Friday, December 30, 2011

The Sinful Woman

In Luke 7, Jesus was invited to a Pharisee's house for dinner. Folks typically reclined while eating in those days, so Jesus would have been propped up on one arm with His legs off to one side. A "sinful woman" had followed Him there & stood behind Him, weeping. Can someone say "stalker"?! She must've had some gall to show up to the house of a Pharisee at dinnertime. Talk about awkward... Luke tells us she was standing so close, her tears fell onto Jesus' feet. I wonder if this was a faux pas- she was a "sinful woman" afterall. She bent down to wipe His feet with her hair & kissed them. Was she apologetically wiping His feet? Why not use her garments or a napkin? No, she used her hair. I wonder if it has anything to do with the idea that a woman's hair is her "glory" (1 Corinthians 11:15)... She surrendered that to Jesus, took the filth of His feet upon herself & proceeded to anoint them with some ointment she had with her. Jesus understood these things as acts of love toward Him & forgave her sins.

It would never occur to me to follow someone I didn't know personally into a stranger's house. I wouldn't stand there crying & making a spectacle of myself. I certainly wouldn't use my hair to dry anyone's feet. In fact, I don't like feet all that much & would probably steer well clear of them! But this woman was different. What was it that compelled her to pursue Jesus & humble herself in such a profound way? This lady made a fool of herself in front of the entire dinner party & she probably could have been arrested, but she showed Jesus the utmost love & He knew it. She was not reprimanded or dragged out to the street- instead, her sins were forgiven. I love Jesus, but I have difficulty imagining myself loving Him to the degree where nothing else matters in the world- not even my "sinfulness". She showed up, asked nothing of Him and He gave her life. What faith.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Faith and Modern Culture

People often call for the church to "get with the times". How else can it perpetuate the faith? Hardly anyone buys the old stuff anymore. But when we attempt to repackage the "old stuff" by mass producing some generic equivalent of what we do & believe, is it faith we're actually perpetuating? Folks say the language is archaic, so we need a new translation of the Bible or some new media tactic- maybe music or video- to get the Word out, to make it appealing to our culture today. Some say the music is lame. How about some Latin Rap or the Gloria mixed up "House" style? That would really pack 'em in & Mass might actually be fun! Take out the pews & let the people dance to show their thanks to the Lord! I don't know of anyone who has done that, but what if someone did? Wouldn't that be the same as conforming to the world? I've often heard the argument that God gives some of us gifts for music & media, so we ought to use them for the glory of God by meeting the culture where it's at. We have to be relevant or no one will take us seriously. Its as if we think we're in competition with the forces of evil & we have to try & stay ahead of the game. Or do we? Who is our God, anyway? Again, I ask, what is it we're perpetuating through modern media tactics? Is it truth? Or are we actually allowing the world to dictate our next move? If, for some reason, our efforts actually accomplish something, can we be sure the recipients connected for the reasons we intended? Will they grow up strong & sure in their faith? Or will they only crave the generic junk food we've offered?

There is a reason why the church tends to stand in opposition to modern culture. I'm not a prude, but I believe there is wisdom in maintaining the integrity of tradition & scripture... Its kind of like responsible forestry. The forest will always be there because for every tree taken, another is planted in it's place. If we gave in to modern culture, we might cut a stand of trees to build a bar, a strip mall or a gym to accommodate people. If that went well, we might take some more trees, lay roads & build houses. Eventually, only a tiny grove of trees would remain, set aside as a park for all. This would be what's left for us & those we accommodated... Eventually, we might even forget where we come from altogether & unceremoniously settle in among the people. The church needs to be responsible with the gifts it has been given, but not at the risk of giving up it's heritage from the Lord. We are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. May we strive to be conformed to God rather than the Godless culture around us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Away In A Manger

At Christmas Mass, the priest read from (where else) the gospel of Luke, chapter 2. This is a very familiar passage to most because we sing about it in songs & see it acted out in Nativity scenes. We hear the same story every year: there's no room at the inn, no room anywhere & as a last ditch effort, Mary & Joseph are offered a stable to spend the night somewhere in Bethlehem. Mary gives birth to the baby Jesus, wraps Him up & lays Him in a manger. A manger, commonly mistaken as the stable itself, is actually a food trough.

Jesus was laid in a manger. When I heard those words, I was strangely reminded of the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells His disciples that His flesh is true food & His blood is true drink. When we look into the manger, what do we see? A cute little baby or the Hope of our Salvation? This Bread from Heaven, this true food & true drink was laid in a manger for all of us from the very first...

