Archives for April 2010

Fear the Lord


It was time last Friday for Pebbles’ and BamBam’s annual physical and shots. They are our 10 year old shih-tzu sister and brother that we still refer to as puppies. One of the endearing qualities of dogs is their total transparency of emotions. On Friday, ours were excited to go on a car ride, excited to be engulfed in the myriad of smells in the vet’s office and excited to see the other animals. That was a real treat!

The mood changed dramatically as they went back to the exam room. I can only assume memories of past visits must have flooded back. Both Pebbles and BamBam dashed into a corner, trying hard to squeeze tighter into it as if by doing so, they could somehow hide. Later when they received their shots, Pebbles was afraid for all three. BamBam did better. He was brave and trusting for the first two but totally lost it by the third.

I see a lesson in this little story from the everyday on our relationship with God and the admonition to fear the Lord. As it turns out, Reuben covered this in part when he spoke at Men’s Fellowship earlier in the day and when we explored it further in the discussion that followed. I am expanding on that here.

“Fear” is an expressive word, particularly in this context. It means in part, to be afraid, as the Lord – and only the Lord – is all powerful. From that recognition directly comes awe, respect and reverence. Our Creator, Savior, Protector and Provider demands and deserves all of this and more.

In fearing the Lord we are not only acknowledging who He is, but remembering His teaching and promises. We indeed have something to be afraid of when we reject Him. The flip side of that is we have amazing, eternal happiness to look forward to when we honor Him through our thoughts and actions.

It seems to me that fear of the Lord leads to trust in the Lord. Why should we trust him? For one reason, we have no choice. There is but one God. The really good news is that our fear and trust in the Lord is not just something we must accept because He is strong and we are weak (although that is certainly true), but that God has infinite love for us. As sinners, without His love there would be no hope. As Christians, we are witnesses to His love through the sacrifice paid for us.

In their small way, Pebbles and BamBam put on a play about happiness, fear and trust. They were happy and trusting to go to the vet as we are happy when we put our trust in Him. Sometimes we slip, yielding to temptation, separating ourselves from God or otherwise denying Him. We are then like the “puppies” trying in vain to hide in a corner.

The puppies responded to their fates that day differently. Pebbles had no trust as she faced her shots while BamBam did, at least for a while. Occasionally life deals us a curve ball too – such as losing a loved one, our health, a home or a job. Our will is not done and our trust in the Lord tested.

Pebbles and BamBam had nothing to fear, much like when we go for a routine physical. I imagine one day that a visit to the vet will not end in just another treat for them. Someday we too may will get bad news from a doctor. At that time, God has not abandoned us.

In times of turmoil and spiritual struggle we can blame God and turn away or we can accept His love and embrace Him more. We are sometimes like children in pain. Some throw a tantrum, kicking and screaming at their parent. Others run and hug their parent during such adversity – accepting their unconditional love, letting them wipe away the tears.

In Reuben’s talk, I was reminded that God is always with us if we let Him. When we haven’t, He longs for us, watching hopefully and welcomes us home like the prodigal father running to meet us. We sense His presence and see His hand in answers to our prayers. He sustains us in His real presence in the Eucharist. Run to Him.

Rules, rules, rules

Rules Rules Rules

The Catholic Church has too many rules. At least, that is what some people would have you believe.

If I may be so bold, let me ask what your position is on maintaining physical health? Is it something that concerns you? Of course – eat right, exercise, get sufficient sleep, don’t smoke, drink alcohol only in moderation, avoid fats, watch your cholesterol, brush your teeth, floss, don’t chew on ice, get annual physicals, follow doctors orders.

That sure looks like a lot of rules to me. How about if I just want to be healthy but determine my own rules? Instead of the above rules I will not sit in brown chairs (unless sometimes I want to do that). I will listen to the doctor when I am sick. I will get a physical whenever I buy life insurance. Yea, other than these rules which I have determined on my own, I can do whatever else I want and fully expect to remain in good health. This makes a lot of sense, right?

You may wish to drive a car. Be certain to buy a safe car, change its oil as recommended, put gas in it when it is low, have it inspected regularly, replace worn break pads, replace bulbs as necessary, check tire wear, turn into a skid, have a driver’s license, follow the numerous traffic laws.

Too many rules. I am sure I will be happy and safe with any car. When it stops moving I will look into it. I will drive as I please unless I see a cop. I will be as happy and safe as everyone else, right?

You get the idea.

When rules are applied to things like our health, vehicles and many other areas of daily life, we know that they are for our own good. We believe the rules are determined by those who are better informed and more knowledgeable than us. This is not a matter of restricting our rights, arbitrarily bulling us around or interfering with our personal prerogative.

