Third Week of Lent

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Living Water for a Thirsty Soul

The Third Sunday of Lent (Year A)
(Note: This Gospel is also optional for Years B & C with the Scrutinies.)

Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well. It was about noon. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”   John 4:5–7

Today, throughout the world, Catholic liturgies will celebrate the first of three Scrutinies of those adults who are preparing to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil. The word “scrutiny” comes from the Latin word scrutari which means an inquiry, close examination or search of something. It originally referred to rummaging through rubbish so as to find something of value. In a sense, this is what God does with all of us. When we first turn to Him, He sorts through the disorder of our fallen human nature and our sins so as to point to the goodness and beauty of the child He created. As for the liturgical rite that will be celebrated in churches throughout the world today, the Right of Christian Initiation of Adults describes it as follows: “The scrutinies are meant to uncover, and then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good” (#141). The Gospel story we read today depicts this action beautifully. It is the long and inspiring story of the woman at the well. This story is filled with symbolism, much of which the casual reader could easily miss.

To begin, it is important to prayerfully imagine the scene. Jesus was all alone sitting next to Jacob’s Well around noon. Few women would come to the well at that time of day due to the heat. But this woman came at this time because she knew others would not be around. She was a sinner, and many of the other women of the town knew it. Therefore, in an attempt to avoid them and avoid feeling shame, she came at a time when she could avoid the other women. So the first thing to consider is the suffering this woman was enduring because of her shame and embarrassment over her sinful life.

As she approached the well, she was surprised to hear Jesus ask her for a drink. She was a Samaritan. Jews generally considered Samaritans as ritually unclean. For that reason, Jews would not drink from their vessels. But Jesus broke this unholy custom and looked at her as a daughter of God with innate dignity and value as He engaged her in conversation.

Within the heat of the day, Jesus spoke lovingly to this woman and said, “Give me a drink.” Saint Augustine states that, symbolically speaking, Jesus thirsted for her soul, for her salvation. He longed to give her the grace soon to be won through His Cross. Her willing reception of this gift would also bring satiation to the Heart of our Lord. Jesus didn’t dwell upon her past; He knew all about it. He could read her soul. All He wanted to do was to rummage through the sin and rubbish that was cluttering her soul so as to discover her dignity within. If she were to allow Jesus to offer her this mercy, not only would she receive true Living Water to quench her spiritual thirst, she would also satiate the spiritual thirst in the soul of our Lord that could only be satiated by the dispensing of His mercy.

As we celebrate the Scrutinies this Sunday, reflect upon this woman at the well. First, she is a symbol of every person coming to faith in Christ and preparing for the Living Water of Baptism this Easter. But she is also a symbol of your own soul, to the extent that it has become cluttered with the rubbish of sin and disorder. Do not let shame, fear or a sense of unworthiness deter you from engaging in this same conversation with our Lord. Hear Him say to you that He thirsts for you and longs to be satiated by the sacred act of the ongoing bestowal of His Divine Mercy, poured forth through the Living Water superabundantly given to you at your baptism.

My thirsting Lord, You see me, peer deeply into my soul, see all the filth of sin and disorder and love me anyway. As You spoke to this woman at the well, so You also speak to me, asking me to satiate Your thirst by being open to Your mercy. I do open myself to You, dear Lord, and pray that Your Living Water will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life. Jesus, I trust in You.

A Dual Cleansing

The Third Sunday of Lent (Year B)
(Note: When the Scrutinies are used at Mass, the reflection for Year A may be used in place of this one.)

He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”  John 2:15–16

All four Gospels speak of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. However, there is a difference between the way this event is portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and in the way it is portrayed in John’s Gospel. John’s Gospel places this event at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry during the first of His three annual trips to Jerusalem for the Passover. This was His first attempt at cleansing the Temple. Jesus was also less severe in John’s version of the story, stating only that the moneychangers had turned His Father’s House into a “marketplace.” In the three Synoptic Gospels, this event takes place at the very end of Jesus’ public ministry, less than a week before Jesus’ death when He returned to Jerusalem for the last time. In those versions, Jesus was more severe, stating that the moneychangers had turned His Father’s House into a “den of thieves” and not just a “marketplace.” In commenting upon the differences between John’s version and the Synoptics, Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas believe that they are two different occasions when a similar act of cleansing of the Temple took place.

