New Growth from Old Wood

just shoot1st Sunday of Advent (C)

In a town I once called home there grew for 250 years a tree, an historic tree, the largest Pepperidge tree in the Northeastern United States, in fact. “Old Peppy,” as it was called, was, for reasons not appreciated by me (and many other residents) girdled and cut down earlier this year.

Have you witnessed a tender shoot pushing its way through the gnarled bark of a tree stump? Or have you seen a sapling emerge from the ground where a great tree once stood? What an unlikely but meaningful sign of resilience it would be to see new shoots emerging from the soil beneath the enormous canopy Old Peppy once provided.

Root systems left untreated after a tree is cut down continue their subterranean existence, secretly absorbing water and nutrients as they await the right conditions to send up vigorous new growth. Nature’s exuberance for life is not always received with enthusiasm. If shoots emerged from the former site of a tree that you intentionally cut down, this restorative miracle of nature might not give you the same thrill as it does me. Still, it is difficult not to be impressed when new life emerges from what was thought to be dead, particularly from something of great or profound significance.

The biblical reference to a shoot being raised from a lifeless stump follows the “book of consolation” contained in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah [Jer 30-31]. This passage [Jer 33:14-16], is read on the first Sunday of Advent, Year C, and represents the promise of a righteous and just leader who will restore and reunite the house of Judah and Israel.

Christians hear in this reading the promise of Jesus, the Messiah. The just shoot grows, and the world is changed forever. God keeps God’s promises. Oh, come, oh come, Emmanuel! With Christmas, we celebrate not only the birth of Jesus but the restoration and reunification of the world which God-with-us has set in motion. We know Jesus has come, and this is cause for endless celebration.

Like a dormant root system awaiting the right conditions for growth, the season of Advent is a time for patience. It is an opportunity to work on our own spirituality—to allow the tender shoot to grow unhindered, to work its way through the hardened, splintered and frequently lifeless stump that we allow ourselves to become. Cut down by relentless negativity and fear, and deprived of living water, the restorative breath of the Holy Spirit and the light of Christ’s face, we forget to love, we forget how to really love. With Advent eyes, we watch, and we wait. We make room; we open up the hardened places and invite Jesus in. We open the door of our hearts to a loved one, a friend, a stranger, to the poor, the wealthy, the humble, the arrogant, to the enemy. With intentionality—in Advent and at all times—we strive to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” [1 Thes 3:12], for from love pours care, nourishment, light—all things that allow tender young shoots to grow and flourish.

Every year I vow, “This year I will attend to Advent properly.” I decide to begin each day with the chosen Scripture for the season and a reflection of a favorite Saint, mystic, or spiritual writer. I set out my Advent wreath with fresh candles and the intention of lighting it each night. I attempt to go about my daily activities with a contemplative spirit. I make this promise to myself so that when Christmas day arrives I will have prepared a dwelling place in my heart, ready to receive Jesus as if for the first time, and the meaning of Christmas will be made new.

I start out with these good intentions, just as many do, I suspect, but more often than not, my plans for a reflective and prayerful Advent get usurped by the shopping and baking and decorating for Christmas day. Not that these are necessarily bad things; Advent is a time of anticipation, and part of its joy is in the preparation that surrounds the celebration of Christmas.

This year, however, with the image of the tender shoot in mind, my vow becomes less structured and more organic. In addition to daily prayer. I will cultivate the growth of a tender shoot within myself by seeking and opening my heart to the emerging Christ child in whatever form he should take. This begins with love.

The new life that Advent promises is growing within us; it has the power to break through hardened and gnarled hearts. For within a fragile shoot there exists what, if nurtured and allowed to flourish, can grow mightier than the ancient stump from which it emerged.

May we all be One

Feast of Christ the King (B)

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18:37c] These are the words that Jesus spoke to Pontius Pilate at his trial, the night before his crucifixion. These are the words that conclude the Sunday readings for Year B on the Feast of Christ the King, which Christians celebrate this weekend.

Do we listen?

The truth is love. Love for God, and love for neighbor. Do unto others, and so forth.  Christians know this, but there are times when we struggle mightily to hear Jesus’ voice over the cacophony of our own.

