It is such a beautiful thing to contemplate: that God is closest to us in our weakness…in our sinfulness. I feel like a broken record but Romans 5:8 has been so important to me in the last three years of my Christian journey: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
“Jesus’ first public act is therefore participation in a choral prayer of the people, a prayer of the people who went to be baptised, a penitential prayer, in which everyone recognises him- or herself as a sinner…We never pray alone, we always pray with Jesus. He does not stay on the opposite side of the river – “I am righteous, you are sinners” – to mark His difference and distance from the disobedient people, but rather He immerses His feet in the same purifying waters. He acts as if He were a sinner.”
Jesus’ baptism was His first public death-to-self. He leads us to the Father in every action, even Baptism.
“This is the unique greatness of Jesus’ prayer: the Holy Spirit takes possession of His person and the voice of the Father attests that He is the beloved, the Son in whom He fully reflects Himself.”
In the same way, we who are in Christ through Baptism share in His sonship. We, too, are the beloved of the Father!
“Jesus did not descend into the waters of the Jordan for Himself, but for all of us. It was the entire people of God who went to the Jordan to pray, to ask for forgiveness, to receive that baptism of penance…Jesus gave us His own prayer, which is His loving dialogue with the Father. He gave it to us like a seed of the Trinity, which He wants to take root in our hearts. Let us welcome him! Let us welcome this gift, the gift of prayer. Always with Him. And we will not err.”
I confess to a purposefully provocative title. I believe that the first reading for today’s Mass, Eph 5:21-33, is the most misunderstood passage in Sacred Scripture. It is the passage that wives love to hate, and that husbands love (because they don’t hear much past the first two sentences). I have even teased priest-friends about how I can perceive fear in their eyes when preaching on it. This post will consist of four parts. Today I will cover the first sentence…yes only the first sentence, because it is important to be clear about the term: be subject to.
As teachers of the faith, when things are difficult we either seek to put on a positive spin, or we even gloss over the difficulty and hope no one will notice. This morning when discerning whether to write about this, I asked the Lord if I should take the time to attend Mass. I usually go on Tuesdays anyway, but I wanted to make sure this was part of God’s plan for me today.
“Listen to the priest with an open heart,” the Lord answered.
It was a good thing that this answer was so specific, because wouldn’t you know, from 7:00 a.m. to 8:15 a.m., as I was driving my kids to school, I was tempted multiple times NOT to go. But I remembered, “Listen to the priest with an open heart.” One must obey. In that aforementioned time period, the Lord helped me make some connections in my mind between the Sunday Gospel and today’s readings. These connections were confirmed by the homily I heard!
I was very grateful Jesus for speaking His Word to me in my heart, and through the priest at Mass. This is the way God speaks to all of us. We can perceive His truth in our hearts through discernment, and in union with others. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt 18:20). I felt like God was giving me permission to pursue this endeavor of writing on the most misunderstood passage in Scripture! In my opinion, it is also one of the most important.
On Sunday Jesus spoke of the Divine Law of love. First, love God. Second, love your neighbor as yourself. In chapter five of Ephesians St. Paul gives us some details on just how to do this. What kinds of things do we actually do to live the divine law of love?
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). To “be subject to” (hypotassō, Gk) means all of the following things, biblically: to yield to one’s admonition or advice; to subject one’s self, obey, and; to arrange under, to subordinate. Notice that each definition implies a person’s own willingness for the action; it is not forced. This word is the same one used in Luke, after Jesus was found by His parents in the temple. “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to [hypotassō, Gk] them…” (Lk 2:51a). Jesus subjected himself to the authority of Mary and Joseph, with a willing heart. The next phrase “to one another” means that the subjection is a reciprocal decision. Right from the first line we see that any thoughts of power over the other, or even “balance of power,” are mutually exclusive to the reciprocal subordinating of self to another. Finally, “out of reverence for Christ” implies that the mutual subjection is done for the sake of something higher: reverence for God. Love of God is first in the Divine Law of love. It is therefore a necessary first principle of human love, and most especially, marital love, which I will write about in Part II.
