Christ our King in light of the election

Crucified naked between two thieves, Jesus reigns as King.  We make startling claims about this Jesus who died a criminal’s death and, seemingly, as a total failure.  Jesus Christ is our King, our Lord.  This is at least paradoxical.  In truth, it is subversive.  We have no other Lord but the God of Jesus.  No leader, no government, no economic system, no country, no religion, and no president trumps the God of Jesus.  The Holy Mystery as revealed in the Lamb is the center of our lives.  Every other power or system is relative to the power of the Lamb.  The nonviolent, gentle, humble, prophetic, purely mystical Jesus reveals a God who is gratuitous mercy on the side of the poor and marginalized, freeing all from within and offering eternal happiness if we but let go.

The early Christians knew well the cost of calling Jesus Kyrios, which is ancient Greek for Lord.  In the ancient world, there was only one Kyrios, and he was the Emperor.  He ruled the Roman Empire absolutely.  There was even a whole religious cult devoted to worshipping the Emperor.  The ancient Christians refused to worship the Emperor, who made peace through violence, subjugation of people, and oppression of the poorest.  He was a man, not God.  To call anyone Kyrios was not only unpatriotic but also a crime.  Still, the early Christians chose Jesus crucified as their Kyrios.  It is through Jesus that the early Christians intimately knew the God of life and love.  It is through Jesus that the early Christians experienced salvation.  They did not have the same experience with the Emperor.

The early Christians chose Jesus as their Kyrios even when it meant death.  Many were persecuted and put to death in Roman coliseums.  Many were beheaded and crucified.  Surprisingly, more and more people became Christian.  The early martyrs, those killed for their faith in the Lord Jesus, attracted others to the faith by their heavenly courage and Gospel resistance to the often-oppressive Roman Empire.  The Gospel spread, and through it God liberated many more people.  These early Christians, the martyrs, could not have witnessed to the goodness of God in Jesus and simultaneously protest the evils of the empire without having a living connection to the Holy Mystery of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  This living connection is available to everyone right now.

Reigning on the cross, Jesus says to the good thief crucified next to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Jesus our King is saying we, too, can know the Mystery of God by inhabiting today.  We can connect with God by being present in the now.  Today is paradise, where we simply enjoy God.  Paradise is the interior state of pure nothingness, which is the state of consciousness fully inhabiting the present moment and detaching from all false gods or enslaving “things.”  The now is paradise when we live there consciously.

Often, however, we do not experience the now as paradise.  We get anxious, afraid, distracted, lonely, depressed, or bored.  With a new president, many of us are dreading the future while others are excited.  Neither attitude helps.  Getting anxious or excited over what the future holds distracts us from the paradise of the now.  Amid our obsession with past and future, Jesus our King appears to say we can enjoy God this second by letting our minds be quiet and sinking into the indistinct nothingness within.  Then, we are present and can accept the experience of the now.  Change is then possible.

If we accept God in this present moment, we initiate a revolution of the heart.  We need a revolution of the heart.  This is a turning away from hatred and fear toward love and enlightenment.  Some believe Trump’s election is the solution to the country’s problems.  While many others think he represents the revenge of racism and misogyny, which some are labelling “white male supremacy.”  We desperately need this revolution of the heart.  We need people to let go of their hatred and fear.  It is the only way forward, the only way to true justice and peace.  Only when everyone is present here and now, open to divine mercy, and connecting with the God within can they change and see everyone truly as brother and sister.  Thus, being present in the now, knowing today is paradise, is an act of resistance to all evil and to everything separating us from God and one another.  It is a mystical and a prophetic act.  It is the only sane response to our present situation, no matter whom we voted for.  It is to follow Jesus our King.

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3rd Sunday of Lent with Therese of Lisieux

There are days when I feel very impatient with my two-year-old daughter.  There are days when I get nasty in my judgments of others.  There are days when I could not care less about other people.  We all have these days.  We get in a mood and we say things or do things we do not really mean.  We are prone to fail, to fall, to break our relationships, and to hurt one another.  St. Therese of Lisieux would tell us, at our very lowest, not to get discouraged but to renew our trust in God.  She would say all we need to do is surrender to the Source of Grace and Mercy.

