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. 

To fear or not to fear

At this time of the year, fear seems to be something everyone is excited about. However, the fear of being afraid and scared with Halloween horror festivities is what people are looking for nowadays, not fear of the Lord.

In reviewing the definition for the word fear, there are two very opposite meanings. One is to be aware or anticipate danger. This definition fits the etymology of the word, as its origins seem to trace back through Old Saxon for “lurking danger,” Old Norse for “evil, mischief, plague,” and possibly sharing a verbal based from Indo-European of per, meaning “test or risk” (which is from where the word peril comes). None of these would fit the second meaning which is a feeling of respect and wonder for something powerful. “Fear of the Lord” falls into the second definition.

It seems strange to associate a word that has strong negative connotations with God, yet Fear of the Lord is not just an idea thrown about in religious circles, but is a gift of the Holy Spirit. In researching where in the Bible Jesus says not to be afraid, I found not just a few instances, but a whole webpage with 365 citations within both the Old and New Testaments that express that sentiment! If the Bible has a verse for everyday that tells us not to fear, why does the Holy Spirit give us the gift of fear? 

Perhaps it’s best to dive even deeper into word meanings, specifically that of the word danger. One of the meanings is “exposure or liability to injury, pain, harm, or loss.” If we focus on the word loss, we now get closer to what Fear of the Lord really means. This gift serves as a warning system to realize how precious our relationship with God is and to be concerned to lose it through sin. Through this realization, we are called to be sorrowful for our sins, seeking to turn back to God to ask for his forgiveness and repair the damage that our sins cause. It also prompts us to contemplate God’s love for us. He is constantly seeking us out and bringing us closer to Him. If we receive this gift with an open heart we will be able, through God’s grace, to cultivate the virtue of humility. As we seek to embrace the gift, we also look to share it with others and it motivates us to bring others to a relationship with God. 

Fear of the Lord is also counter-cultural in our time. It calls us to recognize the supreme goodness of God and all of the gifts He gives us. This is in contrast to what many advertisements would sell us in doing whatever we please. When we place God at the center of our life, living in fear and humility, we’re no longer obsessed with trying to obtain feelings and things that society tells us we need. Our culture also likes to emphasize the negative aspects of fearing God from a justice and punishment standpoint. Yet we are the ones who seem to be keeping “score” of our own detriment. Yes, we need to be sorrowful, repent of our sins, and lean into God’s grace to avoid sinning again. We need to learn from our mistakes but not dwell in them. If God can forgive us, we need to forgive ourselves as well.

When we are receptive to the Holy Spirit’s gift of Fear of the Lord, all other fears within our culture and society fade from our focus. “The fear of the Lord is like a garden of blessing, and covers a man better than any glory.” (Sirach 40:27) Not just in this season of Halloween, but everyday, let us open our hearts to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, unwrapping them thoroughly and putting them to good use, most especially the Fear of the Lord gift.

Life pursuits

I think most Americans are familiar with the line from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But as Catholics there is one pursuit that ranks above these, the pursuit of holiness.

When we think of a holy person, we immediately think of the saints. But they lived  life on earth just as we do, facing all the temptations that we face. Sometimes they succeeded in the battle against sin and sometimes not. Only two people lived without sin: Jesus and His Mother Mary. There may be a priest or religious that we may consider as holy, chalking it up to their vocation. But holiness is not limited to those professing religious vows. All baptized Christians are called to a holy way of life that will result in eternal happiness with God, and thus also becoming a saint. So what does it mean to be holy?

In the Old Testament, to be holy was to be set apart from the everyday, the ordinary, and to be dedicated to the service of God. God is what made things holy, His blessing and His grace. Israel, as a nation, was to be holy — set apart from the rest of the nations and called to live according to God’s commands. Israel, however, struggled in this endeavor. They sought a king to rule them, just like the other nations around them. Interaction and intermarriage with those nations exposed them to other religions. They soon began to practice them and failed to keep God’s commands. 

How can following God’s commands make us holy? That’s not quite the right question to ask.  We cannot make ourselves holy by what we do, but instead we need to participate and respond to God. We need to seek a relationship with God. If we ask how we can seek this, the answer is by following the Commandments, especially the first three.

First, in order to seek God, we need to put Him first in our daily lives. We need to reach out through prayer, being open to His response. While we may pray through words and speech (or thought), God can answer in a myriad of ways: in another’s response to us, in coincidence, in a surprise or in an unexpected event or encounter, etc. Secondly, we need to be mindful of our speech. What we say indicates our attitudes towards that of which we are speaking. If we deny God’s ability to help us, He will respect just that, even if deep down we wish that He would. If we throw around God’s name, or even the name of Jesus Christ, as if it is like any other word, we abuse any relationship we have with Him. Thirdly, we are called to take time weekly to dive deeper into our relationship with God, dedicating time spent with Him in the Mass as well as other spiritual practices. Lastly, we need to follow all other Commandments and Beatitudes, as a relationship with God does not mean excluding or ignoring everyone and everything that bears the signature of the Creator. 

If we want happiness in our lives, if we want to live free, then we need to pursue holiness first throughout our life on earth. The result will be to have the best life there is: eternal life spent in the presence of God.

Prayer community

To pray a Catholic prayer is to pray in community with the whole Church: past, present and future. If we mean what we say and say what we mean, we truly are a Catholic — that is universal — Church.

I pray it when I first wake up in the morning. I pray it during morning and evening prayers as I follow them with the Magnificat. I pray it during the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. The Our Father is a prayer given to us by Jesus Himself. Yet, as a single person praying all by my lonesome (except for my cat Vera), I continue to start the prayer with Our. I don’t start it as My Father, but Our Father, indicating more than just me. Why is it so important that we call God as Our Father, especially if we want to have a personal relationship with Him? But watch any two-year-old with a toy they claim as “mine” and it makes perfect sense for the Church to continually remind us that we are a family of God. I may be saying the Our Father in the comfort of my home, but someone else could be walking to work and saying it at the same time that I am. Or a Mass on the other side of the world may be reciting the same lines that I am at the same time I do. It’s rather amazing to think we join others across the globe as we all pray the same prayer, even if it’s in a different language.

While the Our Father may be the most obvious of Catholic prayers, it was the Grace before meals that really got me started thinking about the language used in them. “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” I say this prayer before each meal, and I started to notice all the plural references. I tried changing it up so that it used singular language, but I would inevitably leave one word as plural, usually the “our”. For this prayer, I thought about using the excuse that I was praying on Vera’s behalf as well, but she usually eats before I do and she only gets morning and evening meals. So who are the “us” we are asking to be blessed and who is it that is receiving the gifts of nourishment? It was then I realized that the most basic of prayers had Our as the first word. Even in the Hail Mary, we ask her to “pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.”  

We could be exclusive and say we are only praying using pluralistic language on behalf of other Catholics, but I think it goes beyond who we know, beyond our denomination as Roman Catholics, and even beyond Christianity itself. While we may be joining other like-minded individuals even if we are unaware they are praying the same way, our pluralistic language is inclusive to all God’s children, regardless of creed, perhaps even beyond the boundaries of time and space. Likewise, any prayers said by those who came before us, along with those that will be said in the future include a plea to God on our behalf. God, who is beyond time and space, gathers all our prayers together. In His Love, He unites us and our prayers. Those who wish for singularity, wish separation from the prayer community and run the risk of imitating Satan, the one who scatters. 

Through prayer, we are never alone before God. Let us mean the words we proclaim to include all of God’s children, drawing strength in numbers from those praying along with us. 

Beautiful Rosary

While the Rosary is a beautiful prayer and a powerful weapon against sin, it can also be quite intimidating to those who haven’t experienced it.

