Stuck

Have you ever felt stuck? Maybe it was in a job, or maybe in a social gathering. Perhaps it was or is in your faith journey. It can be so frustrating and one can end up feeling like a hamster running on a wheel, going nowhere.

This past week my cat Vera had to be in her carrier twice. One day it was for a visit to the vet for her annual checkup and rabies shot. The next day she was sequestered in her carrier while the exterminator came for his quarterly visit and for the hour while the spray was drying. I’m not sure which one she disliked more, going for a car ride, which she  protests loudly, or staying at home but not able to roam about. She was very confused to be confined in the carrier once the exterminator left. I even unzipped a small opening so I could pet her, thinking that would be reassuring. It seemed to just confuse her more. 

Amid her cries for freedom, I started thinking about how it feels to be stuck in a situation that we can’t change. From my perspective, I was trying to be a good pet mom and keep my cat safe from chemicals that could harm her. But there was no way I could explain that to her. How many times has God allowed me to be in a certain situation or a certain place in my faith journey and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t move forward? Perhaps He did it because another better opportunity would be coming along. Perhaps He did it because I wasn’t ready to move on, even though I felt I was.  Perhaps he did it to keep me safe.

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.
Unless the Lord guards the city, in vain does the guard keep vigil.
It is vain for you to rise early, or put off your rest, 
You that eat hard-earned bread, for He gives to His beloved in sleep.

Psalm 127: 1-2

We may cry out to God that it’s not fair especially when we see that another is successful or starts something new while we remain where we are. Yet as Psalm 127 tells us, our actions will be in vain if we attempt to get ourselves out of our stuck situation. When we trust in God and give ourselves 100% to where we are, in time our faith journey will take us to the place where we need to be, when we need to be there.

Hiding in plain sight

The Bible is rich with details and descriptions. We often glaze over these items because the passages are so familiar. We settle for the salient nuts and bolts of a story and can miss significant meaning in the details. 

Two of my Church activities  merged recently and reminded me, yet again, details matter. The Walking with Purpose Bible study I’m attending, Beholding His Glory, starts at the beginning, the very beginning — Genesis. I noticed in my reading of Genesis that the garden contained two very important trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were permitted to eat from all trees, including the tree of life, and were excluded from only the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I found that a bit odd while reading that it was only one tree that was prohibited, since eating from the tree of life meant they could live forever! 

A few days later I was attending an RCIA class as a sponsor to a confirmation candidate and the priest in charge began the topic of reconciliation  by unpacking the fall of Adam and Eve. As he explained, after eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, humans started to pass judgement. Adam and Eve passed judgement on their nakedness, they passed judgement on their sin and hid from God.  When they encountered God, they began to blame others instead of taking responsibility for their actions. Living forever with the bitterness of judgement and blame now in the world, was not what God wanted for those He loved. Removing Adam and Eve from the garden and guarding the tree of life was for the benefit of mankind. It’s just a small detail, the second tree, but when you realize it’s there, the story of the fall takes on a whole different meaning. It also gives more depth to Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. 

The feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple was yet another opportunity to realize how important the details are. What we know of the Nativity is found in only two gospels: Matthew and Luke. Each provides different descriptions. When they are told as one story, they are usually overlapped, so that all events seem to happen either simultaneously or immediately following one another. In his homily, the celebrant pointed out that the feast of the Presentation is always celebrated on February 2nd, as that is 40 days after Christmas. Joseph and Mary would have taken Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, since Bethlehem was near enough for them to make the journey. He also reminded us that the wise men had not yet come. At that point, I remembered that in the account of the Holy Innocents, when the wise men did not report back to Herod after going to Bethlehem, he ordered that all male children under the age of 2 be slaughtered. The sequence of  Jesus’ birth, the rising of the guiding star and the journey of the wise men might have taken as long as 2 years. When we celebrate these milestones yearly, we flatten the events of the Incarnation to the point that the progression can get mixed up. It’s only when we start to take into account the minutiae that we can grasp a better picture of Jesus’ life. 

Some of the Old Testament books can make our head spin with details, for example,  Levitcus, which lists most of the laws followed by the Jews. Yet even there, when we read in the light of Jesus coming, we see the Eucharist and many of our Catholic rituals foreshadowed. Perhaps the next time we read a passage from the Bible, instead of settling for the familiar and obvious message, maybe it’s time to dive deeper and uncover the detailed gems hiding right in front of our eyes. 

Forgiving mistakes

We all make mistakes. Some are big and some are small. Some we can easily forget while others haunt us much longer than they should. We know we need to forgive others’ mistakes that impact us, but how well  do we forgive ourselves?

