Around the world today parishes are conducting Scrutinies for those who are not baptized. We call them catechumens, or correctly now the “elect” since Bishop Stika elected them for the Easter sacraments after we the parishioners of St. Mary’s sent them to him three Sundays ago. The elect or only those to be baptized take part in the scrutinies. Those who are converting to Catholicism and have already been baptized do not take part in these scrutinies. The term “scrutiny” makes it sound as if we are giving an exam to see if they are ready or worthy to join us. But, it is not us who scrutinize them, it is they who scrutinize themselves. They are asking themselves, “Am I ready?” Our response is to support them through our prayer. Actually during Lent, all of us need to look at our lives and the obstacles to faith and turn to the great power of Jesus.
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well begins the 3-week cycle of scrutinies. It is a story of how to believe in Jesus even when there are lots of reasons not to believe in Him. He engages her in a dialog and He challenges her to believe in Himself as the Messiah as she confronts her own beliefs and past sins. They talk about the differences between Jews and Samaritan; between well water and living water; about her past and Jesus’ insights into her life.
In this scene, Jesus is already at the well, before she arrives. This is what we call the Primacy of Grace. It is not you who have chosen me, but I who have chosen you. Bible not about us seeking God. It is about God fervently seeking us.
When we surrender to God who is always looking for us, we are in the right place. How do I allow myself to be found by God who is already looking for me? It is like a helicopter trying to land. The helicopter represents God’s grace or presence. Spiritual life is not jumping up to the helicopter, but merely clearing the ground so that the helicopter can land. Those parishioners who have gone on the CRHP retreat cleared the space of time and activity to allow that grace to come to you. Those young people who went on pilgrimage to Alabama last week did the same. This woman at the well certainly opened herself up to speak to Jesus and was not afraid to answer Him who offered to give her life-giving water. This is the first step – responding to Jesus and the grace He offers. It is accepting the gift of life-giving water.
Before water can flow into one’s life, we must remove some obstacles so that water can flow into us. How beautifully Jesus addresses the moral issues of the woman. She is a pariah, coming to well at high noon and all alone. This is significant because usually the women would go together to the well to draw water in the morning when it is not so hot. She had five husbands and is in an illicit relationship. She knows or experiences that she has done wrong and suffers the consequences of her behavior in the community of Sychar. No telling what the individual stories of the past five husbands includes. But, Jesus did not start with moral correction. He offers grace first. Many make mistakes by starting with judgement and condemnation of immoral behavior of others.
Jesus’ conversation with this Samaritan woman was scandalous. He was a Jewish rabbi. It was taboo to speak to Samaritans and women. Jesus is acting like the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son. He actively goes out to an undeserving soul to offer mercy and grace.
However, it is also very important to see clearly that Jesus is not indifferent to moral correction. Jesus is very direct in telling her that He knows that she has had five husbands and the one she has now, she is not married to. Sexual morality is a serious matter. Spiritual life does not really get off the ground if moral issues are not addressed. Is there something in me that is blocking the flow of grace? In her case, it is the disordered relationships
Being that it is Lent and knowing that thousands of men and women are going through the first of three Scrutinies today, we too should consider a serious appraisal of self. How? The Church provides us with a perfect way to examine our lives—the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The word reconciliation translated loosely means “eyelash to eyelash.” In the Sacrament, we sit at another type of well and look at Jesus “eyelash to eyelash.” This is our occasion for a serious self-appraisal.
What must be dealt with in our lives before waters flow? As with her, so with many of us. She was looking for love in all the wrong places. We try to satisfy the longing for God with something that is less than God. It will make us frustrated. For the woman, it was sexual pleasure with her 5 failed marriages and an illicit relationship. For others, we seek wealth, power, approval, or positions of greatness. All these good things fade away, wear off, run out. They do not satisfy our infinite thirst. What is the One reality that never runs out? Answer – the divine life which is what Jesus offers to the woman at the well. God is infinite so He never runs out. That is the well that you drink from.
