18Mar 18th March. Tuesday in the First Week of Lent

18th March. Tuesday in the First Week of Lent

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, bishop and doctor of the Church.

Cyril (315-386) was bishop of Jerusalem who devoted himself to the teaching of catechumens, preparing for Baptism, for whom he wrote his best known treatise, the Mystagogic Catechesis – a preparation for receiving the infusion of divine life.

First Reading: Isaiah 1:10, 16-20

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses” seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves ill be exalted.

Converted from what, to what?

“The orphan and the widow” symbolize all the disadvantaged people in Israel whom Isaiah mentions in today’s liturgy. To neglect the poor while raising our hands in prayer is a contradiction. The Lord says: “I close my eyes to you … I will not listen.” And yet the prophet has a remedy to propose, “Wash yourselves clean!” God offers the possibility of conversion. “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.”

In the gospel Christ castigates the scribes and Pharisees for wearing their distinctive robes, taking the place of honour at banquets and synagogues, and having people call them Rabbi. He could well have been describing the social world in Ireland when I first started life as a priest. The collar was as much a symbol of power and privilege then as it was of service, and it probably provoked anti-clericalism in the hearts of many. I remember seeing a young, harassed mother of four returning home from the butcher’s, furious. She had been standing in line for ages, but when a priest joined the end of the queue the butcher spotted the clerical collar and called him forward in order to serve him immediately. It didn’t pacify the woman when I murmured that the priest was probably embarrassed by this special treatment and that he did not refuse because he did not wish to hurt the butcher’s feelings. “He doesn’t have a dinner to cook and children to mind and feed like me,” she retorted, and I could not disagree. It’s just as well that this kind of privileged partiality has disappeared and priests wait their turn like everybody else.