Love. Period.

This reflection is for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, 5/6/2018.

My son, Luke, receives the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist today for the first time! Yeah! Naturally, he’s very excited, and we  have spent a long time learning what Catholics believe about the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

We believe that this bread and wine have become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord. We are what we eat, and when we eat the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, His blood mingles with ours, like water and wine, and we become more like Him–which, of course, is the whole journey of our Christian life. In this journey is growth in holiness and sanctification. The Church teaches that, “The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. In the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself.” (C.C.C. 1324), and elsewhere that, “The Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith.” (C.C.C. 1327)

What follows below are both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition that stand as a witness to the teachings above. We begin with Jesus’ teaching, often called The Bread of Life Discourse. It is worth reading in its entirety. You can follow the link to read all of chapter 6.

In John 6:53-58, Jesus tells his disciples, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Incidentally, this is the ONLY place in Scripture where Jesus’ disciples walk away from Him never to return. They say His teaching is just too much. It’s too hard for them to wrap their mind around. John 6:60 reads, “Then many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’…As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.'” (vs. 66-68)

The saying is hard–it’s true. It is difficult to understand, and can be accessed not with reason, but instead only through faith. Our experience is that with the words of consecration, by the power of the Holy Spirit, ordinary bread is transformed into our extraordinary God. Just as many people only saw an ordinary man, in Jesus, those with faith were able to see more. They were able to see the Messiah and Son of God.

The words of consecration, by which the change occurs, comes from The Last Supper Discourse found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Mt. 26:17–30, Mk. 14:12–26, Lk. 22:7–39 and Jn. 13:1–17:26). The Matthean version is below and should sound familiar to church-goers.

Matthew 26:26-28 reads, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.'”

Clearly, the tradition of celebrating the Lord’s Supper continued in the early Church because, St. Paul, who was not at Jesus’ last supper with the disciples, is able to teach the Church in Corinth the tradition that had been handed on to him. He even goes so far as to say that you need to examine yourself or else! We must confess, and be reconciled to God and the community before we receive communion with the Lord and with one another–or else our communion is not communion at all! If we are not reconciled then we are not truly in communion; we are divided and our communion is a lie.

St. Paul teaches, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-29

The Book of Revelation gives the Christian community a glimpse “behind the veil” at the worship that goes on in perpetuity in the Heavenly Jerusalem. John says that the Lion has triumphed, but when he turns around he sees not a lion, but a Lamb that seemed to have been slain. John says, “I shed many tears because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to examine it. One of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed, enabling him to open the scroll with its seven seals.’ Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders a Lamb that seemed to have been slain.” (Revelation 5:1)

Jesus, the Lamb of God, remains for us the sacrificed Lamb. Jesus continues to offer himself, at every moment of every day for us and for our salvation. The sacrifice of Christ is not a time-bound event, but instead is an eternal event, that exists in every moment all the time. This can be very difficult to understand, naturally, because we don’t often experience eternal realities. Difficult to understand, yes, but where else would we go? He has the words of eternal life, right?

The early Church certainly believed so, and they went to great lengths to teach clearly what we believe, as it wasn’t any easier to believe back then either! In fact, the early church was thought to be cannibalistic, because they ate the flesh of their savior!

St. Justin the Martyr (c. 100 – 165 A.D.) wrote, “We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [Baptism], and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, AND BY THE CHANGE OF WHICH our blood and flesh is nourished, IS BOTH THE FLESH AND THE BLOOD OF THAT INCARNATED JESUS. (First Apology, 66)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c.350 A.D.) taught similarly, “Do not, therefore, regard the Bread and the Wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but — be fully assured by the faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ.” (22 [Mystagogic 4], 6)

Click HERE for more quotes on the Eucharist from the early church fathers.

Jesus taught it, His disciples continued it, St. Paul taught it, St. John saw it, Saints Justin the Martyr and Cyril of Jerusalem, taught it, and we continue to teach it right to this very day when my son Luke will receive the Bread of Salvation! As the readings today teach, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:25) What an amazing God we have that He would bless us with so much, and that His arms are spread so wide. God desires that all come to believe and receive salvation in Him.

