The Egg and the Rock

Today’s Gospel seems to tell a Tale of Two Peters. Jesus asks his disciples the pivotal question: “Who do you say that I am?” It is Peter who proclaims in reply: “You are the Christ!”

Peter is able to see supernaturally, beyond the humanity of Jesus to His divinity. God will continue to reveal to him what is more than human, and so give him the grace to lead the Church.

But like yesterday’s story of the blind man whose ability to see comes in two stages, Peter is still blind to the full mission of the Christ he has just professed.

Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this He turned around and, looking at His disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Mark 8:31-33)

It is easy with 21st century hindsight to scoff at Peter’s blindness. We who know the good of Good Friday, the joy of Easter Sunday, the promise filled at Pentecost—we can accept the mangled God on the cross, perhaps a little too easily. We can shrug off the scandal of suffering. We wear the cross around our necks, hang it above the doorway, see it every Sunday on the altar at Mass.

One of the most powerful, but deeply dark and disturbing stories that I have ever read, is told by Stephen Mosher in A Mother’s Ordeal. The book follows the story of Chi An, who comes of age during the Communist Revolution in China, and whose life later becomes entangled with China’s brutal One-Child Policy.

It is not an easy story to read, not just because of the shocking cruelty and violence, but because it lacks a comfortable division between victim and perpetrator. Chi An was both.

Following the birth of her son, Chi An became pregnant a second time, in violation of the population agreement she had been forced to sign on her wedding day. When her pregnancy was discovered, population control officers compelled her to go to the hospital to have an abortion. She and her husband were heartbroken, but reluctantly complied. “How can an egg break a rock?” her husband asked sadly.

In her pain, however, (or perhaps in part because of it?) she went on to implement the very policies which had cost her her child—and which had now become the infamous One-Child Policy. “By now my envy of women with more than one child had hardened into something akin to resentment,” she admits. Her primary role was to convince women to agree to abortion or sterilization voluntarily—but if they did not agree, more drastic measures were taken.

She became a primary enforcer of both mandatory sterilization and abortion. The stories that she tells are deeply horrifying. Women were subjected to extreme pressures to give in to “remedial measures” but when they did not comply, abortions were done anyway by force—even in the ninth month, even during labor. When one baby boy survived even that, she watched as the doctor quickly took care of it.

At one low point, Chi An’s own best friend Ah Fang went into hiding to protect her unborn child. Chi An ruthlessly tracked her down, finding her in her last month of pregnancy. When labor began, Ah Fang begged Chi An not to call anyone, to look the other way until her child was safe. Chi An did not.

Later, her doings caught up with her, as Chi An herself became pregnant with an illegal child. She sought asylum in America (where she was living temporarily due to her husband’s work). Even from afar the Chinese government exerted pressure to abort, threatening not only her but those she loved back in China with all sorts of punishments. She became again a victim of the same policies she had worked to enforce. As she fought to save her daughter, the guilt and grief over all of the horror that she had participated in began to fill her life. “’What right do I have to have this child’, I thought bitterly, ‘while so many others have lost theirs?’”

Chi An found no way to escape the pain of her past: “‘What good is your regret?’ I sneered at my newly awakened conscience. ‘How does it help the troubled and despairing women, now forever barren, who you tortured, aborted and sterilized?’”

One day, to her surprise, her husband suggested they go to church. She had no experience with Christianity—her family was atheist, and her husband’s family had been either atheist or Buddhist. Yet one Sunday she found herself in Saint Michael’s Catholic Church and, for the first time, was confronted with the crucifixion.

I was fascinated by the painful figure on the cross above the altar. Why would anyone worship a dead god? I thought to myself. Chinese gods were always robust and happy…the idea of a dead God was simply absurd. Surely the fact that this man had been killed proved that he wasn’t a God at all. Who would want to kowtow before a defeated creature, I thought, unless he was not a mere a creature at all but the Creator? But then why had he allowed himself to die? It was almost beyond belief, certainly beyond the human imagination. The wildest dreams of human beings, I was sure, could not have begun to conjure up a dead God. Perhaps there was something to this after all.

I remembered the hundreds of women who I had forced to have abortions, how they had writhed and screamed and cried. I remembered my own abortion, how I had writhed and screamed and cried. If this tortured figure was God, then surely he felt and understood the pain I had felt and caused. Was there in his death some larger meaning?

