About Getting Your Ash in Church

“Some people think that having ash on your forehead is ridiculous.
But I am neither ashamed nor afraid because
the ashes remind me that I have to someday pass away
and reunite with my creator.”

-Walter Buns

[The following is (more or less) a reflection I gave to a group of high school students today for an Ash Wednesday prayer service.]

Sacrifice. Sacrifice is that big word that we must face at the beginning of this Lent. But when we think of sacrifice, it is important to understand what we mean. When we hear ‘sacrifice,’ some people might think of parents sacrificing for their children, or sports players sacrificing for their teams, or soldiers for their country, or even Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the Cross. Whatever image we prefer, we can all recognize the common factors of each of these different scenarios. We can all see that these are sacrifices. (If you cannot, feel free to comment, and I shall explain.)

But when we look at these sacrifices that people make or that we make, if we truly wish to dive into the topic, we ask the question: Why? Why would we sacrifice? Why do these people make these sacrifices? And if you take the time to think about it, you will discover that these sacrifices are made out of love. Love moves us to sacrifice. Love moves us to put the needs of others before our own. We see the needs of another, and we seek those above our own.

At the beginning of Lent, a common conversation is, “What are you giving up?” Most people know of the concept of giving up something for Lent. When we give up something, we must recognize that this is indeed a sacrifice. And if it is a sacrifice, then it is done out of love. We are making a sacrifice for a greater good, beyond merely ourselves and our own good. We are looking beyond the closed-mindedness of our daily routine for something beyond us. Thus, in being called to make sacrifices for Lent, the question will inevitably arise: For what purpose? What love or purpose is driving us to seek to sacrifice something? The answer is a deeper relationship with God. We are sacrificing these things, whether big or little, for the sake of growing into a deeper relationship with our loving God above.

During these 40 days of Lent, we place ourselves in the desert with Christ Himself. Just as Christ fasted in the desert for 40 days, so too are we called to fast and sacrifice during the season of Lent. christ-in-the-desertWe fast and we sacrifice in order to grow closer to God. But how does this happen? How does giving up candy help me to grow closer to God? Well, some things really won’t help us grow closer to God, which is why we want to seek to answer these questions at the outset of the season. By ridding ourselves of unnecessary attachments, we allow ourselves more opportunities and more time to be put to better use. For example, I watch a lot of TV shows. Thus, in order to detach myself from this unhealthy attachment, I am sacrificing my time watching TV shows; I am giving up TV shows for Lent. Thus, I will have more time and opportunities to spend in seeking out a deepening of my relationship with God. Once again, some things bring us closer to God, while other things keep us from doing so. During this Season of Lent, we are called to seek to strip ourselves of those things that drag us down for the sake of those things that pick us up, bringing us closer to God.

During this time of Lent, we have three main pillars, so-to-speak: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. During the Season, we are called to seek our these three things, in order to deepen our relationship with God. We fast, and we sacrifice certain things, in order that we might grow closer to God. Because of these sacrifices, we have more time to re-focus ourselves toward God and serving Him, and seeking His will in our lives. We have more time for prayer, for actively seeking out that deeper relationship. We also have more time, and maybe more money to give alms, whether it entails sacrificing our time, our talent, or our treasure for those less fortunate than us. While not all people have the monetary means to give money to the poor, all of us are blessed with plenty of time and talent, which we can give for the sake of others.

 

Throughout this whole season, we are called to focus on Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. Christ made the ultimate sacrificecrucifixion for each and every one of us on the Cross. If we stop to think about it, we can truly be blown away by the love that motivated that sacrifice. If it were only you, Christ would have endured all of His suffering for the sake of just that one, for you. He had you in mind when He made the ultimate sacrifice. So, while our own sacrifices will pale in comparison to Christ’s, we are still called to follow His example. On the night before He died, Christ prayed to the Father, “Let this cup pass from me if it is possible. But not my will, but yours be done.” Sacrifice was even difficult and painful for Christ Himself. Sacrifice is going to be hard; it’s not meant to be easy. But by following Christ’s example, we rid ourselves of those unnecessary things that occupy our lives. Whether we strip away activities or habits, we answer this call to cleanse ourselves of all those things that drag us down. When we remove the unnecessary, what we have left is the necessary – our lives, in service to God and His will in our daily lives.

At the beginning of this Lenten season, we celebrate Ash Wednesday. We receive ashes on our foreheads, ashesin order to remind us of our utter dependence on God and our mortality. In the Book of Genesis, we hear God to say to us, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are indeed lowly creatures, who were created from nothing by a loving God. If we focus too much on the wrong part of this, we can get trapped in a feeling of a meaningless existence. Thus, though we are lowly, our Creator is truly loving! This loving God desires to be in a relationship with each and every one of us. While we often distract ourselves from Him, falling away, God always seeks us out; He wants that relationship. I challenge you to seek to enter into this Lenten season. I call you to seek out a deeper relationship with God.

