Angels

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This is the time of the year when the angels come out. They come out of storage boxes and craft tubs and ornament bins. And if you need more, they’re on sale everywhere you look. It’s the season of angels because angels are so closely associated with Christmas. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary at the Annunciation and told her of God’s plan for the birth of our Savior. Another angel visited St. Joseph in a dream to reassure him about Mary’s pregnancy and their upcoming marriage. And of course on the night of Jesus’ birth, the skies were filled with angels who sang and celebrated the coming of Emmanuel and told the shepherds of the newborn in the manger. It’s no wonder that when we think of Christmas, we think of angels.

But how accurate is our imagination? Are angels really those sweet, blonde-haired frilly-dressed young women with feathery wings that we set on our mantels or place on our Christmas trees? Uh. No. Angels are pure spirit and have no physical bodies. They are neither male nor female. They aren’t like us. Most of our ideas of angels come from religious art over the centuries. Because they’re so different from us, artists have had to use familiar ideas and themes to depict angels. How do you paint a pure spirit? The word “angel” means “messenger” and in Scripture angels deliver messages to us from God. So artists have shown them with wings. Often, angels would tell folks to not be afraid of them. This is understandable if an other-worldly being suddenly appears in front of you saying that they have a message for you from God Almighty. So artists have often “tamed” angels to be more human in size and dress. They were often depicted as glowing heavenly light and having haloes. It was the Victorian era that really sapped the power out of angels, giving us the soft, feminized angels we see in modern culture. Too bad for us, because angels are so much more than that.

Catholics believe that each one of us has a guardian angel who was given to us by God before we were born. They remain at our sides throughout our lives and accompany us at the time of our death. They’re with us for protection and for guidance, but we have to ask them to help us. Like God, the angels respect our free will and they won’t force themselves on us if we don’t invite them. Each angel is a unique individual with great intelligence and free will of their own. Angels are immortal and powerful beyond our imagining. We don’t worship the angels or see them as some kind of “junior” God. We ask them to help and protect us and our loved ones, just like we ask the saints in heaven for their prayers and protection. Every angel has a name, but most are known only to God, Who created them. We know only about four by name: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and…wait for it…Lucifer. Yep, remember that the devil is an angel who rejected God. He took a lot of other angels with him when God expelled them from heaven. Lucifer uses his free will to do evil. And he’s out to get us, if we allow him. But God is more powerful than all the agents of darkness. Nevertheless, remember that not all angels are good.

Our guardian angel is another layer of the armor of God, which He gives us to make our way in this fallen world. They were made by Jesus and through Jesus to help us to get to heaven, to resist the lure of this world and the dangers of hell. They are our fellow members of Christ’s Mystical Body, which is His Church. They worship God around His altar in heaven and visit our altars as we celebrate the Holy Mass on earth. At this very moment, the angels are dancing around God’s throne in heaven. They love God completely. Why would anyone NOT want to include their guardian angel in their daily prayers and devotions? As for me, I don’t imagine my angel as a frilly Victorian lady with blonde curls. I’m pretty sure mine is more like a Navy SEAL, in full combat gear, locked and loaded for battle. Thanks be to God!

“Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here: ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen”
—Traditional Catholic prayer

A Servant Parish

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Our parish church is a beautiful and imposing structure. The current building was constructed in 1890 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For me, the most striking feature is the array of incredible stained glass windows flanking the nave and the rose window behind the choir loft. They were designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and and are truly breathtaking. Sitting in their multi-colored glow at morning Mass is a foretaste of heaven. Several years ago the windows were cleaned as part of a renovation project and protective coverings were put over them on the exterior. The coverings don’t affect the view from the inside of the church at all. They let in all the sunlight just like before. The coverings protect the priceless windows from harm. But seen from the exterior, the coverings completely obscure the beauty of the stained glass. If you’re on the outside of the church, the windows look like plain, gray glass. It’s as if the beauty of the glass was made only for the people inside.

Sometimes it’s easy for a parish to become too focused on its members and to forget the greater community. We may have lots of active ministries, but how many of them serve the folks outside our doors? Think of the proverbial church supper. Yes, there’s a need for fellowship and breaking bread with our faith family. It’s important. But do we fill our own stomachs while there are people in our neighborhood who don’t know where their next meal is coming from? Sometimes we cook our favorite dishes to impress one another and we forget to feed the hungry among us. Look at your church calendar for the past year. How many activities served the people in your pews? Look at your parish budget. What percentage of your funds go to serve the community, to spread the good news of the Gospel and to bring others to Christ? Do we encourage parishioners to serve others outside of our own parish ministries? Or are we protective of their volunteering, wanting all their time and talent for our own use? Do we invite community organizations to speak at any of those church suppers in order to gain support from our members?