Therese, the next mystic guiding us through Lent, affirms the message in today’s Gospel.  The barren fig tree in Jesus’ parable represents our lives.  According to Thomas Keating, the fertilizer “is the symbol of our experience of daily life and of our constantly recurring faults.”  Cultivating the ground around the barren fig tree and fertilizing it again and again, for Keating, represents our efforts to keep trusting God even though the same old fault come back again and again.  This practice of persevering in faith despite our failures lies at the heart of the message of Therese of Lisieux.

Therese lived a rather uneventful life, at least by our standards.  Born in 1873, she hardly ever left her hamlet in France, Lisieux.  She moved from her childhood home to the local Carmelite convent, where she died when she was twenty-four, in the year 1897.  Yet, she lived an extraordinary inner life, because she really got – and I mean got! – the essence of the Gospel.  She was like one of Jesus’ parables come to life.  She wrote an autobiography called “The Story of a Soul,” which was published a year after her death.  It became the late Nineteenth Century equivalent of a “best-seller.”  People all over the world reported how their lives were changed by reading “A Story of a Soul.”  Additionally, Therese left behind numerous letters to priests, her sisters, and fellow Carmelites.  In all these writings, she described her “Little Way” of trust, love, and surrender to God.

Therese teaches us God alone is our holiness.  We don’t have to expect perfection from ourselves!  In fact, such an expectation is counter-productive and even harmful to the spiritual life.  If we want to live like mystics, Therese would advise us to surrender when we feel weak and helpless.  She would add, accepting our weakness and failure allows us to take the focus off ourselves and let God’s mercy into our hearts.

Therese came to a profound insight: we cannot change ourselves but God can and will.  All we need to do is surrender in loving trust to God.  Welcome every experience of weakness, failure, and stupidity!  Welcome them because they are more opportunities to open to God in simple trust.  We cannot be big in God’s presence.  We must be little.  We must recognize our own nothingness, not because we are inherently bad, but because this opens us to give ourselves to God.  Being little, recognizing we are poor and in need, forces us to go to God and trust in the Infinite Divine Mercy.

Whenever we get preoccupied with doing something right, or being perfect we have veered off course.  Perfectionism is about self, not about God.  So, Therese says, “Yes, it suffices to humble oneself, to bear with one’s imperfections. That is real sanctity.”  Each of us needs a strong dose of patient self-love.  Getting upset over our faults only makes the situation worse.  If, instead, we can follow Therese at this moment, we will know peace.  Suppose we make a mistake and we get upset about it.  Feelings of stupidity, anger, defeatism, and inadequacy can overwhelm us.  Josef Schmidt reflects, “Thérèse quickly turned these feelings into prayer and thus into stepping-stones for her own growth.”  Precisely in these feelings, we surrender to God.  Therese tells us, “One has only to love Him, without looking at one’s self, without examining one’s faults too much.”  We just look at Jesus without wallowing in the self-pity that normally follows on some disappointment or failure.

Here is our practice: self-acceptance and surrender to God.  When we mess up, we accept our mess and hand ourselves over to God without any fretting over the mess.  “All too often we get agitated instead of relying trustingly on God…our hearts are riddled with fears and doubts,” says Jacques Philippe.  Through the practice of self-acceptance and surrender, we stay focused on loving God and others.  When we experience our weakness, we simply turn to God and patiently put up with ourselves as we are.  God does not expect perfection from us, so neither should we!  “What really pleases Jesus is that He sees me loving my littleness and my poverty, the blind hope that I have in His mercy…This is my only treasure…why would this treasure not be yours?”  “The Little Way” of St. Therese of Lisieux consists of simply and totally trusting in the divine mercy while accepting ourselves as we are.  Bearing our weaknesses, we keep our hearts and minds anchored in God.  Letting God be our treasure is all that matters.  “I see it is sufficient to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself as a child into God’s arms.”

