The commercial below depicts the common problem of feeling overwhelmed by the all of the need we see around us. There is so much neediness, yet we don’t have sufficient resources to help in every effort or to donate to every worthy cause.
The commercial rightly concludes that we can address this feeling by doing. In other words, while we cannot do everything, we can surely do something. What that “something” is requires discernment. What are my gifts? What are the needs I am best positioned to help with? What is my state in life (married or single, parent with young children or empty-nester, wealthy or poor)? What is my natural demeanor (patient, energetic, organized, creative)?
I don’t have all of the gifts; you don’t have all of the gifts; but together we have all of the gifts.
Sometimes the sense of being overwhelmed is God’s way of tapping us on the shoulder and asking us, “What do you have?” “Five loaves and two fish, but what good is that?” (see John 6:9). Jesus simply says that we should bring them, bring what we have. Even little things can mean a lot; they can make a big difference. Lots of little things add up to a lot.
There is a Scripture reading proclaimed at the Christmas Liturgy that usually gets overlooked. And yet it should elicit considerable reflection since it is proclaimed at the Christmas Midnight Mass, one of the Church’s most prominent Liturgies. It is from the Letter to Titus in the Second Chapter. I would like to reproduce it in full and then give some commentary following.
The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good. Titus 2:11-14
The Moral Life is a gift – The grace of God has appeared– The Word Grace (χάρις – charis) most fundamentally means, “grace” but it also means “gift.” And this word “gift” needs to govern the whole remainder of the passage which is an exhortation to receive the gift of a new moral life in Christ. One of the biggest mistakes made by most Christians regarding the Christian moral life is that it is something we must, by our own flesh power, “do.” It is not. It is something we must receive as a gift. Without this understanding the Gospel is not good news at all, it is just a long and burdensome list of requirements that we must do “or else.” Frankly, some of the more demanding passages of the New Testament (e.g. that we should love our enemies, never have lustful thoughts and be perfect and the heavenly Father is perfect) ought to clue us in that this is going to have to be God’s gift and God’s work in us. This text is teaching us that the grace (gift) of God’s very own life is available to us. Jesus Christ wants to live his life in us and offers us that relationship. As he begins to live his life in us sin is put to death and the grace (the very life and love of God) comes alive in us. Of course we can then love our enemies because it is God who is doing this in us. Lust, greed, self-centeredness, anger, resentments, fear and the like all begin to die and are replaced by joy, serenity, peace, patience, chastity, love, generosity, self-control and the like. A completely new life is made available to us. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). This grace, (the gift of the very life of God) has now appeared in Jesus Christ and is available to you right now. Don’t leave this gift under the tree!
The gift is offered to all – saving all – The gift is offered to all. As I live, says the Lord, I do not want the sinner to die but to turn to me and live! (Ez 33:11) No one can say they are excluded or that that they are not being offered the gift of a new life in Christ. Therefore the Church’s moral exhortation cannot exclude anyone. There are many today who want to claim exemption from some aspect of the moral law. The claim comes most commonly today from the Gay community who say that God “made me this way” and thus that the Law of Chastity does not apply for them in the same way as others. But this cannot be so for it would amount to a denial that God’s call was universal and that his grace is sufficient. No ideed, God can equip, empower and enable all of us, whatever our condition or apparent limitations to receive and live this new life. ALL are offered this grace. Don’t leave any gifts under your tree unopened!
The gift does not just inform, it transforms – and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires– The Greek word translated here as “training” is παιδεύουσα (paideuosa). First note it is a present participle which signifies an on-going action. As Catholics we see salvation as a process more than just an event. The training involved here is lifelong. We ought to have the experience that we are growing into the perfection that God has promised. I may not be what I want to be but at least I’m not what I used to be! Our training and transformation are on-going and lifelong. Secondly, we need to grasp what is meant by training. Some translators render this as “instructing.” But let’s be clear, our instruction is more than an intellectual thing. It is experiential as well. The Greek word παιδεύουσα is rooted in the Greek word paideuo which means to train up a child by discipline and instruction. Perhaps the best example we have of this today for adults is the notion of a personal trainer. A personal trainer does not just write instructions or talk over the phone. They show up and take you through the exercises personally. They point out bad form that will bring on injury and establish an exercise routine that works all the major muscle groups. They also impose a kind of discipline or routine until the next visit. This is what God wants to do for us. He wants to personally train us and build up strength in us so that we will recognize godless ways and worldly desires and he gives us the strength and will to reject them not merely because we have to but because we want to. Make sure you open and receive this gift from under your tree.
