One in the Crowd

We were talking about faith as we drove to the Frassati hike. I remember looking up at the steel grey sky, in which a thick blanket of clouds blocked the sun from shining and warming the April air. I remember thinking it was an apt analogy for my faith in God: I knew that like the sun, God was up there, but I could not see or feel His Presence.

For years I attended Frassati retreats, and watched in particular on Saturday night as people had “wow” experiences of God. I saw their faces light up, their hands raise in enthusiastic praise. I wondered if or when I would ever feel what they felt. If I would ever be able to praise from the depths of my heart, and not just from my mind and will. I felt a numbness, a paralysis in my faith life, that blocked the joy that others seemed to exude. “I am waiting for you, God!” I would pray. “When are you going to come to me?”

In today’s Gospel, a man has been lying paralyzed by a healing pool for more than 38 years. Longer than many of you reading this have been alive, he lay there, waiting. It was believed that at certain times, an angel would stir that pool at Bethesda, the Hebrew word for mercy, and whoever was first into the pool would be miraculously healed. But as the man explained to Jesus, he had nobody to help him in—and so he was never first. So he continued to wait.

I often felt like that man, lying, waiting. It seemed that God’s miracles, that His best graces, that His love—were for others, not for me.

One day, as I was being prayed over, I was told, “God is waiting for you.” What?!? I was shocked and indignant. Surely He had it backwards! I was the one waiting…

I wonder if the man in today’s Gospel felt a similar surprise, when Jesus came up to him and asked, “Do you want to be well?” I wonder if he was tempted to sarcasm, tempted to reply, “Isn’t it obvious?” I wonder if there was a touch of resignation, of hopelessness, or of whining, when he replied “There is no one to help me…” Or did the question of Jesus elicit a new hope? Did it shift something within him?

In the end, it is not the angel-stirred pool that heals the man, but the words of Jesus. Said our parish priest in today’s homily: “Jesus Himself is the healing water.”

One day, Jesus “showed up” in a big way in my life, also on a Frassati retreat, more than eight years after I first started attending. I remember sitting in the chapel, as what seemed to be a waterfall of grace fell into my hands and I felt that joy I had seen others experience.

But this was only the beginning. And in some ways, it wasn’t even that. Because as I began to grow in relationship with Jesus, I began to see He had been healing me all along. I was looking for the miraculous, for “rushing waters”—but so often, growth and healing is the slower process that we see in nature. Sometimes this takes place underground, unseen, or hidden in the womb. Even when it emerges, change and growth is often gentle and slow.

It was only when I committed to a daily prayer time, when I set a designated time for dialog with God each day, that I began to both receive and perceive deeper healing. This was a time for God to ask His questions: “What are you looking for? What do want me to do for you? Do you want to be well? Whom is it that you seek?”

It is in the person of Christ that we find healing. It is Love alone that made us, and that makes us new. It is not something that we earn, or that the angels do for us. It is the gift of a Person.

I recently attended a week-long healing retreat in Florida. I experienced some healing there—but also found God showing me even more areas that still needed to be healed. And it was clear that my impatience with waiting has not improved in the last decade. I was discussing this with a friend on the phone—how I wanted to get on with it already. She knows me and reminded me, “You can’t perform surgery on yourself!” “Ugh,” I replied, “Just hand me the scalpel already!”

Sr. Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, who also spoke on our retreat, was familiar with this frustration. “I often come with my long list of things I want God to heal,” she admits. “But then I hear Him say, ‘You are not problem to be fixed. You are a person to be loved.’”

One of the biggest wounds that needed healing in my life was the lie that God’s goodness and love were for others, but not for me. I have come to recognize this as a not uncommon strategy of the Opposition Voice: that for those who do not doubt God’s reality and goodness in general, he tempts them to doubt it in the particular.

The man in the story was one among many at the pool that day. There was a whole crowd of people waiting to be healed. But for Jesus, we are always the one: the one He calls; the one He loves; the one He wants to heal.

In his monthly introduction to the Magnificat, Rev. Sebastian White, O.P. noted another curious thing about the healing of the paralyzed man. Unlike the blind man who leaves his cloak behind, the paralyzed man is told to “Take up his mat and walk.” Why not leave it?

As Father White says: “…the Lord leaves him with the constant reminder of his former condition. Lugging around his silly mat might have been annoying—a battle even—but I bet that man never forgot he depended on Jesus.” (Magnificat Editorial, April 2019, pp. 4-5)

Awaiting the King’s Return

“Walk no more in the shadows, but awake!” said Aragorn. “You are weary. Rest a while, and take food, and be ready when I return.”

