Sorrow

This world is clearly enduring a great period of sorrow right now. The circumstances under which we live could cause anyone to question whether we will survive all these trials. If we truly believe in Jesus Christ and what He accomplished through His death on the cross, the answer is “Yes.” The crucifixion of Jesus on the cross at Calvary took away all the sins of the world, past, present and future, which means He knew the tragedies we would be experiencing today. The agony Jesus suffered in the garden at Gethsemane was so painful that He sweated blood. The pain of His passion was so excruciating no human being could have survived it, and so we owe our lives (present and eternal) to Jesus. He was the only one who could save us from the sins we have committed and will commit.

Praise the Lord that we have been forgiven for our sins. If not for our faith in Jesus Christ, life in this world would appear completely hopeless. Not only do we have the promise of eternal life given to us through our Savior, however, but we have the example and intercession of His mother Mary, who is also our mother. More than any other human being, she may be the one who can relate to and empathize most with the sorrows plaguing this world at this time.

“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” —Luke 2:34–35

The prophet Simeon spoke these words to Mary at the presentation of Jesus when He was an infant. Her sorrow would be so great that she would feel a sword pierce her heart. What must have gone through her mind on hearing those words? The amount of trust she held in God had to continue her whole life. The commitment she made to doing His will exemplifies the kind of trust we need to strive for in our relationship with Him.

We are undergoing undeniable hardships that may appear unbearable, but there is always hope. Our Father in heaven holds all of us in the palm of His hand and He sees our faith. He will not allow this faith to fail. On this day when we celebrate the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, let us pray to have the same faith she had in our Lord–that amidst all our sorrows, we may receive the grace to accept them and to be made stronger people because of them.

We Can Only Imagine

The readings for today highlight how Jesus Christ came into this world through His genealogy but also through the prophecies foretold in the Old Testament.

“Behold the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” Mt 1:22-23

Since there are no readings in scripture that describe Mary’s life before she conceived through the Holy Spirit, these passages for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary seem the most fitting. Nevertheless, Mary’s early life before she gave birth to the Son of God was full of experiences that molded her into the young girl who was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and asked to say “yes” to God’s call to her to become the mother of His son.

What was it like for Mary growing up? How was her faith formed? How was she perceived by her family and community? There must have been some indication that she was special. The Catholic church honors the nativity of the Blessed Virgin with a feast day, giving us the opportunity to meditate on the untold story of Mary. We can be certain she was conceived and born without sin. Mary’s birthday is a crucial part of our history, for if she had never been born, Jesus would never have been born. We can use this wisdom and apply it to our own lives. Mary was born with a purpose in God’s plan for humanity, and all of us are born with a purpose in fulfilling God’s plan as well.

“Brothers and sisters: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28

When we are born, it is because God calls us to accept the destiny He has in mind for us, and He is waiting for us to give our “yes” to Him and to His call as Mary did.

New Wine: Thoughts on Stewardship & Renewal

When I first moved to NYC 9 years ago, I often babysat and dog-sat for families to make money. There was always a sense of heightened attention and care for the kiddos and animals I watched, and a sense of knowing how precious they were to their parents (and/or owners). Can you remember a time when something valuable to someone else has been placed in your care? There is a sense of honor knowing someone has entrusted you to take care of and look after someone or something so valuable to him or herself.

The God of all creation has entrusted you, and every baptized and then confirmed son and daughter, with His most precious mysteries. A relationship with His Son, the good news of the Gospel, the sacraments of the Church, the richness of His Word in Scripture – these are just some of the many gifts God has given all of us to be stewards of. Paul says in today’s first reading that we are “stewards of the mysteries of God” (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:1). What an honor. Further, God invites each of us individually to be stewards of the gifts He has given us that are unique to our individual life. He has given each of us specific gifts, or charisms, for the building up of the Kingdom – gifts to serve and nourish the church and the world. For some it is a gift of administration, of teaching, of service, of music, just to name of few. For those of us who are married, God has gifted us a spouse to be a steward of – to reverence, to look after, to care for, to help get to Heaven. Our priests are stewards of their parishes, our consecrated religious brothers and sisters are stewards of the others in their communities and the people they serve. Though we may currently feel limited, unable to share our gifts in some of the ways we’d like to, we can always grow in our posture of wonder and awe in God’s presence. And from that posture we can ask Him to remind us, or show us anew, the gifts He has placed in our individual lives to be stewards of.

As a Byzantine Catholic family, my husband, daughter, and I have just begun the new liturgical year on September 1st! (In the Latin Rite, often called the Roman Rite, the new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent. This is just one of many differences in tradition that distinguishes these two rites of the Catholic Church, both beautiful and rich in their own right…or rite…) Growing up Latin Rite, I just learned about the September 1st new year last Sunday from our priest, Fr. Michael. (Also shout out to Fr. Michael, who inspired the vast majority of this reflection with his recent Sunday homily!) This reality and Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel have me reflecting on the gift of renewal. There is an innate sense of refreshment and of hope in a new year. A chance to begin again, an opportunity to refocus, a time to hope for the future. As Christians, we live in relationship with the One who renews us day to day, even moment to moment.

As we ask God to reveal how He is calling each of us to be a steward of His mysteries, let us open ourselves up to something new He wants to do in us. He is the God who makes all things new, and He promises to constantly renew us from the inside out. He is “making new wine…” (see today’s Gospel + song link below). If the circumstances of COVID have made you feel that one day blurs into the next, and months blur into each other, we can find our renewal and hope in our incredible God. He has entrusted Himself to us, and we have entrusted ourselves to Him. He is the greatest steward of all – He is our Good Shepherd. You are precious to Him, and He delights in you. May you grow ever more deeply in this reality and be consumed by His great Mystery.

Lord God, Almighty Father, I come into your presence in awe of you. I desire to know you more and stand in wonder of the depths of you I cannot grasp. Thank you for entrusting me to be a steward of your mysteries. Reveal the gifts you have given me and help me to be a faithful steward of them. Lord, renew me. Purify my heart so I may see you. I place my trust in you. I place my hope in you. I adore and love you, my dear Father.

Song for Reflection — NEW WINE by Hillsong

More info on the Liturgical Year according to Byzantine Tradition: https://www.archpitt.org/the-liturgical-year-according-to-the-byzantine-tradition/

To Intercede

“Intercession (MEDIATION). –To intercede is to go or come between two parties, to plead before one of them on behalf of the other.” According to Catholic Answers

In today’s gospel, the term “intercede” is used in reference to the intercessory aid of Jesus in curing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of a severe fever. The practice of intercession continues this day. We often invoke intercessory prayer on behalf of others and implore the Lord to help or heal our fellow sufferers.

Throughout Jesus Christ’s ministry on earth, He constantly healed the sick and cast out demons. Before He ascended into heaven, He gave us His authority to do what He did. We often forget the power and the strength He has bestowed on us as believers. We fall prey to the lie that we are helpless, and the world’s problems are too insurmountable for us to conquer on our own. This is true; alone we can do nothing, but through Jesus Christ, we can do anything if it is the will of God. The war fought today is not won on a battlefield but through prayer. Using intercessory prayer, we can approach Jesus Christ and ask Him to perform miracles as He did when He lived on earth with us. We have the same authority Jesus gave to the apostles. All we need to do is pray in His name. “In the name of Jesus Christ…” we have the power and can fight any enemy.

“He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive wages in proportion to his labor. For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” 1 Cor 3: 1-9

God is the Master Builder, and He wants us to be a part of His creations. What a blessing that we can enter and contribute to His grand design through prayer.

Do Not Be Deceived

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by oral statement or by a letter of ours.” 2 Thessalonians 2:15

This first reading encouraged the followers of the Lord in Thessalonia not to be swayed by outside voices. The words have withstood the passage of time and now we, as children of God, must remain firm in our faith and our beliefs. We must not allow our minds to be filled with the lies promulgated by false prophets and lose hope. It is easy to fall prey to these “outside” voices for they are loud and insistent and constantly bombard all our senses through the different modes of media so pervasive in this modern age. During this pandemic, it has become increasingly hard to attend church and gather together with our fellow believers for support. We are faced with trials we have never experienced before. How do we fight an unfamiliar enemy?

“You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.” Matthew 23:26

In this passage from today’s Gospel, Jesus offers us a way to fight enemies by turning away from the world and focusing inward. We should allow the fear in our hearts to be transformed by the Holy Spirit into hope and let that hope fill our hearts where the Spirit dwells. Although the outside world may seem out of control, we can control ourselves with the help of God in response to it. If we cleanse the inside of our hearts, we can be an example for others in this troubled world, showing it is possible to “stand firm” in the face of all the evils that come from outside the traditions of our faith.

Who Will Enter the Kingdom of Heaven

I remember when I was in elementary school and already consumed by the desire for material things. Recess became a competition for everyone to show off the latest and greatest toy. As I grew older, the “toys” turned into the coolest car or phone, and by the time I graduated from high school, there was an all-out battle to gain admission to the best college, then to have the best job that would make the most money. Looking back and thinking about my initial desires for toys, I realize I never needed those toys. My parents made sure I was always taken care of, but I still remember that feeling of true desperation as far as wanting those toys and the “if only” thoughts that my life would be complete if I had them.

As sinful humans we are bound by these thoughts because we live in a material world. We cannot comprehend the wonders of Heaven because we will not see Heaven until our death. Jesus Christ proclaimed, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” We must go to Jesus and ask the same question the disciples asked in the gospel, “Who then can be saved?” Matthew 19:23–30

The truth is that everyone on this earth has cravings; everyone is searching for their desires to be fulfilled, but so many of us do not understand what really satisfies. This makes the way to the kingdom of Heaven very difficult. We see the material goods we desire in our hearts every day, but we need to seek the kingdom of God. The path to wealth and riches is easy when compared to forsaking all our possessions to follow Jesus. Nevertheless, we are blessed because Jesus has promised us wonders beyond what we can imagine in Heaven if we simply follow Him. Jesus asks for our faith and trust; we may not be able to see what awaits us in Heaven, but we need to believe His promise that it will be worth abandoning all earthly pleasures.

Innocence

A common lament in today’s society is that children are growing up too fast. This opinion is shared by both the Catholic and secular community. Children are faced with several hardships the generations before them never encountered. Children are forced to behave as adults before their physical bodies have matured into adulthood. There are numerous arguments positing why our youth is growing up so quickly, but the problem still remains. Our children are losing their innocence, and even worse, they are losing hope.

When a child has the ability to play and explore his or her world without any preconceived notions of its challenges, that child is free to rest in the Lord. The Gospel today states: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:1-5. The innocence of a child allows him or her to see the kingdom of heaven more clearly because he or she has not lived in this earthly world long enough to have been effected by its sinfulness.

The time of true innocence is becoming shorter for the children of this world. It is in the grip of the enemy, and he is claiming it; the more our society gives into the fear that the enemy instigates, the more children are lost. The Gospel concludes with Jesus referring to the good shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one that goes astray. “It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.” Matthew 18:14.

In these times of hardship, it is crucial to remember we are still the Lord’s flock, and Jesus is still the Good Shepherd. Even though it appears that more children grow up too fast, as they lose hope and go astray, Jesus will never stop seeking them and encouraging them to come back to the flock. There is always hope in the Lord.

Thus Says the Lord

With each new day, the world appears to be confronted with more disasters, increasing chaos and despair. It is hard to hear God’s voice above the turmoil, let alone keep the faith and remain hopeful. We forget that our Heavenly Father is still talking to us. When the terrors of this world are too powerful, and we lose our ability to discern what the Lord is saying, we can turn to the Bible, the Word of God. Consider the first reading for today, Jeremiah 30: 18-20: “Thus says the Lord: See! I will restore the tents of Jacob,…You shall be my people, and I will be your God.” No matter what horrors and pain we must endure on earth, one truth will never change and that is the Lord’s promise to always be our God who will never abandon His people.

This promise was not meant to guarantee that life will be easy or simple; in fact, just the opposite is implied. The gospel for the day shows how hard life was for the disciples of the Lord. Matthew 14:22-36 tells the story of the apostles in the midst of a frightening storm while fishing. Just as they had lost all hope of survival, they suddenly see someone drawing close to their boat. How is this possible? Who can walk on water? Peter chooses to focus on Jesus and have faith in Him. Peter leaves the boat and walks on the water toward His Lord; it is only when he becomes distracted and overcome by fear of the storm that he sinks into the waves. Even though Peter lost sight of Jesus, Jesus never lost sight of him.

Jesus would not let Peter drown, nor will He let any of us perish. We are all in the boat with the disciples now–fear surrounds us with no sign of conditions changing for the better. Now is the time to let go of all our fears and seek the Lord, instead of seeking worldly solutions. Jesus is with us and He asks us to get out of the boat and come to Him. We cannot allow our doubt to keep us from Him. Once we get out of the boat and place complete faith in our Lord, we can experience miracles like walking on water.

A Walk in the Garden

A few years ago I was telling a friend some difficult things I was going through.  After describing my situation and things I was experiencing, she said it sounded like God was digging in deep.  He was pulling some weeds, tilling the soil, doing some dirty work… because he was planting something new.  He was laying the foundation for a garden.   

You know those moments when God finds a way to speak a perfect word to your heart?  A word of peace, of joy, of comfort…  Whether it comes through the words of a friend, seeing something that speaks to you, or a sense in a chapel or out on a hike, God finds perfect ways to communicate to us.  (Which He probably does way more often than I actually pick up on!)  Looking back on those words from that friend, I see clearly how God was speaking to me in that moment and how in that time God was laying groundwork for me to step into my vocation of marriage.

Today’s Gospel, Jesus’ parable of the sower, brought me back to the beautiful word my friend gave me years ago and the sense of consolation that came with it. My heart longs to be that of rich soil, not the path, rocky ground, or thorns which do not receive and cultivate the word of God and bear fruit.  Jesus’ words have me asking myself, What does it mean to be rich soil?  It seems that a heart poised to receive is key – to receive the words of our Father in prayer, through the Scripture, through a friend or experience.  However God comes to us, we must be open to receive Him.  In this way the rich soil of our hearts may actually take in, nourish, and give life to the word of God and grow a garden that can bear fruit. 

This image of a garden moves me more deeply than I can describe.  I have a feeling it is because the Garden is what we were created for.  Our hearts were designed to inhabit God’s perfect Garden.  There is a deep ache within each of us for that paradise, especially as it represents perfect communion with our Father.  Perhaps we can each take a moment today to find the garden God has sown in each of our hearts, where we can meet Him naked and unashamed.  We are a work in progress, surrendering again each day to the Gardener’s perfect hand.  May we allow Him today to enrich the soil of our hearts and lead us into communion with Him.  He wants to walk with us.  And in these days of much anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, we must remember He is always walking with us and making our hearts into a garden. 

To continue praying and reflecting on this imagery, I highly recommend listening to Matt Maher and Audrey Assad’s song Garden here.

You walk with me
You never leave
You’re making our world a garden

Garden · Matt Maher | Composer, Lyricist: Audrey Assad

The Harvest

“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” Matthew 9:38

This well-read passage is very familiar to most Christians but the Lord’s word can always reveal new meaning within scripture’s classic quotations such as this one. Our country is finally emerging from its time of quarantine and people now have the option of returning to a physical church building instead of watching a worship service on a screen at home. But will they actually return?

When the first order to stay home and celebrate Mass away from members of my extended family in faith was mandated for all Catholics, I had grand visions of the day when the churches would be open again. I believed it would be a great homecoming. In many ways, the “homecoming” was beautiful, and the peace I received when I was able to return to a church was unlike any I experienced before. Nevertheless, I did not see a “mass” return the first time I went to Mass the weekend my parents’ church in South Carolina was allowed to re-open. Indeed, the church was almost empty. I did not understand why people were not rushing back to attend Mass. The truth is that though restrictions have been lifted, the wounds from COVID-19 are deep and not easily healed. The time away from our physical churches has been full of hardship, suffering and death. It is not surprising that people now question their faith and hesitate before coming back to a church.

I can picture Jesus Christ walking through this world as He did when He traveled through Israel.

“At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:37

Our world is hurting and crying out for hope. Jesus implores us, just as He urged His disciples, to go out and reap the harvest. We desperately need our Shepherd and He is here with us; we simply must listen for His voice. COVID-19 allowed fear to spread throughout the world creating chaos, but the Lord can heal us and calm our fears. If we place our faith and trust in Him, there will always be hope; it can never be destroyed