Pastor’s Column February 27 – 28, 2021
“God put Abraham to the test.”
“Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain.”
Our Old Testament reading this weekend from the Book of Genesis is the story of Abraham and Isaac, one of the
most terrifying and haunting tales of the Bible that has confounded Jews and Christians alike for thousands of years. It
begins with a simple declarative sentence: “God put Abraham to the test.” And then we hear how God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son whom he loved. “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height I will point out to you.” Our reading leaves out a few chilling details. Abraham placed the wood for the holocaust on Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. Isaac said to his father, “Here are the fire and wood, but where is the sheep for the holocaust,” unaware that he was the intended victim to be sacrificed. That question must have cut straight through to Abraham’s heart as he answered, “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.” Not only was God apparently asking Abraham to offer a human sacrifice, he was asking him to kill his only son and heir, the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham that he would become the father of a great nation. Abraham had faithfully waited many years for God to fulfill that promise. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And now Abraham was being asked to give his son back to God as a sacrifice. How could this make any sense at all?
It is no coincidence that this story of Abraham and Isaac is paired with our Gospel account of the Transfiguration. In Mark’s Gospel, the Transfiguration takes place six days after Jesus first spoke of his Passion to his disciples. He told them that to be his disciples they would have to deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow him. And Jesus was about to begin his final journey to Jerusalem with them, where their faith would be tested and shaken by a
seemingly incomprehensible event, the death of Jesus Himself on the Cross. But before that happened, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain where they were given a glimpse of his future glory in order to help get them through the tough times ahead. In one of the great understatements of all time Peter says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here!” But Mark tells us “he hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.” And then they heard the voice from heaven tell them what they must do: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
I am sure that many of us feel that, like Abraham, we too have been put to the test. Covid related deaths in our
country passed the half million mark this week. The pandemic has created severe economic dislocation and financial
hardship and has caused us to experience fear, loneliness and isolation as well. We have seemingly endured one
snowstorm after another this month, although that pales in comparison to the people of Texas who had to go days without power, heat, and water as their electric grid failed during an historic cold snap.
It is one of the great mysteries of our faith that the road to the Resurrection must necessarily climb the hill of
Calvary. But God is always with us through it all. As St. Paul tells us in our New Testament reading, “If God is for us,
who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not give us
everything along with him?” Bishop Robert Barron comments, “The return of Isaac to Abraham at the end of the story
signals a marvelous paradox: the more we sacrifice our finite loves for the infinite love of God, the more those earthly
goods come back to us enhanced.” Lent is a particular time for us to make those sacrifices, and we have the Mass and the Sacraments to strengthen us by giving us a foretaste of heaven and the glory that awaits us if we manage to put God first in our life and trust and obey Him. -- Fr. Bob
First Sunday of Lent February 21, 2021
Start by Calling Sin, What It Is
We hear the call to turn from sin, repent, and believe in the Gospel when Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and indeed throughout the holy and penitential Lenten season. Ironically, it is healthy to talk about sin. It is only when we adequately identify the cause, can we begin working on the remedy for our sickness. It is only when we address what is truly wrong within our society, that we can begin to affect change – most specifically spiritual change, which is acutely necessary, right now, for our world to heal.
The root cause of the dysfunction in our society is sin. There is no denying it, no sugarcoating it, no disguising it. I would like to borrow from the scholarly and insightful Luke E. Hart Series: Basic Elements of the Catholic Faith (Fr. John A. Farren, O.P., general editor; Catholic Information Service, copyright 2001 – 2021, Knights of Columbus Supreme Council; based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church by Peter Kreeft) and its section entitled, ‘The Forgiveness of Sins,’ to gain a basic understanding of how the effects of sin can be manipulated and misunderstood today. It reads, in part: “Why do we need forgiveness? Because we are sinners. Sin is life’s greatest problem, for sin is
separation from life’s greatest solution, God, the source of all goodness and life and joy. Sin is real. So is justice. Sin deserves punishment. The fear of divine justice is wise because that justice is true. If it is not, every book of the Bible lies. The work of Christ and his Church is ‘the forgiveness of sins.’ Not imperfections, or mistakes, or immaturities, but sins. Brain damage is an imperfection, 2+2=5 is a mistake, and ‘puppy love’ is an immaturity; but acts of greed and lust and pride are sins.
But the sense of sin, the conviction of sin, is increasingly absent from modern minds. This is a radically new development in the history of Western civilization. Ancient pagans took sin for granted and doubted salvation; modern pagans take salvation for granted and deny sin. Our society’s most popular prophets, the pop psychologists, see sin as a superstition, guilt as a mental illness, and ‘the fear of the Lord’ – which Scripture calls ‘the beginning of wisdom’ – as emotional immaturity.
Why is it ‘the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9:10)? Because the wisdom of Gospel love presupposes the wisdom of religious fear; the ‘good news’ of the forgiveness of sins presupposes the ‘bad news’ of sins to be forgiven. In fact, Christ said he did not come for those who do not believe they are sinners: ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Matthew 9:12-13). If there is no confession of sin, there is no forgiveness and no salvation.
‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). This is Scripture’s constant assumption. Deny that assumption and everything else in Scripture loses its meaning. The prophets become quaint exaggerations, and Christ’s Incarnation and Crucifixion become unnecessary overreactions” (pgs. 6 and 7).
We launch into this holy and penitential season of Lent by first admitting that we as a society have falsely mislabeled what is indeed sin. Only in starting there, can we make any real progress – which must involve repairing our relationship with Almighty God, ruptured by our disobedience to His commandments
I will have more from the wonderful Luke E. Hart Series in the coming weeks as Lent unfolds. May God bless us with wisdom and perseverance throughout this holy season.
Fr. Michael W. Panicali
Pastor’s Column February 13 – 14, 2021
“If you wish you can make me clean.”
In my homily last week I called Jesus the Divine Doctor because so much of his ministry involved healing. Our
Gospel reading this weekend is another story of healing as we hear how Jesus cures a man of leprosy. But the focus
this time is as much about the faith and disposition of the leper and his reintegration into the community as it is about
the healing power and compassion of Jesus.
For the better part of a year now as we have endured this Covid – 19 pandemic, we have come to experience
first-hand how devastating the effects of a contagious illness can be. In Jesus’ day, leprosy was the most dread disease. But unlike Covid, which can often be symptomless and go undetected, a person afflicted with leprosy really stands out.According to the National Institutes of Health, leprosy is a disease that has been known since Biblical times that causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness that gets worse over time. The whole appearance of the face is changed until the afflicted person loses all human appearance. Ulcers form on the skin and from them come a foul discharge. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. There ensues chronic ulceration of the feet and of the hands and then the progressive loss of fingers and of toes, until in the end a whole hand or foot may drop off. The
duration of the disease could last from twenty to thirty years before finally ending in death.
In our first reading from the Book of Leviticus we hear how leprosy was considered such an awful disease that there were specific Mosaic laws to deal with it. Once declared unclean by the priest, “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard. He shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ […] He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” Leprosy meant that a person was doomed to a life of loneliness, separation, isolation, and alienation from the community.
The leper in our Gospel takes a great risk even in approaching Jesus. First, the leper recognizes Jesus as Lord
by kneeling down before him. Significantly, he did not tell Jesus what he wanted; rather, he acknowledged what Jesus
had the power to do if it be Jesus’ will. The leper said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” And Jesus healed him by
touching him and saying, “I do will it. Be made clean.” Most likely the leper had not felt the warm caress of another
human being for many years. Jesus then sends him back into the community telling him, “Go, show yourself to the
priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”
Notice how the leper’s interaction with our Lord follows the way that Jesus recommends we pray in the prayer
that Jesus himself taught us, the Our Father. First we recognize God for who He is when we say, “Our Father who art
in heaven.” Then we offer Him our worship and praise (hallowed be thy name), and pray that His will be accomplished
(thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven), before making our requests (give us this day our daily
bread and forgive us our trespasses) and being reconciled with God and one another (as we forgive those who trespass against us), which reintegrates us into the community.
This Wednesday, February 17th is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the holy and penitential season of Lent. It
is a special time for prayer, for acts of penance, and for self-denial, in order to discipline ourselves to seek God’s will
rather than our own, and for almsgiving and performing works of charity to build up our community. It is a time to be
healed and reconciled with God and with each other. Sin is a disease like leprosy. It isolates us, alienates us, and
separates us from God and from one another. Like the leper, Jesus wants us to feel the warm embrace of his mercy and forgiveness and to gather us into his community of love.
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time February 7, 2021
“Tell No One Who I Am”
Ever wonder why Jesus always seems intent on keeping His identity under wraps,especially immediately after He has performed a miraculous deed? A case in point is today’s Gospel; we hear that Jesus, after miraculously curing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of fever, cures many who are sick with various diseases, and drives out many demons. He does not permit the demons to speak “because they knew Him” (Mark 1: 29-39). This parallels last week’s Gospel, in which the evil spirit to be expunged exclaims, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” – to which Jesus responds, “Quiet! Come out of him!” (Mark 1:21-28).
In next weekend’s Gospel we will hear of Jesus healing the man afflicted with leprosy, and then telling him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” Famously, the man does the opposite, running out and publicizing what has happened to him. We hear that the man “spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere” (Mark 1: 40-45).
Scholars theorize that Jesus knew that the Cross awaited Him, and that He looked to show Himself as the Suffering Servant, who humbly went to His death as a meek and willing and obedient sacrificial lamb, for the redemption of the sins of humanity. Philip Van Linden, C.M., writes in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, as found in The Collegeville Bible Commentary (copyright 1989 by The Order of St. Benedict, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, general editors Dianne Bergant, C.S.A. and Robert J. Karris, O.F.M.):
“Mark has Jesus move immediately from His first powerful miracle to another. The visit to Simon's mother-in-law turns into a second sign that God’s kingdom of wholeness is present in Him. In Mark 1:25, Jesus cured with a word; here He cures sickness by a touch (1:31). His touch saves as surely as His word. The fact that the woman’s cure is immediate and total is made clear by Mark’s emphasis on how she resumes her duties of hospitality, waiting on her guests in verse 31.
Jesus’ first day of ministry does not end with sundown. That evening ‘the whole town’ gathers around Him with their sick and possessed. His first day of preaching and healing has given them hope that God is at work among them. After Jesus has cured many, Mark’s readers first hear the curious phrase ‘not permitting them (them) the demons to speak, because they knew Him (v. 34). This reminds Mark’s readers of the ‘Quiet!’ of 1:25 and prepares them for what they will hear repeatedly in Mark’s Gospel. Mark presents Jesus as being very reserved about letting His reputation as miracle-worker spread. This reticence is called the ‘messianic secret.’ By emphasizing such secrecy regarding Jesus’ identity as Messiah, Mark hopes that his Christian readers will accept Jesus’ true identity, on His terms, in the context of His entire life and mission. Mark’s Jesus will reveal Himself as Messiah by being powerless on the Cross.
Christians are free to proclaim Jesus as their Messiah and Lord only when they accept His way of suffering messiahship along with His miraculous works” (p. 908).
May His example inspire us Christians to humbly lay down our own lives in His service.
Rev. Michael W. Panicali