The Passion of John the Baptist

“Mom, can I eat a grasshopper to show God I love Him—like John the Baptist?” At age four, little Nicholas is ready to be a disciple of today’s saint.

It is more difficult to see what compelled more grown-up minds to follow Saint John the Baptist. Here was a man living in the wastes of the desert. His diet was insects and wild honey. His clothes were camel’s hair and a leather girdle. He had no power or position but only poverty as his identity. At first glance, his appearance would suggest more lunatic than life coach.

And yet we are told: “There went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 4:5)

What attracted them?

John was clear in his mission—he was not the Messiah. He was to prepare the way for the Messiah. “I baptize with water, but He will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” “I am not worthy to unfasten his sandal strap…” “He must increase; I must decrease.”

John’s poverty was not merely external. He was aware of who he was, but also of who he was not. He depended on God for everything. He allowed himself to be humanly weak in order that he might be strengthened by God. Everything in his life was ordered not to self-promotion but to ushering in the kingdom of God.

There is a measure of freedom in not caring what others think, but by itself that is not holiness.  Foolish or insane people don’t care what others think either. John the Baptist did care what God thought, and that is what fueled his passion.

“You brood of vipers!” he challenged the Pharisees. “It is not lawful for you to marry your brother’s wife!” he told King Herod. His mission was to preach repentance, to “make straight the way of the Lord.” To prepare for God, to make a path for Him to come, to clear out of the way any obstacles, especially pride and sin.

In contrast, King Herod, with a literal kingdom at his disposal, was nonetheless deeply dependent on the opinion of others. He feared John’s message, and so had him put in prison, but was afraid that he might be right, and afraid of what might happen to him, or what the people might say, if he did something to him. “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20)

Herod’s mistress—i.e. his brother’s wife whom he had unlawfully married—hated John and looked for a way to silence him forever. And so it was that she prompted her daughter to dance at a banquet, so titillating Herod that he rashly and publicly promised her whatever she might ask—even half his kingdom. At her mother’s behest she requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

“The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her. So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head.” (Mark 6:26)

What is deeply disturbing about this story is that we see a gruesome act carried out, not as an act of power, but of weakness. It is not a story of personal malice or vengeance or even violent temper. Instead we see a very weak man—controlled first by his passion of lust and then by his fear of human opinion—swayed to commit a most barbaric act about which he “knows better.” The bloody head on the platter shows us what following the spirit of the world will lead to.

Today’s feast invites us not only to admiration of John the Baptist or to condemnation of Herod but to an examination of our own passions. What are the motivating forces behinds our actions, our lives? Are we seeking God’s kingdom, or our own?

Interestingly in Mark’s Gospel this atrocious banquet is followed immediately by the feeding of the multitudes with five loaves and two fish. Jesus has another banquet in mind—in which, like John, He will give His life, to feed us with Himself.

Head of John the Baptist

Image Credit: Caravaggio [Public domain]

Dressing for a Wedding

Inevitably, among the daily news about politics and sports and celebrity break-ups and make-ups, there is at least one big post about fashion. In particular, whenever there is a star-studded event, be it the Oscars or Met Gala or somebody’s sixth wedding, we are treated to a slideshow of who wore what, who wore it better, fashion faux-pas and beautiful bodies wearing anything or almost nothing.

There must be quite a fan base for fashion news. I would not, however, expect God to be among those keeping track of wedding guest attire. And yet, in today’s Gospel, we hear the parable of the wedding garment. A man shows up at a wedding improperly attired. His punishment is not merely goggling or gossip, but being cast out—“into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

If there is one thing decidedly not in fashion it is Hell. And that God would send someone there for a failure to keep a dress code is more shocking than what the starlets aren’t wearing. What is going on?

When I was young I hated today’s Gospel. If todays’ feast, the Queenship of Mary, highlights the beauty of the faith, the story of the poor slob kicked out in the darkness of Hell seems to be representative of its ugliness. It seems unfair that being underdressed, even for a wedding, could warrant damnation. What kind of a God do we worship?

