Holy Innocents

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.

—Matthew 2:13–18

As Joseph and Mary anticipated Jesus’s arrival, surely they had some idea that they should expect the unexpected when it came to parenting the Son of God. After all, they had already received one giant surprise and had chosen to trust in God’s plan. Still, I don’t think they could have guessed this next curveball in their journey. After traveling to Bethlehem and delivering the child Jesus in a stable, Mary and Joseph were now asked to leave behind everything and everyone they knew, fleeing the country to protect their newborn son from being hunted by King Herod.

It is a testament to his unshakeable trust in God that Joseph responded to the angel’s warning without hesitation, picking up and leaving for Egypt immediately. After all, it was a big sacrifice to make for a message that had arrived in a dream. How did he know that this was truly God’s will for him and not some crazy manifestation of his own subconscious? Only by being so familiar with God’s voice through daily prayer was Joseph able to discern with clarity that this was a message he should heed. And he did so without wringing his hands wondering where they would stay, how they would get by in a foreign land, and why such senseless bloodshed must ensue at the hands of Herod. He dropped everything, including his own plans, to follow God’s call.

God gives grace for the situation, not for the imagination. The only way that Joseph and Mary were able to follow God so resolutely was by continually seeking His will in the present moment. They didn’t become distracted by worries and plans for the future; surely they had hopes and fears of what might lay ahead, but they placed it all in God’s hands and trusted that He would direct their steps.

Herod, on the other hand, was driven entirely by his own wild fears and self-serving plans. Filled with fear and insecurity upon hearing of the birth of this newborn king, he lashed out with merciless brutality and ordered the massacre of innocent children. But even this act of violence did not achieve its intended end, for the Holy Family had already escaped into Egypt.

Herod’s inflated ego numbed his conscience and skewed his perception of justice; he was willing to sacrifice whatever was necessary to preserve his own power, even innocent lives. Herod grasped for control when he perceived a threat to his power, but God was always in control of the situation. The newborn king would die at the appointed time and place, not through Herod’s feverish display of power and cruelty.

We are not in control, and that is a marvelous thing. Let us embrace the unknown path that lies ahead, knowing that we have a good and loving God who will lead us every step of the way. When unexpected situations arrive, may we trust that God will provide us the grace we need in the moment. And may we always be willing to speak up for the innocent and vulnerable, who are so often trampled upon and exploited by those in power.

The Dawn of Justice

Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time,
until the Lord comes,
for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness
and will manifest the motives of our hearts,
and then everyone will receive praise from God.
—1 Corinthians 4:5

Commit to the LORD your way;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make justice dawn for you like the light;
bright as the noonday shall be your vindication.
—Psalm 37:5–6

Jesus answered them, “Can you make the wedding guests fast
while the bridegroom is with them?
But the days will come, and when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
then they will fast in those days.”
—Luke 5:34–35

Seeing injustice in the world is one of the most infuriating, disheartening things we can experience, and yet it is all too common. When people are wronged and receive no recompense, or when selfish individuals hurt others and seem to experience no repercussions, it triggers a deep sense of injustice within us. We know innately that something is not right, and it doesn’t sit well with us. This is because a longing for justice has been hardwired into us by the God of Justice Himself. The closer we draw to Him, the more acutely we feel this imbalance in the world, for it is not as He intended it to be.

But we need not linger in despair over the injustice we see around us. Jesus assures us that justice will come. At the judgment, all that is hidden will come to the light; wrongs will be righted and dues paid in full. In The Return of the King, Sam Gamgee asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” At the judgment, the answer will be yes. In some cases, that justice will come in the form of fasting and penance, as we work to atone for the wrongs we’ve done in our lives. In other cases, it will be the glorious revelation of good deeds done in secret and sacrifices offered up alongside the Cross. But ultimately, our deep longing for justice will be satiated, and it will come by means of the Cross. Through the greatest injustice in human history comes an endless fount of mercy and justice and the redemption of our imperfect souls. Through the Cross, even the injustices we experience take on meaning and purpose. We fast as we await the Bridegroom’s return, but we know that the feast is coming.

