Reflection for the Fourth Wednesday of Easter

Fasting, prayer, and laying on of hands always seem to indicate someone was about to be sent on a mission. The Church in Antioch participated in fasting, prayer, and laying on of hands for Saul and Barnabas prior to their mission to Cyprus. Their mission? To share the light of Christ with the world.

I realized recently that there are several sacraments where hands are lain upon a person. The link between ordination and mission is fairly easy to see, and is very similar to the mission of Saul and Barnabas: spread the light of Christ and minister to the People of God. Confirmation, likewise, has a laying on of hands when the forehead is anointed with Chrism. (CCC 1300) The link in confirmation to mission is, similarly, not difficult to see: Confirmation seals a person with the Holy Spirit to go out into the world and spread the Good News, even through trials and difficulties.

The third sacrament with the laying on of hands, however, is a bit more of a mystery in its mission. During the anointing of the sick, the priest lays hands upon the receiver of the sacrament. Anointing of the Sick is no longer reserved to those in immediate danger of death, so what does this gesture mean?

I think that there are two possible ways to understand this symbol of the laying on of hands. The first is that the laying on of hands reminds the Christian of his or her mission that was given in Baptism, was strengthened in Confirmation, and was renewed with each reception of the Holy Eucharist: to spread the Good News and to be a light shining out to the world. I think, though, that this is just a part of it. Saint Pope John Paul II taught the Church many things through his writings and his example. One of these things was the value in suffering.

Suffering is a paradox. We cannot understand, and it will never truly make sense to us. We can grasp at why we suffer, as Saint Pope John Paul II did beautifully in his encyclical Salvifici Doloris: On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. (Vatican Amazon) When we suffer in a Christian way, we can inspire others to turn towards God—in a way we can be missionaries in our suffering. Furthermore, suffering inspires compassion within others, which is another their soul may be moved toward God.

The laying on of hands during the anointing, then, would remind us of our Christian mission in general, and aid us in taking on a special mission of evangelization through our suffering. The laying on of hands also has an ancient connection with fervent intercessory prayer, which St. James calls for when ministering to the sick. (James 5:14-15)

When a person is dying, I think that the laying on of hands during anointing takes on yet another meaning. When a person in the twilight of their life, and is close to death, that person is preparing for the journey to eternal life. He or she is preparing to embark on a new mission, a mission no longer bound to the chains of an earthly body. When hands are lain on a person nearing death, it is commissioning him or her on a new stage in the human journey: the journey home, the journey to Heaven. It is possible for this final journey to end up in different place, to Hell, but this is why Catholics have the combination of prayers and sacraments that used to be called “Last Rites.” (I will write a full article about Last Rites in the near future—this post is already long!)

Today, let us remember the mission that God has given to us. Let us go bravely into the world which is becoming increasingly hostile to religion, especially when religion that stands up to it, and show everyone that it is a joy to be Christian, and by our joy, let us spread the light of Christ.

Today’s Readings: Acts 12:24-13:5a; Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6 and 8; Jn 12:44-50

Reflection for Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s Readings: Is 58:1-9a; Ps 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 18-19; Mt 9:14-15

Today we learn about fasting in the readings. The psalmist writes that God is not pleased with the burnt offerings that the Israelites presented to him. This reminds us of the sacrifice of Cain in Genesis, which God also did not accept. The psalmist then tells us that God accepts the sacrifice of a contrite and humble heart, a sacrifice like Abel’s. The reading from Isaiah also mentions this theme. We cannot fast and become angry, quarrelsome, and wicked and expect for God to accept this sacrifice of fasting. We must do good works, and continue to be good Christians and good people while we fast. In the Gospels, we are told that we must not be gloomy when we fast, but we should be joyful!

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus speaks of fasting in a different way. He reminds us that there is a time for fasting which is appropriate, and a time which is not appropriate. If we are celebrating the presence of the bridegroom, for example. We live in an in between time. Jesus is with us, and the Kingdom of God is present on this earth through the Church; however, Jesus is not present as he was when he lived on the earth, and the Kingdom of God extends into Heaven, so it is not fully actualized on this earth either. We must use our good judgment to determine the times for fasting and feasting, and the Church helps us with this, setting aside seasons such as Lent for penance and fasting. But she has also set aside days for feasting: Every Sunday (most especially Easter), Christmas, and Holy Days of Obligation. We cannot celebrate only one and not the other—both are necessary!

So let us enter into the season of Lent with a proper disposition towards fasting: one of love for God and neighbor, so that when the Easter Season comes we may enjoy the feasting and joyous activity even more!

Reflection for Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s Readings: Dt 30:15-20; Ps 1:1-2, 3, 4 & 6; Lk 9:22-25

The first reading today tells us that to live a long and happy life, we must choose to follow God and his commandments. If we “hold fast” to God and his teachings, he will provide for us. To do otherwise would lead to misery and death. But we find out in today’s Gospel that this will not be easy. Jesus tells us that to follow him, we will have to take up our crosses daily and follow him. The world will reject us, because we who follow God are a sign against the evil in this world. But we must do this, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” This is not always a physical losing of life, but can also refer to giving up many good things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In a way, this is what fasting, abstinence, and the practice of giving something up during Lent helps to teach us. They all teach us to focus less on what we have in this world, and to raise our eyes towards the next world.

Let us remember to always raise our eyes toward God, and above the desires for things of this world, for “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?”

Reflection for Ash Wednesday

Today’s Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Ps 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 & 17; 2 Cor 5:20-6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

Today begins the great season of Lent.

Lent is a time for us to focus on changing our lives for the better. Everything in the Mass, the readings, the antiphons, the ashes, remind us of this today.

The entrance antiphon comes from the book of Wisdom (11:24, 25, 27) and reminds us that the Lord is merciful, and proceeds to beg the Lord to be merciful and overlook the sins of his people. We ask that he does this in order that we might repent. In the first reading prophet Joel calls for us to return the Lord with our whole heart: with fasting, weeping, and mourning. He begs the Lord to have mercy on his people, and to relent in the punishment they deserve. The psalm asks the Lord to create in us clean hearts and steadfast spirits, so that we might proclaim his praise. St. Paul asks us in the second reading to become ambassadors for Christ by becoming reconciled with God. Now is the day of salvation, Paul says, God hears us now, so we need to ask now! The Alleluia is no longer sung during lent—this reminds us that we must focus on repentance during this time of year, and the verse before the Gospel today reminds us not to harden our hearts when we hear the voice of God.

The Gospel today is the crown jewel of all the readings for the day. Jesus tells us how to convert our lives to better follow him. We should give alms, but not in a way that we receive praise for them. Deeds done to be seen are their own reward. This teaches us charity and humility. We must pray, but again not to be seen. Furthermore, he tells us to go within our inner room, close the door, and pray to God in secret! This does not mean we must hide when we pray. This means that we must go within ourselves, close ourselves to the outside world, and focus on God alone, telling him all the things in our heart, and then being silent and listening for his reply that he may whisper to us in the stillness of our hearts. Finally, Jesus reminds us to fast. Again, not to be seen. In fact, Jesus tells us we should do our best to be cheerful and upbeat when we fast! This is hard! I get hangry, so it’s actually a really hard thing for me to do. But it teaches me to have patience, to love others more, and to control myself better. It is truly incredible what fasting can teach a person.

After the Gospel, we see the ashes. Catholicism is a religion that embraces the whole person—body and soul. Because of this, we use sensible things to remind us of the hidden realities. Ashes bring to mind many things. When something burns, it is consumed and turned into ash. This can be a good thing, where something bad is destroyed and turned into something new. This can also be a great challenge, where something good is destroyed and all that remains is ash. In the Bible, ashes often symbolize extreme penance after wrongdoing. The Church uses all of these ideas and more on Ash Wednesday. During Lent, we try to purify our lives, removing the bad things and doing penance so that we may become better people. Sometimes this results in us having to change some things that weren’t necessarily bad, but that we enjoyed. It is a challenge.

Ashes are a symbol for one more incredibly important idea. It is abundantly clear in the second formula for the distribution of the ashes. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are harrowing. They cut deep. And they can cause fear. “I am dust? I shall return to dust? What?” We humans live fleeting lives. We cannot forget that we live short lives, and when we die our body returns to the Earth. Until the General Resurrection at the end of time, when we our reunited with our glorified bodies, only our soul remains. In the Psalms and the Wisdom books, we are often reminded of our fleeting lifespans and that we return to the earth. In the Gospels, we are reminded that we are like grain at the grind stone. The good—the results of our good deeds—remains, but the chaff—the unusable part of the grain, the results of our evil deeds—is cast to the floor and eventually burned. If we are all chaff, what will remain of us?

The communion antiphon leaves us on a more uplifting note. “He who ponders the law of the Lord day and night will yield fruit in due season.” (Ps 1:2-3) In this quote from the first Psalm, the Church is showing us that there is hope! After the hard work of Lent, we will bear much fruit during Easter. We will have become better, happier, more loving, more virtuous people. When we ponder the law of the Lord, we end up pondering the Lawgiver. We end up pondering God. This is prayer.

Fasting, Almsgiving, and Prayer. These are the three pillars by which we may re-form our lives during Lent. They help us to become a new creation, to love God more, and to truly orient ourselves to the Kingdom of Heaven.