Spiritual Growth

How Do I Know You’re a Christian?

If the local newspaper had been following you around during this past week looking for evidence that you were a disciple of Christ, what evidence would be most convincing? Would it be the vision statement on for your corporation or apostolate? Would it be your ability to raise funds to drive your project? Would it be how many times you went to mass or prayed the rosary? What would be the most convincing evidence that would lead the reader to conclude that you were a Christian?

Jesus tells his followers: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:31-33a, 34-35). In Jesus' new commandment, not only are we to love our neighbor as ourselves, now we are to love them as Christ loved, with a sacrificial love. If the local reporters had been following you, would they have noticed the practice of this new commandment in your life and concluded that you belonged to Christ?

So often our love for one another takes a back seat to our political views or to attaining a position of prestige within a Church organization or to doctrinal issues. Emphasis on these issues, while being important, is not the primary witness needed to win the hearts of a lost generation, but loving one another is. Why? Because an example of sacrificial love demonstrates the kind of love the world is seeking. We live in a culture that is desperately seeking love and acceptance through external transformations, through power and fame, yet all these things have proven empty when it comes to changing hearts. If we have more money, more power, more projects yet do not love one another we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are successful as Christ's disciples. As Christians we are family and all of our efforts should have a common goal: to make Christ known and loved.

What did it mean when Jesus gave his followers the new command to love one another? The answer is found in the definition of the word love. There are several words for "love" used in the Bible. The city of Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love. The Greek verb phileo means to love in the sense of being friendly, to delight in or long for, or to do with pleasure. This word represents "tender affection."  Phileo is emotionally based and prompted by emotions. We are certainly called to love one another with a brotherly love, but the love which Christ commands us to love one another is quite different.

The word for love used in John 13:35 is agape, which is a love that goes further than brotherly love; it is based in covenant relationship. Agape love is unselfish love found only in the heart of the Trinity and demonstrated in the life of Christ. As Christ loved the world with a sacrificial outpouring of self, we are to love one another. We are commanded to give ourselves to one another with the hope that all our acquaintances will be fully formed to Christ. Frankly, this is difficult and requires a dying to ourselves. In order to agape one another we must listen to each other, reason with each other, and find common ground to show forth the love of Christ in the community. This does not require a compromise of our Catholic convictions, but an investment in each other through prayer and treating each other with respect.

The clear distinction between the two kinds of love is seen in the application. Since love (phileo) as an emotion is prompted by feelings, it cannot be commanded. In contrast, love as a self sacrificial choice may be commanded; hence, Jesus commanded His disciples to "love (agape) your enemies" (Matthew 5:44), or "Husbands, love (agape) your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..." (Ephesians 5:25). The love we are called to can only be known by the actions it prompts.

So often we fail to love one another because we settle for the type of love that I call Rodney King love, "can't we just all get along?" Just "getting along" will not turn the cold hearts of our generation, but a demonstration of Christ's sacrificial love in our relationships within the Church will open up hardened hearts to that which they really seek, a compelling glimpse of Christ.

Walking in agape love on a daily basis requires that we always keep Christ's will as the primary focus and goal. Think about all the people that you must work with each day. No doubt there are disagreements when it comes to opinions on doctrine and practices, but what can you do to better love your friends or colleague? How can you change your approach to better reflect the love of Christ? Are you more concerned with winning arguments or with helping your brother or sister in Christ be more perfectly conformed to Jesus?

Will our love for one another provide a strong witness come election time? Will our love for one another become obvious in how one group works with another within the local parish? Will various apostolates love one another within the archdiocese? Remember that the world is watching us very carefully and they will make a determination about Christ based on our love for one another. Jesus said, "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me (John 17:20-21).

In short, we can raise spectacular amounts of money, win apologetic debates, get our bills passed through congress, but if we have failed to love one another as Christ has loved us we will be nothing more than clanging cymbals, a sound the world does not want to hear. Let's pray that the sound the world will hear is our love for one another.

Reflections

1.    Ask yourself the question: In my dealings with others, what must change in my attitude towards them if Christ's will is to be accomplished?

2.    Many Christians are working in an apostolate and feel that there are those within their Church that oppose them. What can you do to foster common ground and work toward a common goal? How can you protect the integrity of the Church in the public arena?

Living a Prudent Life!

Have you forgotten about your New Year's resolution yet?   Many have.  Keeping our attention on set goals can be very difficult in a world where we are distracted with instant gratification at every turn. The message of the world is that you can have it all today by postponing your payment till tomorrow. The problem is that tomorrow will soon be today and we will be focusing on how we can be free tomorrow.

In Luke 6:17, 20-26 Jesus reminds us that there are two places that we can claim our reward, two places we can place our hope: here on earth or after the resurrection in heaven. According to G.K. Chesterton, those who follow Christ can expect three things: that they would be absolutely fearless, very happy and always in trouble. To choose Christ is to adopt a lifestyle and attitude contrary to the world, which sometimes means persecution. As Christians our message and way of life cuts across the societal norms, not only in the way we conduct ourselves but also in where we place our hope.