If our parish exists only to serve ourselves, we’re doing it wrong. Christ calls us to be servants, not self-serving. Being a servant means being like Jesus, not only personally, but also as we live out our faith in our parish. Here are a few things to consider:
1) Servants forget themselves. They do what they do in order to give glory to God and not to gain attention or notice for themselves. We don’t seek applause for our efforts. We don’t clap for ourselves on Sunday morning. Jesus poured out His life for others. Our parish has to do the same.
2) We have to think and act like stewards and not like owners. We can’t get possessive about finances or ministries or programs or anything else. None of it—none of it, belongs to us.
3) Our children have to see that serving Christ means serving others. Kids can equate “church” with “going to Mass” and too often they stop going when they leave for college. Mass is crucial, yes. But “church” is a verb and it means serving others, helping those in need, and talking to others about Jesus. Our kids need to see us doing that.
4) Paying others to serve the poor in our place isn’t enough. Yes, giving to charity and in support of our parish is important and we’re called by God to do just that. But servants do more than write checks. They serve, and with their children at their sides.
5) Our parish must be available to the community if we’re going to serve them. Our church doors and offices have to be open as much as possible. Strangers must feel welcome to come to us and share their needs. And we have to help them if we can.
6) A servant parish is a grateful parish. God blesses us to have a pastor, a building and group of believers with whom to gather around His altar. Gratitude is lived out in service to one another. Neither our hearts nor our parishes can have a “do not disturb” sign on them. When we’re truly grateful, we can’t focus inside our walls, and we don’t want to.

So while our beautiful stained glass windows can only been seen from the inside, the light of Christ must illuminate our parish neighborhood. Gratitude and service to others make us stewards of our great faith. The love of Christ is too great a treasure to be contained by a building, no matter how beautiful it may be.

“Love is not patronizing and charity isn’t about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same—with charity you give love, so don’t just give money but reach out your hand instead. —–Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Our Family Meal

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We’re entering into the season of holidays and parties, of get-togethers and dinners. As we snack through our leftover Halloween candy, many of us are already planning our Thanksgiving feasts. It seems the most natural thing in the world to share food with those we love. Even if our family meals come pre-loaded with memories of past hurts or the anxiety of differing politics or lifestyles sitting down together at one table. Sharing a meal is fundamental to our human celebrations and remembrances.

It’s no wonder that our most intimate expression of our faith in Jesus Christ is shared at His altar, in His Body and Blood—the Holy Eucharist. This isn’t something invented by the Catholic Church, but is exactly what Christ instructed us to do at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19). Jesus taught so much of His love for us at mealtimes. The images in His parables were often of food or were food-related. We hear of wine and wineskins, of wheat and figs and vines and gardens. He chose fishermen as His first Apostles. The Last Supper was itself a Passover meal, the sacred meal shared by Jews as a renewal of the covenant God gave to them out of His love. Just before the Last Supper, Jesus shared the Sermon on the Mount as He fed the 5000 with the multiplied loaves and fishes. The Gospel of Luke is full of instances where Jesus taught His followers at meals and through meal images.

God always has a plan for us. His choice of covenant meals and food images is no more chance. From the very beginning God has been leading us to Holy Communion. Jesus was, after all, born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” In the Eucharist,we are united to Him as a family. Passover was a foreshadowing of the Eucharist just as circumcision was a foreshadowing of Baptism In the New Covenant we enter into an intimate family relationship with God. Jehovah becomes Abba, or “Daddy.” Jesus is both our savior, our brother, and our sacrificial meal. St. Paul teaches about the Eucharist in his first letter to the church at Corinth. We hear of the “cup of blessing” (I Cor. 10:16) as the Blood of Christ and the broken bread as His Body. “Through the one Bread, we, though many, are one body: all of us who are partakers of the one Bread (I Cor. 10:17). Through the Eucharist we are united both to Jesus and to our fellow believers. This is the Good News. Our new covenant is revealed and worshiped in every Mass.

For Catholics, the book of Revelation shows us the Mass in heaven. St. John and the Blessed Virgin Mary are worshipping with the angels at the wedding feast of the Lamb. Music and incense and a shared meal, in the very presence of the Holy Trinity offer us a glimpse of the world to come for believers. God’s plan for us is always one of drawing us closer to Him. The Old Covenant with Abraham made the Jews His family and set the stage for the coming of our Savior. In Jesus, we encounter the Living God, Who freely gave himself to the Father for our sins. He is our living sacrifice, offering His own Body and Blood as our nourishment and heavenly food.

The upcoming holiday season is a time of family fellowship and shared meals. Will it also be a time of shared faith? Will you worship together with your loved ones? Will you share the importance of our faith with your family and friends? Will you take some time from your busy schedule to share your time and your bounty with the poor? Before you get too caught up in the blur of the next couple of months, remember all that you have to be grateful for and the reasons we’re gathering together to share meals and fellowship. Give to those who have less. Give thanks. Go to confessions and repent of your sins. Return to the Lord and be welcomed to His heavenly banquet. Only Christ can satisfy our hungry souls.

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
—–C. S. Lewis

Heart and Soul…and Body

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There’s the story about the toddler who received a heart transplant from another little boy. The donor had been born with a club foot. A few months after the surgery the little boy with the new heart started to drag his foot behind him, like he had been born with a club foot, too. Another story involved a young man who wanted to be a songwriter. Just before he died he had written a new song and recorded it on tape. It told the story of a man losing his heart to a woman named “Andi.” When he was killed in a car crash, his heart was given to a woman named Andrea. She began to listen to his taped song and was able to sing along, although of course she’d never heard it before. Coincidences? Maybe. Even, probably. But how about the young girl who received the heart of a murder victim. As she was recovering from the surgery she began having nightmares about how her donor had been killed. She saw the murderer and what he’d been wearing. She dreamed of the attack itself and where the murder weapon had been hidden. When she told the police all she had seen in her dreams, they were able to use the information to make an arrest in the case.

Scientists call this “cellular memory.” It’s the idea that the cells of our body can contain memories of what has happened to us in our lives. Of course we know that our brain cells are where memories are stored. We see memory being lost when someone has a stroke or a brain trauma or suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. But cellular memory theorists believe that other parts of our bodies can also hold memories. Most of the stories of cellular memories involve the heart. As a non-scientist, this isn’t a surprise to me. When I consider who I am and what I’ve experienced, it’s always my heart that seems the most “real.”

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” But I don’t believe that’s the whole story. I believe we’re more than just the electrical grid of our nervous systems. I believe that when God created us in His image, He made us more than brains and bodies. He made our hearts and souls to live forever. So while most scientists don’t take cellular memory very seriously, I do. There’s a quote that sometimes attributed (incorrectly) to C.S. Lewis: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” But this misses the mark, too. Our souls and bodies, our minds and our hearts, are inextricably bound together in this life. And God has revealed His plans for our bodies, as well.

At the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) He gives us a glimpse of heaven. On that mountain, we see the glory of the Son revealed to Peter, James and John. He is bathed in the light of heaven and is joined by Moses and Elijah. They are, by God’s grace, enjoying life in heaven even before the Resurrection. In this peek into our next life, we see how intimately our bodies and souls are bound together. Moses and Elijah are recognizable as the men they were in life. Like the risen Jesus, they are alive and radiant and, well, themselves. The bodies they gained in their mother’s wombs are most fully realized in heaven. Like the Blessed Virgin, our heavenly bodies will be glorified and perfected in ways we can’t even imagine. At the end of time, when the bodies of believers are resurrected from the grace, we’ll experience that glory for ourselves.

So the idea of cellular memory seems very possible to me, even likely. God loves the human body so much that He chose to be incarnated. If God loves the cells of our bodies so completely and without reservation, we must as well. We’re called to treat our bodies with respect and dignity and to protect life from its beginning to its natural end. We are a miracle of creation, a reflection of the One Who made us as an act of pure and radiant love. We are more than a collection of cells—we are His children. We belong to Him, body and soul, heart and mind.

Then Christ will make His home in your hearts as you trust in Him…”
—-Ephesians 3:17

Repentance Opens Doors

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Everyone thought he was such a nice guy. His wife and kids adored him. He worked hard to make a good living for them. The folks at his office thought he was a great boss and he made them all feel like family. He coached his son’s Little League team and was always busy with some community project or another. He was one of those men that other people looked to when something needed doing. He was admired and he was liked.

That’s the thing about sin. Most sins are known to God alone. Even the sins that eat us alive and destroy our joy. We know so many folks like the man I’ve described here. Good men, and good women, too. They look like they have it all together while inside they’re nothing but a dry husk. Sin has killed their heart.

The Bishops of the Catholic Church have been meeting in Rome for the last couple of weeks. They’ve been discussing families and how the Church needs to do more to support them in their vocation. Along the way, they also talked about homosexuality and whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Holy Communion. It got to be a bit of a mess. People, even bishops, leaked info to the press that wasn’t accurate. It caused regular folks to get wrong ideas about where the Church might be heading. People are really good at causing confusion. From the very earliest of Church Councils it seems we can make following Jesus a decidedly complicated and divisive journey. But Christ promised His Church that He would be with her always, even until the end of time (Matthew 28:2). And so, at the end of the bishop’s meeting, they said this: “Christ wanted His Church be a house with doors always open to welcome everyone.” And that’s how the Holy Spirit works to lead us through our confusion and our fears, to the truth of Christ and His open arms. The Spirit clarifies and unifies and gives us the courage and the peace we need to do His will.

So back to that likable, admirable, sinful man. He’s the one the Church is called to welcome in. The sinner who has lost his way. The sinner who has lost her way. The gossip. The adulterer. The tax cheat. The fornicator. The liar. The abortion survivor. The person with same-sex attraction. The one who harbors anger in their heart. The one who is addicted to porn. The cold-hearted, the greedy, the abuser, the slanderer. In short, every one of us. Every single, sinning one of us.

You see, we tend to get stuck on the sexual sins. When the bishops talked about homosexuals, suddenly that was all people could hear. Oh we’ll talk to our fellow prayer group members about our anger or our envy. We’ll ask for their prayers to overcome our food addiction or our shopping binges. But we won’t talk about our affair with a coworker, or the hours we spend watching internet porn, or that we struggle with same-sex attraction. We, as a Church, have to make everyone feel welcome, no matter the nature of the sin. Christ didn’t shy away from anyone. To the woman caught in adultery, He offered forgiveness and called her to leave her sinful ways behind her (John 8:1-11). He didn’t condemn the Samaritan woman at the well, either despite her serial marriages and affairs (John 4:1-30). Jesus was clear that sex outside of a valid marriage is sinful, but He always offers forgiveness and mercy to anyone who repents of their sin. His teachings on marriage and on sexuality are simple—but not easy. Being faithful to Christ is never easy. But He is the only Way.

This is what the Church must do. We have to be clear on what God teaches about marriage and sexuality. We have to welcome everyone who seeks forgiveness and repents of their sins. We have to show them by our example what mercy and forgiveness looks like. We have to be Christ to one another. And we have to remember that, no matter what, the Holy Spirit is in charge of things—both within our hearts and in the workings of the Church. We mustn’t forget that the Church is the Bride of Christ and her Spouse will never abandon her or allow her to go astray. We should never fear the workings of the Holy Spirit in our faith, but abandon our hearts to the will of God, Whose love goes before us always. The Church is in His holy Hands.

“Go, and sin no more.”
—–John 8:11

Reminding Me of Jesus

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It’s just a little country church on a hill. One brick building with a dozen or so parking spots, way out in the boondocks. But that lot is very often full to overflowing with cars while kids are playing basketball and families are gathering under the picnic pavilion. The church has a prayer box near the parking entrance where anyone who wants to can drop in a prayer request to share with their congregation. This time each year, they sell pumpkins to raise funds for their various programs. It’s beautiful to see that grassy hill covered with hundreds of orange pumpkins. And they have one outreach program that always catches my eye—their church sign.

You know those messages that many churches post on their signs? Sometimes it’s a BIble verse, or maybe a faith-based pun (Know Jesus. Know peace. No Jesus. No peace). The messages are often forgettable and all-too-frequently misspelled. But this little church gets them right. They’re thought-provoking and original and they never fail to get my attention. Their messages make me think of Jesus. That’s a pretty effective ministry for a tiny country church. This week, the sign reads: “Everything God says is an expression of love.”

Sure. As Christians, we know that God loves us. He sent His only Son to save us from our sins. His grace is sufficient (II Corinthians 12:9). The Bible is a love story of how our God created a universe for us, made us His children through Christ and will meet us face-to-face in a heaven that will surpass all our ideas of beauty and love.

But wait a minute. The Bible is also full of heartache and suffering. There are plagues and wars and famine. Families (including the very first one) are torn apart by sin and murder. Whole cities are destroyed by God’s wrath. How can we read about these horrors and believe the church sign, that everything God says is an expression of love? It’s easy to believe in love when we read about the birth of Jesus and the feeding of the multitude and see Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead. It’s more difficult to believe in that love when we read about lakes of fire and awful diseases and the deaths of all those firstborn sons.

This is because God’s plan for us is like the plans of any good parent for their children. Sometimes the things we want are bad for us, so God says, “no.” Anything that distracts us from our “best” is a sin and we know that sin leads to death (Romans 6:23). When the Lord says “no” to our plans, it isn’t to make us feel bad or to frustrate us, but to help us conform our will to His will. You see, His plans for us are so infinitely better than anything we could ever imagine. We’re like little children who chafe and whine when mom or dad won’t give us all the candy we want, all day long, every day of the week. All we can know, with our child’s mind, is that life is cruel and unfair and our parents must hate us for keeping the candy hidden away from us.

The truth is, God loves us in everything, in all circumstances, in every trial and in all our sufferings. He looks on us with longing to know us better and a desire to spend an eternity in our presence. This is the love of our Lord Who is Love Himself. How much He loves us is there on the Crucifix, is there in the cup of His Blood and in the Bread that is His Body in Holy Communion. It is in the marriage feast of the Lamb that He is preparing for you and for me at this very moment in heaven (Revelation 19:6-9). From Eden to Armageddon, God’s every word and action and plan is one of unfolding and unfailing love. I need reminding of this. And the little church in the country did that for me this week. Your sign and your messages bless me and I know they bless others as well. Thank you for reminding me of the good news of His love.

“Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man; God does nothing without this goal in mind.”
—–St. Catherine of Siena
(1347 – 1380)

A Tiny and Wonderful Book

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People are hungry for good books on our Christian faith. Without hesitation, the first one I recommend (after the Bible, of course) is “The Great Divorce” by C.S.Lewis. It’s a small book, just a little over a hundred pages. You can easily read it all in an evening. And you couldn’t spend your time any better, in my opinion. Lewis takes us on a bus ride from hell to heaven and along the way, he explains our faith in words and images we can easily understand. This is good theology for us average folk. We hear the stories of the traveler’s lives and we see ourselves revealed in them. Lewis is one of us, he uses language and references we can understand. And he’s gifted in helping us grasp the great truths of our Christian faith in his “little” stories like this one.

“The Great Divorce” opens in a sad, dark city called “the grey town.” Our narrator encounters others who are there with him and he learns their stories as they travel together on a bus to — who knows where. As they travel, we come to understand more about what heaven is and what hell is. We learn the part that our own choices in life play on our journey to our final home. Much of the despairing imagery of the grey town comes from Lewis’ own experience of wartime London, as the book was published in 1945. I don’t want to give away too much of this story, because I hope you’ll want to experience it for yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll never think of heaven or hell in quite the same way again.

And here’s the thing: all of us are on that journey to our real life in eternity. We are all undergoing a spiritual transformation, as Lewis says: We are becoming either “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” That image stops me in my tracks. Created in God’s own likeness, I believe that I’m destined to live forever—the question is, where will that be? We are all given choices to make and these choices (or refusals to choose) shape our souls. When we choose Christ, He makes His home in us (Ephesians 3:16-17). When we deny Christ, we take a different path. But we are in the unfolding process of “becoming.” Lewis says, “There are no ordinary people—only those on their way to becoming devils or glorified creatures like the angels.” Of course, he doesn’t mean that we actually become either devils or angels. We are always human, but oh, the variety of light and dark, of virtue and of sin that we contain.

Our journey has two eventual destinations. Through Christ, we become more heavenly, more in harmony with God, our fellow humans, and ourselves. Or we choose another path and become more hellish—at war with God, our fellow humans, and ourselves. These “becomings” are at the heart of the story Lewis shares in “The Great Divorce.” In our glimpses into the lives of the characters, we’re also confronted with our ideas of both heaven and hell and what they might be like. Lewis’ vision doesn’t include harps and clouds, or lakes of fire. Heaven is a place of infinite realty, where all the beauty we have ever known is a pale imitation of God’s home for us. The closer we get to heaven, the more intense the beauty is and the more there is to experience ahead of us. Each moment is ecstasy. For those who choose a different path, reality becomes smaller, darker, duller, and more self-absorbed. It’s the saddest, most lifeless of realities you could imagine. Lewis is a master storyteller.

Our souls are being formed at every moment, and with every breath. You and I are, at this very instant, becoming either more heavenly or more hellish. We are becoming more and more like Jesus or we are walking down another path. Our ultimate destination isn’t something forced upon us, but is a place and a process we actively choose and embrace. Read this little book. Make your choice.

“While others plan your funeral, decide on a casket, a burial plot, and who the pallbearers shall be, you will be more alive than you’ve ever been.”
—-Erwin Lutzer

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