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.
"Don't look for big things. Just do small things with great love."
Many of us are familiar with these words from Mother Teresa, a reminder that we will be measured against the depth of our love, not the number of great deeds we’ve done. It’s also become a personal mantra whenever I think about the idea of missionary discipleship.
“We become missionary disciples when we take our encounter with Jesus Christ out into the world,” the United States Bishops stated in their document Living as Missionary Disciples. They continue, “As a Church, we are called to be missionary disciples who know and live the faith and confidently share the Gospel.”
My part-time work with the Catholic Apostolate Center keeps me plugged into the ministry world, but whenever I step out of the “Catholic bubble,” evangelization gets difficult fast. It’s easy to talk about missionary discipleship in theoretical terms among engaged Catholics. The call to actually be a missionary disciple, however, becomes a challenge when I’m the only engaged Catholic in the room.
During my day job as a civil engineer, I encounter coworkers and clients from all kinds of backgrounds. The opportunity to evangelize is enormous, but where do I start? If we’re all called, by virtue of our baptism, to “go make disciples of all nations,” then aren’t I supposed to be evangelizing everyone I meet? How am I supposed to do that without making people think I’m a kooky religious fanatic? Being Catholic is at the core of who I am—but, to many, that does sound kind of kooky!
So how do I do this missionary discipleship thing? How do I evangelize without going too deep too fast? I once heard someone compare evangelization to trying to teach particle physics: You don’t just start with the Higgs boson and expect people to get it. You start with the basics. The same goes for the mission of evangelizing the world. Start with the basics. Or, as Mother Teresa said, “Just do small things with great love.”
I don’t have to pass out copies of Magnificat or start a lunchtime Bible study in order to be a missionary disciple. All it takes is planting a seed here and there: keeping an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on my desk, silently offering a prayer before lunch (when I don’t forget!), even simply treating my coworkers with kindness and respect. All of these small things add up when done with great love. People notice and they wonder: “Why?”
I vividly remember an encounter I once had in a Chick-fil-A. The cashier, friendly as they always are, randomly asked what church I went to. I told him, wondering aloud what made him ask. Without missing a beat, he said, “Because your light shines.” Ironically, I was in the midst of a rough patch and had taken the semester off of school. In spite of my own trials, all it took was treating the guy like a person in order to elicit that response.
We’re so tempted to think that big accomplishments and programs are all that command people’s attention, but it’s really the opposite. The big stuff fades from our memories faster than a sensational Internet meme or viral cat video. But the little things people do, the kindness and love with which we regard one another, that’s what’s remembered. And that’s what opens people’s hearts to God.
Missionary discipleship isn’t rocket science, or even particle physics. It’s about doing small things with great love.
Question for Reflection: What are some small things you can do to spread the love of God wherever you go?
For more information on how you can be a Missionary Disciple, visit the Catholic Apostolate Center’s resource page here.
Click here to read Living as Missionary Disciples: A Resource for Evangelization.
As we brought our firstborn son in a white gown to the church, I couldn’t help but think of Mary and Joseph - new parents who also came to God’s dwelling place with a newborn child. They were fulfilling the stipulations of the Mosaic law: Mary was completing her ritual purification after childbirth, and the couple was consecrating their firstborn son to God (cf Exodus 13:2). They, like my husband and I, were entrusting their child to God in faith, giving the Lord control over his destiny, reiterating, in a sense, Mary’s surrender in her Magnificat, “may it be done to him according to your word.”
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord which we celebrate today is one of both great joy and great sorrow—a day of paradox. The glory of the Lord in a literal sense returns to the Temple in Jerusalem which had for so many years been vacant of his physical presence. God has come to renew his covenant and relationship with his people. His presence, however, is no longer confined to this Temple. He walks now among his people…as one of them – in this case, in the form of a child. All of Israel’s hopes are fulfilled in this one child. “My eyes have seen your salvation,” the holy Simeon proclaims in the Temple, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” The Jewish people’s spiritual exile from God has come to an end.
This child, this sign of hope and restoration of Israel, however, is also a sign to be misunderstood and rejected. Simeon continues, explicitly telling Mary, "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce.” God was answering the many prayers and dreams of the Israelites in a way they could hardly comprehend: in the form of a lowly child who would grow up in a foreign country, who would come back to Nazareth and live as a poor carpenter’s son, who would grow to become a great prophet after thirty years and challenge the Jewish people to live more nobly than they could have ever imagined: to love their enemies and persecutors, to eat his Body and drink his Blood, to become sons and daughters of God, calling him “abba,” Father, and ultimately to attain salvation for the entire world.
God often answers our prayer in ways unimagined or seemingly incomprehensible to us. Will we join in Simeon’s proclamation of salvation or will we be among those who reject this sign?
