What We Deserve

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The news is never good. As we come closer to Christmas it seems that we’re even more divided and torn than ever before. But that’s not really true. It just feels true because we’re living through it. We’re having to explain words like “chokehold” and “grand jury” and “waterboarding” to our kids or grandchildren. You see, ever since Eden the news hasn’t been good. We’ve been hurting each other in a million of the same old ways since sin entered our world. Murder and slander, hatefulness and division: these are the passwords of our hearts. The history of humanity has in some ways been the history of how we mistreat one another. There is a wound deep within us that makes it easier to harm than to heal.

It starts in our hearts and minds and then spills out in our words, until finally, we act. They say that pride is the first among the sins. Surely it was pride in Lucifer’s heart that led him to reject God. It was pride seething in Cain’s heart that led him to kill his brother, Abel. It’s the “gateway drug’ to a sinful life. “Pride is the beginning of sin” (Sirach 10:13). One of the first hallmarks of pride is judgement. Whenever you feel like judging someone, you can rest assured that the sin of pride is at work in you somehow.

Now we’ve all heard that Scripture (i.e. God) teaches us not to judge other people. That doesn’t mean that we, as Christians, can’t use our God-given intellect and reason to know good from evil. We know that murder is wrong. We know that child abuse is wrong. We can know that actions and behaviors are wrong and offend God. What we can’t know and can’t judge is the landscape of another person’s heart. We don’t know their souls or their motives. We don’t know their weaknesses, their hurts and their own past wounds. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, in almost every case. But when we find ourselves judging hearts and souls, we make ourselves into God. Or we try to.

Only God can know what beats in someone’s heart. Only God can know what sort of justice a soul needs or deserves. God made our souls, so only He can know what medicine can heal them and make them whole again. When we judge a person—not their actions—but who they are—we’re being prideful. We’re playing at being God and that’s dangerous ground. It’s holy ground. It’s breaking the first commandment. Even when we judge ourselves. We offend God when we judge another person’s heart. And when we we judge our own heart, too. If we think that we’re beyond His love or mercy, we’re playing at God. If we believe that our sins are so horrible or unforgivable that God could never show us mercy, we’re playing at God. This sort of thinking keeps us away from Him and when we don’t approach God, we’re trying to take His place. Our Savior opened His arms wide on the Cross so that we could come to Him. He took on our sins so that we could be freed of them. He took the punishment that we deserve, so that we wouldn’t “get what we deserve.” The Gospel isn’t karma. The Gospel is love. And so in the midst of all the day’s bad news and name-calling and talk of justice and torture, remember that God is in control. We’re not called to sit in judgement, but to take up our cross and follow Him. The promise of Christmas is the fulfillment of our hope for peace on earth. And peace in our hearts.

If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that belong to each other.”
—–Blessed Mother Teresa

Holy Reminders

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Advent is upon us and we’re anticipating the joy of the Christmas season. Many have already put up their trees and decorated their homes and yards with garlands and lights. You may have hung stockings on the mantle or put a Nativity scene on the hearth. This is a season full of the beautiful images of our faith. They are reminders of what we love about this time time of year: the birth of our Savior, the warmth and love of our family and friends, and the hope of peace on earth. It just wouldn’t seem like Christmas, as we’ve come to know it, without the decorations and the lights, the trees and the presents.

We Catholics love these holy reminders of Christmas, and all the other seasons of the Church year, too. Our churches are filled with sacred art, like paintings and statues. Many of them have windows of stained glass that show the life of Jesus and the saints. You’ll see crosses made of wood or bronze and marble floor tiles. You’ll see the suffering face of Jesus on a crucifix. Everywhere you look, you’ll be reminded of the God Who made us and loves us and died to save us. And yet there was a time in the history of our faith when it was illegal to display a crucifix or to hang a painting of Jesus or the Holy Family. There was a time when the government sent soldiers to churches to burn them to the ground—after they’d looted them of anything of value and smashed the statues and the stained glass windows. Irreplaceable libraries of rare books were set ablaze and lost forever. When the soldiers were done, not a stone was left on another stone in many places. Families who had worshipped in the same church for dozens of generations were left without a parish, without the schools for the children and without the help that the church had provided for the sick, the needy, and the aged. They were left without their priests, who were killed in some cases or imprisoned, or forced to live as beggars on the street.

