The Ultimate Model of Sacrificial Love

The gospel reading for Palm Sunday tells about Jesus’ glorious entry into Jerusalem. The Jewish authorities were afraid that the people would declare him king, and with that the power of their leadership would be threatened. So the Sanhedrin plotted to put Jesus to death and Judas conspired against him. Palm Sunday is all about the passion of Christ that’s about to take place, all about sacrificial love.

The passion of Jesus was announced in John’s gospel when he said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In this statement there is a tremendous paradox because to many of the Jews, the title “Son of Man” stood for an undefeatable world conqueror sent by God. So when he said that, they believed that the triumph-call of all eternity had sounded, that the might of heaven was on the march, and the campaign of victory had begun.

This is not at all what Jesus meant by “glorified”. By glorified, he meant “crucified.” When the “Son of Man” was mentioned, they thought of the conquest of the armies; he thought of the conquest of the cross.

EntryIntoJerusalem-DuccioAs Jesus rides into Jerusalem and he looks at the City, he sees what the people could not see. It is there on the outskirts of the city that the battle will end. He sees the staging of Satan. The Evil One has seized the heart of Judas and he has whispered in the ear of Caiaphas. Jesus knew that when the going got tough, his closest friends would run, and that his was not the glory of popularity, but the glory of isolation. It was glory because it was for us, and because it was instead of us.

Jesus knew that before the war would be over, he must be taken captive. He knew that before victory there would be pain. He knew that before the throne would come the cup. He knew that before the light of Easter Sunday, there must be the darkness of Good Friday, and before his ascent into heaven, there must be a descent into hell. At the very moment when the crowds of people would be cheering, Jesus would be in agony.

He would be in agony because this was his hour, the hour to which every word and every act in scripture pointed. Jesus would be in agony because He knew from all eternity past that this was indeed the time for the cross. It was agony for Jesus to do the will of his Father, but there was no other way. Jesus was not saved from this hour. He was saved for it, and so are we. What was the passion of Jesus? We are the passion of Jesus because in the end Jesus would rather go through hell for us than go to heaven without us.

Jesus made a decision, a decision that would change the course of history forever. His entry into Jerusalem would not be in anticipation of being crowned; it would be in anticipation of being crucified. It would be the ultimate example of supreme courage, knowing He was going, voluntarily and sacrificially to his death on our behalf, as our ransom, as our substitute.

Jesus came to the Jews with a new view of life. They looked on glory as conquest, the acquisition of power, and the right to rule. He looked on it as the cross. He taught that life comes only by death, that only by spending life do we retain it, and that greatness only comes through service.

Jesus was fighting a battle with the human longing to avoid the cross, but nothing is gained without sacrifice. Real courage doesn’t mean not being afraid. It means being terribly afraid, yet sacrificing out of love, doing what must be done for the good of others and for the glory of God.

This is what his passion was all about. Sacrificial love is what we see when we look at the cross. Sacrificial love is the goal of our Lenten journey – the only sure foundation for life, the only sure foundation for a family, a community or a kingdom. Sacrificial love is the only thing that we take with us when we leave this world, and the only thing that will last forever. It’s the key to conversion, the key to becoming just like Jesus.

So for those preparing to come into the church at the Easter Vigil and for all of us preparing for Holy Week, let this be our fervent prayer:

Take from us, Lord, that which continues to separate us from you: pride, greed and selfishness. Increase in us that which brings us closer to you: patience, humility and sacrificial love.

Deacon Greg Ollick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Protecting, Respecting, and Cherishing the Union of the Marital Act

Today’s readings (Isaiah 7:10-14, 8:10; Psalm 40:7-11; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38) of the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord prophesy and highlight Mary of Nazareth’s virginal self-giving love in her fiat or “yes” to God. Would Mary consent to be the Mother of the Son of God Incarnate? She responds to the angel Gabriel, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” (The first part of this response is almost identical to Jesus’ fiat in His agony in the garden, as well as the centerpiece of the Our Father, “Your will be done.”) The Virgin Mary’s unconditional and profoundly obedient love of God informs her fiat. Mary’s sexuality, and therefore her motherhood, embrace her affirmation to love God in return.

