Fearful Yet Overjoyed

Happy Easter, friends! Jesus is risen; alleluia! It was impossible for Him to be held by death, as today’s first reading tells us (Acts 2:24).

Resurrection hope. What does this mean for us? In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary experience this first hand. What were they thinking when they saw the empty tomb? Were they so caught up in the trauma and horror of seeing their Lord crucified that they forgot that He said He would rise?

When they receive the good news of the resurrection, it says that they were “fearful yet overjoyed” as they ran to tell everyone the great news.

For us, sometimes seasons of resurrection can bring simultaneous doubt. We can find ourselves questioning if it’s too good to be true. If we’ve been hurt or have suffered a long time, it can be hard to fully open ourselves up to the marvels of the resurrections when they do at last come. Jesus encounters us along the way, just like He did with the two Mary’s, telling us to not be afraid. We can trust.

We can let our uncertainties vanish in the light of His resurrection. With this one act, Jesus proved and completed everything He ever said. Jesus overcame the impossible in a way no one has ever been able to do so. And He did it all for you and me, with infinite love.

Jesus’ resurrection makes a way for hope in all the seemingly impossible circumstances of our lives. His resurrection is the road to the gift of Heaven for us. If we are feeling fearful yet overjoyed as we ponder the glory of His work in our lives, hear Him proclaim to your heart today to not be afraid. Jesus wants to give you the good things you are experiencing. It’s not a mistake or just a coincidence: His blessings are good and true, and always from Him.

Lord, thank You for Your Resurrection and for all the little resurrections you grace us with here on earth. We praise You with awe and joy. Amen.

On This Friday We Call Good: Eucatastrophe and the Eucharist

From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

-Matthew 27:45

It is finished.

We listened as Christ’s final words were proclaimed from the altar. We adored His cross and kissed His wounds, following in the footsteps of Mary and the beloved disciple. And then, we received the Word made flesh in the Eucharist, “the one great thing to love on earth,” one last time.

Now, the sanctuary light is extinguished, the altar is bare, and the dim church is silent. The tabernacle is open, and empty. If “a stable once had some[one] inside it that was bigger than our whole world,” the absence of that dear friend leaves a hole just as large, and it seems like “all other lights [have gone] out,” that our “one companion is darkness” (Ps. 88:19). As another poet says, “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

Yet, even in this hour of remembering Christ’s passion, we “do not believe that any darkness will endure,” though the “shadow lies on [us] still.” Jesus tells us himself at the Last Supper that “you will weep and mourn… you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn. 16:20). This darkness is not the end of the story. Though we may be in anguish now, and remember how his apostles were then, we will see Him again, receive Him again, and our hearts will rejoice just as their hearts did. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien writes about this “sudden joyous turn” when all hope seems lost, which he calls a eucatastrophe. The opposite of a tragedy’s catastrophe, it is a “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence… of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies… universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Evangelium—the Gospel, the good news. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:1, 14). As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech—not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform… God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears… For here it is the real Lord of the world—the Living God—who goes into action.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

As Tolkien continues, he says, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” So too does Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, Jesus joyfully arrives in Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday, He gives us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, which “[feeds] the will and [gives us] the strength to endure.” On Good Friday, He gives us His mother, Our Lady, to be our mother and companion in darkness, before giving up His very life for us on the cross out of love.

Soon, His love will be told not only on the cross, but also in the empty tomb. His faithfulness will be known among the dead, as He breaks the very bonds of sin and death. And His wonders will be known, even in the dark. We need only to take courage and wait a little while longer—for the winter will pass, the Son will be unveiled in the breaking of the bread, and the light will leap forth as we sing with Easter joy.

Referenced
Eliot, Four Quartets
Lewis, The Last Battle
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, On Fairy-Stories, Letters
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 1

The Last Supper

On Holy Thursday, the gospel for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper held in the evening provides the account of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet.  Many people naturally reflect on the feelings Jesus might have experienced at this time.  The Gospel directly relates the thoughts of Jesus:  “Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and loved them to the end.” (John 13:1).  What would it be like to know your fate in advance, not just for yourself, but for all of humanity–the people who were, the people who are, and the people (like us) who are yet to come?  The beautiful, simple song by Jacques Berthier, “Jesus, Remember Me,” has one line of lyrics:  “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”  How heavy and deep the night/morning between Holy Thursday and Good Friday must have been.  We were all part of the Lord’s Passion.  Yes, we take part in it each year through the grace of Mass, but Jesus also held each one of us in His heart as He endured His passion, remembering us as He came into His kingdom.
And what were the thoughts of Peter entering this pivotal point in time?  He could not have been completely aware of what was happening.  According to the Gospel, his attention was focused on the reason for Jesus washing his feet.
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him. “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” (John 13: 6-7).
What was it like to be Peter or any one of the disciples?  They understood who Jesus was but the gravity of the circumstances was still so incomprehensible at that “last supper,” it must have been difficult to grasp.  They locked themselves in a room after Jesus was crucified because they were afraid, but they almost all became martyrs for their faith later on.  Surely, Jesus knew what He was telling Peter when He said Peter might not understand what He was doing now, but he would in the future.  The account of the Lord’s Supper is a beautiful example of how much Jesus loved and loves us right from the beginning of His passion.  He has always been with us and will never leave us throughout our journey and He will have patience when we “know not what [we] do” because He knows we will learn from every step we take and grow ever closer to Him, just as His disciples did.

Our Own Cathedrals

When I first saw the live footage of Notre Dame engulfed in flames, I immediately knew this was no mere human accident. During the holiest of weeks, here was one of the most famous churches in the world (if not the most famous) being destroyed in a fiery, hellish blaze. It had the air of evil about it; it looked apocalyptic, even: fire slowly demolishing a space that invoked and housed countless moments of individuals’ reverence for beauty, God… how could the evil one not be involved, even delighted, as the world watched in horror? The spire, once pointing to the heavens, collapsed and crumbled under the embers’ relentless attack, to gasps and groans from onlookers. The cruelty of time was felt more and more as the seconds passed into a new era without its contour in the Paris skyline.

Notre Dame also housed priceless relics of the Passion, including the Crown of Thorns, a piece of the true Cross, and a nail that had pierced the hands or feet of Our Lord. To me, these facts made it a target for the evil one to incinerate these powerful physical reminders of his defeat. The devil knows his own time is ticking away.

But as I watched through my horror, a greater truth dawned upon me. The purpose of stunning, grandiose, awe-inspiring churches like Notre Dame is to give our souls a little taste of encountering Heaven. Cathedrals like Notre Dame draw our hearts away from the earth and towards our beautiful home in Heaven. Something about this symbol being destroyed drew my heart towards this greater truth: the reality of our eternal God supersedes this finite symbol, even if the symbol invokes a powerful, soul-engulfing current of beauty when we gaze upon it, and even if the symbol has existed for 800 years, generations upon generations.

Notre Dame – and other old, beautiful churches and monuments – invokes this sense of awe and grandeur, but it also comfort, because it feels like it has always been there. And it has, in our lifetimes and of those we knew in the few generations before us. When we see something seemingly “timeless” burn to ashes, this gut instinct is turned on its head and we are reminded that finite humans were still the designers of this finite structure. 

And in the midst of all this reflection about this historical tragedy at the beginning of Holy Week… it feels like we are back at Ash Wednesday. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Now we see that the words that were spoken apply to not only us, but also our churches that seem to transcend space and time. 

But as I’m typing this… other truths are dawning upon me.

Think of the love in the eyes of the people watching, praying for Notre Dame to be spared of total destruction… try to quantify and appreciate the sum of the awe it spread into the hearts of humanity over hundreds of years… and that doesn’t even hold a candle to the awe and love our Creator has for each one of us, who He submitted to death to save.

Think of the efforts, the hundreds of millions of dollars donated already to rebuild this massive cathedral… and that doesn’t even compare to the sacrifice of Jesus to rebuild each one of our hearts, irreplaceable cathedrals crafted to house His own life and breath. 

As we approach the holiest liturgies of our faith, let us step back and examine our lives during this past Lent… what fires and pains in our lives has the Lord allowed? Do we see the greater glory in them? Maybe we are still in our burning houses, wondering if He will relent, wondering why He is allowing such seeming destruction in our lives. We are trying to put the flames out, but they keep spreading. My dear friends, sometimes the answer is as simple as this: the Lord wants your company during His Passion and death. He wants you to be in the fire with Him. He wants us to believe that He longs to take refuge in and rebuild our hearts, our own cathedrals, that will be far more beautiful than anything we see here on earth. 

Am I the Enemy?

“Healing is like an onion—there are many layers to it,” said the priest kindly. “God is moving foothills and mountains in your life—but you are looking for a volcano.”

His words gave me a measure of peace, but still I wanted more. A few days later, when the retreat had ended, I sat alone in the chapel. I felt burdened, not free. I felt an anxiety that I knew was not from God, and a longing for something more. I recalled the words of Sister Miriam, “You are not a problem to be fixed, but a person to be loved.” I remembered: “You need to let God love you…”

“What does that even mean?” I cried out. “I am trying so hard…” And I started sobbing with a pain that I could not identify but that poured forth from the depths of my being. “I am trying to let You love me! You know I give You permission! What more do You want of me?”

And then a memory surfaced, of the very worst sin of my life, the sin for which I was most deeply ashamed. “Will you let me love her?” I heard a gentle Voice ask. “Will you let me love the girl that did that?”

I froze for a second from the shock, and then recoiled in horror. Then, with a fury that would make the demons blush, I turned on my former self and screamed, “No!”

*            *            *

Like Saint Peter at the Last Supper, I thought I was stronger than I was. I had heard a story of someone committing this sin. I was aghast. “I could never do that!” I said with assurance, unaware of my underlying arrogance and spirit of self-reliance.

At supper with His disciples, Jesus tells His friends that one of them will betray him, and that the others will all flee. Peter is sure of himself. “Surely it is not I Lord!” “I will lay down my life for you.”

Jesus, who knows the dust from which we are made, warns him: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”

Sure enough, in the dark by the fire, three times Peter reacts: “I do not even know the man.” He hears the cock crow. And Luke tells us, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Luke 22:61)

What was in that look? I used to imagine disappointment, reproof, perhaps a tinge of “I told you so!” I saw in His eyes a mixture of sorrow and accusation, a frown on his face, a furrow on his brow, “How could you Peter?”

But God is love. And I believe that it was that look of love by which Peter was “undone.” A love that rushed into his hardened heart and rent it in two. “And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)

It seems at first that the greatest test is behind Peter, and that he has failed. But there is still a greater test to come.  Peter has seen Jesus heal and forgive. He has heard Christ’s call to forgive without limit, “not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Does he believe in Jesus? Does he believe in His power to forgive, to make new?

We all, with Peter, must choose to take Christ’s words to heart. To receive within the depths of our own hearts His healing and forgiveness. But this is not easy.

Is there ever a doubt in my mind that it is virtuous for me to give alms to the beggar, to forgive him who offends me, yes even to love my enemy in the name of Christ? No, not once does such a doubt cross my mind, certain as I am that what I have done unto the least of my brethren, I have done unto Christ.

But what if I should discover that the least of all brethren, the poorest of all beggars, the most insolent of all offenders, yes even the very enemy himself—that these live within me, that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I am to myself the enemy who is to be loved—what then?

(Carl Jung quoted by Dr. Conrad Baars in Born Only Once).

At supper that night, Jesus broke bread with both Peter and Judas. Peter denied Him, but later became the first Pope and a martyr. Judas betrayed him, and we are told he regretted it, he returned the coins he had been paid, but he went and hung himself.

Was there such a great difference in their sin? No; rather, the difference was in their willingness to be forgiven. Jesus loved Judas also, to the end. Even in the Garden, when Judas comes to betray with a kiss, Jesus kindly calls him “Friend…”

For Peter, accepting this forgiveness is not an abstraction. There on the beach by the sea of Galilee, Christ will ask him, again, three times, “Do you love me?” And Peter, now humbled, will say, “You know everything…you know that I love you.” He now knows he cannot love on his own power. But Christ promises that He Himself will perfect Peter’s love, foretelling that one day, Peter will follow him to the cross, and this time lay down his life (see John 21:15-19). “Follow me,” He invites.

To follow and believe is not merely to acknowledge with our minds, but to receive in to our hearts the love of Christ. To allow it to convict and convert us, as an outpouring of compassion, not condemnation.

Once a woman who had been guilty of multiple abortions was struggling to accept forgiveness. Her priest had told her God was merciful, but she could not accept it. Ironically, she was going to counseling at that time with a Jewish therapist.

He questioned her, “Forgive me if I have this wrong—I am not Christian—but isn’t the idea that Jesus died for sins on the cross?” “Yes,” she agreed.”

“For everyone’s sins?” he pressed.

“Yes,” she answered. “Except mine.”

*            *            *

There in the chapel I sat, both Pharisee and Sinner at once.

The Pharisee screamed in accusation at the Sinner, “I hate what she did…I hate how she made me feel…she made me feel ashamed…she made me feel unworthy…she made me feel that I was bad…”

I heard myself naming each of the spirits we had been renouncing all week. And then, “she made me feel that I don’t deserve the love of my Father.”

I was again caught by surprise.

And as I cried out this last, I felt a sudden resurrection and freedom as the long-buried lie was exorcised from my soul. In place of the lie, I felt the embrace of the Father that shame had kept at arm’s length.

As we had been taught to do, I imagined my two selves standing at the foot of the cross. First, I asked Jesus to forgive, and then I forgave.

Christ is in each of us. Caryll Houselander asserts, even in the most hardened sinner. She suggests that we reverence such a person as we would the Holy Sepulcher (Tomb of Christ)—in which He is waiting to rise from the dead. Sometimes that tomb is within.

This Easter, we are invited to share in the death of Christ, and also in His resurrection.

Forgiveness of Sins

Image Credit:  Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Anoint Him

Happy Holy Week, friends. In today’s Gospel, Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive perfumed oil. This wasn’t just any ordinary act of service at the time. In fact, Judas got upset with Mary for “wasting” the oil on Jesus when they could’ve sold it and given the money to the poor.

Is any gift a waste for the Lord?

In Jesus’ time, perfumed oil was like that special china your mom only uses at Christmas. It was used to anoint kings. It was used to bury the dead. It was used to show love and honor. It was not a functional thing, but something special, beautiful, and precious. In addition, the Biblical word for perfumed oil is the same as the word for anointing. Mary was honoring Jesus as the Messiah, as the Anointed One, as the King.

So, this Holy Week, anoint our Lord.

Anoint Jesus King over your life, over your circumstances, over anything you’re grasping at that He wants to hold. What will you entrust to Jesus at the foot of His cross this week?

Anoint Jesus as we journey through His death this week. Stay there with Him in it. Allow Him to get personal with you through His suffering. What does He want to speak to you? What does He want to show you? What does He say about your suffering? Wait with Him at the tomb like Mary Magdalene; wait with Him in the tombs of your own life, in the things you’re hoping will change, in the areas your heart is begging for a resurrection. Wait with Him, anointing Him with your presence and your surrender. Anoint Him in the waiting.

In anointing Him, we give Him more than is necessary: we love like He loves.

You see, time with Jesus is never a waste. We waste time scrolling through our phones and binge-watching shows, so why not waste time in a way that is truly never wasteful—with our Lord. Sit at His feet, kneel at the foot of His Cross, wait at His tomb, anoint His feet with the oil of your love. What a perfect week to do this. Love thrives and grows by spending more time than is necessary. No relationship flourishes when just the bare minimum is done to function. The same is true with our relationship with God. Our relationship with Him is in danger of becoming merely functional if we don’t spend more time with Him than necessary, if all we’re doing is checking off the boxes to go to Mass and stay in a state of grace.

When we spend more time with Jesus than is necessary, we, too, receive the anointing He has for us more fully. We are all anointed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and this is sealed in us in Confirmation. How do we live this? By spending time with Him, by simply being with Him, by telling Him we love Him. Then the grace of His anointing overflows from us, the beautiful scent of His perfumed oil outpouring from our souls to others. It doesn’t matter how many retreats you run or Catholic events you attend, if our time is not wasted with Jesus in the garden of our hearts, everything falls apart. This is true love.

Let’s lavish the Lord this week the way He lavished His love on us from the Cross. Waste some time with Him. Anoint Him. Love Him.

 

For more on this, check out this talk by Dr. Johannes Hartl.

Hidden Fruits

He went back across the Jordan
to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained.
Many came to him and said,
“John performed no sign,
but everything John said about this man was true.”
And many there began to believe in him.
—John 10:40–42

Often, we do not see the fruits of our good works. We may plant a seed, for instance, by witnessing our faith to others, but true conversion will not come from us. It can only come through an encounter with Jesus. John the Baptist witnessed to the One who was to come, but many did not believe him. However, they remembered his words when they met Jesus Himself, and when they stood in Jesus’s presence, suddenly they saw John’s words in a prophetic light. John’s witness laid the groundwork for the moment of conversion that would come later, when they would meet Jesus face to face and recognize in Him the fulfillment of so many promises.

Let us not be discouraged when it seems are efforts to do God’s work are not yielding results. When we serve Him faithfully, in joy and gratitude, our efforts will never be wasted. We may not see the effects, but we can trust that God is using each of our actions—even our apparent failures—to build up His Kingdom. He takes the seeds we have planted and pours His water out upon them, bringing new life into the barren fields of our fallen humanity.

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is a perfect example of this. During his lifetime, no one knew how much time he devoted to the poor in his community. Most likely, even he did not realize the extent to which he had affected so many souls and brought them toward Christ, and his family certainly had no idea. Not until the day of his funeral, that is, when they were shocked to find the streets flooded with mourners. So many people had been touched by Pier Giorgio’s everyday attitude of joyful service. He had gone out into the city and shown people an example of Christlike love, which laid the groundwork for them to encounter Christ Himself.

Not one of our actions is small or insignificant in the eyes of God. Any act done with great love, however little it may seem, can plant a seed. Even when we do not see those seeds sprout before our eyes, they are there. At every moment of our lives, we have the chance to prepare the way of the Lord and make a place for Him in the world around us.