Sunday, March 14, 2010

Prayers today: Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, you who love her; rejoice with her you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts. (Isaiah 66: 10-11)

Father of peace, we are joyful in your Word, your Son Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to you. Let us hasten toward Easter with the eagerness of faith and love. We ask this through Christ our Lord

St. Maximilian (d. 295)

We have an early, precious, almost unembellished account of the martyrdom of St. Maximilian in modern-day Algeria. Brought before the proconsul Dion, Maximilian refused enlistment in the Roman army saying, "I cannot serve, I cannot do evil. I am a Christian."

Dion replied: "You must serve or die."

Maximilian: "I will never serve. You can cut off my head, but I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ. My army is the army of God, and I cannot fight for this world. I tell you I am a Christian."

Dion: "There are Christian soldiers serving our rulers Diocletian and Maximian, Constantius and Galerius."

Maximilian: "That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve."

Dion: "But what harm do soldiers do?"

Maximilian: "You know well enough."

Dion: "If you will not do your service I shall condemn you to death for contempt of the army."

Maximilian: "I shall not die. If I go from this earth my soul will live with Christ my Lord."

Maximilian was 21 years old when he gladly offered his life to God. His father went home from the execution site joyful, thanking God that he had been able to offer heaven such a gift.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (15.1~3.11~32)

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law murmured, "This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them." Then Jesus told them this parable: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I have been serving you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'"

Conversion and repentance
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

It is clear from the context of this long passage that our Lord’s principal point is that God is very different from what the Pharisees and teachers of the Law imagined him to be. They murmured at our Lord welcoming sinners and eating with them. Jesus, they insinuated, was unlike the all-Holy God who hates sin. God, they thought, does not allow sinners to draw near to Him, and He condemns and punishes sinners. So our Lord proceeds to explain himself by means of a parable. The principal figure of the parable is the indulgent and loving father who warmly welcomes his wayward son back to the family home. God does not shun the sinner — provided the sinner acknowledges his sin and returns to him repentant. Now, while our Lord provides us with a remarkable surprise as to the nature of the all-holy God — that he is love and compassion — his parable also tells us about man. While it tells us about God our Father, it also divides his children into two types. There is the son who is full of the awareness that he has sinned against heaven and against his loving father. There is also the older son who can only think of the fact that “All these years I have been serving you and never disobeyed your orders.” The younger son has a profound sense of his sin. Because of the pain his sins have brought upon himself he is repentant, even if his repentance is not especially noble-minded. He has not been led back by the thought of the offence to his father that his life has been, but by the experience of suffering it brought upon himself. So his life has been wayward and his repentance less than perfect. How like the sinners and tax collectors they were, who gathered about our Lord! Despite their sins they experienced what the younger son in the parable experienced, a loving welcome from Jesus Christ who, as St Paul writes, is the image of the unseen God. By contrast, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were like the older son who could only think of his faithful service. He begrudged the special welcome the younger son was receiving, and was angry with his forgiving father.

So we are reminded by our Lord’s parable not only of the boundless love of God for man despite his sin, but of the critical importance of a sense of sin in every man and woman. According to the teaching of the Church, only two human beings have been absolutely free of sin in every sense. Firstly of course, Jesus Christ was entirely free of sin because, though having assumed a human nature, he is divine in his person. He could never sin, even though as man he was open to temptations coming from without, and the Gospels record some of the temptations Satan presented to him. The other human being who, the Church teaches, was sinless, was the Virgin Mary his mother. Creature of God that she was, by the power of the Holy Spirit she was conceived free of sin, and remained sinless throughout her life. This she did by the power of God’s grace and her cooperation with that grace. All men, St Paul writes, are under the power of sin due to the original Fall, and were it not for the special grace of God, the all-holy Virgin Mary would have been too. But due to the merits of her divine Son, she was preserved from the inherited condition of sin. All this is to say that the response of the older son in the parable was utterly inappropriate, considered as a type of man’s response to God. We cannot say to God that we have been “all these years serving you” and having “never disobeyed your orders.” We are sinners all, even if to a greater or lesser extent. We should place ourselves in the camp of the younger son who returned repentant to the embrace of his loving father. What must distinguish our lives is repentance from sin and confidence in the love of God our Father. Our Lord holds up for our contemplation the loving mercy of God and the repentance of the younger son who trusted in his father. The older son, by his self-righteous attitude and hostility to both his younger brother and to his loving father, refused to come inside to join in the celebrations. How like the Pharisee! Christ’s call to conversion must continue to resound in our lives. Conversion is a continuing and life-long obligation for each of us and for the whole Church.

Our Lord’s essential point in the parable of this Sunday is that God is boundlessly merciful to the sinner who returns to him in repentance. The one who does not thus return, excludes himself from the friendship of God. The grace of God is our hope, and it enables us to respond to the merciful love of God by sorrow for sin and a firm purpose of amendment. We express this in acts of contrition and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The same grace of God enables us to continue to trust in God, and to live a life of penance in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. There are two recurring times when the Church invites us to practise this penance in a special way: Lent and each Friday. Let us then aim at true conversion, and be duly warned against the spirit of the older son in today’s parable.

A second reflection on today’s Gospel

(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

Today’s Gospel passage is famous in world literature. In it our Lord tells the story of the prodigal son, a sinner who contritely admits what he has done: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.’ But let us remember why our Lord told the parable: it was to explain his own actions. We read that the tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. ‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So in response to this objection that what he was doing was ungodly, our Lord told the parable explaining why he, sinless as he was, welcomed sinners and ate with them. The prodigal son welcomed by the father is the tax collector and the sinner. The older brother who complains at his father’s behaviour is the scribe and the Pharisee complaining at our Lord’s behaviour. But more than anything, the father in the parable is Christ’s image of God. It describes what God is like if we come to him, acknowledging that we are sinners. Like the father of the prodigal son, God our Father is extravagantly forgiving, provided we return to him with contrition. A principal purpose of Lent is to realize the love of God and to turn back to him seeking his forgiveness, especially in the Sacrament of Penance. In the second reading St Paul says, in Christ’s name we appeal to you, be reconciled to God. God is all-forgiving. During Lent let us strive to understand what God is like, and that we are sinners in profound need of his love. One of the most serious and yet common mistakes we can make in life is to think that little sins, as they are called, do not matter much. The moment we fall into any sin through weakness — and here I am referring especially to venial sin — we should make an act of contrition, of sorrow for sin, and ask God’s forgiveness.

Our ambition ought be to avoid deliberate venial sin, precisely and above all because it is an offence against God. If we take venial sin lightly we shall not only never reach holiness. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin is the path that leads to mortal sin. Of course, if the sin is mortal, whether it be a sin of thought or word or deed, we must endeavour to make an act of perfect contrition, that is to say, an act of sorrow inspired primarily by the thought that I have seriously offended the good God. Then we ought approach the Sacrament of Penance as soon as possible. Indeed, the most concentrated and effective way of receiving God’s pardon, whether it be for mortal or venial sin, is through the Sacrament of Penance. The Church recommends regular and frequent confession of venial sins. When it comes to any mortal sin, we are absolutely bound to seek God’s forgiveness for that sin in the Sacrament of Penance, and we should do so as quickly as possible. We certainly must do so before receiving Holy Communion. A great benefit of being a Catholic is that by means of Confession we can always regain the state of grace through this sacrament, and grow in it. We are bound by Church law to confess any grave sins, at least once a year in order to receive Holy Communion during the Easter season. Our Lord gave us the Sacrament of Penance after his resurrection, when he said to his apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them.” St John Chrysostom reminds us that this authority to forgive is not even given to archangels, nor is it given to our Lady herself. Yet it is given to every priest, and this is done for our benefit, to keep us in the state of grace. So let’s use it.

A third reflection on the Gospel of the fourth Sunday of Lent

Love and sin
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

By the fourth Sunday we are well and truly into Lent, the season of repentance from sin. We are invited by Christ and the Church to be conscious of sin and to turn from it back to our loving Father. In our Lord’s parable, the Prodigal Son came to realise that he was a sinner. “I have sinned,” he said to his loving father, “against God and against you.” He offers no excuses. He knew he had sinned and he understood what sin had led to. He confessed his sin and he was received back into his father’s friendship. Now, it is important to understand the purpose of this story. The parable is above all about God our Father, and about Jesus who is the image of the Father. He who sees me sees the Father, he said at the Last Supper. The Pharisees despised sinners, but Jesus sought them out and showed them love and offered them his company. In response, sinners sought him out. The parable is about God awaiting the return of the sinner whom he greatly loves, and whom he is always ready to forgive, if the sinner is willing to renounce his sins and return to him. So, as we read the parable we ought think first of God our loving Father, and of Jesus who reveals him. He loves sinners. All through the parable the Father is portrayed as lovingly indulgent. The younger of the two sons said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of property that falls to me”. The father did not object, rather he simply divided his living between them. If anything, the father was excessively indulgent. God will be our Judge, but that does not take away from the fact that he is indulgent with us, especially while we have the chance in this life of repenting. So the younger son went off and squandered his property in loose living. Then in the depths of distress and depression he returned home seeking work in his father’s house. He realised that his father loved him, and so he felt sufficiently confident to return to ask for employment. But what happened? The story tells us that ‘while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him.’ And so they began to celebrate.

This is the image we should have of God receiving any soul who turns away from sin and comes back to friendship with him. Just before our Lord tells this particular parable, he says that there will be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. St John in one of his letters tells us that God is love. One of the things we ought be working on during Lent is a correct image of God, and the picture of the indulgent father in today’s parable can help us. But the parable also tells us about sin. It ruined the younger son. Sin is not only a profound offence against God and his most holy nature. It is also the great destroyer of creation and of man. God, while loving us with a boundless love, hates sin. For this reason he sent his son, to take away the sin of the world. So while we think of God’s love for us, we should also think of what sin does to us and of how hateful it is to God. Again, the parable of our Gospel text helps us appreciate sin and its destructive power. The younger son squandered all his property in loose living, and when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country and he began to be in want. So he ended up serving the swine, and the swine were better off than he, in terms of food. No one gave him anything to eat. That is what he had come to. Let that be an image of the wages of sin, which St Paul tells us is death. Let us think of sin with the help of this famous parable, and let us endeavour to recover a sense of sin, and of how it is the greatest evil in the world. God hates sin and wants to see it entirely overcome and eliminated, precisely because he loves us. The younger son experienced the dregs of suffering because of his sins, and Christ stepped into the place of the younger son and bore on his shoulders the consequences of the sin of all mankind. He expiated for the sin of the world. If we wish to gain a true idea of the hatefulness of sin and of its consequences for mankind, look on our Lord hanging on the cross. It was sin, our sins, the sins of each person, that put him there.

It is imperative that we recognise the presence and nature of sin in our lives. God hates sin which is the gravest affront to him. But he loves us, who commit the sin that he hates. Every time we commit a sin — even a venial sin but most of all if it is a mortal sin — we must make a sincere act of contrition, one that is as perfect an expression of love for God as we can. We should go to Confession regularly and frequently, and each time we go we should make it as good a Confession as possible. We should examine our consciences daily. At the beginning of every Mass we confess our sinfulness, thinking of the times we have sinned. In each of these ways, let us make Lent a time when we recover a sense of sin and renounce it profoundly.

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