December 18, 2017
How to improve your perspective about Christmas
The countdown to Christmas is almost over. With less than a week to go, the excitement level among children is accelerating. Retailers depend on it, shoppers are driven by it, and parents alternate between dread and anticipation depending on their state of readiness.
With homes to decorate, cookies to bake and gifts to wrap, words like hectic, busy and frenzy come to mind. Therefore, unless we make a deliberate effort to enter into the true spirit of Christmas, we can easily be engulfed in a sea of secularism. Clearly, no other holiday commands as much anticipation as Christmas, nor requires as much preparation.
So, what’s a body to do to keep a right perspective? First, take a deep breath and stay calm. Dec. 25 will come whether we are ready or not, so the real questions for Christians are:
• How have a I prepared the manger in my heart to welcome the Incarnate Christ?
• Does my to-do list include the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spending a little extra time before the Blessed Sacrament and gift shopping for the needy?
• Have I made time each day to deepen my relationship with God by reading Scripture or a spiritual book?
• Have I led by example regarding the true meaning of Christmas?
When people visit during the Christmas season, will they know from the way my home is decorated that Jesus is the reason for the season?
If you find that in answering those questions you fall short, don’t be discouraged. Think of the questions above as an Advent examen. The purpose of any examination of conscience is not to deride ourselves for our shortcomings, but to be enlightened and to respond in a positive manner. Consider that every examination of conscience is followed by an act of contrition and a resolution to do better. This is no different. The good news is there is still time to prepare for Christ’s coming.
The greening of the season reminds us hope is paramount, and if ever there were a time and season when hope is needed, it is today — or so we think. However, we need only consult the annals of history to understand that sin has always been present in the world.
This is not to make light of it, but to gain a deeper appreciation for the fact that God came into the world not because we were deserving, but because we are in need of healing.
God could have saved us in any number of ways. He could have come as an earthly king, subdued evil and lifted everyone up with him when he ascended into heaven.
Instead, he came as teacher, prophet and priest. He came to teach us by example that God does not see as man sees. He came as prophet to challenge the darkness of sin, not to eradicate free will. And he came as priest to transform the cross into a sign of victory.
Jerusalem can never be separated from Bethlehem because the wood of the cross and the wood of the crib are riddled with the wormwood of sin. And God chose both for his Son.
Theologian Karl Rahner wrote that the average person can only tolerate about 15 minutes of truth. This may explain why the bed of straw has too often been substituted with garlands of tinsel, shepherds bowing in adoration have been replaced by party-goers, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire have become more palatable than strains of Glory to God in the highest.
It is often said that the life and teachings of Jesus turned the world upside down when in reality Jesus set it in right order. It was humankind that had it wrong from the beginning and has yet to relinquish its claim as masters of the universe.
So, the tension between good and evil, the secular and the sacred continue to haunt our world. We cannot, nor should we, eliminate the secular from Christmas. It is part of our culture, but it need not be a deterrent to the sacred.
When we remember that Jesus is the most important gift we are receiving, then sharing who we are, what we do, and what we have becomes the only way to prepare for and celebrate the birth of the Messiah. When we order everything around that truth, thoughtful moderation prevails and preparing for Christmas becomes a source of joy rather than an act of frenzied activity.
In bringing this Advent examen to a close, two questions to ponder might be: What is it that makes my heart sing? Is it a quiet prayer before the Christmas crèche or a reminder that Santa Claus is coming to town?
Whatever your answer, remember they need not be incompatible if we keep them in right order. When all we do is for the honor and glory of God, we will fall on our knees, join our voice with the choirs of angels, and know that the peace which only God can give reigns in the hearts of people of good will in every corner of the world because the God of heaven has come to earth.
December 4, 2017
God embraces all of us — saints and sinners
Finding Your Roots” has become one of my favorite TV shows. Every Tuesday evening, Henry Louis Gates Jr, a Harvard professor, traces the genealogy of three celebrities by combing through obscure birth and baptismal records, historical documents, and DNA findings. The process is as fascinating as the results, which often unearth family histories that evoke both pride and embarrassment.
Every now and then a real-life hero surfaces in the seeker’s bloodline, but more often, the search discloses closet skeletons and the so-called black sheep of the family. Typically, smiles and rueful head shaking follow and are accompanied by comments such as: “No wonder my father never talked about his family” or “That explains why this person was never mentioned.”
Such disclosures should come as no surprise given the natural tendency to guard secrets of family wrong doings. However, when it comes to the genealogy of Jesus, a different dynamic seems to have taken hold, which brings me to this rather atypical, yet timely reflection for Advent. Matthew and Luke, who include Jesus’ genealogy in their Gospels, offer a mix of scoundrels, unknowns and a few good people.
Luke’s Gospel softens the blow by recording supernatural events surrounding the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. Only after Jesus is baptized and the Father calls Jesus his Beloved Son does Luke disclose Jesus’ human genealogy.
Matthew, on the other hand, jumps right in. He begins his Gospel with Jesus’ family tree, and for anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the cast of characters mentioned may raise more than a few eyebrows. The litany of names includes as many venal and corrupt persons as righteous ones.
Take Abraham’s son Jacob, who cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright. And then there is Judah. Why was Judah, who sought out prostitutes, chosen and not his brother Joseph, who was by far the most honorable of the 12 sons of Jacob? After all, Judah was complicit in selling Joseph into slavery. Despite Joseph’s seeming favor by God, it was not from his line that Jesus descended, but from a lineage that included murders, idolaters, power mongers and foreigners.
How could Matthew and Luke justify introducing the Son of God by calling attention to so questionable a family tree? And why would they include not only women, which was highly unusual, but the names of foreign women?
There was Tamar the Canaanite who seduced her father-in-law, and Ruth, the Moabite, who literally threw herself at Boaz’ feet so he would marry her. Ruth was the great-grandmother of David, and although David loved the Lord, God chose his son Solomon, the offspring of an illicit union with Bathsheba, to build the temple in Jerusalem. David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, who was one of his soldiers, killed in battle.
As glorious a ruler as Solomon was, he fell prey to the wiles of the Queen of Sheba, which eventually led to his downfall, the deportation of the Israelites and a 400-year exile in Babylon. Luke reverses the order. Beginning with Joseph, the husband of Mary, he traces Jesus’ roots to Adam, bringing us face to face with Cain, who murdered his brother.
None of the Old Testament prophets and saints are found in Jesus’ family of origin. There is no mention of Moses, Elijah, Isaiah or Jeremiah. We hear nothing of saintly women like Sarah, Rebecca or Esther. And what about Daniel, Samuel or Tobit? Why did God not choose these holy men and women to be part of the ancestral heritage for his Son? In answer to such questions, we do well to turn to Scripture:
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55;8 – 9).
God is neither embarrassed by sinners, nor does he distance himself from us. He became man and dwelt among us because his love knows no bounds. In becoming one of us, God embraced all of humanity — saints and sinners alike. His grace is unpredictable; therefore, we cannot discount the way or the people through whom God chooses to bring about his Kingdom. Ever mindful that God’s ways are not our ways, we are called to learn from Jesus, who is meek and humble of heart and, “Who did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at” (Phil.2:6).
Therefore, mindful of God’s unconditional love, we begin Advent year after year in a spirit of hopeful expectation. We can no longer use our sins as an excuse to distance ourselves from God. While on earth, Jesus associated with tax collectors, prostitutes and foreigners, but given his family tree, how could he do otherwise? He was simply mirroring his Father, who embraced everyone, even marking Cain with a sign of divine protection so that no harm would come to him.
Sinners and outcasts were part of Jesus’ human genealogy, a reality that merits reflection. Both Matthew and Luke found it important enough to include it in their Gospels and with good reason. Sin is where our story began, but it did not end there. When God became Incarnate, everything changed. The Word of God became our brother and God became our Father. We are indeed richly blessed!
November 20, 2017
If in giving you receive, be grateful for opportunities to give
When I first began reading the book, I could hardly put it down, but as I got deeper into the story, I found I could only take it in small doses. The title of the book, “Gratitude,” seemed an appropriate choice during this Thanksgiving season, but, as I soon discovered, the title was an enigma.
The story, which took place in Hungary during the Nazi invasion, followed the plight of a Jewish couple and their extended family. As the cast of characters intersecting the couple’s lives grew, so did the sufferings they endured. Although the characters were fictitious, the events that turned their waking hours into a living nightmare were historically factual.
The suffering victims and survivors of the Holocaust endured is no secret. Yet, with each chapter, I kept expecting something wonderful to happen that would justify the author’s choice of the title: “Gratitude.”
It never came. At the end of the story, when Russian troops arrived in Hungary, the so-called liberators became Hungary’s occupiers.
For some, it was too much. They lost hope and took their own lives; others carried on, trying to restore some type of normalcy to life. One son got married and his wife became pregnant; another escaped to America, and still other family members remained in Hungary trying to rebuild the country they loved, but which was forever changed.
In the end, the couple was grateful they no longer had to forage for food, hide in cellars or be herded into freight trains. Most of all, they were grateful for the people who risked their lives to help them and others survive. Through it all, they had become a bit more forgiving of one another and themselves for human shortcomings.
Upon reflection, I understand why the author, Joseph Kertes, titled his work “Gratitude.” Gratitude is relative and means different things to different people. To appreciate the many faces of gratitude, we might visit a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving Day, look into the eyes of a person who is given a warm coat or a week’s worth of groceries and understand that gratitude often comes in the form of relief or an answer to prayer.
Imagine the refugee who makes it safely across the sea, the veteran who has been fitted with a prosthetic device or the young mother who has been told she is cancer free after her last round of chemotherapy. And what about the parents who learn their child was not among the victims of a mass shooting? It seems the greater the suffering, anxiety or heartache, the more profound the gratitude.
I am reminded of the months that my husband and I served with the Franciscan friars on an Indian reservation in the Arizona desert. It was about as close to living in a Third World country on this side of the border as it gets.
Given their history, it should come as no surprise that Thanksgiving was not celebrated by the Native Americans we came to know. While we tell stories of pilgrims who were taught the ways of the land by the Indians and prospered, Native Americans are more apt to recall the heartache endured as their ancestors were relocated by a forced march across the country in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
For the Native Americans with whom we lived, gratitude meant being able to sing Christmas carols in their native tongue because a missionary from the Wycliff Society devoted 20 years of his life to translating the Bible and hymns into written form. For the Tohono nation, gratitude wore the face of cultural pride and dignity.
As we gather with family and friends to give thanks, we do well to look beyond personal blessings and our own life story. The world is so much bigger than one family, one country or one religion. We are all part of the family of God.
Sadly, some have suggested that our country is as divided today as it was during the Civil War. Nations are rising against nations, and people continue to be persecuted for the color of their skin and religious beliefs. As people and countries vie for power and prestige, it seems we have forgotten Jesus’ words, “The last shall be first.”
In his parable about guests invited to a banquet, Jesus was not teaching us about seating arrangements at the table. He was telling us that self-serving behavior, feelings of entitlement and superiority have no place in the Kingdom of God.
A modern-day parable about heaven and hell takes Jesus’ parable a step further. The unknown author depicts hell as people seated around a banquet table, holding spoons with handles long enough to reach the food, but too long to enable them to feed themselves. Heaven is depicted as people sitting at the same table with the same elongated spoons, but each person is feeding those nearby. In the process, each person is fed.
If we believe that it is in giving that we receive, then we will be grateful for every opportunity to give. Since the best way to give thanks is to share our gifts, we begin by putting faces on the stories of our larger family. When we allow their stories of gratitude to transform us, our Thanksgiving will be filled with joy that knows no limits.
November 6, 2017
Like the saints, be prepared for all God asks
The story is told that when one of Mother Teresa’s nuns asked what she had to do to become a saint, the saint responded by saying, “Just die. This pope [Pope John Paul II] seems to be canonizing everyone.”
I’m not sure if the story is true or if someone was simply employing comedic license to make a point, but the response bears unpacking.
While it is true that that St. John Paul II canonized more people during his pontificate than any other pope, it was not just to increase the number of holy men and women on the Church’s Rolodex of saints. It was done to help the faithful realize that saints come from all walks of life, that they were a gift to the Church during their lifetime and continue to be so, and that sainthood is neither for a few select souls, nor is it restricted to centuries past.
