Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Lectionary: 253

Jesus answered them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. A slave does not remain in a household forever, but a son always remains. So if the Son frees you, then you will truly be free.

Watching someone's graceful movement or gracious generosity we notice their freedom. Grace, from the Latin word gratis means free or freely. When Americans celebrate our freedom we're speaking of what our Christian religion calls grace.
We have a saying, "Freedom is not free!" meaning it costs a lot. The expression is often used to support military recruiting and spending. It costs the taxpayer plenty, but if he believes that freedom is not free he pays it willingly. This payment includes military salaries and Veterans' benefits. Recruits expect the nation's gratitude for their sacrifice.
Of course, the proverb also has its shadow side. Providing more freedom than many people can handle entails incarceration of millions of people. The United States has imprisoned the most citizens -- and the largest percentage of its citizens -- of any nation on earth. Most of these prisoners hate being in jails and prisons but they have demonstrated their inability to cope with the open, unbounded freedom we offered them. Apparently, they did not consider the consequences of their free, deliberate choices. They must be confined for our safety and theirs. (Some actually prefer the confinement and limited possibilities. It's easier than a lot of the complexity of freedom.)
We also see the cost of freedom on the highway. We know that traffic deaths go down when speed limits are lower, and higher when they are raised. So we ask ourselves how many lives are we willing to pay for the freedom of 70 miles per hour?
There are similar calculations around the second amendment. The more access to guns, the more people die by suicide, accident, murder or self-defense. The nation is now asking itself, "How many lives are we willing to pay for this second amendment right?"
Some might argue it shouldn't be that way. People should handle their freedom responsibly. But there is no Nation of Should, and decisions, attitudes and policies in the real world have consequences.
The saying "Freedom is not free" invites a second consideration: Freedom is a jealous God. It will not abide strange gods or irresponsible behavior. It severely punishes any infidelity.
For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God,inflicting punishment for their fathers' wickednesson the children of those who hate me,down to the third and fourth generation;
The children of alcoholics, drug addicts and convicts, for instance, inevitably suffer the consequences of their parents' behavior. They are often burdened with fetal alcohol syndrome, poverty and traumatic memories of abuse. Fortunately, in God's mercy, they are also given the opportunities of freedom. No one has unlimited freedom and these unfortunate children might have fewer opportunities than those born of responsible persons, but freedom cannot be denied to anyone.
The freedom that Jesus offers is not free; it costs the price of his blood. But, the spiritual masters assure us, "There is no shadow in the cross!" It is pure grace, all good. Christian spouses seek ways to please their partners. Christian parents provide for their children without counting the cost. Faithful parishioners need little persuasion and less cajoling to make sacrifice for the church. Surrendering to freedom, Christians willingly, readily take up their allotted crosses. And so we celebrate Easter again, remembering the cost Jesus willingly paid, reentering the waters of baptism with him as we renew our Easter vows, and inviting others to go down with us to pay the price of freedom.

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

So they said to him, "Who are you?"
Jesus said to them, "What I told you from the beginning. I have much to say about you in condemnation.
But the one who sent me is true, and what I heard from him I tell the world."
They did not realize that he was speaking to them of the Father.

The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar asked the question, "Who is he?" I attended the show once in the early aughts here in Louisville. It was a peaceful summer evening in Iroquois Park, with the roar of cicadas filling the silences. The music was the same as I'd heard in the 1970's but the production was altogether different. Audience and cast no longer asked, "Who is he?" They were quite sure they knew.
I was caught between dread and profound discomfort. The show seemed the very worst of American conceit. The mystery of this ancient near-eastern Jew had been rendered white, suburban middle-class and entirely predictable.
Fortunately, it was a Saturday evening and I would celebrate our beautiful Mass in the morning. The Mass has not been doctored or sanitized to fit any nation's expectations. The authorized translations of our prayers do not attempt political or cultural correctness. They retain their roots in the traditions that Jesus received from his ancestors and adapted for his disciples. People who might be offended by certain words like his, many or consubstantial are invited to set aside their fears and discover the divine purpose behind these words. Words cannot explain the mystery of God, but their meanings, music and cadence can evoke it without profanation or violence. They invite us into God's presence.
If you would have an answer to the question, "Who are you?" Jesus directs your attention to "the one who sent me."
How often in ordinary affairs do we identify ourselves by someone else? "I am Marty and Edith's son. I am Robert's brother. I am friend of Father Tom. I am a Franciscan." You can hardly say you know someone if you know nothing of his people: his family, friends, colleagues, co-religious, and so forth.
When his opponents miss Jesus' allusion to his Father, it's obvious they do not know the God who sent him, despite their confident pretensions.
During this season of Lent, with Holy Week about to open before us, the Lord invites everyone to come with him to Jerusalem. Those who know him and those who don't fall in line to carry their crosses and walk in his footsteps. There is no place in his retinue for the casual acquaintance or the sometime friend. His mission is too serious for that.
As Saint Thomas said, "Let us also go to die with him."

Solemnity of Saint Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.

