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THE SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT – C

Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Luke 9:28b-36

Two groups of people are the objects of the Church’s special focus during these days of Lent.  The first are those people known as Catechumens, those people for whom this journey will climax in the Easter Vigil, when by the light of the Easter Candle that attests to Christ’s Resurrection and life, they will enter the waters of the Font to die to all that was, only to rise from the waters reborn in Christ and so live with Christ for the rest of their lives’ journey.

The second group is the Penitents, those who are making the journey to return to their lives in Christ and the Church.  There was a time in the Church’s history when Penitents would be clothed in sackcloth and ashes and sit at the entry to the church begging prayers and forgiveness from those entering into worship.  See what a rich sign the cross of ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday becomes.  All of us began a journey of repentance.  We may not have formally apostatized, rejecting our faith, or committed any other major sin that would have severed us from the community, but we do know what it means to have sinned and so have reason to number ourselves at least emotionally, with the Penitents.

For all, Lent is a forty-day journey during which faith is strengthened and even rekindled.  The Church puts squarely before us what our faith is all about and in whom it is that we believe.  The Church also wants us to know who will be our strength during the difficult days of the journey so that we will not be scandalized by the suffering Christ, especially should we find ourselves sharing in that cross in ways we could not have imagined.

It is natural for people to want signs to support flagging faith.  Haven’t you ever prayed for a sign so that you will know that you have made a wise decision, or, as you keep vigil with a loved one who is dying, that you can be assured there will be a heaven to welcome your dear one?  In part, that is why every year on the Second Sunday of Lent the gospel of  Jesus’ Transfiguration is read.  We are supposed to remember what we see on this mountain later when we see Jesus crucified on that other mountain.  But let’s spend a few moments with the first reading from Genesis before we get to Tabor.

We meet Abram, not yet Abraham.  He is aging even as he clings to the promise God made to him that he will be the father of many nations.  His faith is being tested because not only is he getting older but so also is his wife Sarah who so far is barren.  Just prior to this reading, Abram has complained in his prayer that as things are going it seems likely that he will die and whatever he has amassed will go to his servants since there are no progeny to inherit his wealth.

What a beautiful scene is described.  It is as though God and Abram, like two longtime friends, are walking together in the late afternoon.  God knows Abram’s doubts and fears and invites Abram to look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.  Just so shall your descendants be. A crucial phrase follows.  We are told that Abram believed, that is, put his faith in the Lord.  And Abram is deemed to be in right relationship with God.  Hence comes the word righteous.

But Abram asks God for a sign so that he will know that all these promises and plans will come to pass.  God reminds Abram of their past dealings with each other, how God chose Abram and brought him out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give him the land on which he now stands.  Now God directs Abram to bring animals and birds for sacrifice, and, except for the birds, to cut them in half and place them in opposition so that God and Abram can walk between the halves and so form a covenant.  Abram follows the instructions, but when the carcasses are laid out, Abram has to fend off the attacking birds of prey.  Abram protects the sacrifice from contamination until sunset when darkness envelops him.  He falls into a trance and sees the blazing firepot and a fiery torch pass through the splayed animal parts.  It is a theophany and the covenant between God and Abram is sealed.  Abram knows God’s promises to him will come to pass.

It is a theophany that we witness in the Gospel.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain to pray.  The amazing happens.  Jesus begins to shine like the very sun.  It is as though Jesus’ body becomes transparent and the God within blazes forth. Moses and Elijah appear and begin to talk with him about his exodus.  The word is an obvious link to the Genesis event, when God led the people out of slavery.  It is also a reference to the coming passion that will be the deliverance from sin for the disciples.  Moses is the great lawgiver.  Elijah is the great prophet.  Both roles come together in Jesus who teaches love as the law and speaks to the people what God wants them to hear.

Imagine your joy had you been there.  You’ve had the experience, I’m sure, of thrilling moments of sublime beauty and joy that you wished could go on and on.  That’s exactly what happens with the three on-lookers.  Peter spews forth with the idea of building three tents, one for each of the principals, so that they all can stay in this moment and Peter, James, and John can bask in the wonder.

Then something they had not bargained for happens.  The cloud forms.  Remember how the cloud enveloped the mountain when Moses spoke with God and received the Decalogue?  Here, Moses and Elijah disappear as the cloud wraps around Jesus and the voice of God is heard: This is my chosen Son; listen to him. The three are filled with terror and fall on their faces in prostration.  After all, no one can look on the face of God and live.  And the moment is over.  When they look up, Jesus stands alone before them in normal visage just as he was before the transfiguration began.

The way the pericope concludes might seem strange.  Luke tells us that the three did not tell anyone else about what they had seen.  Wouldn’t you think that they would be bursting to tell the others?  The point is, they did not understand what they had seen, what the significance of the moment was.  They will not understand until after Jesus rises from the dead.  It is not mere coincidence that what follows this incident in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels is the same.  Jesus begins to talk about going to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die and on the third day rise again.  It is the Passover event accomplished in Jesus that will give meaning to that moment on the mountain.

We walk by faith and not by sight, the hymn proclaims.  That’s not always easy.  Some people begin the trek only to give it up, ceasing to believe, going back to former ways.  In the second reading from the Letter to the Philippians, Paul, from prison, writes to his beloved converts to Christ and urges them to imitate their teacher and be faithful to the very end.  Paul is conscious of the fact that his death might well be imminent.  He weeps when he thinks of others he has preached to and baptized who are no longer faithful.  He pleads with the Philippians who have so often been stellar examples of what it means to live lives of faith to keep up their practice, continue to inspire others, and remember heaven that is coming.  Their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of his dying and rising, will ensure that they will walk in glory with the Lord.  Christ, in Resurrection, has the power to bring all things into subjection to himself.

These readings are meant to challenge and encourage.  In the midst of the Assembly, Catechumens have been preparing for Baptism.  These readings invite them to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus who journeys with them and is transfigured before them.  This is the Lord they will meet in the Font, the one who delivers and saves them and brings them into the presence of the living God.

We, the baptized, are meant to be challenged and encouraged too.  The readings challenge us to be open to grace and so find the way to put aside whatever of sin remains in us.  We’re challenged to live the faith we celebrate in Eucharist, to live conscious of the One who lives in us, the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being.  We’re challenged to be that presence in the world.  And we are meant to be encouraged, to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and so know that even if the worst should befall us, Christ will see us safely home.  Death did not defeat him.  Death will not defeat us.

Heaven awaits.  And so does eternal life.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT – C

Deuteronomy 26:4-10

Romans 10:8-13

Luke 4:1-13

Did you make it to Mass last Wednesday?  Many people did.   Ash Wednesday is one of the peak attendance days of the year.  Some have said that that is because something is given away and they don’t take up a collection.  That sounds cynical to me.  How about you?  There can be superficial reasons for some people’s turn out.  Nostalgia can play a role, the remembrance of Lents past.  Or, some might have been there because they have always gone to church to get the ashes and they are not going to stop the tradition now.

I’d like to think that something more profound is going on, something that is Spirit driven, something that we might not even be aware of.  We were bathed in the Spirit when we were baptized and the Spirit has dwelt in us ever since.  So, why should we be surprised that from time to time the Spirit moves us to do something that is good for us, something that will awaken and strengthen our faith and renew hope in us?

When the ashes were traced on your forehead, the minister said one or other instruction: Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return. Or, Turn away from sin and believe the Good News. At first hearing, each may seem negative, a real downer, as some would say.  But that isn’t so, if you listen with faith, if the Spirit helps you to hear.

Lent is a journey we make with Jesus and is meant to be a time of renewal.  Taking our lead from today’s Gospel reading, it might also occur to us that the path we tread these 40 days may take us into some dangerous and challenging places.  The desert is like that.  In other words, struggle may be part of our Lenten experience.  But that’s all right.  After all, Jesus is with us.

We have ways of softening the drama in the Gospel.  By that I mean that when we hear the proclamation about Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and praying followed by Satan’s temptations, we don’t understand the austerity of the fast or the force of the conflict in the temptations.  During the 40 days of his desert sojourn, Jesus would have subsisted on just enough to keep him from starvation.  Luke says that Jesus ate nothing during that period and when it was over, he was hungry. Imagine his weakened condition and his vulnerability.  But fasting also opens the one that fasts to prayer and the presence of God.  It was the Spirit that led Jesus into the desert and the Spirit that powered the communication between Jesus and the Father and strengthened Jesus to endure, preparing him for the confrontation with Satan.

We may wonder, was Jesus really tempted?  Surely not.  He is the Son of God, after all.  And that is how we diminish the power of the pericope.  The desert is a place of trial.  The temptations were powerful.

In today’s first reading, Moses challenges the people to remember their desert experience.  They are to recall how God had heard their anguished cries in their miserable condition as an enslaved people and had compassion on them.  God acted with powerful deeds to break the hold of those who enslaved them and led the people across the Red Sea and into the desert where they were formed as God’s chosen ones, bringing them to the country they now call their own.

Remembering has a purpose.  We celebrate the 4th of July in this country to remind us of our history and how we came to be a new nation under God with liberty and justice for all.  We remember the struggle by our ancestors that resulted in our freedom.  But it would be a shame if all we did were to remember.  Shouldn’t the celebration rekindle our enthusiasm for the ideals of the nation and make us want to do our part to keep this land free?  And, also, shouldn’t we then be convinced that we will be able to overcome even the darkest times and be able to go on because our ancestors did that before us?

The people that listened to Moses’ retelling of the Exodus experience just might find their own faith strengthened and be convinced again that they are God’s people and God is with them even now.

As we hear of Jesus’ desert time and his temptations, what are actually being proclaimed are Jesus’ triumphs where his Hebrew ancestors had failed.  That ought not to translate in our hearing that Jesus wasn’t really tempted.  Were there no temptations there would be no victory.  Notice the first temptation.  If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread. How do you think, after a forty-day fast, the word bread would resound in your hearing?  So it did with Jesus.  But, whereas the Hebrews had cried out to God in their hunger and said that they would rather have stayed in slavery than have to endure this desert trial, Jesus determines that he hungers for more than bread; that he longs for God’s word so that he can be an instrument of God’s peace.

Do you think that we are the first generation to be dazzled by the lure of worldly wealth and power?  The Hebrews fell down in worship before the golden calf.  Even Jesus could experience the magnetic attraction of what Satan offered.  I shall give you all this power and glory…All this will be yours, if you worship me. Perhaps this is the origin of the Faust legend, Faust who sold his soul to the devil for a second chance at youth.  But Jesus realizes that he has one desire and that is to be in right relationship with the Father and that will mean doing always the will of the one who sent (him).

The final temptation is subtle.  Satan dares Jesus to throw himself from the Temple parapet and let God save him lest (he) dash (his) foot against a stone. The lure?  Were Jesus to do this, wouldn’t that demonstrate his faith in God?  Wouldn’t God’s rescuing him demonstrate God’s favor for him?  Jesus believes in God’s love for him and wants to be faithful to the end.  His determination will be to trust even in the worst of times.  In Luke’s account of Jesus’ Passion that we will hear this Passion Sunday, it is not by accident that near the end darkness covers the whole land.  Yet in the midst of that darkness and from his cross, Jesus says: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. In effect he will leap from the parapet into the darkness knowing that the Father would lift him up.  And his faith was not disappointed.

This Lent, the Spirit leads us into the desert to spend time focused on Jesus that we might be more closely conformed to the one in whom we were baptized.  The Spirit may not be leading us so that we can be tempted anew, but we are led so that we can put aside whatever is hindering that union.  Remember those invocations with Ash Wednesday’s ashes.  Lent is a time for us to remind ourselves of our mortality, not in a negative and pessimistic way, but so that we can refocus on the life and kingdom that is coming.  How attached are we to things?  Do we live the way Blessed John XXIII did who said that he came into this world naked and knew that he would go out the same way?  Why do you think that some people get addicted to plastic surgery unless it is to banish any signs of aging and so enable them to live in the illusion that they are not getting older?  If pressed, they might admit that they will die; it just won’t be any time soon.  Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.

Lent affords us the opportunity to see how closely our values and attitudes mirror those of Jesus.  Dare we ask, what about the way we live and the choices we make attest to our living Gospel values?  Would the observer quickly conclude that we believe the Good news?  How differently would we act if we believed that we just might be the only Jesus some people will ever meet?  Turn away from sin and believe the Good News.

In the second reading, Paul says to the Romans and to us: If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved. That does not mean that we all should find a soapbox and bring it to a busy street corner so we can stand there and preach.  But it does mean that our manner of living should be able to be explained only by of our faith in Jesus.  We continue to be mindful of our brothers and sisters who have suffered so much in the aftermath of the disaster in Haiti.  The response in terms of generosity and hands on service is amazing.  Certainly that is a testimony to faith for most – faith in God, and on the part of Christians, faith in Jesus Christ.

On this First Sunday of Lent, we assemble for Eucharist – to give thanks to God in the renewal of Jesus’ dying and rising.  What would happen if, during the course of the Eucharistic prayer, the transformation we pray for really happened?  We believe it happens to the bread and the wine and believe that Jesus becomes sacramentally present.  But what if we, too, were transformed?  What if we looked about the Assembly and recognized the Body of Christ we have become?  Remember, we believe that Christ is truly present in the Word, in the Eucharist, and in the people of God assembled.  What if our parish suddenly became a sacramental presence of Jesus for the community about us and for the world?

It could happen – if we really believed and let the Spirit move us.  Maybe this time, Lord?

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C

Jeremiah 17:5-8

1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20

Luke 6:17, 20-26

It’s obvious that Jesus immediately fascinated people.  We are early in Luke’s Gospel, just after the call of the twelve, and already crowds surround him.  That’s not quite accurate.  In the present context, the word crowds has a specific meaning denoting more than just a large number of swarming people.  In the gospels the crowds that mill around Jesus are those who are curious about him, who have heard about his preaching and teaching and even about some of the amazing works he has done.  But they haven’t made up their minds about him.  They will address him as teacher or rabbi and ask him questions in attempts to better understand him.  But they do not make a decision about him or the role he should play in their lives.

The other folks that make up the numbers following Jesus are called disciples.  In distinction from the crowds, disciples call him Messiah and have made the decision to walk with him and make him the center of their lives.  Remember last week’s gospel?  Peter, James, and John, fishermen by trade, saw the huge number of fish that filled Peter’s net and then their two boats; on coming to shore, they left everything with which they were familiar, their boats, their nets, and followed Jesus who said to them: From now on you will be catching people.

These latter, the disciples, are the ones he addresses in this week’s gospel.  This message won’t get through to the crowds.  It seems clear that Jesus wants the disciples to understand clearly the demands of discipleship.  He’s not like today’s recruiters.  They tend to paint rosy pictures of the life lived by those who join their causes and speak of the wonderful benefits that will come to them.  Jesus takes the opposite approach seeming to warn those who would follow him to be sure they know what they are getting into and what it will cost.  This is not an easy path to tread.  Wealth and worldly riches are not likely to follow.  And the different kind of life that they live because of Jesus may well make them enemies of those who do not believe in him or his ways.

There is a foreshadowing of these demands in the first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah.  He talks about the folly of trusting in people as opposed to trusting in the Lord.  Now it should be understood that Jeremiah is proclaiming to people who are struggling with the faith in which they were born and are being dazzled by what others gods seem to promise.  The Prophet sees the downfall that will follow unless the Jews firm themselves in their faith and come back to the Lord and his ways.  If they are unfaithful and trust in mere mortals when the hard times come they will be desolate and learn what ruin means.  Where as those who are faithful and follow the Lord’s ways, even in the worst times, will know an inner strength that the Lord gives and be strong even if the worst does happen – even if Jerusalem does fall and the Babylonians lead the people off in slavery.

For Jesus, what most see as woes, he sees as blessings because these afflictions help to keep disciples focused on what is important and on their relationship with Jesus.  Blessed are you who are poor.  Blessed are you who are hungry.  Blessed are you who are weeping.  Blessed are you when people hate you. I don’t know about you, but I have never been able to see a blessing in any of those negative conditions if I stop there.  Where is the blessing in being poor when all around me are those telling me about the importance of wealth, even those who are telling me that Jesus wants me to be wealthy as a sign of his favor resting on me?  I can’t say that I have too much experience with hunger.  At the first twinge I am able to go to the pantry and find something that will satisfy.  Weeping over the loss of someone or something dear expresses pain and longing.  How is that a blessing?  If I were the object of hatred, how could I go on, even if I am hated for imitating Jesus?

So what is it that Jesus is saying to his neophyte and untried disciples?  God must be brought into the equation.  Poverty brings emptiness and vulnerability, what others have described as a holy longing.  Riches will not fill that void.  But God can reign there in the emptiness; and where God reigns is the kingdom of God.  God will not fail the one in whom God reigns.  In Jeremiah’s words, that one will be like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream; it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green.

How many of those disciples listening to Jesus were poor?  Chances are, not a few.  Those who flocked to Jesus and were most open to his message tended to be the lower class of society and those the elite would rather ignore.  Those the religious designated to be sinners were there, too.  Jesus told them that they were the beloved of God.  Jesus brought them God’s love.  And God’s love is eternal.

The challenge for us as we hear Jesus speak these beatitudes is to be open before them, to understand that these axioms are meant to inspire and challenge us just as they did those first disciples.  After all, we are in the early weeks of this Church Year, just beginning our journey with Jesus through Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus is asking us who have been baptized for some time and those who are new to the faith or still considering becoming disciples, what place does he hold in our lives?  There is a song from an old musical that sings: With me it’s all or nothing.  It’s all or nothing at all. That is what Jesus is saying.  Or, rather, that is what Jesus asks us to consider before we go any farther on this journey.  He must be all in all in our lives.  None of those things the world values can come before Jesus.  The most important desire in the disciple’s life must be faithfulness to God in imitation of Jesus who always seeks to do the will of the One who sent him.

Certainly Jesus is not condemning wealth, anymore than he is condemning food or friendship.  But none of these is an end in itself.  The disciple must be right ordered and place God first above all of these things the world desires.  In other words, avarice, gluttony, and any of those vices that warp and exploit relationships can have no place in the disciple’s heart.  Disciples imitate Jesus, walk behind him and watch what he does and then strive to do the same.

This is the call of the individual disciple.  This is the call of the Church, the Body of Christ to which the baptized belong.  I remember being stunned when a wise and venerable teacher said to me: Do you realize that you are the only Jesus some will ever meet or experience? I never forgot his words and I reflect on them at least weekly.  I realize also that the same thing can be said of the Church universal and the parish in particular – the only Jesus some people will experience.

Here’s a challenge I offer in all humility.  Dare to ask yourself, to whom have you been Jesus recently?  How has your discipleship expressed Jesus to those you encountered?  The questions are not meant to depress you, much less, to fill you with anxiety.  But it is true that there are those in your life for whom you can make all the difference in the world.  Without you, they might never realize that they are loved by you or by God.  One of the evening news programs has a segment called, Making a Difference. The ones I have seen tell the stories of ordinary people who saw a need in their neighborhood and dared to ask what they could do to meet the need and relieve the burdens.  Of course the results never look ordinary.  Often times they seem to me to be miraculous.

We are disciples who come together to celebrate Eucharist.  Having listened to the Word and been nourished by it, we move to the Table of the Eucharist to give thanks and to renew the Lord’s dying and rising in Bread and Wine.  Then the Bread is broken and the Cup is poured out so that we and all those gathered with us can eat and drink and be satisfied.  But you know well that the meal is meant to be an expression of who and what we are as parish.  To eat and drink is to be sent to be broken and poured out.  To gather at the table is to express Jesus’ table fellowship, that all are welcome here.

Good questions to ask in light of these beatitudes are, what place do the poor occupy in the assembly?  Are they supported, fed and sheltered?  Will those who are in mourning feel the comfort and support of the assembly?  Will those with disabilities be allowed to exercise a ministry in the assembly?  Will sinners feel welcome?  Does the parish work for justice and peace?

If we hear this gospel we have to understand that we, individually and collectively, are on a journey.  It is about faith in Jesus and the One who sent him that empowers us to do what Jesus does.  What keeps us going whether we experience success or failure is what Jesus said.  Rejoice and leap for joy on that day (if persecution and rejection result from your ministry).  Behold your reward will be great in heaven.

And we do believe in heaven, don’t we?  Isn’t that evident from the way we live?

Sincerely,

Didymus