As people of God we are all called to be saints. Yet, it is no secret that during their lifetime, holy men and women distained being referred to as saints. Dorothy Day, whose cause for beatification is currently under way, said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
Now I can’t get inside Day’s mind and understand what prompted the remark, but it seems to me that what she was really saying was, “Don’t put me on a pedestal.”
Like many saints before her, Day was on a mission to live the Gospel without compromise, but it was never meant to be a solitary mission. She needed people to walk with her, to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and advocate for peace.
And she was not about to let others excuse themselves from living the Gospel mandate by elevating her to a position beyond the reach of ordinary Christians.
The primary goal of these Gospel warriors was never to become a saint; it was to do whatever God was calling them to do within the context of their life as it unfolded in real time. They sought to do the will of God because they had first fallen in love with God, and like anyone who has ever been in love, they sought to please the One who had won their heart.
No one is born a saint; the road is long, arduous and often lonely. Saints are often despised and rejected long before they are esteemed because their message is deemed too radical by the self-righteous or the mediocre. Yet, saints knew their limitations. They were aware of their sins, but they also knew that strength to do good comes from God.
The idea that anyone would look at them and regard them as anything but a sinner who had been redeemed by Christ was anathema to their thinking, which explains why they did not want to be looked upon as anything but ordinary. This brings me back to the line attributed to Mother Teresa.
It is true that a person must die before being canonized, but more than physical death, sanctity requires death to sin. Ironically, some of the most beloved saints are those who early in life fell short of this goal but, with the grace of God, did not allow sin to have the last word about their life.
Saints like Paul, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and yes, Dorothy Day were pilgrims on the journey, which is what makes them relevant centuries later. Each answered the call to become the unique person that God was calling them to be. Not everyone is called to martyrdom, to found a religious order, or work among lepers, but we are all called.
Perhaps this is the reason St. Therese the Little Flower has such broad appeal. She did nothing that garnered attention during her lifetime. She died at the age of 24, lived a few short years hidden from the world as a Carmelite nun, and upon her death, the nuns who were charged with the task of writing about her life thought there was nothing much to say.
But God’s ways are not our ways. Shortly after her death, her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” written at the behest of her sister, became a bestseller worldwide. In 1997, she was declared a doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II.
In recent years, St. Therese’s “little way” of spiritual childhood became a blueprint for ordinary men and women who do ordinary things in an extraordinary way.
In the end, it is not about what we do, but about the love with which we do them because it is love that transforms them. As ordinary pilgrims on the way, whose names are known only to God and to the people whose lives we touch, we take comfort in the words of the psalmist:
“My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty. I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself. I am like a weaned child with its mother and like a weaned child I am content” (Ps 131: 1-2).
Having said that, we are to be prepared for all God asks, for we never know where the Lord will take us when we respond to his call with an unconditional yes — much the way all the saints and holy souls before us responded.
October 23, 2017
View Las Vegas tragedy through lens of faith
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The phrase immortalized by Charles Dickens could be attributed to numerous time periods throughout the course of history, for at the heart of Dickens’ assessment lies a human paradox.
The presence of pain and suffering brought on by acts of evil are an ever-present reality, but it is often from the ash heap of such acts that the inherent goodness of humanity often rises. The mass killing in Las Vegas is an example.
As innocent victims fell prey to the assassin’s bullets, others were rushing to save lives with little thought given to their own safety. One survivor recalled people pushing wheelchairs of concert-goers, while others carried the wounded and disabled to safety fireman style.
Another stopped mid-flight to adjust a make-shift tourniquet that one of the victims had improperly tied around his leg — an act which ultimately kept the man from bleeding to death. And who could forget the story of the young couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary who were separated by death? The young woman recounted that after her husband threw her to the ground and positioned himself on top of her, she felt his body lunge as the bullet that spared her life took his.
Survivors who were strangers prior to the shooting ferried the wounded to hospitals in cars and trucks transformed into rescue vehicles. First responders, doctors, nurses and hospital personnel worked tirelessly.
In the wake of the shooting, police scoured the scene for evidence and investigators searched for clues that might explain the inexplainable, but to little avail. And people everywhere were reminded life is fragile and that we know not the day nor the hour when we will have to give an account of our life.
We are not always masters of our own destiny; much in life is beyond our control. But rather than lose heart or give in to cynicism, we must not allow the evil wrought by one man obscure the kindnesses of many.
This is not about whitewashing the tragedy, but about stepping back and viewing the event through a wider lens — the lens of faith. Only then will the presence of God be revealed, shining within the midst of suffering.
In the aftermath of the shooting, I found myself turning to a letter from St. Paul to the Corinthians:
“For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts, that we might know the glory of God shining on the face of Christ. This treasure we possess in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed, full of doubts we never despair” (2 Cor 4 -8).
Whenever one person reaches out to another, the glory of God is made manifest. This is the reign of the Kingdom of God at work, dispelling the darkness, shining in the hearts of good people. When tempted to ask, “Where is God?” we need look no further than the helping hands and hearts of so many good people.
God is there, his light shining within the night of suffering, giving people the grace to recognize the other as neighbor and the strength and courage to become the face of Christ.
Throughout Scripture, God has been with his people. This is what sets Jews and Christians apart from other religious traditions. Our God has a personal relationship with humankind. Despite our penchant to stray, God remains faithful, forever calling us to return, transforming sinners into saints.
Where God is, there is love. This is the truth proclaimed in houses of worship, but it is also seen when the hungry are fed, strangers welcomed and prisoners set free. It is evident at prayer vigils outside of prisons and on abortion prayer lines.
Whether done in God’s name or as an act of human compassion, the reign of God is spreading. The world is being healed one wound at a time by one act of kindness at a time.
The spark that has been placed within the heart of every human is like a glowing ember; each act of charity is the breath of God that will set the world on fire. This is not to deny the reality of evil, for current events remind us how often and how easily those sparks are extinguished.
We are a world in process, forever changing and being transformed slowly and painfully. Realities of good and evil remind us that God and goodness will always prevail.
As people of faith we believe that God, whose presence is veiled in this life, will be fully revealed in the next. So we remain hopeful because: “We do not fix our gaze on what is seen but on what is unseen. What is seen is transitory; what is unseen lasts forever” (2 Cor 4; 18).
October 9, 2017
Renewed interest in Mary could be sign of the times
“There’s something about Mary that draws huge crowds. ”
Consider all the shrines to which pilgrims have been flocking for centuries. Mary sightings garner headlines. Apparition sites boast physical healings, skeptics become believers and hardened hearts are transformed.
For Catholics, devotion to Mary is more than a passing phenomenon, and the resurgence of interest in her seems to be gaining momentum, and not only among Catholics.
In recent weeks, I have had conversations with an Episcopal priest, a Methodist minister and a Presbyterian university professor about a course I have been teaching on Mariology. All expressed an interest, acknowledging they had always wanted to learn more about Mary.
For many Protestants, our belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity and the high esteem in which the Catholic Church holds her is problematic. Yet, it seems that few things make more sense from a theological perspective.
No one refutes the fact Jesus was miraculously conceived in the womb of Mary. The words at the Annunciation: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, hence the holy offspring to be born will be called the Son of God” certainly testify to this.
With Mary’s fiat came the dawning of the messianic kingdom. The Divine Seed was planted, the marital covenant between Mary and the Holy Spirit sealed. Mary’s gift of herself to God was complete and would remain so for all eternity. Her covenant with the Holy Spirit could not be broken.
At that moment, Mary became a living tabernacle for the Incarnate God, and the Kingdom of God on earth began its reign. Heaven came to earth and Mary, conceived without sin, was the vessel chosen to house the Son of God.
Not only was Mary the mother of Jesus, but she became the Mother of God because the Son could not be estranged from the Father. Recall Jesus’ words, “The Father and I are one,” and “He who sees me sees the Father.” This is the reason the Church can rightly proclaim that Jesus was fully divine while still becoming fully human.
Indeed, the more we meditate on the mystery of the Incarnation, the more we come to appreciate the role of Mary in salvation history. Her perpetual virginity does not contradict her motherhood; it completes it and enables her to be mother to all.
Following the Second Vatican Council, some wrongly assumed that Mary’s role within the Church had been diminished, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, an entire section of “Lumen Gentium,” a prominent Vatican II document, devoted an entire section to the role of Mary. An excerpt from the document states:
“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. The Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men originates not in any inner necessity, but in the Divine pleasure of God. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all power from it. It does not hinder in any way the immediate union of the faithful with Christ but on the contrary fosters it.”
With so profound an endorsement for the role of Mary, one might wonder why she was temporarily sidelined by many after the council? One explanation could be that with the advancement of liturgical changes following Vatican II, along with an increased emphasis on the role of the laity, teachings on Mary were not front and center of the renewal.
But as Scripture so wisely reminds us: “For everything under the sun there is a time,” and as life reminds us, there is no time like the present. It may well be that the renewed interest in all things Mary is a sign of the times in which we live.
Catastrophic natural disasters, terror attacks amid ongoing wars, and rhetoric that threatens nuclear annihilation should be enough to bring everyone to their knees. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case. In fact, the increasing reign of secularization seems to threaten even the religious freedom that we once took for granted.
On Oct. 13, the Church concludes the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Mary’s apparitions at Fatima. Hopefully, it will not end the return by the faithful to heed Mary’s advice to pray for peace. What better time to begin than in October, the month of the rosary.
Like every good mother, Mary instructs her children, but she is no ordinary mother. She is one of us, yet she is unlike any human being. She is the perfect model of discipleship. Mary understood that she was fully dependent upon God and therefore she was free to be the handmaid of the Lord.
As the Mother of the Church, Mary invites her children to enter into the same type of freedom, but we cannot accomplish this on our own. Prayer and vigilance are required. There is much in life to distract us from our primary mission, but we are never alone. God is with us and so is his mother, who happily is our mother, too.
And so we pray: Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!
September 25, 2017
Shovel-wielding angels get our attention
“All night, all day, angels watching over me my Lord,”
… begins the refrain of a Gospel spiritual that some historians trace to the days of slavery in the United States. Since talking was not permitted among the slaves while they worked in the fields, many resorted to singing to lift their spirits.
Undoubtedly, the imagery of celestial beings watching over them helped soothe their aching souls as they labored under the hot sun. But why the lyrics of the song have been going through my mind over the last few days is another story.
It may have something to do with the fact that on Sept. 29, the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael is celebrated by the Church, followed by the feast of Guardian Angels on Oct. 2. Or perhaps because friends and family members who lived in Florida and Georgia called in recent days to say they had survived Hurricane Irma with minimal damage.
But as scenes from the devastation in the Virgin Islands, St. Martin and St. Thomas were televised, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where were their angels?
Such musings are natural, but as I began hearing some of the interviews with the islanders, I realized angels are not only given to us as protectors of our physical well-being but as spiritual protectors as well. Case in point would be St. Michael the Archangel, spiritual warrior who cast Lucifer out of heaven.
The outlook of many of the inhabitants who survived the hurricane was nothing short of miraculous. Perhaps because many already live in poverty, they are less dependent on the type comforts we take for granted. But if that were the sole reason for their courage and optimism, it would seem to negate the role their better angels play.
So, who or exactly what are these spiritual beings who inhabit bodies when needed — as in the case of the Angel Gabriel who announced to Mary she was chosen to be the mother of God. The primary role of angels in the Hebrew Scriptures seems to have been to convey messages from God. Recall the three angelic strangers who posed as travelers when they visited Abraham and told him that Sarah would conceive a son in her old age. Then there was Raphael, the archangel that donned a human body when he accompanied Tobit on his journey.
But my personal favorite is about the angels that appeared to Jacob while he slept. They ascended and descended a staircase to heaven, seemingly bridging the chasm between heaven and earth and the human and divine.
When Jacob awoke he was changed. Scripture tells us he wrestled with an angel but was this a physical or spiritual battle? The fact that his hip socket was injured leads us to believe it could have been physical, yet it had to have been more than that.
Not only did he have a sense of the holy after he won, but the Lord changed his name from Jacob to Israel, and reassured him regarding the covenant between God and the people that would become the nation of Israel.
As I ponder these strange and ominous occurrences, I am reminded of the times when it seemed as if God had to hit me over the head with a shovel to get my attention. Given the fact that I am not alone in having experienced such rude awakenings, I am beginning to wonder if angels in modern times come equipped with shovels so when the gentle and more subtle whisperings of the Holy Spirit go unnoticed, they stand ready to intervene with the proverbial bong on the head.
