Saturday, February 27, 2016

 LENT III: Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15; I Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9

Just before Christmas in 1985, we were shocked by an air crash in Newfoundland, Canada. That crash killed more than 200 American soldiers on their way home for the Christmas holidays. A few months later in 1986, we were stunned again by another national tragedy when the space shuttle Challenger exploded only 74 seconds after lift-off. Seven astronauts were killed in that catastrophe.
We know that tragic events can occur randomly and have nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the victims.  For example, a tornado that destroys a nightclub also destroys a Church.  An earthquake or tsunami kills the saints as well as the sinners in the affected area. Drunk drivers kill innocent people. Religious fanatics, terrorists and suicide bombers cause the untimely deaths of good as well as of bad people.  Violent people, with or without provocation, injure their loved ones.  All of us have struggled to understand why tragedy seems to befall innocent people. What we need is to trust in Divine mercy, believing that God is with us and God is on our side, even in those situations we cannot explain.  Jesus' life is the clearest evidence that a person's suffering is not a proof of that person's sin.  While sin can lead to tragedy, not every tragedy is the result of sin. Although God is not responsible for causing tragedy, he is not a detached observer of our suffering. On the contrary, he is immersed in it with us, sharing to the full our particular grief and pain. This is the fundamental significance of the cross." "Every tragedy contains within it the seeds of resurrection." This is, after all, the whole point of our pilgrimage through Lent, to Good Friday, and Easter morning.

Today’s Gospel gives us two examples of shocking disasters that occurred in Christ’s lifetime. One of the incidents was the ruthless murder of some Galileans while they were in the middle of their Temple sacrifices. The victims were probably political agitators and this was Pilate’s way of silencing them. The other incident was a construction accident which occurred near the Temple during the building of a water aqueduct. Apparently this building project was hated by the Jews because Temple funds were appropriated by Pilate to finance it. These two incidents are brought up because the Jews of Jesus’ day presumed that those who were killed were being punished by God for their sins. But Jesus denies this. Instead, he asserts that what really destroys life is our unwillingness to repent and change our lives. Jesus says, not once, but twice by way of emphasis: “Unless you repent, you will perish as they did.”

All three of today's readings speak of God’s mercy and compassion in disciplining his children and in giving them a second chance in spite of their repeated sins.  Although God’s love for us is constant and consistent, He will not save us without our co-operation.  That is why He invites us during Lent to repent of our sins and to renew our lives by producing fruits of love, compassion, forgiveness, and faithful service.  

The Jewish rabbis taught that repentance required five elements: recognition of one's sin as sin; remorse for having committed the sin; desisting from repeating this sin; restitution for the damage done by the sin where possible; and confession.  “Confession" for the Jews had two forms: ritual and personal.  Ritual confession required recitation of the liturgies of confession at their proper moments in the prayer-life of the community.  Personal confession required individual confession before God as needed or inserting one's personal confession into the liturgy at designated moments.  One who followed these steps was called a "penitent."  In fact, Jesus invited his Jewish listeners to such repentance.  Repentance implies not just regret for the past but a radical conversion and a complete change in our way of life as we respond and open ourselves to the love of God.  Jesus calls us today to “repentance” - not a one-time change of heart, but an ongoing, daily transformation of our lives.
Never fail to read the signs of time and accept their message. Every calamity, every tragedy, every natural event has a message for us. It is a sign, a reminder that our time is limited and hence, repent and make ourselves socially useful.

We are unable to predict when a tragic accident may happen to us.  Our end may come swiftly – without warning and without giving us an opportunity to repent.  Repentance helps us in life and in death.  It helps us to live as forgiven people, and helps us to face death without fear. 
Lent is an ideal time "to dig around and manure" the tree of our life so that it may bring forth fruits. Like the fig tree that was given one more year of lease, we are given another chance to produce fruits.

Garrison Keillor warns us, "You can become a Christian by going to church just as about easily as you can become an automobile by sleeping in a garage." What we're speaking of is the danger of presumed spiritual security. Our parable says that we're not called just to be here. It is a clear warning against a fruitless existence in the light of God's grace given to us.

Our merciful Father always gives us a second chance.  The prodigal son, returning to the father, was welcomed as a son, not treated as a slave.  The repentant Peter was made the head of the Church.  The persecutor Paul was made the apostle to the Gentiles.  During Lent, we, too, are given another chance to repent and return to our Heavenly Father’s love.  We are also expected to give others a second chance when they ask our forgiveness.  Grace is everywhere.  Let us always cooperate with grace, and not make God go tired of waiting for our conversion beyond this period of Lent.

