A Joyful Fast

What comes to mind when we think of fasting?

Some personal thoughts that come to mind include deep hunger pangs, lack of energy, distracting myself to take my mind off the fact that I’m fasting…

Fasting, of course, can come in forms other than fasting from food… abstaining from social media, watching Netflix, a small daily comfort like creamer or sugar in your coffee… but regardless, the challenges of fasting may be the first thoughts that come to mind.  At times, we may even wonder honestly if any fruit is actually being born of our fasting. 

Our readings today can help us understand this Christian practice and our approach to it more fully.  The word of the Lord inspires an approach to fasting that may initially seem counterintuitive: a joyful disposition of heart.  The good news for us is that we can’t achieve this in our own power and we are not expected to – this is obtained by God’s grace.  First, we must understand His heart on the matter to see how the essence and fruit of fasting ultimately flows from the disposition lying beneath it.

A joyful fast?  Does this seem like a bit of a paradox?  In the gospel today Jesus seems to explain that his disciples are not fasting but feasting.  His prophetic wedding imagery seems to communicate that while He is with them there is joy and feasting, but His Passion and death will bring about their fasting.  Why then, in this time of Lent, as we anticipate Christ’s Passion and strive to enter into a spirit of penance am I suggesting we maintain a joyful heart?  I believe the answer lies in a deeper understanding of our Christianity so let’s dig a bit deeper…

Lord, help us see this through your eyes…

A couple passages from today’s readings:

“A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” -Psalm 51

“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits…

…This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly…
breaking every yoke…
sharing your bread with the hungry…
sheltering the opressed… clothing the naked…
not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your wound shall quickly be healed”

-selections from Isaiah 58: 1-9 (emphasis mine)

This passage from Isaiah shows us that fasting in the way of the Lord, sacrificing with a sense of purpose and confidence in God’s power, heals.  It heals others and it heals us, and this healing leads to freedom.  Fasting in the way of the Lord has the power to heal and free us.  How beautiful!  This knowledge breeds hope the source of fasting with a joyful heart.

Now, we can begin to understand how it is possible to fast with a joyful heart – this joy is not feigned.  This joy is not a surface-level happiness.  It is a fruit of our hope, a virtue so central to our Christian faith.  Even as we fast in a spirit of penance, remembering the Lord’s Passion and Death as Jesus foreshadows in the gospel, we can maintain a joyful heart because as we truly unite to His suffering we are also joined to the hope of the resurrection.  This is the wonder of our God of paradoxes – through death we gain life.  So, through the sufferings of our Lenten fasting, God allows us to enter in to a deeper joy.  And because we live in the truth of the Resurrection, we can actually approach fasting with this joyful heart, for we know God will bring forth much fruit and new life from these genuine offerings of our heart.  It is our heart that God is seeking, as today’s Psalm reveals: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” 

Now, I joyfully join in the sentiments of my priest’s parting words at our Liturgy* last Sunday as I wish you a “Happy Lent!”

Lord, help us begin with a humble and contrite heart.  May we experience the freedom that your forgiveness brings, and may this freedom bring us true joy.   From our joy, we present our hearts, our Lenten actions, and fasting to you, in the hope of your power and the confidence that you will bring forth new life.  Thank you for this season of Lent.  We surrender and consecrate it to you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.   


*You may have noticed my using the term Liturgy instead of Mass. My husband and I often celebrate Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic Church, an Eastern tradition of our Catholic faith. (Yes, the Byzantine Catholic rite is in communion with the Pope, and yes, you can attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy to fulfill your Sunday obligation! 🙂 ) …I’ll have to devote a future post on the beauties of the Eastern rite in the future! For now, I’d love to invite you to pray this Prayer of St. Ephrem, which focuses on virtues Christians are called to practice always, and especially during Lent. The Byzantine Rite prays this during Lent (The Great Fast) and encourages it to be prayed daily during this season.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Spare me from the spirit of apathy and meddling,
Of idle chatter and love of power.

Instead, grant to me, Your servant,
The spirit of integrity and humility,
Of patience and love.

Yes, O Lord and God,
Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
And not to judge others,

For You are blessed,
Now and forever.   Amen

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number

One of these choices is not like the other

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As an actress, I have frequented circles where the pursuit of life, love and the absolute virtue of self-expression reign supreme: Live your truth. If it’s you and it makes you happy, go for it. The universe is looking out for you.

