Patience

  
Dark comes early on these December days leading up to Christmas. The cold begins to settle in my bones. When the sun sets the little daytime creatures in the woods retreat to their nests and burrows. In the hours to follow, the liquid dark will fill in every hollow as the frost of almost-winter coats the fallen leaves and the bare branches. The quiet is a different kind of silent night in the woods this time of year. Like the chill of the air, this quiet is a solid thing, with a weight and substance of its own. It’s as if the earth itself is whispering, “Slow down. Wait. Be still.” The world is holding its breath. In a couple of weeks, on the solstice, the earth will begin to journey to the light and warmth once again. But right now, these are the dark days of waiting and longing in the cold quiet of long and frosty nights.  

It’s no wonder that the Church celebrates the birth of Jesus in the winter. Life is at its most hidden in the winter. Days are short and the weak light of the sun gives little warmth. We stay bundled inside our own little burrows, hidden and safe. We can imagine, if we try, the Virgin Mary with the Word of God growing quietly inside of her. She moves more slowly now, and with more deliberation. She spends more of her time thinking of her Son and His coming into the world. The darkness of the world is soon to be illumined by His great Light. Everything she does is affected by His presence within her. She waits. She prays. She hopes for His birth as any mother hopes for the coming of their baby. Yet the Virgin also knows Who her Son is and knows as well the road He must travel. The bloom of God within her will one day pierce her immaculate heart.  

There exists a delicate balance in these Advent days. A balance between light and dark, life and death, action and reflection. Above all, it is a time of learning to be patient. We wait to hear His voice. We stop focusing on the busyness of the world to reflect on eternal things. We prepare the manger of our hearts to receive our Savior. We put aside our wants so that we can meet the needs of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the outsiders in our community. Every Advent is another opportunity to be light in the darkness. We waste this time of patient preparation if we allow ourselves to be caught up in the world’s push to purchase and display and out-do. We can’t be merciful if we’re in a competition. Mercy thrives in humility and service. And patience.  

In the cold dark nights of winter, a great Light is coming. Our waiting is a gift to the Light. As we learn to conform our will to His will, we love more, we forgive more. We know that love is kind, but it is, first of all, patient (I Corinthians 13:7). We wait. We prepare through our repentance and our almsgiving. We share our abundance with those who have less. Patient love endures in hard times. It grows in the heart that turns to the Light despite the coldness of a world that despises her King. Winter roots hold life and the promise of the coming spring. In the dark and cold, they grow strong and sturdy. And when the Light returns, they’re ready. They send forth new life. This is our calling—to prepare ourselves for the Light that is coming. Alleluia.  

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in His word, I hope…”

     —–Psalm 130:5 

Waiting

  
One of the challenges of being a Christian is to live up to the adage that we are called to be “in the world but not of the world.” Jesus speaks about this to His followers in a few places including John15:19 and again in John 17:14-6. We know that the world around us is not our true home and that heaven is our destiny. Folks should be able to look at how we live our lives and know that we’re different from non-believers. All of us have heard this teaching since childhood, but often it’s difficult to know how to do it. How can I follow Christ in a way that will draw others to Him?

The season of Advent, which we’ve just entered into, is a great opportunity to do that. The world around us pushes us directly from Thanksgiving into Christmas, without a moment to prepare or reflect on the coming of Jesus. The world expects us to observe Black Friday as if it is a kind of religious holiday. But that doesn’t mean that we Christians have to do it. In the weeks leading up to His birth, shouldn’t we imitate Jesus in doing what He did when He was preparing for an important event?

When Jesus was getting ready to begin His ministry, He withdrew from the world to fast and to pray. When He felt overwhelmed by the noise and crush of the crowds, He withdrew to fast and pray (Luke 5:15-16). As He faced His arrest, He went to the Garden to pray. Jesus faced the trials and challenges of His life through prayer and reflection. His disciples noticed this. They saw Him treat quiet prayer as a critical part of His life. Do we do that? Do we imitate Jesus or do we imitate the world?

As we prepare to celebrate His birth, we enter into Advent, which is meant to be a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We should be spending quiet time in prayer, not frantically decorating our house, splurging on sweets, and buying everything in sight. Because if that’s what we’re doing, we’re being an example of worldliness. All that joyous celebration comes with Christmas, but now, we are called to prayer. We’re asked to prepare our hearts for His coming, to withdraw from the crowds and to pray.  