While we witness converts joyously studying their new faith, how much have we studied about God through the years? The well does not run out of water. How have we deepened and nurtured our faith? Jesus says plainly that if we are to grow in God’s eyes, we must drink of the Living Water—that we must build a relationship with Him. How have we done this?
Jesus spent a lifetime breaking down walls. How many barriers have we created? How many grudges do we hold? How many hurts have we let fester? How is our practice of Christian morality?
Too many of us are afraid to look in a mirror to see ourselves as we really are, especially if that mirror is in the form of the eyes of Christ. For too many, this fear keeps us away from the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Today, our Church’s catechumens will seriously look at themselves as they prepare for the waters of Baptism. Dare we do anything less?
Since Friday is St. Patrick’s Day and I am a quarter Irish, I’d like to tell you this story. An Irishman moves from Dublin into a tiny village in County Kerry in the west of Ireland, walks into the pub and promptly orders three beers. The bartender raises his eyebrows, but serves the man three beers, which he drinks quietly at a table, alone. As this continued every day the bartender asked him politely, “The folks around here are wondering why you always order three beers?” “It’s odd, isn’t it?” the man replies, “You see, I have two brothers, and one went to America, and the other to Australia. We promised each other that we would always order an extra two beers whenever we drank.” Then, one day, the man comes in and orders only two beers. As this continued for several days, the bartender approached him with tears in his eyes and said, “Folks around here, me first of all, want to offer condolences to you for the death of your brother. You know-the two beers and all…” The man ponders this for a moment and then replies with a broad smile, “You’ll be happy to know that my two brothers are alive and well. It’s just that I, myself, have decided to give up drinking for Lent.”
On this second Sunday of Lent, we always hear one of the three Gospel stories of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain.
The real miracle of Christ’s transfiguration is sometimes missed by a society preoccupied with the physical. People focus on perfecting their ability to give up bodily pleasures. Lenten practices have sometimes been inspired by a desire to lose unsightly pounds more than shedding the dead weight of envy, anger, judgment or greed. We seem more impressed by glowing skin than a radiant spirit. God looks with the eyes of the heart to those who radiate compassion and whose souls proclaim like Mary, the greatness of the Lord.
There is something fundamental going on here in the first reading and the Gospel. There is a major connection between the first reading from Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew.
Mass today has a focus on the beginning. In the book of Genesis, the first chapters include the story of Creation. The crowning glory of Creation are human beings made by God and subject to God, but who are not God. The man and woman disobeyed God because they did not listen and heed God’s words. From this dysfunction, they are expelled from the Garden. It is a poetic account of not listening to God. Once humans stop listening to God, they go into Exile.
Then there is a lesson on nonviolence with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Then comes the story of Noah and the Ark because once again, God’s children did not listen to Him and became evil. Thus the flood brought forth punishment and a new beginning. It was not long before human beings desired to become greater than God and started building the Tower of Babel. God destroyed the tower and scattered the human race. At this point, humans stopped attending to the voice of God. They are filled with pride. They want to do everything according to their will. They refused to listen to the voice of God.
And now we come to Abram. The LORD speaks to him a command: Go forth from your father’s house to a land I will show you. Really? Can you think of lots of reasons not to get up and go to a foreign land? God promises greatness for Abram and his descendants. Remember he has no children.
Everything will hinge on the next moment. Will Abram listen???? Will he obey?
After the promise by God is the response. Abram went as the LORD directed him.
Hinge line of whole Bible. Not according to his own designs but as the Lord directed him. He lived up to his calling as a child of God created in God’s image and likeness.
To do God’s will was not so simple. Abram had a difficult journey crossing into foreign nations. God said that he and his wife Sarai would be parents of a great nation. He needed children, for this to happen, but they were childless. They were beginning to doubt because of their old ages 90 and 99. God spoke and they trusted and obeyed. Isaac was born. And once again, Abram whose name God changed to Abraham, heard God ask him the impossible – take your young son and sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Did he obey? Did he follow his own plan? Did Abraham disobey the voice of God? Entire salvation history will flow from this. As Abram did many years ago, so the same man, Abraham did as the LORD directed him.