The Lord Jesus, out of crazy love, takes on human flesh, endures suffering and death, and offers himself as a perpetual sacrifice, so that we could be united with the most Holy Trinity forever. And what is the appropriate response from every believer who has received this gift? Love. That’s it. That’s our job. In 1 JN 4:7-10 the epistle teaches the early Church, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.”

It’s really quite simple, God the Father loves Jesus. Jesus loves us. We love each other. Love forgives, heals, brings wholeness, and sacrifices for the beloved.  Today’s Gospel spells it out quite plainly for us as well. From Acts to 1JN to the Gospel, we are called to love. The Gospel reads, “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. This I command you: love one another.'”

Love one another. That’s what Jesus did, and continues to do–especially in the Eucharist. We receive His very life blood in the Eucharist not only for our own sake, but so that we can be like Him and love like him for ourselves and for the world.  Love. Period. Amen?

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

Pruning? That Could Sting A Bit!

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This reflection is for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, 4/29/2018.

In today’s Gospel, taken from John chapter 15, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. ” (vs. 2) Growing up in the Central Valley, it is easy to understand the image of pruning both vines, as we have many grapes, and tree branches, as we are blessed with an abundance of fruit-producing trees. I grew up earning money each Christmas vacation at veterinarian Gary Daily’s property, picking up tree prunings from the ground and gathering them together into a large pile to be burned. When Jesus tells his disciples that His Father, the vine grower, takes away every branch that does not bear fruit, and prunes the others so that they bear more, we need to appreciate exactly what that means and why that occurs.

I planted fruit trees in my back yard when I lived in Salinas, and the first three years are particularly important for pruning, as this is when the tree is shaped and the lasting structure of the tree is formed. In other words, in the first three years there isn’t a lot of fruit being produced, but the pruning is important because it is formative. The tree is in the process of “formation” so that the tree can ultimately support the crop load in the coming years. And the same is true in our Christian life–formation is key.

Right now I am going through the discernment process for becoming a deacon in the Catholic Church. The program is rightfully called a “formation” program. The process seeks to shape the deacon as a prayerful Christian minister, who loves God and neighbor with his whole heart. A big part of this formation period is removing all the distractions possible! I have been asked to “prune” away some ministerial activities that I enjoy very much, such as preaching at a friend’s church, leading youth retreats, and giving adult lectures, missions, and retreats. I hate to give those things up, and it pains me to do so, but it is very important that I do. And here’s why: I enjoy and am good at “talking,” but to be a well-balanced minister I need to get out of my “head” and into my heart. I need to have a meaningful prayer life and a life of service to the poor, the marginalized, and those most in need. I am quite imbalanced that way, actually. Instead of praying, it’s very easy for me to study and write. Instead of serving the poor, it’s very easy for me to preach and to teach those who are already in the Christian community. I am much more comfortable teaching Christians than getting my hands dirty with the poor, and I often skip prayer in order to study!

But God needs a prayer warrior who serves and teaches by his love, and not just the guy who preaches the Good News. If I were a tree I’d fall over! A full two-thirds of my balanced Christian life is underdeveloped! Here I am writing now! Each of us must be thoughtful about whether or not we are a “well-balanced” Christian. God wants to use us to provide a great variety of fruit in the coming years, but if we develop only one aspect of our Christian life at the expense of other areas, we run the risk of producing limited fruit, or ultimately, damaging the tree (that’s us).

Sister Wanda, my formation director, asked me to hold off on some areas of ministry so that I might grow more in prayer and service. What about you? How is your prayer life? Do you have one? What is your level of commitment to serving the poor and marginalized in our communities? Do you do any intellectual work at all? What Christian book are you reading? Which theologian are you studying? Is there any at all? Do you work with homeless shelters, foster youth programs, support women’s shelters, or provide food or clothing for the homeless? Do you assist at or visit elderly care facilities? There is so much work to be done! So many need to experience the healing hands of Jesus Christ through us! Have we gotten comfortable with what we’re naturally good at but have become imbalanced?