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A Mystic on the 1st Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent Reflection

In the 1980’s Richard Pryor starred in a movie called “Brewster’s Millions.”  He played a lower class everyday guy from New Jersey named Monty Brewster who receives word that his uncle is dead and has left him his vast wealth.  Only, the uncle says he wants to teach Brewster a lesson about saving money.  So, he tells Brewster—via a video will—that he has to spend $30 million dollars in 30 days.  The uncle wants Brewster to be sick of spending money.  If he is able to spend that much in 30 days, he gets $300 million.  So, Brewster starts wasting money immediately.  He redefines the terms extravagant and gratuitous.  He shells out thousands to stay in the best hotel.  He rents hundreds of suits.  He buys everyone dinner and drinks wherever he goes.  He redecorates his hotel suite dozens of times.  He throws away every last dime to get the larger prize of $300 million.

This movie displays a great truth of our faith: gratuitousness.  Like Brewster, God is wasteful and extravagant.  God gives away God without charge and abundantly.  God throws God away—on us, mind you—because that’s who God is.  This is the divine gratuitousness, which calls forth a response from us.  Gratuitousness is a theme of today’s scripture readings and is a central theme for our next mystic guide: a medieval Italian mystic named Jacopone da Todi.

In the Gospel, Jesus definitively walks the path of gratuitousness.  He totally empties himself in response to God’s gratuitousness.  In the desert, Jesus says “no” to all the ways we resist God’s gratuitousness by seeking security, affection, and control as ends in themselves.  In the desert, Jesus was abnormally absorbed in God.  Such is our gratuitous response to God.  We let ourselves, like Jesus, become God-consumed.  The mind of Jesus was strangely and unusually fixed on God.  Letting God so possess us that we become wildly, deliriously, uncontrollably fixed on God, like Jesus, lies at the heart of the message of Jacopone da Todi.  He believed that is God madly in love with us.  God’s gratuitousness is crazy, driving God to become a human being and die on a cross!  For Jacopone, we respond to this crazy gratuitous love of God through wild, gratuitous surrender.

Jacopone da Todi was a fourteenth century mystic born in the Italian village of Todi, He was married at first and worked as a tax lawyer.  When he was 47 his wife died.  This tragedy precipitated Jacopone’s conversion.  He became a Franciscan, moved by the example of St. Francis.  Jacopone had a passion for following Christ Crucified in poverty and contemplation.  Shocked by corruption in the Church, he challenged a ruthless pope named Boniface VIII.  The pope sent him to jail for ten years, and kicked him out of the Franciscans and the Church!  Fortunately, the next pope, Benedict XI, released him.  Jacopone then returned to the Franciscans and lived the remainder of his time with them in peace, a great witness to his spiritual depth. He is known for a series of poetic prayers he calls Lauds.

For Jacopone God becoming flesh in Jesus and dying on a cross displays the utter extravagance and madness of divine love.  It shows how gratuitous God is.  In Laud 65 Jacopone is amazed and even perplexed by God’s desire to become human: “Were these the actions of someone drunk, or out of his senses?  How could You abdicate kingdom and riches, renunciation that verges on madness?”  He speaks to God, “You love So deeply and tenaciously and wildly.”  God’s gratuitousness is tenaciously wild and uncontrollably fierce.

Christ’s emptying of himself through the madness of love is the model of a life of conversion.  “He does not hold back—all of Himself He gives in His desire to be one with you.  Will you not give all of yourself to Him?  Will you not hasten to embrace Him?”  We convert by unreservedly surrendering to this very same love.  In his Lauds Jacopone describes how we surrender to God by immersing ourselves in divine love, dying with Christ Crucified, and submitting to self-annihilation.

In Laud 83, Jacopone confesses, “I long to die drowned in Love.”  We drown in Love when we are immersed in God.  Concretely, immersing ourselves in divine love means remaining in God’s presence as much as we can all day long.  We die drowned in love when we are consciously immersed in God.  We become consumed with the Divine Presence.  Jacopone describes holy people as “submerged in the abyss of Love, overcome by its vastness.”  We become like these holy ones when we let God occupy us entirely.  Such is a gratuitous surrender to God.

For Jacopone, the path of surrender is essentially the path of Christ Crucified.  In Laud 83 he says, “O cross, I fix myself to you and cling to you, that as I die, I may taste Life!”  He knows that by clinging to the cross, that is, by gratuitously letting go of everything, new life emerges.  We have to let go of our private, self-obsessed worlds to become God-obsessed.  Such is new life, which Jacopone describes as “jubilant joy and somersaults of happiness.”  Through the way of the cross we will come to know the delirious joy of God.

The fullness of the way of the cross is our utter annihilation.  Jacopone uses the term “self-annihilation” to describe our total identification with Christ Crucified and our complete gift of self to God.  Jacopone describes the one who is undergoing self-annihilation: “He must strip his soul of all thought…hold on to nothing.”  We let go of all possessing, all thinking, and dissolve in God.  He says we are “reduced to nothing” within and without when God is our all and everything.  But, there is no reason to fear.  Jacopone declares, “the soul, conquered, is conqueror; Annihilated, it lives in triumph.”  Through self-annihilation we discover who we are in God, we discover our Love identity: “What happens to the drop of wine that you pour into the sea?…It is as if it never existed.  So it is with the soul: Love drinks it in.”

Jacopone was “mad with love of Christ.”  Madness is one of his main images for God’s gratuitous love and our gratuitous response.  Jacopone invites us to drown in divine love and to follow Christ Crucified unto self-annihilation.  He calls us to respond to God as Jesus did, by getting absorbed in God gratuitously.  We refuse, though.  We fritter away our love and attention on things that don’t matter.  We prefer our reasonable and safe lives to the wild ecstasy of God: “Sensible people with sensible smiles cannot understand the wildness of your ecstasy!”

Here’s a Lenten challenge: don’t just give something up, but gratuitously surrender to the God who is madly in love with you.  Gratuitous surrender means to let God so consume us that we may become God-possessed and God-intoxicated.  If we follow this path, Jacopone promises that we will be one with God in Christ: “You and your Beloved will become one.”  We will disappear in the mystery of divine love: “The sense of self disappears, for it can never rise to this level, where the infinite charity of God engulfs all.”

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Ash Wednesday with Meister Eckhart

We live in a very distracted world.  We are so busy that we have to multi-task.  We are so plugged in to our technology that we get information overload.  Life can seem like it’s too much.  The moment we try to focus our attention we get drawn away by something entertaining or by some task.  Everything in our culture works to distract us from the deeper questions of existence: what happens when we die?  What is life all about?  Why are we here?  Our split-focus keeps us living superficial and unhappy lives.

Among the more typical distractions are worrying about money, excessive entertainment, talking about people behind their backs, fantasizing, wanting to change people, seeking attention, preoccupation with what others think of us, wanting to get back at someone, and complaining.  These distractions are not hot sins but the little ways we get scattered.  Such a life leaves us unable to enjoy the moment because we are so consumed by things coming and going.  If we allow ourselves to be preoccupied by these distractions, we will not know real happiness.  We need guidance.

Over the course of the season of Lent each of our reflections will take a spiritual guide to help lead us more deeply into the Holy Mystery.  We will focus on a Christian mystic each week to highlight a theme from the scripture readings.  What is a mystic, though?  A mystic is a person who actively lives his or her relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  A mystic can be anyone.  They are not limited to monks or nuns.  God is within us all!  God invites all of us to be mystics, people centered on God alone.

Centering on God and not oneself constitutes the essence of Lent.  In fact, the scripture readings for Ash Wednesday also hone in on this message.  Conversion is the key word today, and for the whole of Lent.  Jesus calls us to conversion, to turn our attention to God and stop being so preoccupied with self-image and self-concern.  In today’s first reading, God says through the prophet Joel, “return to me with your whole heart.”  To get Lent we have to get conversion.  To convert is to put on the mind of Christ, which is a mind fixed on God.

Turning from self to God is also the goal of our first mystic guide: Meister Eckhart.  He was a fourteenth century German Dominican friar.  He was a preacher, teacher, administrator, spiritual director, and theologian.  He was a very active person: preaching in the cities, running houses of Dominican Friars, and teaching classes at the university of Paris.  He was a mystic in the world.  He was a mystic who preached to ordinary people the way to become one with God.  I chose him as our first guide through Lent because he seeks to free us from ourselves and for God, which, I believe, is the heart of the Gospel and the season of Lent.  Meister Eckhart calls this the practice of detachment.

