Monday, February 15, 2016

Monday of the First Week in Lent

(Leviticus 19:1-2.11-18; Matthew 25:31-46)

The Scripture readings today strike a balance between negative and positive actions.  Leviticus emphasizes the former with a list of “You shall not(s).”  The gospel, on the other hand, accentuates the positive.  It predicts Jesus reminding the nations at the end of time that they are being judged on what they did for the little people of the world.  If they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the imprisoned, they will be judged worthy of salvation.

We might ask which is more important, to avoid doing what is wrong or to do what is right?  In medicine, at least, an answer to this question seems to emerge.  The Hippocratic Oath, which physicians have taken for centuries, clearly sides with the need to avoid evil.  After promising to offer dietetic measures to heal the sick, budding physicians swear not to do a series of evils: hasten death, induce abortion, and molest patients or householders whom they visit. 

It is fair to conclude that avoiding harm is essential but insufficient.  If love is the supreme virtue, it entails that we act positively toward others.  If we cannot do anything directly to support them, then we should at least pray that their needs be met.  During Lent we redouble efforts to examine our lives daily with two questions in mind.  We ask ourselves, “What evil have I done today?” and “What good have I failed to do?”

Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday after Ash Wednesday

(Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 9:14-15)

Abraham Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” has been acclaimed as his greatest speech.  Yet it criticizes the nation in a way that would be unthinkable today.  It says, “(God) gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”  This means that as both northern and southern states profited by slavery, God has now punished both sides.  But the speech goes beyond recalling the sins of the nation.  It also hints of reform by indicating the resolve to settle the costs of the war “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”  However so much the “Second Inaugural” demonstrates Lincoln’s skill as an orator, it shows him as a prophet in line with Isaiah in today’s first reading.

The prophet declares God’s frustration with the offerings of the people.  He sees them as manipulative of God’s love, not submissive to God’s dominion.  He chastises the people for quarrelling over whose sacrifice is sufficient rather than showing communal remorse for sins committed.  But the tenor of the prophecy is ultimately not negative.  It also describes the sacrifice that pleases God.  It calls the people beyond individual displays of asceticism to communal solidarity with the suffering. 

We might ask ourselves then if any fasting is desirable.  The answer to the query should be self-evident.  Not only does the Church prescribe an acceptable fast for Lent, but Jesus indicates its appropriateness in today’s gospel.  But we must remember not to fast to show off individual ability to endure hardship.  No, we fast to recognize our common need for God’s mercy.

Thrusday, February 11, 2016

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

(Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 9:22-25)

When Mexican forces besieged the Alamo, the commander of the fortress was William Travis.  He knew that the situation was dire.  According to a popular legend, he drew a line in the ground with his sword.  He then told the Alamo’s defenders that they had a choice.  He said that they could either leave the compound or they could cross the line he had drawn and fight the Mexicans until death.  In the readings today both Moses and Jesus figuratively draw such a line in the sand.

In the first reading Moses gives the Israelites a clear option.  They may choose life by fulfilling the Lord’s commandments in the land which they are about to enter.  On the other hand, they may ignore the commands, worship foreign gods, and find themselves perishing.  Jesus’ option is similar.  His disciples may either imitate his self-denial in pursuit of divine love, or they may follow their own often selfish instincts. 

Each Lent we are to renew our decision to follow Jesus.  Like athletes training for the Olympics, we follow him by disciplining our bodies.  We want them to respond effortlessly to the promptings of his Spirit.  Of course, it is hard at first.  Not drinking coffee or daily kneeling down to say the rosary seems like self-inflicted torture.  But we soon realize that the sacrifices have palpable benefits and that they do not last very long.  More importantly, we come to realize that Jesus supports us.  We don’t find Lent the drudgery that some imagine.  Rather we come to know it as the springboard of life.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday

(Isaiah 2:12-18; II Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6.16-18)

Six years ago thirty-three miners were trapped a third of a mile below the desert in Chile.  They were men of different temperaments and different religions.  Some were willing to do anything that might set them free.  Others were resigned to wait out there fate.  There were faithful Catholics, fervent evangelicals, Jehovah Witnesses, and confirmed atheists.  They would never have prayed together on the outside.  But here supplication was the glue that held them together.  “We are not the best of men, Lord,” they prayed.  But have mercy on us.”  They also confessed their sins to one another.  One said that drank too much.  Another, that he became angry too quickly.  Another, that he was not the best of fathers to his daughter.  And so, all humbled themselves before God.  This is our task before us during Lent.

We have forty days to recognize our sinfulness and ask God’s mercy.  Some of us will confess the same sins as the miners.  Others will want to admit being concupiscent as youths.  Others that they have been arrogant, contemptuous and intolerant – sins that bothered Jesus so much.  We need to free our consciences of the burdens that have prevented us from giving witness to God.  We also want to discern how we might more fully carry out God’s will.

During this time of repentance we pay greater attention to the traditional acts of piety.  We fast from food to remind ourselves of our dependence on God.  We assist the poor in thanks to God who has been so good to us.  And we pray harder and more often that we may be faithful ambassadors of God.  As the second reading has it, we want to move others to similar recognition of faults and commitment to service.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Kings 8:22-23.27-30; Mark 7:1-13)

Lay evangelist Matthew Kelly is advising people not to give up chocolate for Lent.  Rather he wants listeners to follow his daily program of reflection and action.  No doubt he will show them how to go beyond performing superficial actions.  He will prompt them to give their whole lives to the Lord.  His dismissal of fasting from chocolate approximates Jesus’ critique of Pharisaical practices in today’s gospel.

Jesus takes the Pharisees to task for minding the shell and not the kernel of the Law.  He finds their concern about purifying their hands before eating as if they were preparing to offer Temple sacrifice pompous.  He would say that if they really desired to please God they should help the needy.

It is not wrong nor is it very hard to give up chocolate.  We might begin our Lenten penance in that way.  But we need to go far beyond that.  Giving the money saved on sweets to assist the poor is a small step in the right direction.  Let us exert ourselves every day to become a blessing for others.