Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. (1 Peter 4:10)

Archive for March, 2019

Seeing is Believing

What does it mean to “see Jesus” in everyone we encounter? And what does it mean when we pray and hope for others to “see Jesus” in us as we go about our days and live our lives?

I found myself pondering these questions earlier today. St. Teresa of Calcutta taught, by her life, the importance of finding and seeing Jesus in others, whatever their condition or social position; she also, I think, embodied the concept of “being” Jesus to those she encountered in her life of service.

What began to engage me in my ponderings was the question: How does this work? Surely we are talking about the same Jesus. But the way we see Him in others might be quite different from the way others see Him in us!

Here’s what I think.

Seeing Jesus in all the people we encounter is the way we live out His statement that whatever good or evil we do to the least among us, we do it to Him (Matt. 25:34-40). As I reflect on this passage, it occurs to me that while it might be much easier for us to “see” Him in those who look and sound and act most like me, that’s not what He is calling me to do. He wants me to look for Him where He is harder to find. And when I see Him there, He wants me to reach out to Him in service. That is what Mother Teresa understood – and to her it was such plain truth that she could not do other than live it. Surely if we know Jesus is present, if we recognize Him there in front of us, we could not refuse Him what He needed. So by seeing Jesus in all the people we encounter, we constantly find moments and opportunities in which to serve those people and, in serving them, to serve our Lord.

For others to see Jesus in us, we must first ask for Him to be present in us and then be open to His presence. The Jesus we want others to see in us is the Jesus Who washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, the Jesus Who touched and healed and taught and served the people who came to Him in need.

When we invite Him into our hearts with the prayer, “…but only say the word, and my spirit shall be healed,” are we open to being and speaking His Word?

When we receive Him in the Eucharist, do we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, ask Him to stay?

When we see Him in others, do we gladly receive Him?

When we ask Him to be with us, lead us, guide us, do we then look and listen for His presence and leadership and guidance?

For others to see Jesus in us, we must set ourselves aside and let Him take over. Then, and only then, can we begin to serve His people. Then, and only then, can others begin to see, in us, the Jesus Who loves all of us, the Servant Savior Who invites us to follow Him all the way to the Cross and Calvary, and then beyond to the tomb, and then even beyond the tomb to the glory of the Resurrection.

If we recognize Jesus before us in the people we encounter, we cannot help but serve Him. If we ask Him to shine from us so that others can see Him, we cannot help but serve them.

These are little, simple things. They don’t require magnificent knowledge or complex calculations.

But they thrive on love.

To see others is to see Jesus. To see Jesus is to believe Him. To believe Him is to serve Him.

I can live with that.




Random Thoughts on a Saturday in Lent

Some random thoughts on this Saturday of the second full week of Lent….

Forgiveness leads to reconciliation when the forgiven one undergoes conversion. Today’s gospel reading, the parable of the prodigal son, illustrates that truth. In all the struggles of my life around forgiveness, both mine for other people and God’s for me, I realize that there is a tendency to confuse – perhaps even equate – “forgiveness” with “reconciliation.”

Forgiveness, we are taught, is the simple act of wanting good things, rather than revenge/harm/retribution for someone who has wronged us. Forgiveness is an act of love, and on the human level it is as much an act of healing for the forgiver as it is for the forgiven. It was only after much soul-searching and prayer that I finally understood that reconciliation is a separate thing and that it is not an automatic sequel to forgiveness.

Forgiveness, you see, is unilateral (again, in human terms). It does not require the person I am forgiving to ask for it or even want it; it can occur even if that person is actively opposed to the idea. This is so because of the very nature of forgiveness. I can consciously take the step of desiring good things for that person; I can put myself in the mindset of rejecting any notion of retribution or revenge or wishing ill for that person. I can pray for that person and ask God to bless that person with good things, and I can do so without testing God by telling Him what I think those things ought to be. The act of forgiveness is liberating and healing for me, and when I take that last step of praying for the person I am forgiving, I am actively wishing good for that person.

Reconciliation, in contrast, is bilateral. The very structure of the word suggests putting back together two things which once were together and somehow were separated. Reconciliation requires conscious, willing participation by both people. For reconciliation to occur, as in the parable of the prodigal son, there must be a conversion. Only when the forgiven one knows that the other’s forgiveness is needed, and only when the forgiven one becomes willing to change as a result of acknowledging the wrong he or she has done, is the path to reconciliation opened. And once that path is opened, it requires a response from the one who does the forgiving. As in the parable, the father never stopped loving his son; he wanted only good things for his son. The prodigal son, however, takes a long time to understand the wrong he has done and to decide to return to his father. When he does return, his conversion complete, we see that the father’s forgiveness has been there all along. What happens when the prodigal son approaches and the father runs out to meet him – that, my friends, is the reconciliation.