As we look around, it seems shovels stand at the ready in more ways than one. In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we who have been spared need to dig deep and offer what we can to assist in the recovery of our brothers and sisters whose lives have been disrupted.
We are all part of the same Body of Christ, and while we may feel helpless as we watch the parade of refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, we can pray for them and advocate for justice and peace in our own country. With the help of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, voting has never been easier — just a click away and far less painful than a shovel to the head.
The saying, “Ignorance is bliss,” is a fallacy. We need to be informed and stay alert, ready and willing to wrestle evil in whatever way it presents itself. I prefer the saying, “Walk softly and carry a big stick,” which, come to think of it, might actually have angelic origins.
Angels may be God’s messengers, but human beings are God’s instruments. We all have a role to play, and while it can be frightening at times, we can rest easy because “All night, all day angels are watching over me and you.”
September 11, 2017
A Tribute to Bishop DiLorenzo
“Much has been said and written about Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo since August 17…”
… when he passed from this life to the next. Newspaper accounts offered a profile of a man deeply committed to the Catholic Church, whose leadership style and accomplishments were welcomed by some and a source of controversy for others. This should come as no surprise since anyone who is in a position of authority inevitably draws criticisms from those whose views differ or whose expectations go unmet.
Certainly, when Bishop DiLorenzo accepted the appointment to become Bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, he was well-aware of both the burdens and joys that accompany the office. Therefore, his saying “yes” to so high a calling requires both faith and courage, which says a great deal about the character of Bishop DiLorenzo and his devotion to the people of God.
Funeral eulogies and comments left on the website by many who mourn his death reflect a man who was well loved by those whose lives he touched in one way or another. Counting myself among those who had the privilege of knowing him, it seems only fitting to dedicate this column to him as a sign of respect to the man who shepherded the Diocese of Richmond and was publisher of “The Catholic Virginian” for 13 years.
My first encounter with Bishop DiLorenzo took place shortly after he came to the Diocese of Richmond. In addition to being a regular columnist with The Catholic Virginian, I was employed by the paper as the correspondent for the Eastern part of the Diocese. It was in that capacity that our paths crossed while I was covering the Yom Kippur Service at Temple Beth Shalom in Virginia Beach. Bishop DiLorenzo attended the service as guest of honor, and after the service we chatted at length.
At the time, I was involved as a dialogue partner with the local Jewish and Muslim communities, which immediately aroused the Bishop’s interest and led to several follow-up meetings – usually held over lunch. Not being used to one-on-one encounters with a Bishop I was nervous to say the least. But I quickly discovered that Bishop DiLorenzo did not stand on ceremony. Within minutes I was completely at ease with him, and felt encouraged by his interest in promoting relationships within the interreligious community.
Months later he accepted an invitation to a dialogue luncheon at the mosque in Hampton with several rabbis and Muslim leaders. We discussed ways the group could move forward and eventually Bishop DiLorenzo appointed me to the position of Bishop’s Liaison to the Jewish and Muslim communities for the Diocese of Richmond.
Though humbled by the trust he placed in me, I was also encouraged by his support. He was readily available personally, through e-mail or by phone.
When I resigned from the position to serve with my husband as a volunteer with the Franciscan Friars in the California missions, Bishop DiLorenzo kept in touch by mail. Upon our return to the Diocese of Richmond, I received a letter from him welcoming us home.
As I reflect on the legacy of Bishop DiLorenzo, I am reminded of the book “The Road to Character” by New York columnist David Brooks. In the introduction of the book, Brooks refers to Adam I and Adam II, both of whom he posits are inherent in people of good will who achieve success.
He calls Adam I the career-oriented, ambitious side of human nature that aspires to create, build and produce while Adam II is more concerned with moral virtues such as love, self-sacrifice and service.
Presumably, no one ascends to the role of bishop without possessing a healthy dose of both Adam I and Adam II and in many ways, Bishop Francis DiLorenzo epitomized these qualities.
Over the years while I served under the leadership of Bishop DiLorenzo, I came to respect him for his qualities as both Adam I and Adam II. He was an astute listener who possessed an uncanny ability to appraise a situation and act when needed. Never one to mince words, Bishop DiLorenzo was direct. I always knew where I stood with him and I appreciated his candor.
As Catholics, we look to our bishops for moral leadership. We expect them to be virtuous, selfless leaders who not only preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but live it. It’s a tall order for any human being, and understandably, all will fall short at times.
Bishops, like the people they shepherd have feet of clay. They serve within the context of an office that is holy but is also laden with tremendous responsibility for the souls entrusted to their care.
Despite the many responsibilities of the office, Bishop DiLorenzo did not take himself too seriously. He had a great sense of humor and disparaging remarks were usually self-directed. I recall his laughing over a picture of himself in The Catholic Virginian, saying that he looked like the Travelocity Gnome.
The contributions of Bishop DiLorenzo to the Diocese of Richmond will long be remembered with deep appreciation. As a man who dedicated his life to God and to the service of the Church, he had the courage to act on his convictions. He was not perfect, but then who of us are?
Still, I feel blessed to have known him and hold him in warm regard for the genuine love he had for the people of God. May his soul rest in peace and may perpetual light shine upon our beloved Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo.
August 28, 2017
Hate the Sin, Not the Sinner
“It’s been said, “Anger is a two-edge sword.”
The implication is that when anger is projected toward another, the person who is angry is wounded even as they attempt to wound the other. Anger affects a person’s state of well-being, causes blood pressures to rise, and can lead to gastrointestinal problems, not to mention physical harm when violence erupts. Anger is a human emotion, aroused when events, circumstances and behavior by some run contrary to the expectations, ideology, or moral values of others. In some cases, anger is justified, but it is the action, not the emotion, that carries with it harmful and moral consequences.
Recall Jesus’ righteous anger when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. Jesus was not a passive bystander, but he directed his anger toward the behavior of those who had turned his Father’s House into a den of thieves. He rebuked those who did wrong, overthrew tables, but did not assault the moneychangers. The distinction is important. With wounds from the events that took place in Charlottesville still fresh, it is important to consider ways we can resist hatred and bigotry without becoming emmeshed in violence.
As Christians, we look to Jesus and we have clear direction, though it is not always easy to follow. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall hate your enemy, but I say, love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5: 43). Nowhere did Jesus put these words into practice more perfectly than from the cross, when with his dying breath, he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The fact is the only person whose behavior we can change is our own, and change begins with self-examination and prayer.
In response to 3rd century heresies, St. Augustine advised Christians to proceed with love for mankind and hatred of sin. Later the phrase gained popularity as “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” and in his auto biography Gandhi wrote, “Hate the sin, not the sinner.” All of us are sinners, which may explain why we often find it so difficult to forgive ourselves. But unless we take responsibility for our own sinfulness, and ask for mercy, we, like the Pharisees in the Gospel, will confuse the sin with the sinner and throw stones at others, condemning the sinner along with the sin.
As Christians, we pray for peace and an end to violence, but what exactly does that mean? We know that one of the things that prayer does is change the heart of the one who prays. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves: when we pray for peace, do we pray to have our own heart changed and enlightened as well as the hearts of those whom we see as the enemy? Do we count ourselves among the sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness or do we set ourselves apart from those whose sins are more visible? Unless our prayer comes from a humble heart, mindful of our own sinfulness, we are at risk for becoming infected with the sin of self-righteousness. And in the process, we wound ourselves.
The German, Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber offers an insightful parable about anger. He asks readers to imagine that while peeling an apple, the knife in your right hand slips and cuts your left hand. The wound is painful and bleeding. So how do you respond? The left hand doesn’t grab the knife and react by cutting the right hand. Such a response would be madness since both hands are part of the same body. The natural response is to stop the bleeding and dress the wound so that healing can occur. It’s a good analogy.
We are all part of the human family created by the same loving God. Jesus came to earth, suffered and died and conquered death for all people. Therefore, whenever anger, whether justified or not leads to violence, the entire human family suffers. As St. Paul so eloquently explained, “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you; or again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” (1Cor. 12:21)
The science of psychology identifies anger as a secondary emotion. The primary emotion is fear, which is why the word “Fear not” appear in Scripture more than any other. Peaceful resistance and non-violent protest have a place, and both require courage, humility and grace. We are all in need of healing and an ongoing change of heart. None of us is perfect and so we need the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
During her many apparitions, our Mother Mary, Queen of Peace, has always imparted the same message. Over and over she asks us to pray. Mary doesn’t take sides nor does she offer solutions. She simply tells us to pray and turn our hearts to her Son, who alone can heal wounds of division that separate rather than unite. However, we all have a role to play. Dialogue and education are important tools that each of us can implement in our own way within the context of our lives. But, first and foremost, let us pray for a change of heart for all so that one day “swords will be hammered into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2: 3-4).
August 14, 2017
“The Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, which is celebrated in the United States on August 15, wasn’t designated a dogma of faith until November 1, 1950.”
Some might ask why if for more than 19 centuries Mary being raised up into heaven body and soul was not part of the deposit of faith, what changed? It’s a legitimate question and the easy answer would be that the Church moves slowly in matters of faith. But research offers a more enlightened perspective, which is that the Church operates within the context of the natural order. Therefore, how and when questions about faith and morals are defined is also prompted by the need for clarification in regard to what the faithful are to believe. Undoubtedly, the Assumption of Mary into heaven is one such doctrine.
In declaring the Assumption of Mary a divinely inspired revelation, Pope Pius XII was speaking “ex-cathedra” (or infallibly “from the chair” in his capacity as universal shepherd of the Church) which elevated the proclamation to the status of a dogma of faith. Despite its recent declaration (less than 70 years), the doctrine had entertained widespread belief from the beginning. As early as the second and third century written works about Mary being raised body and soul into heaven were in existence. The “Transititus Maria” or “The Crossing Over of Mary” was commemorated in the Eastern Church from early on.
There were no witnesses to Mary being raised from the dead, just as there were no witnesses to Jesus being resurrected. Jesus was seen by the apostles as he ascended into heaven, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, but there were no such first-hand accounts about Mary. Since the New Testament is about the life and teachings of Jesus, it is understandable. References about Mary in Scripture are few and are limited to those situations that pertain to the life of Jesus.
Nevertheless, the Church has long held the belief that the “woman clothed in the sun” referenced in Chapter 12 in the Book of Revelations is Mary. The woman is linked to the woman in the Book of Genesis whose seed, God promised, would crush the head of the serpent. Mary, often called the new Eve, countered the curse of the first Eve by her perfect obedience to the will of God, just as Eve had disobeyed God.
There are also references to Mary in the Old Testament. Though the language is veiled, the meaning is undeniable and points to Mary who would be taken up to heaven to be with God. “Arise O Lord into your resting place. You and the ark of your majesty which you have sanctified” (Ps 131; 8). One of Mary’s titles has long been “Ark of the Covenant” for it was her womb that carried the Christ. Before Jesus became present in tabernacles throughout the world, Mary was a living tabernacle. Just as the Israelites carried the Law of God that was given to Moses in the desert, so Mary carried in her body the One who came to fulfill the Law.
In light of so high a privilege, it seems only natural that Mary’s body not suffer decay at the end of her life. The question remains whether or not Mary died or fell into a deep sleep before she was assumed into heaven. Though the term, Dormition is used in regard to Mary’s passing from earthly life, Pope Pius XII stopped short of declaring that Mary did not die. To those who would make the argument that being free of sin, Mary did not experience death, St. John Paul II explained that being free of original sin and its stain is not the same thing as being in a glorified, deathless condition. Jesus was also free of original sin and its stain, but still experienced death.
The early 20th century theologian Ludwig Ott wrote, “For Mary, death was a consequence of her freedom from original sin and from personal sin, not a punishment of sin. It seems fitting that Mary’s body, which was by nature mortal, should be, in conformity with that of her Divine Son, subject to the general law of death.” Numerous theologians at the time concurred with Ott. Before Pope Pius XII declared the assumption of Mary a doctrine, he called for a broad consultation in 1946, inquiring among bishops, clergy and the people of God as to the possibility and opportuneness of defining the bodily assumption of Mary as a dogma of faith. The result was extremely positive: only six answers out of 1,181 showed any reservations about the revealed character of this truth.
