Mud clings. I remember walking home from school as a sixth grader one spring and cutting through an open lot only to find myself stopped in my tracks, literally. My feet sunk into the mud so deeply that I couldn’t get my foot out for quite awhile and when I finally did my shoe remained behind! Later when the ground dried enough for me to recover the shoe I learned just how tedious and difficult restoring it would be.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews today (12:1-4), he exhorts us to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us”. Imagine Jeremiah being pulled out of the cistern. Scripture describes it as having no water, “only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud” (Jeremiah 38:6). How long it must have taken him to get cleaned up! Sin clings to us – whether we fell in by accident, were drawn into it by others, or simply formed the bad habit over time. We might knock off big chunks at first but the tedium of removing the clingy bits in the crevices, grooves, and fibers can discourage us to the point of despair. However, St. Paul encourages us to persevere because muddy shoes slow you down and tire you out in a race and we are running the race to heaven.
Thankfully you don’t have to do it alone, but you do need to ask for help. The waters of grace have the power to cleanse even the most difficult stain. If we turn to Christ and ask the Holy Spirit to remove the clinging sin then it can be done. Psalm 40:1-2 praises the Lord for just such a miracle:
“I have waited, waited for the LORD,
and he stooped toward me.
The LORD heard my cry.
He drew me out of the pit of destruction,
out of the mud of the swamp;
he set my feet upon a crag;
he made firm my steps.”
We resist clingy people, pets, and even clothing because they restrict our freedom and flourishing. Let us resist clingy sin for the same reason. It will require patience, perseverance, and prayer, but as St. Paul reminds us “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and they give us hope that it can be done!
St. Paul honors Abraham as a man of faith because Abraham acted on God’s word. Abraham left his very comfortable home where he was already prosperous for a land that God would show him, not one God had already shown to him. Abraham received his son Isaac through two impossible circumstances in which he acted based on trust in God over trust in his own natural limitations: first, Isaac’s birth despite Abraham and Sarah’s old age and Sarah’s prior sterility, and secondly at the sacrifice of Isaac wherein Isaac’s life would be taken but would have to be restored by God. Abraham acted on faith, he took huge risks. This wasn’t blind faith however, in some obscure and unknowable mythological or philosophical God. Rather, Abraham responded in faith to a loving God Who revealed Himself to Abraham and Who reveals Himself to you and I even today.
God acted in faith too and took a huge risk for us. God sent His only Son to become man, die for us, and rise again for our salvation. Jesus Christ lived among us, taught profound Truth, and performed great miracles. This is the most historically verified fact of anyone in history.
How will you and I respond to the revelation given to us? Will we avoid the challenge and drown ourselves in distractions (like the unfaithful servant in Luke 12:32-48) or will we rise up like Abraham, our father in faith, and act.
May we act, not on the reward we have in hand, but in faith in the God Who promises it and has given His own outstretched hand to us.
For a full guided Gospel Meditation on this Sunday’s readings, check out Take Time For Him: Remain in His Love available in ebook or paperback. Order a copy and don’t miss a single week!
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Being a Christian means following Christ, wherever and whenever He goes. Full discipleship requires 100% commitment, not the made-to-order or pick and choose buffet we are accustomed to in our culture. Consider Jesus’ own example. He had to journey to Jerusalem and to sacrificial suffering. Notice the attitude He chose – resolution and determination.
Followers of Christ need the same resolution and determination. St. Teresa of Avila, the great Spanish mystic, emphasized repeatedly the necessity of determination to advance in the spiritual life. In her instructional work The Way of Perfection, she warned against our tendency to draw back and complain when things become difficult:
“Be determined, Sisters, that you came to die for Christ, not to live comfortably for Christ.”[i]
Saint Paul also exhorted the Corinthians to live their faith with bold resolution. He warned against conditional discipleship and encouraged the Christian community to be generous and steadfast:
“The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:6-7
As Jesus journeyed doing the Father’s will, those He encountered each had an opportunity to join Him, but their conditional stipulations determined whether they would accept it or turn it down. The Samaritans received messengers from Christ but rejected the Lord before He even arrived when they learned accepting Christ meant surrendering their bitterness toward Jerusalem. The next person took the initiative to seek Jesus out and requested to be in His company. However Jesus, who knows the hearts of each one of us, also knew the man’s interior conditions for discipleship. Thus, Jesus cautioned him that He would provide spiritual security and comfort but not necessarily the feeling of physical security and comfort.
