Monthly Archives: February 2009

Ash Wednesday: Remembering and Turning

Religious language and customs lose their meaning when we don’t think about them. The ashes used today are from palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration. Once carried to shouts of glory, they’re reminders now of death. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The biblical word “repent” is translated “turn”–calling us to turn away from sin and turn to God. It’s a certain kind of turning we’re called to make. Not a casual turning from curiosity, quickly returning to what really matters–ourselves.
We’re called to turn to God, our creator and redeemer, keeping  our eyes fixed on the One who is the source of our life.  We turn to God in humble appreciation to receive his promise of forgiveness and love.
“Someone wise must not glory in his wisdom, someone strong must not glory in his strength, someone rich must not glory in his riches.”

We come to God with nothing, so we might be filled.

Turning from sin, from anger, from resentment, we come to a gentle, forgiving  God who blesses us with gifts this holy season, through the intercession of Jesus, his Son. We know we have turned if we are gentle and forgiving of one another.
We are blessed with the sign of his cross today.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday Prayers

Jesus, you place on my forehead
the sign of my sister Death:
“Remember you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

How not hear her wise advice?
One day my life on earth will end;
the limits on my years are set,
though I know not the day or hour.
Shall I be ready to go to meet you?
Let this holy season be a time of grace
for me and all this world.

“Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.”

O Jesus, you place on my forehead
the sign of your saving Cross:
“Turn from sin and be faithful
to the gospel.”

How can I turn from sin
unless I turn to you?

You speak, you raise your hand,
you touch my mind and call my name,
“Turn to the Lord your God again.”

These days of your favor
leave a blessing as you pass
on me and all your people.
Turn to us, Lord God,
and we shall turn to you.

See.  Lent and Easter

The Paralyzed Man

We need to engage our faith and its stories in an imaginative way. It’s not enough to leave our faith to the experts. Like anything important,  faith should engage our minds and hearts and imaginations.

Our gospel story for today, for example,  begs us to think about it. Have you every thought about the poor fellow who’s paralyzed and was brought to Jesus for help?

How did it happen, you wonder? Was he a fishermen there in Caphernau,  and one day his wife tells him there’s a leak in the roof. So he gets a rickety ladder and climbs up. The ladder gives way and he fall fifteen feet unto the dark basalt rock below. Caphernaum was built on that.

He can’t get up; he can’t move. Some of his friends come. Nothing they can do, so they take him into his house to his wife and kids,  and that’s where he lay helpless–who knows how long?

It’s a tough thing to lie on your back and can’t move. It has to wear your spirits down.

Then, Jesus comes to live in Peter’s house in Caphernaum. And the man’s friends–thank God for friends like this–come and pick him up and take him there, because they hear that Jesus can cure you.

But they can’t get near the place; it’s jammed with people. So they pull him up to the roof. Did he say “This is the last place I want to go.” And they cut a hole in the roof large enough to lower the poor man down, right to Jesus’ feet.

“Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to him. “I’m taking away the cold darkness freezing your soul… Get up and take up your mat and go home.”

And the man went home. He must have put his arms around his wife and his family. She probably told him never to go up on a ladder again. We never hear about him after this.
Like so many in the gospels, he’s a sign that God wishes to heal what’s broken in our world.

So his story makes us hope for the paralysis we see maybe in ourselves, maybe in our world so often frozen in its inability to bring about peace and justice. Like the friends of the paralyzed man, we bring our paralyzed world to the feet of Jesus, that he bring life to our souls and bodies. The Lord is here as he was there.

I  wonder, too, about Peter–the miracle took place in his house. His life was certainly changed when Jesus came to live with him. All those people at his door.  After the man left,  I wonder if Peter looked at his roof and asked “Who’s going to put that back?”

But that’s for another day.

Appreciation Night

Last night the parish where I help out, St. Mary’s in Colts Neck, NJ, held an appreciation night for all the people involved in ministries in the parish. A couple of hundred people came out for a meal, music and dancing.

