“O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD.”-Ez. 37:12-13
“Come out!” The words reverberate and resound in the stench-filled tomb. We too need to hear the words proclaimed to the dead man as we approach the end of our Lenten journeys.
Lent has been our own time of preparing for resurrection—abstaining from anything that deadens us to the voice of Christ inviting us to the fullness of life. For the past few weeks, we have participated in spiritual practices that renew and refresh our spirits. We’ve journeyed with Jesus in our own deserts. And the culmination of this journey is about to occur in only a couple more weeks. Lazarus’ resurrection precedes the Resurrection that changes everything. It is a glimpse of what awaits us after death.
The once rotting man stumbles out of the dark and into the light of Christ—his dear friend. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, do not even say his name when telling Jesus of his illness, but identify him simply as “the one you love.”
The one you love…What a beautiful way to be identified. I think about this for a moment before realizing this is what we are all called to and all invited to: to be the ones Christ loves. This short phrase is our deepest identity as baptized sons and daughters. We are the ones He loves. And as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter Sunday, this reality will be fully demonstrated: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).
Jesus will tell us on Good Friday, embracing us with arms wide open on the Cross, “you are the one I love.”
As a result of this great gift, Christ can call us to resurrection—not only after death, but in the here and now. So many realities in our world today threaten to numb us from this true reality. Perhaps we find ourselves in Mary’s shoes. When she and her sister hear of Jesus’ coming, Martha runs to meet Him, but Mary stays where she is. Was hope dead within her? Was she too consumed with her grief to dare to have faith? Did death have the last word?
Perhaps many of us feel the same way: disillusioned. Tired. Grieving. Doubtful.
But Mary’s sister, Martha, shows us another way. Her path leads to the resurrection of her heart in the here and now. In today’s Gospel, the sisters seem to have traded places. Today, it is Martha who chooses the better part. She runs to meet Christ at the moment she hears of His coming. In spite of any doubt, fear, disillusion, or grief—she acts in hope. And this leap of faith is what enables her to give Jesus her all and say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” (emphasis added) (John 11:22)
In these words, I hear her say, “Lord, I am disappointed. I am grieving. My brother has died and you were not here. Had you been here, he would have lived. But I give this desire to you. I trust in you. Let it be done according to God’s word.” This, in a sense, can be Martha’s fiat. Her surrendered disposition, mixed with faith, trust, and hope, is what then enables her to confirm, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Martha has joined the woman at the well and the Apostle Peter in confirming Christ’s identity as the Messiah. She has “come out” of her own tomb.
This past calendar year has likely felt like a tomb for many of us. Perhaps we feel most like the seemingly abandoned Lazarus languishing in the dark. “Where were you, Jesus?” we may ask with Mary and Martha. “Do you not care that the one you love is suffering?”
Jesus does more than care. It is so comforting to read that “Jesus wept” at the knowledge of Lazarus’ death and became greatly perturbed. I can imagine the same, if not a greater, reaction at the death of his earthly father, Joseph. Christ weeps at our suffering. The Creator shudders to see His creation perish. This is not what we were made for. And in His humanity, Christ weeps with us and for us.
But not only will the Son of God weep for His loved ones; He will die for them in just a few days. It is not enough for Him to acknowledge our suffering—He takes it on. He transforms it. He transfigures it. He resurrects it.
As we approach the end of the Lenten season, let us not stay put with Mary but run out with hope like Martha. I pray this Easter Sunday to say firmly with her, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
We are the ones whom He loves. Let us spend some time relishing, resting, and growing in this identity in the remainder of the Lenten season and beyond. In these final weeks of Lent, let us continue to “come out” of our tombs with our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving so that we may not stumble as Lazarus did but run out towards Him who calls our name.
Let us come out into the light.
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It seems that each day we check the news to discover that another politician, producer, actor, or celebrity figure is being exposed for scandal or abuse. Many of those who have for years been hailed as the main influencers of public opinion, policy, and taste have in a stunningly short span of time lost support or credibility. Many of those who were on top of the world have been, we could say, deflated and dethroned.
I have been pondering this lately as the Church prepares to celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. Each Sunday in the Nicene Creed, we profess Christ’s ascension, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” The ascension is recounted at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:6-12). Theologically, we do not envision Jesus ascending like a balloon into the sky, but a king ascending a throne. The Feast of the Ascension celebrates the exaltation and enthronement of Jesus as King and Messiah at the right hand of God the Father in heaven.
As many of us may be scientifically literate and democratically-minded citizens of the twenty-first century, we may think all this talk of thrones and kings and heaven may seem like it belongs to a world that has long passed away. But if our recent headlines have proven anything, what has not passed away is the perennial pursuit of power and our tendency to underestimate our willingness to use it in potentially harmful and self-aggrandizing ways.
