Surprise! x 3!

This reflection is for The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Cycle B, 5/27/2018.

I think most parents remember playing “peak-a-boo” with their babies. I just saw a young mother playing with her daughter a few days ago and it brought back a flood of wonderful memories. I remember how much fun I used to have with my boys playing that game. Simply cover your own eyes with your hand, remove it quickly, say, “boo!” and wait for a little jump and giggles galore! So much fun! I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, actually, my sons or me. That’s probably why I played it so much. They loved being surprised and I loved surprising them!

Not a lot has changed for us now that my boys are nine and eleven, actually. They still love surprises and I still find so much joy in doing the surprising! I think most people love surprises, and I’m always sad when I hear someone say that they don’t like surprises! I think some of the greatest joys in life catch us by surprise.

People do love surprises: Christmas gifts, unexpected flowers, wedding proposals, birthday parties, and surprise endings. We love to discover something new and unexpected. It’s proof that we don’t have all the answers, we don’t know all the possible outcomes, and you never know what might be just around the corner!

You know, God likes surprises too! I like to speak of God as the God of surprises. How many times I have said, “Man! I would never have imagined that! Amazing!” Haha!

That’s exactly what Isaiah discovered about God thousands of years ago, when God surprised his faithful people by ending their exile in Babylon! Surprise! King Cyrus of Persia has defeated the Babylonians, and has returned the Judah-ites to their land–and even gave them money to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem! Surprise! (‘Betcha didn’t see that coming!)

Isaiah proclaims of God, “you worked awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as had not been heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you working such deeds for those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:2-3)

St. Paul actually uses the words of Isaiah when talking about Jesus to the Corinthians. He says, “as it is written: ‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.’” (1Cor 2:7-9)

Isaiah and Paul rediscovered what Moses discovered far earlier, but the people had forgotten! God loves surprises! Believe me, you can just imagine Paul’s surprise when while heading off to persecute Christians, Jesus appears in a bright light and says, You’re not going to kill Christians! You’re going to become one, and proclaim my name to the gentiles! Surprise!

In today’s reading from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses helps the Israelites to be people of faith who never doubt the awesome power, love, and blessings of the God of surprises!

You’ve been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, but it’s time to go! Surprise! And look, Pharaoh is even giving you camels, gold, and silver for your trouble! Moses gives the people a laundry list of surprises from God.

“Moses said to the people: ‘Ask now of the days of old, before your time, ever since God created man upon the earth; ask from one end of the sky to the other: Did anything so great ever happen before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live? Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors, all of which the LORD, your God, did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” (DT 4:32-34, 39-40)

And then, in the fullness of time, God visits His people! The Incarnation! God really surprised Mary and Joseph, right?! The angel says, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High…The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (LK 1:31) Yahweh is God–but Jesus is too! Surprise!

And no one loved surprises more than Jesus! You can’t find me, mom, I’m in the Temple with the Elders! Surprise!

You’re out of wine and your wedding is ruined! Surprise! Party on!

You guys are horrible fisherman whose nets are empty! Surprise, your nets are breaking!

There’s not enough food to feed 5,000 people! Surprise, everyone is full and there are leftovers!

Your hand is healed! Surprise!

Get up, you can walk! Surprise!

You are cleansed of leprosy! Surprise!

Lazarus is not dead! Surprise!

You are a condemned sinner but now you’re forgiven! Surprise!

Apparently Judas learned something about surprises from Jesus because Judas had a little surprise of his own, right? You claim to be God but I’m handing you over to be crucified! Surprise!

And then Jesus had a little surprise for Satan! You thought I was dead and gone, I am risen! SURPRISE!

And finally, just when you thought God was all out of surprises, God sends His Holy Spirit into the hearts of His faithful that they might know Him, think like Him, and become like Him. Surprise! Yes, by His Spirit God restores His children to His likeness and image that was lost “in the beginning.” Freedom is ours. Original holiness is ours. Salvation is ours. Surprise!

St. Paul tells the Romans today, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (ROM 8:14-17)

OMG! God is three! Surprise! Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; to God who is, who was, and who is to come. (RV 1:8) Today we celebrate the most Holy Trinity. We celebrate what could only have been known because the God of the universe chose to reveal something about His inner self, something closest to Himself to people He loves very much.

The God of love, who never ceases to surprise us, wants to love and surprise others too. God does not want our joy to be contained within us, but instead to be shared with others. We share our life, our love, and our joy with those around us! As His children, we must be full of surprises too!

