How Many Loaves Do You Have? Go and See!

“Give them some food yourselves.”—Mark 6:37

At the beginning of today’s Gospel, we get a glimpse into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  “When Jesus saw the vast crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.”  As He teaches, their hunger grows, in more ways than one.  And soon it is “late.”

The disciples see the physical hunger of the crowd as a problem, and want both the problem and the people to go away.  “Dismiss them…so they can go and buy themselves something to eat,” they urge Jesus.

Jesus surprises them, instead saying: “Give them some food yourselves.”  They are stunned.  “Are we to buy 200 days wages worth of food and give them something to eat?”

He asks them, “”How many loaves do you have?  Go and see.”

It is important not to rush past this question.  Having read the spoilers, we know the answer: five loaves and two fish.  And we know what Jesus will do, and how the more than five thousand will be fed that day, and how there will even be twelve baskets of food left over.

But let us ponder for a moment this command and question of Jesus.  It is not enough for Jesus that His disciples hear His words as a message to be learned and taught.  Rather, He wishes for them to share in His heart, in His mission.  Nor can they pray from a safe distance for God to “take care of” the issue.  They are to be an integral part of His work.

First, however, they must come face to face with their inadequacy.  What do they have to offer? “Go and see.”  They are to encounter, concretely, their own inability to provide for the people.  On their own, they do not have what it takes.  They need God to work.  And yet, in the mystery of salvation, God calls them (and us) to cooperate with His work.  Our own experience of poverty does not exempt us from mission.  Humility rather makes room for God to work, but He nonetheless elevates us, drawing us into His divine mission.

The disciples bring the five loaves and two fish to Jesus.  Jesus could have fed the crowd with just one loaf, or with the bread and not the fish.  Or, being God, He could have provided His own loaf and fish.  Instead, He asked that they give what little they had, and all that they had. 

God invites us to experience our poverty, our nothingness—but then asks us to give anyway.  He loves us in our poverty, but doesn’t leave us there: He invites us to make a gift of what we have—all of it.  Sometimes we object because it seems too much.  But just as often, we object because it seems too little.

We prefer grandiose gestures, which make us look or feel good.  When God invites us to give lesser things, we balk.

Caryll Houselander writes of the woman who had a great desire to sacrifice her life to God as missionary martyr to cannibals, and was disgruntled that He never took her up on her offer.  But she was unwilling to offer God the sufferings of her infirmities and old age. 

“I knew once the primmest old invalid lady who could well have offered her helplessness to God, but she had a grievance against Him because He had not permitted her to be eaten by a cannibal for the Faith; she could not accept herself as a sick woman, but she would have achieved heroic virtue as a cutlet!” (Reed of God, p. 50)

We like to think of our saints as superheroes. But Saint Therese of Lisieux was by all accounts so “boring” that her fellow sisters feared there would be nothing to write in her obituary.  Hers was not a life of great deeds, but of great love. She offered to God the smallest of things—and all things—with this love, and in so doing became a great saint.  She was aware of her poverty and weakness and littleness, and so made room for God to act in her life in very big ways.

Father Walter Cizek, on the other hand, lived a life of remarkable strength and courage.  He became a priest, and then went to Russia as a secret missionary.  His daily life there was one of marked suffering, even before he was arrested (accused as a spy) and imprisoned; he was tortured, and later sent the Gulag in Siberia.  The details of his sufferings are astounding, and can only be called heroic.  Yet for Father Cizek, the defining moment of his life, his “conversion,” was a moment of abject failure.

While imprisoned he was subject to routine torture in a effort to get him to make a false confession.  He was determined to resist; determined to outwit his captors; determined if necessary to die for Christ.  Instead he capitulated and signed.

He was devastated; it was a moment of “great darkness” as he confronted his failure, his poverty, the realization that he did not in fact “have what it takes.”  Then suddenly grace gave birth to profound freedom, as he realized that it was precisely his weakness that God was asking of Him.  He had been relying on His own strength; henceforth he would trust completely in God’s will.