Power in and of itself is not an evil thing, and watching people fall publicly is not a cause for celebration. I think instead the present reality invites us to pause and reflect on—in light of God’s reality—the pursuit and exercise of power both in society and in our own lives. In truth, power is not something that belongs only to the powerful. Power exists across any human relationship: husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student, boss and employee, and the list is endless. We are influenced vertically by our superiors and horizontally by our peers. Ideally, we work together to achieve the common good and common goals by sharing and exercising power in the right doses and ways. But I think if we’re honest, we all have our own way of being out of balance, tipping the scales. So, what does this all have to do with Jesus, who we call the All-Powerful One?
As exalted King and Messiah, Jesus overthrows the love of power with the power of love. The Ascension is not a power grab that Jesus will use to control people and outcomes. Rather, we hear Jesus tell the disciples that once he has taken his seat on God’s throne, “you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As disciples, we are not separated from Christ by a glass ceiling.
Yet as disciples, we have to be careful where and how we exercise this power given to us in the name of Jesus. One of the images in Scripture of the Holy Spirit is fire. It is a great metaphor for power. Our stewardship of God’s power can bring light and warmth, yet it can also burn if used irresponsibly. I suspect today that much of what compromises our evangelizing message of Jesus’s kingship stems from the ways Christians have abused earthly power in the name of God.
The Gospel and St. Paul preach a radically different alternative: the conviction that our human exercise of power more fully manifests Christ when it is surrendered than when it is wielded. So, I propose instead: What happens when we dare to profess Jesus enthroned and exalted, to receive the power of his Holy Spirit, and then lay it down in the service of the Gospel?
Question for Reflection: How is Christ’s example of kingship and power different from what we see in the world?
Holy Week can be the most emotionally intense period of the liturgical year. Beginning with Palm Sunday, we notice some changes to the usual liturgy, namely: the opening reading, the much longer narrated Gospel, the red vestments, and the presence of blessed palms. As the week continues, our anticipation may be building towards an emotional peak, probably the commemoration of Christ’s death on Good Friday or His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. We may be tempted to take it all in stride and grimace at the raw details of Jesus’s sacred Passion while holding on for the joys of the Easter proclamation. We are, after all, the “Easter people and Alleluia is our song,” according to St. John Paul the Great. I have found myself guilty of this detachment sometimes and now propose, as we have already entered Holy Week, that we immerse ourselves into the intense details—that raw, human emotion—of the Triduum in order to accompany Christ more closely during the most significant moments of His earthly ministry and the fulfillment of salvific history.
On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the entrance of the Savior into Jerusalem, that sacred capital of the Jewish nation then occupied by the Roman Empire. The joys and uproars that Jesus’s entrance brings facilitate the events at the end of the week, when we observe the frenzied crowd turning against the One they now hail as the long-awaited Messiah. Of course, Jesus knows fully what will come to pass in the next days before the Passover.
Do we stand among the crowds welcoming Jesus into our hearts and wanting Him to rule over us as the eternal Heavenly King, or are we like the jealous plotting authorities who resent Jesus over His exposure of our hypocrisy and prideful nature?
The days between Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday are filled with anticipation. An observer of the times could tell something big was about to happen in Jerusalem. The holy city would soon be embroiled in the rancor sowed by the authorities against Jesus rather than preparing to celebrate the annual Passover meal.
Are we spending this time of calm in prayer and preparation in the presence of the Lord, or are we going about our daily routine until we face the ugliness that has been fermenting against Jesus and that forces us to decide if we will stand against the crowds for the sake of the Savior?
Holy Thursday arrives and already the focus may be towards the one evening Mass scheduled at the parish. Many dioceses celebrate the annual Chrism Mass earlier in the day, during which the sacred oils of ministry are blessed by the bishop and distributed among the parishes from the cathedral. In the evening, the Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane are commemorated with liturgical richness: the humble washing of feet, solemn processions, chanting, the use of candles, Eucharistic adoration after the tabernacle is emptied, and then… silence. There is so much to unpack. We can ask ourselves:
Am I heeding the Lord’s request to “Keep watch and pray”? Am I remaining vigilant and faithfully at the side of our Lord as he leads the Passover meal, praying with Him in the garden, or not abandoning Him during His arrest?
We, of course, cannot celebrate Easter Sunday without recalling Good Friday. This year, I invite you to place yourself at the foot of the cross and gaze upon Christ crucified. With the Blessed Mother and St. John beside you, behold the sight of the suffering Savior, scourged and dying. Listen to His seven final words and feel their intensity. Here the cruelest injustices have been heaped upon Jesus; He bears them willingly and lovingly. Recall your own failings, which have driven nails and scourged the sacred flesh of our Lord. This can be a true time of repentance and faith.
