Monday, February 20, 2017

The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation in the Temple

The following is the thirteenth of twenty monthly reflections about the Mysteries of the Rosary as they relate to family life.  The mysteries will not be necessarily chronological but presented as they interact with the liturgical year.

            When a baby is born, there are various presentations that take place.  One of my favorites as a father has been presenting my newborn children to their mother Stephanie for the first time.  She has, after all, been doing all the work!  But when I have placed our babies cheek to cheek with their mother, any difficulty has been momentarily forgotten, and I have had one of the rare chances in life to witness pure, uninterrupted joy.  However, the presentation I most closely associate with this month’s rosary mystery is when my wife and I have brought our children to baptism.  Like Joseph and Mary, we have fulfilled a hope and expectation of the religious heritage we wish to pass along as a precious gift to our children.  Whenever we have done so, my mind has inevitably drifted to my children’s and my future as well.  How will we shape them to be holy people?  Will we be as proud to present them to God in eternal life as we were on their baptismal day?  And finally, am I directing my own life in a way that others would happily present on the day of salvation?
            There are many moments in life when we prepare each other or ourselves for presentations of some sort.  I think of a parent talking with a son or daughter about how to act on a first date, a friend or counselor putting someone through a mock interview before the real one, or the small army of assistants a bride sometimes has in preparation for a wedding!  All of these presentations are for pivotal moments in life, but we do run the risk of only concerning ourselves with passing things such as what clothes we are wearing, our physical appearance, or our social or career status should we be successful.
            Our sacred imagination leads us to ponder a different sort of principles in considering life’s presentations.  We think about treating a first date with respect, if a certain career move will enable us to glorify God with our talents, or if we have sufficiently prepared to honor the marriage vows our whole lives.  In short, we begin to view things from a divine rather than human lens.
            I can only wonder at Mary and Joseph’s thoughts as they spoke with Simeon at Jesus’ presentation.  They had already been through a great many remarkable things surrounding Jesus’ birth: the angelic announcement, the pre-marital crisis, the journey to Bethlehem, the stable, and the extraordinary visitors.  Now they were in front of a man who had prayed for preservation from death until he would meet their child.  Many of Simeon’s words would inspire excitement about Jesus’ potential, but they were also laced with a sense of foreboding. Talk of Jesus being a sign of contraction and his life a source of sorrows for Mary are not typical things a person would say about an infant.  Yet, here again we have someone viewing things as God does instead of how human beings might.
            This story inspires us to change our perspective.  Instead of being overly concerned with the minor presentations that will be a part of our lives, we take a longer look and consider everything in light of our final presentation before God at the end of our lives.  And when we are at our best and most loving, we help others to do the same instead of sidetracking them with trivial matters.  As St. Paul suggests in his Letter to the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Monday, January 30, 2017

The First Luminous Mystery: The Baptism in the Jordan

The following is the twelfth of twenty monthly reflections about the Mysteries of the Rosary as they relate to family life.  The mysteries will not be necessarily chronological but presented as they interact with the liturgical year.

