Sunday of Meatfare

jean vanierWe have finally come to Meatfare Sunday, the final day of Meatfare Week.  The Great Fast begins next Monday.   Did you fill up on meat?  Our Church – in its original practice – asks us to prepare for the Great Fast, physically and spiritually.  By tradition, everybody was asked to abstain from meat, egg, dairy for the entire Great Fast, so the faithful would ease into the fast.  For anyone who follows this early practice, Meatfare Sunday is the last day to eat meat until Easter.  Monday begins what is traditionally Cheesefare Week which is our last opportunity to eat cheese until Easter.

How about our spiritual preparation for the Great Fast?  That is grounded in the Scripture readings.  The Gospel readings through Meatfare Week help us to anticipate the Great Fast by recounting the events of Holy Week, as told in Saint Mark’s account of our Lord’s Passion.  The apostolic readings are mostly from Saint John’s Letters who goes nudges, pushes, and cajoles us to love in imitation of the One Who is Love.  Here are a few of the things Saint John  had to say in this week’s readings:

If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen…whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.  Whoever does not love remains in death.  Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”

Let us love one another…This is love, that we walk according to his commandments.  This is the commandment as you heard from the beginning, in which you should walk.”

And at yesterday’s Divine Liturgy we heard Saint Paul implore the Corinthians: “No one should seek his own advantage, but that of his neighbor.”

These are very blunt words.  Last week was with friends at their Roman Catholic church which was about to begin a series of discussions entitled “Things I wish Jesus never said.”  Next to the words was a picture of a young man covering his ears with his hands!  Did you feel that way hearing these words from Saint John or hearing today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25?

“…he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.   42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ 

And Jesus said that those on the Lord’s left 44…will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ 

[And] 45He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ 

Whenever we fail to do for the least of our brothers and sisters, for all intents and purposes, we trivialize and mock what He did for us on the cross, and, as Saint John stated so bluntly we are murderers and liars in spite of our protestations that we love God.

So how do we love?   There are so many people hurting.  So many people in need.  We can contribute money to organizations whose reason for existence is to serve our neighbors in need – from the local food pantry to Catholic Relief Services which help 136,000,000 million people per year in over 110 countries. That’s one way, and let’s not minimize it; but there is another way.

Some years ago during the Second World War a thirteen year old Canadian boy joined the Royal Navy.  He served with the navy until he was twenty-one years old.  Something stirred inside of him.  He went to France where he began studies in philosophy and theology.  He earned his PhD in Philosophy and wrote his dissertation on happiness in the ethics of Aristotle.  Pretty heady stuff, wouldn’t you say?  For a while, after he completed his studies, the young man assisted a priest who was chaplain to a residence for thirty developmentally disabled adults.  He returned to Canada to teach ethics and, though his students loved him, but something was missing, so he returned to France at the end of the semester.  One day, while visiting a psychiatric hospital, the young man met Philippe and Raphael, two developmentally disabled men.  He was taken by their horrible plight, and he acted.  He bought a small home in which he, Philippe, and Raphael would live.

The young man I’ve been talking about is Jean Vanier who, with Philippe and Raphael began what would become the first L’Arche community.  Today, from that one community there are 151 spread out across the globe on five continents.

In that first home, Vanier discovered that Philippe and Raphael “wanted a friend.”  He said, “They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.”  The only way Vanier was able to recognize that was to stop, look, and listen so that he might be able to see into their hearts, listen to their words and discover the ways in which they were hungering and thirsting, recognize how they were marginalized and imprisoned, and simply be their friend.

During the Divine Liturgy before the Gospel and Apostolic readings, the deacon commands, “Let us be attentive!”  Pay attention!  We are about to hear the living Word of God.  My brothers and sisters, I would like to suggest that after we are dismissed from the Divine Liturgy to go forth in peace, the Word of God that we have heard today should compel us to be attentive to the least among us. It is there that we find the suffering face of Christ, if we dare to look.  What will my response be to Him?  What will your response be?