For Meister Eckhart, detachment is the attitude of seeking God alone by inner nothingness.  It is a fundamental letting go of the exhaustion of possessiveness and control needs to rest in God.  Meister Eckhart writes, “To be empty of all created things is to be full of God, and to be full of created things is to be empty of God.”  To be more precise, detachment does not equal indifference.  It is best understood as a letting go of all, a radical freedom from our addictions and obsessions and radical freedom for God.  As Eckhart says, “detachment is wholly free of all created things.”

Meister Eckhart calls us to “let our intention be purely and only for God” and to “accept God in all things.”  He says, “If you truly have God and only God, nothing will disturb you.  Why?  Because you are totally focused upon God and only God.  Therefore everything is nothing but God to you.”  Similarly, he says, “all things become for you nothing but God, for in all things you have your eye only on God.”  The key is that we focus on God alone, and that means letting go of all our distractions.

To have God alone means to center our minds on God alone and to stop all self-talk and to withdraw from all thinking.  It means silence within and being God-aware.  God, though, is not a thing.  So we can’t be aware of God like we can be aware of an object or a person.  To be God-centered, then, is simply to be aware, present in the moment, not focusing on anything, and not thinking about anything.  It is letting our inner worlds become nothing.  Therefore, Meister Eckhart preaches that we should “sink down out of something into nothing.”  The detached person must remain in “a state of pure nothingness,” for this is the way to know the Transcendent Nothingness of God.

So, detachment is letting go of self and centering on God.  To focus on God necessitates a letting go of our distractions.  Of course, we will still get distracted.  Our worries will overwhelm us.  Items on our to-do lists will consume our attention.  We’ll get lost in busy-ness or in our emotions or in a fantasy world.  It’s human.  It’s to be expected.  When we are distracted, we simply and gently return to this divine nothingness.  We bring our minds back into God’s Presence.  Practically speaking, we may return to God a thousand times in a few minutes.  That is normal, and very good.  Just keep coming back.

The season of Lent, then, becomes clear and challenging.  We let go of self and focus on God alone.  Whenever we are preoccupied, we gently return our awareness to God within.  We come back to the nothingness within.  This syncs up with the traditional Lenten practices Jesus recommends in the Gospel: alms giving, fasting, and prayer.  Focused on God we turn to our neighbors in mercy – alms giving.  We stop those habits that trap us in narcissism – fasting.  We give our full attention to God – prayer.  All three practices are summed up in the word conversion.  Turning away from self and toward God, we are training our minds to focus on the happiness and love we long for.  Meister Eckhart reminds us, if we truly have God alone, nothing will disturb us.  Nothing will distract us.  If we seek God with single minds and hearts, God will transform us and through us, the world.

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Insights on Love from Quantum Physics