The gift of a clear, clean, sober mind – and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age – The Greek word translated as “temperately” here is σωφρόνως (sophronos) and it more usually means sober, of sound mind, and by extension it can mean moderately or temperately. Obviously intemperate, extreme behavior causes our mind to be unsound. A good, clear mind is a gift that God wants to offer us by also giving us the gift to temper our behavior. To live justly is to be in right relationship with God and others, render to each what is due and receiving also what is due. This too is a very great gift to be sought. So often we are NOT in right relationships with God and others and the result is guilt, anger and frustration. The Greek word translated here as “devoutly” is εὐσεβῶς (Eusebos) and it is an adverb meaning more commonly “reverently.” This helps us to understand the word more widely. To be devout is usually interpreted in religious terms as being prayerful. That is a good thing to be sure but the reverent behavior that is the gift here is to be respectful not only of God per se but also of everyone. The gift that the Lord offers in this verse is that with clear and sober minds we live in a right and reverent relationship with God and others. Don’t leave this gift under your tree either.
The gift of hope – as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ – To live with hope is a very great gift. The Theological Virtue of Hope is the gift to have a confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal life. Therefore hope is not some vague wish, it is a confident expectation. We ought to live with great confidence for our God has the power to save and the will to save us. And if we but open the gifts under our Christmas Tree and allow them to flourish in our life we can look with confidence to our judgement and to the glorious second coming.
A very personal gift– who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness – Notice again, the moral life is a gift. We are delivered from lawlessness. We are not just warned not to be lawless we are offered the gift of deliverance. And this gift isn’t something Jesus went and got at some store. He paid the price for it with his own blood. We are delivered from lawlessness by the precious blood of Jesus. This is a very personal gift. Now don’t leave it unwrapped!
The gift of a willing heart – and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good – The final expression of the gift is that when we receive the gift of the moral life from Jesus we are not only cleansed, our desires begin to be reformed. Thus we do not keep the law merely because we have to but because we WANT to. We become eager and joyful at keeping God’s law, not resentful and mournful about it. What a gift. Don’t leave it to be lost under the tree!
So, King Jesus has a garden full of diverse flowers, diverse gifts. There are many gifts he offers us but the fundamental gift he offers us is the gift of a new life, a reformed and restored heart and mind, eager to do what is right. This is his gift to us this Christmas and every day.
Back in college I became interested in learning to play the Pipe Organ. I had heard the thunderous resonance of that instrument and knew I wanted to play it and make the whole building shake. I had not studied piano as a child and so was starting from scratch. But I hammered away at it day after day, learning not only the hands but to play with both feet as well. In a few years I was good enough that I went on to become the daily organist at the seminary where I attended. But the truth is I never had “the gift.” I am able to play hymns accurately but learning them is hard and I am never really at ease when I play. The more elaborate organ works of Bach I will likely never play or master. It’s OK, because I am glad for what I can do.
But I must say I have always been amazed when I encounter those who have the gift, those who can play almost without effort, those for who the music seems to come from within. When they play they are not merely playing notes accurately but the music comes from deep inside. It is almost innate. I have met and worked with many who have the gift. Some are able just to hear something once and play it back almost without flaw. Others sight read music with ease. Still others play not only one instrument but many. God just seems to put music and art inside of some people and no amount of explanation regarding how they’ve studied etc. can fully explain the gift they have received. Studies can help refine the gift but they cannot explain it.
I remember a young woman at my last parish, Charnetta. I could put music of almost any complexity in front of her and she’d play almost without flaw. She could also play by ear and shift from gospel to classical, to modern and back again. She played with such ease and though I knew she’d trained classically there was something on the inside, she just had the gift.
At my current parish is Kenneth who is also able to play almost anything. He reads music but can also play by ear. He tells me that when he was about five he heard his mother humming a hymn in the kitchen and then went to the piano and played it. At that moment they knew he had “the gift.” For him too, his playing seems effortless. I rarely hear him practice he just knows the music innately it seems. From classical to gospel, to soulful spirituals and back again. I admire many things about his playing but perhaps what I find most fascinating is the ease with which he transposes. He will play the opening hymn at the organ and gradually take us up the scale, never missing a note. Kenneth too spent many years studying music and has his Masters degree but in the end what he most has is the gift.
I remember attending piano recitals as a kid. Most of the kids who played were somewhere between dreadful and mediocre. But there were always one or two who sat down at the keyboard and you knew they were different. They had it inside, they had the gift.
It was the same with art. There were just some kids when I was growing up who knew how to draw. It was not that they had gone to art school, they just had the gift. I would marvel as they took a simple piece of paper and pencil and just went to work. And they did it with such ease, never erasing, never struggling, just drawing. And whether it was a simple cartoon, or something more detailed it was clear to me that they had something on the inside. I once asked a friend of mine named Ingo who had the gift to draw me a picture. “Of what?” he asked. “Oh I don’t know, maybe a farmer at his farm.” In less then five minutes he handed me a picture and it was good too! Ingo had the gift.
I guess the closest I can say that I come to having a gift is in the area of preaching and teaching. I love to do both and do them almost without effort. I never struggle with what to say, if anything it is what NOT to say since I go on too long. I often experience the gift most powerfully at 7:00 am weekday morning masses. I may be struggling to wake up, even dosing during the reading but when it comes time to preach I am suddenly awake and firing on all cylinders. And I know it isn’t me, its the Lord, it’s the gift. Sure enough when the homily is over I’m back to being sleepy and fumbling through the sacramentary as I drowsily look for the right page. (I’m not a morning person).
Don’t miss God’s gifts, in yourself or in others. And most often they can’t be explained in any other way. They are simply gifts. They are inside, deep in the soul. Years of study can help perfect them but the basic gift and ability seem to be right there from the start in those who have “the gift.” It is a uniquely human gift as well. Animals do not compose music or perform it, they do not sing, they do not paint or sculpt. Such gifts are uniquely human and part of our glory which God has bestowed. The gift and the glory are God’s but he has chosen to share them with some of us.
This video features a little girl named Emily who has the gift to play the piano. It was first noticed at age two. Emily, when asked how she can play so well says, “I don’t know, it just comes out of me.” — the Gift.
This video illustrates a young woman who received the gift to paint quite clearly from God. Even more beautifully she received the gift of faith as you will see.
My mother loved to put gifts in strange packages. One Christmas I eagerly tore off the wrapping of a fairly heavy package (heavy packages usually meant something good!). To my disappointment I discovered that it was a box of Glad Trash Bags. Well, I guess I could use this but I was disappointed to say the least. She knew I was disappointed but smiled and said, “Open the box!” I noticed a little of the package had already been slightly opened and yet I said, “Mom why open this now, I’ll use them later.” “Open it,” she said. So did and inside was a check for $100. Over the years she often found strange packages to hide gifts, an old shoe box, a box of No. 2 Pencils, a package of underwear. “Gee thanks, Mom.” “Open it!” And there were two $50 bills. So I learned that sometimes good gifts come in strange packages.
God is that way too. Some of God’s gifts come in strange packages. Hidden within some of the crosses we’ve been asked to carry are some precious treasures. Maybe we learned that we were stronger than we thought. Maybe our weakness taught us to trust and ask for help. Maybe the loss of a job opened new doors and launched new vistas. Maybe a troublesome person taught us patience and humility. Maybe an enemy helped us to see something in us that needed to change. Maybe injustice taught us to fight for what was right and that we were not truly alive until we found something for which we were willing to die. The cross is a paradox, a gift in a strange package.
I suppose we’ve all thought of the ideal circumstances we’d like to live in. Surely there would be reasonable affluence, comfort and beauty. It was no different as a priest. I wanted a beautiful Church, no debt, in a “nice” neighborhood etc. And yet my first assignment as pastor took me to the poorest neighborhood in the city with the highest crime rate. I remember the first day I went to look the place over. I drove onto the parking lot and there was a car on fire. I looked around and people were walking up and down the sidewalks as if nothing were amiss. I ran to the rectory door quite anxious. When the door opened I nervously pointed to the burning car and the staff person within said, “Oh, not again! OK come on in I guess I’ll go ahead and call the fire department.” In order to enter I had to pass through two sets of bars. Ah but I loved my time at St. Thomas More Parish. It was a wonderful Parish, wonderful people, wonderful experiences. And I cried copious tears seven years later when I was asked to take another assignment (where I am also quite happy). But you never know as you open the strange packages God gives you what gifts are within. God can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines. That burning car on a church parking lot was really for me like the burning bush that Moses saw on the mountain assuring him (me) of God’s blessings. It didn’t seem so at the time but years later I understood: Some of God’s greatest blessings come in strange packages.
