Thursday, April 21, 2011

"I call you friends"

On yet another Maundy Thursday, I contemplate the Gospel reading said every year at services in all Catholic churches. Jesus, taking off his robe, washing the feet of his disciples, and telling them to do likewise (John 13). While I reflected on this last year (see April 2010 posts), I wanted this year to look at John 15.

Typically, Christians are most familiar with Jesus' teaching on being the vine, with us being the branches. What strikes me most is what happens after that lesson, which we read starting in verse 11:

"I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete. 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. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father." (John 15:11-15)

What prompted this thought was a song I sang at the Newman Center in West Chester, which I attended while visiting Alyssa on weekends. The song is called "We have been told", and I had one of the verses running through my head, which goes like this: "You are my friends, if you keep my commands. No longer slaves, I call you friends."

Imagine the apostles' possible surprise at this statement. Here, the teacher and master they had been following for three years, now turns to them and calls them his friends. What a table turner! Now, I'm not too familiar with rabbinical structures during the first century, but I have a hunch that no other teacher did that with their disciples. Jesus seeks more than just our blind obedience; he wants to know us intimately. He wants to be our friend, our best friend if you will. Thinking about it moves me, because it shows how great his love is.

How often do we fail in this regard? I'm sure many of us have had friends we have lost touch with or have not talked to for quite a while. Some of those people we no longer consider friends; others we can talk to them after some time like nothing has changed. I have people in my life that fall under both categories. However, Jesus wants to be that friend that we talk to every day and that we want to spend time with. I know I disappoint consistently and need to strive to be a better friend. What steps do you take to better your friendship?

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Much criticism has been made about Catholicism and its belief in praying to the saints. Many of us are familiar with at least some names of the saints, most notably Jesus’ apostles along with other major figures in Christian history. But where does this belief stem from, and how did these great figures become saints?

To begin, we are all called as Christians to be saints. This is why, in addition to saints’ feast days, Catholics celebrate All Saints Day on November 1, as a way to celebrate the men and women in our lives who have been great influences. Christ calls us to be holy, and as any study of those who have the title “Saint”, these people had their own struggles in life. A prime example is St. Augustine of Hippo, a man who engaged in sexual immorality before converting, and who later became recognized as a “Doctor of the Church” for his writings on the faith.

The primary reason for the belief in asking the saints for help is the belief in “the communion of saints,” found in the Apostles’ Creed. Those departed brothers and sisters are no less a part of the Christ’s Church than we are who are still living. Thus, asking saints for their intercessions is not nearly so different than asking a friend to pray for us. We also see the saints interceding on our behalf in John’s vision in Revelation 5:8 and 7:9-14. We should be able to take some measure of comfort that our loved ones who are in heaven also may intercede on our behalf!

The communion of saints is something we see (in part) in the letter to the Hebrews, notably chapter 11, which is known as the “faith” chapter. Here, the author goes through various figures we find in the Old Testament, praising them for their faith. Granted, Roman Catholicism only recognizes figures from the New Testament onward (the Eastern rite does have Old Testament saints), but we see how looking to the saints can bolster our own faith.

Here some may ask, “But isn’t that communing with the dead?” Prayer is not holding a séance; we are not seeking to gain information, but rather are asking for help. Also, as Christians we believe in eternal life, so those saints and other departed brothers and sisters are still very much alive with God in heaven. This is another belief of saints: that they are assuredly in heaven.

Another objection may be, “But we should go directly to Jesus with our prayers.” True, our prayers should be focused on Him. But once again, we ask friends to pray for us, and throughout the Bible, we see many people asking others to do the same, such as Paul in his many letters to the churches of the time. The apostle James also writes,

“The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.” (James 5:16-18)

We see in Scripture time and again how those who follow God’s will on earth are effective in their prayers. How much more so then are those who have been made worthy to be in God’s presence!

This is something I am still learning about of course. I know only a handful of patron saints, like St. Thomas Aquinas, patron saint of education, or St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, patron saint of teachers, yet I find it comforting that even when I ask others on earth to pray for me, that perhaps my grandparents and other relatives are also praying for me. Perhaps in better understanding this teaching, you can as well.