In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit speaks and the disciples obey, sending two of their number off on a dangerous sea journey to Cyprus. If the journey was dangerous, each disciple at least had a companion to strengthen the other and provide for what the other lacked. It is interesting that so often the disciples are sent out in pairs, even though they could have reached twice as many places if they had gone out singly instead. However, the fact that they were sent out by the Holy Spirit in pairs allowed them to realize that the Gospel they preach is not about any one person or the great gifts he might have to offer. Instead, the Gospel is preached to a community by a community, and even when Saul or Barnabas were alone, they still had the company of the other disciples standing behind them to give their message the authority that comes from speaking not of one’s own accord but on the behalf of another.
Something similar is pointed out in the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel. In the same way that the disciples are sent forth to preach the Word of God to all the ends of the earth, Jesus too is sent by the Father into the world as his Word in order to accomplish the will of the Father. The disciples being sent out is thus a continuation of the sending out of the Word of God, and their going out together perhaps points to the fact that Jesus was never alone in his preaching but was always in perfect union with the Father as well. May we be ever mindful of our need for companions in our Christian life, and may we imitate Jesus in returning to the Father each day in order to know and accomplish his will, that we might build up our companions in the faith and hear the voice of the Holy Spirit when he speaks in our midst.
The question that the disciples faced as they travelled far from their homelands in order to preach the Gospel is the same question that that the Jews ask of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading: Who are you? In the case of the disciples of the Lord who preach in Jesus’s name, they soon come to be known as Christians, first in Antioch and then everywhere else they travel. But for the Jews who enquire of Jesus, the answer is one that they simply cannot accept. They do not have the hearts of sheep but of wolves, and so the identity of the Good Shepherd eludes them and they remain outside his fold. They remain in suspense, perhaps circling the fold, unable to avoid the intense attraction that Jesus has for them and yet also unwilling to accept the only gate that provides them a way to enter into the life of the Father.
Perhaps we too are like those who are sadly held in suspense, who put off til later the possibility of knowing Jesus more intimately than we could as mere outside observers. Perhaps we truly do want to be insiders, who know Jesus for who he is and who get to come inside from the cold and isolation of our doubts and suspicions about who we are and who Jesus is. Jesus is always offering such a way into greater understanding and fullness of life, if only we allow our suspicions that he is the Christ to win our hearts and make us Christians like the early disciples.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the transformation of Peter’s heart as he receives what would have been an unsettling vision in a dream and then interprets the dream through his interactions with gentiles later that day. The Holy Spirit is clearly at work in helping this pious Jew to recognize the surprising ways that God will work through Christians in the new era of faith following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now that Jesus is revealed as the gateway to union with the Father, all those who follow him will interpret both their dreams and the interactions they have with those they meet in the light of the Holy Spirit. The descending of the Holy Spirit in these graced moments of Peter’s resting and rising ultimately serves to win new disciples for the Christian church and invites these new gentile converts to join Peter in his entering ever more fully into the gateway to the Father that Jesus reveals himself to be.
The Acts of the Apostles is full of incidents where a Christian disciple encounters the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the early Church, and this transformation continues down through the centuries even to our present day. May we imitate Peter in paying attention to our dreams and the needs of our brothers and sisters in asking for help or religious instruction, that we too might find ourselves filled with the Holy Spirit as we return to the Father through Jesus.
Saturday of the Second Week of Advent
In addition to being a Saturday in Advent, today is also the memorial of St. Lucy. As the patroness of those who suffer diseases of the eye, she is often depicted holding her own eyeballs, and this has always been taken as an indication of the manner in which she was martyred during the fourth century. As a virgin and a martyr, she lived her life in love with the Lord she could only see through the eyes of faith, and the eyes of her flesh were therefore a small price to pay for the love of God.
In today’s Gospel reading, we see the disciples descending a mountain with Jesus, and they learn a lesson that is likewise only revealed to those who see first with the eyes of the heart. The Scribes and Pharisees all knew well that Elijah was to come again and prepare the way for the Messiah, but their eyes had failed to see in a disheveled and ascetic personality the prophet they had been promised. Instead, their eyes were blinded to the plan of God, and they missed the hour of their repentance. Let us therefore pray to St. Lucy that we might follow her example and that of the disciples of Jesus who recognized the time of their salvation and eagerly prepared their hearts to receive the One they so longed to see.
Thursday of the Second Week of Advent
The greatness that Jesus ascribes to John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading is not the sort of greatness that we might expect. It is not the greatness of one who cures or provides for those who come to him for help. No, John’s greatness lies merely in the one thing that he always does so well: he points to Jesus. The Kingdom of heaven that Jesus describes is actually Jesus himself, and the preparation of John and all the prophets before him makes them ready to welcome that Kingdom when it starts to break forth.
