Monday, April 17, 2017

Beating the Easter Monday Blues

The overriding sentiment which prevails at my house and in my heart each Easter Monday is the same.  It is finished.  The long 40 days of Lenten fasting, prayer and penance are completed.  The late nights of the Triduum liturgies are over.  Crumbs of the traditional Italian Easter bread and a handful of neon colored peeps are all that remain from Easter dinner. He is Risen indeed – so why does Easter Monday always get me down?

The Antidote

Pope Francis provides the antidote to my Easter Monday blues in his weekly audience which took place on Wednesday of Holy Week, 2015. The Holy Father highlights the “Easter Triduum of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ” as the “culmination of the Liturgical Year.”  He goes on to describe each of the events of the Triduum, their significance, and the direction they provide for living an authentic Christian life – one lived in imitation of the Paschal Mystery.

The Triduum is not merely a once a year reflection on events past.  It does not end on Easter Monday, or even at the conclusion of the Easter season.  Instead the Triduum is a mystery meant to be lived out every day, most perfectly in our participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

In his exposition of the Triduum, the Pope encourages the faithful to live out the virtues exemplified by our Lord Jesus  – different virtues for each event, united under the overarching virtue par excellence – love.

Holy Thursday: Christ the Servant

Pope Francis begins by reflecting on the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday saying:

“… the Gospel of this celebration expresses the same meaning of the Eucharist under another perspective. Jesus – as a servant – washes the feet of Simon Peter and the other eleven disciples (Cf. John 13:4-5). With this prophetic gesture, He expresses the meaning of his life and of his Passion, as service to God and to brothers: “For the Son of man has come not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).”
The Pope explains that by virtue of our Baptism, we too are called to imitate “Christ the Servant.” We are not merely to be casual observers of Jesus’ act of washing the feet of the apostles – sitting back and nodding in approval. The Holy Father stresses instead that we are to examine our consciences with regard to Jesus’ gesture of humility, service and love – challenging us with the following:

“If we approach Holy Communion without being sincerely disposed to wash one another’s feet, we do not recognize the Body of the Lord. It is Jesus’ service, giving himself totally.”
Good Friday: The Blood of the Martyrs

In speaking about Good Friday, Pope Francis encourages us to imitate not only the total self-giving sacrifice of our Lord, but also to imitate those “men and women in the course of the centuries, who with the testimony of their life reflect a ray of this perfect, full, uncontaminated love.”  The martyrs in particular, the Pope points out, “offer their life with Jesus to confess the faith” and in doing so provide a “service of Christian witness to the point of blood.”

Holy Saturday: Mary, Our Mother

The Holy Father highlights our Blessed Mother as the model of the virtue of hope – hope that continued even on the darkest of days – Holy Saturday.

Father Raniero Cantalamessa, in reflections on our Lord’s passion, describes the intensity of Mary’s hope: “ she hoped in God when she saw the last human reason for hope disappear.” No other day in human history tempts the world to despair as much as the silence of Holy Saturday.

The readings from the Liturgy of the Hours tell us: “The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh…”

Mary’s witness to us encourages us to persevere in hope, even when we are experiencing our own dark days.  Father Cantalamessa sums up what our response should be when darkness covers our corner of the earth: “When this hour arrives, remember Mary’s faith and pray , ‘Father, I no longer understand you, but I trust you!’”

Pope Francis concluded his audience by exhorting the church:

“…in these days of the Holy Triduum, let us not limit ourselves to commemorating the Lord’s Passion, but let us enter in the mystery, let us make his sentiments are own, his attitudes, as the Apostle Paul invites us to do: ”Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).”

There are no Monday morning blues on Easter Monday when we choose to truly “enter the mystery” that we have just concluded celebrating in the Triduum. Easter is not an end of the celebration but rather,  a new beginning – another opportunity to imitate the Lord, to grow in virtue, to live the mystery.

Quotes from Father Cantalamessa are from “The Fire of Christ’s Love – Meditations on the Cross”  Word on Fire Press

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How To Be Successful At Lent

If I had to list my most "successful" Lents I would probably say the following ranked as the top three:
  1. The year I gave up shopping and did really well except for the pair of shoes that I bought and hid in my desk at work until Easter so my husband wouldn't notice them.  I sure did save a lot of money that year!  
  2. The year that I gave up coffee and no one at work wanted to speak to me before Noon.  Boy did that one require perseverance-especially on the part of  my co-workers. I did kick that nasty caffeine habit, though!
  3. Finally, there was the year I gave up grated parmesan cheese - what a major sacrifice for this Italian girl.  I practically top brownies with that stuff.  Talk about HOLY!!!  Plus, I lost a few pounds that year as well!  
Epic successes, all of them. Well done, Debbie. 

