Friday, March 24, 2017

Visible Signs of Grace

4th Sunday of Lent (A)

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Just like last week's gospel of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, this week's gospel gives us a rich and detailed story of a life-changing personal encounter with Christ. The story of the man born blind is full of meaning for our faith, but I just want to touch on one aspect of it: why did Jesus use clay?

It is an interesting question. Think about it. If all Jesus wanted to do was to heal this blind man, He did not need to smear clay on his eyes to do so. The Divine Son of God could have simply willed it and the man would have been healed. Indeed, we see in other places in the gospels Jesus doing just that, even raising people from the dead simply by willing it to happen. So why, then, does our Lord spit on the ground, make clay from his saliva, smear it on this man's eyes, and then instruct him to wash in the pool of Siloam? Doesn't it all seem a bit elaborate, when all Jesus had to do was will that the man be able to see?

In our Credo discussions after Mass recently we have been talking about the sacraments. It strikes me that what we see Jesus doing here is very sacramental. Sacraments are visible signs of an invisible reality. The bread and wine used in the Eucharist become the visible signs of Jesus' Body and Blood, given up for us. The water poured over our heads at baptism is a visible sign that God has cleansed us of our sins. Whether we are talking about confirmation, matrimony, confession or any of the other sacraments, they all work in this way. They are all visible signs of grace given by God.

Jesus Himself is the fundamental sacrament. What is the Incarnation but the invisible reality of God made visible to us in human flesh? The Church can also be considered a sacrament, as she is the visible sign of Christ's redeeming mission continuing in space and time.

In all of these examples of sacrament, we can ask the same question as we asked about Jesus healing the blind man with clay. Why? Could not God have accomplished all of these things in a way that was less involved, less elaborate? In a way that was less physical? In a way that was less messy?

Yes, He could. Yet God chose to come to us in ways that we can see and touch and He did so for our benefit.

We are creatures of both body and spirit. When we think of religious things, we tend to focus almost exclusively on spiritual realities. This is understandable. God is spirit. Grace and mercy, sin and forgiveness are all spiritual things. But we are not only spirit. God made us as bodily creatures, and as bodily creatures, we experience the world through our senses. We gain information through our sight, hearing, and by our sense of touch, taste and smell. This is how we learn. God made us this way, and so it only follows that He would come to us in ways that we can understand; ways that we can see, touch, taste, hear and smell. This doesn't mean that God does not also come to us in spiritual ways, but rather the spiritual ways that God touches our lives will be indicated through physical signs. 

God comes to us in ways that we can physically sense for our benefit. Fr. Leo Trese, in his book, The Faith Explained, shares these thoughts about administering the sacrament of baptism.
I am sure that I have poured the water of baptism on the heads of many adults whose souls were in the state of sanctifying grace. They had already made acts of perfect love for God; they had already received the baptism of desire. And yet in every such case, the convert has expressed his relief and joy at receiving, actually, the sacrament of Baptism. Because, up to that moment he could not be sure that his sins were gone. No matter how hard he might try to make an act of perfect love, he never could be sure that he had succeeded. But when the saving water had flowed upon his head, he knew then with certainty that God had come to him.
The feel of the cool water flowing over his head made the reality of God's forgiveness present to this man's senses. Likewise the taste of the Eucharist signals to our mind that we are consuming the Body and Blood of Christ. The sound of the priest's voice saying, "I absolve you of your sins," brings the joy of God's mercy to our ears. God doesn't need the sacraments. We do. The sacraments are made by God for our benefit, so that we might know He has truly come to us.

God desires greatly to be with us; every part of us. That means in body as well as in spirit. This is why God will restore to us glorified bodies after the resurrection. This is why God desires to dwell within our bodies when we receive the Eucharist even now in this life. Remember that this same God Himself took on a body in the Incarnation. He was born of a woman, and nursed at her breasts. Christianity is founded upon the belief that God has come to us in physical form. It is a sacramental faith.