The next two men Jesus invited to follow Him procrastinated and avoided discipleship by requesting to finish up their other work first. Their requests seem valid and even noble. In fact, burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy and honoring your father and mother is the 4th commandment. Is Jesus asking us to neglect our duties? Does Christian discipleship excuse neglecting our families? Does God contradict Himself? No. Do we sometimes rationalize our cowardice or weakness by twisting God’s commands against Him? Yes. It reminds me of kids who try to avoid chores by claiming they need to work on their homework all of a sudden.
Many of us (including myself!), often excuse our lack of time for prayer by pitting it against the active life of charity. It sounds something like this: “I don’t have time to sit and pray because I need to do [fill in the blank] which God would want me to do.” A practical example would be, “I could sit and pray/ ‘doing nothing’, or work an extra hour to provide for my family, or do a load of laundry and dishes, or run an errand. God wants me to care for my family, that is my prayer.” Sometimes that might be the case. But, in truth, there’s usually time for both. This mentality has sometimes been referred to as the heresy of activism.
Spending quality time with Christ in prayer first is the foundation of discipleship. How can we follow Him if we rarely take time to listen? In addition, without prayer, even our loving activities can tend to be more self-loving rather than other-loving. Jesus knew the hearts of the two men who wanted to return to their families before following Him. Rather than contradicting His command that we love one another, especially our families, He may have been calling them out on their rationalizations.
Let’s face it, we have an inner desire for God, and we may even have authentic zeal for discipleship, but we also struggle with attachments that hold us back. The good news is that if we open ourselves up to Christ in prayer, He will reveal those attachments to us and provide the grace to overcome them. It requires resolution and determination, but with God all things are possible!
+ Like the Samaritans, how many of us hold on to bitterness, anger, or un-forgiveness? Prayerfully ask Christ to reveal if any of these are holding you back from following Him. Pray for the grace to surrender it to the Lord.
+ Like the man who proclaimed he would follow Christ wherever He goes, consider why you are a Christian. Is your love for the Lord intermixed with some self-love as well? Do you complain when you encounter trials? Are you impatient or upset when you experience discomfort?
+ What rationalizations do you use to delay responding to Christ or to responding more generously?
+ Each day this week thank God for one deterrent He has helped you overcome or from which He has freed you. Invite Him to reveal and free you from a current hindrance you may or may not realize you have.
+ Pray for an increase in resolution and determination. Choose one concrete thing you can do this week to apply it. (e.g. pray 15 minutes each morning or evening, say something kind to your spouse when you want to say something critical, hug your child when you want to throw your hands up in exasperation, choose a daily Mass to attend and do what it takes to get there, go to Confession…)
“As the world gives” tends to leave a person bitter and disillusioned. It begins with promises of security and pleasure but lacks real permanency or loyalty. After a while we even struggle to relax during periods of calm, worrying that it won’t endure long. Nothing seems to last, and this causes anxiety in good times and in bad.
Christ however offers the peace every human soul longs for – permanent, deep, and healing. Moreover, we do not have to chase after it like a greyhound that will never catch the rabbit. Rather, Christ bestows His peace freely as a fruit of His unconditional love. To receive this peace, we merely need to enter into a relationship of love with Him. Relationship with Christ is merciful and enduring. Jesus doesn’t throw us away when we become difficult or even when we betray Him. He persists in pursuing us, binding our wounds, and transforming our hearts. His greatest pain, he revealed to St. Faustina, is our lack of trust in Him. To Mother Teresa, He said, “I thirst”; meaning He thirsts for our souls and relationship with us.
Relationships are risky – they require two people to both freely choose to love one another. No matter how faithful, how loving, how sacrificial one partner is willing to be, if the other walks away the relationship ends. Christ is the ultimate risk taker. He loves us no matter what, even if that love is unrequited. Moreover, the partner who walks away suffers the greatest loss because he or she closes himself off from the riches of the other partner’s love. When we walk away from Christ, we close ourselves off from the love He longs to bestow upon us.