My brothers and sisters, this year the Great Fast begins on March 4th.  The Church asks that this be a time of more intense prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Prayer and fasting to strengthen us so that we are not compromised by fear, weariness, insecurity, or a desire for comfort and we care able to reach out beyond ourselves in almsgiving.  The Great Fast is a time to sacrificially give to worthy causes. But do not stop there, look closer to home.  Let us all be attentive to those are hurting and rather than seek our own advantage reach out to our neighbor, and there you will find Christ.  Saint Gregory the Theologian could not say it any better: “Christ becomes for you a stranger, a person without clothes, food, and health, a prisoner…moving about homeless, naked, sick and needy.  So long as there is time, let us desire to visit this Christ, to care for Christ, to feed Christ, to clothe Christ, to gather Christ, and to treasure Christ.”

If you feel like you are spiritually dying, caught up in your worries, fears, insecurities and want to come alive spiritually, offer yourself to the suffering Christ wherever you may find Him.  Only then will you discover that the words of Jesus are truly words for which to be grateful.  Let us be attentive!

By Dn. Thomas P. Shubeck

Beginning, middle, and end. Every story seems to have one. Or does it?

ancestry of christToday’s gospel reading was the entire first chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the first book of the New Testament.  So, we heard the beginning of Matthew and the New Testament!   Saint Matthew’s account of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is no ordinary story with a clean beginning, middle, and end.  I would like to suggest that the Gospel of Saint Matthew looks back to a prequel – the Old Testament – and looks ahead to today – to each and every one of us.

Saint Matthew begins his Gospel with the Genealogy of Jesus Christ, which begins: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” followed by a long list of names.   Two thousand years removed from the days of the early Church, most of us listening to Matthew’s genealogy of Christ – forty-two generations worth –hear but a handful of familiar names, and a lot of strange sounding, unfamiliar names. Why did Matthew include Jesus’ genealogy?  The short answer is that a genealogy provides a quick way to learn who a person is.

The Jews and Gentiles in the very early days of the Church hearing Matthew’s account of Jesus’ genealogy became excited or at least intrigued about this Jesus born of a Virgin.   Indeed there is much that the Jews and Gentiles of Jesus’ time and we, even today, can take and learn from Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.  Most significantly, we learn that

  • The Son of God became en-fleshed and entered completely into the human condition: the dirt; the grime; the ambiguity, the paradox, and the comedy of life.
  • He entered deeply into our very dysfunctional human family.  We are able to say this because we see this in the persons whom Jesus allowed as his ancestors:
  • David was a man of great faith but with many faults.  He composed many of the beautiful psalms in praise of God, yet he also who arranged for the murder of his lover Bathsheba’s husband so he might take her legally as his wife.
  • Jacob was a man who wrestled with God and injured his hip in the process making him lame for life.
  • Rahab was a prostitute.  She also came to believe in our one true God, for as we heard in today’s reading from the Hebrews, “by faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies [that is to say because of her hospitality], was not killed with those who were disobedient.”
  • Ruth was not even an Israelite; she was a Moabite, an outsider who married an Israelite.  Upon her husband’s death she remained a member of the house of Israel, living with her in-laws.
  • And then there are the people like Abiud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Eliud, Eleazor, Matthan, and Jacob the father of Joseph about whom we know nothing except that they form much of Jesus’ genealogy after the Babylonian exile.

God welcomed into the ancestry of His Son Jesus Christ persons who sinned horribly; persons who wrestled with Him, who struggled with Him; persons who were outsiders and foreigners; persons who were nobodies…These persons were all part of Jesus’ human nature.

We also learn today that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Fully human and fully divine.  Jesus took His human nature, bearing all the beauty marks and warts of his ancestors, and perfectly conformed it to the will of his Father.

That this is so, there was no doubt to Simon Peter.   Matthew, Chapter 16, verses 15 and 16 – roughly in the middle of the Gospel, Jesus asked his first disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15) Amongst all the disciples, Simon Peter came forward and answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16)   

By the end of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus, tells his disciples, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  (Mt 28:18-20)

We; sons and daughters of Father, and brothers and sisters of Jesus by virtue of our baptism; are called by our brother Jesus to do the will of the Father and be disciples.

