A Joyful Fast

What comes to mind when we think of fasting?

Some personal thoughts that come to mind include deep hunger pangs, lack of energy, distracting myself to take my mind off the fact that I’m fasting…

Fasting, of course, can come in forms other than fasting from food… abstaining from social media, watching Netflix, a small daily comfort like creamer or sugar in your coffee… but regardless, the challenges of fasting may be the first thoughts that come to mind.  At times, we may even wonder honestly if any fruit is actually being born of our fasting. 

Our readings today can help us understand this Christian practice and our approach to it more fully.  The word of the Lord inspires an approach to fasting that may initially seem counterintuitive: a joyful disposition of heart.  The good news for us is that we can’t achieve this in our own power and we are not expected to – this is obtained by God’s grace.  First, we must understand His heart on the matter to see how the essence and fruit of fasting ultimately flows from the disposition lying beneath it.

A joyful fast?  Does this seem like a bit of a paradox?  In the gospel today Jesus seems to explain that his disciples are not fasting but feasting.  His prophetic wedding imagery seems to communicate that while He is with them there is joy and feasting, but His Passion and death will bring about their fasting.  Why then, in this time of Lent, as we anticipate Christ’s Passion and strive to enter into a spirit of penance am I suggesting we maintain a joyful heart?  I believe the answer lies in a deeper understanding of our Christianity so let’s dig a bit deeper…

Lord, help us see this through your eyes…

A couple passages from today’s readings:

“A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” -Psalm 51

“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits…

…This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly…
breaking every yoke…
sharing your bread with the hungry…
sheltering the opressed… clothing the naked…
not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your wound shall quickly be healed”

-selections from Isaiah 58: 1-9 (emphasis mine)

This passage from Isaiah shows us that fasting in the way of the Lord, sacrificing with a sense of purpose and confidence in God’s power, heals.  It heals others and it heals us, and this healing leads to freedom.  Fasting in the way of the Lord has the power to heal and free us.  How beautiful!  This knowledge breeds hope the source of fasting with a joyful heart.

Now, we can begin to understand how it is possible to fast with a joyful heart – this joy is not feigned.  This joy is not a surface-level happiness.  It is a fruit of our hope, a virtue so central to our Christian faith.  Even as we fast in a spirit of penance, remembering the Lord’s Passion and Death as Jesus foreshadows in the gospel, we can maintain a joyful heart because as we truly unite to His suffering we are also joined to the hope of the resurrection.  This is the wonder of our God of paradoxes – through death we gain life.  So, through the sufferings of our Lenten fasting, God allows us to enter in to a deeper joy.  And because we live in the truth of the Resurrection, we can actually approach fasting with this joyful heart, for we know God will bring forth much fruit and new life from these genuine offerings of our heart.  It is our heart that God is seeking, as today’s Psalm reveals: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” 

Now, I joyfully join in the sentiments of my priest’s parting words at our Liturgy* last Sunday as I wish you a “Happy Lent!”

Lord, help us begin with a humble and contrite heart.  May we experience the freedom that your forgiveness brings, and may this freedom bring us true joy.   From our joy, we present our hearts, our Lenten actions, and fasting to you, in the hope of your power and the confidence that you will bring forth new life.  Thank you for this season of Lent.  We surrender and consecrate it to you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.   


*You may have noticed my using the term Liturgy instead of Mass. My husband and I often celebrate Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic Church, an Eastern tradition of our Catholic faith. (Yes, the Byzantine Catholic rite is in communion with the Pope, and yes, you can attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy to fulfill your Sunday obligation! 🙂 ) …I’ll have to devote a future post on the beauties of the Eastern rite in the future! For now, I’d love to invite you to pray this Prayer of St. Ephrem, which focuses on virtues Christians are called to practice always, and especially during Lent. The Byzantine Rite prays this during Lent (The Great Fast) and encourages it to be prayed daily during this season.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Spare me from the spirit of apathy and meddling,
Of idle chatter and love of power.

Instead, grant to me, Your servant,
The spirit of integrity and humility,
Of patience and love.

Yes, O Lord and God,
Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
And not to judge others,

For You are blessed,
Now and forever.   Amen

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number

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.

Blessed Are You

And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
—Luke 1:43

Although she did not know it, Elizabeth’s whole life had been leading up to this moment. For decades, she had lived in quiet piety in a small, ordinary village. Her whole married life she had prayed for a child, until her childbearing years had passed and she was an old woman. Through all this disappointment and seemingly unanswered prayers, Elizabeth never grew bitter toward God. She remained a faithful servant, bringing glory to God in her barrenness. Her hope was a sign of God’s grace to her people, for even in her desolation, His promises sustained her soul.

And then, to Elizabeth’s surprise, she was called to be a sign of God’s grace in a new, miraculous way: as the mother of John the Baptist, the one who would point the way to the Messiah. We see in today’s Gospel the account of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, when each had just received a wondrous and weighty mission from God. They greeted one another in exaltation, amazed at how God was using them to bear His grace into the world.

