The Third Servant

In today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the ten gold coins, Jesus calls us to be good stewards of the gifts we’ve been given, to grow and develop the skills and resources we have and use them toward building His Kingdom instead of sitting idle. A key element in this story is how the third servant, bewildered by his master’s ways and unable to understand him, buried his talents away out of fear. Instead of taking a chance and investing them, or even placing them in the bank, where they would gain steady interest, he avoided his responsibility and just let them sit. What angered his master about this response was not the amount of money he returned but the fact that he let fear hold him back from doing good, from gaining anything at all. He allowed his fear to paralyze him.

The Lord has entrusted each of us with particular gifts, and we are called to respond by employing those gifts in service to His mission for us. But too often we allow our fears to hold us back from developing our gifts to fruition. We are tempted to compare ourselves with others, to doubt whether our gifts will be good enough, whether our contribution even matters. We allow our pride to keep us from offering our gifts to the world, preferring to hide ourselves away rather than face the possibility of failure.

But when we give in to fear and allow ourselves to be controlled by it, we miss out on what God has in store for us. He wants to see our gifts, however humble they may be, placed before Him as an offering. If we entrust them all to Him, we can be sure that He will not leave us disappointed. God will provide what we need when we need it; there is no reason for us to live in fear.

During these November days, I am noticing just how little daylight remains. The night seems impossibly opaque and pitch-black, and its darkness encroaches little by little, day by day. It can feel all the more somber after this year of darkness and uncertainty. But as the daylight wanes, let us ever keep in mind that we are children of the day, for we bear the Light of Christ within us. It is only during a pitch-black night that we can recognize the beauty of the twinkling stars; similarly, it is against the backdrop of darkness that our own gifts are meant to shine brightly. But that can only happen if we step out in faith, trusting in God even amidst our fear. During these dark days, when we can’t see anything around us, let us not cover up the Light within us but rather respond to God’s call to illuminate the darkness.


Image: Andrey Mironov, Parable of the Talents / CC BY-SA 4.0

A Great Light

The Christmas season is marked by light.  Lights strung around the tree, candles burning in windows, fireplaces warming homes, storefronts decorated with lights…  Many families will take a drive to go see the lights or see a tree in their city adorned with lights.  The beauty of light clearly draws us in. 

I’ve been rediscovering the glory of light as I watch my 2.5-month-old stare at lights — not just Christmas lights, but any kind of light.  I am realizing that we are born with an innate draw to the gift and mystery of light.  And while my sweet little baby stares with wonder at light, she is often being stared at by the people around her.  When we introduce her to friends and family, people find themselves circled around her, staring in wonder in the same way she herself stares at a light.  I’ve had two friends say in the past week that babies are like campfires — you feel like you can just stare at them forever.  There is a beauty, a wonder, and a joy in the presence of a baby and in the light of a campfire that draws our hearts.  This mystery of light is at the beginning of creation, as God himself created light before anything else (Genesis 1:3).  And this mystery of light is revealed to us further at the beginning of the Gospel, the beginning of our re-creation in Christ, as the Light of the world comes to us as a newborn baby.  How everyone present at Christ’s Nativity must have stared at this baby with an unmatched wonder and awe, as they stared at the One True Light Himself.  

Those who follow you, Lord, will have the light of life.

The refrain of today’s Psalm taken from the Gospel of John (Jn 8:12) reminds us that as Christians, we possess the gift of light, for Christ is the fullness of light.  It is through Christ that we are called into union with the Creator of light, the Father, and made partakers in this light by the fire of the Holy Spirit. We may already be well aware that as Christians we possess the light of Christ, but this Advent, perhaps the Lord is calling us deeper, asking us to receive His light more fully. What area or aspect of your heart or life remains in darkness? These areas may take some prayerful digging to find. Anxiety, fear, hopelessness… Ask the Lord to reveal this place to you, in His gentleness and love. This is where the Lord yearns to be invited. To bring an end to any remaining darkness with the light of life.   

I hope that every light we see this Advent and Christmas points us to the One True Light Himself. The Savior of the world, God Himself, was born to us a beautiful, sweet baby. Come let us adore Him, and stare in wonder at the baby Jesus, the Light who changed everything.  

