What We Carry

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We all have one. Mine is different than yours. Most of us have more than one. Some are bigger than others. Some are tiny, but very very painful. Some are so huge they seem impossible to bear. Some are obvious, but many are hidden from view. What are they? They’re our hurts and pains, our sufferings, and our burdens. They’re the wounds we all carry each day. Some are physical like an illness or injurty. Others are addictions or compulsions. Still others are the emotional pains of mental illness or the damage done by an abusive relationship. Many times we’ve caused the pain ourselves. Fear, anger, bitterness, jealousy—a broken heart. These are our crosses. Jesus carried a heavy wooden cross to Golgotha. He told us if we want to be His disciples, we have to deny ourselves, pick up our own crosses, and follow Him (Luke 9:23).

Catholics aren’t afraid of the Cross of Christ. Every Catholic church in the world has a crucifix displayed prominently near the altar. My own church has a lifesize crucifix behind the altar. The large wooden cross with the dying Christ nailed to it dominates our sanctuary space. It’s not merely an ornament or decoration. Neither does it reflect a morbid fascination with death or physical pain. The Cross of Christ is Love. Our crucifix is a constant and holy reminder to us of Jesus’ great love for us. Carried in His arms and across His flayed and bleeding back, the Cross became salvation for the world. His invitation to us is to embrace our sufferings and to unite our pain with His. This is love embracing Love. “When the Cross is embraced it becomes a sign of love and total self-giving. To carry it behind Christ means to be united with Him in offering the greatest proof of love,” wrote Pope John Paul II. There’s no greater proof of God’s love for us than Jesus’ own suffering and death for our sake.

Everyday life for each of us is full of crosses we can carry behind our Lord. You know what yours are just as I know my own. We carry them in union with Jesus, as He leads the way for us. He is our model. He invites us to follow His example, to share in His life and in His choices—to stake our life for the love of God and neighbor. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote to the Colossians “who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting in the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His Body, which is the Church” (1:24). Any of our sufferings can be prayerfully united with Christ’s own Passion and Death. This is redemptive suffering, or what Catholics mean when they say, “I’m offering it up.” What we are offering up is to share in Jesus’ suffering out of thanksgiving and love for Him. This unity is part of our personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Eucharist which lies at the heart of our Catholic faith. He is our first Love. We claim a share of His Life in all His fullness of divinity and humanity. As much as our Love calls us to meet Him in the manger at Bethlehem, we’re also drawn to meet Him at Calvary and later, at the empty tomb, or the road to Emmaus. Being Catholic means walking with Christ every day, faithfully assured that He opens up for us His way of life and abundant love. Suffering is necessarily a part of that faith journey for us, just as it was for Him. Yet no one knows more about my crosses, my pains, my sins than Jesus Christ. When I see a crucifix, I see Love’s arms open wide, embracing all my pain, forgiving all my sin. My crosses seem so small in comparison.

“Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the Cross that He can kiss us and He can show that He is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in His Passion.” —Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)

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Mass Must Transform Us

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Can you think of an event that changed your life? Sometimes we use that phrase a bit too casually. We might say, “That new coffee maker has changed my life!” Or: “Have you seen the movie yet? It changed my life!” Of course most of these kinds of things or experiences don’t REALLY change our lives in the truest sense. Yet each of us can probably recall something or someone that did change the way we live. Teachers, coaches, pastors, or friends can open our eyes in new and dramatic ways. When we fall in love and marry our spouse, we’re forever changed. The birth of a child is transformative. Many of us have had a conversion experience which has opened our hearts to a new life through Jesus Christ. This is an ongoing journey that calls us out of our former lives in a radical way.

Last week Pope Francis said that every time we go to Mass our lives should be changed. Going to Church on Sunday isn’t just a good habit or a time to come together with our friends. It’s not enough if all we come away with is a “good feeling” of having celebrated our faith in God. We may have attended a beautiful liturgy with great music, a talented choir and an inspiring homily. We may have been moved by the readings from Scripture and been inspired by the hour we spent with our faith family—but if Mass isn’t life-changing, you might as well stay at home. Remember that Catholics are guilty of a grave sin if we choose not to go to Mass on Sunday. So the Pope’s comments got my attention. He says that Mass must deeply change us and moreover must change the way we live our lives. This change is not just a one-time “I got saved!” experience, but every time we worship.

