Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Gift of Mercy

Lk 6:36-38

Jesus said to his disciples:

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus goes up a mountain to teach his disciples. In Luke’s gospel, read on the Monday of the 2nd week of lent, the mountain is the place where Jesus prays with them. Then he descends and teaches them at length about loving others, especially one’s enemies.

We can hear his words as an extension of the beatitude “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”

Notice what mercy means. It means not judging, not condemning, being forgiving. However, mercy does not stop there, it goes on to give gifts to the other. That’s the way God shows mercy. Like the father of the prodigal son, whom Luke describes later on in his gospel, God not only forgives but offers sinners a feast of unearned graces– “bring a robe–the best one–and put it on him, put a ring on his finger and scandals on his feet.”

God doesn’t ration mercy or hedge it around with caution. He doesn’t keep remembering anyone’s wrong.

St Bernard says that the merciful “are those who see the truth in their neighbor and reach out in compassion and identify in love with them, responding to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were their own.” Seeing the truth in our neighbor means, of course, seeing  human frailty, misguided dreams, selfishness and sinfulness in others and recognizing that truth in  ourselves. Mercy begins by knowing yourself.

Loving Like God Does

As the 5th chapter of St. Matthew begins, Jesus calls his disciples up a mountain to teach them and speaks the blessed words we call beatitudes. He calls for living in ways beyond our usual ways, ways the “children of God” live, patterns of life that let us “see God.” But climbing a mountain is challenging, isn’t it?

In the gospel reading for saturday, the 1st week of lent–also from Matthew’s 5th chapter and part of his teaching from the mountain– Jesus tells us to love our enemies as God does. Can we come up to his command?

God the Creator, who provides sun and rain for the just and the unjust, is the One Jesus proposes we imitate in this gospel reading.

Later, he will be the example, as he renounces violence when his enemies come into the garden to seize him. “Put your sword back into its place,” he says to Peter who’s ready to strike out.  Before his accusers who plot his death “Jesus was silent”. And when he rises from the dead, he embraces the disciples who betrayed him and tells them to go into the whole world, the world of the just and the unjust, and proclaim God’s loving call to be his friends.

We love those who love us; we love our families, we say.  But  we “really don’t know love at all.” Only when we love our enemies: those we ignore, those we exclude, those we condemn, those who have hurt us–do we love like God does. We have a mountain to climb.

The Lenten Gospels

The gospels, along with other readings in our lenten Masses, offer a grace to those who follow them day by day. Take an overall look. You’ll notice the frequency of Matthew’s gospel  during the first three weeks, beginning with Ash Wednesday.  As the 4th week of lent begins, John’s gospel provides most of the weekday readings.

Matthew’s gospel was a favorite of the early church for teaching and catechesis. “The confession by Peter at Caesaria Philippi along with Jesus’ promise for his church, is the midpoint and highpoint of the gospel,” writes Rudolph Schnackenburg, and in this gospel Jesus, “the Christ and Son of the Living God” speaks to his disciples “ words of everlasting life.” Now he’s speaking to us.

We shouldn’t forget the gospel’s author is Matthew the tax collector, as the gospel for the Saturday after Ash Wednesday reminds us; so you might say that Jesus wants to speak to people like Matthew and his friends, not very observant keepers of the law, but outsiders and sinners. If you identify with them, welcome to the lenten season.

Jesus teaches us how to pray and how to think and live in this world. A number of the gospels early in lent treat of prayer. ( tuesday and thursday, 1st week) Besides talking to  God, we have to live with one another. On monday of the 1st week, Jesus issues a powerful warning in Matthew’s gospel about neglecting “the least,” and in the readings for friday and saturday of the 1st week, he tells us to love others, even our enemies.

The love Jesus calls for is not just acceptable or normal or even good;  it’s Godlike. Can any of us love like God?  But there’s no watering down his challenging, radical words that are addressed, not to a few,  but to us all.

Lent’s not meant to make us comfortable; it sets our sights on loving more, but it sets the bar higher than we like. Like the Olympic games, lent calls for our best, and more. A bigger prize than a gold medal is at stake.

