Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

Today’s celebration is known as Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Most of us simply know it as Palm Sunday, but it’s important that we see the connection between the palm frond we just received and the passion (passio, meaning ‘suffering’) of Jesus.

Many of you remember the movie Saving Private Ryan. The opening scene was jarringly realistic. Many of the men who survived the invasion on the beaches of Normandy remarked about its authentic depiction of the events. For the rest of us who never experienced anything like that, it gave us some sense of their experience.

The film was powerful because it didn’t merely show us violence and death but made us viewers feel fear as we experienced it. This is in contrast to so many movies and video games in which death and violence are gratuitous or trivialized, where violence and death are a form of entertainment. Saving Private Ryan drew us into the drama and forced us to consider the realities of death and invited us to deepen in our consideration of life.

Today’s liturgy serves as sort an overture to what will happen in the coming days. Like the aforementioned movie, we are to enter into and re-live the events we commemorate: Jesus’ journey to the cross: his passion, death and yes, his Resurrection.

The fact is, the vast majority of Christians who come to celebrate Easter Sunday have not partaken of any of the events that preceded it. They show up to a church filled with white lilies and they hear about the empty tomb and are supposed to be joyous about it. That dumfounding event that we call the Resurrection is only a cause for joy if we properly bear in mind what preceded it and why it was necessary: suffering for our sake, abandonment, and a cruel death that seemed to be the end of it all. Without that, what’s Easter?

At the beginning of this mass you received a palm: a simple slender thing that might serve as a decorative keepsake in your home. But today we consciously hold it as a way of bringing the past and the present together. And as we hold it, it reminds us of the fact that it’s not just Jesus’ story, but also our story. It’s not only an event of the past; it’s happening now, because the Passion of the ‘whole Body of Christ’ is still happening and the resurrection of the whole body of Christ is still a future event. But perhaps also think of your palm branch as a theater ticket, admission to the drama that awaits us.

The story which we are beginning today, like every truly great drama, only has its deepest meaning if it reaches into our lives and challenges us. This week, especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, our Lord whom we greeted today will be present to suffer for us, to love us. He’ll be present, but will you? With admission already in hand, we are at the entrance of the venue where the drama awaits us. Don’t let it go to waste.

5th Sunday of Lent - The Woman Caught in Adultery

In today’s Gospel, with its dramatic story, one of the things it stirs up in almost all of us, is sympathy for the woman. We know nothing about her, not even her name. We only know that she was caught in the act of adultery—admittedly, not a good thing, whether in Jesus’ culture or ours. But like you, I suspect, I’ve often wondered why it’s only the woman who is being scrutinized. Why wasn’t the man also undergoing this public trial?

As I thought about it, I considered how this woman was used. First, she was used by the conspicuously absent man. Yes, possibly she was using him too, but in that culture, men held the position of power. She was used for his pleasure.

But then she was used again. The scribes and the Pharisees had brought her and were using her as bait to put Jesus in a precarious position. Again, although the woman had done something immoral, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her.

This past week I saw a movie, currently showing nearby, called Unplanned. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s an autobiographical account of a woman named Abby Johnson who, as a college student, was recruited to volunteer at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Although she was opposed to abortion, she was told that Planned Parenthood, in advocating for and supporting women, actually seeks to reduce the number of abortions. That appealed to her, so she began volunteering.

Over time, she moved up the ranks, having come to believe the claim that Planned Parenthood, helping women, made abortion less common. She eventually became director of a clinic, but soon began to see fallacies in the claims of her employer, especially when, as director, she was told that Planned Parenthood planned to expand their abortion services, and thus the quota on abortions would be substantially increased. When Abby questioned the increase, she was sternly told: “Fast-food outlets break even on their hamburgers. The french fries and soda are the low-cost, high-margin items….Abortion is our fries and soda!” She was told that her 401K and health benefits, were there because of abortion services.

I don’t want to give away too much of the movie, because many of us need to see it, especially in any way we don’t know where we stand on this issue. It would seem, despite Planned Parenthood’s claim to advocate, empower and support women, that they’re instead using them. As the movie reveals, and as my personal experience has shown me, women tend to hurt afterwards, not feel empowered. I’ve seen how they carry the pain afterward.

