Some time ago I was involved in planing and fund-raising for a church in Seneca, SC. An artist friend, Cecile Martin, did the Stations of the Cross. Each one is a different medium or technique, and they are very different from the traditional stations. I really like them, but they have been controversial in the parish. Anyway, a minister friend of hers used the first station for a lenten reflection on his blog. It is short, but interesting. Go to http://rogerlovette.blogspot.com/2012/02/first-station-jesus-stands-before.html. At the bottom are pics of the church and the stations all together.
I had the privilege, when I was pastor of the parish in Clemson, South Carolina, of working with a wonderful Dominican nun, Sr. Doris.She is a great ball of energy, and efficient in getting things done.But she is so efficient, that she doesn’t bother with details. She had the un-nerving habit of beginning her conversations in the middle.She tended to leave out all the information you would need to figure out what she was talking about.She used to drive me nuts.Ever know anyone like that?I mention this because our Gospel today reminds me of Sr. Doris.Our Gospel today starts in the middle.It leaves out the first two words of the opening verse: “at once”.Go home and look it up in your bible, they start the verse in the middle.
It should begin, “At once”. “At once” after what? Well, to set the scene we need to go back three verses and start at verse nine: “It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water Jesus saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."
At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and Jesus remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan” and so on.
What is going on here? Jesus comes to John the Baptist and is baptized in the Jordan River. And Jesus has this wonderful experience: He saw the heavens being torn open - this is dramatic and impressive - and the Spirit of God descends on Him like a dove. Then Jesus hears a voice from the heavens. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Can you imagine how Jesus felt? It must have been wonderful! God the Father is just bursting with pride and joy over His Beloved Son Jesus, and Jesus must have swelled to the bursting point with gratitude and pride and deep, deep satisfaction. If you have ever had your parents or your spouse or a great friend tell you that they are really pleased in you, just so proud of you, you can get some idea of what Jesus felt.
Pretty good, huh? But the point is that Jesus is not allowed to stay there. He can not just bask and luxuriate in this warm, wonderful, fuzzy feeling. Because the very next words are the words left out of our opening verse in today’s Gospel. “At once”! No delay, no lingering to enjoy this revelation, no dawdling or hanging around.
Jesus has got work to do. “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and Jesus remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. “
The Spirit drives, or literally, throws Jesus into the desert, to be tested, to be tempted by Satan. This is not a polite invitation, but a strong push. Jesus is driven, compelled by the Spirit.
In the desert Jesus is tempted by Satan. The word translated as “tempted” literally means to be put to the test. Now testing, while usually not comfortable, is not necessarily a bad thing. Testing allows us to see if we have what it takes to make the grade. An ambitious athlete wants a challenge that will test his or her strength, endurance, agility, talent. It is only in a challenge that they can prove themselves and excel.
Well, in our Gospel it is like Jesus is being pushed into the ring of a boxing match. Jesus is the spiritual athlete par excellence, and Jesus proves his ability to hold firm, to not give in to Satan.
Mark cryptically tells us “He was among wild beasts”. Perhaps lions and tigers and bears, oh my! But more importantly the kind of wild beasts all of us face: all those powers outside us that work for destruction, such as war, crime, discrimination, poverty, disease; and all those untamed beasts inside us as well: rage, fear, lust, greed, envy. Jesus is struggling with all these wild beasts.
But St Mark also mentions, “and the angels ministered to him. “ Jesus is also supported by God’s grace.
My brothers and sisters, the church gives us this Gospel at the beginning of Lent to be a sort of plan or pattern, (or for those who like 25 cent words,) a “paradigm” for us in this holy season. We have been baptized, like Jesus. We are therefore God’s beloved children.
God sends God’s Spirit on us, and God is well pleased in you, and me, and every Baptized person. That is wonderful! But we cannot just stay there, basking in God’s pride in us. We have work to do.
And so just as Jesus went into the desert for 40 days to be tested, so we enter into this holy season of the 40 days of Lent, and we are tested. We are tested and tried in order to grow: in compassion, in forgiveness, in generosity, in chastity, in honesty, in courage, and of course, in love. We do works of penance, not in order to be miserable, but to become stronger as Christians, as other Christs.
For example, this Lent our generosity, and probably our patience, is tested by the many special appeals with which we are presented. Catholic causes love to make their appeals in Lent. And as always, the needs are great. This weekend we have a second collection to support Catholic higher education and campus ministry in the diocese. Next weekend, we take up our monthly collection for Persons in Need. Two weeks later we have the special collection for Catholic Relief Services, the charitable arm of the US Catholic Church. Then the last weekend in March we take up our Grand Tour Collection to support our St. Austin Catholic School. The following weekend, on April First, the Persons in Need Collection returns. Later that week, on Good Friday, we have a collection for the Holy Land. And on the next weekend, Easter, we have a second collection to support Diocesan seminarians and retired priests.
