Our Sister Who Was Never Her Own Worst Enemy

El Greco Virgin Mary

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who chose us to be holy and blameless in His sight, destined for adoption as His children. (Ephesians 1:3-5)

This pilgrim life on earth can be okay, at times. A nice sunset; a quiet, peaceful evening with some loved ones; a hearty meal, etc.

But we don’t have a permanent home here. And the things we have to deal with: they can get tiring. What we really want is heaven. Peace and happiness—life without struggle, without unwelcome surprises, without any fear or anxiety at all.

God has what it takes to give this to us. We solemnly believe that He made us in the first place for this exact reason, to give us eternal life with Him in heaven. On the cross, He offered an infinite sacrifice; He offered the eternal love of the Son for the Father. This love can and does overcome all evil. The sacrifice of the Son, since it involves eternal and infinite power, can bestow the goodness of heaven on anyone, anywhere, anytime.

So we might wonder: Why doesn’t God just give us heaven immediately? We know that He lacks nothing in generosity. Why does He leave us to struggle through an extended pilgrim life here on this confused planet, with all its spiritual and physical dangers?

shaving mirrorAnd not only that. Struggles and dangers that come from outside myself are one thing. But, when I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that the greatest spiritual danger I face is myself. In the end, the only one who can truly ruin me is me. Satan can tempt; enemies can attack; bad circumstances can deprive me of every material thing—can even deprive me of my bodily life. But only I myself have the power to turn my self into something evil. Only I can do that. And the danger of me doing it is very real.

Who will deliver us from this? Who will deliver us from the evil we can do to ourselves?

Well, we know Who: Jesus Christ. And: His Mother.

We already went over how the Lord Jesus bestows heaven by the power of His infinite love, offered for us on the cross. And He doesn’t do it immediately, not because He’s trying to torture us, but because we need more time.

Heaven isn’t something that fits everyone the same way. Heaven will involve the person that I have become during my time on earth—the person I have grown into being, by making my way through all the trials of patience and perseverance that face me.

And the Blessed Mother helps me in this way: She is both wonderfully like me and wonderfully unlike me. She is like me because she’s a human being who had to rely completely on God, on Christ, just like I do. She always had the same hope for heaven that I have: namely, Jesus.

But the Blessed Virgin is wonderfully unlike me in my craven, self-destructive selfishness. The Lord, in His mercy, spared her that. Mary was never her own worst enemy. She stands above me–above us all–as the beacon of pure-hearted love, of peacefulness in doing God’s will. Her purity always keep us believing that we can learn to love like that, too. That there’s hope for us fallen children of Adam and Eve.

Our Lady is one of us, and yet the Lord freed her at the moment of her conception from the enemy within. She still faced plenty of trials. She had the life of a poor woman, then she had to watch cruel men kill her innocent Son. But even then—even in her hours of greatest distress–her entire heart and soul rested in total dependence on the generous goodness of God.

The serenity of love that Our Lady has always had: it means there’s hope for me. There’s hope for us, as we make our pilgrim way.

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Immaculate Worship

El Greco Immaculate Conception

 

“Glory to God in the highest.” “We come to you, Father, with praise and thanksgiving.” “All creation rightly gives you praise.” “Lord, we thank you for counting us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.”

Our celebration of Holy Mass reveals to us the fundamental meaning of human life, the reason why we exist: to praise and glorify God.

He made us.  He made everything that gives us life, sustains us, and makes us happy. His infinite beauty has given us everything beautiful; His endless truth has given us everything worth knowing. No relationship we have involves more intimacy or more ecstasy than our religion, our relationship with God. We do not live a single moment in time without Him. And our destiny to live in His glory forever gives our pilgrims lives their peace.

Worshiping God, praising Him, and adoring Him, then, constitute the heart and soul of human life. Let’s meditate briefly on Our Lady’s immaculate conception in light of this.

When our First Parents disobeyed God, they disrupted their worship. Adam and Eve could have adored their Creator in peace, offering themselves as a pleasing sacrifice to Him. But they did not do that. So they bequeathed to us a fallen human nature, prone to false religion. Left to ourselves, mankind does not worship God in spirit and truth. Rather, we offer meager and base sacrifices, which are unworthy of our dignity, to false gods, which are unworthy of our adoration.