The Jewish Temple, at the time of Jesus’ public ministry, was the place people traveled to each year for Passover to offer the sacrifice of a spotless male lamb in commemoration of the first Passover in Egypt when God set the Jews free from slavery. During this annual celebration, Jewish families who traveled to Jerusalem would purchase a lamb for sacrifice. At the appointed time, they slaughtered the animal in the courtyard of the Temple and then presented it to the priest who gathered some of the blood and sprinkled it on the altar, and then removed the skin, organs and fat to be burned in sacrifice. The meat was returned to the family and roasted on a pomegranate branch so that they could feast on it as they recalled the saving action God granted their ancestors in Egypt.

Today, we see the Jewish Temple as a symbol and prefiguration of Christ, the New Temple Who is also the priest and the Lamb of Sacrifice. Recall, also, that at Jesus’ death, the veil of the Temple was torn in two, opening it up to the whole world so that all may share in the Sacrifice of the Lamb of God. We are now invited into this Holy of Holies to share in the new life of grace accomplished by His Sacrifice. Since the grace of this Sacrifice of our Lord enters into each and every heart that believes, to cleanse and purify, then every person receiving this grace becomes a new dwelling place of God, a member of His new Temple, the Body of Christ.

When Jesus came to the Passover feast and witnessed the buying and selling of these animals in the Temple, He drove them out with much zeal. It was clear that this holy celebration of the Passover had become less of a celebration of faith and more of a marketplace for profit. Jesus’ action is also a symbol of the zeal with which He now seeks to cleanse the temple of your soul. At first, when sin and disorder pervade our souls, our Lord may take the approach of a gentle rebuke, as He did in His first cleansing of the Temple in John’s Gospel. If we persist in our sins, then our Lord will become more zealous in His cleansing as He was in His final attempt to cleanse the Temple the week before He died.

Reflect, today, upon this twofold cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem by our Lord and apply Jesus’ sacred actions today to your own soul. Are there new sins that you have fallen into recently that require a gentle rebuke from our Lord? Are there sins that Jesus has been revealing to you for years now that you obstinately persist in? Allow Him to rebuke you in love and to cleanse you so that His saving Sacrifice as the Lamb of God will indeed purify you, and allow His judgment and wrath to “passover” you this Lent.

My cleansing Lord, You cleansed the Temple of Jerusalem not once, but twice. Your zeal for its purity of worship was clear. Please come and make my soul Your dwelling place today and cleanse me of all sin. Please help me to especially see any ways that I have remained obstinate in my sin, and please cleanse those sins with much vigor. Jesus, I trust in You.

The Divine Gardener

The Third Sunday of Lent (Year C)
(Note: When the Scrutinies are used at Mass, the reflection for Year A may be used in place of this one.)

“‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’” Luke 13:7–9

Imagine for a moment that you were the owner of the orchard in which this fig tree was planted. After the gardener asked you to wait for one more year and promised to fertilize the unfruitful fig tree and cultivate the ground around it, you agreed. Then imagine coming to inspect that same fig tree the next year. Imagine three scenarios. First, what would you do if, once again, there were no figs present? Second, what if there were only a few figs? Third, what if the tree suddenly produced an abundance of good fruit?

It seems clear that in the first scenario, if for the fourth year in a row not a single fig was produced, it would be time to cut down the tree. This depicts the justice of God sent forth on those who obstinately resist His grace. In the second scenario, the decision might be more difficult. If the tree produced only a few figs for the first time, then perhaps that would provide enough hope for the future of that tree to ask the gardener to continue caring for it. This depicts those who are in a state of grace but are still lazy in their service of the will of God. In the third scenario, however, the reaction of the owner of the orchard would be clear. There would be much excitement and gratitude that the gardener’s good work paid off.

Jesus is the Gardener, and we are the fig tree. This parable should lead us to look at our lives and examine whether or not we bear good fruit for the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus comes to you to cultivate the soil of your heart, fertilizing it with His holy Word, watering it with His Sacraments and doing all He can to give you the opportunity to produce the fruit of charity in your life. How successful are these actions of our Lord in your life?

Too often, when we see only a little good fruit being borne from our lives, we are satisfied. And though any good fruit is good, we are wasting our lives if we do not do all we can to become as abundantly fruitful as possible. Imagine the joy in the Hearts of our Lord and the Father in Heaven if they were to look upon you and see good fruit being produced beyond expectation. Why wouldn’t this be your goal in life? Our Lord is patient, but He is also just. Do not try His patience, and do not succumb to His justice. 