So why after so many years is Mary’s assumption into heaven so important? One explanation might be that during the earliest years, Church fathers were occupied with refuting heresies and defining doctrines deemed more important such as the Trinity and the dual natures of Jesus as both human and divine. In more recent times, renewed devotion to Mary following Marian apparitions such as those at Lourdes and Fatima, Mary’s role in salvation history once again came to the forefront of Catholic teaching. This may account for the need to pronounce Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her Assumption into Heaven as doctrines of faith. Mary’s presence in heaven is a prototype for our own resurrection at the end of the age when our bodies will rise from the dead and be reunited with our soul. Not only is Mary the Mother of God, but she is our Mother, and as such she intercedes for us before God.
July 31, 2017
Constant, Yet Evolving
“I listened with interest to a recap of the recent Catholic Leadership Convocation in Orlando…”
…that was held at St. Gregory the Great Church this past week. The evening included witness talks by four people who attended the four day event. Each offered reflections on the various breakout sessions they had attended which addressed the many challenges encountered by today’s Catholics. Subject matter covered a broad spectrum of concerns such as social media, youth ministry, people with disabilities, chastity, ecumenism, and science and religion to name a few.
In response to the growing number of Nones (People who identify as having no religious affiliation), Geriann Wentworth shared insights gleaned from the session she attended. The importance of moving out of our comfort zone and engaging those who identify as spiritual but not religious was a take away imperative for her, but what impressed me most about Geriann’s presentation was her authenticity. Her demeanor served as a reminder that it’s not what we say, but the way we say it that communicates a sense of caring. A non-judgmental approach, sharing our stories, and meeting people where they are can touch hearts in a way that teaching and preaching may never accomplish. Her message concurred with an insight that journalist Arlene Spenceley offered. She noted that one speaker pointed out that Jesus showed the apostles his wounds when they were struggling with disbelief.
During the past days I have reflected on the power behind this insight. There is nothing that turns people off as quickly as someone who comes across as having it all together, ready with a solution to every problem and an answer for every question. The fact is: when we admit our struggles, own our short-comings and recognize our need for healing rather than recounting our proficiencies, we become the children Jesus calls us to be. And no one is able to captivate hearts and minds the way children do. No wonder Jesus said, “Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Needless to say becoming like little children does not mean we are to remain ignorant, a topic that Deacon Bob May from Holy Family Church addressed. As a scientist at the Jefferson Lab in Newport News, Bob was naturally drawn to the breakout session on Science and Faith. As he pointed out, Catholic theology and authentic science have never been at odds. Since truth is the objective of both disciplines, they will eventually converge. The obstacle to this trajectory of course is when ethics and moral laws are transgressed or bypassed as we see happening with so many sanctity of life issues in our current culture. Faith and reason compliment rather than contradict, but too often rationalization is confused with reason and when that happens, objectivity ceases.
Having a father who is hearing impaired led Arlene Spenceley to attend the session on persons with disabilities. The take away word for her was the question “Why” and no, she was not referring to the conundrum about why some people have disabilities and others don’t. She was referencing the fact that with 20 percent of the population having some type of disability, when priests claim they have no one in their parish with disabilities, our first response should be “Why.” The obvious reason is that the parish has done nothing to accommodate them. Why would a deaf person attend Mass when they cannot hear what is being said or sung? Translating hymns and homilies through sign language should be common practice, not an anomaly if we are to be truly inclusive and a welcoming place for all God’s people to worship.
Sometimes it was “chance encounters” that became graced moments for attendees. Deacon Darrel Wentworth from St. Gregory told me later that he met the new Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Officer from the USCCB who shared with him that until Ecumenism is moved from the periphery of Catholic practice, the unity that Christ prayed for will not happen.
Each presenter shared how they were touched, not only by the number of cardinals and bishops who attended the convocation, but by their availability and eagerness to listen to the laity who were there. With so much negative publicity about Catholic hierarchy in the news these days, it is important to remember that the majority are good men, trying to live their vocational mission. While the Catholic Church is a divine institution, it has a human footprint, which accounts for the problems that have wounded and divided the Church over the centuries. And yet, despite the scandals and schisms the Church prevails because the Holy Spirit continues to guide it just as Jesus promised.
We are a Church that continues to evolve and grow in wisdom and grace. It is a mere 2017 years old and in human terms that may seem like an eternity, but in God years, it is but a blink of the eye. Therefore, as we consider the many challenges as well as graces that are part of the Catholic Church, we must remember that each of us are a microcosm of what the Church was, is and is called to become, and as such we are called to do our part. It may not seem like we have much to offer, but if everyone utilizes the gifts they have been given, we will be doing our part in helping to build the Body of Christ one day at a time.
July 17, 2017
Death with Dignity
“The sufferings of the present age are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed in us” (Rom.8; 18).
Though I had heard the words numerous times, they seemed especially poignant this morning while praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Only the day before, I had come across a headline announcing that 111 people in California have died as a result of patient assisted suicide since it became legal in June of 2016. The news brief had a short life span, barely 24 hours and it was gone. And yet, the memory of it continues to linger.
Having worked for several years as a hospice nurse, I have watched many people die, some young, some elderly and yes, some mere children. As heart wrenching as death can be, it is a sacred time – a time to reflect on the fact that the process of dying is as much a part of life as the birthing process. Both involve uncertainty and pain; usher in a new beginning, and are a means to an end. Obviously there are differences. In the case of dying, suffering often lasts longer and embracing the end requires faith.
During his last discourse when Jesus knew that his death was imminent, he drew a comparison with a woman in labor. He reminded his disciples that once the child is born, she no longer remembers the pain. Jesus was trying to console his disciples because he knew they would have to suffer. He also understood that death is not a solitary experience, but that it involves a much larger circle of family and friends. Death, like life, involves community and when that community includes people of faith, a very different perspective takes shape.
I am reminded of a recent conversation with a fellow parishioner whom I see at Mass every day. Her husband was diagnosed with end stage cancer a few weeks ago and he was given only a few months to live. As a result she and her husband made the decision to visit their children and grandchildren while he is still able to travel so that they could spend quality time together during these precious last months. She added that they both considered themselves blessed because they had time to prepare for his death.
Contrast their conversation and decision with that of persons contemplating assisted suicide. California law requires two doctors agree that a patient has six months or less to live before prescribing the drugs. It states that patients must be able to swallow the medication themselves and must affirm in writing, 48 hours before taking the medication, that they will do so. The irony of such a chilling contract, apart from the fact that it disregards the sanctity of life is that it isolates patients during a time when they are most vulnerable and in need of a supportive community. The agreement by patients to administer their own death cocktail stands in sharp contrast with the scenario about the parishioner I described.
The end of life law, which claims to promote death with dignity actually robs a person of the kind of community and family support that dignifies death. When death is viewed as a natural process that will follow its natural course, the dying and family members enter into a process of surrendering their will with Jesus who embraced death when he prayed, “Not my will but Thy will be done.”
It is not my intention to romanticize dying. I recall an incident described by St. Therese of Liseiux who during the last stages of her illness, when her body was racked with pain, noticed that the infirmary nun had left a full bottle of pain medicine at her bedside. She later wrote that the thought had occurred to her that she could take the entire bottle and end her suffering, which led her to caution others to never be so negligent. Since then we have come a long way regarding pain management, but her experience confirms the importance of keeping vigil with those who are dying. I was blessed to be with my mother and mother in-law when they died. Both had been under the watchful eye of hospice nurses and so their suffering was minimized, but it would be foolish of me to suggest that the months leading to their death were free of any suffering.
One of the greatest sources of suffering is the increased dependence on others for basic needs. It is humbling, but it can also be the beginning of a new awareness that we are all one Body in the Body of Christ. When I wash the face, the hands and feet of another, I am washing the face, hands and feet of Christ as well as my own. When I sit at the bedside of one who is dying and allow myself to be suffused with compassion, their pain becomes my pain as a shared reality of suffering takes hold. For me it begs the question: what about those who have no one to wash their face or feel their pain?
This is the real reason patient assisted suicide has become law. Rather than point fingers at others we do well to open our eyes and look within in order to deepen our collective responsibility to the Body of Christ, a body that skin cannot separate. This is the reason we pray for those who are dying, especially those who are alone so they will have the strength to ward off temptation and die a natural death with their eyes fixed on eternity where suffering will be no more.
July 3, 2017
Irony of Ironies
“God surely has a sense of humor.”
The comment is one I have often heard, and have drawn the same conclusion myself from time to time. It usually happens whenever life’s ironies come center stage and the only response is to smile at the seeming incongruities in which we find ourselves and imagine that God is laughing with us. This week I found myself pondering one such situation. I had just returned from Philadelphia where I had facilitated a weekend retreat on the mystics.
Since retreat houses schedule events far in advance of the date, such commitments and topics are usually made months, sometimes a year or more in advance. Therefore, I never know to whom I will be speaking. That in itself is not unusual, but what made me smile in retrospect was that as it turned out: participants on the retreat were primarily members of women’s religious communities along with a few lay associates, secular members and ecclesial lay ministers.
Since the name of the retreat was called “Mountain Climbing with the Mystics,” it seems logical that the topic would draw those who are serious about developing an ever deepening relationship with God. But it was the reciprocal dimension of the graces from a retreat that never fail to touch me in unexpected ways.
As I began the first presentation, I felt a smile rising from deep within as I was struck by the irony of the situation. Early in my life, I had wanted to become a nun and entered religious life with the all the starry-eyed enthusiasm that is befitting one who longs to devote their life to God. But as it turned out, it was not to be. A series of hospitalizations led to the decision that my health was not conducive to religious life. It was after all a foreign missionary order and good health was imperative.
And so it was that my life took a very different turn. Back in the “World” as they say, I became a nurse, married, have a beautiful family and so in many ways I have had the best of both worlds. And yet throughout the years, seeds that were planted during those early formative years continued to grow and form me in ways I could never have imagined. Always in the back of my mind was the desire for union with God which has led me to the wisdom of the mystics. An early spiritual director once told me that not all brides of Christ are called to live in a religious community. Only years later did I understand what he meant.
The call to union with Jesus, the Bridegroom of our soul is a universal call that began at Mount Sinai when God entered into a sacred covenant with the people of Israel. This is what led the Israelites to view every sin as an act of adultery towards God. The Old Testament is rife with descriptions that refer to a marriage covenant between God and humankind. Isaiah wrote: “Your Maker is your husband, the Lord of Hosts.” (Is54;5) Could it be any clearer?
And Jeremiah chastised the Israelites who turned their back on YHWH as guilty of adultery when he wrote, “Thus says the Lord, I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness in a land not your own.” (Jer. 2; 2).
Jesus came as the Bridegroom for all to heal the covenant that had been broken between God and the human race. When all the world was groaning to be set aright, John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as the Bridegroom and Jesus referred to himself as Bridegroom. When the Pharisees were trying to discredit Jesus, they confronted him with the fact that he and his followers did not fast like John the Baptist. “And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the Bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the Bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The day will come when the Bridegroom is taken away from them, and then, they will fast on that day” (Mark 2; 19 -20).
The spiritual marriage is an analogy for a union of wills, and is neither limited by gender nor vocation. It is not an exclusive club, nor does it diminish in any way the gifts of those who consecrate their life to God as celibates and religious men and women.
The indistinguishable fire of human longing for God who alone can satisfy our deepest hunger is what draws souls to enter into a relationship with God so intimate that the only word that describes such a union is marriage. God created us in his own image and likeness and so the call to spiritual union remains at the very center of our being. It is the reason we were created, for Love begets love and we are the recipients of Love’s eternal reach, which draws all things to Itself.
Some may find the analogy of marriage shocking, but Jesus as the eternal Bridegroom invites all to be in union with him and the Father. “If you love me and obey my commands, my Father will love you and we will come and make our home in you.” This is our Baptismal calling. The degree to which we enter into it corresponds with our willingness to seek and surrender to God’s will. It is the journey of a life time, which is why every day is a blessed one.
June 19, 2017
The New Normal
“It’s become the new normal.”
.I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard that phrase used in recent years. It seems it’s become a way of accepting practices that would have been unthinkable at an earlier time. Security checks at airport and entertainment venues, cameras in stores and at intersections, and digital monitoring and no fly lists have become common place. In the name of safety, privacy has become a thing of the past. Still, we can hardly fault practices that are implemented to provide a level of safety, or at least attempt to do so.
