A Time of Hope

The beginning of every year is a time of hope. 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 the Christian life.

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 

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Me. Me. ME.

There are so many great stories in the Old Testament. The story of creation. Moses parting the Red Sea. My namesake Judith chopping off the head of Holofernes. God uses all of them to reveal His great love for us and His unfolding plan for our salvation. One of my favorite stories is about Naaman and how God cured him of leprosy. I’m drawn to his story, not because it makes me feel good to read it, but because it makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s a good bet that when a story from Scripture makes me uncomfortable it’s because God is trying to get something through my thick skull. And with Naaman, I think I know what it is.

You’ll find the story of Naaman told in II Kings, chapter 5. Here’s the gist of it. Naaman is an army general in ancient Syria. He’s got everything going for him—he’s rich and strong and powerful. His career is going great. The only downside to anything about Naaman is the fact that he has leprosy, which in those days was devastating both physically and socially. Even so, he was a big deal in Syria. Living in his household was a little Jewish girl who had been captured in an army raid and who served as a maid to Naaman’s wife. She wanted her master to see the prophet Elisha whom she knew could cure his leprosy. So Naaman wrote to the king of Israel and was invited to come and see the prophet. After the long journey, Naaman arrived in court and Elisha sent word to him telling him to wash 7 times in the Jordan River and he’d be cured.

This really made Naaman mad. To begin with, he was a great general and this prophet couldn’t even be bothered to come outside and greet him personally? Naaman thought he’d get his cure when Elisha would pray for him and lay his hands on him. But no. Elisha had the audacity to tell him to bathe in this muddy, filthy little backwater creek they called the Jordan. Weren’t the mighty rivers of Damascus more beautiful, more powerful and more suited for a general like himself?

So in his anger Naaman got ready to leave. But his servants stopped him from going. They said if Elisha had asked Naaman to do something really difficult or extravagant that he’d have done it. Naaman agreed. Really sir, they told him, all you’ve got to do is go wash in the river. Naaman thought it over and did as he was told. And sure enough, his leprosy disappeared. He got the cure that he’d desperately longed for, but the way he went about it is what reminds me of my own sins and shortcomings. Sometimes when God blesses me I still find a reason to be unhappy with it. With Him. I think, “God, this isn’t the way I thought it would be.” When I had imagined Him answering my prayer, I had imagined Him doing it MY way. And when I do that, I limit God. Even though God alone can know what is best for me, I want him to bless me on MY terms. I want the prophet to come meet me personally, like Naaman did. I want God to bless me in the way that I expect to be blessed, in a way that will honor and exalt me. I don’t want to bathe in a muddy creek even though that’s exactly what I might need to do in order to be blessed. Me and Naaman? We understand each other.

Naaman and I are proud. We want to be treated like we’re important. We want a showy cure, something we think is “worthy” of us. What we have to learn is humility. For me, this is a daily lesson. Sometimes the greatest healings and most profound blessings come to us in the simple, straightforward “stuff” of our daily lives: our jobs, our families, our friends, and all the small ordinary challenges of every day. Too often we expect the Lord’s blessings to be big and dramatic: we win the lottery, we find a cure for cancer, we are awarded the Nobel Prize. But God uses the most mundane things and ordinary processes to perform His great miracles. He creates the universe with His word. He uses spittle and mud to cure a blind man. His breath imparts the Holy Spirit. Water cleanses us of sin in Baptism. Bread and wine become His precious Body and Blood.

Naaman reminds me not to try and put God in a box. My prayers (and my life) should reflect humility and gratitude. When God blesses me every moment my heart and my hands must be open to accept His gifts. Naaman’s little housemaid knew that. She knew that if her master asked, he’d be cured. May my heart be like her heart.

