Nothing Will Be Wasted

When I saw today’s Gospel reading, I thought, I’m pretty sure I’ve already written a reflection about this story before. Turns out—yepTwice. So I tried to think about what new aspect I could bring to light from this story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. What stood out most to me from John’s version are these words from Jesus:

When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,
“Gather the fragments left over,
so that nothing will be wasted.”
—John 6:12

Giovanni_Lanfranco_-_Miracle_of_the_Bread_and_Fish_-_WGA12454Jesus has just taken five loaves and two fishes and managed to feed five thousand people. Not only that, but there are leftovers—twelve baskets full of scraps! There is more food left over than there ever was at the beginning. Which leads me to the question: If Jesus can multiply the loaves with such abundance, why does He ask His disciples to go to all the trouble of picking up the crumbs? Why would He need to be economical about saving all the scraps when everyone in the crowd can be satiated by His grace?

This initiative to harvest every single gift that is given us—even the crumbs—is an expression of gratitude, of not taking anything for granted. At the outset, when the disciples were desperate for food, twelve baskets of bread would have seemed a gift. Why wouldn’t it be now? This too is God’s providence, and it should be gratefully received rather than overlooked.

Мадонна с младенцем под яблоней  Холст (перев с дерева), масло 87х59 см  Между 1520-1526Let us not forget that Jesus started with a few loaves in order to feed the five thousand—He began with a meager offering. He saw, then, in those leftover scraps afterward, the precious raw material for a miracle. We need Jesus to multiply our gifts, but we must begin by doing our own part, offering all that we can, however small it may seem. He will handle the rest.

Only five loaves for five thousand people? A worthy offering. Bread crumbs, broken and scattered around a field? Not to be wasted. Jesus doesn’t overlook the crumbs we give Him; He sees the potential in our offerings. Neither should we overlook the crumbs we receive: the little joys amid a mundane day, the incomplete responses to our prayers, the half-successes as we continue to learn and grow and make mistakes. Our sufferings, too, have value; not one moment of our experience will be wasted. All of it is a gift, to be gathered and given to God.


1. Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish / PD-US
2. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree (detail) / PD-US

The Reckless Gift, the Reckless Giver

From today’s first reading:

“… Peter and the Apostles said in reply,
“We must obey God rather than men.
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus,
though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree.
God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior
to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins.
We are witnesses of these things,
as is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

From today’s Gospel:

“…the one who comes from heaven is above all.
He testifies to what he has seen and heard,
but no one accepts his testimony.
Whoever does accept his testimony certifies that God is trustworthy.
For the one whom God sent speaks the words of God.
He does not ration his gift of the Spirit.”

Dear fellow pilgrims,

As I’m meditating about today’s readings, I see a common thread of the Holy Spirit through the first reading and the gospel reading. In the first reading, the Holy Spirit is described as both a “witness” to Christ’s death and resurrection and a gift from God granted to those who are obedient to Him. In the gospel reading, the Holy Spirit is described as a gift that never runs out, a gift that is always given out of abundance, a gift that is never given from a miserly, calculating heart. I think the Holy Spirit is the least understood member of the Trinity, and I think that is in part because he is the least embodied; we have an idea of the personhood of the Father, the Son, but who really is the Holy Spirit? I had to refresh myself on some theology out of the Catechism:

745 The Son of God was consecrated as Christ (Messiah) by the anointing of the Holy Spirit at his Incarnation (cf. Ps 2:6-7).

746 By his Death and his Resurrection, Jesus is constituted in glory as Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 2:36). From his fullness, he poured out the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the Church.

747 The Holy Spirit, whom Christ the head pours out on his members, builds, animates, and sanctifies the Church. She is the sacrament of the Holy Trinity’s communion with men.

There is something new about the Holy Spirit that was revealed to me as I read more…. the inseparability between the Holy Spirit and Christ, likened to how the oil of anointing seeps into the skin of the anointed. Christ and the Holy Spirit are inseparable, and each informs the other’s identity: the Anointed and the anointing cannot be so without the other. And this anointing is the divine nature of Christ given by the Father to be enmeshed with Mary’s immaculate DNA to create the Incarnate God, Jesus. This is the reckless love of God, to be united with His creation in such a way.

But the Incarnation was not the whole mission of Jesus, it was the qualifying state of His Being that enabled the larger mission of unleashing the deepest possible union between humans and their God through being the type of son that humans could never be: completely obedient, because Jesus submitted Himself to death completely to serve the will of the Father.

Jesus did not want to die. And yet, He did, and did so completely out of love for us because He trusted the Father’s love for us and for Him. Only because of His humanity did He know that His mission of obedience was inseparable from ours, and only because of His divine anointing and union with the Holy Spirit did He know that His mission of atonement was inseparable from the Father’s. And somehow, through the culmination of these inseparable missions in His passion, death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven, an overflowing channel of the Holy Spirit was released into the hearts of obedient believers following after Him.

The barrier between Man and God was broken by Christ’s broken Body and became the chasm through which the Holy Spirit can now be embodied by non-divine people like us. Within this new relationship between God and Man, the Holy Spirit has one mission: to continue the Incarnation within us. And this gift is recklessly given, it is not rationed or divided because God’s love is never proportioned to what we deserve, God’s love mirrors the infinite mercy of the Giver. But this Spirit cannot be given to those who do not believe in Christ because of the inseparability of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and this is why obedience to Christ makes way for the movement of the Spirit: the Spirit cannot move through channels that have not conformed to Christ’s wounds.

Gracious God, You Who make all things new,
Create in us hearts of flesh,
Holding close to the beat of your Heart,
Which never ceases to live in pursuit of ours.

Good Jesus, may we learn from your perfect Sonship,
Your Sacred Heart, that did not deny the will of your Father’s.
Hide us in the wounds of your passion,
teach us the way of your glorious scars,
And bring us closer to your perfect obedience here within time
So that we may not have to wait any longer for eternity when You come. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Nicodemus

Have you ever noticed that there are not many Christians named Nicodemus?  While names like “Peter” and “Mary” and “John” have remained popular through the centuries, I have yet to meet a single Nicodemus.

I wonder if it is because Nicodemus at first glance does not present as a particularly likable Gospel figure.  First, he is a Pharisee—clearly designated as one in the “bad guy” camp of those who are constantly criticizing, and being criticized by, Jesus.  Second, he comes “at night” indicating a lack of courage to follow Jesus openly.  Third, while he begins by praising Jesus, he quickly moves into an argument:

Nicodemus:  We know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with Him.

Jesus: Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born a new, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus: How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?

Jesus: Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.

Nicodemus: How can this be?

Jesus: Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?  Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do you not receive our testimony.  If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.

John does not tell of Nicodemus’ reaction, but instead moves onto the most quoted line of all of Scripture, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…”  John 3:16

It is clear that the darkness of night refers not just to the time of day, but the inability of Nicodemus to see and to understand Jesus at this time.

Indeed, much of what Christ says is mysterious or puzzling—not only to those living at the time but to us today.  Can I really fault Nicodemus for arguing with God, when I so often do the same? When there is so much I do not understand, even for years? The truth is that the Christian life is not something we receive or accomplish on a one-time basis, but it is something organic, a relationship in which we grown in knowledge and understanding as well as in love.

When we are born “naturally” we receive the gift of life, but that life will change and mature as we continue through it.  So too when we are born of “water and Spirit” in baptism.  The gifts of baptism mature in us as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, growing in knowledge and wisdom and love.

Nicodemus does not see or understand everything at that time.  But the Unseen Spirit must have been working in Him, for when the time came for Jesus to be “lifted up” Nicodemus was there.  It was he who, along with Joseph of Arimathea, helped in the burial of Jesus.

John reports:

“Nicodemus also, who had first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight.  They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices as is the burial custom of the Jews.”  John 19:39-40

Lest we merely come around to thinking of Nicodemus as a nice guy, we must realize the significance of the amount of spice he brings—“about a hundred pounds weight.”  Pope Benedict XVI noted that this was not a small amount, but one befitting “a royal burial.”

Let us ask Nicodemus to intercede for us, that we might receive the grace to continue to dialog with Jesus, to follow even when we don’t understand, and to recognize Him as our King.

Empty Nets

So they went out and got into the boat,
but that night they caught nothing.
When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore;
but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat
and you will find something.”
So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in
because of the number of fish.
So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.”
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord,
he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad,
and jumped into the sea.
—John 21:3–7

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_Appearance_on_Lake_Tiberias_-_adjustedThe disciples do not recognize Jesus until after they bring in a full net of fish and they realize He has performed a miracle before their eyes. Often we do not recognize Jesus working in our own lives until we see the fruits of His presence. When we accomplish things we know we could never have done on our own, when we grow through a difficult experience and become stronger because of it, when we become aware of our own unique gifts, we sense Jesus’s presence more clearly.

Without Jesus, we will just keep on pulling up empty nets. Only through Him can we find nourishment—no matter how hard we labor to find fulfillment, our efforts will be fruitless. And just because we don’t see Jesus in our lives doesn’t mean He isn’t there—sometimes we just don’t notice Him until we feel the weight of a heavy net and realize Who is behind it. While we wait in hunger for that moment, we can call out for help and keep on trying until He steps in. When He does, how will we respond? When we can pinpoint where Jesus is on the shore, watching and providing for us, will we follow Peter’s example? Will we immediately jump into the sea? Will we trust Him to lead us through the unknown? Will we seek closeness with Him above all else, taking the leap instead of staying warm and dry in the boat?

