Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Fourth Sunday of Lent

Meditating on the Gospel

In today's Gospel, we meet a man who had been blind from birth. Let's take some time this week to meditate on a few points from the story.

1. Jesus' disciples ask a very important question. Seeing the man who had been blind from birth, they wonder who had sinned, the man or his parents. They are expressing a typical Jewish belief, that anything negative in a person's life must be the result of sin. Jesus corrects that assumption when He tells the disciples that no one sinned. The man's condition has a positive aspect. He had been born blind so that God's glory may be manifested through his healing.

2. Jesus is the light of the world.

3. Jesus' method of healing the blind man is earthy, incarnational, sacramental. He uses the things of the world, dirt, saliva, and water, to open the man's eyes. Of course, the real cause of the man's healing is Jesus' power, but it is a power channeled through physical things.

4. Pay attention to the healed man's growth in faith. As the story progresses, he moves from describing Jesus as the “man” who had healed him, then as a prophet, then as a man of God, and finally, as the Son of Man, the Messiah, Whom he worships.

5. Jesus heals the man on the sabbath, which annoys the Pharisees, who follow the letter of the law to excess. Jesus, on the other hands, puts people before rules.

6. The Jews dispute the identity of the healed man. Some say that he is the blind man who used to beg, but others maintain that he just looks like the beggar. The healed man clearly asserts who he is and what happened to him, but some people still don't want to believe. Their hearts remain closed.

7. The Pharisees bring in the man's parents to identify their son. They do so, but they refuse to speculate about how he was healed or who did it. They make it very clear that their son can testify for himself. They just don't want to get involved because they are afraid of being expelled from the synagogue. Their response is a bit strange really, for as parents, they should be rejoicing that their son can see rather than worrying about other people's opinions and controversies.

8. The Pharisees question the healed man again and again. Finally, he gets a little tired of it and remarks that it is truly an amazing thing that these Jewish leaders can't tell that Jesus is from God. After all, it is unheard of that anyone should open the eyes of a man who had been blind from birth. For the man, that is enough proof of Jesus' holiness.

9. The Pharisees throw the man out of their presence, telling him that he was born totally in sin and therefore shouldn't dare to teach them anything. Talk about arrogance!

10. Jesus finds the man and reveals Himself to be the Son of Man, the Messiah. The man believes immediately and worships Him. His faith is strong and secure.

11. Jesus says that He came into the world so that the blind might see. Those who think they see, however, who are not humble enough to admit that they don't know everything, are the ones who are truly blind.

12. The Pharisees, of course, take offense at this, but Jesus makes His point very clear. If the Pharisees insist that they see, that they are the ones who know who Jesus really is (i.e., not at all a man from God), then their sin remains. They are truly blind.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17:3-7 – Those Israelites!

Moses must have been about ready to pull out his hair, don't you think? He was in the middle of the desert with a group of cranky, thirsty people who constantly complained. 

It's not like they hadn't seen God in action already. They had. Several times. They had already witnessed the signs God gave to the Pharoah through Moses. They had seen the Nile turn to blood. They had listened to the howls of the Egyptians when they woke one morning to find all their firstborn dead. They had rejoiced to find their sons still alive. They had already crossed the Red Sea on dry land, with the water forming walls on either side. They had watched as, at Moses' command, the sea closed in on the Pharoah's army. They had followed the column of cloud and flame day and night as it led them through the desert. They had eaten the bread of angels, the manna, that God gave them in response to their hunger. They had even observed as Moses turned bitter water into fresh, clean water just by adding a piece of wood.

These Israelites were familiar with miracles. God had provided plenty of evidence of His loving care.

But what were they doing once again? They were whining. “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” they sniveled to Moses, “Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?” They quarreled among themselves, asking, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” Their hearts were hard. Their necks were stiff.

It would have been enough to try anyone's patience, and Moses turned to God for help, crying out, “What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!” 

And, as always, God came to the rescue. He told Moses to take his staff, the same one he had used to strike the Nile, and strike the rock in Horeb. God promised to stand on the rock in front of Moses and make water flow out from it for the people to drink. That's exactly what happened. Moses, in the presence of the Israelite elders, struck the rock, which emitted a stream of water. 

Problem solved...again! God fulfilled His people's needs despite their bad attitudes.

It's easy to be hard on the Israelites, isn't it? They were acting like a bunch of petulant two-year-olds. 

Let's take a minute and examine our own consciences. How many wonderful things has God done in your life? Make a list. Write it down on paper if you have to. Be sure to include the opportunity to read God's Word and received the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. 

Now think about all the times when you've whined because things weren't going right or you didn't get your way about something. 

Yes, we Christians can act an awful lot like the Israelites in the desert sometimes. We, too, forget God's many miracles and blessings. We, too, whine and complain. We, too, wonder if God is with us. We, too, harden our hearts and stiffen our necks.

Let's end by making the response from today's Psalm our own: If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts. Soften my heart, Lord, and lighten my mind that I may meet each challenge with confidence that You are right next to me with Your loving care.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Everyday Prayers – The Our Father – Part 2

Let's continue our exploration of the prayer Jesus taught us, the Our Father. 

