Pregnant with Mercy and Hope: Advent 1
There is a poem I have always liked, and in fact, it is also a favorite Christmas carol. It is called “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Christina Rossetti, a 19th century poet. Why it has come to mind is a mystery to me because it is neither the Christmas season nor is it even winter yet, leave alone midwinter. Bleakness and a Christmas poem are not what I would like to be thinking about as we begin Advent. And yet the first line of the poem came as I began to reflect upon the gospel for this first Sunday in Advent which upon first glance is not joyful sounding in the least. Where are the ‘Advent people’ like Mary and Elizabeth, Zechariah and John the Baptist, or even the angel with His wonderful messages? This gospel is not like that at all, and maybe seems a bit…well… bleak. Perhaps the idea of bleakness has been impactful because we are in a time of year in which the days are shorter, the darkness longer, and events in the news are sounding a bit bleak. There is too much pressure to shop, too much pressure to get everything done for the holidays, (even the spiritual things), all amidst news of a dangerous world. What are we to do?
What we are to do is this: stop, take a deep breath, and create just a little bit of quiet in order to reflect on what the Season of Advent is really about: preparation for the coming of Jesus into our world. A place to begin is with the readings for this Sunday with a mind and heart open to the message of God. These readings are actually very hopeful and not bleak at all. The first reading is from the Book of Jeremiah in which God reminded His people that He would fulfill the promise He made to the divided nation, Israel and Judah. He said the Messiah would come and that “Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure.” (Jer. 33:16) These words were addressed to a suffering nation which had been overtaken by its enemies due to their own complacency. God had never ceased loving them, and upon seeing their repentance, He reminded them that nothing had changed in His relationship to them nor had His love diminished. His promises are always good. Hence, His words were of hope to the people as things looked pretty desolate for them. Let us allow these words to be spoken to us: “You shall be safe and you shall dwell secure.”
In the second reading, from the First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul prayed that the Lord would let their love for one another “increase and abound.” He reminded them that they knew “the instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess 3:12-4:2) The message of Jesus had been given them, so they knew what they were to do in the face of the bleakness of Roman oppression. Lest we forget when this was written, it was during the time when the leaders of the Jewish community were very much against these new Christians, and the Romans were beginning their more active attempts to suppress this “sect.” Therefore this was written in dangerous times which were getting progressively worse. Yet, St. Paul was telling them that they knew how they were supposed to act as taught by Jesus: be generous, make every act an act of love, share what you have with those in need, act with justice, live with hope in the promise that Jesus is with you and that He will return. Let us allow these words to be spoken to us: “You know what to do, and so the Lord will let your love increase and abound.”
Of course, following this is that somewhat 'problematic' Gospel which I referred to earlier. It sounds similar to what we were hearing as the liturgical year ended, and so we might be wondering if someone forgot to turn the page in the Lectionary when we heard it this Sunday. Actually, the themes of early Advent are quite the same as those at the end of the liturgical year: we should be vigilant and prepared, not for horrors, but rather for our Lord to come. Even though in Luke’s gospel Jesus was speaking apocalyptically, saying that “on earth nations shall be in dismay,” He went on to say that what we will see is the Son of Man returning upon a cloud “with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:25-27) These signs will be telling us that the awaited day has come. There is nothing bleak about this at all! It is something wonderful, and we can hope in this because God always fulfills His promises. However, it comes with a final caveat: we need to beware that our hearts “do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life” (Luke 21:34) because when Jesus does return it will be with suddenness. This is a reminder for us not to become complacent like the people in the time of Jeremiah so we are not caught off guard. What Jesus was saying was that we cannot get so caught up in trivialities, power, materialism, and self that we lose track of what really matters, especially the gospel message. If we keep God first in our hearts, doing all we do with His words and His love, and keep the hopefulness of His message in mind, we will persevere, finally joining Him in Heaven where there is no suffering, tears, or pain forever. There is nothing bleak about that message. Indeed, it is very hopeful for those who really hear what Jesus is saying. He will come, He will triumph, and there will be great joy. Let us allow these words to be spoken to us: “Do not become overwhelmed with the anxieties of daily life. There is nothing to fear.”
What we can take away from the readings at the beginning of Advent, then, is a message of mercy and hope. Our world is undeniably a scary place, filled with violence and oppression. But that is not all that it is. Our world has much beauty within it. God is with us and has never left us. His love and mercy for us have never diminished; He cares for us and about us. Therefore the message is one of hope in His protection, faithfulness, love, and ultimate victory over sin and over all who choose to try to destroy the innocent or the faithful ones. And there is nothing dreary or bleak about mercy. God has continually saved us from dangers, especially when we have sinned but then prayed for forgiveness. In this Year of Mercy (which begins next week) we need to consider the message of these Advent Scriptures: that we give what we have received and we let our hearts not be troubled; that we turn from the anxieties of the day toward the mercy and love of God. If we trust in His love and try to become children of mercy, learning to give to others as we have been given, we are indeed prepared for Him to come back in victory.