The problem is, too often, we get in the way of ourselves.  We feel unworthy to be players in God’s story because we are ashamed of our sins; because we struggle with God, fighting His call to faith, trust, and holiness; because we feel like an outsider; or because we feel like a nobody.  It is at these times that we need to remember who God welcomed to be the ancestors of His Son.   If he welcomed them to be participants in his story, then he certainly welcomes us.

And remember, too, Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph.  An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary, your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  Joseph did not cave in to his fear.  He took Mary as his wife and welcomed Jesus into his home and his heart.  God, through his Son, entered into human history – Joseph became a full participant in that story – the story that begins the New Testament.

As we approach the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, my prayer for each and every one of us is that we welcome into our hearts the newborn Jesus, the Mystery of the Incarnate God, the Word made flesh; and, in doing so, cast aside our fears, which are so often self-serving, and welcome ourselves as full participants in God’s story, in our homes,  in our hometowns, and in the larger world.

The story of the Son of God has no beginning as we profess in the Nicene Creed: I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.  On that first Christmas morning the Son of God entered into human history, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, he is with us today.  Heed His call.  Go.  Make disciples of all nations.  Jesus, the Son of the living God, is with us, always until the end of the age.

By: Fr. Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck

On Keeping Christ in Christmas

nativity-of-christ-icon-443During Advent or Philip’s Fast we see car magnets and an occasional billboard which say, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”  Since you are reading this, you are most likely in agreement with the perennial plea to Keep Christ in Christmas.

Did you ever take the time to pray over what it means to keep Christ in Christmas?  The obvious answer is to say Merry Christmas rather than the bland Happy Holidays.   I would like to suggest that keeping Christ in Christmas consists of much, much more than saying Merry Christmasinstead of “Happy holidays”; “Christmas tree” instead of “holiday tree”; or Christmas party instead of holiday party.   What if I brought a cake decoration which says on it “Merry Christmas” to a Christmas party but did not bring a cake?  The Merry Christmas cake decoration might look nice, but something would be missing.  It just doesn’t stand by itself; it is meant to be put on a cake.  Similarly, the proclamation “Merry Christmas” doesn’t stand by itself.

So how do we keep Christ in Christmas?  We can begin with what the Church encourages us to do during Philip’s fast: more fervent prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

We can make Sacred Scripture part of our prayer.  In fact, this Sunday’s reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:12-17) is a beautiful and succinct “recipe” for keeping Christ in Christmas:

12Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,  13bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.  14And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.  15And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.  16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  17And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Where do we begin?  Saint Paul described what a community of Christians looks like when they allow their hearts to conformed to the heart of Christ by the Holy Spirit!  This is an invitation to a life with Jesus Christ at its center.  It is an invitation to live the Beatitudes (which were read from Luke’s Gospel at the Divine Liturgy for the Feast of Saint Nicholas).   A person or a parish community whose hearts are not growing in conformity to the heart of Christ is like a Merry Christmas cake decoration without the cake.

If this passage from Colossians was written like a recipe, it might read something like this:

12Put [in]…

  • 1 T of heartfelt compassion, 
  • 1 T of kindness, 
  • 1 T of humility, 
  • 1 T of gentleness, and 
  • 2 T of patience.

13[Add] as many pinches of forgiveness as is needed, for as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.  

14[Thoroughly mix in a lot of] love, that is, the bond of perfection. 

15And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.  

16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, 

singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 

17And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 

It is all here: Love of God manifested in our gratitude to Him and our joyful worship; and love of neighbor manifested by our heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, our willingness to forgive.  This is the essence of keeping Christ in Christmas.  This is also how we evangelize.

During the coming Christmas holiday-season we our parishes will see a number of visitors for the Divine Liturgy.  Some will be back from school or visiting family.  Some will be here as they are every year for Christmas, perhaps out of a sense of obligation or nostalgia, and not to be seen again until Easter.  Some will come seeking God, and others will be curious about this Byzantine church they drive or walk by day after day.

