Our Deepest Fear

At Mass on Sunday for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord,  we read a text from Hebrews that describes our most basic and primal fear. Our inordinate fear of what people think of us is rooted in an even deeper fear, one that is at the very core of our being. The Hebrews text both names it and describes it as being the source of our bondage. In order to unlock the secret of the text, I want to suggest to you an interpretation that will allow its powerful diagnosis to have a wider and deeper effect.

Consider, then, this text from Hebrews:

Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).

This passage is clear in saying that the devil is the origin of our bondage to sin, but also that hold on us is through the fear of death. This is what he exploits in order to keep us in bondage.

When I have explored this teaching with people, I have found that many have difficulty understanding it at first. Especially for the young, death is almost a theoretical concept; it is not something they consciously fear. This is particularly true in the modern age, when medical advances have so successfully pushed back the boundary between life and death. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death), but in general death does not dominate our thoughts. So, then, what is meant by the fear of death and how does it hold us in bondage?

Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? To be sure, this is an adaption of the text (the Greek text (φόβῳ θανάτου – phobo thanatou) is accurately translated as “fear of death”), but doing so can help us to see what the text is getting at in a wider sense. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.

What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? On one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel attractive enough; we’re too tall, too short, too fat, or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have.

Can you see how this fear of diminishment sets up many sins? It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride, too, because we try to compensate for our fear of inadequacy by finding people to whom we feel superior. We thus indulge our pride or seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Maybe we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really aren’t. Perhaps we spend money we don’t have trying to impress others so that we feel less inadequate.

Think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and to fit in. We give in to peer pressure and sometimes do terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, etc. Adults also have many of these things on their list. All of these things are done in a quest to be popular and to fit in. This desire to fit in is all about not wanting to feel diminished, and diminishment is about the fear of death, because every experience of diminishment is like a small death.

Advertisers know how to exploit the fear of diminishment in marketing their products. I remember studying this topic in business school at George Mason University. The logic goes something like this: You’re not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, or comfortable enough; you don’t look young enough; you have some chronic illness (e.g., depression, asthma, diabetes)—but just buy our product and you will be “enough”; you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete, and, basically, diminished. If you drink this beer, you’ll be happy, have good times, and be surrounded by friends. If you use this toothpaste, soap, or cosmetic product, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car, people will turn their heads and be impressed with you. The message is that you don’t measure up now (you’re diminished) but our product will get you there. Just buy it and you’ll be happier, healthier, and more alive!

Perhaps you can see how such advertising appeals to greed, pride, materialism, and worldliness; it puts forth the lie that these material things will solve our problems. In fact, appeals like this actually increase our fear of diminishment (and death) because they feed the notion that we have to measure up to these false and/or unrealistic standards.

It is my hope that you can see how very deep this drive is and how it enslaves us in countless ways.

This demon (fear of death, of diminishment) must be named. Once named and brought to light, we must learn its moves and begin to rebuke it in the name of Jesus. As we start to recognize the thought patterns emerging from this most primal of fears, we can gradually, by God’s grace, replace this distorted thinking with proper, sober, and humble thinking—thinking rooted in God’s love for us and the availability of His grace and mercy.

The text from Hebrews above is clear in saying that this deep and highly negative drive is an essential way in which Satan keeps us in bondage. It also says that Jesus Christ died to save us and free us from this bondage. Allow the Lord to give you a penetrating and sober vision of this deep drive, this deep fear of diminishment and death. Allow the light of God’s grace and His Word to both expose and heal this deepest of wounds.

This song pokes fun at our fad-centered culture, which is always trying to make us feel inadequate.

 

Why Are College Students So Depressed?

I enjoy listening to the “Fireside Chats” of Dennis Prager. They’re relaxed, informative, and full of practical wisdom. Recently (in episode 112) he chose to ponder why the rate of depression among college students is the highest ever recorded. Prager provided the following insight:

… just about everything that can give you joy and meaning—and they are related—is gone.

In large part I think he’s right, at least when you look at college kids as a group. He lists four things that give joy and meaning to life, and he notes that they are mostly lacking in the lives of college students today. I would like to take each of the four and add my own thoughts.

They don’t date. I remember that as early as the 7thgrade, and certainly in high school, I noticed how attractive girls were. It was a thrilling discovery. I remember the combined excitement and fear in trying to get to know some of them. Prager rightly points out that a big part of human life throughout history has been the excitement of the opposite sex. Being loved or being in love adds joy and meaning to life. It is beautifully captured in a famous song from West Side Story, in which a smitten Maria sings of the joy of being loved: I Feel Pretty.”

