Reflection for Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s Readings: Is 58:1-9a; Ps 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 18-19; Mt 9:14-15

Today we learn about fasting in the readings. The psalmist writes that God is not pleased with the burnt offerings that the Israelites presented to him. This reminds us of the sacrifice of Cain in Genesis, which God also did not accept. The psalmist then tells us that God accepts the sacrifice of a contrite and humble heart, a sacrifice like Abel’s. The reading from Isaiah also mentions this theme. We cannot fast and become angry, quarrelsome, and wicked and expect for God to accept this sacrifice of fasting. We must do good works, and continue to be good Christians and good people while we fast. In the Gospels, we are told that we must not be gloomy when we fast, but we should be joyful!

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus speaks of fasting in a different way. He reminds us that there is a time for fasting which is appropriate, and a time which is not appropriate. If we are celebrating the presence of the bridegroom, for example. We live in an in between time. Jesus is with us, and the Kingdom of God is present on this earth through the Church; however, Jesus is not present as he was when he lived on the earth, and the Kingdom of God extends into Heaven, so it is not fully actualized on this earth either. We must use our good judgment to determine the times for fasting and feasting, and the Church helps us with this, setting aside seasons such as Lent for penance and fasting. But she has also set aside days for feasting: Every Sunday (most especially Easter), Christmas, and Holy Days of Obligation. We cannot celebrate only one and not the other—both are necessary!

So let us enter into the season of Lent with a proper disposition towards fasting: one of love for God and neighbor, so that when the Easter Season comes we may enjoy the feasting and joyous activity even more!

Reflection for Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s Readings: Dt 30:15-20; Ps 1:1-2, 3, 4 & 6; Lk 9:22-25

The first reading today tells us that to live a long and happy life, we must choose to follow God and his commandments. If we “hold fast” to God and his teachings, he will provide for us. To do otherwise would lead to misery and death. But we find out in today’s Gospel that this will not be easy. Jesus tells us that to follow him, we will have to take up our crosses daily and follow him. The world will reject us, because we who follow God are a sign against the evil in this world. But we must do this, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” This is not always a physical losing of life, but can also refer to giving up many good things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In a way, this is what fasting, abstinence, and the practice of giving something up during Lent helps to teach us. They all teach us to focus less on what we have in this world, and to raise our eyes towards the next world.

Let us remember to always raise our eyes toward God, and above the desires for things of this world, for “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?”

Reflection for Ash Wednesday

Today’s Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Ps 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 & 17; 2 Cor 5:20-6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

Today begins the great season of Lent.

Lent is a time for us to focus on changing our lives for the better. Everything in the Mass, the readings, the antiphons, the ashes, remind us of this today.

The entrance antiphon comes from the book of Wisdom (11:24, 25, 27) and reminds us that the Lord is merciful, and proceeds to beg the Lord to be merciful and overlook the sins of his people. We ask that he does this in order that we might repent. In the first reading prophet Joel calls for us to return the Lord with our whole heart: with fasting, weeping, and mourning. He begs the Lord to have mercy on his people, and to relent in the punishment they deserve. The psalm asks the Lord to create in us clean hearts and steadfast spirits, so that we might proclaim his praise. St. Paul asks us in the second reading to become ambassadors for Christ by becoming reconciled with God. Now is the day of salvation, Paul says, God hears us now, so we need to ask now! The Alleluia is no longer sung during lent—this reminds us that we must focus on repentance during this time of year, and the verse before the Gospel today reminds us not to harden our hearts when we hear the voice of God.

The Gospel today is the crown jewel of all the readings for the day. Jesus tells us how to convert our lives to better follow him. We should give alms, but not in a way that we receive praise for them. Deeds done to be seen are their own reward. This teaches us charity and humility. We must pray, but again not to be seen. Furthermore, he tells us to go within our inner room, close the door, and pray to God in secret! This does not mean we must hide when we pray. This means that we must go within ourselves, close ourselves to the outside world, and focus on God alone, telling him all the things in our heart, and then being silent and listening for his reply that he may whisper to us in the stillness of our hearts. Finally, Jesus reminds us to fast. Again, not to be seen. In fact, Jesus tells us we should do our best to be cheerful and upbeat when we fast! This is hard! I get hangry, so it’s actually a really hard thing for me to do. But it teaches me to have patience, to love others more, and to control myself better. It is truly incredible what fasting can teach a person.

After the Gospel, we see the ashes. Catholicism is a religion that embraces the whole person—body and soul. Because of this, we use sensible things to remind us of the hidden realities. Ashes bring to mind many things. When something burns, it is consumed and turned into ash. This can be a good thing, where something bad is destroyed and turned into something new. This can also be a great challenge, where something good is destroyed and all that remains is ash. In the Bible, ashes often symbolize extreme penance after wrongdoing. The Church uses all of these ideas and more on Ash Wednesday. During Lent, we try to purify our lives, removing the bad things and doing penance so that we may become better people. Sometimes this results in us having to change some things that weren’t necessarily bad, but that we enjoyed. It is a challenge.

Ashes are a symbol for one more incredibly important idea. It is abundantly clear in the second formula for the distribution of the ashes. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are harrowing. They cut deep. And they can cause fear. “I am dust? I shall return to dust? What?” We humans live fleeting lives. We cannot forget that we live short lives, and when we die our body returns to the Earth. Until the General Resurrection at the end of time, when we our reunited with our glorified bodies, only our soul remains. In the Psalms and the Wisdom books, we are often reminded of our fleeting lifespans and that we return to the earth. In the Gospels, we are reminded that we are like grain at the grind stone. The good—the results of our good deeds—remains, but the chaff—the unusable part of the grain, the results of our evil deeds—is cast to the floor and eventually burned. If we are all chaff, what will remain of us?

The communion antiphon leaves us on a more uplifting note. “He who ponders the law of the Lord day and night will yield fruit in due season.” (Ps 1:2-3) In this quote from the first Psalm, the Church is showing us that there is hope! After the hard work of Lent, we will bear much fruit during Easter. We will have become better, happier, more loving, more virtuous people. When we ponder the law of the Lord, we end up pondering the Lawgiver. We end up pondering God. This is prayer.

Fasting, Almsgiving, and Prayer. These are the three pillars by which we may re-form our lives during Lent. They help us to become a new creation, to love God more, and to truly orient ourselves to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Reflection for the Eighth Tuesday of Ordinary Time

Today’s Readings: Sir 35:1-12; Ps 50:5-6, 7-8, 14 & 23; Mk 10:28-31

The readings today speak of sacrifices made to God and how he responds to them. I have two brief notes over these readings.

First: God accepts the sacrifice of the just one. It “enriches the altar” and “is most pleasing.” What is it that makes us just in God’s eyes? This is what the readings have been discussing recently, in fact. We should ponder how we behave and show our love for God, in whom love and justice are one. By our authentic and loving sacrifices of time, talent and treasure, we act justly toward God. We must also be just when we offer our sacrifice to God (which is done most perfectly by active participation in the Holy Mass) in order for him to look upon our sacrifices with gladness. One way to do this is to put our sufferings and desires, troubles and successes on the altar (in spirit, we can’t actually put these things on the altar!) every time we go to Mass, and offer them back to God every time we celebrate his Holy Eucharist.

Second: God repays those who offer pleasing sacrifice to him. “Jesus said, ‘Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age’.” And before that, the author of Sirach wrote that “the LORD is one who always repays, and he will give back to you sevenfold.” But God knows the difference between an unjust sacrifice and a just sacrifice—one done to earn benefits from God (“offer no bribes, these he does not accept!”) or one done out of love for God.

Reflection for the Eighth Monday of Ordinary Time

Today’s Readings: Sir 17:20-24; Ps 32:1-2, 5, 6, 7; Mk 10:17-27

The readings today encourage us to live good lives while on this earth. The author of Sirach tells us to “turn again to the Most High and away from your sin.” While we are in this world, we have the most incredible ability: the ability to use our minds and our consciences to change our lives. Angels have minds but the cannot change. Animals do not have minds and consciences, so any change for them is a result of instinct. They cannot change in the same way that we do, and they don’t have the everlasting consequences that ours do. When we change, we can affect our immortal souls. We move ourselves closer to or further from God, and thus move closer to eternal happiness or eternal punishment.

The importance of changing in this life is reinforced a few lines later. “Who in the nether world can glorify the Most High in place of the living who offer their praise? … No more can the dead give praise than those who have never lived.” Once we die we can no longer change as when we were living. At that point, we have made all of the choices that we will be able to make.

Jesus tells us that living this virtuous life will be a difficult task in today’s Gospel. “For men it is impossible” to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, “but not for God.” God will give us the grace that we need, provided that we do our best to love him and to serve him. Jesus tells us that to serve God, we must follow his laws. Not only that, but we must detach ourselves from all worldly things and trust only in God. God will be our treasure.

Let us do our best to love God and to follow his laws, the laws he gave us in order to help us be happy. In doing so, we have our best chance at entering eternal happiness in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Reflection for the Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time / Year A

Today’s Readings: Is 49:14-15; Ps 62:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; 1 Cor 4:1-5; Mt 6:24-34

We can have only one master. Who is our master? God wants to be our master, but do we let him?

The Gospel today lists many other masters people can have throughout their daily lives: what to eat, what to drink, what to wear. All these things come from the material world. They are things that we think that we can control. We go about thinking that clothing, food, status, wealth are the most important things. They aren’t. Is it important to have adequate food, clothing and money? Yes. But when it becomes the focus of our lives—that’s when we run into problems. Why do we think that these things are important? Perhaps we think that because we can control these things, they are a measure of our self-worth. When we have these things, maybe we think that it shows what kind of job or career that we have: another modern measure of self-worth.

What about other people? Do we try to emulate the right people? Do we want to be like the rich and famous? Why is that life style so attractive? The rich and famous always look happy on the outside, but are they? I think not. The number of celebrity divorces, suicides, and the general malaise around Hollywood is a pretty good indication that something is wrong. But they have everything—why aren’t they happy? They have made power or fame or money or pleasure into their master. And if we want to emulate them, then we will do the same. And we will be unhappy.

There is a better way.

DaisiesJesus reminds us to look outside at the world around us. The flowers—what person is clothed so beautifully as a flower? The birds—are they not able to find food? But we worry about all of these things, and we don’t realize that God will work with us to make sure that we have what we need. Jesus asks, “Are not you more important than they?” Indeed, we are. Jesus promises us that if we seek the Kingdom of God, all that we need will be provided. The Lord has not forgotten us, and he never will. The first reading, in just a few sentences tells us that this is impossible!

“Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” (Is 49:14-15)

The Lord wants to love us, but to do this we must be open to this love. By serving the Lord, we are opening ourselves to his love, because we only truly serve those that we love. We may have a job where we “wait on” or “serve” somebody, but we aren’t really serving those people because we desire to do so. We are serving them for the sake of something else—to provide for ourselves or our families. By following the Lord’s commands and laws, we serve him. By stewarding the gifts that God has given us, we are serving him. God knows when we are serving him and when we are not, St. Paul reminds us that “he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts.” We cannot trick God, but we can serve him. We can serve him because we desire to love him. When we serve him, we open our hearts to him and allow him to love us.

So let us remember we can only have one true master: God. But he is a loving master, who rewards us endlessly when we serve him.

Reflection for the Seventh Saturday of Ordinary Time

Today’s Readings: Sir 17:1-15; Ps 103:13-14, 15-16, 17-18; Mk 10:13-16

We get something very special in Sirach today: a creation story! Creation stories are not limited to Genesis; they appear throughout the Bible. This story focuses on the creation of humanity. God “from earth” created us “in his own image.” While we are linked to the material world through our bodies, we are also linked to God because we were created in his image: we have an immaterial and rational soul. The reading states that God “filled them with the discipline of understanding.” He gave us knowledge of the spirit. He filled our hearts with wisdom, and showed us good and evil. He created us with a desire for Him, and says to us, “Avoid all evil.”

This story emphasizes that God created us in a special way. We are not mere animals, but we also aren’t angels. He gave us many gifts: understanding, wisdom, knowledge of good and evil, and a desire for Him. We have these things because God created us in his image and gave us a spirit. All of us have this spirit; all of us were created in God’s image, even the smallest of us. When Jesus saw the disciples hindering the children he rebuked them! The children desired to come to Jesus, to love Him. They were more in touch with the image of God within themselves than many of the disciples, because they could recognize the goodness in Jesus and flocked to him.

Jesus then tells us that we all should embrace the Kingdom of God as these children. What does this mean? It means that we must learn again what many of us have forgotten: to avoid all evil so that we might recognize and pursue God with all of our hearts. Then we are able to follow the greatest commandment: “you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Dt 6:5)

So today, let us try to love God with every part of ourselves.

Reflection for the Seventh Friday of Ordinary Time / Year I

Today’s Readings: Sir 6:5-17; Ps 119:12, 16, 18, 27, 34, 35; Mark 10:1-12

The reading from Sirach today tells us to test our friends, and to not be too ready to trust them. It then tells us why: not all people who initially seem to be our friends actually are our friends. But when you find a true friend, we must cherish that friend. “No sum can balance his worth.” St. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a short book called Spiritual Friendship. In the third part of the book, he outlines just how to do this: we test the trustworthiness of the potential friend slowly and by a progressive revelation of ourselves to him or her.

While this understanding of friendship is much more general than marriage, one of these cherished friendships should be at the heart of every marriage. “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure… A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy…” Spouses become a sturdy shelter under which a family can be built, and in which they can help one another grow. Spouses treasure each other with all that they have, with their treasury of love always growing. Spouses help each other get into heaven—saving the eternal lives of one another.

This bond of friendship is the bedrock upon which a marriage must be built. Mutual love for God and one another allows them to grow in these wonderful ways. The book of Sirach says that one “who fears God behaves accordingly, and his friend will be like himself.” By loving God and one another, they become more like God every moment that they are together.

In marriage, this friendship is sealed by God himself in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. The man and woman publicly pledge to God and the world that they will stand by one another, and work for the salvation of themselves and their brand new family. They promise to be the best of friends. God joins them together, and nothing may separate them.

Reflection for the Memorial of St. Polycarp

Today’s Readings: Sir 5:1-8; Ps 1:1-2, 3, 4 & 6; Mk 9:41-50

Today’s meditation includes quotes from the Office of Readings for St. Polycarp of Smyrna.

The line about salt always confuses me. How does salt lose its flavor? It seems to me that salt would have to change into something completely different to lose its saltiness.

Well… Perhaps that’s the point.

When I’m cooking spaghetti sauce and add too much salt, I have to add more of the other ingredients. There is nothing I can do to get rid of the saltiness except to dilute it with more tomatoes, more herbs, maybe even a little wine.

Jesus says that we are to be “salted with fire.” Fire often refers to testing and temptation in the Gospels. So, we gain our “flavor” by how we react and respond to the challenges God presents to us in our lives. We can lose this flavor by diluting our lives with everything else. By focusing on the wrong things, we become watered down and lose what makes us who we are. Spaghetti sauce needs salt to taste right. We aren’t fully ourselves when we water down ourselves with the wrong things either.

St. Polycarp of Smyrna is a perfect example of this. He never allowed himself to become lax in his faith or to turn from God. He was a man in love with God, and he was willing to die for that love. He was burned at the stake, and when the pyre was lit it did not have to stench from burning human flesh. Instead, it had a fragrance “like that of burning incense or some other costly and sweet-smelling gum.” Not only that, but “his body was like bread that is baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace.”

Whenever we sacrifice for God, our sacrifices smell like sweet incense to God. We become like gold and silver that has been refined through fire. I am reminded of Psalm 51:

“For in sacrifice you take no delight,
burnt offering from me you would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.”

Reflection for the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle

Today’s Readings: 1 Pt 5:1-4; Ps 23:1-3a, 4, 5, 6; Mt 16:13-19

On the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the readings teach us about leadership. Peter exhorts the presbyters to oversee the people, but not “by constraint.” They should not be stiff and tyrannical. They are to lead them by persuasion— “willingly.” He tells them not to profit from their position over the people, and that the best way to lead is through example. Leading by example requires the leader to be a good example. If I encourage people to pray, but never pray myself, and in general act like a person who doesn’t pray, it will be hard for them to follow me. If I tell people to eat healthy, and am morbidly obese, they won’t believe me. If I tell people to love, but then do not treat others with love, who will believe me?

Leaders must lead by example, and they must be with those they lead. If they cannot be with them, it is much harder to form the bond of trust needed to effectively be a leader. The bond of trust with the leader is critical, because it helps us know that our leader is on our side. He will not betray. Today’s psalm expresses this well. “Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side.”

The Gospel today shows Peter’s willingness to jump out first. When Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am, Peter is the first (and only, I presume) to reply that he is “Christ, the Son of the living God.” For his faith in Jesus, Peter is called the “rock” upon which Jesus will build his church. He is given the keys to the kingdom.

This imagery and text ties Peter and Jesus’s relationship to the Davidic kingdom of old. David’s son Solomon had 12 ministers, like a presidential cabinet. One of these men was selected as the prime minister. He was given the keys of the kingdom—literally the keys to the city and the palace. Furthermore, when any of the ministers—especially the prime minister—spoke, it was in the name of the king and had the same effect as if the king had said it.

Jesus, by using the language that he did, made the 12 apostles the Davidic ministers of his kingdom, and made Peter his prime minister. Jesus’s kingdom is not just in this world, but extends into the next. While Jesus is enthroned in Heaven, his prime minister rules in his stead: Peter speaks in the name of Jesus on this earth. The Pope, the successor of Peter, must continue to rule by example and shepherd God’s Church through the ages.

May we all be examples to those around us. Even if we are not placed in a leadership position, we can still lead others to God through our good example. When we do this, we become the most important kind of leaders—the sort of leaders who lead people to God!