If you were asked to say the Apostles Creed, while it is lengthy, it is doable. How about adding six Glory Be prayers? They are so quick, you could offer to say a dozen! If six Our Father prayers were added to the seven prayers, that still doesn’t seem like that many prayers to say. Now add 53 Hail Mary prayers plus the Hail, Holy Queen prayer and beads of anxious sweat may start forming on your brow. Just like someone who wants to start running or exercising needs to build up endurance, to pray a Rosary you need to learn how to meditate and keep a focused concentration. 

One way to start saying the Rosary slowly is to start off with the beginning prayers: the Apostles Creed, the Our Father, a Hail Mary for each of the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and finish with a Glory Be. Once you get that pattern down, then add one decade which consists of an Our Father, ten Hail Mary prayers, and a Glory Be. One of the benefits of saying the Rosary is learning to meditate. This is the time to start practicing meditation by selecting one of the mysteries to be mindful of as you are praying the decade. The Rosary has four sets of five mysteries to contemplate. The Joyful mysteries reflect on the incarnation and childhood of Jesus. The Luminous mysteries are a journey through Jesus’ ministry. The Sorrowful mysteries  focus on the Passion and death of Jesus; while the Glorious cover lives of Jesus and Mary starting with His resurrection. By practicing just one mystery at first, you can better train yourself to notice when your mind wanders away from the mystery you are praying.

While each day of the week does have a mystery assigned to it, you are not required to limit yourself to only praying those mysteries, regardless of whether you’re praying just a decade or the whole Rosary. There are some people that say all four sets of mysteries every day; that’s over 200 Hail Mary prayers plus four times all the other prayers! Perhaps that’s a challenge you would like to work up to committing yourself to praying. Or you may find it totally overwhelming to faithfully pray even a decade in a day. No matter where you fall in the spectrum, you can benefit from the prayer. 

The Rosary is Mary’s gift to us to walk with her in getting to know her Son, Jesus. This is the way Mary leads us to Him, by slowly teaching us to focus on all He has done for us. Perhaps you used to say the Rosary daily but it has been replaced with Scripture reading, and that’s okay. The Rosary can be a journey leading us in and through Scripture. If we can only commit our time to one thing, it’s okay to pick something other than the Rosary, provided that you are deepening your relationship with Jesus. The beads of the Rosary can also be used for praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet as well.

The month of October is dedicated to the Holy Rosary, so if you haven’t tried praying this way, I encourage you to begin, no matter how small, while meditating on one of the mysteries. There are plenty of references online and apps available for your smartphone or tablet to help get you going. And if it’s been awhile since you have regularly prayed the Rosary, perhaps make a special effort this month to reconnect with this powerful tool of prayer.  

Deposit of faith

The end of Matthew’s Gospel could be used as the statement to sum up the Catholic Church: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

The words recorded by Matthew were received by the Apostles. After being filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the emboldened disciples not only preached, but also most gave their lives for the faith. The direction is not just to the Jewish people, but all people. The call for baptism is a visible sign of the person’s change towards a life in relationship with Jesus. The baptized now become part of the community with the Divine. The teachings are more than the Mosaic Law followed by the Jews, but a law taken to a higher level, a law of being: the Beatitudes. Jesus promises His presence will remain, not just in the memory of the Apostles, but alive in the community — through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit leading the Church. 

I’ve heard it on more than one occasion the suggestion that the Catholic Church is an old fuddy-duddy institution and needs to get with the times. The wheels of change seem to move too slowly in the Catholic Church. Yet the whole point of the Church is to preserve what Jesus taught and to continue teaching in each generation. Upon the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II says, “Guarding the deposit of faith is the mission which the Lord entrusted to His Church, and which she fulfills in every age.” The revised Catechism is rich and deep, and is a product of the inspiration wrought from the Second Vatican Council. I love the words Pope John Paul II uses in describing it. “The principal task entrusted to the Council by Pope John XXIII was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will. For this reason the Council was not first of all to condemn the errors of the time, but above all to strive calmly to show the strength and beauty of the doctrine of the faith.” (emphasis added)

While some may think reading the Catechism is a great way to fall asleep, that can be said of any textbook someone tries to read for entertainment. The Catechism is not a story, rather it contains an in-depth plunge into each line of the creed, each of the sacraments, the necessities of living a moral life, the ten Commandments, as well as an entire section dedicated to prayer. This amazing tool can inspire the faithful and help guide and clarify when questions arise. It illustrates why we can’t ask the Church to change based on what our secular culture wants. 