It was only later that I learned about first-century customs underlying today’s story. Guests who arrived a royal wedding were given the garments necessary for that wedding. The king knew that his subjects could never afford fitting attire, could not produce the appropriate festive garments on their own. And so the king himself provided them.

The man in the story was guilty of refusing a gift. He preferred to cover himself. Why? Was he like the Pharisee, who tried to justify himself with good works? Like Adam and Eve, who tried to hide nakedness with fig leaves? Or just like a regular old sinner who doesn’t think that he is that dirty?

The garment symbolizes sanctifying grace. “Nothing unclean can enter heaven.” In order to be happy in heaven with God, we need to be purified, to be in His grace.

Grace by definition is not something that we can achieve on our own; it is pure gift. We receive this gift at baptism, often as babies, when even the choice is made for us. If we forfeit it through mortal sin, God offers us restoration in the sacrament of Reconciliation. He continues to provide us with the grace to resist sin, and to repent when we fail. It is however up to us to choose to accept this gift, to put on the garment that He offers us.

The feast of the Queenship of Mary highlights this gift, and the goodness of God. It is His delight to share His glory with us! This is pure gift. Mary was not filled with grace on her own. She was saved, as we all are, through her Son. She could not have conceived Jesus by sheer willpower. (Couples who struggle with infertility can attest that even a purely human pregnancy cannot be achieved by willpower alone).

Yet here is a little Jewish girl chosen out of all women to be the Mother of God, and now enthroned as Queen of the entire universe. What did God ask of her? Her assent. She says yes to letting God clothe her, lead her, choose her destiny. The destiny that seemed so humble while she lived on earth became something beyond the wildest of human imaginings and aspirations.

Today God asks of us a yes. To put off the shabby rags of our sinfulness, to take on His robes of righteousness. These robes won’t merit a spread in the fashion pages. We are dressing not for today’s news but for a wedding in eternity.

Vincent_Malo_-_Wedding Guest Resized

Featured Image: Vincent Malo [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

His Own Mother

We were walking home from church when four-year-old Lucy suddenly stopped in her tracks, incredulous. “Wait…you mean God made His own Mother?!?”

The mystery of Mary is not just something to startle four-year-olds. Reflecting on Mary highlights the truth of the Incarnation, and the glorious plan of God.

The Maker of the Universe entered that Universe in the smallest way possible, as a single cell, hidden in the womb of a young girl in a small town itself almost unknown.

God could have come to earth in any way He pleased. He chose to enter the womb of the Virgin Mary. He did not choose her merely as a vessel, but as a Mother. He chose to be carried in a human body, to be nursed at human breasts, to be changed and swaddled and rocked in human arms. We are told that He was obedient to her and to Joseph, allowing His own creatures to teach Him to walk, to eat, to read and write, to pray.

In today’s Gospel we hear the story of the Visitation. Mary is carrying the newly conceived Jesus beneath her heart as she hastens to the hill country to her cousin Elizabeth.  The mothers meet and so do the children within, as Baby John the Baptist leaps for joy at Mary’s voice and the presence of his Cousin.

“Who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” wonders Elizabeth aloud. There is an echo of royalty in her words—this title was used for the mother of the king. But we must not rush past the very simple reality that a human mother was the Mother of God. The work of God was to be mediated through human bodies.

The Council of Ephesus had to confront the heresy of Nestorianism, which basically separated the humanity and divinity of Jesus and considered Mary the mother only of His humanity. The truth is that Jesus is One Person, who is both God and Man, and His Mother is Mother of that complete Person. She was affirmed in Ephesus as Theotokos, the God-bearer, and, incidentally, when the crowds heard this they rioted for joy!

Mary carried the child, God, first within her womb, and then in her heart as He walked the roads of Galilee, Jerusalem, and ultimately up the hill to Calvary. There at the Cross Jesus expanded Her motherhood to include the Beloved Disciple, and thereby all of us: “Woman, behold your son.”

