“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)
Most of us have shared something of Christ’s unfortunate experience in this passage. All too often so-called friends or groups of admirers show their fickle nature by turning on us at the first instance we upset them, let them down, don’t meet all their expectations, or they simply become distracted by something else. The home-town crowd listening to Jesus turned from amazement at His gracious words to anger impelling them to hurl Him down a cliff in what seems like a moment.
The daily Gospel readings from this week shed some useful light on this situation that can help sooth our disillusionment. Jesus responded to both praise and rejection with the same calm demeanor. He knows human nature and refrains from getting worked up about the opinion of the masses. His mission is to do the will of the Father not to poll focus groups.
Moreover, Jesus teaches that all any of us can do is the will of the Father, the results are in God’s hands not our own. This works both ways – when we seemingly do great works and when we seemingly fail. In Thursday’s Gospel reading from Mark 4:1-20 Jesus told the parable of the Sower and the Seed. As a teacher and mother this is one of my favorite passages. Jesus, and His servants, have the responsibility to sow the seeds of the Gospel wherever God sends them. How those seeds grow depends on the soil, or the disposition, of the receiver. Jesus’ words quite often fell on hearts that were hardened toward Him or too distracted by greed or anxiety. Why should we be surprised if we experience the same thing? Sometimes Jesus’ words fell on generous hearts and the Holy Spirit was able to work wonders through His followers. Again, can we really take all the credit when our work bears rich fruit? Some of the credit belongs to the person of faith willing to “hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). Thus, Jesus places higher honor on two foreigners over God’s own children the Israelites because they were willing to do something in response to God’s word. Finally, credit ultimately belongs to God. In Friday’s Gospel from Mark 4:26-32 Jesus reflected on how a farmer plants seeds and harvests the crops but the entire process of growth in between should be attributed to the mystery of God’s work in nature.
This Gospel should give us peace that God is in control. He opens people’s ears to hear and eyes to see if He chooses. He decides what persecutions He will or won’t allow toward His servants. In this Gospel Jesus calmly and effortlessly passed through the angry crowd, demonstrating God’s total control over the situation. During His Passion however, God permitted His Son to be taken by the angry crowd in the Garden of Gethsemane and eventually crucified. Yet, by the power of God Jesus also rose from the dead three days later.
Disciples of Christ can take comfort in Jesus’ words He so often conveyed: “Peace be with you” and “Be not afraid”. We can let go and let God because our only task is to do the will of the Father and let Him bring our work to fruition. We have the joy of being His instrument, but the music played through us belongs to Him.
+ Have you ever had an experience like Christ’s where a friend or an acquaintance turned on you? What did it teach you about relying on the opinion of others?
+ How much do you worry about what other people think of you?
+ Do you trust your children to God, or do you put all the pressure for their wellbeing on yourself?
+ In John 15:1-5 Jesus insisted that our fruitfulness depends upon our connection to Him.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
+ How often do you begin your work with prayer?
+ Do you pray for God to guide little decisions and everyday tasks in addition to the larger ones?
+ How has bringing things to prayer enrichened your experience or the outcome?
+ Whatever your work may be, take time in prayer to surrender it to Christ each day. Ask for Him to guide the process as well as the outcome.
+ Choose a time in the middle of your day to connect with Christ. Decide on when, where, and how – even if it’s as simple as five minutes of silent prayer or reading Scripture at your desk during lunch.
Praise God for His mercy in our everyday lives! The Wedding at Cana unveils His compassion evident in the watchful heart of Mary and generous intervention by her Son. As Pope Francis described during the Jubilee of Mercy,
The Lord is “merciful”: this word evokes a tender approach like that of a mother toward her child. Indeed, the Hebrew term used in the Bible evokes the viscera or even the maternal womb. Therefore, the image it suggests is that of a God who is moved and who softens for us like a mother when she takes her child in her arms, wanting only to love, protect, help, ready to give everything, even herself. This is the image that this term evokes. A love, therefore, which can be defined in the best sense as “visceral.”[i]
The visceral, or deep inward feelings, of a mother for her children cannot be matched. It moves her to sacrifice everything, even joyfully. She is their best advocate, always working for their good and looking to their future. She offers the most sympathetic comfort and the fiercest protection as Mary did in today’s passage.
