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.
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.
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.
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
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!)
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!
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.
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.
Jesus 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.
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!
Without humility, we are like tyrants. Without humility, we cannot truly listen to others. Without humility, we cannot endure suffering. Without humility, we cannot grow to be the man or woman who God created us to be. The readings today show us the need for humility.
The first reading tells us not to bear hatred for our brothers and sisters, to take no revenge and hold no grudge, to not incur sin even if we might need to correct them. Without humility, we cannot do this! The golden rule, formulated here in Leviticus as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is a call to humility. This is a challenging command! When I make a mistake, sometimes I am able to realize it, but many times I don’t even realize when I have done it. If I knew about it, I would try my best to correct it. In these cases, the only way that I can grow is for someone to offer me correction. That is why correcting a brother or a sister in Christ is an act of charity!
But without humility, this can become the act of a tyrant. Humility helps us to recognize that we all make mistakes. We all have faults. When someone corrects us, we desire for them to do it out of care and love. When someone corrects me out of anger, spite or a desire for power I can feel it. I do not wish that feeling on others. It is painful! It is hurtful! When we have humility, we can recognize our faults—or at least that we have faults—, and we allow ourselves to be corrected and to correct others in charity and kindness.
As I mentioned, humility allows us to truly hear others. Without humility, we may be tempted to assume that we our always right, and that others are the ones who need to change. Whenever I am driving, I know that I am the best driver on the road. If something doesn’t go my way when I’m driving, it’s never because I made a mistake. It’s the other guy, who obviously never learned how to drive and wants to cause a wreck. Humility, by helping open us to correction, helps us to recognize that maybe, perhaps, I was wrong. Maybe the reason people keep brake-checking me and giving me the “single-finger peace sign” is because I did something wrong while driving. Maybe I should listen when my friend tells me that texting while driving is bad, and that, really, 20 over the speed limit is a bad plan.
Humility helps us to be open to the input of other people in our lives. Paul reminds the Corinthians today that they must be open to others: “If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool.” The wise one is the person with all the answers. When we think we have all the answers, we are not open to others.
Finally, without humility we cannot fully accept the gift of suffering. Suffering is not fun, and we should not seek it out for its own sake. But, when suffering is inflicted on us we have to deal with it. How we deal with it makes all the difference. Saint John Paul II wrote an encyclical letter called Salvifici Doloris where he searches for the meaning of suffering. Ultimately, however, why God allows suffering remains a mystery to us. This, in itself, is an experience of humility. We are called to recognize that we cannot and will not know everything in this life.
But we are not left alone in this struggle. We are not alone in seeking humility. God himself gave us the ultimate example of humility by suffering and dying on the cross. God become a human being. Think about this for a moment. The all-powerful and all-knowing God became a weak and defenseless baby, and then allowed other men to kill him. Nobody understood what God was trying to teach us until the Resurrection, when Jesus rose from the dead. God was teaching us that there is life after death—death has no power over us! But we must have the humility to accept that we will not always understand.
We also learn humility through suffering because we often need the help of others to endure our suffering. We depend on others emotionally or physically. We are forced to exit ourselves and become a part of the larger community. The best way in which we can do this is by joining our suffering to Jesus Christ Crucified. The Crucifixion was grotesque, and in addition to the physical suffering, the spiritual and emotional suffering Jesus must have been immense. My most intense experience of suffering and pain was not due to a physical torment, but from emotions. Something had occurred which did not initially seem like a big deal at first, but I felt a betrayed. I did not even realize that this feeling was growing and growing inside of me until it completely overwhelmed me a few days later. I could not focus on anything, and I was very distraught. People who knew me could tell that something was very wrong. After a couple of days, I was finally able to bring it to prayer. I asked God to help me understand what he is trying to teach me, and I did my best to offer it up to him—but this is easier said than done. Eventually, God allowed me recognize that what had occurred was ultimately for my good. It still hurt, but it changed me. For the better.
When we suffer we can join our suffering to Christ’s suffering, and offer it for the salvation of souls—including our own—and the redemption of mankind. In a way, suffering makes us co-workers with Jesus on the Cross in a very special and unique way. Today’s Gospel doesn’t call for us to be crucified—not here at least, but it does call us to turn the other cheek, and to go the extra mile. These aren’t fun, and they often involve a little suffering. But these small experiences of suffering prepare us for the road ahead. They teach us the humility we need for the big suffering that will inevitably come to most of us.
Humility is fundamental to the Christian way of life. It can get us through our suffering. It can help us listen. It can help us be kind and compassionate in dealing with others.