Tradition

In today’s Gospel, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for rigidly observing the letter of the law while completely disregarding the spirit of the law. In their hypocrisy, they carefully keep the traditions that were passed on to them but pay no attention to the true meaning behind those traditions. Jesus points out that their actions are empty if they are not motivated by love of God, quoting Isaiah:

He responded,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites,
as it is written:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.

You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

—Mark 7:9

The idea of tradition was kind of a big deal at my college. Founded in the Catholic faith, we carried the idea of tradition further into nearly every mundane aspect of our lives—football Saturdays, dorm activities, dining hall meals, snowball fights. One of my professors was fond of telling us, “Remember, there’s a difference between traditions and dumb things you do every year. Just because you did it last year, it doesn’t need to become a tradition.” There’s a good amount of wisdom there. Traditions can be powerful, and they should reflect the priorities we want our lives to be centered around. There isn’t much sense in keeping up a tradition for tradition’s sake alone—it ought to reflect a deeper purpose. We have been handed down a treasure trove of beautifully rich Catholic traditions. Do we reflect on their meaning, or do we just go through the motions? Are they really traditions to us, or just habits?

We all know toddlers who insist on watching the same movie on endless repeat, who want to be twirled in just the same way or play the same exact game over and over again. This is the same underlying emotion that moves us to create traditions: that childlike cry of the heart that says, “Again, again!” When we are savoring the moments of our lives and experience something truly wonderful, we want to repeat it in the future. We want to re-experience and remember those things that have shaped us for the better. When we do this with intention, it forms a beautiful rhythm within our lives. But without intention, it becomes a fruitless quest to recreate the past, when really God wants to invite us to walk forward with Him.

Traditions are comforting and familiar to us. This is a good thing, but we should make sure that it’s not the only reason we’re clinging to them. God cares less about the words on our lips than on the devotion in our hearts, and everything we do should reflect that deeper purpose. As we grow older and our lives continue to change, new traditions and habits will likely replace old ones. We can welcome these changes by keeping our eyes on what matters most, on the God who understands our need for the comfort, familiarity, and structure that traditions bring. He has responded to that need with a wealth of tradition, formed over millennia, held within the treasures of the Church—and He invites us to delve deeper into reflecting upon and understanding these traditions instead of merely going through the motions.

“Daughter!”

Two-year-old Zippy has recently discovered FaceTime.  She loves to talk to Nonna and “A’Reece” (Aunt Grace), but is sometimes a bit confused as to how the technology works.  She will giggle with delight when we answer and our faces appear on the screen, as though we have come to visit her.  “Hi Zippy! Hi Honey!” we say.  “Hi Zippy, Hi Honey!” she says in happy reply.  

She is dismayed however if we don’t share our snacks; she is always generous with hers, trying to put them through the phone (her mother’s turn to be dismayed).  She waves the phone around to show us her dinner or her dolls, and we try not to get dizzy.  Sometimes she will sit and “talk” for awhile—sometimes not saying anything, sometimes chattering away, while we get a steady view of her eyebrows and the top of her head.

During the recent government shutdown, her father came up to visit us and help out for a bit while he was out of work.  When we called to FaceTime, Zippy was ecstatic to suddenly see Daddy on the phone as well.

Shortly after he had returned home to Maryland, the whole family called on FaceTime.  My brother passed the phone to Zippy, who was excited to talk to us, but unhappy that we wouldn’t show her Daddy.  “Zippy see Daddy!” she implored. “I am right here!” my brother laughed behind her.  But Zippy was not placated until Daddy moved around so that she could see his face in the small screen she was holding.  “Daddy! Dere you are!”  she laughed delightedly.

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel a woman is seeking Jesus.  She has had a flow of blood for twelve years; doctors have only made things worse.  And this flow of blood has in turn made her “unclean”—a spiritual outcast, barred from the temple and the touch of other people.

She has heard great things about Jesus and thinks that if she could but touch the hem of His garment, she would be cured.  She moves quietly through the crowd, comes behind Him, and touches His clothing.  Immediately, she realizes she is healed.

Jesus, however, recognizes a deeper desire for connection.  He knows that healing power has gone out of Him, and asks the confused crowd “Who touched me?” 

The woman must then confess; she comes forward, revealing herself and tells what has happened.

“Daughter,” Jesus replies, “Your faith has made you well.”

