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“‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides’” (Matthew 6:25-33).
 
At some point in our lives, we all go through periods of worry-filled hysteria. If it’s not about work or school, it’s about money or family. We are people who are constantly concerned with our future comfort and contentment. Where will I live? What kind of job will I have? Will it be fulfilling? Will I make enough money? Is there someone out there for me? We believe our future happiness depends on getting the “right” answers to these questions.
 
In this gospel passage, the response is the simple and sometimes annoying catchphrase, “Don’t worry. Stop and smell the roses.”
 
Jesus is not simply saying, “Don’t worry.” He explains that worry is meaningless and will get us nowhere. Worry will not provide food or clothing; it will not add a single day to our lives. He asks us to question the value of the things about which we go crazy with worry. Essentially, he asks, “What is really important?” Jesus does not tell us to ignore our responsibilities; rather, he tells us to get our priorities in order.
 
“First, seek the kingdom of God…” This may seem like a very abstract concept that has nothing to do with our practical concerns; but if we are to take Jesus seriously, we must see his teaching about the kingdom of God as real and relevant in everything we do.
 
The Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx described the kingdom—or reign—of God as a time and place where love, equity, and justice prevail in a reconciling and peaceful society and all beings live to the potential that the Creator has instilled in them. When striving for such a world becomes our first priority, schoolwork, jobs, and financial security diminish in prominence. Loving our neighbor, respecting others, and showing kindness to the stranger, these are the most important things we will ever do.
 
– How do your worries keep you from living as God intends?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International.

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extra mile“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants
to borrow.
 
‘You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust'” (Matthew 5:38-45).
 
By following literally Jesus’ words in the first part of the passage, we will live a Christian life by not seeking retribution, by giving to those in need, by helping others, and by loving everyone—our friends and enemies alike. But the point Jesus makes is that we should not just do the minimum but go beyond it.
 
It’s easy to interpret the part of this passage that speaks of “going the extra mile”—the origin of that oft-used phrase—to mean that, with a gracious spirit, we should do more than is required, but it would have have had a particular context for someone of Jesus’ time. A Roman soldier could compel a person in an occupied country to carry a load for a mile. The service was compulsory, but the distance was limited. Jesus tells his followers to go two miles—to give much more than what was required.
 
What Jesus suggests here is a method of pointing out the injustice of the required mile. The willingly-served second mile would draw attention to the unjust nature of the first. In the same way, acts of nonviolent civil disobedience by people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. exposed, and eventually changed, unjust societal structures.
 
Although it is impractical, if not impossible, to give to all who beg from us, if we recognize the needs of the desperately poor and work to correct the underlying systemic problems that lead to poverty, we are doing what Jesus instructs.
 
By asking us to love our enemies, Jesus challenges us to love others as completely as we are able, believing the best about their motives, wanting good things for them, recognizing that they are also loved by God, treating them with respect. We don’t have to like them, only love them.
 
How does this Gospel passage challenge you in regard to loving your enemies?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International.

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“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
‘You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment.
‘You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
‘Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all. Let your “Yes” mean “Yes,” and your “No” mean “No.” Anything more is from the evil one’” (Matthew 5:20-22a, 27-28, 33-34a, 37).
 
When we start a new job or begin attending a new school, we usually receive a handbook of policies and procedures as well as various instructions for how to successfully navigate the new environment. There is something inherently relational about laws intended to foster community and harmony or protect us from hurting ourselves and others. This connection between relationships and the law is at the heart of this gospel reading.
 
The law of God, as given to Moses, was understood by the people as instructions for living: principles for living a moral life, guidance on how to enter into relationship with God, and how to best live in relationship with one another. Jesus is not asking his followers to dismiss the teachings of Moses but he is looking beyond the strict literal interpretation of the law, going deeper to pursue the underlying meaning.
 