These are pretty tough times for those who listen.

On Friday, November 13th ISIS suicide bombers attacked six densely populated locations in Paris, killing 126 people and injuring more than 300, leading French President Francois Hollande to declare war and commence bombing ISIS targets in Syria. This came one day after two suicide bombings, also the work of ISIS, killed 43 people and injured more than 230 in southern Beirut.

Both incidents were the continuation of a succession of unspeakable and violent attacks on civilians by the terrorist organization, ISIS, but the attack on Paris hit many Americans as if it had occurred on American soil.

Almost immediately an outpouring of heartfelt support blossomed on the internet. And, almost as quickly, social media sites were polluted with the hate-filled opinions, memes, and videos of armchair “experts” on ISIS, Islam, the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration, and Muslim American citizens.

By Monday, I was stunned into silence. The hateful rhetoric worsened with the added voices of “news” personalities and certain politicians. I had no words of my own to describe the depth of shame I felt. This growing pile of garbage—racism disguised as patriotism—exuded a stench that was shockingly similar to what it purported to reject. It did nothing if not to foment more fear and increase divisions between neighbors. If one of the goals of terrorism is to polarize its victims, we are effectively handing ISIS its success on a platter.

I write about Christian discipleship: what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I write about the need to press on, to remain focused and hopeful and unafraid, even, and especially in times of extreme hardship. But this week I felt as if my senses were being crushed by the sight, sound and smell of the world’s flesh being torn and mutilated on social media sites.

My struggle to form a single, hope-filled thought in response to so much hate speech, ignorance and fear-driven rhetoric left me dry. I believe I belong to the truth as lived by Jesus, but I also know that before these truths can be heard, ears need to be able to hear. And it seems to me that everyone is currently cutting off their opponent’s ears.

After 9/11 I wrote to my grandmother, who was 86 at the time and who lived another ten years, and asked her, in light of all that she had seen and experienced since her birth in 1915, to tell me how people managed to remain hopeful through such difficult times. What did people do to keep their hearts filled so that fear could not overcome them? In response to my question, she wrote, “We pulled together and supported one another,  because we were all suffering the same. We helped our neighbors, and we stuck together. And those hard times passed.”

My grandmother’s words consoled and assured me that as dark as those days were, hope remained alive. What she told me was that despite having good cause to be frightened, her generation learned to cope not by pushing away from one another, but by drawing closer together.

Jesus prayed on the night before he died that all might be one [Jn 17:21]. Facing his own death, Jesus prayed for us. In a speech on Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper said, “When Jesus uttered the words “may they all be one”, they by no means represented a vision or a dream. Jesus said these words on the eve of his death. This was not the time for triumphal utopias. The Galilean spring, when the enthusiastic crowds overwhelmed him, was over. They no longer cried “Hosanna!” but ” Crucify him!” Jesus was well aware of this, and predicted also that his disciples would not be one, and that they would be dispersed. What else could he do in this situation than to leave the future of his work in the hands of his Father? Thus, the words “may they all be one” are a prayer, a prayer in a humanly perceived hopeless situation.”[1]

We live in frightening times; it is true. And it is all too easy to succumb to fear and circle our wagons to keep others out. Turning against one another out of fear creates lies and leads to hatred; it separates us, and empties our hearts of hope.

Instead, let us turn towards one another and fill our hearts with the truth. Listen for Jesus’ voice, and may we all be one.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] Cardinal Walter Kasper, May They All Be One? But How? A Vision of Christian Unity for the Next Generation, Keynote speech given to the Conference of the Society for Ecumenical Studies, the St Albans Christian Study Centre and the Hertfordshire Newman Association at St Alban’s Abbey, Hertfordshire, England on May 17, 2003

Life and love are stronger than hate and death

© Yongsung Kim

© Yongsung Kim

A reflection on the Feast of Christ the King, by Fr. Joel Fortier.

The Second Coming…the coming of the Kingdom of Christ the King, Prince of Peace, Lord of Lords, King of Kings…a Kingdom of priests, a Kingdom of truth, justice, peace and love.

