Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Defeat, God’s Victory (Palm Sunday)


I won’t ask what you did for Lent. I haven’t asked anyone that since the time one of our young parishioners replied that he’d given up red meat, cold showers, and alcohol—and then innocently asked me what I’d given up.

Actually, I would be willing to tell you about my failed Lenten resolutions, but all I can really remember is forgetting them!

Has your Lent been like that?  Good resolutions at the start, but not much to brag about at the finish?

If your Lent hasn’t been a great spiritual success, I offer two last-minute proposals.

First, I suggest you give up something for Lent. No, not candy or coffee or dessert—it’s a bit late for that. I suggest we give up trying to please God by our own efforts.

Thinking we can prove ourselves to God is one of the great traps of the spiritual life. It always leads to failure, and to the conclusion that we’ll never make it since we’re just too weak and sinful.

The fact is, God has already done the heavy lifting—God has already made it possible for us to please him: not by our efforts, but by the death of His only Son.

That’s why we read the long and painful story of the Passion twice this week. It’s proof that we don’t need to “achieve” our salvation; in fact, we can’t.  Jesus has done it for us.  In His humanity, our humanity suffered.  In His humanity, our humanity accomplished what needed to be done to reconcile sinful humanity to God.

So even if we’ve felt like losers this Lent, we can be victors. The Passion is the first chapter of the greatest victory in all history. Jesus has shared it with us, and all we need to do is place our hope in him rather than in ourselves.

My second proposal is one I make every year: celebrate fully the sacred Triduum—the three days that take us from Lent to Easter.

The Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. We recall the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood, and Christ’s example of charity as he washed the feet of his apostles.

On Good Friday, of course, we read the Passion for a second time, and enter into it even more fully than we did today, through prayer, fasting, and abstinence. We pray with special fervour for the needs of the whole world and the entire Church.

On Holy Saturday night we celebrate the greatest of all the liturgies in the Church, the Easter Vigil. We mark the Passover from darkness to light, from death to life, and we celebrate the sacraments of Christian initiation. Not surprisingly, when Mass is over we have a party to welcome some ten new members of the Church.

Whether your Lent’s been the best-ever or the worst-ever, do yourself a big spiritual favour and celebrate all three of the Triduum liturgies. God will not disappoint you.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Open the Eyes of My Heart: Mass for the Second Scrutiny

Since we are celebrating the Rite of Christian Initiation with our catechumens this Sunday, the readings used are those of Year A, which are read in conjunction with the Mass for the Second Scrutiny.

It was an electrifying week at our parish. Monday's windstorm knocked a live power line across the driveway, meaning no-one could get in or out. And that's not all—the church, school and rectory had no power, light or heat.

God knew that I wasn't prepared for the shock. So it all happened while I was up in Whistler, blissfully unaware that the schoolchildren were sitting in the dark and poor Father Xavier was finding his away about the house with a flashlight right up till bedtime.

Small wonder that Jesus says we can't work in the dark. We need light to carry on our main activities. You can't study without light, cook without light, or even get around safely without light, which is one of the reasons we had to close the school and find a way to get the children off the property through the back gate.

The crew running the Alpha Course had a challenge even greater than evacuating the school. They were supposed to prepare dinner for more than seventy people—in a kitchen with no windows. The evening centers on a video, which you can't show without power.

But they showed what it means to be children of the light. They lit up the pitch-black kitchen with the little votive candles people light by the statues; they rented a generator; they served dinner by candlelight. In the words of the first chapter of St. John's Gospel, they showed that "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

It's a fair bet that this Monday miracle was a powerful lesson for those at Alpha. Among other things, it showed what happens when people work together with zeal and joy. But more than that, the candlelit dinner reminded everyone at the table of St. Peter's words: "You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." (2 Pt 1:19b)

But let's turn our attention to a full-blown miracle, the one Jesus works in today's Gospel of the man born blind, which we read today in connection with the rite of scrutiny we are celebrating this morning. What does this miracle teach us all?

We know that light and darkness, day and night, are potent symbols in the Scriptures. Jesus says he is the light of the world, and amazingly he also says that we are the light of the world. St. Paul talks about "unfruitful works of darkness," and about the purifying power of exposing our shameful deeds to the light of day. The night that Jesus speaks about is the night of death, the night that stops in our tracks.

The miracle is a lot less complicated than St. John's rather longwinded account suggests. It's almost homey in its details, and everyone speaks their part plainly and simply. Everyone, that is, except Jesus.

Jesus shows himself to be the perfect Teacher in this miracle. He starts by telling us what he's doing: he is revealing God's works. It's the reason the man was born blind, and it's the reason Jesus heals his blindness: that God's works might be revealed in him.

The day Jesus speaks of is the day of the Lord; the night is Satan's hour when God's mighty works are eclipsed until the Resurrection is shown as God's "supreme and wholly marvelous work," as St. Augustine calls it.

The disciples asked Jesus: "who sinned? The man or his parents?" We know the answer: not him, not them, but us. This healing isn't about one blind beggar but about all of us, blinded by sin and selfishness.

