We Are All Tenants in This Life

A few weeks ago, I was teaching a group of 7th graders about ownership. We talked about land and property: the homes they lived in, the clothing they wore, the cellphones they had. At the beginning of the discussion they had given me a list of a few items they each owned. As the conversation progressed they realized that none of the property they used was actually their own. It all belonged to their parents, but as their children, they are able to enjoy these possessions. 

In the book of Genesis, God creates everything into existence. He made light, the earth, the sky, vegetation, animals, and mankind. He made everything and everything was good. As God is the creator of all things, so, rightfully, He is the owner of all things. Everything belongs to God, and we have been gifted the opportunity to be His stewards, to use all of what He has created and bear fruit.

Today’s Gospel talks about ownership and stewardship. Jesus is telling the chief priests and elders of the people the parable of the tenants. A landowner planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants. When the landowner sent servants and even his own son to collect the produce from his land, the tenants killed them. Jesus asked, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” 

We are all tenants in this life. Everything that we have was given to us by God. Today’s society might not agree, and you may hear echoes of “this is my land,” “my body,” “I worked for this.” The truth is that the land we occupy was created by God, your body was created by God and in His image, and all your possessions have been delivered into your hands by God. It is right that we thank Him. Through His divine plan, we have been given different gifts and we must use those gifts for good: to bear fruit. If you find yourself in a position of power, use your platform for the common good. If you find that you’ve been granted material wealth, use it wisely and in consideration of those in need. If you’re a part of a ministry/group/organization in which they look towards you for leadership, be prudent in how you lead that you may lead others to the Kingdom of heaven.

As everything in our lives is a gift, it is also leased out to us—waiting for the rightful owner to come back and obtain the produce that was cultivated. Jesus warns us about being a tenant with empty hands: “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” Whatever gift (big or small) you’ve been given from God, He wants you to use it and fully enjoy it, while at the same time producing fruits—that is, building up the Kingdom and bringing people closer to God.

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Image Credit: Parable of The Tenants by Jan Luyken [Public Domain].

Here at the End of All Things

“In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy.”
–J.R.R. Tolkien

Today is the day after Thanksgiving. The table has been cleared, the extra chairs have been returned to the basement, and what is left of the turkey dinner (not much!) has been tucked into the fridge. The faint echo of last night’s laughter and chatter has faded into silence, following the taillights of cars that slowly disappeared into the darkness outside. Something you cannot quite place has ended, and something you cannot quite name has been lost—even if plans are already in place to put up Christmas trees, bake cookies, sing songs, and ring in the new year.

In those unattended moments, our hearts ache for something we cannot quite describe. Maybe we wish those happy times with loved ones could have lasted just a little while longer. Maybe we think of past holidays and grieve for those who would have filled the empty seats at the table this year. Or, maybe we tell ourselves that just one more smile or just one more hug would have been enough to stave off this feeling of an ending. For God “has made everything appropriate to its time, but has put the timeless into [our] hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). However much we may long for the timeless, or even for just one more page in the chapter, all adventures, seasons, and stories upon this earth must come to an end.

The recent apocalyptic readings let us linger in that ache as we come to the end of the liturgical year, weeks before the crowds fill Times Square—but not for long. We hear about the passing of the world, the end of time, and stories we may wish would end quickly: terrifying beasts, kingdoms falling, people dying of fright, and even heaven and earth passing away! Much as Tolkien describes, “Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down upon the land.”

Yet, even amid the chaos and ruin of the world, and even in the sorrow we face in our own lives, these readings also give us an anchor to cling to: Christ the King. He promises us the permanence our hearts long for now and in those end times, saying that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33). “He received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14). In a sudden turn that makes our breath catch and our hearts lift, there is something—Someone—that lasts.

In the upcoming weeks of Advent, we will wait for the fulfillment of this promise: for Christ’s coming at Christmas and in the last days. It is a period of joyful expectation, steadfast preparation, and patient endurance while awaiting “the point of intersection of the timeless with time” (Eliot). As Tolkien again writes, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” Each day we receive the Eucharist—or, thanksgiving—this joy comes from being with our beloved, our king. Even if our world is in ruin and our hearts yearn for more in ways we cannot quite describe, no one can take this joy, for our God is with us. And with him, we are called to watch and wait for the day we will see him as he is, beyond the appearance of bread and wine—for the day after thanksgiving, at the end of all things.

