In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:1-4)
There appears to be a growing tendency for more people to decorate their homes and public areas with more lights and decorations than usual during the season of Advent this year. When I go out for an evening walk in our neighborhood these days I find myself looking at the lights as a child filled with awe and wonder. What is it about these lights that so fascinates us? In the midst of the chaos and darkness that seems to have come over the world and so many nations these days, the lights of Christmas seem so much more inviting and meaningful. Could it be that we have created artificial lights to make up for the light of Christ in each of us which can no longer be seen?
Jesus tells his followers very clearly, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lamp stand where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5:14-16) Perhaps we have either forgotten how important light is or we have just taken it for granted. How do we feel when the power goes out and we are obliged to sit in darkness? The first thing we look for are the candles or a flashlight because we are uncomfortable in the darkness. There are many who are in a spiritual darkness right now and are searching for the light. These may be family members, spouses, significant others, parents or children, friends, neighbors, countries or fellow parishioners who sit beside us in church. Does our light shine for them?
It would be good for us to take this moment in Advent to reflect on the importance of light. Let us go back to the beginning and take another look at the Story of Creation. The first aspect of God’s creation is light. Nothing can survive without light. Then God is described as having continued with the creation of all the things that are needed to sustain life. He prepares the earth, creates light and darkness, moon and stars, plants, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and all the animals. God sees his creation and is pleased. God saw how good it was. He then said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26) Realizing that it is not good for man to be alone, he creates a woman from the rib of the man. He crowns all of his creation with the gift of love. As we continue to reflect on the many stories in the Old Testament we realize how difficult it was for mankind to learn how to love. We saw how our first parents, who had everything they needed to be happy, were seduced by the serpent (powers of darkness). Wars, tribal conflicts, greed, power struggles and hatred unfolded and impeded the growth of this gift of love. God realizes something must be done to help his children to love each other as he loves them. He sends prophets and teachers but nothing seems to work. He has another plan that he promises would unfold. He would bring into the world a new light that no one would be able to extinguish. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)
During this season of Advent we prepare to celebrate that coming. Jesus comes into the world but is not recognized. We see only a tiny baby born in a cave, a child born of ordinary parents. A great light appears in the sky at the time and only the wise men knew what that light meant. We quickly hear of how the powers of darkness try to extinguish this light. The threatened king, having heard the news from the wise men, goes so far as to slaughter all the infant boys of about the same age as Jesus in order snuff out the true light of Jesus. His parents nurture this new life and watch him grow in wisdom before God and man. When the right moment came, Jesus reveals himself to the world. After his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened (for him). And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17) Then Jesus was led into the desert to be tempted by the devil. There he is tempted to do his Father’s work in ways quite different from the unconditional love his Father intended him to make known to the world.
Light, Life and Love seem to be the pattern that continues to be reflected in the lives of all of us. Recently there has been an increase in the number of newborn babies being baptized in our parish church. As I behold these little ones squirming and crying during the celebration of their baptism, I see them as new lights coming into the world. I ask myself, “What will these children be?” As the Rites of Initiation are coming to a close, the godparents are presented with a lighted candle to hold on behalf of their godchild while hearing the words. “Take this lighted candle and strive throughout your entire lifetime to shine brightly with the light of faith and good works so that when the Lord comes, you may go forth in radiance to meet him.” These new lights are being entrusted to their parents and godparents to be loved, nurtured, protected, and sustained in life until the day when they are old enough to decide how they will live their life in a way that will make known God’s love to the world. They need to be reminded to be on their guard because the powers of darkness will do all they can to destroy this light and love.
As we stand in awe and wonder, enjoying the lights proclaiming the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, let us reflect on our own personal journeys over the many years of our lives. We also came into this world, created out of nothing by a loving God. We were new lights come into the world. As a child I remember hearing the adults around us saying that a new star appears in the sky at the birth of each child coming into the world. The parents who gave us life were most ordinary. There did not seem to be anything special about us as far as the world was concerned. Our parents nurtured us, loved us as best they could, helped us to grow and did all they could to sustain this life entrusted to them by the Creator. The day came when we were baptized and our godparents and parents were given the lighted candle to be reminded to hold that new light in their hands until their child set off on his/her own. The day came when we were called to do our part to make God’s love known to the world by letting our life shine brightly with the light of faith and good works so that when the Lord comes, we may go forth in radiance to meet him. Most of us can recall the many times the powers of darkness attempted to destroy the light and love of Christ in us.
