Ordinary Time? There's nothing ordinary about it.

The feast of our Lord’s baptism marks the beginning of Ordinary Time where we enter into Sunday Gospel passages that help us understand the call to Christian discipleship through the lens of Jesus’ public ministry. "Ordinary Time" seems apropos to share some reflections on our own baptismal identity as Christians, beloved daughters and sons of God…

The event of Jesus’ baptism with water in the Jordan revealed who he already was: the “beloved Son” with whom God was “well pleased.” John prophesied that Jesus, however, would baptize us with the Holy Spirit. The event of our baptism with the Spirit announces who we become: beloved children with whom God is “well pleased.” Our whole Christian life is a journey of taking ownership of the identity God has given to us.

We are plunged into the baptismal waters and rise out of those waters a new creation grafted onto Christ. We spend our lives growing into our identity as members of the Body of Christ. We spend our lives appreciating what it means to be God’s beloved and the kind of life that relationship requires of us. We spend our lives continuing Jesus’ saving mission. We spend our lives being the risen Presence of Christ for others. Being Christ-like is what our baptismal identity is all about.

Being baptized by “the Holy Spirit and fire” means that we share in Jesus’ mission, including the total gift of ourselves. Who we are manifests God’s Presence in the very dying to self we do each day as we conform ourselves to God’s will. We learn our mission from experiencing and encountering Christ through others. Our Christian journey is about realizing that we ourselves are God’s Presence for another. We must constantly redirect our own expectations so that we keep focused on the One “mightier than I” who comes to others, now, through us.

Learning a new skill takes a long time. The aging of a new wine takes a long time. Getting to know another person well as a beloved and trusted friend takes a long time. Taking ownership of and being faithful to our baptismal identity as God’s beloved takes a lifetime. While God freely gives us this gift of identity as Christians through the Holy Spirit, we must accept it and make it our own. This takes a lifetime of faithful living. Every choice we make on our Christian journey either deepens our identity as God’s beloved or weakens it. We either respond to a person in need, or walk away. We either put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, or we steal time and money. We either take time for daily prayer, or neglect conversation time with God. We either strive to grow in understanding our faith, or remain content with inadequate formation. Who we are is God’s beloved, that is, the Body of Christ. Our baptismal call is to become every day more fully who we are. Growing in our Christian identity is our most important lifelong task. Let’s take up this call and challenge together as we begin a new year and a new season of Ordinary Time.


On Reconciliation and Unity

After the recent election, dozens of people asked me how they could help reconcile the country, to heal divisions. They seemed overwhelmed by the task. You can help, of course, but you can’t do it by yourself, whether you’re in public office or not. And God doesn’t expect you to do so. As a wise Jesuit I know likes to say, “There is Good News and there is Better News. The Good News is: There is a Messiah. The Better News is: It’s not you.” You can’t do it all, because you’re not God. So just do your best.

Fr. James Martin, author of the best-selling books My Life with the Saints, and Jesus: A Pilgrimage, has some interesting thoughts worth sharing.

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Our country is divided most painfully. And the more we are divided, the less room there is for true progress and the more room there is for hatred and violence. Thus, even if some are angry, we must seek to lessen the divisions. What can be done to increase unity?

  1. Reconcile by giving people the benefit of the doubt. At the beginning of his classic text, The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit order, offers important advice: “Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it.” In Jesuit circles, we call this giving someone the “plus sign.” In common parlance, it means giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

    In other words, as we seek to draw the country together it should be “presupposed,” hard as it may be, that both Trump supporters and Clinton supporters were seeking the good of the country. Giving someone the “plus sign” is a prerequisite for listening. Because how can you possibly listen to someone if you think they have bad intentions? It’s hard, but necessary.

    It’s also important because we tend to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. Remember that the other person probably believes themselves to have good intentions, like you. Besides, trying to reconcile is impossible if you think the other person is up to no good. Try to give them, as far as possible, the plus sign.
  2. Reconcile by listening. Many Americans seem increasingly incapable of listening. Perhaps it’s because we are more informed of news through “narrowcasting” – TV stations catering to our own interests and social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, where we follow only those who agree with us and only people who share our opinions. Consequently, we tend to think we already know what to think. So why listen? Sometimes when you’re speaking to a person you feel that all they’re doing is waiting for you to stop talking, so that they can speak. This causes further division, as fewer and fewer people can even understand one another.

    To reconcile, try listening. I mean really listening. If you want a surefire tip on how to do so, try what we used to call in spiritual counseling, “reflective listening.” See if you can summarize or “reflect back” what a person has just said. It will force you to listen. For example, “It sounds like you’re worried about what immigration will do to this country, is that right?” Or “It sounds like you feel the poor are being neglected by the government. Am I getting you?” You’ll be surprised how much this not only helps the other person feel heard but increases your capacity to listen, and to understand.
  3. Reconcile by avoiding name calling, ad hominem arguments, and hate speech. This campaign season was filled with name calling at every level. Ad hominem arguments – that is, “against the person,” rather than about a particular topic – were rampant. “Nasty woman” was the least of these comments. Yet a little known, and less observed, saying of Jesus puts this kind of speech in focus.

    “If you call your brother raca [idiot],” says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “you will be liable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says ‘fool’ will be liable to the fires of Gehenna” (5:22).

