If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?

Readings on USCCB

Why wouldn’t we take pleasure in the death of the wicked, or in the downfall of our enemies?  Because death and downfall means more than just the ceasing of wrongdoing.  Yes, the wrong action may be stopped, but we are talking about persons — persons made in the image and likeness of God.  We are really talking about the death and downfall of one who bears the God-image.  God takes no pleasure in this, for that would be taking pleasure that a part of Himself has died.  

 

Today in Ezekiel we hear how the Lord delights and rejoices when a sinner repents.  When we turn away from our sins we are turning to God, to goodness.  We are turning to life — to God’s eternal life.

 

How do we know what is evil?  Again, bearing the God-image and having been created good, we can naturally know what is good.  But there is also the moral law that has been fully revealed and fulfilled in Jesus and subsequently through the Church.  The psalmist prays today, If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand? (Ps. 130:3). It is God who teaches us in our hearts and through His revealed divine law what is good and what is wrong.  We cannot determine that for ourselves; we can choose to follow or not.  It is true that sin corrupts our thinking and darkens our intellects, which is why God is always calling us to repent.  Repentance brings life to the soul and therefore renewal to the mind.   

 

Jesus fulfills the law of God in the Gospel by internalizing it.  He calls us to renew our minds through repentance.  It is not enough to do good deeds on the outside, or to preach the law of God.  He wants the law to be in our hearts.  When we are angry with another person, we need to do our best to connect with them.  True love of another is to seek what is best for them, to seek their true good.  In a practical application, a loving boundary can be agreed upon internally — one that acknowledges the anger inside and respects the dignity of the other.  The love of God will then have a channel to flow from our hearts to others, bringing God’s life to all of His people, even those with whom we disagree.

No One but You, O LORD, my God

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Today’s readings are all about interior disposition.  What is outside begins inside.  This is true at the remotest level, even in the material realm (that which we discover through science).  For example, the surface tension of water, an observed property, begins on the molecular and even atomic level, with hydrogen “bonding.” In the same way we see the mortal anguish inside of Esther propelling her to intense prayer to the only One in Whom she has recourse: the LORD.  She asks the Lord to put in her mouth persuasive words, that God’s Spirit will speak through her.  She asks the Lord to turn the heart of the one to whom she speaks, so that her plight will be heard by him.  So not only is the Lord moving and speaking through the heart of Esther, but also the one who has the earthly authority destroy her and her people. It is God who moves hearts.

 

This is why intercessory prayer is so important.  When we pour out our heart’s desires to the Lord, it is He who listens and makes things happen!  Psalm 138 says, Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me. God builds strength within us to be His hands and feet, to make things happen! It is He who turns hearts, most especially our own, when we ask Him. A clean heart create for me, O God (Ps 51:12a).

 

Finally, in the Gospel Jesus completes the teaching of the law and the prophets, saying, do to others whatever you would have them do to you, and, ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. God places holy desires in our hearts so that we will ask Him to fulfill them, both for ourselves and for others.  The Spirit gives life to all our being and prays through us to make God’s will manifest in the world.  He has given us the freedom in our will to seek Him; we have the choice to open our spirit to His Holy Spirit, like Esther did.  And our intercessory prayers put into motion His desire for others to do the same.

Announce to It the Message I Will Tell You

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The message is loud but we don’t hear it. What would it look like today if a prophet like Jonah went through the city of Washington DC and called the United States to repentance? What would our leaders do if they were like the king of Ninevah and they led by example; if they called loudly to God, and every man turned from his evil way and from the violence and hatred we have in our hearts?

It would look like this:
The love of Jesus Christ would permeate their [OUR] hearts. First we would look at those with whom we disagree with love. We would listen to what they have to say. We would find solutions to our problems for the sake of each individual’s true good and for the sake of the common good, for what is truly good (God and His merciful love) is a universal good. These solutions would be something like this:

-Kind words from our politicians and in the media
-The poor and vulnerable would be vaccinated for the virus, and those who are not poor and vulnerable would make sure it happens.
-No persons would be placed into categories or called names.
-All persons, old and young, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, unborn or elderly, illegal or citizen…would be looked upon as having dignity, made in the image and likeness of God…and treated as such.
-No children would be hungry or abused.