…Months later, I made my first confession—and felt at peace with myself for a long time. The little hands that had been clawing at me could no longer reach me in the new place where I lived. My mind laid the little-boy-who-would-not-die to his rest. From now on the only cries that would wake me at night were that of my newborn daughter.

I was forgiven, but justice demanded that I do more…how could I help women still in China? I resolved to begin by telling Steve my story, however painful that might be, so that he might write it.

Applegate crucifix

*You can read Chi An’s story in its entirety in A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy by Stephen Mosher, published in 1993.  For those readers who have Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, this book is currently available as a free selection.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rejection

Rejection is part of life; everyone has experienced it to some extent. It is easy to take rejection and give in to depression, allowing the rejection to influence our lives in an intensified depressed state. What we must remember is that rejection is just as significant in the Lord’s plan for our lives as the successes we encounter in our lives. The path Jesus Christ followed here on earth was determined by rejection. In the passage from the Gospel of Luke for today, He is rejected by the Samaritans, one of the few times in the gospels that Samaritans were actually portrayed in a negative light. Although the disciples want to rebuke the Samaritans, Jesus moved on towards Jerusalem. Jesus knew His fate and that a greater rejection awaited Him on the cross. The rejection of the Samaritans was a sign to Him of what was to come.

As Christians, we are not promised an easy journey through life. If we truly want to follow the path of Jesus, we have to expect rejection, but we should not take on negativity–quite the opposite. With every rejection, we should challenge ourselves to look for the will of God. What is God trying to tell me? What can I learn from this? Rejection can sometimes be seen as a “roadblock” keeping us from what we want to do and where we want to go. It may be a roadblock, but it might be blocking us from what we believe is the right direction but in reality is not the best way for us to follow. Embrace these rejections and move forward, confident that the Lord kept you from taking the wrong path.

“Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” —Zechariah 8:23

As long as we seek the Lord in everything we do, we can be certain in faith that we are going in the right direction towards our own Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus knew the road to Jerusalem was the road to His death on the cross, but that death, however, would bring salvation to the entire world.

It is Easy

“Brothers and sisters:
I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,
and in my flesh I am filling up
what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ
on behalf of his Body, which is the Church.” –Colossians 1:24

I sadly don’t have many memories of my grandma before she got sick. She was diagnosed with Alzheimers and Parkinson’s when I was young, and her memory started to quickly fade.

My grandfather was heroic through it all, insisting on caring for her himself until it was absolutely necessary for her to have round the clock care from medical professionals. There was one night where she had gotten up and fallen so many times that my grandpa finally decided to just lie on the floor next to her for the rest of the night until morning.

When she was really sick, my family went to visit to help out for several days. All of us felt the exhaustion of caring for my grandma, coupled with the pain of seeing her suffer so much. My dad asked my grandpa, “How do you do it?” My grandpa immediately and simply replied, “It’s easy. She’s my wife.”

This is the beauty of the sacrificial love that Christ calls us to. All too often I find myself giving into anxiety and doubt in moments of suffering. But Christ calls us higher, to rejoice in our sufferings for the sake of other people. In all things, He is here! May we not waste a single moment of our suffering!

A Sacrifice of Praise

“Lord, I am your servant,
your servant, the child of your maidservant;
you have loosed my bonds.
I will offer a sacrifice of praise
and call on the name of the LORD.”
– Psalm 116:16–1

Many years ago, a Dominican friar told us—a group of fairly naïve college students—that we would wish we had suffered more once we came to the end of our lives. Back then, sitting in that dimly lit church, anxiously awaiting the day of our total consecration to Jesus through Mary, how could we have understood his words? For, as St. Paul writes in today’s first reading, we are suffering; we are afflicted. The whole world “is groaning in labor pains even until now” (Romans 8:22), whether these pains are from illness, poverty, loneliness, loss, betrayal, our own struggles and sins, or even death itself. We are perplexed—we don’t understand how our loving Father could allow such sorrow, and we may never know the whole story behind the problem of pain on this side of Heaven.

What do we know? Let’s start at the beginning. This valley of tears was not God’s original plan for us, not before the fall. Yet, even when we chose to hide our faces from him, his love was so great that he devised a plan more wonderful than we could have ever imagined. He chose to suffer with us, dying in the most horrific way possible, to loosen our bonds, to open the gates of Heaven, and to lead us home. And, as St. Pope John Paul II says, Christ’s passion gave our pain a supernatural value. “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his sufferings, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris). Think about it. This world may very well be that valley of tears. But, every tear now has meaning and power when united to his sufferings. Our prayers and sacrifices, whether they are St. Therese of Lisieux–sized or St. Teresa of Calcutta–sized, will help bring our brothers and sisters home to Love itself.

