All Saints Day: The Miracle is Right Here

Near the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29).

Sometimes one can get the impression (through our own dryness in prayer or even just the ordinary language we use in church-life) that most of us don’t see miracles. Even Christian culture sometimes subtly tells us that miracles mostly happened before the very eyes of early believers in the New Testament era–today they are harder to see, harder to find. I sometimes wonder if this mental outlook fuels the fascination with Medjugorje as real-live supernatural for some Catholics today.

Today’s Solemnity of All Saints shows us that supernatural miracles happen all the time in our modern era, right in front of our eyes. In the Letter to the Ephesians (2:13), we Christians are told:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ.

Talk about a miracle par-excellence. That through the blood of Christ someone as worldly, prone-to-pride, blemished, sinful, and imperfect [in a myriad of ways I prefer not to recount here publicly :-)] as I could be reconciled to God. Could be at peace with the God who is Love. 

And this peace, this reconciliation with God comes with a supernatural, miraculous raise in my stature. The Letter to the Ephesians goes on to explain (vs 19):

So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God

Fellow citizens with the holy ones, fellow saints!

Through the blood of Jesus, invitation of the Holy Spirit, and grace-filled love of God the Father, I am a saint. I have experienced a supernatural miracle. Like Thomas, I have seen it and believe it.

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Gospel Response: Making “Now” Now

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;

behold, now is the day of salvation.

–2 Corinthians 6:2b, Gospel Acclamation of Monday of the First Week of Lent

The verse before today’s Gospel makes one thing quite clear–God is ready for any person’s conversion. Right here, right now. There are no “just okay” moments to come before the Lord, repenting and believing in God and his love poured out in Jesus Christ, savior of all humankind. Now is a very acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.

Yet this awesome, open door to salvation from our sins and lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ remains in the abstract unless an individual responds. Simply being present to hear that it’s the day of salvation doesn’t mean a person actually responds. Being in the presence of others who are indeed responding means nothing if I, personally, am not converting–turning my heart to God and giving it to him for the first time, or in a new way.

As human beings we often act out abstract concepts like “responding to God” or “conversion” in concrete ways. And this is a good thing. It’s one of the reasons God gives us visible signs of his grace, called sacraments, to make his holy and divine mysteries tangible to us through earthly means.

However, for the baptized and non-baptized who are not evangelized and have not made a fundamental and foundational response to Jesus Christ as a disciple and follower, many of our sacramental responses to God may go unnoticed. Take Mass for example. How many people attend Mass any given Sunday without realizing that our sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving, and participation in the Eucharist is a response to the Good News of salvation God speaks to us through holy Scripture? Though it may only be 20 minutes between the proclamation and preaching of a passage of Scripture and our participation in the Eucharist, for many the perception of connection is not as explicit as the reality indeed is.

The New Evangelization calls us not to complain about this situation, but to instead be proactive, using new methods to transmit the same, unchanging Gospel of Jesus Christ to all those we encounter, especially at Mass. This past weekend at Mass [at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, MI], the priest ended his preaching with a specific, concrete invitation to response–inviting all who wished to kneel and pray silently a line from that day’s Gospel, Jesus, “If you wish, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). He encouraged us to have faith that God can indeed make each of us clean, no matter our previous failings or missteps. But the key was, he then gave everyone the space to make the response. Right then, right there. Now is the day of salvation had a concrete time, place, and setting for all who heard his preaching.

I share this example as merely one method of offering specific means of response to those who hear our Gospel proclamation. Whether within a liturgical celebration (like Mass) or a parish event (like an annual “mission”), part of our call to the New Evangelization is discerning effective ways to make sure conditions are optimal for response. While we dare not seek or hope to control the inner workings of the Holy Spirit as God speaks to individuals in our midst, we must not turn from our role in making sure that it is true, explicit, and abundantly clear that practically and tangibly, now is a very acceptable time, now is the day of salvation for all those we encounter.

Note: This post also appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

God Has Spoken to Us Through the Son: The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) Mass During the Day

Today’s second reading from the opening of the Letter to the Hebrews (1:1-6) begins:

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son,
whom he made heir of all things
and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.

The Letter to the Hebrews was most likely written in the 80s A.D., or possibly the 60s A.D. (Fr. Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament), so the “last days” perspective of the author is our position in salvation history too–the time after the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. The “us” of Hebrews is us today, as well.