Why then are rules bad for our immortal welfare? Why should we be free of rules when much more than earthly concerns are at risk? Why do we think our individual intellect might somehow be more foolproof than the word of God, interpreted by experts, guided by the Holy Spirit over a period of 2,000 years? Really, just because?

So what kinds of rules are we talking about? Fear the Lord. Love each other. Go to church. Sex is not a recreational sport. Marry for life. Do not sin. If you slip, repent and seek absolution. Killing another person is wrong, even if that person is defenseless.

Yes, that is an incomplete list but so are the above health and driving rules. Rules make it easier for us. They guide us so that we may avoid the negative consequences of other paths. If Catholic rules were put into a book, it would be very, very thin and entitled “Christian Rules for Dummies!!!” It is not rocket science, but might not always be what we want. Consider once again whose will we profess to follow.

The fact is, what few rules Catholics have are a blessing and not a curse. They make Christian life easier and bring clarity. We may ignore any or all of them without fear of detection. Catholics do not have brain implants that alert the Catholic police when we are in violation! We happily follow the rules for our own good. We are not brainwashed, but understand the teachings of our faith and are thankful for straightforward, sure direction.

In a strange land

In Strange Land

Normally as we participate at Mass we are following a comfortable and routine path through the liturgies and rites. That is a good thing. Mass is anything but ordinary. It is a holy celebration during which heaven touches earth, if only briefly! By comfortable and routine I am referring to our familiarity with the rubrics. This frees us from focusing on what to do so that we may instead focus on prayer, God’s Word and being infused with the Holy Spirit.

Things were a wee bit different during the Holy Week Triduum, particularly on Good Friday. That was a communion service, not a Mass. The Eucharist was not reserved in the tabernacle either before or after. The tabernacle door remained open from Holy Thursday and the tabernacle lamp was not lit. We venerated the Crucifix and read the Passion. It seemed like everything was changed and unfamiliar.

It wasn’t just me, still a new convert (that is my excuse and I am sticking to it!). Some people knew exactly what to do, others seemed confused. When do we stand? When do we kneel? Is it time to get up? What happened to the embolism immediately after the Lord’s Prayer and “For the kingdom…”? Why did we do that part later, after the Eucharist processed into the sanctuary? Some folks genuflected entering and leaving their pew. You get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t mayhem. The service was very nice, appropriate and spiritually fulfilling. Communion was received. There may have been a little confusion, but enough of us were “winging it” that no one would have felt they stood out.

Later I had a minor epiphany as I thought about it. In a small way we were humbled and put into the shoes of non-Catholic visitors to Mass – wanting to participate, but not stand-out too much. Like them we were in an unfamiliar setting and a little distracted.

The analogy stops there however. Visitors have many other distractions. If they are Protestant, some of the elements of the sanctuary such as the prominent Crucifix, Saint statues, stations of the cross, prayer candles and so on – which are comforting and familiar to us – are often strange to them and differ from what they know. We recognize our priests, deacons and other parishioners while they do not. They may be wondering where is the “order of service” bulletin, what is the purpose of the thin book next to the hymnal and how does everybody just know what to do and pray? Why are there two collections? Was that the sermon or just the introduction (it is often much longer for Protestants)? Why does everyone keep crossing themselves (and how is that properly done anyway and should they do it too)? Should they kneel getting into and out of the pew? Should they receive communion?

One of the things we are good at is welcoming visitors. We are not pushy or judgmental. If we know they are a visitor, we greet and try to make them feel comfortable and welcome. By some wonderful grace they are joining us for worship and may possibly be taking the first, tentative step on a great faith journey.

If you are not Catholic, know that you are always sincerely welcome to join us at Mass (or even Good Friday communion services!). Don’t worry about the details and just follow our lead on standing, sitting and kneeling. You don’t need to genuflect when you enter or leave the pew or make the sign of the cross. Really, it is okay! The only thing you should know is that only properly disposed Catholics may receive communion (just remain in your pew for that part).

Many, many of the people you will see at Mass were not born into the faith. They joined anywhere from decades to months ago. Some were atheists, agnostics, Jewish or other non-Christian religions. Others were Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Episcopalian, Mormon, Pentecostal and many other Protestant denominations. We know where you are coming from and were once there too! One last thought, joining us for Mass does not mean you want to join the Catholic Church. It just means you are joining us for Mass – that is all. Feel free to do so as often as you like and know that you are always welcome here.