What is it that is keeping you from a loving relationship with God?

What can you sacrifice for the greater good of your relationship with God?

In what ways can you persist in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving?

We leave this world just as we came into it: with nothing. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

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Christ the Carpenter: A Reflection

Today, in the Roman Catholic Church, we celebrate the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker. Many churches would not celebrate his feast day, because it is a Sunday, but the Mass I attended today celebrated his day alongside the Sixth Sunday of Easter. During the homily, our priest discussed St. Joseph and his role as a carpenter, mentioning that his Son, Jesus, would have also been a carpenter, learning the trade from Joseph himself. The following is a reflection based on the thoughts of Christ as a carpenter, looking toward his ultimate calling. This is a work of fiction, and I do not claim for it to be historically accurate.

Father & Son (St. Joe & Jesus)

Today is my 13th birthday! My father has let me join him for a trip into Tiberias for the day, and I am really excited! This is all a part of my apprenticeship, so that I can be a carpenter just like him. He is so diligent in his work, and so selfless! Just last week he gave our neighbors half off, because they could not afford the original price. I would love to be able to be a carpenter like him.
When we got on the road, I could hardly contain my excitement, but my father – the calm, mild-mannered man that he is – asked me to calm down a little bit. Though I did calm down outwardly, I was still very excited, and had a huge grin on my face. A little bit into the journey, something took away my excitement. After we turned a corner on the road, there they were, hanging on the side of the road as far as the eye could see: numerous naked men, hanging from crosses, crucified for who knows what. Sadly, it was not an uncommon sight to see in Israel, while under Roman rule. My father placed his hand on my shoulder.
“It will be okay, Y’shua,” he said to me. “Let us keep moving. We can take a different road.”
“No, father,” I said sheepishly. “We can keep taking this road.” My father hesitantly agreed. While I had deep concern for the lives of each of these men, and while I did commend each of them to my heavenly Father, I could not help but be transported 20 years into the future. A tear rolled down my cheek. 
Abba. I prayed to my Father. Why must this be? But I know. Not my will…
I wish that I could explain to my father why it is I am crying, but I know that he will not be able to be there for my mother. I could not dare tell him of this now. He sees my tears as a sadness for those crucified men, and indeed they are. But I have many pains more on my mind. Those nails in my hand. That crown on my head. Those nails in my feet. My father knowing that he will not be able to be there. My dear mother’s heart… Oh, my mother’s heart! I cannot bear to think of the pain she will go through. But I know that I have her to help as my Co-redemptrix. I need not battle this task alone, and Father would not make me.
As we walk this street, I anticipate my death, the pain of my mother, and even the pain of my father. Once we passed the last of the men, though the mood became very somber, I thought of each and every person whom I will be saving. I thought of my mother, and my father. I thought of the grace that will come from my side. While tears still streamed from my eyes, I was still able to smile, because, though I am going to suffer, and my mother is going to suffer, there is no reason to be sad, because Abba has us.

Jesus

Today is my 23rd birthday. It has been great to be working with my father. He constantly affirms me in my ability to build just like him, in addition to my positive business dealings with our fellow Nazarenes. I know that I was born for so much more than to just serve as a carpenter, but I also know that it is no accident that Joseph is my foster father. Working with wood is truly where I am meant to be for these next years.
Because I am getting older and more responsible for our carpentry work, my father has decided to send me to Tiberias this year on my own. We need to travel there to have our annual dealings with the Romans. He thought that it would be good for me to get used to these long-distance travels, because he knows what my future holds for me.
I turned that same corner again, and it seemed to hurt even more than when I walked here ten years ago. Working with wood and building things has been my passion for more than ten years, now. Not only is it so terrible to think of these tortured naked men being fixed to these crosses, but something constructive is being used for such a destructive and heinous purpose. I can think of no worse way to show irreverence to creation than to use it as a means to kill.
These men suffer much, and for what? So the Romans can meet their quota? I can think of no act that would warrant such an earthly punishment. 
The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Who is man to think that he can decide otherwise? Woodworking is such a pure and constructive vocation, and yet it is used for such heinous evil.
I continue to walk by these men, and their faces elicit compassion in my heart. 
Mercy. Mercy is the word that sticks out in my mind. Humanity is so fallen. They think that they are right to do things such as this. That is why I am here: to help them, to save them from that. I do not want humanity to continue like this, but man can change. I have seen that around me my whole life. I truly believe that man can change, and so I must embrace my cross, in order that they may choose to be with me.