Flash forward 1500 years to the Gospel. In the account of the Transfiguration, God says, “this is my Beloved Son. Listen to Him.” And the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Rise. Don’t be afraid.” Important words for us at all times.
In prayer, we so often ask God for what we want. Ask what God wants not what I want. The story of Abram/Abraham teaches us that the will of God may challenge us. This story is a foreshadowing of the story of Jesus.
Faith in God invites us through the teachings of the readings today not to talk, but to listen. In the spiritual order: God speaks and we learn to listen, not to ourselves but to the Lord, even when it seems counterintuitive, when it doesn’t make sense. Faith is trusting that what God says is the will of God. Very often the will of God connects us to a bigger plan that spans beyond the limited years of our small lives. When you doubt the possibility of guidance, you’ve just stopped the flow. But if you stay on the path of allowing and trusting, the Spirit in you will allow you to confidently surrender: There’s a reason for this. God is in this, too.
Please don’t hear me as adopting a fatalistic approach, as though you can’t work to change or improve your situation. Quite the contrary—you can. But I am saying that what first comes to your heart and soul must be a yes instead of a no, trust instead of resistance. When you can lead with yes and allow yourself to see God in all moments, you’ll recognize that nothing is ever wasted
We enter the second week of Lent. Let’s not give up. These readings today are meant to give us courage to keep going if we are faint-hearted. Even if you failed to start Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving or even if you failed in doing them, get up and keep going. Jesus the Beloved Son of God is with us in all His glory. Listen to Him and not to anyone else. God always gives us a chance to begin again.
By the way, Saint Patrick is one who also followed the voice of God to go to a foreign land. He was not Irish born, but Welsh. First a slave sent to Ireland, he went across the sea. After his initial return to Wales, he decided to return to his new beloved homeland and bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of us are grateful for Patrick’s YES to God in face of all the challenges during the adventure of his own life.
Healing Worries’ Warts
What are you worried most about? Were you thinking about your own worries as the deacon read the Gospel? Worry is real. It means to allow one’s mind to dwell on difficulty or troubles.
So what is your primary difficulty or trouble?
Young people – do your friends like you? Are you going to get good grades or into the school of your choice?
Parents – Are you worried about providing for your family or keeping your family together? Are you worried about paying the bills, your health, your security, your future because of the new government and its actions? Are you worried about your job? Are you worried about your retirement?
Maybe some people are just worried about Mass ending in time to get a good table at the restaurant. That is OK.
Are you worried about the lack of faith or practice of religion of a family member? And the BIGGIE: I am sure that someone here today is worried about dying. Are you worried about getting into heaven since you committed a sin long ago that you do not feel can be forgiven? We all have a primary worry. In each of these examples, at one time or another, I have heard people express worry about one or more of these issues.
Jesus said “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So, do we worry for other people: for many of our parishioners who are undocumented immigrants? Some are worried about deportation and the separation of their families. If we go out of ourselves and think of others in the world, do we worry for our brothers and sisters who might be killed in war. They are worried about finding a country that will welcome them. They are worried about what the future will bring them in a strange place different than their devastated homeland.
I can only put myself in their shoes and ponder what the Scriptures put to us today: “The Lord has forsaken me: my Lord has forgotten me.” If we who have the basics of life in this community and find things to worry about, imagine what those refugees are feeling, what those victims of sexual slavery are going through.
Some people of faith might even despair that God does not care about the world because He let it become such a mess. Has God forsaken our world?
The same prophet Isaiah speaks clearly using strong imagery. Even if a mother forsakes her child, I will never forget you. You moms know how strong the bond is for your children. I can only imagine, but God’s love and care is stronger than that.
Wise words from Jesus invite us to seek first the Kingdom of God. When you find yourself worrying about anything, PRAY! When another person is worried about something, you can listen to them. Then invite them to pray. Prayer is very powerful and lifts our hearts and minds to God who loves us and cares for us more than we know. When I find myself worried, I often cannot find the word to even speak to God. I pray the Hail Mary/rosary, those memorized prayers of our tradition. They truly help through their rhythm and power to get me rooted again in God. Seek first the Kingdom of God!