Terror attacks, mass murders, and drive-by shootings have created an environment which instructs the public to be alert and notify police when anyone or anything appears suspicious or out of the ordinary. With wars and threats of war, fear mongering, whether justified or not has become a political ploy to garner support from a world that seems to have lost its way. And while I am not advocating that we bury our head in the sand when it comes to danger, it is important to balance such messages, with words from Scripture that tell us over and over not to be afraid.
Jesus’ words: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10-28) stand in sharp contrast to the dictates of our culture and the world at large. Jesus wasn’t recommending a cavalier attitude, suggesting we throw caution and common sense to the wind. Rather, he was counseling his followers to keep a right perspective, keeping in mind that there is more to the human person than our physical well-being.
Unfortunately danger is part of life. Some of it is of our own making and some is beyond our control. Therefore, personal safety is important. After all, when a storm threatened to overturn the boat of the panic-stricken apostles, Jesus reprimanded them for their lack of faith, but he also reached out, calmed the sea and brought them safely to shore.
Prudence demands that we do what we can to remain safe. From seat belts and airbags to body scans and gun control laws, safety measures minimize the potential for bodily harm. But what about harm to the soul? How do we safe guard the spiritual well-being of ourselves and others? The thought occurs to me every time I go to the movies (which is becoming increasingly rare) and have to sit through previews of upcoming films. The level and amount of violence and sex that permeates the screen is shocking. Even though they are not movies that I would go see, I am alarmed by what passes for entertainment in our world, and sadly has also become a new normal. Along those same lines, comedy has likewise reached an all-time low. Comedians hoping to remain in the spotlight continue to cross lines of decency so that bad taste and vulgar innuendo have become another new normal. It is not enough to simply be alarmed; we must be proactive, especially when it comes to protecting the young.
As students begin their summer break and have more leisure time, insuring the spiritual welfare of our children and grandchildren is more important than ever. Minimizing television viewing and monitoring online visits may not make parents, grandparents or baby sitters candidates for a popularity contest. But if we care about the spiritual well–being of those who have been entrusted to our care, we will take precautions to safe guard their souls. Obviously no one wants to be hanging over a child’s shoulder 24/7 so teaching and encouraging healthy choices is important, not only when it comes to food for the body, but for the mind and soul as well.
Summer vacation does not mean a vacation from God or from attending Mass. Incorporating visits to shrines and learning about their origin can be a source of learning and spiritual growth for children and adults alike. When our grandchildren visit this summer, we are planning a trip to Busch Gardens and Historic Williamsburg, but we also plan to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Williamsburg. The chapel, dedicated as a national shrine by Bishop Di Lorenzo in 2016 is a tribute to the shrine by the same name in Norfolk, England that has a rich history dating back to 1032. Visiting the shrine is a wonderful opportunity to learn about Our Lady’s apparition in England which during the middle ages was as famous as Lourdes and Fatima are today.
Should your vacation plans include a trip to Washington, D.C. be sure to include a visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the St. John Paul II Center. Shrines and places of Catholic interest are easy to find online and are ways we can teach young people about our rich Catholic heritage. And if you happen to be traveling over the weekend, Findaparish.com is only a click away. There is no better way to teach children about the importance of attending Sunday liturgy than by making an effort to include God in your vacation plans. Praying the rosary on road trips is another way to incorporate our faith into daily life. And while the practice might meet with raised eye brows and even a few groans initially, after a while it too has a way of becoming a new normal, whether at home or away.
June 5, 2017
Jesus, Judaism and Christianity
As video clips of President Trump praying at the Western Wall made headline news…
…noting that he was the first sitting American president to do so, I was reminded of a lively conversation I had a few years ago with friends who happen to be Jewish rabbis. We had just finished watching a movie together about the Passion of Christ when one complained that Christians tend to forget that Jesus was first and foremost a Jew. Then joining in the good humored exchange another rabbi added, “We gave you a favorite son. You should thank us.”
In retrospect, I think their point was well taken. The fact that it has taken this long for a president to pray at the ancient holy site while visiting Israel seems to add credibility to their observations. Despite our Old Testament roots, I find Christians often fail to appreciate the connection between Jesus, Judaism and Christianity. Rather than inspiring gratitude, our common heritage has too often led to a spirit of animosity. And while we cannot change the past, we can move forward by appreciating the best in what the other has to offer. Rich and striking parallels abound, particularly when it comes to the celebration of our most important feasts.
In my last column, I discussed similarities and distinctions between the Passover Meal and the celebration of the Eucharist, but the chords that bind us do not end there. For instance, 50 days after Easter Christians celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, and 50 days after Passover Jews celebrate the Feast of Weeks (or Shavuot). According to Jewish tradition, the Feast of Weeks is a celebration of the reception of the Torah on Mount Sinai by Moses. The feast symbolizes the harvest of the first fruits. However, the fruits are not viewed as an agricultural harvest, but as a spiritual and moral harvest. Shavuot celebrates the reception by the Israelites of a way of life that not only served as an instruction on how to live, but identified them as the chosen people of God. And it was from that chosen race that Jesus, the Son of God, inherited his human lineage and physical characteristics.
As the self-revelation of God, Jesus became the Way. He was teacher and rabbi who did not do away with the law, but fulfilled the law. Rather than an end, it was the beginning of a new covenant between God and his people. Through the person of Jesus Christ, the long awaited Messiah, the history of the Jews continued to evolve. And we became the beneficiaries of that new covenant.
As the Body of Christ, we are indebted to the Jews for the role they played in the earliest years of our spiritual heritage and formation. But we should also be grateful for their presence among us today. They remind us of our roots, and as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out:
The “family of God” is gradually formed and takes shape during the stages of human history, in keeping with the Father’s plan. In fact, already present in figure at the beginning of the world, this Church was prepared in marvelous fashion in the history of the people of Israel and the old Alliance. (CCC.759)
When Jesus’ mission on earth had ended, it was to his followers, who were Jews that Jesus entrusted his Church. He reminded them that he must return to the Father, and promised to send an advocate. It was the coming of that advocate, whom we call the Holy Spirit, that Christians celebrate during the Feast of Pentecost. But the feast is more than a celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles in the upper room. It is a celebration of the harvesting of the first fruits that have been given to the community we call Church.
On Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments as a help to guide the Israelites to live their lives according to the laws of God. On that first Pentecost in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, the apostles received the Holy Spirit as a guide and in that moment received the first fruit of our inheritance, fruits such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s children are sent to bear fruit in the world, not apart from our Jewish brothers and sisters but side by side.
Perhaps nowhere can we find a better reference to our relationship to the Jews than in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches are also holy. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you a wild olive shoot were grafted in their place to share the rich root, do not boast…but remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. (Roman 11; 16-17)
These are important words to bear in mind, especially in light of Jesus’ words: “By their fruits you will know them” (Matt. 7; 20). May we as the people of God continue to bear good fruit and walk humbly with God with people of every race and nation and creed as was ordained at that first Pentecost.
May 22, 2017
Back to the Future
“During the past week I kept picturing the zany scientist in the film “Back to the Future.”
“Doc,” as he was fondly referred to by Michael J. Fox in the film, had his young protégé bouncing back and forth between the past and the present in order to effect the future. This is exactly what I found myself doing.
During this post-Resurrection season, I have been writing about the Triduum for two separate publications. They will not be in print until March of 2018.
Since publishing houses typically ask for time sensitive articles anywhere from eight months to a full year in advance, this is not unusual, but in the meantime the practice has converted my computer into a sort of time machine.
Every morning during this Easter season, I have been transported back to the Upper Room where the Last Supper was celebrated.
While researching and reflecting on the Passion of Christ, I followed Jesus to Calvary and kept vigil outside the tomb where he was buried.
Then in my mind’s eye, I relived the Easter vigil in triumphant celebration while trying to be mindful of future readers. The challenge has proved enlightening.
The more I juxtaposed events that took place centuries ago with current liturgical practices, the better I understood and appreciated the Jewish roots of the Eucharist.
In a way, it could be said that the Mass itself is an exercise in time travel with rites and language artfully transforming old covenant practices into those of the new covenant.
The Paschal Mystery, which is the centerpiece of the Mass, does not stand alone.
Woven into the very fabric of the celebration are Scripture and ritual action from both the Old and New Testaments. Some threads are obvious, bearing close resemblance to the Passover meal, while others are more subtle.
Words and rituals that were familiar to first century Jews were also radically different.
Some I have only recently discovered while researching the topic.
In his book “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist,” theologian Brant Pitre explains that every Passover meal required four cups of wine.
According to rabbinical tradition, on the eve of Passover the father of the family would pour the first cup of wine ushering in the beginning of the celebration by offering a prayer of praise over the cup.
During the pouring of wine into the second cup, which was called the proclamation cup, the head of the household would tell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.
Next he would explain the meaning of the lamb, the bread, and bitter herbs, all essential foods to be eaten during the Passover meal in remembrance of what God had done for them.
Only after that the third cup of wine was poured and the blessing said would those present begin to partake of the food.
This third cup was known as the blessing cup. It is the cup Jesus used when he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying “This is my Body. Take and eat.”
Then He did the same with the cup of wine with the words “This is the cup of my blood which is being poured out for many. Take and drink.”
The fourth cup was poured and consumed at the end of the meal, followed by the singing of the Hallel (Psalms 115-118) which concluded the Passover meal.
As Brant Pitre points out, this is significant. According to Luke’s gospel, after Jesus transformed his bread and wine into his Body and Blood, he and the disciples left the Upper Room singing hymns.
Rather than bringing the celebration of the Passover meal to a conclusion at the table, Jesus led the group to the Garden of Olives where his passion was about to begin.
The final Passover would be completed not in the Upper Room, but on Calvary where Jesus, the Paschal lamb, would lay down his life.
The First Eucharist was celebrated in anticipation of the sacrifice that would be offered on the cross as an act of communion that would redeem humankind through the death and resurrection of the Son of God.
The Resurrected Lord, no longer bound by the chains of time, became the “Eternal Now” whose sacrifice on Calvary, though completed once and forever, continues to take place in real time where ever the Eucharist is celebrated.
Four cups are no longer needed because Jesus is the cup of our salvation. And yet, as I reflect on the knitting of the Passover meal with the Christian Passover from death to life, the four stages represented by the four Passover cups seem to be reflected in the Liturgy.
The Introductory Rite of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Dismissal rite appear to coincide with the four cups that were part of every Passover meal.
I believe the correlation, though subtle, is significant because every Eucharistic celebration is an act of remembrance.
The celebration reminds us of our roots, even as it anticipates the eternal banquet where we will gather around the banquet table in the New Jerusalem.
And so it is, that when we enter into communion with Jesus, we celebrate not only the present, but the promise that was made in the Garden of Eden, fulfilled on Calvary and is yet to come.
Now that’s cause for celebration!
May 8, 2017
Just Not Equal
“No one ever said life is fair.”
The familiar saying, which has reverberated in my life in a variety of settings has once again found its way to the forefront of my thinking.
The reason has to do with my Monday morning dates during the past school year, not with my husband, but with first grade students with whom I meet for one-on-one tutoring sessions.
The program was designed for students in the Virginia Beach public schools who were struggling academically as a way to help improve their reading and writing skills.
The first graders who were assigned to me were performing far below grade level and while both started at level two, the disparity in their abilities, progress and attention span was decidedly different.
By February one of the students was reading at level 18 while the other was still at level four.
While one student gained proficiency in sounding out words, the other continued to struggle.
By year’s end, both little boys had made their way into my heart, but as I prepare to bid farewell to them, I realize that one is ready to move on to the next grade level while the other might be repeating first grade.
I can’t help but wonder how this might impact his self-esteem, particularly since towards the end of the year the struggling youth would repeatedly inquire what level his little friend had reached.
Although I couldn’t disclose the information, children are quick to notice when they are not on the same level as their peers and he was no exception.
The tendency to compare ourselves to others seems almost instinctive and begins early in life.
In some cases the tendency may be so deeply seated that it becomes problematic, clouding a person’s ability to recognize and appreciate the unique goodness in themselves and others.
I suspect none of us are entirely free of the tendency to draw comparisons, a practice that has both advantages and disadvantages.
So called societal norms function as standards that can inspire, motivate and encourage competition, but they can also lead to envy, resentment or self-deprecation which hinders appreciation for the unique gifts that each person has been given.
With so much emphasis by our culture on productivity and accomplishment, the tendency to evaluate self-worth based on achievement rather than effort is a continual struggle.
It is not unusual to want to rush in and fix that which is not to our liking both in ourselves and in others, especially when it involves challenges and suffering.
This can be a good thing for we are called to work for justice. Yet, it is important to remember that justice is not the same as equality.
Justice is about working to ensure that each person’s rights are respected and that every person has an equal opportunity to become the person they were created to be. However, it does not mean each person will have the same capabilities.
Whenever I struggle with this seeming lack of fairness, I take comfort in a passage from the “Treatise of Love of God” by St. Frances de Sales who wrote:
“It is not helpful to ask why one person is blessed in a particular way. God’s grace is sufficient for each of us. Why are melons bigger than strawberries? Why do lilies grow taller than violets? Why is rosemary not a rose or dianthus not a marigold? Why is a peacock more glamorous than a bat, a fig sweet and a lemon sour? The beauty of the world depends on variety. Differences and what appear to be inequalities are essential and inescapable.”
And so it is that we are called to look beyond that which is outside our ability to control and know there is a reason for things too great for us to understand. This is why meditating on Scripture is such an important part of the Christian journey.
The Gospels are replete with instructions by Jesus to seek the lowest place because in the kingdom of heaven the last shall be first.
But he also said blessed are the poor, those who hunger and thirst and are persecuted.
This was not meant to glorify suffering, but to understand it too is part of life and at times is beyond our control.
During the Easter season we are continually reminded of the close proximity of the cross with the resurrection. Both remind us that earthly achievements are fleeting. They are a means, not an end.
In the Acts of the Apostles we read accounts of the apostles witnessing and preaching in the temple areas, but we also read accounts of them being imprisoned and persecuted for the faith.
Just as there would have been no Easter Sunday without Good Friday, so we can never separate the cross from life as we know it.
Life may not always seem fair, but the end for each of us is yet to be written.
When the next chapter beckons and we come before God at life’s end, the only performance that will matter is our own, and that includes helping others, especially the young, the poor and the stranger in our midst.
Once again Pope Francis offers a beautiful example of what this looks like in the way he embraces the poor and the marginalized, the sick and disabled, friends and enemies, for all are children of God.
And what better way to evangelize than to let others know that they are loved and that their life matters.
April 24, 2017
Jesus, Master of Disguise
There is something about the post resurrection stories that continue to fascinate me.
Perhaps it’s because they reveal a side of Jesus that we weren’t privy to prior to his death.
In the aftermath of his passion and death, Jesus allowed his followers to experience him in a way they hadn’t seen before. Unbeknown to them, Jesus began engaging them in what I like to refer to as a game of hide and seek.
Beginning with the scene at the gravesite, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene as an ordinary gardener.
Only after Mary asked him if he knew where the body of Jesus had been taken, did he reveal himself.
But did you ever stop to consider what would have happened if she had not bothered to question the gardener because he was just an ordinary workman?
And what about the disciples that Jesus encountered on the road to Emmaus?
What if they had not invited Jesus to stay with them because he appeared to be just another traveler?
Had they said goodbye when they reached their destination, they would have missed an opportunity to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
On each occasion, Jesus revealed himself as the risen Lord only after the others engaged him in conversation.
Mary Magdalene was so distraught that she sought help from a gardener. And the disciples who couldn’t stop talking about the events of the past few days shared their dilemma with a stranger.
In both accounts, Jesus revealed himself when they least expected him. Isn’t that often the way he comes to us?
How often when I feel confused, alone or am searching for direction, the Lord speaks to me through a friend, a book or in the quiet of my heart.
And like Jesus in the post resurrection stories, he transforms what seems like a crisis into a moment of grace, but only when he decides the time is right.
It is easy to forget that God is everywhere and that he comes to us within the context of ordinary human encounters.
And like the early disciples, we often fail to recognize him. This is why their stories are also our stories.
When we reflect on our lives, we can often point to times when we realize that the reason we were able to survive this or that crisis, disappointment or challenge is because Jesus had been there all along.
Like Mary Magdalene and the disciples, we might not have felt his presence or recognized his face, but he was there.
And sooner or later if we take the time to consider subtle ways he has broken into our lives, our hearts overflow with wonder and gratitude.
But since Jesus rarely reveals himself in the way we expect to find him, we are called to trust that at just the right moment when our hearts are ready, he will appear and we will know that God is in our midst.
As a Master of Disguise, Jesus may reveal himself dressed as a street person who blesses us for a donation, as a sunset so radiant that it takes our breath away or in the words of encouragement from a friend just when we are most in need of them.
Jesus may come to us when we are driving a family member to and from the doctor’s office, in the melody of a song bird that awakens us to a new day, or as an unexpected emergency that seemingly spoils our well thought out plans.
We never know when or where Jesus will reveal himself, and often we only recognize him in retrospect.
Like the poem about the footprints in the sand, Jesus carries us when we don’t have the strength to take the next step on our own.
He comes disguised so as not to impede our free will because Jesus never forces himself upon us.
He is neither an appendage to life nor a magician who we can call upon to make our struggles disappear.
He is an integral part of every moment, and our role as disciples is to discover him in the here and now so that we can make his presence known to others.
Note that in the post resurrection stories, there are no accounts of Jesus performing miracles for others, because he wanted his followers to understand that he is the miracle.
He is the reason we are called to trust that he is with us, hiding in plain sight, helping us to see life through the eyes of faith.
His patient presence prepares us so that we can do our part to engage him in our lives.
We need to be vigilant and not simply take things at face value.
If we really believe that the Kingdom of God is in our midst, then we will see beyond the disguise and recognize the Master in our post resurrection story.
When Jesus was on earth, he told us that the Kingdom of God is at hand, but he also told us that it is coming . . and so it is.
The resurrection story was not a once and done event but is ongoing.
We are reminded of this with every sunrise and in the cry of every newborn baby and most especially in the lives of ordinary people who recognize Jesus not only in the breaking of the bread, but in the breaking and transforming of their heart.
April 10, 2017
From Passover to Easter
This year the feast of Passover begins…
…on Monday of Holy Week.
It stands not only as a poignant reminder that our faith is rooted in the Jewish tradition, but that Jesus the Paschal Lamb brought to fruition the message of Moses that God would free his people.
The Israelites were instructed to smear the blood of the lamb over the portal of their doors as they prepared to eat that first Passover meal.
The blood was to serve as a sign for the angel of death to pass over their household and spare their sons, unlike the first born sons of the Egyptians.
It was the event that marked the beginning of the Israelites’ journey from exile to freedom that continues to be memorialized to this day.
The Book of Exodus tells us that when Pharaoh at last freed the Jews, they left the land where they had been enslaved for 400 years singing for joy.
But their joy was short-lived. It didn’t take long for the grumbling to set in.
Fear and anxiety led them to place their trust in a golden calf and as a result they wandered for 40 years in a desert that could have been crossed in less than two weeks.
The story of the Israelites of old is a pithy story that reflects the journey from exile to return that is part of the spiritual life.
The human tendency to make ourselves a god is as old as the story of Adam and Eve and continues to be our story. We see shades of this throughout human history, but nowhere is it played out more dramatically than during the Holy Week liturgies.
On Palm Sunday we remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
The irony that the man who was hailed King of the Jews would enter the city riding on the colt of an ass bears witness to the paradoxical nature of the events that were about to unfold within the coming days.
In fact it took less than five days for cries of “Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” to be drowned in a sea of cries to “Crucify him, crucify him,” thereby setting into motion the death of the Son of God.
During his last discourse, Jesus tried to prepare his followers for the events that were about to take place, but they seemingly fell on deaf ears.
And yet, we can hardly blame them. After all Jesus spoke in veiled language and only after the coming of the Spirit did his followers begin to understand that “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Instead he emptied himself and took the form of a slave.”
During the holiest week in the Church’s calendar, Christians around the world reflect on the image of Jesus, the God man who took upon himself the sins of humankind.
Only God who created us in his own image and likeness could remedy the death that we brought upon ourselves.
And so it happened that the Father sent his Son into the world to die for people who “know not what they do.”
The words of forgiveness that Jesus uttered from the cross are not only an injunction that we must follow his willingness to forgive, but they serve as an invitation for us to open our minds to the horror of sin so that we will come to know and repent for our role in the events that took place more than 2,000 years ago.
It is impossible for us to fully comprehend the depth of love that is contained in the death of the Lord and so it should come as no surprise that as we move through Holy Week, the events pose more questions than answers.
When Jews celebrate the Passover meal, the youngest child voices the question: “Father, why is this night different from every other night?”
The question is followed by a retelling of the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
As Christians who stand at the precipice of Holy Week, we might pose a similar question. “Why is this week different from every other week?”
In response to the question, the Church retells the story of our exodus from death to life through the sacred liturgies of the Triduum.
We follow Jesus as he passes from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem to his shameful exodus from that same city on Good Friday. It stands not only as an indictment against earthly glory, but as an invitation to carry the crosses of life with the same silent dignity with which Jesus carried his.
We need the events of Holy Week to be played out because like the Israelites who lost sight of the joy they experienced when they left Egypt, we often lose sight of the magnitude of the miracle that takes place when bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus.
We need the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection to be played out every year so that we will never forget why our Passover is unlike any other Passover, our exodus unlike any other exodus.
And because it is unlike any other.
During every Eucharist we remember and celebrate that God loved us to his death, is with us here and will accompany us when we finally pass from this life to the new life that awaits us in the next.
March 27, 2017
My Lenten Christmas Cactus
I am sitting here at my desk…
…staring at the Christmas cactus on my prayer table which I bought two weeks into Advent. At the time it was covered with buds and I had expected it to be in full bloom by the time Christmas arrived, but that was not to be.
Day after day I stood by helplessly as I witnessed every bud on the plant wither and fall to the ground. I thought I had purchased a dud. However, rather than throw it out, I repotted it and continued to nurture it, making sure it was placed by a window that provided direct sunlight.
The result was that by Ash Wednesday, tiny buds began appearing at the end of each leaf. Throughout Lent, the buds have been growing larger and larger and from the way it looks now, my Christmas cactus should be in full bloom by Easter. The fact that the flowers are lily white makes everything about it point to the resurrection story.
As I view my plant in light of its history, it serves as a reminder that life doesn’t always turn out the way we expect it will. Parents are known to bury their children, a young man with a promising future is diagnosed with a life threatening or chronic illness, a faithful employee is passed over for a promotion, and couples who began life filled with hope end up divorcing.
As much as we hate to admit it, suffering is part of life, but when we view it through the lenses of faith, the cross never has the final word. The problem is that when we are in the throes of disappointment, all we notice are the buds that are withering and dying in the very place where we expected flowers to bloom.
This might explain why after Jesus told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die three times, they still clung to the illusion that he and they would be heading for glory.
The fact is: Jesus was and so were they, but not in the way that they had expected. The disciples did not understand that the cross must precede Jesus’ glory, and because they failed to understand this simple truth, they ran away when the storm clouds gathered.
St. Paul called the cross a folly for Greeks and a stumbling blocks for Jews, but we who profess to be Christians should have a different understanding. In theory, I suspect most of us do. But the real test comes when the cross intersects our lives, hijacks our well thought out plans and seemingly throws us a curve ball.
And this is where my Christmas cactus offers a lesson —benign though it may be. Had I thrown it out after it looked as if it was a dud, I would never have experienced the wonder of seeing it bloom out of season. Life, like the cactus that disappointed during Christmas, needs to be nurtured, even in and especially during its darkest hours.
Still, letting go of preconceived notions and expectations is never easy. When everything we thought would happen gets uprooted, it often seems unfair and makes no sense. At such times we need another perspective, not so different from what my little cactus experienced when I transplanted it into a larger container.
While I was uprooting it from the pot that it came in, I wasn’t sure if it could withstand the trauma. But over time I realized that it only needed more time and room to grow. The roots were being stifled, but once they were placed in a new environment, the roots could expand and become the plant it was meant to be all along. Albeit, according to a different timetable.
