Lent and Easter Reflections


Law to Grace

"Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he" (Matt 11:12).

John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the prophets of the first Covenant. His mission was to hold people accountable to the Law. His message to the people on the banks of the Jordan was to repent of their sins and make amends for any harm or neglect done to others.  He was a commanding presence and his voice was filled with warning for the coming of God's judgment. 

Jesus calls him the greatest person who ever lived up to that moment. But something new was happening. The dispensation of the Law was being surpassed by God's infinite, undeserved gift of mercy, poured out on anyone who turned toward God to receive it.  The reign of God opened the doors of salvation to everyone, and Jesus says that the poor, the undeserving, the unrighteous and the masses who were ritually unclean and incapable of observing all the tenets of the Law were the first to respond. They had heard his preaching and believed in the gracious welcome God was extending to sinners, and they were taking heaven by storm. 

So despite John the Baptist's undisputed greatness under the Law, even the least who heard and responded to God's free offer of acceptance and forgiveness was greater than John. The Love of God was greater than the Law that had ruled and guided the chosen people since Moses.

In Jesus, the intimate, compassionate heart of God was revealed, especially to the poor and to sinners. John had proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, a figure of awesome power, sent to pass judgment. What even John did not recognize until the end of his life, facing martyrdom in Herod's prison, was that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, but not come to judge and punish, rather to forgive and heal God's people, broken under the burden of human sin and the condemnation of the Law.  

Jesus again proclaims God's compassion by his coming in this season of expectation of repentance. Advent is our time to storm heaven. Christmas is our time to receive God in human vulnerability and humility, filled with compassion, opening the heart of God to all, especially sinners. 

This is the joy of the Gospel. 

Becoming Human

"Take my yoke upon you and learn from me" (Matt 11:28).

The mystery of the Incarnation is that God came among us to reveal divine life by showing us how to be human. Recall the famous words of St. Irenaeus, "A human being fully alive is the glory of God." Jesus was that human being, and his mission was to open our eyes to the glory within authentic human life.

Jesus rejoiced to utter the words in Matt 11:25: "Thank you, Father, for revealing to little ones" -- ordinary people -- "what you have hidden from the wise and clever." He goes on to invite anyone who finds life burdensome: "Come to me, get in the harness with me, learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

How many of us are busy and active, but feel off balance, out of kilter, anxious and at odds with our own bodies, out of sync with our deeper feelings and needs, constantly questioning and criticizing our own thoughts? What Jesus demonstrated was the natural way to live. This begins with making God the central focus on our day. Because God is the source of our lives, if we go with the flow and move with the promptings of the Spirit, whatever happens we will never be outside of the grace that surrounds us constantly.

The image of the yoke captures the sense of being in relationship with Jesus the way draft animals pull their burden together, sharing the load and moving in rhythm. Jesus invites us to learn from him how to live, for his human ways reflected the creative intent of human life as it came from the hand of God from the beginning. Christian discipleship was at first not regarded as a religion or cult but as a "way" to live.

We await Christmas with this shared life in mind. To embrace the Incarnation -- God with us -- is to accept our human condition not as a burden but as the daily path to God.


Mother of the Americas

Hail, full of grace. The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28).

We do not often get so clear a picture of how God works in history. What happened in the conquered colony of Mexico some 500 years ago is a lesson for today about the limits of human arrogance and power. 

The brutal conquest of the so-called New World by Spain elicited from its suppressed peoples one of the most compelling and beautiful counter signs in the history of religion. Juan Diego, a peasant laborer, showed up at the bishop's residence with an outrageous command. The bishop was to build a church on a nearby hilltop where a former Aztec temple had previously stood. The peasant was only conveying the message from a young pregnant mestiza he had encountered. 

The bishop sent the man away with an impossible demand for proof. Juan Diego returned, his cloak filled with Castilian roses, though it was December and hillsides were barren of foliage. And as the roses spilled out onto the floor, the front of the cloak revealed a brilliant image of the woman now revered as "Our Lady of Guadalupe."

The event as recalled and believed by the people of Mexico powerfully wed the Aztec and Spanish cultures that had collided in the Conquest. European devotion to Mary merged with devotion to the Lady in the vision to affirm that God had been already present in the Americas when the Spanish arrived. God's own Mother stood with the poor, enslaved people, sheltering them with compassion and transforming both cultures, already pregnant with a different future. 

Conquerors beware. Oppressors and exploiters take note. God's preferential love for the poor is an unstoppable force within history, Mary of Nazareth, Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas and of all those who need justice in today's, proclaims her Magnificat. The powerful will be pulled from their thrones and the rich will be sent away empty for neglecting the poor, the crucified of history. 

Today's feast is a fitting prelude to Christmas, the coming of the Son of God, savior and ruler, to call the world back to its true destiny as beloved community. We are invited to proclaim that message with all our hearts and by the way we live.  

New Creation

"We have seen incredible things today" (Luke 5:26).

The prophet Isaiah searched for imagery to describe Israel's return after its long exile in Babylon. The exquisite poetry of Chapter 35 depicts a wasteland, parched throats unable to praise God, a hopeless wilderness in a strange land, suddenly springing to new life.

"The desert and the parched land wil exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will blossom with abundant flowers and rejoice with joyful song ... Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water."

God's merciful love comes to restore creation and to reanimate a broken humanity. Fear is cast out. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame  leap like a stag, and the tongue of the mute will break into song. 

The Gospel writers saw this gracious vision of restoration fulfilled in Jesus. He is like a figure walking toward us in the desert, and with each footstep, water courses spring up and flowers bloom. Out of the gloom, a light appears and creation is renewed. 

Luke shows the depth of this healing in today's Gospel account of the paralyzed man lowered through the roof into a house crowded with people, including Pharisees and teachers of the Law from every town, even Jerusalem. This large audience will witness the full extent of God's desire to renew the promise of salvation.

Before Jesus heals the man's body, he declares that his sins are also forgiven. The experts of the Law are shocked at the claim, but signal the true nature of Jesus's power when they say in their hearts, "Only God can forgive sins." In fact, they are witnessing a theophany, an act of God in Jesus. The paralyzed man is recreated, inside and out. He came to Jesus curled up in paralysis on a mat lowered from the roof, but at Jesus' words, "Rise and walk," he springs up, picks up his life and goes home as an evangelist, glorifyig God.

The liturgical season of Advent emphasizes this total transformation. The old year, with its failures and hopelessness, is passing away, but only to make room for a new beginning. What better time to haul our old lives and lay them down before a merciful God, who wants only to renew us and send us forth as evangelists. Our sins are forgiven. Our paralysis is ended. The wellspring of God's life flows into us like springs in the desert. It is time to bloom, to leap and to sing, for in Christ's Incarnation, humanity is renewed and Creation is restored.

Plan B

"John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentannce for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:3).

A commercial for a car insurance company touts its offer of "accident forgiveness." The first time you wreck your car, it will be replaced without raising your rates -- but only the first time. It is an appealing offer, because we all know there will be a first time.

The learning curve of life is about accidents, learning from our mistakes, including actions for which we bear guilt and responsibility, better known as "sins." The older a person gets, looking back at the story of our own is to review moments of failure, shame and regret. Without repentance and forgiveness, how could any of us go forward? 

So it is not suprising that the Good News John the Baptist first announced was welcomed by the crowds. A second chance. Forgiviness of sins, a baptism of repentance that would lift the burden of shame from our shoulders and let us begin again before God and one another. 

Advent holds this promise of a fresh start, beginning again, a Plan B for everyone. Such a promise was built into the Mosaic Law, which prescribed rituals and sacrifices people could perform to find assurance of God's forgiveness. The jubilee year every 49 years was meant to reset the entire social and economic order back to zero with debt forgiveness and the redistribution of land and possessions to give everyone a fresh start.

John's messianic message echoed the Prophet Isaiah, who 500 years earlier had rallied a nation in exile with God's promise of restoration. Despite its failure to keep the covenant and the terrible punishment that had fallen on the people, God was renewing the divine favor like a champion arriving on a broad highway across the wilderness, leveling mountains and filling in valleys. 

People gathered at the Jordan River to hear John's message and to recommit to lives of justice and repentance by submitting to his baptism. John fit the fierce, uncompromising image of prophets of old, Elijah and Elisha, and his appearance showed his radical freedom from all agendas except his obedience to God.  Here was a reformer even the Temple priests, scribes and Pharisees had to take into account. Here was someone who was not afraid of Herod Antipas or even of the Roman occupation. 

Advent shouts out this message of repentance and shines a light on the hidden recesses of our lives as an inseparable part of the Christmas event. The arrival of God into our lives is not automatic or without openness on our part. John the Baptist cries, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" Look to the wilderness of your life, the mountains of resistance, the valleys of neglect that have obscured God's message and distracted us from ways we need to change to be more honest, more just and more compassionate. Christmas happens for those who prepare a place for it in their attentiveness, who anticiplate it with wonder and gratitude. 

Mother of the Word

"May it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

The Immaculate Conception of Mary celebrates the mystery that God prepared her to be the mother of Jesus by preserving her from original sin from the moment of her conception. Because every doctrine about Mary is related to her role in the mystery of Jesus, this important Marian feast makes her the first human beneficiary of the Incarnation, the divine gift of mercy that rescued all of humankind from the power of sin and its ultimate result, death. Because of Jesus, humanity has a divine destiny. Mary opened her life, her mind, soul, heart and womb, to God's plan to redeem our fallen human nature in Jesus. In her response to the angel, she became the Mother of God and the mother of the new creation. 

So just as Mary's role and blessing is always from Jesus, each time we honor her we also celebrate what she made possible for all of us. Every Marian feast celebrates the redemptive mystery that has transformed us in Christ. What is true of Mary is, in this sense, extended to us. She models for us the full process and journey of Christian discipleship.

What she received from the moment of her conception, we receive at our baptism. We are no longer defined by original sin. Our life's trajectory from the moment of baptism is no longer toward death, but to the fullness of life. As she was "full of grace," we are assured the continual presence of the life of God as adopted children of God, destined for life with God in the Trinity. 

The Word that became flesh in Mary is the same Word spoken to us, the living voice of God calling us, naming us, saving us through our faith in Jesus. Mary shows us how to say "yes" to the Word so that it also becomes flesh in our lives. We are meant to be pregnant with God, bearers of God's life, giving birth to the divine mystery again and again in the world by the way we live. 

Mary was bound to her son all her life, the principle source, together with Joseph, of his human formation. Jesus' hidden life within the Holy Family in Nazareth, was where he grew in wisdom and grace, witnessed and practiced compassion for the poor, learned the  Scriptures by heart, the simple lessons that became his parables, the obedience that shaped his sense of vocation and his determination to fulfill his mission.  Mary's presence in our lives forms us in faith, comforts us in suffering, encourages us to take up our mission. 

Mary shows us how to absorb these mysteries into our understanding and actions. She pondered them. What cannot be explained or articulated fully in any theology, Mary kept turning over in her heart, weighing the consequences of her original "yes" as she accompanined Jesus throughout his life, even to the foot of the cross. What seems too mysterious, even impossible, for us will come true as God's gift to us in Christ. This is what we celebrate with joy today, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. 


"Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise man who built his house on rock" (Matt 21:24). 

Teachers know that the deepest level of learning occurs when students first hear the lesson, then see the listen, and finally do the lesson in some exercise. Students retain something when they actually do it  Practice makes perfect. 

Have you ever been in an argument with someone only to realize that all your talking points are cliches or hearsay? If you have no real experience or solid evidence for your positions, why should anyone be convinced by them? 

Jesus made action, not ideas, the real test of a good foundation. What good is an elaborate theology if it is only in the abstract. How quicky even our faith can collapse if we have never experienced its validity in a crisis.

Jesus cautions his disciples that calling out, 'Lord, Lord" will not be enough when judgment day comes. Only those who hear, then do his teachings will stand firm in a time of trial. 

Isaiah, other prophets and the psalmist often use the image of a strong house or city to describe fidelity to the covenant. Where God is the rock on which the house is built, no crisis will bring it down.  City built on a mountain with high walls and strong gates will withstand any attack. 

Advent gives us pause to examine the foundations of our faith. If we believe God came among us and shared our entire human experience, then this will encourage us not to avoid our human interactions or challenges. To live in our bodies, even in their frailty and weakness, is an act of worship to the God who took human form in Jesus. To accept the common burden of human uncertainty, frustration and suffering is to meet God every day. To build community and encourage others to be strong is to lay down a foundation of justice and love everyone can live in securely.

This is how we prepare for Christmas, when God will dwell among us to show us how to live what we believe. 















































Bread from Heaven

"They all ate and were satisfied" (Matt 15:37).

Gandhi once said that if God were to appear in the world, it would be as bread.

Universal hunger is our most common and pervasive need. A walk through any urban commercial district reveals the number of eating places, for people are eating all the time. The experience of hunger ranges from impulsive desire for oral satisfaction to chronic pangs that are the constant preoccupation of millions people in our world. Wealth, someone observed, is the power to eat, and health, normal development and a productive life depend on balanced nutrition. Food insufficiency in any region or nation stunts growth and wastes human potential in incalculable ways that cannot be measured because we will never know what was lost. 

It may seem odd to again tell the story of Jesus multiplying bread fish as we enter the Advent season. God's decision to share our flesh in Jesus was also to share our most basic longings. Jesus, who came as light into the darkness of history, also came as bread from heaven. His first need at birth and the cause of his first human cry was to be nourished at his mother's breast. So he began a lifetime of sharing our common hungers, for food, warmth and contentment. The reign of God he preached was described as a feast, a welcoming table for all, and his parables returned again and again to food, the promise of sufficiency, abundant life shared within the beloved community. 

Advent invites us to focus our hunger on Christ, to sharpen our desire for the fullness only he can provide. God knows the human side of need. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. 


"Jesus called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him" (Matt 4:22).

On this feast of St. Andew, we read Matthew's account of the call of the first disciples. Several details stand out.  First, Jesus calls two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, then James and John, all fishermen. Discipleship will build on these intimate relationships, for the community Jesus forms will be brothers and sisters to one another. 

Second, when Matthew says that Jesus saw these men with their boats, he implies more than just physical sight.  To be seen by Jesus was apparently a compelling and life-changing experience. The first disciples immediately respond because something has happened to them in their encounter with Jesus. He knows them, and his call is a summons into a new and deeper existence. They emerge from anonymity into identity and purpose. Jesus sees them not just as fishermen but as fishers of men. He sees them as they are in the present, but he also sees them in future, the apostles they will become in his company. 

In John's Gospel, Andrew is one of John the Baptist's disciples. Before he goes to recruit his brother, Peter, Andrew and another unnamed disciples of John followe Jesus, asking, "Where do you live?"  Jesus answers, "Come and see."  This begins an important theme in John, for to see is to believe. Again, the two disciples, by seeking Jesus, then following him to where he lives-- another much deeper reference than just to a place-- they have an encounter that draws them into a mutual moment of seeing and being seen. 

It is this relationship with Jesus, our being seen by him and our decision to seek him and to stay with him, that is the essence of discipleship. We have been invited into a life-changing encounter with God's Word, the Way, the Truth and the Life. If we keep saying Yes to this encounter, others will be attracted to us, wanting to know what has happened to us that makes us authentic and real. To be known by Jesus, seen by him, is to be called to be an evangelist.