The Power of Grace
What is grace? Grace is the “free and undeserved gift that God gives us to respond to our vocation to become His adopted children” (Catechism, Glossary). Grace is a free and undeserved gift that God gives to all of us and, in fact, to all people. God gives graces to everyone, Christians, non-Christians, atheists, even people who’ve never heard of Him and people who’ve explicitly rejected Him. Grace is like God knocking on the door, inviting us into a relationship with Him, inspiring and motivating us to do good, and calling us to repentance and conversion. However, we still have to respond to that grace, to answer the invitation.
One type of grace is called actual grace, which is when God disposes or moves us for doing or receiving something. For example, when I pass a homeless person on the street I may be moved to do something for them, when I see a beautiful image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and am moved to prayer, or when the voice of conscience convicts me of some sin and moves me to repentance; these are all actual graces and examples of God acting within our minds and souls. When we respond to an actual grace we open ourselves up to more grace, but when we deny that grace and turn away we cut off that line of grace, not because God doesn’t want to give them, but because we’ve wasted the opportunity to get them.
There are some graces that you will get no matter what, but there are other graces that you will only get if you pray for them and make yourself ready to receive them. This is why we must be persistent in prayer, praying many times for the same things. God already knows what we need, but we are often not yet ready to receive it. Through prayer we expand our hearts, grow in love for God, and increase our desire to receive, not merely what we want, but what God wants to give us. When you pray for grace be confident, knowing that God loves you, but humble, willing to receive whatever He wants to give and to follow it.
More than just moving us to good acts and helping keep us from sin, actual graces also prepare us to receive sanctifying grace, through which God shares His Divine life and friendship with us. Sanctifying grace allows us to participate in the very nature of God. Unlike actual grace, which is given for a specific purpose or moment, sanctifying grace tends to stay with us. It’s like peanut butter, it sticks to us and stays put, but we can get rid of it if we try. The effects of sanctifying grace are described well in this passage from St. Paul, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rm. 8:15-17).
Fr. Bryan Howard
3rd Sunday of Lent – Year C – 24 March 2019
The second commandment of the 10 Commandments is that we are not to take the name of the Lord in vain, and the Jewish people have always taken that commandment very seriously, much more seriously than most Christians do, and I think we would do well to learn something from them here. For the ancient Jewish people names were very important. You name isn’t just what you are designated as, but it’s the description of who you are. So God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude,” and Jacob’s name to Israel, meaning “who struggles with God.” Similarly, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter, meaning “rock.” Jesus means “to deliver,” but Jesus is also called Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.” These names define who those people are, and in our first reading today God appears to Moses at the burning bush and tells Moses His name.
First, God calls Him “the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” In other words God is near to us. He is always seeking to enter into relationships with us, as He did with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He wants to share His life with us, and His life is love; it is the love the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share in the unity of the Trinity from all eternity. God created us to share His life and love with us.
God also reveals Himself to Moses as Yahweh, which means, “I am that I am,” or “I am Who am.” God reveals to us that He isn’t just another thing in the universe, or even the highest and greatest thing in the universe; God is existence itself, the One Who Exists. We all exist because of Him, but He simply IS. We all need something to explain the fact the we exist, so we can say that our parents caused us to exist, but they need something to explain their existence, too, and so on and so on all the back to the beginning of time. Well, for anything to exist at all, there has to be something that doesn’t need anything else to explain it’s existence, but simply exists. God is the one who explains why anything exists at all rather than nothing, because He wanted to share His existence with us.
The New Testament explains to us that God has a new name now. St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Because of this God greatly exalted Him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” We should have the same reverence for the name of God as the ancient Israelites and modern Jews do. Whenever we take the name of the Lord in vain, whether that is Yahweh, or Jesus Christ, or simply God, we are disrespecting who God is. Most other sins offend God because they harm His children, our brothers and sisters on earth, but taking His name in vain in disrespectful of God Himself.
How do we use God’s name in prayer? Do we call on His name to ask Him to be with us, in our heart and soul? Do we ask Him to give us strength and grace? Do we ask Him to help us to know and love Him better? We need to “take the Lord’s name” because we need God’s help in our lives.
How do we use God’s name in our speech? Do we use the name of the Lord to teach people about Him, to encourage them or console them, and to call people to prayer? How often do we, instead, use God’s name in a profane way, like when we’re upset about something and need to blow off some steam? How often do we use God’s name as a weapon to hurt someone else?
Think about Who God IS and what that means for you. Taking the name of the Lord in vain can very easily become a habit, but if we take the Lord’s name in prayer, then He can help us to break that habit and, by respecting and loving the name of God, come to have a deeper respect and love for God Himself.