Do I offer even a fraction of the love being poured out from the cross this day?
The darkness of Good Friday recedes, Holy Saturday arrives and there is…more silence. Our Beloved Lord has died and there is a sudden emptiness as we come to terms with the reality that the departed is gone. We must not gloss over this period before Easter Sunday: take time to mourn for our Lord and the human acts of sin which buried Him in the tomb. It had to occur, but it is not the end. We do not mourn for the dead as if we have no hope— because of the Resurrection, Christians do not fear death or even despise suffering. Jesus bore the worst in humanity with love and died to accomplish salvation for all who seek it.
In the holy silence of Holy Saturday, am I reflecting on the events that have passed, long foretold by the biblical prophets, as Mary and the disciples did in the Upper Room?
On Saturday evening, we experience the Easter Vigil. This extraordinary Mass begins in darkness outside the Church with the Service of Light in which a “blazing fire” is used to light the Paschal candle. This candle processes through the church and is used to light the unlit candles of all present. Nine readings from the Old and New Testament are read, recounting significant moments of salvation history. It is during this Mass that the Church also welcomes new members from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults into the Body of Christ. The congregation joins in the renewal of baptismal promises and recalls their own Sacraments of Initiation.
In the wonder of this Easter Vigil, are we joining wholeheartedly in the joy and celebration of the Resurrection? Do we marvel at the re-telling of the mighty acts of God throughout human history? Do we rejoice in welcoming new members to the Church?
Finally Easter Sunday, the world rejoices with the proclamation, Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands! We proclaim Christ’s great salvific act but do not shy away from what He endured to accomplish that eternal victory. We glorify Christ who has ascended from the depths of death to rescue humanity and deliver them to the throne of God. Nothing like this has happened before. The world celebrates God’s great love!
Do we joyfully proclaim Christ to those who have no hope in their lives, who yearn for meaning and purpose?
By taking the time each day of Holy Week to reflect upon the nuances and details of these great events in Scripture, we can better prepare for the emotional gravitas of the liturgies this week and accompany Christ himself. The graces of standing firm and being witnesses to His Passion can yield the same reward first achieved by the good thief crucified next to Jesus, to whom Christ declared, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
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Angels are mysterious beings. Our culture has a lot of misconceptions about angels--what they are, who they are, and what they do. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), an angel is a being of pure spirit; that is “what” they are. St. Augustine tells us that the word “angel” is actually what they do: they are messengers and servants of the Most-High God.
There are three archangels named in the Bible: Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. These messengers served God’s people at different times and had different purposes. They had vastly diverse missions, each corresponding to their very identity and being. Let’s take a look at them now.
St. Michael is known as the Prince of the Heavenly Hosts and the defender of God’s people. According to the Catholic Bible Dictionary, Michael means “Who is like God?”. In the Book of Revelation, “Michael and his angels” battle the dragon, an ancient symbol of the devil, and throw him and his followers out of heaven. Christianity honors him as a patron of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people of the Old Testament. Today, Michael is still thought of as a guardian of the Church, God’s people of the New Testament.
St. Raphael is mentioned in one book of the Bible—the Book of Tobit. His name can be translated as “God will Heal.” In the Book of Tobit, God sends Raphael to answer the prayers of two people: Tobit, who was blinded by bird droppings, and Sarah, who was harassed by a demon who killed any man she married. These two, on the same day, prayed to God for death. God answered their prayers by sending Raphael, who brought together Tobias, Tobit’s son, and Sarah. He also banished the demon that stalked Sarah and healed Tobit’s blindness in the same journey.
St. Gabriel appears once in the Old Testament and twice in the New Testament. His name means “God is my warrior” or “God is strong.” First, he is sent to the prophet Daniel in the time of the great exile to interpret visions concerning the coming of the Messiah. Second, he appears to Zechariah to foretell the birth of John the Baptist. St. Gabriel is best known, however, for appearing to Mary and announcing the birth of the Messiah, Jesus.
The names of these angels tell us their missions. Michael (Who is like God) reminds us that there is no one like our God who deserves and desires our love. Raphael (God Heals) reminds us that it is only through the power of the Divine Physician that our wounds can be healed. Gabriel (God is Strong) reminds us that it is in God and the proclamation of his Word that we find our true strength.
What can these three messengers tell us about our missions? Our own name gives us our mission. I’m not necessarily thinking about our personal names, as those meanings don’t always correspond to a call from God. Through our baptism, we have been named Christians. In the early Church, the term was used in reference to those who followed Christ and were persecuted for the faith. This name gives us our truest identity as those who belong to and follow Christ. It also gives us a mission: to continue his work in our world today. We are called to be the face, hands, feet, and heart of Jesus to all we encounter. Let us live out of this identity as authentically as we can so that others may come to know Jesus through us. As St. Ignatius of Antioch, who lived in the generation after the apostles, said, “Let me not merely be called ‘Christian’; let me be one.” May the angels and archangels help us to live up to our identity and mission as followers of Christ on our journey towards heaven.