    New Testament scholars say that when the Gospels preserve Aramaic words, like raca, we can be almost 100 percent sure they came directly from the lips of Jesus and were not added in the later editing of the Gospels. The words themselves made such an impression on the original hearers that they remembered the precise Aramaic phrase and passed it along in oral retellings.

    In other words, the preservation of this Aramaic word for “idiot” means that it is one of the most historically authentic of Jesus’s sayings. Yet it may also be the most overlooked. Quite literally, Jesus says that if you call someone a bad name, you’ll be liable to either the Jewish council or, worse, the “fires of Gehenna.” Gehenna, the site outside Jerusalem’s city walls, where garbage burned incessantly, was the image Jesus often used for hell.

    So if you call someone a name, or engage in hate speech, you’re not only coarsening our discourse, you’re not only being uncharitable, you’re also going to hell. Says Jesus. Remember this if you’re a Trump supporter and you’re tempted to call a Clinton supporter a “baby killer.” Remember this if you’re a Clinton supporter and tempted to call someone a Trump supporter a “fascist.” Name calling does nothing to advance reconciliation, whether in person, or in social media. It simply perpetuates, and usually intensifies, hate.
  4. Reconcile by forgiving. The Gospel reading the day before the election (Lk 17:1-6) recounted Jesus’s saying that if someone offends you seven times in one day, you should forgive him or her. Yes, it’s difficult, probably the most difficult of all Christian teachings. And it runs against the grain of revenge, bitterness, and score-settling that seems to dominate American culture and our political world. Particularly unsettling were cries from Democrats and Republicans during the election about how they could never, and would never, work with “that man” or “that woman.”
  5. Forgiveness is more essential than ever. And it’s a double gift. It is a gift to the one forgiven, because it enables healing to take place between them and yourself. And it is a gift to you, because it frees you from the burden of resentment that can sour a soul, and a country. Forgiveness must be a part of our reconciliation.
  6. Reconcile by praying. You have to pray. Why? First, to ask for God’s help. Most of what I’ve just suggested requires grace. God needs to help you to give someone the benefit of the doubt, to listen, to avoid name calling and forgive. It’s hard. Prayer is a reminder that we are reliant on God. We need help.

So we need to pray – for grace, wisdom and courage. Reconciliation and unity are hard work. And while you’re at it, pray for those Americans you used to consider your enemies, but who are really your brothers and sisters.


Speaking of Saints

The Church’s purpose in declaring women and men throughout the centuries as “saints” is to encourage us to aspire to holiness and to give us models for doing so. But this can present a challenge for many of us. Although we might read the lives of the saints and admire them, most of us cannot imagine ourselves in that sacred circle. St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, wrote “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Paul could have written that same letter to all of us because the Corinthians were struggling to make their faith active in their lives, just as we are.

So, here are some characteristics of the saints, traits that we can all aspire to and qualities that we can embody in our lives. And while we may not have miracles or a feast day ever attributed to us, we can certainly work to live as the saints. All as we celebrate those in our own circle of family and friends who taught us how to be holy amidst our celebration of those saints in the circle of the Church!

All saints are filled with the love of God.

They have chosen God above all others and made a definite commitment to God. In her book Saint Watching (Viking Press), Phyllis McGinley writes that saints are human beings with an added dimension. “They are obsessed by goodness and by God as Michelangelo was obsessed by line and form, as Shakespeare was bewitched by language, Beethoven by sound.”

All saints love other human beings.

It cannot be any other way. In the First Letter of John (4:20) we read: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” McGinley also says that, although saints may be different in many ways, they are always generous. You will never find a stingy saint.

All saints are risk-takers.

When God called, they answered. For some it was taking a chance on a new way of life in a new place. Others found their calling in a quiet, reserved life, far away from the center of activity. Others, whose names are not well-known, lived simple lives among their families and friends, serving God with all their hearts, but never making a splash in the world. Regardless of their circumstances, all the saints took the risk of stepping out in faith to do what God asked of them.

The saints are humble, willingly and lovingly attributing to God all that they have and all that they will ever be.

Humility has always had a poor press; many people think that humility means saying derogatory things about oneself. Far from it! The saints showed their humility by using whatever gifts they had to perfection, but never attributing these gifts to themselves. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were brilliant men and they did not go around saying how stupid they were. They did acknowledge, however, that all they knew was as nothing compared to the infinite wisdom of God.

Saints are people of prayer.

Some, especially members of religious orders, had entire days of prayer. Others found their time with God in other ways. Dorothy Day, not canonized but recognized by many as a truly holy person, started her day with prayer but said that she met God daily in the crowds of the poor who came to her hospitality house. None of the saints saw prayer as a waste of time or as an activity for only the weak or naive.

The saints are not perfect.

Each of the saints had human flaws and faults. They made mistakes. Even at the end of their lives, they still found themselves in need of contrition, pardon and reconciliation. St. Jerome, it is said, had a fearful temper. St. Aloysius was the kind of saint who did not seem to know how to enjoy the things of this life. Some saints misunderstood their own visions. When St. Francis was told to rebuild the Church, and at first he thought it meant the local church building. It is interesting and amusing to note that Jesus did not clarify the request for him until after he had exerted a lot of sweat and energy repairing an old church.

If we look at the lives of all the saints, we can certainly find faults. Far from discouraging us, this can give us courage. Perfection is not what we are striving for, unless it is as perfect a love as possible. And this is the call to holiness that we all have because we are disciples of the Lord.