The time between the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent can feel a bit awkward. Ordinary Time began with the Baptism of Jesus, but we know it will be interrupted by a rather lengthy set of seasons, not resuming again until well into June. It would be a mistake to approach these weeks as simply a connector between seasons. Instead let’s consider this time as an extension of Epiphany, as in times of old when Epiphany was actually considered a season. In that light, we can reflect upon the leadership of the Magi and the symbolism of the gifts they gave which coincide with the three facets of our baptismal covenant, a reminder of our call: we are baptized as priest (frankincense), prophet (myrrh), and king (gold). To be priest refers to our membership in the common priesthood and so it is about being witnesses to our faith through prayer and service. We have looked at prophetic living in depth this past year, but suffice it to say that it is about humbly, yet boldly proclaiming the faith even if it is contrary to popular culture. To be king refers to our leadership as just and merciful in our use of whatever power we have; we set an example by living what we profess. Truly, our kingly role is one we do not often consider since kingship is a foreign concept to us. But if we look to the Scriptures we can see that there are many kinds of kings, not all involving a crown. Jesus taught that true kingship is wrapped in love, not as mere sentimentality, but as the foundation of everything we do. This bold love is our call as His disciples: leading through service.
The Old Testament is replete with stories of kings. There are two sets of books which are totally dedicated to their reigns: the aptly named 1 and 2 Kings, and also 1 and 2 Chronicles. The saga of kings in Israel actually begins with Saul in 1 Samuel and ends with the Exile hundreds of years later. Additional insights into some of the kings permeate the prophetic books as well. As expected, there were good kings and some horrifically evil ones. The greatest of these men, albeit not perfect by any means, was King David. At the end of his life David spoke of what God said to him about his kingship, and thus of God’s description of good leadership: “Of me the rock of Israel said: He that rules over men in justice, that rules with the fear of God, is like the morning light at sunrise on a cloudless morning, making the greensward sparkle after rain.” (2 Samuel 23:3-4; ‘Greensward’ is the green, grassy turf.)* In other words, a kingly leader is a person whose heart is filled with justice, but always in context of the deepest respect and relationship with God. This leader is a person of prayer; and it the result of that prayer, of coming to know and love God better, of disposing oneself wholly to God in humility and love, that this person is of great beauty to God. This is a person who stands out from among the rest.
In the New Testament we see that leadership is completely bound in mercy, compassion, and love, but that the love Jesus preached was incredibly challenging. He said: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) Jesus wanted us to love the way He loves, something that seems daunting since we know He is God and therefore He loves perfectly; we are imperfect and cannot love in this way. However, Jesus is not expecting perfection from us, but rather that our intentions are always formed from the perspective of the best interests of the other. Love is about action and heroism, and it is about humility and selflessness; love is about living in imitation of Jesus, leading others to God for the sheer joy of sharing what we have received. The love Jesus teaches is a thing of beauty, “like the morning light at sunrise on a cloudless morning making the greensward sparkle after rain.”
An example of a good leader was St. John Bosco (1815-88) whose feast day is January 31. He was from a poor family, and unfortunately his father died when he was a small boy. While his mother was saintly, one of his older brothers cruelly beat John when he discussed his desire to become a priest, not wanting him to leave the family. After much prayer, John ran away and after a short time was able to enter a seminary with the help of a priest he had met. John eventually devoted his life to helping boys who did not have fathers, especially after he saw how many were imprisoned for crimes committed due to lack of guidance. As a result John set up schools for poor and fatherless boys, offering education and guidance so that they could lead productive, Godly lives. He also began a religious congregation, the Salesians, so that others could aid in the ministry of teaching, role modeling, and service. St. John Bosco was a great leader, living his vocation as priest, (in the ministerial priesthood) prophet (going against the culture to bring the gospels to those who might never have heard it), and as king, (leading with justice, mercy, and love).
The kind of love Jesus asks of us clearly involves great effort, but it bears fruit because it is steeped in love. From the way Jesus lived we see that kingly love is about forgiveness, not retaliation. Love is about selflessness; to really love means to set our own ego aside, seeing the other person as equal to ourselves in dignity. Therefore a kingly person never ‘lords it over’ anyone, but sees the other as sharing the same humanity, even if we are vastly different in how we dress, what we look like, how we speak, where we are from, or what our customs and preferences might be. A loving leader is one who does not condone everything the other says or does, however: to be kingly means we model kindness and respect, but we also know when to challenge. From experience we know that leaders, good or bad, influence the accepted behaviors of the people they lead. If we look to Scripture, it was the sinful behaviors of the evil kings which led the people astray because the people began to think, even if unconsciously, “If it is good enough for the king, it must be okay for us, too.” And similarly, when a good king was aligned with the love of God, acting justly, the people responded by living with similar dedication to God. (Of course, I am speaking generally: there are always faithful people in times of sinful leadership, and vice versa. But it cannot be denied that the behavior of a leader does affect the behavior of the populace.)
If we desire to live up to our baptismal role as kingly, we do not have to become the next political ‘wunderkind,’ spiritual guru, or voice of the people. What we do need is be an example of Christian love and charity in our daily activities. Like Jesus, we are called to truly listen to one another, being present to the one we are with. We are called to discern rather than to jump to conclusions based on what we think we see. A good rule of thumb (based on what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount) is that if we are going to assume anything, it is that things are not always what they seem. Only God knows all that there is to know about a person; there are always hidden circumstances of which we know nothing. Therefore, a kingly leader knows not to judge another based on what they see or hear. As a result, a kingly leader is one who is filled with the joy of accepting God’s wisdom, and is filled with gratitude.
Living our call to be kingly does not mean we will be impervious to suffering, but rather it means that we turn to God to help us to be the best witness we can be in all of the circumstances of our life. It also means that we become continually more aware of our own sinfulness and shortcomings, such that we learn to have a compassionate heart, realizing that we are no different in our imperfection than those we serve. True to our kingly role, we ‘rule’ only insofar as we become the servant of others, just as Jesus taught His disciples on the night before He died. (John 13:14-15) Thus, our witness will glorify God and lead others to Him. Then perhaps God can say of us, as of David, “[They are] like the morning light at sunrise on a cloudless morning, making the greensward sparkle after rain.”
May we live in conformity with our baptismal call to be priest, prophet, and king! May we continue to grow in understanding of what it means to be kingly, imitating Jesus, the true King! May we grow in our Epiphany journey, having our own moments of revelation as to God’s desire for us! May we seek the intercession of St. John Bosco that we might open our hearts to others, especially the poor! May our Christian leadership be a thing of beauty, “like the morning light at sunrise on a cloudless morning making the greensward sparkle after rain!” And may we imitate Jesus, making an effort to find quiet time for reflection upon our relationship with the Father as well as the grace to live our call to love! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next post will be February 11.
* I like this translation, the NAB, for its poetry. NAB stands for New American Bible and it is the translation before the recent revision. (The newest one is the NABRE.)
1. This image was titled Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, found at the site below. It is a mosaic and is probably in a Greek Orthodox Church. I chose it because it is one of the few images that shows all three magi with their gifts in their hands. If you look closely at most images of the magi, one of them is empty handed, presumably already having delivered his gift. Trust me, I looked at many! http://www.greeknewsonline.com/gold-frankincense-and-myrrh-the-gifts-of-magi-to-christ/
2. This is one of my photos, and while it does not show a green, grassy turf, it does capture the beauty of the dew as after rain. It was taken while on a hike in Lost Maples State Natural Area in Texas.
3. Once again, while this does not depict a cloudless morning at sunrise, it does show the contrast of the sunlight bursting through the clouds after the rain. It was an incredible sight. This was taken at the harbor on Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont.
4. This a photo I took of a mosaic of St. John Bosco at the Salesian church in Turin, Italy, where he ministered and where the school still is thriving. I cropped the original photo to get more of a close up. Here he is seen with a young boy on the viewer's left, and a young man on the viewer's right. The boy is representative of the boys to whom St. John Bosco ministered. The young man, however was a model representing the fine men St. John's pupils grew into. But the fun part is that this model is himself on the road to canonization. That's Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati!
5. This painting is Jesus Healing a Blind Man by Duccio di Buoninsegno. I chose it to represent the compassion of Jesus. He never judged the people to whom He ministered, but rather, offered mercy and love.
6. This is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Christ the King the Bridegroom. I chose it because it features Jesus as a suffering servant king.
