2nd Sunday of Lent

‘I want it and I want it now!’

How many of us have heard that at least once from a small child, caught up with a desire for some ‘thing’ – it’s easy to understand that when children are very small, they only grasp immediate satisfaction; the notion that we can’t just have what-we- want- when- we- want- it-all-the-time comes with maturity, as we grow and develop. An appreciation that we sometimes have to wait, or that things cost more than we are able to pay comes later in life for children. But sometimes, we don’t develop that maturity – or we forget. It is not at all uncommon anymore to hear the advertising mantra of ‘buy now – pay later’.

It is a reflection not only on our culture which stresses comfort and self-satisfaction; it is a reflection on basic human nature. We fail to grasp the cost of things – and when we fail to grasp the cost, we fail to appreciate; and when we fail to appreciate, we fail to live with a spirit of gratitude.

Take our first reading from the book of Genesis, in which we have one of the more strange appearances and visions of God’s presence in the Bible – but one that I think is the most fascinating. Here we have God making a covenant with Abram, promising him a land for his people, and promising him a people! ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars’…

It’s important to understand how a covenant was made in the region where Abram lived – this is not according to any Jewish custom, because this happens before there ‘is’ a Jewish people! A covenant was more than a simple agreement or contract – it lasted for life. And the reason for the placing of dismembered animal carcasses on the ground was so that the two parties of the agreement could walk or pass between the animal parts, and basically say, ‘let whoever breaks this covenant end up like these animals.’ In other words, they were calling a curse down upon themselves. They would call their deity to observe and witness their agreement, and exact a penalty on whoever broke it. Their gods only supervised covenants – they were not participants.

But this covenant and this God is different; here God participates directly in a covenant with His creature.

In this covenant with Abram, the animal parts are prepared, but God tells Abram not to pass between them. God makes his presence known in this strange vision of a smoking brazier and a flaming torch. Taken on its own, aside from an immediate gesture of generosity, this particular scene doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. God doesn’t break his promises. The only ones who continually breach the relationship between humans and God throughout the history of the Old Testament are humans. How could God exact a penalty on himself? How could God, the eternal, end up broken and bloody like these animal carcasses? So this particular scene of animals and flaming torches, on its own, really doesn’t make much sense.

Unless we view it through the Gospels.

Then the terms of the covenant begin to make perfect sense. Throughout history, age upon age, the relationship of love between God and his creation is filled with example after example of people turning away from that relationship; the covenant is broken. But since God took on both parts of the agreement, God bears the full penalty of that breach; He enters into our humanity in the person of Jesus, takes all of our weakness upon Himself, and in His humanity, is sacrificed for our sin.

That covenant scene between God and Abram takes on far greater significance when we view it through the lens of Jesus; Jesus, who is the fulfilment of God’s promises through the law and the prophets.

That brings us to Mt. Tabor in today’s Gospel passage from St. Luke; we all see the glorified Christ quite easily – even Peter, James and John see that; but it is almost an unconscious act that we ‘gloss over’ the remark that St. Luke makes when he says that Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus and are speaking to Him about ‘his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’.

Moses and Elijah appear in glory, speaking with Jesus who is also appearing in glory, about his ‘exodus’. They’re talking about his impending passion and death, his crucifixion. Peter misses that point it seems.

He says, ‘Master it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings’ – he’s not talking about temporary shelter- he says ‘dwellings’, indicating a desire to simply stay and bask in the glory of this scene. He completely ignores the talk of the ‘exodus’ of the Passion of Jesus. He misses the point that the Transfiguration is only a ‘glimpse’ of the glory to come. There is the road to Calvary that has to be travelled first.

It doesn’t make Peter ‘bad’; it makes him human. But it is this failing in our humanity that often blinds us to the reality all around us in our world. Our society asks that problems simply ‘go away’ that poverty, sickness and violence be ‘dealt with’ by governments, by institutions and by organizations, as long as we personally are not inconvenienced or forced to ‘pay for it’. We want social ills cured – as if God will just take them all away; and at the same time we fail to see that in the people afflicted with these ills – the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the victimized – that Jesus is present to us in all of these.

