Peter and Jesus

In our relationships with one another we treasure those people who know us and love us.  Lifelong friends and family who know all our strengths and failings and love us anyway are trusted and beloved gifts.  Without this core of love and support, we can easily lose our way.  We rely on them to keep us grounded, to encourage us, to call us out when we go off course, to listen to us and to stand with us in good times and in bad times.  To be truly known by someone else, we have to make ourselves vulnerable to them.  We can’t hide our thoughts and feelings if we seek intimacy.  Those we allow inside our hearts are the ones whose words and actions can most hurt us, too.  I love reading about the friendship between Jesus and Peter in the gospels.  Of all the relationships in Christ’s human life, the one He shares with St. Peter intrigues me the most.  Peter has such a big heart—a God-sized heart—and he loves deeply and fiercely.  His heart also leads him to poor judgments at times, and deep, painful regrets.  Jesus knew his friend’s heart perfectly because He created it.  I think it was his big heart that Christ loved so much and it was that same bigness of heart that allowed Peter to hear the Holy Spirit and know that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.

Jesus had been living in Capernaum, Peter’s hometown on the sea of Galilee, when He began His public ministry.  You have to wonder how well the two men knew each other before Christ called Peter and his brother Andrew to be His first disciples.  I love that Peter heard Jesus’ call to follow and “at once” he and his brother followed Him (Matthew 5:20).  Friends that don’t hesitate to come to us when we need them are the very best kind.  All of us have that short list of true friends and family that we call on in bad times to help us and in good times to celebrate with us.  Christ called Peter and Peter left everything behind—family, home and business—to come with Him and enter into the deepest and most transformational relationship he’d ever know.  Peter was there by Christ’s side throughout His ministry.  It was Peter’s faith that Christ loved so much that He made him the “rock” upon whom He’d build His Church (Matthew 16:18).  Peter was there with Christ at His Transfiguration (Luke 9:27-36).  Peter’s faith allowed him to step out of the boat and walk on the water towards Christ—at least for a few steps (Mark 6:45-52).  Yet Peter had his weaknesses as well.  Oftentimes he got Christ’s teachings a bit wrong, but our Lord was patient and forgiving with Peter, just as He is with each one of us.

On the night before His Passion, Peter and Jesus experience a turning point in their friendship.  At supper, Christ foretells the betrayal that will lead to His arrest.  Peter is adamant that his faith in the Lord would never be shaken.  Jesus pointedly tells Peter that is about to deny Him not once, but three times.  Peter contradicts and says “Even though I should have to die with You, I will not deny You (Matthew 26:35). Of course we know that Peter does deny Christ three times that morning, just as the Lord had said he would. Peter’s heart is broken when he realizes what he’s done to his Savior.  We read in St. Luke’s gospel of an intimate, tender moment in their friendship.  Just as Peter has denied Christ for the third time and the guards are leading Jesus away in chains, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61).  Think about that look for a moment.  The cruel words have just left Peter’s mouth, the cock has crowed and now he’s looking into Jesus’ eyes, with the full impact of his denial hanging in the air between them.  Peter knows what he’s done. Christ knows what he’s done.  But in His look is no accusation or judgment.  His look is full of love for Peter.  And seeing Love looking back at him, Peter breaks down into tears, his heart overflowing with sorrow for what he’s done.  Christ returns love and mercy for denial.  We can even imagine that there is hope in Christ’s eyes, the hope of Peter’s redemption.  What Jesus does for Peter in that moment is what He does for each one of us in the Sacrament of Confession.  He meets our sins with His overwhelming forgiveness.  He embraces our weaknesses with His great mercy.  Like Peter, we may expect condemnation, but Christ surprises us with acceptance and with love.  No sin is beyond His forgiveness.  Nothing we could ever do will make Him turn His face from us.  This is what Peter saw when He looked at Jesus.  And Jesus saw His best friend whom He loved with all His heart and for whom He was about to give His life.  This is a moment that He offers to each one of us in Confession.  Love. Mercy. Forgiveness.  No matter your sins or how long you’ve been away from the Sacrament.  He is waiting for you there.  Christ is the One Who knows you best and loves you most.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

-The Confession of St. Peter, Matthew 16:16

Cast Your Net

At the end of the day, we should ask ourselves, “How did I draw others to Christ this day?” We can have all kinds of good intentions, but we know where good intentions can often lead. Folks don’t know our intentions, they only know our words and our actions. So maybe the question should be,”What did I say and do today to draw others to Christ?” These days, we all need to ask ourselves this question.