Even if this is all a mystery, and the pain is too great—we do not have to bear it alone. From his cross, at the height of his passion, Christ gave us Mary, his mother, to be our mother. And, he gave us to Mary to be her children—just as he tells his Father “they are your gift to me” (John 17:24), we are a gift to Mary! St. Louis de Montfort writes, “As in the natural life a child must have a father and a mother, so in the supernatural life of grace a true child of the Church must have God for his Father and Mary for his mother” (True Devotion to Mary). We are the spiritual children of the handmaiden of the Lord, whose own heart was pierced by a sword of sorrow. We can run to her in complete trust, asking for her intercession, weeping with her each step of the way, “closely united to Him unto the Cross, and so that every form of suffering, given fresh life by the power of the Cross, should become no longer the weakness of man but the power of the Cross” (Salvifici Doloris).

If that wasn’t enough, Christ found a way to physically stay with us “always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). How? Precisely through what is described in today’s psalm: a sacrifice of praise—the Eucharist, Body and Blood, together with the Soul and Divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we read in the catechism, “The Eucharist is the heart and the summit of the Church’s life, for in it Christ associates his Church and all her members with his sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered once for all on the cross to his Father; by this sacrifice he pours out the graces of salvation on his Body which is the Church” (CCC 1407). We even hear this as the priest says Eucharistic prayer 4: “We offer You His Body and Blood, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world. Lord, look upon this sacrifice which You have given to Your Church; and gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one Body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise.”

Death may be at work in us, as St. Paul writes, but life is also present, and this life grows every time we receive the Eucharist, a living sacrifice of praise. Our hearts are changed when we receive him in the Blessed Sacrament and cooperate with grace, so that his life “may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). Our hearts become more like his heart as they too are taken, blessed, and broken, meant to be shared through the tears—and meant to be filled with his joy, another mystery. As C.S. Lewis writes, “Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it” (A Grief Observed). Our grief can, miraculously enough, become joy when united to his, just as Christ told his apostles at the Last Supper when he instituted the Eucharist.

This life is full of suffering, yes, but there is also joy, even if that joy is tinged with the greatest sorrow. Call on his name and try to remember that the tears have power, even if your heart is breaking. Receive his own heart, blessed and broken in the Eucharist. Trust in the love of your mother, who always leads you to her Son, who is himself the answer to all our questions. As Lewis says, “What other answer would suffice?” What other answer could? Maybe we will someday be able to echo the words of St. Paul when he says, “I find joy in the sufferings I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). And maybe, just maybe, we will someday be able to wish we had suffered more, as our hearts cry out of love for our brothers and sisters, with a love a little bit more like his.

Totus Tuus.

 

Reading Suggestions
St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of PainA Grief Observed, Till We Have Faces
Fr. Paul A. Duffner, O.P., Redemptive Suffering
St. Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris

A Posture of Humility

This week, I helped facilitate the confession line for a group of middle schoolers. Many were nervous; several had not gone to confession in years. I tried to help settle their nerves and calm their fears before going in, assuring them of God’s great mercy and that there was nothing to be scared about. A few children inspired me with their eagerness to enter the confessional—one who hadn’t been in six years, as well as one who had just gone last week. They didn’t allow any apprehensions to hold them back from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. They simply went forward with a sincere trust that by humbling themselves before God, they would experience grace. And what inspired me the most was that all these kids, even the ones who were most nervous, came out of the confessional beaming with joy and relief.

Kneeling in the shadows of the confessional, coming face to face with the reality of our sin and articulating it aloud—this is not something that demeans or diminishes us. Rather, it ennobles us, for it unites us more closely with our Creator as part of His Divine Body. By kneeling down and making ourselves small, we become part of a greater whole. Yet many of us hesitate to take this posture of humility. Sometimes a sense of perfectionism holds us back from admitting our mistakes, even to ourselves. But this sort of perfectionism is ultimately rooted in fear—that our faults will make others think less of us, or that God will be disappointed in us (as if He doesn’t already know all that we’ve done!). So instead of confessing our sins, we live in denial of their existence—and then we never receive the graces that will help us overcome them. We never come to understand that our goodness does not come from ourselves, but from the God who loves us so much that He laid down His life to redeem us in our sinfulness.