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – Reflection
Divine Love is more than feelings, deeper than sentiment. Love is active. Love does something, changing us and the world. If you’ve ever been in a relationship you know this. If you truly love another person you grow, change, and begin to think less of yourself. Last week’s reflection looked at love as transformation. This week the scriptures tell us love is all about connection and that love is eminently practical. God transforms us when we connect to love and it leads to concrete practices: choices, behaviors, and disciplining our minds. So in this reflection we will ponder love’s deep connectivity and practical nature.
We start with Paul’s image of the Body of Christ in our second reading. Paul writes, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” We are all one body in Christ through the Spirit. Even though we may seem separate and like individual parts, we are one whole. This is a startlingly amazing metaphor when we think of what quantum physics now tells us. This branch of science speaks of the unbroken wholeness of the universe. Physicist Fritjof Capra writes: “Quantum theory…reveals a basic oneness of the universe…As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated ‘basic building blocks,’ but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole.”(The Tao of Physics). This is truly incredible, for quantum physics says we are all one! Just like Paul’s spiritual vision of the Body of Christ, we may seem separate but that is an illusion. Everything is one undivided whole.
Now, because of this undivided wholeness that is the universe, quantum physics also talks about a phenomenon called entanglement. Ilia Delio describes it: “Quantum entanglement is nonlocal interaction or unmediated action at a distance, without crossing space, without decay, and without delay…The idea of nonlocal action at a distance requires a connection that travels faster than light.” This means that something done in New Jersey, for instance, instantly affects people in Mongolia, and everywhere else too! Later Delio notes, “Our human thoughts are linked to nature by non local connections.” Not only what we do, but what we think affects the world, because everything and everyone is part of an undivided wholeness.
So what does this have to do with the love Jesus preached in the Gospels? What we do affects everything and everyone. Whether we are acting selfishly or selflessly in our lives, we are affecting the whole world negatively or positively. Quantum physics confirms what the mystics know, namely, that our thoughts and actions matter. They have a real effect on everything! We can’t afford negative thinking because it hurts the world, literally. Ilia Delio says, “Our thoughts are not neutral or private; they do something.” Our consciousness affects the world for good or ill. Contemplative prayer, then, is incredibly important! We need to commune with the God within. For, with this consciousness of deep connection with God and the universe (which is contemplative prayer), we will transform the world. Our thoughts, actions, and our very consciousness influence everything.
Because love is deep connection, love is incredibly practical. Love becomes more practical than ever! We are so connected, so one, that whatever we do – even whatever we think – has an effect on the universe. If you think negative thoughts, that shapes the world. If, instead, you are thinking about people with love, if you are present and open to God in this moment, that has a much greater and even transformative effect on the universe.
If you want to do something about all the social ills of our time, start by little acts of love – interior acts and exterior acts. Putting it concretely, we can help Syrian refugees by forgiving the person who cuts us off on the highway. We can positively affect the starving through intentional acts of kindness. In short, the liberation Jesus proclaims in today’s Gospel reading is fulfilled when we love.
Jesus reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”  He announces that this passage is fulfilled because he is love incarnate. His God-consciousness, his absolute oneness with God, made him like a star’s furnace constantly churning out nuclear explosions of divine love that affected all existence because of the undivided wholeness of the universe. He liberates the poor and oppressed because he radiates love. He fends off war, violence, and all evil because he IS love. We will do the same when we love with the love of Christ.
Etty Hilesum makes this connecting and practical love very real when she writes, “Why is there war? Perhaps because now and then I might be inclined to snap at my neighbor. Because I and my neighbor and everyone else do not have enough love. . . . Yet there is love bound up inside us, and if we could release it into the world, a little each day, we would be fighting war and everything that comes with it.”
Love is connection. It is the deep connectivity proved by science and described by Paul. This deep connectivity is possible only because of God. In fact God IS this deep connectivity, its center and power. God sustains and moves this unbroken wholeness. To love most powerfully we have to love with God’s love. We have to plug into the infinite energy of divine love pulsing within us and waiting to be unleashed on the world. We do this through prayer. In prayer we connect with the God within and by doing just this we change the world. For, remember, our thoughts matter. Our consciousness affects the world. Prayer, then, is the most powerful thing we can do! As our first reading from Nehemiah says, “rejoicing in the Lord is our strength.”
Ilia Delio writes, “Prayer is centering the mind on ultimate life-energy—God—through which we are connected to the entire universe.” So, God-centered-ness, God-consciousness or the mind of Christ, will be infinitely more powerful and explosively transformative than anything we do on our own. In truth, we will love only when we are centered in the God within. We truly pray when we let go of our thinking, abandon all our distractions, and center on God by an inner silence and interior nothingness. Only when we are aware and open and empty in the moment are we in God and therefore in love. Then we can change the world through the undivided wholeness that is our universe.