Jesus invites us to consider not just murder, adultery, and false oaths but to examine the attitudes and motives that lie beneath the surface of such acts. Jesus is more concerned with how we act in relationship to one another. Am I completely honest? Are my words consistent with my actions? Do I seek revenge, or do I avoid retaliation? Do I honor the dignity of all people?
 
God has given us the law not to make life difficult, not to be prohibitive, but in order that we might live life to the fullest extent. Through his expression of the law, Jesus shows us how to love others in the same way God loves us–with compassion, dignity, and respect for all.
 
– In what areas of your life do you need to be more attentive to the “spirit of the law” and not merely the “letter of the law”?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International.

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twitter_pontifexIn one of his short stories—“The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”—Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “Believe nothing you hear and only one half that you see.”
 
This statement, which has been altered in various ways and attributed to writers other than Poe, is nonetheless good advice if it means that one should not casually accept things for which there is no evidence.
 
If anything, this caution applies more than ever in this age of “Photoshopped” images, digital animation, and posts that litter social-media sites.
 
I saw an example the other day when a member of my high school class posted on Facebook an image of Pope Francis accompanied by the following statement, attributed to him:
 
“It is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person. In a way, the traditional notion of God is outdated. One can be spiritual but not religious. It is not necessary to go to church and give money — for many, nature can be a church. Some of the best people in history do not believe in God, while some of the worst deeds were done in His name.”
 
“Oh,’’ gushed another classmate, who now lives in the Midwest, “I love this man. He’s talking about me.”
 
I don’t know if she meant that she’s an atheist—which I doubt, that she doesn’t go to church, or that she finds God in nature.
 
Regardless of what she meant, she was responding to a statement that Pope Francis did not make and, for the most part, would not make.
 
The graphic, which has been circulating in the digital world for some time, is one example of a problem that has accompanied this papacy almost from the first day—a compulsion on the part of some to hear the pope as fulfilling their wishful thinking.
 
To be sure, Pope Francis has given us a fresh perspective on topics such as atheism.
 
He has spoken of our obligation to respect the intellectual integrity of people, including atheists, who don’t agree with us. He has also reiterated—perhaps in plainer language than we are used to—the Church’s consistent teaching that, as Father Thomas Rosica has repeated it, “those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church but sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation.”
 
The pope has not, however, issued a license for us to adopt the spirituality we find most convenient and comfortable, even if that means no spirituality at all.
 
And anyone who has read what this pope has written or listened to what he has said knows that he would not dismiss so lightly the value of worshipping God in the assembly of the Church.
 
On the contrary, he has stressed the importance of the Church as the Body of Christ as the source from which the “new evangelization” will flow out into the community and to the outskirts of society.
 
In the past, the teachings of the popes have been somewhat inaccessible, both because of the formality of their language and the means of their distribution.
 
But the homilies, speeches, and documents of Pope Francis are not difficult to understand and not difficult to find.
 
In this “information age,” we can easily read them or read about them in responsible publications.
 
If we want to know what Pope Francis teaches, we should not rely on Facebook to tell us.
 

—Facebook launched on February 4, 2004


 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father’” (Matthew 5:13-16).
 
This reading is an exhortation to Jesus’ followers that they are “salt of the earth” and “light to the world.” It is another example of Jesus using the stuff of life—like salt and lanterns—to illustrate his point. Salt was, and still is, used to flavor food. In the time of Jesus, it was also used to preserve and purify it. The interesting thing about salt is that once it is applied it becomes part of the food. To be salt of the earth is to be a part of creation, an integral part of the world, and the world was created good.
 
We come to know and see God through the stuff of the earth. Yet we are also to be the “flavor” of the earth, to enrich society. Food tastes different with salt, and through our witness, the world looks different through the perspective we bring.
 
Jesus also encourages us to be the “light to the world.” In the Scriptures, light is associated with God and with truth, while the absence of light is analogous to the absence of God’s presence.
 