There is a darkness in the world that sometimes takes root in the hearts of men. It seeks to destroy the good and the beautiful because it hates anything that reminds the world of the Light. The darkness often masquerades as reform, or as a kind of justice. It carries itself with a prideful self-righteous attitude of assurance and zeal. Many are drawn to this darkness because it is attractive and popular. It is intriguing in the way that it offers and easy fix for complex problems. We weren’t created for the darkness, but because it lives in our world, it knows us; it knows our weaknesses. It weaves itself into our culture and government, shifting with the changing times and popular opinions.

We’re seeing a surge of this darkness in the Middle East, as thousands are murdered for their faith in Christ. Their homes and churches are being destroyed. This is happening today, in our time. But we’ve seen it before. In England, during the 16th century, the Catholic Church was “suppressed.” This is a kind word that historians use to describe looting and murder. In the space of a few decades, hundreds of churches and monasteries were destroyed and their properties seized, like I described earlier. Mass was made illegal. It has taken centuries for the Catholic Church in England to recover from this period of their history. Some may argue that it never has. Certainly the art and architecture lost during that horrible time can never be replaced. But the light of faith, though dimmed for a time, is bright there once again.

This week we lit the second candle of the Advent wreath. On each of the next two Sundays, we’ll light another candle, til all glow brightly. The candles remind us of the Light of Christ, which overcomes the darkness of a broken world—whether that darkness lives in medieval England or modern-day Iraq, or in our own heart. We remember all those faithful Christians who have gone before us, bearing the light of faith and we beg their prayers for a world in need of every possible holy reminder of God’s love and mercy.

“And the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness [does] not comprehend it.”
—–John 1:5

My Wounds Are Golden

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Some of the best memories of my childhood revolve around my maternal grandmother, who lived in Texas. She was loving and gentle and generous. Always smiling, she worked from dawn til late each night cooking and cleaning for her family. My cousins and I were the focus of her affection and attention whenever we visited her. Having lived through the Great Depression, my grandmother was frugal and thrifty in a way that few of us are these days. She never discarded anything and if something broke, she fixed it rather than replacing it. After she died, we sorted through her closets and found boxes filled with her “salvaged” treasures. At the time, we thought it was funny that she’d held on to what we considered to be junk. Now, more than 35 years later, I appreciate that trait of hers a great deal. She could have invented the “reduce, re-use, recycle” campaign.

There’s something to be said for fixing broken things. After all, we’re each one of us broken in one way or another, or even in a dozen ways. We live in a fallen world, a world that is at once incredibly beautiful and heartbreakingly wounded. Sort of like you and me. Our Creator loved us enough to become one of us so that He could be our way out of the darkness of sin. In this first week of Advent, we’re looking forward to the coming of that Light. And so Advent is a good time to examine our broken places, because it is our sins that He cam to heal. What in my own heart cries out for that healing? What relationship in my life is most broken? Who have I sinned against? What parts of my soul do I withhold from The Lord? What part of me do I hide from His Light?

When we allow Christ into our brokenness His grace heals and transforms us. We become a “new creation” in Christ (II Cor. 5:17). We see God’s healing hand at work in our hurting places. Rather than throwing us away because we were broken by sin, Jesus uses that brokenness for His good purpose. The Japanese art of “Kintsugi” is a way of recognizing the value of what is broken. When a cup or bowl is broken, the artisan doesn’t attempt to hide the damage, but rather they enhance it. The broken pieces are joined with glue and then a layer of gold is applied to highlight the repair. The object is made even more beautiful and cherished all the more because it has been used and “damaged.”

