The best class I ever took was a particular Liturgy course in graduate school. The professor was so good that there were times in class in which we would ask him to pause because we were all so moved that we needed to rest in what he had just said. In fact, I even learned from him during the final exam, as strange as that sounds. It was an oral exam in which the entire class of about a dozen people sat in a circle and answered questions in a discussion. We each added something to the discussion of a particular question and were graded on our level of participation, the quality and accuracy of what we said, etc. At one point I realized that even his questions were 'aha' moments for me. It was an incredible experience.
During that class the professor emphasized that one could know what the church teaches even if all we did was truly listen to what was being prayed at Mass, especially the prayers being said by the priest. He was ‘unpacking’ the meaning of the saying "lex orandi, lex credendi." (This literally translates as "the law of prayer is the law of belief." Basically it means what I said above: what we pray reflects what we believe.) Therefore I began to listen more attentively at Mass in order to truly pray with the priest rather than to be passive. As our professor said, "You are about to say 'Amen' to it, so don't you want to know what you just said yes to?" Excellent point! As a result of listening more closely, a line from one of the Eucharistic preface prayers for the season of Advent has stayed with me. It goes like this: "And Mary bore Him in her womb with love beyond all telling." In that prayer the Church is indicating the depths of the mysteries of the role of Mary as the mother of Jesus, of the One whom she is bearing, and the mystery of love itself.
This week we celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As I reflected on what this feast is about, the line from the Advent liturgy came back to me: Mary bore Jesus in her womb with love beyond all telling. Each year the feast of her Immaculate Heart comes one day after the celebration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They come in tandem for a reason. We associate these two feasts with each other as a celebration of two loves that are one. Jesus came to love us beyond imagining by dying and rising for us, but without the love of Mary and without her pure heart, Jesus could never have come into the world. God needed someone to be the mother of His Son and to have the love which is the very nature of His Son flow within the mother's own body. So God chose Mary as that mother.
Mary was always filled with purity and love. God chose her before she was conceived in her own mother's womb. That may be confusing, but if we think of it from God's perspective it becomes clearer. God needed a fitting mother for His only Son to come into the world and for her to raise Him until He was ready to embark upon His ministry. This woman would have to be the best mother possible and she would have to be without sin so as to be a pure vessel. Being His human parent she would have to be free from sin in order to have His conception become possible. She had to be pure and without original sin so that the Son of God could reside within her during the pregnancy. He was to be fully God, but also fully human. However, the Son could not inherit original sin since sin means being apart from God and is contrary to the very nature of God. Therefore she had to be freed from it. Furthermore, since God is not bound by time or space as we are, He anticipated that Mary would be the one: He anticipated her yes, even though she was free at all times to say no. In this anticipating of her role, knowing she would say yes in full freedom, He made her conception in her mother's womb to be pure and immaculate to prepare her for motherhood of Jesus. That is, she was conceived without sin and remained free of sin her entire life. This is a mystery, and therefore we cannot fully understand it.
God created Mary with a pure and immaculate soul which is reflected in her pure and immaculate heart. She grew up loving God with a deep love and a total commitment. So when the time came for the angel to greet her and to ask her if she would be willing to be the mother of God's own Son she said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." Immediately she was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and she was impregnated with the Son of God. It is beyond imagining what the moment of that infusion of love was like. And it is beyond all telling what her loving response must have been from that moment ever onward. The gospels describe to us how immediately Mary became Jesus' first disciple. She obeyed God's word, she served her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant, she allowed Joseph to decide how he would respond to her, and she served God throughout her life, spending much time in reflection and prayer as well as learning from Jesus how to be the best disciple she could be.
With all that Mary did to raise Jesus and living with Him until He was around 30 years of age, it should not surprise us that she loved Him so deeply or that she loved all He loved so deeply. His love must have coursed through her veins throughout her life, given that His Sacred Heart had beaten within her and their blood was the same blood for the nine months she held Him in her womb. When Jesus was dying on the cross He entrusted us, the church, to her. (He did that when He told John, “Behold, your mother,” and to her, “Behold, your son.”) This is why it is fitting that in the Hail Mary prayer we ask her intercession for us at the hour of our death. Having been at the cross she knows what it is to be with someone beloved at the hour of death; she, too, loves us with that same love. He entrusted us to her and she is with us.