Therefore, instead of thinking of these times as being bleak we need to think of the present as being pregnant. Bleakness points to lifelessness while pregnancy is full of life; bleakness is without much hope, while pregnancy is alive with possibility and hope. In no way am I denying the suffering of this age, or the dangers or threats from those who would do us harm for no reason that makes any sense. But the world is filled with opportunities for love to be born into it. The time is pregnant with needs which can be filled, love which can be shared, lives which can be touched, and hearts that can be healed. The world is pregnant with possibilities for us to be Christ-bearers like Mary, the mother of Jesus: we can pray for others and for reparation of sin, point people to Jesus through our words and deeds; we can live the beatitudes to touch the hearts of the lonely, ill, marginalized, downtrodden, stranger, and those who live lifestyles far from God.
If we do not live the message, there will be little way for others to hear it. God’s word is of hope, not of woe. To paraphrase what Christina Rossetti seems to be saying, the midwinter is not bleak; it is an opportunity for us.* Instead of despairing, thinking we have nothing to give and no way to help, we can give the one thing we do have, the one thing Jesus desires the most, and that which is also our truest means of fighting evil and living in hope: our heart. If we give our heart to Jesus and let Him make a home there, we are indeed ready to stand strong in the face of tribulation, not being overcome by the anxieties of the day. This is what Advent is truly about: standing ready for His coming, becoming pregnant with Him and seeing the world as pregnant with Him, opening the stable of our heart for Him to be born anew. Let us allow these words to be spoken to us: “I am coming!”
May we open wide the doors of our heart so that we may make a space for Jesus to be born there! May we trust in the mercy and love of God! May we be filled with mercy and love, sharing what we have with those who are without! May we be filled with hope, seeing the world as pregnant with opportunities for our love to love increase and abound! And may we enter into Advent with peace, not distracted by the anxieties of daily life, but rather with hope in the promises of God! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Maranatha! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* The poem In the bleak midwinter by Christina Rossetti can be found at the following link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/238450
The top photo is mine: it was taken in the bleak midwinter at Lost Maples State Park, TX.
The second photo is also one of mine: it was taken on Copper Mountain in Colorado. I chose it because there is a house on the far right of the photo to represent 'dwelling secure.'
Next is an Advent wreath, which of course is to remind us that we are in the new liturgical year, Advent week 1.
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Mother of Holy Hope. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-holy-hope-263-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Next is another of my photos. This lone bluebonnet was taken in Big Bend National Park, TX. I chose it because it spoke to me of hope since this flower was growing and seeming to flourish in the middle of the desert sand against all odds.
The last icon is also by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It is called Nuestra Senora De Las Nieves. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/nuestra-senora-de-las-nieves-185-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
I chose both icons of Mary for this post because in both she is pregnant. In the first one she is reflecting upon the Word and is filled with hope. In this one she is also reflective and clearly at prayer. The midwinter seems alive with possibility since the presence of God is at hand.
Remember, the icons are copyrighted material, used with permission. If you would like to purchase copies of these icons, cards, plaques or any other format of the work of Fr. Bill McNichols, go to his website either through the links above or at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/ or
Christ the King of Love and Mercy
In this final week of the liturgical year we celebrate Christ the King. This feast is important in that we are not only worshiping Jesus as He is, but we are also putting our hope in the promise of His triumphal return at the end of time. In Him all things will be healed, sin forgiven, mercy endowed, justice done, and all things in this heretofore messy world will be perfected. During Advent, the beginning of the new liturgical year, the themes will continue our reflection on this King who comes as a small, vulnerable child. But we never lose sight that what we are really doing is anticipating the triumphant return of Christ the King, the one who will make all things new and wipe away every tear. This feast reminds us that what is here is passing, even fleeting, and that ultimately God is in control.