Shepherds

Today’s first reading offers a scathing critique of the shepherds who have neglected or mistreated their sheep. I cannot help but think of the priests, and perhaps even more so the bishops, who were sexual abuse perpetrators and their conspirators who covered up the sins.

I know we’ve all likely heard more than we can stomach about the recent report from Pennsylvania. As a Minnesotan, the sorrow rings true in my heart as we have had our own reports, our own accusations, our own lawsuits, our own criminal ‘shepherds’ here, too. The Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul declared bankruptcy to help them pay settlements to abuse survivors.

Since we’ve all heard so much from priests, leaders, friends, media outlets, and secondary sources, I implore you to read today’s first reading and hear a response to corruption and scandal in the Church straight from the mouth of God.

Before doing so, search your heart and intentions. So often with Scripture, we can get what we want out of it: If we read looking for fire and brimstone, we can find fire and brimstone. If we look for feel-good platitudes, well even Biblical truth can be stripped of its potency by bad or incomplete readings.

Read these verses with the accused in mind. Read it again with the survivors in mind. Read it with your local parish in mind. Read it with yourself in mind.

Today’s prophecy from Ezekiel offers a critique and a warning, but it also offers justice and hope for the sheep. The Lord, with power and might, will come for his sheep.

Here it is, in its entirety:

The word of the Lord came to me:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel,
in these words prophesy to them to the shepherds:
Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel
who have been pasturing themselves!
Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?
You have fed off their milk, worn their wool,
and slaughtered the fatlings,
but the sheep you have not pastured.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick
nor bind up the injured.
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost,
but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.
So they were scattered for the lack of a shepherd,
and became food for all the wild beasts.
My sheep were scattered
and wandered over all the mountains and high hills;
my sheep were scattered over the whole earth,
with no one to look after them or to search for them.

Therefore, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
As I live, says the Lord GOD,
because my sheep have been given over to pillage,
and because my sheep have become food for every wild beast,
for lack of a shepherd;
because my shepherds did not look after my sheep,
but pastured themselves and did not pasture my sheep;
because of this, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I swear I am coming against these shepherds.
I will claim my sheep from them
and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep
so that they may no longer pasture themselves.
I will save my sheep,
that they may no longer be food for their mouths.

For thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.

-Ezekiel 34:1-11

Lamentation

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young;
I will set up an everlasting covenant with you,
that you may remember and be covered with confusion,
and that you may be utterly silenced for shame
when I pardon you for all you have done, says the Lord GOD.
—Ezekiel 16:60–63

Today’s reading from Ezekiel reminds me of a recent video from Fr. Robert Barron, which is definitely worth a watch: Bishop Barron on Ezekiel and the Sex Abuse Crisis. Ezekiel wrote of the corruption within the holy city of Jerusalem and its cleansing through avengers from the North. Today, the “holy city” of the Church has fallen into corruption, and it too needs to be cleansed, to endure the painful siege of repentance. God will not abandon His covenant with us. But if we are to be cleansed, we must allow Him to show us the weight of our sin; we must be willing to feel our shame and sorrow.

As Aidan and Alyssa have written this week, it has been sobering to read reports of the horrific abuse that has occurred within the Church and the deep corruption that kept it hidden for years. As American Catholics, we are mourning over these unthinkable crimes and trying to figure out how we can possibly move forward through this mess.

Yesterday’s Gospel reading, which Alyssa reflected upon, spoke of forgiveness, which may seem untimely at the moment. The Gospel asks us to forgive, but often we don’t understand the meaning of true forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean making excuses for the person who wronged you or brushing it under the rug. That’s not forgiveness; it’s denial. True forgiveness must acknowledge the sin and yet refuse to feed it. A person who forgives renounces any claim toward revenge and resists the tendency to harbor resentment. It is a daily decision, and it is not an easy one. But it is the only way that we can stop the cycle of sin and open our hearts to mercy. A truly forgiving heart is not indifferent to injustice; it is all the more deeply hurt by it, since it refuses to dehumanize either the victim or the perpetrator. It sees the tragedy of an innocent life altered irrevocably; it sees those individuals who used their God-given will for evil. And it resolves to do better.