To begin with, each Mass starts with us gathering together and admitting our sinfulness and begging God for His mercy and forgiveness. These are not just pretty words meant to make us feel humble (in a proud way) but are a real encounter with the Lord. Our repentance is a decision and a commitment—not just a warm, fuzzy feeling in which we “forgive ourselves.” Realizing our sinfulness and asking God’s forgiveness prepares our hearts for the grace of the Eucharist. And it is in Holy Communion that we truly encounter the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The Eucharist is not a mere symbol or faithful remembrance of that long-ago Last Supper. It’s not a human invention. It’s not a Catholic “tradition”. The Eucharist isn’t an “it” at all: the Eucharist is Jesus. And this is how Mass changes our lives. The Eucharist is an encounter with Christ and if that meeting doesn’t transform us, then Pope Francis is right: we should just stay home.

You see, we don’t encounter Christ in a vacuum. Our salvation experience is in the context of a community. We worship with others. Our communion makes us one with them. God’s forgiveness of our sins calls us to forgive others. And the Eucharist, because of Who the Eucharist is, allows us the grace we need to serve others. This service begins when we SEE the person in the pew next to us. We see them as our brothers and sisters, with their own unique faults and gifts, their own wounds and blessings. The Eucharist calls us to do more than exchange a polite Sign of Peace, but to enter into their lives through the love of Jesus. As Pope Francis said, “Does it nourish in me the ability to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep? Does it urge me to reach out to the poor, the sick, the marginalized? Does it help me recognize in them the face of Jesus?”

If there’s a “takeaway” from the Pope’s address, I think that’s it. The Eucharist is Jesus giving Himself to us so that we can give ourselves away in the service of others. If we fail to do that, we’ve failed to live out our mission as Christians. We’re called to be like nets, sent out to catch souls for Christ, to feed and clothe and comfort our brothers and sisters. He never promised us it would be easy, but in the Eucharist He keeps His promise to remain with us always (John 6:56). And He gives us Himself as the Food for our journey.

We should live the Eucharist in a spirit of faith and prayer, forgiveness, repentance, community, joy, concern for the needy and for the needs of so many brothers and sisters, in the certainty that the Lord will accomplish what He has promised: eternal life.”
—Pope Francis

A Cross In That Heart

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Valentine’s Day is coming up soon. You can tell that by all those TV ads for chocolate-covered strawberries, giant teddy bears, and sexy lingerie guaranteed to “pay off” for the man who buys it for her. Sigh. I miss those more innocent days of sharing little taste-free candy hearts with pre-Internet messages printed (badly) on them. I miss getting handmade red construction paper cards trimmed in white paper doilies. Valentine’s day glorifies romantic love but I’m afraid we’ve lost the real meaning of the day. We’ve forgotten (if we ever knew) the man behind all those Hallmark cards and heart-shaped candy boxes. He lived so long ago that most people have never heard of him or what he did in his life or why he was killed for doing it.

In the third century, being a Christian in the Roman Empire was enough to get you killed. Mass was celebrated with the ongoing fear of arrest, persecution, and martyrdom. Yet bishops, priests, and deacons continued to proclaim the good news of the Gospel every day. The tension between faith and government (sound familiar?) was a deadly one and it produced men and women of heroic virtue and faith—we call them “saints.” One of these was a priest named Valentine. At that time, the Emperor Claudius had his hands full with an empire that was both vast and constantly at war. He needed large numbers of reliable fighting men to keep his legions strong and he had discovered that married men made the best warriors. Men with wives and children had divided loyalties and so Claudius decreed that marriage was illegal. He thought that forbidding young couples to marry would solve his recruitment problem. But it didn’t turn out to be so simple. Young Christian couples continued to believe in the Sacrament of marriage. They believed that marriage was a path to holiness, ordained by God. And so they sought out priests and asked to be married in defiance of the Emperor and in glory to the Lord. Brave priests like Valentine celebrated the Sacrament with them and he paid the ultimate price. Claudius ordered Valentine arrested and imprisoned. He was beaten, stoned, and finally beheaded in 269 A.D.