How much will visitors be able to see, feel, and hear our love of God and one another?  How much will they sense our gratitude to God?  Will visitors say, “this parish is special, I can sense the presence of God in this community”?  Will they see members of our communities saying yes to God’s call to die to self and love others?  The answers to these questions depend upon each and every one of us.  What we do may very well influence whether they will return sooner than later.

How have you let your heart be conformed to the heart of Jesus?  In what ways is God asking you to keep Christ in Christmas this year?  Will each of us respond to God’s call with the same “Yes” that Our Lady the Theotokos gave?

Five years ago Pope Francis wrote the Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel.    It was and remains a call to evangelization.  The Holy Father ended his apostolic exhortation with a prayer:

Mary, Virgin and Mother, you who, moved by the Holy Spirit,
welcomed the word of life in the depths of your humble faith:
as you gave yourself completely to the Eternal One,
help us to say our own “yes”
to the urgent call, as pressing as ever,
to proclaim the good news of Jesus….

Obtain for us now a new ardour born of the resurrection,
that we may bring to all the Gospel of life
which triumphs over death.
Give us a holy courage to seek new paths,
that the gift of unfading beauty
may reach every man and woman.

Virgin of listening and contemplation,
Mother of love, Bride of the eternal wedding feast,
pray for the Church, whose pure icon you are,
that she may never be closed in on herself
or lose her passion for establishing God’s kingdom.

Star of the new evangelization,
help us to bear radiant witness to communion,
service, ardent and generous faith,
justice and love of the poor,
that the joy of the Gospel
may reach to the ends of the earth,
illuminating even the fringes of our world.

Mother of the living Gospel,
wellspring of happiness for God’s little ones,
pray for us.

Amen. Alleluia!

May we, as individuals and communities of believers, make this a Christmas to remember where Christ is front and center throughout this Christmas season.

By: Fr. Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck

IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE…PHILIP’S FAST

Orthodox-Christmas-4 ‘Twas the night before Halloween and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a fully decorated Christmas tree as I entered my local supermarket.  Rather than get me thinking about Christmas, my thoughts turned to the forty-day period of fasting leading up to the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.  Philip’s Fast gets its name from the fact that the forty-day period begins on November 15, the day after the feast of Saint Philip the Apostle.  In his wonderful book of meditations, The Winter Pascha (SVS Press), Father Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, suggested it may be providential that the start of the pre-Christmas fast coincides with the Feast of Saint Philip.  Father Hopko rightly observed that, like the first disciples, Jesus calls us to “come and see.”

The first step on the way of the Winter Pascha is the encounter with the man Jesus… If we want to come and want to see, we will.  Like the first disciples, we will see ‘greater things” than we ever expected.  We will see “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”  We will see Jesus as our Master, and will cry to Him: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  And we will come to know Him for who and what He really is.  But first we must come.  For if we do not come, we will never see.

To “come and see” means to turn our attention away from the many distractions of everyday life as well as the additional distractions of the season – from Black Friday and Cyber Tuesday, to mall Santas and “malling,” from sports and politics to the Internet and its various social media.  The tradition of the Byzantine Church asks that we abstain from meat products every Wednesday and Friday during the Philip’s Fast.  In fact, the Philip’s Fast is a voluntary forty-day penitential period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Take a few minutes and ask yourself, if I do not enter into the Philip’s Fast, will I have anything left to give to the Son of God on Christmas morning?  Will I be exhausted after days, if not weeks, of Christmas parties (aka “holiday” parties) and Christmas shopping.  Will I have any room left in my heart to receive the Son of God – in the Eucharist, in the message of His Word, or in my neighbor, or will my heart have become supersaturated with the distractions of the season?

Philip’s Fast is a time to prepare to come and see the Lord.  Stop and take a time out from the secular holiday season frenzy.  Come and see the Lord.   Can any of us afford not to participate deeply in this too often neglected penitential season of the Church?

By Fr. Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck

 

Homily for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost

W.592.157aIn August 1965 the Lovin’ Spoonful released Do You Believe in Magic and the song quickly sprang to the top of the pop charts.  So, do you believe in magic? As the lyrics of the song go, “believe in the magic that can set you free.”  Magic, of course, relies upon sleight of hand and illusion to give the impression that something supernatural has taken place.

