Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

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The Journey to Perfection

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:1–3

The Sermon on the Mount begins with today’s reading in Chapter Five of Matthew’s Gospel and continues through Chapter Seven. This beautiful sermon presents us with many familiar teachings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer and the Golden Rule. Jesus begins His sermon by going up a mountain and sitting down. The mountain is believed to be just north of the Sea of Galilee, just a few miles from Capernaum where Jesus often stayed during His public ministry. Today’s Gospel presents us with the glorious and very high calling of the Beatitudes. This teaching on the Beatitudes sets the stage for the many other lessons Jesus taught.

The Beatitudes are certainly a teaching about morality, but the lessons are not the same as many of the moral teachings that the people were familiar with. Up until that time, morality was primarily seen as a list of forbidden practices. “Thou shall not…” was the general tone. However, the Beatitudes take morality to a much higher level. In this new teaching, Jesus did not start with that which was forbidden or that which was a violation of God’s Law. Instead, He explained that reaching for these ideals brought forth the greatest fulfillment in life. Morality was not only a list of regulations one needed to avoid. At the heart, morality was now presented by our Lord as a glorious journey to perfection. The result of this journey was the attainment of the Kingdom of Heaven.

When you consider the moral life, how do you look at it? Do you see it more as a list of things you can’t do? Or do you see it as a journey up the mountain of true holiness and fulfillment? The Christian life certainly forbids us to engage in many forms of sin and violations of God’s Law. But unless we understand that the highest form of morality is given to fulfill us on the deepest level, then it will be easy to become discouraged by our calling.

Reflect, today, upon Jesus calling you to follow Him up the mountain of the Beatitudes. As you do, begin by considering this journey first from a physical point of view. It would have been much easier for His first hearers of this sermon to simply stay in Capernaum and recline at table, listening to Jesus speak. But the physical journey up the mountain gives insight into the high calling of the moral life. It requires effort and determination. From there, try to imagine yourself listening to Jesus preach. Remind yourself that the Christian life is one of perfection in every way. This is our calling. But the fruit of perfection is the fulfillment in which God wants us to share. The easy life of sin leaves us dry and interiorly dead, but the hard journey to perfection leads us to the deepest fulfillment we could ever attain. Commit yourself to the journey and do not hesitate on the way, and you, too, will be rewarded with the Kingdom of Heaven.

Lord of perfection, You call me to journey with You up the high mountain of holiness. May I always see this journey as one that is glorious and fulfilling. I choose the life of perfection to which I am called and pray that I will always be open to the deepest moral truths You wish me to live. Jesus, I trust in You!

The Subtleties of Grace

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet!  Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. Mark 1:23–26

It’s interesting to note that this unclean spirit immediately knows Who Jesus is. This is because each of two opposites emphasizes the other very clearly. For example, the color black is most clearly seen when it is placed in front of something white. Or something hot is most noticeable after experiencing something very cold. And a loud noise is most jarring when someone is sitting in silence. And so it is with Jesus and evil. Jesus, the Holy One of God, is most clearly seen when He comes in contact with an unclean spirit.

This fact gives us some wonderful insights into our journey toward the heights of holiness. Oftentimes, when one experiences a profound and transforming conversion, it is because they were first living a life of sin. When one who is living in sin encounters the saving grace of God, it is quite noticeable. And that is good.

But there is also another spiritual insight we can take from this. To further the analogy, it is also true that when the color black is put next to something dark blue, or something hot is touched after holding something quite warm, there is less notice taken. So it is with the spiritual life. When we are striving to obtain true holiness of life, and when we are already living the many virtues to which we are called, the next step closer to God might not be nearly as noticeable. Instead, growth in perfection for one who is already striving for perfection will be very subtle. And that is also good.

This is important to understand because sometimes, when a person has gone through a powerful conversion earlier in life, they want to return to the experience they had when they initially converted. But that should not be our goal. Instead, we should continually strive to experience these more subtle changes that take us from a life of holiness to one of even greater holiness. In this case, if you do not sense a powerful contrast of spiritual experiences within you, that may be simply because there are no serious sins you are trying to overcome. Thus, the ideal for every Christian is to eventually experience less contrasting spiritual experiences and more that are gentle and subtle as our Lord continues to gently perfect you in many ways.

