Tag Archives: Lent

9 April 2017: Palm Sunday of the Lord’s passion

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Is 50:4-7 Ps 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24 Phil 2:6-11 Mt 26:14–27:66 or
Mt 27:11-54 (short form)

Lent: songs and stories

Red_banner_sm As Lent draws to a close, the Lectionary readings for Palm Sunday give RCIA participants and the believing community many images to reflect on for Holy Week. Today’s readings include two songs and a story.

The two songs are Isaiah’s Suffering Servant song in the first reading (Is 50:4-7), and Paul’s Carmen Christi (L: “Song of the Christ”) in the second reading (Phil 2:6-11). I’ve written about these songs and their meanings in last year’s Palm Sunday reflection, found here.

The story is Matthew’s passion narrative. We can read other parts of the gospels as short stories that tell Jesus’ words or acts, but the passion narratives are one, continuous story. The passion narrative is rich and deep and deserves a full and careful reading. Throughout Matthew’s passion, Jesus’ accusers words and actions ironically reveal who Jesus really is:

  • The Sanhedrin. The chief priests ask Jesus under oath if Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mt 26:63). Jesus responds “You have said so,” an affirmative answer. The Sanhedrin convicts Jesus of blasphemy for speaking the truth about his messiahship and divinity.
  • Pilate. The chief priests bring Jesus to Pilate for trial. Before Pilate, the chief priests and elders accuse Jesus of sedition, a Roman capital offense, rather than blasphemy, a religious offense. Pilate asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews” (Mt 27:11). Jesus responds “You say so,” an affirmative answer. Pilate convicts Jesus for speaking the truth about his kingdom (but not a kingdom Pilate would understand).
  • Barabbas. Barabbas is a Hebrew word meaning “son (bar) of his father (abba).” Pilate tells the crowd they must choose Barabbas or Jesus (Mt 27:17)–two sons of very different fathers. The crowd’s selection (Mt 27:21) is tinged with irony: they choose Barabbas, a revolutionary, who gives violence and death; rather than Jesus, the Father’s Son, who gives peace and eternal life.
  • Soldiers. The soldiers dress Jesus in a red military cloak and crown him with a “victory crown” (usually a diadem or laurel wreath, but the soldiers use thorns) to mock his kingship (Mt 27:29). Their actions reveal Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant (see the first reading, Is 50:4-7).
  • The centurion. At Jesus’ death, the Roman centurion and his men, witnessing the darkness and earthquake, acknowledge Jesus “was the son of God” (Mt 27:54). Matthew uses the centurion’s statement ironically: Romans considered the Roman emperor divine, the son of a god.

Palm Sunday introduces the most important feasts in the liturgical year. For RCIA participants, the Triduum–and especially the Easter Vigil–is the culmination of their journey to become full sacramental participants in our Catholic believing community. Their desire to become true disciples, to witness to the suffering servant and crucified savior, and to share Jesus’ resurrected life should make all of us stop and think. What do we think of Jesus’ saving act? How do we react to Jesus’ death? How to we participate in Jesus work? Where do we fit in Jesus’ story?

—Terence Sherlock

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2 April 2017: Fifth Sunday of Lent

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Ez 37:12-14 Ps 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8 Rom 8:8-11 Jn 11:1-45

A matter of death and life

Purple_banner_sm This week, John’s gospel reading invites the believing community to think about physical death and eternal life, and asks those preparing for Easter initiation to meditate on baptism’s death-to-life transformation.

John’s gospel tells of Jesus raising his friend, Lazarus, from death. This story is rich with meanings, but this reflection focuses on the story’s contrasts of physical death and eternal life, and on its baptismal imagery.