Ask And You Will Receive

Does God answer prayers? A question asked often down through the centuries. For some, God–if there is one–doesn’t pay attention to us at all. We’re on our own. No one’s listening and no one cares.

Certainly, Jesus believed in asking for things in prayer from a Father who cared, and he taught his disciples to pray as he did. For example, he asked over and over in the Garden of Gethsemani that his life be spared, “Father, let this cup pass from me.” He trusted a Father who loved him more than any human father could. No distant, uninvolved God for him.

As he knocked the door opened, the answer came, yet not as he willed, but as God willed. And to accept that answer “an angel came to strengthen him.” So also with us: we may not get what we ask for, but a strengthening grace is always given, and the promise of life always remains. God has something better in mind.

As the gospels make clear, Jesus prayed constantly during this life; he taught his disciples words of prayer and finally, in his darkest hours he gave them an example of prayers they would never forget. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” ; “I thirst”; “My God, my God why have you forsaken me!” Heartfelt, trusting, real prayers.

We pray with our own voice when we pray; that’s true. But we pray best by following the way of praying that Jesus gave us. “Let us pray as God our Master taught us, asking the Father in the words the Son has given us, letting him hear the prayer of Christ ringing in his ears…Let the Father recognize the words of his Son; let the Son who lives in our hearts be also on our lips…” (St. Cyprian, On the Lord’s Prayer)

For more on the prayer of Jesus, http://www.cptryon.org/prayer/jesupray.html

The Sign of Jonah

Jonah himself wasn’t much of a sign, if you think about him. He fled fear-stricken from the mission God gave to preach to the great city of Nineveh, and when  the sailors on the boat from Joppa saw him as the curse that caused a storm and  threw him overboard to drown, he couldn’t stop them. That would have been the end of him  if God didn’t send a whale to swallow him and vomit him up on the shore at Nineveh.

An arrival like that caught the attention of the Ninevites; they listened to this man who came from the belly of whale and responded to his preaching by begging God for forgiveness.

So Jonah wasn’t much of a sign himself. The Ninevites would have ignored him if he just got off the boat from Joppa and preached to them. Instead,  he was someone brought back from death and sure destruction. God made him a sign of life.

In Jesus, a greater than Jonah is here. The mystery of his death and resurrection is at the heart of his mission, his great word, his message of hope, his sign of love for us.

The Sign of Jonah was a favorite theme early Christians used to decorate the places where they buried their death. The whale of death, monster of the sea, would not destroy humanity but deliver it to another shore, where a kingdom was waiting.

It’s Raining Today

It’s raining today in Union City. Just the day for reading Isaiah:

Thus says the LORD:

Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

But isn’t it true, we don’t always like rain? Here it snarls traffic,  stops you from going places maybe. Like the woman above, you may not have a car and you get soaked waiting for a bus. It gets in the way of your plans.

We think of God’s grace as pleasant and good, but we’re not always “Singin’ in the Rain”. Like the rain nourishing seed in the ground or  filling reservoirs from thousands of distant streams, God’s grace isn’t quickly apparent. More often it’s slow and sequential. Without it, though, would we have water to drink and bread to eat?

So we say in the Our Father, “your will be done,” because God’s word goes forth. “It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” But his will isn’t immediately seen.

Turning Your Back On Your Own

During lent we’re supposed to turn to God, to pray, fast and give alms. Every church I know has something extra going on for Lent.

But there’s a line from Isaiah in last Friday’s first reading that keep’s coming to me.  It comes after he pointedly says that all the above can just be a gesture if they don’t lead to acts of justice, “releasing those bound unjustly…sharing your bread with the hungry…clothing the naked when you see them…not turning your back on your own…”

“Not turning your back on your own.” That’s the phrase I hear. Who are our own and how do we turn our backs on them? It’s the curse of familiarity that we so often misunderstand or peg into a category those we know. Often enough, we judge them by what they’re done or not done, and end up not knowing them at all. Our memories, unfortunately, are long and narrow. Our appreciation is often driven by self-interest.