(The text for the last 2 minutes of the audio isn’t here, as it’s the introduction to the First Scrutiny which took place at the 4:00 PM Mass on Saturday.)
In the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, through which adult converts are prepared to receive their sacraments and thus enter the Church, the last stage before the reception of the sacraments is the Period of Enlightenment and Purification. It begins with the Rite of Election on the first Sunday of Lent, where the catechumen (person preparing to receive the sacraments) is chosen, or elected, by the bishop to receive the sacraments.
This process includes the scrutinies which take place on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent. Here are Lourdes, we’ll celebrate the First Scrutiny at on March 23 at the 4 PM Mass, the Second Scrutiny on March 31 at the 11 AM Mass, and the Third Scrutiny on April 7 at the 9 AM Mass.
The scrutinies are a series of blessings over the elect which are meant to deepen and focus their preparation to enter the Church. They are also minor exorcisms, meant to deliver them from the power of Satan, strengthen them in Christ. (As opposed to a major exorcism, which is used when someone is being possessed.) The RCIA rite book describes them in this way:
“The scrutinies are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good. For the scrutinies are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and to give them strength in Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.”
Some people will tell you that Satan is just a myth and that hell isn’t real, but the Bible takes hell and Satan very seriously. In His first letter St. Peter writes, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8). Satan means “the accuser,” and refers to the devil as the one who accuses us before God. In his jealousy, Satan wants to deny us what he gave up in his rebellion against God. In his hatred, he wants to have us join him in His misery. The devil knows us better than we know ourselves, and so is able to attack us at our weakest and most vulnerable points, but he can’t force anyone to sin; he can only tempt us. We need God’s help to resist.
As the scrutinies are celebrated this year, we should all learn from them to examine our lives for anything that is not of God, to ask God to deliver us from the power of Satan, and to be strengthened in Christ through receiving the Sacraments, especially Confession and Holy Communion.
Fr. Bryan Howard
2nd Sunday of Lent – Year C – 17 March 2018
What does it mean to be human? Are humans merely biological robots, the product of mere chance, programmed by the forces of evolution and without any real freedom? Or are we meant for more? Are we meant to realize that we were created to the image and likeness of God, adoptive children of God through baptism into Jesus Christ, the Son of God? We were destined for the freedom of the children of God, not to sell ourselves back into slavery to sin.
When the Lord called Abraham to travel from his home in Ur to a new land, He promised to give Abraham and his descendants the land that he would show him, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that his descendant would be a blessing to all the nations, and in today’s reading God seals those promises with an oath, thus forming a covenant with Abraham. God has Abraham bring him certain animals, clean animals that would make suitable sacrifices, and cut them in half and lay them out on the ground in two rows. Notice that it was nighttime at the beginning of the reading, as Abraham can see the stars, and he keeps vigil there all day until the next night. Then, God appears to Abraham as a fire pot and a flaming torch, the fire representing the presence of God, and passes through the animals, thus forming a covenant. By having His presence pass through the animals, the Lord is vowing to keep His promises to Abraham, or else let what happened to those animals happen to Him, thus sealing His promise with His very life.
Unfortunately, a part of God’s promise is left out of the reading. God told Abraham, “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” This promise is about the Exodus, when God delivered the descendants from slavery in Egypt and led them into the promised land and made them His own chosen people.
There’s a worse slavery that God wanted to save us from, and it’s not physical and political slavery but moral and spiritual. In our second reading, St. Paul writes, “For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their "shame." Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” Slaves are taken by force or bought and sold, but it’s against their will. When we sin we willingly enslave ourselves to forces that are beneath us. We think that these things will make us happy, and in the short term we may even be right, but our experience speaks for itself. We know that every time we sin it leads to more misery than happiness and that, in the long run, holiness is the only path to true and lasting happiness, but we keep doing what we know is wrong over and over, and usually in the same ways. What we need is a new Exodus and a new covenant.
On Mt. Tabor, the mountain of the Transfiguration, Jesus begins to prepare His disciples for the new Exodus. He gives Peter, James, and John a glimpse of His glory to strengthen their faith, knowing that their faith will be tested by His crucifixion and death. Then it says, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Moses and Elijah represent the two parts of the Old Testament, the Law, Moses, and the Prophets, Elijah, and they’re talking to Jesus about His crucifixion, but they call it “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Through His crucifixion Jesus will accomplish a new exodus and free His people from slavery to sin and death.
