Your Unique Mission

quiet watersPlanned Parenthood.  It’s the familiar name of an organization involved in promoting artificial contraception and abortion services—both of which go against the teachings of the Catholic Church.  But it’s the word “planned” that is intriguing—as if the creation of a baby could in any way be accidental.  Certainly, there are children who are conceived outside of a marriage, or at a time or circumstance in the lives of their parents when either one or both of them might not have anticipated or even hoped for a child to enter their lives.  But no person is an accident.  No person is unplanned by God. “I am your Creator.  You were in My care even before you were born” (Isaiah 44:2).  As Christians, we are confident in knowing that the Creator of the universe planned everything about us, from when we’d be born and to which set of parents, to the color of our eyes and the number of hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7). 
And if He planned us, then He also must have had a reason for our lives.  In Scripture, He tells us that we are made “to be holy” (Ephesians 1:4).  “Holy” means “set apart for God.”  We are created to be like Jesus Christ, to become like Him in our mind, our heart, our feelings and our sentiments so that we can continue His mission—so that we can be Christ to the world.  Jesus Himself tells us what He wants of us.  Our mission from Him is so important, so critical, that He explains it five times in five different ways in Scripture.  In Matthew, He tells His followers, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:16-20).  This is called “The Great Commission” and has been the mission of His Church since the moment Jesus spoke these words.  But it’s also the mission of each one of us as His children.  Remember that He planned you from before the foundation of the world.  He knit you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13).  Despite what the world tells you, He tells you that you are precious and wanted and loved.  He calls you to know Him and to serve Him.  You are chosen by God.
He chooses us to come to Him and then commissions us to go for Him.  Many people think only priests or religious or missionaries are called by Him to spread the good news of the Gospel.  Not true!  Remember the story of Isaiah, when he heard the Lord asking,”Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Isaiah didn’t stop to think who might be better-suited or more well-trained or be a better speaker than him.  He didn’t think of himself at all, but he heard the call of God and responded.  He said, “Here am I, Lord; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)  This should be our own prayer, as well.  For the Church is not a hotel, it’s our family home.  In a hotel, we pay some money and other people do the work for us.  Just coming to Mass and putting something in the collection basket while others—the pastor, the parish staff, volunteers—do the work, isn’t living up to Christ’s call.  In a home, everyone pitches in.  We are commissioned by Him to put our unique gifts and graces to work for His glory.  This is the path for our salvation, after all.  It’s His plan for our lives.  It’s the reason He made you the singular and irreplaceable person that you are—because without you, we are all made less.  No one else can play your part in His wonderful and glorious plan of salvation.  “Before the world was made, He chose us” (Ephesians 1:3). 
“We have not come into the world to be numbered; we have been created for a purpose; for great things:   to love and be loved.”                                                     —Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)

This Child

manger2She 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.

An Inconvenient Miracle

baby JesusThis last week before Christmas is always a hectic one.  There’s shopping to be done, cards to be sent, cookies to be baked and delivered:  and the relatives to be picked up from the airport.  It’s great seeing our loved ones for this wonderful holiday.  Sharing Christmas with friends and family is one of God’s great blessings.  But anyone who has flown during Christmas week knows how frustrating it can sometimes be.  You need to pray for patience—and lots of it.  There will be long lines at the ticket counter and at the TSA checkpoint.  There could be delays in boarding and lengthy waits to take off.  And there might be other, more unexpected interruptions in our well-made plans as well.  For example, several years ago a young man was on his way home for Christmas.  Flying from Chicago to Miami, he had a layover in–where else?—Atlanta.  As he sat in a coffee shop eating a sandwich and waiting for his flight, a young woman came out of the ladies’ room carrying a tiny baby in her arms.  She walked up to him and asked, “Would you hold my baby for me?  I left my purse in the restroom.”  Surprised by her trust, he did as she asked.  But instead of retracing her steps to the bathroom, she darted out into the holiday-packed concourse and was immediately lost in the crowd.  The young man couldn’t believe his eyes.  He rushed out into the mass of people, calling after her but there was no sight of her anywhere.  Now what should he do?  Put the baby down and run?  He took a few deep breaths, looked down at the tiny face peering back at him from the blankets and went back inside the coffee shop.  The manager called the airport police and in a little while they’d found the baby’s real mother.  You see, the woman who’d left him holding the baby wasn’t the mother at all.  She’d snatched the child from the real mother less than an hour before.  Maybe it was to satisfy some motherly urge to hold a child.  Maybe it was something else.  No one really knows.  But we do know that the young man breathed a huge sigh of relief when the real mother came to claim her child.  After all, what was he going to do with a baby?
In a way, each one of us is in the same situation as the young man.  Each Christmas, God Himself walks up to us and asks, “Would you hold My baby for Me, please?”  And then He thrusts the Christ Child into our arms.  And we’re left with the question “What am I doing to do with this baby?”  How can we hold Him?  With these poor hands?  With these weak arms?  Against our own sinful heart?”  Exactly.  Just as the Child was born into the humble manger in Bethlehem, He finds His home in our own humble embrace.  That’s why He came into the world—to feel our arms around Him, to find a home in our hearts–o be with us.  We call Him “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”  So what are we to do with this Baby?  But maybe I’ve gotten the question wrong.  Maybe it’s not about us at all.  Maybe it’s all about Him and what He will do with us, if we only allow Him.  After all, who can help but be transformed when holding a baby?  So imagine for a few moments, in the middle of this hectic week, that you are holding the Christ Child in your arms right now.  Feel His warmth against your heart.  Smell the top of His tiny head–that delicious baby smell that they all share.  Listen to His breathing, His gurgles and coos.  Now, look at Him.  Look into His face.  Small.  Perfect.  Look into His eyes.  Brown and blinking and looking back at you.  Seeing you as no one else could see you.  Loving you as no one else can love you.  The Christ Child came to save the world, but right now, at this moment, in your arms, He is saving you.  And that is the dearest Christmas gift of all.
“Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.” 
                                                                   —2 Corinthians 9:15

Making Advent PERSONAL

agonyinthegardenDuring this season of Advent, we’re called to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and at the end of time.  We should examine our lives and ask ourselves—“Am I ready for Him?”  Many of us will go to confession and many parishes will offer Advent penance services to make this more convenient for us at such a busy time of year.  Advent is always a hopeful season because our hope is in Christ, Who never disappoints.  We wait and we watch for Him and we remember and celebrate the great gift of His Incarnation.  God chose to leave His heavenly throne to be born as one of us, to live and to live, to work and to suffer as one of us.  He came to save us from our sins and to die in our place so that we can know heaven for all eternity.
This is all true, of course.  But until you allow Christ to transform these facts into a deep and true relationship with Him your life is incomplete and unredeemed.  You may have a religion, but not a living faith.  There’s a time in all our lives when we have to know in our hearts:  Christ died for ME.  No theory or historical review will work.  Christ suffered and died on the cross for me.  For my sins.  And no sinner deserved that less than me.  You hear Him say to you:  “I love you so much t I want nothing more than to suffer and die for you, to set you free, to give you full life.”  I think our Evangelical brothers and sisters get this right, and we can learn from them.  Before Jesus, there was an abyss between man and God, larger, wider, darker and deeper than the depths of the sea.  No amount of our own efforts could span it.  No matter how many burnt offering we sacrificed, it remained.  Steadfast.  Immense.  Heartbreaking.  We longed for the Light, yet we stumbled on in the darkness of our sins.  Only a baby born in a Palestinian stable could reach from heaven and into our hearts.
God could have saved us in another way.  It didn’t have to involve the cruel death of His only Son.  But God always heals us personally, never at a distance, and never without involving us in the healing.  Think of all the miraculous healings that Jesus accomplished.  All the times He spoke with the afflicted person, touched them, comforted them and asked them what they wanted Him to do for them.  It’s just the same with you and with me.  He wants to know us, to know who we are and we need.  Of course, He already knows, but His heart’s desire is to be in a relationship with us.  He’s asking you, “What do you want Me to do for you?”  We have to play an active part in building the Kingdom of God, first in our hearts and lives, and also in the world.

Life is short.  Eternity isn’t.  We only get one chance to get it right.  You can’t go through life as a spectator of your own redemption.  You have to be an active player and the context of our redemptive work in in His Church.  He never meant for us to work out this life (or the next one) on our own.  He gave us a Church and through this Church, His holy Scripture (Matthew 16:18).  The story of Scripture is God’s unfolding love for us.  Christmas is the promise of that love made known to us in the flesh.  Jesus loved you as He lay in Bethlehem’s manger, surrounded by the warmth and smell of the animals.  He loved you as He taught in His Father’s house, as Mary and Joseph searched for Him.  He loved you for thirty years as He worked with Joseph in Nazareth and grew to manhood in Mary’s holy and loving home.  He loved you when the devil tempted Him in the desert, and when His cousin John baptized Him in the river.  As He called each of His disciples to follow Him, He called you to do the same.  Every time He healed a leper, forgave a sinner, or made a blind man see, He was healing and forgiving you, too.  That night in the Garden, while you and the others were sleeping, He felt the weight of your sins crushing Him, and He loved you more.  When they led Him away in the chains of your slavery to sin, He was thinking of you and loving you.  Every blow of the whip on His scourged back cried out, “Love! Love!,” as He bore the pain that you and I deserved.  Jesus created the shrub that grew the thorns that tore His scalp when the soldiers (that He created and loved and died for) crowned Him.  He caused the seed to grow into the tree that made the wood of His Cross.  He created the ore that made the iron for the nails and the spear that pierced His side.  As He hung there, pouring out His life for you and me, He held those nails and that wood in existence as they pierced His Body and drained away His human life.  His eternal joy was in giving Himself away for you, so that you could be saved.
Salvation isn’t a theory or a study course.  Salvation is a Person—Jesus, the Christ.  During this season of Advent, consider if your relationship with Him is the center of your life.  If it isn’t, this is the time to make it so.  Today is the day to make yourself ready for His coming.  There’s a beautiful message in every Mass where we affirm that we are waiting for God “in joyful hope.”  That’s what Advent is:  a time of joyful hope.  Don’t waste this opportunity to say “yes” to the love of Christ.  Not a theory.  Not an idea—but the love of the Person Who made you and Who died for your sins, in your place.  Make no mistake:  it’s personal. 
“What good does it do me if Christ was born in Bethlehem once if He is not born again in my heart through faith?”
                                                                       —Origen (184 – 253 A.D.)

Offering Gifts to the Lord…Like Yourself

bread and wine2What’s your favorite part of the Mass?  For some Catholics, it’s the “Gloria,” that wonderful and ancient prayer of praise to God that we sing together on Sundays.  Others love hearing the readings from Scripture proclaimed.  My best friend loves it when we all stand our profess our beliefs.  The Nicene Creed is a beautiful testimony to our two-thousand-year-old faith and never fails to remind us all of the blessings God gives to us and His Church.  Personally, I love the moments when the altar is being prepared for the Eucharist and the offertory is being collected.  Crazy, right?  While lots of people might see this time as a kind of “housekeeping,” for me it’s a lovely and meaningful moment of reflection.  The ushers are taking up the collection and the servers are placing the linens and chalices on the altar.  Sitting in my pew, I hear a few people singing along with the choir, a few others scrambling to find their offertory envelopes or spare change and a couple of folks are whispering about where to go for brunch.  What they might be missing is the meaning of  “offering.”  For as we give our gifts of bread, wine, and treasure to God, we are also offering Him our lives.
We often refer to Mass as a celebration and this is certainly true.  We celebrate the wonder and majesty of God and His love for us.  We celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead and His victory over sin which was won on our behalf.  We celebrate our place in the family of God.  And we celebrate God’s life-giving Eucharist which nourishes us and infuses us with His grace.  But the Mass is also a sacrifice.  It is a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross in which we offer the Son to the Father.  Through the priest, Christ is offered to God as the perfect, complete, and same sacrifice as Jesus’ sacrifice.  When He gave Himself in love for our sins, He gave everything He had to the Father:  His Body, His Blood, His Soul and His Divinity.  Jesus held nothing back.  And that’s what He asks of us.
While the priest prepares the gifts, we should be preparing our hearts, our minds, and our spirits for our own offering to the Lord.  These precious moments in the Mass are an opportunity for each of us to place ourselves on the altar as well.  If the bread and the wine are to be transformed into Christ, perhaps if we place ourselves on the altar, God will accomplish a miracle in us, too.  How can we pass up this opportunity at every Mass?  My challenge to each of you is to be aware of the offertory at your next Mass.  Really reflect on what is happening and your part in the mystery of the Eucharistic liturgy.  Ask yourself what you are placing on the altar of God and maybe more importantly, what are you holding back?
Often we find it easy to give our blessings back to the Lord.  The good things God has given to us are easy to offer Him in gratitude.  We can all say “thank You” for our health, our family, and our friends, our homes and our jobs—all the goodness of life comes pretty easily to our minds.  But that’s not enough for God.  Our God is a “jealous” God (Exodus 20:5) and wants all of us, not just our blessings.  Our offering to Him is incomplete if we don’t lay everything on His altar.  He wants our worries and failures, our faults and our sins and our shortcomings, too.  While we’re at it, don’t forget all your hopes and dreams, your talents, your gifts, and your plans.  God wants every minute of every day.  Go ahead and make an offering of  your life to Him.  He wants everything you are so He can transform you into everything you were created to be.  Whatever you can’t or won’t share with God is exactly what is holding you back in your journey with Christ.  Whatever you keep for yourself is like an anchor that weighs down your spiritual growth.  So be generous with God as He is generous with you.  As we give our gifts to God next Sunday, may your gift to Him be just what Jesus wants most:  all of you.
“With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by You , O Lord, and may our sacrifice in Your sight this day be pleasing to You, Lord God.”    
                                            —The Liturgy of the Eucharist