Gentleness of God

During Adoration last week, I was once again struck at how simple, how small the consecrated host is, and yet it contains the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. I then started to think about each sacrament and how gentle God is with us.

Depending on the parish, baptism can either be full immersion into water, or it can be a little trickle over the forehead. Oil is used in baptism, confirmation, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick; a little dab is applied in the shape of a cross. Matrimony includes the exchange of rings. The Eucharist is both bread and wine consecrated and a little of each is typically shared with the congregation at the Mass. Each of these sacraments conveys through a tactile method our encounter with God. These same items are used commonly in our everyday life. They don’t overwhelm us and they don’t threaten us by being strange to our way of life. 

God is awesome in His creation. Volcanoes spew boulders and molten rocks high into the atmosphere. Earthquakes tear large gaps into the crust of the earth. Tsunamis drive large amounts of the ocean far inland. Tornadoes destroy or hurl anything in their path miles away. Snow falling in feet can almost bury a town. A deluge of rain in inches causes streams and rivers to burst forth from their banks. We experience the massive impact that nature has on our world, and yet God does not ask us for extremes. God wants to be in a loving relationship with us. His touch is soft and gentle, using commonplace materials as signs of His grace. 

I think we are often like Naaman the leper from Samaria. (2 Kings 5) Naaman traveled to Israel and asked the prophet Elisha to cure him. Elisha told Naaman to plunge seven times into the Jordan river. While it doesn’t say it in the Bible, you can almost hear Naaman’s angry response of “That’s it? I traveled all this way just to jump in some water a few times?!” As his servants pointed out, if Elisha had given him an extraordinary action, Naaman would have no issue carrying out the prescription to cure him. How often do we want or expect God to interact with us in some monumental way? Would we really want His presence announced by molten lava or the ground splitting in two, rather than receiving His Body veiled in a piece of bread?  

A shadow of God’s glory is always on display in the creation and nature around us. If we saw God in His full glory, we would have no choice but to obey Him. But God wants us to freely choose Him. He veils Himself so that we can choose to seek Him out and pursue a relationship with Him. And if this isn’t enough, He sent Jesus to become one of us, live among us, and die for all the sins we have and will commit. Through the sacraments we are reminded of our journey with and to Him. 

I am humbled by the gentleness of God. 

Knowing Jesus now

If a recent Gospel reading from Matthew (12:1-8) is any indication, the Pharisees were fascinated by Jesus. So much was their interest, they watched and commented as Jesus and his disciples walked through a grain field on the Sabbath. 

I’m curious to know where that field was located. I’ve seen fields like it usually out in rural places. Why were the Pharisees in the vicinity so that they could see the disciples picking the heads of grain and eating it? It seems the Pharisees were very attentive to Jesus — following Him to remote places, yet their perception of Him remained unchanged. They, who have studied the Scriptures that heralded Jesus’ coming, didn’t even recognize Jesus in their midst. Perhaps their interest in Him was actually a sort of acknowledgement of His divinity from deep within their hearts, but their intellects would not let their minds be open to accept Him. Yet how many of us would be able to recognize Jesus in our presence today? 

When I see how much the Pharisees went against Jesus, I understand how valuable it is to cultivate a relationship with Him by accepting his life and his divinity now. How can I enjoy heaven if I have no idea who God is? Heaven is not about doing all of our favorite things, but rather spending time with and in Love, personified by God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We need to start seeking Jesus now. We need to be open in mind and heart to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. 

One way to do so is to practice looking for Jesus in others. That means we treat each person as if they represent Jesus. Not only will others receive better interactions from us, but we, in turn, show them Jesus by our actions imitating Him. If we continue to seek Jesus in every person we meet, we will be able to see and know Him, not just in this life, but also when we pass from it. This is how death loses its sting, since we won’t be going into the unknown; our friend Jesus will be waiting for us. We will be able to see Him as He truly is, not just in the bits and pieces from the encounters we have with others, but wholly and completely. When we leave this world, we should be excited to see Jesus and for Him to welcome us home.  

