4th Sunday of Lent Cycle A March 30, 2014

We all are very aware that sight is such a gift at the heart of our human bodies. It allows us to see the world we encounter each day in all of its beauty and in all of its ugliness. The beauty is of God. Any ugliness we see is a result of our choices.

For example, the beauty of nature is the work of God’s hand. There’s a naturalness to such present  beauty that has developed and formed over millions of years, and we happen to be living at a time when what we see has been formed for many millennia. What we see today, any human being alive, say, just a short 100,000 years ago, would not have seen the same beauty we see.

But in the midst of nature and all its natural wonders, we may also see, as we walk along nature’s path, things like litter and trash strewn along the side of a scenic country road. Beer cans; losing lottery tickets tossed aside from the frustration of giving the state money for a piece of paper with much anticipation of winning but little hope of actually winning; fast food bags (eat quick and toss it just as quickly); soda bottles and cans, just to name a few items of many. Such ugliness spread throughout the midst of the beauty of nature is man’s doing. Where there is no regard, no respect, no appreciation, and no sense of what others will have to look at as a result of the callousness of an individual, a couple, or a group.

The beauty belongs to God. The lessening and watering down of God’s beauty belongs to us. Which would we rather see? Which would most of us prefer to look upon? I would assume that most people prefer to look upon the work of God’s hand, rather than some of the things that people can do to tarnish the beauty of God’s handiwork.

But, God also does some altering to the beauty of his creation. Because sometimes the beauty of his creation is not all that it can physically be. The point person in human history for such altering is the blind man in John’s Gospel. He is not all that he can physically be. So Jesus, who, while he is in the world is the light of the world, has this divine justice rolling around inside of him that basically says, “I can’t stand the fact that this man is blind; that he was born blind; and that he has remained blind into his adult years. This cannot be in my presence!”

Jesus has the hardest of times witnessing a part of his creation that has not been fulfilled in this man, namely, his inability to physically see. This drives Jesus nuts, in the best of ways. Just like litter drives someone nuts as they walk a scenic country road, or a trail in nature. There’s blindness present in the presence of litter. There’s a certain taking away of God’s creation. Just like physical blindness.

So, Jesus does something about it. This is what’s so wonderful about our Lord. When presented with a situation that calls for his undivided attention, he never turns his back on us. Do we trust this in our lives? So Jesus, in his way of being unique, spits on the ground, makes clay with his saliva, and rubs the same clay from which this blind man was formed – along with all of us – and rubs it into his eyes. That must have hurt initially!

The combination of God’s saliva and the clay of the earth makes the blind man physically whole. This makes for a good prayer; pray in your need for God’s saliva to touch the parts of your lives that fall short. Petition God to spit on that addiction. Ask God to spit on your doubt. Ask God to spit on our lack of faith and trust in his ways. It makes for a good prayer.

Back to the blind man. The blind man is given the gifts of sight and light because Jesus was physically in the world. That’s not to say that miraculous events have ceased since our Lord ascended into heaven. They still occur. Jesus is still spitting his saliva into peoples’ lives to perform miracles. Our issue is we don’t fully understand why some are cured and others are not. But God’s saliva is definitely drenching our world, thanks be to God!

The sight given to the man born blind was not an action that sits on its own. It was not an end in itself. It’s not like Jesus cured him and then said to the guy, “Have a nice life.” It was an act of love that invites every one of us into the light that awaits all people of faith. Physical light dies. The light of Christ knows no death. If Jesus cured the man born blind and never came back to pick up the rest of the litter that was strewn along the road of his life, and of our lives, then having the gift of physical sight would be meaningless in the end. The heavier litter is the spiritual litter. Curing the lack of sight in one blind man is not an end in itself. It’s nice. In fact, it’s very nice. But it doesn’t come close to cleaning up all the litter in human hearts. Jesus’ action must lead to spiritual cleansing, otherwise the act eventually dies in the blind man’s death. And Jesus Christ is the only who can clean our souls.

The blind man will see the light of this world, thanks to God’s saliva. But because he comes to worship his Lord, he will forever see the light of the world. He will look on the face of Christ in all his compassion and beauty. This is what we gear up for during Lent. By way of allowing our Lord to clean up the spiritual litter that makes us whole once again so we can one day  look on the face of God in all his beauty.

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

Physical light is nice. Physical sight is a gift, but not necessary. The spiritual light of a clean heart that awakens us and brings us to the resurrection is the road that completes the story.

2nd Sunday of Lent Cycle A March 16, 2014

That’s a pretty big secret to keep, don’t you think? “Don’t tell anyone of the unbelievable, incredible, mind-boggling vision that you just witnessed and experienced on this mountain until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Jesus is joking, right? How can you keep it to yourself when you just saw Jesus transfigured into the brightness and glory of heaven. Where you had a bright cloud overshadow you, with a voice that came forth proclaiming that the One who is being momentarily transfigured is well-pleasing to the cloud’s Voice.

It’s similar to when Jesus cured the sick and those with demons, telling them to say nothing to anyone, and they go running off and perform their best impersonation of the towncryer and tell everyone what Jesus just did for them.

Whether Peter, James, and John actually held their tongues on this event on the mountain until after the Son of Man was raised from the dead, we won’t know the answer until we get to speak with them individually in the Upper Chamber, if you know what I mean. When the Red Sox won the World Series on October 30 last year, could a diehard fan hold their tongue on that victorious event until the end of the year? I believe therein lies the answer to Peter, James, and John. I could be wrong! But I doubt it!

On the 2nd Sunday of Lent, the readings remind us of why we sacrifice, of why we pray, give alms and fast, of why we don’t remain quiet. The readings remind us that there is a purpose behind the actions we perform for the good of ourselves and others, during Lent especially. God’s holy word reminds us that there is light at the end of this Lenten tunnel. But not only our Lenten tunnel of 40 days long; this time of being pushed into the desert in like manner of Jesus in last week’s Gospel. But also the end of life’s tunnel when we close our eyes from this world and open them in view of the eternal transfiguration.

What I love about this Gospel being proclaimed in the early part of Lent is that it plants a seed in our hearts that allows us the grace to confront the difficulties we can experience along the way. This reaction on the mountain of the disciples falling to the ground and prostrating themselves is very powerful symbolically for both good and not so good reasons.

The good is that their prostrating is a posture of worship. Muslims do this all the time. They get on the ground and prostrate themselves before God. For us, it’s really a posture that turns everything over to the Voice in the cloud. It’s a posture of surrendering our lives. If one soldier does this to another soldier in an opposing army, what’s the message? “I give up! I’m yours! You win! Take me away!” This is what God wants in his unconditional, infinite love for us. The three Apostles show us a path and level of trust that Christ seeks, for he so wants to care for all our needs.

But the disciples prostrating is not so good because of what Jesus says to them; “Rise, and do not be afraid.” Their unnecessary fear in the presence of God does not serve their discipleship well at all. Nor does it serve us well either. Fear of the Lord is a great virtue. It’s a virtue in that it allows us a sense of the awesomeness and otherness of God when compared to our frail humanity.

But Peter, James, and John being afraid causes then to curl up like a child in its mother’s womb, rather than being adults in their faith and going forth. Their hunkering on the ground in fear robs them of their future responsibility of proclaiming the Good News that the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. This fear of the “unknown Voice” will also be the cause of our losing sight of God’s presence working in our own lives. If our faith is prostrated on the ground, with head in hands and shivering joints, then our vision is useless, as well as our voice. A raised head can see much more than a head buried in a mountain.