Reflect, today, upon the image of you being this fig tree and our Lord as the divine Gardener. Commit yourself to His actions of tilling and fertilizing. You do so by strengthening your commitment to reading and understanding the Word of God, by participating more fully in the Sacraments, by being more focused upon your daily prayer, by examining your conscience more fully, and by sincerely confessing your sins. Do all you can to cooperate with the action of our divine Gardener and you will be amazed at the good fruit that begins to pour forth from your life.

My divine Gardener, You have committed Yourself to the humble work of tilling the soil of my heart and fertilizing it with Your abundant mercy. I choose, this day, to respond to Your grace and pray that my cooperation with You will produce an abundance of good fruit in my life for Your glory and the building up of Your Kingdom. Jesus, I trust in You.

The Permissive Will of God

Monday of the Third Week of Lent

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away. Luke 4:28–30

One of the first places Jesus went to begin His public ministry was His own home town. After entering the Synagogue and reading from the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus proclaimed that the prophecy of Isaiah was now fulfilled in His very person. This caused His townspeople to be outraged at Him, thinking He was blaspheming. So they shockingly sought to immediately kill Jesus by driving Him out of their town to the brow of a hill off which they meant to throw Him. But then something fascinating happened. Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went away.”

The Father eventually permitted the grave evil of the death of His Son to take place, but only in His time. It’s unclear from this passage how Jesus was able to avoid being killed right then at the beginning of His ministry, but what’s important to know is that He was able to avoid this because it was not His time. The Father had more for Jesus to do before He would permit Him to offer His life freely for the salvation of the world.

This same reality is true for our own lives. God does permit evil to happen, at times, because of the irrevocable gift of free will. When people choose evil, God will allow them to proceed—but always with a caveat. The caveat is that God only permits evil to be inflicted upon others when that evil is able to be ultimately used for God’s glory and for some form of good. And it is only permitted in God’s time. If we do evil ourselves, choosing sin rather than the will of God, then the evil that we do will end in our own loss of grace. But when we are faithful to God and some external evil is imposed upon us by another, God permits this only when that evil can be redeemed and used for His glory.

The best example of this is, of course, the passion and death of Jesus. A far greater good came forth from that event than the evil itself. But it was only permitted by God when the time was right, in accord with God’s will.

Reflect, today, upon the glorious fact that any evil or any suffering inflicted upon you unjustly can end in the glory of God and the greater salvation of souls. No matter what you may suffer in life, if God permits it, then it is always possible for that suffering to share in the redeeming power of the Cross. Consider any suffering you have endured and embrace it freely, knowing that if God permitted it, then He certainly has some greater purpose in mind. Surrender that suffering over with the utmost confidence and trust and allow God to do glorious things through it.

God of all wisdom, I know that You know all things and that all things can be used for Your glory and for the salvation of my soul. Help me to trust You, especially when I endure suffering in life. May I never despair when treated unjustly and may my hope always be in You and in Your power to redeem all things. Jesus, I trust in You.

Forgiving From the Heart

Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21–22

Forgiveness of another is difficult. It’s much easier to remain angry. This line quoted above is the introduction to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. In that parable, Jesus makes it clear that if we want to receive forgiveness from God, then we must forgive others. If we withhold forgiveness, we can be certain that God will withhold it from us.

Peter may have thought that he was being quite generous in his question to Jesus. Clearly Peter had been considering Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness and was ready to take the next step of offering that forgiveness freely. But Jesus’ answer to Peter makes it clear that Peter’s concept of forgiveness greatly paled in comparison to the forgiveness demanded by our Lord.

The parable that Jesus then tells presents us with a man who was forgiven a huge debt. Subsequently, when that man encountered a person who owed him a small debt, he failed to offer the same forgiveness that was given to him. As a result, the master of that man who was forgiven the huge debt becomes outraged and requires once again a full payment of the debt. And then Jesus ends the parable with a shocking statement. He says, “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Note that the forgiveness God expects us to offer others is one that comes from the heart. And note that a lack of forgiveness on our part will result in us being handed “over to the torturers.” These are serious words. By “torturers,” we should understand that the sin of not forgiving another brings with it much interior pain. When we hold on to anger, this act “tortures” us in a certain way. Sin always has this effect upon us, and it is for our good. It’s a way in which God constantly challenges us to change. Thus, the only way to freedom from this interior form of torture by our sin is to overcome that sin, and in this case, to overcome the sin of withholding forgiveness.

