From Good to Great (i.e., Holy)

The gospel in the third week of Advent finds John the Baptist in prison sending his disciples to check on Jesus. They question him: Are you the one? Are you the Messiah we have been waiting for? Jesus did not answer saying yes, rather he just showed them what he was doing: “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Interesting way of responding to John, as he had preached—as we read last Sunday—that Jesus’ baptism was going to be one of mission. What we ‘do’ is who we ‘are.’ So, again, it is about mission, and individuals and communities will have to discern whether or not we are preaching good news to the poor and who are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead in their context.

The gospel in the fourth week of Advent takes us to Matthew’s take on what we call the “infancy narratives.” Only Matthew and Luke have anything on Jesus’ infancy. Luke’s stories and imagery have become the more popular ones—shepherds, stars, etc.—but I find Matthew’s take as compelling, and perhaps more theologically compelling. If Mary provides the “human facilitator” in Luke, Joseph plays that role in Matthew. This gospel shows the incredible transformation Joseph goes through.

When Mary is found with child, Joseph had three options—clearly delineated in the gospel. The first option was to do what was expected of him, and he would have been totally justified by the Law: repudiate Mary, divorce her publicly, with public shame (and worse) for this young woman. Joseph had a second option, which he intended to follow. Joseph was righteous, but a good person, so he had already decided to divorce Mary quietly. This second option is better than the first, but certainly not yet enough for God’s plan to take place. But it is because he was a good person that God can intervene to transform Joseph’s goodness into holiness. From righteous, to “good,” to holy—and to be holy, to take the holy choice is Joseph’s call and actually ours, too.

Let me tell you that while I was thinking about this in preparation for the weekend I received Archbishop Listecki’s Christmas gift—which is always a book. I am not special, he sends a book to all the priests of the Archdiocese. If a priest of the Archdiocese publishes a book during the year, that will be the book he will gift to us. He sent a great one this time around. The book is about preaching, written by my preacher teacher at the Seminary, Fr. Joseph Juknialis. In the book, he identifies nine ingredients that should be present in any homily, and each element becomes a chapter. Chapter nine connects with what we were discussing above: The preacher assumes the congregation is made up of good people. I agree, but as we see in this gospel, good does not cut it. As Fr. Juknialis also says, the preacher’s job is to help good people (including self) into becoming (or at least trying to become) holy.

We all can look at the decisions we are presented with in our lives and identify the three options. The one that counts on society’s blessings, the one that keep us afloat but sinks someone else, the “righteous” choice. Then we can identify the “good” option: it is not a bad one, it does some good, it does not hurt anybody, it actually helps someone, but it may not really solve a problem. With prayer, and allowing God’s intervention, we may also identify the “holy” option. For instance, our relationship with the poor. The first option, ignore them or even chastise them and shame them. The second option, some nice gesture, perhaps a donation—you see? Not bad, it is a nice gesture, many of us do that during the year, especially these days. But obviously, the holy option is also there—and it would take much more effort. The same pattern could be applied to choices on raising children, dealing with a spouse, stewardship, etc.

God short-circuited Joseph’s decision-making process through a dream. God wants to do that for us, too. He will help us—through a prayer that listens, through events, through people—to go from good to great, from good to holy. He will come to us, as He did on the first Christmas as a Child.

blog-pic-christmas

 

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Ending a year, Adventing a new one.

We are still playing catch-up with this blog. The following reflection covers the last three Sundays—two pertaining to the end of the past liturgical year and the last one marking the beginning of a new Advent.

Because it was the second to last Sunday of the year, the Lectionary offered a gospel about the end of times. Jesus predicts the fall of the Temple and announces future persecution against his disciples (a footnote: this text was written after the fall of the Temple and when the persecutions of Christians had already started, but I believe Jesus foresaw these two events to happen.) The Temple, with its grandiosity, was a symbol of stability for the Jewish world and its destruction is comparable to the 9/11 attack on all the symbols of the American way of life.

Jesus tells his disciples that times of struggle are opportunities to stick even firmer to his teachings, to the values he espoused and not the other way around. Times of struggle question our values, our faith, our generosity, our openness to the stranger, our trust in God and others. Jesus tells us that when we feel our world is coming to an end—we lose our job, or somebody quits on us, or we experience the death of a loved one, or we receive a serious medical diagnosis—is precisely when we have to stick harder to our values. Jesus calls them “opportunities to give testimony” to what we believe in “normal” circumstances.

On the last Sunday of the year we celebrated the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Calling Jesus “king” may sound strange to our modern, democratic, American ears—as well as being in contradiction with the teaching of the same Jesus on earthly power. While the establishment of the solemnity has a historical explanation—Pius XI established the solemnity in 1925, in response to growing secularity and social unrest in Europe—the gospel that we read this Sunday reminds us that Jesus is King, but his throne is the Cross. From the Cross, Jesus continues dispensing forgiveness and the promise of paradise.