I had the privilege of serving as the priest on a Project Rachel retreat, where women (and men) wounded by having made the choice to abort their child, were able to face their decisions, the painful loss, and find a path toward healing. What they learned, that they didn’t understand when they made the choice, is that it’s not merely a ‘women’s issue’. They learned it’s not about seeking to control anyone’s sexual or reproductive freedoms, despite how it’s commonly presented.

There’s a baby involved, whose fragile and tender life is hanging in the balance. And despite how we’re told that these services help situations of incest or rape, taking the life of the baby does not fix the pain already inflicted in such cases. But the fact is, most abortions are not the result of incest or rape. Instead, they occur usually because women are in fear, feeling helpless and without support. We must love them and help them.

In fact, even as troubling as the idea of abortion is, and as much as pro-choice advocates might tell us that it’s judgmental or intrusive, we can’t be merely like the accusers in today’s Gospel, seeking to shame. Recall Jesus’ words: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” As we advocate for the right to life for the unborn, we are also sinners, each with our own baggage and immediate struggles.

One of the beautiful and unique things about our Christian faith is what it says about God’s regard for the human person: He loves humanity so much that He became human, to make of us sons and daughters, rather than just His creatures. As he wanted to help the adulteress woman to live in the fullness of her humanity, so he desires it for those who are experiencing a crisis pregnancy, and their vulnerable and voiceless children. He desires it for you and me. Therefore, we do not use people for our purposes. We use things, but we love people.

In the Gospel, after all her accusers drifted away, one by one, Jesus was left with the woman, undoubtedly scared, feeling powerless, and ashamed. He asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” When said no, he replied in truth and love, with a two-part message: First, I don’t condemn you either. In other words, I want you to live and to know my love. Then he added, But to do that, you must leave your sinful ways behind. We who are baptized into Jesus, are called to mirror this love that heals and gives life, but also like Jesus, to understand that some things that are never ‘okay’. We, even as sinners, are called to speak truth, but always with love.

4th Sunday of Lent - Divine Justice-Mercy

In our faith tradition, there are four virtues that we identify as ‘cardinal virtues’—cardinal meaning virtues from which other virtues come: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Today’s Gospel challenges our idea of justice. Culturally speaking, justice means that someone gets what he/she deserves. If you’re bad, you deserve bad; if you’re good, you deserve good.

Jesus was responding to some people, identified as Pharisees and scribes, who were complaining that he passed time with sinners. He decided to make a point to them by telling a story: the story we know as the Prodigal Son. Jesus described the son’s irresponsibility and selfishness in choosing to leave and putting his family’s financial well-being at risk: all so that he could leave the family who loved him and satisfy his wanderlust. Like any of us hearing a story, Jesus’ listeners would have seen this son to be sinful and foolish.

Jesus then described how the son eventually fell into a desperate situation, having to work and eat with pigs. The listeners would have thought, “Ok, that’s justice, he got what he deserves.” They would also have understood the son’s regret and his desire to go back home: “Father, I have sinned against you and no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me as a servant”. They would have agreed that going back as a hired worker was appropriate. That’s justice, they would have thought.

But then Jesus flipped justice upside down: He described that when the son approached home, his father saw him in the distance and rushed out to embrace him. Before the son could even finish his rehearsed words of repentance, the father smothered him with kisses and affection, clothed him in sandals, a robe and a ring—all outward signs to everyone, that the son’s identity was restored.

A quick word about the older son and his resentment. He believed that he had earned his father’s love by doing what was right, that he had become entitled. Throughout the Christian Scriptures, we are reminded that this is not so. Those of us who regard ourselves as rightful heirs, because of our self-perceived faithfulness, do well to bear this in mind.

But Jesus’ listeners, quite like the older son, listening to the story, would have shifted their focus from the foolish younger son, to the father’s foolish response. He wasn’t following the protocols of justice. Justice would have been to wait until the hungry and weary son reached him, and to take a bowl of rotten vegetables and dump them on the ground at his feet. To say, “Here’s what you deserve”.

