Sunday, February 21, 2016

Finding Strength for What Lies Ahead: The Second Sunday of Lent

Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
—Luke 9:28-31

In her Revelations of Divine Love, the medieval mystic Blessed Julian of Norwich wrote:
     I saw him and still sought him,
        For we are now so blind and so unwise that we never seek God
        until he of his goodness shows himself to us;
     and when we see anything of him by grace, then are we moved by
        the same grace to try with great desire to see him more perfectly.

     And thus I saw him and I sought him,
        and I possessed him and I lacked him.
     And this is, and should be, our ordinary behavior in life.

Unlike Dame Julian and other mystics who experience the reality of God’s presence in a unique way, we are often very quick to try to note the distinctions — the boundaries — between the human and the divine. Even our ways of talking about God can make the divine realities seem far-removed from our daily lives. The Church’s greatest minds and grace-filled mystics have understood that our limited human perspectives, especially our words, fail us when we are allowed even the slightest glimpse of the glory of God.

It’s easy to imagine the evangelists, including St. Luke, struggling with the limits of language as they recalled what happened on the mountain that day as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem. Although we often think of the transfiguration of Jesus — the wonderful way in which the divine glory of Jesus was revealed to Peter, James and John — as having been for the benefit of the disciples, we can also understand that the transfiguration, like his baptism by John in the River Jordan years before, was a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus.

In his gospel, Luke places the transfiguration during a time of prayer, immediately before Jesus begins to make his way to Jerusalem where he will take up the cross and give up his life in “the exodus that he was to accomplish.” Focusing on this detail, Sister Barbara Reid, OP, reflects:
In this profound encounter with God, Jesus receives surety about the next steps, and this “aha” experience is visible on his face. Notably Luke does not say that Jesus was transfigured; rather, that “his face changed appearance.” Like Moses, whose face was radiant after being with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29), and Hannah, whose face was lifted up when her prayer was heard (1 Samuel 1:18), so Jesus’ encounter with God is written on his face. He comes to understand that, indeed, he is to go to Jerusalem and that he will be put to death there, but his death will not be the end of his life and mission.”
A cloud, a sign of God’s presence, overshadowed Jesus and Moses and Elijah (representing the law of the Old Covenant and the preaching of the prophets) encourage him to continue his journey. And so, in the transfiguration, Jesus is empowered to continue his journey and mission, knowing that regardless of what lies ahead his Father remains with him, guiding his steps and making his mission bear fruit.

In the end, as we reflect on the mystery of the transfiguration on this Second Sunday of Lent, we are reminded that the death of Jesus was not an accident of fate or some expression of divine wrath, but an act of love, freely accepted and offered for the sake of those who are “least” in the kingdom of heaven — for you and for me.

When have you been called to make sacrifices for the sake of another person? How was this a moment of “transfiguration” for you?

When you have a special experience of the presence and power of God, do you want to “build a tent” and remain on the mountain or do you feel called to share the gift you have received with others?

How does the notion that Jesus had to come to terms with both his own vocation and the prospect of suffering and death challenge you? How does it inspire you to see God at work in the little crosses that you take up each day?  

Words of Wisdom: “Jesus wants us to see his glory, so that we can cling to that experience. … When we are attentive to the light within us and around us, we will gradually see more and more of that light and even become a light for others. We have to trust that the transfiguration experience is closer to us that we might think. Trusting that, we may also be able to live our Gethsemane experience without losing our faith.”—Henri Nouwen in Sabbatical Journey

This reflection was originally written for and posted on their site on February 20, 2016.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Mysterious Tug of Evil and the First Sunday of Lent

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread”…
When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.
—Luke 4:1-4, 13
In his novel Brighton Rock, Graham Greene wrote, “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Lent is the time when the Church pauses to reflect on the reality of that mercy. And, when weighed against human standards, God’s mercy is appallingly strange because it costs us so little: God asks only that we surrender to his love and mercy.

For most of us, this process of surrender is one which unfolds gradually over the course of a life of prayer, service, struggle, and even setbacks. However, the temptation to choose our own way and will over God’s is never far away.

