A WELLNESS CHECK

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The First Sunday of Lent

For the past 11 months, all of us have become much more health conscious. We do all we can to remain healthy and to avoid being infected with COVID-19.

 

We maintain a social distance. We wash our hands and sanitize surfaces. We wear face coverings. We stay away from crowds and limit social gatherings. We work from home when possible.

 

In addition, we personally assess our health. We check to see if we have any symptoms that might indicate that we are infected, such as a cough, body aches or a loss of taste.

 

We also employ certain devices that help us evaluate our health. We use thermometers to test for fever; pulse oximeters to check our heart rate and blood oxygen levels; pressure monitors to determine our blood pressure; and scales to reveal fluctuations in weight.

 

By doing those things and using those devices, we get an idea of the status of our physical health.

 

Checking on our spiritual health is not so easy. There are no thermometers that can reveal if we have a warm or cold heart for God. No pulse oximeters that can tell us the level of holiness in our lives. No pressure monitors that can indicate how much influence evil is exerting on our decisions. No scales that can tell us if we are weighed down by selfishness and sin.

 

Checking the status of our spiritual health requires we make a personal examination of our lives. This season of Lent, which began Ash Wednesday, is the time in the Church’s calendar for such a spiritual wellness exam.

 

We often associate Lent with doing penance, giving up certain foods or activities, saying extra prayers, and so on. Those are certainly wonderful practices, but Lent should also be a time for reflection, a time for us to take a good look at our lives.

 

When Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 1:12-15) tells us that “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days,” it was not to do penance. Jesus was without sin. In the desert, Jesus reflected on his coming ministry and he rejected every temptation to be unfaithful to what God the Father expected of him.

 

Our Lenten self-assessment of our spiritual health might include asking ourselves the following questions:

 

Am I closer to God this Lent than I was last year, or does God have a diminished role in my thoughts and decisions?

 

Am I living as the child of God and faithful member of the Church that I promised to be when I renewed my baptismal promises last Easter?

 

How many minutes a week am I giving to prayer, to Mass, to the reading of scripture, and to the things of God, compared to the hours I give to streaming services, videogames, and social media?

 

How much of my money goes to satisfying my needs and to accumulating “stuff” I do not need, and how much goes into the collection basket and to charitable organizations?

 

Do I allow the sinful and immoral behaviors endorsed by society to infect my mind and to influence my decisions and actions?

 

During these months of the coronavirus pandemic, we have all learned the importance of checking our physical health. This Lent, may we better appreciate the importance of evaluating our spiritual health. For as Jesus tells us, only the spiritually healthy will see God. As he puts it, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

 

© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

LEPROSY, VIRUS, and SIN

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Stories touch us more deeply when they relate to something in our own lives. For example, a story about a child with autism will be heard one way by parents with a son or daughter recently diagnosed with that developmental disorder, and in another way by a couple without children.

 

That is also true with the stories we find in the Gospels. This Sunday’s Gospel passage (Mark 1:40-45) about the cure of a leper may strike us differently than it has in the past.

 

At the time of Jesus, those with leprosy were in a terrible situation. They were believed to be contagious and expelled from the community. They had to live apart from family and friends. They had to remain at a distance and to warn people of their approach by shouting “unclean.” They were dependent on the charity of others. They were condemned to a life of sickness, loneliness, and despair.

 

In the past, we may have had a theoretical understanding of the situation of those with leprosy at the time of Jesus. But this year, we may relate to that Gospel story in a different way because of the current pandemic.

 

At this time, we are instructed to remain socially distant from others. We are told to wear a mask to protect ourselves and others from possible infection. We are advised to avoid crowded situations and to limit social interaction. We are reminded to keep washing our hands and to sanitize any surfaces that may have been touched by others. We are to do our best to avoid any interaction with those with COVID-19. And if we think we may have been with an infected person, we are to quarantine ourselves for 14 days.

