Transfiguration and (Lenten) Growth

On the second Sunday in Lent we always read from one of the accounts of the Transfiguration (in Mark, Luke, or this year Matthew.) Glorious moment for Jesus; his full divinity on display in front of his disciples; reminder of the kind of transformation we will experience ourselves in the afterlife…All that true, but…

I can’t help, in my own struggle, but to see the struggle of the disciples. They do not get Jesus. They will, but not yet. By saying that he wants to build a tent for Jesus, along with one for Moses (representing the Law) and one for Elijah (representing the Prophets,) Peter tries to encapsulate Jesus in the framework, the categories, the “box” he knew. The voice of God interrupts Peter, that’s not it…Listen to him!

As we discuss Lenten growth, this gospel reminds me that growth only happens when we cross the line of our comfort zone; when we stretch the limits of our vital framework; when we do not try to limit our human experience—including the way we live faith—to the way we have been always doing it, the way in which we have been raised.

Any human progress in science, or any great work of art, or music, took for someone to cross the line of what was proper, or expected, or dictated, or traditional, or possible… to do, produce, make, paint, write, discover what seemed impossible.

Jesus witnesses his disciples’ struggle, but he touches them, and asks them to raise up, and tells them not to be afraid. All kinds of fear lurk behind our inability or lack of will to go beyond our own constructed frameworks. If we think and do what we have always thought and done, we will always stay where we are.

Growth is about facing fear and shattering the limits of our own framework, our comfort zone. It is uncovering the cover of the box in which we try to contain the incredible human experience.



Temptations and (Lenten) Growth

Lent has become a penitential season, but it was not always this way. Originally, Lent was a season to prepare the new catechumens willing to enter the community. It was designed as a season for growth, both for the candidates and for the community itself. With a new emphasis on the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, some of this meaning has been restored. Yes, we still reflect about our sinfulness, and we do penance… but the goal is growth. Thus, the title for the series we are preaching on Sundays and the theme of our FaithGroups.


This is the image we chose to illustrate the theme: an incipient plant trying to emerge through the rock. This is how our own growth feels, like a slow break-through surrounded by difficulties. We started the pilgrimage of Lent with a call to grow: “Grow, and believe in the Gospel,” and we come to the first Sunday in Lent, always with the gospel of the Temptations, reflecting on how it can inform our growth.

First thing to notice is the opening line of the Gospel: “Led by the Spirit.” The Temptations is a process wished by God for Jesus to experience. After the baptism and before beginning his public ministry, Jesus must experience the encounter with the Tempter, who will show him his areas of temptation. Why? Because Jesus needs to know who he is. All three temptations begin the same way: “If you are the Son of God…” thus becoming temptations of identity. Any growth can only begin by knowing who we are (a.k.a. self-awareness.) Growth can only start by knowing where we are as we start the journey.

The gospel then unfolds the three temptations of Christ. One is clearly about power. Jesus could have fallen into the temptation of becoming a powerful political Messiah. He is tempted also in breaking the commandment not to test God, by living life testing God’s love for him—as we do often when we test God’s love or others’ love for us. Traditionally, we have called the opposite attitude as “Fear of God” (which does not mean being afraid, as you know.) In the third temptation, Jesus could have turned the stone into bread, to use his power to serve himself, to attend to his own need. Certainly, a powerful temptation in our own lives. (I always believed that for a priest, this temptation translates into our tendency to say and do what people want instead of what people need…)

If we want to take on the possibility of growth, we need to know who we are, and reflect on what are the temptations that hinder our own growth. Some temptations are clear, others are much subtler, so much more difficult to identify and correct. I recognize as temptations my pessimism, my negativity, my lack of patience, my need for immediate results…among many others. What about you? What temptations do you feel are at work in your life? Lent is a time to discover them and grapple with them, the way Jesus did in the desert.

Lastly, and unfortunately this did not make it to the homily, there is good news at the end of the gospel. Jesus, it says, was ministered (helped!) by angels. We, too, are not alone in this difficult process: God will send angels to help us; there are plenty, all around us, all the time.

Below is the image we used for the screens in church to illustrate the gospel. I was captivated by its simplicity and beauty. Perhaps it can help you as we continue our Lenten prayer.

The Temptations


An Ash Wednesday To Grow

We started Lent with the beautiful celebration of Ash Wednesday. At Sacred Heart, we are beginning a preaching and FaithGroup series: Lenten Growth. Growth is a journey, as Lent is a journey, and Ash Wednesday is our sign-up.

The words, “Repent and believe in the gospel,” are said while a cross of ash is drawn on our foreheads. The ashes represent our final destiny as physical beings—dust to dust—and the cross is our ultimate destiny as followers of Christ.

But where we say “repent” (translating the Greek word metanoia) we should say “change” as in experience transformation, conversion. This year we want to suggest that we could very well say—Grow! Lent is an excellent opportunity, an “acceptable time” to intentionally generate growth, both in our lives, in general, and in our lives of faith.

