Saturday, October 12, 2019

We Don't Abandon Our Friends on the Spiritual Battlefield

Every Catholic who is striving to grow in holiness finds himself with some frequency kneeling in the confessional, humbly acknowledging his or her sins and faults. The person who frequently confesses their faults is a fighter. They haven't thrown in the towel, resigned themselves to their sins, or made friends with their sins. They are soldiers engaged in an epic battle against the power of evil. Knocked down, they get up again. Sometimes, they feel like they have been traitors or cowards. And yet, they drag themselves to the aid station and then return to the battle. For some, they battle the same faults and sins for years upon years. As long as this has not settled into some sort of routine and empty ritual, they have no cause for shame. If the Lord commanded us to forgive our brother seventy times seven times, will he not also do so for us? 

We live at a moment in time, however, when instead of encouraging one another to fight the good fight, we are tempted to discourage one another. True love--true friendship--doesn't abandon our fellow soldiers on the battlefield. True love demands that we rally them, encourage them towards holiness, and carry them to safety. When we encourage others to sin, to abandon the fight, to yield to the powers of evil, the flesh, and the world, we fail them. We fail them and inflict grave spiritual harm upon them. We expect that an enemy might try to destroy us, but we should be able to count on our friends to aid us. Friendship and love means willing the good for the other. Most importantly, it means willing their spiritual good. It means wanting to do everything possible to help that person attain eternal life. 

When we cooperate in the sin of another, we are not only wounding ourselves spiritually, but we become an enemy to the one who is supposed to be our friend, our comrade in arms. When we cooperate in the sin of another, we take the side of the Enemy. Instead of saving his life, we participate in his destruction. So, it might be helpful for us to review the nine traditional ways in which we cooperate in the sins of another.

By Counsel: In this instance, we advise a person to act in a manner contrary to the Divine Will. "If you really love this woman, I think it is fine for you to cheat on your wife."

By Command: In this instance, we command a person to do some act of evil. "You have to lie to the customer in order for our business to flourish.."

By Consent: In this instance, we affirm the person's decision to act contrary to the Divine Will. "You're going to get blackout drunk tonight? That's wonderful. Have a great time!"

By Provocation: In this instance, we appeal to someone's foolishness or pride to act contrary to the Will of God.  "You should decide for yourself what is right or wrong. You shouldn't listen to some old fashioned commandments. Do you really think you're going to go to Hell for not going to Mass?"

By Flattery or Praise: In this instance, we celebrate someone's sinfulness. We heap praise upon them for doing something that is contrary to the Divine Will. "I think it is great how you cheated on that test and didn't get caught."

By Concealment: "If you take this money that doesn't belong to you, I won't say anything to anyone."

By Partaking: In this instance, you actually benefit from the sin. "I'm glad you stole that money so that we could enjoy this nice vacation."

By Silence: This in some ways is the "live and let live" cooperation. "I know that you are cheating on your wife, but for the sake of peace and tranquility, I won't bring it up. Better for us to stay friends than for me to make things awkward."

By Defending the Sin: In this instance, we argue that the evil act is not evil at all. "You deserve to be happy and if that means doing what is forbidden by God, then that must be okay."

Friends, we are engaged in a spiritual battle. Our Enemy is crafty, sinister, and relentless. We need true companions to be at our side during this war. We need friends who love us and who don't leave us for dead on the battlefield. We need friends who encourage us to fight against temptation, not yield to it. We need friends who help us to repent, not to relent. We need friends who lead us to the Confessional, not traitors who abandon us to the Enemy. We need friends who help us cooperate with grace, not cowards who cooperate in our sins.

Don't abandon your friends on the battlefield. Don't let them get discouraged. Don't let them surrender to the Enemy. Better to fall in battle a thousand times, to repent, and to return to the fight than to be abandoned and discouraged. 

If you love your friends, help them to be holy. Stand by them, love them, and encourage them to never stop fighting for holiness. That's what comrades and companions do.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Come Away By Yourselves And Rest Awhile--The Need for Certainty Amid the Turmoil

There was a sound that I loved when I was a young high school student considering the possibility of going to the seminary. The parish where I grew up was Sacred Heart in North Quincy, Massachusetts. Unusual for a Catholic parish in the 1980's, our parish had daily Eucharistic Adoration. I, along with many others, would often stop by "Our Lady's Chapel" for a visit during the day. The church was located on a very busy city street.