NOTE: Definitions of angels’ names found in the Catholic Bible Dictionary edited by Scott Hahn.
For some, Palm Sunday was a political event surrounding a political person that led to the greatest, most unexpected revolution the world has ever seen happen. Historically, the week leading up to Jesus’ Passion would have been the time of preparation for Passover, when many Jews from all the surrounding villages were in Jerusalem together. The gospels (Mt 21: 1-11) describe Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to the swaying of palm fronds and shouts of “Hosanna!” These were unmistakable prophetic signs of the Messiah-king, the one many Jews expected would finally overthrow their Roman overlords and re-establish Israel’s reign on earth, perhaps even violently—as a group called the “Zealots” expected. Yet there is a further symbol to this story: Jesus riding on a colt or ass, the sign of a humble and meek king. Jesus did not become the king they expected, but instead, the one God wanted. As Pope Francis said in his 2016 homily on the Feast of Christ the King, “The Gospel in fact presents the kingship of Jesus as the culmination of his saving work, and it does so in a surprising way. ‘The Christ of God, the Chosen One, the King’ (Lk 23:35,37) appears without power or glory: he is on the cross, where he seems more to be conquered than conqueror.”
Like Jesus’ followers then, today we are susceptible to temptations of limited expectations. It is possible to see Jesus merely as a political and ethical teacher who died a martyr’s death and nothing else. On the other hand, we might project Jesus’ kingdom to a purely “other-worldly” realm. Since Jesus apparently wasn’t setting up his kingdom on earth (so we assume), we are tempted to sanitize Jesus of any “worldly” political or practical implications, and simply assume political engagement has limited place, or even runs counter to our task of evangelization. As Pope Pius XI wrote in his establishment of the Feast of Christ the King, “It would be a grave error…to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power…although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them.” Both interpretations—that Jesus was strictly political or that his work was merely “not of this world”—fail to take seriously not only Jesus’ public ministry and preaching, but the truly earth-shattering consequences of Jesus’ kingship won at the cross.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that Christ, “exercises his kingship by drawing all men to himself through his death and Resurrection.” Jesus’ death and Resurrection are, simply, God’s victory over the world’s powers of sin and death so as to bring about the restoration of God’s people. To say yes to Jesus’ Resurrection is to say yes to life as part of a new creation and kingdom that starts now. Paschal faith involves the risk of making mistakes, being misunderstood or ridiculed, of not conforming to the expectations of the surrounding culture in order to expect something greater. It involves joining in the kingship of Christ in serving others, something we are able to share in as a result of our baptism.
As powers of sin and death today loom heavy on our hearts, it is not enough to “have faith” but to do nothing. Following Christ calls us to witness to our faith in practical ways with full conviction because of Christ’s own experience of suffering, death, and Resurrection that has transformed our fundamental orientation to the world. As Christians, we desire peace, healing, reconciliation, and restoration. We serve our King by building up his kingdom on earth. Pope Francis challenges us, “A people who are holy…who have Jesus as their King, are called to follow his way of tangible love; they are called to ask themselves, each one each day: “What does love ask of me, where is it urging me to go? What answer am I giving Jesus with my life?”
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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?
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This is such a rich time for us as Catholic Christians! Within the past month, we’ve begun a new liturgical year, celebrated in praise and thanksgiving the Nativity of our Lord, the Holy Family, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and we continue to celebrate as we approach the Epiphany of our Lord. It is quite difficult to wrap our hearts and minds around the richness that has been available to us over these past four weeks in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.
Among the chaos of planning and celebrating, we have also rung in a new calendar year. 2017— with its successes, failures, struggles and triumphs—has come to a close and we stand at the precipice of 2018. We all know what that means: New Year’s resolutions. Are you hoping for more control over your health, finances, or career? Perhaps you are hoping to find more time to pray and manage stress in your life. What is it that you are hoping to gain control of this year or to do more regularly? As we prepare to choose and implement changes that we would like to make in our lives, let us not forget that we are still in the midst of celebrating the Word made flesh, Emmanuel. The change and possibility of a baby, born in a humble manger, is reflected in the beginning of a new year. Is our gaze still fixed on the babe in swaddling clothes?
