Easter – Ascension

One of the most typical reactions we have to a deeply moving experience is to hang on to it; to cling to it. This is especially true in the spiritual or interior life.  When we have a particularly insightful moment or an awareness of God, we might be tempted to cling tightly to that insight. Often we want to revisit these experiences, sometimes even trying to escape from thinking about certain trials or struggles we go through by ‘summoning up’ a previous happy ‘moment’.

There is something to beware in this, though, especially in the spiritual life.  There is a real temptation to want to ‘re-live’ or ‘re-create’ the event that brought about a particular experience – it may have been a real sense of the power of the Holy Spirit, or an insight into the unconditional love of God, or a deeply felt awareness in our own hearts of the presence of Christ in others.  Rather than simply accepting this insight or experience as a grace moment, or a gift from God, we cling to it and try to duplicate the conditions so that we can have this experience again, and again, and again.  The fact is, when we are deep in prayer, and if we are blessed enough to have one of these insights, if we try to ‘figure out’ how we got to that point, the moment of that experience begins to slip away from us.

The danger in this, particularly if this involves our prayer life and spirituality, is that we have become focussed on a gift, and have forgotten about the Giver; we are hoping for the ‘high’ that we felt in that momentary experience – rather than simply accepting a gift with a sense of gratitude.  We try to cling to that grace as if it is something private and meant only for us, and we become defensive if anyone should ‘intrude’ into that grace.  We forget that God gives us these grace moments to draw us deeper into a relationship with Him, and subsequently to draw others into that relationship.

Jesus did not teach his disciples to seek the kingdom of God solely for their own benefit.  Time after time he reminds them, and us, of the responsibility to be witnesses to the kingdom, to invite others into the kingdom – to make the love of God and the mercy of Christ known to everyone.  The whole point is to go out and bring others into that loving companionship of Jesus – and not simply by quoting a few catch-phrases or nice-sounding slogans; we are to do so by a lived example; by being visible signs, by being witnesses to the very real and precious love of God moving through our own lives.

The disciples had numerous deep and moving experiences and an intimate knowledge of the power and the presence of Jesus in their own lives.  The Acts of the Apostles, in our first reading on this Ascension Sunday, tells us how after his resurrection, Jesus spends an additional forty days with his friends; teaching them, comforting them, sharing with them.  To say that they have had a deeply spiritual experience in the presence of Jesus, who they have seen raised from the dead, would be an understatement.  But here they are, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and Jesus is lifted up.

(Luke is quite specific here – he says lifted up and that they lose sight of him in the clouds – it’s not as if Jesus kind of faded into nothingness on the ground in front of them, or ‘metaphorically’ ascended to a ‘higher consciousness’ – Luke who takes great pains in the detail of his gospel and the Acts, says Jesus was lifted up and they lost sight of him in the clouds)

But while they are ‘caught up’ in this experience, standing in awe and not moving, two strangers in white robes (we’re given the impression they are angels) say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go to heaven.”

In other words, the angels seem to be reminding the disciples; you’ve had a wonderful experience. Now instead of standing here and clinging to it, do something with it!

The reality of the love of God in our own lives is not restricted to single experiences or grace moments; the love of God is something that moves and lives and breathes in and around and through us every day, all the time, if only we have eyes to see it.  The Holy Spirit, who Jesus promises to his disciples at His Ascension, teaches us how to receive the most precious gift of all, the love of God, so that we can do something wonderful with it.

Perhaps in this particular liturgy we may have one of those grace moments; a sense of the wonder and beauty and nearness of God.  If that happens thank God for it, and rather than clinging to  it tightly as a private possession, release it with an open hand and open heart; to see how God will use this experience to draw us and others closer to himself.  That is, after all, why we were created, and why Jesus entered into our humanity in the first place.

birds over blowing rocks

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…get thee to a confessional….

