Second Sunday of Lent (February 25th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture is from the Old Testament Book of Genesis, the first text of the Bible. The purpose of the Book of Genesis is to present stories of origin, beginnings- of creation, of humanity, and God’s chosen people- the Israelites.

Today’s story from the Book of Genesis is, I think, best described as a tale of terror. God tests the faith of Abraham, the progenitor of the Israelites, by insisting that the patriarch offer to him as a sacrifice his son, his beloved son, Isaac. Abraham passes the test and in the last moment Isaac is spared.

What are we to make of this?

Saints, sages and scholars have racked their brains for centuries over this story, this tale of terror.

First, the story is what is called an etiological text, which means it describes how a particular and significant cultural reality emerges- in this case, why it was that the Israelites rejected a practice that was established in many cultures- the practice of human sacrifice to God or the gods. The meaning of the Genesis story is that God desires an act of faith, but not an act of human sacrifice, which is precisely how the story concludes. It is off putting for us to consider that humans ever believed that God desired killing another human being in order to please him, but it is true, and one of the great distinctions of Biblical religion, displayed in this story from the Book of Genesis, is how the Israelites came to understand that human sacrifice was not something God wanted us to do. In this respect the frightening story of Abraham’s sacrifice is meant to be read a subversive tale, simultaneously acknowledging God’s right to give life and take life, while at the same time indicating that the worship we will institute, while demanding a sacrifice, will not be a cult of human sacrifice. Again, while this will not seem to us as an extraordinary revelation, it was for the ancient Israelites and the fact that they worshipped a God that did not desire that they murder their children was strange to other culture’s that did- and in the ancient world there were many!

Second, the story is not simply about Abraham and Isaac, but it’s depth of meaning is revealed in Christ. The story is about God, with Abraham as a stand in for God the Father and Isaac as a stand in for God the Son- Christ. The demand of sacrifice is the demand of love, willingly accepted by Christ (Isaac). The story prefigures or foreshadows the Incarnation- God who in Christ and for the sake of his love for his creation, accepts a human nature as his own and lives, like us, a real, human life.

This dramatic revelation will inevitably lead to suffering and death, yet God accepts this, why? Because God desires a relationship with the totality of who we are, which means the totality of our humanity and to be human is to be mortal, vulnerable to the raw facts of life- facts like suffering and death. And so, God in Christ accepts the experience of suffering and death for himself, not because he has too, but because he loves what he has created and desires for his creation to know he is with us, not just in some things, not just in things that are emotionally satisfying, but in all things- even the inevitable facts of our existence- suffering and death.

Finally, the story is about the human condition itself and the often pain filled realization that to bring a child into the world is to give life, yes, but it also means that you set that your child on a path that inevitably leads towards death. Again, a harsh truth, a terrifying revelation, definitely not emotionally satisfying, but a necessary fact of human existence that we all must come to terms with, lest we linger in illusions and never come to terms with what is truly at stake in being a parent and how fragile and precious the gift of life we give to our children really and truly is.

Remember, the Bible is not a greeting card, a cartoon fantasy where everything is neatly and easily resolved in the end. The Bible is not a Book of platitudes. The Bible is a Book of Truth- truth about God, about the human condition and when we open up this Book of Truth, it tells us, not what we want to hear, but what is the truth. And it is this fact that makes the Bible so important to us.

Our second scripture for today is an excerpt from an New Testament text, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

The Letter to the Romans is the apostle Paul’s tour de force, his magnum opus where he lays out with as much detail as possible what he believes the Lord Jesus has revealed about God and humanity, particularly the relationship of God and humanity.

God’s revelation in Jesus Christ must, St. Paul believes, change the way we think about God, how we worship, how we understand what God wants and what he wants us to do. As such, no one who gives their life over to Jesus Christ, can do so without the change of mind, of emotions, of will, that is called conversion. Concretely this means that our opinions and feelings about God and what we think is important, what we believe the meaning and purpose of life is, must give way to what God in Christ reveals about such things. To be in relationship with Christ means that we say, as St. Paul did, “it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me”- and if we can say that honestly and with integrity we are saying that it is Christ who is at the center of our lives, not our egos, not our opinions, not our feelings, and further if Christ is at the center of our lives, we will also be willing to say in response to Christ’s revelation- my life is not about me.