Our free will gives us the ability to choose, but our fallen human nature means that we won’t always make the correct decision. Some mistakes result in sin, while others are just merely mistakes with no significant impact. Hopefully we will always be able to learn something from the mistakes we make. A mistake is an event in time; you cannot go back to change it. You may be able to correct it after the mistake is made — or perhaps make amends for any damage done. Unless someone actually invents a time machine, you cannot go back and change your action. You have to live with your mistakes: major and minor, catastrophic and insignificant. 

For those mistakes that we have trouble recovering from, we need to reach out to God for assistance. God has written the book on forgiveness; it is the Bible. From the beginning, man has offended God and God has forgiven him. He takes the mistakes man makes and weaves an amazing story. Even with the mistakes that David made, God turned him into the greatest king Israel had ever seen. Through his descendants, God brings His own Son, Jesus, into the world as our Savior. We may never see or know the good that God has been able to achieve by the mistakes we make, but we need to trust that He can make something beautiful out of them. 

Rather than getting stuck in the moment when we realize our mistake, we must offer it up to God and ask Him to help correct it. The road may be bumpy while God is working, and His timing is rarely our timing, but God will not abandon us in our discomfort. He is walking right beside us, holding our hand through it all. To remain in misery because of a mistake is to turn away from God. He will help us to forgive ourselves, if we allow Him. 

The ultimate healing

In one of the gospel passages for weekday Mass last week was healing of the paralytic man whose friends cut through the roof to lower him into the room with Jesus. Jesus’ initial response was “Child, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:5) We often think of Jesus healing the sick physically, so this account becomes an important reminder of Jesus’ mission.

In times past, physical maladies were often equated with sinning; the worse the sickness, the greater the transgression. It was seen as God punishing those who did wrong. While we no longer believe that to be the case, God continues to allow sickness and suffering to affect change to lead to His Kingdom. Sickness can still be a powerful sign of the corruption of creation from original sin. 

When Jesus healed the paralytic man by forgiving his sins, He healed the sickness that was at the root of the man: his broken relationship with God. The physical healing was secondary and the result of the repaired bond. When we repent of our sins and turn back to God who forgives  us, we are changed. Like the paralytic, we rise from our old way of life, walking and doing what God calls us to do.

When we pray for a person suffering illness, we often pray for his or her physical healing, just like the friends of the paralytic man. It’s only natural since we live in a physical world. However, that healing is only temporary, since this life does not last forever. If the person we are praying for passes on from this life, we may think that our prayers have gone unanswered. Viewing it not from a temporal perspective but a spiritual one, our prayers have indeed been answered. The ultimate healing occurred when the person’s soul returned to the presence of God. Instead of praying for a specific outcome, we should pray that individual accepts the care of Jesus, so that He can ensure healing that will have the most benefit for the soul.

Jesus’ ultimate mission was to heal the fracture between God and man. In His birth, life, death and resurrection, He covered every realm of man’s existence — physically and spiritually, so that through His grace and mercy, we have the opportunity to spend eternity with Him. 

Just a word

With a headline of “By comparison, homilies are not too long,” I was intrigued to read the article in a recent edition of The Catholic Virginian. The article discussed comparisons, based on Pew Research of the length and the topics various Christian religions use in the homily or sermon.

Unlike the Catholic Mass, most Protestant services focus on the sermon, with average length ranging anywhere from 24 minutes to 54 minutes, according to the data from the research. The average for a Catholic homily is only 14 minutes. As Protestants don’t believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the consecration of the Eucharist, it’s logical that the next important thing to focus on is the Word of God from Scripture. I’ve noticed that the Presbyterian Church around the corner from me usually advertises the sermon topic on the signage board several days before Sunday.

All homilies or sermons can be moments of teaching. In the Catholic faith, the priest or deacon may give instruction on the season, the feast day being celebrated, or the readings of the day. Homilies can give context to the ancient customs and how to apply God’s Word to our modern lives. While the average Catholic homily may be short now, that wasn’t always the case. In previous centuries, especially when most people didn’t read, the homily was a key way for people to learn and grow deeper in their faith. While the homily can and still does strengthen our faith, the plethora of Bible studies and commentaries, stories on the lives of the saints and the saints’ own writings also provide us opportunities to grow deeper in faith in addition to attending Mass.

One of the excuses commonly used for not attending Mass is that it’s boring, with people often citing the priest and his homily.  But with the homily taking up only a small amount of time in the Mass, why would people let such a short amount of time limit them from building their relationship with God by attending Mass and partaking in the Eucharist? For those who face this dilemma, perhaps one alternative is asking God to speak to them through the homily? If they’re listening for God, they may just hear the homily totally differently than if they were listening out of politeness, or just feigning to listen. I’ve visited churches when the homily, or part of it, was used to discuss funds or the time and talent opportunities. Since I was not a regular parishioner, I see those as moments when I can ponder what jumped out to me during the readings and or just soak up being in the presence of God. Even when the priest is teaching something I already know, I find it a helpful reminder and a unique opportunity to see the topic from a different perspective.

At the very least, the homily is time to prepare yourself for receiving the Eucharist. After hearing the Word of God through the scriptures, the homily can help you reflect on God’s will for you and how you can welcome His Most Precious Body and Blood to strengthen you for your mission to bring His Kingdom into the world. 

What a gift!

Christmas is the gift-giving season; from the December 6th feast of St. Nicholas to the celebration of the Epiphany a month later on January 6th, there are many opportunities  for giving. The term gift is used so much, but what does it really mean?

As a word, gift has been in the English language since the 12 century. According to Merriam-Webster, a gift is “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.” While that definition does make sense, there are a lot of words in that definition that could also be broken down a bit further. In seeing the word voluntarily, I immediately think of the word volunteer, which shares an etymology, although the words developed at slightly different times. Some of the definitions include: proceeding from one’s own choice, intentional, and uncoerced. However, I think my favorite definition of the word is: done of one’s own free will. Digging deeper into the word transferred, definitions like to convey or to pass seem to fit within this definition, but I was surprised to see it can also mean transform/change as well as to print or copy from one surface to another.

This season there may have been gifts we really liked and others that we may, or perhaps have already returned! Many of these may have been part of a gift exchange, where one person gifts another and receives a gift in return. While I would hope we don’t expect gifts from others this season, it’s almost hard not to expect some sort of “compensation” or gift in return for one we give another. However, our gift giving is supposed to be a reflection of God’s gifts to us: our life, our free will, and His Son as our Savior. 

God does not make us do anything, but He does ask us to participate in bringing His Kingdom to our world. He has given us the free will to say “Yes” or “No,” each having its own benefits and challenges. If we say Yes to God, He will reward us, either in this life or the next, and most likely both! However, doing God’s will may make life a bit difficult, since the culture encourages us to do the opposite. If we say No to God, it may seem that we’re in control and writing our own life story. It may even feel like we are succeeding, but in the end, we are living away from God and not taking the opportunity to have a relationship with Him. We also risk saying a final No to spending our eternity with Him. If we are mirroring God’s gift giving, it can transform and change us. We’ll be thinking of those receiving our gifts,  as we intentionally selecting the gift specifically for each recipient. As God has bestowed precious gifts to us, so we can convey meaningful gifts to each other that bring us all closer to Him.  

The gift we all celebrate this season is Jesus, God’s Son becoming man to be our Savior and repair the damaged relationship mankind has with God due to original sin. Jesus is a gift, freely given, uncoerced and without expectation of compensation. The choice is ours to either receive and accept The Gift or refuse and ignore it. 

Mary at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Washington DC

Just say yes

Welcome to the third decade of the second millennium! We begin this year and decade as we do all of them, by celebrating the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The Church holds Mary up as a role model for us, even obliging us to attend Mass.

While there are many feasts and solemnities throughout the liturgical calendar, there are only a handful that require Catholics to attend Mass. As we begin the new year, it makes sense for us to start by invoking God’s blessing on us, and what better way than the Mass? Yet the Church does not ask us to celebrate the new year, but to celebrate the Mother of God. Eight days ago we celebrated the birth of Mary’ son, Jesus, so why wait to celebrate her motherhood? Christmas is celebrated for a full eight days in the Church calendar, known as the octave of Christmas, while the days beyond that through the feast of Jesus’ baptism is known as the Christmas season. The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, seems to bring the intensive Christmas focus to a full-circle conclusion.  After all, we wouldn’t have Christmas without Mary’s “Yes” to God.

Mary may have been aware of some of the hardships her fiat would bring her, like Joseph’s reaction, not to mention those in her small town and their possible treatment of her. Yet she trusted in God to see her through. Perhaps it was the reflection of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth that gave her strength to stand at the foot of the cross 33 years later. Her relationship with God was total trust, total commitment, and total love. God rewarded her trust, not by making everything easy for her, but by giving her what she needed to complete her mission as Mother of God, starting with the protection by Joseph.

As we begin this decade, let us ask Mary, as our spiritual mother, to help us say yes to God’s will for us and to notice and give thanks for the help He sends our way.