God has spoken to us through the Son.

Sounds so simple and obvious, it’s easy (at least for me) to overlook the profound meaning of this statement.

Early on, the Catechism of the Catholic Church comments on these verses, explaining:

Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father’s one, perfect and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one (§65).

Jesus, the Word made flesh–incarnate by the Holy Spirit, as we celebrate this holy day–is the Alpha and the Omega, the eternal logos. And, Jesus humbles Himself to become our Savior on a cross–“God has said everything in his Word” (CCC section title §65).

Christianity is a historical faith. But, it’s not mere history. Christianity didn’t soley happen in the past, Jesus is not contained within or confined to history.

As the Catechism goes on to make clear:

even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries (§66). 

This is where the us comes in again–yes, you and I–that kind of “us.” We of “Christian faith” gradually grasp the full significance of God’s Revelation in Jesus Christ, God’s Word.

In sum and compilation it [Revelation being made completely explicit] goes on over the course of centuries. But the tiny steps through which our dim and blurry understandings of God become more explicit, more clear, more fully revealed (cf 1 Cor. 13:12) emerge day-by-day in each of our sometimes-mundane and sometimes-more-dramatic lives as disciples of Jesus Christ living in the Holy Spirit.

God has spoken to us through the Son. 
What are you hearing God say, through the Son?
Who do you need to share the message with, so that God is speaking to an us?

 

David, Nathan, and Fraternal Correction

Yes, today’s Gospel is the annunciation to Mary. And I’m going to assume that most of us will [appropriately] hear a sermon inspired by this text today. But, I’d like to delve into the lesser-attended-to characters of today’s Sunday readings–David and Nathan.

The angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary just might be one of the most well known proclamations in human history. Mary was able to listen to God speak, through an angel. Now, I’m not sure if it’s easier to listen to God speak through angels or through other human beings–but for most of us, figuring out how to listen to God speak through other humans is important, especially when it involves the Christian practice of fraternal correction. Fraternal correction is something we’re all called to, it’s correction given in charity and love, correction given among those with a common purpose. And in David and Nathan, we find a paradigm for holy fraternal correction—communication between two imperfect human beings that creates the conditions and space for God’s will to be discerned, announced, and acted upon.

So how does this fraternal correction fruitfully occur? First, we see a realization of the need. David realizes that he needs feedback; he wants a consultation. Now this might not seem like a big deal, all of us look for guidance from others when we are wayward or confused. But, David is not in a situation like that; he’s on top of the world! He has been anointed by Samuel, defeated Goliath, gained and lost favor with Saul, survived and outlasted years of pursuit, conquered Jerusalem, and finally reunited the north and south into a unified kingdom. But even though David is now “settled in his palace,” blessed beyond belief, he still subjects his convictions to those around him. David’s enthusiasm, and even his praiseworthy motive for wanting to do something about the “ark of God dwelling in a tent,” is no substitute for testing his vision. We know from First Samuel, that David is a “man after God’s own heart.”[1] And in being a man after God’s own heart, he realizes his need, and opens himself to Nathan, a prophet. David makes himself available to God’s communication in the messenger. By realizing our need to be continually reliant on God, to not grow complacent when we are surrounded by blessings, we too as ministers can be intentional about making ourselves open to the messengers in our lives.

After David’s realization, comes the response of Nathan. At first, Nathan replies, “”Go, do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.” We don’t exactly know why he says this—he might be cowering to David’s accomplishments, or Nathan might simply assume that the Lord’s blessing is on everything David does. But, we do see that Nathan speaks for himself, not of God, in his first response. He does not take his reply to prayer; he does not initially make himself available and open to God’s communication. The role of the fraternal corrector becomes clear—when we as ministers, friends, and colleagues are called to offer the fruits of our discernment, we must submit ourselves first to God. For the person who is opening him or herself up to us, requesting our fraternal correction, is not asking for our word on the matter, but inviting God’s word to be spoken through us. Holy fraternal correction demands that we die to ourselves, so that Christ can speak through us.

Nathan stumbles, yet comes back to speak the truth that God has filled him with. This takes humility, a dying to oneself. And the result is something great, God’s message is not pure chastisement, but instead a straightening of David’s course, correcting his vision. Nathan’s prophetic words are not just God’s “no” to David’s plan, but a different “yes,” an unconditional grant, a divine promise of a dynasty, a house—an eternal relationship with God. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we must time and time again make ourselves available to God, so that we, like Nathan, might be used as messengers to convey correction that is ultimately God’s good news that is beyond our human wisdom.