Very few of us will be called in the next twenty-four hours to make heroic offerings to God. Yet each of us is invited into the heart of Christ, to give what we have at His asking.  To begin with that first step in trust—to put bread into that first pair of hands, and then another, and then another.  To watch with reverent awe as God multiplies our poverty into abundance.

Image credit: Marten van Valckenborch [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons

Go

“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested,
he withdrew to Galilee. 
He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea,
in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,
that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet 
might be fulfilled:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sit in darkness
have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death
light has arisen.”

 From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:12-17

Today’s Gospel can often be glossed over and summarized as the start of Jesus’ public ministry. But I couldn’t get past the first line: “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested…” The weight of that hit my heart. Jesus had just spent 40 days and 40 nights praying and fasting in the desert, and now He hears of His cousin’s arrest and knows his death is imminent. Yet this news does not prevent Jesus from going where the Father is leading Him; I would even daresay it fuels Jesus to go where He needs to go, no matter what the sacrifice and no matter what the cost.

Jesus goes to Galilee not to hide and avoid being arrested Himself, but to fulfill the great prophecy from Isaiah that He is the Messiah! He is the Light who scatters all darkness! In hearing of John’s arrest, I imagine the reality of what Jesus was about to undertake in His public ministry, culminating in His own death, started to sink in. In a moment of what could have been great fear leading to inaction, Jesus begins to preach. The Word takes on a voice. And how the aching world needed His preaching, His healing, His love, His mercy.

What is it time for you to begin? What are you holding back from God? I think sometimes we all have a sense of where God is calling us, we’re just too afraid. I am right there with you in battling the fear. What steps can we begin to take to go where He is leading us?

Last week I wrote about the anointing we have received in Baptism, and today’s first reading proclaims twice that we belong to God (1 John 4:4-6). We can have great confidence in Who we belong to and in the One who goes before us in all things. Brothers and sisters, I don’t know what your specific mission is in this life. But I do know that you are needed. You, as Catholics, are desperately needed in this world. So whatever it is, wherever He is calling you, take that first step—make that phone call, speak up when you’d normally stay silent, write that song, go to Confession, take that time in prayer that you’ve been avoiding. Go. More of Him, less of us. All for His glory, all for His Kingdom, all according to His will.

What Are You Looking For?

John was standing with two of his disciples,
and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God.”
The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.
Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them,
“What are you looking for?”
They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher),
“where are you staying?”
He said to them, “Come, and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying,
and they stayed with him that day.
It was about four in the afternoon.
—John 1:35–39

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose feast we celebrate today, lived a busy life as a wife and mother of five in New York City. She was an upper-class socialite who entertained George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in her home, and her family had deep roots in the Episcopalian church. At the time of her birth in 1774, Catholicism was outlawed in New York City; by the time she was ten years old, the ban was lifted, but Catholics were still looked down upon by wealthy Protestant families such as Elizabeth’s. The modest wooden Catholic church, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, was the home of lower-class immigrants; Trinity Episcopal Church, on the other hand, was a refined, elegant place for peaceful reflection among the social elite. Elizabeth’s sister once commented, “Let me be anything in the world but a Roman Catholic,” and saw Catholics as “dirty, filthy, ragged, the church a horrid place of spits and pushing.”

None of Elizabeth’s friends or family could have predicted her conversion to Catholicism. It was unthinkable, that she would lower herself to the depths of society, forgoing “civilized” worship to join a disorderly congregation with baffling beliefs. Serving the poor was one thing; joining them was another.

But Elizabeth had experienced Jesus calling her to His Church in a way she could not deny or explain away. While in Italy, mourning the death of her husband, she witnessed the beauty of the Catholic faith. She encountered the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and fell to her knees before the monstrance in utter surrender to God. She had met Jesus in His Church, and after that there was no turning back. Even though her friends and family were shocked and bewildered by her decision, she sacrificed her reputation to enter the Catholic Church and receive Jesus in the sacraments. She so desired this greater intimacy with Jesus that everything else in her life seemed trivial in comparison.