Just as her motherhood of Jesus was not merely spiritual, but bodily, so also her concern for each of us and all of our needs. Her first prayer of intercession was only four words, “They have no wine.” A lack of wine would embarrass the wedding hosts. But Mary was also aware and awaiting the wine of a greater feast that Her Son would one day initiate.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Assumption. At the close of her earthly life, Mary was brought body and soul into heaven. She is a sign of our hope, as it is God’s desire that we too shall join Him in heaven, body and soul. She is also confirmation that the plan of God is to glorify what is human, including the human body.

Honest to God

Years ago, I was struggling in my faith, longing for the experience of God that others seemed to have but that was lacking in my life despite years of Catholic practice.  I knew by faith that God was there the way one knows that the sun is there, even on a cloudy day when it is completely hidden–I knew that He had to be there, but I couldn’t feel any warmth or light or personal sign of His Presence. As my desire to encounter Him grew (I did not then know that this was a good sign of His already working in my life!) I became more and more frustrated and depressed, and so sought out spiritual direction.

“You need to talk with God about why you are angry with him.”

“What!?!” I spluttered indignantly. “I am not angry with God! What are you talking about?” I was trying hard to be a good Catholic girl. How could he accuse me of harboring anger towards God?

Only I was.

It was not a conscious anger, but rather a series of defensive walls I had built up to lock away those parts of my life that were troublesome or unholy—unhealed wounds, moral failings, pain and emptiness and frustration that I “knew” were not godly.

In practice I limited prayer to polite praise and petition, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady who was constrained to converse only about “the weather and your health.” It didn’t go well for either of us! My prayer life was so limited that it barely continued.

Later as I sat there alone, I felt my frustrations welling up within me, years of waiting and feeling abandoned came rushing out in tears.

Then I began to talk to God not as I thought I ought to, borrowing prayers above my pay grade to express pious ambitions I never actually felt, but telling Him what I really thought.

There are not adequate words to express certain things that we default to in clichés as “life-changing,” but from that moment things began to change. Later on, l learned that we must “pray as we can, not as we can’t” and that honesty with God is the first step. If we want to know that God is real, we must start by being “real” with Him.

Saint Martha, whose feast we celebrate today, is a beautiful icon of what it means to pray “for real.”

When we first meet Martha, she is “burdened by much serving” and “anxious about many things.” But rather than stewing in secret resentment, she brings her concerns to Jesus, asking directly, “Lord, do you not care…?”

The Lord, rather than being bothered by her protest, calls to her by name, twice: “Martha, Martha…!” Yet He calls her to the higher life, “One thing is required…” He does not take away her burden by demanding her sister help. Rather, He invites Martha to surrender the anxiety of her work by placing it in the context of prayer, of relationship with Him. This will include also making time to sit with Him, be with Him.

The second Gospel story involving Martha includes one of the most fascinating lines in Scripture: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where He was two more days…”

Because he loved Martha, he waited. Meanwhile, Lazarus dies. The heart of Martha, whom Jesus loves, is broken. Why does Jesus do this? Mysteriously, this is for her sake.

“Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!” Martha confronts the One who loves her.

Jesus wants her to bring Him her pain, her anger, her fears. For Jesus knows, that when we bring these things into dialog with Him, when we allow Him into the dark spaces, the graves within our hearts, He will bring new life.

Martha also needs resurrection, healing.

I have come to believe that you are the Christ.” Martha has changed since we last saw her. She has received His rebuke, His invitation to the better part, and has grown. Now as she brings her grief and anger to Jesus, He invites her to hope in His power to bring good, even in a situation that looks hopeless. “I AM the resurrection and the life.” It is not merely what He will do; it is what He is.

He doesn’t merely stand outside her grief and anger but joins her in it. Outside the tomb, Jesus weeps.

There is a tragic lie that sometimes circulates in Christian circles, that our emotions are not holy, that anger (the emotion) is not good. But we see Jesus himself becoming angry. We see him “deeply troubled.” He is not okay with death. We must not rush too quickly past our pain, as if it doesn’t matter, as if, like Lazarus, it is to be buried.