Jesus Himself has taken the ultimate postures of humility: on the Cross, with His arms spread open in surrender; and in the Eucharist, where He comes to us as Bread and Wine, food for us to consume. Through these gestures of love, He offers Himself as a gift to us. His arms are open wide to receive us; His Flesh nourishes and strengthens our souls. He offers His Body, broken and crushed, to heal us of our own brokenness:

For my Flesh is true food,
and my Blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood
remains in me and I in him.
—John 6:55–56

This week I also mourned the passing of John Aroutiounian, with whom I co-taught a Confirmation class three years ago. I was so moved by his eulogy, which reflects on the mystery of redemptive suffering and illustrates the fullness and meaning of his short life. John was very intelligent, had multiple prestigious degrees, and likely would have gone on to have a remarkable career. Yet when presented with a more humble calling—to suffer deeply, to physically waste away, to witness to the strength of the human spirit and the dignity of life even amidst great affliction, and to lay down his life at just 26 years old—he did not hesitate to embrace this cross. During his life, John fought to defend the dignity of every human life—even our enemies, even those who are inconvenient to us. He was a pro-life advocate and volunteered as a suicide hotline counselor. He believed at his core that life, every life, was worth living, and that each human soul has incalculable, eternal worth. He gave no greater witness to this conviction than through his own suffering and death.

We all have a natural desire to protect and shelter ourselves and our loved ones against suffering. However, it is through those painful experiences that we encounter the true meaning of our existence. Only when brought to our knees by suffering do we realize how deeply we must depend on God. A happy, complacent life can cause us to forget that, in the words of St. Thérèse, this world is our ship, not our home. We are meant for something greater; our deepest desires will not find fulfillment in this world but point us to the fulfillment that awaits us in heaven. And the path to heaven is through the Cross, following in the footsteps of our Redeemer.

Indeed, the fear of suffering can be worse than actual suffering. For when God allows us to suffer, He provides the graces in that moment to bear crosses we never thought we could carry, as long as we surrender to Him, acknowledge our own weakness, and trust that He will use every second of our pain for His divine purpose. Only by lowering ourselves into the depths of our humanity can we be raised into the divine Light. If we accept our crosses with a posture of humility, our suffering will surely bear fruit.

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

Tears

“Thus says the LORD:
Lo, I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
The things of the past shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness
in what I create;
For I create Jerusalem to be a joy
and its people to be a delight;
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and exult in my people.
No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there,
or the sound of crying;
No longer shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not round out his full lifetime;
He dies a mere youth who reaches but a hundred years,
and he who fails of a hundred shall be thought accursed.
They shall live in the houses they build,
and eat the fruit of the vineyards they plant.” -Isaiah 65:17-21

Today’s first reading is a little reprieve of hope in the midst of Lent, a reminder of what is to come. A reminder that suffering is never the end of our story, that God brings about resurrections from our seasons of suffering and the ultimate resurrection from all our pain in the hope of the eternal life Christ won for us.

“No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there, or the sound of crying.” This reminds me of the line from the Psalms where it says that God collects our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:9). One of my friends and I joke about a bottle not being big enough for God to collect our tears, but that instead we have bathtubs full. Why would God collect our tears? Why would God make it a point to tell us through the prophets that in Heaven there will be no more weeping?

Because our suffering matters to God, and He wants us to know that it is not in vain. Our suffering is sacred to the God who suffered it all for us. Jesus didn’t have to suffer and die for us, but He did so He could understand our pain and so when we suffer, we wouldn’t ever have to be alone in it. His suffering meant an eventual end to ours, that Heaven could be opened for us.

In Heaven there will be no more tears of sorrow, no more pain. Every ounce of hurt and betrayal will be redeemed and atoned for. Every wound healed. Every sin taken away. Revel in that glory for a second. That is how much we’re loved by our Father. That’s what this Lenten journey is all about. Earth is not our home. Heaven heals. And in the meantime? God counts every single tear. We don’t even know how many tears we cry, but He does. He holds each one as precious and sacred, collecting them and not letting them go to waste. He is not absent in our tears; He is here.

Ponder the marvels of Heaven today, and allow God’s glory to reorient your hope.

P.S. My song recommendation of the day is one of the most beautiful choral hymns based on the first reading and a similar passage in Revelation, “And I Saw a New Heaven” by Edgar Bainton. Listen for the part where they sing, “And God shall wipe away all tears.” Enjoy!