The transfiguration of Jesus early in Lent and right smack in the midst of our lives is an event of future hope, but also present perseverance. We don’t surrender as Christians to the soldier of fear, or the soldier of hopelessness, or to the soldiers of immorality and corruptibility. We don’t give in to dead works. Christian works are alive! Christian works are for all generations and all times and never grow old or fall out of style because they are grounded in love, which is eternal. Sometimes tough love. We are alive today, tomorrow, and forever, standing up and speaking on behalf of Christ Jesus, even in the midst of all the curveballs life can toss our way. We don’t live or act in fear. We live in confidence and faith.

Jesus says, “Get up. Do not be afraid, for His voice is a voice of love and support.” Keep moving ahead with the truth that Christ is our light, and that we are to bring his light to others, especially those who presently have no gospel in their lives.

The transfiguration of Jesus tells us that the sacrifices and difficulties on his behalf are worth the effort. So, keep your head up off the ground. And, as Pope Francis wrote in his recent Apostolic Exhortation called The Joy of the Gospel, as Christians, don’t look like you just came back from a funeral. We live in joy and hope. And don’t keep that a secret.

Homily 1st Sunday of Lent Cycle A March 9, 2014

The Holy Scriptures are the answer to the temptations of our world. Jesus reveals this most fundamental truth when the Devil does his best to upset the order, purpose, and means of our salvation.

For example, in a world where war is present somewhere on this tiny, tiny planet in comparison to the size of our galaxy called Milky Way, and certainly in relation to the depths of the universe, the word of God is where the answer to war can be searched and found. Namely, the answer of peace. Are there wars and violence in Scripture? Of course there are! But the holy word, when seen in the entirety of its meaning, leads individuals, communities, and nations to the peace of Christ who, ironically, was slaughtered like a lamb on the altar of the Cross.

For the many temptations we have to go up against and endure in this life until the hour we are handed over to Mary and the saints leading us to our Savior, the origin and source of our response to temptations is found in the word of God. We have choices to make when temptation is upon us, no different from Jesus, who is fully human. If he can be tempted, then we cannot be exempted from spiritual attacks that can potentially upset our lives. In other words, the Devil will not leave us alone, searching for moments of weakness as he does with Jesus, attacking our Lord at the end of his 40 days of fasting, rather than at the beginning when his physical strength is upon him. The deceiver knows when to push, prod, and tempt. We’ll give him that much. But the word of God is a guarantee that his defeat is assured and the Lord’s victory ours.

So, the word that comes to the forefront on this first Sunday of Lent is temptation. Not sin. Sin can be the result of temptation. Just as holiness can result from temptation, when the proper choice is made. But temptation presents a choice. Temptation precedes an act and the choices we make.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve are tempted. They are given a choice. God instructs them to not eat of the two trees found in the middle of the garden. Of all the other trees they can eat. But leave the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil alone. Those trees will zap you if you touch them and eat from them. So what does the Evil Zapper do? He says to the woman, “God didn’t really mean what he said. He was just joking with you Eve. God’s a big kidder! He even kidded me into thinking I could become like Him! The reason I’m the Devil is really all God’s fault. He didn’t tell me up front he was serious. So go ahead and have a bite. Those trees are in the middle of the forest anyway. He won’t even see you eating from them! He can’t see through all those trees! And have a bite for me! And share some with your husband too! See how kind and thoughtful  I am!”

Thus, the temptation, all dressed up to look nice and rosy, pretty as a Georgia peach. And in the midst of all that ugly prettiness, the first couple forgot what God had commanded them to do. This is what temptation can do; it can cloud our minds and poison our souls. Or, when we don’t dismiss or leave behind the word of God, temptation can strengthen our resolve, where we can fall deeper in love with the One who deserves our attention and obedience.

The power of the word of God can never be underestimated.

So Jesus is pushed into the desert by the Spirit. Why? To be tempted by the Devil. We may ask the question, “Why would God put his only-begotten Son into such a position? Why is it necessary for Jesus, the Son of God, to be led into a series of three temptations? None of them being lightweight!” What’s at stake is all the glory, power, and worship.