That call to surrender to God’s mercy is at the core of the Christian life. And yet, at the same time, there is a struggle that takes place in every human heart: “Lent would indeed be a futile liturgical farce,” writes Edna Hong, “if the redeemed were henceforth sinless and if the tides of human nature were not always moving even the twice-born [the baptized], who have not shed their human nature, in the direction of complacency and taking it all for granted… As long as the conscience of the born-again are housed in human flesh and bone, they are prone to the sleep of death and need continual rescuing.”

Saint Luke’s account of the temptations of Jesus reminds us that the life of a disciple includes contending with the mysterious tug of evil, which is simultaneously repellent and attractive. Just as Jesus was, we are tempted to temporarily shift our focus—perhaps, just for a moment—from God’s promises in order to attend to our own wants or needs or priorities. When this happens, we risk losing our awareness of God’s presence and action in our lives, choosing to focus instead on more tangible realities, like food, possessions, pleasure, comfort, and reputation.

Christ in the Desert by Ivan Kramskoi

In the end, however, after being tempted to be self-sufficient and to use his power for his own glory, Jesus did not turn away from God—the Father’s will remained the priority of his life. The Trappist writer, Michael Casey, has reflected, “We have been called to follow the one who was tempted in the desert, and we must expect that fidelity to our life of discipleship will involve us in substantial and sometimes earth-shuddering struggles.”

The Season of Lent reminds us that holiness is possible for us only when we enter into the struggle, understanding that whatever darkness we may encounter will not overtake us as long as we refuse to accept anything less than God’s love and mercy: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Romans 10:9-10).

In these Lenten Days—especially in this Year of Mercy—how have you made time to reflect upon and celebrate the gift of Mercy?
What do you do when you experience temptation? What resources does our faith tradition provide that could help you to persevere in the life of discipleship?
When have you judged others who struggle with temptation and sin? How can you extend God’s love and mercy to them? How might they be sign of mercy for you?  

A Prayer for the Second Sunday of Lent +
Grant, almighty God,
through the yearly observance of holy Lent,
that we may grow in understanding
of the riches hidden in Christ
and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

This post was originally written for and posted on their website on February 13, 2016.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Great Miracle of Lourdes

On February 11, we commemorate the Immaculate Virgin Mary who appeared to Saint Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, France, eighteen times between February 11 and July 16, 1858. This memorial of Mary, under the title of “Our Lady of Lourdes,” was extended to the Universal Church by Pope Saint Pius X in 1907.

The apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes is one of the most celebrated events in the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century. In fact, the popularity of “Our Lady of Lourdes” contributed to the renewal of the Catholic Faith throughout France and the shrine that marks the site of the apparitions remains one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims anywhere in the world.

Part of the popularity of Lourdes comes from the large number of graces that individuals have received there, particularly miraculous healings. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the commemoration of Our Lady of Lourdes is also celebrated as the World Day of the Sick. The great miracle of Lourdes, however, is not the individual miraculous healings, but the extended miracle of God’s grace at work in the spiritual and physical weaknesses and illnesses that effect our lives.

As we continue to celebrate the beginning of the Lenten Season, take time to reflect on the grace of healing and renewal that is offered to all who commit themselves to follow Christ. Although, for most of us, the graces we receive will not include physical healings or miraculous signs, the opportunity and invitation to “take up your cross” is a powerful reminder that, whatever we experience in life, God is present in every moment and every circumstance of our lives.

Today, ask the Blessed Virgin and Saint Bernadette to help you remember that all the crosses of our lives—whether they are the simple “good works” of our Lenten observance or the heavier crosses of illness and despair—are not an end in themselves. Through the Paschal Mystery, God has transformed the crosses of our lives into opportunities for grace and union with him!

Prayer +
Grant us, O merciful God, protection in our weakness,
that we, who keep the Memorial of the Immaculate Mother of God,
may, with the help of her intercession,
rise up from our iniquities.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

This reflection was originally written for and published on their site on February 11, 2016.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Saint Apollonia and the Beginning of Lent

Saint Apollonia was an aged deaconess of the church of Alexandria. It is recorded that, as she was being beaten during an anti-Christian riot, all her teeth were knocked out. She was burned to death around the year 249.

Saint Apollonia
by Francisco de Zurbarán
Because of the suffering she endured, Saint Apollonia is honored as the patron of dentists and those with toothaches.
In today’s Gospel, the scribes and Pharisees lash out at Jesus and his followers for not following the religious traditions that had been handed down by the elders. Jesus, however, reminds them that God isn’t interested in outward acts of piety. Instead, he reminds us that we must honor God in our hearts by loving and obeying God first. Our acts of devotion, if they are to be sincere, must then flow from that internal devotion and reverence.

As we celebrate the memory of the martyr Apollonia today and prepare for Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent, take time to reflect on your Lenten bona opera—“good works.” Are your Lenten resolutions an expression of heartfelt devotion or simply conforming to religious tradition or custom? Ask Saint Apollonia to help you discern the best way for you as you journey with the Lord today and throughout Lent.

Prayer +
O God,
by whose gift strength is made perfect in weakness,
grant to all who honor the glory of blessed Apollonia
that she, who drew from you the strength to triumph,
may likewise always obtain from you
the grace of victory for us.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal: Common of Martyrs—For a Holy Woman Martyr)

This reflection was originally written for and published on their site on February 9, 2016.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time and a Lesson in Humility

Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, Jesus asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing.
—Luke 5:3–6

This past week, as I was reflecting on this Sunday’s Gospel and thinking about what I would write in this reflection, I happened to have a conversation with another member of my religious community, during which he shared a question he recently asked the members of his parish in a daily homily: “How do you respond when someone confronts you about something you’ve done wrong?”

It’s a good question.

He shared three possible responses with his parishioners. “First,” he said, “we can deflate, caving in on ourselves, and say, ‘I’m a horrible person’ … but that’s really more of a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ move to try to get the other person off our back. Second, we can get defensive and angry that someone would try to criticize us. We can even fire back by saying, ‘Yeah, well, I might have done this, but you’ve done that!’ But the third way is to accept the observation or correction, apologize if we need to and move on. This,” he concluded, “is what humility looks like.”

Humility is one of those words we often hear in church but which has become something of a dirty word in our contemporary culture. But as I reflected on what this community member shared, I realized humility is the key to understanding the readings for this Sunday’s Mass.

The word “humble” comes from the Latin word humus, meaning “earth.” So to be humble means to recognize and accept what it is that we’re made of — a mix of gifts and skills, weaknesses and faults. With this comes the reality that we’re made of the same “stuff” as every other person on the planet. None of us is better than anyone else. We’re all gifted and beautiful, faulted and broken in our own ways. And each of us is loved by the God who created and sustains us.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, we find Jesus climbing aboard Peter’s boat after he and his companions had been out fishing all night. When Jesus had finished teaching the crowd from the boat, he asks the fishermen to “put out into the deep” and lower their nets to begin fishing again. Peter and his friends, all experienced fishermen, would have known that it would be a waste of time to try to catch any fish in the hottest part of the day.

And yet Peter trusted Jesus and did as he was told. He set aside his expertise and what he thought was best in a gesture that showed both his trust and his humility. Moreover, when he was confronted with the power of God — represented by the enormous haul of fish — he responded with the devotion and awe that go hand-in-hand with humility: Peter was able to recognize the glory of God at work in and through Jesus, prompting him to declare: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Peter’s humility allowed him to be open to the gift of God’s grace and mercy.

The lesson here is that God doesn’t choose us because of our greatness or even because of our giftedness. God chooses the humble to be his presence in the world. We see this in God’s choice of Isaiah as Prophet (cf. the First Reading), in Paul as the “Apostle of the Gentiles” (cf. the Second Reading) and, of course, in Peter and the other all-too-human apostles as “fishers of men.”

How do you respond when others make observations about you on your behavior or attitudes? Are you able to engage criticism and suggestions in ways that are constructive?

How does the example of Peter in today’s Gospel challenge your understanding of humility?

As we look toward Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent, what are some Lenten “good works” you might take on to help you to be more humble and open to God’s grace?

Words of Wisdom: “Humility is the mother of all virtues: purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.”—Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

This reflection was originally written for and published on their website on February 6, 2016.