The guys who were part of the group of close friends I had would often challenge me to “ask her out” when I would talk about being attracted to a particular girl. In high school, one of the most important events was the prom. In those days, you had to have a date; you couldn’t just go as part of a group. The pressure built all year long. This exciting high-stakes opportunity meant that even guys and girls who hadn’t started to date yet began to give it a try. Yes, there were some rejections, but we guys knew that this just came with the territory.

Dating itself involved a lot of awkward moments, but there was also the thrill of beginning a process that might one day end in marriage. (Young people got married a lot earlier in the 1960s and 1970s, usually when in their early twenties.) Even if marriage wasn’t the final result, guys and girls learned a lot about one another and human relationships through dating. It was a combination of excitement, fear, and romance all wrapped up in a mystery. Although unchastity was a risk, there were also more safeguards in those days. A young man was expected to present himself at a young lady’s house and meet her parents before taking her out on a date, and he was expected to return her home by a decent hour. Dances and other youth-oriented functions were more heavily chaperoned. Double dating was also common. When we went to parties, we were expected to have a date. Sometimes a friend would set you up with a date. All of these rituals were fun, but they also performed the serious function of getting young people ready for marriage. Even if there were no immediate prospects, the point was that you had begun looking for “the one.” This added a lot of meaning and excitement to life.

I have been surprised to see over the years how dating and courting have diminished. Many attractive young women tell me they are seldom asked to go out. Social events are just group events where “the gang” shows up; you might interact with members of the opposite sex, but there is little motivation to “ask her for a date” Marriage today is often delayed into the early thirties. Endless schooling, paying down college debt, and the desire to establish a career are contributors to this, but, frankly, there is little encouragement or social pressure to be about the thrilling and important work of finding a spouse, getting married, and having a family. This used to be what life was all about. Young men acquired a trade or career so that they could have a family. Now the career seems more an end in itself for both men and women.

Human beings are wired for family. The individualism, isolation, and idiosyncrasy of the “virtual world” is no substitute for real relationships that both challenge us and help to complete and enrich us.

They don’t have religionPrior to the social revolution of the late 1960s, nearly everyone went to church. I’m not so sure we were all that pious or devoted, but “decent people” went to church, and so we went even if only from cultural inertia. Nevertheless, even if devotion was sometimes lacking, religious teaching and sensibilities did wear off on us. We got the sense that our lives were caught up in a bigger plan, the plan of God that stretched back in time. Biblical stories explained life and told of a Lord who loved us despite our sinfulness.

First Confession, First Communion, and Confirmation were milestones. There were various processions, public Rosaries, and the celebration of patron saints. Many who attended Catholic school were even more deeply rooted in the life of the Church. All of this was meant to help us to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next. Life was full of meaning; the choices we made mattered. God was watching but also providing.

I can’t imagine growing up and living without a deeply rooted faith, without the doctrine and tradition that provides stability in a changing world. Very few young adults attend Mass regularly or even have a clear faith. Some surveys have indicated that fewer than 15% of adults under thirty regularly attend any sort of church services or consider faith an important part of their lives. Yet faith, even when adhered to in a perfunctory manner, was an important source of happiness and stability in the past. In fact, historically and anthropologically, religion has been the primary vehicle for instilling meaning and purpose. As Prager points out, getting rid of it is a big deal.

They don’t have a community. Virtual friends are not the same as real friends. I remember how important it was to have close friends and communal ties during my youth and I still value that today. When I was growing up there were many opportunities for communal activity. There was scouting, after-school clubs, and sports teams. I ran track in high school and sang in our church choir. I also belonged to a square dance club and the Key Club (a service organization). I worked at the local drug store and had other jobs from high school through college. All of these different activities established life-long friendships and connections; they were enriching in many ways.

While these sorts of things are not unknown today, I sense that young people partake less in them. The emergence of personal computers, smart phones, and the Internet, has reduced the social activities of most of our youth. In those days we didn’t have video games or movies at our fingertips. We had to go out and interact with other people to have fun.

Many people today spend hours absorbed in a virtual and rather self-defined universe of ideas, activities, and entertainment. Screen time doesn’t provide the same sort of community we experienced as youngsters. You can’t just click away from real people in real interactions the way you can on a computer. There are difficulties and tedium with direct human interaction, but it is ultimately more enriching and expanding than living in a self-selected, virtual world. Living in a solipsistic world robs one of the experiencing the simple joys of friendship and real human interaction; it also does little to expand one’s sense of meaning.

They don’t have a country to believe inI grew up at the end of one era and the beginning of another. Before the social revolution of the late 1960s, suburban America was a bastion of patriotism. There was an almost religious devotion to the American flag; if perchance a flag grew tattered, it was burned out of respect. I remember decorating my bike each year and riding in the Fourth of July parade. In school we studied American History with an angle that emphasized our unique greatness. We viewed the idea of dying for our country as something brave and noble.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

I still can’t sing this without tears coming to my eyes.

