Sunday's Gospel: Jesus Loved a Good Paradox

The following is republished with permission from my column in Catechist magazine. For subscription information, visit

This Sunday’s reading from John’s Gospel (click here to read John 12:20-33) prepares us for the imminent death of Jesus. We hear Jesus’ own words of dread (“I am troubled now”), but above all, we hear hints of the glory to come.

The Gospel’s message about Jesus’ death is conveyed in several paradoxes. (A paradox is a meaningful combination of two seemingly opposite truths.) The first paradox Jesus uses is from nature: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Jesus’ death, painful as it will be, will bear fruit. Death, which seems like an absolute end, will do something. It will produce.

Another paradox encourages the disciple of Jesus to espouse the same attitude of self-giving: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” Of course, Jesus does not literally want us to hate our lives. The powerful language is meant to convey the reality that Jesus is about to live out. It is only in willingly giving ourselves up that we actually preserve our lives. It is only in willingly giving ourselves up that we follow Jesus and remain with him.

The greatest paradox of all is the fact that in death Jesus is glorified. One might think of death as a defeat or an end, especially a violent death such as the one Jesus will face. But Jesus is clear: In his death, he will be glorified! Because of this perspective, the Passion Narrative (the story of Jesus’ suffering and death) in John’s Gospel has traditionally been called the “Book of Glory.”

This is an essential reminder as Holy Week approaches. It will not be a week of doom and gloom. It is a week of glory!

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, you are ready to lay down your life like a grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies. May I be there with you, to witness your glory and imitate you so that I also may bear fruit.

 Frantisek Burant, Drypoint. Courtesy  Sacred Art Pilgrim .

Frantisek Burant, Drypoint. Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.

But I Say to You

There’s a line from C.S. Lewis’ brilliant and imaginative book The Great Divorce that comes back to me a few times a year. It convicts me, in a good way.

In The Great Divorce, folks who have died are freely offered entrance into Paradise (which Lewis describes fantastically). There’s just one hitch. They have to give up the thing that’s dragging them down, the thing that holds them back, the thing they’ve clung to all their lives. They don’t have to cure themselves or fix everything. They just have to let go of a burden. Turns out, after a lifetime of habitual living, that’s pretty hard to do.

One plucky soul has a lot to say to his heavenly guide about why he thinks he’s just fine as he is. What need is there to change? Why would someone dare to ask more of him? And so comes the fateful line: “I’ve done my best!” His heavenly guide responds, “Have you? Have you really?”

The question pains me.

No, I haven’t. I really haven’t.

There’s a lot of talk these days about not being too hard on ourselves. And that’s good in the sense that self-loathing and undue pressure are hurtful and counterproductive. But in affirming our humanity and accepting our shortcomings – and letting go of some of the empty expectations the world places on us – we mustn’t excuse ourselves from the very high standards that God has for us. Not expectations that emerge from a task-masterly nature or a cool unkindness. I’m talking about expectations that emerge from love.

The Sermon on the Mount is a case in point. To paraphrase Jesus, “You have heard it said that you should not kill. But I say to you, do not even be angry with your brothers and sisters.” Or, “You have heard it said that you should love your neighbor. But I say to you, love even your enemy.” If we are full of excuses (and full of ourselves), we will simply never achieve these things.

We are loved beyond our own imagining by the God who created us. The Scriptures describe a God who is enamored with his people, who cannot leave or abandon them without betraying his very self. But because of this undying love, he wants us to strive higher, harder, longer and without compromise. Yes, he loves us as we are. And yes, he demands more from us every single day.

Sometimes we can honestly say, “I did my best.” But sometimes we just say that because we don’t want to try harder. What does “trying harder” look like in your life? How will you give him more, this God who loves you so?

P.S. I loaned my copy of The Great Divorce to someone, so I’m paraphrasing here! I highly recommend the book. It’s short, creative, and it makes wonderful Lenten reading.

