My first Lenten Season…

1st Sunday of Lent
Gospel Mk 1:12-15

My first Lenten season occurred while I was in RCIA, many years ago, and since then, the quality of my Lenten experiences have run the scale from worthwhile and beneficial to difficult and discouraging. With of course this being the first Sunday in Lent, I have spent some time reflecting upon my past Lenten experiences, and that has caused me to ask, “What makes the difference?” What makes the difference between a spiritually fulfilling Lenten season that culminates in the joy and celebration of Easter, versus a deflating and discouraging Lenten experience that limits my Easter joy?

As I previously mentioned, my very 1st Lent occurred as I was preparing to join the church as an adult. I remember this experience for many different reasons, but one particularly stands out because in the midst of my conversion journey I came upon a crossroads. I came to a place where my doubts and concerns about joining the church were preventing me from moving forward. I was so troubled in my mind and spirit that I contacted the priest and asked to meet with him to discuss my dilemma. This was during Holy Week, 3 days before I was to be confirmed in the church. I was so troubled by my doubts and questions that by the time I walked into the priest’s office I had made up my mind that I would not confirm. His counsel saved me. He said, “Jason, when you take a journey, any journey, do you know how it will end before it begins?”
“Of course, I don’t!” I answered.
He then said, “If you wait to have all the answers before you start a journey, you will never start your journey.”

In today’s Gospel we are given a little insight to the start, the beginning of Jesus’s journey. The Gospel reads, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.” The Greek word used and translated as “drove” is associated with exorcism. This use of the word implies that that this 40-day period of desertion on which Jesus embarked upon, was both intentional and necessary. Though Mark’s Gospel does not provide us with the details of what exactly occurred in the desert, we do know that he was tempted by Satan, he lived among the wild beasts, and that immediately following its completion Jesus began his public ministry.

Today, however, rather than Jesus’s experience in the desert I would like to focus on the place of his experience, the desert. The desert, as it is presented in the bible, is not just a geographical location, but it also a destination. The biblical desert is where Moses encountered the burning bush. The biblical desert is where the people of God received the stone tablets of God’s Law. The biblical desert is where Elijah heard the gentle whisper of God. In these examples the common thread that binds them is that the desert is the place where God chose to reveal himself.

Whether it is the rocky, arid, desolation of the high mountain, or the sandy, hot, lifeless deserts of Africa and Asia the desert is a place that is resistant to life. It is not an environment conducive to human existence. The things that are necessary for life are not easily obtained in the desert. Water, food, shelter, and companionship are not abundant or readily available. Yet, it is in this environment, this environment of want, struggle, and strife, that God has ordained as the place where he chooses to encounter his people.

I propose to you today that for us, as followers of Christ, the desert is not just a place defined by topography and geography, it is also a space, a period of time, and a journey, too which we have been driven, that is resistant to our spiritual life. In this desert we will feel lonely, abandoned, and often despair. In this desert, our tried and proven spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and study, will become less effective and more difficult, and we will begin to question its purpose and value. In this desert, distractions abound and bring with them doubt and fear. In this desert, we will often ask the unanswerable question of God, “Why… Why, God, are you doing this to me?”

But I remind you that the desert is not just a place of inhospitality, it is also God’s chosen meeting place. It is in the desert that you will hear his voice, find his strength, experience his grace, and receive his comfort. When God calls us to the desert it is not a punishment, it is an invitation. An invitation to encounter him personally, tangibly, and remarkably.

This Lenten season the church has given you the guidance and the instruction, the survival kit if you will, in order that you may be best prepared for your desert journey. This survival kit contains prayer in order that you may find God. It also contains self-sacrifice allowing you the ability to leave behind unnecessary things and habits, and it contains service to others in order that you may not lose your way.

I wish to encourage you to pursue this Lenten season with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Do not let the desert cause you to quit and abandon your pursuit of God. Rely on those around you to be your compass and support in the difficult times and, I wish to leave you this day with the words that the priest gave me to on that day 17 years ago as I walked out of his office, he said, “See you at Easter, and Jason, it will be a great party.”