In today’s world, social decline in faith, virtue, and family stability, among other reasons, have weakened the concept and exercise of “commitment,” so clearly embodied by the Virgin Mary. To “commit” to something, for many, seems too difficult, almost archaic, especially in reference to something other-centered. This is true, for example, concerning marriage. Do most couples, when exchanging marriage vows at their wedding, seriously intend faithful commitment for better or worse until death? Do they understand the meaning of a vow, and are they dedicated to spousal love “no matter what?” Total, self-giving commitment to another in marriage is slowly (or not so slowly) becoming culturally anomalous, if not anachronistic. This is not surprising since commitment to God—the foundation of all other just and loving commitments—is a notion slowly receding into oblivion in our collective, cultural mindset. Without commitment to God, universal truths, and absolute moral norms, relativism spawns, multiplies, and destroys soul and society. In Scripture, God warns us about this contagion, such as corrupting the absolute character of the Decalogue, the Commandments of love (e.g., Isiah 5:20-24; Torah in v.24 is an Isaian reference to the Decalogue).

By disuse and even wholesale rejection of virtue—the greatest of which is love of God—our culture has atrophied in wisdom and moral character and no longer recognizes the purpose of sexuality. We, the people, by and large, view sexual activity as a multi-method approach of obtaining orgasmic pleasure. This is no overstatement—our pervasive and long-standing contraceptive mentality and practice, cohabitation, seduction into the multi-billion dollar pornography enterprise, and political and legislative eradication of the meaning of marriage (in favor of formalized consensual license to engage in sexual activity), reflect our true colors.

In the order of nature, sexual activity—elicited by sexual desire—is oriented toward union of bodily persons. Self-giving, marital love is God’s signature design of this union. To effect it, four conditions must be met.  First, the union must be willed. Second, it must be complementary of one man to one woman to create the union. Third, it must be faithful because of its profound intimacy. Fourth, it must be respectful of the life-giving act of lovemaking, and therefore be open to life, i.e., must not sterilize lovemaking because of its reproductive character. This procreative dimension—the reproductive character—is an intrinsic aspect of conjugal union. A denial of the procreative, fruitful dimension of the conjugal act is a denial of its union. A partial, but not total self-gift in lovemaking contradicts the complete gift of self expressed in the body language of love, so well-illustrated by St. Pope John Paul the Great’s theology of the body.

Among proponents of the oxymoron, “gay marriage,” some argue that the Catholic Church’s teaching of procreation as a fundamental good of marriage is erroneous because elderly married couples would cease to be married, or elderly couples could not marry because of their inability to procreate. However—as (most) everyone knows—a married couple does not conceive a child each time they make love! Marital union does embody a reproductive character: to denigrate this character denigrates the sacred union.

The Virgin Mary’s courageous, unwavering fiat must be ours, as well. Our undying commitment and loyalty to God embraces all of His will, including those facets most countercultural, such as respect for the marital act. Let us imitate Mary, and serve God faithfully, bravely, chastely. By doing so, we will live with integrity. In addition—God willing—we will serve as an example for others to follow, stimulate personal and social growth in virtue, and thereby reclaim and even advance the grace and teaching of Christ. “Though grass withers…the Word of our God stands forever!” (Isaiah 40:8).

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Reality of Being Known

Everyone wants to be known. We long to be acknowledged, understood and ultimately, loved. We look for affirmation of who we are and praise for what we do. We want to be desired, sought after and needed. As if we couldn’t find evidence of these desires in our own experience, Exhibit A can certainly be found in Reality TV. What began with talk shows that gave ordinary people their 15 minutes of fame has morphed into a “true confessions-meets men and women behaving badly” phenomenon, churning out people famous for being…famous. Reality TV doesn’t just open a window into its inhabitants lives; it throws open the doors and pulls down the walls so that everyone inside is utterly exposed. On our television sets we see them: the good – but mostly the bad and the ugly. It’s those last two that grab the highest ratings and biggest headlines. Who would open themselves to such exposure, laying bare even the most intimate aspects of life – and why? Why reveal so much of oneself, resorting to the kind of over-the-top behavior that would otherwise be unthinkable – except for when the cameras are rolling? Perhaps an equally important question is: Why do so many of us watch?