When a light goes on, things that were hidden are revealed, and we can see the world around us. Jesus tells us we are light, just by being who we are. We are called to “let this light shine,” to give meaning to our world, to the people we encounter. When we let our light shine, we are better able to see the light in others, to see them for whom they really are, and not who we may have thought they were. And it can also bring clarity to situations in our lives and in our world.
 
– How have you responded to Jesus’ challenge to “let your light shine” so that the goodness of your actions is recognized and praise is given to God?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International.

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Ten steps toward a fuller, healthier, and more God-centered Life

“I have come so you may have life and have it to the full” — John 10:10
 
new_yearThis new year is still an opportunity to start fresh and to recommit to live a fuller, healthier, more joy-filled and—most importantly—God-centered life. I have been reviewing a number of articles about how to live a happier life in 2017. Some of them speak about shedding bad habits such as drinking too much, smoking, and spending countless hours on the couch; the articles also refer to developing good habits such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, and a positive attitude. I have chosen to highlight 10 practices that you might want to consider.
 
A spiritually healthy person is healthy in mind, body, and spirit. All things are interconnected, including the mind, the body, the spirit, and the environment in which we live. Physical health isn’t merely the absence of disease or symptoms; it is a state of optimal wellbeing, vitality, and wholeness. In the same way, spiritual health isn’t merely the absence of sin or a strict observance of laws; it is state of union with God, a strong sense of self and communion with our neighbor and with all of creation.
 
I encourage you to choose one or two doable actions to help you love God, self, and others more in 2017. Just do it!
 

1. Pray more regularly and frequently
It is an important practice to set aside a time each day to pray, give thanks, and reflect on God’s presence in your life. But just as important is praying throughout the day—while in the car, cooking a meal, or waiting on line at the grocery store. I have found it helpful to practice what St. Ignatius Loyola called the Daily Examen. It is a practice of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. I try to do it at the end of my day. Here’s a version of the examen for you to use.
 
2. Be more focused during Mass
I sometimes find myself at Mass thinking about a work situation or about what I plan to do after Mass. The best way for me to be more present at Mass is to come 10 minutes early and center myself on God; pray with the day’s scripture readings; and, when distractions come, acknowledge them and then let them go.
 
3. Do weekly acts of mercy
These are conscious acts that can be very ordinary but are done intentionally. An act of mercy can be as simple as holding a door for a stranger or volunteering at a homeless shelter or going to a wake service.
 
4. Complain Less
The first step in complaining less is to recognize how much you complain. It sometimes feels good to complain, but you do not fix anything by complaining. Constant complaining might condition you to always look for what’s bad in situations. When you become aware that you are complaining, redirect your attention to something positive about the situation or, better yet, start working on a solution.
 
5. Avoid dualist thinking
Dualist thinking is categorizing everything and everyone in a clear-cut black-and-white, good-and-bad, either/or way. People who think dualistically are often seeking clarity and security in a changing and sometimes scary world. We sometimes find dualistic thinking in religious persons or groups, and this can result in harsh, exclusive, and judgmental behavior. When you hear yourself talking disparagingly about “those people,” scapegoating, speaking in a judgmental or condemning manner, or categorizing people as liberals or conservatives, sinners or saints, stop and reflect on what is behind your speech. The best way to move beyond dualist thinking is to put yourself in the other’s shoes and imagine why a person acts or thinks in a particular way. Fr. Richard Rohr in one of his meditations writes: the contemplative mind withholds from labeling or categorizing things too quickly (i.e., judging), so it can come to see things in themselves and as themselves, in their uniqueness—apart from the words or concepts that become their substitutes
 
6. Let go of worry
We can actually worry ourselves sick. We waste lots of time and energy convincing ourselves that everything we worry about will happen. When you find yourself worrying and obsessing, stop, take a long deep breath, reflect on the situation you are in a tizzy about, and ask yourself if there’s any logical basis for your worry. Consciously give this worry—either real or exaggerated— into God’s hands.
 