In the practical, real-life sense this one sentence is exactly what Pope Francis preached about during the Sunday Angelus: “And love for neighbour, which is also called fraternal charity, consists in closeness, listening, sharing, caring for others. And so often we neglect to listen to others because it is boring or because it takes up our time, or [we neglect] to accompany them, to support them in their suffering, in their trials…” I believe that to listen to someone is the beginning of loving others; it is the first gift of self — the first subordination. When the Pope speaks of sharing he is talking about mutual reverence — a decision by each participant in the relationship to “subject one’s self” to the other. This choice, made in the will, is the beginning of love.
The Next Installment — Mutual Subjection: Sanctification in Marriage (Part II).
Yesterday during the Sunday Angelus, as Pope Francis taught on the principle commandment of the Divine Law, (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”), he says that prayer in Adoration is the best way to express our personal love for God. We are already pretty good at offering thanks and interceding, but adoration sometimes takes a back seat.
Why would he emphasize this?
I think the Holy Father is trying to convey two things:
1) Adoration alone gives God His due worship, and adoration is for the sake of loving. When we approach the Lord in faith for the purpose of loving Him a new dimension is added to our prayers of blessing, thanksgiving, praise, and supplication. “Adoration is the first attitude of man acknowledging that he is a creature before his Creator…Adoration of the thrice-holy and sovereign God of love blends with humility and gives assurance to our supplications” (CCC 2628). An analogy can be made in terms of time and space: a picture drawn on a piece of paper provides a two dimensional representation. A third dimension is added in a sculpture with clay. In essence, adoration adds depth to our prayer; we are loving God for the sake of loving Him.
2) To add even another dimension there is another commandment: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. This would be like adding movement (change in time) to our picture or clay model. Love of neighbor consists in closeness, in caring, in sharing — a going out of oneself. Love of neighbor requires a listening heart, and a willingness to spend time with others. The Holy Father challenges us about how we spend our time: are we looking at our watches (or our phones) when we should be listening to others? (I am guilty). Further, do we care so much about the time when we are gossiping or criticizing?
This is not love! Not of our neighbor, nor of ourselves.
Lord, convert my heart. May I be teachable.
Our neighbor is an image of God. We can adore the presence of God who lives in our neighbor by our attention, closeness, and prayer. The Holy Father reminds us that the wellspring of love is God himself. We are called to be in communion with His love in every moment, adoring His presence within us through loving our neighbor, in whom He is also present. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23).
The Pope tells us that Jesus’ divine mercy calls us to begin anew each day!
The idea that Pope Francis is the voice of love in our time has grown on me the past few years. I think this is an important realization. I confess that this Pope was very confusing to me at first. When he came to be the leader of the Catholic Church, I was burying myself (in my master’s program) in the teachings of Vatican II and previous popes, especially John Paul II and Benedict. ￼It was at that time￼ that I asked the Lord to help me to see things from His point of view. Crying out in faith, I knew in my heart that there was something else for me to learn from this new Pope. I asked the Lord to help me learn from Pope Francis the things that He wanted me to know. ￼I know today that the Lord wants to teach me about His love for all people.
We learn from Jesus that the disposition of our hearts matters a great deal. As I study the Gospels, I imagine Jesus saying to us, “See Me for who I am. I am LOVE.”
Can we accept this? Can we accept His love?
Let’s first look at what Jesus does in His ministry. He seeks out sinners. He eats with them. He heals them. He says, “Follow me.” It was clear throughout Jesus’ ministry that He was open and welcoming to all. There was no illness, no sinfulness, and no disposition of heart that He cast away from Himself. This is the Jesus I am coming to know. This is also the Pope I am coming to know. He is the Pastor who calls us to faith, to live in hope, and to live in love. He will cast away no one. The question is, what is my disposition toward him?
Here are some of the dispositions of heart that we see in the Gospels:
“And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him” (Mark 3:2).
“The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him” (Mark 8:11).
“And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2).
If I were to read this predisposed to accuse and to test, I might be thinking, “Here we go again!” Then I might proceed to inform myself further in order to criticize. Here are some examples:
From Crisis Magazine (source):
“Francis’s comments are a kind of diabolical inversion of Humanae Vitae.”