 

Our present circumstances give us some understanding of the situation of the leper and also of the surprising action of Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel.

 

Rather than telling the leper to stay away, Jesus allows the leper to approach him. He does not demand that the leper remain socially distant and speak to him from afar. Kneeling before Jesus, the man begs for a cure.

 

Rather than responding only with words, Jesus touches the leper. As we are told, “moved with pity, he stretched out his hand (and) touched him.” Jesus breaks the taboo that forbade contact with anyone who was unclean. By his action, Jesus restored the man’s health and in doing so allowed him to resume contact with the community.

 

The man was so overjoyed that he could not keep quiet. “The man went off and began to publicize the whole matter.” There was as much chance of him keeping quiet, as of today’s media keeping quiet about the discovery of the coronavirus vaccine.

 

We can relate to the story of the leper not just because of the impact of COVID-19, that story also tells us about the effects of sin.

 

Sin is a “virus” that distorts our dignity as children of God. It harms our relationship with others. It hinders the coming of God’s kingdom. It makes us imperfect witnesses to the truth of the Gospel. It darkens our lives and adds to the darkness in our society. In a word, sin makes us unclean. It makes us spiritual lepers.

 

But rather than avoiding us “lepers” and remaining distant, God reaches out to us in Jesus. He touches us with his healing and forgiveness and brings us back into a relationship with him and with his Church.

 

If we were only as conscious of the harmful effects of sin as we are of the harm caused by the coronavirus, we would readily seek out the “vaccine” that Jesus offers us in his Sacraments and through his Church.

 

© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

REVEALING FIRST CONCERNS

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

If you want to know the priorities of a newly inaugurated president, governor, mayor, or any public official, or the main concerns of anyone in a position of authority, just consider what they first do when they come into power.

 

For example, President Biden’s first actions indicated his priorities. They included speeding up the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine; providing additional financial assistance to struggling individuals and businesses; opening schools; and seeking to heal the divisions in our nation.

 

Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) and those of the past two Sundays are all taken from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Those readings tell us what Jesus does when he begins his ministry.

 

Jesus begins by proclaiming, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

 

He then calls Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, and John to leave their boats and become “fishers of men.”

 

Afterward, Jesus enters the synagogue where he frees a man possessed by an unclean spirit.

 

He then goes to the home of Simon and Andrew where he cures Simon’s ailing mother-in-law.

 

Those actions indicate the priorities of Jesus; they reveal what he saw as his mission.

 

His mission was to proclaim that God was breaking into this world in a dramatic way. Through him, God was inviting people to turn from sin, to follow God’s will, and to live in peace with one another and all creation.

 

His mission was to create a community of disciples who would join him in announcing that the kingdom was at hand.

 

His mission was to confront evil and sin and to demonstrate the power of God over all the forces of darkness that diminish the human spirit.

 

His mission was to bring healing to the sick and the suffering, to lift them up.

 

The priorities of Jesus involved bringing about a new relationship, a new covenant of love, between God and his people.

 

The priorities of Jesus should be our priorities as well.

 

As followers of Jesus, we are to share the Good News of the Gospel and to help people recognize the saving action of God in their personal lives and in our world.

 

As followers of Jesus, we are to invite others to be part of the Church, part of the Christian community that makes Jesus present in our world through word and sacrament and in acts of love and service.

 

As followers of Jesus, we are to confront the evil, the darkness, the deceit, the lust, the materialism, the greed, and the selfishness that debase human life.

 

As followers of Jesus, we are to do what we can to ease the suffering of the sick and the hurting and to bring healing to those in physical, mental, and spiritual pain.

 

Sunday’s Gospel challenges us as individual Christians and as a Church to discern if our priorities are in line with the priorities of Jesus.

 

No matter our position in life, whatever we decide to do first reveals what we consider most important!

© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

 

TESTING REVEALS

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

During this time of the coronavirus pandemic, health care professionals and government authorities have been urging us to be tested to determine if we may be infected with COVID-19.

 

Such tests are critical because sometimes the presence of the virus is not readily apparent. People can be asymptomatic yet still be infected and able to pass on the coronavirus to others. Looks can be deceiving. That is why we are urged to wear face coverings, stay socially distant, and frequently wash our hands. Just observing someone will not let you know if that person might test positive for COVID-19.

 

In this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28), Jesus comes into the synagogue in Capernaum. He astonishes the people because he teaches “as one having authority and not as the scribes.”

 

While there, a man possessed by an unclean spirit suddenly cries out, “Have you come to destroy us?”

 

If Jesus had not entered the synagogue that day, would the congregation have known the man was possessed? And perhaps even more importantly, would the man himself have recognized the evil that had taken over his life?

 

The teacher who came into the synagogue, the teacher the possessed man recognized on a human level as “Jesus of Nazareth,” and on a spiritual level as “the Holy One of God,” diagnosed the man’s condition and rebuked the demon. Evil could not hide in the presence of Jesus, the light of goodness.

 

Today, our world is filled with darkness, filled with “unclean spirits” that can corrupt and possess people. There are the unclean spirits of materialism, selfishness, greed, racism, hypocrisy, pornography, crime, sexual abuse, domestic violence, lust, addiction, pride, laziness, moral indifference, digital idolatry, etc.

 

In the presence of Jesus, the Holy One of God, those evils become evident. His word proclaims the truth, and his example reveals the way to a life of meaning, purpose, and happiness.

 

In our day, many people seem to be walking away from Christ and from his Church. That may be happening because, like the man in Sunday’s Gospel, they find the presence of Christ makes them uncomfortable. He is too unsettling to the unclean spirits that may have found a place in their lives.

 

Just as it takes a test to detect the presence of COVID-19, it takes the presence of Christ to help us realize the “unclean spirits” in our society and in our personal lives. Once we realize our condition, we can seek the healing power of Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God.

 

© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

FIRE!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Evacuate the building! There's a fire in the basement!

 

How we react to that statement depends upon when we hear it.

 

It we were told that a firefighter had ran into our office complex last week and had ordered people to evaluate the building because of a fire, that information would not cause us to jump up and run for the exit. We would likely ask for details about what had occurred that day, but those words would not affect our present behavior.

 

But if a firefighter suddenly ran down the hall shouting those very same words while we were at work, we certainly would move. We would get out of the building immediately.

 

What we hear at the present moment is far more likely to cause us to react than what was said in the past.

 

In this Sundays Gospel (Mark 1;14-20), we hear Mark’s account of the first words preached by Jesus, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

 

We can hear those nineteen words in one of two ways. We can hear them only as words said in the past, said some 2,000 years ago, or we can hear them as being spoken at this moment.

 

Heard as words from the past they let us know that Jesus saw the time in which he was living as critical. God’s kingdom was breaking into this world.

 

Those words also reveal that Jesus was continuing the message of John the Baptist. John had announced the coming of the kingdom; Jesus proclaimed it was now present. He was inviting his hearers to live as part of that kingdom by turning away from sin and following the way of the Gospel.

 

But those words are not just words spoken in the past to the people of that day. When the Gospel is proclaimed, Jesus speaks to us now. The Gospel is always news – “good news” for those who hear it. It is not just “good history.”

 

This Sunday, Jesus is telling us that in him, God is working in our world to bring about his kingdom. That kingdom is at hand when we repent, when we reorient our lives. We do that by turning away from sin and self-centeredness and letting the attitudes and priorities of Jesus guide our lives. When we do that, the kingdom comes.

 

As Jesus said, “The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21) The kingdom was present in Jesus and is present today in all those who heed his words.

 

If someone yelled, “Evacuate, the building, there’s a fire in the basement,” we would run for the exit. We would realize those words were meant for us right now.

 

The same is true for the words that Jesus speaks in Sunday’s Gospel. They are meant for us right now. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

 

© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

TEACHING APPRECIATION

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Two classes that are often undervalued and sometimes eliminated when school budgets need to be cut are music and art appreciation. Yet those two subjects are important. They help to form cultured, well-educated people.

 

Music appreciation introduces students to different styles and forms of music. It teaches them what to listen for and how to understand what they are hearing. It exposes them to music they may have never heard.

 

Art appreciation opens the eyes of students to a world of painting, sculpture, and drawing. It helps them to look beyond what they see and to recognize the intricacies of a piece of art and the vision of life being conveyed by the artist.

 

As unexpected as it might seem, this Sunday’s First Reading (1 Samuel 3: 3b-10, 19) is related to music appreciation, while Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:35-42) is connected to art appreciation.

 

In the First Reading, we read how Eli, the priest, helps the young boy Samuel to appreciate what he is hearing. Samuel is awakened three times by a voice in the night that he takes to be that of Eli.

 

After the third interruption, we are told that “Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth.”

 

Eli then helps Samuel to recognize that the voice he is hearing is no human voice, but rather the voice of God calling Samuel to serve him.

 

Young Samuel needed a spiritual mentor to help him appreciate what he was hearing.

 

In the Gospel, John the Baptist and two of his disciples are standing together when a man walks by. The disciples do not appreciate the significance of the stranger until John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”

 

If John the Baptist had not helped his two disciples recognize who had just walked past them, they may never have become followers of Jesus.

 

Those two disciples needed John the Baptist to help them appreciate the importance of the stranger they were seeing.

 

Like Samuel and like those disciples of John the Baptist, we also need help to appreciate and recognize the voice and the presence of God.

 

The Church is just such a mentor and guide. Through its teaching and preaching the Church helps us to appreciate the message of God found in the words of the Old and New Testament. The Church teaches us how to listen and discern what God is trying to say to us as we hear and read his words found in the scriptures.

 

The Church also serves as our mentor and guide when it comes to appreciating the presence of God. It teaches us to discern the presence of the Lamb of God in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in the pouring of baptismal water, in the other sacraments, and in our fellow Christians.

 

The Church also provides us with spiritual directors, confessors, catechists, vowed religious men and women, and faith sharing groups that can open our ears and eyes to the message and presence of the Lord in our personal lives.

 

Appreciating music and art enriches life. But nothing enriches us more than appreciating and recognizing the voice and presence of God.

 

© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

 

PLEASED WITH US

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Baptism of the Lord

Imagine you started a new job at a large company where you did not know a single person.

 

As you sat at your desk filling out some final forms for the Human Resources Department, the owner of the firm walked over to you and said, “You are a fine employee. I am really pleased with you.”

 

You would be surprised by that comment. You would think that the owner had confused you with someone else since you had done nothing deserving of praise. It was your first day on the job!

 

In Sunday's Gospel (Mark 1:7-11), we hear of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. When Jesus comes out of the waters of the Jordan a voice from the heavens proclaims, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

 

We might wonder why God the Father would say he was pleased with Jesus for Jesus had not yet begun his ministry. We might say that it was Jesus’ first day on the job.

 

At the Transfiguration of Jesus, the Father says something similar. As Jesus shines with divine glory, a voice from the heavens declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5)

 

On that occasion, the words of God the Father would seem to be more fitting. Ever since his baptism, Jesus had been proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, healing the sick, driving out demons, forgiving sins. He had been fulfilling the mission the Father had given him. It would be understandable that the Father would be well pleased with what Jesus had been doing.

 

So why does the Father proclaim his satisfaction with Jesus on the day of his baptism? God himself gives us the answer. The Father takes joy and pride in Jesus simply because of who Jesus is. As the Father says, “You are my beloved Son.”

 

We see that same dynamic in the relationship between parents and their children. Parents love their little ones even when they have not done a thing to earn their approval. Parents simply shower their love upon them because they are their beloved sons and daughters. They love them for who they are, not because of what they do.

 

This Sunday, we are reminded that we are loved by God, but not because of what we do for God. After all, what does Almighty God need us to do for him?

 

God loves us simply because we are his children. We were made so at our baptism. As the priest or deacon told the congregation just before leading them in the Our Father, “Dear brothers and sisters: these children, reborn through Baptism, are now called children of God, for so indeed they are.” 

 

The Father is pleased with us, he showers his gifts upon us, not because we have earned them, but because we are his children.

 

This Sunday, as we hear the words that God the Father speaks to Jesus, we can also hear them as words that our heavenly Father addresses to us, “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.”

 

© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

 

Best Wishes for a New Year Filled with God’s Presence and Peace!

THE PRESENT OF PRESENCE

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Epiphany of the Lord

The Christmas Season is a time for presents, a time for giving gifts.

 

We give Christmas presents to express our love for family members and friends and to thank people for what they have done for us. We give presents to bring joy and happiness to others and to see their looks of surprise and gratitude. We give presents to those we hope to grow closer to in the future.

 

This Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 12:1-12) is about presents, what we might call the first Christmas presents.

 

Led by a shining star, magi from the east come to Jerusalem seeking the newborn king of the Jews. When they find him in Bethlehem, they offer him gifts that reveal something about this child. The gift of gold hints at his royalty, frankincense at his divinity, and myrrh at his future suffering and death.

 

But besides those three gifts, the magi give another gift. They give the new-born king the gift of their presence. Their coming to be with Jesus, Mary and Joseph is an even more wonderful gift than the material ones they bring.

 

That is still true today. Visiting someone, being with another person, is a wonderful and appreciated gift, perhaps more than ever during this pandemic.

 

Being with people we love through Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, or other such services cannot match being physically present. Hugs and kisses, companionship and kindness, sharing a meal, or just sitting quietly with a loved one, far outweigh any virtual encounter. Just ask grandparents if a digital session substitutes for their grandchildren jumping into their arms when they arrive for a visit.

 

The Christmas present we most like to receive from people who are dear to us is to have them with us. Their presence is the most precious gift. That was the best gift given by the magi, and it is also the gift that God gave humanity that first Christmas.

 

The God who had revealed himself in the majesty of creation, in the words of scripture and the preaching of the prophets, and in his care for his people, judged those “virtual” gifts were not enough.

 

God decided the best gift that he could give was the gift of his physical presence. In the incarnation, God took on flesh and came to be with his people in the Child of Bethlehem.

 

That presence of God continues to this day. The Lord remains with us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in the gathering of his Church, in the celebration of the sacraments, in the proclamation of his word, and in unexpected moments of grace and mercy. Our Catholic faith proclaims that God is with us. God truly is Emmanuel.

 

In this season of giving, on this day when we recall the gifts of the magi, we remember that the best gift we can give others is to be with them, to be in their company.

 

That amazingly is the gift that Almighty God gave and continues to give to us. As the Lord told us, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) God’s present is his presence with us!

 

© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

 

Best Wishes for a New Year Filled with God’s Presence and Peace!

HOLY INFLUENCE

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Influencers are people with the ability to affect the purchasing habits or actions of others, particularly through social media.  Such influencers are sought after by companies anxious to increase their sales or to introduce new products to the public.

 

Influencers have been around for a long time. We may not have used that term to refer to them, but we have seen them in action on television. Actors, athletes, entertainers, and other celebrities have been endorsing products and espousing certain causes for many years. For example, Michael Jordan is associated with Nike, Oprah Winfrey with Weight Watchers, and Tom Selleck with reverse mortgages.

 

With the rise of social media, influencers have increased in number, and many have gained considerable sway over the public.

 

However, for most of us the truly important influencers in our lives are not found in the digital or broadcast world, but in our homes. The members of our families, particularly our parents, influence us more than those outside of our homes.

 

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Certainly, each one of them was an “influencer,” a holy influence on the others.

 

Mary and Joseph raised the child Jesus. They brought him up in their Jewish faith and introduced him to the religious rituals of their people. They took him to the synagogue and to the Temple in Jerusalem as they observed the required rituals. As we read in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 2:22-40), “They took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord.”

 

We also read of Mary and Joseph continuing to take Jesus to the Temple. “Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom.” (Luke 2:41-42)

 

We are told that at home in Nazareth, Jesus learned from them. He “was obedient to them…And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” (Luke 2:51-52)

 

Jesus was also influenced by Joseph in terms of his chosen occupation before his baptism by John. Jesus is referred to as the son of the carpenter (Matthew 13: 55) and as a carpenter himself (Mark 6:3).

 

Mary’s influence on her son, is seen at the Wedding Feast of Cana. She is the one who tells Jesus, “They have no wine.” (John 2:3). A sensitive mother persuades her son to come to the aid of an embarrassed couple.

While Mary and Joseph were influencers in the life of Jesus, he influenced them as well. We have a hint of that when we are told, “but his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51). We also see that influence when Joseph realizes that he must flee to Egypt to protect the child Jesus from Herod.

 

In the Holy Family, each member was a holy influencer on the other. Their influence continues down to this very day as we celebrate this feast in their honor.

 

In fact, Pope Francis himself recognized Mary as an influencer. During World Youth Day in Panama, he tweeted, "With her 'yes', Mary became the most influential woman in history. Without social networks, she became the first 'influencer': the 'influencer' of God.” (January 27, 2019)

 

This Sunday, as we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, we not only remember their holy influence, we are also reminded that each one of us is called to be a “holy influencer” in our own families.

 

© 2020 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

 

Best Wishes for a Joyous and Holy Christmas Season!

TOUCHED BY GRACE

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Fourth Sunday of ADvent

When someone asks us to do something, especially if it might be challenging or difficult, we usually don’t answer immediately.

 

Before answering, we weigh the pros and cons. We consider if what we are being asked to do is in line with our values, and if it will benefit us or others in some way. Only then do we give our answer.

 

In this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 1:26-38), someone is asked to do something extraordinary. Mary is asked to be the mother of the savior. She seems to answer rather quickly. She tells Gabriel, the messenger from heaven, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

 

We might wonder why Mary did not take more time to carefully consider what she was being requested to do. She only asked how the pregnancy would come about.

 

Yet she might have asked how she could explain that pregnancy to her family and neighbors, and above all, to Joseph. She might have questioned why she was chosen and not someone else. She might have wondered how her response would affect her future and her marriage. She might have asked herself if the message was truly from heaven or a trick of her imagination or wishful thinking.

 

Perhaps the reason why Mary quickly responded as she did can be found in the Gospel reading itself. There the angel says to her, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

 

The grace of God, the presence and help of God, prompted Mary to agree to do what God requested – a grace that was with her from the first moment of her existence.

 

We were reminded of that this past December 8 when we celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. That day we heard this Sunday’s Gospel applied to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother Anna.

 

Mary was full of grace from that moment. She was untouched by the sin of our first parents, by humanity’s original refusal to do what God asked of his people, namely, to obediently follow his will.

 

Free from that negative influence and filled with God’s grace, Mary was more than ready to do what God requested. How could she not do what God asked, if she were filled with his grace and presence?

 

The grace of God that filled Mary has also touched our lives in some way as well. It was the grace and power of God that brought us into the Church. It is the grace of God working in our lives that enables us to profess our faith and to strive to live as Christians. It is the grace of God that leads us to respond to God’s invitation to gather with our fellow Catholics for Sunday Mass.

 

Because Mary was full of grace, because the Lord was with her, she could willingly do whatever God asked of her. When we do what God asks of us, it is for that very same reason. God is with us, touching us with his grace.