This seems like a utopia, indeed. Impossible! This kind of society begins in our hearts, which seem to have been hardened into stone through our societal sins. But Jesus is there. He is in our relationships. This kind of society begins with our families and the neighbors on the street. It begins in the classrooms. It begins with taking care of and loving the persons who are in our lives.

Jesus is there, in our hearts. He is greater than all of our societal problems. He is greater than all of our personal and family problems. His love is there — deep within us.

If we but turn inside to receive it. And then give it away.

A Chair of Service

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Today in the Catholic Church we celebrate a chair. You heard that right. It is the chair of authority that is also the Chair of service. They go together — authority and service. We may also know it as Servant Leadership.

Let’s begin with the authority aspect of the chair. Jesus Himself said to Peter, “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). We also see an example of keys being given to the steward by the king in the prophet Isaiah: “…he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house (Is 22:21b-23).

He will become a throne of honor! It is through this imagery in Isaiah that we can see how the authority Jesus is giving Peter in the Gospel is related to a chair. The meaning is security. One can sit and be safe. This is the place from which eternal Truth, the truth relating to God (and therefore that which truly matters), comes. It is solid. It is binding. This authority has also come with a promise: evil shall not ever overcome it.

Even more important than authority is the service aspect of the Chair. St. Peter tells us in his epistle that he is a presbyter among presbyters. He is a servant of the servants of God. Jesus gave another command to His apostles in the Gospel of Matthew: “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and that they exercise great authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Mt 20:25-27). Peter echoes the command of Jesus, saying, “Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock” (1 Pt 5:3).

This applies to anyone in leadership, whether a churchman, a political representative, a parent, a teacher. Something to remember for all leaders: You lead for the sake of those underneath you, not for your sake; you lead for their good, not yours.

This is why we celebrate the Chair of Peter. It is to remind us that everything we have comes from the King, the ultimate Servant, who died for us that we might live.  The authority of this chair unites us in Him.

The Way of Love

Readings on USCCB

Lent is all about conversion in every moment. “Follow me,” Jesus said to Levi. There are little things, (which to God are actually big things), that we can do. Isaiah gives them to us: remove oppression, false accusation, and malicious speech; give food to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; and finally, delight in the LORD on the Sabbath—do not seek your own interests, but delight in the LORD. As I read these and examine my own life it is not too difficult to see where conversion is necessary. The key is to look inwards, and to realize that Jesus is calling me (every part of me), just like He called Levi. “Let Me into all these inner places where you seek your own interests,” Jesus says to me. He wants me to recognize my sinfulness and repent. “Let Me into all these inner places where you are hurting and try to fix things on your own.” He wants to be in everything, and He is not repulsed by any part of me. All the “little things” matter. He wants to be in every little moment and every little thought. He calls to us all the day, says the psalmist (86:4). Anything and everything can be offered to Him, for He takes pleasure in our conversion (cf Ez 33:11), and will make us like a spring whose water never fails (Is 58:11).

It takes practice. It takes a gentle curiosity looking inward, rather than condemnation. In the Gospel today, as well in other Gospel stories, we witness the Pharisees looking to condemn. They don’t “see” the beauty of love and compassion offered by Jesus to sinners; their hearts are closed. Who of us wants to go to a physician who condemns us? Who of us will even approach the divine physician if He condemns us? This is not the way of Jesus, and it should not be our way as we look inside to examine ourselves.

Love is what changes any person. Knowing the love of Jesus is what draws me to Him. Patience and gentleness are the seeds of the Word that grow to be the abundant fruits of the Spirit. They are the means to conversion within myself and of others. They are the way of the Lord.

In sum, Isaiah gives us the things with which new should examine our Christian life. Jesus gives us the manner in which we should do it — the way of Love. He is patient, kind, and gentle.

Fast with Others, for Others

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Today in Scripture we are encouraged to use fasting for one purpose alone: to grow closer to Jesus. There are so many reasons to fast, but only one good one. We are to deny ourselves good things in the material realm for the sake of growing spiritually in Christ, and therefore sharing what He gives.

