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When I was growing up, I was taught that there were four reasons to pray: 1. Adoration, 2. Contrition, 3. Gratitude, and 4. Petition. We still believe these four things are the reasons behind, as well as the motivation for our prayer. My problem, though, is that I never seem to adore God, or tell God I am sorry for my sins, or express my gratitude to God as earnestly or as deeply as I entreat God. My prayers of petition are long, heartfelt and sincere. My prayers of adoration, contrition and gratitude on the other hand, while sincere, tend to be brief and more often than not, superficial.
Now I know that adoration, contrition and especially gratitude are really what my prayer should be all about. God is so good, so faithful and so loving, that this alone should fill my life with thanksgiving, praise and sorrow. And yet I continue to be embarrassed at the many times I am indifferent and ungrateful. It is so easy for me to take God for granted, telling myself that God certainly must know how grateful and how sorry I am. And yet, while God does indeed know this, it is binding on me as one of God’s creatures to give voice to my gratitude, praise and sorrow.
I am not sure why it is easier for me to pray for the things I want or think I need, than it is for me to be grateful for the many blessings I enjoy in my life. I suspect, though, that a big part of the reason is that the blessings are so abundant and so pervasive that they sometimes become part of the background and they fail to stand out for me. If I only occasionally knew blessings, they would stand out much more clearly. Because I am surrounded by blessings, though, they don’t always, or even often, stand out as they should.
The fact is that we all live in a world imbued with God’s grace. God’s love for us is ever present and always being offered to us. We are always held firm in the embrace of our God’s love. If God should forget about us for even a moment, we would cease to exist. It is easy, though, to grow so comfortable and complacent with this, that we can forget that it calls for a response on our part. God’s love for us is not just to be enjoyed, but responded to. And our response needs to be adoration, contrition, and gratitude. Petition should follow after these three.
I suspect I will continue to petition God more than I praise, thank or tell God I’m sorry for my sins and failures. Prayers of petition are deeply rooted in my life.
I am hopeful, though, that as I grow older I will recognize the many blessings I enjoy in my life, the love that God constantly pours forth on me, and the forgiveness that is without end, and that this in turn might lead me to be more thankful and contrite, and lead me to give praise to the God who made all things possible.
Our Gospel this weekend comes in two sections. In the first section we read that Jesus “left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.” We are told he did this “that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light………….”
In the second section of this Gospel we read of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry with the call of Peter and his brother Andrew: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” and James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John: “He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.” Notice that in both cases Jesus did not give them any information or even an idea of what following him would involve.
Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It is the passage that was referenced in the Gospel. “First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the end he has glorified the seaward road, the land west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles.” The word “degraded” refers to the fact that these lands had been conquered by the Assyrians. In his prophecy, though, Isaiah foresees a time of restoration and glory for these lands.
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. In the section we read this weekend Paul, hearing of some rivalries and divisions within the community at Corinth, urges the Corinthians to be “united in the same mind and in the same purpose.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. When Jesus called his first disciples, why do you think he didn’t give them any specifics regarding what following him would entail?
2. Have you ever been surprised at what it has meant for you to follow Jesus?
3. Divisions within the Christian community have been around since the beginning of the Church. Why do you think this is?
Readings: Isaiah 49: 3; 5-6 1 Corinthians 1: 1-3 John 1: 29-34
For the next several weeks until the beginning of Lent, (Ash Wednesday this year in on March 5th.) we will celebrate what is known as Ordinary Time in our Church year. This time in our church year is the time between the major feasts and seasons..
This weekend we celebrate the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Our Gospel is taken from the Gospel of John. In the section we read this weekend John the Baptist identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We are also told that “John testified further saying, ‘I saw the Spirit come like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me,’ ‘On whoever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.’”
It may seem odd that John would say that he did not know Jesus. The fact is, though, the people of that time were looking for a messiah who was a powerful leader who would expel the occupying Romans and return Israel to a place of power and prominence on the world stage. Clearly this wasn’t the type of Messiah Jesus was. Thus John the Baptist had to adjust his expectations and only then could he see and understand that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah.
Our first reading this weekend is taken from that section of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant. Christians see the suffering servant as prefiguring Jesus. In this weekend’s reading the servant is told: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Our second reading this weekend is the beginning of the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. In these verses Paul greets the Church in Corinth with the words: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
- In order to recognize and acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, John the Baptist had to adjust his thinking and expectations. When have you had to adjust your thinking/expectations in regard to God?
- John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God.” What title/words would you use for Jesus?
- What does God’s grace and peace mean to you?
This weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Since Jesus’ Baptism took place when he was an adult, it may seem odd to celebrate his baptism so soon after we have celebrated his birth. The fact is, though, that other than the various infancy narratives and the story of the finding of Jesus in the temple, there are no stories of Jesus’ years before his Baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. When you stop and think about it, however, there is a certain “rightness” to this. While it would be interesting to know about Jesus’ life before he began his public ministry, his mission and his ministry are far more important to us because they brought about our salvation.
Our Gospel this weekend is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Baptism. Matthew is the only evangelist to include the verse that tells us that when Jesus came to John for Baptism, “John tried to prevent him, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me.” Most scripture scholars agree that John didn’t want to baptize Jesus because he did not see Jesus as a sinner in need of Baptism. And while we believe that Jesus was without sin, we also believe that his baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry. (As Christians, it is our belief that Baptism takes away original sin. We also believe, though, that Baptism begins our life in Christ, and as importantly that it empowers us to continue the mission and ministry of Jesus.) We are told that after Jesus was baptized, a voice came from the heavens saying, ‘"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” We believe that the Spirit is also given to us at our Baptism, and that we are all beloved children of God.
Our first reading this weekend is from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It is taken from the section of Isaiah known as the “Servant Songs.” The servant is the chosen one of the Lord, and the song describes the characteristics and mission of the servant. We see the “servant songs” as prefiguring Jesus. In the section for this weekend we read: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit;”
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. In it Peter describes the mission of Jesus and reminds us that “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
- We believe that the Holy Spirit is given to all the baptized. What is the Holy Spirit empowering you to do?
- If it is true that God shows no partiality, why bother with Baptism?
- Do you see yourself as a Beloved Son or Daughter of God?
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?
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?
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?