Sweet Mercy

“Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins.” -Psalm 79

How great is the mercy of God. I sometimes feel, though, that it is a struggle to receive it. Jesus invites us to make our hearts an open space to receive the intense reality of His mercy for us. If our hearts are open to mercy, to truly receiving all the mercy God has for us, this means that we must not run from the reality of our sin or brokenness. We don’t need a Savior simply because we exist—we need a Savior because we are sinners, because we fall down, because we’re all broken. We have no need to be afraid of the Cross, for the Cross brings redemption, resurrection, transformation, and forgiveness. What a gift that Jesus not only knows our suffering so intimately but that He took it all upon Himself on the Cross, mercy poured out for us and the whole world.

Sin blinds us into thinking we can do it all on our own. Shame buries us so we feel like we have to do it all on our own. Despair haunts us into feeling like the weight of our sin is forever.

Praise God that He doesn’t deal with us according to our sins but from the standpoint of His mercy. His mercy covers a multitude of sins and cannot be exhausted. Do we receive it? Do we believe that there’s nothing too great or impossible for our God?

Amazing things would happen if we made ourselves radically available to the compassionate mercy of Christ our King and Savior. He makes Himself radically available to us in His infinite mercy, in the way He pursues after our hearts, in the way He overcomes all.

Mercy says that sin is not the end of our story. Mercy says that we are defined by what our Savior says of us, not what others say of us or what our sin says of us. Mercy enables us to get back up and keep going, day after day. Mercy has a name: Jesus, who is Love and Mercy itself.

“All grace flows from mercy … even if a person’s sins were as dark as night, God’s mercy is stronger than our misery. One thing alone is necessary: that the sinner set ajar the door of his heart, be it ever so little, to let in a ray of God’s merciful grace, and then God will do the rest.” -St. Faustina, Diary 1507

Open, Wounded, and On Fire

“Behold this Heart,” Jesus said sorrowfully, as He held His pierced Heart out to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. “Behold this Heart which has so loved men, that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself in order to testify to its love. In return, I have received from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and their sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this sacrament of Love.”

Jesus suffered all things, holding nothing back from us. He calls us to conform our hearts to be like His.

As we enter into this first full week of Lent, we are challenged by today’s Gospel to examine how we love others. Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

When we look at the Sacred Heart of Jesus and carefully observe how He loved in His time on earth, we know that He held His love back from no one, even the people who were most difficult to love. His Sacred Heart is totally open, totally vulnerable. No walls, no hesitation, no fear; He just gives. He gives Himself to us freely and totally—how will we respond? Do we hold anything back from the Lord out of self-preservation? Do we run to Him and spend time with Him in prayer? Do we have walls up with others? Do we put masks on pretending we’re okay? Do we withhold love from other people out of fear, resentment, or judgment?

Jesus’ Sacred Heart was also wounded, wounded for all souls. He intimately knows our pain. He understands what we go through. When we suffer, we can find solace in Jesus’ Sacred Heart that has been through it all for us. When others suffer, our hearts too, can beat for theirs, and God gives us the gift of being able to be His vessels of love and comfort for others when they are hurting. And when we suffer, we can unite our aching hearts to Jesus’ Heart, offering our pain to comfort Him on the Cross and for the good of others. Let’s not run from our crosses nor the crosses of others.

Finally, Jesus’ Sacred Heart is on fire, burning with so much love for us and for the Father. Sometimes this fire in our hearts gets put out by pride, sloth, fear, or lies from the enemy. Do our hearts burn with love and zeal for bringing others to the Heart of Christ? Jesus so desires to enkindle the fire of His love within us so that we can set the world on fire with His powerful love, healing, and redemption. The fire of His love and mercy cannot be contained, cannot be put into a box.

St. Francis of Assisi said, “Hold back nothing of yourself for yourself, so that He who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally.” Jesus, give us the grace to continue surrendering every part of ourselves to Your good will for us, daring to be totally open, accepting of our wounds and compassionate towards the woundedness of others, and on fire with Your radical love in our world that is so hungering for it.

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

“And nothing would again be casual and small”

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The just one’s sacrifice is most pleasing,
nor will it ever be forgotten.
(Sirach 35:9)

Imagine making a sacrifice that causes Heaven to spin out in such rejoicing for all the ages to come.

What do you think that would be? What would it take?

Of course, we may rightly think of Our Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion, whose infinite merits we cannot even begin to grasp while on this side of eternity.

And yet…

Would you believe that something as “simple”as the sacrifice of making a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, or a good and graced confession, does just that?

St. Mother Teresa, in her book Rosary Meditations: Loving Jesus with the Heart of Mary, writes when contemplating the first Sorrowful Mystery—the Agony in the Garden:

The blood He sweat was grief poured out from a broken Heart, caused by the sorrow of His Eucharistic Love being so rejected. Then an angel brought Jesus indescribable strength and consolation by showing Him every Holy Hour that you would ever make. At that moment in the garden, Jesus saw you praying before Him now and He knew that His love would be returned.

