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Take, O take me as I am;
Summon out what I shall be;
Set your seal upon my heart
And live in me.
These simple and direct words are a very short song by composer John L. Bell. It is one of the best known and often-used songs from the Iona Community in Scotland. The Iona community is an ancient Christian community on the small island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides Islands of western Scotland. I first heard this song many years ago and was struck by both its simplicity and its profundity.
For the past several years, I have used this song on an irregular basis as way of centering myself for prayer. It calms me and helps me focus. Recently, though — not intentionally, and certainly without any awareness on my part — I discovered that I had changed the last phrase. Instead of “Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.” I had unwittingly changed it to: “Set your seal upon my heart and let me be.” I was surprised and embarrassed when I realized my error, but at the same time it occurred to me that there must be an unconscious reason for the change. I decided that I needed to take this issue to prayer.
In my prayer over the course of the next few days, it became clear to me that the issue I didn’t want to deal with was forgiveness. It isn’t appropriate for me to go into the specifics, but clearly I didn’t want to forgive and by changing the last words of the refrain, I was telling God that I wanted to be left alone in the hardness of my own unforgiving heart.
I suspect there are times for all of us when, for whatever reason, we want God to just “let us be.” Like me, the issue could be forgiveness. Perhaps, though, it has to do with being more generous, more caring, or being less self-centered and more aware of the needs of others. It is not that we are great sinners. Rather, we get into comfortable ruts and don’t want to make the effort to get out of them. We want to be left alone.
Fortunately for us, at these times God continues to offer God’s grace to us. To be sure, God never forces God’s grace on us. Yet at the same time God is always offering us God’s grace and inviting us to get out of our ruts, grow beyond our complacency, re-group, and kick start our efforts to let God live in us. The challenge for us is to recognize when we have grown complacent and then open ourselves up to the grace God wants to give us.
The past few weeks, I have made a conscious effort to ask God to set “God’s seal upon my heart and live in me.” I’m hoping and praying that God will answer my prayer.
Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6 Ephesians 3: 2-3a; 5-6 Matthew 2: 1-12
This weekend we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany. The word epiphany means a revelation or manifestation. Today’s Feast celebrates the manifestation/revelation of Christ to the world. This manifestation is represented by the visit of the magi (The magi were foreigners, not Jews.) from the East to the newborn Christ child. In our Gospel this weekend, we are told that these foreign visitors said: “we saw his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” King Herod, though, “called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said ‘Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.’” Once the magi found the child, “they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod they departed for their country by another way.”
This story is both well known and important. Through the centuries, however, details have been added to it that were not part of the original. Thus, if you read the text carefully, you will note that the magi are never identified as males or as “kings,” and their number is never specified (We presume there were three because there were three gifts.) Additionally, the three “kings” we sing of comes from verbal tradition and not from the scriptures.
Despite the discrepancies between the text of this Gospel and the details that have accrued to it over the centuries, its message is summed up in our second reading today from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians: “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It is the section that Christians believe contains the prophecy of the visit of the magi. “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
- Does knowing that details have been added to this Gospel change its meaning for you?
- If Jesus is the savior of all people for all time, why do some people want to limit the offer of salvation to a select few?
- Has there been a time when you have experience an “epiphany” of God in your life?
The Basilica of Saint Mary has a magnificent set of bronze doors. Mgr. Reardon commissioned them in the 1950s to replace the original wooden doors. They are grand and shiny and to most, they are inviting.
All kinds of people make their way through those doors. They vary in race and in age, in social status and sometimes in creed. Some people almost run up the majestic stairs to fling open the grand doors and bask in the beauty of the building. Others move slowly, bent under the weight of many burdens. They hesitantly open the heavy doors and almost sneak inside.
Having passed through the doors some people simply pause in awe after releasing an audible gasp. Others walk a familiar path to a beloved shrine where they light a candle and kneel down in silent prayer. Some people slide into a pew, pull down their hood and take a nap. Some come here to hide from the cold, or even to hide from the world. The Basilica doors indeed are a great access point to the building.
Yet, more importantly they also symbolize the entrance into the church and the entrance into the Body of Christ. Families walk through them as they bring their newly born babies for baptism. Young people with families in tow enter this building, often for the first time to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. Excited brides and eager grooms pass through these doors separately to merge from them together after the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage. Seminarians in cassocks, deacons in stoles, priest in chasubles and mitered bishops pass through these doors to celebrate the sacrament of Holy orders. Ailing and burdened people pass through them seeking forgiveness and healing. Many people pass through these doors, Sunday after Sunday seeking nourishment on their earthly journey as they come to celebrate Eucharist. And at the end of our lives, our bodies are lovingly carried through these doors for a last visit to the church before we are laid to rest.
