Baubles for Jesus

Some friends and I were recently discussing how, although St. Peter’s Basilica and The Vatican are beautiful structures, the amount of ornamentation in each seems out of place for a religion focused on humility and helping the poor. The first time I attended a Mass at St. Peter’s, I couldn’t help but wonder if some amount of world hunger could be alleviated by selling all of the jewels the church contained. That may have been my young, idealistic mind at work, but even today it seems hard to reconcile with all of the wealth that can be found in some (but not all) Catholic churches.

The Basilica, in all its magnificent and ostentatious beauty

That is why today’s gospel caught my attention. It’s not that you shouldn’t have a beautiful structure in which to praise God; it’s that you don’t need excessive ornamentation to show God that you care.

While some people were speaking about
how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,
Jesus said, “All that you see here–
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”

Then they asked him,
“Teacher, when will this happen?
And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”
He answered,
“See that you not be deceived,
for many will come in my name, saying,
‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’
Do not follow them!
When you hear of wars and insurrections,
do not be terrified; for such things must happen first,
but it will not immediately be the end.”
Then he said to them,
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues
from place to place;
and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”

Climate and conscience

I found today’s gospel very apt, even 2,000 years later.

Gospel Lk 12:54-59

Jesus said to the crowds,
“When you see a cloud rising in the west
you say immediately that it is going to rain–and so it does;
and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south
you say that it is going to be hot–and so it is.
You hypocrites!
You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky;
why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

“Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?
If you are to go with your opponent before a magistrate,
make an effort to settle the matter on the way;
otherwise your opponent will turn you over to the judge,
and the judge hand you over to the constable,
and the constable throw you into prison.
I say to you, you will not be released
until you have paid the last penny.”

Plagiarism is okay when the words are good!

I have so many drafts on my WordPress site, I’m surprised it doesn’t crash. How many times can I start a post only to get turned in another direction and leave it unfinished? The answer, apparently, is quite often.

Today, then, for the sake of actually posting something, I’m not going to attempt to write about my visit to the cathedral and my moments of reflection. Instead, I’m going to turn it over to Bishop Robert Barron, one of my spiritual advisers (although he doesn’t know it). Bishop Barron offers a daily gospel reflection. It pops into my email around 3:30 every morning, and I try to make it the first item I read (around 5:30 or 6). His words explain where Jesus was coming from and where we should be going.

So without further ado, here is Bishop Barron’s gospel reflection for today:

Friends, in today’s Gospel we meet a prudent steward who serves his master wisely. I would like to say something about prudence and wisdom. In the Middle Ages, prudence was called “the queen of the virtues,” because it was the virtue that enabled one to do the right thing in a particular situation.

Prudence is a feel for the moral situation, something like the feel that a quarterback has for the playing field. Justice is a wonderful virtue, but without prudence, it is blind and finally useless. One can be as just as possible, but without a feel for the present situation, his justice will do him no good.

Wisdom, unlike prudence, is a sense of the big picture. It is the view from the hilltop. Most of us look at our lives from the standpoint of our own self-interest. But wisdom is the capacity to survey reality from the vantage point of God. Without wisdom, even the most prudent judgment will be erroneous, short-sighted, inadequate.

The combination, therefore, of prudence and wisdom is especially powerful. Someone who is both wise and prudent will have both a sense of the bigger picture and a feel for the particular situation.

Entranced by St. Francis

This is a bit late, but it’s never too late to celebrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi. I have to say, I was a little taken aback by the Canticle of the Creatures, Francis’ famous poem that, shamefully, I don’t remember reading until last week. Take a glimpse, and at first it seems like Francis is worshiping nature:

Praised be you, my Lord
with all your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
who is the day through whom
you bring us light.

And he is lovely, shining
with great splendor,
for he heralds you, Most High.

Praised be you, my Lord,
through Sister Moon and Stars.
In heaven you have formed them,
lightsome and precious and fair.

And so it goes, on and on praising our “siblings” of nature. How strange to equate ourselves with the earth, wind and fire. (Sorry, didn’t mean to bring up a 1970’s R&B group.) But then I read this in an article from Franciscan Media:

Through his life in Christ, Francis came to see that Christ cannot be limited to a single human person; rather, Christ encompasses the whole creation. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Canticle of the Creatures. By entering into the heart of Christ, Francis found Christ at the heart of the world. The life of Francis indicates to us that to be a Christian is to find Christ in every person and living creature, and to be in union with Christ is to experience God’s goodness throughout creation, not just in a church. Christ, the risen incarnate Word of God, encompasses the whole creation.

Well, duh, if God created everything, including people, then we’re all part of God’s creation. We may be on different levels in many ways, but we all have one thing in common: God. Unless, of course, we discount Creationism and focus on the Big Bang Theory. But even then, there is a common sense of creation and evolution that unites us.

I have been thinking about this since Francis’ feast day on October 4. Francis had a deep connection with all of creation, not just with the dogs, sheep and other animals with which he’s often pictured. He seems even cooler to me than he did before, and he makes the world seem that much more amazing.

Wait, there were 2 Judases?

Or should that be Judai?

At any rate, how long have I been in this Church and only today do I read the gospel and find that Jesus had two apostles named Judas? Can you imagine being the other Judas? “Oh, no, I’m not the one who took the coins. I’m the good Judas.” You might have a hard time shaking off the perceived reputation of being a traitor.

Today’s gospel tells the story of how Jesus came down from prayer and named the twelve. I would love to know how each of them made the cut. Were there several rounds, like a draft? Were some of the also-ran disciples annoyed? “That Simon Peter is such a kiss-up. He gets picked for everything.” Or perhaps, “I think that Judas Iscariot is a bad choice. I never trusted him.”

Well, everything works out for a reason, including everything related to the story of Jesus.

Sep. 5: St. Teresa of Calcutta

A lot of wisdom came from this diminutive woman, but here are just a few of my favorite lines from St. Teresa of Calcutta:

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.

If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.

Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.

Never travel faster than your guardian angel can fly.

And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today — abortion which brings people to such blindness.

We do not need guns and bombs to bring peace, we need love and compassion.

Everything’s Coming up Mary

I look forward all year to a few of my favorite gospel passages. Imagine my joy this past Sunday when the story of Jesus visiting the home of Martha and Mary was featured.

Modern interpretation: Jesus goes to visit sisters Martha and Mary (Lazarus is their brother), and Martha is slaving over a hot kettle while Mary is sitting cross-legged listening to Jesus just like a little kid at story time. Martha is perturbed. “Jesus,” she basically whines, “look at me working so hard to make you a wonderful meal. Tell my lazy sister Mary to get up and help me!”

Jesus, not one to coddle complainers, tells her very nicely, “Thank you for your hospitality, Martha, but you’re always worked up about something, while your sister is calmly learning from me.”

“Hello? Jesus? Look at all this work I’m doing while my sister Mary is sitting at your feet.”

As a true Italian-American, I always imagine Martha, short and stocky with cherubic cheeks, standing in front of a cauldron of boiling hot water as she stirs limp spaghetti strands. Never mind that pasta would not have been on the menu; it helps me to better understand the scripture if I can picture a little old Italian lady worrying more about spaghetti and meatballs than what the guest has come to share.

Mary, of course, is the thinner, more classically beautiful sister, often dismissed as lazy or simple-minded but really she is just totally in tune with her spirituality. She is soaking up her time with the Lord and enjoying what he has to say. That doesn’t make Martha a bad person. If she didn’t stir the sauce and knead the dough, who would feed this man? It’s just that Mary has the opportunity to take full advantage of why Jesus is there: not necessarily to eat but rather to reveal his wisdom.

Martha could have been paying attention to Jesus while she was preparing the meal, just like I could be strengthening myself spiritually while I’m doing laundry or making dinner for my family. Why does it often seem easier to take the woe-is-me attitude? In all honesty, no one really cares. You’re cooking for Jesus? That’s fantastic! You should be so proud. You’re doing 11 loads of laundry? You’re so fortunate to have a family! Sadly, it’s hard to think of your good fortune when you’re busy feeling sorry for yourself.

Martha’s sister Mary doesn’t feel sorry for herself — or for Martha, for that matter. Jesus isn’t throwing Martha a pity party either. As he tells her, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” 

Yesterday’s gospel featured yet another Mary; this time it’s Mary Magdalene. News flash for Catholics who have been out of the loop for some time: Mary Magdalene is no longer considered to have been a prostitute. Apparently, that was a story grown out of the preaching of a long-ago pope. In fact, Mary Magdalene is right up there with all of the apostles.

She is the one present at the resurrection of Jesus. As one of his most ardent disciples, Mary Magdalene rushes to the tomb to find the stone has been rolled away. And what transpires next is nothing short of awe-inspiring:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-bo’ni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Mag’dalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20:11-18

As magnificent as this story is, we are left with questions, the most obvious being: Since Mary Magdalene was so important to Jesus and followed him so closely, why isn’t she traditionally considered among the apostles? Why doesn’t she have the same clout as, say, Peter? (And, hello? Peter denied Jesus 3 times the night before he died. You don’t hear of Mary doing that.)

My only guess is that, as much as early Christians embraced the teachings of Jesus, they were either unable or unwilling to give equal billing to a woman. We don’t hear about Mary going out and proclaiming the gospel after Jesus’ death and resurrection; yet, she is now getting more and more attention as someone who helped found the early Church.

As a notoriously old-fashioned Catholic, I’m hesitant to rework the history of the Church; however, as a fellow female, I like the idea of Mary Magdalene being right up there with Peter, James, Timothy and the rest. (We will save the discussion of whether this means women should be priests for another time.) At the same time, I rather enjoy the idea of women being the unsung heroes in the Bible. It may seem like men are doing all the work, but in the background are women carrying a lot of the heavy lifting.

Here’s to the Marys of the Bible for carrying the faith. And let’s not forget the Marthas, who are always making sure that no one preaches on an empty stomach.

July 15: Week at a Glance

Let’s try this again.

Instead of the intended promise (to myself, at least) of posting every day, I’m cutting myself (and, thus, the reader) some slack and writing a weekly update. I may throw in an extra post now and then for special occasions.