I wish people who study parishes would go to affairs like this to learn what makes a parish tick. On the older side, most of them, but obviously they like each other. No sign that any of them were dragged out to be there. In that gathering you feel you’re among friends.

Most of them are married, with kids mostly married and out on their own. They’re worried about the country, of course, and also concerned about the church. All of them are doing something, sometimes a lot, to make their parish and their communities what they should be.

So while I wonder where good clerical leaders, like bishops and priests, will come from, while I wonder about the absence of young people in the churches, while I wonder about the future of the church in our country and in the western world–last night gave me hope. All will be well.

The Power of Desire

The present global financial crisis has shaken our confidence in basic institutions like government and finance. Something’s wrong and has to be fixed, but how?

Can experts tell us? Most of them couldn’t see this crisis coming at all, so they should be careful with answers. I’m sure some strong voices will claim to know what to do. Hitler launched his career in the Great Depression; voices like his will be promising us better times.

Wouldn’t it be good to have this crisis make us all humble realize our limits. The whole world must search patiently for answers. Like little children crossing a busy street, we have to hold hands and stick together.

Quoting from the First Letter of St. John, St. Augustine reminds us of the limits of religious knowledge. “By these words, the tongue has done its best,” he says;  human words can never fully describe the divine reality. We must be humble approaching God. Religions should speak to the world humbly too.

“The entire Christian life is in fact a life of holy desire,” the saint says. That doesn’t mean we stop searching for knowledge; to do so would bed to deny one of our greatest gifts–our minds.  But we’re like containers meant to hold a lot. As long as we live, we wont be filled, nor can we ever be satisfied with what we know– there’s always more.

It’s desire that keeps us open to God’s promised wisdom and knowledge, Augustine says.  Desire must motivate our world today as it stumbles along looking for answers. Deisre and humility.

Evolution and Intelligent Design

Nova’s presentation  “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” was on last night at PBS.

The program, about teaching evolution in the public schools, reenacts the 2005 trial that pitted the school board of Dover, PA, against plaintiffs who objected to the theory of Intelligent Design being presented along with the theory of evolution in their local school district.  The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

It’s interesting that Nova chose Dr. Kenneth Miller, a biologist from Brown University and a Roman Catholic to make the case for evolution and argue against the theory of Intelligent Design on its website:

Miller is articulate and thorough explaining both sides. In the television presentation he makes the point that truth is one; religion and science don’t contradict each other, but they approach reality in different ways and are complementary.

I liked his answer to people who object to being descended from monkeys.

“Well, they’re right, they’re not descended from monkeys. They’re not descended from chimps or monkeys or gorillas or any other living organism.
The essential idea of common ancestry is that ultimately all living things on this planet share common ancestors if we go far enough back into the past. So, for example, to take the case that people talk about all the time, we share a common ancestor with all primate species. This means that we’re related, by having a single ancestor somewhere in the past, to monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, and so forth.

But the idea of common ancestry goes way deeper than simply saying we’re related to monkeys. We’re in fact related to all mammals. You go farther back, we are related to all vertebrates. And, ultimately, we are related, if you go far enough back, to every living thing on this planet. The almost universal nature of the genetic code, the fact that all life depends upon DNA, all of these things are evidence of this commonality of ancestry, if we go far enough back in time.”

In today’s readings, St. Ambrose offers what faith says. A great promise has been made to us by God. Called to be heirs with Christ, we share in his resurrection. But not only human beings receive this promise.  According to St. Paul writes, “creation also looks forward to this revealing of the sons of God.”  It too is a “son of God as it were,” groaning in bondage, till it shares in this glory. (Ambrose)

Together with the children of the church, and “all who are worthy of seeing the face of God,” creation waits in hope to rise in incorruption.
Our 4th Eucharistic Prayer expresses this same hope:

Then, in your kingdom,

Freed from the corruption of sin and death,

We shall sing your glory

With every creature, through Christ, our Lord, from whom all good things come.