In this particular text, St. Paul is reminding us that inasmuch as God has accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real, human life, that he knows first-hand the difficulties we face and the struggles we endure, and because of this fact, we should view our relationship with God as something grim and frightening, but as friend to friend. God in Christ reveals he desires what is good for us, not our destruction and he is willing to suffer and die like us to show us the depth of his desire to save us from our sins, to redeem us from our death.

One day, we will all come face to face with God in Christ. Remember, God in Christ is not an idea or a feeling or cosmic force, but a living divine person, and as such we will meet him person to person and in this encounter with Jesus Christ he will be our judge.

God in Christ is our judge, but his judgement is not arbitrary and capricious accusation, but his judgement is the judgement that tells us our truth, what we have done and what we failed to do, and his purpose in telling us our truth is not to destroy us, but to set us free from the lies that inhibit us from flourishing as God intends.

St. Paul insists that as Christ tells us our truth that we will know that he understands the powers that have weakened us, he will know our fears and the desires that afflicted us. And inasmuch as he has lived as a man, he will understand us, and we will know in this that the truth he tells is not intended for our destruction, but to save and to redeem.

Finally, in his Gospel, the truth of Christ’s identity and mission is displayed to Christ’s disciples- who is Jesus- he is God, God who has accepted a human nature and has lived a real, human life. What is the mission of Jesus? To enter into the fullness of the human nature he has accepted as his own- to go himself into the hardest facts of human existence- to suffer and to die and in doing so demonstrate that neither suffering and death are stronger than his power to redeem us, to save us, to love us as his friends.

The disciples see this, but also fail to fully comprehend it. Why? Because it is a revelation from God, and no revelation from God is ever something easy.

The lesson here is about the Lord Jesus yes, but it is also a reminder to us about what Lent is about. Lent is preparing us to receive and understand the great revelation of God in Christ suffering and dying, a revelation we Christians remember with great solemnity during Holy Week. Lent is not merely a faith- based self-improvement program. Lent is preparing us for the events of Holy Week, where what the disciples of Jesus saw and experienced will be given to us and we, like his first disciples, will have to come to terms with a revelation that is not easy to understand and demands that we change our very lives.

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First Sunday of Lent (February 18th, 2018)

Note: This homily was prepared to provide a basic catechesis regarding the meaning of Lent. 

Today the Church celebrates the first Sunday of Lent.

What is Lent?

Lent is a season of the Church’s year of prayer and worship, the purpose of which is to prepare Christians to appreciate and receive the great mysteries of Holy Week. Lent begins on a day called Ash Wednesday, known as such because the faithful are marked with ashes as a reminder of their willingness to undergo the penitential practices that will prepare them for Holy Week. The season of Lent includes 40 days of penitential practices.

What is Holy Week and what are the penitential practices of Lent?

Holy Week begins a week before Easter Sunday with the commemoration of Palm Sunday. At the Mass of Palm Sunday the faithful hear about Christ’s entry into the city of Jerusalem, where he is greeted with festivity, treated like royalty and surrounded by crowds bearing palm branches. Palm Sunday is also called Passion Sunday, because the story of Christ’s arrest, trial and execution is proclaimed to the faithful on this day. In the days that follow Palm Sunday, the faithful intensify their focus on and consideration of the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, accepting and appreciating these events not simply as historical events that happened long ago, but as revelations about God. Holy Week culminates with the solemn celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, during which the faithful acknowledge their appreciation for three great gifts that Christ gives to us- the gift of his divine life in the Blessed Sacrament, the gift of the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of the transformation of death from a terrifying end, to a new kind of beginning.

Each of these gifts is revealed to us by God in an extraordinary way and this is why the Church refers to the mysteries of Holy Week, it means that God acted in Christ to do something important, extraordinary and unexpected. Our joy at receiving these gifts is displayed with exuberance at the Mass of Easter Sunday.

What are the penitential practices of Lent?

The penitential practices of Lent, as I said previously, are intended to prepare Christians for Holy Week. These practices are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

What is prayer?

Most of us are familiar with what is called petitionary prayers, that is, asking God for something, and this type of prayer is a good thing, but we shouldn’t reduce the meaning and purpose of prayer to our petitions. Prayer is a disposition, a habit of attentiveness, availability and receptivity to the Lord. Through our prayer, we place ourselves, indeed our very lives, at God’s disposal and then we patiently wait for him to answer us. The answer is always a mission. This answer may come quickly or may come slowly, but this is not the concern of our prayer- the concern is to be ready and willing when the mission is finally presented to us. Prayer like this necessitates that we withdraw from our own projects and preoccupations, giving our time and attention to the Lord, demonstrating to him that we are ready and waiting and open to receiving from him a mission. Once we have received our mission, it will be our prayer, giving time and attention to the Lord, that will sustain us and help us to accomplish what the Lord asks.

