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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Monday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time (October 13th, 2014)

Last week, the Church presented as the first scripture readings for daily Mass select excerpts from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

The Letter to the Galatians is about the Church, particularly the identity and mission of the Church, and the Apostle Paul testifies that it is best to understand the identity and mission of the Church as the new Israel- an Israel that has been transformed by Christ.

The mission of the new Israel (the Church) is to invite all the nations and peoples of the world to know the one, true God and to share communion with his divine life.

Saint Paul’s testimony might not seem all that controversial to us, but during his lifetime, the identity and mission of the Church as the new Israel was a vexing matter. If the Church was the new Israel, what about the “old” Israel? What was to become of the time honored customs and traditions of the Israelites? What was the place of the Law of Moses in the life of the new Israel? And perhaps most vexing was what did a Gentile, someone not born as an Israelite, have to do to become a full participant in the new Israel?

St. Paul is attempting to offer some clarity in regards to an article of the Apostolic Faith that has become controversial. But not only that, he is issuing a warning- and the warning is that there is no going back to the Israel before Christ. The revelation of Christ has changed Israel’s way of life forever. Nostalgia for way Israel was before Christ leads only to a dead end. Christ is God, and God has made Israel new. Christ does not propose a new school of thought in regards to Israel in the manner that the great rabbis and teacher of Israel did, but Christ who is God who brings to fulfillment the old Israel and transforms Israel into something new.

There is for St. Paul no middle ground to stand on between the old Israel and the new Israel. Everyone, whether or not they identify with the old Israel or new Israel, whether or not they are Jew or Gentile, are now, because of Christ, standing in the new Israel.

In today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul uses employs biblical imagery from the Old Testament to make this point. If out of nostalgia, an Israelite who has come to accept Christ as Lord and Savior, resists the transformation of Israel in terms of its identity and mission, then the Law of Moses along with all the customs and traditions of the Israelites, will become a burden for themselves and for others, especially for the Gentiles.

This is not what Christ intends. The purpose of the new Israel is to introduce people to Christ, not propagate the Israelite way of life as it was before Christ’s revelation.

The historical particularities of this controversy do not press upon us with much urgency, but the identity and mission of the Church does.

We live in an era where, for many of the baptized, the identity and mission of the Church, if not unknown or unintelligible, has been reduced to our opinions or thought of in terms of how the Church can gratify our immediate needs.

The Church is here to be what I want it to be when I need it and to provide sanction to those goals towards which I aspire.

In other words, it is not Christ’s Church that we know or want, but a Church that we make up for ourselves.

A Church that is not Christ’s is a fake, it can only be a counterfeit- no matter how successful or popular, it cannot be or do what Christ intends.

There have been two variations of this counterfeit Church in recent memory, one that conceived of the Church as a nationalist or ethnic identity and one that conceived of the Church as a secular corporation. Both are expressions of what many people want from the Church, but they have little or anything to do with what Christ intends for his Church to be and do. If the baptized go the way of nationalism or corporation in terms of the Church, they will arrive at a dead end.

The baptized cannot know their identity and fulfill their mission is they do not first accept from Christ the identity and mission of the Church.

Christ the Lord speaks about the mysterious “sign of Jonah” through which the wisdom and power of God will be manifested to the world. The truth of this sign will represent God’s judgment, that is, the revelation of God’s Truth.

What is this mysterious “sign of Jonah”?

The “sign of Jonah” is the totality of the Paschal Mystery, which culminates in the resurrection of the Lord. It is in this Mystery that the wisdom and power of God are revealed.

But in addition to this, the “sign of Jonah” will be revealed in peoples and nations who come to know the one, true God in Christ. It will be these multitudes that, who hearing of the revelation of God in Christ and accepting him for who he reveals himself to be, manifest to the world the “sign of Jonah”.

The “sign of Jonah” is repentance and conversion to Christ.

Are we the living representatives of the “sign of Jonah” in the world?

If not, what “sign” do we reveal?

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Wednesday of the First Week in Lent (March 12, 2014)

The Book of the Prophet Jonah is a comical, action adventure tale with a serious message about what God wants for the sinner.  Many think that God wants to destroy the sinner and prophets are sent to remind folks of the inescapable hell fire that is coming.

The Book of the Prophet Jonah has a different message in mind.

For those of you who are familiar with the Book of the Prophet Jonah, you will remember that Jonah is the most reluctant prophet in the history of Israel.  Called by God to preach repentance to the enemies of Israel, he cuts and runs, literally running in the opposite direction of where God wants him to go.

When God intervenes and gets Jonah where he needs him to be, the reluctant prophet scarcely whispers his message of repentance and becomes the most successful prophet ever- not only do the people repent, but every living creature in the city.

The message?  The lesson?  What God desires most of all is the restoration of the sinner, not their destruction, and further, that God is willing to forgive even those we might deem least worthy of forgiveness.

Jonah finds this lesson hard to take.  We shouldn’t simply pay lip service to this biblical insight.  It’s tough stuff, especially when those who are on the receiving end of God’s forgiveness are those who have hurt us.

God’s willingness to forgive and his desire to restore the sinner is precisely what the Lord Jesus himself is making reference to in his Gospel.

What is the sign of Jonah?  It is the sign that is revealed in the aftermath of the cross, whereas God manifests the intensity of his desire to restore sinners in his willingness to insert himself into the depths of the consequences of our sins- but also more than this, to forgive what is essentially unforgiveable.  The cross is not just a quaint symbol of a faith based non-for-profit- it is a creation of humanity’s cruelty which we impose not only on each other, but on God.

In response to this, God acts and this is where the sign of the cross becomes so surprising.  What was deserved because of the cross is not what is delivered.  Instead God acts through the cross to reveal just how willing he is to forgive us.

The cross does not render repentance unnecessary, but intensifies the experience.  God is willing to receive us, to forgive us, to go to the absolute limit to set things right.  Why do we resist?  Our resistance only makes things difficult for ourselves, not for God, who has demonstrated on the cross that his power far exceeds any of the means we might employ to resist him- even a means as cruel and sinister as nailing him to a cross!

In Christ, many who were considered to be unforgiveable or unworthy are set in right relationship with God and offered a share in his divine life.  The boundaries that were set for membership in Israel were opened and the Gentiles came in and were claimed by Christ as his people.  This shocked and surprised.  We are the beneficiaries of this gift.  And the gift is the “sign of Jonah” that Christ refers to in his Gospel.

All this was made possible by repentance, a willingness to accept that we needed to be set right, a humble acknowledgement of what we have done and failed to do, an acceptance that one’s life would henceforth be different and we would live in a new and different way.

This happens concretely for us in the Sacrament of Penance, in which we repent, receive the forgiveness of Christ and are restored in relationship to God and his Church.  The Sacrament of Penance is a privileged moment of participation in the mystery of the Cross.

Unfortunately, too many of us have become as reluctant to receive that Sacrament of Penance as Jonah was to receive his mission.  And it is for this reason that for so many of us the “sign of cross” remains opaque and our understanding of it’s meaning unclear.  Like Jonah, we refuse what God wants us to receive.

We cannot see the sign of the cross and understand its meaning if we are unwilling ourselves to receive it.Image