Monday, March 5, 2018

3rd Sunday of Lent

Ex 20:1-17
Ps 19
I Cor 1:22-25
Jn 2:13-25

The readings today are rich.  Each could be the basis for a very long homily. It is a temptation I will resist.  God as revealed in the first reading is not a God of relativism, accommodation, negotiation, or adaptation to social trends. The same is true of the Jesus we encounter in John's Gospel.

The Ten Commandments are short and to the point.  Among the 'thou shalt nots' are prohibitions against killing, stealing, adultery, and lying.  Among the 'thou shalts' we find honoring God's name, keeping holy the sabbath, and honoring one's parents.

"Thou shalt not kill" does not make an exception for abortion because it is called delivery of women’s health care. 

“Honor thy father and mother" does make permit asking to have mom or dad, grandma or grandpa put down through what is now called, "physician guided death,' a euphemism I would label hilarious were it not so frightening. 

While the prohibition against adultery should be self-evident, it doesn't take long wading in the moral swamp of modern American life to get the idea that it is frequently ignored.  The first three commandments lead into the gospel.

"Have no false gods . . . "
This includes the false gods of commerce, sports, and ME.

"Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain . . . " 
This includes using Jesus' name as punctuation, a punch line, or a filler for the inarticulate.

"Keep holy the Sabbath . . . ."  This nicely covers the scene described in today's Gospel.

The second chapter of John‘s Gospel is 25 verses long. In the space between the end of verse 12, the Wedding at Cana, and the beginning of today's reading with verse 13, there is a massive change in tone. This particular gospel reading forces us to confront our ideas of who Jesus is and how He acts.  It is not a warm and fuzzy scene.  There is no warm, huggy, and smiling Jesus here.  For those for whom zeal for God’s house or observance of the commandments is a sometimes thing, for those whose faith and observance shifts with current social trends, the meeting with Jesus here is uncomfortable. 

As already mentioned the Jesus of the gospels is not a Jesus of accommodation to current social mores.  He is not one to adapt to what people want, to what everyone is doing. "Oh, c'mon Jesus, get with it, everybody is selling animals in the Temple these days."  "Keep your religion out of my life." "My body, Myself."  "I am the only one who can determine what is moral for me." 

The Jesus of the gospels challenged political authorities.  He challenged society at large in condemning adultery, divorce and extortion, among others.  The Jesus of the gospels called a spade a spade.  He did not cave into secular society.  He would not tolerate desecration of His Father’s house.   We do well to remember that. The scene of Jesus overturning tables in the Temple while driving the money changers out with a whip, bothers many. They are bothered because Jesus is not gentle, affirming, or negotiating. There is no way to manipulate his words to be anything than what they are.

The late Jesuit Father Stanley Marrow, made an insightful comment on this gospel passage in his commentary on John's Gospel.  “One puzzling aspect of the narrative is how generation after generation can hear this account and persist in clinging to their cherished image of Jesus. . . so 'gentle and mild' as to be incapable of overthrowing anything, (including) the reader’s smugness. . . . The Jesus in this, or any other gospel, is not a standard-bearer for bleeding hearts. The aim of the Gospel is not to provide us with the biography of an inspiring hero, who fits . . . our ambitions, conforms to our ideals, or meets our conceptions of what constitutes greatness.”

Perhaps Stanley might have included that Jesus was not a standard bearer for political correctness or the politics of either the left of the right.  Without zeal for God’s house the Church cannot survive.  Without that zeal we might as well stay in bed on Sunday and watch the shopping channel, football reruns, or 'The View.'  Only zeal for God's house, only time spent in prayer and contemplation, will allow us to understand the basic truth heard in the psalm.

“The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul;
The decree of the Lord is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart,
the command of the lord is clear,
enlightening the eye."

The Lord truly has the words to everlasting life.

If we are willing to hear them.

The photo was taken at the National Shrine of the Immaculate conception in D.C. several years ago. It is of the altar rail gate at the main altar. Any man age 65 and up who was an altar boy in grade school has those words seared into his memory. They were the first words after the sign of the cross at the foot of the altar. Father intoned these words and we responded, ad Dei qui laetificat juventutam meam. Translation: "I will go unto the altar of God." "The God who gives joy to my youth." 
Homily late being posted. The weekend did not go according to plan. Originally was to be in D.C. yesterday to celebrate the monthly Slovenian Mass at the chapel of our Lady of Brezje at the National Shrine. Left Boston Thursday about 10 AM. Nice easy drive down. Was raining as I pulled into my cousin's house in the Poconos (the very edge). Rain just beginning. Rain quite hard a few hours later. The snow began at 6 AM. The wind shortly afterwards. The power went out at 11 AM. Fortunately restored at 8 PM or so. When all was said and done 8 inches of snow with much more in some surrounding areas. 
Saturday was not good. Roads locally a mess. Had no plan to take 81 to Baltimore (I avoid 81 unless it is warm, sunny, and no foul weather predicted in the next two weeks. Too many nightmare drives.) Got back yesterday afternoon. Crashed after supper. Once on 81 N and 84 E the trip was OK. Many fewer 18-wheelers than usual on a Sunday. No significant snow along 84 after Port Jervis. Matamoras was a different story.  
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, February 25, 2018

2nd Sunday of Lent

Gen 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Rom 8:31b-34
Mk 9:2-10

The first reading from Genesis described Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Unfortunately, the passage was discontinuous. The details of the journey to the place of sacrifice were skipped over.  That Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice on his own back was omitted. Isaac's confusion was left out. We are left with two things: Abraham's obedience and the confirmation of God's promise that he would be the father of a great nation.  This is a rich narrative.  Relevant details should not be left out.

