As we embark on yet another faith-filled adventure of a New Year and with it the thought of all those New Year’s resolutions, I would like to invite you to reflect with me on Jesus’ words offered to the Pharisees in the Gospel of Mark:
Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.
Jesus, throughout the Gospels, is always inviting us to examine and “re-view” the condition of our hearts above everything else. His words above, albeit confusing at first, shed light on His Heart and His promise to us: “I have come that they might have LIFE and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
I think we would all agree a more abundant life is what we pray and hope for at the beginning of each New Year. The rising question, however, is “how do we get there?” The answer, I believe Jesus offers us, is contained in His advice given to the Pharisees. He says the pathway to an abundant life lies within the condition of our hearts – the readiness of our “wineskins.” Our hearts like the wineskins, Jesus says, must be constantly renewed and “refreshed” ready to hold that new wine or grace He is always willing to give to us – and thus become for the world a witness of “grace at work.”
You see, the Pharisees were so concerned with the do’s and don’ts on their list that their identity, as children of God, was lost in a sea of narrow-minded laws and disciplines. They gave up the opportunity for new wine and new hearts! Even though the prophet Ezekiel proclaimed that God wanted to give them New Hearts all along (c.f. Ezekiel 11:19), they didn’t want to give up their “old wineskins” (old hearts) and place the “new wine” (grace) Jesus was offering them into “fresh wineskins” (converted hearts).
In fact, this is what happens to many people and their “New Years resolutions” when their hearts remain unchanged and unaffected by Grace. They sometimes end up rejecting their resolutions because they had nowhere to store the new wine that Jesus offered them. They couldn’t see beyond the “do’s and don’ts” – the “idols” they had created for themselves are powerless towards true change. We must never allow our resolutions to become idols separated from the truth and light of Grace within our hearts. For only those who are pure in heart will see what God is truly offering them (c.f. Matt 5:8).
And so, in this sense, I would offer that the goals and resolutions we set every year are re-viewed according to the condition of our hearts. “Re-viewed” so that we’re careful the “new wine” (grace-filled change) Jesus offers us this New Year isn’t going to be poured into the same old “wine-skins” or wasted in a bucket of “empty promises” we often leave ourselves with. But, that our hearts are truly renewed and store within them the new wine, the new life, the new truth of who we are and meant to be.
Thus, in keeping our hearts renewed, we prevent the grace-filled resolutions (“new wine”) we accept from Him for this New Year from becoming just another space to fill up on the old “to-do” list (“old wineskins”) that is quickly abandoned and lost altogether.
Jesus, this New Year, is offering us an opportunity to really accept something completely new and re-energizing –a new heart ready for His grace to fill it and complete it. I’m talking about experiencing a real encounter with Jesus and a true conversion of the heart!
I believe that understanding our New Year’s resolutions from this perspective will inevitably lead us to a deeper relationship with Him and most certainly place us on the road to becoming the person we’re meant to be – physically, mentally, spiritually, the best version of yourself! At last, new wine in fresh wineskins!
Bart Zalvetta is a member of the Theology Department of Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha, Nebraska
“The Virgin today brings into the world the Eternal / And the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible. / The angels and shepherds praise him / And the magi advance with the star, / For you are born for us, Little Child, God eternal!” (CCC525)
The quote from the Catechism above references three key players I want to reflect upon at the beginning of this Advent season: Our Lady, the magi, and the shepherds. Today, as we think about the meaning of waiting and watching, upon preparing for Christmas and for the return of the Lord, we can look to these three examples to show us how to look up, set out, and give.
First: It’s important to start off with an understanding of Advent as a liturgical time of waiting and preparation.
I’ve often heard that God has three responses to our prayers: yes, no, or wait—wait being our least favorite of the three. “Wait” seems so indefinite. With a yes or no response, you know, for better or worse, one way or another, what your parameters are. But “wait” requires faith, trust, humility. It requires not knowing exactly when, exactly how, or exactly if.
And that’s one lesson this season can impart: waiting well, waiting in hope. During Advent, we recall the waiting of the world for the birth of the Messiah. The greatest gift from God the Father, the gift of his Son, is coming to us. And in this world which has experienced his coming, we also wait for him to come again.
Each of us awaits something. Perhaps we await a promotion. The completion of a degree. Maybe we long for a spouse or a child. Physical or emotional healing. The answer to our vocational discernment.
In this time of waiting, we are like the Israelites wandering in the desert in pursuit of the Promised Land. It’s there--the Promised Land is there. God is faithful and keeps his promises. But sometimes, we have to wait.
Waiting practically forces us to surrender control and hand everything over to God. It’s a daily practice in humility and faith. It acknowledges that we are not in control and challenges us to trust in the goodness of the One who is. Therefore, waiting has a purpose, an end: God Himself.
And, as with the Israelites in the desert sustained by the descent of manna from heaven, we are fed daily by God himself IF we allow ourselves to be. This means speaking and listening to God in prayer. It means collecting the manna from above, his grace, DAILY. And this brings us to our first point about the Advent season: we need to look up and see.
Mary knew what it meant to look up in prayer. She was so receptive to the word of God that she conceived it through the power of the Holy Spirit.
She was looking up in prayer when the Angel Gabriel announced the Good News of the Messiah.
“Let it be done unto me according to your word.”
These were the words of trust, surrender, and peace--followed by action—the second of our themes today. She looked up and set out in order to give. Immediately after the Annunciation, we read about her going out to help her cousin Elizabeth.