According to St. Sophronius’ account of her life (as told to the priest Zosimus), Mary was a prostitute, and a woman who found great satisfaction in her work. One day Mary saw a group of people boarding a ship to Jerusalem and, intrigued by what might draw so many on this voyage, she decided to follow them. Mary paid her way doing what she knew best, Koshute 1and after the ship docked, she eventually made her way to the passengers’ destination: a church where a relic of the True Cross was housed. A large crowd pushed their way into the church to celebrate the great Feast of the Exaltation and Mary fell in line. Hard as she tried, Mary was unable to get inside. Convinced the crowd was just too heavy Mary hung back and tried again, and again, and again. Each time she attempted to cross the church’s threshold Mary was repelled, as if some hidden force were protecting the sacred place from her presence. Frustrated and confused, Mary was gripped by a longing to be in God’s presence. From her place outside the church she saw an icon of the Mother of God and begged her to petition the Lord to grant her entrance. The Holy Mother heard her cry and suddenly the barrier was removed and Mary entered and gave praise and thanks to God. Promising to dedicate her life to prayer and penance, Mary made for the Jordan River and the Church of St. John the Baptist. There she was baptized and finally experienced the authentic love and true gift of self she could not have known until she received her Lord in Holy Communion. Leaving the church nourished and reborn, Mary went into the desert. There she lived, praying, making penance – still battling her demons – yet resting in the presence and safety of her True Love.

Mary of Egypt’s life might have made for salacious reality TV. Her insatiable carnal desire, fierce independence and disregard for the potential dangers inherent in her lifestyle would have provided hours of voyeuristic delight. Mary lived over a thousand years ago, yet the longing in her heart is ours, too. Mary wanted to be known and loved; she craved attention, even of the “wrong kind,” because any notice of her was at least an acknowledgment of her existence. Like each one of us, Mary grew restless and dissatisfied and looked for satisfaction everywhere except in the one place where it lay: with the One who knows us more intimately than we even know ourselves. We may not resort to the kind of lifestyle, or even the same nature of sin as Mary. But each one of us takes “refuge” in sin due to human weakness, rebellion, the need to “fit in,” and the simple longing for something to fulfill us, even temporarily.

The season of The Great Fast is our opportunity to be “laid bare” in front of God; to be exposed not for titillation or exploitation, but to be truly known by the One who sees us in Koshute 2truth. God knows our weakness and our flaws, and He is well aware of our sins, even before we openly confess them. His desire for us is not that we remain trapped in the cycle of sin, or that we seek attention in ways that violate our personal dignity. Yet when He beholds us He does so with eyes of love and with the knowledge of who we are as He created us. This is why He so desires us to let go of our sins and embrace Him. When Mary approached the church doors and was denied entrance it was not because God wished to refuse her. Rather, He awakened Mary’s true longing, giving her the space to realize her past mistakes. God presented Himself to her respecting her freedom, exposing His desire for her and allowing her to “fall in love.” Mary encountered True Love on that day, and even as she continued to battle temptation and sinfulness, she finally let Him fight for her.

Our True Love waits patiently for us, making Himself known in ways subtle and unexpected. We need not (over) expose ourselves for others in order to be known and appreciated. The God who loves us, who became a man in order to die for us, knows the desires of our hearts and Himself longs for us to know Him.

O Christ the Bridegroom, my soul has slumbered in laziness. I have no lamp aflame with virtues. Like the foolish virgins I wander aimlessly when it is time for work. But do not close your compassionate heart to me, O Master. Rouse me, shake off my heavy sleep. Lead me with the wise virgins into the Bridal Chamber, that I may hear the pure voice of those that feast and cry unceasingly: O Lord, Glory to You!

Bridegroom Matins, Great and Holy Week

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Marriage and Family: The Original Cell of Social Life

The past 25 years have witnessed a dramatic-and tragic-effort to organize societies by violence. Networks and societies that associate themselves with Islam are the most Boko Haramprominent today, but one could find earlier historical examples, such as revolutions inspired by the Communist Manifesto. The Al Qaida network led to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has encouraged affiliations such as Boko Haram.

