Engaging the Gospel – Luke 19:1-10

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C): Gospel – Luke 19:1-10

Today’s Gospel, focusing on the dramatic repentance of Zacchaeus, reveals that an encounter with Jesus is a life-changing experience.

Benedict XVI has often emphasized this very theme of encountering Jesus:

We are only Christians if we encounter Christ…We too can encounter Christ in reading Sacred Scripture, in prayer, in the liturgical life of the Church. We can touch Christ’s Heart and feel Him touching ours. Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One, do we truly become Christians.

September 3, 2008.

St John Paul II viewed Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus as a “biblical icon” that illustrates the sacrament of Reconciliation, “God’s arrival at a person’s home.” Just as Jesus’ look deeply affects Zacchaeus, “that same gaze looks upon each” one of us:

Mercy has already come to him as a gratuitous and overflowing gift…Beneath the loving gaze of Christ, the heart of Zacchaeus warms to love of neighbor…

The salvation which truly heals and restores, involves a genuine conversion to the demands of God’s love. If Zacchaeus had welcomed the Lord into his home without coming to an attitude of openness to love and reparation for the harm done, without a firm commitment to living a new life, he would not have received in the depths of his heart the forgiveness which the Lord had offered him with such concern.

Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2002.

Question for reflection: In what ways do I relate to Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus?

Engaging the Gospel – Luke 7:36-8:3

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C): Gospel – Luke 7:36-8:3

Today’s Gospel reveals the “divine tenderness to repentant sinners,” as Benedict XVI has commented:

All at once, an uninvited and unexpected guest entered from the back of the room: a well-known prostitute…She had heard [Jesus’] words of pardon and hope for all, even prostitutes; she was moved and stayed where she was in silence. She bathed Jesus’ feet with tears, wiped them dry with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with fragrant ointment.

By so doing, the sinner woman wanted to express her love for and gratitude to the Lord with gestures that were familiar to her, although they were censured by society. Amid the general embarrassment, it was Jesus Himself Who saved the situation.

Jesus essentially says to the scandalized Pharisee,

‘You see? This woman knows she is a sinner; yet prompted by love, she is asking for understanding and forgiveness. You, on the other hand, presume yourself to be righteous and are perhaps convinced that you have nothing serious for which to be forgiven.’

The message that shines out from this Gospel passage is eloquent: God forgives all to those who love much. Those who trust in themselves and in their own merits are, as it were, blinded by their ego and their heart is hardened in sin. Those, on the other hand, who recognize that they are weak and sinful entrust themselves to God and obtain from Him grace and forgiveness.

It is precisely this message that must be transmitted: what counts most is to make people understand that in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, whatever the sin committed, if it is humbly recognized and the person involved turns with trust to the priest-confessor, he or she never fails to experience the soothing joy of God’s forgiveness.

Address of March 7, 2008.

Question for reflection: When have I been deeply moved by experiencing the Lord’s forgiveness?

Engaging the Gospel – Fourth Sunday of Lent

4th Sunday of Lent (Year C): Gospel – Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The parable of the prodigal son isn’t just about the wayward lad, but is more revealing of the father who is “prodigal” — in the sense of extravagantly generous — in his merciful love:

The process of conversion and repentance was described by Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son, the center of which is the merciful father: the fascination of illusory freedom, the abandonment of the father’s house; the extreme misery in which the son finds himself after squandering his fortune; his deep humiliation at finding himself obliged to feed swine, and still worse, at wanting to feed on the husks the pigs ate; his reflection on all he has lost; his repentance and decision to declare himself guilty before his father; the journey back; the father’s generous welcome; the father’s joy – all these are characteristic of the process of conversion.

The beautiful robe, the ring, and the festive banquet are symbols of that new life – pure, worthy, and joyful – of anyone who returns to God and to the bosom of His family, which is the Church. Only the heart of Christ Who knows the depths of His Father’s love could reveal to us the abyss of His mercy in so simple and beautiful a way.

— paragraph 1439.

Question for reflection: What aspect of the prodigal son’s story strikes me most deeply?

Engaging the Gospel – Second Sunday of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent (Year C): Gospel – Luke 3:1-6

John the Baptist proclaims a baptism of repentance, and in so doing, prepares the way for the coming Messiah, Jesus.