And we know the answer to these questions; so that Jesus can relate to our own temptations, and show us the path to holiness through the word of God.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 40 days of fasting; Jesus is hungry. Jesus can turn those stones into bread. He will perform much greater miracles in his ministry. Adam and Eve ate the apple of stone. It’s the same temptation here. Except, Jesus overturns their disobedience by not eating stones that if turned into bread would probably at that point taste better than a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s. We don’t live on bread alone, but on the words that come forth from the mouth of God. God satisfies our hunger in much greater ways than food for the stomach.

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,” says the Deceiver. “They’ll catch you. All those holy angels of yours – unlike me, the Devil – will support you.” The temptation here is to choose to hurt others or ourselves and bring about sadness and heartache. This is what war does, which is why we are so staunchly against it. The alternative is the spread of peace. Those are our choices. Not putting the Lord our God to the test is to be a person who seeks peace and not violence. It is to be a person of faith and trust, not challenge and anger. We find this in the word of God.

And third, “Prostrate yourself and worship me, and I will give you all this great stuff.” The temptation here, which a very appealing one, is to choose the material goods of our world and give them undue status. This gives the Devil satisfaction. This is also a real spiritual battle for a lot of us. As one modern theologian wrote, to choose the Devil’s false glory is to side with the one who in the end is no more than a creature with limits. Whereas the word of God endures forever.

Temptation precedes the choice. Being grounded in the word of God, as Jesus is, leads to the proper Christian response in the face of any temptation.

Homily Ash Wednesday March 5, 2014

At the end of each Lent, there are only two who know how well or how not so well the previous 40 days went; God and each one of us.

                There may be times when our fasting during Lent is recognized by others. Someone we know may see us and say, “Have you lost a little weight?” And you know that due to some good, healthy, fasting for 2, 3, or 4 weeks, the slimmer part of our makeup becomes noticeable to others.

                Or, there may be times when we come across as being more peaceful then we have previously been known to be. Except they’ll never say that to Vladimir Putin these days. But some who are in our company during the course of each day may ask, “Are you praying more? Are you sneaking a few more Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s and devotional prayers to the saints into your daily life? You look like a more peaceful and holy person. I think you’re praying more than normal!”

                Or, someone may recognize our generosity and sharing and caring and giving and say, “Are you being more generous than what you’ve been in the past? Is Lent making you more thoughtful and concerned about the well-being of others to the point where your wallet is lighter, and it’s losing all those cobwebs that I was used to seeing every time you opened it? You seem to me like a much more generous soul!”

                But when all is said and done at the end of 40 days and 40 nights, it really matters very little what others think during this upcoming time. Granted, it’s nice to be thought of in a positive light. And some of our acts of kindness and holiness may have a good effect on others. To love someone is an invitation for them to love someone else in turn.

                But Jesus says that the perception of others is not what makes our mountain look grand. Although our lives are meant to be pleasing to others, Lent is a particular time each year to deepen and grow in our relationship with the Lord.

                 Going one on one with God is what the 40 days of Lent present. In Jesus’ words, this is the offer to us when he says, “Your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” In other words, the acts of generosity, fasting, and prayer are first for the sight of God. Not for glory from others we may know. Lent is not about human praise. It’s about Divine praise through human acts where we lovingly affect our brothers and sisters. And also, where we fall short in that regard.

                The goal each Lent is to draw closer to Jesus, who suffered and died for us. In order to be successful, being reconciled with our Lord is a must. And reconciliation takes humility.

                Over the next 40 days of living in the desert, as we move out of this horrid winter and hopefully into a more glorious springtime, go one on one with Jesus. Search for him who searches the depths of our heart. Draw closer to the One whose Spirit resides within. And let your light shine before others knowing that he who sees what is hidden will repay you.

8th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle A March 2, 2014

It’s an awful big step for many of us to take. We live in an age and time when the word “independence” is seen as a way of life. The more independent we become, standing on our own without need of assistance from anyone, the stronger we promote and the higher we lift such ideals.

