Jesus First

One of the most jarring things Jesus ever said, at least in my opinion, is when He’s speaking in St. Luke’s gospel about the effects His ministry will have on families. He tells us, “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law”(Luke 12:53).  At first blush this seems to go against everything we know about the Gospel. Doesn’t Jesus preach about love and peace and caring for one another? Aren’t we taught to give more than we’re asked for and to forgive seventy-times-seven? Isn’t love and forgiveness what Christ is all about?

Well, yes and no. Obviously it is God’s great love for us that sent His Son to live as one of us and to give Himself up for us as the perfect sacrifice. Living in Christ means living in His love and allowing His love to transform us. In that love we find forgiveness and mercy—and are called to be His hands and feet as we love and serve the people of God. Certainly God’s plan for our lives is a love story. And in human terms, that unfolding love story first begins within the context of our families. This is where we first know love and experience the care and peace that only the intimacy of family life can provide. Jesus chose to enter humanity in a family and was loved and nurtured by Our Lady and St. Joseph in the home they made for Him. So how can all we know about Christ and the Gospel make sense of this passage written for us by St. Luke?

One thing we learn us that there is an order, a hierarchy, of love. Our love of God must come first in all things, even in families. If we allow anything or anyone to come before Him, our lives are disordered. Jesus is illustrating the utterly transformative effect that following Him will have on our lives. He comes first in all things: before our jobs, before our friends, even before our families. Our commitment to Jesus MUST transform every area and aspect and moment of our lives. Being a Christian changes how we choose to make a living, whom we marry (and IF we marry), how we conduct ourselves in business, how we raise our children, how we spend our money, and how we contribute to the community in which we live. If we claim Him as savior then He must be first in our lives. This is what Jesus means in St. Luke’s gospel. Jesus claims us entirely for His Sacred Heart.

That claim can and must radically change us. St. Paul calls us “new creations”(II Corinthians 5:17). That newness of life in Christ sets us apart from the world. We are in the world but not of the world(Romans 12:2). We don’t live like other people. We work and play differently. We have different goals and achieve them in different ways. If we’re just like everyone else, then we’re not doing it right. When Christ comes first in all things, it means everything else is ordered AFTER Him. And that can and does cause problems in some families. We know these problems well. We may have experienced them in our own families: choices made which conflict with faith, marriages unravelled by sin, children ravaged by divorce, and lives wounded through walking a path away from God. Love is a messy journey and we’re all struggling at it. We’re trying to find they way God wants us to be His beloved child. A trusted prayer in times like these is,”Lord, help me to be like Jesus.”  Help me to love as Jesus loves, to forgive as Jesus forgives, to be humble and merciful as He is humility and mercy. I fail at this every day. A hundred times a day. St. Paul tells us how to love like Jesus. You know this scripture. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged”(I Corinthians 13:4-7).  These verses are about true love, sacrificial love: love that costs you something. The kind of love that families share, the kind of love that can see them through the most difficult of times. At the center of that kind of love is the humility of Jesus. Humility that gives without counting the cost, expecting no repayment. How much division in our families and our churches is a result of pride? Of keeping score and wanting to be right? Of putting our own wants and needs first? Probably most of it. Keeping Christ first puts everything and everyone else into their proper places. Especially in our families.

“As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”

       —Pope Saint John Paul II

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Praying with the Dying

When we opened the door of his hospital room, we could hear his labored and uneven breathing. My friend’s uncle, now almost 90, was in his final battle with heart disease. I’d met him a few times over the years, but the man in the hospital bed looked little like the burly, overpowering man he’d been until the last few years. He was thin and gray, with his eyes closed, grasping at the sheets with bony fingers, using all his energy just to breathe. He hadn’t wanted his doctors to put him on a ventilator, so all he had helping him was an oxygen mask. I felt terrible, watching his agony.

But it was more than the hospital smell and the sound of his struggling breaths that was affecting me. There was a heavy, oppressive feeling to this room. Imagine gravity suddenly doubling and you’ll get the idea. The air itself seemed weighted and thick. It felt like I was being pushed down into my shoes. My friend felt it, too He slumped into the only chair and I saw his shoulders fall forward. I didn’t like being there. It felt wrong and somehow, ugly. You know how they say you can sense the presence of evil? I believe it. Not that I thought my friend’s uncle was an evil man. He’d always been pleasant enough to be around, if a little bit loud. I’d never felt this sort of darkness around him before. But then, he’d never been on his deathbed before. So, as the old man struggled with each breath, my friend and I prayed for him. I have the Divine Mercy app on my phone and we spent the next several minutes praying those beautiful words out loud. I’d like to say that the dark, oppressive feeling in the room disappeared right away. Or that my friend’s uncle sat up, fully healed and asking for pudding. But none of that happened. Instead, he died later that night, alone, in his hospital room.