Reflect, today, upon your own spiritual journey toward holiness. If you do see serious sin in your life, know that God wants to profoundly free you and draw you through a major conversion. If you do not see serious sin in your life and if you already strive daily to become holy, then rejoice if your spiritual consolations and communications from God are much more subtle and, at times, undetectable. Keep working at perfection and rejoice that you are on the correct path.

Lord of all holiness, please continue to draw me into the life of perfection. Help me to grow in every virtue and to continually be aware of every gift of grace I am given. Please help me, especially, to be attentive to every small and subtle grace and to respond to those graces with a truly open and grateful heart. Jesus, I trust in You!

The Miracle of Faith

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away. Luke 4:28–30

Today’s Gospel ends much differently than it began. At the beginning of today’s Gospel, we read that “all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But by the time Jesus finished speaking in the synagogue, the people tried to kill Him. Prior to this experience, Jesus had been preaching in Capernaum and had performed many miracles there. Many people in Capernaum praised Jesus and came to faith in Him, and He was the talk of the town. So when He returned to His hometown of Nazareth, the people were very curious about Him and initially welcomed Him home. But their initial interest was not the result of faith, it was the result of curiosity. They wanted to see some of Jesus’ miracles, but Jesus refused because He knew they lacked faith in Him. Instead, Jesus chastised them.  And as soon as He did that, they became outraged.

Jesus’ miracles were real. He healed the sick and lame, raised the dead, cast out demons and spoke with a new and clear authority. But Jesus could also read people’s souls. He knew when the people to whom He was preaching were open and when they were not. When they were open to the gift of faith, He fed that faith by the convincing power of miracles so as to deepen their faith. But when they were not open to the gift of faith, there was no value in a miracle.

The same is true in our lives. Though physical miracles are rare today, they certainly do happen. But what is far more important than physical miracles is the faith we do or do not have. If you have a heart that is truly open to our Lord, He will work miracles in your life. Specifically, He will transform you interiorly, free you from sin, strengthen you to live out His mission and bestow countless virtues upon you. This is truly miraculous when it happens! God’s transforming and saving action is real and glorious, and we should always rejoice when these blessings are bestowed upon us. And though we might all be curious to see real physical miracles at times, we must realize that the gift of faith, given to transform us interiorly, is of far greater value to us.

Reflect, today, upon whether you are more like the people of Capernaum or Nazareth. Do you find yourself simply curious about Jesus, hoping He offers you some proof of His miraculous power? Or is your heart truly open to Him, seeking to grow in the far more important gift of faith and interior transformation? Seek the gift of faith and you will see Jesus do truly miraculous things within you.

My miraculous Lord, please open my mind and heart so that I will hear You, believe in You and give my life to You. As I do, please transform me interiorly, deepening my faith in You and setting me firmly on the path to true holiness and conversion. Jesus, I trust in You!

Never Give Up on Another

Monday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me!” (He had been saying to him, “Unclean spirit, come out of the man!”) He asked him, “What is your name?” He  replied, “Legion is my name.  There are many of us.” Mark 5:7–9

To most people, such an encounter would be terrifying. This man whose words are recorded above was possessed by a multitude of demons. He lived on the hillsides among various caves by the sea, and no one wanted to go near him. He was a violent man, crying out day and night, and all the townspeople were fearful of him. But when this man saw Jesus at a distance, something amazing happened. Instead of Jesus being terrified of the man, the multitude of demons possessing the man became terrified of Jesus. Jesus then commanded the many demons to leave the man and enter a herd of about two thousand swine instead. The swine immediately ran down the hill into the sea and drowned. The possessed man returned to normal, becoming clothed and in his right mind. All who saw him were amazed.