We also tend to confuse our forgiveness with God’s forgiveness. We forget that God’s forgiveness is perfect and always present in our lives. What is so wonderful about God’s forgiveness is that it is perfectly and inextricably intertwined with reconciliation. In the relationship God has with us, He is so ready and so eager to forgive that on the instant of our conversion – our admission that we have sinned and separated ourselves from him and that we want to come back to Him – He is there with both forgiveness and reconciliation.

I realize now that I do not struggle with forgiveness. I struggle with reconciliation, because in some of my relationships, I am the only one seeking it. And in that realization, I find the opportunity for prayer, which turns out to be the best solution for every struggle, every dilemma.

And another thing…The 4:00 p.m. daily prayer reminder I have set up is tied to the statement, “Jesus rejoices when we turn to Him in love.” And I was just thinking about that earlier this morning. Every day at 4:00 I read that sentence, and I think some general thoughts about loving Jesus, and I go on with my day. Something has changed over the past few days, though. I have been walking through my days in a very conversational relationship with Jesus as I seek discernment about an important decision in my life, and it began to feel very natural to end those conversations, as I often end conversations with family members and dear friends, with, “I love you.”

How many times a day do we consciously say to our Jesus, “I love you”? I’m finding that the more often I do so, the more often I think of it. In any relationship that is precious to me, those words are common between us. And the more precious the relationship, the more emphatic the pronouncement of love.

Being in love with Jesus, when you become aware of it, has all the excitement and joy we associate with being in love, but without the doubts and uncertainties of ordinary love for another person.

And there I will leave it for this last day of the second week of Lent in 2019.

Be the Fruit

The Gospel reading for this Friday of the second week in Lent gives us Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants, subverting the interests of the owner of the vineyard that produces their livelihood. These tenants are so evil that instead of finding ways to enhance this wonderful source of good things, they convince themselves that by eliminating the legitimate heir, they can have it all for themselves.

Yesterday’s gospel showed us that the rich man suffering the torment of Hell had no insight into how he had gotten himself into that situation; today’s points out how easily we can delude ourselves, in the moment, that our sinful behavior can somehow get us what we want.

We often reflect on the parable of the tenants in the vineyard by putting ourselves in the position of the wicked tenants, and we readily see the owner of the vineyard as God, the agents he sends as other good souls, and the son as Jesus, killed by those evil tenants. I’ve always felt like I was missing something in this parable, and as I reflected on this morning, a new insight presented itself.

What we don’t think about very much in this parable is the fruit of the vineyard and how it is used by all the other players in the story. When I considered this, I wondered where it would take me if I saw myself as the fruit of this vineyard.

Ideally, when all is right with the world God made and put us in, the fruit of the vineyard grows, ripens, is harvested, and fulfills its proper purpose – whether that purpose is in the direct service of the owner of the vineyard, or whether it is to benefit the owner by fulfilling the needs of others while generating a profit for the owner. But if someone comes along, as in the parable, and interferes with the process or with the fulfillment of these purposes, the result is subversion of the whole process. The owner of the vineyard receives neither the fruit or the profits it might have generated. The fruit also is damaged by the delays and mishandling; at minimum, it is not used at its peak of goodness but rather at the whim of the selfish, self-interested usurpers of the rightful owner’s interest.

As the fruit of God’s earthly vineyard, I want to grow, ripen, and be harvested to fulfill the purposes God has for me. That is my ideal state, and it is the process that will benefit my soul. In that process, and only in that process, I can fulfill those purposes that will benefit others to the greater glory of God. But if I allow myself to be taken in by those who care nothing for God’s purposes – or worse yet, who pretend to seek those purposes but secretly have a different agenda – then no matter how perfect I may seem, no matter what great flavor and aroma I may put into the world, I am not the fruit the Owner of the vineyard deserves to harvest.

As the fruit of God’s earthly vineyard, I need to always be where I can bask in the sunshine of His grace and soak up the dew that His Spirit forms and bathe in the Living Water. His grace, His spirit, and His salvation are the certain sources of my growth, my ripening, and my fitness to be harvested for His use. Let me never look elsewhere for what I need! Let me never be fooled by false promises and temptations! Let me remember, when I am drawn by the false promises of those evil tenants, this simple truth: God will not be outdone. His promises are greater, and He always keeps them. If I will keep my heart fixed firmly on Him, He will far outdo any of those others in the quest to ripen and harvest my soul.