As Christians the more appropriate question is whether we believe in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ and his power to perform miracles as he did in this morning’s Gospel reading from Saint Luke where, moved with pity, Jesus touched the coffin containing the widow’s son and said, “Young man, I tell you, arise.”  Rise, the dead man did, and “Jesus gave him to his mother.”  The power of God’s grace in His Son Jesus Christ caused this young, dead man to rise from the dead.

The people who had witnessed this were taken with fear.  “A great prophet has arisen in our midst.”  “God has visited his people,” they said.  God had worked a great miracle.  They saw that God had entered into human history.

There are many types of miracles that God works.   Saint Paul’s conversion can only be considered a miracle.  In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul acknowledges his former way of life as a persecutor of the church and how he tried to destroy her.  We also know from the Acts of the Apostles that Saul, as he had been known, was present when the mob stoned the first deacon and first martyr Saint Stephen.  In fact, the members of the mob who did the actual stoning placed their robes at his feet.  This was a sign of Saul’s authority in the community.  So, while Saul may not have thrown a stone, the mob was certainly stoning the good deacon Stephen with Saul’s full knowledge and consent.  It’s not a stretch to call Saul a terrorist.  Yet Saul, now Paul, accepted God’s loving mercy and grace.  After his conversion, Paul returned to Damascus and went on to Jerusalem, to Rome and Corinth, to Galatia and Ephesus proclaiming the Good News of Jesus to the Gentiles only to be revered as one of the Prime Apostles.

About twelve years before the Lovin’ Spoonful came out with their hit song, Do You Believe in Magic, a troubled twenty-something Frenchman by the name of Jacques Fesch had it in his head to rob a money changer on a street in Paris.  He had already left his wife and young daughter, and he wanted the money to buy a boat so he could sail to the Polynesian islands to escape his difficult circumstances and live a life of hedonistic pleasure. Well, the robbery went bad, and Jacques – who had no prior criminal record –fatally shot a police officer.  He was arrested, thrown into jail, convicted of his crime, and sentenced to death by beheading in 1957.  What happened in the three years between his arrest and execution is nothing short of a miracle.

Jacques grew up in very difficult circumstances.  Though he had a Catholic education, his father had a big negative influence on him.  Jacques wrote that his father was very: “proud, sarcastic, and cynical” and an atheist who “felt a disgust with life.”   He described family life as “utterly wretched…[T]here was no respect, no love.”  Jacques own life sounded not too different.  He married Pierrette after she became pregnant, and he did not love her.

All that changed for Jacques when he went to prison where he began his journey from atheism to God, a journey took about one year.  He was blessed to have the assistance of three persons – the prison chaplain who visited him and loaned him books; his attorney, a devout Christian who saw his work as a ministry; and a monk, Brother Thomas, with whom Jacques exchanged many letters.  One point that should not be lost: Jacques was connected with Brother Thomas by his wife Pierrette who never abandoned him in spite of what he had done to her.

Listen to what he wrote to Brother Thomas after his conversion: “an immense grief and an immense joy sweep over the soul together…for the first time I have wept tears of joy, knowing with certitude that God has forgiven me and that now Christ lives in me through my suffering and my love…I so need His love, strength and compassion.”

One week before his execution, at the age of twenty-seven, Jacques wrote to his Mama, “It is not for me that you should weep, but for sins that offend God.  As for me, I am happy.  Jesus is calling me to Himself, and great graces have been given to me.”

The day before his execution, Jacques wrote to his Mama, “God has given me the great grace of drawing me to Himself, and when you read these lines I shall be looking upon our Lord Jesus Christ…Remain calm…try to plunge your sorrow in the love of Jesus, who waits only for your appeal to come and console you.”

And to Brother Thomas, on that same night he wrote, “I wait in the night and in peace…I wait for Love.”

Jacques’ conversion gave him a new life in Christ.  He was beheaded on October 1st, 1957 – the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, the Theotokos in our Byzantine Church.  (Padre Pio used to say there is no such thing as a coincidence.)