Adoration of the Shepherds by Matthias Stomer, 1632

The Long Night

And out of gloom and darkness,
the eyes of the blind shall see.
—Isaiah 29:18

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom should I fear?
—Psalm 27:1

During this time of year, when we have more hours of darkness than of daylight, the days can feel impossibly short and the nights endlessly long. It happens every year, but somehow we still find ourselves surprised every December when we walk outside at 5pm and the sun has already retreated. These long nights are the backdrop of our yearly Advent preparations and a blank canvas for all our Christmas light displays.

This week while teaching my Confirmation class, I asked my middle-school students whether they’ve ever gone stargazing. They replied with stories of watching the stars while traveling with their family, out in the country or even in the middle of the desert, where they could see the constellations clearly. Then I asked if they’d ever tried stargazing in Manhattan. They laughed and said that while they’d tried, they couldn’t really see anything from the city, and whenever they did it usually turned out to be a plane. Why is that, I asked? Well, because we have so much artificial light here that you can’t see anything else. Then I asked them to picture the night of Jesus’s birth, the first Christmas. Why did Jesus choose to come into the world during the darkest, coldest time of year, amid a sparsely populated desert, in the middle of the night? Could it be possible that all of that darkness made it easier for the wise men to see the light of the star? Might Jesus have come into the world amidst its cold, lifeless season as a sign of who He is for us?

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The child Jesus, born in the middle of a cold winter’s night, is the Light that shines in the darkness. In order to prepare ourselves to celebrate his arrival at Christmas, let us spend this Advent entering into the night, allowing ourselves to feel the emptiness of our human condition, and daring to quiet the noise of the world around us to breathe in the silence. Let us meditate upon the darkness that enveloped the world before His arrival, so that we can see His brilliance more clearly.

During this time of year, it can seem harder than ever to find a few minutes of silence and permit ourselves to be still. But God speaks to us in the silence and meets us in our emptiness. Let us make space for Him to speak instead of crowding our lives with so many distractions that we cannot hear His gentle voice. There is so much artificial light that fights for our attention during Advent, so much so that it may blind us from noticing the true Light of the world. But if we’re willing to take a step back into the dark, quiet night and realize our need for Him, the Star of Bethlehem will shine all the more brightly in our hearts. Our world, weary as ever, longs to receive that Light.

St. Andrew Christmas Novena:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

Adam_Elsheimer_-_Die_Flucht_nach_Ägypten_(Alte_Pinakothek)_2.jpg
Adam Elsheimer, The Flight into Egypt / PD-US

Preparing for Our Bridegroom, Jesus Christ!

A wedding is always something to get excited about: the decorations, the colors, the splendor of the Church, the bride’s dress, the groom’s smile watching her walk down the aisle. So much thought and dedication goes into planning a wedding. I have been a bridesmaid quite a few times and the excitement in seeing my friends get married is always the same, an abundance of joy, blessings and love.

In the time of Jesus, first-century Palestine, a couple was betrothed (legally married) for a period of about a year, and during this time the bride still lived at home with her family. After this period of betrothal the wedding feast would begin at sundown, when the bridegroom would go to pick up the bride from her family’s home and take her to their new home. Customarily, family and friends would come out of their homes and congratulate the newlywed couple as they passed by on the streets. Many would follow the couple in a procession of celebration through the streets to their new home and partake in the wedding feast together. This procession was guided by maiden torchbearers (bridesmaids!) as the crowd danced and sang around the newlyweds. Imagine it being the pitch darkness of nighttime, in first-century Palestine, and the one thing that guides you is this glowing light towards a feast.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us a parable about the ten virgins: five wise virgins with oil and five foolish virgins without oil, all of whom were waiting for the bridegroom to come to pick up his bride so they could celebrate and light the way in their procession. For some unknown reason the bridegroom was delayed and all ten virgins fell asleep waiting for him. When he unexpectedly came, the five foolish virgins realized that their flame was low and they would not be able to keep it lit as they did not prepare and pack oil. So they left to go buy some. In the meantime, the bridegroom arrived and the five wise virgins, who packed oil, were fine in relighting their lamps and joining the procession following the bridegroom to the wedding feast. By the time the foolish virgins came back with oil and made their way to the bridegroom’s home, the door was locked and they were not a part of the wedding feast.