The Scriptures from the past few weeks have pointed us toward thoughts of the Second Coming of Christ. The Old Testament readings are especially important because they describe a time that was deeply disturbing and dangerous for the people of Israel, not unlike the moral, spiritual, and physical dangers of this present time. They had finally attained freedom; the country, once decimated as a result of its own unfaithfulness, was trying to recover. Into this time of rebuilding both nationally and spiritually came the cruel Greek oppressors. The Jewish people were once again tempted to let themselves be stripped of their identity. Greek culture was ‘in vogue,’ and Jewish customs and culture were ‘out.’ To look and act like a Greek was what one did in order to fit in, or so many of the population thought. Some of the younger men even tried to hide the mark of their Jewishness, the sign of the covenant, in order to participate in athletic games which were thoroughly Greek; others co-opted their Jewish tradition in favor of Greek philosophy, even to the point of preferring to speak Greek instead of Hebrew.
However, there were many who were horrified at these trends such as Mattathias who we read about this past week. In the passage we heard Mattathias state unequivocally that he and his sons would serve no king but God. In an attempt to manipulate him the officers of the Greek king told him that he and his family would be given special treatment and gifts if they obeyed the king’s command. These men knew the family of Mattathias was influential and that the Jews of Jerusalem would follow his lead. Mattathias rejected the offer. (See 1 Maccabees 2:15-29) He was faithful and he was also wise. He knew that as a leader in the community it was important to make sure the people had his good example. He knew it was essential to make the message known that there is only one king to obey and that this King is God.
A number of years later when the people were still struggling with the influence and oppression of the Greeks, Eleazar, a prominent scribe in the Jewish community, was threatened with death unless he ate the forbidden pork which was sacrificed to the Greek gods. (2 Maccabees 6:18-31) He refused to do so. But because he was well liked, some of the men in charge of the ritual took him aside and urged him to simply pretend to eat the unlawful meat. They said he could provide his own approved meat and substitute it for the pork; no one would know the difference and then he could live. But Eleazar refused because in his heart he knew he would be betraying God by pretending to acquiesce, but also because he would be leading others into sin since they would be watching and following his example. Like Mattathias, Eleazar realized that he was responsible not just for his own actions, but that as a leader his example could either teach correctly or lead others astray. Therefore, he did not waver, choosing to follow his true King, and not the pagan Greek king. He was put to death for his choice, but he inspired others to also remain steadfast in their faith even in the midst of the terrorism of torture by their enemies.
The stories in 1 & 2 Maccabees teach us rather clearly that our words and actions do make a difference. If we are to lead others to God or if we are to be the disciples we say we are, we cannot ‘preach’ one thing and do another. Nor can we co-opt our faith to be politically correct or to simply be in the ‘with it’ crowd. Rather, as disciples we are called to take on the characteristics and values of the King whom we follow. We direct others toward Him by living His teachings and His law of love. It is important that we never lose sight that our King is Jesus so that we do not become unwittingly arrogant as did the people of the Old Testament, thinking that we know a better way than the one He has taught. The ways of the world are seductive and they lead to destruction. The ways of Jesus require discipline and faithfulness, but they lead to eternal life.
Christ the King is the King of love and mercy. Coming into the world was an act of great love. Though a King, He chose to be born in humility with no political power, no army, and no wealth. He chose to remain lowly spending His ministry with the poor, marginalized, powerless, sick, outcast, and sinner. His care for his friends and followers, His mercy extended to sinners, and even His compassion toward His enemies revealed His love. However, Jesus never called Himself a king, though once when asked point-blank by Pontius Pilate if He was a king, Jesus implied that He was, saying that that His Kingdom is not of this world. And He did speak clearly about ‘His Kingdom’ numerous times during His ministry. For example, He told parables in which He described what His Kingdom is like: a mustard seed, sown seeds in a field, a pearl of great price, leaven, etc. In other parables He described what the King is like: a sower of seeds; one who throws a great banquet and invites the poor and destitute; a wealthy man who leaves his wealth to servants to aid in its growth; a compassionate and merciful Father who forgives even the worst insults.
What we learn, then, is that if we want to be followers of the King, we need to try to take on His characteristics and make them our own. It should be obvious to others who we follow and whose we are. We need to turn to the gospels to make our decisions, and to pray for wisdom rather than blindly going along with the crowd. We must be mindful that what we do affects those around us, and like it or not, people do watch. Our friends, neighbors, families, co-workers, students, and even strangers do observe us, both consciously and unconsciously. If we act with anger, it becomes acceptable to the other to act in kind, and if we return peace for unkindness, it quenches the fire, disarming the other. If we remain faithful and hopeful for the Kingdom to come, if we act with humility, and try to be merciful, generous, kind, compassionate, and just, if we try to do what is morally right to the best of our knowledge, if we pray and worship in our churches and are not apologetic about doing so, we can affect the world. We do not have to be perfect, but we can let our faith, hope, and love become contagious. In short, if we act like our King, being people of mercy and love, we will indeed be building His Kingdom.
