Food in the Desert

It started in a desert.

After weeks of fasting, stripping down to spiritual and physical emptiness, Jesus is tempted to use his divinity to serve his hunger. (Matthew 4)

“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.”
(As if he would use his power for such a cheap trick!)

“He replied: ‘It is written that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”

To listen ardently for every word God speaks to us: this is what we hunger for but are mostly unaware and untaught to realize. It takes time, effort and grace to realize that only God can satisfy our needs. The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want!

The ancient Jews, rescued from slavery in Egypt, were led grumbling and ungratefully into a harsh desert. They even preferred the false comfort of three squares a day to what Moses offered. Their Egyptian rulers were tyrants, but at least they had been fed. Now, it seemed, they would surely not survive this trek to an uncertain Promised Land.

But God showed his mercy by impossibly sending meat and bread to these former slaves. And even more miraculously, he sent them water from a rock.

Jesus used the power of these images some time later in his ministry, as he taught about the Kingdom. By this time, every word from his mouth could have filled them with the richest banquet. All they had to do was open their mouths to receive it. If only they – or we – could be like squawking nestlings, screaming to be fed this food!

Jesus took pity on the crowds who were lost, like sheep without a shepherd. He intimately knew their bodily and spiritual hunger, and showed them his desire to feed them, even more wonderfully than their ancestors had been.

He tells us it is not Moses, teacher of the Law, who can give us this perfect food. No, it is himself, the very Word of God, who gives us, through Love, his own self, his own sacrifice. He gives us not just the temporary life that the Law gives, but eternal life through the perfect Love he teaches and exemplifies.

All we need to do is to desire and accept this food, this Word. God does all the rest.

clouds dawn desert landscape

 

What Is the New Evangelization?

The term “New Evangelization” is heard in many Catholics circles today, but what exactly does it mean?

An easy search on the internet will turn up many insights in answer to this question. Focus, a site sponsored by Catholic University (see footnote for link *) gives a very clear answer which I’ve modified slightly in the following paragraphs.

“It is believed that Saint John Paul II first used the term in 1983 in an address to Latin American Bishops. He would later bring this term to the attention of the entire Church.
Perhaps the most clear definition of the New Evangelization is in his encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, where John Paul II describes three different situations for teaching the Gospel (evangelization), as described below:

“Mission ad gentes: Latin for “to the nations.” This is a situation where Christ and his Gospel are not known. It is what we commonly think of as the work of our foreign missions where Christianity may be first introduced.

“Christian communities: these are the communities where the Church carries out her activity and pastoral care – i.e., the parish church you and I attend every Sunday. This involves teaching the Gospel to people who are currently and faithfully connected with a Christian church (even if often superficially).

“Candidates for the New Evangelization: St. John Paul II refers to situations where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even those who no longer consider themselves members of the Church, living far removed from Christ and his Gospel. These are people we commonly refer to as having ‘fallen away’ or ‘lapsed.’

“The New Evangelization addresses the spiritual needs of this last group in particular.”

The Focus website further quotes Pope St. John Paul II:

“I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization [to lapsed Catholics] and to the mission ad gentes [to foreign missions]. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio).

“To this end, it is more necessary than ever for all the faithful to move from a faith of habit, sustained perhaps by social context alone, to a faith which is aware and personally lived. The renewal of [one’s own] faith will always be the best way to lead others to the Truth that is Christ.” [My emphasis.] (John Paul II, Ecclesia in America).

A faith of habit; a faith that has not grown much beyond one’s last formal instruction, probably since grade school. These are the faithful indeed, insofar as going to church every Sunday; never missing major feasts such as Ash Wednesday, Easter, or Christmas, but who possibly have not yet heard their personal call to discipleship and dedication to the revolutionary teachings of the Gospel.

Nevertheless, according to John Paul, it falls to this group (you and me) to pay the needed attention to the third group. Since everyone knows someone who was once baptized but who no longer practices the faith, Saint John Paul II wanted these, the “faithful,” to clearly recognize this problem and then try to solve it.

John Paul realized that in order to carry out such a special mission, the “faithful” need to be sufficiently knowledgeable and inspired to do so. They need to grow in their faith, in the Gospel teachings, in order to channel the Holy Spirit in drawing back to the Church those who have fallen away.

Put another way, it means that Catholics today need to go beyond what they’ve been comfortable with for many generations. We need to respond to the call to holiness as taught by Vatican II. We need to listen to the counsel of theologian Karl Rahner who boldly stated that the Christian of today must be a “mystic.” That is, our main and ever-present aim in life is to live out the Gospel of love as taught and exemplified by Jesus Christ. The faithful Christian needs to live a life of constant and ever deepening prayer. We Christians today must wake up from spiritual complacency, and become ever more aware of how, through the Holy Spirit, we can affect the world around us.

One problem remains. How many baptized Catholics have left the Church because of its perceived attitude toward women, minorities, gays and often, frankly, the laity in general? How do we explain refusing Communion to people who attend another church, when our Lord prayed and gave his life for unity? We, the faithful, are neither equipped nor authorized to explain these difficult questions.

But we’re not expected, not told, to explain or defend these issues. No. Our task is even more important as well as more difficult.

Our task is to recognize that we are channels for the Holy Spirit, called to help the Spirit accomplish this heroic task. Our channels – our hearts and souls – must be totally clear, unclogged, and open to others. In the words of our Savior:

So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)

Christ is visible to others only insofar as we allow him to be seen in us.

* https://focusoncampus.org/content/what-is-the-new-evangelization-the-answer-might-surprise-you

The Forgotten Person

Some theologians have referred to the Holy Spirit as the Forgotten Person of the Trinity.

Christians are hardly likely to forget the Holy Spirit, since they make the sign of the cross thousands of times a year. But the question is: what do we know about *him*?

The Holy Spirit is not so much forgotten as hidden. By *his* very name, the Holy Spirit is the most esoteric, the most abstract, and consequently the most difficult to understand of the Trinitarian persons. For us, the other Two Persons are more approachable: Jesus, first of all, because He became one of us, sharing totally in our humanity. The Father is described intimately as our Abba (Daddy), the One to whom Jesus constantly refers. But the Spirit? Words will consistently fail us when speaking of the Holy Spirit.

In the Gospel, the Holy Spirit slowly but powerfully emerges, but only in symbols or metaphors because He is not material and therefore not visible. The New Testament’s first referral to the Spirit is when Mary is found “with child through the holy spirit” (Matthew 1:18), or in Luke when Gabriel tells Mary how she can become a mother, the mother of the Messiah.

The Spirit as a dove hovers over Jesus at his baptism, a symbol of his calling to bring the good news of salvation to all.

When Nicodemus comes secretly at night to question the new Rabbi, Jesus attempts to describe how a person can be “born again” in the spiritual sense. He refers to the Spirit as “wind”, an unseen but powerful force, only perceivable by its effects.

The Samaritan woman at the well is bold enough to question Jesus as to where God must be worshiped. We too think certain conditions must be met before we worship: there’s a right place to worship, a right person to preach to us, a right congregation to worship with, a right style of liturgy to be observed. If we can find all of these in one place, that’s where we’ll worship. Jesus simply corrects both us and the Samaritan woman with a few words:

God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”
(John 4:24)

Unfortunately, that leaves us with no more excuses!

Perhaps the most troubling references to the Spirit are made after the Last Supper. Seeking to comfort his disciples, Jesus tells them:

“. . . grief has filled your hearts. But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6b-7)

How could Jesus’ absence be better? How could the invisible Spirit comfort the disciples who were losing the visible Christ?

Recall the first stirrings of creation:

The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

In the beginning of our spiritual life (and for much of it throughout), we too are formless and void. In order to become spiritual beings we need to be emptied of all that prevents God from shaping us into his image. The emptying process can be almost unbearable. We don’t even know how to pray! But St. Paul encourages us with words from his letter to the Romans:

The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings.

We are constantly being emptied, separated from things or persons we love and consider absolutely necessary to our existence: parents, spouses, children, siblings, dearest friends, homes, our life work, and finally from our health and life itself. Such separations leave us destitute, desolate, abandoned. At moments like this we might question God’s love for us.

This reaction is so totally human, and therefore Christ totally understands. He knows that we are incomplete until, ironically, we are emptied – even of his own physical presence. Space must be created in us, making room for the Spirit of God who will accomplish the final act of our divinisation. The coming of the Holy Spirit in our lives is Christ’s crowning achievement for us, since it enables us to transform even an evil world into a place of love and truth.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. (John 14: 16-18)

I love the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in “God’s Grandeur.” He traces the beauty of the world as God created it, followed by its near destruction by man’s greed and materialism, but ending in sure hope through the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, the One who renews the face of the earth.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast
and with ah! bright wings.

Trinity 1

Mysteries

I confess: I’m not much of a Rosary person, but today I thought I’d try it. A few of us neighbors gather every other week for an hour of prayer. We each volunteer an intention – might be personal or global – and then follow with a decade of the Rosary. Since from last night I still had the beads in my pocket, it seemed that this would be a good place to fasten my thoughts while I took a walk.

It’s Thursday, which I remember to be the day for Joyful Mysteries. The more recent topic of meditation – the “Luminous Mysteries” as introduced by Pope Saint John Paul – is still too new for me to recall, so I kept to the ones I learned as a youngster.

Right off the bat, I had questions. Who were these people and events we’re called to meditate on?

We had two women at the opposite ends of their life. Elizabeth: too old to bear a child and who is already six months pregnant.

Mary, in particular, a mere child by our standards, was faced with a totally unexpected – indeed impossible – pregnancy. Elizabeth’s was the spectacular event; Mary’s was the scandalous one. What would we think if the girl next door, maybe a sophomore or junior in high school, became pregnant? What a disgrace for her family! Would they have it (the child) aborted? Would they have Mary go away for a while (which is actually what Mary did when she went to visit Elizabeth), and then return as though finishing up a vacation or a course of study out of town? I remember a classmate who was absent for quite a while due to an “appendectomy.” Uh-huh.

And what kind of man would stoop to marrying this scandal-laden girl?

No one knew the truth of the situation which had been carefully kept under wraps, but that didn’t stop people from improvising and judging, I’m sure.

Apart from this scandalous history, there was nothing spectacular about this family. If anything, the wonder only grew as this supposed “illegitimate” son grew.  Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? What good can come out of Galilee? By what authority do you do these things? We know who our father is.

Surely, if God were actually to send his Son, wouldn’t he have given him a “good” family to come from? A place renowned for its scholars? Surely God would have, should have, seen to it that his Son would have been given a proper education – the equivalent, say, of Harvard or Yale where he’d have studied Scripture with the esteemed Rabbis, the venerated theologians of that day, people equipped to know what God meant when he spoke through the Scriptures. Why pick someone with no pedigree and no credentials? How apt to call these events “mysteries”!

Even before Vatican II, it did occasionally occur to us that ALL are called to holiness, even the unschooled, the unapproved, and even (please, God, forgive us!) the sinful.

There are still some cobwebs in the corners, situations where we feel it’s our bounden duty to get rid of those people so that we can have a religion that’s the rightful owner of all truth and goodness.

Do let’s sweep away the cobwebs, not the people!

It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the unwell.

“You are gods . . .”

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
John 1:14a

“The Son of God became human so that we might become God.”
St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation.

“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made human, might make us gods.”
(St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc., 57:1-4)

The feast of the Incarnation coincides with Palm Sunday this year. Because it’s such an important feast, I’ve chosen to explore and celebrate it in this post.

Even as a very young person, the Incarnation struck me as a most alluring miracle. Back then, I didn’t know about the astonishing comments from Saints Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas, quoted above. Somehow, for many of us, the truth that Christ first existed as God and then became man, existing in time in a specific place, living and dying as a human being in every way – somehow this half of the truth is much more acceptable than the second half. After all, God can do all things, so becoming a human being is certainly not out of reach. That half of St. Athanasius’ statement is credible.

But the rest of the statement – so that we might become God – may sound as blasphemous to our ears as it was to the unbelieving Jews in the Gospel of John, recently read at a Lenten Mass. (Ch. 10:31-41) In this passage, the danger surrounding Jesus has come to a head as the incredulous crowd takes up rocks to stone him. Jesus says:

“I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God.”

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and scripture cannot be set aside, can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’”?

An indisputable line of reasoning which Jesus’ enemies refuse to accept.

Jesus repeatedly referred to God as his Father, to being sent by God, and to being obedient to everything he hears from God. Furthermore, in many passages from the Gospels, he frequently refers to God as our Father. Every time we repeat the Lord’s Prayer, we refer to God as Father. Are we too blasphemous?

We commonly believe that certain qualities that apply to Christ cannot possibly refer to us. Especially divinity. And this is where we come to the second half of Athanasius’ outrageous statement.

I think it’s safe to say that part of Christ’s mission on earth was to teach us how to live as children of God.

In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) Jesus teaches us how to imitate God the Father, how to take on godlike habits and attitudes. He points out the basic teachings of the law, but then calls his followers to go beyond them. Difficult as those commands are (and have been for millennia already), Jesus calls us to an even higher standard. But it’s impossible for us to go higher on our own until we have received the teaching and example of Christ, along with his strength through the Holy Spirit, i.e. grace.

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill”; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, “Raqa,” will be answerable to the Sanhedrin. . . So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

The message and teachings of Christ call us to go beyond what is humanly good in order to achieve what is supernaturally holy – in other words, to become God-like. The second Vatican Council confirmed that we are ALL called to this holiness, which is the same as what Athanasius and Thomas meant by saying we are all called to be gods. The God we are called to imitate, and whose children we are, is the God who has total and infinite love for all humanity – the just as well as the unjust.

The purpose, then, of the Incarnation and why God became man, was to redeem us, to show us what divine love is, to model holiness, and to receive through Christ the ability to partake in his divine nature.

At every Mass we repeat God’s invitation to transformation, to holiness. As the priest mingles the sacramental water and wine, he says, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

If this were an impossible ideal, we would not have had so many urgings from Christ to dare follow him into the imitation of God. In doing so, we are divinized; we become God’s children, and become the face of Christ in this, our life on earth.