Saturday, February 28, 2009

Follow me!

Today's First Reading (Isaiah 58:9b-14) is the continuation of yesterday's and in it the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord calls the people to action. "Remove oppression, false accusations and malicious speech, ... bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted." It sounds like a list of Lenten penances. The Lord also said that He "will guide you always and give you plenty even in a parched land."

The Gospel (Lk. 5:27-32) is the story of the call of Matthew/Levi, and the Pharisees and scribes again complain about Jesus and the disciples as they "eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners." How nice to know whose company He preferred; comforting to know that even as the sinner we are known and loved by Him.

These first four days before the first Sunday of Lent are a wonderful opportunity to start Lent over again if we didn't get it right on Wednesday. I was with friends last night for dinner and unconsciously one of my friends began to nibble on a piece of salami; I didn't even notice until the other friend picked some "interesting" looking bread. Once picked out I mentioned it had meat in it and we all blanched -- the irony of it. But, remember the last line of yesterday's post.

Not eating meat isn't really a sacrifice for most people but its a way of sending ourselves a message. One year I was on a cruise with another priest during Lent, and one of the appetizers was frogs legs. I had never tasted them and decided to try. I was in collar and some of the people at the table were horrified that I was eating meat on a Friday in Lent. I explained that amphibian doesn't count as meat; I'm not sure that they bought it, but it doesn't.

God bless!

Angels and Confession

This morning we celebrated the Sacrament of Penance for the first time with some of the children from our school. The Gospel (Luke 15: 1-7) was the Parable of the Lost Sheep. I'm sure you know it:

There was a shepherd in the wilderness who had 100 sheep. At some point one day he discovered that one sheep was missing; it had become lost or wandered away. He really wanted to get that sheep back. He thought to himself "I'd like to go and try to find the sheep, but what about the 99 that I have here in front of me? If I leave to look for the lost one, more might wander away and become lost. A thief may come and steal some of the sheep. A pack of wolves might find the flock and attack it killing some and wounding others. Well, maybe I'd best cut my losses and forget about the little lost one and be content with the 99 I still have."
Does that sound familiar?
He changed his mind and went to quickly look for the lost sheep and actually didn't have to look very much before he found it. As soon as he discovered it he started to swear at it and tied a rope around its neck and beat the sheep all the way home and when he finally got back he tied the sheep to a stake in the ground and fed it very little to teach it a lesson.
How about that part?
No, it doesn't sound at all familiar, does it? But it's probably what would have happened if the shepherd in question hadn't been Jesus. This is the story we all know:
The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." So to them he addressed this parable. "What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
The words of complaint of the Pharisees and scribes are such a great proclamation of the goodness of our Shepherd and Lord, our Brother and Friend "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
God bless you!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Do you call this a fast?

Today's readings focus on fasting. The prophet Isaiah (58:1-9a) invites us to consider what true fasting is all about. Speaking the words of the Lord, Isaiah tells the people that they need to do more than deny their bodies food; there must also be a fundamental change of heart. It goes along with Joel's cry to the people from Wednesday -- "rend your hearts, not your garments." Lent is about interior conversion. Practices like fasting are meant to lead us to acknowledge our spiritual hunger.

I know some people who are starving themselves spiritually and don't even know it. They have been "hungry" for so long that they accept it as the natural state. Away from the nourishment we all need for life that, especially in Lent, the Church asks us to consider what it is that we're really missing.

The Lord wants His people to do more than just fast: "...This is the fasting that I wish, releasing those bound unjustly ... setting free the oppressed ... sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own."

Jesus picks up the same theme in the Gospel (Matthew 9: 14-15). Just two verses but a powerful message. Disciples of John the Baptist ask him why, unlike the Pharisees and the Baptist and his disciples, he and his disciples do not fast. He asks "Can the wedding mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? ...when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast."

When we think of fasting we think of food and ought to think about the One who said:"I am the Bread of Life".

Today is a Friday. It is Lent. So, no meat.

God bless

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Take up your cross and follow

The scriptures that the Church presents to us during the Season of Lent are meant to be the map we use for our journey to Calvary, Easter, and our "springtime" of renewal.

Today's first reading come from the Book of Deuteronomy ( 30: 15-20), the last of the 5 books of the Pentateuch or the Torah (Law). Lent is not a time to be stingy with Scripture so why not try reading the whole of chapter 30 -- it's only 20 verses long.

Moses tells the people that they have a choice: "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse." Why would anyone not choose the blessing, not choose life? And yet, so often in what we call the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, we find the People of Israel making the wrong choices; same thing in the New Testament, and again the same thing in real life today. "Making the wrong choice" is just another way of saying "sin." It's because we're not seeing things correctly: no one would ever deliberately choose a "curse" or "death" or would we? Sin is a major part of our life as human beings and as Christian believers. We see things from our own very limited perspective, and that makes it easy for us to "miss the mark", or sin.

In the Gospel, Luke 9:22-25, Jesus talks about sin and reconciliation this way: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me ... What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?" And He would know.