Yes, we loved our country and believed in its basic tenets. We were not perfect, but we had a way of rectifying our worse faults when they were held before us.

Through the 1970s, this fervent love of country gave way to the political controversies of the Vietnam War and social revolution. There are far fewer today who are stirred by love for this country. Patriotism (to be distinguished from excessive nationalism) is connected to the 4thCommandment (Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you)and helps give meaning and joy to life. To love our country is to love our families and our neighbors. Patriotism connects us to something bigger than ourselves; it is enriching and ennobling.

Yes, all these things (and others) added meaning, purpose, and joy to life. Yet these are greatly diminished, even missing, from the lives of many of our young people. Add to this the depressing negativity that is the daily fare on most college campuses. Students are told what a terrible country we live in, how evil our past was, and that an existential climate disaster is looming for which we are to blame. Many are also encouraged to feel that they are victims of some societal construct or some particular group, to be on the lookout for grievances, and to demand to be kept “safe” from opposing views. Fearmongering and ad hominem attacks have replaced the debate of ideas. If someone does not agree with my views, that person is wrong—maybe even dangerous—and must be silenced. Fear begets anger, and anger begets depression. College campuses are tense and depressing places for too many students.

These are just some of my thoughts, building on Prager’s observations. Essays such as this one invite additions and rebuttals and I welcome your comments.

Here is Dennis Prager’s original video:

Perspectives on the Presentation—A Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

The liturgical focus of the Feast of the Presentation, which we celebrate today, is light. Christ is our light, and the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! In the Gospel, Simeon holds the infant Jesus and calls Him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Thus, this feast has long featured the carrying of candles by the faithful in procession and the blessing of candles. For this reason, the feast was often called Candlemas.

Today’s feast celebrates the “purification” of Our Lady. As a Jewish woman, she presented herself forty days after giving birth to be blessed and welcomed back to the community. I have written more on the history of that practice here: The Churching of Women.

In this reflection, we will attend to four teachings or perspectives gleaned from the readings. We are taught that our relationship with Jesus is cleansing, consoling, compelling, and communing.

Cleansing– The Gospel opens with this description: When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

It might strike us as oddor even irritating that a woman would need to be purified after giving birth, but ancient Jewish practice exhibited great reverence for the rituals of both birth and death. On account of the deep mysteries of life represented by these events, as well as the fluids (e.g., blood, amniotic fluid) that accompanied them, a purification or blessing was deemed necessary for return to the community. (Read more at the link above.)

Remember that this is nota moral purification, for nothing immoral had been done. Rather, it was a ceremonial purification wherein one was cleansed or made fit again to enter into the public worship and liturgical actions of Israel. Consider, for example, that even in our culture a person who has been outside working and comes back sweaty and in soiled clothes is expected to bathe and put on clean clothing before going to Mass; this does not mean that there is anything sinful in good, honest, necessary work. The Jews extended this idea much further than we do today and there were detailed (frankly, often bewildering) rules about what made one unclean and how/when one should be purified. Very early on, the Church simplified and/or largely abrogated these ideas about certain foods being unclean and what made a person unclean (see Acts 15).

While we may wonder (or even scoff) at these older notions, all of us need purification and cleansing. We are sinners, and we live in a world tainted by sin. The Lord must purify us all; unless this happens, we will never be able to endure the great holiness, glory, and purity of God.

Jesus our savior alone can cleanse and purify us to make us able to endure the glory of God. The first reading describes our need for purification and points to Jesus as the one who purifies us:

But who can endure the day of [the Lord’s] coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire, or like the fuller’s lye. He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold or like silver that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD. Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD, as in the days of old, as in years gone by(Mal 3:2-4).

Yes, only the Lord Himself can purify us to endure His glory. Thank you, Jesus, our light and our savior, for the sanctifying grace without which we could never hope to endure and rejoice in the glory that awaits. Thank you, Jesus for your grace and mercy, by which we are able to stand before our Father and praise Him for all eternity. Thank you, Jesus, our purifier, our savior, and our Lord.

Consoling Well aware of the burden of sin, ancient Israel longed for a savior. The pious knew well that sin brought strife, pain, and grief. Among the pious who longed for the Messiah were Simeon and Anna, who frequented the Temple looking and longing.

Of Simeon we are told:

[He] was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.

Of Anna, who is described as among those who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem, we are told:

[She was] a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.

Simeon and Anna are two of the pious of Israel longing and looking for the Messiah who would save the people and bring consolation and peace.

What does it mean to have true consolation and peace? It is to be reconciled to the Father, Abba; to once again see Him and be able to walk with Him in the Garden in the cool of the morning. True consolation and peace are found only when the gates of Heaven are opened, and we look once again upon the glorious and serene face of our Father who loves us.

This is a gift that can come only by the ministry of Jesus, for no one knows the Father but the Son and anyone to whom the Son reveals Him. Jesus is our peace and our consolation by leading us back to His Father in and through His Sacred Heart and by His Holy Passion.

Holding the baby Jesus, Simeon is holding the Gift of the Father, a tremendous gift of peace and consolation come to him in a kind of prevenient way. So, Simeon can say,

Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.

Such a consolation it was to hold the infant Jesus and know that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to save us! Simeon could now go forth in peace from this world for He had beheld the light of God’s saving love in Jesus.

Compelling– In today’s Gospel we are told that Jesus is no inconsequential figure. He is the one on whom all human history, collective and personal, hinges. The “hinge” is our choice either for or against Jesus.

Simeon says to Mary,

Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself a sword will pierce—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

Jesus compels a choice.We are free to choose for or against Him, but we mustchoose. Upon this choice depends our rise or fall.

Jesus says, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters(Matt 12:30).

St. Paul writes (in Acts), In the past God overlooked ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead(Acts 17:30). And in Corinthians he writes, We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God(2 Cor 5:20).

Where will you spend eternity? That depends on your stance toward Jesus. Will you choose Him? You are free to choose, but you are not free not to choose! On this choice your very life will rise or fall.

Communing Jesus did not merely save us from on high. He became flesh and lived among us.

In today’s Gospel we read,

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Consider the intimacy of Jesus dwelling among us then and tabernacled among us now in the Blessed Sacrament and in the temple of our heart through His Spirit. Our Lord seeks communion with us and is not ashamed to call us His brethren (Heb 2:11).

On this Feast of the Presentation, allow the Lord into the temple of your heart. Give Him access to your soul by receiving Him in Holy Communion and seeking His presence tabernacled in our churches. Today, Jesus is presented not only in the ancient temple but to you. Reach out to hold on to Him. Like Simeon, receive Him in your heart. Like Anna, run and tell others to come.

Jesus, our light and our salvation, is here.He brings with Him cleansing, consoling, and communing. He also compelsa choice. Choose Him now; run to Him. He is here, and He is calling!

A Dramatic Moment in Biblical History that Almost Everyone Missed

Presentation in the Temple – L. Carracci (1605)

I want to anticipate Sunday’s feast of the  Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Let’s consider an event that was glorious in its significance and fulfilment, yet was missed by nearly everyone.

Joseph and Mary had brought Jesus to the Temple to present Him there. As they ascended the glorious steps to the Temple Mount, they were fulfilling a requirement of the Law.

You are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons. In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons’’ (Ex 13:12-15).

Although they were fulfilling an obligation, something much more dramatic was taking place. To understand what, we must look back to 587 B.C.

The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem and the unthinkable had happened: the Holy City of Jerusalem had been destroyed and along with it the Temple of God. Inside the Temple had been housed the precious Ark of the Covenant.

Recall what the Ark of Covenant was in the Old Testament. It was a gold-covered box of acacia wood, inside which were the two tablets on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments, the staff of Aaron, and a vial of the manna. Even more important, in this ark dwelt the very Presence of God in Israel; here He was present as nowhere else. This is certainly our belief today regarding the tabernacle in Catholic churches: though present everywhere, God has a true, substantial, and real presence in the Eucharist reserved there.

The Lost Ark – Incredibly, the Ark of the Covenant was lost when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Some thought that Jeremiah had hidden it in the mountains. Others, that the priests had hastily secreted it in the maze of caves beneath the Temple Mount. Still others argued that it was taken to Ethiopia. But the Ark was gone.

Empty Temple – When the Temple was rebuilt some eighty years later, the Holy of Holies was restored, but the Ark was still missing. The high priest still performed the yearly ritual and entered the Holy of Holies, but the room was empty. Some argued that there was a spiritual presence in the Temple, but in fact the Ark and the certain presence of God were missing after 587 B.C. Something—someone—was missing. The very Holy of Holies was an empty room. The Ark and the presence of God it carried were missing. The Ark, the mercy seat, was gone. Would it ever be found? Would it ever be returned to the Temple? Would the Holy Presence of God ever find its way to the Temple again?

