Saturday, February 28, 2009

The New Flood

(1st Sunday of Lent, B)

As we begin this holy season of Lent, the gospel we hear today picks up where we left off at the end of the Christmas season. Seven weeks ago, we concluded the Christmas season with the feast of the baptism of the Lord. Today we hear the result of that baptism: Jesus is pushed into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan. Having fasted for forty days, Jesus emerges victorious over Satan and begins to preach the good news of the kingdom of God.

The other readings we have today help us to remember that these three moments in Jesus’ life go together: baptism, temptation in the desert, preaching the Kingdom. To explore this, the liturgy today invites us to go all the way back to Noah. Surely you recall the story of Noah and his family. God became displeased with the creation and decides to make a fresh start of things. God sends the flood to destroy the earth so that everything can start over with Noah’s family and the animals they brought with them on the ark. After the flood is over, God makes a covenant with Noah in which he promises never to destroy the world again. God vows, “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings.”

Now, as we hear from St. Peter in the second reading, the flood “prefigures” our baptism. The flood is like a foreshadowing that helps us to understand what our baptism means. Just as Noah and his family were raised above the flood in the ark, so we who go through the waters of baptism rise with Christ and are saved from the sin that so often cripples human life and destiny in this world.

Recall how God promised never to destroy the world again like he did in with the flood. But it’s not like us who live after the flood are any better than the wicked folks who lived before the flood, those who led God to want to make a whole new start of the creation. So, seeing the world continue to struggle with sin, seeing the world in which we persist in making ourselves and each other miserable with our sins, God again sends the waters upon the world. But this is not the violent, in-your-face waters of the first flood; this is the new flood of our baptism through which God recreates us gently from within.

The flood prefigures the baptism we share with Christ because it is again through water that God seeks to re-create the world. God sends the new flood of baptism by which our lives are re-created in a quiet, secret, and gentle way. But the new flood is no less powerful and insistent than the old. God will not be thwarted in his desire to bring the world to perfection. Our baptism is a quiet, persistent, unstoppable revolution against sin and death.

Lent is an opportunity for us to prepare for the renewal of the promises of our baptism at Easter. As the Spirit drove the newly baptized Jesus into the desert for forty days so that he might contend and have victory over Satan, so may we allow the grace of our baptism to drive us deep into the forty days of this Lent. May we allow the victory of Jesus to take over our lives. In his grace, we may prepare ourselves for the renewal of our dying and rising in the new flood of baptism.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Friendship and Forgiveness

(7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The gospel we hear today is a special opportunity for our reflection. It’s special because it doesn’t require a lot of translation, because we find ourselves, right now, in the exact same situation as the people in the passage. Learning that Jesus was at home, they went to his house to hear his teaching and to seek healing and forgiveness. Brothers and sisters, this is exactly what we are doing here; we have assembled in Jesus’ house in order to receive his teaching, healing, and forgiveness.

And so the unnamed people in the gospel can help us to notice what’s going on with ourselves and what we’re called to today. In this regard, let’s notice two things: First of all, what the passage teaches us about Christian friendship, and second, what we learn about the forgiveness of sins.

We’re all familiar with the role of faith in Jesus’ healing miracles. It’s not just that Jesus heals someone; the gospels often say that Jesus “saw” someone’s faith, or he says something like, “Your faith has made you well.” Now notice in the gospel we hear today, Jesus sees not only the faith of the person in need of healing but “their faith,” that is, the faith also of the friends. This man’s friends, through their outrageous action of breaking through the roof in order to get their friend to Jesus, demonstrate the intensity of their faith in Jesus’ healing power. This is an image of Christian friendship! And it challenges us to ask ourselves how far we are willing to go to bring those we love to Jesus. Are we willing to climb up on top of houses and break through roofs so that those we love might also receive the healing and forgiveness Jesus offers? Are we hesitant to do the outrageous to connect others with Jesus? Well, once we really know the gift of forgiveness of sins, I think we won’t be, because we will know how freeing and healing it is to be forgiven.