The way that Jesus chose to heal the man born blind, is a foreshadowing of the sacraments. Just like the Church uses water, oil, bread and wine, Jesus uses spit and dirt to form clay. Just like we have sacramental liturgies, Jesus instructs the man to perform a ritual action by washing in the pool. Why?

For two reasons. The first is that this man needed it. He needed to feel the warmth and firmness of Jesus' hands on his blind eyes. He needed to hear our Savior's words, telling him to go and wash. He needed to go through the actions of the ritual, feeling the cool water cleansing his face. Jesus healed him in this way for his benefit, so that he might know God's healing presence.

The second reason is because we need it, too. Jesus tells us at the beginning of this gospel reading exactly why He was healing this man: so that the works of God might be made visible through him (Jn 9:3). The works of God made visible - that sounds like a good definition of a sacrament to me.

May each of us who participate in the sacramental life of the Church live the graces given in those sacraments in such a way that we, too, may become sacraments, making God's glory visible through our lives.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Unexpected Encounter

3rd Sunday of Lent (A)

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Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is rich with meaning. It is a gospel reading that can be meditated upon endlessly. Today, I want to focus on three things that the Samaritan woman's experience tells us about what we can expect when we encounter Jesus.

1. It's Personal

There are only two players in this drama - Jesus and the woman. She has come out to the well by herself. Jesus' disciples have gone into the town to buy food. It is just the two of them, speaking directly to one another.

As Christians, we are part of a larger community. We are all part of the Church, the Body of Christ. Even desert hermits are still joined to a community that they check in with from time to time. You cannot be a Christian in isolation.

But we come into this body of believers as individuals. Jesus comes to us as individual people and invites us to be a part of something much larger than ourselves. This is because He loves us individually, not as some nameless and faceless member of an amorphous group. Each of us must, at some point in our lives, make that personal decision to engage in a relationship with Christ. No one else can make that decision for you.

2. Jesus is Direct

Jesus does not mince words with the Samaritan woman. She has made bad decisions in life. She is not living as she ought to be. And Jesus calls her out. He does not do so in a demeaning or harsh way. But He doesn't gloss over the issue, either, pretending everything is OK. Everything is not OK. She knows it. He knows it. Jesus simply tells it like it is. "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband."

Jesus knows you are a sinner. He knows each one of your sins, more clearly than you do. So there is no need to hide your sins from Him, or pretend that you are OK when you are not OK. If you want to have an honest and meaningful encounter with Christ, expect Him to be direct with you (even if it stings a little -- or a lot). This kind of direct and open honesty is key to true repentance and healing. Jesus offers spiritual healing, but we cannot be healed unless we are willing to acknowledge the disease that is our sin.

3. It is Transformative

The Samaritan woman does not end up where she began in this encounter. She leaves with a totally different perspective about Christ and about herself. We see this clearly by just looking at how she addresses Jesus. 

She begins by calling Him simply "a Jew." For her, as a Samaritan, being a Jew makes Jesus an "other" -- someone on the outside. Then she calls Him "Sir," a more formal title of respect. She later calls Jesus "a prophet," after He reveals the truth of her marital situation. Finally, she recognizes Jesus as "Messiah" the chosen one of God. After only a brief exchange, she begins to see more clearly who Jesus really is, and is herself transformed as a result.

She begins this gospel story as a woman isolated from her community, coming alone to draw water at the hottest time of day (ostracized perhaps because of her scandalous past). She ends the story by running back to the community, proclaiming the good news that she has met the long awaited Messiah who offers healing and hope.

This is what we can expect to happen to us when we encounter Jesus. It will be personal. He will be direct with us. (There is no need to hide our sins from Him, so we can and should be open about them, especially in the confessional). And it will transform us. Once we encounter Christ, we will not be the same person as we were before. 

There is one final characteristic of the Samaritan woman's encounter with Christ that we should consider. It is unexpected. I imagine that she began her day like any other. When we first see her, she is doing just one of many mundane tasks of the day; drawing water from the well. Little did she expect that she was about to meet One who would tell her "everything [she] had done" and offer her "living water" so that she "will never thirst again." We should likewise be open to our own encounter with Christ in the midst of our day-to-day lives, even when we least expect it. 

We must be open to that unexpected encounter. Things could have gone differently with the Samaritan woman. She could have refused to speak with Jesus. She could have turned and walked away. But she didn't. She was open to the words Christ spoke to her. She recognized Jesus as the Messiah because she was open to finding Him. 

This Lent especially, and every day throughout our lives, may we, too, be open to an unexpected encounter with Jesus; one that will transform us, if we allow it to. And having found Him, let us, like the Samaritan woman, not hesitate to bring the good news of our joy to all those whom we meet. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Good Enough For God?

2nd Sunday of Lent (A)

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The Transfiguration of Christ
During Lent we are encouraged to take on additional spiritual practices and disciplines such as fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Why do we do these things?

Do we do them as part of a divine self-improvement plan? Do we fast from dessert in order to shed a few pounds? Do we say an extra rosary during the week because we think it will make us a better person? Do we spend a few hours volunteering at the soup kitchen because we think it will gain us some divine favor?

We need to be careful. There can be a danger any time we set out to increase the practice of our Christian devotion, in thinking that by so doing we can make ourselves "good enough" for God.

This is the heresy of Pelagianism, condemned long ago by the Church. Pelagius was a fourth century monk who denied the existence of original sin. That meant that, at least in theory, it was possible for a person to live his or her entire life without committing any personal sin, and therefore be in no need of a savior. The Church has always taught that Adam's fall from grace affects all men and therefore Christ died to save all men.

We practice a form of Pelagianism when we act as though our prayers and charitable acts will earn us a place in heaven. We are wrong if we think God will let us in if only we spend enough hours helping the poor or pray enough Hail Marys. The truth is that there is nothing you or I can do that will ever "earn" us anything from God.

We simply can't. We are not on God's level. You and I are able to merit favor from one another because we share in equal human dignity. If you do a certain amount of work for me, I owe you a certain amount of money. This is a matter of justice. We can enter into contracts and hold one another accountable. We are equals. 

This is not the case between a human and an ant. No matter how good an ant may be at digging tunnels and whatever else it is that ants do, no ant will ever put me in a position of owing it anything. It is incapable of earning anything from me, because it is not my equal.

As far above the ant as we are, even further above us is the Almighty God. We are simply incapable of earning our way to heaven. There is nothing we can do that will make God owe us anything. We will never be "good enough" for heaven. Not on our own.

The only one who can merit God's favor is one who is of equal dignity to God. I'm talking about Jesus Christ, revealed in the Transfiguration as God's divine Son. He and only He is the one of whom God said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

We are saved not by our own efforts but by the efforts of Christ. St. Paul tells us that, "He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to His own design" (2 Tim 1:9). 

Does this mean we should not bother with prayer, fasting or almsgiving? Does this mean we should not strive to grow in virtue? Does this mean we do not have to repent of our sins and follow the moral commandments? No, we must do all of these things. As St. Paul said, we are called to "a holy life." The question becomes why? Not because we think that by doing these things we are meriting heaven, but for other good reasons. 

First, because by doing good and charitable works as baptized Christians, we do them not on our own efforts but with the strength provided by Christ, as a member of His mystical body. We grow in conformity to God's only Son, in whom He is well pleased. God is pleased by Christ's work in us.

Second, because we cannot get to heaven on our own. I don't care how far you walk, drive, swim or fly you simply cannot get there from here. God Himself must reach down to us and draw us up to Himself. This is precisely what He does in Christ. But we cannot ascend to heaven with Christ while we are holding fast to the things of this world. This is why we fast during Lent; to learn detachment from the things that may be holding us back from God.

And third, because we learn through our penance to rely solely on Christ. As Paul says to Timothy, we are to bear our share of hardship for the gospel, with the strength that comes from God (2 Tim 1:8). By bearing small burdens voluntarily for the sake of Christ, we learn to bear the harsher burdens of our fallen world as Christ bore His burden for us on the cross. 

God has only one begotten Son, Jesus Christ. But those who are reborn in Christ become adopted sons and daughters of God. God becomes for us more than our Maker; He is our beloved Father. By living in Christ and cooperating with His grace, we can have sure and certain hope that at the end of our lives we, too, may hear the Father's voice crying out to greet us, "This is my beloved son/daughter, in whom I am well pleased."

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Can Catholics Eat Meat on St. Patrick's Day?

St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday this year, which has many Catholics (of Irish descent or otherwise) wondering whether they can celebrate this day with their traditional corned beef and cabbage. You see, Fridays in Lent are days when Catholics are bound by the law of the Church to abstain from meat. Every time St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday, stories start to float around of special permission being granted for Catholics to eat corned beef. So is there really an exception to our normal Lenten penance for our favorite Irish saint?

Yes and no.

Here's the situation. Every Friday during the year is considered a day of penance according to Canon Law (can. 1250). For most of the year, Catholics in the United States are free to choose how they will observe that penance. However, during Lent, the Friday penance must be observed by abstaining from flesh meat (meaning warm blooded animals, so fish and reptiles are OK). Observing this common penance during Lent helps to foster solidarity in the Church. There is also something to be said for the witness given by practicing a tradition in common.

But there are exceptions. When a solemnity falls on a Friday, that day is not observed as a day of penance. This is because solemnities are celebratory. They are the highest feast days of the Church, and one cannot feast and fast at the same time. So when a solemnity falls on a Friday during Lent (as sometimes happens with the Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19), Catholics do not have to abstain from meat on those days.

So what about St. Patrick? Is his feast day a solemnity? For most of the world, the answer is no. It is not.

We commonly refer to the observance of a saint's day as a "feast" but technically it can be one of several things depending on the saint's prominence and how much emphasis the Church wishes to give to its celebration. At the top of the ranking are solemnities, but then there are feasts, memorials, and optional memorials. This ranking system determines whether a saint's day must be celebrated, or may be celebrated, as well as what observance takes precedence when there are overlaps on the calendar.

To make matters more complicated, the ranking of a saint's feast can also differ based on where you are in the world. St. Patrick's Day is a perfect example. In Ireland and Australia, it is observed as a solemnity. In Scotland, Wales and New Zealand it is observed as a feast. For the rest of the world, including the United States, it is an optional memorial. That means in Ireland and Australia, on Friday, March 17 this year, Catholics are free to eat meat as usual, because that Friday is not a day of penance. But for the rest of the world, the Friday penance still stands.

Unless it doesn't. Individual bishops are free to make exceptions. Why would they do this? A bishop might grant a dispensation if there is a significantly large Irish immigrant population in his diocese, or if St. Patrick is the diocesan patron. Moreover, there are different ways a bishop might do this. He may simply grant an exemption from the Friday abstinence. Or he may, more likely, dispense from the requirement to abstain from meat but still require the faithful in his diocese to observe penance in some other way that day. I have heard of some bishops granting a dispensation to those who participate in a Mass that day. In any case, whatever dispensation an individual bishop chooses to make, it applies only in his diocese and has no effect on Catholics in other parts of the world.

What about the Diocese of Charlotte? To the best of my knowledge, Bishop Peter Jugis has granted no such dispensation allowing Catholics to eat meat on St. Patrick's day this year, corned beef or otherwise. If I hear differently, I will be sure to let everyone know.

In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to honor this beloved saint without eating corned beef. St. Patrick was a holy man, a caring pastor, and friend of Christ. There is no better way to honor him than with our prayers and devotions, by keeping a holy Lent, and preparing ourselves to celebrate with joy the risen Christ at Easter.

Friday, March 3, 2017


1st Sunday of Lent (A)

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The temptation of Christ in the wilderness.
Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to "lead us not into temptation." Yet we know from experience we continue to face temptation every day. Does God not answer this prayer? Of course this is not the case. Our Lord Himself gave us this prayer as the model for all our prayers. What we ask God for in the Lord's Prayer is not to remove all temptation from us, but rather for the strength to resist temptation. To remove temptation entirely would be to remove our free will, for temptation arises any time we are called to make a choice that has moral weight. Even Jesus experienced temptation, though He did not yield to it.

Sometimes we are called to make a choice between something good and something which is clearly evil. These are usually the easiest decisions to make. The hard choice comes when we are tempted to choose a lesser good over a greater good. This is how Satan, the great tempter, operates. We this on display in the readings for the first Sunday of Lent. 

The very first temptation came in the garden of Eden, shortly after the creation of Adam and Eve. God had given our first parents dominion over every plans and animal in the garden. But there was one tree of which they could not eat, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Along comes Satan. The first thing he does is to place himself between Eve and God, causing her to doubt God's word. "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" And again, when Eve tells him that God said they would die if they ate of the fruit, Satan causes her to doubt. "You will certainly not die! God knows that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil."

Satan temps Eve with knowledge. And knowledge is a good thing. So what was wrong with eating of the fruit of the tree? It was not the gaining of knowledge per se, but the gaining of knowledge in the wrong way, at the wrong time. Some theologians have speculated that God intended for Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge when the time was right, when they were ready. Otherwise why would God have put that tree in the garden? Regardless, God clearly told them not to eat of it. Adam and Eve were called to trust God and instead allowed themselves to be beguiled by Satan. They were tempted by the lesser good he seemed to offer them (knowledge) and allowed themselves to mistrust and then to disobey God, their loving Father and Creator. They chose a lesser good at the expense of the greatest good of all, their relationship with God.

Contrast this with our gospel reading, where we see Jesus, too, is tempted by Satan, who is using the exact same tricks. First, he tries to get Jesus to doubt God. "If you are the Son of God..." he begins each time. But this does not work, for Jesus will never doubt His loving Father. 

Satan also tempts Jesus with seemingly good things. "Turn these stones into loves of bread." Bread is a good thing. Jesus was fasting and so was hungry. What can be more good to a hungry person than food? Satan tempts Jesus with power. He offers to give Jesus dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. Imagine the good that Jesus could achieve with that kind of political power. All that Satan asks for in return is that Christ worship him. And this Christ could not do. He would never worship Satan, a creature, over God, the Creator. Jesus would never choose a lesser good at the expense of the greatest good.

Satan is not creative. He is powerful. He is conniving, He is tireless. But he is not creative. When it comes to temptation, He is a one-trick pony. He tempts you and I in the same way that he tempted Jesus in the desert, and Adam and Eve in the garden. He tempts us first by getting us to mistrust God. Did God really say you shouldn't do that...? Surely God wouldn't punish you for that... Surely God wouldn't mind...

Then he offers us something that is seemingly good. Every sin we are tempted to commit has at its heart a kernel of goodness. Otherwise we would not find it attractive. We want love. We want pleasure. We want power. We want affirmation. We want security. We want all of these things. And all of these things are good, as far as they go. But there are right ways and wrong ways to pursue them. And when we seek these good things at the expense of the greatest good, at the expense of our fidelity to God and to His commands, then we fall. We yield to the devil's temptation.

This Lent we should do two things. First, we should reflect back on our lives and identify those times when, like our first parents, we succumbed to the temptations of the devil. Identify those times we have fallen into sin, like Adam and Even, and repent from them. Turn away from them. Come before God humbly in the sacrament of Reconciliation and receive the loving mercy won for us in Christ.

Second, we should pray, every day, for the strength to be like Christ; to resist every effort of Satan to plant the seed of doubt in our hearts and to pull us away from God. We should pray every day to God to "lead us not into temptation," with confidence in our hearts that, with Christ as our helper, we will have the strength to remain true to our loving Father all the days of our lives; that we will have the conviction to never choose a lesser good over the greatest good of all.