Knowing Jesus now, is not a matter of intellect, but of action. Yes, we do need to read Scripture, but it does not end there. Jesus came to call us into His family, into a relationship with Him and each other. If you count up all the billions of people on this planet today, each made in the image and likeness of God, and add all the people who have come before us as well as those who will come after us, that’s a mind-boggling amount of facets that reflect a little piece of Jesus. And He is more than the sum of each person, infinity may not be long enough to really know Him. However, it’s never too early or too late to start a relationship with Jesus. 

“Behold, now is a very acceptable time.“

2 Cor 6:2

A different way

If the word ‘history’ is mentioned, many will roll their eyes and immediately think whatever comes next will be a boring commentation with a bunch of dates thrown in which confuse the listeners. Yet in  researching Church history for an RCIA presentation, I found myself wishing there was a way I could better understand and communicate the rich, diverse, volatile, and holy activities woven throughout the last two thousand years. 

Some may compare the Church to an old, lumbering lady — slow to change and only when it is absolutely necessary. But the Church is not about what each individual thinks and feels, rather it is concerned about bringing about the love and mercy of Christ to each person so they can have an intimate relationship with God. From its infancy, the Church has had to address challenges and misconceptions; just peruse the Acts of the Apostles and the various letters within the New Testament. Each Sunday, and particularly in the Easter season, within the liturgy as portions of these Scriptures are read, we realize that some of the same struggles in the early Church continue today. While the circumstances may be different, as well as the subject matter, the scenarios can be way too familiar to our day. It’s one of the reasons why these letters are so important: we can see ourselves in history (which has already occurred) and learn from it instead of being destined to repeat it.

Jesus’ message was radical and His actions were scandalous to the Jews of His time. He talked to a Samaritan woman (a double no-no). He touched lepers (ritually unclean) to heal them. He charged His followers to eat His flesh and drink His blood (the Eucharist) in order to have eternal life, and He willingly gave up His life by dying on a cross and being buried only to rise on the third day from the dead. Any one of these could send a potential disciple running in the opposite direction.

With persecutions, a common practice in the first 300 years of the Church, it’s quite amazing how it continued to grow. Start sprinkling in various heresies that weakened beliefs along with political aspirations that infiltrated the hierarchy at times and miraculous is the only way to describe the  Church’s survival over those years. But the core mission of the Church influenced many men and women throughout the ages to help wrangle it back to its foundation and purpose. These saints helped shape the way the Church proclaimed the Good News.

St. Francis of Assisi may be remembered as the saint who talked to animals and is credited for bringing the crèche to the Christmas decor, yet his response to Jesus was a radical devotion  of himself to God. This saint of the 12th and 13th centuries gave up all wealth to minister to the poor and live among them. Thousands of men followed his example, even down to this very day. In our modern times: Saint Teresa of Kolkata, fondly remembered as Mother Teresa, served the poorest of the poor in India, ministering to them personally. The Missionaries of Charities, founded by Mother Teresa, includes branches of active and contemplative sisters and brothers as well as priests in countries all over the globe. 

Under the guidance and influence of the Holy Spirit, the Church has taken the time to reflect and refocus the lens of perception on its mission and purpose throughout the changing times and societies. It has seen the rise and fall of empires, political powers, and revolutions. It’s call is the same across the ages: The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.

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

Best wine

I was reminded recently of Jesus’ first miracle which took place at the Wedding Feast of Cana and found in John’s Gospel (2:1-11). I love the detail about how the head waiter comments to the groom about saving the best wine until after the guests had already been drinking an inferior one. When I look at that statement with a logical mind, I think, “Of course, it was water turned into wine by Jesus. He’s not going to make something inferior.” However, I think there is a deeper meaning to the wine being of better quality. Jesus as the bridegroom of the Church has been taught throughout Church history and the marriage of heaven and earth is through the salvation efforts of Jesus. 