Christmas, a.k.a. "The Nativity of the Lord"

I braved my annual holiday malaise & attended Midnight Christmas mass as planned. I had nearly talked myself out of it, but was strangely relieved to enter with a group of teens in their pajammas & cowboy boots, followed by some middle aged women in shiny blazers. As usual, I staked out my place in the back. The church was darkened & gold banners had replaced the Advent-y red & purple. The Advent candles were gone. In their place, pointsettias had erupted on the altar. The music minister led some traditional carols, but few sang. Most talked to their neighbor, adjusted their clothing or looked around with bland expressions... all throughout the Mass.

The Nativity of the Lord, otherwise known as Christmas, began with the incensing of the altar, followed by the "Proclamation of the Birth of Christ". I had never even heard of this declaration till a couple weeks ago when I read about it in an Advent devotional. It came to life when I heard the priest sing it out. I was filled with a sense of wonder, as if I were hearing about Jesus' birth for the first time. The last sentence says "Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the flesh" and it reminded me that the scripture(s) say "TODAY if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts...", "TODAY is the day of salvation".

It seemed, however, that many who heard did not truly "hear". From my vantage point, many people were just there to fulfill an obligation. It troubled me. I began to question whether Catholicism was truly faith or at its core, just a cultural, social thing... For me, it IS about faith. I envisioned myself standing up at the end of mass- standing on my pew & crying out to these people- didn't they understand what was happening here? Didn't they understand what they were a part of? How could they not sing? How could they not drink in the scripture & be aware of the presence of God in that place? It seems that many Catholics don't even know what they have. What spiritual riches in Christ they possess already by virtue of heritage! How much more could be theirs if they only had faith?!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Gift of Presence

It's the Christmas season again. This year, for the first time in my life, I will ring in the day with midnight mass. I hope to make it a new tradition. I have plenty of old traditions you see. When I was a kid, the Christmas season always meant a cold or flu. It also meant presents, getting to see my father, crying my eyes out when he left & then getting into yelling matches with my mother. Grandpa came for dinner, made things better by his presence alone & the day ended unceremoniously. That was my Christmas, my Easter, my birthday, every year till I was 13.

My body remembers... this Christmas season, I nurse my sniffles & the remembrance of gain & loss, hope given, hope deferred.

As an adult, Christmas & the giving of gifts has become something of an empty ritual for me, but I understand that in this world, love is gauged by gifts or some other monetary value. I don't tend to show true love by "things" however. My grandfather gave me gifts often, but his greatest gift to me was the gift of presence. I loved going to his house whenever I could just because I knew he was there & I could be myself with him. It didn't matter if we were engaged in conversation or play together. I felt a great satisfaction knowing he was in his chair watching the late night news as I fell asleep on the floor.

God also knew how much more valuable the gift of Presence was above monetary offerings. That's why He sent His own Son to us. He is both the Giver & the Gift of Presence. Its something I'm coming to appreciate most dearly this year.

As the wrapping paper piles up in crumpled heaps this Christmas, let us not forget the Good Gift God has given us.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Worship or Laundry List?

I've been thinking about the differences between Catholic worship & Protestant worship. Note sometime, the words you sing from Sunday to Sunday. As a Protestant, I remember constantly singing something about my weakness, my need, my desire for something more from God. Seems pious enough, humbling myself & all. But the focus was on me, not God... not so pious afterall.

As I journey toward Catholicism, I've noticed a difference in the songs we sing. Just flipping through the Missal, one can see the words tend to recount Who God is & what He's done... Much of it is actually scripture. Catholic worship is not so much me striving & grasping for something from God, but rather, me offering my thanks & praise to God. I think the law of reaping & sowing can be applied here. It seems the more we sow in worship, the more we actually reap from Him. While that shouldn't be our sole motivation, perhaps it can give us the courage to put Him first, above ourselves. He is a good God. He knows what we need. Can't we put our needs aside but for a moment?

When we come together to worship the Lord, are we worshiping in Spirit & in truth or are we merely submitting our laundry list to Him? I've heard it said that worship is as much for us as it is for God. But I think this concept is misunderstood... We shouldn't be seeking warm fuzzies & goosebumps to make ourselves feel better. The benefit we ought to be seeking from worship is a glimpse into the mystery of faith we're part of. Who is our god? If we aren't seeking the One True God in worship for love of God alone, it just isn't worship.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Power of Yes

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us... Isaiah 9:6

I've often thought of being "born again" as something that happens TO us, but with Christmas fast on the heels of Advent, I've started thinking of it in a different way. What if the act of being born again is not confined to just one moment in history? And what if this act hinges upon our own simple "Yes" like Mary? When we say "Yes" to God, is that it? If so, why? Why is Christ not born again in us daily as "Emmanuel, God with us", Savior & King? What if it were not so much we who were born again, but Jesus in us? Imagine how that new Life would change ours! Could it be that "born againess" is actually more a process of daily conversion, symptomatic of Christ's birth in us rather than a one time event?

May He indeed be born again in us this season & daily lead us to salvation through His life, death & resurrection!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How Could I?

Believe me, I've heard it all in the last few months. How could I even think of submitting to an archaic church full of homosexuals & pedophiles that's rife with theft & deception? Doesn't that seem like the very antithesis of what the church is supposed to be? Popes have been called "antichrist" since the days of the Reformation & some say the Church is nothing more than a Godless cult or elitist social club. At first, yes, I admit I had my doubts. How COULD I align myself with an institution that has had so many accusations laid against it?

I've been thinking about it in recent days & here's what I've come up with: my relationship with the Church is based first & foremost on my relationship with Jesus. I can submit to the authority of the Church so long as the church remains submitted to the authority of Christ. Where it does not, I cannot in good conscience submit to it. In the "true" spirit of deception & crime, most of the horrible things we hear about have happened under the guise of secrecy & lack of submission to higher Church authority. I tend to think the breakdown happens with individuals who have been protected by other individuals who are either sympathetic to the crime or unwilling to upset the "order" of things. Other situations, I believe, occur out of ignorance, like Galileo or the Inquisition. Suffice it to say, I don't necessarily believe in conspiracy theories.

At this point, I'm not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I was many years ago, but something kept drawing me back. I had to take a closer look- beyond the media, beyond the accusations, beyond the confessions & financial pay offs. Could I possibly see beyond the scathing humanity of the Church? I have no answers for the countless victims out there. Is there more to the Catholic faith than the sordid traditions of some so-called holy men? I believe that for every authentic thing, there is a deception, a knock off of some kind. I acknowledge the horrible, inexcusable crimes, but I also believe an authentic representation of the Catholic Church still exists. I believe it because I've personally encountered transformation as I continue to study & interact with the Catholic faith. I can tell you I never experienced such joy, such anticipation, such desire for the things of God as a Protestant. Catholicism is not found in the Pope or a priest or a sacrament or a church building. True Catholicism is the mystery of Life that manifests itself in the heart of every believer united to one other in Christ Jesus.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Angels We Have Heard On High

Christmas seems to be the one time of year we can acknowledge the existence of angels without sounding like we belong in a looney bin. We sing of angels in our Christmas carols, make angels in the snow or top our trees with them... but what do we really know about them? When you think of an angel, what comes to mind? Some sort of glowing, blondish, feminine (yet oddly androgynous) figure (don't forget the wings), dressed in a flowing white frock & a gold sash? Or perhaps we think of them suspended in a starry winter sky, singing in perfect harmony (complete with cymbals, harps & maybe even a trumpet or two).

When Mary first saw Gabriel, what was her reaction? She must've been frightened. Why else would he have told her to "fear not"? There was an angel or two at Jesus' tomb- how did the guards or the women who arrived later respond? They were terrified. Again the angel(s) told them not to fear. I wonder, how would you or I respond if we saw an angel? Would we be all calm & chummy? Or would we wet ourselves & cower? These beings stand before God, they reflect His glory & they are His messengers to us. I find it odd that we should attribute such "fluffy" sentiments to them... but then, don't we do that with so many things related to God? We argue that God is love, God is "Daddy"... but Who is our God, really? And who are His angels? Who are we to claim that we know anything about Him and HIS world beyond the little He's revealed?

Symbolism In Relationship

"This is how all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." -Jesus

Jesus did not say all would know His disciples by the symbolism they embrace. He didn't say that crucifixes or icons, rosaries or monstrances, postures or prayers showed forth love or proved discipleship. So where does symbolism fit in here? Why is it even necessary? Its my opinion that symbolism makes any relationship more meaningful. Symbolism could take the form of a gift, a picture, a memento, a song, a card, a letter. Symbolism is history, presence & hope for the future. Without symbolism in a relationship, things tend to stagnate or fizzle.