These messages are found not only in my artist circles—they saturate all of our relativistic society and egalitarian culture, where nothing is objectively true and all is subjective; where no one or no One can be Lord over the “almighty” individual. It is all too clear who is the ruler of this world (hmm…does this make anyone want to shout the conquering cry of the Angel of Victory?)

This is in no way to stand in judgment over any colleagues or friends—far from it. I too lived this way during my “cherry picking” days and had some problems with claiming absolutes, especially where the Church was concerned. Without being rooted in my identity as a daughter of the Most High or knowing about the the infinite treasures and wisdom of Holy Mother Church in a meaningful way, it was all too easy for me to think that I was doing alright as long as I was a “good person;” that I had my life over here and could put God someplace else to visit when it was convenient.

Slowly, mercifully, over the years of deeper conversion, the Lord convicted me. He opened my heart to the immensity of His unique, personal love for me (and for each of us). He opened my eyes to the spiritual reality and battle of our existence, where there is indeed an absolute choice to be made.

Moses says, in no uncertain terms:

Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish…

Easy enough choice, right? When looking at the eternal bliss of Heaven or the infernal horrors of Hell, who would willingly choose death over life? Yet that is the trap so many of us fall into when we willfully turn our hearts away from God for whatever reason, refusing to listen to the Truth—the Truth of His love for us, and the responsibility we have as His children. And not only listen to the Truth, but to joyously and actively choose to obey.

In the Gospel today, Jesus shares with His intimate friends a harrowing picture of the sacrifice He will make for the salvation of sinners. Knowing the infinite value of our souls and the passing temptations of this world, Christ then invites us all to make that choice to deny ourselves, daily take up our cross, and follow Him; to choose eternal life over eternal death. Today we celebrate the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who give witness to this in a powerful way. As St Paul writes in Romans 8:18–

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

In this life, we should strive for nothing short of sanctity—Heaven is the realm of Saints and that is our true land. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of whenever I’m tempted to be “led astray and adore and serve other gods:”

When I care more for the opinions of others and it feels easier to keep my mouth shut in conversation rather than defend my Catholic faith and beliefs; when I let talk venture into uncharitable gossip because it’s all in “fun;” when I let jealousy poison my opinion of another person rather than seeing that person, and the gifts He has bestowed upon me, through the eyes of God; when I’d rather scroll through social media or watch Netflix rather than pray with Scripture or the Rosary.

Every day in countless small ways and in all sorts of places—at work, on the train, on the streets—the Lord invites us to die to ourselves, to love Him, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments. We can turn away from Him, piercing His Heart with our refusal, or we can turn to Him with our whole heart.

I have come to relish the moments when someone asks about the Divine Mercy image at my dressing room table, or notices my scapular peeking out, or learns that I attend daily Mass and bi-weekly confession (working up to weekly, Padre Pio!). Yes, even the moments of wide-eyed disgust when passersby see me, a young woman of color, standing outside Planned Parenthood in prayer. These moments of encounter open the door to astonishment and plant the seeds of grace.

The world around us is hungry for Truth and real Love. The universe and the gods that we make in our own image will never satisfy our deepest desire for God.

When we ask for the grace to live boldly and joyfully the proclamation that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD, that there is no other, and that we were made for so much more than what the world offers—we will receive it.

When our seemingly ordinary days are colored by the extraordinary fact that Our Lord’s sacrifice and His infinite love for us, that Heaven is real (as is Hell), and that we have a choice to make—who knows how many souls we can win for the Lord?

Let us join with the universal Church in prayer for the Holy Father’s intention this month–that Christian communities, especially those who are persecuted, feel that they are close to Christ and have their rights respected.

Be faithful. Be authentic. Most of all, be not afraid. The victory is His.

Choose life, then.

Choose life.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, pray for us!

Wisdom, Personified

How often do we read or hear something from Scripture, think we’ve wrapped our heads around it, and then later totally get blown out of the water by the same concept? Thank God for His mercy and willingness to teach us the same lessons over and over.

Take a look at today’s first reading:

Wisdom breathes life into her children
and admonishes those who seek her.
He who loves her loves life;
those who seek her will be embraced by the Lord.
He who holds her fast inherits glory;
wherever he dwells, the LORD bestows blessings.
Those who serve her serve the Holy One;
those who love her the LORD loves.
He who obeys her judges nations;
he who hearkens to her dwells in her inmost chambers.
If one trusts her, he will possess her;
his descendants too will inherit her.
She walks with him as a stranger
and at first she puts him to the test;
Fear and dread she brings upon him
and tries him with her discipline
until she try him by her laws and trust his soul.
Then she comes back to bring him happiness
and reveal her secrets to them
and she will heap upon him
treasures of knowledge and an understanding of justice.
But if he fails her, she will abandon him
and deliver him into the hands of despoilers.