During this season of Advent let us ask ourselves humbly and sincerely some questions about the light of our life. Does our light shine brightly so that others see our good works and our acts of love? Do they give glory to God for having sent us into this world? Do we truly rejoice because Jesus came into this world to make his Father’s unconditional love known to us that we might make this same unconditional love known to those who are closest to us as well as to the stranger in our midst? May our lights shine during this Advent Season and for the remaining years of our life!
“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.” (Luke 8:16)
SOME NEW REFLECTIONS
REVISITING THE GIFT OF SORROW
When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” (Luke 7:13)
This past Sunday the Gospel Reading in the Byzantine Catholic Church was about the raising of a widow’s son. Jesus was visiting a city called Naim accompanied by some disciples and a large crowd. As he was approaching the city gate, a man who had died was being carried out for burial. He was the only son of a widowed mother. When he saw her sorrow and grief, we are told that he was moved with pity, another way of saying he was moved to the depths of his heart for her. As he said to her, “Do not go on weeping,” he went up and touched the coffin, probably an extended wicker basket used for burial in those days. Those who were carrying the dead man stopped along with all the people. “Young man, I tell you rise!” The dead man rose and began to speak and Jesus gave him back to his mother. (Cfr. Luke 7:11-16) This is the scripture passage always read at the doors of the church as the funeral liturgy comes to a close and the body of one of our deceased brothers or sisters is being carried out for burial.
For many of us this passage is considered among the most touching story about Jesus. It speaks of an aspect of human life from which none of us can escape. In the time of Jesus this funeral procession would have been lead by a group of professional mourners with their musical instruments accompanied by cries of grief. The timeless grief and sorrow of the world can be felt in the few words which tell us that he was his mother’s only son and she was a widow. This reminds us that no day goes by without someone, somewhere, grieving and suffering from a broken heart. In life we are surrounded by tears and grief. We cannot escape!
In this passage, however, we are especially touched by the compassion of Jesus which we also see in most of the other stories we read about him in the scriptures. Jesus is moved with pity. To be moved in such a way is to be touched in the deepest part of our being. This is an important way of understanding our Lord. In the culture of Jesus’ time, this compassion would have been most astounding since there were so many people who embraced the philosophy of the Stoics. Stoicism was a belief that considered God to be incapable of any kind of feelings. Our grief and sadness cannot make God feel the same thing, so they thought. For many of the followers of Jesus, this was the most attractive and touching aspect of his life.
A passage in the Gospel of John is a most important one for us to consider at this point. It was at the Last Supper when Jesus tells those present, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. I am going to prepare a place for you. I will come back again and take you to myself so that where I am you also may be.” When questioned by Thomas, Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” At that moment Philip said to Jesus, “Show us the Father….” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Cfr. John 14:1-9)
There are many ways we can read the Sacred Scriptures. We miss a great deal if we just read it as a great literary work. However, if we read the scriptures with a desire to learn more about what God is like we will discover a great treasure. When we come to understand that all the stories told about Jesus and all the lessons he taught are reflections of what God, our Father, is like. Jesus makes clear to us that whoever sees him sees the Father. “Look at me,” Jesus tells Philip in response to his request that Jesus show them the Father. Jesus teaches us that our heavenly Father is like the Father of the Prodigal Son, like the King who throws banquets and invites everyone, like the one who feels the sorrow of a widowed mother, like the one who forgives over and over again, like the one who knows rejection and humiliation, like the one who rejects no one, like the one who dines with sinners and outcasts, the one who grieves with us in our pain and brokenness, the one who remains with us always, the one who waits patiently for us whenever we turn away from him, the one who knows us better that we know ourselves, the one who knows and binds up our wounds.
From the moment Jesus came into this world, born in a cave because there was no room for him on a cold winter night, he experienced some form of sorrow. Rejection, humiliation and criticism followed him all through his life. He chose love, mercy and forgiveness rather than security, fame and power as his way of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. In the end he suffered crucifixion and death at the hands of the many religious leaders of his day who rejected his message and chose to live their lives in their own way. Again and again, we need to ask ourselves if we will also reject his message and choose to live in our own way instead of the way Jesus has shown us.
When we read the Old Testament and we consider all the stories as a way of understanding God, we can see the role of suffering and grief in the lives of the people of God before the coming of Jesus. God gives so many gifts to the people as a sign of his great love for them. However, again and again the people of God turn away and reach out for the false gods of the time. Whenever they do this they begin to experience many problems and often readers think that God is punishing them. The truth is they are in great trouble because they have turned away from the true God. It often happened when some difficulty came into their lives and life was not going their way. But God is shown waiting for them to come to their senses and turn back to him. He sends prophets to them reminding them of the suffering and pain they are experiencing because they are not heeding his commands. He always welcomes them back. The lessons of life these people could not accept were the setbacks and the sufferings that come into every life.