A lot will be reflected upon in the next Sundays, but the gospel tonight, which we read every Ash Wednesday and is part of the Sermon on the Mount we have been reading the last five Sundays, lays down the three traditional observances of Lent. We can look at them as a way to generate intentional growth. Jesus speaks about prayer, about fasting and about almsgiving.

We do many kinds of prayers, but the prayer in tonight’s gospel, the prayer of Lent, should be a silent prayer—one we incorporate into our lives as a way to grow into our relationship with God. It is a prayer that becomes a dialogue. Establish a habit of finding 10-15 minutes to pray in silence.

Fasting is, technically, a very easy demand: we only do it twice a year (Ash Wednesday, Good Friday) and really, one meal and two snacks adding up to a meal do not make it impossible to do. Fasting is there as a symbol of our intention to grow in needing less than we think. Fasting has been adapted in modern times into something we give up for Lent. I believe it works as a sign of something deeper we want to accomplish. But really, if you asked someone who loves you what you should give up, they would not say chocolate, or coffee… They would love you by telling you something in terms of behavior.

So yes, give something up materially and give the money to the poor to fulfill the third observance, almsgiving, growing in our generosity and care for the most neglected. But give up also something in terms of attitude or behavior. Grow by avoiding that attitude.

We came up with a list of behaviors, 25 of them. Maybe you can go through the list here and see if you want to work on any of these behaviors that may have a negative effect in your life. Perhaps we can show it to the person who is helping you to find what to give up.

Do Lent: Grow, and believe in the Gospel.

One Sunday Before Lent…

On the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, with the beginning of Lent on the horizon, we read another section from the Sermon on the Mount. We have been reading from this sermon since the last Sunday in January, and it is the first time we skip materials. For instance, we have skipped the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, or the passage of the sermon that is used for Ash Wednesday (the one about prayer, fasting and almsgiving.)

Jesus still teaches his disciples. What we hear today is very specific advice, one that could apply to anybody of any time in history. In short, do not let greed rule your life, and do not worry.

The famous line, “No one can serve both God and Mammon,” has been made a reflection about money. Rather than against money, Jesus is advising against the deity of greed–Mammon. Money is neutral, neither good nor bad; it is about what we do with it, and whether we let it run our lives. Jesus warns us against our natural tendency to accumulate. We can live with less, and it is not only good morally but also it is actually good for us. We do not need as much as we think we need.

Many people think that they would be happier only if we would make a bit more money, or if we would get a bigger house, or a nicer car. But studies show that once we have reached a certain wealth, we enter into a vicious cycle: we get more, we need more. The minute our power of acquisition grows, our perceived standard of happiness also gets higher.

Connected with this, Jesus also speaks about worry. However, it is important to realize that Jesus is not a “flower child.” He is not just telling us, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Jesus does not deny there are things that are worrisome, serious difficulties that could consume us. He just tells us that worry does not do anything to solve whatever difficult issues we are facing.

According to the dictionary, worry is to give way to unease, to play out in our minds future difficult scenarios. I suggest three remedies against worry, three things we could do instead of worrying.

We can pray: Worry is really a conversation with oneself about things we have no control over, whereas, prayer is a conversation with God about things God controls already.

We can share: I can find someone to talk to about things I would worry about. It can just be venting, or maybe the other person can give me a new perspective. We tend to bottle things up and isolate ourselves when we experience bad news or any kind of difficulty.

And we can take it one day at a time: We worry because we think about a past that is not there anymore and cannot be changed, or about a future that is not here yet…when Jesus is a carpe diem kind of guy. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask for our daily bread, not the bread of next week or the following year. As the gospel states, “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.”



More from the Mount

For the last two Sundays we have continued reading from the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes and their contrast with the Commandments are the framework to understand the five practical applications that Jesus offers to his disciples (of then and now.) These applications are a warning against the legalistic approach in matters of faith -especially in how it affects relationships.

From the gospel of the 6th Sunday in Ordinary time, we got:

  • Do not swear (in the sense of making an oath): We do not need a rule to tell us that anything that comes out of our mouths should be the truth.
  • Using the example of adultery, Jesus tells us not to focus on the ultimate commission of an evil act. Jesus looks at the intention, at what is in our hearts and minds well before the evil act is committed. It is a focus on what in classic moral theology we have always called the “near occasion of sin.” Also, we do admit at every Mass that we may have sinned “in our thoughts.”
  • The “You shall not kill” of the Commandments is a very low standard. Most of us are not in the habit of killing people. But we are in the habit of harboring negative thoughts about people.