In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus taught us the Golden Rule to “[d]o to others as you would have them do to you.”  He raised the bar when he said it’s no big deal to love someone who loves you.  Even a bully can love a bully! He tells us to …love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful.

It was only because of the Father’s mercy that Saul of Tarsus was able to receive God’s grace and live a life in Christ to become the Apostle Paul.  Had you been an early Christian witnessing the stoning of the first martyr Stephen and seen Saul standing there watching approvingly, might you have had a difficult time accepting the new Paul?  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It was only because of the Father’s mercy that Jacques Fesch was able to receive God’s grace and live a life in Christ to become a prodigal son returning to the Father after years of being an atheist.  After the cause for sainthood for Jacques was opened by the Archbishop of Paris, many complained that Jacques was a mere murderer.  These people were blinded by their lack of mercy.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It was the Father’s mercy perfectly manifested in Jesus who gazed into the eyes of the grieving widow with pity – yes, with compassion and mercy – that brought her only son back to life.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

What miracles might be possible in your life if you let Jesus embrace you in his mercy and let His Holy Spirit show you the way?  Remember, we’re not talking magic.  We’re talking miracles born out of God’s great mercy, He who is perfect love, He who entered into human history because of His great love for each and every one of us.

By Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck

Pilgrimage to Uniontown: A Reminder of Life’s Purpose

TIA group picFaith can be a challenging subject in our lives. It is something that is deeply personal yet challenges us into a relationship with one another. For no matter how hard we try to keep it within us, the joy that follows will always seek to be shared.

Growing up, the parish church ladies would board a bus and head off to a famous small town called “Uniontown, PA.” Upon their return they would sing songs, talk about experiences, and the best part; share their honey cake treats with the entire parish. While the parish no longer sent a bus to this sacred place, “the pilgrimage” to Our Lady of Perpetual Help as it was told to me, was one of those experiences that you just needed to participate in.

So, what did I do? With a leap of faith, I jumped in my car and headed off to the promised land called Uniontown.

They say the pilgrimage (the way getting there) is just as important as the destination. Well, they should have said that differently, because as soon as I got through half of Pennsylvania in a torrential downpour, I questioned to myself “Jerry, what are you doing?” That question sat with me as I reflected on the countless souls that traveled the same path over the years. Why was everyone heading to Uniontown? What could be so special about this place? Those questions soon revealed an answer as I laid my feet on the holy ground of Mt. Saint Macrina.

Opening my car door, the songs of praise and prayer seemed to flow through the wind and trees on top of the hill. There a small gathering of faithful prayed while I stood in silence. I was here, I had arrived at the blessed holy site of my ancestors.

But why? Why did I make this long drive to this small piece of property outside of Pittsburgh? What was I searching for? Could it be peace, after a rocky few weeks within the Catholic Church, or was I looking for the reminder of hope? Could it have been for something greater? What could have been the draw?

Holiness. That is what it had to be.

Holiness was the draw. Everywhere you went, you walked, you sat or stood, you found people around you seeking the same thing – holiness.

They came to seek deeper in their relationship with Christ, to build up their confidence in the faith, and be reminded of their true purpose as a Catholic and Christian. They came to be united in their call, and they came to be with their Blessed Mother. Could it possibly be that I came to seek the same thing? To be renewed in faith, to find a definite answer to my life’s journey?

Gazing on the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, we find the story within of how child Jesus, given visions of His passion and death, runs so fast in fear to Mary that He almost loses His shoe. However, in the embrace of his Blessed Mother, He is restored in his confidence.

I too have run to our Blessed Mother. I have run in hope of an answer, for the warm reminder that all would be well.

Life is a process. We are reminded over and over again in the life of Christ – of the challenge, the fear, the joy, and the hope in a daily surrender of our own wills and life forward. We look at Mary’s fiat (her yes) when the angel appeared and told her that she was to give birth to the son of God, yet was not married, and fearful of what people would say. How was she to explain all that was happening? How was she to trust in God’s plan?

