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Month: February 2018

God’s Valentine

God’s Valentine

Happy Valentine’s Day!  Happy Ash Wednesday!  By the way, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday go together very well.  Maybe that doesn’t seem right because today is day of fast and abstinence.  Instead of eating a fancy meal or feasting on chocolates, we eat simply.

Yet, during Lent God gives us a huge valentine.  Often we fail to see that because we associate Lent with fasting, alms and prayer – all things that we do to work on our spiritual life.  But God gives us much more than we could ever give back.

Maybe it will help to fast forward to the end of Lent.  The end will help us understand the essence of Lent.  At the end of Lent, God showers us with his greatest gifts:

  • Jesus gives us his Body and Blood at the Last Supper.
  • He pours out his life on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them . . .”
  • The Risen Christ says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you always.”
  • Finally, God sends the Holy Spirit so that our hearts burn with his love.

Those events are the heart of the gospel, or the kerygma of the gospel.

As you are marked with ashes we will say, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  In other words, believe in the gift of Jesus’ life poured out in the Eucharist.  Believe in his death on the cross to free you from sin.  Believe in the gift of the Holy Spirit that keeps coming to you in prayer. Believe in the gospel.  Trust in Jesus’ mercy proclaimed in the gospel.

Lent is a time to stop and realize how good God is to us. The Opening Antiphon for Mass is all about GOD.  It says nothing about what we should do.  “You are merciful to all O Lord, and despise nothing that you have made.    You overlook people’s sins, to bring them to repentance, and you spare them, for you are the Lord our God” (Wis. 11:24-25, 27).  Those are the first words that we are supposed to hear as we begin Lent.

As you are marked with ashes we will say, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  The Hebrew word for repent means to turn.  There are two essential components of repentance:  Turn toward God, and turn away from sin.  We usually think of the second one, but the first one is more important.  Repent.  First, turn toward God, then turn away from sin.

This is exactly what God tells us to do in the first reading today.  The very first words of the Scriptures for Lent are these: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.  Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:12-13).

Fasting is a way of returning to God with your whole heart.  We pray better when our stomachs are not filled with food.  Fasting makes us think of our deepest hunger.  Food can’t fill us……. nothing can really fill the heart except GOD.  Fasting is worthless unless it helps you meet God.  We fast to remind us that we live not on bread but on God’s Word.  We FAST so that we can FEAST on the Word of God.

Lent has one purpose – to renew our relationship with God. Turn toward God.  Accept the Valentine of God’s love.  “For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:13).  Turn back to God’s merciful love.  Then you will have a deeper repulsion of sin.  Then you will see your sin more clearly and confess your sin more confidently.

If you do only one thing this Lent, do something that will renew your relationship with God.  But remember, God longs to renew the relationship more than you do.  Turn toward God.  Let God surprise you with sweet Valentines.  St. Catherine of Siena said: “Don’t you understand?  God is running after you day and night as though he has nothing else to do but simply to occupy himself with you.”

Lent has one purpose – to renew our relationship with God.  When you fast, let it be a way to empty yourself to focus on God, or see it as a discipline to help you be more selfless like God, more focused on living for others.  When you pray, read one of the readings for daily Mass.  Listen for how it speaks of God’s love for you, or for how the Word challenges you to imitate his love.  When you give alms or do good deeds, let them be inspired by God’s good deeds toward you.

But remember, fasting, prayer and almsgiving will be just a bunch of hard work.  They will become a burden.  They will be lifeless, unless you first open your heart to receive God’s Valentine.

St. Paul says it best: “We implore you, in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God!  For our sakes, God made [Jesus] who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20-21).

Being the Compassion of Christ

Being the Compassion of Christ

In 2005, I went to India with Catholic Relief Services to learn about the mission work they support.  CRS provides the Missionaries of Charity with funding for their ministries to the destitute.  We visited a leper community of men in Kolkata, India run by the Missionaries of Charity.  Many of the men were disfigured.  Some were missing fingers or parts of arms and legs.

Even though their leprosy had been healed through medical treatment, I was still nervous about touching them.  Nevertheless, we walked among them and shook their hands.  Like the lepers in Jesus’ time, they were isolated, so they responded with such gratitude to a simple handshake.  Their eyes lit up as we greeted them.

Today is World Day of the Sick, so the story of Jesus healing a leper fits well.  In 1992 St. John Paul II initiated World Day of the Sick.  He chose February 11 because on that day we celebrate the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes.  Thus, the day calls to mind the sick people who travel to Lourdes for healing.  Also, Lourdes is a place where others go to minister to the sick.  They assist those who are otherwise unable to enter into the waters.  They pray for them and with them.  So today we remember the sick and our call to accompany them in their suffering.

How often do you visit the sick?  What is your attitude when you meet a person with cancer or a contagious illness?

  • Do you see yourself as one called to bring Christ’s compassion to them?
  • Do you see the suffering Christ in the sick person?

Recently, our attitude toward the sick has been influenced negatively in two ways.  First, we look at the sick from a distance.  The elderly are put in nursing homes, which is good because they need professional care.  But they experience isolation and feel forgotten.  Either we are too busy to visit the infirmed or elderly.  Or we say, “They won’t even remember if I visit, so what good will it do?”

We look at the sick from a distance

Second, our society says that suffering has no value.  The infirmed are encouraged to “end their suffering.”  Assisted suicide is growing.  Children in the womb diagnosed with an illness have a higher risk of being ‘eliminated.’  We value the perfectly healthy person more than the sick person.  We fail to see the suffering Christ in the sick.

Two temptations for us are:

  • To look at the sick from a distance, rather than reaching out to them with Christ’s compassion.
  • Failing to see the suffering Christ in the sick or not recognizing the dignity of the sick person.

Today’s gospel helps us see things differently.  “A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and . . . The leprosy left him immediately” (Mark 1:40-41).

How could the leper dare to approach Jesus?  Lepers were supposed to walk around yelling, “Unclean, unclean!” so that people were warned from any possible contact with them. Today people are afraid of being touched by anyone with a cold.  Imagine how much more people were afraid of contracting leprosy.

What is amazing is that the leper felt so confident in approaching Jesus.  In this scene Jesus showed us is that God is so approachable.  Even lepers felt comfortable coming close to Jesus.  When the leper asks for healing, “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.”

Jesus could have healed the leper with his Word alone.  He did that in other situations.  But here he touches the leper.  Lepers were totally isolated.  They lived apart from others.  So touching a leper is an expression of solidarity and fraternity….. to help the leper feel that he belongs to the community.

Several years ago, Fr. Jerry Scherer described to me how he ministers to the elderly or infirmed by saying, “Whenever I visit a nursing home, I also make a point to touch each person.  Human contact is so important for them.  Even if they cannot understand what I say, human touch is therapeutic for them.” 

Pope Francis talks a lot about a spirituality of CLOSENESS.  In a homily he said, “Closeness and compassion: this is how the Lord visits his people.  And when we want to proclaim the Gospel, to bring forth the word of Jesus, this is the path.”  In his letter for 2018 World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis said that the Church needs to “bring the Lord’s own gaze full of tenderness and compassion to the sick.” 

Francis speaks often about the ‘tenderness and compassion’ of God.  Those are not simply some of his favorite words.  Rather, they translate the word for mercy in this gospel.  When it says that Jesus was “moved with pity,” the Greek word is splanknizomai.  It means his guts ached for him.  It is like a mother who sees her child suffering with cancer and her stomach aches, or a father who feels sick to his stomach when his child is injured in a car accident.

 Compassion means to “suffer with.”  That is what splanknizomai means – to look at someone who is hurt or sick and ache for them.  When Pope Francis says that the Church needs to “bring the Lord’s own gaze full of tenderness and compassion to the sick,” he has splanknizomai in mind.

What is your attitude when you meet a person with cancer or a contagious illness?

  • Do you see yourself as one is called to bring Christ’s compassion to them?
  • Do you see the suffering Christ in the sick person? ……. not only the suffering of Christ, but the suffering Christ?

He said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me” (Mt. 25:40).  When we visit the sick, we meet Christ there.

Lent begins this week.  People often ask, “What are you giving up?” A better question is, “What are you giving?” 

We are called to give alms.  Almsgiving comes from the word for being merciful, especially like God’s mercy to the oppressed and afflicted.  Almsgiving really means to imitate God’s mercy.  As we celebrate Eucharist today, remember how the Lord has been merciful to you.  Then ask for the grace to bring his tenderness and compassion to the sick and oppressed and afflicted.

Slaves of Christ

Slaves of Christ

I celebrated Masses last week with three Catholic Schools in our Diocese:  St. Mary’s School in Cheyenne (January 29), St. Anthony’s Tri-Parish School in Casper (February 1) and Holy Name School in Sheridan (February 2).  I also met with the priests and parish leadership in Sheridan because they are considering a building project for the school.  Then I went to St. Edmund’s in Ranchester to talk with a small group because that parish is formulating plans for upgrading their facilities.

On Sunday, I celebrated the morning Masses at St. John the Baptist in Buffalo, then I went to St. Hubert’s in Kaycee for an afternoon Mass.  The following is the homily for Sunday.