As someone who has experienced the first trimester of pregnancy twice now, I can tell you the last thing I’m thinking about during that time is helping or serving others. I’m usually passed out somewhere trying not to drool.
But Mary has looked up, set out, and given. She was so receptive to God’s word that she was able to fully encounter his message through the Angel Gabriel. Her reception of Christ caused her to set out in haste to see Elizabeth. And finally, to give and serve another by bringing Christ into that home and modeling sacrificial love.
Mary is the perfect example of waiting and being guided by God.
In Scripture, she is described as “pondering things in her heart”—waiting for God to reveal his will and meditating on his work throughout her life. But she is not one who sits on the sideline and fails to engage. She is a contemplative in action—one who treasures the word of God within her (even literally) and yet immediately goes out to Elizabeth in her time of need. Mary brings Jesus to others, from the moment of his conception, wherever she goes and instructs us to “do whatever he tells you,” as at the wedding feast in Cana.
We turn to Mary during this season of Advent because she is an expert at faithful waiting that leads to Christ. So I invite you as we continue our Advent journey to start by spending time with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Re-read the account of the Annunciation and Visitation in Scripture. Ask her help in waiting—faithfully, hopefully, humbly. And invite her to accompany, guide, and prepare you to receive Christ. She always leads others to her Son.
In addition to the example of Mary, the magi can also teach us what it means to wait in hopeful anticipation: to look up and see the star, To set out, To give freely.
The magi, though Gentiles, were not complacent, but so observant that they were able to recognize God’s sign: the star. As Pope Francis said, “The Magi were not content with just getting by, with keeping afloat. They understood that to truly live, we need a lofty goal and we need to keep looking up.”
What keeps us this Advent from looking up and seeing the star? Are we busy scrolling through our social media feeds, binging on the latest Netflix series, working late hours at the office, or anxious about the future? Are we paralyzed by grief, bitterness, anger or fear?
The magi were vigilant, ready to go when the time came. And their hearts were receptive, disposed to the signs of the times. Like Mary, they too set out on a journey which would lead them to Christ himself. This journey required effort, planning, and sacrifice. They looked up, set out, and finally, they gave: bearing costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They met the generosity of God by reciprocating generosity. As Pope Francis has also noted, “To give freely, for the Lord’s sake, without expecting anything in return: this is the sure sign that we have found Jesus.”
Finally, we can also look to the example of the shepherds. Pope Francis says, “They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast. And they were the first because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks.” The shepherds were looking up. After receiving the good news from the angel of the Lord, they go in haste to encounter Christ. And afterwards, they return glorifying and praising God.
In each of these examples, we encounter people who are looking up, setting out, and giving. Mary sets out and gives her time and energy to serve her cousin Elizabeth. The magi set out and give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The shepherds set out and give Christ their adoration and praise.
Will we keep watch in the night alongside the shepherds or are we asleep with the rest of crowded Bethlehem, too distracted by our daily lives and concerns to notice the light of the star beaming down on the light of the world? As we await God’s response in our lives, do we grumble in the desert like the Israelites? Do we take things into our own hands and craft a golden calf? Or do we say to the Lord, “Let it be done unto me according to your word?” This season, will we set out in haste to give our hearts to the Lord and our hands to serve those in need?
Perhaps what’s holding us back from entering into the Advent season is something more than distraction, ignorance, or noise. We may hesitate to meet this Christ-child because we feel as the shepherds most likely did, utterly unworthy. We wear the rags of sin, the stench of humanity. Maybe we feel like the little drummer boy in the popular song who says, “I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give a king.”
In his humility, the Lord entered into the most vulnerable of human states: infancy. He chose to become little in order to demonstrate that all are able and invited to approach him. As Pope Francis also reminds us, “Jesus allows himself to be found by those who seek him, but to find him we need to get up and go.”
So let’s get up and go. There is still time to look for the star, to set out, to give.
I invite you to draw close to Mary, look to the example of the magi, spend time with the shepherds. In looking for Christ, encountering him, and serving others, we find Christ born also in our hearts. Only then, as the Catechism says, “when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled” (CCC526).
Let us pray, “I want to come to Bethlehem, Lord, because there you await me. I want to realize that you, lying in a manger, are the bread of my life. I need the tender fragrance of your love so that I, in turn, can be bread broken for the world. Take me upon your shoulders, Good Shepherd; loved by you, I will be able to love my brothers and sisters and to take them by the hand. Then it will be Christmas, when I can say to you: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you” (cf. Jn 21:17)." -Pope Francis
“The love of God and our relationship with the living Christ do not hold us back from dreaming; they do not require us to narrow our horizons. On the contrary, that love elevates us, encourages us and inspires us to a better and more beautiful life” (Christus Vivit, 138).
Have you ever experienced the love of Christ in your life? The love of Christ is not something one and done. It is an ongoing experience. Christ is always pouring out his love to us. We are the ones who are challenged to see and believe. The love of Christ comes to us in a particular way through the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist—an intimate encounter with Christ who is truly present. Pope Francis describes this encounter:
“Although we are the ones who stand in procession to receive Communion; we approach the altar in a procession to receive communion, in reality it is Christ who comes towards us to assimilate us in him. There is an encounter with Jesus! To nourish oneself of the Eucharist means to allow oneself to be changed by what we receive” (General Audience, March 21, 2018).
