2nd Sunday of Lent Cycle B March 1, 2015

From the lows to the highs. From the desert to the top of a holy mountain where our Lord is transfigured.

I doubt that if Peter were pushed out into the desert in last week’s Gospel along with Jesus that the lead Apostle would have repeated the words he spoke on the holy mountain, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents.” I think instead it would have been something along the lines of, “Rabbi, why did you bring us out here? Why are we out here in the desert? Let us make three tents to shield us from the heat of day and cold of night.”

Naturally, we only say “It is good that we are here” when we find ourselves in a positive, joyful setting. Such as on the mountain of transfiguration. Or, at the Super Bowl when your team wins on a last moment interception. When Jesus got arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter didn’t say “Lord, it is good that we are here.” After chopping off the ear of the servant, Peter and the rest of them couldn’t get out of there fast enough!

God knows that we are blessed. Despite a crazy winter, leaky roofs, and snow piles higher than the tallest player in the NBA, we are very blessed. God has extended to us countless possibilities where, if we were completely honest, we could say, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” It is good we are here with our family. It is good we are with our friends. It is good we have our Christian faith, for where would we be without it? It is good I have a saint that you produced Lord, whom I can imitate in ways of holiness and dedication to you Lord. If you don’t have one, then Lent is the perfect opportunity to find one. It is good to carry within us the words of St. Paul; “If God is for us, who can be against us?” For in Christ, we have all that we will ever need. Will we totally embrace that truth? Why is it so hard to do so? Why do so many good people allow themselves to be distracted by a passing world to the point where we may lose the spiritual insight that Christ is all we will ever need?

This is the reason for Lent each year. To bring ourselves back to Christ.

In the transfiguration of Jesus, we see our future. A future of light, peace, and the constant desire to want to be with the Lord. If we can recall some of the most joyful moments and events in our lives, the transfiguration is the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae. But then reality sets in. The Church beckons us to come down off the mountain and back to the desert. Even though this Gospel story takes place on a mountain, where indescribable joy becomes known, the desert is always lurking. The desert always has its fingers in our pockets. Where temptations happen, and where all that pulls us away from Jesus are in need of being dried out.

Yes, it is good for Peter, James and John to witness this miraculous transformation right before them. It would be good for our faith to witness a sick person made whole. Or to witness one person giving assistance to another in need. For every act of love, big or small, is a transfiguration. It’s good for those three chosen Apostles to be up there in the clouds and be witness to what awaits all of us.

But let’s bring those words of Peter down to Lent. Let’s take them off the mountain, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here,” and carry them to the bottom like Moses carried down the tablets of the commandments. However, unlike Moses, who appears in this scene with Jesus, unlike Moses who threw the tablets on the ground in anger because of the disobedience and revelry taking place in the camps of the Israelites, let us carry the words of Peter into our personal Lenten season. “Rabbi, it is good that we are here in the desert.”

It’s too easy to feel good on the mountain. It’s too easy to feel good when your team wins. It’s natural. It’s not so easy to feel good when in the rock bottom of the desert for 40 days. In fact, it can feel downright awful.

But particularly during this holy season, a healthy approach to the call of conversion that comes with Lent is to accept that it is good to be in the desert. It is good to clean out the system. It is good to purify our souls. It is good to fall deeper in love with our Savior. It is good to go through Ernie’s Car Wash and come out clean.

The desert is a place of transfiguration as much as the mountain. Maybe even more so. This is why the Apostles will go on to carry their crosses with joy. May we put our short time in the desert to good use. It’s not the mountain of glory and perfection. But a productive desert experience will certainly lead to the words of St. Peter, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.”

1st Sunday of Lent Cycle B February 22, 2015

So last Sunday afternoon I was up at the Fr. Connors Center. After looking up there from the rectory at the size of the icicles that were hanging off the side of the building, I thought, “Let’s have some fun knocking down whatever it is I can knock down. And hopefully not kill myself doing it.”

Just the weight of the icicles, some of them 7 or 8 feet long, puts a great amount of stress  on the edge of the roof, and my plan was to relieve some of the stress, as any priest should be doing. Part of the problem was getting at the icicles. I had to stand in about 4 feet of snow to get at them. That never stopped a former UPS driver from completing the mission. It was actually more of a challenge. So in the end, I was able to knock down a good percentage of the icicles on the side of the building that faces the Church. Then I walked over to the front of the building where the classrooms are, and did the same. Then around to the back of the building where there were lots of icicles hanging down many feet, and did the same there. When I was about halfway through in the back, something caught my peripheral vision up in the sky. I looked up, and about 50 feet in the air, right above me, was a bald eagle flying over. It took a second or two to realize that’s what I was actually seeing. But there it was; white tail, white head, black body, almost close enough to reach out and touch it. Which I’m glad I couldn’t because I would probably have one less hand today if I could have reached it.