It can be found at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/christ-the-king-the-bridegroom-066-william-hart-mcnichols.html
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
January is generally a time when people make resolutions for the new calendar year. However, it almost seems as if there is an expectation that many of us will not be able to keep them. It is sort of a ‘cultural inside joke’ that by the end of January not only will we have been unsuccessful in keeping our resolutions, but that we may have even forgotten we made resolutions in the first place! To truly resolve to do something means that we sincerely desire to improve an aspect of our lives or to gain better habits. In spiritual terms, it means a conversion, a change in behavior which comes about through a bit of hard work on our part, while relying on God’s grace to help us achieve the goal. But in order to know what we could deepen or change, we must first do some reflection, perhaps pondering in a similar way as to that of the Virgin Mary when she held many things in her heart. Although we have come to the end of the Christmas season, it would serve us well to spend some time reflecting upon what we gleaned from it. It would make no sense to have celebrated such a rich season if we were to walk away unchanged and without any new insights into what it means to be disciples of Jesus, members of the family we call the Body of Christ. If that was the case, we will have missed a wonderful opportunity for growth “in wisdom and age and favor before God and others.” (Luke 2:52)
We might wish we could be like Mary and Joseph, pondering everything which happens and then applying to our lives the insights and wisdom we have gained, something we mistakenly think came easily to them. Their lives were actually no quieter than ours, but being totally in love with God, they could not imagine a day without spending time with the One they loved. Indeed, it does take time: even Jesus had to spend many years “growing in wisdom” as we observed on the Feast of the Holy Family. We also heard at the Epiphany that the Magi needed the time spent journeying in order to discern the events which unfolded in Bethlehem, sidestepping the evil desires of Herod while they came to pay homage to the Child. In these feasts a common thread is pondering, waiting, discerning, and then applying what God has revealed in order for growth in "wisdom, age, and favor" (that is, holiness) to take place. Therefore, if we desire to make a change or to grow in holiness, our resolution should be to dedicate ourselves to more prayer time for discerning what we are called to do and how we might go about it; if resolutions are going to be kept, we need to ask God for the graces and insights needed to reach our goal. It always takes a while: wisdom cannot be rushed.
But before we can resolve to grow in this way, we need to be aware of our relationship to Jesus. If we do not know what that is, there is little way we can grow in any kind of wisdom. My suggestion, then, is to make it our top priority to truly be His: if this is the only resolution we make, we are well on the road to growth. Remember that at His baptism (celebrated this past weekend), Jesus went into the river as an unknown figure in Israel. He had lived in obscurity for 30 years as a seemingly ordinary young man, a carpenter from Nazareth. Then He traveled to the Jordan River to be baptized, though He did not need to be cleansed of sin. Rather, He was inaugurating His ministry and teaching us about the relationship we are invited to have with God. No sooner than He emerged from the River, than the voice of the Father was heard saying that He was pleased with Him. Another way to look at this is to see God as a proud Father saying: “This is Jesus: He is mine and I love Him!” Therefore, when we came up from our baptismal waters, we can be sure that the Father said the same thing of us: “This is my beloved: she (he) is mine and I love her (him)!” God has claimed us as His. And so we need to resolve to truly claim Him as ours, too.
As we enter into Ordinary Time it is important to be aware of whose we are, but also to keep in mind that each of us belongs to the wider family of the Body of Christ. Therefore, it might be good to devote some of our daily prayer to focusing on others, discerning who we need to pray for, (and then act upon it); simultaneously, we can also pray to grow personally, in some specific way, as a member of this family. We might pray to be more welcoming or to accept the welcome and assistance of another member of the Body of Christ extended to us; or perhaps we might need to accept a specific responsibility, or to reach out to someone in our own sphere of relatives, friends, and acquaintances. It could be that we need to grow in generosity, (inspired by the Magi), or to grow in welcoming the stranger, (inspired by the Holy Family who were not welcomed and consequently had to find a stable for Jesus’ birth). Or it might be to find wonder and awe in simple beauty, such as a flock of sheep, the stars of night, or a tiny baby. Whatever it is, in order to come to new insights or wisdom, spending time in prayer with the insights of the Christmas season can help us to keep alive the spirit of love and welcome which seem to come more easily during the holidays.
If we belong to God and truly acknowledge this, we can see more clearly that He expresses His love in many ways, not the least of which is through our communities, specifically our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus chose 12 apostles along with other men and women, (including His own mother, Mary), who were true disciples. These committed people kept the mission alive and thriving after His death and resurrection. And after they were gone, many other holy ones devoted their lives to the spreading of the kingdom, continuing the work of building up the community of the faithful. These holy women and men continue to teach the lesson that it takes a family, the Christian family, to make this mission effective. Therefore, it is important to ask the Spirit’s help in discerning the call of the Lord to Whom we belong and Who belongs to us, that we might put our prayer into action with our brothers and sisters and for our brothers and sisters.
If we desire to grow in holiness, and if we want to grow in relationship to Jesus, it is important to enter more fully into the mysteries of our faith through prayer and an effort to study, perhaps by immersing ourselves in a chapter of the gospels each day, some spiritual reading, or by listening to a podcast about the faith.* We can do as the secular world implies, but in a spiritual way; that is, we can ‘lose weight’ by letting go of the stuff that we drag along with us daily, the baggage of unforgiveness and old wounds which keep us from reaching out to others in love and mercy. Perhaps ‘losing weight’ also means sharing our goods, letting go of the ‘bloat’ of things we have accumulated which we do not use and do not need. We can resolve to put our reflection into action, taking to heart the example of the Holy Family and the figures of the Christmas season, all of whom needed one another to bring Jesus into the world and then to keep Jesus safe when He was young and vulnerable. We can align our efforts with the gospels, something that does not require any special gifts, by teaching it to our children through our example as well as our words. We could get involved in a parish ministry, and we could dedicate ourselves to reaching out to others in small ways as opportunities to do so arise.
To bring Christ into the world and to make His message known takes a family, and we, the Body of Christ, are that family. The best way we can grow in ‘wisdom and favor before God,’ (holiness), is to first understand our identity as belonging to the Father who loves us in the same way as He loves His Son. Then we can work together to bring the peace, mercy, and love of God into the world, offering this same understanding to those who do not yet know of it. If the joy, goodwill, and wonder of the Christmas season did not move us in some way, then perhaps now is the time to return to the mysteries, pondering with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, so that we might live as members of the Holy Family, in unity with one another, and in gratitude and love for God.
May we be inspired by Mary and Joseph to the prayer of reflection, savoring and pondering the insights received during the Christmas season! May we have the patience and courage of the Holy Family and the Magi to stay with that which is beyond our understanding and then to trust God’s prompting! May we recognize in the words of the Father at Jesus' baptism, that we, too, are His beloved! May we join with our brothers and sisters as one family in Christ working together to build the Kingdom! And may we truly carry the faith, good will, and joy we experienced at the coming of Jesus into the rest of the year! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: The next post will be January 28.
* A suggestion is Word on Fire. Bishop Robert Barron has many podcasts that one can choose from. There are a few others who are also excellent who are also part of the Word on Fire team. http://wordonfireshow.com/ You can also look up some videos they have on YouTube. Here is the home website: https://www.wordonfire.org/
I would also suggest an article I read recently. The author suggests we think of Epiphany as a season, the way it was many years ago. I really like that idea, and it inspired some of my reflections in this post. https://aleteia.org/2019/01/08/the-forgotten-season-of-epiphany/?utm_campaign=NL_en&utm_source=daily_newsletter&utm_medium=mail&utm_content=NL_en
1.This painting is called The Road in Front of St. Simeon Farm in Winter, by Claude Monet. (1867). I chose it because it seemed an apt January scene, symbolic of the beginning of the year, but it also is a peaceful, reflective scene which can be pondered.
2. This is an inset from a work of Bl. Fra Angelico called Adoration of the Magi (1440-60). I chose this because it is hard to tell if the adorer is a shepherd or one of the Magi. That it 'blurs' the class distinction, is wonderful!
3. One of my photos, the Jordan River, Israel: I felt that this nondescript bend in the River, said to be 'the spot' where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, was appropriate. However, even if this was in fact the actual spot, the water is now brown, polluted, and overgrown with reeds; in short it is not very appealing. Yet there were many men and women being immersed here for actual baptism when we were visiting. The faith of those folks, allowing immersion into that now dirty water, was truly amazing!
4. I chose this photo of stars, taken through the Hubble telescope, because it is awe inducing! Perhaps we can resolve to see the beauty around us in some way on a daily basis. The challenge is on! (It is not that difficult once you let yourself really see.)
5. I took this photo of a stained glass window while in Le Mans, France, a number of years ago. I chose it because I love how St Joseph was depicted along with a more modern family. Personally, (though I do not know for sure) I think it is the Martins, a family which contained three saints, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, her mother St. Zelie Martin, and her father St. Louis Martin. If you think it could not be the Martins' because you see two boys along with the five girls, that's because there were two boys in their family, but they died as infants; the artist most likely included them because they truly were members of that holy family.
6. This icon is called Mary, Mother of Mercy - Dedicated to Pope Francis in the Year of Mercy, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose it because I love the playful child Jesus, who seems to be almost dancing on the globe while blessing the viewer and perhaps the entire world. I see joy in this icon: the child Jesus and Mary seem to be sharing a wonderful moment. You can obtain a copy of this at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/mary-mother-of-mercy-dedicated-to-pope-francis-in-this-year-of-mercy-289-william-hart-mcnichols.html
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart