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 on the Memorial of St. Louis de Montfort

In the first reading today, we hear about the teachings of this Pharisee named Gamaliel. He was a very respected teacher of the law, the most distinguished in all of Israel. The apostle Paul was one of Gamaliel’s finest students. What Gamaliel says is about how to know if the Apostles were from God or not. If they are from God, they will last. If they are not, they will fade out and disappear. The Jews didn’t need to persecute the Apostles: they will stay or go depending on God’s will.

Gamaliel was right. The Apostles eventually formed the church, which has never stopped existing since Jesus founded it. One of the things that the Church does is help us understand what God wants us to do with our lives. One of the ways she does this is by canonizing saints, who live their lives in a way that can teach us. Today, we celebrate the feast of St. Louis de Montfort. St. Louis de Montfort is known for his tireless devotion to preaching about Mary. He wrote many books explaining how to pray the rosary and other topics. Perhaps his most famous book is called True Devotion to Mary. Many Popes have commented on how excellent the book is, and I personally think it is one of the best books I’ve ever read, because it teaches us how to devote ourselves to Mary so that she can bring us to Jesus.

Mary always leads us to Jesus. We can never love Mary too much, because she takes the love we have for her and gives it to Jesus. Mary is always responding to God with love. This is one of the great things that Mary teaches us: always respond to God with love. If Mary had not responded “yes” to the angel Gabriel, or had half-heartedly responded, God would not have become man. We would not be able to go to Heaven, because Jesus had to become man so that we can go to Heaven! Our human responses matter.

In the Gospel today, Jesus desires to feed a crowd of 5000. All the disciples come up with are 5 loaves and 2 fish that one boy had brought. The boy must have thought, “what an insignificant answer to Jesus.” Jesus, though, took the response of the boy, and turned it into so much food that the crowd couldn’t finish it all! You see, in our response to God, we use what is called our free will. Our free will is the most special gift God gave us when he made us. It is how we choose right from wrong. It is how we decide when and how to respond when someone speaks to us.

With this freedom, though, we are also given a responsibility. (CCC 1734) We have a responsibility to participate in our society. (CCC 1914) We have a responsibility to help others, to be good examples, and to obey instructions given to us by our parents and those who are in charge of us. For example, one of my responsibilities is to listen to what my pastor asks me to do, and then to do it. By responding to my pastor and doing what he asks me, I contribute to society.

One of the most important things that we, as Catholics, do in society is worship God. Because God made everything, including us, we have a responsibility to thank him. The best way to do this is through the Celebration of the Eucharist. The word Eucharist even comes from the Greek word that means “thanksgiving.” By participating in the celebration of the Eucharist—the Mass—we are participating in the most perfect way possible in society. We are doing the best thing we can do with ourselves.

How we act while we are at Mass is just as important as showing up to Mass. If I am sitting through Mass, not paying attention, not responding, not participating in the singing, it is not actually a good thing to do. It is as if am coming to Mass, where God really comes to be with us in the Eucharist, and saying, “I want to get what you’re giving me God, but I don’t want to thank you or give anything back to you.” It would be like going to a friend’s house for dinner, and instead of saying “thank you” you came in, swallowed the food really fast, and then left without saying anything. We know that’s not right, so we shouldn’t do it when we come to Mass, which is a special sort of meal where God is actually there with us in a very special way in the Eucharist.

So we must always remember that it matters how we respond, both at Mass and at all other times. If how we respond matters, then let’s try to always respond to Jesus with our whole hearts. We should never be embarrassed to love Jesus by showing him reverence with our voice or actions. If we have trouble with these things, St. Louis de Montfort reminds us that we can ask Mary to teach us how to love and respond to Jesus.

Finally, let us thank God that he sent his Son to save us, and that Mary was given the grace to say yes to him with her whole heart. May we have the courage to respond to God with such whole-heartedness.

Today’s Readings have two options.

  • For the regular weekday cycle, they are: Acts 5:34-42; Ps 27:1, 4, 13-14; Jn 6:1-15 (The reflection assumes these readings are read.)
  • For St. Louis de Montfort’s feast, they are: 1 Cor 1:18-25; Ps 40: 2& 4, 7-8a, 8b-9, 10; Mt 28:16-20.

Reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Lent / Year A

Last summer, a friend of mine died. It was unexpected. I was chatting with him on Friday night, and on Saturday morning his kayak overturned and through a tragic—and heroic—series of events, he died. (Story in: Local Paper, National Catholic Register; Obituary) I will admit, I wasn’t as close to Brian as his family or the seminarians who attended school with him, but he was a friend, and it stung me when he died. I was surprised, shocked and confused. I couldn’t help but wonder: Why? Why has God taken this great young man away from us, from his family, from the world? Why didn’t God reach out and grant him a little help getting to shore? Why?