The second coming is a process, not an event. The Kingdom of God is already here, indeed has always been here. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is in your midst, within you…at hand!  [Lk 17:21] The coming of the FULLNESS of the Kingdom begun with the Incarnation and was inexorably established in the victory of the Cross and Resurrection. Christ is drawing all things into a unity of love and understanding, of justice and peace. That is the process we are caught up in now: the process of dying and rising with Christ.

The battle has indeed been won and we are called to share in the victory and power of the cross, not by our own power or military might, but by our utter vulnerability in love. Such is the way and victory of the cross. Life and love are stronger than hate and death. The battle is won and we share its victory.

As we experience this process of the Kingdom coming to be in fullness, we discover that we are not separate; individuated yes, but not separate. We are all connected and sustained by God’s love, the ground of our being, the common ground we share with all creation and all peoples; the ground from which we have all emerged…star dust…all energy…the Christ, thru whom all things came to be, in whom we live, and move, and have our being; the ALPHA and the OMEGA, the point from which we have come, to which we are all headed, drawn by God’s love, thru Christ, in the Spirit, to share in the very nature and Being of God: Love.

On that great day when all things are drawn into the fullness of unity and love, Christ will be “all in all”, it will be the FULL revelation of Christ; the second coming, the fullness of the Incarnation and the glorification of all creation, indeed what the Resurrection and glory of the Risen Christ is all about; and of what is meant by “the resurrection of the body on the last day”, when all things are drawn up into Christ, through whom they have come, and presented as embodied consciousness, embodied love, back to God as gift, the source of all goodness and life.

We are created to share the very life of the Trinity. That is what creation is all about, the wondrous mystery of the Universe coming to be in Christ, created by love for love! Come Lord Jesus come! O Christ of the Cosmos!

We yearn, long, and look forward to the second coming of Christ; for the full revelation of God’s glory in all creation. Because of this, the fundamental attitude of a Christian is HOPE, indeed as it is for all people. All creation groans with the expectation of full consciousness, it is an impulse to love, and desire for full communion in love with God. It is what the reality of the Eucharist is about, holds, and reflects, O Sacrament Divine! Food for the journey home! Come pilgrim let us walk together on this great adventure of life, a journey of love.

Come Lord Jesus come! Show us the path to Peace, lead us in your ways! Let your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!

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Born in1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

Understanding the Liturgical Calendar

The liturgical cycle includes three years, (A, B, and C) and a two year weekday cycle (Year I and Year II) during which Ordinary Time, as it is called, stops and starts, before and after the seasons of the year (Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter Time). But don’t be fooled, Ordinary Time is not “ordinary,” or “off-season.” It’s a profound opportunity to slowly absorb the wisdom of the Old and New Testament scriptures and allow it to saturate and transform our day-to-day activities.

On Sundays of ordinary time we read mostly from the particular Gospel for that cycle, (Year A=Matthew, Year B= Mark, Year C=Luke). The Gospel of John is also read at various times throughout the year, primarily during Easter. On weekdays during ordinary time, the Gospel readings cycle first through Mark, then Matthew, and finally Luke.

The liturgical year is made up of six seasons: (click the links for more detailed information from the USCCB, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

  1. Advent: the four weeks leading up to Christmas
  2. Christmas Time: continues for three Sundays after Christmas (The Feast of the Holy Family, The Epiphany, and Jesus’ baptism)
  3. Lent: a six-week period of penance before Easter; begins with Ash Wednesday
  4. The Triduum– Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday
  5. Easter Time– the 50 days of Easter celebration, which conclude with Pentecost.
  6. Ordinary Time– the “teaching” time of 4-6 weeks between Christmas Time and Lent, and after Pentecost until the end of the calendar year, generally 34 Sundays in total.

When the end is the beginning

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

I love this time of the year. Of course I mean autumn. Yes, the growing season’s grand finale rarely disappoints, especially here in the Northeastern part of the United States where the relatively subdued trees and shrubs of summer break out in a neon-jacked riot of color. Autumn represents the colossal success of nature—a job well done. As if to say, “There, you see? This is what I’ve been working on all year.”