That one line in scripture, “then the door was locked” (Matthew 25:10), really pangs at my heart. There is a clear distinction here on who enters the kingdom and who does not. As much as we focus on details and get ready for our friend’s earthly wedding, we must make all the effort to prepare for our own true wedding with Jesus Christ. Be prepared. Bring oil. What does this oil represent? It represents us living the faith, being true to our baptismal promises, celebrating and practicing the sacraments, praying, loving one another, doing good works of mercy. We are all in a state of waiting for our bridegroom to arrive; as Christians we have been waiting for over 2,000 years for the second coming of Jesus Christ. But we don’t know the exact day nor the hour when Jesus Christ will come again. So make sure you pack your oil. All ten virgins had intentions of going to the wedding feast and all ten virgins were waiting for the bridegroom, but only five virgins had oil, and so only five virgins were ready to follow him into the wedding feast.

In the first reading, St. Paul tells us that we should conduct ourselves in a manner that is pleasing to God. And the instructions on how to live a holy life were given through our Lord Jesus. Before Jesus had told us this parable of the ten virgins, he taught us on the Sermon on the Mount. He told us to be the light of the world; our light must shine before others in such a way that they see our good deeds and glorify our Heavenly Father. In order to be this light and remain a burning flame, we must have a flask of oil and continue in a course of action, even in the face of difficulties, to commit to doing good works willed by the Father.

“This is the will of God, your holiness”

For God did not call us to impurity but to holiness.” Through God’s grace we are given every opportunity to continue in good works and so I pray that each of us are overjoyed, excited and well prepared for our own bridegroom, Jesus Christ, and our own nuptials in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Image Credit: 10 Virgins Icon [Public Domain]

Called to the Light

As Jesus passed by,
he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
He heard this and said,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
—Matthew 9:9–13

There is a well-known painting of the calling of St. Matthew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, painted by the great Caravaggio. I often used to stop through to see it while I was studying abroad, since it was just around the corner from my school. It sits in a shadowy corner of the church, but when a tourist drops coins into a slot, a light shines upon it for a few minutes. Once it is illuminated, you can see that the painting itself is a stark contrast of light and shadow—a masterpiece of chiaroscuro.

The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggo_(1599-1600)

Matthew is sitting at a table with his fellow tax collectors, counting money. Jesus, standing at the opposite end of the table, is pointing at Matthew, while Matthew and his companions seem to be caught in utter surprise. One man also points at Matthew in his bewilderment, as if to say, “Who, him? Really?” They are sitting in the shadows, but their faces are illuminated with a clear, brilliant light, coming from Jesus’s direction. And Matthew hangs his head as if caught red-handed, exposed in his sin.

Caravaggio sought to capture this singular, crucial moment, the turning point of Matthew’s whole life. We see Jesus’s mercy, bringing Matthew out of the darkness and into the light, but we also see the stark vulnerability and fear which that light reveals. In this pivotal moment, Matthew had a choice. He could have recoiled and crawled back into the shadows, but he didn’t. Terrifying as it was to leave everything behind and follow this mysterious stranger, he knew that he was not created to lurk in the shadows of a life of corruption and greed. The light of Jesus’s presence made him aware of a yearning within himself for goodness and truth, a long-neglected thirst for transcendent love. He knew that the life he was leading could not quench that thirst but would only deepen it. And so he stood, left everything behind, followed Jesus into the light, and never looked back.

St. Matthew, when we are tempted to seek fulfillment in things other than God and to veil our actions in secrecy, shine a light into our hearts, that we may see clearly the truth of our condition and understand who we were created to be. Give us the courage to loosen our grip on everything that distracts us from our ultimate purpose as children of God, and give us trust in His great mercy, that we may confidently believe that He seeks to heal and restore us, not to condemn us. And, like you, may we follow Him without looking back, telling the story of His merciful love for us all our days.


