Memorial of Saint Martha
Today, the Church celebrates the feast day of St. Martha. The lectionary provides two options for Gospel readings. The first is from the Gospel of Luke, probably the more well-known passage, and the second is from the Gospel of John. In Luke, we see Martha as busily taking care of Jesus and his companions while Mary, Martha’s sister, sits at the feet of Jesus. The second passage depicts Mary after the death of her brother, Lazarus. She states her trust in Jesus, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Between the two passages, we see the portrait of a complex woman of faith.
In one story, she appears to be a busy body who focuses on the details but misses the point of her service: to be with Jesus. She starts to get frustrated that no one, especially her sister, is helping her with the task she feels is important. We can imagine Jesus reading her face to understand that Martha was upset, and speaking to her as he did. Jesus offers her advice without denigrating her work. Her anxiety and worries from the love from which originally acted.
She proclaims Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah. Even some of the Apostles do not have as bold as a statement of faith in the Gospel stories. Especially at the loss of her brother, she would have just cause to reject or distrust Jesus. She grieves while knowing the Lord hears her cry of pain. While the details might trouble her in one story, she clearly recognizes who and what is important in another scene.
Martha demonstrates to us that our personal friendship with Jesus will have a similar dynamic. We might become detached from the initial spirit of generosity or love that moved to us act. We will need to be reminded by others or God in prayer that the work of our lives is meant to unite us to God. Also, our discipleship is marked by the moments of trust in Jesus where we would have great reason to doubt. Our Christian discipleship is never clear from one story like Martha’s depiction in the Gospels.
How do you identify with Martha? When are moments you need to reminded about the point behind your work? When did you experience the Lord filling you with faith when you were going through a time of pain or suffering?
I have a unique question to begin our reflection today: who is the teacher you remember most from either grade school, high school, or college?
How much is this person memorable to you for what she taught or who he or she was? What stories do you remember this person sharing?
I suspect what makes the teacher memorable is not what he or she taught you about the subject you were studying at the time. Rather, who the person was is the largest impression in your memory. What stories this teacher shared that illuminated some part of your life’s journey then or now is what you truly cherish. The subject material in school is important, but it serves as a very convenient means to teach other life lessons that are not contained in textbooks. Life lessons stemming from pain, loss, failure, true joy, faith, hope, and love are usually embedded in the stories we tell.
Jesus understood the power of a story to convey his points. I think that is why the Word of God is a person about whom stories are told. We Christians do not have as our primary sacred documents logical arguments or a collection of esoteric sayings. We have stories where Jesus shares his life in order that we may let our guard down to let God enter our story. Logical arguments do not always touch to the level of the heart where a story may reach.
Since Jesus reminds us the power of stories today, take a moment to reflect on the biblical story that speaks to you most. What is it about the story that speaks to you? What does the story remind you about Jesus and the path of discipleship? How has that biblical story become part of your life story?
The oldest faith formation classroom is on the lap of a grandparent. Grandparents bind the extended family together through more than holiday celebrations or gift-giving to spoil their grandchildren. They are the models of later adult life. They are the wisdom figures in the room. They are often the first catechists with the parents for a new grandchild.
Jesus himself had grandparents. Today, the Church celebrates the feast day of Sts. Joachim and Anne. They are the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and are the grandparents of Jesus. They are not explicitly mentioned in the canonical Gospels. The names of “Joachim” and “Anne” have come to us through non-canonical Christian Scripture.
Although they are not mentioned in Scripture, we can come to know them through our imagination. In the Spiritual Exercises retreat, Ignatius advocates for a similar method to come to know Jesus during the hidden years of his life (from the Presentation in the Temple to his Baptism) which are not mentioned in the canonical Gospels. What is not written down, we have the freedom to imagine what the unmentioned years and even persons were like.
We can imagine Jesus sitting on the lap of Joachim or Anne when Mary and Joseph came to visit. We can see Joachim and Anne delighting in how Jesus played on the floor, or spoke his first words. Jesus playing reminds Joachim and Anne of when Mary was a little girl. Our imagination may continue to paint pictures of Joachim and Anne where they are no longer obscure figures in Salvation History. We can come to understand how they are essential characters who shape Mary into becoming the mother of God. We can dream how they even might have shaped Jesus.
How did or do your grandparents shape you?
Our excerpt from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians we have today for our first reading ends with a beautiful vision of human life: “Everything is indeed for you, so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.” Everything is a gift. Creation, beauty, other people, our Church, your faith, and the love you have received are all gifts from God. When we experience gratitude, we respond to the goodness of what we have received. We respond to the goodness of the giver. If human life was only full of the persons and items listed above, living a life of gratitude would be pleasant.
To live a life of Christian gratitude is a real challenge because our gratitude is meant to include the things for which often make us ungrateful. We are often not grateful for failure or being humiliated. People normally do not get warm “fuzzy” feelings at the prospect of doing lowly, unrecognized service. The life experiences for which we are often ungrateful strip away our egos of any pride which hinders our life with God. Pride is a failure to recognize our dependence on God.
Jesus embodies the grateful life to which He calls us to live by following him. In our Gospel reading, he recognizes his Father to be the source of the gifts in his life. The gifts in his life are as much the glory of the Kingdom as it is the humbling service which is the Kingdom. The Father gives Easter and the Cross.
To take up our crosses, in whatever form it might be, is never easy. If it was, it would not be a cross. We are not sure what good will come in taking up a cross. We might approach a situation with trepidation in what good will come from feeling defeated, small, or forgotten. What helps at time is to remember what good has come in your relationship with God from the crosses God has helped you carry. When we recall the Easter experiences of our life of discipleship, we may come to be grateful anew for all the things and events God has woven into our life stories.
What are the crosses you have carried in your life? What new life has God grown in you as you carry your cross?
“Do you not see what is right in front of you?”
There is a famous psychological experiment called the “Dancing Gorilla Experiment.” A quick Google search should deliver a few renditions for your viewing pleasure. If you want to participate in the experiment, do not read further until watching a clip since what I am about to say will ruin you as a test subject.
The experiment was a counting exercise where a study participant had to count the number of times a basketball was passed between a group of persons on a basketball court. While the participant is subsumed in counting the number of passes, a person in a gorilla costume dances in the center of the group passing the basketball. At the conclusion of the study, participants are asked about the number of passes they counted. They give their answers. Then, the study participants are asked whether they saw a person dancing in a gorilla suit. A majority of study participants reported to not have seen the dancing gorilla, even though the gorilla was in their center of their optical field. The experiment suggests we do not notice certain objects when our attention is focused on another aspect of our sense experience.
The First Reading and the Gospel passage today echo what the Dancing Gorilla Experiment demonstrates. When our attention is focused on one aspect, we miss other objects and persons who are right in front of us. I think Jesus knew this fact about our limited attention. He says to the people to whom he is preaching, “Do you not see what is right in front of you?” The crowd is interested in seeing a sign to confirm what Jesus preaches is true. They want to see if Jesus is trustworthy.
Even if they were to see a sign, I am not sure they would have seen it, just like the dancing gorilla in the experiment. We are sometimes lost in the work and toil of ordinary life that we become blind to the extra-ordinary presence of God working in the world. We can come to see people who interrupt our plans as distractions, rather than issuing us invitations to notice and care.
We need God’s assistance to break our habituated way of listening and seeing. Taking a little time each day to pray that we may be sensitive to the Lord’s movements is a start. Let us pray for the grace that we may truly grasp where the Lord is working in our lives and in the world.
What daily practices do you have to slow down to become aware of God’s presence?
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
When I was young, my mother would have to patrol me in the garden. My youthful willingness to help my mom tend the family garden was not paired with any knowledge about plants. I frequently confused the weeds for vegetables, and the vegetables for weeds. I had to check with my mother what the thing that was growing in the garden really was. Often, I asked her only after I had already uprooted the plant to my mother’s consternation! Whenever I was in the garden, I knew I needed my mother’s help, and only had to ask for it to be given. This story came to mind when praying with the Gospel reading today about the weeds growing amongst the wheats.
This passage challenges us by causing us to think about who are weeds or wheats in the world, including reflecting to which category we ourselves belong. We want to know if we are good enough. We want to know if God concurs with judgments we have made about others. If all we do is wonder about ourselves or others, I think we miss the point behind today’s reading.
Instead of worrying about ourselves or others too much, we take our attention off of God. We miss the fact that God loves both the wheats and weed, and lets them grow together. Letting weeds grow is counterproductive to the average gardener. We can miss this description about God because we are launched into worrying about ourselves. God is no average gardener, nor are we any average plant. We are complex beings in which God loves both the wheats and weeds in us. Only God knows the totality of people’s thoughts, desires, fears, and hopes. We do not know who is truly a weed or wheat. As my early experience in the garden taught me, appearances may be deceiving on who is a wheat or a weed.
I think God tells us about these two categories to help us pay attention to Him. God is not rash to cast out what is unseemly in His garden; let us pray that we are not rash to cast out others or ourselves in a similar fashion. My experience gardening with my mother was similar in that I had to rely upon her, and watch what she did to know what to do myself. Let us pray for the grace to be like God in His garden.
What does the image of God letting the weeds grow in the garden mean to you?
What fills your heart with joy?
There are few piercing and more intimate questions than this one when answered with vulnerability. It is not the same question as what makes you happy because we have many things that make us happy: eating delicious food, completing all the tasks on your to-do list for the day, listening to your favorite band or connecting with a stranger, etc..
The question about what brings us joy delves into a deeper level of meaning and what we value. For a parent, it might be the sight of seeing one’s children sleeping contently. It might be the recognition that you have had an impact on someone else’s life in a positive way. For Christians, we believe the source of our joy is beholding God. Joy might come upon us in our prayer. Joy comes also when we look at another person or creation and see God through them. In those moments, we possess God for whom we long in the deepest core of our being. Jesus reminds us that God desires to bring us this joy: “ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.”
Joy is the impulse that moves us to help others find joy in the Lord. Our joy will be sowed in the tears of those grieving or going through a troubling addiction. Shouts of praise or decrying injustice for the marginalized are other ways our joy might manifest. Joy will be our witness to the truth that God has indeed come to redeem his people from death and slavery to sin. The question, what fills your heart with joy, could be answered in as many ways as there are people. Whenever we experience joy, we partake in the joy of the Risen Christ, who rejoices in beholding us no matter in what condition we are. Let us pray for the grace to live our Christian vocation with joy.
What fills your heart with joy? What does your joy lead you to do? Where do you see God in your joyous experiences?
St. Phillip Neri (1515-1595) was canonized on March 12, 1622 with three other Spanish saints: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. All four saints were contemporaries of one another. St. Teresa probably never had contact with the other three because she lived in a Carmelite monastery. The other three were friends with another. Phillip was a man known by his infectious joy and easy-going nature. He was a much sought for confessor by the people of Rome, where he primarily ministered, and was an engaging conversationalist. For these qualities, Ignatius tried to recruit Phillip to join the fledgling Society of Jesus. Phillip was also attracted to the missionary spirit of Francis Xavier who was to go to India to preach the Gospel. Phillip discerned with the help of a spiritual confidant that Italy was to be his India.
Phillip started a religious movement called the Priest and Brothers of the Oratory. The Oratory movement sought to establish communities of priests and brothers committed to serving a local area. Unlike other religious orders, members of an oratory community do not profess vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Rather, Phillip Neri designed the oratory that no other bond than love would compel the members to stay. For Phillip, the bond of love radiated in his life with the palpable sense of joy he carried with him. It is joy that led to generosity of spirit and time in Phillip’s life. He is attributed as saying: “Well, my brothers, when shall we begin to do good?”
As we draw closer to the end of the liturgical season of Easter, let us continue to pray for God to bring us the joy of Christ’s Resurrection. We pray for this consolation as it was in St. Phillip Neri’s life to lead us outward from ourselves to all who we encounter.
How has the joy of the Resurrection manifested in my life?
The end of a house visit usually ends when I see the host or feel myself tired. The conversation winds down to a closing script, which politely ushers a person out. I leave in order that the host and I may get on with our normal routines. The Ascension of Jesus could seem similar on the surface. However, the departure of Jesus as a physical person seems the last thing the fledging Church would need in order to fulfill its mission. It is also the last thing Jesus’s disciples, as his friends, would have desired.
Jesus does not leave so that his disciples may return to their normal daily patterns. Instead, he charges them with the deepest dream of the Father: that all his children may be united in faith. It is not a dream he desires to do on his own, but invites us to partake in his activity. As Jesus ascends in his physical form, we are able to see more clearly that we are untied through and with Christ in a Mystical Body spread across all the peoples of the world. To bring God’s dream to reality and to live out fully our participation in Christ’s Mystical Body requires of us to ask God for help to overcome the barriers in ourselves and others to be united in faith.
When Jesus ascended, the disciples, as we do now, cannot return to things as normal. We have a renewed sense of our call from God to heal and bring others to him. We are reminded again of who we are in and through Christ. God desires a world for us transformed through faith. We must face the world in the places where it is marked by sectarian misunderstanding, enmity, and violence. Let us pray that the Lord transform our hearts where the seeds of division grow too. May we demonstrate the faith we have in God to others since God has placed his trust in us.
Where or when have you felt united in faith to the whole Church or the human family? What actions did this experience prompt you to do? How did you look differently at another person different from you?
Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Easter
The early Jesuit missionaries were scattered across the globe from Japan to South America. When they encountered new peoples and cultures, they had to rely upon their spiritual formation, especially through their retreat experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. One fundamental insight of Ignatius was that God relates directly to His creatures. In the minds of the missionaries, they were meeting with people who already had an existent relationship with God, albeit without the Christian formulation of our faith tradition. This predisposition to see where God was already led to the creation of local churches that incorporated new cultures and traditions. The historic failures and injustices perpetuated by Catholic missionary practices treated non-European cultures without dignity and equality.
St. Ignatius’s insight is a later echo of St. Paul’s missionary work in Athens. Paul proclaims to the Athenians that they have been worshipping an unnamed God who was truly the Christian god. Historians debate whether there was an actual altar to an unnamed God on the Areopagus, but Paul’s idea was similar to Ignatius: look to where God is already at work in a people. Paul describes God desiring for all people to be united to Him. “He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us.” Everything God does is so that we might seek Him, and others might find Him through our actions and words.
This predisposition to understand where God is already at work in another’s life is not only expedient for the Church’s past. The Church must adopt this disposition for our current time. As our communities are divided in ideological, racial, or socioeconomic lines, we need to look to where God is present. We need to open ourselves to the person on the other side of the “us vs. them” or the “I vs. you” dichotomies. We are called to embrace fellow human beings as sisters and brothers, each seeking the Lord in his or her life.
When have you recognized the work of the Lord in another’s life?