Christ is the one who is present and he is the one who is changing us in and through our encounter with him in the Eucharist. We can choose not to see his presence, not to enter this experience of encounter, and not to be changed. That is the freedom that we have. It is the freedom to be indifferent to or reject the love of Christ being freely offered to us. When we experience Christ in the Eucharist, the great gift of his love for us, we become more than we are. We are elevated to a greater love of God and neighbor.
How do we enter more fully into this encounter with Christ in the Eucharist? As Pope Francis notes, Christ “comes towards us to assimilate us in him.” He is already moving, acting, and assisting us to cooperate with his grace. We are called to prepare ourselves well for this encounter by being forgiven of our sins through the Sacrament of Penance, by preparing for our encounter through prayer, by entering into the worship of the community of faith, and by witnessing the love of Christ in our daily encounters with others. Over time, we will be transformed by Christ toward living a “better and more beautiful life.”
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
On August 15th, the Solemnity of the Assumption of our Blessed Virgin Mother into heaven, we celebrate Mary’s completion of life on Earth and her existence in eternity with Jesus. We can reflect on her sinless life as she was chosen by God to be the mother of Christ and also on her example of motherhood, grace, and virtue.
On this Marian feast, I feel a special closeness to the Blessed Mother because I recently found out that, I too, am preparing to be a mother. I ask for Mary’s intercession for a healthy pregnancy often and I hope to love more each day like she did. From her moment of saying, “Yes!” to God at a young age, to her worried searching for Jesus in the Temple, and even to her urging of her son at the Wedding at Cana to begin his ministry, Mary is a mother we can relate to. Her faith in God kept her focus on Jesus and his growth, safety, and well-being on Earth in order to ensure that he would fulfill his life’s mission to save us all from sin. Mary is the mother we can all imitate.
Mary’s life was probably not an easy one. She faced speculation and ridicule from those in her community when she gave her Fiat and said yes to God’s plan. She lived at a time when a pregnant and unwed woman could be outcast from everyone she knew, but she persisted and trusted. Enduring these hardships could create doubt in someone’s mind and dissuade a person, but Mary stayed true to her grace-filled faith. I like to imagine that her cousin Elizabeth was a kindred spirit for Mary, someone who could support her and was also full of grace and faith. Joseph too, said “Yes!” to God, took Mary as his wife, and raised Jesus with strength and grace. He was a supporter for Mary and loved her, fully knowing his purpose as a protector and provider for the family.
Throughout her life, we know that Mary reflected and pondered on the many blessings she had received. Scripture tells us she held them in her heart. Let us appreciate those special moments in our lives, too! Recently, I’ve been trying to take a moment each day to “hold things in my heart” and reflect on the goodness of God. Sometimes it’s when I see the sunshine for the first time that day. Other times it’s at the end of the day in a more reflective manner, and still other times it is in a crucial or stressful moment as I search for the good in what’s going on around me. There are many times throughout our days in which we could pause, reflect on a blessing, and have a grateful moment of prayer. On this Assumption, I challenge you to imitate Mary and learn from her grateful heart in this way.
Below is a prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, a method of prayer that seminarians, priests, religious sisters, deacons, and lay people participate in all over the world. This particular prayer is prayed on the feast of the Assumption. As we celebrate the Assumption of Mary, let us look to her example of faith and devotion and let us ask her to continue to bring us closer to Christ and help us to live for his glory.
Almighty God, You gave a humble Virgin the privilege of being mother of your Son, and crowned her with the glory of heaven. May the prayers of the Virgin Mary bring us to the salvation of Christ and raise us up to eternal life. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
My grandmother passed today.
In her last few days, she told her nine children, “I remain in the will of God. God’s will is love and mercy. What do I have to fear?”
In a word, she got it. She got what life was all about: she had a friendship with God that helped her to understand his identity and to recognize death as the vehicle that would bring her eternally to him.
The grace with which my grandmother understood her last days is uncommon. Death usually seems to surprise or horrify. We don’t think about it too often in our culture, either because it makes us uncomfortable or we’re often focused on earthly things.
As a teenager, I experienced a lot of family deaths in a short period of time. During an incredibly formative period, I attended many funerals, said many prayers, visited several hospitals, and travelled often unexpectedly. Life seemed incredibly uncertain and precarious, and I found myself often asking, “Who’s next?”
Death was real, and it seemed to be everywhere. Though I felt like an adult at the time, I was still unable to comprehend the greatness and depth of what was occurring. It is normal for human beings to dislike death. Death is ugly, unnatural, and uncompassionate. It visited my grandparents, aunt, and cousin. It tried to visit my own father.
In those teenage years, death and I were at war. It took my relatives and did not ask my permission. As a method of self-preservation, I attempted to turn off my feelings and approached life with a blasé attitude. If it was all going to end, I thought, then what was the point? What was the point of feeling if feelings are heartache and tears? What was the point of getting too close to someone who would ultimately slip away?
It was an immature but perhaps understandable reaction for a teenager. And since then, it has taken many years for me to be able to “feel” again and understand death’s role in the spiritual life.
If we start researching the saints and their perspective on death, we quickly find a completely different understanding of death than the one the world gives us. “Tomorrow will be a wonderful day” Blessed Solanus Casey said to a fellow priest, prophesying his own death the next morning. He and many of the saints saw death as a friend, a door, a wedding banquet, a bridge welcoming man into reality—eternal life. “Death is no phantom, no horrible specter as presented in pictures,” Therese of Lisieux said. “In the catechism it is stated that death is the separation of soul and body, that is all! Well, I am not afraid of a separation which will unite me to the good God forever.”