Then we began a new Advent. I do not know about you, but I look at the month ahead with a lot of trepidation. I love Advent and I love the liturgical seasons. While we try to live our lives according to the rhythm of the seasons, Advent is the time of the year where the liturgical time is set in clear contrast with what ends up happening in our lives. While the Church tells us of a time of prayerful preparation, we find ourselves immersed in all kinds of—may we say—stressful situations: Christmas gatherings—with the temptation to over-eat and over-drink—gift shopping, decorations, Christmas concerts, writing Christmas cards, etc. As much as we may enjoy some or all of these activities, they are simply not very conducive for the kind of slowing down that Christmas preparation requires, and they can bring a lot of stress to our lives.

Maybe you are satisfied with your past Advents, but even if that is the case, I suppose we all can do better. If we just do what we have always done, our Christmas preparation will be the same. As we begin a new Advent, I propose to you that we are more intentional about “adventing.” Namely, that we spend some time during this first week of Advent to take a look at what we are going to do, or not do, instead of just letting ourselves “go-with-the-flow,” follow the drift of anticipated Christmas. As individuals or as families, we should pause and decide what our Advent strategy is going to be. Mine? I want to find a regular time for silent prayer every day, and I plan to cut down on the number of social activities in which I am going to engage—making sure I am totally present at those I decide to go.

Tears of Joy (11th Sunday in OT)

The blog has been dormant for a while. It seems to happen every year after Holy Week. I have been thinking about writing back each and every week since Easter, but I have not done it until now. My apologies, and I sincerely hope that we keep it moving regularly from now on.

We resume the gospel with our comments about a text that may be one of the most intense stories we will ever hear at Mass. This woman with a terrible reputation anoints Jesus, and Simon, the Pharisee, has a strong opinion about it. She is called traditionally the “Sinful Woman.” Why not the “Forgiven Woman”? or, even better, the “Anointing Woman”?

What caught my attention in reading this scene, one that we have all read so many times, is that the woman is crying from the beginning of the scene. She is later forgiven by Jesus, but she cries well before that. I wonder, what kind of tears is she shedding? I don’t think she is sad. Rather, she cries out of deeply felt joy. She has heard about Jesus, she has heard him preaching, teaching about forgiveness, and about every day being a new day…and she cries because she already knows she has been forgiven. She has been given the possibility of a new beginning. She is happy, filled with joy-unlike the artistic renditions of this scene which have her looking terribly sad.

In intentional contrast with the forgiven woman, we have the judging Pharisee whose name, of all possible names, is Simon. He thinks highly of himself, from on that high position he feels he has the moral authority to judge the woman and even Jesus. Jesus comes to tell him that when we judge, when we feel we are without reproach, then we do not experience God’s forgiveness, and without that experience, we cannot love. When Jesus asks Simon, do you see this woman? No, Simon did not see her.

The more we have been forgiven, the more we have experienced God’s love, and the more we can then love others. The woman understands and begins to experience the unconditional love of God, a love that now she can convey to others-a love that makes her a disciple. Did you see how she washed Jesus’ feet? Does this gesture sound familiar? Isn’t this what Jesus asked his disciples to do in John’s gospel rendering of the Last Supper?

But we already knew the woman was a disciple because (exegetical alert!) the text had told us, in a strange way for our modern ears, that “she stood behind him at his feet weeping.” The one who is behind–follows. The one who follows is a disciple. The woman anoints Jesus but also washes his feet, as we have seen. At the end of the gospel we read this Sunday, Luke marks a new stage by telling us that Jesus begins to journey with the Twelve, and the Women. Only about the women Luke says that they “had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities” and supported his ministry. Nothing about the men. And yes, you could think there was nothing to heal in the men. You would be wrong.

Blog Pic, the Forgiven Woman

 

God Will Open a Way in the Desert of My Sinfulness

The gospel for the fifth and last Sunday in Lent narrates the scene of the woman caught in adultery. The text indicates that the Pharisees were “testing” Jesus. It is a test because there is no easy way out: Jesus either sides with obeying Mosaic Law and the woman will be executed cruelly, or he will stop the execution, breaking the Law and getting himself arrested. It seems the Pharisees loved to corner Jesus in these kinds of dilemmas often—the one about the taxes to Caesar comes to mind. Interestingly, the prescribed punishment (death penalty) is worse than the accusation (adultery.) Also, we wonder where the adulterous man is, as it takes two to commit adultery. Once again, Jesus’ keen eye for human nature finds him a way to elude the dilemma.

