Are you a fan or a follower?Quite a few Christian preachers and teachers (including Catholic ones) have used these images as the basis for helping us move beyond merely liking Jesus, to actually following Him. And that’s a good thing. But one particular passage of Scripture gives us unique insight into precisely what kind of followers God desires us to be.
Coming back into Jewish territory after performing powerful deeds among the Gentiles, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd. So surrounded, he actually stays right by the sea, where he’d come across by boat (Mark 5:21). Jesus heads off to respond to the desperate pleas of Jairus, a synagogue official whose daughter is gravely ill. At this point, we see that this isn’t just a crowd of fans, they are followers (vs. 24). They follow Jesus and even press in upon him! Yet during this movement, a woman from within the band of followers makes her way up to Jesus–and touches his garment (vs. 27).
Just imagine the scene, how difficult it would have been for this one follower to push her way through an in-motion crowd of followers, to get to one person–Jesus–the person the entire group was following. Physically, it’d be tough to follow Jesus directly from among this moving crowd. But this woman also suffered from hemorrhaging bleeding. She wasn’t even physically well. On top of this, to the rest of the Jewish followers, she would have been considered ritually impure or unclean for having this medical condition. They would not want her near them at all, lest any of them be “infected” by her impurity. Imagine the disapproving looks, or even those who use their bags, cloaks, or walking sticks to keep her back. And yet, she makes it to Jesus!
None of us aims to be just a fan of Jesus. We want to be followers. But following is complex, why? Because we’re inevitably part of a crowd, part of a community–we have to interact with others, get close to them, and follow Jesus together. In church life, it’s possible to happily exist among the crowd of followers, but never make that decisive move to reach out to Jesus with the faith that He can heal, forgive, or transform whatever it is in our own life.
Why do we stay passive as followers? Maybe it’s our own pride, we struggle to admit that we can’t do it on our own, we can’t earn our way to heaven, we need Jesus to heal us personally. Or maybe it’s that we want to appear “normal”–not “too Christian” or “too holy” for a “regular parish” (whatever that is!). Maybe we’re comfortable as a follower, just moving along with the crowd, and don’t think Jesus would respond to us; we don’t want to “bother” Jesus by touching his cloak.
This woman is saved by her faith. She leaves in peace, cured, and called daughter by Jesus.
This is what awaits any one of us, any person who comes to Jesus in faith. God does not reject any one who comes to Him.
Don’t just follow. Be transformed by the power of Jesus.
All too often the mention of Mary is perceived as a point of division among Christians. And this is a sadness.
Especially, for example, when it keeps Protestant Christians from preaching, reading, and proclaiming the great truths flowing from the life and witness or Mary (for fear of being called “too Catholic”).
Or, when it keeps Catholic Christians from speaking out against or changing examples of Marian devotion that are misleading or do not clearly show the essential difference “from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit,” (for fear of being called “too Protestant”) (CCC para. 971).
On this Saturday (a customary day for Marian devotion) of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, I offer this rich reflection from Prof. Matthew Milliner of Wheaton College.
As a new professor at Wheaton College, I proposed a course focusing on the Virgin Mary and braced for resistance, but intrigued approval was all that came my way. Nor was I alone. I learned that another course on the Virgin was being offered in a different department at Wheaton the same semester; rather than competing for student attention, both classes quickly filled.
And so I packed my syllabus with primary sources, supplemented with Tim Perry’s excellent Mary for Evangelicals, and off we went, twenty-five students and I, on a journey from Luke to Lourdes, from Matthew to Medjugorje. Read more…
As human beings, we seem hard wired toward sharing news when it’s great news. We enthusiastically communicate with others all the time when we have really good news to share. It doesn’t take any special training or programmatic preparation. So why isn’t talking about heaven something exciting and great to share?
A lot of Christians just aren’t sure about what eternal life includes. We believe in eternal life in the abstract sense, but deep inside, we’re not sure if a heaven that includes the worst sinners makes sense, we’re not sure if we want this eternal life if it’s just some manipulative reward for our own good behavior, we’re not sure if we want an endless continuity of a “better” earthly existence (i.e. a pop culture image of heaven as a place with endless luxury cars or something along those lines).
On this very day, nine years ago, Pope Benedict XVI opened the season of Advent by teaching on this ultimate hope in an encyclical letter called Spe Salvi [“in hope we were saved”]. Now, I wasn’t the type of person to be reading encyclicals when Spe Salvi first came out (truth be told, I think I was busy on a deployment in Iraq at the time)…however, since then I’ve come to love this encyclical. I find myself quoting it all the time to help offer language that resonates when it comes to talking about eternal life and the purification for those rooted in Christ that makes perfect communion with God possible!
So how does Pope Benedict describe eternal life with God?
the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality…like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. (Spe Salvi, 12)
This way of thinking about heaven isn’t just about me as an individual. We believe that God’s final judgement “appears at the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers” (Spe Salvi, 14). Heaven “presupposes that we escape from the prison of our ‘I'” (Spe Salvi, 14). We are not saved to be alone, but saved to be in perfect loving relationship.
