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Lesser Known but great mothers of the Old Testament

May 12, 2017

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Zipporah

Zipporah.  Zipporah was the wife of Moses and the mother of Gershom (Ex 2:21-22; 18:3) and Eliezer (Ex 18:4).  When Moses returned to Egypt, she accompanied him (Ex 4:20), but later Moses sent her back to her father Jethro with their two boys (Ex 18:2) where she raised them by herself.  Zipporah serves as an inspiration to single mothers whose husbands have left to pursue their careers.

Deborah.  Deborah was the wife of Lappidoth (Jgs 4:4) and “a mother in Israel” (Jgs 5:5).  It is not known whether she had one or more children, or how she served as a mother.  She was a prophetess, a holy woman who obeyed God and urged others to do likewise.  She was the fifth judge, and she led Israel’s army against Sisera and triumphed.  In addition to her duties as a mother, Deborah shows that mothers can be powerful forces for spiritual good outside the home.

Manoah’s wife.  Manoah’s wife was childless (Jgs 13:2), and an angel appeared and announced that she would have a miraculous birth (Jgs 13:3-7,9), and as foretold, she gave birth to her son Samson (Jgs 13:24).  She teaches mothers that every child is a miracle and a gift from God.

Naomi.  Naomi was the wife of Elimelech and the mother of Mahlon and Chilion (Ru1:2).  In a time of famine her family moved from Bethlehem to Moab.  She was totally committed to caring for her boys.  Her husband died in a foreign land, and after both her sons married, they also died (Ru 1:3-5).  Heartbroken, she is a touching example of a grieving mother who remained faithful to God, never despaired, returned home, and re-engaged in life with her daughter-in-law Ruth.

Ruth.  Ruth was the wife of Boaz (Ru 4:10,13) and the mother of Obed, who “was the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ru 4:17).  Ruth is one of four mothers named in Jesus’ genealogy (Mt 1:5), along with Tamar, Rahab, and Mary.  Mothers have a key place in Salvation History.

Hannah.  Hannah was the wife of Elkanah (1 Sm 1:2).  She wept copiously because she was without child.  She pleaded with the Lord to give her a male child, and promised that if God would grant her request, she would dedicate him to God (1 Sm 1:11).  God gave her a son that she named Samuel (1 Sm 1:20), and true to her word, she dedicated him to God (1 Sm 1:28).  Hannah teaches that mothers should dedicate their children to God.

The widow of Zarephath.  She lived in Sidon with her son at a time of severe drought.  With only a handful of flour remaining, she told Elijah, “When we have eaten it, we shall die” (1 Kgs 17:12).  She was fiercely dedicated to her son.  They lived together, and if need be, they would die together.  She exemplifies the bond between mother and child and doing whatever is necessary for a child’s welfare.

Anna and Edna.  Anna was the wife of Tobit and the mother of Tobiah (Tb 1:9), and she lived in Nineveh; and Edna was the wife of Raguel and the mother of Sarah (Tb 7), and she lived in Ecbatana, Media.  Both mothers were good and faithful Jews who raised their children to be good and faithful Jews, even though they lived far from home in places not supportive of their faith.  They are shining examples of how mothers are to pass on the gift of faith to their children.

The mother of the Maccabees.  She had seven sons (2 Mc 7:1).  During a fierce persecution, Jews who refused to eat pork were tortured and put to death.  The mother had taught her sons to obey God’s laws always and everywhere.  One by one, they were martyred before her, and in the end, she was also put to death (2 Mc 7:41).  She taught her family to love God above all else, and she proved her faith by all she suffered and with her heroic deed.

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World Day of Prayer for Vocations

May 5, 2017

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Good Shepherd Sunday is the annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  This custom began in 1963.  It is a day set aside to pray for vocations to the priesthood and the permanent diaconate, as well as to the consecrated life, the vocation of priest, brother, or sister within a religious order that observes the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Sheep without shepherds.  Jesus was distraught over the dismal quality of spiritual leadership during his time.  When he looked out over the people, “his heart was moved for pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36).  So Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Mt 9:37; see Lk 10:2).

The laborers are few.  The number of priests and religious has declined, there is a shortage, and there is a great need.  Bishops are anxious because there are not enough priests to staff the parishes in their dioceses.  Parishioners are anxious because parishes with multiple priests have been reduced, small parishes have been combined, and some parishes have gone without a priest.  Priests are anxious because more duties have fallen on their shoulders.

