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Salt & Light

February 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Catholic Commentary

 

Many years ago when I was in graduate seminary, there was a very wise man who taught us psychology and counseling. His name was Dr. Saverio Laudadio.  He held by a certain principle that he tried to pass along to those of us studying for the priesthood: If you want to be happy, stop worrying and fussing about being happy and get along to the task of being fulfilled: serve your community, deepen your understanding through reading and study, and above all do the work of the Church. First do something that fulfills you and happiness will take care of itself; will flow from such pursuits.

Happiness is a byproduct of fulfillment.  So don’t concentrate so much on being happy as much as seeking a life that fulfills you by becoming engaged in service to the world around you— a truly wise principle to live by.

This same principle can be applied to the spiritual life as well.  Do you want to be holy?  Stop fussing so much about your holiness and get going with the task of discipleship.  Discipleship requires that you learn to pray, read and study to deepen your understanding, and above all, perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  Discipleship is all about announcing, proclaiming and evangelizing, taking care of the poor, and doing what Christ calls you to do.  In so doing, we become holy behind our own backs.  Holiness tends to take care of itself because it is a product of God’s grace.  The divine life of God works within us and transforms us as we live out the gospel message.

My thoughts are inspired by today’s gospel passage: 

You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world; you are a city set on a mountain.

Salt, light, and a city…what do we notice about these three things?  They all exist for the good of something outside of themselves.  Salt—what does salt do?—it was added to meat to preserve it in Jesus time; it was and is added to enhance the flavor of food.  With regard to the Church, we are not meant to fuss about ourselves, but rather we, as Church, are meant to spice up the world and to preserve what is good and right and true in the world.  Like salt, we exist for the good of what exists outside of the Church.

What else can salt be used for?  Salt melts ice.  It makes things flow that are frozen.  The Church’s task, by being followers of Christ, is to loosen up a world that is frozen in its own self-regard and in its violent ways.  We are meant to have this melting influence on the world around us that it might flow in the direction of Christ and the kingdom of heaven.

Another way that salt was used in the ancient world was to salt the ground of a conquered nation so that nothing would grow in their fields again.  And so, salt has a destructive power.  Are we, as Christians meant to destroy certain things in the world?  Yes—we are to be a force against all manifestations of sin, all the ways in which human life is violated and discounted, all forms of hatred and violence, we are meant to interrupt them and get in their way.

We too are light!  Light illumines, not itself but those objects on which it shines.  So the Church’s purpose is not to look at itself, but to cast light on the world.  Light allows people to see and to move; it allows them to make their way.  That is why Jesus said: I am the light of the world; by His light people see what to do and where to go.  We, the Church, are meant to participate in His light; to illumine the paths of the world.

Light shines in dark places and illumines what is going on in them.  Salt is meant to interrupt and kill off certain things; and so light is meant to be shined into dark corners where hatred dwells, where violence festers, where old animosities and jealousies are still alive.  The Church’s job is to shed light where things need to be exposed for the good of the world.

Lastly, Jesus says we are a city set on a mountain.  In this we are meant to be a point of navigation.  A city set upon a mountain, bright and shining, we are meant to be a guide to all who can see it.  The world is guided to the safe harbor of the kingdom of heaven by remaining focused on the Church, a city set on a mountain.

But keep in mind, the Church is not raised up on the mountain to aggrandize itself and think of itself as great, to increase its own power, rather it is meant to be visible so that the world can see it and know it and guide their lives by it.

And now, here’s the devastating thing about this gospel; we must listen to it carefully.  What if the salt goes flat?  How can you restore its flavor?  It becomes good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.   Light hidden under a bushel basket serves no purpose at all.  What happens to us, the Church, when we lose our saltiness; when we put our light under a bushel basket?  We lose our whole purpose.  Once we lose saltiness, we lose our distinctiveness, our spicy particularity, our slightly annoying uniqueness.  When the Church simply blends in with the world, it no longer helps the world.  I repeat: when the Church simply blends in with world, it no longer helps the world and loses its mission to the world.  Once we look like everybody else and sound like everybody else; have all the same opinions and ideas as everybody else, then we are no longer what Christ intended us to be.  Then, who needs us?