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because he cares for you,”
— I Peter 5:7

Jesus, our Shepherd

“And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8).  It was the shepherds outside Bethelehem who first heard the news of Christ’s birth.  These men and boys often lived at the edge of society, doing hard and lonely work in all sorts of weather.  In many ways, the shepherd was the “average working-class Joe” of Jewish life.  To some people, being a shepherd was among the lowest kinds of work.  It was physically demanding but vital to the economy of the Jews.  Shepherds lived mostly in the wild with only a wool wrap and a simple cover to protect them from rain, wind, scorching heat and freezing cold.  Shepherds ate only what they could carry:  bread, cheese, olives and if they were lucky, some figs and raisins.  They had to be versatile and adaptable to all kinds of situations; ready to rescue any strayed sheep and carry any injured one back to safety to nurse it to health.  Dangerous predators roamed the hills around Bethlehem and shepherds armed themselves with slingshots and heavy mallets to ward off the attacks of bears, lions, wolves and jackals.  Sometimes they would pull thickets of thorns and brambles together to make a pen for their sheep at night.  The shepherd would then lie down in the gate opening to close it off and protect his flock.

The connection between a shepherd and their sheep was so close that he could recognize the sounds made by each of the ones in his flock.  Likewise, the sheep knew and would respond to the voice of their shepherd.  “My sheep know My voice and I know them and they follow Me” (John 10:27). This “closeness” to their work also meant that shepherds were often unbathed, dirty, and smelly.  The nature of their desert work meant that they had little access to water and could only very rarely keep the elaborate cleanliness rituals of faithful Jews.  They were in some ways, outcasts and loners, dirty and looked-down upon by others.  In a word, they were God’s delight. Because God delights in choosing the lowly and marginalized to do His work and receive His blessings.

The Bible is full of references to sheep and shepherds.  Old Testament saints like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds at one time or another.  Jesus as our “Good Shepherd” is a beautiful image from Sacred Scripture.  In our time, the words “pastor” and “bishop” both derive from ancient words meaning “shepherd” and “guardian” and the staff of the bishop is still the shepherd’s crook.  It was appropriate then, that shepherds became the first Christmas guests.  We don’t know the names of the shepherds out on the hill that night with their flock surrounding them.  Because they were just those “average Joes” working the night shift, their legacy is anonymous.  But for a moment, try to imagine what it must have been like for them.  It’s a cold, quiet evening, talking with your friends around a fire.  The conversation always seemed to come back to the Romans, to politics.  Occasionally, the bleating of a sheep causes eyes to scan the hills for any sign of wolves.  Not tonight.  No, it’s just another cold quiet night on the job.  And then—–LIGHT!  Not just the light of daylight, but daylight a million times over!  The night sky blazes with an army of huge, shining men in armor surrounding and overwhelming them with their light and song.  “Do not be afraid,” the clear and beautiful voice rings out from the one closest to the shepherds.  “A Savior has been born to you!”  The angels spread out their arms and the glory and radiance of heaven is spilled out over the whole sky.  “Glory to God in the highest!” rang out the thunderous cry of the army of God.  The joy of heaven flowed down to earth that night and into the lives of the shepherds of Bethlehem.  For our great and almighty God has the heart of a shepherd.  So it was fitting that shepherds be the first to know.  And what did the shepherds do?  They didn’t stop to debate what it all meant, to argue over theology or form a committee.  No.  They ran.  They ran to the manger, ran to meet their King, ran to the Baby, to fall down on their knees and worship Him, Emmanuel, God Is With Us.  May we all have the heart of a shepherd this Christmas Eve.

Light in the Darkness

It’s the middle of another December and the darkness of the winter season is all around us.  The oak leaves are brown and crunchy underfoot on the cold ground.  Frost has burnt the leaves of the rose bush.  The nights are long and the blue-white stars shine with a steely cold light.  And yet we know that after the depths of winter, spring will come again.  At the root of that empty oak tree is the spark of life that will force the green leaves in just a few months.  Inside the frost-bitten bush is the sleeping rose bud that will awaken in the warmth of spring.  Memory consoles us in winter with the hope of new life.  We remember summer’s warmth of long days and soft nights; the abundance of our sun-kissed gardens and the green lushness of field and valley.  Even in winter’s darkness, we carry in our hearts the light of summer.