  • Physical death vs eternal life. Through words and a sign (John’s name for a miracle), Jesus leads Martha to deeper faith. Like many first-century Jews, Martha already believes that God will raise up her brother on the last day. She also believes that Jesus is the messiah and the Son of God. In his dialogue with Martha, Jesus teaches that he is the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in him will never die. He gives believers an eternal life that is impervious to physical death. Those who believe Jesus is messiah and Son of God will experience a new,resurrected, transformed, eternal life, that Jesus’ own resurrection promises and demonstrates. As a sign to Martha, Jesus returns Lazarus to life..Jesus calls us “to turn away from sin and believe in the good news.” In today’s story Jesus faces the full impact of sin and its human consequences. As he stands before his friend’s tomb, we read that “Jesus wept.” The Greek text is better translated as “Jesus broke into tears.” Jesus experiences the human cost of Adam’s sin: physical death. A few lines later we hear Jesus is “deeply moved”–which is better rendered as “strongly insistent” or “strongly convinced and focused.” That is, Jesus resolves to change sin’s outcome and restore Lazarus to life. We should find consolation in Jesus’ determination and action: he strongly desires to give life to each of us.
  • The catechumen’s baptismal death-into-life transformation. Jesus reformulates the Jewish idea of future resurrection into something new: “I AM theresurrection and the life.Resurrection means the eternal life that Jesus gives to the one believing in him, even if that one physically dies. Life means the new spiritual life Jesus gives through baptism to the one believing in him. Being submerged in baptism’s living water is a sign of death: the one being baptized dies to a former life and is reborn to a new, eternal life in Christ. Jesus himself will raise all believers on the last day; but the life Jesus gives is a present reality as well as a future promise. Eternal life is a current and ongoing participation in Jesus’ own life, in sacramental encounters and in the believing community.

The sign of Lazarus is a challenge to our faith. Martha stands for believers who ask: If Jesus gives eternal life, why do my family and friends die? Martha represents believers whose faith is real but inadequate–“if only Jesus hadn’t left us after his resurrection, the ones who believe in him wouldn’t die.” Here is the paradox for the believing community: eternal life doesn’t abolish physical death, but transcends it. Eternal life is not only a pledge of resurrection on the last day, but an ongoing participation in the ever-living Jesus’ life now, moment-to-moment. Those who believe this never die, even though they face physical death. The same living Jesus present with us now in our physical existence continues to be with us for eternity. In him we remain alive forever.

—Terence Sherlock

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26 March 2017: Fourth Sunday of Lent (Lætare Sunday)

Lætare Sunday
The name Lætare Sunday comes from the Entrance antiphon for the day:

Lætare Ierusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam.
Rejoice, Jerusalem, and come together all who love her.

Lætare is the Latin word meaning “rejoice” or “be joyful.” This Sunday marks Lent’s approximate mid-point, a day to rejoice because Easter is now within sight. Traditionally this day was a day of relaxation from normal Lenten practices.

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Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
 1 Sm 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a  Ps 23: 1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6  Eph 5:8-14  Jn 9:1-41

Despite the light, blind by choice

Rose_banner_sm This week, John’s gospel reading invites the believing community to think about our own blindnesses and asks those preparing for Easter initiation to meditate on the meaning of baptism.

John’s gospel tells of Jesus healing a man who was born blind. This story is rich with meanings, but this reflection focuses on the story’s irony about physical sight and spiritual blindness, and on its baptismal imagery.

  • Blindness to illumination to insight. As a sign Jesus gives physical sight to a sightless man. Through the rest of the story, the newly sighted man gains insight into those around him. He sees sighted people blind to Jesus’ healing sign. He watches religious leaders argue themselves into blindness over Jesus’ identity. When he tries to enlighten the learned men, they blindly throw him out. Jesus comes looking for the man. When he finally sees Jesus for the first time, the man is illuminated and recognizes Jesus as God’s son. Jesus judges the religious leaders, who observe the Law, sinful and unseeing. Despite Jesus’ enlightening sign, they choose to remain blind to his identity and saving gift.
  • The catechumen’s journey to Baptism. The early ekklesia used this healing story to teach about Baptism. The Greek word ἐπιχρίω (eh-pee-KREE-oh), translated in today’s gospel as “to smear” also means “to anoint.” The word ἐπιχρίω connects Jesus’ smearing the man’s eyes with mud to the bishop’s anointing the catechumen with oil as part of the sacrament of Baptism. In both cases, the material signs (mud and water, oil and water) transform the recipient. When the man washes with Siloam water, he sees; when the catechumen is washed in baptismal water, she or he becomes a member of God’s family. Becoming physically sighted restores the man to his community; becoming spiritually enlightened initiates the newly baptized into the ekklesia, the believing community.

As today’s gospel story progresses, a newly sighted man moves from physical sight to spiritual insight. His gradual enlightenment allows him to see Jesus first as simply “a man (v 11),” then as “a prophet (v 17),” then as “from God (v 33),” and finally as the divine “Son of Man (v 38).” His story traces every disciple’s coming-to-faith: hearing about Jesus, learning about Jesus, and finally personally encountering Jesus.

But discipleship has its price: scripture overflows with stories about those who suffer because of their faith. Courageous witnesses stand as shining beacons, especially in today’s rising hostility to religious beliefs. The sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation give us the strength and courage to witness to the one who is the light of the world. Do we choose to illuminate the darkening world with Jesus’ light? Or do we choose to turn a blind eye, finding safety in our own darkness? How will Jesus see us?

—Terence Sherlock

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19 March 2017: Third Sunday of Lent

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Ex 17:3-7 Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9 Rom 5:1-2, 5-8 Jn 4:5-42

Water and food: lessons in discipleship

Purple_banner_sm This week, John’s gospel reading asks RCIA candidates and the believing community to think about the personal encounters that create disciples.

John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. This story is rich with meanings, but this reflection focuses on the story’s confusion and irony about two of life’s basic needs: water and food:

  • Water. Jesus opens his dialogue with the Samaritan woman with a simple request: give me a drink of water. For RCIA participants, especially catechumens and the Elect, this story presents water as an image of baptism–the sacrament of initiation and entry into the believing community. Jesus teaches the Samaritan woman to look beyond water’s functional use. Jesus helps her to see and to know what she really thirsts for.In the sacrament of Baptism, ordinary water becomes living water, imbued with ritual and liturgical significance. The baptismal waters drown our former sinful selves, and resurrect us as new creations flooded with God’s own life. Just as Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman re-integrate her into her social community, Baptism incorporates us into the ekklesia, the believing community. Jesus’ living water restored the Samaritan woman to her social community; Jesus’ baptismal water restores us to God’s family.
  • Food. For the believing community, this story provides lessons in evangelization. To fulfill his mission of bringing everyone to the Father, Jesus “had to” evangelize Samaria. He engages the Samaritan woman in conversation, revealing to her who he is and the water he can provide. After she encounters Jesus’ living water, she goes to tell others about him–“could he be the messiah?” The Samaritan woman becomes an evangelist for Jesus.Returning with food, the Twelve tell Jesus: you need to eat. Jesus responds that he is fed by doing and finishing the Father’s will. He teaches the Twelve something else about evangelization. Jesus tells them that the harvest–those ready to accept Jesus’ teaching and to become his disciples–is ready now. The Twelve must act immediately to bring in the next crop of disciples. Jesus invites the Samaritan woman, the disciples, and us to offer living water to others. Jesus’ spiritual food–“to do the will of the One who sent me”–fuels his mission; our spiritual food–the Eucharist–fuels our mission to live as Jesus taught and to make disciples of all nations.

Today’s reading asks us to think about our own discipleship as well as the evangelization of others: How does someone come to faith? What are the obstacles that a disciple must overcome? We come to faith only through encountering Jesus, like the woman at the well. Our baptismal mission is to make disciples. Do others encounter Jesus then they encounter us? Do we remove obstacles to faith or create them? What fuels our evangelization?

—Terence Sherlock

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12 March 2017: Second Sunday of Lent

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Gn 12:1-4a Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22 2 Tm 1:8b-10 Mt 17:1-9

Transfiguration: invited to be part of the story

Purple_banner_sm On the second Sunday in Lent–Transfiguration Sunday–the Lectionary readings invite RCIA participants and all the believing community to consider how God calls us and how such invitations can change us.

In the first reading, God calls Abram. God’s invitation marks the beginning of salvation history: God calls Abram and his descendants as the chosen people. Abram’s response allows God to enter into and to act in human history and allows Jesus, a descendant of Abram, to save all nations.

In the second reading from the second letter to Timothy, the author describes a Christian’s vocation–a “call to a holy calling.” God invites us to share in the grace and benefits of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection as God’s free gift to us; we have done nothing to deserve God’s invitation.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus appears transfigured. As a theological vision full of symbols, the transfiguration reveals Jesus as fulfillment of Hebrew scripture prophecies and hopes, divine Son, prophet, and messiah. The transfiguration includes the following actors:

  • Peter, James, and John. Jesus invites these three disciples, his inner circle, to witness his transfiguration. They are present for both this vision of Jesus’ revealed glory, and for  Jesus’ agony in the garden (Mt 26: 36-46). Some scholars see the transfiguration and Gethsemane as mirror stories, showing Jesus’ seeming conflicting divine glory and human struggle. Peter, James, and John represent us at both awe-full and bewildering occasions.
  • Moses and Elijah. Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the prophets) stand for the Hebrew scripture as the revealed word of God. Having Moses and Elijah present calls attention to their similarities with Jesus: Moses and Elijah worked miracles; fasted for forty days, were rejected by some of the chosen people; and encountered God on mountains. In Jewish tradition, Moses and Elijah have eschatological (end-time) roles: another prophet like Moses will appear (Dt 18:15-19); Elijah will return to announce the messiah (Mal 3: 23-25).
  • God the Father. The cloud that overshadows everyone announces God’s presence, as it did at Sinai (Ex 24:15) and the Jerusalem temple (1 Kgs 8:10-11). God repeats the words from Jesus’ baptism (Mt 3:17). God’s command–“Listen to him”–recalls God’s promise to raise up a prophet like Moses; the people should hear and follow him (Dt 18:15). Jesus is both God’s son and promised messiah. The words, like the vision, are for the disciples’ benefit, to strengthen them for Jesus’ coming passion and death.

As we progress through Lent, the Sunday readings proclaim the sweep of salvation history. In every time and generation, God invites humans to be part of something greater than themselves. Abram’s call set in motion God’s saving plan accomplished in Jesus. Today’s letter tells us that God calls each one to be part of God’s continuing saving story promised at the transfiguration. As disciples who have witnessed the resurrection, we understand the transfiguration as a vision of our own future glory promised by Jesus’ own resurrection. What is our role in God’s story? Where does God fit in our own story?

—Terence Sherlock

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5 March 2017: First Sunday of Lent

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7 Ps 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17 Rom 5:12-19 Mt 4:1-11

Lent: testing, estrangement, reconciliation

Purple_banner_sm During Lent the believing community walks with Jesus during the final period of his ministry. The Lectionary asks RCIA participants and the believing community to recognize and to reject temptations that might subvert discipleship. For RCIA participants preparing to receive their sacraments at the Easter Vigil, Lent is a time of special rites and prayers.

The first reading from Genesis tells the story of humans’ estrangement from God. Our alienation begins in Genesis, but our full reconciliation concludes only with Jesus’ transformative death and resurrection. Today’s second reading contrasts and completes the story.

The second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul contrasts the effects of Adam’s disobedience (today’s first reading) with Christ’s redemptive mystery. Adam’s transgression brings death into the world and to all humans. But God’s grace and Christ’s obedient act (the cross) are greater than Adam’s transgression. Where Adam’s disobedience brought all humans condemnation, God’s freely given, overflowing grace brought all humans righteousness.

Matthew’s gospel described Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the wilderness. The Greek word πειράζω (pih-RAHd-zoh) means not only “to test to discover someone’s nature or character,” but also “to try to entrap” as well as “to entice to improper behavior.” Satan’s three tests are as follows:

  • Turn stones to bread. God’s chosen people suffered hunger in the wilderness (Num 11:5-20). Satan tests the hungry Jesus with bread, but his test is really about Jesus as messiah. Food in abundance is a sign of the messianic kingdom. If Jesus uses divine power to satisfy his own hunger, he compromises himself and his mission. Jesus rejects Satan’s suggestion, responding with Dt 8:3.
  • Throw yourself down from the temple. God’s chosen people demanded proof of God’s presence and protection at Massah (Ex 17:1-7). Satan begins his second test with a scripture quote about God’s protection (Ps 91:11-12), but his test is really about Jesus as obedient son and messiah. Jesus’ public show of power would announce his messiahship to all present. If Jesus uses God’s protection to show his messianic power, he compromises his obedience to God and his mission. Jesus rejects Satan’s suggestion,responding with Dt 6:16.
  • Earthly power if you worship me. God’s chosen people worshiped a false god when they lost faith in God. In the third test, Satan drops all pretenses and subtlety. He offers Jesus a shortcut to the messianic kingdom without the cross’ humiliation, suffering, and death. If Jesus chooses to establish a political kingdom and this world’s false gods over God’s plan, he compromises his obedience to God and his mission. Jesus rejects Satan’s suggestion, responding with Dt 5:7-9.

Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to reflect on human limitations and God’s powerful grace and presence.Rather than use divine power to overcome Satan, Jesus faced the devil’s tests in a human way, in full solidarity with humanity. Jesus shows us that we, too, can overcome traps and temptations. Knowing scripture and committing to live scripture’s message are powerful weapons against the world’s enticements. Do we use God’s word and sacraments when we are tested?

—Terence Sherlock

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20 March 2016: Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
 Is 50:4-7  Ps 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24  Phil 2:6-11  Lk 22:14–23:56
or Lk 23:1-49 (short)

 

Lent: songs and stories

As Lent draws to a close, the Lectionary readings for Palm Sunday give RCIA participants and the believing community many images to reflect on for Holy Week. Today’s readings include two songs and a story.

The first song is Isaiah’s third Suffering Servant song. Isaiah’s servant songs foretell the passion and glorification of Christ. The third song describes Isaiah abused by his people because they reject God’s message to them. Despite the prophet’s rejection, he remains faithful to God who continues to support him. This song serves as a prototype for Jesus’ passion and death.

The second song is the Carmen Christi (L: “Song of the Christ”), from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This early Christological hymn reflects on Jesus’ humility and love, demonstrated by his incarnation and saving death. The song then meditates on Jesus’ exaltation by God and his rule over the entire created cosmos. This song sets the full context for Jesus’ passion and death.

The story is Luke’s passion narrative. Unlike other parts of the gospels, which are short stories that tell of Jesus’ words or acts, the passion narratives are one, continuous story. This is why the Lectionary proclaims the entire passion story in one hearing on Palm Sunday. The passion narrative is rich and deep and deserves a full and careful reading. Here are three elements to consider:

  • Jesus’ saving act: Luke uses the word σώζω (SO-dzo), meaning “heal,” “save,” and “be made whole” four times in the crucifixion passage (Lk 23:33-43). The Jewish leaders say, “He saved others, let him save himself;” the soldiers tell Jesus to “save himself;” and co-crucified insurgent says, “Save yourself and us.” While those who reject Jesus mock his ability to save anyone, Jesus is saving and healing all humanity through his transformative death. Even from the cross, Jesus ministers to his enemies and cares for the marginalized.
  • Jesus’ completed work: Luke’s Jesus offers trusting and confident final words–“Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” His mission complete (see the second reading), he yields his spirit to the Father who will transform Jesus’ ignoble death into new life (see the first reading).
  • Reactions to Jesus’ death: The centurion echoes Pilate, Herod, and the co-crucified insurgent–all gentiles–saying Jesus did nothing wrong. The crowds express sorrow (“beat their breasts.”) The acquaintances and women followers are witnesses (“saw these events”) to Jesus’ passion and death; they will also be witnesses to the resurrected Jesus.

Palm Sunday introduces the most important feasts in the liturgical year. For RCIA participants, the Triduum–and especially the Easter Vigil–is the culmination of their journey to become full sacramental participants in our Catholic believing community. Their desire to become true disciples, to witness to the suffering servant and crucified savior, and to share Jesus’ resurrected life should make all of us stop and think. What do we think of Jesus’ saving act? How do we react to Jesus’ death? How to we participate in Jesus work? Where do we fit in Jesus’ story?

–Terence Sherlock

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13 March 2016: Fifth Sunday of Lent

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
 Is 43:16-21  Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6  Phil 3:8-14  Jn 8:1-11

 

Lent: something new is coming

During Lent RCIA catechumens (those awaiting baptism) pray and study to prepare for the Easter Vigil’s Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist). This week the Lectionary readings invite RCIA participants and all of us in the believing community to consider the meanings of sacraments, especially baptism.

In the first reading from the second Isaiah, the prophet envisions the Jewish people’s return from exile in Babylon as a new Exodus. God will give people new signs–water in the desert, rivers in the wasteland. The closer we get to Easter, the more we hear about water. The waters of the first Exodus and today’s new Exodus prefigure Easter’s baptismal waters, where God does “something new” by washing away sin, adopting catechumens as God’s own children, and incorporating them into Christ’s mystical body.

In the second reading, Paul responds to the Philippians and to the gnostic visitors who are “correcting” Paul’s teachings. These visitors tell the Philippians that in baptism they have already achieved resurrection and are already perfected (complete) Christians. Paul explains that everything before his encounter with Christ and his metanoia–including his life and work as a devout Pharisee–“counts for nothing.” Righteousness comes not from Mosaic Law, but only from God through “faith” and “being conformed to Christ’s death through his sufferings.” Paul tells us that he has not yet attained resurrection or Christian completeness, but he continues to strive toward those goals.

In John’s gospel, the scribes and Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus so they can “bring some charge against him.” Their pretext is a woman caught in adultery.

  • The charge and punishment: The Torah defines adultery as a capital crime, punishable by stoning (Dt 22: 22-24, Lev 20:10) for both the man and the woman.
  • The trap: The scribes and Pharisees know Jesus must either support the Torah and allow the woman’s execution, or go against the Torah and give them a reason to discredit him (or worse). Instead, Jesus chooses a third option.
  • Jesus’ answer: According to the Torah (Dt 17: 6-7), the witnesses who testify to the accused’s guilt are the ones who begin the execution. Jesus reframes the accusers’ testimony by calling attention to their own guilt before God.
  • Scribes’ and Pharisees’ response: The accusers, scribes, and Pharisees drift away, “beginning with the eldest.” They leave either because their plan has failed, or because Jesus has made them confront their own sinfulness.
  • Jesus’ judgement: The Greek text says literally: “No one judges against you? Neither (do) I judge against you.” Jesus offers the woman a new start: “Go and do not sin any more.” Jesus calls her to turn away (metanoia) from sin and turn toward God’s infinite mercy.

Throughout Lent RCIA participants contemplate their upcoming sacraments; the Catholic believing community reflects on the sacraments’ ongoing mysteries. Sacraments occur at a specific point in time but their effects last through time. The baptismal waters are only a beginning. With Paul, we live in the already and the not yet: through sacraments we encounter God, but we are not yet completed Christians. Through sacraments Jesus offers us a new start: metanoia. Are we watching for the new things God is doing?

–Terence Sherlock

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6 March 2016: Fourth Sunday of Lent (Lætare Sunday)

Lætare Sunday
The name Lætare Sunday comes from the Entrance antiphon for the day:

Lætare Ierusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam.
Rejoice, Jerusalem, and come together all who love her.

Lætare is the Latin work meaning rejoice or joy. This Sunday marks Lent’s approximate mid-point, a day to rejoice because Easter is now within sight. Traditionally this day was a day of relaxation from normal Lenten practices.

 

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
 Jos 5:9a, 10-12  Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7  2 Cor 5:17-21  Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

Lent: lost and forgiven

During Lent RCIA candidates (those who are already baptized) experience the Sacrament of Reconciliation to prepare themselves for Confirmation and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil. This week the Lectionary readings invite RCIA participants and all the believing community to consider how God thinks about forgiveness.

While the first reading (the end of manna) and the second reading (our ministry of reconciliation) are important, this reflection focuses on the gospel–the parable of the lost son.

Jesus’ ministry–bringing the good news–is often described as “comforting the afflicted.” But part of Jesus’ teaching is about “afflicting the comfortable.” Jesus frequently delivers his unsettling messages as parables. A parable is an opened-ended story or metaphor that overturns the hearer’s expectations and make him or her think.

Today’s parable, “the prodigal son” or, more accurately, “the lost son,” is about forgiveness. The Pharisees and scribes are Jesus’ audience (but we can learn something, too). Here’s what makes the parable:

  • The set-up: “A man has two sons.” Hebrew scripture is full of men who have two sons: Adam has Cain and Able; Abraham has Ishmael and Isaac; Isaac has Esau and Jacob, and so on. Paired sons are a type: the younger son is favored by God, is more successful, and outwits his older brother. Jesus starts his story this way so hearers would recognize the types, but Jesus then overturns the types.
  • The younger son: Unlike the Hebrew scripture type, he’s an irresponsible bad boy who demands his portion of his father’s livelihood and wastes it on wine, women, and song. When things get tough, he goes home with a well-rehearsed speech.
  • The older son: Unlike the Hebrew scripture type, he’s an always-responsible oldest child. When he hears his goof-off brother is back and being feasted, he’s mad. Where’s the fairness in that? He refuses to enter the house.
  • The man: He’s a parent who loves both his children unconditionally. He can and does forgive them anything.
  • The question: Who is lost?: The younger son was lost in another country but has returned alive. His father doesn’t care why his son has returned; he’s glad to have him home. Now the older son is lost to him, because he thinks his father has treated him unfairly. The father and his now-lost older son are left standing outside, while the welcome-home party goes on in the house.