To those with the mindset common to Freudian psychiatrists or those hostile to faith, the narrative is disturbing.   God asks a man to sacrifice his only son.  The man prepares to carry out the sacrifice without question.  Many people whine, whimper, and emote about this narrative along the lines of "I could never believe in a God who could be so cruel, sadistic, irrational, or . . . ." (fill in the blank with a favorite pejorative).  There is no sadism here. There is no cruelty in the narrative. There is only faith.

In the comments on this passage the Jewish Study Bible describes what it calls Abraham's last and greatest test as, "A magnificent story, that is one of the gems of biblical narrative."  It also notes a translation problem. "There is no good English equivalent for the Hebrew 'hineni' that is translated as 'Here I am.'  Hineni indicates readiness, alertness, attentiveness, receptivity, and responsiveness to instructions."  It indicates obedience to the will of God without question.

In the second reading from Paul's Letter to the Romans we heard that, God "did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all."  God asked Abraham to give him all, to give him everything, to give him his only son, to give him his future, and the existence of a people yet to come into existence. 

Once Abraham demonstrated his obedience God returned everything to him. 
Once Jesus demonstrated his obedience God returned everything to us.

The Suscipe of St. Ignatius of Loyola is one of the first prayers a Jesuit novice learns when he enters. It begins, "Take Lord, and receive, all my liberty, my memory my understanding, my entire will, all I have and call my own." 

Take all.
Not that which I am willing to give,
Not that which is left over,
Not that which is easy
but ALL. 

That is what Abraham was willing to give.
That is what God the Father gave us. 

Jesus' Transfiguration points us towards, and draws us into, a mystery that is beyond historical reconstruction. The Transfiguration is beyond scientific explanation.  It is beyond geographic specificity.  None of these factors matter.  When, how, and where are unnecessary distractions.  It is sufficient that Jesus was transfigured in front of three of the apostles. 

Imagine the scene. Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, standing with Jesus.  Put yourself into that scene.
Where are you standing? 
What are you seeing? 
What are you feeling?
What are you thinking?
How are you acting?

The apostles were confused and frightened.  As he became more anxious Peter began to speak without thinking what he was saying.  Despite today's vogue for apostle bashing none of us would have acted any better.  Most likely, we would have acted worse and pulled out an Ancient Near East smart phone, snapped pictures, to tweet to the rest of the apostles, and tried to get a selfie with Moses.

As the tension increased the voice of God the Father declared, "This is my beloved Son."

This is the beloved Son who was like us in all things but sin.

This is the beloved Son who took on the human condition to redeem us from our sins and save us from death.

This is the beloved son, God incarnate, who, like Isaac, carried the wood for the sacrifice on his own back.

This is the beloved son, who, like Abraham, acted in perfect obedience to the will of the Father. 

Then, the apostles, and by extension, each one of us, received a mission from the Father: "Listen to him."  Listen to his teaching, the teaching of His words and the teaching of His actions.  As we listen to Jesus words and imitate his actions, as we take His teaching to heart, and allow that teaching to transform us, we move that much closer to witnessing the glory of His Transfiguration. 


Sometimes an abstract photo transmits the message better than a figurative one.  This is a shot of the lights of Koper, Slovenia taken across the water from Piran.  It has been heavily processed, manipulated, and flipped into a vertical.

Very busy week coming up.  Away from Thursday to Monday.  Once a few meetings are done it is time to lock myself in a room and begin preparing for Holy Week at the Abbey where I will celebrate most of the liturgies and make my annual eight-day retreat.

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, February 18, 2018

1st Sunday of Lent

Gn 9:8-15
Ps 25:4-9
1 Pt 3:18-22
Mk 1:12-15

The Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent is always about Jesus' temptations in the desert.  Each of the three synoptic gospels places this narrative just after Jesus' baptism by John. The challenge with Mark's Gospel is that unlike Matthew and Luke he gives no detail about the temptations.  Mark simply notes that Jesus was tempted.  Even in its brevity, it is an important reminder that Jesus was like us in all things but sin, that he too struggled with desires, with temptations, with tests, (call them what you will) just as we do. 

Unlike the consistent theme of the gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent, the first and second readings are different in each of the three years of the cycle of readings. Today the first reading describes God's covenant with Noah, in which He promised that flood waters would never cover the whole earth again. 

