Third Sunday of Lent

Scripture Readings:  Ex 17:3-7; Rom. 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn. 4:5-42.

From a surface guess at looking at those in this church today, I would bet that many of us are “cradle Catholics.”  We were baptized as infants and raised in a supportive Catholic culture in which religious and family events intertwined.  But at some time in our lives, we found ourselves making a choice to really be Catholics or else to drift away into nominal Catholicism or another breed of religion altogether. The Rite of the Christian Initiation of Adults makes more explicit and apparent the steps implicitly involved in our coming to believe. 

Today is the beginning of the three scrutinies and exorcisms which lead up to the rite of baptism at Easter.  The explanatory text of the RCIA states that the scrutinies, which are solemnly celebrated on Sundays and are reinforced by an exorcism, are rites of self-searching and repentance and have above all a spiritual purpose.  The scrutinies are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good.  For the scrutinies are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and to give them strength in Christ.  It is not too hard to make the connection between these “formal” scrutinies and the events of our daily lives which uncover what is weak, defective, and sinful in our hearts—as well as all that is upright, strong and good.  The testing and scrutiny of the Lord in our lives is necessary to know what is in your hearts.  It is a process which is coterminous with our lives.

In the Gospel story of Jesus in conversation with the Samaritan woman, we should be able to hear the story of our own conversation with Him which gradually works our conversion.  The woman’s isolation, fear, and defensiveness resonate with our own fear of being known, with our own history of self-destructiveness and seeking “salvation” in what satisfies us now.  This conversation and conversion   are meant to maneuver us into that space of freedom of being known as we are and sharing that freedom with everyone within running distance.

The scrutinies of the RCIA and of life have a way of prying us lose from the certainties of the superficial (you do not even have a bucket and the well is deep) and literal.  The deeper meaning of reality becomes apparent only to those who are willing to hear the questions, and perhaps even to ask the questions.  The questions can lead us to a self-searching which is courageous and disarming.  What indeed are we giving our life to?  What are we worshipping on this mountain?  What are we willing to suffer for? What is the source of this suffering? What are the wells that we keep coming back to again and again to quench a thirst that will not let us rest?

The scrutinies are accompanied by exorcisms.  We are enthralled by spiritual forces which promise an end to our suffering but at the cost of an indebtedness and enslavement.  Our autonomy (we are slaves of no one) turns into isolation and a freezing of mobility or real change (conversion).  Insensitivity, lethargy, acedia, and a sense of impotence to influence our personal or communal lives in any significant way become second nature to us.  The exorcisms apply the power of Christ’s spirit to releasing our allegiance to the very chains which hamper us.  We can look honestly at the ways we have underwritten our own despair.

This story of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, his willingness to share the most mundane of exchanges and utensils, explodes with shock and scandal.  It blows the minds of his disciples when they return: they were amazed that he was talking with a woman, but still no one said “what are you looking for?” or “why are you talking with her?”  More unasked questions that keep them stuck on the surface.   We think that the approach of Jesus to us is pretty understandable and conventional.  We certainly have room for improvement, but are pretty decent folk.  We may even be cradle Catholics.  Do we really ask why Jesus needs to slowly remove some of our buffers and blinders?  Have we yet touched that place in our hearts where we are still helpless, ungodly, still sinners?  Do we feel the scandal of Christ dying for us?

We are slow learners.  We come back again and again to Lent, to the scrutinies and exorcisms of life.  We come back with our small vessels and little buckets and want them to be filled so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.  But there is only one vessel capable of receiving the living water Christ offers.  That vessel is our heart.  The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.   We will have no need to wait for an answer to the question Is the Lord in our midst or not?  The answer will well up from our hearts and we will know what it means to worship God in Spirit and Truth.


Third Sunday of Lent

[Scripture Readings: Ex 17:3-7; Rom 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn 4:5-42 ]

Today's gospel reminds me of my college days: Jesus meets a woman at the watering hole. She's not with anyone. He brightens up! Back in my college days in Iowa City this was the closest I ever came to the imitation of Christ!

In realizing this I am receiving at least one of the two revelations that Christianity gives to all of us. It reveals God and it reveals ourselves. It is good that it reveals us to ourselves because we humans are reflective beings who are trying to figure out how to live. So we take ourselves seriously. Lent is a time the Church sets aside for exactly that: taking ourselves seriously. Only humans are capable of taking themselves seriously. That is because of our rationality and our ability to love. These are central to how we think and how we move ourselves to act. They provide us with motivations and rigorous constraints.