Forgiveness happens only when we give up expectations of or conditions for repayment. Reconciliation is about love, not equality or perceived fairness. The younger son experiences his father’s forgiveness before he completes his rehearsed speech. The older son (Pharisees and scribes take note!) experiences his father’s forgiveness even though he doesn’t understand that he needs it.

Jesus uses this parable to tell the Pharisees, scribes, and us how God thinks: you’re forgiven. RCIA candidates who will experience Reconciliation: you’re forgiven. Everyone: you’re forgiven. If you want to argue that God is too generous in forgiving everyone, and that you don’t think that’s right, and you personally can’t do that, that is your choice. You can stand outside while the party goes on in the house. You’re still forgiven.

—Terence Sherlock

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28 February 2016: Third Sunday of Lent

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15 Ps 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12 Lk 13:1-9

 

Lent: God’s call to change

On the third Sunday in Lent, the Lectionary readings invite RCIA participants and all the believing community to consider who God is and how God calls us to change.

The first reading, from Exodus, tells how God called Moses. In this story, God also reveals God’s mysterious name and self. All previous biblical stories are schematic–that is, “a thing happened, and this was the result.” Moses’ encounter with God moves slowly, inviting us to deeper engagement and reflection on what the story means. Speaking from the burning bush, God asks Moses to free God’s people enslaved in Egypt. Moses asks God what name he should tell the Hebrews who ask, “Who sent you?” God responds using the Hebrew word “to be” (Heb: hwh or hyh), meaning either “he who is” or “he who causes [something] to exist.” In a subtle way, God’s answer also asks Moses, “Who are you?”

The second reading, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, warns us not to get too comfortable. Some in the Corinthian ekklesia thought that because they were baptized and attended eucharists, they were saved. Paul recounts the Israelites’ Exodus: even though they “passed through the sea” (like baptism) and they “were fed with spiritual food”–manna–(like the eucharist), some still displeased God and were “struck down.” Paul warns about Corinthian overconfidence in simply being an ekklesia member: salvation requires more than just a membership card, it requires true discipleship.

The gospel begins with two Jerusalem current events: Pilate’s slaughter of Galilean pilgrims and a Siloam tower collapse. Jesus uses these events as warnings to change, and provides a parable to challenge his hearers:

  • The call to metanoia: “Do you think those killed were bigger sinners than others? Not at all! But if you do not repent, you will perish.” The Greek word metanoia, translated in the gospel as “repent,” actually means to change one’s mind; be converted, turn around. Metanoia means more than simply “repent”–it implies an active turning away from evil and turning toward good. Jesus tells us, “Metanoia or perish!”
  • The fruitless fig tree parable: A parable is an open-ended story that challenges the hearer to look into the hidden aspects of the hearer’s own values and own life. This parable has four characters: a fruitless fig tree, its impatient owner, a (more patient) vine-dresser, and the hearer. The hearer is the most important character because he or she evaluates the actions of the other characters. The hearer asks: Is the owner right, honorable, good? Is the gardener right? Is the tree “behaving” correctly? What does the parable mean? At the highest level,the parable is about patience. Patience has its limits; and lack of action has consequences. Based on Jesus’ call to metanoia, we might understand this parable about God’s continuing patience with those who have not yet given evidence of their metanoia (see Lk 3:8). Jesus’ parable tells us, “The time is short!”

As RCIA participants journey toward Easter sacraments, the RCIA process asks them to scrutinize their acts and to measure their lives against Jesus’ life. This is a good practice for all of us. Scripture reveals who God is, but in this revelation, God asks us who we are. Paul warns us that sacraments are not guarantees, but only the beginnings of discipleship. Jesus tells us to pay attention to his call to change our hearts and minds and follow the path he has marked for us. Who are we? Are we disciples in name only? What will it take for us to turn around? Time is short.

—Terence Sherlock

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