The Upper Room & the Mercy of God

We can imagine what the eleven remaining Apostles must have been thinking on the first Easter Sunday as they heard about the empty tomb, the angels, and the appearances of Jesus Himself. Mark indicates that they found it difficult to believe that He has risen. And they must have asked themselves what He would say to them in any case. After all, they had fled when Jesus was arrested; and only St. John went back to the foot of the Cross.

Their boasting about their loyalty and their petty quarrels regarding who was greatest now seemed quite ridiculous. They must have asked: would He receive them back, or would He instead select more worthy disciples to carry out His mission? What joy there must have been when they heard Jesus say, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me so I send you.” He then gave them the power of the Holy Spirit and told them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” John 20:23. He offered them the peace of knowing that their sins and failures were forgiven; and He
confirmed again their ability to give His grace to others. They still had many shortcomings, but He would make them worthy of their great commission. And, knowing their own need for forgiveness and strength, they were all more able and willing to confer that forgiveness and grace upon others. They would not ignore the sins of humanity; Jesus never did so. But they would see in all people potential sons and daughters of God; and they would offer His saving power.

The Apostles are thus excellent examples for us. When it is difficult to forgive others, we should recall one’s own need for forgiveness. When it is difficult to see the image of God in others, we think about how God sees each of us as His sons and daughters despite our sins. We cannot earn God’s forgiveness and grace. Nor should we ignore the damage sin causes in the world and in people’s lives. Rather, by seeing His image in other people, and by trying to free them from sin and guilt, we enter more deeply into the realms of grace in which our own sins are forgiven.

For, as Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Matt. 5:7.

Emmaus & Holy Longing

In his last apostolic letter, Mane Nobiscum Domine (Stay With Us, Lord), St. John Paul II reflected upon our receipt of Christ in the Eucharist.  Much of that letter was based upon the experience of the disciples whom the risen Jesus met on the road to Emmaus, whose longings for Him were satisfied as our desire for Christ is fulfilled at every Mass.

As described in the Gospel according to Luke, Cleopas and another disciple had eagerly desired the fulfillment of Jesus’ promises, and were saddened by their apparent failure.  They did not let go of the promise, but rather continued talking about their hopes between themselves and then to Jesus, whom they saw only as a fellow traveler.  Speaking with Him about their hopes and anxieties was dangerous, for the authorities who crucified Jesus could next go after His disciples.  Jesus rebuked them for failing to understand the Scriptures, but then explained how the sacred words applied to Him, whom they still did not recognize.  They did not resent His rebuke, but rather listened eagerly with “burning hearts” to His discourse.  They then invited Him to stay with them that night, both to be hospitable and to continue hearing more of this divine wisdom.  Finally, when Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, they recognized Him who had done the same at the multiplication of the loaves a year earlier.  Jesus disappeared from their sight, but was still with them.  The disciples then ran seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples.  It was a dangerous journey, for the roads were not secure or lit, but they could not wait to share their joy.

As St. John Paul II pointed out, throughout our lives and particularly at every Mass, we also gather together with all our experiences, good and bad, and Jesus joins with us.  We long for Jesus and listen to His words from the Bible and the Church.  We recognize Him in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist, the bread from heaven.  And Jesus sends us forth to share the glorious message with others.  This holy longing to receive and share the life of Jesus will finally be satisfied when we meet Jesus face to face and receive the greater kingdom we have longed for on this earth.  For, as Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6)

REFLECTIONS ON EASTER: THE SORROW AND JOY OF MARY MAGDELENE

Detail of Mary kissing the feet of the crucified Jesus, Italian, early 14th century

Detail of Mary kissing the feet of the crucified Jesus, Italian, early 14th century

Last week’s article described the women who came to the tomb of Jesus on that first Easter morning.

This article will focus on one of those women in particular, St. Mary Magdalene and how her sorrow, based upon love, led to joy from heaven.

The Gospels of Mark and Luke describe Mary Magdalene as a woman from whom Jesus cast out seven demons, which could mean a literal possession, but more likely means that He freed her from a multitude of vices. Luke then describes her as a disciple and supporter of Jesus, who may also have been the woman who wept at the feet of Jesus and anointed Him with precious oil.

See Luke 7:36-8:3. She was there at the crucifixion and again at the tomb on Easter morning. John specifically describes her as then meeting the risen Christ, first mistaking Him for a gardener, but then recognizing Him when He called her by name. Overjoyed, she tried to cling to Jesus; but then, as He directed her, she brought the glorious news to the disciples. See John 10:11-18. In short, Jesus first led Mary Magdalene to sorrow at her slavery to evil, but then He gave her the joy of forgiveness. She loved Jesus and in sorrow mourned His loss, but then received the joy of the Resurrection. In these ways, Mary Magdalene is a model of the healing power of holy sorrow.

The modern world seeks to evade sorrow, for it seems to contradict our desire for pleasantness and ease. But sorrow at separation is the natural result of love. And so Jesus mourned over the death of John the Baptist; and He wept at Jerusalem’s rejection of Him and over her impending doom. To love is to risk sorrow, sorrow at divisions, at death, and above all at sin, which distances us from God. When one loves God and neighbor, loves the faith, the good and the true, one will mourn the absence or partial absence of them. But then Jesus calls us by name and we know that He is with us, giving even on earth a first promise of the joy of reunion, and promising that all separation will end with His final triumph.

And thus, as Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are they who weep and mourn, for they shall be consoled.” Matthew 5:4

REFLECTIONS ON EASTER: AT THE EMPTY TOMB

crown of thornsDuring this glorious season of Easter, it is helpful to reflect upon how the early Christians came to know the risen Christ and how they speak to us today. And so, for the eight Sundays of Easter, this article will focus on the different people who saw Jesus after the Resurrection and the example they give to us.

We begin with the women who came to the tomb on that first Easter morning, intending to complete the burial rites for Jesus. Their situation seemed to be completely hopeless. Their Messiah had been crucified, and the public who had welcomed Him a week earlier had failed to support Him on Good Friday.

The women did not even know how they were going to complete the funeral rites, for an immense stone covered the cave that served as a tomb. But they persevered nonetheless toward the tomb, where the Roman soldiers stood guard over the corpse.

Those solders represented the Empire, the most powerful political force in the known world. And their task seemed absurdly easy, to make sure that a corpse did not cause trouble. But then the situation was completely reversed. When the angels come to roll away the stone, the soldiers fled in terror. They told the leaders in Jerusalem what has happened.

And then those powerful soldiers, the supposed representatives of Roman law and order, took a bribe to lie and say that they had failed, letting the disciples of Jesus steal the body out from under them. By contrast, the angels, and then Jesus Himself, welcomed the women and entrusted to them the most glorious news possible, that He had triumphed over the force that ends all people and nations, over death itself.

Those who were faithful when all was going against them received the glory of God.

And so it is today. We bring the Gospel to the world not despite the trials of life, but precisely in the midst of them. God works most powerfully in those whom the world considers least, the quietly faithful families, those who uphold the rights of the unborn, the dying and the oppressed, the prophetic few who stand up for truth, purity and righteousness when it is out of season. For, as Jesus said at the beginning of His public ministry, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Fasting for Freedom

Last week’s article discussed the goal of fasting and other acts of self-denial. This article will describe some ways of fasting and self-denial and the benefits that come from this practice.

For fasting can involve not only lessening food and drink, but also limiting entertainment, keeping more silence, exercising more control over time, and reducing unnecessary spending. The most obvious form of fasting involves going further than what is required in practicing more control over eating and drinking. That practice can mean eating less (e.g., avoiding eating between meals), giving up a favorite food or drink, or eating more simply.

By exercising more control over food and drink, one gains extra control over desires generally and makes the soul stronger and more alert for prayer and good works. Fasting can also involve giving up or limiting entertainment, such as a favorite television show, radio, computer games, or looking up unnecessary things on the internet. It can also involve limiting things that take up precious time and can weigh down the mind, such as limits on reading magazines and newspapers, or reducing use of Facebook, twitter, and the like.

Limiting access to easier forms of happiness helps a person gain extra time and become more alert to focus more on deeper realities, such as those from the Bible, the saints, the goodness of other people, or one’s own callings from God. For images and the imagination are not simply for fiction, but even more importantly can help us perceive realities that we cannot now see. And in the silence and peace that comes from limiting entertainment, one can hear the voice of God all the better.

On the point of gaining time, another practice of self-control is offering sacrifices based upon time or entertainment. Such practices can involve getting to bed earlier, and getting up earlier than usual or resolving to spend definite time each on one’s duties and responsibilities (e.g., tasks around the household, returning letters or calls, or keeping up with training or education) before spending time on more obviously enjoyable things.There is also the practice of using resources more carefully and avoiding unnecessary spending, or waiting longer for extra purchases.

Such extra control over entertainment, time and resources liberates the soul for prayer and works of charity, the latter of which is the topic of next week’s article.