“At some level, it doesn’t matter. Whether the Pope is consciously or accidentally dissenting from the Church, he is dissenting from the Church. There’s no question about that.”
From Cardinal Burke (source):
“It is a source of deepest sadness and pressing pastoral concern that the private opinions regarding civil unions attributed to Pope Francis and reported with so much emphasis by the press do not correspond to the constant teaching of the Church.”
The headline from a Carl Olson article (source):
“The deeply flawed opportunism of Pope Francis”
Msgr. Charles Pope (source):
“Many Catholics are once again grieved that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has chosen to indiscreetly express his personal views on a critical moral issue of our day.”
I point these out because I question the disposition of heart towards the Holy Father from these sources. Is their disposition one of seeking understanding? These are just a few articles, of many, from Catholic sources that I formerly respected. Today I believe that they lead me away from the Church.
We are in a very confusing time. Who am I to trust for news and analysis in these times?
I will repeat the question in the light of the words of Peter in the Gospel of John, after Jesus’ seemingly scandalous discourse about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
I choose to go to His Vicar. I wonder where faith is if one cannot trust that the Lord is trying to teach us something through His leader on earth. And I wonder if it is possible to understand this teaching if my disposition to the words of the Holy Father are an assumption of inversion or dissent, private opinion or opportunism. Are they seeking to find fault, or is God speaking through them?
Does God speak to everyone in their hearts? Absolutely.
God speaks, but sometimes we do not hear Him, because we cut ourselves off from His word with our hardness of heart. I am often faced with my own personal hardness of heart, the kind that will not even ask the right questions. Perhaps this is a reason God inspired Luke to give Jesus some last words that we do not hear in the other Gospels: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
None of us knows what we are doing, which is why we need a Savior. None of us is well, but many of us think we are. We cling to the law that is outside of ourselves, but if we do this, it can harden our hearts. Jesus fulfills the law with Life and Love. In my heart I see Him saying to the person in front of Him (to me and you), “I love you first and foremost. Whatever you have done — I can and will forgive. Whatever your burdens are — I can and will carry them. Whatever ails you — I can and will heal.”
And then He says, “You just need to let me.”
I believe the Holy Father is teaching us to look at others like this. I don’t believe for a minute that Pope Francis is leading us astray. Why? Because I have listened to him. I have asked God to give me a heart that seeks to understand, and through the Holy Father’s words I am reminded of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. How many of us know that the Pope teaches twice a week in the Angelus on Sunday and in the Wednesday audience? How many of us have heard his teaching on prayer with the Psalms the last two weeks, and his exposition on the social teaching of the Church in the previous months? How many of us heard all of his homilies throughout the Covid-crisis lockdown? How many of us have witnessed that he is truly a man of prayer?
Do I first seek to listen and hear, or do I first seek to find fault? That is a question we all must ask ourselves.
The Pope is a follower of Christ, and is an example of one who first seeks to love.
I would be remiss if I didn’t provide examples of this. I urge everyone to first pray for an open heart — one that seeks to understand the Holy Father’s voice of Love. Equip yourselves with the truth from his mouth, not from others’ perceptions of him. The evidence is clear.
As I walked into Church this morning I almost ran into a tree. You heard that right. I was looking down at my phone (really, to pause the prayer I was listening to, honest!) and next thing I know, I realize that one more step, and a tree will be in my face.
Thank you, distractions. Thank you, tree. This may seem ridiculous to thank my distractions and the tree but bear with me.
I walked into the narthex, and not only were my glasses fogged up (because of my face mask), but the sun was shining brightly through one of the far windows, blinding me. “Sit where the sun is not in my eyes,” I told myself as I walked into the nave. I could barely see where I was going, but I found a spot to sit down and begin writing in my journal. I invited Jesus into all of me for Mass — all of my thoughts, even the darkest ones.
Does that seem strange, to invite Jesus into the darkness?
Mass began and I stood up. The blinding sunlight was coming through the window, right into my eyes again as I stood. “It will be gone when I sit down for the readings,” I thought.
The first reading was from Ephesians. I love Ephesians. Just a note to the reader, if you read the daily Mass readings everyday we will be going through most of Ephesians for the next two weeks. Today this struck me: “You…were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s possession, to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:13-14). Our being sealed in the Holy Spirit is only the first installment. “There is so much more to come!” I thought. We are His possession, His sons and daughters. Our inheritance is His gentle care, His love, His tenderness.
The psalm verse “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own” fits right into this.
Blessed the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people he has chosen for his own inheritance.
From heaven the Lord looks down;
he sees all mankind (Ps 33:12-13).
God is in charge. We are His people. He gives us everything.
We stood up for the Gospel and I was blinded by the light again. I tried moving to my right. The light was still in my eyes. I decided to just close them and listen to the Word.
“There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops. I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more. I shall show you whom to fear. Be afraid of the one who after killing has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one. Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins? Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows (Lk 12:2-7).”
I sat down for the homily. “Every cell of our body is known by the Lord,” the priest said. “Bring everything into the light.”
I laughed at myself. “I can’t hide from you, can I, Jesus?” I thought of the bright sunlight through the Church window that seemed to be chasing me and blinding me.
I remembered what I wrote in my journal at the beginning of Mass. “I invite You into all of me, all of my thoughts, even the darkest ones.”
Jesus wants to be there to heal! He wants to be in every part of us. We can think of every cell, but is that all? A cell is a material thing. What about the spiritual “parts” of us? Our memories, our thoughts, our intellectual ponderings.
Our feelings. Even the darkest ones. He wants to be there, too.
His light may feel too bright. It may burn at first, but the burning is purifying.
What do we know about Him?
Look at the crucifix. Do not be afraid. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
While we were still sinners? He chases us down. His light shines in the darkness. He wants to be in everything — in the distractions, in the falls. He is not afraid of our sins, even the darkest ones. He felt all of them in His death, and in the moment of His last breath, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Having been sealed in the Spirit was only the beginning. We now live the redemption and claim our inheritance in and through Christ and His loving sacrifice. There is nothing we can give Him that He cannot make new, even our darkest sins. Because we were created “very good” God can bring good purpose to all! Even the distractions. Even the bumps in the road. Even the trees we may run into! Our inheritance is His gentle care, His love, His tenderness.
When you were baptized, you were meant to be a saint. You were baptized priest prophet and king, and equipped to build the Kingdom of God just by living your life, clothed in Christ. His Holy Spirit was not only breathing natural life within you, but supernatural life of grace and power!
How many of us know this? How many of us live this?
From this context, I want to talk about the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I highly recommend that you read her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul”. Thérèse was born in France in 1873, the pampered daughter of a mother who had wanted to be a saint and a father who had wanted to be monk. (They are both saints now, by the way – the only married couple to be canonized together!) The two had gotten married but decided to be continent, that is, until a priest reminded them that their marriage Sacrament was meant to be fully lived! They must have followed his advice very well because they had nine children, of whom, five survived. The five children who lived were all daughters.
Thérèse’s mother died when she was young, and it was devastating for her. Her sisters and Father did their best to foster a loving family atmosphere and raise little Thérèse. They were a very devoted and faithful family. Without realizing it, by the time Thérèse was eleven years old she had developed the habit of mental prayer. She would would pray in solitude and think about God, life, and eternity.
Thérèse was admitted to the Carmelite convent after her sisters Pauline and Marie had already joined. She never expected that her convent-life fantasies of redemptive suffering would be realized so soon. Her father suffered a series of strokes, leaving him physically and mentally impaired. He, at one time, hallucinated and grabbed for a gun as if he were going into battle. He was then taken to an asylum for the insane. Thérèse was horrified at the humiliation of the father she adored and admired, as she heard of the gossip and pity of their so-called friends. As a cloistered nun she couldn’t even visit him.
This began a horrible time of suffering. She experienced dryness in prayer and decided that Jesus wasn’t doing much in response. She often fell asleep in prayer. She was consoled by the truth of Jesus’ love for little children, whose mothers love them when they lie asleep in their arms! Therefore God must love her when she falls asleep during prayer. The philosophy of the “Little Way,” or doing little things with great love, was born.
She knew she could never do fantastic things as a Carmelite nun. “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.” She would take every chance to sacrifice, no matter how small. She smiled at the sisters she didn’t like and cared for infirm and grumpy sisters with ever so much love. When she was accused of breaking a vase she took the blame and begged forgiveness. Jesus knew of these little sacrifices done for love of Him. Never was she told how wonderful she was for these secret humiliations and good deeds. Because of her Little Way, Thérèse is a Doctor of the Church. Thérèse died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Her last words at death were, “OH!…I LOVE HIM!…MY GOD, I…LOVE…THEE!!!” She ran to Jesus like a little child runs to her daddy.
The Little Way made her a saint, and it also can make US saints!
St. Thérèse showed us that doing little things, with love, actually makes them big things in God’s eyes! We all have this capacity in whatever life brings us. This is how we build the Kingdom and bring Jesus’ love to the world.
I would like to conclude with an analogy, which I hope will help the reader understand how, as Christians, everything we do can be done through, with, and in Christ.
Suppose you are graduating from college with a mechanical engineering degree, and you have a job lined up with one of the automakers earning $80,000 per year, along with many other benefits. You are fully equipped with your degree to act as an engineer and apply your knowledge (ie., as a Christian, you are priest and prophet — fully equipped), and in service to your company you use your skills to build not only cars but the engineering discipline through your creativity (ie., king).
All you have to do is get up in the morning, go to work, and do your job.
You show up and do the duties that are expected of you (ie., you fulfill the precepts of the Church), but is this all you bring? No! You bring who you are as a person. You build relationships as you work with others in your field of expertise. In essence, there is no “just getting my paycheck.” You offer yourself and you offer your knowledge. Your small part builds the company and the body of knowledge. Sometimes you are even asked to sacrifice. The bottom line is, you are more to your work environment than your education or your body. You bring your natural gifts to build your company, but you can also bring your supernatural gifts that you receive at baptism to everything you do and say.
Here is one major difference between this analogy and our Christian vocation. God’s gift of grace and life in Him is free and unearned, and is worth so much more than even your earned degree and your experience. This gift completes you as a person, made in the image and likeness of God. Just as God’s Holy Spirit completes the human person, allowing him to partake of the divine nature (cf. 2 Peter 1:4), you ‘complete’ the secular world! You are given the grace and are anointed, and it is now your decision how to live out your Baptism. God is a generous benefactor and a generous lover, but he waits for our decision. You are called and equipped, and you just need to go to work and do your job, serving God and serving others.
We (that’s YOU and ME) have been exhorted by the Church at Vatican II: “by [our] competence in secular training and by [our] activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let [us] vigorously contribute [our] effort, so that created goods may be perfected by human labor, technical skill and civic culture for the benefit of all men according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word.” This is how we as baptized Christians exercise our priestly ministry. The more we do this, in anything and everything, every moment of every day, we live out our baptismal call.
“Christ has communicated [His] royal power to His disciples that they might be constituted in royal freedom and that by true penance and a holy life they might conquer the reign of sin in themselves.” Every time we celebrate together the Holy Mass, offering the sacrifice of our lives with Jesus to our Heavenly Father, Jesus nourishes us and strengthens us with His Body and Blood for the mission. In our vocation to marriage or the religious life we offer ourselves in daily activities to the glory of God. As prophets God gives us “understanding of the faith (sensus fidei) and an attractiveness in speech so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in [our] daily social and family life.” As kings we participate in spiritual combat with the flesh, overcoming the sin in ourselves and in the world. We are co-creators with the Creator, who gave us “dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth” (Gen 1:28). By our baptism we are renewed, redeemed, and equipped to order the world for the good of humanity to the glory of God.
You have been given your mission! Are you ready? It is as simple as doing that first little thing, with love.
He saves us by our pain, because He has shared it.
God is so amazing that:
That by which we fall He saves us. Remember this. It is one of those eternal truths.
Believing the lie from the serpent in the garden led to death. What was the first sin? Pride. Distrust of God.
The serpents in the desert led to death. What was the sin? Grumbling, complaining…again…distrust of God.
What brought them healing and new life? Looking upon the serpent on a pole, held up by Moses. Trusting in the Word of God, “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live” (Num 21:8).
There are Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15).
And later He also says in John, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day” (Jn 6:40, my emphasis).
Jesus was lifted up on the Cross. By His death, He conquered Satan, the serpent in the garden, with something he is incapable of understanding—enfleshed merciful love that gives selflessly to others.
When we look upon Him and believe, we have new life, just as those in the desert.
When we believe His Word and look upon Him, and say “Amen, (I believe), ” and receive Him in the Eucharist…we not only spiritually, but materially have God’s eternal life-giving flesh within us.
Where we are weak He is strong. He is there in our weakness, in our pain. Placing our weaknesses and our pain at the foot of the Cross joins us to Jesus. He suffers with us and heals us, bringing peace into our hearts.
That by which we fall He saves us. Turn to Him and tell Him all about it. “Do not forget the works of the Lord” (Ps 78:7b). Jesus, I trust in You.
The readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time are particularly challenging. If they aren’t, then you are already a saint! (Indeed, there are some of you out there!) I will leave it to the reader to know them for the purpose of this article (see link), but here are some particular thoughts.
They are about forgiveness.
Not holding grudges.
The overwhelming mercy of God.
“Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven” (Sir 28:2).
“None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14:7-8).
Whether we like it or not; whether we know it or not, we belong to our Creator. He placed His life within us, and gave us FREEDOM to choose the good. It is choosing that which is not good, namely sin, that leads to slavery and death. By conquering death, the Lord offered us the opportunity of new life, again by our free choice. When we are enslaved in our sin we are no longer free.
This is what unforgiveness, grudges, and resentment does to our hearts. It enslaves us. The slavery can be so “felt” that we have no idea how to get out. We don’t even feel like we have the capacity to act differently. But all is not lost.
This is what the Lord does:
“As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us” (Ps 103:12).
When we invite Jesus in, He brings the healing balm of love and mercy. He stands in between us and the evil that hurts us. He separates the evil from our hearts and sends it back to the spiritual nothingness that is the realm of the Evil One.
Now for the fun part! It is time for an analogy. What Jesus does for us is like what soap does to a virus!
It is commonly known that oil and water don’t mix. Most people have observed the phenomenon of oil floating on top of water. Adding soap is a way to make them mix. The molecular properties of soap allow it to stand in between the oil and water. It binds with different parts of the molecules in the oil and the water, bridges the gap between them, and creates a homogenous mixture. (See adorable video link!) The reason why soap and water work best for cleaning hands of a virus is because the soap destroys the oily layer of the virus and attaches to the genetic material inside, which is then washed away with excess water. (See image). During our coronavirus crisis, the idea was put forth that one should say an Our Father while washing hands, in order to give the soap enough time to attach to the virus particles on our hands.
Isn’t it interesting that the prayer that Jesus taught us brings not only the spiritual healing we need, but also the material? By taking the time to pray while washing our hands with soap and water, the destructive material within the cell of the virus is washed away. In doing this we take good care of both our spirits and our bodies.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
This phrase of the Our Father should remind us of Sirach 28:2 quoted above. We must pray and ask for help from the only One who can help. Just as washing one’s hands without soap is ineffective, so too is forgiveness without Jesus. We desperately need the go-between. Furthermore, as Jesus says in the Gospels today, forgiveness is a continuous decision. “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22). The number seven in Sacred Scripture is the number for wholeness, for completion. Jesus makes it clear — complete forgiveness from the heart is necessary. This is the forgiveness that He showed from the Cross, as He stretched out His hands from East to West, and prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
Every moment of every day, not seven times, but seventy-seven times, let us invite Him into our hearts, so that, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
One of the best ways to grow in prayer as a Christian is to pray with the Word everyday. In the Catholic Church we are given daily Mass readings that take us through the liturgical year in cycles. Right now we are in “ordinary time.” We have special choices of readings during the Advent, Lent, and Easter seasons. Currently we are reading First Corinthians and the Gospel of Luke. The Scriptures always seem to apply to the times that we are in! I am convinced, that when Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” (Mt 11:15, 13:9, 13:43; Mark 4:9; Luke 8:8, Luke 14:35), He was not only echoing the prophets, (Is 6:10, 30:21, 35:5, 43:8; Zech 7:11; Jer 7:24, 35:15), but He was speaking to us. He does this everyday in the Mass readings, and I will venture to say…
It is essential for a Christian to read and pray with the Word of God everyday.
This week, in particular, I was struck by Jesus’ parable about the new cloak and the new wineskins. He says:
“No one tears a piece from a new cloak to patch an old one.
Otherwise, he will tear the new
and the piece from it will not match the old cloak.
Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins,
and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined.
Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins.
And no one who has been drinking old wine desires new,
for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Lk 5:36-39).
This reminded me of something I read in my ESV Study Bible (a Protestant Bible) last week, commenting on 1 Cor 1:17, in which Paul said, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” The comment in my ESV Study Bible was, “Hearing and believing in the Gospel, unlike baptism, is essential to salvation.”
My goodness. If we take the words “unlike baptism” out then this statement is true. One thing we like to say in the Catholic Church is, “Both/And.” It is both baptism and hearing and believing in the Gospel! Baptism is clearly required as the normal means of salvation. Jesus told His disciples to baptize all in Matthew 28:19. Baptism was done throughout the Acts of the Apostles so that the Holy Spirit would come upon all who believe. Does God need Baptism to infuse the Holy Spirit? No. But we do, because Jesus told us to do this! God is so loving and powerful that He can and will dwell in His people (Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, the prophets…etc!) for the purpose of drawing all to Himself in love. We assent to this teaching of Christ and the apostles that we are to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and we then receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
You may be wondering what this has to do with new/old cloaks and new/old wineskins.
The new wine is the new covenant. It is the Gospel! In order to receive the Gospel we must be cleansed through Baptism. When we are baptized we are completely cleansed from Original Sin. We put on the white garment of Christ and receive His light and truth, living in the Holy Spirit. Our old wine skins are made new, so to speak. The salvation that Jesus won for us through His death and Resurrection is ours. The blessed Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – make their dwelling within us. (see Jn 14:15-17). We belong to the family of God. We are anointed priest, prophet and king. Living in Christ, we offer our lives to God as priest, (this is the universal priesthood of the faithful that all the baptized share), we live and proclaim the Word as prophet, and in freedom, we direct our lives towards Heaven through our daily choices as king.
This is our birthright as the baptized faithful.
We cannot receive the fullness of Gospel unless we are baptized. We cannot receive the truth that Jesus laid down His life for us in freedom and that He forgives us all our sins. We hide. We are afraid. In baptism we are claimed for Christ. His divine life is poured into us through the symbolic action of water pouring on our heads. His Cross is on our foreheads (see Rev 7:3). We never need to fear again. Jesus’ own baptism is a theophany event in the three Synoptic Gospels (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22), in which the Father and the Spirit are manifest. Further, Jesus tells Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). In the same discourse of Paul that is mentioned above, he says, “For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor 4:15b-16). His clear teaching throughout the discourse is that it is Christ who baptizes and sends the Holy Spirit — not the minister — and that he has become their spiritual father, in Christ. If we are to imitate Paul, are we not, also, to imitate Christ?
One other glorious thing that is our birthright as the baptized faithful — the other Sacraments. These are the means, instituted by Christ, to continue living in Him. They strengthen us on our journey. Every sacrament that we receive is like a “power-up,” if you will. The power to live in Christ is strengthened and renewed. This now brings me to confession. After we are baptized, of course we fail, everyday, in living out God’s will. Proverbs tells us that even the righteous man “falls seven times and rises again” (Prov 24:16), and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the means to “renew our wine skins,” so that the Gospel can continue to renew our hearts. There are no greater words for a sinner than the words of absolution: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.”
Who absolves? Christ. Through the ordained minister, fulfilling the ministry of the Church.
Renew your wine skins! Receive the Word. Everyday!
Early Western spirituality developed with St. Ambrose who paved the way for the Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine. A religious cultural challenge of the age was the continued development of heresies in the Church: Arian, Pelagian, Manichean, and Donatist. Arguably the strict asceticism of the East contributed to these heresies, given that there was not yet a tradition of spiritual guidance. The Churches in both the East and the West were young, and the great tradition of spiritual theory and practice was yet to be formed in history. For example, St. Jerome, while traveling through Gaul around 366, became acquainted with the practices of Eastern monasticism, and “began his own undertaking of this way of life in various experimental forms” (Christian Spirituality: An Introduction to the Heritage, Charles Healey, 68, my emphasis). As the Church developed doctrinally and spiritually, the importance of guidance from others in terms of spiritual fatherhood and motherhood was increasing. The writings of Ambrose and Jerome, followed by the “mixed life of action and contemplation” (Healey, 77) of Augustine, paved the way for a new monasticism in which pastoral service was connected with the monastic life. St. Benedict, the “Father of Western Monasticism” (Healey, 89), devised a Rule of Life in which personal sanctification was sought through living the Christian life in a community rather than a hermitage. These are the beginnings of “Contemplation in Action,” that we see in more modern spiritual masters through the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Jesuits (just to name a few).
By the time of Augustine around 384, St. Ambrose’s writings had transmitted much of Greek thought to the West (Healey, 66). Ambrose was preoccupied with the Arian heresy, (that Jesus was not both human and divine), and through his method of preaching he kindled a passion for philosophy in Augustine that eventually led to his rejection of Manichæism (that evil is a created entity), and his baptism by Ambrose in 387. It was a coming to God through reason that kindled the fire in Augustine’s heart. He not only discerned who God was through reason, but His essence of goodness. “For in no way can corruption affect our God, neither by will, nor by necessity, nor by chance, since He Himself is God and what He wills is good, and He himself is goodness; but to be corrupted is not good.” It was an agony for Augustine to determine the origin of evil. Once he came upon the truth that evil is a corrupted good he realized that he himself was created good and that it was his corruption that kept him from knowing the true good, Who is God. Augustine, with the light of truth and the eyes of faith was able to see how God was his helper, and through the “secret hand of [God’s] healing,” Augustine’s darkened intellect “gained strength by the stinging ointment of wholesome sorrow”. Augustine also realized that seeing truth and the power to see truth were a grace that he had received from this “Beauty so ancient and so new,” his poetic term for God.
Truly, reading Augustine leaves me breathless. I, too, am held by, in his words, the “iron bondage of my own will.” Indeed, I am a slave to bad habits as he was. As Augustine says, “I was still tied down to earth and refused to accept service in your army. I was as much afraid of being freed from what hindered my going to you as I should have feared whatever might hinder this.” I, too, hear the muttering of vanities, when the Spirit says to me, as Continence told Augustine, “Cast yourself upon Him, do not be afraid; He will not withdraw and let you fall; cast yourself fearlessly upon Him.”
I pray for fortitude and I continue to “work out my salvation with fear and trembling” (cf. Phil 2:12) with the help of prayer, Scripture, and the Sacraments.
In a similar way to Augustine, I believe that helping people to come to the truth about the one true God through reason is necessary. In the dualism of our culture it seems that either there is nothing spiritual at all, or the spiritual is viewed some kind of “energy” flowing through the world and our bodies that is not attached to the one true God. It is important to come to an agreement about first principles dealing with God’s essence. If one believes in God, he may believe Him to be someone who “does things” or “doesn’t do things,” rather than who He is — His essence of Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Love. This error trickles down to how one thinks about the human person. It is important to begin with the truth of God – that He exists, that He is all good, that He is love, and that we are created in His image and likeness.
(Nota bene, this article is a modified version of something I wrote for a spirituality class about five years ago. I urge all readers to read The Confessions of St. Augustine. You won’t be sorry)!