Worship Wednesday

Today for Worship Wednesday we are listening to, AND watching the title track music video from John Mark McMillan’s new album “Mercury and Lightning”.  Per usual JMM moves beyond cliché into the realm of rewarding and reverent art.  I’ll let him speak for himself as to the meaning and message of his new work. I hope his reflection resonates with you as powerfully as it did with me:

“Life is riddled with conflict: the tension between chaos and order, the known and the unknown, certainty and doubt. From my point of view, these contentions are built into the human experience. I think we’re ALL chasing something, propelled daily into the unknown as we grapple for some sort of connection to that which is greater than ourselves.

I consider myself to be a follower of Christ, a believer, and at least a fumbling apprentice of the better way. Still, I seem to have little tolerance anymore for a brand of “escape-valve Christianity” that would deny the presence of life’s terrible mysteries and attempt to offer me certainty as counterfeit for a living, evolving, terrifying faith.

The truth is – some days I think I find God, and some days I think I don’t. But maybe he finds me… every day. Even more, maybe all this running and chasing and striving has been the problem. Maybe the problem is that we’re too busy looking for something we already have.”– JMM (Borrowed from his facebook post for the video)

Holy Saturday

Duccio36On Holy Saturday we celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ “decent into hell”, not the Hell of the damned,  in which one suffers the eternal lack of God, but in Hebrew “sheol”. Heaven is closed by the sin of Adam and Eve.  But what happens to the righteous souls who died before Jesus could open the gates again? “Sheol” is the place where those souls waited, in a sense, for God to set them free. This event of Holy Saturday is also called the “harrowing of hell” (probably the coolest name for anything ever). “Harrowing” means to rob or steal. On the Cross Jesus robs death of it’s power on a cosmic scale. Today, we are called to acknowledge the breadth of this victory over death. Jesus doesn’t just beat death, he run rules it, then keeps on swinging.  Wait… victory over death? Don’t we have to wait until tomorrow (Easter) for that?  No! Think of the decent into hell like a teaser trailer.  Trailers prepare us for, and invite us to take part in a movie. Meditating on the souls of the dead set free prepares us to receive the new life that Jesus has for us in the Resurrection. To further this point let’s read an excerpt from an ancient homily on Holy Saturday (Seriously, take the time to read this, it’s incredible):
“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
  He has gone to search for our first parents, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
 [To Adam he says] I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
  See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
  I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
  Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”

 

Random reflection on a Tuesday in Lent

From Mount Hor the children of Israel set out on the Red Sea road,
to bypass the land of Edom.
But with their patience worn out by the journey,
the people complained against God and Moses,
“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,
where there is no food or water?
We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,
which bit the people so that many of them died.
Then the people came to Moses and said,
“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.
Pray the LORD to take the serpents away from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,
“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,
and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.”
Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,
and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent 
looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. –Numbers 21:4-9


Have you ever met someone who is totally ungrateful and thought “they need to get beat up”, in the hope that it would give them some perspective on how good their life is?  The events in today’s Mass reading from the Old Testament are little like that.

The people of God, who have been journeying through the desert toward the promised land, get upset that the journey is taking longer than they thought it would. They run out of patience, and lose perspective.  Ungratefully, they curse the blessings that God has given them.  Note, what they say contradicts itself.  “Why have you brought us up from Egypt where there is no food or water?” they ask.  But, in the very next line they say, “we are discusted with this wretched food”. If there was no food, how could they be disgusted with it? Like a teenager lashing out, they are trying to hit their father where it hurts.  First they act ungrateful about being saved from slavery.  Secondly, they complain about the Manna (bread which miraculously formed from dew) and the quail (which they caught and ate after the birds miraculously showed up in their camp) and treat it as if it’s nothing. So what’s the deal? Why are they being brats? The Israelites are really dealing with an often unspoken struggle in the spiritual life: resentment.  The feeling of bitterness we have towards God when he doesn’t meet our expectations.

In reality, God’s people are not upset that he is giving them what they need.  They are ticked at the fact that he isn’t giving them what they want.  What do they want?  The comfort and pleasure of their former life.  Of course, this is ironic, because they were enslaved in their former life; but, ultimatley, they are resentful of God because in order to remain faithful to Him, they have to deny themselves. By sending snakes into the camp, and by giving them the remedy to their suffering, God reminds His children how dependent they are on his care. He also foreshadows that His plan goes beyond healing them from poisonous bites. He also wants to give them a remedy for the poison of sin.
Now, there are many reasons why people might be angry with God.  The loss of a loved one, the apparent meaninglessness of suffering, or mabye they had a bad experience with a Church/pastor. Anger toward God in this way is not necessarily good, but it’s understandable. Often though, we can be tempted to resent God, and turn away from the Catholic Christian life, over much less intense things. In order to be in relationship with God we have to turn away from sin. In order to turn away from sin, we also have to deny the pleasure that comes from sin. Often this is the hardest part. It’s easy to recognize why certain sins are bad, but it’s painful to say “no” when it feels good. When we have denied sin, but are still attached to the pleasure it gives it’s easy to be resentful.  When we constantly fantasize about what we’re missing out on, as opposed to focusing on what we’ve been given, its only a matter of time until we give in. Like the Israelites, we need to get some perspective. God has bigger things in store for us than our immediate pleasure. His destiny for us is that we be caught up in the infinite and ecstatic fire of His love for eternity . Yet, in order to get there we often have to say no to the temporary high of created things*. This is exactly the point of the Cross. On the Cross Jesus denies himself utterly. He literally pours himself, his blood, out for us. Not just as a reminder or example of the self denial we need to live, but as the fountain of self giving love that we can drink from and be empowered by. It’s not a coincidence that the Israelites were dissatisfied with Manna. The plain bread God provided them.  How often do we overlook the Eucharist? The plain bread which is actually the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. Think about it for a second. If the Eucharist is really GOD then is there any pleasure, any sin, that can overshadow it’s greatness? Let us pray this Lent that we can have perspective. That we can deny ourselves the pleasure of sin, in exchange for the joy and fulfillment that comes from being in a state of grace, and receiving Jesus in communion. Let’s not fall into the petty resentment of the Israelites, but join in the gratitude of the Eucharist, which literally translated means “thanksgiving”. Let’s look to the Cross, where Jesus makes a remedy for suffering and death, out of suffering and death.
*Created things and pleasure are not bad in and of themselves. In this case we are talking about the abuse of created things. For example, lust instead of authentic sexual love; drunkenness instead of enjoyment without losing control; vengeance as opposed to justice etc. As we grow in the spiritual life, sometimes God asks us to let go of even legitimate pleasure in order to grow closer to Him. The important thing is we are not denying that what God has made is good, just that he is better. 

The Annunciation

Here is an excerpt from a daily prayer series we’ve been writing for our parish during lent.  We call it “Even Now”.  To sign up text ‘evennow’ to 84576

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READ: LUKE 1:26-38
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
REFLECT
The Annunciation is the great solemnity where we celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary’s “Yes” to God’s announcement/proposal that she would bear Jesus. We also celebrate the “Overshadowing” of the Lord over Our Lady , and the conception of Jesus.
The dialogue between the Angel Gabriel and The Blessed Virgin is the perfect microcosm of prayer and our spiritual life. It is objectively an incredible moment, and also a profound example for us.  God invites Mary to become “Theotokos”, literally God Bearer.  She responds in holy fear, humility, confidence, and love, “Be it done unto me according to your word”.  This is one of the greatest moments of all time.  Her “yes” allows God to enter history.  To become it’s center, it’s hinge.  Every moment before and since, now can find meaning, hope, and redemption in reference to this one. Mary’s body becomes the first foothold of the Kingdom of God on earth.  It’s first castle and throne.  The springboard from which it would spread to the ends of the earth. Not just to every country, but to every heart. In the “overshadowing” of the Holy Spirit, Mary experiences all this both physically and spiritually.  The amazing part is, we can too.
Think of every time we receive communion.  Father (or the eucharistic minister) is like the angel Gabriel.  He holds up the host, and says, “The Body of Christ”.  As if to say, “Behold you will bear the Son”, body, blood, soul, and divinity. Like Mary, we are being invited to become God bearers. His vessels both spiritually, and physically.  This should stir our hearts to ask the same question Our Lady does.”HOW CAN THIS BE?”. The answer? God has freely chosen us. We are asked to respond, like the Blessed Virgin, with humble acceptance. “Amen”, we say. “Be it done unto me according to your word”.
The miracle of Mary’s “yes” to God was it’s permanence. Her “yes” stretches through her whole life, in every thought, word, and deed, through the Cross, and into eternity.  “Be it done unto me” was (and still is) her foundation, her mantra, her source and summit.  It defined her. The challenge for us today is to respond in the same way.  Often our “yes” to God in the Eucharist only lasts until we walk out the door of the Church.  Some of us don’t even make it to the pew before we let meanness, lust, anxiety, or fear take over. Let’s take time to reflect today on the amazing privilege of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. Let’s take time to prepare to receive Him again.  Finally, let’s ask Him to help us be like Mary, and enable us to make a more permanent “yes”.  To not just receive Him, but to bear him out into the world through our prayers, acts of charity and service, our speech, our attitude.  To show the world who He is in all things.
Take a moment to reflect objectively on how amazing the Annunciation is. 
In what way is my “yes” to God temporary?
How can I prepare myself better to receive communion?
How can I approach Mass in general more seriously?
Pray a decade of the Rosary reflecting on the Annunciation.  Ask Our Lady to give you her heart for Christ, and to help us respond to Him with her love and zeal.
RESPOND PS 40:7-8A, 8B-9, 10, 11
R. Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.
Sacrifice or oblation you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Holocausts or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, “Behold I come.”
“In the written scroll it is prescribed for me,
To do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!”
I announced your justice in the vast assembly;
I did not restrain my lips, as you, O LORD, know.
Your justice I kept not hid within my heart;
your faithfulness and your salvation I have spoken of;
I have made no secret of your kindness and your truth
in the vast assembly.
R. Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.
RESOLVE
In what area of my life do I need to say, “be it done unto me” the most?
For further reflection: 

Seven Last Words

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A simple meditation for a Friday in Lent. The Seven Last Words. Let’s put ourselves in front of the Cross, and listen.

“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34)

Amen, I say to thee: this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:43)

Woman, behold thy son.” To the disciple, “Behold your mother.” (Lk 19:26-27)

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34) [The beginning of Psalm 22]

I thirst.” (Jn 19:28) [Mother Teresa’s famous meditation]

It is consummated.”  (Jn 19:30)

Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”  (Lk 23:46)