Well, if you walked around with your head down staring at your phone, chances are you didn’t do a whole lot of leading by example. How many opportunities to help, to show kindness, to be merciful, or to offer hope do we lose because we’re so involved in responding to those little glowing screens in our hands? I do this way too often, especially as a way of “killing time” while I’m waiting in a line, waiting in a doctor’s office, or even as a way of not engaging with the people around me. I’m being self-centered and proud—-hardly an example of a joyful disciple of Christ. 

In order to reveal our Savior to another person, we have to be open to engage with them. This seems incredibly obvious, but so many times we don’t do it. Look people in the eyes. The cashier at the supermarket. The bank teller. Your spouse. Your child. Listen to them. Don’t just mentally prepare what you plan to say in response once they’re stopped talking. Really listen to their words and the meaning behind them. You may hear something you weren’t expecting. Ask questions. Be patient. Don’t feel that you have to make small talk to fill in any silences. Sometimes silence is very important. Connecting with another person in that way can be the first step in sharing the love of Jesus. 

Joy. That’s right, joy. If there’s one thing that should distinguish a Christian from an unbeliever, it’s that we live our lives with joy. Everyone can be happy in the good times, but I’m talking about being joyful even in the worst of times. Joy comes from the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit. Joy is the deep and abiding assurance of the love of Jesus Christ. I love the traditional story of St. Lawrence as an example of Christian joy. He was a deacon in 3rd century Rome, during some of the worst times of Christian persecution. He distributed alms to the poor, which won him the anger of the Empire. As punishment, he was strapped to a grate over a raging fire. After he had been burned alive for a time, he told his torturers, “You can turn me over now—I think I’m done on that side!” Now that’s joy—an enduring happiness which grows in relationship with Jesus.  

If you faithfully engage with the people your meet every day and you listen to them and reflect back the joy of Christ, you can be assured that your life will bear the light of Christ to others. You don’t have to be a professional preacher or write inspirational books or teach Sunday School. Just be who God made you to be and live each day in the hope of the Cross. God will set people in your path that are hungry to have what you have to know the One Who gave it to you.

“Joy is a net of love by which we catch souls.”

—-St. Teresa of Calcutta

From Blessing to Burden

“Then God blessed them and said,’Be fruitful and multiply.’ “(Genesis 1:28).  From the very beginning children, and their making, were a blessing from the Lord.  His blessing was to our first parents, Adam and Eve, and by extension to all of us.  Marriage and the children that are the gifts of this union are reflections of the divine love of the Holy Trinity.  God’s plan for us always meant that marriage and the gift of children would be sanctifying for us.  In this way, our shared love would make us holy.  His plan for us was perfect.  But our sin changed everything.  We separated love from sex and sex from marriage and marriage from fruitfulness.  In the process, we separated ourselves from God.  This is how the blessing of a child has become a “clump of cells.”  This is how we’ve come to kill 3700 babies every day in America.

The journey from blessing to burden, as many see children today, is the story of our culture.  By deadening our hearts to God’s plan of blessing, we’ve deadened our hearts to sin as well.  So much so that we no longer even see the connection between taking an innocent baby’s life (seen as a “right”) and the disintegration of our way of life.  We glorify the actors and movie makers who depict violent murders by giving them millions of our dollars every weekend at the box office.  We watch their movies, growing up with them as our regular entertainment.  We buy our kids violent video games and they beg us for the newest, most graphic versions.  They become saturated in the violence they watch.  They see commercials about Viagra and birth control devices and pills that promise easy sex with no “consequences.”  Many of their friends in school live in homes without a father.  Or they live with parents who aren’t committed to one another in marriage.  Nothing in their lives is permanent.  And no one talks to them about God or models His love for them and His plan for their lives and their happiness.  They absorb the culture of “me” and look to it for the answers to life’s great questions:  Why am I here?  What’s the purpose of my life?  Is this all there is?  And the culture answers them:  You are nothing but an animal with a thumb.  Your purpose is to experience as much physical pleasure as possible.  And when you die, you’re dead.  The end. 