-Sirach 4:11-19

How many times have you thought of the word wisdom and already “known” what it meant? To illustrate this point, take a moment to think of the first name that comes to mind of somebody that embodies wisdom.

Who was it? Mr. Miyagi, right? Maybe Morpheus or Gandalf? If you’re lucky, maybe you thought of a spiritual mentor or family member.

Take it a step further: What makes them wise? What does God think is wise?

My wife and I chatted about this one for a while. It’s not really “head knowledge”, nor is it some Hollywood depiction of mysticism. My instinctual definitions of wisdom betrayed the fact that I hadn’t really considered the term from God’s eyes.

So we worked on a better definition, and arrived at 2 key features of a wise person: Peace and Perceptivity. Wise people seem to have an inside source on the way the world works (hm…who might that be?), which allows them to live as the fully integrated version of themselves. They are confident in their worldview and at home in themselves. They are perceptive enough to see movements of the Spirit in everyday events, even when Wisdom “puts him to the test”. Ever thought God was asking you to do something you didn’t want to? I can relate to that. Wise people actually do it.

Take some time to reflect on God’s call to pursue and possess Wisdom today. Think and pray about why today’s reading gives Wisdom the characteristics it does. Why is it a woman? Why does she walk with man as a stranger, then test him, then bring him happiness? I hope that even just a few moments with this dense verse will bless you today.

Fighting Irish

“You’re a natural,” he said with a smile. Though he never explained what location each number corresponded with, I intuitively threw each punch squarely onto his moving mitts. We worked around the ring as I threw a flurry of punches. Breathless and grateful, the timer buzzed.

It’s hard not to love boxing, an artistic and athletic display of grace and strength. However, I’m biased. I’m an Irish Catholic New Yorker and on top of that I’m a red-head. I earned the title of Fighting Irish practically at birth. When backed into a corner, proverbial or literal, my synapses fire so quickly that I’m swinging before I’ve even had time to formulate my animated verbal response. “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a Spirit of power.” 2 Tim. 1:7

Then there’s that part where the Gospel mentions to turn the other cheek – an unnatural response in my book to say the least. However, the verse from the second letter of Timothy does not end with the reminder of our strength found in Christ. “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self control.” Power is not ultimately found in fighting for its own sake.  Rather, as we fight with strength, may we be directed by the good, guided by love, and harnessed by self-control.

This beckons the question – what’s worth fighting for? How can we spend our time and energy using our talents for that which is good? In order to fight well, we need to first recognize what arena we are called into and which one we need to step out from? Wherever you are called, may you dare boldly to fight the good fight, remembering “it’s not the critic who counts.”

Coop

So I can face my giants with confidence

This is what I’m talking about

There’s a magic in the sound of her name

Guarding Paradise

Among the more fascinating family lore is the story of my great-grandparents, who both came from San Margherita, Sicily, growing up in towns just three miles apart.  Unfortunately, these were “enemy towns” and so despite their proximity they did not know each other.  It was only when they separately traveled to America that they met and ultimately married.

In their new neighborhood in Brooklyn, there was a new kind of enemy. It was the practice of certain local powers to collect “protection money” ostensibly to ensure the safety of the payee’s family.  My great-grandfather, a peaceable man, dutifully paid up whenever they came to call. 

However, one day he was not home, so the collector sought payment from my great-grandmother Anna, who was in the kitchen frying sausages.  Anna, outraged at the request, shouted back: “I’ll show you protection!” and aimed the skillet of sausages and hot oil at the stunned man who promptly ran away.

My great-grandfather was horrified upon hearing this and lived in mortal fear for their safety for the next several weeks.  However, it seems that the powers-that-be had determined that the family did not in fact require additional protection and no further payments were solicited.

*            *            *

Genesis, from which we get our First Readings this week, tells the story of a different Protection Fail, at the origin of our human family.

 

In the beginning, the Voice of God spoke light and life into the world.  “Let there be light” He said, and there was light.  He likewise spoke into existence the land and the sea, the night and the day, and spoke again, filling them with life—the creatures of the sea, the birds of the air, the vegetation and animals of the land.  He looked and saw that “it was good.” 