So that’s the new exodus, but I also mentioned a new covenant. Did you know that another word for covenant is testament? We call the part of the Bible that talks about Jesus the New Testament, of course, but the phrase New Testament, or new covenant, only appears once in the New Testament, and it’s not talking about the Bible. At the Last Supper, Jesus takes the chalice filled with wine and, giving it to His disciples, tells them, “Take this and drink of it. This is the chalice of the New Covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in commemoration of me.” In the Bible, the term New Covenant refers the crucifixion of Jesus and to the Mass, in which we commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Through the Eucharist we are united to Jesus Christ and become children of God, which was God’s plan for us all along. We are not just restored to the grace that we lost through sin but lifted up to an even higher place. In one of his Christmas homilies Pope St. Leo the Great put it this way, “Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom.
Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not drive away so great a guest by evil conduct and become again a slave to the devil, for your liberty was bought by the blood of Christ.”
Why do we use water to bless ourselves when we enter Church and to sprinkle in our homes, cars, places of business, etc.? We know that we need to use water for baptisms, but how did the Church start using separate, blessed holy water for these other things? After all, in the earliest times of the Church baptisms took place in rivers, streams, and lakes, so they didn’t have baptismal fonts full of holy water in their churches. In fact, since Christianity was illegal, they didn’t even have churches in most places.
The Church probably used holy water from the earliest days since water was used in Jewish homes for purification, and the earliest Christians were mostly Jews. However, the earliest recorded use of holy water is from the fourth century. It’s a blessing of water to protect from disease, evil spirits, and all maladies. As soon as Christianity was legalized, churches began keeping the water from baptisms for people to use throughout the year. In the seventh century we begin to have records of churches keeping water at the entrance of the Church for people to bless themselves with or to take home with them.
Today, we use holy water for basically the same reasons. We bless ourselves, our homes, and our religious articles with holy water to ask God to purify them, to protect them from demonic influence, and to bestow His grace on them. When we bless ourselves with holy water whenever we enter Church, we’re doing at least two things. First, we’re reminding ourselves of our baptism, through which we first entered the Church and became children of God. Second, we’re asking God to purify us of sin and fill us with His grace. We recognize that we’re entering a holy place and ask God to make us worthy to enter his house.
Holy Water is a sacramental, not a sacrament. Sacraments, like baptism, work in and of themselves because of the power that God has given them. Sacramentals require the faith of the person using them to have an effect. If we just bless ourselves with holy water without really thinking about it, but just because that’s what we always do, then it’s not having much of an effect. So, every time you enter a Church and bless yourself with the holy water, ask God to stir up the graces of baptism in your soul, to forgive your sins, and to fill you with His lifegiving grace.
You should check out the website, www.newadvent.org, because they offer a lot of resources, some of which you might find useful and enlightening. They host an online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia, which I’ve been using since I was in seminary to research things and still use sometimes to help prepare homilies and talks. The best part, to me, is that the version they have isn’t the newest publication, but the 1917 version. Although it obviously doesn’t have articles on anything that’s happened since then, like the Second Vatican Council, it does show that the actual teachings of the Catholic Church stay the same even if the culture around her changes. The truth is the truth.
New Advent also offers links to articles from popular Catholic blogs, like Fr. Z and Msgr. Charles Pope, the Summa Theologiaeof St. Thomas Aquinas, biographies and writings of over 60 of the Church Fathers along with other anonymous writings from the early Church, and a library of Church documents from the 19thand 20thcenturies. Finally, they have the Knox Versionof the Bible, which was translated in the 1930s and ‘40s by Catholic priest Msgr. Ronald Knox. It is a very accurate and particularly beautiful translation of the Bible.
We live in a time when, through the internet, we have access to more Catholic resources than regular Catholics have had at any point in history. 50 years ago you probably couldn’t find all of these things collected in one place even if you went to a library, but today you can access them all on one website. If you want to go deeper in your understanding of the Holy Scriptures and Traditions of the Catholic faith, this would be a very good place to start.
Fr. Bryan Howard
8th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 3 March 2019
Today’s readings are about bearing good fruit and following in the way of Christ so that we can rise to new life with Him. As St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Lent comes before Easter to teach us that the way to life, to the new life of Christ, is to follow the path that He did, the Cross.
