Mary takes us with her

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On this Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, St. John reveals to us the sign of a woman clothed in the sun. This is Mary assumed to heavenly glory. She is called a sign, because she stands over and above history, the link between heaven and earth.

St. John’s Apocalypse is written in an unfamiliar format to us modern readers. It’s in what is called a chiastic structure (from the word “Chi” for the Greek letter “X”). The easiest way to explain it is that in most of the storytelling we’re familiar with, the climax builds to a grand reveal at the end. In a chiasm, the climax is at the center of the X, right in the center of the story. You can find it by finding parallel passages and working in to the center. Long story short, if you haven’t already anticipated it, this passage about the Assumption of Mary is part of the climactic scene in St. John’s Apocalypse. Mary and her Son are in the very center of salvation history. And that makes sense, because the very goal of God’s action in our lives is to bring us safely to heaven, so Mary’s Assumption represents the success of the Gospel.

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St. John also records in that passage an unmistakable reference, the great serpent, to the beginning of time and the Fall of Eve in the Garden of Eden. So, here we have one of the very concluding passages of Scripture book-ending and connecting to the very first words of Scripture – The Bible is really neat, you guys, it’s almost as if the Holy Spirit helped write it – There has never been a moment in history without the Gospel, never a moment when God has abandoned us. At the very moment of the Fall, the promise of redemption is already in place.

Our Lord is the new Adam, and Mary is the new Eve. Eve was taken from the side of Adam, composed of his very heart, and leaving a wound there until Christ himself was wounded in the same place at the Cross. From the wound of Adam is created Eve and from the wound of Christ is created Mother Church. Just as Adam and Eve are heartsick until they are united in love, so too is the Church incomplete unless she is united with Christ.

This means that Mary, the New Eve, is wrapped up in all the mysteries of the life of Christ. She ponders his silent growth within her womb and loves him as only a mother can, and she stayed close to him and shared in the sorrow of his death. It is fitting that she also share in his Resurrection, and this is her Assumption.

Notice that all of this occurs through the merits of Christ. It is Jesus who redeems us. Jesus who has the power over life and death. Jesus who, seeing and loving his mother, assumes her to heaven before her body decomposes after death. Mary is important because she goes before us in faith and her maternity links her with the birth of faith in the heart of each person. She is never isolated from the communion of saints and never isolated from her Son. Where he goes, she follows.

There is a startling statement in the Catechism. It says, “The Marian dimension [of the Church] precedes the Petrine.” In other words, not that saints think this way, but Mary has a primacy of place over Peter. It was she who is bodily assumed into heaven while Peter, like the rest of the saints, still awaits the end of time to be reunited with his physical form. There’s something fascinating about that, because it points to the radiant expression of the feminine in the Church. In a world that very much struggles with what it means to be feminine, the Church fully embraces womanhood. All of her teachings on the female body, marriage, and both the receptivity and fruitfulness of love are wrapped up in the divine Motherhood of Mary. If Eve led us astray, it was only Mary who could be the conduit of our redemption and through her bringing Christ physically into the world she is still connected with the dignity of the human body.

It is clear that Mary is intimately bound up with the life of Christ and his mission to save us. From her place in Heaven, she intercedes for us still. When she was assumed to glory, we glimpsed our future – and she is taking us with her. What mother would forget about her children? What mother would not pray for her children?

In her Assumption, Mary takes with her our hurts and betrayals, the wounds caused by human thoughtlessness and past trauma. She takes with her depression and loneliness and despair. She takes with her our fear and timidity, our small failures and our large failures, our difficulty to love the way we ought to love. She takes it all and places it at the feet of Jesus. In this action, divine mercies flow to us and we are healed.

Through her, united to Christ, we too will be brought to new life.

Holy Mary, pray for us

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To you and all that you are, God breathes an ardent and firm, “Yes.”

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In our Scripture readings, we’re continuing to follow the theme of the Bread of Life. We meet the Prophet Elijah in the desert. Elijah has just been at Mt Carmel where fire came down from Heaven and consumed the offering he had placed on the altar. This was perhaps the moment of his greatest triumph, but Queen Jezebel, who was an enemy of God, was embarrassed by the miracle and wanted to punish Elijah. So he goes from the heights to the depths and ends up alone, hunted, and hiding. He falls into a spiritual despair and even wishes that God will end his life.

