Around this time of year, amidst the normal things that go on every day at the office, we’re getting ready for the season of Advent and the celebration of Christmas. Even when we get started months ahead of time, there is much we must do to be ready! At this point, we’ve already prepared and printed the Christmas Card, scheduled the Masses for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (believe it or not, you are allowed to go on Christmas Day!), plan for extra confession times in Advent, and half a dozen other things that are somewhere in the back of my head.
When I start thinking about the seasons of the year, I inevitably end up thinking about the seasons in our Liturgy. When the season changes, lots of things in the church change: the vestment colors, the decorations, and even the music. For example, during Advent and Lent, the use of instruments for music at Mass is supposed to be more subdued and primarily to assist the singers; however, during Christmas and Easter seasons, all these limits are gone so we might have an extremely joyful celebration of the mysteries of salvation. Just like our civil calendar, the cycle of liturgical seasons repeats yearly.
This yearly rhythm is something I’ve come to look forward to. The familiar cycles of the liturgy are a comfort, especially when sometimes we must plan things months away. The consistency of our liturgical cycle through the years reminds me of the consistency of the Church. I don’t remember where I read this, but I recall reading some thoughts on this yearly cycle of our church from a monk who lives at a Benedictine monastery. No matter what happened in the day, the consistent rhythm of life from day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year gave him a sense of the eternity of the place. Long before he came there, there was a monk doing the same thing he was, and long after he meets our Lord, a monk will continue doing it. Similarly, long before any of us were born, Catholics celebrated these feasts and seasons, and long after we meet our Lord, Catholics will continue to celebrate these feasts and observe these liturgical seasons.
To some this might be a bit of a frightening thought: that eternity can be found in our normal practices of loving and serving God, but I find it inspiring. We touch the eternal and receive Him Who Is at Mass, and anything that helps my feeble mind grasp at that is a grace. The beauty of this cycle is that there is one person throughout that moves it forward, day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year: Jesus Christ. When we live our lives with him and work every day to walk in his ways, he moves us forward, and because we grow with Christ every moment, we encounter the familiar rhythm of our year as if everything has been made new again.
This is the week we call to mind, through the living memory of the Church, and make present again the most sacred events ever to occur in the universe.
This is the week Jesus Christ our Savior instituted the Sacrament—the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist—by which He would forever remain present in his people.
This is the week Jesus Christ our King entered his royal city, was crowned as Lord of the Universe, and mounted his throne.
This is the week Jesus Christ our God entered his holy city and from his holy and glorious throne defeated the forces of sin and death and hell.
This is the week Jesus Christ shatters the tyranny of sin that had for too long reigned over humanity and ushered in a new age for all humanity.
This is the week we embark on this solemn journey with our Lord. We may have some fears, because despite the spiritual and heavenly reality of the situation, we can be all too distracted by the material reality. It is not easy to follow our Messiah as he is welcomed, betrayed, and crucified in Jerusalem.
If there is nothing spiritual, if there is no Father in Heaven, if there is nothing beyond the material world, then we are all fools. If there were nothing beyond the material, the existentialist philosophers would be right: the only meaning is what we make, and it dies with us. We know, however, that those depressing philosophers are wrong, because deep inside each and every one of us, we recognize that there is more to all of this than simple material things. If there weren’t anything more, then money, power, and fame would keep us content for all of our days. They don’t. We long for more. Our hearts know the truth: we were made to be loved by the God who created us. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God, because we are made to be filled by love, and the only one capable of filling our hearts is God, the limitless lover. This spiritual truth and reality is far more important than any merely material reality. Truth in a merely material reality is limited to the merely material. Spiritual truths are not so confined.
We all know what is coming this week: Jesus is about to die for us.
The material reality this week shows us the Jesus was tortured and died for us.
The spiritual reality this week shows us that God willingly breaks his heart open and pours out every drop for love—he empties himself totally—in order to repay the covenantal debt that is owed to him by humanity’s failure, our failure, to eradicate sin from our lives.
This is the week Jesus Christ shatters the power of sin and death over humanity.
This is the week Jesus Christ destroys the veil separating Heaven and Earth, opening the gate of Heaven to all who are willing to follow him and enter.
This is the week we welcome Jesus Christ, our God and King and Savior, into our hearts. As we embark on this most solemn and most holy journey, let us make those final preparations so we might greet our King well as he comes to us. Isaiah tells us to set our faces like flint in this task, for we know that in doing so we shall not be put to shame. The master has need of a place to celebrate these mysteries with us. Let us ask his Holy Spirit to assist us in preparing our hearts to be such places as the appointed time draws near.
Brothers and sisters: prepare for the coming and the glorification our God.
Death is not something in God’s original plan for mankind. Death is a
consequence of sin, that original sin we hear about in Genesis. We don’t have time
to get into all of that, but it is critical that we always remember that suffering
and death are consequences of humanity’s turn away from God and towards itself.
Even at the beginning, though, God had a plan to redeem us. In Genesis 3:15, we
encounter what is called the Proto-Evangelium—the
first good news—God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the
woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you
strike at his heel.” If there were any doubt that God has put himself into
solidarity with us, He sent his Son to become one of us, and this divine Son—God
Incarnate—wept at the earthly death of his friend. Death makes God weep. Even
though Jesus knew he would soon raise Lazarus, even though Jesus knew that
death on this earth was not an end, but a beginning, even though he knew all of
this: Jesus wept. He became “perturbed,” the Gospel says, that is, he became
stern-faced and resolute, and he commanded Lazarus to come out. He showed his
absolute lordship over life and death. Jesus shows today that while we may perish
on this earth, death is no match for Him.
Here’s the problem, though: if Jesus, i.e., God, has absolute sovereignty over life and over death, if he hates sin and suffering and death even more than we do because he understands it more fully, if even a temporary death makes him weep, then why does he permit such things to happen? Jesus brings us the answer today. In John 11:4, we heard Jesus say, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Later—without having been informed by anyone—He informs the apostles in verse 14 that “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.” To rephrase it slightly, God allows Lazarus to die so that many may come to faith because of the mighty that would be wrought by the hands of Jesus.
This all makes me think of the reflection Pope Francis gave on Friday during the extraordinary moment of prayer and Urbi et Orbi blessing. If you did not see it or have not read it, it is excellent. I would that you go to the Vatican’s website, read it, and reflect on it. The Holy Father, reflecting on the calming of the storm in Mark’s Gospel said, ‘we see how [the apostles] call on [Jesus]: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.’1
But how does Jesus care for us when we feel more like Lazarus: dead? Whether we want to admit it or not, something inside each of us has been killed—and many people have been killed—by this pestilence, this viral plague. The pope continues later, this plague ‘exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.’ This plague, then, has been a call from God for us to wake up and remember our glory as human beings: that God emptied himself and became one of us to save us, to save us even from death itself, to save us from not only physical death, but also from a far more deadly and insidious spiritual death. The pope, showing us how God is calling us to glorify him, later continued, ‘[t]he Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love.’
This is no easy task on our part. It requires faith and trust in God. We
must believe and be confident in the knowledge that God has and will continue
to save us from sin, suffering, and death. This challenge of faith is what Ezekiel
confronts in our first reading today. To set the scene: the Israelites are exiled
from their lands into Babylon. They are cut off from their temple and their
temple worship of the Most High God. The entire book of Ezekiel is built around
the message that God will NEVER abandon his beloved children. If you
look at the first chapter of Ezekiel, it is, admittedly, a little trippy, but Ezekiel
is struggling to communicate a vision of God that has at its core one truth:
the throne of God moves. God goes anywhere and everywhere that He desires
to go. That hasn’t changed in the last 2,618 years, and it never will. As we
stay at home, separated from our parishes, unable to fully participate in
worship, we face the same tragic question as the captives in Babylon all those
years ago: How can I offer fitting worship to God? How can I truly celebrate
the Lord’s day? How can I do these things separated from my brothers and
sisters in Christ?
Ezekiel today tells the Israelites that God will open their graces and
rise them up from them. God will continue to lift us up from our sorrow and breathe
new life into us even now, during this time of challenging separation. And God
does not stop there. He promises to bring Israel home. God never told Israel
that their temple was not the most fitting place to offer him worship. It was
the most fitting place to glorify him prior to the fulfillment of the old covenant
and the establishment of the new covenant during the Easter Event. The most
fitting place to offer God worship now is when we are assembled as a community to
participate in the Easter Event which is made present during Holy Sacrifice of
the Mass. God has never taught us otherwise. But as the Israelites learned all
those years ago, and as we are being forced to remember now: God will not allow
himself to be sequestered or confined to that hour we spend at Church on
Sunday. God lives within our hearts at every moment of every day. He desires to
be with us and involved in every aspect of our lives. Through this
plague, perhaps God is calling us to glorify him by putting our Easter faith
back at the center of our lives. The psalmist today cries, ‘Out of the depths I
cry to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice!’ and ‘With the Lord there is mercy and
fullness of redemption.’
Let us ask the Lord to increase our faith, so we glorify him every moment of our lives.
Today’s Readings: March 29, 2020 Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
All sorts of things are shut down right now, and many of us are left trying to fill the time. One excellent thing to do during this time is to regularize our prayer lives. If we aren’t happy with our current practices of prayer, change them! That doesn’t mean we should be fickle and change our way of praying every single day; however, it can be good to have a little variety from season to season.
One good practice we can take up during Lent is the ancient practice of praying the Seven Penitential Psalms. For many centuries, they were a part of priests’ daily prayers during Lent. These were prayed kneeling and with an antiphon at the beginning and end.
I’ve begun praying these psalms recently, partially because I have a bit more free time due to the Coronavirus cancelling many of my meetings, but also because it is also helpful to remember where we stand before God. The penitential psalms help us to recognize that we all struggle to follow God in our daily life.
I have included links to the Penitential Psalms in English. I am unable to include them directly due to copyright concerns. I have also put together a page for both the English and the Latin version of these psalms. Click here to visit that page.
The Penitential Psalms
Note: the words in italics are instructions to assist in praying these psalms.
Begin with the first antiphon: Do not remember, O Lord, our offenses, or those of our parents. Do not take vengeance for our sins.
Pray the psalm:Psalm 6 End the psalm by praying the Glory Be: Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Pray the psalm:Psalm 32 End the psalm by praying the Glory Be.
Pray the psalm:Psalm 38 End the psalm by praying the Glory Be.
Pray the psalm:Psalm 51 End the psalm by praying the Glory Be.
Pray the psalm:Psalm 102 End the psalm by praying the Glory Be.
Pray the psalm:Psalm 130 End the psalm by praying the Glory Be.
Pray the psalm:Psalm 143 End the psalm by praying the Glory Be.
Repeat the initial antiphon: Do not remember, O Lord, our offenses, or those of our parents. Do not take vengeance for our sins.
During Lent, we intensify our efforts to grow closer to God. We fast, pray and give alms, just as Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel. These are things we must do. Humanity has turned away from God. We all have sinned and turned from God—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Psalm 51 speaks to all of these types of sin. It uses three different Hebrew words: פשׁע (pesha), חטאה (chatta’ah), עוון (‘ă·wōn). Each of these expresses a different type of sin. I wasn’t able to find my notes from 4 years ago, but if I remember correctly: עוון refers to a general condition of sin within humanity, חטאה refers to sin committed unintentionally—sort of a side effect of human nature, and פשׁע refers to sin committed intentionally. (I’m fairly sure the words and the definitions are right, and I’m pretty sure that’s how they line up, but I’m not 100% sure!) These are all different ways we get turned around and separated from God. We need help turning back to God. The prophet Joel tells us all—the children, the elderly, those literally just married, even infants—to cry out, “Spare, O Lord, your people!” If the Lord does not forget the cry of the poor, neither will he forget the cry of his children who, poor in spirit, turn back to him.
Jesus today tells us how to make that turn back to him prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. And he tells us how to do each of these things. We are supposed to do all of these things in private, so that others cannot see them. In fact, Jesus takes it one step further: when we fast, we are supposed to anoint our head, wash our face, and no appear to be fasting. It’s as if he wants us to undertake these penances joyfully.
It may seem odd, but there is, actually, a logic to it. Let me explain. Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving clear space out of hearts, getting rid of all the cruft that has been building up: attachments to material things, over-concern about our bodies (see Matthew 6:25-34), or things we have allowed to take God’s place. We clear out all those things that get in between us and God. When we empty out that space, though, we need to fill it up with something. If we fill it up with the praise and adulation of those around us, what good would any penance do? What good would all this work do? We’d be no better off than the hypocrites Jesus talks about in the Gospel today. Instead, we do these things in secret, and offer them to God, so that He can fill up our heart. In addition to the great practice of giving things up, we should add additional time for prayer and the Sacraments during Lent, so that we are filling that space we spent all that energy to clear with God. God is the source of all our joy, and if we are full of him, how can we help but be joyful? Fasting, prayer, alms-giving—these things are not easy, but they clean out our hearts and open them to God, they give us more room for God to work in our lives: of course we’ll be more joyful, because God lives within us!
This is, in fact, what we must do to fulfill what God has asked us to
do. Paul, in the second reading, reminds us that we are to be ambassadors for Christ. We must allow God to appeal to others through us. We must be lights, shining brightly with God’s love and his joy and his mercy. What better way is there to do that then to clear out all the junk from our hearts and let God fill it?
Now is an acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. This Lent, let’s do something a bit hard, to truly open up our hearts to God. The collect today was so excellent, it said “Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.” (Emphasis is mine.) This is our campaign of Christian service, by which Christ sends us to do battle with evil. We pray, fast, and give alms, so we get everything between us and God out of the way and go forth as joyful witnesses and ambassadors for God.
Today’s Readings February 26, 2020 Ash Wednesday Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 & 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
The prayers and readings of today’s Mass are full of joyful
expectation for something incredible. In the collect, we prayed together asking
God for “the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at
his coming.” In our first reading, all nations stream toward Jerusalem, the
Lord’s city, which was built on top of a high mountain, saying as the go “Come,
let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may
instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” The psalmist
echoes this sentiment, saying “Let us
go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.” Even St. Paul is swept up in eager
expectation today, writing that “it is the hour now for you to awake
from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the
night is advanced, the day is at hand.” Jesus himself even tells us to “Stay Awake! For you do not know on
which day your Lord will come.”
What are all of
these readings pointing toward? They are expecting the coming of the Messiah.
It is fitting that in the season of Advent we would be preparing for the Nativity
of Jesus, but the prayers and readings today are also pointing beyond that. As
we purify ourselves and prepare ourselves to commemorate and memorialize the
birth of the Messiah at Christmas, the Church is trying to remind us to look to
the future: to the second coming of the Messiah. We spend weeks preparing
ourselves and our homes to celebrate Christmas Day; many are already
celebrating Christmas: we love to have our Christmas parties during Advent, as
opposed to the—admittedly brief—Christmas season. There are probably people out
there who’ve already started preparing their Christmas dinners, who’ve
purchased a tree already, who’ve put up their lights.
I suppose that’s
all fine, as long as we remember that we’re not there yet. Christmas
is still 24 days away. We still have time set aside to prepare for that day.
Whether or not we’ve decorated yet, whether started planning our dinners and
parties, or whether we’ve tuned our radios to one of those “All Christmas All
The Time” stations, we still have 24 days to get ready. If keeping all those
reminds of what we’re preparing to celebrate helps, then great. But we cannot
forget to prepare for the coming of our Lord, because while we memorialize and make
Jesus’s birth present again to us on Christmas Day, Jesus is going to come
again. As we prepare for Jesus’s first coming, as a little child, we are teaching
ourselves how to prepare for his second coming in glory, where he conquers the
world and brings us all back to himself.
and prayers tell us all of this as well. Isaiah writes that “From Zion shall go
forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge
between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples.” The psalmist writes
that in Jerusalem “are set up judgment seats, seats for the house of David.”
Paul writes, “Let us them throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor
of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy.” Jesus tells us, “you
must also be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will
Let us prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord, our King, and our God. From ages long past until perhaps the late 19th or early 20th century, we would fast during the entirety of Advent. That later turned to abstaining from meat throughout Advent, until very recently when Advent seems to have lost nearly all of its preparatory character. These practices are very similar to Lenten practices that we practiced until very recently. Along those lines of thought, maybe we can give something up for Advent, make a commitment to pray a few extra minutes a day, make special effort to go to Confession, or something like that. By engaging in these time-honored traditions of the Church, we will make Advent more meaningful, and by extension, we will make the celebration of Christmas that much greater. Best of all, we will have begun our preparations for the Second Coming—so that we are prepared when the Son of Man comes again in great glory.
Today’s Readings: December 1, 2019 First Sunday of Advent, Year A Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44