The flowers of Mary

31948888_10209607900269054_8708668245638381568_nMay is a month to celebrate and honor our Mother Mary. This is because it’s the month when the flowers in our gardens begin to bloom in earnest. As new life springs forth, it’s natural to make the connection to motherhood. Mary is not only the mother of Our Lord, but the Mother of all creation. Flowers are a wonderful sign of the beauty of our relationship to her.

There’s a long tradition of honoring Mary with flowers, and the medieval writer, Chaucer, writes that Mary is the “Flower of flowers.” That tradition is alive and well today. For instance, Pope Francis has a habit of bringing her a bouquet when he visits a Church for the first time. He is one of many who, over the years, have done so, and I notice that here at Epiphany flowers often mysteriously appear at her statue. The practice of bringing her flowers is so common, in fact, that these bouquets used to have a proper name, “Assumption Bundles,” because they were often gifted to her to celebrate the day she joined Jesus in Heaven.

This is the background to the May Crowning, in which a crown of flowers is placed upon the brow of Our Lady. We’re having ours here at Epiphany this weekend.

You probably know a number of Marian hymns, and in them it isn’t unusual that she is described as the purest, most beautiful flower. In visual art, Mary is also compared to a flower and is often depicted either holding a flower or with flowers nearby. Because of this connection, over the centuries countless flowers have been named in her honor and symbolize aspects of her motherhood. I truly do mean “countless.” If I started listing them all, it would take a long time.

Here are a few, though, if you’re interested:

Impatiens is known as Our Lady’s Earring because Mary heard the word of God and responded.

Roses and Lilies are connected to her through the ancient prophecy, “I am the rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley,” and roses and lilies were both found in her empty tomb after her Assumption to Heaven. St. Bede saw the translucent petal of a lily as a symbol for her soul, and it is fitting that a variety of white day-lily tends to bloom during the time of the feast of the Assumption

Violets, which are in bloom right now, bring to mind a reference from St. Bernard who says Mary is “the violet of humility.”

There are a number of flowers simply named in her honor such as Our Lady’s Slipper, named for her visit to her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country. Our Lady’s Mantle, Our Lady’s Tresses, Our Lady’s Tears, and Our Lady’s Milk Drops…the list goes on.

Milk Thistle, believe it or not, is literally named “Mary” in the Latin classification: Silybum Marianum

Marygolds symbolize Mary’s glory and place in heaven with the saints.

Irises, which are starting to bloom right now, are also called “Fleur de Lis” or “Sword lilies.” The iris symbolizes Mary’s sorrow and the sword that pierces her heart at the fate of her Son.

For those who are serious gardeners, you can combine any of these flowers into a Mary Garden, which is a serene, natural place to calm the soul and honor Our Lady. And of course, all of the beauty of flowers brings to mind Paradise and the Garden of Eden. This is why we keep flowers in Church as much as possible, because this is a heavenly reality we inhabit here.

I find it interesting that even though Our Lady is the Queen of Heaven, we don’t crown her with gold and jewels. Instead we use flowers. It’s like when a small child picks a dandelion in the yard and brings it in to mom. Flowers are the treasures that children bring to their mothers. Motherhood is sacred, and it is beautiful, and without it we do not have the Incarnation, we do not have Jesus.

Pope Benedict, in his letter “God is Love,” writes, “Mary is a woman who loves.” This is her gift to us, and this is the gift of motherhood. We love her and she loves us. Sometimes God can seem very distant. He’s an old man with a massive gray beard. He is an avenging judge. That’s not the whole of the picture and God is also gentle and very present in our souls, but it can seem that way, and when we do feel distant from God, it helps to remember that he has a mother and that she is our mother, too. We can offer her something beautiful, even if it’s just a weed from the yard and, as mothers do, she will place it in a vase in the center of the dining room table and act like we just brought her the greatest thing in the world.

