Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
Jonah 3:1-10  —  Luke 11:29-32
February 29, 2012

“Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites,
so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” [Luke 11:30]

               In Catholic theology, typology is the study of types.  A type is something (usually, someone) who foreshadows or pre-figures some future thing.  A type of a person can foreshadow by means of some personal quality (for example, the physical strength of Samson might be said to foreshadow the spiritual strength of Christ; or the wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom who is Christ).  A person who is a type can also foreshadow through the events of a narrative, as in today’s readings, where the narrative involving Jonah foreshadows the narrative of Holy Week…
               Jonah foreshadows Jesus Christ.  We see many things about Jonah and the events surrounding him that point to Jesus.  But Jesus Himself mentions one thing in particular.  He mentions for whom Jonah was a sign:  “… Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites.”  So will Jesus Himself, he explains, become a sign “to this generation.”
               So He is for our generation, also.  We can look back, then, to the Ninevites, as if looking in a mirror, and ask how our lives might be reflected in theirs.  The Book of the Prophet Jonah is, in fact, very short.  It is only four chapters long, and the chapters are 16, 11, 10 and 11 verses long, for a total of just 48 verses!  Take some extra time over the next day, then, to read all 48 verses of the Book of Jonah.
               Briefly:  read chapter 1 to hear how the Ninevites are sinners in God’s eyes, and how Jonah is called to self-sacrifice on their behalf (of course, Jonah does not immediately follow this call, and in this way, is not a type of Christ). Read chapter 2 to hear how Jonah ‘converts’ while in the darkness (of the “large fish”) in order to carry out his call to serve the Ninevites.  Read chapter 3 to hear how the Ninevites heed Jonah’s prophecy.  And read chapter 4 to hear (again) how Jonah is not a type of Christ:  he does not understand the Lord’s mercy toward the Ninevites, and the Lord teaches Jonah by showing him mercy, too.
               But we, as Christians, have even more reason to be grateful than did the Ninevites and Jonah.  In Jesus allowing Himself to be swallowed up by death, He shows us a mercy that is overflowing, abundant and without bounds.  On the Cross, Jesus not only takes away our sins, but destroys death itself.
               Rejoice in this merciful love.  Give thanks for it, and ask God to help you in being an instrument of that same merciful love towards others.  Reflect today on this question:  “Are you ever tempted to flee, as Jonah did, from the Lord calling you to be an instrument of His peace?”

Michelangelo's Jonah from the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City-State

Monday of the First Week of Lent

Monday of the First Week of Lent
Leviticus 19:1-2,11-18  ─  Matthew 25:31-46
February 27, 2012

               In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus describes a real, future event:  the Last Judgment that will take place at the end of time.  To describe this future event, He uses the metaphor of sheep and goats.  And then Jesus describes the difference between these sheep and goats.  This difference is one of the most important teachings of the Gospel.
               Historically, there have been many disputes between Protestants and Catholics about the role of faith, and the role of good works, in the life of the Christian.  By which do we enter heaven?  The Catholic Church, from the first century, to the sixteenth century, to today, has taught that—if you make it to Heaven—it will be because you bore both faith and good works.  Each is indispensible.  Each is indispensible, not only for personal salvation.  Each of them is indispensible for the perduring of the other.  Faith does not perdure unless it is manifested through good works.  And works without faith are not good unto eternal salvation.
               Jesus’ description today of the Last Judgment—which He spoke two days before the Passover during Holy Week (see Matthew 25-26)—makes it seemingly impossible to deny the role of good works in the Christian’s entrance into Heaven.  Nonetheless, beyond any disputes that might still go on today, we need before disputing the meaning of the Christian Faith simply to live the Christian Faith.  Jesus calls us to live the Christian Faith by seeking Him in the disguise of the poor, in all the forms that poverty takes.