The saints also understood that life on earth is a pilgrimage, not our final destination. As a girl, Therese of Lisieux found inspiration in the quote: “The world is thy ship and not thy home.” We are pilgrims on a road hopefully leading back to God. Every decision we make leads us either closer to this end or farther from it.
I believe mankind has such an aversion to death because we were not created for it. In the beginning, death did not exist. Death was the consequence of sin: separation from God. In order to not leave us in this state of separation permanently, God worked throughout time and intervened in human history in order to bring mankind back to himself in a state even greater than we experienced prior to the Fall. He now invites us to share in his very life—the trinitarian life of love, of complete gift of self—in heaven which “is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC1023).
Because of God’s work throughout salvation history culminating in the Passion, death and Resurrection of his Son, death no longer is the last word. As Paul wrote to the early Church in Corinth: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is taken away—transfigured. God took the ugliest and most unnatural consequence of sin and transformed it into the passageway that leads us back to him. This is the Christian perspective of death, what the saints understood, but what we have such a hard time truly grasping. We often only see the life taken too soon, the pain and suffering of the dying, the wrinkles, the tubes, the bloodshed. Christ offers us more: resurrection, transfiguration.
St. Paul says that if we but understood the eternal, we would willingly suffer on earth—calling tribulation “momentary light affliction.” He says, “We are not discouraged…although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.” 1 Cor 4:16-18
I believe my grandmother, in her final days, understood what St. Paul and the saints did: death was simply the vehicle that would bring her into the loving arms of the Father. She understood God’s identity in two words—love and mercy—and surrendered to this truth in order to live eternally in God’s love. I look to her example and see incredible strength and faith, and I pray, as I visit her tomb in Mexico, that I can have the grace to remain in God’s will and see death as a momentary light affliction producing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
“She competed well; she finished the race; she kept the faith” (cf 2 Tim. 4:7).
May we all do the same.
In October, my husband and I welcomed a little boy. Our son is a master napper—and his favorite place to nap is most definitely in his parents’ arms. He has a way of passing out with his mouth wide open (a trait of my side of the family) and arms sort of flailed. Since he was born, and more recently, our 6-month-old has been teaching me about trust.
When Benjamin is passed out in my arms and begins to stir in his sleep, he opens his mouth in a quivering “O” manner, as if to say, “Put my pacifier back in my mouth, please.” He does not open his eyes. He does not make a noise. It is a simple gesture. He has a desire for his pacifier to be back in his mouth, and trusts that I will, in fact, return the fallen pacifier. He trusts that he is loved, that he is provided for. He does not even need to wake up—he stays in a state of rest despite his request.
This image of my son, asking to be cared for and trusting that I will fulfill his needs, makes me think of the prayer at the bottom of the Divine Mercy Image: Jesus I Trust in You. The message of Divine Mercy was given to St. Faustina, a Polish nun. Through revelation and prayer, Jesus communicated to St. Faustina the need for the whole world to understand His love and goodness as evidenced by one of his greatest attributes: mercy. This understanding begs us to trust that His mercies are bigger than our sin, and ultimately, that we are summoned to trust in the love and mercy that the Lord has for us. Jesus says to Faustina and she records in her diary, “‘I am love and Mercy Itself…The soul that trusts in My mercy is most fortunate, because I Myself take care of it.’” (1273)
Benjamin’s trust in my love is the personification of belief in Divine Mercy. We are called to radically trust in Our Lord’s mercy and love in the same childlike way that Benjamin trusts me without any sign of doubt. The Divine Mercy message, to which the Church calls the faithful, is to accept our role as children—to have the faith that He will give us what we need. We too must trust in the goodness of Our Father to give us what we need.
Is my trust as radical as my son’s? Am I able to completely rest knowing that our Lord desires to shower His grace and mercy upon me? Do I ask for His graces, trusting that He wants my good?
On this Divine Mercy Sunday, ask yourself if you believe in the goodness of the Father. Ask for His grace for more trust in His mercy. Ask for more mercy! Reflect on the trust of children as they live in trust, knowing their parents will fulfill their every need.
This Easter season, how can we become more childlike and embrace the message of Divine Mercy?
Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion — inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself. -Closing prayer of the Divine Mercy Chaplet
The Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is the familiar passage of the adulterous woman and her accusers. For as long as I can remember, this story has been bittersweet: it involves targeted harassment and shame, but also redemption and conversion. At this point in Lent, I don’t think there is a more needed, or relatable, lesson for us to be reminded of and to work on accepting.
So, we’re five weeks into our Lenten journey. We’ve been skipping meat on Fridays and trying to live without whatever convenience or vice we decided to give up or purge from ourselves. Maybe we’re praying a little more than we normally would or are setting aside a few minutes to read a daily reflection from those little black books left in the back of our churches. But even with all of these intentional and humbling acts and motivations, we often still feel unworthy or like we’re faltering. Because of this, it’s possible to say that we don’t even need the Pharisees to judge us and bring us for judgement before God – we’re doing it enough for ourselves. To overcome this, I want us to reflect on three things: personal attitude, an open heart, and recognizing what’s in front of us.
I think sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves. We allow our own harsh judgements to replace the only one that truly matters: God’s. Our own personal attitude can prevent us from accepting and sharing in the love and grace of God if we constantly feel that we are unworthy or failing. In the Gospel, when the adulterous woman is brought before Jesus, it does not say that she cried or tried to run. In the Gospel account, she lays at the feet of Jesus, lets Him clear her name and, ultimately, lets Him forgive her sins. Here’s a secret I’ve learned that the Gospel has been trying to tell us for a few thousand years now: Man is never worthy on his own, but has been made so by Christ, who offers redemption to all. If man were worthy, Christ would not have needed to redeem us after the Fall. So, we need to stop allowing our own negative perception of our efforts to prevent us from bearing or receiving the fruits of God’s grace and forgiveness.
Why was Jesus’ reaction effective with the woman? Christ did not condone her sin, but met the woman in her sinful situation with love and mercy. Surely, such a transformation is not possible without a profound encounter with God’s mercy, an openness to change, and conversion of heart. The adulterous woman of this week’s Gospel is told by Jesus to “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (John 8:11). As a result of her encounter with Jesus, her heart was changed, and she spent the rest of her life trying to grow closer to Him. We are called to do the same – during the Lenten season or any other time. If we are open to the love of God, it will fill us and strengthen us in our actions.
With a faithful attitude and a heart that is open to change, all that is left is for us to encounter God. In order to do this, we must recognize what is in front of us. In the challenges, relationships, beauty of nature, art, and moments of prayer, God is entirely present and inviting us to share in it with Him. What a beautiful gift, and how accessible and truly joyful this is for us!
I want to suggest that each of us take a few moments each day this week to reflect on how we’ve gone out of ourselves to be with or grow closer to God. Instead of grumbling about how much we miss Netflix or those amazing chocolate caramels, be proud of yourself for being so committed to your solidarity with Christ and His own suffering. Or, if you tripped up, instead of getting frustrated with yourself, reflect on the three Stations of the Cross in which Jesus falls. Absolute perfection is never what God expects or even desires – He’s just pleased to recognize a desire in us to do better.
For more resources to accompany you along your Lenten journey, please click here.
Question for Reflection: How can you grow closer to God in the final days of the Lenten season?
As I have gotten older, my favorite part about Lent has become the fact that we have the privilege of willingly walking into the desert - into these 40 days - with our Lord. I think there are a lot of times in our lives when we suddenly find ourselves in the desert - desperate for water, nourishment, or companionship. It is in the desert where we not only grow in intimacy with the Lord, but are also able to be strengthened through real repentance.
What is true for us in the deserts of our lives is the same thing that was true for the Prodigal Son in this Sunday’s Gospel: we receive the promise of a Father who receives our repentance with mercy.
The story of the Prodigal Son is an important one for us to reflect upon as we continue on our Lenten journeys - it is through repentance that the very son who squandered his inheritance is welcomed back with open arms into the mercy of his father. And the story doesn’t end there: not only does the father embrace and welcome his son back, he rejoices and celebrates his return for those around him to see.
It is through our repentance that we experience the mercy of God; it is through our repentance that we receive the promise of the desert of these 40 days. This is so beautifully echoed in all the readings that the Church gives us during this season: God the Father rejoices when we are brought back to life again (Luke 15:32).
We as Catholics have the unique privilege of receiving this mercy every time we hear the words of the priest absolving us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Our moments of feeling desperate in the desert can be alleviated by honest repentance. After one particularly frustrating time in my life, I remember feeling like the Prodigal Son: convicted that I needed to repent and return to God, but also feeling shame over all the ways that I had squandered what the Lord had given me. And in that moment a priest reminded me that confession is always a place of victory. Like the prodigal son who acknowledged his failures and was welcomed back with mercy and celebration, we too find an outpouring of mercy and grace when we reconcile ourselves to God.
As we journey towards Calvary, we do so knowing that our repentance leads to an encounter of mercy and ultimately to victory.
Questions for Reflection: What are some moments in your life when you’ve encountered the mercy of God and others? How did these moments affect you?
For more resources to accompany you in your Lenten journey, please click here.
The next forty days of Lent are Mother Church’s annual call to intense prayer, fasting, and almsgiving oriented towards embracing God as the center of one’s life and repenting of all which distracts us from Him. With the current crisis for the Church in the United States, it seems that the Church could really use a good spiritual renewal, cleansing, and renunciation of sin often focused on during the season of Lent. As parts of the Body of Christ, we are all too aware how an affliction experienced (or caused) by one part affects us all. Recall the words of St. Paul, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep... Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” The Church is suffering but, just as she always has, she will ultimately be restored for the glory of God. As laity, you and I are key to addressing this scourge, along with the Church’s holy clergy and religious, and to affirming God’s presence in our lives not just in the Lenten season, but every day.
Though a time of repentance, Lent is not a time of despair or hopeless suffering; this season reminds us that God, although saddened by our repeated failings, never closes Himself off from offering mercy and love to the broken, the sinner, and the lost. Lent is not a diet, nor a fad of living without something trivial, nor even a temporary spiritual renewal; it must take root—free from the sin which prevents this—and be nourished over the coming weeks to strengthen us throughout the whole year. Above all, Lent prepares us for the celebration of Easter. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again; the Church suffers, the Church is renewed, the Church shall be restored!
The abuse scandal today may cause people to feel abandoned, angry, confused, and sad. “How can this be happening?” is certainly a question in our hearts and homes these days. It is important to remember that Jesus Christ, the same “yesterday, today, and forever,” reigns over the Church. He is omnipotent, divinely good, and eternal; Let us take courage in the truth that our faith is ultimately in Jesus Christ. Because our Lord remains faithful to us and ever close to His bride, the Church, He gives us the strength to recommit ourselves to renouncing the evil in our sight that threatens to drive us away from God and His Church.
Lent is the perfect opportunity to facilitate spiritual renewal, not only for ourselves but also for the greater Church. Following the example of Jesus’ time in the desert before commencing His public ministry, the faithful are invited to reflect on the state of the Church, pray for strength, courage, justice, and healing, and even seek accountability in the governance of the Church. Personal penance can be made for our own failings, but reparation must also be made to address this scandal and to unify God’s people to prayerful and peaceful action in seeking God’s healing grace to move forward.
Over the next 40 days, let us care for the Church by promoting healing among ourselves, supporting the afflicted and needy, addressing sin and divisions, and always proclaiming Christ to each other and the world.
For more resources to accompany you throughout the Lenten season, please click here.
 cf. Lumen Gentium, 33.
 Romans 12:15, 21.
 Hebrews 13:8.
 cf. 2 Timothy 2:13.
On September 14th, we celebrate the feast day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life from one's friends” (John 15:13). That love is never more evident than our Lord's passion and death on the Cross. By that Holy Cross, we have been redeemed. Jesus Christ foretold his Passion to the Apostles, instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and fulfilled God's plan for human salvation at Calvary upon that Holy Cross. This, my friends, is the greatest love ever known to humankind; by the grace of God, we will come to know the fullness of God's love in eternity. The promise of eternal salvation was made possible upon that Cross and we, as Catholics, are called to pick up our cross and follow Christ daily. This is a very hard thing to accomplish in today's world.
Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to guide and strengthen us while following his commands. Paul tells us: “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Philippians 4:13). Jesus Christ empowers us with the Holy Spirit today just as he did with the Apostles. It is exactly that God-given power that we need in today’s often secular world to preach Christ crucified and “fight the good fight,” as St. Paul says. For if we profess Christ without recognizing and living his sacrifice on the Cross, we cannot be disciples of the Lord. Peter found that out when Jesus admonished him after the foretelling of his passion and death. I keep written on my desk calendar in my office and in my daily liturgical calendar, a Latin phrase that I think summarizes this idea: Lex orandi, Lex credendi, Lex vivendi - As we worship, So we believe, So we live.
As we worship, so we believe, so we live. We must, through worship and prayer, “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). We must believe all that Jesus has taught us, that he is our Lord and Savior, and that he suffered and died so that we may live. We must live out our faith in what Jesus has called us to do by spreading the good news and picking up our cross and following our Lord. This is not an easy task. It isn't easy being a Christian. Christ never said it would be easy. Being a Christian is not just being a member of a religion, it is our way of life. We live the faith Christ gave to us. When we struggle with this, when we get lazy or complacent with our prayer time, or if we need a reminder of just how much we are loved and what our calling is, we need only to gaze upon the Holy Cross.
We can also reflect on the Prophet Isaiah, when he told us exactly what Christ has done for us and for the salvation of man: "Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted, but he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed" (Isaiah 53:4-5).
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.” Remember, worship, believe, and live in the glory of Christ crucified!
*This post was originally published on September 11, 2014.
Mark A. Straub Sr. is a member of the Knights of Columbus and president of the parish council of Our Lady of the Woods Parish in Woodhaven, Michigan.
Can you sense something’s coming? Throughout Lent, we’ve had the opportunity to empty ourselves in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; we have mirrored Christ’s journey in the desert after His baptism. These past forty days have called us to remember to turn to God for His grace in our lives and for a spiritual renewal to cleanse us of all that distracts us from Him. While pouring ourselves out spiritually takes time to occur and be effective, so too should we scrutinize how we are replenishing ourselves in preparation for Easter.
The Church is on the verge of commemorating the week that changed the world: from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, the faithful are especially mindful of Christ’s ministry and example in the days leading to His crucifixion, entombment, and Resurrection. Although it happened two thousand years ago, the significance of Christ’s life and death can never be taken for granted or downplayed! What it accomplished for us, the atonement of humanity’s impossible debt by God Himself, continues this very day to be imbued with all the raw power, emotion, and sacrifice that Christ’s followers experienced in those days. Today, these holy days afford us the chance to walk with our Friend once again: to withstand persecution with Him, to unite our sufferings to His sufferings, to be wounded in the shadow of His sacred wounds, and to forgive transgressors as He did from the Cross. No, Lent is not meant to be easy, but when we give our past failings or shortcomings over to the Lord during this time, He helps us walk with Him on His journey to Calvary and ultimately, to His Heavenly Father. In dying with Him, we rise with Him (2 Timothy 2:11-13).
This period of Lent can be very refreshing and renewing if we let the process take place! When we give up a comfort of ours or develop an aspect of our spiritual lives, we force ourselves to re-evaluate our faith in God and trust in His Providence. Lent helps transform us and pushes us to grow in holiness. For one, we can make sure we are doing things for the right reasons. In addition, we can better understand our dependence on things we seek for happiness or comfort, be they lesser things or God Himself. The point of our Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is not an endless wallowing in self-pity, but preparation to welcome the Risen Lord who, by His supreme salvific Act, never ceases to fulfill us. On Easter Sunday, the Universal Church will rejoice once again because her Bridegroom has gained for her eternal life over death and suffering.
If you feel as if your Lent has not been the best experience, don’t worry! Take time to reflect on your shortcomings and resolve to make real efforts to turn away from the sin and other distractions keeping you from God. He is ready to embrace you no matter your state in life and will never disdain true repentance. It is not too late to join Him on His journey to Calvary—He simply desires your companionship and will help you bear your own cross, as He did with Simon of Cyrene. Alongside Him, you may struggle, fall, and have to pick up your cross again and again. With Him, you may be lifted up as an object to be misunderstood or ostracized by others. But by dying to yourself for love of our King, you will be raised on the last day to reign with Him in Paradise. Perhaps—as the local authorities in Jerusalem sensed over two thousand years ago and the Church of Rome knows now and always—something indeed is coming, and we must rise from our ashes, pettiness, emptiness, and brokenness to meet it as promised to us by the God of Heaven and Earth Himself:
‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.
The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.’
Questions for Reflection: Has your Lent been a fruitful and transformative one? If not, what are some ways you can use Holy Week as a preparation for Easter Sunday?
For more resources on Lent and Easter, please click here.
My husband and I lingered in the Church a tad longer than usual the last Sunday of Christmas. We were taking in the beauty of the liturgical season—the lights, trees, colors, the Nativity—ultimately basking in the hope that is born from the Word made Flesh who dwells among us. To be frank, we were also lamenting the season of Ordinary Time that was next, followed by the Lenten Season. We were lamenting the transition from the hope-filled season of Advent into the Lenten journey that leads to Good Friday, where the babe in the manger becomes the suffering servant on the Cross.
With Advent lasting for the shortest amount of time this year, and Lent approaching quickly thereafter, I find I am still reflecting on the Mysteries of the prior Christmas season. I suppose I am still sitting in my parish church reflecting on the Wise Men bringing the Child Jesus gifts, reflecting on the idea that a child caused conversion. Highly educated adult men encountered a baby in a stable for animals, and this encounter prompted a change of heart. I would prefer to stay in that time of hope and joy rather than enter into the gore and the sacrifice of the Passion.
A few weeks ago, I was reading a reflection in the Magnificat, a daily Mass companion, about the conversion of the Thief on the Cross. The author mentioned that the thief went through a conversion upon encountering the Lord, bloodied, beaten, on the verge of death. The author asks, “What is it that brought the conversion to the thief?” Jesus was in a position of shame, and yet the thief sought repentance and salvation. How could this be? Jesus as the Messiah would have been hard to believe based on His appearance and vulnerability on the Cross, particularly to a thief who had lived a life worthy of crucifixion.
Jesus as a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and Jesus on the Cross have the ability and desire to convert souls. Jesus is Lord in every season. He wants our hearts. Christmas seems so beautifully packaged; it can appear that Jesus as a child is sweeter, warmer, more approachable. Yet the story of the Good Thief shows that Christ can also be approachable in his ability to suffer with and for mankind. The thief’s conversion on the cross invites us to approach the bruised and beaten Lord with our own trials and hardships. I was fearful to head into the darkness of Lent, forgetting that Jesus wants to be with us, in His vulnerability, even in our difficult times. Whether we are fleeing suffering, undergoing trial, or in a stagnant time spiritually, we must not put limits on Jesus’ desire for closeness with us, especially as we enter into the season of Lent.
If you are struggling with the beginning of the Lenten season, desiring to stay back in the light and joy of the Christmas season like my husband and I, remember that Jesus wants to enter into your Lenten journey, into each season of your life. If you open yourself to him as the Good Thief did on the cross, he can and will grab your attention and be present to you during this season of fasting and preparation. Let us pray for hearts that are open to God’s graces during Lent, open to an encounter and conversion with Christ during every season of the heart.
Question for Reflection: Are you struggling to enter into the Lenten season? How can you more deeply invite Christ into your Lenten journey?
Click here for resources to accompany you throughout your Lenten journey.
My son is just learning to walk. At 15 months, he’s starting to take his first, unsteady steps. He wobbles from chunky leg to chunky leg, looking back at us to make sure everything is alright, and plops on the floor after a few strides. He loves it when we cheer him on, and then he gets back up and begins again.
We, too, are beginning again. We have walked into a new calendar year. This Monday, we will celebrate the end of the Christmas season on the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord and enter into Ordinary Time. How are we walking into the new year? As a parent, I know my son is taking his first steps towards walking securely. Little does he know that these steps will prepare him to one day run. I know his trajectory, but the path for him is still unknown. Similarly, God knows our path. He knows what He created us to be and do, what our gifts and talents are. He made us to run, and yet He does not interfere with our free will.
We, like my son, are often walking into an unknown future. We take step after step in faith with God walking alongside us. How do we make our journey? Are we stumbling or walking confidently in God’s grace? Do we look to Him when things seem unbalanced and reach for His hand? Even when things seem steady, do we turn back, like my son looks to his parents, and look for God and His reassuring presence? Do we ask God for His help and guidance?
God walks with us throughout each chapter of our lives. His coming into the world in the Incarnation, which we celebrated at Christmas, is a beautiful and mysterious proof of the lengths God is willing to go to be with us. He wanted to be intimately involved in the human story—and so He became one of us. He interacted with mankind as a man Himself, ultimately taking on the weight of our sin and opening the doors to salvation. God intervened in a radical and beautiful way by physically walking alongside us in the person of Jesus Christ, and He continues to do so through His church, the sacraments, prayer, and our communities.
As we end the celebration of Christmas and enter into the new year and Ordinary Time, I invite you to reflect on how you are walking into this season of life. We have spent the weeks of Advent preparing for and celebrating the coming of Jesus Christ into our midst. But have we left Him in the manger? Have we forgotten to bring the Christ child home with us or kept room for Him in the inn of our hearts? Let us allow God to be intimately a part of our lives throughout this upcoming year. May we walk with Him and towards Him each day, whether we are stumbling or walking confidently, so that we, like my son, may come one day to run.
Question for Reflection: How can you walk more closely with God and toward Him this year?
A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. (John 1:6-8)
The first word that comes to mind upon reading this Gospel is humility. In response to questions from the priests and Levites, John explains that he baptizes not as Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet, but as “the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord’.” John is so quick to point out this distinction, so quick to give credit where he feels credit is due. Reflecting back to my years of service as a Lasallian Volunteer and Good Shepherd Volunteer, I think I could have used a slice of this humble pie. How often did I consider myself “the light,” taking on the responsibility to serve, or save, the communities I entered? How often did I fail to see the parts of myself that needed saving, and that this saving work was never really mine to begin with? Thanks to time, perspective, and most of all, the grace of God and those I have encountered, I continue to be humbled - moved beyond my self-righteousness, and into a space of more authentic listening, learning, and loving. These moments, in all their discomfort and vulnerability, become my testimony; through the gift of growth, I can “testify to the light.”
Focus on: COMMUNITY
In this Gospel, the questions posed by John’s community invite him to name who he is and what he is about. Community often provides this challenge and gift - holding a mirror up to our past, present, and future and reflecting how all these complexities meld and meet the world. How do your communities help you own your truth? In community, how can we help each other “testify to the light” within?
Spend some time reflecting upon someone in your community who has helped you grow more into who you aspire to be. Write a note of appreciation, take them out to coffee, or find some unique way to affirm them and acknowledge the influence they have had.
Our Power to Bless One Another by John O'Donohue (Excerpt from To Bless the Space Between Us)
In the parched deserts of post-modernity a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well. It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another. I believe each of us can bless. When a blessing is invoked, it changes the atmosphere. Some of the plenitude flows into our hearts from the invisible neighborhood of loving kindness. In the light and reverence of blessing, a person or situation becomes illuminated in a completely new way. In a dead wall a new window opens, in dense darkness a path starts to glimmer, and into a broken heart healing falls like morning dew. It is ironic that so often we continue to live like paupers though our inheritance of spirit is so vast. The quiet eternal that dwells in our souls is silent and subtle; in the activity of blessing it emerges to embrace and nurture us. Let us begin to learn how to bless one another. Whenever you give a blessing, a blessing returns to enfold you.
*This post was published in the 2017 Advent Reflection Guide, a collaborative effort between the Catholic Volunteer Network and the Catholic Apostolate Center. Click here to view the full guide.
Katie Delaney is a former Lasallian Volunteer and former Good Shepherd Volunteer. To learn more about faith-based service opportunities through the Catholic Volunteer Network, please click here.
“I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will never die.”
Today’s Gospel challenged my understanding of what it means to be compassionate. When Jesus learned that a loved one was ill, He responded in a peculiar manner. He didn’t rush to the sick one’s side or hurry to comfort His beloved’s family. Rather, He waited two days.
Why did He wait two days? I sure wouldn’t have done that. If He knew all along that He would raise Lazarus, why would He prolong the wounded agony of Mary and Martha? How could Jesus desert those He loved in their moment of need? It seems almost like a test, a cruel and unnecessary test.
Yet I suspect Jesus had a different intention. By waiting two extra days He was not punishing or testing Mary and Martha but inviting them to examine their own brokenness. The idea of resting in brokenness, rather than avoiding it, has been a particularly challenging concept for me. I first encountered it in Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, in which Stevenson says “We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”
It seems that Jesus chose the former. When He finally arrived in Bethany and witnessed the woundedness of those He loved, He “became perturbed and deeply troubled.” Then, “Jesus wept.” Knowing that Jesus wept helps me reclaim my own brokenness and affirms that truly embodying compassion requires entering into the chaos of woundedness, both my own and that of the “other” person.
Prayer: God of grace, help me rest in my woundedness. When I feel most alone and deserted, remind me of Jesus’ constant refrain “Do not be afraid.” Help me remember that Jesus Himself, the almighty Son of God, wept for the pain of His community. Let me never forget that one of Jesus’ greatest miracles of raising Lazarus from the dead was precipitated by His solidarity in suffering with those He loved dearly. Amen.
Focus on: Social Justice
How have you been wounded by the, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. puts it, “sickness of racism, excessive materialism, and militarism?” How can you – and your surrounding communities – enter into this brokenness and encounter healing compassion?
Service Inspiration: My mother, Sue, understands part of my volunteer experience, but struggles with other components. However, I recently babysat for a colleague’s children, a two-and-a-half year old and a six-month old. When I left, I was exhausted. I realized later that I watched two boys the same age difference as my brother and I, but only for a few hours. My mom did it for years, and then became my teacher and homeschooled us. She served as an enormous role model, never asking for thanks or recognition, silently taking on her children’s struggles. She is an inspiration and reminder of Jesus here on Earth.
*This Lenten reflection was originally published on the Catholic Volunteer Network Blog and was posted with permission.
Greg Hamilton attended Saint Michael’s College in the grace-filled Green Mountain State of Vermont and is currently serving as a Jesuit Volunteer in Washington D.C. at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. Most days, Greg finds a way to involve his favorite poet, Mary Oliver, in his routine.