The Church must hold on to its saltiness or it preserves nothing; it spices up nothing; it challenges no one, and upsets no one.  Then we have failed as a Church.  If we allow the din of public opinion, cultural and social dissolution to dim or put out our light, then we have failed as Church.  We’ve put our light under a bushel basket.  Then, we become as dark as everybody else.  We become as unfocused as everybody else.  We become a vague echo of the secular culture around us.  We are meant to look and sound differently.  If we are not, then we as Church have failed.  My brothers and sisters be salty, be light, be that city upon the mountain for the good of the world!!!

Ever Wonder

February 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Catholic Catechesis

Why Catholics make the sign of the cross?  The sign of the cross is a very ancient practice and prayer.   It was then and is now a sign of discipleship and belief in the Trinity.  St. John Chrysostom said, “If we are Christians, we are attached to Jesus Christ and we carry on our foreheads the mark of the one whom we do not blush to carry in our hearts, whose mark is His very humility.”

The sign of the cross has evolved over the years from tracing a small cross on the forehead to the version we use today. St. Francis de Sales, (1567-1622) wrote the following description in his work, “The Sign of the Cross, The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language.” “The Sign of the Cross is made in the following way.  It is made with the right hand, which, as Justin Martyr says, is esteemed the more worth of the two.  It is made with with three fingers, in order to signify the Blessed Trinity, or five, in order to signify the Savior’s five wounds; and although it does not much matter whether one makes the Sign of the Cross with more or fewer fingers, still one may wish to conform to the common practice of Catholics in order not to seem to agree with certain heretics, such as Jacobites and the Armenians, who each make it with one finger alone, the former in denial of the Trinity and the latter in denial of the two natures of Christ.

The Christian first lifts his hand toward his head while saying, “In the name of the Father,” in order to show that the Father is the first person of the Blessed Trinity and the principle and origin of the others. Then, he moves his hand downward toward the stomach while saying,
“and of the Son,” in order to show that the Son proceeds from the Father, who sent Him here below into the Virgin’s womb. Finally, he pulls his hand across from the left shoulder to the right while saying, “and of the Holy Spirit,” in order to show that the Holy Spirit, being the third person of the Blessed Trinity, proceeds from the Father and from the Son and is Their bond of love and charity, and that it is by His grace that we enjoy the effects of the Passion. When making the Sign of the Cross, therefore, we confess three great mysteries: the Trinity, the Passion, and the remission of sins, by which we are moved from the left, the hand of the curse, to the right, the hand of blessing.”

Another form of the sign of the cross is used at Mass just before the Gospel is read. We trace a small cross on our foreheads, lips and heart and pray, “May the words of the Gospel be on my mind, upon my lips and in my heart”.

Making the sign of the cross is more than a gesture; it is a sign, an offering and a ceremony.

It is a sign of the Passion and Death suffered by Jesus Christ for our salvation. It is an offering of our thoughts, works and prayers and it is a ceremony in that it is used to honor and worship the triune God.

As a young person, I remember when Catholics made the sign of the cross as a sign of reverence when they passed a church or religious place and when were beginning a task many took time to remember and give homage to God by making the sign of the cross.

Next time you make the sign of the cross think about the significance of this common gesture and the opportunity to worship it affords.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church

CCC 2157  The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior’s grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties.

CCC 1668   Sacramentals are instituted for the sanctification of certain ministries of the Church, certain states of life, a great variety of circumstances in Christian life, and the use of many things helpful to man. In accordance with bishops’ pastoral decisions, they can also respond to the needs, culture, and special history of the Christian people of a particular region or time. They always include a prayer, often accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water (which recalls Baptism).

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

February 8, 2014 by  
Filed under Catholic Commentary

We celebrate the great feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  A few days after his birth in accordance with Jewish law, He is brought to the Temple for His circumcision and presentation.  In this His whole life is offered to God by Mary and Joseph.  The feast of the Presentation is a very “churchy” feast.  What I mean is that it is a feast that emphasizes church, liturgy, and ritual.  Our readings today reflect this churchiness.  The first reading speaks of sacrifice in the Temple—a ritual act by which God and humanity are linked.  The second reading from the letter to the Hebrews talks about Jesus as a priest.  A priest is someone who performs a ritual sacrifice.  So Jesus in his own person links together divinity and humanity; He is in His own being and person, a priest.  Then we hear our beautiful gospel taken from that familiar passage of St. Luke describing Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem so that He might be consecrated to the Lord.  This Temple is for the people Israel the most sacred of places and they engage in this ancient ritual act circumcision, purification, and presentation.