The Talmud is a collection of commentaries on the Torah, the first five books of  scripture, or, what we call The Old Testament. In its commentary on this passage The Jewish Study Bible cites the Talmud which notes that, the covenant with Noah laid down seven commandments to which all were obligated. They were: to establish courts of justice, to refrain from blasphemy, to refrain from idolatry, to refrain from sexual perversion. The covenant forbade bloodshed and robbery. Finally it demanded not eating meat cut from a living animal. Those who observed the "seven commandments of the descendants of Noah" would meet with God's full approval.

With the exception of eating meat cut from a living animal, essentially avoiding meat that was not first properly slaughtered, the seven commandments are almost identical to the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments given to Moses.  The modern world, especially the U.S., would do well to take notice that blasphemy, false gods, sexual perversion, robbery, and murder--including the killing of children in the womb or the ill elderly--have been forbidden for millennia rather than being inventions of the Catholic Church.

The second reading from the First Letter of Peter makes reference to the Torah in recalling Noah.  God waited patiently while the ark was built such that eight persons in all, and thus all of mankind, were saved through water.  Peter correctly links this saving water to baptism.

Water is a powerful symbol for the Church. It is a symbol of life and salvation in both the Old Testament and the New. Thus we read about: the water in which the basket holding the infant Moses floated, the water that was parted as the Israelites fled Egypt, the water of the Jordan in which Jesus was baptize, the water mixed with blood that flowed from Jesus' side at the crucifixion.  Water is much more important to human life than food.  We can live for many days without food.  We can only live a few days without water. 

Physicians spend a lot of time, particularly in the hospital thinking and worrying about fluid balance and adjusting fluids, particularly for the critically ill.  Water is crucial to our day-to-day physical lives.  Vitamins, organic locally grown food, or any of the food fetishes prevalent today are, in comparison, completely irrelevant.  Water is even more crucial to our spiritual lives, water is more critical to life of our souls.  

The water of baptism is the only way in which we are able enter into life. Only after having received this saving water can we partake fully in the life in the Church.  Without the water of baptism there is no spiritual life.  Without the water of baptism there is no light of Christ.  Without the water of baptism there is no partaking of the Eucharistic banquet.  Without the water of baptism there is nothing. 

There is only a void.

There is a void like the one that existed before God said let there be light.  The light of Christ is visible only to those who have received the waters of baptism.  It will never be otherwise.

Lent is described as penitential.  However, it should also be transformational.  On Wednesday there were two formulae for the imposition of ashes.  I sometimes think they should be combined into one.  The first, "Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return" reminded us of our common mortality.  The second, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospels" reminded us of our vocation as Catholics.

As we move from this first Sunday of Lent toward the joy of Easter we are called to meditate on one and to live according to the other.


Photo of the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia during Lent.  I made my 8-day retreat there last year.  This year will be at a nun's monastery as primary celebrant for most of the liturgies while making the retreat.  
 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ash Wednesday 2018

Joel 2:12-18
Ps 51
2 Cor 5:20-6:2
Mt 6:1-6; 16-18

Lent begins with the ancient custom of the imposition of ashes; a custom that is apparently gaining favor in some Protestant denominations. Thus, today we begin our 40-day procession through a season described as penitential.  But lent is more than penitential.  It is, or it should be, transformational as well.  

The first reading from Joel puts today into context.  Joel calls for an assembly. He decrees a fast in the setting of a liturgy.  Blow the trumpets.  Gather the people.  Everyone is invited from the youngest to the eldest. The same is true of the Eucharistic banquet. The young and the very old are invited along with all those in between, if they choose to accept the invitation, if they are appropriately disposed.

Thus we gather in assembly to listen to the word of God. We gather to receive the ashes that simultaneously remind us of our mortality and call us to undergo a change of heart so as to live more closely in accord with the Gospel.  We come together to receive the Body and Blood of Christ whose passion death and resurrection we will recall and celebrate at the end of these forty days.

Lent is not just a season of “give ups,” of abstaining from the usual suspects: smoking, chocolate, desert, meat, beer, and so on.  It is a time of taking on: taking on time to meditate on the Gospel, taking on time for spiritual reading, making additional time for prayer or adoration.  It is a time to heed the advice of St. Jane de Chantal, foundress of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary,  “We cannot always offer God great things but at each instant we can offer little things with great love.”  Offering those little things with great love may be a more difficult mortification than giving up desert and beer for the next forty days, if not for life.

The second reading in today’s Office of Readings is a letter from St. Clement, pope, to the Corinthians. It lays out a road map for Lent. “We should be humble in mind, putting aside all arrogance, pride and foolish anger. . . . Recall especially what the Lord Jesus said when he taught gentleness and forbearance.  Be merciful, so that you may have mercy shown to you.  Forgive, so that you may be forgiven.  As you treat others, so you will be treated . . .” Lent is a time to challenge ourselves to be more fully what we want to be but may not know how to become.  If that process of becoming involves quitting smoking, so be it.  If it involves spending extra time in prayer or contemplation, so be it.  Ideally we will move through lent in a combination of penance and prayer, contrition and contemplation.

There are two formulae for the imposition of ashes. The first reminds us of our common mortality: “Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”
The second is advice for living: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospels.”

At the beginning of this holy season of Lent, we are called to meditate on the first and to live according to the second.

 Fr. Jack, SJ, MD