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Who Are We?

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

After the recent attack on the National Capitol, several people said “This is not who we are.” Well, if “we” means everybody, all the citizens, then in part, at least, it is who we are. Some of “us,” our brothers and sisters, decided to resort to force to challenge the peaceful transition of power. This peaceful transition has been a hallmark of this country.

There have been other contested elections, leading to some underlying anger I am sure, but none of the parties resorted to violent force to try to change things. There is something stirring in “us,” the people, that is unhealthy and dangerous.

Among other things, there seems to be an ever-present streak of racism in this backlash. Historically, there have been other occasions when people of color or ethnic minorities seemed to be gaining some deserved power in society, where there has been a white backlash against them.

Who are we? We who claim to be Christian and followers of Jesus are to see all people as our brothers and sisters. How are we doing? It is again for each of us to look deep inside and see if there are roots of fear and prejudice.

If I am white, how really do I feel about people of darker skin? If I am of dark skin, how do I feel about white people? (Some fear might be understandable.) If I am a man, how do I feel about women gaining more of their deserved freedom and power? We could go on to thoughts about religion, sexual orientation, or other designations.

When people say “this is not who we are,” we are called by Christ to examine who we truly are, and look to him for guidance, wisdom, and healing.

Baptism of Jesus

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

We close the Christmas Season with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. I’m sure, as this day comes along each year, some people ask, “Why would Jesus have to be baptized?” Traditionally we have connected baptism with the removal of “original sin,” as well as our entry into the Church. Also, in the Bible the baptism of John is called a “baptism of repentance.” In view of all of this, why would Jesus have to be baptized?

First of all, there is no “have to,” no necessity in Jesus being baptized. We should see this event as symbolizing something that God, in Christ, chose to do. It continues what we have been celebrating at Christmas time: Incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus came to be with us in our human experience. And so he asked John to baptize him as a way of showing that he is truly with us.

Our way of being with Jesus begins with our baptism. Jesus was proclaimed the beloved Son in whom God is well pleased. We share in that: each of us is a beloved daughter or son of God. It is important to truly believe that. We have value simply in being human beings, sons and daughters of God. In difficult moments maybe we forget that, or lose sight of our basic value.

Whatever our experience, Jesus stands shoulder to shoulder with us on the journey. That is very much the meaning of why he participated in the baptism of John.

The Sign of the Cross

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

We are in the beginning of a New Year. It is the custom of Catholics to begin and end many things with the Sign of the Cross. I believe that it is good for us to stop and take a look at things that are very familiar to us. There is a danger that they might become too familiar, and easily passed over.

I suggest that when we make the Sign of the Cross, we do it consciously and deliberately. Sometimes, to see the gesture made by some people, we can apply the joking phrase, “the swatting of flies!”  We must not judge, of course, but we can observe.

At the baptism of a child, parents and godparents are invited to sign the child on the forehead with a Sign of the Cross as a way of welcoming the child into the Church. So we are signed with the Sign of Christ from the beginning. It is also a reminder that our bodies, and not only our spirits, are to live in service of Christ in the world.

In normal times, when we enter the church building, we use holy water and sign ourselves as a reminder of our baptism. And so we ought to consciously and deliberately touch our forehead, our chest, and our shoulders, reminding ourselves that, as Christians, whatever we do, it is done under the Sign of the Cross of Christ.

St. Joseph

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

One of the central figures in our Christmas celebration is St. Joseph. Yet in the Bible we read no word that he spoke. We are simply told some things that he did.

He is called a “just man.” One way of describing justice is that it involves “right relationships,” giving each person what is due him or her. Joseph is called “just” because of the way he treated Mary when faced with the puzzling situation of her pregnancy. Of course, he gets some divine help through a dream. “Do not be afraid to take Mary,  your wife, into your home.”

I do not get direct messages in dreams or from angels and so I don’t know what this was like for Joseph. But he got the message and followed it. He basically became the protector of Mary and Jesus. He was also probably a practical man, a carpenter, used to working with his hands. So, just, practical, hard worker, loving father: not a bad person to get to know.

From a few lines in the Bible, a great tradition of devotion has developed in the Church. And now Pope Francis has decided to dedicate the coming year to Joseph: a time for all of us to reflect on our experience. How are we doing at justice: treating each person with respect? How are we at paying attention to the subtle hints of the Holy Spirit in our decision making?

How are we at caring for and supporting the people close to us? St. Joseph, be our guide.

The Child Inside

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

In the “secular” seasonal song, “The Christmas Song,” it says, “So I’m offering a simple phrase, to kids from one to ninety-two . . .” and it goes on to wish us a Merry Christmas. “Kids from one to ninety-two” includes just about everybody. All us kids.

It seems to me that the things that touch us about Christmas tap into feelings and memories that begin in childhood, where we first learned about Christmas. For children, it starts with the externals: Christmas trees, lights, Santa Claus, “getting” presents, cookies, candy. But if our family was at all religious, soon the basic meaning of the day is woven into the whole picture: the birth of Christ.

Much of my feeling of Christmas is about music, starting with the classic carols. My Mom played the piano and I can still remember the carol book she used at the piano. I imagine I sang along. But there is something nostalgic about Christmas music, especially the religious kind, which tugs at me, and I never tire of it. I’m sure this tugging taps into childhood memories, as well as experiences I have had since.

I would guess that, as we get older, we can become a bit jaded, and tend to set aside “the things of a child.” I would caution against that. I suggest that, at Christmas time, when we get a vague feeling of nostalgia, warmth, a touch of joy, that we pay attention to that and give in to it. Such thoughts and feelings can lead us to further thoughts of the birth of Christ into humanity, and a call to express the Christian qualities of kindness, charity, good will, and true caring for others.