The Easter season is a time to experience the abundance that the Lord wants to provide for us, to accept His gifts with open hands and to step out and follow Him—beyond our comfort zones, beyond our own limited imaginations, beyond the material attachments that hold us back. He’s asking us to take the leap and let Him take control.

The Lord asks us to set out for him. He asks us to become fishers for him. He asks us to trust him and act according to the guidance of his Word….But then something remarkable happens. When the disciples return Jesus does not need their fish. He has already prepared breakfast, and now invites the disciples to eat it; he is the host who provides them with food. The gift is mysterious but nevertheless not hard to decipher. The bread is he himself: I am the bread of life. He is the grain of wheat that dies and now bears fruit a hundredfold and is abundant for everyone until the end of time….Only love can bring about the true multiplication of bread. Material gifts, what is quantitative, always diminish through being divided. Love however increases the more it gives itself. Jesus is the bread, and he is also the fish that for our sake has gone down into the water of death to look for us there and to find us. This is the lesson on the breakfast to which Jesus invites his own on the borderline of time and eternity, the Eucharist. Come and eat, he says to us and thus enables us already to cross the boundary of time and death.
—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)


Image: Duccio di Buoninsegna, Appearance on Lake Tiberius / PD-US

P.S. Unrelated side note: It’s been a good week for full nets at two of my favorite Catholic universities 😏

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😎

Good Friday

Though he was harshly treated, he submitted
and opened not his mouth;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
or a sheep before the shearers,
he was silent and opened not his mouth.
Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away,
and who would have thought any more of his destiny?
When he was cut off from the land of the living,
and smitten for the sin of his people,
a grave was assigned him among the wicked
and a burial place with evildoers,
though he had done no wrong
nor spoken any falsehood.
But the LORD was pleased
to crush him in infirmity.
—Isaiah 53:7–10

ChristandThornsSo many of Jesus’s disciples abandoned Him in His time of greatest suffering. Surely it would be so difficult for them to bear, to see their beloved Jesus treated so brutally and their hope of His Kingdom buried along with Him. But I think we have much to learn from the ones who stayed—John, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the other women beneath the Cross. In this most painful moment, they did not look away. They did not abandon the One they loved. They stayed to comfort Him as best they could and to truly grieve this injustice, this loss, instead of hiding from it. And even in their grief, they did not despair. Even when it seemed all hope was lost, they trusted that God had a plan.

Do you have the courage to behold Christ crucified? Are you willing to stay with Him at the Cross, or would you rather you turn your head and look away? Be not afraid. Do not despair when you see and hear of the persecution of the innocent. Be present, grieve, weep with those who weep—but do not despair. The Cross is the sign of our salvation. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb was smeared on wooden doorposts as a sign of protection from the Angel of Death, so too the Blood of the Paschal Lamb was smeared upon the wood of the Cross. With the protection of the Blood of the Lamb, we who stand beneath the Cross will be passed over by death and will see the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom.

I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
—John 16:33


Image: Carl Heinrich Bloch, The Mocking of Christ / PD-US

The Scorpion At Supper

You have probably heard the cautionary tale about the boy and the scorpion.  They are at a raging river.  The scorpion pleads for help, and the boy full of compassion carries him across in his bosom, only to be stung by the ungrateful scorpion at the end.  “You knew what I was when you picked me up!” sneers the scorpion to the dying boy and we are left with the moral to choose our companions more wisely.

Today’s Gospel tells a different story.  Jesus knows quite well who is at the table with him.  He knows one will betray him for money; another will in cowardice deny even acquaintance with Him—not just once, but three times. He knows the others will run away in fear. He is “deeply troubled” because he knows that He will all too soon feel both the very real sting of profound personal betrayal and then the ultimate sting of death at the hands of those He deeply loves.

Yet He knows that they are more than their sins, and He loves each of them, inviting them to His table, into the deepest and most profound intimacy with Him.  And He continues to invite each of us, even while we are still sinners.  He loves (and calls) each of us, before, during, and after our sin.

For quite a long time, I did not believe that God loved me.  I don’t mean that I denied it as doctrine—I could in fact wax poetical about the love of God as a theological abstraction.  But I could not believe it as a particular and personal reality, for I knew who I was.  I thought that maybe God loved the Girl I Ought To Be, but He couldn’t possibly love me.  Or, maybe being God and all, He had to love me, but He didn’t particularly like me.  I suspected He was perpetually disappointed in me, waiting for me to become someone else, someone He could be proud of.

I remember going once to a priest for Confession who heard my litany of sins and said, “You need to stop trying so hard and just let God love you.”  I remember now my inward eyeroll, as I thought, “Great.  Another wishy-washy ‘liberal’ priest who missed everything I just confessed and how I am not trying hard enough…”

But then something strange happened.  The next priest I went to in Confession said the exact same thing.  Then another, then another, until it was too many to count.  I started to wonder if God was actually trying to tell me something. 😊

I am still learning how to do this.  But one key component for me (that I have mentioned previously) was instituting a designated daily prayer time, a time set apart to receive God’s love.

It is not that I didn’t pray before.  I would even sometimes pray at great length—usually when I was either deeply desperate or deeply inspired.  Other times I would be sure to “say my prayers”; to discharge that duty so that I wouldn’t feel guilty.  But as a result, I avoided prayer when I didn’t feel like it—and when I most needed it.

Having a designated prayer time has required meeting God when I wasn’t camera ready.  When I would have preferred to wait until after I had gone to Confession, or perhaps hadn’t even finished sinning yet.  When I was stewing in anger or sulking or full of a thousand distractions.

Being “forced” to pray in those moments is when prayer got real.  When I had to be honest about myself, my motives, my desires.  “Lord I am not a big fan of your plan today.”  “Lord, I know this is wrong but I really want to do it anyway.”  “Lord, I don’t want to forgive her—here’s why….”

Sometimes my anger turned to tears.  Sometimes temptation dissipated.  Sometimes my entire prayer time was a wrestling match with me not yet ready to let go of my will.  Sometimes I had to just let God hold me like a toddler in a tantrum.  Sometimes I felt better; sometimes I didn’t.    Sometimes I didn’t feel much change during prayer time itself, but over time I would see the strength of the sin losing its force and hold on me.

Years ago my friend and I were going to take her two small children to the carousel.  Her four-year-old son who had been dying to go suddenly balked and decided he would rather “stay home” while we took his little brother without him.  We couldn’t understand this change of heart—why would he want to miss out on something he had been so looking forward to?  My friend knew her son, and she knew what questions to ask.  It turns out that he had pooped his pants, and wanted to hide the fact, even if it meant missing out on the joy that was planned for him.

God loves us even in our mess.  He invites us to come to Him even while still filthy, to be changed and to receive the joy He has in store for us.

We say that God’s love is unconditional.  That means that He loves us all the time.  His love doesn’t wait for Easter Sunday, when all is right again.  He loves us on Holy Thursday, when betrayal is imminent. On Good Friday, when its ugliness is revealed. On Holy Saturday, when we start to see just what His absence really looks like.

Challenge today: Ask God to show you the love He has specifically for you.

By the Hand

I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

– The Servant Songs of Isaiah

Praying with today’s readings, the comforting words I have grasped you by the hand reminded me of my favorite scene from The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo has decided to journey to Mordor alone, paddling his boat across a broad river. Faithful Samwise realizes what Frodo is up to, and plunges in after the boat. But Sam cannot swim and soon begins to sink, hand stretched towards the surface. Right as Sam’s hand becomes still, Frodo’s hand plunges down into the water. He grasps Sam’s hand and hauls the waterlogged hobbit up into the boat.

This Lent, perhaps more than any before, I have experienced the Lord grasping me by the hand and leading me into a deeper life in Him. It is not that He’s provided consolations, or that I have been particularly good at adhering to disciplines of prayer, fasting, or almsgiving. Perhaps it has something to do with receiving kindness, joy, and forgiveness from my wife and daughters in response to my weaknesses and poverty. Maybe it is the daily opportunities to serve all these ladies in my life, reminding me time and again that my life is not my own and I am called to empty myself. Or it could be finding community and brotherhood in an unfamiliar place, taking hesitant steps with hesitant trust only to be reminded again that God is faithful, He had always been faithful.

Frodo saves Sam from drowning – he saves Sam’s life. And yet because Frodo grasped his hand, Sam will go on to experience terrible suffering (no more spoilers here – read the books!). Sometimes when I feel the Lord reaching out His hand I would rather not take it – His hands bear nail marks, and I know what that means. This week more than any other reminds us of the cost of accompanying Jesus and entering into His life. And yet the wounds that signify the Cross are the same wounds that reveal the Resurrection, that are signs and witnesses to the power of God.

His hands, those wounds, this week…He’s calling us – the blind, the imprisoned – to know His Light and Freedom, and to bring His Light and Freedom to others who are blind and imprisoned. This Holy Week, grab hold of His hand that you may encounter Him in the suffering and and encounter Him in the joy.

Pax et bonum,
Andy