Recently a man poured out his heart to me about a great tragedy he had suffered. The  horrific incident shook the whole city of Louisville for the period of one news cycle. For reasons he could not explain he had been shown pictures of the bodies. Though he had deleted the photos, he could not get them out of his mind. They appeared to him day and night, week after week. I gave him a rosary brochure with a picture of the "Madonna and Child." I urged him to look at this icon whenever the Horror reappeared to him. By gazing upon the sacred image, as Saint Clare encouraged her sisters, we can be relieved of horrible images and healed of their deep, psychic wounds. I have given Veterans that picture on many occasions with similar instructions; but on this occasion, for once, the fellow actually gazed upon the image. He had just enough Catholic upbringing to know who it represented; he was in such desperate straits he looked to her.
The Angel in Joseph's dream instructed him, "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home." The Angel's command applies to everyone who wants Jesus' healing; we must welcome his Mother.
"She represents the Church." it has been said. She is the Church. This feast of Saint Joseph is also a celebration of the woman he loved. As a married couple, they are inseparable.

"For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her."
The twentieth century saw a reawakening of interest in the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church has always prayed "Come Holy Ghost" but the Pentecostal movement among Protestants jolted Catholics into a new awareness of this Divine Presence. The Second Vatican Council also encouraged Catholics to invoke the Holy Spirit; we should be inspired, fired up, energized by the same Spirit that conceived a child in the womb of the Virgin Mary. One can hardly expect to receive a measure of that spirit without finding oneself in communion with her.
As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter we hurry with Mary to Jerusalem. She was among the thousands who made the Passover pilgrimage to the Holy City. She was there on Calvary when Jesus died; and in the Cenacle when the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples. This pilgrimage will remind us that being inspired is not always about dancing in wild, gleeful abandonment. It is not necessarily making a loud noise for the Lord. The Spirit of Joseph may lead us into exile; the Spirit of Mary may lead us to Calvary. In exile we might meet Rachel grieving her children; and, on Calvary we find a grandfather who mourns the loss of his beautiful boys. We drink the cup of sorrow which Jesus offers us, and are refreshed on Easter.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Lectionary: 35

"I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?
'Father, save me from this hour'? 
But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. 
Father, glorify your name."

The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary begin with Jesus' "Agony in the Garden." The story is told with much detail in the synoptic gospels. Because we ponder this mystery often, we are acutely aware of Jesus' human nature and must feel great compassion for him. 

He entered the Garden of Gethsemane after sunset on that spring day a healthy young man; he would die before the sun set a second time. Realizing what was to happen, this human being felt such a deep dread that his knees buckled and he fell to the ground.
John tells us of Jesus' encounter with his tormentors in the Garden but his agony appears in today's gospel, before his Last Supper. It is only a moment. He remembers his Father and his purpose; and immediately surrenders, "Father, glorify your name." 

As a preacher, I would be foolish to conclude, "We should do as Jesus does!" Who can totally yield to "God's will" as Jesus does with no more than a moment's hesitation? In fact we might suppose the Evangelists gave us this dramatic story only to reemphasize his "human side." As they describe him, Jesus never hesitates to follow the promptings of God's Spirit. I cannot lay on other people a burden that I cannot carry. 

But we can reflect together on the beauty of Jesus' intimacy with his God, whom he calls Father and Abba. This is a revelation of the triune nature of our God, a mystery beyond comprehension and yet so compelling as we study the Gospel and celebrate our sacraments. The mystery is not simply an enigma of one and three, three and one; some kind of bizarre mathematical formula. 

Rather, it is a mystery of personal communion. To know Jesus is to know he is obedient to his Father. He says only what the Father has commanded him to speak. He does nothing which he has not seen his Father do. 
“Amen, amen, I say to you, a son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees his father doing; for what he does, his son will do also.
root of a fallen tree by
the creek at MSF
As John tells the story, the events of Holy Week reveal the glory of God, beginning with chapter 13, the Last Supper and the disturbing scene of Jesus' washing his disciples' feet. He directs our attention continually to the humiliation of God, his kenosis. Not only does Jesus abase himself before his disciples, the Jewish authorities, the mob, the Roman soldiers and procurator, he pours out the last measure of himself as blood, water and spirit flow from his wasted body. There is nothing left to give.
But this kenosis reveals the Glory of God, for he has done only what his Father did in giving Jesus all authority in heaven and earth. Is it possible that a man has such authority? That he should have it? That he has earned it somehow? 
This Fifth Sunday of Lent prepares us to walk with Jesus through Holy Week, and to see what is beyond all comprehension. It is more than Truth, which flusters the mind; it is Beauty, which captivates the heart.

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Lectionary: 249

So a division occurred in the crowd because of him.