Promises, and the Dawn

One of my favorite Scripture readings is the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79). Here is Zechariah, an elderly fellow who is told that his equally elderly wife is going to have a baby – a baby who will be important to Israel’s salvation. And his initial reaction to the message of God’s angel was the equivalent of today’s “Are you kidding me right now?” Zechariah’s canticle of praise is not a paean to his spiritual perfection – far from it! This beautiful piece of Scripture is instead a testimonial to the merciful God Who first gave him nine or so months of silence in which to contemplate his relationship with his Maker – and Who eloquently and generously and completely fulfilled every promise he had made to Zechariah.

When Zechariah demonstrates his submission to the will of God by giving his son the name the angel revealed to him, his power of speech is restored. Rather than dashing off to celebrate with his friends, he takes the opportunity in those first moments of restoration to praise God. His theme: How a faithful God remembers and keeps His covenant with and His promises to His people.

Zechariah’s song of praise echoes God’s promises over the whole history of the Israelites. When I reflect on the early verses, I’m reminded that we 21st-century Christians are blessed with the richness of several millennia of experience, as retold by the inspired writers of Scripture and as lived out by the Church Jesus established during his time on earth: thousands of years and countless stories of how God has kept His promises.

That we, like Zechariah, question His faithfulness and His willingness to do what He says He will do, is the mark of our heritage from our first parents in their original sin. We fail, and God forgives, asking only that we be open to His forgiving grace and try sincerely to do better with His help.

Lest that cycle of sin and forgiveness become something we take for granted or worse, become a source of discouragement and despair, we are given the beautiful words that end Zechariah’s song of praise:

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet in the way of peace.

What wonderful words of encouragement! The same God Who has been keeping His promises for thousands of years of human history promises to keep right on caring about what happens to us. Left to our own nature and our own devices, we can’t help but drift toward darkness. We must turn toward “the tender compassion of our God,” because that way lies the dawn. We must let Him shine on us and “guide our feet in the way of peace,” because that way lies freedom.

I don’t trust pat phrases like “all you have to do is….” but this path to freedom really is just that simple. The promise is there. The redemption that fulfilled the promise is there as well. The grace that gives us full access to that redemption is there. All we have to do is just let Him.

Because there is this one other thing. When we do let Him – when we come before Him, sinful and sorry and recognizing both the promise of redemption and the depth of our need for it, Jesus does not delight in our shame. Rather, He takes us by the hand and lifts us up so that we can walk with Him. This is the core of our personal relationship with Him, that He loves us as sinners and then takes us, with His promise of redemption, so far beyond our sinfulness so that we can love Him back. As with Zechariah, He loves us even in our stubbornness and our questioning and our rebellion, and then He generously fills the space we have left over when we give those up and look to Him.

We are children of a Father Who keeps His promises. We are invited to walk with a Savior Who redeemed us from sin with His own suffering. We are guided by their Spirit of love and wisdom. Knowing this, why would we not open our hearts? Lord, to whom shall we go?

Of Moments, and Musings, and Many Things….

There are moments – whole long strings of them, sometimes – when I feel completely inadequate to the things to which God has called me, is indeed calling me in the present. I feel inadequate both because I am, inherently, incapable of doing what He asks on my own, and because I seem to be an expert at kicking, screaming, resisting, and needing to be dragged, struggling, to the task. And when I’m not actively resisting, I am awfully good at ignoring (at worst) or failing to listen to (at best) what He wants from me.

Here in the second full week of Lent, I’m taking stock of what I said I would do to walk more closely with Jesus through this holy and penitential season. I’ve done what I said I would do in some areas, and I’ve lagged sadly in others. Fortunately, as my co-teacher pointed out to our 7th– and 8th-graders in their religious education class yesterday, Lent isn’t over, and we get to restart those commitments where we’ve fallen short.

I can honestly say that my commitment to fast – truly fast, taking only clear liquid all day until dinner time – one day each week has been of great benefit. Each time I start to feel really hungry creates an opportunity to reflect and pray and to offer my small discomforts to Jesus in prayer. Last Friday, in a moment of hunger pangs in the middle of the day, I thought, Six more hours until I eat. And then in the next breath of my heart, I thought, Jesus did not have that option during His Passion. My perspective changed.

The commitment to intentional prayer – specifically Lectio Divina and the Rosary – have not fared as well. I’ll count them as a work in progress. I’ve found myself asking, in my morning and evening prayers, for the grace to turn to God in prayer often throughout the day. And then I realized that my little “prayer alarms” – those hourly chimes on my phone with their accompanying prayers and scripture verses – had been mostly turned off to avoid distracting people when I was in a meeting or at church. I’ve turned them back on.

To be sure, I spend more time in prayer now than ever before in my life. What happens is that the more time I spend there, the more I want and need. I am beginning to see a pattern here….

