Tradition

In today’s Gospel, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for rigidly observing the letter of the law while completely disregarding the spirit of the law. In their hypocrisy, they carefully keep the traditions that were passed on to them but pay no attention to the true meaning behind those traditions. Jesus points out that their actions are empty if they are not motivated by love of God, quoting Isaiah:

He responded,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites,
as it is written:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.

You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

—Mark 7:9

The idea of tradition was kind of a big deal at my college. Founded in the Catholic faith, we carried the idea of tradition further into nearly every mundane aspect of our lives—football Saturdays, dorm activities, dining hall meals, snowball fights. One of my professors was fond of telling us, “Remember, there’s a difference between traditions and dumb things you do every year. Just because you did it last year, it doesn’t need to become a tradition.” There’s a good amount of wisdom there. Traditions can be powerful, and they should reflect the priorities we want our lives to be centered around. There isn’t much sense in keeping up a tradition for tradition’s sake alone—it ought to reflect a deeper purpose. We have been handed down a treasure trove of beautifully rich Catholic traditions. Do we reflect on their meaning, or do we just go through the motions? Are they really traditions to us, or just habits?

We all know toddlers who insist on watching the same movie on endless repeat, who want to be twirled in just the same way or play the same exact game over and over again. This is the same underlying emotion that moves us to create traditions: that childlike cry of the heart that says, “Again, again!” When we are savoring the moments of our lives and experience something truly wonderful, we want to repeat it in the future. We want to re-experience and remember those things that have shaped us for the better. When we do this with intention, it forms a beautiful rhythm within our lives. But without intention, it becomes a fruitless quest to recreate the past, when really God wants to invite us to walk forward with Him.

Traditions are comforting and familiar to us. This is a good thing, but we should make sure that it’s not the only reason we’re clinging to them. God cares less about the words on our lips than on the devotion in our hearts, and everything we do should reflect that deeper purpose. As we grow older and our lives continue to change, new traditions and habits will likely replace old ones. We can welcome these changes by keeping our eyes on what matters most, on the God who understands our need for the comfort, familiarity, and structure that traditions bring. He has responded to that need with a wealth of tradition, formed over millennia, held within the treasures of the Church—and He invites us to delve deeper into reflecting upon and understanding these traditions instead of merely going through the motions.

Bakhita

Bakhita_Szent_Jozefina.jpegToday is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a woman of incredible strength and perseverance. Kidnapped at age seven from her home in Sudan and sold into slavery, she was given the name Bakhita, meaning “fortunate.” She suffered daily beatings and abuse at the hands of her captors. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian family, the Michielis, and worked as their maid. While in Italy, Bakhita was introduced to the Canossian Sisters of Venice—and through the Canossian Sisters, she began to learn about God and the Church. The more she learned, the more her heart became inflamed with love for Jesus.

When the Michielis wanted to bring Bakhita with them to Africa, where they had acquired a large hotel, Bakhita firmly refused to leave the convent in Venice. While Mrs. Michieli tried to force the issue, eventually the Italian court ruled that because slavery was illegal in Italy, and had in fact also been outlawed in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth, Bakhita had never legally been a slave. All of a sudden, she was free to choose her own path.

Bakhita was baptized in the Catholic faith at age thirty, receiving all three sacraments of initiation on January 9, 1890, and taking the name Josephine. She took vows as a Canossian Sister three years later. For the rest of her life, until her death in 1947, she was known for her joyful, welcoming presence, her love of children, and her encouraging spirit toward the poor and suffering.

What is particularly remarkable about Josephine is her ability to see God’s hand at work through every chapter of her story, even those filled with darkness and tragedy. When she was introduced to Christ through the Canossian Sisters, all the pieces of her life began to fall into place and make sense to her for the first time. She said, “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”

Josephine stood up for herself and put an end to the injustices she suffered, but she did not brood over past wrongs or dwell in resentment for all the trauma she had undergone. On the contrary, she actually expressed gratitude for her past experiences. When a young student asked her what she would do if she were to meet her captors, she responded without hesitation: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”

I am far from grateful for my own sufferings, but I pray that through the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita, I might allow my eyes to be opened to the ways God is working in every aspect of my life. May my deliverance from resentment and cynicism be sparked by an interior conversion of heart, a turning toward gratitude and unrestrained love for God.

Toward the Light

He said,
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
—Mark 4:30–32

IMG_1982I have two plants sitting on my windowsill that have been there for two years now, and quite honestly, I’m very surprised that they’re still alive. It’s safe to say that I do not possess a green thumb, and my apartment doesn’t get a lot of sunlight. But somehow these plants have persevered—sometimes looking a little worse for the wear, yet thus far still surviving my neglect and horticultural ineptitude.

It amazes me how tall these plants can climb, upward toward the sunlight. To think that they started as just a tiny seed—a seed that contained within itself the capacity to grow and flourish—is incredible. They’ve even survived being repotted after outgrowing their containers. Their growth is not really any credit to me, as I’ve done less than the bare minimum to keep them alive. It is more a testament to the design of God, who has created beautiful things to flourish even amid adverse conditions.

In Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed, we hear how God brings tremendous growth out of tiny beginnings. We, too, are small; and yet we are created completely whole. Within each soul is the capacity for greatness. All it needs is to be nurtured by water and light, to be broken open so that roots may stretch out from its core and new buds may blossom outward into the day. We are created as tiny seeds, but we are not meant to stay that way. We are meant to climb toward sainthood.

But growth happens slowly. We must learn to be patient with ourselves and with others; our transformation will not happen overnight. We must place our trust in the Master Gardener and let Him do His work. Sometimes it may seem like we won’t survive in new soil, but really we only need to extend new roots. If we have patience through the spiritual dry spells and cold fronts (and even, perhaps, a polar vortex), God will guide us to adapt and grow through every circumstance. All we have to do is keep craning our heads upward toward the light.

“Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.”
—Pope Benedict XVI

We Belong to Each Other

They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him,
“Child, your sins are forgiven.”
—Mark 2:3–5

Imagine how it felt for the paralyzed man to be so close to Jesus, and yet so far: within sight of the Healer, yet held back by the very impairments that needed healing, utterly helpless to bridge the gap.

In moments when we feel paralyzed and helpless, unable to fix things for ourselves, God does not want us to go it alone. He wants to heal us, and He seeks to work through the hearts of others in the process. He uses our frailties to bear greater fruit: not only in ourselves, but in others, too. We can only be healed if we are willing to admit our weakness and ask for help. We must allow ourselves to be lifted up, carried, and lowered into the arms of Jesus.

And when we lend a hand to help someone else, it is a privilege: to share in the sacred struggle of their suffering, to draw close to the fountain of grace and healing. God uses these moments of weakness to teach us to rely upon other people and knit us closer together as a community.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
—Mother Teresa

The Odor of Sin

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati loved the poor wholeheartedly. He went out into the slums of Turin to visit them each day; he did this not to assuage his conscience or to give them something from his material excess, but rather to receive them, to visit with them, to love them as God’s own children and to offer his whole self to them. He saw Jesus in each of their faces. Once, a friend asked Pier Giorgio how he could bear the odor of the poor, the dirt and filth of the slums. He replied, “Don’t forget that even if the house you visit is very dirty, there you may find Jesus. Remember always that it is to Jesus that you go: I see a special light that we do not have around the, sick, the poor, the unfortunate.”

In today’s Gospel we hear Luke’s account of Jesus healing a leper. I would imagine that this man was used to people recoiling in his presence, shrinking away from the fetid odor of his infection. He would have learned to lay low, to avoid other people so as not to feel the sting of their repulsion. But when he saw Jesus, he did not back away. Had he already sensed, in that first glance, that Jesus did not look at him the same way as everyone else? He lay prostrate before Jesus and begged for healing. If the people were horrified to see a leper approaching Jesus, imagine their disgust when Jesus responded by reaching out and touching this man. He was not deterred by the stench; no, He was in fact drawn toward this man, filled with nothing but love for him.

We know where our sores and infections lie within our souls, and more often than not we try to cover them up. We expect that Jesus will be disappointed by our faults and failures, and so we try and mask the odor of our guilt. But Jesus is not deterred by the stench of our sin, and He does not want only part of us. He wants all of us, warts and all, for He seeks to love us totally and completely. He bends down to greet us, looks us in the eye; all He needs is for us to affirm our trust in Him to fully heal us. Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.

What Are You Looking For?

John was standing with two of his disciples,
and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God.”
The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.
Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them,
“What are you looking for?”
They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher),
“where are you staying?”
He said to them, “Come, and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying,
and they stayed with him that day.
It was about four in the afternoon.
—John 1:35–39

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose feast we celebrate today, lived a busy life as a wife and mother of five in New York City. She was an upper-class socialite who entertained George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in her home, and her family had deep roots in the Episcopalian church. At the time of her birth in 1774, Catholicism was outlawed in New York City; by the time she was ten years old, the ban was lifted, but Catholics were still looked down upon by wealthy Protestant families such as Elizabeth’s. The modest wooden Catholic church, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, was the home of lower-class immigrants; Trinity Episcopal Church, on the other hand, was a refined, elegant place for peaceful reflection among the social elite. Elizabeth’s sister once commented, “Let me be anything in the world but a Roman Catholic,” and saw Catholics as “dirty, filthy, ragged, the church a horrid place of spits and pushing.”

None of Elizabeth’s friends or family could have predicted her conversion to Catholicism. It was unthinkable, that she would lower herself to the depths of society, forgoing “civilized” worship to join a disorderly congregation with baffling beliefs. Serving the poor was one thing; joining them was another.

But Elizabeth had experienced Jesus calling her to His Church in a way she could not deny or explain away. While in Italy, mourning the death of her husband, she witnessed the beauty of the Catholic faith. She encountered the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and fell to her knees before the monstrance in utter surrender to God. She had met Jesus in His Church, and after that there was no turning back. Even though her friends and family were shocked and bewildered by her decision, she sacrificed her reputation to enter the Catholic Church and receive Jesus in the sacraments. She so desired this greater intimacy with Jesus that everything else in her life seemed trivial in comparison.

Just as Jesus invited the disciples to follow Him, just as He invited St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, so He invites each of us in our own lives to follow wherever He leads. The above passage from today’s Gospel should not seem distant or foreign to us; Jesus is pursuing us in the same way. He interrupts our daily routines and asks, “What are you looking for?” What are we pursuing? Is it wealth or social prestige? Is it comfort and security? Or do we seek something deeper and more substantial, something that written on our hearts from the very first moment of our existence? Jesus beckons us, “Come, and you will see.”

At last God is mine and I am his….The awful impressions of the evening before, fears of not having done all to prepare [for my first Holy Communion], and yet even then transports of confidence and hope in his goodness.

My God….the fearful beating heart…the long walk to town, but every step counted nearer that street then nearer that tabernacle, then nearer the moment he would enter the poor, poor little dwelling so all his own—and when he did the first thought I remember, was, “let God arise, let his enemies be scattered,” for it seemed to me my King had come to take his throne, and instead of the humble tender welcome I had expected to give him, it was but a triumph of joy and gladness that the deliverer was come, and my defense and shield and strength and salvation made mine for this world and the next….

Now then all the excesses of my heart found their play and it danced with more fervor….Truly I feel all the powers of my soul held fast by him who came with so much Majesty to take possession of this little poor Kingdom….

My God is here, he sees me, every sigh and desire is before him.

—St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Holy Innocents

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.

—Matthew 2:13–18

As Joseph and Mary anticipated Jesus’s arrival, surely they had some idea that they should expect the unexpected when it came to parenting the Son of God. After all, they had already received one giant surprise and had chosen to trust in God’s plan. Still, I don’t think they could have guessed this next curveball in their journey. After traveling to Bethlehem and delivering the child Jesus in a stable, Mary and Joseph were now asked to leave behind everything and everyone they knew, fleeing the country to protect their newborn son from being hunted by King Herod.

It is a testament to his unshakeable trust in God that Joseph responded to the angel’s warning without hesitation, picking up and leaving for Egypt immediately. After all, it was a big sacrifice to make for a message that had arrived in a dream. How did he know that this was truly God’s will for him and not some crazy manifestation of his own subconscious? Only by being so familiar with God’s voice through daily prayer was Joseph able to discern with clarity that this was a message he should heed. And he did so without wringing his hands wondering where they would stay, how they would get by in a foreign land, and why such senseless bloodshed must ensue at the hands of Herod. He dropped everything, including his own plans, to follow God’s call.

God gives grace for the situation, not for the imagination. The only way that Joseph and Mary were able to follow God so resolutely was by continually seeking His will in the present moment. They didn’t become distracted by worries and plans for the future; surely they had hopes and fears of what might lay ahead, but they placed it all in God’s hands and trusted that He would direct their steps.

Herod, on the other hand, was driven entirely by his own wild fears and self-serving plans. Filled with fear and insecurity upon hearing of the birth of this newborn king, he lashed out with merciless brutality and ordered the massacre of innocent children. But even this act of violence did not achieve its intended end, for the Holy Family had already escaped into Egypt.

Herod’s inflated ego numbed his conscience and skewed his perception of justice; he was willing to sacrifice whatever was necessary to preserve his own power, even innocent lives. Herod grasped for control when he perceived a threat to his power, but God was always in control of the situation. The newborn king would die at the appointed time and place, not through Herod’s feverish display of power and cruelty.

We are not in control, and that is a marvelous thing. Let us embrace the unknown path that lies ahead, knowing that we have a good and loving God who will lead us every step of the way. When unexpected situations arrive, may we trust that God will provide us the grace we need in the moment. And may we always be willing to speak up for the innocent and vulnerable, who are so often trampled upon and exploited by those in power.