom of Solomon: today’s Lenten readings challenge us to follow the example of the people of Nineveh from the least to the greatest and repent; to follow the example of the Queen of the South, who took on an arduous pilgrimage to be able to hear King Solomon. Today’s liturgy clearly invites us to do like them and allow those words/that preaching to bear fruits of repentance in our hearts and in our daily lives. Lent is about change of heart; it’s about hearing God’s Word and keeping it faithfully.

Now some of the more perceptive among you may have noticed that I said “those words/that preaching”. In expressing myself this way, it was not my intention to withdraw myself from my responsibility as a preacher here today. I said “those words/that preaching” simply to underline that I’m not preaching myself; I’m preaching Jesus; I’m preaching God’s Word. Although I am not worthy and I dare not say of myself, as Jesus did of Himself in today’s Gospel, “there is something greater than Jonah here”, I cannot excuse myself from going right to the heart of the matter and giving you Jesus in the splendor of the fullness of His Gospel. To my brother bishops, priests and deacons, I say: Sweat it out, preachers! Give the people only the best! The salvation of your listeners depends upon you preaching the Gospel of Repentance.

Today’s liturgy presents us, one and all, with a double challenge. The primary one is that we be attentive, that we listen, and that we allow God’s Word to find a home in our hearts. It is not that we hear and keep the Word as if buried or smothered within us, but that we respond to that word in us by really changing and thereby letting God’s Word shine forth for others to see and appreciate. The classic example of what we are called to do will always be provided by St. Anthony the Great, St. Anthony the Hermit, who as a young man on hearing the words of the Gospel on a Sunday, “go and sell all you have and give to the poor” did just that. He took God’s Word at face value and changed. So must we! So must we!

The other side of the coin is this: each and every one of us, not just the priest or the deacon from the pulpit, must preach; we must be prophets like Jonah. This is not to say we must be preachy preachers or pretentious prophets. Let me understate the case a bit and say our duty is simply not to withhold the Word. We cannot remain dumb or silent about sharing the reason for our hope. The wisdom from on high which is ours, we dare not withhold first and foremost from our loved ones, family and friends. Although we may freely leave the high-profile preaching to the professionals, we dare not keep Jesus to ourselves.

You would think I was saying the obvious, wouldn’t you? Why then are there so many lost souls around today chasing after New Age or motivational speakers? Even more worrisome for me, I cannot figure out why children today grow up so ignorant of the faith. Don’t people have a crucifix and a picture of the Blessed Mother in their homes? Don’t mommies today, walking a crying baby or trying to settle an infant in arms, ever take them up close to look at Jesus on the Cross? When they go to church during the Christmas season don’t they have that small child visit Baby Jesus in the Crib? I have fond memories of my Dad holding younger brothers and sisters still babies and taking them by the right hand, helping them make a Sign of the Cross which always ended with a tickle. Is Jesus, the One greater than Jonah born for us and for us given, present as a loving member of our families today, or is the Word being withheld?
Jonah tried to escape his responsibilities as a prophet and God went to extraordinary lengths to bring him back and put him to work for love of Nineveh and for love of Jonah. You might say that Jonah was drug kicking and screaming to his prophetic mission. And just as Jonah was a sign for the Ninevites so he should teach us the way to go out of ourselves for others, out of love for others.

Back to our first point ever so briefly! Open wide your hearts, St. Paul says! There is indeed something greater than Jonah here. On Judgment Day we want you on the same side of the great divide as the Queen of the South and the Ninevites. Don’t risk condemnation through dullness or distraction, as if someone owed you more of a sign than the Word itself which gives life. Change! Change! Which of your many faults are you working on this Lent?

One of the private jokes I shared with the Nuncio I served the longest in Germany had to do with an evening with priests where we as guests were offered a choice between a local white wine and a classic French red wine. As guests in a strange place we accepted the local white, all the local priests around the table took the French wine except for two who seemed to feel obliged to keep us company. After a very solemn toast the two tasted the local white, nodded profoundly and announced together that it had character. It was horrible. Thereafter the Nuncio and I could always joke about things with character as being horrible or worthless. Some people kid themselves into believing that their unruliness or stubbornness is a sign of character. Such signs of character would have led Nineveh to ruin and a headstrong or stubborn Queen of the South would have stayed home in her ignorance and be lost as well.

There is something greater than Jonah here. Change! Let everyone know the reason for your hope!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Turn and be Saved!

1st Sunday in Lent – 1 March 2009

“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.

After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News’.” (Mark 1: 12-15)

I’ve been trying to sort out for me the impact on this brief passage from Mark’s Gospel assigned for this Sunday, referring to Jesus’ temptation in the desert and His call to repentance announced from Galilee, of the discussion of God’s Covenant with Noah in the sign of the rainbow, from the first and second readings of this First Sunday in Lent - Cycle B. Normally in the liturgy of the First Sunday in Lent the account of the Temptation of Christ in the desert dominates, but when Mark’s Gospel is read it would seem the stress must lie elsewhere. St. Peter draws the two (rainbow covenant and Christ’s redemptive act) together and emphasizes that the real tragedy of the flood in Noah’s time was what people lost through their refusal of God. He binds this tragedy to the general loss of the life of grace of every day and time through refusal to repent. Physical death is not so much the tragedy; spiritual death through sin is.

Through divine revelation the rainbow, thanks be to God, reaches beyond Noah and into every day and time and teaches us about God’s will for humanity. Reassured by this beautiful sign in the sky, our primordial fear of storms subsides and God’s love for His people is affirmed. A watery death and the wood of the Cross are our passage in the sacrament of Baptism to everlasting life with God in Christ, who “innocent though he was, died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God.”

The proper preface for the First Sunday focuses on Christ’s Temptation and Fast: “His fast of forty days makes this a holy season of self-denial. By rejecting the devil’s temptations he has taught us to rid ourselves of the hidden corruption of evil, and so to share his paschal meal in purity of heart, until we come to its fulfillment in the promised land of heaven.” The message is clear and loses nothing when confronted with Mark’s Gospel, but the accent does change. In Cycle B you might say that the Church’s liturgy leaves no doubt that this is God’s wonderful work in Christ and it is our choice to hear Him and respond.

Repentance, what is it? Lent teaches that it is that effort on the part of the baptized, through fasting and penance after the example of Christ’s forty days, to rid ourselves of the hidden corruption of evil. We wish to share His paschal meal in purity of heart and thereby enter the forecourt of heaven to enjoy the foretaste and promise of the world to come.

I remember the lovely old wood-carved confessionals of my childhood with Christ seated on the rainbow in judgment above the priest’s door to the confessional. Obviously Father sat there in the place of Christ: he sat and continues to sit today in the sacrament of Penance in the place of Christ the Judge. For some reason or other, on this First Sunday in Lent, I cannot put out of my mind the rainbow upon which the Judge is seated: the sign of God’s Covenant with Noah. God’s will is not that the sinner be lost, but that he turn and be saved. Christ’s Judgment is unto life everlasting and our plea for forgiveness is to the One who will save us from the abyss.

The hustle and bustle of life far from the land and from the rhythms of nature makes the appearance of a rainbow a rarity. In our man-made fortresses we probably don’t fear storms or floods much anymore either. Nonetheless, the signs have been interpreted for us and the next time we catch a glimpse of a rainbow let us recall the promise not do destroy and the invitation to choose life in Christ. Let it be just one more invitation to the Sacrament of Penance as well: the avenue par excellence open to us to turn to the Lord and find life and light in Him.