I am reminded of the story of St. Maria Goretti and her murderer/attempted rapist, Alessandro Serenelli. Now, this is not a typical story—we should not go around assuming that all murderers and rapists will be reformed by our prayers and can be later welcomed into our families. But it is in fact what happened in the case of Alessandro Serenelli, incredible though it may seem. Though Alessandro was bitterly unrepentant for the first few years after Maria’s death, he experienced a profound conversion of heart after experiencing a vision of Maria in which she forgave him. He was moved to weep for his sins for the first time, and he began the process of true repentance. Due to Maria’s miraculous intercession (again, possible only through the grace of God and not by human means), he was completely reformed and eventually became an adopted son of Maria’s mother.

While Alessandro clung to his pride and callously denied his guilt, the seeds of sin and evil continued to fester within him. Only when he realized the depth of his sin and entered into a living purgatory of shame and regret was his heart opened to receive God’s mercy. This step was crucial: acknowledgment of wrongdoing, grief over what has been tainted and destroyed, ownership of one’s sinfulness. Unless we confront the realities of our sins and face our deepest wounds, we will never be able to receive healing. And Alessandro’s revelation of guilt—and thus his pathway to forgiveness—was made possible because of Maria’s purity and steadfast prayer.

As faithful Catholics who are shocked, saddened, and heartbroken over the recent scandals within the heart of our Church, we are called to step up and be the solution, to challenge the Church to rise up to her sacred calling. Now is the time for prayer and fasting. We will expect from the Church a higher standard, and we will start by being saints. The purification of the Church will begin with the purification of our own souls, by a deep desire for holiness and purity throughout every aspect of our lives. Jesus and Mary weep alongside us at these crimes. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion among young, faithful Catholics of the many ways in which we can carry this out, and I’ve compiled a list of resources here.

I stay with the Church because her teachings proclaim the dignity of the human person, even as some of those who represent her have trampled upon human dignity through objectification and abuse. I pray that we allow the light of truth to overcome the darkness, so that everything hidden will be exposed to the light. The truth of our own dignity and worth—and indeed that of our children—must prevail against the shadows.

Unpayable Debts

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Honestly, I think the last thing I wanted to talk about today in my reflection was forgiveness, in light of the horrific news that has surfaced out of Pennsylvania.  Members of our own beloved Catholic Church have perpetuated sexual abuse from hundreds of priests against hundreds, if not thousands, of children, and this is only a thorough report from one state in one country.  Even just over the course of a few days I have said repeatedly in my mind, and discussed with friends: “Now is not the time to defend the Church. Now is the time for sackcloths and ashes, fasting, mourning, listening to victims’ stories. Now is the time for confession, not changing the subject.”  We should all be outraged and be demanding further investigations and transparency above any trying to “save face.”

But today, the Holy Spirit, through our Church, is reminding us that even though we are just beginning to realize how thick and dark this pit of sin actually goes in the hierarchical systems of the Church, it is no match for Jesus’ mercy and plan for forgiveness among His people.

In today’s Gospel, we are called by our Lord to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven (which really means an infinite number of times). Our first pope, St. Peter, asked Christ, almost like a child… “So, seven times… that’s enough forgiveness, right?” But when Christ answered, I bet St. Peter gave quite a look: wide-eyed, silent, mouth agape, while not realizing that Christ was showing him even the deepest sins of betrayal he would commit would be completely forgiven.

However, the simplistic point here that I could make – that even priests who perpetrate unspeakable terrors to children can be forgiven – is not what I want to highlight. (This is important to think about, but I honestly don’t think I’m ready to muse about that at length in an open forum quite yet.) Rather, what I see that I want to communicate here are possible inner dynamics within the individual who has the un-payable debt that led him to immediately demand a debt be paid to him from a fellow servant.

Maybe the servant with the un-payable debt did not actually see or understand that he was forgiven of his debt. Maybe he was just so worried about his own well-being and so relieved when he was let off the hook that the thrill of being set free gave him this false sense of favoritism and superiority over other servants. Maybe his actions immediately post-forgiveness showed a glimpse into the kind of person who could accumulate such a large, un-payable debt.  Maybe somehow the extreme forgiveness shown to him actually made him think he was more like the one who forgave him than the one who desperately needed forgiveness. The servant forgot that he was a servant dealing with other servants, and even more so, a servant with a much deeper debt than others he preyed on; he was blind to his own condition, he thought he was the ultimate authority.

