Made for relationship

God said that it is not good for הָֽאָדָ֖ם (hā-’ā-ḏām) to be alone. That word, האדם, is often translated as “the man,” but the Hebrew meaning is really more like “the human.” God did not create humanity to be alone. He did not want us to be alone. He created us to be in relationship with him. He also recognized that we would need help in learning how to do this. God recognized that other humans, people like us, people made of the same flesh and bones that we are teach us relationship. How we relate with each other affects our relationship with God, and it directly impacts our happiness. The first relationships we encounter are within our families, and they form our understanding of relationships. The foundation of our families is the relationship between the husband and wife. “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” The love between a husband and wife is also an image, an example, of God’s faithful love for us.

Unfortunately, sin got into the mix. Men did not understand the dignity of women and treated them as property. Moses saw this hardness in the hearts of his people, so Moses tolerated divorce. Sin further corrupted men and hardened hearts. By Jesus’s time, the major debate was no longer, “How can we overcome sin?” but, “What is the minimum bar for divorce?” Many Jewish rabbis taught, essentially, that no-fault divorce was permissible. When the husband was tired of his wife, he could get rid of her. After Rome took over, the wife was permitted to do the same. Sin has a way of multiplying that.

This is the situation in which we find Jesus today. He gets right to the point. Hardness of hearts—sin—is why Moses tolerated divorce, but God did not create us this way. God created us to love and to be loved by him. Marriage is an image of the always faithful love of God. God loves us so much, he is so faithful to us, that he became one of us and entered into our fallen condition, into the muck of sin, and accepted the punishment that we deserve for our sins in order to repair the relationship between God and us. Jesus came to destroy sin. Divorce existed because of sin. Since Jesus came to destroy sin, he had to destroy divorce also.

Jesus teaches us that two people joined together by God in marriage can never be separated. The question cannot be, “What is the minimum standard for divorce?” but must instead be, “How can we help Jesus destroy sin?” To destroy sin, we must recognize that marriage must always be true and faithful, and that it lasts until death. When a man and a woman say “yes” to each other at marriage, they must mean it. They must remember that “yes” every day of their lives. To deny that “yes” through divorce and remarriage allows sin to win. There are certain situations in which separation and civil divorce is still tolerated, such as abuse, but even in those situations the marriage still exists. Unless we can prove that the marriage didn’t actually happen through what we call the annulment process, Catholics are not allowed to marry again. This prohibition against remarriage can cause deep pain and suffering. We all know someone who has been through a divorce, and we know the pain and suffering involved in the wake of such a tragedy. We might wonder why the Church insists that remarriage is not possible after divorce, why can’t we let someone “move on” with their life? Jesus made it very clear in today’s Gospel reading. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This is a hard teaching, but God is the one teaching us, so we must follow this teaching.

This teaching is hard to accept in our society. It seems unfair. How can we tell someone that they aren’t allowed to get married again? How can we prevent someone from loving someone new? Unfortunately, our society has a mistaken understanding of happiness. We no longer place Heaven and eternal life as our highest goal. Our society has placed “me” and “right now” as our highest goals. What makes me happy right now? What makes me feel good right now? We have forgotten that we are all in this together. We have forgotten how important relationships are to our happiness here and now, and how important relationships are at bringing us to eternal happiness. We have forgotten that sometimes God does allow us to go through pain and suffering, but I can also tell you that God knows our pain. God became one of us. God, who made us, became incarnate of the Virgin Mary: God became a human being who was named Jesus. For our sake, he suffered. He was crucified by Pontius Pilate. He died and was buried. Then, something amazing happened. He rose from the dead. Jesus showed us that suffering, pain, and, ultimately, death are passing things. Suffering, pain, and death lost. In the end, we can unite all of our pain and suffering with Jesus’s pain and suffering, and he will transform it into new life. The pain which we suffer because of the breakdown of marriages must be united with the pain Jesus felt when his disciples turned away from him and left him. We can take all of that pain and give it to Jesus, and he will transform us. Yes, Jesus asks us to do hard things, and he demands that marriage be faithful for life, but he does not leave us without hope.

