Friday, March 10, 2017


March 11th, 2017: Matthew 5: 43-48.

          Nowhere in the Bible do we find the command which Jesus cites in the gospel reading today: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Jesus is citing not Scripture but general public opinion when he refers to a command to hate your enemy. Speaking not as an interpreter of the law, but as the Lawgiver (and we saw yesterday that he does this repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus states what we could call the new law of God: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” The book Leviticus has something similar, but limits it to Jews: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen.” (19:18) Jesus, in effect, lifts the limitation to Jews and makes the command universal. How could he do this? Because this is how Jesus himself lived.

          The 12th century English Benedictine, Abbot Aelred writes about this in a work called The Mirror of Love. Here is what he says.

“He who is more fair than all men offered his fair face to be spat upon by sinful men ; he allowed those eyes that rule the universe to be blindfolded by wicked men; he bared his back to the scourges; he submitted that head which strikes terror in principalities and powers to the sharpness of the thorns; he gave himself up to be mocked and reviled, and at the end endured the cross, the nails, the lance, the gall, the vinegar, remaining always gentle, meek, and full of peace.”

Jesus also prayed for his tormentors, Aelred reminds us, saying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And so, Aelred writes, “If someone wishes to love himself … he must enlarge the horizon of his love to contemplate the loving gentleness of the humanity of the Lord. … If he wishes to prevent this fire of divine love from growing cold because of injuries received, let him keep the eyes of his soul always fixed on the serene patience of his beloved Lord and Savior [Jesus Christ].” (Breviary Office of Readings, Friday of the first week of Lent.)


March 11th, 2017: Matthew 5:43-48.

In his book Mere Christianity, the British Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis, includes a reflection on the gospel reading we have just heard which can hardly be bettered. Here it is:

          “On the one hand, God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in your failures. Each time you fall He will pick you up again. And he knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection. On the other hand you must realize from the outset towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal. That is what you are in for. And it is very important to realize that. If we do not, then we are very likely to start pulling back and resisting Him after a certain point . . .  

          "But this is a fatal mistake. Of course we never wanted, and never asked, to be made into the sort of creatures He is going to make us into. But the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when he made us.”


Thursday, March 9, 2017

"BUT I SAY TO YOU . . . "

March 10th, 2017: Matthew 5:20-26.

          Four times in this first week of Lent the gospel reading is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. On Tuesday Jesus told us how to pray by giving us the Our Father. Yesterday’s gospel continued this teaching with Jesus encouraging faithfulness to prayer by telling us to ask, to seek, and to knock. Today and tomorrow Jesus speaks about the central concern of Jewish religion: God’s law. There is an important phrase that we heard twice today and that shall hear again tomorrow: “But I say to you …” With those words Jesus distances himself from normal Jewish practice.  

          Other teachers of God’s law cite a Commandment and then discuss its interpretation, citing the interpretations of other famous rabbis. The Commandment to “Keep holy the Sabbath day,” for instance, raises the whole question of what kinds of work are forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus speaks not, like other rabbis, as an interpreter of the law. He speaks as himself the Lawgiver.

“You have heard, ‘You shall kill.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. Or – “You have heard, “Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you whoever looks lustfully on a woman, has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts.” Or again – “You have heard, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Or finally – “You have heard, ‘Do not take a false oath.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all.”

Do you see what Jesus is doing? Two things. First, by speaking not as an interpreter of God’s law, but as the Lawgiver, Jesus is manifesting his divinity. He does the same when he forgives sins. Second, he is plugging the loopholes in the law developed by legalistic interpreters – “the scribes and Pharisees” mentioned at the beginning of today’s gospel. If the Commandments really mean what Jesus says they mean, then they are beyond our power to fulfill completely.  

Many people think of the Commandments as questions in a moral examination in which we must first get a passing grade before God will love and bless us in this life, and admit us to heaven in the next. That’s wrong! God loves us already, just as good parents love their children from birth, or even from conception, without waiting to see how they’ll turn out. The Commandments tell us how to respond gratefully to the free gift of God’s love. And if a long life has taught me anything, it is this: grateful people are happy people – no exceptions!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


 March 12th, 2017: Second Sunday in Lent, Year A:  Matthew 17:1-9.