From the gospel of the 7th Sunday in Ordinary time we got two more practical applications:

  • No more “eye for an eye”: A cancellation of a legal principle, prominent in ancient societies, including Jesus’, that when you were a victim of an offense, you were justified in replying with the same amount of violence. It is known as the Law of the Talion, from the Latin talio which means equal—the origin of the English word retaliation.
  • And lastly, perhaps the most original challenge issued by Jesus, love the enemy. We are asked not only to love the neighbor, the stranger, the foreigner, the poor…but also those who are our “enemies.”

Let us say a bit more about that one. It begs the question: Do you have enemies? We struggle with the question, don’t we? Enemy is a strong word. But it has also been said that perhaps we do not have enemies because we do not stand up for anything, we do not take sides for anybody (of course, there is a Churchill’s that says just that.) We are very polite and we prefer peace at any price (even if the price may be too high sometimes.) Jesus had enemies. If the word is still too hard, try “difficult people.” We all recognize difficult people in our lives.

If nothing else is possible, at least pray for them (I read this week that Jesus does not say that we have to like the enemy, just love them.) Do not harbor evil thoughts against anybody, as it simply not good for you. But perhaps, in some cases, something else can be done. Perhaps we can still reach out to the person in the past who became an enemy, a difficult person, who may not even be part of our lives anymore. Perhaps some relationships can be restored. Perhaps the issue that broke up a relationship has become a petty thing of years past and it is time to reconcile. It is not always possible, but sometimes it may be.

Do you know about Fr. Ricardo’s podcast with Fr. Phillip Bogacki? Give it a listen, on the Archdiocese of Milwaukee website or iTunes.


Salt and Light

This Sunday we read the second installment of the Sermon on the Mount. Between the first section, the Beatitudes, and specific applications of these new commandments, Jesus first asks his disciples to be “salt” and to be “light” in the world. This is both a wonderful encouragement and a demanding challenge. It is another reminder that we can’t just be disciples of a passive law, but disciples who actively attempt to transform the world.

The gospel is paired with an amazing first reading from the prophet Isaiah, who was the “go-to” prophet for Jesus, and the foundation of his preaching. Isaiah reminds us how to be the salt and the light in the world: “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own… If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”

I suppose no one would deny these are interesting times, difficult to navigate. This first reading becomes a compass to give us direction—regardless of our political or ideological leanings. Peace and security are everyone’s concern. The quote from Isaiah brings to mind another from a modern prophet. Pope Paul VI said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” It is the demanding unpacking of the Beatitude that calls disciples to be peacemakers who are hungry and thirsty for justice.

Discipleship 101: The Beatitudes

The gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time is the famous passage of the Beatitudes from Matthew (the gospel we read in the Lectionary’s cycle A.) It is the first section of the Sermon on the Mount. Excerpts of the Sermon will be read at Mass from this weekend up until Lent. It is Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.

Jesus goes up the mountain, the way Moses went up the mountain of Sinai and received the tablets of the Law (Exodus 24:15.) Matthew has thrown a clue for us to realize that Jesus is doing what Moses did and is giving us a new law, the Beatitudes.

The Commandments are mainly passive rules, prohibitions, “do nots” whereas the Beatitudes are active laws, “do’s.” The Commandments were given to a primitive people, wandering shepherds, and its main purpose was to keep the peace in the collective. Jesus is not telling us to break the Commandments, but fulfilling them is not enough for those who want to be his disciples. I can sit on a chair the whole day, I would not break a single Commandment, but I would really not be a good disciple of Jesus. Fulfilling the Commandments produces decent citizens; living according to the Beatitudes produces saints.

However, the teaching of the Beatitudes has not permeated enough. We are still often Christians of the Commandments. People often come to confession and go through the Ten Commandments—with a great sight of relief from the confessor when we are told the person has not killed anybody. Can you imagine what a confession based on the Beatitudes would look like?

We have the four more Sundays to continue reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, with specific examples Jesus will give on what a disciple of his needs to do. For now, we review the list of the Beatitudes—in an attempt to write them in “commandment” language and offering a bit of an explanation when need it:

  • Be poor in Spirit: poor in self-centeredness and in our tendency to accumulate.
  • Mourn with those who mourn: be compassionate, make the suffering of others yours.
  • Be meek: as open and disposed to accepting the will of God.
  • Be hungry and thirsty for Justice.
  • Be merciful.
  • Be clean of heart: be clear, transparent, solid.
  • Be a peacemaker.
  • Accept persecution: accept the unpopularity of those who stand up for Justice.

The Beatitudes are also a promise. Jesus tells us in this gospel what will happen if we live according to the Beatitudes: we will see God; we will experience the Kingdom; we will be called Children of God; we will inherit the land, we will be comforted, and the measure of our mercy will be measured on our own sins. Scholars would point that the “Blessed are” used in this translation could also be translated as “Happy are.” On top of everything else, Jesus is telling us that living the Beatitudes is not a painful sacrifice, but something that will makes us happy–just in case seeing God was not enough (wink added.)