Taking self seriously means we do not take ourselves as we come. We want our thoughts, feelings, choices, and behaviors to make sense. We want to get things right. The ultimate source of authority for getting things right lies not in reason, but in the will (i.e. the heart; in what we love and care about). St. Benedict calls this care, preferring. He tells us to “Prefer nothing whatever to Christ.”

In preferring, we are valuing and relating. Valuing/Preferring is giving meaning to things. That determines our relation to it. Lent is a time to look at our relationship to things and to God; at what we value and how much we value it.

So Jesus refers to five husbands the Samaritan woman had. They are the five idols the Samaritan people had worshipped. Each was called Baal, which is Hebrew for “lord” or “husband.” When it comes to “preferring,” Jesus is saying that this is something to take seriously. It calls us to take seriously what we prefer, what we place our hope in. “Where did our love go?”

That our love went to “all the wrong places” is a given to Jesus; it is peripheral to the story. The point of the story is this:

The woman realized that Jesus “told me everything I've ever done.” Christ revealed her to herself.
And when He told her her story, she knew that she was or could be forgiven. That's the point.

Mystic Simone Weil once wrote that if you really want to know a person, ask the person, “What have you been through?” You see, we take ourselves seriously because we have been through a lot, and some of it is secret. There are choices we have made, feelings we have had, and things we have done that reveal what we really care about. We do not believe these can be forgiven and that we can be loved anyway. And those secrets are the burden of sin that we all carry. The desire to be loved is the thirst that cannot be slaked. And when Jesus told her her story, she could lay that burden down. She was free … free at last. Somebody knew what she had been through.

When we hear our story told we feel forgiven of our inadequacies. We feel, at last, that we belong; we are united. So it is the spirit that is freed. The secret is no longer a secret! When we are dissatisfied with our falsehood, we can begin our return to truth. Now, we can worship in spirit and in truth.

So the woman runs to tell her people that “he told me everything I've ever done.” “I've been forgiven!” And they were eager to get some of that; they identified with her. They proclaimed that they, too, believed not a doctrine, but believed in Him. That's what Jesus was thirsty for. They recognized Him as truly “the savior of the world” because He did what a real husband would do:

He loved them anyway.


Now that's the Living Water!

Third Sunday of Lent

[Scripture Readings: Ex 3:1-8, 13-15; 2 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9]

You probably heard that on February 15 a meteor about 45 feet wide fell from the sky on the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in the Urals. Witnesses of the event, thought they were watching a rocket launch gone out of control or maybe a plane crashing. What they actually saw was a huge brilliant ball of fire, passing over their heads. Especially disconcerting was the fact that instead of hearing one very great explosion when the meteor hit the ground, they heard quite a number of explosions even as the meteor was still passing high in the air over their heads. Scientists later provided an explanation for this. It seems that when an object that big suddenly breaks through the earth's atmosphere at high speed and bursts into flame, it pushes in front of it a pressure wave. This pressure wave passing over the city was so powerful that it was shattering the windows of buildings as it passed over the city, sending people scurrying in every direction. They estimate that over three hundred apartment houses, schools and other buildings were damaged by the pressure wave that hit the city before the meteor did.

To get some idea of how frightening this moment might have been for the people on the ground, you might look at Michaelangelo's famous painting of the Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel, where there is, at the center of the painting, half a dozen angels atop rolling thunder cloud with their cheeks puffed out sounding mighty trumpet blasts with long golden trumpets to the earth below

We hear of an incident like this and we think: “Well, I'm sure glad that didn't happen to my city . . .” But Chelyabinsk is our city because this tiny planet earth we live on is actually one city where we are all huddling together, and there's nothing like a meteor strike to remind us of that.

We are all one city; one citizenry under God, and I think Jesus is also reminding us of that in today's gospel. Hearing news of a tower that fell down and killed eighteen people in the city of Siloam, Jesus tells his disciples: “Do you think these people were worst sinners than you are? I tell you, unless you repent of your sins, you will all perish as they did.” At first hearing, this may not sound like the voice of Love incarnate . . . But listen, listen to the voice, and you will hear Love speaking to you, something like the brilliant light those people saw passing over their heads in the city of Chelyabinsk.