In the Divine Mercy prayers, we ask for God’s mercy on us, on the person who is dying, and for everyone in the world. Our sins offend Him every day and yet His great mercy is so much more than the weight of those sins. God delights when we ask for that mercy. We put all our trust in His love for us, in His blood shed for us on the Cross, and in the hope of the resurrection. The prayers are comforting and tender and are among my favorite devotions. I think I’m drawn to them because I know the darkness of my own sins and how very much I need His mercy. It’s a grace when you know that you sin. A grace I don’t deserve.

As we prayed for him there at his bedside, I imagined the angels who knelt there, too and prayed along with us. Surely his uncle’s guardian angel was there, and others as well. Were there other spirits in the room, too? Darker energies who feast on despair and anger and loneliness? Maybe their presence was the oppression and heaviness we’d felt when we entered the room. I don’t know. Maybe it was just the nearness of death. Our voyage through this life and into the next one is a mysterious one.. The love of Christ is our hope and our light through a world that is often dark and sorrowful. And yet, even HIs infinite love for us is a mystery, as well. I know that being with anyone as they approach death is a privilege and grace. Praying for them as they journey out of this life is a gift that should never be refused, no matter the difficulty. When you have that chance, be there for them. Pray for the mercy of God and for the grace to love and forgive until each of us take our last breath here.

We weren’t there for him when he passed from this life, but I believe our prayers were. I believe the angels were there that night, long after visiting hours were over, keeping vigil and praying for his soul. No prayer is ever unheard by our Lord. That’s another mystery of our faith. One of the great gifts we share as Christians is praying for one another. Our words rise like the smoke of incense (Revelation 8:4) and are sweet and pleasing to Him. We’re all on this journey together and we need each other every step along the way. Don’t ever miss the opportunity to pray for a brother or sister as they pass on to eternity.

“We are all just walking each other home.” —Richard Alpert 

Sweet Mercy

Several years ago when I was going through a difficult period in my life, I let my heart be filled with bitterness and resentment. I had been hurt by people I had thought were my friends. I became consumed with feelings of betrayal and anger. I spent (wasted) my time nurturing those feelings. I was going nowhere, except into a hardened and sinful place. I was more concerned with holding onto my grievances than I was with allowing God to heal me of my pain. Until I was ready to forgive, how could Jesus forgive me? So one night I wrote down the names of all the people who had wronged me. I held the list in my hands and began to pray for each one of them by name. It was tough. At first I’ll admit that only a tiny piece of my heart was involved when I prayed. But as I continued with it day after day I felt myself letting go of the anger and hurt. I didn’t forget what had been done, but I was able to lay my hurts and resentments at the foot of the Cross. In return, God gave me His mercy and peace. For the first time in a long time, I was free.

Looking back, I can only wonder at the weeks and months I had invested in all that anger. I let it take over my life and rob me of my joy. I gave it permission to be in control, instead of welcoming Christ’s mercy into my heart. This is something nearly all of us deal with at one time or another. One famous family experienced the pain of separation and estrangement over a lack of forgiveness and the price they paid for it was enormous.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one of the most well-known Victorian poets. Growing up in England, she was the oldest of twelve children. Elizabeth began writing poems in childhood and despite a lifelong battle with poor health, she continued to be a prolific poet. Her courtship with Robert Browning produced a multitude of letters famously detailing their love for one another. But Elizabeth’s father was completely opposed to their relationship. After they married, she was disinherited and her father never forgave her and never spoke with her again. The newlyweds moved to Italy and she never saw her dad again. Despite his hard feelings towards her, Elizabeth continued to faithfully write to him for many, many years. Towards the end of her life, she received a large box filled with the letters she’d written to her father—all of them unopened and unread. Because he couldn’t forgive her for loving Robert Browning, her father had missed out on knowing his daughter.

When you get right down to it, not forgiving someone who has wronged you is a sin of pride. You and your grudges become more important than anything else—family relationships included. You think you know best. You believe that your hurt feelings have priority over anything else. They almost take on a life of their own and you nourish and encourage them by remembering how you were wronged and treated unfairly. It’s all me, me, me. Your memories build a prison around your heart and that’s the definition of pride.

