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).

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Fifth Luminous Mystery: The Institution of the Eucharist

The following is the sixth 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.

            Traveling through my home state of Kansas, drivers encounter a curious sign there along the interstate.  It states simply how many people on average a typical Kansas farmer feeds.  The number has grown over the years, and I remember as a boy feeling a special sense of pride whenever I saw it.  One of my grandfathers was a farmer, and my uncle and godfather Tony still farms today.  Of course, as a kid, I took the sign a bit too literally as I imagined my uncle handing out over a hundred loaves of bread to a thankful line of people!  That image of a benefactor giving food to hungry people came to me this month as I considered our mystery of the rosary, The Institution of the Eucharist.  Yet this gift is no ordinary bread as it feeds us in ways beyond our physical needs.
            Jesus does something very special at the Last Supper.  He and his disciples are eating the Passover meal to commemorate the Hebrew people’s flight from Egypt and deliverance from slavery.  Jesus indeed recalls those events but then does something new, establishing an everlasting covenant between God and humanity, one that has the power to deliver us from slavery to sin and death.  His words that night prefigure what he will do the next day as he offers his body on the cross and pours out his blood, a sign that seals this eternal covenant.  Though we do not have the privilege of seeing this sacrifice firsthand, it is made present to us each time we celebrate Mass, and the Eucharist has become a perpetual sign of our union with God.
            We do well to notice, too, the importance of Jesus’ celebrating that first Eucharist as a meal with his followers, who were in many ways his family during his years in active ministry.  Jesus does not institute this sign out in the desert or alone in prayer.  Rather, he does it in the midst of a community, and this is still one of the gifts of the Eucharist.  It has the power, as we celebrate it with one another, to draw us together and sanctify our relationships, families, communities, and world.  In fact, we are what we eat.  We consume the Body of Christ and in so doing again become the Body of Christ.  Living as members of that body has a twofold responsibility.  First, we must act in love and service to our other members, taking care not to alienate one another.  Second, we are compelled to reach out in charity to those not part of the body, just as Jesus ministered to those outside of normal or accepted social circles.
            To be able to fulfill these responsibilities, it is essential that we stay close to the Eucharist throughout our daily lives.  We are only required to receive it once a year, but we have the ability to do so each week as part of our Sunday worship or even daily if possible.  We also can pray before the Eucharist in adoration, as part of Eucharistic processions, or simply in the presence of the tabernacle.  Like any relationship, the more we nurture our bond with the Eucharistic Jesus the more we are able to live faithfully our lives of Christian witness.
The Eucharist is our spiritual food for the journey home to God, and it sustains us in ways beyond ordinary bread.  At Masses all over the world this coming Sunday, millions will line the aisles of churches around the world and receive this nourishment in thanksgiving.  There is not a sign big enough to fit on the side of a highway to count all the saints in heaven who have been fed by this most precious gift, and our hope in eating it is to one day join them in everlasting happiness.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Third Glorious Mystery: The Descent of the Holy Spirit

The following is the fifth 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 quite enjoyable aspect of being a parent has been watching my children develop their language skills.  Such a remarkable transformation takes place from when my wife and I were so excited to hear “Dada” or “Mama” to the point of listening to our kids put together sentences and tell us whole stories.  Recently, after my nearly 5 year-old son had done something regrettable, I was trying to explain to him the idea of having a conscience and that it would help him tell right from wrong.  He then told me, “Daddy, sometimes, when I do bad things, it’s because my bad brain tells me to do it.  I try not to listen to my bad brain, but it’s hard sometimes.”  Now, I have absolutely no idea where he came up with the phrase “bad brain,” but it was both hilarious and illustrative of part of our human condition.  Not only was my son learning language, he was awakening to deeper truths and mysteries of God, life, and relationship, even at his young age.  Of course, compared to God’s intellect, ours will always be like that of a little child’s.  Yet, as we see in this month’s mystery of the rosary, there are sometimes moments of enlightenment that lead us to greater understanding.
            As the apostles gathered shortly before the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they were in a state of contradiction.  Though certainly excited about the events of recent days with Jesus’ resurrected return, they remained out of contact with the wider community.  Praying together in that room, not even the momentous event of Jesus’ rising was enough to spur them onward to spread the Good News to others.
This is not unlike our own lives of faith at times.  We are grateful for God’s many graces and blessings, but we are not always sure what to do with them.  Sometimes going about the busy nature of our lives can keep us from always asking the important questions of God’s will for us.  Even when we, like the apostles, spend time praying for guidance, we do not always receive timely answers.  Instead, we are waiting for the Spirit to move.
The hope and promise of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit will indeed move.  We can imagine the scene that day: the strong driving wind, the tongues of fire, the doors bursting open, the apostles readily distributing themselves among the people and telling them, in their many native languages, of the wonders of God manifested in the person of Jesus.  It is a truly remarkable event and a culmination, in a sense, of what Jesus came to do.  He had gathered this ragtag bunch only a few years before, and they had followed him since then.  Sometimes they had been faithful, but they also were prone to confusion, pettiness, and a limited vision of Jesus’ mission on earth.  It is only with the rushing in of the Holy Spirit that the evangelized become the evangelizers.  Those who had known and followed the Word of God for three years were finally able to use words to preach courageously about him.
As we reflect on the moments of our faith journey, we find ourselves at different times on various parts of the spectrum.  Like children learning a language, we begin with babbling, move to words, string those words together, and occasionally utter something coherent and profound.  The important thing to remember is that we never act alone.  The Holy Spirit continues to live and move in our time, and if we open ourselves to this direction, it can lead to moments of clarity, of doors bursting open as we rush to do the will of God.  As long as we listen to the Spirit and not our “bad brain,” we will know exactly what to do!

