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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The Eye and the Star

“There [Sauron] took up again his great Ring in Barad-dur,
and dwelt there, dark and silent, until he wrought himself a new guise,
an image of malice and hatred made visible;
and the Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien tells the story of the Dark Lord Sauron, who creates the One Ring to rule them all. In the eyeofsauronbattle to overthrow this darkness, Sauron loses his physical form, coming to remain as a spiritual presence, awaiting the time when he can regain his body, in order that he might once again rule over Middle-Earth. Sauron is said to have a quasi-omnipotence, which is described metaphorically as the Eye of Sauron, for all people could feel his presence, remaining fearful of the lengthy sight of this Dark Lord. In his film adaptations, Peter Jackson decided to present this presence as a literal eye, gigantic and flaming. All people who experience his presence are overcome with this fear, as they are always watched by this all-perceiving eye.

In contrast, there is the light that comes from the Star oearendil-starf Eärendil. This light of this star is said to have come from a Silmaril, which represents the might and beauty of the Valar in Middle-Earth. The Silmarils came from the Two Trees of Valinor, from which came all light at one time. This star is what led the ancestors of the Númenóreans to their lands. The Star of Eärendil is a guiding light of the heavens. It is the light of Eärendil that guarded Frodo on his journey to Mordor. The people of Middle-Earth can ponder of this guiding light, as a reminder from the great ancestors of Middle-Earth, leading them to follow the ways of the Valar, just as Eärendil.

As I ponder these two images, I cannot help but notice a stark contrast. In the Eye of Sauron, a dark fear comes upon an individual, feeling as though they have been violated by all that is evil and fallen. However, at the same time, Sauron’s Eye might seem like a comfort, for they can be seen as they are before this eye. Why try to battle it? Why try to move against this great Power? The Eye becomes a symbol of the futility of fighting. That is how Sauron gains his sympathizers: through fear and false consolation.

On the other side, there is a bright light in the heavens. This light does not impose itself on the beholder, but it does shine so brightly in the sky, so as to prevent the light from any other star. The light bids the viewer to seek its guidance, though does not violate. Although the star’s light is brighter than any other, finding its source in might and beauty, there is no softer yet more beautiful light to behold. We can all look to this great light in the sky, guided just as the Valar lead all to the might and beauty of Ilúvatar – of God.

These two images are not completely unrelated. Morgoth and his greatest servant, Sauron, truly love to take that which is good and corrupt it for their own perverted purposes. They take the good, the true, and the beautiful, turning them into the evil, the lie, and the ugly. This ugliness is more than just a simple physical unattractiveness, however. Sauron takes this beauty, forming an ugliness that penetrates to its very being. Thus, Sauron has taken this unimposing, beautiful guiding light of Eärendil’s Star and imposes his all-seeing presence as an Eye. This Eye penetrates all it sees, piercing to the very center of their being, violating all it sees. People submit to this power because they feel powerless in its sight, even though this power is a mere Shadow. Sauron’s power is commonly referred to as a Shadow, revealing that it possesses no true presence or power that can overcome our beings, without its permission.

Though seemingly distant in the land of Middle-Earth, we should not be completely unfamiliar with these images. (I discuss the following with the recognition that the images are not perfect, due to Tolkien’s aversion to allegory.) Being a good Catholic, Tolkien was quite familiar with the beauty of the Blessed Sacrament, especially as perceived in the monstrance:

monstrance


“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated,

I put before you the one great thing to love on earth:
the Blessed Sacrament …
There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity,
and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”

We look to this soft, unimposing light as the source of all beauty. The angels worship before this light, for all might and beauty come from this light. We look to this light for guidance, but it does not penetrate us without our permission. If we allow it in, we can always count on it to guide us in the right direction. This light and beauty comes from God above, and so we can know that we are led by the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

On the opposite side, we see the imposing light that is the culture of death. In some ways, we see this as the culture that praises abortion or euthanasia. In reality, our entire culture is one of death. They put to death anyone with differing opinions. They put to death any kind of systems of morality, relying completely on what ‘feels’ right. This culture burns among us, imposing itself on all people. It penetrates our beings, feeling as though we can do nothing in response to defend ourselves. Resistance seems futile. Thus, many people give up, for they feel entirely violated, unable to do anything but give in to the darkness, throwing away all that they once held dear. However, we know that this apparent light is merely a Shadow, being a corruption of that which is good. It penetrates us, but we feel we have no other choice. We can seek out the Blessed Sacrament, and allow it to peer into us and to purify us – something beyond the capabilities of this Culture. While this Culture imposes itself upon us, ‘monstrance’ comes from the word meaning ‘to show.’ We are shown True Light and Beauty and given the choice to peer upon it, rather than being violated by this dark culture.

We look to the Culture to save us, but nothing can save us but God alone. May we look the Star of Eärendil, known in this world as the Blessed Sacrament. May we always look to this guiding light to save and protect us from this passing Shadow. May we rely on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, which comes from the True Light of the Blessed Sacrament, and not the Shadowy Culture of Death.

“When we adore, we plug into infinite dynamism and power.
Adoration is more powerful for construction
than nuclear bombs are for destruction.”

-Peter Kreeft

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Let Us Pray…Separately…Together

“Justice is sweet and musical;
but injustice is harsh and discordant.”

-Henry David Thoreau

I want you to imagine your local parish. People are gathering for Sunday Mass. Some of you might have a rosary before Mass. Others might just gather for Mass. Whether it comes to the parts of the Mass or praying the rosary, I want you to imagine the prayer in your parish. “Our Father, who art in Heaven…” “Glory to God in the highest…” Whatever prayer you wish to imagine, do so. Now, I want you to think about your parish specifically. Think about the few young people at Mass, or the elderly people in your parish. Think about the family that sits in front of you, always distracting you. Think about the collective tempo of the praying. If you listen carefully (or even not so carefully), I am sure that it is not so difficult to hear someone, or some people praying a little (or a lot) faster than everyone else. I am sure there might also be people praying a little bit slower.

Why? Why do we do that? Why is it that we have to all pray at our own paces? If we desire to pray according to our own desires, what is the point in praying with others? I really do not want this to be a ranting post, but this truly confounds me. I thoroughly doubt that they are clueless to the fact that they are praying at a different speed. For the sake of the edification of you readers, I will seek to be more positive in this post.

Here is an honest question: Why do we pray together? Why is it different for me to pray a rosary with my parish, than praying a rosary by myself? There are surely a couple aspects to examine. Firstly, as Aristotle said, “man is by nature a social animal.” We were made to be in community with others. Thus, when we pray with others, we join in that community for which we were made. Secondly, the Church is a community of believers. Though the Church is a communion, which goes beyond mere community, community is an important quality of belonging to the Church. Thus, when we take the time to pray together, we acknowledge those around us who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. As we grow closer to one another, we grow closer to Christ.

When joining the Church, we recognize the importance of the community that we find in the Church. Thus, we seek to take part in that community. Whether at the parish-level, diocesan-level, or an even larger level, we as Christians seek to build up the Body of Christ. One of the most effective means of doing so is prayer. In the Prayer of St. Francis, we pray, “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” [I honestly don’t know if that is a part of the prayer, but Google told me it was, so I’m going with it.] Thus, discord is a form of disharmony, in which individuals remain focused upon themselves and their own personal part, rather than the communal portion of prayer.

One of my favorite passages from any of Tolkien’s writings is that of the Ainulindalë (the Creation account in the Silmarillion). After creating the Valar (the angels), the Creator enlists their assistance in singing creation into existence. However, Melkor, who mirrors Lucifer in Catholic theology, sows discord and disharmony into the creation song:

“But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar, for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge…Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and the melodies which had been heard before foundered in a sea of turbulent sound. But Ilúvatar sat and hearkened until it seemed that about his throne there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged. Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty.” (J.R.R. Tolkien)

Thus, in my understanding of this passage, disharmony is a form of evil, for evil is a privation of a good. When voices are to lift together in prayer to the Lord, there truly is a good that is lacking when there is a discord. We must seek to allow the Lord to touch our disharmony, to sanctify it, and to create a true harmony amongst us. Raising our prayers together to the Lord, we can grow in that harmony within ourselves, with others, and with God. I say it again – we must pray together. We must seek to sow harmony in all we do, but most especially in our efforts for communal prayer. By recognizing our common goal, we can enter into prayer in a greater harmony, seeking that goal truly together.

“How can we live in harmony?
First we need to know we are all
madly in love with the same God.”

-St. Thomas Aquinas

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Ad-Venire

“At this Christmas when Christ comes,
will He find a warm heart?
Mark the season of Advent by loving and serving
the others with God’s own love and concern.”

-Mother Teresa

This evening, I had the opportunity to attend a Rorate Caeli Mass at my home parish. It is a Mass about which I know very little, but it was quite beautiful! The Mass is a votive Mass in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The entire church was lit by only candles, and some of the seminarians from my diocese were there to chant some of the Mass parts. Also, when it came to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest celebrated ad orientem – to the East – so that the priest was facing the same direction as the people. The Mass was indeed beautiful. Father’s homily was especially wonderful. I had never heard this priest from my parish preach, but I learned this evening that he is a great homilist. He reflected on two things as we approach Christmas throughout this Advent season. Those two things are what I would like to reflect on here.

Firstly, Father discussed the ad orientem posture of the Mass. He explained that it is an ancient posture of the Church, by which the priest and the congregation all face in the same direction. Everyone faces the East (or liturgical East) in anticipation of the coming Christ, both in the Incarnation and in the Second Coming. Therefore, it is a most appropriate posture to take during this Advent season, for we indeed anticipate the coming Christ. We look to the East as we seek to wait for the Lord. Christmas is the joyous season in which we remember when the Jesus Christ was born. The Advent seasons is a semi-penitential season in which the Church anticipates Christ’s coming at Christmas, at the Second Coming, and in our hearts. We are encouraged to utilize this season in order to prepare ourselves to bear Christ.

That leads us to the next portion of what Father discussed. God gives us a lovely and perfect exampleMary Help of Christians to follow as we seek to prepare our hearts for Christmas, for the coming of Christ: the Blessed Virgin Mary. While it is common for Protestants to neglect Marian devotion, we Catholics recognize her as a gift from God. God did not have to become man through the Blessed Virgin, but He did, and so we venerate His Mother as our own. During her pregnancy and during Christ’s childhood, the Blessed Virgin Mary had a relationship with Jesus more intimate than any other person would ever have. Having born the Christ to the world, Mary knows what it is that will make us worthy to bear Him. We must turn to Mary, to her intercession, to her love, so that we may be truly worthy and truly prepared to bear Jesus Christ within us. We must constantly turn to the Blessed Virgin, so that, as much as she is present within us, so too will Christ be present within us.

“Lovely Lady dressed in blue –
Teach me how to pray!

God was just your little boy,
Tell me what to say!

Did you lift Him up, sometimes,
Gently on your knee?
Did you sing to Him the way
Mother does to me?

Did you hold His hand at night?
Did you ever try
Telling stories of the world?
O! And did He cry?

Do you really think He cares
If I tell Him things –
Little things that happen? And
Do the Angels’ wings

Make a noise? And can He hear
Me if I speak low?
Does He understand me now?
Tell me – for you know.

Lovely Lady dressed in blue – 
Teach me how to pray!
God was just your little boy,
And you know the way.”

-Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue

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True Love Wins

“Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous,

it is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered,
it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

-1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

 There are so many things that I would like to say and tRainbow Flaghat need to be said. For a day that has been described as an immensely dark day and a day of victory, nothing more should be expected. Many people have expressed their great sorrow; others their great joy. Yesterday, 26 June 2o15, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that “same-sex couples should be able to exercise the right to marry in all states” (CNN). There are indeed many things to be said.

Firstly, no matter what side you find yourself on, it is important to approach dialogue with charity and understanding. Why would we discuss issues without the desire to understand the other? Why would we dialogue without seeking to bring others to gain understanding on our own beliefs? Truth and understanding should be the aim of all dialogue. Without it, dialogue goes nowhere. When we desire for others to know the truth, it helps shape our discussion into something worth taking note of. Charity must serve the soul of our discussion. Desiring the good of the other, and speaking with love and charity, we can formulate a discussion that does not result in two (or more) angered parties, but rather, we may find ourselves with greater understanding of the other, along with becoming more closely bonded as fellow human persons. I’m sure that we all know someone who has a different opinion on this topic than we do. No matter what, we must speak to them with love. We cannot condemn them. We cannot call them bigots. We must give them the respect that they deserve. All humans have inherent dignity. We must show them the respect that comes with that dignity. No, I do not expect to change anyone’s mind’s with this blog post, but I do hope to bring others to an understanding of my belief.

Next, the attitude of Americans toward the government doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. Firstly, people seem to be flip-flopping on their opinion. One minute, they are tearing down police officers, proclaiming “No justice, no peace.” The next minute, they are raving about the great decision of the Supreme Court. It seems like the government is only a good thing when convenient for us. Let’s riot and tear down the institution when they upset me. Let’s praise the government when they make the decisions that align with my beliefs. We must take our government for what it is. If we desire to have a different government, it doesn’t make sense to praise that government we seem to hate for making that decision we like.

Next, I want to discuss this idea of love. In regards to this issue, many people say that “love is love.” That’s both right and wrong. It’s right in saying that the love between a same-sex couple is the same as the love between a heterosexual couple. However, not all loves are the same; not all loves are created equal. The Greeks refer to four different kinds of love: storgephiliaeros, and agape. There are different extents to which we say we love people and things, so it only makes sense for them to be on different levels. Firstly, there is storge, which is a form of affection. It is seen, sometimes, as a familial love – the love amongst family members. It can also be amongst friends, colleagues, and between pets and owners. Next, there is philia, which is brotherly love. “I love my friends.” It can be understood as friendship or affection. Next, there is eros, which is intimate or romantic love. This would be the love one has for a significant other. Lastly, there is agape, which is a selfless love. Agape is seen as the pinnacle of all love, for it is the perfection of all love. All love aims for agape, for it forgets the self entirely for the sake of the other.

Now, in regards to marriage, to say that “love is love” does not really mean anything. Yes, love is obviously a necessary prerequisite for marriage. But only when one understands the end of marriage can that love become fruitful in resulting in a marriage. The union of the two spouses is a necessary element of the marital union. There is a second element that is immensely connected with the definition of marriage, which is something beyond us that we could not just redefine to our own liking – contrary to what many people think. Marriage aims at the procreation of and care for children. In a same-sex union, that is not possible. Yes, they can adopt and raise children that way, but they are unable to bear children between the two of them. Marriage recognizes the immense complementarity between the human biology of man and woman. Independent of each other, it does not make sense. Bring together a man and another man, it doesn’t make sense. Bring together two women, it doesn’t make sense. Marriage recognizes the complementarity and honors it, as the man and the woman come together to express their love for each other “till death do [they] part.” Yes, love is necessary for marriage, but so is that complementarity between man’s biology and woman’s biology.

No one is saying that there cannot be same-sex unions. If you desire to join together to express your love and be recognized by the law, I cannot stop you. However, to call those unions marriages is contrary to the very nature of a marriage. We cannot change the natures of things, whether we like it or not.

Some people bring up divorce against the argument of ‘same-sex marriage’ as a sin against marriage. However, ‘same-sex marriage’ and divorce are both contrary to the nature of marriage. We have been fighting against divorce for decades, centuries, millennia! Jesus Himself expressed divorce as something allowed for the hard-hearted (Matthew 19:1-12). Just because we do not want same-sex marriage does not mean that we have stopped fighting against divorce. We desire the sanctity of marriage to be upheld. Theology of the Body has remained something very important to the Church. Therefore, while we fight against divorce, we also take up the fight to redefine marriage, because we have not the power to redefine it.

I hope that you have grown in understanding of my belief. Here is a video expressing the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality.

“Marriage is an act of will that signifies and involves a mutual gift,
which unites the spouses and binds them to their eventual souls,
with whom they make up a sole family – a domestic church.”

-Pope St. John Paul II

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