Saturday after Ash Wednesday (February 13th, 2016)

In his Gospel, the Lord Jesus seeks friendship with a tax collector and then goes so far as to make this man his disciple, that is a public representative of Jesus himself.

The tax collector is so overjoyed by his friendship with the Lord and his new mission in life that he hosts an extravagant party, inviting his own friends to meet the Lord Jesus and share in his joy.

This is viewed with curiosity and contempt the Pharisees and scribes.

Why?

Tax collectors during the time of Christ’s revelation were not merely civil servants, but were considered to be collaborators with the foreign powers that ruled Israel. Remember, during the time of Christ, the Israelites were subjects of the Roman emperor, and as subjects, they were taxed. Many Israelites resented this taxation as much as the resented that their nation was ruled by Caesar. The Pharisees and scribes are expressing this resentment and the anger and contempt such resentment engenders. Christ, it seems to them, is currying favor with the enemies of the Israelites, when he should, if he was a true Israelite, shun tax collectors and refuse to associate with them.

Christ understands the situation differently.

Instead of shunning, Christ offers friendship, and this offer of friendship accomplishes what shunning the man never could- the man meets the Lord Jesus and discovers and receives from him a new way of life. Whereas the approach of the Pharisees and scribes left the tax collector to languish in his sins, Christ’s approach gives him the possibility of a second chance at life. A man imprisoned by a worldly system that dominates him and makes him a enemy of God, is set free to become God’s friend.

It is friendship with God in Christ that changes lives, and transforms those who are enemies of God into servants of God.

This is precisely the kind of transformation Christ can accomplish for us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this Sacrament, we present ourselves as sinners, as we all are, but what we receive from him is not a cold rebuke but the invitation to become again a friend of the Lord Jesus, and in this offer of grace, we receive the gift of another chance.

During the season of Lent, the Church asks that we prepare ourselves for the great events of Holy Week, events that are really an encounter with the Lord Jesus, by participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not a spiritual option for a pious few, but an ordinary practice of the Church’s way of life. All of us have sinned, either by what we have done or what we have failed to do, and all of us are soul sick and in need of the care of Christ, the Good Physician.

Christ’s care is offered to us in the Church, which really is, whether we understand it as such or not, what Pope Francis describes as a “field hospital” for the world. The Church is supposed to be a refuge and place of healing and hope for those who are wounded by sin, and it is in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that Christ acts through his priests to heal our sin-sick souls.

As I said, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not meant simply to be something extraordinary, but it is intended by Christ to be the ordinary practice of a disciple. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an integral practice of the Church’s way of life. During Lent we should not only call the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to mind, we should participate in it- we should do it. Why languish in feverish soul-sickness, when Christ the Good Physician is ready and willing to offer you healing and hope?

2.1-17_Wedding_feast_at_Cana_Johns_gospelJan_Vermeyen

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Wednesday of the First Week in Lent (February 25th, 2015)

The Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jonah is one of the most delightful books of the Bible and is best described as a combination of an action adventure, a comedy and some of the most intense theological reflection in all the Scriptures

The prophet Jonah was one of the most reluctant and successful of the Israelite prophets. Sent by God to preach repentance to the Ninevites, the mortal enemies of the Israelites, Jonah resists, going the exact opposite direction of where God wants him to go! Jonah’s sense of justice is that it would be best that God destroy the Ninevites and he would rather not have a part in a plan that might deliver them from God’s wrath.

God has his own plans for Jonah and the Ninevites, and today’s scripture illuminates in a radiant display that God is the great giver of second chances. He sends his prophets to preach repentance, not so that people will fear his destructive wrath, but so that they will know that God wants to save us- he wants to give each and every one of us another chance.

But is it a second chance that we want? There is an adage that is sadly, most of the time true- that we would rather be ruined than changed. Repentance means that we are willing to admit that we are wrong and that we have to live differently, act differently, think differently. This is hard, and many prefer the misery of a sin-filled status quo because the prospect of changing seems so difficult.

But the stakes are very high in our refusal to repent, our refusal to change. God’s wrath does not so much mean that he does something horrible to us to punish us, but rather that we are beset with the consequences of our refusal to repent, our refusal to change. These consequences are usually pretty grim- in our refusal to repent we impose upon ourselves heavy burdens that can crush our souls.