In Advent, we prepare ourselves for the coming of Emmanuel, “God with us.” It’s a time of prayer and reflection, of hopeful waiting, of self-examination. We can ask God to help us see ourselves honestly and to lead us to repent of our sins. In confession, God’s mercy is like the process of Kintsugi. We ask for His healing and we commit to turning away from our sins. His love is the gold that transforms our wounds into His glory. God finds treasure in our willingness to humbly ask for His mercy and healing. He is a God of paradox, after all. The Creator-King Who comes to us as a penniless, powerless baby in a manger; the Nazarene carpenter Whose death opened the doors of Heaven. He is the Lamb of God, born to be slain so that you and I can, like St. Paul, ask: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (I Cor. 15:55-57). When we lose ourselves, we find Him. When we decrease, He can increase (John 3:30). This Advent, let the Lord embrace your wounds and heal them with His mercy and love. Before you dress the tree in silver and gold, remember the broken cup and the golden repair that transforms it into a treasure. You aren’t something to be thrown away—you are a beloved child of God. Allow His grace to make you whole.

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
—–Psalm 147:3

A Private Revelation

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All of us long to know God. It’s been said that there is a God-shaped hole in the hearts of men. I believe that’s true. We seek Him out — in His scripture, in His Church, in the beauty of creation, and in one another. And if we truly and humbly search for God, He never disappoints us. Lately, I’ve been reading about people who claim to have encountered God in their dreams, in visions, and through His angels. This can be a confusing journey full of hazards and dead-ends. Thankfully I’m blessed to have guidance along my way in the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

The Church teaches (and has taught for many centuries) that the public revelation of God ceased upon the death of St. John, the last living Apostle. Jesus Christ was and is the complete and total revelation of the living God. Nothing can “add to” to the Word of God in His beloved Son. As the Catechism states,”….no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ”(paragraph 66). So do Catholics believe that God no longer reveals Himself to us? Of course not. We come to know God throughout our lives in and through our prayerful participation in the Church He left for us. We enter into His family at Baptism. We encounter the grace of His mercy in Confession. No more intimate knowledge and experience of Christ exists than in our communion with Him in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. Our Confirmation infuses us with the gifts and guidance of the Holy Spirit. God reveals Himself to us in our reading of Sacred scripture and in our prayer life which is a true fount of His love and grace. The Holy Spirit inspires and teaches us in the Sacred Tradition of His Church. God is always reaching out to us and pulling us closer to His Sacred Heart.

Throughout the centuries, people have claimed to have received private revelations from God. From the very first years after Christ’s Ascension, the early Church fathers taught that private revelation should always be approached with great prudence. Men like Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Augustine all taught about the proper limits of private “knowledge” of God that persons might claim to have received in dreams or visions. And yet the Church has always been open to the workings of God in the lives of His children. “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good”(I Thess. 5:19-21). The testing and retaining is part of the authority that Christ gave to His Church and so this process is rightfully one left to the pope and bishops. St. John spoke of this authority: “We belong to God, and anyone who knows God listens to us, while anyone who doesn’t belong to God refuses to hear us. This is how we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit” (I John 4:6). Catholics believe in miracles and our Church is open to them. At the same time, any true mystic or visionary will readily submit themselves to the investigation and scrutiny of Christ’s Church because the Church acts with His authority. She is, after all, His spotless Bride.

Private revelation is never necessary for salvation. A person’s visions or writings can never “correct” or surpass the revelation of Jesus Christ. If anyone claims otherwise, he or she is in error, even if their “revelation” gains a large and popular following. We see this everywhere today. In the final analysis, either there is a Church whose authority was given it by God, or there is not. If there’s not, then anything goes and your religion is just as valid as anyone else’s religion. From the writings of Mohammed and Joseph Smith, to all the new-age mystics and seers and prophets, we have more than 33.000 different religious denominations on the planet today. Someone has a vision or a “word of knowledge” and the next thing, they start their own church. We have splintered the Body of Christ by rejecting the authority He gave to St. Peter and his successors. Surely God weeps that His family is so estranged from one another. If we are followers of Christ, we must pray and work together to come back under the same tent, to kneel together at the same altar and to profess our faith in the one, true God, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“…I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
—–Matthew 16:18

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

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