Along with the sheer beauty of the gift, the joy of the Resurrection of Jesus is in knowing that because He lives everyone is ‘redeemable’ and the deepest woundedness of every person can be healed. Jesus has ensured that there is nothing we can do that is beyond redemption: through His compassion everything can be healed, through His mercy the poor decisions we have made can be reversed, and through His Easter victory our sinful nature can and will be redeemed. We can say emphatically that all baptized believers will have eternal life with God because Jesus lives. By dying and rising He transformed the power of death into a pathway to life forever. However, an important distinction we must make if we are to truly let Easter be transformative is that our focus has to go beyond the path He offers us, great as that is, and it must even go beyond what we have gained in His dying and rising. As incredibly important as these are, our focus must be on Jesus, the Risen Son of God: He will illumine the path and He alone offers the gift of new life, so our unwavering focus must be upon Jesus the Christ! This is because Easter is about love and love is about God. Thus, if we truly want to experience lasting Easter joy, our focus must always be on Jesus so that we never confuse the Giver with the gift. True Easter joy is always rooted in this Love.
The first thing we do at Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, is to praise. We finally say ‘Alleluia’ after omitting it during our Lenten observance. Beginning with the Easter Vigil, we sing and exclaim it ‘from the rafters’ of our churches, expressing our joy in knowing Jesus has triumphed over evil, sin, and death. The liturgy places our focus squarely on Jesus, as well it should; He is the Messiah who fulfilled the mission for which He was born, glorifying His Father who has kept His covenant as promised ‘from of old.’ And in reflection upon His ministry and the gospel He taught, we can see that He repeatedly reminded the apostles to stop focusing on self and to turn their gaze outward, so as to never lose sight of Jesus. It was when they took their eyes off Him that they floundered. A great example of this was when Peter got out of the boat to walk on water with Jesus. As long as he focused on Jesus, he was fine. But the minute he thought about what he was doing, shifting the focus to himself and away from the Lord, he began to sink. Similarly, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter was so focused on himself that it led to a devastating betrayal of everything he held dear. He had so distanced himself from Jesus that upon realization of what he had done, he wept bitterly. In the process of his sorrow he shifted his focus back to Jesus, and thus was able to seek and accept the forgiveness he knew was there. Transformed by Mercy and Love, Peter was healed, fully embracing his mission as leader of the Church.
In stark contrast to Peter, what made the sin of Judas so bad was that it was enmeshed in ego. He either felt like he knew better than Jesus, leading him to make a devastatingly misguided attempt at pushing Him to reveal His true identity, or he was indeed simply a self-promoting thief looking to make (the equivalent of) 'a few bucks' at the expense of a friend. Either way, the betrayal was rooted in self. But he compounded the sin by getting stuck there: focusing only on his sin and his wretchedness, he left no room in his own vision to focus on God or His merciful love. The result was that as one still loved by God and thus, redeemable, he chose not to accept it or have his sin healed because he had blocked everything but himself out of his thoughts. Remaining on the trajectory of destruction begun with the betrayal, he hung himself. Had he looked to God rather than immersing in self, he would have found the same Easter joy and new life found by Peter. Therefore, we see that it is essential that we keep focused on Jesus, accepting His love and mercy throughout our lives.
Easter is a time of joyous praise and gratitude. Our hymns praise God and proclaim our awe; we confidently declare, “The Lord is at my side – I do not fear!” The Scriptures point out how the apostles kept their focus on the reality of Jesus and His triumphant love, and so became an example of how we must live. Once the fervor of Easter week fades, however, it is important that we continue to keep our eyes on Jesus so that we do not revert to focusing on ourselves. The less we focus on self, the greater our faith becomes, (since faith is a focus on God); the temptation to worry then begins to lose its power over us and we are empowered in our efforts to move outward either in service or simply in friendship. Less focus on self also fosters humility and sanctity, thwarting the enemy’s attempts to point out our weaknesses so that we remain in darkness rather than light. Jesus triumphed by shattering the darkness and illuminating it with the radiance of His love. In this Easter light we see ourselves through His eyes, accepting both our giftedness and our weaknesses, asking for the grace to grow, and glorifying God as we accept His love in spite of our brokenness. Only in the light can healing and growth take place: Jesus rose from the dead in the morning, His light shattering the darkness, and the newness of morning bringing new life and opportunity for grace to heal and sanctify.