Reading & Listening Suggestions
Scott Hahn, Joy to the World
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the KingOn Fairy Stories
Fr. Gregory Pine, O.P., The Xmas Soundtrack: Rudolph, Frosty, and Man’s Search for Meaning
Fr. Mike Schmitz, Joy to the WorldThe Promise

Gratitude a Platitude?

I smiled politely but inwardly rolled my eyes and sighed. I had come far, driving for several hours across state lines for this conversation. I was searching for peace, the peace that I heard Jesus promise and holy people speak of, but that was elusive in my own life. I was experiencing darkness and angst, teetering on the edge of depression. I thought this holy priest would offer helpful advice, transformative insight, something beyond: “Try keeping a journal of things you are grateful for.”

Gratitude?!? It was vaguely offensive, this suggestion that my problems arose because I was ungrateful. And a Gratitude Journal seemed little better than a “self-help” suggestion. Surely, if self-help propaganda actually worked, it wouldn’t be an ongoing industry.

I roll my eyes harder, today, at the naïve and stubborn girl I was then. Because when I finally took this priest’s advice, years later, it was transformative.

He was right, of course, that gratitude brought with it an increase in happiness and tranquility. Science in fact confirms this: studies repeatedly show that those who practice gratitude are generally happier and healthier. But in the spiritual realm this truth runs much deeper. In recent years I have meditated often on this mystery of gratitude, and how in fact gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life in ways that are not immediately apparent.

First, gratitude orients us toward God. Gratitude as grace is more than an expression of contentedness, more than an acknowledgement of the good things in our lives. It is a recognition of, a turning towards, the Giver of these gifts. It is not coincidence that the first prayer children learn to pray is the practice of gratitude, of receiving and responding to the goodness of God. Gratitude is the first expression of the faith that saves us.

When in today’s Gospel Jesus remarks with dismay that only one of the ten lepers He healed has come back to thank Him, it is tempting to read this as a scolding for a breach of etiquette, as though Jesus were little more than a divine first-century Miss Manners. But what Jesus is lamenting is a matter of relationship. We are called as Christians not just to be thankful for someTHING, but thankful to someONE. Gratitude turns the heart toward the Giver. It is the relationship, this coming to the Giver, that saves.

Second, gratitude increases our capacity for God’s gifts. Gratitude in turn unlocks other blessings. It is a mystery of faith that I have come to recognize experientially: our gratitude actually increases the gifts of God.

At first I was put off (again!) by this idea. It seemed to be just another quid pro quo, a means of “earning” grace by playing nice and saying the right things. Worse, it seemed to demean God, suggesting He was crankily waiting for us to respond properly before giving us more good things.

It was living in the country that I began to understand why this might be—why it was more than just spiritual tit for tat, a reward for good behavior. I had discovered early upon my move home on that our basement was vulnerable to floods, and when that spring brought prolonged record rainfall I feared the worst. But each day that I checked, the basement remained dry. It was only after weeks of dry and drought that a short burst of rain sent the water rushing in.

The reason is simple: when ground is dry it becomes hardened, and the water cannot penetrate quickly enough and so runs off the surface of it creating the flooding. But as the earth receives water, it softens, allowing it to receive more and more. Similarly, the more our hearts are open to God and His gifts, the more He can give to us without “drowning” us. The more we gratefully receive, the more we are capable of receiving what God gives us.

Finally, gratitude keeps present in our hearts and minds the goodness of the Giver. As we remember our blessings and the ways in which God has provided for our past, we carry the seeds of hope for our future, even in seasons of scarcity and suffering.

“For all that has been, Thanks. To all that shall be, Yes.”– Dag Hammarskjöld

Eat and Be Satisfied

In today’s readings, we see two different stories of God providing for His people. In the book of Numbers, the Israelites are given manna in the desert, sustenance for their journey to the promised land. But they grouse and complain about the blandness of this heavenly food. They remember the fish that they ate “without cost” in Egypt, forgetting that it came with a very dear cost indeed—the cost of their freedom. They are so quick to forget what God has done for them, the miracles He wrought to deliver them from slavery in Egypt.

In contrast, the Gospel reading presents the story of Jesus’s multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Here, Jesus provides for His followers with simple yet nourishing food, and they accept it gratefully. Where the Israelites in the desert turned their nose up at the food God offered them, these crowds “ate and were satisfied.”

The juxtaposition of these two stories reminds us how important it is to be receptive to God’s providence in our lives. He is always seeking to nourish our souls and provide for our every need, but we often miss out on it because it comes in a way we don’t expect. If we hold too tightly to our own ideas of what we ought to have, we might overlook the gifts that are right before us. Truly, God showers us with gifts each and every day of our lives, even if they might come amidst a difficult journey. What a shame it would be to allow our pride to hold us back from living in gratitude and wonder.

People can always find reason to complain. We serve others not to receive their praise and thanks but because it is the right thing to do. Just as God continued to feed His people with manna even despite their ingratitude, so are we called to imitate His kindness and generosity.

Today is the feast of the dedication of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four major basilicas of Rome, which houses the relic of Christ’s manger. (Several years ago, I got the chance to attend midnight Mass there at Christmas, which was especially beautiful!) Mary, as the Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” was in a sense the original manger, the first home for Jesus. But a manger is not a typical cradle; it is a feeding trough for animals. When Mary laid her divine Child in the manger, it prefigured His role as food for the world. He offers His very Self to nourish us, and she lays down her own life to become the means through which we can receive Him. God’s providence for us truly knows no bounds. As He continues to feed His people, may we receive Him gratefully, eat, and be satisfied.

Embracing Seasons

A few weeks ago, our first son, Leo, got his first haircut. And for many weeks prior to that, Aidan had been telling me over and over again that Leo needed one. I had been putting it off because I KNEW I would be so sad when he would come back looking like a little man and not my little baby with super blonde tips and a curly mini-mullet from the hairs evidencing his babyhood. 

The slowness of motherhood can feel so arduous sometimes, but it also gives me space to listen closely to His voice. When I was rocking Leo back to sleep in my arms after he woke up very upset from a nap, I could feel God shifting the perspective of my heart. As I truly enjoyed and savored being Leo’s comfort in that moment, God was teaching me that He gives us seasons, stages (ways to help us make sense of time and our existence) primarily to delight us and teach us about Himself in different ways we don’t have the same access to in other seasons.

All too often, I have made the mistake of defining seasons by what I could NOT do or receive in that season (e.g. here, toddlerhood as the solemn absence of babyhood, and let’s not forget, dating as the “no-sex-before-marriage” stage). We often are overwhelmed by crippling nostalgia or sadness for what is past (or only exists in imagined ideals!), longing for it, while we miss what He is doing and offering right in front of and within us. 

And so, when I read the verses for today, there is a similar struggle among God’s people through salvation history. We see parallel verses of Moses and Jesus from the Old and New testaments, exhorting those listening to follow and abide in the Law God sets forth for His people.  Moses, a great prophet and leader of Israel, is about to talk about the Ten Commandments and other commands about keeping the covenant with God. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, has just preached the Beatitudes. The people Jesus spoke to hear what is different, how Jesus is seemingly changing what God had said in the past, but Jesus knows their hearts and addresses those fears by proclaiming and clarifying Himself as the fulfillment of what those laws and prophets said. Jesus is connecting these seasons of salvation history and God’s revelation of Himself to mankind; the crowds can only see the differences and, as a result, lose trust in Jesus as the Messiah.

Just like the crowds, we often resist the cusp of a new season. Many times, we are afraid of what it might bring, but I find most often for myself, the prospect of finding a new way and rhythm of life is most challenging and daunting. But, as Jesus reminds us, each season is meant to fill us more and more, not taking away from or “abolishing” the season that came before.

It is very important to take note that the way God tells us about Himself in the Old Testament is paramount to understanding how His Son fulfills them. I encourage us all to read the Old Testament readings during the Easter vigil and really meditating on what each has to offer in terms of telling us how God is revealing Himself in salvation history. We cannot understand the Son without the Father, and vice versa. We worship a Trinitarian god Who has revealed Himself over time, and the order in which this has happened is integral to how each word informs the other, culminating in The Word of God, Jesus, our Messiah. The God who called for bloody animal sacrifices and holy temples and a priestly nation set apart for Him is now a Person, a Son, speaking to the crowds of fulfilling the words of His Father.

May we receive the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to understand and fully embrace our current season of life, and live with the expectant hope that there is unique joy in this season to be uncovered and savored.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Bakhita

Bakhita_Szent_Jozefina.jpegToday is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a woman of incredible strength and perseverance. Kidnapped at age seven from her home in Sudan and sold into slavery, she was given the name Bakhita, meaning “fortunate.” She suffered daily beatings and abuse at the hands of her captors. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian family, the Michielis, and worked as their maid. While in Italy, Bakhita was introduced to the Canossian Sisters of Venice—and through the Canossian Sisters, she began to learn about God and the Church. The more she learned, the more her heart became inflamed with love for Jesus.

When the Michielis wanted to bring Bakhita with them to Africa, where they had acquired a large hotel, Bakhita firmly refused to leave the convent in Venice. While Mrs. Michieli tried to force the issue, eventually the Italian court ruled that because slavery was illegal in Italy, and had in fact also been outlawed in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth, Bakhita had never legally been a slave. All of a sudden, she was free to choose her own path.

Bakhita was baptized in the Catholic faith at age thirty, receiving all three sacraments of initiation on January 9, 1890, and taking the name Josephine. She took vows as a Canossian Sister three years later. For the rest of her life, until her death in 1947, she was known for her joyful, welcoming presence, her love of children, and her encouraging spirit toward the poor and suffering.

What is particularly remarkable about Josephine is her ability to see God’s hand at work through every chapter of her story, even those filled with darkness and tragedy. When she was introduced to Christ through the Canossian Sisters, all the pieces of her life began to fall into place and make sense to her for the first time. She said, “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”

Josephine stood up for herself and put an end to the injustices she suffered, but she did not brood over past wrongs or dwell in resentment for all the trauma she had undergone. On the contrary, she actually expressed gratitude for her past experiences. When a young student asked her what she would do if she were to meet her captors, she responded without hesitation: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”

I am far from grateful for my own sufferings, but I pray that through the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita, I might allow my eyes to be opened to the ways God is working in every aspect of my life. May my deliverance from resentment and cynicism be sparked by an interior conversion of heart, a turning toward gratitude and unrestrained love for God.

Everything Is Grace

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus presents to us a startlingly bold exhortation:

Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it,
but whoever loses it will save it.
—Luke 17:33

This does not mean, of course, that we should be careless about our own lives. On the contrary; if our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, then we should treat all life—our own included—as sacred and worthy of protection. But in doing so we must remember that our lives have been entrusted to us by God; they are not our own. If we try to preserve them for our own sake, instead of for God’s, then our lives will become detached from the purpose imbued by their Creator and thus lose their meaning.

Jesus speaks here with a sense of urgency, warning us not to be caught unprepared at the judgment. The reading shakes us out of our complacency and gives us the sense that everything can change in an instant. If this is really true, then every moment carries great weight and meaning. Every second of our lives is an opportunity to be a conduit of the inexhaustible Source of all truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.

Jesus’s words are an invitation for us to stop wading in the shallows of our life and go out into the deep. He challenges us to let go of the worldly attachments that keep us tethered to the shore and to go forth in courage. All the beautiful things in this world only have meaning insofar as they reflect the beauty of the Creator. If we love God first and foremost, then we will see His beauty in everything around us. But if we cling to the things of this world for their own sake, forgetting that they are gifts from God, then we will ultimately be left unfulfilled.

May we deepen our awareness that everything is grace, that our very lives are given to us as invaluable, unmerited gifts.

There is the great spiritual principle that undergirds the entire Gospel: detachment. The heart of the spiritual life is to love God and then to love everything else for the sake of God. But we sinners, as St. Augustine said, fall into the trap of loving the creature and forgetting the Creator. That’s when we get off the rails.

We treat something less than God as God—and trouble ensues. And this is why Jesus tells his fair-weather fans that they have a very stark choice to make. Jesus must be loved first and last—and everything else in their lives has to find its meaning in relation to him.

—Bishop Robert Barron