My Lenten almsgiving is from the heart – a promise to spread kindness through at least one intentional act of kindness targeted at some specific person or persons each day. This is wide open and could take a lot of forms, and I’m learning that being very intentional about this takes some effort. Who knew? I actually need to go out and find people and be kind to them in a meaningful way, without even the tiniest hint that it’s somehow an obligation.

Right now, I can hear the question – perhaps because my own heart is asking it: When I publicize these Lenten resolutions via this blog, how am I not aligning with the Pharisees that Jesus called out for making their fasting, prayer, and almsgiving public in the interest of glorifying themselves?

All I can say is that this blog is meant as a way of sharing my own spiritual journey, and the ways in which I am seeking a deeper relationship with Jesus this Lent are part of that journey. I’m not looking for praise or glory; I’d love to say I don’t need those things, but the nearer truth is that I don’t deserve them. And if what I share speaks into even one single heart so that one single soul loves Jesus more, then it’s worthwhile.

Now, lest this rambling get any further off course, please allow me to share some random thoughts from the past few days of wandering in my spiritual garden. There, if it isn’t always spring, at least the promise of it waits behind every prayer.

I have often prayed, and continue to pray, that nothing about the Mass would become ordinary and rote to me – that by grace and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, I might always experience Mass as a time of wonder and renewal. This prayer has been answered, over time, in many different ways, most often in what I experience at the moment of Consecration. One of my most cherished memories is of the weekday Mass when, as I bowed my head for the words of Consecration, the voice in my mind said most urgently, “Look at Me!” I looked up as the priest was elevating the Consecrated Host, and thought, Here I am, looking directly at Jesus!

A few days ago, in that mystical and miraculous moment during an early morning Mass, I gazed at Him in the form of bread and wondered, How is it that something so amazing and truly earth-shaking is happening here, and yet it is so quiet? The Lord of heaven and earth has just made Himself present here! Angels surround Him, and in the presence of the Son, we also have the Father and the Holy Spirit! And yet, all I can really see is the bread and wine that He has made into Himself. They look the same, but I realize that they are profoundly changed – changed into Him as a way He can give Himself to us.

And it’s there, in that moment and thought, that I see it. Here I am, kneeling before Him; here I am, walking forward to receive Him; here I am, coming back to my place with Him, and He is there to feed me and thus to change me. No one around me, if they happen to notice me at all, will see the least outward change in me as a result of my having received Him. And yet I am profoundly changed, just as the Consecrated Host is profoundly changed.

My prayer, then, is that I may live in a way that makes this change – not the me part of it, but the Him part of it – evident to others. My prayer is that my smile will reflect always the joy of His presence in my life, that my actions will call to mind always the gentleness and mercy and love of His ministry through me, and that my life in total will be in all ways given over to letting Him shine on others through my openness to His love.

Lent vs. Ordinary Time

It brings a wry sense of amusement, at those times in the church year designated as “ordinary time,” to encounter the explanation that this term refers to Sundays numbered in order (thus “ordinary”) rather than to Sundays and weeks that are ordinary in the sense of “usual” or “normal” and thus somehow less special than Sundays with other designations (the Sundays of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter). When I was growing up, all of the Sundays of the year had some designation tied to a major church festival, with the Sundays following Christmas tied to the Feast of Epiphany, and most of the Sundays of the year being designated as a Sunday After Pentecost.

As nearly as I can determine, the concept of Ordinary Time became the norm in the Catholic Church somewhere around 1970, and we’ve felt the need to explain the term ever since.

But I digress. My purpose this day is to explore the idea of “ordinary time” in the context we most often apply — that of the usual, expected, even same-old same-old kind of time that takes us through our waking and sleeping and working and playing every. single. day.

The ordinariness of our normal daily lives can be hypnotic, and can lull us into a state of quietude that is quite the opposite of what inspires us to pray and to listen for and invite the Spirit of God into our lives and our days. When Important Things Are Happening, they create their own sense of urgency, and they prompt us to pray — often fervently, even desperately, as we seek help and cast about for the outcomes we desire. Think of Queen Esther as she sought to save her people from certain extinction at the hands of the Persian king. She put aside what was normal in her life, fasting and doing penance, and praying, “My Lord, you alone are our King. Help me, who am alone and have no help but you, for I am taking my life in my hand.” (Esther 4:14-15). In answer to Esther’s prayer, “God changed the king’s anger to gentleness.” (Esther 4(D):8). Ultimately, the king, after promising to do anything Esther asks of him, spares the lives of the captive Jews.

