There was time in my life when I thought I was done.

5th Sunday of Lent
Gospel of John 12:20-30

There was time in my life when I thought I was done. To be honest, there have a few moments and experiences in my span of 48 years when I felt like it was over. Moments when I was convinced that everything I had worked for, hoped for, and believed in were about to be wiped away, erased from the record, amounting for nothing. Fortunately for me, and for those of you who have also experienced similar such moments, those moments are just that… a moment. A period of time, some more brief than others, that pass away and move on into the past.

Here we are just a few weeks away from the end of our Lenten journey, and it is in today’s Gospel that we find Jesus having a similar moment. This moment when all that he had worked for, and all that he had hoped for, and all that he believed in was being put to the test. We read his words “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say, ‘Father save me from this hour?’ But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.”

Jesus, in his hour, the hour for which he came, spoke to his followers about a single grain of wheat. In a single grain of wheat there is exponentially more, however, that potential cannot be achieved unless it first dies. I read one biblical scholar who describe this reality in this way, “A grain of wheat is ineffective and unfruitful as long as it is preserved.”

For those of us who know the end of this story, we modern day Christians, understand that when Jesus was talking about a single grain of wheat he was also talking about himself. Those who were standing next to Jesus at that moment and time lacked the perspective of history. They could not have understood that Jesus was describing the necessity of his passion, death, and resurrection for their salvation. But we do. We have the ability to look back, with the perspective of history, and read his words, trace his steps, and hear the accounts of others knowing that Jesus was speaking about his own manner of death and subsequent resurrection.

That part we get. (This is the part when all of God’s people say, ‘amen’!) What we often time fail to hear, or at least obey, in these words of Jesus is that we too must give our lives so that we too may have eternal life.

The words I quoted a moment before, “A grain of wheat is ineffective and unfruitful as long as it is preserved” take on a new meaning and intent when we apply them to ourselves. Jesus was not just referencing himself in this example, he was also setting a standard for those of who follow him. We must give of ourselves in order that we too may become effective and fruitful.

This Lenten season you have been asked to seek God through prayer, serve God by serving others, and find our dependence upon God through self-sacrifice. All of these spiritual disciplines, exercises if you will, are designed to teach us and assist us in “giving up” our life in order that we may be used by God for his greater glory.

During those time in life… those dark times. Those moments when if feels as if the doors are being shut and hope is all but extinguished. It is those moments, when life is raw, unfiltered, and unrelenting when faith is but a thread. It is those moments when we must place our hope in God, just as Jesus did when he said, “Father, glorify your name.” Our example and model, Jesus, has asked us to place our lives, our hopes, and eternal salvation into the very hands of God.

The dark moments in life have come and will come again. We will not be exempted from those, but what we will be exempted from is despair. For just as Jesus was tested, so shall we. Just as Jesus came up against doubt and fear, so shall we. Just as Jesus surrendered his will to the Father, so should we. And, just as Jesus was glorified so shall we.

There is an early church tradition about St. Moses the Ethiopian…

4th Sunday of Lent
Gospel of John 3:14-21

There is an early church tradition about St. Moses the Ethiopian, a 4th century saint, and his spiritual mentor, St. Isidore. St. Moses the Ethiopian was a physically intimidating man who was known for his ruthlessness, brutality, and life of crime long before he was known as a saint. It was shortly after St. Moses the Ethiopian had turned his back on his former life and was struggling to remain faithful to his conversion, that he and his mentor, St. Isidore, sat on the roof of the monastery all through the night for the singular purpose of watching the sun rise. After the sun had fully risen St. Isidore turned to St. Moses the Ethiopian and said, “See how long it takes for the light to drive away the darkness of night?… It is the same with the soul.”

The word Lent itself comes from an Anglo-Saxon word for springtime, lencten. It describes the gradual lengthening of the daylight after the winter solstice. Today, I would suggest, that it is possible that we too wish we had an English word that best describes the lengthening of the daylight and the shortening of the night; for it seems that winter may yet last another 3 months. However, in spite of our intolerance of winter, and in spite of our complaints, we eagerly look forward to spring, the changing of the season, the re-birth.

Our Lenten journey has thus far been a journey that has lead us deeper into the desert. Though our destination is drawing closer with each passing step we are keenly aware that our journey has caused us to travel farther from comfort and ease as it has brought us greater trial, toil, and struggle. At this point in our journey we have experienced tests and temptations that go beyond the discomfort of penance and self-sacrifice. We have now begun to face the insecurities and doubts that accompany the confrontation of our limitations, deficiencies, and failings. It is at this point in our Lenten journey when we are forced to re-align our expectations with the realities of the cost of true discipleship. It is also, at this point in our Lenten journey, when we have opportunity to experience the grace, forgiveness, mercy, and love of God.

The best description for today, this 4th Sunday of Lent, is that the pre-dawn is upon us. The Church encourages us today to begin to shift our gaze from the path to the horizon, and the beginning of the rising of the Son. St. John the Evangelist reminds us that the Light of the world, Jesus, has come into the world so that we may have eternal life. The Light of the world, Jesus the Christ, a gift from God both in his humanity and by his sacrifice, has come into this world to be the light in the darkness. The Light of the World, our Savior, has come into this world that we may not be condemned but have hope in his resurrection.

One of my favorite moments of the day occurs in the early hour before the rising of the sun. That moment, in the pre-dawn, when all of creation begin to stir and arise in hope to the promise of the day. The birds have not yet begun their song in earnest; yet, much like a musician warming up an instrument, they prepare for their part in the chorus of the dawn.

Today our Lenten journey is just like that moment. Full in the confidence in the promises of Jesus I ask you to turn your heats and your minds to the horizon and prepare yourself to celebrate the dawn of Christ, the rising of the Son, the new day in our pilgrimage here on this earth.

In the Midst of Our Lenten Journey

3rd Sunday of Lent
Gospel of John 2: 13-25

About now, in the midst of our Lenten journey, we may find ourselves wondering if the self-sacrifice, prayer, and service are really worth it. It is likely that some of us have already encountered significant tests and trials on our journey through the desert, and it may be possible that some of us have begun the process of giving up. Yes, you heard me correctly, I said, “have begun” giving up. We very rarely give up suddenly or spontaneously because that is not our typical human response to difficulty. Typically, when we endeavor on a path of change and growth our decision to abandon that path starts with a shadow, a shade, or a phantom of doubt that then grows into discouragement and despair eventually resulting in the abandonment of the journey.

I recall many times sitting in my counseling office listening to broken and discouraged individuals attempt to explain their failed attempts at recovery and change. They would sit in my office in shock, dismay, and shame as they described a “spontaneous” relapse into their old familiar destructive behaviors. Invariably they would claim they had no idea why, or how, or what lead up to their relapse.

Sadly, in almost all cases, they were wrong. Their relapse was not a sudden and definite change in direction, but rather it was a gradual and almost imperceptible drift from the path. The reality of the situation was not that they had decided to stray, but rather they ignored the warning signs. The warning signs that they were drifting from the course. The key to preventing relapse is recognizing those signs…and believe it or not that leads us today’s Gospel; John’s account of Jesus cleansing the temple.

In the time of Jesus, the Temple Mount was the center of Jewish religious life. The Temple building itself was small and could fit inside the infield of a professional baseball field. However, the structures around it, the plaza, the porticos, the columns, the staircases would have covered close to 10 football fields. Immediately inside the outer walls of the Temple Mount was a large open-aired space known as the Court of Gentiles, and it was there that Jesus encountered the sellers of oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers. It was there in the Court of the Gentiles that the majority of the people would have been gathered, especially in the days leading up to Passover, engaging in the business of buying and selling and trading. It was there that Jesus demanded that his Father’s house no longer be treated as a marketplace, and it was there where Jesus asserted his authority.

The challenge for us today, this 3rd Sunday of lent, is to place ourselves into this Gospel narrative and ask ourselves, “how are we treating our Father’s House?” Just as Jesus responded to his critics, so too I ask you to identify where does God reside in your life? Does he exist outside of you, in a building, or structure? Does he exist in thought; or in your mind, as a creation of your own mental understanding? Does he exist in rituals, rites, or in your personal exercises of righteousness? No! God does not exist in building or structures, nor is he a creation of your thoughts. God exists in you, personally and experientially.

Our Lenten journey is a response to God calling us to draw nearer to him; and in order to do that, we must be willing to allow ourselves to be cleansed. However, before we can be cleansed we must first become aware of how far we have strayed from the path. Today is an excellent day to engage in self-examination and honestly evaluate your progress on your desert journey. Re-examine your commitment to prayer, self-sacrifice, and service. Evaluate your behaviors, your language, and your relationships. Are you moving closer to God? Or, are you drifting from the path back towards the comfortable and enticing habits that prevented you from growing in faith and service?

Everyday the events, circumstances, and business of walking this pilgrim’s journey, we call life, can distract us from seeking God. Our financial, physical, and emotional health are under constant bombardment by the daily functions and realities of living in this imperfect world. We encounter disappointment, and in turn we become discouraged, that eventually creates doubt, that leads to fear. Once we become fearful, we become angry. Angry towards God, ourselves, and our neighbor.

Our goal today is to recognize where and how we have managed to stray from the path on which God has called us to journey. We must recognize the authority of Jesus, and his power, as a guide and an aid, and call out to him to cleanse our temple of all the distractions that have taken up residence there. We must recognize one another as fellow pilgrims along this desert journey and lift and carry one another’s burdens knowing that God has called us to serve him through serving each other.

We must not let our disappointments and hardships put us on the path of fear and anger. Rather, we must trust in the promises of Jesus Christ our savior knowing that by his authority and through his power we will be filled with hope…and hope does not disappoint.

Garage Doors

2nd Sunday of Lent

Gospel of Mark 9:2-10

Garage doors. I want to talk to you, this 2nd Sunday of Lent, about Garage doors. I assume that my home is no different than many of your own homes in that there are things, mechanisms, windows, and doors that are in need of repair. I also recognize the unwritten rule that when one thing is fixed, another breaks, and in the process of repairing that item another problem is discovered, and that one has to be fixed before you can fix the problem you started to fix in the first place. For me, this week, it was the garage door.

How the garage door broke is of little significance. That it did break and how I responded to the broken garage door is what is important. I confess to you my brothers and sisters in Christ, that I lost my mind. I went from a happy pleasant start of my day to instantaneous outrage and exasperation. I am making no small matter of this garage door incident. I literally went from hope filled to despair…despairing of all things good and decent in a split second. God forgive me.

I am amazed at how often a small insignificant matter can upset and/or disrupt my true desire to live at peace with God, my neighbor, and myself. I marvel at my humanity, or more specifically, my weakness. The church describes this weakness and inclination to sin as concupiscence and though I do not wish to talk to you this day about sin and weakness it is necessary for us to understand its reality. Our Christian faith is hardwired for difficulty. In fact, and I may be speaking for myself at this point, however, I do believe some of you may agree with me when I say, at times, there appears to be more difficulty in the picking up of your cross and following Jesus, than there is comfort.

And, believe it or not, that is where we find hope in today’s Gospel. Today’s Gospel is the transfiguration. For us, followers of Christ, the transfiguration, is no small matter. For it is in these 8 verses of Mark that we find hope. In these 8 verses we see a moment of Jesus’s divine glory and that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the one to come, pointed too by the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament. In these 8 verses we also find the presence of the trinity; God the father in the voice, the Son in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the cloud covering them all. In these 8 verses we find the confusion of Peter, James, and John and their lack of understanding regarding the necessity of the suffering and death that Jesus must endure. In all of these, we modern day followers of Christ are able to find hope.

Hope is the virtue we desire and expect from God both for eternal life and the grace we need to attain it. Hope (as are the other theological virtues of faith, and charity) is essential to our Christian walk. For in hope we find joy and strength to endure the tests, trials, and tribulations of our pilgrimage here on earth. In hope we look forward to the promise of Christ for eternal life and glory. In hope we aspire to build God’s Kingdom here on earth that we may receive the reward and the praise of, “well done my good and faithful servant.” And it is hope, that the Apostle Paul points to in today’s 2nd reading when he asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

So I ask you, “How is your Lent going?” Have you remained faithful to your commitments? Have you been seeking God through prayer in the manner and method you planned? Have you stayed true to your fast? Your self-sacrifice? Your self-denial? Have you been serving others? Giving your treasure, time, and talent to those who are in need? Have you supported others in their Lenten journey?

Some of you have already faced obstacles, struggles, and road blocks. Some of you have experienced loss. Loss of health, loss of relationships, and even some of you may have already experienced the loss of death in your family or friends. Some of you have already despaired, or have been discouraged, and may have even given up on your Lenten journey.

Today I ask you if that is you. If you have already lost your hope, please open yourself to it once again. Trust in today’s Gospel message of the promise of eternal life and joy. Trust in the example of Abraham whose willingness to be put to the test resulted in a Promise and in abundant blessings. Trust in each other as you journey together that through love and fellowship with one another you will find encouragement and support.
Finally, do not let the failure of a man kind invention, such as garage door, set you back on your journey, rather, put your trust in Jesus Christ, who for a moment, shared his glorification with his disciples, in order that we may share in their testimony and find hope in the life, passion, death, and resurrection of our savior.

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.