She had sought merely the restoration of her health. Jesus restores her identity, her relationship with her Father.  “Daughter…”

This deep desire—was it only on the part of the woman? 

It is a central mystery of Christianity that our love, desire, and faith actually begin as God’s initiative toward us.  It is He who first loves us; He who calls us to prayer, who plants the desire in our hearts, who is the source of both our longing and its fulfillment.

 

 

Adam

Photo Credit: Michelangelo, Public Domain

Following

Saint Paul’s address in today’s First Reading sounds a lot like the start of a testimony: “I was educated strictly in our ancestral law and was zealous for God, just as all of you are today” (Acts 22: 3).

His words make me think back on my own life: I was educated in the Catholic faith and loved God. My faith was a routine part of my life. However, one thing that stood out in this routine was praying to the Holy Spirit on the drive to school with my mom. It was a simple, single sentenced prayer, but I believed it held all of the power to grant me the good grades to get into college.

Four years later, when I began my freshman year, my mom gave me a little blue booklet that included the prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I didn’t really understand the full meaning of this prayer, which was written in Polish, and I probably wouldn’t have grasped its meaning if it were written in English. But I said this prayer religiously every evening… because I thought it would give me good grades.

Of course, God had something greater in store. Just like Jesus finds Saul and proves him wrong for persecuting his Way, Jesus proved me wrong about my self-centered priorities. The more I prayed, the more I began to understand and internalize the words of this prayer. My life took on a more beautiful meaning as I began to follow his Way.

Jesus calls every one of us to follow him. He continually stops us along our way and proves us wrong over and over again. On this Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, let us pray to the Holy Spirit, that we may see more clearly and gain strength to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel” (MK 16: 15).

Prayer for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit,
Divine Consoler,
I adore You as my true God,
with God the Father and God the Son.
I adore You and unite myself to the adoration
You receive from the angels and saints.

I give You my heart
and I offer my ardent thanksgiving
for all the grace which You never cease to bestow on me.

O Giver of all supernatural gifts,
who filled the soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
Mother of God, with such immense favors,
I beg You to visit me with Your grace
and Your love and to grant me the gift of holy fear,
so that it may act on me as a check to prevent me
from falling back into my past sins,
for which I beg pardon.

Grant me the gift of piety,
so that I may serve You for the future with increased fervor,
follow with more promptness Your holy inspirations,
and observe your divine precepts with greater fidelity.

Grant me the gift of knowledge,
so that I may know the things of God and,
enlightened by Your holy teaching, may walk,
without deviation, in the path of eternal salvation.

Grant me the gift of fortitude,
so that I may overcome courageously all the assaults of the devil,
and all the dangers of this world which threaten the
salvation of my soul.

Grant me the gift of counsel,
so that I may choose what is more conducive
to my spiritual advancement
and may discover the wiles and snares of the tempter.

Grant me the gift of understanding,
so that I may apprehend the divine mysteries
and by contemplation of heavenly things detach my thoughts
and affections from the vain things of this miserable
world.

Grant me the gift of wisdom,
so that I may rightly direct all my actions,
referring them to God as my last end;
so that, having loved Him and served Him in this life,
I may have the happiness of possessing Him eternally in
the next.

King of Peace

Lord Jesus, reveal yourself to us.

            I often find myself drawn to the mystery of the figure in today’s first reading, Melchizedek, a priest and king in the time of Abraham.  He stands out against other kings or priests of the Old Testament in that he is both priest and king (Gn. 14). Our reading from Hebrews reveals Melchizedek as an Old Testament prefiguring of Jesus Christ – in other words, he is a foreshadowing of Jesus, the ultimate priest and king to come.  The psalm highlights the union of kingship and priesthood seen in Melchizedek and eventually Christ, filled with royal imagery surrounded by the refrain: “You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.” 

            Why is this significant?  Reading today’s Gospel with an understanding of Melchizedek, helps us focus in on specific treasures in the Gospel.  In this case, reflecting on Melchizedek allows us to learn more about our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Hebrews tell us that that name of Melchizedek means “righteous king,” and that he was the king of peace, yet his appearance in Genesis is only a shadow of the ultimate reality to be fulfilled in Jesus.  Jesus is the true priest and king.  As we read the Gospel, let us ask the Lord what this relationship between Old Testament Melchizedek and the fulfillment of the kingship and priesthood in Jesus Christ reveals to us about the heart of Jesus Himself.    