That is a test. The Spirit pushes us. But taken in the right way it can make us more generous, more compassionate, more genuine Christians.
We enter into this Lenten desert to be tested, so that we might grow.
And what happened to Jesus after his 40 days of training? Well, John the Baptist was arrested. Thrown into prison, and it was pretty clear he was not going to be coming out alive. Jesus knew this was the fate of the prophets, and that if He started down that road, He too would eventually be killed. It did not take divine foresight to figure that one out. So when John was arrested, Jesus could have shirked His mission, kept a low profile and lead a simple and quiet life as a Judean peasant. But He didn’t. St. Mark states: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."
Jesus passed the test. He proved his metal. He was up to the task. He got an A+! With God’s grace, we will do the same.
We are happy to have with us for this Lent a Paulist Novice, Mr. Stuart Wilson-Smith. We are privileged to assist thePaulists in their formation program in this way. Please make Stu feel welcome at St. Austin!
Greetings, St. Austin! My name is Stuart Wilson-Smith (but please call me Stu), and I am a novice with the Paulist Fathers. As a novice I am in my first year of formation and discernment with the community. As part of that discernment, each of us five novices are sent out to a different Paulist foundation to learn and experience Paulist life through service for the Lenten season.
A little about me:I was born and raised in Eastern Canada and went to school at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario, where I have for the most part been living since. As I do love to travel, I also have spent time living and working abroad in Ireland and backpacking through South and East Africa. Prior to entering formation with the Paulists, I worked at a musical instrument store and as a musician and songwriter.
At St. Austin I will be assisting at the weekday Masses, making myself available to the parish staff and offering a presentation in addition to other duties as they are assigned. I'm very excitedto be joining the community for this special time in our Liturgical year, and I sincerely look forward to meeting you.
It is now the second half of Feb. Already most New Year’s resolutions have gone bust. But not to worry, this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, when we can once again screw up our resolve and commit to new projects: perhaps giving up sweets – at least between meals - or going to weekday Mass once a week, or to be more patient and understanding, or for those seeking heroic virtue, to move all the way in to the center of the pew at Mass. We will struggle for the 40 or so days of Lent to adhere to these commitments, and we will be glad when we sing again the Easter Alleluia so we can go back to our old, lazy, ways.
What is going on? We know we should do some good thing, like lose weight, stop smoking, be more patient, pray more, etc. We WANT to do that thing. But even though we are committed, and we truly try, we are not 100% successful. That is because we don’t have possession of ourselves to be able to do it. Parts of our character, our personality, our personhood are NOT under our control. We do not have full possession of our own selves. We are not able to speak definitively of who we will be next year, or next month, or next week, or tomorrow or even a few hours from now. We lack discipline, which is to say we are not in full possession of ourselves.
Sometimes we try very hard to gather all we are and truly speak who we will be, truly posit ourselves a certain way in this life. When two people marry each other, when a young man is ordained a priest, when adults are baptized, when we renew our Baptismal Promises each year at Easter, we summon up all of our commitment, all of our being, and say, YES, this is who I am. The married couple say to each other, YES, I am for you for the rest of my life. The newly ordained priest says, YES, I am for the service of the people of God for all of the rest of my life. The parents and sponsors of an infant Baptism, the adults who will be Baptized at the Easter Vigil, all of us when we renew our Baptismal Promises, gather all that we are, we screw up our commitment and our resolve, and we give a resounding YES that this is our Faith, this is how we will act and believe and live in the world.
And we mean it. But we all know that is not the end of the story. As much as we try, there are little bits and pieces of our personality that are loose, that run wild, that have a mind of their own.
Sometimes married couples get tired of each other, bored, upset with each other. There are arguments and distance and coldness seeps in. Sometimes priests lose their fervor, cut corners, start seeking more their own interests and comfort than that of the Lord’s flock. Sometimes all the Baptized start making compromises to live in this world of sin rather than in the Kingdom of God. Every day every one of us has to struggle to be true to our word, to our commitments, to our YES.
