With Eyes Firmly Fixed

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With Thanksgiving next week, and the days and weeks that follow, leading up to Christmas Day itself, and with many radio stations across the country switching to 24/7 Christmas music, the season is soon approaching for crowded malls, frustrating attempts at untangling strings of lights that weren’t tangled when you stowed them back in January, and too many slices of pumpkin pie (or if you’re not too keen on pumpkin pie, your sister’s chocolate pecan pie!).

And while I certainly intend in no way to diminish the liturgical season of Advent, whose ripe spiritual fruits often go unpicked, the coming weeks can be a beautiful time as family and friends gather, give thanks to God for all His blessings, and celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord. They can also bring about sadness as we take note of loved ones who no longer join us around the table. In either case, the coming weeks can often evoke that feeling of nostalgia, that curious sentimental desire to return either in thought or in reality to a former time in one’s life, to one’s homeland, or to a former set of circumstances that are no longer in place; we can often yearn greatly for the happiness of a former time and place, especially if the current realities of our life are unfavorable. The truth of it, as we know, is that we cannot go back. Yet, in the tension that nostalgia can elicit, God extends an invitation; the Lord always meets us in the tension.

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus schools His disciples on the urgent and unexpected nature (to those who are not vigilant) of His Second Coming: As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man; they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage up to the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Similarly, as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building; on the day when Lot left Sodom, fire and brimstone rained from the sky to destroy them all.

Just as the judgment of the Lord entered into the world amidst the normal everyday routines of the people of Noah’s and Lot’s day, so will the fullness of the Kingdom of God at the consummation of time. As the Lord warns, we know neither the day nor the hour, not only of His general coming at the end of the world but also on a more personal level at the moment of our deaths: and so we must live with hearts full of the knowledge that no one lives as his own master, and no one dies as his own master. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-8).

In particular, Jesus calls us to remember the wife of Lot. At the command of his angelic visitors, Lot gathers his family and flees the city of Sodom before its impending destruction. Lot received the command from the angel that they are not to look back as God destroys the city for its grave iniquity. Lot’s wife does not heed the Lord’s command and so is herself destroyed, being turned into a pillar of salt. What motivated her to “look back?” Was it curiosity? Was it to have one last glance at her home? A sense of nostalgia for the friends and familiar times she would be leaving behind?

You and I won’t be physically turned into a pillar of salt for “looking back,” that is, for indulging a sense of nostalgia. However, constantly living in the past won’t do us any good and might as well be the spiritual equivalent of a pillar of salt, both in our relationships with others and the Other: God Himself.

With regard to relationships with others: holding on grudges and past hurts doesn’t bring the offending party healing, and certainly doesn’t bring us healing either, but keeps the wounds foul and festering. Uniting these wounds to the Cross of Christ, asking Him — even begging Him — for the grace to forgive genuinely from the heart is a much better route than the road of anger, resentment, or (God-forbid) hatred.

What about if we’re the offending party? Feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse are useful to elicit personal contrition and so seek other’s forgiveness as well as God’s, not to mention receiving His forgiveness and healing in the confessional. Moreover, a healthy recollection of our past sins can be useful in gratefully recalling God’s abundant mercy towards us, stoking the flames of love for Him in our hearts, and strengthening our wills against falling into the same sins again in the future. Yet, living in past moral failings can be a black hole used by the enemy to suck us into discouragement, doubt God’s mercy, and entangle us in the snare of spiritual and psychological desolation.

In his epistle to the Philippians, Saint Paul references his own struggle to keep his eyes fixed on the upward call of that transformative union with Christ. Paul himself was no stranger to regrets from his past, having been such an ardent persecutor of the first Christians. Yet he made interest, as it were, on the Lord’s mercy, devoting himself to the Gospel message and using the compunction from past sins to propel him onward:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14). 
Perhaps the circumstances of your life aren’t quite as you had hoped they would be and all you want is to go back to make different decisions than you had: strain forward!  Do not doubt God’s power to bring good out of a dire situation: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Perhaps there are crosses and trials you never imagined would befall you: Strain forward!  Trust that God, in His divine providence, has a plan for you.

It can be very difficult to move through our lives with trust in God’s Providence. The changing of times and places and circumstances can bring with them doubt, fear, and anxiety: Why is God allowing this to happen to me? Where is He leading me? It is in these moments we need to remember the wife of Lot. It is in these moments that our decision to strain forward means all the difference between a pile of useless salt devoid of any flavor and basking in the light of His Face.

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From Our Littleness

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Benedictine monk Fr. Mark Kirby’s reflection* on the “liturgical providence” of God demonstrates itself time and again as deeply insightful and filled with the light of truth, even in the simplicity of an ordinary weekday.

Having just celebrated the feast day of Saint Matthew, the great Apostle and author of the First Gospel, our brief weekday hiatus from Luke and into Matthew’s text yesterday left lingering on our hearts and minds the words of Jesus: Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do . . . . I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. The liturgy sought to sear these words of life on our hearts during the gospel but again at the Communion antiphon just as the faithful are readying their hearts to receive the Divine Guest in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. And how fitting, as we who labor against the forces of sin and death, draw near to receive the “medicine of immortality” (cf. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, c. 35 AD – c. 107 AD). The liturgy leaves us with Christ the Divine Physician, He Who brought healing to Matthew, and Who longs to bring healing to us.

And so it is providential that with the resumption of the normal weekday cycle of readings, we return to the Gospel of Luke, he who himself was a physician, and presents to us the Lord who longs to bring wholeness to His people. Signs of this are found throughout the brief passage. Luke tells us that with the Lord are the Twelve Apostles, but also many women disciples who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, amongst them Mary Magdalene, from whom, Luke tells us, Jesus had exorcised seven demons; Joanna, the wife of King Herod’s steward, Chuza; and a woman named Susanna; the fact that Luke makes a point of singling them out individually indicates that they enjoyed some prominence in the early Church. They accompany Jesus as He travels from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God.

From one village to another, Jesus travels and speaks, bringing that living water (cf. John 7:37-38) to quench and to heal. And yet, for us, it is perhaps the words with which Luke leaves us that are the point of receptivity for us in the gospel passage today. After naming Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, he says there were many others who provided for them out of their means. That is, they provided material support for the Lord and the Twelve in their mission. Whether she was affluent, such as Joanna, or one of the “many” who are not named specifically, each had a necessary part to play; if they hadn’t, Luke, who is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, would not have made the effort of including this reality in the sacred text; and so if it is important to God that it be included in the gospel text, there is something in it for us.

Their material support would have provided food, drink, shelter, a place to rest and recuperate from wearying travel under a harsh climate. But what of, we might say, the immaterial support they provided? Is it not true that as much as we value the physicality of a gift – the taste of food, the beauty and warmth of a piece of clothing – isn’t it equally, if not more so, true, that we relish the sentiment and, above all, love, that gives reason and acts as a vehicle for gifts? Both for the apostles and for each other, would not the invisible beauty and generosity of their hearts, manifested in visible ways to be sure, been a source of inspiration and encouragement at the times when the Gospel message was met with rejection and scorn?

Matthew’s conversion brought about the conversion of many others, Saint Bede the Venerable comments in his homily for the Feast of Saint Matthew. And so too with the holy women: their generosity elicited the generosity of many others. This dynamic cannot be overemphasized: our holiness is not for ourselves alone, but radiates out from us and through the entire Mystical Body of Christ. The dynamic of holiness is always that of a river, flowing through us and out to the world around us.

Today’s simple gospel passage is the continuation of the dynamic of conversion and discipleship begun yesterday: just as Christ’s heart-piercing gaze elicited a response from Matthew, so it was for this holy band of faithful women who accompanied Jesus. Whether that discipleship was forged in dramatic ways, as with Mary Magdalene, or in ways only known to God and themselves, they first received and then responded in like manner to the Divine Generosity which first transformed them, giving from their means, even if only meager. Are we emulating their example? Giving from our means? Our littleness?

 

 

* “I am astonished at the liturgical providence of God . . . . There is not a day in the calendar when God does not, in some way, reach out to each of us through the sacred liturgy. There is not a day when God, acting through His liturgical providence, does not address to each of use the word that cleanses, that heals, that illumines. If we hear nothing, retain nothing, and go away empty, it is not because God has failed us; it is because we have not known how to open the ear of our hearts to God” (Dom Mark Kirby, OSB, Silverstream Priory).