The Gospel invites us to reflect upon these questions as well: How do we even know that God loves us? And what proof has God given us that we are loved? These are difficult questions. I do not believe that proof of God’s love can come by way of the intellect. I cannot prove to you that God is love and that God loves the world and everyone in it by a well thought out argument. Our Sacred Scriptures and Church teaching affirm that God is love, but does that prove it to me?
Jesus says- do not worry about your life. Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your lifespan? I would add this question to our modern age, can any of you by controlling your wealth, your security, your health, etc. live on this earth indefinitely?
In just a few days, if you receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, you may hear: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. This statement is a truth about each and every human life. We live now, but one day, we shall die. During Lent especially and really living the spiritual life in its entirety, God teaches us that WE MUST DIE. And we will also rise again. We have to be transformed. This is the pattern of Jesus the Christ. We take up our cross and like Him, are to be crucified and die. This must happen IF we are to rise again. Your false self, your ego, who you think you are has to die. The human Jesus had to die for the Risen Christ to be revealed. There is no other way.
When religion remains at the immature level, it tends to create very violent people who believe that they are on the side of the good and the worthy and the pure and the saved. They project all their evil somewhere else and attack it over there. They export the natural pattern of death to others who they believe have to die. This keeps them from facing the reality that they themselves must die. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Many of you have had a situation in your life have had an experience of failing or falling apart or something you could not control and could not understand. Hopefully, you were transformed by that “death” and just know in the depths of your soul that God, someone greater than you, loved you in spite of your failure. That was not your true self that died. It was what spiritual guides call your false self or what psychology calls your ego. By dying to the false self, you discovered your true self in this great God who is ultimate Love. You no longer have to think that you must prove that God loves you; You accept that God loves you unconditionally.
Having experienced that kind of dying before you actually die, you now no longer have to worry … about anything.
I invite you to make Lent this year about dying to yourself. Ask God to help you to be able to love to the extreme like His Son Jesus did on the Cross. Ask God to help you to have a faith so strong that you will not worry about family, friends, money, work, retirement, illness, suffering – and that you will seek first His Kingdom.
Not all are at the stage of understanding what I am saying and that is OK. If however, I have said something that strikes to your heart, God is inviting you to go deeper. Seek first the Kingdom of God means to ask Him what you are to do. Trust that God will show you the way.
Don’t worry about your life. God’s got that.
Today is World Marriage Day and we pray for and with those in the sacrament of Marriage. An important question that we clergy, priests and deacons ask a couple pertains to the issue of freedom. In our interview, we ask: is there anyone or anything forcing you into this marriage? If the answer is “yes,” that sends up a red flag. It is so important that during the marriage rite before the vows, the question is asked of the bride and groom: (the wording is recently changed) N. and N., have you come here to enter into Marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly? They are to answer “I have.” Freedom is essential and it is the basis of love that comes from God. For the times that we have chosen against God’s will, for the times we have sinned, let us ask God for mercy. (Now read homily for Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time for more.)
Love is a Decision
We live in a country that follows the rule of law. For those of us who follow the law, we realize that laws help us to live in harmony with one another. They are rules that help us to play fairly and well. We just witnessed one of the biggest sporting events in our country with the Super Bowl. The players and the coaches are important, but also the referees who know the rules of the game and try to apply them fairly. Without the refs, what would the Super Bowl look like?
The rules of the game form the structure for play. We can look at divine law as a structure or container for our living the moral life. Some people look at the rules or laws as a limit to personal freedom. That is why we refer to some people as “laws unto themselves”. They do what they want regardless of what anyone else thinks or how others are affected. They think that they are unaccountable. A person who is a law unto himself would find it difficult to sing a hymn of praise to the law like in today’s psalm. You have commanded that your precepts might be diligently kept. Oh, that I might be firm in keeping your statutes.
I can’t quite imagine singing a hymn of praise: “How I love our Constitution! I delight in the Bill of Rights.”