Ask the master.  Jesus promised that prayers for vocations would be effective, because if a person asks for a good thing, “It will be given to you” (Mt 7:7); and, “For everyone who asks, receives” (Mt 7:8); “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Mt 21:22).

Pray for vocations.  Prayer should be offered by the Church at its liturgies, and this can be easily done with a petition in the General Intercessions or a special prayer offered by the congregation after Holy Communion.  A prayer for vocations can be offered before council, staff, faculty, and committee meetings.  Vocation prayer cards can be placed on the inside cover of hymnals, in the pews, on tables at the entrances, and in the Eucharistic Adoration chapel.

Family prayer.  It is also extremely important for families to pray at home together for vocations.  Parents who pray for vocations encourage their own children to consider such a calling, and children who are reminded regularly about service to the Church are more likely to keep an open mind, be better able to hear the call, and be more inclined to respond favorably.

Priests, deacons, and religious, and prayer.  It may seem obvious, but those who have accepted a religious vocation should pray for vocations.  It is a sad phenomenon that some priests and religious have grown disenchanted with their own vocations, their religious superiors, their diocese or religious institute, or the Church, and do not pray for vocations and do not invite others to consider one.  Statistically, over eighty percent of newly ordained priests report that a major element of their call was the personal invitation of a priest, but surveys of priests reveal that only thirty percent offer invitations.  Parishioners should pray that their priests and religious would be more positively disposed and actively engaged in vocation promotion.

Once is not enough.  The World Day of Prayer is a single day, and while it is important to pray for vocations on Good Shepherd Sunday, it is important to pray for vocations on other Sundays and weekdays, too.  It is tremendously important to pray for vocations regularly.

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Saint Catherine of Siena, Virgin and Doctor of the Church

April 28, 2017

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StKate

St. Catherine was born in Siena, Italy, in 1347, the youngest of twenty-five children.  As a young girl she had a vigorous spiritual life, and her mystical experiences began at age six when she reported her first vision when Jesus appeared to her along with Peter, Paul, and John.

When Catherine was sixteen, her parents insisted that she prepare for marriage.  Catherine steadfastly refused, cut off her long hair, and reserved herself completely for Jesus.  In an effort to seek greater spiritual perfection, she then joined the Third Order of St. Dominic, a lay religious association.  She wore a Dominican habit but continued to live at home.

At age nineteen, Catherine had another profound mystical experience.  Both Jesus and his mother Mary appeared to her, and during this encounter she entered a spiritual marriage in which she became the bride of Christ and Jesus became her divine spouse.

Catherine dedicated herself to a life of solitude, intense prayer, and severe fasting, and she restricted herself to the least amount of food to survive.  Later, she also felt called to a life of service, left her home, and began to care for lepers and cancer patients, as well as those afflicted by the famine of 1370 and the plague of 1374.  She did much to promote harmony between rival factions in the city of Siena.  Because of her apostolic zeal, others joined her, and she challenged them to reform and repent, a message welcomed by her followers, but harshly criticized by those who felt her preaching was out of place for a lay woman.

As Catherine and her associates traveled about Italy, she visited Pisa in 1375.  She made a visit to the Church of Santa Cristina, and while she was in prayer before a crucifix she was given the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion, visible to herself but not to others.

The Church was deeply divided by the Avignon Papacy which had begun in 1309, a scandal in which the Pope resided in France, not Rome.  Catherine was a fierce advocate for unity in the Church, and initially sent a letter to Pope Gregory XI requesting that he return to Rome.  Catherine went to Avignon during the summer of 1376 to make a personal plea.  Gregory XI left France in September, and arrived in Rome on January 17, 1377.

Catherine contributed greatly to the spiritual writings of the Church.  Not a writer herself, she dictated her thoughts to a number of secretaries.  She composed many prayers, 382 letters, and her most significant work, the Dialogue of Divine Providence, a treatise on the spiritual life that included some of her mystical experiences.

