Monday, February 29, 2016

Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

“Christ on the Cross” 
by Jacques-Louis David, 1782
Reading I: Daniel 3:25, 34-43
Commentary on Dn 3:25, 34-43
The reading from Daniel is the Prayer of Azariah (Abednego), one of Daniel's three companions, who were thrown into the furnace at the command of King Nebuchadnezzar because they would not worship the idol made of gold, which the king had made.
Azariah’s prayer is for the whole people of Israel, who are in dire straits. The final verses of the prayer express the penitential ideal, that God will accept a humble and contrite heart in lieu of the animal sacrifice required of their tradition at that time. (see also Psalm 51:18-19; Joel 2:13)
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 25:4-5ab, 6 and 7bc, 8-9
R. (6a) Remember your mercies, O Lord.
Psalm 25 is an individual lament. The sinful psalmist prays that “Your ways” be made known. This request directs us to repentance and ultimately justice. In the first strophe of this hymn, we hear support for our belief that God answered the prayers of our ancient ancestors. Their trust was justified. The song continues as an individual prayer asking for guidance and salvation.
Commentary on Mt 18:21-35
This passage begins with the discourse on “Forgiveness.” Peter asks the question that paraphrases one asked in the book of Genesis by Lamech (Genesis 4:24). He is looking for guidance in the form of a finite amount of forgiveness, and in answer receives the command that forgiveness must be infinite (represented by the multiples of seven and ten).
To emphasize this need for forgiveness, the Lord launches into the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. The moral of this particular parable is the measure we use to judge others is the same measure that will be used by God to measure us, when we come before him. “The model is the forgiveness of God, which knows no limit; and neither should man's forgiveness. If man does not forgive, he cannot expect forgiveness; if he does not renounce his own claims, which are small, he cannot ask God to dismiss the claims against him.”[4]
CCC: Mt 18:21-22 982, 2227, 2845; Mt 18:23-35 2843
We recently reflected about the differences between the good and moral person and the Christian. Scripture today causes us to focus on another tenet of our faith – forgiveness. A question for you: can a good and moral person be considered so if they do not forgive a person who has wronged them? We propose that in the terms of society, the answer is “yes.” Going even further, a good and moral person would not be faulted for using the legal system to seek retribution from one who had wronged them using all the means at their disposal, attempting to gain monetarily from the situation.
If we call ourselves Christian, as a people who follow the teaching and example of Christ, we are called to go beyond even simple forgiveness. By simple forgiveness we mean: communicating forgiveness to one who has wronged us, but holding anger in our hearts for the injustice for which, at some future time, we might exact revenge. Christ says the same thing: simple forgiveness is not enough, calling us to forgiveness from the heart. It is a difficult thing, and we must differentiate forgiveness of a person and acceptance of a deed.
Just as a parent chastises a child for doing something wrong, but loves the child who did it, we are called to, as the saying goes, “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Sometimes this can be very difficult because we associate the sinner with the sin. For example we might find it very difficult to love Adam Gadahn. Gadahn, 31, an American of Jewish descent was born Adam Pearlman in California. He has been called the "American face of Jihad," after producing numerous videos allegedly for Al Qaeda. He was deemed a traitor by the U.S. and in Oct. 2006 he was indicted for treason and giving aid and comfort to terrorists after the testimony of an FBI agent. Such a person we might feel was inherently dangerous to us, one so twisted by hate that forgiveness would not be an option. Yet, we are asked to love Adam and mourn his fall from grace as his parents would, but certainly his native faith community would not. Forgiveness is the commandment of Christ whose ultimate forgiveness we celebrate daily. It is that uniquely Christian call, at the heart of our actions, which labels us a “Christian”.
Today we are asked to be a people of forgiveness. We are called to go beyond legal justice, to Christ’s justice which included forgiveness even for his own crucifixion. By setting this standard in our lives, we are assured that the same mercy and forgiveness will be shown to us as we stand before the Great Judge on the last day.