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Reflection for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Reflection

How many times a day do we each say, “I love you”?  We use this four little word, love, a lot.  There are many ways to understand love.  For our Catholic faith, love is not sentimental but truth, for at the center of every creature lies the mystery of infinite mercy and love.  This four letter word, “love,” however, tends to be overused.  Still, love stands at the very heart of our faith: God loves us in sending Jesus Christ to save us.  Jesus calls us to love God with our whole selves, and each other as Jesus loves us.  Our culture does not quite seem to get what the Gospel means by love.  Further, there are so many ways we use the word that it gets hard for us to parse the meaning of and practical pay-off to love.  There is a need to describe love, Gospel love, alternatively.  We need to plumb the depths of this eternal mystery.  We will do so in this reflection and the next three reflections, which lead us into the season of Lent.

In this Sunday’s scene from the Gospel of John, Mary asks Jesus to help out some newlyweds whose wine supply has run low.  Jesus does so and produces such an abundance of excellent wine that one of the guests remarks how this defies expectations.  Usually, couples reserve the low quality wine for later in the party, when no one would notice.  Instead, the better wine, and a whole lot of it, shows up near the banquet’s end.  This is a great sign of Jesus’s mission of revealing divine love.

It’s quite banal to say Jesus came to reveal God’s love.  It is such a common Christian phrase that it hardly has any effect on us.  The story of Jesus transforming water into wine suggests, however, that the love Jesus came to reveal and let loose in the world has a huge effect on us.  It has to do with our transformation.  So here is an initial way to understand the love of God revealed in Jesus: love transforms.  Love means transformation: interior change leading to change in the world.

God transforms our interior and moves to our exterior.  Divine transformation changes our minds first.  But, this does not mean changing our opinions.  Rather, spiritual transformation is a shift in consciousness, becoming more aware of what already is.  It is becoming more aware of God within us and among us, working to bring us more and more into the divine life.  So transformation is a new heart and a new mind that lead to new behaviors.  A new way of life pops up from a new inner life.

During Sunday Eucharist, the priest pours a drop of water into the wine that will become the Blood of Christ.  Water symbolizes our humanity while wine symbolizes divinity, God.  Our humanity gets absorbed in God’s mystery, not lost but transformed.  When we love God we come to realize our humanity is suffused with divinity, as surrounded and penetrated and within divinity as a drop of water in a glass of wine.  In loving God, we come to see that, as Isaiah says of the people Israel, we are not “forsaken” but God’s delight, for God dwells within us and us in God.  God never forsakes us but delight in us as we are – each of us, no matter what we’re done.  Pope Francis, like Jesus, calls this “mercy.”

A true realization of divine love within us changes us in a significant way.  We become aware that God does not seem to mind our imperfections and our weakness.  Instead of what we might expect, God works through our weakness.  We might expect that getting closer to God means we become more sinless.  But, divine love changes us in surprising ways.  God seems to accept our weakness and transform us through it while not magically erasing our weakness.  Right in the middle of our weakness, God gives us a new heart, a new mind, a new spirit, a new way of living.  We change forms (trans-formation).  God brings us from one form – egocentricity – to another form – selflessness.  This happens as we love God, as we open to God and allow divine love into our lives.  As St. John of the Cross says, “love effects a likeness between the lover and the loved.”

Divine love effects a transformation in us.  God’s Holy Spirit then puts us to work.  Via transformation of love, God makes us aware of gifts the Spirit has given us.  Through the Spirit, God calls us to love one another using our gifts.  “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”  These gifts – healing, discernment, faith, prophecy, as Paul calls them – represent at least some avenues by which God desires us to love others, to serve and give ourselves.  They are more than natural talents though God certainly works through our natural talents.  The Spirit gives us our spiritual gifts according to how God wants us to love and effect a transformation in our world.  Our spiritual gifts represent opportunities for us to live God’s will.  As Pope Francis says, “sanctity does not consist especially in doing extraordinary things, but in allowing God to act.”

So, our transformation starts when we surrender ourselves to God and let God change us.  Service through our spiritual gifts happens along with an inner transformation in love, that is, when we become aware of God’s powerful love within us moving us to love in very specific ways through our spiritual gifts.  Divine love evokes our gifts and helps us put them to work so love becomes practical and personal.  It all starts with a journey into prayer.  Eventually, though, divine transformation comes to invade all of life.  The stuff of our everyday existence provides God with multiple occasions to change us if we but surrender.