Why a crucifix?

Why A Crucifix

The cross is the universal Christian icon, yet there are two common forms. The empty cross focuses on Jesus’ resurrection and is preferred by most Protestants. The crucifix focuses on Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice and is preferred by Catholics. Both Protestants and Catholics alike have deep reverence for either form.

A crucifix may be found wherever there are Catholics – on rosaries and necklaces; in our classrooms, hospitals, and of course, churches. When you visit a Catholic church, a crucifix is prominently displayed. At my church, it is imposing – maybe 6 feet tall – and suspended in the air high above the altar. It is an integral part of every Mass. The GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal – the document for the conduct of Mass) states that a crucifix is required during the celebration of the Mass:

There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations.

GIRM 308

I feel closer to our Lord in its presence. I not only remember Jesus generally, but especially his ultimate and undeserved gift to us.

A crucifix is certainly an “uncomfortable” image. It shows us, in a very mild form, a portion of Christ’s Passion. It is the greatest reminder of His infinite love for us, accepting the full consequences of our sins. Our focus throughout the year is therefore on our redemption through His sacrifice on Good Friday even more than His resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Father Vincent Serpa, a Dominican Friar and Catholic Answers Apologist offers this excellent reflection on the Passion of Our Lord:

The agony in the garden was really the agony in His mind. He suffered the passion in His mind before He suffered it in His body – to the point of actually affecting the latter by sweating blood. But from then on, it was His bodily suffering that affected His mental suffering.

At the base of all His suffering was the one thing that human beings dread the most: rejection. He was betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and abandoned by all the rest of His Apostles; those He had hand picked as His closest intimates. He was most rejected by those who put Him to death. They not only wanted Him dead, they wanted Him to suffer. They not only considered Him to be worth nothing, they considered Him to be worth minus nothing! This significance was not lost on Him. He felt fully the rejection as each physical agony reminded Him.

So we thank Him for joining us on our human journey and actually choosing to experience what we fear the most.

We thank Him for enduring the arrest and the cruelty of the guards and the Sanhedrin. We thank Him for enduring the cruelty of Pilate who allowed Him to be executed rather than risk his own political ruin – and for the cruelty of Herod who wanted to be entertained by having Him work a miracle. We thank Him for all the time He spent satisfying their preoccupation with themselves, just delaying His ultimate death. We thank Him for the anxiety of that night in a cell.

The next morning He was brutally scourged with such intensity and violence that He became as an aged man in a matter of minutes. His multiple wounds bloodied His entire body. The loss of so much blood not only severely weakened Him; it also caused a severe, throbbing headache that remained with Him for the duration.

We thank Him for this and for the mockery He received when they put a purple cloth on His shoulders and pushed a crown of thorns down into His head which intensified His headache. They blindfolded Him and slapped Him, insisting that He “prophesy” who had hit Him. They spat on Him and beat Him. But it was they who were blind. He knew who they were. This is what we do when we sin. We blot him out of our consciousness as if He can’t see us. But it is we who choose to not see.

He stood at the praetorium in utter disgrace according to the attitude of the crowd — while in reality, He stood in utter glory: almighty God, being present to every person who has ever suffered rejection, joining them in their moment of pain. It was there that He was sentenced to death by crucifixion. As a further humiliation, He was forced to carry His instrument of execution. He revealed to St. Bernard that carrying the cross was His most painful agony. He was so weak, He could hardly walk. So the weight of the cross on His shoulder was unbearable. It most likely dislocated His shoulder. It is not surprising that He fell down on the stone streets that were filthy with animal dung &ndash with the cross on top of Him. And He got up each time.

It was only with the help of Simon of Cyrene that He made it to the top of Calvary. There they drove the nails into the carpal tunnels of His hands, causing pain throughout His upper body. The nail in His feet registered great pain through all the sensitive nerves there. When the cross was righted, His up-stretched arms squeezed His lungs and He began to pant for lack of oxygen. So He had to push down on His crucified feet to push His body up in order to fill His lungs with air. This took great effort because He was so weak. Yet He managed to maintain such effort for three hours of agony which increased gradually as He became weaker moment by moment.

By the end of the third hour, His agony was at its peak and His self-gift was exquisite. He had come to the point where His strength simply gave out and He suffocated. In this eternal moment as He died, He gave us His life. Transcending time, this moment of divine love is present to us in the tabernacles of the world.

Thank you, Lord. We adore you O Christ and we praise you. By your holy cross, you have redeemed the world!

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Through the eyes of faith we see the glory of the crucifix. Good Friday wishes to you all.