Many times it’s hard to know how we can set ourselves apart from the fallen world around us. We can do that in Advent. We can pray with our families at meals, including when we eat out in a restaurant. We can add additional prayer time for ourselves. There are lots of great Advent series online, but my favorite reading is the Book of Isaiah. The prophet unfolds the story of the coming Messiah in such beautiful images. He makes us feel the longing that the people of Israel felt for their Savior. We learn how they must have felt “walking in darkness” and knowing that a Great Light was coming for them. Isaiah is so beautifully poetic and I encourage you to read it in the weeks leading up to Christmas. And we should fast like Jesus did. Even if it’s only saying “no” to those Christmas treats, it’ a way we can control our appetites for the things of the world, for a greater good. We should also do good for others, and not just for our family and friends. We should give of our time and our treasure to folks who have no way of paying us back.

When you spend your Advent in quiet preparation, you can hear the Lord lead you to Himself. People will notice. They may ask, “Why haven’t you put up your Christmas tree yet?” They may wonder why your twinkling lights are missing. And you can use those questions (especially from your kids) to let them know the importance of preparing our hearts for Jesus’ birth at Christmas. It’s a chance to share your faith with others. It’s a chance to live differently than the unbelievers around us. Advent has been lost by many Christians and it’s time we reclaim its beauty and reverence. Light the first candle of your Advent wreath and let the joy of anticipating His coming fill your heart, as you wait.  

“At this Christmas when Christ comes, will He find a warm heart? Mark the season of Advent by loving and serving others, with God’s own love and concerns.”

     —–Saint Mother Teresa 

An Unworthy Hunger

  
Today, I passed by my childhood Baptist church on my way home from Mass. The building is a little bigger now than in those years and the gravel parking lot is paved. I haven’t seen the inside in more than 30 years, when I went to the wedding of a friend. Today, their preacher seemed to be keeping them “overtime.” It made me smile as I thought of the fidgeting children and the anxious men looking at their football watches. I thought of the preacher, glancing at his sermon notes, quoting Scripture, and exhorting his members to follow Christ in everything. He was feeding them with the word of God and they were hungry for it.

I remember that hunger, sitting in those same pews on Sundays, loving the hymns we sang and the preaching. But, even as a child, I knew there was more. I knew there had to be more. Once a month or so we’d share the “Lord’s Supper” which was small crackers and tiny cups of grape juice. We were to imagine how the Apostles shared the meal with Jesus on the night He was betrayed. We were to feel the closeness of that first family of faith as we ate and drank. I remember it as a moving experience and wishing we could do it more often. But still, it didn’t fill that hunger inside of me, of wanting more of Jesus and not knowing where to go for Him. I remember thinking, “Is this all there is? This preacher and this occasional meal?” It took me several years but the Lord led me to the Catholic Church. He led me through reading the works of the early Church Fathers and the Scriptures given to us by the Church. I came to know that Jesus DID leave us more than preaching and hymns. He left us a Church, which gave us the Holy Scriptures. And He left us Himself in the Holy Eucharist. That Presence is what and Whom I had hungered for, and, undeserving as I am, He left for me.

Eucharist means “thanksgiving” so this week is a wonderful time to be grateful for His gift to us. At every Mass, we kneel at the foot of the Cross and He comes to us to save us. His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity are given to us anew in the Most Blessed Sacrament. This communion isn’t a mere remembrance of a meal shared by the Apostles. It is Himself, truly present, just as He said: “Take this and eat it for this is My Body…this is My Blood”(Matthew 26-26:28). I believe His words: “Then Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in you”(John 6:53). That life, given freely in Baptism and renewed in the Eucharist, was what I’d hungered for before I entered the Church. And that life remains the source of my daily gratitude and thanksgiving.

A sinner, He came to suffer and die for me. A sinner, He clung to the Cross to spill His Holy Blood for me. A sinner, He gave His Blessed Mother to me. A sinner, He rose from the tomb for me. A sinner, He gave His Church to me. A sinner, He gave His Sacraments to me. A sinner, He gives me HIs Body and Blood. A sinner, His mercy forgives me. A sinner, deserving of nothing, He gives me a share of His Kingdom. This week of Thanksgiving always reminds me of my journey to Christ in the Eucharist and my overwhelming gratitude for that most wondrous Gift.  

“Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise Him on the last day.”

    —John 6:54 

And So, Here We Are Again 

  
I wrote what follows in November 2012, just after the last elections. Remember how many of us were feeling then? It’s interesting to see how little has changed except the winning party. See what I mean…

“My Fellow Barbarians”

So the elections are over and a few of my friends are beginning to stockpile things like food and water, supplies of seeds and the makings of a small arsenal. They believe there’s a coming financial/social/political collapse which will radically change the way we’ll be living in America. You’ve probably seen that TV show about folks who are doing the same kind of “prepping” for everything from earth-changing solar flares, to super volcanoes to a deadly flu pandemic to hyperinflation. All kinds of mostly-rational people are squirreling away mountains of supplies which they hope will be enough to see them through whatever the coming apocalypse holds in store. I don’t know. Maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s the prudent thing to do—to prepare for the worst. But I just can’t do it. Call me lazy or naive but I simply refuse to embrace the need to learn how to make freeze-dried possum or operate a chemical toilet. If it all goes south, I’ll just tag along for the ride. Mostly, thinking about terrible things that might someday happen makes me even more thankful that my hope is not in the things of this world. Christians are called to be people of hope. And by that I don’t mean that we walk around with cartoon bluebirds singing above our heads like dull-witted Pollyannas. Christian hope has nothing to do with being optimistic. Optimism is a temperament. Christian hope is a theological virtue given to us in our baptism and strengthened through confirmation, confession and the Holy Eucharist. It is a gift from God to His children. Hope is the certainty that God loves us. We can be certain of His love because He’s told us He loves us and, most profoundly, by the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Don’t get me wrong. The Catholic Church in America is facing profound attacks on the practice of our faith by the current (and now, future) administration. Simply put, we are suing the government to leave us alone. Some of our cardinals or bishops or priests may end up in jail rather than comply with what amounts to us as an unconstitutional health-care mandate. So if anybody should have a kind of bunker mentality right, it should be Catholics. 

But we can’t give in to it. Since the time of the Apostles, the Church has faced persecution, repression, and all manner of martyrdoms. We can face any kind of disaster, disappointment or suffering if we hold fast to hope in Christ. Read about some of the great martyrs of the Church and their perseverance and JOY while enduring physical torture of the most extreme kinds, imprisonment or starvation. They prayed, they sang, they danced. They praised God. The saints kept their hearts fixed on Christ and they never lost hope. That’s what saw them through the world’s pains to the glory of heaven. And that’s what will see us through whatever economic (or other) disasters we might be facing. We were made for the joy of the Lord and our true happiness is only found in Him. People and man made institutions will always disappoint us. God never disappoints. 

The challenge facing Catholics now is to remain engaged with a culture that has, in many ways, won the battle. Issues like abortion, same-sex “marriage”, and religious freedom, the core of many social conservative agendas are claimed as “won” by our political administration. With the President’s ability to appoint federal judges and Supreme Court justices, we could be in for a long siege. And that’s how we need to think about it, too. The barbarians at the gate….are us! The city’s already fallen and it’s up to us to re-take it. Barbarians like us are in it for the long haul. We’re in it for eternity. And we’re in it to win it because our hope is in the Lord. But to claim our victory we have to cling to the Cross of Christ and remain faithful to the Church He founded (Matthew 16:18). We have to pray and to fast (Matthew 17:21) if we are committed to this great work of faith. We can’t just withdraw into a bunker and wait it out. We have to engage with the people in our community, our family and our parish and be encouraged by Christ to know and defend our faith and our beliefs. We can’t give in to despair or paranoia. We have to fight the good fight of the faith (I Timothy 6:12) and as Churchill said, “never, never, never give up!” The world hungers for the witness of Christ and for us to be the spiritual leaven of that world (Matthew 13:33). We have to boldly proclaim Christ crucified (I Corinthians 1:23-24) and do so with joy! Our lives must be a witness to the transformational love of Jesus. Like Joshua at Jericho, we must be led by God’s holy presence if we trust to reclaim our city, our culture. Joshua’s siege was led by the Ark of the Covenant. We are led by the presence of God in the Holy Eucharist and Adoration. He is our only Hope.  