Beyond formation, fruit trees are pruned every year to improve fruit quality. Horticulturalist, Bill Hanlin, says that pruning trees is a “necessary chore that improves sunlight penetration” and “increases air movement through the tree.” That’s also true of our Christian life. First, know that it is a necessary CHORE. Pruning is neither fun nor easy. I’m quite sure the trees aren’t standing around thinking, “I can’t wait to have my limbs chopped off!” Nor is the farmer looking forward to getting out there and doing it! But the farmer does do it, and the tree does goes through it, and they’re both the better for it.

The first step in the pruning is to remove any diseased or damaged branches, as diseased limbs will carry the disease into the upcoming season causing bacteria growth and can spread to other branches. Damaged limbs are more susceptible to disease and insect infestation that can further damage the tree. In our spiritual life, God wants us to be healthy, happy, and whole. God’s desire is not that we carry our brokenness around with us. When life damages our hearts or when people break our spirit with injustice, parts of ourselves become broken. When we carry around anger, bitterness, despair, sadness, and pain, like that fruit tree, these “broken limbs” open us up to disease that is contagious! God wants to remove these branches from our life. He wants to remove this bacteria that weakens us and threatens others. When we carry around bitterness and pain, we become dark and unloving. Our disease contaminates our most important relationships. We pray less often, we are short tempered with our spouse, our children, our coworkers, and customers. Instead of producing fruit for a hungry world, we instead spread destruction and disease. We need to be healed. We need to be pruned.

The third reason form pruning, beyond formation and to remove dead and diseased limbs, is because of what farmers call “vigorous upright growth from the previous season.” Limbs shoot up vertically from the branches (called water sprouts) that will not bear fruit and can create excessive shading on the interior of the tree. Vigorous upright growth sounds really good! It’s vigorous and it’s upright! It’s fast growing directly to the sun…except it doesn’t produce fruit! Instead it only uses up the tree’s resources that should be dedicated to fruit-producing branches. Although farmers usually prune in December, and citizens of the world in anticipation of the New Year do the same, Christians do this pruning primarily during the season of Lent. Lent is when we take a good hard look at the areas of growth that are not producing fruit in our life. I mean, sure, we’re busy, but too often we become busy with things that are not helpful for our Christian life.

For example, in solidarity with coworkers, we decide to start going to staff get-togethers weekly at a local bar or restaurant. It’s good enough and is causing vigorous upright growth, but as we evaluate our year, we can see that although it’s good for the work environment and relationships, it’s using precious resources such as money and time, that should be used on family and those in need. This is always that hardest part of pruning. Cutting off dead and diseased branches is easy and obvious. The more difficult task is to ask, “What ‘good’ am I doing that is keeping me from doing the ‘great’ that God desires of me?”

Sometimes we spread ourselves too thin. We do a lot of good in a whole lot of places, only to realize that we haven’t done much total good at all-nor have we advanced God’s kingdom. Jesus tells his disciples, “You are already pruned because of the word I spoke to you,” but he also says that the vine grower, “takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” We are pruned and are producing fruit, but we need to continue to cut out areas of our life so that the ones that remain produce fruit in greater abundance.

The fruit of the Spirit-filled life, St. Paul tells the Galatians, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (5:22-23). When we are formed well, when we are pruned to remove brokenness and disease, and when we remove areas of growth that undermine production of fruit, we are better able to love others. We are a more joyful person. When conflict arises, not only are we NOT the source of that conflict, but we might even be an instrument of peace in it. We are more able to be patient when tempers flair of when long suffering strikes. In a world with so much need, anger, and selfishness, we can remain kind and generous to others who are in need. We are people of faith in a world of darkness–gentle and kind, and never out of control!

As we said above, a good pruning removes the darkness from within the tree. It allows sunlight to enter into the core of the tree and allows fresh are to blow though it’s branches, and so it is with us. God wants us to create fruit for a hungry world. If we’re going to produce that fruit, we need to allow God to prune that darkness from our life.