So there are two themes in play here. First, if Esther had allowed herself to be lulled by the routines of her life as Queen of Persia — and make no mistake, as queen she enjoyed a life of great luxury — she might have failed to notice the plight of her people; she might never have thought to pray in such desperation of spirit that she risked her very life to even consider asking the king to show mercy.

But the second theme is perhaps more important for us. It is this: We are meant to seek and find an intense relationship with Jesus right in the very midst of the ordinariness of our daily lives. Esther rose above her daily routines in her prayer, and then she used the ordinary everyday routines of her life as queen to persuade her husband, the king, to show mercy and thus save the lives of the entire Jewish people.

We often live our lives in an odd sort of dichotomy — both bored with the sameness, the ordinariness, of our days and weeks and years, and lulled into complacency by that same ordinariness, so that we are not inclined to step out of the routine unless something happens to create a sense of urgency. Likewise, on the spiritual plane, we are lulled into a routine of praying the same prayers, offering the same thanks and praise, praying the same petitions, perhaps even slipping entirely into the rote prayers of our childhood rather than the spontaneous prayer that our conversations with God can be. And having prayed in this way, we “sign” off and end the conversation.

When I think about my human relationships, it isn’t difficult to see how that kind of sameness and routine can be at the same time comforting and yet stultifying to a relationship, whether with a family member or a friend. I know those people are always going to be there; I can connect in an instant with a text, a phone call, or a moment face to face. It doesn’t require any sense of urgency for me to get their attention. When our relationship goes on in the easy comfort of those routines, though, it doesn’t grow and change in the ways that it could and should.

It’s the times that we shake things up and step out of the ordinary that those relationships are both tested and brought to new levels.

When I go to my friend or my sister or daughter with some heartache that needs comfort; when I step out of my own skin to look closely enough to see that someone needs comfort or needs to vent; when I break free of my routines to think about offering something special to one of my own – whether it’s a bouquet of flowers, or an invitation to lunch, or just the treat of special time spent together with no other distractions – then the walls that “ordinary time” has put in place begin to break down. Then we can grow together. And with that growth, we’ll enter into new times when we are lulled and comforted by our routines and simply know that the other is there for us, and we are here for them. But it is important that we remember that growth is not possible without those times when we step away from the ordinary, when we create a little sense of urgency and make that relationship, for that stretch of time, our greatest focus.

It’s not a stretch, is it, to apply this analogy to our relationship with Jesus. He is always with us, always there, and I suspect that He is glad that in our routines and our times of ordinariness, we still turn to Him in prayer – even if our prayers are “ordinary” and prone to distractions. But I also like to think that when we make the effort and take the time to step away from the lull and hypnosis of our own “ordinary time,” when we are deliberate and intentional in our choice to seek Him out and bring our selves, our lives and wants and needs, to Him with a sense of urgency, recognizing how much we need Him – when we do this, we are open to His grace, and then our relationship with Him can grow and deepen. His love for us was always there and always infinite, but by stepping away from our ordinariness to come to Him in this urgent and intentional way, we become open to a deepening of our love for Him.

So I seek to pray, to converse with Him, in a way that is outside and beyond my routines, with a sense of urgency that I create myself, not just responding to the urgencies that come about when life itself jumps the rails and takes us involuntarily out of our complacency.

I seek to converse with Jesus as my dearest of friends, knowing that if He is pleased with the times I come to him just because it’s part of my routine, He must be delighted to receive me when I come with urgent love and intent.

And harking back to the story of Esther for just a moment, it’s also true that when we are nestled in the comfort and routine of our own “ordinary time,” we can easily miss spotting those things around us that ought to send us running to our King with the greatest urgency to plead for His mercy. From the obvious to things farther removed, we can miss the need to bring these things to Him: not only our own sins and failings, but also the deep and great needs of the Church and its leaders; not only the favors we beg for ourselves, but also the great, even overwhelming, needs of the poor and the homeless; not only those people we pray for daily, asking blessings and favor on their behalf, but also the needs and even the desperation of the countless number who have no one to pray for them by name; not only our own loved ones who have died, but also all those who wait in Purgatory for purification so that they may finally enjoy the Light of God’s face in heaven.

I seek to pray, not just daily but constantly, in deep faith and reliance upon my growing relationship with Jesus; to pray urgently and with great awareness; and to pray that the same God who hears and answers all my prayers will lead me to know what and whom I ought to pray for.

I seek to pray, not only in the words prescribed by the beautiful prayers I’ve already memorized, but also in the words of my heart, the words that urgency and love call from the depths of my being, and words that come from being with Someone I love, in a relationship that both of us cherish and seek to deepen daily.

I seek to pray in a way that is anything but usual, in a time that is anything but ordinary, in conversation with a God Who has proclaimed Himself to be love, light, and salvation.