Today Marks the Beginning of a Journey

Ash Wednesday,

Gospel of Matthew 6:1-16, 16-19

Today marks the beginning of a journey.  An annual journey that will end 6 weeks from now with our Easter celebration.  Unlike other journeys on which we embark, journeys that begin with great anticipation and joy, this journey, our Lenten journey, begins with an atmosphere of sobriety and penitence.  That is not to say that there is no joy in today’s somber observance, for as followers of Christ we are called to live joy filled lives; however, on this day, Ash Wednesday, we acknowledge that this journey is one which requires self-sacrifice and service.

Today is also unique in that we as Catholics take upon ourselves a visible sign of our faith.  A sign that some, perhaps, would chastise and accuse us that in the very act of taking these ashes upon our forehead, we are in fact disobeying the very instructions of Jesus as outlined in today’s Gospel.  I would, however, like to encourage you to confidently live out your faith this day, in the full understanding that the ashes you are about to receive are not a display of righteousness, rather the ashes you are about to receive are in fact a public display of penance and supplication.

Jesus warns his followers to avoid doing righteous deeds in order that others might see them.  Receiving these ashes is not a righteous deed.  Receiving these ashes is in fact a public statement of our desperate need for Christ’s redemption.  As Catholics we are publicly, and in community, acknowledging our dependence upon the very grace of God which he has ordained for the salvation of many.

Finally, I would encourage you all here this day to take a moment and reflect upon the person sitting next to you here in this church.  Remember them, their face, their passion, and their resolve, for not only are we as one community publicly acknowledging our need for salvation, but we are also acknowledging our dependence upon one another.  Our Lenten journey should not be traveled alone.  I assure you that at some moment in the next 6 weeks you will falter, struggle, or waffle in your commitment.  You will encounter a person, an event, or a circumstance that will challenge your resolve and diminish your hope.  And it is during those moments, those moments when our true self, and our true dependence upon the grace of God, come into crystal clear focus, I ask you to pray, and to look to one another for help.

Our public sign of penitence is not only a reminder of our human condition and our need for salvation, but it is also a beacon.  A beacon to our Catholic brothers and sisters calling to them to be our aid in times of struggle.  This Lenten Journey upon which this day we embark is not a lonesome journey.  Rather, it is a journey to be traveled together, in both prayer and encouragement, one for another, as we eagerly anticipate the celebration to come.

So for Those of You

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 1:40-45

So for those of you who might be unaware I would like to remind you that this coming Wednesday, February 14, Ash Wednesday, is also Valentine’s Day. A friend of mine shared with me that since he could not participate in both the celebration of their love and in the penitent attitude of Ash Wednesday, he had to tell his wife, “Honey, don’t worry I will get you something next year.”
Now, please do not make my friend your example. I believe that most of you are capable of chewing gum and walking at the same time, so it should be possible to celebrate both Valentine’s Day and participate in Ash Wednesday without too much inconvenience. Besides, what better way to show love for your mate but through a little fasting and prayer.
With that being said, I thought it would be a good time to refresh our liturgical memories about the practice and purpose of Lent. The season of Lent finds its beginning in the Church as early as the 2nd century as early Christians prepared themselves for the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord by engaging in fasting and prayer immediately preceding the feast day. The liturgy for this season then developed throughout the next 5 centuries and by the 7th century the 6-week season of Lent, as observed by the modern Church today, was established.
So what is the purpose of this season of Lent? Lent is a period of time during which we prepare ourselves for the renewal of our baptismal commitment by abstaining from sin and praying for the continual conversion of our hearts. In order to get the most out of this period of preparation The Church encourages us to practice the “3- S’s”; Seek; Serve; and Sacrifice.
Seeking is accomplished through prayer and reading of scripture. So, during the next 6 weeks I encourage you to create for yourself space and time to engage in prayer and study. Service is accomplished by not only the giving of “alms”, or your treasure, but also through the giving of your time and talents. The third “s”, sacrifice, is accomplished through fasting, or more generically, self-denial. When we abstain from chocolate, coffee, beer, and other types of indulgence we allow ourselves the opportunity to discover our true nature, and more importantly our true dependence on God and his mercy for our sustenance.
However, I must point out that in order to truly appreciate our Lenten experience and ultimately achieve the grace intended we must go beyond just the adherence to rules, and to that end I ask you to reflect on today’s Gospel.
In today’s Gospel we see Jesus going about the business of being Jesus. In other words, engaging in the ordinary work of doing extraordinary works. On his journey from town to town he is approached by a person who is suffering from leprosy. In ancient Palestine leprosy was a diagnosis given to an individual who was suffering from a noticeable skin condition. Jewish law was very specific about the diagnosis of leprosy, and as today’s 1st reading indicates the life of the individual suffering from this diagnosis was a life lived very much on the outside.
In ancient Palestine a person suffering had no status. That person had to alter their appearance ensuring that wherever they went they were recognized as unclean and unworthy. Because they lacked status, they were excluded. They could no longer participate in their community. They couldn’t go to public places, engage in work and commerce, nor could they participate in worship. They were excluded from the normal everyday routine of living. Finally, a person with a diagnosis of leprosy in ancient Palestine had no recourse. They had no way of getting back in, unless of course they were healed, and at that time there were no effective treatments for a condition that had no specific diagnosis. In essence, a person suffering from the diagnosis of leprosy existed in a constant state of shame.
The significance of today’s Gospel is not that Jesus healed a man with leprosy, he had been healing people since the beginning of his ministry. The significance of today’s Gospel is found in the faith of a man who had no status, who was excluded from public life, and had no hope…except… for his hope in the healing touch of Jesus. And it is in that faith, the faith that Jesus could heal him, that this man found purpose, inclusion, and hope. It is in that faith, through which, and by which, Jesus looked upon him, and with compassion reached out and touched him, and he was healed.
I propose to you today that we have more in common with that suffering man of the Gospel then we would be willing to admit. You see sin, in it’s many different forms, in it’s many different manifestations, and with it’s many different symptoms, has for us the same consequence as leprosy. Sin causes us to live in shame. Sin causes us to exclude ourselves from our community. Sin steals our hope. When we allow ourselves to exist in a state of sin, we allow ourselves to exist on the outside, away from the love, grace, and abundant mercy of God our Father.
Our challenge this Sunday before Ash Wednesday, as we enter this season of Lent, is to imitate the faith of the leper. To approach our savior humbly, on our knees, recognizing that he is the only cure for our disease. Our disease of sin, no matter it’s manifestation, can only be cured through the forgiveness made possible by the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our challenge, is also, this Sunday before Ash Wednesday, as we enter this season of Lent, is to respond with the compassion of Jesus. As we interact with those who are suffering; those who are without status; those who have been excluded; and those who have no hope, we too should respond to them with compassion. The same compassion modeled by Jesus, who ignored social customs and norms, and reached out to the most marginalized and ostracized individual in that society and brought him back into community.
This Lenten season, as we seek God, serve others, and engage in self-sacrifice we will do so from the humble, faith-filled position of the leper. And, having discovered the only source of hope for our salvation in the very body and blood of Jesus Christ, we will share that same hope with those around us who are in desperate need of the healing touch of Jesus.

I Have a Chair in my House

Gospel of St. Mark: 1:29-39
I have a chair in my house that sits in the corner of my living room next to a large book case full of books, a small table on the other side, and a lamp that my mother-in-law gave to us. I set this chair in the corner of the living room for a purpose. I wanted a quiet place. A place to sit peacefully, undisturbed, and alone so that I could study and pray.
I remember that the first time I sat in this chair. It was early in the morning, still dark, and the house was quiet. I had a book that I had been eagerly wanting to read and I wanted to pray. The light from the lamp was warm and soft, the atmosphere and environment were perfect, and it was exactly the space that I intended it to be. I opened the book to begin my study and pray, and PROMPTLY FELL ASLEEP. In fact, I was so comfortable in my perfectly designed space of prayer and study that I did not wake up until my wife shook me awake asking if I was intending to go to work that day because I had less than ½ hour to get there.
I tell you this story this morning as an example of the exact opposite of what we read in the Gospel of St. Mark.
Today’s Gospel could best be described as “A day in the Life of Jesus”. In total, scholar’s tell us, that Jesus’s ministry lasted approximately 3 years. Therefore, the stories we read in the Gospel are not a comprehensive biography, but rather reflect moments and events in the ministry life of Jesus. Each of the writers of the Gospels chose moments and events in Jesus’s life in order to communicate a specific message and theme, and the theme for today, I propose, is ordinary.
Now, I am not saying that what Jesus did was ordinary, or that he himself was ordinary. The healing of St. Peter’s mother-in-law, the casting out demons, and relieving suffering are indeed extraordinary, but for Jesus, this is why He came. Jesus came for that purpose. The purpose to preach the Good News that God’s Kingdom has come, to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and make the lame walk. These extraordinary miracles were, for Jesus, an ordinary day’s work.
So, if you would allow me a little artistic freedom I would like to put today’s Gospel into a more modern context in hopes that we might gain a better understanding of the theme of today’s Gospel:
On the Sabbath, Jesus and his recently recruited followers Peter, Andrew, James, & John, head over to the home of Peter’s mother-in-law, in order to chill and process the events that just occurred in the Synagogue. If you remember from last week’s Gospel Jesus had stood up in the Synagogue, preached with an authority not previously heard by anyone, and then capped off his brilliant homily by casting out a demon from a possessed man with a single word. Imagine if you will that Jesus sort of did a “mic drop” in front of a stunned and amazed audience and then walked out of the synagogue.
They are over at Peter’s mother-in-law’s place and she has got a fever and is not doing very well. Jesus goes to where she is lying down, grabs her by the hand, helps her up, and bam!, she feeling great. She heads to the kitchen to start getting dinner ready and Jesus and his followers just sort of hang out in the living room talking about stuff.
The sun goes down, Sabbath is now officially over, and people are free from rules that limit activity and travel on the Sabbath, and Peter gets up from the couch and looks out the window to see the whole town standing on the front lawn. Now what I am about to say next isn’t recorded in the Gospel, but I am pretty sure the conversation went like this. Peter said, “Whoa…Jesus there are whole lot of people standing on the lawn.” Jesus, gets up, looks outside, and says, “Cool. I got this.”
Now it’s late, Peter has chased the last of the people off his lawn, and they are all tired and go to bed. It’s morning, Peter and the rest of the followers, wake up and can’t believe what they saw the night before. All those people getting healed…all those demons getting cast out, and they start making plans. Peter starts looking for venues in town that will hold a lot of people, because the neighbors will start to complain if all these people show up on his lawn again. James gets a hold of a printing company to order t-shirts that say “fishers of men” on them and sell them for $10 bucks a piece. John, is setting up a Facebook page, and Andrew’s putting together a backup band in order to keep the crowds entertained between performances. In essence, they are putting together the “Jesus Show”.
Now they have all this stuff set in motion and then they realize something, or more importantly, someone, is missing from their activity…Jesus. They frantically search the house. They go outside, organize a search party, and eventually they find him, all alone, in a quiet place, praying. They run up to him and say, “Jesus, man that was awesome what you did last night. Wait till you see what we have set up for you. We booked the event center, made t-shirts, got a band, and you have already 10,000 likes on your Facebook page.”
Jesus says, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come”, and he walks to the next town.
Jesus came to heal the sick and relieve suffering. He came to make the extraordinary ordinary. He came that those who follow him would also follow his example. Our challenge this day is to do the same. We are to engage in the ordinary. The ordinary work of providing comfort and relief to those who are suffering. To heal with a touch or a kind word. To provide comfort to the suffering. To help those who need help. To share what we have in abundance with those who are lacking. We are to treat each day and each encounter as an opportunity to share his love to those who are in need.
We are to also pray. We are to pray for our families, friends, associates, and, yes, even our enemies. We are to pray for the church and those who serve. We are to pray asking God for his mercy, grace, and strength so that we can engage in the ordinary work to which we have been called.
We are to be ordinary so that He can be extraordinary. Today, I encourage you, to do the work. Do that to which you have been called to do. Get up early to pray. Stay up late helping a neighbor. Take a moment to visit a friend. Share what you have with someone who has not, and engage in the ordinary so that Christ can do the extraordinary.