Finally, when we have been properly pruned and formed, and the dead, diseased, non-fruit producing branches removed; when light fills our hearts and the Spirit moves freely about, the final step is to remove the pruned wood from around the tree. It must be picked up and burned. If these branches are left near the tree they can be a source of disease and pest infestation in the upcoming season. After all this transformation of the interior of our life occurs, the last thing we want is to ruin our upcoming season by clinging to vines and growth that has been pruned away. Sometimes we just need to clean house. Give it away, dispose of it, or burn it–just get it out of the garden! What does God want to prune from your life this season that you might produce fruit in abundance? Some unhealthy relationships, maybe? Some unhealthy activities? Some addictions to entertainment, social media, sports, alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling? These “branches” are the unhealthy, diseased, broken, and otherwise non-fruit producing branches that the Vine Grower seeks to remove. Isn’t it time to allow the Holy Spirit to do It’s work in your life?

God’s desire is that we produce ever more fruit from season to season. His desire is that as each year passes we are more able to provide spiritual fruit for those who are hungry. Each year we should love Him more and love our neighbor more. It’s not too late to start pruning. Amen?

Easter Blessings, Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

Other Sheep in Other Flocks? What?!

This reflection is for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, 4/22/2018.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells his faithful disciples what so many Christians DO NOT want to hear, namely, that Jesus may have someone else “on the side!” Yikes! “But…but…I thought you only had eyes for me, Jesus!”

I distinctly remember having lunch with some amazingly faithful, generous, and kind, Christian friends who with the greatest of confidence said, “If a person has not accepted Jesus into their heart, they cannot be saved. They are in Hell.” He did admit that he was sorry to say it, but that it was absolutely true. But this view is inconsistent with Jesus’ actions and outlook as he ministered, and exactly the opposite of what we hear Jesus say today, and what the Church teaches.

Today Jesus tells His disciples, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (JN 10:16) What?! Scandalous! Who are these “other sheep” that MY LORD also loves?

Well, certainly in Jesus’ day this would have meant the gentiles–or non-Jews–and this inclusivity became the cause of much division within the apostolic Church! In fact, the admittance of the gentiles is settled in Acts 15:28 and the rest of the book of Acts as well as the rest of the Scripture, right up to the book of Revelation shows the great struggle with how to be a Jewish-Gentile Christian community in light of the Holy Spirit’s guidance toward greater inclusivity.

Every part of Jesus’ ministry challenges the status quo with regard to who is blessed and who is not. Jesus always invited others to “put out into the deep” so the catch might be more abundant–and it always is with God. Jesus came that the whole of humanity might have life through him–that none should be lost.

But what to make of Peter’s seemingly narrow statement to the leaders of the people and elders, wherein he proclaims they must know that, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Many Christian communities take these Scripture verses and use them to advance an agenda of exclusivity quite contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus DOES make it clear, and so we believe, that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that none go to the father except through he (JN 14:6), and Peter makes it clear that there is no salvation apart from Jesus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches how these verses can be reconciled with what we heard today, and it has to do with the grace and mercy of God for all His children, by whatever name they call Him, and in whatever way they understand Him.

The Church teaches both the necessity of baptism for salvation, AND that there is more than one way to receive the grace of baptism–even without receiving Christian baptism itself. In the Catechism, paragraph 1257 on The Necessity of Baptism, she writes, “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation…The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”

The last line is crucial, as it allows for God to be God. It recognizes that God has indeed provided a way in baptism for the salvation of souls, but ultimately, God can save souls anywhere and anytime, through any means God chooses, in ways known only to Himself and the one(s) to whom it has been revealed! We don’t know of any–but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have any!

The following two paragraphs, 1258 and 1259 speak of what is commonly called, baptism of desire. The first is by blood, where one was martyred for their faith in Jesus even before being brought into the community for baptism, and the second, the baptism of desire, whereby a person desired baptism but for whatever reason (ignorance, location, scandal, etc.) is prevented from receiving it.

In both cases, we recognize God’s greatness and the tragedy of human limitation that kept that person from entering the waters. And the teaching goes that the grace of baptism that is normally received with water can be applied to that person in light of their desire for it. God will not be denied those who seek Him.

