Two Different Responses to God’s Unbelievable Plan

The Bible is full of parallels.  It may be parallel themes between Old and New Testament readings or accounts of different people having similar encounters with God.  We see one such parallel between the story of Mary in the Annunciation and that of Zechariah, husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.  We pray and meditate on these readings, which make up the first two Joyful Mysteries of the rosary, all this week leading up to Christmas.

Cappella tornabuoni frescoes in Florence. Annu...
Cappella tornabuoni frescoes in Florence. Annuncio dell’angelo a San Zaccaria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In both accounts, the angel Gabriel comes with news of a pregnancy.  Mary is told she will give birth to a son through the Holy Spirit and Zechariah is told that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist.  Furthermore, the announcement is initially met by disbelief.  Mary’s amazement comes because she is not married and Zechariah’s stems from Elizabeth’s old age.

The difference in these two accounts comes next.  In Mary’s case, she praises God and humbles herself saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  But in Zechariah’s case, the angel Gabriel takes away his ability to speak because of his disbelief.

What confused me about these two accounts was that according to the text, it appears as if Mary and Zechariah both show a very similar reaction, one of amazement and disbelief.  Why was Zechariah punished and not Mary?  I think the key is understanding Gabriel’s ability to see into someone’s heart and not just hear their words.

Angel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary, by Muril...
Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, by Murillo, c. 1655 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Mary was confused initially, in her heart she truly believed and accepted God’s Will for her.  But I think that Gabriel must have sensed that Zechariah did not fully believe the news he had just heard.  To put it another way, Mary’s initial reaction may have been out of shock and quickly passed while Zechariah harbored a real sense of disbelief.  Maybe, while he was in the holy sanctuary, Zechariah was going through the motions of prayer but not fully open to God’s grace.  It is fitting that he was punished with speechlessness as a sign that maybe he was giving more lip service to his faith rather than truly internalizing it.

As we prepare in these final days of Advent, let us remember to have an open heart like Mary and not a closed one like Zechariah.  Pray that you don’t go through the motions of spirituality by treating Christmas Mass like a mere formality before the real celebration can begin.  Mass is the real celebration!  I know many of you have large dinners to attend, guests to entertain, and presents to open.  And while you may say you believe and celebrate Jesus’ birth, how much of your heart is centered around Him?  God knows what is in our hearts and you can’t fool him.

This Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ birth.  The best birthday present you can give Him is an honestly open heart.  Don’t go through the motions of prayer and practicing your faith but earnestly make room in your heart for God’s grace manifested in His son, Jesus Christ.  Merry Christmas!

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How Rosary Prayer Teaches the Glory of Humility

I’m a lector at my parish.  One of the perks of serving as a lector is that my parish provides me with a workbook for the readings that contain explanations and commentary.  Reading this book during the week helps me obtain a deeper understanding of the readings at Sunday Mass.  I want to start providing you insight into the Sunday Gospels and how they relate to the rosary.  This way, when you pray the rosary, you can integrate the Sunday readings into your meditation as well.  Think of this as doing your Sunday Mass homework.

The Gospel for Sunday, August 28, 2016, is:

On a sabbath Jesus went to dine
at the home of one of the leading Pharisees,
and the people there were observing him carefully.
He told a parable to those who had been invited,
noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor.
A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him,
and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,
‘Give your place to this man,’
and then you would proceed with embarrassment
to take the lowest place.
Rather, when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,
‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’
Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.
For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then he said to the host who invited him,
“When you hold a lunch or a dinner,
do not invite your friends or your brothers
or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.
Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

When I initially read this Gospel passage, I felt like I was reading the biblical equivalent of an Amy Vanderbilt etiquette book on how to politely find your place at a banquet table.  The reading confused me because it seemed like Jesus was giving his disciples a social hack for getting to a place of honor in a disingenuous way.  Is it not false humility to sit at a lowly spot of the table expecting the host to come and fetch you and put you where you think you deserve to be?  I can almost picture that fake humble person sitting next to the stereotypical “chatty lady,” not even listening to her but scanning the room making sure the host sees him so he can “rescue” him from the dregs.

How long do I have to listen to you?
How long do I have to listen to you?

The confusion lifted when I realized that Jesus asks us to behave as the guest and the host!  Jesus talks about the host not looking for reciprocity or acknowledgment for his efforts.  But that is also the same requirement for the guest who takes the lowest spot at the table.  He should not be looking for the host to save him from his situation but rather, accept and enjoy his situation regardless of the outcome.  After all, the guest should be thankful and grateful that he was invited to the feast at all.  We too should be grateful for all the blessings God bestows on us even when it seems like others have it better.

The people who are truly humble and accepting of their situation are ultimately the happiest.  They are not always looking for something better but find contentment with what they have.  That is because they do not come with any preconceived notions of their importance but they just do what needs to be done.  They do not worry about who notices them or if they will receive a certain level of reward.  In a sense, the humble person is free from the burden of self-imposed expectations or entitlement.  When you do not feel entitled to that place of honor, being elevated to it makes it that much more glorious.

Just about every mystery of the rosary teaches some aspect of humility and the glory that comes out of it.  The rosary itself is bookended by these two traits by the First Joyful Mystery and the Fifth Glorious Mystery.  In the Annunciation, Mary humbly accepts God‘s plan for her.  She does not turn God down or try to reshape His request into something she would prefer.  God is essentially upending Mary’s life but her humble reply is,  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Thy Will be done.
Thy Will be done

When we walk and talk with Jesus through the rosary, we finish with Mary being crowned Queen of Heaven.  Like the person sitting at the lowest spot of the banquet table only to be seated at the place of honor so was Mary glorified after her lifetime of humbly accepting God’s plan for her and the pain and sorrow that it entailed.  She is our model for our ultimate elevation to a place of honor in Heaven when we live in earnest, humble service of God’s plan for us.

When you pray the First Joyful and Fifth Glorious mysteries of the rosary, pray and ask yourself:

  • Am I living a sincerely humble life or showing a fake sense of humility as a means to more selfish ends?
  • Am I content and satisfied with all God has given me or am I expecting something better?
  • Am I looking to Mary as an example of humility?
  • Am I showing humility by putting my trust in God’s plan or am I trying to avoid or amend it?

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Gospel for January 23, 2011 — What is Holding you Back?

Annunciation, painted by Fra Angelico (1387-14...
Image via Wikipedia

The Gospel for January 23, 2011 is from Matthew 4:12-23 and focuses on Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, and James to be His apostles.  This Gospel has parallels with the First Joyful Mystery of the rosary — The Annunciation.  In that mystery, Mary accepts God’s plans for Her in being the mother of Jesus.  She accepted God’s Will and a drastically altered life much like how the fishermen in the Gospel dropped everything to follow Jesus.

In Matthew’s account of Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, and James the three men drop everything and follow Jesus without question.  They did not ask Jesus if He could come back at a better time.  They did not tell Jesus that they were not up to the task of being “fishers of men.”  They did not ask what the job would entail or what sacrifices they would need to make.  They simply left their old lives behind and followed Jesus.  Now we come to Mary.  She was living a typical village life.  She had a fiance and was maybe was looking forward to being married.  And then, out of the blue, an angel tells Her that She is not only pregnant, but pregnant with the Son of God!  Mary was probably a little shocked or scared.  And although she knew this duty was change Her life forever, She fully accepted God’s Will.

Now we come to you.  Would you be able to radically change you life if Jesus asked you to?  Luckily, the chances of us being called like Mary and the Apostles is very small.  We typically don’t need to make a snap decision to drop everything and follow Jesus.  Even those who accept the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience don’t make that decision quickly but only after years of study and meditation.  Chances are Jesus isn’t asking you to sell your home, car, and possessions and leave everything you know behind and become a missionary.   But this Gospel and rosary mystery raises the question, “Are there things in your life that prevent you from committing to God’s plans for you?”  Meditate on this question this week and take a deep look at what holds you back.  Money?  Your job?  Your social life? Drugs?  Lust?  The things that hold us back from Jesus may not be outright sinful but might be a distraction.  For example, there is nothing wrong with working hard and making a good living.  But you must be careful to strike the right balance and not have your job consume you and become more important than your relationship with God.  Pray and meditate for the knowledge to find those things in life that prevent you from fully following Jesus and for the strength to not let them have so much control over you.

I will leave you with a quotation from a little green friend of mine.  In “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” young Anakin tells Yoda that he is having dreams about the death of someone close to him. Yoda responds saying that the fear of loss leads to the Dark Side.  When Anakin asks what he is to do, Yoda advises, “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”  While George Lucas probably didn’t have Matthew’s Gospel in mind when he wrote that, I think Yoda’s words relate well to this Gospel and rosary mystery.

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