Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Homily for Ash Wednesday

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

We begin the 40-day procession through Lent with the imposition of ashes, a symbol of sin and repentance. While described as penitential, lent is more than merely penitential.  It is, or should be, transformational as well.

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

Today we come together to listen to the word of God. We gather to receive the ashes that 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 are assembled here to receive the True Body and Blood of Christ whose passion, death, and resurrection we will recall at the end of these forty days. 

Lent is not just a season of “give ups,” abstaining from the usual suspects: smoking, chocolate, beer, desert, meat, and so on.  It is a time of taking on: taking on time to meditate on the Gospel, taking on time for spiritual reading, taking additional time for Mass, 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 little things with great love may be a more difficult mortification and sacrifice than giving up chocolate or 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 becoming involves quitting smoking, so be it.  If it involves taking extra time in prayer or contemplation, so be it.  

There are two formulae for the imposition of ashes. 

“Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return” reminds us of our common mortality 

“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospels” is solid advice for living. 

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

Ash Wednesday certainly got here quickly after Christmas.  Rather like a 33 1/3 played at 45.  An entire generation of kids have no clue what this means.  Their loss.  Even Tennessee Ernie Ford sounded like Alvin the Chipmunk when played at 78.  

All three photos come from Campion Center when I lived there.  I rather suspect my next significant move will be to Campion.  Assisted living or nursing home.  

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sir 15:15-20
Ps 119 1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
1 Cor 2:6-10
Mt 5:17-37

Free will.  Choice.  Options. 
Past.  Present.  Future. 
Decision.  Action.  Result.  
Fear.  Love.  Consequences.        

These are only some of the layers in today's readings. They can be meditated upon without being exhausted.  And they can make us uncomfortable as we consider what they mean for us. 

Choice is the great gift of free will.  Choice is also its greatest challenge.  The ability to make a choice among options, to understand the reasons for that choice,  and how that choice will affect us in the future,  sets us apart from all lower animals.  Only humans have free will.  Only humans are free to make choices.  Only humans can take into account, past, present, and future when faced with a choice.

All lower animals function on instinct.  They are driven by a combination of instinct, memory traces of past experience, and immediate need.  But, they can never know the long range effect of a choice.  The human brain is extraordinarily more powerful than that of any lower animal.  Only humans can use memories and knowledge to make decisions in the present, while having some idea of the future consequences of those decisions.  Animals do not possess that ability.  They never will.  

We heard in Sirach, "If you choose you can keep the commandments . . . "  That is a strong statement. It places the burden on us. "if you choose you can keep the commandments."  It implies, 'if you choose you can violate the commandments.'      Free will allows us to choose to sin.  It allows us to choose death. It allows us to choose evil.  Free will allows us to reject God. 

"The eyes of God are on those who fear Him."  

Fear of the Lord.  Fear of God. In English the word 'fear' is a problem.  The word 'fear' sets off an automatic train of thought that includes anxiety, terror, panic, punishment, pain and physical sensations, such as rapid heart beat and sweaty palms.  But fear has other meanings.  

Fear is a critical part of love.  Without fear there can be no love.  The meaning of fear in the context of love is different. It is a reverential fear.  It is a fear that moves a person to seek and to follow God's will.  It moves a person to seek God's will, not to avoid punishment, but because of love for Him. How often has fear of hurting someone we loved kept us from sin?  How often have we chosen good instead of evil, because we did not want to disappoint someone who loved us such as a parent, a spouse, or a valued teacher or mentor?  How often have we chosen not to sin because we did not want to violate another's trust or break someone's heart?  That is reverential fear of the Lord. It is not fear because of punishment, hellfire and gnashing of teeth.  It is fear of offending or hurting the One who loves us.

Today's Gospel continues the Sermon on the Mount. Unlike the comforting images in the beatitudes we hear some hard truths.  It is difficult to feel comfortable after hearing this Gospel.  The poor, those who mourn, the peacemakers, the meek, all those who were declared blessed in the beatitudes, are now given instruction in what it means to follow Jesus.  

The blessed are reminded that even if poor or mourning they have responsibilities.  Sin is not mitigated because we are poor.  Sin is not excused because we are powerless or meek.  Jesus is telling his hearers that there are no actions without consequences.  Nothing we do occurs in a vacuum.  Every action has an effect. Every time we choose for something we choose against other things.  Every time we choose a course of action we close  the path to other courses of action.

In the U.S. the law suit is as close to a weapon of mass destruction as any nuclear warhead.  The situation has reached a point of absurdity.  Many lawsuits are settled out of court.   But . . . . many more are thrown out of court because they have no merit.  This begs the question of why calling one’s brother, or anyone else, a fool deserves the fires of Gehenna? Why is anger so strongly decried in this Gospel?   Because, just as it is easier to settle a case out of court than to go to trial, it is easier to stop anger when it is a thought than it is to interrupt a murderous impulse when one’s hands are around the other’s neck.  It is easier not to commit adultery when not in a hotel room alone with someone other than a spouse.  It is easier for an alcoholic not to drink when he or she does not enter a bar or hold a cold beer on a hot day.  

Jesus is telling us to be alert to the first signs of temptation if we wish to avoid sin.  There IS a point of no return when we choose evil over good, when we choose death over life.   When we choose to follow satan, the evil one, rather than Jesus, the Good King. 

The Psalms were written many centuries before the beatitudes of Matthew and Luke.  But the beatitudes, which simply mean blessing, appear throughout scripture.  We just heard a beatitude from Psalm 119: 

"Blessed are they who observe the Lord's decrees,
who seek him with all their heart."

We can only pray from the same psalm: 

"Give me discernment, 
that I may observe your law
and keep it with all my heart."

On Friday, Fr. Joseph JIang, SJ pronounced his final vows in the Society of Jesus.  It is a very major step for a man.  Our vow structure is unique in that first vows are perpetual.  Final vows only happen after many years in the Society (sixteen for me) following tertianship, which itselfl, doesn't happen until after ordination.  It was great fun to do the photography.  

Prepared for the Mass

Entrance into the chapel

Consecration of the Mass.  Shot from the choir loft.

A Jesuit pronounces his vows, first and final, in front of the elevated Body and Blood of Christ just before communion.  This is in imitation of the first Jesuits.  Other orders of both men and women, pronounce vows at the offertory and sign the documents on the altar. 

A Jesuit signs his handwritten (in triplicate) vow documents in the sacristy following the vow Mass.  
 +Fr. Jack, Sj, MD