However, this Kingdom is so full of greatness that even the greatest in our midst will seem like worms or maggots in comparison with those who enjoy the vision of God. As Isaiah promises that streams will spring up in the desert and all hardship will become ease, so the life of faith that we receive in the waters of baptism strengthens us to see Jesus, the comforter, face-to-face. If we truly wish to lighten our own burdens and those of the whole world, we must prepare for and accept the life of God that comes to us through belief in Jesus Christ. As we look forward to the coming of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in its fullness, let us receive the grace to always point away from ourselves to the One who can cure all our ills and comfort us during our time of need. If we manage to do so, we will see the King of all heaven coming to live with us forever.
Grace: A deep desire to have sorrow and compassion for Jesus, to suffer with Him, because He is going to His Passion for me.
Text for Prayer: Mk. 8:31-38
Reflection: At this point in the life of Christ, it is clear that Jesus knows what is coming. The cross is immediately before Him, and His words to His disciples now become the hard words of warning that they just cannot seem to understand or accept. Caught up in their own notions of what the Messiah’s reign will look like and what the Christ will do for them, they lose sight of the fact that Jesus is now speaking to them quite plainly. He is inviting them to the cross.
The cross of Christ is made of wood, but the cross we are invited to bear is likely made up of something quite different: a painful memory, a broken relationship, a physical ailment, a loved one who does not return our love, or some other source of pain and shame. It is characteristic of the cross that it not be desirable or fashionable, that it be immensely difficult to carry, and that it often tempt us to put it down or seek someone else to carry it for us. By its very nature, the cross is hard to bear, and so the invitation of Christ to carry our cross with Him is an invitation to hardship.
A retreat with the Spiritual Exercises is always full of surprises, but this week has been full of challenges as well. Each of the meditations from the week has focused on some area where we can deepen our relationship with Christ through a conscious and firm decision to do something new for the Lord. These invitations are not new; we have all heard that voice of the Lord bidding us come closer to him. But perhaps the way in which these meditations have been presented is new, even surprising. Perhaps this week—just over half way through the joyful and penitential season of Lent—has been a chance for us to recommit ourselves to the sort of reform that God wants to work in our lives before Easter. Let us return with him to the meditations of the past five days, then, and see whether we can give thanks and deepen our commitment to accepting the Lord’s invitation to walk more closely with him each day.
Grace: To choose what is for God’s greater glory and the salvation of my soul.
Text for Prayer: Lk. 12:35-48
Reflection: Yesterday’s meditation on the Two Standards had us consider what it means to be a follower of Christ, and in this way it gave us a sense of the direction and goal of our entire lives. You might say that the Two Standards is a macro meditation while the meditation for today on the Three Classes is more micro: it deals with the sort of particular choices that we might make in the course of an ordinary day.
Say, for instance, that I come into a fairly large sum of money today. Like most people, I might be very happy to have made this money for myself, and so I might set about thinking through some of the ways in which I could spend it. I might also wonder about what God would have me do with the money and so consider the possibility of giving it to the poor or to the Church. Now, giving the money away might be a good thing to do, and these causes are both worthy of my financial support. But the question remains: Which of these is the one God wants me to help? Or does God want me to save the money? Or invest the money so as to make more money that could help more people? We are not talking about which of these objectively has the most merit (if such a determination were even possible). Instead, we are considering which of these is the particular will of God for me at this moment. How do I come to know God’s will in the midst of this decision-making process?
Grace: To understand the deceits of the Enemy, to guard myself against them, to desire to live the true life exemplified in the sovereign and true Commander, and to imitate Him each day.
Text for Prayer: Spiritual Exercises 136-147
Reflection: The text for today’s prayer is known as the meditation upon two standards: two ways that lie open before us, either for death or for life (Dt. 30:15-20). It might seem foolish and illogical that anyone, when given the choice, would choose death. And yet, from our reflection upon our own sinfulness, we realize that this crazy person is in fact me. There must therefore be some real attraction to the wrong way for us, some scheme that tricks us and traps us in something that we do not want for ourselves. Understanding that trick is the whole goal of the meditation on the two standards.
The trick works something like this: There is a military leader, a Dark One, who stands before his terrible armies in the field of battle and commands them to mislead and capture a human soul. First they are to inkindle in us a love of riches, then of honor and the worldly esteem of other men. Finally, they are to lead us to the great rebellion against God, Pride. This is logical enough, for wealth makes us feel self-sufficient, honors and esteem make us believe that we are better than our fellow man, and we become prideful when both of these lies are believed whole-heartedly by a troubled soul.
This week has focused primarily on themes that might seem foreign to the penitential season of Lent, for the meditations and passages for prayer have centered around the events of Christmas and the days and weeks following the Lord’s Nativity. However, these humble beginnings of a King who comes to dwell in our midst as a helpless infant help us to see our own humble state in a new way. The lowly and the poor have no need to be ashamed of their mean state. Instead, the Lord comes to those lowly ones in a special way to show that He is in their midst. What’s more, the Lord even calls those who are not lowly to join him in his great—even scandalous—act of condescension. We are all called to embrace our humanity in its most humble form in order that we, too, might come to know the God who loves us as we are.