What is fasting?

Fasting is depriving our bodies of food. Why would we do this? There are several reasons. One is that the experience of fasting prepares us for mission by signaling to us that whatever mission we are given will necessarily entail hardship and sacrifice. Fasting helps us to understand what kind of sacrifice we are willing to make and what kind of hardship that we can endure. The purpose of fasting also helps us to understand that there are greater things about life than just the satisfaction of our desires and they we are far more resilient than we often expect ourselves to be when we don’t get what we want.

And finally, fasting creates empathy in us for the sufferings of the poor, even if the deprivation of the poor is not food, we know from our experience of hunger, what it is to have to settle for less or even have little or nothing at all. Having had this experience of lack ourselves we hope to be more compassionate with others who suffer from hunger or deprivation or whose options have seemed to have run out.

Finally, what is almsgiving?

The word “alms” originates in a Greek word meaning “mercy”(eleemosune, eleemon). So, literally speaking, giving alms or almsgiving means giving mercy. Mercy is a gift of compassion, compassion that is needed, but not deserved. For Christians, mercy is not an idea or a feeling, but a practice or a work.

Thus, being a Christian means accepting as your way of life the practices or works of mercy- feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, burying the dead. And counseling the doubtful, comforting the afflicted, bearing wrongs patiently, praying for one another, forgiving those who have wronged us, teaching others what is true, and warning others about the consequences of living in lies. All these works, these practices are fulfilling Christ’s command that we love our neighbor.

These are works of mercy or almsgiving, not just ideas or feelings or good intentions, but actions, practices, a way of life. These actions go beyond giving away surplus cash or donating to a favorite cause. During the season of Lent Christians undertake these works or mercy with ever increasing intensity, not just because they are good things to do, but because by practicing them, doing them, we become better Christians, we become the people that God in Christ intends for us to be.

You see, your Christian faith is not like an ethnic or racial identity, something that constitutes an identity that is “just there” because you were born into it. Instead your Christian faith is a way of life, a way that must be practiced for it to mean what it truly means, to be what it is supposed to be. Practicing your Christian faith is what makes us Christians rather than hypocrites.

This is what the almsgiving or the mercy giving of Lent is all about- becoming who Christ intends by doing what he asks you to do. The alternative is to claim to be a Christian, all the while knowing that that claim is a lie.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the practices of Lent, and we do these things so as to prepare ourselves for Holy Week. These practices help us to better appreciate and understand what Holy Week is all about- and appreciating and understanding Holy Week is what Lent is all about.

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Ash Wednesday (February 14th, 2018)

This year, on February 14th, the celebration of a saint of popular interest and devotion and the beginning of Lent coincide. February 14th is the occasion (since 469 AD) for the commemoration of the martyr, Saint Valentine and it is also Ash Wednesday.

The Festal Day of Saint Valentine has not, since 1969, been part of the Universal Calendar of the Church (a calendar that assigns particular days in the course of year to honor the witness of the saints). This does not mean, as some continue to insist, that the Church has declared that Saint Valentine did not exist, but instead it means that the commemoration of the saint is not obligatory for the whole Church, but can happen locally on February 14th. In terms of his existence, Saint Valentine remains enrolled in the Roman Martyrology (which is an official list of saints recognized by the Church for liturgical celebrations and promoted for popular devotion). The historicity of the saint may be questioned, and the specific details of his life may be lost, but the Church continues to mark his martyrdom as worth honoring.

In terms of Saint Valentine himself, it has been hard to determine which saint bearing the name Valentine is the martyr being commemorated on February 14th (other than the martyr Valentine, there are at least a dozen saints with this name). There are three likely candidates for the February 14th designation- one a priest, the other a bishop, the other is a martyr, who the specific details of his life have disappeared into the past. The medieval text entitled the Legend Aurea (or the Golden Legend) has a priest by the name of Valentine killed by the Roman emperor Claudius the Goth in 269 AD. The story is that Valentine had the audacity to try to convince the emperor to accept the Christian faith and paid for this attempt with his life. It is a later text, the Nuremburg Chronicle, from 1493, that provides the detail that the priest Valentine was killed for marrying Christian couples when forbidden to do so by an imperial edict (ours is not the only era where marriage is a point of political tension, or where insistence on the Christian understanding of marriage is controversial).

