Prisca and Aquila

Saturday I attended the St. Catherine University winter retreat day for students and alumni of the school’s Masters in Theology program (for which I do some adjunct teaching).  The keynote was delivered by Edward Hahnenberg, a professor at John Carroll University, who spoke on the subject Ministry with a Mission: The Work and Witness of Lay Ministers Today.

Early in his talk, Hahnenberg quoted language from the 2005 USCCB document Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: “The same God who called Prisca and Aquila to work with Paul in the first century calls thousands of men and women to minister in our Church in the twenty-first century.”   Indeed, the title of the 2005 document itself is a reference to Prisca and Aquila, who are referred to by Paul as his co-workers.

The names Prisca and Aquila are familiar to many, but their story is less familiar.

Like Paul, Prisca and Aquila were leatherworkers.  The couple, followers of Jesus before they met Paul, left Rome after the Roman emperor Claudius issued an edict expelling all Jews from that city.  They moved to Corinth shortly before Paul arrived there.  A deep and lasting friendship developed between the two of them and Paul and they began to work with him.  At some point, they moved to Ephesus with Paul.  When Paul left that city, he left Prisca and Aquila in charge of the church of Ephesus.  In the mid-50s, the couple returned to Rome, where Paul greeted them as his “co-workers.”

Hahnenberg made the point that many have an image of Paul as a solitary missionary.   The reality is that he survived because of the hospitality of many fellow Christians who traveled and ministered with him.  People like Prisca and Aquila  – who Paul referred to as “co-workers” and “collaborators” – were instrumental to the success of his ministry, and it is good to remember that.

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I Believe in God

Today was the first of a three-class series on the Creed I am teaching for the Our Lady of Lourdes parish RCIA candidates.  I began by talking about what we mean by a creed and why having one matters.  I then spent most of time dealing with the first part of the creed – where we affirm believe in “God, the father, Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”  There is a lot packed in that first line – starting with the first four words.

I believe in God.  The first part of this first segment of the Creed does nothing to distinguish Christians from non-Christians. That is, all religious people who follow a theistic faith – whatever their particular religious beliefs – share the conviction that “God” exists – that God is something real that truly exists whatever their understanding or concept of God, and whether or not they use the term “God” or “Allah” or “Jehovah” or something else.  (Even some people who are nontheistic, have a sense of something transcendent.)  Having said that, the line matters tremendously.

Luke Timothy Johnson says that to declare that God exists “suggests that the world we see and touch points to a power or powers beyond our own and outside our control, beyond our sight and touch, which must be taken into account even if we are to give an adequate account of the world that we can touch and see.  To affirm the existence of God, then, means to affirm that the physical world, which can be measured and calculated, is not all that is.”

That, he claims is a critical theological concept.  Because we are not here affirming one belief among many, that is not a belief of limited consequences.  Rather it is statement of belief that commits us to a fundamental posture toward everything else that exists.  Everything else depends on the truth of this statement, a statement that we can’t prove in the way we can prove geometric theorems.

And so, by affirming God’s existence, I affirm (in the word of Joan Chittister) that “I am steering by a star I cannot see but which I am convinced is there.”  And that affects everything about who I am in the world.

Looking Back

Many of us with an Ignatian Spirituality do a daily Examen, a prayerful process of looking back over our day with God, recogizing God’s movement in the events of our day.

As we begin a new year, we might take some time to look back over the past year.Xavier University’s Jesuitsource.org has posted a worthwhile examen for that purpose.  You might take some time with it over the next couple of days.

As I review the past 12 months, from a year ago through to the present moment:
What am I especially grateful for this year?

An event that took place?
Courage that I mustered?
Love and support I received?

I ask for the light to know God and to know myself as God sees me.

Where have I felt true joy this year?
What troubled me this year?
What has challenged me?
Where and when did I find an opportunity for renewal and pause?

Have I noticed God’s presence in any of this?

In light of my review, what is my response to the God of my life?

As I look ahead, to the coming months what comes to mind?
With what spirit do I want to enter the next few months? The next year?

I ask for God’s presence and grace, for this spirit, as I enter the next year.

Amen.

Christmas Doesn’t Come, It Starts

My friend Sarah Farnes, Program Manager for the Office for Spirituality at the University of St. Thomas, wrote a lovely reflection during Advent.  Her message, I think, is even more important as we wind up our Christmas Day festivities.  She write

Christmas is a point of departure. We must understand that Christmas does not come, Christmas starts.