Like His compassionate mother and merciful Father, Jesus protects us as a brother concerned for even the smallest of our struggles and rejoicing with us when we thrive. He demonstrated His selflessness and His commitment to family from the very beginning. Despite His long-awaited public ministry, He bent His plans around a wedding in Cana and performed His first miracle to meet the need that occurred there.
Consider Christ’s experience from a human perspective. Prior to His public ministry, Jesus had spent thirty years living a humble and seemingly ordinary Jewish life. After His baptism by John Jesus spent forty days in the desert praying and fasting. He returned from this preparation and began calling the apostles. Imagine Jesus’ excitement to begin after such patient waiting (remember His eagerness at age twelve in the temple?). Instead, He paused to travel back home and attend a wedding in nearby Cana, likely for a relative or family friends. The humanity of Jesus – the reality of His human relationships, real family, the limits of time and space – stand out. Like you and I, Jesus had to respond to various interruptions to His work. Yet, precisely by embracing those interruptions He sanctified them for you and me.
As usually happens at weddings there occurred a snag, and in this case an acutely embarrassing one which would shift the focus of the celebration to their poverty. Mary’s motherly love was watching out for them however, and she noticed they were nearly out of wine. Rather than worry the bride and bridegroom, she pleaded to Her Son for help. Like most children in response to parent requests, Jesus vocalized the inconvenience of the situation. He did not plan for His first miracle to be helping His mom at a wedding. Yet, in God’s divine providence, it revealed precisely the kind of love God’s miracles were intended for. God became man to enter our misery and the embarrassing limitations we experience. As Pope Francis said, “For God is great and powerful, and this greatness and power are used to love us, who are so small, so incompetent.”
What seemed like an interruption to His great messianic work however, precisely exemplified the paradoxical nature of the Kingdom of God and the way of discipleship. Greatness in God’s kingdom is expressed in littleness. Even if we love Christ with all our hearts, we can still be misled by worldly assumptions that we project onto our spiritual work. Consider the apostles and in particular the mother of James and John. They all expected to reign with Christ over an earthly glorious kingdom and kept being taken aback by the poor and sacrificial nature of Jesus’ kingship. We too can overlook the poor and sacrificial ministry right in front of us in the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of our family, neighbors, colleagues, and friends while we look to “more important work” for Christ. Yet it’s precisely these little things He wishes us to do with great love, as He impressed on the hearts of St. Therese and St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
God operates in the real, everyday of individuals. He did not come to offer propaganda for the masses. He came to care for His beloved children with the self-gift of a deeply loving father, mother, and brother. We can have confidence that He will have the same response toward our needs, no matter how seemingly insignificant they may seem to the world. The everyday difficulties and humiliations in our lives matter to God.
Faithfulness in mercy is the very being of God. For this reason God is totally and always trustworthy. A solid and steadfast presence. This is the assurance of our faith. Thus, in this Jubilee of Mercy, let us entrust ourselves to him totally, and experience the joy of being loved by this “God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness.”[ii]
We too are called to be the instruments of God’s mercy. May we act compassionately and promptly with Christ as Mary alerts us to the ordinary needs of those around us.
+ Consider the mystery of God’s immanence. The transcendent God, other from His creation, immune from suffering became man that He might share in our experience of pain so He could give us comfort.
+ How long do you wait to ask God for help? Do you reserve only your biggest problems for Him when you have run out of solutions? Consider bringing to Him every concern as it occurs and sharing the burden with Him.
+ Consider how motherhood or fatherhood has made you more compassionate, merciful, and aware of the needs of others. How has it opened you to spiritual motherhood or fatherhood toward those who aren’t even your biological children?
+ Intentionally entrust to God your difficulties each day this week – even the simple embarrassments.
+ Extend mercy and compassion toward your children or spiritual children this week. Bend toward someone’s need, save someone from humiliation, advocate for someone in need of help.
The Baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of His public ministry. Up to this point He had spent His life quietly as a carpenter in a small town as the son of Mary and Joseph. Now at thirty years old, He began His work as the Son of God ushering in the eternal Kingdom.
When John baptized Jesus, the Spirit of God descended upon Him as a dove and God affirmed His Sonship audibly to those present. After so many long years of suffering under the weight of sin and death, God had finally come to fulfill all His promises to save everyone from those things we cannot overcome on our own.
“He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, ‘Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.’” Luke 4: 16-20
John had been baptizing many, but his was only a sign of repentance and preparation, it did not have the power to confer the forgiveness of sins or divine grace. John himself urged that his baptism was only a precursor for the one to come who would baptize with “the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). Jesus alone has the power to forgive our debt to God, to heal our wounded souls, and to release us from those sins that we cannot conquer on our own.
Sin that has taken its full course in a soul can be aptly compared to addiction. Persons may or may not be aware that they have a problem. Their addiction slowly takes greater and greater hold of their life, consumes their thoughts, directs their choices, and begins to undermine their relationships, their health, and their joy. Having a glass of wine with dinner will not do harm to a temperate person. However, someone with an alcohol addiction cannot limit themselves to one glass. Every human person has one or more weakness that they cannot seem to keep in balance on their own. It may be pride, vanity, lust, greed, anger, envy, laziness, or gluttony. Book stores have rows of shelves with self-help books to help you deal with any one of these addictions. Books, therapists, goals, and gritty resolve can all be helpful, and they can have a real impact in your life. But their power is limited. They could be compared to the Baptism of John – they provide awareness of the problem, contrition of heart, and desire for change, but they cannot transform us from within or release us from the power our sin has over us.
God sees us suffering and has come in an intimate way to help each of us personally. Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, offers moving insights into the meaning of Jesus’ baptism for you and I. In respect to Jesus’ descent into the water, taking on our sins and putting them to death on the Cross, He writes:
“Now God speaks intimately, as one man to another. Now He descends into the depth of their human sufferings.”[i]
God does not point His finger and say “I told you so.” He has compassion for our suffering which is always the consequence of sin. Jesus did not need to be baptized. He had no sin to repent. Rather, at His baptism, Jesus took on our sin. Pope Benedict XVI describes it in this way:
“Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon His shoulders; He bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated His public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross.”[ii]
The primary mission of Christ is to free us from sin. This will require dying to pay our debt, and providing the transformative grace needed to heal our minds clouded by lies and faulty reasoning, strengthen our wills which can be too weak to make the right choice, and inflame our tepid hearts with divine love. The magnanimous lives of the saints are not beyond our reach. They were the result of receptivity to the ordinary working of grace in the soul to the person open to Christ’s transformative fire within.
Through Christ, God no longer remains merely a transcendent God immune from the experience of our condition. The Son has become man, and as such taken upon Himself every suffering we experience so He may accompany each of us on our journey as an understanding and intimate ally as well to defend us and conquer in His own life every obstacle in our way.
“Jesus’ Baptism, then, is understood as a repetition of the whole of history, which both recapitulates the past and anticipates the future. His entering into the sin of others is a descent into the ‘inferno’. But He does not descend merely as the role of a spectator, as in Dante’s Inferno. Rather, He goes down in the role of one whose suffering-with-others is a transforming suffering that turns the underworld around, knocking down and flinging open the gates of the abyss. His Baptism is a descent into the house of the evil one, combat with the ‘strong man’ (cf. Lk 11:22) who holds men captive (and the truth is that we are all very much captive to powers that anonymously manipulate us!)”[iii]
God had revealed to Mary and then to Joseph that Jesus was God’s Son. Now, God reveals to all mankind that His Son has come and dwells among us, ready to free us from that which enslaves us if we will let Him. If we are smart, we will take the Father’s advice heard audibly by those present and “Listen to Him.”
[i] Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth, translated by Adrian Walker, New York: Doubleday, 2007)