The wine at the Wedding Feast of Cana can be viewed as a symbol of our life, and when we complete our life on earth, the life that comes next is far superior. Jesus did remark to His mother that His time had not yet come to perform miracles, yet he proceeded in doing so. Was it because His mother was insistent, to the point of directing the wait staff to follow the directions Jesus gave them? Or was it because He could use the opportunity to teach people that while they may enjoy life now, a far better life is yet to come? 

I do enjoy a glass of wine and I like sampling them at wine tastings. There is always an order: light white wines first, then the heavy reds, and sometimes finishing up with the sweet dessert wines. If you try sampling them out of order, it can be hard to cleanse your palate enough to taste something that is more delicate in flavor and you can’t appreciate it as much. It doesn’t indicate they are not good wines, just that the flavor is affected by what we have consumed prior to it. I can see how heaven would be a wine that is light and delicate, yet full of fruit flavor. We may think our life on earth is a glass of bubbling champagne, or maybe a refreshing blush wine. We may enjoy it while we are living our earthly life, or maybe the bubbles are too much for our taste. Whatever the situation is, the wine of heaven will be suited to our taste, and the best we have ever had.

Wine is composed, on average, of over 80% water. While it is still miraculous that Jesus turned the other amount into the elements that make up wine, He still started with the basis of water and enhanced it. That is one of the hallmarks of being exposed to Christ, you don’t remain the same person you were before encountering Him. Being God, Jesus could have turned anything:  lava or wood or some other object, into wine. Yet, He chose to turn water into wine. Something so similar in composition yet drastically different. 

Our lives are changed when Jesus enters our lives. For those who welcome Christ into their lives and seek a relationship with Him, He promises life eternal far superior than we can ever imagine or taste. Cheers!

Rules shape the community

We may live in the land of liberty, but that does not mean we are free to do whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it. There are rules we refer to as laws that govern how we are to live within our geographical area. There are laws at the national level, but also at the state, county, and city levels. These rules were drafted to maintain order and fairness within our society. However, these are not the only mandates that shape interactions in our daily lives.

My previous company had required its employees to review the policies through a computer-based learning course each year. During the training, several scenarios were presented as a what-would-you-do-in-this-situation, allowing employees to think about words and actions that might be used. The training also underlined that since every offensive scenario cannot be presented, it was important to live in the “spirit” of the policy. I remember as I took the course thinking that most of the training moments would be covered under the 10 Commandments. By living my faith, I would also be living within the guidelines of the company’s policies. It struck me as odd that a company would need to teach these basic rules. However, as many people don’t participate in an organized religion that would teach these basics, it’s up to other communal organizations to identify what they value most to unite the people under a general structure of mutual respect.

During the first week at my new company, I took their training courses. Here again, I’ve found that if I live my faith, my words and actions will comply with the identified framework. The net result of both companies’ policies may be the same (don’t steal, report illegal activity, treat people well, etc.), but the actual wording of each policy conveys a vastly different approach that might shape those who are ruled by it. The previous company took a legal approach in their policies and in their training. It was pointed out that even if something wasn’t specifically mentioned as being wrong, the company could evaluate a given situation to determine that the rules had been broken. In my new company, the guidelines are more casual in their wording and convey a sense of guidance rather than discipline for errant behavior. As a result, the rules are often quoted and used as reasonings for a particular decision. Each month the company leadership highlights a particular rule, diving deeper into what it means to live that rule and examples of the rule in use that provided for a greater good. 

I would guess that many Catholics use the 10 Commandments, expressed as they are in  more of a legal don’t do list, in preparation for confession. I’m not sure they think much more of them. However, the very first Psalm exhorts us to delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night (Psalm 1:2). While we can certainly do this with the 10 Commandments, I think the beatitudes that Jesus taught would align more with the attitude my new company has for its rules. We can’t go wrong choosing to be merciful towards others or bringing peace to an uncomfortable situation, as Jesus says those who live this way will be blessed. 