In each generation the practices of the Church look a bit different, especially when compared to the societal ways of each time. I think it can be hard in our modern standards to realize just how rebellious Jesus was. No man would even talk to a woman who was not in his family, yet Jesus spoke to many, healing them too. While charity does have its roots in the Jewish faith, the Christian tradition took it to new levels. Today, it is so commonplace, it has become ordinary —  part of the fabric of what it means to be human. It is upon us Catholics to continue, as members of the Church, making disciples of all nations, by our being. As we observe the commandments of Jesus, we continue weaving the fabric of the Divine into our world.  

The faith is a true treasure, and the Church not only guards it against the cultural weaknesses in each era, but celebrates and brings to life all those who seek its wealth. I’m looking forward to seeing what the Holy Spirit will inspire next!

Routine interruption

My routine is about to be interrupted. In some ways it already has. While routine is good, perhaps a little shake up now and then is good for getting a different perspective. 

I’m in the midst of a bathroom renovation. While there has been some preparation work completed in the main bathroom, most of the actual work is waiting to be added to the schedule. My half bath has been halfway completed, as I’ll need to use that while the main bath is being done. As much as I’m looking forward to a brand new bathroom, I’m not exactly thrilled at the prospect of roughing it for a week or two. As I was packing up all the non-essentials to get ready for the work, I did need to take out only what I absolutely needed. While I don’t use bandages every day, do I really want to pack them away? What if I need them? The same goes for the pain reliever in the event I have a headache, which thankfully doesn’t happen often. If my chances for these happenings were the same as me winning the lottery, I could pack them with every bit of confidence. Yet I agonized over the decisions. 

What has been completed so far in the project is making me very excited for the final finished product. I’m looking to enjoy many years and decades from this investment; but it made me wonder…do we look at our spiritual lives in the same sense? Are we investing in our relationship with God so that we can be excited about heaven and look forward to spending eternity with Him? Perhaps we need a little interruption to our spiritual routine, one that is an investment that we seek out, rather than the shake up caused by a pandemic. Do we take inventory of our daily practices to determine if they are merely routine habits or vital lifelines in our relationship with God? One of the blessings of the Catholic Church is the wellspring of ways to connect with God. From the Rosary to the Divine Mercy Chaplet to the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, I don’t think 24 hours is enough time to practice all the prayers and novenas in existence. Yet choosing one over another can make one feel a bit guilty for making that choice.

Outside of Mass and regular confession, a Catholic’s prayer practice is entirely up to each individual. One method does not serve all. Question what you like or don’t like about a practice and why. Perhaps the prayer is uncomfortable because you need to grow, so caution is required when deciding what to include. It’s not all about how the prayer makes you feel, although when you do experience deep peace, that may be a sign to keep practicing, especially if it seems tough. The best practices will lead you to examine yourself and your actions in comparison to Jesus and His teachings. We’re here not to be stagnant in who we are today, but to continue to grow to become the best versions of ourselves. The best will take our whole lifetime and include mountains, valleys, and plains in the growth process. We are on His timetable, not ours. It is His will for us, not ours. And if we don’t know, ask Him!

Routine can be a comfort to us, or a crutch. Interrupting our routine allows us to reflect on our practices, recommitting ourselves to those that lead us to a closer relationship to God. It’s not what we do, but how and why we do it: full of faith to become intimate with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. 

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.