The problem is, Lent isn't about being successful.  Or about saving money. Or about losing weight. Lent is a matter of the heart. The celebration of Ash Wednesday begins with a reading from the book of Joel in which the Lord, speaking through the prophet Joel exhorts us to:

"Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting weeping and mourning. 
Rend your hearts and not your garments. (Joel 2:12-13

In the Psalm for Ash Wednesday, we read David's cries to the Lord, begging Him for his mercy after he has been caught in the grievous sin of arranging to have his lover's husband killed.

"Create in me a clean heart, O God." (Psalm 51:10)

Within the Daytime Prayer of the Liturgy of the House we read from Ezekiel:

"Cast away from you all the crimes you have committed, 
and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit." (Exekiel 18:31)

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? In all of these readings, we are being urged to seek the Lord with our heart first. Furthermore, the condition our heart is in is also important: our hearts must be clean, pure, new, and whole. God doesn't want half of our heart. He doesn't want a heart intent on performing religious actions with an ulterior, self-serving motive. The Lord wants all of our heart and he wants us to surrender it to Him freely and  for the right reasons - out of love, thanksgiving and adoration.  The common failure of all my Lenten "successes" was that I had not given the Lord my heart. My resolutions focused on what the fasting would do for me. I was successful because I achieved my goals, but success was not what God was asking of me.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that fasting during Lent isn't important. Fasting is a key element of the three-fold practice of Lent which also includes prayer and alsmgiving. In the Gospel for Ash Wednesday Jesus warns of having the right motives when you fast, when you pray and when you give alms. (Matthew 6:2-16). The implication in his use of the word when is that all three of these practices will be observed. Jesus' warning is about the motive behind these practices. He is looking at the heart.

My prayer in the trenches of everyday life during this Lenten season is not that I am successful at fasting, prayer or almsgiving, but rather that, through the Lord's grace, Lent truly becomes a matter of the heart.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Life Lessons From Saint Peter

I LOVE St. Peter. The Scriptural accounts of the missteps of this outspoken, hot-tempered, passionate first Pope reveal a man who is flawed and weak. I can relate. Equally, the Scriptures reveal to us  a man whose life has been thoroughly transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit - his flaws are remade into his greatest strengths. I can relate.

St. Peter's life, like that of all the Saints, opens up to us a litany of examples that we can both meditate upon and imitate in our own striving for the heights of holiness in the trenches of everyday life.

Let's look at seven life lessons that we can draw from St. Peter. 

Grace builds on nature.
Boldness was a gift that Peter possessed in abundance - a gift that made him a natural born leader. The problem with natural gifts is that they are not always directed to the right ends or exercised in the right manner. Time and time again, Peter's natural gift of boldness landed him in hot water with the Lord. See Mt 16:22-23 and Jn 13: 6-11 for two examples.

Natural gifts need supernatural grace to purify them and build upon them. After Pentecost, Peter's natural gifts had been anointed by the Holy Spirit and we see his propensity for bold statements now transformed into his ability to preach the core Gospel message (the kerygma) in power. (Acts 2:14-37) Like Peter, we too need to ask the Lord for the anointing of the Holy Spirit to transform our natural gifts and talents into ones that will bear supernatural fruit.

Fear blocks faith. 
Perhaps one of the best-loved stories from the scriptures is that of Peter walking on the water. Here we see Peter, walking across the stormy sea at Jesus' command. This courageous act of faith is quickly overcome by the paralyzing grip of fear when Peter's eyes drift from Jesus to the wind and the waves which surround him. He begins to sink. (Mt 14:27-33)

Like Peter, I too have had moments in my relationship with Jesus where my faith and trust has led me to "walk on water". Similarly, I can recall far too many episodes in my own life where my focus has been on the wind and the waves around me and I have hit bottom like a lead brick. This Gospel account teaches us so many lessons, but perhaps the one that strikes me the most is that fear is a block to faith. When we allow our fears of "what could happen" or even "what should happen" to block our faith, we effectively block the power of grace. The Lord knows this and the words "Be not afraid" are one of the most often-repeated phrases in all of the Scriptures. In moments of conflict between fear and faith, let us ask St. Peter for his intercession to help us keep our eyes on Jesus and continue to walk on water.

No sin too great for the Lord's mercy.
Denying the Lord is a grave sin. Jesus, in a discourse directed to the Apostles, warns them of the consequences of such a denial: "But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father" .(Mt. 10:33)  He directly foretells Peter's denial to him. (Lk 22:34) In spite of these warnings, Peter does indeed succumb to his own weakness and vehemently denies that he knows Jesus three times. (Lk 22: 54-62)

Luke's Gospel relates to us that immediately after his denials, the "Lord turned and looked at Peter." (Lk 22:61). I can only imagine that look of love and mercy - of sheer compassion that Jesus gave to Peter in that moment. A look which expressed his desire to forgive Peter and his knowledge of the great potential inside Peter in spite of his outward failings. No sin is above the mercy of the Lord. When we sin, we have only to seek that look of love from Jesus in the sacrament of Confession to be restored to his grace.