Christ and the Cross

Today is my 33rd birthday. My Day is coming. It will definitely be the hardest thing I will have ever done. In my travels throughout Israel, it was definitely not uncommon for me to see crucified men alongside the road. In fact, the Empire has been getting more and more strict recently, for there have seemed to be more crucifixions in the last years.
I see those crosses, and so many thoughts go flooding through my mind. I think of those poor souls who were probably crucified unjustly. I think of my the crime against creation in using the wood to murder. I also think of my mother, and the fate that she and I will share on that Day.
I think of my father… My father, who taught me all of my carpentry skills. I miss him; I truly do. I know that I will see him soon. My work in carpentry, though it has been a few years, was my passion for years. It makes sense that the Father placed me in a home of carpentry, for the passion of my youth will be intimately connected to my true Passion. On that Day, when I embrace my cross, I embrace it as accepting my calling, to die for the sins of all people. But I will also embrace it, knowing that my lifelong passion will be the last encounter before I die. I know that my death will not be the end, but I embrace my Passion and my passion.
How appropriate that what has been my passion throughout my life, and what will be the instrument of my Passion, shall be the object of the passion of many, until the end of the age. Wood has been my method of construction, of making, of creating – of sorts.. Through the wood of the Cross, I will take part in a New Creation, allowing for that which has been my passion to be the passion of all. When my time on earth has ended, I know that I will be remembered, and the wood that has been my passion shall be the way by which I am remembered. When you remember me, I ask that you embrace the wood of the cross, just as I have embraced the wood of my work all my life, and then embraced the wood of the cross on that Day.

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Frost and Chill, Bless the Lord

“A lot of people like snow.
I find it to be an unnecessary
freezing of water.”

-Carl Reiner

It is cold. Most of the country is currently experiencing that. There are areas with merely freezing-cold weather. There are other areas that will be getting over 12″ of snow in the coming days. Most people have to experience the cold, except for you people down South.Cold It is just a normal part of life. Some people enjoy it (I don’t know how or why). Some people enjoy the snow that comes with it. Some people abhor the cold. Most people probably fall somewhere in the middle. But most people have an opinion of the snow and cold. I, for example, absolutely hate the cold; I abhor it, as I like to say. I have experienced it for much of my life, having to live through harsh winters. It can be very easy to get bogged down by the weather, to get angry and frustrated at the weather. I have a tendency to express my feelings that the cold is a result of the Fall. I hate the cold, so much. Unlike Elsa, the cold has very consistently bothered me. And I’m not afraid to express it. Every time I go outside, or every time I come back inside, I make it very known how much I hate the cold, how terrible the cold is.

Earlier, I was thinking about it – about how much I complain about the cold. Firstly, the cold and snow have existence, and have received that existence from the Lord. (Yes, one could make the argument that the cold is a privation, rather than something, but, at the same time, as long as we haven’t reached absolute zero, we still technically have some heat.) And because they have existence, they give praise to the Lord by their existence, and therefore they should be appreciated, to at least a certain extent. All things that possess existence give glory to God as long as they are sustained in existence.

Secondly, the cold and the snow cause me suffering. Many ordinary things cause us suffering, but we accept their reality. However, the Church teaches us of a worthy response to that suffering: redemptive suffering. We can unite our sufferings with those of Christ in His Passion and death. We can take part in the co-redemption of man. Rather than complaining and despairing in the cold, we are able to unite our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ. Our sufferings need not be for nought. It’s a sort of pride when we complain about our sufferings. Why do any of us deserve to not suffer? We don’t. It’s important to swallow our pride and humbly accept our sufferings as being from the Lord – a gift for the sake of our growth in holiness.

Maybe you don’t have as big of an issue with the cold as I do. However, it is important to remember that our sufferings can united to the Lord’s. We can grow in holiness by embracing our crosses as we follow the Lord. We need not needlessly suffer. Embrace your cross, and follow Him.

“Cold and chill, bless the Lord…
Frost and chill, bless the Lord…
Hoarfrost and snow, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt him above all forever.”

-Daniel 3:67a, 69a, 70

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The Good Worth Fighting For

“When I despair, I remember that all through history
the way of truth and love have always won.
There have been tyrants and murderers,
and for a time, they can seem invincible,
but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

I’m sure that most people have heard about the acts of terror in Paris, Kenya, Baghdad, and Beirut, in addition to the disasters of Mexico and Japan. It can be very easy to lose hope, to despair, to become overcome with hatred. We can cower in fear. We can view these times of tragedy as an excuse to go to war or to discriminate against different groups. We can toss around blame and displace anger from one group to another.

But we cannot let that happen. Dictionary.com defines terrorism as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce.” If we do what I mentioned above, we let them win. They want us to be scared. They want us to respond with violence, so that they themselves could be justified in their use of violence. By allowing ourselves to fall into despair and hatred, we give terrorists the power that they desire. We are letting them get exactly what they want. I feel like it would be fairly universal desire to keep power away from terrorists; we don’t want them to win. We have the power to keep them from winning. Yes, they might continue in their violent and horrific acts, and we must seek to stop that, but as Gandhi said in the above quote, there have always been tyrants and murderers, but they are always defeated by truth and love.

The Shadow, darkness, evil – whatever you call it – does not have power to defeat the good. There is good in this world. No matter how dark the world gets, the light will never be extinguished. As long as we continue to hold onto the light and the good that is still present in this world, darkness will never have chance. We must hold true to the words of our dear Samwise Gamgee: there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for! That doesn’t necessarily mean taking up arms and going to battle for the good. But it does mean holding on to hope, truth, beauty, love, for the sake of the good. Things will happen in our lives that will make us fall into darkness. But we must continue to fight the good fight, to keep the light alive in ourselves and in the world. We must do what we can to keep good forever in this world. Terrorists may steal, and slaughter, and destroy, but they cannot take away the light and hope that is within us. Only we can rid ourselves of that.

Additionally, I read a story (below) about a woman who was out having a good time during one of the attacks. She had to lay on the ground for a long time,

acting like she was dead, in order to not be killed. She witnessed the deaths of many that night. And yet, what did she think about? She thought about her loved ones, hoping that someday she will see them again. She thought about all the good from her life. She thought about and appreciated all of the good. So many people sought to help in seemingly minor ways, but those ways were the biggest helps of all. They helped the woman see that there is still good in this world. We can easily get bogged down by every horrific act done in this world. There are a lot, so good luck with that. Or we can allow ourselves to be encouraged by the evil to live even more for the good. The rampant evil in the world is evidence for our need to continually fight for the good. Maybe someone else will do it. But no one can fill your place in this world. No one can replace the good that you are called to do, the good that you can and should be doing in this world. Evil evermore encourages us to do and to hold onto the good, but that’s only if we allow it to do just that.

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower
high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while.
The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land,
and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold,
the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing:
there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

-Samwise Gamgee, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

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To Travel Is to Live

“The world is a book,
and those who do not travel
read only one page.”

-St. Augustine

This semester, I get to study abroad. I will be studying in Austria. I just know that it is one of the best experiences that I will ever haveTravel the world. I will have the opportunity to travel across Europe. I will get to see works of art architecture. I will be able to experience God’s beautiful grandeur in places I’ve never been. I will be able to celebrate the Eucharist in languages I don’t understand. Wherever I go in the United States, I always feel familiar and comfortable, because I have a general idea of where I am. While I may not live in some of those parts, I’m not exactly considered a foreigner. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” My life is comfortable. I know where I am (most of the time). I want to have that opportunity to be foreign. I want to not know where I am. I want to be lost where it is socially acceptable for me to be lost. I want go where I’ve never been. I want to be foreign. I want to travel the world. This semester, I get the opportunity to do so.

I am seeking new lands (new for me, at least). It may be quite cliché, but I want to see the world in new ways. My life is stagnant; I’m complacent. I’m too comfortable. It takes discomfort to make a person want to change. Trials, difficulties, adversities require a person to respond to their surroundings, to change. I know that that is what I need. I need those difficulties. I need to be able to be lost in a place I’ve never been. I need to contemplate my incompleteness as I ponder on works of beauty, works of art that I’ve never experienced. My life has come to a halt. Travel is what can make me see beyond my small life. I have to be brought outside of myself. On top of being able to experience things I’ve never experienced, I’m able to figure out where I am.

While tourists seek the sights, pilgrims seek the experience. Tourists want to see; pilgrims want to, for lack of a better term, feel. Tourists want to go and see the sights because they are there. They seek to almost simply become cultured by seeing the sights. They look for that destination. Pilgrims are on a journey. Now, what journey they are on is not always the same. But the pilgrim revels in the pilgrimage, the odyssey. While tourists are in it for the endpoint, pilgrims are in it for the experiences. Whether it be art, or nature, or just the difficulties along this journey, pilgrims allow their experience to become a part of who they are. They revel in the experience, giving them new lenses through which to see the world, their relationships, themselves. The odyssey is the most important part for them. I don’t just want to be a tourist. Everything throughout life should affect me. I want to be a pilgrim on a journey, on an adventure that makes a lasting difference. My semester abroad won’t be easy, and I don’t want it to be. I want to experience what I can, so that I can become all that I can.

“I travel not to go anywhere,
but to go. I travel for travel’s sake.
The great affair is to move.”

-Robert Louis Stevenson

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