The Last Judgment by Giotto, in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (c. 1305)

1st Sunday of Lent [B] - 26 FEB 2012

The First Sunday of Lent [B]
Genesis 9:8-15  ¾  1 Peter 3:18-22  ¾  Mark 1:12-15
February 26, 2012

All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth toward those
who honor his covenant and decrees. [Psalm 25:10]

               My first few years of grade school, we used an abacus to count.  Then one day in junior high, these new things called “computers” showed up.  We were all very impressed by those Apple II computers.  Never mind that there were no graphics to speak of.  Never mind that the average smartphone today has more computing power than one of those Apple II’s.  We were, back in the day, mightily impressed.
               With every year of school, through college, seminary, and into my priesthood, computers steadily grew more powerful.  One measure of this strength, at least one that someone like myself could understand, was the memory required to store files, documents and pictures.  In our basic computer class, we learned that the basic unit of computer memory is the “byte”.  If you needed to talk about these computer bytes in large quantities, you had to learn all sorts of new metric prefixes.  For example, if a file was really large, requiring thousands of bytes, you would need to talk about kilobytes.
               But no sooner did you turn around, and everything was being measured in megabytes, which they told us is a million bytes.  Then, the next morning, everyone was talking about gigabytes.  I lost count of how many bytes make up a gigabyte, but it didn’t really matter, because that afternoon I heard tell of a terabyte.  And so this past Tuesday, I found myself purchasing a “One Terabyte” hard drive.  I tried to convince myself that finally I was “with it” when it comes to computers, but in the back of my mind, I wasn’t really convinced.  Sure enough, that evening, I read an article (online) measuring computer memory in “exabytes”, and I resigned myself to being a fossil of the computer age.
               This article was fascinating to read, but almost depressing at the same time.  The article explained that if every image made, and every word written from the earliest civilization to the year 2003 were converted to digital information, the total would come to five exabytes.  An exabyte is one billion gigabytes.  But in the next seven years, from 2003 to 2010, mankind created on average the same amount of information—five exabytes—every two days.  But the rate keeps accelerating:  by next year, mankind will produce five exabytes every ten minutes.[1]
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               It’s hard to know whether it’s the amount of information thrown at us, or the rate of acceleration that’s more dizzying.  Does the pace of your life sometimes give you a headache?  Do you ever feel that you’d enjoy a retreat from the hectic nature of life?  You know, the word “retreat” is very interesting.  The word “retreat” has both positive and negative connotations.  In a positive sense, especially when we speak of a place as a retreat, we’re speaking of it as a place of relaxation and rest.  But when we use the word “retreat” as a verb, it implies some sort of weakness and defeat, at least temporarily.
               Lent, as a season of our yearly life as Christians, is a retreat in both senses, positive and negative.  I know lots of people (maybe you’re one, also) who consider Lent to be their favorite season of the Church Year, even more so than Christmas or Easter!  That might seem strange, given that Easter and Christmas are really more important theologically.  But given life in our modern world, it’s understandable.  The effects of technology, including instant communication, rapid travel throughout the world, and the ability to download any fact, figure, or Facebook photo, all take their toll on the human spirit.  We think of each of these as a boon and blessing, yet often they feel a burden.  We feel a need to retreat from the modern world, to spend time in retreat if for no other reason than to get our bearings, and regain a sense of perspective about our life.
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               Lent is a retreat into the desert.  So we hear in today’s brief Gospel.  It’s only four verses:  five sentences.  Only the first two sentences describe Jesus’ forty days in the desert.  In the first verse we hear:  “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert….”  Reflect on the two Persons mentioned in this verse.
               “The Spirit” is, of course, the Holy Spirit:  the Third Person of the Most Blessed Trinity.  There are many ways to describe the Holy Spirit.  One of the more famous is to describe the Holy Spirit as the Love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father.  Because the Father and the Son are so like each other, because they are, in fact, “one in being” (or in the revised translation of the Creed, because they are “consubstantial”), their love for each other is identical:  their reciprocal, mutual Love for each other is the Third Person of the Godhead.
               It is this Love—the reciprocal, mutual indwelling Love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father—that “drove Jesus out into the desert.”  Jesus’ love for God the Father, and the Father’s love for Jesus, “drove Jesus out into the desert.”  That might seem odd to say:  that it was divine Love that drove Jesus into an intensely hot, arid place where for almost seven weeks He faced temptations from the devil?  How can such a driving force be seen as Love?
               One of the verses written by the Beloved Disciple clarifies this truth.  In his first letter, St. John declares:  “In this is love:  not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us, and has given us His Son as a propitiation (that is, a sacrificial offering) for our sins.”[2]  Here is the heart of Lent and Easter:  the primacy of God the Father’s Love.  St. John in this verse reveals to us that before any love of ours for God—in fact, in the face of our choice to positively reject God’s love—God the Father made a choice to send His Son down from Heaven, into this world of sin, in order to be a sacrificial offering for our sins.
               God the Father loves you, not in spite of your sins, but in and through your sins.  God the Father, out of love for you, sent His Son into this world, in order to be crucified on Good Friday, so as to open the gates of Heaven for you.  For His part, Jesus accepted in Love the mission His Father gave Him:  the mission to be a sacrificial offering on the Cross.  It’s this Love—the Son’s total acceptance of, and self-identification with, His Father’s Love for you as a sinner—that drove Jesus into the desert.
               Lent is a retreat with Jesus into this desert.  On the one hand, this is a retreat in the negative sense, because it’s an honest admission of our human weakness and even defeat, at least temporarily.  Several days ago, the Collect for Ash Wednesday highlighted this truth.  The newly re-translated prayer much more faithfully sets before us the reality that our earthly fight against sin truly is a battle.  Listen to the martial imagery in this Collect from Ash Wednesday:

“Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.”

This prayer could hardly be more clear in presenting the truth that the Christian life demands what many saints throughout the centuries have called “spiritual warfare”.
               We retreat with Jesus into the desert because He is our Captain.  He is the Head of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.  This is the positive sense in which Lent is a retreat.  Lent is a blessed time, even a joyful time, because here, in the desert, we are with Jesus.  It is His Presence here that makes this time in the desert a thing of beauty.
               This desert is for your soul what fire is for gold:  a purification.  The love of your life is meant to be one with God the Father’s Love, just as Jesus’ Love is one with the Father’s Love.  The Holy Spirit is meant to be the driving force of your life, driving you each day, and throughout all your days on earth, into the missions on which the Father sends you.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Friday after Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:1-9a—Matthew 9:14-15
February 24, 2012

Verse for Recollection throughout the Day:
“Would that today you might fast  /  so as to make your voice heard on high!”  [Isaiah 58:4b]

There are many reasons to fast.  You can fast in order to lose weight, or to protest injustice, or to stand in solidarity with the poor of the world.  All of these intentions can accomplish good things.

Isaiah today prophesies in the name of the Lord God.  The Lord demands a different reason for fasting:  “… so as to make your voice heard on high!”  Let’s consider the meaning of this phrase…

Does God need a hearing aid?  Let’s set aside the suggestion that there’s a weakness in God’s hearing (though within popular scholarship today, God’s “weaknesses” are commonly discussed).  So what accounts for some voices not being heard on high?  Since it’s not due to some weakness in God’s hearing, it must be due to some weakness in our voice.  What type of weakness of voice, then, is Isaiah prophesying about?

While it’s not true that God cannot hear some voices, it is true that God chooses not to hear some voices.  To use an analogy, God is a king who does not allow all petitioners to come before Him in His court.  Or to use a more modern analogy, the United States Supreme Court does not hear certain cases if they’re deemed to bear insufficient merit.  Such cases are not heard not because of any deafness of the part of the justices, but because of the merit of what is presented before them.

To return to our Scripture verse, “making your voice heard on high” has a two-fold meaning.  It means presenting words to God that bear merit both objectively and subjectively.  Objectively, our words have to “befit” God:  whatever we ask for must be truly good, capable of pointing to God.  Were we to ask God for something evil, the petition would fall on deaf ears (metaphorically speaking).   Even more than simply not being evil, though, what we ask from or offer to Him also has to be something that God Himself wants.  It must be in accord with His providential Will.

Subjectively, we ourselves must truly want and mean what we offer to God.  That might seem foolish to suggest:  how could we not do so?  Yet if we examine our spiritual lives closely, we’re likely to see that in the name of being a “good Christian”, we go along with what others ask of us, or what we think is expected of us.  We offer to God prayers that are not truly rooted in our own human will.  They may not be forced, but they are not truly our prayers.  This is not “befitting God” either, because in this a Christian presents a false self to God:  in prayer—in offering up “my voice” to the Lord—the Christian is meant to give his self to God. 

Fasting purifies our intentions.  Bodily self-sacrifice readies our mind and will for their own forms of self-sacrifice.  When we can offer our entire self to God—in mind, body and spirit—our voice will be heard on high!

Reflection Questions:
Is my Lenten fasting intended to make my voice heard on high?  Will I use prayer during a meal- or snack-time in order to focus and strengthen this intention?