The feast of Christ the King teaches us that though we praise and worship Him with the utmost reverence, we are His friends, not merely His subjects. We serve Him because we are loved by Him and we want to respond in love. He is a king with whom we fall in love. He is merciful and just, slow to anger and quick to forgive. He will right all wrongs at the end of time when He returns and He will wipe away every tear, heal every wound, unbind all those imprisoned, and lead us all to the New Jerusalem. Our savior, Jesus Christ, who left Heaven so that He could establish His Kingdom, will come again in glory. Let us wait in joyful hope for His return.
May we be ready for the return of Christ the King, by serving Him in this life through our faith, our hope in His promises, and our love which leads us to solidarity with one another! May we be ever aware that our actions and words influence others, so that we may be intentional in all we do so that we may glorify God and bring others into His Kingdom with us! May we know the love of Christ the King! And may we truly trust that His Kingdom will come as He has promised and that we will live in the peace and joy of being with God forever! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Christ the King! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The top image is a painting called Christ in Majesty by Fra Angelico (1447). It is in the Chapel of San Brizio the cathedral of Orvieto, Italy.
The photo which is next is one of mine, taken in Big Bend National Park, Texas.
Next is Jesus Teaching by Duccio di Buoninsegna.
Next is an icon, Christ the King The Bridegroom by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/christ-the-king-the-bridegroom-066-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Finally is another of my photos, a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, taken in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Words don’t always come easily, especially when there are great challenges in the world. But Saturday as I was praying and reflecting on the readings from the Mass of the day, this line reached out unexpectedly, an exquisitely moving verse: “When peaceful stillness compassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, your all-powerful word from heaven’s royal throne bounded….” (Wisdom 18:14-15) What a hopeful line of Scripture to read at a time when the world seems like it is in the grip of violence and suffering! It is almost shocking in its beauty to find this verse on this particular day, and yet it is the very truth of the message of God: He is with us and He is in control. It may not seem like it, and it certainly may not feel like it, but God has come into our world and He will come again in glory.
The passage from Wisdom, written about fifty years before Jesus came, goes on to indicate that the Messiah would be as a warrior, and it seemed to me that indeed He was, and is, a warrior in the sense that He came to fight the evils of oppression and injustice through the gift of His own life. Paradoxically, Jesus did this by teaching us mercy, compassion, and love. He taught us to find our strength in these things; we are not to simply accept everything that comes along with a sigh of despair. At the end of the liturgical year, as Ordinary Time is waning, it is appropriate to reflect on what the return of Jesus truly means for us as a people and as individuals. And it seems that there is no time like the present, given the state of affairs in our violent world, to reflect upon this very appropriate message.
While there is still a peaceful stillness in this world, it is sometimes overshadowed by certain events or by our attention being rightfully drawn to that which is far less than peaceful. We need not lose sight that there is hope and even goodness in the midst of tragedy and despair. If one reads the entire passage from Wisdom, it refers back to God’s help given to the Israelites in the desert as they escaped quite improbably from the Egyptians who were trying to destroy them after they were released from slavery. This was a bleak situation: desert ahead, wicked tyrant and his soldiers behind, and seemingly nowhere to go because the Red Sea blocked their path. Yet the Lord enabled Moses to lead the people to freedom to save them during a very dire situation.
Jesus did the same when He came: the all-powerful Word leapt from heaven’s royal throne entering into a world darkened by fierce oppression, first from the Greeks for about three hundred years, and then with little pause in between, by the Romans. It seemed like the suffering was unrelenting for this small, faith-filled nation. However, God knew the time at which He would send His Son into the world. In the peaceful stillness of a night chosen by God, He bent low, coming into a turbulent world in order to fight evil and persecution and so to prevail over sin and death. The evil in the world did not go away. In fact, it could appear that Jesus was a failure, since He died on a cross as a criminal even after He did so much for many people. But in the Cross came His death and resurrection. Jesus prevailed over death, opening the gates of Heaven for us. God had promised redemption for His people and He accomplished it. He also said there would be a new Heaven and earth to come. This is the reality for which we await, the New Jerusalem, and this is what we celebrate at this time of year. We believe that Jesus will come again, at a time we do not know, and that when He does, He will conquer all sin for good.
In Sunday’s gospel we heard Jesus warn of tribulation to come. However, and this is a big ‘however,’ Jesus tells us not to prognosticate His coming by reading into what we think are signs of the end. “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32) Jesus emphasized this point: if we spend our lives looking at what we think are signs we will be spinning our wheels, so to speak, because only the Father knows the exact hour. While there are terrible things going on now, we cannot get caught in thinking that we know the day and hour of the end of the world as we know it. What we can and should do, however, is be prepared for Jesus’ Second Coming with hope, not with dread. The key is a healthy balance between seeing the reality of the world in which we live and keeping our faith, hope, and love attuned to the truth that God will make good on His promises, something He has always done. But we need to be ready.
When Jesus spoke about tribulation He was not talking about one event or even a series of particular events. Rather, He was referring to the world as it is. There have always been tribulations throughout the course of history, and today no less than at any other time. All of us suffer whether it is at the hands of terrorists or the terrorization of an awful disease, a toxic relationship, or whatever our wounds might be. When Jesus said He is coming in the clouds He was indicating that He will bring about the completion of the Kingdom. But He was also telling us not to get so caught up in the ‘when’ of it that we cease to live the lives we are called to live now. In other words, in living as He taught us, using the gifts God gave us, especially faith, hope, and love, we need to remember that He is already among us, though the work is incomplete at present. But we are not alone, and when the end comes for us personally or at the Second Coming, (whichever comes first) we have nothing to fear.
The end of the liturgical year is a time when we should reflect upon these things. But we always should do so with hope. God is always with us. Even when we falter, God knows the intentions of our heart. He doesn’t expect us to be perfect but to try to do our best at loving. This does not mean we stay silent in the face of injustice. Rather, we unite as a people of faith and take to heart His words about how to love our neighbor and how to love our enemy. (Remember, loving our enemy does not mean acceptance of what they do, thereby becoming silent before them or letting them treat us like ‘doormats.’ It means we act in love, whatever that might mean in a given situation.) We reach out to the suffering, we share what we have, and we put our trust in God who is ever present and who weeps with us as we weep. We remember that we can mourn and have hope simultaneously. That is what Christian faith is really about. Our sorrow helps us to reach out to God for help, and it also helps us to move to action to help others. We work toward unity and solidarity in order to work against evil. And ultimately as we pray for comfort, we also pray for discernment as to what is the loving and just thing to do. We move outward to others because we trust in the message of Jesus, which is that only through love and mercy can we find our strength to move forward rather than to cower in fear.
What we learn from these end-of-the-liturgical-year readings is that we must remember that there will always be forces of evil, but that the world also contains goodness and good people. The world is broken and imperfect, awaiting the perfection of the fulfilled Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not devoid of beauty nor is it devoid of the presence of God. As we reflect upon that, maybe with extra poignancy this year, let us cling to the promise of God, knowing that ‘when peaceful stillness compasses everything and the night in its swift course is half spent, the all-powerful Word will come forth from His heavenly throne’ and finish the work He began two thousand years ago. We must cling to this promise. If not, to what can we cling? Who can save us other than God?* And who can be the instruments of bringing His love and mercy into the world if not us? So let us beg God to give us the strength to persevere and then trust that He will.
May we trust in the promises of our God! May we recognize the presence of Jesus in our midst and trust that He will always be with us! May we cling to the faith, hope, and love we have been given at Baptism! May we see the goodness in our world and never lose sight of the ways it is manifest both in natural beauty and through the efforts of our brothers and sisters! May we learn to live in solidarity with others, working toward peace and justice! And may we learn how to await the return of Jesus and the fulfillment of the Kingdom with grace and peace! Let us continue to meet as one in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* Nothing can separate us from the love of God. See Romans 8:28-39.
All the photos are mine. The first one is of the moon taken one night from my backyard.
The second photo was taken in Big Bend National Park, Texas.
Next is an icon of the risen Christ, who is pulling Adam and Eve out of Sheol, releasing the faithful dead into Heaven after the resurrection. The icon was a gift to me from a friend.
Next is another one of my photos from Big Bend National Park.
Finally are two works by Fr. William Hart McNichols.The first is Christ Emmanuel Flowering Cross. I chose this because I felt like the flowering was a symbol of life which the cross has brought us, which is everlasting life. The Kingdom began with Jesus and so the cross paradoxically brings life. And of course, Christ Emmanuel is 'Christ-with-us.' If you are looking to obtain a copy, or want cards or any other form of this image, it can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/christ-emmanuel-flowering-cross-018-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The second is Viriditas Triptych, which is a panel, part of a larger work. You can find it at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/viriditas-triptych-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
The complete work, Viriditas-Finding God in All Things is found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/viriditas-finding-god-in-all-things-william-hart-mcnichols.html
A Living Building
This week we have an unusual feast on our liturgical calendar, the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, a large basilica which is the episcopal seat of the bishop of Rome, the pope. At first glance it may seem like we are feting a person, and then at a second look it may seem that we are lauding a building. In some ways it is really both and neither! The land upon which the basilica sits was donated in the fourth century by the family of the wife of Constantine, the Laterani's, and the church was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist; therefore the basilica was called St. John Lateran. So yes, there are saints involved in the name of the church. However, we are not celebrating them, but rather the dedication of this basilica, the first Catholic basilica ever built in Rome. But lest we think it is about the stone and mortar building, it is not. Rather we are celebrating what it represents, which is the New Jerusalem to which we all look forward. We are celebrating that we are the Body of Christ, a living building created by God the Father, brought to life by Jesus, and guided by the Holy Spirit until all is fulfilled in the Heavenly Jerusalem. Just as the saints remind us that we can attain the holiness we desire, sacred places such as the basilica remind us of the presence of God within our community of faith.