“My eyes have seen your salvation” - this is at the heart of the Christian life. This is evangelization: an encounter with the living God that results in our conversion and proclamation of salvation. As Pope Francis said in last year’s homily on the Feast of the Presentation, “One who lives this encounter becomes a witness and makes possible the encounter for others.”
After encountering Christ, we are able to reiterate the words of Simeon, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” Are you able to join in these words?
In order to do so, we must prepare our hearts for an encounter with God. What I find crucial to the words of Simeon, which are followed by words of the prophetess Anna in the Gospel today, is the role of prayer and sacrifice to Simeon and Anna’s encounter. Years of fasting, offering sacrifice, going to the Temple, and forming a deep relationship with God in prayer all led to this pivotal moment of encounter in their lives. Furthermore, Simeon enters the Temple after the prompting of the Holy Spirit. He was so receptive to the stirring of God within his heart that he entered the Temple in the very moment he needed to. Both he and Anna were not in the Temple by accident. God had been preparing their hearts for years, and they had done everything in their power to cooperate with his grace through their holy actions: prayer, sacrifice, worship, thanksgiving.
What do we bring to the Lord today as we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation? What do we place on his altar every time we attend Mass? Do we join the priest in offering sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving, or petition? Do we remember the needs of friends, family, or the world? Do we give God our joys, sorrows, stresses, or work?
I invite you, the next time you go to Mass, to present yourself to the Lord. Spiritually place yourself on the altar, wherever you may be in your faith. Whether you feel a bit distant from God right now, seem to be in a comfortable place in your life, or are overwhelmed with fear or stress or worry—place whatever you have and whatever you carry on the altar this week and ask God to continue to transfigure you. We celebrate, in a sense, the Presentation of the Lord at every Mass—for we are presenting Jesus himself to God the Father in the Eucharist. And we are invited to join in offering our sacrifices to the Eternal Sacrifice of Christ crucified.
Let us join the aged Simeon in saying, “my eyes have seen your salvation!” by imitating his deep life of prayer and sacrifice. And from there, may we proclaim the truth of God’s love to the world!
For many of us, the “infancy narratives,” from Matthew and Luke are well loved, but also well worn. Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Our Lord in Bethlehem — not only do we ponder these events every year during Advent and Christmas, but also every time we pray the Joyful mysteries of the rosary. We know the stories, we know what they illustrate, we know why they’re important. But knowing the basic bullet points of the New Testament is not enough. We are called to know our Lord more deeply, more intimately.
Dei Verbum compares the gift of Scripture to the gift of the Incarnation: “for the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (13). The Holy Spirit has bundled the immensity and perfection of God into our limited and imperfect human language. Like Christ contained himself in human form, so too has the Father contained himself in our human tongue. This Advent, let us return to the infancy narratives with fresh eyes. Recognizing that, like St. Ignatius advised his Jesuits to do while on mission, we can use the Word to ignite our senses, engage our collective memory as the people of God, and to understand our Lord as both father and friend.
The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56) is one moment from the infancy narratives that can prepare us in a special way for the coming of our Lord this Christmas. It provides us with a snapshot of Mary as a loving servant who is familiar with the Scriptures, bubbling over with joy, and confident in the promises of her God. Her example is one we can imitate even today. Spend some time with the narrative here and then consider Mary’s threefold approach to Advent:
Amidst the flurry of shopping, visiting, and end-of-year work activities that will surely fill our Advent calendars this season, take five minutes a day to spend time with God in prayer. If you struggle with prayer and don’t know what to say, read the Magnificat. Imagine a young, triumphant Mary, glowing before gray-haired Elizabeth and try to imagine the feelings of joy and wonder Mary must have felt in those moments. Then ask the Lord to help you channel that wonder as you prepare a place for him in your heart. Let your soul proclaim the greatness of the Lord this Advent, through joy, Scripture, and service.
Did you know that as Catholics we commemorate the month of October as the month of the rosary? The rosary calls us to reflect on the life of Christ through the intercession of Mary, our Blessed Mother. The rosary is an invitation for us to build a relationship with Mary, so that we can better know her son. St. Thomas Aquinas once said, “As mariners are guided into port by the shining of a star, so Christians are guided to heaven by Mary.” One way to get to know Mary is by reading about her life from scripture. Mary’s words are not recorded often, and her actions seem to skim by even more subtly. Even so, the presence of her words and actions are profound, calling us to a deeper relationship with her and her son.
First, we learn from Mary that it is okay to ask questions on our faith journey. When the angel Gabriel announces to her that she will be the mother of the Son of God, she simply asks, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). To know ourselves and have confidence in what we believe, we should always be asking questions. As a teacher, I encourage my students to ask questions all of the time. Although I am not as good as I want to be myself, from Mary I can take courage to ask more questions so that I can learn and grow in hopeful faith. When Mary questioned the angel, she learned: “Nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37). And from there, we are called to take Mary’s example of humility and trust in her “Fiat” when she says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
The second lesson that I have learned from Mary in the Bible has had the most profound impact on my life. After the birth of her son, and in the presence of the shepherds and angels, Luke records that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). For me, this calls me to a life of deep reflection and intimacy with God. What I keep in my heart can move me closer to God if I invite him to share it with me: the goodness of each day, the little and big miracles, and even the hard and difficult trials. With God, everything is divine and happens with purpose; it is how I react, reflect, and let him mold me with the contents of my heart that I can become most pure. Mary is the perfect model of this. She remembers God’s glory, and holds it fast to her heart. Her life is characterized by this. I want to revel in God’s glory in all things like Mary, so that I can share this joy and love with others, and trust in his goodness when trials arise.
Finally, Mary’s last words in the Bible occur at the Wedding of Cana when the reception has run out of wine. She tells her son of his time to perform his first miracle, "They have no wine" (John 2:3), and it seems as though Jesus is not convinced. But next, Mary tells the servers, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5) with the utmost simplicity and confidence. Not only does she know that he is capable of great things, but she knows that her son will do great things. And so we must “do,” too. This message – “do whatever he tells you” – is a call for all of us to follow the words of Christ. Mary can only lead us to her son if we submit to his will with the trust and confidence she has modeled for us. Like Mary, we too must live our life as a Fiat, “Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”
What beautiful gifts Mary gives to us to know her faith and to let her mold us to be more like her son. Do not be afraid to let Mary be the one to lead you to Christ. She is perfect, in that she knows how to live her life for God: “Mary’s greatness consists in the fact that she wants to magnify God, not herself” (Deus Caritas Est, 41). Let her help you magnify the Lord. Today I will be praying the “Magnificat,” which is found in Luke. It is Mary’s prayer of joy and thanksgiving to God. Please join me in asking for Mary’s guidance towards her son, to lead us to a life full of grace as hers.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.”
Alyce Shields is a teacher in Washington, D.C.
We walk amidst the shadows and call them life. We’re so accustomed to the dimness of this world that light is too abrasive. It burns rather than warms, offends rather than illuminates. We stumble around in the fog, thinking we are dancing. It’s like looking in the mirror and confusing the reflection with the person. Many things prevent us from truly seeing ourselves—from knowing who we are, from where we’ve come and where we are going. We’ve convinced ourselves that we are comfortable. “Comfortable” is our best friend. It doesn’t demand much of us, doesn't pry, doesn’t ask us to change. It leaves us quite alone, minds its own business. Comfortable—a makeshift refuge amidst the vast discomfort of the world we face each day. Comfortable—the often elusive goal of our lives. Comfortable—a concession to a fate that is not our true end.
Peter, James and John were comfortable in their lives before a rabbi from Nazareth invited them to drop everything and follow him. Their lives were not inherently sinful; their occupations were worthy. Life seemed good. These men were comfortable until they met the Christ who called them to something more. While the high calling Christ invited these men into was glimpsed throughout Jesus’ entire ministry, it is most fully revealed on earth in an apocalyptic way in the Transfiguration of Christ. As the Gospel tells us, soon after Peter’s profession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of Mt. Tabor. Once there, Jesus is transfigured before them, “his clothes became dazzling white. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus (Mk 9: 3-4). His apostles are terrified. They have seen something almost greater than they could physically behold. Next, they hear the words of God the Father, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (9:7). They have been confronted by light, the Eternal Light of God himself, and are roused out of any makeshift comfort they had created for themselves. The apostles were uncomfortable, puzzled, amazed.
What does the Transfiguration tell us? First, that this luminous state is our destiny. As baptized Christians, we are called to be fully transfigured into Christ himself, shedding anything in our being that does not reflect his light and love. This capacity is already within us, though we diminish it with sin. Second, the Transfiguration shows us that comfortable is not enough. It is neither the goal of the Christian life, nor what we were made for. The Transfiguration instead shows us that we were made for greatness and excellence even amidst the discomfort of our world. We were never made to settle, just as we were never made for the fog, darkness or failure many people accept as daily life. Instead, Christ invites us to love. The Transfiguration is a testament to this love, for this transfigured destiny is only made possible because of his sacrifice of love on the cross. The Transfiguration is pure gift and mercy. And we can begin to be transfigured now, today.
To be transfigured, we are called to imitate Christ’s love. This is an uncomfortable love that demands all of who we are. It is love that evaporates our egotism, that hurts, that pushes us out of ourselves and into the lives and well-being of others. Love that we have to practice, and will fail at, again and again. Love that is, and will be, crucified.
But love that is worth it. Love that reminds us who we are and why we’re here. Love that takes us from the shadows and actually calls us to dance. Love that breaks through the fog and never diminishes. Love that is the true light. Love that transfigures.
As today’s reflection from Magnificat says, “The Savior begs: ‘Become what you behold!’”
Kate Flannery is the Social Media Coordinator for the Catholic Apostolate Center.
My entire life I have always had a yearning in my heart to become a teacher, and this summer was the beginning of that dream becoming a reality. I spent all summer soaking up every classroom management technique I was given, as well as learning the best ways to make math fun for secondary students. I entered the classroom in August, and I realized that implementing those tools was nothing less than difficult. I pray that my students learned half as much from me as I learned from them. Although this job is not easy, my students inspire me to wake up every day and teach them something about translating algebraic expressions, but even more so, about love and the goodness of life.
However, my teaching cohort met at the end of the semester to pre-plan for January, and we were reminded that inspiration is not enough to do this work. We need passion and drive to see us through this work so that we may do it well. Every. Single. Day. One professor challenged us saying, “Your teaching is a song. What song gets you going every single morning and keeps you going throughout the day? The week? The month? The year?”
I realized that our faith, too, needs a song. We need an Advent Song – a gift from the beginning that continues to fuel us throughout the day, the week, the month, the year. As Advent comes to a close, we celebrate the joy of Christ’s birth, but after that, will we continue to live our Advent Song each day?
In yesterday’s Gospel, we learn of Mary’s Advent Song – “The Magnificat.” She sings, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior…” (Luke 1:46-47). Her life was exemplified by this song. If you read beyond today’s Gospel, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, also sings out, “Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people” (Luke 1:68). Each sing of the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness, which we know endures forever.
As you reflect on the close of this Advent season, transitioning into Christmas, ask God what song will keep your heart burning and returning to him throughout the year. What will help you know the Lord each day and what will help you give Him to others? What song will fill you with joy so that you may also sing with Mary and Zechariah?
As Advent comes to a close, know of my prayers for you: that you may find your Advent Song and sing God’s goodness and faithfulness throughout the year long.
Alyce Anderson is a teacher in Washington DC.
To learn more about Advent, please see our Advent Resource Page!
Once, I was a college “mentor-in-faith” for the Notre Dame Vision program, leading small groups for a series of weeklong vocational conferences for high school students. During these conferences, I presented a risky talk. It was risky because I knew there was a possibility of stigma and verbal abuse associated with owning some of my actions. In fact, there was a near certainty of it. However, there was also a real possibility that one or more high school students who had been struggling with sin or guilt could find some real relief, insight, or conversion. When the idea to write this talk first came to me, I found myself unable to brush it aside. Yet I struggled. I went back and forth. Eventually, however, it became apparent to me that there was nothing else to do but to offer this story. So I wrote...
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness.
I closed my talk with these first lines of the Magnificat, as I could understand a little of what Mary was expressing. I was amazed that my soul could proclaim any of the greatness of the Lord to others. My soul? Even in my smallness and brokenness? Yes. Even that brokenness had been turned around to glorify the Lord.
Now, compare that simple story to our Mother’s. While Mary had no brokenness, she too had a smallness; an anonymity; even, arguably, a degree of worthlessness to her society.
By deciding upon the motherhood of Christ, she accepted the near certainty of stigma, ostracism, even death. Yet through that decision, anonymous young Mary was able to glorify the Lord in an unprecedented way - she is the model of everything the Church can be. She is the model of conforming to God’s will. She is the model of trust in the Lord. She is the model of allowing the Lord to proclaim His greatness through her. In the Magnificat, Mary’s amazement that this could be the outcome is evident (even before she knew it would be). The greatest result was, of course, the Incarnation, and thereby human salvation. I am grateful that she thought the work of God worth the personal risk, both at her first fiat to Gabriel, and at every subsequent time her heart stood in danger of being pierced.
I presented a risky talk... once. However, Mary shows us that we are called to take risks for the sake of the Gospel witness more than once in our lives, and without my deliberation born of hesitation. I ask your prayers that both you and I may be given the strength and the spirit to follow Mary’s model, to keep taking the actions that carry with them both personal risk and the corporate reward of building God’s Kingdom.
Laura Berlage serves as an Echo Faith Formation Apprentice in the Diocese of Camden, NJ
 Note: I don’t share that talk’s content here because it involves more than my own story, and the other persons involved have not authorized me to make their story the kind of public that lives online indefinitely.