            My wife Stephanie and I have a running joke between us.  I ask her if there is anywhere she would like to go on vacation, and she quickly answers, “Somewhere with a beach.”  Of course, we have found that there is a difference between the idyllic beach scene in her mind and the reality of being by water with young kids in tow.  Usually, it means that Stephanie is managing “the bag,” filled with enough supplies to guide us through any number of misadventures that could be in store, and while she covers home base on the beach, I am out in the water with my aspiring but not yet functioning swimmers.  Whenever someone approaches the water and is uncertain about swimming ability or the unseen terrain, our instinctive reaction is to hold out our hands in support, and this image came to me as I reflected on our rosary mystery this month.
             I do not know exactly what the physical interaction between John the Baptist and Jesus looked like at Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.  We have record in the various gospel accounts of the words and happenings, but we must imagine ourselves the details of the larger scene.  I imagine John, already standing in the water, reaching his hands out to Jesus as he approached.  It is a reassuring gesture to prepare for the coming event, and the dialogue between the two men show how it is curious that this interplay is happening at all.  After all, Jesus is certainly not in need of a baptism of repentance, and we often hear John admit that Jesus is the far greater of the two.  What exactly is Jesus doing going into this water?
            A myriad of reasons has emerged over the millennia as each generation considers this event, but I would like to highlight two.  The first is that Jesus is showing us the way to follow.  After he emerges from the baptismal waters, we can imagine that Jesus has figuratively invited each of us to follow suit, holding out his hands as we enter the water ourselves and become members of the Body of Christ.  It helps to follow someone who has gone before us.
            The second reason that I find important is that Jesus is already prefiguring his death on the cross.  The interplay of water as both a cleansing agent and source of danger and death is present here.  Baptism not only washes away our sins but also asks us to die to our former selves.  Those hands of support are essential to keep the fear of drowning at bay, but the interesting thing about Jesus is that he invites us down into the water to, in a way, drown our old selves and emerge as a new person, freed from sin.  The reason that baptism is effective in this way is because of Christ’s death on the cross.  By submitting to baptism in the Jordan, Jesus shows that he is willing to die for us and will soon enough do so.
Just as Jesus’ life does not end with death but resurrection, our baptism does not end with death but moves to rebirth and adoption.  Because Jesus first shows us the way, we have the courage to enter the water ourselves, knowing that we will never be the same and changed for the better.  Even if we cannot remember the event of our baptism, we continue to affirm its meaning as we sign ourselves with holy water, renew our baptismal promises during Easter, and continue to follow Jesus in the way that we live our lives.  Let us then again reach out and take Jesus’ hands.  We know that in following him, we will end up where our hearts most desire to go.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Third Joyful Mystery: The Nativity of our Lord

The following is the eleventh of twenty monthly reflections about the Mysteries of the Rosary as they relate to family life.  The mysteries will not be necessarily chronological but presented as they interact with the liturgical year.

            This particular Advent is memorable to me as we wait for the Christ Child because my wife Stephanie and I also await the birth of our fourth child this spring.  It is something that our other children greatly anticipate as well and talk about frequently.  Recently, we braved a local restaurant for a public meal with our crew, and my five-year-old Benjamin said something that caught me by surprise.  As we sat at the table, he announced without discussion or prompting, “We have six people at our table now.”  We questioned him further about what he meant, and he explained, “There is Nicholas, Mark, Benjamin, Daddy, Mommy, and the new baby.”  I marveled at the beauty and simplicity of his statement and remarked to my wife that it is amazing what children could sometimes teach the world.  I certainly have learned a great deal from each of my children and have no doubt that our newest addition will do the same.  It gives me pause as I reflect on our mystery this month of Jesus’ birth.  As we celebrate his coming this year, what will this child teach us?
            First, many elements of his birth are instructive for our meditation.  The humility of the arrival of the King of Kings is remarkable in many ways.  He comes as a little baby, seemingly insignificant enough to be born in a stable and to have a manger as his first resting place.  Any baby seems to draw in other people, and a baby born in this manner would certainly have no barriers, social or otherwise, to a breadth of human visitors.  This is confirmed as both common shepherds and educated, wealthy astronomers approach him.  This baby comes to all people, of every heritage and way of life, offering us all what no other child could.
            A second important aspect of the Lord’s Nativity is that he comes to share in our hardships.  Think of the many challenging events of Jesus’ early life: a crisis pregnancy, temporarily homelessness, and forced emigration due to violence.  This is not the sort of peaceful arrival we would expect for a divine being coming to visit his people and to actually become one of them.  Again, God defies conventional wisdom and makes a clear point here.  Even in his birth, Christ begins to bear the weight of our humanity and the cost of our sinfulness.
            This leads us to our final lesson from Christ’s birth: Jesus comes with a purpose.  It is tempting to sit with the peace of Christmas and compartmentalize it from the rest of Jesus’ life.  However, we know that Bethlehem and Calvary are inextricably linked, and the cross and empty tomb are the culmination of this little baby’s story.  We celebrate his birth not only because of the events that immediately surround it but also because of what will follow.  This child will eventually grow to become the savior of all humanity, and his birth is an essential event as God’s salvific plan comes to fruition.
            As we gather with family and friends this season in our homes and churches, we do well to remember the true importance and meaning of our celebration. Our hearts must be open to the lessons Christ comes to teach us, and we will then be like those who celebrated and told a weary world of this sign of hope. With gratitude and acceptance we joyfully pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Third Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning with Thorns

