Say Yes to God

Could Mary have said no?

This was the question one of my confirmation students asked me. Could Mary have said no?

Well, yes, she could have said no. She could have said to the angel Gabriel that this was just too much, that she wasn’t ready to be a mother, she wasn’t ready to be talked about behind her back or be disgraced because it wasn’t Joseph’s child. She could have said that she didn’t want the responsibility. She could have freely said no. Lucky for us, that’s not the way the Annunciation goes.

Mary said yes to God.

Through Mary’s “yes” the word became flesh and God was amongst us. Through Mary’s “yes” a child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah in our first reading.

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary freely and willingly accepted her mission as the mother of God. She knew that the fruit of her womb, her son, Jesus Christ, was our redeemer, the perfect lamb by which the world would find its salvation. And she pondered on all of this in her heart because God chose her to love and take care of a small, innocent, and special baby. Mary’s “yes” aligned the will of God with her own will, obediently allowing herself to be an instrument of the Lord.

Mary’s “yes” was powerful.

In the Gospel reading for today, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that “nothing will be impossible for God.” That message is for us as well. The Most High, almighty and omnipotent God can do everything and anything—He made every inch of the universe. And nothing is impossible for God. Let us remember that in our hearts when we pray and when we walk up to the altar. Let us remember that the impossible does not exist to God. Whatever fear or doubt we might have in accepting God’s good word, let us renounce it. Whatever uncertainty we may experience that is stopping us from going forth with God’s plans, let us be aware to walk away from it.

In today’s society we are always busy. Our calendars are full of meetings, appointments, dinner parties, sports tournaments, work, and classes. The list goes on and on. We plan our schedules thinking that we are in control. The hardest thing for us to realize is that our lives are not our own; our lives belong to God and therefore should be centered around God. He is the one in control, and He is the one in charge of our final schedules.

God made us in His image to love us and for us to love Him. That love has to be given freely. So, yes, Mary could have said no. But it was her love for God that willed her to say yes and be open to receive baby Jesus in her womb. It is that same love for the Lord that will shape our individual lives. Through our own “yes” to God, we will be open to receive His many gifts of grace.

During this Advent season, as we are waiting and preparing our hearts for Jesus, let us prepare in a special way to do God’s will. Pray that when God changes our schedules we’d be open and willing to accept this change, always aligning our will with the will of God. Let us prepare to always want to say YES! to our God. That the uniqueness of our individual “yes” may be as powerful as Mary’s fiat.

Image Credit: The Annunciation, 1742, by Agostino Masucci [Public Domain]

A Highway for Our God

There are some moments in our lives where we just feel lost and out of place. For me, the moment of complete and utter confusion happened my senior year of college. In preparation for my future, this should have been the year in which I checked off all the boxes on my master plan. But that was not the case; I checked off none. I didn’t even have a plan. I was lost. Although I knew my physical location—on the University campus—I couldn’t find myself anywhere on the map. Someone could have arranged fluorescent direction markers and flagged me down with bright orange batons and I still would not have known in which way to turn. I would have blindly walked past them, lost and uncertain with myself.

I have known about the parable of the lost sheep since I was a child—seeing this Biblical passage through the eyes of a child, I always saw a perfect, fluffy sheep in a picture book. I didn’t realize the impact in my heart this parable would make until my adulthood, when I found myself, no longer lost, in the Catholic Church.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that a shepherd has one hundred sheep and one of them goes astray and is lost. Just one. Jesus asks for our opinion, will you go in search of the lost sheep? I’m sure the disciples listening to Jesus were thinking: “Well, the man has ninety-nine other sheep left. He should be fine. He has more than what he lost. He should just let that one sheep go.” Jesus, however, continuing with the parable tells them the answer to his question: the man will leave the ninety-nine on the hill and go off in search of the one lost sheep. In the children’s picture book the shepherd and even the perfect, fluffy sheep look happy surrounded by beautiful green pastures and mountains, both underneath a beautiful blue sky. The reality, in first-century Palestine, is that a shepherd must have been crazy to leave ninety-nine sheep behind and travel the dangerous, unknown, and hard terrains of the mountains for one lonely sheep.

Who would realistically do this? God would. God would do this for you. Because out of one hundred, one thousand, one million, one billion sheep in his flock, God loves you and He will go after you.

Notice that in the parable it’s not the shepherd who loses the sheep. It’s the sheep that went astray. We are that one sheep. We expect God to love only those who listen to Him and follow His commandments. We forget that God does not love by the boundaries of this world. His love is immeasurable and powerful because God is love. Where we limit our love to those who are undeserving, where we neglect those who disobey or do not follow orders—God gives them His love. He follows these lost sheep, and when they are ready, He guides them home.

