Born Again

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
He came to Jesus at night and said to him,
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God,
for no one can do these signs that you are doing
unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” 
Nicodemus said to him,
“How can a man once grown old be born again?
Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?”
Jesus answered,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless one is born of water and Spirit
he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
What is born of flesh is flesh
and what is born of spirit is spirit.
Do not be amazed that I told you,
‘You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it wills,
and you can hear the sound it makes,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes;
so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jn 3:1–8

Hello friends,

Today I’m given one of those passages that is often misquoted or used in a way unfamiliar to us—this is often called the “born again” dialogue. If you’re like me, you probably have family members that are non-Catholic Christians. I have several family members that are Jehovah’s Witnesses and take the born-again dialogue much differently than we do. In fact, they read the born-again dialogue quite literally, and in a way unfamiliar to us.  A lot of people are surprised when I tell this story, but I was once raised as a Jehovah’s Witness for several years in my youth under the recommendation of my aunt. She is still a Jehovah’s Witness. I, of course, am not. For many years, this resulted in many, many arguments—ironically stemming from a dialogue in the gospels about seeing and accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

Oftentimes, in my younger years, the conversation would go like this: “Are you born again, Ryan?” “Yes, Tía Pilar, I was born again when I was baptized.” “No, no, you have to be born again in water, and as a Jehovah’s Witness.” (Tía means aunt in Spanish. All of my family members are of Ecuadorian descent. The majority of them have since splintered to Europe or the States.) This, of course, in my much more combative years, resulted in me being combative about how the truth needed to be discussed, rather than my being more charitable with a family member even though we stringently disagreed on matters of faith. The one thing we absolutely agreed upon was that baptism was the way the unsaved were brought to Christ. Ironically enough, this “born again” dialogue led to divisiveness between me and several family members. We weren’t talking about Jesus anymore, we were arguing over the phone. (Even though I pray for her that she returns to the Catholic Church, we no longer argue over the phone.) Evangelization, as you’re quite aware, can often lead to quite heated moments.

Amusingly enough, we were talking about evangelization in my Lay Dominican formation class. It was a separate discussion that diverged from a larger discussion about Aquinas and the works of mercy. But one point we all agreed upon is that taking a largely combative stance during evangelization efforts “makes you lose the floor.” That’s sort of how it also is during arguments, right? Even amongst significant others and friends, if you raise your voice, both of you lose the floor. Even politics is tinged in this way for a reason—seeing a politician upset or livid about anything garners sound bites whether they’re in the right or wrong.

Jesus Himself says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God,” and, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” For Nicodemus, he was obviously baffled, because he at first takes Jesus’ words literally—how can anyone return to their mother’s wombs? Jesus, of course, speaks of being born of water and Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this further, “One becomes a member of this people [the Church] not by a physical birth, but by being ‘born anew,’ a birth ‘of water and the Spirit,’ (John 3:3–5) that is, by faith in Christ, and Baptism” [CCC 782].

For my aunt, this is where the biggest point of contention was—what being born again consisted of. For my aunt, it sort of amounted to the fact that I must have had a major, epiphanic, “come to Jesus moment” in my adulthood. However, what I would tell the non-Catholic Christians I have disagreements about this with is to remember that we do have “come to Jesus” moments. At every Mass, I confess my sins and accept Christ, and every time I go to confession I accept Christ and accept His forgiveness and try to keep on the path towards holiness. The early Christians and Church Fathers knew of “being born again” via a trinitarian baptism, for example.

St. Pope John Paul II takes this a bit further, and this is really what I want to end on. He wrote in Catechesi Tradendae of “the problem of children baptized in infancy [who] come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ” (CT 19). To make the point more explicit, St. Pope John Paul II says, “It is true that being a Christian means saying ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ, but let us remember that this ‘yes’ has two levels: It consists in surrendering to the word of God and relying on it, but it also means, at a later stage, endeavoring to know better—and better the profound meaning of this word” (CT 20). In other words, being born again as following Christ requires a *commitment* to follow Him as His disciple.

What I want to focus on is this “yes.” Do we say yes? Or do we adopt an attitude of combative behavior while we evangelize? Do we focus on commonalities while evangelizing and then take it from there? When we make critical remarks about other Christians, are we still making that commitment to that “come to Jesus moment” we have at Mass? Are we helping others come back to faith when they struggle or when they feel they have strayed too far? When we see others who are perhaps misinformed or have sincere questions about the faith, do we scoff at them? Or do we help them understand what the faith and catechism teaches? The old adage of “it takes a village to raise a child” does have some merits when we remember that we—all of us—are the Body of Christ. Even while we believe trinitarian baptism is valid, the work is simply not finished once we are baptized. Baptism is almost like a constant and enduring “yes” to Christ and that is something that we should all remember.

Yesterday was Divine Mercy Sunday, and this fact has not escaped me while writing this. I have met many Catholics in my travels and conversations this past year. COVID or job loss had contributed to a loss—or struggle—of faith in some of them. And if you have struggled with belief before, you sometimes know this struggle with faith can often lead to sin that we later regret. I reminded someone yesterday of Jesus’ words to St. Faustina, “The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to my mercy.” Jesus always, always commits to embracing us when we return to Him. But are we always committed to Him?

St. Faustina, pray for us.

St. Pope John Paul II, pray for us.

Divisiveness

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute,
and when the demon had gone out,
the mute man spoke and the crowds were amazed.
Some of them said, “By the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons,
he drives out demons.”
Others, to test him, asked him for a sign from heaven.
But he knew their thoughts and /quotesaid to them,
“Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste
and house will fall against house.
And if Satan is divided against himself, 
how will his kingdom stand?
For you say that it is by Beelzebul that I drive out demons.
If I, then, drive out demons by Beelzebul,
by whom do your own people drive them out?
Therefore they will be your judges.
But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons,
then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.
When a strong man fully armed guards his palace,
his possessions are safe.
But when one stronger than he attacks and overcomes him,
he takes away the armor on which he relied
and distributes the spoils.
Whoever is not with me is against me,
and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Luke 11:14-11:23

What a reading for today’s gospel, friends. Today I was given the privilege of discussing one of the most oft-quoted passages in the gospel: “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid to waste and house will fall against house. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?”