[2] The picture is “Christ on the Cross” by Jacques-Louis David, 1782
[4]Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Inc., © 1968, 43; 127

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Monday of the Third Week of Lent

“The Prophet Elisha and Naaman” by Lambert Jacobsz, c. 1615
Reading I: 2 Kings 5:1-15ab
Commentary on 2 Kgs 5:1-15ab
This story of the conversion of Naaman through Elisha’s office as Prophet has some interesting historical and ritual material. First, it is ironic that the King of Aram, which was an antagonist of Israel, would send one of his key advisers to Israel. That is why the King of Israel tore his garments. He assumed that Aram was making an unreasonable request in order to provoke physical hostilities between the two countries.
Next we see Elisha not coming out of his house to instruct Naaman, but sending word to him. He did so in part because to come into the presence of one with leprosy could have caused him ritual impurity (see Leviticus 13-14). Clearly Naaman did not know this, since he complained about it. Finally, the Jordan River, from a hygienic perspective, is not as clean as the clear springs of Damascus. It is, at the best of times, muddy. The requirement that Naaman plunge himself into the water seven times is significant in that the number seven is, in Hebrew numerology, the perfect number, symbolic of completeness. This would also be in line with the ritual cleansing prescribed in Leviticus 14:8. The lesson taught was that Naaman, washed clean of his transgressions (outwardly expressed as leprosy) was given the salvation only the God of Israel could provide (not some magical ritual performed by the prophet himself). The healing accomplished was to bring Naaman to confess that there is no god but God (in Israel).
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 42:2, 3; 43:3, 4
R. (see 42:3) Athirst is my soul for the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
Commentary on Ps 42:2, 3; 43:3, 4
Psalms 42 and 43 are hymns of praise and express longing for God’s presence. The use of the hind (female red deer) longing for water is used to provide the allusion to Baptism, bringing belief out of unbelief.
CCC: Ps 42:3 2112
Gospel: Luke 4:24-30
Commentary on Lk 4:24-30
This Gospel passage places Jesus at his home town speaking in the synagogue. The people there were questioning his authority, since they knew him as a child and knew his family. These verses give his response to their challenge to his status and authority.
We understand why the people were upset when we consider that, in his analogy explaining why he could accomplish no works from God to satisfy them, he used Elijah going to a widow in Sidon (not in Israel, see 1 Kings 17:9ff), and Elisha curing Naaman (a Syrian not an Israelite, see 2 Kings 5:1ff). This would have placed Jesus on a par with the great Prophets, blasphemy in the eyes of his old neighbors. Perhaps even more upsetting to the people would have been that their God would not reveal himself because of their lack of faith. (Ironically, Jesus, who we know is God, was revealing himself. The people just could not see it.)
As we hear Jesus speak to his friends and relatives in the synagogue at Nazareth, it is easy for us to understand why Jesus is frustrated at their lack of faith.  Here they are, people that had the honor of growing up with him, knowing him as youth and man, yet they did not understand his divine nature.  They scoffed and rejected his attempted revelation.  In fact, many of them probably thought he had, as they say, “Gone off his nut.”  His experience with his eccentric cousin John (the Baptist), and his sabbatical in the desert immediately following, must have caused him to come “unhinged.”
Jesus, of course, saw all of this in their faces and heard what was behind their words.  He would have felt intense sorrow, knowing that because of this familiarity and presumed understanding, his own friends and family would not be able to accept the great gift God had offered them.  An analogy might be if we were able to invent a treatment that would cure any disease somehow, and then offered it freely to those in our community hospital, but they would not accept it because we did not have credentials as a pharmacist. 
And what lesson do we take away from the Gospel?  Don’t we fall into the same trap?  Do we listen to those around us with the attention we would pay to a prestigious expert on the subject at hand?  We commonly miss God’s revelation because we do two things.  First, we judge the source, and if, in our opinion, that source is less credible than the wisdom we suppose we have already amassed, we tune it out. We ignore it.  Second, we just plain don’t listen.  Our own voice gets in the way of our auditory canals and we don’t hear what we should.  This is especially true in, of all places, prayer.  We are so busy telling God what we want that we don’t listen to his answers.
In the very truest sense, this is exactly the sin those ancient Hebrews committed when Jesus spoke to them in the Synagogue.  They were not really listening.  This then is the lesson we take with us today.  It is rather complex and very difficult.  First we must surrender our own pride and sense of superiority and listen intently to those with whom we communicate (even our children).  The word we hear may be life changing.  Second, as a people of prayer, we must listen to God’s response with our hearts, not simply bombard the Lord with our words.  Let that be our prayer today, that our ears will be open that we might hear.