The efforts of these groups to organize society by violence necessarily attack the family, which by nature strives for peace. Catholic Social Doctrine helps us understand the harm done by these attacks on the family because it recognizes the family as the foundation of society.

Many people think that Catholic Social Doctrine is primarily concerned with activism concerning human rights, especially regarding the poor. It is that, but it is more. Catholic Social Doctrine really provides a view of society –how it is composed, its fundamental principles –that is compatible with the Gospel and the existence of the Church. Catholic Social Doctrine emphasizes that society is primarily a spiritual, not a material reality. We might be tempted, especially in a wealthy society, to think of society primarily in terms of its economic resources. But in paragraph 1886, the Catechism points out that authentic society forms around true spiritual goods, when they are valued and pursued together as a common goal. For this reason, we interpret the “common good” not merely in terms of the material, economic conditions of human flourishing, but primarily in terms of the spiritual goods that people pursue together and the virtues and practices by which they attain them.

The little society we call “family” is based on the very practical yet spiritual “goods of marriage”: the lifelong, sacred bond between the spouses, having and educating children, fidelity and exclusivity, the spouses’ mutual help in the pursuit of virtue and holiness as well as in the running ofHoly Family a household and in the parenting of children, and finally, for two baptized Christians, the spiritual (and practical!) sacramental good of their marriage as a sign of Christ’s union with the Church (CCC 1643-1654). The well-being of Society means recognizing and protecting the common goods of the marital and familial community. The Catechism also uses the word “communion” to describe the little societies called marriage and family (CCC 2205).

We can take each one of these goods of marriage and explain how spouses contribute to society, as well as build their own families, by pursuing those goods. Human love seeks the kind of permanent relationship established by the bond of marriage. By establishing this bond between them, a man and a woman show that special kind of love called “marital” exists in their society. A society without children disappears. A society benefits from educated people, and education begins with intimate knowledge of the kind that parents have for their children. Similarly, a society benefits from mature adults who can accept responsibility. Spouses can use their intimate knowledge of each other to promote their common growth in virtue and holiness (CCC 2206). Finally, spouses lead their families in organizing the material wealth of the society. For this reason, the Catechism calls the family “the original cell of social life” (CCC 2208).

Those who would organize society through violence pursue these social goods for their families while denying them to others. One of the most striking examples took place a year ago when Boko Haram kidnapped 270 girls and, according to news reports, began forced conversion to Islam. By killing or kidnapping, these groups deprive families of their own children. Where they systematically destroyed the family, they will succeed in destroying the society.

Recently the Nigerian Bishops Conference responded with Catholic Social Doctrine. In February of this year, their Plenary Meeting for 2015 developed the theme “Good Families Make Good Nations” and spoke about the nation as a “family of families.” They help us to recognize that violence not only deprives families of their children, but also deprives society of all the social goods that depend upon families.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Sick and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Let Us Rejoice!

The Church, through the medium of Liturgical Year, reminds us that Laetare (Rejoice!) is not just the name of a single day but it is an inescapable spiritual perspective for a lifetime. The Easter truth informs our faith every Sunday and every day of the year.

This has been a particularly hard winter for many of us… with record and enduring low temperatures, ever growing piles of snow and ice, ice, ice. The darkness of winter and the challenges inherent in that season try us. They turn us inward like a warm house on a snowy night calls us in and out of the wind. There is a beautiful parallel for us in this hemisphere, at least, between the natural season and the Liturgical season. Drawing us inward the Penitential Season of Lent invites us to reflect on the journey of our spiritual life and our growth in our relationship with God and others. There is a sense of Retreat when we pause and take the time apart to examine and sit with those deepest realities that anchor our faith.