The ascent to Jerusalem is a steep one. Mountains surround Jerusalem and it sits at a higher altitude than the area around it. As the ancient Jews made the climb, they sang the psalms of ascent (120-134). As Joseph and Mary ascended, they too sang the words that instilled joy:

I Lift up mine eye to the mountains from whence cometh my help (Ps 121). I rejoiced when they said to me let us go up to the House of the Lord (Ps 122). To you O Lord I have lifted my eyes (Ps 123). Like Mount Zion are those who trust in the Lord (Ps 125). Out of the depths I call unto you O Lord (Ps 130). Let us enter God’s dwelling, let us worship at the Lord’s footstool. Arise O Lord and enter your dwelling place, You and the Ark of your strength (132). Come and bless the Lord. You who stand in the House of the Lord Lift your hands to the Sanctuary and bless the Lord. The Lord bless you from Zion (134).

Singing these songs, Mary carried Jesus. The climb was even more difficult when carrying a newborn, but the burden was sweet. Then came the final ascent up the stairs to the Temple Mount. They probably entered on the southern side through the Huldah gates. They went up the steep stairs, through the tunnel in the walls, and emerged on the bright Temple platform.

God had returned to His Temple. He and the Ark who carried Him were now found: Mary, the Ark, carrying Jesus in her arms. Jesus, very God Himself, true God from true God. Yes, God and the Ark had been found; God was once again present among His people on the Temple Mount. Scripture says,

And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? (Mal 3:1-2)

What a dramatic moment, yet remarkably understated by God! If I had directed the moment I would have called for blaring trumpets, claps of thunder, and a multitude of angels. Everyone would have fallen to his knees in recognition of the great fulfillment and the great return of God to His Temple.

Despite the significance of this moment, only an elderly man and woman (Simeon and Anna) recognized it. They alone understood that they were in the presence of greatness and marveled in it.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophetess, Anna … Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2).

Yes, this was the moment that had been anticipated for centuries. The Ark of God (Mary) had been found and God (Jesus) had returned to His temple, but only Simeon and Anna noticed, understood, and celebrated.

What about us? At every Mass, Jesus, God Himself, is present. Do you notice? Do you really see Him or do you see only the priest and the human elements of the Mass? Are you Simeon? Anna? Mary? Joseph? Or are you like the many on the Temple Mount who missed the dramatic moment of God with us?

 

Why Is It that We Can Endure Great Pain But Only A Little Pleasure?

"The Garden of Eden" by Thomas Cole
“The Garden of Eden” by Thomas Cole

One of the great mysteries of our life in this world is that we can endure more pain than pleasure. Indeed, we can endure only a little pleasure at a time. In fact, too much pleasure actually brings pain: sickness, hangovers, obesity, addiction, laziness, and even boredom. Yet we seem to be able to endure a lot of pain. Some of our pain, whether physical or emotional, can be very intense and go on for years.

Why is it that we can endure more pain than pleasure?

Physiologists and anthropologists might focus their answer on the fact that we are wired for survival and being able to endure pain helps us more than being able to enjoy pleasure. Fair enough. But I would like to offer an additional answer from a spiritual point of view.

The spiritual answer is that pain is for now while pleasure is for the hereafter. In this world, this exile, this valley of tears, we are being tested; we are meant to fill up our quotient of pain. And while we do enjoy some pleasures here, they are only a foretaste of what will be fully ours only in Heaven. In this world the foretaste seems limited to bite-sized morsels. Otherwise (as noted) we are overwhelmed by pleasure, distracted by it, and even sickened and enslaved by it. Until pain has had its proper effect within us, we are not disciplined or pure enough to properly enjoy large amounts of pleasure.

Pain is thus our first assignment here in this world, this paradise lost. Pain both purifies and teaches.

We should recall that God offered us the paradise of Eden with the proviso that we trust Him to teach us what is best. But we insisted on the knowledge of good and evil for ourselves and the right to decide what was right and wrong. We wanted a better deal than Eden. Here we are now in that “better deal.” Adam and Eve chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, even knowing that God had said it would usher in suffering and death. And we have all ratified their choice on countless occasions.

God, respecting our freedom, did not undo our choice. Rather, He said, in effect, “Fine, I will meet you at the cross of suffering and death, and allow that very suffering and death to be the way back to me.” And thus the way back to paradise, and to an even higher and heavenly glory, is through the cross.

This is why our tolerance for pain is greater now than is our capacity for pleasure. God has equipped us in this way because pain is for now; pleasure is for later.

Frankly, we need a high tolerance for pain, because it is a needed remedy for a very serious malady. Our condition is grave and requires strong medicine. The cross and its pain is the strong medicine needed. And thus our tolerance for pain must be certainly be greater than our capacity for pleasure.