[2] The picture is “The Prophet Elisha and Naaman” by Lambert Jacobsz, c. 1615

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Third Sunday of Lent

Catechism Links[1]
CCC 210, 2575-2577: God calls Moses, hears prayers of his people
CCC 1963-1964: observance of Law prepares for conversion
CCC 2851: evil and its works as obstacle on way of salvation
CCC 128-130, 1094: Old Testament “types” fulfilled in New

“The Barren Fig Tree” by James Tissot, c. 1896-1900
Today in the Church the Elect who are participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) will be presented with the Creed.  Because of this the Cycle A readings may be used.  An A Cycle post is provided here for those who wish to use those readings.
Commentary on Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15
The passage from Exodus is the story of God’s call of Moses from the burning bush. The Lord indicates that he has “come down,” indicating that he will intervene in the plight of the Israelites. He has seen their trials and heard their prayer.  Through Moses, God's redemption will be fulfilled in the land he gives them, "a land flowing with milk and honey."
There is concern from Moses that he must be able to tell the Israelites the name of God in whose name he comes. The Lord names himself “I am who am.” giving no name that can be used to have dominion over him as ancient Samarian tradition suggests (see Genesis 1:28 Genesis 2:20 ff – man names the animals as a sign that he has been given dominion over them). This is the origin of the term “Yahweh” used to name God in some English translations. It is transliterated Hebrew shortened from “Yahweh asher yahweh,” or “He causes to be what comes into existence.” As an interesting side note, the use of the term “Jehovah” is a German translation of the Hebrew text.
This identification was cited by Jesus in Matthew 22:31-32 and by early Christians as proof of the resurrection, since the patriarchs live on in God who is the God of the living.
CCC: Ex 3:1-10 2575; Ex 3:5-6 208; Ex 3:5 2777; Ex 3:6 205, 207; Ex 3:7-10 1867; Ex 3:13-15 205; Ex 3:14 446, 2666, 2810
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11
R. (8a) The Lord is kind and merciful.
Psalm 103 praises God for this compassion and forgiveness. Three of God’s blessings are enumerated: forgiveness, healing, and salvation. It recalls Moses’ mission and the salvation brought through it.
CCC: Ps 103 304
Commentary on 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12
St. Paul links Christian baptism to one of its ancient symbols: Moses leading the Hebrews through the parted waters of the sea. He goes on to link the Eucharist to God feeding the Hebrews in the wilderness with manna naming it "spiritual food," alluding also to water flowing from the rock at Horeb (Exodus 17:6ff), calling it "spiritual drink."  Yet, because they rejected God’s commandments and sought material goods instead of spiritual sustenance, most of those who rejected God were struck down.
The evangelist concludes this selection speaking especially to the Jewish converts, who point to their heritage as justification for salvation instead of following the Gospel of Christ. He warns them that they could be falling into the same trap as their ancestors.
CCC: 1 Cor 10:1-11 129; 1 Cor 10:1-6 1094; 1 Cor 10:1-2 697; 1 Cor 10:2 117; 1 Cor 10:4 694; 1 Cor 10:6 128; 1 Cor 10:11 117, 128, 2175
Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
Commentary on Lk 13:1-9
In the story from St. Luke, there is once more a reminder that urgency is required in seeking repentance. The story begins with an explanation by the Lord that victims of Roman punishment ("...whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices"), and victims of an accident ("...those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them"), were not singled out by God for punishment. These statements are followed by the parable of the barren fig tree as a way of saying that God, at some point, will become impatient, and will call sinners to account for their actions.
The incidents recorded at the beginning of this reading (likely the accidental death of those on whom the tower fell) are found only in St. Luke’s Gospel. Based upon historical works of the time, the actions of Pilate were in keeping with his character. Jesus uses the event to call his audience to repentance.
“Following on the call to repentance, the parable of the barren fig tree presents a story about the continuing patience of God with those who have not yet given evidence of their repentance (see Luke 3:8). The parable may also be alluding to the delay of the end time, when punishment will be meted out, and the importance of preparing for the end of the age because the delay will not be permanent”[6]
A very important question that many of us have asked is answered by Jesus in the Gospel from St. Luke. Who among us has not asked, either in prayer or in anger, why do bad things happen to good people? Have we not looked at God accusingly and asked Him why a loved one suffered some tragedy, or why a natural disaster like the earthquakes, storms, or other natural disasters took so many innocent lives? Why did God make those things happen?
The Lord’s answer – he didn’t! He did not cause a person to get sick or the earth’s crust to slip causing earthquakes and tsunamis. He created each of us and all that we have and can see. He gave us all good things to use and gave us dominion over the earth and its resources. Like our human bodies, all that he made has a cycle of life and death even to the stars that light the way to his infinite creation.
The Lord tells us clearly that God did not punish those who perished at the hand of Pilate (“…whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices”) or those who had been killed when a building collapsed (“…when the tower at Siloam fell on them”). No, it was not because they had sinned and thus been singled out for punishment for those sins. God did not seek vengeance or even justice in this way. What Jesus says next makes clear what God expects. He expects us to be responsible for the things we have control over. He expects us to align our thoughts and actions in accordance with his wishes – the commandments he gave us.
If we do not, if we continue to ignore the warnings, and procrastinate in our repentance, we risk spiritual death. We forfeit everlasting life. The parable of the fig tree, with which the Lord followed his statement to the crowd, gives us some insights. He tells the story about how a land owner wanted to cut down an unproductive fruit tree.
We must assume the story is an allegory and that the unproductive fig tree is the unrepentant person who does not bear fruit for God’s Kingdom. The Landowner must be God who has expectations that what he has planted will bear fruit. Who, then, do we suppose the gardener might be? Could it be the same gardener encountered by Mary Magdalene the morning following Jesus’ crucifixion? Who but Jesus could save the unrepentant sinner from death? So the cast is now complete. We have God ready to destroy the tree, the unrepentant tree, which would be shaking in its boots if it had boots, and Jesus, saying let’s give the tree another chance.
That story is pointed straight at us. We are told that we have been given more chances to hear the words spoken when we received the ashes on Ash Wednesday: “Turn away from Sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” or “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In either case we are given another chance to find the right path, to become productive members of God’s earthly kingdom.
As we reach the half-way point in our journey this Lenten season we are asked once more to look at our behaviors and to turn away from the things that keep us from producing the results God seeks from us. He asks two things only. He asks us to love him and to love our neighbors. If we do this then we will bear great fruit. It is so simple to say, love God and love our neighbor; but our human nature tries to get in the way. It is this impulse we must control and turn to the good that the Lord expects.
The Lord reminds us once again today how much he loves us. He stands as that wondrous gardener who seeks to tend us so we can grow and become fruitful. We are asked to turn away from the things that lead us in wrong directions and are cautioned that there will come a time when it is too late. We pray today that we do not delay in making the changes we know need to be made, and so come before him having achieved his mercy and salvation.

[1] Catechism links are taken from the Homiletic Directory, Published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 29 June 2014
[3] The picture is “The Barren Fig Tree” by James Tissot, c. 1896-1900
[6] See NAB footnote on Luke 13:6-9