 

As Saint Paul tells us in his Letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

 

The God who filled Mary with his grace has also blessed us with grace so that we might be able to do what he asks. Since that is the case, the angel Gabriel might be able to say to each of us, “You have been touched by grace. The Lord is with you.”

 

© 2020 Rev. Thomas B. Iwan

WhAT BRINGS JOY?

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Third Sunday of Advent

Dynamic, driven, persuasive, austere, stern, focused, strict, honest, God-centered, holy, prophetic.

 

All those adjectives could describe John the Baptist whom we hear about in this Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:6-8, 19-28).

 

Such a personality does not seem to be a good fit for the Third Sunday of Advent, often referred to as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudate is a Latin word meaning “rejoice.” The word appears in this Sunday’s entrance antiphon where we are told, “Rejoice (Gaudete) in the Lord always; again I say rejoice.”

 

Furthermore, the first prayer of the Mass also speaks of rejoicing. We ask the Lord to enable us “to attain the joys” of salvation and to celebrate with “glad rejoicing.”

 

Sunday’s First and Second Readings, as well as the Responsorial Psalm, also highlight rejoicing.

 

In the First Reading (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11), Isaiah says he has been sent “to bring glad tidings to the poor.” He proclaims, “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.”

 

Then in the Responsorial Psalm, we hear the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

 

In our Second Reading (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24), Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Brothers and sisters: Rejoice always.”

 

Those prayers and readings do not seem to harmonize with the prophet we meet in the Gospel. John the Baptist does not bring rejoicing to mind as he boldly proclaims, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

 

The idea of rejoicing also seems out of place this Advent season. The ongoing pandemic gives us far more reasons to feel depressed and worried than joyful.

 

Perhaps we need to consider what it means to rejoice in the Lord. It must mean more than wearing a smile and being happy, otherwise, the Church would not be highlighting John the Baptist.

 

Christian joy is not a result of everything going wonderfully in our lives, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. As Saint Paul tells us “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience….” (Galatians 5:22)

 

Such joy, he tells us, comes when we allow God’s kingdom into our lives. “For the kingdom of God is …. righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:7)

 

This idea of joy coming from God is also found in our readings.

 

When Isaiah spoke of bringing glad tidings to the poor, he was speaking to Jews who were returning from exile and discovering Jerusalem was devastated. Yet they could rejoice, for the Lord would be with them. 

 

The Blessed Virgin was able to rejoice in God even though she was unsure of what awaited her. But she knew, as the angel had told her, “The Lord is with you.”

 

Paul told the Thessalonians to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, to give thanks for God’s blessings. Certainly, those who speak to God in prayer and who appreciate God’s blessings are people who can rejoice in God’s goodness.

 

When we understand joy as a gift of the Spirit and as a blessing that flows from an awareness of God in our lives, we can see how John the Baptist can be a figure of joy. He certainly knew he “was sent from God.” He knew his mission was to make people aware of the promised Messiah who was present but not yet recognized.

 

Spiritual joy, Christian joy, is not necessarily the result of all things going right, but a result of God being in our lives and in our hearts.

 

That certainly was the joy of John the Baptist. He knew that God was with him.

 

As a children’s hymn puts it, “I’ve got that joy joy joy joy down in my heart.” That kind of joy, the joy that comes from God, can never be taken from us.

 

© 2020 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

A DIFFERENT ADVENT

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Second Sunday of Advent

As you know, we are currently in the season of Advent, the four weeks that lead to the celebration of Christmas.

 

This is probably not your first Advent season. If you are 25 years old, you can most likely remember going through at least 20 Advent seasons. If you are 50, that number increases to 45. If you are 75, that number reaches 70, and if you have reached 90 years of age, that means you might be able to recall as many as 85 Advent seasons.

 

But no matter how many Advent seasons we can remember, none of us has ever lived through an Advent season like the one we are in now.

 

This Advent, because of the restrictions imposed during the current pandemic, the number of people coming to Sunday Mass is lower than it has ever been. Gatherings to make Advent wreaths or to celebrate ethnic religious devotions have been canceled or curtailed. Buying Christmas presents for the needy and placing them under parish Giving Trees has been changed to donating cash or gift cards. Church choirs have canceled their concerts. Families are altering their usual traditions and rather than planning which Christmas Mass to attend, they are wondering if it will be safe to go at all. This Advent is like none in the past.

 

This Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 1:1-8), which contains the first verses of Mark’s Gospel, is appropriate for an Advent like no other.

 

Mark starts his Gospel very differently from the way Matthew, Luke, and John begin their accounts. There is no setting the stage, no gradual introduction of characters, no annunciation to Mary, no messages to Joseph, no birth at Bethlehem.

 

Mark wastes no time, he simply writes, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and then he adds “the Son of God.” He lets the reader immediately know who this Jesus is.

 

Then Mark tells us of a prophet like no other. John the Baptist, strangely dressed and oddly nourished, suddenly appears. He preaches a baptism of repentance and deflects attention from himself as he proclaims, “One mightier than I is coming after me.”

 

John’s message is so powerful, so unlike any other, that “the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” flock to him and are baptized. It is an extraordinary moment.

 

That reminds us that this Advent, and every Advent, is a time like no other. For each Advent finds us at a different place in our personal and spiritual lives.

 

Our appreciation for what it means to profess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is not the same as it was last Advent, and the role we are allowing him to have in our lives has either expanded or contracted.

 

The way we respond to the message of John the Baptist this Advent will be determined by how honestly we evaluate our lives in the light of the Gospel.

 

Advent is a challenge from God to recognize what we need to do and how we need to change, so that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, may enter our lives more completely and transform us by his grace.

 

This Advent Season of the liturgical year of 2021 is like no other, but no Advent season ever is – no matter how many Advents we have gone through in our lives.

 

© 2020 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski

SEEKING OUR ATTENTION

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The First Sunday of Advent

AM and FM Radio, ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX, ESPN, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, Google, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, and all other broadcast and digital services all have something in common.

 

They all want us to pay attention to the programs, messages, and images they set before our eyes and ears. They want our attention because while our minds are focused on their enticing content, they can cleverly direct our attention to the products they are selling or to the ideas and opinions they are advocating.

 

The success these social media companies have in grabbing and holding our attention can be seen in the fact that many people are unable to be separated from the devices that connect them to the digital world. They are afraid to miss a post, a notification, a like, a message, a tweet, or a new viral sensation. Such obsession with social media and sources of entertainment can distract us from what is far more important in life.

 

In this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 13:33-37), Jesus warns us, “Be watchful! Be alert!”

 

That warning, which comes on the First Sunday of Advent, is very appropriate as we begin the Liturgical Year of 2021.

 

While the words of Jesus are often seen as just telling us to be ready for the Lord’s return in glory, those words can have a more immediate message as well.

 

They can be warning us to be watchful and alert to the presence of the Lord right now. For Jesus Christ, who will one day return in power and glory, comes into our world in subtle ways at the present time.

 

The Lord comes when the scriptures are proclaimed, when Mass is celebrated, when Christians gather in prayer, when the poor and suffering are served, when time is given to silence and meditation, when family members eat and speak together, when kindness, compassion, and forgiveness are valued more than power, popularity, and wealth.

 

However, if we are to recognize the presence of God in our lives, we need to be watchful and alert. Perhaps the way to begin is to be more consciously aware of the media that is continually vying for our attention and distracting us from what is ultimately most important.

 

As Jesus tells us, “Be watchful! Be alert! ...you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.… May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”

 

May we not be so ensnared and distracted by social media that we miss the presence of the Lord in our lives. “Be watchful! Be alert!”  Good advice for this new liturgical year of 2021.

 

© 2020 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski