Lenten Reflection Series: He is My God, and I am His Daughter

In today’s Gospel we hear Caiaphas explain to the Pharisees why he wants Jesus to be killed : “…It is better for you that one man should die instead of the people so that the whole nation may not perish.”

To Caiaphas it seemed that killing one man was justified because the rest would be saved and unified. How often have I used similar logic to justify my own actions?

I’m just going to do it, even though I probably shouldn’t, because then I’ll be happy, and doesn’t God want me to be happy?

Ultimately, my logic proves wrong. As the first reading reminds us, God simply wants to be with us. God asks us to follow his “statutes and decrees” to cleanse us, to shower his blessings upon us.

And who am I kidding—every time I start a sentence with “I want to, but probably shouldn’t,” it usually leads to regret, not happiness.

As we approach Holy Week, I think of all the ways I have tried to justify my wrong actions and how Christ has taken these wrongdoings and debts I have accrued and paid the price, because he is my God, and I am his daughter.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

Maybe in an effort to not be constantly reminded of weddings, George Winston created a piano variation of Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, simply named Joy. While I love’s Bach’s piece, Winston’s has become one of my Advent favorites. The way he weaves the familiar tune in and out of joyful variations moves my heart.

The song begins with a faster tempo than usual and about 20 seconds in we begin to hear the melody of Bach’s piece coming through Winston’s melody on the piano. Just as we know Bach’s piece, we know for whom we wait. Jesus weaves Himself at first faintly in and out under the melody of our lives. As Advent starts, we catch glimpses of Him, sometimes faint, the Lord beginning to weave His birth into our hearts.

And then Bach’s tune grows stronger, and about 40 seconds in we can clearly hear Bach’s melody dominate the song and we know what we are listening to. Just as we get closer to Christmas, the reality of the birth of our Savior begins to dominate our lives. We see decorations and give gifts, we hear the prophets proclaim the Savior in the readings at Mass. We know the tune of the Spirit at Christmas. It is a melody that moves us to generosity and patience, hope and love—however perfectly or imperfectly we listen and harmonize our lives with the Spirit.

And then at about 1:13, the tones get a little deeper, slightly slower, still filled with joy, but the musical piece feels different. Here, we feel the gravity of the reality of the birth of Jesus. The Savior of the world, God Himself, becomes flesh to save us from our sins. We needed God. And He came.

But we are not stuck in this overwhelming awe for long. We are comforted by the familiar melody of Bach once again. And we know the familiar tune of our joy and hope. We know that Christ is coming!

And with that realization of the coming of the Lord, at about 2:10, Winston’s song takes a joyful life of it’s own. The song builds into a joyful expression, an expression of the joy of Emmanuel, God with us! A joy that can’t always be contained in the familiar melodies. Sometimes the Spirit moves our lives in a melody that we don’t recognize. But just because it is unfamiliar, that does not make it less beautiful. The beauty in the piece, in life, is that it sometimes breaks and crescendos in a way that isn’t expected. The Lord surprises us!

This third week of Advent, the rose candle reminds us: Gaudete! Rejoice! How can we not be joyful knowing for whom we wait?

The scripture from last Sunday’s Mass is infused with the joy of our desiring, reminding us that our waiting is indeed joyful, because what we wait for, what we desire, is the coming of Jesus.

Isaiah tells us in the first reading from Sunday: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.” The Spirit weaves Himself into the tune of our lives as we bring glad tidings, heal the brokenhearted and proclaim liberty. And then the familiar words of Mary, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” strengthens the melody of praise that weaves itself through Scripture. A melody that in its familiarity grows stronger in our own lives.

And then in the Gospel, John the Baptist reminds us of the gravity of He who comes. Even he, the one who “came to testify to the light,” is not worthy to untie the sandal strap of Jesus.

All of this leads to the crescendo of Mass: the Eucharist, the Bread of Life that feeds us. The joy of God with us at the altar gives us strength to carry the crescendo into our own lives, breaking ourselves from what might be familiar to allow the Spirit to move–to find ourselves breaking our lives from the melody we know, only to make something more beautiful, more joyful, for God.

A Big Red Heart

One summer while I was teaching at a Catholic-style Vacation Bible School, we were all in the church getting ready for daily Mass. The children were sitting quietly in the pews, alternating boy-girl-boy-girl, as we waited for Father to appear in the back of church, signaling the start of the opening song. But Father wasn’t coming. One of my teammates went to the back and discovered the dreaded news: Father was running late.

I was standing in front of 50 under-twelve year olds, faced with the budding realization that their awe at being the only ones in church with no other parishioners would not keep them silent much longer.

I stood up in front of them, still not entirely certain how to occupy this group of children while still maintaining the reverence of the Church. But suddenly I had inspiration: it was June, the month of the Sacred Heart. I would teach them about the heart of Jesus. What I didn’t anticipate, though, were the insights I would discover about my own heart as I tried to teach these young children about Christ’s Sacred Heart.

