Blessed Are You

And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
—Luke 1:43

Although she did not know it, Elizabeth’s whole life had been leading up to this moment. For decades, she had lived in quiet piety in a small, ordinary village. Her whole married life she had prayed for a child, until her childbearing years had passed and she was an old woman. Through all this disappointment and seemingly unanswered prayers, Elizabeth never grew bitter toward God. She remained a faithful servant, bringing glory to God in her barrenness. Her hope was a sign of God’s grace to her people, for even in her desolation, His promises sustained her soul.

And then, to Elizabeth’s surprise, she was called to be a sign of God’s grace in a new, miraculous way: as the mother of John the Baptist, the one who would point the way to the Messiah. We see in today’s Gospel the account of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, when each had just received a wondrous and weighty mission from God. They greeted one another in exaltation, amazed at how God was using them to bear His grace into the world.

Elizabeth’s faithfulness to God in all the small moments of her life prepared her to speak those prophetic words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” After so many years in prayer, speaking with God and listening to His voice, she recognized with joy and humility that she was now in His presence. She marveled at the roles He had entrusted to her and to Mary—never comparing each other’s blessings and sorrows, but instead embracing the important role she had been given.

Each of us bears the image of God into the world, and each of us has an important calling to fulfill. As we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, may we also be aware of God’s presence in the people around us. May we, like Elizabeth, call out with joy as we recognize the blessedness of our brothers and sisters, delighting in one another’s gifts.

Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul

Today’s saint, St. John of the Cross, is known for his writings on the “dark night of the soul.” He was a man of prayer who was intimately close to God; however, he suffered a great deal throughout his life as he attempted to reform the Carmelite order. St. John, along with St. Teresa of Avila, sought to cultivate a way of life that fostered a greater closeness with God through prayer and sacrifice. They faced strong opposition, however, from those who did not want the Carmelites to change their ways. John was immersed in the experience of the Cross, facing imprisonment, unjust accusations, persecution, and abuse. For seeking to grow in holiness, he was treated like a criminal.

But John’s greatest legacy is not his initial zeal to reform the Carmelite order; rather, it is how he responded when his holy passion was met with censure and condemnation. He turned to poetry and prayer as a means of expressing the great sorrow he felt, and he began to reflect on how he could grow ever closer to Jesus through this experience of suffering. Faced with the bitter reality that even our purest, most faithful actions can be met with cruelty and indifference, and that bad things do, in fact, happen to good people, John refused to believe that God was not present in that darkness. He wrote of his experiences undergoing this dark night of the soul and how the light that dawned on the other end was brighter than anything he had experienced. By passing through the darkness, he came to know a more brilliant Light; by “dying to self,” he rose to new life. John assures us that while the spiritual life will bring suffering and pain, the dark night is not the end. It is preparing us for a greater glory to come.

How do we cultivate a real, lasting joy instead of the fleeting happiness that comes and goes with our ever-changing circumstances? Even when God is hidden to us—even, in fact, when we pass through a dark night of the soul—joy is ours for the taking. We struggle, of course, to have joy in times when we do not feel happy; but true joy is deeper than mere happiness. So what is this mysterious, profound joy that can transcend our outward emotions? It comes from God alone.

The saints exuded joy in every moment of their lives—even amidst intense suffering and grief. God wants us to have this unshakeable joy, too, to be sustained by His promises at every moment, come what may. When we are taken with the joy only God can provide, we know beyond any question that we are known and loved and deeply cherished by a Love that knows no bounds. He wants to sustain our flagging spirits with that boundless joy.

We cannot control our circumstances, but if we are deeply rooted in God’s Word and continue to remind ourselves of His promises, we will have a hope that endures beyond our earthly trials. The joy that remains will cause us to remain convinced of God’s presence and goodness, even as we walk through the deserts of life.

This weekend, we will light the rose-colored candle on our Advent wreaths as we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Most of Advent is a time of quiet preparation, putting everything in order as Christmas draws near, making our hearts ready to receive the Christ child. But this coming week we will focus on joyful anticipation of the birth of Christ. The child has not yet arrived, but we are joyful and confident in His coming; even though we are yet in darkness, we celebrate the promise of the Light. We walk in the midst of darkest night, yet we cannot contain our joy—for the light has already dawned in our hearts.