After David’s realization and Nathan’s response, then what? David, like Nathan, must also die to himself to accept God’s communication in his life. David does this by taking Nathan’s message to prayer, later in the chapter, David prays, “Now, Lord God, confirm the promise that you have spoken concerning your servant and his house forever.”[2] The response for us as leaders [in whatever capacity] is not to doubt the messenger, but to take the message to prayer, and continue to discern and test all things, so we might know what is good and holy in God’s eyes.

How can this really happen in today’s world? As far as I know, none of us walks around with a special name-tag that says “prophet.” And our fellow-parishioners and co-workers  aren’t likely to either. So, where are these people imbued with charisms that we, as ministers submit our ideas, visions, and challenges to? Recognition is the key. We see that David recognizes the charisms given to Nathan, trusting in Nathan’s judgment and discernment.

As Christians, we are supernaturally empowered with charisms, spiritual gifts that are “a wonderfully rich grace for the holiness of the entire Body of Christ.”[3] In order to recognize the spiritual gifts of those around us, we as leaders must pay attention to developing these gifts in others and helping every baptized believer realize his or her charisms. In doing this, we build up the Body of Christ, so that all of us—especially those of us who are leaders—can follow the example of David who realizes his need. We can open ourselves to consultation and feedback from trusted companions, who are ready to hear and speak the message God places on their hearts for our ears.

As we continue in the Advent and Christmas seasons, we find a striking number of human messengers—not only Nathan delivering news of a dynasty beyond David’s earthly imagination, but also Isaiah, John the Baptist, Zechariah, Elizabeth, the Shepherds, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna. These human messengers often bring news of a divine “no” or change of direction that is an invitation to a greater “yes.” Invitation to a change can sometimes be good news.

Let us enter then into our own time of opening our eyes to God’s communication through imperfect human messengers, as preparation for entire lives of change and continual conversion. For we believe that trusting in the grace of our sacramental encounters with Christ, we can follow His example, dying to ourselves, so that we might truly receive and deliver messages of holy fraternal correction. Correction that is not simply a “no,” but an arrow pointing to a greater “yes.” And, what if we were to live, every day, expecting God to reach out to us through human messengers? If we were to realize our need and recognize the messengers, just imagine what we might hear.

 

[1] 1 Samuel 13:14.

[2] 2 Samuel 7:25.

[3] CCC, para. 800.

Getting Past the New Evangelization Content-Less Branding

What is the New Evangelization? Given all the events, programs, and committees claiming the phrase “New Evangelization,” it’s actually kind of hard to tell sometimes. I’ve had honest and humble parish leaders frankly admit that to them, the “New Evangelization” just seems like a brand the diocese puts on events that they want to seem important. And so, by the time “New Evangelization” talk makes its way from diocesan conferences and ministerial discussions to the typical person in the pew, what has “New Evangelization” come to mean? In many cases, the heart of the New Evangelization gets confused along the way, like in a classic game of telephone.

Marcel LeJeune strikes down some of the top myths and misconceptions that permeate pew-talk and ministry branding, explaining that the New Evangelization is not centrally concerned with:

  • better apologetics (defense of the faith)
  • fixing religious education programs
  • sharing a new message about Jesus
  • teaching others about being Catholic or getting people to be “more Catholic”

Instead, it’s all about the message of salvation that brings people into an on-going and growing relationship with Jesus Christ that we call discipleship.

Yesterday’s first reading from the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Galatians offers a passionate warning about our human tendencies to wander away from focusing on the real message. Paul is shocked that Christian believers in Galatia are so quickly straying to “a different gospel.” How could they do this, when they’d experienced the grace of Jesus Christ?!? The answer probably has something to do with sin (doesn’t it always?) and our intrinsic human desire to gravitate towards our own “different Gospel”–what’s most important to us at any given time when it comes to the Catholic faith.

For example, if I’m all about improving faith formation for kids, well then that’s what the “New Evangelization” can tend to become in my own mind. If there’s some cultural issue that fires me up, then I’m prone to call defending that teaching the “New Evangelization” and get on with it. If I want to convince more people to be Catholic (or convince Catholics to be more Catholic), then that can be the “New Evangelization” too. If I want more people to come to my talk on a moral issue, well just call it “New Evangelization” and it gets attention.

