Called to Belong

“Through him we have received the grace of apostleship,
to bring about the obedience of faith,
for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles,
among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ;
to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.” –Romans 1:5-7

Our restless hearts wrestle with the deepest questions: Do I matter? What’s my purpose? Where is my place in this world? Who is God calling me to be?

We desire to belong, to be wanted, to be noticed and seen. We want to be loved as we are. We search for that feeling of home among pockets of family, friends, church communities, and nostalgic places. We tuck into our hearts conversations and moments that remind us of who we are and why we’re here.

Sometimes the striving takes over and the search for belonging becomes a competition of comparison, envy, insecurity, and pride.

Our anxious, searching hearts can find rest in the God of the universe who calls us His own, who enfolds us into His arms and says, “You’re Mine.”

Each human heart is etched with the longing for God. We always belong with God, and not only that, but He calls us to belong. He wants us.

And so we can rest in Him, never having to doubt who we are and if we fit. Never having to feel the impostor syndrome, the lies, the endless questions. In His gaze, all of that fades away because we are His own, and we always belong.

“The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.” -Catechism of the Catholic Church 27

Our Identity In Christ

Then [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said in reply, “The Messiah of God.” – Luke 9:20

In today’s Gospel Peter confesses his faith by saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one by God. This is the first time in the Gospel which a human on his own has the insight to KNOW that Jesus is Christ. In first-century Palestine, this declaration was a very big deal. For years and years and years, Israel has been waiting for the Messiah, the one anointed by God to come and save them. Earlier in his ministry (look at yesterday’s reflection) people were confused by Jesus’ identity, thinking he was John the Baptist, Elijah, or some other prophet. But Peter, in an intimate moment, clearly and definitively states that Jesus is the Messiah of God. The Christ. The new David that Israel has so earnestly been waiting for.

We declare our own confession of faith when we recite in the creed, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.”

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Frassati retreat. The theme of the retreat was “Called by Name.” A name is important. We fill out forms with our names. We wear name tags with our names. We write cards and letters and sign them with our names. Our names are special. Just as the name Jesus is special. There is power in a name. Just as the name of Jesus is powerful.

Throughout the retreat I was attentive to hear God call me by name, Mariela. And in hearing him say my name I was reminded of my identity. I am a child of God. Sometimes the world may confuse our identity, as the crowds had earlier been confused by Jesus’ true identity. The world may perceive us in such a way that they may neglect our feelings, deny our dignity, or make us feel less than welcomed. They do not know us. Our true identity is being a child of God.

After Peter speaks Jesus’ true identity, Jesus tells the disciples that he has to suffer, be rejected, be killed and then he will rise on the third day. This is the first time that Jesus mentions his death, telling of the extreme and necessary means by which he would fulfill God’s will. Explaining how he is a different type of Messiah.

In the creed, we confess truth to his Passion when we say, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day.”

Jesus’ death and resurrection is part of his mission. The mission of the Messiah was much more than to be a military figure that would bring Israel out of Roman authority; Jesus’ mission is to save souls. The Catholic Church, the Church Jesus built—its mission is to save souls. You and I are a part of that mission.

Believing in Jesus’ name, in his identity, in his mission, is at the same time believing and trusting in God’s plan. If we were to ask God the same question Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”—and let’s be real, we have asked that question every time we have lost our way, every time we wanted to feel loved and desired, every time we wanted to feel like we mattered—God would easily answer us by saying, “You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). God the Father would not leave his children out of his plan!

When we know with confidence who Jesus is, as Peter knew that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, we must also be confident in who we are. Our names are delicately engraved in the palms of God’s hands, and upon hearing him say our names, we should be reminded and reaffirmed of our own identity in Christ.

Suggested listening: Who You Say I Am by Hillsong Worship

Image Credit: Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter [Public Domain]

Idols and Identity

It is so much easier to be happy when the sun is shining, and this Easter the weather cooperated. The world seemed to sing of the grandeur of God, commensurate with the joy of the season. The sun was bright, the flowers bloomed, and my spirits soared. “At last!” I thought. “God is providing a season of joy!”

But then the rains began. It rained for twelve days straight, skipping one, only to resume again and keep on raining. There was the standard flood of jokes about Noah’s ark in the Hudson Valley, but I felt the sog seeping deep into my soul. And when the rains stopped, the sog remained. It was as though my heart were wreathed in a mist of sadness that I could not explain, weighted by something I could not identify.

It happened that in mid-May I attended a mini-Unbound workshop led by the CFRs in Newburgh. Sitting in the church pews, I wasn’t paying close attention during the first talk. Instead, I kept rehashing in my mind how a friend had recently let me down. The transgression was minor, but my mind kept replaying it, a video gone viral in the worst way. “Let it go already!” the Girl I Ought To Be scolded. Even real me was annoyed, because it wasn’t a big deal. So why was I still thinking about it? Why did it, too, weigh on my soggy heart?

“Sometimes we cannot forgive, because underlying the injury is an identity wound.” I have heard many (many, many) talks on forgiveness, but here was a new angle. The speaker gave an example. A man is fired because of the actions of a co-worker. If that man’s job was his identity—that which gave him his sense of worth and meaning and importance—then there would be much more to forgive.

Was God speaking to me? During Lent a visiting Sister had spoken about how God had led her to do a “friendship fast,” because her friends had become her idols. I had felt an uncomfortable resonance as she spoke, but didn’t know what that might mean. Now I thought, was I making idols of my friendships? Was that also connected? Is that why I couldn’t just let go?

And then as we were led through (yet another) forgiveness exercise, I found myself back in two all-too familiar memories. Both times, I was deeply betrayed by someone I thought was a friend. Both times, a friend had turned against me, to side with someone more popular in a manner that was particularly cruel. Both times, the rejection was temporary, but my heart never forgot.

I had hoped for some new revelation; instead I found my eyes tearing at the same old stories that I had walked through so many times before. I had forgiven all so many times. I didn’t even feel bitterness toward the people involved, but here I was, crying again, over decades old spilled friendship. Again.

And as I thought about idols and identity I began to understand what the speakers were saying. I had thought that the problem with idols was that they took on the identity of gods in our life. Rather, I realize, they had become what gave me my identity.

My friends had given me an identity. I felt that failures in friendship meant that I was a failure. I looked to my friends to affirm my goodness, my lovability. I depended on friendship as if it were a god.

Depending on friends is not all bad. Human relationships are meant to be conduits of the grace of God. Human love is the medium by which we most easily and most often experience the love of God. But human love images, and points to, the divine love. It does not replace it.

Anything can become an idol. My own virtue. Morality. My to-do list. My sense of mission. The idols of ought: what my life ought to look like; the girl I ought to be. Particular forms of liturgy can become the object of worship, rather than the means of worship. My political or religious affiliations can become more important than God.

There is a severe mercy in being stripped of our idols, and the accompanying false identities. It is a mercy because it is for our good. But it is severe.

The answer is to choose faith: not just faith in who God is, but in who I am in Him. Faith that I am lovable. Faith that I am not alone. Faith that there is good in me. That I am known, and not found wanting, not found to be no good. Not rejected, not abandoned, not forsaken.

Lord I believe; help my unbelief.

 

Falsely Accused

I remember sitting on my kitchen table, feet dangling above the floor. My phone was to my ear, face hot with a mix of anger, embarrassment, and anxiety as the person on the other end of the line repeated lie after lie about me. I couldn’t get a word in. I took a breath and prayed, and the image of Jesus before Pilate flashed before my eyes. “Lord, is this a glimpse of what it was like to be before Pilate and the screaming crowds?” I thought. All I could do was calmly speak the truth in response, but it didn’t make a difference. The berating worsened. I hung up at the end of the conversation, reeling and in shock. The room spun around me. How could someone say things about me that were so clearly the opposite of who I am?

False accusations.

We’ve all been there, unfortunately, when someone tries to destroy our reputation and spews lies at us or about us. We’ve all had moments of the blame falling on us for things we would never dream of doing. We know the hopeless, defenseless feeling of being absolutely appalled and wondering, “What if everyone starts to believe this about me?”

In today’s first reading from Daniel, Susanna is falsely accused in a horrific situation. Two judges from her community attempt to rape her while she is bathing, but they use their power to falsely accuse her of the crime of adultery. While this happened years and years ago, this is not uncommon today: the stories of men and women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted and are not believed pop up again and again.