As many of you may know, it’s one of the most famous lines of the gospel, and plenty of theological discussion has been had about just these two verses. It has of course, even seeped into larger popular culture and if you’ve ever seen Seinfeld, you know how it’s mentioned—it’s even reached sitcoms, albeit with the message subverted for some comedic effect. But moving on from my tendency to ramble on or make pop culture references, there are two things to note from today’s gospel reading.

First, note how Jesus rebuffs the townspeople who demand a sign from Him to prove He is from Heaven. Jesus, of course, “knew their thoughts,” and rather than give in to their demands, Jesus simply gave words of wisdom. Jesus, of course, also rebuffs Satan in a similar fashion when He is in the desert for 40 days. (Feed himself and abstain from fasting? No. Christ speaks, “Man does not live on bread alone.” See the temptation of Christ in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

Rather than forcefully show his divinity to appease people, Jesus speaks the truth as He does to Satan. However, on another dimension, this often reminds me of the relationship we may have with Christ. Do we often make “deals” with Christ to prove He loves us? Do we often “ask for a sign from Heaven?” Have any of us ever prayed for something and claimed we’ll change our ways or stop habits that engender sin if we get something in return? And do we then simply forget to lead lives of virtue not because it was “proven” to us that God loved us, but because we should strive for lives of virtue because loving God is the ultimate good? This focus on virtue is something I want us to keep in mind because it’s significant. Thomas Aquinas cites caritas as “love,” or more specifically, the type of friendship based in the “the love which is together with benevolence, when to wit, we love someone so as to wish good to him.” (See Second part of the Second part, Question 23 of Summa Theologica.) Additionally, Aquinas writes that caritas moves us to order our lives properly, gradually leading us to love and desire God for His own sake and nothing else. This “good” and the move towards virtue is what I want to focus on.

Second, God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost are one and united within the Holy Trinity. We are united with Christ, and we should expect to be in His good graces by living lives of virtue, leading others to Him, and by of course, loving Him. Why else did Christ call for the Great Commission? Well, for one, Christ knows that Satan is the one who causes division. This is especially apt when Christ makes the townspeople ask themselves, “If I drove out the demons by Beelzebul, well ok, how do you do it then?” This of course leaves them speechless. But which division am I speaking of? For some, it could be a loaded question. There is, of course, enough division in the American political sphere but that’s not where I’m going. In my experience, we as Catholics often do not present a united front or send an accurate reflection of our beliefs to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Many explanations have been given from time to time for a decline in faith in America—changing cultural practices, postmodernism, inaccurate catechesis, etc. There is no singular answer, and debates rage on. The Lord said to His disciples that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church, but we could still lose an untold number of souls if we send often-conflicting messages and signals to others about our beliefs and practices. If the mission of Holy Mother Church is about saving souls, then sometimes we should be aware that how we may act and express ourselves could be sowing division. Even unintentionally!

Disagreements are often messy, but necessary. But I’m not talking about differences in opinion, I’m talking about divisiveness within the larger Church and the family unit. And as you can imagine, it can be an awkward conversation and can stir a lot of passions from a lot of people.

When the fall of man happened, a consequence of original sin was a disruption in our relationship with God. We know this and the Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about this as well.  We know this almost immediately from reading Genesis because upon eating the forbidden fruit of the tree, Adam does two things. First, he hides from God, because his relationship with the Lord has been disrupted due to sin. Second, he almost immediately blames Eve for his sin. This is something I have often seen in talking to spouses and it’s unfortunate—blaming your spouse for one’s sin. We have to remember—we’re supposed to be helping lead our spouse to Heaven! This is something we often see in families, often a core element of one’s growing up—a lot can be traced to early family life. Even sociologists and adolescent psychologists speak about how a child’s performance in school can be affected due to a messy and turbulent home. I don’t want to quote Jordan Peterson at length or ask your opinion of him, but he’s not exactly wrong when he states that for a lot of men, we have to keep our “house” (literal and metaphorically) in order. If we’re divided against ourselves due to sin or despair, how can we lead lives of virtue?

I’ve spoken at some length previously in prior reflections how one’s home life—however unfortunate—can lead to disruption in the life of faith. Adam refuses to take responsibility for his actions, blames his wife, and he is in essence, a symbolically divided individual. For me, when my father left at an early age, I traced the absence of an earthly father to our Heavenly Father not caring for me. In my experience (at least anecdotally) in talking with other Catholic men, this rings true. An absence of a father, divided families, leads to disruptions in the life of faith and brokenness and woundedness that we then unfortunately (and incorrectly) associate with God not caring or “abandoning us.”  Because the adage goes, if we can’t trust an earthly father, how can we trust our Heavenly Father? (We of course can. I am of course not dismissing woundedness in any way.) This then, of course, leads to a symbolic and literal divisiveness in each one of us. That’s divisiveness in the family and in our own lives affecting the life of faith.

However, there is another kind of divisiveness that I see that happens in how we express our thoughts on other Catholics we may disagree with. And I’ve been guilty of doing it a few times just as well. We often lob terms of “liberal” or “conservative” Catholic as insults and pejoratives in the context that we feel certain groups of people are not fully living holy lives. Mind you, however, that’s not to say fraternal correction is never necessary. It absolutely is needed at times. And Church teaching is well, Church teaching for a reason. Doctrine is not subject to change. I don’t have to explain what these terms mean—you’ve all heard some variation of what they mean and simply giving my take on what terms these may or may not mean isn’t instructive in the slightest. Point being—both of them have nuggets of truth, but not in ways you might expect. My larger point? Every Catholic should be “conservative” in that we wish to pass on, live, and conserve sacred truths of the Apostolic and lived faith. Every Catholic should also similarly be “liberal” in that we wish to “liberate” people from sins as Holy Mother Church asks of us so that we all can lead truly holy lives. I’m reminded of my therapist’s tattooed wrists—she tattooed broken chains on her wrists to demonstrate her life of faith was to show that by following Christ, she was choosing a life away from sin. Free of the chains of sins. Liberated.

But why do people use the terms “liberal” and “conservative”? For one, It’s often a woefully convenient (and inconvenient) shorthand in American politics, but it’s not entirely accurate and it unfortunately leads to a lot of divisiveness. One may have “liberal” or “conservative” ways (on a larger level of public policy for example) how best to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked. But most people will tell you they want to alleviate poverty and show the poor person Christ’s love. And of course, perform the corporal works of mercy. And why shouldn’t we?

Today’s gospel reading is not lost on me during this time of Lent. Divisiveness leads us away from Christ, Our Lady, and Holy Mother Church. Jesus is not ambiguous or vague. We should put our faith in Him and turn away from lives of sin and turn to Him. Or scatter.

Humility

Jesus went to the district of Tyre.
He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it,
but he could not escape notice.
Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him.
She came and fell at his feet.
The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth,
and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
For it is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She replied and said to him,
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”
Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go.
The demon has gone out of your daughter.”
When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed
and the demon gone.

Mk 7:24-30

I’ve been Catholic for a while now. But today’s Gospel reading—from my experience at least—has been among the most misunderstood of all Gospel passages. At least to me it is simply based on “anecdotal evidence.” This event in the Gospels is termed as the exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

The Gospel passage is pretty simple. Jesus is running His ministry, goes to Tyre, enters a house, sees a woman whose daughter is possessed by demons; the woman pleads for relief for her daughter, Jesus appears to rebukes her first, the woman pleads again, the woman’s daughter is healed. In the midst of the miracles Jesus performs throughout His time on Earth, it’s a pretty run of the mill event: Jesus goes to a town, frees a woman’s daughter of demonic possession. A miracle, right? I’m often told by my non-Catholic friends this is an example of Jesus’ “unsympathetic” nature. “Why doesn’t Jesus just heal the woman’s daughter immediately!? Why make an allusion to a woman being a dog!?” It’s more complex than that.

I’m currently being trained as a Lay Dominican. (Then again, learning as a Lay Dominican and as a Catholic never ends. The journey of faith and towards sainthood is always present until death!)  I’ll be fully professed in August. We’ve recently had a discussion on the Bible and what are called “historical-critical” methods and how to read the Bible proper, especially as the Vatican doesn’t have a wholesale guide on how to read every *single* passage of the Bible. Believe it or not, the Vatican doesn’t! We of course have doctrines and traditions of the faith that mandate a certain reading of the Bible. And this is where one has to be careful of reading certain passages and letting our emotions get the best of us. I’ve heard plenty of individuals ask me, “Well, did this woman teach Jesus to be tolerant?” Well, no. Because to suggest otherwise would be to suggest Jesus lacks what is often called the “divine intellect.” This isn’t exactly new. We may have heard of “rogue” priests who say things that distort Church teaching, but this is a larger historical problem. And the Truth always prevails! Arius of Alexandria caused a scandal in the 4th century when he suggested Jesus was *not* the Son of the Father, but a “first” creature who became divinized and got a promotion. This scandal is often called “Arianism,” and historical figures as far as Isaac Newton believed it. Saint Nicholas, according to legend, once punched Arius for promoting this heresy. (Now, don’t go around doing this!)

That being said, how do we answer to some folks who claim Jesus in this Gospel is unsympathetic? 

Let’s break it down.  

First, it’s important to note that the woman called Jesus “Lord.” Not “sir.” “Lord.” Like many other individuals who come across Jesus, this woman knew and believed Jesus was the Son of David, God’s Son, the Lord, and the Messiah. This woman never met Jesus but knew and believed. Her faith was truly great, and so great, despite her despair at her daughter suffering for so long. She didn’t need signs to believe, and this woman was not a “doubting Thomas”; she truly believed through the thick and thin. No doubt she also heard of many stories of Jesus’ miracles—healing a leper. Healing a paralytic.

The woman’s faith will soon be tested. This is made all the more apparent if you read Matthew 15’s retelling of this event: “But He did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked Him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us’” (Matthew 15:23). Imagine that! Asking Jesus, and Jesus simply does not respond. I am sure we have all felt this in prayer—not getting a response, and simply not getting the response we expect. Even Jesus’ disciples tell her to go away! Throughout history, and through the lives of the saints, we are given plenty of stories where their faith is tested, and they are rewarded. But can you imagine being at home and not getting a response during countless days of prayer? Sure. We all can. But this woman was in front of Jesus and His disciples! I’m often reminded of the story of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes who was mocked by the townspeople and insisted the grotto was where it was. Of course, she was proven right. This woman’s faith will also soon be rewarded.

Then Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” It’s this passage, my non-Catholic friends tell me, that makes Christ “unsympathetic.” This is where analyzing the language and context of the books of the Bible is important. This is especially the case as the Bible was, of course, not written in English. As some of you know, the Gospels were written in Greek. In Greek, there are two words for dogs: kunaria and kyon. Kyon refers to wild dogs, kunaria refers to dogs that are pets. Obviously, one term is more affectionate and endearing than the other. At that time, many people referred to the Canaanites as “wild dogs” (i.e.: kyon). (Tyre is a Canaanite region.) But Jesus refers to kunaria, or pets. The woman herself is not insulted and, in the original Greek of the Gospel passage, says, “Lord, even the [kunaria] under the table eat the children’s scraps.” In many ways, the woman used the word “pet” in a larger analogy: she already saw herself as a follower of Christ, in the same way a dog follows their master, or owner. And isn’t Jesus the Master? In many ways, this already rings true to me. All Dominicans are referred to as “hounds of the Lord.” (St. Dominic is often portrayed with a dog. St. Dominic legit is a saint whose intercession you should ask for if you’re a dog owner!)