It is no wonder, then, that after her death Jesus asked Mary to continue to minister to us as Queen of Heaven, the first and greatest of the saints. She has appeared numerous times to help us to hear God’s message more clearly. Often she is warning us of dangers to come if we do not pray and repent. She tells us what we should do to pray for those who need help, to intercede for those on the wrong path, or to pray against evil running rampant in the world. Her messages are delivered with love because she knows God does not want to lose any of His children. She is a sign of the mercy and compassion of Jesus, but she is also filled with that same love and therefore she is more than merely a messenger. That she has an Immaculate Heart means that she is the perfect messenger because she embodies the love with which the messages are sent: in many ways she has become the message. And she listens to our prayers, bringing them to her Son. She loves us as a true mother who wants nothing more than to be with us in Heaven forever. She wants this because her dearest love, Jesus, wants this.
Let us never forget nor be confused: Mary is not God and she is never to be worshiped. Rather, she points us to her Son. She has done this all of her life through her deeds and words, and she continues to do it through her time in Heaven. She is clear on her role which is to intercede for us to Him. She is to be venerated for her holiness and for her unique role, but she would never want us to try to put her on equal footing with her Son. At the center of love is humility because love is always about the ‘other’ and never about being self-centered or self-serving. Mary is most humble in pointing us away from her and to Jesus, her Son. Therefore we can learn to love better by following her lead. We can pray for humility so as to love others better by being open, merciful, compassionate, and generous. We imitate Mary by spending more time with Jesus in our prayer, and to consciously try to follow Him in our day-to-day activities. We can learn through her to be a more dedicated disciple.
May we celebrate the Immaculate Heart of Mary with gratitude for having so caring a mother! May we ask Mary to intercede for us that we may be more like her in loving and pointing others to Jesus! May we ask Mary to intercede for all those who have been entrusted to our care, all those who have needs, and for peace in our world! May we turn to her as a model of prayer and reparation for the sins of our world! And may we ask her to inflame our hearts with love of God! Let us continue to meet in the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photo of the two roses is mine.
All of the icons are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. I am partial to his Marian icons so that is why I have used three in this entry. I must note that I have permission to share his work, for which I am very grateful. His icons and images can be found at his website fatherbill.org. Click on any of the links to get the pages desired.
The first icon is Mother of God Mystical Rose and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/175-mother-of-god-mystical-rose
The second icon is Mother of God Similar to Fire and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/221-mother-of-god-similar-to-fire
The third icon is called Mother of God Asking for Humility and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/172-mother-of-god-asking-for-humility
Remember, I get nothing from posting Fr. Bill's work except the joy of promoting beautiful iconography so that others might have joy of viewing them and praying with them also. All of his work is copyrighted material, so if you would like copies of these icons or to obtain some books which contain many of his icons, do go to his website in order to purchase them.
Recently I had the honor of attending an ordination to the priesthood in my diocese. It was a moving liturgy from start to finish and a reminder of what a blessing it is to have men dedicated to serving Christ by serving His people in such a way. One of the most dynamic moments was when the presiding Cardinal quoted Pope Francis in challenging the new priests by asking the question, "How is your first love?" * The Cardinal asked the question repeatedly, interspersing it throughout his homily. He reminded the men who would be ordained shortly that they would be serving the Lord in a unique way and that it would be challenging, but that the most important thing for them is to keep their eyes on Christ as their first love letting all they do flow from that. I was very touched, not only because of his challenge to the priests, but because his question is appropriate for anyone who identities themselves as a Christian. We are all loved by God beyond our comprehension and the most important thing we ever do is love Him back. It is imperative that we keep asking ourselves the same question keeping our minds and hearts attuned to the health of our relationship with the Lord.