This video prompted the reflection above. When I saw it I didn’t expect to be too impressed. It was just supposed to be a kid playing an accordion. I didn’t expect much, just the usual reedy sound and some missed notes. I had no idea what I was about to see. I NEVER knew an accordion could be made to sound like this nor did I expect to see such virtuosity. This young man has extraordinary talent. One of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the Presto from “Summer” on accordion! yes, an accordion! Sometimes gifts come in strange packages!
Last Wednesday, I attended ‘Breaking Open the Word’ at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. (Visiting parish young adult community events is part of my new commitment to stay in tune with the young adults with which I minister. Many of my upcoming posts will illustrate these visits.) This is a weekly study group of young adults who get together each week to read the upcoming Mass readings and discuss how they relate to our lives today.
As I entered the room cautiously and asked “Is this Breaking Open the Word?” I was warmly greeted by a young woman who sympathized, “This is my first time too!” Beside the two of us, there were four others who seemed to have known each other for a while. They shared the latest news (an engagement, a trip abroad, and a rehabilitation from an injury), and then we focused our hearts and minds by reading the Prayer to the Holy Spirit.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
Let us pray.O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
The upcoming Sunday was Pentecost which made recitation this prayer a meaningful. The name Pentecost is taken the Hebrew tradition marking the 50th day after Passover when the harvest was brought to the temple (the feast of First Fruits) and is celebrated as the day that Moses was given of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is celebrated as the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles.
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. (Acts 2)
This reading sparked a conversation about speaking in tongues, called glossolalia. While we had heard of people speaking in tongues and some of us had been present at charismatic prayer services where participants spoke in tongues, we were unsure of Catholic teaching on glossolalia.
To answer our question, one of the young adults whipped out the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Though glossolalia was not specifically mentioned in the index, this was as close as we got:
799 Whether extraordinary or simple and humble, charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world.
800 Charisms are to be accepted with gratitude by the person who receives them and by all members of the Church as well. They are a wonderfully rich grace for the apostolic vitality and for the holiness of the entire Body of Christ, provided they really are genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit and are used in full conformity with authentic promptings of this same Spirit, that is, in keeping with charity, the true measure of all charisms.
801 It is in this sense that discernment of charisms is always necessary. No charism is exempt from being referred and submitted to the Church’s shepherds. “Their office [is] not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good,” so that all the diverse and complementary charisms work together “for the common good.”
This seemed to be a sufficient answer for the young adults in the room, that an authentic gift of glossolalia will work together in charity for the common good. We ended the evening by praying together the Psalm for the upcoming Sunday: Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!
All in all, it was a rich evening of prayer, scripture, questions, and answers that reminded me that even in this simple setting, on a Wednesday evening in this church basement, Christ keeps His promise: For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:20)
The Following Video shows a choir of Young Adults Singing a song by Thomas Tallis called Loquebantur Variis Linguis The translation of the text is from Acts: The Apostles were speaking in Various tongues of the great works of God. Alleluia The frenetic quality of the song tries to capture the ecstatic moment when the apostles received the Holy Spirit! It is written in dance time.
Reason # 33 – All the Gifts There are many gifts that Christ gave to his Church as he established it. Among these are: Scripture, Apostolic Authority, Seven Sacraments, Tradition, infallibility (no errors in faith and morals), indefectability (will always be here), Saints, Mary, the Liturgy, and so forth. Only the Catholic Church can claim to have all these. Many of them we have already discussed in some detail. This is not to say that other denominations don’t have any of these gifts, but only the Catholic Church has all these gifts. A certain non-denominational chapel many have good music, and preaching but does not have the priesthood, the Eucharist, devotion to Mary and so on. A certain Protestant Communion may have a lovely liturgy but has not confession, or apostolic authority.
Only the Catholic Church has all the gifts which Christ gave and intended for his Church to have. Now if you have a job to do, don’t you want all the tools? If you have a problem to solve don’t you want all the experts and resources? Come home to the Catholic Church. There’s work to do and and a soul to be saved (yours). You need all the resources you can get. So do I.