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A Meditation for Holy Week: Jesus’ Seven Last Words

Seven Last Words of Jesus

Courtesy: WikiImages, U.S. Public Domain

As a newbie, I did not realize that a reflection of the seven last words of Jesus (really the seven last phrases or utterances) is a part of Good Friday tradition, as we don’t have that at our parish. But what a wonderful way to remember Jesus and to contemplate the Passion.

So much is focused around Jesus’ physical suffering during the Crucifixion, which is of course important to understand and honor, but I think it’s important to also contemplate what Jesus was trying to tell us in those last moments.

Seven Last Words of Jesus by James MartinBest-selling author Fr. James Martin, S.J., author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” and “The Abbey: A Story of Discovery” (which I reviewed in a previous post), has put together his thoughts on these seven last things in the new book “Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus” (Harper One, 2016).

The seven last utterances are:

  • “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.”
  • “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken  me?”
  • “Woman, here is your son… Here is your mother.”
  • “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
  • “I thirst.”
  • “It is finished.”

There are many different ways to interpret these phrases, which are found in the different Gospel accounts, and truly you could spend a lifetime just meditating on these alone. Mother Teresa, for example, centered almost her entire life’s work around “I thirst” in an effort to help quench Jesus’ thirst for souls.

Fr. Martin takes them and applies them to our day-to-day life, helping us to relate to the human Jesus, who experienced pain and suffering — both mental and physical — just as we do. While some of his commentary I disagree with, especially as it relates to Mary (see my previous post on Mary: Unimportant Woman or Faith Perfected?), and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken  me?” (which I believe refers to Psalm 22, actually offering hope instead of despair), we can each draw our own conclusions and thoughts with guidance, of course, from Holy Mother Church. The book I recommended that every Catholic read, “New Testament Basics for Catholics,” also does a good job considering some of these utterances.

So spend a few moments this week on each of these phrases and ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to see what He is trying to reveal to you personally about each one.

Have a blessed Holy Week!

Mary: Unimportant Woman or Faith Perfected?

Mary: Unimportant Woman or Faith Perfected by @ACatholicNewbie

To those outside of Catholicism, Mary is an enigma. Yes, she gave birth to and raised Jesus but her role beyond those duties is not explored in any depth and sometimes dismissed over confusion about different passages referring to her in the New Testament that are seemingly dismissive.

I could talk about Mary for centuries and never be done :), but in this post I want to explore what I have found to be one of her most important roles in salvation history: God’s model of ultimate faith. And I’ll show you why.

But first, I want to explore some reasons why I’ve heard from others that Mary is, instead, unimportant:
1) God “tells” Mary she will conceive Jesus; it’s not a choice for her to accept or reject, even though she assents.
2) Jesus calls her “woman” multiple times not “mother”; therefore, he is dismissing her importance.
3) Jesus is the only intercessor between us and God; we should not pray to Mary.
4) She is rarely mentioned in the New Testament.

Now I want to address why I believe Mary is God’s example to us of how have perfect faith, which will dispel many of the above.

Abraham & Mary

I am currently reading the Bible all the way through (beginning Jan. 1) using a great Bible reading plan from the Coming Home Network. I highly recommend reading it all the way through, as in the previous post about the book EVERY Catholic should read by John Bergsma, you truly cannot understand the New Testament or Old Testament alone. They must be looked at together to truly see what God is telling us.

I had never made any parallel between Abraham and Mary, have you? But Fr. Michael Gaitley in his book “33 Days to Merciful Love: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat,” compares the two in faith — and amazingly so. Abraham is our “Father in Faith” because he believed what God said to him even when it seemed impossible.

God told Abraham he would make his descendants as numerous as the stars, yet he asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the one through whom God had promised to make of Abraham a great nation. How could he have descendants and be the forefather of a great nation if his son was dead? Yet he proceeded. Hebrews 11:19 says “He considered God was able to raise men even from the dead.” Now, THAT is faith.