Who do you need to forgive today? Are you estranged from someone in your family? Forgiveness and reconciliation are a gift you can give to yourself. Even if the other person never admits how they hurt you. It’s not about them. It doesn’t mean that you weren’t hurt or betrayed, it just means that you no longer choose to hold onto that hurt anymore. Ask The Lord to help you do this. It might take a while, but that’s okay, too. Little by little you’ll feel a burden being lifted and grace will lead you through it. Don’t waste time losing out on love.

When you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”
—Mark 11:25

Our Model of Fathers

We’re about to celebrate Father’s Day and we honor all the men in our lives who have been our fathers.  Whether they are related to us by biology or marriage or by the fatherhood of ordination, our lives are blessed and enriched by the men we know and love. Just a few months ago we celebrated Jesus’ birth at Christmas.  As we recall the events surrounding the birth of Christ, it is the Baby Who is the “star of the show.”  It’s that way at every birth, isn’t it?  All eyes are on the child.  The “co-star” of the blessed event is the mom, whose love and labor helped bring the new life into the world.  In the case of Jesus’ mother Mary, it was also her great faith and cooperation with God’s will that brought Christ to save us.  And in the Christmas drama, there was also a “supporting actor” who played a most important role.  Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ biological father, but he was His father in every other sense of the word.

 

God certainly carefully selected the woman who would be the mother of His Son.  He must have been just as careful finding the perfect foster-father.  The prophets had foretold that the Messiah would be of King David’s royal line and at that time, a child’s lineage was determined by that of his father.  Joseph legally bound Jesus to the house of David and because of these ties, it was required that Joseph and Mary journey to Bethlehem for the census which would fulfill prophecy.  Joseph protected Mary and the Child Jesus by taking them to Egypt when Herod sought them out.  He gave Jesus a stable, loving, and prayerful home where He could “grow in wisdom, age, and grace” (Luke 2:52).  Joseph was the man in Jesus’ life, His role model.  From him, Jesus learned a trade, but He also learned how to be a man.

 

Joseph was a just man, an honest man, a courageous man of integrity.  For a few moments, consider this remarkable life.  His fiancee Mary had become pregnant before their marriage, but not by him.  Try to imagine his shame, hurt and anger as he struggled to come to terms with her news.  Joseph believed in Mary’s virginal purity.  He didn’t understand how she could have become pregnant, but he did not doubt her purity.  At the same time, he loved her and didn’t want to leave her vulnerable to the shame and punishment he fully expected would be her lot. He had to make a decision and make it quickly.  So, as difficult as it must have been for him, he decided to quietly divorce Mary.  That is, until an angel of the Lord appeared to him and affirmed that Mary’s Child was the Son of God.  

 

Just as Mary is for us, so too is Joseph a model of incredible faith.  From the moment of his angelic dream, Joseph’s life was consumed by his overwhelming faith in God’s plan for his family.  Jesus came into the world within a specific family at a precise moment in history.  The marriage of Joseph and Mary provided the unique home to fulfill all the prophecies surrounding the Messiah.  Their relationship of joyful celibacy and self-giving can be seen as mirroring the marriage feast of the Lamb in Heaven.  And in living out God’s will for our salvation, remember that Joseph just didn’t “go along with” God’s plan because of Mary’s special role in it.  He was a vital and active participant in the formation of the Holy Family.  As St. Luke describes him:  “Here is the wise and faithful servant, whom the Lord has put in charge of his household” (12:42).  St. Joseph is the model of guardians and protectors of our precious faith.  This gentle and caring man, who held his own Salvation in his arms, never failed in his duties as husband and father.  From his humble home in Nazareth, his unquestioning faith in God allowed Love to grow and mature and ultimately, to conquer the world.  We celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph each March 19. And we celebrate the fathers in our own lives every day.  Pray for these men and ask St. Joseph to protect, to guide and to watch over them always. 

 

“St. Joseph was an ordinary sort of man on whom God relied to do great things.  He did exactly what the Lord wanted him to do, in each and every event that made up his life.” –St. Jose Maria Escriva 

Holy Water

We begin our human lives in a salty sea inside our mother’s womb.  Water is our first home.  In the most basic biological sense, water is life.  Our bodies are about 75% water, the same as the earth on which we live.  Most of us could live for about a month without food, but only about three days without water.  Water is what keeps us going.  In Scripture, we know that God chose water to cleanse the earth of sin in the great flood.  The ark built by Noah saved the souls of the 8 people who would rebuild humanity.  God helped the Jewish people escape slavery in Egypt by leading them through water.  We know that water is esteemed by the Lord because of the role water plays in our sanctification.  Christ is the Living Water which alone can satisfy the deepest thirst of our souls for truth and hope and love.  Before Christ, the ritual washings and purifications of the Jews prefigured the cleansing power of the Sacrament of Baptism.  Our Lord was baptized by His cousin John, who announced that day that Jesus is the Lamb of God (John 1:29).  Water is our entry into the Church.  Through Baptism we are marked as a child of God, a member of His royal family.

