Easter Vigil, Cycle B

The Easter Vigil has many readings, some optional, but since it presents a recap of salvation history it’s not surprising that it stretches from the dark, formless waste before Creation to the dawn of the Resurrection on Easter morning.

In the account of Creation (Genesis 1:1–2:2) we see the Lord creating everything we now experience and declaring it good.

  • It all began with a dark abyss and a formless wasteland.
  • Then light was created, and the distinction between night and day.
  • Then the sky.
  • Then the sea and the earth.
  • Then the plants.
  • Then the sun, the moon, and the stars.
  • Then the living creatures of the sky and sea.
  • Then the living creatures of the land.
  • Then, as a category set apart, he created man and entrusted him with the stewardship of Creation.

The Lord didn’t just give us a beginning; he gave us a good one.

In the story of Abraham being put to the test (Genesis 22:1–18) we see his faith in the face of a terrible trial, but also a foreshadowing of the Lamb who would be sacrificed: Our Lord. When Isaac asks Abraham about what was to be sacrificed, Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.” We may think Abraham’s act of faith ended with the ram caught in the bushes that he sacrificed instead of his son, but that’s not entirely accurate. The Lord renewed his promise to Abraham as being the father of a great nation, but that nation would need redemption. God the Father spared Isaac, but sacrificed his own Son, and, in the Son, God sacrificed himself.

In the story of the Israelites escaping the wrath of the Egyptians (Exodus 14:15–15:1) we see a foreshadowing of Baptism. The Israelites were saved from death and slavery by passing through the waters, just as we are saved from death and the slavery of sin through the waters of Baptism. Crossing through the waters not only saved their lives; it led to a new life as the People of God. Baptism has the same effect in our lives: it leads us to new life and makes us part of the People of God, destroying the chains of sin and death in the process.

In Isaiah’s vision of the new Jerusalem (Isaiah 54:5–14) we see our ultimate destination: Heaven. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and, as a good husband should, Our Lord protects her from every threat, every evil, seeking to make her eternally happy. The Church, while on pilgrimage, it still menaced and dogged by sin, but her husband watches over her and leads her to the day when they’ll be together, secure and loved, forever. On that day all the “marital” strife we’ve caused our perfect Spouse will end, and he’ll never turn his face from us again.

Isaiah’s goes on to remind us (Isaiah 55:1–11) that we should turn to the Lord for whatever we may need. He offers us the waters that will wash us of our sins and sow the seed of eternal life: Baptism. He nourishes us with the Eucharist without asking anything in return. He makes his presence known so that we can turn to him. Conversion literally means, “with a turning toward.” He shows us how we can turn back to him after we’ve sinned. He sends out his Word—Jesus—so that we can hear him, and his Word always succeeds.

Baruch reminds us (Baruch 3:9–15, 32–4:4) that the solution to all our problems is to return to the fount of wisdom. He is addressing the Israelites in exile due to their infidelity. Sin will also exile us from the Promised Land if we let it. Wisdom has been entrusted to the People of God. Wisdom comes from God, and, in the case of Our Lord, we experience Wisdom in Person.

Ezekiel reminds us (Ezekiel 36:16–17a, 18–28) that the Lord wishes to write a new covenant on our hearts. The Ten Commandments were brought down from Mt. Sinai on tablets of stone. The Israelites were as cold hearted in valuing them as a stone would be. They were scattered and, wherever they were, they gave the Lord a bad name due to their iniquity. The Lord promises to reunite them, cleanse them, and change their hearts. The People of God today, the Church, have been reunited, cleansed, and changed in their hearts by Our Lord through his sacrifice and the “sprinkling” of Baptism.

With the Epistle we pass from the Old Testament to the New (Romans 6:3-11), and St. Paul reminds us that in Baptism we die in Christ and then receive new life from him. In many celebrations of the Eucharist this evening we welcome people into the Church through Baptism. The water goes over our heads, whether by immersion or aspersion, to represent the burial in Christ that Paul speaks of this evening in the Epistle. The person who comes up out of that water comes up into new life, just as Our Lord did when the tragedy of the Cross was behind him. If we’re dead as far as sin is concerned, we need to act like it. Dying in Christ is dying to sin so that living in him leads to a new and eternal life.

In this evening’s Gospel the disciples thought they were doing one last kindness for Our Lord. They were trying to overcome an obstacle that seemed insurmountable: the stone sealing the tomb. That didn’t stop them from moving forward. In the end the obstacle was removed without them having to lift a finger, and their life took an unexpected turn. Instead of one last gesture of kindness and closure for a departed friend, they received a wonderful surprise: their friend was alive and well. They also received a new mission: they had to spread the news. In the light of Christ’s victory over death we know that if we continue along the path he’s shown us (love for him and for others), even when there are obstacles, even when we don’t understand, those obstacles will be overcome and those mysteries will be explained, because Christ overcame the biggest obstacle and mystery of all: sin and death.

This evening catechumens receive the sacraments of Christian initiation throughout the Western world and become neophytes. Born anew of water and the spirit in Christ, neophytes are taking their first baby steps in the faith. Congratulate anyone in your parish who has just come into the Church and pray for neophytes everywhere.

Readings: Genesis 1:1–2:2; Genesis 22:1–18; Exodus 14:15–15:1; Isaiah 54:5–14; Isaiah 55:1–11; Baruch 3:9–15, 32–4:4; Ezekiel 36:16–17a, 18–28; Romans 6:3–11; Mark 16:1–7. See also Easter Vigil.

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, Cycle B

Today we take up branches and palms, just as the enthusiastic Israelites did, to welcome our  Messiah with “Hosannas” and begin Holy Week. Yet we know how the story ends: from enthusiastic crowds to a lonely and cruel death on Calvary. How do we go the distance and accompany Our Lord with Hosannas from the procession to the crucifixion?

We have two Gospels today, one before the procession, and one narrating the Passion. This year both Gospels are taken from Mark. In the first Gospel people are paving the way for Our Lord to enter Jerusalem, but anonymously. Two “disciples” go for the colt that he’ll ride. Bystanders inquire as to why the disciples are taking the colt, but don’t interfere. The crowds pave the way for Our Lord, putting down cloaks and leafy branches in his path. Some may have just tossed down a branch or two and headed home when the parade passed them by. Others joined in procession with him into Jerusalem. As we begin Holy Week we can ask ourselves how committed we are? Are we paving the way for Our Lord?

In today’s First Reading the prophet Isaiah describes Our Lord as the Suffering Servant, a servant not only committed to his master but also to those willing to go the distance. He is sent to rouse the weary, not the rested and enthusiastic. He is faithful and obedient day after day, not just in a flash of glory. He remains steadfast and does not harbor resentment over what is being asked of him. He takes all the abuse people dish out. What keeps him going day by day is the certainty that he is serving the Lord and will not be put to shame by him, the only one whose opinion really matters. Our Lord served us in this way, and we’re called to imitate him. It doesn’t matter how hard, how ungrateful, how exhausting him seems. In his eyes, when we are faithful, day after day, he is proud of us, just as his Father was proud of him.

In today’s Second Reading Paul teaches us that the consequence of Our Lord’s tireless service is not just an execution, but an enthronement. Exaltation literally comes from the Latin exaltatio, which means “raising on high.” Today we see Our Lord exalted on the Cross. He is literally raised up, but also glorified in the process. There are not many people on Calvary who believe in him, but it is on Calvary that he earns our Hosannas and deserves them.

In today’s Passion narrative we see Our Lord progressively abandoned by the religious authorities of his people, by the crowds of “fans,” and by his friends. A stranger must be forced to carry Our Lord’s cross when he cannot go farther alone. How lonely it is on Calvary. In Mark’s account the women who followed him were there, but where were the Apostles? Suddenly a quiet figure comes onto the scene: Saint Joseph of Arimathea. He was an unknown in this story until this moment, a quiet follower of Our Lord. He steps out of the shadows and goes straight to Pilate to ask for Our Lord’s body.

Saint Joseph of Arimathea’s example should embolden us as well. The Apostles, except for Judas, came out of the shadows when it was all over. We should consider Passion Sunday a dress rehearsal for what we’ll live on Good Friday. Mistakes happen in the dress rehearsal, but there is still time to rectify them. Let’s not just gather around Our Lord at the moment of enthusiastic hosannas and parades. Let’s gather at the foot of his Cross on Calvary.

Holy Week starts with the Passion and culminates with the Easter Vigil on Saturday Evening. From today to Holy Saturday morning there is time for you to make an appointment at Calvary. Make the time. Spend some time alone at the foot of a crucifix, whether at home or in a church or chapel. Remind yourself that Our Lord is on the Cross for you. Don’t just speak to him. Ask him to speak to you.

Readings: Mark 11:1–10; Isaiah 50:4–7; Psalm 22:8–9, 17–20, 23–24; Philippians 2:6–11; Mark 14:1–15:47.

5th Sunday of Lent, Cycle B

We’re a week away from Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, and in today’s Gospel you can feel the tension in the air, both on Heaven and on earth. The Gospel starts with a simple request to see Jesus, but, by the end, Heaven and earth are crying out about what’s about to happen, something that we will remember in the liturgy in a special way next week: the Passion of the Lord, and our Redemption.

Heaven and earth are exulting today because the Lord’s wish expressed in today’s First Reading is about to become a reality. The Lord wants to go beyond just being a legislator in our lives of a Law. It is for our good, but that Law seems to too strict, too hard, too impersonal to keep. The Law is how the Lord tried to stay in the lives of his people Israel for thousands of years, and, as he laments, they broke it over and over in the wilderness. Nevertheless, as a good Father he had to be strict with them so that they’d keep trying, since the Law was the way they could be re-united with him.

The Lord wants to write that Law on our hearts because once written there it cannot be erased: when we go against our conscience, that Law in our hearts keeps reminding us that we should have done something different in our lives. When we break that Law it not only puts distances and barriers between God and us, but all of humanity is kept away from him due to our lack of love. Jesus taught us that we should build our lives on two fundamental commandments from which all others flow: to love God above all else, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. All God really asks for is love, and that doesn’t seem unreasonable, considering all the love he has shown us, but, despite all that love he’s shown us, we still treat him many times like a cold-hearted legislator bogging us down with rules and regulations. In our lives we know there’s no substitute for God’s love. We can’t even find it just by loving ourselves. His Law, written in our hearts, shows us how incomplete we are when we don’t have his love and don’t share his love with others.

By the time we come to the moment in Jesus’ life that is recalled in the Gospel today, there’s a big void of love that everyone is feeling, but that no one can fill. It’s a void that’s begun and grown since the Fall of Adam and Eve. It’s caused by our sins, which put distance between us, God, and others. Our Lord was sent to bridge the gap, fill the void, and enable us to love the Father again and be re-united with him, but that comes with a price, a price about which Jesus today is “troubled.” In a few weeks, in the garden of Gethsemane, we’ll see him tremble: in his heart, he knows he can fill that void of love by obeying his Father and suffering and dying on the cross to re-unite us with him.

The Second Reading today reminds us that the work of Redemption was not just turning a blind eye to what had happened between us and God: “he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears.” Our Lord becomes the grain of wheat that can only bear fruit by dying so that wheat can grow and be made into bread that gives life. He becomes the way for us to return to the Father again, and he stays at our side so that we remain united with him, in good times and bad, until one day we’re re-united with the Father forever.

Jesus’ love for his Father never failed, so, as he finishes his mission on earth, and is drawn back to his Father in Heaven, we must unite ourselves to his love for his Father so that we too can be drawn to Heaven. When we love Jesus, we unite our love to his love for God the Father. It fills us and draws us deeper and deeper into God’s love. When we stay close to Christ, we go where he goes. He takes us with him. Today he reminds us in the Gospel that we stay close to him by serving him and following him, just as he teaches us by his example of serving his Father until death on the cross.

Our Lord shows us in today’s Gospel that there’s a temptation to just focus on our personal salvation alone and put a big limit on our love. He says in the Gospel today, “where I am, there also will my servant be.” If everyone needs to draw nearer to Christ, so that Christ can lead them and draw them into the love of God, he counts on us, by serving him, to make him seen by others who are not so close to him. The Greeks wanted to see Jesus, but they didn’t, and couldn’t, go to him on their own. They went to people they knew were closer to him: Phillip and Andrew. Jesus founded a Church that serves him and follows him and makes him present in the world, even today, so that people can draw closer to him, and be re-united with the Father by remaining united among themselves. We stay close to Christ by staying close to him together as a family through the Church, prayer, the sacraments, and giving good Christian witness. That shines out to others and becomes a force of attraction so that they can start drawing close to Christ through us, drawing closer to the Father in the process. Examine yourself this week and consider whether the limits of your love might be putting limits on Our Lord’s. He wants us to help him.

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31–34; Psalm 51:3–4, 12–15; Hebrews 5:7–9; John 12:20–33.

4th Sunday in Lent, Cycle B

This Sunday is Laetare Sunday. Laetare comes from the entrance antiphon for today’s liturgy and means “rejoice.” The mourning of Lent is not far away from the joy of Easter. We rejoice because Christ is the Light of the World and soon that light will shine. We need to not only head toward that light but continue to let the Light of Christ illumine our actions, attitudes, and expectations.

Today’s First Reading, the last lines of the second book of Chronicles, explains why the Lord sent the Israelites into the Babylonian exile and why he ended it. The wickedness of Israel had blinded it so much to God and his Law that he turned them over to the Babylonians as punishment. They thought that building and maintaining the Temple meant they could do whatever they wanted, since it meant God was always with them. The Lord sent Jeremiah to warn them not to idolatrize the Temple; the Lord would remain with them if they were just and faithful (see Jeremiah 7:1-15). Sadly, they weren’t.

The Lord warned them through Jeremiah, but they didn’t listen, so when Babylon came the Lord delivered them into the Babylonians hands and Israel was led captive into exile. The duration of this exile was prophesied by Jeremiah to be seventy years (Jeremiah 25:9–12). Exile was the punishment proscribed in Leviticus (Leviticus 26:33-35) if the Israelites did not observe a Sabbath of the land every seventh year: during this Sabbath they were not to cultivate the land (Leviticus 25:1–7). Nobody greedy would skip a whole year of agriculture, so Israel didn’t observe this Sabbath and the Lord imposed exile as a way to allow the land to rest. Now the Lord was making them do it. Israel cannot claim they didn’t know the Lord’s will for them, but they didn’t believe Jeremiah and they didn’t listen. Despite this, the Lord also promised that the exile would end: through Cyrus and the Persians they would be able to return home. This punishment was not forever.

In today’s Second Reading Paul reminds us how much God loved us in sending his son (see John 3:16 in today’s Gospel). If Israel received salvation from the Babylonians by way of the Persians (all arranged by the Lord) we receive salvation through the grace that Our Lord earned for us on the Cross. Paul reminds us today that no one deserves the grace of salvation or mercy: it is an unmerited gift from a generous God. Paul speaks of us being raised up with the Lord, and we can understand this in two senses: being raised up on the Cross with Christ and being raised up with Christ in the Resurrection. In both cases the Lord shows the goodness and generosity of God.

Today’s Gospel we are taught by Our Lord that the bronze serpent in Moses’ time was a foreshadowing of him being raised up on the Cross so that everyone who looked upon him in faith would be saved. The sign of Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert (Numbers 21:4-9) is a story of God asking his people to show their faith in him by believing that looking upon a lifeless bronze serpent would result in something that obviously a bronze image cannot do: save them from death.

This story from Numbers was only a foreshadowing of looking up at Jesus crucified upon the Cross and believing that instead of a simple execution he is giving witness to the depth of God’s love and mercy as well as the true horror of sin. Our Lord doesn’t just want to come into the world; he wants to come into our hearts and put a spotlight on what we’d rather not see: the evil of sin. Turning from him is turning from the truth.

We all have that fear from time to time of being exposed for what we are–not as virtuous or holy as we could be or should be–yet Our Lord doesn’t come to expose us in order to condemn us; he comes to lead us back into the light, his light, the light of truth, and to save us from all the evil destructive things contained in the darkness of ignorance and falsehood. Just as we feel safer in a well-lit place at night we must live in the light of Christ, knowing he will guard us from evil and reveal it clearly so that we can avoid it.

Two weeks from today, during the narration of the Lord’s Passion, we’ll kneel for a moment when Our Lord dies on the Cross. We’ll do the same on Good Friday afternoon. Lent is a pilgrimage toward the foot of the Cross. No one likes being at the foot of the Cross. Mary and John certainly didn’t, despite their holiness, but Our Lord teaches us today that when he is raised up he’ll draw everyone to himself. The Cross is a waypoint on the path to eternal life for all of us. If we run from his Cross or from ours we know we’re headed in the wrong direction. I challenge you this week to not only head toward his Cross, but to spend some time at the foot of it. It will shed light on so many things in your life.

Readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14–16, 19–23; Psalm 137:1–6; Ephesians 2:4–10; John 3:14–21.


3rd Sunday in Lent, Cycle B

Spring is only a few weeks away, and with spring comes the tradition of spring cleaning. This Sunday the liturgy recalls Our Lord clearing the Temple. It’s a good occasion to remind us of the importance of Lenten cleaning so we can get started. We still have three weeks before Holy Week, so there’s still time to examine your heart and clear your temple too.

When you live in filth it’s easy to forget what is filthy and what is not. Today’s First Reading reminds us how we should do a good Lenten cleaning: by examining how we’ve lived the Ten Commandments. They present a simple question: is the world in which we live happier when they’re lived or not?

  • Is a world that doesn’t put God first a happier world? Not the caricature of God that people paint of an overbearing and cruel being, but a loving Father.
  • Is the world happier when the only time you hear God’s name is as a swear word, not as an invocation and acknowledgment of someone who loves you?
  • Is the world happier when we work 24/7 instead of taking out time for God and family once a week?
  • Is the world happier when we ignore or just tolerate our parents instead of cherishing them and their role in giving us life?
  • Is the world happier when we hate, harm, or kill others out of payback?
  • Is the world happier when we cheapen “love” and make it egotistical by avoiding or abandoning commitment?
  • Is the world happier when we don’t give others their due, or respect their property?
  • Is the world happier when we get back at someone by lying about them, or dishonestly get out of trouble at their expense?
  • Is the world happier when all we can think of is what our neighbors have and what we don’t?

As much as we might try to convince ourselves otherwise, we all know the answer.

In today’s Second Reading Paul points to the best response to those who take issue with God or what he expects of us: Christ Crucified. The Jews demanded signs proving someone was from God or favored by him. Suffering and misfortune for them was a sign of punishment from God. So how does that logic fit with God crucified on a Cross for us? The Greeks sought to cultivate a refined view of the world and man and to live life in the most satisfying way possible through philosophy. When Paul preached to them about the Resurrection, they laughed at him (see Acts 17:28–34). This life was all there was, according to their “philosophy”; live it to the full.

Christ crucified challenged their philosophy: what seemed folly to them, a failed life, was actually the path to an eternal life that would make them see their earthly life in a new light. The destruction of Christ’s Temple, his Passion and death, would pave the way not only for his eternal life, but for ours. It’s worth noting that not all the Greeks laughed at Paul about the Resurrection. We have to always be open to the greater truth of life’s meaning and fulfillment.

Today’s Gospel is a good opportunity to remind us of the importance of Lenten cleaning. Our Lord not only clears out the Temple; he associates it with himself. He goes from denouncing those who commercialized his Father’s house to describing his own body as a Temple. Paul would later teach that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and 6:19-20). If Our Lord established a parallelism between a Temple of stone and us, the temples of his Spirit, it’s an opportunity to see whether we need to clear out our temple from all the wheeling and dealing that makes us simply want to profit from God and others and not love them with all our heart.

Our Lord is kind, compassionate, merciful, and ready to lay down his life, but in the case of those vendors and money changers he was firm and unyielding: his Father, our Father, came first. He didn’t ask them to leave; he drove them out. We need to have the same firmness when casting out anything in our heart that would come between us and God. Our Lord foretold that the temple of his own body would be destroyed, but also rebuilt. Sin destroyed Our Lord’s body, a sin for which he was blameless, but sin did not have the last word. If we clean house this Lent we should not fear that the only thing that would be left is a ravaged temple. It is sin that ravages our temple. Our Lord will rebuild us, no matter how much we’ve wrecked our temple, if we try to be holy.

You are a Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Most Holy Trinity came into your heart the moment of your Baptism, and the only one who can evict God is you (through grave sin). The innermost, most sacred part of the Israelite’s Temple’s was called the Holy of Holies, and your heart is the same thing for your “temple.” Your heart is meant to be a place where you can be with your Lord alone, free of distractions and worries, speaking heart to heart. If there’s anyone or anything else in there coming between you and the Lord, or if you feel your time with the Lord is more wheeling and dealing than family time, it’s time to clear out your heart.

Readings: Exodus 20:1–17; Psalm 19:8–11; 1 Corinthians 1:22–25; John 2:13–25.