Particular Love

Particular Love

During “contemplative time” last week, I had my students reflect on the Resurrection account from John’s Gospel. Fresh from my own ponderings, we discussed the whole “John as the one whom Jesus loved” bit.

“Doesn’t Jesus love everyone?”

Yes, of course.

“Why does John even bring it up?”

I mentioned that perhaps it was because John had encountered the particularity of Christ’s love for him.

And they brought up something that is ingrained in us from our earliest years: the sense of things being equal or the same.

“Doesn’t Jesus love us all the same, though?”

No, He actually doesn’t. They seemed skeptical, perhaps because we automatically begin to assume that Jesus might love me less if He doesn’t love us all the same.

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The Beloved One

The Beloved One

Is John the most arrogant of all the disciples?

Throughout the Gospel of John, essentially whenever John refers to himself, he doesn’t use his name. Instead, he says “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” At first glance, it might seem like pure arrogance, pride over the fact that John was one of the “inner three” Jesus drew particularly close to Himself.

Or it might be something else entirely.

When I discuss this title with my students, they are a bit surprised that John refers to himself as the beloved disciple. But then I try to draw their attention to the other claims John could have made.

John, the only disciple at the foot of the cross.
John, the one who leaned his head near the heart of Jesus and sat next to Him at the Last Supper.
John, the disciple who arrived first to the tomb after the Resurrection (because he ran faster than Peter).
John, the youngest of the disciples.
John, the one to whom Jesus entrusted His mother.

What do we see instead? John, the one whom Jesus loved.

There are several unique roles that John played, but when writing the account of Jesus, he chooses to simply be known by the fact that Jesus loved him. More than everything else, the love of Jesus is the most precious to John. He is the beloved disciple.

Contrary to what we might think initially, his belovedness is not in conflict with anyone else’s belovedness. It isn’t John, the one Jesus loved more than all others or to the exclusion of all others. It is simply: John, beloved by Jesus.

It is a title we could all claim.

Is that what I see first, though: my belovedness?

Continue reading “The Beloved One”

That Missionary Life

That Missionary Life

“Who is a missionary?” I asked my class, not too long ago.

They came up with a variety of answers: someone who preaches in a foreign country, someone who has very little, someone who doesn’t make money, and the list continued.

It was difficult for them to wrap it all up neatly. Several wanted to insist that you had to leave the country. I think it was because it fit their idea of a missionary better. Flying to a foreign country steeped in poverty seems far more missionary-esque than serving on a college campus.

FOCUS sends people to college campus and calls them missionaries. Are they?”
“Do they get paid?”
“They fundraise their salary.”

Many were on board with that. But for them, there had to be some type of leaving happening–going to a new place, even if they would begrudgingly accept work in the United States.

“What does a missionary do?” I asked.
“Preach the Gospel.”
“So who could be a missionary?”
They discussed for a while. One said, “You?”
“Am I a missionary?”

The whole issue of pay came up again, some saying that would disqualify me from missionary status.

Am I a missionary?

Continue reading “That Missionary Life”

I Need Easter Because I Failed at Lent

I Need Easter Because I Failed at Lent

Lent seemed to be forty days of falling on my face.

As Easter approached, I found myself holding back, wishing the days would reverse and I would have the gift of more Lent.  I was annoyed with myself because I knew better.  The Lents that are the most intense and where I am the most faithful yield the best Easters.  After forty days of extra prayer and penance, I burst with joy into an Easter that truly finds me resurrected and renewed.

This time, I wanted an extra long Lent.  I wanted more time to make up for the ways I failed day after day.  I wanted more time to get it right.

I walked into Holy Week and then into the Triduum with a bittersweet feeling.  After such a pitiful Lent, it didn’t seem as though I deserved to rejoice in the Resurrection.  At some point between Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil I became convinced of one thing: I am in incredible need of a Savior.