Throughout John’s Gospel the author equates light, truth, belief, and life. He states that Jesus is the Light of the world, illuminating the darkness. He reveals that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, bringing us onto the path of holiness through His teaching which illuminates love and brings clearer insights into God and His ways. He teaches that belief, (intellectual acceptance of the message accompanied by sincerely living it in our actions), connects us with the Triune God. And all of this is to say that if we accept that Jesus is these things, and live as His disciples, we will have life eternal. Once again, the focus is on Jesus and not on the gift. In short, the message of this gospel, echoed at Easter, can be summed up in that one well-known verse: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in Him… might have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Thus, the entirety of salvation history, culminating joyfully in the great Easter triumph of Jesus, boils down to God’s love for us. He stopped at nothing to save us, opening the gates of Heaven; and as if this was not enough, He continues to illumine the path so that we may enter in one day. That is where our attention needs to be fixed. True, it is indeed about us; that is, because of His great love, God’s focus is always on us. But if we truly reflect upon this love, unfathomable as it is, we will be like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus whose hearts were burning within them as they walked with Jesus. And like them we will move outward to share it with others, since a love such as this, cannot be contained.
Thus, Easter joy propels us ever outward to share the gift with our brothers and sisters no matter who they are. Knowing that Jesus has prepared the path and that His resurrection overcomes all sin and death, our call is to express this joy so that others may know Him, too. If we live in Easter joy, our love becomes a beacon to those in need, especially those who are lonely, ill, imprisoned, in despair, marginalized, or who are treated like strangers, so that they may come to understand all can be reversed, all can be healed, and all can be redeemed through the love and saving power of Jesus. The joy we share is in knowing that we can never lose the gifts God is offering; it is in knowing we can never lose His love or our access to the graces He gives; it is in knowing we can never lose His mercy and forgiveness; and it is in knowing that we will spend eternity with Him. But most of all, it is in knowing, as St. Paul says, “We are now clothed in Christ,” enveloped with Love beyond all telling. (Colossians 3:9-12) Let us rejoice and give praise, always keeping our focus on Jesus, who leads us in the way of mercy, peace, healing, and love, so that one day we may enjoy the fullness of the Kingdom forever.
May we be filled with Easter joy! May we be moved to praise and expressions of gratitude for so great a gift! May we always keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus! May we find the presence of Jesus in others so that as we fight against the temptation to fixate on self, we might find Him through our service of others! May we continue to find guidance in the words of Jesus as found in the gospels, and on His presence to us in our prayer! And may we continue to grow into the people God created us to be: Easter people! Let us meet at the empty tomb of Christ, saying with the holy ones, “He is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post will be May 6.
1. Christ in Limbo, (circa 1450, cell 31 of the cloister, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Italy) painted by Blessed Fra Angelico (circa 1450): I chose this painting because of all the imagery it contains. In busting down the door of Sheol, (the place of the dead) Jesus has crushed the devil who symbolically lies beneath it. However, there are still some demons lurking in the left side corner who are too frightened to come near. I wonder if the face peering out with those demons is that of Judas who chose death over life, (perhaps a point to ponder.) The holy ones who have waited so long are now being freed to enter into Heaven with Jesus. (See Matthew 27:51-53)
2. Sunrise Over the Red Sea: I chose this photo (not one of mine!) because of the magnificence of it, but also because it is a sunrise over similar waters as those on which Peter attempted to walk. He was on the Sea of Galilee, but after he focused on himself instead of Jesus, the waters no doubt seemed to him as if they were similarly roiling.
3. This is one of my photos, a black and white rendering of a pathway at Lost Maples Natural area in the hill country of Texas. I decided to go with the black and white version of my original color photo for the contrast between the path of redemption chosen by Peter with the bleak path chosen by Judas. There is a path on the left, and a dry creek bank on the right. Judas did not choose the correct path, and so he perished.