Jesus also had to struggle. But He was always, and is always, YES. YES fully and completely to His Father, and YES fully and completely to each of us. His love for you and for me is NOT partial, not compromised, not incomplete. He is not 80% for each of us; not 90% for each of us; not even 99 and 44/100th % for us; but 100 COMPLETE, TOTAL, ABSOLUTE PERCENT for each and every one of us. As we heard in our second reading today from St Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, was not "yes" and "no, " but "yes" has been in him.”
Jesus is in total and complete possession of Himself. In Him there is no doubt, no misgivings, no hesitancy, no fear. He gives Himself totally and absolutely to His Father in heaven, and in the exact same way He gives Himself totally and absolutely to us. That is what we celebrate at each Mass in the Eucharist. He gives us His Body and His Blood, in other words ALL of Himself, holding nothing back, in order to feed us and to save us. He is all and absolute YES.
“For” as St Paul proclaims in our 2nd reading, “however many are the promises of God, their Yes is in him;” And the promises of God are infinite and eternal, for the promise of God is nothing short of absolute, complete, eternal life with Him.
St. Paul states: “The one who gives us security with you in Christ
and who anointed us is God; he has also put his seal upon us
and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.”
God has put his seal on us. In Texas we might say God has branded us. This is a permanent, lasting, indelible mark. It identifies us as God’s own, and under God’s protection. If any evil spirit, or any persecution or doubt or misfortune messes with us, they have to answer to God. This mark is permanent, more than any indelible marker can make them.
This means that no matter what dirt, or filth or sin we try to hide and obscure this mark with, it will still be there just as clear and strong as ever, stating, THIS ONE BELONGS TO GOD. Because this mark goes down to the very tips of the roots of our identity, our sense of who we are. We are children of God.
St. Paul says: “God has also put his seal upon us and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.” The seal is the Gift of the Spirit that we receive in Confirmation. Well, the Holy Spirit that we are sealed with is the LOVE that is breathed forth – or “aspirated” - between the Father and Son in the inner life of the Holy Trinity. This gift of the Holy Spirit pulls us into the very inner life of God. This is a “first installment”, a pledge, a guarantee of the fullness of God’s life and love that we will enjoy for all eternity in heaven. That is what redemption, what salvation, is all about. That is our hope.
We struggle to say YES to God’s invitation to be God’s children. But God in Jesus is always, always, always YES. So our hope is not on our ability to respond, but rather on God’s irrepressible invitation. “For however many are the promises of God, their Yes is in him; therefore, the Amen from us also goes through him to God for glory.” Amen? AMEN!!!
Last weekend we welcomed Rev. Mr. Billy Atkins as a permanent deacon on the parish staff. This is a new position for St. Austin and one that I believe was, frankly, overdue; so I am very happy that we now have a deacon and hope that we will be able to call other men from our parish to this very important ministry.
This focusing on deacons recalls for me my time as a deacon.I was a “transitional” deacon, meaning it was a stage in my training on the way to be a priest. I was ordained a deacon on September 13, 1977, which is quite a while ago. At that time Paulist seminarians were sent out for their deacon year and were ordained in the local Paulist foundation. Around that time, in the late 70’s, there probably were diaconal ordinations here at St. Austin. I was ordained in North Pole, Alaska by the bishop of Fairbanks, Bishop Robert Whelan, SJ. Even though I was ordained by a Jesuit, it was still a Catholic ordination!
One of the curious things about my ordination is that both the Catholic Church and the local Lutheran Church down the block were under construction at the same time. The Lutherans (not surprisingly) were better organized, and their church was further along in construction than was our Catholic church at the time of my ordination, so we borrowed the Lutheran church, and I was ordained a deacon in a Lutheran church building. The Lutheran Pastor did one of the first readings for the ordination Mass, but I had two Catholic Bishops there (the retired Bishop of Fairbanks, Francis Gleason, SJ, joined us) just to make sure the ordination “took.”
In Alaska at that time (and hopefully still), permanent deacons were an important feature of the Catholic Church in the remote Eskimo villages. Sometimes the elders of the village would decide who was to be the deacon, and then that person would go off to study and be ordained. The Eskimo deacons were the mainstay of the Catholic village life. I was fortunate to have an Eskimo deacon at my deacon ordination, and he proclaimed the Gospel in Yupik, an Eskimo language.
I was a deacon for only eight months, but I enjoyed my time as a deacon and even got to preside at the wedding of my sister Barbara and her husband while a deacon. I was ordained a priest by Cardinal Terrance Cooke in New York City on May 13, 1978.
Fortunately, the number of deacons continues to grow in our country. This is a great blessing. In some Western dioceses the number of permanent deacons is now greater than the number of priests. Here in the diocese of Austin the number of deacons is approaching that of the number of priests. And I fully expect that someday, perhaps not in the too distant future, the permanent deacons at St. Austin’s will outnumber the priests on staff.That is the future.