Jesus shows us the way we are to take on our journey through life. He says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus accepted suffering and grief as a part of life and we must do the same if we are going to be true followers. We must not only accept but embrace all the sorrows that we may experience on our journey. This is a gift that reminds us that we need a power greater than ourselves, that we have such a power in our God who is always with us and grieves with us in our sufferings and sorrows. We must not, however, forget that all our suffering and grief is but a prelude to something new, in the end a new life. After his humiliating death on the cross, Jesus rose to new life and is now with us always. As with Jesus, all the sorrows of our own lives will one day lead us to our new life with him.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3-4;10-12)
ALL SAINTS SUNDAY
In our Byzantine Catholic Churches we celebrate All Saints on the Sunday after the great feast of Pentecost. Who are the saints we are commemorating on this very special Sunday? We are remembering and honoring all those wonderful people who lived with great faith in God and are known only to a few but clearly known by God. They are our parents and grandparents who did the best they could in caring for us and teaching us about a compassionate and caring God, they are the friends who came to our rescue in times of need and great challenges, they are the ones who made known to us the love of God. They are the ones who had submitted their wills to God and who had sincerely committed themselves to follow as best they could the way that Jesus presented to us. They strived to the best of their ability, with the gifts God had given them to pass on their faith to those who would follow them, and in so doing help to make our world a better place.
Many of us learned a great deal about faith while growing up in the hard coal regions of Pennsylvania, observing the faith of our parents and grandparents along with the many immigrants who came to our country to make a better life for their children. In the midst of adversity, they continued the struggle always believing that God was with them and would transform every tragedy into something good.
A major problem confronting our generation is a basic lack of trust in the mystery of God. Many are afraid to submit to God’s will for us. We are hesitant to put our trust and fate into the hands of a loving God. We have become so “smart” that we need a rational explanation for everything. We have an attitude that might be described by the words I have heard more than once, “If I can’t see it, I don’t believe it.” Some are just afraid to trust in any power other than their own. We seem to be more willing to embrace the American macho attitude of being able to do everything on our own. We even sing about it in the lyrics of an old song, “I did it my way!” When problems arise and we find ourselves hitting bottom, we easily fall into despair and all the world seems dark. Our fear in the darkness may lead us to the realization that we need help or it may lead us into deeper despair. This is a far cry from the trust of all the saints we commemorate on this Sunday who always trusted and believed “God is with us!”
What fears confront us? St. Paul challenges us with this question in his letter to the Romans. Who or what can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? What are the fears we might consider as we reflect upon the faith of the saints, the fears that can lead us into the abyss of darkness. that are challenging us today? We all are confronted with personal fears and we need to pay attention to them. We do not have to be afraid to acknowledge them and to even make them known to those we trust. They lose their power over us when we bring them out into the light. Some more common fears that confront many of us are our: fear of death; fear of weakness, inadequacy, lack of talent, failures, sins; loneliness, anxiety about the future, a difficult marriage; negative self-image and loss of reputation; economic hardship, prejudice, street crime; fear of rejection by loved ones; fear regarding the suffering of our loved ones; fear of persecution by authorities; fear of lies and detractions leveled against us.
Jesus answer: “Do not be afraid; I am with you! I suffered all the things of which you are afraid!” Again and again in the New Testament, Jesus tells us not to be afraid. St. Paul’s answer, reflecting the teachings of Jesus: “Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.” How do we respond to this? We must be convinced of this, trust it, and never forget to remember this lesson. Everything else will pass away. Faith is what sustained all the saints who have gone before us. This faith and trust is what we remember as we reflect on the lives of our own ancestors. The love of God is stronger than death and endures forever. We must make a conscious effort to remember this by paying attention to the thoughts that bombard us all the time; here we discover our real temptations. A lesson passed on from an unknown spiritual writer has to do with what we allow into our thoughts and how we must seriously pay close attention to them. We must guard our thoughts, for they determine our words; we must guard our words, for they determine our actions; we must guard our actions, for they determine our habits: we must guard our habits, for they determine our character; OUR CHARACTER DETERMINES OUR DESTINY! We are all called to be saints. The question for us today: Do we want to become saints? Do we truly desire to fulfill the purpose for which we have been placed on this earth? Do we want to be in their number when the Saints come marching in? What is our destiny if we continue to live our lives as we are living them today?