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us that we must become like children to enter Heaven. When a child is hurt, who is the first person they run to? They run to someone who loves them unconditionally. Let us be like children. Let us run to the person who loves us more than anyone in the entire universe. Let us run to Jesus. When our relationships are struggling, run to Jesus and ask him to help. When someone hurts us, run to Jesus and ask him to help. When absolutely everything goes wrong, and the world crumbles around us, let us run into the arms of Jesus, who will always say to us, “I love you. I am glad that you are here.”

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Christ blessing the Children, Erfurt Angermuseum
Lucas Cranach the Younger, Christ blessing the Children
Today’s Readings:
October 7, 2018
27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16

Reflection for Easter Wednesday

The disciples walking to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus, even when he was telling them about all of salvation history and how he had fulfilled it. It was only in the Eucharist when they recognized Jesus, through the actions of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread. What is most interesting to me is that these are the same four actions we see in every account where Jesus feeds a multitude. These are also the same words that the priest uses in the Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer, where we recognize Christ in his Eucharistic Presence.

These four actions can be understood as an analogue to our spiritual life. We offer ourselves to God, sins and all. He takes us, and he blesses us. He gives us special grace so that we may transform ourselves, and purify ourselves. He helps us to make ourselves a better offering for him. He does this by cleaning off the crust that forms over our hearts. God breaks our hearts, little by little, to open them to his love. But we are not the only one being broken. God’s heart was broken by a lance, and from that broken heart flowed forth blood and water. This blood and water is the fountain of everlasting salvation; it is the water flowing from the side of the temple. The love and mercy of God flows from his own heart into ours, filling it up completely until it overflows. God then gives us back our hearts, formed anew. He has broken our hearts of stone and given us hearts overflowing with love.

Peter, John, and the other apostles had their hearts shattered by the Crucifixion, but the Resurrection and Pentecost filled them so much that they could not stop themselves from praising God constantly at the Temple. On one occasion, they healed the crippled man we heard about today. Then, the man went with the to praise God! How appropriate that this happened at the Beautiful Gate, for it is indeed a beautiful sight when a healed and renewed man recognized God’s love, and in return gives his soul completely over to God.

When we hand ourselves over to God, he will break us and form us anew. But what a wonder this can be, if we allow God time to do his work. Many of us wonder what the meaning of suffering is, and I won’t pretend to answer that; however, I will say that in our suffering we learn to truly love God and to allow others to love us. God has been through everything we will ever experience. No matter what we’ve done, God will always take us back. No matter how enormous the hole in our soul has become, God can fill it.

All we must do is offer ourselves to God. He will take what we offer him, and give us back more than we can ever imagine.

Today’s Readings: Acts 3:1-10; Ps 105:1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8-9; Lk 24:13-35

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 Second Wednesday of Lent

You know that feeling where you must say something, but you know it is going to make everyone mad? You don’t want to do it, but it needs happen. I get that feeling a lot. Sometimes I will try to talk myself out of it, saying “they don’t really need to know that,” or “I’m sure they’ve already thought of this.” Other times, especially when I have to correct someone, I think, “God said ‘judge lest ye be judged,’” or “turn the other cheek.” Maybe if the other person is older and supposed to be much wiser than me, I might think, “I am not smart enough to correct this person, I am just a child.”

I think that Jeremiah probably came up with all these excuses, and probably more. The book of Jeremiah begins with Jeremiah trying to tell God he was too young and not ready to be a prophet. God replied, “Say not, ‘I am too young.’ To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver.” God had called Jeremiah to proclaim the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple to the people of Jerusalem: his job was to tell everybody “repent or you will all be exiled or killed, and everybody’s stuff will be destroyed.” This would be, to a Catholic in modern times, like someone saying “the Vatican, every government building, and every social media site on the internet will all be destroyed,” and not only will they all be destroyed, but anyone who survives gets to go live among a hostile population. It sounded ridiculous. No wonder the people were plotting to kill Jeremiah! They thought he was a nut job! It didn’t really cross their minds as to whether he might be right.