The following is the tenth of twenty monthly reflections about the Mysteries of the Rosary as they relate to family life.  The mysteries will not be necessarily chronological but presented as they interact with the liturgical year.

            As a parent of multiple children, I am well aware of the challenges of encouraging good behavior during Mass.  It was no different during my own childhood.  My older brother and I went through a phase, even after we had passed the age of crying and outbursts, when we were less than charitable towards each other.  This included jostling for position in the pew each time we sat down, “accidentally” knocking someone’s songbook to the ground, and my brother’s personal favorite, an extra firm grip if we happened to be holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer.  No other time in my life have I prayed the line “deliver us from evil” with such gusto!  One particular day, as my family climbed back into the car, my dad said to my mom, “I think we need to have a surprise party when we get home.”  A surprise party?  I thought that perhaps my brother and I had gotten so good at our antics that my dad had not noticed us this week and wanted to have a party for our seemingly good behavior.  Well, the surprise was on me.
            Instead of a day filled with games, cake, and ice cream, our “surprise” was to spend time at home in prayer equal to the time that we were misbehaving in Mass.  Obviously, that particular lesson has certainly stayed with me, and I was thinking about it this week during the Feast of Christ the King and reflecting on our rosary mystery this month.  God is a God of surprises, and it is jarring to consider that Jesus, who we proclaim King of the Universe, first accepted a crown of thorns.  The Roman governmental authority of the day meant it to be a source of pain and mockery, but Jesus transforms it and all the symbols of his Passion as something that we now reflect upon and revere.  It is also telling that the kingship of Christ endures while the Roman reign has long ended.  Indeed, any form of human government is ultimately subject to divine authority.
            Leading up to and during his walk to Calvary, Jesus surprised many people, and they responded in various ways.  His disciples were caught off-guard and hesitant when their master began to perform a servant’s work and wash their feet.  Judas and Peter heard their deeds foretold to them, but instead of accepting Jesus’ warnings, they carried them out.  Pontius Pilate and especially his wife seemed to struggle greatly with the idea of prosecuting what seemed to be an innocent man, but their hesitation was not enough to put a stop to the injustice.  Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service unexpectedly as Jesus labored heavily under the cross, and he accepted his task well.  The Good Thief rebuked the other man abusing Jesus from the cross, and he was surprised to accept Jesus’ mercy at the hour of death.
            How open are we to the unexpected movements of God in our lives?  Do we accept such surprises with an open or hardened heart?  Sometimes God’s will aligns with our plans, but other times it can be completely the opposite of what thought would happen.  I have heard more than one priest or vowed religious claim that the most difficult vow to live is not chastity but obedience.  Following Jesus means that sometimes, like on the road to Calvary, we will have to go where we do not want and do what we would rather not.  Yet, it is precisely Jesus’ example that gives us the promise of something greater on the other side of our earthly suffering.
            My own sense is that the only way I have been able to be truly receptive to God’s movement in my life is by cultivating a strong life of prayer. In times where I have not achieved this, God’s surprises have had the power to blow me far off-course, but in times where prayer has been consistent, things come more as a gentle breeze redirecting my efforts towards a different goal. Of course, like a younger brother having the life squeezed out of his hand, nothing spurs us to prayer faster than sheer desperation!

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Second Joyful Mystery: The Visitation

The following is the ninth of twenty monthly reflections about the Mysteries of the Rosary as they relate to family life.  The mysteries will not be necessarily chronological but presented as they interact with the liturgical year.

            One of the greatest remedies for a messy house that I know is to have visitors.  In my childhood home and current one, nothing lights a fire under the cleaning crew more than people coming to visit.  This, of course, is a natural human response.  We want to welcome our guests well to a presentable environment, and we cannot claim that the demands of family life do not sometimes get the better of our ability to keep our space organized.  However, even when we clean our homes, there is usually a spot or two that remain in disarray but mercifully out of the sight of guests.  Whether under a bed, in a closet, or in an entire room with the door strategically closed, we all know the go-to place when we have run short on time preparing for the guests to arrive.  In our rosary mystery this month, we do not hear about the cleanliness of anyone’s home, but we find out a great deal about the guests who come to visit.
            The Visitation is the story of Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth while they are both with child.  Both pregnancies are quite unlikely due to Elizabeth’s age and Mary’s virginity, yet the women have welcomed the visitors inside their bodies and have come together to share their stories and prepare for the new arrivals.  Elizabeth and her baby John give us quite a bit of insight about Mary and her child Jesus.  Exclaiming that Mary and her baby are blessed above all others, Elizabeth also tells Mary that John leapt for joy inside of her at the sound of Mary’s voice.  Indeed, guests of great honor have arrived.
            Our lives of faith are also about welcoming the Guest into our hearts and lives.  I love the image of Jesus knocking at a door with no exterior handle because the door to our hearts is ours to open from the inside.  God still offers us this freedom even when such an important guest is waiting.  Because of our attraction to sin, we are not always ready to welcome Christ as a guest.  Distraction and untidy spiritual lives leave us bereft of the gifts that he offers us with his presence.  Perhaps our relationship with God is in good order overall, but there may be that hiding spot or two that could use our attention.  Just as my parents claimed about housework, a little effort in our spiritual lives each day makes the task of preparing for our visitor more manageable.  However, unlike a physical house that can only be so clean, there is no limit to the graces we can receive by constantly attending to our spiritual house.
            As we approach the end of the liturgical year, we will begin to think more about death, the Second Coming, and our lack of knowledge about the timing of these events.  This is not meant to frighten us but rather to remind us of our limited time on earth and our need to consider the things of lasting value.  It is important that we ready ourselves each day so that when our final day arrives, whether unexpectedly or after a long life, we are ready to welcome Jesus and accept his invitation to live in his Father’s eternal home.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Fourth Glorious Mystery: The Assumption

The following is the eighth of twenty monthly reflections about the Mysteries of the Rosary as they relate to family life.  The mysteries will not be necessarily chronological but presented as they interact with the liturgical year.

            One of the more moving scenes for me in the movie The Passion of the Christ is when Jesus falls on his way to Calvary.  The film makes frequent and effective use of flashbacks, and in this case, as the adult Jesus falls under the weight of his cross, we see the image of Jesus falling as a child.  In both instances Mary is rushing to catch her beloved son.  I will admit that I cried like a baby when I watched this scene for the first time!  It presents such a common human scene of a mother hastening to a suffering child, and we feel the yearnings of both parent and child on either side of the situation.  Those bonds help inform my own imagery of this month’s rosary mystery, when the roles are suddenly reversed.
            Our mystery this month is the Assumption of Mary into Heaven.  In short, it is the Church’s teaching that Mary was assumed, body and soul, into eternal life instead of having her body and soul separated for a period of time.  As I think of the scene, I imagine the Risen Jesus rushing back to catch his mother as she passes from this life to the next and taking her away before the decay of death can gain any foothold.  Her Assumption is not only reflective of God’s grace in her life even to the moment of her Immaculate Conception.  It also gives testimony to the fidelity that Mary displayed towards Christ throughout his life and the reward for her obedience to God’s will.  From her agreeing to give birth to Jesus in a difficult situation to watching him die on the cross, her faithfulness never wavered.  At the end of her time on earth, God’s faithfulness to her returned in kind.
            There are similar reversals in our families as well.  Parents who once cared for helpless babies in every way may someday become dependent on their children for all aspects of their care.  A husband and wife minister to one another throughout their marriage when the other is ill.  Friends reach out to each other in a particular way during times of hardship or loss.  These moments provide us with the chance to become the hands of Christ to others and receive, even as Jesus did, help in our times of need.  We sometimes easily forget that we are, in the final analysis, totally dependent on God.  Being in acute need often reminds us of our human frailty and the necessity of both giving and receiving help.
            Ultimately, all of our love and care is towards a greater purpose of helping each other to eternal life.  The Assumption gives us the hope of our bodies eventually being renewed to join our souls in heaven.  In the meantime, it is important that we strive to live holy lives in obedience to God’s will.  Not even the Seven Sorrows that marked Mary’s life could deter her from following the plan God had for her.  Her Assumption emboldens us to remain faithful as well, even during times of adversity.  The results speak for themselves!