We can see in Our Lady’s beautiful life, however, that a higher power had preserved for from all that. Her soul never had any paganism in it. It was as if the original religion of the Garden of Eden had returned to the earth—in her interior life. When the Archangel Gabriel came to her, he found a woman who worshiped the one, true God in spirit and truth.

pietaNow, how exactly do we know this? The key to understanding it, I think, is: the fact that mankind’s one pleasing sacrifice to the Father is Jesus Christ.

Mary’s son Jesus has Himself revealed true religion, which means He has revealed the inner significance of our life. Christ’s entire pilgrimage, from His conception in Mary’s womb through His death and Resurrection, to His Ascension into heaven—all of it was fundamentally a perfect act of worship, a pleasing sacrifice. In His life on earth, Christ essentially did one thing: He gave Himself over to the Father, in love.

And Our Lady assisted at this sacrifice with pure, faithful co-operation. “Will you consent to mother the eternal Word?” “Yes.” “Will you accompany Him to the Temple and teach Him the ancient covenant?” “Yes.” “Will you let Him leave you and His home, so that He can travel, teach, heal, and proclaim the divine kingdom?” “Yes.” “Will you go with Him to Jerusalem, bear Him up as He carries His cross through the streets, receive His body in your arms after He expires, then meet Him in the garden after He rises from the dead, let go of Him again when He ascends, and then accompany His beloved apostle in the work of building up the Church, until your own pilgrim life runs its course?” “Yes! Be it done unto me according to your word.”

Mary worshiped immaculately. She accompanied the incarnate True Religion through His entire priestly sacrifice of Himself. Mary united herself with her Son’s sacrifice in everything. She never so much as drew a breath that was not consecrated to the Father through the Paschal Mystery of her Son.

In Our Lady, we Christians see true religion, immaculate religion—which means immaculate life. By God’s grace and Mary’s help, may we, too, faithfully practice that religion.

Our Lady, Vatican II, Mercy Old and New

Closing Mass of Vatican II
Closing Mass of Vatican II

Today, the Lord re-established the Garden of Eden, as it had been before the Fall.

The place where the human being, child of God, could receive the Creator’s love, and return it, without selfishness getting in the way. The place where human intelligence and freedom could exercise itself fully, without vice and dishonesty destroying things. The place of quiet, pure friendship between God and man.

That lovely garden returned to the earth on this day. Because the soul of the Virgin Mary is that garden. In her conversation with the Archangel Gabriel (which we read at Holy Mass today), we see into Our Lady’s soul: perfectly honest, humbly intelligent, living by faith, and ready to serve. An un-fallen Eve.

Now, that was well over 2,000 years ago, when our Lady was conceived immaculate in the womb of St. Anne. Who remembers what happened exactly 50 years ago today? Pope Paul VI solemnly concluded the Second Vatican Council.

The Pope made all the Council Fathers’ teachings his own. Four years of fervent prayer, study, and debate came to an end. Something much bigger began. In the teachings of the Council, the Lord gave us modern Christians a unique and profound insight into our identity and mission.

Fifty years ago. Hate to break it to you: If you can remember the Second Vatican Council, you old.

Or perhaps we should say, ‘mature.’ Because in fifty years, I think it’s fair to say, we have matured in two ways.

1) Fifty years on, we can understand that the Church of today, the Church of the new millennium, has not fundamentally changed from the Church of the two previous millennia.

Neither Pope St. John XXIII, nor any of the Council Fathers, saw themselves as founding a ‘new’ Church. At Vatican II, the same Church of our holy ancestors greeted the 20th century—greeted the ‘modern’ world. Holy Mother recognized the urgent need for us to share the Gospel of Christ faithfully in this age. So, at Vatican II, the Church strove to understand Herself in that light.

2) We have also matured in this way: We thoroughly recognize the teachings of the Council as the pure, rich, and beautiful gift that they are. We needed new guidance in order to stay true to the faith of the saints of old.

