Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Letter to Those Who Only Show Up on Ash Wednesday

Dear Friends in Christ,

Yesterday we began Lent together by having ashes imposed upon our heads. Some of you I see every Sunday at Mass. Some of you I see at daily Mass. I write this letter, in a particular way, to those of you who were there on Ash Wednesday, but who are not with us during the rest of the year.

No, I'm not writing this to scold you. I am writing this because of something that struck me during my third Mass of the day. As I sat looking out at all of you, I was deeply moved by your presence. In an age when the culture is becoming increasingly secular and increasingly antagonistic towards religious belief, you were in church, waiting to have some guy put dirt on your forehead. 

Just as I was thinking about this, St. Paul's words in the second
reading were being proclaimed: "We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain" (2 Cor 6:1).  And when I heard these words, my heart was really moved for all of you. Unlike people of past ages, you are no longer really sustained by the remnants of a Catholic culture.  In other words, you aren't attending Ash Wednesday Mass out of an attachment to some archaic religious rule or custom. For the most part, we've moved beyond that in our current culture. All around you, religious practice is declining, discouraged, and derided. And there you were, bowing your head and being marked with ashes. Why?

I think that you were being given a special grace. Those of you who never attend Mass or who find yourselves immersed in all manner of sin, why were you there on Ash Wednesday? I think you came because you knew that Jesus was calling out to you. In the midst of such a confusing and hostile environment, He was inviting you to repent from sin and to follow Him. He was inviting you to be His friend, to walk in His path, to be His disciple. You heard His call. Something in you was open to this invitation. You did not say, "No." 

And so, with St. Paul, I want to appeal to you not to receive this grace of God in vain. Do not waste this grace that he has given to you. Do you hear Christ calling you to turn away from some sin in your life? Do you hear Him inviting you to a deeper friendship with Him? Do you hear Him saying to you, "Come, follow me"? Perhaps you have been afraid to say, "Yes" to Him in the past. Perhaps you have been afraid to leave certain sins behind you. Perhaps you have been fearful that you might fail, so you never take the first step. Perhaps you feel too weak to follow. Perhaps you feel as though others are too far ahead of you for you to join in their company, as though everyone else were a Catholic expert and you the only beginner. Perhaps, you keep putting it off because you think there will be plenty of time in the future to be His friend; His disciple.

But, you were there on Ash Wednesday. You were already saying, "Yes." In some small way, you said  "Yes" to His grace.  Today, I want to urge you not to receive that grace in vain. That grace was given to you so that you can live a full friendship with Christ. He is calling out to you with urgency and with love: "Come, follow me!" Do not let His grace be in vain. Allow His grace to permeate your whole being. Let Jesus change your life. Let Him set you free.

So often in the Gospels, we see that Jesus encountered various persons as He was passing by from one place to another. This reveals to us that Christ is on the move. We can only accept His grace when it is given to us. We should not put it off for another day, because we never know whether He will pass this way again. There is an urgency to Christ's mission. On Ash Wednesday, He passed by and He saw you. He called to you because He loves you. He wants you to be at His side. You took that first step. Now, do not receive that grace in vain! Continue to walk with Him!

The Catholic Center community at Boston University is here for you. If you want to continue to say, "Yes" to Christ and to walk by His side, but are uncertain how to do so, please come walk in our company. We are in this together. We help one another, encourage one another, and support one another. We build one another up in Faith.  As a personal example of this, I can say that your presence at Ash Wednesday Mass really encouraged me and awakened in me a desire to be a better friend to Christ and a more faithful disciple. Perhaps you could use some encouragement like that? If so, know that we are here for you.

In your heart, you know that Jesus is giving you grace. I appeal to you not to receive that grace in vain! 

Your Brother in Christ,

Fr. David Barnes

Monday, February 5, 2018

Priesthood at the Threshold of Suffering

Five years ago I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and of all the places that we visited, the one that most moved me was the home of Peter and Andrew in Capernaum.  All that remains of their home is some ruins, over which a rather modern church has been built. What I found so moving about that place was the threshold. More than likely, the threshold that Jesus stood upon is still there. It was there, we are told in the gospels, that the entire town came and waited for Jesus to heal them.  After spending hours healing and casting out demons, Jesus got up early and went to a deserted place to pray. The disciples, however, came and found him and spoke words that were far more true than they could possibly have realized: "Lord, everyone is looking for you."

There are times in my life when I feel like Peter or Andrew, standing beside the Lord looking out and seeing the entire town gathered at the door. It must have been a daunting sight. It's not that some people were looking for healing or relief. Everyone was looking! Everyone was at the door. So too, today everyone is suffering. Everyone is looking for Christ. There are those suffering from the ravages of diseases and those who suffer watching their loved ones in pain. There are those who are approaching death and those mourning the loss of a loved one. There are those who suffer from anxiety, depression, or addictions. There are those who suffer from self-inflicted wounds and anger at their past mistakes. There are those who are lost and confused, those who feel abandoned, and those who feel overwhelmed. There are those who have fallen victim to the evil of others and those who have inflicted evil upon others. There are those who desperately feel the need for someone to listen to them, the need for love, the need for a friend.  They come with all of their pain, their humiliation, their sin, their sufferings. They come and they stand at the threshold of Peter's house. They come to be healed by the Lord. Everybody is looking for Him.

The priest stands at the threshold of Peter's House. Christ uses the priest, and allows him to feel in the depths of his soul (in some small way) the reality that "Everyone is looking" for Christ. The priest experiences in a unique way, I think, the depth of humanity's profound hunger and need for Christ. At the threshold of Peter's House, people come and entrust the priest with their burdens and their sufferings. Not always, but often enough, the priest stands at the threshold and feels in his soul the enormity of this reality, that it is not one or two suffering individuals who are awaiting the Lord, but rather "everybody" is looking for Him. These moments are filled with grace and with a union with Christ that is difficult to convey unless you've experienced it. You immediately recognize your own personal incapacity and total unworthiness to respond to this need. All you can do is allow Christ to use you as He wills. You are simultaneously emptied and filled, exhausted and reinvigorated, at the Cross and in the Resurrection. 

Standing at the threshold of Peter's House and looking out upon the vast sea of human suffering, you are mindful that your priestly vocation really is a mystery and a gift. It is at the threshold where Christ meets the suffering and pain of the world. You stand there so that Christ can use you as His instrument. The whole world is looking for Christ, and in some mysterious way, Christ has chosen you to be an instrument of his healing grace. Christ has placed you in an impossible  situation. You are too small to meet the task and too incapable to solve the problem. And yet, this is how Christ chose to do it. He chooses, in every time and place, to entrust weak and limited men to preach in His Name and to administer His Sacraments. He places these men at the thresholds of Peter's House--the Church--so that all who are looking for Christ--that is, everybody--one by one, can be brought to Him and healed.