Needless to say, it’s a large, majestic bird. I’ve seen them at Wachusett Reservoir a few times, watching the hawks chase them off, which is like watching a child chase off an adult. The eagle is so much larger.

But the 7-10 seconds I was able to watch this incredible bird fly by, I compare that sight to the sign that God gives to Noah in this week’s reading from Genesis. A sign that establishes the covenant between God and Noah, with God’s part of the covenant being “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings.” (God didn’t say anything about snowstorms!) And the sign given by God is the bow appearing in the clouds. A rainbow in the midst of clouds. A colorful weather phenomenon that takes your breath away when we see a bright one. A bald eagle flying right over your head in the middle of Worcester behind the Fr. Connors Center on a cold winter day, not seeming to be bothered by the wind gusts of 40 MPH and below zero wind chills.

Hopefully we all know and agree that God is faithful at sending signs when we need them most. Momentary visuals that cause us to say, “It’s good to be in the right place at the right time for just a quick moment.”

So as we have taken a few steps into the 40 day season of Lent on this 1st Sunday of Lent, a time of renewal and mercy, it’s good for us to be in the right place at the right time. The right place, which last Sunday afternoon was behind the Fr. Connors Center knocking down icicles, today is where Jesus takes us; to the desert. The desert is the right place and time.

With the way our winter has gone, I’m sure most of us would not mind the desert right about now! For Jesus, it really was a desert. He was driven out there by the Spirit to a place that was barren, dry, and empty. Lots of room to move around. For us, since we don’t live near any deserts, our “desert,” if you will, over the course of Lent is in the form of snow, thanks to the harsh winter we’ve been dealt. Instead of dry and arid, we have piles of wet, white snow that surround us. For many of us this has been our desert. It called a New England winter desert. The opposite of what Jesus was driven out into by the Spirit. But no less a desert for us hardy New Englanders.

These 40 days in the desert of New England challenge us each year, especially this year, to be open to a sign. This holy time challenges us to put in an extra effort, pushed by God’s grace, to turn around some of the ways that may push us in the wrong direction away from our Lord. The sign, the bow in the clouds and the bald eagle above, is the sign of repentance. Repentance is as majestic as an eagle above us, as breathtaking as a rainbow. It is a sign that God is a God of mercy and forgiveness. That God is a Creator who does not judge us harshly, but rather invites us into an eternal relationship of love.

We now live in what is called the “Post-Ark” time. Where God seems to have gotten over any justified anger directed at inhuman choices, has made a covenant with Noah that still stands, and rather than destroying the world and its inhabitants, He is revealed as mercy.

This is a personal invitation for all Christians during Lent to repent and believe in the Gospel. Come to the Sacrament of God’s grace and a new beginning. Don’t wait until the next time you’re about to fly on a plane and think, “Gee, I better go to confession in case the plane goes down.” You may not fly like an eagle for another two years, if ever! Now is the time for renewal. See the sign before us, and read it for what it is. Experience the majestic grace of God during our desert time in the snow.

God has provided for us the outward appearance with all the white stuff that beckons us to spiritual renewal. The conditions outdoors are ripe for New Englanders. The snow this year is our desert. Allow the outward appearance to move us internally, especially in the ways of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The outward conditions are a perfect New England desert. We’re in a desert we are all familiar with. Allow the outward sign, the bald eagle, the rainbow, to lead us to the internal sign of repentance. It makes for a grand sight, along with a happy Lent in preparation for the Paschal Mystery.

6th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle B February 15, 2015

As we begin the Season of Lent this coming Ash Wednesday, we’re given a set of readings that lead us perfectly into the meaning and purpose of the time that prepares us for the Easter celebrations.

Now, if we can only find the perfect set of readings that will lead us to an early springtime along with some warm temperatures, I believe that would make everyone so much happier than we presently are.

Our Confirmation class this year has a knack for asking the tough questions. And one of the tough questions directed at yours truly not so long ago was the question that went something like this; “Why in the Old Testament does it seem like God likes to kill people? Why is he doing his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation from the movie The Terminator?