God formed our remembering hearts, to seek Him and to long for the light of His love.  He knows how very much we need Him and yearn for the Truth which only He can give us.  And so He chose to come to us in the darkest days of winter, when His light would shine the brightest and when the consolation of His coming would be most welcome.  Heaven came  to earth in the Blessed Virgin’s holy womb; her sacred “yes” inviting the Infinite to make His home among us.  But this King of all Kings didn’t come to rule, but to serve.  He doesn’t demand homage, but seeks to be in a relationship with each one of us.  The great “I AM” comes to us as a shivering baby in a backwater manger.  That very night, the winter skies were filled with angels and the light of heaven used a star to shine forth the way to Him. The light of that singular star is reflected today in every twinkling bulb on our Christmas trees, and in every candle flickering on our altar.  The sanctuary lamp burns brightly near the Tabernacle of every Catholic church in the world and proclaims that Christ is here!  Just as He was in the manger, or the Upper Room, or on the Cross, or arising from the tomb.  The uncreated Light that rolled away the stone and banished darkness forever, that made the earth and hung the moon in place, that raised Lazarus from the dead and cured the sick and walked on the water—that same Light comes to us at every Mass.  And the angels that dance around His heavenly throne, and who heralded His birth to the shepherds, kneel with us around the altar in loving adoration.

And so in these darkest days of winter, again He comes to us.  In the darkness of our lost and sinful world, again He comes to us.  In the sinful, secret corners of our guilty hearts, He comes to us.  “The Light of the world” (John 8:12) comes to love us, to know us, and to save us.  He comes to bring us to Himself in all-embracing Light.  He comes to heal our broken souls and bind up all our wounds.  In the winter darkness of our sins and failings, our addictions and our weakness, when we can see nothing before us but cold, barren ground and the loneliness of doubt, He comes to bring us new life and hope.  Christ, our Light, conquers darkness forevermore.  Come, Lord Jesus!

From Tony Agnesi

Today I’m sharing something from my friend, Tony Agnesi. Tony is a renowned Catholic author and speaker. I know you’ll enjoy his reflection on Advent as much as I have.

Welcome my friends to Secular Advent!  For those of you who are not familiar with the holiday season, it began several years ago and has grown into the biggest secular holiday of the year.

Secular Advent used to begin on Black Friday.  Now it begins with Grey Thursday, right after Thanksgiving dinner, Greed can’t wait for an entire day of giving thanks, especially when we forget who to thank!

The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful, and has nobody to thank.–Dante Gabriel Rossetti

There are other minor holidays during Secular Advent. Holidays like  Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday.  Secular Advent continues all the way until Return Unwanted Gifts Week!

For those of you who celebrate the Christian Advent know that Secular Advent is the antithesis of this.

Secular Advent asks us to speed up and spend money now!  Christian Advent asks us to slow down and prepare for the coming of our savior Jesus Christ.

Secular Advent asks us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need, under the pretense that “it was on sale!”  Christian Advent asks us to be thankful for what we have and to give to those who have little.

Secular Advent asks us to fight for our rights for the last big screen television at Walmart. We must fight even if it means we have to kill for it, or at least start a riot.  Christian Advent asks us to pray for peace in the world.

Secular Advent reminds us that seven year-old’s need an iPhone 7, an Xbox and Play Station gaming systems.  After all, they deserve it.  Christian Advent reminds us that some children will have no gifts at Christmas.  Wouldn’t it be nice to buy something for a child who has little or nothing.

As for me, I prefer the Advent of our Christian faith.  And, so as not to get caught up in the hype of this secular holiday, here are a few things I am going to do.  Maybe you might try these too:

1. I’m going to slow down and enjoy the advent season. I’ll enjoy the beauty of winter closing in, snowfall, and family and friends.

2. As a Catholic, I’m going to attend mass every day  this advent season.  I’ll focus on the coming of Jesus, not only on Christmas day, but his second coming as well.

3. I’m going to increase my prayer time. , I’ll especially to pray for those who will be sad because they have lost a loved one this year.

4. I’m going to help someone in need, a family member, a friend or just a name from the giving tree or Salvation Army list.

My protest will be a quiet one, a silent one.  I will just choose not to take part in the madness.  Instead, I’ll try to concentrate my thoughts and deeds on throwing off the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light.

Please join me this Advent.

Thank you, Tony! Read more of him at tonyagnesi.com

From the Manger to the Cross

We love the manger scene at Christmas, don’t we?  Ever since St. Francis of Assisi made the first one in 1223, Christians of all sorts have loved seeing the tender scene of the stable at Bethlehem.  Tiny Nativity sets on our coffee tables.  Carved wooden family heirlooms under our Christmas trees.  Large realistic statuary in front of the altar of our church.  We love the sight of all the animals gathered into the stable around the manger.  We see the shepherds there, running in from their flocks to worship the newborn baby.  The angels who proclaimed His birth hover nearby, trumpets in hand, trailing banners that read, “Gloria In Excelsis Deo.” The sweet old man leaning on his staff must be St. Joseph.  A misreading of Scripture sometimes places the three wise men in the Nativity scene too, though it was probably at least a couple of years later that they made their appearance.  Every manger scene features the Blessed Virgin Mary looking down lovingly at her newborn son.  Even the most spartan Christian denominations trot out a Nativity scene at Christmas.  No one could object to these warm and fuzzy images.  And then, there’s the baby—tiny and perfect and cooing up at His mother and foster father.  Just looking at Him gives us a warm glow, a feeling that all is right with the world once more.  We look at this idyllic scene and smile.

And yet to view His birth as only a kind of Disney cartoon filled with little lambs and singing cherubs is at least a misunderstanding and maybe even a heresy.  This is not just the miracle of another birth to another poor couple in desperate circumstances.  This is the Creator God Whose birth is cleaving creation in two.  By being born as a baby, He is dividing time itself.  We measure time as either before or after the Incarnation.  This cooing infant has all the power and knowledge of the great “I AM” in Him from the moment of His conception.  Fully human and fully divine, this newborn is the Word made flesh.  Look closely at Him and you’ll see much more than just a babe in swaddling clothes.

Nestled in His mother’s lap in the stable, does He also imagine the last time she’ll hold Him, as He is taken down from the Cross?  Looking around Him there in the manger, does He notice the donkey patiently chewing some hay nearby and does he see that other one that He’ll ride into Jerusalem for that last Passover?  Does His borrowed stable remind Him of the borrowed tomb yet-to-be?  Does He wonder why so many want to see Him in the crib, but so few will want to walk with Him to Golgotha?  Crowds come to pray at His birth, but He knows that in Gethsemane, He’ll pray alone.  The stable filled with love and homage will one day be a lonely hill, rocky and barren and full of suffering.  Does the baby know this?  Surely.  And yet He chooses to come to us anyway.  He comes to be one of us so that we can know how to be more like Him.  He comes because He knows we have nowhere else to go and no one else who can save us.  He comes because it is His Father’s will and He and the Father are One. He comes out of love because He IS Love. The baby in the manger is already sacrificing Himself for you and for me.  The star shining so brightly overhead throws a shadow on His face, the shadow of a Cross.  We can never truly know the joy of that Bethlehem night unless we also embrace with Him that long afternoon on Good Friday.  Our beloved manger scenes at Christmas hold the promise of Easter morning within them, if we only choose to make the journey with our Savior.  It begins here in Bethlehem as we kneel by the baby.  Mary’s little lamb is already the Lamb of God “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).

Mercy and Thanksgiving

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.”

                                                                                —Ephesians 1:7

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