Lent is a good time to turn to our own. Putting away our categories, our experiences, our memories and expectations, it’s time to look again at the promise in people we know.

I have some looking to do.

Can Haiti Help Us?

I’m reading these first days of Lent a book by Fr. Rick Frechette: Haiti: The God of Tough Places, the Lord of Burnt Men. He’s a priest, a doctor, a member of my community, the Passionists, who has been serving the poor in Haiti for over 20 years.

When the recent catastrophic earthquake struck on January 12, 2010 he was the  director of a 150 bed pediatric hospital for poor children near Port-au-Prince and was responsible for setting up some street schools for poor kids in the slums of the city and a program for bringing clean water into the slums by truck.

All of those projects came to a halt or suffered severe damage in the earthquake that killed over 230,000 people. Fr. Rick is rebuilding now. Not only is he rebuilding, he hopes to do more.

His book,  a compilation of reflections about his work in Haiti over the years, is more than a picture of what he’s doing. It’s more a story of God’s grace shining through human misery. Haiti is a tough burnt land, but God wisdom and beauty are there in a place its people call “Calvary’s Hill.”  God’s grace is always there where a cross is set up.

Frechette’s book, instead of making you ask  “What can we do for Haiti?” makes you ask rather “What can Haiti do for us?”.

What can we learn from the place that most of us don’t want to look at?

When Fr. Rick built his pediatric hospital for the poor, he made it the best children’s hospital in Haiti, because he said the poor deserve the best. That’s not the way we think in our part of the world, is it? With us, the poor more likely get the worst.

We believe in success and think we have a right to it. We can be successful if we try hard.  We  can be winners and we like winners; we don’t like losers.  We like the stars, the celebrities, not the failed and the broken. We grow impatient with intractable problems. We turn away from them. “You’re fired,” we say to them.

The wisdom Jesus teaches is different, however. “Whatever you do to the least, you do to me.” And he told us to bear our cross and to share the cross that others bear.

Fr. Rick’s stories are about beauty and grace in the least and God who reveals himself in the mystery of the Cross.

The ultimate human failure, of course, is death.  And here again, Fr. Rick has  some of Haiti’s wisdom to pass on to us.  As a doctor,  he heals, but as a priest he buries dead as well. The grace of God pursues us even to death.

A few weeks after the earthquake, Fr. Rick’s mother died. He was able to get to her bedside and celebrate her funeral in Wethersfield, Ct and this is what he said.

“My mother was diagnosed with cancer about 8 months ago.  Over these months she had time to think about her life and death, about all those she loved, and about her God.  With the care of the best physicians and nurses, with the full devotion of her husband and children, she met the end of her life in a beautiful way. Slowly dying during mass at her bedside, dying shortly after my sermon on the merciful presence of the Blessed Mother who is with us “now and at the hour of our death”, she died during the consecration of the sacred bread and wine.  I later asked my father, since mom died so soon after my talk, if he thought my words were lethal, and did mom in!  He replied quickly, “your sermon darn near killed us all.”

Imagine, the earthquake caused the death of 100,000 to the present count.  The death of these people was so different from the death of my mother.  Instead of 8 months to prepare, they had 34 seconds.  Instead of constant attention and affection from loving families and skilled doctors, buildings fell on them, trapped them, crushed them and isolated them.  Instead of being honored with a beautiful coffin, the precious white pall, the wonderful incense, they bloat and rot and make you turn your head and vomit.  Instead of being laid tenderly in the grave as we will do to my mother today, they are lifted from the street by backhoes and front end loaders and dumped into huge trucks..  It is so different, so tragic, sad beyond words.  Life has to end for everyone. But the way that life ended for Gerri Frechette is a cause of thanksgiving and joy, and our gratitude should make our hearts burst with zeal, to want to right the wrong for those whose death is a humiliation and a disgrace.