This is the heart of it, we bring our gifts, as poor as they are, and our devotion is met with absolute, total acceptance. When we place our own lives as gifts upon the altar, Mary gathers us up like a bouquet and presents us to God as the most beautiful gift that could possibly be given. In that grace-filled action we come to understand we are never far from God, and that he cherishes us more than we could ever imagine.

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Perhaps it is the weak who are actually strong

alfieevans35

To historians, the expansion of the early Church is a bit of a mystery. How, in the face of overwhelming persecution, peer pressure, and social isolation, did the Church not only survive but actually overcome the Roman Empire? The Empire had legions, and a will to power, and a violent aggression that was completely unchecked by morality. During their entertainments, a losing gladiator would bleed out on the sand while 50,000 fans cheered and the victor gloated, and if you doubt how violent it really was, St. Augustine went once to watch and afterwards knew he had committed a horrible sin. He includes it in his Confessions about mistakes he had made. Roman women would, without shame, expose newborn babies in the wilderness to die. There was a plant that grew in Libya called Silphium that when ingested would poison a baby in the womb. Silphium is now extinct because the Romans used all of it. Slaves were sentenced to death by working in the copper mine or as rowers chained up in the bowels of Roman ships. They were used as objects and thrown away.

You can see why the ruling class of Roman society would have hated the Church. The world created by the Romans was based on power and pleasure, but even though those vices sound good in the beginning they are intensely dehumanizing. Here come St. Peter and St. Paul, both talking about how God made us to be happy, and virtue is more valuable than power, and that God loves slaves, and women, and widows. God loves the poor, the crippled, the prisoners. In other words, God loves not only the entire concept of humanity. He loves you, exactly as you are.

Christianity is the Word of Life that destroys class structure, racism, and tyranny. This is why the Church grew; not because of clever marketing, or cooperating with the government, or warfare. The Church offers a human way of life. We see this in the very structure of the way God chooses to save us from sin. He takes a human body, not as a shell for his spirit to inhabit, but for the flesh to become really, truly part of himself. Jesus is incarnated. He is not a religious idea. He is a person. And yet he is God, the bridge between human and divine, and through him the human body is revealed to be sacred.

Christianity requires faith, yes, but it isn’t blind faith. It’s built on reasonable concepts, among them the commitment to the dignity of all persons as a human right. It’s funny, the Church is mocked for being unreasonable, but it’s actually the world that is unreasonable. We see it in the way that the Roman Empire ran on pure power and violence…not reasonable decisions about creating an equitable, free society.

Jesus is the example for us of how our reasonable faith must find expression in the physical realm, it must become incarnate. The Word has become flesh and we live by the way we think. St. John writes, “Let us love not in word or speech, but in deed and truth.” In other words, put flesh and bones into your love and make it real.

This is where theology of the body comes from. What we do with our bodies and how we treat the bodies of others really matters, because salvation is not a purely spiritual escape to heaven. Our Lord is redeeming the entirety of the physical world and our resurrection will be physical.

It’s easy to talk about theology of the body when it’s about the beauty of the marital relationship, having beautiful little babies, eating well, exercising, that sort of thing, but there’s another side to it.

I recently read an article on the website Mama Needs Coffee (amen), and a mother writes about how pregnancies have wrecked her body and she is struggling physically with the burden of motherhood, about how she doesn’t like her image in the mirror. We could come up with more examples of less than perfect bodies. How about when we get older and become frail. How about those who are chronically sick, or losing their memory, or those who are developmentally delayed? Are those persons important, even though their bodies are less than perfect? The world likes strong bodies, healthy bodies, athletes and movie stars, but as soon as that body passes some arbitrary line wherein it becomes a burden to society it becomes disposable or a source of shame.