Fasting and Making Space for God

The last three articles have discussed ways of increasing one’s prayer life.

This article will focus on another common Lenten practice, fasting, or giving things up for our friendship with God.

For Catholics often rightfully speak of giving something up for Lent, but often do not reflect upon why we do so. Fasting involves, not only limiting the amount of food or drink, but going the extra mile to limit any legitimate pleasure, such as eating not only less food, but simpler foods, reducing entertainment, games or electronic communications, or even getting up earlier than usual. (Any sinful pleasure, of course, should always be given up.)

At one level fasting and mortifications can be seen as negative, for they involve denying a lawful pleasure. But, at a deeper level, it is a positive idea, for in giving up pleasures that we are used to, we become more open to God and His guidance in our lives. Thus, the prophets from Moses to John the Baptist spent time alone with God on the mountains or in the desert in order to be more aware of His presence; and likewise, even Jesus fasted for 40 days before His public ministry, and often went up a mountain (and thus away from the comforts of life) to be with God in prayer.

As Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote in his 1967 Apostolic Constitution On Penance, acts of mortification (disciplining earthly pleasures) are essential to strengthening the soul and increase our control over our desires. As he wrote, “This exercise of bodily mortification, . . . does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which sons of God deign to assume.4 On the contrary mortification aims at the ‘liberation’ of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his own senses.”

As St. Paul points out, athletes deny themselves many things to attain earthly glory; and all the more should we be willing to deny ourselves things to attain heavenly glory. See Romans. I also know from law practice that attorneys and businessmen will make all sorts of sacrifices, taking time away from things they would rather be doing, to get ahead in their fields. All the more can we make sacrifices to ascend to the realms of the spirit.

Next week’s article will describe some specific practices that can help us attain this goal.

Praying with Mary and the Bible

rosarybeadsLast week’s column discussed the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. This week, we will pick up on two common devotions in the Church, the rosary and lectio divina, a prayerful reading of the Bible.

The rosary was developed during the High Middle Ages as a way of praying the Hail Mary 50 or 150 times to match the practice of monks and nuns praying either 50 or 150 psalms as part of their vocation. Gradually, these groups of prayers were organized into the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries, which reflect the early life of Jesus, His sacrifice on Calvary, and then the Resurrection and its effects. In 2002, St. John Paul II built upon the ancient tradition and proposed adding the Mysteries of Light to meditate on the public life of Jesus from His first miracle at the wedding of Cana to the Holy Eucharist He gave us on the night before He died. As St. John Paul II pointed out at that time, in praying the Rosary, we are not merely repeating prayers, but rather, through the prayers entering (with the help of Mary) into contemplation of the mysteries of our salvation. The prayers are a path that brings us each day into the realms of divine wisdom.

Another source of divine wisdom is the Sacred Scriptures. And another common Catholic devotion is lectio divina, which is Latin for divine reading. With lectio divina, one selects a book of the Bible (perhaps a Gospel or a letter of St. Paul) and then meditates on each passage in succession very prayerfully. One carefully reads a specific passage (e.g., a portion of a psalm or a paragraph of an epistle). Then one prays over that passage, mediating upon it and open to insights from the Holy Spirit about its meaning. One then reads the passage again, and prays over it contemplatively, trying to gain a sense of God’s presence and to see how the passage impacts one’s life. One continues praying over the passage, speaking to God from one’s heart about one’s life, petitions, concerns, or anything else. And then the next day, or other time at prayer, one moves onto the next passage, eventually completing the book. In this calm, unhurried approach to Scripture, the Word of God sinks in and enlightens our path to salvation.

Liturgical Prayer: United with the Entire Church

Praying handsLast week, this article described the importance of prayer and recommended several types of prayer. This article and the next one will comment on four specific ways to deepen one’s prayer life: increased devotion to the Eucharist; the Liturgy of the Hours; the rosary; and lectio divina, which is a meditative reading of Scriptures.

The Eucharist is, as the Vatican II Council said in its Constitution on the Liturgy, “the source and summit of our faith,” for in the Eucharist is Jesus Himself, as much as He was with us when He walked the earth. And the Mass is the highest liturgy, where Jesus comes to us in that humble appearance of bread and wine.

Particularly during Lent, one could make a special effort to come to daily Mass in addition to Sunday Mass. If the regular 8:30 daily Mass is not feasible due to work, school or the like, one could still attend the Mass on Saturdays or holidays. One could also come early to Mass to be more in the presence of Jesus and read ahead of time the Scriptural readings and prayers for Mass. The readings for the Sunday Masses are available in our missals in church; and the readings and prayers for all Masses are available online at such sites as usccb.org (in the Worship
section), or in publications such as the Magnificatt.