Isaiah had a difficult job. He was to tell people who think they are doing well that they are really not. In fact, he was to tell them of their wickedness. I don’t know about you, but I cringe at the idea of being told that I am wicked. The way he was to tell them is interesting — he gives them a little examination of conscience, both personal and collective. I will paraphrase and add a little modern nuance…

Yes, it is true that on the outside you look pretty righteous. You have wealth, and you share it with others who need it. You personally donate to charity, as a nation you help those in need and in crisis, and throughout the world you are known to give aid. And, of course, you are fasting.

But I ask you, what about the people in front of you? Is there someone hurting in your family that you are ignoring? Do you have loving conversations about things that matter with those close to you, or do you just argue politics? Is there anyone in your life who could use a phone call or a note of kindness?

Moreover, are there any people suffering in your community? Perhaps a neighbor who needs her driveway plowed? What about the schoolmate whose father was deported to Mexico just because of his “illegal” status? What about the homeless men and women who are standing in the cold asking for money?

God, through His prophets, goes on and on about the same things, all of which can be summed up in the commandment that Jesus gives us: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (cf Mt 22:37-40). The prophet Amos (the first prophet to the Israelites) is quoted in today’s Gospel acclamation: Seek good and not evil so that you may live, and the Lord will be with you. This simple message is as true now as it was then. Isaiah makes it clear that we are to ease the suffering of others in whatever way we can. We fast for the sake of attunement to those in need — by denying ourselves we will become better able to accompany others. We fast with them. That which we deny ourselves we give to them.

Is that not what Jesus, our bridegroom, did for us — giving His earthly life so that we might have eternal life?

The Land

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When Moses is speaking to the people and he speaks of “the land” he is speaking literally of the Promised Land. He wants the Israelites to know that God will give them a place to live and to thrive.

What does this mean for us?

“The Land” is the moment of time in front of us. It is the choice within our spirits that we have every moment. Every moment is set before us, in which we can choose to love God and walk in His ways. We enter each moment and occupy it just by living in it and experiencing it. Just like the Israelites, Christians cross the Jordan via Baptism, and life and death is set before us. We have the eternal blessing of life in Christ as a son or daughter of the Father — if we but heed His voice and hold fast to Him.

The law of the LORD is our hope; it is our roadmap, our guide. Stay on the road, follow the map, and we prosper. Does this mean there won’t be any potholes? Absolutely not, for even the Son of Man experienced potholes, in terms of those who rejected Him. Again, “the land” is the moment of time in front of us. We can choose to occupy each moment yoked to Him, knowing in our hearts that His way is the way of life.

Return to Me with your Whole Heart

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We cannot give anything that we haven’t already received. We hear in the prophet Joel that the ministers of the Lord are to say,

“Spare, O LORD, your people,
    and make not your heritage a reproach,
    with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?’”

God’s heritage is to give generously, abundantly. We receive and give back. Firstly we have received life and all that sustains life: a home, food, clothing. God’s legacy is to give!

Our response is to receive with joy and gratitude. And then to offer our lives back to Him. It is like a cycle of giving and receiving, except it never ends; it never stops…

Unless we stop receiving, and forget the Giver.

“Even now, says the LORD,
    return to me with your whole heart,” again, the prophet says.

Every Lent we are reminded to return to the Lord with our whole Selves. We are called to remember the divine Giver of life and sustenance who is gracious and merciful and full of compassion. There is nothing that we have that doesn’t come from Him, including our very breath and our freedom.

In freedom we are encouraged by the psalmist to say,

“For I acknowledge my offense,
    and my sin is before me always:
‘Against you only have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight.’”

We all have used our freedom for evil, and yet God is ready to renew our spirits. He is always waiting and knocking at the door of our hearts. We choose to open it to receive His divine life. Paul says to the Corinthians and to us: “we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”  Let us not allow these gifts pass is by! Turn to Him and allow Him to make us righteous! It all comes from Him — so much so that “he [the Father] made him [the Son] to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” We become His righteousness through the Spirit of life and love that He has breathed into us.

When we receive and give back in freedom, the cycle continues, and the reward is within our hearts. Our closeness, our intimacy…with the One who gives… increases. It is its own reward. It is joy and peace in our hearts, living His divine life. The eternal now.

Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord

A meditation on the Readings of the Day. See Readings on USCCB.