           In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus enters the synagogue and encounters a man with a withered hand.  As the Pharisees look on to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath, a day in which work was to be ritually abstained from, Jesus engages with the crippled man and heals his withered hand.  Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”  (emphasis mine)

This is our Priest and our King.  What kind of priest and king is He?  As a meditation, we may allow ourselves to imagine we are the man with the withered hand in Mark’s Gospel…. 

Jesus enters.  He sees us.  He engages us.  He desires to come close to us.  He heals us. 

            Is this how the first century Jews imagined a king or a priest?  Jesus radically challenged the notion of kingship of His day.  But further, is this how we imagine kingship today?  It may not be.  In our very meditation of these daily readings, the Holy Spirit is encouraging us to see kingship through God’s eyes and learn more about the heart of Our Savior, the righteous King, the King of peace.  Jesus is forever our priest and king  – one who desires to come close to our hearts.  A priest and king who knows us and loves us.  Who desires to enter in to the most withered parts of our souls.  So that we may be healed.  So that we may be free.  So that we may share in His peace.   What a King our Jesus is. 

Lord Jesus, Most High Priest and King, thank you for revealing to our hearts the truth of who you are.  Most gracious and compassionate priest and king, we open our souls to you.  Heal the withered parts of our souls as you healed the man in today’s Gospel.  Envelop our hearts, oh King of peace.  Thank you, my God and King, for your desire to draw close to me.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.          

As a step further in your prayer, I invite you to spend time in praise of our King Jesus.  Here is a song which may accompany your praise: All Hail King Jesus

The New and the Now

I love New Year’s Day.  I love new beginnings, fresh starts, the first page of a clean new journal.  I love the idea of resolutions: the promise of new habits and the new happiness and order they will bring to my life.

I am not alone: last night, Times Square was filled to capacity, and millions more watched on television as the ball dropped, signaling an end to 2018 and the beginning of 2019.  It was a night of celebration and revelry; for many the penultimate holiday celebration, ushering in the promises of newness: New Year, New You, New Resolutions and hopes and dreams to plan and unpack.

Yet, just three weeks from today, January 21st, is Blue Monday, “The Most Depressing Day of the Year.”  By the third Monday of January, it seems, conditions have converged to create a cocktail of depression.  One is the dreary weather; another the post-holiday let down, and then the arrival of the post-holiday credit card bills.  (I am sure that fact that it is a Monday doesn’t help).  But the biggest factor?  By the third week in January most have failed to keep their new resolutions, and as a result have abandoned hope in their new happiness.

Today, January first and New Year’s Day, the Church presents for our contemplation the mystery of Mary, Mother of God.  At first, it seems something of a mismatch.  If there was anyone who didn’t need New Year’s resolutions, it was the Immaculate Conception.  Conceived without sin, she had no faults to renounce: she didn’t need to resolve to give up gossip, or gluttony, or even to give more of herself to God.  And it is hard to picture Our Lady promising to eat fewer carbs or even to exercise more: surely the fully pregnant mother who rode on a donkey all the way to Bethlehem didn’t need to get more fit, or to do more penance.

Yet when we entrust to Mary the Mother of God, our resolutions, we increase exponentially the likelihood of our keeping them.  First, because her intercession is invaluable in anything we wish to accomplish or offer.  Second, because in her role as Mother of God, she models for us how to keep them.

How can this be, for we who know too well the reality of sin?

The answer for the Christian is not a how or a what but a Who.  The child gestated in the womb of a Virgin, laid in the manger and held in her arms, first in Bethlehem and ultimately at Calvary, is Emmanuel: God is With Us.

God is With Us.  Not just in the new, but in the now.  Not with our future perfected or improved selves, or hobnobbing with the People We Ought To Be, but right now, in this imperfect moment.

Says Sister Wendy Beckett: “I would say that the essential test of whether you are a Christian is whether you actually pray.  If you don’t pray you don’t truly believe.  You believe in some kind of God who is an evil God because if you truly believe in the real God, then you want to be close to Him.”  Yikes.

It is in the Baby in the manger, the Baby cradled in Mary’s lap, nursing at her breast, that we can find the confidence to draw close to God without fear.

A baby changes everything.

