Sunday, February 26, 2012

Prayer Is First

1 Lent 2012 B #23

Gn 9, 8-15
Ps 25
1Pt 3, 18-22
Mk 1, 12-15

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
February 26, 2012

Deacon Tom Cornell

Have you lost any weight yet? Just last Wednesday I realized that I won’t be able to get into my suit trousers if I don’t lose a few pounds. Lent is just in time. It’s a very good idea to revive the old Lenten fast, not because we have to, but because we want to. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving: these cover a multitude of sins, and they are the three essential elements of the penitential season. Prayer comes first!

It’s really so good to see you here, every Sunday. You are the faithful ones. You are here. Where are the others? Father Bader and Deacon Vinny and I and the lay ministers of the Eucharist, when we stand at the foot of the altar to give you Communion: every time we feel the same warmth of recognition. We are native born and foreign born, liberals and conservatives, of many different racial and ethnic strains, but here we are all one, together, united in the love of God and Jesus Christ and all our differences fade away into insignificance. Communion: that’s what the word means. We are one with God in Christ Jesus who died for us, who showed us a way to live and who rose again to take us with him; and we are one with each other. The sacrament makes it real. Where are the others? Don’t they know what they’re missing?

Let’s get back to the subject, the penitential season of Lent, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer comes first. If I fast seriously enough to get back into those trousers, that’s all well and good. But if my fast did not begin in with prayer, if it was not carried out in prayer and if it does not end in prayer, then it is of no spiritual benefit whatever. If I tithe and write a substantial check to the Campaign for Human Development, that’s all well and good. But if my charity does not begin in prayer, if it is not sustained in prayer, if it does not end in prayer, again, it avails me nothing in the realm of the spirit.

Saint Paul counsels “pray without ceasing” (1 Th 5,17). How do you do that? One way is to start the day with The Morning Offering.
There are many forms of that prayer. Here’s the one I learned as a boy:

O Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
I offer you my prayers, works, joys, sufferings of this day,
in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world.
I offer them for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart;
the salvation of souls, reparation for sin, the reunion of Christians; and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father this month. Amen.

The Rosary is a very good way to pray. We let our fingers do the walking, as it were, counting the beads. Giving our hands something to do helps us to concentrate on the prayers itself. The repetition of the words of the Hail Mary, especially, are supposed to become automatic, freeing our minds to concentrate on the mysteries, from the Annunciation to the Birth of Jesus, from the Agony in the Garden to the Crucifixion, from the Resurrection to the Coronation of Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth. If you want, you can concentrate on other events in the lives of Jesus and Mary. Of course your mind will wander. When that happens, just bring it back!

Then there is silent prayer, contemplative prayer. Don’t be frightened off by the idea that this form of prayer is only for the spiritually advanced, monks and cloistered nuns. Not at all; we can all do it. One way is to read a short passage of Scripture, just to get in the right frame of mind. You’ll have to have a quiet place, nobody else around, no radio or TV noise in the background. You’ll have to set aside a few minutes, just a few at first. Sit in a comfortable chair with your back straight. Take a deep breath in through your nose, as deep as you can, then let it out through your lips, slowly. Do it again, and a third time. Now as you empty your lungs, empty your mind. There’s a lot of noise in our heads, so many thoughts, a lot of busy-ness. Breathe it all out as best you can. Empty you mind. Some people focus on a word or a short phrase, a “prayer word” or a “mantra.” Many people use the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I use the beads for this prayer too, repeating it over and over. Again, inevitably, your mind wanders. All right, just call it back. Shorten the prayer, to just two words, “Jesus, mercy,” or one word if you like, “Jesus”! If you try this once a day, you will find that you will need just the word to call you back when you are distracted. Then maybe you can try it twice a day.

Let us pray! By the end of Lent may we all be prepared to meet the Risen Lord; may our waist lines be a little smaller and may some people living in poverty have some relief from our giving in Jesus’ name. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Love at the End

7 Sunday B #80

Is 43, 18-19. 21-22. 24b-25
Ps 41
2 Cor 1, 16-22
Mk 2, 1-12

February 19, 2012

Deacon Tom Cornell

Lent begins this Wednesday! Sing Alleluia today, because we won’t sing it again until the Easter Vigil.

The Lenten fast of years gone by was strict and imposed upon the faithful under pain of sin. Today we are expected to act like grownups and adjust our penitential acts according to our own needs and judgment. We are all held to abstinence from meat on all Fridays of Lent, and for those of us between ages 14 and 60, the fast, not much of a fast really, two small meals and one main meal with no snacks in-between on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Some of us would benefit by observing the fast every weekday of Lent. It might even help many of us lose the excess wright we have been carrying around.

There are three elements to the penitential season that we should all observe: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Pray more often and more deeply; curb all appetites; and give to the poor. These are still and always will be key elements to our preparation for the great mystery of the Resurrection and our salvation. And if your conscience is burdened by serious sin, come to the sacrament of reconciliation. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving: these three cover a multitude of sins and make us open to the grace of God. Now let’s look at today’s Gospel reading.

We find Jesus at home in Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was the center for Jesus’ Galilean ministry, his home away from Nazareth. His first disciples, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew lived in Capernaum too. He preaches in the local synagogue and goes about healing the sick. It doesn’t take long for Jesus’ fame to spread. Today he is at home. So many people come to see him, hear him, petition him that the one most in need of his help can’t even get in the door. So his friends climb up onto the roof, pull away bundles of thatch and open a large hole in the roof. It had to be a pretty big hole to lower a man down on a mat. Imagine the people in the room below with Jesus, with dust and dirt and pieces of wood and bits of straw falling on their heads. They look up to see people taking the roof apart! This is not the way petitioners were expected to approach someone for help. Last Sunday we saw a leper approach Jesus. The leper bowed down low and knelt at Jesus’ feet. That’s the way to do it, not opening a hole in the roof. But Mark is setting the stage to make a point here.

We are only into the second chapter of his gospel today. Mark wastes no time. Jesus tells the paralytic his sins are forgiven. The scribes accuse Jesus of blasphemy, making himself equal to God. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they complain. To quiet them, Jesus answers: “Which is it easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven? Or take up your mat and walk?’ ” To prove to them that he has the power to forgive sins, he commands the paralytic: “Stand up, pick up you mat and go home.” And so he does.

Mark wrote about thirty years after Jesus’ life on earth. The first Christians were still trying to figure out what had hit them. Just who was, or who is this man, Jesus? Mark begins his gospel with the words, “The gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Jesus had changed their lives. He had turned them upside down. Near the end of his gospel, Mark records the centurion at the foot of the Cross saying these same words, “This truly is the Son of God.” Mark calls him Jesus Christ, as if Christ were his last name. Very early on, Jesus was seen as the long awaited Messiah. So Matthew and Luke see Jesus as Messiah too. John will identify Jesus as the Word, eternally begotten of the Father, through whom all things were made. It took until the 4th Century of the Christian Era before the Holy Spirit inspired the Church to formulate the words we will recite in a few minutes, “the only begotten son of God… God from God, light form light, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things were made….”

During this Lent, maybe the best way to observe it, is simply to pray, to ponder the mystery of God revealed in Jesus more deeply, with a Bible. Can you picture God in your head? Don’t! Make no image of God, not even a mental image! Fix your mind on Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of God, Lord and savior, the merciful, the forgiving, the loving, the one who invites us to follow in his footsteps, the one who conquers death itself and gives our lives meaning, forever, eternal meaning.

The life we will live in eternity is forged right here and now. You know in The Divine Comedy, Dante has the condemned pitched upside down in vats of boiling oil and such tortures as that. He drew those terrible images as metaphors to drive home a point. That point is the same as in the wonderful novel by George Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest. Its hero explains, “Hell is not to love anymore.” If Hell is not to love any more, then what is Heaven? The ancient Jews pictured heaven as a banquet, a love feast. If Hell is not to love any more, then Heaven is to love forever.

What are the Two Great Commandments but to love? Love the Lord your God with your whole heart and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus’ great commandment at the Last Supper was to love one another as he has loved us, even unto death. And most astoundingly, to love of neighbor, Jesus adds love of enemies. “I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6, 27) and again, he repeats, “Love your enemies” (Lk 6, 35).

And in John , we read, “God is love” (1 Jn 4, 8). Love, love at the end. 