Despair is one of the deadly sins. In fact, it may be the most deadly and St. Thomas Aquinas says that it represents a loss of hope. A person in despair has inconsistent or even nonexistent emotions, lack of energy, and struggles with the pointlessness of spiritual progress. When it gets bad enough, it turns into a presumption that God cannot or will not forgive or come to your assistance. It’s a sort of pride that my sins are so magnificently decadent that not even God would forgive them. Trust me, I hear lots of confessions, we’re all doing the same things.

Despair is present in our society in two ways. First, our willingness to cut life short, to throw it away. We are willing to eliminate children in the womb, we want to ease the elderly into an early grave, suicide is epidemic. The root of this is in the second way that despair affects us, which is boredom and apathy. St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast day is later this week, says that “The most deadly poison of our times is indifference.” He said this because, believe it or not, it was difficult to find people willing to speak up against the rise of Hitler. There are subtle but very common ways we give in to despair, which all represent a habit of settling for less than the best and sliding into a life of comfort. For instance: I want to say my prayers, but the Cardinals game is on. I want to go to Mass, but Chris’ pancake house has a special on all you can eat pancakes. I would love to call my friend who is hurting right now but I need to run an errand. I’m not going to vote, or speak up about anything, or volunteer anything out of the ordinary because it won’t make any difference.

We are able to be very comfortable with our air-conditioning and pizza delivery guys, so we become apathetic. Life-as-usual is just good enough. It is good to be content and happy wherever God has placed us, but he never intends for us to stay right where we are forever because he has big plans for you. Elijah, you might notice, almost gives up on his vocation because of apathy. This is the greatest prophet in Israel, who has just called down fire from Heaven, and despair has him lying in the dirt next to a muddy stream.

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption, beloved children of God. We do not find the meaning to our lives through life-as-usual. We find the meaning to our lives by accessing the grace of the Spirit and allowing God to bring us to the best version of ourselves. What we have right now is a lot of comfort, a lot of technological access, a lot of ease, but if it cause us to lose hope and that inner fire, it isn’t worth it.

Pope Benedict XVI says, “Where does [joy] come from? How is it to be explained? Certainly, there are many factors at work here. But in my view, the crucial one is this certainty, based on faith: I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted, I am loved.”

God has knows you. He knows your life. And he loves you and holds out a future to you. Benedict goes on to say that, knowing this, it is only then possible to cast off apathy and say, “It is good that I exist.

This is where our eyes are fixed, on Jesus and his abiding love, not on temporary setbacks or the siren song of an indifferent, comfortable life. God’s way may not be easy. It may be a great challenge. It may cause you to question yourself, or Him. It is the harder way, the narrow path, but because of that the rewards are greater.

St. Paul says Christ “handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” He’s talking about the smell of incense, which is used during the Mass as a sign of sacrificial love because it is crushed and ground and then consumed before the altar. In King Lear’s famous last speech, Lear says to his daughter that for the rest of their days they shall be like God’s Spies. Partly this is a pun to the English priests who were secretly offering Masses when the penalty for doing so was death, but he is also referencing a poem by St. Robert Southwell, which Southwell wrote in prison before his martyrdom. It says, “God’s spice I was, and pounding was my due,/In fadinge breath my incense savored best.” Southwell is incense, and as he is crushed and sacrificed, only then is the beautiful fragrance is released. He has thrown off a life of comfort and followed Christ all the way to imitating his death.

There is beauty in the entirety of your life, in your sacrifices, in your ups and downs, in your winding journey to heaven. In this sacrifice we imitate Jesus, who made his whole life a beautiful offering. It is up to us to not give up, to not settle, and allow God to reveal the beauty.

When you are depressed – it is good that you exist

When you had a huge fight with your spouse – it is good that you exist

When you are bored and lonely – it is good that you exist

When you don’t measure up to those around you – it is good that you exist

When you despair of spiritual progress – it is good that you exist

When someone tells you that you are worthless – it is good that you exist

When you are fatigued by the passing of the years – it is good that you exist

To you and all that you are, God breathes an ardent and firm, “Yes. I have given my life as your food, my Body to strengthen you for the journey.”

As long as we live, may we never cease to languish for his love.

We must increase our Eucharistic Adoration

downloadSomeone recently sent me a book about an anonymous Chinese girl who lived during the Communist Revolution that occurred right around 1950. No one knows the girl’s name but Fulton Sheen made this story famous when he told it. The newly triumphant communist soldiers entered a small Chinese town for the first time, went into the Church, and arrested the priest. They then pulled the Blessed Sacrament out of the tabernacle and scattered the hosts on the floor. This little girl knew those hosts were Jesus and that he was lying alone and uncared for on the ground. So each night for several months she would sneak into the Church, spend one hour in prayer with the Blessed Sacrament, and consume one of the hosts. On the very last night, when only one host was left, a soldier caught her. The priest, who was locked up in a nearby room, heard a single gunshot and as he looked through the keyhole he saw the little girl crawl across the floor to pick up and consume the final host. She then fell down dead on the floor. That little girl is one of the many heroic martyrs of our faith whose name has been lost to history.

When Fulton Sheen later heard this story, he vowed from that moment to keep a holy hour every day. For that little girl, the cost of loving Jesus was her life. For Fulton Sheen, it was one hour of each day. Both, I suspect, would say that it was worth it.

When I moved back to St. Louis in 2010, I had just left behind my ministry as an Anglican pastor but I hadn’t been officially received into the Catholic Church yet, which didn’t happen for about four more months. For four months, I went to Mass every day. For four months, I sat in the pew and watched as everyone else received Jesus but I could not. And that hurt. It felt like I was spiritually starving. I was complaining about it to one of the professors at the seminary and he told me that it was the cost of separation, that the Church had been torn apart during the Protestant schism and the effects of that are still felt today. There is a cost to join the Church. You leave your old self behind. You give up that which held you back. That experience really helped me to understand what is lost when we don’t have the Eucharist.

Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life.” When we have the Blessed Sacrament, we have Jesus. We have all of him. He isn’t the sort of leader who points and tells us where to go and what to do, he doesn’t even lead just by example by showing us how to find the Bread of Life. He is the Bread of Life. He is the sustenance of the human soul, totally invested in making himself a gift to feed us. This means that, when we make room for the Eucharist, we are making room for the very presence of God within us.

There is nothing more important than this. All other food is corruptible, it’s lies and false promises. God doesn’t offer us health and wealth, power and glory, and to make our wildest dreams come true. What he gives is so much more valuable – he offers us himself.

He doesn’t count the cost of what it takes to love us. He simply saw that his children were lost and hurting, he saw our spiritual hunger, and did whatever he had to do to fix it. He took on human flesh, he lived among us to redeem every aspect of our lives, he died for us, and he still feeds us each and every day from the altar. He doesn’t count the cost and we shouldn’t, either.

I know that we hear about sacrifices and cost and so on and we draw back, but we have to remember that love always, always has a cost. Husbands and wives, you have adapted your lives to each other, you have made space in your freedom and put a dent in your savings to build your life together. You’re in it for better or for worse. Families, you support each other. You care for each other in old age and in childhood. Love makes demands of us. With no sacrifice, there’s no love.

The Church expresses this cost of love when we approach the Blessed Sacrament. There is a one hour fast, there is the requirement to be free of mortal sin, the limitation of communion to practicing Catholics. In a culture that shrinks back from the costs of love, we seem to have this twisted idea that these very small costs, these expectations that the Church places before us are somehow unreasonable. Why in the world should I refrain from receiving just because I haven’t been to confession in years? That’s unfair!

But I say, if we know who the Eucharist is, if we truly believe that we have before our eyes the Bread of Life, the God of the universe hidden under the appearance of bread and wine, then no cost is too much, because no amount of love is too much.

We must increase our adoration of the Eucharist. The way in which we approach holy communion, the way we prepare for Mass, the way we speak in Church when we’re in the presence of the tabernacle. Maybe it’s time to get back into the habit of saying an act of thanksgiving after receiving. Maybe it’s time to try to start genuflecting when you pass before the tabernacle. Time to go back to confession so your heart is ready. Time to come to Mass five minutes early to kneel and pray quietly. However God is calling you to increased adoration and you respond, there is blessing in that.

Your devotion goes beyond your own self, too. I first encountered Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament when I was an Anglican and a local Catholic Church invited us to join them, much like we’re doing tonight for the Anglican Patrimony Community. I didn’t know the O Salutaris or the Tantum Ergo, I didn’t know the name for the monstrance, but I was in awe of the mystery and the way in which the people around me prayed. That had a profound effect and was a stepping stone in my conversion. The way that we pray and adore the Sacrament is seen by others, and they know that our faith is real when they see the way that we pray. Hopefully, when visitors talk about Epiphany they don’t talk about how amazing the choir was or witty the priest was or anything like that. Hopefully they leave saying that God was truly there in the midst of that congregation.

The Eucharist loves us into existence. Don’t count the cost of giving him all of your love in return.