4. The Risen Jesus, icon written by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I have always loved this icon of Jesus surrounded by light, hands raised in a blessing of peace. Even though the subjects never smile in icons, (since they are not meant to be like portraits) I can still see the love and joy in His eyes, and perhaps the hint of a smile in His expression: this icon does 'spark joy.' If you would like to purchase a copy you can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-risen-christ-014-william-hart-mcnichols.html
5. Red, Mark Rothko: This painting speaks to me of resurrection and the dawn of a new day. It is as if the gold light is bursting at the seams of the red; the red hue cannot hold it in, just as death cannot hold Jesus within its grasp.
6. Resurrection, a panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald (1510-15): This is my favorite resurrection painting. There is no other image (in my opinion) which captures the light of Christ like this one. The Risen Jesus is aglow with light, reminiscent of and greater than, that of the Transfiguration. He is pushing back the darkness, in complete victory. His face is dazzling. Alleluia!
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.
One of the biggest deceptions we can entertain is the idea that the saints somehow had it easy spiritually and therefore they were able to attain holiness in a way that is nearly impossible for everyone else. If there is anything to be learned from studying the lives of the saints attentively, it is that suffering was often the path upon which they trod, and there is certainly nothing easy about that. It is not that we must suffer in order to attain holiness, but there is a spiritual deepening that takes place when one accepts that path. Jesus did say that if we wanted to be a disciple we had to be ready to take up our cross and follow Him and also that no servant is greater than the Master. He never hid the fact that it would take a lot of work, commitment, and even some suffering, if we wanted to be like Him. We also know that this is not the whole of the experience of being a disciple, although the “enemy of our human nature”* loves to make us think it is. It would be a huge mistake to give in to the temptation to focus so intently on the path of suffering that we lose sight of the joy, peace, and love that also come with discipleship and subsequent growth in holiness. Of course we know that one does not choose to suffer, but we must realize that one does choose to love. And in choosing to love, we choose everything that goes with love, including some suffering which we bear along with the joy. Reflecting upon this is important, especially as we have come to the later part of Lent in which the temptations are greatest to either become complacent in our efforts or to give up on them entirely because we haven’t been as diligent as we had hoped. Therefore, it is time to turn to the very saints we have revered to ask for the assistance needed to remember that when times are roughest, Jesus is closest.
A saint who is helpful in this area is St. Catherine of Siena. She was intimately acquainted with suffering, but bore it readily because she loved Jesus completely. St. Catherine is the patron saint of those who suffer temptations, (as well as having an array of other patronages.) While she valiantly stood her ground against temptations which came from those around her, it was the interior struggles which were the most difficult. Briefly, Catherine was born in 1347 in Siena, Italy, the 24th of 25th children. During her teens her parents repeatedly tried to arrange marriages for her and she refused all their attempts. Her father finally acquiesced to letting her live in seclusion within their home; eventually Catherine realized through her prayer and mystical experiences that she was to go outward to others in service. She joined a group of 3rd Order Dominicans in Siena, and quickly became an outspoken advocate for the poor, organized various ministries, and worked tirelessly among the sick. However, when the Great Papal Schism began, it was she who not only wrote the pope telling him – (not requesting!) – God wanted him back in Rome, but she went to Avignon personally to enact his return. She became a relentless advocate for the pope in Rome during a time of great upheaval and political unrest within the Church. A few years later, she succumbed to a mysterious illness, dying on April 29, 1380 at the age of 33.