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.
—1 Peter 1:8

Hope in the Darkness

And out of gloom and darkness,
the eyes of the blind shall see.
—Isaiah 29:18

Throughout this season of Advent, amid the cold and lingering darkness, we seek out light. We surround ourselves with flickering lights that gleam amidst the night, reminders of hope and beauty even in the darkest places. These lights help prepare our hearts to appreciate with awe and wonder the Light that was born out of darkness, in Bethlehem so long ago.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals two blind men who dared to believe that His powerful Light could permeate their deep, unending darkness. Even though they could not see Jesus, they knew that He was the Lord, for even when we cannot see the sunlight we can feel its rays upon us. They could sense, in Jesus’s presence, a sacredness that drew them in, so much so that they truly believed that He could heal them. By their faith in the impossible, their sight was restored.

Only with the light of faith can we see the world around us clearly. Without a sense of hope in God, we cannot understand our true purpose. Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when Mary was conceived without original sin. Out of the darkness of Eve came the luminous beauty of Mary, whose fiat made way for our redemption. Do we believe that God can open our eyes to see hope within the darkness? Do we trust that the Light will prevail, even when it seems hidden to us?

As the days grow shorter and shorter this Advent, may the candlelight enkindle within our hearts a hope that endures through the darkness.

At Midnight, in Bethlehem, in Piercing Cold

Today begins the St. Andrew Christmas Novena, also called the Christmas Anticipation Prayer. I first heard about this tradition a few years ago, and it’s a really beautiful prayer:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

Traditionally, this prayer is recited fifteen times a day, beginning on November 30, the Feast of St. Andrew, and finishing on Christmas Eve. It is a meditative prayer, helping us to place ourselves in Bethlehem and focus on the coming of the Christ child as we prepare for Christmas. Praying with this novena has given me a richer awareness of God throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. It helps me to connect my own present experiences and petitions with the miracle of the incarnation.

Last year, I created a lock screen for my phone with the novena prayer written on it, so that throughout the day, whenever I checked my phone, I would see the novena and be reminded to pray it. I’ll share it with you here, in case any of you need the same reminder!

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Wishing you all a blessed Advent!

¡Viva Cristo Rey!

Miguel_Pro's_execution_(1927)This weekend we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday, and today we honor the feast of Blessed Miguel Pro, who is known for his last words, uttered before a firing squad: “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”). As we reflect on Christ’s role as king within our own lives, Miguel Pro is an example to us of how we are to orient our hearts toward Christ above all else.

Miguel Pro lived in Mexico during a time of intense religious persecution. The secular government forbade all public worship, and as a Jesuit priest, Father Pro had to carry out his mission in secret. Disguised as a mechanic, an office worker, or a beggar, he administered the sacraments and served the poor. He was well aware of the dangers and knew that this mission would likely cost him his life, but he also understood that following Christ was what gave his life meaning in the first place. If it meant defying an unjust government, he would not hesitate; he would gladly lay down his life for the sake of Christ, who had died on the Cross for him.

In 1927, Father Pro was falsely convicted of an assassination attempt against President Calles and executed without trial. Intending to portray Pro as a coward, Calles sent a photographer to the execution. But this backfired, for the photo portrayed Father Pro as the saint he truly was: standing bravely with arms outstretched, embracing his cross and declaring Christ his king. The photo of his last moments, printed on the front page of newspapers throughout Mexico, galvanized the Cristeros, who were fighting against government persecution. His martyrdom was a powerful witness for Christ.

When our society contradicts the teachings of Christ, are we prepared to stand for what is right? Or are we ruled more by the common beliefs of the culture than by Christ Himself? Unlike Miguel Pro, we do not have to fear a firing squad for practicing our faith, but sometimes much lesser penalties—fear of being misunderstood, ignored, or ostracized—scare us away from allowing Christ to rule in every aspect of our lives. Let us pray to Blessed Miguel Pro to grant us his courage, that we may not allow the fear of how others may treat us to cloud our focus on Christ the King.


Image: Photograph of Miguel Agustin Pro, Mexican Jesuit, being executed by a firing squad in Mexico city, November 23, 1927 / PD-US

Everything Is Grace

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus presents to us a startlingly bold exhortation:

Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it,
but whoever loses it will save it.
—Luke 17:33

This does not mean, of course, that we should be careless about our own lives. On the contrary; if our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, then we should treat all life—our own included—as sacred and worthy of protection. But in doing so we must remember that our lives have been entrusted to us by God; they are not our own. If we try to preserve them for our own sake, instead of for God’s, then our lives will become detached from the purpose imbued by their Creator and thus lose their meaning.

Jesus speaks here with a sense of urgency, warning us not to be caught unprepared at the judgment. The reading shakes us out of our complacency and gives us the sense that everything can change in an instant. If this is really true, then every moment carries great weight and meaning. Every second of our lives is an opportunity to be a conduit of the inexhaustible Source of all truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.

Jesus’s words are an invitation for us to stop wading in the shallows of our life and go out into the deep. He challenges us to let go of the worldly attachments that keep us tethered to the shore and to go forth in courage. All the beautiful things in this world only have meaning insofar as they reflect the beauty of the Creator. If we love God first and foremost, then we will see His beauty in everything around us. But if we cling to the things of this world for their own sake, forgetting that they are gifts from God, then we will ultimately be left unfulfilled.

May we deepen our awareness that everything is grace, that our very lives are given to us as invaluable, unmerited gifts.

There is the great spiritual principle that undergirds the entire Gospel: detachment. The heart of the spiritual life is to love God and then to love everything else for the sake of God. But we sinners, as St. Augustine said, fall into the trap of loving the creature and forgetting the Creator. That’s when we get off the rails.

We treat something less than God as God—and trouble ensues. And this is why Jesus tells his fair-weather fans that they have a very stark choice to make. Jesus must be loved first and last—and everything else in their lives has to find its meaning in relation to him.

—Bishop Robert Barron

Sacred Spaces

Jesus answered and said to them,
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews said,
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and you will raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.
—John 2:19–21

Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple,
God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
—1 Corinthians 3:16–17

As human beings, we are designed to live in communion with one another. The Church is meant to be a shared space in which we find shelter for our souls, serving one another and seeing each other with the eyes of Christ. A physical church building serves as this sacred space in its connection with the ultimate Temple, Jesus Christ Himself; and we, too, become temples of the Holy Spirit when we open our hearts to receive Him. No sacrificial offering at any temple could be greater than what Christ offered for us: His very self, His own Body. And so we unite ourselves with this perfect offering, and thus also with one another—all part of the sacred Body of Jesus Christ, one living, breathing organism.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus rebukes the money-changers in the temple for entering into this shared, sacred space not with the intention of communing with God but for selfish, materialistic purposes. They were not seeing their fellow men as God does but rather as potential profits, and they showed no compunction about carrying out this individualistic mentality in a communal place of prayer. Just as Jesus did, we also may experience feelings of anger toward those who profane what is sacred within the Church—particularly after the abhorrent clerical scandals that have been uncovered during this past year. It is profoundly upsetting to everyone else within the Body of Christ to see corruption and rot existing in what is supposed to be a sacred shelter for us.

We are called to drive out the money-changers in the temple on every level—to root out corruption in the larger Church, to foster interconnectedness and reverent prayer within our parishes, and to cleanse our own hearts from the stains of self-centeredness and greed. Imagine the commotion that the money-changers caused in the temple, distracting everyone from the presence of God. What things are creating noise and distractions within our own souls? What pursuits keep us from seeing ourselves as sacred vessels, carrying Jesus into the world? Let us begin there.

God builds his house; that is, it does not take shape where people only want to plan, achieve, and produce by themselves. It does not appear where only success counts and where all the “strategies” are measured by success. It does not materialize where people are not prepared to make space and time in their lives for him; it does not get constructed where people only build by themselves and for themselves. But where people let themselves be claimed for God, there they have time for him and there space is available for him. There they can dare to represent in the present what is to come: the dwelling of God with us and our gathering together through him, which make us sisters and brothers of one house….

The beauty of the cathedral does not stand in opposition to the theology of the cross, but is its fruit: it was born from the willingness not to build one’s city by oneself and for oneself.

—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)