Reflect, today, upon the calling God has given to you to forgive to the fullest extent. If you still sense anger in your heart toward another, keep working at it. Forgive over and over. Pray for that person. Refrain from judging them or condemning them. Forgive, forgive, forgive, and God’s abundant mercy will also be given to you.

My forgiving Lord, I thank You for the unfathomable depths of Your mercy. I thank You for Your willingness to forgive me over and over again. Please give me a heart worthy of that forgiveness by helping me to forgive all people to the same extent that You have forgiven me. I forgive all who have sinned against me, dear Lord. Help me to continue to do so from the depths of my heart. Jesus, I trust in You.

The Height of the New Law

Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent

“I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” Matthew 5:17–18

The Old Law, the law from the Old Testament, prescribed various moral precepts, as well as ceremonial precepts for worship. Jesus makes it clear that He is not abolishing all that God taught through Moses and the Prophets. This is because the New Testament is the culmination and completion of the Old Testament. Thus, nothing of old was abolished; it was fulfilled and brought to completion.

The moral precepts of the Old Testament were laws that flowed primarily from human reason. It made sense that one should not kill, steal, commit adultery, lie, etc. It also made sense that God should be honored and respected. The Ten Commandments and the other moral laws still hold today. But Jesus brings us much further. He not only called us to go much deeper in the keeping of these commandments, He also promised the gift of grace so that they could be fulfilled. Thus, “Thou shall not kill” is deepened to the requirement of complete and total forgiveness of those who persecute us. 

It’s interesting to note that the new depth of the moral law Jesus gives actually goes beyond human reason. “Thou shall not kill” makes sense to almost everyone, but “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is a new moral law that makes sense only by the help of grace. But without grace, the natural human mind alone cannot arrive at this new commandment.

This is extremely helpful to understand, because oftentimes we go through life relying upon our human reason alone when it comes to making moral decisions. And though our human reason will always direct us away from the most obvious moral failures, it will be insufficient alone to guide us to the heights of moral perfection. Grace is necessary for this high calling to make sense. Only by grace can we understand and fulfill the call to take up our crosses and follow Christ.

Reflect, today, upon your own calling to perfection. If it doesn’t make sense to you how God can expect perfection of you, then pause and reflect upon the fact that you are right—it doesn’t make sense to human reason alone! Pray that your human reason will be flooded with the light of grace so that you will be able to not only understand your high calling to perfection but that you will also be given the grace you need to achieve it.

My most high Jesus, You have called us to a new height of holiness. You have called us to perfection. Enlighten my mind, dear Lord, so that I may understand this high calling and pour forth Your grace, so that I may embrace my moral duty to the fullest extent.  Jesus, I trust in You.

The Kingdom of God is Upon Us

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

“But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” Luke 11:20

The Kingdom of God can come upon us in a variety of ways. The line from today’s Gospel above comes in the middle of a story of Jesus casting out a demon from a man who was mute. Once the demon was cast out, the mute man began to speak, and all were amazed. And though some were amazed and grew in faith as a result, others turned their amazement into irrationality. 

The irrationality of some was that they saw what Jesus did, but they didn’t want to accept that His power was divine. Therefore, some of them said, “By the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he drives out demons.” They couldn’t deny that Jesus drove out a demon, since they saw it happen with their own eyes. But they were unwilling to accept Jesus’ divinity, so they jumped to the irrational conclusion that Jesus’ act was done by the power of “the prince of demons.”

This irrational stance of some people is one of the most dangerous stances one can take. It’s the stance of an obstinate heart. They were given the incredible witness of the power of God at work but refused to respond in faith to what they witnessed. For those who are obstinate, when the Kingdom of God comes upon them, as Jesus stated above, the effect is that they react in a violent, angry and irrational way. This form of reaction is exceptionally prevalent today in the secular world. Many in the secular media, for example, constantly react violently and irrationally to all that is part of the Kingdom of God. As a result, the evil one easily misleads many, causing confusion and chaos.