St. Catherine loved Jesus intensely and thus, she was able to follow His call which for her included opting not to marry, (against the initial desires of her parents), serving the destitute and ill as a laywoman, and telling popes what to do: definitely not socially acceptable for women at that time. Because of her intimacy with Jesus she was able to push against those constraints, a stance which was quite challenging. More difficult however, were the great interior sufferings and temptations with which she was assailed. Remember, the “enemy of our human nature” does not want any of us to advance in holiness and so at every opportunity he will try to thwart our progress. During once such time, Catherine was experiencing terrible ‘temptations of the flesh,’ and so she begged Jesus for help, asking: “Where were you when my heart was being tormented by so many temptations?” [His response might startle us.] Jesus replied: “I was in your heart.” Catherine said, “… With all due respect for your majesty, how can I believe that you were living in my heart, when it was full of unclean and devilish thoughts?” Jesus replied, “Those thoughts and temptations: did they gladden your heart, or sadden it? Did they bring you pleasure, or displeasure?” Catherine said, “Great pain, and great displeasure.” Jesus then helped her to see that it was He who affected her displeasure because it was "I who was hiding in the center of your heart.” ** Thus, once again we see that attentiveness to the movements within our heart is how we grow in discernment and wisdom.
The experience of St. Catherine teaches that we can trust Jesus to be in our heart no matter what is going on there. If we are struggling with a weakness or if we have faltered in our Lenten plans, He is still there, loving us rather than being judgmental. It is this love which empowers us to grow in holiness, no matter how imperceptible it may be at the time. When we feel it least is when we need to trust Him the most! Remember, the evil one wants to deceive and so, manipulate us. But if we trust Jesus, who is Truth, we have nothing to fear because He is where we need Him most, when we need Him most. He never abandons us; He is especially near when we are most greatly tempted, even if we have given in to the temptation and have fallen into a particular sinful tendency. The closer we get to God, the more the enemy will try to frustrate our efforts. Therefore we must never give in to believing that we will never advance in holiness, or that we have ‘blown it’ and so 'we must give up,' or that we are so sinful that Jesus is far from us. Nothing could be further from the truth.
St. Catherine also shows us that God can use anyone to initiate bold changes. She was nobody of importance; she did not come from money and had no pedigree, yet she was able to affect great influence during a confusing time within the Church. This was the time of the Avignon Papacy and then the Great Papal Schism in which there were as many as three men simultaneously claiming to be the legitimate pope. Catherine was able to discern the true pope and convince him to get back to Rome lest the Church come apart at the seams. Therefore, Catherine shows how our efforts can affect much more change than we might seem to think. At this time, it would be good to prayerfully discern what we might do to help the Church, the Body of Christ, as a faithful witness to our love for Jesus. We may not be called to ‘go to Rome,’ but through our example we certainly can help those who are faltering in their faith, and we can volunteer in our parishes to help make them safer, more efficient, more welcoming to all as places of love, fellowship, and assistance. If so called, we can offer our insights to our local religious governing bodies through letter writing or participation in various committees and boards. But one thing we can (and should) all do is to pray, because prayer is always the way to proceed.
If we are to discern, we must work at being attentive to God, to the movements within our hearts, and to those with whom we interact. We must also recognize that our gifts are needed to keep the community of the faithful healthy. During Lent, an effort at increasing prayer is ever important for our spiritual growth, especially in knowing more clearly the depth of God’s love, a love which will then inspire us to move outward to share it with others. Like St. Catherine we do not need wealth or pedigree to move mountains with our faith, but we do need to recognize the temptations which attempt to divert us away from our call to discipleship. When those times happen, we can enter into our own hearts, seeking so we may find Jesus who is indeed there, assuring us of His Love. And even if we do not feel His presence, we need to trust His words to St. Catherine, meant for each and every person of faith: “Who was it… if not I who was hiding in the center of your heart?”
May we learn to discern the presence of Jesus so that we might live a courageous life of faith! May our Lenten journey be a time of peace as we confidently rely on Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life! May we remember and truly believe that when times are roughest, Jesus is closest! May we turn to the intercession of St. Catherine of Siena when we are assailed by temptations and interior trials! May we be assured that Jesus is always in our heart in the same way He was always in St. Catherine’s! And may we be bold in our faith, knowing that our discipleship is a gift from God, and therefore is pleasing to Jesus! Let us continue to meet Jesus within our hearts! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: * St. Ignatius of Loyola astutely characterized the devil as “the enemy of our human nature.” I have chosen to use this ‘description’ rather than a name or title, and so it is intentional that it is not capitalized. This is also because I always capitalize pronouns for Jesus so as to make it as clear as possible when I am referring to Him. Thus, I want to make a clear contrast between the one who is God and one who is against God.
