Saturday, March 28, 2009


(5th Sunday of Lent, B)

You will notice, brothers and sisters, that upon our arrival at this fifth Sunday of Lent, a shift has occurred. When we listen to the readings and pray the prayers that make up the Mass we offer today, we see right away that our attention is now directed much more explicitly on the Lord’s Passion. This shift was much clearer in the old calendar, before the reforms and changes that were made after the Second Vatican Council, when these last two weeks before Easter were called Passiontide. Perhaps you will remember how statues and sacred images were veiled in violet starting today. Even though this custom has become rare, these last two weeks of Lent still invite us to begin a more intense reflection on the Passion of our Lord.

“The days are coming” announces the prophet Jeremiah, when God will make a new covenant with his people. But this new covenant will be different than the previous covenants. It will not be something outside of us that we are supposed to follow, but will call upon us from within our humanity. Instead of giving us a code of external demands, God will place this new covenant within the hearts of his people.

This is exactly what is accomplished in the Lord’s Passion and is renewed in the Mass as its perfect commemoration. In fact, this is an important way to understand what the Mass is: the historical event of Christ’s Passion extended spiritually through time and space. In the Holy Communion we receive, God’s purpose is fulfilled as the new and everlasting covenant in Christ’s blood enters into our bodies and unites us to Christ.

Jesus proclaims in the Gospel today: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Jesus himself is that grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies for us. But the “much fruit” the Lord speaks of is us, brothers and sisters. The fruit of the Lord’s Passion is the gift of eternal life for us. Jesus’ body is broken on the Cross and his blood is poured out. In this the grain of wheat falls to the ground. But in his Resurrection the wheat rises again into the Bread of this Mass as the unbloody manifestation of the one sacrifice of the Cross.

Here at the Eucharist we receive the broken Body of Christ into our bodies, and his Precious Blood is poured out over our hearts. This is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah who looked forward to the new covenant written on the heart. This covenant is God’s promise to lift us up to eternal life with Christ, both now in the spiritual strength and consolation we receive in Holy Communion, and in our sharing in the Lord’s Resurrection in the life to come.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Cyrus and Jesus

(4th Sunday of Lent, B)

We arrive today, brothers and sisters, at the logical mid-point of our journey through Lent. As we begin, then, our ‘final ascent’ to the great mysteries of the Paschal Triduum, our proximity to those solemn days makes us rejoice. That’s the traditional name for this fourth Sunday of Lent, “Laetare Sunday.” It comes from the Entrance Antiphon for today’s Mass, Laetáre Ierúsalem, et convéntum fácite, omnes qui dilígitis eam…, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and come together, all you who love her…” We rejoice today because we are drawing ever nearer to the New Jerusalem and to the saving works of the Anointed of God, Jesus Christ the Messiah.

But what does it mean that we call Jesus the Messiah or ‘Christ,’ as the term translates through the Greek of our New Testament? To help us understand what we mean by our confession of Jesus as the Christ, our first reading today goes a long way. Jesus of Nazareth was not first person in the history of the people of God to be called messiah. Indeed the second book of Chronicles relates to us the story of the messiah-ship of King Cyrus the Persian. So, understanding how Cyrus was a messiah can help us to understand how Jesus is the Messiah.

In the earlier part of the sixth century BC, Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonians. The city and its Temple were eventually destroyed, and, according to their method of conquering other peoples, the Babylonians deported the leading classes back to Babylon. Thus the people of God were ejected from the land that God himself had given to them, and the reading tells us that this destruction and calamity came upon them because of their unfaithfulness. Thus began what is called the Babylonian Exile or Captivity. Now, as often happens in the history of this world, one superpower comes to replace another, and two generations after the deportation, the Persians replaced the Babylonians. Cyrus, the king of the Persians, was more tolerant toward other cultures and religions, and for reasons that are a little mysterious, decided to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem and even to help them rebuild the Temple. This Temple, though it was almost completely renovated by Herod the Great shortly before the birth of our Lord, was the one that Jesus would have known.

So, let’s notice that pattern of what it means to be a messiah revealed in King Cyrus. He reverses the just punishment and deportation that the people of God had received for their unfaithfulness, returns them to the Promised Land, and even helps them to begin to restore their religious life centered, as it was, on the Jerusalem Temple.

In a wider and much more universal way, this is the same work accomplished by Jesus the Messiah. The Israelites suffered exile from the Promised Land because of their unfaithfulness to the covenants. In the same way, we, because of our sins, suffer from alienation from God and from the joyful and perfected humanity that God wants to give us. In his saving Passion and death, and in the Eucharist he gives us to stretch and commemorate this one sacrifice through history, Jesus restores us to our true and best humanity and reverses the alienation from God we have earned with our sins.

This is why we rejoice today, because even in the midst of all the misery and injustice and depression we have brought upon ourselves and the world with our sins, God in his mercy sends us the Christ, that we might look upon him and allow ourselves to be restored to the joy and justice God delights to give to the world.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Our Behalf

(3rd Sunday of Lent, B)

In the first reading today, from the book of Exodus, we hear one of the versions of the Commandments. The “Ten Commandments” as they are traditionally called are the imperatives God gives us as the basis of revealed morality for human society. We are meant to adhere to and follow the Commandments because they enshrine the foundations of personal happiness and the flourishing of human culture.