What would 2018 bring if instead of resolving to gain control of our lives, we truly allowed the Messiah to be Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is waiting for each and every one of us to echo the “yes” that was uttered by the Holy Family as they welcomed Him into their lives. What if instead of resolving to control everything, we resolved to say yes to that tiny baby born of a Virgin? During one of the Advent homilies at our parish, our pastor challenged us to think about times we have attempted to be the messiah of our own lives by trying to grasp or control various situations or circumstances. During this time of change and resolution, it can be tempting for us to forget that we are not the Messiah as we make plans and goals for the upcoming year.
As I reflect on this, I am reminded of the words of the hymn “These Alone Are Enough” by David Schutte, based on the Suscipe prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Take my heart oh Lord. Take my hopes and dreams. Take my mind with all its plans and schemes. Give me nothing more than your love and grace. These alone, oh God, are enough for me.” It is good and just to strive to improve our character and to foster good and healthy habits in our lives. However, instead of resolving to do it on our own, by the gift of that blessed Christmas morning, we have the choice to freely give all of these things over to the One who makes all things new. As you stand at the threshold of this New Year and envision your hopes and dreams for 2018, take a moment to reflect on what these possibilities could become if you allowed them to be infused by the abundant grace of God.
It is still the Christmas season. There is still time to approach the manger. Take the leap of faith. Instead of resolving to gain control, approach the manger and resolve to say YES and to be transformed! Resolve to offer the babe in swaddling clothes your mind, your heart, your body, and soul. As you boldly step out into 2018, my prayer for you echoes the words of Saint Paul,
“May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”
Question for Reflection: What are some resolutions you can hand over to the Lord this New Year?
On this day we memorialize the death of John the Baptist, the man who introduced Jesus’s ministry to the world and whom Jesus said was the greatest man born among women (Matt 11:11). Yet, despite this accolade from the Son of Man himself, the Gospels tell us that John the Baptist also seems to have wrestled with something that many of us are still wrestling with today: doubt. Yes, even the Baptist, the camel-shirt-wearing, desert dwelling, locust-crunching prophet who calls the crowds that come to him a “brood of vipers,” sat in prison and wondered about whether the “nobody” carpenter from Nazareth was who he said he was.
The Gospels suggest that part of John’s doubt seems to have come from his expectations for Jesus. When John is called by God out of the desert, he announces the coming of the Messiah with metaphors of destruction:
“Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matt 3:10-12)
John’s expectation for the Messiah is that he will cleanse through destruction; that he will rid the world of sin, but in a grandiose, violent way. His metaphors and proclamations are laced with references to fire and culling, suggesting that John envisions Jesus the way we tend to envision John—full of passion, intensity, even a little frightening. When Christ comes to John for baptism, Christ does not condemn John’s vision, but rather Jesus’ ministry adds to the story. Rather than cutting the root from the tree, Jesus invites sinners to dine with him. Rather than shaking his fists from the river, Jesus sits on the mountain top and declares the poor blessed.
Later, when John is imprisoned for publicly condemning the unlawful marriage of Herod, he receives word of Jesus’ latest miracles: the healing of a Centurion’s slave and raising of a widow’s dead son. The Gospels paint an interesting portrait of John’s response.
When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him
with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt 11:2-3)
I can imagine John sitting in the corner of his cell, hearing of these miracles and wondering whether everything he thought about the Carpenter had been wrong. In the darkness of his cell, alone, surely knowing he would soon die, John doubts whether this man who heals is actually the ax he had been expecting.
There are two things that stand out about John’s moment of doubt:
First, John’s response to his doubt is to go to the source himself. John does not sit frustrated and angry, allowing his doubt to grow into resentment or apathy like so many of us do today. He sends his disciples to Jesus directly. John’s response should serve as a model for our own inquiries. Prayer, direct communication with Christ, is necessary to knowing the truth about his identity. Imagine it in terms of a marriage. What if a husband and wife never communicated with one another when they were concerned with the actions of the other? Not only does a potentially problematic action go unaddressed, but the spouse who desires to know the mind of her lover cannot. She risks constructing a faulty image in her head, one that further drives a wedge between herself and her husband. So too do we drive a wedge between ourselves and the Lord when we doubt and leave those doubts untethered by prayer. When we question Christ, when we question our faith, when we question what is right or how to respond to injustice with charity, we should take those questions to prayer and ask for understanding. We should ask to see God as he truly is, not as we want him to be.
The second important thing to note about John’s moment of doubt is Jesus’ response. Matthew reports it this way:
Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.’
Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matt 11:7-10).
In his response to John and the crowds, Jesus first reaffirms his own actions, for these are the actions foretold in Scripture of the coming of the Messiah. He does not answer with words, but with deeds, highlighting the truth that “by their fruit will you know them.” Jesus then also seems to chastise the crowd for their judgment of John. “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” Jesus says that John’s vision of Christ is admirable, as it comes from place of virtue and strength. Although John initially sees Jesus only through his own eyes, Jesus recognizes that those eyes earnestly desire the truth and have been well formed. Jesus rewards John for his faith, even if it is imperfect. He does not allow John to remain misguided, but he recognizes John’s effort to know Christ as well as he can and rewards him with the accolade “no greater than.”
