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.

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.