This woman was not insulted; she was happy to think of herself as a member of Jesus’ household, one of His favorite pets! Jesus then immediately grants her prayer. These analogies aren’t terribly new throughout the Gospels, either: even at the Last Supper, Jesus refers to the twelve apostles as “children.” In this woman’s great humility, she was not insulted; she merely asked for anything. Of course, it is at this moment, the woman’s faith is rewarded and her daughter is free of demonic possession. What can we learn from this woman? She inspires us to persevere and place a childlike trust in Him. Jesus Himself says, “Great is your faith!” Do we place the same faith in Jesus when the times are rough? Do we give in to others who tell us to go away and not persevere in prayer? Ash Wednesday (and the start of Lent) is next week, and I often wonder if we’re all placing a childlike faith in Jesus. And is our faith as great as the Canaanite woman’s?

Be Made Clean

This past Wednesday we celebrated Three Kings Day. It’s the day when Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar finally finished their long journey and found the newborn King. I imagine that they saw baby Jesus sound asleep, wrapped snugly in Mary’s arm. So pure, so sweet, so innocent. Some cooing and ahhs (because who can resist baby-talk in front of a baby?). Their hearts would have strongly leaped in their chests at the joy of seeing the messiah, their eyes filled with that longing of pure love.

That intense look of love is the same longing Jesus would have had in his eyes as he looked upon the face of the leper. In today’s reading, a man with leprosy fell prostrate at seeing Jesus walk by him. The leper, without having met Jesus before but having heard of him, came to believe in him and asked to be cleaned. That was how strong the leper’s faith was, that he pleaded with a man he never met before but fully believed that Jesus would be able to clean him.

In the Bible, being made clean is so much more than just looking nice or taking a bath. Being clean is being presentable in front of God. One would not think of going to an important job interview in ragged and dirty clothing. It is customary in western culture to go in a suit. One would not expect to see a bride walking down the church aisle in jeans and a T-shirt. It’s expected she would be wearing a wedding gown. We dress appropriately for the occasion. Likewise, we must be made clean and “dress” appropriately to be before God. But this isn’t the type of clothing that you can go to the department store and buy; you won’t find this on clearance. Only Jesus can dress you for this occasion, just as the leper knew that only Jesus could make him clean.

[The leper] fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said,
“Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.”
Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”

I imagine Jesus looking into the leper’s eyes, tenderly and lovingly. The leper’s heart strongly thumping in his chest. The warmth and intensity of Jesus’ healing hand on the leper’s skin at being touched for the first time. When the world told the leper he was weak, an outcast, and disposable. The love of Jesus showed him that he was beloved, wanted, and deserving of a dignified and righteous life. 

Jesus willed to clean the leper. He wanted the leper to be clean. He wants all of us to be made clean. To be holy and without blemish, so that we can be in the presence of God in heaven. It does not matter how long our journey to find the newborn King may be taking (even the magi took a wrong turn and ended up at King Herod’s palace). The important thing is to continue the journey, to know the love of Jesus, and ask him to make us clean.

leper
Image Credit: Jesus cleaning the leper [Public Domain]

A God Who Surprises

At that time,
John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask,
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 
When the men came to the Lord, they said,
“John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’”
At that time Jesus cured many of their diseases, sufferings, and evil spirits;
he also granted sight to many who were blind. 
And Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. 
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

—Luke 7:18B–23

Amongst the Jewish people during the time of Jesus, there was much confusion about the identity of John the Baptist and the identity of the Messiah. Even after witnessing Jesus’s miracles, many still doubted Him. But John the Baptist, who was fully rooted in the Scriptural context of the Messiah, would have been highly attuned to all the signs of the Messiah’s arrival. When Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized, John recognized Him immediately as the One whom the Scriptures foretold, the One who anointed him in his mother’s womb, the One whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see John the Baptist send messengers to ask Jesus if He is the Messiah they have been awaiting. At this point in the Gospel, John had already met and baptized Jesus. Why, then, is John questioning Jesus’s identity?

We don’t know fully what was going on in John’s heart and mind when he sent those messengers, but we do know that by that point he was in prison. Alone, facing the end of his public ministry, he heard news of the miracles Jesus had been performing. Perhaps he found himself wondering if he had correctly understood God’s call, since languishing in prison was not how he had expected things to go. Maybe there was more that God needed him to do. Or perhaps these reports of Jesus were surprising even to him, and he wondered if there was something he was missing, something he didn’t quite understand. He desired to be faithful until the end to the mission God had given him, and so he sought confirmation that he was following the right path.

John knew that God had called him to be a herald of the Messiah and to prepare the way of the Lord, but today’s Gospel reading reveals that while he knew his purpose within God’s plan, he didn’t know the details of how God would unveil that plan in its entirety. This underscores for us what complete trust John had in God. He couldn’t see the big picture, but he remained ever faithful to his own role, trusting that God would handle the rest. Today’s reading gives us a perfect example of faith seeking understanding. When John struggled to fully understand what he had heard, when he found himself wrestling with questions, he went straight to the Source, to Jesus Himself.

As modern Christians, we profess a much greater understanding of who Christ is. But to those who awaited the Messiah, Jesus was surprising. He fulfilled the messianic prophecies, but He did not fit all the people’s expectations. The prophecies of Isaiah foretell a Savior who would bring liberation, healing, and joy, but Isaiah never quite understood that this Messiah would be God Himself, the Word become Flesh, humbled to become for us a little child, sharing in our humanity.