The readings from this liturgical feast teach us this very message. The first reading is about the temple of God, prophesied by the prophet Ezekiel. (Ez 47:1-2,8-9,12) It describes a perfect temple which has verdant gardens that bear abundant fruit and it has water flowing near it which is life-sustaining for every living creature. It is a place of life because it is the temple of God. Ezekiel is reminding his people of the way it was intended to be for us at creation. He is also reminding the people of what is to come when they are back in their own land with their sacred place of worship restored to them after their exile. He is writing of abundance not necessarily of the material kind, but of the spiritual kind. Restored friendship with God is a wealth beyond all telling. But as Christians we can see that there is also a prophetic allusion to the water of life which comes to us in baptism.
In the New Testament the term used for church is koinonia which means a Spirit-filled body of believers. The Church is people, not mortar and stone, and it is a living entity, guided and led by the Holy Spirit who is imparted to each of us through the sacraments beginning with Baptism. We are one Church, headed by Jesus Christ. Therefore, on this feast day it is in the second reading from St. Paul that our understanding of church is brought into perspective. He said in no uncertain terms that we are God’s building! He wrote that the temple is a living body, built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” (1Cor 3:16-17) We are the Church, the living Body of Christ, and we are holy. No one can take that from us. Furthermore, we need to realize that each part of this living body is important. It is not only about certain parts of the Church or certain members: all are important to the life of the Church. Each of us is a temple of God and each of us is of incredible importance to God. He would not have created us if we were not precious to Him.
But just as the people of the Old Testament found themselves in exile, we need to be aware that we, too, are in a kind of exile. We long for the perfection of our true home, Heaven. This is why we have such a hard time when a loved one dies. It is not only that we miss them, but it is also that they are where we want to be but are not, at least not yet. We may not recognize it as such, but we do feel a sense of being left behind when a loved one gets to Heaven before we do. We are still slogging along in this life with its joys and sorrows, with its mess and imperfections, and so the absence of those whom we love feels all the more acute; we do love life, and we do see its beauty, but the innermost part of our heart longs for Heaven. And indeed it should because the source of this longing is love: we want to be with those whom we love who have gone before us, and simultaneously we want to be forever with our God whose love is beyond imagining, and whose love we want to return.
At the end of our liturgical year this should be where our attention lies. During this time the tension is heightened between anticipating the end times and yet loving what we have been given here in this life. While we yearn for Heaven, we also appreciate and enjoy the beauty of the world in which we presently live. Indeed, we are meant to savor the relationships which we have while we are here. What the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran shows us, then, is that God is present in the love between us and our friends and relatives, but especially He is to be found in and through the community of faith to which we belong. God has given us a wonderful gift in the Church, the body of believers. This is our family both here on this earth and already established in Heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This family to which we belong through baptism is imperfect because its members are imperfect, but it is also holy because it is filled with the presence of God. The living temple of the Church has an important function, which is to assist in the work of building the Kingdom. Because we are a flesh and blood Church it is about more than function, however. It means that we are a people, beloved by God, who need to stand in support of one another, especially when we are assailed by the world because we believe. We must stand firm in our faith, sometimes relying on other believers to withstand the assault, all the while clinging to the Holy Spirit who is with us. When we see others in the Body in need of assistance, such as the poor or the ill, we must reach out, remembering they are our brothers and sisters. However, the Body of Christ is called to go further than simply helping our own. We are also to help those who are not members of the Body. If we are not welcoming to them, how do we expect them to see the love of God within the Body? In other words, unless we are open with our love and mercy, if we only minister to those like ourselves, there would be no evangelization, no sharing of the message and reality of God’s love. Furthermore, Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to reach out to the stranger. This does not mean approval of ways that are contrary to the gospel, but it does mean that we are to be kind and compassionate to all the children of God, just as Jesus was. The entire world needs Jesus, and God desires that all of His children be united as one. There is no chance of that if we are not welcoming.