We need more information on evolution from the Catholic Church, so it’s good to see a big conference on evolution in Rome sponsored by the Gregorian University, Notre Dame University and the Pontifical Council of Cuture for early March. More details

Start Somewhere

I was happy to see the Vatican launch out onto Youtube.  The digital generation spends a lot a time there, so why not reach out to them? Maybe we don’t have all the whistles and bells, but let’s start somewhere.

At the Travel Show in the Javits Center in New York City last Sunday, crowds of people were looking for places to go and see around the world. Some of them may end up in churches and shrines, which have wonderful stories to tell.

Here’s a church in Rome I’ve always liked, and it tells a powerful story.  Saint Peter in Chains.

I have other clips on Youtube. Type vhoagland into the search box and see for yourself.

Peter’s Mother-in-Law

The gospels tell the good news of Jesus Christ– what he did and said. They don’t tell it all.

We’d like to know more about him, of course, but how about some others the gospels mention in passing?

Like Peter’s mother-in-law, for example, whom Mark’s gospel recalls. After leaving the synagogue at Capernaum where he expelled an unclean spirit from a man, Jesus entered the house of Peter and Andrew where Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever. Not quite as bad as being possessed by an unclean spirit, we may think,  but most of us know a bout with the flu can take  a lot out of you too.

Jesus took her by the hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she waited on them.
That final phrase “and she waited on them” – says a lot.

She was one of those who cooked their meals, washed and mended their clothes, fussed over them when they came home, wanted to know what happened that day, tried to protect them when too many people were knocking on the door to see them. Cook, Cleaner, Advisor, Gatekeeper, Supporter, and much more.

We all know what it means when someone like her waits on us.

Peter’s mother-in-law not only received the blessing of Jesus but kept it alive in what she did. She welcomed Jesus in the way she alone could. Without what she did, do you think he and his disciples could have carried on?

The church exists on many levels. Paul used the analogy of a body. We tend to think it’s just a few that bring the gospel to the world, but it’s never been the work of a few. Many, like Peter’s mother-in-law, have a part in it too.

The church is not made up of “Lone Rangers.” The final chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans has a litany of people in the Roman church whom the apostle greets as friends and co-workers. Most of them we know nothing about. Some of them, like Peter’s mother-in-law, probably “waited on him.”

Is There a Perfect Church?

In his life on earth, Jesus did much good, but he also left much good undone. Listen to St. Cyril of Jerusalem speaking about the miracles of Jesus:

“At Siloam, there was a sense of wonder, and rightly so. A man born blind recovered his sight. But what importance is this when there are so many blind people in the world? Lazarus rose from the dead, but even this only affected Lazarus. What of those countless numbers who have died because of their sins? Those five miraculous loaves of bread fed five thousand. Yet this is a small number compared to those all over the word who are starved by ignorance. After eighteen years a woman is freed from bondage of Satan. But are we not all shackled by the chains of our sins?”

The saint stresses the mystery of the cross, which is Christ’s lasting gift to us.

Isn’t it true, though, that we want a Savior who creates a perfect world instantly, leaving no suffering, no questions, no evil left to plague our world?  Why didn’t he recreate paradise when he came among us?

At least, why didn’t he create a perfect church?

We’d like a church that’s perfect. Not a pilgrim church that plods its way through time, but a church that knows everything, can do everything, and can judge everything. Be nice to be part of a church like that. Or would it?

So, why shouldn’t a pope blunder in his relationship with the Jews by dealing with a crazy bishop? Popes have blundered before. Native Americans and native peoples may have a better understanding and appreciation of the environment than Christians do; feminists may appreciate the role of women in the world better than the established church does.

Isn’t there room for a “learning church?”

The disciples were “slow to understand” when they walked with Jesus on the way to Emmaus. The scriptures don’t say they knew it all when they left the table after seeing him.

We’re back to the mystery of the cross. We’re always back to the mystery of the cross.