God comes to us in a quiet moment, when we least expect it. He defies all our expectations and surprises us with joy. During this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, let us also prepare for Christ’s coming in our own lives by looking to the example of John the Baptist. If we stay in relationship with Jesus, bringing to Him all that is in our hearts, then we will recognize Him when He comes. And if we are rooted in faith and trust in God, then we just might be able to let God surprise us with something far beyond our expectations.


Image: Giovanni di Paolo, Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples / PD-US

Rise and Walk

One day as Jesus was teaching,
Pharisees and teachers of the law,
who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem,
were sitting there,
and the power of the Lord was with him for healing. 
And some men brought on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed;
they were trying to bring him in and set him in his presence. 
But not finding a way to bring him in because of the crowd,
they went up on the roof
and lowered him on the stretcher through the tiles
into the middle in front of Jesus. 
When Jesus saw their faith, he said,
“As for you, your sins are forgiven.” 

Then the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves,
“Who is this who speaks blasphemies? 
Who but God alone can forgive sins?” 
Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply,
“What are you thinking in your hearts? 
Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”–
he said to the one who was paralyzed,
“I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” 
He stood up immediately before them,
picked up what he had been lying on,
and went home, glorifying God. 
Then astonishment seized them all and they glorified God,
and, struck with awe, they said,
“We have seen incredible things today.”

Luke 5:17-26

Friends, in today’s Gospel we are given the story of the healing of the paralytic. In my previous reflection on the healing of the blind man (based on Luke 18:35–43), I pointed to the blind man having faith in Christ despite being literally blind. He could not see Christ raising Lazarus, could not see Christ turning water into wine, couldn’t even see Christ multiplying loaves of bread. However, despite this, in his heart of hearts, he believed in Christ and the miracles He could accomplish. He had faith, despite being literally blind. How many of us could say the same and remain firm in the faith despite being able to literally see what Christ has done in our lives? Do we have the faith of the blind man? The majority of us are not blind, yet we often struggle in our faith. The blind man gambled [correctly] the Lord would see him and heal him only if he asked, and He did. In contrast, the men around him rebuked him and “asked him to be silent.” The Lord healed him anyway, stunning those who rebuked this man’s faith.

I say this here because there are similar elements in the narrative of  today’s Gospel. Once again, faith inevitably triumphs. This time it involves a paralytic and the Pharisees.

Consider several things. The Pharisees saw Christ cure the sick. However, despite all this, it could be said they were literally blind. They could see with their own eyes that Christ and God the Father were “one.” They refused to entertain the idea the messiah was in front of them and walking the earth “to fulfill the law.” Can you imagine what it would be like to walk among Jesus? Think at this point how it would be if you were a parent. You remind your child to not touch the stove when the gas is on. Why? Because it’s hot and your child will burn their hand. DUH. However, they don’t listen. I can’t fathom how God the Father must have thought at seeing the Pharisees being so obstinate. “THE EVIDENCE IS RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!” anyone would exclaim. For those who are parents, how many times have you had to scold your child time after time, often for the same thing? Do we not go to confession often for the exact same sin, time and time again, seeking absolution? Does the priest yell at you? No. Mind you, I do not have the patience of a priest. (I’m trying, God!)

However, this doesn’t happen. Instead, example after example does nothing to sway the hearts and minds of the Pharisees. Miracle after miracle changes nothing. Historically, disease, for the Pharisees at least, was a sign of sin. So what does Jesus do? He does something so decisive that there can longer be any unbelief. However, the Pharisees are too wrapped up in their own plans and their own honor to ascertain God’s mercy when Christ heals the paralytic. The Pharisees simply say, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies?” They don’t marvel at the Lord’s grandeur, they simply question. Instead of marveling at what had just taken place, the Pharisees still doubt. Let’s say I ask Christ tomorrow to win the lottery.  However, instead of winning one million dollars, I only win ten thousand dollars. How obstinate and ungrateful would I be if I instead said, “meh.” It’d be something else, right? How often do we want God to give us a sign so we can follow His plan? And how often are we not open to what He tells us, simply and directly because we’re too focused on achieving our own plans? Similar to my last reflection, there is also a similar element of “rebuke” that also takes place here.

Remember when I referred to my last reflection in regards to the blind man’s faith? We should all be similarly impressed with the faith of the paralytic. Think about it—neither the blind man nor the paralytic needed any signs. They simply believed and knew Christ would help them. The paralytic’s faith in Him was so strong, it overcame literal adversity. If he couldn’t walk, he’d ask others to carry him to Christ. I’m reminded of that brilliant moment of friendship near the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Frodo Baggins, physically and mentally exhausted carrying the One Ring, tells his friend Samwise Gamgee he cannot walk any longer. He’s exhausted, he’s battered, he looks absolutely defeated. If Frodo does not throw the One Ring into Mount Doom, evil will triumph. Now imagine the paralytic: “And some men brought on a stretcher a man.” He could not physically walk to Christ. Here, Samwise Gamgee takes the initiative, “Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you…but I can carry you!” (Cue the manly tears.) (Yes, I know I am quoting the film and not the book.)

The paralytic’s faith moved him so much it didn’t matter. If he couldn’t walk, he would make sure he saw Christ.  It didn’t matter to his friends if the paralytic couldn’t walk, either—they brought him in through the roof just to make sure Christ saw him. Theirs was a living faith.  It was so strong, it moved him and them into action. Their living faith was far stronger than the durability of a Thomistic argument.  What have you done to seek Christ face to face today? What do we do when we don’t measure up to the faith of the paralytic? What have we done in order to make sure we receive His grace?