Elizabeth’s faithfulness to God in all the small moments of her life prepared her to speak those prophetic words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” After so many years in prayer, speaking with God and listening to His voice, she recognized with joy and humility that she was now in His presence. She marveled at the roles He had entrusted to her and to Mary—never comparing each other’s blessings and sorrows, but instead embracing the important role she had been given.

Each of us bears the image of God into the world, and each of us has an important calling to fulfill. As we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, may we also be aware of God’s presence in the people around us. May we, like Elizabeth, call out with joy as we recognize the blessedness of our brothers and sisters, delighting in one another’s gifts.

Rejoicing in the Waiting

This Advent, I’ve discovered a newfound love for the hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” There is such a richness and beauty to these words of yearning and aching for our Savior. Even just the word “O” at the beginning of each verse is filled with longing. In the chorus, the song instructs us to rejoice because God will come to save His people. This is important—songs like “Joy to the World” are about rejoicing because the Lord has come, but “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is about rejoicing in the waiting—waiting for Jesus’ second coming, waiting for an answered prayer, waiting for healing, waiting for God to show us where He is calling us to next—whatever it may be.

This third week of Advent, we are called to rejoice because we are *almost* to Christmas, not because we’ve already made it. We’re called to rejoice in the uncomfortability of waiting, of that in-between place. For some people, myself included sometimes, being close to the end of a season of waiting can bring more anxiety than joy because of the lingering voices of doubts and what ifs.

But God’s promises are true. The Lord is near, and when we trust that He will complete the good work He has begun in us (Philippians 1:6), how can we not rejoice?

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, we hear the genealogy of Jesus, from Abraham all the way to St. Joseph. Fourteen generations of hopeful expectation, of messiness and imperfection, of striving to seek the Lord and listen to His will. When we look at the lives of the people in Jesus’ family tree in Scripture, we can see God’s hand at work bringing about His divine plan of salvation, though they may not have seen it at the time. But yet they trusted, and they rejoiced, even when things were hard. Infertility, betrayal, broken marriages, and war are just some of the trials that are found within Jesus’ ancestors. They were not immune to suffering, yet they rejoiced and trusted in God. Fourteen generations of the small and great surrenders of ordinary people to God’s will every day, all to fulfill His greatest work of our salvation.

There is the distinct difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is fleeting; joy is everlasting. Joy comes from being rooted in the truth that we are infinitely loved by God as His sons and daughters, that we are created in His image for a purpose, and that He will never forsake us, no matter what suffering we face. St. John Paul II said, “True joy is a victory, something which cannot be obtained without a long and difficult struggle. Christ holds the secret of this victory.” Joy comes from a place of steadfast trust in God, that no matter what, He is with us and is working for our good.

Brothers and sisters, I don’t know if this has been a difficult Advent season for you, or if things have been going well. I know for many this time of year is painful. But we can rejoice in the One who was, and is, and is to come—Christ our Savior.

Saturday night, I went to Adoration, and the church was dark except for candles that were lit and a spotlight on the monstrance. In the middle of the Holy Hour, the spotlight suddenly went out. But that did not mean that Jesus wasn’t there. He was still there, in the dark, even though it was hard to see Him. He was still there, loving us, calling us to seek Him, calling us to draw even closer. May we rejoice in the waiting and darkness of our own lives, confident that He is with us!

O Emmanuel, in our unsure journeys, we rejoice, secure in You. In whatever waiting we’re going through, we rejoice. We rejoice because You call us Yours. We rejoice in the gift of Your Incarnation. We rejoice in Your dying and rising for us. We rejoice that You are always sustaining us and never leave us. O come, O come, Emmanuel! Amen.

Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul

Today’s saint, St. John of the Cross, is known for his writings on the “dark night of the soul.” He was a man of prayer who was intimately close to God; however, he suffered a great deal throughout his life as he attempted to reform the Carmelite order. St. John, along with St. Teresa of Avila, sought to cultivate a way of life that fostered a greater closeness with God through prayer and sacrifice. They faced strong opposition, however, from those who did not want the Carmelites to change their ways. John was immersed in the experience of the Cross, facing imprisonment, unjust accusations, persecution, and abuse. For seeking to grow in holiness, he was treated like a criminal.

But John’s greatest legacy is not his initial zeal to reform the Carmelite order; rather, it is how he responded when his holy passion was met with censure and condemnation. He turned to poetry and prayer as a means of expressing the great sorrow he felt, and he began to reflect on how he could grow ever closer to Jesus through this experience of suffering. Faced with the bitter reality that even our purest, most faithful actions can be met with cruelty and indifference, and that bad things do, in fact, happen to good people, John refused to believe that God was not present in that darkness. He wrote of his experiences undergoing this dark night of the soul and how the light that dawned on the other end was brighter than anything he had experienced. By passing through the darkness, he came to know a more brilliant Light; by “dying to self,” he rose to new life. John assures us that while the spiritual life will bring suffering and pain, the dark night is not the end. It is preparing us for a greater glory to come.

How do we cultivate a real, lasting joy instead of the fleeting happiness that comes and goes with our ever-changing circumstances? Even when God is hidden to us—even, in fact, when we pass through a dark night of the soul—joy is ours for the taking. We struggle, of course, to have joy in times when we do not feel happy; but true joy is deeper than mere happiness. So what is this mysterious, profound joy that can transcend our outward emotions? It comes from God alone.

The saints exuded joy in every moment of their lives—even amidst intense suffering and grief. God wants us to have this unshakeable joy, too, to be sustained by His promises at every moment, come what may. When we are taken with the joy only God can provide, we know beyond any question that we are known and loved and deeply cherished by a Love that knows no bounds. He wants to sustain our flagging spirits with that boundless joy.

We cannot control our circumstances, but if we are deeply rooted in God’s Word and continue to remind ourselves of His promises, we will have a hope that endures beyond our earthly trials. The joy that remains will cause us to remain convinced of God’s presence and goodness, even as we walk through the deserts of life.

This weekend, we will light the rose-colored candle on our Advent wreaths as we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Most of Advent is a time of quiet preparation, putting everything in order as Christmas draws near, making our hearts ready to receive the Christ child. But this coming week we will focus on joyful anticipation of the birth of Christ. The child has not yet arrived, but we are joyful and confident in His coming; even though we are yet in darkness, we celebrate the promise of the Light. We walk in the midst of darkest night, yet we cannot contain our joy—for the light has already dawned in our hearts.

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.
—1 Peter 1:8

Counting the Cost, Reaping what He Sows

A brief one for you today:

 

Today’s readings provide some pretty sobering material for reflection. Phrases like “counting the cost” and “poured out like a libation” rarely make for light reading, no matter the context.

Yet it’s important to read past the easy interpretation of St. Paul and Jesus’ words as grim resolve or cynical fatalism. Look for the positive language; phrases like “children of God without blemish,” “rejoice and share my joy,” and “successfully oppose”.

During a recent small group session, one of the other men their talked about the challenges of having children who could, at some point in their life, stray from the faith. Our conversations moved from their to sharing our faith in general. How can we, imperfect men (and women of course, but you all weren’t at the small group!), make a compelling case for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

One of the key themes we settled upon is sharing our excitement. What about our pursuit of the Kingdom of God excites us? How does the Lord bring us joy? What value do we see that makes “counting the cost” and “pour[ing ourselves] out” worthwhile?

Take some time over the rest of the week to reflect on the gifts from God that bring you joy. Try to share those things that make you happy. They may be simple hobbies or pleasures in your day-to-day life, or you might think of how Jesus has delivered you from significant sin or suffering. Take time to think of how the Lord makes your life better, and can do so every day

Then don’t hesitate to share it.

 

Memento Mori

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
—Wisdom 3:1–3

In my catechism class this week, I was teaching about the saints, and my students all wanted to find out which saint’s feast day fell on their birthday. One girl said, “My birthday’s November 2. What feast day is that?”

“Oh, that’s All Souls Day! It’s when we pray for the souls in purgatory,” I answered.

Disappointed, she replied, “That’s…kind of morbid.”

I can understand her reaction—it’s hard to get excited about reflecting on death, especially as a kid on your birthday. It’s a topic that most of us avoid thinking about, because it makes us feel uncomfortable. But there has long been a Catholic tradition of meditating on death, not as some kind of penance or self-imposed misery, but rather as a way to transform our fear of death into hope in the Resurrection.

Memento mori—“Remember your death”—is a refrain to keep us grounded amid the distractions of this world. Thinking about death does not seem appealing to us, but ignoring it will not make it go away. Death is an inevitable reality, and it’s not something we can control. But if we approach it from a perspective of Christian hope, deeply rooted in the promises Christ has made to us, we will begin to see that we don’t have to be so fearful of death. It is more of a beginning than an ending, an obscure mystery that only begins to make any sense to us when we see it through the lens of the Gospel. Meditating on death is itself an act of hope: that as we look more deeply into this mystery, there will be more to discover than bleak, existential materialism. There will be redemption and rebirth.

Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, a young sister with the Daughters of Saint Paul, has been keeping a ceramic skull on her desk for the past year as a reminder of death and tweeting about Memento Mori each day. She says:

Death, I think, is a very, very unpleasant topic, especially if you don’t believe in God. When I was an atheist, it was something I definitely did not want to think about because it’s the annihilation of the self. But for people of faith, it has a totally different dimension. We’re able to think about the reality of death and how it’s been transformed by Jesus.

Meditating on death not only lessens our fear; it also increases our sense of urgency to answer the callings God has given us. We are called to become saints, and we have no time to waste. We can go forward to carry out this calling filled with joy, not with fear, confident that if we are united with Christ in death, we will also be united with Him in resurrection.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
—Romans 6:5