With the rush, rush, rush to decorate and shop this time of year, often the sense that Advent is a Penitential Season is lost on most of us.  There’s too much excitement with the gatherings, concerts and preparations to think of penance.  But the idea behind penance is to empty out something that is filled with the unsatisfactory to make room for the grace and goodness of God.  Advent, I suppose, is what we could call a Joyful Penitential season (as opposed to Lent which is more ‘sombre’)

With this season, to clean out that ‘space’ and prepare the way of the Lord in our own hearts, we hear a call to take advantage of that most merciful Sacrament, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or Confession, depending on your generation).  In our busy culture though, ‘confession’ becomes a negative, and doesn’t immediately spring to mind when we think of getting ready for the great feast of Christmas, of Christ coming among us as one of us.

I was given a wonderful piece of advice a number of years ago, however, which might be of some use in turning around the way we approach the confessional.

It has to do with contrition; contrition means being sorry.  And there are really two types of contrition – ‘imperfect’ and ‘perfect’.  Imperfect means being sorry out of fear – perfect means being sorry out of love for the Other.  Both senses of ‘being sorry’ are legitimate, but one is definitely better than the other.  Maybe an example here would help.

(this is where I pick on married men, because it’s easier to relate from my own experience)  If you do something to offend your spouse, why do you apologize later?  Is it because you are afraid you’ll have to spend the night on the couch (imperfect)?  Or is it because you have offended the most important person in your life, and you would rather do anything than hurt them (perfect)?

In both cases, you’re sorry, but you can readily see where one is superior to the other:  the imperfect is sorrow from a more self-centred perspective – the perfect is centred on the other.

But how can we get to that point?  Well here is where that advice I received comes in.  Whenever I go to confession now, before I begin I actually tell my confessor some way in which God has blessed me (either recently or any other time of my life); then I proceed into my confession. 

What that does for me, is it gives me a sense that, ‘yes God, you have been good to me, and continue to bless me – and how have I repaid that goodness?’

In time, you can see, this would affect our own outlook on our part of the relationship with God. In time we nurture a desire to never do anything that would ever offend the Other.

But none of this works, if we don’t get ourselves into a confessional.  Advent is that perfect time for fresh starts, clean slates and new beginnings.  It is a perfect time to empty the containers that are our hearts of all kinds of ‘stuff’ to make way for what really matters – the welcoming of Christ into our hearts and lives.  What a generous blessing!

prodigal

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

First Sunday of Advent

There is a mindset in our culture, particularly when it comes to practicing our faith in the public forum, that we should try not to ‘get noticed’.  We don’t want to stand out from the crowd, especially if we are practicing our faith; standing out can bring negative attention, criticism, ridicule, or even hostility.  We hear expressions similar to this, ‘just keep your head down, and don’t get noticed’ – life will be simpler, easier – less stressful.

This is the first Sunday of Advent.  Every year, it seems, as we enter into this holy time of year, there is a greater challenge to publicly acknowledging our faith – every year we hear stories about people saying ‘Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays’; we hear how this place or that place have now banned nativity scenes in public buildings or facilities; we get caught up in the news that one school district or another will not permit ‘Christmas carols’ to be sung, but instead will hold a ‘Winter festival’; and never mind the incredibly acrimonious debate concerning ‘Christmas’ or ‘Holiday’ trees. 

And every year, it seems, the advice given is, ‘don’t get involved – don’t speak out – don’t rock the boat; keep your head down, go about your business, and don’t get noticed’.

The sad reality, though, is that in our society and culture, this is the same advice given whenever we consider basing our actions and words on our Christian faith, anywhere outside the walls of a church.  If we are foolish enough to take a stand on an issue of social justice or life or morality, we are often told, ‘just be careful not to bring God into your argument.’  The cry of ‘separation of church and state’ is usually raised by those providing this advice, forgetting of course that the principle of ‘separation’ was never intended to protect the state from religion, but rather to protect the practice of religion from interference by the state. 

The debate over Christmas and Holidays may seem pretty trivial when held up against our current world situation: a world in turmoil and chaos; nations fighting one another; people calling good evil and evil good; while this sounds very much like our current world, we need to recall that every generation has said the same thing, “that this must be near the end.” And the advice in the midst of all of this to Christians by society (and often even their own brothers and sisters in faith) is to ‘keep your head down and don’t get noticed.’

Our Gospel passage today is from St. Luke – we are entering into a new liturgical year, and will rely heavily on St. Luke this year – but it may seem a bit out of place.  This is the first Sunday of Advent, but in the Gospel, Jesus speaks about what we call ‘the End Times’.  Jesus speaks of great signs and wonders, of upheaval in the cosmos and the world, “the powers of the heavens will be shaken’ – and how ‘people will faint in fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world’.

But if we only read the surface of this text, we do Jesus a disservice.  Certainly Jesus is qualified to speak about something that will happen in the future – either the near future or far-distant future.  However, if that is all we see, and fail to personalize the message that Jesus is teaching each of us, we ‘sell this gospel short’.

There is always a passage from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ in our human existence; it may be strictly in terms the passing of time, or circumstances (moving from one grade level in school to another, or from one job to another).  Every day of our lives, particularly as Christians, there are challenges to faithfully and authentically living out the Gospels.  Sometimes the decisions we have to make may seem ‘earth shattering’ in their importance; other times, perhaps not so much – but there is always this sense of the ‘end’ of one thing, entering into the ‘beginning’ of another.

Jesus has some very direct advice for each of us in living authentically as members of His body.  In spite of the obstacles that our culture and society throw in front of us, demanding that we set aside our faith and morals, the teaching of our Church, in order to accommodate a selfish and destructive culture, Jesus says, ‘stand up’. 

When we are in a position to choose between right and wrong, good or evil, in small or great things, we can’t ‘keep our heads down and not get noticed’.  Jesus tells His Apostles, and us, that when the things that make others faint and fear with foreboding begin to happen, we are to ‘Stand up and raise your heads’.

 Why? Because, He says, at those times, our redemption is at hand.

Every time we stand up for the poor and neglected; the weak and marginalized; the unborn or the elderly; we authentically stand up for the One who reveals Himself in the poor and week and vulnerable – whether in our homes or schools or workplaces, or on a grander scale – in the public or political arenas – we cannot lower our heads and act as if our faith in Christ and the teaching of the Church have no place in daily human affairs.

Every day, all the time, the Son of Man approaches, with great power and glory; we need to be prepared to welcome Him; the season of Advent is a reminder – a call for us to be ready, in hopeful expectation, for his arrival in our lives and hearts; we can’t ‘keep our heads down’ because we may not see Him when He enters our daily existence.

We need to ‘stand up and raise’ our heads – because our Redeemer is coming, and He is always close at hand.

ADVENT-SEASON

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…mystery of faith…

Although we don’t hear it very often, those of my generation and older will be familiar with the phrase, ‘a mystery of faith’.  Often times, that phrase was a response to questions we posed as children to our parents…’how does the Holy Trinity work?’ …’how does transubstantiation happen?’…’how does God become a little baby?’ – and the reply that might come was, ‘well, that’s a mystery of faith’.  Somehow that answer seemed sufficient as small children, but as we grew into adolescents (and at that stage we ‘knew’ everything anyway) that answer didn’t really satisfy us.  We equated ‘mystery’ with ‘I don’t know’ or ‘there is no answer’ or even ‘go ask your mother/father’.

But mystery, particularly a mystery of faith, is a concept that seems all too lost on a culture that demands instant gratification and brief, direct answers to complex questions.  In its truest sense, mystery can be understood and resolved to a certain point, but never completely. 

Mystery doesn’t mean we don’t understand anything.  It means we don’t understand everything, and there is a world of difference between the two.

I highly doubt any scientist or researcher would claim to know everything about the workings of the universe, physics, the human body, etc.  Yet the word ‘mystery’ seems never to be associated to our still limited advances in scientific discovery.  Because a scientist admits he or she doesn’t know everything about the universe, we don’t discount the entire universe as a myth. Without using the same words, we accept that there is always more to discover.