Friday, February 26, 2016

Saturday of the Second Week of Lent

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” 
by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 
c. 1669
Commentary on Mi 7:14-15, 18-20
This is the very end of the Book of the Prophet Micah.  In the previous chapters he has chastised and condemned the excesses and corruption of Jerusalem and Samaria (rich exploiters of the poor, fraudulent merchants, venal judges, corrupt priests and prophets).  Now at the end, he presents the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy to those who return to him.
The passage begins with a prayer of Micah. He asks that the people (likely a remnant returning to the region following their exile in 537 B.C.) might be given back their historical lands and live in peace. Following the two verses not used in which the prophet proclaims that all surrounding nations will be in fear of the power of God, he continues with two petitions in a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s mercy and forgiveness. The first is a prayer to Yahweh, probably dating from the time of return from exile. There is a note of longing that comes through: “…and will again have compassion on us, treading underfoot our guilt? You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins.
The second petition is Israel’s prayer for forgiveness: “Who does not persist in anger forever, but delights rather in clemency.” It recalls God’s pledge of faithfulness and grace. His mercy flows from his love of the people. “The book ends by recalling the promises of the covenant binding Yahweh and the patriarchs. The Lord had pledged his "faithfulness" ('emet) and "grace" (hesed) to the Israel of old, and he was not about to renege now.”[4]
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12
R. (8a) The Lord is kind and merciful.
Continuing the theme of forgiveness, Psalm 103 is a song of praise and thanksgiving to God for his mercy.  It recognizes both God’s mercy and our need, as sinners, for it.  The psalmist rejoices in God’s saving help following a period of adversity.
CCC: Ps 103 304
Commentary on Lk 15:1-3, 11-32
The topic of repentance and forgiveness comes to a climax with St. Luke’s Parable of the Prodigal Son, one of the two “Parables of Mercy” found in this section.  The parables distill the essence of the Good News. Found only in St. Luke’s Gospel, the imagery is instantly clear that this is to be an analogy. The father in the story represents God and the Prodigal Son followers of Christ, when they repent their sins. Interestingly, the older brother also represents Christians when they do not forgive those who have also sinned. We are given the picture of the loving father welcoming his son home, an allusion used also in the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7). The invitation implicit is that those who seek forgiveness find it in God.
CCC: Lk 15 1443, 1846; Lk 15:1-2 589; Lk 15:11-32 545, 2839; Lk 15:11-31 1700; Lk 15:11-24 1439; Lk 15:18 1423, 2795; Lk 15:21 2795; Lk 15:23-32 589; Lk 15:32 1468
The Prophet Micah’s oracle tries to tell us something of the depth of God’s love and mercy.  The parable of the Prodigal Son, told by Jesus, provides a living example of the unwavering love of God for his children.  The revelation of God’s love is one of the great pillars of our faith and a core reason Jesus was sent as man to walk among us.  It is the notion that God’s forgiveness is endless, his embrace is unreserved.
All of this we know, we have been taught; the Church has provided an avenue for us to experience it. Yet, why is it so difficult for us to accept it?  Oh, we do not mean intellectually.  Intellectually we know that God’s invitation is always there. His hand is always outstretched.  Intellectually we know that, by dying on the cross, Jesus offered the great sacrifice of atonement that removed the stain of death brought upon us by Adam’s fall from grace.  Intellectually we know that the repentant sinner is loved and cherished by God, even if that person only repented at the last moment of life.
But when it comes down to our hearts, we cannot simply let go of our sin and allow the loving Father to welcome us home and embrace us.  There is in us that dark corner of our souls that holds back. It is that fear that tells us, “wait, the sins we have committed are unforgivable,” or, “wait, the sin we have committed gave us enjoyment and we may want to go there again. Don’t go back just yet.”  These warring emotions battle within us, keeping us from accepting the loving embrace of our Lord. They keep us from offering ourselves wholly to the Father who wants us to come home.
It is one of the most difficult things we can do, accepting forgiveness for our sins.  Part of the reason for this is that before we can fully accept the Father’s forgiveness, we must accept that his forgiveness is truly there.  Then and only then can we forgive ourselves as well.  It is only when our faith allows us to accept that God forgives our most vile faults that we can live in freedom from sin.  It is only in turning away from those sins that we can come home to our loving Father.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one that, for all of us, should embody our Lenten journey.  It is, after all, a journey home to the Father after we have once more squandered our inheritance.

[2] The picture is “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, c. 1669
[4] Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Inc., © 1968, 17:33, pp. 289