Lent is a privileged opportunity to repent and we should take this opportunity seriously. Waiting to repent until some other time or thinking oneself exempt is really quite dangerous. The opportunity to repent is now. We may not have this opportunity later. Then what?

Repentance is integral to being a disciple.

Repentance is not just a matter of thinking that one can be forgiven or feeling that one is guilty. Repentance happens for us in a Sacrament, a Sacrament called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This Sacrament is not a spiritual option invented by the Church, but it is a gift from the Lord Jesus himself. It is in this Sacrament that we receive ourselves what God proclaimed through Jonah and offered to the Ninevites- the mercy of God and the grace of another chance.

Few seem to have recourse to this Sacrament. Perhaps they seek another sign than the sign that Christ has given to us in the Sacraments of his Church. Many think that God’s grace can be invented out of inner experiences of ideas and feelings, but God’s grace does not come to us in this way- God’s grace comes to us in an encounter with Christ the Lord, who gives himself to us in the Sacraments so that we can know him and serve him. If we seek signs other than the Sacraments Christ has given us, then there is no more appropriate a Gospel passage for us (and any other generation that seeks for itself something other than what Christ offers to us so that we might repent and be saved) then today’s excerpt from the Gospel of Luke:

“At the judgment, the men of Ninevah will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah, they repented and there is something greater than Jonah here”.

Indeed, there is something greater than Jonah here- the divine life and presence of the Lord Jesus given to us in the Sacraments of his Church.

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Friday of the First Week of Advent (December 5th, 2014)

We learned from the prophet Isaiah yesterday that things for the Israelites had gone horrifically wrong. The Israelites had rejected the commandments of God and given themselves over to the worship of idols, and the result of this idolatry was a culture of selfishness and self-interest that brought about great injustice.

The poor turned to the elites of the Israelites for assistance and received little or no help at all. God was not indifferent to this situation and brought the Kingdom of David to an end.

The false gods the Israelites worshipped delivered the people into the hands of their enemies. The affluence and political connections that the Israelites had used to keep the demands of the commandments of God at bay were lost. The people now stood face to face with God and his judgment.

And God compelled the Israelites to see their truth, to reckon with consequences, not out of malice, but so that they could accept a second chance and begin anew.

This is what the prophet Isaiah insists is before the Israelites- a second chance and the opportunity to begin anew. This is what God’s mercy is about.

God is the great giver of another chance. His judgment arrives in our lives, not because he wants to destroy us, or harm us, but because he wants to rescue us from dark powers that have overtaken us, and once rescued, give us a new life that has been renewed and transformed by the power of his mercy.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of this renewal, this transformation, that will take place as the Israelites pass through the clarifying and purifying experience of God’s judgment.

The Christian knows this experience of mercy, of passing through the crucible of God’s judgment and towards renewal and transformation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. What the prophet Isaiah describes in poetic and visionary terms in today’s scripture is what the Lord Jesus delivers to his Church in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not, as Pope Francis insists, “a torture chamber”. It is deeply sad that for many that the Sacrament of Reconciliation became such an experience, one that emphasized sin, rather than forgiveness, and imparted guilt, rather than mercy.

But for others, the Sacrament has become not so much a torture chamber, but something trivial, a cheap form of spiritualized psycho-therapy, so innocuous that it has become irrelevant.

For the faithful Catholic, Christ the Lord gives himself to us in and through the Sacraments. The Sacraments are not cultural rites of passage or ethnic customs. The Sacraments are an encounter with the Lord Jesus himself.   The mercy of God in Christ is not an idea or feeling or an inner experience. The mercy of God in Christ is a Sacrament. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, imparts a real presence, a real experience of Jesus Christ. It is the same gift of mercy that Christ gave to blind men who in today’s Gospel cried out for his mercy.

We are all sinners and as such, no less afflicted by darkness than the blind men in today’s Gospel. They cried out for mercy, and mercy was given- and with this mercy they received a second chance, a new and grace filled opportunity.

The mercy of Christ is there for us to receive in the Church’s Sacraments.

If we truly understood our need we too would cry out to receive it.

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