How a Saint is Made (Mark 4:26-27)

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Examine the life of most any saint and you will be struck by how ordinary they all started. Saint Francis of Assisi is an excellent example of this. As a young man, Francis indulged in parties, dreamed of glory in battle, and was pretty much just like the rest of the young men in his town.  Had you known the teenage Francis, you would probably not have assumed he would one day be recognized as one of the great Saints of the Church.  No, more than likely, you would have thought his story had a different ending in store.  It is clear, however, that in the life of Francis, a seed of faith had been planted. 

Francis was gifted with profound moments of encounter and conversion. As a young man, he encountered a leper and was revolted. Then, ashamed of his revulsion, Francis climbed down from his horse, embraced the man, and gave him all of the money in his wallet. In that leper, Francis believed he met Jesus. Later, in the chapel of San Damiano, the Lord spoke to Francis from the Cross and commissioned him to rebuild the Church. Due to these dramatic stories, it is possible to think that Francis was made a Saint in such moments. That was not actually the case. The Lord was planting seeds. Francis then had to set out, day and night, and live in such a way that he was responding to the call God had placed on his life. God did not make Francis follow. He had to choose to do so, daily. 

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus gives a parable of a sower throwing seed, 

. . . it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how (Mark 4:26-27)

In this parable, Jesus is revealing something about the lives of the saints, and the life he is calling us too as well. Throughout our lives, God plants seeds. Often, these come in moments of encounter or conversion. Perhaps you have read a blog or heard a homily in which you knew the voice of the Lord was calling you. That was a moment of conversion. It was a seed thrown into your life. Perhaps as a youth, you attended a conference, and that weekend God may have shown you his face in the Eucharist. A seed of conversion was planted. The thing is, if you were operating under the assumption that those moments of encounter were somehow going to "make you a saint”, then it is possible that, instead of moving you forward on the road of sanctification, they may have left you feeling disillusioned. You might not have known that every incredible moment of encounter is followed by an ordinary moment faith.

It is easy to believe that mystical moments of conversion make saints.  And, yes, there were those moments in Francis’ life, but no moment distinguishes itself as “the moment” in which he became a saint. He could have left his encounter with the leper feeling good about giving his money, about having hugged the man, and left self-satisfied and unchanged. But, he did not. Instead, he let that encounter set him down a path. It was a long and winding road that led to his sanctification. The sower had thrown the seed into his life but Francis, at any point, could have chosen to ignore it or to turn away from it. God revealed himself to Francis in those moments but, far from controlling how Francis would move toward Him, or even dictating whether he would seek Him at all, God allowed the great saint to respond.  “…Night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.” It is not that Jesus does not know how the seed of faith grows in his people. What he is telling us is that, upon receiving this seed, we must choose to follow. Francis did just that. Night and day, the seed of faith sprouted and grew as Francis chased after the heart of God. What makes Saint Francis extraordinary is not the dramatic stories. What makes him remarkable is the daily resolve to respond to the seed of faith that had been planted. 

The truth is, God is calling you to Sainthood. He has planted the seed of faith in your life. It is very likely that you have encountered him many times. But, God does not force the seed of faith to grow. He does not make you to respond. Instead, day after day, we have the opportunity to walk in faith, responding to God's call. As we do, the seed of faith grows and sprouts.  The work of sainthood happens, not in an instant, but in the everyday moments.

Originally posted at AscensionPress.com

The Stronger Man (Mark 3:23-27)

Mark’s Gospel is a breathless account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. In the first chapter alone, Jesus calls his disciples, casts out a demon, heals Peter’s mother-in-law, cures “many who were sick” and “drives out many demons.”  It should be of no surprise then, by the third chapter, Jesus is drawing huge crowds.