Truth be told, we never had a class on this kind of stuff in seminary. We skipped over the “Why does God seem to kill a lot in the Old  Testament” class altogether. But my answer with such questions that try to make God too human like us, is to see questions like this one within the entire message and context of Scripture. There is not one type of God for the Old Testament, and much different, kinder God in the New Testament. God is God, and God, as John teaches us in his 1st Letter, is love. After all, isn’t God the One who gets killed for our sake in the New Testament?

But it’s a fair and understandable question. And it’s always good to encourage such questions from the minds of teenagers. On the surface, it appears that God becomes a kinder and gentler God in the New Testament when placed aside, in some stories, the same God in the Old Testament. If we had a choice, I’m sure most of us, not all of us, would choose to worship the “personality” of God in the New Testament rather than the seemingly violent and stern God in the Old Testament. Either way, God is God; God is unchanging and consistent; God is love.

But the apparent conflicting personality of God comes to the fore in this week’s readings also.

In the Book of Leviticus, if a person appears to have leprosy, then the command that the Lord gives to Moses and Aaron is to declare that person unclean. And then to emphasis and extend the embarrassment of the disease of leprosy, not only does the priest declare the person unclean, but the individuals themselves are to yell out the words, “Unclean, unclean” so that others can avoid them. It would be like a person walking around today yelling “Cancer, cancer” so that others would avoid them. In our day and time, that would not make many friends for God. Such a practice would be condemned and immediately revealed for what it is; unsympathetic, unloving, uncaring, profound embarrassment for the person, un-Christian.

But at the time of Moses and Aaron, this is the command that comes from above.

Now, if you think I’m gonna give you a reasonable answer for this command that will placate your justified anger, your heart and your loving soul as to why God would command such a thing, then that’s not gonna happen. I will say that Leviticus cannot be read on its own, standing in solitude away from today’s Gospel of Mark. Why God would put forth a command that demands a person reveal their disease, their uncleanness to all around them, and then separate that individual from the rest of the community, you can put that on your list of questions when you come before God face to face.

But I will say that Scripture has a progression to it. And the progress of the Bible leads to the fullness of time in the Person of Jesus Christ. Where the yelling out of “Unclean, unclean,” along with the heart-wrenching separation from family and friends, along with separation from the entire community, is turned on its head. This is what Jesus does for us. This is what his presence did for them. From profound embarrassment of a disease to healing and being reunited with those we love.

And leprosy, by the way, is a microcosm of what Jesus will do with death itself. What he has done with death itself. Healing it into life eternal, along with being reunited in the heavenly community.

So, as we prepare for the start of another Lenten journey in the desert with the Lord, the next few days present a wonderful opportunity to perform an examination of conscience. Look into the mirror of our souls, and challenge ourselves as to where it is we can move in our lives from yelling out “Unclean, unclean,” to approaching the Lord, asking for healing, and hearing the comforting words of Jesus, “I do will it. Be made clean.”

Is there any Old Testament in our lives that causes us embarrassment and pulls us away from the community of the faithful? For all sin does that. This is why there’s no such thing as private sin as our world likes to put forth. That’s a human invention that belongs to the world of heresy. The term “private sin” is heresy. All sin tears apart the community of the faithful.

Is there any Old Testament in our lives that we need to bring forward to the Person of Jesus Christ? The time is always ripe to do so. But the Season of Lent is a time most especially geared toward bringing all forms of leprosy into the presence of our Lord. It’s a season of reflection. A season of healing. A season of forgiveness. A season of God’s mercy to touch our lives and bring us to a more unified place in our community. A season to be made whole.

I pray that none of us chooses to live in the Old Testament alone. It makes no sense for any Christian to do so. Jesus has come to heal us in the field hospital. May we all take advantage of his offer.

5th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle B February 8, 2015

The New Evangelization is a challenge for all practicing Catholics to bring our faith in Jesus Christ to those whose faith is presently dormant.

I must confess that as a priest – combined with being a Riley – that I get frustrated when I think about the number of folks who identify themselves as Catholic, but while considering themselves Catholic, they presently choose to not practice their faith in Jesus Christ, in some cases where years go by and they haven’t heard a Gospel or received the Eucharist. In my prayer life at times I allow the thoughts of some of the families whose children I’ve baptized, and how since the baptism they no longer have any use for the services rendered at 353 Grove Street and what happens here each Sunday. Then I catch myself and pray that as a family, as responsible parents, they will somehow, someway, through the promptings of the Spirit, awaken their faith in Jesus Christ that is presently slipping away as the days and years go by. As a priest, there are times I get frustrated by their intentional absence.

That’s my confession for this Sunday. Why this confession? As always, it has to do with the readings, especially the Gospel for the week. It’s a Gospel that leads us to the New Evangelization, and how we, those who humbly choose to be present for the Word and Eucharist, must joyfully place on our shoulders a certain responsibility centered in our Baptism to help others who may or may not be baptized to come back to the Lord of Lords and the Savior of the world. And how it begins and ends right here in this setting.

In Mark’s Gospel, what we have here is a bookend Gospel for the New Evangelization. Each bookend is the synagogue. Jesus leaves the synagogue, and he ends up in the synagogues of the villages he enters. From synagogue to synagogue. From Church to Church. From Church to the villages. From Church to the entire world. And we have our role.

We take a look at what happens when Jesus leaves one synagogue from last week’s Gospel where we heard the words “Quiet! Come out of him!” to the future synagogues he will visit.

First, Jesus goes to the house of Simon and Andrew, whose father is probably still out fishing wondering what happened to his two sons who left the boat suddenly. Into the house they go with brothers James and John, where they find Peter’s mother-in-law with fever. Within this small, intimate group of people, Jesus reveals one of the most loving reasons why he has come into the world through the tabernacle of the Virgin Mary.

Granted, a fever is not cancer; it is not full blown dementia; but it is a sickness nonetheless that attacks the body created by the hand of God. Jesus cures the fever, a similar result when the unclean spirit was called out of the poor guy in the synagogue in last week’s Gospel. They both were made whole. Jesus comes to heal us. In body, mind, spirit and soul. He is the Divine Physician. When human doctors reach their human limits of curing and healing, that’s where Jesus continues on.

This is a message to bring forth to the dormant Catholics in this age of the New Evangelization. That Jesus heals us, one on one. Which is why we are in need of a personal relationship with the Lord. Absent that relationship with Christ, a relationship that begins and ends in the synagogue, then the odds greatly lessen of experiencing the healing presence of Jesus Christ. Yes, God is thankfully not restricted to the Church, for he owns the entire world and all that it holds. But the healing of body, mind, spirit and soul is predominantly found in and through the Church of Jesus Christ as our Lord intended from the beginning. Those who are not present will most likely never come to know that Divine healing.

As Paul writes today, the Gospel is free of charge. The Good News of healing has no cost to it. But it does have a location. It has an address. And we need to help some people – including family – find that address before it’s too late.

Second, from a small group of believers inside the house to an overflowing group of seekers outside the house. They heard the Gospel was free of charge, even though they would have paid large amounts of money if they had it, like we do today, to be healed of various illnesses and disease. Jesus’ healthcare system is infinitely better and more effective than Obamacare, or any other healthcare system man wills to create. It really is free. And the price really won’t go up. And you can really keep your doctor.

What we have here, in the words of Pope Francis, is a field hospital. It’s a fitting image of the Church. I have a dream. I have a dream that one day, this field hospital, and all the Christian field hospitals throughout the world, will one day once again look like the scene outside the house of Simon and Andrew where the crowds are swarming and overflowing, searching and begging for the healing touch of Jesus Christ. Not searching for Fr. Riley or any other weak priest. But Jesus Christ. As a priest, I have that dream, that hope, that souls will return to their Savior. As baptized Catholics, you have to have that dream, that same hope. To be hungry for the salvation of others. It’s the New Evangelization our recent Popes have invited us to be active in.

And third, when finished with the first of many crowds he will encounter in his three years of ministry, Jesus sleeps, rises early, and goes to pray in solitude. I love this image of Jesus because it reveals the side of him that is fully human. His dependency upon and communication with his Father.

In the New Evangelization, there is the need to awaken the prayer lives of many good people. From ourselves to those we know and love, to all our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Be in communion with our Creator, the One towards Whom we presently journey. Recognize the importance of praying for others who need prayer more than ourselves, as much as we need it. Pray for world leaders that they will seek peace and not war. And teach others how to pray, especially the children. Jesus is the example of perfection and excellence in prayer.

And then he continues on. From prayer to the villages and synagogues to preach and drive out demons who know who he is; the Holy One of God. This is where it begins, and this is where it ends. From Baptism to Funeral Mass in the Field Hospital, free of charge. This is the New Evangelization. May God grant us the fortitude and courage to bring it to others.

4th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle B February 1, 2015

The unclean spirits continue to mess around with our world and its people, acting like they own the world and its people. And God knows there are many who welcome unclean spirits into their midst and their daily actions.

I’m certain that all of us here are not searching for unclean spirits like we would search for a good piece of fruit in the fruit section of your local grocery store. We want nothing to do with the unclean spirits in our world. Yet, unless we all move into the monastery up at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, and I don’t think they have enough room, then we are forced, like Jesus, to confront and address the unclean spirits that surround us in our present day culture. They are numerous, for this is their opportunity, and they are not going away anytime soon. Unless, of course, Jesus returns for a second visit soon and destroys all the unclean spirits one final time.

In the Gospel story today there is a battle, a confrontation if you will. And the battle is between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. What the heck is a Seahawk anyway? I have no idea! Actually, the battle is between Jesus and the entire world of unclean spirits who obviously have enough power to overtake a person’s internal well-being. Strong enough for the evil ugly team to overtake the good team that God has created in each of us.

Now, this guy in the Gospel who is controlled by the evil spirit whose source is the Devil, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. We’re going to assume that he did not do anything in his life – such as killing, stealing, cheating on his taxes, go to a palm reader or do the tarot cards – we’re going to assume he did nothing of the such that could cause the door of his heart to open wide and invite in the unclean spirit that now possesses him. We’re going to assume he is not a Seattle Seahawk, playing for the bad team. We’ll assume he was living a good life, kept the commandments, loved God with all his being, but somehow, in the mystery of bad events happening to good people like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, he still was overtaken by this Seattle Seahawk, this unclean spirit.

In the Super Bowl of life, I’m sure all of us know that this can happen. Where good people we know and love, even Church-goers, have events happen in their lives that are undeserved and do not coincide with the good person they are. With being a Patriot. Even Deflategate can happen to good, honest, hard-working, upright, and charitable people. People who never try to cheat others in life. After all, this man in the Gospel cannot be that bad. He’s in the synagogue! He’s in the holy place! How bad can he be?

So Jesus walks in on the Sabbath. He walks onto the field. He walks, to use a phrase coined by Pope Francis about the Church, into the field hospital. Welcome to the field hospital! As soon as Jesus walks onto the field of the synagogue, the serious game begins. The New England Patriots, our beloved New England Patriots, represented by Jesus, versus the Seattle Seahawks, represented by an unclean spirit possessing the body of a good man who had something bad happen to him. The name Richard Sherman stands out for some reason.

To heck with the coin flip. Let’s just get right to the “game.”

The 1st quarter is such where the enemy, the bad team, is already afraid. This is good. It’s good when unclean spirits become fearful. It’s good when gangs bent on destruction and ruining peoples’ lives fear the good work of our police. It’s good when those who staunchly, adamantly, forcefully, and angrily defend abortion and the killing off of the elderly become fearful of those who counter that life – all life – is God’s gift. Their anger and fear tells us we are making progress toward a genuine good.

So in the 1st quarter, the unclean spirit team gets afraid. Which means we have the lead.

In the 2nd quarter, the unclean spirit goes on the offensive, and becomes even more offensive. Because it is losing early on in this encounter, it challenges the good team by going right for the jugular. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us here in Arizona? I know who you are- the Holy One of God!”

The unclean spirit early on sees that it will be defeated by the Holy One who walked into the stadium. The One who coaches the good team of the faithful. He’s our Coach. And his name is not Bill Belichick. It’s Jesus Christ. He has a game plan for all of us. A game plan that ends in victory for all who suffer from the present effects of unclean spirits. They are nervous. Very nervous of this Coach. And they should be!

In the 3rd quarter of the Super Bowl of Life, our Coach shows just how brilliant and powerful he is. He takes control of this game against the enemy of unclean spirits. He says “Quiet! Come out of him! Let the air out of that football!”  Oops. In the 3rd quarter of our lives, the unclean spirit known as a Seahawk convulses the good man it possesses, and leaves the stadium early. Jesus is in control. Not us. Jesus. When we place our lives in his hands , there’s no way we can lose this game.

The 4th quarter reveals just how much of a rout this game really is. The 4th quarter is like the last moments of our lives, I pray. When all unclean spirits are nowhere to be found. Where they’ve all left our field. Where angels are present. Where peace is known. Where the joy of victory is right around the corner when we see God face to face. Where the truth is that Jesus commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him. It’s good to have a Coach who is all-powerful and totally committed to our victory. To our eternal victory.

So be ready to hoist the trophy. We are the victors, thanks to a Cross and Resurrection. Thanks also to a voice that commands the unclean spirits in our present time, for we are not alone. The victory is ours. And I hope it also belongs to our beloved New England Patriots.