Discipleship sometimes requires a career change.
Peter's encounter with the Lord led him to abandon his fishing career to follow Jesus as his disciple. After only a few short years in training, he made a post-Pentecost career change to preacher, healer, foreign missionary and head of the budding universal church. None of these changes came up after reading What Color is Your Parachute? and meeting with a career counselor.

Encounters with Jesus still lead to career changes today. Not long after I experienced a powerful conversion in the year 2000, I was led to quit my six-figure job and trade my successful career for a life of service as a stay at home Mom. Nearly two decades later, I am homeschooling, studying theology, writing, speaking and still in awe of all the Lord has done in my life.

Not all disciples are required to make such dramatic career changes. What is required of all disciples is that we submit our career to the Lordship of Jesus and allow him to direct our path, trusting that his plans for our lives are far better than any that we could conceive for ourselves.

Try not to fall asleep in the chapel.
One of my favorite accounts from the Gospels is that of the Lord rebuking Peter, James and John for falling asleep while he was praying in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus says to Peter: “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." (Mk 14:37-38)

Why do I love this account?  Because more often than not, I too find myself  giving in to the weakness of my own flesh. It is a comfort to me to know that I am not alone in my struggles. Prayer can sometimes be difficult. Every time I sit down to pray I battle distractions, fatigue, and the temptation to insert my own agenda into my prayer time. Far from being discouraging, Jesus' words spurn me on to continue to persevere in prayer in spite of the obstacles - asking the Holy Spirit to "come to the aid of our weakness". (Rom 8:26)

Share what you have been given.
In Acts Chapter 3 we read about the crippled beggar asking Peter and John for money. Here is Peter's reply: “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, [rise and] walk.” (Acts 3:6) The crippled beggar was intermediately healed.

Peter gave the beggar a far greater gift than the alms that he was asking for. He gave him the gift of healing which he had received through the power of the Holy Spirit sent to the church by the Risen Lord Jesus at Pentecost. All of us, by virtue of our Baptism, have received the gift of the Holy Spirit and like Peter, we too need to share that gift with others. 

The sharing of what we have received may not always take the form of physical healing, but we must be open to opportunities to see through what people are asking for to what they really need. Our world is filled with people who are crippled in many ways - let us imitate Peter and boldly share the gift of hope and salvation in Jesus that we have received. 

Prepare your testimony.
Peter writes in one of his letters a directive that applies to us today as much as it did to his readers nearly 2000 years ago: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope..." (1 Pet 3:15) Our testimony is simply that: a witness of what Jesus has done for us which is the foundation of our hope. Peter goes on to describe the way this testimony should be delivered: "with gentleness and reverence" (1 Pet 3:16)

When we follow Jesus, people will be curious about our beliefs and our lives. Not all of us have dramatic conversion stories, but all faithful disciples of Jesus have moments of encounter with the Lord that can serve a lifeline to those walking in darkness. It is helpful to intentionally reflect on those special moments in prayer  - perhaps even writing them down in a journal. In this way, we too will be ready to give this "explanation" to anyone who asks.

St. Peter, pray for us.

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

"The Thrill of Hope": Reflections on O Holy Night

Fun fact alert!  

I read in the book, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas , that O Holy Night was the very first song ever to be broadcast over the radio waves on Christmas Eve 1906, launching a completely new platform for music to be transmitted and enjoyed.  What an amazing experience it must have been to have heard this beautiful hymn on the air waves for the very first time.  Just another miracle of Christmas. Let us pray that all radio transmissions give glory to God the way the very first one did!

O Holy Night is my hands-down favorite Christmas hymn and much to my children's chagrin I can listen to it over and over and over again (especially if Josh Groban is crooning it). This song is rich in meaning and has provided much to meditate on and pray about. Let's look at a few of it's most powerful lines.....

"Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth." 

For many, Christmas can be a time of sorrow and loneliness - a time when the smiles and happiness of others can serve as a magnifying glass on one's own struggles.

The promise that Christ brings with his incarnation is to show us our own worth.  It is only in Christ, that we can truly understand our dignity and value as the sons and daughters of the most high. John 3:16 reminds us that "God so loved the world that he sent is only son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." St. Augustine, in his Confessions reveals this startling insight into God the Father's paternal love: "You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care." 

