First Sunday of Lent which a few persons, eight in all,
were saved through water.
This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.
It is not a removal of dirt from the body 
but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, 
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
who has gone into heaven
and is at the right hand of God, 
with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

Lent is essentially about Baptism. This is the season when our catechumens make final preparations for their full integration into the Church. During the Easter Vigil they will receive three sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation. Which means this is the season when all members of the Church must pray that we might be found worthy to receive new brothers and sisters.
In today's second reading we heard Saint Peter explain that this ritual washing "is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience." He invoked the ancient story of Noah and uses it to demonstrate the principle of "new beginning."
You'll recall the story in Genesis when God, disgusted with the sorry mess of humankind, wiped out all but Noah and his family. It's a bizarre story, greatly influenced by religions of the ancient Mideast, especially in the flood-prone region of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. These frequent catastrophes could demolish flourishing cities and nations, reducing civilized life to hand-to-mouth survival, as we have seen in New Orleans, Houston and Puerto Rico. Governments can disappear in flood time, leaving citizens to fend for themselves; and then return once order has been restored to reassert their authority. But sometimes it doesn't work that way. Sometimes life returns with a whole new agenda.
Baptism offers us a new agenda, beginning with "a clear conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ..." Innocence has been restored because this sacred water penetrates to the very core of our nature.
"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord" the Baptized sing with Mary. This praise doesn't begin on the lips, or the lungs or even the head. It begins in one's purified soul.
Through this cleansing we become transparent to God, whose grace penetrates those inaccessible, mysterious places we would rather not know exist -- until they are discovered full of song.
Just as newborn babies remind us of innocence, so should this season of catechumens remind us of the promise. We are not Pollyannas, we have no romantic illusions of natural innocence. Rather, we believe in the grace of Jesus which, like Noah's Deluge, totally and thoroughly blots out every evil. In his resurrection every wound is healed and every conflict, resolved. Get ready for it!

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Lectionary: 222

Jesus said to them in reply, "Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners."

There are few spiritual challenges more difficult than admitting, "I have sinned." Either we loudly, brazenly declare we have done nothing wrong; or we too readily, too piously aver, "I too am a sinner," without actually feeling remorse, regret or a staggering, bewildered sense of helplessness. 
Lent is that season when we invite the Lord of Righteousness to reveal our sins to us because we quite frankly cannot see them in all their pustulent horror. 
Ironically, it's not that difficult to see guilt in others! The Pharisees in today's gospel saw it all too clearly in the tax collectors and sinners who came to Jesus. In fact, they saw sin in Jesus too! 
But they could not imagine that this rabbi from Nazareth might be the Savior of Capernaum and its religious establishment. As he called sinners to repentance they did not suppose they were among the invited. They were there to criticize the Teacher, not to receive him. 
During the Last Supper, Jesus made a most terrifying declaration; it might be called totally inappropriate to a festive dinner: Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 
Startled, each of the disciples asked the right question, "Is it I, Lord?" but none could suppose it was himself; not even Judas Iscariot, who had already made arrangements for his treason. Given what we know of liars, it's possible that Judas, even in that moment, could still deny to himself what he was about to do. 
That's because the old, traditional "examination of conscience" often fails to reveal our sins. More often, more reliably, we have to turn to our companions and friends and ask, "Have I sinned against you?" 
The "me-too" moment has shown that millions of men just don't get it! Not only do we not see it in our behavior, men don't notice it in our brothers' behavior. The impact of our sexist attitudes -- "thoughts, words, and deeds" -- might appear only in the reactions of our sisters. 
And then, if we're blessed, we might say, "How could I be so stupid?" How could I have done this to one I love and not even realize it? 
There used to be a saying, much disputed, "There is no salvation without the Church." Despite its misinterpretations, it's still true. We need our brothers and sisters, disciples of the Lord, to help us see the full extent of our guilt and to turn back to the Lord. 
He has not come to save the righteous, but sinners like you and me. 

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Lectionary: 228

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; Your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

"Here I am!" is the original prayer, a declaration of readiness, availability, energy, trust and glad welcome to the Lord. It is Abraham's word, and the word of Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary, Paul and Jesus when they hear God our Father call.
The word is not very different from Amen. That too signifies consent, agreement, presence, availability. "I have heard the word and it is mine. Amen!" 
Surprisingly, "Here I am!" is also God's word to us, as Isaiah promises,  "you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!"