In the first reading the Israelites have been called back home after being in exile. They have been in the wilderness, and the Biblical passage describes the way they need to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem. Normally it’s a dangerous and rough journey, but God is with them in preparing the way for them to come home. Every mountain and hill is made low and the rugged lands will be made plain and easy to travel. Here is God gathering his lost sheep and leading them home.

“A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill made low; The rugged land shall be a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.”

Back in my senior year of college, my lost years, I found myself on my knees lovingly admiring the altar. The place of sacrificial love. I kept thinking about the lost sheep and painfully acknowledged that it was me. I kept thinking that I wasn’t the sheep from my childhood picture book. I wasn’t “fluffy and perfect.” I was a mess. Dirty. Broken. Defeated. I realized that I was looking at myself through the world’s eyes and wrongly thought I didn’t deserve love. But God’s love knows no boundaries. The sheep in the picture book is “perfect” because God always sees you as his perfect child. In the Catholic Church looking at Jesus on the cross, truly knowing that the good shepherd had walked through the wilderness to find me and bring me home—I believed him when he told me he loves me. God’s love is unconditional and no matter how long ago you’ve gone astray, what mountain or valley you’re lost in, no matter how deep of a mess you’ve made of things, if you haven’t gone to Mass in years, or you carry anger or guilt, nothing that you do will take away from God’s love for you. The good shepherd is in search for his lost sheep to come back home. And He will help you to “make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!

Image Credit: The Lost Sheep [Public Domain]

Casting Nets with Jesus

Implementing change in the workplace can take a long time. I work in the construction industry, and contractors are tough people. They all seem to know everything, and their way is the best way, the right way, because it’s always been done that way. However, things change. Industry standards, safety measures, construction codes—these things change.

In today’s Gospel, Simon is at the shoreline cleaning off his nets; it had been a long night and he hadn’t caught any fish. Along comes Jesus, who gets into Simon’s boat and teaches from the water to the people on the shore. After he is done teaching, Jesus instructs Simon to lower his nets into the water, and behold, the nets are full of fishes.

Simon is a fisherman—he owns his fishing boat, owns his nets, he fishes for a living, it’s his profession. Simon is a professional fisherman. When Simon goes out to fish he isn’t doing a lazy, recreational activity. He is doing hard labor: lifting heavy nets, moving bait around, dealing with waves, being dirty and smelly. A fisherman by trade knows that there is a right way to fish and a wrong way to fish. A fisherman by trade knows that certain fish bait at certain times of the day—given the climate in Israel, hot and dry, the higher temperature of the water would force the fishes to dive deep below to be at a cooler temperature. At night, the water temperature would cool off and fishes would swim upwards, closer to the surface. Simon, a professional fisherman, knew all of this and thus went fishing at night. But even with all his knowledge and tactics, he didn’t catch any fish. Imagine Simon’s first reaction when he hears Jesus tell him to cast his nets into the water. I imagine his initial reaction to be a little bit of annoyance that a carpenter is telling a fisherman how to fish and to cast nets in the middle of the day. You hear a little bit of Simon’s hesitation when he says, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing…”

How many times have you doubted that God would provide for you? How many times did you not listen to what Jesus had to say to you? Too often I’ve been like Simon at the beginning of the Gospel, doubting. I have even questioned God: “Really? Is this really how it’s supposed to be? Are you sure this is what you want me to do?”

Notice that the beginning of the Gospel begins with the people listening to the word of God. When we listen and are obedient to God’s word, we change. This change allows us to fully accept God’s grace. Simon changed when, in his obedience, he casted his nets into the deep waters: “but at your command I will lower the nets.” In that instance Simon became Simon Peter. This internal change in Simon Peter allowed him to see that Jesus was not only Master but Lord.

We need to let go of any hesitations. Let go of all doubt. Or at times we need to let go of the pride. Sitting at meetings with the subcontractors on my job always leaves me baffled. How can we finish a building without the plumber or without the electrician? We simply cannot; we need all the skilled workers. Likewise we cannot build our own homes without the foundation of Jesus Christ.

No matter what we do in our lives, what we are skilled at, how many times we have done something and succeeded or done something and failed—let’s give that up to Jesus. Let us always remain humble and listen to each other and listen to what God has to tell us. In our society we take our jobs and our volunteer positions as finite. Let us remember that we’re good at what we do because God deemed it that we’d be good at it. And our work needs to be fruitful in such a way that it glorifies God. Sometimes, we aren’t so good and we fail. That is all right. In this failure we are reminded to trust in God. When Simon couldn’t catch any fish, Jesus entered his boat and Simon Peter caught an overwhelming abundance of fish.

Allow Jesus to enter your own boat—make yourself open so he can walk into your life, and cast nets wherever he tells you to cast them.

Image Credit: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by James Tissot [Public Domain]

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]

Rooted in Love

The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher.
You are right in saying,
He is One and there is no other than he.
And to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding, 
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself

is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,
he said to him,
“You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

—Mark 12:32–34

If we truly love God with all our heart, all our understanding, and all our strength, then our natural response will be to keep His commandments—not out of a sense of guilt or mere obligation, not out of a desire to prove our worth to Him, but joyfully in love. When a person is in love, it affects their every thought and every action; when our hearts are infused with the love of God, that love will overflow into every aspect of our lives, and we will naturally desire to keep His commandments.

God commands us to love Him. By that very command, He makes it possible. He gives us the grace to love Him with a sacrificial love that echoes Jesus’s love for us on the Cross. He awakens us to recognize Him in every soul we meet. It is nearly impossible to love your neighbor as yourself if you are not already receiving God’s love, but when we have that awareness of the beauty of each soul, we can deeply and sincerely love people even when they are difficult to love.

The spiritual life is rooted in relationship; everything else flows from that. And a healthy relationship with God produces the fruit of trust in Him, from which flows obedience to His law. We must never fall into the mindset of viewing our relationship with God as transactional, consisting of a series of offerings we must make to atone for our wrongdoings or requests that we ask God to grant. God is not interested in a transactional relationship with us; He desires something much more meaningful—a close, loving, intimate relationship that wholly captivates our hearts.

Thus says the LORD:
Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God;
you have collapsed through your guilt.
Take with you words,
and return to the LORD;
Say to him, “Forgive all iniquity,
and receive what is good, that we may render
as offerings the bullocks from our stalls.
Assyria will not save us,
nor shall we have horses to mount;
We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’
to the work of our hands;
for in you the orphan finds compassion.”

I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.

—Hosea 14:2–5

Redemption in the Present Moment

Notice the contrast between today’s first reading and Gospel reading. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that if a man is outwardly righteous and makes offerings before the altar of God, yet harbors anger within, then he will be “liable to fiery Gehenna.” Meanwhile, the reading from Ezekiel tells us that if a wicked man turns away from all his sins, “he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him.” Interesting, that per Matthew our good deeds do not excuse us from our present selfishness and hatred, while per Ezekiel our past sins do not block any hope of our redemption. What matters, then, is not the track record of good deeds we can present before God but the state of our heart in the present moment.

What are the intentions behind our good deeds? Are we trying to prove our worth, to God or to others? Or does our service stem from a genuine love of God? If our good actions are merely done for show, then they are meaningless. There aren’t any shortcuts to holiness—no matter how well we “follow the rules,” we can’t become saints if we aren’t also willing to do the hard work of forgiving our neighbors and striving to see each person as a beloved child of God.

But the good news, too, is that no matter how misguided our “good deeds” have been in the past, we are never, ever too far gone to hope for heaven. There is always hope for us to turn away from selfish thinking and lukewarm faith. We cannot allow our regrets for past sins to consume us, nor our worries for the future: what matters is the present moment. Will we open our hearts to God here and now? Will we let go of our attachments to sin and instead be motivated by love? Will we address the causes of our anger and seek healing instead of bottling it up within ourselves? If we do, if we tend to the state of our heart and continually choose God in the present moment, we will surely live, we shall not die.

Toward the Light

He said,
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
—Mark 4:30–32

IMG_1982I have two plants sitting on my windowsill that have been there for two years now, and quite honestly, I’m very surprised that they’re still alive. It’s safe to say that I do not possess a green thumb, and my apartment doesn’t get a lot of sunlight. But somehow these plants have persevered—sometimes looking a little worse for the wear, yet thus far still surviving my neglect and horticultural ineptitude.

It amazes me how tall these plants can climb, upward toward the sunlight. To think that they started as just a tiny seed—a seed that contained within itself the capacity to grow and flourish—is incredible. They’ve even survived being repotted after outgrowing their containers. Their growth is not really any credit to me, as I’ve done less than the bare minimum to keep them alive. It is more a testament to the design of God, who has created beautiful things to flourish even amid adverse conditions.

In Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed, we hear how God brings tremendous growth out of tiny beginnings. We, too, are small; and yet we are created completely whole. Within each soul is the capacity for greatness. All it needs is to be nurtured by water and light, to be broken open so that roots may stretch out from its core and new buds may blossom outward into the day. We are created as tiny seeds, but we are not meant to stay that way. We are meant to climb toward sainthood.

But growth happens slowly. We must learn to be patient with ourselves and with others; our transformation will not happen overnight. We must place our trust in the Master Gardener and let Him do His work. Sometimes it may seem like we won’t survive in new soil, but really we only need to extend new roots. If we have patience through the spiritual dry spells and cold fronts (and even, perhaps, a polar vortex), God will guide us to adapt and grow through every circumstance. All we have to do is keep craning our heads upward toward the light.

“Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.”
—Pope Benedict XVI