For those who have eyes to see clearly, this violent and irrational rejection of the Kingdom of God is very clear. And for those with faith and an open heart, the pure message of the Gospel is like water to a dry and parched soul. They soak it up and find great refreshment. For them, when the Kingdom of God comes upon them, they are energized, inspired and driven with a holy passion to further God’s Kingdom. Irrationality disappears, and God’s pure Truth prevails.

Reflect, today, upon your heart. Are you obstinate in any way? Are there teachings from Christ and His Church that you are tempted to reject? Is there some truth that you need to hear in your personal life to which you find it difficult to be open? Pray that the Kingdom of God come upon you today and every day and, as it does, that you will be a powerful instrument of its establishment in this world.

My glorious King of all, You are all-powerful and have full authority over all things. Please come and exercise Your authority upon my life. Come and establish Your Kingdom. I pray that my heart be always open to You and to the direction you give. Jesus, I trust in You.

Hold Nothing Back

Friday of the Third Week of Lent

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Mark 12:29–30

Why would you choose anything less than to love the Lord your God with ALL your heart, with ALL your soul, with ALL your mind, and with ALL your strength? Why would you choose anything less? Of course, we do choose many other things to love in life, even though Jesus is clear with this commandment.

The truth is that the only way to love others, and even to love ourselves, is to choose to love God with ALL we are. God must be the one and only focus of our love. But what’s amazing is that the more we do this, the more we realize that the love we have in our lives is the kind of love that overflows and overflows in superabundance. And it is this overflowing love of God that then pours forth on others.

On the other hand, if we try to divide our loves by our own effort, giving God only part of our heart, soul, mind and strength, then the love we have for God cannot grow and overflow in the way God wants. We limit our capacity for love, and we fall into selfishness. Love of God is a truly amazing gift when it is total and all-consuming.

Each one of these parts of our lives are worth pondering and examining. Think about your heart and how you are called to love God with your heart. And how does this differ from loving God with your soul? Perhaps your heart is more focused on your feelings, emotions and compassion. Perhaps your soul is more spiritual in nature. Your mind loves God the more it probes the depth of His Truth, and your strength is your passion and drive in life. Regardless of how you understand the various parts of your being, the key is that every part must love God in fullness.

Reflect, today, upon the beautiful commandment of our Lord. It’s a command of love, and it is given to us not so much for God’s sake but for ours. God wants to fill us to the point of overflowing love. Why would we ever choose anything less?

My loving Lord, Your love for me is infinite and perfect in every way.  I pray that I will learn to love You with every fiber of my being, holding nothing back, and to daily grow deeper in my love of You. As I grow in that love, I thank You for the overflowing nature of that love, and I pray that this love of You will flow into the hearts of those around me. Jesus, I trust in You.

Being Justified by Mercy

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent

Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.” Luke 18:9–10

This Scripture passage introduces the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. They both go to the Temple to pray, but their prayers are very different from each other. The prayer of the Pharisee is very dishonest, whereas the prayer of the tax collector is exceptionally sincere and honest. Jesus concludes by saying that the tax collector went home justified but not the Pharisee. He states, “…for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

True humility is simply being honest. Too often in life we are not honest with ourselves and, therefore, are not honest with God. Thus, for our prayer to be true prayer, it must be honest and humble. And the humble truth for all of our lives is best expressed by the prayer of the tax collector who prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

How easy is it for you to admit your sin? When we understand the mercy of God, this humility is much easier. God is not a God of harshness but is a God of the utmost mercy. When we understand that God’s deepest desire is to forgive us and to reconcile us to Himself, then we will deeply desire honest humility before Him.

Lent is an important time for us to deeply examine our conscience and make new resolutions for the future. Doing so will bring new freedom and grace into our lives. So do not be afraid to honestly examine your conscience so as to see your sin clearly in the way God sees it. Doing so will put you in a position to pray this prayer of the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Reflect, today, upon your sin. What do you struggle with the most right now? Are there sins from your past that you have never confessed? Are there ongoing sins that you justify, ignore and are afraid to face? Take courage and know that honest humility is the road to freedom and the only way to experience justification before God.

My merciful Lord, I thank You for loving me with a perfect love. I thank You for Your incredible depth of mercy. Help me to see all of my sin and to turn to You with honesty and humility so that I can be freed of these burdens and become justified in Your sight. Jesus, I trust in You.

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