“Lord, send out Your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!” —Psalm 104

And Now We Clean Up

  
Here in the South, it’s hard to find anything that can beat a good church supper. Everybody brings their favorite dish and the tables are laden with pies and casseroles and deviled eggs, with fried chicken and barbecue and potato salad. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. And almost as good as the food is the fellowship we share at the meal. It’s a time for relaxing and catching up on all the family news. Eating together strengthens our ties as a parish and allows us to become more connected with one another. It’s a celebration of our shared beliefs. There’s only one down side to a celebration like this, and I’m not talking about the calories. It’s the mess that has to be cleaned up once it’s all over.  

After that last piece of pie and cup of coffee are gone, there’s a lot of sweeping, tidying, and washing up still to be done. It’s like that after every big party. Think of all that confetti on Times Square on New Year’s Day. Or the cups and wrappers littering a Super Bowl stadium. When we celebrate, we make a mess. And somebody has to clean it up. That’s where we find ourselves this election week. Because no matter which person becomes our President, the time has come for a massive clean-up.  

Just like at church, there’ll be those who leave without lifting a finger. They like to eat (and take home more food for later) but you can’t count on them to help once dessert is over. And then there are those, and there are lots of these, who’ll gladly clear their own table and package up whatever is left of the food they brought to the meal. This is a big help and their role is a valuable one. And finally, there are the real workers, the ones who do the heavy lifting of church life. Your church has them and mine does too. They’re the army of workers who are always the last to leave. They clean, they scrub, they put away tables and chairs and they never seek any recognition or thanks. And yet I’ll bet you can name them all right now. I’m sure your pastor can That’s how important they are. 

We need these folks in our country right now. This election has left quite a mess that needs cleaning up. First off, realize that a good number have already opted out of the process. They’ve packed up and gone home to complain about how it all turned out. And they’ll feel smug about getting off “easy.” That leaves a lot of us left to do the cleaning up, We have a lot to do, We have to reach out to our friends and family who are angry about how the election turned out, This isn’t the time for gloating or name-calling. There’s room for everyone in the next 4 years, no matter who is President. Families and friends are bound by deeper ties than any political process. Don’t let the election be a stumbling block to love. Think about getting involved in the political process yourself. Be an election worker next time. Volunteer to work for a candidate that you support. Run for office! Pray for our new President and Congress, even if your party lost. Especially if your party lost.  

We’re blessed to live in the greatest country on earth, but that comes with responsibility. It’s up to each one of us to help heal the wounds that divide us at times like this. Never forget that America has been consecrated to Mary, the Mother of God. She will intercede for us always, if we ask her.  

God our Father,

Giver of Life,

We entrust America to Your loving care.

Reclaim this land for Your glory

And dwell among Your people.”

    —Amen 

Christ’s Invisible Mother

  We had enjoyed our morning at the museum whose special exhibition of Italian painting and sculpture was both beautiful and moving. It was a bit crowded, but folks moved along pretty easily, listening to their headphones describing the artists and their works. We were about two-thirds of the way through the exhibit when we found ourselves just behind a trio of teenaged girls. Instead of headphones, they talked quietly among themselves at each new painting or sculpture. It was refreshing seeing them so interested in the art in front of them. We moved into a large gallery with several groupings of statues. I watched as the girls approached a life-sized model of the Virgin Mary with her arms raised in blessing. I looked in my guidebook for some info on the artist and overheard one of the young ladies say, “That’s a weird looking Statue of Liberty!” Her two friends agreed with her and they quickly moved on to the next group of works. What??? The Statue of LIberty? How could they not recognize the most iconic woman in the history of the world?

 
As a Catholic, the Virgin Mary is a central figure in the story of salvation. She is the pure handmaid of the Lord, chosen by God to be His own mother. Who can understand that? She’s the Virgin who is also the Mother, as well. Who can comprehend that? She’s the Queen of Heaven, given to me as my own mother, by her Son and Savior as He hung on the Cross. And yet, these girls can’t recognize her. I realized that their lack of knowledge shouldn’t surprise me. For the majority of non-Catholics, the Virgin Mary isn’t just unfamiliar—she’s invisible.  