Autumn is a time to reflect on what we’ve been working on all year, too. In the waning and waxing hours between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, it is good to pause and think deeply about our personal growth, both intellectual and spiritual. We can ponder our little epiphanies, our joys, our sorrows, our victories and our failures, and the endings and beginnings which represent all of the above. Autumn is also a time to look forward, to make plans for the coming winter, and to renew our annual vow that this year we will keep things simple and really enjoy Christmas.

There’s another reason I love this time of year. Ecclesially (churchy business) speaking, we are drawing to the end of current year’s liturgical calendar. My fellow liturgy nerds, can I have an Amen? This weekend is the second to the last week of Year B—the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time—and next Sunday we reach the pinnacle of Ordinary Time with the Feast of Christ the King.

I loved Year B, spending time in the desert with Mark’s gospel, reflecting on Jesus’ identity and mission, why he died, what his passion meant then and what it means for us today. But I also love the gospel of Luke, which we will read in Year C (beginning January 10, 2016). I am excited to delve into the gospel writer’s emphasis on the hope, inclusivity and liberation of all people as revealed through Jesus’ life and message.

Every liturgical year starts with Advent and Christmas. In two weeks we will experience the advent (pun intended) of Year C. This is a season of anticipation, of preparation and patient waiting, of readiness and expectation of the events which have been promised. Christians prepare their hearts not only to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but to anticipate his second coming, which is the subject of weekend’s gospel [Mk 13:24-32].

The season of Advent goes by quickly. And if you aren’t attentive, the four weeks dissolve into one another. Before you know it, it’s Christmas day, or more likely, it’s the day after Christmas, and you sit there in your messy home, deflated, exhausted, and wondering what the heck just happened. How did you allow the artificial chaos of the holiday season to interfere with your plans to celebrate a real Christmas?

Endings and beginnings—the turning of seasons, a new Gospel, and a promise to do things differently this Christmas—tie into this weekend’s gospel. Yet, unlike the second coming foretold by Jesus we know exactly when the liturgical year ends and when the celebration of Jesus’ birth will be.

Jesus says “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” [Mk 13:28a]. Mark wants his community to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ forewarning of the Temple’s destruction [13:1-2], an idea that was incomprehensible to the disciples, given the Temple’s prominence. Mark wants his community to hear Jesus’ instruction to attend to the signs [13:8], and to be ready for the coming persecution because they themselves lived in a time of rising chaos. Mark encourages his readers to pay attention, to be steady, focused and fearless, and to attend to Jesus’ teaching because when the time comes—like the emerging buds on the fig tree—it will be too late for pruning and tending. To follow Jesus—to be a disciple—is a journey of service, of humility and sacrifice for the sake of others. Mark provides hope for his readers; he assures them that their sacrifice will lead to redemption, just like Jesus’ did.

Our lives provide never-ending opportunities to be people of hope, and to perfect the message of which our life speaks, as if to say, “There, you see? This is what I’ve been working on all year!” Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. wrote, “At the end of the church year, therefore, as at the end of our life, our vision ought to be of new heavens and a new earth, of new bodies and souls as innocent and good as the Spirit of God who indwells.” [1] In the next few weeks we will be presented with an opportunity to recraft our vision for the coming year and begin again.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 386

To be loved

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier

I am delighted to offer the readers of The Good Disciple the following reflection on love, written by my dear friend, Fr. Joel Fortier. Earlier this year, Fr. Joel wrote on the topic of Receiving Love; it has since become one of this blog’s most popular reflections. I have not doubt To Be Loved will follow suit. Please share your comments, and share the post. It’s that good.

It is a wonderful thing to really feel loved…to be loved…when the love of someone you love reaches you; breaks thru the crust and shell of what keeps us from feeling and knowing we are loved, and you feel it! It is the most wonderful thing in the world…it is powerful! When you can say with certitude, I am loved! Love changes everything. Love is not a feeling, the feeling of being loved comes from actually being loved and it IS the most powerful feeling and force in the world. There is nothing like it! It is pure gift! It gives you strength and power, the very ruah…breath…and Spirit of God rushes into you. It transforms and liberates. It gives you the power to love! Love opens us to love, and when we love, courage is released in us; we discover that we can love, we discover the power of love, it sets us free from our fears and inhibitions; it heals and strengthens us.

Drink of it deeply, it is like a waterfall, a torrent of love coming into us, open wide your mouth, your heart, to receive it, let love fill you up, quench your thirst, and become a fountain of living water within you! That is what the Holy Spirit does, love releases love within us. Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven.” Mercy is released into the world. To be loved is to existentially know God; to know and experience the power of God. To love and live in love, is to live IN God…to experience the power of God to love even when you don’t “feel” like it. That’s when love becomes a decision, not just a feeling, which is what Christ did for us. It destroys death and reveals the power of the cross and resurrection at work in us; the power of love. And so Christ says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Love gives us the power to do that with joy, it enables and empowers us to love as Christ loves. “Love one another as I have loved you,” is his commandment, and he says, “I tell you this so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full and complete!” [Jn 15:11]

“Salvation…Love…consists not in that we have loved God, but that God has loved us.” [1 Jn 4,10] We ARE loved, that is the joy of the gospel, thank God for those who bear good news and make it credible for us by their lives and actions; by their love! They will know we are Christian by our love after all! Our orthodoxy is only as believable as our orthopraxy!

I thank God for the people in my life who love me, they are angels of God, messengers who bring Good News, the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus in the flesh for me. The Jesus in me loves the Jesus in you. It is the fire that burns in the Sacred Heart, the fire Christ came to ignite on earth, for us and for all people. Let it be ignited in us and spread throughout the world!

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” —Romans 10:15.

_____________________________

Born in1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

Give until it hurts?

32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Think about the poor widow who gave all that she had to the Temple. Shouldn’t we, who have so much more, do the same?

Stop right there.

It is easy to interpret the story of the poor widow [MK 12:38-44] and her contribution of two small copper coins as either an example of piety and generosity, or an admonishment to those who can afford to give more. This traditional interpretation might have some merit in terms of financial stewardship, but was this Jesus’ message?

The story takes place in the Temple where Jesus had been teaching since he and his disciples entered Jerusalem. Among his listeners were several religious leaders who were intent on trapping Jesus. After lobbing responses to a series of questions related in one way or another to his teaching authority, Jesus points to the scribes, who were both trained in the law as well as theology. Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” [MK 12:38a-40]

In your face, scribes!

(Keep in mind, though, that Jesus does not condemn all religious leaders. For example, in the course of this Temple teaching Jesus praised another scribe’s articulation of the greatest commandment, saying “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” [MK 12:34])

Jesus then moves to another part of the Temple, opposite the treasury. The word “opposite” describes Jesus’ position within the Temple both literally and figuratively. The Temple treasury can be compared to today’s collection box, except instead of a slot for money, treasuries were topped with a kind of funnel, or trumpet, into which donors could toss their coins. The sound of coins reverberating off the sides of the trumpet made giving a very public act. Hefty donations made an especially loud racket, but the clinking of two copper coins entering the treasury would also have been unmistakable.

From his vantage point, Jesus could watch the wealthy dropping their contributions into the treasury. After witnessing a poor widow deposit just two coins, Jesus summons his disciples and makes an economic comparison. The widow’s contribution was the largest. She gave 100%, whereas the others gave from their surplus. “(t)his poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” [MK 12:43b-44]

Jesus’ Kingdom economics begs us to answer the question, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Jesus does not use the word good when he speaks of the widow’s contribution. He does not praise it. He merely states the facts. Nor does Jesus make the widow’s resulting impoverishment a value judgment on the contribution of the wealthy. Why? Because this is a story about institutional greed and injustice, it’s not about tithing.

In biblical times, women who were widowed did not inherit their husband’s wealth. And unless they were supported by their children or husband’s family many were left destitute. Jesus recognized something in the poor widow’s act of tossing her entire livelihood into the Temple treasury: an institution that allows its poorest members to impoverish themselves in order to support it is no different than the scribes who devour widows’ houses; the condemnation will be the same.

Would Jesus make the same comparison today? Isn’t some aspect of the scribe, at times, in the person we see in the mirror? Consider the pervasive nature of domestic and global economic systems that devour the weakest members of society. What can we, as good disciples do to correct it?

Today’s readings can be found here.