So, how are we doing? Now I now I haven’t, but is there anyone here who has kept all the Commandments perfectly since arriving at the age of reason? How about anyone who has kept the Commandments since, say, making good resolutions for the New Year? Maybe there’s someone who has kept God’s Commandments perfectly so far today?

See, brothers and sisters, this is the spiritual tragedy of our lives; we have not kept God’s Commandments, but have instead persisted in our idolatries, our vanities, our inanities, and our plain old sins. This is why, instead of being the joyful, happy, and free people God would delight to have us be, so many go through their days depressed, anxious, lonely, and fearful.

As it is in our morality, so it is in our worship too. We gather here in this church to pray together and to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Yes, we’re fervent. Yes, the church itself is very beautiful. But do we think that our prayers and our worship are worthy of God? No. We could never be zealous enough or free enough from distraction and mixed motives for our worship to be worthy of the surpassing glory and holiness of the God we try to praise.

But here’s the good news. In his astounding mercy, God has made our very inability to follow his moral standards and the very inadequacy of our worship the starting point of our salvation. And this brings us to the gospel we hear today, of this incident of Jesus at the Temple for the feast of Passover. The Second Temple in Jerusalem was the greatest edifice for the honor and praise of Almighty God that human beings have ever constructed and used. But even the Temple, just like our prayer, could never offer worship that was fully worthy of God.

So Jesus proclaims that from then on, it is his he himself will be the Temple: “he was talking about the Temple of his body.” And on the Cross it is Jesus who will offer perfect obedience and worship to the Father as he becomes himself the one perfect temple, the one perfect priest, and the one perfect sacrifice.

This is the good news for us, brothers and sisters. In order to save us from the tragedy of our failure to live up to God’s commandments and our inability to offer God adequate worship, the Word of God himself has borrowed our humanity and done these things on our behalf in the Passion of Jesus Christ. On the Cross, Jesus offers to the Father the sacrifice of perfect obedience. And for us who have not yet learned to be perfect in our obedience and our worship, he has left this same sacrifice of the Cross as our food. This is what happens here at Mass. We receive into our very bodies the perfect sacrifice of Christ, so that we too might become empowered beyond ourselves to live God’s commandments and to offer God more perfect praise.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

His Suffering is our Glorification

(2nd Sunday of Lent, B)

In accord with ancient tradition, on this second Sunday of Lent we proclaim the mysterious event of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples to the top of a high mountain, and there he appears to them in his divine glory, conversing with the Moses the great leader of the people of God, and Elijah, their greatest prophet. Here the disciples get a glimpse of the glorified Jesus, of the Lord as he comes to us in his Resurrection. The Transfiguration is a kind of preview of the Resurrection, and so its proclamation today shall be for us, to encourage us to redouble our commitment to observing this Lent and keep us focused on its goal: the renewal of our risen, baptized life during the celebration of Easter.

But, if the gospel we proclaim today is all about the glorified Jesus and the Resurrection, why do the other readings seem to about sacrifice, specifically the sacrifice of the son? In the first reading we hear of the blessing that comes upon Abraham because of his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. In the second reading, St. Paul assures us that the God who also “did not spare his own Son” but “handed him over” for our salvation will also bless us in every way.

What’s the connection here? Well, I think we are invited today to reflect on the link between God’s sacrifice of his only Son—indeed of the self-sacrificing deity—and the glorification of Jesus in the Resurrection. And here’s what it is, I think: The suffering, Passion, and sacrifice of the Son of God become for us our glorification. For what do we see glorified in the Transfiguration of the Lord—what was available to the eyes of Peter, James, and John? It was the Christ they knew as the man Jesus of Nazareth transformed and glorified in the divine light. What they saw with their eyes was a divinely glorified human being. This humanity is the humanness of you and me; it is the human nature that the Word of God borrows from us through the wondrous consent of our most Blessed Mother and that comes into the world as Jesus Christ.

In this event of the Word of God becoming flesh, becoming one with us in our humanity, God in Christ enters into and passes through our human life and experience. Most importantly, Jesus Christ is God joining himself to our suffering. There he is on the Cross, identifying himself with the suffering we bring upon ourselves and each other with our sins, even to the point of the deep pain of feeling forsaken by God: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.” Jesus joins us even in the bodily death our first parents earned for us with their original disobedience.

But here’s the good news: the goodness of the divine personality of Jesus Christ is more powerful than the evils of sin, suffering, and death. And so Jesus, again in the humanity he borrows from us, bursts forth from his Passion and death to reveal the Resurrection. This is precisely the glorification we witness in the Transfiguration. It’s not so much that we marvel at the miracle of seeing an apparition of the divine person of Jesus Christ, but that we rejoice to know that this is a glorification that is now available to us in our humanity because of Christ’s sacrifice, because of his having passed through and over the suffering and death we have brought upon ourselves with our sins.

So let us renew ourselves in our devotion to the Lord’s Passion this Lent, for it is the end of the power of sin and the fear of death for all humanity.