It gives me great pleasure to announce that Bishop Joe Vásquez has appointed Deacon Billy Atkins to St. Austin Parish. Rev. Mr. Atkins is a Diocesan Permanent Deacon. Not only is he new on the parish staff, but his position is new for St. Austin as well. Below is an introduction from him. I look forward to working with him in serving this parish community, and I trust you will make him feel at home here.
Hello St. Austin! My name is Billy Atkins, and effective February 5 I’ve been blessed to be assigned to this impressive parish community as a permanent Deacon. Things seem to be moving so fast that just when I start to get sad about leaving my old parish, I learn of some activity at St. Austin that sparks my interest and excitement. Just as I start to feel anxious about leaving a community I’ve known for 20 or so years, I meet a bunch of warm, friendly and welcoming folks at St. Austin who make me feel right at home.Until we get a chance to meet personally, Fr. Chuck suggested that I tell you a little bit about myself, my family and my ministry as a permanent Deacon.
I was born in a far away, distant land called Odessa. I have three brothers, one sister, a pack of nieces and nephews, and even a brand new great-niece. My parents are both deceased. I originally came to Austin almost thirty years ago to go to school and work at the Capitol.
My wife, Myra Leo, and I will have been married for 10 years this September. Myra comes from a small ranching community in South Texas. She has two sisters, two brothers and a slew of nieces and nephews. Myra also came to Austin to go to school and work at the Capitol. One interesting note: while she was going to U.T., she lived in Newman Hall.
Myra works for a law firm, K&L Gates, as a Government Affairs Advisor, and I work for the City of Austin Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Although we don’t have any children of our own, Myra’s younger sister and her husband live in Austin and have two boys, Ben and Nicholas. We’re so fond of those two boys that many people have said that instead of a doting aunt and uncle we act more like a pair of obsessive grandparents. Also, we have a number of God-children that we adore.
On February 6, 2010, after five years of discernment and formation, I was ordained by Archbishop Gregory Aymond to the office of permanent Deacon for the Diocese of Austin. My first assignment was to my home parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe in East Austin. After many, many, many months of prayer and discernment Myra and I decided to say “yes” to the call of St. Austin.
As I mentioned earlier, this transition has been one of sadness/excitement/apprehension/reassurance. Again, to the few of you that we’ve met so far, we deeply appreciate your warmth during this time of transition, and to the rest of you, we look forward to meeting you very soon.
To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker: We may not have been born at St. Austin, but we got here as quick as we could; although Myra would say this community was her first introduction to Austin way back when.
Very early, before dawn, Jesus gets up, leaves Capernaum - the town where today’s Gospel is set - and goes off to a deserted place. Jesus wants to get away from it all. He looks for someplace where He could be alone. Of course He was not really alone. Jesus was with His Father. And Jesus prays.
Later in the morning, the Apostles get up. Eventually it dawns on the Apostles that Jesus is gone. They set out to look for him. Finally Simon, also known as Peter, finds Jesus, and has this wonderful line: “Everybody is looking for you.”
The important question is “Why?” Why are they looking for him? What do they want from Jesus?
Well, the answer is pretty obvious. Just the night before Jesus had cured many who were sick with various diseases, and drove out many demons. The people wanted cures. They wanted to find Jesus so that they could tap into His power and be healthy, so that they would not hurt, so they would be well and comfortable.
Can you blame them? We all want some help against the pain and sorrow and misery of this life. Look at all the drugs and painkillers we use. Our first reading from the book of Job puts it well, if bluntly: “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of hirelings? ..... Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.”
Admittedly this is a downer, but a lot of life is like that. I remember talking to a person who had been attending a self-help group for adult survivors of child abuse. And this person talked about how much the other people in the group had suffered, all through no fault of their own, how much hurt was out there. With war and disease and crime there is always a lot of suffering, a lot of hurt. You don’t have to look far to find hurt. In fact we spend a lot of time and effort to keep ourselves distracted and to NOT look at all the pain and suffering around us. We look to be entertained.
And then Jesus comes along and heals, He makes the wounds whole, heals the illnesses, eases the aches and pains, restores health and vigor. Then He casts out the demons, of gambling addiction, of alcoholism, of eating disorders, of low self esteem, of depression and anxiety, of all those demons that beset us and beset those we love.
Of course the people love it.They think this is wonderful!.And so they are looking for Jesus in order to make their lives easier.