It is the story of the priest Valentine, uniting Christian couples in holy matrimony that is likely where the association of the festival day with romantic gestures originates. Though some trace the practice of sending notes to one’s beloved on Saint Valentine’s Day with a miracle associated with the saint, his restoration of the sight of a blind girl, who is graced with a note from the saint on the day of his execution. Other scholars note the proximity of Saint Valentine’s Day with the pagan feast of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15th. Pope Gelasius established the commemoration of Saint Valentine in the year 469 AD and it is surmised that he was offering a Christian alternative to the sybaritic and sexualized displays of Lupercalia, romantic, marital love sanctified by the Church rather than unrestrained desires running amok in the streets. It seems that if this is actually the case, Pope Gelasius’ calculated decision actually worked, though Lupercalia has of late made its own kind of resurgence in the popular culture.

Ash Wednesday commemorates the beginning of the Church’s Lenten observance. Lent is a season of the Church’s year during which the faithful are to prepare themselves to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, mysteries which recount through acts of worship and prayerful devotion the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Preparation for Holy Week during Lent is threefold- prayer, fasting and almsgiving and to commemorate the beginning of these observances, the faithful receive ashes. In the United States the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful with a cross, creating one of the few moments in American public life when one’s identity as a Catholic is visibly displayed. In other parts of the world the ashes are sprinkled on the top of the head (which is a far gentler reminder, I suppose, than having the ashes thrown in one’s face).

The coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday has resulted in several dioceses publicizing directives that are intended to remind the faithful that the observances of Ash Wednesday take priority over the celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day. This would not likely not be necessary should the date of Ash Wednesday coincide with most any other saint. Why? Few saints have the resonance in the popular culture that St. Valentine does. Customs that promote feasting and reverie continue to be celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day. February 14th is a day reserved by the culture to celebrate romantic love and affection. These gestures are usually expressed through gifts or celebratory meals. The actual relationship of these customs to the martyr Valentine are lost for most, but he is one of the few remaining saints whose feast day still has some cultural traction. It is for this reason that there is the concern that the preference for the customs of St. Valentine’s Day might supplant the penitential character of Ash Wednesday. It is believed, that most would prefer a party and a box of chocolates to a penitential sermon and forehead full of ashes. We will know on St. Valentine’s Day, I mean Ash Wednesday, which preference prevails.

While the cultural celebration of Valentine’s Day seems contrary to the practices of Ash Wednesday, the commemoration of the witness of the martyr Valentine remains in sync with the beginning of Lent. A martyr gives witness to his faith in Christ through an act of self-sacrifice, that is, an act of love. Love is not, contrary to the many of the pretenses of the popular celebration of Valentine’s day, reducible to romantic affection. Instead, love which is authentic and true, always demands a sacrifice, the gift of one’s very life for the sake of one’s beloved. This is what is supposed to happen in Christian marriage, indeed in every Christian vocation, and it is what the martyr displays par excellence in their willingness to suffer and die rather than to deny or repudiate their love for Christ.

The practices of Lent, though low key in their sacrifice, have the same intentionality, they are sacrifices intended as expressions of love for Christ and appreciations for his own self-sacrifice for our sake. A martyr does not need the practices of Lent to prepare them to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, for in their suffering and death they embody these mysteries in their flesh and blood. Making up in their own bodies for what lacked in the sufferings of Christ, as St. Paul testified, the martyr reveals that Christ’s Body in the world, his mystical body in his Church, continues the revelation of the Incarnation itself. This witness is in sacrifice and in suffering.

This Incarnation of God in Christ does not merely manifest God’s glory in heaven, but such radiance is still on earth embodied in the glory of the Suffering Servant, who because there is no love in this world without sacrifice, revealed the extent of his love for his creation in the sacrifice of the cross. The martyr recapitulates this sacrifice and this love, revealing that God’s glory in his Church is manifested in the willingness of Christians to accept, that for the sake of their love for Christ, they are willing to become like him, suffering servants, for the sake of the world.  It is in this way that the witness of the martyr Saint Valentine and the commemoration of Ash Wednesday will always coincide.

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