Our world badly needs those expressions toward all our brothers and sisters. They are childlike, but also mature in the best sense.

Gaudete Sunday

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

December 13 is the Third Sunday of Advent. The season zips by quickly. After all these years, I should not be surprised. It is not a long season, being only 26 days this year. It is shorter or longer, depending on the day of the week of Christmas Day.

But the shortness of the season is always a call to come back to the present moment, to this day (whatever day it is) to notice the Advent of God, of Jesus Christ, in this moment. We believe God is always present. We don’t always advert to that, especially when distracted by our problems, or maybe by our good times!

Traditionally this is “Gaudete” Sunday, from the opening Latin word of the liturgy: “Rejoice.” A few of us friars were recently discussing how we can be told to rejoice, by St. Paul and others. We don’t always feel like rejoicing. And yet it is part of our Christian tradition and spirituality to go deeper beneath our negative feelings to find a way of rejoicing in the presence of God. This may not be dancing or “jumping for joy,” but a quiet sense of trust and hope in God.

And so that remains part of the Advent call. Seek the presence of God in any moment. After 75 years on the earth, I still need reminders and encouragement. How about you? Gaudete.

Rejoice.

Advent

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

Another Advent is upon us: one of the ways by which Christian people mark their journey through the years. According to some religious writing, Advent ideally is a time for quiet reflection on the meaning of the Incarnation, time to think about the different ways in which Christ has come or will come into our lives. It might be seen as a time for quiet walks on moonlit snow, or a time to sit by the fire and read the Bible and other religious materials. The ideal is one thing; our reality may be different.

For some, Advent and December become times of feverish activity. Quiet reflections give way to shopping and decorating and perhaps attending too many Christmas parties long before the day itself. Though in this year the pandemic may take care of that problem.

With the best of intentions, some people might get discouraged as Christmas draws near and feel the season “got away” from them again. Maybe that’s why we need to repeat it every year, as with other aspects of our spiritual lives: try and try again.

Also, during this season, there may be warnings in church about crass secularism and materialism and “leaving Christ out of Christmas.” Dire warnings may do more harm than good.

It may be helpful to be more intentional about the things we ordinarily do in this season. If there is baking and cooking, perhaps we could see a connection with the table fellowship of Eucharist, which is at the center of our worship. As we choose gifts, let this be truly out of love and care for persons. When we write and address cards, we can let this be a moment of prayerful gratitude for the good memories we have of these people in our lives.

For Advent, there ought to be formal times of prayer, but we can let our spirit of prayer flow over into the other practices of the season.

Passage of Time

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

I am writing this on the 57th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy. Many of us remember what we were doing when we heard this news. I was doing some cleaning in our seminary. Those were grim days. We wondered if the country was in some danger. I’m sure the military were on high alert.

Now all that is in the past, part of our history. I think of that as we go through our own historical time. The pandemic. We would rather not be experiencing this, but here we are. It is important to note that someday all this will also be our history. Some of you will tell stories to your grandchildren.

In the meantime, we, as people of faith, need to keep our perspective in the present moment. How shall we live our faith in the face of sickness and death and financial struggles? We wonder when this will end. Will there be a “new normal?” Even in this tedium, one friar recently mentioned how quickly the weeks seem to be passing. That may be a perspective of some of us who are older. He is well beyond 80.

In our lives of prayer and spirit, we think of past, present, and future. We look back on the past, remarking how quickly things fade into our history. About the future, we know little and wonder. The teachers of prayer urge us to find the presence of God in our present moment, whatever it is handing to us. We ask for what we need. We find things for which to give thanks.

National Attitude

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

Recently I was struck by a comment from a man on the radio. He was discussing the mood of the country. With some sadness, and maybe sarcasm, he suggested that many people in this country are not all about freedom and equality and caring about their fellow citizens, but that the attitude of many is “No one can tell me what to do!” He suggested that is what it means to some people to be a U. S. citizen: “No one can tell me what to do!”

Of course, there was no scientific survey to determine how many people might think this way, and it was one man’s opinion. But, judging by much behavior reported in the news, the man may be on to something. And if it is at all true among many of us, then we are in some trouble. Well, we have been in some trouble, especially since March, when the world changed.

We, as a country, are badly in need of reconciliation, healing, and acceptance of each other. We are in need of respecting each other, even as we acknowledge our differences. We need to move beyond our tribalism and party loyalty, when the “other side” is always wrong, or even dangerous. “How could anyone vote for that guy?” say both sides.

Even among some who call themselves Christian, we seem to have moved far from “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the peacemakers” and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We need to move beyond “no one can tell me what to do” to a spirit of looking around to see what we can do for someone else.

Blindness and Sight

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

The Gospel for Monday of the 33rd Week is the story of the healing of a blind man . The stories of healing the blind are not only about the cure of one person; they are meant to point further to the issue of personal or spiritual blindness.

I can still hear an old recording by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr where he says emphatically, “It’s all about seeing, brothers and
sisters!” And he and other wise people have reminded us that when we look at anything, we see things not so much as they are, but we see as we are. In other words, as we look at the world, at current events, at our relationships, we see from a foundation of our own bias, perspective, and prejudice.

If we want to grow and deepen and mature in our spiritual lives, or in our human lives even aside from religion, we are invited to be aware of our own biases as we look at the world and people around us. We are invited to admit we may not be seeing clearly, with our eyes and our minds. This admission enables us to be open to more learning and understanding.

A classic example is the husband and wife who, after the children have left home, look at each other and say “I don’t know you.” They need to look and look again. The message is there for all of us. We can look and look again at our world, and keep praying the prayer of the blind man, “Lord, please let me see.”

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