Rules do, indeed, shape our community — from where we live, to how we work, and every aspect of our lives. The words used to craft the framework also illustrate how they will be utilized: either as a hammer to punish when one strays, or as a guiding beacon to go beyond the minimum required, by reason and choice, to live the guidance the rules provide.

Birthday gifts

Usually when we talk about a birthday in regards to the Catholic faith, everyone immediately thinks of Christmas and the birth of Jesus. However, there is another birthday we celebrate at Pentecost: the birthday of our Church.

There was no cake or ice cream at the first Pentecost, and no need for candles for the flames of  fire of the Spirit that we read about. However, there was no shortage of gifts bestowed on the Apostles by the Holy Spirit. After the strong, driving wind and the tongues of fire appeared above the heads of those present in the upper room, evidence of what was received was on full display. Peter spoke to the crowd with fortitude, knowledge, and counsel, which encouraged those listening to be baptized. Strengthened by the gifts, the Apostles began to preach, traveling to places further than they had ever been before; places unknown and unfamiliar to them.

In this age, Pentecost seems like just another Sunday. All the treats and decorations from Easter 50 days ago are all consumed and put away, like the season is over. But from a liturgical standpoint, the last hurrah culminates with this amazing feast. If it had not happened, Christianity may have become a minor religion or a temporary Jewish cult. While we don’t seem to celebrate adequately God’s continued generosity, that doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit has stopped pouring out His gifts on us. Bishop Robert Barron, Father Casey Cole, Dr. Scott Hahn, and Matthew Kelly are just a few of the popular evangelists of our time. Yet the Church didn’t spread to only those evangelized by the apostles personally  Rather all the early Christians through word and deed participated in spreading the faith. 

What do you do with a birthday gift? Politely say ‘thank you’ to the giver and bury it in a closet, or seek to return it for something else you prefer? It can seem like some Catholics try to do that  with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, the best presents are those that we use and use often. The Spirit’s gifts are of no benefit if only hidden away. He gives us charisms to be used: knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and counsel are not static gifts, but rather dynamic actions that must be cultivated and practiced. If we want knowledge, we need to seek it out. We cannot give good counsel until we gain understanding by practicing our beliefs in a concrete manner, not just intellectually.  And we don’t know fortitude unless we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and put into challenging situations, especially ones where we have to defend our faith. It may be uncomfortable, yet the apostles literally went out of their comfort zone to spread the Gospel, not by themselves, but with the grace and strength provided to them by the Holy Spirit. In all that we seek, say, and act, if we fully embrace the gifts of the Spirit, it is not our doing, but Jesus working within us.

We are the Church and it is our birthday that we celebrate — one that links us from the very beginning, through all the previous ages and into the future. Wear something red in honor of  Church this weekend as a reminder of the fire of that first Pentecost and your own Confirmation. Have some cake to celebrate and use the gifts the Holy Spirit has given you! Unlike a regular birthday gift, you can never exhaust or wear out the gifts from the Spirit; He is the giver that keeps on giving! 

Need versus want

Do you need God? Or do you want God? Does it matter? Yes! We tend to use these words interchangeably, but I think wanting God is subtly better to needing Him. 

A recruiter recently reached out to me and over the course of several rounds of interviews they indicated they wanted me. It was a rather intoxicating feeling to be wanted. Not just that my skill set matched what they were looking for, as the job I initially interviewed for  was not the best fit for me. Because of my eclectic career path, I could fit in several different groups at the company, and they wanted to find where I would fit best before extending me an offer. We discussed several potential positions before an offer was made. Being wanted has fueled my desire to join the company and motivates me to stretch myself to do more than my very best.  

I know I need God and He knows that I need Him. While I do seek out a relationship with Him, needing God in my life does not require much effort. If I engage in a relationship with God only when I need Him, I may spend more time ignoring Him than seeking Him out. Having a relationship solely based on need may also make me resentful when I have to reach out to Him for help. While a need-based relationship may be more robust than that; however it can also promote stagnation, limiting us to just what is comfortable.

To have a relationship with God built on want, we must pray for that: God, I want to want you. I want the desire to want to do God’s will. I want to see what God wants in the circumstances of my daily life.” To want God in a relationship is to actively look for Him in every situation we experience. Jesus said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [our daily needs] shall be yours as well.” (Matt 6:33) Wanting God is to seek Him above any of our other desires. By filling up with God, we can better serve Him in our daily decisions and tasks as well as in the monumental life choices like accepting a new job or moving to a different state. Wanting God allows us to look for His blessings the way He wants to provide them, rather than having a narrow vision that reflects our own expectations.  

Wanting God is a choice each of us has to make for ourselves. It’s a lot easier to stay in a relationship of need with God, but if we seek out a relationship built on our want of God, His generosity will far surpass our needs.

Hungry for the Lord

Vera has not met a string she has not found tasty. This includes my scapular. During a recent cuddle time, as she tried for the countless time to yank the thread around my neck into her mouth, I told her that she couldn’t eat Jesus! She gives a whole new meaning to, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:9)

It’s one thing for her to spy the scapular during the summer, when the cut of shirts are more open. In the winter, I thought it wouldn’t be so bad. However, now that she knows it’s there, she looks for it, trying to move my shirt out of the way if she doesn’t see it. While it can get tiresome trying to pet her and at the same time discourage her from eating it, I have to give her credit for her persistence. In this simple, repetitive action, I can complain about what she is doing or I can dive deeper. She may think the string around my neck is tasty, but do I think the same of God? Am I as persistent in searching for Him as Vera is for my scapular? While even the Psalm instructs us to taste the Lord, is that meant to be the Eucharist host, or something more? 

Hunger is a basic response of the body, yet it is used to describe our yearning for more than just food. We can be hungry for love, power, fame, accomplishment, or almost anything. To describe the need for God as being a hunger is very appropriate, as it expresses our core desire for Him. Tasting what we are hungry for is our interaction with what we desire. Tasting is also indicative of having a small amount. We don’t need much to realize how good God is to us. Yet that little experience can change our whole lives. 

I think in order to taste the goodness of the Lord is to allow Him into our life without constraints. We need to let Him be our God: to listen to Him, to let Him lead us, and to trust Him with our whole lives. This is difficult because we have become accustomed to “junk food,” and we crave that over what God provides. But God is always walking with us, waiting for us to take a bite of what He offers, to turn our midnight cravings into conversations with Him, and to balance our diet with a healthy serving of a relationship that only He can satisfy. 

Got peace?

Peace be with you. What does peace mean to you: a silent place, a sense of inner tranquility, or perhaps a state devoid of conflict? All of the above? 

In this era of instant everything, noise seems to be all around us, as if we are burying ourselves in it. At the grocery store, one of the customers seemed to be dancing as he was picking out his produce. I realized a few minutes later that he was listening to music from his phone via earbuds, so he really was swaying with the music! From music and audio books, podcasts and conversations, to notifications and reminders, our mobile phones have become one of our main sources of noise in our lives. Not that any of the functions of the phone are a bad thing in and of themselves. However, we often let a noise maker, like technology, dictate our lives; we live in response to it. The question is, would we want to spend any time without our noisy distractions? 

Our brains work overtime trying to filter the noise we take in from the world around us. Our emotions can be a roller coaster ride as we react to not only what we hear, but also to the thoughts and feelings that can be triggered as a result. Each of us has our own unique triggers that cause disturbances within us. In some sense, that’s all part of the human experience. Similar to the noise level around us, if we live in constant reaction to fear, anxieties, and judgements, our lives become one of avoidance and isolation. 

While we say we want to live in harmony, our first instinct is to assess the world around us. We pass judgement with every interaction and observation. This is mine and that is yours: we divide the world up and take ownership. While we may talk about treating everyone  equally, do we really want to have more than others, get treated better or have more power and influence than others?  