For the Christian (and even more specifically the Catholic Christian), symbolism is a manifestation of the salvific love language that God first spoke to us. We, in turn, speak it to one another out of our love for Him. Through the language of symbolism, we remind ourselves & each other Who our God is. We proclaim what He's done, what He's doing & what He has promised to do. We're reminded of the forerunners who paved the way of faith before us. We're reminded of our own heavenly citizenship- that we are not of this world. We're reminded to humble ourselves that He may lift us up & that we are not alone in this world. He has not left us as orphans. He has given us symbolism to guide us, to strengthen us & to show forth His love. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Embracing Symbolism, Embracing Life

Today I felt compelled to attend Adoration again. I had planned to go to the early morning mass (but slept in). Ok, so maybe I would make it in time to see the priest put the host in the monstrance (nope). I waged an internal war with myself to get out of bed, let alone drive out to the church. Of course, once I got up, I had other things to do- more important things like dishes & laundry. Eventually, I made it out the door & arrived just before the noon hour. The guardian on duty was an older lady I knew & it was just she & me for a while. A few others arrived as the hour progressed. I knelt & then sat before the Blessed Sacrament, feeling much the same as I had last time. It was as if my senses were flooded, overwhelmed, yet at the same time, I felt incredible peace. Today I had difficulty "seeing" beyond the monstrance. Were we really "keeping Jesus company"? Did He really live in that box off to the side- the tabernacle- when He wasn't displayed for all to see? Did Jesus really mean for us to believe such things? Did He mean for us to remember Him in this way? Did He forsee that we might forget the origins of our faith without tangible reminders? Does this expression of faith signify weakness or strength? Why don't Protestants "need" this stuff, these outward symbols, these gestures of respect & reverence?

I know symbolism makes me feel very different about my faith. Every day I wake, I see the crucifix & the rosary beads on the wall. I see the distinctly Catholic Bible & my RCIA notebook sitting on the table. The Catholic Catechism & a pile of other Catholic books have found their home on my nightstand. And every day, I put on the St. Benedict medal & remember that the letters on the back stand for a Latin prayer- something to the effect of saying no to the temptations of the devil. These things help me remember every single day that I am the Lord's, that I am on a journey, that this is real. As a Protestant, I might have my bible, a bare cross & maybe a few devotional books to aid me in prayer. Mary & the saints never crossed my mind & I rarely thought of Jesus' sacrifice. I never thought about my duty to love God & my neighbor. I rarely thought of social justice. As I embrace the symbolism of the Catholic expression, I have begun to embrace all these things as well & so it seems, even a new sense of life. If Jesus is present in the Eucharist, what a great gift this is! And even if He isn't, the symbolism alone suffices...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Cyrenian

Today is Tuesday, the day to pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. I recently found a website that offers a scriptural rosary where a scripture is given for contemplation during each "Hail Mary". As I was contemplating the 4th Sorrowful Mystery, one of the scriptures assigned told about how Simon of Cyrene was "pressed into service". He was the one who carried Jesus' cross. I got to thinking about the significance of this moment. It's often said that Jesus carried His own cross up the hill & so should we. Afterall, He Himself tells us to take up our cross & follow Him, right? But it seems even He needed help to bear the burden. The significance of the Cyrenian not only attests to this fact, but magnifies our own humanity; that is, our own need for help. It seems God deliberately meant to enlist the help of humanity in the process of salvation. From the womb of Mary to the back of the Cyrenian, humanity has played an integral part in the story. Without us, there would be no story. We can't know if Simon of Cyrene felt anything for Jesus as he was "pressed into service", but we certainly have a choice to bear one another's burdens out of love for God. Could this be the "light & easy" yoke Jesus wants us to take up? Is this how we find our rest in Him? Is this how we can learn of His gentleness, His humility & meekness? What was the significance of the Cyrenian's presence to Jesus? Perhaps a better question might be what would the Cyrenian mean to us if we were Jesus in that moment? Or what might our presence mean to someone else even now? He's written us in. We're part of the story...

Scriptural Rosary

Faith, Hope, Joy

Faith. Hope. Joy. These are three of the four themes of Advent related to the waiting, the expectation of Christ's appearing. But what do they mean to me? A year ago, nothing. They were merely secularized seasonal words slapped onto Christmas cards or displayed in storefront windows. They were familiar, yet foreign, like some other language. Indeed, for me, these words WERE a foreign language! Faith. Hope. Joy. They were mere slogans for executive advertising schemes, used for timely sermon topics in church, and representative of things I could not possibly attain.

This year however, I am learning the language of salvation, which is what the Christmas season is truly about. It is a language of passion, of pursuit. It is a language of love. It is one of belief, of waiting, of struggling. It is faith, hope, joy. And even in the uncertainty of the learning, I can experience that great peace that Christ will come. But how?

Certainly Mary & Joseph asked this very same question- not once, but many times in the 9 months they spent waiting. Certainly the prophets & teachers of the law asked this question many times throughout the centuries leading up to Christ the Messiah's birth. But how? How can this be? How will it all go down? They could not possibly know. All they knew was that He was coming...