The Chapel of the Parish Church Where I Grew Up

The chapel had a steady flow of visitors. Whenever a new visitor arrived and opened the heavy wooden door, the sound of the world outside would rush into the quiet of the chapel. For a few seconds, the chapel would be filled with the noise of the traffic and the hustle and bustle of the outside. Then, as the door closed, peace and tranquility would once again flood into the pews and arches. It was amazing how medicinal that split second was when it would go from noise to silence. 

In many ways, that experience of praying shaped how I came to understand the Church. It was a place where I could go and figure out life. It was a place free from turmoil, chaos, and confusion. It was a place of refuge. It wasn't an escape, but rather a place where I could taste how life was meant to be. It was a place that allowed me to take all of the disparate aspects of life and unify them. It was a place that prepared me to go back out into the chaos of everyday life and engage it in a new and refreshed manner. What I experienced in that chapel was a peaceful possession of the Faith. As I turn back the pages of the years, I see now that in that side chapel, I was learning to build my house upon the Rock. Yes, winds and rains would come--as they do to every life--but there in the midst of it all, there was something--Someone--who was sure and certain.

That memory of the sound of that door clicking shut came to mind today as I scrolled through social media. We live at a moment when the world and politics are so chaotic and tumultuous. The structures of society are collapsing and so is a sense of unity among Americans. Social media is filed with a never ending bombardment of insults and divisions. Additionally, people's lives (as they always have been) are filled with worries, anxieties, and fears. It would be nice to have a place to find refuge--even for a moment--from the constant noise outside.

And this is where I think the Catholic Church could provide a remedy to a tired and discouraged world. We could be that place of refuge for people, a place where people could come and leave the turmoil and chaos outside for a while. We could be a place where people could encounter something sure and certain. I think people are starving for some tranquility in life. I'm starving for some tranquility in life!

But we are not. Instead, the Catholic Church is herself immersed in chaos and turmoil. Instead of being a place of refuge, the Church herself is engaged in constant interior battles. Honestly, I think it is counter evangelical. People have enough chaos in their life. They are not attracted to a Church that offers more chaos, confusion, and turmoil. Many people--people with family problems, illnesses, emotional difficulties, sorrows, heartaches etc--have enough wind and rain in their life. They are seeking a place that reminds them that there is way to build upon rock.

Over the past two weeks, I've had some beautiful moments of the Church being what it was made to be. Last weekend, the Catholic Center at Boston University had its Fall Retreat. In the midst of the stress and chaos of college life, students took time to go be together, to pray, to receive the Sacraments, and to listen to God's Word. They took time to build their life on the Rock. The day after retreat, I flew to Rome for the diaconal ordination of a recent Catholic Center alumnus. Over the past fifteen years or so, ten or so guys from BU's Catholic Center have entered seminary or been ordained. Currently, there are several BU guys in the seminary, some of whom are in the photos below. I share these photos as a reminder that even though there is a lot of turmoil, angst, and infighting swirling about these days, the Church can still be a place of refuge, a place where people can build a life on something sure and certain. I think that one of the best methods of evangelizing the current culture is to provide to people something that they cannot find elsewhere--stability, surety, safety, and certainty.

I hope that when you look at these photos, you might have that experience that I had when the chapel door would close. The chaos of life didn't disappear, but it would be put in its proper context. I am grateful that I live among a people who provide to me a place of refuge from the chaos, a place to build my life upon Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

The Beautiful Chapel at our Retreat Center

Denis Preaching the Gospel for the first time

This is after Denis's ordination. Pictured here from left to right is Patrick Ryan (seminarian for Providence), Fr.John Gancarz (newly ordained priest for Hartford), Deacon Denis Nakkeeran (Boston), Joe Ferme (seminarian for Boston) and me. All of them are from BU and a couple of others are not pictured here.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Priests Should Talk More About Money! (But Not the Way You Think)

When I was first in the seminary, occasionally someone would ask me, "So, how much does a priest make?" The first time I heard the question, I was dumbfounded. I had never even thought about it. It probably wasn't until I was almost done with seminary that I had any clue what the yearly stipend for a priest was. I think that's true of pretty much every guy I knew in seminary. We were there because we felt God was calling us to be priests. We had the sense that somehow we'd be taken care of, so money wasn't really ever on our minds. 

As I've grown older, however, I find myself thinking more often about money. How much should I be saving for retirement? Do I tithe ten percent before taxes or after taxes? Are the retirement programs that are currently in place for priests going to be there when I am seventy-five? How do I live simply, give generously, and be responsible in saving? What do I do with gifts that people might give to me at Christmas or at other times? Should I simply tithe on those or should I give them completely away? How much is reasonable to spend on eating out? Is this expenditure reasonable or is it luxurious? 

When I was young, I didn't think about money, and I'm glad that I didn't. Had I thought about money when I was in seminary, I might have allowed worries about it to ruin my vocation. The obliviousness of youth was good for me and for my vocation! Of course, another good reason why as a seminarian I didn't think much about money is because I didn't actually have any to think about! 

Recently I read a tweet by a prominent Catholic layman who opined on the scandalous situations of some bishops who have used the monies of the Church to live luxurious lifestyles and to garner influence with higher ranking prelates. This layman wondered aloud whether or not this kind of culture begins not with elevation to the episcopate, but is in its seminal stage among priests. My initial reaction was to object. I replied that most priests whom I know are generous, not living luxuriously, and are often scrupulous about the use of parish funds. He agreed, but, he still wondered if there is a danger among priests of accepting large gifts without much intentional thought about its effects on their spiritual lives. 

That online exchange (which was pleasant and respectful) came back to me recently. I was speaking the other day to someone who told me about a parish that regularly gives visiting priests several hundred dollars to say a Sunday Mass. Honestly, it shocked me. Typically, visiting priests who help out at a parish in Boston for a Sunday Mass would receive a $100 stipend. That stipend is the recommended amount from the Archdiocese. A lot of priests that I know set aside that kind of money and use it for works of charity. I don't help out regularly in a lot in parishes, but that kind of occasional "extra" money makes it easier to buy dinner for a seminarian, lunch for a student at the Catholic Center, or respond to the many requests that priests receive for donations. Like the occasional gift that I might receive from a parishioner, it is a nice extra something. But, I wondered to myself: "What if I were regularly making an extra $400 or $600 a week?"

Would I likely be using that money for works of generosity? Some priests probably would. But, I think that would be a danger for me. I could easily see myself thinking, "Well, I'll give half of that away and keep half."  But soon (and I'm only speaking for me because I know myself), I'd be thinking, "Well, I'll use $100 of it for others and keep $500). The priests that I know who help out in parishes do so not because they are trying to make money. They do it to help other priests out. They are hardworking and generous priests. They do it because they want to serve God and provide the Sacraments to the People of God. And, $100 seems like a reasonable stipend for the extra work; even slightly more than that if the distance is significant. $200 or $300, however, for a single Mass, has the whiff of something seriously amiss. It runs the risk of the pastor of that parish beginning to exercise an undue influence because "he" is so generous. On a priest's stipend, an extra several hundred dollars a week would be a huge increase. That could pose a danger not only for the priest receiving it, but also for the priest who gives it. It can create a sense that the money belongs to the pastor. It can create a sense that "he is generous." Were it his money, he would definitely be generous, but, it's not. It's the Church's money. He should give what is just because the laborer is worth his wage, but excessive stipends to priests can slowly become a poisonous culture. The priest can begin to believe that he is, in fact, generous because he gives away large sums of the people's money. It runs the risk of the priest appearing generous rather than actually being generous. It also sets up the possibility that pastors of wealthy parishes (or even non-wealthy parishes whose pastors decide to significantly exceed the recommended stipend) exercise more influence than the pastor who observes the standard.

I haven't blogged in a few months, and this is probably a rather boring topic for a first post! But, it seems the question of money and scandal is definitely in the headlines these days. Honestly, I think most priests and bishops use the money that they receive to do good works with them. I've had many priests support the Catholic Center where I am chaplain both with their own money and with donations from their parishes. Priests and bishops are mostly very generous men. In fact, when I see the generosity of other priests, I often feel convicted by my lack of it. 

At the same time, harmful cultures grow when we all say, "Well, that's the way it works and there's nothing we can do about it." One thing that we can do to help one another avoid future catastrophes is to talk about the way we do things now. Twice this week, I've had conversations with priest friends about money and the way we think about it, use it, and save it. Simply talking about it is helpful. It forces me to examine my life and to think about my relationship with money and how it is helping or hindering my spiritual life. That's a conversation we should all (priest or not) be having on a regular basis. If we don't, abuses begin to slip in and lure us away from living as we are called to live. Maybe when we talk about things, we conclude that the way things are working is perfectly fine. If so, wonderful. But, if we never talk about them, it can lull us into a darkness that harms us and eventually harms the whole Church. Priests should talk about money with one another and with others. It just helps to keep us all honest and to avoid future scandals. Money is a part of life. It's part of a priest's life. That also means--whether we talk about it or not--it is part of our spiritual life. It's better to talk about it with one another so that we can be sure that we are using it in a way that keeps us virtuous, builds up the Kingdom, avoids pitfalls, and helps us to grow in holiness.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday Homily--You Can't Stay in the Middle

Our Students Outdoor Stations of the Cross on Good Friday
Oftentimes on Good Friday, I try to focus on one or another of the persons mentioned in St. John's Passion narrative. Maybe the Blessed Virgin or St. John himself. Pilate, Barabbas, Simon Peter, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary of Magdala, or Nicodemus. But today, I want to talk about someone who is not mentioned by St. John.

Earlier this afternoon, Catholic students here at BU did a live Stations of the Cross in the middle of Marsh Plaza. There, in the middle of campus, they acted out the Passion and Death of the Lord. As they did so, I was struck by all of the people passing by. They were busy living life. They were getting on and off the Green Line, getting on the bus to West Campus, making their way to class. Some tour groups passed by. Even though they didn't know it, they too were taking part in the Stations of the Cross.  They were, what you might call, "extras." They actually played an important role.

At the center of everything was Jesus and all of the main characters. Some, like John, Mary, Simon of Cyrene, and the women had definitively chosen to stay with Jesus. Others, like the soldiers and Pilate were clearly against Jesus. On the peripheries, however, were people who passed by as though this event taking place had nothing to do with them. They were busy. They had to get places. Maybe as they passed by, they thought, "Yeah, I should probably be more religious." Or maybe they thought, "Those crazy Catholics." But, for the most part, their role was to pass by. This Jesus and his death had  nothing really to do with them.

Between the main characters and those who didn't have time to stop were the rest of us. We were watching what took place, and it was as though we were suddenly faced with a choice. Are we going to live as though this event has everything to do with our life or are we going to pass by? See, if we're honest, we can all easily forget that His Passion and Death define our life. We can live as passers by. We have a vague sense that Jesus is important, but we have places to go and things to do. 

Today, Jesus cries out from the Cross, "I thirst." A few weeks ago, he thirsted by the well in Samaria. He told the woman that he wanted a drink.  He did not merely want water from her. He thirsted for her Faith. He thirsted for her to put her Faith in him, to trust him; to trust that He could give her what she had been searching for in vain for all of her life. He thirsted for her to surrender to him and to trust that he would bring her the happiness that had long eluded her.  

Today, Jesus cries from the Cross, "I thirst."  He thirsts for our Faith. If we're honest, all of us hold back from trusting Jesus completely. There's a little "passer by" in all of us. There's a hesitancy in us. We are afraid to surrender certain parts of our life to him. All of us can act at times as though what happens on the Cross is not absolutely critical and central to our life. We can be busy about many things. We can pass by hurriedly, but no matter how frenzied life might be, we can hear his voice today through all the noise. He's calling out to us, "I thirst." "I thirst for you. I thirst for your love. I thirst for that part of your life that you are keeping from me. I thirst for that part of your life that you hide from me, that you refuse to surrender. I thirst to be the one who defines your life. I thirst."

In a few moments, we will all approach the crucified Lord and reverence the wood of the Cross. As we do so, let's remember that he is calling out, "I thirst." He's not crying out to some vague or anonymous crowd. He's crying out to you personally. Will you give him your heart or will you be a passer by? He thirsts. And you must  now make a decision.

On the Day Before He Suffered, a Holy Thursday Homily

After Holy Thursday Mass at Boston University, some of our students walked to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to  pray with Cardinal Sean
The other day, I received a text message from a man who was a high school student when I was a newly ordained priest. He and his family became friends of mine and we've kept in touch over the years. He was texting me photos of the beach in the Bahamas where he and his wife are on vacation. He wanted to let me know that he is enjoying warm, sunny weather and that he hopes I'm enjoying the cold, rainy weather here in Boston. Nice guy.  After we texted a bit, I recalled another time he texted me, about two years ago.

His mother had been sick for quite a while, but she took a rapid turn for the worse and he called to see if I could come visit her in the hospital. As it turned out, I would visit her on the night before she died. I've been at the bedside of hundreds of people at the moment before they pass from this life and go to the next. It can be an extraordinary moment. Being present at the side of this woman on the night before she died stands out in my mind.

When I entered the room, which was fairly dark, I greeted her family members.  They said to her, "Fr. Barnes is here." I was preparing myself to offer some words of consolation to her. Instead, she said, "Oh, Father Barnes! It's so nice of you to come. Thank You. How are you doing? How are the kids at BU doing? Tell me about them?" At a moment when she would fully be within her rights to be concerned about herself, she was thanking me and asking about the people whom I serve. 

There are words that I have spoken daily for twenty-two years.  They have never really struck me because what follows them are the most important words. "On the night before he died." Or, "On the night he was betrayed." Or, "On the night before he suffered." These words never stand out to me because it is the words that follow these that are the most important. "This is my Body. This is My Blood."

But today, these words really strike me. Tonight, we are with Jesus on the night before he died. We are with him in this privileged moment when he prepares to pass from this life to the next. He is the one who is about to be betrayed, to suffer, and to die. And what does he think about in this moment? He thinks about you. On the night before he died, Jesus thought about you.  He loves us to the end. He spends the night before he dies, loving us. He expresses this love by giving us three gifts.

Firstly, he gives to you the gift of the priesthood. True, none of you are ordained priests, but all of you--all of us--are recipients of this gift of Jesus' love. On the night before he died, Jesus gave to us the gift of the priesthood. This gift of his love is given so that the presence of the Good Shepherd can be prolonged in every age and place. Through the priesthood, Christ loves us by teaching us with his Word, absolving us from our sins, and feeding us with His Body and Blood. On the night before he died, Jesus loved you and gave you the priesthood.

Secondly, on the night before he suffered, Jesus gave you the Eucharist. He thought of you in that upper room. He loved you and wanted to remain with you in the most intimate of ways. In this gift, Jesus remains with you and transforms you into himself. He who is Love Incarnate opens a way for us to be caught up into Divine Love. In the Eucharist, Love Himself enters into our soul and transforms us from the inside. The image of Christ becomes more and more alive within us, enabling us to love to the end. On the night before he died, Jesus loved you and gave you the Eucharist.

Thirdly, on the night before he suffered, Jesus gave to us an example. He emptied himself--lowered himself--and washed the feet of his apostles. In doing so, he showed us what love is. And then, he commanded us to love. He showed us how to love to the end. So many people feel trapped in anger, trapped by circumstances, trapped by their past. They feel imprisoned by their faults and failings. They feel as though there is no way forward, no way out.  But Jesus shows us that there is a way. On the night before he suffered--at the moment when fierce enemies were closing in on him, surrounding him, and taunting him--at the moment when close friends were betraying him, denying him, and abandoning him--Jesus loves them.  He loves them to the end. He loves us to the end.  And so, on the night before he suffered, he gave to us an example, a reminder that love makes us free. He loves us to the end and allows us to do the same. On the night before he died, he taught us how to love.

The woman I mentioned earlier died such a beautiful death because she had been transformed by the One who loved her. She knew that Christ, on the night before he died, loved her to the end. She lived a life of receiving the gifts of love that Christ bestowed upon her and she was transformed by this love. She was loved to the end and was made able then to love to the end. This is the Catholic life. 

Dear Friends, tonight we are with Jesus on the Night before he died. What a privilege to be with him at this moment. And as we stay at his side in this sacred moment, he does something that we should never forget.  He loves us. And he loves us to the end.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Chrism, Friendship, and Martyrs

There's a Latin aphorism that says, "Lex orandi, lex credendi," which basically means, "The law of praying is the law of believing." In other words, if you want to understand what we as Catholics believe, one way to do that is to look at the way we pray. The Liturgy instructs us about what we believe.

Even though I entered seminary thirty years ago, I still find myself surprised by the Liturgy of the Church. Every so often, a word, a phrase, a symbol, or part of the liturgical calendar causes me to pause. I love these moments because they are a clear indication that the liturgy does not require innovation on our part or the insertion of novelties in order to teach us something new. I had one such moment at the Chrism Mass this Holy Week.

Each year at the Chrism Mass, the bishop gathers with his priests and members of the local church and he consecrates the Holy Oils that will be used throughout the diocese for the coming year. This year, as my bishop, Cardinal Sean O'Malley was saying the prayer for the consecration of the Chrism, I noticed something that I've never taken note of before. We are all accustomed to hearing the words, "priests, prophets, and kings" linked together. We know that in Baptism we are anointed to share in Christs priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices. We also know that in the Old Testament priests, prophets, and kings would be anointed. What struck me though was this: 

"To you, therefore, O Lord, we pray, that by your blessing you may graciously sanctify the rich substance of this oil that you have created, and permeate it with the strength of the Holy Spirit by means, too, of the power at work in your Christ, from whose holy name is named the Chrism, with which you have anointed your priests and kings, prophets and martyrs." 

 Added to the usual list of "priest, prophet, and king" is the phrase "and martyrs." I was really struck by this. This prayer instructs us that all who have been anointed with Chrism have been anointed for martyrdom. We have been anointed to be witnesses. "Martyr" means, "witness." Inherent with every anointing with the Sacred Chrism is a new configuration to Christ. This interior configuration, however, is given not simply for our own benefit. It is bestowed so that we can witness to Christ. It is given so that our life can bear witness to the truth that St. Paul proclaims: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). 

Whether in Baptism, Confirmation, or Holy Orders, the person anointed is strengthened to bear witness to Christ. This witness--this martyrdom--requires and assists us in dying to ourselves. We witness to Christ by dying with Him. We sometimes think of "witnessing to Christ" as an add on to being a Christian, but the prayer makes clear that we are anointed as martyrs, as witnesses. This anointing to martyrdom is not a punishment. It is a privilege. It is also a relief. Why a relief? If we were simply "called" to bear witness to Christ, that might leave us feeling overwhelmed by a task beyond our capacity. Or, such a call could feel a bit like being summoned for jury duty, an unwelcome interruption to our life.

No, we haven't merely been summoned to some unpleasant duty. We've been anointed for a privileged vocation. We've been chosen and anointed to bear witness to Jesus Christ, the Savior. Witnessing to Christ--making Him known by our way of life, by our words, by our love, this is a sacred mission entrusted to us who have been anointed by our Savior.

In an age when the light of Christ is increasingly obscured by the growing shadows of secularism and by ideologies antithetical to Christian anthropology, the world and Christians themselves require martyrs, witnesses. I see this clearly in my work on a college campus. When the predominant culture dismisses, mocks, and is antagonistic toward the Christian Faith, it can be extraordinarily difficult for young people (or any person) to remain faithful. And yet, a witness changes everything. A witness introduces hope into the bleak horizon that the absence of God inevitably brings. The martyr--the anointed witness--awakens in the other a remembrance that beauty, goodness, and truth do exist. The witness enters into the darkness of others and pierces their soul with the warm light of Christ. The witness saves others from the lie that life is empty and lacks meaning. The witness awakens within us a recognition that we have an eternal destiny.

When I see the men and women at our Catholic Center living their life together, I see that they are saving one another. By witnessing to one another, they save each other from the grasp of the darkness that surrounds them. This is true also for parish communities. When we live life together in Christian friendship, we witness to one another and to others that Christ is true. When we are surrounded by friends who are witnesses, we experience the freedom that only Christ can give.

What saves me every day is living life among witnesses. They are witnesses because they have been anointed. They have been anointed with the Chrism that makes martyrs. Thank God for Chrism and thank God for His witnesses, men and women, young and old, who daily allow Christ to live in them and to use them as instruments to save us.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

What Do Women at Wells and Barren Fig Trees Have in Common?

For reasons that are not necessary to explain here, on the Third Sunday of Lent, there are two options for the readings. I have two Masses today, one with the "Year A" readings and the other with the "Year C" readings. Not really wanting to preach two entirely different homilies (because I'm lazy and not that bright), I wondered if I could find a similarity between the Gospels.

In Year A, we hear from St. John about an encounter that Jesus had with the woman at the well. In Year C, St. Luke recounts a parable that Jesus told concerning a fig tree that was planted, but did not produce fruit. Is there any commonality between the fig tree and the woman at the well?

The beautiful gospel concerning the woman at the well is bursting with profound spiritual insights for us. This year, as I pondered this gospel, one thing particularly struck me. St. John tells us that many of the Samaritans came to believe in Jesus "because of the word of the woman who testified, 'He told me everything I have done.'" In today's world, the internet is filled with people revealing and reveling in the faults of others. Whatever you say or do today might be posted on a video tomorrow. There is a perverse and twisted world of entertainment built up around the public shaming of others. Leave a bad tip at a restaurant? Be prepared to have your name and face plastered all over Facebook and Twitter. Do something or say something stupid when you're young and immature? Be prepared to have it online forever. 

Imagine if today somebody came up to you and said, "I know everything you've done," and then began recounting those things to you. "I know what you have said about your friends. I know what all of your text messages say. I know what you've watched online. I know how much you gave to charity last year. I know what lies you've told, what things you've cheated on, and what gossip you've participated in. More than likely, this would terrify you. "What are they going to do with this information? Are they going to share all of my faults with others, embarrass me, blackmail me?" Chances are, if somebody told us that they were aware of every one of our faults and failures, it would, at the very least, make us uncomfortable.

But what happens with the woman at the well? She goes and tells everyone and they come to believe in Jesus. Why? It has to be because of the way in which Jesus treats her and her sins. He does not shame her or humiliate her. He doesn't condemn her. Instead, he provides an opening, a moment to convert. He offers her the opportunity to receive life giving waters. In this encounter, we see the whole Christian life! She encounters Christ, hears and trusts in His Word, receives His love, and goes and shares this Good News with others! Jesus does not enslave her by chaining her to the memory of her sins. Instead, he frees her from those chains. St. John tells us that she left the water jug at the well and ran off into the town. She no longer needed the jug because she no longer needed to search for fulfillment elsewhere. She now had welling up within her life giving waters.

In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus makes clear that if the tree doesn't bear fruit, it will need to be cut down. All of us have been planted by the Lord, but we are planted in order to bear fruit. A time will come when we will be judged. Either we bear the fruits of holiness or we are barren. At a certain moment, we will have to give an account of our life. Sometimes we hear mercy spoken about in a way that sounds like, "God is merciful so I can keep on sinning." But this is not mercy. Mercy means that God is giving us time to repent. Lent is a time of mercy precisely because it is a time of repentance.  The Lord gives us the fertilizer of His Word. He gives us the Sacraments. He gives us the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He gives us TIME. He gives us THIS time.  It is a gift to us so that we can repent and be given new life, a life welling up within us. He gives us this time so that we can be free from our past sins. 

A worthwhile exercise for all of us this week is to honestly examine our life. We can do that without fear in the presence of the Lord. We need not hide anything from Him. He loves us. Are we bearing the fruits of holiness or are we barren? Are we enslaved by some sins? Whatever our sins are, let us not be afraid to honestly and humbly share them with Christ. Unlike the Devil and the world, Jesus opens up a new way for us. He does not leave us dead and shackled, he gives life and freedom. He gives us the present moment filled with His Grace.  

Jesus offered to the woman at the well and to the fig tree something that the Devil and the world do not offer. He offered them a second chance. He offers it to us as well.  What should we do with this second chance? That's easy.  Repent.