O Clavis David (December 20)

Today’s fourth of the O Antiphons speaks of the Lord as the key: “O Key of David, opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom: come and free the prisoners of darkness!”

This language comes from Isaiah 22:22, alluding to the authority of the one chosen by God, according to the house of David. Keys signify authority – only those who have a right to what a key unlocks are permitted to carry them. The one with the keys can bar others from entering, or swing wide the doors to allow them in.

In Christian tradition, too, keys hold a rich symbolism. The Lord Himself used the language of keys when, in response to Peter’s confession of faith, He entrusts ‘the keys to the kingdom of heaven’ to Peter and the Apostles: whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Thus was established the sacrament of confession, in which we receive and celebrate the mercy of God.

Though the Lord has authority to enter through any doors, He respects the authority we have over our own hearts; He will not enter uninvited. Similarly, He will not force us to pass through the entrance of heaven which He has swung open on our behalf. Instead, He gently knocks at the doors of our hearts, ready to invite & welcome us into His. May we take the opportunity to respond, allowing the Lord in – especially through the celebration of the sacrament of confession – so that with Him, we might be made worthy to enter the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom.

O Radix Jesse (December 19)

Every year, the Church throws a curveball at Her clerics – having them read the genealogy of Jesus Christ at Mass. The first is for in December 17 and the second at the vigil of the Nativity of the Lord. The Church clearly intends for Her members to sit with the heritage of our Saviour. We have not one, not two, but three invitations to reflection in this the third of the O Antiphons: “O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people: come to save us without delay!”

This turn of phrase – ‘root of Jesse’ – comes from the prophet Isaiah. The entirety of chapter 11 of the book of the prophet Isaiah details the promise of a new king in the line of King David, bringing with Him a new era of prosperity and peace for God’s people – and it starts with the imagery of today’s antiphon: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.”

The commentary in the New American Bible observes that the language of ‘shoot’ and ‘stump’ is meant to highlight the failings, corruption even, of the monarchs of old. Despite King David being the greatest of the priests of Israel, he was weak and corrupt – to the point of taking another man’s wife and killing her husband to hide his transgressions. The kings that followed David and his son, Solomon, were progressively worse. Eventually, the entire kingdom of Israel fractured into countless pieces because of the brokenness of their kings.

In reflecting on the antiphon immediately prior to this one, ‘O Adonai’, we saw how God’s people demanded a replacement for the Lord – a request He granted, albeit with significant warnings. But He does not abandon His people, despite their rejection of Him. Not only that, but He promises to remedy their mistake long before the full repercussions have set in!

In reflecting on today’s antiphon, this promise is re-presented to us. May we open ourselves to Him anew, inviting God to restore us to Himself, rooting ourselves once again in Him.

O Adonai (December 18)

When it comes to discussing leadership, the request of the people of Israel to Samuel comes to mind: “Therefore all the elders of Israel assembled and went to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Now that you are old, and your sons do not follow your example, appoint a king over us, like all the nations, to rule us” (Samuel 8:5).

Samuel, as you might imagine, was decidedly not amused – not only were the elders making a crazy demand, they threw in a little personal insult to boot! But as he prays to the Lord, God points out that it is not Samuel they are rejecting, but Him. And so the Lord – even as He grants their request – delivers this warning through His prophet Samuel:

He told them: “The governance of the king who will rule you will be as follows: He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot.

He will appoint from among them his commanders of thousands and of hundreds. He will make them do his plowing and harvesting and produce his weapons of war and chariotry.

He will use your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers.

He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his servants.

He will tithe your crops and grape harvests to give to his officials and his servants.

He will take your male and female slaves, as well as your best oxen and donkeys, and use them to do his work.

He will also tithe your flocks. As for you, you will become his slaves.

On that day you will cry out because of the king whom you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you on that day.”

Samuel 8:11

The next time you have to pay your taxes, serve in mandatory civil work, see your family & friends sent into battles chosen (or even started) by rulers – remember this moment in the history of God’s people. I certainly do!