This year, faith, hope & joy floats on the surface of the season like lifesaving buoys. In the waiting, it's easy to be concerned with the hows & the whens & the whys. In the moment, it's the investment that matters. What we do in the moment prepares us for what comes next. Jesus is coming. This holiday season, are we holding fast to faith & hope with joy? Are we learning the language of salvation so we will see Him when He arrives? Or are we just waiting for presents under the tree?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tiny Moments

My best friend just graduated from a Christian University. It was standing room only in the church & I noticed how this rite was much like my own recent rite of welcome. Professors in their academic regalia led the graduates past family & friends in precession, much like the priest led us to the altar one Sunday during mass. After an opening prayer, a hymn & what was supposed to be a graduation address (but ended up feeling more like a sermon), the first graduates were called. Since my friend had earned her Master's, she was first "hooded", presented her degree & walked off stage after shaking some hands. That was it. That was her moment. Eighty some odd students each had their "moments" & then it was done. A closing hymn & a prayer sent us off unceremoniously to the foyer for refreshments. My friend & I had waited for this day since she began this journey two years ago & now that it was over, we were left feeling a little empty... though for different reasons. For me, it felt deflating that she had worked so hard to reach this point & then it was just...done. I can't help but wonder if it will be like that for me on Easter when I expect to be received into the church... When my moment has passed, then what? Will I too feel empty? Will I feel lost? Thankfully, faith is not like academics in that one is always learning & living the journey in some way. Faith is not a "closed canon" learned in a classroom or culminating in distinctions or degrees. Faith, it seems, is not one big moment alone, but many tiny moments stitched together...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Plotting the Course

It seems God has been plotting my course all along. Someone asked me how it is that I came to pursue Catholicism. I can assure you I didn't just wake up one day & decide I wanted to be a Catholic! I've written some about my influences in childhood- my Catholic neighbors, Catholic Bazaars, movies & tv shows with Catholic characters or themes... But my real interest began when I was a teenager. I had been looking for some Christian music, so my uncle let me borrow some of his old 70's records. I heard artists like Silverwind, Honeytree, Keith Green, Evie, 2nd Chapter of Acts and most importantly, John Michael Talbot. It was his album "The Lord's Supper" that had the most profound
effect on my soul. I had never heard anything like it. I began to hunt for his music, acquiring albums such as "Hiding Place" & "The Lover & the Beloved". There was something in this man's voice that made me believe He really believed what he was singing. I wanted whatever it was he had. I knew he was a Catholic... and I felt like I wanted to be one too. It wasn't until several years later, after I had been away from church for a while, that I began to consider Catholicism as a viable option. I'd had it with the whole of Christianity. In a last ditch effort to find truth, I began to read about church history, church fathers... I was particularly interested in the pre-Constantine era (from the time of the Apostles to about 300 A.D.). What I found startled me. I read the Bible again, confirming my suspicions that my former denomination- heck, Protestantism altogether, was not a true representation of the historical church. I was now in my 30's. I was too frightened to attend mass, talk to a priest or join RCIA, so I read books. I bought a rosary, I prayed Catholic prayers. But it didn't go beyond that. I ended up joining an Evangelical Free church instead. Fast forward nearly 5 years. This summer, I took a religion class at the community college. On the last day, the teacher arranged for us to tour a Catholic church. The woman giving the tour would later become my RCIA director. As she explained the different functions of symbolism in various places in the sanctuary, I was overcome. It was that day that I knew I had to pursue this til I couldn't pursue it anymore... I signed up for RCIA & the rest is history...

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Finding Advent

Advent. I knew nothing about it till about 5 years ago when a Protestant friend celebrated by keeping an Advent calendar- the kind with the little flaps that reveal pictures each day. Even then, I didn't fully know what it was about. It seemed like it was just a countdown of sorts to Christmas. Last year, I began hearing about something called "Advent Conspiracy", designed to essentially put Christ back into Christmas. But it wasn't until this year- a few days ago in fact- that I actually learned what Advent is about. Its about waiting & expectation of Christ's appearing on Christmas day. Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical calendar & is celebrated for 4 Sundays before Christmas with a wreath in which 4 coloured candles are placed. Three of the candles are purple (or dark blue) & one is pink. The purple symbolizes repentance & the pink, hope of Christ's appearing. One candle is lit each week (purple, purple, pink, purple) & prayers are said for faith, hope, joy & peace.

This is my Advent wreath. When I look at it, I'm reminded of my faith in a new way. This year, I get to take part in the ancient story. This year, I "wait"... not in long lines or in traffic, but for Jesus' appearing as the prophets, the Magi, the shepherds, & Mary & Joseph once did.