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

1. Thy kingdom come – What are we really praying for here? What is God's kingdom? There are several possibilities. We might be praying for the coming of the end times when God's kingdom will be fully established in a new Heaven and a new earth. That is certainly a meritorious request! We should all be looking forward to the end of time when God will be all in all and His reign will extend without limits. We might also be praying that God's kingdom will further permeate this world. This, too, is an excellent desire. This broken world needs the truth, beauty, goodness, and love that only God's reign can bring. Third, we might be praying that Jesus Himself will come into our lives, into our hearts, into our homes, into our schools and workplaces, into our relationships, into everything we have and are. Jesus is the kingdom of God in the flesh, so asking for the kingdom means asking for Him. Isn't it amazing how three little words can express such a depth of meaning?

2. Thy will be done – God's will sometimes seems very mysterious to us, and indeed it is. But we can know one thing for sure about God's will. The First Letter to Timothy tells us that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:4). The Greek verb translated here as “desires” derives from thelō, which also means “wills.” God wants everyone to know the truth, and He wants everyone to be saved, to be in an intimate relationship with Him and ultimately to be with Him in Heaven forever. This is the bottom line of God's will, and we do well to pray for it.

3. God's will also encompasses the moral law. God wills that we human beings act according to the objective set of rights and wrongs that is pre-programmed into our very beings, revealed in His Word, and taught by the Holy Church. This, too, is His will, and we need to pray that we follow it.

4. Unfortunately, we human beings, with our free wills, often choose to act against God's will, to sin, risking our intimacy with God and our eternal happiness. We must pray that God's will takes control of our minds and our hearts so that we may make good, solid moral choices and combat temptation and sin.

5. People sometimes don't realize that God has an ordaining will and a permitting will. His ordaining will decrees events. His permitting will allows us to experience things that might be painful to us, not because He wants to hurt us but because they are consequences of our sins or perhaps experiences we need in order to grow.

6. on earth as it is in Heaven – Here we are acknowledging that the saints and angels in Heaven are perfectly aligned with God's will, and we are asking that we, too, may accept both His ordaining will and His permitting will, knowing that He loves us and desires us to be with Him.

Once again, we'll pause here and continue our examination in another post. Now, let's pray once again.

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Second Sunday of Lent

Abram's Trust

Put yourself in Abram's position. God tells him, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk
and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” How would you have responded?

Abram must have had a lot of questions. Who is this God speaking to me? Can I really trust Him? Will He take care of me? If I leave my country, will I ever return? Will I ever see my loved ones again? What will happen to them without my protection and support? Where am I going? What kind of land will it be? Will I meet opposition there? What kinds of troubles and trials will I encounter along the way? How will I survive? The questions must have been endless. 

Sure, God had promised Abram something remarkable:

“I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”

But Abram had no guarantee that he would live to see the fulfillment of all these promises. He certainly would not attain the status of “great nation” during his lifetime. He probably couldn't even image how God would make his name great or how all the communities of the earth would find blessing in him. He did, however, probably take a bit more comfort in God's assurance of blessing and perhaps especially in the idea of God blessing those who blessed him and curing those who cursed him. 

Still, though, obeying God and setting out on a long journey, took some major courage and a strong dose of trust. Abram was literally making a leap into the dark. But he did it. He had faith in God. He trusted in God even though he did not know what lay ahead. He decided to believe that God would fulfill His promises, somehow, somewhere, sometime. 

So Abram set out as God directed him. He let God take the lead in his life. He allowed himself to be led. He went where God sent him and did what God desired him to do. Above all, he trusted God to guide and protect him along his journey of faith. 

Take a few minutes today to examine your own trust in God. Do you imitate Abram? Why or why not? How might you grow in your trust of God?

Lord, increase our trust in You. May we, like Abram, travel along the journeys of our lives with faith, knowing firmly that You will always direct us, guide us, protect us, and bless us.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Little Something Extra...First Sunday of Lent

The Human Condition

As we begin Lent, the Church invites us to reflect on the human condition. Let's see what today's readings have to tell us about this important topic.

1. Human beings are both body and spirit. God made us out of the clay of the ground, but He also blew His own breath into us to give us life. We humans, therefore, are more than just natural beings. We also have a supernatural element and a supernatural end.

2. In the beginning, human beings lived in a perfect world. Eden was ideal. There were no diseases, no natural disasters, no conflicts. Everything was peaceful and good, just the way God intended it to be.

3. God created human beings in His image and likeness, with reason and free will. He wants us to choose Him freely. He will not force us to love Him. God gave Adam and Eve one prohibition as a test to their free will and to allow them to actively make their choice.

4. Adam and Eve freely chose to disobey God. They allowed the enemy to tempt them, and they gave in to the temptation. They had no one to blame but themselves. They wanted to be like God. In fact, they tried to usurp God's position and make their own choices regardless of His law. That is the underlying nature of sin: human beings trying to be God. We, too, often freely choose to sin and to give in to temptations around us. We, too, have no one to blame but ourselves. We, too, want to be like God. We, too, try usurp God's position of authority and make our own choices regardless of His law. We, too, sin.

