Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Problem & The Solution

The Catholic Liturgy for the First Sunday of Lent, Gospel – Matthew 4:1-11.  Theme: The Problem & The Solution

The great scientist, Albert Einstein, was once asked what he would do if he had just one hour to solve a difficult situation. He replied: “I would spend 55 minutes getting to know the problem, and then I would need just 5 minutes to come up with the solution.”  In other words, if we don’t have an accurate handle on what’s wrong, we cannot come up with an effective way to fix it. And I think that is what today’s readings are telling us as we confront the reality of sin and evil in the world and within our own lives.

So, the first thing to do, following Einstein’s advice, is to name the problem and discover where it comes from. We find the key to this in our first reading from the Book of Genesis. In the age-old story of Adam and Eve we discover that the origin of the problem is found right within us, within the human person.  Like those first humans, we so foolishly choose to live life on our own terms in opposition to plan of God our Creator.  We are often so very convinced that we know what is best for ourselves. Fundamentally, our problem is the misuse of free-will, of the power our Creator gave us to choose good and avoid evil.

God created us in his image which is love and as we all know, love is a choice that must be embraced freely. Sadly, those first humans did not chose love but chose selfishness instead. By doing so they caused a rupture in their relationships with God, with each other and even within themselves as individuals.  We call this triple rupture the effects of original sin and it is passed on to all of us, their descendants, generation after generation.

And so, we find ourselves today in the predicament of wanting to do what is good yet so often failing to carry it out, no matter how well intentioned we might be. We find ourselves failing to love God, others and ourselves as we should. In the words of the Bible, we find ourselves committing sin. And no matter how hard we try, we human beings cannot fix ourselves. 

We spend billions of dollars trying to fix ourselves and so often we mistakenly focus on the outside, thinking that’s where the problem resides. Maybe if I look better, if I dress better, if I have a better job, if I move to a different place…And yet are we any happier inside ourselves? Are we free from broken hearts and relationships? No, we are not! Because the problem is spiritual and is rooted in a wounded human nature that cannot fix itself.

In our second reading, St. Paul tells us that the solution to this problem is found in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Just as only God created the human person, so only God can recreate us and make us new again from the inside out.  And that’s exactly what he did by becoming one of us in all things except sin. By his becoming man, Jesus was able to embrace and experience all aspects of human life from womb to tomb, transforming them with his divine presence and inviting us to follow him and experience a total transformation.

In today’s Gospel, we see that Jesus, like Adam and Eve, encounters Satan, the enemy of the human race, who instigated our fall right from the beginning. Satan tries to do to Jesus exactly what he did to Adam and Eve and what he and his minion demons try to do to each one of us. This Father of Lies cleverly ties to convince us that we know what is best for us and that God – with all his commandments – is nothing but a tyrant, a spiritual bully.  But he fails and Jesus triumphs in the name of us all.

So, I think the million-dollar question is this: what do we have to do to share in this victory of Jesus? How do we connect the dots and plug ourselves into his heart-changing, life-transforming rescue and restore mission? Fortunately for us, Jesus himself as given us the answer in his responses to Satan’s temptations.

Jesus proclaims: “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He shows us that in order to share in his victory over sin and selfishness we must turn prayer, especially reading and pondering the Scriptures. We need to feed our souls daily on the spiritual food of the Word of God.

Jesus says to us: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” We must work on building up a relationship of trust in God, convinced that he really does only want what is best and good for us. We can to this by rejecting the devil’s lies that God is a tyrant, out to ruin our fun and restrict our freedom. Because fundamentally, that’s the deception that is behind every temptation. 

Finally, Jesus reminds us: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” We have to be faithful to our baptismal call to be a people of worship because worship reminds us that God is, well… God…and we aren’t!  This is why we gather for Mass every Sunday so that true worship may be offered to the Father through his Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, and so that the Son can strengthen us by the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.

