Grape leaf and bunch of grapes gilded on a church door in Israel

Water jars

They were just standing there; tall sentinels watching over the wedding festivities. Once their purpose of ceremonial washings was already completed, they didn’t seem to have any purpose. Until Jesus put them to use. 

The wedding feast of Cana was the Gospel proclaimed last weekend, and is such a well-known story, that sometimes the details get lost. If there were six stone jars holding at least 20 gallons each, those vessels could practically be used as seating options! Most likely they were probably used at the beginning of the ceremony for the participants to draw water out of for the ritual cleansing. And then the party began, and, as typical in ancient times, it went on for days. The lack of wine meant several things: the party was about to end, the bridegroom and his family did not prepare sufficiently for the party, and/or the family did not have the funds to procure enough. Imagine how embarrassing it would’ve been to start one’s newlywed life being the laughingstock of the community! 

I read one commentary on the Gospel reading that mentioned there would have been wine casks from what had already been distributed. But Jesus did not choose them. Rather, He chose the vessels that were specifically intended to be for the ritual cleansing as identified in Leviticus. Oddly enough, stoneware was the only material that could come in contact with ritually impure items and not be rendered unusable. Clay vessels, if tainted, had to be smashed and no longer used. Stoneware jars were like mini cisterns that kept the ceremonial water for washing, usually around a town’s synagogue or in the houses of priests. It’s from this “pure water” that Jesus turns an embarrassing situation into a non-event. Jesus keeps this celebration of uniting two lives into one going, not just for a few more hours, but potentially a few more days. After all the wine that had been already consumed, only God knows if all the wine Jesus provided (120 gallons?) was consumed or if some was leftover. 

It’s interesting to ponder how Jesus transforms these Old Testament jars into a New Testament miracle. One perspective is to see the old order, and habits, passing away for what Jesus is instituting. Ceremonial washing is good, yes, but living life and celebrating it, which is what the wine represents, is far better. We may look at the people in the Bible or even the saints throughout the ages and say that we can’t be as holy or do the good deeds that others have done. Yet Jesus takes these jars that were largely ignored and repurposed them. He gave them new life in abundance, and He wants to do the same for us. We cannot change water into wine any more than the stoneware jars could. But when we let Jesus into our lives, anything is possible. 

Rather than watching the world go by, let us offer ourselves as vessels for Jesus to bring new life into the world. And don’t be surprised to find yourself the life of the party. 

Called by God

As we begin ordinary time, we hear  the Gospel reading of Jesus calling the apostles. We may wonder at their response of leaving their work as fishermen, as well as leaving their families to follow Jesus. Do we think that being called by God was just something that happened a long time ago as recorded in the Bible, or do we realize that it continued to happen throughout salvation history and even happens today?

God calls us by name, each and every one of us. He has a mission for us, which could be one special purpose or many different tasks. When He calls us, He speaks His Word to us, and so it is through Jesus via the Holy Spirit that we hear His call. God knows us because He created us; He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows how we can be instruments of His will and grace. He allows each of us to choose how to respond to Him. He calls us, but do we answer?

In reflecting upon the call of God, I think of the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. Participation in these are responses to God’s call to become part of His divine family. In Baptism we are named and anointed, marked with an indelible seal of God’s grace. Confirmation completes the sacrament of Baptism with yet another anointing, an additional name, and receipt of the  gifts of the Holy Spirit. Each of us receives our own special recipe of the fruits of the Holy Spirit that make us unique individuals and enables each of us to do God’s will. When we respond to God in an open and positive attitude, He blesses us with what we need. Just as God created each person, He calls out to everyone, regardless of whether they’ve received the sacraments of initiation or not. 

Baptism and Confirmation are one-time events where we respond to God’s call, but His calling does not stop with those two sacraments; He calls us each and every day, and even multiple times throughout the day! How can we respond to Him? Prayer and witness. Through prayer, we develop our relationship with God. We learn how He speaks to us and we come to understand His will. Prayer helps us discern how we will answer God’s call.  We may be His disciple by becoming a witness to Him through our words of praise, our loving actions toward our neighbors, and/or by being an intercessor for others in need of support.

One example of God’s call can be our vocation: single, married, or religious life. When we hear God calling us to a particular vocation; we can respond by accepting it with humility and trust, or we can choose to do what we think is best. Regardless of our choice, God will continue to bless us with His grace and love us through both good times and difficult times. He will continue to call us to do His will in the daily events and circumstances of our lives. May each of us listen carefully for the sound of His voice. Can you hear Him now?

