Holidays, Holy Days

cookoutSummer is on the wane. Its last holiday is Labor Day when families and friends will be gathering in back yards, patios and public parks. There will be games: softball, volleyball, croquet. The traditional hamburgers, hot dogs and sausage will be served along with a variety of salads, topped off by watermelon, cakes and pies. In another day or two, children will be laying out their new clothes for the first morning of school. The mingling fragrance of new pencils and shoes will soothe them to sleep.

Such are traditions. We look forward to them as welcome islands of rest spent with loved ones in an atmosphere of laughter, story-telling and open affection – a powerful antidote to the heavy seriousness of our days at work or school. The goal is simply FUN, pleasure in the companionship of people who love and value one another.

Then too there are celebrations that honor an individual person: birthdays, mothers or fathers day, anniversaries. Special practices often mark these days: the favorite flavor cake is made and extra little services are performed for the honoree.

Count them, these oases of rest and celebration: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, weddings, and so many more opportunities for a relief from the everyday blahs.

As each of these special days arrives, we attentively prepare for them, careful to observe and repeat certain practices that provide the continuity of one celebration to the next. These rituals convey a sense of stability and permanence in our unpredictable world. Yet along with the sameness is a special something new to mark this one celebration as unique this year: maybe a 40th birthday that ushers a young adult into middle age; a Fourth of July that might draw us to consider afresh our nation’s foundation and values.

Most who read this post have been blessed to have been brought up in this nest of traditions that both refresh us and anchor us to a sure place of safety. Holidays can be holy days that cement affectionate relationships with others.

Our liturgy of the Mass consists of the same elements as holidays and is even referred to as a celebration. Each time we participate at a Mass we are at a feast. It is a commemoration of that famous of all dinner parties — the last dinner, in fact, that Jesus celebrated with his friends. This was a farewell dinner, for all at table knew that their Teacher would be leaving them. It must have been a sorrowful celebration, as our going-away parties often are, but it was the high point of Christ’s mission and his relationship with his friends. I no longer refer to you as servants! We disciples had now been raised to the special status of friend.

The Mass is designed to recall and even relive both the Last Supper and the post-Resurrection appearances. In the story of the journey to Emmaus, Jesus reviewed Scripture passages with the two disciples to illustrate how the prophecies referred to his life and death. Just so, at each Mass various scriptural readings add luster to the changing liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. In this way, the life and teachings of Christ are reviewed for us throughout the year, just as the Emmaus disciples experienced on their walk with Jesus. As they listened with burning hearts to old revelations made new, they came to recognize and receive the living Christ in the breaking of the bread. The sacrament of life-giving love was the high point for them in their journey, just as it is for us at Mass.

When I attended Mass for the first time after a long absence, I was amazed to see the pews emptied as virtually everyone went up to the altar to receive Communion. For me, this was a significant change that was probably not realized by those who had remained in the Church. It was a powerful revelation of how the congregation had evolved over the years into such an intimate relationship and greater comfort level with the Person of Jesus Christ. To me, it concretely demonstrated what St. Paul mysteriously referred to as the Body of Christ. The widespread reception of Communion confirmed for me Christ’s real presence in the world and in us.

This is what Christianity is about: our union with God and with each other in Christ. This happens not just once in a while, a few special times a year, but every time we join with one another in the celebration of the Mass.

Eclipse

EclipseI write this on the afternoon of the total eclipse of the sun. Thanks to some of our Television news stations we’re able to watch the passage of sun and moon across various parts of the States. It’s amazing and encouraging to see thousands of people united in uplifted faces, waiting patiently and peacefully for two minutes of viewing this rare phenomenon. A welcome relief!

Because of some recent discussions with family and friends, I had started out to write some thoughts on the challenges of aging. I thought of when I was only 16 years old and studied an essay of Cicero, De Senectute: On Old Age. (In Latin, of course.) At 16, this topic might as well have been eons away.

Nonetheless, it impressed me. We were told that Cicero wrote this essay to counteract the prevalence of suicide among the aging Roman population. Cicero outlined four advantages of old age over youth, only one of which I remember. He wrote that while the elderly experienced a decline of physical strength and agility, this was outweighed by an increase in their mental powers of wisdom and judgment. (A sad irony was that the professor who taught this class later developed Alzheimer’s.)

Now that I qualify for membership in this graying group, I find myself looking back on the many years that have led to where I am today. In particular, I review what has happened in my interior life, divided, like Gaul, into three parts: (1) the early years of growth in the Faith, nurtured by a devout widowed mother and Catholic schools; (2) the mid-years of marriage(s), child-bearing, child-rearing and departure from the Faith; and (3) the current years with my return to the Faith, widowhood and spiritual maturity.

I look back on many of these years and, at the beginning of this last phase, I mourned what had seemed a waste of so much of my life when I distanced myself from Christ and the Church. Twenty-one years squandered! So it seemed.

But I don’t feel that way now.

Those 21 years were a gift for growth in many areas. To realize the pros and cons of this era, its mistakes and opportunities, is in itself a tremendous grace since I’ve been given even more years to profit from this understanding.

It’s not surprising that my children should start to be concerned about their mother’s future. Like so many parents in my age group, our children do not live geographically close. Difficult questions are raised about where the aging parent is to live, what kind of home is sustainable, proximity to family and adequate health care, etc., etc.

The temptation for me is to angst over these questions: should I start to look for another home? What about my local friends and ministry? To what extent would I be able to start over somewhere else? Timely as these questions may be, I find a metaphor in today’s eclipse of the sun, occurring as I write. Is this the time of my eclipse? Are God and circumstances preparing me for my final disappearance?

