Reflection for the Visitation of Mary

This year, the Visitation sits right in the middle of two great feasts: the Ascension and the Pentecost. At first, this seemed like an interesting coincidence, but not much more. After all, what does Mary visiting Elizabeth have to do with the Ascension, when Jesus raises himself into Heaven? What could it possibly have to do with the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes? After some reflection, however, I realized that there is no more fitting place for the Visitation to end up in the calendar.

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” (Acts 1:9) The first thing to look at is the symbolism in this sentence. Jesus was lifted up. He is no longer confined to the Earth. He is above the Earth. Furthermore, he was lifted up of his own power. The last time he had had been lifted up was on the Cross. He had been nailed to the Cross, and hung there, still attached to the Earth. At the Ascension, he triumphs over the Cross definitively, being lifted up. The cloud which took him from the sight of the apostles was, undoubtedly, no ordinary cloud. Think of all the other times we see clouds in the Bible. The cloud on Mt. Sinai, the Cloud of Presence that led the Jewish people through the desert, the Cloud of Presence in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Cloud of the Father who proclaims that he is pleased with Jesus. Clouds stand for the Heavenly Kingdom in the Bible. Jesus didn’t fade out of sight and become a wispy cloud, he disappeared because he fully entered into the Heavenly Kingdom.

At the Pentecost, the Holy Spirit rushes upon all those present. The Holy Spirit was breathed into us by the Father through the Son. The Holy Spirit acts throughout the world, and especially through the church of Jesus Christ—the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded at the Pentecost. Baptism and Confirmation conform us to God in a new way, and allow the Holy Spirit to act more fully within us. These two sacraments open the doors of our souls to all of the graces and gifts that the Holy Spirit wishes to give us. These Sacraments are truly necessary for our spiritual well-being. St. Paul tells us that, “[t]o each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” (1 Cor 12:7) These gifts, these graces, are for our benefit, namely so that we may reach Heaven.

So what does Mary’s visit to Elizabeth have to do with either of these?

Between the Ascension and the Pentecost, we are often tempted to think that the apostles were dormant, that they did nothing. But that is not true. When a woman is the early stages of pregnancy, nothing appears to be happening within her; however, there is a new life growing! Between the Ascension and the Pentecost, this is what was occurring with the apostles. They were processing and coming to understand all the good that Jesus had worked, and everything that was going on inside of their hearts. Even more importantly, Peter and the apostles recognized that Judas must be replaced and elected Matthias. This recognition was crucial in many ways to the growth of the embryonic church. They recognized that they were chosen not simply as individuals, but as officials. The apostles had recognized that this work must continue to go on after them. Once they had realized their status as officials (think of something like an elected administrator in the Kingdom of God) and their need for a plan of succession, they were ready for the Holy Spirit to come.

The Visitation reminds us that Jesus grew inside of Mary, in the same way that each of us do. He developed in a particular way, and certain things had to happen in a certain way for him to be born. Celebrating it in between the Ascension and the Pentecost reminds us that Jesus’s Church, similarly, had to grow in a particular way, and certain things had to happen in a certain way for the Church to come alive. Finally, we must take notice that just as Mary was present through Jesus’s birth, she was also present when his Church came truly alive at Pentecost.

Today, let us remember that Mary will always accompany us to her Son, just as she accompanied her Son into the world. Let us ask her to prepare our hearts to fully receive Jesus and his Holy Spirit.

Today’s Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18A; Isaiah 12:2-3, 4BCD, 5-6; Luke 1:39-56

Reflection for the Third Wednesday of Lent

“Glorify the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion. For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; he has blessed your children within you.”

God has strengthened Jerusalem against attack and has blessed those who grow within her walls. What a wonderful image! It becomes even more wonderful when we recognize that we visit the Heavenly Jerusalem each time we participate in the Mass! By our participation in the Mass, we allow God to strengthen us and to help us grow closer to him.

One of the ways that God helps us to grow is through his law. The law given to the Israelite people in Deuteronomy was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The reading today tells us that nations marveled at the intelligence and wisdom of Israel. No other kingdom had a law so just. God had designed the law to help Israel flourish. Sadly, the Israelites could never fully keep the law; therefore, they only partially experienced its wonder.

The law and the prophets—an ancient saying referring to all the Old Testament—were not abolished by Jesus. Jesus even says that not one iota—basically the dot on an ‘i’—of the law would pass away. The sacrificial elements of the old law are fulfilled through Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross, so they no longer bind us. The moral elements of the law, however, were expanded and refined by Jesus in his ministry. Today’s Gospel, fittingly, comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where the moral code for all who are citizens of the Kingdom of God, that is, all the baptized, is given. This is the updated and refined law.

The antiphons we proclaim today are a perfect fit. At Communion, we said “You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, O Lord.” (cf. Ps 16:11) God has indeed shown us the path of life: the new law, which we find most plainly in the Gospels. This path, the law, will lead us to great joy if we follow it. Let us remember to pray often to God, asking him as we did at the beginning of Mass today, to “Let my steps be guided by your promise; may evil never rule me.”

Today’s Readings: Dt 4:1, 5-9; Ps 147:12-13, 15-16, 19-20; Mt 5:17-19

Reflection for the Third Sunday of Lent

About halfway through today’s Gospel, the woman at the well says to Jesus, “you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus responds to this in an interesting way,

“Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.”

A lot is going on in these few sentences. Jesus affirms worship in Jerusalem, but then says that neither Jerusalem nor anywhere is where the worship will take place. But we know that true worship, even now, continues in a multitude of places on the earth. While this could be a prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, it can also be seen to contain more truths about true worship. The center of Jewish worship was the Temple. Non-Jewish worship was often centered around a particular place. Ancient peoples often believe mountains to be the places of the gods. The Psalms, which are both Jewish and Catholic prayers, often reference this idea of going up a mountain to worship. What Jesus is telling us is not that there will be no places of worship in this world, but that the true center of worship will no longer be here on earth. The true center of Christian worship is in the Heavenly Kingdom of God. The Mass in the West, the Divine Liturgy in the East, these are both participations in the Heavenly Liturgy. They are but images of the true glory of Heavenly Worship.

This worship requires us to know who we are worshipping. If God is not physically present on this earth, we must have some understanding of who he is in order to give him worship. This does not mean that we understand God: God is beyond our understanding. It means that our God is understandable. There is order, some sort of reason, to God at which we can grasp. The false gods of the pagans did not have this. They were given earthly forms so that people could form images in their minds, but their actions and behaviors were unreasonable. The stories of the gods were as often about their cruelty and strangeness as they were about their positive qualities. Furthermore, there was not a rationality to the religious system which allowed for rich, deep and complex thought. It allowed for many wonderful stories, and for much thought about human nature, but it was ultimately shallow. Often, the pagan gods take on aspects of human nature and the stories are formed more by human condition than by the nature of God.

The Jews, after hundreds of years of various journeys through the desert and exiles, had banished such thought from their minds. They had finally realized that God is one, that he is immaterial, and that there is an order to Him. Perhaps we do not understand, but there is a perceivable order. The Jews were chosen by God to spread this wonderful discovery to all the people of the world, but they failed their mission. Salvation still comes from the Jews through Jesus Christ and the Apostles, all of whom were Jewish. Jesus and his Apostles brought salvation to all mankind, by teaching us how to worship God in Spirit and Truth through the Eucharistic Sacrifice. It is a sacrifice in Spirit because it joins in the Liturgy of Heaven, and it is a true sacrifice because it is an anamnesis—a true memorial in which we make present what occurs in the past—of the Passion of our Lord.

This worship in which we participate then forms the basis of our entire lives. It is the water which Jesus promised the woman at the well. When we pray and offer ourselves to God totally, most perfectly through participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we receive this water that lasts through all eternity.

(Sorry this is late! – MS)

Today’s Readings: Ex 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Rom 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn 4:5-42

Reflection for the Second Sunday of Lent

“Abram went as the Lord directed him.”

I am often tempted to think that life would be so much easier if God would just come down and tell me what to do. The Old Testament seems to be full of these stories, where God simply dictates commands, laws and prophecies to people like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Daniel, and Isaiah. If God was willing to tell these guys what to do, why won’t he just come and tell us what to do? Again, I am tempted to think that if God would work some spectacular miracle, and through some miraculous appearance witnessed by millions announced his will, the whole world would change.

But it wouldn’t.

After realizing this, I also remember something critical: God did tell us what he wants us to do. He didn’t just send a prophet to tell us, either. He sent Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity to tell us. God Himself came to Earth, and He told us what to do to have eternal life with Him. Not only did he tell us how to reach paradise, Jesus offered up his own life as a sacrifice to redeem all of us.

In today’s psalm, we pray, “Our soul waits for the Lord, who is our help and our shield. May your kindness, O Lord, be upon us who have put our hope in you.” We have put our hope in God, to lead us and to guide us. The Jewish people were waiting for the Lord to bring his mercy to them. They had no idea of the extent to which the Lord would go to shower his endless mercy upon us. His mercy delivers us from death, and preserves us always, fulfilling everything for which the psalmist prayed all the years ago—and for which we still pray today. God’s mercy has not dried up! He still showers it upon us every day.

The grace and mercy of God was “made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus,” Paul says. Jesus saved us from death and opened the gates of Heaven for all who love God. Paul reminds us that our journey will be difficult—just as Abraham’s was. We, however, will not be alone. Paul reminds us that God will give us the strength that we need for the journey. This journey, to a holy life, is what we are called to do in this part of our lives. God calls us all to himself, and while we are alive on this earth and in this way, he desires us to live holy lives, to live our lives devoted to God and all those things which are good. We are called to love our neighbor, and to love our enemy. We are called to offer up our time, our talents, and our treasures not just to serve our God, not just to serve our neighbor, but to serve all people. We are called to be good stewards of this planet, good stewards of our countries, good stewards of our communities, and good stewards of our lives. Everything we have—even our body—is a gift for God himself!

Transfiguration - Raphaelthese gifts, of which we are called to be stewards, pale in comparison to the greatest gift God gave humanity. Through his Passion, Death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ destroyed death. The effects of this are enormous! The Transfiguration in the Gospel today gives us a tiny glimpse into what this means. Our God is a God not of the dead, but of the living. The prophets of the Old Testament are alive with God, who in his glory shines as brightly as the sun!

Such an idea, such a sight can be frightening. Especially when a voice from Heaven accompanies it, says “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” But Jesus tells us not to be afraid.

Why should we not be afraid? Through our Baptism, we have become sons and daughters of God. God loves us, and desires that we join him in Heaven for eternity. This will happen if we follow the will of God and live holy lives. We can do this because God gives us the strength to endure hardship so that we may do what is just and right. When we trust God, as Abram did, he does not abandon us. Just look at what happened with Abram. God says to him

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.”

God eventually made the Israelite nation from Abraham’s descendants, which was great and very blessed, until they turned away from God. While Abraham’s name was still great, the people had ceased being a blessing. They did not go out and spread their blessings to the other communities of the earth. The Israelites had become a curse unto themselves. Then Jesus came. He took the curse onto himself and brought the Kingdom of God onto the earth in the Church. The Church, now, takes the place of the Israelite nation. Abraham is known as “our father in faith.” The Church has been blessed throughout the ages, because God has protected it from the assaults of the enemy. All the communities on earth have been blessed by the Church, because that is her mission: to be all things to all peoples, and to go forth to all the nations, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ, and baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Today’s Readings: Gn 12:1-4a; Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 Tim 1:8b-10; Mt 17:1-9

Reflection for the First Wednesday of Lent

I must admit, every time that I read from the book of Jonah, I chuckle a little bit. When the king of Ninevah hears the message of Jonah, he proclaims a fast and days of penance for not just the people, but also the animals of Ninevah. The cattle and the sheep, along with every man and woman, had to fast, be covered in ashes, and put on sack cloth. Can you imagine that scene? It’s kind of ridiculous!

But once I stop chuckling and step back, I realize that there is serious business going on in the book of Jonah. Even more so when you consider the words of today’s Gospel. Jesus tells the people that they will not receive a sign except the sign of Jonah. What is the sign of Jonah?

Let’s go back a little bit further in the book of Jonah. Jonah initially said no to God. He did not want to preach to Ninevah. Jonah was a Jew, and he did not want the Ninevites to be saved. He thought, as some people still think, that there is only so much salvation to go around. He did everything he could to avoid Ninevah, and he ended up getting swallowed by a whale. Now, I’ve never been swallowed by a whale, but I don’t think that’s an experience that a person survives. In fact, the prayer that Jonah prays in the belly of whale refers to him being in Sheol—the land of the dead. After three days, however, Jonah was spewed onto dry land, and he was brought back to life to complete the mission on which God had sent him.

Many people see this as the sign of Jonah. Jonah died and rose three days later, as Christ did. But this was not the sign of Jonah. But Jesus tells us that the sign of Jonah will be given to the people, so what was it and how was it fulfilled?

The sign of Jonah was the immediate repentance and conversion of heart of the Ninevites. We see this prophesy fulfilled in the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ—the Catholic Church. Especially at Pentecost, the people were filled with the Holy Spirit. They repented of their sinful ways and committed themselves and their lives to following God. This sign continues even today, as the Church grows. Every time a new person is baptized, or repents and comes back to God, the sign of Jonah is realized. The sign of Jonah can be seen in the lasting presence of the Church in the world.

Through the Sacraments of the Church, we are given new life—as Jonah was given on the beach—in Baptism; God is made present to us through the Eucharist, our sins are forgiven in Confession, and in Confirmation we are strengthened for our mission. What is our mission? The same as Jonah’s mission: to go out to the world and preach the Good News of Salvation.

Today’s Readings: Jonah 3:1-10; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19; Lk 11:29-32

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 the Sixth Friday of Ordinary Time / Year I

The optional memorial celebrating the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order may be celebrated today.

Today’s Readings: Gn 11:1-9; Ps 33:10-11, 12-13, 14-15; Mk 8:34-9:1

We must not presume on our salvation. By building the Tower of Babel, the people of the Shinar valley were presuming to be greater than God. In the English translation, we do not see some of the subtleties in this story. The people say that they will build this tower to “make a name for themselves.” The Hebrew word for “name” is the same as the name Shem. Shem was one of Noah’s sons, and was a righteous man. He was the father of the Semitic peoples, and his descendants were their rightful leaders. Jew and Christians—as late as the 16th century—have understood the old testament priest Melchizedek to actually be Shem.

By “making a name for themselves” the people of the Shinar valley were intending to throw off the leadership of Shem and to take control of their own destiny. They presumed that they knew better than Shem’s line, and ultimately that they knew better than God. By confusing their language, God was doing the people a favor, because he shattered this presumption. They could no longer even communicate from one another. They would, thus, be able to accept the guidance of others.

We see a similar theme in today’s Gospel. “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” We cannot presume to be in God’s favor simply because of our worldly successes. In fact, these often lead us to act against God and his plan for our happiness. Instead, we must lay down our very lives in service of God: we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus.

When we do this, we take up our true mantle as citizens of the Kingdom of God, which is present on this earth. Jesus promised that the Kingdom would come into power before all of his disciples perished, and it did. The Catholic Church, established by Jesus Christ, led by the apostles, and handed down through the ages by their successors, is the Kingdom of God. Christ gave his apostles extraordinary powers to forgive sin and distribute grace in his name. When we participate in God’s Church, when we fully become citizens of the kingdom, then we can call ourselves friends of God.

So let us take up our crosses, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus, so that we may all be friends of God, and participate in the eternal joy of his Kingdom.