As the winter has been hard, Lent, too, can be difficult. Knowing that, the Church in her wisdom marks the half-way point in the Lenten Season to allow us to take a breath amid the serious reflection and work of the penitential season. Part of the beauty of the entire Liturgical Year is this built-in rhythm that interfaces with the natural seasons and allows us, if we give ourselves to it, to move forward with the pace that our will and God’s good grace lead. Laetare Sunday, with its correlative partner, Gaudate Sunday in Advent, invites us to remember and celebrate, and, yes, rejoice as it echoes the Introit of the traditional Latin Mass, “Rejoice! Oh Jerusalem!” The rose vestments which replace the purple for a day are a surprise and a reminder of the Easter kerygma that enlivens our faith with love and enduring hope.

Cloy PotIn the midst of our reflection in this penitential season, the theme of forgiveness and healing encourages us to embrace the redemptive grace of Easter. Our frailty, our “Happy Fault” is an occasion for growth and God’s good grace. The image of a clay pot, an earthen vessel, has always spoken to me. It is fragile, flawed, often broken and mirrors our human condition. A psychologist friend once humorously commented that many of us are broken while some are just a little cracked. All kidding aside, it’s not difficult to see ourselves in this image. The wonderful lyricist Leonard Cohen wrote in his poem/song Anthem, “forget your perfect offering, there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Rejoice, I say again rejoice, not in the crack, but in the light!

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Who Said This Was Going To Be Easy?

Lenten discipline requires the reconsideration of our spiritual state.

Deacon Scott Dodge (a great blog to follow after the St Joseph’s College Theology blog!) provides a thoughtful connection between popular culture and classic Christian art, specifically Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpierce, here. Deacon Scott: “The failure of our own words, of our ability to comprehend and articulate the greatness, the height, length, and depth of love of God’s great love for us should drive us to God’s word.” He then quotes Romans 5:6-9, but I would rather reflect on today’s Gospel, Matthew 5:11-17:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”

Each of the four Gospels brings its own voice, comforts, and challenges to the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Among Matthew’s many gifts (e.g., 16:18-20), I find most rewarding and provocative Chapter Five’s intensifications of the Jewish Law. Thou shall not murder? Well, even if you’re angry with somebody, stop what you’re doing and seek reconciliation. Thou shall not commit adultery? That’s not enough—do not even look another lustfully. So much for the nice, domesticated Jesus we like to tell ourselves we already resemble. No, in Matthew’s gospel Jesus holds us to a higher, not lower, standard. And this is the Word of God to which Lent inexorably drives us, not a Jesus who confirms our smugly-held opinions, nor a Jesus who simply ignores our sins. As G. K. Chesterton so aptly put it, “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Who said this was going to be easy?

Bernini from St Peters domeThe Lenten stereotype depicts the unwillingly ascetic Catholic wallowing in self-abnegation. I, though, found Deacon Scott’s words about God’s greatness reminded me of the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Barth often stood quite opposed to Roman Catholic theology, even as he avidly read St. Augustine and St. Anselm (among others). Good Calvinist that he was, Barth began his theology with the absolute sovereignty of God. Mankind cannot save itself; only God can do that. Barth asserted God’s NO! to all human pretensions to religious agency and self-direction. The YES that comes in the Incarnation overcomes that negation, but, Barth believed, the NO still remained. That, in part, was made grace what it was—thoroughly unmerited.  While he spent far more time and ink lambasting fellow Protestants, Barth always considered standard Roman Catholic spirituality a target of that divine NO! Thus it is seems rather ironic that Wikiquote welds Barth’s famous words of YES and NO to…Gian-Lorenzo Bernini’s Holy Spirit stained-glass window gracing the western wall of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Gone are the days when I accepted prima facie everything Barth wrote. Deo gratias! However, occasionally a little Barth reinvigorates the theological project. Barth’s insistence on divine sovereignty resonates with the Gospel image of Jesus declaring the Law’s enduring presence. Not only that, but the NO! extends to our own teaching. Since the Law remains valid, we simply cannot invent what we want and disregard what we dislike. Knowledge of the Law implies teaching the whole Law. We can’t blunt the sharp edges to make it “nicer.” With his customary brevity and sharp insight, Father Robert Barron critiques this facile presumption that being Christian means being nice. Father Barron doesn’t mention Barth—he doesn’t need to—but the point remains: God calls us to something greater than merely being nice to each other.