Mary, too, was asked to watch as her only son was given up to death. Fr. Gaitley says, “…while Abraham ultimately did not have to go through with the sacrifice, Mary had to watch and be present during the torture and slaughter of her dearly beloved son all the way to its agonizing end” (p. 36, Day 5). Do you think she was wondering how what the angel Gabriel told her — that her Son would “reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there would be no end” — could possibly come true now?

Yet, she never lost her faith, and because she saw the act to its completion, where Abraham did not, she perfected faith for us. The New Testament is so much about the perfect fulfillment of the things of the Old Testament and Mary is just one more example.

Supportive Scripture

Though Mary’s mentions are few in the New Testament (St. Louis de Monfort tells us this is by her humble request of God), she is over and over again associated with “faith” when she IS mentioned.

The Annunciation

At the annunciation, the angel Gabriel calls Mary “full of grace,” using a word that means blessed but that is uniquely used only to describe Mary (showing us that she is entirely set apart for God in a unique way) and says God is with her.  Also, if you are “full” of something, there is no room for anything else; if she is full of grace, there is no room for sin, thus, her Immaculate Conception.

While the Angel does not ask for her assent, Luke records it as “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Why record her assent if it is not important? If God didn’t need it? Don’t we have free will? Mary’s cooperation here is crucial; she undoes the knot of Eve’s lack of cooperation with God, which stemmed from Eve’s lack of belief in what God told her. Mary DOES believe and she is held as an example for it as we’ll see below.

Also, in an earlier passage in Luke, Zechariah is also visited by the angel Gabriel and told his wife Elizabeth, who was barren, will conceive John the Baptist. Zechariah DOES NOT believe and has his voice taken away as a result. The two stories parallel each other in such a way as to show us what true faith looks like.

Elizabeth’s Blessing

Inspired by the Holy Spirit (that means the triune God is speaking!), Elizabeth declares Mary is blessed for believing that “what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” She is “blessed” declares the Holy Spirit specifically for this reason! Sidenote: the Holy Spirit, through Elizabeth, also names her as “the Mother of My Lord” here; thus, the title Mother of God (“Lord” in this passage clearly refers to the Father, not the Son).

Jesus to the Woman in the Crowd

This is a verse that many take to be dismissive of Mary, but give it a second look.

“While he was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.’ He replied, ‘Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.'” (Luke 11: 27-28)

Do you see the blessing? Do you see how Jesus is revealing Mary as the ultimate believer, with full trust and faith in God? Jesus says Mary is not blessed because she is his mother; rather, He turns it back to her. She is blessed because she listened and had faith in God.

 Your Mother and Your Brothers

Here’s another that is taken to be dismissive of Mary, but again, I ask you to look at it with fresh eyes:

“He was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and wish to see you.’ He said to them in reply ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.'” (Luke 8:20-21)

Why would Luke include this verse? Is it necessary that we read a seemingly unimportant moment of Jesus’ family asking to see him? No. Would Jesus be saying that Mary was not his mother? No. He would be breaking one of the Ten Commandments by not honoring his mother.

Rather Luke is reminding us of what Jesus wants to show us about Mary. Again here, Jesus says that Mary and His brethren (cousins/family) are not important because they are related to Him, but because they “heard” the word of God (listened, trusted and had faith) and were obedient to His will.

The Wedding Feast at Cana: “Woman”

Here, Jesus and Mary (the new Adam and the New Eve, not coincidentally presented at a “wedding”) attend a wedding and the bride and groom run out of wine. Mary states to Jesus, “They have no wine.” (John 2:3) (Mary also gives us a clue here about praying to Jesus: State your request and then let go and give it up to Him.)

“And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.'” (John 2:4)

First of all, “woman” presents Mary as the New Eve and refers back to Genesis 3:15 that says “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.'” Mary is this woman and Jesus is her offspring; by cooperating with her Son, together they will defeat Satan. “Woman” is not meant as a derogatory term for Mary (again, would Jesus dishonor his mother?).