In His Last Supper discourse, Jesus tells the Apostles that he leaves them His peace, one which is different from the world. (John 14:27). He uses a greeting of peace when He appears to them after the resurrection. This is a reminder for them, that they can put their trust in Him and all of His teachings. It’s also a reminder for us during the Mass, at the beginning as well as at the sign of peace after we pray the Our Father together. God’s peace is available to us; however, we need to trust in Him. Like the early Christians, we need to live, not for ourselves and our benefit, but rather for the benefit of others. What can we share, how can we help — these spiritual and physical (corporal) works of mercy are actions that bring the peace of Christ into this world. 

Peace is not something we obtain and keep for ourselves. It is the loving response to others; actions performed not for our benefit, but wholly for the betterment of the world in which we live. It is the faith-filled trust that God will be with us always, no matter what may happen. “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid,” Jesus told His Apostles. Yet it was only after the resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit that they were sufficiently emboldened to share and teach the peace they received from Jesus. Let us confidently ask Jesus during this Easter season to show us how to bring His peace into our lives so that we can share it in our little corner of the world. 

No mistake

Jesus died. He’d been weakened by the abuse He suffered from the guards of the chief priests and the scourging ordered by Pilate. The spear in His side after being crucified was the confirmation that all life had drained from His body. Jesus wanted us all to know that He died, physically and truly, without any doubt.

Since Jesus was divine, He could have been resurrected at any point in time after His death. But He chose to be resurrected on the third day. While the timeframe was in accordance with Scripture, I’m sure if He wanted to choose differently, the Scriptures would have reflected it. The time Jesus spent in the tomb was specific and purposeful. He knew His burial would be rushed because of the solemn Sabbath. He also knew that the women who accompanied Him would want to make sure He had the proper anointing as soon as the Sabbath was complete. They would be recorded as the first to find the empty tomb, a great blessing for their support even if they did not understand what was happening at first. Since He did not intend to stay buried, He rose before they got to the tomb.

Jesus chose an execution for His death, one that would be witnessed not just within His own band of followers or within His faith community of the Jews, but by the world as it was known at that time — a Roman execution that was public for all to see and recorded by the ruling government. Jesus died on the cross. His body was lifeless. He was as dead as dead could be, and there was no mistaking what happened.

Bishop Robert Barron often points out that Jesus’ death was God going to the limits of what we would consider “God forsakenness,” the very state that our mortal selves fear the most. Jesus had to die in order to be resurrected, but He stayed in the state of death so that there would be no doubt, no mistaking of what had happened. Would it have been easier on His disciples if He resurrected sooner, during the Sabbath? Perhaps. Would the Pharisees have had a change of heart if they saw Him resurrected from the cross? Maybe. 

Jesus’ disciples knew He had the power to raise the dead: the little girl, the son of the widow, and His friend Lazarus, were all blessed with resurrected life that was witnessed by at least the core group of His chosen followers. They knew He had the power to heal mind, body, and soul and conveyed numerous examples in the Gospels. Yet, even though He spoke to them about what was going to happen, they could not make sense of the event, since it was beyond their comprehension. It was one thing for Jesus to heal or raise another person from the dead; it was a different matter for Him to be the one raised from a certified state of death, one that all Jerusalem and its visitors knew about. The Gospels readings for this first week of Easter continue to reiterate the empty tomb is proof of Jesus’ resurrection to the astonishment of all who knew Him. 

Perhaps in our modern era of medical knowledge, if it had happened any other way, it may have been harder for us to believe Jesus is the Son of God, who came to save us from the power of death by conquering it. Yes, Jesus did die. I continue to be sorry for my participation that required His death: the sins and the wrong choices I continue to make. However, He has transformed death beyond comprehension, and so He can do that with me as well. It is the bitterness of death that makes the resurrection so sweet, refreshing, and joy-filled. I do not linger in it any longer than Jesus chose to linger in the tomb. I marvel along with the women and the disciples at the power of God’s love. It is a mystery. It is incomprehensible. And there is no mistaking that.