Redemption in the Present Moment

Notice the contrast between today’s first reading and Gospel reading. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that if a man is outwardly righteous and makes offerings before the altar of God, yet harbors anger within, then he will be “liable to fiery Gehenna.” Meanwhile, the reading from Ezekiel tells us that if a wicked man turns away from all his sins, “he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him.” Interesting, that per Matthew our good deeds do not excuse us from our present selfishness and hatred, while per Ezekiel our past sins do not block any hope of our redemption. What matters, then, is not the track record of good deeds we can present before God but the state of our heart in the present moment.

What are the intentions behind our good deeds? Are we trying to prove our worth, to God or to others? Or does our service stem from a genuine love of God? If our good actions are merely done for show, then they are meaningless. There aren’t any shortcuts to holiness—no matter how well we “follow the rules,” we can’t become saints if we aren’t also willing to do the hard work of forgiving our neighbors and striving to see each person as a beloved child of God.

But the good news, too, is that no matter how misguided our “good deeds” have been in the past, we are never, ever too far gone to hope for heaven. There is always hope for us to turn away from selfish thinking and lukewarm faith. We cannot allow our regrets for past sins to consume us, nor our worries for the future: what matters is the present moment. Will we open our hearts to God here and now? Will we let go of our attachments to sin and instead be motivated by love? Will we address the causes of our anger and seek healing instead of bottling it up within ourselves? If we do, if we tend to the state of our heart and continually choose God in the present moment, we will surely live, we shall not die.

Delighting in the Law

Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes.
In your statutes I will delight;
I will not forget your words.
Open my eyes, that I may consider
the wonders of your law.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous deeds.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law
and keep it with all my heart.
Lead me in the path of your commands,
for in it I delight.
—Psalm 119:12, 16, 18, 27, 34, 35

Often we think of the law as something that places limits on our freedom—God’s list of don’ts. But true freedom does not mean we can act however we please without punishment; rather, it means being grounded in the truth, so that we are free to act in accordance with the purpose we were designed for, without being held back by the snares of sin and self-importance. True freedom must be rooted in truth; thus, it must be objective, not bending to our subjective demands. God’s law is not a list of restrictions; it is a recipe for our well-being, meant to help us to thrive.

Whether or not we believe that God’s law is rooted in truth, we will face the consequences if we choose to disregard it. When we begin to see the ways in which God’s law protects us from harm, we move beyond a sense of mere obligation and start to obey out of love for the God who cares for us and keeps us safe. When we find our will is stymied by His law, we will trust that He has our best interest at heart and seek to understand why He has placed that barrier before us. Ultimately, like a parent who places an arm out to keep their child from a ledge, His law is always for our good.

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.