Our goal in life is not merely to have the finest foods, the nicest cars and have everyone speak well of us, but our goal is to get to heaven and experience the beatific vision (to see God face to face). If we are going to attain our goal, we must be prudent. Saint Thomas speaks of prudence as fixing your life on your goal, and then backing up to the present day and making decisions that will help you attain your goal. Each and every day we live our lives making decisions and doing things that seem silly to the world. What we need to communicate to the world is that we have a prize in mind that the world simply cannot give us.

To follow Christ often means living in such a way or expressing an opinion that might fly in the face of a society that is bent on being happy now. There is a way to be happy now, but the way to that happiness is quite different  than  the world's approach.

From the dawn of time man has been obsessed with the question, what is the end of life? Aristotle's answer is happiness. The word "blessed" in this week's gospel reading on the beatitudes is translated "happy." Happiness is what we seek. The meaning of the word happiness has changed since Aristotle's time. Today we define it as something wholly subjective, a feeling we get when everything is going our way. The pre-modern writers defined happiness as an objective state, not merely a subjective feeling. The Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia, literally means "a good spirit" or "a good soul." To be happy is to be good. For modern man, what gives his life meaning?   Feeling good. The ancient answer to this question is, being good.

The way of Christ poses a problem for modern man. If modern man is going to be happy he will have to focus his attention on doing things that will make him feel good. Jesus presents us with a way of life that is contrary to this, but results in true happiness. The difference between our worldview as Christians and the worldview of those who are focused on their own happiness, is that our attitude takes into consideration the fact that God has the greater end in mind when he says to walk in his word. The greater end we strive for is perfection of life, character and soul.

As Christians we are called to live a life of sacrifice, preferring others to ourselves, and taking stands on social issues such as abortion, the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and what is permissible to view on television. How many Catholic families have chosen to forgo the pleasure of a brand new car in order to send their children to a good school where they can be formed in Christ, a treasure that will last for eternity?

Society has caught on to an aspect of Jesus' teaching, that we forgo the pleasures of today for a greater reward tomorrow, in retirement plans. We invest a few dollars today in a 401K plan so that we will have a nest egg when we retire. In the kingdom of God we make for ourselves "money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys" (Luke 12:33).

Keep following Christ even when it seems there is no instant reward or recognition from others; your reward is great in heaven. While your full reward will come, you can be truly happy now knowing that you are walking in hope of the resurrection. Keep running the race and don't be distracted by the billboards along the way. St. Paul understood this way of life that often confuses the world. He said, "I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  I can do all things in him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:12-13).

A Couple of Things to Do:

1.    Make a list of the five priorities in your life and take note of whether they are of eternal value.  If not, ask yourself what you might replace those priorities with.

2.    Ask yourself what you have to do to see those eternal priorities come to pass.  Think of the practical, day-to-day "to-do's" needed if you are going to attain your eternal goals.

From Passerby to Partipant in the Cross!

An interesting and often overlooked aspect of the Gospel is the mention of individuals whom we know little about but find squarely placed in the middle of the divine drama. In the Gospel of Mark 14:1-15:47, we see such a person, Simon of Cyrene.

Who was this Simon? We don't have much information to go on, but we do know that he was a passer-by from another country. Did he really understand what was going on in Jerusalem that day when he saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha? Suddenly, those standing around compelled this Simon, who was most likely just living another day, to carry the cross of Christ.

Simon of Cyrene becomes a living illustration of the tremendous opportunity that God has given to all humanity, the chance to participate in the cross for the redemption of the world.

Most people understand that Jesus suffered, died and rose from the dead for us, but how many people understand that he has also invited us to participate with him in his redemptive work?

God's goal for us is that we would be completely formed to the image of his son,  Jesus Christ. God is love, but not the kind of love that we speak of at the popular level. God's love is not just a feeling, emotion or sentimental thought. God's kind of love is complete self-donation, a total pouring out and emptying of self for his beloved. It is this love of the Trinity that God is calling us to.

God desires that all humanity would be gathered into the family of God and raised to the dignity of adopted sons and daughters to participate in the love and life of the Trinity, then live this life on a daily basis.

Being conformed to the image of Christ is not a matter of objective studying, but it is a vocation, "come follow me." God in his infinite wisdom has made it possible to "follow him" and be conformed to his image and likeness by allowing us to participate in his passion and resurrection. The Apostle St. Paul understood this when he said, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24).

To say that we are Christians means more than "we go to church every week", or " I believe a set of determined doctrines".   To be a Christian is to be united with Christ and fully participate with him in every aspect of his mission.   St. Paul said, "we are...fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom 8:17-18).

Pope John Paul II said in his Apostolic Letter, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, "In the cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed" (no. 29). In other words, your suffering, your cross if joined to Christ,  has redemptive power. His Holiness goes on to say, "the springs of divine power gush forth precisely in the midst of human weakness.  Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world's Redemption, and can share this treasure with others" (no. 27).

The example of Simon the Cyrene reveals that we have a real participation in the cross, if we choose to accept it.  Jesus stated clearly, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" and "whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple" (Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27).

As we are now about to enter the passion week of Christ, will you say, "Yes" to your cross and join yourself with Christ? If so, you will experience what the love of the Trinity is all about. Empty yourself for others as he emptied himself for you and you will be on your way to being conformed to his image.

Like Simon the Cyrene, you may feel like you're only a passer-by in the drama of salvation history, the unlikely person. But today you can move from being a passer-by to a participant. Pick up your cross and follow Jesus.

A couple of things to do:

1.    Spend some time meditating on the cross in your life. Write down a description of your cross on a piece of paper and make preparation to join your cross with Christ on Good Friday. Good Friday will be the day you have the opportunity to venerate the cross and share in his sufferings.

2.    Carry a small cross or holy card in your pocket or purse as a reminder that you have a cross to carry. When you struggle, take it out and spend a moment in prayer.

Preparing For His Return!

As a boy growing up my dad took me on fishing trips to northern Minnesota for the walleye opening. I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was at the prospect of going up to the lake with my dad and his friends. For weeks I would prepare by reading Field & Stream magazine, organizing my tackle box and dreaming about the large fish I would soon catch. More than anything else, I just looked forward to being with my dad in the boat and lying down at night listening to him and his friends laugh as they played cards and told stories in the kitchen below. In hindsight, I can see that the anticipation of those glorious fishing trips was nearly as great as the trip itself.

In Mark 13:24-32, Jesus tells us that there is a day when he will return and life as we know it on earth will radically change. Unlike my childhood fishing trips, the time of Jesus return is unknown. In fact today's reading tells us that not even the angels, nor the Son know the time, only the Father. We know for certain that the Lord will return, we just can't put it on the calendar.

The question is, can we live in great anticipation of the Lord's coming even though we don't know the time of his return? The answer is yes, if we clearly understand what that return will mean. Our destiny as Christians is the beatific vision, to see God face to face. Think of what that will be like, to look into the face of He who created the universe; to gaze upon the one who emptied Himself in self-donating love for you, the one who thirsts for you more than you thirst for Him. Imagine the thrill of experiencing the new dimensions of heaven, color, sound, knowledge, and yes...the food. Imagine no more pain, worry, anxiety or depression. Sound good?

The Lord has told us that there will be a day when He will return. He tells us this, not so that we will live in a state of alarm, but a state of alert. Just as a boy I tended to the details of a future fishing trip, today I can tend to the details of my spiritual life, in preparation for his coming. St. Thomas Aquinas calls this daily attitude of preparation, prudence. Prudence is looking forward to the goal we want to attain, the place we want to be, then backing up to the present and making the appropriate decisions to get there. We want to be prepared to meet the Lord and enjoy Him for ever, therefore we must ask ourselves today, how should I be spending my time; how should I spend my money; what does the Lord who is the focal point of history expect of me today?

I think that if we knew for certain that the Lord was to return next week our schedule would be somewhat altered, our priorities rearranged. As there is basic preparation for a fishing trip, so too there is basic preparation for meeting the Lord.

Below are a few suggestions:

1.    Daily Bible reading. The Bible contains the true story of the world, the only story that puts our lives in perspective and gives meaning to daily life. We have become a part of God's story through baptism and our task is to come to know God, to be caught up into the life of the Trinity and share that life with others. Today's gospel reading speaks of the end of the story. It would be a shame to end up at the end of the divine drama having never realized the plot while here on earth.

2.    Daily Prayer & Meditation. We will live with the Lord in heaven forever and ever. No doubt we will continue to grow in our understanding of the Lord through learning, conversation and service. This intimacy that we will enjoy in the next world can be tasted to a degree in this world. Prayer is the communion of the soul with God, the development of the heart and the place where daily action is determined.

3.    Good Works. The manifestation of our prayer in secret and our meditation on His word is the work we do day to day. Our work is closely linked to our vocation, or state in life. If you are married, single, clergy or religious, then God's will for you has in a large part already been determined. The secret of your schedule is contained in the Bible, the Catechism and the place of prayer.

As I always enjoyed the anticipation of those fishing trips with my dad, the day did indeed come. As all things, whether hoped for or dreaded, have a due date, so will the end come. Will you be ready?

Questions for Reflection

1.    If you knew that the Lord was returning next week, what three things would you do differently this week?

2.    Take one hour this week, perhaps in adoration, and ask yourself what areas of your life would be incompatible with heaven.