Today's Gospel, used for centuries to prepare men and women for baptism, always makes me think of the line from the hymn "Amazing Grace": I was blind, but now I see. But at the same time, I think of a modern song, with the refrain "Open the eyes of my heart, Lord. I want to see you."

Those of us who are baptized have been called from darkness into light. St. Paul tells us that Christians are "light in the Lord." Lent is a challenge to rekindle the divine fire inside of us by prayer and penance, by taking stock.

St. Paul offers some very concrete advice about self-examination: "Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord." Don't just think about your sins, but try to figure out one or two things you can do to make God glad. Spend some time thinking about what is good and true—and make a plan for positive change. Perhaps we overshot the mark with our Lenten sacrifices, and we were back on Facebook or drinking our Starbucks a week after Ash Wednesday. That doesn't mean we can't shift our Lenten gears and decide to make some positive changes in our lives, right here and now. Try to find out what would please the Lord.

Of course good resolutions aren't the whole story. The Apostle also reminds us that we need to expose our dark side to the healing light of Christ —especially the hidden sins we can't quite face up to. Are we living in the light or skulking around in the dark? Sin can't stand the light; when it's hauled out in the open, repentance follows naturally. The more shame we feel about the sin, the truer this is.

To those preparing for baptism, today's readings aren't so much a challenge as an invitation. By now, the catechumens have been on the journey long enough that Jesus can say to them the same words he said to the man born blind: "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." And they are now ready to respond "Lord, I believe."

The Alpha "miracle" turned a flop into a feast; it made light shine in the darkness. We can do the same if the lights went out on our Lent. All it takes is admitting our blindness, and asking the Holy Spirit to lead us "out of the darkness and into God's marvelous light." (1 Pt 2:9b)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Rules Flow From Relationship (Lent 3B)

Please help me out this morning by imagining you missed your best friend's wedding. That's hard to imagine nowadays, with low airfares, but perhaps you were exploring the Amazon or recovering from surgery.

A few months pass, and finally you get together with your friend. "Tell me what marriage is like," you ask him eagerly.

"Oh, it's really amazing," he replies. "I have to come home at night, I don't go on holidays without her, and I put the toilet seat down."

What chances would you give that marriage?

And yet that's the way some people talk about the Christian faith—as if it were more about rules than about a relationship: mostly dos and don'ts.

On the other hand, what chances would you give to a marriage where the husband didn't come home at night, and went on holidays without his wife?

The point is that the basic rules of marriage follow from the relationship; they're not the heart of it but a logical consequence of love. Of course some rules aren't quite so basic: we follow them because the one we love asks us to. "Darling," your friend's wife may have said, "It drives me crazy when you leave the seat up."

Understanding this is terribly important. We had an all-day session of the Alpha Course yesterday, and more than once the video presentation underlined that Christianity is primarily a relationship, not a set of rules. As the Catechism puts it, we are called by baptism into "a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God."

That relationship calls for a certain way of living. But there's a big difference between the rules that come from our relationship with God and the rules that make for a happy marriage—because our spouse is not our Creator. God's rules are not only for our good, but for the good of society and even the planet itself.

Is it an accident that our first reading introduces the Ten Commandments with these words: "I am the Lord… who brought you out of the house of slavery"? God's law opens the door to human freedom, while sin enslaves.

As Pope Benedict said recently, Christian moral teaching is a message of liberation, not of constraint. The Gospel proposes unchanging moral truths precisely as the key to human happiness and "the basis for building a secure future." [Ad limina address to U.S. Bishops, January 19, 2012]

Why was Jesus so angry at the money changers? Because he cares about human happiness. The money changers were cheating the poor, cheating those who were trying to perform a religious duty. And the money-changers had set up their tables in what was called the Court of the Gentiles—the only part of the Temple where non-Jews could enter. As Professor Barclay puts it, "they had made the one place where everyone could pray into a noisy marketplace where no-one could pray. Their shady business was not only hurting the Jews financially, it was hurting the pious Gentiles spiritually."

God cares about what we do. His rules aren't meant to snare us or to make life difficult; they are meant to stop us from harming others and from harming ourselves. They guide us to the good life.

If we can see the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Christ and his Church as promoting our good and the good of others then we'll find them much easier to obey. We need to understand that God wants creation to work, according to his plan. Our deliberate failure to follow that plan has consequences for us here and now, because things go better for us when we live according to the manufacturer's instructions.

At the same time, God's law is more than just a master plan: it's what he expects of us. As I've just said, Jesus does care about what we do. We can anger the Lord by our sinful actions; we can deserve to be kicked out of our Father's House.

Lent is a time to grow in our relationship with God, to take positive steps towards a better, richer and more prayerful Christian life. But for some of us it is also a time to take a hard look at our lives, our business practices, our treatment of others. We should ask whether there is anything we do that exploits others.

If we acknowledge such sins, and turn away from them, the merciful Lord will heal and strengthen us, and give us the joy of a truly blessed Easter.