Calls, and Challenges, and Answers

One of the things that amazes me about our faith is something that at first might seem paradoxical, but on closer examination is really a perfect fit. It’s the fact that even while we rely on and reap the fruits of several millenia of promise, covenant, and truth — all of which are infinitely immutable and reliable — we also come back to this table of Word and Sacrament to constant renewal and refreshment.

Some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading aloud or quoting some of her favorite Scriptures. She loved Luke’s Nativity story above all else, but among her other favorites were Matt. 9:24 — “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief!” and Luke 2:19, where “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She would sometimes reflect aloud on these verses, and I remember that her reflections were always a little different. It was many, many years before I really understood that those differences arose at least in part to new insights that she experienced when she revisited those verses.

For much of my life, my religious practices (when I was practicing any religion at all) involved little or no Bible study. Although I was fascinated with a biblical theology course I took during my first pass at a college education, I didn’t follow through. Of course, through all those years, I heard God’s Word proclaimed in church and sermonized from any number of pulpits. When I returned to the Church, though, I felt as though the Bible had been rediscovered — perhaps even “reinvented,” in a way — while I was away. Bible study groups and classes have become a mainstay of parish life, and it is both easy and fascinating to get caught up in studying and reflecting on God’s Word. My first introduction to Lectio Divina — prayer based in Scripture reading — felt like a deep homecoming.

And this long-way-around path meanders, finally, to my point: In recent years, the most amazing thing about reading and reflecting on God’s Word is the way I can sit down with a passage I’ve read and heard dozens, even hundreds of times in my life — and suddenly see and understand something completely new from it.

So this is what happened when I went to Mass on the Saturday after Ash Wednesday and, while waiting for Mass to begin, reflected on the Gospel reading for that day — Luke’s recounting (Ch. 5:27-32) of Jesus’ calling of Levi, the tax collector. Jesus spoke to Levi, saying, “Follow me,” and just like that, Levi left everything and followed Him. Fast forward to Levi’s home, where he throws a big party so that all of his tax collector friends could meet Jesus.

Here’s the part that stood out for me in that early morning reflection. I’d never noticed it before. The Pharisees are hanging around, presumably to try, as they always did, to trap Jesus in some sinful behavior (good luck with that, guys), and they question Jesus’ followers about why they are spending their time with “tax collectors and sinners.” And Luke tells us that Jesus replied to them, explaining that the sick, not the healthy, need a physician and that He calls sinners, not the righteous, to repentance.

When the Pharisees challenged Jesus’ disciples, Jesus answered for them.

Wow. Jesus answered for His followers when they were challenged on what really was the essence of their followership: doing what Jesus did, going where Jesus went, spending time with the people Jesus spent time with.

Never in all the years of hearing that passage read, never in all the sermons and homilies I’ve heard on the subject — never had I considered the significance of this contrast. Jesus answers for His followers when they are challenged! 

When that kind of insight comes to me it’s actually startling — not just in my mind, but in a physical way. I’m sure I sat up a little straighter, and I remember looking around to see if anyone else noticed it. Then my eyes returned to the page from which those words had jumped out at me, and I had to smile as I thought more about what they had suddenly come to mean.

We face temptation and challenges to our faith every single day, whether directly or indirectly. People, events, things, thoughts — Satan uses them all to challenge us, as did “the Pharisees and their scribes,” as to why we are spending our time the way Jesus wants us to. Sometimes it’s obvious; sometimes it’s more subtle. And it’s continuous. It would be overwhelming, if we had to deal with it all on our own.

But just when we realize we are helpless to deal with these temptations and challenges on our own, we are reminded by Luke’s story that Jesus is there to answer for us.

Of course, in this season of Lent we are focused on the way He answered for sin once and for all on the Cross. I do not think we can ever reflect deeply enough to fully realize what that act of atonement involved in terms of His suffering, nor can we fully understand the absolute love and compassion and mercy for us that went into it.

But here’s the thing. The Cross does not mean that we’ll never sin — oh, no, we are more than capable of continuing to sin. What it means for us is that in the midst of our human capability for sin, in the tangle of temptations and challenges that we face, Jesus stands ready to answer for us, each and every time. That’s what I think the story of Levi’s calling foreshadows — that when Satan uses his wiles and the glamors of the world to tempt and challenge us, we have Jesus to answer for us. We only need to stop and listen for it.

I think He wants us to let Him answer for us. I think it’s significant that Jesus’ followers did not in any way protest or wave off His answering for them. There was no “Oh, never mind, Jesus — we can handle it.” There was nothing of “Let us stand up for ourselves against these guys.”

Jesus answered, and His answer sufficed. And so it is for us to this day.

Oh my Jesus, teach me to stop trying to answer for myself when it comes to sin and temptation. You did so, once and for all, on the Cross, and thus earned for me the truth of Your answer on my behalf each day and moment of my life. Jesus, I know You did not put me here just so I could flounder and fail on my own. You have put me in life just exactly where You can be within easy reach to answer for me when I need You; please give me grace, as You walk beside me, to remember and welcome Your answer. Please, Jesus, give me grace to make Your answer my answer and thus grow to a closer and deeper love for You. Amen.

Ash Wednesday, With Love

Ash Wednesday, and Love Above All

We’ve developed a new family tradition in recent years, attending a very early morning Mass together on Ash Wednesday so that we greet the Lenten season with willing hearts, and greet our world early with the telltale cross of ashes on our foreheads. The four of us – daughter, son-in-law, 2-1/2-year-old granddaughter, and Grannie – shared our early morning with a fair number of hardy worshippers. I hope and pray that those who were in a church for the first time in a long time will be back early and often, finding their way to the cross and the tomb and, by that path, to the Resurrection.

One of the thoughts on my mind this early Ash Wednesday morning is a comment I’ve been hearing over the past few days, a word of caution that when we give up things for Lent, we need to take care how we fill the empty space they leave behind. It occurs to me that of all the merits of Lenten penance, the greatest benefit is the opportunity to create more space for God. Even while we may be gaining the physical benefits of replacing a craving for sweets or alcohol, or the mental and emotional benefits of reducing our participation in social media and games, we have a chance to gain even greater spiritual benefit by making extra “space” for our relationship with Jesus.

Creating that space is, of course, never enough. Once the space is created, we reap great spiritual benefit by remembering to invite Jesus into it, asking Him to fill it and begging the Holy Spirit to use it so that our devotion to the Father can grow. I want to fill the spaces I am creating with prayer – to continuously have the name of Jesus in my heart and mind, to turn my heart and mind often throughout the day to tell Him I love Him, to ask for His love and mercy, and to listen for His voice to lead me.

This becomes the great benefit of “giving up” something for Lent – more room for God. And as it seems with all things around Him, when we think we are sacrificing, He is turning our sacrifices into even greater love.

It’s this love that I want to reflect on today. We are called by Jesus to love God above all things – above parents, children, and all material goods; literally, to love Him more than we love even ourselves. (Matt. 10:37) And that is a hard teaching. The world tells us that we must love our families and protect them above all else. We buy pretty easily into the idea of loving our neighbor as ourselves, because this teaching at least suggests that we are allowed to love ourselves. But loving God more than mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter? That’s a huge step.

The thing is, it’s the one step that puts us squarely in the place where grace can find us and fill us. It is the one and only way that we can ever hope to live through our time in this world in a way that brings us to the light of God’s face for eternity.

We think it’s hard because we like to see things as mutually exclusive. If we love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength, we think that means not loving our families and friends as much. We think that God is asking us to choose Him over our parents and children and siblings, as if putting Him first works to the detriment of everyone else.

And that’s just not how any of this works.

When we love God first and above all others, with our whole hearts and minds and souls and strength, it is not to love others less. Rather, it is to love them with God’s love.

That’s right. Into the space we create when we love God above all, He pours His own love. He places there His own heart, and He fills us completely with the kind of heart and the kind of love we need for loving others. When we love God above all else, we love others with God’s love.

I think that’s the key to whatever Lenten observances we are led to choose. Let us pray to our Father in love for His guidance, so that what we choose, out of the love He pours back into us, will more fully express our love for others.

Of course, Lent is a time for us to remember our sinfulness – and then to remember that God has found us worthy of redemption, because He created us out of His great love. Let all of our penance and all of our prayer and all of our actions be a response to that greatest of loves.

Jesus’ Knees

The Crucifix in my parish church is beautifully crafted; suspended from the lofty ceiling, it is readily visible from every seat in the place. This past Sunday, my eyes turned toward this wonderful representation of my Lord and Savior in the ultimate expression of His love for us, and I began to reflect on the coming season of Lent and of how I can walk more closely with Him in these coming weeks.

I gazed, and I reflected … and all I could see was Jesus’ knees.

What came to me in that moment of prayerful reflection all but brought me to my own knees.

There is Mary, His beloved Mother, at the foot of the Cross, her heart and soul and mind and body still fully devoted to the “Yes!” she committed when the angel first told her she would have a Son. There is Mary,  trying to understand how things had come to this moment of humiliation, torture, and death, trusting God that He was bringing about His will. There is Mary, gazing at her beloved Boy, and she sees His knees — the knees she kissed and nuzzled for their sweet plumpness when He was a tiny child, the knees He brought to her as a little boy, scraped and bruised and needing a mother’s kiss to heal, the knees she taught Him to bend in reverence as she raised the human Child Jesus to love His Father.