This is why your visit today is so important to Him. Your Holy Hour consoles Him for those who do not love Him, and wins countless graces for many to be converted to Him.

And Luke 15:10 tells us about the dance of the angels:

In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

The just one’s sacrifice is indeed most pleasing.

What a fitting set of readings, then, to contemplate before the beginning of Lent, widely known as “the time to give yummy things up!”

This season is about so much more than muscling through your morning without coffee (though for some that struggle is real, I believe it! For me personally, it’s chips.)

This time that Holy Mother Church sets aside for us to turn back to God, to journey deeper with Jesus into the wilderness of our lives, is one that can bear great fruits of joy, sacrifice and praise—if we allow ourselves to be led and pruned by the Holy Spirit as He wills.

This is the season for delving deep to ask: Where in my life has my love grown cold? Where do I value comfort over acts of sacrifice? How aware am I of the Lord walking through my every moment with me?

Every heartbeat should remind us of the Lord’s infinite love and mercy, yet it is so easy to become numb and distracted with the anxieties and preoccupations of the everyday and the world around us.

However, even that very heart is a gift.

We only have what has first been given to us, poor as we are. But Our Father is so very rich and desires to share with us all that He has, just as Jesus gives all of Himself.

Our Lord makes Himself so vulnerable in thirsting for us to love Him and to let Him love others through us, that the more we come to know Him, the less we want to hold back anything from Him.

God is not to be outdone in generosity. Ever. Jesus promises that in the Gospel reading of today and shows us this repeatedly throughout His public ministry.

We may wonder at times what can we really offer the Lord, what can we give of any real consequence. But our wild, most beautiful Lord desires us to work with Him in His plan of salvation and redemption, offering to Him all that we can, no matter how “small” or “insignificant” (fish and loaves, anyone?).

How varied are the blessings He gives to us? This then should ignite our souls to find new ways of loving Him each day!

In 2 Cor 9: 6-8, St. Paul encourages us to sow bountifully so as to reap bountifully, and that…

…God loves a cheerful giver. Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work.

We can be sure that whatever we do offer to God in love, in union with Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has infinite value beyond what we can ever dream.

As Rev. John Duffy writes in his poem “I Sing of a Maiden,” recounting the Annunciation and Mary’s fiat, “And nothing would again be casual and small.

This Lent let us ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with His fire and love so as to grow and give beyond our comfort zones.

Let us pray for each other as we find new ways of putting our love for God and neighbor into living action, sacrificing with a cheerful heart in the (not so) small and hidden ways, all of which are seen and cherished by Our Heavenly Father.

Dig Deep

“To the penitent God provides a way back,
he encourages those who are losing hope
and has chosen for them the lot of truth.
Return to him and give up sin,
pray to the LORD and make your offenses few.
Turn again to the Most High and away from your sin,
hate intensely what he loathes,
and know the justice and judgments of God,
Stand firm in the way set before you,
in prayer to the Most High God.

Who in the nether world can glorify the Most High
in place of the living who offer their praise?
Dwell no longer in the error of the ungodly,
but offer your praise before death.
No more can the dead give praise
than those who have never lived;
You who are alive and well
shall praise and glorify God in his mercies.
How great the mercy of the LORD,
his forgiveness of those who return to him!” -Sirach 17:20-24

Well friends, Lent is coming. And if you’re like me, that means that over the weekend you listened to as many worship songs as possible with “Alleluia” in them. Just kidding. Well…sort of…haha.

On a more serious note, I have two thoughts to share with you as we prepare to enter into Lent on Wednesday:

  1. Dig deep.

I feel like sometimes we can tend to set the bar way too high or way too low for Lent. I’ve marched into Ash Wednesday before with my mile-long list of added prayer and books to read and email devotionals subscribed to and fasting upon fasting. Not that any of these things are bad, but too many of them usually leads to crashing and burning 2.5-3 weeks into Lent, like a New Year’s resolution gone wrong. Or the temptation comes to set the bar low and not really walk with Jesus through Lent because life is too busy and I’m already doing enough “Lent” things in ministry. Friends, I want to recommend what’s possibly an unpopular or uncomfortable opinion here: I want to dig deep this Lent. I want to get to the heart of what Jesus really wants me to sacrifice and focus on this Lent. You see, sometimes we can even distract ourselves with great spiritual things to avoid what Jesus is crying out from the Cross to our hearts. What is that one thing that Jesus is really calling you to receive His mercy in this Lent? What is your heart aching for Him to redeem? What’s the one thing you know you really need to cut back on that is preventing you from saying a fuller yes to Him? Perhaps a bad habit or an addiction, maybe a sin you really need to address and let Jesus uproot, maybe a lot of fear or self-hatred. The rich young man in today’s Gospel was afraid to go there with Christ, and he went away sad. Let’s learn from him and have the courage to go there knowing that Christ went there first. It could get messy to really go there, but take heart in that the redeeming “mess” of Jesus’ blood spilled out from His broken body for you covers a multitude of our messes of sins, wounds, and the parts of ourselves that are most difficult to face. Jesus is greater than any of the darkest, most buried parts of your heart. And He’s already there. He’s already taken all of your mess into Himself on the Cross with so much love for you. He would’ve died for you if you were the only one left on earth.