Raised in the Baptist church, I remember our simple Christmas play. Each year some young girl would silently kneel by a manger with a doll in it while other children sang carols. That was the extent of the Blessed Virgin’s role in my faith formation. We weren’t taught about the Annunciation, or how she said “yes” to God’s plan for the Incarnation. I don’t think I really believed she was His mother, just a sort of caretaker. I didn’t know about her perpetual virginity, or her example of faith as Christ’s disciple I didn’t learn about Cana or that she was there at Pentecost. In fact, I’d never even thought of her keeping watch at the foot of the Cross, watching her beloved Son suffer and die for us. How could a good Southerner leave “Momma” out of the story? Unbelievable.  

I’m sure some protestants downplay Mary because anything about her seems “too Catholic.” And there’s still quite a bit of anti-Catholic prejudice hanging on. Others believe that Catholics worship Mary or somehow believe she is a demi-god. We don’t and she isn’t. We don’t attribute anything to Mary that God Himself doesn’t give to her. Our relationship with her is a perfect example of the communion of saints in which we followers of Christ participate. We ask her to pray for us just as we ask our family and friends on earth to pray for us. In the end, I’m not sure why Our Lady remains unknown and unloved by so many other Christians. It’s as if we could somehow offend God by loving and honoring His mother. I can’t imagine that.  

When I think of the young women in the museum, I’m sad for them. At a time in their lives when they’re discovering their feminine identity in the world, it’s a shame they aren’t looking to Mary as a role model. By opening herself to the will of God, a poor Jewish girl brought salvation into the world and became the Queen of heaven. Her humility and obedience to the Creator changed the world. Any young woman who is feeling adrift can look to Mary as a perfect guide. The last words she speaks in Scripture are wonderful advice for all of us: “Do whatever He tells you to”(John 2:5). Teach your daughters (and sons) about the Virgin Mary. Don’t let them journey through their lives without knowing the Mother of Jesus and her love for them.

Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.”

       —St. Maximilian Kolbe 

Mercy & Forgiveness 

  
“…and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”(Matthew 6:12). The mercy of God is freely given to all who follow Christ and the words of this prayer which He taught us. God forgives us as we forgive others. We pray this at every Sunday Mass, letting the familiar words form in our mouths as we have done since childhood. We are confident in them. They have become a pillar of faith. And like the pillars that support the church, we often ignore them, or peer around them to see other, more interesting things. 

We forget that God’s mercy depends on our mercy to the people who have wronged us. We sing songs about His amazing grace, but rarely include themes of our own mercy in our hymns. Our forgiveness hinges on our willingness to forgive other people. If we hold onto grudges and slights, we condemn ourselves. Mercy is an exchange of God’s grace, like living water that flows into and out of a sacred pool. The Dead Sea collects all the water from a great and flourishing area of land, but it has no outlet. And because of that, it is lifeless and saline. We’re like that, too. If all we do is accept God’s mercy without sharing it with others, then our own spiritual life begins to die. Oh, but forgiving others is so hard. Yes, it’s hard. In fact, it’s impossible. Which is why we can’t do it without the Holy Spirit. Only God can help us to love like He does and to forgive like He forgives. We have to grow in humility so that our pride doesn’t interfere with His grace.  

Jesus teaches us about this when He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”(Matthew 5:3). We have to know our own sinfulness and spiritual poverty in order to have a heart that is open to grace. You’ve got to know how very much you need the love of Christ and that, without Him, you’re lost. That realization can be hard for some folks. It goes against our modern ideas of self-sufficiency and pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Spiritual growth isn’t like that at all. Becoming more like Jesus means becoming less self-reliant and more dependent on Him. It goes against the wisdom of the world.  

Forgiving others isn’t an emotion, it’s an act of the will; a decision that you make. You don’t have to “feel” forgiving to forgive. And it’s not forgetting what was done to you—that’s denial. You don’t become a doormat. Forgiving is letting go of your right to be right. It means letting go of your right to revenge. God is in charge of justice—not you. And forgiving doesn’t mean that the other person has to admit they’re wrong. You forgive, no matter how they act towards you. This is about your relationship with God. Jesus forgave people who hadn’t repented and maybe never would. And we have to do the same. Every time you think of that person who has wronged you, say, “I forgive you”—whether you mean it or not at that moment. And then pray the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Pairing these two together reminds us how very much we need God’s forgiveness and how entwined that mercy is with our forgiveness of others. Our Lord never intended for us to live our faith in isolation. He lived His life in a family and a Church and He left us a Church in which we may journey together, forgive together, and learn to love together. And every Sunday Mass we stand together and pray,”…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen.  

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