His martyrdom became a part of Church history and was remembered each year on February 14. His life stands for so very much more than chocolates and greeting cards. St. Valentine reminds us that there comes a time in each of our lives when we have to decide what is important—even important enough to die for. He was willing to lay down his life to preserve the sanctity of marriage and the freedom to practice the Catholic faith as handed down from the Apostles. St. Valentine’s day may have come to glorify the sometimes-fleeting human emotions of romantic love. But his real legacy lies in reminding us that true love is a sacrifice. Look at a crucifix. Christ’s love for you and for me is sacrificial love through which He gave everything in order to save us from our sins. Without sacrifice, love is self-serving. It’s the love found in that sexy lingerie commercial that promises a “big pay-off.” True love calls us out of ourselves and that is always painful. We deny ourselves for the sake of the beloved. We put our own needs and wants in service of the needs and wants of the one we love. This is a love that gives without counting the cost. St. Valentine gave everything to protect the Sacrament of marriage and every married couple is asked to do the same thing when they profess their vows to one another.

Love is God’s gift to us of Himself. He blesses and sanctifies marriage as a vocation of love. Yet true love, as revealed by the Cross, is a serious commitment. When you buy those flowers and candy this week, remember the price that real love requires of us—not less than everything.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on it’s own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
—I Corinthians 13:4-8

A Slow Gratitude

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Snow. Here in the South it can be a
h-u-g-e problem. Last week most of us found that out in a very personal way. I was caught in the storm about 60 miles from home and spent 2 days waiting it out in a hotel. I was very blessed. I watched on TV as the city of Atlanta became stuck in their cars on interstates, some of them for more than 30 hours. Many of the things and the processes we all take for granted each day became precious and scarce. For the folks in their cars things like food, water, warmth, and bathrooms became priorities of the first degree. Many more people, like me, were just inconvenienced. I missed a clean change of clothes, my makeup, and the comfort of my own bed. I had to slow down and think when I walked on the icy street. I couldn’t just hop in my car and go where I wanted, when I wanted. The snow had changed things and slowed us down.

This isn’t always a bad thing. For much of our lives we sort of sleepwalk through our daily routines. We have our morning coffee, commute to work, have lunch, work some more and come home again. And repeat. So long as the car starts, traffic keeps moving and we aren’t handed a pink slip, we can go through the weeks on auto-pilot. It’s only when something interrupts our routine that we wake up and look around us. For me, the snow made me incredibly grateful for those million things I tend to take for granted every day. My family being safe. My choices being within my control. Being able to make plans without having to consult a weather forecast. Of course what the snow really did was to remind us that EVERY moment of EVERY day, whether frozen or sunny, is in God’s hands. When we believe we’re the ones in control, we’re messing up in a big way.

Embracing our dependency on Christ is the first step on our faith journey. Every breath is His gift to us. All of our plans and agendas are dependent on His holy and divine will for our lives. When I hear folks talk about their “bucket lists” I grin a little. Yes, having goals is admirable but unless “heaven” is #1 on your list, everything else is meaningless. Yet when we place ourselves and our wills in the service of Christ, everything in life falls into an order that He creates in love for us. Snowstorms become an occasional inconvenience but aren’t the end of the world. We see how little it takes to upset our plans and put us in our places. And we realize once more that He holds the world in His hands. It reminds me of those little snowglobes you see at Christmastime. One good shake and the snow fills the scene with chaos until it settles into place again. It’s that time between the shake-up and the settling-down that we remember Who is in control.

Experiences like last week’s snow make us grateful: for family, for snow tires, for a warm bed and clean sheets, for hot water and enough to eat, for the helping hands of police and generous strangers. We can be grateful for a few days of slower and more deliberate living, for having some extra (if unplanned) time to think and to reflect. We’re grateful for the sun that returned to melt the snow and let us resume the rhythm of our lives. And we pray that we’ll carry that attitude of gratitude through these last weeks of winter, with all its challenges and surprises.

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
—–Thornton Wilder