I picked up recently a book published in 1902 entitled The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, dogmatically, liturgically and ascetically explained; by Dr. Nicholas Gihr, translated from the sixth German edition. 
I can't recommend it because it's addressed to priests and much of it is in Latin, which I can't read; and the Kindle edition is a mess, as often happens with books run through scanning machines. What I notice in its opening paragraphs is the way Dr Gihr speaks of God. 
Written at the end of the nineteenth century, before two world wars, the Shoah and the atomic bomb; when few Catholics received the Eucharist at Mass, it describes a God who is supremely high in majesty. It's not a strange concept to me, but I have to wonder how the times have changed; and how history has changed our imaging God. Dr Girh wrote,
"The sublime virtue of religion ennobles man precisely in this, that it completely subjects him to the will and dominion of God and brings him into the closest communication with the primal Source of all holiness. For in offering honor and homage to God we submit our mind to Him, and it is in this submission that its perfection consists. An object is perfected by its submitting to its superior. [italics, mine]..."
"The worship due to the Divine Majesty consists principally in acts of adoration, thanksgiving, petition and propitiation. As we have seen, God immeasurably excels all creatures, even the highest and sublimest of the heavenly spirits; He excels them not merely by his infinite dignity and perfection, but also by reason of his boundless power and dominion. Hence at all times and all places, every creature is dependent upon God. It behooves man as a rational creature consciously and freely and actively to acknowledge his absolute dependence upon God -- in a word, to adore God.... 
"By adoration we understand that supreme and most perfect homage due, not to any mere creature, but only and solely to God on account of His infinite perfection, majesty and sovereign authority."

He continues in this vein for many pages. There has been, so far, little mention of "the Father" or of "Jesus Christ his Son."

Reading this I had to remember that, in 1902, kings, queens and tsars still ruled in Europe, and the pope wore a triple crown as he was carried around on a gestatorial chair. The God Gihr describes had to be supremely higher than these human majesties with all their courtiers, footmen, horse-drawn carriages and raiment. The Mass, whether low, high or solemn high had to reflect the exalted, infinite superiority of God. 
As the guard of the Emerald City told Dorothy, "...nobody can see the Great Oz! Not nobody, not nohow!"
The author's confident assertion of "man as a rational creature" also sounds anachronistic in our century, if not quaint. There is nothing rational about Nazism, the Shoah, genocides, building a wall to keep people out, or the continuing despoliation of the Earth.

At the beginning of this third millennium, I know Jesus is with us through the Mass, sacraments and liturgy. I see his presence in the faithful who join me in the VA hospital chapel. The Holy Spirit gathers people so that our celebration, necessarily brief, can be conducted with a real congregation of priest and people. The Lord often gathers even Catholic Veterans who have not attended a Mass in thirty years. (I coach them through the gestures, postures and responses.)
Catholics no longer look for God's presence in the great and powerful but among the poor, ostracised and despised. I often reflect upon the "train of his glory" which followed Jesus by the Sea of Galilee up the mountain, "the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others."
The God who is revealed as trinitarian has emptied himself in love for suffering humanity, even to the point of death, death on a cross. This God carries a cross; he is not carried on a chair.
As we begin this sacred season of Lent we pray that the Lord hears our prayers, honors our almsgiving and fasting and again assures us, "Here I am!"

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Lectionary: 220

"Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.

Television news media often show us videos of terrible destruction in distant places. Either by nature or war, disasters strike at homes, churches, hospitals and stores, afflicting the elderly, the vulnerable and children. Sometimes, as in the recent collapse of hills, even wealthy people are turned out of doors.
But for the most part, these disasters are far away; and most human life is conducted without all that drama. We have our routines and habits. Our duties and responsibilities are spelled out and predictable; our relationships are defined by roles and offices. Televised disaster stories are fascinating because they're unusual and, hopefully, very far away.
Ordinarily, we don't suppose our decisions today involve "life and prosperity, death and doom."
They tell the story of the husband who said, "When we married we decided she would take care of the little decisions, and I would handle the big ones. We've been married forty years and I've yet  to make a decision."
Little decisions accumulate and amount to  big ones. Even when we're faced with a big decision, as often as not, we realize the decision has already been made. The crisis asks not, "Which way will I go?" but "Will I continue as I have been?"
Our first reading today is from the thirtieth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrews have come a long way with Moses and God since their escape from Egypt. They have grown accustomed to the life of holiness; they are not unfamiliar with the moral code, the prayers, rituals and accouterments of their new religion. The Lord has led his people in the way of life and prosperity. As they are about to enter the Promised Land, he demands a decisive commitment. Will they continue as they have been? "Life and prosperity, or death and doom?"
Lent reminds us that we do, in fact, make these minor decisions daily and many times a day, that add up to major decisions. The food I eat; the entertainment I choose; the words I use; the prayers I recite: they add up to habits and habits make a lifestyle and...
Most diseases in the United States and the developed countries and, increasingly in poor nations, were selected by lifestyle. Obesity, lung disease, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, addictions: in many cases these common afflictions speak of deliberate choices.
They are not what the Lord had in mind for us when he recommended "life and prosperity." 
Lent urges us: "Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him."
Lent is about freedom, that silly word that Americans parrot as if it means something to them. Freedom is fearful and difficult and challenging; it is not for the faint of heart. It is for those who are continually willing to relent and begin again, realizing that many of their decisions have bound them to death and doom -- and they don't have to live that way.