The truth be told, I have a confession to make: I still play “peak-a-boo,” but with other people’s baby! With friends, or family, and sometimes with complete strangers, I always take the time to teach the importance and joy of surprise. (Disclaimer: Get permission first with stranger’s children!) Don’t keep it to yourself, Jesus says!

In today’s gospel, “Jesus approached and said to [the eleven], ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.'” (MT 28:16-20)

God is our Father. God is risen. God is Spirit. God is one and three. He is with us forever. What an amazing surprise! Happy Trinity Sunday. Go be like God, surprise someone you love. Surprise someone who needs to know they are loved.

Blessings, Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

Is This Your Fight Song?

This reflection is for Pentecost Sunday Mass During the Day, Cycle B, 5/20/2018.

Okay, so I have a confession to make, I love Rachel Platten’s song, “Fight Song.” I think the song gives such great testimony to the power and influence that a singe individual can make in transforming the world. In the opening lines she says, “Like a small boat on the ocean, Sending big waves into motion. Like how a single word Can make a heart open, I might only have one match But I can make an explosion.”

Her song teaches us the truth that every thing that every person does can have an immeasurable impact and can transform lives, and even the world. And this is what Jesus did, and this is what he calls us to do today. Jesus told his disciples, “I have come to set the world ablaze! And how I wish it were already burning” (LK 12:49).

Fire is an amazing force, and an appropriate image for the Holy Spirit. Fire brings warmth, peace, comfort, and security when there is fear, uncertainty, danger, and darkness. How valuable a camp fire for one who is alone in the wilderness! Fire is also trans-formative. It changes everything that it touches! Burning wood becomes ash, burnt prairie teams with new growth and, if not for fire, the giant sequoia would never release its seeds for new life. And this is why Jesus sent His Spirit to the earth: to be our comfort, our guide, our security, our hope, and our force for transforming our life, our family, and our world. Jesus calls us to make disciples of all nations and to proclaim The Kingdom with boldness, and it’s the Holy Spirit received at baptism and strengthened at Confirmation that enables us to do just that!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace, and by it we are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit which makes us true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and able to defend the faith through our word and actions.” (C.C.C. 1285) In baptism we receive the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but in Confirmation they truly come alive in us! Confirmation is like steroids for the gifts of the Holy Spirit within us! What are the gifts that the Spirit gives?

You might remember that they are those gifts prophesied by Isaiah, found in the Book of Isaiah 11:2-3. They are Knowledge, Understanding, Wisdom, Counsel, Fortitude, Fear of the Lord, and Piety. It might be helpful to remember them this way: The Spirit gives us knowledge, which is good, but doesn’t exactly help us to solve our everyday problems. Knowledge is good, but what we really need is to understand. Understanding allows us to not just know it, but really “get it!” Once we get it, it’s time to apply it to the normal circumstances of life. The real-life application of knowledge and understanding is wisdom. That’s usually the toughest part though. Actually LIVING what we know to be true and applying it in the concrete circumstances of life! That’s where the fourth gift comes in, namely, fortitude/strength. Fortitude steels our spine that we might do what we ought, even in difficult situations. Now that you know the way and go the way, it’s time to be a great leader and show the way. That’s the fifth gift of the Spirit, Council. Council means that you are now helping others to know what to do and to do it. Of course, when people recognize how thoughtful you are, how wise you are, and how strong you are, this can easily lead to arrogance and pride! It can all go to our head and we begin to act as though all of this greatness is from us! That’s where the sixth gift comes in: fear of the Lord. Fear of the Lord is not being afraid of God, but is rather a healthy respect for the greatness of God. Fear of the Lord recognizes that everything I am, everything I have, and everything I do is entirely owed to God. HE is the one to whom the glory goes–not me! Fear of the Lord recognizes that I am merely the vessel of God’s gifts and in no way deserve any of the credit. And that is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, I’m afraid. In a world of self-aggrandizement, humbly giving glory to others is quite difficult. The pious person does not have this issue. The seventh gift of the Holy Spirit, piety, finds absolute joy and fulfillment in the fear of the Lord. The pious person points always to the Lord and wouldn’t have it any other way.

With these gifts, the disciple of Jesus Christ can transform the world! We are courageous soldiers of Jesus who humbly yet boldly say what is true, give direction in life, take leadership roles, and give all the glory to God. It’s no wonder that Jesus asks so much of us, He gave us the means to achieve everything He had done, and more! In John 14:12 Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.” He knew we could do it because He promised that we would receive this amazing gift of the Spirit, first at Pentecost, and then with the laying on of hands by those at Pentecost! And the power of the Spirit has been transferred from the Apostles by the laying on of hands in every generation until today!

Jesus told His disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6) Simon, the magician, was so impressed by the power of the Holy Spirit transferred through the laying-on of hands, that he tried to buy it! Acts 8:18 reads, “When Simon saw that the Spirit was conferred by the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me this power too, so that anyone upon whom I lay my hands may receive the holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought that you could buy the gift of God with money.'” The act of attempting to buy or sell the power of God is aptly called, “simony,” named after Simon the Magician.

You see, from the very beginning the Spirit has been a gift to the world. That’s it. It is free, but NOT cheap. Jesus’ death and resurrection has paid the price for this gift to us. It is not something that can be bought, but a person must be open to receiving the gift and must be willing to cooperate with God’s gift for it to truly take root and transform his/her life. It’s not magic, after all. It is the gift of God that binds us to Jesus and the Church, and enables us to fight the good fight and live out Jesus’ commandment to love.

The Church teaches that the laying on of hands in Confirmation doesn’t do anything new in us, as we already have the Spirit and It’s gifts, but it does strengthen those gifts in us–for one purpose and one purpose only. The Catechism teaches, “Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace: it roots us more deeply as children of God;  it unites us more firmly to Christ; it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us; it more perfectly bonds us with the Church; it gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross. (C.C.C. 1303)

If we are His, we must boldly proclaim Him to the world. We must spread the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ that the whole world might know Him, love Him, and serve Him–and it’s the Spirit’s presence and working in us that transforms us into these bold courageous witnesses to Jesus. What will our lives look like if we are His, and what will the world look like when every knee bends at the sound of His name?

St. Paul first gives a glimpse of what living apart from the Spirit looks like (living in the flesh), and secondly, what living in step with the Spirit looks like when they are filled with, and responding to the presence of the Spirit within them. He teaches that if they have the Spirit, and the Gifts of the Spirit, then they should be producing the Fruit of the Spirit. He says, “Brothers and sisters, live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. (5:15-25)

Jesus wants to transform the world, and it’s His Spirit that will do it–but not alone. Today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the Church, whereby Jesus sent His Spirit into the hearts of the faithful, giving them gifts that they might produce fruit for a hungry world. Jesus is the only saver of souls, and no one can say, “Lord, lord, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 COR 12:3). It is our job as His disciples to share the name of Jesus in word and deed. We are called to day-by-day bring light and love, goodness and truth, wholeness, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion to thirsty souls. That’s a pretty difficult thing to do, of course, especially as the world becomes increasingly violent, but the true disciple will continue to love in spite of suffering and pain.

Jesus promised His disciples that in these last days, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes from place to place. All these are the beginning of the labor pains. Then they will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name. And then many will be led into sin; they will betray and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and deceive many; and because of the increase of evildoing, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come. (MT 24:7-14)

No big surprise, then, all this should be expected. Let’s do our job: receive the Spirit and Its gifts, call on the Spirit, produce good fruit, boldly proclaim Christ, and persevere until The End. I mean, “Like a small boat on the ocean, Sending big waves into motion. Like how a single word Can make a heart open, I might only have one match But I can make an explosion.” (And set the world ablaze for Jesus!) Amen?

Easter Blessings, Stephen

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

Where Did Jesus Go?

This reflection is for Ascension Sunday, Cycle B, 5/13/2018.

I was surprised recently when talking with my students. It was this past Friday before Mother’s Day/Ascension Sunday. I like to make sure that my students are thoughtful about their mothers and how much their mother’s do for them and sacrifice for them. One of my students, when making a mother’s day card, wrote in Spanish in big letters, “I know I’m not the best son, but I’ll always love you, mom.” As I read it I told him how powerful it was and that I’m sure his mom would appreciate it. He said, “Yeah, Mr. Valgos, moms never stop loving you no matter how bad you mess up.”

As I agreed with him, I thought about my own mom and how many times I’ve messed up, and I thought about my wife and how much she loves our boys and sacrifices for them. I was immediately overcome with gratitude for both my mom and my wife, and got all choked up and became teary-eyed. Not a single one of my students clowned me for it. When you teach alternative education, everyone knows moms reign supreme. They pick up the phone, they hassle the kids, they make sure they’re dressed, on the bus, and are passing their classes. Moms are the ones who sacrifice everything for their children. In this Age of the Church, Jesus is working through moms in a powerful way. Many will come to know the love of God through the love of their mom.

Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. In the Creed we announce that, “He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” (C.C.C.659-667). And the very next phrase is, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead” (C.C.C. 668-682). It is very important that we reflect a moment on the implications of these two short phrases because the implications are tremendous. I hear quite often that Jesus “lives in you and me,” or that Jesus “is in my heart.” But technically speaking, how is that possible if the resurrected Jesus “ascended to the Father” and “will return to judge” at the end of time, as we state every Sunday in the Creed?

I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Jesus will return! Look busy!” If Jesus will return…then how can He also “be here” or “in my heart”? What I think most people really mean is that, “the Spirit of Jesus” lives within us, or that Jesus’ Spirit is here among us. It is the Holy Spirit that is Jesus’ active force in the world today. That, after all, is the importance of Pentecost, which we celebrate this coming Sunday! Jesus looked forward to ascending to the Father so that He could send the Holy Spirit (cf JN 16:7) and usher in the “age of the Church” whereby Jesus would act in and through his faithful disciples, the body of Christ, the Church.

The Catechism says it like this, “The gift of the Spirit ushers in a new era in the ‘dispensation of the mystery’–the age of the Church, during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church, ‘until he comes.’ In this age of the Church Christ now lives and acts in and with his church.” (C.C.C. 1076) In yesterday’s Gospel reading Jesus says to His Father, “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world” (JN 17:18).

A great way to see these two realities lived out quite clearly is by comparing Luke, the evangelist’s, two writings, namely, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is part two of the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke begins with, “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Luke 1:1-4). So the Gospel clearly intended to gather information about Jesus’ life for “Theophilus” (which translates “Theo” = God + “Philus”= lover, so a “lover of God”) into an orderly narrative from the beginning to the end of Jesus’ life. Luke ends with Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

Acts of the Apostles is our reading for today, and begins with, “In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” (Acts 1:1-2) Clearly Acts continues Luke’s teachings about Jesus, only Acts IS NOT about Jesus, per se. It is instead about the Body of Christ! Whereas we saw the earthly Jesus in the Gospel, we now see Jesus in Heaven working through the Holy Spirit in and through His Church in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Acts of the Apostles replaces the Old Testament reading throughout the Easter Season. We’ve been hearing from it everyday since Easter and we continue to hear from it right up to Pentecost. You might have noticed that in Acts, the Apostles heal people, show mercy to people, and proclaim the good news–in other words, they continue the mission and ministry of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit–and it all begins at Pentecost!

If you want to see Jesus in action, read the Gospel! If you want to see Jesus Spirit in action, read Acts of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit is sent to Jesus’ disciples that they might be Him on earth until He returns. No, Jesus is NOT in your heart, is not in your neighbor, and is not in the Church–the Spirit of Jesus is! Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and will come again to Judge the living and the dead. The Holy Spirit binds believers together into one body with Jesus as the head. The Spirit makes Christ a present reality in and through His members, the Church, the Body of Christ.

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) said it perfectly and beautifully when she wrote the following poem:

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

In today’s Gospel Jesus said to his disciples, “’Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.’ So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.”

Jesus is still “here” and working with and through His Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. We will indeed experience Jesus today–by the Holy Spirit that makes Christ present during this Age of the Church–most especially in the Eucharist. But we will experience Him primarily through others. Through other people’s responding to Jesus and producing good fruit. We will experience the fruit of the Spirit by their love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (cf. GAL 5:22).

We will come to know Jesus Christ ascended by the working of His Spirit through the Church. We will come to believe in Him by the way that they live out holy lives. We will come to hear the words of God, see the face of God, feel the love of God through others…moms first of all. And we should do the same.

On this celebration of Mother’s Day we give thanks for all those moms who responded to Jesus’ call to proclaim the Gospel to every nation…starting in their home, with their husband and with their children. Thank you, mom. Thank you, wife. Thank you, Jesus. And we who have come to know the love, mercy, and forgiveness of Jesus are called to go out and do likewise. We continue by the power of the same Spirit of Jesus that animated them to love to then go out and show love, forgiveness, and mercy to others. And that’s how we and the Holy Spirit build the Kingdom of God. Let’s get started! The King will soon return. Look busy.


Easter Blessings,

By Deacon Stephen Valgos