We’re seeing this right now with Alfie Evans, a little boy in England who has a neurological disorder – you may have seen this in the news – Taking away all parental rights, the hospital and government have decided to starve him to death because he’s a burden. Pope Francis is begging to let the little boy come to Rome where the Vatican hospital will take care of him. The boy’s father and mother are frantic. They know their boy, they know his value, how much he is loved. This is theology of the body. That little boy, that mother who knows she has sacrificed her youth for her children, consider how they are the purest imitation of Christ, his battered body hanging from the Cross, a sacrifice of love. His body, your body. They are connected.

Who is worth saving? Alfie Evans? Is there a reason that children with Down Syndrome are no longer being given a chance to be born even though they’re among the happiest, sweetest human beings I’ve ever met? Is there a reason that certain older people are denied treatment because their lives are not considered valuable anymore? When we reject the Cross, we reject humanity, and that is so sad.

It isn’t simply that we are supposed to be such good people that we are willing to tolerate the less fortunate. The point is, we don’t know how to make that judgment, only God does. God says everyone is worth saving, and if that’s the case, then every life has value, a way in which they make the world better. There’s a documentary out right now about L’Arche, which is a place where people with disabilities live together in community. One reviewer says shows a series of “encounters to be unveiling a great secret of life: the mysterious pull of being itself toward love. Even the simplest moments—a picnic in a sun-lit field, residents feeding one another around a table, a stroll through the woods—draw both the residents and caretakers into a pattern of giving, of sharing, of willing another’s good. Presence draws L’Arche into love, and love into the joy of the present, offering a kind of foretaste of the rhythm of heaven.”

Perhaps it is the weak who are actually strong.

St. Teresa of Avila says, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.”

“I am the Vine and you are the branches,” says Our Lord. We all belong to each other, members of the same flowering, vital, life giving Body of Christ. We don’t throw each other to the lions. We care for the weakest among us, no matter what anyone else says, and in fact this is how we conquer the world. We know that this is how human beings treat each other. The very God of the universe shows this to be true, and his Body broken for us proves that in the weakness of love, he is the strongest of all.

Freedom is not what you think

St Augustine in esctasy

Year B Easter 3

In Henry VI, Shakespeare writes, “Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing
wherewith we fly to heaven.” Ignorance and the refusal to modify an opinion can, in fact, lead to a 100 year long war, at least that’s what King Henry teaches us.

In medieval theology there was a long-running debate over which was more important: knowledge or love. Of course, we know that love is the greatest of the virtues and without it we are nothing. I could be a walking, breathing encyclopedia of theology but if it’s all up here in my head only, I won’t be a saint. The debate was more subtle than that, though, it was about which we must acquire first, or which leads to the other. Does knowledge come first or does love? Must we think first, or act first? St. Bonaventure and the Franciscans argued that it was an act of the will, it is our decision to love, that was most important, but St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans said otherwise. In the end, Aquinas was correct. The summary of his teaching is this – you cannot love what you do not know.

If you don’t know any better, you can go out and love all the wrong things. When I was a teenager I died my hair blond and had an eyebrow ring, and I loved how I looked. I could love all my vices and not know any better. Shakespeare subtly makes this point himself in the play Romeo and Juliet. Those two knew nothing, absolutely nothing. They were, like, 13 years old, fell madly in love, and ended up more or less ruining their lives because they had no clue what that love meant or how to positively direct their feelings.

St. Peter explains to the people in the Temple that, in their ignorance, they helped murder the Son of God. They freed a murderer instead. And they did all this thinking that they were doing good because they didn’t know any better. This is the extent to which ignorance can lead us astray.

There’s an interesting passage in the Catechism that says, “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened…the education of conscience is indispensable.” Each of us has a conscience, but we are not infallible and our own judgments can and do go astray. This means that we have a duty to ourselves to feed our minds, to keep learning, to struggle with Church teaching that seems difficult, because we want our minds to have all the material they need to make wise decisions. We want to love the right sorts of things.

