Our Mass schedule for Ash Wednesday, February 26 will consist of three Masses: 7:00 a.m. 9:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m.
Jesus is recentering all the ways in which the Israelites got away from the commandments of the Lord. It’s a recentering whose purpose is return us to what God created in our first parents in the Garden. From that point in Eden, human beings have had what I would refer to as a Tasmanian Devil side to our humanity. If you need proof, just drive by the Worcester Courthouse in lovely downtown Worcester Monday-Friday and see how busy it is each day.
When our first parents ran amok in the garden, reaching their hand toward a piece of fruit on a tree they were instructed to avoid, we’ve been reaching our hands toward the same fruit tree. Another proof is the continuous war consuming parts of the earth. And in our nation, the widespread violence found in cities and towns, not to mention the continuous horror of aborting the lives of children in their mother’s wombs, having the gall to call it a legal act.
With the countless acts of love that pervade the world each day, where millions of people commit actions of love in the name of our Lord and Savior, or those from other faiths, or even no professed faith, we still have the human hand reaching for the forbidden fruit. The human hand reaching for the wrong tree and the wayward piece of fruit that smells and tastes wonderful, but sits like a dirt pit in our stomachs. This will not cease until Jesus returns and fully sets up the kingdom. A Kingdom where every hand that reaches for anything will be a reach for the purest love and peace. What our first parents were supposed to do.
We hear a Gospel proclaimed this Sunday, and it’s easy to think, “I can’t do all that.” We understand the not killing another person part of God’s teaching. That should be easy for us to accept and do. But it’s so much harder to not get angry at my brothers and sisters, causing us to be liable to judgment. The same goes for adultery and lusting, with marriage and divorce, and with a false oath and not swearing by heaven, instead allowing our yes to mean yes, and no mean no. Which simply means, telling the truth.
In our first reading from Sirach, we heard the words, “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses will be given him.” That’s an Old Testament verse that clearly tells us that God respects our freedom. Our freedom to create war or bring forth peace, to stay in anger, or offer mercy and forgiveness. To reach for the good fruit or the bad fruit.
And what Jesus teaches in this Gospel is a recentering. It’s only in Christ that we’re now given the power and grace of the Spirit to cut the forbidden tree from our lives. To tear up its roots and toss it into the everlasting flames, rather than our bodies and souls into the everlasting flames. The recentering that Christ teaches to his disciples is to reach for the heart of God rather than a tree that destroys our humanity. Many Catholics accept bad trees into our lives, overpowered by the culture we live in, when Jesus gives the Spirit to accept the good trees that reflect life and true love.
Christ addresses all the human excuses we come up with for anger, adultery, divorce, and lying since the time of our first parents. Excuses like, “The serpent tricked me,” in the words of Eve. That’s an excuse, not a reason. “Of course he tricked you Eve. That’s who he is and what he does. He’s a magician, for the dark side. He turns a beautiful soul into a dark night of the soul by way of tempting you into one ungodly reach.”
Or how about this one; even in the Church we have what is called a just-war theory. That war is just under certain conditions. The obvious example is the Second World War, being forced to defend against the evils existing in other governments. But do you know how Jesus would phrase the idea of a just war theory in this Gospel? He would recenter it to say, “Whoever puts forth the just-war theory, I tell you, turn your swords into plowshares, and your spears into pruning hooks.” Seek peace without violence. Both personally and internationally. Violence is a reach for the bad fruit. Peace is the human reach for God’s fruit.
Since the first bad reach by our first parents in the first Garden created for ultimate joy, we’ve made excuses to turn the solid truth of God’s love for us into something less than what he created us for. Christ recenters that love, making it whole and pure again.
Ironically, Jesus carries this Divine love for us, the love we’ve watered down from the start of time, and recenters it through the violence of a Cross. A tree he reached for that overcomes the first bad reach of Adam & Eve, and all the bad reaches we make to this day.
In a very personal way, the teachings of our Lord in this Gospel call us to that higher place of Christian living. His teachings teach us that Christians are not to reach for what the world reaches, with all sorts of excuses for this sin and that sin, even saying that this sin is no longer a sin.
These teachings of Christ teach us that we’re offered the grace and power to not settle for a spiritual condition that the world settles for. That’s where the virtue of courage enters. Instead, we have the capacity to reach for the tree that pleases our Creator. Jesus recenters us to our full capacity in God, giving us the tools needed to reach for the tree of life. Because that’s the tree for which we are created.
For anyone who enjoys watching movies, and have done so for years, you could likely name a list of character actors and actresses. Some you know by face, many by name. But knowing they seem to pop up in lots of movies in a secondary role. Roles that enhance the main actor or actress, allowing the lead role to shine in ways they are meant to shine.
John the Baptist would be the number one “character actor” in the story of Christianity. His appearance is somewhat brief, but most important. Without John being in this movie about Jesus’ life, we would be absent such lines as “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And, my favorite, “I must decrease, he must increase.” Any priest, religious or lay person who is worth their salt, and whose ministry is truly centered in Christ, will keep those words of John at the heart of our ministry. For we can accomplish nothing good without Him increasing.
Today, in the celebration of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, this annual Feast Day every February 2, 40 days after Christmas, we’re blessed with two more character actors who enhance the role of the lead actor, Jesus Christ. They are Simeon and Anna. One is a Prophet, the other a Prophetess. One goes home every day. The other is homebound in the Temple, the place she never leaves.
Simeon, the character actor, chosen by God to continue the revelation of the newborn child that began with the announcement of the angels informing the shepherds of his birth, speaks these unforgettable words for us who seek to live a Christian life in a world that’s losing its religion. Simeon’s faith, his courage, and his trust in the Lord stand tall in his words, “My eyes have seen your salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Therefore, “you may let your servant go in peace.” “I have seen and held the Messiah; now I can die from this world of violence and sin. And do so in peace.”
Simeon’s words reveal that our lives are in the process of being saved for something beyond our imagining. In seeing the Christ child at his presentation in the holiest structure in Israel, Simeon repeats, in essence, the words of John the Baptist; “I must decrease, he must increase.” “I’m decreasing from my inability to save myself, and toss that foolish thought out the Temple window, and let this child increase so that my God can save me from my many weaknesses.”
That’s a lifelong message for us. The way to die in peace, in the peace that brings us to salvation, is to let the Lord increase in us. And I’ve seen many beautiful examples of this from people in this Parish. In saying he can now die in peace, for his eyes have seen salvation in Person, Simeon the Prophet repeats the words of John the Baptist on decreasing and increasing. Simeon decreases to his grave. Jesus increases to his Cross and empty grave.
And in a world where faith and religion are under assault by so many secular forces led by the Devil himself, the time has arrived that we be proud as a peacock to stand up and proclaim that our eyes have seen his salvation. Every time we receive the Eucharist, we see his salvation. When we receive the Eucharist, we’re looking into the eyes of God, literally. Simeon’s eyes feasted on the First Eucharist; he knew what he saw and he loved what he saw. May we have the faith to do likewise. Jesus’ presentation in the Temple is the presentation of the First Eucharist in the Temple.
And then there’s Anna, the character actress who’s the homebound Prophetess. Never leaving the Temple. Praying and fasting all the time. Every day. Never closing on Sunday’s like Chick-Fil-A.
Anna’s role in the prolonged Christmas setting from the manger to the Temple, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, is, like Simeon, unique. They all have their unique roles with God, just like we do. Anna teaches us, among other things, that the Temple is where we make direct contact with our Savior. Like a person homebound, or in a nursing home, praying the Rosary, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, praying the Mass on television, praying for their families, friends, and neighbors, praying for peace in this violent world, praying for the demise of cable news (sorry, that’s me!).
And like these homebound folks waiting for Meals on Wheels to stop by with some nourishment, eating in the most irregular ways, consuming half a meal, feeding the rest to the dog, fasting because of their difficult physical condition at this stage in life. This is Anna. Praying and fasting nonstop.
Her praying and fasting are central to her secondary role in this late Christmas movie. It’s like she’s Home Alone. But, what’s most central, and what she has in common with Simeon, is this patient, intense desire to feast her eyes on her salvation. In the Temple. In the Church. (Pause)
In a world where religion is just another thing, I pray with the intensity of Anna that you don’t lose or minimize this desire to feast our eyes on our salvation. And that we don’t water down the true presence in the Eucharist. When Anna looked on Christ, her eyes feasted on what we are so blessed to receive. She was not casual with what her eyes feasted on.
Character actors they are. They see the Christ child and are ready to die. That’s the faith of Abraham, which, I pray, is our faith too.