This is why honoring the dedication of a basilica is actually important. The basilica of St. John Lateran represents the whole of the Church. Every house of worship is a place of celebration of our God, the gifts He gives, and of His people. The Church is where we find God’s amazing love, healing, and mercy; it is also where He missions us to go out and make disciples of the nations, even to the ends of the earth. (paraphrase of Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8) We are inspired by the beauty and the sanctity of what goes on in the structure of mortar and stone, but also in what comes forth from it. The living building, which is the Body of Christ, brings out to the world the reality of the One who binds us together, especially seeking out those in most need. This living building, our Church, is indeed joined together in the love of Christ.
May we rejoice in being one through baptism! May we have hearts of mercy and love, reaching out to those who are not yet members of the Body of Christ as well as those who are! May we bring healing, forgiveness, and the faith we have received out to the world! May we be courageous in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead with reverence, and working toward justice for those who are suffering! And may we have joy in our mission of sharing our gifts with others, and gratitude for the great gift of being one in the Lord! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photos are all mine. The first one is the façade of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. It was taken in 2001 using film. The second photo is of the ceiling in the apse of St. John Lateran.
The third photo was taken by digital camera just outside of Taos, New Mexico.
Following next is an icon called Our Lady of the New Advent Gate of Heaven by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose this because in this icon Mary represents the dawn of the New Jerusalem. She intercedes for the Church and is the icon of the New Jerusalem for which we yearn. The icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/our-lady-of-the-new-advent-gate-of-heaven-003-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Finally the last two photos were also taken with film a number of years ago. The first of the pair was taken in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico. It is of the mission church, San Francisco de Asis. The last photo is a winter scene, the Rio de los Frijoles at Bandelier National Monument, just outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Darting as Sparks Through Stubble
As the liturgical year begins to draw to a close we have two important feasts which seem to sum up everything we need to keep in mind as people of faith and members of the Body of Christ. The two feasts are All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated consecutively on November 1 and 2. That we celebrate all that is holy and potentially holy in people for two days reveals that this is what the Christian life is about. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we were made to reflect God’s holiness. Those who we laud as Saints are the ones who have taken the gifts they were given and filtered them all through love, becoming like Jesus. They became holy because they so loved God they could not do anything but respond in total love, offering their entire lives to heroic virtue as a way of saying “I love you” back to God. As we celebrate the Holy Souls we are reminded that we are all in the process of reflecting God’s love. While they may not have achieved the level of sanctity of the Saints, they teach us that the entire Body of Christ is connected through faith, hope, and love forever. We are One Body.
Holiness is in the fabric of all that God has made. Because God made everything, and God is the ultimate in holiness, everything has the imprint of His holiness upon it. That is to say, everything that God has made reflects His beauty and holiness. To look up in the night sky, if one can find a place away from light on a cloudless night, is to see into the heavens. The ever expanding universe is a marvel of God’s creation. One does not have to understand it to know that God has made this incredible reality. The beauty of the mathematics and physics behind it are languages which describe the holiness and love of God for all that He has made. The earth and all of its varied beauty from the lush to the arid, and the creatures of every sort that roam this earth: all of it is a reflection of the beauty and holiness of God. Another way to put this is to say everything that is made is sacred. It is sacred to Him and therefore it is meant to be sacred to us.
This sacredness includes His children. In fact, we are the most sacred of all since everything was made for us. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls remind us that holiness is not only attainable, but it is our goal. We are made to be holy. Of course, not everyone has been given the same gifts. As St. Paul points out in his famous letter to the Corinthians, the Church, the Body of Christ, would be lopsided (even boring!) if everyone were so homogeneous that we all had the same gift. (1Cor 12) The Body of Christ needs various types of people, each with different gifts, in order to function properly. We are to use our unique gifts, and to use them above all for love and mercy. We are not perfect, but God has provided role models for us who we can look upon as people who were able to offer the gift of their will to God so that they might shine like the stars for us. The Saints were not perfect, but their love became more like God’s and they were obvious in sharing that love with everyone they met.
It is no wonder that the first reading from All Souls Day says of the holy ones: “In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble.” All the just ones that are deceased are in the hands of God and are in peace. (Wisdom 3:1-9) They sparkle because they lived in love and encourage us to live in the same love. They are at peace and teach us that we have nothing to fear in death. If we are baptized as members of the Body of Christ, we can never be separated from the love of God. We can never lose the breath of His holiness that is inside our soul, that which urges us to respond to Love in love. It is as if the love He ‘builds into’ us is reaching out to be reunited with the perfect Love from whence it came.