The Incarnation Season, including Advent and Christmas, is a great time to meditate on the doors of our Church as we remember how Mary and Joseph found them closed when they were looking for a place to spend the night. Locked out, they were forced to retreat into a cave or a stable where Mary gave birth to Jesus, the one who became the door to salvation for all humankind.
During this season we are invited to open wide our doors. We are invited to open wide the doors of our souls to Christ. We are invited to open wide the doors of our heart to all who need our love. And we are invited to open wide the doors of our homes to all who need shelter.
And as Pope Francis reminds us over and over again, the church ought to do the same. Too often, the beautifully crafted doors of our cathedrals, churches and chapels are closed to too many people, literally as well as symbolically. Christ, the one who found the doors closed to him yet opened his heart to all, asks the church to do no less than that: to open wide our doors to welcome all. No matter where someone is at on their earthly journey, they are welcome in the church as the church is not a palace for the privileged and perfect but rather a shelter for those who are suffering and searching.
May the beautiful doors of our Basilica never exist to keep people out, but rather be a constant invitation to the entire Body of Christ with all its bruises and burns to enter and find hope and healing.
Readings: Sirach 3: 2-6; 12-14 Colossians 3: 12-17 Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23
This weekend we celebrate the Solemnity of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This celebration reminds us that Jesus Christ was born into the human family of Mary and Joseph. Interestingly, while the Holy Family has always been venerated, this feast didn’t become part of our liturgical calendar until 1921. It encourages us to see the Holy Family as a model for all Christian families.
In our three year cycle of Sunday readings, we are in the “A” cycle, which means our Gospel readings for this year will come primarily from the Gospel of Matthew. In our Gospel this weekend, we read that “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.’” Joseph did as he was told and the Holy Family stayed in Egypt until the death of Herod. After Herod had died, an angel once again appeared in a dream to Joseph and told him: “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel.” Joseph again did as he was told and “he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth.”
Joseph’s openness to God’s will, his dedication to and love for Mary and Jesus, and his steadfastness in faith are really a model for all believers. Additionally, they are virtues that should be manifested in all families.
Our first reading this weekend is from the Book of Sirach. This book primarily offers advice on family life. The opening sentence is an example of this. “God sets a father in honor over his children, a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.”
Our second reading this weekend is from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians. In the section we read this weekend Paul reminds us how we are to live as disciples of Jesus: “Brothers and sisters: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another………………...”
Questions for Discussion/Reflection:
- Joseph was open to God’s will and work in his life. How do we come to know and then remain open to God’s will?
- I don’t think Joseph always had clarity in regard to why/where God was leading him, yet he remained steadfast in faith. How do we remain steadfast in faith?
- How do we “put on” the virtues Paul mentioned in our second reading today?
“Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” These were spoken to me by my spiritual director on a retreat several years ago. He gave me this advice after I had complained that my prayer was feeling a little stale and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. He suggested that perhaps, I needed to be more honest in prayer and not try to put on a “good face” for God. He was right. At that point in my life, things were not going as well as I had wanted or hoped. I was experiencing some stress in my ministry and a couple of relationships were a bit strained. The difficulty was that when I went to prayer, I didn’t bring these things with me. Instead my prayer consisted of reading the scriptures and using a lot of pious words.
My spiritual director suggested that I bring to God in prayer the pain and sadness I was feeling. At first I balked at this idea. After all, this wasn’t the way I was taught to pray. I did follow his advice, though, and as the retreat progressed, so too did my sense of peace and serenity. The situation certainly hadn’t changed, but I realized that God’s grace was being offered to me in the midst of that situation. I also learned that God can handle our questions, our doubts, and our anger.
I don’t think my experience is too unusual. Too often we think we need to “dress up” our prayer and put on a “good face” when we come to God in prayer. We aren’t really ourselves, but rather we put on a façade and pretend to be someone we aren’t. The thing is, though, that God knows us better than we know ourselves. God is not surprised at who we are or what we do. We can’t deceive God, so we might as well be honest with God in our prayer.
Given the above, we never need be fearful of coming to God in honesty and openness, trusting that the God who created us in love will not love us less or reject us for being who we are. When we come to God in prayer, we just need to be ourselves, without pretense and without guile. God knows us and loves us as we are, not for what we think we need to be.
In our prayer, we need to pray as we can and not as we can’t. And we need to trust and believe that in response to our honest prayer, God will give us the grace we need.
Readings: Isaiah 7: 10-14 Romans 1: 1-7 Matthew 1: 18-24
With just a few days before Christmas, our Gospel reading for this fourth Sunday of Advent tells us “how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” Although Mary and Joseph were betrothed, they were not yet married, and yet we are told that Mary was “found with child though the Holy Spirit.” Joseph, who at this point did not know that Mary had conceived through the Holy Spirit, decided to divorce Mary quietly. “Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her ……………… When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.”
Because this Gospel is so familiar, it would be easy to fail to appreciate its message. Not only does it remind us of our belief that Jesus Christ truly is the Son of God, but also it reminds us that having faith doesn’t mean that we will always understand God’s will and work, or that our faith will provide the answers to our questions. Certainly this was the case with Joseph.
Our first reading this weekend is from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. From our Christian perspective, it contains a prophecy of Christ’s birth. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Our second reading this weekend is the opening verses of the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans. Paul begins this letter by identifying himself and his mission. “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, the gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness……………….”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. I think Joseph is a model of faith in that without understanding he believed. Have you ever not understood and yet believed?
2. Joseph came to know God’s will through a dream. How else might you come to know God’s will?
3. Paul identified himself as a slave of Christ Jesus. With the connotations that the word “slave” has, I feel a bit uncomfortable with this. What about you?
Fleeing violence. This experience may seem far removed for most of us as we go about our everyday lives. If you had to escape to save your life and leave your home and all your possessions behind, what would you do? Where would you go?
Today, millions of people in Syria are struggling with these very questions. The New York Times has been covering and offering analysis of the Syrian refugee crisis and featuring compelling photo essays that provide an amazing visual perspective that takes you beyond the statistics. With the growing crisis in Syria, we still need to come to grips with the sheer numbers of people impacted.
Just a year ago, the Syrian refugee crisis affected about 270,000 people — compare that to the city of St. Paul which has about 290,000 residents. In recent months, the impacts on Syrian citizens have exploded and over 6 million people have been displaced.
The entire Twin Cities metro area has 2.9 million people — about half the number of Syrian people who’ve been forced from their homes by war and violence. Just stop for moment and consider what it would be like if everyone in our 7 county metro area was on the move by foot, and taking only the belongings they could carry. It’s staggering to contemplate.
Of Syria’s 6 million refugees, about 4.25 million people are still in Syria, but are on the move, having been pushed out of their homes to save their lives. Another 2.2 million Syrians have fled their home country spilling across the borders into neighboring lands of Lebanon (almost 800,000 refugees), Turkey (over 500,000 refugees), Jordan (over 540,000 refugees), Egypt (over 100,000 refugees), and Iraq (almost 200,000 refugees).
The governments of these countries approach the swelling numbers of refugees differently. Lebanon’s government has chosen not to build refugee camps — but the result sounds like what you might read in the Bible. One New York Times report described people finding shelter in over crowded apartments, partially built structures and in stables — which strikes a special chord as we consider the journey of the Holy Family to Bethlehem, and their flight to Egypt after the birth of Jesus. In Jordan the Zaatari Refugee Camp has grown so much, it is now their largest city.
The United Nations has compared what’s happening in and around Syria to some of the largest crises in recent history — like the tragic impacts of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the impacts on the Iraqi people during the war, and the violence that ended the existence of Yugloslavia. What makes the crisis in Syria stand out is the exponential growth in numbers of refugees over such a sort period of time.
During December and January, our parish will explore the journey of refugees as part of our Global Stewardship initiative. We invite you to find our resource kit online and check out a documentary film made by parishioner Dan Baluff. Dan sought out refugees and agencies in the Twin Cities that offer support. He conducted many interviews inviting people to share the stories of their journeys, their experiences, and how they came to arrive in the Twin Cities.
You’ll hear stories of their persistence, extreme danger, acts of kindness, chance and survival. On Sunday, January 19 at 1:00pm, we’ll show clips from the documentary, and invite you to join us at The Basilica to hear a Speakers Panel who will share insights about their work in the Twin Cities and around the world to assist refugees.
Readings: Isaiah 35: 1-6a; 10 James 5: 7-10 Matthew 11: 2-11
This weekend we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent. And again this weekend, we encounter John the Baptist. This shouldn’t surprise us as John is a major figure during the season of Advent. In our Gospel last weekend we heard John’s message to “repent.” In our Gospel this weekend we find John near the end of his life. He has sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus did not respond with a simple yes or no answer. Instead he told John’s disciples: “Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” As they were going off we are told that Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John. His final words are important. “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
There are two things to note about this Gospel. First, it shouldn’t surprise us that John the Baptist inquired about Jesus. John after all is in prison and thus hasn’t had any first hand experience of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ response to John’s query gently reminded him that he was doing the very things that the prophet Isaiah had said the Messiah would do. The second thing to note in this Gospel is Jesus’ words about John. They speak of the respect and love he had for John and they remind us that this same love is offered to all of us.
In our first reading this weekend from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah we find the prophecy that Jesus referred to in our Gospel today. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will speak. Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy………”
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the Letter of Saint James. This will be the only time we read from James during this liturgical year. In this reading, James encourages us to “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord ………………… Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
- If someone asked you if you were a follower of Jesus what actions would you point to as proof that you were a disciple?
- Where do your eyes need to be opened, you ears cleared and your tongue loosened during this season of Advent?
- Where do you need to be more patient during this season of Advent?
The plight of refugees is one that should strike a chord with us as Catholics and as Minnesotans. After all, as Catholics we should understand the hardships of exile and persecution, for Christ and the Holy Family were persecuted and exiled from Jerusalem.
Our state of Minnesota is home to over 70,000 refugees from across the world, and that number is growing every year. Just this year, 268 individuals have arrived in Minnesota. It may seem odd that Minneapolis, with its harsh winters, is a popular location for refugee resettlement, but its strong advocate organizations and extensive social benefits make our city a great place for starting a new life. In fact, the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis is the most diverse neighborhood in the United States, with over 100 ethnic groups represented.
However, the refugee community often remains fragmented from the greater Twin Cities community. Understanding the hardships of those who have faced persecution in other countries and have sought refuge in Twin Cities strengthens the bonds of our diverse and thriving community.
A refugee is someone who has fled persecution in their home country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and because of that fear seeks refuge in another country. Refugees do not choose where they will be located; they are assigned to a city by the U.S. government. However, Minneapolis is a popular destination for assignment because of its strong network of volunteer agencies that help with resettlement. For that reason, Minneapolis has the largest Somali community in the United States and the largest Hmong community outside of Laos. There are also large Ethiopian, Cambodian, Bhutanese, Liberian and Vietnamese communities here.
Such a diverse community helps make the Twin Cities a true proverbial melting pot of citizens. However, families that have sought refuge in Minneapolis struggle with a host of issues in integrating into our community. Language is often a visceral and difficult obstacle. To make matters more difficult, the current economic climate makes it difficult to find jobs, especially because skills and degrees often do not transfer to the United States. A recent study found two Iraqi refugees in Ohio with engineering degrees that were sweeping floors.
The Twin Cities’ volunteer agencies work hard to make this transition easier. Local organizations connect refugees with English as a Second Language courses, set up social security applications, find and furnish housing, and help access medical care, amongst other efforts. But there are limits to funding and opportunities.
As Catholics in the Twin Cities, it is imperative that we understand the hardships of the refugees in our community and strive to lessen them. Volunteer agencies can work hard, but we are called as a Catholic community to continue to make the Twin Cities welcoming and integrated.
About the columnist: "Luke Olson is a Basilica parishioner and choir member. A third-year law student at the University of Minnesota, upon graduation Luke will join the firm of Dorsey and Whitney in Minneapolis."
Readings: Isaiah 11: 1-10 Romans 15: 4-9 Matthew 3: 1-12
This weekend we celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent. In our Gospel this weekend we encounter John the Baptist. We are told that “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” Based on this description of his appearance, John must have been a formidable --- if not frightening --- figure. His message was clear: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And we are told that people did respond to him. “At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.” When many of the Pharisees and Sadducees came for his baptism, however, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Clearly John was not out to win friends. Rather he saw his mission as preparing the way of Christ and in doing this; he didn’t worry about offending people or hurting their feelings.
Our first reading this weekend is from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. In the section we read this weekend, Isaiah prophesized about the coming Messiah who would come from the “stump of Jesse.” We are told that: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and f ear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.” When he comes, the messiah will bring peace, justice, and concord. Originally Isaiah’s words were meant to give hope to the Jewish people in a time of distress. We believe though, they speak to us of the coming Kingdom of God.
Our second reading this weekend is from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans. Paul urges people act as Christ. “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keep in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. What do you need to repent of during this season of Advent?
2. What does “fear of the Lord” mean to you?
3. How do you glorify God in your life?