Beginning again

Merry Christmas! Yes, we are still in the Christmas season, even though liturgically the feast of Epiphany was celebrated on January 2nd this year. The birth of Christ so close to the calendar change gives us time to celebrate the awe and wonder of God becoming man and heralds to us start anew. 

The Son of God born of a woman gives His message a personal invitation. God isn’t shaking His finger from afar in judgment. He didn’t just show up as a fully grown man to tell us what to do. He came to live with us, starting the way we all start out: as a wee babe. It’s hard not to feel compassion for an infant. We hear the story of His nativity and rejoice with His parents, the shepherds, and the Magi. He gathers us into the story of His life — His mission, and we follow Him throughout His ministry. He changed the world with His life, death, and resurrection, but it all starts with Jesus being born in Bethlehem. He was at the beginning of creation, and becomes the beginning again with His nativity. 

The Catholic Church celebrates the Nativity of Jesus as an octave, that is eight days celebrating the feast as if each day is the feast itself. The eighth day of that feast just so happens to be January 1st, the first day of the new calendar year. How perfectly providential that we begin a new year — we begin again, as we are still celebrating the feast of Christmas! While any day and time is acceptable to change and start something new, to begin a change in January adds a sense of order to whatever change we are focusing on. It’s almost as if there is an energy that we can tap into to help us as we begin again. While some may call it a resolution, to “resolve” to change errant behaviors, I think if we embrace words like begin and start, the hopefulness those words bring can help support us in our changed ways. We also need to be cautious not to try to change too many things at once, as that can be overwhelming and hamper any progress. If we pick one thing to start, to begin again, and let that change lead us to other changes, we may find ourselves much more successful than we ever thought possible when we first started out. 

In these first days of January, while we finish celebrating the 12 days of Christmas (which started on December 25th), and end liturgically with the baptism of Jesus, let us pray for guidance as to what areas need a new beginning in our own lives. As we consider aspects of our spirit, mind and body, we can rest assured that no matter where we start, the other areas of our lives will be affected by beginning again. 

Thank you, Jesus, for allowing me to begin again, and with the support of Blessed Mother Mary, please help me make the necessary changes in order to become the best version of myself. 

Sound bites or Cliff Notes?

As the year 2021 comes to a close, I saw a post for those participating in the Bible in a Year podcast by Fr. Mike Schmitz, asking what key takeaways were learned. I had to reflect quite a bit on that question, as there was a lot of information over a long time!

I have been reading the daily Mass Scriptures for over a decade. Yet when one reads the Bible in chronological order, there’s much more to the story that is not presented within the Mass readings. It’s almost as if they are the sound bites of salvation history. You get the overall summary with the really important events highlighted, but not enough information to connect the dots to make a coherent picture. While I write this blog, I still have a few days left in the podcast series before I can confidently say I’ve read the whole Bible, but even still, it seems that the Bible is more like the Cliff Notes of salvation history. It tells a lot of the story and some of the backstory, but it still is only a portion of the whole. 

The Bible covers thousands of years and countless people but may only be slightly larger than an in-depth biography of a single person. The Bible also includes various types of writing, some are historical accounts, some are poetry, while others are instructions for worship and living. All the books, however, are in support of the history of salvation and how it unfolds, not just in history but in our own time as well. Even the pieces of Scripture I was familiar with from the Mass readings took on a different perspective when read in context with the stories that surrounded them, especially in the Gospels. I can understand if people who only occasionally come to Mass don’t feel a strong connection with God. They don’t have enough information to form a lasting connection — a relationship — with Him. But even weekly and daily Mass attendees have an incomplete picture of God and their role in salvation history. I don’t think it’s enough to read all of the Scriptures once to perfect a relationship with God. I think it’s something that has to be continually pursued, perhaps in varying ways, in order to have a fuller and richer relationship with God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

If the Bible is the Cliff Notes of the salvation history story, is there a way to read the full story? At this point, I don’t think we, as humans, can. It would take several of our lifetimes to read an in-depth biography on each person who played a part in it, if those biographies are even available. I think a full understanding of salvation history can begin only once we encounter God after our death. But in order to participate in that history, we need to study the Cliff Notes version, aka the Bible. In some ways reading the Bible is like washing with clean water; even if we don’t understand it all, by being immersed in the story, we can find the parallels with our lives and the answers and guidance to some of the questions we have for our lives. Each time we have an encounter with the Bible, we seek a deeper relationship with God. Each time we allow ourselves and our actions to be shaped by the Bible, we open ourselves up to being instruments of God.  