Ash Wednesday 2

By all estimates we had easily over 10,000 people at St. Sebastian yesterday; our thumbs are sore, but it was, once again, an inspiring experience! The three regular parish Masses and 4 prayer services were completely uplifting. Some of the people just wanted to get the ashes and run, but most I believe relished the Liturgy of the Word, the words of welcome in the homilies, (and for those at Mass, of course, receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord in Communion).

Men, women, children, babies in arms and carriages, people of every race and ethnicity, an absolutely awesome and awe inspiring day in the life of our parish. At least two little children were afraid of the ashes for some reason and began crying, I gave them a quick blessing and told their moms not to worry. As a practice, I do not give ashes to babies and really young children. I just feel it inappropriate to use the words "Turn away from sin" with these little innocents. What I do is use the second part of the formula "Be faithful to the Gospel" as I touch the top of their heads. Most of the time the parents are fine with that, but on occasion I noticed they moved over to one of the other priests/deacons/special ministers who happily obliged.

Many people just walked in off the street and joined the line, which seemed to be endless. It was something important for them to do. Whether it was early in the morning or in the late evening, whether they wore their ashes for the entire day or just for an hour it didn't matter. It was a connection to past centuries and present faith and an expression of their deepest faith, their fondest hope, and their knowledge of God's love for them!

I'm sure you saw Vice President Biden and his prominent ashes. Think what you may of some of his political positions, I saw the ashes and knew that he was proud of his Catholic faith.

Days like yesterday are so wonderful for priests. If we had that many people every Sunday it would be great, but I'll settle for it twice a year! Now, did I order enough palm?

God bless. Reflection on today's readings to follow later

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, and we begin our Lenten pilgrimage that will bring us from "Ashes to Easter". Remember that I have suggested adopting penitential practices for Lent, not just giving something up. Well, I have been resolved to start a daily blog for the longest time and the discipline required to do it on a daily basis has eluded me. So I had decided several days ago that this was worthy of Lent. I will try to share my Lenten homilies and thoughts and invite you to consider them as part of your journey in faith.

Sometimes you hear people speak disparagingly about the so called "A and P" Catholics -- the ones who only come to Church to receive Ashes today and Palm on Palm Sunday. Others notice that Mass attendance increases on Christmas and Easter as well, with people coming who do not do so on a weekly basis.

I love the "A and P" Catholics and those who only make it to Mass on Christmas and Easter! There is something so special about these days that it tugs at something way down deep inside us all and makes us want to be there, makes us want to visit "home" again. This can be just a great time to reach out to our sisters and brothers who perhaps would like to be with us every week, but something is keeping them away. Perhaps they had a bad experience with a priest, which could range from the horrible crime of sexual abuse or perhaps the far more common "I could not believe that Father spoke to me that way! I'll never go back to Church." Equally possible, a problem with God's Commandments, Church teaching, the Sacrament of Penance(Confession), a civil marriage, a divorce. You could continue the list as well as I, and it would go on and on and on! But they come "home" on these days! They may not be able to receive Holy Communion but the come to receive what they can, Ashes and Palm.

In English, we call the "Season of the Forty Days" Lent, and Old English word for "springtime" coming as it does as the days are beginning to "lengthen(or lenthen)" as we move into Spring. When you think about springtime, it's all about energy. Life coming back to trees and plants that will soon be green again. It's a time of joyous expectation in the world and so it should be in the Church!

Although it is a penitential season, it's not a sorrowful season. If you went to Mass or a Service of the Word today to receive ashes you heard a great reading from the prophet Joel (Chapter 2, Verses 12 to 18) that was packed full of joyful action words "return to me with your whole heart ... rend your hearts, not your garments ... Blow the trumpet in Zion! proclaim a fast, call an assembly, Gather the people, notify the congregation, Assemble the elders, gather the children ... and say "Spare, O Lord, your people." What tremendous power in the Word of God! You might want to consider reading the entire Book of Joel -- it's only 73 verses long and powerful to read at the outset of our Lenten journey!

The second reading (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2) calls each of us "ambasadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." This Lent can be a time for us to consider what kind of an ambassador for Christ we are and to accept the invitation to "be reconciled to God" if need be. And we all "need" to be reconciled to God, in small ways and large.

The Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18) has Jesus speaking to his disciples about the three classical Lenten practices: alms giving (giving to the poor or to charity), prayer, and fasting.

Note which one the Lord mentions first! I usually mention it last; I wonder what that says about me if the Lord mentions it first. That's for me to ponder this Lent once again. Alms giving is our faith put into action, our deeds matching our words, our concern for the poor made real!

Prayer is conversing with God -- speaking to Him and listening to Him. The listening is so important!

Fasting is a discipline of Lent, meaning it is meant to teach us something. It's more than just giving something up for Lent, it's meant to be a weekly practice, voluntary since the Second Vatican Council, but still a part of our Lent.

We're off to a great start! I can't wait for Easter!

God bless you!

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