It’s funny; I think the forgiveness of sins is one of hardest doctrines of Christianity for people to believe. In some ways I think it’s easier to believe in some of the more sublime truths like the Resurrection or the Blessed Trinity than it is to believe in the forgiveness of sins. Sometimes I ask people in confession if they believe they are forgivable. Some people don’t think so. So I tell them to pray the Apostle’s Creed as a penance, which, as you know, contains the line “I believe…in the forgiveness of sins.”

I remember once how my father said that he didn’t believe in forgiveness because it was unjust. In a certain sense of commutative justice, based on equal retribution, forgiveness seems unjust because it lets go of injury and doesn’t seek recompense. But this is an incomplete idea of justice, because justice must always be directed to the common good. And as long we hold on to evil, whether it be in an unwillingness to forgive ourselves or each other, evil will reproduce inside us. It will either turn inside and become depression or turn out and become violence. Forgiveness puts an end to the self-replicating cycles of sin and violence.

This is why God forgives. It’s not because God is a nice and patient person. It’s because God is utterly and perfectly good and has no interest in punishment or retribution. God is only interested in the healing and lifting up of the world. That’s why in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, God explains that he forgives sins for his own sake! We too, if we want to be good to ourselves, will learn to forgive ourselves and each other, so that we might not hold on to the evil and the injury that brings misery into the world. And having found that forgiveness, like the friends in the gospel, we’ll be willing to do anything to bring others to the forgiveness we have in Jesus.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bitter to Sweet

(6th Sunday, B)

At first glance we seem to have another simple healing in the gospel we hear today. The leper expresses his faith in Jesus: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus responds that he does will it, and the leper is made clean. But this is more than a simple healing; to be a leper in the ancient world meant more than just being sick. As we hear in the first reading today, someone afflicted with leprosy had to “dwell apart,” living “outside the camp.”

So when this man is healed, Jesus not only cleanses him of his disease, but he restores his place in human society. We see this when Jesus invites the man to go the priests so that the cure might be officially recognized. It’s also clear in St. Mark’s report that the man publicized the miracle; he was again part of the ordinary religious discourse of the people of God.

This type of healing miracle, in which someone who was excluded from society is restored to relationship, is very much worth our time. This is because exclusion is one of the most serious and debilitating evils of our time. And I think we know this in our gut feelings. We all know the experience of seeing or encountering folks who are poor or struggling and having that particular kind of searing and guilty sadness arise within us.

We are made to feel uncomfortable because the divisions of poverty and exclusion in our society are the result of sin. This is the real sin of poverty in our world; not that people lack money but that whole sections of the population lack the cultural and educational capital to interact successfully in public, e.g. to make a successful transaction at the bank, to keep and appointment, or to hold a job. And this, again, is the result of sin. We’re not talking about my sin or your sin in particular, but of structures of sin that are embedded in our culture: the legacy of racism, patterns of drug and alcohol abuse in families, children denied their right to two parents committed to each other in marriage. These and many others are what produce the moral poverties that drag so many down into frustration and misery.

So what do we do? How do we bring the healing and reconciliation of Jesus to our broken and divided world? In this I think Francis of Assisi is one of the great geniuses of our tradition. Francis gives us an account of his own conversion in his Testament written for the brothers. He begins, “The Lord granted to me, brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way. When I was in sin, it seemed very bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I had mercy on them. And that which had been bitter was changed into sweetness of soul and body, and I lingered a little, and left the world.”

We know that same bitterness Francis felt when he saw the poor of his world, and we can follow his lead in doing something about it. Francis refused to reinforce these divisions in himself by actually going among the lepers, living with them and serving them. In so doing, he reversed the miserable effects of structural sin in himself and became not only happy, but a saint. And we can do this too! Starting with simple acts of courtesy and regard for the poor, we can begin to overcome the sins that have allowed exclusion and division to flourish in our culture. In the coming days and years, more of us will become materially poor. May each of us do what we can to restore the dignity and place of the poor, so that our material poverty might not translate into the further moral impoverishment of our culture.