In light of that, I think these are key elements of true forgiveness and consequent repentance: truly knowing what it is that is being forgiven, truly knowing who you are as one who is forgiven, and truly knowing who is it Who is forgiving the debt.

Some of the most powerful news stories that have come out of tragedies, in my view, have been those of victims forgiving those who have wronged them or others close to them. Nadine Collier forgave Dylann Roof publicly after he killed her mother and eight other church members and then showed no remorse, even pride afterwards: “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” Rachel Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, also forgave him publicly for sexually abusing her repeatedly “under the guise of medical treatment” when she was a teenager: “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well…”.  These stories of victims sharing their stories and forgiving their abusers do not only work for justice for the victims, they seem as if they are also aimed at offering mercy for the abusers. These statements, occurring within the processes of seeking legal justice for the victims, are giving the abusers the opportunity to know just what it is they are being forgiven for; there is no doubt that they are sinners in desperate need of forgiveness.

And here is where this connects to our current situation, my dear friends: without justice and confronting the weight of sin, there can be no true mercy. These were critical aspects of the Cross, from which all mercy flows! When these hundreds of abusers and the systems that perpetually condoned abusers were not confronted with the legal, public justice system, the abuse, the sin, continued. And this is true on a much smaller scale, as well. When we hide sins, we cannot be forgiven for them. When we do not have contrite hearts, we are not fully forgiven (theologians, feel free to correct me on that if I am off). And, when we do not understand the depths of our sin, or at least seek to, we are much less likely to forgive others because of that ignorance.

Let us pray for justice and mercy to come to all those involved in these scandals, including those priests who perpetrated unspeakable abuse in their lifetime but are now deceased. For we are all servants with unpayable debts, and Christ has told us to have “pity on [our] fellow servants.” Let us pray for our Church, that she would no longer keep justice and healing away from those victims who need it the most. Lord, have mercy on us all. Lord, purify and clean our Church, Your Church.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

The Law, Mercy, and Freedom

…Standing by the column, the king made a covenant before the LORD
that they would follow him
and observe his ordinances, statutes and decrees
with their whole hearts and souls,
thus reviving the terms of the covenant
which were written in this book.
And all the people stood as participants in the covenant.
-2 Kings 23:3

Today’s first reading tells a beautiful and moving story: The LORD’s chosen people, Judah, find the Word that had been lost. Not just any word, but the book of the law. The conditions of God’s covenant with His children.

The high priests dust it off and wade, unknowing, into its contents. What the read grips their heart like nothing they’ve heard before. The Word has sought them out, coming to them, falling into their lap like so much serendipity, though we know it was the work of the Spirit that brought His people to His Word.

I am reminded of all of the scenes in Tolkien-esque fantasy where a beaten-down group of upstarts against insurmountable odds find their ancient weapon/artifact/ally, and its very presences renews their spirit and faith. Something about this new discovery speaks to their heritage, their patrimony, their identity, reviving their hearts and minds to a powerful and terrific purpose. (Or for a less nerdy version, maybe take the famous “Band of Brothers” speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V)

If we can imagine such an inspiring moment in fictional battles, how much more might God’s own sons and daughters have been invigorated by the living Word!

Yet the moment in today’s story from 2 Kings that most impacted me was the section quoted above. The king swore a renewed commitment to their long-lost covenant, and by the mercy of an all-powerful God, this was not just a symbolic or nostalgic gesture! What does it say instead?

“they would follow him
and observe his ordinances, statutes and decrees
with their whole hearts and souls,
thus reviving the terms of the covenant

The LORD’s covenant was always valid! His mercy was waiting for them! This the heart of the Good Father running out to meet their prodigal son, 600 years before the parable was even told!

As Erin mentioned on Monday, the treasures in heaven only grow brighter the closer we come to our Father. The LORD has good gifts for us; today’s readings tell us how His law leads us to freedom.

Return to the LORD! He longs for communion with you, His daughter. He longs for communion with you, His son. He wants to talk to you, tell you he loves you, and give you the strength to do what most fulfills your purpose.