Pain, despite its unpleasant qualities, has many salutary effects. It teaches us limits and helps conquer our pride. It purifies us. It reminds us that this world is passing and cannot ultimately be our answer. It intensifies our longing for Heaven and the shalom of God. If we endure pain with faith, it draws us to seek help and to trust God more. Pain endured with faith is like being under the surgeon’s scalpel. The scalpel inflicts pain but only to cut away what is harmful. It is a strong but healing medicine.

For now, our assignment is clear. Pain has the upper hand and is the strong medicine we need. When in pain, seek relief from God. But if he says no, remember that God promises that His grace will be sufficient for us (see 2 Cor 12:9), and that pain has a healing place for now. It is indeed a gift in a strange package.

Yes, it is a mysterious truth that we have a higher tolerance for pain than for pleasure. But given our current location in paradise lost, it makes sense. One day when suffering, pain, and death have had their full effect, we will enter into the Heaven of God, where pain will be no more and where our capacity for pleasure will blossom like a rose. Having been purified by our pain, our capacity for pleasure will now be full and there will be joys unspeakable and glories untold.

Here is pathos set to music. It is William Byrd’s treatment of a text from Isaiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC 

“Everyone Is Looking for You” – A Meditation on a Short Sentence from Scripture

There is a brief line in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel that simply and completely sums up what we all are doing, even if we’re not aware of it. The setting of the passage is the outskirts of Capernaum in the early morning.

The prior day Jesus had healed a great many people at the house of Simon Peter. As the new day dawned there was already a multitude gathered in hopes of seeing this healer. Word must have spread quickly about Jesus.

But where was He? The text says that Jesus had slipped away to a deserted place to pray.

In seeming irritation, Peter and the others went looking for Him. When they found Jesus, Peter uttered a line that well describes and decodes all human hearts. Peter said, likely in an exasperated tone,

“Everyone is looking for you” (Mark 1:37).

Indeed, they are. Everyone is looking for Jesus. There are no exceptions here. Even those who insist that they are not looking for Jesus, and that He is the last one they would ever seek, are looking for Jesus.

Yes, Lord Jesus, everyone is looking for you.

There is in all of our hearts a “God-size” hole. Only God can fill it. There is a yearning, a longing that is infinite. The world could not have given this to us. Our nature alone could not have caused it; finite realities cannot give anything infinite. Nemo dat quod non habet (No one can give what he does not have).

Only the One who is infinite could have put this infinite longing there.

Frankly our deepest awareness is so deep and pervasive that we barely notice it is there; Our depest awareness is that we have an infinite longing. 

Yes, Lord Jesus, everyone is looking for you; even those of us who forever run after worldly things to satisfy our infinite longing. Yes, we are all looking for you even if many of us do not know it.

    • The consumer who looks for the latest thing, the most recent upgrade, the bigger car, or the fancier house is really seeking you and the wealth that is you.
    • The sports fan or hobbyist who spends enormous amounts of time and money on such pursuits is really seeking fulfillment and thrill in you.
    • The discouraged or angry divorced person looking for the perfect marriage and the priest who wants a “better” parish are really seeking you and your perfection.
    • The young girl applying her makeup and the actor seeking applause and fame are really seeking you and the warm embrace of your love and acceptance.
    • The alcoholic or addict who tries to find relief at the bottom of a glass of wine or the end of a joint is really seeking the peace that only you can give.
    • Even the atheist who denies you because he cannot see you and the atheist who is angry at suffering and evil in the world are actually confessing their desire for your justice and solace.

Yes, Lord Jesus, everyone is looking for you.

Even creation yearns for you, though less consciously. Your own scriptures call you the desire of the everlasting hills (Gen 49:29). And you inspired St. Paul to say that creation is groaning in all its parts waiting to be restored and set free by you (Rom 8:22).

Yes, Lord Jesus, everyone and everything is looking for you. I am looking for you. The one who reads your Scripture is looking for you. My loved ones and enemies alike are looking for you. Help us to find you; show us your face.

Everyone is looking for you!

Nothing truer has ever been said.

Come and Go With Me To My Father’s House – A Homily for the Third Sunday of the Year

In these early weeks of “ordinary” time, we are being introduced to Jesus and the beginnings of His public ministry. Matthew’s Gospel today describes how Jesus began His public ministry in the wake of the arrest of John the Baptist. Matthew tells us four things about Jesus’ ministry: its context, its content, its call, and its comprehensiveness. Let’s look at each in turn.

The CONTEXT When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.

The relocation of Jesus northward from Judea up to Galilee coveys some important truths. First, it tells us of the hostility of the southern regions to the message of John the Baptist and Jesus. The area in and around Judea (which included, principally, Jerusalem) was controlled by a sort of religious ruling class (the Sadducees, especially, and to a lesser extent, the Pharisees). Because they were in strong but often controversial control in these areas, they were far less open to ideas that in any way threatened their leadership or questioned the rituals related to the Temple.