We’re likely not so different from Jesus’ listeners: we want virtue to be rewarded and sinners to be punished, whether it’s people in the news or the person driving erratically in morning traffic. But Jesus is giving us a deeper understanding of justice, telling us something important about God the Father—that our Heavenly Father’s justice gives us something better than we deserve—we call that mercy.

And that’s what St. Paul emphasized in our second reading: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them…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.” In other words: God took on our sinful nature, so that we could unite ourselves to God’s divine nature. And as St. Paul says, we did nothing to deserve so great a gift and in fact, he ignored all our offenses.

And God’s brand of justice—mercy—can offend our sensibilities and maybe even scandalize us, as though God condones bad behavior. But the fact is, we’re all sinners. It’s only a matter of degree. At this Mass, you and I are the sinners dining with Jesus. How’s that for justice? And to be clear, God’s mercy does not mean that a society no longer has a judicial system or even prisons, that no one gets speeding tickets. Paying debts to society is not negated, even as God is merciful to those who seek His mercy.

So why do we struggle with God’s justice? Perhaps because unlike the foolish son in the parable, we’ve never dealt with our past transgressions and made things right.

But God’s justice asks us to resist our tendency to write-off a person, to see them as less than a brother or sister. God’s justice asks us to pray even for His mercy for criminals, even as we pray for those they’ve harmed. God’s justice asks us to consider how much God loves that person, and it calls us to love them likewise.

And if God’s justice doesn’t resonate within, I encourage you to gaze into the visible manifestation of that mysterious justice and mercy. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that (you) might become the righteousness of God in him.” God’s justice is mounted to the wood of the cross, and you are the beneficiary.

3rd Sunday of Lent - The Burning Bush, The Heart of Jesus

We all know something about Moses, but I remind us that he had an unusual upbringing: he was a Jew who, since the time he was a baby, had been raised as an Egyptian. As a young man though, he had gotten into trouble, and fled Egypt. He lived for many years as an exile, having established a new and stable life. It’s hard to know how much he was aware of his true ethnic identity. Did he know he was a Hebrew, or did he think himself truly an Egyptian? But even if he knew his true ethnicity, like all the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt, he had lost sight of the God of his ancestors.

He would soon have no doubt about his ethnic identity. In his new life, on an ordinary day, doing his ordinary work, a theophany occurred, the God he had never known, reached out to him. To his amazement, Moses saw an ordinary, thorny shrub—yet it was ablaze. In that arid region, a bush like that would have burned up quickly and thoroughly, yet curiously, this one remained filled with fire, yet not consumed.

As he watched it, surely mesmerized, he heard a voice, perhaps like a whisper in his head: Moses! Moses!….I am the God of your fathers….the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry….I know well what they are suffering. I have come to rescue them. In other words: My beloved sons and daughters don’t even know that it is me they need. They have forgotten me, but I never forgot them. 

For all the ways that we are inclined to think of God as something like the Force on Star Wars, or a sort of organic energy that underlies the universe—pantheism, as we would call it—this reading reveals that while God is both mystery and infinitude, he is also proximate, intelligible, and personal. Moses! Moses! I have come to rescue my people. Our God speaks and acts.  

I read a Jewish commentary, comparing the flame in the bush to the flame that then came to life in Moses’ heart[i]. His heart came to burn yet remained unconsumed. Pope John Paul II once compared the burning bush to the Heart of Jesus: A furnace burns everything material, whether wood or other easily combustible substance. But the Heart of Jesus, the human Heart of Jesus, burns with the love that fills it….an unquenchable furnace. In this it resembles the "burning bush" of the book of Exodus….the bush that burned with fire, but is not consumed. Indeed, the love that burns in the heart of Jesus….the human Heart of God-Man, is embraced by the "living flame" of Trinitarian love that never fails. The Heart of Jesus—the burning furnace of charity—enlightening the darkness of night and warming the bodies of pilgrims numb with cold.[ii]  

In the way that God revealed Himself to Moses on Mt. Horeb, speaking to Him in that living flame, so He does to us in the heart of Jesus. We often see it imaged as the Sacred Heart, and all the ways it resembles the burning bush: aglow with light, wrapped in thorny branches, and flames emerging from within—and yet it too remains unconsumed.