For too many of us, we busy ourselves with preparations for Christmas celebrations. We worry about decorating the house just right, updating the dinner menu, and buying the last of the needed gifts. We are filled with holiday cheer and generosity. Then, Christmas Day arrives and before we know it, the day and festivities are gone.

But in reality, everything should start from Christmas. Jesus did not come so everything would remain as it was before His advent. He came into our midst to change everything; and specially to change our lives. By Christmas we are born again, the world is renewed, and just as the priest says during the Holy Mass, it is, “through Him, in Him and within Him…” My friends, Christmas is a time that should awaken us; our life, our heart. It is our heart that grows, and heals, and makes us true Christmas lights where we can love, just as He loves.

There is much wisdom in Sarah’s words.  Jesus came to change everything.  So let us view Christmas as our departure point, not just a day that came and went.

What Will You Give?

Christmas is just about here!  Are we ready?

One of the songs that always comes to my mind at this juncture is In the Bleak Midwinter, the lyrics to which are taken from a poem by the 19th Century English poet, Christina Rosetti.

The last verse of that song asks a question that I would ask you to reflect on today.  It is a question we all need to ask ourselves as we approach Chistmas: What can I give Him? What gift can I lay before the creche on Christmas morning?

The song not only asks the question, but provides perhaps the best answer one can provide to the question:

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him — Give my heart.

What will you give as a gift to the Christ child?

What would it mean to you to give your heart?

Praying in These Last Days Before Christmas

As we enter the final week before Christimas, consider making the O Antiphons, a part of your prayer.

The O Antiphons, which form part of evening prayer during the Octave before Christmas, are familiar to almost everyone in at least one form.  Almost everyone, even if he or she doesn’t pray them in their traditional form, recognizes them from their appearance in a modified form in the popular Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Each of the seven antiphons highlights a different title for the Messiah, each refers to a prophesy of Isaiah and each contains a different petition. (You can find the O Antiphons in their traditional form, with accompanying scriptural texts, here.)

In different Advent retreat settings, I’ve encouraged retreatants to write their own O Antiphons. We live in a different time and place than when the “O” antiphons were composed. In addition, each of us has our own needs and our own issues with God. Writing our own “O” antiphons gives expression to: Who is God for me? How do I name God? And what are my deepest needs? How do I need God to come to me.

I engaged in this prayer exercise myself during an Advent Week of Directed Prayer several years ago.  Both the writing of the antiphons and the reflection surrounding the writing was a special time between me and God.  It was powerful because it involved articulating my answers to questions such as those I just posed

I encourage you engage in the same exercise.  As the birth of the Savior draws near, what is the yearning in you this week?  What are the places in your life that cry out for redemption?  Name these.  These are the source of our personal O Antiphons.

The Ongoing Invitation to Conversion

The University of St. Thomas’s Office for Spirituality sponsors seasonal reflections during Advent and Lent.  I authored today’s reflection, based on Isaiah 35.  Here it he reflection I wrote:

Today’s first Mass reading comes from Isaiah, one of the major prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures and one of the great prophets of Advent.

The Book of Isaiah opens with what is a scathing indictment of the people of Israel. In the second verse, we hear the Lord say, “Sons have I raised and reared, but they have disowned me!” And immediately thereafter, God laments: “Ah! sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! They have forsaken the Lord.”

But in that same opening chapter, God also invites: “Come now, let us set things right…Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow.” Even in the midst of judgment – while cataloging the great sins of the people and the extent to which they have fallen away – is the promise that things do not have to be this way.

Today’s first reading captures something of the promise of better things to come. “The desert and the parched land will exult…. streams will burst forth in the desert…. those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing…sorrow and mourning will flee.”

What strikes me as I pray with Isaiah’s indictment of the people of Israel is that our society is not very different from the society that Isaiah witnessed. A world that in many ways has turned its back on God, replacing God with the idols of rampant individualism and money. A world that rewards promotion of the self to the exclusion of others; that encourages individual pursuits vs. communal goals. A world where we worship much that is not good, much that is not God.

Yet, there is still God’s promise. One preacher summarizes Isaiah’s Advent message like this: “No matter how much the world shatters into pieces, we carry in ourselves a vision of wholeness that we all sense is our true home and that welcomes us. ‘I have called you by name and you are mine.'”

And just as Isaiah called the people to prepare the way of the Lord, we are called to do the same – not only in Advent, but in each day of our lives. Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom requires our active participation. We don’t get to just sit around complacently and wait for the vision to become reality. Instead, we are called to labor with God to make it so. God continues to work through us to prepare for Christ’s reign.

Note: You can read the daily reflections here; you can also subscribe to receive them by e-mail.