Mid-Lenten Lethargy

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Prayer_for_Death_in_the_Desert_-_Elihu_Vedder_-_overall

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Psalm 34:19–21, 23


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

Do You Want To Be Well?

There was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate
a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes.
In these lay a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled.
One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
When Jesus saw him lying there
and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him,
“Do you want to be well?”
–John 5:1-16

*            *            *

“Do you want to be well?”

Funny guy, this Jesus and His questions.  It shouldn’t take Omniscience to figure that someone who has been ill for 38 years, waiting by a healing pool, wants to be well!

But perhaps He knows that something happens when we bring our desires (or anything else) into dialog with Jesus.

Years ago, I sent my friend an article I had read.  “You have to read this!” I exclaimed, “It is the most beautiful thing I have ever read!”  A little while later, I asked if she had read the article yet.  “No,” she admitted, “because I already know what it is going to say.”

I was appalled.  But in fairness, I do the same thing to God on a regular basis.  Rather than bringing something to prayer, I think about it and come to my conclusions about what God would probably think of it.

But if we’ve read anything about Jesus, we know that He is a God of Surprises.  The words most used about His teachings and actions are “astonished” and “amazed” and “nobody else speaks as He does.”  He says, “I make all things new.”  There’s no divine title, “Lord of the Everlasting Same-Old Same-Old.”

Over and over in Scripture, we see seemingly simple conversations completely transform people.  When Jesus tells the “Woman at the Well” about her five husbands and current non-husband lover, the woman declares Him a prophet and runs to tell the town “I met a man who told me everything I ever did.”

Let’s be real.  Human nature being what it is, surely there were other people in town who could tell her exactly what her sins were! But there is something different about the way Jesus speaks to us of even our sins.

I spent a lot of time writing about today’s Gospel and had a few thousand words on paper, different themes and different stories, some funny, some poignant.  I was torn over which direction to go, which stories to include, and finally in frustration I threw up my hands and prayed, “Lord, what do YOU want me to say?”

“That’s a better question, isn’t it?” He said gently.

I have a few decades of Catholic practice and a Master’s Degree in Theology under my belt.  But my life only changed “for real” in a radical way when I committed to a daily prayer time, a set (and non-negotiable) time for God to show up in my life.  A time for not just talking about God, but for talking to Him.  A time for listening to what He had to say back.  A time for Him to reveal what is in His heart, and also what is really in mine.  I am consistently surprised by both.

The Christian life is a romance, not a hostage situation.  God waits for your consent, and He invites consent by awakening your desires.  “Do you really want to be well?”

My challenge to you today is to carve out some time to let God ask you this question directly.  It may be that He has more to say to you than I ever could. 😉

From Saint John Paul the Great:

“Do Not Be Afraid…” 

“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.

It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”

Faith

From Today’s Gospel (John 4):

Now there was a royal official whose son was ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, who was near death.
Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.”
The royal official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
Jesus said to him, “You may go; your son will live.”
The man believed what Jesus said to him and left. While the man was on his way back, his slaves met him and told him that his boy would live. He asked them when he began to recover.
They told him, “The fever left him yesterday, about one in the afternoon.”
The father realized that just at that time Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live,” and he and his whole household came to believe.

Three thoughts on today’s Gospel:

1) Jesus’ response can sound like an admonition (Unless you people…), a scolding for the people’s lack of faith. But what if it’s not? What if Jesus is rather acknowledging the reality that the people’s faith is based on an encounter with Him that reveals Him as Healer, Prophet, Savior? In other words, “You people will begin to believe in me, once I reveal myself to you.” He knows us, and continually acts to reveal Himself to us in a manner that will draw us to Him.

2) God often intervenes in our lives in ways we would not expect. The official first wants Jesus to come to his son and heal him there in close physical proximity – perhaps thinking of the recent sign that Jesus performed at the wedding feast in Cana. And yet Jesus chooses to act in a different way, sending the man on a 1-2 day journey home, with “only” a promise of healing. Jesus shows the official, the town, his disciples – and us – that even His words have power, even His voice can heal and bring life.

3) Our faith is progressive – that is, we should progress in faith through every encounter with our Lord. St. John notes that the official first believes in Jesus’ word “Your son will live,” and then again after he receives confirmation that his son was healed at the time when Jesus spoke the promise. Every day, God reveals Himself to us in love as Father, Son, and Holy, Spirit. Every day, He invites to believe in Him again, to draw close Him, to be transformed.

Blessed Pier Giorgio, pray for us today – that like you, we may receive God’s actions and words in our lives, and respond in such a way to increase our faith and lay down our lives for others.

Pax et bonum,
Andy

With All Your Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Close

For what great nation is there
that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us
whenever we call upon him?
– Deuteronomy 4:7

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
– Matthew 5:17

Sisters and brothers, in this season of repentance, I pray that we also take a moment to reflect on the Eucharist so that, upon receiving forgiveness, we sprint to receive Jesus’ body and blood with new eyes and refreshed hearts.

Today’s readings remind us of Jesus desire to be in a state of intimate relationship with us. He calls for repentance, yes, but not as king demanding a show of loyalty and obedience, but as a friend who misses us. The Israelites found cause to praise the Lord for His closeness even during their 40 years in the desert. The Lord had just given them His commandments, and they saw them as a sign of His closeness.

How much closer is the Lord now?! We have the Eucharist! We are temples of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us! If the Israelites could give thanks for God’s closeness, how much more we ought to express our gratitude!

Say a prayer of thanksgiving today for the Lord’s closeness. Go to Confession. And then sprint to receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament at the foot of the altar as often as you can from now until Easter.

Chosen

Bilińska_Joseph_sold_by_his_brothersToday’s first reading recounts the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. Jealous of the attention he was getting from their father and annoyed by his prideful behavior, they acted out of anger and got rid of him. However, it becomes clear in Scripture that Joseph was not only his father’s chosen favorite; he was also the chosen one of God, to fulfill a mission in Egypt.

When Joseph’s brothers came face to face with him again many years later, and when they realized that Joseph was the one who had the power to save their lives from famine, surely they feared that he would remember their crimes against him and be unwilling to help. But Joseph was moved to tears to see them once again, and he forgave them immediately for all they had done:

“Come closer to me,” Joseph told his brothers. When they had done so, he said: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.
But now do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.
The famine has been in the land for two years now, and for five more years cultivation will yield no harvest.
God, therefore, sent me on ahead of you to ensure for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.
So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.

—Genesis 45:4–8

Joseph was indeed chosen, but his chosenness did not have the significance he first imagined as his father’s favorite child. He was chosen not because of his own merit, but simply because he was in a position to serve others. Over the course of his journey in Egypt, he became aware of his own faults and gained a sense of humility. The people that God calls are not always the best or holiest individuals, but they are given an opportunity to do something for God. God had a plan for Joseph and used him in spite of his flaws. Joseph’s pride faded when he realized that he was undeserving of the honors he coveted. By the end of the story, his brothers’ jealousy faded as well—in particular Judah’s—for we can see that they no longer hate the fact that Joseph is ruler over them but willingly bow down to him. Joseph and his brothers all reach a peaceful resolution by acknowledging their own weakness and unworthiness of power. Joseph, however, is a successful ruler because he realizes not only that he is unworthy of power but also that he has been chosen regardless, and he can fulfill this task with God’s help. It is humility that allows him to accept his role as ruler despite his weakness, for he is acting in obedience to God and simply accepting what he is given instead of seeking power out of sheer avarice.

Each of us is given a unique role to fill, and in many situations we are asked to play a supporting role. It is up to us to embrace the role we are given and fulfill it to the best of our ability, rather than being jealous of those who have roles of greater importance or shirk the responsibilities of our calling. It would be foolish to think that we are better than anyone else, even if it appears that we are in a more influential position; some are called to quieter, hidden lives and live them meaningfully.

Joseph was chosen to rule over his brothers and save the lives of many, but that doesn’t mean he was a better person than his brothers were. The Jewish people were indeed God’s chosen people, but that does not mean they were better than the Gentiles. Joseph was chosen to be the conduit for God to carry out His plan, and the Jewish people were the conduit through which God Himself entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

It is no surprise that Joseph and Judah emerged as the strongest clans in Israel, when one considers the fact that these two brothers were the ones who most fully accepted and embraced the roles given them by God. They became the men that God created them to be instead of fighting against their lot in life or demanding more. In everything, they acted with humility.


Image: Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz, Joseph sold by his brothers / PD-US