A Moment before the 5th Sunday in Lent

Sunday is the 3rd (and final) Scrutiny. And the last regular Sunday in Lent.

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. It’s time to get ready for what’s coming.

The first reading starts with of one of the more striking visuals in the Bible, the valley of dry bones. That’s the lead-in for the reading, which shows God calling his people to rise from their graves. It’s dramatic. And a little macabre. And lets us know what God is capable of doing.

Like the first reading, the Gospel foreshadows what’s coming during Holy Week. And like the first reading, it shows us what God is capable of doing. 

But where the first reading is the view from 30,000 feet, the Gospel shows us God working on a very intimate and personal level.  

Which is a perfect lead-in for what will be presented at the 3rd Scrutiny – the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father – and the point that this presentation makes.

A God this powerful is also this intimate and personal. And wants to have that kind of a relationship with each of us.

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It's real

Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones coming back to life in Sunday’s first reading is foreshadowing. And the Gospel for the 3rd Scrutiny? It’s even more obvious as foreshadowing. But that’s not all it is. 

Martha and Mary appear several times in the Gospels, with Jesus staying at their house. Along with Mary and the Apostles, they're some of the people closest to Jesus. They're almost like family to Jesus, and yet bad things happen to them.

I'm as guilty as anyone of thinking that bad things shouldn't happen to good people. And I'm deeply upset when they do. 

But bad things still happen, no matter what I think. Even to people who are loved by Jesus.

So the real question isn't whether bad things happen. They do. It's whether we want to handle them on or own or if we'd like some help. 

Sunday’s Gospel lets us know that help is available. And that it's real.

More on this tomorrow.

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Did Jesus claim to be God?

It goes something like this - Jesus never claimed to be God. Making Jesus equal to God was something the Church came up with later. But not something Jesus taught.

And it falls apart when you hear today’s Gospel. Or pretty much the rest of John.

Sometimes it’s indirect, sometimes (like today) it’s direct. But over and over, Jesus tells us – and shows us – that He is God. And not just in the Gospel of John.

Claiming to be God tells us something about who Jesus really is. Because only a liar, or someone who is mentally ill, would claim to be God.

Unless it’s actually true.

That leaves us with three choices when it comes to Jesus. Jesus is either is someone to be avoided. Or someone who needs help. Badly.

Or God.

But whatever we decide about Jesus, the one choice Jesus doesn’t give us – if we’re honest – is to treat Jesus like an important historical figure.

Or even a great moral teacher. On the same level as Moses. Or the Buddha. Or Mohammed. None of whom claimed to be God.

If we take Jesus at His word, then Jesus is either of no importance. Or of supreme importance. The only thing Jesus cannot be is moderately important.

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No pressure

As the “designated Catholic,” when someone comes to you with a question/complaint about Pope Francis, the Church, etc., your response often gets treated as the official position of the Church.

That’s a huge burden. One you never agreed to. But people will put it on you anyway. 

Depending on the issue, there may be a huge gap between your faith and someone's ideas. Or they may be talking about something that is deeply personal. Or both. 

No pressure. 

Seriously, what do you do with something that loaded? 

Slow down. Don't say the first thing that comes to mind. And listen - to the person, not just the words they're saying. 

Pray before you speak, and then speak with love. You'll be amazed at the good that God can do through you, if you let Him.

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Don't be "That Guy"

When people find out you’re Catholic at work or school, it’s like you’re the “designated Catholic.”  Suddenly, you’re the semi-official representative of the Church.  And you get hear everyone’s ideas/complaints about Pope Francis, the Church, etc. 

One thing you will hear is how somebody associated with the Church (priest, nun, teacher, etc.) answered a question or made an off-hand comment years ago that really hurt them. Why are you hearing about it? Because it still hurts.

As a deacon, one of my greatest fears is being “That Guy” for somebody. That some off-hand comment by me, something I thought was clever - or just said without thinking, will be the words that hurt someone. For years.  

