Love does such things

Archbishop Aquila

How could God, who exists outside of time, enter into time and take on a human body? The great theologian Fr. Romano Guardini said he tried to intellectually understand this and failed. But a breakthrough happened for him when a friend made a remark that struck his heart.

At Christmas, we receive a gift that is at the same time mysterious and profound. And the fact that Jesus’ birth occurred 2,000 years ago adds to the mystery. If you went to Christmas Mass during the day you heard St. John describe the Son of God’s entrance into the world. “In the beginning was the Word,” he wrote, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.”

In his book “The Lord,” Fr. Guardini explains the Gospel passage by saying, “Let us consider carefully what this means: the everlasting, infinite Creator not only reigns over the world but, at a specific ‘moment,’ crossed an unimaginable borderline and personally entered into history – he the inaccessibly remote one!” It is easier to think of God as just “up there,” Fr. Guardini says, but instead he freely chose to enter into our imperfect reality.

That led him to write: “Before such an unheard of thought the intellect bogs down.” In our day, it’s difficult for most of us to see beyond the materialistic rituals that are marketed as Christmas, let alone contemplate the deeper truths of God’s entrance into the world.

Fr. Guardini was able to move beyond his intellectual impasse when a friend made a remark that we all should contemplate.  “But love does such things!” his friend said. The comment did not explain anything further to his intellect, but it aroused his heart and enabled it “to feel its way to the secrecy of God. The mystery is not understood, but it does move nearer …” (“The Lord,” p. 18).

We know that in order to understand a person or the world around us, we must ask what its purpose is. This holds true whether we are talking about water, sunlight, a tree, you, me, and even the Son of God. Jesus’ purpose in becoming a man was to make known the heart of the Father and carry out his will; it was to make love known. St. John confirms this truth in his Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).

When we celebrate Christmas, we praise and adore God the Father for sending Jesus to us, for placing his divine love and power squarely in our midst. As we pray and think about how a child grew into a man who carried out this mission, seeking the will of the Father, each of us should reflect on what the mission is that God has given us and how we are carrying it out.

Every one of us has a God-given calling – a vocation that, if we faithfully fulfill it, brings his presence into the world and brings his kingdom nearer.  Before Jesus was born, St. John wrote, “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him” (John 1:18). This was the mission that fulfilled through his ministry, and his Passion, Death and Resurrection.

Now, each of us is commissioned through our Baptism with the joyful charge of making the love of the Father known to the world. In the fifth century, Pope St. Leo the Great preached in one of his Christmas homilies: “Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness. No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no man free from sin, came to free us all.”

Pope Francis reinforced the relevance this teaching for our time when he opened the Holy Door at St. John Lateran and preached, “This third Sunday of Advent draws our gaze towards Christmas, which is now close. We cannot let ourselves be taken in by weariness; sadness in any form is not allowed, even though we have reason (for sadness), with many concerns and the many forms of violence which hurt our humanity. The coming of the Lord, however, must fill our hearts with joy.”

We have joy because, as Fr. Guardini reminds us, “love does such things.”

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, I pray that you will know this same joy, which comes from opening yourself to the truth of who you are before the Father, receiving his inexhaustible mercy, and bringing it to others. May the tender love of the Trinity bless you and your families this Christmas Season!

COMING UP: Finding renewal in a grumbling stomach

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Finding renewal in a grumbling stomach

Lent and the art of fasting

Aaron Lambert

One interesting thing about liturgical seasons in the Church is that despite the fact they happen at roughly the same time every year, they still manage to sneak up on us.

Lent begins in just a few days, on Ash Wednesday, which falls on Feb. 26 this year. Never mind that most of us are probably just now fully recovered from the craziness of the Christmas season; it’s now time to enter what is arguably the most important season in the liturgical year. Oh, and we’re supposed to be extremely prayerful, reverent and intentional in how we approach Lent. Given all the other things happening in each of our lives, no big deal, right?

Don’t worry — you’re not alone in feeling just a bit overwhelmed at the thought. But let’s take it a step even further and add some icing to that cake in the form of fasting (no pun intended). Fasting is an ancient practice that pre-dates even Christianity and is common to nearly all religions of the world. In fact, the act of fasting is mentioned more times in the Bible than baptism. In recent times, much has been said about the physical benefits of fasting — weight loss, stronger immune system, more effective cell regeneration — but it’s important for us to remember that fasting is first and foremost a spiritual discipline, one that’s meant to spool the thread which connects us to our loving Creator.

Admittedly, the rules for fasting during Lent have loosened up over the centuries; it’s not a stretch to say that in the time of the apostles, fasting was a hardcore thing for disciples of Jesus Christ to do. You see, back then, fasting during Lent meant fasting for all 40 of those days leading up to the feast of Easter. While many of us may tremble at the thought of not eating anything of true sustenance for over five weeks, there is something to be said in the spirit of denying ourselves our usual pleasures during the Lenten season as a way to draw nearer to he who can provide true nourishment and satisfaction.

The act of fasting can help foster in us three characteristics that ultimately make Lent not only a penitential season, but also one of renewal.

Asceticism
The word “asceticism” comes from the Greek askesis, which means practice, bodily exercise and most especially athletic training. Essentially, it is the act of rigorous self-discipline and avoidance of overindulgence, with the aim of instilling in oneself a sense of self-control and virtue. In its most basic form, fasting is a type of asceticism; willingly denying ourselves the everyday comforts of life in an effort to unite our spirits more closely with that of Christ.

Of course, the practice of asceticism is counter-cultural in almost every way. We live in a world where our needs and desires are met on-demand, and to voluntarily abstain from one of these seems a preposterous proposition to the outsider. But it’s interesting, to bring back the Greek root of this word, to think of how the world’s best athletes implement this practice. Think of the intense training, strict dietary restrictions and long hours of work they put in the be the absolute best at what they do. Yes, it’s likely unbearably difficult at times, but they know deep down that their discomfort has a purpose.

Society tells us that suffering and discomfort are bad things to be avoided at all costs. But we as Christians look to the example of our Lord, who was willingly led to his death on Calvary, undertook unspeakable suffering and was made to feel like less than a man. Through his suffering mankind was redeemed, and because of his victory, we, too, can find redemption and renewal in our own trials. By practicing asceticism during Lent and giving up those things we find comfort in — sugar, Netflix, technology, or any other vice — we are not only reminded of the sacrifice Christ made for us, but we are strengthening the muscles of willpower and virtue that lead us closer to the Lord, and ultimately, true joy and peace.

Humility
“Humility is to the various virtues what the chain is in a rosary. Take away the chain and the beads are scattered; remove humility and all virtues vanish.”

St. John Vianney is quoted as saying this, and it’s a simple yet effective illustration of how all virtue flows from humility. To use a metaphor, if asceticism is what it is to, say, learn a new instrument, then humility is the marked improvement and mastery of that instrument over time.

By observing the Lenten fast, we are humbled rather quickly. Nothing makes us reflect on our own mortality and brokenness quite like the low grumble of a hungry stomach. And yet, by offering up this minute suffering during Lent and allowing the Lord to take it, it becomes apparent just how much we rely on him to not only provide the various provisions of our life, but also to provide meaning in our various sufferings. Mankind, for all its wonders and brilliance, cannot be sustained without the provisions of God.

From a more practical angle, there’s also no harm in fasting from food and technology to remind us of the many different walks of life people come from. It’s easy to take all the conveniences of our cozy lives for granted but Lent especially presents a great opportunity to remember those “least of us” who live in third-world countries, or even just down the street. Instead of buying two Big Macs for yourself for lunch, why not give one to the woman holding a sign at that intersection?

By maintaining a disposition of humility, we tap into the very core of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.

Freedom
So, through fasting, you have committed to a practice of asceticism for Lent, are reaping the benefits of staying humble, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. Now what?

Ultimately, there is a profound freedom that comes from fasting. Father Richard Simon of Relevant Radio said in a May 2019 episode of his show Father Simon Says, “Fasting is an exercise in freedom. The purpose of it is to train your will to do God’s will. To train your will to obey the Lord. Freedom is the absolute requirement for the Christian life. Most people think that freedom is getting what they want, but they don’t understand that they don’t want what they want, it is their passions controlling them.

“It is their desires, their hungers, their preferences that want what they want when they want it,” he continued. “The self is not free. The self is subject to this sort of barrage off weakened human nature, but fasting is about freedom.”

True freedom, as defined by God, isn’t the ability to say “yes” to your own desires whenever you want — it is the discipline to say yes to the Lord’s desires for you. Therefore, as we go through the Lenten season and prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter, we fast in remembrance of the perfect image of true freedom: Christ crucified on the Cross.

One of the lessons of the Lenten season is that we, too, are capable of achieving this freedom. By strengthening our will through the practice of fasting, we can grow in humility, from which all other virtue flows. In our humility, we find freedom to do the Lord’s will for our lives. And in that freedom, waiting with open arms, is the sweet renewal that our souls yearn for — renewal in the self-denying, humble and freely-given love of Christ.