Throw Off Your Cloak!

bartimaeusI don’t know about you, but Easter always makes me feel renewed.
After six weeks of Lent and then the drama of Holy Week, Easter comes
along like a long deep breath of fresh air.  It’s as if the whole
world inhales and drinks in the sunshine and new life of His
resurrection.  Easter affirms and strengthens us like no other season.
 Easter invites us to shake off our old ways and put on the white
garment of our baptism.  Every Easter Christ invites us again to
follow Him.  That need for a connection with God is hard-wired into
us.   As St. Augustine ways, our hearts are restless until they rest
in Him.  So how do our hearts “rest” in Jesus?  There are several
examples in the Gospels that show us how different people find their
rest in Christ, but this is one of my favorites.

Bartimaeus is a blind beggar we see sitting on the road near Jericho
(Mark 10:46-52).  We remember that Jericho is a sinful city that the
Israelites had to conquer in their quest to possess the Promised Land,
 The early Christians would hear this Gospel story and associate
Jericho with sinfulness.  Then we learn that Bartimaeus is blind.
Being blind was a terrible affliction in Biblical times because you
couldn’t earn a living to support yourself and your family.  You had
to beg.  Begging is an act of profound humility.  You are saying to
the world: “I can’t make it on my own.  I need your help.”  And that’s
what Bartimaeus did when he heard that Jesus was passing by—he
begged Him for help.  “Jesus, Son of David, take pity on me”(Mark
10:47).  The people around him told Bartimaeus to be quiet, but he
didn’t listen to them.  He kept begging Jesus to help him.  So Jesus
stood still and called for Bartimaeus to come closer.  Bartimaeus
threw off his cloak, leapt up, and ran to Jesus.  Christ asked him,
“What do you want Me to do for you? And the blind man said to Him,
“Master, that I may see.”  Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you
whole;”  And immediately, Bartimaeus could see and he began to follow
Jesus.

This encounter between the blind man and our Lord can teach us a lot
about what it means to live in God’s grace.  First, we have to know we
are sinners.  Like Bartimaeus, we can’t see the good, the true and the
beautiful.  We’re weighed down in the dirt by our sins.  When we can
acknowledge our sinfulness, we know the only way out  of it is to beg
for help.  We can’t fix ourselves.  This is a real temptation in our
“self-help” culture.  But it’s not the Lord’s way.  THe only way to
gain our sight is to beg.  And we have to persist and never stop
asking.  This can be uncomfortable because friends and family, like
the crowd around Bartimaeus, don’t think we need to look to Christ for
help.  It goes against our cultural self-reliance.  And it’s exactly
what Jesus loves.

When we call out to Him, He stands still.  Christ is the center of
creation, the still point of the turning universe.  Everything
revolves around Him.  He calls to Bartimaeus—just as He calls to
each one of us.  The Greek word that expresses that calling is the
same root word as the word for “church.”  Christ calls us into His
Church.  It’s never just a “me and Jesus” experience as some may
think.  Our calling is to love and follow Him in the context of His
Bride, the Church.  And when He calls us we should respond like the
blind man does, by throwing off our cloak (our sins, our doubts, our
old ways of doing things) and leap up to go to Jesus.  Bartimaeus
doesn’t hesitate or ask advice or call a committee meeting:  he hears
the call of Jesus, he throws off his old life and he runs to Him.  And
then Jesus asks him the central question of his life and of our lives.