 A mixed media piece depicting a scene from  The Great Divorce : "Ghosts." © Monica Dyer. Shared with permission. Visit Monica's website to see some of her beautiful artwork: .

A mixed media piece depicting a scene from The Great Divorce: "Ghosts." © Monica Dyer. Shared with permission. Visit Monica's website to see some of her beautiful artwork:

Why We Love Our Ashes

Anyone who has worked in a Catholic parish knows what to expect on and around Ash Wednesday: telephone calls at all hours, strangers randomly showing up for ashes, folks leaving after receiving their ashes but before receiving the Eucharist. Among the “regulars,” there’s a lot of eye-rolling and head-shaking, and an overwhelming desire to figure out why, on this day, getting ashes is the single-minded compulsion of every Catholic on the planet.

But what if this yearly “ash mania” isn’t just a mindless impulse? What if there is something deep and sacred behind it? Could it be that what drives even non-practicing Catholics to participate in this yearly ritual is that deep down it captures the essence of their Catholic faith and what they love about it? Could it be that this day of fasting and abstinence, this solemn inauguration of the Lenten season, has also become a day to celebrate our Catholic roots?

It seems that if we could get to the bottom of the compulsion to “get ashes,” we might find what people are really looking for, what drives and excites them, what is at the heart of the faith for many of our brothers and sisters. So here are just a few ideas about why we Catholics love our ashes.

Catholic Identity and Catholic Pride. Those who make it to an early morning Mass on Ash Wednesday get highest marks on “Catholic pride.” If you get to wear your ashes to work, or to school, or to the grocery store, you get to enjoy strange looks from those who do not know what’s going on and approving looks from those who do. Along the way someone will undoubtedly tell you that your forehead is dirty, and you will enjoy saying, “No it isn’t. I’m Catholic.” 

That smudge of ashes marks us as belonging to a group, a very special group, and it simply feels good to belong. This is not an exclusive group by any means; it is not a “secret club” or an elite members-only organization. It is an ancient conglomeration of all types. On Ash Wednesday, it is edifying to look around and see all those types. Our communal, dirty foreheads are a gentle way that we remind the world who we are. And we find that it feels good to be counter-cultural, together.

Sin and Death are Real. Catholics used to be accused of dwelling too much on sin (“Catholic guilt”) and death (“Why the crucifix? Don’t you know he’s risen?”). We’ve lightened up a bit, but we do still insist on reality: we are sinners, we do suffer, and we will die. On Ash Wednesday, we wear a visible sign of these realities – ashes symbolize both our sorrow for sin (“Repent, and believe in the Gospel”) and the recognition of our own mortality (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”). 

These might seem like depressing realities – why would we want to spend a day with sin and death on our foreheads? Because we know that the first step in diagnosing and remedying these conditions is to reveal and identify them. To hide them or never talk about them would be like hiding symptoms from our doctors and never being cured. If I am a sinner, I need a savior. If I am going to die, I need a miracle. Our faith offers us both. We do not proclaim our sinfulness for the sake of a guilty conscience, or our mortality for the sake of feeling sad. Rather we proclaim them so we might share in the antidote; we proclaim them for the sake of the savior and the miracle he can work in our lives. With this sign we proclaim the wise words of Christ: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Lk. 5:31).

The Power of Touch. Allowing another person to mark us with the sign of ashes is a very personal thing. We are inviting someone else into our “personal space” and allowing them to mark us with a sign that makes us visibly vulnerable. Just as when we have our feet washed or share in a sincere sign of peace, we are momentarily bonded with the person opposite us, the person who draws near and touches us with sacred purpose. 