Without further ado, here is the first installment of the week in review and a glimpse of the week ahead.

We came back from an amazing vacation at the Jersey Shore last Saturday, all rested and relaxed–so relaxed, apparently, that all 5 of us were nodding off during Sunday’s 8 AM Latin Mass. Now, it can be especially easy to drift asleep during the Latin Rite because the Mass moves in a melodic pattern of words from a “dead” language. If you’ve been sunning yourself and stuffing your face for the past seven days, it’s even easier.

We were in various stages of semi-consciousness, when the priest suddenly (or maybe it just seemed suddenly) began belting out a fire-and-brimstone homily. The homily, by the way, is always in English at the Latin Mass (thank goodness). The priest was probably about halfway through his sermon when his voiced raised to a dramatic pitch, and he began to remind us what being Catholic should be all about.

It certainly felt like the priest was doing this for our benefit — wake up, sleeping sinners! — but it’s more likely that he was just trying to get his point across. His stern admonitions certainly set the tone for the rest of the week.

This leads me to a confession: I don’t physically go to Mass every single day. I had every intention of doing so. Sometimes, though, your circumstances just won’t allow it, so you look for alternatives. Two of the easiest for me have been 1.) listening to morning Mass on my way to work, courtesy of EWTN radio on Sirius XM, and 2.) reading the scriptures for the day via Bishop Robert Barron. While neither of these offers the ultimate benefit of receiving the Eucharist, I can at least have some daily time with God and scripture.

With that in mind, I listened to Mass on my way to work last Monday. On Tuesday, I visited the Poor Clares Monastery in Cleveland for Eucharistic Adoration and a special treat: the chance to reconnect with a friend from grade school. Not high school or college. Grade school. As in, we lost touch after 8th grade. There were a lot of years to catch up on, and we probably made it through about half of them over lunch. Before that, we had an opportunity to visit the beautiful little chapel. It was a lovely day.

Wednesday brought another day of Mass on the road, while Thursday and Friday led me to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where I lit candles in front of St. Teresa of Calcutta (for the ability to unselfishly help others) and St. Anthony (praying in advance to help me find things I’ll lose in the future).

Yesterday, the gospel was about the Good Samaritan. I could dive into political waters at this point, discussing what is and isn’t our obligation as Good Samaritans, but let’s leave it here: Any time there is an opportunity to help someone in need, we should take it. The gesture can be as small as holding the door open for someone or as large as donating a kidney to a stranger. The Good Samaritan doesn’t stop to think about what the consequences might be for him/her; the focus is always on how to help the other person.

The most important part about being a Good Samaritan is taking action, not just thinking about how important it is to treat others with kindness. So this week, the emphasis for me is on really helping others rather than pointing out the inaction of others. I’m also going to take a shot at helping others (especially my family members) without complaining. Wish me luck.

June 21: Curses

I hope I make it to church today because I need a good spiritual cleansing. This morning, as I often do, I was saying the rosary while driving. It’s usually very calming and keeps me from listening to talk radio shows that give me heartburn. Sometimes, though, I forget that I’m supposed to be in a state of holiness because, well, some people are really bad drivers.

In the middle of my first decade, right when I should be focusing on prayer and meditation, a car — no two cars — pulled out from a side street and proceeded to drive slowly across four lanes of traffic to land in front of my car. Here’s the thing: If you are going to pull out of a side street and get in front of me, do it fast. I have major respect for drivers who nearly cut someone off but immediately drive 40 miles an hour to avoid any issues. If you pull in front of me and you’re driving 15 miles an hour, though, you incur my wrath.

Which is why as soon as the second car pulled out and proceeded to drive at a snail’s pace in front of me, I lost all sense of grace.

“You JACK ASS,” I yelled to no one except myself. Then I laid on the horn because that’s as far as my road rage escalates.

As soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted to chop them into little pieces and throw them in the nearest trash can. Like, in the middle of a Hail Mary, I’m yelling “jack ass.” Who’s not feeling the spirit this morning? That would be me.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic is not my thing.

In these instances, I really think (hope) that God has a sense of humor. I mean, it’s a pretty clever piece of irony that I’m supposed to be focusing on prayer and I’m instead swearing at drivers. That’s funny, right? Right, God?

This is when your personal interpretation of the supreme being becomes particularly helpful. Who wants to think of a god that would be miffed because you chewed out a driver while praying? Maybe Jesus would have been annoyed in a similar way, although, let’s be honest, probably not. He would, of course forgive me, and that’s a good thing.

So two important musings on this sunny Friday:

  1. It’s okay to get mad at someone’s bad driving and forgive yourself for doing so.
  2. Maybe saying the rosary behind the wheel has its drawbacks.

June 17: No Resistance

How pertinent today’s gospel is, and how quickly it is to forget:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“You have heard that it was said,

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.

When someone strikes you on your right cheek,

turn the other one to him as well.

If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,

hand him your cloak as well.

Should anyone press you into service for one mile,

go with him for two miles.

Give to the one who asks of you,

and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”

Matthew 5:38-42