Saturday, February 28, 2015


I see, said the blind man. It is an old and tired joke, yet it stays in our vocabulary because so often it rings true.  We hear someone’s words to us, even comprehend the sentences, but cannot grasp the meaning behind them.  We understand, but we don’t understand.
I cannot un-see an image I saw inadvertently of the beheading of twenty-one Coptic Christians on the shore in Libya.  It is painful, frightening, and discouraging all at once.  But today I saw another image of those same Coptic martyrs, and it changed everything.

The twenty-one souls on the shore look to Christ their Savior, who beckons them come to Him.  The angels descend, bearing crowns of martyrdom, even as the waves turn red with their blood.  Their orange garb is covered over by red, yes the red of martyrs’ blood, but also the red of Christ’s own Divinity.  It looks nothing like the internet image I saw, but reveals better the reality.
This evening, as I prayed the psalms of Vespers, the evening office, I came to the line Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, and the phrase the Lamb who was slain caught my attention and rang again and again in my mind.  Once again the image of those innocents being slain came unbidden to my eyes.  But those words stand in the midst of the great hymn from Revelation: Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!  (Rev 5:12).  And the eyes of my heart were opened wider.
Suddenly those words brought to mind others.  He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.  (Is 53:7)  And, For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.  (1 Pt 2:21-24)
By his wounds you have been healed.  Those words that I associate with Sunday Vespers every week of Lent have long been pure consolation for me.  But they mean more to me now than they did even a few hours ago.
Jesus gave Peter, James, and John the consolation of seeing His transfiguration, His true identity and glory revealed, in advance of their witnessing His passion and death.  I see now, said Peter; let us stay here.  But the vision passed, Jesus led them back down the mountain, and they asked one another what rising from the dead meant.  They had seen, but were still blind.
I read somewhere that the last words from the martyrs were, Lord Jesus Christ.  He gave them eyes to see, what we need the icon to begin to imagine.  I see, said the blind man.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 21, 2015


Why would anyone go out to the desert?  I suppose it sounds pretty good as the thermometer drops down beyond the single digits we have been enjoying, and goes into the minuses; and the wind blows snow and stinging salt into your face.   My sister has lived in Tucson for some years and assures me that it is much warmer there.  But that is not the kind of desert to which Jesus goes this week.
The First Sunday in Lent always brings the Gospel describing Jesus’ spending forty days in the desert fasting and praying.  The three evangelists differ in what details they choose to include; this year, Mark mentions the Spirit driving Jesus out, and Satan tempting Him there, but nothing more about what the temptations were.  It is clear that Jesus is not at some Arizona spa getting away from the winter weather.
This obviously has something to do with our own practice of Lent, but what is it?  It seems like a historical precedent, and so it is.  Everything that Jesus did is an example to us.  The period of forty days, the prayer and fasting, all these elements of our Lent have a basis in the life of Jesus.
Jesus went out into the desert alone, and so it can seem that solitude is the distinguishing characteristic of this time of penance.  However, Jesus went out in the desert not so that he could get away from us, but so that he could be with us. 
Solidarity, not solitude, is a powerful part of what we do in these days.  When the Eternal Word took flesh of the Virgin and became man, He willingly joined us in our remote exile from the delightful intimacy with God for which we are created, and for which we yearn.  That willingness to leave behind what He enjoyed is the basis of His saving mission.  When He goes willingly into even more distant exile in the desert, He does more than simply show us what to do.
Jesus had no sins for which He needed to repent, no bad habits He needed to break, and no excesses He needed to curb.  But even as He sets His face toward Jerusalem and Calvary, He invites us to go with Him, and go with Him all the way – even through the Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.
When we set out into the desert of Lent, willingly taking up penances, we are not trying to repair ourselves by imitating Jesus so much as we are joining Jesus in what He does for us.   The Church calls us to penance, and the Church unites Christians around the word into one body, following one path.  The Church is the Body of Christ, and the path is first into the desert, and then, eventually, to the Father.
We do what the Church does; and what the Church does, is what Christ does.  What Jesus Christ does is more than repair our vices; He redeems all mankind.  Our little Lenten actions unite us into Him and His saving action.
Christ Jesus sought out the solitude and suffering we all endure in order to be in solidarity with us.  We join Him in that selfless act, to whatever degree our Lenten practice provides, to be in solidarity with Him.  The Church, by setting the time and the discipline, unites us all into Him: we are the Body of Christ, fasting and praying.  For us men and for our salvation is the reason He, and we, go into the desert.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 14, 2015

More than a Cartoon

One of the best times of the whole year is Lent.  But one of the best things about this weekend is that it is not Lent. Does this ambivalence baffle you?  Does it seem like unconvincing doubletalk as you quiver at the prospect of committing yourself to doing without something, maybe several things, for an intimidatingly long period of time?  Hardly; for there is balance in the array of graces God gives us.  For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1) says Qoheleth (“the Preacher”); and Lent is a season that we all need.
But really, if you are over seven years old, don’t settle for the cartoon notion of Lent:  “This year I am giving up (insert one: a) chocolate; b) dessert; c) beer; d) other food product).”  Remember: Lent is not a diet.  Lent will leave you leaner, but that’s a side effect, not the goal.  Devise your discipline according to these principles, and you will have many reasons to be grateful.
Seek the silence.  Our days are filled with so much noise -- visual, mental, and social, as well as audio.  All of it, all of it, misshapes our relationships and understanding.  So this Lent, turn it off:  the radio in the car, the television in the home, the web-browser on the screen.  Sure, make specific exceptions for yourself: except when I need to check the traffic and weather together on the eights; except for Downton Abbey (or March Madness); except for ordering Mom’s birthday present online.  But get rid of the noise that becomes constant; the default distraction of hypnotizing visuals; the aimless poking about the web for useless information and harmful stimulation.  Be still, and know that I am God.  (Psalm 46:10)   
Seek the other.  Do not reduce Lent to your personal goal, where you are the principal beneficiary of your new self-control (in your waistline, your budget, or your productivity); make sure you offer something to someone else.  “Giving alms” is indispensable to a good Lent; that includes but is not limited to giving money and other gifts to the poor.  It also means giving time to the lonely, attention to the ignored, and love to the one we have so much trouble loving.   Remember, too, what a gift it is to ask someone to help you.  Life is not solitary; neither is our struggle against sin.  So your Lent should be not private, but personal; and therefore interpersonal.  Seek also the One who desires your company in prayer.  Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor, and to find help in time of need.  (Heb 4:16)
Seek the cross.  Jesus Christ is never more fully revealed as God than in His death on the cross.  If you would share that divinity, that holiness, share too his cross.   Lay down something that you cannot picture yourself living without.  Give something you think you cannot afford.  Take up something you think you cannot carry.  Then look at your crucifix, each day.  The real sacrifice of the cross is available at Mass, so go there not only at the usual times, but also some additional time, i.e., every Wednesday near your office, or every Thursday after you drop off the kids. 
If there is some pain or privation in your life not by your own choosing, then Lent gives you something to do with it.  Your illness, your embarrassment or failure; your pain, your mistreatment by a false friend; your devaluation at work.  Embrace it as your Lenten cross, what you and Jesus are doing together this Lent.
So, yes, eat less.   Wear your ashes until they rub away.  Eat fewer sweets and fewer treats.  Go to Stations of the Cross on meatless Fridays, and write bigger checks to help folks who need.  Talk less, and pray more.  But that is just the background; this year, take it higher.
Take it seriously, and Lent will be one of the best times of your whole year.  But until Ash Wednesday gets here, have seconds and dessert.  Play some music and see a movie.  Go out together, or invite someone over.  Make for a little Samedi+Dimanche+Lundi+Mardi Gras right here in Silver Spring.  Because it’s not Lent yet, and that’s good too.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Everyone is looking

Job spoke, saying: Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?  What a way to begin Mass today!  I know Job is not renowned for his upbeat commentary, and there is a reason for that.  But still – what better example could be found of the universal applicability of Sacred Scripture?  How could the Church – or Job – have known the particular drudgery we would be undertaking today, as we take up our little pencils and walk through our pledge cards?
Picture how Peter’s mother-in-law felt about the household chores she undertook when Peter and the boys brought Jesus to her house.  She had been ill, stuck in bed with a fever, until Jesus touched and cured her.  Her immediate response was to get up and wait on them.  There was no disappointment in what could have seemed drudgery; it was a gift to be well enough to give hospitality to the one who had made her well.
What was the source of her delight?  The household tasks themselves?  Her restored ability to accomplish them well?  Simply “feeling herself again?”  Was it all that, combined with the opportunity to offer it to Jesus?  She could not have known who Jesus was, but she also could not have failed to know some very important things about Him.  She was healed by His touch!  Can you think that under those circumstances she might have resented or begrudged the chores she had performed a thousand times already?  No, neither can I.
Speaking of something done a thousand times, picture how Jesus spent that evening.  They brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons.  The whole town was gathered at the door.  He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons.  While that must have been exciting for the folks he cured, it was surely the same old thing, over and over again, for Jesus.  I mean, really -- all who were ill or possessed by demons?  What a mob!  -- and not a well-behaved or attractive one, either.  And this was not his first rodeo, so to speak.  He had done the same in every town he had visited!  At what point does curing and exorcizing become drudgery?
So he escaped – who can blame him?  Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.  Simon and the others came after him and told him, Everyone is looking for you.  What did Jesus say?  I need a break?  I’ve done enough, let’s do something else?  No – He said He had to go do more of the same, but somewhere new, somewhere different.  He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also.  For this purpose have I come.”  So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.  Jesus knew the value of His list of “things to do,” and didn’t count them as drudgery. 
Everyone is looking for you.  Think about that.  It is still true; everyone is looking for Jesus, even folks who do not realize it – maybe even especially them.  They crave His peace, His mercy, His life, but do not know who can give it to them.  He and He alone has what everyone craves, seeks, and searches for.  Did Peter’s mother-in-law resent or resist her task in making it possible for so many from the whole town to find him?
Everyone is looking for him.  To fulfill the tasks, to expend the effort, to do the chores that make Him available to them – is that a drudgery?  For this purpose have (we) have come.  Sorry, Job!

Monsignor Smith