The thing is, I’m just as guilty as they in rejecting God as my king. Despite the audacity of their request, at least the Israelites were open about it. How often do we do the same, but in ways that are less open & honest – at least to ourselves?

And so we come to the second of our O Antiphons, offered this evening at Vespers: “O Leader of the House of Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai: come to rescue us with your mighty power!” Perhaps now more than ever, we know that we need the One who can lead us with perfect goodness (dare I say, we need a hero!). May we invite the Lord to take His place as our leader & guide.

O Sapientia – the first of the O Antiphons (December 17)

Today we begin the octave before Christmas, during which we have one of O Antiphons each day. These antiphons are part of Vespers – Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. If you recognize these, it is probably because they form the basis for the Advent hymn ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ – though that particular antiphon is the last antiphon, despite being the first verse of the hymn! It seems popular practice sometimes trumps exact liturgical correctness ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But nevermind all that, because today’s antiphon is O Sapientia or O Wisdom. The full text is “O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge!

When discussing evangelization, one of the hurdles folks sometimes face is the sense that they don’t know enough to convey the truths of the faith accurately. In those conversations, it is often a revelation to realize that wisdom has little to do with knowledge of doctrine & dogma and more to do with relationship with the Lord. Provided that we spend time with Him regularly, invite Him into our lives, pay attention to His promptings & presence, we will be the best of evangelists – simply by virtue of our friendship with God.

Wisdom is not the simple regurgitation of facts about Christ and His Church, but being able to discern & live with the mind of Christ! As we draw near to the conclusion of Advent, may we open ourselves to receive God’s loving guidance.

(My friend Thom Ryng, over at his blog The World is Quiet Here, has kicked off his annual reflections on the O Antiphons – I highly recommend it, and his blog in general!)

Thanksgiving in Advent

A more appetizing offering than those recently offered around here (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Advent and, belatedly, happy Thanksgiving! I know it’s been a hot minute since I’ve posted anything in this space – in fact, yesterday’s post was a long-unfinished reflection that I decided to wrap up late in the night. Thanks to a glitch (probably prompted by the flickering lights as Seattle deals with early snowfall!), it got published before this post. Rather than find and fight the gremlins on my computer and in the cloud, I decided to just roll with it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It hasn’t been lost on me that the last couple of things to be put on this website – and that have been front and center for the last six months – have been relatively heavy posts. Not a few of my parishioners expressed some consternation at the rather dour outlook I was presenting. Not only was the financial picture strikingly negative, but a particular point stood out for some:

It is one of my greatest sorrows that such community rarely, if ever, is to be found in the life of the Catholic Church. There are sometimes glimpses of lively and connected Christian community, but so very seldom to be found in a parish. I recall a classmate in seminary who said that we Catholics are sometimes referred to as “the chosen frozen” by other denominations, at least here in the United States. I wish it didn’t ring so true. And yet, I find that when I need meaningful friendships or personal support, the Catholic Church is not somewhere I can find either one.

Though not intended to be a direct statement on the life of my own parish and her people, it prompted at least a few folks to question just that. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene in Firefly where Kaylee asks Simon “isn’t there anything about this place you’re glad of?” Unlike Simon at the time, I am quite ready to answer in the affirmative: absolutely, yes!

On that front, I’ve recently made a more conscious effort to take time daily to review what blessings, graces, and joys I experienced recently. With the beginning of Advent this last Sunday, I was particularly struck by some very clear blessings and joys – not just in my own life, but in the life of the parish.

The first is simply the beginning of the Advent season. Here at Saint Mark – a parish that prides itself on taking pains to celebrate the liturgy worthily and well – Advent is an opportunity to really mix things up. Out go the regular flowers in the sanctuary, in comes the wreath! And not just any old wreath, but a four foot by four foot ring of decorated greenery, with beautiful, tall candles, raised up by well-ornamented brass stands (re-purposed candlesticks, I think, but I haven’t looked too closely). It’s quite lovely. And I always get a kick out of the pomp & circumstance of the blessing of the Advent wreath at the first Mass of the weekend.

Accompanying this is the addition of a new pew missal for our congregation: the Source & Summit Missal. I chose this missal specifically for its emphasis on chanting the Mass – it contains the full antiphons for every Sunday Mass: entrance, offertory, and communion. Now every parishioner who so desires may join in chanting the antiphons – as is both their right and duty! We practiced together before Mass and boy, did it pay off. For the first time in a long time, the congregation and choir sung the antiphons together- lifting their voices as they chanted ‘To you I lift up my soul, O God . . . . ‘. The choir helped keep the tones with a few hand bells, used sparingly but to great effect.

Capping off the first Sunday of Advent, we concluded the last Mass and then immediately had a brief indoor Eucharistic procession – exposing the Blessed Sacrament and processing around the inside perimeter of the parish. The pastor had the bright idea of leading a hymn as we processed, but he forgot the second verse (!) – but it was no less beautiful for his lapse in memory. I was heartened to see that easily half of the congregation stayed for the procession, with most of those joining in walking behind the monstrance. As we ended with the Tantum Ergo and benediction, I couldn’t help but again be moved, and grateful to be praying among so many devout and reverent brothers & sisters in Christ.

Why share all of this? In part, because good news seems awfully hard to find lately – despite the pandemic concluding and normalcy being within reach, it sure seems like a lot of us are still struggling to find peace and joy in the world. If you’re a member of my parish, maybe you’ll join me in seeing some of the graces that are peeking out behind the clouds. I’d be interested, by the way, in those that you see and would like to share! And for everyone reading this, regardless of parish, I hope hearing about these things still helps encourage you. It is good to know that we’re not alone in this: not only do we all struggle at some point, but we’re in it together – accompanied and buoyed up by the Lord.

Finally, to that end, check out this rather wonderful folk group I discovered recently. The first song in this playlist (‘Rain Clouds’) has been theme song lately – you’ll notice that some of my writing here is rather shameless inspired by the lyrics. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. In any case, God bless you this Advent – may it be full of graces & blessings.

Sitting with Jeremiah & Jonah

Sometimes people ask me what I think is the hardest part of priesthood. In this season of my ministry, the answer is easy: the hardest thing for me as a priest is to know the path forward and watch people ignore it, avoid it, or otherwise refuse to walk in the way God invites them. I imagine parents have a similar heartache – how painful it must be to watch their children make decisions they know will only come to regret later on! And therein lies the rub of genuine love – it honors free will even when that will is oriented towards something harmful or dangerous.

In moments like this, I am reminded of one of my favorite Old Testament figures: the prophet Jeremiah. His role in the history of God’s people is unenviable – to say the least! He was called to proclaim that Jerusalem would be destroyed, the nation of Judah would suffer greatly, and eventually, that they would all be made captives in a land not their own. All of this was due to Israel’s great sin in forsaking God and worshipping Baal, even to the point of sacrificing their own children.

As you might imagine, Jeremiah was not exactly the life of the party nor welcomed pretty much anywhere. Not only was he tasked with the responsibility of proclaiming his own people’s downfall and calling them to repentance, but they in turn shunned him, even to the point of exiling him or outright plotting to kill him on more than one occasion. Jeremiah never gave up on his people, even when it meant sharing in the sorrows of their punishment, continuing to try to turn them back to the Lord.

The other prophet with whom I relate well is Jonah. He’s a little more well-known, particularly for his time in the whale after he tried to escape God and His instruction to go to Nineveh to call them to repentance. The people of Nineveh – unlike those to whom Jeremiah preached – responded. Not only that, they responded quickly and wholeheartedly. Jonah was only one day into the city when the entire city, from king to commoner, covered themselves in sackcloth and beseeched the Lord for mercy – which He granted them.