And so Jesus moved north to more fertile territory in order to begin His public ministry; the Jewish people in Galilee were less hostile. In fact, the people of Jerusalem often looked down upon them for their simple, agrarian ways and their “rural accent.” But it was more fertile ground for Jesus to begin His work.

There is an important lesson in this: While we must carefully preserve Christian orthodoxy and only accept doctrinal development that is organic and faithful to the received Apostolic Tradition, we can sometimes inadvertently stifle the Holy Spirit, who speaks to us through unexpected people and in unexpected ways.

The Pharisee leaders simply rejected the notion that any prophet could come from Galilee.When Nicodemus encouraged them to give Jesus a hearing they scoffed, Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee (Jn 7:52). Sometimes we can insist upon a single position in matters in which Christians are allowed freedom. For example, there are various degrees of expression permitted in the liturgy; there are also different schools of theological thought that are allowed by the Church.

Balance is required of us.We may prefer Thomistic formulations, Carmelite spirituality, charismatic worship, or the traditional Latin Mass. Such things are legitimate matters for discussion; we ought not to feel threatened by what the Church currently deems to be legitimate diversity. Discovering the range and limits of diversity is an ongoing matter for the Church; we should not permit the field of our own soul to be hostile to Jesus and His ministry, which may come to us in more diverse ways than we would prefer.

How tragic it wasfor Judea that Jesus thought He had to move on to more fertile territory, and what a blessing it was for Galilee that He moved there. But for Galilee there was this boon:The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined (Is 9:2).

The CONTENT From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

We have discussed before the careful balance of Jesus’ preaching. He is willing to challenge and so to say, “Repent.” But He also declares the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Accepting the ministry of Jesus requires that we avoid the two extremes of presumption and despair.

To those who make light of sin and their condition as sinners, Jesus says, “Repent.”It is wrong to presume that we do not need continual healing power from the Lord in order to overcome our sin. Perhaps our greatest sin is our blindness to it. Most do not seem to comprehend how serious their condition is.

The word translated here as “repent” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite), which means more literally “to come to a new mind,” or “to come to a new way of thinking.” In our sin-soaked world, a world in which sin is so pervasive as to almost go unnoticed, Jesus says, “Come to a new mind. Understand your condition and your need for mercy and grace. Come to understand that without the rescue that only God can provide, you are lost.” And hence we are told to reject presumption.

But we are also told to reject despair, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, the grace and mercy of God are available to rescue us from this present evil age and from our carnal condition. Through Christ we are granted admittance to the Kingdom. The Spirit of God can overcome our carnal, sinful nature and bring us to true holiness.

The proper balance between presumption and despair is the theological virtue of hope. By hope we confidently expect God’s help in attaining eternal life. By proper metanoia(repentance) we know that we need that help; by hope we confidently reach for it.

In our own proclamation of the Kingdom we also need the proper balanceexhibited by Jesus. Consider that if children hear nothing but criticism they become discouraged (they despair), but if all they hear is praise they become spoiled and prideful, presuming that everything should be just as they want it.

For the Church, too, balance is necessary.Many people expect the Church only to affirm and “be positive.” This leads to a selfish and incorrigible world and to the presumption that nothing matters (as we can plainly see today). Thus the Church must announce the call to repentance, but must also offer hope and mercy to sinners. She must offer grace though the Sacraments and her preaching, which, with God’s power, makes the Kingdom of God to be “at hand.”

The CALL As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.

In building His Kingdom, Jesus summons men to follow Him.He will train them to be the leaders of His Church as Apostles. The Kingdom of God is not just concerned with calling disciples, but also with developing leaders to provide order and authority in the Church.

Even the most “democratic” of organizations requires authorityand leadership. Without these there is anarchy and a battle of wills. Hence, in the early stages of His public ministry, the Lord calls disciples and also grooms leaders. Consider three things about the Lord’s call.

His ARTICULATENESS He says to these apostles, Come, Follow me.His announcement is unambiguous. Good leaders make clear what they ask, indeed, what they demand. Jesus is clear to set the course and point the way; Heis that way.

His APPEAL –Jesus must have had tremendous personal appeal and exuded a strong, reassuring authority. His appeal to them was personal: “Come, follow Me.” He did not merely say come and “learn my doctrine,” or “accept my vision.” He said, “FollowMe.” So, as we hand on the faith to our children and others, we cannot simply say, “Here is the Catechism; follow it.” Each of us must also take the next step and tell them to follow the Lord with me. We cannot simply parrot what a book says, correct though that book might be. Ultimately we must be able to say, “I am a personal witness to the fact that God is real and that the truth He has given to the Church is authentic and is changing my life.” Our appeal must include the personal testimony that what we proclaim is real and is changing our life: “Come, and go with me to my Father’s house.”