Susanna, though, teaches us an important lesson. Even in the face of her false accusation leading to a death sentence, she remains steadfast in the truth of not only what happened but in who she is as God’s daughter. She cries out to the Lord: “O eternal God, You know what is hidden and are aware of all things before they come to be: You know that they have testified falsely against me. Here I am about to die, though I have done none of the things with which these wicked men have charged me” (Daniel 13:42-43). God hears her prayer, and it is not hopeless after all: Daniel refuses to be a part of her death, and he proves to everyone else that she is innocent.

The Lord is the way, the truth, and the life. When we speak the truth with love, we can always trust that God is with us and is on our side. Though others may falsely accuse us and try to ruin us, they cannot win because the truth of God always has the victory over sin and destruction. He knows all. He sees. It is impossible to falsely accuse anyone before our Lord—the lies will not stand in the sight of His infinite love.

God is the only one who has any authority to speak about your worth, inherent goodness, or value. No one can ever take away your dignity, because your dignity is a gift from God, and no one can take away what God has given. No one can ever remove or destroy your identity as beloved son or beloved daughter of the Most High God. The Father declares the truth of who you are as His with great rejoicing and singing over you, His beautiful creation. And His story is the one worth sticking to.

Among the Tombs

Today’s Gospel tells of the healing of the Gerasene man possessed by many demons. Mark’s narrative says that the man had been living among the tombs. The demons had taken ahold of him so greatly that he was literally living among the dead, and probably feeling very close to death himself. I imagine his great anguish every single day, feeling utterly tortured and helpless and unwanted by everyone else. We don’t know how this man became possessed or what happened, but that is not necessarily important to dwell on in light of the glory of Jesus revealed to us here.

Do we not sometimes find ourselves feeling as though we are living among the tombs? The sin we can’t shake, the constant narrative of self-beratement in our minds, the masks we put on to pretend we’re okay when we’re not, the images we hide behind on social media, the mindless scrolling to numb or distract ourselves, the desperate strife to earn the love we do not have to earn, resigning ourselves to thinking we just have to suffer and God won’t come through for us, etc.

Brothers and sisters, we are made for so much more. The tombs of our lives do not define us and will never have the last word. Let’s call to mind another tomb—a tomb where the glory of our salvation occurred, the tomb where, in the middle of the night, our Savior rose and Heaven was opened. The tomb of Jesus. The tomb of His resurrection is the only tomb that will ever define us, because His tomb is empty and death is defeated.

As the man in today’s Gospel comes before Jesus, the demons within him tremble. Even they recognize Jesus’ power and His glory. We can place our hope in the all-powerful God! Jesus cares so much for this man that he not only casts all the demons out from him, but he sends them into the swine so that they will never return. In the death of the swine, this man’s salvation was possible.

You are beloved. God is calling you out of whatever your tomb is. There is nothing to fear—He loves you so. Lay your heart bare before Him in prayer today, and don’t stop there: listen for His response. Let Him fill you with His love. He will give you exactly what you need. Let Him declare the victory of His resurrection over you today!

Who Is Like God?

Once when Jesus was praying in solitude,
and the disciples were with him,
he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah;
still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'”
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

—Luke 9:18–22

Jesus’s two questions to his disciples—“Who do the crowds say that I am? …But who do you say that I am?”—highlight the fact that He wants us to come to know Him personally, not merely through what we hear from others. He knows that a flurry of rumors and opinions surround Him, but He doesn’t want His disciples to be distracted by them. Rather, He wants them to form their knowledge from their own direct encounters with Him.

Peter’s response—“The Christ of God”—cuts straight to the heart of the matter. Is Jesus a prophet or the Messiah? A conduit of God’s message, or the Source? Peter answers firmly that Jesus is not merely a human leader but is the Divine Redeemer.

However, declaring Jesus to be the Messiah has some troubling implications. If He is the Redeemer, then He is also the Lamb, destined to be sacrificed for our salvation. The disciples do not realize this; they do not yet know the necessity of the Cross, but Jesus immediately and directly speaks to them of the great suffering He must endure.

The truth of Jesus’s divinity was much harder to process than the other narratives floating among the crowds. To be a follower of a prophet required much less than to be the follower of the Lamb. Jesus was asking His disciples to follow Him in the way of sacrifice, to take up their own crosses. It would have been much easier for them to accept an alternate explanation for Jesus’s teachings and rationalize that He didn’t really mean that He would suffer. But it wouldn’t have been the truth.

We are living in turbulent times, where the truth is twisted in a thousand different directions every day. As we try to come to know Jesus, it can be very easy to become distracted by the noise that surrounds us, the many alternative explanations and lies that try to steal our attention and confuse us. But Jesus Himself is the Truth—and the Way, and the Life—and if we focus ourselves on Him, we will find the truth illuminated for us everywhere.

We are called to earnestly seek truth in every situation, not to accept incomplete accounts or one-sided descriptions that may be easier to digest but ultimately keep us in the darkness. The truth is difficult and often uncomfortable, but only the truth will set us free.

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Michael and the Archangels, who were the forerunners for us in this decision between truth and comfort. For the angels, the revelation that they would be called to serve fallen humanity and bow before Mary as their Queen was difficult to receive. In response, Satan rebelled against God and refused to serve. Michael could have made that choice, too, but he didn’t. Instead he responded, “Mîkhā’ēl,” or “Who is like God?” He knew that even though the path ahead would involve suffering, he could trust God to lead him through it. And honestly, who was Satan kidding? Did he really think he could defeat God? He can whine and scheme and throw tantrums; he can wreak havoc throughout the world; but in the end, he cannot win. He is not like God. Unlike Michael, he refused to acknowledge this truth.

Michael’s words, “Who is like God?”, are very similar to Peter’s: “Lord, to whom else would we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.” They are kindred spirits in their clear-eyed understanding of their own dependence upon God. They know that God’s teachings are difficult, but that doesn’t change the fact that He is trustworthy. They look to God Himself and find Truth within the Mystery.

In response to the current abuse crisis in the Church, many parishes (including St. Patrick’s Cathedral!) have brought back the tradition of saying the St. Michael Prayer together at the end of each Mass. As we look toward his feast tomorrow, let us keep this prayer on our lips as a guard against the lies of Satan and a declaration of trust in God. May truth prevail, in our own hearts and in the whole world.

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Stoned

“But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice…  My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.” –John 10:2-4; 27-29

“Does anyone know what it is like to be stoned?”  The teacher realized in retrospect that was probably not the best way to phrase the question to a group of eight-grade students, who promptly burst out laughing.  Needless to say, it was not the martyrdom of St. Stephen they were picturing in that moment.

I smile now whenever I hear the story of St. Stephen’s stoning, remembering this anecdote and also how, as a small child, I heard about this martyrdom of Stephen (and others) and decided that I too, wanted to be a martyr.  Not because I was particularly holy, nor because I had any real tolerance for pain (ha!), but because like every child I wanted to imagine myself as a hero.  Every child dreams of being the courageous one, the strong one, the one that stands up to evil and saves the world.  “I want to be the coward that runs and hides, or that stands there doing nothing” said no child, ever.

But often time reveals in us more weakness than courage.  Not only do we fail to stand up for those under attack, we pick up stones ourselves.

For most of us, the stonings that we experience—as victims, bystanders, or participants, are verbal rather than physical.  If I am honest, I still fear these more than the physical.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  This childhood rhyme so often shouted across the playground is patently untrue.  As I have participated in healing ministry over the last few years—for myself and for others—I have seen lifelong hurt and damage from name calling and other forms of rejection, that last longer than any bruises or physical trauma.

The antidote, to both wounds and cowardice, is to hear our name being called by Jesus.

When I know who I am, more properly Whose I am, I am less vulnerable to the lies of those who would attack me.  The truths that Jesus speaks into my heart, about who I am, who He made me to be, can undo and heal the lies that I have believed over the years.  And when I know who is calling me, and where I am going, with His grace I can have the courage to follow, even if like Stephen it leads to death.

In a world in which our identity in Christ is questioned or even lost, we seek all sorts of counterfeit measurements to validate and give us worth.  How arrogant and absurd to claim superiority in the amount of melanin in our skin, the amount of education or experience on our resume, the amount of income on our tax returns.  Let us pray for the peace that comes through knowing that we are all called by the same Good Shepherd.