The Rose

“Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!

Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.”

This beautiful old Advent hymn tells the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the pure and mystical Rose who brings forth Jesus, just as prophecy had foretold.  It was discovered in 1599 and is attributed to an unknown Carthusian monk living in the monastery of St. Alban in Trier, Germany.  There are many verses which have been added to and modified over the centuries.  Originally written to honor the Virgin, non-Catholic authors have changed some of the words to place more emphasis on Jesus, rather than His Blessed Mother.  But its original form makes it obvious that it is a hymn of great love to the Virgin Mary and her participation in God’s eternal plan for our salvation.

From the very moment of creation, the Lord knew about Mary.  He knew her parents, her grandparents and all her other ancestors back to Adam and Eve.  Eve, who said, “No” to God’s command of her, would be redeemed through Mary’s “Yes” and the death and resurrection of her Son.  In this hymn, we hear of Jesse and his prophetic role in Jesus’ life.  Jesse was David’s grandfather and, as we know, Mary (and Joseph) were members of the House of David.  Jesse’s family gave us Mary and she, in turn, gave us Jesus.

In many Catholic homes and churches, we celebrate this family history during Advent as we prepare to welcome the Child at Christmas.  Instead of decorating a Christmas tree immediately after Thanksgiving, we decorate a Jesse tree, which tells the story of Scripture from creation until the birth of Christ.  The Jesse tree probably came into being as large tapestries or stained glass windows in churches.  For people who couldn’t read, these pictures were a way of learning Scripture.  These days, you can use your Christmas tree instead.  It’s a wonderful alternative to so many secular images we seem surrounded by in our modern world..  By placing the ornaments on the tree each day during Advent, you can share the corresponding Bible store with your kids.  A small globe can represent the story of creation, and a tree with apples on it can help them learn about Adam and Eve and the Garden.  A rainbow represents Noah and the flood, while a tent reminds us of God’s covenant with Abraham.  If you choose your favorite stories, you’ll have a fully-decorated tree by the time you get to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.  There aren’t any hard and fast rules, but this is a way of engaging your family in remembering God’s plan for us.  Then, when Christmas is here, you can “re-decorate” your tree to fit the 12 days of the season.

“Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind,

With Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.

To show God’s love a-right

She bore to men a Savior

When half-spent was the night.”

This old-fashioned song with its haunting melody and unfamiliar phrasing invites us to slow down and listen more closely.  The world says “hurry-hurry” at this time of year.  But if we hurry, we miss these weeks of anticipation and wonder that lead up to Christmas.  We miss meditating on the words of Isaiah which so beautifully help us to imagine Mary as a little girl, hearing his prophecy read aloud in the temple.  His words spoke about her “…therefore, the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: a maiden is with child and she will bear a son and will call his name Immanuel”(9:11-16).  Did she wonder if what he said might have been written about her and her future child?

Over the weeks ahead, as we prepare for His birth, take the time to listen to this hymn again.  Imagine the unexpected and miraculous beauty of a Rose blooming in winter, blooming when there is so little light and warmth to call it forth—yet blooming anyway.  For that way is the Lord’s way. In the midst of darkness, He brings forth Light. Where only dead stems appear, God is working to call forth life and beauty.  He does this in our own deadened and broken hearts.  He plants the love of Christ, the saving gift, the living water.  Remember the promises of His prophets which were manifest in the Virgin, the Mystical Rose, blooming forth in winter with the Light of the World.  Savor the journey we make to Bethlehem each winter.

Holy Mary, Mystical Rose, you are the most beautiful flower created by God, in venerating you we praise God for His holiness and beauty.”

                —Blessed Cardinal Newman

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Thanksgiving & Mercy

Thanksgiving is my favorite secular holiday.  It doesn’t involve much overdone commercialism and it’s free from all the consumer-driven anxiety of Christmas.  Thanksgiving is a day to remember and be thankful to God for all the graces and blessings in our lives.  We gather together with family and friends and share a meal.  Many of us may go to Church as well.  We’ll come together before the altar of God and offer our thanks to Him for the precious gift of our salvation:  His Son, Jesus Christ.  And we’ll ask God to forgive us for our sins.  We do this at the beginning of every Mass because there is such a strong connection between forgiveness and thanksgiving.  We can’t approach the thankfulness of Holy Communion until we’ve approached the Lord for mercy and forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession.  This is God’s plan for us.  And so, during this Thanksgiving week as we prepare the pies and the turkey to share with the people we love, let’s also prepare our hearts by forgiving those in our lives who have wronged us.

Forgiveness is at the heart of our salvation.  Through Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to the Father.  Nothing we have ever done is so heinous that God’s mercy is denied us.  What a wonderful thing to know!  This alone is more than enough to fill our “things I am thankful for” list a thousand times over.  Our salvation journey starts when we acknowledge our sinfulness before God and beg His forgiveness.  But we grow in our faith when we extend that forgiveness to the people in our lives.  This is so important that Jesus included it in the perfect prayer He shared with His friends:  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”(Luke 11:4).  As we receive God’s mercy we’re called to extend it to other people.  We must be conduits of forgiveness.  But we also know how difficult it can be to forgive someone, don’t we?  Everyone reading this has been hurt by someone and found forgiving them hard, or even impossible to do.  We’ve held onto the pain they caused us and maybe we’ve let it simmer like a poison inside us for months, or even years.  In fact, the root meaning of the word “grudge” is “to murmur”—isn’t that what unforgiven hurts do in our hearts?  They murmur and echo in the small dark closet in our soul where we harbor our secret pains.  And it saps the joy out of what God means for us to have.  We need to forgive to fully live our redeemed lives.

So, suck it up and forgive somebody.  Especially this week.  How can we gather in thankfulness if we have those murmuring hurts and angers?  Christ says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins”(Mark 11:26).  That’s how important it is for us to let go–we have to forgive so that God can forgive us.  In fact, God has only one solution to the problem of our sin and that is forgiveness.  “To forgive” means “to be gracious.”  We are called to give grace to one another as God has given His grace to us.  But what if that other person has been so mean, so hurtful, so awful that you just don’t believe they deserve to be forgiven?  Newsflash:  none us should hope to get what we really deserve.  Mercy is NOT getting what you and I deserve for our sins (i.e. punishment) and grace is getting what we DON”T deserve (i.e. mercy).  As Christians we live in the sweet grace of knowing that we NEVER get what we deserve, thanks be to God!  None of us deserves forgiveness so it’s mercy when we extend that to someone who has hurt us.  Forgiveness isn’t about fairness, it’s about grace.  And here’s something else to consider:  forgiveness isn’t a feeling, it’s a decision.  If you wait until you feel like doing it, you never will.  God doesn’t tell us to forgive them if we feel like it.  We read in Hebrews how God forgives:  “Their sins and their lawless acts I will remember no more”(10:17).  God chooses not to remember our sins.  We should imitate Him.  We make the choice to forgive and then we pray for God to help us live out that decision.

As you gather to share Thanksgiving, remember to give thanks for God’s great love and mercy in your life.  In the end, what we have in this life is each other.  The Lord has forgiven your sins and offered you eternal life in Jesus Christ.  At the center of that love and grace is the Cross.  This Thanksgiving, lay the burden of your un-forgiveness at the foot of that Cross.  And be thankful.

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of His grace.”

                                                                               

Lord, Hear Our Prayer

One of my favorite Pope Francis quotes is this one: “You pray for the hungry.  Then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”  I suppose I’ve always known this was true, but each time I pray, it makes me more aware of how I’m praying, of what I’m praying for and of what I need to do so that my prayers are more fruitful.  It makes me aware of what I need to do every day in order to be the love and mercy of Christ to my neighbor.

Let’s start with what Pope Francis said about praying for the hungry.  Pray and work in your church’s food pantry.  Start one if you don’t have one.  Organize a drive for the local food bank.  Start a neighborhood vegetable garden.  Collect restaurant donations for the soup kitchen.  Host a community yard sale to benefit a feed-the-children program.

Pray for the homeless and educate yourself about all the reasons someone might end up without a roof over their head.  Many suffer from mental illness and/or addictions.  Many more are families who have fallen on hard times.  Don’t assume they just don’t want to work for their housing.  Use the skills you have to help them find jobs. Cut their hair.  Help them with their resume.  Donate to the agencies in your area that can make the biggest impact.  Do your homework.

Pray for the lonely.  Take a meal to your aged neighbor.  Volunteer to drive a parishioner to Mass.  Or drive them to a doctor’s appointment, or the hair salon, or the grocery store.  Deliver meals-on-wheels to the shut-ins or elderly in your area.  Organize a parish ministry that provides in-home help with small housekeeping tasks like taking out the trash, changing lightbulbs, or doing light yard work or repairs.  Even something as simple as a phone call can make all the difference to someone who rarely hears another person’s voice.  Don’t forget those folks in nursing homes, either.  Many of them rarely get visitors.

Pray for your sick friend.  Take them their favorite meal, or music, or movie.  Read to them, especially something you both enjoy.  Or buy them a gift subscription to an audio book service. Be their library connection.  Do a load of laundry for them.  Walk their dog.  Rake their leaves.  Call them when you’re at the grocery store or Target and ask if you can bring them anything.  Be their hands and feet until they’re feeling better.

Pray for your friend who is grieving.  Contact them as soon as you learn of their loss.  Be honest and direct in acknowledging their grief.  Let them mourn they way that they need to mourn and for as long as they need to.  Be available but don’t be hurt if they need their alone time.  Keep asking and keep inviting.  Share your memories of their late loved one, if you know them.  Cry together.  Give them flowers a month (or two or three) after their loss.  They’ll appreciate them more then.

Pray for peace in our world.  Be a peacemaker in your family, at your job, in your parish, and in your community.  Help each other.  Forgive old grievances and hurts.  Your children will learn kindness by how you treat your spouse and other people.  Show them how to be open and accepting towards folks who might look different or speak differently or have different abilities.  Involve yourself in civic organizations that work for justice, especially for the most vulnerable members of our society.  Consecrate your heart and your family to serving the Lord of peace.  Love.  Forgive.  And be patient with everyone you meet.

When we pray, we’re grateful for all the Lord has generously given to us.  We ask Him for His forgiveness of our sins and for His help in avoiding sin in the future.  We ask for what we need, for what our family needs, and for what our world needs.  And we ask for the faith and the strength we need to live out the Gospel in our lives.  As we enter the seasons of Thanksgiving, and Advent, and Christmas, we encounter so many opportunities to help those around us.  May our prayers be more than words as we open our hearts to the Lord’s call of service.  As Pope Francis said, “That’s how prayer works.”  Amen.  

“We prove our love for Jesus by what we do, by who we are.”

       —–St. Teresa of Calcutta.

A Spiritual Diet

Diet. It’s a four-letter word. Most people hate having to give up the foods that they love in order to lose weight. But we do it—at least for a while. We know that in order to meet our goal we have to take in fewer calories than we expend. When we’re able to do that consistently, we starve those nasty fat cells and we lose weight.

There’s a similar principle at work in our spiritual lives, too. When we identify something that is getting in the way of our journey with Christ, we need to starve it. These obstacles used to be called “sins” and the strategy to overcome them was called “virtues.” We need to use those terms more often. For every sin, there’s a corresponding virtue to be practiced. We know how this works because the Catholic Church has been teaching it since the earliest days of Christianity. We know that the great Saints dutifully practiced some kind of spiritual diet as they progressed in holiness. St. John the Baptist said it best when describing his relationship with Jesus. “He must increase, but I must decrease”(John 3:30). So how do we do that?

We pray that the Lord will reveal our sins to us and we pray for the humility to accept what He shows to us. I can almost guarantee that your number one stumbling block is pride. We know that this is true because Scripture reveals it to us in so many circumstances. It was pride that brought about the fall of the Lucifer and his fellow disobedient angels. Pride fed the original sin of our first parents in the Garden. Pride says, “I know better than God. I can do this on my own. I don’t need any help.” Pride truly is the root of most, if not all, of our sins.

Starving pride means feeding humility. Talk less. And when you do speak, let it be less of your concerns, your wants, your accomplishments. Don’t seek out praise or sympathy from others. Always put others before yourself. Let yourself be last in all things. Practice mercy. Deny yourself little things that give your pleasure and after a while you can do without more and more. Every denial of self is a step closer to a humble soul. Fast, not only from food, but from gossip, judgement, prejudice, impatience, and envy. Pray constantly the prayer that never fails: “Thy will be done.”

Starving anger means feeding forgiveness. Whether it’s getting cut off in traffic or responding to more serious betrayals, anger is a natural human response. But it doesn’t have to become sinful if we combat it, with God’s help. “…Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray these words from the Our Father, but do we put them into action every day? Are we as quick to forgive others as we are to become angry? Do you hope that the other person offending you “gets what they deserve,” or do you offer them the mercy that you hope to receive?

Starving greed means feeding charity. Do you have to have the latest gadget, the fastest car, the biggest house, or the most impressive wardrobe? Does it make you feel bad to see others with these possessions? Greed and envy eat away at the muscle of our charity. These sins hold onto things, instead of people. And we can only give to others with open hands. Overcoming greed, like pride, means thinking less of ourselves and thinking more of others. When we realize that everything we have is a gift from God, it’s much easier to share these gifts with others. We’re called to take care of one another, to help the needy, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless and to be Christ to everyone we encounter.

Putting yourself on a spiritual diet is only successful if you humbly pray for God’s assistance and strength. Like any diet, it’s harder at the beginning. After time, and daily practice, you’ll develop spiritual practices that help you in walking more closely with Christ. Frequent confession and Holy Communion give you the graces needed to continue growing in your relationship with Jesus. The process of becoming like Him is what St. John meant when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Life is learning to die to self and to live in Christ. As St. Paul writes, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here! (II Corinthians 5:17).

“The more a man dies to himself, the more he begins to live unto God.”

                 —-Thomas a Kempis