Reading I: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
Reading II: 1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
One of the stories I remember from my religion classes when I was a child is the following: There was a little boy who had just made his First Communion and was saying the evening rosary with his family. He responded to every 'Hail Mary' loud and clear. However, when the 'Our Father' was prayed, he remained silent. After the rosary was finished, his mother asked him why he didn't respond to the 'Our Father.' Sheepishly, he answered, "I am mad at my brother because of something he did, and I don't want to forgive him, but I still want God to forgive me when I do something bad." He was referring to the words in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."
The little boy had understood the message that Jesus gave in today's Gospel from Matthew: "You have heard it said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your heavenly Father....be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
No matter what age one is, forgiveness is one of the greatest challenges we experience as Christians. It is easy to be good to those who love us, but to be good to our enemies requires God's grace and sometimes help to deal with the circumstances and emotions involved.
A requirement for one of my pastoral ministry courses was to observe a group process session at a mental hospital. The patients and students sat silently in a circle with a facilitator. The mother of one of the patients was there also. The young woman began by thanking her mother for coming to the therapy session for her. Then she expressed to her mother that she was hurt because she believed that the mother had always loved and favored her brother rather than her.
The mother's eyes filled up as she explained that the father had never accepted the son and that she had tried to make up to the son for the father's rejection. The mother assured her daughter that she was very much loved also. At the end of the session they were crying in each other's arms. The lesson for all of us was to realize that we seldom know the motives of those who hurt us. It makes a big difference when we understand them.
Many Saints have followed the example of Jesus by praying for and forgiving those who tortured and martyred them. It is only by God's Grace that we can love our enemies as He does.
Lent is a very special time during which we prepare to be baptized or to renew our baptismal promises at Easter. It begins this Wednesday with the marking of our foreheads with ashes. This sign of repentance has its origins in the Hebrew Traditions.
The word "lent" is a shortened form of an old English word "Lenten," which means springtime. Spring reminds us of growth and new life. Flowers bloom and trees, which appeared to be dead, put forth buds and leaves.
During Lent, we attempt to die to our selfishness and sinfulness and grow in our relationship with the Lord and generosity toward others. We hope to be morally stronger people when we pledge to renounce Satan and all evil at the Easter Vigil or on Easter Sunday.
It used to be that the emphasis was put on giving something up for Lent, usually some favorite food, etc. While that still is an option, today we are encouraged to do something positive. Is there someone from whom you are estranged? Make an effort to reconcile. If it doesn't work out, at least God knows that you tried. Is there someone who is lonely, make contact as best you can. Is there someone hungry? Provide food in some way. Jesus said, "Whatever you did for the least of my brethren you did for me."
Stephanie Morris, ASBS, Ph.D Historian, Certified Archivist, Emerita
Traditionally, people make “New Year’s Resolutions” in January to improve their lifestyle in some way. Ash Wednesday is a chance to “re-boot” resolutions to improve our spiritual lifestyle. St. Katharine reassures us that God does not ask for a “finished work;” He does ask for our “continued effort and is pleased with our desire to please Him.” How can we please God? Think of the Beatitudes. How can you be a Peacemaker in your family or in your community? Small steps can be a good start.
Pat Chiaffa, ASBS
This week’s reading from the Book of Leviticus speaks to my heart. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy…You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart…Take no revenge and cherish no grudge…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.’ “
One of the featured articles in this week’s edition of my local community paper read, “Father of slain football player pleads for peace.” The man’s 19 year old son was a passenger in a car when a stray bullet went through the window of the car and hit him in the head. At least a dozen bullets were fired and the boy who was killed was not the intended target. The young man played football for his high school, had many friends and would have graduated this June. The father addressed the 1400 students and pleaded for the violence to stop. The young man’s mother reported that she was just too angry in the moment to talk, though after her husband’s appeal to the student body, she did comment, “My son is not here anymore and these things have to stop.” As a mother of two sons, I know that the depth of her pain is unmeasurable. Sadly, this is a regular occurrence on the streets of our cities. The boy’s football coach stated that he is not sure what the answer is, but feels that the answer has to start in the schools. I believe the answer is in Leviticus – our communities need to return to holiness. God needs to be returned to the schools, made more visible in our communities and be reestablished in our hearts.
You referenced the challenge of forgiveness in your post. My heart aches for the parents who lose a child through violence, and I would probably struggle with forgiving such a senseless act. Ultimately I know that forgiveness is the only life affirming, God honoring response, but I would only be able to arrive at that decision through the grace of God. I am deeply touched at the ability of grieving parents who rise above the tragedy and initiate programs that address the deep rooted needs of the individuals who pull the triggers.
The Presence of God is strongly felt when people come together in their brokenness, consoling one another and uniting in hope to make their neighborhood a better place. Communal prayer is often a part of these gatherings and the support and consolation of the community nurtures the healing process. Imagine how transformative the vigil would be if the spiritual leader preached the message of Leviticus? Something like, OK friends, let us use this tragic event to commit to holiness, to forgive one another of any and all perceived wrongs, and to love one another as unconditionally as the Lord loves us. Let us together engage in the battle against the powers of darkness that engulf our youth by reminding them and reinforcing every day that they are children of God, created in His image and likeness.
Our kids need to hear this message from every adult in their life because they are being crushed by the world that only values the smart, the healthy and the beautiful. In the depth of my heart, I believe that many of these young people committing such cruel crimes are hurting inside because they feel as though they don’t fit in or can’t measure up to standards that are superficial to begin with. They need to know they are loved, valued, they matter, and that they are the beloved of God. This is the foundation upon which the solutions to violence need to be based. Our moaning, groaning, suffering communities will heal when we invite God back into our daily lives…when we choose holiness.
As the holy season of Lent begins, perhaps we can pray for our hurting communities, and if possible maybe can listen to the young people in our life and remind them that they are loved by us and by God. That encouragement may open up a much needed conversation of how God is present in their lives.