Much of what Jesus said and did was controversial by the standards of his time and, because of this, Jesus’ public ministry was not treated with cheers by the guardians of the culture. In Mark 3:22, scribes from Jerusalem follow him to Nazareth and accuse him of being “possessed by Beelzebub.” They claim that his mastery over demons is a result of demonic powers. Jesus answers them this way, 

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How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand; that is the end of him. But no one can enter a strong man’s house to plunder his property unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can plunder his house. (Mark 3:23-27)

It seems that when we speak of the devil, modern believers tend to make one of two mistakes. One, they act as if the devil is somehow irrelevant as if he has dropped from existence. This is where the erroneous school of thought, that proclaims the devil to be nothing more than the personification of man’s tendency to choose wrong, comes from. Or they adhere to the second school of error. This is the one in which the devil is seen as an almost cosmic counter force to God. This school sees the devil and Jesus as similar in power and leaves the believer in a helpless state against the army of darkness’ advances.  In short, the devil is ascribed no power, or he is attributed total power. Both are wrong. That is why I love when Jesus speaks of the strong man. 

The devil is real.  He is bad, and he has a fair amount of power. Thus, “strong man.” In a state of demonic possession, a person has come entirely under the influence of this evil. The strong man, the devil, has made the person his home.  Jesus does not deny that the devil has this power. He does not deny the devil’s ability to dominate those who have come under his influence. So, right here, Jesus sets the initial error I alluded to in the last paragraph, straight. But, far from being all-powerful, Jesus then gives insight into how he deals with the demonic.  In short, he binds them. You cannot plunder a strong man’s house unless you first tie him up. So, while Jesus does refer to the devil as the strong man, it is clear that he is the much stronger man. 

So, what is our take away? The devil is real. He is powerful but he is not all powerful. Jesus claims authority over the demonic, and they do as he commands. Far from ignoring them, he binds them and “plunders” their homes. I love that. We need to remember this. In our struggle for holiness, there will be opposition but, we are not helpless. In Christ’s authority, we need to stand firm against every tactic of the evil one. When the demonic whispers corrupt inspiration into our ears, we, like Christ, need to stand in the authority of a son or daughter of the living God, and we need to rebuke the voice of temptation, binding and silencing it in Jesus’ name, casting it away in that same authority.  Far from denying the reality of the devil, we need to understand that our lives are being lived out on a battlefield (Catechism 409), but we also need to know that the evil forces arrayed against us are no match for the Lord.

Originally published at AscensionPress.com

A Quick Primer on Transubstantiation

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Every time the Mass is celebrated, something incredible happens. A miracle takes place. During the Eucharistic rite, when the priest speaks Jesus’ words from the last supper, "take this, all of you and eat of it for this is my body which will be given up for you... .and take this all of you and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin,” the simple unleavened hosts and wine become the actual body and blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ. 

It is more than just a symbolic meal, it is an actual partaking in the real presence of Jesus Christ. In the Eucharist, Jesus becomes fully present to us. It is more than dead flesh. He is alive! The Eucharist is his body, his blood, his soul and his divinity. We actually consume the real presence of Jesus Christ and invite him to unite us more fully to him. All of that is true. Yet, you may have noticed that upon receiving the Eucharist, it does not actually appear to be any different than it was before its consecration. In fact, most of the time, there is absolutely no physical evidence that a change has occurred at all. So what gives?  How can it be Jesus when it looks and tastes like bread and wine. The word the Church uses to help us understand is Transubstantiation. 

Still confused? That’s ok. It isn’t a word that is used all that often outside of the Church. In fact, the word was created specifically to describe the Eucharist. So, what does it mean? Let’s break the word down to find out. 

The first half of the word is trans. That indicates that the word is describing a change. You’ve probably heard it before: transcend, transform, transcontinental, etc. The second half of the word refers to what is being changed. In the case of transubstantiation, the substantia, or substance.  Put the two parts together and what the word is telling us is that the substance is changing.  This is important in understanding what takes place. Please note, the Church does not tell us that a transformation is taking place. In transformation, the form changes.  As we already discussed, that’s not what happens at the consecration. The form stays the same. It is the substance that changes. The “what it is” changes, not the “what it looks like.”  Ok, that can still be a little confusing. 

Well, If I laid down a pork chop and filet minion in front of you, you’d probably have no problem in agreeing with me that both are flesh. The substance, what they are, can be said to be the same. They are flesh. They differ, to use the language of St.Thomas Aquinas, in the accidents, the look, touch, taste, etc.  The color of the meat does not make it meat. The taste does not make it flesh. Pork and beef taste and look quite different. The accidents don’t change the substance.  Another example might be to consider two forty-year-old men. Both are in substance, the same. Human men. But, one might have blond hair, and blue eyes while the other has red hair and green eyes. One might have dark skin, while the other has light skin. One might be three hundred pounds and the other a buck forty-five. That all may be true, but they are still men. The “accidents,” what they look like, do not change the substance, what they are.

Well, the Church tells us that the Eucharist, while it retains the accidents, look, taste, feel, etc. of bread, in substance is changed to the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Yes, it is a little hard to comprehend.  It’s a big leap to say that while it looks, tastes and feels like bread, it is in substance Jesus. But, that is what happens. The reality is this is something that can be explained with the language of philosophy, as I have just tried to do, but only fully accepted with the eyes of faith. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the beautiful hymn, Tantum Ergo writes about this:

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing,
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

Did you catch that last part? When we encounter the Eucharist, the Church teaches that we encounter Christ. When we receive it, we receive Him. The form of the bread and wine may not have changed, but the substance, the “what it is” has. Yes, that is a little confusing. That’s ok. This Sunday, invite Jesus to supply the faith needed to see him where your senses may fail to do so. 
 

Originally published at AscensionPress.com

"They Worshipped, but They Doubted" (Matthew 28:17-18)

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It is hard to fully comprehend the experience of the Apostles. These men have become giants in our minds, and truthfully, they are monumental figures. These are the guys Jesus personally called. They walked with him for three years. They shared his teaching. Jesus chose them and built his Church upon them.  Apart from Mary, who has received greater honor than these men?  All of that is true. But, read through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and you will see the Apostles squabbling with each about rank. You will see them act rashly. You even see them deny Christ at his most significant time of need. All of that could have been omitted from the Gospels. Why would the Holy Spirit inspire the Gospel authors to include these details? Why so clearly demonstrate that these foundational figures are so obviously just a bunch of ordinary guys?  Why not portray them as perfect followers?  A human author, acting under his own inspiration, might have chosen to do so, but the divinely inspired authors clearly wanted us to see something in this.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we see the imperfection of the Apostles in literally that last paragraph. The text tells us that the eleven are gathered on a mountaintop in Galilee. Jesus appears to them, and they worship. So far, so good. Then, immediately after the author tells us they worshiped, it says they doubted. The sentence reads “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.”  How crazy is that? The Apostles are worshiping in front of the risen Jesus, and they doubt? Don’t miss the magnitude of the moment. Jesus was very publicly murdered just days before, and now he is standing in front of them.  How could they doubt in such a moment? It seems impossible, but If there is one sentence in the Gospel that gives me great hope, this one could very well be it. 

Too often we have a false image of the perfect Catholic. The ideal Catholic must be a saintly figure that never struggles in their faith and never doubts. They speak in a gentle voice at all times, and faith is never challenging or frustrating. This idea takes root in our minds, and then, when doubt inevitably creeps into our life, we tend to approach it in one of two ways.  A.) Rather than confronting the uncertainty, or bringing it to the Lord, we bury it, pushing it aside, acting as if it never happened. Or, B.) Perhaps even worse, we move as if the doubt make us somehow unworthy of the work of the Kingdom. Both courses of action are wrong. Jesus’ response to his Apostles doubt makes that very clear. 

In the Gospel, right after we are told that the Apostles doubted, it says that Jesus came and approached them.  Far from being repelled by their doubt, the Lord steps in. What he does next is so vital, and so crucial for us to understand. Jesus then commissions the Apostles to go out and bring the Kingdom. Don’t miss that. In Matt 28:17 it says the Apostles doubt then in verses 18-19 Jesus answers their doubt, not with condemnation, but with a commission.

Ok, there is a little more to the story than that. Between the Apostles doubt and their commissioning, Jesus says something else that helps it to make sense. He makes a declaration. He says, “All power on heaven and earth has been given to me.” What an incredible answer. It is as if Jesus is saying, “I am bigger than your doubt!” 

When doubt creeps into our faith, We do not need to pretend that it does not exist or that because of it God is not still calling us. The Apostles stood before the risen Lord, and they doubted. God’s reply was to draw closer to them and to declare his power and authority to them. In our moments of doubt, we need to understand that the Lord desires to do the same in our lives. Far from being repelled, Jesus wants to come closer. When we feel like the work of the Kingdom, or the teaching of the Church is more than we can handle, we need to remember that God is bigger than the anxiety or fear we may feel. So, go, therefore. Not because of who you are, but because of who he is. 

Originally published at AscensionPress.com

John the Baptist's Nativity and God’s Will

John the Baptist's Nativity and God’s Will

Rather than blurt out why God could not accomplish His will, Zechariah probably should have taken a moment to contemplate what God was saying through the angel. Had he done that he would have given himself time to remember God’s faithfulness. He would have benefitted from the formation he had been given in the Law and the Prophets. Instead of telling God why He could not accomplish His will, Zechariah might have remembered that God can always accomplish His will.

Remain in My Love (John 15:9-17)

Jesus said to his disciples, "As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love.” 

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In John 15:9-17, Jesus tells the disciples that he loves them like the father loves him. What does that mean? It means Jesus loves us a lot. Shouldn’t we get that Jesus loves us? He lives for us, dies for us, and rises from the dead for us. He does all of that out of love. Hear that. Jesus really loves us. But, here is the thing, that doesn’t mean we always feel that love. In fact, there are many people, both inside the Church and out, who Jesus loves. The reality is that every human being ever created is loved by God. That is a truth. Jesus came to save all mankind. Also true and terrible, is that not every man will accept that salvation. Many of those whom Jesus loves choose to live outside of his love.

It is a tragedy, one that “being a Christian” in name only will not save you from. Jesus makes that clear too when He is talking to his disciples. These are followers who walked with him up until the end of John’s Gospel. He tells them he loves them and then says “remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” 

It might be tempting to think that Jesus just laid out some sort of quid pro quo scenario. There is a cynical voice that creeps in and says, “see you have to earn Jesus’ love.” But, this is not the case. 1 John 14 tells us that “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” Jesus loves us, not because we earned it but because that is who he is. God is love. 

So, what is the deal with the “keep my commandments” talk? Well, Jesus knows human nature. (John 2:24) He knows that, as much as he loves us, we are prone to finding other gods. We worship our sports, our work, our children, celebrities, and on and on. So, he gave us a commandment to keep us safe, and in his love. It’s the first one, “You shall have no other gods!” It isn’t so much that God is asking for something, or else! Instead, he is warning us against all the things that will draw us away from him. God desires the very best for us and wants us to live in the reality of his love. His commandments are the guide-rails that keep us on that path. 

Consider the rest of this passage. Jesus commands us to “love one another, as I have loved you.” Can you imagine a life lived totally in this way? How much joy would there be in that? A life where every person you met was treated like they were someone incredibly precious. A life where people regularly sacrificed and put others before themselves. If every Christian really took this command to heart, we would not have to look for the love of God. We would feel it regularly through the work and life of our fellow believers. 

Too often, we have equated being a Christian with being in some sort of club with great long-term benefits. Too often, living the faith becomes completing some vague list of minimum attendance requirements. The truth is, we were meant to live in the love of Christ and to go forth and share the love of Christ. The two are not separate but, instead, are intimately connected. Jesus makes that clear. If you are going to remain in his love, then you are called to love like he does. 

Originally published at AscensionPress.com