The Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s Gospel story is a fitting one, I think, for this celebration of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  The evangelist tells us that Mary’s heart was filled with wonder.  There are a few stories in the Gospels that end with that wonderful line: “and his mother kept all these things in her heart.”  I think the moms here can understand the sentiment of these lines.  I think any mother is amazed at the things their children learn to do, but Mary’s wonderment goes beyond even that: she is amazed at the coming of age of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  She knew her child would be special, and when you read these stories you can just imagine how astounded she is at times.  Her heart was filled with wonder.

At other places in the Gospel, I imagine her heart is filled with fear.  She began to see, I am sure, that the wonderful things her son was doing were not universally appreciated.  She must have known that the authorities were displeased and were plotting against him.  She probably worried that he would be in danger, which of course he was.  Her heart was filled with fear.

Toward the end of the Gospel, her heart is certainly filled with sorrow.  As she stood at the foot of the cross, her son, the love of her life, is put to death.  The Stabat Mater hymn calls that well to mind: “At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping, close to Jesus at the last.”  The prophet Simeon had foretold her sorrow when she and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple.  Her heart was filled with sorrow.

At the end of the Gospel, her heart must have been filled with joy.  Jesus’ death was not the end of the story.  Not only did his life not end at the grave, now the power of the grave is smashed to oblivion by the power of the resurrection.  In those first hours after his resurrection, she shared the joy of the other women and the disciples.  Her heart was filled with joy.

And as the community went forward in the book of Acts to preach the Good News and to make the Gospel known to every corner of the world, Mary’s heart was filled with love.  That love that she had for her son, that love that she received from God, she now shared as the first of the disciples.  Her place in the community was an honored one, but one that she took up with great passion.  Her heart was filled with love.

For us, perhaps, the best news is that, through it all, her heart was always filled with faith.  That faith allowed her to respond to God’s call through the angel Gabriel with fiat: “let it be done to me according to your word.”  Because of Mary’s faith, the unfolding of God’s plan for the salvation of every person came to fruition.  We are here this morning, to some extent because of her faith, that faith that allowed her to experience the wonder, sustained her through fear and sorrow, and brought life to the joy and love she experienced.  She kept all these things in her heart, that heart that was always filled with faith.

Wednesday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

As Catholics, we believe that opposite things don’t necessarily cancel each other out.  For instance, we believe, as our first reading today illustrates, that we can have joy in the midst of sorrow.  The early Community found themselves severely persecuted.  Saul, for whom God had future plans, was currently doing his best to destroy the Christian Way, and he was not alone.  Many suffered and died as St. Stephen did in yesterday’s reading, and others were exiled from their homes.  But even in the midst of that, St. Philip was doing Christ’s work quite successfully in Samaria.  There was great joy in that city.  To some, that would seem so contradictory and out-of-whack.  But for us, we know that this is how life is.  There is sadness, and there is joy, and all of it is a gift in some way.  Even today, some of us may have sadness, and others joy.  May we experience it with peace as the early Community did.

The Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed (All Souls)

Today’s readings

It’s been a couple of years now since Dad died, but I still miss him all the time.  Yes, with time, the grief has subsided a bit, and the days are a little easier.  But the memories, great memories, are still there, and the absence of my father still leaves a hole in my heart.

But that’s okay.  That’s how grief works.  It might seem sometimes like it would have been better to live without love, but we know deep down that that’s not true.  Sadness and even death are temporary; love is eternal.  As the Church’s vigil for the deceased tells us, “all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.” We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is that hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

Today, the Church gives us the grace of remembering all of our loved ones who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, and all the dead whose faith is known to God alone.  The Church is great in wisdom in giving us this feast every year.  Because even though on this day, we might shed a few tears, still we will have the grace of remembering the ones who have given us life, given us wisdom, those who have been Christ to us, those who have made God’s love tangibly present in our lives.

Even if the memories aren’t the best, and even if we struggle with the pain of past hurts mixed with the sorrow of grief, there is grace in remembering today.  Maybe this day can be an occasion of healing, even if it’s just a little bit.  Maybe our tears, mixed with the saving Blood of Christ, can wash and purify our wounded hearts and sorrowful souls.

And I know it won’t all go away today.  We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table, and that hole in our heart. But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the Blood of Christ. We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, with all of our hurts healed and relationships purified, in the kingdom that knows no end. The Eucharistic Prayer itself will tell us today that there will come a day when “every tear will be wiped away. On that day, we shall see you, our God, as you are. We shall become like you and praise you for ever through Christ our Lord, from whom all good things come.”

Eternal rest grant unto all of our departed loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

Our Lady of Sorrows

Today’s readings: Hebrews 5:7-9; Psalm 31; John 19:25-27
Stabat Mater (Sequence)

When I was growing up, I saw statues and pictures of Mary in our house and in the houses of my grandparents.  It was hard to relate to her, because she always seemed so radiant, distant, and glorified.  And there is truth to the fact that Mary, because of her many gifts, transcends our human nature in some ways.  But even then, she only portrays what we will one day experience.

I have come to relate to Mary much more as I have grown.  I know that she experienced all of the joys and sorrows we do: frustration, fear, love, worry, and especially what we celebrate today, sorrow.  She was the one who rejoiced at the birth of her son and took pride in what he became as he grew.  But she also worried about him as his ministry brought him to confrontation with the religious leaders, and she wept at the foot of the Cross.

The Sequence today sings of her sadness:

At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.

And so today, and any day when we experience sorrow, we know that we have an advocate in Mary, who experienced our sorrows, but was raised up beyond them in the joy of the Resurrection.

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed

Today’s readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; I Corinthians 15:51-57; John 6:37-40

This past Sunday and Monday, I took a couple of days off.  I packed up early on Sunday and was out of the house by 6am, and took a 3 hour and 45 minute drive to see a friend, one of my classmates from seminary, who is a priest in the diocese of Springfield.  I visited with him all of Sunday and on Monday morning, then packed up just before noon and returned home.

I mention this because the trip itself was a bit unusual for me.  Usually, I’ll play the radio or my iPod in the car the whole way down, but for most of the trip this time, I traveled in silence.  I did that because I was aware that I was missing my dad in a special way.  He died a year ago in May, and I’ve been missing him a lot.  But I think I was missing him in a special way on this trip because Dad was great for road trips.  He’d get up before the crack of dawn, which is what I did, and he’d motor on toward whatever our destination was.  He loved to drive even long distances, and especially when I was a kid, the trip was kind of filled with expectation.  It wasn’t always fun getting up so early to leave, but it was kind of cool because it was a different experience, and as a kid, who could sleep the night before vacation anyway?

So many wonderful things continue to remind me of Dad.  I was sitting on the new deck at Mom’s house a couple of weeks ago.  We had intended Dad to sit out and enjoy the deck that summer, but he died just a few days before it could be completed.  He would have loved it; he always liked sitting outside and enjoying the neighborhood and his house.  So as I sat there on that deck and prayed my breviary, I found myself especially close to Dad.

As I’ve experienced these things over the last several weeks, I’ve been aware of my sense of loss t hat doesn’t ever seem to completely go away.  In some ways, that’s a good thing, because it reminds me how much I have loved and how much I was loved.  And through all of it, I have felt the abiding presence of God who is with us in all of our joys, and all of our sorrows.  I really feel like the danger of grieving is so miniscule compared with the danger of never having loved in our lives.

I’ve reflected on my experience of grief this past week.  I was with some of my priest friends who form a kind of support group for each other earlier in the week.  We were praying about this feast of All Souls, and talking about our experience of loss and grief.  I shared what came to me in that moment, and that was a profound sense of gratitude to my parents for having given me the opportunity to learn to grieve when I was little.  I remember when my grandfather, Mom’s Dad, was close to death.  Mom and Dad talked with me about what was going to happen, and we all cried and hugged, and I began the strange feeling of grief when I was just nine years old.  When the time came, as is the custom on both sides of our family, all of us went to the wake and funeral, little as we were.

Some people try to shield their children from that experience.  Indeed, our overly medicated society tries to protect us all from that experience of grief, white-washing it and moving on just as soon as possible.  But how grateful I am that my parents didn’t do that to me.  Through that experience, I learned to love more deeply, not less.  I learned that the people in my life are signs to me of God’s love and presence in my life.  I learned that grieving is part of life, that it’s natural, that it’s something we all experience, that it’s a sign of God’s love.  We have to learn to grieve, as soon as we have the opportunity, and not to be afraid of it, because grieving is a way that we remember and love and heal and grow.

Grief and loss can do a number of things to us, and that is what makes it so scary.  Some people can become fixated in their grief and can be taken by a kind of clinical depression.  For that, we must count on the expert assistance of counselors and therapists who can help us through the root causes of depression and help us to experience our grief in healthier ways.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone who experiences loss should be medicated or is even ill.  If you’re moving through grief and continue to be aware of the gifts of your relationship with those you have lost, and continue to know that God is present with you even in your pain, then you’re probably grieving in healthy ways.  But if you’re lost and have lost sight of God’s love, then you might need to speak with someone about your grief.

Jesus said in the Beatitudes “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  What makes this a particularly outrageous statement is that in biblical language, the word “blessed” here means “happy.”  So how is it that mourners are actually happy?  And the answer to that is that mourners have the wonderful experience of God’s presence in their grief.  When we grieve, we are especially close to God, close to our God who grieves when we are hurt, who may allow the bad things that happen in our lives, but never wills them, whose heart breaks whenever we sin and turn away from him.  We are made in the image and likeness of our God who is no stranger to grief, especially in the person of Jesus Christ, who grieved at the death of his friend Lazarus, who grieved with those he ministered to, and whose heart was broken when he saw the sadness of his mother at the foot of the cross.  Our God accepts grief head-on, and so should we, aware that in our grieving we are closer to God than ever, and have the benefit of his abiding presence in our pain.

On this feast of the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, I could reflect on the difference between All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  But you could read that in the bulletin.  I could tell you all about purgatory and the need for us to pray for the dead.  But there’s another time and place for that too, I think.  Instead, I have chosen to reflect on our experience of grief, and I’ve done that because it’s an experience we all have, on some level, at some time in our lives.  I want you to know how very natural grief is, and how very blessed an experience it is.

Death is always a time of great sadness, but our Liturgy teaches us that we who believe in the Lord Jesus must never grieve as if we have no hope.  Our hope is always in Christ, the one who knows our grief and pain, and is with us in every moment of our lives, most especially when we are in pain.  The Church teaches us that if we believe in God and do his will, we can be reunited with all of our loved ones forever one day.  For the believer, the hopelessness of death is always overcome by the great hope of God’s grace.

We will hear later in this Liturgy that for those who believe in Christ, life is changed, not ended.  Because Jesus has died and risen from the dead to pay the price for our sins, we have been given the great gift of salvation.  And so we know that death only separates us from those we love for a short time, and that death never has the last word because Christ has triumphed over death.  The beginning and end of everything is Christ, and Christ is with us in our first moments, and also in our last.  He is with us in our pain and with us in our joy.  He helps us to remember our loved ones with love that continues beyond our death and beyond the grave.  Grief and loss and pain are temporary things for us.  Love is eternal, love never ends, love can never be destroyed by death, love leads us all to the great glory of the resurrection and eternal light in that kingdom where Christ has conquered everything, even death itself.

Eternal rest grant unto all of our loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.  May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.