On Ash Wednesday, I had great hopes of competing well and running this sacrificial race for Our Lord.  I wanted to do great things and to show how much I love the Lord.  When I arrived at the altar of repose on Holy Thursday evening, I had to acknowledge that the Lord was the only one professing the depths of His faithful love.  I desire to be a follower of Jesus and yet I quickly become like the disciples in that night of testing.  I run away, I hide, and I wonder what Jesus will do with someone so small and pitiful. Continue reading “I Need Easter Because I Failed at Lent”

Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year

Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year

On a plane ride a few weeks ago, I found myself seated next to the founder of a Protestant church. He laughed because he was sandwiched between two Catholics, a married man who had been in Catholic seminary for a little while on his right and me, a Catholic high school Theology teacher, on his left. The conversation was pleasant, but the pastor shared one thing that seemed rather significant to me. Although he founded and now pastors an extremely contemporary church, he said his personal prayer is quite liturgical. This point fascinated me because it spoke of the true desire for liturgy is woven into the fabric of our beings.

As humans, we are bound to worship, whether our focal point is God or something else varies for the individual.  Perhaps overly simplified, the liturgy is our communal worship, the traditional rites we follow to offer praise, thanksgiving, and supplication to God.  Of the various liturgies in the Catholic Church, the highest is the Eucharist, the Sacrament of sacraments.  Beyond the structure of this liturgy is the structure of the year.  Too often I take for granted the beautiful gift that is found in the yearly passing through the major points of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Several years ago, I heard it said that in the Church’s wisdom she developed the liturgical year to satisfy mankind’s love of change and stability.  Having never before thought of it like that, I experienced a new perspective of something that had always been present in my life.  In delving into the rich rhythm of the liturgical year, I have discovered that the feasting and fasting, as well as the ordinary and extraordinary times, provide a healthy balance in life.  Since humanity often tires of the same thing, the Church moves us through different seasons to celebrate and recall the different parts of the mystery of Christ.  Yet constant change is difficult and so the seasons are cyclical, each new year of grace seeking to lead us deeper into these same mysteries of Christ but in a fresh way.

While the Gregorian calendar tells us a month is left of this year, the liturgical calendar is reminding us that a new year is close at hand.  Personally, I like that the two calendars that govern my life are slightly off-center.  It reminds me that I am in the world but not of it.  As a follower of Christ, it calls me to acknowledge that His grace should cause me to see the year in a different way since my sight is imbued with an otherworldly perspective.

With the Church in the first days of a new year, let us consider the gift of the changing liturgical seasons.

Advent: Waiting for Christ’s Coming

The year starts off in joyful anticipation. Joining our hearts and minds with the Israelites, we wait for the coming of the Messiah. Yet knowing that Jesus has already come and ascended, we wait for His Second Coming at the end of time. This pregnant season of waiting calls to mind St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:22-25.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

We do not wait without a purpose. As parents of a newborn prepare for the child’s birth, so we make our hearts ready for Christ’s new birth into our hearts and our birth into eternal life. While Advent is culturally forgotten or seen merely as a time of wrapping presents and sending Christmas cards, it should cause us to remember that we need to make Him room, in our hearts and in our lives.

The best Advent I have ever had was the semester I took an Old Testament Scripture class in college. For months we made our way through salvation history, learning about the covenants that God repeatedly offered man and the ways humanity broke those covenants. We ended the semester with a unit on the prophets and, for the very first time, I encountered a taste of the longing that the Israelites must have experienced. Scripture passages that I had heard before were filled with a new life, a new pleading that God would send a Redeemer. While I knew the Savior had already come, I experienced the “wait” in a new way and thus experienced the joy of Christmas in a new way. Continue reading “Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year”

The Burden of Perfection

The Burden of Perfection

When Jesus appeared to His Apostles after the Resurrection, His hands, feet, and side still bore the marks of the crucifixion.  His glorious, death-conquering body held the holes that won salvation.  To be certain, His body was different than it was before.  He was strangely appearing and disappearing, passing into locked rooms, and yet still able to eat and be touched.  Dying and rising had changed His body.  Gone was the appearance scarred beyond human recognition.  However, His body still showed where nails and a spear had pierced Him through.  Why was that?