Why am I bothering you about this?

Sadly, it's not just people with collars or titles that can do the damage.  It's a danger for "designated Catholics" too. 

More on this tomorrow.

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A Moment before the 4th Sunday in Lent

This weekend, you may see part of RCIA at Mass this weekend – the second of the 3 Scrutinies.  Last Sunday, the Creed was presented. This Sunday, the focus is on the heart of the God found in that Creed.

Pointing out other people’s mistakes is fun (in a nasty sort of way). And it’s so easy to do after the fact.

Like the disciples in Sunday’s Gospel. Who are trying to sort out whether it was the sins of the man or his parents that caused him to be born blind.

It’s easy to mock them. You and I would never blame someone who is suffering from a birth defect or a disease.

But we often do just that - to people who have other types of suffering in their lives. Without really thinking about it, we assign blame. And treat them like they’re contagious.

Jesus’ response to the disciples shows us where our priorities need to be. Instead of bothering with blame, Jesus simply helps the man.

Which tells us everything about the heart of God.

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Why make such a big thing about the Creed for people who are joining the Church? We say it every Sunday, so it’s nothing special, right?

Actually, we say it every Sunday because it is.

The Creed is a summary of the faith. For people joining the Church, it’s pulling together everything they’ve heard in RCIA in one place. And then telling them that this is what they are getting themselves into.

It’s kind of like a warning label before joining the Church. 

Which kind of makes sense. Catholicism probably should have a warning label. After all, if you’re not careful, it could change your life. 

More on this tomorrow.

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In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

When something is fulfilled, that means it’s been completed. It’s done.

That means we’re done with the law, right? We don’t have to obey it anymore?

Of course not. We don’t have to obey the law. You and I are free to ignore any or all of the laws of God.

In just the same way that you and I are free to drive on the left side of the road.

But what you and I are not free from are the natural consequences of ignoring the law.

If I ignore the law and drive on the left side of the road, I really have no one to blame but myself when I get into an accident.

It’s the same thing with the laws of God. You and I are completely free to ignore them.

But what you and I are not free from are the natural consequences of ignoring the laws of God.

While those natural consequence may not be as immediate and obvious as a traffic accident, they are just as inevitable. And far more deadly.

Especially the first commandment.

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The same new Creed

If you missed the First Scrutiny last Sunday, you missed an honest-to-goodness (minor) exorcism in church. It’s okay. There’s another one this Sunday.

But you also missed the Church make a big deal out of something that we usually take for granted.

Apart from a few special things like the Scrutinies, most of RCIA takes place outside of Mass. The big exception? Dismissal, where the catechumens/elect are sent out to reflect more deeply on the readings.

Besides missing the Eucharist, the catechumens/elect also miss the Creed. It’s something we say every Sunday. Probably the last time we even thought about it was when the new Missal came out - until we learned the new version.

Which is one of the great things about having RCIA stuff in church. It gives us a chance to rediscover the things we take for granted.

More on this tomorrow.

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Not what we've earned

In today’s first reading, Naaman has leprosy. Short of a miracle there’s no cure for leprosy. Which is why he gets sent to Elisha the prophet. Naaman needs a miracle.

Naaman knows miracles don’t come easy. That’s why he’s ready to pay for it. With lots of money. Or by doing something extreme. Or both.

He’s ready for Elisha to tell him to do something extreme. He’ll make the heroic sacrifice. So that God will owe it to him to heal him.

And he’s brought his people with him to witness his moment of awesome. He’s booked on the talk shows for next week. They’re ready to livestream it on Facebook.

But when Naaman finds out what he needs to do to be healed, he’s mad. The cure is too easy. Naaman’s not going to get his moment of awesome. Which is what he really wanted. Even more than a cure.

And that’s exactly why God made it easy. So there would be no doubt that Naaman had earned nothing. That God was giving him a gift.

