The Law of the Sabbath

Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath.
His disciples were hungry
and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him,
“See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.”
He said to them, “Have you not read what David did
when he and his companions were hungry,
how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering,
which neither he nor his companions
but only the priests could lawfully eat?
Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath
the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath
and are innocent?
I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”
—Matthew 12:1–8

Jesus’s response to the Pharisees in this passage highlights the purpose of the Mosaic law: it is was not implemented as a means of controlling and restricting the Jewish people, but rather as a way to establish a relationship between God and His chosen people and to serve as a constant reminder of the covenant that was yet to be fulfilled. Jesus gives examples in which God called people to violate the letter of the law in order to serve a much higher law. Though unworthy of drawing close to God by serving Him in the temple and of consuming the bread of offering, the Jewish priests perform these actions because God has called them to do so. When they are serving in the temple, their actions, though technically against what is prescribed for the sabbath, are holy, for they are standing on sacred ground and fulfilling the duties of their calling. They prefigure a closer intimacy between God and man, when God will sanctify men to be in relationship with Him and serve at the highest altar.

It follows then, that Jesus’s words carried an implication that would have been shocking to the Pharisees. He is speaking with authority above the law, declaring that His disciples are following a higher purpose just by being in His midst. Simply being in Jesus’s presence is sacred—even more so than the temple itself. He is the fulfillment of God’s covenant, of the Holy of Holies. He is the Temple of God’s new covenant of mercy. Through His sacrifice for us, the veil between God and man has been torn in two, and we can behold the Face of God without perishing.

In Jesus’s presence, the disciples ate grain on the sabbath to assuage their hunger. Hunger is an inescapable part of the human condition—both the hunger of our bodies for sustenance and the hunger of our souls for meaning and redemption. Jesus responds fully to our hunger, ministering to the deepest aches and longings within us: body and soul, mind and heart. Every Sunday, we consume Bread on the sabbath, opening ourselves up to receive the only food that can truly fill the deep, piercing hunger within us. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to rescue us from the depths of our sin. Jesus, present in the Eucharist, looks upon us with mercy and invites us to draw closer to the mystery of His overwhelming love for us.

Called to the Light

As Jesus passed by,
he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
He heard this and said,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
—Matthew 9:9–13

There is a well-known painting of the calling of St. Matthew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, painted by the great Caravaggio. I often used to stop through to see it while I was studying abroad, since it was just around the corner from my school. It sits in a shadowy corner of the church, but when a tourist drops coins into a slot, a light shines upon it for a few minutes. Once it is illuminated, you can see that the painting itself is a stark contrast of light and shadow—a masterpiece of chiaroscuro.

The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggo_(1599-1600)

Matthew is sitting at a table with his fellow tax collectors, counting money. Jesus, standing at the opposite end of the table, is pointing at Matthew, while Matthew and his companions seem to be caught in utter surprise. One man also points at Matthew in his bewilderment, as if to say, “Who, him? Really?” They are sitting in the shadows, but their faces are illuminated with a clear, brilliant light, coming from Jesus’s direction. And Matthew hangs his head as if caught red-handed, exposed in his sin.

Caravaggio sought to capture this singular, crucial moment, the turning point of Matthew’s whole life. We see Jesus’s mercy, bringing Matthew out of the darkness and into the light, but we also see the stark vulnerability and fear which that light reveals. In this pivotal moment, Matthew had a choice. He could have recoiled and crawled back into the shadows, but he didn’t. Terrifying as it was to leave everything behind and follow this mysterious stranger, he knew that he was not created to lurk in the shadows of a life of corruption and greed. The light of Jesus’s presence made him aware of a yearning within himself for goodness and truth, a long-neglected thirst for transcendent love. He knew that the life he was leading could not quench that thirst but would only deepen it. And so he stood, left everything behind, followed Jesus into the light, and never looked back.

St. Matthew, when we are tempted to seek fulfillment in things other than God and to veil our actions in secrecy, shine a light into our hearts, that we may see clearly the truth of our condition and understand who we were created to be. Give us the courage to loosen our grip on everything that distracts us from our ultimate purpose as children of God, and give us trust in His great mercy, that we may confidently believe that He seeks to heal and restore us, not to condemn us. And, like you, may we follow Him without looking back, telling the story of His merciful love for us all our days.


Image: Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew / PD-US

Treasure in Heaven

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal.
But store up treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”
—Matthew 6:19–21

While reading about today’s saint, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, I couldn’t help but notice many striking similarities between him and out patron, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. Both were born into wealthy Italian families that valued success and prestige more than faith. Both grew in virtue and piety despite the circumstances of their family life. Both were deeply devoted to serving the poor and disadvantaged, sacrificing their own time, talent, and treasure to care for the less fortunate. Both were described as having embodied the virtue of purity. And finally, both died from illnesses they acquired while serving others—Pier Giorgio at twenty-four, Aloysius at just twenty-three.

