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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The Epiphany of the Lord

“[The magi] were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

-Matthew 2:10-11

Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. adoration-of-the-magiWe remember the day when the three magi followed the star to the baby Jesus, presenting gifts to the Word-made-flesh. Celebration of this solemnity can be dated back to the mid-4th century. This is truly a day to celebrate the ways in which Christ appeared to us 2000 years ago. This cannot be seen as just some other lazy Sunday, on which we sit back and do nothing. We need to remember Christ’s Incarnation, and the visit of the magi to this God-man. A good way to remember is by reflecting on the various characteristics of Christ and His coming revealed by this solemn feast.

Firstly, I just want to point out something widely misunderstood. The above excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew points out that the magi entered a house. For someone even slightly familiar with the story of the Nativity, it is known that Mary and Joseph were unable to find a house or inn in which to stay when she gave birth. They had to stay in a stable, where they placed baby Jesus into a manger. Therefore, from this, we understand that this is not the same night as the birth of Christ and the visit of the shepherds. Maybe this took place after Christ was presented in the Temple. What is known is that the Holy Family still remained in the Bethlehem, for the Star that led the magi was said to lead them to Bethlehem. (It is referred to as the ‘Star of Bethlehem.’) Following Christ’s presentation, the visit of the magi, then, would reveal a certain ordinariness of the Person of Christ. He is a human, living in a house and following the Jewish prescriptions.

Next, let’s look at those men who came to the Christ-child: the three magi from the East. In Scripture, it says nothing about there being only three magi. Through Tradition, it is widely accepted that there would be three magi, due to the fact that Christ receives the three gifts from the magi. Tradition and legends also provide us with the names of these three magi: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. [These traditions are those accepted by theThree Magi Western church, chiefly. The Eastern churches accept traditions of different numbers and different names for the magi.] The magi have been believed to belong to the priestly caste of the Eastern religion of Zoroastrianism. They were foreigners from ‘the East.’ (Where in the East does not seem to matter. Therefore, these magi were considered representatives of the Gentile (non-Jewish) world. Much of the Old Testament outlines the reality of Israel as the Chosen People. Occasionally, they would bring Gentiles into their nation, but God’s plan for relationship was mostly for the nation of Israel, for the Jewish people. From the beginning of His life, Christ revealed this universal reality of His ministry. God became man in order to bring all people to Himself. That is why Christ established the Church: in order to bring all people to Himself in His Body. The fact that these priests visited Christ also reveals His priestly nature.

Next, we can reflect on the gifts presented by these three magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If you’ve heard these gifts grouped together since your childhood, it can be easy to discount their significance. gold-frankincense-and-myrrhHowever, these gifts all reveal something different about the Person of Christ. Gold is not just an ordinary thing that just anybody will have. Gold is kingly (just think of Midas). Therefore, the gift of gold reveals the kingly mission of Christ. Next comes frankincense. Frankincense is a perfume, often considered a symbol of deity. Therefore, the gift of frankincense reveals Christ’s nature and identity as the Godhead. Lastly comes myrrh. Myrrh is an oil used for anointing and embalming the body. Therefore, myrrh has been a symbol for the death and morality of man. For Christ in particular, the gift of myrrh reveals the nature and identity as fully human. Those three characteristics of Christ – king, God, and human – are commonly understood by an examination of the visit of the magi.

Another characteristic of Christ can be unearthed through deeper reflection. There are only two places in the whole of Scriptures where frankincense and myrrh are listed together: Matthew and Song of Songs. The verse from Matthew was quoted above. The other place is Song of Songs. (4:6 – “Until the day grows cool and the shadows flee, I shall go to the mountain of myrrh, to the hill of frankincense.”) (4:14 – “spikenard and saffron, Sweet cane and cinnamon, with all kinds of frankincense; Myrrh and aloes, with all the finest spices.”) This presence in the Song of Songs implies a nuptial reality of ‘frankincense and myrrh.’ Therefore, the presentation of frankincense and myrrh reveals the certain nuptial reality of the recipient. Because He receives frankincense and myrrh, Christ is revealed as the Bridegroom (of whom the Church is the Bride).

Lastly, we can reflect on the Star of Bethlehem. The Star of Bethlehem was said to lead the Star-of-Bethlehemmagi to the child Jesus, for the Messiah was to be born there in Bethlehem. Some often see the Star as a problem in confirming the Biblical accounts of the Nativity and following. However, people have researched the astronomy and the science revolving the idea of the Star. Much has been found to confirm its reality. More has been found than I could say here. A movie was made that discussed the research made. Ultimately, the reality of the Star reveals Christ as the fulfillment of the prophets, being the Prophet. Micah foretold:

But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah least among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, Then the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel. (Micah 5:1-2)

Not only was Christ’s birth foretold to be in Bethlehem. It was also foretold that His birth would mark when all people would begin to be brought back to Himself. Therefore, the visit of the magi is only appropriate, symbolizing that beginning foretold by the Prophet Micah.

In celebrating the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, the Church recognizes Christ’s humanity, divinity, kingship, priesthood, as Bridegroom, and as Prophet. We celebrate the many different ways Christ interacts with humanity as a whole and with us as individuals. Christ came for all of humanity. That is seen, recognized, and appreciated on this holy day! Praise the Lord for this Solemnity, on which we can remember all of these different aspects of His reality as Priest, Prophet, King, Bridegroom, Human, and God.

 “Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.”

-Matthew 7:7

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