If you haven’t read all of the Bible or are looking for a scripture study, I do recommend the Bible in a Year podcast, even if it takes you longer than a year to complete. With the New Year right around the corner, perhaps one resolution is to become more familiar with the Bible. If the whole BIble is too intimidating, try picking a few books that you’re less familiar with and read those. God has given us this wonderful tool to get to know Him better. Let’s use it for all its worth!

The perfect gift

There is nothing quite like having a gift package opened with a gasp of surprise and a voice of sheer delight exclaim, “Just what I wanted!” It’s like there is a bond created between the giver and the receiver; one knowing what the other wants and needs while the other is able to identify the item given as something pleasing and desired. As we wrap up the final week of Advent, what is it that we truly want for Christmas?

The Son of God was born over 2,000 years ago, and while Christmas is a celebration of that historic moment, it’s also a celebration of the way Jesus comes to us today. Physically, He is here in the Eucharist. Spiritually, He is in every Sacrament, conferring special graces on us based on the nature of the sacrament received. Jesus creates a bond of brotherhood with us through the sacraments of initiation, heals us with sacraments of reconciliation and anointing, and sends us on a mission with marriage or holy orders. When we seek ways to strengthen our relationship with Him during the Advent season, we turn away from what we want and turn to what others need. We look to imitate Jesus, to bring the light of His Presence to our little pinhead area of the world. 

The four weeks of Advent are a spiritual journey to take a break from the everyday and open our hearts to a deeper relationship with God. For some it may be a struggle just to get into a regular routine of reaching out to God in daily prayers. Even those with consistent prayer habits need to pause and see how they can dig further and open more of their bodies/minds/souls/wills to God’s call. No matter how old we get or how much experience we gain, there is alway some sort of improvement we can make in our relationship with God. The journey we take is one from self-love to selfless-love. At the end of it, what we want is nothing less than Jesus our Savior.

As Christmas draws closer, sometimes we need to double our efforts so they do not get lost in the rush of decorating/cooking/buying/wrapping/partying that is expected for the celebration. Central to the celebration is the Mass, which is the gift Jesus gives us. It’s literally the name of the feast: Christ’s Mass. It’s not meant to be one item on a checklist, to be completed as early as possible then not given another thought. Rather it should be the cornerstone of the festivities; to be the source of joy which flows over to all other activities.

Let us prepare to receive Jesus Christ into ourselves in the Eucharist as well as into our families and friendships with our celebrations. Let us delight in receiving Him, knowing He fulfills our every need. Let us joyfully exclaim, “He is just what I wanted!” as we receive the most perfect gift of all. 

Gifting to God

God is lavish with His gifts to us. He didn’t have to create us, but He did — and He hasn’t stopped there. Moment by moment, He showers blessings down upon us. He has even given His most precious gift to us, His Beloved Son, Jesus. Is there any gift we can give to Him?

It’s very overwhelming when we try to consider how much God has blessed us in our lives. We think about the gifts of friendships, or even those who have crossed our paths for a short time and left a warm fondness in our memories. We think of all the happy occasions we have celebrated and even some regular ordinary days that were just delightful. I don’t think it’s possible to be able to inventory all the blessings just from our own lifetime! God is a role model of generosity; we really can’t give more than He gives to any one of us. Is it possible to give God a gift at Christmas? After all, it is His birthday, shouldn’t He receive a gift from us?

Looking to the Gospels for inspiration, I found where Jesus once remarked, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) Since God created everything, that seems like a tall order, not to mention a totally new dimension to re-gifting. Yet a recent Advent reflection I read used the analogy of a coin from this Gospel reading. It talked about how a coin minted in a kingdom has the image of the king on it. It went on to say that God will only recognize our actions if they are in the image and likeness of Jesus. While we can’t give the blind back their sight, we can be their eyes. We may not be able to heal a sick person, but we can provide a little comfort to ease their pain and be a shoulder for them to lean on. We cannot forgive another’s sins, but we can forgive those who have wronged us and show mercy to them. 

As Catholics, we are all called to love one another. You may think you are because you’re nice to people. Being nice is but an atom in the element of love. To love someone is to sacrifice a bit of ourselves for their good. Like a parent who gives up their own time to spend time with their child, we must sacrifice our time, our talents, and our resources in loving others. When we give of ourselves out of love, especially to those less fortunate than ourselves or to strangers without reward, we are acting in the image of Christ Jesus. 

We’ve passed the halfway mark in Advent and preparations for Christmas will soon heighten to a frenzy of activity. Let us make the time and effort to be a gift to another. Maybe it’s a phone call to someone who may be lonely. Perhaps it’s participating in supporting a food pantry. In whatever way we can, let us  give God a gift of ourselves by mirroring the love and generosity He has shown us in His Son Jesus.  

Unexpected gifts

One type of gift that can be received at Christmas is the unexpected gift. It’s the type of gift that we don’t know we need, but really end up enjoying.

Most gifts are unexpected, unless you specifically instruct  expected givers exactly what to purchase. However, for those that know us well, it goes both ways, as those gifts to us can be a reflection of the giver. My Mom (and perhaps most mothers?) is a person for whom I struggle to find the right, unique gift. The gift I’ve found that suits her needs best is a desk calendar, and each year I create one from my travels throughout the year. Mom knows she’s getting a calendar, she may not know what pictures will be in it, but it’s not a big surprise when she receives it. 

We all have a list of people with whom we expect to exchange Christmas gifts. We may receive a gift from someone outside of that list, but those unexpected gifts are not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the actual gift itself when you open it. The kind that makes you pause when you realize it’s something that you wouldn’t have ever bought for yourself, and you’re not quite sure what to do with it. I’m not talking about ugly sweaters or sports equipment you will never use. Unexpected gifts can be anything: a wearable article, a kitchen gadget, a book to read, a tool for a hobby, or even a knick knack. What makes the unexpected gift special is that it fills a void that we didn’t realize was there. 

Christmas comes every year, yet it can be an unexpected gift. We are all familiar with the Nativity as a story, but have we opened up our hearts to the gift God has given us all — His Son as Savior? A recent Advent reflection reminded me that unless I realize my sinfulness and that I need to be saved, Jesus’ coming becomes just a story. Jesus did come at a particular point in history, not when everything was right in the world, but in the midst of hardship. He came in poverty to share the burdens of life with all. He came not just for the people of that time, or for those who went before them, but for all people and across all time. Jesus came for you and for me, knowing that we are sinners and that we turn away from Him on a regular basis. Yet He does not give up on us. His mercy and forgiveness are unexpected gifts from a God of Love. 

Advent is a time of preparation for receiving the gift of Jesus Christ. One way to prepare is to look at all the gifts God has blessed us with and discover those unexpected gifts among them. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge our weaknesses and ask for the Lord’s help in the sacrament of reconciliation — an unexpected gift of His grace. 

A gift of socks

The news has been reporting it’s important to buy early this year because supply chains have had issues bringing merchandise to restock. Even my Mom informed me she wasn’t buying anything for Christmas since anything she did try to order is not available. There are many different considerations when determining what to purchase as a gift. Given the circumstances, I’m thinking this year may be filled with gifts of practicality. 

I recall as a child that any gift of undergarments and socks didn’t really seem like a gift. Afterall, these were things that I received throughout the year because I needed them. As adults, we often joke when trying to guess what is inside a package — is it socks or an umbrella — even when  the package looks like it would contain neither. Yet wearable items like shirts, sweaters, jackets and hats are every bit as serviceable and can be received with much appreciation; minus any negativity. While I would never think to give undergarments to friends, I have given socks before, not just plain white ones, but ones with unique patterns that made me think of the person I was giving it to. Socks can be a fabulous way to show one’s personality or even bring a bit of cheer with vibrant colors and motifs. I even gifted my niece this year with socks. These, however, were not any that I bought in a store; I handknit them myself.

The gift of socks is a gift of practicality. Who doesn’t wear socks on at least some occasion? Giving the gift of socks says, “I want you to use these.” While there are different sizes in socks, they will mold to a person’s feet, and there is much more forgiveness when it comes to figuring out the size (and there is much comfort in a new pair of socks). But why all this talk about socks? Because sometimes God gives us the gift of socks. God gives us every breath we take, every beat of our heart, and every thought we are able to think. You may respond, “Well that is just what makes us alive, what kind of a gift is that?” That would be God’s version of a gift of socks. He didn’t need to create us, yet He didn’t stop with our creation; He continues to give us everything we need to be alive. We also need to be born into a family, that too, can be another gift of socks. There are many more practical spiritual gifts God gives us that cannot be lost, eaten by the washer/dryer, or worn out from overuse. We use them so much, we don’t even realize they are a gift. Yet if God was to limit us to one pair or take it away entirely, we would very soon realize how precious this gift is to us. 

So as we commence this Advent season, preparing for Christmas, let us think about the gifts we have already received from God. Let us take a deeper look into our everyday lives and appreciate all that He has provided to sustain us. Thank Him too, for all the opportunities He opens to us that allow us to participate in the gifts He gives, both to ourselves as well as to one another. And if you receive the gift of socks this Christmas, smile a heart-filled thank you to the giver and thank God for both the gift and the one who gave them to you. 

Final step: a saint

The final step, and goal for all Catholics, is to be a saint. Some will be declared a saint by the Church, others will remain known to those in heaven, for that’s what being a saint is all about: living in the presence of God in heaven. 

As we close out the final week of the liturgical calendar, the Gospel readings for daily Mass remind us to be vigilant for the end — be that the end of the world or the end of our lives. This reminder harkens to the celebrations that began the month, the feast of All Saints and the memorial of All Souls. While we may be waylaid in purgatory to cleanse us of any residuals of sin and heal us of any scars caused by it, we know that we will make it to heaven. We can help the souls in purgatory now by our prayers and acts of charity. Likewise those in heaven are cheering us on and interceding for us. We look to those named saints as role models for our lives and provide spiritual guidance of how to do God’s will. 

Being declared saints first requires living the missions given by God, putting God first in life and sharing His gifts with others. As Bishop Barron says, “Your life is not about you.” Exit living in the ego and accept the role God gives for participating in His will. Illustrating a connection with God by charity in life, perhaps after passing from this life the cause will be taken up to propose sainthood. After passing through the various steps of Servant of God, Venerable, and Blessed, it is with another miracle attributed to intercession of the candidate that the final review and approval of the pope completes the journey to being canonized as a saint. 

The road to sainthood may be fast, happening in mere decades in earthly time, or can linger across the centuries. Canonized saints included the poor shepherd children of Fatima (canonized in 2017) and the Queen of Scotland (canonized in 1250). From the first martyr, Saint Stephen, whose death is documented into the Acts of the Apostles, to Saint Teresa of Kolkata, who died in 1997 and was canonized 19 years later in 2016, the lives of the saints are documented across the span of Church history. Young, old, rich, poor, laity, and religious, there is a saint for each person to find a kindred spirit. 

While it is good to have a spiritual mentor, let us not forget that God calls us to our own mission in His will. He has put us in this time and place to be His hands and voice. Our goal may be to be a saint in heaven, but let us not seek the glory of being declared a saint, but rather accept God’s purpose for our lives and let His glory shine through all the way to heaven. 

Blessed

On the road to sainthood, the third stage is beatification . This changes the person’s title from Venerable to Blessed.

In order for a person to be beatified, a miracle needs to be attributed to their intercession. This can be misinterpreted as the saint causing the miracle, but closely reading official documents clearly indicates that the miracle is via their intercession. Why the distinction? Because only God can perform a miracle. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a miracle is a scientifically inexplicable occurrence by the grace of God through the intercession of a Venerable or Blessed. Often in recent times, an unexplained healing has occurred to a person having a disease or malady to which there is no treatment. By praying to a singular Venerable and seeking their intercession, when a miracle occurs, it seems likely that the Venerable is in heaven and able to intercede on our behalf. Rigorous investigation is conducted by both medical professionals as well as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. If the investigation proves in favor of the Venerable, the cause is presented to the Pope, who will grant the beatification. A special prayer, Mass, or Divine Office may be authorized by the Pope for the candidate, who is now considered Blessed.

How long does it take to be beatified and made a saint? It depends. In researching those with the title of Blessed, I found Blessed Notker the Stammerer. Notker was born around 840 and died about 912. He was beatified in 1512. It took this Swiss monk 600 years to be beatified. And he has remained at that title for over 500 years. Will he ever achieve the title of saint? Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask. Does it really matter if he’s declared a saint here on earth? If he is in heaven, he is with God and he is a saint. Our declaration of him as such means little to him now. In a way, his longevity as a Blessed is an excellent opportunity to look at the how’s and the why’s of sainthood and the process involved in declaring a person a saint. The Church put this process together to avoid declarations of saints by popular sentiment. The Church requires the proof of a miracle so that when we look to a person as a role model of faith, we can be assured of God’s approval. After all, it is God who performs the miracle. 

Yet the process of beatification can also occur quite quickly. Just last October 2020, Carlo Acutis was beatified. This 15-year-old from Italy died in 2006 of leukemia, but left a legacy of devotion to the Eucharist. Carlo is best known for documenting Eucharistic miracles around the world and cataloguing them onto a website, miracolieucaristici.org. The miracle attributed to Carlo was of a young Brazilian boy with a serious birth defect. The boy and his mother attended a prayer service the parish priest organized to encourage his congregation to seek Carlo’s intercession for whatever healing was needed.  The boy was cured immediately after the prayer service and leaves little doubt as to whom to attribute the healing intercession

The road to saint illustrates that the candidates, whether they are Servants of God, Venerables, or Blesseds, seek God’s will in all things. They can only intercede for us; God is the true miracle worker. Their elevation to Blessed is not a glory to them, but rather a glory to God. We thank the Lord for each and every miracle.