Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ash Wednesday

The Lenten Season: The Lectionary readings for Lent fall into two basic themes broken into the first half of Lent and the second. The first half, beginning today and running through the Saturday of the third week of Lent, focuses on the model of discipleship. As we are confronted time and again with the demands of our call to be Christ’s disciples, we come to understand that, in spite of our best efforts, our perfect response to that call will always be out of our reach.
In the second half of Lent the Lectionary shows us Jesus the Christ in the Gospel of St. John. We review his ministry, not so much as a synopsis, but rather to come to a closer understanding of the salvation he alone provides.
Taken together, the first half of Lent is ethical and the second is Christological. The first half empties us the second fills us up. At the end lies the great gift of Easter.

“The Temptation of Christ “ by Juan De Flandes, c. 1500
Reading 1: Joel 2:12-18
Commentary on Jl 2:12-18
The land has suffered a great plague of locusts, and Joel calls the people of Israel to repentance. He calls all the faithful to return to the Lord and have faith in him because they were in despair, thinking the locusts were a punishment from God. Joel asks the faithful for an interior conversion, not just outward signs or ritual worship (“Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.”)
CCC: Jl 2:12-13 1430
R. (see 3a) Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Psalm 51 provides a call to repentance. “A lament, the most famous of the seven Penitential Psalms, prays for the removal of the personal and social disorders that sin has brought.”[4] We acknowledge our sinfulness and vow to return to the grace of God.
CCC: Ps 51:6 431, 1850; Ps 51:12 298, 431
Commentary on 2 Cor 5:20—6:2
St. Paul calls the Corinthians to reconciliation with God. He reminds them that through reconciliation, grace is received and through grace, God pours out salvation. The Apostle also reminds the people why God came: as a sacrifice of atonement for sins (“For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin“). His urgent call tells his audience that now (not later) is the time for this to occur. “In an acceptable time: Paul cites the Septuagint text of Isaiah 49:8; the Hebrew reads "in a time of favor"; it is parallel to "on the day of salvation." Now: God is bestowing favor and salvation at this very moment, as Paul is addressing his letter to them.”[5]
CCC: 2 Cor 5:20 859, 1424, 1442; 2 Cor 5:21 602; 2 Cor 6:2 1041
Commentary on Mt 6:1-6, 16-18
The Lord continues the Sermon on the Mount. In this selection the Lord specifically addresses the pious acts of charity, prayer, and fasting, contrasting each with the spurious or pandering acts of the Scribes and Pharisees. He tells his audience that when they do these things, do them for God to see, not other people. They are to do what is right for God’s glory, not their own, not so that others will place them in high esteem because of their piety or generosity. In all three instances, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, the same instruction is given. We are to give generously but in private, we are to pray fervently but alone, and we are to fast with purpose but to hide our discomfort. (The verses omitted from this reading, Matthew 6; 7-15, is Jesus giving the disciples the Lord’s Prayer.)
CCC: Mt 6:1-18 1434; Mt 6:1-6 1430, 1969; Mt 6:2-4 1753, 2447; Mt 6:2 1063; Mt 6:5 1063; Mt 6:6 1693, 2608, 2655, 2691; Mt 6:14-16 2792; Mt 6:16-18 1430; Mt 6:16 1063; Mt 6:18 575
We start our own Lenten journey with an apologetic statement. In the view of many Christian denominations, Catholics are said to be good at guilt.  In their eyes our celebration of Ash Wednesday and even Lent exemplifies our faith.  Those who have not taken a deeper look do not realize what truly happens each year.  Ironically, those involved in modern manufacturing techniques would see very clearly what goes on.  That is because the goal of the modern manufacturing facility is to produce quality parts with no defects.  To get to that perfect system, there must be what is commonly called “Continuous Improvement.”
We do not embrace guilt over our failures, but we do not hide it from ourselves either.  We do not believe that once we have accepted Christ and named him our Savior that we can go on as we please, having been saved with no more effort than to say “I believe.” 
The Church has set up for us a cycle of “Continuous Improvement.”  Each year during our Lenten Season we hear those words: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” as we accept the ritual ashes that have marked the repentant faithful since ancient times.  Each year we accept the penitent role, and review in detail how we have succeeded in God’s call to holiness and how we have failed.  The measure with which we measure ourselves is Christ the Savior, Zero Defects.
We believe that no one has achieved this state of perfection before or since the Lord took on his humanity and walked among us.  We are not, however, dissuaded from trying to get as close to our model as possible.  During our Lenten season we first hold ourselves up to the intense scrutiny that is only possible for one who understands the love Christ has for them and for all His creation.  We see the flaws clearly.  The deeper we are drawn in our relationship with the Lord, the more clearly those stains appear.  It is like stain on a fabric, the closer to pure white a fabric becomes in color, the more clearly even the smallest stains can be seen.  In Lent we strive for the snowy white of our baptismal garment.
As we see those flaws, we attempt to discover ways to change what we do, and the ways we behave to conform ourselves more closely to our Lord.  We empty ourselves like a garage during spring cleaning, so we can clean out the junk and put only the good things back.  The first half our Lenten Season is exactly that – empting out all of what has accumulated in the past year or years.  The second half is dedicated to filling ourselves with the love of Christ, so that when Easter arrives we rejoice, converted once more and ready once more to try for that perfect life in Christ.

[1] The picture used is “The Temptation of Christ “ by Juan De Flandes, c. 1500
[4] See NAB footnote on Psalm 51
[5] See NAB footnote on 2 Corinthians 6:2

Monday, February 27, 2017

Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

“The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Son of God, 
Gathering and Protecting Mankind” by Frans Floris, 1562
Reading I: Sirach 35:1-12
Commentary on Sir 35:1-12
This reading from Sirach deals with the explicit rules surrounding Jewish Sacrifice rituals and the importance of having the right mind-set when presenting gifts to God. The passage concludes by reminding the faithful that God repays sevenfold (we note here the reference to seven which in Hebrew numerology symbolizes completeness or the perfect number) that which is given by the “cheerful giver.”
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 50:5-6, 7-8, 14 and 23
R. (23b) To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
Psalm 50 is part of the faithful’s response to God’s covenant and supports the idea of ritual sacrifice to God.  The psalmist refers to the practice as supporting the covenant made between God and his people.  From our place in the history of faith, Christ was the one sacrifice that ended the need for all other sacrificial offerings.
Gospel: Mark 10:28-31
Commentary on Mk 10:28-31
The passage contains the disciples' response to Jesus’ teaching about the discipline of discipleship embodied in the story of the wealthy young man (Mark 10:17-27). After seeing the young man leave because he could not part with his possessions, Peter finds it necessary to remind Jesus that they (the disciples) had given up everything to follow him. The Lord replies that those who have sacrificed to follow him will receive not just the seven-fold repayment promised by Sirach 35:10, but a hundred times more than what they have given up.
This reference made by St. Mark is likely to the growth of Church under the Apostles’ evangelization, and the communal sense of the Church in its early years. The same reference is true of Jesus’ final statement where we hear: “But many that are first will be last, and (the) last will be first." Here St. Mark is probably referring to the martyrdom many will find before joining the Lord in his heavenly kingdom.
CCC: Mk 10:28-31 1618
The Gospel from St. Mark continues the disciples’ lesson given by Jesus, and is supported by a reading from the Book of Sirach. In the story of the Wealthy Young Man, we saw the importance of placing God before the material wealth in our lives.  It is easy to say that God is more important to us than material things.  It is another matter to demonstrate that by giving away or donating a significant part of that wealth (which is later translated into “things”).
This is the point scripture is making today.  It is not good enough to just say we love God more than wealth.  We must demonstrate that love by sharing what we have with those less fortunate.  The disciples did that to the extreme by walking away from their livelihoods.  They gave up every material thing to follow Jesus.  Peter feels he must remind the Lord of that fact today.  And the Lord tells Peter (and the rest of the disciples; we assume Peter was speaking for all of them) that for what they have sacrificed, they will be rewarded.
The lesson today is that charity is something that must be an integral part of our practice of the faith.  Ours must not be a faith of words but of actions, and our actions must demonstrate the love of Christ.  Today we pray that God will give us strength to give to others, at least in part, what he has given to us.

