Do Not Be Deceived

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by oral statement or by a letter of ours.” 2 Thessalonians 2:15

This first reading encouraged the followers of the Lord in Thessalonia not to be swayed by outside voices. The words have withstood the passage of time and now we, as children of God, must remain firm in our faith and our beliefs. We must not allow our minds to be filled with the lies promulgated by false prophets and lose hope. It is easy to fall prey to these “outside” voices for they are loud and insistent and constantly bombard all our senses through the different modes of media so pervasive in this modern age. During this pandemic, it has become increasingly hard to attend church and gather together with our fellow believers for support. We are faced with trials we have never experienced before. How do we fight an unfamiliar enemy?

“You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.” Matthew 23:26

In this passage from today’s Gospel, Jesus offers us a way to fight enemies by turning away from the world and focusing inward. We should allow the fear in our hearts to be transformed by the Holy Spirit into hope and let that hope fill our hearts where the Spirit dwells. Although the outside world may seem out of control, we can control ourselves with the help of God in response to it. If we cleanse the inside of our hearts, we can be an example for others in this troubled world, showing it is possible to “stand firm” in the face of all the evils that come from outside the traditions of our faith.

Who Will Enter the Kingdom of Heaven

I remember when I was in elementary school and already consumed by the desire for material things. Recess became a competition for everyone to show off the latest and greatest toy. As I grew older, the “toys” turned into the coolest car or phone, and by the time I graduated from high school, there was an all-out battle to gain admission to the best college, then to have the best job that would make the most money. Looking back and thinking about my initial desires for toys, I realize I never needed those toys. My parents made sure I was always taken care of, but I still remember that feeling of true desperation as far as wanting those toys and the “if only” thoughts that my life would be complete if I had them.

As sinful humans we are bound by these thoughts because we live in a material world. We cannot comprehend the wonders of Heaven because we will not see Heaven until our death. Jesus Christ proclaimed, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” We must go to Jesus and ask the same question the disciples asked in the gospel, “Who then can be saved?” Matthew 19:23–30

The truth is that everyone on this earth has cravings; everyone is searching for their desires to be fulfilled, but so many of us do not understand what really satisfies. This makes the way to the kingdom of Heaven very difficult. We see the material goods we desire in our hearts every day, but we need to seek the kingdom of God. The path to wealth and riches is easy when compared to forsaking all our possessions to follow Jesus. Nevertheless, we are blessed because Jesus has promised us wonders beyond what we can imagine in Heaven if we simply follow Him. Jesus asks for our faith and trust; we may not be able to see what awaits us in Heaven, but we need to believe His promise that it will be worth abandoning all earthly pleasures.

Innocence

A common lament in today’s society is that children are growing up too fast. This opinion is shared by both the Catholic and secular community. Children are faced with several hardships the generations before them never encountered. Children are forced to behave as adults before their physical bodies have matured into adulthood. There are numerous arguments positing why our youth is growing up so quickly, but the problem still remains. Our children are losing their innocence, and even worse, they are losing hope.

When a child has the ability to play and explore his or her world without any preconceived notions of its challenges, that child is free to rest in the Lord. The Gospel today states: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:1-5. The innocence of a child allows him or her to see the kingdom of heaven more clearly because he or she has not lived in this earthly world long enough to have been effected by its sinfulness.

The time of true innocence is becoming shorter for the children of this world. It is in the grip of the enemy, and he is claiming it; the more our society gives into the fear that the enemy instigates, the more children are lost. The Gospel concludes with Jesus referring to the good shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one that goes astray. “It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.” Matthew 18:14.

In these times of hardship, it is crucial to remember we are still the Lord’s flock, and Jesus is still the Good Shepherd. Even though it appears that more children grow up too fast, as they lose hope and go astray, Jesus will never stop seeking them and encouraging them to come back to the flock. There is always hope in the Lord.

Thus Says the Lord

With each new day, the world appears to be confronted with more disasters, increasing chaos and despair. It is hard to hear God’s voice above the turmoil, let alone keep the faith and remain hopeful. We forget that our Heavenly Father is still talking to us. When the terrors of this world are too powerful, and we lose our ability to discern what the Lord is saying, we can turn to the Bible, the Word of God. Consider the first reading for today, Jeremiah 30: 18-20: “Thus says the Lord: See! I will restore the tents of Jacob,…You shall be my people, and I will be your God.” No matter what horrors and pain we must endure on earth, one truth will never change and that is the Lord’s promise to always be our God who will never abandon His people.

This promise was not meant to guarantee that life will be easy or simple; in fact, just the opposite is implied. The gospel for the day shows how hard life was for the disciples of the Lord. Matthew 14:22-36 tells the story of the apostles in the midst of a frightening storm while fishing. Just as they had lost all hope of survival, they suddenly see someone drawing close to their boat. How is this possible? Who can walk on water? Peter chooses to focus on Jesus and have faith in Him. Peter leaves the boat and walks on the water toward His Lord; it is only when he becomes distracted and overcome by fear of the storm that he sinks into the waves. Even though Peter lost sight of Jesus, Jesus never lost sight of him.

Jesus would not let Peter drown, nor will He let any of us perish. We are all in the boat with the disciples now–fear surrounds us with no sign of conditions changing for the better. Now is the time to let go of all our fears and seek the Lord, instead of seeking worldly solutions. Jesus is with us and He asks us to get out of the boat and come to Him. We cannot allow our doubt to keep us from Him. Once we get out of the boat and place complete faith in our Lord, we can experience miracles like walking on water.

A Walk in the Garden

A few years ago I was telling a friend some difficult things I was going through.  After describing my situation and things I was experiencing, she said it sounded like God was digging in deep.  He was pulling some weeds, tilling the soil, doing some dirty work… because he was planting something new.  He was laying the foundation for a garden.   

You know those moments when God finds a way to speak a perfect word to your heart?  A word of peace, of joy, of comfort…  Whether it comes through the words of a friend, seeing something that speaks to you, or a sense in a chapel or out on a hike, God finds perfect ways to communicate to us.  (Which He probably does way more often than I actually pick up on!)  Looking back on those words from that friend, I see clearly how God was speaking to me in that moment and how in that time God was laying groundwork for me to step into my vocation of marriage.

Today’s Gospel, Jesus’ parable of the sower, brought me back to the beautiful word my friend gave me years ago and the sense of consolation that came with it. My heart longs to be that of rich soil, not the path, rocky ground, or thorns which do not receive and cultivate the word of God and bear fruit.  Jesus’ words have me asking myself, What does it mean to be rich soil?  It seems that a heart poised to receive is key – to receive the words of our Father in prayer, through the Scripture, through a friend or experience.  However God comes to us, we must be open to receive Him.  In this way the rich soil of our hearts may actually take in, nourish, and give life to the word of God and grow a garden that can bear fruit. 

This image of a garden moves me more deeply than I can describe.  I have a feeling it is because the Garden is what we were created for.  Our hearts were designed to inhabit God’s perfect Garden.  There is a deep ache within each of us for that paradise, especially as it represents perfect communion with our Father.  Perhaps we can each take a moment today to find the garden God has sown in each of our hearts, where we can meet Him naked and unashamed.  We are a work in progress, surrendering again each day to the Gardener’s perfect hand.  May we allow Him today to enrich the soil of our hearts and lead us into communion with Him.  He wants to walk with us.  And in these days of much anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, we must remember He is always walking with us and making our hearts into a garden. 

To continue praying and reflecting on this imagery, I highly recommend listening to Matt Maher and Audrey Assad’s song Garden here.

You walk with me
You never leave
You’re making our world a garden

Garden · Matt Maher | Composer, Lyricist: Audrey Assad

The Harvest

“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” Matthew 9:38

This well-read passage is very familiar to most Christians but the Lord’s word can always reveal new meaning within scripture’s classic quotations such as this one. Our country is finally emerging from its time of quarantine and people now have the option of returning to a physical church building instead of watching a worship service on a screen at home. But will they actually return?

When the first order to stay home and celebrate Mass away from members of my extended family in faith was mandated for all Catholics, I had grand visions of the day when the churches would be open again. I believed it would be a great homecoming. In many ways, the “homecoming” was beautiful, and the peace I received when I was able to return to a church was unlike any I experienced before. Nevertheless, I did not see a “mass” return the first time I went to Mass the weekend my parents’ church in South Carolina was allowed to re-open. Indeed, the church was almost empty. I did not understand why people were not rushing back to attend Mass. The truth is that though restrictions have been lifted, the wounds from COVID-19 are deep and not easily healed. The time away from our physical churches has been full of hardship, suffering and death. It is not surprising that people now question their faith and hesitate before coming back to a church.

I can picture Jesus Christ walking through this world as He did when He traveled through Israel.

“At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:37

Our world is hurting and crying out for hope. Jesus implores us, just as He urged His disciples, to go out and reap the harvest. We desperately need our Shepherd and He is here with us; we simply must listen for His voice. COVID-19 allowed fear to spread throughout the world creating chaos, but the Lord can heal us and calm our fears. If we place our faith and trust in Him, there will always be hope; it can never be destroyed

Juneteenth

By Jacqueline Casquero

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

I joined #rendyourhearts, a community that prayed the rosary, the St. Michael prayer, and the Novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for peace, justice, reconciliation, and reparation for the sins of racism in our homes, communities, government, and churches for nine days (ending today, June 19).

I’m glad to see that the Governor of New York and the Mayor of New York City are both in agreement about making Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, a holiday. Since that day of emancipation, black Americans still had to continue to fight for full citizenship rights such as voting and integration. The experience that they endured, being treated in a way that denied their human dignity, is an inescapable part of American history.

Pope Francis called out racism for what it is: a sin, since it rips away the dignity of men. He said“We cannot close our eyes to any form of racism or exclusion while pretending to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

Let us take time to look into our hearts and pray to the Sacred Heart of Jesus to have a new heart:   

Efficacious Novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

I. O my Jesus, you have said: ‘Truly I say to you, ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.” Behold I knock, I seek, and ask for the grace of… (here name your request). Our Father…. Hail Mary…. Glory Be to the Father….

Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in you.

II. O my Jesus, you have said: ‘Truly I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” Behold, in your name, I ask the Father for the grace of… (here name your request). Our Father…. Hail Mary…. Glory Be To the Father….

Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in you.

III. O my Jesus, you have said: ‘Truly I say to you, heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away. ‘ Encouraged by your infallible words I now ask for the grace of… (here name your request). Our Father…. Hail Mary…. Glory Be to the Father….

Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in you.

O Sacred Heart of Jesus, for whom it is impossible not to have compassion on the afflicted, have pity on us miserable sinners and grant us the grace which we ask of you, through the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, your tender Mother and ours. Hail, Holy Queen….

St. Joseph, foster father of Jesus, pray for us.

A Light in Dark Places

In the first reading, 1 Kings 7-16, Elijah tells the widow, “Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son.” Elijah was giving instructions to this widow who God intended to provide for him. When Elijah asked for food and water, the widow was terrified. She did not even have enough food for herself and her son, let alone Elijah. Despite this fear, however, she followed Elijah’s instructions. As a result, from then on, her jug of oil never ran dry and she never ran out of flour in her jar.

Keeping faith in the Lord is hard when what He tells you doesn’t make sense. In these current times, faith in the Lord is difficult to maintain. There are many people who can empathize with the widow when she was faced with Elijah’s request. The widow even told Elijah that she and her son were going to die; she had lost all hope. The trials of our world today give rise to increasing hopelessness each day, and not being able to receive the holy sacraments in our churches has not made it easier for any of us to hear the Lord’s voice and to follow His will. Now is the time to conquer this fear. “Do not be afraid,” Elijah said. Sometimes all we need to hear is this phrase, even if we have no idea what is going to happen. The reassurance of these words renews our desire to live and carry on.

The Gospel reading asks us to take this desire a step further: not only are we to lose our fear; we are called to be examples to others who are afraid. When conditions in our lives seem to be at their worst, we must reveal our faith to the world and to be a light in its darkness. Jesus said, “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:16). Over the past few months, this world has been cast into darkness and people are falling victim to fear. When fear is so dominant, it can be challenging to rise above despair, but we have our faith and we can trust in it. We can be the change necessary to shine light in the darkness.

“Follow Me”: Being Led Where We Do Not Want to Go

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of The Ring

As I consider the sadness and struggles of this pandemic time, I can identify with Frodo’s sentiment.  Three months ago, I truly couldn’t have fathomed a world where friends didn’t gather, people couldn’t go in to work, children didn’t attend school in person, and families stayed home… where shops, restaurants, and theaters were dark…  where hugs had to become air hugs from 6 feet apart.  The tragic reality of illness has shaken the social and emotional fabric at the core of humanity.    

As much as I identify with Frodo, I find equal inspiration and encouragement in Gandalf’s response. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us (Tolkien). We have received everything from an all-powerful, loving, and merciful Creator.  Everything we have and everything we are has been bestowed on us by God.  Our very creation is a gift from Him that we have received.  So also, we have received from Him our identity and our mission. Our identity in Him, our relationship with our Heavenly Father is the core from which all else flows.  And He has created you and me for a purpose, for a mission.  We don’t get to choose the time in which we live, but we can choose to receive our mission from God, the one who chose to create us in this specific earthly time and place.  Frodo may not have initially loved receiving the mission he was given, but he chose to receive it.  He chose to move forward each and every day of the adventure, saying yes to the mission he was given. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ words echo a similar sentiment:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”

God has created each of us in this specific time for a specific purpose and mission.  It seems He is giving us an opportunity to mature in our faith… Jesus associates maturity with greater surrender and selflessness, a disposition of being led rather than leading oneself.  The Gospel tells us Jesus says this signifying His death and how it will glorify God.  It is not a sin to be upset, hesitant, or genuinely wish God had not put us where we are.  We also know we are limited in our humanity.  We cannot see the bigger picture.  And Jesus, the Son of God, received the greatest mission of all.  His receptivity and acceptance of his mission restored all of creation to its Creator. 

We all have a part to play in the story of salvation.  Our piece of the puzzle is here and now.  We can partake in the ongoing movement of humanity toward God.  We may wish that a pandemic “need not have happened” in our time.  But we know who our God is.  We know He is good.  We know He gave His only Son for our salvation, and we know that by Christ’s death, suffering has become redemptive. 

So knowing these truths, we must ask God for the grace to be grateful that we are living in such a time as this.  For we know He has created each of us and gifted us life in this time for a purpose and for an ultimate good.  We must decide “what to do with the time that is given us.” 

Christ’s words from the Gospel that I mentioned above were to signify “by what kind of death he would glorify God.”  Christ willingly received His mission from the Father out of a heart of love.  So too, we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us receive our mission and decide what to do with the time given us by God from a posture of love for our good Father.  From where we stand, it may not look appealing, comfortable, safe or sane, but when the Father calls us out of the boat He is our security and He will not forsake us.  The Gospel passage concludes: “And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.'”

Let us decide what to do with the time we are given. Let us follow Him.