Locating it to a place where it experienced direct sunlight several hours every day made a huge difference. And so it is with us. When we place ourselves in the direct light of the Son, we find reassurance even during the bleakest of times.
Jesus told us that if we have faith, we can move mountains. When I reflected on these words, I would often wonder why the mountains in my life did not move. Then one day I realized that it may not be my faith that is lacking as much as my sight. When I fail to look at life through a Kingdom perspective, I become short sighted. Perhaps this is why the Gospels are replete with stories of Jesus curing the blind. Like Bartemeus who cried out, “Lord that I may see,” we need to make sure we are standing in the light of Christ. Then and only then will our faith bloom like a cactus in the desert or like my Christmas cactus during Lent.
It is said that into every life a little rain must fall, but sometimes and for some people, rain seems to come in the form of a torrential downpour that washes away hopes and dreams that had beckoned at an earlier time. But when we stand at the foot of the cross, we need to understand that Easter is just around the corner, and we can only get there by means of the crucifixion.
My Christmas cactus has been preparing for Easter throughout the season of Lent. Unbeknown to me, and unseen by the human eye, that which appeared dead has not only come back to life but promises to be quite glorious in another couple of weeks. Therefore, as we continue our Lenten journey may we hold fast to the glory of what is to come, so that we too will bloom on that glorious day.
March 13, 2017
Let it go
We gathered in Florida for the weekend—three generations of the Hughes girls.
The occasion was granddaughter Callie’s Confirmation.
It was a full weekend where cousins who don’t get to see each other on a regular basis had a chance to play together and, as eventually happens, sing.
Returning from my morning walk, I heard strains from the Disney movie “Frozen” greeting me before I even reached the front door.
Anyone familiar with the movie will recognize the familiar lyrics “Let it go, let it go” from the song with the same title.
Over the months, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched the movie with our two-year-old granddaughter, but I was somewhat surprised to hear teenagers opining the same lyrics.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, Queen Elsa sings the song when at last she seeks refuge in a self-perpetuated land of ice and snow releasing the full weight of her magical powers that turns everything she touches to ice.
After years of having to restrain her powers by avoiding contact with others, she escapes and finally is able to “Let it go.”
When Elsa’s sister Anna eventually finds her, she is accidently turned to ice, and the only thing that can save her is a kiss from someone who truly loves her.
But unlike most fairytales, the kiss comes not from Prince Charming, but from her sister Elsa.
It is the love between the two sisters that melts Anna and true to Disney style, they all live happily ever after.
It should come as no surprise that the story and the music have captured the hearts of little and not so little girls around the globe.
The power of love to melt hearts is the theme of the movie. And while the initial power of turning everything to ice was viewed as a curse, the final scene shows the entire town skating on an ice rink that Elsa created. Alas, Queen Elsa is able to contain her power and use it for good.
I find there are comparisons that can be drawn with real life. It reminds me that it is often fear that forces us to hold in the gifts we have been given.
Rather than allowing love to transform our thinking, we focus on the negative and in the process we either stifle what has been given to transform the world or we unleash the power by condemning others.
In the movie, love between the sisters conveys a kind of innocence, a selfless unknowing that moves Queen Elsa to embrace her sister, not knowing that the embrace would bring her little sister back to life.
Motivated simply by love, Elsa reached out to her sister in her wounded condition and both are transformed in the process.
It is the story of reconciliation, especially reconciliation between family members.
When St. Mother Teresa was asked how to bring peace to the world, she told those who posed the question “Go home and love your families.”
Some might call her response overly simplistic, but it conveys the understanding that peace begins with each person and with members of their family.
It poses the obvious question: how can we claim to love our neighbor if we cannot love our brothers and sisters, parents and extended family members?
During the presidential campaign, I lost count of the number of people who told me that their adult children refused to speak to one another because of divergent political views. It is but one example of how easily pride can become an obstacle to relationships.
When the need to be right or perhaps self-righteous replaces the commandment to love, we are like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who refused to go into the banquet hall to celebrate his brother’s return.
No one wants to be left on the outside of the banquet hall, and yet old wounds and injuries often prevent family members from asking and granting forgiveness.
Refusing to let go of all that keeps them from being the best version of themselves, keeps them on the outside looking in.
No difference should ever be more important than the people with whom we disagree, which is why Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
As I watched our granddaughters with microphones in hand, and a little help from the karaoke machine, belt out the words to Disney tunes, I thought how easily cousins who are separated by miles can enjoy the pleasure of one another’s company with no memory of past squabbles.
No wonder Jesus told adults that unless we become like little children, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
The season of Lent is traditionally a time for reconciliation, but before we go to the Sacrament, we might also reflect on the words of Jesus who said, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and remember that your brother has anything against you, go reconcile and then bring your gift.”
More than platitudes, these are words we have been given for us to live by. They were given to set us free.
And so as we journey towards Holy Week, we do well to reflect on the areas in our life that keep us in bondage to sin, and ask to be forgiven.
Then when we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, with the help of God’s grace, we too can experience the peace that comes when we “Let it go.”
February 27, 2017
Arise from Your Slumber
As we stand at the threshold…
…of another Lenten season, it helps to consider Lent within the context of the liturgical calendar.
For several weeks we have been journeying in Ordinary Time.
Unfortunately, the very word ordinary can seem routine, ho-hum, even boring.
It certainly lacks the luster of other seasons, and as products – or should I say victims – of a culture that seems to require constant stimulation, the temptation to grow complacent during Ordinary Time can take hold.
Therefore, if you have settled in a bit too comfortably, perhaps even found yourself stifling a yawn or two, then take heart because we are about to be aroused from our slumber.
The season of Lent is upon us and it truly is a time of re-awakening.
Even nature seems to herald the sound of new life. Birds are busy building nests, buds are sprouting on trees that only last week were dormant, and lawns are being transformed from drab to green.
All around us, nature’s symphony is preparing for its annual crescendo of color.
So with all this new life around us, how do we explain the annual Ash Wednesday ritual?
Amid signs of re-birth, Christians around the world will once again step forward to receive on their forehead a reminder they will return to dust.
The fact is Lent is a bit like waking up in the middle of a love story. Somewhere between the Epiphany and Lent Jesus grew to manhood.
In recent weeks Liturgical readings took us from Jesus’ Baptism to his public ministry at near lightning speed amid stories of miraculous healings that became weekly events.
However, in the event that we were less than attentive, the Church takes us back to where it all began, which was with Jesus’ entry into the desert where he faced temptation following his baptism.
Once again we are reminded of the hallmarks of Lent. And although the Church places prayer, fasting and almsgiving on center stage, Jesus reminds us that we are to practice them in secret.
No one likes a boastful person, and it seems neither does God.
Nor are we being asked to simply multiply the number of prayers we say. Not only does Jesus tell us we are to go to our inner room and close the door when we pray, but we are not to ramble on as if it was quantity rather than the quality of our prayer that matters.
St. John Damascene defined prayer as “offering our heart to God.” Now it seems to me that when we offer our heart to God, the first thing we notice is that our heart is rather tainted.
Those thoughtless, unkind words that have a way of making their way to our lips are all of a sudden not so inconsequential.
In fact they reawaken in us the need to fast, not so much from food and drink, but from thoughts, words, and actions that hurt the Body of Christ.
The story is told of a spiritual seeker who told a desert father that when he was tempted to speak ill of another, he bit his tongue until it bled.
To which the desert father responded that only when blood came before he bit his tongue can he know that he has mastered the sin.
The moral of the story, of course, is that sometimes saying nothing is more painful and requires greater self-discipline than being self-righteous or having the last word when opinions differ.
Fasting and acts of self-mortification should be seen as a means and not as an end in themselves.
There is nothing spiritually efficacious about skipping a meal or giving up sweets. Dieters do the same.
However, when we choose to fast as a way to enter into the suffering of others, we become one with the poor and the sick, refugees, victims of war and many more.
Fasting also reminds us of our own emptiness, which can only be filled by God.
When Jesus was tempted in the desert, he admonished Satan by proclaiming, “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Scripture is manna for the soul and in order to be faithful in good times and in bad, we need food for the journey.
It does little good to fast unless we have first feasted on the Word of God.
We might begin by reflecting on the words of Psalm 81: “I am the Lord your God. . . Open wide your mouth and I will fill it. . . I would feed you with finest wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” When we have been filled by the Lord, our heart overflows with gratitude.
When we partake of the bread from heaven and drink from the cup of his blood, the fruits of that heavenly banquet naturally spill over into our daily life.
It should follow then that we will be a bit kinder and more inclined to help others, whose needs we begin to see as our own.
These forty days of Lent invite us to journey with Jesus towards the climax of the greatest love story ever told.
With so much to ponder and pray over, we need to be awake.
Therefore, let us arise from our slumber and eagerly greet the season of Lent, for the day of our salvation is at hand.
February 13, 2017
Happy St. Valentine’s Day
Depending on a person’s age…
…and personal circumstances, Valentine’s Day means different things to different people.
And it can trigger a plethora of responses.
For elementary school children it means exchanging valentines with classmates, maybe even a small party with cupcakes.
If you happen to be a teenager or young adult without a date, February 14 looms overhead like a storm cloud threatening to ruin your life, especially if you have to listen to friends and co-workers gush with feigned surprise when flowers arrive.
Shouldn’t there be a law against such deliveries at work or in school?
On the other hand, jewelers and candy makers welcome the day, which they view through lenses of green, especially when husbands and soon-to-be-husbands scramble to make up for missteps during the past year.
And then there is the mother to whom often falls the task of soothing hearts aching with disappointment in the absence of a boyfriend, perhaps even hiding her own disappointment because her husband forgot that it was Valentine’s Day. Knowing the way to a child’’s and a man’s heart is through their stomach, for Mom Valentine’s Day means planning and preparing a special meal or dessert as her way of letting her family know they will always have her heart.
Okay, so I’m a little biased towards moms, but as the mother of five children, I can speak from experience.
Sorry, Mike, but even the best husbands forget Valentine’s Day every now and then.
Actually, heartaches may actually be more in keeping with Valentine’s Day than we realize. A perfect example is Cupid who aims arrows, not flowers at hearts he is targeting.
And then, of course, there is St. Valentine, a priest who was beheaded because he was marrying two Christians according to the Christian rite in direct violation of Roman law.
While Valentine’s Day can be a day to celebrate love, we can never forget that sooner or later real love involves pain.
It is what distinguishes love from romance, which is all about feeling good.
Authentic love requires sacrifice and commitment in good times and in bad. Given the culture of divorce in our country, we need reminders like this more than we need a box of candy.
This makes Valentine’s Day the perfect day to reflect on John 3:16– “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”
And so I ask: Can anyone look at a crucifix and not understand what true love entails?
The Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary have a special place in Catholic tradition and bear thoughtful reflection on this occasion as well.
The Heart of Jesus is always pictured inflamed with love.
Often it is encircled by a crown of thorns, representative of the ignominy Jesus suffered during his passion.
The piercing of Jesus’ heart is a physical manifestation of the piercing of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who is pictured with a sword passing through her heart.
Prophesied by Simeon when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple, her heart felt her son’s pain as she knelt at the foot of the cross.
For Catholics, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary are emblematic of love, and have inspired devotion through the years.
Some might ask that if this is what real love feels like, why would anyone want it?
It’s a natural response. But when we look at love through the lenses of faith, we understand that because God loved us enough to offer up his only Son. The price of our salvation has already been paid.
We will never have to endure what Jesus did. Yes, suffering will always be part of life, and countless martyrs like St. Valentine have been called to heroic witness.
However, for most Christians, love takes the form of everyday acts of kindness.
It might mean exchanging tickets to a football game for a night at the symphony, filling the car with gas on a cold blustery evening so your spouse won’t have to do it in the morning. It might be taking a turn sitting with a sick child so your spouse can catch a few hours of sleep.
When compared with what some have suffered, such examples seem paltry, and yet those small acts of kindness, when added up, are the crown jewels of authentic love.
As simple as such acts seem, the human tendency to put ourselves and our comfort first will always tempt us to look the other way, missing opportunities to reach out and make God’s love real.
I recently read that Thomas Aquinas defined sloth as sadness about doing a task that is difficult.
That definition alone could be food for a whole other column. But it also makes me wonder how often I take the easy way out rather than do an act of kindness that could lift the spirit of another as well as my own.