“In John, the precursor, the Holy Spirit completes the work of making ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Catechism paragraph 718).

At the same time, with John, “the Holy Spirit begins the restoration to man of the divine likeness, prefiguring what He would achieve with and in Christ” (720):

The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God Who makes our hearts return to Him….This same Spirit Who brings sin to light is also the Consoler Who gives the human heart grace for repentance and conversion (1432-33).

Benedict XVI elucidates today’s Gospel with the help of two sublime Church Fathers — Sts Ambrose and Augustine:

Tomorrow will be the liturgical Memorial of St Ambrose, the great Bishop of Milan. I take from him a comment on this Gospel text: “The Son of God,” he writes, “before gathering the Church together, acts first of all in His humble servant. Thus St Luke rightly says that the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness, because the Church was not born from people, but from the Word.”

Here then is the meaning: the Word of God is the subject that moves history, inspires the prophets, prepares the way for the Lord and convokes the Church. Jesus Himself is the divine Word Who was made flesh in Mary’s virginal womb: in Him God was fully revealed, He told us, and gave us His all, offering to us the precious gifts of His truth and mercy. St Ambrose then continues in his commentary: “Thus the Word came down so that the earth, which was previously a desert, might produce its fruit for us.”

Angelus of December 6, 2009.

St Augustine comments: “John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word Who was in the beginning (cf. Jn 1:1). John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word Who lives for ever. Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart.”

Today it is up to us to listen to that voice so as to make room for Jesus, the Word Who saves us, and to welcome Him into our hearts.

Angelus of December 9, 2012.

Question for reflection: In what ways have I experienced a call to repentance?

Prayer of Petition

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 2629-33:

Petition is a form of prayer in which we ask the Lord for what we need.

First and foremost is our need for forgiveness: because our relationship with God is the “one thing necessary,” we want to preserve it, protect it, and nurture it above all else. Each and every sin frays this relationship, and mortal sin ruptures it (which is why we seek an encounter with the Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to heal and restore it).

When we realize that we have hurt God, and others, through our faults and failings, we are moved to ask for His mercy. Sometimes we can fall into the bad habit of taking sin lightly and treating forgiveness as a mere formality. While God is eager to forgive, He wants us to repent truly, and recognize sin for the evil that it is.

So important is it to ask for forgiveness, that the Catechism describes it as a “prerequisite for righteous and pure prayer.”

Another vital need for which we pray is the coming of the Kingdom, as Jesus taught us. This petition involves not only beseeching the Lord to bring salvation history to its culmination, but also asking that we may receive His help in striving toward, and cooperating with, the Kingdom’s coming.

Because “the seed and beginning of the Kingdom” on earth is the Church, our petition for the Kingdom also involves the building up, the flourishing, of the Church here in the world.

Of course, we have many other needs in our daily lives, and we are encouraged to bring these too – even the small ones – before the Lord in our prayers of petition: “Christ, who assumed all things in order to redeem all things, is glorified by what we ask the Father in His Name.”

This is especially helpful for family prayer time, when children may be invited to offer their own petitions.

Accompanying Jesus in the Desert

As disciples, we accompany Jesus in every phase of our lives, following Him wherever He takes us, and never wanting to be separated from Him. So when the Lord goes into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days, we go along with Him.

Far from just a sentimental kind of mimicry, this season of Lent is serious business for our spiritual health. It is a grace-filled opportunity for renewal, a spring cleaning of our souls, to make us ready for the great feast of Easter.

During Lent, we are called to examine our lives, repent, confess our sins, and do penance. As we ask the Lord to help us overcome our weaknesses, He asks us to do our part to strive for self-mastery.

The Church guides us through this process, encouraging us to follow the traditional practices of penance – fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. That is why one of the Church’s precepts is to observe the days of fasting and of abstinence from meat. This is not to be legalistic, but rather to help us join Jesus in His fast.

We give up some of our creature comforts, not merely to deprive ourselves, but to free us for something greater. Even tiny ways of self-denial help us to grow in freedom, strengthen us to be faithful in more serious matters, and enable us to climb higher spiritually.

As St. Peter of Alcantara said, “With a pampered and satiated body, the soul is not free to fly high.”