The Fuel for our Lamps

At our baptisms, our godparents lit a small candle from the light of the Easter candle. This candle was then presented to us, or our parents if we were not old enough. This candle was a visible symbol of the light of Christ that had now been lit within us. Jesus calls us to keep that light burning, not just for us, but for all those around us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that no one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 1 We must put the light within us on display so that others can see it, and so that our light can guide others to Christ.

To effectively guide others to Christ and his Heavenly Kingdom, we must ensure that our light shines as brightly as possible, and that it continues to burn. How are we to do this? How do we make the light of Christ within us burn ever more brightly? What must we do to ensure that the light of Christ within us continues to burn?

The light of Christ within us grows with our virtue. As we become better people, people who are more like Christ, the basket around our light is lifted. When we put sin behind us and dedicate ourselves to doing the work of God and his kingdom, we work to remove the basket that covers our light. In addition to the basket around our light being removed, the light itself can grow to hold more fuel and to burn brighter. This happens when we regularly receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist.

Reconciliation trims the wick of our light. It may sting, and it may be painful, and we may really hate having to do it, but it is worth it. Just as when a wick is trimmed, the lamp glows brighter, so when our soul is healed by reconciliation God shines more clearly through us. The Eucharist grows the size of our lamp. By increasing our charity and love for others, the Eucharist gives our lamp the ability to hold more fuel. When the Eucharist increases our hope in God, it gives a purity to the flame, allowing it to shine even more brightly and beautifully. The Eucharist strengthens our faith, which makes the light within us stronger, so that it may withstand even the strongest gusts of wind that work in opposition to it.

Let us now turn our attention to the second question: how do we ensure that the light keeps burning? This is the question asked by today’s Gospel. The virgins are awaiting the return of the bridegroom. They do not know the hour at which he will come and call them into the wedding feast. The wise virgins ensure that they have strong lamps, and that they have plenty of fuel—even if the bridegroom comes at a very late hour. The foolish virgins do not take such precautions. Even when the bridegroom is delayed, these virgins do not go to find more fuel. They squander their time, waiting until the very last possible moment, when the bridegroom’s imminent arrival is announced, to search for more fuel. At this point, it is much too late to search for more fuel.

The wise virgins are unable to give them fuel. They can’t give them the fuel, for two reasons. Firstly, their fuel would be too strong for the foolish virgins’ lamps. The fuel of the wise virgins—the fuel that powers the light of Christ within each of us—is purified and strengthened and cleansed by our virtues. It will destroy a lamp not strengthened by the grace of God’s sacraments. Secondly, the fuel is not theirs to give. The virgins have a duty to light to path for the bridegroom. If they give their fuel away, they will be unable to complete the one task which they were called to do. Similarly, the fuel powering our lamps is given to us by God as a gift. This gift is called grace. While we can give some of these graces away for the betterment of others, we cannot give them all away. This grace, sanctifying grace, is necessary for us to enter into Heaven. Only God can give us these graces. Any other source simply cannot give us the graces we need for the light of Christ to burn within us. These graces are free gifts from God, but we must prepare ourselves to receive them, and we must be willing to receive them. We do this by living a virtuous life and by receiving the sacraments regularly.

Where do we get the fuel for our lights?

Today’s Readings:
Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time / Year A
Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

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 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

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