[1] The picture is “The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Gathering and Protecting Mankind” by Frans Floris, 1562

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

“Christ and the Young Rich Man” by Heinrich Hofmann,1889
Reading 1: Sirach 17:20-24[4]
Commentary on Sir 17:20-28
The first part of this moral teaching from Sirach (in antiquity called “Wisdom of the Son of Sirach" and in the Middle Ages Ecclesiasticus) deals with penitence. God always invites us back, especially those who have lost hope. All that is necessary is to love what God loves, and to pray constantly to the "Most High God."
The second section asks for conversion or a return to God. Here the author says the dead cannot give God praise (see also Psalm 115:17-18 and Isaiah 38:18-20). This reflects the belief at this point in Hebrew theological development that there was no life after death, no resurrection, only a shadow existence in Sheol. We also hear how God’s mercy flows to those who do return from a sinful past. God forgives those who return to him.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 6, 7
R. (11a) Let the just exult and rejoice in the Lord.
Commentary on Ps 32:1-2, 5, 6, 7
Psalm 32 is an individual hymn of thanksgiving.  The psalmist sings a song of gratitude that the Almighty Father has pardoned his sins (which were freely confessed).  In spite of these blemishes, salvation is heaped upon the repentant.
CCC: Ps 32 304; Ps 32:5 1502
Gospel: Mark 10:17-27
Commentary on Mk 10:17-27
The story of the rich young man, presented in St. Mark’s Gospel, is an ideal teaching moment for Christ. Clearly the young man depicted is of Pharisaic persuasion since he believes in the concept of eternal life (Sadducees would not). After he has heard that the young man has carefully followed Mosaic Law (summarized in the Decalogue the Lord mentions), Jesus tells him he has only one more step to take. Selling all he has and giving the proceeds to the poor is too much for the rich young man who leaves downcast.
Jesus uses this example to emphasize, first, that the love of God must come first, before desire for possessions, and before the accumulation of wealth. Those listening were also downhearted and say: “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus then makes his second point. No one earns salvation from God! Only the Lord alone can grant it, and nothing is impossible for him. “For men it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” God must provide the path.
CCC: Mk 10:19 1858; Mk 10:22 2728
The Good News offers us a way home if we have fallen or have moved away from the Lord.  There is a God billboard in our region of the country that says: “If you feel God is far away, who moved?”  It fits today’s scripture.
In Sirach we are told that the path to God is open for those who have fallen into sin or have denied the Lord.  The opening line is an invitation (that sounds like it came out of an Indiana Jones movie) “To the penitent God provides a way back, he encourages those who are losing hope and has chosen for them the lot of truth.”  From the oldest times God has provided a way to return if we fail.
We are told that to return we must first want to return.  Actually, if we think about it, that is the major hurdle we must cross.  If we want something, say a new car or a pair of shoes, our behavior supports that desire.  We save money for the car, and we look into offerings by various dealers or stores.  We do our homework so that we achieve what we want.  The larger the item or the goal, the longer it takes to achieve it and the more discipline in our behavior.  We see how goals can come into conflict in the Gospel story.  The rich young man wants exactly what we do, and finds the barrier in himself.  The Lord tells him to remove the things in his life more important to him than God, his material possessions, and he (the young man) cannot do it.
When Jesus turns to his disciples after the young man leaves, he explains: to those who place their wealth first in their lives, the Kingdom of God is not attainable.  Even if we find a way to achieve that perfect state of mind (it is very difficult), it is only through God’s mercy that we will achieve that heavenly place. Thank God his mercy is endless.

[1] The picture is “Christ and the Young Rich Man” by Heinrich Hofmann,1889
[4] The Biblical Citation used is incorrect at USCCB (and repeated here)  Correct is Sirach 17:24-28 in the NAB