Which is exactly how God works with you and me.

Not by paying us what we’ve earned, but by giving us what we need.

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A Moment before the 3rd Sunday in Lent

Sunday’s Gospel is unusual. And not just because it’s the longest recorded conversation that anyone has with Jesus.

It clashes with so many cultural expectations people had in the first century. Relations between men and women. The mutual rejection between Jews and Samaritans.

There’s a sharpness to their conversation. Both of them are throwing things out with layers of meaning. Things with a negative edge.

So when Jesus calls her out for her series of failed marriages, it sounds really dismissive. To us.

But her response to it? It tells us that the sharpness of their conversation is hiding something much deeper. Something very real.

She’s got a hole in her life. A hole she hasn’t been able to fill. Not because she hasn’t found the right man.

It’s a hole that each of us has. A hole that only God can fill. But before that can happen, she has to see things as they really are.

Which is the point of Jesus calling her out. To help her see that what she’s doing will never do the job. And that what she really needs is there for the asking.

Which is kind of the point of the first Scrutiny.

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Out of Order

The first reading for the first Scrutiny is a Moses story. Somehow, it’s vaguely familiar. We don’t usually hear it. But it’s the backstory for a Psalm that shows up a lot in the Sunday readings (including this Sunday).

In the reading, God’s people have left Egypt. They’re on the way to the Promised Land, and they’re complaining to Moses. And who could blame them? The drinking fountains in the Sinai desert were out of order. 

God’s people were dehydrated, cranky, and ready to stone Moses. 

You’d expect Moses to respond in kind, to be demeaning. Or at least snarky (“It’s a desert, what did you expect?”).

But instead of striking back, Moses does the unexpected. He prays for them. And God responds to Moses’ prayer, in a way that is just as unexpected.

More on this tomorrow.

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The Scrutinies start with prayers for the Elect. Simple. Beautiful. The kind of prayers you would expect for people preparing for Baptism.

And then there’s an exorcism.

Part of the fun of being Catholic is the often-amazing gap between what people think we believe and do, and what we actually believe and do.

When you use the e-word, people usually think of one particular type of exorcism, with images from the movies. 

Not only are the movie images off-target (even for that type of exorcism), but there isn’t just one type. The exorcism in the Scrutinies is a minor exorcism. A prayer asking that someone (here the Elect) be freed and protected from the power of Satan. Which is the whole point of any exorcism.

So after Mass this weekend, you can tell people you’ve been to an exorcism. A real one. In public, with hundreds of witnesses. And it’s nothing like the movies.

More on this tomorrow.

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The first Scrutiny

During the year, different RCIA-related things happen at Mass. Depending on which Mass you go to, you may see one of them on Sunday. The first of the three Scrutinies (they happen on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays in Lent).

So who’s being scrutinized? The Elect. The candidates for Baptism in RCIA.

They’ve been learning about the faith for months now. Which sounds like this should be a public grilling or a Catholic trivia contest.

Actually, the Scrutinies are a public sign of the parish’s support for the Elect in their spiritual preparation for Baptism.

Which is why there is so much emphasis in the Scrutinies on the faithful praying together for the Elect. While the Scrutinies are very brief, they can be deeply moving.

And not just for the Elect.

More on this tomorrow.

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I saw Jim in the hospital last week. He told me how many years it had been since he had been to Confession. He wondered if he had waited too long, if too much time had passed for it to do any good.

Today’s Gospel was written for him. Especially, the part about God’s mercy and forgiveness. About how they overflow.

I love to bake. And one of the first things my grandmother taught me about baking was how to measure flour. As any baker knows, you don’t just pour flour into a measuring cup. It might look full. But really, it isn’t.

To get a full measure, you have to shake it down. Then pour more flour into the measure and pack it together. Only then do you truly have a full measure.

That’s the measure of God’s mercy and forgiveness. It doesn’t just look full. It’s shaken down and packed together. It’s the full measure, by any standard.

And to that full measure, God adds even more. Until it’s overflowing.

That’s the mercy that’s waiting for Jim, and for each of us, in Confession. No matter how long its been.

So what are you waiting for?

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A Moment before the 2nd Sunday in Lent

Once people find out you’re Catholic, it’s like you’re the official expert on all Church doctrine. And an accomplished theologian.

At least that seems to be the assumption behind the questions you get.

One of the worst? “If God is good, then how come (insert personal loss)?” It’s one of the worst, because it means they’re really hurting.

It’s heartbreaking, because it also means they’re hurting more than they have to. Because of their preconceived ideas about God. Ideas that don’t track with who God really is.

Ideas that are separating them from God’s love and mercy. When they need it most.

Just like you and me.

All of us have preconceived ideas about God. Ideas that don’t track with who God really is. Ideas that are separating us from God’s love and mercy.

We see the cure for that in Sunday’s first reading. And in the Gospel.

We need to get rid of our preconceived ideas about God. Ideas that we may never have consciously articulated. But ideas that (for us) remake God in our own image. And leave us with something less than God.

It’s time to drop those ideas. To see who God really is. To approach God on His terms, not ours.

And to ground our relationship with God in the reality of the One who loves us all the way to Good Friday.

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Who God really is

Sunday’s first reading is Abraham’s almost sacrifice of Isaac, a matter-of-fact depiction of what is (literally) inches away from murder. It’s hard not to be shocked by it. 

But our reaction can make it hard to see what’s happening. To see what Abraham is seeing.

The Old Testament is full of references to human sacrifice by various cultures, including Abraham’s.

Up to now, God has been acting like any other god with Abraham, doing everything Abraham would expect a god to do.

Demanding a human sacrifice? For Abraham, it’s not shocking. It’s just part of the package.

For Abraham, the shocking part is God not following through - not requiring human sacrifice.

In that moment, Abraham learns that he’s not dealing with just another god. Abraham gets a glimpse of who God really is.

And nothing will be the same.

More on this tomorrow.

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That makes no sense

Sunday’s first reading comes after chapters and chapters about Abraham. 

They start with God calling Abraham to leave his home and follow God. And repeatedly show Abraham’s faithfulness to God. Even when Abraham doesn’t really understand what God is doing. 

Through all of it, God keeps promising Abraham that no one will be able to count his descendants. Which is kind of odd, since Abraham and his wife Sarah have no children and are well past their child-bearing years. 

So where does Isaac fit in? He’s it, the promised child.

All of those countless descendants? They’ll have to come from Isaac. 

And then God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. 

That makes no sense. 

More on this tomorrow.

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Abraham, the Movie

Sunday’s first reading is all about Abraham.  Second only to Adam and Eve, he’s the beginning. 

In one way or another, Abraham’s relationship with God sets in motion everything else that happens in the Bible. 

Back in the deacon program, our Old Testament instructor said “It’s hard to overstate the importance of Abraham.” 

Challenge accepted.  (cue movie trailer voiceover) 

“In a world of false idols, one man will hear the voice of God and embark on a journey…” 

“…that will change the world.” 

“From the Producer of In the Beginning and Red Sea Rebels.  In theatres this spring.” 

Okay, so Abraham’s important.  But why does this story about him matter? 

More on this tomorrow.

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How this works

Moments Before Mass is all about a question: “What could I say to you in an elevator speech that would help you get more out of Mass on Sunday?”

The daily post on Friday? It’s the direct answer to that question, focused on the readings for Sunday.   

On Monday through Thursday? The daily posts take a closer look at the readings, the seasons, feasts and fasts of the Church’s year, the Mass, and the Sacraments.

They go deeper, with perspective and background on the Sunday readings. To help you get even more out of it. In the same quick format as Friday.

And Saturday and Sunday? I’ll see you at Mass. 

It’s okay to sit in the back.

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