Just as Jesus invited the disciples to follow Him, just as He invited St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, so He invites each of us in our own lives to follow wherever He leads. The above passage from today’s Gospel should not seem distant or foreign to us; Jesus is pursuing us in the same way. He interrupts our daily routines and asks, “What are you looking for?” What are we pursuing? Is it wealth or social prestige? Is it comfort and security? Or do we seek something deeper and more substantial, something that written on our hearts from the very first moment of our existence? Jesus beckons us, “Come, and you will see.”

At last God is mine and I am his….The awful impressions of the evening before, fears of not having done all to prepare [for my first Holy Communion], and yet even then transports of confidence and hope in his goodness.

My God….the fearful beating heart…the long walk to town, but every step counted nearer that street then nearer that tabernacle, then nearer the moment he would enter the poor, poor little dwelling so all his own—and when he did the first thought I remember, was, “let God arise, let his enemies be scattered,” for it seemed to me my King had come to take his throne, and instead of the humble tender welcome I had expected to give him, it was but a triumph of joy and gladness that the deliverer was come, and my defense and shield and strength and salvation made mine for this world and the next….

Now then all the excesses of my heart found their play and it danced with more fervor….Truly I feel all the powers of my soul held fast by him who came with so much Majesty to take possession of this little poor Kingdom….

My God is here, he sees me, every sigh and desire is before him.

—St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

The New and the Now

I love New Year’s Day.  I love new beginnings, fresh starts, the first page of a clean new journal.  I love the idea of resolutions: the promise of new habits and the new happiness and order they will bring to my life.

I am not alone: last night, Times Square was filled to capacity, and millions more watched on television as the ball dropped, signaling an end to 2018 and the beginning of 2019.  It was a night of celebration and revelry; for many the penultimate holiday celebration, ushering in the promises of newness: New Year, New You, New Resolutions and hopes and dreams to plan and unpack.

Yet, just three weeks from today, January 21st, is Blue Monday, “The Most Depressing Day of the Year.”  By the third Monday of January, it seems, conditions have converged to create a cocktail of depression.  One is the dreary weather; another the post-holiday let down, and then the arrival of the post-holiday credit card bills.  (I am sure that fact that it is a Monday doesn’t help).  But the biggest factor?  By the third week in January most have failed to keep their new resolutions, and as a result have abandoned hope in their new happiness.

Today, January first and New Year’s Day, the Church presents for our contemplation the mystery of Mary, Mother of God.  At first, it seems something of a mismatch.  If there was anyone who didn’t need New Year’s resolutions, it was the Immaculate Conception.  Conceived without sin, she had no faults to renounce: she didn’t need to resolve to give up gossip, or gluttony, or even to give more of herself to God.  And it is hard to picture Our Lady promising to eat fewer carbs or even to exercise more: surely the fully pregnant mother who rode on a donkey all the way to Bethlehem didn’t need to get more fit, or to do more penance.

Yet when we entrust to Mary the Mother of God, our resolutions, we increase exponentially the likelihood of our keeping them.  First, because her intercession is invaluable in anything we wish to accomplish or offer.  Second, because in her role as Mother of God, she models for us how to keep them.

How can this be, for we who know too well the reality of sin?

The answer for the Christian is not a how or a what but a Who.  The child gestated in the womb of a Virgin, laid in the manger and held in her arms, first in Bethlehem and ultimately at Calvary, is Emmanuel: God is With Us.

God is With Us.  Not just in the new, but in the now.  Not with our future perfected or improved selves, or hobnobbing with the People We Ought To Be, but right now, in this imperfect moment.

Says Sister Wendy Beckett: “I would say that the essential test of whether you are a Christian is whether you actually pray.  If you don’t pray you don’t truly believe.  You believe in some kind of God who is an evil God because if you truly believe in the real God, then you want to be close to Him.”  Yikes.

It is in the Baby in the manger, the Baby cradled in Mary’s lap, nursing at her breast, that we can find the confidence to draw close to God without fear.

