Sunday, March 24, 2013

Welcome, Jesus!

It had started out as such a great day for Simon. 
     He was fulfilling the dream of every Jew—especially those living outside the Holy Land, who each spring say, "Next year, in Jerusalem"—to spend Passover in that holy place.
     But just as he was reaching the gates of the city, a huge crowd surged out. The hated occupiers were leading criminals to execution. Simon watched with a mixture of pity and contempt. Then one of them—a particularly bloody one—collapsed at his feet.
     Next thing Simon knew, his arm was snatched and he was dragged forward. "You!" the soldier shouted. "Help him!"
     Simon opened his mouth to protest, only to find a sword-point just below his chin. He sighed and complied.
     But inwardly he rebelled. Why me? Why must I share in the shame of this evildoer? I've done nothing wrong. And why now? Just as I'm reaching Jerusalem! Now I will be unclean; and there is not enough time before the Passover to be made clean. What a grievous disappointment.

     Somewhere along the way, though, Simon must have realized Who it was that he was helping. At some point he must have decided to follow Jesus—not just to Golgotha—but for the rest of his life, to the heavenly city. We know his name; we know the names of his sons, Rufus and Alexander; how could the evangelists include their names in the Gospels unless they had joined the Christian community? We don't know the name of the rich young man, who chose not to follow Him.
     So somewhere along the way, Simon must have realized what a tremendous privilege he had been given: to minister to the Christ, the Son of God, in His need, during His Passion. No one was closer to Jesus at this crucial time than Simon of Cyrene.
     Somewhere along the way, perhaps, Simon realized that it was not himself who was innocent and undeserving to carry a cross, but Jesus. Somewhere along the way, perhaps, he understood that he was not helping Jesus to carry His cross, but Jesus was helping Simon to carry what properly belonged to the Cyrenian, and taking the lion's share of the burden.

     I read this week in The Handbook of Spiritual Perfection, by Fr. Philip Dion, that one common way we put self before God is when we rebel against His permissive will. When we fret over the little inconveniences or fume over our trials. 
     The key is to recognize the opportunity at hand. A priest at a conference once said that whenever he experiences a difficulty, he says, "Welcome, Jesus!"
     When we are pulled out of our way and forced to carry a cross, like Simon, we must not focus on the cross, but see Who is beneath it. See the One to whom we are being given the privilege to draw close, the honor to help. Realize that the cross properly belongs to us, not to Him, and truly He is helping us, not the other way around. Realize that when we are yoked to Him, He carries the heavier portion, and makes it sweet and light for us.
     Let us not imitate those in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday who welcomed Jesus when He came in as the Son of David, but reviled Him when He carried the cross for them. 
     Let us instead, put ourselves in the place of Simon, and when we see the cross, look for the One beneath it, and gladly step forward from the crowd and humbly rejoice in every opportunity to be close to Him.
     Welcome, Jesus!  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Happy Day for St. Patrick

Ever since I moved East and have lived in cities with greater numbers of Irish Catholics than my native suburban southern California, I've been surprised to see fewer people wearing green in the Catholic churches or schools on St. Patrick's Day than I did at my mostly WASP-y elementary school. Naturally, we didn't know anything about the political history behind the color, or I doubt if my Protestant classmates would have been so eager to defend the "wearing of the green" by pinching those who didn't comply.
     Of course, I don't mean to imply that I don't see any green on St. Patrick's Day--it just tends to be concentrated mostly around Irish pubs.
     I wonder what Saint Patrick thinks about that. I seriously doubt that he's pleased that celebrating his life, which was dedicated to Christ and the Church, has become an excuse for day-long inebriation.
     Don't get me wrong: I'm proud of my own Irish ancestors, and our family celebrates our Irish heritage today. I'm wearing all green as I write this, the corned beef is in the slow cooker (along with 12 oz. of beer), and we're about to watch Darby O'Gill and the Little People. There's nothing wrong with celebrating Irish customs and patriotism today. After all, it is the patronal feast of the Irish.
     It's just that I think too much beer has made people so bleary they're missing the point. They've wandered too far from the man--the saint--whose life and sanctity this feast day is meant to recognize.
     There's a lot more to him than his shamrock. 
     His example, for instance, is well worth contemplating. 
     When he was kidnapped and carried off to another country as a slave, he didn't complain or feel sorry for himself. Nor did he rebel and question why God would allow such a thing. Instead, he repented of having been a lukewarm Christian and accepted his lot as what he justly deserved.
     Once he was free, he didn't lead an army to punish the wicked heathen who had enslaved him. Nor did he avoid them like the plague. Instead, he sought to help them. He was trained and ordained as a priest and requested to be sent back to Ireland as a missionary, at great personal risk. He spent the rest of his life, seeking to bring the saving love of Jesus to the people who had wronged him.
     What a fine model he is for us, who are so quick to complain, so liable to question God, so reluctant to repent,so loathe to forgive, and too embarrassed to evangelize!
     St. Patrick also provides a wonderful example of living out St. Paul's admonition to "Pray always." As a slave, Patrick's job was to watch the sheep. Instead of being bored or contemplating revenge or escape or other negative options, he used his time well. He spent his day praying.
     The best ways I can think of to honor Saint Patrick are to strive to imitate him and to pray and share the heart of his beautiful prayer:

Christ with me, 
Christ before me,
Christ behind me, 
Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, 
Christ above me,
Christ at my right, 
Christ at my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Saint Patrick, pray for us!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Rewards of Reconciliation

Last week I mentioned that there are actually benefits to braving the confessional.
     Even the secular world recognizes how healing it can be to confess one’s sins to another person. One of the steps of every Twelve-Step program, no matter what type, is to make an inventory of all the wrongs (sins) one has done. The next step is to tell another human being what those wrongs were; the following step is to seek to somehow make amends for those wrongs.
     Now those who came up with the Twelve Steps were Christians. They understood the importance of St. James’ instruction to “confess your sins to one another” and the role that doing so plays in our being forgiven and healed (see Jas 5:15-16).
     There’s something about admitting our sins to another human being that requires more of us than acknowledging them to God. After all, He already knows about them; it’s not like He’s going to be surprised or that it will change His opinion of us. But another human being might. Thus making ourselves vulnerable in this way shows true repentance. It shows that we care more about what God thinks than what other people think.
     It also has to do with living in truth. Isn’t that a major point of The Scarlet Letter? The minister rationalizes that he can help people more if he hides his guilt. But receiving the adulation of the community who believe him to be particularly holy means he’s living a double life. His failure to own up to his sin and share the punishment meted out to Hester, his “partner in crime,” eats away at him.
     St. John points out how central living in truth is to following Christ: “Every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (Jn 3:20). Just as a doctor cannot heal us if we hide our ailments from him, neither can God cleanse and heal us if we deny and hide our sins. We need to come into the Light: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, ... the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. ... If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 7-9).
     Still, some might wonder why Catholics are supposed to confess to a priest; why not confess to someone of their own choosing? First of all, it’s not like you can’t confess to someone else. Usually, we should also admit our wrongs to those whom we have offended, and ask their forgiveness.
     One chief reason we confess to a priest is that God is invisible and His voice usually doesn’t sound in our ears. It is helpful to us to go to someone who represents Him (the priest is called an alter Christusanother Christ), someone whom we can see and hear, someone who, after listening to our sins and our repentance, audibly gives us that glorious message that our sins our forgiven!
     Another big reason is that whenever we sin, we do not merely offend God, we do not only hurt ourselves, we also hurt the Body of Christ. The Church is that Body, and when we sin we hurt all her members. So the priest is there also as a representative of the members, to whom we also owe an apology and the making of amends.
     Priests are also trained to give spiritual counsel, and often have very good and helpful advice. Christ promised to send his Spirit upon them and work through them. Even when I don't agree with a priest's personal perspective, I always find some beneficial kernel of truth in every confession. 
     The main reason Catholics confess to a priest is obedience. The sacrament originates from Jesus’ giving the apostles the authority to forgive sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:23).
     Jesus also gave His apostles the authority to make some of the rules (just as He had with Moses): “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19, 18:18). So if the Church says that for the forgiveness of mortal sin, the ordinary means of receiving God’s forgiveness is through the confessional, then we should obey. Considering that in the early centuries, Christians had to confess their sins publicly, we’ve got it relatively easy now.
     The point is that if one is really sorry for one’s sins, for having turned one’s back on God, then one should be willing to do whatever He might want. If God wanted us to apologize by composing an original sonnet and reciting it in the mall during lunch hour, who are we to argue?
     Though the Church requires confession only for mortal (serious) sins, she still highly recommends availing oneself of its graces for venial sins as well. Many saints and spiritual writers advise frequent confession, because it’s so helpful and such a wonderful means of growing spiritually. Some saints valued it so highly that even when they had nothing to confess, they would go, repenting again for past sinsnot from a fear that they hadn't already been forgiven, but out of love, sorrow, and a desire for the graces flowing from the sacrament.
     While it’s very difficult to confess one’s sins, it is so worth it. We tend to think of it as something unpleasant or to be avoided. But just like eating vegetables or getting exercise, so with the sacrament of confession: the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more benefits you enjoy. And just as those other good things that require self-discipline lead to being healthy and feeling good, partaking in Reconciliation leads to great joy.