Clearly, this brief summary of the story does not adequately explain the terror, trauma, confusion, suffering, etc., that this man endured during the years of his diabolical possession. And it does not adequately explain the grave suffering of this man’s family and friends, as well as the disorder caused to the local townspeople as a result of his possession. Thus, to better understand this story, it is useful to contrast the before-and-after experience of all involved. It was very difficult for everyone to comprehend how this man could go from being possessed and out of his mind to calm and rational. For that reason, Jesus told the man to “Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.” Imagine the mix of joy, confusion and disbelief that his family would have experienced. 

If Jesus could transform the life of this man who was completely possessed by a Legion of demons, then no one is ever without hope. Too often, especially within our families and among old friends, there are those whom we have written off as irredeemable. There are those who have gone so far astray that they seem hopeless. But one thing this story tells us is that hope is never lost for anyone—not even those completely possessed by a multitude of demons.

Reflect, today, upon anyone in your life whom you have written off. Perhaps they have hurt you over and over. Or perhaps they have chosen a life of grave sin. Look at that person in the light of this Gospel and know that there is always hope. Be open to God acting through you in a profound and powerful way so that even the most seemingly irredeemable person you know will be given hope through you.

My most powerful Lord, I offer to You, this day, the person whom I call to mind who is most in need of Your redeeming grace. May I never lose hope in Your ability to transform their life, to forgive their sins and to bring them back to You. Use me, dear Lord, to be an instrument of Your mercy, so that they will come to know You and experience the freedom You so deeply desire that they receive. Jesus, I trust in You.

Fear Transformed by Faith

Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

While he was still speaking, people from the synagogue official’s house arrived and said, “Your daughter has died; why trouble the teacher any longer?” Disregarding the message that was reported, Jesus said to the synagogue official, “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” Mark 5:35–36

This short line is one worth pondering every day. “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” This statement can apply to many situations we experience throughout our lives. It is a command of love from our Lord and is a command that we all need to hear, especially when hardships come our way.

First, it should be noted that this was a grave situation in which extreme emotion and temptations to fear would be understandable. The father in this story had a young daughter at the point of death, and he came to beg Jesus to heal her. Jesus agreed. But while they were on their way, Jesus and the father received the heartbreaking news that the daughter had just died. As any parent would know, this news must have been incredibly difficult to hear. So begin by trying to understand the grief that this father was experiencing. Try to especially understand his grief at that moment as he heard this devastating news.

As you ponder his grief, try to also ponder the heart, thinking, emotions and words of Jesus. Jesus had no fear. He knew that this would end very well. But because He also had deep empathy and love for this grieving father, Jesus turned to him to give him hope. Hope in the midst of a very difficult and painful experience in life is hard to come by. When faced with grief, it is very tempting to give in to despair. Despair is a complete loss of hope. Despair keeps us from God and strips us of faith. But despair is always avoidable if we follow Jesus’ command of love. “Do not be afraid; just have faith.”

What is it that tempts you to fear in life? What is it that tempts you to lose your hope? Perhaps you struggle with the death of a loved one, and you find it very difficult. Perhaps your grief comes from small sources and is only minor right now. The truth is that all of us will experience small temptations to lose hope every day. And most will also experience grave temptations at one time or another. For these reasons, we must all constantly listen to Jesus’ words and work to dispel every fear in life as we invite God to bestow upon us the gift of hope that comes from unwavering faith in His plan for our lives.

Reflect, today, upon any struggles you have with despair, fear or anxiety in life. As you do, know that all things are possible when you turn to God with faith. Faith does not necessarily remove the hardships of life; it does something even better. It transforms hardships so that you can endure them with grace, joy and supernatural hope. When this happens, everything in life has the potential to be used by God for our good. All we need to do is continually reject fear and “just have faith.”

My compassionate Lord, You consoled this grieving father and instilled within him the gifts of faith and hope. Please also speak your command of love to me, calling me to trust in You no matter what I struggle with in life. May I always have faith in You and never fall into despair or fear. Jesus, I trust in You.

Christ All Around Us

Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

“Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Mark 6:3

After traveling throughout the countryside performing miracles, teaching the crowds and gaining many followers, Jesus returned to Nazareth where He grew up. Perhaps His disciples were excited to return with Jesus to His native place, thinking that His own townspeople would be overjoyed to see Jesus again because of the many stories of His miracles and authoritative teaching. But the disciples were soon to have quite a surprise.