A further reflection of his:

http://vultuschristi.org/index.php/2015/10/gaudium-sit-tibi-semper/

 

Penetrating to the Heart

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Entrance Antiphon: Mt. 28:19-20

First Reading: Saint Paul to the Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-13

Psalm 19

Gospel: Matthew 9:9-13

Communion Antiphon: Mt. 9:13

This Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, is very much a feast that directs our gaze to the Holy Face of Jesus, to Him who first looks upon us and pierces through to the heart. Matthew himself relates his own experience (Mt. 9:9-13): As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew . . . .

Jesus sees a man called Matthew. It is not the man who sees the Lord first, but the God, who from all eternity, saw the man, saw this man, Matthew. It is all the Lord’s initiative. Is this not the dynamic of conversion, of the call to discipleship? It is God who acts first. Jesus gazes upon Matthew. Human eyes see but the appearance, but the eyes of God pierce through to the heart.

Follow me, Jesus says, and so drawn out by the heart-piercing gaze of Love Himself, Matthew follows and is forever changed. He falls in love with Love. Do I remember when I fell in love with God? Have I fallen in love with God?

Imagine you are Matthew for a moment. Jesus is gazing upon you. What does He look like as He does so? What stirs in your heart as He does so? Does my day begin with the light of a smartphone or the Light of His Face? How would my day change if I began it by allowing Christ to look upon me in prayer?

 

 

(A Chaoimhín, a chara, an bhfuil tu sásta? 🙂

 

 

Exploring and Examining

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“For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the the depths of God.” It is these intriguing words that our second reading today leaves us to ponder. The Spirit of which St. Paul writes is, of course, none other than the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, that Holy Life-Breath and intimate bond of love between Father and Son. It is He Who scrutinizes. What a wonderful phrase! St. Paul’s expression leaves one with the image of a detective carefully combing over the minute details of a case in order to find a solution; or perhaps a spelunker, that is, a person who explores the deep recesses of a cave; or a miner who enters into the depths of the earth in order to bring forth secret treasures. The Holy Spirit is often referred to as the “silent” Person of the Most Blessed Trinity and that certainly may ring true.

Throughout Sacred Scripture, the Holy Spirit is present, yet it is the Father who speaks, first to the patriarchs and prophets, and then through the Son Incarnate, the Word made flesh, that definitive revelation of God to humanity. Yet, though a trinity of Divine Persons, God is one, there is a sublime and unfathomable unity. Therefore, we cannot artificially separate them. When one speaks, the others are necessarily present as well. This is a great Mystery, one we cannot seek to understand as if reading a word problem in a mathematics textbook. It is Mystery we must be content with simply experiencing. Therefore, we encounter the Holy Spirit not so much by what He says but by what He does. And what is one of the activities the Holy Spirit does? As we have seen, He scrutinizes, searches out, explores, examines.

Through baptism, we become adopted sons and daughters of God, sharing in the divine Sonship of the Second Person of Trinity: For your did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry Abba! Father! it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. Just as a child can call upon his biological parent as Dad! because of the ties of blood, so too can we who are the children of God call upon our Heavenly Parent Father!; sharing not a link of blood but of a deeper and more inmate connection spirit and life.

Through such a simple sacrament, God pours forth His divine life – His divine Spirit – into our souls. In the great sequence of Pentecost, we sing, “Come, father of the poor, come, giver of gifts, come, light of the heart, Greatest comforter, sweet guest of the soul, sweet consolation.” It is that “sweet Guest” who brings us into that deep communion of Father and Son and who reveals to us what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him. And so, though the Holy Spirit may be the “silent” Person of the Trinity, let us make sure that He is not the forgotten Person. With the grace that God provides, let us resolve to seek daily, through prayer and the sacraments, that deep and intimate with the Most Blessed Trinity: O Holy Spirit, Beloved of my soul, I adore You. Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do . . . give me Your orders. I promise to submit myself to all that You desire of me and to accept all that You permit to happen to me. Let me only know Your will. Amen. (Cardinal Mercier)

The Divine Proposal

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The official daily prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Office, gives us a passage from the doctor mellifluus, the “honey-sweet” doctor of the Church, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of the Virgin Mother:

“You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God Who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

“The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

“Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.

“Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

“Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the Desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If He should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek Him afresh, the One Whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord,’ she says, ‘be it done to me according to your word.'”