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Fourth Luminous Mystery: The Transfiguration

The following is the seventh of twenty monthly reflections about the Mysteries of the Rosary as they relate to family life.  The mysteries will not be necessarily chronological but presented as they interact with the liturgical year.

            About twice a year, I have the chance to travel to my childhood home and visit my extended family.  These trips are important to me as I maintain relationships across geographic distance and over time.  In recent years, my visits to my two living grandmothers have become especially valuable since I know that such opportunities are dwindling.  On my most recent trip home, I spent time with my Grandma Kathryn in what we both knew would likely be our last time together in this life.  I am grateful for the grace of such a moment, knowing how death can rob us of such chances when it comes unexpectedly.  Coming to my grandmother’s hospital room, I knew I would see a frail person physically but hoped to encounter someone with her trademark inner strength intact.  What I met was a woman transfigured.
            As we sat together talking, I was struck by the juxtaposition of her physical and spiritual well-being.  For while her body had begun to deteriorate, her soul seemed to soar.  At peace with her health, she talked about the chance to see and hear from so many loved ones, her grateful reception of the sacraments, and what she most looked forward to upon her entry into heaven.  We often find ourselves avoiding thinking or talking about the end of our lives out of fear, denial, or other reasons, and here she was embracing the end because of her faith and confidence in what awaited her.
            I thought a great deal about this on the drive back, and I realized the moment was like that of the Transfiguration.  Peter, James, and John are witnesses to a remarkable event.  Jesus, accompanied by the law-giving and prophetic figures of Moses and Elijah, gives his disciples a foretaste of what he is to accomplish in his earthly mission, a completion of the work begun by his heavenly companions.  Given the difficulty and sense of despair that would accompany his death, perhaps Jesus wanted this vision to help the disciples hold onto their hope in even the direst circumstances.
            The Transfiguration aids our understanding of Jesus’ actions during his public ministry and especially his death.  He does not run from the pain, suffering, and humiliation because of his trust in what awaits him and all of humanity by his obedience and endurance.  It is one of the many paradoxes of our faith that the Light of the World allows himself to be extinguished in order to shine, dazzling white, for eternity.
            While we do not have the same chance of a mountaintop encounter with the glorified Jesus, the question remains of how we respond to the smaller transfigurations we do experience.  If a family member with whom we have a longstanding difficulty offers contrition and forgiveness, do we accept?  If we discover a new and promising way out of a sinful rut we have established, do we take it?  If an inevitable moment of humility calls into question our tendency to self-aggrandize, will we learn the lesson?  Like the three disciples, our guidance about what to do in the face of a transfiguring moment comes from the voice in heaven, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him” (Lk. 9:35).
            I can think of few better examples of people who have followed Jesus well than my Grandmother Kathryn.  Even during her final time here on earth, she remains receptive to God’s grace, letting it flow through her as a blessing to others.  While part of me feels like Peter did on that mountainside, wanting to hold onto a moment that cannot last, it is my grandmother’s example that reminds me of the hope we share.  Transfigured faces, clothes, and conversations are only a glimpse of what is to come.  As St. Paul instructs the Corinthians, “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face.  At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).