Ash Wednesday 2018

We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Saint Paul speaks of himself and his companions as "ambassadors for Christ," reminding us that our mission is not simply "to be saved," but to participate in Salvation, the work of Jesus Christ.
An ambassador speaks for his government with full authority. That person may have private reservations about his king, president or dictator; he may regret the message he must deliver; but neither his government nor the nation to which he is sent should be concerned about those reservations, opinions or private concerns. They're simply not important as these two powers address one another through his person. His only duty is faithful representation of his government's policies.
Saint Paul offers himself as an ambassador but he can't quite keep himself out of the conversation. He must implore you on behalf of Christ. In that sense he more than fulfills his duty as an ambassador, since his personal affection for the Corinthians should sway them toward reconciliation to God.
I don't suppose he would say, "Do this for my sake if nothing else!" but clearly he feels an urgent longing that his fractious Corinthian disciples should set aside their differences and be reunited in their sacred communion.
Then he goes beyond himself when he appeals to the example of Jesus, "For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin...."
The Incarnation is most astonishing mystery; it floats in that narrow margin between wonder and horror. It is scandalous and edifying. How can the Most High God -- Holy, Beautiful, Sacred, Good -- who is greeted by the seraphic angels as Holy, Holy, Holy -- be born of a woman, live in poverty and exile, and die on a cross?
To gaze on this mystery is to go blind. And yet we must gaze on it -- "that we might become the righteousness of God in him." This is God's will for us, a destiny which must be fulfilled, which we dare not frustrate.
The Season of Lent invites us to go in two directions at once: to go more deeply into contemplation of the Mystery; and to go outward into reconciliation with one another. The Church must be healed, reconciled and sanctified by our Communion.
We begin with an amazing gesture, with ashes on our heads. Ashes speak of our guilt, remorse and shame; they also indicate our standing before God as his Chosen People. If the world notices anything about us, they should see our unity, our deep reverence for the greatest and the least among us, from the Pope to the perverse. We belong to one another in the one who did not know sin and was made sin for us.

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

No one experiencing temptation should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one. Rather, each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.

In today's first reading, Saint James points directly at the anguished reader who, despite his misery, would blame someone else -- anyone else, even God -- for his distress. The Divine Author names desire as the cause of temptation. If I don't want it, I cannot be seduced by it.
     Freedom has been loosely defined as the ability to do what I want to do; and we often measure it not by its quality but its quantity. We want more. There are two ways to gain more freedom.
     First, I can have more freedom with more power: more money means more financial power. More friends is more social power. More armaments and soldiers is more military power. More knowledge is scientific power. And so forth. In recent times we have directed enormous energy to acquiring more freedom by garnering more power.
     A second way to have more freedom is by wanting less. With ten thousand dollars I cannot buy a Ferrari 335S Spider Scaglietti,​, but I can buy an old beater Ford to get me around town. If I am content with a 2005 Ford F-150 for $3,988, I'll be the freest man in North America, with $6,012 to spare.
     Even incarcerated people can enjoy immeasurable freedom, like Saint Paul as he cooled his heels in several Roman jails during his travels. If that's where the Holy Spirit wanted him, that was where he wanted to be.
     Today is Mardi Gras, we begin Lent tomorrow. How free am I today? How much freer would I be if I wanted less? Our tradition recommends three ready steps toward freedom: alms giving, prayer and fasting. 

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation."
Then he left them, got into the boat again,
and went off to the other shore.

Occasionally escaping from the narrow world in which I live, by way of reading or NPR, I hear people speak of God as an energy or power. God, in their minds, is mysterious and unknown but not impenetrable. This "energy" is benevolent; it "bends toward justice"; it rewards kindness and punishes wickedness. Despite its inscrutability, it is not entirely unpredictable. We can manage it.
That's not the picture of Jesus we find in scripture. In today's gospel, "he left them... and went off to the other shore." He would not argue with his opponents any more; he would not offer them any more opportunities for a change of heart, remorse or repentance. He was tired of them. Enough is enough.
Lent begins in two days; it is time for us to relent. We must examine our habits, attitudes, minds and hearts and consider how we might take for granted the mercy of God.
Not many years ago, large congregations would meditate on the physical suffering of Jesus, often in maudlin detail, as they labored to put away every presumption about God's mercy. They pondered his betrayal, arrest and trial; his torture and torment; his patient silence and the few words he spoke during the ordeal; his carrying the cross despite his weakness; his failing strength, loss of blood, and final expiration. They considered that the Son of God died for their very particular sins.
Jesus shows us the face of God; it is a human face that can express sadness, disappointment, weariness and despair. His is not the blank, featureless face of a monolith. He is not stoic, impassive and superior to every emotion. Attentive to us, his face can reflect disappointment and delight, frustration and satisfaction, pain and pleasure in our company.
The human child becomes a person as she interacts with other people. She watches their reactions even as she discovers her own. Occasionally she realizes with astonishment, "They were right! And I was wrong!" If she never encounters resistance, refusal, disappointment and frustration in others she might not mature as a true person.
The Christian is formed in a Christian household, reacting and responding to other people; and especially to the Lord's face, revealed in a Christian congregation.
If Lent tells us anything, it tells us we cannot assume we know "God." We know nothing of God if we do not know how our habits, attitudes and some relationships have offended him. If we have not seen that in his face, we'd better look again.