There are several theological reasons, but I would like to focus on one minor, personal reason.  I would argue that Christ kept His wounds to destroy our image of perfection.  Here is the conquering King, the One who has fought death and won and yet–He still shows signs of this arduous battle.  As the commander of this battalion, as the King who leads His people into battle, Christ is not unaware of the price of this fight.  Our whole lives seem to be a battle towards Heaven.  Christ doesn’t need perfect looking soldiers; He simply needs faithful ones.

The burden of perfection is one we place upon ourselves.  We want lives that are neat and tidy, yet none of us have it.  Sometimes we brand others as perfect, but that is only because we see portions of their lives and not the whole of it.  And when we expect this perfection from them, we encourage them to fake it instead of living authentically.

Often, when I tell people that my two older sisters are religious sisters, I can see them mentally placing my family in a certain type of box.  Years ago, I gave my witness in preparation for a summer of catechizing youth, and one of the critiques I received was that teens probably couldn’t relate to my story.  While I understood what they meant, I couldn’t help but take it a bit personally.  My story of an aching heart being separated from my sisters was not something they deemed relatable.  Since then, I have discovered that it is something to which others can relate.  Perhaps they don’t have siblings in religious life, but many have experienced anger and frustration with God and a plan you never wanted for your life. Continue reading “The Burden of Perfection”

“Beauty and the Beast” Gave Me the Perfect Phrase for Holy Week

“Beauty and the Beast” Gave Me the Perfect Phrase for Holy Week

I watched Beauty and the Beast this weekend and I’ve been turning one lyric over and over in my mind ever since.  “How in the midst of all this sorrow can so much hope and love endure?” (from ‘Days in the Sun’)  For several reasons, it seemed to be the perfect phrase to carry into this Holy Week.

In the midst of experiencing again the Passion of Jesus Christ, how can we still find hope and love?  When I read the news, how can I find hope and love in the events of strife and discord?  In tragedy on a personal or community level, how can I wade through the hurt and find hope?

The short answer is that it is difficult to do, but it must be possible.  It isn’t a matter of denying the pain or sorrow.  The Lord knew we would experience pain.  He understands the depths of feeling forsaken and abandoned.  His closest friends fell asleep during His moments of great agony.  When soldiers came to arrest Him, the apostles all fled.  Jesus isn’t asking us to deny pain or to act like it doesn’t impact us.  Rather, He is asking us to choose to find the Resurrection in the midst of every crucifixion.  Or, at the very least, to acknowledge that there will be a Resurrection, even if death seems to be victorious right now. Continue reading ““Beauty and the Beast” Gave Me the Perfect Phrase for Holy Week”

Ever-New

Ever-New

Do you remember?  Do you remember?

The voices are hushed but brimming with excitement.  It is dark with only flickering candlelight illuminating joyous faces.  Of course they all remember.

By all rights, this should be a story that is told with sadness, one where sorrow should be the predominant feeling.  It should be tragic and riddled with painful memories.  That is not the case, however.

They can barely keep the laughter at bay.  Wide smiles show how their hearts desire to break out of their chests.  They are simultaneously on the brink of crying and shouting, so full are their hearts.

Do you remember?  Why is this night different from all other nights?

The second question is a carryover from their Jewish roots–but it is fitting here.  It is perfectly fulfilled here.

There are numerous possible narrators to the story, each holding a piece that contributes to the full picture.  John is there and he tells of His last moments on the cross and the ache in his heart as he watched Him die.  Mary Magdalene speaks of her sleepless night, the long Sabbath, and rushing with spices to the tomb early on the first day of the week.  Peter speaks of walking into the empty tomb, marveling at the clothes that remain where the body once was placed.  Each person adds another detail to a story they have told over and over again.  Yet it is one of which they can never tire.  It isn’t simply a story from the past but rather re-tells an encounter they had with the living God.

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Saturday evening as I stood in a dark church while the Easter candle was being lit, I considered something I never have before: what would it have been like to be at the second Easter?  The first Easter would have been incredible, but as I stood in the church, it was very clear that I wasn’t at the first Easter.  But the second Easter?  When they gather together to re-live what had happened a year ago?  I could imagine that.  If I closed my eyes and focused on the prayers, I could feel this uncontrollable joy welling up in my heart.  Before long, I was fighting back tears and grinning like a fool in the darkness.

I had encouraged my students to delve into Holy Week and to consider the well-known story in a new light.  Chances are really good that none of them remembered what I said, but I found myself taking my own advice.  What if I wasn’t at Easter Vigil (like I am every year) but rather was at the first anniversary of the first Easter?  They couldn’t even wait until Sunday to gather.  Instead, they gather together in the darkness to hold a vigil for the Resurrection.

A lot can change in a year.  One year earlier, they were wrapping their minds around the Passion, vacillating between numbness and crushing sorrow.  Even in the finding of the empty tomb and the first appearances of Jesus, there were still so many questions and much confusion.  A year later and they were witnesses of the Resurrection, filled with the Holy Spirit, and traveling to proclaim the Gospel.  They didn’t have all of their questions answered but their mission was certain.  Gathering together, their joy grew exponentially as they considered again those three sacred days.

Do you remember?  Do you remember?  The new followers, the ones who were not there one year earlier, listen eagerly to the story, caught up in the drama of human salvation.  Even as they re-tell the Passion and Death of Jesus there is an undercurrent of joy.  They enter into His death deeply, recalling where they had been during those moments of agony, but they know that He lives now.  With solemnity, they trace the providence of God from the beginning.  From creation to freedom from Egypt to the challenges of the prophets, they recall how God had prepared them for the fulfillment of all the old covenants.  Soon they are talking about Easter Sunday, with all the little details pouring in:
“I thought He was a gardener!”  Mary Magdalene recalls.
“I ran faster than Peter,” John says with a youthful wink at the Vicar of Christ.
“I didn’t go to the tomb, because I knew He had risen,” Mary, the mother of Jesus, says with a smile of remembrance.

The central point of Christianity is not about following rules or attending excessively long religious services.  Christianity is about encountering the person of Jesus Christ.  Everything else is aimed at fulfilling or bringing about that encounter.  As I sat in Easter Sunday Mass, listening to the priest’s homily, I couldn’t help but glance around a little and see some tired, bored faces.  And I wondered, “How many of these people here have never really encountered Jesus Christ?”  They attend Mass because their husband or wife or parents want them to or because they feel some guilt if they should stop attending.  How sad would it be if a relationship with God that is intended to be marked with joy is instead filled with simply surface level commitment.

The joy of Easter should not be mainly that we can now eat or do what we previously could not eat or do during Lent.  It should be because we once again remember that Jesus Christ is the Savior we need.  He died, He is risen, and that changes everything.  It is not old news or historical details but is something that is ever-ancient yet ever-new.  In that dark church on the eve of Easter, I thought of the joy and fulfillment that filled the hearts of the early Christians as they recalled the previous year.  And I longed for that joy only to realize that it could and should be mine.  We should be like the early Christians, gathering with hearts of praise to recall what the Lord has done for us.

Do you remember?  Do you remember?  He died, He rose, and He lives.  And it continues to change my entire life. 

The Triduum

The Triduum is an experience for all of the senses.  While I’ve never been anything but Catholic, I cannot imagine another church matching the beauty of the Triduum and the way the liturgies invite us into the Pascal Mystery.

Holy Thursday begins with joy and beckoning us to the table of Our Lord’s Last Supper.  I can imagine Christ bending low to wash my feet as the priest in persona Christi stoops to wash the feet of the young men called forward.  After the Eucharistic prayer, I approach the priest to receive from him my Lord, the Word made flesh and remaining in the appearance of bread and wine.  Tonight, I am an apostle from another century, experiencing the Last Supper and encountering Christ in a tangible way.  My senses are alive as the Eucharistic procession weaves its way around the church.  An incense thurible fills my nose with the sweet, rich odor I link only to the Eucharist.  The priest is embracing Jesus as we sing Pange Lingua Gloriosi.  Our Lord is carried to an altar and the faithful are invited to come and wait with Him.

I fulfill my role of a disciple well.  In the intimately dim chapel, I wait with Jesus and I drift off to sleep at times.  Can I not wait one hour?  Apparently not.  It is beautiful to see the others in adoration, praying with Jesus before He is hidden from us, when the stark reality of the Pascal Mystery will become more obvious.  Then the time of waiting in the Garden is over and we depart in silence.  Talking seems inappropriate.  Nearly anything seems inappropriate on such an evening.

Good Friday is spent anticipating and remembering the Passion of Jesus.  The simplicity of the Good Friday service is unnerving and striking.  I can always feel an ache in my heart.  The tabernacle is left open and I am continually reminded that He is gone.  Approaching the cross so as to venerate it, I am questioning where to kiss Jesus.  My stomach feels the hunger of fasting and I kiss the crucifix with the kiss of Judas, with the kiss of John the beloved.  Good Friday fills me with a longing and with a sorrow.  The rest of the world seems to be continuing at its typical pace but I cannot carry on as normal.

The waiting of Holy Saturday is difficult.  Christ has been crucified and laid in the tomb.  He has yet to rise, though.  Fasting is not obligatory yet the feasting of Easter is still premature.  We wait.  Waiting is perhaps the focal point of Holy Saturday and it makes it all the more difficult.

Yet the Easter Vigil will arrive with its dark and quiet entrance.  A fire lit and from it, a flame passed to light all the candles in the darkened church.  There is a stillness of expectation.  We know the story, we know Christ will rise, and yet we are waiting for it to be lived out, to be fulfilled in this sacrifice.  Darkness turns into light.  As a church we are led through salvation history, to hear how God remains ever-faithful and is responding to the longings and yearnings of His people in an unforeseen way.  We are reminded that we are a part of something far larger than ourselves or our parish.  We are united to a Church that is truly universal and timeless.  Joy mounts in my soul as we continue through the Mass. As the beautiful music announces a living reality in my life: Christ has risen.  He rose 2,000 years ago and He rises today in my heart.  The highest feast of the Church is celebrated with all the pomp owed to a King who mounts a cross as a throne and gives Himself as the food for the wedding banquet.

Easter Sunday is bright and joyful, a renewal of the joy felt the night before.  While Easter Vigil tends to hold a heavy joy for me, Easter Sunday is a light, uplifting joy.  The sun must shine on such a day and if it does not, the joy of the feast becomes a light of its own right.  The lilies decorate the Church and we sing words that we have refrained from saying for weeks.  It adds a depth to the joy that would not be found if one simply arrived at Easter without the Lent.  The Easter Sunday celebration continues for the Easter Octave, each day the Church repeating the joy of the resurrection.  Liturgically, we celebrate the Easter Mass repeatedly.  We cannot move on, we must make it known that this is the highest of all celebrations.

The Triduum and Easter season are for all of the senses.  Breathing in the incense from the Eucharistic procession, waiting with Jesus in the Garden, saying the words of the angry crowd as Jesus is condemned to death, kissing the cross of Our Lord, waiting as Jesus is held in the tomb, lighting our candle from the Easter candle representing the light of Christ Himself, and singing with exultation the joy central to the Catholic faith: we worship a God made man who rose from the dead.  The Triduum calls us to live out the final days of Christ and to enter into the mystery by which we are saved.  In a beautiful combination of music, art, sights, and sounds, the Church transports us to the time of Jesus Christ.  Or, perhaps, she causes us to acknowledge that the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus are truly timeless events that we experience now through the beauty of the Body of Christ, the Church in her tri-fold magnificence.