Another liturgy that clergy pray each day is called the Liturgy of the Hours, an organized series of prayers that focus on the psalms and the other hymns and poems in the Bible. The term “hours” here does not mean a 60  minute time, but rather different times during the day that the prayers consecrate. The Liturgy of the Hours includes Morning Prayer, Daytime Prayer, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer, and the Office of Readings, the latter of which involves longer readings from the Bible, the saints and Church councils. Priests, deacons, and religious brothers and sisters pray the Liturgy of the Hours each day. And the Vatican II Council also encouraged the laity to pray this liturgy, which is available either in the full four volumes, with passages for each day, or a simplified
version in what is called The Book of Christian Prayer. It is also available online at such sites as divineoffice.org.

Next week’s article will describe two popular devotions that also enhance our appreciation for the Mother of God and the word of God.

Prayer: Entering the Divine Realm

Iconography in the Byzantine-style by parishioner and Knight, Mr. Don EvansLast week, this article described the Lenten themes of repentance, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. This article will focus on the glory of prayer. Prayer is nothing less than being in the presence of the Almighty God, who created the sun, the moon and the stars, the past, the present and future. It is a conversation with the One who created us, loves us, and invites us to eternal life. It is an awesome and incredible thing to think about the fact that the Almighty God, enthroned above all praises, before whom the angels bow down in worship, is truly present to us, really does listen to us, and speaks to us in the depths of our hearts. When we are in prayer, we open our hearts to Him and He gives us a sense of His presence, knowledge of the greater realm, and communion even now with the angels and saints.

People often ask how they can enter more deeply into prayer. The fourth part of the Catechism recommends several types of prayers. First, there are the liturgies of the Church, such as the Mass, all of the sacraments, Eucharistic Adoration, and the Liturgy of the Hours (more on that next week.)

Liturgies are prayers of the whole Church together, throughout the world and even of heaven itself. There are also devotions, such as the rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, stations of the Cross and novenas with the saints, that unite the faithful throughout time and space. These set words of such devotions are not mere repetition, but are ways of entering into the realms of divine wisdom through well founded paths, such as the mysteries of the rosary, the awesomeness of Divine Mercy, the Cross of Jesus, and the communion of saints.

There is also the prayerful reading of Scriptures, in which God speaks to us as His children, giving us the light of heaven on earth. We can also use other spiritual readings to help us meditate on the truths of our faith. In addition, there is more informal prayer, which can include requests of God (as in intercessions and petitions), thanksgiving, contrition for sins,
praise of God for His majesty and the things He has done, or simple adoration in the presence of God.

Next week’s article will further comment on four of these types of prayer.

Prayer – Entering the Divine Realm

Our Blessed LadyPrayer is nothing less than being in the presence of the Almighty God, who created the sun, the moon and the stars, the past, the present and future. It is a conversation with the One who created us, loves us, and invites us to eternal life. It is an awesome and incredible thing to think about the fact that the Almighty God, enthroned above all praises, before whom the angels bow down in worship, is truly present to us, really does listen to us, and speaks to us in the depths of our hearts. When we are in prayer, we open our hearts to Him and He gives us a sense of His presence, knowledge of the greater realm, and communion even now with the angels and saints.

People often ask how they can enter more deeply into prayer. The fourth part of the Catechism recommends several types of prayers. First, there are the liturgies of the Church, such as the Mass, all of the sacraments, Eucharistic Adoration, and the Liturgy of the Hours (more on that next week.) Liturgies are prayers of the whole Church together, throughout the world and even of heaven itself.

There are also devotions, such as the rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, stations of the Cross and novenas with the saints, that unite the faithful throughout time and space. These set words of such devotions are not mere repetition, but are ways of entering into the realms of divine wisdom through well founded paths, such as the mysteries of the rosary, the awesomeness of Divine Mercy, the Cross of Jesus, and the communion of saints.

There is also the prayerful reading of Scriptures, in which God speaks to us as His children, giving us the light of heaven on earth. We can also use other spiritual readings to help us meditate on the truths of our faith. In addition, there is more informal prayer, which can include requests of God (as in intercessions and petitions), thanksgiving, contrition for sins, praise of God for His majesty and the things He has done, or simple adoration in the presence of God.

Next week’s article will further comment on four of these types of prayer.