In order to understand the Law in the Scriptures, we have to look at it from a particular perspective.
In the first reading, we read from the book of Sirach. Sirach was a man who lived around 200 BC in Jerusalem. Sirach was a man deeply immersed in the Torah, (the first 5 books of the Bible) so he knew the law and rituals of the Temple.
For Biblical people the law is not in tension with freedom, but is the ground of freedom. God wants us to share His life which is a life of love. Love must be a personal choice otherwise it is not love. Love cannot be coerced. It must be chosen. Remember what I said at the beginning of Mass regarding the rite of Marriage in the Catholic Church. Love is a decision and affirms the principle that love is the ground of freedom. With the hearts and emotions of Valentine’s Day upon us, we have to define “love” properly. To love is to will the good of the other. So that is why we can love an enemy because we will their highest good.
In the Bible, the Law is the means by which God is helping us to make the right choice. It is a kind of a lure which is held out to freedom. If you think of it in terms of “you have to choose this way or you will die,” that is a coercion to freedom. It is not like that at all. Sirach says: If you choose, you can keep the commandments. He has set before you fire and water. The choice is yours. There is a lure so that we might make the right choice because love must be a choice. If you choose to keep the commandments, He will save you.
One of the deepest truths of the spiritual life is present here. God so respects our freedom that he will give us what we choose. If we think of God punishing us for bad choices, this is off the mark, according to Bishop Robert Barron.
In each of my choices, I am choosing the kind of person I am becoming. I am forming my character. So, if I choose, over and over again, the selfish path, I am becoming a selfish person. If you follow a violent path, you become a violent person. If a person follows a corrupt path, you will do bad things, but over time, you will become a corrupt person. If I give in to lust all the time, I will become lustful person. On the other hand, if you and I consistently choose the path of love, we will do good things, we will more importantly become loving persons. If you forgive, you will become a merciful person. If you choose nonviolence, you will become a peaceful person. If you make sacrifices and give to others, you will become a generous person.
Jesus too is inviting us to choose. He is getting at the heart of character formation when He indicates that giving in to anger leads to a pattern that is connected to killing. He invites us to be aware when we are angry and out of harmony with a brother or sister. Jesus advocates for us to choose the path of forgiveness and reconciliation which is the path of love.
The Catholic Church throughout the countries of the world often advocates for just laws based on this law of love that reflects our understanding of who God is and who we are in relationship to one another. We are always pro-life in the totality of the life spectrum. Pro-life as understood in mainstream America does not fully encompass what pro-life means in the fullness of teaching of the Catholic Church. We choose to believe that life begins at conception and that we are wonderfully made in God’s image. We choose to believe that all life has a dignity even those persons who have done evil. We choose as Jesus did to reach out and meet the needs of the poor who are at our doors. The Catholic Church looks at the commandment: you shall not kill which is in the Gospel today. It means we do not advocate killing in the womb through abortion, nor killing as a punishment for a heinous crime through capital punishment, nor do we kill a person who is in tremendous suffering or pain through euthanasia. The Church also advocates for laws that support wanting the good of the least of our brothers and sisters – for welcoming the stranger who is a refugee, for example. This is love, to will the good of the other. These are difficult and divisive issues in our country today, even among Catholics.
The Catholic Church is very clear that what it advocates for comes from the teaching and action of Jesus Himself. There is not enough time to go into the details now, but you can easily find Church teaching and rationale on the internet. A good place to begin is USCCB.org , the website of the United States Catholic Bishops.
We know that even if something becomes a civil law, the enforcement or practice of something changes, but it takes much longer for the human heart to catch up. Civil rights legislation was passed many years ago, and there are many people who still do not treat all people with equality and love. Jesus knew this and that is why he told his followers to look into their own hearts, at their motives. Conversion comes at the level of the heart. You can follow all the commandments, all the rules of the Catholic Church and still be a very bitter angry person, lacking in love and charity.
Let’s realize that we have a choice given to us by God. What great freedom there is in that gift. Let’s also choose to live the law of love in its totality. Or not. The choice is yours.