And so, let’s remember that, having done all that he can do on his part, we need to also do our part and ask Jesus for the grace to participate in his victory over Satan, temptation and sin and make it real in our everyday lives.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Love is Forgiveness

Catholic Liturgy for the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Feb. 23, 2020. Gospel of St. Matthew 5:38-48. Theme: Love is Forgiveness

In today’s gospel, Jesus presents us with what is probably the most challenging of his teachings for us to both accept and to live: love for one’s enemies. Our official definition of an enemy is “a person who feels hatred for, fosters harmful designs against, or engages in antagonistic activities against another.”  And when most people think of “the enemy” they typically have in mind some foreign anti-American militants spewing forth hatred and threatening our lives from afar.

But you know, I think the reality is that for many of us, the “enemy”, that is, the person who is antagonistic or spiteful or abusive to us can most often be found among our own circle of relatives and acquaintances, in our neighborhoods or even right within our own homes.  The most real up-close-and-personal enemy is the spouse who is unfaithful or who has abandoned the family; the child or sibling who is an addict, always lying to us and often stealing from us; the whacky neighbor who falsely and repeatedly accuses us of imagined grievances, destroying our peace of mind and heart; the co-worker who got the promotion we wanted and always seem to find a way to throw it back in our face. The list can go on and on but you know what I mean. These are the ones who challenge our commitment as Christians to willingly embrace that difficult and unique form of love called forgiveness.

Jesus directly addresses the desire we all experience to “get even” when we have been hurt physically or emotionally. He even quotes a very famous line about payback from the Old Testament, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I bet that most of us do not know that this law of Moses was not promulgated to justify “getting even”. Believe it or not, it was actually a law that sought to promote peace and stop the escalation of violence! You see, before that law was declared, people would take TWO eyes for an eye and a WHOLE MOUTH OF TEETH for a tooth! 

But Jesus moves us upward from this notion of strict justice to the higher level of mercy when he says, “Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strike you on the right cheek, turn the other one as well…”  What Jesus is actually saying is that we can, indeed, respond to hatred and violence, but in a way that ignores our gut reaction to fight back. He teaches us that we must step up and do our part to break the cycle of retaliation and put an end to the cancer of revenge that keeps repeating itself over and over in our lives and relationships.
Dr. Robert Enright, a devout practicing Catholic and an internationally acclaimed psychologist, whom Time magazine called the “Trailblazer of Forgiveness” give us this wise advice: “When you forgive someone who has deeply hurt you, you let go of resentment and the urge to seek revenge, no matter how deserving of these things the wrongdoer may be. You choose to give the great gifts of acceptance, generosity and love. Forgiving is an act of mercy toward someone who does not necessarily deserve our mercy but you don’t let that stand in your way. Rather, you give mercy because you have freely and intentionally chosen to have a merciful heart.”

Now, we all know that this is not an easy thing to do. And Jesus is not saying that forgiving comes naturally to us.  Refusing to retaliate towards someone does not mean that what was done to us was ok nor does it give permission to the offender to keep offending. But we are not concerned with trying to control or change the other person.  We are called to control and change only ourselves. And the curious thing is that the more allow ourselves to be changed through prayer and God’s grace, the more we do indeed end up having a positive influence on those around us and bringing the hope of healing and new life into our relationships.

(In the audio version, I now tell the story of St. Maria Goretti)

The desire and decision to intentionally forgive is a sure sign that the Holy Spirit is alive and active within us.  When we choose to forgive another just as God forgives us, it’s proof that we are becoming more and more like Christ whom we strive to know, love and follow.  And this “becoming like Jesus” is something that can only come about in us by the Eucharist celebrate and receive. We’ve heard it said that we become what we eat, and this is so very true about Holy Communion. The more we receive the Risen Body and Blood of Christ with humility and devotion, the more we will become like him. By the grace of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist we receive will enable us to love and to forgive bit-by-bit, day-by-day, more-and-more like Jesus, our Beloved Brother and Lord.

Artist depiction of Alessandro's Forgiveness Dream

Mrs. Goretti & Alessandro at Maria's Canonization

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Dig Deeper!

Catholic Liturgy for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Feb. 16, 2020. Gospel of St. Matthew 5:17-37. Theme: Dig Deeper

Today’s Gospel, which is Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, is very much a continuation and explanation of last Sunday’s Gospel about salt and light.  You might remember that Jesus called us to be salt of the earth. The main function of salt back in those days was to preserve things from being spoiled. We are called to be salt so as to keep the world from going bad. Jesus also called us to be light for the world so that his glory could shine through us and lead people from darkness into goodness.

The teaching we hear from him today is meant to show us precisely how to make all this happen.  It’s informing us as to how we can indeed become that salt and light. In order for this to happen, though, Jesus is reminding us that we must be transformed from the inside out. Our mission as salt and light all starts in the heart, in the mind, in the conscience. That’s where good or evil within us begins. The results that show up in our actions are simply the visible effects of what’s already been going on inside of us.

This is why he tells us at the beginning of his Sermon that our holiness must surpass that of the Jewish leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, if we hope to authentic witnesses to truth and goodness, if we want to truly become salt and light. You see, the definition of holiness of these Jewish religious leaders was based on external actions.  It was defined mostly as abstaining from any and all acts that were contrary to the commandments. What mattered to them was what a person did, how they observed and carried out God’s law, regardless of how they might have felt about it inside themselves. If from the outside, externally, it all looked good, then many patted themselves on the back and considered themselves righteous or holy.  This is the false understanding of holiness, of religious observance, that Jesus is talking about.

You know, we Catholics can easily slip to that very same attitude.  For example, I once had a friendly conversation with a relative of mine about going to confession.  It had been quite a long time since she had received that sacrament. She responded by saying that she had no need for confession and began listing her external moral accomplishments in light of the commandments, “I haven’t murdered anyone; I haven’t stolen anything; I haven’t seriously lied to anyone…” and so forth. Do you see the problem with this way of thinking? Notice how this attitude is the polar opposite of Jesus’ teaching in his Sermon on the Mount. It is nothing other than a modern expression of the false morality of the scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus calls us to a much more authentic and mature morality that are based on God’s commandments but go deeper into what they mean. Our examination of conscience isn’t to be satisfied if we have merely avoided the big obvious sins. We need to embrace the spirit of the law and not be content with simply obeying by the letter of the law.

For example, Jesus calls us to not be satisfied just because we are not murderers, but to dig deeper and see if we have any heartfelt anger and bitter resentments towards someone.  And if we discover that we do he tells us begin the steps to peace and reconciliation.

He calls us to not be satisfied just because we are not gossips or liars, but to dig deeper and see if we are using the gift of speech to build people up or to tear them down.  And if we find that we tend to denigrate others, then we should look inside ourselves and see what needs to be changed by the grace of God.

He calls us to not be satisfied that we are not adulterers, but to dig deeper and see if we have a tendency to view others as objects of lustful desire.  And if we discover that we are indeed doing this, he calls us to take up a new way of relating to people that respects and values their human dignity.

Perhaps something should be said here about some strange words Jesus uses to get across the importance of his teaching.  Towards the beginning, we hear a Hebrew word “raqa” which in English means something close to “idiot” or “imbecile”.  In other words, Jesus is telling us that publicly insulting or humiliating someone is a form of personal destruction, of killing their spirit or reputation. Further on, he says that we should be willing to get rid of anything – even body parts – for the sake of avoiding Hell and reaching Heaven!  There have actually been a few figures in Christian history who took those words literally! But Jesus is using exaggerated speech to drive home his point that inner conversion, holiness that starts in the heart, is of utmost importance if we wish to become the persons God created us to be.

With Ash Wednesday soon upon us, I would suggest today’s Gospel as something each one of us should take up and read bit by bit during Lent.  Reflecting on these teachings of Christ can motivate us to a deeper conversion of heart and life, a deeper acceptance of his Word, a deeper friendship with him.  It is where the rubber meets the road for our Christian journey through life. It is like our moral GPS that directs us along the various paths and choices we face as we strive to successfully follow Christ who is the way to true inner happiness in this life and to eternal happiness in the next.