Pope Gregory XI died on March 27, 1378, and his successor, Pope Urban VI, asked Catherine to come to Rome.  Catherine was weak because of her severe fasting, and the journey to Rome led to exhaustion.  In January, 1380, she went into convulsions and then into a coma.  Four months later she suffered a stroke and died on April 29, 1380, and she was buried under the altar in the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

Catherine was canonized a saint by Pope Pius II in 1461, named the co-patron saint of Italy with St. Francis of Assisi in 1939, declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970, and named co-patron saint of Europe along with St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross by Pope John Paul II in 1999.  She is also the patron saint of nurses.

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Thomas: Doubting may not be his worst mistake

April 21, 2017

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ThomasWoundsChrist

Thomas doubted.  This was a startling shift for him.  Only a short while earlier in Bethany Thomas had urged the other disciples to accompany Jesus to Jerusalem, despite the vicious threats against his life, when Thomas declared, “Let us also go to die with him” (Jn 11:16).  How is it that the apostle who was so confident earlier would say, “I will not believe” (Jn 20:25)?

Thomas got himself into serious trouble when he decided to go off by himself.  When the disciples were together in the Upper Room, he “was not with them” (Jn 20:24).  Jesus had gathered together a group of disciples, and prayed that they would be a strong collective unit when he prayed that they would be one, and he did not send them out separately but at least two-by-two, yet Thomas decided to separate himself from the group and try to make it on his own.  His decision to go off by himself was more than a foolish mistake.  It was wrong.

Thomas was guilty of individualism.  His main concern was himself and what he wanted to do, not his partners and their welfare.  He may also have been guilty of pride, arrogance, or elitism.  He may have thought:  “I do not need them”; “I am better than them”; “They drag me down and I am better off doing things my way apart from them.”  Or he may have been deeply depressed and gone off to pout by himself.  His isolation cost him dearly.

When the disciples were fearfully huddled together in the Upper Room, they supported and encouraged each other.  When Thomas distanced himself from them, he failed to receive the mutual support and encouragement that he so desperately needed.

The disciples had all sinned during Jesus’ Passion when they deserted their Master, and they were in serious need of forgiveness, and they received special pardon and mercy when Jesus said, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19,21).  Absent, Thomas missed the chance to be forgiven.

Jesus gave the disciples great joy and new hope when he appeared to them.  Thomas remained unaffected because he missed the opportunity to receive these gifts.  Next, Jesus gave his disciples their commission when he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21b).  Thomas received no such commissioning.  Jesus gave the disciples a special blessing when he imparted the Holy Spirit upon them:  “Receive the holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22).  Thomas was not sealed or confirmed in the Spirit.  Jesus empowered his disciples to forgive the sins of others.  Thomas received no such mandate.  Thomas missed innumerable graces and blessings apart from the others.  Absence from the community is a serious blunder with major consequences.  Fortunately, Thomas’ problems were quickly resolved when he returned to the community.

Many Catholics make the same mistake as Thomas when they separate themselves from their parish community and try to make it on their own.  They go to Mass on Easter Sunday, and then only sporadically or not at all during the spring and summer.  They infrequently receive the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation, and are weakly connected to ongoing faith formation or parish festivals and other community building events.  It should be no surprise that when it comes to the faith of those who are absent, there would be more doubt.  Thomas corrected his mistake when he returned.  Easter teaches us that the risen Christ is found in the community of the Church, the Body of Christ, and we need to remain closely connected.

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Why did Jesus rise from the dead?

April 14, 2017

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Resurrection

After Jesus died and his body was placed in the tomb, he could have ascended to heaven without appearing to anyone.  But Jesus rose and he appeared to his disciples, and he did so for a number of very important reasons.

Triumph and Victory.  The Resurrection was emphatic proof that Jesus had decisively and convincingly conquered sin and death.

Glorification.  God raised Jesus to glorify him.  God was pleased that Jesus had become obedient, even unto death on the Cross, and to praise him, God greatly exalted him with the name above every other name (see Phil 2:8,9).  Furthermore, the Father bestowed additional glory upon his Son by exalting him with a place at his right hand (Acts 2:33).

Fulfillment.  Jesus had foretold that he would rise from the dead:  “And three days after his death he will rise” (Mk 9:31; see also Mt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mk 8:31; 10:34; Lk 9:22; 18:33).  When Jesus rose, he proved that all that he had promised was reliable and true.

Reconciliation.  The disciples estranged themselves from Jesus when they fled and abandoned their Master at the time of his arrest (see Mt 26:56 and Mk 14:50).  Moreover, they did not testify on his behalf at his trial, were absent during the crucifixion, and when it came to being faithful friends, they were miserable failures.  Jesus rose so he could forgive them and reestablish a positive relationship with them.  Reconciliation was such an urgent necessity that only moments after his Resurrection, Jesus appeared to them and said,   “Peace be with you” (Lk 24:36; Jn 20:19,21,26), words that are tantamount to “I forgive you.”

Teaching and Re-instruction.  The disciples were still confused about Jesus’ true identity.  “They doubted” (Mt 28:17).  Jesus rose and appeared to Cleopas and Simeon on the road to Emmaus to reinterpret for them all that referred to him in the scriptures (Lk 24:27; see also Lk 24:45).  For forty days Jesus spoke to them about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3b).

Faith-Strengthening.  After Jesus died, the faith of his disciples continued to waver.  Seeing is believing!  The risen Jesus appeared in the Upper Room and said, “Look at my hands and my feet” (Lk 24:39) to confirm and strengthen their faith.  Jesus showed himself to Thomas (Jn 20:27) so that, with faith strengthened, he could make his profession of faith, “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28).  “For many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:31; see also Acts 10:41 and 1 Cor 15:5-8).

Commissioning.  Jesus rose to commission his disciples. He told them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15); “make disciples of all nations,” “baptizing them,” and “teaching them” (Mt 28:19,20).  He also instructed Peter [and the others] to “Feed my lambs” (Jn 21:15), “tend my sheep” (Jn 21:16), and “feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17).

Reassurance.  Jesus rose so that he could reassure his disciples that even though he would ascend to heaven and be physically absent, he would always be their constant companion:  “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20b).

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Prayer for the Sacred Paschal Triduum

April 7, 2017

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Resurrection

The three days of the Sacred Paschal Triduum are the three holiest days of the year:  Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.  They celebrate the Paschal Mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ, the central mysteries of our faith, both the Passion, his suffering and death, and the Resurrection, his glorious triumph over sin and the grave.

Every day is a day for prayer, but the Triduum stands above all other days as three special days for prayer.  It is a time to enter these profound mysteries.  There are two principle ways to pray during this time, communal liturgical prayer at church and personal private prayer, and both are highly recommended.

There are three sacred liturgies over these days:  the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, the Passion of our Lord on Good Friday, and the Resurrection of the Lord, first celebrated at the Easter Vigil and then also at the Masses on Easter Sunday morning.  If there ever was a time to go to church to pray, it is on these three days.  It is extremely important to make prayerful participation in these liturgies a top spiritual priority.

The other indispensable way to pray during these three days is personal private prayer.  Our lives are so hectic.  There are so many things to do and so many places to go.  And our lives are so noisy.  We talk, talk, talk, and the noise is amplified by television, radio, and all sorts of music media.  If there ever was a time to be silent and still, it is on these three days.   Turn off the TV or radio.  Set the gadgets aside.  Reserve the time.  Find a quiet place.  Center yourself.  Focus on God and listen, listen, listen.

There are a number of other special ways to prayerfully participate in the Triduum.  On Holy Thursday, at the conclusion of Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession through the church and then transferred to another place where it is reposed, so one option is to spend a period of time in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.  During the Last Supper Jesus gave his final words of instruction to his disciples, so it would be timely to reflect upon his Last Supper Discourse, John 13:31 to 16:33.  After teaching the disciples, Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, so it would be an opportune time to ponder the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, John 17:1-26.  After the Last Supper Jesus went to Gethsemane, so it would be appropriate to pray the First Sorrowful Mystery, the Agony in the Garden.  Finally, mindful of the footwashing, it is the perfect day to pray about God’s call to humble service.