While none of these things are bad, per se, they are not the Gospel. They’re a different message. They are related to, yes–but not identical to the initial proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, as one who loves, forgives, and wants a relationship with every person. This is the heart of the New Evangelization. And, like Paul writes, the offer of relationship, communion, and salvation in Jesus Christ “is not of human origin”–it’s not just the latest Church jargon, a new brand of ministry, or a new way of “selling” Catholicism. It’s nothing less than the divine revelation of God made present in and through Jesus our Savior.

So let us be reminded by St. Paul’s letter to stay focused. The Church’s call to a New Evangelization isn’t about a new message or slapping new labels or catchphrases on our own, human priorities. It’s about the evangel, the Good News of Jesus Christ that we are to spread, one-by-one, to every person throughout the entire world.

 

God’s Incredible Love for the Individual

With today’s longer Gospel reading of an obscure-sounding family tree, you might do a double-take and think that Christmas has come early. Instead, it’s the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. At times, it can seem like the Church has a bewildering array of special days relating to Mary–and sometimes the real connection to each of our lives can be lost. But in today’s Gospel reading it’s all about the surprising power of individuals. Unlikely individuals, who reveal how much God cares and loves each of us personally.

As the Gospel author traces Jesus’ family tree we stumble upon some women with unusual stories–Tamar, who disguises herself as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law; Ruth, a non-Israelite woman who who seizes her own destiny by boldly and shockingly presenting herself to Boaz, a powerful Israelite; and finally Mary, who is “found with child through the Holy Spirit” while betrothed to Joseph, a man with a genealogy tracing to Abraham, the founding ancestor of God’s people, Israel.

Today in 2014, the world is a big place. Over 7 billion people live on our planet. 7 billion. Why would God want a personal relationship with any of us? Wouldn’t God simply seek out the most perfect, most ideal, most popular, most influential people around to be part of his divine plan?

The stories of Tamar, Ruth, and Mary show us that God doesn’t think like we do at all. He’s not out to love only those with “normal” stories–God loves each and every person, each and every one of us. This love is so divine, so beyond our understanding that  God sent his only Son to become human, to suffer and die, and take away our sins so that we can live in friendship with Him here on earth and in eternity. Today’s celebration is a reminder of the deepest reality that no matter what the world says, none of us is insignificant to God.

Retreats Can Be Relative

Thanks for your patience 🙂 I’m back after my annual summer blogging slow-down. Each of the past three summers I’ve taken courses in the Master of Nonprofit Administration program at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. It’s a condensed academic schedule, making it a pretty intensive program–yet at the same time, I always walk away feeling incredibly refreshed, revived, and excited.

My classmates have varying levels of commitment to a religious faith–some are practicing Catholics, others “drifted” Catholics, Catholic men and women religious, culturally Christian folks, devout Christians, agnostics, and more. Gathering to discuss topics like business ethics, achieving impact in social services, and the strategy of nonprofit service organizations is just an amazing lens to see, at a deeper level, what we as a culture and society are thinking, outside of the world of Catholic ministry.

Proverbs 27:17, As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another is so true, especially for those in ministry. It’s easy to get (for many good reasons!) so engaged with a circle of like-minded, Christian friends and colleagues, that we lose sight of how others who don’t share our worldview think and react to certain situations. Explaining why we think the way we do, without relying on shared foundations or accepted doctrinal truths strengthens my faith and so often leads me to more gratitude and appreciation for how the Holy Spirit has led me and guided me, even in my own ignorance and blindness. 

When I was in formation for a Master of Divinity degree, my colleagues often joked that I’d never been on a “real” or “proper” retreat. Granted, we had 3 retreats a year–some in outdoor settings and some at convents, some more contemplative in nature and some more active–so I’m not entirely sure what they meant 😉 But, during my time in academic theological formation, the times I most felt on retreat, were the couple of times a year I went away for a week or weekend to do Army training. Something about the relatively mundane and repetitive nature of these sorts of annual training, plus living with people from all different walks of life, always enabled me to come back to spiritual and academic formation refreshed.

This summer was chock full of blessings in discernment, in opportunities opening up, in fellowship, and more–for that I’m profoundly thankful to God, and thankful for the blessed refreshment and peace that comes only from the Spirit that I feel as a new school year (my perspective as a teacher) begins. 🙂