Think about that for a second...God cares for us as if we were the only one - no fighting for his attention, no bickering with our siblings because we want more "Daddy" time.  What a great and comforting thought that is! When faced with the evidence of such a loving and merciful Father, how can we not help but feel our worth.

If this is an area of challenge for you, I encourage you this Christmas to ask God the Father to reveal his great love for you in a new and deeper way - in this experience of his love, you will come to know your own soul's worth.

"A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn."

I'm tired. Most people I know are tired. The combination of watching the news and then going to the mall and joining the rat-race of stressed and exhausted shoppers trying to get their lists checked is overwhelming.  Most people's faces are indeed weary. Living in the world in 2016 is a daunting task. Life, I imagine, has always been this way.  No doubt the travelers at the time of Christ's birth were weary - weary of being oppressed by a foreign ruler, of having to participate in an intrusive census of having the values they cherished challenged. They like us, were uncertain of the future and anxious about their lives.

What promise this line from the song provides!  The hope that the incarnation of the Lord brings should give us a thrill!  In Jesus' birth, our weary world experiences the promise of salvation, redemption and the "freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21) This is not a theoretical, pie in the sky ideal.  Christ's incarnation really ushers in a new and glorious morn that is still available for us to grab hold of.  Weariness can be replaced by a deep and abiding joy in the possibilities that the Incarnation promises.

This Christmas, open your hearts to experience this "thrill of hope" in a new and powerful way.  Ask the Lord to reveal to you how his Incarnation has changed not only the world but you personally.  

"Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother and in his name all oppression shall cease." 

In Luke 4:18, Jesus takes up the scroll of Isaiah and proclaims: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." The Lord Jesus is still in the business of breaking the chains that bind us - chains of sin, unforgiveness, bitterness and addiction. 

The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers us a personal encounter with the God of mercy - the same Jesus who was born 2016 in a manger works through the words of the priest to break the power of sin in our lives. The Lord loves us and desires us to be free from all forms of slavery.  If you are struggling with the chains in your life, I highly recommend Neal Lozano's book Unbound: A Practical Guide to Deliverance .

During this season of Christmas, spend some moments in silence asking the Lord to reveal any areas of oppression which exist in your life and the lives of those you love, and in confident and trusting prayer ask him to break those chains. 

What should our response to this amazing mystery of Christmas be?

The song itself provides the answer: 
"Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we, let all within us praise his holy name." 

Together let us raise our voices and our hearts to praise and thank the Lord this Christmas. 

Josh Groban's rendition of O Holy Night is one of my personal favorite versions of the song and here it is set to video accompanied by images from the movie The Nativity Story.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

"He Will Bring Us Goodness and Light": Reflections on Do You Hear What I Hear?

It's Christmas quiz time:

The topic of conversation at your family Christmas dinner is (pick all that apply):
  1. How yummy the lasagna is.
  2. The number of batches of Christmas cookies Aunt Betty baked this year.
  3. Whether the Mets will trade Noah Syndegaard or not. 
  4. A heated discussion of how much the kids have grown. 
  5. The mystery of the Incarnation of Christ.
If you guessed that the conversation at my Christmas dinner is numbers 1-4 you aced this quiz. 

I come from a practicing Catholic family, yet any discussion of the "true meaning of Christmas" is conspicuously absent from our Christmas gatherings.

What's up with that?  

Granted, Christmas dinner is hardly the time for a presentation of a theological treatise on the hypostatic union.  Nor is anyone really interested in listening to Uncle Jimmy practice his preaching career, roaring fire and brimstone while Aunt Betty nods approvingly and continues to munch on  a butter cookie.

How then, can we place Jesus and the mystery of Christmas at the center of our Christmas gatherings? 

The simple 1962 Christmas song, Do You Hear What I Hear provides a great model.  In the song, the announcement of the first Christmas is passed along like a game of telephone.  Each character experiences the mystery of Christ's birth in a different way and gently shares what they have seen and heard with the next. Through this sharing the news eventually reaches the highest place in the land, and the King himself boldly proclaims that Christ will "bring us goodness and light."

So what does that have to do with Aunt Betty and her cookies? 

In the song, the characters share their experience in the first person - "Do you see what I see?" "Do you know what I know?" Often, the first step to a personal encounter with Jesus is hearing someone else tell their story of what the Lord has done for them. Personal, humble, honest witness is the single most effective evangelization strategy there is.

The song's simple litany illustrates this beautifully - one person shares with another and leads them to an experience and then they go on and share their experience.  None of the examples began with "You should..." or "Why don't you...."  Instead, they begin with a gentle, inviting question - one that encourages the listener to want to know more.

This Christmas, let us all ask the Infant Jesus for his goodness and light to empower us to ask our friends and family this life-changing question: "Do you know what I know?" 

Johnny Mathis' version of this carol is still my favorite: 

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