When we bring our emotions to Jesus, He will recognize them and then purify them.

 

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Image Credit: Joseph Bergler the Younger [Public domain]

Tea Bags

“I do it myself!” On our family vacation over the 4th of July, two-year-old Zippy is declaring her independence.

Her independence produces a lot of work, particularly for my brother Joe, who is a good and attentive father. “I do it myself!” she insists, as she puts on her pajamas, but her leg goes into the arm sleeve and so she is stuck until help arrives. “I do it myself!” she peels her own egg, and my brother must bring the “scary weapon” to vacuum the 98% of the shells that wind up on the floor. “I do it myself!” she jumps into the deep end of the pool, propelled to the surface by her “floaties” and the subtle assistance of an adult hand guiding her to shore.

As I delight in her growth, I muse on my own, and the mysterious interplay of freedom and dependence on God. I too, have a patient Father, teaching me both to step out in faith but also fall back in trust. I am learning, too, that the “doing” of Christianity is so often a matter of “being.” What does this mean?

Recently in prayer I was anguishing over something, the details of which I do not recall, but it was a matter requiring some degree of discernment and action. However, the image that persisted in prayer was tea bags. Just tea bags, steeping. I was jarred by the banality of it. I wanted something at least inspirational, if not instructive. But tea bags?

I am often asked about prayer, and my consistent advice is to begin by “making a space to be with God,” i.e. to begin by committing to a specific daily prayer time. For anyone who wishes to grow in the spiritual life, to have a relationship with Christ, daily prayer time is paramount. Nothing matters more. Just fifteen minutes a day, practiced with persistence and perseverance, will be life-changing.

In the beginning, it often helps to have some “props” for prayer—images or books to focus on, or Scriptures or other reading to guide our reflections. It is also of great help to invite the Holy Spirit to pray within us, and to ask Jesus to lead our prayer in whatever way He wishes. Many excellent books have been written on ways that can help beginners in prayer; some I will cover in future posts.

To pray is to “practice the presence of God.” It is “wasting time with God.” It is not something that we do, although in the beginning we have to work to open ourselves to God, to be quiet and still and truly present. It is to receive the love of God, and then to return it. “Prayer is not thinking much but loving much,” says Saint Teresa of Avila. (It is worth noting, that Teresa herself relied on books and images for help in prayer, especially in the early years).

Being present does not mean being passive. In the beginnings of prayer, in particular, we may need to fight—to work to be still, to fight for silence, to be recollected. Especially in today’s culture, times of quiet do not come easily.

Are we afraid of silence?

In the beginning, this silence and space for God can be disconcerting, or even frightening. “Just who am I?” the silence taunts us with its emptiness. But it is only in the presence of I AM that we are filled and given a more true answer.

In today’s first reading, God identifies Himself to Moses as “I AM.” It is fascinating to compare Him to the gods of other religions, who are numerous and named for what they do and/or control. The god of war, the goddess of the harvest or of fertility, the sun god, the river god. Our God, who has a far more impressive resume and who holds the whole world, does not identify Himself as “I do” but as “I AM.”

To pray is to be with this God.

Saint Teresa of Avila was named a Doctor of the Church for her works on prayer. But at one point, she herself gave up on prayer for over a year, when it became frustrating, and she mistakenly thought, fruitless. She learned that prayer is essential, that it depends on God, and she wrote beautiful works on growing in prayer.

She uses the image of prayer as a garden that is to be watered. In the beginning there is work to be done removing weeds etc. and cultivating growth; the garden must also be watered regularly.

In the beginning, the pray-er seems to be doing most of the work, but as she grows spiritually, the effort of the soul lessens and God’s work increases. In the early stages Teresa likens prayer to drawing water from a well—a lot of work, for a very little water. Later it may be like a pump—the pray-er is still “working” at prayer, but more efficiently and for more water. At a third stage God provides the water as through an irrigation system—the soul is more still, more dependent, more receptive. And in the final stages of prayer, it is like a garden watered by rain: the soul is completely receptive.

At each stage of prayer, we must give to God what we can, and let Him give to us what we cannot. It is us that He wants. He wants not just our actions, but our hearts, our desires—including our desire to be with Him. And sometimes, we must ask even for this desire! The desire to pray is itself a gift of God.

Prayer isn’t always pretty. We come with our hearts as they are—angry, broken, bruised by sin, filled with self—to give what we are, as we are, to the God of Being.

Sometimes in prayer we might have wonderful “experiences” of the presence of God. But other times, we are transformed more quietly, more subtly, in the way water receives from tea bags, simply by time and togetherness. It is in these moments that God works, and we receive, without even knowing what or how.

River for Prayer unsplash

Image credit:  Photo by Monika MG on Unsplash

 

Living the Ellipses

“Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can.” God invites Abram to faith in today’s First Reading. We’ve all marveled at the night sky, contemplating its vastness and the twinkling of bodies light-years away. But some scholars suggest that it may have been daytime when God directs this upward gaze. Did Abram looking up see the stars with his eyes, or only with memory and faith? In any case, he is asked to envision a promise of progeny too numerous to be counted.

Only Abram has no son. Not even one. So he must wait on a promise.

He waits and waits, and he must have wearied of waiting. For Genesis recounts how Sarah, infertile, offers him her maid Hagar for childbearing purposes. Abraham “listens to the voice” of Sarah, notes Father Anthony Giambrone, a clue that this is not the voice of God, to be listened to with faith1. But Abraham becomes a father to Ishmael. When Abraham asks that Ishmael be the promised son, God reiterates that Abraham will have a son through Sarah, a child of their marriage. Isaac is named laughter because that is Sarah’s reaction.

But let us stop for a moment, to revisit the waiting years. What takes only paragraphs to recount, is a story of waiting more than twenty-five years, fifteen before Ishmael, ten more before Isaac.

What?

For twenty-five years Abraham is schooled in faith. In trust. In waiting on God.

In filmmaking this is known as ellipsis—the merciful passing over the monotonous by skipping from one scene to another much later. Years of sameness, of routine, of waiting, are skipped with a simple slugline: “Twenty-five years later…” We needn’t slog through the tedium of in-between.

But real life, real holiness, is lived in the ellipses.

Hillsong’s recent release Highlands (Song of Ascent), speaks of finding God not only on the mountain but in the valleys and the shadows. “I will praise you on the mountains…I will praise you when the mountain’s in my way.” While we would scale any mountain to find God, He is closer than we think, as the song reminds us, “in the highlands and the heartache all the same.”

We are reminded to find God in the peaks and the valleys, to “sing in the shadows our song of ascent.” For many of us, however, the hardest part is not so much the mountains or valleys, but rather the plain. Plain as in flat, going nowhere, and plain as in boring. Nothing interesting or exciting. No obvious meaning or mission.

Abraham became our father in faith not just in a heroic moment with Isaac on Mount Moriah. He became our father in faith in the years of ellipses when nothing notable happened. When it seemed God was asking nothing, doing nothing.

Saint Josemaría Escrivá, whose feast we celebrate today, preached about sanctifying the everyday. Like Saint Therese, he realized that the making of saints was not in the mountains but in the mundane. Offering little things to God. Offering the littleness that is us.

Josemaría challenges us to offer the material of daily life: the office grind, the homemaker’s chores, everything from our conversations to our recreation to our family or community life. Something as simple as filing papers, done well and with love, becomes an offering to God.

We often think of saints as those who did great things for God, and certainly we can find many heroes among them. But so many were ordinary people in whom God was allowed to do great things, sanctifying simple work and waiting in the ellipses.

Even Our Lady, now Queen of the Universe, was not asked to do anything of itself out of the ordinary. She was asked to bear and raise a Child. Joseph, her husband, was told by an angel to take her into his home. She was not asked to go out, to preach, to sacrifice her own life as a martyr, or to start a new blog or brand. Her tasks were those of an ordinary woman of her time. What is extraordinary is that she did them with a total yes.

