Friday, February 26, 2010

2nd Sunday of Lent, Year C

I began this homily 35,000 feet in the air in route from Detroit to Atlanta. It was the first leg of a journey that would ultimately take me to Cartago, Costa Rica to plan a meeting of Capuchin friars in the Americas in September 2011 to address the challenging issue of immigration in this hemisphere.

Because I fly so much, I had received a free upgrade to Business Class. After years of flying in coach, life in “the forward cabin” was a revelation! Each of us were treated to our own “pod,” complete with an entertainment system featuring satellite TV, unlimited drinks and snacks from the flight attendants, internet access, and seats that had seven buttons that controlled the foot and head rests, gave you a massage, and even allowed the seat to become a bed.

It was quite an experience. I found myself echoing St. Peter’s words in our gospel in a way I had never imagined: “Master, it is good that we are here!”

Then we landed. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is among the busiest in the world; and after a walk of about fifteen minutes to the area near my connecting flight, I had a three-hour layover. I got on the plane from Atlanta to San Jose, Costa Rica…and we were delayed about half an hour due to mechanical problems. I wasn’t on the mountain anymore!

Our lives have many different “moments on the mountain,” those times when we experience joy, wonder, awe, excitement, and mystery just as the disciples did at the Transfiguration of the Lord: a wedding day or graduation; standing before a vast and starlit sky; watching a thunderstorm roll across the plain; having a half-court or mid-field seat for the championship game; getting a new job or promotion; or beholding the ultrasound image of a child in the womb.

So, too, do we experience the times when what happened “on the mountain” is just a memory: when the honeymoon is over and we have to deal with the ups and downs and routines of married life; when the diploma is on the wall and we are still looking for a job; when we’re driving through the grey slush that all-too-quickly seems to follow the pristine beauty of a fresh snowfall; when our team suffers a devastating loss so soon after a thrilling victory; and when that innocent child in the womb has become a teen-ager with “issues.”

Those are the times when it does not seem “good that we are here.” Those are the times when we pray with the psalmist: “Hear, O Lord, the sound of my call; have pity on me and answer me….You are my helper: cast me not off.”

The good news that the scriptures give us today is that God is with us through all of it, whether we’re high on the mountains, low in the valleys, or making our way through the plains; whether we’re in first class, coach, or at the gate enduring another delay. God has promised it!
In our first reading, we witnessed the covenant that God made with Abraham, our ancestor in the faith. The ritual that marked this occasion was called “cutting the covenant,” and as we saw from Abraham’s sacrifices that is literally what he did. Sr. Diane Bergant, CSA, an Old Testament scholar, notes that this action was a very dramatic way of symbolizing the curse that would befall anyone who broke such a covenant. It was their way of saying, “If anyone breaks this solemn obligation, may they become like these animals!”

God and Abraham weren’t playing; and while the descendants of Abraham and Sarah broke that covenant in various ways over the centuries—sometimes to their great suffering—God remained ever faithful. That fidelity was underscored in the person and mission of Jesus; and it was ultimately confirmed on the cross.

It is important to remember that Jesus’ Transfiguration before Peter, James and John on the mountain came right after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ and the Lord’s first prediction of his passion, death and resurrection (Luke 9:19-27). He had brought them into the valley; and now he was bringing them up the mountain, trying to strengthen them for the rest of the journey on the plain and some even deeper and darker valleys ahead.

The Lord does the same for us as a church through the Liturgical Year. Our annual pilgrimage through the valleys of Advent and Lent lead us to the “mountaintop” seasons of Christmas and especially Easter. Mirroring life for most of us, however, we spend nearly two-thirds of the church year moving through the plains of Ordinary Time. “Thus recalling the mysteries of redemption,” the Second Vatican Council proclaimed in Sacrosanctum Concilium, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “she [the Church] opens up to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time; the faithful lay hold of them and are filled with grace” (102).
The reality, though, is that we don’t always appreciate or lay hold of the Lord’s powers and merits, even though they are ever-present and available to us. This can happen when we find ourselves “in the valley,” but it can happen just as easily when we find ourselves “on the mountain.” St. Paul had to contend with just such a community in the early church at Philippi.

Infected with the Gnostic heresy, they had embraced a dualism that allowed them to compartmentalize their lives. Considering themselves spiritually enlightened and already saved, they continued to live in self-indulgent and sinful ways. They had forgotten that the Christ who had saved them did it on the cross—as one of us—and had called for disciples and all who would follow them to be holy and whole: committed to God in mind, spirit and body.

His exhortation for them to “stand firm in the Lord” is our call, too. We can respond in faith, knowing that God already stands firm with us—on the mountains, in the valleys, and everywhere in between…even on the cross. +

Sunday, February 21, 2010

1st Sunday of Lent - Year C

Last Tuesday was a special day in cities with large Polish populations—places like Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit/Hamtramck, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. It was Pazcki (poonch-kee) Day. For the uninitiated, paczki are small jelly-filled donuts that are made and consumed in large quantities on the day before Ash Wednesday. National Bakery in Milwaukee made and sold 145,000 last Tuesday!