Those knees. What mother has not kissed and tickled and squeezed her child’s knees and thought them adorable? What mother, seeing her child at whatever age hurting and desperately betrayed, would not be taken back — with wishful broken heart — to the innocent days of childhood when all she had to do was kiss those knees to make everything better?

Jesus’ knees. What mother would not feel a burst of love and tenderness as she sees her child kneel before God, those knees bent in worship, knees touching the ground so that the heart might touch heaven?

And what mother’s heart would not break, would not shatter entirely, to see those knees covered in bruises and cuts and scrapes inflicted out of hatred and fear, to see those knees wounded and battered in ways that she cannot kiss away?

Oh, Mary, your presence at the foot of His Cross reminds me as nothing else can of the utter depths of His love for us, expressed in this ultimate sacrifice. Your mother’s love poured out for your Child draws me into His Passion as nothing else could, because I understand a little of what a mother’s love is. Your mother’s love, poured out on us because He gave you to us, as He was dying, to be our own Mother — this love draws and sustains me even as I cannot bear to think of what pain my sins caused Him and, because of His pain, the pain I caused you. 

Oh, Mary, beloved Mother, be with me during this Lenten season, so that in walking with you along the Way of His Cross, I may better understand the nature and depth of His love. Through your intercession, dear Mother, let my offering of myself be a balm for His wounds. Together, you with the grace of one born sinless and I with the grace of one redeemed from sin, may we bathe His wounds with our tears, and may we heal Jesus’ knees. Amen.

Getting Lent

In four more days, churches will experience what turns out to be the highest single-day attendance of the year (https://bustedhalo.com/blogs/kickingandscreaming/the-popularity-of-ash-wednesday). Ash Wednesday sees Catholics (and probably other Christians whose denominations offer services) flocking to their parish churches for a reminder of their sinfulness and to kick off a season of penitential practices that even Catholics who rarely attend Mass otherwise will observe.

Lent happens to be my favorite season of the church year. In welcoming Lent, in planning what I am going to do in observance of this season, I feel a greater sense of new beginnings and a stronger pull toward serving God than I feel even at Christmas and with the new year in January. One reason probably is the settling of spirit that comes with the season’s focus on acknowledging our sinfulness and our need for repentance. It’s also partly rooted in renewing our understanding that our faith is founded in the Resurrection but that without the Cross, there would be no Resurrection.

In other words, Jesus died on the Cross once, giving Himself once for all time to redeem our sins. Yet because we continue to be sinful and to sin, we need to keep tapping into that redemption, that mercy, that forgiveness that He expressed in His sacrifice. It’s not that His redemptive act removed our need for repentance and forgiveness; it’s that because of His redemptive act, forgiveness is available to us and we have the grace to be repentant.

And it is this wonderful confluence of sacrifice and love and redemption that makes Easter possible. It is here that we will eventually once more trumpet our alleluias and celebrate with joy.

But first, isn’t it appropriate that we step back for a moment from the joy to remember what got us here in the first place? Isn’t is proper for us to focus on both the need for repentance and the ultimate acts of love and sacrifice and suffering that make our repentance worth anything at all?

The observance of Lent gives us a quiet space in which to reflect on who Jesus is, what He did for us in His life and death, and the privilege that we have of knowing how it all turns out — that His sacrifice, His offering of Himself, continues without ceasing precisely because it was not the end, but the beginning.

Lent is the way for us to join in the beginning of His redemptive act, so that we can recognize that without Him, we’d have no way of being part of the future outcome of it.

I’m part of a small faith-sharing group that will be meeting throughout Lent, and I expressed to the group this past week that Lent is my favorite Liturgical season. That comment started a discussion about what we all hope to gain during this coming Lent, and what we might do to achieve that. All of our ideas shared a common theme of deepening faith and a closer relationship with Jesus, and we all left the table with a new desire to grow in Him through these coming weeks.

The universal question among Catholics (and even non-Catholics) about this time is, “What are you giving up for Lent?” I’m not giving up a single thing for Lent, unless you want to count the release from habits and attachments that separate me from my Lord as “giving up.” My plan for Lent is to gain something: a stronger, deeper prayer life through Lectio Divina, a closer walk with Jesus through meditation, and a closer bond with our Blessed Mother as I consider, through praying the Rosary, her love for us in the constant “Yes” she offered to God.

And while I’m at it, I’m going to pray that all those people who find their way to Ash Wednesday Mass will continue to seek and find the deeper faith that the practices of Lent can bring.

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