Or the times when I am simply oblivious to the needs of others.
In retrospect, Valentine’s Day may not be such a bad idea after all.
It reminds us that acts of kindness and love come in many ways.
A box of candy, a paper heart or an invitation to share a meal can remind others that they are loved, especially when the act is done with love for the sake of Love, who died so we might live.
January 30, 2017
United We Stand
As I write this column I am watching…
…the protests in Washington, D.C. following the inauguration ceremony of President Donald J. Trump.
While the major mood of the inauguration was celebratory during the transfer of power, no one can discount the divisive political rhetoric that has been going on for years.
Perpetrated by people on both sides of the aisle, the division was exacerbated by the 50-plus Congressional leaders who boycotted the ceremony.
Despite this as a backdrop, I remain hopeful, particularly as I reflect on the Ecumenical Prayer Service that was held recently at St. Gregory the Great Church in Virginia Beach marking the 50th Anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Speakers represented four Christian traditions.
St. Gregory the Great Church in Virginia Beach hosted a prayer service entitled “Unity in Diversity” Jan. 19 to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. St. Gregory’s had invited ministers from three other Christian denominations in Virginia Beach to speak on various topics. Parishioners from various Christian denominations in the Tidewater area attended and joined in prayer and song in celebration of the event which was observed throughout the United States. From left are Father John Manuel, of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church; Rev. Dr. Dale Coulter, Church of God and associate dean of the School of Divinity at Regent University; Deacon Darrell Wentworth of St. Gregory the Great, and Rev. Dr. Mark Cartledge, ordained a priest of the Church of England and faculty member of Regent University. A reception with fellowship followed the prayer service.
Rev. John Manuel, a priest from the Greek Orthodox Church, talked about the importance of focusing on the truths which Christians share in common.
Rev. Mark Cartledge, from the Church of England, whose talk was entitled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” traced the high and low points of the years following the Reformation, emphasizing how we have at last learned to work together rather than attack one another.
Rev. Dr. Dale Coulter, Pentecostal Minister of the Church of God, shared how talking about his beliefs with people of other faith traditions helps him better understand his own faith identity.
Deacon Darrell Wentworth from St. Gregory the Great Church talked about how a cloud of witnesses are needed to model Christian values to a secular world, especially when it comes to marriage and family life.
He reminded us that when Christians stand together their voice is heard and we can affect change within our culture.
At the closing of the prayer service, all four clergymen blessed those who had gathered to pray for and in support of Christian unity.
The prayer service at St. Gregory the Great was the first of what hopefully will be an annual tradition, but lest we become too self-congratulatory, I have to remind myself that the Protestant Reformation took place over 500 years ago, not to mention the Great Schism between the Churches of the East and West which dates back to the twelfth century.
For so many centuries, religion divided Christians, but thankfully the Second Vatican Council put much of that to rest. With the help of the Holy Spirit we have been able to set aside our pride and reach across aisles that have divided the people of God for far too many centuries.
The document, Nostra Aetate which came out of the Second Vatican Council, not only opened minds, but doors as well.
Until then, Catholics who attended weddings or funerals of family members when held in other Christian traditions were told they had sinned. How many tears were shed over such rulings we will never know.
But the Holy Spirit always has the last word and so we are finally able to call fellow Christians our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Admittedly, progress has been slow. We have been at it for 50 years now, but we are finally talking with one another, praying together and focusing on common beliefs.
More importantly, we have stopped demonizing one another in the name of religion.
Building bridges is never easy because it requires focusing on the good we see in the other rather than the speck in their eye.
But most importantly it requires humility, a virtue that many saints have claimed is the first rung on the ladder to holiness, but the hardest to live.
We have only to look at our world today with all the wars and conflicts to understand how difficult it is to reconcile differences. This is the reason we come together to pray.
We know we cannot do it alone and only with the help of God’s grace can healings of such magnitude take place.
While we could easily give into despair, committed people and events like the one last evening at St. Gregory’s remind us that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
One of these people is Pope Francis.
The theme for the 50th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was “Christ’s love compels us,” taken from his encyclical “Joy of the Gospel” in which he quotes St. Paul:
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Cor. 5; 14-15)
We are blessed in this country to enjoy religious freedom. Prayer is part of every inaugural ceremony, with people from several Christian denominations and a Jewish Rabbi offering prayers for our country and for the newly elected leaders.
Not all nations are so fortunate. In fact, as was mentioned last evening, more Christians have been persecuted for their faith in this century than ever before, including during the earliest years of Christianity.
We remain one nation under God, and as people of faith we need to bear witness to our belief, and we do that best when we stand united.
This does not mean that we ignore differences, but that we take seriously the mission to work for unity that one day we may realize Jesus’ words “that all may be one.”
January 16, 2017
While shopping for storage containers…
…with one of our daughters, I learned that January was organization month.
That might explain the overabundance of plastic bins of every size and shape filling the aisles in big box stores after Christmas.
And while the notion of organizing closets, pantries and drawers may simply be one more marketing ploy by the retail industry, it does provide an incentive to clean closets, pare down and simplify, which is especially appealing after the holidays when over-abundance seems to be the operative word.
The fact is most of us could do with a whole lot less. I am reminded of this every year when I take down the Christmas decorations.
As much as I enjoy seeing our home aglow with tree lights, holly and wreaths, I find that when the decorations come down and are neatly tucked away for another year, the entire space seems cleaner and more orderly, helping me to appreciate once again that less can be more.
Whenever I think about less being more, I am reminded of St. Francis of Assisi. When one of his friars was making the case for the friars to own a Bible, St. Francis countered with the argument that if they have a Bible, they will need a table or some place to put it.
If they wanted to read at night, they would need a candle, which means they would have to own a candlestick.
And if the candlestick was valuable, someone might try to steal it and then they would have to defend it and they would no longer be free to be simple friars.
The saint’s almost comical approach to poverty may seem extreme, and obviously through the centuries Franciscans have made adjustments to the saint’s rigorous approach to the vow of poverty.
However, one can hardly deny the tendency that St. Francis was trying to address, which is that owning one thing leads to another and another and another.
If you’ve ever replaced an old piece of furniture with a new one, you probably noticed that everything around it all of a sudden seems dated and before you know it you are planning your next purchase.
If home decorating is not your Achilles heel you might consider whether buying a new dress automatically leads to “needing” a new pair of shoes.
The other day I watched a fellow shopper admire a vase and as she did so she turned to me and said, “I need this like a hole in my head.” Then she smiled, said “Oh well” and proceeded to put the vase into her cart.
But women aren’t the only ones who fall prey to consumerism. Consider the big screen TV that has become a must have when guys gather to watch football.
At one time or another, I suspect we have all rationalized purchasing things that we really don’t need, which is why reminders about embracing a more simple life can be helpful.
In a pamphlet entitled “Embracing Simplicity,” Donna Schafer suggests that when we are tempted to buy more and more, we should try countering the impulse by saying “I need less” and “I have plenty.”
To that I would recommend adding a prayer of thanksgiving for what we have and consider what we can do for those who truly are needy.
That may be incentive enough for some to get to work cleaning closets, donating what is no longer needed or worn and then standing back and admiring the neat and tidy space that has just been created.
It’s amazing how such a small act can generate genuine feelings of satisfaction.
When we deliberately choose simplicity we are turning up the volume on our inner voice, the one that re-orders our priorities.
Rather than seeking enjoyment in material things, we become more sensitive to the quiet beauty that surrounds us.
In the absence of external clutter our mind is able to breathe and appreciate little things like quiet moments, curling up with a good book or watching a squirrel scamper up a tree.
Rather than having the external world control us, simplicity allows us to be guided by our inner voice and in so doing we are able to better manage our lives and our time accordingly.
Embracing simplicity is not just about simplifying a physical space, but about simplifying schedules to make time for prayer.
It may require re-organizing our day, but if we are sincere we will find a time, commit to it and allow it to become a habit.
A wise spiritual guide once said “If you are too busy to pray, you are too busy,” which is another way of inviting busy people to re-evaluate priorities.
If our relationship with God is important, we will make prayer a priority.
A dedicated space can help. It can be as small as a quiet corner with a chair and a table.
On the table you might place a Bible, perhaps a religious picture and a candle to set the stage for your daily encounter with God.
It sounds simple and it is. The difficult part is remaining faithful to the practice.
But for those who do, that corner and that time of day will become a favorite space, and a precious time, from which every other moment and activity can and will flow.
And when that happens embracing simplicity becomes as natural as breathing the air around us.
January 2, 2017
The Gift of the Magi
Who were the Magi?
No Christmas creche would be complete without figures of the three kings, and yet Scripture suggests that Jesus could have been several months, even a year old by the time they arrived.
Although their visitation is recorded only in the Gospel of Matthew, they are part of the infancy narrative and with good reason.
The biblical account of the adoration by the Magi represents three important theological truths: (1) Jesus was the promised Messiah, (2) His kingdom was a threat to the reigning king, who was Herod and (3) His coming was a source of joy and a light to the nations.
Just how the three men happened to set out on their journey is less clear. In the absence of precise information, questions and legends abound.
Who were they?
What was their country of origin and why were they looking to the heavens for a sign?
Glimpses to the answers to some of these questions are offered by historians and theologians who view the visitation of the Magi within a historical context and through a wider cultural lens than is offered by the traditional nativity scene.
The fact that these travelers have been referred to as Magi leads some to believe that they came from the Persia, since the word magi in the Persian language is the equivalent of philosophers.
This also explains why they are referred to as wise men in some translations.
The New American Bible calls them astrologers and while their country or countries of origin is unknown, some scholars speculate they may have come from Babylon since many in Babylon were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures due to the years the Jews were in exile during the Babylonian captivity.
One legend has it that a group of learned men met regularly to discuss the Hebrew Scriptures and the foretelling of the coming of the King of Judah. According to this golden legend, during one such gathering while looking up at the heavens, the men saw a star in the shape of a child. This was the impetus for their journey.
Others believe they came from Iraq or Turkey, which would mean they traveled between 800 and 900 miles to see the King of the Jews.
The conjecture that one was from Africa didn’t come about until centuries later when one of the men was depicted by an artist as having black skin. This gave rise to the notion that each came from a different land and somewhere met along the way as their paths and quest converged.
Another theory offered is that they represent the three sons of Noah who were dispersed after the flood.
However, less important than from where they came is the faith, hope and humility that compelled these men of considerable stature to embark on a journey into the unknown to worship and pay tribute to a newborn babe in a foreign land.
As we look at our world today, the lessons that we can take from this Scripture account are more relevant than ever.
We are all wayfarers on the journey who are seeking God, not only in the Christmas manger but in the people in our lives, and yes, even in the stranger and in people who live in foreign lands.
The journey of the Magi represents nations outside the chosen people of Israel and speaks volumes to us about the inclusivity of the Kingdom of God.
The Magi fell on their knees because they recognized the Christ which begs the question: would they recognize the Christ in me?
Whether the Magi came from Babylon, Iran or Africa is irrelevant.
Inhabitants from these countries were considered pagans and unbelievers by the Jewish people, and yet it was these outsiders who recognized the arrival of the promised one, while the chosen people remained in darkness.
The commemoration of the visitation of the Magi is named the Feast of the Epiphany, which means gift.
But for too long and for too many, the focus of the word gift has been on the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the wise men presented to the Christ child.
However, the real gift that we celebrate on this feast is the gift that the Christ Child is to people of every nation, color and creed.
The Feast of the Epiphany is anathema to the spirit of nationalism that seems to be gripping our country.
It cries out against building walls and turning a blind eye to the plight of innocent victims of war, many of them children.
Pictures of three- and four-year-old children that go viral in minutes must do more than evoke feelings of pity. Unless tears shed for them are supported by real action, we are no different from Jesus’ neighbors, good Jews who did not recognize the long awaited King in their midst because he was poor, homeless, imprisoned by hatred and ignorance and rejected by the powerful.
As the Christmas season draws to a close, let us take time to reflect on the Christ in our communities and in the faces we come to know only through the media.
Let us take ownership of the ways we are called to be a gift to them so that like the Magi of old, they will recognize the Christ who said: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, homeless and you welcomed me. . .”
Well, we know the rest, but it is not enough to know the words. And while no one person can do everything, we can all do something because it is in doing that we will become a light to the nations.