Second Sunday of Lent, February 25, 2018

Second Sunday of Lent, February 25, 2018

Fr. Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish 

In nearly fifteen years of being a priest, I’ve had to preach a homily almost every day. (Sometimes I have to give two or more different homilies in one day if I’m celebrating a wedding or a funeral or another liturgy.) To prepare a homily, one doesn’t just need to study scripture, but one must spend time with the Word of God, listening for God’s voice in prayer with the scripture.  When is it that I’ve heard the voice of the Lord most clearly and most distinctly? When is it that I’ve recognized the presence of the Lord and become most aware of God speaking to me when I hear or read the scriptures? It is not when everything is calm and peaceful in life, but in fact when I’ve been most shaken by my circumstances and most unsure of myself. Scripture speaks to me most when I am most in need – when I am most aware of my limitations. It is then that I’m most open – that I’m really seeking, asking, and praying – when the questions that matter most in life are most alive in my heart. For example, as I mentioned before in different homilies, I began to discern my vocation and discovered God calling me to the priesthood when I began to pray intensely for my dying grandfather. The moment I knew God was calling me to the priesthood came just days after my grandfather’s funeral. It is when we struggle or grapple with the mystery of life and death, when we are confronted by our own mortality and the fact that we are not in control of our life, that we can begin to hear God’s voice. It is in those moments that we realize our ultimate dependence on Another and know we need to follow. I don’t know the way, so I begin to listen for direction.  Many of us remember how churches were full right after 9-11.  Prayer vigils spontaneously follow almost every tragedy because in those circumstances all we can do is pray and wait for the Lord. It is in the face of such events that we are most aware of our need for God.

It is for this same reason why we find in the biblical narratives the major encounters with God taking place on mountain tops.  It is not simply because mountain tops are closer to the heavens, physically speaking, but because climbing a mountain can be a very precarious experience. The views are often spectacular at the top, but there is also a keen awareness at the top that one is closer to death.  One is more vulnerable and exposed on the mountain.  One misstep, and that could be it. It is very common to be scared of heights or to get an uneasy feeling when near the edge of a high cliff or lookout. A couple of summers ago when I went hiking in Switzerland, we went on several “cliff walks” in which we traversed walkways built onto the side of cliffs thousands of feet up. The walkways had open grates or glass flooring. You knew you were safe, but it was a scary experience.  On the heights, we are out of our comfort zone, away from solid ground. Perhaps it doesn’t happen much anymore, but I remember a time when flying in an airplane, just about everybody on the plane would clap when the plane touched down and you knew you had landed safely.

God puts Abraham to the test on a mountain top. It is not a place of Abraham’s choosing, but on a height that the Lord points out to him. God presents himself to Abraham in a way that is confusing and that in fact seems like a contradiction. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac – the son through which God said the promise of countless descendants would come. God presents himself as a mystery beyond human understanding. The sacrifice that he asks of Abraham is not so much his son but the sacrifice of his own will to that of God. Will I follow the Lord and obey his command when I can’t see clearly which way to go – when I can’t figure this out? Usually, when we think of sacrifices – like what I’m going to give up for Lent – we think of things and choose things that we are pretty sure we can do. I’ll give up desserts or alcohol or Facebook. But the real sacrifice comes when we accept what God proposes, when we don’t hold ourselves back but follow the Lord in what seems impossible to us.  Peter, James, and John have a similar experience when they witness the Transfiguration of Jesus. The three disciples are led by Jesus up a high mountain. What they experience is beyond human understanding. Peter knows it is good, but human words can’t capture the experience. They were terrified because to come into the presence of God is to become aware of one’s insignificance in the face of his great majesty.

From the time of the Exodus, God manifested his glory and revealed his presence to his people through the visible sign of a cloud. The cloud that overshadowed the tent of meeting signified that God had made his dwelling there. The implication of the cloud in the event of the Transfiguration casting a shadow over Jesus and the disciples is that now Jesus and his disciples united to him have become the new dwelling place of God’s presence in the world. A cloud is a symbol of the mystery of God.  A cloud both reveals and conceals  – God is present, but his presence is veiled. God dwells among us, but we can’t see him with merely human eyes. It is by staying in this cloudy place, when not able to see clearly, when not having black and white answers, that we are open to hearing the voice of the Lord and recognizing the presence of Jesus in our midst. So what is the sacrifice that the Lord is asking of us this Lent?   We hear in Psalm 40, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will. Sacrifice or oblation you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me.”  The Lord leads us up the mountain, to at times a dizzying place, so that we can hear his voice and come to know who he really is.  Saying “yes” to the cross is the sacrifice he desires. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The Transfiguration follows the first prediction of the Passion and the conditions for discipleship that Jesus lays out for the disciples. The transfiguration gives the disciples a preview of what God has destined for them if they listen and follow Jesus – a share in his future glory. God provides what we need for the sacrifice in his Son handed over for us. Our circumstances are not against us because God is for us. May the difficult circumstances we face make us more aware of our need for God, so that we will hear the voice of the Lord and walk with him in the land of the living.

Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018

Fr. Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish 

It is common on this day to ask, “What are you doing for Lent?”  It is like asking someone what their New Year’s resolution is.  Has anybody been asked that question?  When we think about Lent and these Forty Days, we often ask ourselves, “What do I want to change in my life?”  “What do I want to do differently?”  “What should I give up or promise to God that I will do this Lent?”  We can approach Lent as if we are starting a diet or an exercise program, but if Lent is about seeing what we can do or a test of our will power, these 40 days will not make much of a difference in our lives at all.  Lent is not about what we do for God, but Lent is an opportunity through our devotions of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, to become more aware of what God has done for us. 

          The ashes we place on our foreheads remind us of what God has done for us – of his great mercy and love for us.  “Acuérdate de que eres polvo y al polvo has de volver.”  We were brought into existence from the dust of the earth.  We are dust, but God loves us.  Dust can do nothing on its own.  The ashes are applied in the form of a cross.  I am dust, and God died for me.  I am nothing, and “for our sake he made him to be sin who did no know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.”  I am saved and given new life by his mercy.

          The hypocrites make their prayers and devotions about themselves – “look what I can do” – but our devotions are meant to clear the way for God to act in our life – open us more to God.  We shouldn’t think, “I need to work on this more” but rather “how can I make more space in my life for God to work?”  Do I let God be God?  Or do I think I have to improve myself? 

          A friend of mine recently watched a YouTube video about fasting and decided to try it.  There are surprising healing effects that take place in the body through fasting, not just weight loss.  The body, through fasting, in a sense resets itself, reconfigures its chemistry, and purges itself of toxins.   He went for 14 days without food.  He only drank water.  After 4 days, he wasn’t hungry anymore.  What he told me was that he was surprised by how much free time he had – time that would have been spent eating and preparing meals. 

          On a spiritual level, our Lenten fasting and devotions are meant to have a freeing effect, reconfiguring us to Christ and eliminating those things that are getting in our way of our relationship with Christ.  When the Lord is given space to work and when we are freed from our attachments to things, we experience freedom and healing.  Fasting from television, radio, and the internet is one way to free ourselves to hear God’s voice, but if we don’t put ourselves before God in that free time through prayer and meditation on the scriptures, the sacrifice of the entertainment won’t make a difference.  When we begin to see the effects of God’s grace in our life, when we become more aware of what God is doing, we lose the taste for what does not satisfy, those things we thought before that we couldn’t live without. 

          “Rend your hearts, not your garments.”  Lent is about opening our hearts to God, not the external things that we do.  God has come near to us in our sinfulness and our nothingness.  It is this nearness to us – his mercy for us in our sin – that I am nothing and yet I am loved – that gives us the joy of salvation.  So when our devotions bring us to the awareness of God’s great love for us, we can have truly have a “Happy Lent.”