Good Friday is a solemn and somber day.  Fasting and abstinence set a prayerful tone.  The scourging at the pillar and the crowning of thorns took place on Good Friday morning, so it would be good to pray the Second and Third Sorrowful Mysteries.  Jesus hung upon the Cross for three hours, so an extended period of silent prayer between 12:00 noon and 3:00 p.m. is an excellent option.  During these three hours, or at any time on Good Friday, special ways to pray include reading the Passion, John 18:1-19:42; the completion of the Sorrowful Mysteries; the Stations of the Cross; a prayerful reading of the Suffering Servant Canticles (Is 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12) or the seven Penitential Psalms (Ps 6; 32; 38; 51; 102, 130; 143); and to offer prayer for the Church, the world, and all those in need.  It is an ideal time to pray with a Cross, either before a crucifix or to take one in hand, to venerate it, and to gaze upon Jesus’ crucified body and to ponder the meaning of his redemptive suffering and death.

Holy Saturday is a day to keep vigil.  As Mary Magdalene kept watch at the tomb in somber silence, it is a time to remain subdued, observe the Triduum fast, and make preparation to celebrate the greatest feast of our faith, the Resurrection of the Lord.

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Laetare Sunday a joyful pause in a somber season

March 23, 2017

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A Joyful Sunday.  The Fourth Sunday of Lent is also known as Laetare Sunday.  Laetare is a Latin word which means “rejoice” or “rejoicing.”  Other nuances of the word include joyfulness, gladness, cheerfulness, and happiness.  This elated or jubilant mood is a striking one-day reprieve from the somber, sorrowful, penitential tone of the other days of Lent.

A Joyful Beginning to Mass.  The word “Laetare” is taken from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon at Mass:  “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her.  Be joyful, all who were mourning” (see Isaiah 66:10).

Joyful Symbols.  Exceptions from normal Lenten practice are permitted on Laetare Sunday:  “In this Mass, the color violet or rose is used.  Instrumental music is permitted, and the altar may be decorated with flowers” (Roman Missal, pg. 106). Rose is the liturgical color for joy.  Instrumental music is a joy to hear.  Beautiful flowers are a joy to see.

Joyful Anticipation.  There are multiple reasons why the Fourth Sunday of Lent is cause for joy, the most important of which is the proximity of Easter.  On Ash Wednesday Easter was a long way off, six and a half weeks, but on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Easter is only three weeks away, and as the greatest of all Christian feasts draws ever nearer, joy increases.  Joy is also on the upswing because the amount of time remaining with the rigors of the Lenten discipline, the penitential practices of fasting, abstinence, and self-denial, are more than half over.

Joyful Prayers.  The Collect Prayer mentions “the solemn celebrations to come” that the Church anticipates with joy.  The Prayer over the Offerings says, “We place before you with joy these offerings which bring eternal remedy”:  not only is it a joy to celebrate Mass, the thought of everlasting life in heaven brings enormous joy.  The Preface joyfully give thanks for Jesus, light, faith, liberation from sin, the grace of Baptism, and our status as God’s adopted children.  The Prayer after Communion explains how God enlightens us which also is reason for joy.

Joyful Scripture Readings.  The texts for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A, are a series of joyful messages.  The first reading gives the joyful account of the selection and anointing of David as the future king of Israel (1 Sm 16:1,6-7,10-13).  The Responsorial Psalm rejoices over the fact that the Lord is the shepherd who refreshes our souls, guides us in right paths, and accompanies us through dark valleys (Ps 23).  The second reading conveys the joyful message that Christ has given us light and made us children of the light (Eph 5:8-14).  Finally, the gospel recounts Jesus’ encounter with a man born blind (Jn 9:1-41).  Not only was his cure reason for joy, so also was his miraculous increase in faith.

Joyful Conversion.  It is with great joy that the catechumens who are preparing to receive the Easter sacraments celebrate the Second Scrutiny on the Fourth Sunday of Lent.  Also, it was an ancient custom on this Sunday to ceremoniously present the Apostles’ Creed to each of the catechumens to highlight the tenets of the faith in which they were about to be baptized.  The thought of the upcoming Easter Vigil and the reception of the catechumens into the Church is cause for great joy for the catechumens themselves and the entire community.

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The meaning of the season of Lent

March 10, 2017

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GoodFriday

There are four general Prefaces in the Roman Missal for the Season of Lent, and these texts are not only spoken liturgical prayers, they also serve as texts for personal prayer and meditation, and they express the spiritual purpose and importance of the season.