Jesus, too, lived the ellipses. For thirty years, He lived a quiet life of obedience, a life so outwardly unremarkable that when He began His public ministry, even His own relatives thought He was mentally ill. Offended onlookers from His hometown said, “Isn’t that the son of Joseph, the carpenter?”

It is this Jesus who today walks with us, in the tedium and trials of the plains, inviting us to join Our Lady in a Song of Assent.

Milky Way for Ellipses


Notes:

1Giambrone O.P., Anthony. “Forbidden Fruit and the Fruit of Faith.” Magnificat. June 2019: pp.403-404. Print.

Featured Image: Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

Idols and Identity

It is so much easier to be happy when the sun is shining, and this Easter the weather cooperated. The world seemed to sing of the grandeur of God, commensurate with the joy of the season. The sun was bright, the flowers bloomed, and my spirits soared. “At last!” I thought. “God is providing a season of joy!”

But then the rains began. It rained for twelve days straight, skipping one, only to resume again and keep on raining. There was the standard flood of jokes about Noah’s ark in the Hudson Valley, but I felt the sog seeping deep into my soul. And when the rains stopped, the sog remained. It was as though my heart were wreathed in a mist of sadness that I could not explain, weighted by something I could not identify.

It happened that in mid-May I attended a mini-Unbound workshop led by the CFRs in Newburgh. Sitting in the church pews, I wasn’t paying close attention during the first talk. Instead, I kept rehashing in my mind how a friend had recently let me down. The transgression was minor, but my mind kept replaying it, a video gone viral in the worst way. “Let it go already!” the Girl I Ought To Be scolded. Even real me was annoyed, because it wasn’t a big deal. So why was I still thinking about it? Why did it, too, weigh on my soggy heart?

“Sometimes we cannot forgive, because underlying the injury is an identity wound.” I have heard many (many, many) talks on forgiveness, but here was a new angle. The speaker gave an example. A man is fired because of the actions of a co-worker. If that man’s job was his identity—that which gave him his sense of worth and meaning and importance—then there would be much more to forgive.

Was God speaking to me? During Lent a visiting Sister had spoken about how God had led her to do a “friendship fast,” because her friends had become her idols. I had felt an uncomfortable resonance as she spoke, but didn’t know what that might mean. Now I thought, was I making idols of my friendships? Was that also connected? Is that why I couldn’t just let go?

And then as we were led through (yet another) forgiveness exercise, I found myself back in two all-too familiar memories. Both times, I was deeply betrayed by someone I thought was a friend. Both times, a friend had turned against me, to side with someone more popular in a manner that was particularly cruel. Both times, the rejection was temporary, but my heart never forgot.

I had hoped for some new revelation; instead I found my eyes tearing at the same old stories that I had walked through so many times before. I had forgiven all so many times. I didn’t even feel bitterness toward the people involved, but here I was, crying again, over decades old spilled friendship. Again.

And as I thought about idols and identity I began to understand what the speakers were saying. I had thought that the problem with idols was that they took on the identity of gods in our life. Rather, I realize, they had become what gave me my identity.

My friends had given me an identity. I felt that failures in friendship meant that I was a failure. I looked to my friends to affirm my goodness, my lovability. I depended on friendship as if it were a god.

Depending on friends is not all bad. Human relationships are meant to be conduits of the grace of God. Human love is the medium by which we most easily and most often experience the love of God. But human love images, and points to, the divine love. It does not replace it.

Anything can become an idol. My own virtue. Morality. My to-do list. My sense of mission. The idols of ought: what my life ought to look like; the girl I ought to be. Particular forms of liturgy can become the object of worship, rather than the means of worship. My political or religious affiliations can become more important than God.

There is a severe mercy in being stripped of our idols, and the accompanying false identities. It is a mercy because it is for our good. But it is severe.

The answer is to choose faith: not just faith in who God is, but in who I am in Him. Faith that I am lovable. Faith that I am not alone. Faith that there is good in me. That I am known, and not found wanting, not found to be no good. Not rejected, not abandoned, not forsaken.

Lord I believe; help my unbelief.