His APPROACHNote that the Lord builds on something they know: fishing. He starts with the familiar in order to draw them to the less familiar. In a way, He is saying that the gifts they are currently using are just the ones they need to use as leaders in God’s Kingdom. Fishermen are

          • Patient They often wait long hours for the fish to bite. Apostles and bishops must also be patient and have the ability to wait for long periods before there is a catch for the Lord.
          • Perceptive They learn to know the fish, their behavior, and what attracts them. Apostles and clergy must learn about their people and what will attract them to Christ.
          • Persevering– They must go through many days in which they catch very little; only through perseverance is there real gain in fishing. So it is with the work of the clergy, who may go long stretches with little to show for it. The Gospel may go “out of season,” even for decades in certain cultures (like our own). The good leader will persevere, will stay at the task.

The COMPREHENSIVENESS He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.

Note that all of Galilee was His mission field and He covered it comprehensively.He also cured people of every disease and illness. And thus the Church is catholic, and must address every part of the world, providing a comprehensive vision for life. We may not have the power to solve every problem, but we can provide the vision of the Paschal mystery, which sheds light and brings spiritual healing to every affliction. If we are suffering and dying, we must remember that Jesus did as well, but only to rise and be glorified on account of his fidelity and obedience.

For the Church and for the Christian, the comprehensive answer to every affliction isthat we are always carrying about in our bodies the dying of Christ so that the rising of Christ may also be manifest in us(2 Cor 4:10). We seek to bring healing to everyone we can, and where physical remedies are not possible, the truth of the Gospel reassures us that every Friday, faithfully endured, brings forth an Easter Sunday.

Here, then, are four crucial insights from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. They are important for us to acknowledge and to imitate.

Journey with me back to 1971 (a year of funny hair, to be sure) and listen to this old classic: “Come and Go with Me to My Father’s House.”

The Ministry of Angels As Seen in a Commercial

Most of us struggle with the fact that God allows bad things to happen to us. Why does He not intervene more often to protect us from attacks of various kinds and from events that cause sadness, setbacks, or suffering?

While mysterious, the clearest answer is that God allows suffering in order that some greater blessing may occur. To some degree I have found this to be so; some of my greatest blessings required that a door slam shut for me or that I endure some suffering. If my college sweetheart had not ended things, I would most likely not have the very great blessing of being a priest today. Had I gotten some of my preferred assignments in my early years as a priest, I would not have been enriched by the assignments I did have. Those difficult assignments have drawn me out and helped me to grow far more than the cozy, familiar placements I desired would have. Had I not entered into the crucible of depression and anxiety in my thirties, I would not have learned to trust God as much as I do, and I would not have learned important lessons about myself and about life.

So despite that fact that we understandably fear suffering and dislike it, for reasons of His own (reasons He knows best), God does allow some degree of it in our lives.

Yet I wonder if we really consider often enough the countless times God did step in to prevent disaster in our lives. We tend to focus on the negative things in life and overlook the enormous number of blessings we often take for granted: every beat of our heart, the proper functioning of every cell in our body, and all of the perfect balances that exist in nature and the cosmos in order to sustain us.

Just think of the simple act of walking, all of the possible missteps we might take but most often do not. Think of all the foolish risks we have taken in our lives—especially when we were young—that did not end in disaster. Think of all the poor choices we have made and yet escaped the worst possible outcomes.

Yes, we wonder why we and others suffer and why God allows it, but do we ever wonder why we don’t suffer? Do we ever think about why and how we have escaped enduring the consequences of some awfully foolish things we have done? In typical human fashion, we minimize our many, many blessings, and magnify and resent our sufferings.

I have a favorite expression, one that I have made my own over the years, that I use in response to people who ask me how I am doing: “I’m pretty well blessed, for a sinner.”  I’ve heard others put the same sentiment this way: “I’m more blessed than I deserve.” Yes, we are all pretty well blessed indeed!

I thought of all those things as I watched the commercial below (aired during the 2014 Super Bowl). While it speaks of the watchfulness of a father, it makes me think of my guardian angel, who has surely preserved me from many disasters.

As you watch the commercial, don’t forget to thank God for the many times He has rescued you through the intervention of your guardian angel. Thank Him too for His hidden blessings—blessings that, though you know nothing of them, are bestowed by Him all the same. Finally, think of the wonderful mercy He has often shown in protecting you from the worst of your foolishness.