Losses

Easter Sunday dawned and with it our hope in the Resurrection restored. Christ our Light shines for us. Yet, since the Wednesday of Holy Week all around has been loss and sadness. My list looks like this: one of our parish priests is leaving to discern his vocation for the next two years, two sets of friends are moving to another state, i am getting my daughter ready to leave for college, my son had a car accident and now has no car at all, my husband still has not found employment, my grandmother is getting worse, a good friend’s ex-husband won’t help his daughter with college expenses, another friend had an unexplained seizure and is not quite herself because of the medicine she is taking, another friend has 3 brain aneurysms, there’s more but I am starting to feel like I am whining!
So, on the positive side: both of my children are graduating and excited to begin the next phase of their lives, we are all healthy, my son was not hurt in the car accident, my husband loves me and I love him, all of the pregnant women I know had safe deliveries and healthy babies, I have completed the lay ministry formation program and am graduating, my daughter has her prom gown, and more.
So, in the balance, I can trade my sadness for joy and tears for dancing. Lord, give me the grace to do so.

Grace

How does one live in our world, so often full of pain, without God and the hope He gives? Hope allows us to see grace present in our everyday, ordinary situations and in our suffering as well. “It is God’s desire from the beginning that we be full of grace, i.e. full of God and therefore wondrous (Dreyer 171).” It would therefore follow, then, that we are to be filled with grace and that is what will propel us forward toward God.
During some of our class discussions on grace a few people noted that prior to Vatican II there was this notion of getting grace only through the institutional Church and from its ordained ministers. Also there were rules about grace: you could store grace up or lose it by committing a bad act. And, finally, God kept a record of how much He meted out to you. There was the chance that you could not have enough grace to get into heaven. I do not have those ideas as part of my understanding of grace at all. I do not know if I had them once and discarded them or if they were simply not a part of what I believed once I could start to think about God on my own, apart from what I was taught in school.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that there are many forms of grace: sanctifying or deifying (#1999), sacramental, and special graces known as charisms (#2003). Within sanctifying grace is “Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call and actual grace which refers to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification” (CCC #2000). Sacramental graces are those which we receive when one of the Church’s seven sacraments are conferred upon us. The grace is given, but it still requires acceptance on our part. Special graces are the gifts or charisms given to people to use to build up the body of Christ. Some examples are teaching and healing.
The Church teaches us that grace is a gift from God and that we can do nothing to earn it. Grace is “the free relation of the Absolute communicating himself” (Rahner 588). When grace is viewed as God’s communicating with us we see that the above definitions of grace, though more open-ended than pre Vatican II ideas, still are trying to define grace and by defining it therefore limiting grace. To put limits on grace puts limits on God and that is not possible. By God’s communicating with us and giving us grace “he makes man share in the very nature of God” (Rahner 588).
The idea that grace is God’s self communication and that it allows us share in his nature is what propels me forward every day. Prior to this course, I had heard of Rahner but never read any of his work. As I read a few of his articles and his concepts in our texts, I was struck by how his understanding of grace resonated with me and my own experiences. It was a moment of the un-thematic becoming thematic.
Grace comes to us not only through the sacraments but also through prayer and other’s responses to events in our lives. Grace is a transforming power if it is accepted; “the actual and proximate ability to accept is itself a supremely free grace (Rahner 589). I often compare grace to strength, a power that enables you do and say things you may not want to do based on exterior motives but know interiorly it is the correct path to take. I am taken aback when people think I have a greater ability to be more patient or less judgmental than them. I try to explain that it truly has little to do with me, but rather my acceptance of God’s grace. The statement that “grace is …impossible to merit by man’s own powers, so that man can neither positively prepare himself for it nor obtain it by prayer” (Rahner 589) does not hold true for me. While I agree that we do not merit grace, I do not agree that we cannot prepare for it. Preparing for it is similar to hoping, and all of us need to have hope. If we do not obtain grace by prayer, then we cannot pray for grace; however, we can pray for the acceptance of grace when it is offered. Our act of praying for grace is not a trade of Hail Mary’s for grace, but rather to soften our hearts and open our minds to the grace all around us.
This takes us back to the point that grace cannot be held only in the institutional Church, but is all around us. Grace does not flow in a direct line from God to me as an individual and stop. That would be a waste of grace. Through the grace we receive at Baptism we are ontologically changed to be radically configured to Christ and are now to act on our call as prophet, priest, and king. We are constantly receiving grace and it calls us to be changed, to be more radically configured towards Christ, to be more Christ-like and to share our grace with others as God does. The gift of God’s grace “reaches in Jesus Christ its eschatological, irreversible culmination towards which it tended from the start and throughout, and which determined and formed the basis of its whole course from the beginning” (Rahner 596). To call ourselves Christian, we need to act on grace.
Grace is an expression of our Trinitarian faith, “God moves toward us so that we may move toward each other and thereby toward God (Ludwig 181). If grace is given to us as an expression of love, each time we act in love, we are living a grace-filled life and sharing the graces we have been given with others. Once grace is received it cannot be kept to oneself, for that would be the absolute denial of Trinitarian faith. The Trinity is God’s love overflowing into the Son and Spirit and so we must share grace given to us in response to God’s overflowing love for us. Our salvation is hoped for within the fullness of all the graces we receive.

Salvation

As persons of free will we can accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. It is a timely topic to ponder as we have just finished the season of Lent and are now in the Easter season. Holy Week provides us with a recollection of salvation history from the Old and New Testaments and the high point of the Easter Triduum, the Easter Vigil liturgy does the same.
On Holy Thursday we recall the Israelites flight from Egypt and how God acted in that time to save His people and bring them out of slavery. We also look at Jesus’ final Passover meal and are given the gift of the Eucharist. Personally, though, the most moving part of the liturgy is the Washing of the Feet. Is it such a powerful reminder that Jesus came to serve and we are called to do the same.
On Good Friday, we replay Jesus’ final hours, meditate on His cross, and are thankful for His ultimate sacrifice which is our salvation.
Holy Saturday begins in hopeful anticipation when we light the Paschal candle and bless the water which will be used to baptize. We hear “Christ our Light” intoned as new light fills the darkened church and we respond, “Thanks be to God” as one by one the flame is passed until all the candles are lit and the people are bathed in the new Light of Christ. It is a visible reminder of all we have been given and also of what we are called to do. We must give others the light, Jesus, as He has been given to us.
The Old Testament readings remind us that God made us and tell how He acted in the lives of His people before He sent His Son. We listen to the stories of Abraham and Moses and recall the covenants God made with His people, calling them from slavery and bondage to a grace-filled life with Him. The Gospel reading finds us looking with the women for Jesus and celebrating when we hear he has risen. So now, we too can have new life in Christ through baptism, be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit in confirmation, and celebrate the new Passover-the Eucharist-and remember that before Jesus died He left for us an eternal reminder of His life.
The Easter Triduum is an encapsulation of our salvation history played out in our own real time. Salvation history is not only the specific events which occurred in the past, but is also an event that is on-going in each of the lives of those who believe.
Each of us is called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Yes, each of us was included in the saving work Jesus gave us by dying on the cross, but now we must respond. We must accept or reject the offer.

Forgiveness

Again, I waited on God to lead me to my next Lenten penance. This time it came on the form of an action I could choose or not. Many years ago I was removed from my employment as a youth minister. There were many issues surrounding this event and many lines were drawn, and fingers pointed. Friendships were broken which had existed for many years. One former friend actually became the new youth minister. I have seen her very rarely over the last five years but in this last year I have seen her more frequently. Each time, I speak with her husband, but she has refused to acknowledge me. A few months ago, we had an event at our parish which she participated in and when it was over she came up to me and expressed her pleasure with the event and her gratitude. I felt quite uneasy about this turn of events. I felt more in control if she did not talk to me. This way it was her harboring something against me, not me against her. But during Lent, we look at all of those spots on our souls and I was looking at this one. On Palm Sunday her parish youth were putting on an event called “Silhouette Stations.” The youth are behind a white backdrop and act out the stations with movement set to Christian music. A friend from my current parish was interested in going and so my husband and I agreed to go with him. I knew quite well she would be there as she is the youth minister and in charge of the event! I am pleased to say that we were warmly welcomed by all and she and I spoke and I feel as if God has removed that place of disturbance from my soul.

My Grandmother

This Lent started off very slowly for me and rather than try to rush my experience I was very still and waited for God to lead me. And of course, He did! About three weeks into Lent I had a phone call from my grandmother who had recently moved to an assisted living facility in NY. She said that she was no longer herself and in great pain because of her back and she could not stay in the facility any longer. My mom had taken her to her house until they could figure out the next move. It turns out that the back pain was not due to stress fractures and arthritis as we were originally told, but cancer in her spine. My grandmother was immediately admitted to Calvary Hospice Hospital in the Bronx to spend the rest of her days in their care. Doctors estimate she has about 3 months to live. She is 91 years old. So I of course spent a few days in shock trying to process all of this and so wanting to go and be with her until her death. I knew when she left here, I would probably never see her alive again. This Easter will be the first holiday we spend without her being with us. No matter if we went to a friend’s house or stayed in our own home, she was always a part of the day. Now, it will be just a phone call. And soon, it will not even be that. But we will make a lamb cake using her mold and the torta di riso and remember.

Holy Week

As we began last Sunday’s liturgies, with so many visitors I thought about the week ahead. On Tuesday we had our Diocesan Chrism Mass. It was very beautiful. Our Cathedral is newly renovated and this was my first opportunity to see the changes up close. The Bishop’s message to our priests was that they are called to serve as Jesus did. He included the laity in that message as well. On Wednesday I spent the day preparing for the Easter Vigil. For me, this means making name tags, planning seating charts, making additions and corrections to the Vigil “script”, washing towels that have not been used for a year, making reserved signs, …the list seems endless and I wonder how I will accomplish it all and be ready. My goal in all this is to make the actual Vigil go as smoothly as possible for the Sacraments of Initiation. At this point, I am happy to say it is all done and I am home, writing and baking.
Tonight, We will celebrate together at Mass and then come home to color eggs. After that, I return to our Chapel, where our altar of repose is, and stay there until the Eucharist is moved out of the main church area.
Our Pastor has each ministry choose people to have their feet washed. This year we choose two men from our RCIA program who will be baptized Saturday. One man was a “cultural Jew, ” as he puts it, the other was a Jehovah’s Witness. They are both humbled and excited to have been asked to participate.
Friday is a somber day, with Stations at different times and the Veneration of the Cross at 2:00 pm. It seems every year, when we are proclaiming the Passion, the sky becomes cloudy and dark.
The Easter Vigil on Saturday will be a sight to behold. Eight adult baptisms, four people being received in to the Church and then twenty more for confirmation. I am always awed by this liturgy. The Elect have been asking me if it is an emotional time and I tell them that for me it is, I cry when the first person enters the Baptismal pool and do not stop until each is Confirmed.
It is my prayer that all receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit and are set on fire by the Presence within them.

Salvation

How does one get ‘salvation?’
As Christians we believe we have our salvation because of Christ’s death on a cross for us. Some people think you must accept Jesus as your personal savior and say a certain prayer to be “saved” while others believe it is Baptism when you reach an age where you can make the decision yourself.
As Catholics we believe that at our Baptism we are incorporated into the mystical body of Christ; baptized prophet, priest, and king; and are radically configured to Christ. We become members of the Church and as such salvation is ours.
Can we refuse salvation? I believe we can. Salvation is a gift, like mercy and grace. While we are here on earth we can opt to live in way that is incompatible with our Baptism and so in a sense, reject salvation. Once we die, and meet God we can also reject salvation. Our free will does not leave us. Though God has infinite mercy and wants us to be with Him, would He not let us choose hell as opposed to eternal life with Him? Of course, how could one not choose eternal life in heaven when in the presence of God.

Receiving Communion

We had an interesting digression during our Great Adventure study this week. Someone brought up receiving communion in other Christian churches, such as Lutheran and if it was permissible for Catholics to do so. Our group is all women, and range in age from late 20’s to 60’s. The upper reaches of the age group recalled that in their younger days, it was considered a sin to even enter a church of a protestant denomination. The younger of course did not believe this but were unclear as to why they should not receive. Actually, so were the older ladies. I explained that since we believe that Jesus is fully present in the Eucharist, and others do not share that belief, it is wrong to receive since it implies that you believe whatever they believe and you do not. It saddened that people are so unfamiliar with the teachings of our Church. And these are not people who are not searching, it just seems that no one gives clear answers any more. We talked for about 20 minutes on this topic and I did not even get into the validity of other denomination’s holy orders.
I know the Holy Spirit was with us as we had our discussion. I pray the Spirit continues to lead all of us to seek the truth.

God of Second Chances

Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke 13:1-9, reminds us so beautifully that God is always willing to allow us to try again. Lent is about changing our hearts, it is our second chance to grow closer to Him and become more like Jesus in all that we do and say. It is often very difficult to remember that just as God wants us to try again, we must give that same opportunity to others.
That is what every day I try to do, to love as God does, lay down my life as Jesus did, and fill others with the desire to serve. Prayer is what allows me to continually move forward in my journey of faith. Lent is a time to recall that we must always strive to move closer to our Lord by thought, word, and action.

Church Visit

Last week , during our religious education classes the first grade classes came to the church for what we call a “church search.” Parents were also invited to join in as we took a behind the scene tour of our church and told the children interesting and unique information. We went into the sacristy and showed the vestments and explained the liturgical colors used during each season. Our baptismal font was also explained along with the Paschal Candle. We actually have three stones from the Jordan River buried in our font. Then we went into the sanctuary to learn about the sacred vessel used at Mass, and to reverence the relic of Padre Pio in our altar. Many of the children wanted to know what bone of his it was and why it was black. A slight cause for concern was the response to the question, “what day did Jesus die on?”; Christmas was frequently mentioned. Our catechists work so hard, but if parents do not support our efforts with Sunday Mass, prayers at home, and teaching about God it is difficult to explain it to children in the little time we have in class. Overall, though, it was a very positive experience for all, including the parents who participated. I suppose it will become an annual event.