But other saving thoughts are soon woven among those shabby threads, dissipating my concerns.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?. . .
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.
(Matthew 6)

Planning and prudence are certainly necessary. But a healthy dose of Trust is better than all the pharmaceuticals flooding the market of our death-fearing culture. For me, thanks to Christ, the stage I’m in now is only a partial eclipse.

Transfiguration of Christ; Transformation of Christians

For me, the narrative of the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most mysterious in the Gospels.

At the top of Mount Tabor, Peter, James and John were allowed a vision of Jesus in the company of major Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah. His position at their center, along with the command of the Father to listen to him, emphasized Jesus’ authority and supreme holiness. No wonder the apostles were astonished and wanted to stay there indefinitely! They had already, through Peter, announced their belief that Jesus was the promised one of God, the Messiah. The Transfiguration vision cemented that belief.

But there is another aspect to this vision that touches us personally.

Jesus, fully human and fully divine, allowed his apostles to observe his divinity. What they were also observing (but weren’t yet ready to understand) was their own eventual transformation into the very image of the divine, since through Christ we are made children and heirs of the Father.

Why did Jesus tell the Apostles to say nothing about this event until after his Resurrection? Could it be because they were far from understanding or accepting so bold a concept as our own divinization? We needed the spiritual strength and insight that would be offered to us only after the Resurrection and the Pentecost.

Are we ready even now?

The late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said, “[t]he Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not exist at all.” Mysticism, he wrote, is “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.”

The Transfiguration tells us that our faith must transcend robotic habits. We aren’t meant to spend our earth-years with our eyes half-shut, stumbling through what appears to be a hopeless world. There’s too much that we’re missing if we do not open our hearts to the experience of God of which Rahner speaks.

A constant and growing search for deeper intimacy with Christ and his teachings is what will bring about our transformation into the divine, as Christ showed us and his disciples at the Transfiguration.

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“The days which begin on the feast of the Lord’s transfiguration and end on the threshold of Our Lady’s glorification provide an opportunity for the Christian faithful to reflect on God’s transforming grace at work in their lives, and to seek from the Lord whatever they need to deepen that grace not only in themselves, but indeed in the Church and world.”

These are the opening words of a Transfiguration Novena provided by Father John Colacino of Rochester. If you would like to join us in praying this Novena starting on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) and ending on the eve of the Assumption (August 14), please make your request via the  “Leave a Reply” or “Comment” section and it will be sent to your email address.

Play here: “What a Wonderful World”  

Holiness and the Kingdom of Heaven

A few years ago I was making a presentation on Thérèse of Lisieux at a nearby spirituality center. It was surprising to hear a participant share her feelings about sainthood. She said she was reluctant – maybe even unwilling – to strive for holiness because she feared the suffering that would inevitably follow. What gave her this idea was her reading the lives of saints who had suffered severely, even to the point of martyrdom.

Taken off-guard as I was at the time, I couldn’t think up a good answer. In fact, I still can’t, but at least would be able to point out that holy people aren’t the only ones who suffer on this earth. Suffering is a staple of the human condition; no one is exempt.

Since that first time, I’ve heard the same fear expressed again. What will God do to me if I tell him I want to grow closer to him, and even want to devote my life to him? Look what happened to the saints. What is more, look what happened to Jesus Christ. And even at the strictly human level, giving myself to another requires great trust. Will my love and trust be returned, or will it be exploited?

It seems to me that when Jesus invites or promises us entry into the “kingdom of heaven,” he is inviting us not to a place, of course, but to a state of being: union with God on God’s terms as he originally planned for us when he put us in the Garden of Eden. Christ is inviting us to nothing less than holiness.

In parables, Jesus describes the kingdom as treasures, such as the one hidden in a field. The person who discovers it considers it of such value that he sells everything he has to purchase the field. Then there’s the pearl merchant who travels far and wide to find just one pearl of extraordinary value. In these two stories, the reward is so desirable that the seekers consider the high price as nothing compared to what they’ll gain. St Paul repeats this more prosaically when he writes in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”

And again, in his passionate devotion to Christ, he writes the same thought in Philippians 3:8:

I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)

Sometimes the loss of everything is intentional, as when a person enters religious life making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, willingly giving up natural comforts in exchange for the spiritual. Sometimes the loss is unintentional, as in the patient acceptance of poverty, ill-health or loneliness, as Jesus lists in the Beatitudes where a series of ills transforms us and leads us into the kingdom of heaven.

The Gospels repeatedly tell us how generously God wants to reward our efforts. By the time we muster the courage (and wisdom) to desire holiness, we really don’t have to worry or fear the results. We’ll be given all we need, and much more.

Mary Magdalene

Here I am on her feast day, having taken her name as my Oblate name, and unable to write a word about her. So many tangled pieces of information about her: one of the many Marys in the Gospels; her long-standing undeserved reputation as a woman of ill repute – one of the worst accusations one can make about a woman; possessed by seven demons, yet exorcised by Jesus himself; “Apostle” to the Apostles, yet only one year ago accorded the status of an apostle.

So why did I choose this woman as my model?

Mary the Apostle stands at the opposite pole of Mary the Mother. The Nazarene was full of grace; the Magdalene was full of sin in the form of demons. Both followed Christ to the bitter end, enduring with him his passion and execution.

For me, the beauty of Mary Magdalene is in her great fidelity and gratitude. Much had been forgiven her and so she loved much. Mary at the tombSo often is she seen in tears that I’m led to understand her tears as the “rivers of living water  flowing from within the one who thirsts and believes in him. (John 7:37-38) Any sinfulness is drowned in these tears.

What a consolation and reward: to be the first to see her beloved Teacher resurrected! To hear him call her name!

Conversion after forgiveness, gratitude, intense love, fidelity, service: these qualities in Mary Magdalene are more than enough for me to admire and strive to imitate.

Mary Magdalene