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THE FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT – A – March 01, 2020

A reading from the Book of Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 5:12-19
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 4:1-11

 Dear Friends in Christ,

What are your thoughts about Lent?  Some people look forward to the season.  But some, perhaps many do not.  Some dread the season and wonder about its relevance in this day and age.  Beyond an excuse to curb the appetite and so lose a few winter-gathered pounds, Lent might have little practical impact beyond the purple vestments seen at Sunday Mass and the absence of the Gloria and Alleluia.

I talked with a friend about Lent.  Her opinion was that Lent seemed so negative.  Look how it begins, she said.  Black ashes are smeared on your forehead as you are invited to remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.  “Who wants to spend much time thinking about sin and death?  I don’t think I am that bad a person.  I go to Mass most Sundays.  When I’m there I would like to receive a positive and happy message.  These days, life is grim enough.”

Here is something that might surprise you.  I think Lent is a happy season and has a positive message if we are open to hear it.  Hear again the words spoken over you on Ash Wednesday.  Some parishes still use “Remember, Man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” as the ashes are smeared on the forehead.  But I would hope that most people heard another phrase: “Turn away from sin and believe the Good News.”

Yes, we have to begin the season by admitting that we are sinners.  If you are like me, with a little reflection you can find some evidence to support that fact.  But the church does not want us to linger there.  Turn away from sin – whatever kind or kinds you have chosen to practice in your life, but do not stop there.  “Believe the Good News.”  In other words, “believe the Gospel!”  Lent is about our getting rid of the negative thinking that can make us wonder if there is any reason to hope, once we admit to being a sinner.  Is there forgiveness?  What part does God play in my life?

I would suggest that you read the unabridged first reading from the Book of Genesis.  Edited as it is in this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word, it is hard to follow.  Put briefly, it is a poetic description of the origin of evil in the human experience.  It is very good in its exposure of our refusal to accept responsibility for inappropriate choices.  Lent will help us to turn that around and enable us to accept guilt and let it go.

Good News.  That is what Paul wants the Romans to hear in the second reading this Sunday.  Yes, sin came into the world by one person’s sinning.  We, being part of the family, inherit the effects of sin.  But look what has happened through the second Adam!  Where once “No” held say, now Christ’s “Yes” reigns.  Christ’s “Yes” expressed in his pouring out of self in loving service is ours who have been reborn in Christ and are identified with Christ through Baptism, and are redeemed.  “Acquittal and life came to all,” Paul says, through Christ’s passion , death and resurrection.  To all.  That goes beyond those who are baptized.  God does will the salvation of all people.

In these times and with an occasional listening to the evening news, it should not be difficult to convince us of the reality of sin.  Anti Semitism is rising.  Violence against African Americans, sexism, white supremacism, human trafficking and the endless wars, children separated from their parents held in cages graphically illustrate for us Man’s Inhumanity to Man.  All of us should strive to cooperate with grace and remove sin and its vestiges from our lives so that we can witness to a better way.  During Lent we hear and are urged to remember the Good News – and to live it.  God loves you with a love that is timeless, unconditional and eternal.  During these days of Lent, may you come to know God, as God wants to be known and accepted by you. 

So many of us have been schooled to think of God as a god of majesty seated on a throne, ruling and judging.  But if we pay better attention, we will come to recognize that God wants to serve, even more than God wants to be served.  “Let me be your God, and you will be my people,” says the Lord our God.

God is the Lover who comes seeking the beloved – you.  We can spend so much time imagining God as distant and remote.  Jesus, as the Word of God made flesh, revealed a different image as, through his words and actions, a different kind of God emerges.  Look at the ones with whom Jesus associated and shared table fellowship.  We may be used to softening the types in our minds as we hear them listed: prostitutes, tax collectors and generic sinners.  They were what they were; but Jesus served them and enjoyed their company because to do so was to be with those who otherwise felt unloved.  His service told them they were beloved of God.  You are the beloved of that same God.

God wants to be your lover.  God does not want that love to be unrequited.  It is okay to be embarrassed by a God who loves so lavishly, but do not let that embarrassment keep you from believing that that is the way God is.  When the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan, it was so that Jesus could right the relationship, the relationship that so often gets skewed by choices we make that deny the relationship.  We can let the very things held up by Satan as temptations before Jesus dominate our lives.  Money.  Power.  Position.  It may not be beyond us to agree with the message so widely proclaimed these days, that “It is all about ME!”  God help anyone who gets in my way.  This Lent we should recognize narcissism for what it is, and reject it.  At every turn, Jesus gives God primacy of place.  No false gods like money, position, or power.  No taking foolish risks with life and limb, or abusing same, because we are tempted to think we are invincible.

Lent is a time for fasting so that by the influence of grace our appetites can be brought under control.  Lent is a time for prayer and so to listen to the Lover whisper sweet nothings that summed up say, “You are my beloved.”  Lent is a time for almsgiving that in reality becomes our doing what Jesus did, pouring out self in loving service of others.

People continue to search for God and think of God as distant.  If you prepare by fasting and prayer, your vision will clear and you will recognize God in others about you, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the sinners, the poor, the homosexuals, the transgenders, the Muslim, the Jews, the Blacks or Whites, depending , and anyone else your society rejects.  God will be in those whose race is different from yours, whose religion and gender are different from your own.  Clothe them.  Embrace them.  Above all, do not be embarrassed to acknowledge them as Brother and Sister.  When you do, you will be amazed at how near God has come.

If you die in the process, that should not surprise you.  Remember when Jesus said, “If you would follow me, take up your cross every day and follow me?”  He meant it.  Service is the cross.  If you take up the cross every day, you just might die on it.  You might be rejected, betrayed, broken.  So was Jesus.  But not forever.  Emptied, Jesus was filled with God’s love and brought to Glory.  That is the Good News.  No evil, no darkness will over come you forever.  The Lover embraces and, with a kiss, raises you up.

Now you are ready to move from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  There we renew Christ’s dying and rising.  We join in the meal that is his sharing of his Body and his Blood that become sources of new life in us.  Then we are ready to be sent as the continuation of Christ’s presence in this troubled world.  And by loving we will help the downtrodden find hope in the recognition that they are loved.

That is what your life, as one born in Christ should be about.  And peace will follow.

Happy Lent!

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

THE SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – February 23, 2020

A reading from the Book of Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 3:16-23
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 5:38-48

Dear Friends in Christ,

If your parish has an active Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), every Sunday you will watch the Catechumens as they are called up before the Assembly to be sent forth with their Catechist to ponder further the Liturgy of the Word.  The Assembly blesses them and promises to pray for them as they are dismissed.  Do you ever wonder what they are thinking, especially when demanding and life-altering readings such as these in this week’s Liturgy of the Word have been proclaimed.  Hopefully the homily has broken open the Word helping the Assembly to apply the Word to these times.  Are the Catechumens stunned?  Do they ask themselves, “Who can do these things?”  “Surely these texts we just heard put forth exaggerations that are impossible to carry out.  We must be able to pare them down and make them more practical and plausible.  True, we should improve our behaviors somewhat.”  The fact is that some in the Assembly may be thinking in the same way.

These Sundays we hear Jesus’ first major instruction as he begins his public ministry and the formation of his first disciples.  This is the Sermon on the Mount.  Those listening have decided to be his followers.  Jesus makes it clear that discipleship is demanding.  Disciples are to be a new creation.  Their manner of living and acting can only be explained by their imitation of Jesus and his life within them.

The Catechumens are on a journey that should last at least through a complete Liturgical cycle so that they can hear and respond to a complete Gospel.  Only when they have heard the full challenge that Jesus issues will they be able to accept discipleship and enter the Waters to die to the old self and rise to their new life in Christ.  When they say “Yes” at that point, they are ready, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to be Christ’s continuing presence in the world.  They are ready to live their Baptismal Priesthood.

In the first reading from the Book of Leviticus, God speaks through Moses and calls the people to be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.  Expressions of that holiness are the rooting out of hatred and revenge toward their brothers and sisters.  The call is to love your neighbor as yourself.  With all charity, when it is necessary, be a corrective force in the community; but always with kindness.  In other words, set the standard and live by it.  When you think about it, as you reflect on the lives of the saints, their path to sainthood was living the implications of this reading from Leviticus.

There was a song many years ago that sang, What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  Listen to the evening news and it soon becomes clear that it is division and hatred that abound.  There is a terrible rise in anti-Semitism; this as we honor the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  If you are a parent, talk to your children about the Holocaust.  According to one statistic only 38% of teenagers have heard about it.  Then there is racism and the resurgence of white supremacists.  This reading challenges us to see things differently.  When we see people suffering, being beaten, spat upon, shot, we are looking at what is happening to our neighbors, or, in Jesus’ imagery, our brothers and sisters.  

Jesus builds on Moses’s proclamation and takes us beyond it.  The walls of limitation come down.  These directions are not only applicable to our relationships with family and friends, as Moses has it, but also to our manner of responding to enemies and those who hate us.  That may seem fine in abstraction.  Put flesh and blood on what Jesus demands.  Think of people in your own life who have adversely affected you.  You might come to a different conclusion.  Who can do that?

Revenge is a fairly basic human instinct.  If someone hits you, the instinct is to hit him back in self-defense.  Who could blame you for that?  Now, get the picture clear in your mind; see the person who has hurt you in this way.  Feel the smart.  Now imagine yourself turning the other cheek, submitting to another blow.  How easy is that?  Who can do that?

The truth is, the Law allowed for one to retaliate in a manner equal to the offense, but not harsher than that.  An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Turning the other cheek translates into, offer no defense; give no retaliation.  Think of that moment in Jesus’ passion when her is being scourged, spat upon, and struck in the face.  There is nothing in the text that hints at self-defense or striking back.  Jesus may ask why he is being struck, but there is not a hint of revenge.  Now hear that phrase that Jesus uses as he teaches the disciples.  Now you go and do likewise.

When we are being imposed upon, Jesus expects us, as disciples, to go beyond what is demanded.  The consequence of that is the removal of anything that would hint at resentment for being asked for assistance.  Are your teeth beginning to grind yet?  The instinct is to think about how the other will be taking advantage of you, isn’t it?  Aren’t there those who resent the poor and think that if they would only work harder, they wouldn’t be poor?  Do not miss this point.  We are moving toward the laying down of one’s life for the other.

The next directive is among the most demanding and difficult to practice.  Love your enemies.  And pray for those who persecute you.  To wrestle with this properly, there must be in your memory a major affront or wounding.  Has someone attempted to ruin your reputation?  Have you been destroyed by vicious rumor or innuendo?  As Job did, have you cried out in the night, Why me, God?  See that person clearly who did this to you.  Feel the pain again.  Now hear Jesus’ command to love that person and pray for him.  Believe me, you will be able to do that, but usually there will be a struggle and a need to die to yourself as you yield to the Spirit and learn what means to love without any expectation of recompense.  That is what Jesus did on the cross in response to those who drove in the nails and lifted him up.

I will never forget the amazing couple that I read about who felt the demands of this text in their lives.  Their daughter had been murdered.  The killer had been apprehended, tried,  convicted and sent to prison.  As the couple continued to pray and to go to church on Sundays, they heard Jesus command them to turn the other cheek, to forgive the offense, and to love.  They decided that they would have to know the person before they could do what Jesus commanded.  They decided to go to the prison and meet with the killer and to get to know him.  Over a period of time they did that and were surprised when they were able to forgive the heinous act.  Wonder of wonders, they came to love the one who took the life of their beloved daughter.  The story doesn’t end there.  When the man was granted parole, the couple invited him to come to live with them until he was able to find work and move on.  The last line brought tears to my eyes.  The killer had become like a son to them.

