True Fasting

PopeFrancis-mercy“Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes?…

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!”

from today’s 1st Reading for Mass, Isaiah 58

“False values that surround and blind” — Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

March 29, 2014

Readings

In those Catholic parishes that have an active RCIA program, these readings to which we just listened – including the long Gospel story from John about the Man Born Blind – are read not just every third year in the Church’s 3-year Sunday cycle, but they are read every year on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. It’s during the Lenten Season when the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – reclaiming the Church’s ancient practice of welcoming new members through a very thoughtful and prayerful process of initiation – welcomes adults who have been preparing for many months, sometimes years, to become Christian through the Easter Waters of Baptism.

ManBornBlindOn this Fourth Sunday of Lent, those adults – now called The Elect – will come forward for what’s called the Second Scrutiny, a ritual in which they, accompanied by their Godparents, are called to a deeper conversion of heart and mind to continue with their resolution, their decision, “to love God above all.” It’s a ritual in which the Community prays that they will be given “a sense of repentance, a sense of sin, and strength of will to live in true freedom as children of God.” Then, during the ritual itself when the Godparents place their right hands on the shoulders of the person with whom they have been walking this journey of faith, the celebrant prays these words: “God of mercy, you led the man born blind to the kingdom of light through the gift of faith in your Son. Free these elect from the false values that surround and blind them. Set them firmly in your truth, children of the light for ever.”

“The false values that surround and blind them.”

Most of us, probably, have a sense of what values are, let alone what values might be true or false, or perhaps what values appear true, but, when brought into the light of faith, are seen for what they truly are. I had an experience recently that made me wonder how common such an understanding is. Recently I had the occasion to speak with someone and I asked this person what values he was handing on to his children by certain actions he was engaging in. I almost was caught off guard when the response came, “what do you mean by values?” I tried to find a way to say what I meant, to get him to think of what is important in his life, what he finds to be of worth and lasting significance. He was able to say “family” was important to him – but knowing a bit about his family – I pressed further. “What about ‘family’ is valuable and important?” After all, I thought – even Vito Corleone or his real life counterparts in the contemporary Mafia – a crime organization whose members Pope Francis forcefully addressed this past week – would also have expressed belief in “family,” wouldn’t they? And, in our own country and culture wars, how often do we see bumper stickers promoting “family values” by those whose life choices make one ask whether Jesus would have chosen similarly.

When we listen to today’s readings, it doesn’t take a degree in theology to understand what their real meaning is all about. As we listen to this story of the man who, blind from birth, is given physical sight by Jesus’ actions, we also know that those religious leaders of the day, gifted with physical sight like most of humanity, have become blind to what is truly important, what is truly real, what is truly good, what is truly of value. Through the false values they have subscribed to, they seem chained to a rigid understanding of human rules and laws and regulations, for the Gospel writer tells us they cannot see what is plainly in front of them. Not only do they fail to stand back in awe and in wonder at the miracle of healing that Jesus has brought about, more importantly they fail to see who Jesus is. Blinded as they are by pride, power and position, they fail to see the identity of this miracle worker from Nazareth, the one who not only demonstrates power now over human ailments, but who soon will be shown as the One Who has power of death itself.

How often do we, too – or religious leaders in our own day – succumb to the same temptation? How often do we fail to recognize the Hand of God at work in the world simply because what we see does not fit with our preconceived notions of what is good and right? How often are we blind to the face of God in other people – either in our own backyard or across the globe – simply because they do not look like us or have lives which have traveled a different path? Do we have eyes to see that we are created in the Image of God, or do we prefer to limit our vision to a god created in the image of ourselves?

Today’s first reading from Samuel says it very clearly. In a line that seems uncannily similar to that famous line in the children’s book, “The Little Prince” about what is essential being invisible to the eye, the author of Samuel says this of Jesse’s eldest son, the one whom everyone expected would be anointed king: “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. Not as the human person sees does God see, because the human person sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”

As we move toward the end of our Lenten journey, what still blinds us to seeing, like God, into not only the hearts of others, but into our own hearts? Let us pray that, as our gathering song prays, our eyes might be opened to see the face of God in everyone, our ears might be opened to hear the voice of God in the cries of God’s people, and that our hearts might be opened to love one another as God loves us.

Sede Vacante and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent (Cycle C)
Dignity Washington/NoVA (March 9/10, 2013)

Readings:

Sede Vacante

Sede Vacante

I feel privileged today.  By now we all probably know what the phrase sede vacante means. The chair of St. Peter – representing the special place of the Bishop of Rome within the community of Jesus’ followers – remains vacant and empty for the second Sunday in a row.  These days between the pontificate of one pope and his successor are rare and brief, and so it’s a unique time in the life of the Universal church. And, while our attention is drawn by media coverage to the Conclave of Cardinals scheduled to begin Tuesday in Rome, to the actions of a particular Cardinal who has opted not to participate, and to the views of potential future-popes and what they have said in the past about LGBT people, the role of women, and other church issues … we are still invited on this Fourth Sunday of our Lenten Journey to listen not to the media coverage of bloggers and bookies, but rather, to listen to and reflect on one of the most beautiful and powerful parables in all of Scripture – the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

And so, as we ask the question that we must always ask – namely, what do these Scriptures mean for me and for us today – the richness of this parable is so great that it’s almost hard to know where to begin. In fact, a friend of mine told me that one of the reasons this is not a favorite of his is because there seems to be so much going on. To get a handle on all that we can do what commentators often invite us to do, namely put ourselves in the story as either an observer or participant, and thereby come to some insight of our own.

  • We can put ourselves in the shoes of the younger son who feels that natural though somewhat exaggerated pull to seek his own life, doing so basically by telling his father he wishes he were dead, demanding now the inheritance that would only come to him on his father’s death. In doing this he turns his back on family and friends and home; and acts in a way that shows he fails to appreciate not only those truer gifts that he has been so lucky to have, but also fails to appreciate the gift of his financial inheritance, squandering his money (as this translation says) “on a life of dissipation.” And so, after failing miserably “in a distant country” and suffering the humiliation a Jew would suffer by feeding a herd of swine owned by a Gentile, the scripture tells us that he comes to his senses – literally comes to himself. Still burdened with guilt and shame, however, he decides to return to his father’s house not as his son, but as a hired hand, a servant.
  • We can reflect also on what it means to be the older, dutiful son; the one who has always done what was expected of him, always followed the rules and played by the book. On learning that his brother has returned home, however, this big brother isn’t happy and filled with joy, but rather is so caught up in his own world that he becomes angry and resentful not at his brother, but at his father’s generosity – so angry and resentful in fact that he refuses to enter the family home, refuses to join in the celebration at table.
  • Finally, and perhaps with the greatest difficulty, we can try to put ourselves in the shoes of the father – a figure who represents the deepest and truest expression of unconditional love – the love of a father or mother who doesn’t get lost in what his or her children have or haven’t done, who doesn’t get lost in the mixed bag of goodness and brokenness that these two sons show themselves to be … but who simply offers a welcoming and open embrace, saying “I love you… you are with me always.”
Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

Perhaps you are familiar with the famous reflections from the late Henri Nouwen in his two books, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” and “Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.” His reflections were prompted by the painting of this parable by his fellow Dutchman, Rembrandt, which hangs in The Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, Russia. If you’re not familiar either with Nouwen’s reflections or with Henri Nouwen himself – I encourage you to become familiar with him. Nouwen reminds us that this is fundamentally a story of how God so loves humanity that nothing – absolutely nothing – can get in the way of that love. Despite the obstacles and walls that we ourselves put between us and God – God is always ready to welcome us, to embrace us, and to lead us home with joy and celebration.

As an exercise in personal prayer, meditation and spiritual growth during this Lenten season, nothing could be more appropriate than for us to do what Fr. Nouwen suggests in taking time in quiet and solitude to think about this story, reflect on the ways we can identify with one character or another, and learn what it has to teach us about how we recognize our own failings, yet even more fully receive and share God’s unconditional love for each of us.

There’s also the question, of course, of what this story might mean for us as gay and lesbian people – a people who so often feel disaffected from our Church and its leaders. Today the Chair of Peter sits empty. That chair, however, is not the only seat at the Table of the Lord.  For too long that Chair of Peter has been seen more as a regal throne than as the chair of a loving parent who gathers his or her children around a family table – much as I imagine the father in today’s gospel gathered all his household around a table of celebration when his younger son – who was dead but has come to life again – is welcomed home. Also and for too long our experience at the hands of Church leaders has sadly been unlike that of either sons in today’s Gospel. Instead of being welcomed and invited to come to the Table just as we are, we have been turned away precisely because we have tried – imperfectly perhaps, but with honesty nonetheless – to embrace our own inheritance as beloved children of God. By this time next week, I suspect that the Vacant Chair of Peter will once again have an occupant, a new Bishop of Rome, a new Pope who is called to be the Servant of the Servants of God. Let us pray that he, whoever he is, will have the faith and the courage to model his ministry on that of the father in today’s Gospel story, preaching the good news that God’s love for humanity knows no bounds, that there’s room enough for all at the Table of the Lord, and that those who’ve experienced rejection or abandonment will discover a table where bread is broken, where lives are shared, where burdens are diminished and joys are multiplied – and that at this Table there is indeed a seat for everyone.

(c) Copyright 2013 – Timothy J MacGeorge

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent (Year A)
Dignity Nova/DC – March 26/27, 2011

Although we in this Dignity community hear these particular readings only every third year – following, as we do, the 3 year cycle of our Lectionary – there are many, many parishes that hear these readings and this Gospel story about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well every year. The reason for that is those parishes have an active RCIA program – they regularly have adults who have either never been baptized or who are seeking to complete their initiation through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the RCIA. In those parishes, this Third Sunday of Lent marks the first of 3 very important “steps” in that ritualized process. Two Sundays ago, they would have gathered at their Cathedral with their godparents and the local Bishop, and the unbaptized would have declared in a public way their intention to be initiated into the death and resurrection of Christ through the Easter sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. While previously they would have been called Catechumens – students, really – interested in studying and learning about Christianity – now they are called the Elect, having been publicly accepted by those of us who already bear the name of Christian into these Lenten weeks of preparation of prayer, fasting, and the doing of good works.

This particular Sunday, the Third Sunday of Lent, those Elect are gathering at their parish’s principal liturgy, along with their godparents, and they are celebrating the first of what are called The Scrutinies. In two weeks they will hear perhaps the ultimate gospel story outside of the Passion Narratives that tell how Jesus’ has power even over death as they listen to the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Next week they will hear how Jesus brings vision and light to the Man Born Blind; and today they hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the Well as he declares himself to be “Living Water.”

It sounds like such a cliché for me even to say this, but it really is true that we could spend hours talking about this Gospel story we just heard, so filled it is with depth and meaning.

  • We could, for example, take note of how the Gospel writer has Jesus speak 7 times in his conversation with the woman, using that biblical number of fullness, like the 7 days of a week, to symbolically suggest that an encounter with Jesus brings wholeness; OR
  • We could discuss how Jesus pays little heed to established gender roles by engaging an un-chaperoned woman in conversation in a public place and at a time of day where a woman would never be by herself; OR
  • We could see how these gender roles continue to be ignored as the Gospel author puts the woman in the role of evangelizer, being the one who bears witness to Jesus to the men in the town square.

However, the point I want to draw our attention to is neither of these, but rather to what the conversation these two have is all about. The instruction for the RCIA instructs the Elect to come forward after the homily. At that time special prayers – prayers which are rightfully called Exorcisms – will be prayed over them as the community encourages them to continue on their journey of faith, asking God to free them from sin and from all that hinders what the RCIA itself calls “progress in genuine self knowledge through serious examination of their lives and true repentance.”

When we think about it, isn’t that what not only Lent but the entire Christian life is all about – progressing in “genuine self knowledge through serious examination” of our lives, as we seek meaning, purpose, satisfaction and fulfillment? Our thirst that seems never to be satisfied is what makes us work so hard to succeed in this life – whether that be in school, or the workplace, in a sport we enjoy, or some other activity that gives us pleasure. That thirst is also what brings us here, week in and week out; it’s what underlies the longings of our hearts as we strive to do what is good and right; as we strive to seek justice in this world, and to be agents of change in the face of established, sinful social structures that all too often keep people from realizing their full humanity as beloved children of God, from their rightful place at the table of God’s People.

Certainly it is good and typical that we have such thirst. After all, is there anyone here who can honestly say that when you look at the entirety of your life, you are fully satisfied? Is there anyone here who has no unmet goal, no unfulfilled hope, no dream yet to be realized? Is there anyone here whose relationships are perfectly satisfying, whose health is without flaw, and who has achieved everything you ever set out to achieve? If there is, I suspect you’d be the envy of us all! Simply articulating those questions demonstrates that there isn’t one person on this planet who is not unfulfilled in one way or another. As this Gospel story unfolds, it’s clear that one of the main messages Jesus brings to this woman, and one which she in turn bears to others, is that it is Jesus himself who is Living Water and is the One who can and does satisfy every longing of our hearts, every thirst we have, if only we could be as open and honest and vulnerable as she is.

But before we jump too quickly to the end of this dialogue that Jesus has with this woman – a woman whose life and past and shortcomings he already knows – let’s pause for just a moment. What is the very first thing Jesus says to her, the first words out of his mouth? “Give me drink.” Give me a drink. The encounter’s focus starts out not with the thirst that the woman – and by extension we – have; but rather on the thirst that Jesus has. In reaching out to her – and to us – Jesus reminds us of God’s never-ending thirst for us; and not just for “us” in general, for “humanity” writ large. Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well proclaims that God thirsts for and longs for and desires each and every one of us … including you and me and all those countless others whom society or church says “you’re not good enough.” Like his words, “I thirst” spoken on the Cross, Jesus – whom we believe is the en-fleshed presence of God in the world – became one like us precisely because of that eternal thirst of God to be loved by each and every one of us, the ones God created in Love.

Lent is a time when we are all called to be like that unnamed woman at the well in Samaria – a woman not perfect, a woman “with a past,” but more importantly a woman whose openness and faith satisfied the thirst of Jesus such that in turn she came to know his loving touch and was able to drink freely from the life-giving water he offers.