And finally, probably the most difficult for many, the following paragraph opens the door of grace wide for all the rest who have not been baptized nor desired baptism explicitly at all. It’s worth noting here in its entirety.

C.C.C. 1260 “‘Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.’ Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”

The Church’s teaching admits of the great impediments and limits to human understanding and to the abundant mercy and generosity of our Father-who desires that none should be lost. Jesus, the good shepherd, lays down his life for all his sheep–those we know of and those we do not.

Sadly, I fear far too many Christians spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide who gets to go to Heaven and who is in Hell. Time, I believe, that would be better spent on showing love, forgiveness, and mercy to those in need. It’s not our job to decide who doesn’t meet the criteria and is in hell. Incidentally, the church admits of none by name who are in hell, but only that hell does indeed exist for those who knowingly and freely reject God and His love (C.C.C. 1035). For my part, I hope no one is in hell at all and that beyond this earthly life they discover the God of mercy, repent, and believe.

So as it turns out, you and I may have to share our Lord with those that we don’t even know about! How exciting! I can’t wait to get to heaven to meet all the rest of my brothers and sisters in Christ! Jesus calls us to love–that’s it. Not to condemn, judge, or speculate, but to love. Not a bad gig. I’ll try to love more tomorrow than I was able to today, and God can be God.

Easter Blessings, Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

Can I Get A Witness?!

This reflection is for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, 4/15/2018.

I have always loved, and still love, audience participation! I try my best as a teacher to get my students involved through call and response opportunities. At the military academy I give the command, “Ears!” to which my students respond, “Open!” or after counting backward from 20 I say, “Zerooooo!” to which they respond, “Freeze recruit, freeze!” All day long I engage my students’ eyes, ears, body, and mind by inviting them to respond in some appropriate way that I have taught them. Not only is it helpful to get my students’ full, undivided attention, but also makes the day a lot more fun for everyone!

Of course, this concept of audience participation is not new to Christianity either. St. Augustine was said to be a particularly fiery preacher who expected his audience to respond with “booooes” or cheers that were appropriate to his message. The Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Divine Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, invites the faithful to, full, active, conscience participation in the liturgy. I don’t think we’ve even begun yet to realize their hopes for active engagement in our liturgies–mind, body, and soul!

I love listening to black preachers (I’m thinking of Southern Baptist, white shirt and tie, drenched in sweat and holding up a Bible!) who effectively call on their audience to provide a witness to the truthfulness of what is being said. “Can I get a witnessss-uh!” to which the faithful respond, “Amen! Preach it!”

Today’s Gospel has Jesus saying, “Can I get a witness?” What exactly is a witness, and why do they matter so much? Eye witness testimony is by far the most powerful testimony in a courtroom, on the playground, or in the workplace. Always the most weight is given to the person who is able to say, “I was there! I saw the whole thing!” Even for as much as psychologists (and hopeful defense attorneys) have tried to discredit eye witness testimony as unreliable, their attempts have largely gone unheard. When the story is too shocking to believe. When it seems preposterous and we just can’t believe our ears, we ALWAYS need someone to step up and say, “I was there! It’s true.” If you were there, you’ve got the trump card. That’s the power of the eye witness.

As we journey through the Easter season, we notice the importance that the Gospel writers place on being a witness, and the Sunday readings emphasize the significance of the eye witness testimony and the importance of faith in what they proclaimed as true.

Last week Thomas wasn’t there and refused to believe in Jesus’ resurrection in spite of testimony from the rest of the apostles. And then Jesus meets him and invites him to believe because of his own experience with Jesus. Others said it was true (I would say that their testimony opened him up to the possibility, then he experienced the risen Jesus himself, and His encounter with Jesus changed him.

Thomas wasn’t even willing to believe Jesus was alive, and then, according to Tradition, he died for Him–being run through with a spear for giving testimony to Jesus in India! In fact, everyone of Jesus’ apostles went to their death giving witness to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection! The New Testament word “witness” comes from the Greek word for martyr. (Greek: μάρτυς, mártys, “witness“; stem μάρτυρ-, mártyr-). Those who courageously gave their life for Jesus were martyred and their martyrdom stood as a witness to their belief in Jesus resurrection!

That’s amazing testimony to the truth of the resurrection! Who would die for something they knew wasn’t even true?! At some point you just laugh and say, “Ha. Ha. You got me! Just kidding!” but they did not. In fact, the book of Acts shows the disciples courageously speaking in the name of Jesus, even when they were told to be quiet and threatened with death. They said, “How can we be silent about the things we’ve seen and heard?” (Acts 4:20)

Jesus is today–no less than then–looking for disciples to bear witness with their whole life that He is real and He is risen. During this Easter season we ought to be particularly mindful to what degree our life stands out in our world as a witness to Jesus. In the way that we talk to and about others. In the way we are generous, kind, and life-giving in our actions. And especially in the way we make Jesus Christ and the community he founded a priority.

Do we study the Scriptures? Do we pray before meals, at bed time with our kids, in the car, or even at work? Do we attend Mass regularly and make it the most important day of our week? Do we actively seek out opportunities to volunteer our time, talent, and treasure to serve those in need locally and abroad? Do we take the time to read the pope’s messages, and the US Bishops teachings? Pope Francis just released his Apostolic Exhortation on The Call to Holiness. Will you read it by clicking HERE?

Jesus probably isn’t asking any of us to be a martyr today, but he is asking us to die to ourself and live for Him. He’s giving out the call today and still looking for a response. He seeking your response to be of your whole body, mind, and soul. He’s sending out the call, are you up to giving the response? In other words, “I say-uh, yezzzz-uh! Can He get a witnesssss-uh?”

And, can I get a witness? If you’re doing something great post it here! Share these posts with people you know. I’d love to hear about it! Inspire us to also die with Him!

Happy Easter! Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

That You May Come To Believe

This reflection is for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, 4/8/2018.

Today’s Gospel ends with what I consider the MOST important line for understanding the place of Sacred Scripture in the Church, namely, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” (JN 20:31)

I once heard someone say, “The only thing I believe is what is written in the Bible. If it’s not in here, I don’t believe it!” The statement struck me as quite narrow, and I hope it does to you too. Are we to believe that Jesus never went to the bathroom because Scripture never mentions it? Nowhere in Scripture do we read, “…and then Jesus went to a deserted place in order to relieve himself…”

Some may even be so bold as to suggest that because he was God, Jesus didn’t have to go to the bathroom–but that would be the heresy of Apollinarianism, a 4th century heresy that denied the true and complete humanity of Jesus.

To ask Sacred Scripture to tell us every moment of Jesus’ earthly life simply asks too much of the Sacred text–and is anti-Biblical! Scripture itself affirms that there was much more that Jesus taught his disciples and signs he performed that are not written in this book!

Of course, there is another error out there that would lead us into trouble as well, namely, that we can’t believe any of what the Gospel writers claimed to be true–from miracles, teachings, or even to the accounts of the resurrection. But if these signs/miracles never occurred, if the resurrection was just a figment of the disciples’ imagination, then there is no such thing as Christianity, and NO SALVATION in Christ.

St. Paul tells the Church in Corinth in his first letter addressing this very issue. He says, “For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” (15:16-19)

We would be foolish to deny the eye-witness testimony to Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, and equally foolish to suggest that the only thing we should believe about Jesus’ life and teaching can be found within the pages of 4 gospels and 23 epistles! So, what’s a Christian to do?

Sadly, this is, of course, the very issue that divides Orthodox and Catholic Christians from reform-era Christians. “Scripture alone” for the truths of faith sought to provide an important corrective to the clerical abuses of Martin Luther’s day, but I believe it radically truncated the fullness of the Christian witness to Jesus’ life and teaching.

Don’t you ever wonder what Jesus spoke to his disciples about while they toasted s’mores around the camp fire? What were the little insights he shared with them about the proper Christian attitude, outlook, and way of living? What did he say to them that gave rise to the amazing community that we hear about in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles? “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.” (4:32-35)

More than that even, is to consider not just what Jesus said that was never written, but also the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Christian community’s reflection about what was written, and what was not, and what they are to do in each generation in order to advance God’s Kingdom. Jesus told his disciples that there was much more to come! He said, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” (JN 16:12-13)

This is why Catholics are so adamant about Scripture AND Tradition. It must be both if we are to remain faithful to Jesus’ instruction to his disciples and open to the ongoing guidance by the Spirit. Does it simplify things to stick only to what can be found in Scripture? Yes. Absolutely! It’s no wonder that such great biblical work is coming out of the Protestant community,and why so many Protestants know their Bibles so well! Those communities stand as a witness to the fruitfulness of immersing oneself in God’s Word!

But the faithful Catholic does not seek to simplify but must instead magnify! He or she must immerse himself/herself and be nourished by God’s Word, but must also be faithful to the Tradition–the preservation of what was not canonized in the Sacred texts of the 1st century, and to the ongoing guidance received through the magisterium, councils, and theologians guided by the same Holy Spirit that guided the Biblical authors.

I believe that’s as good as it gets! I believe that is the fullness of what Jesus came to reveal. More difficult? Yes–but well worth it. This path is covered in gems dropped in every generation. It begins with the treasure that is Jesus and the 1st century’s testimony to him and the spirit at work in their midst, and it continues right up to our present day. We too are charged with dropping a gem or two of our own! Maybe this blog post may someday be counted among them!

Mary Elizabeth Sperry, on the US Bishops’ website, writes, “Today’s Catholic is called to take an intelligent, spiritual approach to the bible.” She offer the following 10 points for “fruitful Scripture reading.” I think they are helpful as we take a responsible but courageous look at Sacred Scripture today.

Remember, the Bible wasn’t written to tell us EVERYTHING, but rather some things were written down so we might come to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and through this belief have life in His name. That’s the meat and potatoes! Step 1. Believe! Everything else is pure gravy for those who believe and have life. Amen? Enjoy the meat, potatoes, and the gravy…maybe even some veggies too.

Below are 10 helpful tips to understanding Scripture that every Catholic should know.

1 Bible reading is for Catholics. The Church encourages Catholics to make reading the Bible part of their daily prayer lives. Reading these inspired words, people grow deeper in their relationship with God and come to understand their place in the community God has called them to in himself.

2 Prayer is the beginning and the end. Reading the Bible is not like reading a novel or a history book. It should begin with a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to the Word of God. Scripture reading should end with a prayer that this Word will bear fruit in our lives, helping us to become holier and more faithful people.

3 Get the whole story! When selecting a Bible, look for a Catholic edition. A Catholic edition will include the Church’s complete list of sacred books along with introductions and notes for understanding the text. A Catholic edition will have an imprimatur notice on the back of the title page. An imprimatur indicates that the book is free of errors in Catholic doctrine.

4 The Bible isn’t a book. It’s a library. The Bible is a collection of 73 books written over the course of many centuries. The books include royal history, prophecy, poetry, challenging letters to struggling new faith communities, and believers’ accounts of the preaching and passion of Jesus. Knowing the genre of the book you are reading will help you understand the literary tools the author is using and the meaning the author is trying to convey.

5 Know what the Bible is – and what it isn’t. The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation.

6 The sum is greater than the parts. Read the Bible in context. What happens before and after – even in other books – helps us to understand the true meaning of the text.

7 The Old relates to the New. The Old Testament and the New Testament shed light on each other. While we read the Old Testament in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it has its own value as well. Together, these testaments help us to understand God’s plan for human beings.

8 You do not read alone. By reading and reflecting on Sacred Scripture, Catholics join those faithful men and women who have taken God’s Word to heart and put it into practice in their lives. We read the Bible within the tradition of the Church to benefit from the holiness and wisdom of all the faithful.

9 What is God saying to me? The Bible is not addressed only to long-dead people in a faraway land. It is addressed to each of us in our own unique situations. When we read, we need to understand what the text says and how the faithful have understood its meaning in the past. In light of this understanding, we then ask: What is God saying to me?

10 Reading isn’t enough. If Scripture remains just words on a page, our work is not done. We need to meditate on the message and put it into action in our lives. Only then can the word be “living and effective.”(Hebrews 4:12).

God bless. Happy Easter, Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

No Fooling! He Is Risen! Truly Risen!

This reflection is for Easter Sunday – The Resurrection of the Lord, Cycle B, 4/1/2018.


Have you heard the Good News?! He is risen! No fooling, really, Jesus the Christ has conquered the grave! Death could not hold him. He has been raised by the glory of the Father! He is risen and the world will never be the same again! Today we celebrate the foundational proclamation of our faith in who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what that means for us and the whole world, namely, redemption, reconciliation, and salvation in the name of Jesus!

In his book, More Than A Carpenter, Josh McDowell (who follows the logic and repackages Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis) lays out the reason for our belief in the resurrection. He says that the world is confronted with three basic questions about Jesus’ person. Jesus, according to these authors, is either a liar, a lunatic, or indeed the Lord and savior of the universe. Also, you might like reading, The Case For Christ, by Lee Strobel, as he lays out the reason that lead him to an obvious conclusion–Jesus is Lord. All of these books seek to provide reasons to believe the testimony of those who were there. Their claim, of course, is that Jesus was more than a good man, more than a prophet, more than a miracle worker; he was, as they claim and as we believe, the Lord and savior of the human race.

I was quite surprised last week when one of my students asked me not if Jesus was God, but whether or not Jesus ever even really existed. Really? Is this what fake news has done to a generation of youths? Have we come to a point where a person’s physical existence is now even in doubt? What’s next, did Abraham Lincoln really ever exist?  If I’ve never met him, shouldn’t I have reason to doubt whether he ever was at all? Actually, there are a  number of extra-biblical accounts of Jesus’ true existence (Click here for an article with sources), but His being Messiah, and Lord, the Christ, is a matter of faith through reason. Not faith without reason, but instead we believe it is very reasonable to profess the faith of the Church, that Jesus triumphed over the grave and is Lord.

In fact, today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles seeks to offer the first reasoned response and a simple yet thorough explanation of the whole Gospel! According to Acts,

“Peter proceeded to speak and said: ‘You know what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses of all that he did
both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree. This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness, that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.'”

That’s it! That’s the whole thing! Jesus is the anointed one of God (the Greek word for anointed is Christos, hence, Jesus the Christ), who came to earth filled with the Spirit and with power to do good by conquering evil wherever he found it! Peter says that he and the other apostles are witnesses to Jesus’ life, actions, and teachings, and most importantly stand as a witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He makes it clear that after Jesus rose FROM THE DEAD they broke bread together! That’s not a small matter! So, yes! Jesus really did exist. And yes! he was crucified and rose again! And, yes! the apostles and many others ate, drank, and walked with him–as all of the Gospel options for today’s Mass make quite clear (cf. John 20:1-9, Mark 16:1-7, Luke 24:13-35).

But I think the most important part for all of us is in the last few lines of Peter’s exhortation, namely, that Jesus commissioned them (and us) to preach to people and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to judge the living and the dead, and that everyone who believes in Jesus, will receive forgiveness of sins in his name. There is nothing that matters more than this simple truth. Sin causes separation from God and from others. It causes divisions within our selves and in our communities–but through Jesus, we can be reconciled within ourselves, within our families and communities, and in our world.

The message of wholeness and redemption is needed more today than ever. Young people and veterans are committing suicide in staggering numbers. Twenty-two veterans take their life each day in this country! Shocking amounts of young people need mental health counseling and drug and alcohol counseling. School shootings have become common place. Over half of marriages end in divorce, over three thousand abortions per day in the U.S., young people are being manipulated and abused through human trafficking, and countries never cease to do violence to humanity and the earth. In sum, we need Jesus. We need the Prince of Peace more than ever. We need those who are willing to courageously share Jesus with everyone they meet. We need evangelists today more than ever! Are you in?

The resurrection of Jesus is still Good News for so many living in darkness–but we who call Him Lord need to take that message of redemption, wholeness, and reconciliation to the world! Sin is real. Name it. Forgiveness of sin is real. Name Him and receive Life–and Life Eternal. Share that good news with someone today. Happy Easter everyone. He is risen. He is truly risen!

God Bless, Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos