2nd Sunday of Lent

Listen to Him!

If you’ve been watching television for the last two weeks the scene in today’s Gospel seems a little familiar, doesn’t it?  Three men standing side-by-side on top of a mountain.  But, in this case, they haven’t come there to receive gold, silver, and bronze medals.  Moses and Elijah have come to meet Jesus, as Peter, John, and James look on; the famous story of the transfiguration.

Actually, the Winter Olympics analogy is pretty weak, even for me.  Jesus lived in the desert.  I don’t think He was into winter sports.  He could have lived anywhere He wanted to and you notice He didn’t choose Minneapolis of Toronto.  Good for Him!

As usual, Peter, my favorite saint, gets it all wrong.  He wants to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  Maybe he wants to sell tickets so people can come and see them.  Of course, the point isn’t for anyone else to see the three together.  It’s specifically for the three Apostles.  A cloud passes over them and the voice of God booms out, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” Kind of like the day that Jesus was baptized.

Of course, when the cloud passes, Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets, are gone.  The symbolism here is profound.  God is telling the Apostles, along with you and me, that we no longer need the Mosiac law or the words of the prophets.  All we need is the Son of God.  God the Father says, “Listen to Him.” Interesting.

His Father says “Listen to Him.”  At the site of His first miracle, his mother said, “Do whatever He tells you.” In John’s Gospel He even tells us Himself, “You are my friends if you do what I tell you.” I guess, maybe, we should listen.  What do you think?  But this listening thing can get a little complicated.  It’s pretty easy to read the Scriptures and see what He’s trying to tell us…….sometimes.  But not all the time.  Even after all the classes I took and all the reading I’ve done, sometimes I’ll read a passage and go “huh???”  What the heck is He talking about?  I really hate it when that happens on a weekend I have to preach.  If I only talk about the two readings, or the responsorial psalm, or last week’s Gospel, chances are I don’t get what Jesus is telling us that day.

I once went to a two day workshop put on by a priest, Eugene LaVerdier.  Amazing.  I can’t remember where I left my car keys ten minutes ago but I remember Eugene LaVerdier.  Anyway, Fr. LaVerdier has spent his entire life studying Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.  Two books!  His whole life.  And he wasn’t a young guy.  He spent the entire first morning talking about just the first chapter of Luke.  This guy knew his Luke.  But on the second day a young lady, a PSR teacher, asked him a question.  He looked at her and said, “I never thought of it that way.”  I thought he was going to cry.  Listening to Jesus isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Then there are the other times He talks to us.  You know, when you’re feeling sorry for yourself because your feet hurt and you meet someone who has no feet.  It makes you feel pretty silly.  Or maybe you’re meal didn’t turn out exactly the way you hoped it would, and you walk outside and there’s some pour soul begging for money to buy food.  I think these things happen to us more times than we even realize because we may not be paying attention.

Someone taught me a very simple, but very effective prayer that I try to say every morning.  “Lord, what do you want me to learn today?” Why is it a good prayer?  I’ll tell you.  Think about the last time you were shopping for a new car.  After you’ve narrowed your choice down to a pickup truck, but you haven’t decided on the brand, do you notice that about every third car on the road is a pickup?  They’re everywhere.  This is the same principle.  The prayer gives you a focus and you start to notice answers coming at you from every which way.  If you ask the right questions, answers will come at you from the places you’d least expect them.

Every once in a while, someone will come up to me after mass and say, you were speaking right to me today when you said….whatever.  And, I’m thinking to myself “what?”  Did I say that?  And I look at my notes and, sure enough, I did say it.  It wasn’t the main point.  It may have been just a phrase or a sentence, but for that person, at that time, it was exactly what they need to hear.  That’s why you can’t fall asleep when Father and I are up here talking.  Jesus may be talking to you and ou might miss it  I’m just sayin’………….

Finally, which is what I usually say before I make three or four more points, but this time I really mean it.  Finally, something happened to me this week that was pretty serious.  In the last few days, between the mass readings, the daily Liturgy of the Hours, the little Lent book that Father sent us, even in the stations of the cross, answers have been coming at me like questions at a presidential news conference.  “Deacon Mike!  Deacon Mike!  Have you thought about this?  How about this idea?  Think about how I suffered!”  It seems like either Jesus really wants to help me through this so badly that He can’t stop talking to me, or I’m just so much in need of help that I’m really paying attention.  I even had a message in a dream the other night.

God would never have told us to listen to His Son if His Son wasn’t going to have something to say.  So, as we make our way through this season of Lent, we can all recognize that there’s more to this than just eating fish on Fridays and giving up whatever we’ve decided to give up.  A very good practice would be to take God the Father’s simple two sentence instruction from today’s Gospel to heart.  “This is my chosen Son.  Listen to Him.”

A Question

Today’s reflection will be short and to the point.  After all, you’ve already heard one homily today.  Here’s a question for you to reflect on.

If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Word who was there from the beginning, needed to spend forty days praying in the desert, how much more must we need to do the same?

Think about it.

Saturday After Ash Wednesday

“The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’  Jesus said to them in reply,  ‘Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.  I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.'”

I suppose there are two ways we  can respond to Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel.  One would be, “Thank goodness I’m righteous.  I don’t have to repent. ”

The other would be, “I’m a sinner.  I guess He’s talking about me.”

Hopefully, your answer is the second one.  How could any sane person believe that he was without sin?  Yet, a lot of people must feel that way.  Just count the empty seats in church this weekend.  It’s  just over a month and a half since Christmas.  On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day our churches were filled to capacity.  Many had standing-room-only crowds.  Where are those people now?

Now we’re at the beginning of Lent, the time when we’re called to prepare ourselves for the coming celebration of Jesus’ glorious resurrection.  Fasting.  Prayer.  Charity.  These are our three obligations.  But more than obligations, these things are a prescription.

Jesus’ says to us, “‘Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.”

You and I are the patients.  Jesus is the doctor.  Our illness is sin and the remedy is His three-fold prescription.  Fast.  Pray.  Be charitable.  If you have the flu, you go to the doctor.  He’s probably going to give you a prescription.  If you expect to get well, you get the prescription filled and do whatever the doctor tells you to do.

Yet we all have the spiritual flu.  We also have the prescription to make us well.  The question is, do we follow the divine physician’s instructions as faithfully as we do our human doctor’s.  Considering the consequences of our sin, the answer would seem obvious.  But aparently to some folks, it’s not.

Friday After Ash Wednesday

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The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,
but your disciples do not fast?”  Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?

The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

It seems like someone was always calling Jesus out because He and his disciples weren’t following some Jewish custom.  In this case, John’s disciples, who were following the law wanted to know why Jesus and his disciples weren’t fasting.  And Jesus gives them a straightforward answer.  “When I’m gone, then they can fast.”

Well, He is gone and so we fast.  Not that twenty-first century fasting is such a big deal.  First of all, we only fast two days a year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  And most of us here this morning don’t even have to do that.  The ages for fasting are from 18 to 59 years.

The other requirement is that we abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent.  Again, it’s not that tough.  For eight days we have to settle for shrimp instead of steak, fish sandwiches instead of Big Macs, pasta con broccoli instead of spagheti and meatballs, or if it’s really that hard to give up meat, we can buy soy meat substitutes that look and taste an awful lot like the real thing.  No, even today the Jewish people make a lot more food sacrifices than we do.

So today while you’re enjoying your Filet ‘O Fish for lunch and your tuna steak for dinner, hopefully you’ll give some thought to why you made that choice.  You might even say a prayer of thanks that you can observe the Lenten food regulations without really giving up that much.

Thursday After Ash Wednesday

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“Blessed the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.”

It’s kind of a paradox, this Christian faith of ours.  Today’s Responsorial Psalm is just one example.  We’re blessed if we delight in the law of the Lord.  Here we are, just beginning Lent, a time of penance, but we’re called to delight in the sacrifices we’re asked to make.

If we’re doing it right, this is a time of giving things up, a time of doing more, yet we delight in that.  We’re even asked to meditate on God’s law day and night.

Throughout Church history we see examples of saints who made huge sacrifices, including martyrdom, yet they were full of joy.  Very few of us will ever be asked to give up our lives for the faith, but if we are, we’re expected to do it happily, blessing our tormentors.

That’s a big order.  None of us really knows for sure how we’d react in that situation.  But we all know someone who can’t be bothered to fast for two days, or to abstain from meat for eight days.  You ask them what they’re doing for Lent and they tell you that they’ve given up some trivial thing, maybe even something that they never enjoyed to begin with.

No, most of us will never be called on to be martyrs.  But we are called to do things that may be incredibly difficult.  How we respond says a lot about our faith.  Some couples refuse to follow Church teaching on birth control.  In spite of the fact that natural family planning is by far the most reliable form of birth control, it takes effort and the occasional sacrifice and that’s just too much for some folks.  It’s much easier to take a pill every day in spite of the proven connection between those pills and cancer.

Think about that for a minute.  Once in a while, not that often really, NFP requires a couple to abstain from sex.  Most of the time, thought not always, this is more of a sacrifice for the man than for the woman.  Rather than show his love for his wife by the simple act of postponing his own gratification, many men prefer to ask the woman they love to take a drug that could cause her to have serious health problems down the road.  That’s love?

Heck, we all know people who can’t even be bothered to go to mass once a week.  There are 168 hours in a week, but spending just one of them in church is asking too much.

No, the “old-fashioned”  idea of sacrifice may be foreign to many of us, even during Lent.  That’s too bad.  Sacrifice truly can make us joyful.

Ash Wednesday

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“Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

This is one of the formulas used for the imposition of ashes today.  Maybe we should include it as part of our daily prayers the other 364 days of the year.  It’s a sobering reminder of the reality of this life.  Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel,

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.”

Today we make an exception.  Today we wear the ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our humanity, our sinfulness.  We are dust and to dust we shall return.  Tomorrow the ashes will be gone, but our sacrifice continues.

The tradition of the Church calls for prayer, sacrifice, and charity during the Lenten season.  Many of us have a human tradition of “giving it up for Lent”, but are we really doing enough.  “Giving it up”,may satisfy the sacrifice part.  But prayer and charity are just as important.

Saying a rosary every day, or even just a Hail Mary and an Our Father, are acceptable too, just as long as we do them faithfully and with the proper reverence.

As far as charity, it can be giving our treasure, our time, or just being nicer to people, especially people you don’t particularly like.  If someone notices the change, you can tell them joyfully that you’re waiting for the day of Christ’s resurrection.  You’re following the Lord’s instructions in today’s Gospel.

“Fat” Tuesday

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You have to love Saint James.  He always lays it on the line in simple words that we can all understand.  In today’s first reading he says,

“No one experiencing temptation should say,’I am being tempted by God’; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one.
Rather, each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire.  Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”

How many times have you heard someone say, or maybe you’ve said it yourself,  “God is testing me.”  As James tells us today, God doesn’t test us.  It’s just not His style.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  If we’re tested, it’s Satan who’s doing the testing, not God.

We’re about to enter the season of Lent.  Our faith tells us that Lent is a time of penance.  As faithful servants we make a promise to either give up something or to do something additional as a way of emulating Christ and to prepare ourselves for His death and resurrection.  Remember that Satan tempted Christ and He was up to the challenge.

But you and I aren’t Christ.  The evil one knows that we’re likely to give in to temptation, and so do we.  Like a modern-day terrorist, he works in the shadows, keeping his identity secret until he strikes.   No, temptation doesn’t come from God.  But temptation is very, very real.

So how does this apply to you and me and to our Lenten observance?  This past week was very busy for me with a wedding and a rehearsal and a baptism and baptism prep meeting.  I also had two communion services and preached at three masses over the weekend.  I jokingly said to my wife Sunday afternoon, “I think I’ll give up weddings and baptisms for Lent.”  Of course there are no baptisms or weddings during Lent, so my “sacrifice” wouldn’t mean much.

Our Lenten penance should be something that stretches us, makes us think about what we’re doing, and requires an actual sacrifice.  But what if we overestimate ourselves.  What if we just can’t make it for forty days?  That’s where Satan, and our humanity come in.

God knows what we can and can’t do.  He knows we’re not perfect.  He knows we may fail.  In fact, in failing we may just be showing God how much we love Him.  If you’re not tempted during Lent, if you don’t slip at all, maybe you haven’t chosen wisely. And if you do have a lapse, getting right back on track and not giving up is the greatest gift we can give God.

As Thomas Merton wrote in Thoughts on Solitude,

“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.”

So choose your penance wisely.  And don’t expect perfection.

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time–Valentine’s Day

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“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.”

I was originally going to talk about something altogether different today, but Friday night I was at a party and overheard a really tasteless joke.  And, no, I’m not going to repeat it here.  I’ll just say that it involved Tiger Woods, the Pope, and the Blessed Virgin.  The more I thought about the joke the more I thought about today’s gospel.  Most of us don’t spend a lot of time considering that there are people who hate us and exclude us because of our faith.  No, the Klan doesn’t burn crosses on Catholics’ lawns anymore, but go online and search the word “Catholic.”  You’ll be surprised at the amount of hate that’s directed our way.

But, as Jesus tells us today, we should rejoice and leap for joy because our reward will be great in heaven.

Rather than focus on the hate, I’d rather talk about love.  Today  is Valentine’s Day, a day for love.  One of our sons refers to Valentine’s Day as a Hallmark holiday.  You know, a day that exists only for the selling of greeting cards and other stuff.  It’s true that Valentine’s is the second biggest greeting card day of the year behind Christmas, with one billion cards bought just in the United States.  According to the people who know about this stuff, 85% of all Valentine Cards are bought by women.  That surprises me because I know that when I went to the card store last night, there wasn’t a woman in sight.  Just men.  All hovering over on section of Valentine-Wife cards.

It’s also true that the celebration as we know it today is much different than the Valentine’s Day our grandparents celebrated.  The celebration of Saint Valentine’s feast day goes all the way back to Roman times.  The oldest known Valentine’s Day greeting was written in 1415, quite a few years before Hallmark came along.  It’s in the British Library in London.  The first mass produced Valentines in the United States came along in the 1840s.

The man himself, Saint Valentine lived in Rome during the third century.  He was martyred in 270.  We don’t know a whole lot about him but one legend says that Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made the best soldiers, so he outlawed marriage.  Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages in secret.  He paid for it by losing his head.  Thankfully, that doesn’t happen anymore.

Valentine’s Day, either in the middle ages, or today, is all about love.  At least it’s supposed to be.  For now, we’ll forget about the commercial, gift-giving, part of the celebration.  I’m glad the day’s finally here so I don’t have to hear any more commercials for Pajama-grams, or Vermont Teddy Bears, or 1-800-FLOWERS.  I’m just too practical to spend thirty bucks for a dozen flowers that I can buy next weekend for $12.99.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about today is the sacraments, the signs of God’s love for you and me.   One of the real joys of my vocation is that I get to be involved in some of the most important days in people’s lives through the sacraments.  Yesterday I had the privilege of presiding at a wedding here in the parish.   I wish all of you could stand where I stand during a wedding.  The looks on these kids’ faces is always priceless.  To me, it’s what love looks like.  They’re there in front of the altar of the Lord, kneeling, waiting for me to say the words that make them man and wife.  It’s something they’ve been planning for months, something they’ve been preparing for for their whole lives. It’s a day that God has been planning since He removed Adam’s rib to create Eve.   It’s the most important day of their lives so far.

I always wonder what life has in store for this new family.  I hope and pray that it will all be perfect for them, even though I know that it won’t be.  But I always tell them that anything is possible as long as Jesus is part of their family.

Today after 10:30 mass, I’ll be baptizing two young people.  Every baptism is an act of love and what could be more special than being baptized on Valentine’s Day?  Even more special is the fact that these two kids aren’t infants.  They’re brother and sister.  The girl is 12 and her brother is 8.  I just talked to you about baptism a few weeks ago.  I said that sometimes, not all the time, or even most of the time, but sometimes babies are baptized for the wrong reasons.  But, not in this case.  The kids’ mom is on fire with the faith.  Her enthusiasm is contagious and she wants to share that with her kids.  That, and not a pair of mail-order pajamas, is what love is all about.

Another sacrament that you may not associate with love is the sacrament of the sick.  What many people still think of as “last rites” is actually a strengthening sacrament, a sign of Christ’s love for us and a reminder that He still heals the sick.  Father Gary offers the sacrament to all of us twice a year as part of mass and provides it to any of us when we need it; when we’re in the hospital, or about to go into the hospital.  Most hospitals, Catholic or not, make the Sacrament of the Sick available to their Catholic patients.

Two weeks ago my wife, Jan, received the sacrament from Father, just before she had cancer surgery.  The surgery was successful and the cancer was removed.  I know as sure as I’m standing here that the combination of the anointing and prayers from literally hundreds of family and friends played a big part in the favorable outcome.  Thank you to all of you who offered prayers for Jan, and for me.  Without them, our Valentine’s Day could have been very different.  We love you, too.

Last, but not least is the sacrament that we can all receive every single day, the sacrament of the Eucharist.  Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.  Jesus laid down His life for us but left us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist so that we’d never be apart from Him.  If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Let’s go back to the mental pictures that Jeremiah paints for us in the first reading.  Trust in human beings, seek your strength in the flesh, and you’re like a barren bush in the desert.  You stand in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.  It’s an unpleasant picture, but it’s one that we can all appreciate.  Hot and dry.  Not good.

But for the person who trusts in the Lord, you’re like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches its roots to the stream.  You don’t fear when the drought comes, your leaves stay green and you keep bearing fruit.  Even in cold and snowy Saint Louis that’s a peaceful picture and something we all desire.  It’s something we can all achieve.  All we have to do is trust in the Lord.

Have a blessed Valentine’s day.  Guys, I’ll see you later at the mall.

Why Should He Hear Us if We Don’t Hear Him?

As I was looking over the readings today it was the Responsorial Psalm that caught my attention.  The Lord, speaking through the Psalmist says”

“My people heard not my voice,
and Israel obeyed me not;
So I gave them up to the hardness of their hearts;
they walked according to their own counsels.”

Don’t these words, written thousands of years ago, apply just as well to us today?

The Pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom.  Our country was founded on religious freedom.  We were a Christian country and we were richly blessed.  Even as a small start-up nation, we prevailed over our enemies.  We never lost a war until Vietnam.  Since then, our victories have been few and far between.  Prior to September 11, 2001, the American mainland was untouched by acts of war.  Since that day, we have lived in fear of additional attacks.

The Psalm goes on,

“If only my people would hear me,
and Israel walk in my ways,
Quickly would I humble their enemies;
against their foes I would turn my hand.”

The so-called “sexual revolution” began in this country in the 1960s and it’s been all downhill since then.  As we Christians stand by and watch our country embrace the “values” of secularism, how can we ignore God’s words?  Or a better question might be, “How can we expect God to hear us if we don’t hear him?”

The good news is that what was once a murmur of voices questioning the direction of our country is becoming louder.  It’s not quite a roar yet, but it’s at least a rumbling.  Like an approaching thunderstorm, or an oncoming train, it’s getting louder and stronger.  I’m convinced that the key to all of America’s problems lies in these two simple passages of Scripture.

We ARE a Christian Country!

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In today’s Gospel for the Feast of Saint Agatha Jesus says,

Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”

Today at 1:00 pm, my wife will be having surgery to remove a tumor.  I’m a firm believer in the power of prayer so I have asked my Internet contacts, Facebook friends, and online business associates to pray for her.  Normally I wouldn’t do that in a business context, but this is too important to leave any stones unturned.

The response has been nothing short of amazing.  People who I barely know, people I’ve never met in person, and people that I would never have thought to be particularly religious have responded to my request with kind words, thoughts, and the promise of prayers.

In spite of what you may see, hear, or read in the media, the world is full of wonderful, faith-filled people.  Responding to Jesus’ words today, they’re not ashamed of their faith.  Whether the president thinks this is a Christian country or not, I know that it is.  That doesn’t mean that every one of our citizens is a member of a Christian church, but most of them are.  And I don’t mean to imply that those who aren’t Christian are somehow inferior to those of us who are.  But those who aren’t  Christian are influenced by the Christians around them, whether they realize it or not.

Using the word “Christian” is a larger sense, we all follow Jesus’ teachings and we’re all affected by His Presence, whether we give Him credit or not.    “Love one another as I have loved you” is more than just a passage in a book.  It’s a principal that’s long been followed in this country by Christians, Jews, and others who want to live life in harmony with their fellow citizens.  You don’t have to be a Christian to embrace Christian values.

So, be proud of your faith!  Be proud of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  And be proud of your identity as a Catholic.  That’s what He asks us to do.

JanAnd, thanks to everyone who’s praying for Jan today.