Paczki were traditionally made in the home in an effort to use up the lard, flour and other ingredients that would be foresworn as part of the Lenten fast. Perhaps reflecting the Slavic genius for making indulgence penitential at the same time, the traditional paczek filling was prune-flavored. In more recent years, however, it has been joined by raspberry, lemon, blueberry and other varieties.

Whether it’s the celebration of Paczki Day in Milwaukee, Carnival in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans or simply Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent has long been a time to indulge (and overindulge) in the things that tempt us—the very things we hope to leave behind in Lent.

The only problem is that our temptations don’t get the message! They stick with us and often even intensify in the midst of our fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Just ask a smoker who has given up cigarettes, a drinker who has sworn off alcohol or a chocolate lover who is abstaining from her favorite desserts and snacks.

Lent is our time of our liturgical year that we find ourselves in the desert. Like Jesus in today’s gospel we are driven there by the Holy Spirit. Like the Lord we are also “tempted by the devil.” Lest we lose heart, we need to see that these temptations are as much evidence of our commitment as of our weakness.

Our gospel passage from Luke 4 comes at a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus, between his baptism in the Jordan by John (Luke 3:21-22) and his prophetic proclamation in the synagogue (as well as his potential martyrdom) at Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). Just as his forty days in the desert tested and prepared Jesus for his mission and public ministry, so the Church gives us Lent to be readied to better fulfill our own vocations.

Today’s Scripture readings present us with five different temptations that are a common part of our pilgrimage of discipleship in Christ:
  • The temptation of forgetfulness and ingratitude.
  • The temptation of thoughtless faith.
  • The temptation of instant gratification.
  • The temptation of materialism and idolatry.
  • The temptation of presumption and carelessness.
In our first reading from Deuteronomy 26, Moses warns us against forgetfulness and ingratitude. Nearing the end of their desert wandering and preparing to enter the Promised Land, he feared that the people of Israel would soon forget God and his commandments. Therefore he instituted in their law one of many forms of institutionalized thanksgiving.

In this particular passage, he commanded them to not only bring forth the first fruits of their harvest to God but also to remember or recall the great moments of their salvation history: the providential visit of Jacob, “a wandering Aramean,” to Egypt; the prosperity of the nation even in an alien land and in the midst of oppression; liberation; and now their place in “this land flowing with milk and honey.” Moses knew something about human nature and how easily we can get comfortable and forget our blessings.

Centuries later, St. Paul exhorted the early church in Rome to confess that the salvation God had once promised to the people of Israel had been granted to all through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Confession was important to Paul because it represented a conscious decision to accept this life-changing gift. Most people limit their understanding of confession to a statement of what they have done (wrong). Paul invites us to see it as something more: a proclamation of what God has done and continues to do for us even today.

As followers of Jesus, like Paul, we are called to proclaim the good news; and even more, like Jesus himself we have also been gifted with the Holy Spirit to fulfill our vocations. But if we have been blessed with the gifts we also have to contend with the challenges and temptations:
  • Changing stones into bread—Have we looked for the emotional highs of “exciting” liturgies or high-profile ministries where we get a lot of kudos but neglect times of quiet contemplation and avoid positions of humble service?
  • Seeking worldly power and glory—Have we succumbed to the illusion that what really matters is being rich and famous or are we dedicated to following God’s will, even if it demands sacrifice? 
  • Testing God’s providence and mercy—Have we allowed sinful habits to fester within us without making a real effort to change or worse, despairing that change is even possible?
Temptation is inevitable. Yielding to that temptation is optional. Victory over temptation is possible because salvation is our destiny. The same Spirit that was with Jesus in the desert is with us today. +

    Friday, February 19, 2010


    Fr. John Celichowski, a Capuchin-Franciscan friar, is the Provincial Minister of the Province of St. Joseph. Prior to his election in June 2008, he was Pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish, Milwaukee. He also served in the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph’s Corporate Responsibility Program, as Director of the Province’s Office of Pastoral Care and Conciliation, and as a member of the Provincial Council. In addition, he also served on several church and community boards and organizations, including Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), the Adult Learning Center, Allied Churches Teaching Self-Empowerment (ACTS), and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in New York.

    Since March 2006 Fr. John has served on the Board of Directors of Franciscans International, a nongovernmental organization that promotes peace and human rights at the United Nations. He also continues to serve on the International Justice, Peace and Ecology Commission of the Capuchins, based in Rome. He previously served as Pastor of Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish, Chicago (1993-97) and as Pastor of St. Benedict the Moor Parish, Milwaukee as well as Chaplain to the St. Benedict Community Meal (2000-2004).

    A Milwaukee native, Fr. John made his first profession as a Capuchin in July 1988, his perpetual profession in August 1992 and was ordained to serve the church as a priest in June 1993. A 1980 graduate of St. Lawrence Seminary, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree (Political Science) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1984, a Master of Divinity degree from Catholic Theological Union (Chicago) in 1993, and a Juris Doctor (Law) degree from Georgetown University (Washington, DC) in 2000. He is a member of the Wisconsin State Bar and the American Bar Association.

    His writings have appeared in several professional journals and magazines, including the American Indian Law Review, the Catholic Lawyer, and Celebration magazine, Origins, Worship and The Cord (a journal of Franciscan spirituality).