We see that heart at the intersection of those two wooden beams, in the breast of Jesus crucified. But we also see that heart—not so different from what Moses saw—in the monstrance on the altar. It’s there that God would tell you, “I am here to rescue you. I know your affliction and how you suffer. My heart burns with love for you”.

I want to encourage you during these days of Lent to make some time to come to adoration, to place yourself before Him, to bear in mind whatever ways you are enslaved and need freedom. We may not be slaves in the way we commonly think of it. Instead, we’re enslaved to things like:

  • our destructive habits of the heart, such as anger, pride, envy;

  • a wound within that gives way to fear, self-doubt and negativity;

  • an unhealthy appetite or compulsion, such as drink, food, sexual impulses;

  • a fear of not being relevant or loved, of being rejected, and forgotten;

  • a distorted self-identity, that tells us our measure is based upon our work, our financial success and material goods, an outward appearance of having it ‘together’;

  • an attitude of ingratitude for the people in our lives….

He knows your heart, how it hurts, how it wants freedom, truth, peace. He knows your heart….But do you? What are you enslaved to…even if you usually don’t even bear it in mind….or even if a part of you likes being enslaved to it? As He spoke to Moses from the thorny bush, the burning and Sacred Heart of our Lord says, “I have come for you, to set you free”. Make time for adoration. Come lay your heart before Him in the silence so that you can begin to sort through the stuff in your heart. Then bring it confession and be freed.

2nd Sunday of Lent - The Faith of Abram

In our first reading, we heard what might sound like a downright bizarre story about Abraham. Abraham, sometimes called the Father of Faith, serves as the central character in what can be thought of as the beginning of a new section in the Book of Genesis. Up to that point, it’s as though everything is told from a mile-high view, in cosmic proportion: creation of the universe, the universal condition of original sin, the flooding of the world, and so on. With Abraham—or more correctly at this point, he’s known as Abram—we begin to zoom-in to a specific person and his life.

Abram had been born in a distant land, having no awareness of the God who would eventually call him out of thin air, like a voice in his head: “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you….All the families of the earth will find blessing in you” (Gen 12:1-3). Perhaps inexplicably to us, Abram went, with no certainty of what lay ahead. 

Along the way, God promised him: “I will give you numerous descendants”. Abram had no children despite being already aged, but the cruel irony was that his very name means Beloved Father. Yes, I will give you descendants, and I will give you land, despite the fact that he was a wandering vagabond. All these promises God made, and Abram kept moving, still with no certainty of exactly how or when God’s plan would come together.

Eventually, perhaps worn-out from wondering, and entertaining doubt, Abram asked if he had understood God’s intentions correctly. The LORD told him to look at the stars in the sky, to see if he could count them. As the verses that follow subtly indicate, it was daytime. How could Abram, or any of us, count the stars, especially in the daytime? Leaving Abram still wondering how, the LORD lead him through an ancient covenant ritual, meant for two parties to demonstrate commitment. After sacrificing specified animals, the next step of the ritual would be for both parties to walk between these halved animals (Gross, right?). By doing that together, it was a way of saying, “May what happened to these animals, happen to me, if I don’t uphold what we’ve promised”.

But just before they were to do this, a mysterious phenomenon occurred: a heavy darkness descended upon Abram, putting him into a state of sleep. Then, God, imaged as fire in the darkness—just as He was when the Israelites would later pass through the Red Sea—passed through the remains of these sacrificed animals. It was God’s way of telling Abram, I will uphold my promise to you.  

Perhaps you’ve wondered about your call from God—this call we take on faith, and how fragile our faith can be. Maybe like Abram, wondering, Did He really call me? And like Abram, who for as long as he remained childless and displaced, wondering, “God when are you going to do what you said you would?”. I suspect every one of us has moments—examining where we are in life—wondering if we understood God correctly—where he intended to lead us, and if what He promised is real.

These thoughts and inevitable questions are exactly why we keep the stories of these figures of our faith before us, and why we recount the lives of the saints, time and time again. We can look back on the entirety of their lives in ways that we can’t our own. In looking back on their lives, we see how God keeps His promises, even as it feels to us like we’re wandering and waiting. 

Our reading today speaks of that mysterious event in the darkness, and the sacrificed animals, that “It was on that occasion that the LORD ‘made’ a covenant with Abram”. In English we use the word ‘made’, but in Hebrew the word is karath, meaning cut. As the animals were cut-open, God cut a covenant with Abram.

Just as God cut a covenant with Abram, so He does with you at this altar. To show His commitment, God was willing to be cut, in order to carry out His plan for you. We see it on the cross, but we experience and receive it from this altar, as his Body and Blood serve as his halves. As we process toward his Body and Blood, perhaps not so different from the covenant ritual that would have had Abram passing between those halved-animals, may we be mindful of at least two things: First, that this Eucharist is a living sign of the covenant that God cut with you. May we take it as seriously as He did. And second, that our God keeps His promises, even when we can’t understand how and when they’ll be fulfilled—like trying to count the stars in the sky at daytime. Let us pray for the steadfast faith of Abram.

1st Sunday of Lent - Giving God Our Firstfruits

It’s not often that we hear from the Book of Deuteronomy. It tends to be lumped-in with the other four books that together we call the Pentateuch or the 5 Books of Moses, but it’s a little different. Deuteronomy’s thirty-four chapters are made up of three lengthy discourses from Moses, addressed to the Israelites at the very end of their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai wilderness. A generation had died in that time span, and many of the new generation were not born when God first laid out the terms of the covenant, the Law.

Deuteronomy means ‘second law’. At long last, they were just about to cross the Jordan river and enter the Promised Land, and Moses called the people together, as an assembly, to re-declare, and it went something like this:

“Before we cross over into the Promised Land, we need to remember who gave us life, who we are, and how we are to live in relationship with the One who gave us life. So please listen as I spell it out. We cannot move forward if we do not remember.”

Today we hear from the second of the book’s three discourses, specifically a section that speaks about what the Israelites are to offer to the LORD their God and how it is to be offered. In that first reading we heard, it explains that the people are to take the first fruits of their harvest, offer it to the priest in a basket, then to offer a prayer about how God has given life in place of death. Then, it explains, that the people are to bow before God as gesture of reverence.

It sounds a little like what we do at Mass: the tithing collection, the bread and wine brought to the priest and placed upon our altar. I remind us that all that goes to the altar represents us in our entirety, as though we are being placed upon the altar to be an offering, an oblation for God. The priest prays a similar prayer in the Eucharistic Prayer as we kneel and bow. But considering today’s reading that speaks of bringing the firstfruits of the harvest, let us ask ourselves: Do I bring my best to God? I don’t narrowly mean financial offerings. I mean all that I am, my state of mind, even my appearance. Ask yourself, “Am I giving God my firstfruits, in terms of my heart and mind? Have I taken any time to prepare for this Mass?” 

I mentioned on Ash Wednesday the Exodus 90 program that I’m going through. A few days ago (Day 45) the reading for the day was from chapter 19 of Exodus, in which the LORD instructs Moses to tell the people how they are to prepare before they encounter God: “Go to the people and have them sanctify themselves today and tomorrow. Have them wash their garments and be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Ex 10-11).

The meditation that followed that reading served as a challenge for how we prepare. Do we treat the sanctuary with reverence and respect, as though we are preparing to encounter the Lord on Mt. Sinai, or is this space reduced to a social hall? The meditation said (paraphrase): God told the Israelite people to wash their garments to prepare for the Lord. Today, grown men attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass wearing flip-flops, shorts and their game-day jersey, and their defense tends to be, “At least I’m here”.

I fully realize also that God loves us for who we are not our outward appearance. I realize that what’s in our heart is most important (1 Sam 16:7). I realize it’s not earning our worth in God’s eyes, because we already are His beloved sons and daughters. And we don’t want people to feel judged for what they wear or what they can afford. But we do well to ask ourselves: Am I demonstrating for myself that I take this encounter with God seriously and that I care? Am I bringing the LORD my firstfruits—inwardly and outwardly—of who I am? Maybe this is part of how we—as individuals and as a collective Church—seek to be reformed in these 40 Days.