Image: Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew / PD-US

On This Friday We Call Good: Eucatastrophe and the Eucharist

From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

-Matthew 27:45

It is finished.

We listened as Christ’s final words were proclaimed from the altar. We adored His cross and kissed His wounds, following in the footsteps of Mary and the beloved disciple. And then, we received the Word made flesh in the Eucharist, “the one great thing to love on earth,” one last time.

Now, the sanctuary light is extinguished, the altar is bare, and the dim church is silent. The tabernacle is open, and empty. If “a stable once had some[one] inside it that was bigger than our whole world,” the absence of that dear friend leaves a hole just as large, and it seems like “all other lights [have gone] out,” that our “one companion is darkness” (Ps. 88:19). As another poet says, “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

Yet, even in this hour of remembering Christ’s passion, we “do not believe that any darkness will endure,” though the “shadow lies on [us] still.” Jesus tells us himself at the Last Supper that “you will weep and mourn… you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn. 16:20). This darkness is not the end of the story. Though we may be in anguish now, and remember how his apostles were then, we will see Him again, receive Him again, and our hearts will rejoice just as their hearts did. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien writes about this “sudden joyous turn” when all hope seems lost, which he calls a eucatastrophe. The opposite of a tragedy’s catastrophe, it is a “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence… of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies… universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Evangelium—the Gospel, the good news. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:1, 14). As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech—not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform… God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears… For here it is the real Lord of the world—the Living God—who goes into action.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

As Tolkien continues, he says, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” So too does Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, Jesus joyfully arrives in Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday, He gives us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, which “[feeds] the will and [gives us] the strength to endure.” On Good Friday, He gives us His mother, Our Lady, to be our mother and companion in darkness, before giving up His very life for us on the cross out of love.

Soon, His love will be told not only on the cross, but also in the empty tomb. His faithfulness will be known among the dead, as He breaks the very bonds of sin and death. And His wonders will be known, even in the dark. We need only to take courage and wait a little while longer—for the winter will pass, the Son will be unveiled in the breaking of the bread, and the light will leap forth as we sing with Easter joy.

Referenced
Eliot, Four Quartets
Lewis, The Last Battle
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, On Fairy-Stories, Letters
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 1

Cluttered Hearts

“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!” -Isaiah 2:5

Advent is upon us, and it seems like each year my heart cries out with more and more longing for the coming of our Savior.

Jesus, we need You.

We need You in our broken and hurting world full of darkness, sin, and deep, deep pain.

We need You to be the center of our families, our marriages, our friendships. We need You to heal our relationships with others.

We need You in our workplaces.

We need You in our bleeding Church; oh how we need You to make all things new and right. We need You to bind up our wounds, to bring mighty justice, to shine Your piercing light into the darkness of the appalling sin, shame, hiding, and cover-up, to direct our next steps and to guide us forward.

We need You in the messy parts of our hearts, the parts we are too ashamed to tell other people about, the parts You see and love us anyway.

We need You to uproot and cast out shame, fear, and distrust of Your goodness from our lives.

We need You in every inch of the world, in every part of our beings, in the deepest depths of our souls. Every minute, every hour, every second—we need You.

Dear brothers and sisters, Advent is a season full of hopeful expectation of God’s saving power. It’s a season of light shining forth in the darkness. As we light each new candle of the Advent wreath, may we allow that much more of the light of Christ to pierce our hearts and renew us.

The other day in prayer, I imagined Jesus knocking on the door of the home of my heart, like a guest that comes forty-five minutes before the party when you’re still cleaning and haven’t showered. I imagined myself panic-stricken, trying to shove certain things behind the couch. And there He stood before me, smiling, seeing right through my couch cushions to all the mess and sin that I tried to hide. Yet He responded with nothing but tenderness. His kindness leads to our conversion.

We need to let Jesus in before we feel ready. Sometimes we need Him to help point out where we need to grow, and sometimes we need the affirmation of knowing that He loves us just the same no matter what mess we have in our hearts. He takes us as we are. When we let our Savior in, prepared or not, He speaks to our cluttered and weary hearts, “You are good. You are seen. You are known. I love you fully, as you are.”