Preface I of Lent explains the meaning of the season.  It begins by noting that Lent is God’s gracious gift to us each year.  Lent is not monthly, quarterly, biannually, or every five years, but once a year.  God gives us the season of Lent for our own spiritual good.  Sin is insidious.  New sins pop up.  We fall deeper into the rut of old habitual sins.  Laxity creeps in.  God knows that we need to set aside time each year to reexamine our lives, face our shortcomings, renounce our evildoing, admit instances when we should have done good and failed to do so, repent, be cleansed, and start anew.

Lent is the time that God’s faithful await the sacred paschal feasts.  It is a forty day journey of preparation for the three holiest days of the Church year, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, all three woven together into the Sacred Paschal Triduum.

The goal is for each believer to be able to celebrate the Triduum with joy, a genuine sense of inner peace and contentment that comes from being in right relationship with God and neighbor, loving others, speaking the truth, performing good deeds, and observing the commandments.  Joy is the result of minds made pure.  Our minds are impure when we think about bad things like how to get back at someone, how to get away with something without being caught, or how to treat ourselves to something that is harmful, and then to desire the bad thing for ourselves and devise a plan for how to get it.  Lent is a time to cleanse our minds of all mental impurities and to desire what is good and wholesome, and for our desires to conform with the gospel and God’s will.  A pure mind is the path to true joy, and a joyful heart is the ideal spiritual disposition for the celebration of the Sacred Paschal Triduum.

Lent is a season to be more eagerly intent on prayer and works of charity.  To be eagerly intent is to strongly want something, to recognize it as worthwhile, and to pursue it with excitement and energy.  It is a time of intensification.  Presumably prayer is already a part of our spiritual lives.  Lent is a time to improve the quality or the quantity of our prayer.  Presumably we already perform good deeds.  Lent is a time for additional or new acts of kindness.

During Lent we participate in the mysteries by which we are reborn.  Each Christian is born of flesh, and reborn of water and spirit (see Jn 3:5,6).  Lent features conversion, a stronger belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, he who is the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25); the mystery of the Cross, how Jesus as our Savior and Redeemer washes away our sins with the blood that he shed and gives us new life in his grace; and forgiveness, how Jesus is compassionate and merciful and grants pardon and peace to the sinner.  Lent looks ahead to Holy Thursday, the Eucharist and how Jesus lives within those who receive his Body and Blood (Jn 6:53-58); Good Friday, and how Jesus’s death on the Cross leads to salvation and eternal life; and Easter, how in the waters of Baptism each believer dies to sin and is reborn in the fullness of God’s grace.  It is through Baptism, the featured sacrament of Easter, that we become members of the Body of Christ, and God claims us as his sons and daughters.

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A fresh approach to self denial and good works

March 3, 2017

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FourPillarsPen

This Lent don’t be stuck in a rut.  “Same old, same old” – is old.  If nothing changes, nothing changes!  The same old routine yields the same old results.  If we want things to be different (i.e., better), we must do things differently.  Except different requires change, and change requires effort, and change can be uncomfortable.  Fear and laziness are the two biggest obstacles.  Don’t be afraid.  Give a little extra effort.  Keep what works but add or substitute something new.  A fresh approach can be invigorating.

Consider a two part-plan for starters.  Part One:  Give something up for Lent!  About this time of year I brace myself for my one big pre-Lent pet peeve.  As Ash Wednesday approaches it is a strange annual phenomenon, but several people will whisper their little secret to me:  “Father, I’m not going to give up anything for Lent this year.  All of this denial stuff is too negative.”  And then proudly declare, “I am only going to do something positive this Lent.”  It is not nice to say in reply, “Bad plan,” but it is misguided. Lent is a penitential season, and self-denial is an indispensable penitential practice.

The “negative” part of Lent is the focus on sin.  It is not very “positive” to pay attention to our evildoing, but we must.  Jesus said “Repent” in his opening statement in Mark’s gospel (Mk 1:15).  “Repent, and believe in the gospel” is the formula for the signing with ashes.  Repent means “Quit sinning,” “Be sorry for sin,” and “Change for the better.”  It takes tremendous self-control and self-denial to stop sinning.  We may not like self-denial, but Jesus demands it:  “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself” (Mk 8:34).