Even old-fashioned Catholics like myself take all the important teachings of Vatican II for granted: full participation in the liturgy by everyone; the apostolate of the laity; the importance of Scripture study; our shared baptism; our common humanity; the good that modern means of communication can do; the good that the modern dream of a unified world can do. Vatican II reminded us that we believe in a fruitful future just as much as we revere the holy Tradition.

Today we begin a Jubilee Year of Mercy. The Jubilee Year offers a path to the Garden of Eden, to the soul of our Lady. Holy Father has sketched out the path for us. (I think it’s a testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit that the following could also serve as a basic summary of the teachings of Vatican II.)

Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Heal the sick. Visit the imprisoned. Bury the dead.

Counsel the doubtful. Instruct the ignorant. Comfort the sorrowful. Admonish sinners. Forgive those who have wronged you. Bear patiently with those who do you ill. Pray for the living and the dead.

Pope Francis enters St Peters through Holy Door

Bells Soon to Ring

Shrine Serra banner

If you’re on the St. Andrew/Roanoke-Catholic campus at 4pm, you will hear the church bells ring. Why? To welcome our Holy Father to our country. All church bells will sound because: the pope, universal shepherd, successor of St. Peter in the Apostolic See, Vicar of Christ—here with us.

At Holy Mass today, we read from the book of Ezra about the house of God, and we sing Psalm 122, about going to God’s house. I know that a homily is hardly the appropriate opportunity to offer you my personal memoirs, but…

Tomorrow I will be at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Twenty-one years ago, I graduated from college on the steps of that house of God. Twelve years ago, I was ordained a priest inside.

I have spent more hours of my life praying in that building that I could ever count. In college, I did a paper on the architecture. I learned how to swing a thurible in there. I chanted the gospel there when I was a transitional deacon. I said Mass there on the first anniversary of my father’s death. I have been a pilgrim there, taken pilgrims there, heard pilgrims’ confessions there, said Mass for pilgrims there.

That building is a great house of God, a stronghold of prayer, high on a hill, visible from great distances. (Like St. Andrews!)

Pope Francis will do quite a few things while he’s here with us in the US. One of the big ones is: He will canonize a saint. A saint who lies in a tomb in Carmel, California. (I visited it in 2014.) An organizer, a builder, a man of enormous love, a patron of seminarians. I have loved Father Junipero Serra for twenty years.

Also, in my twenties, I knew a good number of Jesuits. Pope Francis reminds me very much of some of them, of how they thought and what they paid attention to.

Forgive me. I’m just a little overwhelmed by how one single day will draw together for me so many strands of memory and affection. A little pilgrimage to concelebrate with the Pope, that encapsulates 25 years of my life.

When you reach middle age, you hardly expect so much of your life to come together, in focus, on one single day. May God be praised!

Dying First for His Mother

El Greco celebrated Immaculate Conception on Dec 9, the day Our Lady first appeared in Guadalupe
El Greco celebrated Immaculate Conception on Dec 9, the day Our Lady first appeared in Guadalupe

Our Lady first appeared to Talking Eagle, aka St. Juan Diego, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. In the Spanish Empire of the 16th century, Our Lady’s conception was celebrated on December 9.

Now, she could hardly have chosen that particular day by accident, to greet the people of this continent. What exactly did she mean by it?

Only she has the answer. But if I might propose a theory…

To have been conceived without sin in her mother’s womb: that sets Our Lady apart, to be sure. But how exactly? The Virgin’s radiant sinlessness arose from the same sole source that wipes away our sins, namely the crucifixion of her Son. Mary received an unstained human nature because the Almighty and All-Just Father foresaw the sacrifice Christ would make to win her the right to have it.

Now, it pertains to our holy faith to believe and to meditate on this: Jesus, during His bitter Passion, thought of each of us individually. He thought of every human being who ever had lived or would live. He thought of you and me in particular, and He offered Himself for the purpose of wiping away your sins and mine in particular.

We need not scruple as to how Christ could have had the time or the mental capacity to think of billions of individual human beings, not to mention each of our sins, even the most hidden ones. The perfect union of His human mind with the infinite divine Mind made such an undertaking on His part perfectly possible.

No, the real question is: Of whom did Jesus think first, when He thought of us all, and dedicated His Passion and death to our personal salvation? He loves us all, of course. He would have died if either you or I were the only sinner ever.

But: He had a favorite. He loved one particular person more than anyone else.

When the Son said to the heavenly Father, “Let this chalice pass from me—but not my will, but yours be done”—when He submitted Himself to the thunderous avalanche of suffering that would liberate the world from the punishment we deserve–the son thought first of his mother.

“I do not want to die. But for her, I will.”

Ladylike Humanity

"The Singing Butler" by Jack Vettriano
“The Singing Butler” by Jack Vettriano

Perhaps we might ask: Why does the Church make us read the account of the virginal conception of Christ on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of His mother? After all, our children get confused enough about this. December 8 is the day when our Lady was conceived in the womb of St. Anne. But at Holy Mass we read about the day, approximately fifteen years later, when our Lord was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Guess what? There’s a good reason.

Our Lady did not bear original sin. She did not have the self-destructive tendency that began, for the rest of us, in the Garden of Eden. Satan tempted our First Parents into disobedience of God’s law by telling them that they would become like gods.

Fundamental rule of life: God is God, and we are not. God, with infinite wisdom, has planned all of history. We have not done that. He guides everything toward the good, even bringing good out of evil. We do not do that. God has a mind that can exercise absolute sovereign control over all things. We do not.

Now, I am about to get myself in trouble with both the gentlemen and the ladies. I am going to throw both women’s lib and machismo right out the window at the same time.

The true nature of our race, in relation to our Creator: essentially feminine. Who is “The Man?” God. We are the lady. Our peace, our fulfillment lies in submitting to Him, accepting that He has the plan. On our own, we cannot conceive how our lives will work out. He can. On the great dance floor of life, God leads.

fra-ang-annuncOriginal sin involves the delusion that we are “The Man.” Forgetting that an infinitely stronger and wiser Power actually governs the world. Original sin involves forgetting how to be ladylike with respect to God. All the Lord asks of us is a sincere Yes. A sincere: I will follow. He takes care of the rest. But we delude ourselves into thinking that we can lead.

This is precisely what did not happen when the Archangel Gabriel came to visit the Blessed Virgin. The angel proposed something altogether wonderful, something our Lady never could have imagined.

If original sin had deluded her, she would have said, ‘No, thanks. I have other plans.’ She would have said: ‘I want to suit myself.’ She would have said what we human beings weighed-down by original sin tend to say: ‘Wait, I’m in charge here!’

But she said none of these things. She said what becomes us, as ladylike human beings, when The Man asserts Himself. She said Yes. So be it. I will co-operate.

God makes everything out of nothing. We can’t even conceive of that. When we receive what He has made with grateful love, however–like the Virgin received the angel’s message—when we say Yes, Lord; we will follow where You lead—when we do that, we share in the immaculate Yes. And the dance of life comes off beautifully.

Poem for Pope St. John Paul II

The Thin Black Line

Early dusk. A little flock of daws
cuts the crisp air, heading south.
Advent has arrived, and the nights
for the Immaculate-Conception Novena.

The year has grown old, as have I.
(Or middle-aged, at least, and a little tired.)

The Church in America: a brown-paper parcel,
wrapped-up with thin black twine.
Do not open until Christmas.
Christmas 2018, or -19, or -20, or -25.

But I won’t let go—not yet—of the moon-lit dusk
when I said totus tuus to the Virgin, on younger knees.

You had carried us there, Holy Father,
on those ski-sculpted shoulders,
spinning the twine with your hands.

You chugged like a rail engine
through the passes of the Dolomites.
Another country opened up before our eyes.

So, if I am a strand of the black twine,
or a billow of the smoke flowing from the stack
into Christ’s third millennium:
it’s because I knelt under your wings.

John Paul II Immac  St Peters

Visitation Facts

Mets sweep Yankees

Blessed are you who believed that the promises of the Lord would be fulfilled. (Luke 1:45)

The faith of the Blessed Virgin Mary offers us the antidote to the prevalent myth of the 21st century.

