A Moment before the 1st Sunday in Lent

Pilgrimage.

To a place like Santiago de Campostela. Or Lourdes. Or Guadelupe. Like ashes on Ash Wednesday, it’s timeless and Catholic. 

Lent is often described as a pilgrimage, and that makes sense. Like a pilgrimage, Lent has movement. It's going somewhere.

But there's more to a pilgrimage than just movement and a holy destination. It's also about space for God on the way.

Not accidentally finding an isolated moment, but intentionally making space for God.

That’s what all of the extra things in Lent are there for. To help us intentionally make space for God.

Every step of the way.

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The program description for Lent

We like things that are short and to the point. At 64 words, Sunday’s Gospel is definitely short. Almost too short.

After Ash Wednesday, the push at the start of Lent, those three, brief sentences can sound almost random. 

With on-screen TV program guides, you get the name of the show. Plus a sentence or two describing it. 

Sometimes the description reads like its author never saw a television, much less the show in question. 

But sometimes, the description nails it.    

That’s Sunday’s Gospel. Short and to the point, it’s the program description for Lent.  And it nails it.

More on this tomorrow.

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A push to get started

The first reading for Ash Wednesday has a vivid image. Rend your hearts, not your garments.

And in the Gospel, Jesus warns us not to do good things in order to be seen doing good things. The focus of Ash Wednesday? It’s all about what’s going on inside.

One of the things that makes Ash Wednesday different from every other Wednesday is the ashes. On your head, in the form of a cross. It’s a powerful outward sign.

One that can seem in conflict with the focus of the readings on what’s going on inside.

But it really isn’t. Because what we do with our bodies impacts our souls.

That’s the “why” behind the ashes. To help us get started on the inside. By giving us a push on the outside. 

And I could use the push.

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Like it never happened.

A big part of Lent is giving things up.

At church, it feels like mixed messages. We’re supposed to give things up. But suddenly there’s all kinds of extra stuff to do.

As a little kid, it really threw me off when I pulled a bucket of water out of the pond. I did it. I had a bucket of water to prove it. But to look at the pond, it was like it never happened.

It's the same way giving things up. If I make the effort and actually give something up, something else will rush in to fill the hole. Then I end up with something else that I need to give up. Like it never happened. 

And that's the wisdom of the extra stuff of Lent. Something will rush in to fill the hole. 

But I can choose what that something is. 

More on this tomorrow.

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Lent is coming

Suddenly, there are lots of extra things going on at church. The website and the bulletin are full of dates and times for all kinds of stuff. Which can mean only one thing. Lent is coming.

Lent is somber. And it’s not just the (non-) decorations in church. Fasting, abstaining, giving up something. Getting rid of things.

Which makes sense, because all of us need to get rid of something.

We may not have meant to, we may not even realize it. But all of us have something that we keep for ourselves. Something we say “mine” about.

And never bring to God. 

If I tell you that the thing I say “mine” about hasn’t come between me and God, I’m not even fooling me. I know I’ve got some giving up to do.

I need some Lent. 

More on this tomorrow.

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A Moment before the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The first reading is about leprosy. And it’s the backstory for Sunday’s Gospel. 

The man who comes to see Jesus in the Gospel is a leper. He followed the steps in the first reading. He went to see the priest. And got the worst possible answer. 

Leprosy was incurable, and isolation was the only way to keep it from spreading. The leper who reached out to Jesus was desperate. Without a miracle, he was certain to die. And die alone.

Contact with a leper made you ritually unclean - with good reason, since contacting a leper is a very effective way to get leprosy. 

But Jesus' response to the leper is different.

Because Jesus saw the person. Not the label.

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What will people think?

In the verses before Sunday’s second reading, Paul talks about what foods are clean and what foods are unclean. In the light of the Gospel, Paul says that since God made all of it, it’s okay to eat all of it.

But then he turns right around and says that just because he can doesn’t mean he should.  Paul knows that he’s free in Christ, but he doesn’t want the way that he lives that freedom to give offense. 

Which sounds like Paul is worried about is what people will think. 

But that’s not what Paul is talking about. Paul cares about everybody, but Paul isn’t trying to make everybody happy. Paul is balancing freedom in Christ with concern for misleading others by his example.

From personal experience, Paul knows how easily any of us can be misled.  Which is why he would rather hold back. Not do everything he’s entitled to do.

Not because he cares about what people think.

But because he cares about people. 

More on this tomorrow.

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Piling on

Sunday’s first reading isn’t just about old school public health. 

Back then, there was an idea that the outside showed you what was inside. If I’m unclean on the outside, it’s because I’m unclean on the inside.

A closely related idea was that whatever made me unclean – illness, disease, misfortune, poverty, etc. – was caused by my sin.

If I’m suffering, it’s because I did something bad. I deserve what’s happening to me.

For someone who’s suffering, that just makes it worse. It’s jumping on top of someone who’s already down. In football it’s called piling on. And there’s a penalty for doing it.

While illness and misfortune aren’t connected to sin, the first reading does show us something that is completely connected to sin.

Separation.

Sin separates. It separates us from God. And it separates us from each other.

More on this tomorrow.

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“Leprosy and You”

Sunday’s first reading is about leprosy. In the Bible, “leprosy” is not a medical diagnosis. It’s a translation of word that covers a lot of different skin diseases and conditions. Both life-threatening (like actual leprosy) and not life-threatening.

Back then, if someone had a life-threatening skin disease, there was no cure. So they kept it from spreading. By making the infected person live apart from everyone else. 

The priest’s job? To keep people from overdoing it. So people who weren’t a danger didn’t get sent away. Just because someone saw a birthmark or a rash. And panicked.

So it’s just Old Testament public health stuff. What’s next – 1950’s hygiene films? 

Actually, there’s a lot to the first reading than just old school public health. 

More on this tomorrow.

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Worthy?

Today’s Gospel closes with this, “and as many as touched the fringe of Jesus’ garment were healed.”

It can seem like almost a throw away line. But it tells us a lot about Jesus. By what it doesn’t say. It’s…

Not “as many as completed the application form and were approved.”

Not “as many as were good people.”

Not “as many as were worthy.”

But as many as sought him.

This is the nature of the love of God.

Freely, extravagantly given. Without weighing the worthiness of the beloved.

It’s something that informs not only our relationship with God. But also our relationships with others.

And it was this example given by Jesus that Thomas Merton was following when he said,

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

Growing out of the same love - freely, extravagantly given by God - that renders us worthy.

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A Moment before the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Everything bad? It just happened to Job. And in Sunday's first reading, we see Job react to his world (literally) falling apart. 

It would be nice to write Job off as too extreme to be real. But the truth is that all of us are only a few bad things away from being in the same place. No one wants to admit it, but that's where (in different ways) we all end up, if we try to do it on our own. 

There’s helping and then there's helping someone. You can help from a distance, and it does do some good. But if you want to do the greatest good, it’s got to be personal. 

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus shows us exactly what that means in practice. The alternative to where we end up on our own that Jesus offers doesn’t happen from a distance. It’s personal.

One person at a time, one heart at a time.

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God in stealth mode

Jesus is fully human. So at first glance, he’s just another person passing by. That’s why people are startled when they realize that there’s something more going on.

The something more? That Jesus is fully divine. Which explains the reaction. People don’t expect God to show up in their midst. Definitely not the way that Jesus does.

When somebody important shows up, it’s usually pretty obvious.

Like the grand marshal in a parade. You know they’re some kind of important. Because they get to be grand marshal.

But that’s not how Jesus shows up. There’s no parade. Jesus is just there. In the midst of us.

Jesus is God, in stealth mode. 

Why? Because Jesus isn’t there just to smile and wave. Jesus knows (better than we do) the truth of what Job is saying in Sunday’s first reading.

More on this tomorrow.

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Three, Two, One

Growing up, whenever I saw my great-uncle, he would say “put your hands out.” And then start counting down – “three, two, one” – before he dropped what he had in his hand.

It was always a hard candy or a toffee, in a twisted paper wrapper. Sometimes in a flavor I’d never had before. But always good.

So I made sure my hands were where they needed to be. Before he got to “one.”

Today’s Gospel says “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there.” It sounds odd. But it tells us a lot about Jesus.

And about us.

Jesus has so much that He wants for us. But Jesus only gives us what we’re willing to take. If we’re not ready to receive it, Jesus never forces us.

And you and I miss out on so much of God’s best.

Because you and I have to have things our way.

Sure, we’ll accept God’s gifts. But only when they come to us on our terms. In the way that we were expecting.

So it should come as no surprise if our hands aren’t where they need to be.

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Reality check

In the lead up to Sunday’s first reading, Job has just gone through awful things. All of the awful things. Short of his own death, it’s happened to Job.

The endless list of bad things - all happening to one person - can make the life of Job seem too extreme to be real. We’d rather dismiss it as hyperbole and a half. And not even think about it. 

Because if we do think about it, it gets obvious. We’re all just a couple of awful things away from our own personal “life of Job.” It’s not just depressing, it’s scary. So what’s the point?

Reality check. 

We’re good at distracting ourselves, at avoiding the obvious. But it’s where (in different ways) we all eventually end up – if we’re doing it on our own.

And the reason why we need what’s in the rest of Sunday’s readings. 

More on this tomorrow.

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I’ll never be happy again

It’s the most self-pitying post you’ve ever read. It’s so overdone you can’t stop yourself from reading it in a pretend-crying voice. Then you hit the line that sums it all up – “I’ll never be happy again” – and actually laugh out loud.

Anything that ends like that, it’s just begging for it.

Which is how Sunday’s first reading can sound. If we don’t know what Job is reacting to.

Job had everything going for him. And then, in a horrifying series of tragedies, his children are killed and he loses everything. His health fails and his wife turns on him. Then Job’s friends “comfort” him – by blaming it all on him. 

The first reading shows us Job’s reaction to all of that. When you know what went before it, Job’s “I’ll never be happy again” line actually makes sense. 

And it’s pretty depressing. But there’s a reason for bringing it up. 

More on this tomorrow.

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A Moment before the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Back in school, the year was off to its usual start when it happened. 

You saw the French exchange student, and it was love at first sight. You were smitten. You figured out class schedules so you could “accidentally” bump into each other. A lot. 

When the two of you finally spoke, you found out that English was barely a second language. You knew what to do to even have a chance. After 2 years of Spanish (very practical), your friends were stunned when you dropped it for freshman French.

Kind of like what we see in Sunday’s first reading. When God spoke with us directly, we couldn’t understand what God was saying. But because God is smitten with us, God doesn’t give up.

God knows what to do to even have a chance. 

Which is why God speaks to us in a language we can understand. Through Jesus.

Sunday’s Readings

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Hearing God

God wants us to hear what He’s saying.

But God can be so understated. It’s hard for that to compete with the distractions and busyness of life.

God never quits trying to get through to us. 

Why doesn’t God just speak to us directly?

Sunday’s first reading shows us that God speaking directly to us has its own set of problems.

But God loves us enough to meet us where we are. To speak to us in a way that we can handle. And we see it in Sunday’s Gospel, in Jesus.  

Jesus is human. And speaks to us directly. 

Jesus is divine. And speaks to us as only God can. 

That “both-and” is exactly what the first reading is talking about.  And why everyone in the Gospel, from the apostles to the people in the synagogue (and even the demons), knows exactly whose voice they’re hearing.

More on this tomorrow.

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A one-to-one connection

Today’s gospel is the parable of the sower. A lot of different things happen to the seed. Some of it gets eaten and some of it sprouts and withers. Some of it gets choked out by thorns and some of it grows and produces fruit.

Jesus ties each of these outcomes to the type of ground that the seed lands on. And Jesus shows us that there’s a one-to-one connection. If the seed lands on a certain type of ground, you know what you get.

Lands on the path? It gets eaten.

Lands on rocky ground? It withers.

Lands among thorns? It gets choked.

Lands on rich soil? It grows and bears fruit.

Jesus explains that the meaning, that the seed is God’s Word. That’s interesting, but what does any of that have to do with us?

We’re the ground. And we have a choice.

If the seed lands on a certain type of ground, you know what you get.

So here’s the question Jesus has for each of us - what kind of ground will you be?

 

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No, literally follow me.

Last Sunday’s Gospel is Jesus calling the first apostles from fishing on the Sea of Galilee. 

This Sunday’s Gospel shows Jesus at Capernaum (their hometown), on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.  We see what happens next, after they respond to Jesus’ call to follow Him. 

When Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John, they see something in Jesus that makes them literally drop what they’re doing to follow Jesus.

If I had been one of them, I’d like to think that I would respond the same way.  I’d like to think that I could see what they’re seeing in Jesus.  But I know me. And I’m good at missing the obvious. 

They’re seeing something in Jesus. Something powerful. Whatever it is, the Gospel makes it clear that they aren’t the only ones who see it.

More on this tomorrow.

Sunday’s Readings

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Everlasting sin

Today's Gospel about everlasting sin is kind of scary. How bad is an everlasting sin, a sin that's unforgivable?

Actually, everlasting sin is not about the sin at all. Everlasting sin is about the sinner. It's about what you and I do after we sin.

Am I honest about it?  Do I own up to what I've done? Make amends to those I've hurt, and seek out the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus? 

Or am I so lost in myself that I don't need to make amends to those I've have hurt? Do I reject the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus? That's what makes sin everlasting. 

Not making the same mistakes over and over, seeking forgiveness and trying again. And even failing again. That's not everlasting sin. That's our fallen nature. That's the human condition.

What makes sin everlasting is when we cling to it.

Jesus came into the world to save sinners. For those who come to Him, trying however feebly to let go of their sins, no sin is unforgivable.

But for those who cling to their sins and stubbornly refuse to come to Him, no sin can be forgiven.

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