On the memorial of his death, let us try to be a little more like John the Baptist. Let us yearn for the Lord. Let us know him in prayer and the sacraments. Let us have the humility to open ourselves and our expectations to revision. Let us place our doubts before the Cross and allow John’s words to guide our prayers:
“He must increase; I must decrease.”
Questions for Reflection: How can moments of doubt make your faith stronger? Is Jesus inviting you to “go to the source” – to come to him in prayer?
Exult greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
Behold: your king is coming to you,
a just savior is he,
Humble, and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
So begins the first liturgy of Holy Week on Palm Sunday. We hear these words referenced in the first of an unusual two Gospel readings during the procession into the church. We start our celebration of Palm Sunday, appropriately, by proclaiming and then reenacting the story in Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, a moment of great joy and excitement for the inhabitants of the city. Those in the congregation welcome the priest, who enters the church in persona Christi, as we echo the words of the people of Jerusalem, “Hosanna in the highest!” What a happy occasion! The Messiah, the One whom the prophets foretold, has come!
How fickle this joy seems, though, when we get to the Passion narrative. In a matter of minutes, we go from crying, “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” One minute, we’re giving Jesus a king’s welcome. The next, we’re condemning Him to death. I know I’m not the only one who feels a dagger through his heart every time we say—loudly—that refrain of condemnation. How dare I welcome Christ with such exuberance, knowing what I’m about to do to Him? Quite the emotional roller coaster, with Mass only halfway over!
Holy Week is exhausting. I find it the most taxing part of the liturgical year. Starting with Palm Sunday, I’m attending Masses, praying the Stations of the Cross, and singing with the choir for days on end, practically turning the Triduum into a 3-day long vigil. In recent years, I’ve taken to spending Good Friday on pilgrimage to the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., to place myself in an intentional state of prayer and reflection.
So why do I do this to myself? Why get on this roller coaster and make myself so physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained by the time Easter morning arrives? Quite simply, it’s because I love it. It’s the most rewarding experience of prayer that I have all year.
On Palm Sunday, we’re reminded of what we’ll bear witness to in the days to come. We’re invited to reflect on what’s about to be re-presented in a real-time reenactment of the focal point of Christ’s entire earthly life.
At the Chrism Mass on the morning of Holy Thursday, we bear witness to the consecration of holy oils for use in the upcoming year’s sacraments. We also see the gathering of all our diocesan priests, who renew their vows and participate in probably the largest concelebration of the year. It’s a moving and impressive sight.
Later on Holy Thursday, we see the reenactment of the Last Supper, the very institution of the Eucharist we celebrate to this day. We’re reminded, too, of the great humility we’re called to emulate: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
On Good Friday, we once again take up the cries of, “Crucify him!” as we see the events of Christ’s Passion and death unfold before our eyes. We’re called toward the sanctuary to kiss the gruesome device of our salvation, the ancient instrument of punishment used to redeem all of mankind. And after an unceremonious Communion service, the liturgy suddenly pauses and we just go home. The Church holds its breath as we wait.
And then, finally, the Easter Vigil—the happiest day of the year, of all history! We hear the no longer fickle, but truly joyous words of the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation:
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King's triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
If I arrive at Easter morning feeling exhausted but strengthened, it means that I've truly entered into Holy Week, walking with Christ as He always walks with me. This Holy Week, may we walk more closely with Christ on His journey towards the cross, knowing that this journey continues with His resurrection. It is Christ's resurrection, His triumph over sin and death, that gives our Lenten journey meaning and enables us to exult with the Church and be glad!
Question for Reflection: How can you enter more deeply into Holy Week in order to better celebrate the joy of Easter Sunday?
For more resources to prepare you for Holy Week and Easter, please click here.
"From starry skies descending,
Thou comest, glorious King,
A manger low Thy bed,
In winter's icy sting;"
~St. Alfonso Liguori 1732
In a few short days, millions of children will wake up excited to see what is under the Christmas tree. Many will be eager to wake up their families so they can unwrap these gifts. There is a sense of pure joy and excitement that radiates from these children. I have a young Goddaughter, who was explaining to me over Thanksgiving about all the different things she hopes to receive. Her eyes lit up at just the mere thought of Christmas morning. It made me stop and wonder about my own excitement and joy for Christmas. I get caught up in all of the trappings of the season and not the very reason it exists. I started to question if I had that childlike excitement for the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that I have lost part of that joy.
Advent and Christmas provides one the time to stop and think about how the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Messiah, did not come in some powerful show of force or splendor. Rather, God chose quite the opposite. He came to us as a child, born in a manger. The human embodiment of love and mercy came to us in the form of a helpless baby. In the middle of the holiday season, you rarely take the time to stop and think about how perfect that is.
Being a godfather has taught me about the amazing ability of a child's capacity to love and forgive. Many a family function, I will walk in and my goddaughter drops what she is doing and runs over to give me a big hug. Her face lights up with joy and excitement. One can only imagine a young Jesus showing the same sort of love to Mary and Joseph.
The beauty of this simplicity has inspired the Church for two thousand years. A wonderful example of this is the Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. At the end of Mass, the pope carries a small statue of Jesus to be placed in nativity scene as the choir sings the carol "Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle". This carol was written by Saint Alphonso Liguori in 1732 and translated from Neapolitan into Italian by Pope Pius IX. This hymn is about Christ as a child who descends from heaven out of love for us.
"Dearest, fairest, sweetest Infant, Dire this state of poverty. The more I care for Thee, Since Thou, O Love Divine, Will'st now so poor to be."
I think it is the perfect hymn for these last few days of Advent.
For these next few days, I invite you to join me in a quest to be like a child. A quest to seek the joy of Christ's birth of in a pure, whole hearted, and simple way. Pope Francis tweeted about a year ago "to be friends with God means to pray with simplicity, like children talking to parents." For the next few days, as prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us embrace peace, love, joy, and mercy just like a child who runs to greet you with open arms and an open heart.
For more information on Advent, check out our resources and devotional material here.
Lately, I have found myself in circumstances of trial and uncertainty, unsure where the Lord is in the midst of everything. The waiting certainly parallels the season of Advent in which we await the coming of Our Lord, the Messiah. Waiting is painful and uncertainty requires trust, both of which my control-hungry self wrestles with.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast we celebrate today, is the remedy to our fear and doubt. There’s something unique about the portrayal of Our Lady of Guadalupe: she wears a black belt. In the Aztec religion, a black belt indicates someone who is with child, showing that She too is waiting for Christ in solidarity. She wants to wrap her motherly love and protection over us, to mother us through the waiting, through the anticipation, and straight to Her Son Jesus Christ.
Our Lady came to peoples who were deeply enthralled in the Aztec religion, with angry gods who required sacrifice. She spoke a language they understood. The image left on St. Juan Diego’s cloak for the people of what is now Mexico destroyed the power of the Aztec gods and elevated the glory of Her Son. She wants to do the same for you this Advent season. Look at these words she spoke to Juan Diego, the simple farmer turned saint, “My dear little son, I love you. I desire you to know who I am. I am the ever-virgin Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains existence.”
In my circumstances, I am comforted to know that I am not abandoned. I have a Mother who will fight for me, exclaiming, “Let not your heart be disturbed. Am I not here who is your Mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not your health? Are you not happy within my fold? What else do you wish? Do not be grieved or disturbed by anything.”
As we wait for the coming of the Messiah, find comfort that Our Lady waits with us. From the moment she encountered the Angel Gabriel, to searching for a place to give birth, to fleeing to the desert, to the painful prophecy of Simeon, to the loss of Her child for three days, to the witness of His persecution, to the foot of the Cross, Mary waited. Mary waited in faith of the Father’s goodness, exclaiming, “be it done unto me according to thy will.”
Just like in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, pregnant with Our Lord, Our Lady knows how to wait with peace. She wants to give you Her peace; she wants to speak your language, love you where you are, and guide you to the joy of the coming of the Lord.
Some time ago, I wrote about the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. I mentioned how often times we hear that piece performed around Christmastime, although that portion of the Messiah is actually about Easter and the Resurrection. Now that the Nativity has arrived, perhaps it might be interesting to look at what Handel did use to interpret the Birth of Christ.
“For Unto Us a Child is Born” is taken from the words of the prophet Isaiah (Is 9:6):
For unto us a Child is born
Unto us a Son is given
And the government
Shall be upon His shoulder
And his name shall be called
The Mighty God
The Everlasting Father
The Prince of Peace
In that one verse, the prophet presents so much insight into the aforementioned Child to be born. He will be a son, he shall reign over a great dominion, and he shall bring peace. Well, only one child fits that description: Jesus Christ.
When Isaiah tells of a son being given to the faithful, he is not just talking about the neighbor’s kid. He foretells of a son presented as a gift to all who believe. And indeed, in Christ, we have not only a child but also the moment when the word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). And through that word, humanity is redeemed. Through Christ, death no longer has power. The gates of heaven are opened to all that would follow he who is called the Son of God.