          Few incidents in the gospels are so difficult to speak about as the one we celebrate today. Like Jesus’ resurrection, of which we have no description at all (the gospels describe only the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Lord), the Transfiguration is a mystery. Not that we can understand nothing about it; but that we can understand will always be less than the whole. The Transfiguration yields its secret only if we respect its mystery. The gospel writers do so by describing it in symbols.  There are least six:

C        the high mountain;

C        the appearance of Moses and Elijah;

C        the three booths which Peter wants to erect;

C        the cloud;

C        the heavenly voice; 

C        the dazzling whiteness of Jesus’ clothes and face.

          In the thought-world of the Bible, mountains symbolize remoteness from ordinary worldly affairs, and nearness to God. Moses received the Ten Command-ments atop Mt. Sinai. Elijah staged his dramatic contest with the false prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. In Mark’s gospel Jesus ascended a mountain to call his twelve apostles (Mk 3:13). And in John he withdraws to a mountain to pray following the feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness (Jn 6:15).

          Moses and Elijah, the two greatest heroes of Jesus’ people, symbolize the special relationship of the people to God. Together they point to Jesus as the one who fulfils all his people’s hopes and expectations. Jesus is greater than either of them, greater than Moses and Elijah together.

          The three booths or tents which Peter wants to erect are reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Booths, a joyful autumn celebration that recalled the time when God’s people lived in tents during their desert wanderings. The feast of Booths also looks forward to the joy of the end-time when God will visit his people and complete the blessings promised in the covenant he made with Moses in the wilderness.

          The cloud is the most striking symbol of all. Repeatedly in Holy Scripture the cloud symbolizes God’s presence. During their desert wanderings God’s people were led onward by a cloud. Mt. Sinai was enveloped in a cloud when Moses received the Ten Commandments. A cloud received the risen Lord at his Ascension.  

          The voice from the cloud repeats the words heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.” Here, however, the words are addressed not to Jesus, but to his disciples. The concluding words, “Listen to him,”  remind us of Moses’ prophecy: “The Lord your God will raise up a prophet from among you like myself, and you shall listen to him” (Dt. 18:15).

          The Transfiguration is a mystery because, though it happened in time, it opens a window onto a world beyond time. For a brief moment, there on the mountain, the veil between time and eternity, between earth and heaven, is lifted.  Jesus’ friends catch a glimpse of the invisible, spiritual world of God. The concluding words, “Listen to him,” express the significance of the mystery for Jesus’ friends: not only for the three on the mountain with him, but for all the friends of Jesus, ourselves included. 

          We, the friends and followers of Jesus Christ, are the company of those who listen to his words. Jesus does not grant to us, any more than he granted to Peter, James, and John, the continuous vision of his glory. We live not on the mountaintop of great spiritual experiences, but in the valley of life’s ordinary duties. There we do not look for dazzling visions from beyond. Instead we listen for Jesus’ voice.

          Jesus speaks to us in many ways: in the Scriptures, in the teaching of his Church, through the circumstances of daily life. He speaks to us in the promptings of conscience, and in the needs of those whom we encounter along life’s way. In the world to come, it will be different. There we shall see the Lord. In this world, however, we live by faith, and not by sight. 

          For a moment, before the descent of the cloud, the three friends of Jesus saw their friend and Master transformed beyond anything they could have imagined. It was as if his humanity had no limits. The Transfiguration is a manifestation of Christ’s divinity, from a moment breaking through the veil of his humanity. But it is more. It also shows us our potential to become divine.

          If the goal of the spiritual life is to grow in likeness to God, then the more we progress, the more we participate in God’s own life. When our journey reaches its end, and we have been stripped of all the obstacles to holiness, God’s life will become our life, and we shall be one with God. Then our earthly pilgrimage beneath an often overcast sky will yield to the uninterrupted vision of God’s glory.  We too shall shine with an unearthly light — the light that shines from the face of Jesus Christ: our Master, our Savior, our Redeemer — but also our passionate lover, and our best friend. We shall have reached our true homeland, the heavenly city which (as we read in Revelation) needs neither sun nor moon, “for the glory of God gives it light, and the lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21.23).