After arriving in Nazareth, Jesus entered the Synagogue to teach, and He taught with an authority and wisdom that confounded the locals. They said among themselves, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him?” They were confused because they knew Jesus. He was the local carpenter who worked for years with His father who was a carpenter. He was Mary’s son, and they knew His other relatives by name.

The primary difficulty Jesus’ townspeople had was their familiarity with Jesus. They knew Him. They knew where He lived. They knew Him as He grew up. They knew His family. They knew all about Him. Therefore, they wondered how Jesus could be anything special. How could He now teach with authority? How could He now do miracles? Thus, the townspeople were astonished, and they allowed that astonishment to turn into doubt, judgment and criticism.

The same temptation is something we all deal with more than we may realize. It is often easier to admire a stranger from afar than one whom we know well. When we hear of someone for the first time who is doing something admirable, it’s easy to join in that admiration. But when we hear good news about someone we know well, we can easily be tempted to jealousy or envy and to be skeptical and even critical. But the truth is that every saint has a family. And every family potentially has brothers and sisters, cousins and other relatives through whom God will do great things. This should not surprise us—it should inspire us! And we should rejoice when those close to us and with whom we are familiar are used powerfully by our good God.

Reflect, today, upon those whom you are familiar with in life, especially your own family. Examine whether or not you struggle with an ability to see beyond the surface and accept that God dwells within everyone. We must constantly seek to discover the presence of God all around us, especially in the lives of those whom we know very well.

My ever-present Lord, thank You for the countless ways in which You are present in the lives of those all around me. Give me the grace to see You and to love You in the lives of those closest to me. As I discover Your glorious presence in their lives, fill me with deep gratitude and help me to acknowledge Your love that comes forth from their lives. Jesus, I trust in You.

Relying Upon Divine Providence

Thursday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts. Mark 6:7–8

Why would Jesus instruct the Twelve to go forth to preach with authority but to take nothing with them on the journey? Most people who set out on a journey prepare ahead and make sure to pack what they need. Jesus’ instruction was not so much a lesson in relying upon others for basic needs as it was a lesson on reliance upon divine providence for their ministry.

The material world is good in and of itself. All creation is good. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with having possessions and using them for our good and for the good of those who have been entrusted to our care. But there are times when God wants us to rely more upon Him than upon ourselves. The story above is one of those situations.

By instructing the Twelve to go forth on their mission without bringing the basic necessities of life, Jesus was helping them to trust not only in His providence for those basic needs but also to trust that He would provide for them spiritually in their mission of preaching, teaching and healing. They were given great spiritual authority and responsibility and, for that reason, needed to rely upon the providence of God to a far greater extent than others. Thus, Jesus exhorts them to trust Him regarding their basic needs so that they will also be disposed to trust Him on this new spiritual mission.

The same is true in our lives. When God entrusts us with a mission to share the Gospel with another, He will often do so in a way that requires great trust on our part. He will send us forth “empty-handed,” so to speak, so that we will learn to rely upon His gentle guidance. Sharing the Gospel with another is an incredible privilege, and we must realize that we will be successful only if we rely wholeheartedly upon the providence of God.

Reflect, today, upon those to whom you sense God wants you to reach out to with the Gospel. How do you do this? The answer is quite simple. You do so only by relying upon the providence of God. Step out in faith, listen to His guiding voice every step of the way, and know that His providence is the only way that the Gospel message will be effectively shared.

My trustworthy Lord, I accept Your call to go forth and to share Your love and mercy with others. Help me to always rely upon You and Your providence for my mission in life. Use me as You will and help me to trust in Your guiding hand for the upbuilding of Your glorious Kingdom on earth. Jesus, I trust in You.

“Perplexed” by the Truth

Friday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him. Mark 6:20

Ideally, when the Gospel is preached and received by another, the effect is that the receiver is filled with joy, consolation and a desire to change. The Gospel is transforming for those who truly listen and respond with generosity. But what about those who do not respond with generosity? What effect does the Gospel have upon them? Our Gospel today gives us that answer.