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Baptism of Jesus – Reflection

Many Americans have had the experience of getting anesthesia.  Last summer when I had three wisdom teeth removed I thanked God for medication that kills pain.  I had both local anesthetic and nitrous oxide (laughing gas).  Even the normal discomforts of dental work were taken away.  I felt none of it.  I was so loopy I even found the situation kind of funny.  The loopy-ness of the laughing gas says something about getting painkillers: they make one less conscious.

As it turns out, we rather enjoy being less conscious.  Carl Jung once said “ninety-five percent of people live ninety-five percent of their lives unconsciously.”  We like to numb ourselves.  We prefer it to dealing with the pain reality often brings.  Dulling the pain of life could be a national pastime when we examine the typical experience of Americans.  Television stands out as a prime example.  There is a new phenomenon called “binge-watching.”  A television series drops online through a service like Netflix and one can watch the whole series without stopping.  It acts as a great way to dull the pain of reality.  Due to this psychic numbness we miss out on the joy of knowing we are God’s beloved.

Immediately after Jesus gets baptized the heavens open and the Spirit arrives.  A voice comes from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  This story reveals Jesus as God’s Son.  It also reveals that you are God’s beloved child.  What is true of Jesus is true of you.  You are God’s delight!  You are God’s joy!  Do a simple spiritual exercise right now.  Close your eyes.  Be quiet within for a moment.  Then, repeat within: “I am God’s delight.  I am God’s joy.”  Synchronize your repetition of this prayer with your breathing.  For every breath you take reaffirms God’s joy over you.

God calls Jesus and each one of us “my beloved” and “my delight.”  But do we really know we are God’s beloved and delight?  Have we really accepted God’s love for us?  At his baptism Jesus fully opens to divine love.  He allowed God to love him.  That is the gift of baptism – Jesus’ baptism as well as our own.  We must likewise be open to let God love us.

What does it mean to let God love us?  Certainly it means letting go of our inner defenses and walls and consenting to God present in us.  To let God love us is a profoundly Trinitarian experience.  At his baptism, Jesus let God love him and that allowed him to enjoy his relationship with God the Father as the Son in the Holy Spirit.  To let our guard down and allow God into our hearts is to relate to the Father through Jesus the Son in the Holy Spirit.  When we let God love us we experience the Trinity.

God is loving us always, but we have so many defenses against letting this incomprehensible love into our hearts and minds.  If we did we would change, for love means letting go of what we want to be with another.  We each resist the allure of divine love, choosing instead to do what we feel like.  But what would it be like if we let God love us?  It might mean setting aside our preferred thing to do and spending time with God.  To just be in the Presence, especially when it doesn’t necessarily feel good, is an act of love that cracks open our defensive hearts to let in the incomprehensible love of God.

Still, there are times when we get surprised by how selfish we can be.  Only after we have or have not gotten our way do we realize just how unloving we have been.  However, no matter what you’ve done, before ever being aware of it, right in the middle of your most selfish moment, God loves you.  God accepts and delights in you as you are, not as you were or will be.  Further, there’s nothing you can do to earn this love or take it away.  Nothing you do – no matter how stupid or sinful – will ever stop God from taking joy in your very existence.  Hence we always can turn back to God and let in divine love.

Philip Bennet writes, “There are no experts in the spiritual life, only beginners.” (“Let Yourself Be Loved”)  This means beginning anew, opening up to the incomprehensible love of God anew and fresh every moment.  Don’t waste a second.  Return to God now.  Pay attention to God now.  Sink down into silence and let God love you now.  Be present here and now in divine love.  This is what the word “conversion” means.

Begin again this very moment.  Throw out all numbing activities and open yourself to the real, to what is, to ever-present divine love waiting to enfold you and transform you.  Conversion does not happen once or even a few times in a lifetime.  Even more, conversion does not happen just every day.  It happens every moment.  Let down your defenses and take the risk of being vulnerable.  Let go whatever numbs you to reality, for that is where God loves you.  To do so is to experience what Jesus experienced at his baptism: God loving us as we are.  So, we can be baptized again and again throughout the day, always letting in God’s delightful love and letting this love flow through us to others.

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