 

Which brings us to why I love holy water.  To begin with, there’s nothing magic about holy water.  It’s what the Church calls a “sacramental.”  It’s not a Sacrament itself like Baptism or Confirmation, but it is a “sacred sign which bear(s) a resemblance to the Sacraments” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1667).  Most Catholic Churches have a baptismal font in the entry of the building to remind us that it is through Baptism that we come into God’s family.  The font is filled with water that has been blessed by a priest.  You may also see smaller holy water fonts at the inner doorways to the nave, or seating area.  Catholics dip three fingers of their right hand into the water in the fonts when they enter the church.  We pray the Sign of the Cross and reverently bless ourselves “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  The blessing the priest gave the water is attached to it.  So using holy water to bless yourself or your children or your home conveys that same blessing.  Devoutly blessing yourself with holy water remits venial sins.  This is powerful stuff.  Sometimes I think we take holy water for granted.  Listen to this, which is from the prayer blessing the water and describes the power it has to “…put to flight all the power of the enemy and be able to root out and supplant that enemy and his apostate angels.”  There’s a reason demons flee from holy water—it reflects the goodness of God and evil abhors love and mercy and hope.  If you don’t keep holy water in your home, get some.  Use a clean sealed bottle and bring some home.  I have a personal font by the front door.  I bless myself when I leave and when I come home.  The Church encourages us to bless ourselves and our family members.  You can use holy water to bless your home, your family, your car, your pets, your meals.  If you’re sick, you can add a few drops to your food.  Remember, holy water isn’t a magic potion.  Like other sacramentals, it prepares us to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Holy water helps us to remember how much God loves us.

 

I love holy water because it reminds me of my Baptism.  I was nineteen and I’ll never forget the joy of knowing God’s love and mercy had made me as white as snow.  It was knowing how much He loves me and wants me to know and love Him.  When I bless myself, I remember His love anew.  I love holy water because it makes me look differently at the ordinary things of the world.  God uses ordinary things like water and oil, bread and wine, and transforms them into extra-ordinary creations.  He wants to do the same thing to me and to you.  Holy water is as powerful as our faith in Christ.  It is the mercy and forgiveness of God.  It makes demons flee in terror.  It refreshes my soul.

 

I read once that love is an act of continual forgiveness.  That means God is continual forgiveness, since God is love.  Every time I use holy water, I remember how much God loves me and forgives me, every day, every moment.   When we don’t take advantage of the goodness of holy water, we miss out on this gift of blessing God has given to us.  I don’t know about you, but I need His blessings.  I need all of them.  And I especially need His mercy and forgiveness. That’s what holy water reminds me.  That I’m loved and I’m forgiven.  Thanks be to God.

 

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”                —Mark Twain

Tender Hearts

I’m a weeper. I thought about using the word “crier” but that implies something rather dignified and demure. Picture a tight shot of a beautiful Ingrid Bergman as a perfect tear slides slowly down her flawless cheek. This does NOT describe me. I weep. Great gasping gulps of air in between baleful bellows and bursts of waterworks. Imagine a Bigfoot howling underwater and you’ll have a pretty good idea. And I weep at lots of stuff. Sad songs, of course. The National Anthem, certainly. Puppies. Kittens. To be honest, almost anything, given the right mood. It’s been this way all my life and I blame it on my grandfather. He was what we in the South call “tender-hearted.” Every summer my family would make the long drive to Texas to spend a week or two with him and my grandmother. At the end of our time with them, we’d pile into the car for our drive back to Georgia as my grandfather stood weeping and waving to us in his driveway. He was my kindred spirit.

Someone with this personality trait, like me, has come by it naturally. It’s part of our makeup, of how we relate to the world. It’s probably part genetics and part how we were raised and the examples set for us by the people in our lives. Knowing that my grandfather and I were both teary types always made me feel closer to him. It also made me feel a little bit better about the waterworks. But there’s a different kind of tender-heartedness that’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. In this way, our hearts are conformed to the heart of Jesus.

Jesus was definitely tender-hearted. But not the merely weepy type like me and my grandfather. Jesus cried for his friend, Lazarus. And then He raised him from the dead. He wept over Jerusalem. And then He suffered and died for her salvation. He tenderly poured out His life in the Holy Eucharist the very night that the men with whom He’d shared it would abandon and betray Him. Yet “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Jesus’ tender heart is courageous and strong. Throughout His public ministry, both His heart and His mission proclaimed love, mercy, and holy purpose. “I have set my face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7). His tender heart led Him to the Cross.

To have a heart that is tender and open like Jesus’ Sacred Heart, is also to conform our will to His will. His tender love was a love that called a sin by its name and with the clarity of His light and justice. Jesus was tender to the sinner but never soft on sin. We’re called to follow Him. Our hearts must be just as eager to root out and name our own sins. A tender heart is one that is frequently tilled and weeded by our examination and repentance. Frequent confession is a great “tenderizer” as the Church knows and teaches. Tender hearts seek Jesus in prayer, which is our lifeline to a relationship with Him. We learn to deny ourselves so that we can become more like our Lord, who poured out His heart in love for us. And so we are also charged with service and giving of ourselves. Among the primary acts of our service is to forgive. Tender hearts reach out to those who have wronged us and offer them mercy, like our Lord does. We give our hearts away despite knowing that sometime they’ll be trod upon. We look at Christ’s courage in loving and trusting others and we imitate Him. Tender hearts don’t carry grudges. We are vulnerable to the pain caused by other people and we love them anyway. Even when we’re hurt, we remain sensitive to the pain of others. We comfort, we console. We mourn with those who grieve. Tears shed out of love for another’s pain are precious to Jesus. We shed them freely.

I’m thankful for those early memories of my sweet grandfather who cried for me as I left him each summer. He showed me I wasn’t alone in being quick to cry out of love. When someone called me “tender-hearted” I felt close to him and it made me feel less different. My life is richer for it and my faith is nourished by my tears. You’ll know when you see me at Mass—I’m the one at the end of the pew, always looking for a tissue.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
—Ephesians 4:32

The Beast Inside

Anyone who has spent any time in the woods has probably seen or heard something they can’t quite explain. The sound of a branch breaking when nothing is there. The call of an animal that you’ve never heard before. A strange-looking track you can’t identify. The feeling that you’re being watched or followed. Later, safely back home, you think things over and wonder what you just saw or heard. A bear? a mountain lion? Bigfoot? Zombies?

Our human story has always been shot through with monsters. We’re fascinated with scary stories or tales of the “unknown.” We cover our eyes at the terrifying parts of the movie, but we open them just wide enough to see the vampire show his fangs. We’re scared, but we’re also attracted. Why does the shadow in the woods frighten us and at the same time, draw us to it? Why does the girl always take the flashlight and go down the creaky basement stairs? She goes because, like each one of us, she’s a monster, too.

One of the reasons we’re so fascinated by the bogeyman in the woods is because sometimes we feel and act like a wildman ourselves. We let our emotions get the better of us and instead of being rational and reflective, we scream and wave our hands in the air. We feel like picking up a club and running amok. But we don’t. At least most of us don’t. That fleeting moment of “monster-me” goes away pretty quickly. But we remember what we’re capable of. Those out-of-control impulses help us transform a shadow into a zombie in the closet. Or a ghoul in the basement. After all, if there’s one inside of me, why wouldn’t there be more out in the world?

We’re all a mix of good and evil, of light and dark, of angel and beast. Humility keeps us aware of how broken we are. Humility whispers to us: “Without grace, you’re just another one of the walking dead.” It’s pride that tells us that it’s that OTHER person who is sinful and selfish and short-tempered. Pride tells us that we’re just fine, that our sins are few and tiny. Or else it tells us we’re so sinful and lost that God could never ever forgive us and welcome us into His arms. Pride is the soul-killer, the life-taker, the sin that can transform us into one of the walking dead.

The Catholic writer Michael Kelly says that there is a clear line that separates good from evil and that line runs through the middle of my heart and of your heart. The grace of God calls us to be the light of the world and our own pride uses every chance to put a bushel over that light. We see that same struggle going on in our Church, in our country, and in our world. We change the world by allowing God to change us. The Sacraments give us life in Christ, and they increase our humility. You never see a humble vampire or zombie, do you? Immersed in Sacramental grace, we keep pride at bay and share the Light in a world of shadow and darkness. Pray for humility, for the grace to be aware of your sins and to seek forgiveness in Confession. Take your monster to the closet of confession and leave it there. God loves monsters.  

Not all the monsters have fangs.”

                     —–Jack London 

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