In the midst of all this, remember that we too are the Body of Christ. The paralytic struggled physically to see Christ, so his friends helped him. Oftentimes, in moments when we can obsess over clericalism or scruples over which form of the Mass is better, remember that our mission—as established in the great commission Christ professed—is to bring others to Heaven. There are many Catholics at this time who may, because of the pandemic or economic reasons, feel unable to move, frozen. Do we help bring those individuals to Christ as the paralytic’s friends did?

Now mind you, there is a little more to this.  Everyone glorified God after the miracle was done. Christ only sought God’s glory when He healed the paralytic. I only say this because how often do we seek gratitude in doing an act of charity or a favor for a friend? Instead of desiring the “thank you,” do we instead remember we are here on this Earth to glorify God? Oftentimes, we should also remember to purify our own intentions and make sure the reasons we do certain things are for the right reasons. 

Now that we are in the season of Advent, let us not forget the reason for the season. We are awaiting the celebration of the birth of Christ. Oftentimes, Advent is called a season of waiting. But are you going to Him, instead of waiting for signs as the Pharisees did?

Turn to Him

As Jesus approached Jericho
a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging,
and hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what was happening.
They told him,
“Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
He shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”
The people walking in front rebuked him,
telling him to be silent,
but he kept calling out all the more,
“Son of David, have pity on me!”
Then Jesus stopped and ordered that he be brought to him;
and when he came near, Jesus asked him,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
He replied, “Lord, please let me see.”
Jesus told him, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.”
He immediately received his sight
and followed him, giving glory to God.
When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God.

Luke 18:35–43

Dear friends,

How good it is to be writing for Frassati again! Rather than speak as if I were lecturing at the bully pulpit, I’ll speak to reach hearts and minds and try and be as succinct as possible. (No promises.)

In today’s Gospel, we are given the story of the healing of the blind man. The blind man, pleading to be recognized by Jesus, has his sight restored. Jesus tells the blind man, “Have sight, your faith has saved you.” It is an indeed an example of Christ’s miracles, but there are several takes I have on this narrative, especially in our climate these days in regards to our faith in Our Lord and in Holy Mother Church.

In my life, this Gospel narrative has several personal elements that deeply resonate with me. There are three crucial moments as I reflect on today’s Gospel:

  1. There is the crowd “rebuk[ing] him” and “telling him to be silent.”
  2. Christ then tells the man, “…Your faith has saved you.”
  3. The final element of my reflection pertains to “giving glory to God” after such a miracle has occurred.

First, how often in our lives have we reached out to the Lord? For many of us, especially at the beginning of this pandemic rife with mortal and economic loss, many of us may have felt brief or extended moments of confusion, heartbreak, maybe even despair. For me, it was a particularly turbulent moment in my life—I had no choice but to leave my PhD, the academic career I had envisioned for over a decade was now gone, and I found myself suddenly unemployed. I couldn’t find work for many, many months, and I was diagnosed with PTSD. With social distancing mechanisms in place, I, and many others, may have felt displaced from our prayer communities. I felt directionless. Some friends told me, in the midst of their despair, their belief that the Church, too, seemed in crisis. They subsequently said all was in flux, the Church was now in crisis, and they thought the world was ending.

Mind you, let me stop right here. I am not a “doomer.” I tried to be as empathetic as I possibly could with my friends, completely understanding how deeply lonely and heartbreaking this time was and still is. Some have been more active in talking to me; a lot of folks simply needed personal space. This time was and is turbulent in different ways for many of us, in a myriad of ways. I lost several family members and friends. I later contracted COVID-19 and became sick for quite some time in the spring. I was later reinfected with COVID-19 in late August. However, despite these times of trial and tribulation, my faith in Him was strengthened. This was also a sentiment I found with several of my friends: their faith was strengthened, not weakened. But how? Why? Amidst all this, how often have we given into stinging “rebuke?” Either from friends from ourselves? Perhaps we are not literally gathered amongst large crowds now, but the threat of stinging rebuke is still there. From ourselves. The maxim that “we can be our harshest critic” is not entirely without merit. Especially if we sometimes struggle with catastrophizing our interior lives. (Anyone? Sometimes I struggle with this! Struggling with anxiety is a real thing! But praise be to Jesus that I offer this to Him!) How often in the midst of these tragedies have we remained “silent,” instead of turning to Him, the Lord and Savior who died for our sins? He who wept when His friend Lazarus died? He who showed mercy to a thief being crucified next to Him? Turn to Him—He truly understands. If you’ve ever been mad at God or disappointed, whether it be with life, anxiety, or singleness, you can tell Him. He can take it. And Jesus will love you all the same.

Second, in my life, getting to the point of “your faith has saved you” could be the most difficult. Because we sometimes we may thrive on a quick, immediate emotional response in our consumerist society. We may want things now. In my life, I have realized that upon getting what we have wanted from prayer, we may then become lukewarm. We may sometimes have the tendency to turn to the Lord only in moments in despair. (More on this in my third point.) But the larger issue I want to point out is that no prayer is wasted. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said to a group of pilgrims that, “We can be sure that there is no such thing as a superfluous or useless prayer. No prayer is lost.” Often, I have been told that when we pray, God may think with His divine intellect one of the following things: “Yes;” “Yes, but not the way you expect, here is something even better;” “No;” or “Later.” While we cannot ascertain with our mortal intellect the divine intellect, we have probably had one of these moments that our prayers were answered in magnitudes even greater than we could have ever wanted!