          Now, however, is the time not for seeing, but for hearing. We listen for the Father’s voice and heed his command, as he speaks to us the words first uttered to those three friends of Jesus on the mountain two thousand years ago:

          “This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests. Listen to him.”


March 9th, 2017: Matthew 7:7-12.

          I received an e-mail recently about a man who had complained that God hadn’t answered his months-long prayer that he would win the lottery. God answered the man’s complaint by telling him: ‘Give me some help, will you? Buy a ticket.’ Jesus tells us something similar when he says: “Ask and you will receive.” The very act of asking is an expression of faith.

But why ask when God knows our needs already? Doing so reminds us of our dependence on God. When things are going well for us and the sun is shining, it is easy to forget that we still need the Lord. Asking also strengthens our desire, much as regular exercise strengthens the heart, muscles, and lungs. St. Gregory the Great, who was pope from 590 to 604, wrote: “All holy desires grow by delay. And if they do not grow, they were never holy desires.”

Jesus also says, “Seek and you will find.” The Trappist monk who helped me over the threshold of the Catholic Church over a half-century ago wrote: “To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances; to seek him the greatest human adventure; to find him the highest human achievement.”

Jesus tells us finally: “Knock and the door will be opened to you.” If we know that a house, or a room, is empty, we don’t bother to knock. So knocking too is an expression of faith – that there is someone there to open the door.

To strengthen our faith, Jesus asks two rhetorical questions: “Would you give your son a stone if he asked for bread, or a snake if he asked for fish?” Our wonderful Pope Francis asks simple, challenging questions like that. If his hearers don’t answer the question, he will repeat it until they do. You are certainly not saints, Jesus says; yet you know how to give gifts to your children. Do you suppose, then, that your heavenly Father will be less generous than you are? That is a “how much more” question, and Jesus uses it often. “How much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”

Today’s gospel reading closes with the Golden Rule: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.” That is not unique to Christianity. We find it, in some form, in all the great religions of the world. Treat others, the rule says, as you would like them to treat you.  

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


March 8th, 2017: Jonah 3:1-10; Luke 11:29-32.

          “The word of God came to Jonah a second time,” our first reading began. The first time God had spoken to Jonah, he told him to go the Gentile city Nineveh to preach repentance to its citizens, Jonah not only refused. He took a ship going in the opposite direction from Nineveh. When the ship got into a terrible storm, the crew thought God had sent the storm to punish Jonah for his disobedience. So they threw poor Jonah overboard. He was saved in the belly of what the Bible calls “a great fish” – who after three days vomited Jonah up on land. It was at this point that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time – and with the same command. Jonah had refused God’s command the first time, because he didn’t want Gentile outsiders to experience the love and mercy of Israel’s God. That was for Jews only, Jonah thought.

Now Jonah, though still resentful, goes to Nineveh, preaches repentance, and the people immediately obey! Whereupon Jonah is angry. ‘That’s just what I told you would happen,’ he complains to God. ‘That’s why I didn’t want to come here. Now I’d rather die.’ Jonah is the quintessential sorehead.

In the gospel Jesus reminds his fellow Jews of this old story about the sorehead Jonah, and tells those who have been demanding a “sign” before they will believe in him – some miracle so dramatic they it will compel belief – that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah. At his preaching the Gentile Ninevites, who didn’t have the Ten Commandments and all the other blessings that God had showered on Jonah’s people down through the ages, believed at once, without demanding a sign, repented, and received God’s merciful love.

Lent challenges us, as Jesus challenged his own people. Is our belief in him strong enough to make us willing to change in areas where he wants us to change? I’ll be on retreat in a couple of weeks. In preparation I have been praying that during the retreat that the Lord will show me the areas in my life which need to change, so that I may be more pleasing to Him, and more useful to the people whom the Church ordained me to serve.

Perhaps you’d like to offer a similar prayer for yourself.

Monday, March 6, 2017


March 7th, 2017: Mattew 6:7-15.

          I’ve told you that Lent is a kind of spiritual spring training. It focuses on three essential practices: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Today’s gospel gives us Jesus’ teaching about prayer. “Do not babble like the pagans,” Jesus says. The pagan gods of Jesus’ day were manipulative. They were in competition with one another. To get on their good side, the worshipper had to say the right words, and repeat them as often as possible. Forget all that, Jesus says. The God to whom you must pray is your loving heavenly Father. He “knows what you need before you ask him.”  

          Jesus then lays out the pattern for our prayer. By praying our Father, and not my Father, we acknowledge that we approach God as members of his people. We don’t have a private me-and-God religion. Three petitions follow, having to with God himself. “Hallowed be thy name” is the first. It means “may your name be kept holy.” God’s name is kept holy when we speak it with faith, not as a magical word to get his attention, or to con him into giving us what we want.

          “Thy kingdom come” is a petition for the coming of God’s rule over us and the whole world. We are unhappy, and frustrated, because the world, and too often our own personal lives as well, do not reflect God’s rule. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” extends this petition. In heaven God’s will is done immediately, and gladly.

          Four petitions follow which have to do with our brothers and sisters in the family of God: for bread, forgiveness, deliverance from temptation, and victory over evil.

          Here is a Lenten suggestion. Take at least five or ten minutes to pray the Our Father slowly, phrase by phrase, even word by word. Start with the opening word: “Our.” Reflect on the implications of that word. Pray that you may be mindful not only of your own needs, but also of the needs of your brothers and sisters. That could be your whole prayer for five or ten minutes. Move on in your next prayer time to the word “Father,” and on the day following pray over the words “Hallowed be thy name.” Practiced faithfully, and with patience, this way of praying the one prayer Jesus has given us will bring you close to Him who tells us in John’s gospel: “All this I tell you that my joy may be yours, and your joy may be complete” (15:11).

Sunday, March 5, 2017


March 6th, 2017: Matthew 25:31-46.

          Often overlooked in this familiar parable is the surprise of both groups at the judgment pronounced upon them. Those whom the king commends are not aware of having done anything special. Those he condemns are indignant. As far as they know, they have observed all the rules. And now they find themselves rejected for things they never knew were in the rule book.

          What a lesson there is there for us Catholics. The parable is a warning. It tells us that everything we do in life, as well as the things we leave undone, have eternal consequences. The choices we make each day and hour are determining, even now, our final destiny. Judgment is not a matter of adding up the pluses and minuses in some heavenly account book. Judgment is simply God’s confirmation of the choices, or judgment, we have already made by the way we chose to live our lives. That is the warning.

          The parable’s encouragement is the assurance that we need not fear judgment, as long as  we are trying to help people in need whom we encounter along life’s way. It is not that our good deeds gain us a row of gold stars in some heavenly account book which help balance out the black marks. Jesus is saying something quite different. He is telling us that the person who is genuinely trying to serve others’ needs will not fail to attain moral goodness in other areas as well. And such failures as remain (and we all have them) will be forgiven by God.  

          Do you come here discouraged? Your life is a tangle of loose ends, failed resolutions, and broken promises? You pray poorly, you lose your temper, you’re impatient, you are unable to overcome some bad habit or, as they say, to “get it all together.” Take heart! If that, or any of that, is your story, then the parable of the sheep and the goats is Jesus’ encouragement for you. It is his way of telling you that your failures are not ultimately important, if you are looking for opportunities of helping others, and using those opportunities when you find them. Anything good you try to do for others, no matter how insignificant, is of infinite worth. It is done for Jesus Christ. One day you will discover, to your astonishment, that you have been serving Him all along, without ever realizing it. You will hear the voice of your shepherd-king saying to you tenderly, and very personally: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

          That, friends, is the gospel. That is the good news.