I Am Not Worthy

The season of Advent grows in significance in my spiritual life with each passing year. I first discovered Advent as a ministerial student at Asbury Theological Seminary. There I was introduced to liturgy and the whole concept of the year being expressed by liturgical seasons: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time.

I write on this Monday of the first week of Advent; the Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 8:5–13—Jesus and his encounter with the Roman Centurion who requests healing for his servant.

As he entered Caper′na-um, a centurion came forward to him, begging him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (RSV)

This morning before Mass, I sat down to pray this passage using Lectio Divina. After an initial prayer, asking God to speak to me through the Gospel, I read it carefully and three words jumped out at me: centurion, begging, and Lord.

The man who approached Jesus that day in Capernaum was a Roman centurion. A centurion was not a Jew, he was as I have already mentioned Roman, and commanded a “centuria” or century, that from 200 to 1000 legionaries. A centurion was a symbol of the oppression the Jewish population endured under Roman rule. His presence instilled fear, order and obedience, no matter how reluctant. As this centurion himself says, For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 

So here we have this powerful, brave and influential man coming to Jesus and begging him on behalf of a sick servant: “…my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” The centurion in his position with Rome could have ordered Jesus, a Jew, to come to his house and take care of his need. Instead we see the centurion in a posture of a mendicant, a beggar, not unlike others we see in Scripture, e.g. blind Bartimaeus. The posture of begging strips the centurion of his armor, his sword, his Roman swagger and his menacing demeanor. He comes to Jesus as we all must: nothing to brag about, nothing to hold on to, nothing to cling to. As the old hymn “Rock of Ages” says:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

The final word is Lord. The centurion says to Jesus begging: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And later he says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Maybe, like me, you’ve read that story so many times or as a Catholic, repeated those powerful words in the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” For the centurion to call Jesus “Lord” was no small thing. For the centurion and all Romans of his time, Caesar was Lord. To call Jesus Lord was not only novel, it was blasphemous, dangerous and treasonous. Yet somehow the centurion recognized Jesus for who he was: Lord! Jesus is Lord! That became the creed of the early Christians: Jesus is Lord! not Caesar! Many of them gave up their lives for that affirmation of faith.

Where does that leave you and me? Time for confession, my confession. I tend to come to Jesus putting my best foot forward. That can look different at different times and places. I read the Bible thinking about all the times I’ve already read this passage instead of thinking about the fresh thing our Lord wants to say to me through it—like this morning! I start praying and present my list of petitions with the fixes I’m sure would make everyone and everything better, instead of quieting myself before our Lord and letting Him tell me how He wants to change me, which will change how I see the people and the things I want Him to fix. And even when I go to Confession, if I try to put my sins in the best possible light, instead of agreeing with the centurion that I am not worthy, no real forgiveness and cleansing can take place.

Lord, like the centurion, I put aside my perceived merits. I beg of you to hear my plea. I acknowledge that you are Lord and nothing in my life or in my world can compete with that, nor will you accept it. Lord, only say the word and my soul shall be healed. Amen.

I Am Not Worthy

Gird Your Loins

Do what? This morning’s Gospel reading in the Mass is taken from the New American Bible Revised Edition and uses terminology that is not common in our everyday vernacular. When was the last time you “girded your loins?”

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Gird your loins and light your lamps
and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding,
ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.
Blessed are those servants
whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.
Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself,
have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.
And should he come in the second or third watch
and find them prepared in this way,
blessed are those servants.” (Luke 12:35–38 NABRE)

Still not sure what it means? I took at look at other translations and found these options:

  • “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” (NRSV)
  • “Be ready for whatever comes, dressed for action and with your lamps lit” (GNT)
  • “Be ready and keep your lamps burning” (CEV)

That helps, doesn’t it? Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and that includes us. He is speaking of a future event, particularly of his Second Coming. He will come unannounced. He will not send a two-weeks’ notice. He will appear suddenly, and therefore he is cautioning us, instructing us, even warning us to be ready.

Jesus says we should be like servants that are awaiting the return of their master. In Middle Eastern world in which Jesus lived, it was not appropriate for a master to arrive home and have to wake up his servants in order for them to serve him. Their responsibility was to be alert and ready at a moment’s notice to open the door and let him in and wait on him. Jesus says that the servants who are vigilant for the return of the master are to be blessed.

If Jesus is speaking to us, how are we to be vigilant for his impending return? At least seven times in the New Testament we find the answer to this in a three-word phrase: “Watch and pray!” Another five times we are told to “be alert.” How are we doing? It seems Jesus was concerned about our tendency to nod off and get distracted. In Luke 18:8 he asks this question: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (NABRE).

We don’t know when Jesus is coming; that’s the point of this teaching. We do know that Jesus will return for a second time “coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:30 NABRE). We should also know that Jesus could come for you and for me at any moment. Will he find us ready?

As a life-long evangelical and now Catholic convert I look our readiness from an interesting perspective. I grew up in a church that gave great credence to the Second Coming of Jesus. Perhaps that is why we were “busy” with the things of the Lord. Part of our practice as Christians was to be in church every time the door was open: Sunday school, morning worship, evening service, midweek prayer meeting, monthly missionary service, reading Scripture and family prayer. Little by little though those practices became cumbersome and even a little “legalistic.” One by one these expressions dropped off until we were focusing solely on a Sunday morning worship celebration with lively music and well-honed sermons. Now we ask why people are not engaged in Scripture and why the lives of so many evangelicals resemble the lives of the pagans around them.

I have learned that there have been many changes in the Catholic Church as well. I have written about some of these in earlier blogs. In the Catholic Church, as well as in the evangelical communions, the past fifty years have been lean in spiritual expression. For Catholics there has been a precipitous drop off in Mass attendance, in participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), praying the Rosary, and in many shortcuts and “modernizations” of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The St. Michael prayer was placed on the shelf by many American churches in the 1960s, and only recently is being prayed again as we find ourselves in the worst crisis American Catholicism has ever faced.

And we wonder, Christians of all stripes, why our culture has lost its way and has become so opposed to true Christianity! Jesus’s words ring in our ears today: “Gird your loins and light your lamps!” “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.”

And what will Jesus do with those he finds watching and praying? “Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants.” Wow! and Amen!

Gird Your Loins

An Object in Motion…

SEPTemberdaysPriestly Fraternity of St. Peter

There seems to be a spiritual application to Newton’s First Law of Motion. “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”

I see personal application to this in my own spiritual journey. I have known times in my life that there was little discipline to get up on time, and what I read was the news or sports stories or social media, and while I may have filled my mind with current events and other facts, it didn’t do anything to move me closer to God. So in this case my body at “rest” stayed at “rest” and the “rest” was not good for my soul. I can look back to those times and lament how much time I wasted being passive in my spiritual life.

Conversely, when I am actively engaged in my spiritual devotion, my spiritual life and fervor stays in motion and is fueled by the motion to continue to be in motion. For example, getting up at 5:00 a.m. and getting right into spiritual disciplines, followed by 6:45 a.m. Mass, praying the Rosary on my way to work, and sprinkling prayer throughout the day keeps me connected to the Source of my spiritual life. Motion begets motion and generates a daily commitment to stay in motion.

The turning point that changed the direction of my life was when I became structured and disciplined in my spiritual practices. I wasn’t Catholic yet, but I can’t help but believe that it was one of the portals God used to lead me to the Church. As I stated in an earlier blog it was a commitment to daily lectionary readings that gave me a foothold in the spiritual disciplines.

I share all of this to draw an analogy. As I have delved deeper into Catholic spirituality I am discovering that there are many practices and disciplines that once were commonly practiced among Catholics. For example, there were more holy days of obligation, fasts, Rogation Days, Ember Days, etc., and many of these things including the changes in the Mass go back to the years following Vatican II. For some reason, in the United States especially, the tendency was to deemphasize certain disciplines and decrease the frequency of others. My wife’s experience pre-Vatican II was going to confession every Saturday before Mass on Sunday. “But now only 2 percent of Catholics go regularly to confession, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Georgetown University—and three-quarters of them never go, or go less than once a year.” And now some are putting it as low as 25 percent!

In 1955, 75 percent of Catholics attended weekly Mass. That number has dropped to 39 percent in the period between 2014-2017. Why are we surprised that there is little distinction between Catholics and the general population when it comes to marriage and divorce, birth control, abortion, homosexuality and conduct in general? We also shouldn’t be surprised at the current state of affairs in the Church relating to sexual behavior in the clergy and the laity.

The theory of expecting less from the faithful and hopefully opening the door to those who were outside the Church was ill-conceived and now seems to be an idea hatched in hell. Thousand and thousands of people have left the Church, given up on the Church or never entered in because they were not challenged with a life-changing message and something worth giving up their lives for. Inside or outside, it pretty much seemed the same.

Thank God for faithful bishops, priests, religious, deacons and laity who over the past 50 years have carried the torch of spiritual life and discipline for the rest of us. May their number increase! May we take our place alongside of them! What can we do?

Pray the Rosary daily. Find an Eucharistic Adoration Chapel and spend time there. Make a commitment to go to daily Mass as often as possible. Read the Sacred Scriptures. Pray. Fast. Go to confession at least once a month or even twice a month. Observe Ember Days.

Okay! What are Ember Days? Check the link above. The September Ember Days are Wednesday, September 19, Thursday, September 20, and Saturday, September 22. These are ideal days to abstain from food, not a full fast, and pray for our Mother Church and our Holy Priests. And pray for our Holy Father, Pope Francis. Let’s turn the tide. Let’s be “objects in motion” that will remain in motion for the glory of God. Amen.

An Object in Motion…

Missing the Mark

Sin—there I said it—is a difficult topic to address and deal with today. I don’t think it has ever been on the “Top Ten” topics to talk about. Yet it seems that we really try to suppress the subject in our current world. Even in the places where you would imagine that the topic should come up—in church—it gets glossed over.

I was a pastor for 30 plus years and sin was not one of my favorite topics, in a sermon or otherwise. And even when there was a blatant issue of sin that was obvious to the whole community, it took all that I had to confront it, even in love.

As I prepared to come into the Roman Catholic Church in 2016, one of the things I had to do was make my first confession. I remember doing my examination of conscience covering 42 years since my baptism at the age of 17! The idea of making a list of my sins and declaring them in the confessional was daunting. “Father, forgive me for I have sinned…this is my first confession ever.”

I slogged through it. The priest didn’t throw me out of the confessional. And most importantly I heard the words of absolution: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son,  and of the Holy Spirit.”

Every day when I go to Mass I look forward to the opening words spoken by the priest in  what is known as the Penitential Act:

Brethren, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, (And, striking their breast, they say:) through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; (Then they continue:) therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

(The absolution by the Priest follows:) May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.

(The people reply:) Amen.

There is a shorter form, but I always look forward to the Confiteor in bold above. If I attend a Mass where it seems that the celebrant is “free-styling” I feel uncomfortable and wonder if once again we are trying to make ourselves feel better by “white washing” or minimizing the impact of our sin. One of those occasions is when “we” ask forgiveness for “missing the mark.” Now, I know the Greek word hamartia can be translated “missing the mark,” and that is a serious offense, but not in the way I’ve heard it presented. It seems more like the goal was 100% and I got 90% so for that 10% I’m sorry. The Confiteor says I have “greatly sinned” and I have, you have, all God’s children have!

That same Greek word is also translated, “to be without share in,” “to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honor, to do or go wrong,” “to wander from the law of God, violate God’s divine law in thought or in act.”

I am so thankful when my confessor acknowledges that I have sinned. He doesn’t give me the excuse that I am human or that I only missed by a little bit. I didn’t say it makes me feel good, but it’s necessary for my soul to be honest! But then what incredible joy when I hear those words: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

I’m going to confession this Saturday. Won’t you join me?

Missing the Mark