Remain in Me

Domenico_Morelli_-_Conversione_di_san_PaoloToday’s first reading describes the dramatic conversion of St. Paul. Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,” and yet today we remember him as a great evangelizer and prolific New Testament writer. What happened? Nothing less than an inbreaking of divine grace.

For the powers of humanity, there are a great many situations that are beyond hope: souls that have been irrevocably corrupted, systems that are beyond repair. But for God, no one is beyond hope. No matter how hardened a person, God can break through any barriers to offer them mercy and an opportunity for transformation. He stopped Paul right in his murderous path, turned him away from Damascus and out into all the world a changed man. He channeled Paul’s zeal toward its natural, rightly ordered purpose: building up the Kingdom of God. In the same way, our own human purpose can only be understood through an encounter with the divine.

Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him (John 6:56).
Jesus has given Himself to us in the Eucharist as an opportunity for encounter with Him, that we too might be transformed by His grace. He instituted this sacrament so that we might share a radical intimacy with Him. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati understood this deeply—he received Communion daily, meeting Jesus every morning and carrying Him throughout the rest of the day. This is the key to his sanctity: not Pier Giorgio’s own goodness, but his openness to divine grace, to deep intimacy with and vulnerability before God.

“I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharist Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles.”
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

Conversione_di_san_Paolo_September_2015-1aThe great things that Paul achieved after his conversion stemmed from this intense closeness with God and awareness of God’s perfect love. This is what opened Paul’s heart to allow God to work through him rather than imposing his own will. When the scales fell from his eyes and he saw his life with sudden clarity, he fell to his knees in humility before God. Throughout the rest of his life, as he wrote and preached and converted a great many souls, he was ever aware that it was all due to God working in him: It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). Paul knew all too well the cold, cruel man he would be without God, and thus he was able to recognize that any good fruits that flowed from his work were not due to his own power or talent or goodness, but from Jesus Christ working through him.


1. Domenico Morelli, Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US
2. Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US

Nothing Will Be Wasted

When I saw today’s Gospel reading, I thought, I’m pretty sure I’ve already written a reflection about this story before. Turns out—yepTwice. So I tried to think about what new aspect I could bring to light from this story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. What stood out most to me from John’s version are these words from Jesus:

When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,
“Gather the fragments left over,
so that nothing will be wasted.”
—John 6:12

Giovanni_Lanfranco_-_Miracle_of_the_Bread_and_Fish_-_WGA12454Jesus has just taken five loaves and two fishes and managed to feed five thousand people. Not only that, but there are leftovers—twelve baskets full of scraps! There is more food left over than there ever was at the beginning. Which leads me to the question: If Jesus can multiply the loaves with such abundance, why does He ask His disciples to go to all the trouble of picking up the crumbs? Why would He need to be economical about saving all the scraps when everyone in the crowd can be satiated by His grace?

This initiative to harvest every single gift that is given us—even the crumbs—is an expression of gratitude, of not taking anything for granted. At the outset, when the disciples were desperate for food, twelve baskets of bread would have seemed a gift. Why wouldn’t it be now? This too is God’s providence, and it should be gratefully received rather than overlooked.

Мадонна с младенцем под яблоней  Холст (перев с дерева), масло 87х59 см  Между 1520-1526Let us not forget that Jesus started with a few loaves in order to feed the five thousand—He began with a meager offering. He saw, then, in those leftover scraps afterward, the precious raw material for a miracle. We need Jesus to multiply our gifts, but we must begin by doing our own part, offering all that we can, however small it may seem. He will handle the rest.

Only five loaves for five thousand people? A worthy offering. Bread crumbs, broken and scattered around a field? Not to be wasted. Jesus doesn’t overlook the crumbs we give Him; He sees the potential in our offerings. Neither should we overlook the crumbs we receive: the little joys amid a mundane day, the incomplete responses to our prayers, the half-successes as we continue to learn and grow and make mistakes. Our sufferings, too, have value; not one moment of our experience will be wasted. All of it is a gift, to be gathered and given to God.


1. Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish / PD-US
2. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree (detail) / PD-US

Empty Nets

So they went out and got into the boat,
but that night they caught nothing.
When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore;
but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat
and you will find something.”
So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in
because of the number of fish.
So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.”
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord,
he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad,
and jumped into the sea.
—John 21:3–7

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_Appearance_on_Lake_Tiberias_-_adjustedThe disciples do not recognize Jesus until after they bring in a full net of fish and they realize He has performed a miracle before their eyes. Often we do not recognize Jesus working in our own lives until we see the fruits of His presence. When we accomplish things we know we could never have done on our own, when we grow through a difficult experience and become stronger because of it, when we become aware of our own unique gifts, we sense Jesus’s presence more clearly.