Jesus offers peace, love, and joy. All we must do is live in a loving relationship with Christ. To do this He says, we must follow His commands. We live in a wounded world confused about authentic love. Jesus teaches us through His commands and offers the perfect example for us to imitate. We can chase after the illusion of love or embrace the God who is love. If we choose the latter, God will dwell within us and our joy will be complete. It feels more risky because it’s harder to see at first. Ultimately however, it’s the soundest reality and truest love.
+ Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” What do you allow to cause you anxiety and fear? Surrender each thing to the Lord and entrust your concerns to Him.
+ Examine your day each night or morning. Thank God for His blessings. Recognize when He came to your aid. Identify when you failed to love Christ or your neighbor and ask for Jesus’ help to do better the next day.
We often hear in psychology, parenting advice, or therapy about the importance of attachment and bonding. The intimacy and security derived from these relationships provide critical ingredients for overall mental and emotional health.How might we develop this essential bond with Jesus, the source of our spiritual wellbeing?
First: what not to do. Jesus described His relationship with His flock in response to stubborn hearted Jews who had pressed Him once again to declare clearly that He was the Christ. Jesus expressed anger at the question because He had demonstrated it so many times at this point, that their blindness was sharply willful and to repeat Himself would be pointless. They did not ask for an answer, they asked simply to argue with no real intent of listening. You may have experienced this type of frustrating exchange with someone yourself. It’s one of those points at which you must just walk away.
Jesus encounters the same blind argument today: “How can I be sure Jesus is God if He lived so long ago? What evidence is there that He even rose again from the dead or that the Bible is reliable? Maybe there were miracles back then, but not anymore. How can I believe if Jesus doesn’t work a miracle in my time?” Despite the myriad of evidence to the contrary all around us or at our fingertips, we need to choose to open our eyes. In addition to the tomes of scholarly work in every discipline which has proven the reliability of the bible against every modern standard, or the witness of the apostles and early church that Jesus truly rose from the dead (why die a martyr for this if there is no resurrection?), Jesus is still present today and He works in our lives constantly if we would simply be open minded and open hearted enough to see. He literally speaks to us through His Word in the Scriptures and His Church. He cares for our needs through His followers and even “the heavens are telling the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). Finally, in the quiet of our hearts His Holy Spirit speaks, gently guiding us. If we really want to see, if we really want to follow, we need only ask the Spirit to heal our sight that we may see all this abundance around us.
When a person truly encounters Christ, their hearts burn with love; their bond and attachment to Him welded solid. They enter the intimate security of being in His flock, from which no one can snatch them from Him (v.28). A person becomes Christ’s sheep through Baptism and permanently marked as Christ’s forever. In consequence, secure in His love, Jesus’ sheep listen to His voice and let Him lead that they may remain near Him and under His protection and compassionate care.
Easter celebrates Jesus’ conquering of evil, sin, and death. He opened the gates of heaven, the gates of His fold, where He and the Father invite us to share in their love and receive it in our own hearts – the Holy Spirit.
It takes humility to be a sheep or to be a child. Both require a poverty of spirit that accepts its own dependence. Just as pride restricts and blinds us however,humility expands and frees us:
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:4
What peace and joy to belong to Christ! Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) expressed it well in his spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence:
“The truly faithful soul, well versed in all the secrets of God, lives in peace, and, instead of being frightened by what happens to it, is comforted, for it is quite, quite certain that God is guiding it.”[i]
[i] Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Abandonment to Divine Providence. Translated by
John Beevers. (Image Books: New York, 1975).
+ To what extent to do you trust Christ, and to what extent to do you resist Him?
+Do you have the humility to accept your dependence on His grace, to surrender your wisdom to His, to belong to Him instead of yourself?
+ Consider Christ’s strong love and attachment to you. Pause to reflect on His faithfulness and the security that flows from it.
+ Pray to Jesus with these words and reflect on this beautiful gift: “I belong to You”.
+ Prayerfully pray and recall several times throughout the day: “I belong to You, Jesus”. Be at peace, secure in His love.
I was recently presented with the question, “How can we know that the Christian religion is the true one as opposed to others?” I responded, “ours is the only one whose founder has risen from the dead”!
The miracle of Christ’s resurrection affirms the truth of His teachings and the divinity of His Person. The apostles evangelized by bearing witness to this event, one that they experienced with their own eyes. Many struggle to trust in Jesus because we cannot see Him. However, the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and numerous Epistles all testify that our faith does not rely on mere ideology but rather the physical resurrection of our Lord witnessed by reputable persons who all suffered for their testimony. Not a single apostle recanted his position to avoid martyrdom. All of them endured severe trials and difficulties with no monetary or physical reward. They had no ulterior motive. They did not say they “believed” Jesus had risen from the dead, but rather that they had all “seen” the risen Lord.
God knows we struggle to believe without seeing. Despite our weak faith, He mercifully became incarnate that we might see Him when He redeemed us. Moreover, He exceeded all expectations of the imagination by liberating us Himself rather than sending someone in his place.
We have all heard stories of backpackers or journalists who cross an enemy line and become imprisoned in a dangerous or violent country. Imagine if you were that person, afraid in your cell as to what will become of you, praying that your president will learn of your state and send someone to save you. You might hope for a diplomatic solution or even military special ops to heroically liberate you. Consider your surprise however if the president himself were to show up in military gear and break you out of prison at his own personal risk.
Christ reveals the love of God that exceeds any possible expectation or imagination. He condescends to our limitations even though He deserves better. He liberates us at His own painful expense. Moreover, He gives us a share in His resurrection and a chance at new life.
The Christian life is a response to the love and mercy we have first received from our Lord. Peter fed the Lord’s sheep because of his love and gratitude for His mercy. Jesus did not throw away their friendship after Peter’s betrayal. Instead, He gave Peter a second chance, an opportunity for contrition, forgiveness, and conversion.
Jesus gives each of us this same opportunity. He comes to wherever we are, offering us something to eat and an outstretched hand of friendship. He asks each of us the same question: “Do you love Me?” If the answer is yes, then He insists we respond in kind by extending a hand up to others and accompanying them in their conversion.
Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation The Joy of Loveaddresses in a comprehensive way the joy of love in families – both the ideal as the gift God has given to us, and the painful “irregularities” that need careful healing. The love of Christ and the call to feed His sheep begins in our families. Jesus asks that if we love Him, we ought to give generously and tenderly to those placed by Him in our daily lives, beginning with our families and reaching out from there.
+ It’s easy to be discouraged by our failures. Consider the encounter of Peter with Christ. What failure would weigh heavy on your heart if you faced the Lord? How would you respond to His hand up and His offer of mercy?
+ Who in your life needs your mercy? How might you offer him or her a hand up?
+ Consider how Christ can be recognized by His superabundance. When the apostles pulled in such a large catch, John knew immediately it was the Lord.
When has Christ surprised you by exceeding your expectations?
Ask for the gift of surrender and openness. Rather than giving Christ a list of tasks you would like Him to help accomplish, surrender the logistics to Him and do the tasks He sets before
+ Offer mercy toward someone each day this week.
+ Offer Christ your work week. Give him one week of being in charge and trust Him to accomplish His will. Just do the tasks He sets before you and let Him bring things together.
We often live in denial of ours sins and this can make it easy to imagine God as loving since we see ourselves entitled to His affections. However, when our hearts are really struck by the realization of a failure, when shame settles in our stomach at our weakness or self-centeredness, we can mistakenly assume God views us as a failure too and wants nothing to do with us. Jesus corrected this false view by describing God’s unconditional love in His Parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the Parable of the Merciful Father.
Return of the Prodigal Son By Rembrandt
In this parable, the father had freely given his sons everything he could – life, love, nurturing, and even inheritance of his estate. The first son responded with obedience, loyalty, and service. The second son responded with ingratitude, an entitlement attitude, and complacency. When he arrogantly wished his father dead and demanded his future inheritance, his father not only allowed him to leave but also gifted to him the undeserved future inheritance. Mistaking license for freedom, the son lived foolishly for pleasure and self-gratification. Eventually however his funds ran out and the difficult times that followed revealed the short-sightedness of his choices. The glamour of evil wore off when he found himself desperate enough to take a job caring for pigs (considered unclean by the Jews) and even more desperate when he felt tempted by his insatiable hunger to ask for some of their slop but was denied. As he hit rock bottom, he finally realized the generosity and goodness of his father.
