The Wood of the Cross

Once again the holiest week in the history of the world is upon us. Once again, I’m not ready. How can I be ready for what is about to happen this week? No matter how I may have observed the season of Lent, despite knowing the story by heart, I’m not ready. This week is too shocking, too raw, too unbelievable to embrace. It’s easier to skip over the truth of this week and focus instead on the new dress, the chocolate bunny and the colored eggs. But as Christians, we’re called to walk the Way of the Cross with Jesus. We enter into His Passion. We call for His Crucifixion with the others in Jerusalem mob. We strike the blows the soldiers delivered as He was tied to the pillar. We see Him killed and we see Him rise again on the third day. It’s too much to imagine, too scandalous to endure.

And without love, none of it makes any sense. Only through the eyes of love can we bear to watch it all unfold again. No other religion has a story to equal this one, or even compare to the truth of Holy Week. Our Creator died for us, sacrificing Himself for our sins. The One Who is without sin becomes sin so that we may live. It’s not logical, not rational, not pretty. And it’s not safe. Following Christ changes everything. Forever. That’s what Love does.

His love for me is perfect and yet the love I return to Him is so small and measured, so flawed and weak and failing. That’s why this week is more than I can bear. In the face of His love, I must turn away. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll watch Him enter Jerusalem on a donkey. I’ll take a sideways glance at the Last Supper, my dull vision obscuring the Truth of the Sacrament. In the Garden, I’ll hide behind a tree before falling asleep with everyone else and when I wake up, they’ll all be gone. I’ll be there at the trial, in the crowd, unable to look at Him, but caught up in the frenzy still. As He struggles to carry the Cross to His death, I’ll hold back, afraid to see or be seen by the One Who made me. I’ll hear the nails being driving into His hands and feet, but I won’t go near the hill. Too hard. Too real. Too much my own fault. My most grievous fault.

Each one of us experiences Holy Week in our own way. For me, there is a moment in the Liturgy of Good Friday when all my feeble efforts at holding it together come up short. We’ll see the Cross brought inside, the wooden Cross of Christ in our midst. And we will kneel and kiss the rough wood in veneration. That kiss always breaks my heart. With that kiss, I stop trying to be ready for it all and just let go. I’m Peter and Caiaphas and Mary Magdalene. I’m the soldier thrusting the spear into His side and I’m the Beloved Disciple resting my head on His shoulder. I’m the young rich man who walked away. And I’m Lazarus, stumbling out of the grave in my funeral wrappings. I’m the Good Thief and the proud Pharisee praying loudly in the Temple square.

In the Cross, I lose myself and the Love of Christ floods in. Every year for me, that moment at the Cross is my new beginning The reality of His love and sacrifice is the truth revealed in Holy Week. Every year we experience it anew. I pray that you’ll find a new beginning this year and that some moment will open your heart to the mercy of our loving Father. This week is a treasure of our faith, given to us as our ladder to Heaven. Love opens the way for us.

“For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

    —I Corinthians 1:18 

I’m the Prodigal

Nothing feels as good as coming home.  Whether it’s at the end of an especially tiresome workday or coming home for the first time in many years — home is the place at the heart of our souls.  It’s where we are most ourselves.  It’s where we are energized and made whole again.  Home is so much more than a house.  While the walls and floors and furnishings may be the physical parts of a home, the soul of a home is the family within it.  Family gives us life and our beginning.  If we’re blessed with a loving and supportive family, home is where we long to be, no matter our age or circumstances.  Home grounds us, refreshes us and lets us rest and become our truest selves.  Home embraces us, revives us, and allows us to dream.  Home gives us permission to be loved.

Home is what the prodigal son had lost.  He’d left home with his share of his father’s estate and hit the road.  He’d lived the high life and spent all his attentions on himself. “He squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation” (Luke 15:13).  Finally he hit bottom.  Out of money and the friends money had bought for him, he found a job feeding scraps to a farmer’s pigs.  For a Jew, working with swine was the lowest job in the world.  Starving, he remembered his father and their home.  He thought to himself: “I shall get up and to to my father” (Luke 15:18).  The prodigal wants to go home.

Catholics hear this parable and we think of ourselves as the prodigal son or daughter.  God, our Father, has given us the gift of life and everything in it.  Our home with Him is one of joy and light and peace that surpasses understanding.  We are His beloved children and heirs.  And yet, this isn’t enough for us.  We want even more and we think we can find “more” away from His home, out in the world.  And so we leave.  We try our own way.  We leave our home behind.  We try to forget our Father’s ways.  We try new ways with new people.  We go from place to place and relationship to relationship, always looking for something, but never really knowing what.  We work.  We play.  But we’re starving inside.  Our heart longs for….home.  And the house and the love of our Father.

There’s a wonderful and very revealing verse in the parable of the prodigal son.  He’s on the journey home and “while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20).  This tells us so much about our loving God.  He has made us as His beautiful children, loved by Him since the beginning of time.  He made the universe just for you and for me.  And from the moment of Adam’s sin, He put in place a people and a plan to draw us back to His heart and to our true home in heaven.  Yet we forsake our inheritance because we think we can find our own way in the world.  We believe we know what’s best for us.  We stop praying.  We stop reading His Word.  We stop going to Mass.  We invest our time and treasure in the things of the world.  And the world leaves us cold and alone and starving for the Truth.  In each of our lives there comes a moment, or a series of moments, when we realize there is no peace outside the Father’s home.  It’s this soul-satisfying peace that we so desperately long for and we find missing in our lives away from Him.  St. Augustine sums it up beautifully when he writes: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Something brings us to our knees—a broken relationship, an addiction, a financial loss, the death of a loved one—and our broken hearts long for the healing forgiveness and mercy of our Father.  Like the prodigal, we want to go home.

Jesus has always been looking for us to come back to Him. Every day, He has peered down the road of our lives, hoping to see us return to Him.  No matter how long we’ve been away from Him and His Church, He never forgets our face and our heart.  His longing has been to enfold us in His loving arms and welcome us home as His child and the heir to His Kingdom.  No sin can separate us from the love of Christ.  The story of the prodigal son teaches us how precious we are to Jesus and how much joy we give Him when we come back home to Him.  Jesus has never ceased to think of us and love us and want us back.  When we come to Him on our knees and admit sorrow for our sins, His mercy and love embraces us.  Like the prodigal’s father, He longs to give us a party with the finest food and drink.  And He does.  Christ gives us Himself in the Sacrifice and Celebration of the Holy Mass.  There, at His altar, we are truly home.  We find peace there, and our heart’s desire..  We, who once were dead, are now alive again.  We were lost, and now are found.

God is waiting for us, like the father in the parable, with open arms, even though we don’t deserve it.”
—St. Josemaria Escriva

Praying In The Desert

She went to Mass every day.  She listened to the Word of God proclaimed and heard the priest’s homily — words meant to enlighten and inspire.  She received the Eucharist in Holy Communion.  At home, she prayed.  Her family watched her go to work and watched her come home again.  She cooked and cleaned and cared for her children and her husband.  She was active in her ministry work at church and as a volunteer at the local hospital.  And always, she prayed.  On the outside, nothing had changed.  But on the inside, everything was darkness.  Her spiritual life, once the source of her joy and peace, was now a wasteland.  Prayer brought her no comfort.  Her pleas to God went unanswered.  She felt totally cut-off from Christ, from the sweet Savior Who had always felt so close to her.  She felt alone.  She felt lost.

There are times in life when God seems very close to us.  The sun of His love shines brightly.  Our hearts exult in the joy of His presence.  Every Mass is a foretaste of heaven and Holy Communion is almost unbearable intimacy with Christ.  When we read Holy Scripture, He speaks to us directly and reveals His heart fully to us. Our prayer life is rich, satisfying and exciting.  We feel as if we are always in the presence of our Lord.  And then it seems, for no reason, we wake one day to find ourselves cast away from Him, no longer in His presence at all but in a kind of spiritual desert.  Anyone who follows Christ will someday experience this dryness and spiritual loneliness.  In the Catholic tradition, many great Saints have written of their own experiences of feeling isolated from Christ.  St. John of the Cross’ most famous work is The Dark Night of the Soul.  St. Therese of Lisieux wrote:  “For me it is always night; dark black night…but since my Beloved wishes to sleep, I shall not prevent Him.”  More recently, the private letters of St. Teresa of Calcutta have revealed that this loving and heroic woman lived for many years in the lonely darkness of a spiritual void.  And yet she persevered in her work with the poor.  To the outside world, her faith seemed as vibrant and alive as ever.

The truth is:  it was.  It’s a mistake for us to think that our “feelings” define our faith lives.  Faith is more than just warm and fuzzy feelings.  The gift of faith requires a conscious decision to follow Jesus Christ.  Feelings fade, but true faith persists in the desert.  It can even thrive there.  Remember in St. Matthew’s Gospel, that it wasn’t the devil that led Christ into the desert:  it was the Spirit of God.  Whether we like it or not, all of us will be led into that desert at one time or another.  In that blistering, lonely wilderness we can, like Christ, be cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose.  What did Christ do in the desert?  He fasted and prayed and waited on God.

This is what we also can do when our interior faith life becomes dry, dusty, and silent.  Pray, even when you don’t feel like it.  Go to Mass as often as you can.  Go to Confession every week.  Do something for someone else.  Fast. Read the Gospels every day.  Be quiet.  This last one may be the most difficult of all.  Spend some time each day quietly and prayerfully opening your heart to God’s presence.  This “desert time” can be a wonderful gift, because it is a time just for you and for God to be together.  In the wilderness, He teaches us to rely on Him more completely, to depend on Him for all our needs.  Alone with Him, we learn that He is using this desert to teach us how to love Him as He already loves us.  Completely.

I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the desert, through a land not sown.” 

                                                                                                            –Jeremiah 2:2

Building the Kingdom

At a construction site, three men were pouring a mixture of sand, water, and lime into a trough.  A passerby asked them what they were doing.  The first man said, “I’m making mortar.”  The second one said, “I’m laying bricks.”  But the third man said, “I’m building a cathedral.”  They were all doing the same work.  It was their attitudes that were different—and what a difference they made!  Each one of us can probably identify with this story in our own lives.  We all know people who take the short view of life.  They do just enough to get by, whether at their jobs or in their families or in their relationship with God.  They come to Mass at Christmas and Easter and drop their $5 in the collection basket when it comes by.  They bring their children to be baptized and bring their parents for a Catholic funeral.  They are the ones making mortar.

Surely, we know some of the second type as well.  These are the people we work with every day.  They show up, do a good job and take pride in being a good employee.  They love their families and their children.  They’re next to us in the pew at Mass every Sunday.  They know the words to most of the hymns and they usually give some of their treasure to help pay the bills.  They do all that’s asked of them.  They are the ones laying bricks.

If we’re blessed, we know a few of the last ones as well.  They are the people who do their jobs with joy and gladly help others to do their jobs, too.  They don’t ask for credit or recognition and just being around them makes you feel good.  They volunteer for the PTA and the carpool when they aren’t coaching Little League or teaching Sunday School.  They come to daily Mass.  They take Holy Communion to the nursing home and do what needs to be done around the church without even being asked.  They tithe ten percent of their income to the Church and are often those “anonymous donors” who contribute generously to keep the parish going when times are tough.  They are not only building a cathedral, they’re building the Body of Christ.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be one of these last people.  I want to serve God and His Church joyfully and gladly and I know that I can best serve Him by serving others.  “Just getting by” isn’t enough.  My faith is too important to me to spend my time on earth just making mortar.  I need God always at the center of my life and I need the strength and courage that He gives me in His Sacraments. I know that when I mess up (every day) that the Lord will forgive me and help me to do better. I know that He wants me to forgive others in just the same way. I need the love and support of my parish family.  This is what stewardship is all about—because the more we need, the more we need to give.  We need to offer serious time for prayer, Adoration, and Mass.  We need to give our time to help the poor and the needy.  We need to share our talents, whatever they may be.  We need to put ourselves at the service of the One Who gives us everything.  We understand that it takes a lot of money for the Church to function, so we give sacrificially so our parish can carry out its ministry work.  In helping to build the Body of Christ, I’m laying up treasure in heaven.  This is the joy of stewardship:  in knowing that my humble gifts laid at His altar for His purpose never belonged to me anyway.  They were always the mortar and the bricks in the Cathedral of His Kingdom.

“Persevere in the exact fulfillment of the obligations of the moment. That work – humble, monotonous, small – is prayer expressed in action that prepares you to receive the grace of the other work – great and wide and deep – of which you dream.”

           –St. Jose Maria Escriva