Without Jesus, we will just keep on pulling up empty nets. Only through Him can we find nourishment—no matter how hard we labor to find fulfillment, our efforts will be fruitless. And just because we don’t see Jesus in our lives doesn’t mean He isn’t there—sometimes we just don’t notice Him until we feel the weight of a heavy net and realize Who is behind it. While we wait in hunger for that moment, we can call out for help and keep on trying until He steps in. When He does, how will we respond? When we can pinpoint where Jesus is on the shore, watching and providing for us, will we follow Peter’s example? Will we immediately jump into the sea? Will we trust Him to lead us through the unknown? Will we seek closeness with Him above all else, taking the leap instead of staying warm and dry in the boat?

The Easter season is a time to experience the abundance that the Lord wants to provide for us, to accept His gifts with open hands and to step out and follow Him—beyond our comfort zones, beyond our own limited imaginations, beyond the material attachments that hold us back. He’s asking us to take the leap and let Him take control.

The Lord asks us to set out for him. He asks us to become fishers for him. He asks us to trust him and act according to the guidance of his Word….But then something remarkable happens. When the disciples return Jesus does not need their fish. He has already prepared breakfast, and now invites the disciples to eat it; he is the host who provides them with food. The gift is mysterious but nevertheless not hard to decipher. The bread is he himself: I am the bread of life. He is the grain of wheat that dies and now bears fruit a hundredfold and is abundant for everyone until the end of time….Only love can bring about the true multiplication of bread. Material gifts, what is quantitative, always diminish through being divided. Love however increases the more it gives itself. Jesus is the bread, and he is also the fish that for our sake has gone down into the water of death to look for us there and to find us. This is the lesson on the breakfast to which Jesus invites his own on the borderline of time and eternity, the Eucharist. Come and eat, he says to us and thus enables us already to cross the boundary of time and death.
—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)


Image: Duccio di Buoninsegna, Appearance on Lake Tiberius / PD-US

P.S. Unrelated side note: It’s been a good week for full nets at two of my favorite Catholic universities 😏

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😎

Good Friday

Though he was harshly treated, he submitted
and opened not his mouth;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
or a sheep before the shearers,
he was silent and opened not his mouth.
Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away,
and who would have thought any more of his destiny?
When he was cut off from the land of the living,
and smitten for the sin of his people,
a grave was assigned him among the wicked
and a burial place with evildoers,
though he had done no wrong
nor spoken any falsehood.
But the LORD was pleased
to crush him in infirmity.
—Isaiah 53:7–10

ChristandThornsSo many of Jesus’s disciples abandoned Him in His time of greatest suffering. Surely it would be so difficult for them to bear, to see their beloved Jesus treated so brutally and their hope of His Kingdom buried along with Him. But I think we have much to learn from the ones who stayed—John, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the other women beneath the Cross. In this most painful moment, they did not look away. They did not abandon the One they loved. They stayed to comfort Him as best they could and to truly grieve this injustice, this loss, instead of hiding from it. And even in their grief, they did not despair. Even when it seemed all hope was lost, they trusted that God had a plan.

Do you have the courage to behold Christ crucified? Are you willing to stay with Him at the Cross, or would you rather you turn your head and look away? Be not afraid. Do not despair when you see and hear of the persecution of the innocent. Be present, grieve, weep with those who weep—but do not despair. The Cross is the sign of our salvation. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb was smeared on wooden doorposts as a sign of protection from the Angel of Death, so too the Blood of the Paschal Lamb was smeared upon the wood of the Cross. With the protection of the Blood of the Lamb, we who stand beneath the Cross will be passed over by death and will see the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom.

I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
—John 16:33


Image: Carl Heinrich Bloch, The Mocking of Christ / PD-US

Truth Is a Person

The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus.
Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from my Father.
For which of these are you trying to stone me?”
The Jews answered him,
“We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy.
You, a man, are making yourself God.”
Jesus answered them,
“Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, ‘You are gods”‘?
If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came,
and Scripture cannot be set aside,
can you say that the one
whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world
blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me;
but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me,
believe the works, so that you may realize and understand
that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
Then they tried again to arrest him;
but he escaped from their power.
—John 10:31–39

Pantocrator.jpgWhen it came to listening to His sermons and watching His miracles, Jesus’s followers were totally on board. But when He proclaimed Himself the Son of God, none of the Jews listening to Him—as we see in today’s Gospel—could accept such an outrageous claim. They were familiar with prophets, men who proclaimed God’s truth and channeled His power to perform miracles, but a man who was God? Blasphemy.

We, too, can be susceptible to this mindset of imagining God not as a Person but as a distant, lofty idea, a series of teachings and traditions to be practiced. The truth of the Church is deep and complex, something that we can really sink our teeth into and deeply reflect upon on a theoretical level—but first and foremost, truth is a Person. Jesus is not merely a representative of the truth, a preacher of God’s Word; he is truth. The people struggled to grasp this; they couldn’t comprehend how a man could be so arrogant as to think himself on the same level as God Almighty. What they didn’t consider is that God would deign to lower Himself to our level, to take on human flesh for our sake. Jesus is telling them not that a man is God, but that God is a man. And this proclamation is not blasphemy but love: that the heart of the universe beats within the chest of this humble, ordinary-looking man. This Jesus—ever loving and peaceful, drawing crowds and crowds of followers anxious to see Him and to touch Him—this is the face of Yahweh.