Second, Jesus refers to “his hour”. In John 12:23 Jesus says His hour has come, referring to His crucifixion and Resurrection. So we know that is also what He is referring to in the Cana passage. While you can make your own interpretation of this passage, I agree with experts who say Jesus essentially means: Mom, are you really ready to embark down this difficult journey that will result in my death? Once we begin, there is no turning back.

Because guess what he does? He honors his mom’s request. Thus, she spurs the beginning of his ministry and of his road to the Crucifixion. But Mary humbly leaves it up to Jesus, saying to the servers: “Do whatever he tells you.” Again, though, she has faith in God and Jesus. If it’s meant to be addressed, He will address it; if not, He will not. But she does not insert her own will into the matter beyond making the request.

This also is part of the reason why we pray to Mary. She looks after our earthly concerns, even as seemingly insignificant as running out of wine (though this would have been highly embarrassing for the married couple at the time), presenting them to her son. And when your mom asks you to do something, it has a bit more weight than anyone else. Plus, as we see in the Genesis passage, Mary cooperates with her Son in our salvation and the defeat of Satan. Mary also represents the queen mothers of the Old Testament who presented requests to their sons, the Kings, to have them granted. So many layers…

The Thread of Faith

Do you see the thread of faith weaving through all these passages about Mary? If you are struggling with complete faith or trust in God, ask Our Mother to help you. Ask her to allow you to see her son through her eyes of faith and trust. Ask her to increase your faith and trust in God.

Mary is not an intercessor for God; she only wants to bring us to her son and bring our requests to Him, as well. Doesn’t it make sense that God came to be in our midst through Mary and so going through Mary would be a way to reach God? And she is a gentle and loving mother, who lived as a human being here on earth just like we do. If she can do it, so can we. We just need to ask for help.

Blessed Mary, Ever Virgin, Mother of Mercy, Pray for Us! Amen.

EVERY Catholic Needs to Read This Book

@ACatholicNewbie: EVERY Catholic Needs to Read This Book from @AveMariaPress

The more I learn about my faith, the more I realize how key it is to understand the Bible and how very little I actually did understand it. Until I became a Catholic, I did not realize the parallels between the Old and the New Testament (something smart people call “typology” :-)) and how the New is the fulfillment of the Old and how the New is largely prefigured in the old.

For example, one of my biggest stumbling blocks of the Bible is the story Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac. I just could not understand how a loving God would ask someone to do that. But this story really only makes sense in light of Jesus. Isaac is the pre-figurement of Jesus. God will sacrifice his only son on wood (the cross) just as Isaac was to be sacrificed on wood. You pretty much have to put on “Jesus” glasses, if you will :), in order to fully view the Old Testament.

The Bible has simply opened up for me in ways I could never have imagined, including validating the teachings of the Catholic Church today, since coming to this realization. One of the most amazing books on the faith I have found to date (second only to Matthew Kelly’s “Rediscover Catholicism”) is John Bergsma’s New Testament Basics for Catholics (Ave Maria Press, 2016). I wish this book had a more compelling title because it is SO much more than that. It is an explanation of the New Testament (in light of the Old) that is absolutely jaw-dropping — a must read for anyone who really wants to understand their faith in light of the Bible.

I have found that flat out the New Testament can be entirely misunderstood when not properly read with an understanding of the Old Testament and of the Jewish customs, words and ways of life in those times. You cannot accurately or fully comprehend what Jesus is trying to teach us without this reference point. So much gets lost — and misinterpreted! With this knowledge, not only does the Bible make sense, it’s life-altering.

Bergsma systematically goes through the Gospel of Matthew, Luke and John, Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Book of Revelation, but he does so in conversational language that anyone can follow.

If you’ve been Catholic for a while, you’ve heard the typology of certain things like the Abraham/Isaac story above, but Bergsma provides you with so many more, many I never realized that totally blew me away. Some examples:

  • The parallel of David dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant and John the Baptist “dancing” in his mother’s womb in front of Mary, the new Ark of the Covenant
  • How the items, according to Hebrews, that were contained in the Ark of the Covenant (manna, Aaron’s rod and the Ten Commandments) all look forward to Jesus: the Eucharist, priest, law-giver
  • The manna in the dessert, put on display for the people to see; how we adore (sit in the presence of) Jesus, body and blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist
  • The sacrament of Confirmation, which originates in Acts of the Apostles when Peter and John must come down and lay hands on the people to fully receive the Holy Spirit, even after they were baptized.
  • How the Wedding Feast at Cana identifies Jesus and Mary as the New Adam and the New Eve
  • I could go on and on and on… 🙂

Throughout the book, Bergsma, who is a convert from Protestantism, goes through his former beliefs as a Protestant Minister and explains why he was wrong. It’s incredibly helpful for someone coming to the church from a Protestant background.

As far as I’m concerned, this book should be purchased and handed out to every Catholic at every church in the world and be required reading for all RCIA candidates. I’m convinced this would end much confusion over so many elements of the faith and bring people to a much greater understand of the Bible and their mission to become saints on earth.

Bergsma also has a book that goes more in-depth into the Old Testament, giving you the big picture of salvation history, in Bible Basics for Catholics. It’s also fun because he uses stick figure drawings to take you through the Old Testament and each covenant.

10 Things I Wish Non-Catholic Christians Knew About Catholicism

10 Things I Wish all Non-Catholic Christians Knew About Catholicism via @ACatholicNewbie

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I’ve had several interactions  with non-Catholic Christians since my conversion where I’ve realized they are not aware of some basic tenets of our faith that I think would go a long way in bridging any divides between us and provide them, at least, with some perspective of where we are coming from and a more accurate understanding of our beliefs.

We shouldn’t expect non-Catholics to know about the Catholic religion unless they’ve taken the time to explore it for themselves. I certainly did not know any of these things before seeking out the Church, but I definitely wish I had!

So, non-Catholics, here are 10 things I, a former non-Catholic :), want you to know about Catholicism:

  1. We believe that Jesus is physically present in the bread and wine we consume at every Mass. I think this one fact explains so much about the Catholic faith that is misunderstood by non-Catholics. This is why we have to go to mass every week, this is why our churches are ornate and our vessels are made of precious metals, this is why non-Catholics cannot receive communion unless they have professed their belief, this is why if a wafer falls on the floor it is treated with the utmost reverence. This is why we cannot be satisfied in any other church — we cannot leave Jesus behind. This belief in the physical presence of Jesus dates back to the first Christians. Read the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch (who knew the Apostle John and was born in 35 AD) in his Letter to the Romans about the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. A great, easy-to-read book on this topic is the “7 Secrets of the Eucharist” by Vinny Flynn. 
  2. We believe you can go to heaven, too! I think many non-Catholics may wrongly assume that Catholics think they are the only ones getting into heaven. We are not God; only God knows such things. We do believe that we have found the path that gives us the most assistance in entering heaven through the sacraments Jesus left behind (communion, marriage, reconciliation/confession, confirmation, etc.) but we certainly don’t think the doors are only open to us.
  3. We believe in the authority of the Pope and the Church of Rome, because that is what early Christians practiced. Again, see the Letters of St. Ignatius in his deference to the Church of Rome along with the example of many other early Christian leaders (email me for more). We are following the example of what the apostles taught the early Christians. Great article on this topic. I highly recommend doing this research and reading early Christian documents for yourself. Don’t take my word for it! Catholic Answers has a great book called “The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church” by Jimmy Akin that is a good overview of this topic.
  4. We follow what the early Christians practiced in our “Tradition,” because there was 300 years before the New Testament was compiled. The Catholic Church’s teachings are based on both Scripture and what the Church refers to as “Tradition.” Tradition is factored in, because there was a period of 300 years after Jesus’ death and before an official compilation of New Testament documents was compiled. We follow the tradition that was practiced during that time, because it was comprised of the beliefs, teachings and rituals handed down from Jesus himself to the apostles and on to their successors. This includes teachings like Mary’s Immaculate Conception (she was conceived without sin in order to give birth to God as man), her Perpetual Virginity (she never had any other children and remained a virgin) and her Assumption body and soul into heaven, beliefs that were held by early Christians and only made “official” by the Church after they were challenged over time. Many wrongly hold that these doctrines were created at the councils where they were affirmed, but rather the councils simply made official these doctrines long held and practiced by early Christians. Great books to read more about the Church’s teachings on Mary include “Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines” by Tim Staples and Meet Your Mother by Mark Miravalle.
  5. We hold many of the same beliefs! We are not so different. We belief in the sanctity of all life from conception to natural death. We believe in Jesus, the son of God who came to reconcile us with the Father. We believe that everyone needs to hear the Good News and that it’s our job to go out and tell the world! We believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. That’s just the beginning…
  6. Confession is not a place to get rid of all your wrongdoings without contrition only to go back and do them again. I remember watching a movie of a young man returning to the priest every week to report how often he masturbated, only to go back and do it all again. That’s not the goal and your sins are not forgiven that way. The idea is to go confess your sins with true repentance (not with plans to go right back and do them again), receive forgiveness and graces (heavenly assistance) to keep from doing those sins again from Jesus (Did you know that we believe that Jesus is present in the priest in the confessional?), and to try earnestly not to commit those sins in the future. An easy-to-read book on Confession is “7 Secrets of Confession” by Vinny Flynn.
  7. There is an unbroken line of succession from Jesus to Peter to all Popes and Bishops. This fact initially blew me away during my education on the Church. The Catholic Church can trace a laying on of hands (as was done in the Acts of the Apostles when they added deacons) all the way back from Jesus to Peter to all Popes and Bishops. That is powerful stuff!
  8. We read the Bible, too! Over a period of three years, if you attended daily mass, you would hear readings from nearly every book in the Bible. And, of course, we do plenty of Bible reading on our own, as well, though you may find us less likely to be able to tell you the chapter and verse, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t educated on God’s inspired word. In fact, Catholicism taught me a key fact about the Bible that makes it so much more interesting: it’s called typology and it means that the Old Testament foreshadows the events of the New Testament and the New Testament fulfills the Old. It’s fascinating to see the parallels, such as between Abraham and Jesus, Adam and Jesus, Mary and the Ark of the Covenant, Eve and Mary, and on and on and on. Here’s a fascinating read on that topic: New Testament Basics for Catholics by John Bergsma (hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read!).
  9. The Catholic Church is made up of sinners. Yes, we are a Church of sinners. That is why Jesus came to reconcile us, but despite his help and graces we still remain in the fallen state of sin inherited by Adam and Eve. Yes, we have child molesters. Yes, Catholics have done bad things in the name of religion. Yes, we have murdered, stolen, been greedy, disobeyed God and more. But so has the rest of the world; it’s part and parcel with being a part of fallen humanity. Such wrongdoers should justly be punished and will certainly be judged by their actions on the last day. Jesus, however, promised that nothing would prevail against the Church (not even sinners) and left us with the Holy Spirit (not humans) to guide it. That’s why we hold true to the teachings of the Church, no matter its sinners, and why even if a priest is a sinner, his sacramental actions are still valid. They are not his works, but those of the Holy Spirit and Jesus within him.
  10. Don’t let hypocritical Catholics mislead you. I’ve often been pointed to examples of Catholics who don’t follow the truth of the Church in the way they live their lives as reasons why the Catholic church is wrong or bad. As above, we are made up of sinners just like the rest of the world, and there will be these people. But don’t let them cloud your image of the Church left by Jesus. The priest who asked for a bribe for an annulment was wrong; the Catholics shouting obscenities at the Notre Dame football game are wrong; the politician promoting abortion rights receiving communion is wrong. But like all sinners, Jesus welcomes them to repent, stop their wrong actions and come back to the fold. Rather, I challenge you to seek devout Catholics who live their faith fully. You will find models of holiness and witnesses of Christian joy beyond your wildest imaginings.

Thanks for taking the time to read. What questions do you have about Catholicism?

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