Two things draw my attention in the readings from today's Mass (Thursday after the Second Sunday of Lent; Jer 17:5-10; Ps 1; Lk 16:19-31).
1. Jeremiah contrasts two striking images as metaphors for two kinds of people. The people who trust in worldly ways, physical strength, natural intelligence, are like "a barren bush" in a "lava waste." By contrast, those who put their faith in the Lord are like trees planted by a riverbed, able to survive even when trees further from the water are dying in a drought. But here's the most striking part. Jeremiah writes, "More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the LORD, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds." He's got that right. We KNOW - even not very religious people know - that God is stronger, wiser, etc., than the rest of us. So why do we - even very religious people - continue to trust in ourselves and our natural abilities, and make recourse to God our last resort? Ugh.
2. The Gospel reading is the story of the Rich Man (called Dives in many translations, which is the Latin word for "rich") and Lazarus (not Jesus' friend, but actually a common enough name in Jesus' day). If you don't know the story, check it out now. What struck me about the story for the first time is that the Rich Man not only ignored Lazarus, but he had no thought for God until he came to his judgment. He didn't call upon the Lord until it was too late, and then tried to cop an excuse about not knowing better. Father Abraham, speaking in the parable on behalf of Jesus, tells him that if he and his kind won't listen to the prophets like Jeremiah, they certainly won't listen to Jesus even if after he rises from the dead.
Let's not be like the Rich Man, trusting in his own ways and content in a Disneyworld existence, until it is too late. We have not only the prophets to remind us of our duty to love God and neighbor, but we also have access to the power of the Resurrected Lord who lives in Baptized Christians that live in His grace. We will be held much more accountable than the poor Rich Man was.
This time I want to cite the Liturgy of the Hours, rather than the Missal. The collect for Monday of the Second Week of Lent prays, "God our Father, teach us to find new life through penance. Keep us from sin, and help us live by your commandment of love. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen."
"New life through penance," is a beautiful expression that almost perfectly summarizes the Christian hope, in my mind. It is also a beautiful example of what might be called the Christian Paradox. Our Lord himself expressed it, among other ways, by saying, "Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it," (Lk 17:33). It is in death that we will find a more glorious Life than can be imagined; it is in suffering that we are to look for joy; it is in childlike simplicity that we attain great wisdom; the poor have great wealth in heaven; the meek shall inherit the earth. The Christian Paradox is called in some contexts The Great Reversal. It is nonsense from the outside, a stumbling block to skeptics. But to those who attempt it, who give it their all and throw their lot in with Christ's, who pick up their cross and follow Him daily, to those blessed souls something amazing happens and all the world is left astounded.
Throughout much of our lifetime, we try to be big, strong, mature, and wise - whatever we understand those things to be. Usually it involves putting on an act for ourselves, for our neighbors, and even for God. All He wants is for us to be His little children, His little boys and girls. Lent is a special time for God to break through in our lives - to puncture our defenses, pull down the walls we've put up, irrigate the dry and barren field of our heart.
But breakthroughs mean that things get broken. Getting broken (or being made aware of our brokenness) hurts. "Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself..." the Second Vatican Council teaches (Gaudium et Spes, #22), and being shown ourselves can be unpleasant. But He does not show us our flaws and failures in order to mock us. Quite to the contrary, according to the same document He does so in order to make "[our] supreme calling clear," in order to show us the great destiny He wants to impart to us.
For now we labor, "mourning and weeping in this valley of tears," but God will bring us out of the exile of sin and death if we permit Him to do so. While we do our penance, especially during this season of heightened penance, we have a great sign of hope. The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Lord and our Mother, has already been crowned in glory after her long and patient wait. The Queen of Heaven knows what it is to make pilgrimage on earth. She knows what it is suffer in exile. We must not give up our hope, but fix our eyes firmly on heaven, ask God for help, and wait patiently for Him to fulfill His promises. He wants to purify and perfect us much more than we can imagine, and it is that painful purification that will enable us to enjoy heaven once we attain it. In the meantime, let us keep turning in prayer, especially to our gentle and loving Mother, so that she will help to smoothe our way and "show unto us the blessed fruit of [her] womb, Jesus."
Our exile is not forever (and neither is Lent).
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our Hope, to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Oh clement, oh loving, oh sweet Virgin Mary. Pray for us, oh Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.
It is so important that we do not become engulfed in our own suffering, and neglect others in their hard times. If we get carried away, our little hangnails and stubbed toes can prevent us from seeing others' illness, misfortune, heartbreak, and so on.
I am becoming more and more aware how many people are suffering. People have been telling me about their errant children, their job loss, their severe illness, their heartbreak, and more. Yesterday, in his homily, Fr. Ervin told about a girl he visited in the hospital. At thirteen years old, with a body wracked by hardship, she pointed out to him a small child in the bed next to hers. The little child often slept fitfully, she explained, and moaned frequently during the long nights. The thirteen year old that Fr. Ervin visited then told him, "Father, I prayed to God that he would give me that little girl's pain so that she doesn't have to endure it and can have a good night sleep." It is amazing, how much love God will put into our hearts once we become willing to endure suffering. This willingness gives us the ability to serve others even at great sacrifice. It also gives us the ability to perform penance for our sins and for the love of God.
At the very least, we can in prayer hold up these suffering souls, pester our Lord and our Lady with their names, and ask God to give us some share of their burden, if we dare take it up. Our Lord and our Lady are eager to help, and will help us to help if we ask.
Here's the Prayer after Communion on the Friday after the First Sunday of Lent (today):
Lord, may the sacrament you give us free us from our sinful ways and bring us to new life. May this eucharist lead us to salvation. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Here is the Prayer after Communion from the day before (Thursday after the First Sunday):
Lord our God, renew us by these mysteries. May they heal us now and bring us eternal salvation. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
And the Prayer over the Gifts from the same day:
Lord, be close to your people, accept our prayers and offerings, and let us turn to you with all our hearts. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord. Amen.