On January 6th as I came home from Haiti to stay with mom to the end, the Archbishop of Port au Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, asked me to let him know when mom died.  He wanted to come and officiate at her funeral.  On January 12th ,  just 6 days later, he was dead.  Within 34 seconds the earthquake threw him from his 3rd floor balcony to the patio below, and the chancery fell on top of him, and the cathedral fell on top of the chancery.  I tell you this for two reasons. First, to remember and pray for this kind pastor and bishop during this mass. And second, as an example of a simple reality.  Did he ever expect to be dead before my dying mother?  What are your expectations of your death?  How secure are you sitting here at the funeral?  Will you still be here in 6 days?  Or maybe will you also be gone, with 34 seconds to prepare?

The point is a simple one.  We cannot escape death.  We should learn everything we can about it.  This mass, this earthquake, should be a profound school of learning for us.  To die the right way we have to know the right way to live.  Right living is the preparation for right dying – even a death  that comes in 34 seconds.”

For more on him, see www.thepassionists.org

How fast today?

“The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,

“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,

but your disciples do not fast?”

Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn

as long as the bridegroom is with them?

The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,

and then they will fast.”

For a brief moment in time, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, appeared in the flesh. Then, he rose from the dead and his appearances in the flesh ended.

Now his disciples have to fast, according to today’s lenten reading from Matthew 9, 14-15. What kind of fasting should they do? Certainly a little fasting from food, drink, entertainment would help, for sure.

But how about turning  from that “expressive individualism” that Charles Taylor calls the trademark of our western world. A more subtle kind of fasting.

There’s a commercial on television calling us to go to the Florida Keys, where  you’re free to express yourself and do what you like, where freedom reaches its highest expression. Sounds like that “far off country” that beckoned the Prodigal Son.

Does our fasting means fasting from  too much attention to ourselves, which leads us to turn our backs on our own? Do we need to pay more attention to helping the poor, where Christ can always be found?

Ash Wednesday and Mystical Death

An excerpt from a letter of St. Paul of the Cross about mystical death may help us celebrate Ash Wednesday.

“Life for true servants and friends of God means dying every day: ‘We die daily; for you are dead and your life is hidden with Christ in God.’ This is the mystical death I want you to undergo.

I’m confident that you will be reborn to a new life in the sacred mysteries of Jesus Christ, as you die mystically in Christ more and more each day, in the depths of the Divinity. Let your life be hidden with Christ in God…

Think about mystical death. Dying mystically means thinking only of living a divine life, desiring only God, accepting all that God sends and not worrying about it. It means ignoring everything else so that God can work in your soul, in the sanctuary of your soul, where no creature, angelic or human, can go. There you experience God working and being born as you mystically die.

But I’m in a hurry, and this note is getting too mystical, so listen to it with a grain of salt, because we don’t get it.”    (Letter, Dec 28, 1758)

On Ash Wednesday, ashes are placed on our foreheads in the form of a cross and some simple words are said: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

A reminder we will die. Yet, so much more is said in this brief symbolic act. A daily mystical death is also taking place within us. Our physical life will end, the ashes tell us;  the day and hour are unknown. But ashes in the form of a cross tell us Jesus Christ changes death. “Dying, you destroyed our death. Rising, you restored our life.” Jesus Christ has made his risen life ours. Though his gift is hidden, we will experience it when we enter his glory.

Meanwhile, the mystery of his death and resurrection is at work in us now. Share this mystery mystically,  St. Paul of the Cross says in the letter quoted above. Daily, deliberately, attentively turn to God working within you. A new life is being born in you, though you may not see it.  Desire it, accept it in whatever God sends, without worry. God is working within through the mystery of the Lord’s cross.

Yet the saint, like the rest of us, has to hurry off to something else. He’s going somewhere, or has something to do, or someone to see, and he tells his correspondent that you can’t think about deep things too long. It’s a mystery beyond us.

And so, we only glimpse this mystery as ashes are placed on us. Still, may we hear the Lord’s voice in the day’s readings and in the signs of the liturgy. Ash Wednesday is an ambassador sent by God reminding us of his work for us; he will send his graces through the days of Lent and Easter. Yes, through all the days of our life.

Let us embrace his cross each day and die mystically and be born anew.

If you’re interested in more on Ash Wednesday and Lent, go here.