Some Christians take their faith for granted. The spiritual gifts they had enjoyed from the sacraments, living in Christian fellowship, and possibly growing up in a Christian home seem less glamorous and more restrictive than worldliness. At first, missing mass on Sunday to sleep in, put in an extra day at work, travel, or any number of things might not seem that big of a deal. Next, spending time with worldly friends begins to outweigh Christian friends. As seeming independence and success increase, a person may feel he or she no longer needs God. They too mistake license for freedom and, taking their gifts from God, leave.
Over time however they begin to experience life without grace. The absence of God’s peace, the kindness of His followers, the richness of Scriptures wanes and they begin to hunger. When hard times hit, without that spiritual connection to God, a person finds themselves starving and desperate. Where can one turn for help? A person who uses others, finds themselves being used by others. Alcohol or drugs lose their ability to satiate and only make matters worse if not out of control. All former numbing mechanisms – shopping, eating, gaming, gambling, travelling, even over-working cannot help but rather become enslaving.
When one hits rock bottom, crawling back to God can seem unthinkable and disingenuous. How could you ask God for help now when you so brazenly rejected Him earlier or slothfully let Him fall by the wayside. Don’t you deserve to be miserable? Maybe God is saying “I told you so”?
Jesus tells us otherwise. Our pride imagines God reacting this way. Jesus reveals that God is watching the horizon, waiting hopefully, and running to embrace us when we return. The father in this parable doesn’t accept the demotion suggested by his son. He embraces him, and raises him back to the dignity he had left behind; transforming him from servant of pigs to a son of the father.
The older son’s jealousy reveals a hint of the same mistaken view as the younger son. Although he made the loyal choice, he still considered his brother’s prodigal lifestyle as glamorous. As a result, it appears to him that his brother was rewarded for leaving so disrespectfully and rewarded for returning so degraded. However, the father and the younger son know the terrible poverty, anxiety, and shame his choices had brought upon him. The older son, though working in the fields all those years, also enjoyed the peace and dignity of living as his father’s son. He did not experience the “glamour” of debauchery nor did he have the impoverishment of it either.
God loves us as a merciful father. He pours out blessings in our lives even if we will eventually take them for granted. A little time on our own however and we realize how much we rely on God’s supernatural aid and relationship. He assures us that He is waiting anxiously for our return, running to meet us if we come back to Him and offering us the peace and protection of His home.
+ Reflect on the father in the parable looking out at the horizon and seeing his son in the distance. Consider how God is waiting for you with the same longing.
+ Have you ever fallen for worldly deceptions? How did they turn out differently than what you first expected?
+ How does your dignity as God’s son or daughter outweigh and outshine the false beauty of the world?
The mystery of God’s Mercy and Justice extend beyond the limits of our comprehension. Nevertheless, Jesus exhorts us to never forget that God is both. God’s mercy makes salvation possible through even the smallest opening of repentance and desire in our hearts. At the same time, the mercy we experience on a day-to-day basis, the undeserved blessings God showers as a doting Father, can also lead to complacency.
Mercy means healing and transformation. In our complacency we can begin to think that we deserve our blessings and forget our sins, or worse forget our blessings as well. St. Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 10:1-12 that the Israelites, after witnessing the mighty hand of God liberating them from Egypt and walking on dry land through the Red Sea, reverted to doubt, fear, and grumbling in the desert. In consequence, though liberated by God from Egypt, they died in the desert unable to enter the Promised Land. God can work mighty deeds in our lives. His mercy will cut through any sin. God’s forgiveness is not merely “spiritual dry-cleaning” as Pope Francis has termed it.
God’s work heals and transforms. This process ought to bear fruits therefore of virtue, sanctity, and love. In fact, one of the ways St. Teresa of Avila verified the authenticity of a spiritual experience was by the fruits of virtue that accompanied it, especially that of love.