Monday, April 18, 2016

The First Glorious Mystery: The Resurrection

The following is the fourth 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.

             I first experienced the sting of death when I was eight years old and my grandfather passed away after a battle with cancer.  So many things about those days have proven more memorable and meaningful than I realized at the time, especially because I had never been through something like that in my life.  One moment in particular that stays with me happened the evening before my grandfather’s funeral.  The wake had taken place, and only my extended family remained at the parish hall.  The adults were all in the kitchen trading stories, tears, and laughter.  My cousins were outside in the yard playing some kind of game together.  At one point, I wondered into the vacant room with my grandfather’s body and took some time to consider everything that had taken place.  I can still remember standing very close to my grandfather, thinking that, if I only prayed hard or willed it enough, he would get up, and this would all be over.  Of course, his body remained motionless, and I left the room with the hard truth of the reality of death.  I did not know what to make of it, and I would spend the night and most of the next day wrestling in confused thoughts.  It was not until the final rites at the grave that I began to understand the hope of resurrection.
            The very last thing we did at the gravesite was sing a song, “Canticle of the Sun.”  Based on a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, it is quite joyful and uplifting.  It seemed strange to me that we should be singing such a song in the face of my grandfather’s death.  I then realized that the people around me truly believed in the power of Christ’s resurrection to overcome death and that my grandfather’s life was changed, not ended.  It was there that death’s impact diminished for me, and I too began to believe more fully.
            I think about that story almost every Triduum as we move through Jesus’ final hours, his death, and his rising from the dead.  I can somewhat identify with the sense of despair from Good Friday until Easter Sunday morning.  We now have the advantage of remembering Christ’s death each year knowing that Easter is near, but it was not so that very first time.  One of my favorite post-resurrection encounters, the story I considered as I reflected on this month’s rosary mystery, is the meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in John 20:1-18.  Mary comes to the tomb with Peter and John, staying to weep alone when Jesus’ body is missing.  She eventually encounters the risen Jesus, but in her grief, she does not recognize him.  Thinking Jesus the gardener, she asks if he knows where the body is.  Then, there is a wonderful moment of satisfaction as Jesus calls Mary by name, and she, recognizing who it is, tenderly calls him the familiar term “Rabbouni.”  As heavy as the burden of Jesus’ death had been for her, it pales in comparison to the joy she now experiences knowing his rising from the dead.
            We all desire a similar reunion when we lose loved family and friends to bodily death.  In our effort to console each other, we note our expectation to see these people again.  Because of Christ’s resurrection, these are much more than empty words.  The anticipated bliss of those future encounters helps assuage our grief and can be a source of hope in even the most dire of circumstances.  Even more than that, we look forward to our own Magdalene-like encounter with our God.  In Mary’s case, she clung to Jesus but had to let go.  The joy of heaven is that we will never have to let go and can forever stay in that place of light, happiness, love, contentment, and peace.  Alleluia, indeed!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion of Our Lord

The following is the third 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 maternal grandparents were blessed with twelve children in a Catholic farming family in western Kansas.  However, by the time I came along and got to know my mother’s parents and siblings, only seven children remained.  Over time, I came to know the stories of the deaths of my mother's siblings, including health complications during pregnancy, childbirth, and young adulthood as well as farming and automobile accidents.  The profound tragedies of these stories were, I admit, somewhat lost on a young boy who had never met any of the deceased family members.  When I think of them now, as a husband and a father, I can barely fathom the depth of the grief they contain.  Part of the reason, though, that I did not consider them to a greater extent as a youth must have been because my grandparents were not ruled by bitterness, gloom, or anything of the sort.  Instead, they were tremendous examples of steadfast faith, familial love and commitment, and lasting joy and hope even in the face of suffering.  I will be forever grateful for that example, and it came to mind when I pondered the crucifixion scene in this month’s rosary mystery. 
            The crucifixion of Jesus is ripe with almost endless themes, reflection points, and profound moments, but since our lens in these reflections is family life, I decided to examine the poignant moment of Jesus talking with his mother and the beloved disciple described in John 19:26-27.  Clinging to life, our Lord looks down and sees two members of his immediate and broader human families, the mother who sacrificed mightily to give birth to and raise him and the disciple who was faithful, even to what seemed to be the bitter end.  Acknowledging them, Jesus gives instruction that they are now to bond to each other as mother and son, and the disciple willingly obeys.  Mary stands there bravely loving her son as the sight of him pierces her heart beyond comprehension.  She is living every parent’s worst nightmare, having to watch her child suffer and die before her eyes.
            As painfully sad as this scene sometimes is, it also presents a ray of hope.  Even in our age of medical progress and innovation, parents still face what Mary did and bear the burden of witnessing a child’s death.  Mary provides a refuge for those in such a situation as she must have done each time my grandparents lost a child.  We are not only blessed to have a Savior who knew profoundly what it meant to be human, we also have a mother in Mary who has suffered the unimaginable and yet persevered.  She shows us what it means to cling to the wood of the cross, believing it its ultimate power to save our children and us from everlasting death.
            Some reading this essay may have experienced a similar tragedy with one of their own children, and many others pray they never do.  No matter what our situation, the interaction of Jesus, Mary, and John provides another lesson.  It shows us that, in the face of such a tragedy, it does not have to be biological ties only that dictate how we seek and offer help.  We are bound to each other as the family of the Body of Christ, and it is more than appropriate that we support each other whenever one of our members is in grief.  Whether it be bringing a timely meal, offering and attending funeral or subsequent memorial Masses, or passing along a kind note during the holidays or painful anniversaries of death, any gesture of charity can help to lighten the load even if for only a moment.  Most of all, praying for one another is not without effect, so a commitment to do so is a laudable goal.
            Ultimately, as I saw in the witness of my grandparents, we are a people of hope.  Even after enduring so much, they did not give into the temptation to despair because they knew from their faith that death is not the end of the story.  Christ leads us from death to eternal life, and while our tears may blur our vision from time to time, they never change the truth of the resurrection offered to us.  Like Mary, we have faith that we will endure the darkness to one day walk as children of everlasting light.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery:

The Carrying of the Cross

The following is the second 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.

            A few weeks ago, my wife went on a well-deserved trip to visit a friend in Florida.  We had planned this for months, and a central component of that plan was that I would take time off work to stay home with our three young boys.  This seemed like a reasonable idea at the time we were discussing it, but as the reality of five straight days of being alone with my little men approached, I began to experience some self-doubt.  The day of my wife’s departure arrived, and we all drove to the airport to say goodbye.  They boys were so excited about watching the planes that we ended up parking on the outskirts of the airport to watch Mommy’s plane take off.  As the plane diminished on the horizon, I turned around to see my companions for the next five days.  I had the distinct feeling of being an abandoned animal tied to some train tracks, staring at an oncoming train, and my three sons were driving it!  Thankfully, the days passed without any major catastrophe, and it afforded me the chance to understand better the cross that my wife carries each day in caring for our children at home, and I think of those lessons now with this month’s rosary mystery.
            In the fourth Sorrowful Mystery, we meditate on Jesus as he carries his cross to Calvary.  He has finally taken up the physical representation of something he has been doing figuratively for several years now.  After all, during his public ministry, he has already endured the questions, doubts, jealousy, and rejection by some who encountered his works and his message.  Part of that message was to ask his followers to take up their crosses and follow him.  I doubt anyone who heard it at the time could have realized how real the cross would become for Jesus in a few short years.  Part of the sorrow of this mystery is that Jesus carries the weight not of his own sins but of ours.  Yet, being the merciful Savior he is, he takes up this instrument of his death willingly.
            Inspired by Christ’s example, we his followers try to carry our crosses as well.  Relatively few have been called to accept the cross of true martyrdom, but we all carry burdens in life, some of them quite heavy.  Most of these crosses seem ordinary as they come with the daily struggles of life.  However, a curious thing happens along the way.  Faithful carrying of ordinary burdens sometimes serves as preparation for extraordinary virtue.  When we read the stories of the saints, we often hear about these extraordinary moments in the summary of their lives, but undergirding each one of them is the ordinary and daily submission to the mundane and the unglamorous.
            This gives me much hope for carrying our crosses as a part of families because so much of what we do in family life is ordinary and unremarkable.  My five days with my boys consisted in such glorious activities as changing a multitude of diapers, frustrated searching for a myriad of sippy cup components as my youngest cried for his drink, and placing clothes on my boys that were lucky to last four hours at a time before being covered in something that required a change.  Now, my wife is admittedly more used to and better at these things, but my assertion is that her daily labors in such things increase her holiness as she devotes herself to the call of motherhood.  Let me simply say it was a very joyful reunion for all of us once she returned home!
            The crosses we carry in family life change through the years, but they all have a sanctifying element if we do them with great faith and fidelity.  It could be comforting each other during unexpected tragedy, protecting family worship and prayer time against encroaching busyness, caring for a sick parent or family member, or staying true to our faith while suffering to see loved ones drift for a time.  Whatever the crosses we bear in the various stages of our lives, we can take them up with the hope that, with each of them, we follow our Lord.
            Through our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we are performing ordinary sacrifices in anticipation of the extraordinary moments of the Paschal Mystery.  We keep our eyes on Calvary as we follow Jesus daily, knowing that a tomb waits nearby.  Rather than being a place of defeat and despair, that tomb will be the site of the most impactful event in human history, Christ’s resurrection from the dead.  Indeed, the road upon which we often stumble, fall, and buckle under the load of our cross will also be the road that leads to our salvation.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Second Luminous Mystery:

The Manifestation at the Wedding at Cana

The following is the first 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.

Back when I was in middle school, my mother insisted on chaperoning the periodic dances we had during the year.  For me, a typical pre-teen, her willingness to help my school nearly put my overactive self-consciousness into disarray.  After all, what could be worse than my own mother watching me as I awkwardly tried to master this new phenomenon of dancing?  Dancing is, of course, a generous term since what I was doing mostly consisted of jumping up and down to the music hoping that my friends were not laughing if they saw me.  Nevertheless, since these dances were also dubbed “fun nights,” there was a game room adjacent to the dance in the gym, and this room provided me with a chance to make a deal with my mother.  Shrewd adolescent that I thought I was, I agreed to my mother’s chaperoning of the dance as long as she helped in the game room.  She went along with it, likely amused at my fear of being seen with her or worse, her seeing any of my dance moves.  I laugh at myself now, too, but that memory came back to me as I considered another dialogue between a mother and her son.
            This other conversation was of much more importance as it took place between Jesus and Mary at a wedding in Cana.  It was here that Jesus would perform his first miracle and begin to reveal his full identity to his followers.  We all know the story: as the wedding feast progressed, the hosts had run out of wine.  Mary, sensing Jesus’ ability to help, tells him this news.  Now, I do not think Jesus was embarrassed by his mother as I was, but he does question her as to why she is bringing this to him now.  He apparently ends up agreeing with her in the end because he takes water and turns it into wine for all the guests.
            There are a few salient points from this story as it relates to family life.  First, it shows us that we come to know Jesus through Mary.  Notice that she already senses his capabilities.  Before anyone else asks him, she comes to him in an intimate moment between mother and son and requests his help.  Mary is the one who understands all along.  Ever since Gabriel visited her, she knows in her heart who Jesus is and promises to be.  Therefore, it is right that we look to Mary to lead us to Jesus.  We do this even today with Marian devotions such as praying the rosary as a family or visiting a grotto together.  This does not mean that we worship Mary but that we seek to be closer to Christ through her intercession.
            The second item of note is that Jesus manifests himself in surprising ways.  Like his birth in a stable and his baptism by his cousin John, Jesus turns convention on its head.  He shows his glory not as the host himself but as a humble guest at this wedding celebration.  Jesus reveals his humanity as he interacts with his mother and attends the wedding feast itself.  He then gives a glimpse of his divinity when the transformation of water to wine takes place.
            Finally, I think it is significant that Jesus does all this at a wedding.  He gives nobility to our human unions by attending this event and performing this sign.  Doing so, he joins in the celebration of family, especially the marking of a moment when a man and woman vow themselves to God and each other.  His actions likely strengthened the bond of the couple since things could have gotten a bit stressful with no more wine to serve their guests!  We also would do well to strengthen our own families or those of others, especially if we know of ones that might be struggling.  The example of Mary and Jesus in this story remind us that such things are worth our daily efforts.