The story of the lives of these two young men, both cut short in their early twenties, seems a terrible shame if you look at it through the eyes of the world. But through the eyes of God, it is a triumph. Their treasure was not their material wealth, their earthly successes, or even their youth and potential. Their treasure was in heaven. By embracing God’s will and allowing His love to radiate through their lives, they built up treasure for themselves that transcends the plane of this transient world. None of us know how many days we have left here on earth to enjoy its fleeting pleasures, but we can be confident that each work of love we offer to God knits our souls ever more closely into His eternal Kingdom.

If, therefore, we wish to fly to heaven, perishable things are to be cast aside, and these two wings of actual poverty and poverty of spirit are to be assumed, on which we may be borne to the place where our treasure is and there enjoy it.
—St. Aloysius Gonzaga

Appealing to Mercy

After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them,
he said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”
He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.
And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
—John 21:15–19

There are a few instances in the Bible where we are given a direct contrast between two sinners—one who is remembered for his sins and another who is forgiven and honored. In the Old Testament, we see Saul and David. Neither of these kings were blameless in their actions, but only David—an adulterer and murderer—is described by God as “a man after His own Heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). How could David deserve such an honor? It is because David, unlike Saul, repented wholeheartedly of his sins. By dying to self and embracing humility, David entered the Heart of the Father.

Here in the New Testament, we have the contrasting examples of Judas and Peter. Both betrayed Jesus at the time of His Passion. But the reason that Judas is condemned for his sin instead of being forgiven alongside Peter is not because his sin is greater but because he despaired of God’s mercy. He could not believe that God was so good and merciful as to forgive even this ultimate betrayal, and so rather than kneeling before Him in humility and offering up his tears of regret, he gave up. Peter, however, was bold enough to place himself at the feet of Jesus even after denying Him three times and abandoning Him in His Passion. His trust was stronger than his fear, and Jesus’s love for him abounded all the more because of his humility and trust. Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to rewrite the narrative, asking him to affirm his love for the Lord three times, which echoed and reversed his three denials.

Nothing is more pleasing to God than repentance: appealing to His great mercy, acknowledging our sinfulness, and embracing our dependence on Him. God is not surprised by our sinfulness; in fact, He plans to use it for good—if only we allow Him. He chose the flawed Simon Peter to be the rock upon which He built His Church, for Peter had learned all the more to call upon the strength of God to act as that foundation, not on his own meager strength.

When we stumble and fall on our path, when we fall short of our own expectations, when we feel the sting of guilt wash over us, let us follow Peter’s example and turn to Jesus in trust. Let not our pride keep us from receiving His overflowing mercy.

Love One Another

Jesus said to his disciples:
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
—John 15:12–14

Jesus, knowing that He only has a few more hours to spend with His disciples, knowing that they will soon be tested in ways unimaginable to them, speaks these words with great care and intention: “Love one another as I love you.” Just hours later, He shows them what His love really looks like. Spread out upon the Cross, pouring out His love and mercy until the very end, He gives us a model of boundless, sacrificial love.

How could we possibly keep this commandment, to love one another as He loves us? Amidst our sins and human frailty, the love that is shown to us on the Cross seems utterly unattainable for us. We are neither courageous enough to face martyrdom nor humble enough to accept insults in silence, and our love for others is guarded by our fears. But Jesus does more than just tell us to follow in His impossible footsteps. When we receive His love, He begins to love through us. In order to truly love one another with a love that echoes Calvary, we must know—really, truly know at the core of our being—that He loves us madly.

When we deeply know this truth, it changes us utterly, and we see the proof of this through the saints. Look at the radiant love of Mother Teresa as she serves the poorest of the poor, or the devotion of St. Damian, sacrificing his life serving the lepers who had been cast out of society. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was beloved by so many because he loved so well, and he always credited this to his devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist, saying, “Jesus comes to me every morning in Holy Communion; I repay Him, in my very small way, by visiting the poor. The house may be sordid, but I am going to Christ.” Pier Giorgio, too, expressed God’s radiant love in his very being, not by trying to achieve greatness but by allowing himself to be loved.

When you are totally consumed by the Eucharistic fire, then you will be able more consciously to thank God, who has called you to become part of His family. Then you will enjoy the peace that those who are happy in this world have never experienced, because true happiness, oh young people, does not consist in the pleasures of this world, or in earthly things, but in peace of conscience, which we only have if we are pure of heart and mind.
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

A Posture of Humility

This week, I helped facilitate the confession line for a group of middle schoolers. Many were nervous; several had not gone to confession in years. I tried to help settle their nerves and calm their fears before going in, assuring them of God’s great mercy and that there was nothing to be scared about. A few children inspired me with their eagerness to enter the confessional—one who hadn’t been in six years, as well as one who had just gone last week. They didn’t allow any apprehensions to hold them back from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. They simply went forward with a sincere trust that by humbling themselves before God, they would experience grace. And what inspired me the most was that all these kids, even the ones who were most nervous, came out of the confessional beaming with joy and relief.

Kneeling in the shadows of the confessional, coming face to face with the reality of our sin and articulating it aloud—this is not something that demeans or diminishes us. Rather, it ennobles us, for it unites us more closely with our Creator as part of His Divine Body. By kneeling down and making ourselves small, we become part of a greater whole. Yet many of us hesitate to take this posture of humility. Sometimes a sense of perfectionism holds us back from admitting our mistakes, even to ourselves. But this sort of perfectionism is ultimately rooted in fear—that our faults will make others think less of us, or that God will be disappointed in us (as if He doesn’t already know all that we’ve done!). So instead of confessing our sins, we live in denial of their existence—and then we never receive the graces that will help us overcome them. We never come to understand that our goodness does not come from ourselves, but from the God who loves us so much that He laid down His life to redeem us in our sinfulness.

Jesus Himself has taken the ultimate postures of humility: on the Cross, with His arms spread open in surrender; and in the Eucharist, where He comes to us as Bread and Wine, food for us to consume. Through these gestures of love, He offers Himself as a gift to us. His arms are open wide to receive us; His Flesh nourishes and strengthens our souls. He offers His Body, broken and crushed, to heal us of our own brokenness:

For my Flesh is true food,
and my Blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood
remains in me and I in him.
—John 6:55–56

This week I also mourned the passing of John Aroutiounian, with whom I co-taught a Confirmation class three years ago. I was so moved by his eulogy, which reflects on the mystery of redemptive suffering and illustrates the fullness and meaning of his short life. John was very intelligent, had multiple prestigious degrees, and likely would have gone on to have a remarkable career. Yet when presented with a more humble calling—to suffer deeply, to physically waste away, to witness to the strength of the human spirit and the dignity of life even amidst great affliction, and to lay down his life at just 26 years old—he did not hesitate to embrace this cross. During his life, John fought to defend the dignity of every human life—even our enemies, even those who are inconvenient to us. He was a pro-life advocate and volunteered as a suicide hotline counselor. He believed at his core that life, every life, was worth living, and that each human soul has incalculable, eternal worth. He gave no greater witness to this conviction than through his own suffering and death.

We all have a natural desire to protect and shelter ourselves and our loved ones against suffering. However, it is through those painful experiences that we encounter the true meaning of our existence. Only when brought to our knees by suffering do we realize how deeply we must depend on God. A happy, complacent life can cause us to forget that, in the words of St. Thérèse, this world is our ship, not our home. We are meant for something greater; our deepest desires will not find fulfillment in this world but point us to the fulfillment that awaits us in heaven. And the path to heaven is through the Cross, following in the footsteps of our Redeemer.

Indeed, the fear of suffering can be worse than actual suffering. For when God allows us to suffer, He provides the graces in that moment to bear crosses we never thought we could carry, as long as we surrender to Him, acknowledge our own weakness, and trust that He will use every second of our pain for His divine purpose. Only by lowering ourselves into the depths of our humanity can we be raised into the divine Light. If we accept our crosses with a posture of humility, our suffering will surely bear fruit.

God in Our Midst

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there,
but did not know it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?
Whom are you looking for?”
She thought it was the gardener and said to him,
“Sir, if you carried him away,
tell me where you laid him,
and I will take him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,”
which means Teacher.
—John 20:14–16

Noli_me_tangere_-_William_Brassey_HoleHow often our eyes are blinded to recognize the presence of God in our midst. Just as Mary Magdalene mourned the absence of Jesus without realizing it was Jesus Himself who was speaking to her, we also cry out into the void when we feel alone and abandoned, while all the while Jesus is there, listening and responding to our every word. We are never, ever abandoned or forgotten, no matter how it may seem to us in the moment.

Perhaps it seemed to Mary too good to be true that Jesus might really be present with her there in the garden; it was an idea too wonderful for her mind to grasp, and so she could not see the glorious reality before her eyes. That is, not until He spoke her name.

When she heard her own name spoken by Jesus, she recognized Him instantly. She knew it could only be His gentle voice, communicating God’s love for her in a way no one else could. In the same way, we begin to see God present in our midst when we move away from a detached, abstract idea of God and toward an intimate relationship with Him. When we realize that He knows us and cares for us with loving tenderness, everything changes.

The reality of Jesus’s resurrection certainly may seem to us at times too good to be true. But when we open ourselves up to receive the outpouring of love and unmerited graces that He desires to give us, we cannot help but realize that He is indeed alive and present in our midst. God calls each of us by name and draws us to Himself. May we, especially during this Easter season, recognize His voice in our lives and rejoice in His eternal presence.


Image: William Brassey Hole, Noli me tangere / PD-US