When I was coming of age in the Church, in the late sixties and early seventies, there was a kind of reaction against liturgy.  There was more of a stress on the social action of the Church—the Church out in the world working on behalf of the poor and marginalized; working for social justice—and so getting out of the church was the preeminent value.  And there was consequently a tendency to underplay or devalue the liturgical, the ritual, and the churchy side of things.  In fact, people who loved to spend time in church were kind of poopooed a bit and looked down upon.

What is interesting is that there is a revival going on right now.  20something and 30something Catholics and other young Christians have developed a deep interest in liturgy, ritual, and the practices of the Church such as candles, processions, vestments, stained glass, incense, and ritual action.

Luke makes mention of the prophetess, Anna and Simeon the prophet—two people who spent almost their whole day in the Temple; they loved the Temple, its practices, customs, and rituals.  They remind me of those women in my childhood who would stay after Mass to pray the rosary, make the Stations of the Cross, and pray novenas.  Many of them were elderly widows praying for their families and friends.  They, like Anna and Simeon, gained much comfort from spending this time in church.   And so it seems that young people today are being drawn back to these churchy expressions.

What is the importance of all of this?  Why are the readings emphasizing it?  Why this feast day?  Why am I placing such stress on the liturgical life of the Church?—especially in light of the need for social justice and to get out into the world.  Love and Justice—liturgy is about love and about justice.  First love—when a young man is falling in love with a young woman, he tends to do odd and extravagant things.  He might send her flowers for a week.  He might write her a love poem—even if he is a lousy poet.  He might, if really extravagant, stand outside her window and sing her a love song.  People in love often do exaggerated and extravagant things to express their love.  As love begins to bubble up within you it goes beyond what ordinary language and gesture can express.  It moves into the artistic, the poetic, and extraordinary.  The liturgy and ritual are expressions of love—our love for God.  It is a love the rises up within us and becomes this extraordinary and flowery speech and gesture known as liturgy and ritual.  It takes form in stained glass windows, incense, poetic language and gesture.  When I walk in to celebrate the Mass I dress in these colorful, beautiful robes, I enter by way of a procession up the aisle surrounded by singing and I bow and kiss the altar.  All of these gestures are gestures of love.  And so this is how the Church expresses its love in these extravagant and extraordinary ways.

The second focus of the liturgy is Justice.  St. Thomas Aquinas said the liturgy is the act by which we render to God what is due to God.  That’s what justice is.  I am in a just relationship with you when I render to you all that I owe you.  My brothers and sisters, what do we owe God?  EVERYTHING!  Our being, our life, our breath, every thought we think, every desire we have.  We owe God everything.  God is our Creator and Redeemer.  What if we spend our whole lives and never thank God even once?—never praise God once.  Our lives would therefore be unjust!  We owe Him everything but pay him nothing in thanks and praise.  The liturgy is an act by which we thank and praise God and thereby render to God what is due to Him.

This may seem odd because for so long we haven’t emphasized it.  I regularly hear someone say, I go to Mass but I don’t get anything out of it—it’s kind of boring.  That’s unfortunate but the Mass is not meant to be entertainment.  The Mass is there as an act of Justice by which you render to God what you owe Him.  Whether you are in the mood or not; whether you are entertained or not, it is an act by which you are rendering to God justice.

Lest this sound like God is a calculating moneylender who’s waiting for us to pay Him back.  When we are just with regard to God; when we have presented ourselves properly in praise and thanks then we become just on the inside.  Our lives become properly ordered and are made right.  By way of the readings and prayers of Mass, we are reordering our way of thinking and acting according to God’s ways instead of the ways of the world.  There is no better way to prepare ourselves to go out into the world to work on behalf of the poor and marginalized, and to work for justice than what we do here in church through prayer and ritual.

At the Temple, Jesus was offered back to the Father by Joseph and Mary.  At the Mass, the priest offers Jesus back to the Father at the consecration on behalf of us all.  There is no greater act of thanks and praise from God’s people than the Mass with its prayers and rituals.  I pray that each and every one of us here present is in a just relationship with God on this feast of the Presentation of the Lord.