“I will, lord,” said Faramir. “For who would lie idle when the king has returned?”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, which commemorates Christ naming his apostle Peter as the rock upon which he would build his Church (Mt 16:13-19). This man was the first to fill the chair that would come to symbolize the office of the pope as the bishop of Rome. An actual, ancient chair known as the Cathedra Petri is enthroned in the back of St. Peter’s Basilica to this day. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “It is a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity” (Angelus, Feb. 19, 2012).

St. Peter was not perfect. He was not learned, like St. Paul, or even remembered as the beloved disciple, like St. John. From the start, he tells Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). When called out on the water, he doubts and begins to sink (Mt 14:30-31). Even after receiving his office, when he rebukes Jesus about the first prediction of his passion, Jesus does not hold back in his response, unleashing words more painful than the ones with which he addressed the scribes and Pharisees. He says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). Later, during that very passion, St. Peter would not be standing at the foot of the cross with Our Lady and St. John—he would deny Jesus not just once, but three times, and his denial would end in bitter tears.

However, St. Peter’s imperfections were not the whole story. We don’t remember saints for being perfect: we remember them for their humility, their perseverance, and their self-sacrificial love. This kind of life was the mission Christ called St. Peter to, knowing the shadows of his weaknesses, knowing that the tears of denial would come. After the resurrection, in John 21:15-19, St. Peter is asked three times to love Jesus and to care for his sheep, and he responds this time with humble love—a love which would later lead to his own crucifixion. He persevered to the end as a shepherd of his flock, as a faithful steward, pointing others to Christ as the best man rejoices in and points to the bridegroom, and received an “unfading crown of glory” (1 Pt 5:4).

Other stewards of the King have come and gone. Some have been saints while others have failed the flock they were sworn to protect. But, through any weariness, sickness, or sorrow, the Church stands firm. We rest in the knowledge that “he knows what he is about” (Bl. John Henry Newman), and that the “gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). We take food—his very Body and Blood, given up for us in his passion and shared with us each time we participate in the Mass—and receive courage for what lies ahead. We watch and we wait as a bride eagerly awaits her bridegroom, longing to see his face, knowing that our “hearts will rejoice, and no one will take [our] joy” (Jn 16:22). Our Lord is our King, our Shepherd—and there is nothing more we could want.

 

Listening

A Fr. Mike Schmitz homily about St. Peter: https://bulldogcatholic.org/02-10-19-disqualified-unfit/

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

Two Minutes

We were thrilled when my little niece Zippy first began to speak in words we could understand.  From baby babble emerged the first recognizable vocabulary: “Mamma”; “Dadda”; “’nanna (banana)” and “shoes.”  However, when she said, early and audibly, “Two minutes!” we were both greatly surprised and greatly amused.

At age two Zippy still says “Two minutes!” and it is clear that while she has mastered the pronunciation, the actual meaning of the phrase still eludes her.  At times, she recognizes it as a stall tactic.  “Zippy, can I please have my phone back?” I ask.  “Two minutes!” Zippy replies, meaning I must wait.  However,  “Zippy talk two minutes!” means “Zippy wants the phone, NOW, this minute.”  She will ask to hear a song: “One!” by which she means, “One after another,” and listening for “Two minutes!” in that situation translates as “indefinitely…”

In general, the concept of time is confusing if not meaningless to two year-olds.  “I will be back tomorrow” does not console her; she throws herself on the floor, bereft.  (Yes, I am that cool).  “Later” is just a code word for “no.”  And she certainly doesn’t understand “this is not the time to sing” when she breaks out into “Baby Shark” during the Christmas homily, particularly when such a large crowd has gathered to hear her performance.

If the concept of human time is puzzling to toddlers, the concept of God’s timing is equally puzzling to us, even as adults.  I confess that when God says “Wait!” I do not always react well. 

I remember in college that God promised that a particular prayer intention would be answered, but that I must wait.  I thought, “Okay, I have a few minutes.”  Eighteen years later, His answer exceeded my expectations, but I learned the hard way that His time-frame did too.

Even now, I too am tempted to tantrums when God says, “Wait.”  I find myself bereft when He seems absent, wondering if I will ever seem Him again.  And when I pray for solutions to the problems of life, and they don’t come quickly enough, I wonder if He is listening.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is preaching in a synagogue in Capernaum when he is interrupted by a snarky demon.  “I know who you are…the holy one of God!” declares the demon.  Jesus first silences him, then drives him out.  “Quiet!  Come out of him!”  Jesus commands in Mark 1:24.

Why doesn’t Jesus want the crowd to hear this declaration?  A few verses later, in Mark 1:34, we again hear of Jesus specifically preventing the demons from revealing his identity: “He healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was.”

If Jesus has come to reveal His identity as the Son of God, why silence the demons?  Or perhaps a more interesting question: What would the demons have to gain by revealing it? 

It is the mystery of timing again.  God’s timing is perfect.  Patience is a virtue that we do well to cultivate.  But more importantly, the mystery of timing reveals another mystery: that the Christian life is about relationship, not results.

The answer to Jesus’ identity is not a bit of trivia, or even a theological proposition to answer correctly on an exam.  We come to know Him as He is WITH US (Emmanuel again).  Jesus wants the people to come to know God as revealed by His person, not just as a match to their expectations. 

His healings, His miracles, His teachings, and ultimately His gift of self on the Cross and in the Eucharist, reveal to us the face of God.  It is encounter that teaches us, and encounter that changes us. 

We need to hear Him say, to the leper within, “I do will—be healed.”  We need to experience the gaze of the loving eyes which behold the sinful woman weeping at his feet, to hear him say, as to the woman caught in adultery “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and sin no more.”  We need to watch Him calm the storms without and within; to cast out demons and welcome back outcasts; to feed with a new Manna that is both Presence and Promise.

We want to rush ahead to the solution, to the answer: Who is this guy preaching in the synagogue? What does He plan to do to/for us?  But Jesus wants us to experience His presence.  To walk with Him, to listen, to question, to learn not only His message but His heart.

*            *            *

Over Christmas vacation I take Zippy on a walk to the library.  It is a two-minute walk if one goes directly.  But there is so much to experience along the way: leftover snow to touch, steps to climb up and down, puppies to shriek at delightedly and try to pet.  She wants to see her breath in the air; she wants to see what is in the half-frozen puddle in the driveway; she wants to pick up pebbles and watch them dance as she throws them on the path.  She wants to run and then be carried and then put down so she can meander down the sidewalk.  If we don’t make it all the way to the library; that’s okay.  Life is short.  Just two minutes.

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.

Rejoicing in the Waiting

This Advent, I’ve discovered a newfound love for the hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” There is such a richness and beauty to these words of yearning and aching for our Savior. Even just the word “O” at the beginning of each verse is filled with longing. In the chorus, the song instructs us to rejoice because God will come to save His people. This is important—songs like “Joy to the World” are about rejoicing because the Lord has come, but “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is about rejoicing in the waiting—waiting for Jesus’ second coming, waiting for an answered prayer, waiting for healing, waiting for God to show us where He is calling us to next—whatever it may be.

This third week of Advent, we are called to rejoice because we are *almost* to Christmas, not because we’ve already made it. We’re called to rejoice in the uncomfortability of waiting, of that in-between place. For some people, myself included sometimes, being close to the end of a season of waiting can bring more anxiety than joy because of the lingering voices of doubts and what ifs.

But God’s promises are true. The Lord is near, and when we trust that He will complete the good work He has begun in us (Philippians 1:6), how can we not rejoice?

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, we hear the genealogy of Jesus, from Abraham all the way to St. Joseph. Fourteen generations of hopeful expectation, of messiness and imperfection, of striving to seek the Lord and listen to His will. When we look at the lives of the people in Jesus’ family tree in Scripture, we can see God’s hand at work bringing about His divine plan of salvation, though they may not have seen it at the time. But yet they trusted, and they rejoiced, even when things were hard. Infertility, betrayal, broken marriages, and war are just some of the trials that are found within Jesus’ ancestors. They were not immune to suffering, yet they rejoiced and trusted in God. Fourteen generations of the small and great surrenders of ordinary people to God’s will every day, all to fulfill His greatest work of our salvation.

There is the distinct difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is fleeting; joy is everlasting. Joy comes from being rooted in the truth that we are infinitely loved by God as His sons and daughters, that we are created in His image for a purpose, and that He will never forsake us, no matter what suffering we face. St. John Paul II said, “True joy is a victory, something which cannot be obtained without a long and difficult struggle. Christ holds the secret of this victory.” Joy comes from a place of steadfast trust in God, that no matter what, He is with us and is working for our good.

Brothers and sisters, I don’t know if this has been a difficult Advent season for you, or if things have been going well. I know for many this time of year is painful. But we can rejoice in the One who was, and is, and is to come—Christ our Savior.

Saturday night, I went to Adoration, and the church was dark except for candles that were lit and a spotlight on the monstrance. In the middle of the Holy Hour, the spotlight suddenly went out. But that did not mean that Jesus wasn’t there. He was still there, in the dark, even though it was hard to see Him. He was still there, loving us, calling us to seek Him, calling us to draw even closer. May we rejoice in the waiting and darkness of our own lives, confident that He is with us!

O Emmanuel, in our unsure journeys, we rejoice, secure in You. In whatever waiting we’re going through, we rejoice. We rejoice because You call us Yours. We rejoice in the gift of Your Incarnation. We rejoice in Your dying and rising for us. We rejoice that You are always sustaining us and never leave us. O come, O come, Emmanuel! Amen.