Reflection for the First Friday of Lent

The reading from Ezekiel today reminds us that we are responsible for our own actions, and that every action matters. The good person who commits a bad action is not “off the hook” because he’s a generally good person. That person still must answer for the bad act. Similarly, the bad person who committed a good act should be commended for having done a good thing. God wants us all to be good and to do good things. What we often forget is that the way to become a good person is to do good things—even small things—over and over again. The way to become a bad person is to repeatedly do bad things—even small ones—over and over again. There is a lot of truth in the saying “fake it until you make it.” If we do good things, even though they feel unnatural or like we are just faking it, eventually we become the type of person who does good things. This goes both ways, so we must always be careful to make sure we aren’t going to wrong direction.

Jesus in the Gospel today reminds us that the small things do matter. The little decisions which make up our day turn us into the person who we are. Maybe we do not kill, but we often can be angry. Jesus is telling us to resolve this anger. We should focus on the little things in our lives before they become big things.

We don’t need to do amazing feats of charity if we aren’t able to. It is in the little things of our day-to-day living where we become the person we desire to be. If we make poor decisions and do bad things, that eventually is reflected in our lives, often as pain, suffering and strife. If we make good decisions and do good things, that too is reflected in our lives, often as joy, peace and happiness.

Today’s Readings: Ez 18:21-28; Ps 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-7a, 7bc-8; Mt 5:20-26

Reflection for the First Thursday of Lent

Today’s first reading jumps into the middle of an episode where Esther is the only person who can save the entire Jewish population from being destroyed by the evil actions of Haman. To enter the king’s presence without an invitation, however, is a death sentence, even for Queen Esther. Our reading today contains Esther’s prayer for protection from God in this task she must undertake, and for the gift of persuasion so that her people may be saved. Esther is successful, and her people are spared.

The psalm and today’s Gospel both tell us that this is something we can expect from God. When we beg for God’s help, he will answer us. The psalmist writes that when we give thanks to God, when we worship and praise him with all our hearts, he will not fail to save us, nor will he forsake the work of his hands.

Matthew is even more clear in today’s Gospel passage. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Jesus reminds us that parents give good things to their children. God, who is all good, considers every human being to be his child. If that is the case, what gift would God be unwilling to give us? Jesus uses classic Jewish logic in this passage saying, “how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”

Let us remember today to praise and thank God with all our hearts, and to ask him for what we need. He will not fail to answer us.

Today’s Readings: Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25; Ps 138:1-2ab, 2cde-3, 7c-8; Mt 7:7-12

Reflection for the First Wednesday of Lent

I must admit, every time that I read from the book of Jonah, I chuckle a little bit. When the king of Ninevah hears the message of Jonah, he proclaims a fast and days of penance for not just the people, but also the animals of Ninevah. The cattle and the sheep, along with every man and woman, had to fast, be covered in ashes, and put on sack cloth. Can you imagine that scene? It’s kind of ridiculous!

But once I stop chuckling and step back, I realize that there is serious business going on in the book of Jonah. Even more so when you consider the words of today’s Gospel. Jesus tells the people that they will not receive a sign except the sign of Jonah. What is the sign of Jonah?

Let’s go back a little bit further in the book of Jonah. Jonah initially said no to God. He did not want to preach to Ninevah. Jonah was a Jew, and he did not want the Ninevites to be saved. He thought, as some people still think, that there is only so much salvation to go around. He did everything he could to avoid Ninevah, and he ended up getting swallowed by a whale. Now, I’ve never been swallowed by a whale, but I don’t think that’s an experience that a person survives. In fact, the prayer that Jonah prays in the belly of whale refers to him being in Sheol—the land of the dead. After three days, however, Jonah was spewed onto dry land, and he was brought back to life to complete the mission on which God had sent him.

Many people see this as the sign of Jonah. Jonah died and rose three days later, as Christ did. But this was not the sign of Jonah. But Jesus tells us that the sign of Jonah will be given to the people, so what was it and how was it fulfilled?

The sign of Jonah was the immediate repentance and conversion of heart of the Ninevites. We see this prophesy fulfilled in the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ—the Catholic Church. Especially at Pentecost, the people were filled with the Holy Spirit. They repented of their sinful ways and committed themselves and their lives to following God. This sign continues even today, as the Church grows. Every time a new person is baptized, or repents and comes back to God, the sign of Jonah is realized. The sign of Jonah can be seen in the lasting presence of the Church in the world.

Through the Sacraments of the Church, we are given new life—as Jonah was given on the beach—in Baptism; God is made present to us through the Eucharist, our sins are forgiven in Confession, and in Confirmation we are strengthened for our mission. What is our mission? The same as Jonah’s mission: to go out to the world and preach the Good News of Salvation.

Today’s Readings: Jonah 3:1-10; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19; Lk 11:29-32

Reflection for the First Tuesday of Lent

Isaiah today compares the Word of God to rain. It will not return to until it has made the ground fertile and fruitful. The Word of God—Jesus Christ—did come down to Earth. He watered the ground with the water and blood from his side, and he remained here until the Church could stand on its own. This prophesy from Isaiah was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

But that is not all, one of the seeds that Jesus planted was a prayer. Specifically, the Lord’s Prayer. Today’s Gospel recounts Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples. Afterwards, he reinforces a particularly challenging section of the prayer, saying: “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” Forgiveness is not an option. We must forgive. To do that, we must pray to God for assistance. Forgiveness, like salvation, is too difficult for men and women to do on their own—we must ask God for help.

God will always bring us this help. Today’s Psalm ends with amazing words of comfort: “When the just cry out, the Lord hears them, and from all their distress he rescues them. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” We are all trying to be just in God’s sight. Whenever we ask for help to love God or neighbor, to forgive, God will not hold back. Even if we are broken and crushed, God can give us the strength that we need to carry on and—more importantly—to forgive.

Today’s Readings: Is 55:10-11; Ps 34:4-5, 6-7, 16-17, 18-19; Mt 6:7-15

Reflection for the First Monday of Lent

In the first reading today, God’s law for dealing with other people is set forth for us. It ends with the statement: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The psalm, referring to this law, calls it “perfect” and “refreshing” to the soul. So many of the problems we have today would be solved if we kept this commandment in mind. Sometimes we forget that every person has their own unique set of circumstances and struggles that they confront every day. Despite all that, we are called to see this person as a beloved child of God. If we truly are able to see others as beloved children of God, we will treat them as Jesus teaches us in the beatitudes, and as he reminds us in the Gospel today. We will give care and comfort to those who need it.

If we truly love someone, we care for them enough to care for the people in their lives. We get to know them, and often to develop our own relationships with these people in the lives of those we love. A similar dynamic must be present in our relationship with God. If we truly love God, then we must care about the physical and spiritual well-being of those who God loves. This, however, is the challenge, because God loves every person. If we hate another person, we are hating one of God’s beloved children. Even worse, we are in a way hating God, because he dwells within each and every human being.

The Gospel ends by reminding us that we will be judged at the end of all things. We will be judged on our ability to love. If we truly loved God and neighbor, we will enter into the kingdom. If not, we will suffer eternal punishment. Love can be challenging. It doesn’t mean that we always agree with the other or even necessarily like them very much. It might mean that we have to offer correction to those who have lost their way, or do other things that we don’t particularly enjoy doing. But we are called to love.

Today’s Readings: Lv 19:1-2, 11-18; Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 15; Mt 25:31-46

Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent / Year A

It is interesting how Genesis describes the fall of mankind. It seems that the woman is the first person to sin. A feminist might think that this is evidence that the Bible (and, by extension, the Church) is anti-woman, misogynist, or only finds value in men. That is, however, not the case. One of the most fascinating parts of this reading from Genesis, for me at least, is towards the end, where it says “and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her.”

If her husband is with her, why is Eve facing the evil one alone? Original sin is just as much of failure on the part of the husband—of Adam. It is a husband’s duty to protect his wife—his beloved—not just from physical threats, but also from any other kind of danger: mental and spiritual included. Both Adam and Eve sinned, and had either of them responded to temptation correctly this would never have happened.

The story of how sin entered the world is much more complex than a simple surface reading. There are many things that went wrong in the Genesis account. As I mentioned, the man did nothing to protect his wife from the evil one. A far more grievous mistake was when the woman engaged the serpent in conversation. Angels, even fallen angels, are far more intelligent than any human being. We cannot hope to win a battle of wits with an angel or a demon. Another problem is that the serpent was able to make an evil thing appear to be good; however, we know that certain things are evil. Directly contradicting a command of God is never going to turn out well. Adam and Eve both knew that, but they thought that by doing something evil—disobeying God—they would end up doing good—gaining knowledge. (One could observe that the Nazis employed a similar tactic by inflicting great evil on concentration camp victims in order to gain medical knowledge of the human body.) A final problem in Adam and Eve’s response was that they started to make room in their mind for the evil act. This is due to the previous to problems mentioned, because once you accept doing something as possible, it begins to occupy space in your mind. If they had simply cut off conversation with the serpent, or not considered disobeying God, they never would have considered that the tree was “good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.”

The Gospel today parallels the Genesis account, but shows what happens when one responds correctly to temptation. First, Jesus is in the desert—not a garden. He can see the evil coming toward him and is not distracted by many things. The first temptation of the devil is for Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus is likely hungry after fasting for 40 days. Jesus responds by quoting Scripture: “one does not live on bread alone, but on every work that comes forth from the mouth of God.” He squarely places his confidence in his Father to protect him. The devil brings Jesus to the parapet, and tempts his pride, telling him that is he jumps the angels will catch him. He even quotes Scripture (Psalm 91) himself! This shows us that Scripture can be taken out of context and misused by enemies of God. Jesus replies quoting Deuteronomy: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” He again does not engage the devil, saying only that he will not be tested. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain, and tempts him to with control of all the kingdoms of the world. This is an evil thing to do, but of which good may come. If Jesus were in control, he could do much good! But Jesus again tells the devil to leave him, reminding him that only God is to be worshiped.

All of the mistakes in Genesis are overcome by Jesus: he trusts in the Father to protect him, he never engages the devil in a game of reason—only telling him to be gone and cease tempting him, he never mistook an evil act for good, and he never fell prey to making room in his mind for the temptations. In doing this, Jesus defeated the devil.

So let us learn from Jesus. When tempted, we should resort to trust in God for protection. We should remember good passages from scripture or simple, short prayers to strengthen us when we are in trouble, such as “Jesus I trust in you.” We should not consider the temptation, but focus on something else, such as God’s mercy, the image of Jesus on the Crucifix, or some work of art like the Pieta. Worship of God at Mass, Confession, and prayer will save us from temptation, so let us use all these means in the spiritual combat of Lent.

As Paul says, “through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.” Let us all strive to unify ourselves with Christ, and be one of the righteous.

Today’s Readings: Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Ps 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11

Reflection for Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s Readings: Is 58:9b-14; Ps 86:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Lk 5:27-32

Jesus calls Levi—Matthew—to follow him in today’s Gospel reading. Levi leaves everything behind and immediately follows Jesus. He follows Jesus to learn the way of truth, justice, and happiness. Isaiah tells us the way to follow Jesus in the first reading. Those who treat others well, following God’s laws, will be called “repairer of the breach” and “restorer of ruined homesteads.”

But the second portion of Isaiah’s message looks at something many people do not always think about. He reminds us that the Sabbath is supposed to be holy. “If you hold back your foot on the Sabbath… by not following your ways, seeking your own interests, or speaking with malice—Then you shall delight in the Lord.” How many of us treat Sunday as just another day? We go to Mass, but after that it’s Saturday, part 2. There is nothing inherently evil in going out, seeing a movie, going shopping, etc., but what are we doing throughout the day to glorify God? Do we spend extra time with family or friends, building up the community of God by building up our relationships with other people? Do we pray a rosary together with others, or maybe by ourselves? Do we spend a little extra time throughout the day reflecting on the beauty and glory of God’s creation?

Let us remember to truly keep holy the Sabbath. Not by cutting out everything we do and having no fun at all, but by intentionally involving God in all of our Sunday activities. (And if we wouldn’t invite God to come along with us, maybe we need to reconsider what we’re doing!)

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.