Some of the saints who had made a profound impression on me and who served as guides for me on my life’s journey perceived our God, the Holy One, as the Compassionate One. In times of trial and temptation, they always appealed to God as they understood God. They knew in their hearts they could not continue in the struggle without a power greater than themselves. “O Compassionate One, have pity on me?” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” These prayers or similar ones seemed to be on their lips as effortlessly as taking their every breath. In talking to my own mom during the closing months of her life with us, she told me that when she prayed she had a sense that Jesus knew everything she was experiencing. Her prayer was probably best described in this way: “Jesus, compassionate one, have pity on me!” His answer to her, ” I know what you are suffering; come to me and I will give you peace.” She knew she needed God! I believe she is numbered among the saints who come to my mind on this special day. It might be good for each of us reading this reflection to call to mind the saints who made an impression on our lives.
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is for us….his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
“Cease your cries of mourning, wipe the tears from your eyes. The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward.”
This past month has been filled with historical events for the Catholic Church and for people around the world who look to the Holy Father for some guidance in our troubled world. We have witnessed the surprising resignation of the first pope in history, followed by the conclave of cardinals to select a successor, the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel in Rome announcing their selection of the first pope from the Americas who took the name of Francis, after the holy man of Assisi and finally the beautiful installation ceremonies.
The first message to the world was his call to kindness and respect for all our brothers and sisters in the world, especially the marginalized, the broken ones, the rejected ones as well as a greater respect for our environment which has been entrusted to our care. Truly, these are words of hope to our troubled world. Pope Francis was received with great joy and anticipation all around the world. However, it did not take very long for the critics to start casting their doubts and reservations. The challenge to the rich and powerful to have greater concern for the lowly ones, the forgotten ones is not always received with much enthusiasm.
We were quickly reminded of how things can change a few days after these historical events, on Palm Sunday, when we remembered and reflected upon the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem a few days before his arrest and crucifixion. This is a stark reminder for all of us about how easily our attitudes and that of other people can be reversed when life doesn’t unfold according to our personal wishes or plans. Throughout the pages of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, we see how fickle and easily influenced the people of God can be. When God’s chosen people led out of the slavery in Egypt by Moses to the promised land were enjoying their new freedom while all was going well, we see their contrasting attitude when challenged to greater faith in the One God. Only too easily did they long for the old days in Egypt and build for themselves a golden calf, a false god.
During this Holy Week we will be hearing lessons from the Old Testament one of which is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three righteous men who worshipped the True God. When the people who worshipped the One God were challenged by King Nevuchadnessar and forced to worship a golden idol to profess their loyalty to the king or be killed, many did so to save their lives. But the heroes of our story refused and were threatened to be thrown into a furnace. They stood firm as have so many martyrs in the history of our Church who were willing to die before worshipping a false god. The outcome of the story is that the three holy men were protected by God in the furnace and the king in fear acknowledged their God was the True God. (Cfr. Daniel 3:12-100)
Our Catholic Church stands firm in teaching us what will bring us true happiness and guides us by the Ten Commandments which Moses received and made known to his people. These are the guidelines for a way of life that is fulfilling. Jesus taught us the way, the truth and the life we are called to live. Because of our weakness as human beings we may not always live up to these ideals set before us but they are still what will bring us to a fulfilling life. These ideals cannot be changed to satisfy every choice we make as human beings. This is why we need a power greater than ourselves; we need a Savior. Jesus realized there would be many who would walk away when life’s challenges tempted them to follow an easier way. When some walked away when they heard Jesus’ words, he asked his close followers, “Will you also go away?” Some answered, “To whom shall we go? You speak the words of eternal life.” (Cfr. John 6:66-70) On another occasion we hear of Jesus’ lament as he beheld the city of Jerusalem from a nearby hilltop. His words echo today, “How many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling.” (Matthew 23:37) Many of us still do not let Jesus make God’s love known to us especially when we sacrifice ideals and integrity and bow down and worship idols of pleasure, fortune, fame and power.
The way to true happiness is reaching out to the poor and marginalized ones, as Pope Francis encourages us to do in order to make our world a better place. We may ask, “Who are these poor ones of which he speaks?” Our answer is found in the life of St. Francis who gave up wealth and fortune to reach out to those in need all around him. We see it so well in all the narratives of Jesus in the Scriptures. If we pay attention we will come to realize that the poor ones are not only the homeless on the streets, the panhandlers we see whenever we go out in public.
If we would only take time to really pay attention to the brothers and sisters all around us, especially those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, our children and our fellow church members, we would realize that every person is mourning some loss. Some have lost a wife or husband, a loved one, a parent, a job, a home, a special friendship, a deep and loving relationship, a loss of youth, good health, financial security, a pet, a loss of reputation or just the way life used to be in the “good old days.” Some have experienced someone’s betrayal, others have experienced the pain resulting from lies someone has made against them or who judged them falsely. Others suffer the loss of joy because of humiliations heaped upon them. The list can go on and on. More often than not, we can become so preoccupied with our own drama that we have no time to pay attention to the pain of others. All are poor ones who would be blessed by any little kindness. The prophet Jeremiah’s words speaking in the name of God called out to such as these poor ones, “I will turn your mourning into joy; I will console and gladden you, my poor ones, after your sorrows.” (Cfr. Jeremiah 31:13)
The real secret of happiness can only be found by reaching out and bringing some peace or joy into the life of another. Whenever we do any kindness for another no matter how small, it will always come back to us. As my time in the Army was drawing to a close fifty-five years ago, a dear friend of mine offered some guiding words to me when I told her I would be entering the seminary to study for the priesthood. “Whoever brings sunshine into the life of another will always have sunshine in their own life.” I do not know who the original author of these words may have been but they have lingered with me ever since I first heard them.
These words can be a possible theme of us during this Holy Week and as we enter into the new life of the Resurrection. These words can be a reminder to us that life ends not in grief, but in joy. Our losses will be replaced with better things. We might pray for the grace and attentiveness to show others whatever kindness we can, and to receive graciously whatever kindness someone offers to us.
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you. Whatever you did for one of these least ones, you did for me.” (Cfr. Matthew 31-41)
(Dedicated to my brother)
“Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” (Mark 10:14-15)
A small group of influential men, representing the company by which they were employed, had to attend a special meeting in New York City. Their plan was to take an early morning train into the city, attend the meeting and get back home on an early evening train so as to be home for dinner with their families. The meeting was prolonged but they still had time to get to the train station for the return trip home. As they were rushing through the station on the way to the train one of the men bumped into the stand of a little boy selling apples. The apples scattered in many directions but the men continued on their way. One of the men stopped and looked back at the little boy; in his heart he knew he could not just leave that little fellow behind without helping him. He told the other men he would catch a later train and went back to help the boy pick up his apples. He was stunned to discover that the boy was blind and was selling apples to earn some money for some materials he needed for school. The man noticed that many of the apples were bruised so he gave the boy twenty dollars to help pay for the apples. As he was leaving he heard the boy call out to him, “Are you Jesus?” I heard this story a long time ago and was unable to forget it.
So often the question proposed to me relates to the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed as now being here among us. There are those who complain they cannot see any signs of God’s kingdom. A long time ago I wondered about and reflected upon these same words. I began to pray that the Lord would open my eyes that I could see the signs of the kingdom which he announced. Jesus did say, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power.” (Mark 9:1) When the blind man, Bartimaeus, cried out to Jesus who was passing by on the road, we are told that Jesus asked him what he could do for him. The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.” Jeus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you. Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus”. (Cfr. Mark 11:44-45) Why would Jesus not answer my prayer?
In the days that followed I began to see the signs of God’s kingdom all around me. In the story about the boy and the apples I saw the kingdom of God unfold in the kindness of the man who stayed behind to help him. I quickly discovered that rarely will we see the signs of God’s kingdom in the news media. Occasionally we may see or hear in the news some refreshing story of the kindness, compassion and goodness of some important person. I discovered, however, that those acts of kindness were being carried out all around us every day in many places by true followers of the way Jesus marked out for us. I experienced the kingdom as I began to take time to look at all the beauty surrounding us in God’s creation. The beautiful sunsets at the end of the day, the flowers and beautiful trees all around our grounds, happy children playing, smiling grown-ups who stop to greet each other, our neighbor who each morning takes a bag of walnuts out to our grounds to feed the squirrels and other wild life.
In this past week I returned to place where I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania to celebrate the life of my brother, Frank, who died and was buried on Valentine’s Day. I always knew my brother was a man of great faith. Faith in God was the most important and wonderful gift we received from our parents. My brother, Albert, died a few months earlier. They were not only brothers but friends all their lives. These were the brothers next to me in age. I remember fondly of how they were always together as children, how they learned their trade and worked together as adults and how they encouraged each other throughout their lives. It seems fitting the Lord would call them both home a short time apart. I learned many things about my brother when I was home for his funeral. One of his goals in life, as a master craftsman, was to make certain that all of his eight children would have comfortable homes in which to raise their families. I witnessed a sign of God’s kingdom at the wake and gathering of friends the night before the funeral. From the moment the family began to receive friends, family members and the many people who had been touched by his life, a steady line of those offering condolences to his wife of 62 years, children and grandchildren continued late into the night. It was a very cold, snow winter night but still they came to pay their respects. I learned that night many things about the presence of God’s kingdom as I heard of the kind and caring acts of my brother.
I also learned of how his faith in Jesus was reflected in the manner of his death. In recent months he was confronted with many medical challenges but never complained but rather fought to live on because he loved life. Something happened the evening before he died that gave us all much to think about. With his wife and children at his bedside there came a moment when Frank’s face began to glow and he appeared to be communicating with someone. Up until that moment he wanted desperately to live longer but after that moment he told his family he saw Jesus and immediately asked to be taken off life-support and chose not have any further medical procedures. His son called me shortly after and told me what was happening. I was able to talk to my brother on the phone as his son put the phone next to his ear. I told my brother how great a brother he was to me and how much I loved him. Though he could not talk to me over the phone, his son told me he acknowedged my words to him and responded by telling me he loved me too. We may not understand what happened in that moment before my brother’s death but it is a reflection of how he lived his faith and loved God. He died peacefully with faith in God. Many may find such an exdperience hard to believe but as has been said many times, “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation will be sufficient.” My brother had a childlike faith. Despite his faults and failings, his humanness, successes and setbacks, he knew he was loved by God. He did what he could to manifest the kingdom of God in his own humble way by his kindness, goodness and willingness to help others.
Where is the kingdom of God? All around us! We live in the kingdom every time we show kindness, forgiveness, mercy, goodness, compassion, generosity and love to those around us. We see it each time we witness the same in the brothers and sisters we meet along the way. The kingdom of God is hidden in the midst of resentments, refusals to forgive, hatred, violence, cruelty, abuse, greed, insensitivity to the poor and less fortunate, prejudice and all the other aspects of darkness that bombard our society. We all have to make the choices of whether we will fulfill our purpose in life by following the example Jesus sets before us or choosing the paths of darkness. Those choices will set the stage for the final moments of our life’s journey. Our legacy will be the fruits we have left behind.
“Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21:43)
In response to the many requests from former readers over the past few months, I feel encouraged to offer some reflections during this Year of Faith which may be helpful to those seriously striving for a renewed understanding of Christian life and our relationship to Jesus Christ. In reflecting on my own spiritual journey and my own efforts to walk according to the Way, the Truth and the Life made manifest to us in the teachings of Jesus, I am in awe of where the journey has taken me: the many ups and downs, the shipwrecks, the joys, the sorrows, the heart breaks, the relationships that have come and gone, the summers, the winters and above all, the times I have been called to a change in my way of thinking. I am able to look back upon my life’s journey of 79 years with joy and wonder, marveling at how the Holy One has been present in my life through it all. The One in whom I have believed and to whom I have committed my life has not disappointed me. In sharing some of these lessons life has taught me, my hope and prayer is that readers of these reflections will be more willing to undergo the changes with which life is challenging them. May our journeys during this Year of Faith be fruitful and blessed. May we all be empowered to use this time as a way of helping to make our world, our nation, our society, our families, our relationships and our environment more in keeping with what the Creator intended for all people.
CHANGE OF HEART!
“The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen.” From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:15-17)
Not very many people get excited when they are challenged to make changes to the way they live or do things. Even more recoil or turn away when they hear the word repent. Why do we resist or become troubled by a call for us to do something that may be helpful and beneficial for our lives? Are we afraid of making a mistake or of taking a risk? My own resistance is quite apparent when I visit my doctor for my annual checkup. I am not too excited when he suggests some needed changes to improve my physical health. I can choose to respond positively and enjoy better health and well-being or I can choose to go on following the same old patterns and end up with more complications.
Among the unquestionable aspects of life are the inevitable changes that take place with or without our consent. From the moment of our birth physical changes are taking place. We do not question that fact and there is nothing we can do about it. As we mature and are called to make choices regarding life’s decisions about relationships, vocations, marriage, employment and family we seem to do so easily (in most cases) despite the changes that will be demanded of us. When it comes to our spiritual lives, however, many of us throw up barriers to any possible changes.
As we enter upon his new year and hear an invitation to some observance of this Year of Faith, we are reminded of Jesus’ call to repentance which is basically a call to have a change of heart, a call to look at life differently. We are being called to examine our life and our personal way of embracing and following the teachings Jesus has indicated would empower us and bring us joy and peace. What is working for us and what has been detrimental to ourselves and our spiritual life? A starting point might be to look at our lives and consider what emotions are most prevalent on a daily basis. Do worry, anxiety, fear and uncertainty create a cloud over our heads and fill our thoughts day after day? Do boredom and frustrations surround us like unwelcome companions who don’t seem to want to go away? Does anger present itself again and again in our relationships, in our words, at work or at home when things are not in our control? Does resentment and an unwillingness to forgive those who may have harmed us steal our joy and peace? If so, it appears to be a clarion call for making changes in the way we are thinking. This Year of Faith may just be the gift we are being offered to provide us with the guidance we need so badly.
A good place to start may be by considering how we pray or if we even do pray. So many of us pray so little or so poorly it is hardly possible to live without fear and sadness. Most of us have time for parties, movies, games, concerts, dinners, vacations and many other activities. These are really good in themselves especially when they bring us together with good wholesome company. What do we do, however, when God calls? Many of us put God “on hold” until some crisis arises. “I’ll get back to YOU when I have time,” many say. Or perhaps, “I’ll call when I need YOU!” BIG MISTAKE! Why are we afraid to personally spend some quiet time with the One in whom we profess faith? Do we truly believe that the Creator of the Universe, the One who created us out of nothing, takes great joy in our company, stands ready to have us make our issues known, and to seek for guidance?
I am not sure when it happened or exactly how it happened, but the greatest change on my spiritual journey came about when I became aware of how great the love of God is for me. When I was a high school student getting ready for college I was filled with a great deal of disappointment about myself because of my failures, shortcomings and character flaws. My lack of civility and understanding toward others caused me much pain and sadness. There was too much self-preoccupation and self-condemnation. My tendency to see the faults in others while ignoring the same faults in myself was quite apparent. As a slipped into feelings of despair, I had a dream I have never forgotten. In my dream I found myself drowning in a sea of murky black water and as I was sinking into the water, I cried out, “Lord, help me!” In that moment I saw the figure of a man who appeared to me like Jesus reaching out his hands to save me. That dream has remained with me for the rest of my life and each time I find myself feeling troubled about anything I recall that moment. It was after that moment that I learned to pray. I knew I could call out to the Holy One who saved me at that time and by whom I was loved unconditionally.
If we took a moment sitting quietly in the silent, peaceful presence of the One who created all things and is always present to us, sustaining us and loving us, what might this All Powerful Loving God, made visible in the person of Jesus Christ, say to us? Will we see annoyance in his eyes and hear him asking us when we are going to get our act together? Or would he thank us for coming aside to acknowledge his presence in our lives? Might he tell us what joy it is to be dwelling in our hearts? Perhaps he will reassure us of his unconditional, unchanging love for us despite our many failures and sins.
Many with good intentions have based their prayer lives on the prayers of others or on liturgical prayers alone. These are good in themselves but are often a reflection of others needs and state of life. We also need to open our own hearts and pour out our own needs to the Lord in a very personal relationship unlike that of anyone else. There is nothing we need to fear bringing our own personal concerns and failures out in the open instead of keeping them locked up inside of ourselves, perhaps thinking no one is concerned about these issues. We need to learn that we can talk about our fears as well as our joys. We can relate all our doubts and worries, our boredom and frustrations, our need to forgive and let go of resentments. In this way we begin to experience the deep awareness of God’s love for us. This change is a sure way of filling our lives with love, joy , peace, goodness, compassion, serenity and understanding. If we sincerely desire these gifts in our lives and make our needs and desires known in prayer, the gifts and blessings we need will come! They will bring about a new way of looking at life. It is the love of God which will bring this about! We will be amazed for we will see accomplished in our lives what we could not accomplish ourselves.
“I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe! I have plans to give you a future full of hope. When you call me, when you go to pray to me, I will listen to you. When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart, you will find me with you, says the Lord, and I will change your lot…..” (Jeremiah 29:11-14)
Praise our God, all you his servants, you who revere him, small and great. The Lord has established his reign. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. The wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready. She was allowed to wear a bright, clean linen garment. The linen represents the righteous deeds of the holy ones. Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb. (Revelation 19:5-9)
After posting a reflection or lesson each month for the past four years, it seems timely and appropriate for me to turn my attention to other challenges awaiting me in these golden years. These writings or musings were in response to the many requests from family and friends who pressed me to pass on stories from my life’s journey as well as some of the lessons learned along the way. How does one gracefully bring to a close a wedding feast or celebration of any kind? This is how I feel after hearing from so many readers who were able to relate the struggles and challenges in their own lives to my own. Hearing from you of the many blessings received in the midst of incredible challenges and sorrows in your lives proved to be a cornucopia of blessings for me, much like a great wedding feast. A prayer of praise to our God, the Holy One, the Incomprehensible One, the Eternally Present One seemed to be the most fitting way to conclude and summarize these reflections.
Abba, Father, praise you and thank you for creating us out of nothing, for bringing us into this life. Praise you for the ongoing healing we have experienced daily on our journeys. Praise you and thank you for loving us, for being with us every step of the way, for the peace and joy of your presence. Praise you and thank you for calling us forth into this life before we were conceived in our mother’s womb. Praise you and thank you for intending us to be manifestations of your presence in the world today. Thank you for the abundance we enjoy and for the wisdom with which you guide us.
Jesus, thank you for making our Abba’s perfect unconditional love known to us, for showing us the Way, Truth, and Life we are called to live. Thank you, Jesus, for inviting us to follow your Way, to see the world through your eyes with loving concern, for helping us to take this world as it is not as we would have it, for trusting you will make all things right if we surrender to you.
Praise you and thank you, Holy Spirit, for surrounding us with your gentle, healing, protective pure light; for empowering us to live the life to which we have been called; for helping us to be gratefully mindful of our oneness with you, each other and all of your beautiful creation.
Abba, Father, you are our life and our hope; Jesus you are our brother, friend, companion, light and refuge. Holy Spirit, you are our protector, guide, healer and love. Praise you for the gift of Faith. We believe you love us. We believe we are your children, each unique aspects of your creation. We believe we are loved, we believe we are forgiven. We believe it is in you we live, move and have our being. We believe you are kind and benevolent. We believe we are a part of a great masterpiece you are creating, using every aspect of our being, all the shadows, mistakes, failures, talents, gifts, even our sins. We believe you have given us all we need to be the sons and daughters you have created us to be. We believe you have given us all the gifts we need to manifest your kindness, goodness, beauty, love, compassion and mercy to all the brothers and sisters we meet on our journeys. We believe you have given us all the courage, strength and wisdom to be and to do what you would have us be and do each day.
Abba, Father, thank you for the gift of life, the one life we all share. Thank you for the gift of breath; every breath we take is a sharing in your Divine Breath, every breath we receive is a gift from you reminding us of your great love. Thank you for the gift of death, the mysterious rest awaiting us at our journey’s end, the mysterious passing from the visible to the invisible, the mysterious prelude into the resurrection to new life. Thank you for helping us to embrace the gift of life, for filling us with a desire for life, a longing to let your live fully in us. We intend to let your life live fully and abundantly in us for service to you and our brothers and sisters that your joy may be in us and our joy may be full. Thank you for helping us to realize that in and with you we can do all that you intend for us to do, but apart from you we can do nothing. Apart from you we are powerless over life situations, over addictions, over our resistance to what is happening around us and our inordinate desires.
Holy One, have mercy on us. We are sorry for all the ways we have given into our addictions, for our resistance to your will, for our inordinate desires. We are sorry for all the ways we have failed to live as the sons and daughters you intended for us to be. We are sorry for all the ways we miss the mark in our thoughts, words, and actions. We are sorry for all the good we have left undone, for all the wounds we have consciously or unconsciously inflicted upon others and ourselves, for all we have done that was not in the best interests of your kingdom, in the best interests of others or ourselves. We admit that apart from you our lives are unmanageable. That which we should do, we fail to do; that which we should not do, we do.
You are the Savior. Only you can save us. Only you can restore sanity to our lives, to living in the present moment in your divine presence. Only you can restore meaning and purpose to our lives. Only you can help us to be and to do what you would have us be and do. Only you can heal our afflictions, the painful memories of the past, the wounds we caused others, the wounds we received. Only you can remove our short-comings, our defects of character. Only you can unload the excessive emotional, spiritual, religious, financial and other baggage we carry. Only you can expose and shatter the false images we have of you, as well as the idols we have set up on our journeys. Only you can free us from the prison and chains of the dead past and the imagined future. Only you can reconcile the contradictions in our lives, saint/sinner, good/bad, pure/impure, light/darkness, doubt/hope, fear/faith. Only you can make your incomprehensible and perfect love known to us in the deepest recesses of our hearts.
We surrender to you as best we can in this moment: mind, heart, will, body, soul, spirit; every aspect of our personality, character; our gifts and talents, successes and failures, hopes and dreams. We belong to you, Holy One! Make us instruments of your peace!”
And this is my prayer: that your love may increase more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)