It’s Time For Hope

Hope. Sometimes we forget that this season of Lent is all about hope. We tend to focus on penance and fasting—on what we’re “giving up” for Lent. But what purpose is any of it if we’re not living in the hope of the Resurrection? Hope looks forward, to the future and to our true home in heaven, living in the presence of Christ, Who never changes and Who never fails us. These days we seem divided and adrift as a country. But we needn’t be if we live in hope. And, if we chose to see it, hope springs up all around us. The empty tomb is lived out in the simple choices that each one of us makes every day. Seeing these choices for what they reveal about our hearts is one of the joys of this reflective time of Lent.  

We see hope when a teacher takes the time to comfort a crying child whose home life is hunger, loneliness, and harsh words. We see hope when a young man in prison receives a letter filled with kind words and encouragement, tucked inside a new Bible. We see hope when a young mother, despite pressure from her boyfriend, decides to keep her unborn child. We see hope when a man who has been away from the Church for decades is welcomed and consoled in the confessional by a kind and patient priest. Oh yes. Hope is surely here, if we see it.

“Hope is the life of the soul,” writes Dr. Peter Kreeft. Hope isn’t wishful thinking, or a merely optimistic outlook on life. Real hope, Christian hope, is the solid conviction that God has a plan for my life. Hope is knowing that He is in charge of everything and that He will see me through every trial—even the trial of my death. Hope is the risen Christ, the empty tomb, and life everlasting. Hope gives us strength to trust in God and not in ourselves. “Our God is thus a God of promises. And He keeps every one to the letter,” says Dr. Kreeft. We see that hope when an elderly couple, homebound and frail, share a meal and hospitality with the family that lives next door. We see hope when a businessman spends his Saturdays working with homeless men, helping them to fill out job applications and develop interview skills. We see hope when a parish welcomes two refugee families and provides them with housing and settlement support. We see hope when a husband and wife choose to adopt a child.

Hope connects us with one another and helps us to realize that we are all on this earthly journey together. “Hope builds bridges between faith and love, between conservatives and liberals, between present and future, between earth and heaven,” writes Dr. Kreeft. Hope asks of us to care for the needy among us, to reach out beyond our prejudices and to see the face of Christ in our neighbor. Hope gives us the courage to leave our fears in God’s hands. Hope calls us forth to love. We see hope when a teenaged girl is rescued from sex-trafficking by a group of dedicated nuns. We see hope when a small boy witnesses his mother love and care for his dying father in their home, day after day, for months on end. We see hope when a brother and a sister reconcile with one another after years of resentment over a now-forgotten slight. We see hope in the life of a woman battling breast cancer, who faces each day with courage and joy, inspiring those around her to do the same.  

We show hope to others when we live a life of gratitude, no matter our circumstances. Because we know that our God is always in charge, caring for us and drawing us to Himself. We know that today and tomorrow and all eternity are in His loving grasp. Hope is not an abstraction or a concept. Hope isn’t an intellectual exercise or a naive belief in some make-believe Candyland of our own design. Hope is as real as the nails in His sacred hands, as solid as the rock rolled away from His grave, as everlasting as God Himself. Hope isn’t some “thing”—as Pope Francis recently told the people of Mexico: “You have asked me for a word of hope–what I have to offer you has a name–Jesus Christ.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find til after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to the other country and to help others do the same.”

—-C.S. Lewis

A History of Faith

I was tired. We’d been walking through the city all morning over rough, cobblestone streets. The church seemed like a good place to take a break. On this cool fall day, the other tourists were few and far between. As we opened one of the large front doors to slip inside, we left behind the noise of the streets for the quiet darkness of this beautiful old church. Begun in 1652, the Church of St. Agnes was erected on the site where the Saint met her death. Agnes was a beautiful young girl whose loveliness had attracted the attention of a Roman judge. But Agnes wasn’t interested in him or anyone else. She was a Christian and had renounced marriage in favor of a life dedicated to God. Her attitude angered the judge and he had Agnes arrested and dragged naked through the streets to a brothel, where he and his friends planned to rape her. Agnes prayed and as she did, her long hair grew miraculously longer and thicker so as to cover her nakedness and preserve her modesty. In the end, she was burned at the stake and beheaded. Her death on January 31, 304 A.D. had taken place on the very spot where her church now stands.

Built in the Baroque style, St. Agnes’ Church is filled with marble and frescoes. Large Corinthian columns of red marble flank the long center aisle to the altar rail and sanctuary. It’s as if the columns invite visitors to come inside and walk down the aisle. So we did. The other few people inside were quietly examining the frescoes on the side walls or were seated in the pews at prayer. We could smell incense from an earlier Mass still lingering in the cool air. The marble floor was a work of art in itself–delicate inlaid patterns of crosses and medallions of flowers made of different kinds and colors of marble. As we approached the altar, I was struck by the beauty of the altar rails. Missing now from most Catholic churches, for centuries people would kneel at railings like these to receive Holy Communion. Here the rails were still in place just in front of the raised altar platform. So we knelt down to pray.

The moment my knees touched the marble kneeler, I noticed something unusual. Rather than feeling a straight, flat piece of stone, my knees settled into a marble “valley” or trough. I looked down in surprise and I could actually see it running the length of each altar rail. And then I realized what it was. It was where thousands of pairs of knees over hundreds of years had worn the marble away. It took my breath. Kneeling there in front of the tabernacle, I knew I was in the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. I imagined generation upon generation of other believers kneeling there like me, believing the same truth. I remembered the words of St. Paul: “…at the name of Jesus, ever knee should bend..”(Phillipians 2:22). On my knees in this holy place, I knelt in front of Love. I thanked God for my many blessings and for leading us into this beautiful old church. I prayed to have the faith of St. Agnes, who loved Christ with all her heart and soul. I asked St. Agnes to pray for me, too, just as I would ask a friend on earth to pray for me. I prayed for all those souls who had knelt in this same place over the centuries and for all those who would come after me, their knees on this same piece of worn marble. I imagined the angels in Heaven with Jesus, kneeling around Him and His holy throne. Like us, they were kneeling before their Creator in praise and thanksgiving. On my knees there, the communion of the Saints felt very close and very very real. Sometimes God reveals Himself to us in amazing ways, like the witness of a holy Saint willing to die for her faith in Christ. And sometimes His great love is felt in the cool smoothness of a simple marble kneeler. May our hearts always be open to his presence in our lives, however He shows Himself. Amen.

“Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.”

—Psalm 95:6

Sunday Mass

On any given Sunday about 25% of Catholics in America attend Mass (Georgetown University CARA Study, 2012).  That means the great majority of us AREN’T in the pews.  Some legitimate reasons we might miss Mass include having to work, being sick or caring for someone who is ill or infirm, caring for an infant, and severe weather that makes travel dangerous.  There can be other valid reasons for missing Sunday Mass, too. But it’s hard to imagine that 75% of us are missing Mass for one valid reason or another.  The Church teaches that we must attend Mass on Sunday and some holy days–for our own good.  Coming together to worship God and celebrate the Eucharist dates back to the first years of the Church.

Worshipping together was a crime punishable by death from about 64 AD (under Nero) until 312 AD (under Constantine).  Even being accused of being a Christian could lead to execution.  But it really wasn’t individual Christians that the Roman Empire saw as a threat to the state  It was their assembly together at Mass that the government saw as an act of treason.  This same assembly is viewed by the Church as the way we fulfill our membership in the Body of Christ.  For both Church and Empire, the way you know someone was a Christian is if they shared regularly in worship.  How many Catholics today could meet this definition of being Christian?

Of course, just going to Mass doesn’t guarantee a deep and rich relationship with God and our neighbor.  Like the old saying, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.  But the Church in her wisdom knows that NOT coming to Mass on Sunday is a sure way NOT to be a Christian.  Worshipping together is central to our Christian lives.  “It is the liturgy which, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist ‘the work of our redemption is accomplished’” (Constitution on the Liturgy). During the Roman persecutions, the government focused on killing the clergy and confiscating property and homes used for worship.  The Empire thought that by depriving the Church of a means to come together in corporate worship they could stamp out Christianity.  Yet the Roman Christians regularly risked their lives to come together for the celebration and sacrifice of the mass.  They believed with all their hearts that in the Mass they encountered the very Person of Jesus Christ in the ultimate expression of His redeeming love.  This is why the Church obligates us to come to Mass—not because the Church loves making rules, but because the Church knows that our salvation is through the saving work of Christ and in His command that we receive His Body and His Blood in the Holy Eucharist.  “Do this in memory of me”(Luke 22:19). 

When we miss Mass on Sunday for no good reason, it’s as if we are turning away from Christ’s sacrifice of love on the Cross.  Mass is the public prayer of the Church where we gather as members of His Body to ask forgiveness of our sins, to thank Him for His love for us, to learn how to be close to Him and to share in the Eucharist, which is Christ Himself.  The Eucharist is how we allow the Holy Spirit to “work out our salvation”(Philippians 2:13) in us.  That process within us continues throughout our lives and so at least every Sunday we need to participate in this eternal journey.  Saying “no” to Sunday Mass without a good reason is saying “no” to the process of redemption that Christ died to give us.  We turn away from the sanctifying grace we need for eternal life.  If you’ve been away from Mass, come back.  Let God know you’re sorry for being away from Him.  Most parishes offer the Sacrament of Confession each Saturday, or you can call your local parish office for a private appointment with a priest.  God loves you and wants you to come back and worship with His family, with YOUR family (Romans 8:35).  We’re blessed to live in a country where we can still freely worship Christ without fear.  He is waiting for you.

“…All who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice and to eat the Lord’s Supper.”

—-Constitution on the Liturgy