Although we are being marked with a sign of sin and death, the touch we receive is healing. It is a human touch that represents the healing ministry of Christ and his Church. Catholics are born into or later embrace this sacramental perspective. We see and experience deeper realities in our physical world – bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, water becomes a transforming wash. In this very Catholic way of looking at things, we don’t just get a smudge of ash from a stranger and go on with our lives. No, we stand before one who is both a fellow sinner and a mediator between human and divine realities; we allow ourselves to receive the healing touch of one who is also marked with ash, who also needs a savior, whose way of marking us somehow communicates understanding, hope, and the redemption we desire. The human touch that marks us with ashes is an experience of both human and divine love. Who wouldn’t show up for that?

The Satisfaction of Making an Effort. Why are Catholics willing to make phone calls, alter their plans, scramble kids’ schedules, or even duck out of work to get their ashes on Ash Wednesday? Perhaps it feels good to make an effort to either satisfy a perceived obligation or to do something we know is good for us. Sure, there are other obligations that Catholics may be lax about, but perhaps it’s the once-a-year nature of Ash Wednesday that motivates. Sunday Mass? That obligation is easy to push off: “I can always make it next week.” But Ash Wednesday? It’s only once a year: “I have to make it happen.”

Now perhaps this reason is not as deep or noble as the others, but it does touch on a natural human desire to participate in our own spiritual formation and growth. We instinctively know that although we are utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of God, there are some things we can and should do to foster our participation in that grace and mercy. Sitting at home watching television does not generally bring us closer to Christ. Perhaps Ash Wednesday serves as a wake-up call in terms of our priorities. How to keep that call coming every day is a much more challenging task.

Being Part of Something Ancient. There is something ancient about ashes. Even though the ashes we receive may be “fresh,” the symbolism goes way, way back. From ancient times, ashes have symbolized mourning and penance. We occasionally come across colorful old accounts in Scripture of prophets or penitents covering themselves in “sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3; Job 42:6). 

Even those who receive ashes without knowing this background at least know that it is a very old Catholic custom. In a Church that has “updated” in many ways in the past fifty years, our ashes remain the same. We are connected with years and centuries past in a ritual that calls us back even as it prods us forward. This is Catholicism at its best, embracing and inviting others to participate in a beauty “ever ancient, ever new" (St. Augustine, Confessions).

Almost a Year’s Worth of Spiritual Connections. The fact that the ashes applied to our heads on Ash Wednesday come from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday (though admittedly some parishes have now dropped this tradition and purchase their ashes from a supply catalog!) adds another layer of symbolism to the ash ritual. Even if we are not thinking about this symbolism as we go to receive our ashes, it still lies somewhere in the back of our minds, part of that collective Catholic consciousness.

On Palm Sunday of the previous Lent, we waved those palms in joyful welcome, in jubilant recognition of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. We waved them in celebration, but also with the weight of knowing what would happen in Jerusalem, and knowing how we, the crowds, would turn on him. Those palms went home with us as reminders of the joy and sorrow of Holy Week, of the mission of Christ who suffered for us, and of our own role in that suffering. And now, on Ash Wednesday, the palms have returned, they have been burned, and their ashes are applied to our own bodies as another sign – a continuing sign of the joy and sorrow of the penitent. In these ashes we have almost a year’s worth of spiritual connections – from Palm Sunday to Ash Wednesday, from Lent past to Lent present.

The Beauty of a Simple Ritual. We may as well admit that as much as Catholics love a good liturgy, we also like to know when things will start and finish (Sunday Mass is one hour, weekday Mass is half an hour, the rosary is a quarter of an hour), and we truly appreciate the occasional brief ritual. I’ll admit short confession lines and brief homilies are a few of my favorite things. 

I remember one year our family had been hit with some kind of virus, and on Ash Wednesday we were struggling to recover. We had read in the parish bulletin that ashes would be out in the church for those who could not attend a service. We stopped by, curious and a bit sheepish. Inside, a few people were praying, and it was very quiet. Several crystal dishes containing ashes were on a table at the front of the church, with brief instructions about what to say and how to apply the ashes. As we marked one another’s foreheads, it did feel unusual. But the moment was also profound in its simplicity, and the familiar words, as we said them to each another, sounded different. They sank into my mind in a new way. That year, the ritual was uncommonly brief, but it still hit home. While I’m not advocating this experience as the norm, sometimes a simple ritual has surprising impact – without time for our minds to wander or grow complacent, its power has a fighting chance to change us.