I’ve often thought of a mystery of faith as being akin to visiting a place like a large metropolitan art museum.  A visitor can see many and varied pieces of artwork just in the lobby alone.  But if one enters into that museum, they soon realize that the building has halls; and off of these halls other halls; and off of these halls many rooms; and in each room paintings and sculptures and other various media to view, appreciate, and study.  To completely ‘soak in’ each piece of art in a day or brief period of time would be nearly impossible.  The deeper one goes into the museum, one realizes how much more there is beyond the lobby.

If the visitor were a serious student of art, and made the study of one painting their entire life’s work – let’s say Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ – they might set out to attempt to make a complete and true copy. They may use the same techniques as they have studied, even down to mixing their own pigments, and choosing the construction of their brushes as Leonardo did – duplicating every little stage in exact detail.  They may be such an accomplished artist in their own right, that to anyone who didn’t know, their copy might be completely indistinguishable from the original.

But they will never know the complete experience: they will never truly know what went through Leonardo’s mind and heart as he touched brush to canvas because they are not Leonardo. The experience and language spoken to his soul at that moment would be as unique to him as it would be to each individual human being.

There will always remain some mystery there – the student can’t know ‘everything’ – but it doesn’t mean they don’t know anything.

We are just entering into the season of Advent. This is a time of joyful waiting, of hopeful expectation as we prepare to celebrate the great Mystery of the Incarnation – of God entering into our humanity in the person of Jesus.  This is a perfect time to reacquaint ourselves with that sense, in humility, of child-like wonder at that which is beyond our own understanding.

It’s a perfect time to admit that we don’t know ‘everything’ about God’s love and mercy – and to be ‘okay’ with that.  That unlike small children, or resistant adolescents, we can maturely accept that we are ready to have that sense of  mystery return to our lives; that we don’t need to know or control ‘everything’ – that God will respond to us in the measure we are open to that response.

That we will be open to delving more deeply into the mystery of that relationship.

candle

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…light a candle…

I was sitting in a small church (part of the parish cluster I serve in) reflecting on a number of things, when my attention was drawn to a small bank of vigil lights beneath a statute of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I watched as the flames danced and flickered in the coloured glass holders -reds, greens, blues, and amber; I thought of how soft and comforting those coloured flames looked.  That image stayed with me throughout the rest of that day. Late that afternoon, as I was driving from the city out in the country, I thought about those candles and what they represented.  I thought of all the people who, in their devotion and with prayer, lit each one of those little vigil lights.  Was God pleased with those candles?  Did lighting them really do any good?

Roman Catholic worship and devotion is so filled with signs and symbols; the liturgy is replete with things that each of our humans senses respond to; colours and light to sight, music and bells to sound; even incense for smell.  There are tactile things – the embrace or handshake at the ‘sign of peace’; even physical taste at reception of Holy Communion (particularly under both species). 

Candles are one of those visual symbols that our eyes respond to (and subsequently, hopefully, our hearts).  The large paschal candle obviously symbolizes the light of Christ, which we are reminded of during the Easter vigil when the chant ‘Christ our Light’ is intoned as the lit candle is processed into the church – or during a baptism, when the baptismal candle is lit from the paschal candle and given with the words, ‘Receive the light of Christ’.  The connection to Christ in these actions is very apparent.

But the small vigil lights.  I thought how each person who lit one of these, offered a prayer when lighting them.  Prayers were offered for themselves, for loved ones; perhaps for the gift of healing for one, or a return to the faith for another. Maybe someone offered a prayer of thanksgiving for blessings received from God and then left the small candle glowing as a reminder of the favour they had been granted by God. It didn’t matter whether in praise, supplication, intercession or thanksgiving, each candle had been lit and served as a symbol of a prayer – of communication – to God.  This is a God who loves and cherishes each human being.  This is a God who wants nothing more than to be reunited with each and every child He created.  This is a God who is constantly calling and speaking to His children  everywhere and in everything, if only they would listen.  This is a God who entered into our very humanity in the person of Jesus; He entered into our world and became one like us – into our world full of sensory experience and symbolism. 