And from Wednesday after the First Sunday of Lent, the following is the Opening Prayer:
Lord, look upon us and hear our prayer. By the good works you inspire, help us to discipline our bodies and to be renewed in spirit. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. Amen.
This one is from Monday after the First Sunday in Lent. It was the day's Prayer over the Gifts:
Lord, may this offering of our love be acceptable to you. Let it transform our lives and bring us your mercy. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Lastly, the Prayer after Communion from the First Sunday in Lent:
Father, you increase our faith and hope, you deepen our love in this communion. Help us to live by your words and to seek Christ, our bread of life, who is Lord for ever and ever. Amen.
"Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,
we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.
This great season of grace is your gift to your family to renew us in spirit.
You give us strength to purify our hearts, to control our desires,
and so to serve you in freedom.
You teach us how to live in this passing world
with our heart set on the world that will never end.
Now, with all the saints and angels, we praise you forever:
Holy, holy, holy Lord..."
Heavenly Father, purify our hearts, we pray, and help us to control our desires, rather than be controlled by them, so that we may live in freedom in this passing world until we arrive safely in the world without end. Amen.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation,and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance.
O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on thy altar.
"Remember, oh man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." With these words we enter into the penitential season of Lent, in which we recall our native state of sin. We are each of us born into sin, separation from God, and we renew that division from God each day in a hundred ways, some small and others large. All of us, men, women, and children, continually find new ways to abandon our Almighty Lover and the life of joy He offers us. We do so because we want to be big boys and girls, adults, and have got it into our heads that being an adult means doing it our own way. We think we have a better plan. But since He's all-knowing and all-loving, our bright ideas never turn out to be quite as good as His. In fact, they often turn out to be disastrous.
We must abandon this abandonment of God, and give ourselves to Him with abandon. We must turn back, do penance, and return to our Loving Father. Lent is the season especially devoted to the intensification of the Christ-life in us, so that we will get better at not sinning, get better at trusting, get better at praying, get better at sacrificing and loving.
The Church requires that during this Lenten period we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstain from meat on those days and on the intervening Fridays. Mother Church also encourages us to adopt new practices, or reinvigorate relaxed practices, of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We ought to find ways to pray, fast, and give to the poor that are difficult for us, but still doable, that are permitted by our station in life, and are in themselves good things. One might give up eating-out, and put the money normally budgeted for that into one's Operation Rice Bowl for the poor, and spend in prayer the time eating-in saves us, say one half hour daily. We might take up the rosary again, after having put it down for a while; start working at a soup kitchen; and give up meat. The main thing is to take our Christian living up a notch, and hopefully to keep it there once Lent has ended.
Today's Mass readings (Monday of the 4th Wk of Ord Time; 2 Sm 15:13-14, 30; 16:5-13; Ps 3; Mk 5:1-20) include one of my very favorite passages of the Bible. I first heard the Gospel reading preached very well some four years ago at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, at a daily Mass. First, I'll recap the priest's brief but brilliant homily, and then I'll write a bit about why I feel the reading has been so powerful in my life.
The priest first pointed out that Gerasa, the town afflicted by the possessed man, was either a town of Jews or of Gentiles, but it was in the Gentile regions just outside the Holy Land. The town's location isolated it. Whether Jews or Gentiles, their economy had notably incorporated swineherding - an activity forbad among the Jews. Even to touch a pig rendered a man unclean and outcast. The town's economic activities isolated it. Moreover, the road into the town from the water was blocked by the man possessed by the legion of demons. His terrifying activity had rendered the town further isolated. Supernatural forces isolated it.
Jesus comes into town and, as an act of mercy, exorcises the man, whose many demons who ask to be sent into the pigs rather than Hell. Jesus grants their request, and the maddened pigs stampede into the sea, drowning themselves. Their terrified swineherd tells the whole town what had happened. The locals then meet Jesus, and ask Him to leave. They were happy to have the road into their town opened again, but not at the cost of parting with their sinful occupations, not at the cost of overturning their way of life. They wanted to get the blessing without their lives being changed.
The priest then preached that God will not bless us with whatever blessing unless we are willing to change our lives to accomodate it. A prayer like, "Lord, help me with my finances," must be accompanied by a willingness to give up frivolous and selfish spending, and probably even a willingness to tithe, to render to God what is God's. If we want to receive God's blessing, it is only fair that we should be willing to part ways with whatever separates us from him, with whatever sin. God will bless us, and the blessing entails removing our swine from us. God will not bless the pigs.
In my own life the passage has been particularly meaningful because of my desire to be a priest. The man possessed by the legion of Jesus desired to join the ranks of Jesus' apostles and traveling disciples, and in a rare refusal, Jesus told the man the he should rather stay among his own people and tell them what the Lord had done for him. These people who wanted to forget God, and who would be tempted just to get new swine and pretend the whole thing had never happened, needed a living reminder. While I was in the seminary, Jesus began, or continued, to work a good deal of healing and conversion in my life - chasing out demons and swine. When leaving the seminary, confident only that I was doing what Jesus wanted me to do, this passage came to be important for me personally. It is the hope of every Christian that we will, by God's grace, be able to discern and exercise our share in the apostolate, in works of mercy, in reconciliation of divisions, in proclaiming the Gospel. It requires a great deal of humility to set aside the manner in which we would like to do it, and to trust Jesus that he has in store a role more valuable, more meaningful, more important for us. We must obey Him as a father, in an act of loving self-sacrifice, loving death-to-self, and hoping that He who makes the seed fall, will grant it an increase.
Holy Man of Gerasa, pray for us.