Friday, February 19, 2016

LENT II (C) Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18Phil 3:17—4:1, Luke 9:28b-36

The first reading describes the transforming of a pagan patriarch into a believer in the one God, the transforming of his name from Abram to Abraham and God’s making of His first Covenant with man through Abraham and his descendants as a reward for Abraham’s obedience to God.  In the Transfiguration account in today’s Gospel Jesus is revealed as a glorious figure, superior to Moses and Elijah who appear with him. He is identified by the Heavenly Voice as the Son of God.

Peter has already announced that Jesus is the Messiah. The other disciples probably were still unconvinced. So, at least for James and John, this experience of transfiguration on the mount Horeb provided confirmation that Peter was right. “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” He was seen talking with Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah had their own mountaintop experiences as well. In the Exodus we see that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and the rest of the Israelites saw Moses, they were afraid to come near him. That’s how brightly Moses’ face shown. Eventually the radiance faded from Moses’ face, but that’s what being in the presence of God did to him.

And again we read about Elijah’s experience with God on Mount Horeb in I Kings 19. Remember he had fled the wrath of Queen Jezebel. He was feeling sorry for himself as he hid in a cave on Horeb, which was called the mountain of God. The writer describes his experience like this: “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”The Scriptures don’t say that Elijah’s face shown, but it is clear his life was changed. You can’t come into God’s presence without something important happening in your life. You may or may not look different, but you cannot help but act different.

Jesus quickly led the disciples back down off that mountaintop – in spite of Peter’s desire to pitch three tents and camp there for a long while. Jesus led them back into the daily routine of teaching and preaching and caring for the broken and hurting people of the world they lived in, back to the reality of life in the valley.
When you experience the mountaintop, don't forget the valley below. Jesus is there in the valley in that foul-smelling nursing home; Jesus is there in the valley of fears and the tears of everyday life; Jesus is there in the valley of the joy of the birth of a child; Jesus is there in the valley of the aching loneliness of the shut-in. Jesus is there at the repeated failures of his followers.
Perhaps you have heard the story of the preacher who moved to his new Church. This particular church didn't have a lawn mower so he was looking for someone to either mow the lawn or sell him a used lawnmower. One day he saw a young man going by pushing a lawnmower. So the preacher asked him, "Hey, looking for a job?" The young man said, "Sure." It turned out that he was mowing yards and trying to earn enough money to buy a bicycle. This preacher was kind of young and didn't mind mowing the yard so he told the young man, "Look, I've got a 10 speed bicycle that I never ride any more. What do you say we trade the bicycle for the lawnmower."

Well, the young man was ecstatic. They swapped and the young man took off on the bicycle. He rode around the block and came back to see the preacher standing in the same place wiping sweat off his brow. The preacher waved the boy over and said, "Hey, I've pulled on the rope a half a dozen times and this lawn mower just won't start."
The young man said, "Preacher, I hate to tell you this but it's a special kind of lawnmower. You have to cuss it to get it to start."
The preacher looked at him and said, "Well, I've been in the ministry so long I don't think I can remember how to cuss."
The young man grinned and said, "Pull on the rope some more and it'll come back to you."
The point is this, we ought not stay on the mountaintop so long that we forget what it is like to be in the crowd, we shouldn’t forget what it is like to pull on a stubborn lawn mower.

We need “mountain-top experiences” in our lives: We share the mountain-top experience of Peter, James and John when we spend extra time in prayer during Lent. 

The “transfiguration” in the Holy Mass is the source of our strength: In each Holy Mass, the bread and wine we offer on the altar become “transfigured” or transformed into the living Body and Blood of the crucified, risen and glorified Jesus.  Just as Jesus' transfiguration strengthened the apostles in their time of trial, each holy Mass should be our source of Heavenly strength against temptations, and our renewal during Lent.  In addition, our Holy Communion with the living Jesus should be the source of our daily “transfiguration,” transforming our minds and hearts so that we may do more good by humble and selfless service to others.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

LENT 1 [C] : Dt: 26: 4-10, Rom 10:8-13, Lk 4: 1-13

Lent begins with a reflection on the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The Church assigns temptation stories to the beginning of Lent because temptations come to everybody, not only to Jesus, and we seem almost genetically programmed to yield to them.  Bible scholars interpret the graphic temptations of Jesus as a pictorial and dramatic representation of the inner struggle against a temptation that Jesus experienced throughout his public life.
In the gospel today, the Devil proposes three ways to put something else before God. 
1.Comfort-Seeking. Jesus has been fasting for 40 days. He’s probably a little bit hungry by now…  The Devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, putting his comfort ahead of the Father’s will. Food is good, but it won’t fill our hearts.
2.Pride. The Devil takes Jesus to a mountaintop and shows him the whole world. He tells him “I’ll give you all of this – I’ll give you power and control – if you bow down and worship me.” Success is good, but it won’t fill our hearts.
3.Vanity.  The Devil suggests that Jesus throw himself off the temple, because the angels will save him. Imagine how much this would impress the onlookers. The esteem of others is good, but it won’t fill our hearts.
We can certainly overcome these temptations. This is the lesson that Jesus wanted everyone to learn when he allowed himself to be tempted. That Jesus is tempted is thus a sign and measure of his full solidarity with our human condition. 'For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning' (Heb. 4:15).
'Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ These are fitting words to end the Lord’s Prayer. They summarize of all our petitions, for the basic prayer we make is, ‘Save us!’

The power of all temptation is the prospect that it will make me happier." There are two equally damning lies Satan wants us to believe: 1) Just once won't hurt. 2) Now that you have ruined your life, you are beyond God's use, and might as well enjoy sinning.
An ancient rabbi said, “Sin begins as a spider’s web and becomes a ship’s rope.” You and I add those strands that change the spider’s web into a rope; but because we add just one strand at a time, and because each one is usually so small, we don’t realize what we’re constructing. Sometimes, on the other hand, the growth seems to happen almost of its own accord. It is as if we planted a seed in the soil of the soul by some small act of sin and, without our seeming to attend it or care for it, it develops into a full-grown tree. Sometimes, verily, a forest!

It's important to discover our root sin.  Each of us should know where we are most vulnerable to temptation.  Otherwise the devil can blindside us. One of the most effective ways to advance on the path of this self-knowledge is by going to confession regularly. Frequent, regular confession forces us to take stock of our sins and failings, to look honestly at all the manifestations of our selfishness, not just the big ones.
Self-examination gradually allows us to get at the roots of what is holding us back. It's like a good football coach. The Monday after every game, he sits down with the other coaches and the team and they watch the films from the game. They analyze where they were vulnerable, where they were strong. They are then able to make adjustments, to improve, to become the best they can be. Confession every 15 days is like that.  It helps us to discover our root sin, and constantly hack away at it.  And there's no better way to do that than by making the commitment to come regularly to confession.

Often, we try to follow Christ more faithfully, but we don't do so intelligently. We keep trying to cut off the branches of impatience, or greed, or lust, or dishonesty, but the roots are still intact, so the branches just keep growing back. If we can identify which is our main root sin, we can direct our spiritual work more intelligently, and really start making progress as Christians. For that we need strong determination to do away with temptations.
Jim Grant in Reader's Digest told about someone else who faced temptation. An overweight businessman decided it was time to shed some excess pounds. He took his new diet seriously, even changing his driving route to avoid his favorite bakery. One morning, however, he showed up at work with a gigantic coffee cake.
Everyone in the office scolded him, but his smile remained nonetheless. "This is a special coffee cake," he explained. "I accidentally drove by the bakery this morning and there in the window was a host of goodies. I felt it was no accident, so I prayed, 'Lord, if you want me to have one of those delicious coffee cakes, let there be a parking spot open right in front.' And sure enough, the eighth time around the block, there it was!"

Jesus sets a model for conquering temptations through prayer, penance and the effective use of the ‘‘word of God.” Jesus’ prayer for forty days in the desert helped him to defeat the devil. In the silence of the desert, we come face to face with both the good and the bad inside each one of us. Most of us can’t go off and spend weeks alone in a literal desert. But Lent is like the desert. The Church gives us this time to listen more closely to God, and to grow in our relationship with him – and that means putting God first.  
Temptations make us true warriors of God by strengthening our minds and hearts. We are never tempted beyond our power. In his first letter, St. John assures us: "The One Who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Hence, during Lent, let us confront our evil tendencies with prayer (especially by participating in the Holy Mass), penance and the meditative reading of the Bible. Knowledge of the Bible prepares us for the moment of temptation by enabling us "to know Jesus more clearly, to love him more dearly and to follow him more nearly, day by day," as William Barclay puts it.

 Lent is a time for us to remember and to celebrate the mercies of the Lord, and to really work on Lenten prayer and penance in our lives.