While it wanders off to once-current issues, this post from my own blog addresses the same point through the lens of an Augustinian critique of American evangelical eschatology. It wasn’t until I had read St. Augustine that I began to understand my dislike for Protestant eschatologies: they were too easy and too self-assured. Chapter Five of Matthew’s gospel offers the initial, damning criticism: this will not be easier—quite frankly, it will be more difficult than before! That is a tough message to hear, which perhaps is why Christian history is filled with those seeking waivers. Christian theology is filled with so many false starts because of the failure to confront honestly today’s gospel: Jesus comes not to abolish, but to uphold, the Law which, by the way, remains very much in effect. It is to such stark reminders that Lent calls us.

Quite frankly, we don’t always start where we should. I started with St. Augustine, and then only later realized that St. Augustine himself points us all back to the Gospel (and thus the Gospels). And there we find both the negation of our human pretensions and yet simultaneously the reaffirmation of God’s love for us—in the same person, Jesus. So will the Way of Jesus be an easy ride? More than likely no—in fact, it can be quite bumpy and crooked. What was that about not abolishing? Yet Jesus also tells us: “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). So it is not easy, but it will be worth it—and along the way we receive life itself.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

The Feminine Genius

mimosa Today, March 8, in many places around the world is celebrated as International Women’s Day.  I first learned this when I was living in Rome and at the end of Mass every woman leaving church was handed a sprig of yellow Mimosa flowers.  Ever since that day, I have marked International Women’s Day in some way. Today, I will give thanks for the many women throughout Church history who have been models of what St. John Paul II termed “the feminine genius.”

In his letter to women, (Mulieris Dignitatem) he spoke of the need for the Church to recognize and raise up the gifts of women both within the church and within society.  He addressed the sad part of church history in which the Church failed to protect and promote the dignity of women and to make full use of women’s gifts.  Since the publication of that letter in 1987, great strides have been made in opening up positions for women in all fields of theology, pastoral ministry, and diocesan leadership and in Catholic institutions. Pope Francis has spoken a number of times about creating new leadership roles for women at the Vatican.  With all the attention given to what the future might hold, we sometimes forget to honor our past.

The Church’s primary mission is to invite people to an encounter with Jesus Christ and to find new life in Christ, in and through Baptism and the sacramental life of the Church. In Baptism, we are called to holiness—to live out the fullness of the Gospel in our lives. At no time in the Church’s history did it make a distinction between men and women with regard to the universal call to holiness. In fact there is a long and rich history that in every age, the Church recognized women who lived the Christian life in a full and distinctive way. Beginning Mary Magdalene, often called the “Apostle to the Apostles” who was the first to announce the good news of Our Lord’s resurrection to the other Apostles and most recently St. Rosa Eluvathingal, an Indian Carmelite nun who was known to be a woman of deep prayer and a gift for intercession, the church and world has been enriched by the feminine genius of Catholic women. The United State is blessed with seven women saints who illustrate the tremendous contribution Catholic women have made to church and society.

Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mother Katherine Drexel, Kateri Tekakwitha, Marianne Cope, Frances Xavier Cabrini, Rose Philippine Duscheneand Thodore Guérin represent women who as educators, healers, social justice advocates, and faithful to Our Lord, even in the face of death, as in the case of Kateri, exemplify the feminine genius in a specifically Catholic and American expression. These women, like many of their sisters in faith from all parts of the world, were often first in their fields or lived in a time when the Church was the only place women served as college presidents, founders of hospitals and schools,statue reformers of their religious communities and advocates for those without a voice. Mother Catherine McAuley whose statue graces the lawn of St. Joseph’s College is a reminder of the contribution of women to Catholic education in the United States.

As we look forward to Pope Francis’s vision for expanding the role of women in the Church, let us also celebrate and remember that we follow in the footsteps of our sisters who were martyrs, mystics and missionaries, daughters of God and daughters of Mary, Our Mother, who as Pope Francis said “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and with all the resources of her feminine genius…has not ceased to enter ever more into ‘all truth’” (Address to International Theological Commission, 2014).

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Are you envious because I am generous?

But Jesus summoned them and said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,
and the great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.
Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
-Mt 20.26-28

This teaching follows the story of Jesus’ third prophecy about his death and resurrection, the request from the mother of the sons of Zebedee that her sons should sit on Jesus right and left in the kingdom, and the resulting resentment from the other ten. The story is significantly preceded by the story of the workers in the vineyard, in which those who work longer complain that those who came later receive the same wage (Mt 20.1-16). The landowner concludes his scolding of the complainers by asking, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The reader is left with the same question that she or he is left with after every parable: “who am I in this story?” In this case, we ask ourselves, “do I rejoice at generosity, including God’s, or am I tinged with envy?”

Last Saturday in my St. Francis of the Hills Secular Franciscan community, we read the Eighth Admonition of St. Francis of Assisi. I was taken aback (yet again) by Francis’ words:

The apostle says: “No one can say: Jesus is lord, except in the Holy Spirit” [1 Cor 12.3] and; here is not one who does good, not even one” [Rom 3.12].

Therefore, whoever envies his brother the good that the Lord says or does in him incurs a sin of blasphemy because he envies the Most High Himself Who says and does every good thing.

ItSaint Francis starts simply enough, we realized. We can say with some genuine humility how happy we are about the benefit another person received. But how quickly the twinge of resentment can grow into a tiny feeling of bitterness. As our Father Robert, our Spiritual Assistant, pointed out, how easily that feeling can be externalized into gossip and slander before we are fully aware of what we are doing: “Do you know what she did a few years ago…?” “I had lunch with him last week, and he had three glasses of wine…”, a thinly veiled but, sadly, socially acceptable act of revenge.

(At this point, we are all staring down at our books and wondering, “Who invited Father Robert, anyway?”)

But as Francis points about, the resentment and the revenge cannot be against the person, because, as he says elsewhere, “we may know with certainty that nothing belongs to us except our vices and sins.” Our envy, then, is directed at God’s generosity – such a swift slide into the sin of pride that is always a form of blasphemy against the One who sustains each breath we take and gives us all good things.

As Jesus emphasizes, and as we all try to remind ourselves daily, the only remedy for pride is humility. It is not surprising, then, that the entire episode in Jericho concludes with the healing of two anonymous blind men along the roadside (20.29-34), who beg that “their eyes be opened.” They provide the counterexamples of faith to the pride of the two sons of Zebedee (hmm, I guess mom makes three!) just before Jesus makes the “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem on his way to that most humble of deaths, the crucifixion. “Seeing” that “the way up is down” is indeed the gospel, and Francis points to our only path at the end of his glorious “Canticle of the Creatures”:

Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks,
And serve Him with great humility.

We concluded in our meeting that this was easier said than done! “Let us begin again…”

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Faith of the Martyrs

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.        Romans 12:1

These words of Saint Paul have made a very powerful impression on me of late in light of the recent and ongoing persecution of Christians by ISIS. As I watch these tragic events unfold, I am challenged by the faith of those who have died for Christ. I must ask myself, “Am I willing to die rather than renounce my faith in Jesus Christ? Would I have the courage to withstand the pain?” I find myself praying for that courage, and hope the answer is “Yes.” I want the answer to be “Yes.”

But how do I get there? How do I gain the strength of the martyr? I don’t have to look far. In his very next sentence, St. Paul tells us how.

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.            Roman 12:2

If I am to go willingly to my death, I must see that death the way God sees it. I find that the only way this is possible, or even desirable, is to have Christ on my mind and in my heart at every moment of the day. This means a lot of little “deaths” along the way. So often I drift off into the hectic world of my everyday responsibilities, and, just whSacred Hearten I reach my wits end, I remember Christ. I see His face before me. I feel His love for me, and I want to love Him back.

I must see my work through the eyes of Christ. I must see my life as belonging to Christ. I must offer my body as a living sacrifice in everything I do. This must become a habit, my fallback position in moments of weakness. Only then, should the likes of ISIS decide to come to my home and seek me out, will I be able to die for my Jesus. I will see His face before me, and I will be willing to love Him the way He loved me on the cross.

When I am weak, then I will be strong.

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.