The line above comes from the story of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The bad actors in this story are Herod, Herod’s illegitimate wife Herodias, and Herodias’ daughter (traditionally named Salome). John had been imprisoned by Herod because John told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” But what’s most interesting about this story is that, even in prison, Herod would listen to John preach. But instead of leading Herod to conversion, he was left “perplexed” by what John preached.

Being “perplexed” was not the only reaction to John’s preaching. Herodias’ reaction was one of hatred. She appeared to be stung to the heart by John’s condemnation of her “marriage” to Herod, and it was she who then orchestrated John’s beheading.

This Gospel, then, teaches us of two other common reactions to the Truth of the holy Gospel when it is preached. One is hatred and another is confusion (being perplexed). Obviously, hatred is far worse than simply being perplexed. But neither is the right reaction to the words of Truth.

What is your reaction to the full Gospel when it is preached? Are there aspects of the Gospel that leave you uneasy? Are there teachings of our Lord that confuse you or lead you to anger? First look within your own heart to determine if you struggle with having a similar reaction as did Herod and Herodias. And then consider how the world reacts to the Truth of the Gospel. We should not be surprised at all that we find many Herods and Herodiases alive today.

Reflect, today, upon any ways that you see the Gospel being rejected on one level or another. If you sense this within your own heart, then repent with all your might. If you see it elsewhere, do not allow the hostility to shake you or concern you. Keep your mind and heart upon the Truth and remain steadfast no matter the reaction you encounter.

My Lord of all Truth, Your Word and Your Word alone brings grace and salvation. Please give me the grace I need to always listen to Your Word and to respond generously with all my heart. May I repent when I am convicted by Your Word and may I wholeheartedly return to You. Give me courage when others reject Your Truth and wisdom to know how to share that Word with love. Jesus, I trust in You.

Unexpected Ministry

Saturday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”  Mark 6:34

The Twelve had just returned from going about the countryside preaching the Gospel. They were tired. Jesus, in His compassion, invites them to come away with Him to rest for a while. So they get in a boat to cross over to a deserted place. But when the people hear about this, they hurry on foot to the place that their boat was heading. So, when the boat arrives, there is a crowd awaiting them.

Of course, Jesus does not get upset. He does not get discouraged by the burning desire of the people to be with Him and the Twelve. Instead, the Gospel relates that when Jesus saw them, “his heart was moved with pity,” and He began to teach them many things.

In our own lives, after serving others well, it’s understandable to desire rest. Even Jesus desired this for Himself and His Apostles. But the one thing that Jesus permitted to “interrupt” His rest was the clear desire of the people to be with Him and to be fed by His preaching. There is much to learn from this example of our Lord.

For example, there are many times when a parent may only want to be alone for a while, and yet family concerns arise that need their attention. Priests and religious may also have unexpected duties that arise from their ministry that can, at first, appear to interrupt their plans. The same can be said for any vocation or situation in life. We may think we need one thing, but then duty calls and we find we are needed in a different way.

One key to sharing in the apostolic mission of Christ, be it to our families, Church, communities or friends, is to be ready and willing to be generous with our time and energy. It’s true that prudence will dictate the need for rest at times, but at other times the call to charity will supersede what we perceive as a legitimate need for our own rest and relaxation. And when true charity is demanded of us, we will always find that our Lord gives us the needed grace to be generous with our time. It is often in those moments when our Lord chooses to use us in ways that are truly transforming for others.

Reflect, today, upon the true needs of those around you. Are there people who would greatly benefit from your time and attention today? Are there needs that others have that will require you to change your plans and to give of yourself in a way that is difficult? Do not hesitate to give generously of yourself to others. In fact, this form of charity is not only transforming for those whom we serve, it is often one of the most restful and rejuvenating activities we can also do for ourselves.

My generous Lord, You gave of Yourself without reserve. People came to You in their need, and You did not hesitate to serve them out of love. Give me a heart that imitates Your generosity and help me to always say “Yes” to the charitable work to which I am called. May I learn to find great joy in serving others, especially in those unplanned and unexpected circumstances of life. Jesus, I trust in You.

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