Second Sunday of Lent
The Transfiguration reveals Jesus in all His glory. At this moment, Peter, James, and John can see His kinship with the Father, they can see His continuity with Moses and Elijah, and they know clearly that they are to follow Him. But why does Jesus show this to them? To prepare them for His suffering. He tells them not to reveal any of what they saw until He “had risen from the dead” (Mk. 9:9). He shows them His full glory—and connects it to His suffering—to help give them strength.
J.R.R. Tolkien famously called history a “long defeat,” but in that same quote he also spoke of how it contains “some samples or glimpses of final victory.” We cannot just be bracing ourselves against defeat after defeat—we must know that in the end, our struggles are not pointless. There are moments in history and in our own lives where we know that good has triumphed over evil, and God is at work. The more we survey the graces we have received and give thanks for them, the easier they are to see—and the more readily we can see God.
Whether we look for signs of victory or not, defeat will be there. Whether we look for God or not, pain and suffering will be there. God has not promised us a magic wand to take the suffering away. But He has transformed it. Now, we know that defeat is not the last word. God has subverted suffering by showing that it will end. Jesus has prepared us for the pain now by showing us the glory to come.
Jesus continues His lesson from yesterday, telling us that not only must we live the Law from the heart, rather than purely by our actions, but we must go beyond the written Law to live out its full Spirit. Not only, has He told us today, must we love our brother and those closest to us, but we must love even our enemies. If we cannot love our enemies, if we cannot have at least some charity toward those who have hurt or wronged us, then we are not children of our heavenly Father. We see this evidenced upon the Cross, the very emblem of Love, where the Only Begotten Child of the Father begged His Father to forgive those who were putting Him to death. Consider, too, the fact that God the Father did not punish those who put His Son to death, but rather showed mercy on them and the entire world, offering the graces of His Son’s Passion to all who would come to drink at that sacred well!
Our instinct is to love those who love us, but if we love only those who love us, then our love, ultimately, is conditional: our love is earned by our first being convinced that the other person loves us as well. But that is not the love of God: “…God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). If we greet and show kindness only toward those who we care about, what makes us any different from tax collectors and unbelievers? Jesus calls us to love as He loves, which is, in essence, to love first and ask questions later.
Jesus is not ignorant of the fact that such love requires a level of vulnerability that often frightens us into reserving our love for those who have proven themselves worthy of it. But is anyone other than God really worthy of love? Yet Jesus reminds us that God “…makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” No one is worthy of His love, yet He loves all.
Yes, loving your enemies will likely pierce your heart, but Jesus is not asking you to die for them. Likewise He is not asking you to risk the possibility of them wronging you again, or revisiting past trauma. Notice He doesn’t demand reconciliation with our enemies, but only love and prayer. Forgiveness, He teaches us, is an act of the heart, whether or not that is manifested exteriorly in an act of reconciliation. He wants there to be no room in our hearts for hatred, no room at all for grudges; such things are antithetical to the love of God that is meant to dwell within us. If we are, truly, temples of the Holy Spirit by our baptism (1 Corinthians 6:19), a place not only of the Spirit’s dwelling but of His worship, how can we erect effigies of those we hate within the sanctuary of our heart and assume there is also room for the Spirit? How can we divide ourselves between loving some and hating others, when we have but one heart by which to exercise both powers?
“So be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Let your love be perfect; do not love and hate, but only love, as the Father only loves. Love those who love you, love those who hate you: let your heart do what it was created to do, and peace will dwell there.
“…unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
As our Shepherd continues to lead us home, He warns us that even if we know the Way, even if we know how to pray and speak to our Father, even if we see Jesus for who He truly is, there is more: we must live according to all these things. The scribes and Pharisees lived according to the Law, and they followed it to the letter; no one could fault them, save for Jesus, for He sees the heart. Time and again He exhorts them to deeper holiness, to the deeper Law which God has written on the hearts of all people (Jeremiah 31:33): to follow the Law not for its own sake, but because they love God. In other words, to love God not merely by their actions, but with their whole heart, being, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5).
So He tells us today, as He told His disciples, that our own holiness must surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees: we must not only follow the Law—since they also followed the Law—but our actions must come from a holy heart. The Law tells us not to murder; the scribes and Pharisees didn’t murder, and neither have we likely murdered anyone. But is not killing anyone enough to fulfill the Law; is it sufficient for us to be “nice people?” Jesus tells us no, that we also break the Law when we, in essence, murder someone within our hearts. Does not the horror of murder begin in the heart, when a person interiorly slaughters whatever charity and respect they have for the intended victim? Once that image of the victim is slain, it is only a step further to make that interior act a reality.
We may think this is extreme, but consider lesser sins like gossip, lustful thoughts, and so on. When we indulge in gossip about someone, how long does it take before the way we treat that person in real life starts to mirror how we’ve treated them in conversation with others? When we indulge intentionally in lustful thoughts about a person, or about people in general, how long does it take before that interior reality begins to manifest itself in how we treat that person, or such people? “From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks,” Jesus teaches in Luke’s Gospel (6:45). All intentional actions begin in the heart: He calls out the scribes and Pharisees for living a lie, and He challenges us to be people of integrity, for our actions to correspond to our hearts, rather than our minds. He calls us to be reconciled with one another, that the gift He desires us to bring to the altar is not bread and wine, but hearts that live out His great teaching, “…love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:14). This is not only the key to surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, He tells us today, but it is the key to unlocking the very gates of Heaven.
Yesterday Jesus spoke to the crowd, calling them an “evil generation” because of their lack of love for God, and He exhorted them to trust their hearts rather than their eyes, for there was something greater than Solomon, greater than Jonah standing before them. Today, on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter we see that great apostle daring to confess what he has seen in his heart, even though his eyes see only a Nazorean.
“But who do you say that I am?”
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
Simon’s confession is a pivotal moment in his life, being so transformative that Jesus gives him a new name: Peter. The rock. In his heart Simon had listened to what Jesus taught, had pondered the deeper meaning of the amazing things he had seen with his eyes, and he did not question the vision that had formed in his heart that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. If only the crowd in yesterday’s reading had possessed such courage!
It would be this courage that would serve to be the foundation of the Church, for her chief song is the same that Peter first sang: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” That courage grounds the Church, gives her people the strength they need to confess the Gospel in every place, in every circumstance. Countless Christians have gone to their deaths singing Peter’s simple hymn; missionaries ventured into vast unknowns crying it aloud in the wilds. Saints hummed it quietly in cave and cloister; for two-thousand years the melody has varied, but the lyrics have remained unchanged. No effort by the world to silence the song has succeeded, nor come close.
In the great city where emperor’s once sat, hailed as sons of the gods, the successor of Peter now sits, governing the world-wide Church with wisdom and charity, not the son of God, but the friend of Jesus and his vicar. He is our Pope—our papa—a spiritual father teaching, guiding, and defending the many children of the Bride of Christ, feeding and tending the flock of Jesus as He charged Peter to do, keeping them together in the wastes of the world until the Good Shepherd returns again. How blessed we are to have the gift of the papacy, to have this head pastor, to have a captain at the helm of the ship! Even those popes who were truly poor shepherds never failed such that the song of Peter fell into silence, nor such that the walls of the Church came tumbling down. May God preserve His Church and His friend, the Pope, until Christ, the Son of the living God comes Himself to lead His sheep home!
Having taught us the “language” of our true homeland, Jesus begins to prepare us further by challenging us to deeper faith: the journey home will be marked with signs, but not those we can see with the eyes of our flesh. “We walk by faith, not by sight,” St. Paul famously wrote (2 Cor. 5:7) The people to which Jesus spoke were demanding signs, proof that would convince them intellectually that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. Their faith, in other words, came with conditions, which revealed to Jesus that they, truly, had no love for God because love requires trust, and they had none: hence they were evil. They loved the comforts of their way of life such that they were unwilling to take that great trust-fall that is faith, and so Jesus indeed promises them a sign, and a strange one at that: the sign of Jonah.
Jonah was sent by God to Nineveh, to warn the great city of its imminent destruction by God should they ignore the call to repent. They repented, and they were spared. Just as Jonah was the sign of repentance and mercy to the Ninevites, Jesus would be so for the people to whom He preached: repentance is at the core of His message, and those who heed it are spared destruction not by God’s hand, but as the natural consequence of sin. As Jonah was in the whale, Jesus would be swallowed up by the earth for three days and would emerge alive and well.
He goes further, saying that in the end, at the time of judgement, the Queen of Sheba will rise along with those to whom Jesus preached and condemn them, for she—a foreigner and pagan!—came from far off just to hear the fabled wisdom of Solomon, the great king and son of David. Yet the evil generation stood before the King of Heaven, hearing Wisdom Incarnate, who was also the Son of David, and they refused to heed Him: indeed “there is something greater than Solomon here!” The men of Nineveh would rise and condemn them as well, because they listened to Jonah and repented: the evil generation is hearing the call to repentance from God Himself and they will not listen! It is one thing for God to send a prophet, yet “there is something greater than Jonah here,” for God has sent His own Son.
But it takes a greater faith to believe in Jesus than it does to believe a prophet: a prophet claims to carry a message from God, but he himself makes no other claims. Yet Jesus is both message and messenger: He is the Word of God and is thus the message God sends, as well as the one delivering it. To deliver us, Jesus delivers Himself.
Out here in the desert wastes countless mirages distract and deceive us; so often we lick sand thinking it to be water, and subsequently wonder why we are so thirsty. The evil generation demanded the satisfaction of their eyes before they would listen to Jesus, before they would dare let their hearts believe. Will we be so hard of heart so as to demand proof for our eyes before we will listen to Jesus and His call to repentance? Will we follow the Way home, listen to His Truth, and receive the Life He has given, listening to His voice (John 10:27) even if we cannot see where He is leading us?
Jesus has entered the wastes to gather His people, to lead them back to our home with God. He tells us that, in the end, He will divide the “sheep” from the “goats.” Today He begins teaching us something vital if we are to enter that Promised Land: He teaches fallen humanity how we speak to our Father. We were so used to the wilds, so used to God being only Lord and Master, that the notion of addressing Him as “Father” was utterly forgotten.
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.” This verse is often thrown at Catholics as a Biblical proof against such things as the rosary or litanies, but Jesus is not condemning such methods of prayer. In the pagan world, when seeking the favor of a god you had to know the god’s name or, in other cases, know the name he or she liked the best. And so the pagans would rattle off a long litany of names and titles like a religious ring-toss, hoping one of the names would evoke a response from the deity. In other words, a pagan’s prayers might be completely ineffective if they happen not to utter the name their targeted deity feels like responding to that day. Knowing a deity’s name was thought to be the key to getting them to do things in your favor: Jesus is therefore telling us that the pagans pray to gods they do not know. Thus their prayers are in utter vain.
Yet we pray not only to a God we know, but to a God who knows us; not only a God, but a Father who “knows what you need before you ask him.” We address our God as Father, which is a beautiful and intimate title but also we are acknowledging the manner of relationship we have with our God: we are His children. He is in Heaven; He is not a statue, a concept, or a god of any place or thing, but rather a living God who dwells in Heaven yet is not so distant that He is not present to us. His name is holy, so holy that we never utter it yet, again, He is our Father: what child addresses their parent by his or her first name? We know our God and He knows us, such that we are beyond even being on a first-name basis, but rather we enjoy the intimacy of familial terms.
As children we imitate the Son whose chief desire was to do the will of the one who sent Him; we echo this desire in saying “thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” We ask our Father not merely for the “bread” we need to live throughout the day, but the bread come down from Heaven that gives life to the whole world (John 6:51). We ask Him to forgive us, and we ask His aid in helping us to forgive others who have wronged us; otherwise, as Jesus teaches us at the end of our Gospel today, we cannot ourselves be forgiven. We ask Him not to allow us to be tempted and tried by the Enemy but to be delivered from evil by His strong arm, to defend us and keep us safe until we come home to Him at journey’s end.
This is the prayer of a child of God, of someone who knows Him and is known by Him. This is the prayer of the people in the wilds, the bleating of His dear sheep.
St. Paul says, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life…” (1 Cor. 15:21-22) The Apostle to the Gentiles is cluing us in to an essential reality: we are all part of a single humanity, which originated in Adam. Adam sinned; we inherit that reality. Adam died; we die.
God subsequently does something utterly astounding in order to heal the broken line of Man: He becomes a part of it. In the Gospel of Luke we read the genealogy of Jesus, tracing His patrilineal descent all the way back to “Adam, the son of God.” (3:38) The One who would raise up all Mankind is the descendant of the one who causes all Mankind to fall!
Yet just as our shared humanity with Adam has with it the consequence of sin and death, so our shared humanity has consequences regarding our relationship with the Incarnate Son of God, as He fleshes out in our Gospel today. Both those on His right and those on His left exclaim, “When did we see you…?” to which Jesus replies, essentially, “When you behold your fellow man in need, you behold Me.”
For those who cared for Jesus by caring for those in need, a Kingdom is promised; for those who did not, eternal fire along with ‘…the Devil and his angels.’” Notice the “goats” are condemned not for anything they did but solely on the basis of what they failed to do. When they chose to do nothing for those in need they were, in fact, repeating the motto of Satan and his ilk: “Non serviam”…“I will not serve.” The difference between an angel and a demon is not so much a difference of what the demon did that the angel didn’t do, but rather the opposite: a demon is an angel that chose not to serve God. The difference between a “sheep” and a “goat” in this parable is the very same: the “sheep” are the ones who chose to serve Christ, not vicariously but directly by serving their brother and sister in need.
Jesus teaches us that serving Him is something active, not passive; entering the Kingdom of God is not only about avoiding sin but also about doing what is good and holy. As the maxim goes “do good and avoid evil.” It is about participating in the King’s effort to redeem the human race, not simply about staying out of the way. Our King is wrapped in mystery, but He gives us every opportunity to serve Him by calling us to serve our brother and sister with the same charity and generosity with which we would serve Him. Of course we would give Jesus food if we saw Him hungry; so why would we hesitate to feed the person He died to redeem? We come up with many an excuse, and many laws and other cultural phenomena make it difficult for us to easily do what we know in our hearts ought to be done. But how often does that mean we do absolutely nothing? Even the smallest effort, if that is all we can manage, is far better—literally the difference between Heaven and Hell—than doing nothing at all.
Earlier in the first chapter of Mark we hear about Jesus’ relative, John the Baptist, of whom the Prophet Isaiah wrote, “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” After His baptism by John, after the Spirit descends upon Him like a dove, that same Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert. Only when the voice of John is silenced with his arrest does Jesus return to cry not “Prepare!” but “Repent!” John’s cry is drowned out by the first trumpet blast of the King’s Good News.
But why the desert? Why did the Spirit drive Jesus out into the desert among the wild beasts, to be tempted by the wildest beast of them all: the ancient serpent, Satan? Notice this takes place after Jesus had been baptized and herein lies, perhaps, the key to the riddle of His sandy sojourn.
Mark’s account of the Baptism and subsequent Temptation give us precious little detail about both important events, but we likely recall John’s words with Jesus from the other Gospels, such as this from Matthew 3:14-15—
“John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed him.”
In other words John recognizes that Jesus has no need to be baptized; one may as well wash a bar of soap. Yet what is Jesus doing but getting in line with the rest of fallen humanity, publicly identifying Himself as one of us? Everyone who was present who would later hear of Jesus would say, “He was with us when John was baptizing…” Emmanuel. God-with-us. Jesus among sinners: the New Man here to make men new.
And so He is driven out into the desert, for that is where Adam and Eve were sent into exile: Jesus was moved by the Spirit, the very Love of God, to go into the wild places in pursuit of us. In Genesis 3:23, shortly after the Fall, we read, “The LORD God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken.” Adam was fashioned in the wastes, the land outside the order and tame peace of the Garden, and in turning away from God he and his wife were let go to toil in the wilds. The Son of God has come to earth, leaving Paradise behind, to enter into the wastes in pursuit of the lost children of God, to lead them back to the Garden, for He knows the way.
Saturday after Ash Wednesday, Memorial of the Seven Holy Founders of the Order of Servites
Jesus said to them in reply, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” (Luke 5:31-32)
Am I willing to acknowledge my need? Especially in a culture that so praises independence, do I admit that I depend on others: family, friends, God? Again, the striking image of the American student or worker who insists on showing up to class or work with a fever and incessant cough confronts us. We see this stubbornness regularly in others, and we are not immune from it ourselves. What helps to acknowledge this need? Holes. Make a hole in your diet through occasional fasting. Make a hole in your finances by occasional alms. Make a hole in your schedule by prayer, especially the most ancient and sacred prayer of the Sabbath. Into these holes the Lord may step in and offer you His holiness. When the patient stops trying to cure himself by holding his hand over the wound, and finally removes his hand to show the physician, then the doctor can do what only the doctor can do: work the healing necessary. Let us rejoice in our need, for we are cared for by such a good Lord. Let us acknowledge our needs by giving our Physician room to work in our lives.
Friday after Ash Wednesday
“Why do we fast, but you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, but you take no note?”
See, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers.
Again we have come to the Fridays in Lent when abstinence is not only the recommended form of penance, but a required form of penance. On this day many will suddenly become aware of the paramount place meat has taken in their diets, and may wonder, ‘why am I denying myself the joy of a delicious hamburger, pulled pork sandwich or delicious ribeye steak?’ The reason is not because self-denial is good in and of itself. Nor can it be that we are fasting and abstaining because that automatically improves our relationship with God (see the readings today). If that were the case, Jesus would be telling his disciples to be fasting exactly like the Pharisees rather than warning them about the leaven of the Pharisees whose fasting was an occasion for becoming puffed up with pride. If our actions, even good actions, even spiritual actions are simply serving our own egos, then they are disordered, because they are not leading us to God.
Rather Christ tells the disciples to fast, and Christians continue to do so because self-denial can be spiritually medicinal. It is precisely because of disorder in our desires, priorities and relationships with others that we are called to deny ourselves so as to become far more sensitive to the justice we should be rendering to God and neighbor. With the exception of expectant mothers, no person eats for someone else, only for himself. Therefore, to apply the brakes in consuming food (at the very least in consuming certain types of food one day a week), is to start (with God’s gracious assistance) to reassert the proper balance that should exist in our lives, not seeking ourselves and our own interests first, but God’s. It is a bodily beginning to our open recognition that we have allowed sin to take Christ from His seat of honor in our hearts and minds. In this Friday abstinence, the Church has found a reliable means to helping us return to the bridegroom who so yearns for our love.