Friday, February 5, 2016

OT V (Feb 7, 2016):  Is 6:1-2a, 3-8; I Cor 15:1-11; Lk 5:1-11

The story is told of a great circus performer by the name of Blondin who stretched a long steel cable across Niagara Falls. During high winds and without a safety net, he walked, ran, and even danced across the tightrope to the amazement and delight of the large crowd of people who watched. He even took a wheelbarrow full of bricks and pushed it effortlessly across the cable, from one side of the falls to the other. Blondin then turned to the crowd and asked, "Now, how many of you believe that I could push a man across the wire in the wheelbarrow?" The vote was unanimous. Everyone cheered and held their hands high. They all believed he could do it!

"Then," asked Blondin, "would one of you please volunteer to be that man?" As quickly as the hands went up, they went back down. Not a single person would volunteer to ride in the wheelbarrow and to trust his life to Blondin.
All of us here today believe in Jesus Christ - that's why we came to Mass, but how much have we put that faith into practice? Often we are content to have Jesus sit in our boat, to hear his teaching and feel the comfort of his presence. But when he asks something of us, when he pushes us out of our comfort zone, we resist. That's why we get stuck with empty nets. He wants to fill our nets, as he filled Peter's. He just needs us to trust him a little bit more, to climb into his wheelbarrow, to put out into deep water.
One of the few creatures on earth that can out-jump Michael Jordon is the Impala. This is an African deer with a supercharged spring. It has a vertical leap of over 10 feet and can broad jump over 30 feet. You would think that the zoos of the world would find it impossible to keep such an animal enclosed. Not so! It's rather easy. Because the experts discovered something about the Impala. It will not jump unless it can see where it is going to land. Therefore, a solid wall even 6 feet tall is a sufficient enclosure. Lots of Christians have the Impala problem. They won't take a leap in faith unless they have all the answers in advance about where the leap will take them.

In the incident in today's Gospel, Jesus preached from Peter's boat to a large crowd jammed together at the edge of the water. When the teaching had ended, Jesus told Peter to pull out into deeper water for a catch of fish.  In matters of fishing, Peter was an expert, while Jesus was only a carpenter.  Hence Peter, perhaps not wanting Jesus to look foolish, explained, "Master, we have worked hard all night long, caught nothing." Peter might have added that fish come to the surface in the Sea of Galilee only at night, or that the presence and noise of people would frighten the remaining fish away.  Instead he said, “Nevertheless, if You wish it, I will lower the nets.” As a result of Peter’s obedience and surrender in the leap of faith he got a great catch of fish and then Jesus called him to fish for men. He didn’t know where it would land him to be a disciple of Jesus, yet he accepted his call.

God’s call is always unexpected. St. Paul was galloping to Damascus to persecute the Christians there. On his way, he received the call of Jesus. The Old Testament gives us numerous examples of God’s call. And all of them came unexpectedly. Moses was tending his sheep on Mount Sinai, when he was called. The Judges Gideon, Esther and Deborah received their calls to take up a specific mission and the call came unexpectedly.
A feeling of sinfulness came upon them all; they felt totally unfit for the task, and tried to decline it. When Moses was called he said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh! Moses hesitated to say “Yes” to God. When Isaiah saw the overwhelming glory of God his sinfulness over took him. Jeremiah protested, “I know not how to speak. I am too young. When Jesus called St. Peter he said, “Lord, go away from me. I am a sinful man.”

The Good News of today’s Gospel is that our sinfulness -- our pride and self-centeredness – does not repel God. Our God is a God Who gives sinners a new start.   It is important that we acknowledge our sinfulness.  Our response must be modeled on that of the tax collector in the parable:   "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Lk 18:13). The recognition of our inadequacy and sin is necessary for us, if we are to be willing and able to receive transformation through God’s grace. Isaiah, Paul, and Peter teach us that even the greatest among us stand in need of conversion. God, Who calls us and commissions us for His service, wants us to realize His presence everywhere and to remain in readiness to speak and act for Him in our life-circumstances as He shall direct.

God responded to their sinfulness by reassuring them of His help. To Moses he promised, “I will certainly be with you.” Isaiah was touched with the divine fire. Jeremiah was told, “Have no fear; I am with you.” Peter was assured, “Do not be afraid, from now on it is men you will catch.”
Each of us has a unique mission in the Church.   God has a different call for each of us. Because each of us is unique, each of us has a mission which no one else can fulfill.  God will use all of us, and particularly what is unique in us, to bring this mission to fulfillment.  Our response must be like that of Isaiah: “Here I am, Lord…send me."  "I’ll do it.  I’ll play my part.  I’ll speak to that neighbor, that coworker, that friend, that relative. Be with me and strengthen me in this mission.
As we continue with this Holy Mass, let’s us listen intently and attentively to his call and carry out his mission for our life today and every day.