5. With Adam and Eve's first sin, things changed for humanity. Our first parents became fallen creatures. They lost the sanctifying grace that God had given them at their creation. His indwelling presence left their souls, for they had rejected Him. That is why we have all been born with original sin, which is really the deprivation of God's presence in our souls. Original sin is a gap in the goodness that God created, a gap caused by the sin of our first parents. Baptism fills the gap as God's indwelling presence flows into our souls through the channel of the sacrament. We still feel the effects of our fallen nature, however, for we experience concupiscence, which is a tendency toward sin. Humanity's original innocence is gone. 

6. Even the natural world we live in changed due to that first sin. Its perfection was gone. Gaps in the goodness of God's creation began to appear. Conflicts emerged. Natural disasters began to happen. Pain and disease arose. God didn't create these things. Human beings opened the door for them through sin. Thankfully, though, God uses even these gaps for the good of His people who trust in Him.

7. Human beings are sinners who need God's mercy. God calls us to admit our sins with a repentant heart and then bask in the forgiveness that He pours over us. He stands always ready to give us the joy of salvation and to open our lips that we might proclaim His praise.

8. Sin brought death. It is because of sin that human beings die physically and are exposed to the danger of spiritual death. However, Jesus Christ died and rose again to offer us the gift of justification. Through His sacrifice and our entrance into that sacrifice, we can become right with God. We will still die physically, but if we are right with God, if we have His indwelling presence, that sanctifying grace, inside of us, we will not experience spiritual death. Instead, we will enter into the eternal life of Heaven when our earthly lives are complete.

9. Human beings need time alone with God. Jesus went into the desert to spend time with His Father in prayer and fasting. We need that, too, for it helps us grow in our relationship with God and gives us the strength to recognize and fight temptation.

10. Human beings tend to be tempted most by material things, risky behaviors, fame, wealth, power, and honor. The enemy tried to tempt Jesus with all of these things, but He refused temptation on every count.

11. We can fight temptation. We can say a firm “No!” to the whisperings of the enemy. We can turn our back on sin. We don't have to imitate Adam and Eve. With God's grace and Jesus' example, we can make a free choice to reject sin and live for God. We can make the enemy flee.

12. Our guardian angels cheer for us when we resist temptation and refuse to sin. Angels ministered to Jesus after He won His battle in the desert. Our angels, too, are ready to give us a special pat on the back when we follow God's will. By God's blessing, they are always beside us to help us and encourage us in all our battles.

Lord Jesus, we know that we are sinful human beings who fight temptation every day. Give us Your strength and You grace so that we can imitate You and firmly reject sin. Amen.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Priorities and Trust

Lent starts this coming week, but today's Gospel from Matthew 6:24-34 invites us to start getting ready right now by examining our priorities and our level of trust in God.

Let's take a closer look.

Jesus begins with a warning:

“No one can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.”

What is mammon? Some translations simplify the word and use “money” in their renderings. This, however, doesn't capture the essence of the Greek μαμωνᾶς, which derives from a Semitic term that means “the treasure a person trusts in.” The issue, then, is not the use of money but the attachment to money. Jesus does not want us to put our trust in material things or to serve material things but to trust in God and serve God.

What is your attitude toward money and possessions? Where do you place your trust?

Jesus continues:

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or drink,
or about your body, what you will wear."

For many people, this is one of Jesus' most difficult and challenging teachings. Do not worry. Do not worry about your life. Do not worry about food or clothing. 

Pause for a moment here and reflect on how much you do worry about these things. 

Jesus goes on to explain how God cares for all His creatures. He provides food for the birds and beauty for the flowers even though they do not work for it. Jesus assures us that God will also provide for all of us, His human creatures.

Jesus then asks us a few important questions to help us analyze our priorities and our level of trust in God.

1. "Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?"

2. "Are not you more important than they [the birds God always feeds]?"

3. "Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?"

4. "If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will He not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?"

We should know the answers already, but do we? 

Jesus then draws some important conclusions:

"So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’
or ‘What are we to drink?’or ‘What are we to wear?’
All these things the pagans seek.
Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,
and all these things will be given you besides.
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.
Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” 

We must not behave as pagans who chase after material things and give them the first priorities in life. We must not worry about what we will eat, drink, or wear. God knows that we need all of these things. 

What are we to do instead? We must seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. What does this mean? We must keep our eyes on God. We must live in His presence. We must focus on living good, moral lives of love according to God's will. If we do this, if we put God in first place, He will see to it that we have all we need, but mostly, we will have what is most important, Him.

Finally, Jesus tells us to focus on today, on the present moment. This is especially difficult for many people. We tend to look ahead, to plan and fret, to wonder and worry. Jesus, however, assures us that tomorrow will take care of itself. We have enough to keep us busy today. Further, God is perfectly present here and now. We must focus on meeting Him today instead of fussing about tomorrow. 

This is all wonderful, practical, perfect advice, isn't it? But how well do we follow it? Take a few minutes this week to answer the questions offered here and to reflect on your priorities and on how much you trust in God.