There are times when independence is even brought to the Church in front of a certain assembly and raised to the loftiest place. Such as in a eulogy at a person’s funeral Mass, or how a certain deceased person is spoken about at a wake service. “Joe or Mary (take your pick, but definitely not Joseph or Blessed Mary) was completely independent! He lived his life the way he wanted to and no one told him how to do anything! If someone tried to suggest to Joe a better and less independent way of doing things, then Joe would have punched them in the nose – except if it was a woman of course – and told them to mind their own business. He lived his life the way he wanted, and not even God could tell Joe what to do!” Sound familiar?

Believe it not, such words have been spoken at a eulogy or two, or more, as I sat in either the Presider’s chair or a concelebrant’s chair on the side and, quite honestly, they not only rubbed me the wrong way. They made my soul bristle just a bit for the person who was being commended for their independence. For their radical independence.

Now, I don’t wish to tank the idea of independence. I don’t want to throw it in the swamp and have it devoured by alligators. Independence is not a vice. But total independence from God is. In fact, it’s spiritually deadly. Any person who attempts to make something of themselves, or, walks this walk without the need and search for divine assistance, is playing a dangerous game with their eternal state of being. Not to mention they walk in pride, which more times than not, is exactly what is being bragged about at, of all places, a person’s funeral Mass, a funeral home service, or at the wake, or anywhere one has to sit and listen to how God was not part of someone’s life. And if God is not welcomed into a person’s life in this life, then what do you thing results in the afterlife?

“No one can serve two masters. They will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” We cannot serve both God, which takes humility and a profound sense of dependence, and mammon, which is the independent walk of puffed-up pride.

About a month ago I was in Boston to go to confession at a chapel in the mall at the Prudential Towers, and they have a small bookstore along with the chapel. I’m sure the bookstore helps to defray the expensive cost of setting up a spiritual shop in the midst of a big city mall. And I saw on one of the shelves a classic that I haven’t yet read, but have since started, called The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century mystic and Doctor of the Church. And for the purpose of today’s readings, I borrow one thought from St. John, while hopefully not getting away from the context of his central message. He wrote concerning those who look to deepen their relationship and trust in God, to “resign themselves to the hands of God, with a loving interior obedience to His voice, they would have in this tranquility, a most desirous sense of this interior food.” You got to love the saints who look to be fed by the Spirit of God and not by Coney Island.

One state of tranquility that St. John wrote about is most applicable to this Gospel, where Jesus basically says, “Hand it all over. Hand over your life to me. I don’t want you to have any independence from me, because the further you get away from trusting in my care for you, you will find neither peace nor tranquility, but rather confusion and the bad sort of independence.” “I want your life,” the Lord says. And the reason he wants us to give it all to him, and not go it on our own, is because the Lord can care for our needs with greater love than we can care for ourselves. To fight that, or dismiss that is to stake our claim that we are the boss of our lives. This is pretty much what’s being said when a friend or family member  speak and raise up our radical independence at a funeral gathering, or any situation of commemoration, and make it out to be the greatest of personal traits.

This Wednesday we begin the Season of Lent. Each Lent is an opportunity to leave behind in our lives any vestiges of radical independence we take on in different areas. As Jesus goes out into the desert, being pushed into the dryness by the Spirit, encountering the Devil and his temptations of false glory and false worship, we find our Lord in his desert experience totally and utterly dependent upon his Father in heaven. Not to mention the holy angels who will minister to him.

Beginning on Wednesday, when ashes are placed on our foreheads reminding us that dust is what this body will return to, we are graphically reminded that the fate of death is beyond our control, that we will die, but that our Lord beckons us to resign ourselves into his hands.

This Gospel today is more centered on being cared for in this life, where all our worries abound. But every Gospel is a call to eternal life. Allowing our independence to fly away like the birds of the air, and letting God be at the helm, is a recipe for tranquility.

And my friends, if I happen to return to dust before any of you, and someone says that Fr. Riley did things his way, I ask that you please correct them. “I Did It My Way” is a good song, but it’s not a good way of relating to Jesus.