Discern the message well.  Turn to Him and say “Teach me your ways, O Lord.”  When you turn you will see His arms wide open like the Father in the familiar Prodigal Son story.  You will see them wide open on the Cross in Jesus, who carries our sins and sends His Spirit to wash our sins away from our souls.

I can humbly ask, “Is God my teacher?”  He taught the pagans of Ninevah through His prophet Jonah.  They listened and repented.  What kind of society was this?  Something we do not hear in today’s reading was that they had a king.  Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, a people who had just plundered and conquered the northern tribes of Israel.  When Johah went through town with the message the king took note.  Verses 6-9 tell us: 

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh: “By decree of the king and his nobles, no man or beast, no cattle or sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast alike must be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; they all must turn from their evil way and from the violence of their hands. Who knows? God may again repent and turn from his blazing wrath, so that we will not perish.”

The King led the people.  The psalm verse says, He guides the humble to justice and teaches the humble his way.  The king was humble and listened and discerned well, leading the people into repentance, and the Lord relented of the evil that He had threatened to do.  I use the word relented on purpose, for when speaking of God it is a more appropriate translation.  

Why?  Because as we pray in the psalm, we know God’s love and compassion are from of old.  Goodness and kindness are His essence; God does not repent of evil, because evil only exists in His absence.  To relent is to mitigate a harsh intention.  To repent is to express sincere remorse.  The evil that was to come to the Ninevites was a consequence of their own actions, not an act of God.  They repented.  God relented of allowing the consequences of their evil actions that were going to come about through His permissive will.

St. Paul tells us in the second reading that time is running out — that the world in its present form is passing away.  For people of faith this is true everyday, every moment, not just presently.  We know that we pass from former ways to new ways, that through Baptism we die to sin spiritually and are born into eternal life with our Creator.  Jesus conquered death by dying.  We, too, as a people of faith turn to the Father every moment.  We live in Christ.  We continually live through His death, and His Resurrection.  Unlike the Ninevites, we have the Holy Spirit present in our hearts teaching us and strengthening us for the journey to Heaven, which will pass through our own death.  Nothing in this world will go with us through death except our relationship with God.

Today Jesus proclaims the Kingdom in the Gospel reading.  It is interesting to note that Jonah’s proclamation was via the negative way, “you shall be destroyed.”  Jesus’ way is different.  Indeed, He says to repent, but He does this by saying, Come after Me. Last week He said, “Come, and you will see” (Jn 1:39).  He is our King, but He is no earthly king like the Assyrian king who put on sackcloth.  He is our God With Us who beckons us to follow His ways every moment.  He is the God Man who heals all our infirmities, and who accompanies us in our suffering.

His arms are wide open.  All I need to do is look at a crucifix to see the love that God has for me.  And you.  All He asks is for us to live in His love.  When we do this, the world in its present form passes away.

When the Son of Man is Lord of all; when He is Lord of ME

Reflection on the Readings of the Day 

This is our goal — for Jesus to truly be Lord of our Selves — body, soul, and spirit. This is the goal of every Christian, and the seed that leads to the goal is planted within us by our Baptism — the seed of hope. We can read all about this theological virtue in the Catechism (1817-1821), but CCC 1821 has particular significance to me this morning, because it quotes St. Teresa of Avila:
Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end” (St. Teresa of Avila, Excl. 15:3).

We hear a lot about hope in the Scripture readings for today. The author of Hebrews desires our eagerness in service to our neighbor for the fulfillment of hope until the end. He reminds us of God’s promise to Abraham, and how it is fulfilled in Jesus. Hebrews talks about this hope as the anchor of the soul, sure and firm, which reaches into the interior behind the veil, where Jesus has entered on our behalf.  He entered by taking on my sins. When I, living in hope, seek to make Jesus Lord of my life through my choices every moment I have the assurance in my spirit of rejoicing as Teresa speaks.

In the Alleluia antiphon we hear from whom these graces come, ultimately.  The antiphon is from Ephesians, “May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten the eyes of our hearts, that we may know what is the hope that belongs to our call” (Eph 1:17-18). Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:44). It is the Father who draws us to the Son through the seed of hope, and the Holy Spirit nourishes the seed so that we bear the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

As we are drawn to the Son we hope in Him presently and eternally. When we are in need, He is there as Lord of all, even our sinful Selves, for we were made for HIM.