Because the myth contains an element of truth. Anybody remember? “Religion cannot have anything to do with knowledge, because God, if He exists, is too mysterious to be known. Religion is about your deepest personal feelings.”

VisitationNow, the true part: Religion does indeed offend God if we offer it with anything other than absolute personal sincerity.

There’s only one way to address God honestly, and that is from the center of my heart and mind. No one else can have a relationship with God for me. I have to do it myself.

But here’s the thing; here’s what the Blessed Mother teaches us by her own absolutely intimate personal relationship with God:

When we stand in truth before our Maker, we see that we ourselves do not have what it takes to live, to thrive—even to exist. We are not sufficient unto ourselves. We depend on God for every moment’s breath.

And we need salvation. Death comes for everyone. No amount of personal feelings about God can keep me from dying. Death constitutes the ultimate objective, impartial, non-emotional fact. The only really honest feeling I can have about this fact is: “God, help me! Lord, save us!”

So, if we accept the true part of our century’s myth about God, then we see clearly how false the other part of the myth is. We need objective knowledge about God’s plan. Without it, we can have no real hope and no real joy. We need to hear His promises, believe in them, and believe in His power to fulfill them.

What did the Blessed Mother know about herself, above all? That she could not save herself. She was conceived without sin, by a special dispensation of the grace of the Cross. But her immaculate conception only made her more aware that she needed God. And more aware that God Who says, “I will save you,” will do it.

Marie OsmondWhat’s the difference between a Catholic and an Evangelical?

A Catholic believes everything an Evangelical believes about Jesus and the Bible. But you can sit and drink a beer with the Catholic; you can talk about the Mets sweeping the Yankees, and the Catholic will not feel obliged to bring up religion.

Now, in truth: This is the more genuinely evangelical approach. Catholicism survives and thrives precisely because it is perfectly compatible with living the life of a normal baseball fan.

But: we cannot accept; we must dispute; we have the duty to object to the idea that one religion is just as good as another, because it really has to do with your personal feelings. It doesn’t. Maybe some religions have to do with feelings. But ours has to do with what God Himself has said to the human race, the commandments He has given and the promises He has made.

So if my buddy says, in between reflections on Stephen Strasburg’s prospects, that his brother left the Church to marry a Mormon, but that’s okay because he’s happy! I have to reply, “Can’t agree with you there, pal. I would sooner die than miss Mass, even if I got to marry Marie Osmond. Cheers!”

Read for Virtual Washington Pilgrimage

For you, dear reader, who does not find him- or herself on the bus with us to Washington, so that you, too, might hear the words and thoughts of the goofy priest the young people have with them on the bus…

Continue reading “Read for Virtual Washington Pilgrimage”

The Great Project of God’s Grandparents

The great project of life: to avoid attachments to things other than God, so that we keep our eyes open for Him.

The Lord promised Abraham a great inheritance. The Lord espoused the nation of Israel to Himself. As we read, most of God’s people fell away from Him, became preoccupied with things other than Him, got attached to non-divine stuff, faithlessly chasing fleeting distractions.

Fresco of Joachim and Ann by Giotto
But some held on. Some clung to faith. Among the descendants of Abraham, a few always continued the great project of life, which Abraham himself had followed to the end. They believed the promises, and they looked forward to their fulfillment. The faithful remnant of Israel quietly kept the history of the chosen nation moving forward. They married and raised children in little sanctuaries of faith.

Among these nondescript, quiet, prayerful Israelites, the Lord chose two to be His own grandparents. Their flesh and blood would be His flesh and blood. Through their marital embrace, the Lord formed a new Eve to be His Mother. She herself would give birth to God, Anne and Joachim’s grandchild. This immaculate daughter of Israel conceived her child not through natural copulation, but by her nation’s most magnificent and all-encompassing act of faith: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.”

…“Blessed are your ears, because they hear. Many prophets and righteous people longed to hear what you hear,” the Lord Jesus says to us.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. How? Because God is good. And because Sts. Joachim and Anne pursued the great project of life to the end, and taught their beautiful daughter to do the same.

God first. Faith first. And the promises come true.