Even a merely human baby has a remarkable power to effect change.  Voices are softened, curses omitted, touch becomes more gentle and loving.  Mothers addicted to nicotine or caffeine or alcohol in excess suddenly quit cold turkey when they become aware of the life growing within them.  Fathers who are “tough guys” melt into mush holding their child.  Parents can attest that what willpower could not accomplish, the needs of their child effects quickly: getting up earlier, giving up more of their time, sacrificing more of their money for someone other than self.

Father Richard Veras notes in his book Jesus of Israel: Finding Christ in the Old Testament that this experience of parenthood, this change effected by ENCOUNTER, is in fact the model of Christianity, not resolution fueled by willpower alone.   It is the encounter with Christ that changes us, that both inspires our right resolutions and empowers us to effect them.

If there is one resolution that will change your life definitively, it is to adopt the habit of daily prayer.  To spend some time, like Mary, reflecting on the mystery of Emmanuel.  To be present to the God that is always with you.  To allow Him to transform you, to make you new.  Sister Wendy again, not mincing words: “My filth crackles as He seizes hold of me.”

Gretchen Rubin, in her book Better than Before, writes about habits, and what helps and hinders them.  Much of her advice applies well to cultivating a habit of prayer.  Make the habit specific and concrete, she advises.  Set a specific time for prayer (morning habits are more likely to be kept, she notes).  Make the habit itself specific (for example, replace “to pray more” with “I will pray for fifteen minutes a day.”)  Make it a daily habit: “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in awhile.” (p.80)

Let Our Lady teach you how to pray.  (She taught Jesus, after all…)  Let her hand you the Christ Child to hold, even without words, and just be present and ponder the mystery.

Finally, as Gretchen Rubin notes, the time for a new habit is Now.  Not in tomorrow, which as the orphan Annie reminds us, is “always a day away.” The Good News is, literally, God is With Us Now.  Not in the museum of the past, nor in a perfect future, but in very moment in which we reside.

On this her feast day, let us invoke Mary’s maternal intercession as we pray for the two most important moments of our life: “Holy, Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death, Amen.”

Madonna_with_child_and_angels

Image Credit:

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

You Have Won My Heart

“But you have the anointing that comes from the Holy One,
and you all have knowledge.” -1 John 2:20

Dear brothers and sisters, as 2018 wraps up in this Octave of Christmas, something that’s been on my heart for the past few months that I am making my goal for 2019 is focusing back on the heart-to-heart relationship with God. It is so easy to lose sight of Whose we are.

We have received God’s anointing in Baptism, and from this anointing flows our identity as His sons and daughters, which is sealed in the Sacrament of Confirmation. God has put an indelible mark on your soul that cannot be washed off. His anointing of you is His irrevocable choice to make you a part of His family. No matter how much we fight and struggle with our sonship and daughtership as His beloved ones, no matter how much we wrestle with doubt and lies and fear, God says to us: “You are Mine!” And He says this with great delight over you.

What does this anointing look like in your life in a tangible way? From His anointing flows your purpose that clarifies why you were born. You are certainly not a mistake. You are not an exception to the faithfulness of God’s love. You are not an exception to the fulfillment of His call for your life. You are chosen. You are His. I will say it again: He delights in you, His precious child.

“But to those who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to those who believe in his name, 
who were born not by natural generation, nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.” -John 1:12-13

I want 2019 to be a year of going back to the basics of focusing on God’s love for me and loving Him wholeheartedly in return. I want this to permeate my soul so much that it constantly outpours for others. I want to fall in love with the Lord over and over again. He dwells within us—our bodies are His temple. How often I forget that! We don’t have to go far to find Him. He’s already with us, already loving us, eyes already on us. St. Teresa of Avila said, “We need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.”

Lord God, we thank You and praise You for choosing us as Your sons and daughters. Thank You for Your unending patience with our weaknesses. Thank You for Your kindness. Thank You for rejoicing at even the smallest steps we take towards You. No matter the season of life, no matter what prayers we are waiting on answers to, Lord, help us to make this a year of more of You and so much less of us. Help us to fall in love with You again. Help us to find You in the stillness of our hearts, and to be disciplined in silent prayer. Help us to bask in the sight of Your delight in us. Unravel and soften our hearts in a deeper love for You, God. We love You, Lord. Help us to love You more and more. Amen.

“And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only-begotten Son,
full of grace and truth.” -John 1:14

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.