Then as the crown of His creation, He said:

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” Gen 1:26

So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.  And God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…” Gen 1:27

And God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was very good. Gen 1:31

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.  Gen 2:15

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”  Gen 2:16

One could write books unpacking the rich symbolism and deep meanings of these first two chapters of Genesis, and even of these particular lines.  For now, we will look at the word “keep” in Gen 2:15, which in Hebrew is shamar.  It is given to man to care for and cultivate the garden, but there is also a deeper meaning of “keep”, in which they are to watch over, protect, guard the garden.  Guard it from what?

There is another voice in the garden.  A voice that is in Opposition to God, to life, to the light.  This voice comes cunningly to Eve, “Did God say…” he begins.  From the beginning, it is the goal of the Opposition Voice to sow doubt about the Word of God. 

“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’” he asks.  Notice that this “most subtle of creatures” has changed the words.  God’s voice said: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.”  The serpent has changed “every tree but one” to “not any tree.”  This secondary lie is to sow doubt in the generosity of God, by emphasizing and adding to the negative.

“You shall not die” the serpent proceeds.  One notes that he is denying consequences (again, falsely) but there is another MO at work: “It’s not a big deal.”  The Opposition Voice undermines the importance, the gravity, of the Word of God. 

Then the Opposition Voice continues: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…”  The serpent’s forked-tongue strikes doubly here.  First, he suggests that they have a lack, a need, that God does not mean or wish to fill.  With these words he strikes at the Fatherhood of God—suggesting that God does not want what’s best for them.  And the voice awakens in humanity a fear of inadequacy and of dependence.

It was in fact the plan of God spoken into creation that man be “in His image and likeness.”  But the serpent who “was a liar and a murderer” from the beginning wishes to separate the Father from His children and does so by convincing the children to doubt God’s Fatherhood.

Once they lose sight of God as Father, men lose sight of what it means to be like Him. Their sin does not make them God-like, but the opposite.  Even today, when we say of someone “he acts like he’s God” it is not praise; it suggests that a person is arrogant, self-serving, even tyrannical.  When the Word of God shows up in the person of Jesus, humanity doesn’t even recognize Him.

After this dialog with the devil, Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that [it] was to be desired to make one wise…”  The Opposition Voice has thus changed her vision, so she eats of the fruit and shares it with Adam.

And then the Opposition Voice speaks again, telling them they are naked and should be ashamed, that they should hide from God.  “But wait!” you say.  The serpent doesn’t speak those words!   

He doesn’t have to.  The Opposition Voice originates with the serpent, but continues in our own voice, or in the voice of the world.  We don’t always need him to whisper doubts and temptations, we do it to ourselves.  We let the world tell us what we lack, what it can do for us better than God can.

We know the Good News: that a woman would come who would perfectly hear and keep the Word of God.  That her Son would defeat the serpent with His death on the Cross.  At our baptism, we are reclaimed, named as children of God.  We are named, our sin is washed in the waters, and then the community says the Our Father.

We are given this identity at baptism and the promise of paradise. But we must guard it from the Opposition Voice.

How do we know where a voice is coming from?

We are invited to get to know God’s voice by spending time in prayer, spending time reading His Word, learning to hear Him say I love you.  The more we are exposed to what is authentically God, the more we will learn to recognize what is counterfeit.

I hope to continue exploring this in future posts…

 

Eves Temptation

Image Credit: William Blake (Public Domain)

 

 

The Power of Letting Joy Spark

 

Dear fellow pilgrims,

What better describes your spiritual life: a “gloomy darkness” or a “festal gathering”?

I have to admit, my default spirituality is “gloomy darkness”. But a holy “gloomy darkness,” like Lent. (Or at least that’s what I tell myself.) I love Lent, it’s Easter that is harder for me to get into. Who is with me??? Why is it hard for us Lent-lovers to truly celebrate and embrace joy while enduring and dealing with suffering is easier? The first reading today reminds us that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has established a new covenant between humans and God characterized by joy, not trembling and fear.

A huge thing I’m learning, though, is this part of me isn’t really operating out of a deeper understanding of suffering at all if it’s easier for me to accept suffering rather than joy. As God has been healing this strange tendency of mine, I’m discovering joy in new ways while I am also letting go of faulty ways I have understood the role of suffering and fear in my life.

In short, I have come to understand that one of the reasons why it is hard for me to truly, deeply, and consciously experience joy in my life is because I have a hard time believing God gives good things to us freely, without a hidden agenda.  All too often, my subconscious response to fun events or moments of potential joy or happiness in life is resisting feeling it deeply in the moment. Why? Well, just in case God wants to take whatever is giving me joy away in the future. In short, I’m trying to cut expected future losses by disengaging from potentially joy-filled moments in the present.