The gifts God gives to each one of us are the tools we have to grow in holiness. It is through the uniqueness of each gift, utilized though our individual personality and soul, that we reflect God’s love. How we become holy depends on how much we are able to join our desires to His desires for us. It is not that we lack freedom: what God desires of us is that we are happy. But He knows us better than we know ourselves, so He knows what is the best usage of our gifts and therefore where our greatest happiness lies. But no matter how we choose to love Him, all He really asks of us is that we do what is right, which means to love in every circumstance to the best of our ability, to work for justice, which means to be discerning, persevering, merciful, forgiving, and compassionate without sacrificing that which is right and true, and to walk humbly with God, which means to have a relationship with Him through prayer and worship. (Based upon Micah 6:8) This is why we view the Saints as being so holy. They loved in all they did, whether it meant tending to something odious like treating lepers or cleaning up the dying to give them dignity in death (St. Damien and Mother Teresa of Calcutta), or if it was in sweeping the refectory or bringing supplies to the poor (St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati). Even singing a hymn of praise with a heart overflowing with love, inspiring those around them to leave all in order to share the same joy and praise of an all-giving God is a way of attaining holiness. (St. Francis of Assisi) *
If one picks up a book on the lives of the Saints, one will almost immediately see that the Saints were as varied as flakes of snow. That is what is so glorious about the Body of Christ: we are all so very different! Every person no matter what ethnicity, gender, ability, educational background, race, or culture has the same potential to become holy. There are Saints of every sort: black, white, brown; women and men; married, single, religious, cleric; illiterate, with a PhD, or somewhere in between; able bodied or disabled; kings, queens, paupers; from many different nations. All who we celebrate as Saints are ordinary people who took what God gave them, even if it was tinged with great suffering, and found it to be a pathway to holiness, a way home to God. But along the way, they shared what they had been given, in order to take people home to God with them.
When we celebrate the Saints and the Holy Souls we are really celebrating ourselves. We are celebrating all that is good within each one of us and all that is in need of perfection within ourselves as well. We are extolling the incredible gift of being one family, one Body united in the Blood of Christ, united in His love. We are being reminded that each one of us is connected through Christ and His love forever, and that each one of us can reflect His love as ‘a spark darting through stubble.’ Each one of us can do more than we realize in a world which seems to enjoy denying everything which is good, a world which wants us to believe that sainthood is impossible and that all is bleak unless we throw our lot in with the pursuit of nothing but self and pleasure. The real lie there is that this implies that there is no pleasure in the things of God. How foolish, because the truest pleasure of all comes in the joy we receive when, as one, we come together as the family of God, a joy that only God can give and which is unlike anything this world has to offer. If we love, do justice, and walk with God, we will find that joy which God has written deeply within our own hearts and which will ultimately find its home in Him.
In celebrating the feasts of All Saints and All Souls let us come to rejoice in the depth and breadth of the Body of Christ! May we be filled with gratitude for the gift of the Saints and Holy Souls who are our role models and our guides! May we pray for the Holy Souls, and also ask their prayer for us and for our world! May the Holy Souls and Saints be our beacons, the sparks which dart about, who teach us the way to God and who teach us to love in our own unique circumstances! And may our Holy, Triune God, help us to see His imprint within our soul that we might shine brightly as our response of love to Him! Let us continue to meet in the Holy of Holies, which is the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first image is called The Souls of the Just Are in the Hands of God. It is the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. If you are interested in a copy you can find it at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/the-souls-of-the-just-are-in-the-hands-of-god-172-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The photo of the cosmos is from the Hubble Telescope.
The next icon is the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. Damien of Moloka'i and is found at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/st-damien-of-molokai-235-william-hart-mcnichols.html
* You can also find icons of many of the saints I mentioned, such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, many different icons of St. Francis of Assisi, including one of the latest, part of a beautiful work called Viriditas, http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/st-francis-viriditas-william-hart-mcnichols.html
I recommend going to Fr. Bill's Fine Art America page and simply scrolling through all the Galleries of all the Saints and holy ones to find one or more which you like. I would have posted every saint on the page because I love them all...but why should I have all the fun? I will let you do that. (Remember, I get no remuneration from extolling his work. I simply love to share the beauty that is there.)
Click here for the link: http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/index.html
The last two photos are mine. The first is of the sky taken from Cloudcroft, New Mexico and the last was taken in the Cathedral of Saint Francis in Sante Fe, New Mexico.
Heart Speaks to Heart