We are called not only to know and understand God but also to be His hands and feet, vessels of God in the world. Christianity is not merely about studying and preaching God’s Word; rather, it is about relationship with the living Word. It is about offering our whole lives to become the manifestation of God’s Word.

As we approach Holy Week, let us draw close to God, peeling away the sins and fears that separate us from Him. Let us experience His Passion, Death, and Resurrection from a perspective of intimate relationship with Him instead of just going through the motions. And let us pray that we might manifest God in the world, so that through our presence others may encounter the Way, the Truth, and the Life.


Image: Icon of Christ Pantocrator, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai / PD-US

Mid-Lenten Lethargy

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Prayer_for_Death_in_the_Desert_-_Elihu_Vedder_-_overall

We are now over halfway through Lent, right in the midseason slump—past the novelty of our Lenten resolutions but still a ways away from Easter. It feels sometimes like we have to push ourselves to get through these last few weeks. But in reality, we are called not to simply “muscle through” our discomfort in this moment; rather, we are called to use this as an opportunity for a deeper relationship with God. We are asked to dwell in our discomfort, to allow ourselves to actually feel it, and to be attentive to what it shows us about God and about ourselves.

The purpose of fasting is not to prove our endurance; it is to awaken our desire for God, to develop an awareness of our hunger for Him. The disciples did not fast when Jesus was with them because they were already in the presence of the One who fulfilled the deepest longings in their hearts.

We are feeling the strain, now, of going without our chosen distractions. The things we normally use to numb ourselves from pain are no longer there, and so we are forced to entrust ourselves entirely to God’s care. We take a leap of faith that He will show up to fill the void, and in doing so we open our senses to perceive Him.

If you feel like you’re failing at Lent, maybe that’s the point. In recognizing our weakness, we learn how to depend on God. In these last few weeks of Lent, He wants to meet us in the desert. Rather than trying to push ourselves through the rest of the journey, let us call out for God and ask Him to carry us the rest of the way.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
Many are the troubles of the just man,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him.

He watches over all his bones;
not one of them shall be broken.
The LORD redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.

—Psalm 34:19–21, 23


Image: Elihu Vedder, Prayer for Death in the Desert / PD-US

With All Your Heart

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASixteen years ago today, I stood in a white robe before the bishop as he anointed me with chrism and spoke the words of Confirmation: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” I still remember the joy I felt walking into the church that day, feeling the presence of so many saints rejoicing over me. I was ready to take part in the mission of the Church, to follow those saints toward Heaven. I didn’t know how God would call me to serve in the years ahead, but I trusted in Him to lead me forward—and that was enough for me to say yes to the journey.

So many journeys start with a “yes.” There is no way for us to know every detail of the adventure that awaits, but if we know that the one who invites us is trustworthy, then we can accept the call with joy. Our relationship with God and our trust in Him are what allow us to do His work and keep His commandments. In today’s Gospel we hear that the most important commandment is to love God, and then to see and love God in others and within ourselves—because without a foundation of love, all our efforts will be fruitless. If we don’t love God with all our hearts and all our understanding and all our strength, then we won’t be able to trust Him to lead us, and we won’t be open to receiving His grace.

He is One and there is no other than he.
And to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding,
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself
is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
—Mark 12:32–33

In Confirmation, we actively choose to follow God in a public way, opening our hearts to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit and offering our lives to be used as God sees fit. But before we choose Him, He has already chosen us. The graces we receive through the Sacrament are meant to be used as resources for the mission on which we are sent, and He sends us gifts that are particularly suited for us. All we need to do is to be receptive, to open our hearts just a crack and allow His grace to flood in. We are called to do things that might seem impossible on our own, but when we remember the graces that have been given us, we realize that we are armed for the task.

We are called and chosen. The unfolding of our lives is not a random set of coincidences; rather, every moment carries great purpose and meaning. God has recruited us as unfit soldiers, yet by grace His will shall be done in us.

I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.
I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;
He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.
—Hosea 14:5–7

Reflect today on the journeys God has led you on in the past and where He might be calling you today. Are you ready to say yes to Him, to receive whatever He gives? Lay out your worries before Him so that He can demonstrate His love for you. Turn your attention toward this most important commandment and nurture your relationship with God. Let Him show you how loving and trustworthy He is, so that you can say yes to Him with all heart, all your understanding, and all your strength.


Image: Hermann Hammer, Sacred Heart of Jesus on Pinus Cembra in the Stubai Alps between Salfains and Grieskogel / CC0 1.0