In this month of the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus it is appropriate to focus our meditation on what it means to love and be loved by God. In the last few weeks there have been many beautiful, mystery-filled feasts such as Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, and Corpus Christi. In each of these feasts we celebrate the fullness of the gifts God has given us in sending the Spirit to empower us, but also we celebrate who God is as Father, Son, and Spirit. God is gracious and the giver of all good gifts; God is a Trinity of Persons, as St. Augustine puts it, who is an eternal exchange of love which is extended to us. We are included in the very love of God which is who He is! And this love is given to us every day in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ which is the source and summit of the sacraments and the source and summit of all loves.
The Feast of the Sacred Heart which comes at the end of this month is very appropriately timed after all these important Sunday feasts. As we are propelled back into Ordinary Time liturgically we are reminded again and again of the indescribable love our God has for us that He would do everything He has done throughout salvation history simply because He loves us. His love is so great that He continually saves us from ourselves, forgives our sinfulness which at times has been rather egregious to say the least, and continues to find new ways to love us. Not only did He send His Son to live among us and die for us, but His Son left us His presence forever in His body and blood given in the Eucharist. And the Son, Jesus Christ, left us the Advocate who is the Holy Spirit to continue to guide us until the day comes when Christ returns. We are never alone. We always have the love of God to guide us, empower us, and save us. The gift is offered with no expectation of return, though God desires our happiness as well as our presence with Him in eternity simply because He loves us so much. (See Romans 8:28-39)
So what's with all this love? Why do we even need a Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus when it seems obvious that God loves us anyhow? First of all, love is who God is, therefore it is important for us to realize that we can never celebrate this enough. It is mysterious because it is a greater love than we can ever imagine. We should not spend time trying to understand it; trying to understand why or how He could ever love us so much simply will get us nowhere because it is too far above us to know the nature of who God is. Just as trying to understand why or how another person can love us is a misplacement of our attention, so too, it is with trying to understand God. What we should be doing is enjoying that love, living in that love, and responding to that love.
God intends for us to be loved and to know we are loved. His greatest gift of love was to send His own Son into the world so that we would be able to put a human face upon this love and to receive in a tangible way of the mystery of His love. Jesus taught us about love in His words and deeds, and most especially when He left us His body and blood in bread and wine, literally as food and drink to nourish, empower, and sustain us spiritually along the journey of life we each need to tread. The love it took to leave Heaven and enter into this life of brokenness and suffering is beyond any comprehension. No matter how much we try to understand what it took for Jesus to suffer and die for us, we can never fully know, nor can we know the depth of the love that beat in His heart as He walked this earth. To have been close to the beating heart of Jesus must have been incredible for those who encountered Him whether in a fleeting moment or as followers. But that heart still beats with love for us and has passed through death in the ultimate triumph of love. We still encounter the Sacred Heart of Jesus every time we encounter Him in sacrament or in prayer. The love of Christ never ceases and it is offered over and over for each one of us.
Therefore we do need a feast to celebrate the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We should reflect on His love, not with the intent of trying to understand it, or why He should love any one of us, but to simply rest in that love and allow it to flow over us and through us. If we want to respond to that love and to serve others we need to let that love enliven our own. All loves come from and are perfected in His love. It is what drives us to act in the way Jesus taught us to act. We will never love perfectly since we are not perfect, but we can go to the font of love and allow Him to continue to perfect us. We can ask Him to help us to love better, to forgive more readily, to act more selflessly, and to be more generous in our love of Him. We can do the small things that may go unnoticed, but which are done with great love. And we can make a change in the world around us by living in the joy and peace of that love and moving outwards to others with it.
It is very important to the Lord that we spend time with His Sacred Heart in the love He wishes to share with us. We need to spend time in prayer not so that we can tell Him things He does not know, (since He already knows everything about us), but in order to hear our own thoughts and words in light of His love and to allow His love to permeate us and change our own heart. If we do not pay attention to our relationship with Jesus daily, we will lose sight of His love for us and its sanctifying power. We will grow cooler in love without realizing why, until we begin to only go through the motions because we know we are supposed to do "Christian things" but without the power to really savor them. Being human we will struggle with loving the way He wants us to know love and love others, but we can always reclaim it since His love is never ending. We will not always feel this love; a mistake people often make is to expect to feel something. Often His love for us is so deep that it is beyond our ability to feel it, therefore we need to trust it and rely upon His promise to us.