God is enough

bfb140303-feeding-the-five-thousandI’m going to let you in on a bit of my shady past. I grew up Pentecostal and attended Oral Roberts University, which is a university in Tulsa Oklahoma that was founded by a faith-healer. If you’re familiar with the description of a swath of the south as the Bible Belt, well, Tulsa is like the big, bedazzled buckle of that belt. It’s the heart of the camp meeting revival-type mega worship event. It’s full of giant churches pastored by televangelists.

So here I am, a naive eighteen year old kid from St. Charles, and I arrive at Oral Roberts to get a degree in Biblical Studies. And when I arrived I was into it. My whole life, I knew that God had given me a vocation to be a pastor. So I’m there, doing my studies, hanging out, working at IHOP, grilling cheap steaks in my dorm room on a George Foreman grill, having a great time. The whole university would go to chapel twice a week, and frequently these incredibly successful influential pastors would be guest homilists and they would start talking and they were amazing – articulate, didn’t need to use any notes while they talked, hilarious stories that perfectly fit the point they were making, profound stories that would make you cry. They all had these little catch phrases and acronyms to help us remember the points they were making. People would be on the edge of their seats, totally enchanted. They’d be taking notes to go home and think about. These outgoing, dynamic, preachers built massive churches on their ability to project a winning personality.

And then there was me.

Here is my word-for-word homily. I’m insanely introverted and prone to stage fright, so I preach off a manuscript. My homilies aren’t these great, motivating tour de forces of public speaking, they’re more like me ruminating out loud. Now, I’m not trying to fish for compliments, and I really mean that, I know that there are better preachers out there and worse preachers out there, but that isn’t the point. Church isn’t about any one person. Or more accurately, it is only about one one person, Jesus Christ. Church is the family of God gathering around his altar together, and Jesus is here in our midst. He is the one who feeds us, he is the reason we’re here.

Anyway, I’m sitting there at Oral Roberts in chapel watching these preachers captivate thousands and I know that God wants me to be a pastor just like them, but I didn’t measure up, not at all.

I felt stuck.

For me, it was a question of what the future held and feeling enormously apprehensive about it. What’s next? How to follow God’s will for my life? In all of our lives, we have moments like that when the future confronts us like a brick wall. I just lost my job, how am I going to survive? Money is tight this month, should I pay the electric bill or the gas bill? I don’t think we can make our next tuition payment for school. When will I find the person I want to marry?

Maybe you feel stuck spiritually, or in your career, or in a relationship. Maybe you feel lost, or trapped.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, lets slip a little detail. He writes, “I, a prisoner for the Lord.” St. Paul is literally stuck, locked away in a Roman prison in conditions that would make you shudder. Prisons at the time were dirty, full of disease, overcrowded. There would have been no windows. He may have not only been in a locked room but also chained up night and day. The prisoners would have been robbed and beaten by their jailors. It is in this situation that he scratches out the letter to the Ephesians and reminds them to live by the hope by which they are called.

In St. Paul’s opinion, he is not stuck. In his jail cell, he is making spiritual progress.

Our other two readings are about miraculous feedings, and the way in which a seemingly insufficient amount of food in the hands of God becomes more than enough. The way that God feeds us, the way he cares for us is often surprising. He gave me a vocation to the priesthood, but boy was the path he led me along winding. He didn’t make me a super-charismatic, amazing homilist, but he gives me what I need and it’s enough. He may not give you that perfect dream job, mail you a winning lotto ticket, or send a supermodel spouse your way who is also great at cooking steaks on a George Foreman grill. But God provides for us in the ways we really need, particularly because he has a big picture view. He wants to save your soul and bring you eternal, not just temporary, happiness. If he can take care of St. Paul in a Roman prison, he can certainly take care of you and me.

For us, it’s often simply a matter of perspective. In college, I was comparing myself to others and became blinded to what God was asking of me, and what gifts he was providing me. There is a vocation that is yours alone, a hope and a call that only you can accomplish. Accept that vocation and stick with it and don’t worry about what everybody else is doing.

St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, has good advice for us. He says to end each day by finding something to be grateful for, something good that happened that day. In this way, we learn to recognize how grace is at work in our lives. G.K. Chesterton actually says that gratitude is the highest form of thought. When we cultivate gratitude, it suddenly becomes clear that, with God, there is always more than enough! Even if all you have is God, even if all you have is to be here this morning and be fed by the precious Body and Blood of Our Lord, he is enough to fill your soul to overflowing. For this, we give thanks.

O Lord, you are the bread of life.