What people often overlook in this story is what comes next: the uncovering of Jonah’s heart. Rather than rejoicing with Nineveh at their conversion and God’s graciousness towards them, he is ticked; he didn’t want the Ninevites to be forgiven! He goes out of the city to sulk. Only after a rather miraculous – and convicting – interaction between him and the Lord does the lesson of God’s love begin to sink in.

The tension between the vindictiveness of Jonah and the faithfulness of Jeremiah is stark. To be sure, Jonah grew in fidelity and kindness and I’ve no doubt that Jeremiah was tempted to despair & anger. Still, when it comes to who I want to model myself after, Jeremiah wins hands down every time.

And yet, I sympathize so much with Jonah’s frustration & anger – or more accurately, I often share in it. Whether it is in the sentiment of ‘what’s the point?’ (that God is going to be gracious no matter my efforts) or a darker ‘I want to see someone get theirs!’, I see more clearly the temptation to enter into the same self-righteousness – and self-pity – that drove Jonah to first run from the Lord and then go off and sulk when the Lord didn’t live up to his hopes for some divine smiting.

Years ago a then-new priest shared with me that he often found particular inspiration for preaching in the first reading at Mass. This surprised him, because he understood himself and his priesthood to be ordered towards Christ. Surely the Old Testament would take lower priority than the Gospel!? And yet, there he was, preaching on the Old Testament – and finding (and sharing!) greater understanding of Jesus in the process.

It seems to me that God’s self-revelation to His people – and their relationship with Him – in Old Testament often gets short shrift from Christians….forgetting that Jesus Himself was formed by the Old Testament, constantly quoted it, and used it to bring people closer to Him and His Father.

As an imperfect, often struggling Christians, sitting with all of those who have gone before us in faith is a gift we ought not deny ourselves. We may unexpectedly find brothers & sisters who have shared in our hardships and difficulties – and who can model for us how we they might be overcome by and with the Lord.

Balancing discernment and decision

A week ago, I kicked off a four week in-parish mission at Saint Mark in Shoreline. Prompted by the realization of significant financial and membership challenges, I spoke at length to the parish about our need to turn to the Lord, inviting and allowing Him to call us to more deeply invest in our community. This necessarily involved sharing the realities of our current situation, including a significant drop in giving (170K difference since 2019), reduced membership, and parishioner engagement at an all-time low. Perhaps most alarmingly, I used the c-word: “closure” – not as an announcement of anything currently being considered or discussed, but as one potential future if we don’t sit up and take notice.

Reactions were varied and – at least among those shared with me – muted. I get that: no one is especially excited about an extended conversation with the doctor who just laid out the grim future they face if they don’t start exercising and dieting right away! I know that feeling well and am familiar with the impulse to simply avoid people and things that remind me of difficult realities – so much so that I preached on my some of my recent personal experiences of this last weekend.

Still, folks do talk among themselves, and some of those conversations eventually find their way to the priest. A familiar theme caught my attention: ‘why isn’t he just telling us what he wants?’ – familiar, by the way, because of the variant that we priests hear all the time: ‘Father, if you need anything, just ask!’

Despite good intentions, there is a subtle – but serious – issue hiding within these statements. It is the issue of discernment, or rather, that of not discerning. Though there are times we need to be told what is called for or even what we ought to be doing, it is all too easy to surrender or even abdicate our responsibility to discern God’s call for ourselves.

We’ve all had the experience of being with friends or family and having someone say ‘you decide’ on the choice of food, movie, or a tv show that we’re going to enjoy. Thoughtfully offered, that surrender can be a real expression of vulnerable trust! But imagine if that happened habitually, often, or even all the time. What might have once been a moment of unity becomes a burden to the one being asked or told to decide – and an expression of disengagement by the person saying it. ‘You decide’ starts to sound a lot like ‘I don’t care’.

And what happens if that becomes the norm? It is inevitable that some, maybe many, of the choices will get a negative response – ‘I don’t want to watch that movie’, ‘That show is boring’, ‘why didn’t we have __________ instead?’. That implied message of ‘I don’t care’ will start to feel a lot more like an overt ‘I don’t care for you’. That occasion of surrender or intimacy has the appearance of a demand to be served and pleased – all without investment from the other person.

This strikes me as a pattern into which it would be easy to fall. How many of us have stories of a relationship where one person insists on having the last word on decisions, setting the priorities, and making all the choices! The domineering husband, the shrill wife, the temperamental friend, the authoritarian pastor – there are so many examples of relationships where abdicating discernment or will is not choice, but an expectation. We might even conclude that this is the norm in giving or receiving love.

Building – or rebuilding – the practice of discernment may require us to critically examine our understanding of relationships. What does it mean for me to be a friend – how am I called to be vulnerable not only to the thoughts & desires of another but also to the vulnerability of exploring & expressing my own thoughts & desires? How do I participate in a relationship with another person, with other people?

In addition to looking at our own relationships – especially those that we have found to be most life-giving! – it will be helpful to consider the example of Jesus. His relationship with the Father & the Holy Spirit, wherein He not only surrendered to the Father’s will, but also participated in the choices made. We can see, too, that with His Apostles, He not only invites them to do the Father’s will but empowers them to discern & decide how that might take shape.

The Mass readings of the last week from the Acts of the Apostles show us how they and the early Christians were not only inspired but actively acting in relationship with each other and the Lord. We take the time every Easter season to revisit these accounts as a reminder that the fervor – and fruitfulness! – that they experienced is offered to us as well. The decision to join in that new life is not just the Lord’s, but ours as well – and the first step is to choose to be an active participant in the relationship with Christ and His Church.

For those interested, this is the homily I preached last Sunday – the second homily of our four week in-parish mission. You can listen to it using the player below or download to play on your device by clicking on this link.

Longing for community in the Body of Christ

This last Sunday, I kicked off a four week in-parish mission at my parish of Saint Mark in Shoreline. Over the last several months I have been discerning how the Lord is directing our community. Our staff has been brainstorming ideas and our pastoral council has been discussing priorities & plans. Things came to a head a few weeks ago when we reviewed our parish finances and came to the realization that in both finances and membership, our community is facing serious challenges – challenges that include a financial difference of $170,000 in giving between 2019 and now, a decline in membership, and a low engagement from those who are still on the rolls & in the pews.

It is my firm conviction that the final piece is key; our personal investment in the community will bear fruit in all other things. Thus, a parish mission to pray over three questions:

  • what does it mean to be a parish?
  • what does it mean to be a parishioner?
  • how is the Lord calling us to grow as both?

After preaching on all of this (a delicate dance between exhorting, warning, and animating – on Mother’s Day, no less 🙄), I had the blessing of meeting up with my priest support group this week. As I shared my own worries, frustrations, and hopes about this, they brought up a helpful counterpoint: what communities do I myself currently find life-giving, exciting, and animating?

What comes most immediately to mind is a group that I only recently discovered: Doxacon Seattle. By a happy set of circumstances and at their gracious invitation, I was privileged to present at their 2022 convention (this year’s theme was “Is This the Way? Duty and Morality”). I spent several nervous weeks preparing for the convention – it was not lost on me that the intersection of passionate Christians and passionate geeks could be a place where a misstep in theology OR fandom would be quickly jumped on!

I am happy to report that I managed to avoid any great ecumenical or geeky controversy. But what absolutely floored me was how much fun it was to gather with these folks! We spent nearly twelve glorious hours talking about everything we loved – television, movies, literature, podcasts, webcomics, history, whatever! – and ALL in the light of Christ. There were Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians joined in the conversations – and when one person was talking, several others were chatting across the Discord channels that had been set up.

It was wonderful. They have something special, in both mission & community, that is compelling, uplifting, and joyful. Not only do I still fondly recall that day, but it has sparked the beginnings of friendships for which I am already extraordinarily grateful. In fact, the night before I kicked off this parish mission, a group of us spent four hours (!) on a Zoom call talking about our faith, our various fandoms, and plans for how we might invite others to share in them. And to my great delight, a couple of my new friends showed up the next day at the vigil Mass the next day – and we spent another two hours talking after Mass!

It is one of my greatest sorrows that such community rarely, if ever, is to be found in the life of the Catholic Church. There are sometimes glimpses of lively and connected Christian community, but so very seldom to be found in a parish. I recall a classmate in seminary who said that we Catholics are sometimes referred to as “the chosen frozen” by other denominations, at least here in the United States. I wish it didn’t ring so true. And yet, I find that when I need meaningful friendships or personal support, the Catholic Church is not somewhere I can find either one.

So, what are we to do? There’s an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that has been sticking in my head: “Looking for Par’mach in All the Wrong Places“. It’s a bit of a fluff story among the heavy arcs DS9 was exploring at that point, though a well-placed bit of humor that rang true there and now: we sometimes miss what’s right in front of us for having focused so much on what we think we want.

What does that mean for me and my parish, practically speaking? I’m not entirely sure yet, but it seems to me that something of Doxacon needs to come to our community! Oh, I know that many (maybe most) of my parishioners are not sci-fi or fantasy geeks and I know that literally bringing a convention to the parish isn’t the answer. But bringing what they have – forming groups small & large centered around what excites us – seems to be a crucial part of the answer to the questions we’re pondering during our parish mission.

That’s the kind of community I know I long for! And from my experiences with Christian geeks from around the Pacific Northwest & beyond – Catholic and otherwise – I’m confident that I’m not alone. It is Christ that animates and excites us in the context of fandoms & ministry alike. If we are to be enlivened as His Body, Sunday Masses are not the end, but rather the beginning of forming truly intimate and joyful communities.

(For those interested – here is a draft version of the homily that I recorded for my staff & pastoral council to help give me input. The actual homily was edited only slightly for time…..this version is just over 25 minutes long!). Alternatively, you can download it to play on your device by clicking this link.

Spy Wednesday

Today is the last full day of Lent (which officially ends at the beginning of the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday). This day is known as ‘spy’ Wednesday, taken from story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus – the Gospel proclaimed at today’s Mass. In his misguided attempt to force Jesus into fulfilling the expectation of a conquering messiah, Judas unwittingly became an agent for those who declared themselves enemies of Christ. He became a spy, looking for and taking the opportunity to betray the Lord.

The Kiss of Judas by James Tissot

It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized how the devil heightens his attacks during Holy Week. In fact, it was two years ago today that I found myself in such serious struggles that I reached out to one of our auxiliary bishops, asking for his guidance on how to deal with a particularly unsettling set of circumstances that was troubling me and my parish. I couldn’t understand why it was happening at one of the most sacred times of the year! Bishop Mueggenborg reminded me that the devil continues to lash out even in defeat, and that holy week – particularly Spy Wednesday – is a time when we are often must under assault.

In retrospect, it seems obvious – I’ve always found holy week to be a time of additional anxieties, frustrations, and conflict as we try to fit all the liturgical and sacramental pieces together. Honestly, it had simply never occurred to me that there was a spiritual element. But of course, Satan is upset! We’re celebrating Jesus’ triumph over sin and death – and more than that, our sharing in that victory! New Christians are baptized, old Christians renew their baptismal promises – heck, even fallen-away Christians make time to come to Easter Masses!

Looking back on holy weeks of years gone by, I can see how the devil has tried to undermine not just the parish celebrations of this holy time, but my own ability to receive the associated graces. I recall one particular Easter vigil where it seemed to me that everything that could go wrong went wrong. Ministers and priest (me!) alike missed their cues, lights & candles were extinguished or lit at the wrong time, music was wonky, and so on – all of my plans and hopes for the Mass went spectacularly sideways. By the time Mass was over, I was a disappointed, angry mess. I tried to put on a cheerful face for the community, but I let my guard down with one parishioner with whom I was friends. As I ranted about all the things that didn’t go right, he looked at me and simply said ‘oh? I didn’t notice any of that – it was just such a beautiful Mass!’ before cheerfully departing with his wife.

It was about that moment that I realized that I had managed to sabotage my own reception of God’s gifts because I had focused things other than Jesus.

I like to think I’m a little wiser and a little calmer now….. though I’ll probably still indulge in at least one private meltdown between now and Sunday. But the nickname of this day has proven to be a helpful cautionary tale in a couple of ways. The most obvious is to be on guard for the attacks of the devil – he wants to sneak in and rob us of the graces & joys of this time! If we simply surrender ourselves to God, accepting that only He is perfect, that battle will be over before it ever starts.

Perhaps the less obvious caution is to be aware that the devil can use us to sneak in, to rob both us and others of those graces & joys – especially if we allow anxieties, frustrations, and anger to drive us to lash out at those around us. We may unwittingly become agents – spies, if you will – of the devil’s effort to deny us the fruits of this holy time.

The good news is that it’s not too late to set – or change – our course. May we do what Judas could not: recognizing and accepting our own expectations & limitations, bringing them humbly to the Lord. We can then celebrate how Jesus transforms human weakness into heavenly triumph as we journey through the Sacred Triduum to Easter Sunday.

So even if it isn’t perfect, may you have a blessed Holy Week!

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Allegorie op de opstanding van Christus, Hieronymus Wierix, naar Crispijn van den Broeck, 1563 – voor 1586

One of the great blessings of Sacred Scripture, the celebration of liturgies, and the cycle of the liturgical year is that the same reading or celebration may convey a new message or unveil a different facet. This year, what stands out to me this Palm Sunday are Jesus’ words to the man only known as the good thief.

There are two people to whom Jesus speaks where an imminent foretelling is offered. The first is Peter, who in his eagerness and pride, assures Him – wrongly – that he is prepared to suffer & die for the Lord. Jesus rebukes that pride even as He shares that He has prayed for Peter and that after his conversion, he must strengthen his brothers. Peter recalls these words at the very moment they are fulfilled, realizes his great failure, and weeps bitterly.

The man on cross is at a different point. He is suffering and dying with Jesus, though not by his own choice. Unlike Peter, this criminal knows that he is not a heroic figure – he goes so far as to rebuke the other criminal, who has demanded that Jesus demonstrate His power by coming down from the cross and taking them with Him. The good thief stands in contrast to that man, and to Peter: “the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes”. Like Peter, he cries out – but with a simple petition: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”.

Jesus’ immediate response is one of mercy and assurance: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Even on the cross, after having been abandoned by His friends, betrayed by one of His Apostles, condemned & convicted by His own people, and tortured beyond all reason, Jesus focuses His attention and affection on this anonymous, guilty sinner. And He assures him of an eternal reward that he neither expected nor asked for!

For anyone who has ever felt unlovable, unforgiveable, forsaken, or alone, this brief interaction between the Lord and the good thief should shine out – a glorious beacon of hope. This gift is not solely for him; it is a gift offered to all of us! Peter would discover this a few short days later when he receives a similar reassurance….and that despite his inability to match the agape (unconditional) love of Christ, offering instead phileo (brotherly) love. It would only be towards the end of his live that Peter would finally willingly suffer with Christ, sharing in the same fate of both his savior and the good thief.

Wherever we are on our own journey of relationship with Christ, we are invited today – and throughout this Holy Week – to draw near to the cross. Perhaps we have run away from the Lord in the past, maybe we’ve even abandoned, denied, or betrayed Him. In the good thief we are reminded that it is not too late to ask for – and receive – the mercy and salvation that Jesus so desperately desires to share with us.