“The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” declared John the Baptist (Mt 3:2). Yes, we believe that at the end of time Christ will establish his kingdom for all eternity (CCC 1042). But in the meantime, his kingdom exists on earth in the form of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church (CCC 763). Founded by Jesus with a mission to manifest the will of God, the Church waits in hopeful anticipation for the establishment of Christ’s eternal reign.
It is very appropriate, then, for Isaiah to foretell a Prince of Peace. Not only would Jesus go on to proclaim a kingdom of love but also, when he returns, establish a heavenly domain that knows no end. At Christmas, we celebrate both a beginning and an end. We celebrate the very beginning of Christ ruling the hearts and minds of the faithful while also looking toward the end when he will come again and his “kingdom will have no end.”
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
On April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland, Handel’s famous oratorio Messiah was premiered. Surprised? When we think of the Messiah we immediately think of Christmastime. Woe to the city orchestra that dares pass the holiday season without at least one performance of one of western music’s most beloved pieces. Yet, far from being a Nativity carol, the Messiah is truly an Easter gift.
Part II of the oratorio closes with one of the most well known choruses, “Hallelujah.” It occurs during scene seven, titled “God’s ultimate victory.” This follows scenes dedicated to the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ.
For the lord God omnipotent reigneth
The kingdom of this world; Is become
The kingdom of our Lord, And of His Christ
And He shall reign for ever and ever
King of kings forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah
And lord of lords forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah
And he shall reign forever and ever
At the beginning of Holy Week, we celebrate Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, humbly on a donkey. We are then invited to journey with him. We are there at the Last Supper when the Eucharist is instituted. We stand with the Blessed Mother and John the Evangelist at the foot of the Cross. We mourn Jesus’ death with them. We are asked, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” But then, at the Easter Vigil and on Easter Sunday, we rejoice at the news that the tomb is empty. Christ is risen, he is truly risen. At Mass, we do not exclaim “Alleluia” just once. We proclaim it three times.
The “Hallelujah” Chorus presents us with what the Triduum and Easter are all about. Christ, through his sacrifice on Good Friday, he takes on the sins of the world and opens Heaven up for the faithful. In his Resurrection on Easter Sunday, death is overcome. In conquering both sin and death, Jesus truly becomes the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. His rule knows no end, for he reigns for all time.
Tradition dictates that when the chorus is sung, all must stand out of reverence for the Messiah. During the Easter season, and indeed all our lives, we too must stand and journey with Christ. By doing so, we take part in that kingdom of our Lord. By doing so, we remain close to the Lord of Lords. By doing so, we can be part of the heavenly chorus that forever sings, “Hallelujah!”
Victor David is a Senior at The Catholic University of America and Trustee of the Knights of Columbus at Catholic University.
Some years ago, a dear friend and I began what we would term our "Advent Tradition." We would do something to celebrate Christmas before we both left Washington, D.C. for the holiday. (I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me…) That year, we went to see Messiah at the Kennedy Center. It was our first time seeing Handel's oratorio, heard over and over in concert halls across the world in the days leading up to Christmas. After the singing of the "Hallelujah Chorus," my friend leaned over to me and said, "I thought that was supposed to be a Christmas song, but we had to wait until Easter for them to break it out."
Advent has always occupied a special place in my imagination. Initially, I'm sure, it was because of those quintessential Advent practices. We had an evergreen wreath with four candles, a new one lit each week (when do we light the pink one??). We sang songs at church that we didn't hear at any other time of the year. The rest of the world was tiring of "All I Want for Christmas is You" by mid-December and, in church at least, we hadn't heard one strain of "O Come, All Ye Faithful." Resisting the temptation to peek behind the doors of our Advent calendar taught me something about patience and delayed gratification.
What I came to realize, though, is that Advent, with all of these little traditions, encapsulates the tension of living the Christian life. We live in the here and now, knowing that Christ in his first coming has sanctified all of our existence, but longing for the day when he will return to us. Longing for the day when the confusion and struggles of this life will be no more, when mountains will be lowered and valleys filled, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and when peace will reign.
Living in Advent is living in tension - aware of what is our past and what we long our future to be. Every day we live in the Advent tension of life and death, of suffering and wholeness, of love and loss, of peace and violence, of acceptance and rejection, of excess and poverty, of oneness and loneliness, of questions and surety, of hope and doubt. The question is, do we welcome Christ into this tension?
As my friend and I walked out of the Kennedy Center that night, I realized that, despite an attempt at celebrating Christmas, we glimpsed an Advent moment. We were reminded, one more time, that without the Passion, we could not shout "Hallelujah!" The tension of Advent surrounds us, but how well do we allow Christ to enter into that uncertainty and woundedness? If we do welcome Christ into our tension, we also welcome the new life that Christ brings with his Resurrection. That's an Advent worth celebrating.
David Pennington is the Associate Campus Minister for Liturgy and Worship at The Catholic University of America.