Who can do this?  That is what the Catechumens should ask themselves as they hear the Sermon on the Mount proclaimed.  They will journey through the Church Year in the midst of the Assembly.  That is where they will find the answers to their questions.  The example of the Assembly will convince them that it is possible to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to do good to those who hate you, and to pray for one’s persecutors.  But what is the secret of those who live this way?

The Catechumens are sent forth before the Eucharist begins.  They are told that the Assembly looks forward to the day when they will join the Assembly at the Table.  The Assembly’s secret is their transformation through their celebration of the Eucharist.  It is through giving thanks to God through the renewal of Jesus’ dying and rising, and through their taking and eating the Bread and drinking the Wine, elements transformed into the Sacramental Presence of the Lord’s Body and Blood, that they find the way to love others as they are loved by God.

That is the message the Assembly proclaims as they go forth to be Christ’s presence in the world, even as they pray that the Catechumens will continue to press forward toward the Waters of the Font, animated by the same Spirit.

And may that wonder that echoed through those observing the first Christians begin to resonate again in our times.  See how these Christians love one another.  What the world needs now is love, sweet love.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – February 16, 2020

A reading from the Book of Sirach 15:15-20
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 2:6-10
A reading from the holy gospel according to Matthew 5:17-37

Dear Friends in Christ,

For three weeks now, we have been seated at Jesus’ feet listening to his first major preaching to the initial group of those who had decided to follow him, and to a large group that had not yet made up their minds.  The group who had made the decision we call disciples.  The undecided are known as the crowd.  The sermon we hear this Sunday will continue over the next several weeks.  The first audience had little previous exposure to what was entailed in discipleship.  We, on the other hand, either have seen ourselves as disciples for some time and call ourselves Christian, or we are new to the faith, having been baptized a few months ago.  One thing is fairly safe to say.  The bulk of the Sermon is familiar to us.

I have often wished that there were a way to wipe the slate clean, so to speak, so that we could have again the experience of hearing these teachings for the first time so that they could stun us the way the first audience was.  We should make no mistake about this.  The Christian walk is not easy.  If our defenses are down and we are vulnerable to Jesus’ words, we should find ourselves wondering, who can do this?  For all the discussion about the Law that the scribes and Pharisees engaged in, the end result was to know that just about every possibility for violation was covered in the over 630 commandments in Hebrew Scripture.  Laws tell us the least we can or cannot do.

Jesus takes us on a whole new track and removes the safeguard of the minimum.  Jesus urges us toward the fulfilling of the Law’s intent, not removing us from the need to observe it.  After all, the Decalogue is the sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish People.  Obeying the commandments would be an eloquent sign to all the other nations of what it means to be God’s chosen people.  Now Jesus forms a New Covenant.  Love is the new Law that disciples must live.

The scribes and the Pharisees could be characterized as being scrupulous about the Law.  More than likely they could quote the laws verbatim and in their entirety.  Hear what Jesus says: I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Fulfilling the minutiae of the law is not enough for God tp reign in our lives.  It has to do with love.  Through Moses, God said to the people, when you keep the commandments others will know that I am your God and you are my people.  Jesus says: By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  Love becomes the Law in the new Way.  Love of God.  Love of neighbor.  Love of self.  Loving God necessitates loving the others.  And vice versa.  As soon as love becomes the norm we will find the all-consuming demands of the new Law.

The Law says: You shall not kill, and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.  We know what murder is, the taking of another’s life.  Some would immediately put qualifications on the commandment and say: you shall not commit murder, except under these circumstances or conditions.  Those circumstances or conditions usually have to do with provocation.  It is murder only when the victim has done nothing to merit the killer’s blow.

Jesus gives us an outline of how life is to be lived in the Kingdom that he is initiating.  As the promulgator of the New way, there is much more that Jesus expects of disciples than not committing murder.  He does not do away with the commandment; but he does speak in the first person and expand on what should be included under that law.  What I say to you is that far more than murder is unacceptable in this faith community.  Jesus reorders creation and clarifies the implications of living as children of God, brothers and sisters in the Lord.  

More than murder is forbidden here.  So are anger and abusive language.  Of course there is such a thing as just anger.  That is not forbidden by the new commandment.  Jesus’ own actions attest to this.  He was angry when he made a whip out of his belt and drove the moneychangers from the temple.  The justification for his rage? My Father’s house is a house of prayer; you have made it a den of thieves.  Anger is an appropriate response to injustice and the exploitation of the vulnerable.  Anger compelled Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  They responded to the horrors they witnessed as non-violent reformers.  Apartheid angered Archbishop Desmond Tutu and compelled him to work for reconciliation.  There are situations and conditions that warrant anger.  A license to kill does not follow.

Jesus words are addressed to his disciples.  The Messiah tells them (us) how they (we) are to conduct themselves in his emerging community in which all are brothers and sisters.  Killing a brother or sister is reprehensible; but so is hating a brother or sister and merits the same consequence – damnation.  The one who hates deems the object of his hatred to be loathsome, abominable and detestable.  One cannot have such an attitude toward brother or sister, a fellow member of the community.

So then, whom can one hate?  It becomes clear that Jesus bans hatred.  In the abstract you might think that it is not all that challenging to banish hatred from your life.  But put a face on the enemy and see him/her as the one who has done something despicable to you, ruined your life, or absconded with your spouse or your life’s savings.  Could you wash that person’s feet?  Jesus would.  He exchanged a kiss with Judas, after all.

It was jealousy between brothers that caused the first murder in Genesis.  Cain killed Abel because God seemed to favor Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s.  We are called to be members of a new society where brothers and sisters live in unity and peace because that has been God’s desire for the human family from the beginning.

So it seems clear that Jesus is saying to his disciples that they can never be content with dissension in the community.  these are people who process together to the Table to partake of the One Bread and the One Cup, to be one in the Christ who lives in them.  Disciples can never accept fractured relationships.  Because someone offends does not mean that he or she can be shunned or exiled from the community.  The grace of repentance is always available.  Jesus admonishes the offender, the one who caused the breakdown, to have as his or her first priority to make amends and seek reconciliation.  This obligation comes before the obligation to worship God.  If the person is on his way to temple with the elements of sacrifice in hand, Jesus says to tend to first things first.  Reconcile and then offer the sacrifice.

In these contentious times it is important for us to listen to these words Jesus speaks to us this Sunday.  Sexism.  Racism.  Political discord.  Belittling and disparaging attacks.  Again, it is one thing to observe these behaviors.  It is another to participate in them.  The Gospel demands that we recognize those at our country’s boarders seeking refuge as our sisters and brothers.  So are those people suffering in the aftermath of earthquakes.  So are those suffering in the seemingly endless wars.  These are not strangers and aliens.  These are members of our one family.  

It is not by accident that our Liturgy begins with the Penitential Rite wherein we call to mind our sins and, recognizing that there is no such thing as a private sin that does not weaken the whole Assembly, we ask pardon of God and of our neighbor before we enter into the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Then, do not miss the significance of the Greeting of Peace that proceeds the Communion Procession.  We stand in solidarity through the Communion Procession until all have eaten and all have drunk.  Then we sit.  What we are celebrating is the reconciliation that is necessary to heal the breaches in our society.  We enter into the Mystery of the Community that is our God.  It is the grace of that transformation that we must put into practice, loving others as we are loved in Christ.

The operative word is Love!

Sincerely yours Christ,

Didymus