As Pope Benedict goes on to explain:
Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life (Spe Salvi, 28).
But who can confidently look forward to eternal life knowing what Jesus teaches? i.e. we must be perfect as God the Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). The key is that what God calls us to is not a condition for eternal life with God; not a simple human quid pro quo. Yet it’s still the objective reality of who God is. Perfect. Complete. Love. Life. And logically, though we can be forgiven from any sin (except deliberately refusing to accept God’s mercy by repenting), we can’t be in perfect communion with the objective reality of God, if we ourselves can’t let go of all that holds us back, what’s not holy, our sinful tendencies. This is where purification, cleansing, or (as it’s commonly called) the process of purgatory comes in. As the Church believes, this spiritual purgation isn’t about cartoon skulls, bones, hard labor, and a time clock–but true salvation.
Here’s Benedict summarizing a way we can speak about this:
The encounter with him [Christ] is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation.
His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God…At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his [Christ’s] love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.
It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. (Spe Salvi, 47)
If that’s not the most beautiful explanation of how encountering Christ in judgement isn’t a moment of terror, but instead a moment of hope, I don’t know what is!
How good is this news for those burdened with the idea that they need to earn salvation?
Or those living without the freedom of knowing how forgiveness and judgement can be possible?
It’s great news, that our earthly lives aren’t meaningless (and many people regardless of religious labels feel this, almost instinctively), that we can draw close to God now in preparation for eternity!
And, though as disciples of Jesus Christ we’re shouldn’t aspire to have lots of baggage that holds us back from perfect Love with God in eternity, it’s a blessing to know God is ready to make us “like Him” (1 Jn 3:2).
Finally, our belief in heaven does not exclude justice every human being yearns for. This is the comfort and hope of a final judgment, when all is revealed–the farthest consequences of all actions and in-actions (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1039). This great and final judgment does not reverse each of our individual judgments at the end of our earthly lives, but brings to completion God’s justice and grace. As Benedict observed, “a world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering” (Spe Salvi, 42). Eternal life includes this great and final judgment, where God’s power reveals all. In in this revealing, comes God’s justice–the suffering we cause or alleviate matters, not above or against God’s mercy, forgiveness, and purification, but within God’s ultimate plan to bring all things into perfect Divine Love and Life.
How’s that for a robust description of “heaven”? These Church teachings are great news.
Ask people about spirituality beyond this world, about the afterlife, about cosmic judgement…you’ll be surprised how many people (regardless of labels like atheist, agnostic, non-practicing Catholic, etc.) have a sense of a supreme moment of satisfaction, of contact with perfect Love that impacts both themselves and relationships with others, of a supernatural justice. You’ll be surprised how many Christians have always believed in heaven, but never thought deeply about how Christ purifies them, or have a way to speak about how our actions matter, without resorting to a [false!] works-based salvation.
We indeed have good news to share that can change a person’s life, bring them freedom from having their hopes constrained by the physical world we see each day, and open them up to the Truth that comes with this Love and Life.
You know that connecting people to a group–a place to belong, a place that actually notices when you’re missing–is vitally important to the life of a Christian disciple.
Yet even though we know this, the reality of becoming a parish of small groups seems had to imagine. Just on the logistical and organizational levels alone.
For a dose of encouragement, check out some of the webpages from St. Anthony of Padua down in The Woodlands, TX that show how a parish can use technology to ease the logistical and organizational burdens of growing a network of groups:
Community Groups Landing Page with a short video trailer, longer message, and more
Collectively as Christians, most of us recall these words from Scripture well. A pivotal moment in the lives of the disciples in Galilee, and yet a moment that transcends history, extending to each and every one of us, who at some point encountered and then made a fundamental, life-changing decision that opened a new horizon in our lives (Deus Caritas Est, para. 1).
Mark the Evangelist offers us a brief description of Jesus’ actions before he calls his disciples, setting the scene this way:
“As he [Jesus] passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea.” (Mk 1:16)
While this sounds rather mundane, pause and really imagine the scene: Jesus is walking along the waterfront, moving at a normal pace. He sees Simon and Andrew from afar, and Jesus continues to watch them as he proceeds along, and gradually the two men come into closer view. Jesus saw them.
Now imagine when Jesus first called you. As Jesus the Risen Christ watched you–before even speaking to you, into your heart–what did Jesus see?
What was your life like as Christ watched you? Were there areas in need of healing? Did you have questions about the meaning of life, about God? Did you live based on values that would ultimately lead away from happiness? What did you look like, when Jesus saw you, as he did thousands of years ago, Simon and Andrew?
Most importantly, what does it mean that Jesus then called you (regardless of what Jesus saw at the time)?
What a miracle this moment of call was and is for each of us! Something beyond human comprehension or explanation. We often reflect on ways our churches can be more “seeker-sensitive” and oriented toward the outsider (and this is good); yet, “seeker” also applies to God. God is the ultimate Seeker.
Praying with Mark 1:16 to reflect on where you were in life when Jesus called you is a great way to start preparing your own personal testimony. As Josh Canning writes over at Canadian Catholic, the very first step of developing one’s testimony is recognizing and naming your back story. Canning writes:
So you made a decision at one point to turn away from a life driven by self-interest and follow Jesus with sincere faith and trust. What was going on before that decision? What was your life focused on? Why? Looking back, how/when did you realize that this was not completely satisfying?
Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that your life when Jesus called you was full of debauchery, criminal behavior, etc. My life looked pretty good from the outside (and even to me! I was a happy kid!)–good grades, active in church, responsible high school student, etc.–but what was Jesus seeing in you, when he called you? For me, Jesus saw a successful, civic-minded, moral teenager who was alas uninterested and unaware of things eternal and focused on worldly achievement and service.
But Jesus looked at me. He saw me. And even after seeing me, Jesus called me. And this call of the Lord–this is a life-changing call. Thanks be to God 🙂
Where were you? What did Jesus see? Consider your own backstory as the first step to sharing your own testimony with joy and gratitude!
Do your faith formation classes teach people about prayer or form people as pray-ers?
Yesterday marked the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s annual “Catechetical Sunday”–an unofficial kick-off to the new academic year of catechesis in parishes across the United States. This year’s theme is Prayer: The Faith Prayed, a great opportunity to consider the essential relationship between prayer and catechesis in your parish or Catholic school.
Here’s the reality, all too often we think of catechesis or religious education as a collection of doctrines, of specific claims, statements, and positions to be learned. Something that can be fully captured in a good textbook. Yet this ignores the example of our very own Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). Part 4 of the Catechism itself is “Christian Prayer.” Catechesis essentially includes the action of praying. As this year’s theme reveals, “pray” as a verb is an action of, and in, true catechesis.
Now you might be thinking, “yes, this is obvious–of course we pray during religion class, and of course our second grade students are required to memorize such-and-such prayers.”
But, what I offer to you is this: how we pray in catechesis often teaches more about prayer than our planned “lessons” ever do.
Do you offer prayer in a perfunctory, obligatory, rushed way? I certainly have. Especially when I feel a “crunch” for valuable time in a classroom.
Yet as I reflect on this, yikes, what am I really teaching my students by doing that? For one, I’m making prayer all about me. “There, I’ve said a prayer [and hopefully everyone has prayed or at least listened], and now we can move on.” Secondly, have I set the conditions for God to actually speak? i.e. Have I left any space (i.e. time, silence) for my students to hear God’s voice speaking to them personally? Am I treating this moment with the full dignity of expectation that this could be the most important part of class? That my students might tangibly encounter the Divine?
As a catechist, woe to me if I’m ever proud or satisfied that my students have memorized their prayers through hard work of drilling with their parents. While rote memorization in itself is an important, basic step in cultivating one’s prayer life (General Directory for Catechesis, no. 154)–the how of memorization matters. Memorization that occurs organically through the repeat action of praying, rather than attempting to memorize the Apostles Creed as if the Constitution, conveys the reality, significance, and words of a prayer (while memorization as for a quiz merely teaches words). Forming and empowering Christians of all ages to actually pray–to converse with God–this gift in the Holy Spirit should be my only “satisfaction” as a catechist. If my students can only follow me in prayer, and not pray on their own–then I have not fulfilled my full calling as a catechist.
Today’s Gospel (Lk 8:16-18) offers a parable where Jesus declares to his audience, “No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel or sets it under a bed; rather, he places it on a lamp stand, so that those who enter may see the light.”
In catechesis, prayer is our light–“the faith prayed.” Prayer illuminates, brings power, spreads the warmth of God’s love, and is a moment of personal intimacy with God available to each and every person–every child, every adult, in every faith formation setting. Let us not be content to show a photograph of this “lamp” to our students for study. No, in catechesis we must pray and form pray-ers. Light the lamp with our students and experiencing the Light together.
a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com
One more intriguing tidbit from the Pew Research Center in this new study: insight into the factors common among those who now attend religious services more regularly than they used to.
First off, how common is it for a person to increase their rate of religious attendance? 27% of Americans fall into this category–a reminder that, despite some popular perceptions, we actually live in a very open and curious society, where many are experiencing changes in their religious practices toward the positive.
So how do these Americans explain the reasons for changes?
49% mention changes in their personal religious beliefs as the main reason for attending more often
23% mention social factors, including changes in family structure (such as marriage or the birth of a child), entering different phases of life (e.g., going to college, joining the military, etc.) or a desire for fellowship or community
20% mention practical changes, such as having a work schedule that permits them to attend church more often now than in the past
Implications for Ministry:
Changes in belief matter more than anything else. What beliefs are adults learning and entering into more deeply in your parish life? Is what’s emphasized the most something that would inspire increases in practice?
Times of social transition are opportunities. This means thinking beyond sacramental preparation for baptism and marriage as “the” coming back moments. How are we aware and responding to these transitional life stages?
Practical things–like transportation, universal accessibility, times of Mass/programs, childcare, etc.– matter, a not-insignificant 20% of the time. How can we remove practical barriers to increased participation, not as an afterthought, but as an intentional part of our local strategies.