Jeremiah is troubled by the response of the people. He especially doesn’t understand why he is being “repaid with evil” for doing a good thing. He spent his entire life going where he did not want to go, and preaching to a people who would not listen. I’m sure many of us can relate to this. We do something good and receive bitterness, criticism, and hatred in return.

Jesus definitely knew what Jeremiah was going through. Jesus spent his life preaching of God’s justice, love, and mercy, healing the sick, casting out demons—all very good things to do—and he was repaid with torture and crucifixion. Through Jesus’s death, however, something amazing happened. Because of his sacrifice, Heaven was opened to humanity. His apostles followed him and became servants to all, and most even followed him to their own martyrdoms. Jesus went further though, and called all of us to follow him.

What is in common among Jeremiah, the apostles, us, and Jesus? Suffering. We all suffer. We suffer even when we do good. The apostles all suffered, and Jesus told them it was going to happen! He told them, in front of James and John’s mother, that they would share his chalice, the chalice of suffering. It doesn’t make sense. It hurts. But through our suffering, something we could never expect happens. We are drawn closer to God. We come to a greater realization of what is most important (trusting and loving God!) in our lives. When we see others suffer, we learn to have compassion and to recognize others as worthy of love. Most incredibly of all, we learn to offer our suffering to God. We learn to unite our suffering with the suffering of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Through the Cross our suffering is transformed into something new. It is transformed into a redemptive sacrifice for mankind.

So, in this time of Lent, either in our small and intentional Lenten sacrifices we make to grow, or in the large sufferings thrown at us, let us remember to unite our suffering with Jesus on His Cross. Let us make it a gift to God that will help redeem the world. It will be hard. It will be painful. But God can bring good out of even the worst situations.

Edited for grammar and structure on March 15, 2017.

Today’s Readings: Jer 18:18-20; Ps 31:5-6, 14, 15-16; Mt 20:17-28

Reflection for the First Friday of Lent

The reading from Ezekiel today reminds us that we are responsible for our own actions, and that every action matters. The good person who commits a bad action is not “off the hook” because he’s a generally good person. That person still must answer for the bad act. Similarly, the bad person who committed a good act should be commended for having done a good thing. God wants us all to be good and to do good things. What we often forget is that the way to become a good person is to do good things—even small things—over and over again. The way to become a bad person is to repeatedly do bad things—even small ones—over and over again. There is a lot of truth in the saying “fake it until you make it.” If we do good things, even though they feel unnatural or like we are just faking it, eventually we become the type of person who does good things. This goes both ways, so we must always be careful to make sure we aren’t going to wrong direction.

Jesus in the Gospel today reminds us that the small things do matter. The little decisions which make up our day turn us into the person who we are. Maybe we do not kill, but we often can be angry. Jesus is telling us to resolve this anger. We should focus on the little things in our lives before they become big things.

We don’t need to do amazing feats of charity if we aren’t able to. It is in the little things of our day-to-day living where we become the person we desire to be. If we make poor decisions and do bad things, that eventually is reflected in our lives, often as pain, suffering and strife. If we make good decisions and do good things, that too is reflected in our lives, often as joy, peace and happiness.

Today’s Readings: Ez 18:21-28; Ps 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-7a, 7bc-8; Mt 5:20-26

Reflection for the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time / Year A

Today’s Readings: Lv 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48

Humility.

What a virtue!

Without humility, we are like tyrants. Without humility, we cannot truly listen to others. Without humility, we cannot endure suffering. Without humility, we cannot grow to be the man or woman who God created us to be. The readings today show us the need for humility.

The first reading tells us not to bear hatred for our brothers and sisters, to take no revenge and hold no grudge, to not incur sin even if we might need to correct them. Without humility, we cannot do this! The golden rule, formulated here in Leviticus as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is a call to humility. This is a challenging command! When I make a mistake, sometimes I am able to realize it, but many times I don’t even realize when I have done it. If I knew about it, I would try my best to correct it. In these cases, the only way that I can grow is for someone to offer me correction. That is why correcting a brother or a sister in Christ is an act of charity!

But without humility, this can become the act of a tyrant. Humility helps us to recognize that we all make mistakes. We all have faults. When someone corrects us, we desire for them to do it out of care and love. When someone corrects me out of anger, spite or a desire for power I can feel it. I do not wish that feeling on others. It is painful! It is hurtful! When we have humility, we can recognize our faults—or at least that we have faults—, and we allow ourselves to be corrected and to correct others in charity and kindness.

As I mentioned, humility allows us to truly hear others. Without humility, we may be tempted to assume that we our always right, and that others are the ones who need to change. Whenever I am driving, I know that I am the best driver on the road. If something doesn’t go my way when I’m driving, it’s never because I made a mistake. It’s the other guy, who obviously never learned how to drive and wants to cause a wreck. Humility, by helping open us to correction, helps us to recognize that maybe, perhaps, I was wrong. Maybe the reason people keep brake-checking me and giving me the “single-finger peace sign” is because I did something wrong while driving. Maybe I should listen when my friend tells me that texting while driving is bad, and that, really, 20 over the speed limit is a bad plan.

Humility helps us to be open to the input of other people in our lives. Paul reminds the Corinthians today that they must be open to others: “If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool.” The wise one is the person with all the answers. When we think we have all the answers, we are not open to others.

Finally, without humility we cannot fully accept the gift of suffering. Suffering is not fun, and we should not seek it out for its own sake. But, when suffering is inflicted on us we have to deal with it. How we deal with it makes all the difference. Saint John Paul II wrote an encyclical letter called Salvifici Doloris where he searches for the meaning of suffering. Ultimately, however, why God allows suffering remains a mystery to us. This, in itself, is an experience of humility. We are called to recognize that we cannot and will not know everything in this life.

But we are not left alone in this struggle. We are not alone in seeking humility. God himself gave us the ultimate example of humility by suffering and dying on the cross. God become a human being. Think about this for a moment. The all-powerful and all-knowing God became a weak and defenseless baby, and then allowed other men to kill him. Nobody understood what God was trying to teach us until the Resurrection, when Jesus rose from the dead. God was teaching us that there is life after death—death has no power over us! But we must have the humility to accept that we will not always understand.

The Flagellation of Christ

We also learn humility through suffering because we often need the help of others to endure our suffering. We depend on others emotionally or physically. We are forced to exit ourselves and become a part of the larger community. The best way in which we can do this is by joining our suffering to Jesus Christ Crucified. The Crucifixion was grotesque, and in addition to the physical suffering, the spiritual and emotional suffering Jesus must have been immense. My most intense experience of suffering and pain was not due to a physical torment, but from emotions. Something had occurred which did not initially seem like a big deal at first, but I felt a betrayed. I did not even realize that this feeling was growing and growing inside of me until it completely overwhelmed me a few days later. I could not focus on anything, and I was very distraught. People who knew me could tell that something was very wrong. After a couple of days, I was finally able to bring it to prayer. I asked God to help me understand what he is trying to teach me, and I did my best to offer it up to him—but this is easier said than done. Eventually, God allowed me recognize that what had occurred was ultimately for my good. It still hurt, but it changed me. For the better.

 Icon of the ResurrectionWhen we suffer we can join our suffering to Christ’s suffering, and offer it for the salvation of souls—including our own—and the redemption of mankind. In a way, suffering makes us co-workers with Jesus on the Cross in a very special and unique way. Today’s Gospel doesn’t call for us to be crucified—not here at least, but it does call us to turn the other cheek, and to go the extra mile. These aren’t fun, and they often involve a little suffering. But these small experiences of suffering prepare us for the road ahead. They teach us the humility we need for the big suffering that will inevitably come to most of us.

Humility is fundamental to the Christian way of life. It can get us through our suffering. It can help us listen. It can help us be kind and compassionate in dealing with others.

Humility.

What a virtue!