A baby changes everything.

Even a merely human baby has a remarkable power to effect change.  Voices are softened, curses omitted, touch becomes more gentle and loving.  Mothers addicted to nicotine or caffeine or alcohol in excess suddenly quit cold turkey when they become aware of the life growing within them.  Fathers who are “tough guys” melt into mush holding their child.  Parents can attest that what willpower could not accomplish, the needs of their child effects quickly: getting up earlier, giving up more of their time, sacrificing more of their money for someone other than self.

Father Richard Veras notes in his book Jesus of Israel: Finding Christ in the Old Testament that this experience of parenthood, this change effected by ENCOUNTER, is in fact the model of Christianity, not resolution fueled by willpower alone.   It is the encounter with Christ that changes us, that both inspires our right resolutions and empowers us to effect them.

If there is one resolution that will change your life definitively, it is to adopt the habit of daily prayer.  To spend some time, like Mary, reflecting on the mystery of Emmanuel.  To be present to the God that is always with you.  To allow Him to transform you, to make you new.  Sister Wendy again, not mincing words: “My filth crackles as He seizes hold of me.”

Gretchen Rubin, in her book Better than Before, writes about habits, and what helps and hinders them.  Much of her advice applies well to cultivating a habit of prayer.  Make the habit specific and concrete, she advises.  Set a specific time for prayer (morning habits are more likely to be kept, she notes).  Make the habit itself specific (for example, replace “to pray more” with “I will pray for fifteen minutes a day.”)  Make it a daily habit: “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in awhile.” (p.80)

Let Our Lady teach you how to pray.  (She taught Jesus, after all…)  Let her hand you the Christ Child to hold, even without words, and just be present and ponder the mystery.

Finally, as Gretchen Rubin notes, the time for a new habit is Now.  Not in tomorrow, which as the orphan Annie reminds us, is “always a day away.” The Good News is, literally, God is With Us Now.  Not in the museum of the past, nor in a perfect future, but in very moment in which we reside.

On this her feast day, let us invoke Mary’s maternal intercession as we pray for the two most important moments of our life: “Holy, Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death, Amen.”

Madonna_with_child_and_angels

Image Credit:

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

You Have Won My Heart

“But you have the anointing that comes from the Holy One,
and you all have knowledge.” -1 John 2:20

Dear brothers and sisters, as 2018 wraps up in this Octave of Christmas, something that’s been on my heart for the past few months that I am making my goal for 2019 is focusing back on the heart-to-heart relationship with God. It is so easy to lose sight of Whose we are.

We have received God’s anointing in Baptism, and from this anointing flows our identity as His sons and daughters, which is sealed in the Sacrament of Confirmation. God has put an indelible mark on your soul that cannot be washed off. His anointing of you is His irrevocable choice to make you a part of His family. No matter how much we fight and struggle with our sonship and daughtership as His beloved ones, no matter how much we wrestle with doubt and lies and fear, God says to us: “You are Mine!” And He says this with great delight over you.

What does this anointing look like in your life in a tangible way? From His anointing flows your purpose that clarifies why you were born. You are certainly not a mistake. You are not an exception to the faithfulness of God’s love. You are not an exception to the fulfillment of His call for your life. You are chosen. You are His. I will say it again: He delights in you, His precious child.

“But to those who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to those who believe in his name, 
who were born not by natural generation, nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.” -John 1:12-13

I want 2019 to be a year of going back to the basics of focusing on God’s love for me and loving Him wholeheartedly in return. I want this to permeate my soul so much that it constantly outpours for others. I want to fall in love with the Lord over and over again. He dwells within us—our bodies are His temple. How often I forget that! We don’t have to go far to find Him. He’s already with us, already loving us, eyes already on us. St. Teresa of Avila said, “We need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.”

Lord God, we thank You and praise You for choosing us as Your sons and daughters. Thank You for Your unending patience with our weaknesses. Thank You for Your kindness. Thank You for rejoicing at even the smallest steps we take towards You. No matter the season of life, no matter what prayers we are waiting on answers to, Lord, help us to make this a year of more of You and so much less of us. Help us to fall in love with You again. Help us to find You in the stillness of our hearts, and to be disciplined in silent prayer. Help us to bask in the sight of Your delight in us. Unravel and soften our hearts in a deeper love for You, God. We love You, Lord. Help us to love You more and more. Amen.

“And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only-begotten Son,
full of grace and truth.” -John 1:14

Holy Innocents

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.

—Matthew 2:13–18

As Joseph and Mary anticipated Jesus’s arrival, surely they had some idea that they should expect the unexpected when it came to parenting the Son of God. After all, they had already received one giant surprise and had chosen to trust in God’s plan. Still, I don’t think they could have guessed this next curveball in their journey. After traveling to Bethlehem and delivering the child Jesus in a stable, Mary and Joseph were now asked to leave behind everything and everyone they knew, fleeing the country to protect their newborn son from being hunted by King Herod.

It is a testament to his unshakeable trust in God that Joseph responded to the angel’s warning without hesitation, picking up and leaving for Egypt immediately. After all, it was a big sacrifice to make for a message that had arrived in a dream. How did he know that this was truly God’s will for him and not some crazy manifestation of his own subconscious? Only by being so familiar with God’s voice through daily prayer was Joseph able to discern with clarity that this was a message he should heed. And he did so without wringing his hands wondering where they would stay, how they would get by in a foreign land, and why such senseless bloodshed must ensue at the hands of Herod. He dropped everything, including his own plans, to follow God’s call.

God gives grace for the situation, not for the imagination. The only way that Joseph and Mary were able to follow God so resolutely was by continually seeking His will in the present moment. They didn’t become distracted by worries and plans for the future; surely they had hopes and fears of what might lay ahead, but they placed it all in God’s hands and trusted that He would direct their steps.

Herod, on the other hand, was driven entirely by his own wild fears and self-serving plans. Filled with fear and insecurity upon hearing of the birth of this newborn king, he lashed out with merciless brutality and ordered the massacre of innocent children. But even this act of violence did not achieve its intended end, for the Holy Family had already escaped into Egypt.

Herod’s inflated ego numbed his conscience and skewed his perception of justice; he was willing to sacrifice whatever was necessary to preserve his own power, even innocent lives. Herod grasped for control when he perceived a threat to his power, but God was always in control of the situation. The newborn king would die at the appointed time and place, not through Herod’s feverish display of power and cruelty.

We are not in control, and that is a marvelous thing. Let us embrace the unknown path that lies ahead, knowing that we have a good and loving God who will lead us every step of the way. When unexpected situations arrive, may we trust that God will provide us the grace we need in the moment. And may we always be willing to speak up for the innocent and vulnerable, who are so often trampled upon and exploited by those in power.

Small Wonder

Once upon a time, a few millennia ago
they say a dreamer and a virgin
travelled by donkey to a far off land.
There the virgin had a baby
and the baby was God.

Imagine! The Infinite and Almighty
with tiny hands and feet
constrained by swaddling bands.

And because there was no room for such a God
they placed him in a manger full of straw
a feeding trough,
as though it were his destiny to be consumed.

The tiny face of God crinkled to cry with thirst
for milk, and something more
from a human breast.
(They say he cried this same cry, years later
from another bed of wood).

And to this scene strange searchers come:
wise men who followed a star
to find something brighter still,
and shepherds who also came guided by something in the sky
to find a new kind of lamb.

The sages and social misfits mingle
to adore a tiny helpless God.
How odd.

But stranger still, that time and eternity now linked
the eternal heart of God now forever beats with human blood.

And he is himself a searcher through the centuries
still looking for a room
and a human breast to hold him close.

Of course only a child could believe such things.

So let the worldly wise
settle for more realistic stories
of flying reindeer
and red round men sliding down chimneys.

 

 

Adoration_of_the_shepherds_reni

Originally posted Christmas 2014.  Photo credit The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons