By: Fr. James Gross
Two weeks ago we heard the Gospel reading of a conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman. She came to a well in search of water to quench her thirst, but found hope that the Holy Spirit, the Living Water, would satisfy her spiritual thirst as well, and she became a witness to Christ for her whole town. Then last Sunday we heard the Gospel reading of Jesus healing a man born blind. Although the Pharisees had their physical sight, they would not let go of their blindness residing in their arrogance and stubbornness of heart. On the other hand, the healed man testified to the divine power at work in Jesus and became his follower.
Today we have a situation more tragic than thirst or blindness—death. The siblings of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary are as close to Christ as anyone besides our Blessed Mother and the Apostles. He can be as close to any of us as he was to these dear friends. When word comes to him that Lazarus is ill and near death, Jesus decides to go to Bethany, a town within a region where danger certainly awaits him. And when he and his disciples arrive, what we see is an effusive outpouring not only of his divinity, but also of his humanity.
What am I referring to when I speak of Jesus’ humanity on display? Consider how he comforted Mary and Martha, and how he wept at Lazarus’ grave. In addition, twice we hear that Jesus was “perturbed.” To me, that verb denotes something almost trivial, like the pesky fly that lands on the same spot on your neck over and over. I thought to myself, “St. John must not mean a simple annoyance, does he?” It turns out that the Greek verb translated here as “perturbed” is in several other Gospel verses translated “moved with pity.” The literal meaning of the word is physical, as though one’s insides were being twisted around. What Jesus experienced was a visceral, gut-wrenching emotional anguish. That paints quite a different picture, in my humble opinion.
After performing the miracle, Jesus asks people to remove the confining cloth wrappings from Lazarus’ body. This symbolizes that reviving the man is not enough. One needs to have the freedom that comes with life in the Holy Spirit in order to live to the full.
We don’t know any personal details about Lazarus other than his friendship with the Lord, but Lazarus serves as a metaphor for how Christ deals with his brothers and sisters by means of His Body, the Church. It’s not a stretch to say that a great many people in our world are more spiritually dead than alive. I don’t need to list a litany of sexual or other moral faults to make this claim. We on the parish staff are thinking primarily of how we think of and carry out a relationship with God every day, and how we make our choices with respect to that relationship. Our hearts go out to those who have been baptized and confirmed—sacramentalized, if you will—but have not really encountered God in a meaningful and personal way. Those indelible marks of grace are present, but glowing as faint embers waiting for the Holy Spirit to fan them into flame. These brothers and sisters look normal on the outside, but spiritually are more dead than alive.
We are trying to be intentional and responsive about how we work with these folks. We don’t mean to blast them with angry diatribes and chase them away, leaving the false impression that those of us in the pews have everything under complete control. Neither can we be silent in the face of great societal evils, as though such acts have no consequences. A faithful Christian accepts the deposit of faith and clings to the hard truths therein, even if most people we know disagree. So what’s the proper course when encountering the “more dead than alive?”
The answer, I believe, lies in invitation. Constantly we invite them to come home and welcome them with open arms, because we ourselves know what Jesus does for us. The recent Jubilee Year of Mercy illustrated this beautifully. How much more can our parishes accomplish when more and more of her members reach out in the community in this humble fashion? Someone I was chatting with about this very topic put it this way; we ought to be able to say, “I care enough to care about you when you don’t care enough.” That’s not coming from a place of superiority, but of empathy and companionship.
You folks find yourselves in a good position to share with others what God has given you. That’s not to say that it is easy, but the opportunities are ample. Maybe half a century ago, everyone we knew belonged somewhere—they were Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, et cetera. Today it’s not the same. The percentage of young adults in Cass County who self-identify as religiously unaffiliated is skyrocketing. They’re our coworkers and neighbors. We’re not saying they’re creepy or all immersed in witchcraft or the occult. But Christ thirsts for them just as for us! How sad if no one ever brings this to their attention.
Fr. Courtright and I decided that today is a good day for us to share with you a great experience that we as priests are privileged to have. Once in a great while, someone comes into the confessional who hasn’t been there in a very long time. Sometimes it’s a longer period of time than I had been alive. When that man or woman reveals that fact and then bears his or heart before God, the last thing on earth I want to do is give them a hard time. Rather, I say something like this: “Praise God that you are here right now. The angels in heaven rejoice when anyone of us repents of our sins, and all the more so now. Neither you nor I can change what you did in the past. What we can do is look at the future and make a new start with the Holy Spirit’s help.”
Time and time again, Jesus meets people who are more dead than alive, people who thought God’s plan for them had long ago passed them by. What can we do together to encourage them to step out of the grave and into the light of God’s grace?
By: Fr. James Gross
We’re in the groove of taking surveys these days in our parish. If we were to take a survey of which one of our five senses we would most hate to lose, I’m sure a lot of us would say our sight, because we depend on it so much. But the Pharisees and scribes during Jesus’ time had an additional reason. They placed a high priority on one’s ability to read and study the Scriptures, perfecting their observance of the Law of Moses. At the time, someone who was blind could only snag the Word out of the air, so to speak, and rely on their memory.
To these men, a fate so awful required an explanation which made more sense than a cruel twist of fate: it had to be God’s punishment for sin. That’s why we get this seemingly bizarre question from Jesus’ disciples to begin this gospel. “Master, who is to blame for that man’s blindness—himself or his parents?” Jesus insists that neither one is at fault; his condition is an occasion for God to manifest His glory.
Earlier in St. John’s Gospel, he informs us that Jesus and his followers were in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the high holy days of the Jewish calendar. As part of the celebration, the temple was outfitted with a great many torches and lamps to illuminate it in grandeur. By declaring himself to be the light of the world, Jesus makes the argument that his Father has sent him forth to bring the festivals of the Old Covenant to completion.
Typically people with ailments pursue Jesus, or have their family or friends do so. Recall what happened with the blind man Bartimaeus. Hearing a ruckus, he asked what was going on. “Wait, who? Jesus of Nazareth? He’s HERE? Holy cow! Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” And, granting their request, the Lord rewards them for their faith. But here Jesus pursues the blind man in order to heal him. It almost seems odd to us, until we realize that the Lord is continuously pursuing us. He does not intend to violate our freedom, but searches for us precisely to give us what we cannot give to ourselves.
Resembling our Heavenly Father in the creation accounts of the Book of Genesis, Jesus works with clay to apply a paste to the man’s eyelids. The language St. John uses in Greek is exactly that of the Father molding our first parents from the clay of the earth. In fact, some commentators have surmised that the blind man may not have had any eyes at all, and that Jesus in this miracle is giving sight by creating eyes for him to see. I find that idea fascinating.
Also, the way Jesus uses humble material objects in this healing reminds us of the sacraments. Plain water cleanses the body, but the waters of Baptism purify the soul. Bread and wine provide a sparse meal, but Jesus changes those gifts into Himself when the Church celebrates the Eucharist.
The rest of the story is the fallout that ensues when the authorities try to get to the bottom of this miracle. In the first place, they object to Jesus healing the man born blind on the Sabbath. The interrogation becomes tiresome because of the men’s ignorance of God’s power at work in their midst. But St. John goes into detail here as a reflection of what is happening to Christians in his time. Not only did the Romans pressure them to practice the pagan religion of the Empire, but Jews were casting them out for proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus.
As for the healed man, when he declares that Jesus is a prophet, the enraged Pharisees toss him out of the synagogue. St. John the Apostle saw this very scene unfold over and over as one town after another disowned the Christians in their midst and told them, “Either stop saying that Jesus of Nazareth is the risen Son of God or beat it.”
For the safety of all those involved, celebrations of the Eucharist and meetings for prayer often took place secretly and in the dark. Jesus is our light, whether we are gathered in a place of shimmering brilliance or the darkest, dingiest cave. Our ancestors in faith could say the same thing. For them, the choice was obvious. They became social outcasts but would not betray the Lord, even at the risk of their lives. The healed man’s parents were not ready to take that step as evidenced by the caginess of their statement that their son was of age and could speak for himself, but we have to be ready to say, “I was blind, but thanks to Christ, now I see.”
Because the Pharisees claimed that they could see, their sin remained. What do we believe about our blindness? Can we see our poverty before God and our own need for healing? St. Paul urges us on today: “Arise, O sleeper, and Christ will give you light.” In today’s first reading, God instructs Samuel that, while human beings see outward appearances, He looks into the heart. Are we able to see ourselves as we truly are? And more importantly, are we able to see ourselves as the Father sees us, with tender compassion and the desire to restore our sight and recognize that we are His beloved children?
About six months after his election, Pope Francis sat down for an interview with an Italian journalist. The very first question was broad and philosophical: “Your Holiness, who is Jorge Bergoglio?” The Pope reflected for a moment and responded, “Jorge Bergoglio is a sinner.” A moment later, wishing to expand on that answer, he said, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Many people heard that and said, “Oh come on…he’s the Pope! What has he done?” But this was not false humility. Pope Francis spoke for us all insofar as the light by which we see comes not from ourselves, but from Christ.
Our parish Penance Service is on Tuesday evening of Holy Week, April 11th. There are many other times set aside for confession besides, such as before every weekday Mass. Would the man born blind want you to cling to your sins and remain in darkness, or would he rather invite you to see anew by the light of the Trinity? Come to the Divine Physician and be healed.
By: Fr. James Gross
Bread and water are the staples of sustaining physical life. All by themselves, they don’t make for an appetizing diet, but see what happens when you try to do without them. Moses felt the wrath of his kinsmen’s anger when the food ran out. Yes, the Egyptians were far in the rear view mirror, washed into the sea, but Moses complained to God that the people would run out of patience. The answer to their prayers comes in the form of two miracles: a mysterious food they called “manna” (which literally means “what is this?”) which they collected every morning, and water flowing from a huge rock which Moses struck with his staff. God provided for this large nation on the move in a way they themselves could not have imagined.
Move forward now to what we see of Jesus’ compassion. “Sir, give me this water so that I may not be thirsty,” the Samaritan woman asks him. She knew that she had both a natural thirst and a spiritual, supernatural thirst. From her conversation with Jesus, she came to believe that both of these thirsts would be satisfied. Without harshness or contempt, Jesus awakened in her both a spiritual thirst and the courage to satisfy that thirst through faith in him.
The Gospel readings for the next three weeks have a couple of special characteristics. First, each one is a little longer than we’re accustomed to. In addition to the Samaritan woman, we will hear about Jesus’ healing of a man born blind and his raising Lazarus from the dead. Secondly, St. John’s style is not to take a snapshot of the scene and run along—that is, giving a bare-bones account of who was there and what happened. No, he kicks off his sandals, flops on the couch, and stays a while. This is an important gift to us because St. John has a way of probing deep into the mystery of Christ. Sometimes it feels like Our Lord is barnstorming into a new town every day; but here he is in no hurry, entering into the kind of dialogue that feels extraordinary and lavish.
That is just how Jesus wishes to interact with us. He has all kinds of time for us; do we really not have time for him? Or could it be that we are so distracted by everything else going on in our lives that we restrict him—we’re giving God an hour here today and that’s good, but when else?
Let’s carefully examine the case of this Samaritan woman. She has an impressive knowledge of her religious background, and an impressive courage in staying there with the Lord and not allowing shame to send her running away. But there are things in her personal life that are morally inauthentic—that is, they cannot abide with a godly life.
Why do you suppose we were told that she came to the well around noon? Numerous scholars argue that the prime time for gathering water was early in the morning, so that you could have it to conduct your household duties all day. This woman could have come earlier, too, but maybe the brood gathered there would revile her and give her a hard time, because they “knew what kind of woman she was.” Maybe she concluded it wasn’t worth the static, and would arrive later when she knew they’d be gone. So, in her encounter with Jesus, the woman faced a two-fold problem: she, a Samaritan, expected Jews who met her to treat her like a second-class citizen, and on top of that, she was the village outcast.
But to her undying credit, this woman was brave and vulnerable before Christ. She resolved that for too long she’d been in the bondage of the evil one. Here was her chance to break those bonds, so that she could begin to live a noble, holy life as a true daughter of Israel. Her neighbors might have been skeptical at first, but she never doubted Jesus’ claim that he was the long-awaited Anointed One. She permitted him to show her a new path for her life.
Notice how soon her fortunes change: mere moments after being the penitent in need of mercy and healing, this woman is now the evangelist, telling her neighbors, “Come see this man for yourselves!” Overjoyed at the gift of Christ’s purifying love, she saw this gift as being too good to remain a secret. Could anyone else have proclaimed the Good News more faithfully than she did that day? This woman was a walking Gospel lesson, and an illustration of how the Lord always comes in search of those who are lost. Everyone, regardless of the mountains from their past that stand in the way, can find Jesus, who gives us faith to move mountains.
Think about the person in your lives who is the woman at the well at this moment. Whom do we know that consider themselves on the margins or even outside of the family of God? Have our actions repelled them, or have we tried to invite them back? And if we haven’t, what’s stopping us? Have we possibly set up expectations that they’re not interested in new life in Christ, and if so, why? We need to show them that there is nowhere else we can go to satisfy the hunger and thirst in our souls. Christ alone is our living water and daily bread. This Lent, and for the rest of our lives, let us unceasingly ask the Lord for these gifts.
By: Fr. James Gross
After spending last Sunday with Jesus as he withstands temptation in the wilderness, today we journey with him to the mountaintop. We get an inside look at what the Apostles Peter, James, and John were privileged to see. We’ll examine the theological meaning behind this scene, as well as the strength it provides us here and now. But first, let’s step back for a moment to appreciate just how stunning this event would have been.
People who lived 2,000 years ago were just like you and me, but consider how primitive the times were. No one could travel by land faster than a horse could take them. No one could traverse the sea faster than they could sail or row. Maybe most striking of all is the difference in technology in our time. None of the disciples had heard amplified music in stereo or seen either still photographs or moving pictures of any kind. There were no televisions, computer monitors, or movie theaters. The greatest visual wonders of their lives were the products of nature, such as a landscape or a thunderstorm.
Now imagine that we took such a person, with no modern multimedia experiences whatsoever, and brought him to a 3-D Star Wars movie. Talk about sensory overload, right? Now we start to get an idea of how awe-inspiring the Transfiguration of Jesus must have been. Peter, James, and John could never “un-see” or forget such a thing.
In his ministry, Jesus insisted on an absolute standard of humility. When he attended fancy banquets or social functions, they were not of his arranging. Jesus accepted whatever hospitality his hosts might offer (eating what was given to him, sleeping wherever shelter was available, etc.), and insisted that those who accompanied him did the same. To the naked eye Jesus displayed a dignity in how he carried himself, but no trappings of regality or finery.
Hold on to that picture of humility for a moment. Now picture him entering a town in which people have heard about his healing abilities and gathered their infirm family members and friends. One after another, they came away unbound by their former conditions: the blind can see, the deaf can hear, the paralyzed can walk, and so on. And he operated in a seemingly effortless manner. It’s a paradox, isn’t it? A man who embodied deep humility is the same one working such wonders that no one had ever witnessed before.
In this perspective, the Transfiguration of Christ is a gift whereby we can see by means of our human senses the true grandeur of the Son of God. Adding to the sensory overload of his dazzling white garments and the piercing light emanating from him is the vision of two giants of salvation history—Moses and Elijah.
We understand well enough that Moses, through whom God handed down the Ten Commandments and many other precepts besides, represents the Law which gave the nation of Israel its distinct identity. However, Elijah may not seem to us an archetypal prophet. His story is not contained in a book of the Old Testament named for him, but in the Books of Kings. For Jews of Jesus’ time, though, Elijah’s legacy loomed large. He faced down enormous opposition, from kings and peers alike, in his fidelity to God.
What did it mean to behold the transfigured Jesus standing as equals alongside these singular heroes? An ecstatic Peter can hardly put it into words. In fact, his first inclination is to perpetuate the scene. “Let’s build a little village on this spot and dwell together like this forever!” We are sympathetic to his reaction, but as the Father declares that the world must listen to His Son and the vision dissipates, the three Apostles realize that they cannot stay on the mountaintop. Their brothers and sisters in the valley below need to hear their teachings and encounter the grace of God for themselves. Only in heaven will Peter’s request eventually be fulfilled.
Lastly, the Transfiguration uniquely prepared these men for the passion Our Lord would have to undergo. Before much longer, Jesus would be arrested, condemned in a sham trial, scourged, and crucified. John fled, but amazingly returned to the cross of Christ. At least Peter came back to the high priest’s courtyard, even though in fear he denied even knowing the Lord. As for my namesake, James, once he headed for the hills that Thursday night, heaven knows where he was.
But here’s the key: in the face of the disastrous events, in spite of their fleeing Jerusalem, they came back together by Easter Sunday. Yes, they locked the door and suspected that the authorities might hunt them down next, but they were with each other. We can be certain that the vision of Christ’s glory was seared into the consciousness of Peter, James, and John, and from this vision they clung to the hope that the Son of Man could indeed rise from the dead, as He Himself had foretold.
Bringing all this into the present day, what does the Transfiguration of Jesus mean for us? Our Savior is a savior because he suffered for us. In worldly terms, to triumph means that we come through unscathed: we bypass any obstacles that would touch us. The path the Father chose for Jesus is a scandal that contradicts worldly logic, but it gives us a tremendous example. We can unite our hardships, heartaches, and disappointments, meaningless though they may seem, with the sufferings of Christ. And by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we know that those obstacles will pass away.
There’s hardly a better way to describe this mystery than what St. Augustine once said: We gave the Son of God, in our fallen human nature, the ability to die. He gave us, in His divinity, the ability to live with the Trinity forever.
By: Fr. James Gross
The Church has chosen these readings for every congregation to reflect on today. And, of course, we will do that too. But I need to make a little disclaimer. I would really, REALLY rather not say much of anything about the devil. Now there’s a depressing subject! It’s like going to see someone’s newly renovated house and spending the whole time staring at a stain on the carpet where the dog did his business. Because of how he factors into these scripture readings, we cannot ignore the devil. So we will foil him by exposing and confounding his wicked plans.
The Greek word St. Matthew uses for the devil, diabolos, literally means “slanderer.” The Aramaic word Satan is slightly different, meaning an opponent or enemy. But something about “slanderer” adds a new layer of meaning. One who slanders cannot make or build anything; he can only distort. A slanderer takes something good and warps it, ruins it. Remember the ancient story handed down to us about Lucifer, “the light bearer,” a gleaming, brilliant angel in God’s firmament. Out of envy over God’s creative faculties, he rebelled, and forever resents being a mere creature. To this day, Satan creates nothing, but only manages to twist and pervert the wonders of creation.
Can we not see this trait in his very first words in the Bible? The serpent asks Eve, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” Subtle, yes, but here all we have is a lie built on paranoia. “Maybe God’s not on my side after all. Maybe I’ll just need to do my own thing to survive.” Eve’s problem was her entering into the conversation in the first place. A fitting reply would have been, “No, we may eat of the fruit of every tree except one. Now get out of here, you slithering liar, and don’t come back.” Instead, sadly, Eve left the door open for the serpent to pile on more doubt, and for temptation to bear down on her. We shouldn’t forget about one other very important person. Where, pray tell, was Adam? He’s missing in action, or if not absent, definitely silent. Instead of protecting his beloved, Adam leaves her to flail and languish in battle. Why do no words of confrontation come from him to the serpent? Could Adam not have said, “Wait a minute: why are you questioning what is unquestionable? Where is there any defect in God? Does anyone outdo Him in goodness?” This answer would spring, not out of blind faith, but from direct personal experience of the Divine.
By his Paschal Mystery (that is, his dying and rising), Jesus would ultimately undo the curse and utterly defeat Satan. But much earlier, at the onset of his public ministry, he took some time for preparation. In the intensity of his prayer Jesus forgot about food, and just as the Lord was about to exit the wilderness, the devil made his move. Jesus does what Adam and Eve were unable to do; he rebukes Satan, but does so concisely, without an extended dialogue. And even when the devil becomes arrogant and starts quoting the Word of God, Jesus finds a “trump card” quote to lay on the table.
Each of Our Lord’s three responses comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, which some scholars take as a reference to his formation of the “New Israel.” Deuteronomy records Moses’ final words to his Hebrew brethren before they enter the Promised Land. Christ is to lead his Church as an entirely new kingdom, with new goals and new rewards.
Let’s briefly inspect each of the devil’s temptations to see what’s really behind them. The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. It seems harmless and innocent enough, and assuaging one’s hunger is not in itself immoral—especially after such a prolonged period of fasting. But the core of this first temptation is that Jesus would use his power for himself. He responds that life is about more than bread, and that he would break his fast in a humbler way.
The second temptation is to leap from a dizzying height. “You are God’s Son, aren’t you,” the devil taunts him. “He won’t let anything happen to you!” At the core of this second temptation are two things: a spectacular sign to compel belief, and the avoidance of the cross. The devil tempts Jesus to dazzle the masses as he would have it—not by healing or rescuing anyone else, but by doing something stupid (like jumping from the parapet of the Temple) and defying the consequences. Moreover, it implies that any suffering on the Lord’s part is unnecessary. Why not bypass the passion and cross, if one has that kind of power? But Our Lord proved his supreme obedience to His Father’s will in the garden of Gethsemane when he embraced our suffering in a spirit of fraternal allegiance, so as to go through it and come out victorious from the grave.
The third temptation is to receive dominion over all the world’s kingdoms in exchange for worshiping Satan. In the first place, it’s an empty promise. How could the devil really have something like that to give? Secondly, it was meant to play upon the national hardships of Israel. Palestine was a small strip of land that had become a buffer state, often trampled and made subject to the rule of this empire or that. How many of Jesus’ peers would have seen political autonomy as a tantalizing prospect? But at the core of this third temptation is compromise. Absurdly, the devil tells the King of Kings, “Go along with me and you’ll have everything.” But the only one worth serving is the Father, because to serve Him is to reign.
We may wish that temptations would remain far from us, that we would be immune to them as if they were a disease for which we have taken the vaccine. But the untested piece of steel is not necessarily stronger. When Christ is alive and active in our hearts, the moment of temptation is a chance to rise up as much as a chance to fall.
So how do we make this happen? If the devil chooses to work on us in a personal way, turn him aside with a personal rebuke. Tell him, “I am not your plaything; I am a child of God. You are a loser, because Christ has defeated you. By the Holy Spirit I bind you and cast you aside. I will play no part in your sick and pathetic plan. There is a greater destiny in store for me.”
By: Fr. James Gross
“Return to me with your whole heart, says the Lord.” The prophet Joel doesn’t dare say, “Return to us, O God,” as though God had left us behind. We are the ones who become unreliable and forgetful of God, and not the other way around. Indeed, the season of Lent is about returning to God, and in so doing we rediscover what kinds of people we are meant to become.
Each year we choose to observe a 40-day season of heightened acts of penance and prayer. Why do we do this? It would certainly be easier to stick with our routines and to do what’s familiar, wouldn’t it? But the thing about routines is that they often turn into ruts. Being stuck in a rut denies the effect divine grace should have in our lives. Every year, without fail, once Ash Wednesday comes along, I identify routines—let’s call them what they are, ruts—in my own life that I’m not proud of, things that weigh me down. And every year this celebration has new meaning for me, and gives me a needed push to do something positive.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not reducing the observance of Lent to some self-improvement program. The benefits of a “good Lent” run far deeper than that, including one’s sense of purpose and spirituality. Pointing out specific things I’m doing or not doing is only part of the puzzle. Those things may not be blatantly sinful, but the question is: do they result in my becoming more negligent of God, or less able to love Him and my neighbor fully? When I consider the sacrifices I make during Lent, I ask myself: is this something vain, or will it actually help me focus on my faith and practice it better? God has already turned toward me and has never turned away. How will I return to Him?
Historically, Lent came about in large part because of the many converts who joined the church every year. The custom, as it is now, was for them to enter into a more intense period of preparation before being received into full communion at Easter, and to publicly appeal for the support of their brothers and sisters already in the fold. Rather than to stand by passively, the faithful eventually took upon themselves similar acts of penance, uniting themselves actively to the parish’s catechumens. One of the main reasons for a 40-day long season of Lent was to imitate the 40 days Jesus spent in prayer in the desert to prepare for his ministry, which we’ll hear about this weekend, or also the 40-day retreat Moses spent atop Mt. Sinai as God revealed to him the instructions of His law for Israel. The Church has seen the wisdom of annually calling upon God’s mercy and for renewal in the Holy Spirit.
On Ash Wednesday we hear this Gospel reading about the merits of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Three times Jesus says that “our Father who sees what is secret” will repay us. At first glance his words contradict the practice of putting ashes on our foreheads. In fact, years ago I met a young woman who bragged about the large cross-shaped smear on her head and exuberantly said, “I got GOOD ashes this year!”
I’m only being mildly critical of her comment. Obviously no one in the seminary told us that the application of ashes has to measure so long by so wide in order to count. What we’re doing today has a two-fold significance. The words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” call to mind our own mortality. This awareness of death shows us what in our lives we need to hold on to and what we need to let go of. Secondly, the ashes are an exterior sign of the desire of our hearts. The smoldering remains of palm branches do not magically make us more pious and charitable. The cross applied to our foreheads commits us to stir that charity into flame and not bury it. The sign of ashes is a challenge to make every part of our lives a fitting image of the life of Christ—both what we think and what we do.
Lastly, all the language of today’s readings ties us to the present moment. I’d contend that the most important word in this Gospel is when. “When you give alms, when you fast,” etc. is far different than saying “if.” When I started Theology, the graduate school version of seminary, I was struck by how often people were saying “When you become a priest.” The “if” was slipping away; a transition had taken place.
How do we respond to the present moment and live in the spirit of “when?” Don’t wish to return to God someday: do it today! Don’t wait around for the right time: now is the acceptable time! Delaying the action may sound rational but is really harmful. Excuses are our enemies. The sooner we get serious about working with God’s grace, the easier it will be to make sacrifices and stick with them. May our prayer today propel us forward, so that God will dispose us to give Him greater glory.
By: Fr. James Gross
Some years ago a psychiatrist that I met told me about a study that was conducted here in the U.S. The study concluded that up to 50% of Americans, at some time in their lives, suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition. They weren’t referring only to severe or debilitating diseases, but the point behind the research was that a lot more of us are dealing with these struggles than we may think. I remember guessing that the number would be much lower than 50%, and I think I concluded naively that mental health issues were much more the exception than the rule. How many people do I know that “keep a stiff upper lip” and tell themselves that others have it worse than they do? We just need to suck it up, push through, and put our best foot forward, or else we probably are just making a mountain out of a molehill.
I’m bringing this up because of the numerous times Jesus refers to worry and anxiety in today’s Gospel. I dare say that a lot of us experience anxiety in our day-to-day lives, and for a good number of us, we turn to medication and/or therapy to cope with them. My Grandma Gross, for example, had what I’m pretty sure was a form of anxiety disorder, even though doctors may never have given that it name when she was alive. What are we supposed to do with what the Lord tells us?
First of all, we know that God wants us to live life to its fullest and enjoy health of mind, body, and soul. The message of the Gospel is not a stoic, “tough love” approach that turns a blind eye to our moments of misery. Neither is the Gospel message a version of that old 1980’s pop song from Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s a disservice to reduce the words of Jesus to an airy cliché. I’m probably going to regret mentioning that song; I hope it doesn’t stick in your mind like an earworm and distract you the rest of the mass.
The anxiety of which Our Lord speaks today comes from false assumptions. First of all, we can falsely think that there is a limit to the bounty of God’s gifts. We fear that they are rationed thin, and when our ration runs out, then what will we do? Secondly, we can falsely think that God is not interested in the needs of His children, as though he can’t be expected to “sweat the small stuff.” Also, we can tell ourselves that personal success is all on our shoulders. This is the residual effect of the Enlightenment period, and the attempt to remove God from our lives as an active cooperator in meeting our needs.
Should we be conscientious? Should we play by the rules? Should we live responsibly? Should we make our best effort? Absolutely, but insofar as we give glory to God as the one who makes it possible. By using terms like worry and anxiety, Jesus is confronting the doubt we can harbor in His desire for our true welfare. As Isaiah poetically put it, we should no more expect a mother to forget about the child in her womb than we would expect God to forget about us.
Stresses and pressure will come at us from the outside. The key is that, through God’s grace, we can control how we respond to them. Here’s how I like to think of what Jesus is saying. During the Mass, after we finish reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I pray that, “by the help of God’s mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress.” The distress is the unavoidable garbage that comes at us. Anxiety is the permission we give external distress to overwhelm us and lose hope in God’s providence. That is the very thing Jesus teaches us to wage war against.
Consider the beautiful examples Jesus gives from nature: the value the Creator places in birds of the air, providing creatures with sustenance, and the exquisite detail of flowers that soon perish. I imagine the Father saying to us, “I have plenty of everything. Do not be anxious that there may not be anything left for you.” That being said, the Lord warns us that we cannot serve two masters. God must be God of our lives, and everything else must stand in proportion to Him. As he said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Otherwise, we begin to live like idolaters, depending on ourselves or something in creation to satisfy our desire for lasting happiness. Then we chase after the wrong kinds of things and start believing that God won’t really come through for us.
This past week, during Msgr. Shea’s mission talks, he reminded us of how important it was that God commanded the Hebrews, through Moses, to keep the Sabbath day. God’s people were freed from slavery. They did not have to act any longer like they were still slaves. They could enjoy a day of rest every single week, following the standard God set in the Book of Genesis, where all unnecessary work or errands get put on hold. We take this to mean that we can concentrate on taking care of each other and allowing Holy Mother Church to nurture us.
It takes discipline to make the most of our Sundays, to be here right now, and not to treat this day as “Saturday, part two.” Perhaps many of you already carry anxiety in your heart about what you have to do on Monday morning. But is that how God asks us to live? Ironically, many of those who feed their anxiety with all sorts of busy-ness on Sundays don’t really feel like they are caught up. Instead of being tranquil and dispelling the anxiety, it somehow gets revved up and moves even closer to the center of their thoughts.
You may be saying, “Yes, Father, but I’m still anxious. I’ve got problems that weigh heavily on my heart.” Certainly you do; far be it from me to trivialize them. But God’s shoulders are broad. Will we trust that our Heavenly Father knows what we need better than we know it ourselves? Will we take the risk that comes with the virtue of faith to ask in humble prayer for what we need? Will we trust that God can provide for His children what we cannot provide for ourselves?
By: Fr. James Gross
“You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” So soon after meeting this large group of people who gathered with him on the mountaintop, Jesus made these extremely bold declarations. He didn’t say, “You might be the light of the world someday, if you play your cards right.” Instead, he used “you are,” the present tense.
The Lord is not expecting something of us well beyond our reach, but seeks to expand our imagination of what we can become and accomplish as his disciples. If it were out of reach, his listeners would have drifted away, their hearts heavy with despair. On the contrary, more and more of them dropped everything and flocked to Jesus. How well can we relate to what they did? Will I be salt and light regardless of what I do, or is the Holy Spirit calling me to a greater response? What is God’s plan of action for my life?
I want to use an example of a saying I used to hear as a kid. When someone tried to enter a building, but it was not open, people would often say that it was “locked up tighter than Fort Knox.” Well, what did I, as a little kid, know about Fort Knox? It turns out that Fort Knox is an army installation near Louisville, Kentucky, and on the grounds is one of the world’s largest gold depositories. It’s among the most heavily guarded places on planet earth.
Let’s say a friend of mine went to visit Fort Knox, and tells me, “Father, I brought you back a souvenir.” He pulls out a brick-sized bar of gold and hands it to me. I look at this gleaming, highly-polished bar, feel the weight of it in my hands, and say, “I know what I’ll do: I need a doorstop for my office, and I bet this will do the trick!” How do you suppose that friend would react? For one thing, he’d want me to get my head examined.
My point behind that silly story is simply this; do we truly know the value of God’s gifts? Light shines forth unmistakably. Food that is seasoned is not bland. It stands out. We are not salt and light all by ourselves. God makes it possible. We are to be like a bright full moon, reflecting the sun’s light because the light is not our own.
To put it another way, what has Christ given us that is different? What does it matter that I come HERE and do THIS? Why does it matter that we celebrate the Eucharist, and what do we do with the Communion in Christ that we receive? The clear expectation of Jesus is that we will make a contribution in the world that no one else makes, because we are salt and light. The story goes that many pagans in Rome came to describe their Christian neighbors this way; “See how they love one another.” They may not have been on board with believing in Jesus as Lord, but they could not deny the fruits of His followers. They were persecuted for their faith, but still shone forth as a city on a hill.
Isaiah urged us in today’s first reading to invest our talents for the well-being of others: “If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted, then light shall rise for you in the darkness.” Lots of people look around and know what could be done. Some of them take the risk to do those things. As Christians, we go farther by identifying Jesus in the least of our brothers and sisters. We give not so as to receive a reward, but to secure a heavenly reward not measured by human esteem.
In the coming weeks you are going to hear us speak a lot about the practice of stewardship. Ideally we wouldn’t crowd these items together, but life doesn’t always work that way. You’ll notice that soon we will kick off the annual God’s Gift Appeal. Bishop Folda wants to express his deep gratitude that the diocese met its goal for 2016, and the participation of you, our parishioners, was instrumental in making that happen. On a local level, as part of our parish Centennial celebration, we hope to embark on a project to update and enhance the beauty of our worship space. We invite all of you to join in one of the informational meetings coming up to see how you can share in this endeavor.
And then there are consistent needs, such as the collection we solicit the first weekend of every month for non-perishable items in our Food Pantry. Between our St. Vincent de Paul Conference members, Fr. Courtright, Deacon Stu, and yours truly, we can attest that many households make good use of this resource to provide nutritious meals when they otherwise would have to go without.
If we believe that we are salt of the earth and light of the world, intended not to blend into the background but step forward on the world’s stage, our stewardship is not some extraordinary act of heroism, but rather an expression of who we already are. God is the one true owner of our material blessings. Someone else applied them before us, and someone else will do so after we are gone. What we choose to give is not a matter of what we give up from our own storehouse, but what we share of God’s bounty in a way that glorifies Him. And as more people take part, the entire work prospers. It’s like moving to a new home; a crew of two or three will get worn out, but with a dozen helpers, the task becomes easier, even if a couple of volunteers can only carry a few pounds.
Let me leave you with one more example that I found intriguing from today’s Gospel. Jesus said that, as people light a lamp in their home and do not hide it under a bushel basket, so our light must shine before others. A bushel is a measure of volume—its weight depends on the contents. Wheat runs about 60 pounds a bushel, whereas a less dense grain like oats is significantly lighter.
The average family in the time of Christ would keep a bushel basket filled with grain in a storage room, and as needed, fill a smaller container for the kitchen, to grind into flour as needed. To keep an empty bushel basket in one’s home would have been odd in that society. If someone came to your door for a handout, you may use that basket to cover your lamp, so as to suggest that no one is home. But then, greed may tempt you to bring the basket to the marketplace and fill it with treats for yourself, not once considering what we might give to our neighbor.
Am I the person clutching the bushel basket, poised to hide behind it? Am I using my bar of solid gold as a doorstop? Or do I accept that, as a member of the Body of Christ, I am salt and light for the world?
By: Fr. James Gross
We’ve just heard one of the most popular and discussed passages in the whole Bible. As we look more closely at what’s come to be called the Beatitudes, let’s explore how our ancestors in faith grappled with the issues of material blessings and God’s distribution of punishments and rewards.
In the centuries prior to the birth of Christ, belief in an afterlife was largely undeveloped compared to today. Many of the Israelites had a sense that a part of us carried on after death, but were uncertain as to what exactly that meant. They were certain, though, that God is all-powerful and perfectly just: nothing we do, either for good or for ill, escapes His notice. It follows, then, in this line of thinking, that God metes out justice in this life either by rewards or punishments.
Here’s the conclusion that they reached: those who are healthy, wealthy, or respected have conducted themselves virtuously, and God is rewarding the interior convictions of their hearts by granting exterior gifts. On the other hand, the vagrants and destitute among us have preferred sin over virtue, and God is letting them have it. Yes, there are crooks and thieves who become rich because of their crimes, but they are the exception to the rule. This philosophy of life leaves no room for the claim that material goods are corrupting influences. All that God created is good, and He appointed us to be stewards of His many gifts. However, both the haves and the have-nots are ultimately responsible for their lot in life.
It doesn’t take a sophisticated person to see how deficient this world view is. In fact, the Bible denounces it in several cases. The Book of Job, for example, is a classic study of this very question. Job is an unquestionably faith-filled man. But his holiness does not spare him from a series of tragic events: bandits overtake his hired men and steal his livestock, he develops painful sores over his whole body, and his children die in a violent storm. Soon after all this occurs, three of Job’s friends come to console him, but eventually they can’t restrain themselves. They tell him: “What did you do, Job? You must have gotten yourself into this mess somehow. Just ask for forgiveness from God, and He’ll make things right again.” In vain Job tries to persuade them that sometimes bad things do happen to good people.
In recent times, certain Christian communities have fallen prey to what’s being commonly called the “Prosperity Gospel.” Join our church, play your cards right, and God will bless you with tangible rewards. Taken to its extreme, this movement reduces life to a simple formula by attaching positive, concrete results to one’s expression of faith in God; it essentially seeks to confine the workings of God.
Real life is more complex. Lacking what the world considers blessings—the right house, the right car, the right job—doesn’t automatically plunge us into the depths of despair. Today Jesus reminds us that one who is without God is the most wretched person of all. He boldly proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, although it is not yet fully realized.
To a worldly person, the Beatitudes are nonsense. But they ring true from the perspective that Jesus, as God’s Son, has the power to make real what he proclaims. To be a peacemaker, to be clean of heart, or to be merciful means that we look the world’s trivial and petty pursuits in the eye and reject them. To hunger and thirst for righteousness and to receive mistreatment for the sake of our Catholic faith require that we suffer with Christ. But when we do all these things, God is very near to us. And in His perfect justice, God will give us in His time reason to rejoice, no matter the size of our bank account or the amount of praise our peers heap onto us.
Remember the Gospel parable from St. Luke of Lazarus and the rich man. When the rich man sees Lazarus in heaven, as he himself is in torment, he finally sees that the blessings of the self-made man cannot last. He learns too late that luxury and comfort do not equal salvation, while Lazarus shows us that faith in God is the one true path to being someone special.
Every single year we hear this Gospel reading on All Saints’ Day. This reading is the answer to the question of “How do we live lives of holiness?”
By: Fr. James Gross
I want to begin by asking for your prayers for a group of us taking a pilgrimage to Washington, DC for the March for Life this coming week. I have been asked to accompany the delegation from Dickinson Trinity High School; their religion teacher is a good friend of mine, and their priest is not available, so she asked me to pinch hit. We are leaving Monday and returning Saturday night. Google maps tells me that, from Fargo, it will be a 2,694-mile round trip by bus, and add six hundred miles to that number for the rest of the group from Dickinson. Teenagers seem to sleep just fine on a bus—we grownups are not nearly as flexible.
Usually this event occurs closer to the 22nd, the anniversary date of the Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision. Because of the Inauguration, it got pushed back to this coming Friday, but is still held on a weekday instead of a weekend in order to have the greatest impact on the local life of the city. You may not hear a single thing in the news media about the hundreds of thousands of us who will be there, most of them young people. This is where social media helps to fill that void by telling the real story.
The goal we seek is to safeguard the gift that is every single human life—the child in the womb, their mothers and fathers, and everyone else. We can love and honor all of the above, and in fact, are mandated to do so by Christ. Perhaps our federal and state laws will again come to reflect godly values and renounce the culture of death; of course we earnestly pray for this. But the means to lasting change is the transformation of hearts. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, and we are his instruments.
The Bishops of the United States ask us to commemorate January 22nd as a day of prayer and fasting for the legal protection of unborn children. When the 22nd falls on a Sunday, it is transferred to the following day. I challenge each and every one of you to treat Monday like Ash Wednesday, with spiritual and material sacrifices. Prayer is the powerful tool that we all have close at hand to achieve a civilization of love, one that honors life no matter the circumstances or the cost.
Isaiah begins today’s reading by mentioning “the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali.” I’m assuming these are not household names to most of us, so we need to look at the background. Halfway through the book of Genesis we read about the patriarch Jacob. In a famous scene in which Jacob wrestles with an angel who appeared to him, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, so those two names are for the same person. Jacob had twelve sons, and we refer to the extended families of each son as “tribes.” When we hear the phrase “twelve tribes of Israel,” it’s a way of thinking about the nation of Israel in terms of heritage and genealogy—which tribe one belongs to. Zebulon and Naphtali are two of Jacob’s sons.
When the nation of Israel finally took possession of the Promised Land, the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali occupied border regions of the country, quite distant from Jerusalem, which was in the south. Some five hundred years later, the Empire of Assyria attacked Israel, and the regions of Zebulon & Naphtali were most susceptible to that invasion. Isaiah’s prophecy speaks to God’s compassion for those tribes. Although a foreign power devastated the residents of that place, God would bring a great light to them to overcome their darkness. The places in Palestine that were far from the Temple were not far from the kingdom of Christ.
While Jesus reached out to all the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he began by setting out for the frontier of Galilee. It’s in this part of Palestine that a great many of Jesus’ parables and miracles take place. I really like the choice Jesus made to travel to an outlying area first. People are always “worth it:” they always deserve to hear the good news, regardless of where they come from. When Jesus makes tracks for Zebulon & Naphtali, one might say there’s some similarity to traveling to North Dakota. We know we’re worth the trip, even if hardly anyone else thinks so.
Once Jesus begins, his message is very simple and clear: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The specific meaning of the word “repent” is not necessarily based on conversion from sin, though that is a part of all of our lives. What “repent” actually means here is to turn one’s life around, to go in a different direction. The first concern in the Lord’s mind was that people think of their lives differently, that they would come to know and experience the deep, personal love God has for them. Once God becomes more than some mysterious force and begins to take hold of our hearts, then moral conversion occurs more organically. Then sin displeases us as it displeases God. We practice virtues, not only to play by the rules, but to live in Communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only when we repent does that make sense to us.
Jesus then starts to call people to follow him as disciples. The candidates we hear about today are Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. These four would later become Apostles, and from the very start they prove their mettle by immediately abandoning their homes and careers—everything familiar to them—to follow Christ. They remind us that a vocation starts with God, and not with us. Everybody asks the question as they grow up, “What am I going to do with my life?” The Christian inserts a second, and more urgent, question: “What is God inviting me to do with my life?”
When someone at St. Philip Neri parish in Napoleon commented that they thought I might make a good priest, it wasn’t just their opinion. God showed them something about me that prompted them to tell me. And doing that is a sort of risk; it’s saying something that one might be more comfortable keeping to oneself. But when we discern that God may indeed be moving a young man’s heart to a religious vocation, he counts on us to trust what we’re seeing. This is one of the most important ways that a parish promotes priestly vocations. A pastor or vocations director can make their pitch, and those things have their place, but as far as that goes, we do not take your place. Don’t just leave it up to mom and dad, either. We all need to speak up, because the future of the church depends on generous hearts serving in Christ’s name.
Dioceses in cities across the country like Denver, Minneapolis, and St. Louis are undergoing building projects to add to their seminaries because of the increase in numbers of candidates. Many parts of the country are enjoying a resurging interest in priestly ministry. What these places are doing (and we can include the diocese of Fargo and Bismarck in that list) is no big secret. They are inviting their home-grown high school and college age men to pray about their vocation, and above all to listen carefully for the voice of Jesus. They’re turning to the powerful intercession of Mary. Their priests are giving joyful and confident witness to the beauty of the priestly life. Let’s join with them by spreading, and sharing in, that hope that Jesus gave to every corner of Galilee in his three-year ministry and continues to give to all of us today.