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.


4th Week in Ordinary Time, Tuesday, Year II

In today’s Gospel Jairus and the woman suffering from a hemorrhage teach us that if we take a risk and believe in Christ, things will exceed our expectations. Jairus risked his reputation as a synagogue official, trusting in a Rabbi with miraculous powers with the hope of healing his dying daughter. The ailing woman risked being the fool when she believed she could touch Our Lord’s cloak and receive healing unseen. Her healing and encounter with Our Lord were just in time to give Jairus the encouragement he needed when news reached him of his daughter’s death. Jairus still believed in Our Lord, even when he realized he was now asking for something much greater.

The mourners for the little girl were scornful and incredulous when Our Lord said the girl was only sleeping. As Christians we know Our Lord was saying something much deeper: death is simply a “falling asleep,” as Paul would later say in his letters, awaiting the Resurrection from the dead. Jairus for his faith didn’t have to wait until the life of the world to come to be with his daughter again.

The hemmorraghic woman didn’t expect she’d have to explain herself in front of the crowds. Jairus didn’t expect that he’d be asking for his girl to return to life. They took a risk and had faith in Our Lord, and he blessed them beyond their expectations. Let’s also take a risk of faith. We won’t be disappointed.

Readings: 2 Samuel 18:9–10, 14b, 24–25a, 30–19:3; Psalm 86:1–6; Mark 5:21–43. See also 14th Week in Ordinary Time, Monday, and 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B.

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B

In the First Reading, Moses promises the Israelites that someone like him will come. Moses after leading the Israelites out of Egypt and in the desert for 40 years is giving his last will and testament. He knows his time on earth is about to end. The one he promises will come is not just some simple political leader: Joshua is already taking care of that, and many leaders of Israel after him. The one he promises will come is an answer to their prayers on Mt. Horeb. They asked at that mountain to deal with God face to face, without the need for Moses or anyone else, and the experience of the enormity of God and their own inability to respond to him filled them with so much fear at that mountain that they asked that in the future they always had a go-between, a mediator between them and God.

The Lord promises through Moses that a prophet was to come who would speak to Israel on behalf of the Lord, and in the Lord’s name, a prophet from among their own kin. And he reminds them that prophets who don’t come in the Lord’s name or speak his words will die. This is part of something else Moses says in the book of Deuteronomy that we didn’t hear today: Moses offers two choices on behalf of the Lord: a blessing—life by living in the Lord’s ways, or a curse—death for turning to other ways. Each prophet of the Lord in the centuries to come after Moses promised the coming of this big prophet, all the way to John the Baptist. In the Gospel of John, when John the Baptist begins baptizing in the Jordan, the Pharisees, who are now the leaders of the Jews, come and ask him, “are you the Prophet?”: they’re referring to this promise of a prophet that Moses made. And John replies someone greater is coming, and to get ready.

When that prophet comes, it is Jesus of Nazareth, Our Lord, as the Jews find out today in the Gospel of Mark. They’ve waited hundreds of years, prophet after prophet promising them someone greater was to come, and then waiting as scribes and learned men kept trying to help them understand what God was asking them to do in their lives by reading and debating over scripture and the Law that they had received from Moses. However, all these scribes and learned men who interpreted the scripture and the Law had to play it safe: they knew they weren’t prophets of the Lord, and they knew that if they spoke something that came only from them, and not from God, it would mean death, not just for them, but for many.

In this backdrop, Jesus comes into the synagogue and speaks the word of Life, because he is the Word of the life. And the Jews are astonished, because he doesn’t play it safe, like the scribes: he knows he brings the truth, he knows he brings eternal life, so he tells it like it is. The one Moses promised them has come. Even the demons know, and they know that their dominion over the world is about to be seriously undermined, and they start howling, like that man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit. So if the conviction of His words alone was not enough, Jesus gives the Jews a sign: he casts the demon out of the possessed man with a few words, and news starts to spread around Galilee.

These words and events don’t stay confined to their moment in history. Through them God is trying to say something to us right here, right now, through Jesus’ words and actions. Jesus has come into the synagogue of our hearts and lives, and he speaks to us with authority and with power. Even the unclean things swirling around in us, keeping us from heeding His word, are telling us that Jesus is the Holy One of God. The unclean spirit in the synagogue didn’t say, “Oh no, this scribe is intelligent, he’s too eloquent, he must have a degree from the Biblicum or Harvard, he’s too smart for us”; the unclean spirit said, you are the “Holy One of God.” No force of evil can withstand holiness, because holiness is a gift of God, and it comes to us through and thanks to His Son.

Our Lord wants to bring us holiness. In every Baptism he casts out unclean spirits, in every Eucharist he fortifies hearts against evil, in every Reconciliation he reunites sinful man to his Creator, in every Confirmation he strengthens apostles for combat against the forces of evil in the world, and with every Christian Marriage of conferral of Holy Orders, He helps Christians respond to their calling from God and receive help to answer that call through living a holy life. It’s not something automatic; we have to want it, and it’s something we have to fight for every day, in season and out of season, striving to accept these gifts of holiness so that they bear fruit in our life through prayer, sacrifice, and a constant determination for the good of all. It’s not something we accomplish alone; God has sent His Son to help us every step of the way.

The words of St. Paul in the Second Reading today help us all to take stock of how we are responding to Jesus’ invitation to help us. St. Paul presents two categories of Christian, and what they should be focusing their attention on: the unmarried should be focused on the things of the Lord, and how to please Him; the married should focus on the things of the world and how to please their spouse. This advice helps each of us to measure whether we’ve invited Jesus into our hearts and listened to his word.

When St. Paul speaks these words, we examine ourselves. For those who are single, am I anxious about the Lord’s things and pleasing him? For those who are married, am I anxious about the world’s things, and pleasing my spouse? The one thing we shouldn’t be anxious about is ourselves. Our Lord will take care of us, if we let him in our hearts and heed his word, just as he promised.

Let’s answer the words of the responsorial psalm today, by promising not to harden our hearts to the Lord and to the needs of others. Let’s examine ourselves, in the synagogue of our hearts, and ask Our Lord to show us just one thing in ourselves or in the world that He wants us to change by working with Him and His grace. Let’s ask Our Lord for the gift of holiness, which is the gift of his life and love, and to be an instrument of his holiness for others as well.

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15–20; Psalm 95:1–2, 6–9; 1 Corinthians 7:32–35; Mark 1:21–28.


4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent’s readings remind us, at the threshold of Christmas, that the mysteries of Our Lord and his saving plan are something revealed gradually over time, and will culminate with seeing Our Lord face to face in eternity. If we seek to gradually unravel the mystery we find that it goes beyond all our expectations.

In today’s First Reading King David decides it is time to build the first Temple for the Lord, and he receives a promise of a lasting dynasty. However, this dynasty is not like any other dynasty. The Ark of the Covenant in David’s time, a sign and instrument of the Lord’s presence among his people, had been housed in nothing better than a fancy tent, and now that David’s kingdom was secure he starts to feel guilty about the Lord’s nomadic “accommodations.” He consults the prophet Nathan and receives the green light from the Lord to start planning for the construction of what would become the first Temple of Israel, completed eventually by his son Solomon.

The Lord is pleased with David’s initiative, because David was showing appreciation for all the Lord had done for him: he’d gone from being a young shepherd to a great military leader to a king thanks to the Lord, not his own merits. The Lord promised David a lasting peace and success for his kingdom, but not just in David’s lifetime. The “house” of David, in recognition of the “house” he wanted to build for the Lord, would be a dynasty that endured in the Lord’s presence not just in history, but forever. That descendant who ensured that eternal dynasty would one day be revealed to be Our Lord, the Messiah, whose birthday we’ll celebrate real soon.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that God’s plans are always revealed gradually, shrouded in mystery. The Messiah wasn’t revealed at first to be the Son of God. That was revealed in Our Lord’s Incarnation, as the Gospel today reminds us. The Messiah wasn’t revealed at first to be a blessing for anyone other than Israel, but in Christ it was revealed that the Messiah would be a blessing for “all nations.” What Nathan and other Old Testament prophets foretold was only fully revealed and understood in Our Lord. The key to unlocking the mysteries of God is named Jesus Christ, but turning that key requires faith in him, following his rhythm.

In today’s Gospel the Annunciation, and Mary’s response, remind us that there’s always an element of mystery in God’s plan for our lives, a mystery to be accepted in faith. If you seek rational certainty you’re no longer believing, you’re just trying to prove something. The Angel Gabriel is dropping more bombs than a military plane. Mary doesn’t know how to respond to an angel appearing to her and saying she is pleasing to the Lord. It’s pure humility on her part.

Then Gabriel drops another bomb: the Lord wants Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary is confused, because it seems her plans, good plans, were not God’s plans after all. The Church Fathers see in this confusion Mary’s prior plan to have pledged her perpetual virginity out of love for God, something unheard of in her time among the Jews. While explaining the biological and theological technicalities Gabriel also lets her know that her son will be the Son of God.

Mary was faced with a decision, the decision to become something seemingly impossible: the Virgin Mother of God the Son, who’d be the Messiah and save Israel. To understand the true weight of her decision we must forget for a moment everything that came after this decision. Put yourself in her shoes in that moment. She had to decide to embrace the seemingly impossible based on a promise that nothing was impossible to God.

She was faced with a mystery that in many ways was beyond her comprehension, but it was God’s mystery and that was enough for her: she accepted God’s mystery in her own life with faith and was never the same. She didn’t qualify her acceptance of the invitation; she said, “May it be done to me according to your word.”

Our Lord leaves signs for anyone with faith who wants to find them. He even promises that the Holy Spirit will help us to find them. A little silence and prayer will clear our minds and hearts to see more clearly what plans he may have for us at Christmas and in the new year about to begin. Like Mary, even if we don’t understand 100%, we must respond in faith and move forward with him.

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1–5, 8b–12, 14a, 16; Psalm 89:2–5, 27, 29; Romans 16:25–27; Luke 1:26–38.

4th Sunday of Easter, Cycle A

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called the Sunday of the Good Shepherd, and it is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Our Lord the shepherd who wants to lead us to green pastures if we respond to his call.

St. Peter in today’s First Reading explains to his astounded listeners how they can approach and enter into Jesus’s flock: through faith in Christ and Baptism. Peter has just concluded his discourse at Pentecost and given testimony to the Risen Christ as Savior to those who believe in him. Baptism is rightly called the “door which gives access to the other sacraments,” because it makes us members of Christ, incorporates us into the Church, and makes us share in his mission (cf. Catechism, 1213). It is thanks to Baptism that the Good Shepherd transforms us into his sheep makes us a part of his flock. Peter describes this invitation as a call by God to whomever the Lord wishes. The most fundamental call is to holiness, to repent and believe in Christ, in order to be forgiven and to receive the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the first step in leading a holy life. In this sense everyone has a vocation, and some, like Peter, the Apostles, and our pastors, are called to help us discover and answer the call as well.

In today’s Second Reading St. Peter reminds us that Christ is the shepherd and guardian of our souls and that we are called to follow him by imitating him as well as accepting his guidance and protection. As at Pentecost, Peter speaks of a call by our Lord, and in this reading he explains what we are called to do: to be patient in suffering for doing what is good, knowing that it is a source of grace and an imitation of Christ. The Lord doesn’t call us to do something that he hasn’t done himself. The Shepherd laid down his life for us, his sheep, and he gathers us back into his flock, no matter how we’ve gone astray. He didn’t hand himself over to evil men alone; he surrendered to His Heavenly Father and the Father did justice for him by raising him from the dead and opening the way to our salvation. Like the Apostles that fateful night of his betrayal, we too were scattered like sheep, but the shepherd and guardian of our souls has gathered together all those who seek his protection and care.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord teaches us that the only way to satisfy the call to holiness in our souls is through him. The call to holiness is a call to recognize Our Lord as the path and source of holiness. Our Lord uses the image of sheep who are accustomed to the voice of its shepherd and frightened by the voice of anyone else. The call to holiness strikes a chord in us, and that chord will clash with anything not in tune with Our Lord. Temptation also makes an appeal in our hearts, and Our Lord teaches us today that it will rob us of something if we let it. It is the voice of a stranger and, as our parents always taught us, we don’t talk to strangers. However, in his teaching today Our Lord doesn’t identify with the shepherd or the gatekeeper of the sheepfold. He describes himself as the “gate” to the sheepfold. Our Lord is not the only one who wants his sheep; he’s just the one who has their best interests in mind. The flock in today’s Gospel is already gathered. It is only through Christ that they can be safe in the sheepfold or led to green pastures. Our pastors are charged to shepherd the sheep, but they can only do that through Christ. If they don’t remain united to Christ, part of his flock, they will lead their sheep astray.

Everyone is called to holiness, and Our Lord has put people in our lives who want to help us live up to that calling and fulfill it. He also teaches us to pray for workers to be sent to an abundant harvest. There is more work than there are workers. When we pray “for vocations” we pray especially for those discerning a vocation to the priesthood or the consecrated life. When we pray “for vocations” we also pray for the perseverance and holiness of those who have already undertaken the path to priesthood or consecrated life. The need for prayers doesn’t end at ordination or solemn consecration. Let’s pray for those who have responded to Our Lord’s call to work in his harvest. Lastly, let’s pray for everyone to simply seek and do the will of God in their lives. We all have a vocation to holiness, and holiness grows to the degree that we follow God’s will.

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36–41; Psalm 23:1–6; 1 Peter 2:20b–25; John 10:1–10.