In today’s reading, St. Paul described why he was working so hard.  He wrote, “I have made myself a slave to all to win over as many as possible. . . . All this I do for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:19, 23).

If people observed how you work throughout the week, what would they say?  “He works like a dog.  He’s burning the candle at both ends.”  Would they say, “She’s really busy;” or “She has a mission in life.”  To be really busy means that work and family demands long hard hours.  But to have a mission in life has a whole different connotation.

How busy are you?  Are you busy with your business or God’s business?  When I was chaplain at the Catholic School in Rapid City, the students were stressed.  They were trying to find time and energy for academics, sports, part-time jobs, family and friends.  Parents seem to be busier and busier as they juggle work, family and an increasing amount of time accompanying kids to sports or other extra-curricular events.  Family life is often stressed and harried.  People have become slaves to their schedules.

What is the secret to living life with proper balance and the right attitude?  I don’t think that it is not the difference between being busy and not busy.  Rather it is a matter of being busy with a mission.  Paul was a man on a MISSION.  It is amazing to think that he traveled from Israel to Syria, Turkey, Greece, Crete, and Italy.  He was high energy!

To describe his mission, Paul often uses the term ‘slave.’ He begins his letters by writing, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus” (Rom. 1:1).  Why?  Through his death Jesus paid the price of our ransom (1 Cor. 7:23).  So Paul belongs to Jesus.  He owes everything to him.  When it comes to his relationship with Jesus, Paul is all in.  That is what underlies his approach to ministry as he says, “I have made myself a slave to all to win over as many as possible. . . . All this I do for the sake of the gospel.” 

Paul channels his energy as a slave of Christ Jesus.  His whole life is a mission for the Lord….. a mission for the sake of the gospel.  So Paul describes himself as a slave of Christ, but he never says that he is burned out or working like a dog.  He must have found it life-giving.

Do you relate to Jesus as a “slave of Christ”?  More often we live our spiritual life through the lens of being a child of God or a disciple of Jesus.  In addition to those dimensions of our relationship to God, we need to add the term slave of Christ.  For Paul, being a slave of Chr­ist is his response to the death of Christ.  His life poured out on the cross is what drove Paul to be a slave of Christ.  The term recalls the debt of love we owe to Christ.  It is a language of love, not servitude.

When I begin my day with this image it helps me to let go of my control.  Sometimes, I drive myself so hard.  But that’s the problem.  I am driving myself.  My focus is on what I want to accomplish.  That easily leads to feeling weary or burdened.  But when I re-focus and work as a servant of Christ, asking for the Holy Spirit to guide me, seeking to please God alone ….. then I might work very hard, but I’m more peaceful.  I end the day not feeling burdened, but what I would call a good tired.

Today’s gospel (Mark 1:29-39) gives us a glimpse of a day in the life of Jesus.  After he finished preaching at the synagogue and casting out a demon (Mark 1:21-28), he healed Simon’s mother-in-law.  After sunset he cured many sick people and continued with exorcisms.  Then before dawn he went off to pray in a deserted place.  And that morning he left to do the same thing in nearby villages.

He had a grueling schedule.  But do you picture Jesus as stressed out or worn down?  Rather, we picture him as single-minded and peaceful, even though he may have been bone-tired.

Prayer early in the morning seems to be the secret to Jesus’ mission.  He is busy.  Yet he gets up before dawn for prayer.  We know very little about what Jesus did in that prayer.  But it’s obvious that he only prayed, whereas we might pray while being preoccupied with the rest of the day.  You know how that is?  You say some prayers, but the goal is to get done so that you can get to work.

We need to pray as if it is the most important thing that we will do all day – totally focused on God.  Early morning is the best time to do that.  You’re rested, not going in ten different directions.

What is the fruit of a solid prayer life?  Through prayer Jesus was zeroed in on God’s work, not what is popular and not what he might want for himself.  When Peter finds Jesus praying, he tells him, “Everyone is looking for you.”  But he says, “Let us go to nearby villages that I may preach there also.  For this purpose have I come” (Mk. 1:38).

Prayer engenders a sense of being sent by God.  It calls us to obedience.  Think of how unpopular that word is in American culture.  Obedience is also one of the main elements of being a slave of Christ.

If people observed how you work throughout the week, what would they say?  He works like a dog.  Or, He or she is on a mission for God.  Have you experienced the freedom of serving God alone?  When we are single-minded in being a servant of God, it engenders so much freedom.  We are free from what the desire to please others or from our own plans to be successful.

How free are you as a slave of Christ?  Are you on a mission for God?  Does your prayer life keep you grounded in working through each day as a servant of the Lord?