With the Pope, and with the Cardinal at the ordination, I repeat the question: How is your first love? This is a question that is not just for priests. It is one that all of us should ponder. Our first love is the love of Christ poured out to us daily from His Sacred Heart which so desires us to return that love to Him. He should be our first love so that all other loves we give find their source in Him. And since we have so great and unfathomable a source of love, it is also a source of joy and peace. That is indeed a cause for celebration.
May we find a home in the Sacred Heart of Jesus! May our first love be the motivation for all our loves! May the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus enliven our hearts! May we enjoy the love of Christ for us so much that we are moved to share it with others in word and deed! May we have a heart for the poor, the marginalized, the sick and the lonely! And may we have gratitude for the love with which we are loved from so beautiful a Heart as the Heart of Christ! Let us continue to meet in the Sacred Heart of Christ the Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* Pope Francis' homily can be found at http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2014/06/06/_pope_at_mass_priests,_never_forget_your_first_love/1101441
The photos are mine. The first is of an ordination, as mentioned in the first paragraph. The second is of my parents wedding rings on my Bible.
The two icons are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is La Sangre de Christo and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/44-la-sangre-de-christo.
The second is The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/54-the-most-sacred-heart-of-jesus
Like many of us I love seeing films and television shows in which multiple action heroes or detective teams are fighting for the same good. Especially when it is a team of two I have always thought that the person who gets the lesser amount of attention is a person who is worth watching, especially when the leader whom they are supporting is getting a lot of ‘press.’ It just seems to me that when someone is so supportive of a person who is getting all the glory when two (or more) are doing the work, the purported ‘sidekick’ deserves a little spotlight of their own. But what makes the sidekick so attractive to me is that they really do not seek glory. Usually they are content to support the star because they are committed to the same cause just as intensely and because they have a deep respect for that person. Another way of saying this is that sidekicks are usually people with a great amount of humility, a great dedication to the cause they are fighting for together with the star, and that they are sure of their vocation of being in the semi-background. In reality, this is the way all Christians should be, putting Christ first and our own fame second. This is why, then, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for St. Barnabas.
It is easy to think of St. Barnabas as only a sidekick to the great St. Paul, but I want to set the record straight for him: Barnabas was a great man in his own right. Without him there may not have been a St. Paul for him to accompany. At first it was Paul who accompanied Barnabas when Barnabas was the only one who believed Paul was the “real deal.” We forget this because of stories about them traveling together with Paul delivering incredible orations which converted hundreds of people in one fell swoop. One such story is when the two of them were in Lystra and the people thought Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes after they healed some poor lame man. I guess since Paul was the fiery preacher they figured he was the messenger of the gods, having not really listened to his preaching and only focusing on the miracle which they thought Barnabas must have wrought as king of the gods. Indeed they missed the point, but worse still, some angry citizens of the last city they were at, Iconium, showed up convinced that they were actually trying to make the people think they were gods. A melee ensued in which Paul was stoned nearly to death, but Barnabas and the others prayed over him and healed him. See what I mean about Barnabas? He was in this equally, yet Paul gets the glory for leading the team.
Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Paul. I just want to give Barnabas his day in the sun, especially since his feast day is this week. Though he was quickly overshadowed by Paul, it was because of his belief in the giftedness of Paul that he brought Paul to the attention of St. Peter and the other apostles in the first place. Shortly after Paul’s dramatic conversion, a time in which few trusted the man who had hated Christians with such ferocity, Barnabas heard him preach in Jerusalem and was impressed with his potential. Barnabas "took charge of him and brought him to the apostles, and he reported to them how on the way he had seen the Lord ... and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus." (Acts 9:27) Barnabas continued to be a promoter of Paul even after the rest of the inner circle of apostles and presbyters sent Paul away to Tarsus and left him there to languish for years, not wanting much to do with him.
We know Barnabas was very important to the apostles, because it was he whom they sent to Antioch as the church grew so large that they needed some good leadership. In Acts 11:23-14 it says: "When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith. And a large number of people were added to the Lord." As soon as he knew the church there was in good hands he left for Tarsus to look for Saul. When he found him he brought him back to Antioch and eventually to Jerusalem after a relief mission which they carried out.
Barnabas stuck his neck out for Paul because he saw his potential. He was a man of great discernment prayer, and wisdom, attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Therefore he knew that he was to take Paul with him to evangelize. So the two set out on their first missionary journey, in which many were converted to the faith. It became clear on that journey that Paul had a special vocation as apostle to the Gentiles, understanding that Jesus was calling them to be part of the Kingdom no less than the Jews. They worked well together. Though Paul's speeches are the ones recorded, we know that Barnabas, too, was a great preacher and a man of prayer who could help Paul on his mission. He was always at Paul's side on that journey, content to let Paul get the spotlight. What mattered most to him was that Jesus was made known, to be glorified and loved. It was always about Jesus, not really about Paul or himself.
Even though they had a famous "falling out" in which they had a heated disagreement as to whether John Mark would accompany them on a second journey, and even though they subsequently parted ways, I cannot imagine that they did not prayerfully consider what was the right thing to do. It seems to me that men of their caliber of faith and discernment would not have let a petty dispute mar a partnership of such success. It seems that God wanted them to go their separate ways for a reason. Both men were important to spreading the word. Perhaps the Spirit felt that now that Paul had attained the spiritual authority he needed, it was best to separate the powerhouses so that they could cover more territory apart rather than together. It also allowed Paul to groom two important men: the young Timothy who eventually took over some churches for Paul, and Luke, the man who would write not only a gospel, but also the Acts of the Apostles. Barnabas would also groom the young man over whom he and Paul disputed who also would write a gospel: Mark. (John Mark) We do not know what happened after they parted, but in the letters of Paul there are a few references to Barnabas and to John Mark. It seems that John Mark was a disciple of Paul once again when Paul was a prisoner in Rome. That would indicate that Barnabas may have been martyred, though there is no evidence of when or where.
I think one of the most important lessons to be learned from St. Barnabas is that we realize that whether we are in the spotlight or are in a secondary capacity each role is important. Sometimes we can get upset or even jealous that we are not getting credit for the things we do. We might feel like our hard work is being overshadowed by someone else, as if our work counts for nothing or that is being relegated to second-class status. It is important that we do not allow ourselves to be tricked into thinking this. Everything we do is important when we are working at building the Kingdom, no matter how small or insignificant our actions may seem. And even if we think we are doing really big things for God, (which would beg the humility question) we need to realize that everyone is important in the work of making Jesus known and loved. It is not about us anyway. It is about God.
There is no telling how many people were touched by Barnabas in his day. Just because we do not hear about it does not mean he did nothing compared to Paul. The problem is when we do just that: compare. Both of these men did works that have enormous consequence, and most of it will actually remain unknown to anyone but God. It is the same for you and I. Whatever we are called to, whether it is to be the star or the sidekick, the leader or the secondary figure, our work has enormous impact, most of which we will never know. So let us be content to do that to which we are called, never forgetting that all roles are important to God. And even more than that, all souls are important to God. He values the work of all of us who are trying to build the Kingdom because each member of the Kingdom is His beloved child.
So let us go out and make disciples of all the nations. May we be discerning in our call to serve the Lord! May we be like St. Barnabas, content to work in the role to which we are called, supporting those around us who might have a seemingly more "glamorous" position! May we be faithful to those whom we serve and to those with whom we serve! And may we always find joy in working for the Lord, bringing His love to those we meet in everything we do! Let us meet as companions on the journey in the Heart of the Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The top icon is St. Barnabas. I found it on a search page and there was no credit. The second icon is St. Barnabas and St. Paul and it is the middle icon of a triptych. It can be found at http://www.pbase.com/image/44642064
The photos are mine, taken at Montauk Point, Long Island.
Heart Speaks to Heart