Sunday, March 31, 2019

Out With the Old...In With the New!

The Catholic Liturgy for the 4th Sunday of Lent, March 31, 2019. Readings: 2 Cor 517-21; Luke 15:1-32. Theme: Out with the Old…In With the New!
Today is Laetare Sunday, which means “Rejoice” and it comes midway in Lent to remind us not to give up the hope we have of a brand-new life that in Jesus Christ.  This is why we are wearing vestments that are rose, the color of joy, as we give praise to God who wipes the slate of our lives clean when we return to him with repentant hearts and have the good intention to make amends. 

Now, some people find our Christian message of a new life for anyone who desires it too good to be true. Maybe it’s because they have a hard time forgiving themselves for things they have done. Or maybe it’s because they have never experienced real forgiveness from others.  But the reality and awesomeness of God’s forgiving love reminds me of something astounding I learned when I was a college student.

I attended a Jesuit University and there was a priest there who had been appointed as the official exorcist for the diocese. He had quite a lot of experience in that ministry. He would always take a group of Catholics with him as a prayer-team during an exorcism and he had two non-negotiable requirements for those who accompanied him.  First, they must fast for a couple of days before the exorcism.  Second, they had to make a thorough honest confession. 

He said that fasting was required because Jesus Himself taught the apostles that demons are driven by the spiritual power of prayer combined with fasting. And he had a very interesting explanation for the non-negotiable of an honest confession.  It seems that during an exorcism, the demon tries with all his might to get that prayer-team out of the room because they are, after all, his powerful opposition. And so, the evil spirit will start picking off people in the team by calling out their most private embarrassing sins! 

And so, to take away any fear of this happening and to encourage everyone to truly make good confession, he shared with us an experience from a recent exorcism. When the time came for the demon to try and accuse and scatter the team, he remained silent. No one had fingers pointed at them; no one had sins called out. When the priest demanded that the demon tell him why this was so, he got this defeated reply: “No one here has sinned! There is nothing I can accuse them of having done!” 

Well, the team-members were astounded because they knew very well they had sinned. They knew that others in the group had sinned. That’s not much of a secret when you’re college kids living and socializing together. So, what was up?

The priest explained that this shows the power and the mercy of the Sacrament of Reconciliation that Jesus gave us.  When our sins are honestly and humbly confessed with repentant hearts, and we receive sacramental absolution from the priest, they are not just forgiven, but completely annihilated…totally obliterated.  It is as if they were never even committed in the first place. This truth is 100% solid teaching of both the Bible and the Catholic Church.

We come out of the confessional with a totally clean slate, with yet another chance for a fresh new start. It’s just like St. Paul says in today’s second reading: “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. "The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:17-19)

We also see this total forgiveness and a fresh start in life in today’s Gospel of the Prodigal Son.  The father in the parable represents God and the prodigal son is each one of us who sin. Notice that when the son returns home with a contrite heart, his father eagerly runs out to embrace him, not even making the slightest mention of his past, of how he has hurt the family or of what he has done. It is all forgiven and forgotten and a new life begins. The son is fully restored to the family and given all the signs of belonging: sandals, a fine robe, a ring.

So, it seems to me that through today’s readings, God’s Word is calling us to be truly free of those things that still weigh us down in conscience and hold us back from enjoying real freedom in Christ. Let’s each ask ourselves: How long has it been since I have made a really good, honest and sincere confession? What better way to prepare for Easter than by throwing ourselves into the loving embrace of God and receiving a fresh new start through the Sacrament of Reconciliation!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Becoming a Fruitful Tree

The Catholic Liturgy for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2019. Gospel: Luke 13:1-9. Theme: Becoming a Fruitful Tree

I’m sure most of you are at least somewhat familiar with 12-step recovery groups that enable people to face up to and overcome their addictions, whatever those might be – alcohol, drugs, pornography, food, gambling, excessive concern over body image, etc. The underlying principle of the 12 Steps is that those who have become truly powerless over such behaviors can be totally changed by surrendering their lives and wills to the care of God. 

But I think that we are all – every one of us – addicts who are in need of God’s intervention in our lives.  We are all – every one of us – powerless over the lure of sin in our lives.  We are all – every one of us – chained to this fundamental human condition and not a one of us can break free of it on our own. We all need the power of God breaking into our lives and changing us from the inside out.

This brings to mind the true story of Mary, a beautiful young Catholic girl who lived in Egypt. By the time of her teenage years, she had become a prostitute and we are told she became very rich but also very bored and began to seek out the thrill of new challenges. So, she got an idea that was horrible – demonic even. She decided to go on one of the very popular pilgrimages to the Holy Land, not out of any religious devotion, but for the thrill of seducing the men on pilgrimage. And stories tell us that she was quite successful.

One day when the pilgrims were going to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to venerate the empty Resurrection-tomb of Jesus, Mary joined them solely out of curiosity. But then God, in His awesome mercy, intervened into Mary’s life. Everyone was able to pass through the church doors…except for her. Oh, not that she didn’t try…but every time she DID try an invisible force prevented her entering. After several failed attempts, her eyes caught sight of a picture of the Blessed Mother hanging above the doorway.  It seemed to come to life and spoke to her, “Repent of your sins. Ask forgiveness and change your ways. Then you shall enter.”

Mary repented then and there over her wayward life and begged a priest who was walking by to hear her confession. Then, going back to the entrance of the shrine, she walked right through the doors without a problem and spent the entire day there in prayer and meditation.
Mary spent the rest of her life growing in that experience of God’s love. Her new way of thinking, her new way of living, bore fruit in continual conversion of heart and life. And she has been honored for centuries now as St. Mary of Egypt. And as a matter of fact, in some parts of the Catholic world, the 5th Sunday of Lent is dedicated to her honor because she is such an outstanding example of the spirit of this season.

In today’s Gospel Jesus gives each one of us the same message that Mary was given:  to give up a way of thinking, a way of living, that leads to spiritual death; to repent and not perish eternally.  And we can heed His Word by engaging in three things that so marked St. Mary’s life: repentance, forgiveness, and conversion.

Repentance means turning away from any attitude or behavior that is holding us back from living as authentic Christians. True repentance comes from the heart and is born from an experience of God's love that changes me.  The realization that God is passionately in love with me changes me from the inside out. It makes me want to respond to His love by living a life that is truly pleasing to Him.

Forgiveness flows from this experience of repentance and can transform us, if we allow it to. God’s forgiveness in Christ is immense, unlimited and unconditional just like his love. When God forgives, He does indeed, forget. And this forgetfulness on God’s part allows me to start life anew, with a clean slate. As far as God is concerned, what we have repented of and confessed especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation no longer exists, as if it never even took place. It is gone, obliterated, erased from the history of our lives.

The experience of repentance and forgiveness then leads us to conversion of heart and life. Once we have encountered this passionate love of God and have been deeply touched by His unconditional forgiveness, we are changed from the inside out, like St. Mary of Egypt. We are freed to embrace a new way of thinking, a new way of looking at life, a new way of living.

In today’s Gospel Jesus gave us the parable of a barren fig tree as a symbol of what we can do with the gift of our lives. It is up to each one of us as to if this tree will grow and flourish or if it will wither and get cut down. Repentance, Forgiveness, and Conversion, watered by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, can enable the tree of our lives to grow and blossom and become something beautiful for God and for the world.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Transfigured Prayer

The Catholic Liturgy for the 2nd Sunday o Lent, March 17, 2019. Gospel: Luke 9:28-36. Theme: Transfiguration Prayer

If we were to search a database for the most common name given to Christian monasteries, we would discover that Transfiguration is top on the list. The reason for this is because monasteries are meant to be places of prayerful encounter with God, and are usually built up in the mountains or out in the wilderness. Away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Throughout our 2,000-year heritage of Christian spirituality, the Transfiguration of Jesus has been proposed as a lesson in what it means to have a prayerful experience of God, through Jesus, in the prayer form which we call meditation. Meditation is all about personal intimacy with Jesus, about coming to know Him as He really is, and in the process getting to know ourselves as we really are. This is something that Peter, James and John experienced. They went away with Jesus up into the mountains and gazed upon His true glory, resting in His divinely transformed presence. 

At the Transfiguration, Jesus’ true inner self, His divinity, began to shine through the flesh of his humanity. It changed his appearance; it revealed his secret identity so to speak. The disciples were caught up in this awesome revelation and when it was over, the Father’s voice directed them to listen to Jesus His Beloved Son. They returned to regular life re-energized to follow their Lord. They came away from that experience as interiorly changed men. Their relationship with Christ had been deepened, personalized, strengthened

This is a very good description of the form of Christian prayer called meditation.  It is also known by other names such as prayer of the heart, contemplation or sometimes just pondering.  And it is very different, worlds apart really, from the types of meditation we often hear about today and that you might be familiar with; such as yoga or mindfulness.  These forms of Buddhist or Hindu meditation tell us to empty our minds, to get in touch with our inner-energy, to attain self-mastery, in other words, to focus on ourselves. They do not direct us to a deeply personal encounter with our deeply personal God.

Christian meditation is the polar opposite. It is not about focusing on oneself.  It’s all about focusing on God and allowing Him to fill us inside with His grace, His light, and His peace. Christian meditation is how God can become real, meaningful and personal in our lives, instead of just being a God trapped in the pages of the Bible or remaining a formal faraway Deity whom we formally worship on Sundays.
By pondering the Transfiguration, we can learn how to meditate by looking at the experience of Peter, James and John on that mountain. So, let’s revisit the story for a few minutes with this in mind…

First, we intentionally go to a place where we can be alone and undisturbed. We need to get away from our daily routine and from the many distractions that life throws at us, so that we can devote quality time to our relationship with God.  That’s why Jesus brought the disciples away from the others and up the mountain, to an isolated place.

Then, we read or recall a story out the gospels or perhaps choose one of the 20 mysteries of the rosary, or even the text of a favorite prayer. We take our time with it, we ponder it, we reflect on it thoughtfully, ruminating over it, thinking about how it can relate to us.  In this step, we are like those three apostles looking at the transfigured Jesus and taking it all in. We permit it to penetrate our minds and ask ourselves what it means for my life.

We then ask Jesus to show us what He wants us to learn from this experience, listening for the voice of the Beloved Son speaking to the ears of our heart.  His words might come to us as an idea or an image that enters into our minds. We respond back to Jesus like Peter did, sharing with Him our thoughts, feelings and insights into what we have encountered in our prayer.

Then, after our meditation time, we return to our daily duties, treasuring this prayerful experience of Jesus in our hearts, just as Peter, James and John did coming down off that mountain.  We make a mental note of some insight or idea that came to us in meditation and try to apply it in our lives.

If we practice meditation regularly, we will become more aware of the presence of God living within us by grace. We will come to experience a personal transfiguration in our own lives as we gradually grow into the persons God created us to be.

St. Teresa of Avila, whom the Church honors as a great teacher of meditation, used to go around boldly declaring that the Christian who practices meditation for at least 15 minutes every day can be sure of reaching Heaven.  She was not exaggerating or making empty promises. The reason she was able to say this is because our faith is first of all about a relationship with God. And relationships are all about love. And love, as we all know, is fed by and blossoms from spending time together, alone with the one we love. And maybe that, after all, is really the best definition of Christian meditation.