But yeah… that’s not how God works. Those subconscious beliefs do not reflect who God really is, nor do they reflect who I really am to God. I still have a ways to go in truly believing in the relationship Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection made possible with all of my being, even to the depths of my subconscious.

What is the truth? I am a daughter of God and God is my Father who delights in giving me good things because He delights in my delight. God is not pleased when I am afraid of Him and back away from His good gifts. When I encounter suffering, God does not relish the fact that I am suffering. He only allows it so that a greater good might come about.

God’s inheritance for all of us is goodness, is the Resurrection, is eternal bliss in Heaven, and He wants us to live in that joy as much as we can on earth, not only for our good but for attracting others to claim that same inheritance.

The devil wants to suppress our joy, because “the joy of the Lord is [our] strength”! I know God has given me a large heart, and I feel things very deeply and profoundly, and when I am confident in the Lord, I am joyful. When I am joyful, or actively trust in His promise and inheritance of joy amidst suffering, I am unstoppable. And the devil doesn’t want that. He wants us to keep our beliefs about how we can earn good things and also deserve every bad thing that comes our way.

But this balance of joy and pain in our lives is not up to us! All we encounter in life is allowed by God in order to cultivate within us a deeper understanding of Heaven, of God’s ultimate desire for our hearts, of joy and peace and unity with Him.

Brothers and sisters, I pray the Holy Spirit reveals to each one of you how your own faulty understandings of God and yourself hinder experiencing His joy in the present. I pray that we would live our lives out of an unshakeable belief in the goodness of our inheritance as daughters and sons of God, an identity and gift won for us by Jesus that we can neither earn nor lose on our own merits.

Pax Christi!

-Alyssa

King of Peace

Lord Jesus, reveal yourself to us.

            I often find myself drawn to the mystery of the figure in today’s first reading, Melchizedek, a priest and king in the time of Abraham.  He stands out against other kings or priests of the Old Testament in that he is both priest and king (Gn. 14). Our reading from Hebrews reveals Melchizedek as an Old Testament prefiguring of Jesus Christ – in other words, he is a foreshadowing of Jesus, the ultimate priest and king to come.  The psalm highlights the union of kingship and priesthood seen in Melchizedek and eventually Christ, filled with royal imagery surrounded by the refrain: “You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.” 

            Why is this significant?  Reading today’s Gospel with an understanding of Melchizedek, helps us focus in on specific treasures in the Gospel.  In this case, reflecting on Melchizedek allows us to learn more about our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Hebrews tell us that that name of Melchizedek means “righteous king,” and that he was the king of peace, yet his appearance in Genesis is only a shadow of the ultimate reality to be fulfilled in Jesus.  Jesus is the true priest and king.  As we read the Gospel, let us ask the Lord what this relationship between Old Testament Melchizedek and the fulfillment of the kingship and priesthood in Jesus Christ reveals to us about the heart of Jesus Himself.    

           In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus enters the synagogue and encounters a man with a withered hand.  As the Pharisees look on to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath, a day in which work was to be ritually abstained from, Jesus engages with the crippled man and heals his withered hand.  Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”  (emphasis mine)

This is our Priest and our King.  What kind of priest and king is He?  As a meditation, we may allow ourselves to imagine we are the man with the withered hand in Mark’s Gospel…. 

Jesus enters.  He sees us.  He engages us.  He desires to come close to us.  He heals us. 

            Is this how the first century Jews imagined a king or a priest?  Jesus radically challenged the notion of kingship of His day.  But further, is this how we imagine kingship today?  It may not be.  In our very meditation of these daily readings, the Holy Spirit is encouraging us to see kingship through God’s eyes and learn more about the heart of Our Savior, the righteous King, the King of peace.  Jesus is forever our priest and king  – one who desires to come close to our hearts.  A priest and king who knows us and loves us.  Who desires to enter in to the most withered parts of our souls.  So that we may be healed.  So that we may be free.  So that we may share in His peace.   What a King our Jesus is. 

Lord Jesus, Most High Priest and King, thank you for revealing to our hearts the truth of who you are.  Most gracious and compassionate priest and king, we open our souls to you.  Heal the withered parts of our souls as you healed the man in today’s Gospel.  Envelop our hearts, oh King of peace.  Thank you, my God and King, for your desire to draw close to me.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.          

As a step further in your prayer, I invite you to spend time in praise of our King Jesus.  Here is a song which may accompany your praise: All Hail King Jesus