Jesus knew about human nature. He knew that we all have sinned, we all have failed, we all have hurt people and we all have done things in the past that we now regret. Thus, the older the person was, the faster he dropped the stone and hurried out of the scene. Jesus did not deny there was a sin—he tells the woman “not to sin anymore.” He simply made people see that once we look honestly at our own lives we may realize we have no right to judge and punish others.

As we conclude our Lent, this gospel invites us to do just that: avoid judging, by examining our own sinfulness, by taking stock of our own lives and realizing that we have no right to judge others. The reading of this gospel reminded me of Pope Francis when he was asked about homosexuals in the Church. He simply replied, “Who am I to judge?” This answer would have shown anybody’s humility, but it is especially amazing when it is said by someone with the Holy Father’s power and influence over millions of individuals.

The sooner I realize my own sinfulness, the sooner I can begin to experience God’s Mercy in my life. The sooner I stop judging and condemning others, the sooner I can begin to experience the God described in the Old Testament reading, the Lord “who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters… who remembers not the events of the past, the things of long ago considers not…” The Lord who says, “I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers. I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself.”

The sooner I cease judgment of others, the sooner I let God open a way in the desert of my sinfulness.

The Temptations: Our Starting Point for Change

We continue the journey of Lent that we started on Ash Wednesday, and we begin to figure out how to go about fulfilling the invitation to a “metanoia,” the invitation to change we received as a cross of ashes was being stamped on our foreheads. In any of the three years of the Lectionary, on the First Sunday in Lent we read the gospel of the Temptations. If change is a process, the Temptations is a great place to start.

The first thing we need to do is to realize that while the term temptation may have negative connotations for us, the text indicates that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert. God wanted His Son to go through this experience, this test. After the baptism of identity, Jesus goes through three temptations that are also about identity. The devil will begin each charge by asking, “If you are the Son of God…” We may find many different interpretations out there for the specific meaning of each temptation, but I have come to understand them as three variations of the temptation of the Self, which we all experience in our lives.

The first temptation, to turn stones into bread refers to Jesus’ temptation to use his power to satisfy his own hunger, his own needs. The second temptation—the one in the middle, so the most important one is also the easiest to interpret: Jesus could have become a powerful, political Messiah, someone who would have subjects instead of disciples. The third temptation is about testing God. Perhaps the most difficult one to understand, but we can think about the ways in which we often test the love others have for us. (After preaching this Sunday, I also thought that the third temptation could also be about being served—angels will come to serve you—instead of serving others, which is at the core of the identity of the Son of God.

The gospel is an invitation to begin our process of change by identifying our own temptations to our core identity as followers of Christ. Our temptations are really opportunities to grow. I propose that the most common temptation that we all have, and may be behind any other temptation, is also the temptation of the Self. How often we place ourselves and our own needs in the center of our universe, thus not giving room to God and to others.

We preached last year that the Lenten observance of fasting is a remedy against the temptation of the Self, the temptation to live as if others did not exist. If we are by the book, we only have to fast two days during Lent (and if you are older than 59, not even that.) We have also said that what we give up during Lent is a cultural modern adaptation of the observance of fasting. Still, I believe there is an invitation there to take up fasting more deeply. We have said so many times that these things are symbols of something deeper that we forget to practice the symbol and go straight to the “meaning.”

There is an obvious connection between body and soul. Fasting—which comes precisely from the gospel we read today—is about emptying ourselves so we make room for God, and for others and their needs. Fasting of so much Self may be the place to start to change.

Metanoia SHC 2016

 

Metanoia 2.0

Ash Wednesday inaugurates a new season of Lent. As we suggested in the last post, we need a revolution of substance. Lent can become an anecdote, a missed opportunity, if we do not become very intentional about it. The forty days of Lent are an invitation to change.

Last year we began each and every homily during Lent reflecting on what we think is a bad translation. When Jesus calls us to “metanoia” he is not only calling us to “repent” (as we will hear when a cross of ashes is drawn on our foreheads), but also to change. Metanoia means change, change of heart, conversion (if you prefer a more religious language.) Repentance seems to be only one step in the process of change, and it connects directly with sin when we may be asked to change things that are not necessarily sinful. Repentance also seems to reflect about the past, a past action, and change is a reference to a hopeful future.

Change is difficult, we know. It is especially difficult if we do not count on God’s grace and we only trust our human power. To help us further, the Church gives us the three Lenten observances. They are wonderful tools to begin and develop our own metanoia. They come directly from the gospel that we read today: prayer, fasting, and giving. We need to be intentional about these three practices if we want them to be fruitful.