We look even to the final moments of Christ in the night before his crucifixion “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Matthew 26:42

Christ gives us a clear example of surrendering, sacrificing, and living for a greater purpose, not of his own, but of his heavenly fathers.

Something is always dying, and something is always giving life.
There is a beautiful story in the Gospel of St. John about Jesus’ call of the fisherman: “After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command, I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing.” They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. -Luke 5:4-7

It is interesting to note how the disciples were ready to give up, yet God reached out one more time and asked them to try the other side. What do you do when it looks like there is no more hope? What do you do when you think it just is impossible to share in a relationship with one another, to be open, vulnerable, broken, hurt,…

 … forgiven, and loved.

Maybe you are sitting here thinking there is not much hope, that so much needs to be done, and that you are the only one to accomplish the task. Maybe you are sitting here thinking that you are unable to accomplish the task based on your skills, your worth, and your vision.

In those moments when you think it is impossible, those are the moments God is calling out to you saying “cast your net on the other side.”

Who are you in God’s Eyes…
Our lives and the life of the Church have many different struggles, bumps, and stops. Our natural tendency is to focus on the one problem, that blinds our focus on one thing without seeing our true image as son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father, and friend. Without realizing by the end, the focus of our image is nothing but dead a stem of a flower without any petals.

However, when we put our struggles, challenges, wants, desires into a new perspective of sacrificial love, we realize what God has seen from the very beginning. A beautiful flower. Life may show you the stem, but God shows you the fullness of your life.

You never know what God is doing in your life, so be brave in how you communicate with him. Allow hope and sacrifice to lead your journey.

This was the true message that reminded me that our Church is alive, and our true hope is in Christ through Mary. That could not have been made clearer as Bishop Milan Lach, SJ closed out his homily with the following words: ” So dear brothers and sisters, we are here. Don’t worry, Jesus Christ is with us. Don’t worry about our future of our Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States. Don’t worry. God is with us! Glory to Jesus Christ!”

Mary, A Model of Hope

Our Lady of Perpetual Help

In the Akathist, we address the Mother of God:

“O all-merciful Sovereign Lady Virgin Theotokos!”

There is much contained in these few words, much worthy of reflection, especially considering that her Dormition has just passed. This feast reminds us of her holiness, of the fact that, again as the Akathist has us sing, “[w]e behold the holy Virgin, a shining lamp appearing to those in darkness; for, kindling the Immaterial Light, She guides all to divine knowledge, She illumines minds with radiance.” Her life offers us light and consolation; her acceptance of God’s ineffable will is the mysterious gateway of our salvation. A kontakion for this feast makes this abundantly clear:

“Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos, the unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection. As Mother of life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb transposed her to life.”

Mary gives us hope—both in her life and in the constant intercession that accompanies her death, her place in the Kingdom. She is all-merciful, because she loves her Son, understands that the Lord loves all people, and as last Sunday’s reading—the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen—reminds us: the Lord demands forgiveness as He forgives. She is sovereign because her “yes,” her acceptance of the Incarnate God within her own flesh, established the reign of God on the earth. In these short words from the Akathist, we embrace hope, hope in an all-loving deity who works through human beings.

Keeping up hope is central to our faith. It does not mean that we must be blandly positive. Sometimes, as with Mary’s confusion and fear upon hearing the angel’s cry, hope is difficult, confounding, even painful. Sometimes it can only be, as Marilynne Robinson writes in her novel Gilead, “hope deferred.”

To hope is to remind ourselves that God loves us, that, at bottom, His divine power will not leave us, that it guides us, even as we feel abandoned to darkness. In times of difficulty, Mary (and her Son) remain our “unshakeable hope,” allowing us to remain “ever vigilant,” even when beset by wickedness within ourselves, wickedness abounding in the world.

May we ask of the Immaculate Theotokos her “intercession and protection” to carry us through dark times; may we ask for the humility and courage to say “yes” to God’s ineffable will in a world that often seems to make it impossible to do so. May we, pray, as our ancient brothers and sisters did:

“We fly to Thy protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.”

May we hope.

By Chase J. Padusniak