Imagine a world where there was no guarantee the blind man could have ever been healed. The blind man must have realized this small possibility. Obviously, Christ was always going to heal the blind man, but this was never a certainty in the mind of the blind man. I think the larger point to “Your faith has saved you” is to realize the point that it’s always possible that our prayers may never be answered in the ways we expect. And yet, we turn to Him. And we should. I think the larger issue that some of us may not realize is that in the midst of our tribulations, we may subconsciously believe we are beyond reproach or may not need to repent. How often do we feel relieved when we go to confession? Like a clean slate. The blind man felt lost—literally and figuratively. The issue we may not realize from reading this Gospel narrative is that we pretend we are beyond reproach, pretend we are not sinners, and we then become literally and spiritually “blind” to even our own spiritual blindness. Like if you desperately needed glasses to see. Like a glass half full. Like if you went out in the cold without a coat. One way we grow into much better young Catholics is to recognize how lost we are—how truly we actually need Jesus. Do we recognize this in prayer? It may be a hard thing to admit, mainly because it requires a large amount of humility in our lives. When the pandemic first hit, when I was first diagnosed with PTSD, and when I found myself temporarily directionless, I turned to Jesus. Who else would I turn to? I was a blind man, begging to see, temporarily becoming a recluse for many, many months. There was nobody I would rather turn to. Tell Jesus you love Him and how much you need Him. You’ll be surprised how readily He welcomes you with open arms. There are still many moments where I struggle with spiritual blindness, for our path to sainthood is a continual process for the rest of our lives. Remember you want to aim for Heaven, not purgatory, because you don’t want to miss. (Bad joke, I know.) Would I say I’m a much more mature and confident man than I was at the beginning of the year? Absolutely. Am I a saint yet? No, but I’m trying, Jesus.

Finally, comes the role of “giving glory to God.” This is the both the easiest and potentially the most difficult. Mainly because once we receive something in our prayer lives, we are immediately humbled, enormously thankful. How many times do we shout “Alleluia!” once our prayers are answered? But do we keep the faith afterwards? Even after we know Our Lord is with us and truly loves us? It has once been said we are “an Easter people,” who should always strive to shout, “Alleluia!” The most pressing example of this is what Our Lady must have felt at the Annunciation. Consider this moment from the Gospel of Luke:

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:38)

There is the moment of revelation. There is the moment where Our Lady accepts the Lord’s will. However, what people forget is what comes after. Do we try to emulate Our Lady’s example, keeping the faith? Imagine being a young woman, being given such a great mission, probably illiterate, probably scared, coming from Nazareth, where it is said that no good comes from there. (See John 1:46.) Mary kept the faith; we can, too.

Don’t be afraid to pray to God for relief of your burdens. If relief is not in sight, ask Him for the graces you need to endure in these troubled times. He will help you.

Trust in Jesus to the End

Today’s first reading is about Stephen’s martyrdom. Stephen was stoned to death for defending the teachings of Jesus Christ. He stood up tall and he stood up proud to say what was not of God and what was from God. He proclaimed the good news until his last breath. What a man full of courage. It was the Holy Spirit that guided him to fulfill his mission. I read this scriptural passage and I wonder, was he not afraid? Did he not fear for his life? Did he not worry about the outcome of his actions? Above these questions I think, wow, this man, Stephen, had incredible faith. We have seen the power of incredible faith in many saints who were martyred after him. One thing they all have in common is that they trust in Jesus Christ.

Do you trust in Jesus Christ? Do you fully trust Him? Do you trust that He loves you and will provide for you? Do you trust that He knows and understands your suffering? Do you trust in His promise of everlasting life? All of this the martyred saints believed, giving all their trust and love in Jesus.

During these unprecedented times we should also fully trust in Jesus. The main conversation taking place is around COVID-19: people being infected, people dying, people being worried and filled with anxiety. We question everything around us and everyone who is in authority. Fear and anger have made us mistrust one another. Let’s center back to Jesus. Put your trust in Jesus. He is the one who will ease your pain. He is the one who will make your worries go away. What is God’s plan? How does this virus fall into His plan? Specifics do not matter. I understand that it might be super difficult for us to accept this. But you do not need all the specifics. All you need to do is trust in God. Part of His plan includes you and your salvation. Part of His plan includes you and the forgiveness of your sins. Part of His plan includes you and the love He has for you. Trust in God to get you through this difficult time.  You are precious in His eyes and He wants the very best for you—which is for you to sit with Him in heaven. It’s hard to not worry about the difficulties of this world, but there is great treasure awaiting us in heaven.

Again, I read the scripture passage about Stephen’s death—he was the first of many to die for Jesus. Death is never glamorous and not something we look forward to. However, death is inevitable. It is as guaranteed as the air we breathe. Now I understand that Stephen was not afraid and he was not worried. He was a man that fully trusted in the Lord to take care of him. He fully knew that the Lord loved him. As he was being stoned, he looked up to heaven and fully knew he was going home. In his darkest hour Stephen was trusting in God and said, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

I invite you to pray the Litany of Trust.

stephen
Image credit: Stephen’s Martyrdom, Photograph taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. from the Great Hall of Hampton Court [Domain: flickr.com]

Blessed Is She Who Believed

As a child I loved Holy Saturday. It was a day of Much Anticipation. The more sad and somber liturgies were completed, as was the long Lent and the fasting of Good Friday. Night would bring the wonderful Easter Vigil. I loved beginning in complete darkness, then the lighting of a single flame, the spreading of the light from candle to candle, and then finally the whole church lit up at the Gloria!

I looked forward to going to sleep, anticipating the arrival of the Easter Bunny, who promised plentiful chocolate and all sorts of other treats!

Holy Saturday was also the day of the annual village Easter Egg Hunt. We would eagerly climb the hill to the Tribute Gardens, armed with empty baskets, to search for colored Easter eggs. Hidden among the newly green grass, the flowers about to bloom, between rocks and moss-covered tree roots, we would find sweet treasures. There was something about the search itself, about seeking and finding, that thrilled my young heart, then and even now.

Of course the first Holy Saturday was not a day of anticipation, but only grief. It was not a day of finding but of great loss. It was not a day of new life and beginnings, but of the realization of the stunning end of everything hoped for.

Locked in their homes for fear of what might come next, filled with self-reproach and blame for their own failings, the disciples hid away, despairing and dismayed, their hearts sealed as surely as the stone-blocked sepulcher.

Why had God allowed this? How had it happened that the one they thought of as Savior could not in the end even save Himself? The Kingdom of God had come to an end.

Except in one heart.

Only Our Lady had a heart of holy anticipation. Only she held the faith, not letting it waver or slip, even through the cracks of her broken heart.

For Mary the mystery was not Why? or How? but Who?

Mary knew the goodness of God. She knew that the goodness of God was greater than what she saw, than the dead body she cradled in her arms and then laid forsaken in the tomb. She, who was the first to receive and accept the message of the Incarnation, carried this faith on through the empty stillness of Holy Saturday.

She must have pondered anew the words of the angel, promising Emmanuel, God with us. She knew that Promise was not past tense.

She must have seen again His human body, so tiny then, for the first but not last time swaddled in linens. The myrrh from the Magi—did she summon again its scent? A strange gift to celebrate new life!

She must have recalled that first time Jesus went missing for three days, and how her heart had searched for Him, how even then He was “about my Father’s business.”

She must have remembered His words at Cana, “my hour has not yet come.” His hour has now come, but she knows it is not past. The joy of the wine at the wedding feast was only a foreshadowing.

During this day, she alone “heard the words of the Lord and kept them,” taking to heart when He said, “I will rise after three days.”

Her broken heart held together the faith of the whole church, for the whole world. Saint John Paul II: “After Jesus had been laid in the tomb, Mary alone remains to keep alive the flame of faith, preparing to receive the joyful and astonishing announcement of the Resurrection.”

On this Holy Saturday, we are invited to remain in the heart of Mary, to keep vigil with her, to allow her hope to kindle our own.

Even as we are locked in our homes, and even as, for many of us, the Body of Christ is locked away in closed churches, we are invited to be with her in trust and peace.

We are invited to remember that God is even bigger than what we have seen so far: that He is still bringing greater good from evil, still resurrecting, still making all things new. We are invited to seek Him, anticipating the joy of the sweetness in finding Him, even in unexpected places.

Holy Saturday

Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

INRI: Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews

The greatest love story ever told is that of Jesus Christ dying on the Cross for you.

What makes this so great is that this love story is not fictional, it is not a fairy tale, it is not a myth. This love story, of Jesus Christ dying on the Cross for you, is 100% real historical truth.

This week I was teaching my students about the importance of the Cross: how Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples and instituted the Eucharist, how Jesus was betrayed by a close friend and handed over to the Roman soldiers, how Pontius Pilate sentenced him to be crucified like a criminal, and how Jesus knew all of this would happen and willingly chose to die for each of us because he loves us.

We know how this love story ends. It ends with victory on Easter morning, because Jesus Christ rose from the dead. One student, knowing about the Resurrection of Jesus, asked if Jesus and Judas became friends again after he came back from the dead. If Judas had not killed himself and instead asked forgiveness for his offenses, do you think Jesus would forgive the man who turned him over to his death? Yes, he would. Jesus loves everyone, and Jesus dying on the Cross was for the forgiveness of everyone’s sins, no matter how big or small. You just need to ask from your heart for forgiveness.

In today’s first reading, from the book of Isaiah, we read about the suffering servant—the prophecy that spoke about Jesus Christ bearing all the sins of the world upon himself and taking them all to his death.

Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
each following his own way;
but the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.
—Isaiah 53:4–6

It was no coincidence that it was Jesus Christ on that Cross—it didn’t happen by chance. This was God’s plan for salvation. The prophets in the Old Testament told all of Israel that a servant of the Lord would bear their sins. Israel was told that the servant of the Lord would be ridiculed, humiliated, harshly treated, mocked, and scourged. It would be this servant, a man of great suffering, who would redeem the world. We often run away from suffering—not wanting to be weighed down or made to feel small and useless. We turn away and lament to be in pain, distress, or hardship. We think suffering is to be weak. But we must not think of suffering as society tells us it is—we need to look at the Cross and know that suffering is to be strong; suffering as Jesus suffered is to love.

God is not distant from us. Mankind was made in the image and likeness of God. He breathed life into us and is in the dwelling place of our hearts. God loves his children so much that his plan was to send his beloved Son to earth, so the Son could experience the hardships of sin. The second reading, from the letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews, tells us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who has similarly been tested in every way” (Heb 4:15). Jesus knows the anguish that you are feeling. He knows that you are scared. He knows that you are full of anxiety. He knows that you worry about how you will be able to pay your bills. He knows that you worry about the health of your family and friends. Jesus knows it all because he is fully human and fully divine. And he wants you to trust in him. Trust in the sacrificial love of Jesus.

What ever sins you have committed in the past, sins that you think are too great to be forgiven, know that Jesus has already paid the price for them. If you think that you cannot be forgiven because you commit the same sin over and over, know that Jesus wants you to go to him because he will forgive you again. If you think you are in sin and suffering because you deserve it, that is a lie. Jesus has already suffered for you and wants you to have everlasting life. Out of suffering comes good; therefore, we call the day that Jesus died GOOD Friday. It is Good Friday because our God is good. It is Good Friday because God’s love is good. It is Good Friday because out of Jesus’ suffering and death, the gates of Heaven were opened, and his Blood was poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins—this is all good.

Because of his affliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.
Therefore I will give him his portion among the great,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
because he surrendered himself to death
and was counted among the wicked;
and he shall take away the sins of many,
and win pardon for their offenses.
– Isaiah 53:11-12

This Good Friday, I invite you to meditate upon the Crucified Jesus who died for your sins. While Jesus was hanging on the Cross he said, “It is finished,” and bowed his head handing over the spirit—he did so because he loves you.

Crucified Jesus
Image Credit: The Crucifixion by Bartolomé Estebán Murillo ca. 1675 [Public Domain: Met Museum]