It is a good reason to look for Jesus, but not a good enough reason. For Jesus has a mission. “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” Jesus heals, not in order to make us feel good, not so that we can be comfortable and at ease, but in order to enable us to participate in His mission. Jesus heals us so that we can follow Him. He is on the move. He has work to do, and He invites us to share in that work.
Do you remember St. Peter’s Mother-in-law at the beginning of the Gospel? She got it right. Jesus took her by the hand, helped her up, the fever left her, and then what? She did not plop down in front of the TV, say “Thank God I feel so much better”, She did not grab her purse go out shopping, nor did she get on the phone and call all her friends to tell them about her miraculous cure. No. What did she do? She waited on them. She understood that her healing was not really just to make her feel good, but to enable her to serve. That is why we are healed.
It is another form of the essential Christian paradox: we must loose in order to find. We must give in order to receive. We must die in order to live. We are healed in order to serve.
There are three important lessons that we need to learn from this Gospel story.
One, Jesus is able to heal us, in all the ways that we hurt and are broken.
Two, Jesus does want to heal us. He wants us to be whole and holy.
Three, and in some ways the most important, is WHY Jesus heals us. He heals us so that we can be disciples, so that we can follow Him. That is the deepest healing of all.
I don’t want to bore you, but enough have asked about my recent Retreat-Pilgrimage to Central America that I would like to give you an over-all impression of my trip.
The Retreat-Pilgrimage was conducted by four Maryknoll priests who each had spent decades working in Central America and so could speak firsthand about the situation they had lived. A deacon of the Archdiocese of New York, who works for Maryknoll in Mission Promotion, was also part of the team. Fourteen diocesan priests, three diocesan permanent deacons and myself were the retreatants. While in Guatemala City our accommodations were at the Maryknoll Regional Center and were very nice. For three nights we also stayed at the Maria Eugenia Retreat House in San Salvador, with a great view of the city, gardens that were spectacular, and barking dogs and crowing roosters that kept us awake most of the night. We also slept one night on mats on the floor at Santiago Atitlán, which really wasn’t too bad for one night. At least there we weren’t serenaded by dogs and chickens! We twice had armed guards accompany us over sections of road that were dangerous due to criminal activity, but we never had any violence or trouble on the entire trip.
We visited the chapel where Bishop Oscar Romero was gunned down while saying Mass. Each of us placed our hand on the altar where he was martyred, and the Sister there lead us in a very moving prayer. Interestingly, she removed her shoes before coming up on the sanctuary, as a sign of respect. We were not able to visit Romero’s gravesite in the Cathedral of San Salvador, as the Cathedral was occupied by protesters. We visited the site where the bodies of four North American Church women were discovered after they had been raped and murdered and had Mass there in a chapel built by the Cleveland, Ohio mission team. We saw the rose garden where the bodies of six slain Jesuits at the University of Central America, their housekeeper and her daughter were found. They had all been shot in the head, execution style. We visited the garage where Bishop Juan Gerardi was killed two days after presenting the Church’s findingson the years of murders and oppression in Guatemala. We visited the room in Santiago Atitlán where Fr. Stanley Rother – a priest of the Diocese of Tulsa, OK – was murdered. The bullet the assassins used to kill him was recovered, and it was a special military type of bullet made in the U.S. and probably paid for by our tax dollars. We visited the site of a massacre by the Guatemalan Army and heard the story from an actual eyewitness, a young man who was just a boy at the time. He was “lucky” enough to be hidden by fallen bodies and was able to escape. We also heard from an Indian woman whose husband, a catechist, was “disappeared.” She saved 11 children from two different families whose parents had been murdered by the military in front of the children. Somehow the kids escaped and the military were looking for them to eliminate all witnesses. With great bravery this lady bluffed her way through three military checkpoints, claiming all 11 were her own, to finally deliver them to safety. And we heard about the story of Fr. Bill Woods, a Maryknoll priest from Houston, TX, who earned the enmity of the Guatemalan military by helping campesinos acquire land in co-operatives and was shot down in his small plane.
Over and over we heard terrible stories of murders, massacres, rapes, torture and brutality. But we also heard of incredible courage and dedication of missionaries to people in need that were truly heroic. We always viewed the deaths of the missionaries not as defeats but as tremendous victories of love and the Holy Spirit.
The trip was powerful, challenging, informative, and it left me feeling very proud of the bravery and dedication of the church, and especially the missionaries, who have accompanied a persecuted and hurting people for many decades. It is a wonderful,if costly, testament to the Catholic Church in the work for healing and justice.