I think that this is maybe a little like how Mary and Martha felt when Lazarus died. They knew that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus from dying. It says so right in the Gospel: “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” But then Martha says something that shows her extreme depth of faith in Jesus, “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Martha has not asked Jesus to raise Lazarus, but has simply expressed her trust that Jesus will do what is best. This reminds me of the episode at the Wedding of Cana, where the Mother of God’s last words in Sacred Scripture have the same sentiment: “Do whatever he tells you.” She does not tell Jesus what to do, but simply places her trust in him to do what is best. Like the Mother of God, Martha, and later Mary, both express this deep trust in Jesus.

The crowd does not share this faith. They ask, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” The Gospel said that Jesus became “perturbed” by this—Jesus was upset, unsettled. Some translations go so far as to say he was angered. Jesus then goes to the tomb and calls Lazarus forth. Lazarus, who after four days in the tomb was expected to be rotting, was alive! Jesus had planned this from the beginning to increase the faith of his followers. It was a trial for Martha and Mary, but because of their faith, they also grew in true hope.

Deacon Andrew, Brian’s brother, talked about hope at his brother’s memorial Mass. As I sat there listening, in awe of the fact that he was able to compose himself better than I could compose myself, he said that “[h]ope is not sentiment or wishful thinking, it is the habit by which we long for a good, stretching forth for a future good not yet attained. We would not reach out for a good unless it existed and was truly possible. We have hope in eternal salvation and for the reunion of our loved ones because it is indeed possible. Although not a given, and not easy, the Lord makes it possible, and that is why we have hope.” Doesn’t this sound like the Gospel story today? This trial was not easy for Martha and Mary. They desired for Lazarus to be with them. They knew that with God anything was possible. While those who are close to us who die do not typically rise from the dead, we can hope to be reunited with them in eternity.

But for this to be a legitimate hope, we must remember that to meet our loved ones in Heaven, we must actually get to Heaven. In hell, we are cut off from God and we become closed in on ourselves. (See CCC 1033-1037.) Some say that “hell is other people,” but that is not true. Hell consists of eternal separation not only from God, but from other people. The difficulty in getting to Heaven is why we must have hope in order to get there. Hope is necessary when there is something in between us and a good. Martha and Mary had hope that Jesus would bring good out of the situation, even though Lazarus was dead. The Mother of God had hope that Jesus would bring good out of the situation, even though the wine had run out. Deacon Andrew and his family had hope that his brother had fought the good fight, and been filled by the spirit sufficiently that he could reach Heaven. Furthermore, they have hope that they will live sufficiently good lives that they’ll get to see him again in Heaven after their time in this world in complete.

Hope is a gift given to us by the Holy Spirit. (See CCC 1817-1821.) If we do not allow ourselves to be filled by the Spirit, we will not be able to have true hope. The prophet Ezekiel and Paul both talk about the Spirit filling us today. Paul writes that we must follow the Spirit, not the flesh. We must allow the Spirit of Christ to fill us, he writes. This Spirit gives life to us in many ways. It gives us the life of virtues, and it gives us many spiritual gifts every day. God, through His Holy Spirit who lives within each one of us, gives us innumerable gifts each and every day. In this way, He supports us in our spiritual life. Through Confession, the Spirit acts in a special way and raises us from spiritual death—something far greater than a simple bodily raising from the dead. But even this is promised to us in Ezekiel. Speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, God promises to open the graves of his people and send out his Spirit, so that we may live and know that He is Lord.

So how do we open ourselves to this Spirit?

It is simple, but also extremely difficult. We must develop a personal relationship with God. To do this takes time. We must pray daily: perhaps we could say a daily Rosary, meditate daily on the Scriptures, or spend some time in private mental prayer every day. We must attend Mass frequently. While attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is good, this is one thing where more is better. Consider attending Mass during the week some time. We must us the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly. Reconciliation forgives us our sins and raises us from spiritual death. It restores our relationship with God that becomes lost and clouded by the dirt and grime of sin. We should study our faith, especially in regards to Jesus Christ and the Gospels, Mary the Mother of God and the other saints, as well as the many devotions and practices that have been developed over the years to help us all grow in our faith.

After experiences of death, of personal suffering, and of confusion, I have always found my faith a comfort. My relationship with God grows stronger through each trial, because each trial forces me to recognize that I cannot do this without him. We are all called to be friends with God, to be filled with his Spirit. We are all called to have faith and hope in God. When we have even a little bit of true faith, we can move mountains.

So let us continue to build our relationship with God every day, and allow him to help us, especially by the use of the Sacraments.

Today’s Readings: Ez 37:12-14; Ps 130: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45