Jesus warned in today’s Gospel that God’s mercy is inextricably united to God’s justice. God has given us free will. He will honor that gift. If we choose to reject the opportunity for life which comes through healing from sin, then at some point we will die. God offers us more chances than we deserve but they are limited by time and by our choices. We cannot receive the fruits of mercy until we choose to acknowledge and repent of our sin.
Unfortunately, the general cultural view denies the reality of sin, excusing it away. In consequence, as Pope Francis has preached on Mercy (recall the Year of Mercy 12/8/2015-11/20/2016) he concomitantly needed to preach on sin. In a First Things article, titled “The Pope’s Theology of Sin”, William Doino Jr. provides context for the relationship between sin and mercy and presents Pope Francis’ insights regarding the process of reaching the first step – acknowledgement and repentance:
“The first part is to recognize the darkness of contemporary life, and how it leads so many astray: Walking in darkness means being overly pleased with ourselves, believing that we do not need salvation. That is darkness! When we continue on this road of darkness, it is not easy to turn back. Therefore, John continues, because this way of thinking made him reflect: ‘If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’”[i]
Why is seeing our sin so important? Isn’t it a bit depressing? If it was analogous to learning you had an incurable cancer, then yes. But if it’s analogous to learning you had a cancer that could be cured with early treatment, then it’s a huge relief. If we do not suffer under the oppression of sin, we do not need a redeemer. When we live in denial of our sins and addictions, we refuse the opportunity for help. For example, if a person lives in denial of their regular rude or hurtful comments under the rationalization that they are just “speaking their mind”, then they will soon lose relationships and friendships. If a person lives in denial of their intemperance in spending or greed for possessions beyond their means, they will eventually suffer bankruptcy. Similarly, if we live a self-centered life rather than a God-centered life, at some point we will experience the harsh reality of our choices.
After opening our eyes to our sins (with the help of the Holy Spirit), the second part of the process is to take them to Confession; not with an attitude of a quick shower but with a humble, and deeply contrite heart. The word Pope Francis used to describe this feeling is one we shy away from in our culture – shame. Yet, when we feel genuine shame for our sin, it also motivates us to change and open ourselves up to receiving help and grace.
The final part of the process he writes, is:
“having absolute faith in God to renew us: We must have trust, because when we sin we have an advocate with the Father ‘Jesus Christ the righteous.’ And he ‘supports us before the Father’ and defends us in front of our weaknesses.” [ii]
Rather than despair at our weaknesses and imperfections, Pope Francis reminds us to put our trust in Christ. We must acknowledge that we cannot change on our own and allow Jesus to apply His healing grace to our souls – enlightening our minds, strengthening our wills, and fanning the flame of love for God and neighbor.
In conclusion, the mystery of God’s Justice and Mercy requires us to make an active decision to turn away from sin and accept God’s help. Because grace is freely given by God, fruits of that grace are expected too. If we do not bear fruit, we can conclude that we have not actually been receptive to grace. If we do bear fruit, it will evoke feelings of gratitude and love because we know who we are, and from where those virtues truly came.
+ How has facing your faults, though painful, made you a better person with the help of Christ? How are you different today than in years past?
+ Has God ever “rebuked” you? Did it have a positive effect later or lead to greater freedom?
+ Are there faults you continue to rationalize? Do you treat your spouse, children, or family members with the love they deserve, or do you excuse your behavior by saying they should love you as you are without an effort to change?
+Have you ever experienced the pain of seeing someone you love self-destructing or suffering due to living in denial of a serious problem? Have you offered help and been rejected? Consider how this relates to God’s perspective.
+Read an examination of conscience and prayerfully reflect on it. Most parishes have a pamphlet by the confessional with an examination, you can also find some online. If possible, look for one tailored to your state in life (e.g. single, married, priest, etc.)
+ Choose one sin you have been avoiding admitting and actively root it out through prayer and practicing the opposite virtue. (For example – greed is combatted by generosity, a habit of critical remarks by encouraging words of affirmation, pride by humility, etc.)
The relationship between Jesus’ divinity and humanity will always be veiled in mystery. Nevertheless, at times the Lord pulls aside the veil and lets the glory of His divine love for man shine through the humanity of His Son. Jesus became man to share in our human experience, to walk in our shoes and our struggles, and thereby conquer them for us and in us through grace. As a result, He provides the perfect example for us to follow.
Today’s Gospel account is instructive for our own faith journey. Notice how Jesus went up the mountain to pray, a task that required effort and endurance. He took with Him only a few of His closest companions. He spent time alone in prayer persisting even when the apostles fell asleep.
During this solitude Moses and Elijah appeared to Him, representing the Law and the Prophets, both of which Jesus would fulfill. They spoke with Him about His mission and the Father overshadowed them in a cloud speaking words of confirmation and encouragement. Similar, if we persist in prayer, the Lord will guide and encourage us Himself and through others.
Seeing Christ so transformed, Peter, John, and James didn’t know what to think or do. Peter offered to pitch tents for everyone, not comprehending what was happening, but trying to at least offer some kind of service. Christ usually appears humbly in our lives, veiled in His humanity. He does this so well that we too often react with surprise and an awkward response when we awake to moments of His glory.
This experience of light and glory strengthened Christ as well as the apostles for the upcoming darkness and suffering of Calvary. It was an experience so profound that they “kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen” (v. 36) Peter and James would still abandon Christ in His direst moment but later repented at their actions. Of the apostles John alone would remain with Jesus at the Cross. Through darkness, disillusionment, and intense pain, that confidence in God’s call and the experience of His encouragement strengthened them to persevere.
Conversion tends to be a slow process of turning away from sin and toward Christ daily. However, during this long road, we sometimes experience a Transfiguration moment wherein God reveals His plan, His mission, or His love for us in a profound and tangible way. St. Paul’s moment occurred on the road to Damascus. St. Peter’s occurred when Jesus appeared to him after His resurrection and asked him three times if he loved Him then asked him to feed His sheep. These moments may confirm our call to the Christian faith, or they may confirm our call to our vocation.
Mother Teresabegan her mission to serve the poorest of the poor after a profound experience in prayer. She had already been a nun for 15 years when, while on a train travelling to the Loreto Convent in Darjeeling for a retreat, she heard the voice of Christ speak to her. Missionary of Charity and postulator of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of Mother Teresa, Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk recounts in his book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, that,
“Though she would persist in letting the details remain veiled in silence, she later revealed:
‘It was a call within my vocation. It was a second calling. It was a vocation to give up even Loreto where I was very happy and to go out in the streets to serve the poorest of the poor. It was in that train, I heard the call to give up all and follow Him into the slums.’”[i]
Fr. Kolodiejchuk further records that Mother Teresa considered the date of this mystical experience (September 10, 1946), as the beginning date of, and her entrance into, the Missionaries of Charity. Christ had asked her to “Come, be My light” in the darkness of the poorest of the poor. Jesus continued to speak with her through a gift of interior locutions into the middle of the next year. During this period, she presented her concerns to Christ, her happiness serving as a Loreto nun, and her feelings of inadequacy. In her letter to the Archbishop she wrote, “These thoughts were a cause of much suffering – but the voice kept on saying ‘Wilt thou refuse?’” Her love for Jesus could not refuse Him anything and so she said yes to His request.
Mother Teresa had a “Transfiguration moment”. She was thirty-six at the time. The next fifty years of sacrifice and suffering would be motivated by this single call of Christ. She faced many setbacks, rejections, and challenges both materially as well as spiritually. She experienced an interior darkness (meaning lacking in light to see) in which she couldn’t see God or feel the closeness of union that she had enjoyed before. At first, she worried that her own sinfulness had caused the feeling of absence. On the contrary however, Fr. Kolodiejchuk records that,
“With the help of her spiritual directors, she progressively came to grasp that her painful inner experience was an essential part of living out her mission. It was a sharing in the passion of Christ on the Cross – with a particular emphasis on the thirst of Jesus as the mystery of His longing for the love and salvation of every human person.”[ii]
As a result, what seemed a loss at first turned out to be an extraordinary gift. Some saints have been given the stigmata – the physical wounds of Christ. Mother Teresa was given a share in the suffering of Christ’s heart. She could not have done this however, without being firmly rooted in her faith in Christ first. She could look back to that Transfiguration moment on the train and confidently press forward in humility that Christ would bring to perfection the good work He had begun.
When we feel like we can’t see God or we become disillusioned in our vocation or work, rather than ask for another sign, think back to that first call. Remember your Mt. Tabor and the time you saw Christ transfigured in glory. When you feel most near to Christ’s experience of darkness on the Cross (“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”), draw strength from your experience with Him during the Transfiguration.
[i] Teresa, M., & Kolodiejchuk, B. Mother Teresa: Come be my light. (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
Directly after Jesus’ Baptism, the inauguration of His transition from His Hidden Life in Nazareth to His public ministry, the Spirit led Him into the desert for a time of preparation first – to fast, pray, and face temptation. In the same way, the Holy Spirit periodically draws us away from the noise of life and the distractions of the senses to be able to connect with God in a deeper interior way. In some cases, we choose to place ourselves in quiet reflection by going on a retreat or planning a weekend of solitude. At other times, the circumstances of life create that solitude for us.
It reminds me of standing ankle-deep in the waves of the ocean on the beach. As the water cascades over my feet, it carries with it a flurry of sand, shells, seaweed, and teems with life and energy. Then it recedes, drawing back everything it had just placed before me. Even the sand around my feet recedes leaving me only two small mounds beneath my arches.
Times of solitude can feel lonely and a little barren like the desert. However, they can be opportunities for prayer and preparation for the next mission God has for us when the water will return, replenished and shimmering.
The devil of course hates for us to follow Christ and he especially despises when we build the kingdom of God. He therefore attempts to derail us in any way possible. He prevents us from God’s work in a myriad of ways tailored to our own personal weaknesses. The devil distracts us with physical pleasures and the lie that if we don’t satisfy our body’s whims and desires, we will die, or at least be so miserable it’s not worth living.
During Lent, we face this lie and temptation, strengthening or will over our body and seeking joy in the Lord by giving up sweets, pop, alcohol, snacking, over-sleeping, staying up too late, etc., and replacing them with added prayer or spiritual exercises.
Another tactic favored by the devil is to redirect the trajectory of our work by aiming our talents at building the kingdom of self rather than the kingdom of God. He tempted Jesus with an enticement of kingship without the cross. Similarly, Satan attempts to promise us success and happiness without the suffering of the cross, if only we would exchange our faith in God for faith in ourselves.
Lastly, if we thwart both pitfalls through strength of faith and love, the devil makes his last attack by twisting God’s own words and attempting to skew our relationship with the Lord. The devil hates the Church because Christ empowered it with His authority to preach truth and correctly interpret Scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit, as well as the grace of Christ to live it. If we listen to the Holy Spirit through Christ’s Church the devil loses his power to trick us “and will depart for a time”.
If we pay careful attention, we can learn the tricks of the devil in our own lives. St. Ignatius of Loyola began to notice this too and developed rules of discernment that have become a classic in the Christian life. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you grow in self-knowledge and provide the grace to overcome temptation so as to live in the freedom of the kingdom of God and work unhindered for His glory.
+ Spend some time in prayer reflecting on your average day. Consider what things unnecessarily slow you down, distract you, make you late, frustrate your work, or prevent you from getting started on something. Implement a plan to combat one of them.
+ Consider the three categories of temptations from the Gospel today and how each one applies to you. This Lent build strength by combatting the pleasure that has a hold over you, the suffering you are trying to avoid or the status you are trying to achieve, and grow in knowledge of your faith to protect you from the deceptions of the devil.
+ Look back on your life and reflect on how God prepared you before raising you up for something. How did you feel beforehand and after? Have you experienced deeper and richer faith after a time of solitude or difficulty?
+ Commit to a Lenten resolution even if you fail at it periodically. Give something up and/or do something extra to strengthen your relationship with Christ and weaken your relationship with sin.
+ Read (or listen to the audiobook) C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. It’s short, entertaining, and enlightening. It’s a satirical work which features letters from an experienced demon to a lesser experienced one about how to tempt humans.
+ Listen to Fr. Timothy Gallagher’s podcasts on St. Ignatius’ discernment of spirits. He presents Ignatius’s ideas in an understandable and relatable way. (discerninghearts.com)