7. Move it
Recently, I have had a change in attitude about exercising. I enjoy physical activity and always feel better when I am fit, but I had an either/or attitude. If I did not have time for at least 30 minutes of exercise, I would not work out that day. I am now more consciously trying to move more throughout the day. If I miss my morning exercise, I will take a walk during my lunch break or do 10 minutes of exercise in my office. I always take the stairs and try to walk instead of drive whenever possible. I love my Fitbit and it has motivated me to take more steps and move every hour. Here’s an 8-minute cardio workout you can do at home.
 
8. Get more sleep
Sleep isn’t essential just to recharge our bodies. It plays an important role in all aspects of our health, from maintaining a healthy weight to improving our disposition, to being more mindful as we pray. The experts tell us the most important way to get enough sleep is keeping a consistent sleep/wake schedule. When your schedule is all over the place, your body clock doesn’t have a chance to normalize. So start tracking your sleep schedule, and work towards consistency, starting with your wake-up time. Here are some tips on how to sleep better.
 
9. Enjoy nature
Get outside and enjoy whatever season it is. A sunny winter day can be a great time for a walk if you wear the proper layers. Be intentional about spending time in God’s beautiful creation.
 
10. Accept yourself
The worst thing you can do to your self-image is compare yourself to others. We are all imperfect, vulnerable, and wonderfully made by God from love and to love. We all have different strengths and talents to be used for God’s purpose. If you have old tapes reeling in your head telling you aren’t good enough, that you’re too short or too fat, redirect your thoughts to the God that created your and repeat the phrase from Psalm 139: You are “fearfully wonderfully made.”

 
Sr. Terry Rickard is the Executive Director of RENEW International and a Dominican Sister from Blauvelt, NY.

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sermon_on_the_mount“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:3-12a).
 
If we take the Beatitudes as a model of “how to live,” it urges us to ask ourselves what it would mean to be poor in spirit, meek, and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. What would it look like to be merciful? To be pure of heart? Volumes have been written on the meaning of each of these Beatitudes, but eventually we have to ask these questions in light of our own lives. For example, what does it means to be poor in spirit? Some have said, “To be poor in spirit is to recognize that all we have is God’s gift: our very existence, our families, our health, our talents, our situations in life. And Christ goes even further—even our successes.”1 It is to realize that “We recognize our need for God. We depend on God. The poor in spirit know that God is more important than anything else in life.”
 
Often it can be difficult to recognize that all is a gift from God. We get so caught up in the stress of life, work, and relationships that days meld into each other. So then, how can we recognize our life as gift? Being poor in spirit urges us to challenge the mantra that we depend solely on ourselves, and to instead place our trust in the God who created us. To trust that there is a plan that is larger than our own, and that God is constantly initiating a relationship with us, calling us to listen, to become more attentive to his voice.
 
What would it mean to live life as if we depended on God?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International.

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eleanor_roosevelt_mccallsWhen I was a boy, my mother subscribed to six women’s magazines.
 
I was a compulsive reader even then, so I leafed through “McCall’s” and “Ladies Home Journal” and so forth as soon as they arrived.
 
One thing that caught my eye was a column written by Eleanor Roosevelt, who by then was the widow of
Franklin Roosevelt.
 
Mrs. Roosevelt wrote more than one column, but the one I read faithfully was a question-and-answer feature called “If You Ask Me.”
 
Besides the fact that I was just a nerdy kid, I was fascinated by the give-and-take of that format.
 
Recently, I discovered that all of those columns, along with other work by Mrs. Roosevelt, has been archived by The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and I have started to re-read them.
 
Actually, I started with the first column, which appeared sixteen months before I was born, so I’m reading some for the first time.
 
In the column that appeared in June 1941, one of the questions submitted by readers was whether Mrs. Roosevelt thought religion should become a more dominant part of daily life.
 
Mrs. Roosevelt wrote that it should, adding “but there is only one way … and that is by bringing it out of the church and into the lives led by religious people.’’
 
Mrs. Roosevelt, who was a church-going Episcopalian, made this same point on other occasions, and she also wrote that for Christians, the model for living out religious faith was the radical lifestyle of Jesus.
 
And she took her own advice in the sense that she was—to use a 21st century expression—“out there,” seeing first-hand what was going on in the country and beyond.
 
Even in the 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt had the air of a fuddy-duddy about her; in fact, she often mentioned that because she was so old-fashioned in her manners as a child she was nicknamed “Granny.’’
 
But she was a pioneer in campaigning against racism and other forms of prejudice and working on behalf of women and labor and youth—and that made her very unpopular among some Americans, and she was—and still is—a controversial figure for other reasons.
 
That’s a complicated story, but what interests me at the moment is that statement Mrs. Roosevelt made seventy-five years ago.
 
One the one hand, it might seem self-evident that religion practiced in church is of little value if it isn’t practiced outside of church.
 
But in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when Pope Francis says virtually the same thing—making of himself a living example—the idea is treated in many quarters as though it were a new revelation.
 
In fact, though, Jesus made the same point in the first century in his criticism of pious people who wouldn’t help a stranger in need.
 
There is a lot of angst over the declining numbers of people who attend Mass regularly, or at all.
 
But the pope and other Catholic leaders argue that folks will be attracted to the Church, not by seeing other folks going there but by seeing and hearing those who do go to church also witnessing to their faith by what they say and what they do at home, at school, at work, and in the community—including, as Francis likes to remind us—those parts of the community that are farthest from the Church.
 
It’s such a simple concept, but a concept that, in our own time, Pope Francis sees as an ideal yet to be achieved.
 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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“As [Jesus] was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him. He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people” (Matthew 4:18-23).
 
Because the kingdom of heaven has come near, Jesus invites some fishermen to follow him. They immediately leave behind nets, boat, and father, and follow Jesus. Just like that, Jesus has four companions in ministry.
 
Although he can be, Jesus is never a one-man show. The first executive decision he makes is to call a community into existence around the Word of God that he preaches.
 
God always calls a people and enters into a covenant with “us.” So around Jesus “we” are formed. We have to change to become part of this new people. We have to leave some things behind in order to embrace our new identity and purpose. There is perhaps something symbolic in what the four new disciples collectively leave behind: nets, boat, and father.
 
Nets capture, contain, and limit and give us a sense of control. The boat represents our ability to come and go as we please, to be independent and free. And a father may be the stories and traditions that give us our identities.
 
Nets and boats and fathers are essential to meet our needs for control and opportunity and roots. But when Jesus comes and proclaims the transforming kingdom of God, we will have to give up some of those things in order to be embraced by this new reality. Perhaps we leave nets and boats and fathers to have them given back to us again. We will still be in the family fishing business. Only what we fish for will change.
 
– What things do we have to give up and walk away from in order to approach and possess them anew? What will you do?
 
Adapted from PrayerTime: Faith-Sharing Reflections on the Sunday Gospels, available at the RENEW International store

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“John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.’ John testified further, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God’” (John 1:29-34).
 
John proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (v. 29). These words have become enshrined in the eucharistic invitation to share in the Lord’s body and blood. But what an odd image! A Lamb of God.
 
This image recalls the servant so prominent in the Book of Isaiah who is led to the slaughter like a lamb (53:7). And it links Jesus with the lambs ritually slaughtered in preparation for the Passover meal (Exodus 12:21-27). In the Book of Revelation much is made of the Lamb who was slain (5:6) but now sits in triumph on the throne (22:1).
 
The image of Jesus as the Lamb of God must have had a powerful impact on early Christianity. A weak and passive animal is made the image of God’s victory over sin and death. This would have contrasted markedly with those who longed for a warrior king.
 
They thought we needed a superhero, and we got a Lamb! Perhaps this is how God operates. Love is vulnerable. It does not coerce. It is available and faithful. Perhaps to counter our desire for a quick and final fix, God sends a Lamb as a sign that love takes time to heal, to win over, to triumph. The paradox of a helpless Lamb who triumphs catches our attention and forces us to wonder about how God really functions on our behalf.
 
– Are you confident in the power of vulnerable love to triumph in the end? Why?
 
Adapted from PrayerTime: Faith-Sharing Reflections on the Sunday Gospels, available at the RENEW International store

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“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet…’ Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.’ After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way” (Matthew 2:1-5; 7-12).
 
Who are these magi? They are searchers. They are observers of the night sky and the forces of nature. They are not afraid to get up and follow their instincts and hunches about where the divine is calling them.
 
Most people assume that the star leads the magi directly to Bethlehem and to Jesus, but it doesn’t. The rising of the star leads them to Micah 5:1 and 2 Samuel 5:2, Scripture that speaks of Jesus’ coming. This small detail is extremely important. The Gentile magi must immerse themselves in the atmosphere of Jerusalem and the history of Israel found there, or they will never find the King of the Jews.
 
So the magi sojourn in Jerusalem where they are enlightened. The star is no longer simply an object in the night sky but the star that “shall advance from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17). Now the star is a true guide to Jesus. They pay homage and offer gifts.
 
But not everyone sees Jesus as worthy of homage and gifts. Some will see the King of the Jews who will proclaim the kingdom of God as threatening the “kingdoms” that are already here. There is no room for another kingdom, especially one calling for an end to violence and greed and one promoting the justice and reconciliation of the Torah or Law. So while the magi do homage, others plot murder.
 
This same choice lies before stargazers and Bible readers today. It is not about stars or about words on a page. It is about hearts open to the future that God wants for us, or hearts hardened around limited self-interests. The magi chose. How do we choose?
 
Adapted from PrayerTime: Faith-Sharing Reflections on the Sunday Gospels, available at the RENEW International store

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newborn_baby“So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke2: 16-19).
 
It is not unusual that new mothers, sometimes immediately or sometimes when they regain some strength and the opportunity to reflect a bit, will treasure and ponder the wonder of the new life brought into the world.
 
Mary hears from the shepherds their tale—a story of angels and heavenly song and prophecy. The birth of this child, they say, is good news not only for her and
Joseph but also “for all the people” (Luke 2:10). What a message to treasure and ponder!
 
The ultimate destiny and meaning of Mary’s infant child will become more clear to her. Like many mothers, she treasures this child and ponders on what
is still to come.
 
We honor Mary as the Mother of God. But in some ways her greatest “honor” is that she is the first disciple of her son. Her response to the angel Gabriel, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), is the decision of a disciple choosing to obey and follow. As disciple, she has a unique role to play.
 
She is to be the Mother of the Messiah, the Mother of Emmanuel, the Mother of God. Her “yes” sets her on the way to becoming mother. She is disciple first, then mother.
 
She treasures her choosing that has taken flesh in her son, Jesus. And she ponders what it may mean to follow and obey this same son. Perhaps we share Mary’s moment. We treasure the wonder of God’s love revealed in the birth of her son.
 
And we, too, ponder what it means to follow and be changed by such a love.
 
Adapted from PrayerTime: Faith-Sharing Reflections on the Sunday Gospels, available at the RENEW International store

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birth-of-jesus-1150128_1280“When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them” (Luke 2: 15-20). (Mass at dawn)
 
Considering the nature of the events in St. Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus, we would expect from the witnesses exactly the reaction that Luke described: they were “amazed.”
 
But within the same few lines of Luke’s story there is a tantalizing counterpoint to that amazement: “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Do we, in the twenty-first century, have the same reactions to the birth of Jesus as those who were present at the time? Are we amazed, and do we reflect on these things in our hearts?
 
This is not a folk tale adorned with details calculated to charm us. This is the account of a transformative event in human history, an event in which divine life and human life intersected in a uniquely intimate way. This was God, so full of love for the creatures he made in his own likeness that he himself took on human form. This was God taking on himself the whole of the human experience, excepting sin, so that men and women would be restored to their proper relationship to God through the ministry, sacrifice, and glorification of Jesus. If we believe this, how can we not be amazed?
 
The birth of Jesus was in its immediate circumstances a very personal event—this particular child born to these particular parents under difficult economic, social, and political conditions. We can easily relate to the story of Jesus’ birth because we understand on the one hand fear and confusion, and we understand on the other hand the joy of parenthood and the irresistible attraction of a newborn child. For Joseph and Mary, the effects of these competing emotions must have been unsettling and exhausting. But Mary, as she often did, set an example for us in her reaction to the Nativity itself and the framework in which it occurred: she reflected on these things in her heart.
 
The Christmas season at times seems to be designed to prevent us from doing any such thing, but for most of us, the pressures of the holiday season are as nothing compared to what Mary confronted. And still, she reflected on these things in her heart. The birth of Jesus began the unfolding of the mystery through which each of us has been offered salvation from the consequences of sin and death. If we believe this, how can we not reflect on it at Christmas and on every day of our lives?
 
Adapted from PrayerTime: Faith-Sharing Reflections on the Sunday Gospels, available at the RENEW International store

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adventGood and Gracious God,
you have given us a gift in the life and love of your Son.
Help us to follow your call in our lives,
granting us the grace to live by Jesus’ example
in all we say and do.
We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior.
Amen.
 
From Advent Awakenings, Year A: Trust the Lord.

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Water_WineWhen I was a member of St. Joseph’s parish in High Bridge, New Jersey, the church was so crowded at one Easter Sunday Mass that the pastor invited standees to take seats in the sanctuary.
 
The only people to accept the invitation were a woman and her teenaged daughter.
 
After Mass, the woman remarked to me that she was delighted, because she had never witnessed the liturgy at such close range, and she noticed many details that had escaped her up to then.
 
Among those details was part of the ritual in which the celebrant or the deacon pours a little water into the chalice of wine before the consecration.
The woman noticed that the deacon, in this case, said something inaudible while he was pouring that drop of water.
 
She was referring to this prayer: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
 
I don’t know why we are instructed in the Roman Missal to say that prayer quietly, but the prayer and the ritual itself refer to a fact that is central to our faith, a fact that we celebrate in an especially solemn way on Christmas.
 
On that holy day, we celebrate the moment in time in which God, while retaining his divine nature, took on human nature in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, so that Jesus was fully God and fully human.
 
In the symbolism of the ritual we’re discussing, the wine represents the divine nature of Jesus, and the water represents his human nature; once the wine and water have mingled they cannot be separated, and so it is with the divine and human natures of Christ.
 
And there’s more.
 
While we acknowledge in that prayer that Christ is both divine and human, we also pray that we who are human may share in his divinity.
 
That idea can be found in Scripture—for example in the Second Letter of Peter in which the author writes that Jesus “has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire’’ (2 Peter 1:4).
 
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite explicit about this, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote: “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods’’ (Catechism, paragraph 460).
 
Through the grace of the sacraments, through Scripture, through prayer, and through acts of justice and mercy, we spend our lives being formed more and more in the image of the one who was born in our image, to the delight of angels and shepherds.
 
As the prayer over the wine and water says, God “humbled himself” when he assumed human form, but he also beckoned us sons and daughters to realize the full potential of our humanity, to become fit company for him.
 
We achieve the full transformation when God welcomes us into communion with him for eternity—into heaven, as we say—a destiny that, because of original sin, was unimaginable before the Nativity.
 
We hear it each year in the carol: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”
 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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