And they believe it.  Because there’s nothing to contradict the culture’s answers.  We’ve made sure of that.  We’ve taken prayer out of schools and the public arena.  Anyone who professes the Christian faith is marginalized (“clinging to their Bibles”) and ridiculed (think of Tim Tebow).  We encourage diversity so long as that diversity doesn’t include Jesus Christ.  We’ve taken down all the crosses and the Christmas trees.  We live in fear of offending anyone with the values that once built this country.

And then one of us goes into a darkened theater and murders people he’s never met: just like he’s seen at the movies and on television and in his video games.  Or he takes his mother’s guns and goes into an elementary school and kills children and their teachers.  And we’re so horrified that we want to take up all the guns and lock them away: which will insure that only criminals and the insane will have guns now.

We’ve come so far from God’s truth that we no longer see the connection between murder in the womb and murder in the streets or theaters or elementary schools.  We don’t realize that when we separate love from sex and sex from pregnancy and pregnancy from God’s gift of a child that it affects the whole world.  Our actions matter.  The intentions of our heart matter.  What we value matters.  We protect trees and polar bears but kill unborn children by the millions.  Then we wonder why our society is so violent.  Are we so blind that we can’t see this connection?  So long as we support abortion we should expect to live in a violent, murderous land.  We’ve chosen to turn our back on God’s blessing to Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Now, we reap what we have sown.

“Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what it wants.”

—-St. Teresa of Calcutta

Your Price

My first job after graduate school was as a psychotherapist in a small town in west Texas.  I worked for a public mental health agency and we were missioned to serve all the psychological needs of the community.  We saw anyone and everyone that walked through our doors.  It was a great learning experience for me.  One of the aspects of our clinic was that our fees were based on our client’s income.  The more they earned, the more they paid.  But no one left without paying something.  The idea was that people tend not to place value on things they receive for free.  So even our poorest clients would pay something for their therapy sessions, even if it was just a dollar.  And if they didn’t keep their appointments, they would still be charged.  Very few would no-show their sessions this way.  This arrangement didn’t come close to meeting our operating expenses, but that wasn’t the point anyway.

After all these years, I think our assumptions about value and worth were right.  Life has taught me that people tend to not value things that come to them without a price.  When something is valuable to us, we take better care of it.  We make sure it doesn’t get damaged and, if it does, we have it repaired.  We use it for the purpose for which it was made.  We don’t let others misuse it. In the first letter of St. Paul to the church at Corinth, the truth of this is brought home to us directly: “You were purchased at a price” (I Cor 6:19-20).

Thank about that for a moment.  “You were purchased at a price.”  You are so valuable that God bought you with the life of His only Son.  What would you purchase with the life of your only child? Can you even imagine that kind of love?  And yet that’s how much God loves you.  In the midst of your sinful life (in the midst of my sinful life), that’s how much God values and loves you.  He loves you more than you can understand, and with a love that is beyond your human comprehension.  Knowing this should call each of us to have a conversion in our hearts and in our lives.  We belong to the Lord.  He has claimed us as His children though the sinless blood of Christ.  All that we have, all that we are is His and His alone.  Every breath we take is a gift of His generous love.  This knowledge has big and practical consequences for us:

1.  All human life is precious and must be treated with dignity and respect from the moment of conception until natural death.

2.  Parents have a duty to raise their children in His Church, teaching them about God’s great love for them and guiding them in the way of that love.

3.  We must love one another as God loves each of us.

4.  Our bodies belong to God.  They are the temple of His love for us and should be treated with holy respect.’

5.  Every day is a gift from God and so we must spend it doing good and working for the benefit of others.

6.  No one is outside the love of God.  Even if we don’t like them, God loves them ferociously.

7.  No one is unable to be redeemed.  No matter the sin, no matter the sinner.  We are ALL the prodigal children of the Father.  By His mercy, we seek His forgiveness.  Through His grace, we are saved.

8.  God has never been closer to you than He is at this very moment.  If you’re still reading this, it’s only because God is calling to you.  He longs for your friendship because “you were purchased at a price.”  He has valued you above and beyond anything else in the universe. You are the treasure of His Sacred Heart.

What’s your response to this sort of overwhelming love?  How do you begin to be grateful?

“God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” — St. Augustine (354AD-430AD)

The Christ Child

She looked him over, from the top of his tiny head, to the soles of his wiggling little feet. Ten fingers, ten toes—all parts accounted for. Perfectly formed. Perfectly normal. She wrapped his wriggling body in a rough blanket. So small. She held him against her, feeling him struggle and whimper at this latest outrage. Fists waving, eyes squinting and unfocused and then, the crying began. His wails were out of proportion to his little body, piercing the cold midnight with their insistent “I am here!” declaration. Was he hungry, she wondered? Cold? Wet? She begins to learn about this new person in his first few minutes apart from her body. This child may be helpless and dependent, she thinks, but he is certainly not passive. She smiles and remembers his beginnings inside her, that moment of aching, unknowing hope that took root and grew within her. Now, here he is—crying and demanding and separate from her. And she wishes she could keep him safe forever.

As for the child, his world is a much smaller and much simpler place than hers, at least for now. He wants warmth and food and human touch. He shamelessly demands your attention to him. A Jewish infant, he is completely unconcerned with the politics, religion, or ethnicity of his comforters. His mother is an unmarried teenaged peasant, but he wouldn’t care if she’d been born a princess or a courtesan. Some shepherds are coming to visit him, but their lowly vocation and social status are of no concern to him at all. He’ll be visited soon by three pagan strangers from what is present-day Iraq, but their expensive gifts won’t impress him. Everyone gathering to see him comes laden with their own complicated personal histories and predicaments. Each one has questions and doubts about him, born of their own issues and weaknesses, their own personal sins and woundedness. None of this concerns the child. What he wants is their love. Unquestioningly, he reaches out to each one in their turn, seeking out their humanity, desiring their touch. A tiny hand seeking them right where they are.

Soon, he’ll grow up. A king will try to kill him. His family will have to become refugees on the run just to survive. His parents will worry for him beyond our knowing. He’ll grow up to quit the family business and hang out with an odd circle of friends. His crowd will include a variety of shady characters, including prostitutes, radicals, tax collectors and drunkards. He will get into big, big trouble. He’ll confront those in power with an unyielding will, a fierce tongue, and a turn of the cheek. In the end, his friends will desert him and his foes will seemingly destroy him. In the more distant future, his life will inspire a faith that will transform the world. His name will be a source of blessing and will also be used to wage wars. But not tonight. Tonight he’s a baby like all babies, innocent and a sign of hope. Tonight he’s just like any other newborn—both nothing special and seven pounds of pure miracle. The Word made flesh welcomes everyone at His manger. He simply wants you to come as you are and to be there with Him. Let your praises to Him be your deepest longings. Let your prayers be your wholehearted attention. Let your hymn be His lullaby. And your Christmas gift to the King of Kings? Yourself—whoever you happen to be, however you happen to be. Love this Child as He reaches His tiny hand out to grip your finger. The great I AM is looking up at you tonight.


Merry Christmas!

The Cross In The Manger

We love the manger scene at Christmas, don’t we?  Ever since St. Francis of Assisi made the first one in 1223, Christians of all sorts have loved seeing the tender scene of the stable at Bethlehem.  Tiny Nativity sets on our coffee tables.  Carved wooden family heirlooms under our Christmas trees.  Large realistic statuary in front of the altar of our church.  We love the sight of all the animals gathered into the stable around the manger.  We see the shepherds there, running in from their flocks to worship the newborn baby.  The angels who proclaimed His birth hover nearby, trumpets in hand, trailing banners that read, “Gloria In Excelsis Deo.” The sweet old man leaning on his staff must be St. Joseph.  A misreading of Scripture sometimes places the three wise men in the Nativity scene too, though it was probably at least a couple of years later that they made their appearance.  Every manger scene features the Blessed Virgin Mary looking down lovingly at her newborn son.  Even the most spartan Christian denominations trot out a Nativity scene at Christmas.  No one could object to these warm and fuzzy images.  And then, there’s the baby—tiny and perfect and cooing up at His mother and foster father.  Just looking at Him gives us a warm glow, a feeling that all is right with the world once more.  We look at this idyllic scene and smile.

And yet to view His birth as only a kind of Disney cartoon filled with little lambs and singing cherubs is at least a misunderstanding and maybe even a heresy.  This is not just the miracle of another birth to another poor couple in desperate circumstances.  This is the Creator God Whose birth is cleaving creation in two.  By being born as a baby, He is dividing time itself.  We measure time as either before or after the Incarnation.  This cooing infant has all the power and knowledge of the great “I AM” in Him from the moment of His conception.  Fully human and fully divine, this newborn is the Word made flesh.  Look closely at Him and you’ll see much more than just a babe in swaddling clothes.

Nestled in His mother’s lap in the stable, does He also imagine the last time she’ll hold Him, as He is taken down from the Cross? Looking around Him there in the manger, does He notice the donkey patiently chewing some hay nearby and does he see that other one that He’ll ride into Jerusalem for that last Passover? Does His borrowed stable remind Him of the borrowed tomb yet-to-be? Does He wonder why so many want to see Him in the crib, but so few will want to walk with Him to Golgotha? Crowds come to pray at His birth, but He knows that in Gethsemane, He’ll pray alone. The stable filled with love and homage will one day be a lonely hill, rocky and barren and full of suffering. Does the baby know this? Surely. And yet He chooses to come to us anyway. He comes to be one of us so that we can know how to be more like Him. He comes because He knows we have nowhere else to go and no one else who can save us. He comes because it is His Father’s will and He and the Father are One. He comes out of love because He IS Love. The baby in the manger is already sacrificing Himself for you and for me. The star shining so brightly overhead throws a shadow on His face, the shadow of a Cross. We can never truly know the joy of that Bethlehem night unless we also embrace with Him that long afternoon on Good Friday. Our beloved manger scenes at Christmas hold the promise of Easter morning within them, if we only choose to make the journey with our Savior. It begins here in Bethlehem as we kneel by the baby. Mary’s little lamb is already the Lamb of God “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).

The Light of Christmas

It’s December again and the darkness of the winter season is all around us. The oak leaves are brown and crunchy underfoot on the cold ground. Frost has burnt the leaves of the rose bush. The nights are long and the blue-white stars shine with a steely cold light. And yet we know that after the depths of winter, spring will come again. At the root of that empty oak tree is the spark of life that will force the green leaves in just a few months. Inside the frost-bitten bush is the sleeping rose bud that will awaken in the warmth of spring. Memory consoles us in winter with the hope of new life. We remember summer’s warmth of long days and soft nights; the abundance of our sun-kissed gardens and the green lushness of field and valley. Even in winter’s darkness, we carry in our hearts the light of summer.

God formed our remembering hearts, to seek Him and to long for the light of His love. He knows how very much we need Him and yearn for the Truth which only He can give us. And so He chose to come to us in the darkest days of winter, when His light would shine the brightest and when the consolation of His coming would be most welcome. Heaven came to earth in the Blessed Virgin’s holy womb; her sacred “yes” inviting the Infinite to make His home among us. But this King of all Kings didn’t come to rule, but to serve. He doesn’t demand homage, but seeks to be in a relationship with each one of us. The great “I AM” comes to us as a shivering baby in a backwater manger. That very night, the winter skies were filled with angels and the light of heaven used a star to shine forth the way to Him. The light of that singular star is reflected today in every twinkling bulb on our Christmas trees, and in every candle flickering on our altar. The sanctuary lamp burns brightly near the Tabernacle of every Catholic church in the world and proclaims that Christ is here! Just as He was in the manger, or the Upper Room, or on the Cross, or arising from the tomb. The uncreated Light that rolled away the stone and banished darkness forever, that made the earth and hung the moon in place, that raised Lazarus from the dead and cured the sick and walked on the water—that same Light comes to us at every Mass. And the angels that dance around His heavenly throne, and who heralded His birth to the shepherds, kneel with us around the altar in loving adoration.

And so in these darkest days of winter, again He comes to us. In the darkness of our lost and sinful world, again He comes to us. In the sinful, secret corners of our guilty hearts, He comes to us. “The Light of the world” (John 8:12) comes to love us, to know us, and to save us. He comes to bring us to Himself in all-embracing Light. He comes to heal our broken souls and bind up all our wounds. In the winter darkness of our sins and failings, our addictions and our weakness, when we can see nothing before us but cold, barren ground and the loneliness of doubt, He comes to bring us new life and hope. Christ, our Light, conquers darkness forevermore. Come, Lord Jesus!

That Stinky Smell? It’s Me

This time of year is filled with stuff that triggers our memories of Christmases past. Maybe nothing transports us to another time and place more immediately than the smells we associate with this season. I’ll bet you can easily name a half-dozen smells that come to mind. A fresh-cut Christmas tree. A bayberry candle. Cookies baking in the oven. A dusting of nutmeg on a cup of eggnog. Wood smoke. Incense at Mass. Scientists tell us that our sense of smell is very closely tied to our memories. Without requiring any thought on our part, a smell can call forth memories and emotions. I think this is especially true at Christmas, when smells and memories are so incredibly strong. After all, we don’t usually recall the “smells” of Halloween or Easter or Labor Day. Christmas is a time set apart for remembering.  

We can imagine the smells of that first Christmas, too. Maybe a little more earthy than our modern holiday. The smells of hay and grain. The pungent odor of manure. The stone and the wood of the walls and the manger. The animal smells of the warm donkey, sheep, and goats. Later, of course, we would smell the spicy frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi. The incense we use at Mass recalls the sweet smoke of the Temple priests as they prayed for the people of God. And myrrh which was used to anoint the bodies of the dead, foreshadowing the Crucifixion. Holy Scripture shares many verses about smells: from how the Lord enjoyed the odor of Noah’s animal sacrifices (Genesis 8:21), the sweet incense offered to Him by His priests (Exodus 30:26-27) to the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany on the night before He died (John 12:3). St. Paul tells us that our very lives “are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God”(II Corinthians 2:14). We associate holiness with a sweet aroma that is pleasing to God. 

And we think of sin as having the acrid odor of corruption and decay. This seems logical since sin equals death and death stinks. When something or someone dies, cells break down, toxins emerge, tissues fall apart. And what was once the sweet aroma of life transforms into the noxious, rancid fester of decay.. One of my favorite images from Holy Scripture is the story of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, who had died and been buried in a tomb. Jesus loved Mary and Martha, who were Lazarus’ sisters and He went to see them and give them comfort. But the comfort He planned to share went beyond the ordinary. He walked to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. Even after his body had been rotting in the tomb for days. When He tells Martha what He’s about to do, ever-practical Martha gives one of the best one-liners in the Bible: “”Lord, there will be a stench”(John 11:38). Jesus calls Lazarus to life and out of the grave he comes, still wrapped in his funeral shroud. Then, another great verse, as Jesus tells His followers,”Unbind him, and let him go”(John 11:44).  

And that, my friends, is exactly what Jesus does for you and for me in the Sacrament of Confession. Sin makes me stink. Serious sin disrupts my relationship with God–it takes my spiritual life away and leaves me dead inside. I’m wrapped up in the trappings of my bad choices, constrained by the shroud of sin. Confession frees me, it allows me to come clean and to encounter the life-giving mercy of my Savior. His grace unbinds me from my trappings and makes me a new creation, alive again in Him. Through His priest, I hear those great words of forgiveness and mercy. Like Lazarus, He raises me from the dead and lets me go free. He welcomes me back from the dead and my rotten stench is filled with His sweet aroma. Every confession is no less of a miracle than when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And He is waiting there to do the same for you. 

Whether it’s been two weeks or 25 years since your last confession, this season of Advent is the perfect time to come home. As we prepare to welcome His birth in Bethlehem, confession prepares us to meet Him again in our hearts. You’ll be unbound from the binding of your sins and once again, you can offer your life as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to Him. Don’t be afraid. Coming home to the Lord smells like hope.

“…walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”

—-Ephesians 5:1-2

Not of the World

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’re about to enter 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 if 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’s 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 Teresa of Calcutta

Jesus and 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

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