Studying theology in Washington DC in the early 1970's, I spent a long afternoon reading Karl Rahner's The Hermeneutics of Eschatological Assertions. It was thirty pages long and it took three hours to read it. The title alone took five minutes! Perhaps because it was so difficult I remember it pretty well. I have looked in vain on the Internet but could not find a copy. It's too deep, I suppose, for today's Internet surfer.
Rahner's essay explained some ways to read apocalyptic books of the Bible like Daniel, Revelation and certain passages of the synoptic gospels. 
He suggested that apocalyptic times would see disagreements hardening into deep divisions that would finally erupt in violence. As a German theologian, he had witnessed the rise of Nazism in his native land; he saw divisions solidify among his own people. 
Saint John's Gospel also describes that growing divisiveness that congeals and hardens and erupts with irrational violence. Jesus seems to force it; he never backs down from a challenge; he never explains his manner of speaking as metaphorical or poetic. He insists upon a literal understanding of his words.
How can anyone understand, "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no part in me?" if it's not a metaphor for simple faith? 
The crowd's reaction is predictable: "As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him."
During Lent we invite the Lord's challenge: Do you love your family more than your God? Do you love your money, your property, your guns, your social standing, your sexual identity, your job more than God? Do you worship your political and religious opinions about God, or the Father who abides in silence on Good Friday? 
Will you stand accused with Jesus, guilty and ashamed; or stand against him? 

Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Lectionary: 248

Yet I did not come on my own, but the one who sent me, whom you do not know, is true. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me."So they tried to arrest him...

As Jesus' faces his opponents, as he sees their growing strength and senses the purpose which must finally ripen, mature and flourish in his arrest, trial, torment and death, he remembers who he is and to whom he belongs. "I am from him and he sent me."

As Oswald Chambers said,
“...when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.”
It is sad to see many Americans sponsor an ever-growing military, armed to the teeth with guns of every description, locked behind gates, doors and walls. These frightened men and women claim to be Christians even as they sing of the land of the free and home of the brave.  
They forget that security and freedom are natural opposites. They meet only when the Christian abandons security and commits to the service of a greater good than self. The faithful walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil, for they believe that God is at their side with a rod (of discipline) and a staff (of guidance) to comfort them. 
As he faces his opponents in today's Gospel Jesus might be reciting the Eighteenth Psalm:
I love you, LORD, my strength,
LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer,
My God, my rock of refuge,
my shield, my saving horn, my stronghold!
Praised be the LORD, I exclaim!
I have been delivered from my enemies.
We are deep into Lent now, and must soon enter the vortex of Holy Week with its all-consuming Good Friday. I think of the prayer which closes of T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday: 
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden, / Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood / Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still / Even among these rocks, / Our peace in His will / And even among these rocks / Sister, mother / And spirit of the river, / spirit of the sea, / Suffer me not to be separated / And let my cry come unto Thee. 

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

But you do not want to come to me to have life.

It took me a while, when I was in the first grade, to understand what Sister was talking about. It sounded like a free wheel and, for the life of me, I didn't think I had one. I only had a tricycle. Abstractions don't come easily to first-graders but apparently the Church thought the concept of free will so important they taught even six-year-olds about it.
There are philosophers who still don't believe we have, or should have, free will. All is determined  and might be mathematically predicted. Sociology, demographics, marketing, politics, geography, pharmaceuticals: there are many ways to predict human behavior. We're only playing out the whirling cycles of the universe. Even if we do make decisions they don't matter because the universe must eventually dissipate into endless, empty space.
Since time immemorial other philosophers and theologians ponder the mystery of human will. Writing his Letter to the Romans, (Chapter 7) Saint Paul was dumbfounded by his own rebellious nature which showed itself despite his intense belief in Jesus.
What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.
Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good.
So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh.
The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not.
For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.
Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand.
For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my membersRomans 7:15ff

There is really no solution to this mystery. As someone has said, "Life is not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be lived." But this problem of my proclivity to evil when I am so persuaded of God's goodness -- it's staggering.
Philosophers have challenged the Christian doctrine of life after death with that mystery. Does Resurrection mean that we will no longer have that enigmatic free will? Will we be somehow incapable of anything except doing the right thing, always surrendering to God's Divine Will. And if so, what would be the point of resurrection? To have consciousness without free will -- without freedom -- practically defines Hell.
I heard it said of Cuba under Castro, that the people really didn't mind the free education and excellent health care despite their poverty. With Russia underwriting their corrupt government and perpetually failing economy, life wasn't terribly difficult. But they missed the freedom to grumble once in a while.
Blessed John Dun Scotus, the great Franciscan philosopher/theologian provided an answer. While we always have a choice of good and evil, obedience and disobedience, yes and no, we also have the choice of "not yes." I can see the right thing to do and not choose it without choosing evil. Sometimes, in the presence of God or a loved one, I need space for myself, a space to experience my freedom and ponder my choice. Rationality will not choose evil but it might hesitate before choosing good. 
You remember Andrew Marvell's complaint To his coy mistress who hesitated to accept his passionate love. He complained,"Had we but world enough and time this coyness, Lady, were no crime.... But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near...."  
But we will indeed have world enough and time in the Bliss of Eternity, in God's ever-delightful presence where coyness will be no crime. Even now we treasure, taste, ponder and contemplate every facet of God's infinite goodness.