A lot of people think of the Lenten Fast as just a bunch of rules that some old guys in Rome said we have to follow, but there’s a reason for all of the things that we do. I’ve heard so many people say that they don’t give up meat on Fridays because it’s not really a sacrifice in Louisiana, where our seafood is so good. So, instead of making a small sacrifice, they choose not to make any sacrifice. Instead, why don’t you take it to the next level. St. Frances de Sales in his famous book, Introduction to the Devout Life, says that, instead of giving up meat, you should instead eat whatever is set before you without complaint, which may be a harder thing to do for most people. Whatever you do, keep in mind the reasons that we fast and how it can prepare us for Easter.
First, we fast to be in solidarity with the poor. The poor don’t have a choice; they live with limited resources, not for forty days, but every day. Fasting can give us a new appreciation for what we do have. Instead of taking things for granted we are more able to enjoy the small pleasure of life. That sense of gratitude for the people and things in our lives and for the blessings that God has given us can lead to greater compassion for the poor. Our Christian spiritual tradition has always said that we shouldn’t just fast during Lent, but that we should take what we’ve saved in time and money and give it to the poor. Fasting should lead to almsgiving.
The first reading, from the book of Sirach, says, “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one's faults when one speaks. As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in tribulation is the test of the just.” Lent is meant to be a sort of tribulation, a test, and it can teach us a lot about ourselves. If we choose what we give up well, it can show us where we’re struggling in the spiritual life. We shouldn’t choose something too hard, as that might discourage us and tempt us to give up, but we also shouldn’t choose something too easy. Like kids always joke that they’re going to give up homework. It should be challenging, but not debilitating. When we really enter into the silence of Lent, the sensory deprivation, then we suddenly have time for our own minds to start working, to start thinking and reflecting on our lives. We’ve invented ways to always have sound, especially music, with us, from the Walkman isn’t he ‘80s to wireless earbuds today. There are many great quotes about silence, but here’s something that Mother Teresa said that I recently found, “If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”
We sometimes think of the Lenten Fast as giving up bad things, but really what we’re doing is giving up good things. The Lenten Fast is an offering to God; let us never offer God anything that is evil. The ancient Jewish people would give the first fruits and the unblemished lambs to the Lord, meaning that they would take the very best of what they had, the juiciest grapes, the most perfect part of the crop, and give it to God. During Lent, we cut back on or give up things that we enjoy, good things, as a way of expressing our love for God. By doing so we’re saying, “I love this, but I love God more,” and, “This is good, but God is the source of all goodness.”
We sit here under the Crucifix not because we’re “keeping Christ no the Cross,” as some people say, but because as long as we are in this world we are on the Way of the Cross longing for the Resurrection. Seeing that Christ allowed Himself to be lifted up for our sins and the sins of the world we can be strengthened by Him to carry our Crosses. The little crosses that we choose to carry during Lent are light compared to the great crosses that all people have to bear at some point in there lives, but they can give us the hope that we don’t carry them alone, and that the Resurrection of the Lord is waiting for us at the end of the Road.
“Preparing for Lent? What do you mean preparing for Lent? I thought Lent was about preparing for Easter?” Lent is indeed about preparing to receive the Lord at Easter, but Catholics traditionally also prepare themselves to have a holy Lent, so that they can be well prepared for Easter. Quinquagesima, meaning “fiftieth,” refers to the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, sexagesimal, “sixtieth,” refers to the Sunday before that, and septuagesima, “seventieth,” refers to the week before that, which is nine weeks before Easter. They would begin to pray and even to fast, the prayers and readings at Mass would take on a penitential character, and they would stop singing the Gloria and saying “alleluia,” but they would also celebrate with parades and feasts, as we do at Mardi Gras.
We no longer celebrate these days in the liturgical calendar, but we can learn from the wisdom of our ancestors that we need to prepare for the Lenten fast. First, you can examine your conscience and go to confession before Lent starts, so that you start with a clean slate, and then go to confession again as we get closer to Easter. This way, the Lenten fast will show you what sins you are most struggling with and encourage you to seek God’s help, in the sacrament, to overcome them.
Second, start to plan out your Lent. Decide what special penance you want to do for Lent. Do you want to give something up or add something or a little of both? One of the best ways that we can prepare for Holy Week is by meditating on the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus by making the Way of the Cross, praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, praying the Magnificent Prayers of St. Bridget of Sweden, and reading the Passion Narratives in the Gospels (Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23, John 12-19). Even if you can’t make it to the Way of the Cross at Church, on Friday morning at 8:30 and Friday evening at 6:00, you can still do any of these prayers by yourself.
Let’s commit ourselves to having a good Lent this year, to praying with all of our mind and heart, to fasting in such a way that we increase our hunger for God, and to conforming ourselves more and more to the Cross every day. As St. Paul wrote, “For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin” (Rm 6:5-6).
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.