We all desire to be identified with the glorified Christ on Mt. Tabor. The beaten, bloodied and crucified Christ on Mt Calvary? Not so much.

The teaching of covenant love in Genesis, and in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is quite clear; there is no glory on Mt. Tabor disconnected from the suffering on Mt. Calvary; there is a cost to the fulfilment of the covenant, the law and the prophets; God, in the person of Jesus, pays that cost for us. He enters into our world of trial and suffering and need and takes it all upon Himself for our sake. He gives so that we may receive.

We cannot be caught up simply in desiring to be one with the glorified Christ without recognizing with profound thanksgiving just what God has done for us. We can’t simply have the glory of heaven without entering into the passion of this world. We need to understand that the joy and sweetness of the resurrection is found when we pass through our world, sharing with grateful hearts the goodness of God in our own lives, with Jesus in the poor of the world.

Once we acknowledge deeply in our hearts that covenant, crucifixion and glory are all part of the same ‘package’, we can honestly turn to God, and say;

‘I want it, and I want it now!’

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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…thoughts while pruning…

How appropriate that it is this time of year that is optimal for pruning grape vines! The image of ‘pruning’ or ‘tending vines’ is often used in Scripture as a metaphor for putting aside worldly attachments to enter more deeply into the spiritual life. The significance of that did not escape me while I was pruning the vines in the cold air as the first full week of Lent begins.

This idea of pruning and setting things aside, especially during Lent, gave me pause to think about yet another annual event that coincides with Lent here in Canada, and thinking of those two things in tandem cause me to wonder about the impact of our small spiritual practices on the ‘real world’.

While the pruning of grapevines seems to always coincide with the Lenten season, the other ‘event’ that I’m writing about is a ‘promotional contest’ that happens each year at this time. It is a time when a major coffee and donut chain has a contest where patrons can roll up the lip of a paper coffee cup to reveal a possible prize – money, televisions, or more often, coffee or donuts.

Most corporations and chains have promotional deals to boost sagging sales.  This particular contest has been going on for a number of years, always coinciding with Lent…stay with me on this….

Traditionally during Lent, Catholics give something up (often it has to do more with edible treats than anything else) as a penitential practice until Easter; the timing of this donut giveaway promotion trails off around Easter…soooooo…

My question became; did the Lenten practice of Catholics affect this chain so much that they had to resort to enticing people to make more frequent visits in the hopes of winning ‘treats’ during Lent?

I don’t know; and I am not making an accusation. Rather, I am making an observation which, in my own mind, gives me some hope.

If in fact, the small practice of the Catholic population affected a major national corporation to the point that a major promotion had to be launched to counteract that small practice, imagine the significant impact that Catholics (or all Christians for that matter) could have on our society, government and corporations if they lived what the Gospels contain?  If they demanded society, governments and corporations respect all life, defend all of the vulnerable and weak, act justly; if they demanded that the recreational activities they participate in take into account their faith lives so as not to cause conflicts which impair their ability to participate in their faith communities?  If the content of the ‘arts’ reflected that sensitivity?

Imagine the change that could be brought, for the better, to our world, if Catholics and all Christians practiced what they preached in the small, ordinary, and daily things that make up their world.

It’s amazing the things that come to you when pruning vines on a cold February afternoon.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

First Sunday of Lent

There is a large hardware store chain with the slogan, ‘Never stop improving’.

That, it seems, is something that we as Christians are called to in our lives, to ‘never stop improving’; never stop growing in our depth of love for God; never stop growing in our appreciation of the great things God has done in our lives; never stop growing in our desire and ability to serve our neighbours, loving them as we love ourselves.

We are called to continually grow ‘upward’, reaching towards union with God, and drawing others into that union as we journey.  In the 1600’s, a lay Carmelite monk named Brother Lawrence wrote a book, ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’, considered by many to be a spiritual classic.  Brother Lawrence wrote that if we are not moving forward in the spiritual life, we are actually moving backwards; once we enter into that relationship with God, we can’t simply stand still and accept the mediocre – it is a relationship that by its very nature demands that we grow and progress and deepen.  Imagine being in love with another person and saying to the object of our affection, ‘Okay, I kind of love you – so this is how much I am going to love you– just this little bit and no more – then I can focus more on myself’.  I’m pretty confident that a relationship like that would sour and die pretty quickly.

But the serious relationship with God deepens and evolves and moves forward; and to do that, we are called to prepare our own hearts to grow in their ability to be open to and embrace the will of God, and to follow where Jesus leads us.

In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus leads us into the desert, into the wilderness.  St. Luke says Jesus was  led by the Spirit ‘, implying that a need for Jesus to withdraw from the ‘busy-ness’ of everyday life to commune uninterrupted with God.  This was not simply a vacation, or an end in itself.  There was a reason for Jesus to leave the concerns of this world behind and move into the desert to prepare for the start of His public ministry.

He had to, as they say, ‘withdraw for the sake of return.’

Jesus shows how with the desert experience, great things happen.  After setting aside the comforts and unnecessary distractions of daily life, Jesus begins his public ministry;  after battling temptations and physical demands– He emerges victorious and the devil leaves him ‘until an opportune time.’  This also tells us the struggle of faith is not a ‘one time’ exercise or event.  It is one in a number of battles to be fought in a lifetime. But it has to start somewhere.

While the season of Lent is a time for us to prepare for Easter, it is also a metaphor for our journey as pilgrim souls, all making our way back to God.

We don’t spend more time in prayer simply to give up our spare time…or give up ‘things’, simply for the sake of giving things up…we set some things aside that are luxuries to us, that we simply don’t really need for survival.  Where they become a problem is when we mistake those things that are ‘extras’, as ‘essentials’ that we can’t do without; things that become a priority over and above God and each other.

During Lent we often focus on the ‘withdrawing’ or ‘giving up’ of things as a negative, as a sacrifice to suffer through; but that is focussing too much on the ‘sacrifices’ as an end in themselves.  The purpose is to ‘withdraw’ from distractions, or ‘remove’ unnecessary things that have become unnecessarily important in our lives – things that really do nothing in building up our relationship either with God or with others.

Being in the wilderness , in the desert, really puts into perspective the difference between necessities and ‘extras’ – it is a time that one can very clearly see what is truly needed to sustain life.  Computer tablets and video games are great, but you can’t eat them.  Luxury items are nice, but they don’t provide fire for warmth or light.

In one sense, this movement into the wilderness by Jesus is given to us as an example; a separation from all the ‘busy-ness’ and materialism that creeps into our daily lives, and clouds our clear view of our path towards God.   He goes into an area where there is nothing in order to hear the Father speaking to Him, a place free from distraction and noise.

The Season of Lent gives us each that opportunity to enter somehow into our own desert experience, into our own wilderness.  That varies for each of us, and for some it may be a retreat – for others more time in prayer with the Blessed Sacrament – for yet others it may be something as simple as an extra five to ten minutes a day in prayer or reading Scripture; but in all of these, we enter into a brief sense of ‘wilderness’, a sense of reduced distractions and obstructions, so that we can more clearly hear God’s voice in our lives. In that wilderness we can experience a greater sense of God’s presence in our lives.

When we are truly convinced of God’s presence in our lives, then it’s not a sacrifice at all to continue on our Lenten journey.  It grows as a desire to ‘never stop improving’ with Christ.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…what to read, what to read…

For those of you following along, I’ve posted the next instalment in the short story…

…which leads me to my main point (and while I am honoured that anyone is reading the short story, the reading of it is not the main point of this post…if that makes sense,,,)

With Ash Wednesday,we once again enter into the season of Lent, a season of self-denial, of prayer and of alms-giving. It is a season to take stock of our relationship with God and others, and to seek ways to sift through the ‘debris’ we’ve accumulated and cleanse ourselves of it, emptying out those spiritual (and in some cases material) closets full of ‘junk’ and making room to enter more fully into the awareness and understanding of the great miracle and message of Easter.

One of my traditional lenten practices has been to find something to read which challenges me, yet is uplifting and insightful; something that ‘pricks’ my conscience, yet reinforces somehow the sense that I am loved and invited into an ever-deepening relationship with the One who created and calls me by name.  While there are many and varied books out there for spiritual reading, the quality of content is just as varied – some are outstanding in their insightfulness, while others – well, there are others (I’m trying to be charitable here after all).

But I have found, you can’t go wrong with the classics.  These have stood the test of time, written by some of the most gifted minds (and pens) that the Church has been blessed with; in some cases (for example, The Confessions of St. Augustine) the lives of the saints who wrote them have been stories of inspiration in themselves.  In other cases, we don’t know the authors at all (The Cloud of Unknowing).

Some years I have re-read books which have provided new insights with the re-reading (The Dialogues of St. Catherine of Siena are a good case in point).

In any event, this year I will be delving into the Cloud of Unknowing. As with any spiritual reading (and especially classics) it’s best to take small ‘bites’ to take time to read and sit with the material – to let it ‘percolate’ as one friend puts it.

This is not a blog for book reviews. I share this simply as a suggestion for those who are looking for some type of spiritual activity/exercise to supplement the very basics of Lent – of prayer, of self-denial, and almsgiving.

May your Lent be a fruitful, blessed and holy one.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…thank you, your holiness.

It’s been a day now since the news from Pope Benedict XVI that he would be resigning from the papacy on Feb.28th of this year.

The speculation and (quite frankly) the silliness surrounding this news just amazes me.  The responses in the mainstream media range from stories of odds-makers posting the most likely candidates to fill the position, to a whole host of ‘end of times’ prognosticators pointing to this resignation as proof positive that the prophecies of St. Malachy are being fulfilled (never mind, of course that the so-called prophecies were discredited years ago, found to have been written several centuries after the death of St. Malachy – oh yeah, and forget that little seldom remembered gem from St. Matthew’s Gospel 24:36 quoting Jesus to the disciples that no one knows when the end will come except God, and He’s not telling anyone! But I digress…) to unkind speculation as to the Holy Father’s mental state, political intrigue within the Vatican, etc.

Simply put, the ‘burden’ of the ministry of the Chair of Peter is enormous, and would crush the life out of anyone half the age of the current pope (he was 78 when he was elected in 2005). 

Regardless of his reasons – and they are his reasons, not anyone else’s; he says it was health-related; leave it at that – he should be thanked for his dedicated service to God and to the world’s 1.2 or so billion Catholics.  He has worked continually for unity among all people of faith traditions; for a re-evangelization of (particularly) the west which seems to have rewritten history and with it, the Church’s place in the establishment of western culture, institutions and many of the benefits in law and good governance that we take for granted; for a deeper sense of the movement and goodness of God in all aspects of human affairs.

Following in the footsteps (or perhaps shadow) of his predecessor, Bl. John Paul II, would have been a daunting task for anyone. Yet Pope Benedict XVI, with grace and style, took up the mantle and rose to the occasion. 

I expect his writings and his own impact on the life of the Church will be the subject of much discussion and study for years to come.  (and interestingly enough, unlike other popes, he will be around to see part of his own legacy).

It doesn’t matter at this particular moment who will succeed him.  That is up to the movement of the Holy Spirit and the influence of the Spirit on the cardinals in conclave.  It doesn’t matter what the bookmakers predict, what the journalists and analysts expect, or even what those with a social agenda prefer.

It’s up to God – let God fill the chair that is being vacated by His servant as He sees fit.

Pray for Pope Benedict XVI.  Pray for the Church. Pray that God’s will be done.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

5th Sunday Ordinary Time

How often have you been to an office, requiring help, only to be faced with what seems to be a ‘mountain’ of ‘red tape’?   Whether a government service or within the business world, it seems that we often make things so complicated that even the most apparently minor task becomes some kind of monumental effort.  We hear things like, ‘that’s impossible’ or ‘it doesn’t work that way’ when quite often, solutions to problems seem very simple and straightforward. 

Sometimes we are the ones who present these types of answers to others.  At times the reason is, frankly, we don’t want to render the help that is being asked because it is inconvenient.  Other times, we find excuses not to take care of the problem because we don’t think we are capable of completing what is being asked.  We aren’t ‘up to the challenge’ or we don’t feel we have the abilities necessary to see the job through.  We’re afraid we will make a mistake.  We are afraid we are unfit or unworthy.

We see this notion of ‘fear’ and ‘unworthiness’ repeated in all three of our readings this Sunday.

In the first reading, we hear from the prophet Isaiah who recounts a vision in which he received a call from God to be His prophet: and Isaiah’s response is, “ I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips;”

St. Paul, in the first letter to the Corinthians, identifies himself this way;

“I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.”

In our Gospel from St. Luke, St. Peter is just as direct and blunt when, after a miraculous catch of fish, he says to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Too often we diminish or belittle the possibility that God is calling us directly to act on His behalf – both in great things and in small things.   Too often we dismiss the stirrings to be prophets, ambassadors or messengers for Christ because we get caught up in this mentality that ‘it is only through big and great things’ that the presence of Jesus is made known.

And it’s easy to avoid doing what He asks of us each day if we convince ourselves that it is something well beyond our reach or our capabilities.

We can take comfort in our own ‘inability’ because the greatness of living out and sharing the Gospel is just too much for our smallness.  We’re afraid.

That fear becomes an easy way to avoid any responsibility for living out lives of holiness, or participating in the work of the Church.

The truth is, Jesus asks us to make His presence known to those around us in everything we do; in the way we speak to each other, the way we treat each other, the way we serve and suffer with one another.  These in and of themselves may not seem like ‘monumental tasks’ or ‘great things’. 

But each one of them contributes to the building up of the Kingdom of God, and that makes them great.

These three readings from Scripture also hold a key to reinforcing our own abilities to carry out these things in life that God asks of us. The three people whose stories we are presented with today – Isaiah of the unclean lips, Paul the persecutor of the Church, and Peter the sinful man – all have a direct communication from God telling them that those ‘barriers’ to responding to God’s call have been removed! They have no excuses left.

With Isaiah it is the angel with the purifying coal touching his lips; with Paul it is a vision of Christ telling him that he, Paul, is to be an ambassador in the world for Christ; with Peter, it is Jesus himself saying ‘do not be afraid,’ and inviting Peter to follow Him.

We might say, ‘well it would be easier for me to follow what God wants me to do if I saw angels, or visions, or had Jesus Himself standing before me telling me exactly what I should do.”

But the truth is, that happens all the time; in the Sacred Scriptures, in the Church, in those around us – God speaks to us all the time, calling us to be near Him and to draw those around us closer to Him.

Remember, the abilities we are so quick to dismiss were given to us by God, to share with each other.  If those gifts were given to us by God to serve His purpose, then those gifts will most certainly be sufficient for what He asks.  He is there, accompanying us as we walk along with Him, continually urging us through His Church, through Scripture, and through others, to use those gifts and abilities, no matter how great or small, for His glory. 

We have no excuses.

“Do not be afraid.”

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…into the eyes of Jesus…

Today, I had the tremendous honour of baptising a young woman who is severely physically challenged.

It was a small ceremony, with only one family member and one godparent present.  The young woman is no longer able to verbally communicate, but she is very expressive and communicates in other ways. She is a quadriplegic and yes, requires much care.

We gathered as a small group to celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism, as per her wishes.

There was no talk today of quality of life.  There was no commentary on abilities versus disabilities.  There was no discussion on what is a fulfilling life or what is a productive life.  No one spoke about ‘end of life’ , or who has a right to live, or who should be permitted to make that determination.

Today I used the Rites to baptize a young woman, and welcome her into the Church.

Today I observed deep emotion as people prayed , renewing their own baptismal promises.

Today I saw pure joy on the face of an innocent, as she received the waters of baptism.

Today I witnessed true wonder in the face of a child of God, as I annointed her with the blessed oils of the Catechumen and of Holy Chrism.

Today, I looked into the eyes of Jesus; and I touched the image and likeness of my own Creator.

God is very good, indeed.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!