I asked them to imagine a heart—a big red heart.

“And children, what did they put on Jesus’ head before they crucified Him?”

“A crown of thorns!”

“And why a crown of thorns?”

“They were teasing him, they wanted to embarrass him.”

“Yes, and so around the big red heart I want you to imagine the crown of thorns.”

Every homeless person I have not acknowledged or even looked at out of embarrassment or fear becomes a moment that I too humiliate Jesus.

“After Jesus died, boys and girls, the guards did something. Does anyone remember?”

“They took a spear and jabbed him in the side.”

“That’s right, the guard used his lance, sort of like a spear, and cut it in his side to make sure he was really dead. And so I want you to imagine that big red heart, with the crown around it, with a big cut from the spear.”

That time that I rejected the calls and ignored the text messages from a friend because I was mad not only pierced my friend, but also pierced the side of Jesus.

“Okay boys and girls. Who can tell me, how did Jesus die?”

“On a cross!”

“Yes. On a cross. So this heart that we have in our heads: big, red, crown of thorns around it, big gash from the lance, I also want you to imagine a cross on top of it.”

When I decided to not to participate in a service project simply because I was feeling tired that morning is a cross that I chose not to bear, a cross I chose not to carry with Jesus.

“But the most important part of the heart of Jesus is that it is ON FIRE! Jesus loves us so much that his heart is on fire for us!”

I could see the lack of understanding and shadows of terror creeping upon faces of the first and second graders as they imagined this gory heart on fire. So I tried a new angle.

“Do you know the warm feeling your heart gets when you love someone? Maybe when you see Mommy and Daddy after school, or when you are playing with a friend and really having fun? Our hearts feel a little warmer, don’t they? Well, Jesus’ heart gets so warm from loving us so much that it starts burning!”

And in this burning heart of Jesus I have found so much comfort. There have been times I imagined myself curling up into the wound, immersing myself in the pain of the situation, but finding comfort in the warmth of His love. Despite all of the ways that I have caused his heart pain, he is still there to warm me with his love.

But in many of the images of the Sacred Heart, Jesus has one hand pointed at his heart, the other outstretched. As a friend pointed out, it is as if Jesus is saying, “I’ll trade you. Give me your heart and take mine.”

What does that look like, living with the heart of Jesus? Trading my heart for his changes things, in a very real way. Life looks different.

I can no longer make excuses to avoid uncomfortable things. I can’t just say I’m tired, or that I have so many other things to do, or that it’s awkward to look a stranger in the face. Stepping out of my comfort zone even when it’s not convenient is necessary to create the crown of thorns that will wrap around my traded heart.

And the really deep wounds of true sacrifice—bigger than giving a dollar to a beggar or saying prayers at night—will be there too, deepening the wound in the side of the heart.

And ultimately some of me is going to die on the cross. Probably at first, it will mostly be the way of life that I am used to living, which gives me lots of free time and the ability to say no to those uncomfortable things.

But despite all of these things, this heart that I have traded mine for will be ablaze with love. And all of the sacrifice and pain will be enveloped in the warmth of that love. The cost will no longer matter, for everything will be transformed in love.

Last year Pope Francis said in his homily for this Feast day:

Jesus wanted to show us his heart as the heart that loved so deeply. …I am thinking of what St Ignatius told us…. He pointed out two criteria on love. The first: love is expressed more clearly in actions than in words. The second: there is greater love in giving than in receiving.

And so I remember all of these things this year, and think again about what I can do with my newly traded big red heart—what I can give to feel pain and sacrifice and suffering that are ultimately acts of deep love.

Vigil for Life 2014 Opening Mass

A little over a week ago, I was at the opening Mass for the Vigil for Life at the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC. I find these events are often very high energy and are filled with the frequent use of phrases like “culture of death” and “save the babies.”

But this Mass had a different tone. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston pushed us to approach our opposition to abortion in a new way.

The Gospel we read was the story of the woman caught in adultery–a striking story of a guilty woman shown incredible mercy by Jesus, mercy that paralyzed the Pharisees who were poised to deliver the retribution due this woman. Cardinal O’Malley pushed us to approach mothers instead of trying to confront abortion.

He compared a woman caught in a crisis pregnancy to the woman in the story caught in adultery. Both women are likely overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness, fear, and confusion. Both women have found themselves in a vulnerable state that has been made very public. And as Cardinal O’Malley continued:

We must never allow that woman to perceive the pro-life movement as a bunch of angry self righteous Pharisees with stones in their hands, looking down on her and judging her.

For those of us in the pro-life movement, we cannot forget to see the mother who is carrying the precious child in her womb. We can’t forget that yes, we want that child to be carried to term and born, given the right to live her life, but we also need the mother to know that she too is precious and loved. The mother needs to know that she is valued, protected, and supported.

This is not to negate the value of speaking out that abortion is wrong, and that life is sacred. Cardinal O’Malley’s homily was framed by the story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” a story in which an Emperor is fooled into believing that his invisible suit given to him by clever swindlers is a marvelous set of clothing. Just as the child in the street cries out that his clothing is not real, exposing the lies of the swindlers, the Church must continue to witness that life is sacred, exposing the lies that the language of “reproductive rights” and “termination of pregnancy” use to cover up the brutality of abortion.

However, abortion does not happen in a vacuum. Outside factors influence and push mothers to make this choice. As Cardinal O’Malley continued: “We can rescue unborn babies from abortion by rescuing their mothers from a life of poverty and hopelessness.“

Cardinal O’Malley called us to shift the paradigm of the pro-life movement to one of accompaniment. To look at the mother who finds herself in a crisis pregnancy, not with stones in hand like the Pharisees, but with mercy and love, ready to encounter a person–a person who is suffering. As Pope Francis continually preaches a culture of encounter, Cardinal O’Malley preached that the antidote for the culture of death and individualism is community:

The truth is that we can save those babies only by saving the mothers.  When they experience God’s loving mercy then they will become capable of showing mercy to their children.  The Pro Life Movement has to be about saving mothers.  We need to focus on the women to try to understand what they are suffering…. The antidote of abortion is solidarity, community where people are willing to care for each other and for the most vulnerable.

We must learn to walk with mothers, especially mothers who find themselves in a crisis pregnancy. A crisis is not the time to be preaching about evil and condemning, but it is a time to walk with and accompany; it is a time to encounter.

Cardinal O’Malley reminded us that God never gives up on us, will never stop forgiving us, will never tire of giving us second chances. And so the pro-life movement must continue as a movement of community and solidarity: recognizing how much God loves and forgives not only mothers who in crisis do not choose to keep their child, but also us, who when encountering crisis, do not choose to show mercy and compassion.

Our challenge from Cardinal O’Malley was to be that merciful and loving face of Christ. To defend life, to tell society that life is sacred, to save the babies, but more importantly to encounter, to accompany. To walk with our sisters who find themselves in crisis and speak their dignity through our love for them.

For the full text of the homily, click here..

For God is With Us

There is a beautiful nativity scene in my church back home that depicts a town journeying up the hill–market men, shepherds, old and young, rich and poor–all climbing to the stable where Mary and Joseph gaze longingly upon their infant in the manger. The cattle and sheep lie still as they look upon the place where Jesus lies.

About halfway up the hill there is man, no doubt trying to hurry to reach the stable, eyes fixed on the crest of the hill. But the camel he leads has his head turned directly upwards. Eyes fixed, not on the stable, but on the star. Staring at the shiny object, totally unaware of what is going on around him.

Sometimes I feel like that camel.

All throughout Advent I tried to prepare for Christmas. I read daily reflections, tried an Advent Examen, and went to Lessons and Carols at churches.  I loved it. I loved the feeling of anticipation that saturated Advent, the readings of Isaiah, the Advent wreath, everything!

And then when Christmas came it was all too easy to see that things were not perfect. There is an ideal Christmas. It’s all over the commercials and movies and in the fabric of our society. It’s the perfect dinner with family gathered and everyone laughing and exchanging gifts and singing carols.

I have yet to see a Christmas that fulfills this ideal.

When Christmas came I wanted to keep staring at the beautiful star that is lighting the way, instead of paying attention to all the imperfections going on around me. I wanted to be that camel, standing there, just looking at the star, oblivious to the lived reality and focusing instead on the ideal.

And like the wise men, I am still looking at the star, following it, trying to come to terms with the manger where it leads.

A dirty, smelly manger where animals eat.  Itchy straw and swaddling clothes where Jesus sleeps. Busy malls and family bickering that fill Christmas-time. These are the broken places where Jesus came. It seems vulgar that our Lord came here, like this.

I wanted Christmas to be as beautiful and shiny as the star that continues to blaze. The star that I don’t want to tear my eyes from, because then I would see the reality of the brokenness of this world.

But if I keep looking at the star, I’m going to miss the manger.

As glorious as the star is, blazing night and day, finding rest over Bethlehem, it pales in comparison with who came. As beautiful as the star is, the manger is indeed more beautiful.

Just like the wise men, I want to gaze upon the glory of the manger. To lay my gold and myrrh, my joys and praises next to the manger. To offer what I can to make the manger as captivating as the one whom it holds.

But this year I also want to embrace those broken things. To lay down the family fights and unmet expectations, all the pain and disappointment that comes with living in this world. Because Jesus came to be with us there, too.

The brokenness is indeed glorious, for God is with us.