Encounter God’s Word in the desert

Archbishop Aquila
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We are about to begin Lent, the solemn season in which the Church unites herself to what the Catechism calls “the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (#540). As we approach this season of preparation, I would like to draw your attention to Pope Francis’ advice in his Lenten Message to immerse yourself in God’s word, which sustains us in times of temptation and helps us hear God’s voice more clearly.

In his Tractates on the First Letter of John, St. Augustine provides us with an analogy that is helpful for understanding how God works in desolate times. He writes, “Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us” (emphasis added).

The spiritual life is about opening our hearts to receive the love, compassion and mercy of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. When we encounter trials in our spiritual life, God is enlarging the capacity of our hearts and souls to receive more. 

After Jesus had spent 40 days and nights fasting and praying in the desert, he responded to Satan’s temptations by placing his trust in God the Father, underscoring his commitment with Scripture. The Evil One tried three ways to undermine his trust in the Father, and he often uses these same temptations on us. First, he appealed to Jesus’ appetites. When that didn’t work, Satan tried to sow doubt about the Father’s care for him. And finally, he tried to lure him with promises of power and splendor. With each temptation, Jesus recalled the Scriptures: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God’; ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test’; and ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve’ (Cf. Mt. 4:4-10).

Using these Scripture passages, Jesus reaffirmed his trust in God the Father, who had provided for him in the desert and had done so from eternity. 

Pope Francis also recounts this reality in his 2017 Lenten message, which focuses on the Gospel story of the poor man Lazarus. This impoverished man who was ignored by a rich man, even though he was lying prostrate on rich man’s doorstep because of weakness and hunger. The Holy Father emphasizes that when we open our hearts to God’s word, we also open are hearts to our neighbor, as we see Jesus in every human being no matter what their condition. For the rich man, he says, “the root of all his ills was the failure to heed God’s word” (Lenten Message 2017).

During Lent, we commit to increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but this year I encourage you to also steep yourself in God’s word. As we saw in the desert and read in the book of Hebrews, God’s word is “living and effective … and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Through God’s word we are able to recognize others as a gift and remain grounded in the fact that we rely on God for every breath, for every day that we are alive and for the gift of eternal life.

I encourage you to set aside 15 minutes of quiet prayer with one or two of the Gospels during the course of Lent. Once you have chosen the Gospel you want to read, read a chapter a day. Begin with prayer to the Holy Spirit, pray for receptivity to the Word, for understanding, knowledge and wisdom and then ask the Lord to let the Word speak to your heart. Following these preparations, prayerfully read the chapter. Once you are finished, listen for where the Word moved your heart.

The more firmly our lives are grounded in Scripture, the more fully will we begin to resemble the beloved Son who was and is the living Word made flesh. As Jesus relied upon the promises of the Father to combat the temptations of the Enemy, we too, may rest with confidence in God’s provision for us. And when we find ourselves in difficult moments, when the wineskins of our hearts and souls are stretched beyond the point of comfort, we can be confident in his plan for our lives, recalling that when he asks much, it is because he intends to give much more.

Through your encounter with God’s word this Lent, may God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit enliven your hearts and strengthen you in faith, helping you seek the will of the Father, and bringing you to the celebration of the Resurrection with greater joy.

COMING UP: Christian persecution challenges and strengthens

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We live in a time of heroic witnesses who are giving their lives or suffering for the faith, but few people know it. As Pope Francis recently said, “the martyrs of today are more numerous than those of the first century.” Rather than discourage us, their witness should strengthen and challenge us.

I recently learned that the 2016 report from Open Doors showed that the persecution of Christians not only increased in places like Syria or Iraq, but that it is also on the rise in places like Mexico, India and China. In fact, the report found that worldwide 215 million Christians experienced some form of persecution last year, making Christianity the most persecuted faith. The Vatican-based news agency Fides also reported that 28 Catholic pastoral workers were killed in 2016.

That so many Christians are suffering provokes several thoughts. The first is the famous quote from Tertullian, who said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Certainly we see this with Christ’s death and resurrection, which made our salvation possible. We also see it in more modern examples like St. Maximilian Kolbe or Bl. Miguel Pro, whose examples have inspired countless people to deeper faith.

The strength of faith and love for Jesus that every martyr shows is truly a gift. Who could not be moved to hear how the Egyptian martyrs cried out, “Jesus” as they were beheaded by ISIS? But why would God allow this to happen to his most loyal followers? We find the answer in the Gospel.

Jesus tells us that people hated him because he exposed their deeds as evil. The world, he said, will hate his followers for the same reason. In the Gospel of John we read, “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed” (Jn. 3:19-20).

Today many prefer the darkness of sin to the truth of the Gospel, the truth that will set them free, Jesus Christ. Even many Christians want to have one foot in the Gospel and one foot in the world by condoning evil with a false understanding of mercy, compassion, and love. Nowhere in the Gospel do you find Jesus condoning sin in the name of mercy. True mercy always transforms the human heart, as it exposes it to the unconditional love of Jesus Christ so that the sinner may weep for his sins and know the freedom and new life that comes from being forgiven. The persecuted Church reminds us that Jesus’ mercy prevails in darkness, but it doesn’t pretend that darkness is light.

Jesus further teaches, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. … If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. … And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin; but as it is they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me also hates my Father” (Jn. 15:18-23).

Yes, these are strong words of Jesus, and they are words that cannot be ignored in the times in which we live. We can never water down the Gospel or think the Gospel is soft.

In his first month as pope, Benedict XVI offered advice to a group of German youth that we should take to heart. He said, “The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.” Just as the Father sustained Jesus in the darkness of the Cross, so too, does he sustain us today in the darkness in which we live.

With God’s grace, the Holy Spirit living in us, each of us can stand in solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters by being a light for those around us. To be a light means speaking about the truth and freedom that we have discovered in Christ. It also means naming the evil that we encounter and loving those ensnared by it, “accompanying” them in the words of Pope Francis to lead them to the encounter with Jesus Christ, who is the only one who can set them free and bring light to their darkness.

In a January 2016 video from the EUK Mamie Foundation called “Wake Up,” Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona, then-Eparch of Mosul, Iraq offered this advice to believers throughout the world, “you can help us by building a more active and courageous Christian society, which is active, brave. You have to evangelize your society again with courage, without any fear of saying, ‘we’re Christians.’” To build a Christian society is possible only if we live our faith in the world and name evil and sin for what it is. It means putting Jesus first, before the ways of the world. This must always be done with charity, and we must know Jesus deeply and have first encountered him ourselves.

Besides bringing God’s light to our society, believers should also express their solidarity with the persecuted by giving voice to their suffering. Justice demands that we support them with our prayers, resources, and by calling upon our government and the world to protect the common right to religious liberty.

The witness of the thousands of martyrs who died in 2016 challenges each of us to a deeper faith that is able to respond to the darkness with God’s love. May the Holy Spirit stir into flame his gifts in our hearts and souls so that we may proclaim with boldness the joy of the Gospel!