Self-denial is extremely beneficial because it teaches self-mastery and builds strength to battle temptation.  It is relatively easy to give up a little pleasure.  Select something different to give up this year.  It could be sweet rolls, cookies, popcorn at bedtime, or a favorite TV program.  We all have something we really like that we really do not need.  Make a firm resolution to give it up for forty days, no exceptions.  Our desires should not control us, God should.  If the item is a sweet roll, when it comes to mind, it is a moment to be mindful of God because our goal to please God is the motivation behind our self-denial.  And we need to practice saying, “No!”  As we get better and better at refusing the sweet roll time after time throughout the day, we gain spiritual mastery over our preferences, particularly our sinful ones, and we become increasingly adept at saying no when temptation comes knocking.

Part Two:  Do something positive for Lent!  The person who only wanted to do something positive had a good idea, but it was incomplete.  A balanced approach is both negative and positive; we should give something up and do good works.

When it comes to good works, try to be sneaky and invisible!  In the gospel for Ash Wednesday Jesus tells us, “Be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see” (Mt 6:1).  Jesus wants us to be invisible.  Jesus also advises, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt 6:3). He wants us to be sneaky – in a good sense!  The purpose of our good works should not be to gain the admiration or thanks of others.  If our good works are “sneaky,” they will be a pleasant surprise to someone, and if they are “invisible,” the person will have no idea who did it and be unable to offer a complement, sing our praises, or return the favor.  Surprise blessings of unknown origin are gifts from God.  When we are sneaky and invisible we are like angels, God’s messengers bringing God’s blessings.

It is like Secret Santa for Lent.  Leave an encouraging note in someone’s cube at work.  Put a candy bar on someone’s desk or a little gift in someone’s mailbox.  Let someone else go first.  Anonymously pay for the meal of someone at another table.  The possibilities are endless.  Be creative in finding new ways to be kind to others, and be so clever as to go unnoticed.  Then, to God goes the glory!

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Worry not

February 24, 2017

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SermonMount

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us not to worry, not once, not twice, but three times (Mt 6:25,31,34).  Repetition is the key to learning and it places greater emphasis.  Jesus wants to drive a major point home.

We worry about many, many things.  Jesus mentioned some of our main worries:  our life in general, what we are to eat, what we are to drink, our body, and clothing.  The list could be expanded to include worries over family and friends, child safety, germs, a medical condition, our reputation, the burden of the workload, unfinished jobs, the house, the car, the weather, road conditions, traffic, getting to work on time, troubles at work, the economy, job security, taxes, health insurance, and the threat of terrorism.

A worrier is nervous and stressed out, anxious and troubled about this, fretting and stewing about that.  Worries can grow increasingly larger and become overwhelming.  A troubled thought can escalate into a preoccupation and then into an obsession.

Worry is not helpful.  Jesus asks, “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” (Mt 6:27).  Worry does not add to the length of life, and in many instances may actually subtract from it.  Worry can lead to high blood pressure, circulatory problems, digestive disorders, skin conditions, and a weakened immune system.

Jesus knows that everyone worries, some to a greater degree, others to a lesser degree, but all worry.  Worry is pointless and unproductive.  It burns energy with nothing to show.  Worry poses a serious threat to a wholesome and holy life, because for the worrier, concerns for worldly things can become all-consuming while the spiritual realm receives little or no attention.

Jesus offers a three-part plan to balance our lives properly:  have faith, seek first the kingdom of God, and live in the present moment.

Have faith.  It is an act of faith to trust in God.  If God is so great as to give us the gift of our life, we can trust that God will also give us what we need to sustain our life.  God does not give and then pull back and stop giving.  God is reliable and dependable.  God gives and continues to give, and we can count on God to provide for us.

Seek first the kingdom of God.  First is the key word.  Jesus wants God to be our first thought.  If we are to be preoccupied with anything, it should be with God.  Our desire should be a close relationship with God, to learn God’s will, and then to dedicate ourselves to carrying out God’s will.  Our predominant thought should be to live a life that is pleasing to God.  When we are righteous and live according to God’s ways, peace and serenity follow, and worries vanish.

Live in the present.  Jesus wants us to focus on the here and now.  Worries are distractions.  They diminish our ability to be fully engaged in the moment at hand.  Whether it is a person, a conversation, a task, or an activity, what is happening right now deserves our full and immediate attention, and when we are alert and concentrate, when we live in the present, we are doing our best, the quality of life improves dramatically, and peace and tranquility follow.

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