Furthermore, the experience of St. Catherine reveals the same lesson which St. Ignatius taught in The Spiritual Exercises, written almost 200 years later. In discerning what comes from God, we look to see whether something moves us toward or away from Him. In the example quoted, Catherine was filled with pain in her struggle with temptations, wondering how she could be so close to Jesus, yet simultaneously be filled with sinful thoughts and desires. It did not seem (to her) that her heart was a fitting place for Jesus to reside when it was filled with such sinfulness. Jesus, however, helped her to see that she would not have felt so badly if not for His presence. He was where she needed Him most: in the midst of her heart. Therefore, she was able to see that it was His Spirit assisting her in resisting the temptations, enabling her to have the strength to choose to move against that which was urging her to take the path away from God.
** In the February 2019 edition of Magnificat the Meditation of the Day for the 10th was from the preaching of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. In it he recounted this exchange between St. Catherine of Siena and Jesus which took place during one of her mystical experiences.
If you would like more on St. Catherine, go to my Archives to an earlier entry called She Who is Not, dated April 29, 2013. (On the right side of this blog page find Archives and scroll way down to access it.)
The next post will be on April 22.
1. This is a photo I took while at the Green Sand Beach in Hawaii, mentioned in a recent post. The day we were there was Valentine's Day; seeing that cloud on that particular day added to my joy since it reminded me of God's great love. He is always near, in the center of our heart.
2. St. Catherine of Siena-Guardian of the Papacy, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: This icon wonderfully depicts St. Catherine holding the tiara worn by popes at the time, a sign of their power, her humility, and also her boldness in working to keep the pope in Rome where he belonged. (That is what she told him, by the way: that he belonged in Rome.) You can find this icon, and you can purchase a copy in one of many diverse mediums, at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-catherine-of-siena-guardian-of-the-papacy-288-william-hart-mcnichols.html
3. Jesus Returning the Cross to St. Catherine of Siena by Crescenzio Gambarelli (1602): This painting is in the Viae Siena (the Chapel of the Vaults) in San Domenico Cathedral, Siena, Italy. I chose it because it seems to symbolize the relationship of Jesus and St. Catherine as she experienced Him mystically. You can find more about this at http://www.viaesiena.it/en/caterina/itinerario/basilica-di-san-domenico/cappella-volte
4. I took this photo while on a sightseeing submarine off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii in the bay at Kailua-Kona. I chose this tropical fish, a large Tang which was swimming by, because it symbolizes the point I was making: deceptively, everything looked blue through the window of the sub, but in reality there are more colors that simply were not getting through to our eyes. It is truth, but distorted. That is exactly how the 'enemy' likes to operate!
5. Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders (1889): This is a close-up of the actual road workers and so it is only a section of the painting. I chose it because it shows men working on different parts of the same project, each doing something that may not be most essential in and of itself, but as a team their efforts are getting the road built efficiently. Their job may be considered lowly, and yet, without them there is no road, no easy travel, no movement.
6. Behind Every Great Man by Kevin "WAK" Williams: I chose this because it depicts prayer beautifully. It shows the strength which comes through our petition to God for whatever we need. The man, presumably a husband and father, is protecting his family from the falling beam, and the wife is protecting him as he labors. Together, they labor for protection and peace; both are 'moving mountains.' For more on this beautiful and moving work, as well as some information on the artist, go to https://www.blackartdepot.com/products/behind-every-great-man-by-kevin-wak-williams
7. Divine Mercy, painted by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, (1934): This is the original painting of Jesus as seen in the visions of St. Faustina Kowalska and commissioned by her religious order. It is often referred to by the words of the prayer Jesus taught St. Faustina: "Jesus, I Trust In You." For more, go to https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/the-original-image-of-divine-mercy-its-not-where-you-might-think-70393
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