“What do you want Me to do for you?” Imagine if your Savior asked you
that right now.  What would you tell Him?  Think about that for a
moment.  What can Jesus do for you right now, today, right where you
are in your life?  Bartimaeus tells Jesus that he wants to see.  This
is a great answer!  He wants to see like Jesus sees.  He wants to BE
LIKE JESUS.  And Jesus tells him that his faith has healed him.  When
we run to Jesus and accept His calling, following Him wherever He
leads us, His grace will make us whole.  Christ frees us to become all
that He created us to be.  But that freedom comes with a great
price–the Cross.  When we embrace Jesus, we must also embrace His
Cross.  Easter is the great invitation to leap up, throw off our old
ways, pick up our cross and follow the Lord.  Our faith has healed us.
 His Cross has redeemed us.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him,       everything   else
thrown in.”
                                              —–C.S. Lewis

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A Time Of Change

dali crossSpringtime has finally arrived (we hope!) in north Georgia.  The dark rainy days of winter are slowly slipping away into memory and every day sees new blooms in our gardens and the woods around us.  A thousand shades of green are blanketing the hills and ridges as sleeping buds burst forth to find the sun. I know how they feel.  I’m feeling that same longing for the new life of spring, too.  These past few weeks of Lent have prepared us for the true Light of Easter.  We’ve been walking to Jerusalem with our Lord, through the good times He’s shared with His friends and now as we will be with Him through His Passion and the Cross of Good Friday.  Spring is about changes and new beginnings.  And change is painful.
 
But change is also hopeful.  A new beginning opens a world of possibilities.  For me, writing is like that.  I’m old-fashioned and use a pen and paper writing everything in longhand.  Sitting down with a blank white page in front of me is at once a gift and a burden.  I can write whatever words I want to write and that’s a marvelous gift.  But that freedom brings with it the burden of choosing which words to write and in what order and for what purpose.  This is very much what Easter is for us as well.  The sacrifice of the Cross opens heaven for us again.  After original sin entered the world through our first parents, a gulf of separation kept us from knowing God as He created us to know Him. He wanted to be in an intimate relationship with each one of us, every moment of every day.  So He had to build a bridge from His throne to our hearts.  And He imagined that bridge in the form of a Cross.  A simple wooden cross that would reach from the depths of our sins to the heights of heaven.
 
The hope of the Cross of Christ is our greatest gift.  Through Him, we have the new life we long for–here and for all eternity in heaven.  But the joy of the resurrection comes with the exquisite price of Golgotha.  Easter is meaningless without Good Friday.  In our culture, we often skip anything that smacks of sacrifice or suffering.  We want to get straight to joy and happiness.  But one look at the life of Jesus shows us how we are to live.  And no time in His life is more revealing than this week.  He spends time with His friends.  He spends time in prayer.  He helps those around Him with what they need.  He keeps His heart open and His eyes fixed on Friday.  He is motivated by one thing and one thing only:  love.  As we journey towards this Easter Sunday, how well do our lives reflect the hope of Jesus’ gift of the Cross?  Like Christ, do we live a life full of prayer and service to others?  Are we open to helping those around us when they need help?  Does love motivate the decisions we make?  If you’re like me, you probably have a ways to to.  And that’s exactly when Jesus loves us most—when we still have a ways to go and we choose to make that journey with Him.
 
If you’ve been away from Christ, today is the perfect day to come home to Him.  He’s waiting for you in the sacrament of confession.  He’s waiting for you in the celebration and sacrifice of the Holy Mass.  He’s waiting to give you the hope and the joy that He purchased for you on the Cross.  Spring is the season of new life and light.  Christ is calling you to return to Him and receive the new life that only He can offer. 
 

“Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to Me with all your heart..”

                                                                                             —Joel 2:12

“Begone Satan!”

St. Benedict medalI believe in the devil. Satan. Lucifer. Beelzebub. The father of lies. Whatever you want to call him—I believe he exists.  And not as a theory or a concept but as a real living creature, as real as you and me.  After all, The Bible teaches us that the devil is real and was created as an angel (Genesis 3:1-7; 14-15, Isaiah 14; II Corinthians 11:14; Luke 10:18; Matthew 25:44; Revelation 12:4-10).  Along with other angels, Satan chose to reject God and was expelled from heaven. Scripture also teaches that the devil and his demons work here on earth encouraging sin and evil (Ephesians 2:1-2).  Those who follow Christ have been redeemed by His sacrifice on the Cross.  Yet we continue to sin and are engaged in the daily battle to combat our tendency to sin. It’s in this struggle that the devil plays his part. He thrives on sin, on fear, on our doubts and our anger. 
 
I know many people no longer believe in the devil.  It’s not scientific or modern, I guess.  But Jesus Himself was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11) and I believe he tempts us as well.  As St. Paul says, we are in a battle with evil spirits of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).  If Jesus and St. Paul know the devil exists, we should too.  But we aren’t bound to be the devil’s “victim.”  There are things we can do to protect ourselves and our families from his snares and influence.  To begin with, your Baptism made you a child of the Father and left an indelible mark on your soul.  Simply put, baptism is your “seal of ownership” by Jesus.  His grace is within you.  Yet our sins after our baptism are proof that we’re constantly vulnerable to going against the will of God.  We strengthen the armor of God (Ephesians 6:11) through frequent sacramental confession, going to Mass and receiving Holy Communion. Avoid the trappings of evil like fortune telling, horoscopes, witchcraft, Ouija boards and the like.  Don’t invite evil into your home.  Pray each day for God to protect us from the snares of the devil.  “Deliver us from evil.” Surround yourself with Christian friends who will hold you close in prayer, share fellowship with you and correct you in charity when you need it.  Catholics view the Rosary as a particularly effective tool against the devil because it centers our hearts and minds on the life and Passion of Christ through His Blessed Mother’s eyes.  We also have sacramentals like holy water, sacred relics, blessed statues and rosaries and, my favorite, the medal of St. Benedict which has been seen for centuries as a very strong defense against the devil.
 
Benedict was born to a noble family in Nursia, Italy in 480 AD.  He was well-educated and drawn early on to the religious life.  He’s known as the founder of Western Monasticism because he founded many monasteries and wrote the handbook of monastic life, called “The Rule of St. Benedict.” Renowned as a holy man and gifted preacher, he dearly loved and fearlessly proclaimed the Cross of Christ.  Many miracles were attributed to him, most centered around his love of and devotion to the Cross.  In one instance, a group of monks disliked his strict monastic rule and tried to poison him with tainted bread and wine.  When St. Benedict made the Sign of the Cross over the food in blessing, the cup holding the poisoned wine shattered.  A raven flew in an open window and snatched up the poisoned bread and flew away with it.  To remember his holiness, a St. Benedict medal was struck in 1880 on the 1400th anniversary of his birth.  This medal has become one of the most popular religious medals ever made.  The face of the medal shows St. Benedict holding a cross and a copy of his monastic rule.  Also pictured is the shattered wine cup and the bread-stealing raven.  On the reverse of the medal the Cross is dominant along with a Latin prayer: “May the Holy Cross be my Light.  May the devil never be my guide.”  It’s cooler in Latin because it rhymes.  Around the margin of the medal are the first letters of another Latin prayer: “Begone, Satan! Never tempt me with your lies.  Everything you offer is evil. Drink that poison yourself!” The medal is itself a prayer of exorcism and of strength in times of temptation.  It’s a prayer that the Cross of Christ will protect and guide us and that we reject the charms and lies of Satan.  Many people wear the medal (I do) as a constant reminder that our hope is in the Lord.  Others place the medal in their homes or businesses and put one in their car.  The medal, like other sacramentals, is a visible sign of our faith in Christ.  It’s not a magic trinket.  When we wear St. Benedict’s medal we reaffirm our Baptismal promise to reject Satan and all his works.  In a world filled with evil and shattered with sin, the Cross remains our true Light, our one Hope, and our everlasting Guide.  The medal of St. Benedict is a holy reminder that God’s love and protection always surrounds us.  We are held close in our Father’s care.  
 
“Begone Satan!” The Messiah’s resolute attitude is an example and invitation for us to follow Him with courageous determination.”      
                                                          —Pope John Paul II

The Men Who Guard The Pope

swiss guardsHe’s a young man, just twenty-one.  A soldier in his country’s army, he enjoys the life of a military man.  But now three years out of high school, he’s ready for something more.  He wants to be challenged, to
be called out of himself and into a greater purpose for his life.  He wants to serve something bigger, something more meaningful.  Born in Lucerne, Switzerland, his Catholic faith is important to him.  He feels called to serve in the Pontifical Swiss Guards and put his life and his vocation in service of his Pope.  We’ll call him Luke.

Luke knows that the Swiss Guards have a proud and rich history and
have served the Popes since the 16th century.  Kings and princes had
long-recruited soldiers from Switzerland to employ as mercenaries in
their armies.  The Swiss were a poor nation and young men seeking
their fortune (and maybe a little bit of fame) were known for their
discipline and loyalty. There were considered exceptional military
tacticians and viewed as some of the best soldiers and military
leaders in the world.  Over the centuries, there were several Swiss
Guard units who served in France, Belgium and Germany as well as the
various city-states of Italy.  When Pope Julius II took office in
1503, he asked the Swiss government to provide him with a small army
of 200 soldiers.  They finally arrived in Rome on January 22, 1506
which is recognized now as the anniversary date of their founding. One
of te Guard’s most famous battles is a great source of pride for Luke.
 On May 6, 1527 the city of Rome was attacked by Emperor Charles V.
The Swiss Guard stood between the attackers and the Pope at the gates
of St. Peter’s Basilica.  While 42 of their number helped the Pope
escape via a secret tunnel to nearby Castel San Angelo, 147 Swiss
Guards were massacred on the steps of the church’s high altar.  Luke
knows that each Guardsman is courageous even unto death in defense of
the Holy Father.  He hopes to become one of them.

Approved as a new recruit, Luke, like all Swiss Guards, is a Swiss
citizen and a Catholic in good standing.  He has a high school diploma
and has served in the Swiss military with exemplary conduct.  At 6
feet tall, he meets the minimum height requirement of 5 feet, 8.5
inches.  And he’s unmarried.  Luke knows that after 2 years of service
and if he’s risen to the rank of corporal, he’ll be free to marry.
If, and it’s a big “if” he and his bride-to-be can find an available
apartment within the confines of Vatican City.  He’ll serve the Guard
for at least 2 years, but his career can span up to 25 years.  New
Swiss Guards are formally sworn-in each May 6th (the anniversary of
the sack of Rome) in the San Damaso Courtyard in the Vatican.  In a
moving ceremony attended by his family and the Pope, Luke and his
classmen swear to serve and protect the Holy Father, even if that
means sacrificing his own life in the process.  Luke’s salary will be
a tax-free 5000 Euros per month (about $6500), with overtime as well.
And that could amount to a lot of extra pay since most workweeks are
in excess of 90-100 hours on duty.  Of course his room and board are
free.  Luke’s dress uniform, the red, blue and yellow-striped one that
we all recognize was designed (not by Michelangelo) but  by one of the
Guard commanders in 1914.  Tailors hand sew each one which has 154
pieces and takes about 32 hours to complete.  Each Guard is trained in
the use of their signature halberds and swords as well as in
hand-to-hand combat and the use of various sidearms.  More than just
colorful Vatican icons, the Guards are well-trained, well-armed modern
soldiers who are experts in protecting the Pope at all times.  The
Holy Father is surrounded by Guards wearing plain clothes whenever he
travels outside the Apostolic Palace.

Luke and his fellow Swiss Guards are examples of personal sacrifice
and faith.  They leave their family and home to dedicate themselves to
serving the Pope.  Their faith leads them to choose a career open to
only a few men each year.  They serve the Pope so that Pope may serve
the people of God and they’re willing to lay down their lives in his
protection.  The presence of each man, standing guard and doing his
duty, should challenge each of us in our own service to Christ.  What
are we willing to sacrifice?  Do we follow the call of service
wherever it leads us?  Are we willing to lay down our lives for what
(and for Who) we say we believe?

“Among the many expressions of lay people in the Catholic Church there is also the particular one of the Pontifical Swiss Guards, young men who motivated by love for Christ and Church, put themselves at the service of the successor of Peter.”
                                                         —Pope Benedict XVI

Why The Pope Matters So Much

keys to st. peterCatholics make a big deal about the Pope.  We talk about the Pope, we
think about the Pope, we pray for the Pope.  We even make a big deal
about his hobby (Benedict plays the piano), his pet (rumors have it
that he now has a cat) and the color of his shoes (red, which
represents the blood of the martyrs).  So why IS the Pope so
important?  Here are some of my reasons:

1)    Jesus created the first Pope in St. Peter.  He changed his name
from Simon to Peter and like the Godly name-changes in Scripture, when
the Lord changes your name, He changes your whole life.  Abram became
Abraham, Saul became Paul.  Simon became Peter, the “rock” upon whom
Jesus would found His Church (Matthew 16:18).
2)    Jesus gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom (Matthew 16:19).  In
the Old Testament understanding of the Kingdom, the master entrusted
his steward with the keys to his palace and holdings in his absence.
The steward kept the keys and the complete trust of his master until
the master returned.  When Jesus gave Peter His keys, everyone who
heard Him knew what that meant.  And so do we, since we believe what
Jesus says.
3)    Peter was singled out by God Himself.  No other Apostle was
given the authority that Jesus gave to him.  The others were His
trusted friends and disciples but only Peter was given a new name and
given his Master’s keys.  Only Peter was given the knowledge of Who
Jesus was, by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 16:17).
4)    Peter was named “pastor” by Christ.  Jesus gave Peter the
authority to teach and shepherd the Church in His name.  He told Peter
to “feed My sheep” (John 21:17).  Jesus is the Good Shepherd, Who
loves and cares for His flock.  He gave Peter the role of shepherd to
the Church and promised nothing, not even the power of hell, could
harm the Church (Matthew 16:18).  This is why we know that God
protects the Popes and His Church from ever teaching us errors of
faith.  Even the popes who were champion sinners in their personal
lives never taught us errors in faith.  The Holy Spirit guarantees
that His Bride will always remain spotless.
5)    Peter speaks for Christ.  Jesus told Peter that when he taught
the faith, people should listen to him.  Even more than that, Jesus
said that listening to Peter was the same as listening to Him.  That
makes it pretty clear how Jesus views St. Peter!  Jesus said, “Whoever
listens to you, listens to Me.  Whoever rejects you, rejects Me.  And
whoever rejects Me rejects the One Who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
6)    The power and authority which Christ gave to Peter was meant to
be inheirited by his successors.  We know this because the power and
authority that Jesus gave to His Apostles was given to Matthias after
Judas’ suicide (Acts, Chapter 1).  We read how the Apostles were
gathered together by Peter and how they chose Matthias.  Through them,
he received ordination and authority, just as Jesus had given to the
original twelve men.  If their authority had been limited, as many
Protestants believe, it would have been impossible to “replace” Judas
since Jesus had already ascended to heaven.  But no, they came
together and led by Peter and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
chose Matthias.  This is basically how a conclave of Cardinals gathers
to choose St. Peter’s successor.  They’re doing what the Apostles did
with the same power and authority that acted through the Apostles.

So yes, the Pope matters.  He mattered as St. Peter and he’ll matter
when he’s elected anew in Rome in just a few days from now.  The man
may change, but the power and authority of the office never changes.
Catholics love the pope because he is our Holy Father.  He is our
pontiff, which means “bridge-builder.”  He’s our bridge from 2013 back
to St. Peter himself.  The pope is our bridge to the power and
authority that Christ gives His Church.  He is meant by God to lead
all Christians, to shepherd the whole flock, and to be the
bridge-builder to draw all followers of Christ together—not an easy
task.  And it’s understandable that it became too much for a frail and
elderly man to do.  Benedict revealed the depth of his humility and
service when he stepped down from the chair of St. Peter.  The world
waits and watches Rome as the conclave begins, and the next successor
of St. Peter emerges as our new pope.  Come, Holy Spirit.

Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the
cardinals have elected me—a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”

                                                   —-Pope Benedict XVI