  1. Focus on the goodness of God’s mercy.

One of my favorite verses from the Psalms is, “Surely Your goodness and mercy will pursue me, all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6). Jesus’ mercy is good, loving, and is nothing to be afraid of. He gazes at you with such love—His bleeding, pierced heart aching for yours on the Cross. When He cried out, “I thirst!” on the Cross, His cry was not just for a drink but for your soul. He loves you that much. I feel that sometimes in Lent if we miss a day of what we planned to do, or if we fail all together, we can give into despair and think we are a failure to God. But just like when Jesus fell under the weight of the Cross, we can get back up and keep going when we fall. His mercy is always available for us, and we are not defined by how “good” our Lent is, or that this person did more prayer and fasting than we did. God writes straight with crooked lines, and maybe He will reveal to you a greater plan for your Lent where He wants to transform something in your heart. Don’t fret. Take it day by day, little by little, eyes fixed on our Lord. Give Him your whole heart as best you can each day. Keep going.

So let’s dig deep and keep our hearts turned towards our merciful Savior this Lent. You will all be in my prayers.

Ite Ad Joseph!

Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

I recently finished the first book in the novel Kristin Lavransdatter. Laverns (father of the main character) strives to be a good father to his daughters, to love them and teach them to God, the Church, their family, and their neighbors, especially the poor. I am amazed that the struggles of fatherhood do not look that different whether you have daughters in 21st-century America or 14th-century Norway. Over the past year and a half I have wrestled with, prayed through, and pondered the questions: what does it mean to be a good father? Am I a good father? How can I become a better father? And often a simple answer comes: Be like St. Joseph – Sleep more and talk less! (I need help with both – just ask my wife)

But this answer – although both humorous and true – only skims the surface. More than his affinity for rest and silence, in St. Joseph we find a friend who was patient, humble, just, merciful, and attentive and obedient to the will of the Lord. He – like all of us – encountered difficult and unexpected situations in his life, and followed the Lord onto uncomfortable, even painful paths on which he would otherwise not dare to trod. He wants to accompany us on the difficult roads of this life, to protect and guide us as he protected and guided Jesus and Mary.

I do not know if Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati had a devotion to St. Joseph, and cannot confess intimate familiarity with his writings. Based on his attraction to his friend Laura and his love for the faith, I imagine that he would have had both a love and respect for St. Joseph, and a deep desire for fatherhood. This desire was frustrated by his parents and his illness/death – yet neither of these roadblocks kept Bl. Frassati from following the Lord and knowing joy even in the sufferings.

What would St. Joseph’s path been had the Father not chosen Him to father His Son? Would He still be a saint? How would he have responded to the challenges of life? And Bl. Frassati – what other great deeds would he have done had he not gone Home at such a young age? As Erin said last week, these final days of Lent can be the hardest. So today during your prayer, turn to St. Joseph and Bl. Frassati, and ask them to pray for you to be open to the will of the Father in your life, to allow Him to lead you into – and out of – the valleys of tears, trusting that He is near, and He is bringing you closer to His love through it all.

Pax et bonum,
Andy

Mid-Lenten Lethargy

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Prayer_for_Death_in_the_Desert_-_Elihu_Vedder_-_overall

We are now over halfway through Lent, right in the midseason slump—past the novelty of our Lenten resolutions but still a ways away from Easter. It feels sometimes like we have to push ourselves to get through these last few weeks. But in reality, we are called not to simply “muscle through” our discomfort in this moment; rather, we are called to use this as an opportunity for a deeper relationship with God. We are asked to dwell in our discomfort, to allow ourselves to actually feel it, and to be attentive to what it shows us about God and about ourselves.

The purpose of fasting is not to prove our endurance; it is to awaken our desire for God, to develop an awareness of our hunger for Him. The disciples did not fast when Jesus was with them because they were already in the presence of the One who fulfilled the deepest longings in their hearts.

We are feeling the strain, now, of going without our chosen distractions. The things we normally use to numb ourselves from pain are no longer there, and so we are forced to entrust ourselves entirely to God’s care. We take a leap of faith that He will show up to fill the void, and in doing so we open our senses to perceive Him.

If you feel like you’re failing at Lent, maybe that’s the point. In recognizing our weakness, we learn how to depend on God. In these last few weeks of Lent, He wants to meet us in the desert. Rather than trying to push ourselves through the rest of the journey, let us call out for God and ask Him to carry us the rest of the way.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
Many are the troubles of the just man,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him.

He watches over all his bones;
not one of them shall be broken.
The LORD redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.

—Psalm 34:19–21, 23


Image: Elihu Vedder, Prayer for Death in the Desert / PD-US