This saying of Jesus is like a meteor landing right in the center of your home town. Listen to what Jesus is saying: “Unless you repent …” That is light. “. . . you will all perish.” That is the pressure wave. “Unless you repent” is light. “You will all perish” is pressure. The light is glorious, maybe the brightest light you've ever seen. Light coming from another world, a spectacle enchanting and mesmerizing, but, suddenly, the windows around you begin exploding, because these luminous words of Jesus are accompanied by a pressure wave; a call to conversion. He is saying you must change your life. Why the pressure wave? Why should the light of Love introduce into our world this dreadful pressure wave that shatters the windows of our homes?

Brothers and sisters, you and I are destined to die, but the death by which we come to God is something unique in creation. A human death is something different from the death of an animal or a tree. Where as animals die, and have no awareness of death until it arrives, human beings alone know they are going die before they die, and are able to reflect about death and its meaning. It has been said that death is only a HUMAN death if it is received with full knowledge and freedom at the time which God ordains. Human beings alone are able to die this way; to see death coming at a time God has appointed for them, and say “yes” to that. This is why death by “assisted suicide” is not really a human death, because it attempts desperately to take death in hand and manipulate it to serve one's own purposes. But death is something that happens to ME, and since it is really ME who is going to die, there really is no question of my taking death in hand and controlling it to serve my own purposes. Attempts to do so will only make death a much more violent and terrifying experience for me.

In an article Benedict XVI, our pope emeritus wrote many years ago, he reflected: “Even if we had never sinned, we human beings would still necessarily have to undergo some kind of death.” The reason is that there is such a vast difference between life in eternity and our present condition of life that, even if we had never sinned, we would still have to under go some kind of radical transformation to make that passage from earth to eternity. And so, as St. Paul said, brothers and sisters: “We must all be changed.” This is a remarkable insight because it suggests death is not necessarily simply a consequence of sin, but is in truth something found at the very center of our experience of love. If you love; if you love with all your heart, if you surrender to love,
and give yourself wholly to its movement toward the infinite God, then, you must die.

“Repent of your sins, or you will all perish.” Can you hear the voice of Love speaking to you? Jesus is pointing at that death which resides at the very center of our experience of love. He is saying: “Would you love, would you love as you were made to love with the full capacity for love that Almighty God gave to you? Then you must be changed.” Will you know and experience the very heart of Love? Repent.

Third Sunday of Lent

[Scripture Readings: Ex 20:1-17; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25]

Jesus is the Prince of Patience. Again and again, in the gospels, he demonstrates his God-like capacity for waiting; for gentleness with those who do not grasp his teaching; for compassion toward sinners, and forgiveness to his persecutors. Jesus is the divine model of patience. He is also human, and in a few gospel accounts, he reveals the human limitations Of his patience. We also discover the “trigger” that makes Jesus the man very quickly lose all patience: It seems to be the sight of people sitting at a table, exchanging money. Something about money changers gathered around and hunched over a table, touches a nerve in the heart of the God-man.

In the famous painting, “The Calling of St. Matthew”, by Carravagio, Matthew is seated at a table with four other men, all hunched over and absorbed with a pile of coins strewn on the table, when Jesus enters from the right and points a finger at the gathering around the table. Many will tell you that Jesus is pointing at Matthew. Another possibility is that Jesus is pointing at God. God is in the painting too, but you can't see him and none of the men at the table can see him because God is under the table.

You see, the table with those shiny gold coins on it, is a symbol. The table represents our human tendency to place between ourselves and God, an intermediate reality: a job, an ambition, a house, a woman, a man, a cherished reputation . . . something that absorbs us so completely that we put God our creator and redeemer beneath the table. We are like “money-changers”, enamored of a pile of coins strewn across a table which we have placed between ourselves and God. We've put God under the table, and then forgotten he is there. This is the scene that sets on fire the heart of the Son of God. Why?

Jesus is the image of God. His arrival in the world means God is no longer hidden—in Jesus, God has appeared! But the money changers, lost in fascination for their coins and intricate transactions, are behaving as if God was still invisible. Now, Jesus isn't going to lay hands on the men whom he came to save. His frustration is vented on the table. The sight of this table frustrates Jesus, It presents itself as an obstacle to the single consuming desire of his Sacred Heart which is to reconcile souls to God, and to intimacy with Divine Love. Since the beginning of salvation history, Jesus has been waiting for this reconciliation of Israel with God, through the bitter years of captivity and wandering in the desert, for centuries during which the Judges ruled Israel and the prophets were rejected and killed, the Son of God has been waiting for ages for this moment when God would appear and make possible Israel's reunion with God, and now a spindly table seems to make God invisible to His beloved children, and for the redeemer, the scene is agony. I wonder if this might be the source of Jesus' volatile relationship with tables, and if it might explain the meltdown described in today's gospel. Jesus, the Prince of Patience; the Incarnation of divine gentleness, enters the temple precincts and, without a word spoken, starts flipping over tables, scattering their contents all over the floor. Jesus never behaves like this.

It is suggested in our day that overturning tables can be a little off-putting and perhaps not the most effective means of evangelization. It is proposed rather that the table, the coins piled on it, and the market mentality of the money changers—all of these are actually a context for open and honest dialogue. We like to think that dialogue is something we can pursue with anyone. The problem is that, when discussing something that is actually objectively wrong, entering into a dialogue that has no end in view can convey the message that the truth that something is objectively wrong is now in question, something we have become uncertain about, until the dialogue is concluded. To deny that the Truth is uncertain, opens us to the charge of being arrogant. But we are not the authors of Truth. We are only the stewards, of a Truth that has been revealed and entrusted to the church of Christ, and fidelity to that vitally important role, does not make us arrogant. But all of this can make a dialogue much more confusing to people than enlightening and, in the case where an objective wrong is at stake, turning over a table or two just might be the most loving thing to do.

Our Brother Joseph, one of the more gentle and soft-spoken people I know, is not someone with a reputation for violence, and yet, at a religious ceremony held about eight months ago in this church, one hundred guests looked on as Joseph stood in the center of this chapel and with a kind of violence turned upside down a really big table on top of which was Joseph's life; the entire way of life he had known in the world up to that time. In the course of a few minutes, Joseph pronounced his vows, and so doing renounced forever, all his possessions, a career, travel, marriage, children, houses, the disposition of his own body—everything; everything that Americans today cherish as necessary for the good life. There was nothing wrong with his former life, but in his struggle with sin, which is the struggle of all of us, Joseph chose a response quieter and more violent than dialogue: He simply turned over the table of his former way of life, and set out on a new path of radical conversion leading to intimate union with God. Having witnessed Joseph violently overturn the table of his life, Joseph, the community, and about one hundred guests all gathered in our refectory to celebrate. So far from being put off by this violent overthrowing of Joseph's former life in the world, dozens of people, many non-Catholics, some professing no religious belief at all, gathered and rejoiced at what they had just witnessed.

It is clear, that for monks, “turning over the table” means committing to the monastic way of life: to renunciation, and prayer, and conversion. Those of you here who are not monks may need to reflect a bit about where, in your life, you have set up a table between you and God, and what glistening object of fascination you have placed on that table, that so absorbs you that you might be in danger of forgetting God.

Bishops are warning us today that the Catholic church in America may be headed for tough times. Circumstances are making this year's Lenten observance especially urgent and potentially transformative. Brothers and sisters, Jesus' overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple, isn't just a curious story anymore. There are tables we ourselves need to overturn and the time is now. I would recommend that you attend to the example of your brothers, the Monks of New Melleray, and consider that the table that needs to be violently overthrown, is inside you. A table inside you may be concealing the face of the living God, the coins piled on that table are your attachments, and, in light of the unique challenges the Catholic church in America is likely to face in the days ahead, the time may have arrived for you and for me to turn over a few tables.

Third Sunday of Lent

[Scripture Readings: Ex 17:3-7; Rom 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn 4:5-42]

“Woman—if you knew the gift of God—if only you knew the gift God offers you at this moment!” Listen to Jesus’ voice. He is speaking to a Samaritan woman who has come to draw water at Jacob’s well—and he is thirsty. His body, his soul, and his Sacred Heart are thirsting at this moment. What is he thirsty for? Jesus is thirsty for love and recognition of his divine person, thirsty because, though he is offering this woman the gift of divine Love incarnate in his person—she cannot see the gift. He is offering her the bliss of perfect happiness that would renew and fulfill her as a person—and she can’t see that. If only she knew and could see the gift of God!

Who is this Samaritan woman? You have met her. She lives and is met frequently in the world today. The Samaritan woman is your neighbor; she is your sister, and my sister. We love her—but it’s work. She makes it hard. Offer this Samaritan woman your friendship and she answers you as though you had handed her a scorpion. “I am a Samaritan. You are a Jew.” This is how she talks. With just a few words, she can lower the emotional temperature of an encounter by ten degrees. She does this over and over again. She is offered friendship, mutuality, and communion in love; she is looking straight into the face of Love Himself, and feels she must insist upon what distinguishes her from Him. “You are a Jew. I am a Samaritan.” Why is she doing this? Maybe life has taught her that intimacy and friendship are dangerous. She may have been wounded in the past by the sexist or racist attitudes of certain people; people who scorned her dignity as a person. Perhaps the Samaritan woman is a victim of abuse. All of this makes her behavior understandable on a human level, but the fact remains—she is blind. There is a blindness there, and it’s tragic. To be offered friendship; to have the gift of God’s very self offered to you and not be able to see that! If only she could see the gift of God!

But she will insist: “I am a Democrat, you are a Republican”. “I am black. You are white.” “You are a conservative. I am a progressive.” “I am an immigrant. You are a naturalized citizen”. “I am gay. You are straight”. “Your experience is not my experience.” “I have my perspective; you, have a different perspective.” What’s happening here? What is she doing? You’re reaching out to her in friendship, and she’s not exactly saying “No.” She just keeps coming back to the point of your differences. She likes to say: “We are all so different! Isn’t that neat?”

What is tragic, is that there is so much more at stake here than friendship. Any Jew hearing this story about Jesus meeting a woman at a well would have recalled that Abraham, Jacob, and Moses all met the women they married at a well. In biblical literature, when a man and a woman meet at a well, it means there is going to be a wedding! Evidently, what Jesus has in mind is marriage! Oh to think that the Samaritan woman is being offered the opportunity to be wedded to God! If only she could see the gift! Jesus wants to marry her, but once again, her response betrays her talent for short-circuiting any possibility of intimacy or communion with the divine.

“I have no husband.” she tells Jesus. She talks like this in our own day. She plays games with words. Everyone knows she has no husband. That is no secret. The woman has had five husbands and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. What she says is quite true, but as it stands, is rather confusing, and might lead you to suppose she was a virgin or a widow. She is neither. She is playing games with words. Why is she doing this? It is heartbreaking that the Samaritan woman appears to squander the inheritance that is this unrepeatable moment in which God Himself offers to betroth her as his wife. Her behavior toward Jesus seems inexplicable, and two thousand years later, it hasn’t changed. Speak to the Samaritan woman today about marriage and here is how she will answer you: “Marriage . . . well now, let us define our terms. What exactly do we understand by the term marriage? Are we not speaking of a human convention? Might not two women in a consensual long-term sexual relationship be legally bound to one another in ‘marriage’? Perhaps it’s time we re-thought the whole notion of marriage. What the heck—we’ll have a dialogue; we’ll get the votes; we’ll change the laws—and it’ll be done!”

What is she doing? Is she mocking us? Maybe not. Maybe she is not dissembling at all. Maybe what we most need to understand and appreciate about the Samaritan woman is that she is truly, sincerely, and completely in the dark about what marriage is. If only she could see the gift of God! I think the Samaritan woman doesn’t know what marriage is—she cannot see the gift. That is her agony. That is her particular suffering, and a call to us for compassion and patience toward her.

So, what do we say to the Samaritan woman today? What would Jesus say to her? “Woman, if only you knew the gift of God! If you could only see that what is before you is a gift! Sister, marriage of a man and a woman is a mystery. It is a gift given to a man and a woman by God. It’s not a little plastic house that a child puts together out of Legos and then takes apart again and makes into an airplane. Sister, you are not the author of marriage. Do you understand? Human beings, politicians, judges do not make marriage. It is a mystery that a man and a woman receive from God as a gift. Can you not see that?”

Brothers and Sisters, if we are to help and encourage the Samaritan woman to see and appreciate the gift of God, we must ask ourselves if we see it. Do I know and celebrate the gift of God that is every moment of my existence? Is my life a proclamation to the world that life, love, marriage and family, church, sacraments, proclamation, repentance and forgiveness, even suffering and persecution are all the gift of God? Am I myself a clear and convincing proclamation of the truth that it is all gift?

Third Sunday of Lent

[Scripture Readings: Ex. 3: 1-8, 13-15; 1Cor. 10: 1-6, 10-12; Lk. 13: 1-9]

Living as we do in the Judeo-Christian tradition we have received a rich and long standing heritage. However, there are two major challenges to understanding and appreciating the heritage that we have received. One is that we can never experience the past as those who lived in past experienced it. Not all of the past has survived. Secondly, we can never completely step out of our own time which our predecessors never knew, and that affects how we understand the past. In order to live authentically in and from our tradition we must accept in faith that the Church faithfully and sufficiently hands on our tradition so that that we are able to live according to it in our time and hand it on to the generations that will come after us. Since we cannot return to the past or bring the past to us, we must be willing make the effort to broaden our horizons of understanding in order to understand our tradition and live according to it.

It is not difficult to hear the Lord’s call to repentance in this morning’s gospel, but do we sympathize with how Jesus’ call may have sounded to his hearers? After all they were the chosen people that God had delivered from slavery in Egypt; they had the law God had given to Moses and the words of the prophets to guide them; they had the temple in their midst: God’s dwelling place on earth. They could see the signs of God’s blessings around them. I can easily imagine how hearing Jesus say that in spite of this they might perish if they did not repent would be difficult words to accept. And what about you and me? Jesus’ words are addressed to you and me as much as they were addressed to the people who first heard them.

We have received a heritage that is much richer than the heritage of the people of Jesus’ time. We too are faced with the temptation to presume on the blessings we have received and fail to realize that sharing in the blessings that have been handed on to us requires an interior conversion on our part. We have truly been blessed and we need to acknowledge that with gratitude; but we also need to realize that we are accountable for how we appropriate and live according to the tradition that we have received. The words of scripture are an encouragement to trust in God’s fidelity to his promises, but as St. Paul pointed out to the Corinthians they are also a warning not to presume that because we are heirs of the tradition we are not required to take it to heart and live according to it.

The Church calls us to conversion throughout the year, but it is easy to lose the sense of urgency attached to words that are always with us. The Church has given us this season of Lent to remind us to reflect seriously on Christ’s call to conversion and evaluate soberly how we are responding. This is a serious and sober task, but it need not be a disheartening one. God does not ask us to do the impossible. Christ calls us to conversion and he has given us his Spirit to guide and support us on the way of conversion. Our part is to humbly acknowledge our need for conversion and accept the means the Church places at our disposal to respond effectively.

Third Sunday of Lent

[Scripture Readings: Ex 20:1-17; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25 ]

How could something so wrong be made to appear so right, so beautiful in a movie? How could behavior which our Catholic tradition assures us is objectively immoral, be the subject of what appears to be a very beautiful movie?

Several years ago, while in seminary, when I was helping out with catechism classes at St. Boniface parish in Fulda Indiana, Fr. Jeremy the pastor became concerned about a television episode of Doogie Howser; a very popular TV show among young people at the time. In the “Grand Finale” episode of the season, Doogie Howser, a teenager, and his girlfriend, both about to graduate from high school and go to different colleges and so possibly never see each other again, are wrestling with the question of whether or not they should consummate their high school romance. Actually, the question at the center of this TV drama was: “Is sex an appropriate way for two teenagers to say good bye?” Doogie and his girlfriend decide it is, and they do. The episode ends with peaceful and happy music playing, while Doogie writes in his diary about how meaningful and enriching was his first experience of sex. Fr. Jeremy was concerned; concerned about how the young people in his parish were going to process that; concerned that high school students he loved and cared about might be left asking themselves: “How could what Fr. Jeremy assures us is so wrong be made into a television drama so beautiful?”

When the church teaches that a behavior is objectively immoral, one way to understand this is to imagine that God is writing a story. God has a dream for us: that we should live forever, and God is narrating his dream for us, and God’s dream is reality; the one true abiding reality, stretching into eternity. And since this story God is writing has a development in eternity, objectively immoral behavior is not featured in this story; it does not appear; has no place, because murder, adultery, homosexual behavior and recreational sex without love or commitment are not behaviors that are featured in that blessed and eternal life in which we all stand together looking straight into the face of God. Objectively immoral behavior, in other words, is a dead end; that behavior has no future; no development in eternity, but belongs solely to this world circumscribed by death, and so is self-limiting and self-defeating. Actually, a person caught up in such behavior is something like a candle; a wick; burning itself out; burning itself up. Note that the candle is not “getting burnt” and a person involved in immoral behavior is not ultimately getting burnt, by a vindictive God or by the church. This person is burning himself up, he is self-conflagrating.

The enduring and baffling paradox of all this is that, emanating from this self-ruining; self conflagrating process, there is light—there is actually light; a beautiful light. The beautiful light is not coming from the behavior, it is coming from the person; because, that person is made in God’s image and God’s image in them can never, never be destroyed, not even by the most perverse expression of their human freedom. This, brothers and sisters, is the glory and the paradox of our human dignity: that though the divine image may be obscured in us, it remains intact, indefectible, inalienable and absolutely indestructible. The unspeakable tragedy of sin is that a creature made in God’s image and endowed with freedom is, by his own free choice, trying to darken and cover up the image of God that he is. But he can’t destroy that image, and so, emanating from this self-vandalizing process there is light: a waning, flickering, pathetic light.

In Psalm 36 we read: “The enemies of God vanish . . .“—and how do they vanish: “like the beauty of the meadows“. Like the beauty of the meadows, God’s enemies vanish. Do you see it? Do you see that tragic light? For creatures like us who are destined to die, there is something about that waning, flickering light of a candle burning itself out that is mesmerizing—and if you show that light to people, they will look at it amazed; they will stare at it, fascinated by the spectacle of this tragic flickering light of a human soul trying to extinguish itself. That, brothers and sisters, is how what is so wrong can be made into a movie so beautiful.

This morning’s gospel looks at first sight like the plot of a riveting and darkly fascinating dark movie in which Israel’s religious leaders are seen vanishing; vanishing—like the beauty of the meadows: they misunderstand everything; make all the wrong choices and punish themselves far worse than God or any demon ever could, determined it seems, to burn themselves up like a candle. We watch and are fascinated—and then, suddenly something most unexpected: a turn in the narrative by which a new element is introduced, something wondrously strange, a development that is going to cure us of our fascination with candle light, that light we find so mesmerizing, right up until the moment when…? Right up until the moment when the sun comes up; right up until the moment we see the sky brighten and God’s creation bloom in a million various colors before us. Our morbid fascination with the temple leaders’ nose dive into self-annihilation ceases the moment we hear John say: “Actually, Jesus was talking about the temple of his body“. Jesus is going to die and be raised from the dead! The temple leadership is going to destroy Jesus’ body and in three days, that body is going to be raised up and our bodies; all the bodies of those who believe in him for a thousand generations afterwards are going to be raised up. Do you see that? That is Light—not candle light. In Jesus’ proclamation of his death and resurrection, Light is dawning; uncreated, inextinguishable eternal Light.

Brothers and sisters, the sun is rising; the sky is brightening; God is bringing the long night of our exile to an end. Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. Lent is the celebration of this realization. Don’t be hypnotized by candle light; don’t dissipate yourself and loose your peace in arguments about behaviors that are like candles burning themselves out. You can talk on and on endlessly about the deficiency; the intrinsic disorderdness of the process by which a candle destroys itself, but that way of talking seems to have little effect on people today. The more creative representatives of the culture of relativism will respond by putting out ever more moving films, novels, and essays. When you talk about the deficiencies of candles, they talk about the beauty of candle light, and, unfortunately, showing people candle light is almost always more convincing, more beautiful and more compelling than talking to them about the intrinsic deficiency of the process by which a candle burns itself out. Don’t let yourself be drawn in, because you know what? There really is no argument against candle light. You cannot argue against candle light. There is only the hope that we ourselves and others inspired by our example will outgrow and move beyond our morbid fascination with this dying light and look away; look away at something brighter and infinitely more mesmerizing in it’s beauty; the light of Easter morning. Brothers and sisters, look at Light, celebrate Light—be Light.

Third Sunday of Lent

[Scripture Readings: Ex. 3: 1-8, 13-15; 1Cor. 10: 1-6, 10-12; Lk. 13: 1-9 ]

A human characteristic that is so widespread that it can easily go unnoticed is our tendency to fill in any gaps in a situation with our imaginations. A battery of psychological tests ranging from looking at ink blots to telling stories about pictures is built on this characteristic. I suspect that most of us at one time or another have discovered to our embarrassment that we were seriously mistaken in our assumption that we understood a situation, or why someone was behaving in a certain way. We seem to have a deep seated anxiety when it comes to facing the unknown. It may be because the unknown frustrates our desire to control situations, or it may be based on a healthy desire for order and completeness. Whatever our motivation, when many of us find ourselves in an ambiguous situation that we cannot clear up objectively, we will try to clear it up with our minds.

In itself this characteristic isn’t bad. It can and sometimes does lead to constructive behavior to improve a situation. However, it can and sometimes does lead to judging too quickly and jumping to unfounded conclusions. In order to act effectively we need a clear perception of reality. Stubbornly clinging to our subjective presumptions can lead us into uncharitable and unjust attitudes and behavior toward each other, and interfere with our discernment of God’s presence in our lives.

The tendency to fix the blame on someone when things go wrong is one all too common example of this characteristic. If someone else isn’t to blame for an unfortunate situation, then the victim must be. When personal misfortune comes, some people will quickly come up with a list of likely villains. Others will unnecessarily burden themselves with guilt feelings and shame, thinking that they must be to blame for their own misfortune. It is not a question of evading responsibility for the harm we do to others or to ourselves. When we have caused harm, the appropriate response is to honestly and humbly admit it and do what we can to remedy the situation. But beyond these situations, can we accept that we are all caught up in a world that has gone wrong and that getting it right is beyond our ingenuity and capabilities? God is redeeming the world in his way and in his time. We can and we are called to cooperate in God’s work of redemption.

In order to be effective partners with God we need to learn to do things God’s way. This requires patience in imitation of God’s patience with us, and a willingness to walk in faith, trusting that God will bring good out of whatever situation we are in, even if we do not know when or how. Allowing ourselves to be controlled by anxiety will only frustrate our efforts to cooperate with God, and in the long run it will not resolve the tensions we are trying to avoid. It probably won’t be much help in the short run either.

An ascetical practice that we could all profit from this Lent is a fast from giving in to our anxiety. The positive contribution on our part is learning to walk in faith by walking in faith.

Third Sunday of Lent

[Scripture Readings: Ex. 17: 3-7; Rom. 5: 102, 5-8; Jn. 4: 5-42]

Fr. NeilOne of life’s more disconcerting experiences is when we are counting on someone for help and they let us down. The person’s action or lack of action may not have been intentional. We may not have communicated our expectations well, or perhaps our expectations were unrealistic to begin with. Human expectations admit of an almost limitless number of possibilities for misunderstanding. What about our expectations for help and support from God? How many times have we been able to make the Israelites’ question in this morning’s first reading our own: Is God with me or not?

A starting point for an answer is to ask myself: What are my criteria for discerning God’s presence in my life? Is the sign of God’s presence only when he satisfies what I consider a pressing need; and satisfies it when I want it satisfied and in the way I want it satisfied? Am I attentive to the signs of God’s presence in the day to day course of my life when I am going about my routine concerns?

The Woman at the WellThis morning’s gospel gives no indication that the Samaritan woman expected anything exceptional to happen when she came to the well to draw water. Her reaction to a stranger from whom she could expect aloofness at best and possibly disdain, when he asked her for a favor was little more than mild surprise. Yet this was the beginning of a conversation that would bring her to the recognition that this unconventional stranger was the Messiah about whom she had heard and who she expected. Gradually Jesus called her to raise her vision beyond the immediate reality of water that satisfies physical thirst to what would satisfy her spiritual thirst. He called her to look at her life in a light that she would probably have preferred to ignore. He challenged her to relate to God in ways beyond her conventional practices. For her part the woman allowed Jesus to lead her into a new understanding and experience of life, and in her joy she rushed to share her new vision with the citizens of her village, who probably held her in less than high esteem. We don’t know what her reaction was when she was told that she had carried out her mission to spread the good news and that it was now time to step aside; but her encounter with Jesus had transformed her life and she had received a gift that no one could take away from her.

The Woman at the WellIs God with us or not? There are times of special need, and fortunately God responds to us with more patience than we are inclined to show toward him. However, there will probably be times when we think God is letting us down. Is God letting us down, or is he calling us to raise our vision and grow in faith and knowledge of him? Our response to this call from God may well depend on how attentive we have been to the signs of God’s presence in the day to day events of our lives. We would do well to walk with the Samaritan woman and let her guide us in the way of growth in faith, hope and love, and the knowledge of God’s ways.