Why We Love Our Catholic Faith. Maybe at the heart of this list, we find not only what we love about ashes and what we love about Lent, but what we love about Catholicism itself: a strong identity that creates a sense of belonging, the power of the Cross and the touch of a mediator, a realistic sense of sin and death, an awareness that we have to work hard right along with God’s transforming grace, the holiness of old things, the connectedness of all truths, and sometimes, that good-old-fashioned Catholic satisfaction in following the because-it’s-good-for-you rules handed down by our beloved Church.

So if you work at a parish and you don’t think you can take one more phone call, or if you see your neighbors “ashed up” but you never even knew they were Catholic, or if the person in the pew next to you heads for the door before the Eucharistic Prayer, try to call to mind the power of ashes. On this day, we share a bond, a visible bond. On this day, we are so very proud to be Catholic.

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This piece was originally published in St. Anthony Messenger magazine, February 2016.

 Eli with ashes, 2013.

Eli with ashes, 2013.

Out of the Mouths of Sophomores

Last week I kept a longstanding promise to my friend Gina to visit a few of her high school classes and talk with them about the early Church. Presenting to high school students is not necessarily my forte, but I wanted to do my best. Mostly, I wanted to bring them a realistic and relevant message.

In both classes, we read Acts 15 and spent some time talking about how the early Church struggled with major decisions and disagreements: Who was Jesus? How did his death and resurrection save us? Should Gentile Christians follow the Mosaic law? Which gospels and letters belonged in Scripture?

Agreeing on these things was not a nice, neat process, I told them. But the early Christians – despite their disagreements – strove for unity. They didn’t all just go their own way. They wrestled with ideas; they collaborated. I wanted them to know that the Church has always had its controversies. I wanted them to know that the Church is still growing in faith. Yes, we might have a catechism now, but that doesn’t mean we “have it all figured out.”

At one point, I posed the question: “Why do you think God does things this way? Why doesn’t God just give us the answers?” I was expecting responses about the human community working together, listening to each other, growing closer as they worked through complex, controversial decisions. I thought someone might mention the benefit of having to depend on God and each other.

But one young lady on the front row surprised me with an even better answer than the one I had in mind. She said: “I think it’s because when you have to figure something out for yourself, then you know if you really believe it or not. If someone just tells you what to think, that isn’t really believing.”

Ah, the sophomore has spoken. And she’s onto something.

Isn’t this why Jesus taught in parables? Isn’t this why prayer is an essential part of the spiritual life? Isn’t this why knowing about God isn’t the same as being in relationship with God?

It isn’t that we ever really “figure things out” in a vacuum; we rely on the wisdom of others and the Spirit of God. But we have to enter in, take ownership. The creed we speak must be something we have discovered and lived, not just words we recite from a page in a book.

What have you wrestled with and come to believe?

 When have you been glad that God didn’t just give you the answers?

  Resurrection after Grunewald.  John Kohan has broken down into its basic geometric shapes the iconic  Resurrection panel from the Isenheim Altar by Matthias Grunewald . Kohan explains: "The flaming yellow circle and the triangle in glowing red are what the eyes first perceive in the painting,  before  we assign meaning to these forms and recognize the figure of Christ rising from the grave." Click on the image to see more of John Kohan's work.

Resurrection after Grunewald. John Kohan has broken down into its basic geometric shapes the iconic Resurrection panel from the Isenheim Altar by Matthias Grunewald. Kohan explains: "The flaming yellow circle and the triangle in glowing red are what the eyes first perceive in the painting, before we assign meaning to these forms and recognize the figure of Christ rising from the grave." Click on the image to see more of John Kohan's work.