St. Paul, in his letter, is desperate that we not sin! He says that helping us form our consciences is the very reason he is writing. This is the job, too, of the priest as a spiritual father, to tell you the difficult truths, not so the priest can judge you – because God knows I’m a sinner too – but for precisely the opposite reason. Your faith is yours alone, and you deserve all of the information available so you can best love God. Personally, I tend to shy away from controversy, so I probably let you down to some extent, here, but if I never talk about abortion, or marriage, or immigration, or even smaller things like eating meat on Fridays or how we receive communion, I’m failing you.

In his ministry, Our Lord speaks difficult truths. He talks about sin and the final judgment and hell. He opens up the scriptures with his disciples and helps them to gain knowledge about what is contained in them. He helps them to understand what their duty is to God and their fellow human beings.

Parents, this is also your duty to your children. To teach them what it means to live a valuable, meaningful life, to discern right from wrong, how to rise up to the challenge of life and emerge victorious and independent, unafraid to stand up against the whole world if need be to defend what is good and noble and pure. This will at times cause your children to become angry with you, because the road less traveled is challenging. Don’t worry about it. They’ll get over it. In fact, they’ll thank you for it, because within the boundaries of the knowledge and teaching you provide them, there is great freedom.

This is the scourge of our times, the idea that freedom is the same thing as choosing whatever we want with no limitations. But look at our society right now, it follows this philosophy and it’s in ruins, because if we reject knowledge in favor of unfettered choice to do whatever we want – and a species of this is to claim I have my truth and you have yours, which is just code for I’ll do whatever I want – when we reject knowledge, then the people who talk loudest and carry the biggest stick will control us. The bullies take charge, the politicians, the global corporations. When we choose sin, we seem to have made a choice that isn’t available if we follow God’s commandments, but we don’t find freedom by doing so. We actually limit ourselves and become less than what we could be, because we have given a piece of ourselves over to a vice and have closed a piece of ourselves off from the infinite. All of the sudden, what seemed so liberating is revealed to be slavery.

So, it is not limiting to acknowledge sin, and it is not limiting to try to live a life guided by a conscience that is formed by the light of Church teaching. This is freedom, because now you can make up your own mind with all possible information, now you are free to love God.

We are witnesses of these things, that ignorance is not bliss, that to know and love God is the greatest, most life-giving opportunity offered to the human soul, the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.

Lord Jesus, open the Scriptures to us that we may know you.

The awkwardness of receiving Communion

Padre Pio Receiving Communion
Padre Pio receiving the Eucharist

Year B Divine Mercy/1st Communion

I would like to extend our warmest greetings to our 1st communicants. This is such a beautiful day and we know that you have been working hard to prepare for it. Although none of us ever earns the love of God or the right to receive his Body and Blood, it is a gift that he freely gives, and the effort you have put into this day, all your practice, all your studying, honors God very much.

You might notice an interesting detail when our 1st communicants receive. They are all going to have the Eucharist placed directly on their tongues. There are a few reasons for this: 1) Cardinal Sarah, the head of the congregation for worship in the Vatican, has recently encouraged us to maintain this devotional practice because it is a sign of receptivity and humility, 2) it helps us to safeguard against dropping any particles of consecrated host on the ground, and 3) it is fairly unusual to allow yourself to be fed, my guess is that the only experience of this is for those of you who are married and may have had a piece of cake shoved into your face at your wedding reception. You do it, and everyone laughs, but it’s really a sign of love and trust, as way of declaring I don’t mind being vulnerable with this person.

I was thinking about the way that brides and grooms so willingly embarrass themselves. It’s silly – except it really isn’t, and the laughter and joy is all part of it. The liturgy of the Church is also odd in this way. The priest wears funny clothes, and we have traditions that, without any context, seem very strange. For instance, last week I walked down the center aisle and threw holy water all over you – even if it doesn’t show on my face I was laughing on the inside while doing it. The signs and symbols of the Church are big and brash. When a bishop is ordained an entire jar of chrism oil is poured over the top of his head. When you come for Ash Wednesday, if Father is holding a secret grudge against you he might carefully smear a massive black cross onto your forehead. At confirmation, the Bishop slaps you on the cheek. I tell the 8th graders that their spectacles are going to fly off. There is so much good humor and whimsicality that surrounds Catholic culture. I really love it. And simply because talk about it with a smile doesn’t mean that it isn’t serious. We can do penance and practice devotion while, at the same time, maintaining a healthy sense of joy.

Every time I’ve taught children to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, they giggle and see how wonderfully awkward of an action it is. But here’s the thing, it’s just like a bride and groom, because it’s part of this great wedding feast that we call the Mass. Now, I’m not telling you what to do, and if you receive reverently on the hand that shouldn’t cause anyone else any heartburn.

The point is – almost everything we do here at Epiphany is ridiculous. We gather to sing some songs, we even say a few things in Latin, the priest harangues you for a bit about some topic and inevitably quotes a poem or something at you. Then we pray at an altar with bread and wine and consume them. Then we go home. To an outsider, this seems madness. And it is – Unless it is true.

Think of it like a child at play. There is no purpose because the playing itself is the purpose, and it is good and beautiful simply for what it is. It is ennobling and worthy simply to be here in the presence of God together. The very first words the priest says at the foot of the altar are, “I go to the altar of God. To God who gives joy to my youth.” There is an innocent joy that is connected with our worship such that we become like little children before the face of God.

Fr. Romano Guardini says that the liturgy unites us to a supernatural reality, a childhood before God. When I was a child, I played baseball with my friends in the park. The fence of the tennis court was the backstop and we would tape a strike zone to it. First base, which was frisbee, was carefully laid out. Second and third base were both baseball gloves of whichever teams was batting. A line of pine trees was a homerun. We had elaborate, serious rules about every detail of the game. We were earnest and so intent on the rules that we spent most of the time arguing balls and strikes. This may seem ridiculous and I’m sure our parents all laughed at us, but this game was a vital part of our growing up, the way we negotiated with each other, the ups the downs, and the moments of delight when we had a perfect afternoon and played until the cicadas came out and the voices of our mothers called us home to dinner. The liturgy, too has laid down the serious rules to a sacred game.

Now, as an adult think about those times a child has guilted you into playing. Chesterton says that “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.” How many of you wish Dr. Seuss had never written a single word? Here’s the thing, though, God loves doing it again. Each morning he says to the sun, “Do it again.” Each evening he says to the sun, “Do it again.” “He has the eternal appetite of infancy,” says, Chesterton, while “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” The Mass is the same, every, single, day. In that repetition we are made young. Each time you worthily receive the Eucharist you are made young.

St. Thomas, like a good cynical adult, needed to see before he would believe. We are not able to see, or what it is that we do see is the Eucharist, so it takes faith, it takes a childlike trust. St. Bernadette when she encountered the Blessed Virgin, says “I looked, and I looked as much as I could.” It is a simple act, but it is the most pure act of devotion of which we are capable, to simply look to Our Savior and believe. In the Mass, when the Blessed Sacrament is lifted high, imitate Mary from the foot of the Cross and, behold, Jesus is our fair, most pure, most lovely, strongest, faithful Savior.

We may not always have the eyes to see, but Jesus sees you. His gaze has never left you, not even for a minute. He sees you, just as you are, and he loves you.

1st communicants, today you are mighty in the faith. Parents, don’t quench this gift that your children receive today, bring them regularly to mass, because the greatest gift you can give them is the presence of God in their lives. We all have doubts sometimes, we all forget to pray, or feel like we sin too much, or are unsure of how to behave as we grow up, but through it all God is with us, feeding us with his own life. This is true riches, to come and consume the God of the universe, to be seen by Him, to see him, and be drawn into the eternal youth of heaven.

As we receive you, O Lord, may we be made worthy of you.