The kind of prayer described in the gospel today is a silent, individual prayer. It is not a prayer of intercession, when we ask for something; or a prayer based on formulas that we all know. It is a prayer of quieting ourselves and our minds to be able to listen to what God is trying to communicate to us. We will have to be intentional about it, find a time and a place, and enter into a rhythm during the season.

Fasting is a symbol of an attitude, and out of the three observances, the one we may misunderstand the most. Fasting begins with the realization that we do not need that much, that we have to empty ourselves of the obsession with the self and our perceived needs. If we are just about the dry observance of the rule, fasting only applies to two days during the season: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But fasting applies to the whole season. We need less of everything. We need a radical emptying of our own needs, so we make room for God and others. (Of the three observances, fasting is the one that fascinates me the most at this time. I want to research more about it, and I think it will be the theme of one of the Sunday homilies in Lent.)

Fasting in modern times has been adapted into some “Lenten give-up.” It may be good, especially if we see it just as a symbol of a deeper change (I read some place that Lent should be less about giving up and more about giving out!) It is certainly not about “giving up something and then patting ourselves on the back for our self-control” (as my friend Fr. Carl put it.)

Lent, and the change that Lent invites us to initiate is much more than giving up chocolate or sweets. As we have said in previous years, ask someone who loves you what you should really give up. I guarantee you they will not say chocolate.

Fasting is connected with the last Lenten observance. The origin of (alms)giving is that we save money with what we give up in material terms (the chocolate, for instance) and then we give this money to the poor. So our giving up is not self-serving; our sacrifice does improve someone else beyond ourselves. There is a lot of change needed in the way we consider and treat the poor, and we may be far from trusting God’s promise that when we give sacrificially we receive all kinds of blessings. We need change in the way we give, also—and more about that during Lent.

A cross of ashes will be stamped on our foreheads as a sign of our willingness to enter into this season of transformation. We prepare ourselves for the upcoming celebration of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, by praying for God’s grace to transform us into individuals more like the Jesus who lived and died for us. Happy Lent!!

Metanoia SHC 2016

 

Tension brewing in the Synagogue

As we said last week, the gospel today narrates the second part of the scene of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. It is not difficult to feel the tension that built up last week, which continues today. It builds up so much that those in the synagogue decided to kill Jesus. There is a glitch in the text which is not helpful. How can the people in the synagogue speak highly of him and the gracious words that were coming out of his mouth? It is simply one of the most gross translation mistakes in the New Testament. People are annoyed, disappointed, upset with Jesus, and the feeling does not change through the whole interaction.

Why are they upset? I suggest three reasons. The first reason is the one we discussed last weekend. Jesus has chosen a passage in Isaiah that describes the Messiah. He has read a text that describes who he is and what his mission is going to be about. The people in the synagogue expect another kind of Messiah, one that would liberate the people of Israel from the yoke of the foreign enemy.

They are also upset because these people know perfectly well that Jesus has cut Isaiah’s citation one line short. Jesus has read about the “year of favor” from God, but has intentionally decided to omit the next line, which reads “and a day of vindication by our God.” Jesus’s God is not one of political vindication. Conversely, many churchpeople still may be more comfortable today with the God of vindication than with the God of favor.

Finally, and that’s the core of this Sunday’s gospel, the people who are quite annoyed already recriminate Jesus for having done miracles in other places and not in Nazareth. Jesus replies by giving them two examples of situations in the history of Israel when God showed favor to the foreign—in a religious system that called the foreigner “impure” and forbid any interaction with them.

Now that we have done “exegesis” (studying the meaning of the text for the intended audience) how do we apply the lesson of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth to our lives? I suggest three applications. The first one is what we already preached last Sunday. We need to reflect whether or not as church, faith communities, families and individuals who call themselves “Christian” we are living faith according to Jesus’s mission statement: again, do we feel anointed? Do we bring good tidings to the poor with the actions we undertake inspired by our faith? Do we help to relieve captivity, in the many ways in which it presents itself in our lives?

Second, this reference to the “stranger” should make us reflect about the make-up of our faith communities. Do we welcome the stranger, the different? But I also believe it is an invitation to us to expand the limits of those we love and care for. Jesus may just be asking us to do with others (the stranger, even the enemy) what most of us do with members of our families and close friends.

Third and perhaps the most provocative: Jesus provokes conflict. He did not shy away from confronting the people in the synagogue. Our churches (the only “business” I feel a bit authorized to talk about) often become places where we simply pat people on the back. For instance, a pastor will be more popular if he preaches what people want to hear, instead of what people need to hear. If we want real growth, we have to embrace “constructive conflict.” Conflict makes us uncomfortable, but peace for the sake of peace is not conducive to real growth. If you have children, for instance, you know conflict is part of parenting. Never, for the sake of peace and safety, should we deny our convictions. It is the only path to growth.

Jesus in the Synagogue