Each of those candles left burning represents, at least on some level I would hope, the intention of a brief dialogue with God; do I believe that the candles themselves somehow mysteriously have some magical, miraculous power? No, I don’t.  Do I believe that what they represent, the gesture of children reaching out to a loving Father in trust, is somehow pleasing to God? 

Absolutely I do. 

If our God entered into our human experience, and is the author of all things – physical or spiritual; actual or symbolic – then He alone would be able to judge the heart and the intent of the one lighting those simple little wicks.

What a world it would be if, instead of shouting at and insulting each other, denigrating or belittling each other, hurting or manipulating each other – we simply went into a  church, and lit a candle, and offered a prayer or thought for each other?

Light one for me, and I’ll light one for you.

All for Jesus

As my American friends are ‘recovering’ from their Thanksgiving holiday, and many are plunging headlong into the ‘Black Friday’ frenzy (with cross-border help from some of their Canadian counterparts), I thought I might take this opportunity to offer something for those who are completely weary of the constant blaring of advertisements and demands to ‘buy, Buy, BUY’ and actually get something that won’t cost them anything….seriously.

The All for Jesus podcast (with a link at the top of this page) is a project that I have been graced to be involved with for several years now; when we started it, there seemed to be a dwindling number of venues open to Catholic composers and musicians in terms of broadcast and internet radio ‘stations’. I had loads more space than I needed for my music ministry website, and thought ,’since I’m paying for the space anyway, might as well put it to good use!’

I contacted several Catholic musicians with whom I had the privilege of counting among my contacts and friends through the ‘web’ and explained what I wanted to do – have a venue for their music; but there was a catch – I didn’t have resources for royalty payments, and as I was going to put my music in the mix for free, I wondered if they would be willing to do the same. The response from those ‘faithful few’ was an immediate, and resounding,”YES”. From the first few, we have slowly but surely grown to 15 artists, and our little community, I pray and hope, will continue to grow.

This is where I have to again publicly thank those first and constant friends who were involved right from the beginning; Karl Kohlhase, Margo B. Smith, Susan Bailey, and Mike Beloud of the band Rise; their faithfulness to this little endeavour has been a tremendous blessing and gift.

So, the All for Jesus Podcast is music freely offered and shared by artists who do what they do for the love of Christ and love of the Gospel. It’s a half-hour of music and (sometimes) reflections, and is freely available online for anyone to download and listen to. If you’ve had enough of the ‘buy me, get me’ mantra, then take some time to sit, listen to music that will inspire you, and hopefully prepare your heart and mind for the most important relationship in your life – your relationship with God. These artists have been blessed with a gift – and as we all know – a gift is meant to be shared. Let them share it with you…for the love of God.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever! 

…although he believes he can’t quite understand…

A few years ago I made the foray into actually recording and performing my own music; there was a flurry of activity, mostly taken up in the very early hours with tune after tune, and theme after theme pouring out: that this occurred immediately after a very powerful retreat was certainly not coincidental.
Among the songs, though, and one of my favourites (which I tend not to have concerning my own music) is a song about the birth of Jesus from the perspective of St. Joseph. There are loads of songs about the infant Jesus (which is of course proper, because it is, after all His birth we celebrate), and lots of songs about the Blessed Virgin Mary (which is also proper – and reflective of the natural desire to want to visit with a newborn babe and their mom; dads sometimes get lost in the shuffle), but not so many about St. Joseph.

I was present at the births of all of my children, and I have to say, I have never felt so useless in all my life; it’s the guy thing to want to fix and heal, to repair and guide and ‘make everything all right’; but during those moments, all I could do was hold hands, speak words of encouragement, and watch and wait. It was at the same time the most wondrous and the most humbling experience of my life.
I cannot completely imagine how those two spiritual gifts – wonder and humility – would have combined for St. Joseph so long ago…but this song gives my limited thoughts on that. (the images are a combination of classical and more modern art)

Praised be Jesus Christ now and forever!