Do you know what really bugs me about Advent? Or rather, the way people approach advent? Everyone skips to the end. We are happy about the fact that Jesus was born but even then we are honoring His birth mostly in terms of how His life ended. It makes sense that we do. Freeing us from sin is the reason He came to earth in the first place, so it is understandable to want to skip to the part where He fulfills this purpose. We have all of lent for that. What is there to take out of advent?
Something that really hit me recently is that Christ’s first miracle was becoming a baby.
He performed a lot of miracles, but the first was to become a child. He gave many sacrifices, but the first thing He sacrificed was self-sufficiency.
When I was a little kid, my two goals in life were to be an adult and to be perfect. Easy, right? I went out of my way to show my teachers and my parents that I was more than capable of taking care of everything myself. My proudest moment in kindergarten was being left in charge of a classroom of my peers at five years old. I had decided that grownups were self-sufficient, as they should be, and as such, if I wanted to be mature, I could never ask for help. From anyone. Ever.
Something I was missing was that there was a lot more to Jesus’s life prior to public ministry and death. Just like what many do with advent, I glanced over the beginning and wanted only the end. Heaven was the goal, but I forgot that the journey still happens on earth.
I wanted to be like the saints who so often seem strong and tough, ready to die a martyr for God. I wanted to make the biggest sacrifices and fight the roughest battles. Though I had good intentions, this quickly turned into an intense fear of needing people. I told myself that things like friendship and love were luxuries, so I hardly needed them; I could accomplish more and be stronger with independence. Slowly but surely, I began pushing things down, believing this was a necessary sacrifice to make in order to be who God wanted me to be.
But I could not sustain it. Eventually, this strategy of mine began to crumble as the secrets and unexpressed emotions piled up and up until they burst. When they finally did, I found myself on my knees, sobbing to God, begging Him to help me. I needed my Father.
Since that prayer, God has been slowly teaching me that it is okay to be vulnerable sometimes and it is okay to need help. Even so, I still fall into the old trap. I look at the cross and I want so badly to emulate Him right now that I put the weight of the world on my shoulders. Four years after that desperate prayer, I found myself on my knees again, this time filled with anxiety and crying to God that I cannot do it—I cannot be holy, I cannot be like Him. In my mind, I replay all the times I failed. All the times I had been selfish. All the times I had snapped at my friends. All the times I had sinned.
I wanted to spread joy, but sometimes I needed help with my own problems. I wanted to be kind, but I still snapped at people. One day I could not imagine putting anything before heaven and the next I spent hours preoccupied with temptations. One day I thought I would never waver and the next it took an hour to convince myself to pray. I believed that God had a plan for me, but the plan was too unattainable; I was never going to get it right. Inevitably, I would let Him down.
Then I thought of Baby Jesus—long before His miracle working, long before His preaching, long before His passion, He chose what His first act would be and He chose to become a child, a child that would need to slowly grow up, nurtured by the love of His family. Christ did not jump straight to the Passion, so why do I? I might not be holy enough to die for Him but, fortunately, He gave me a much more attainable first step.
I remember to go back to the beginning and always start with the first step. Who I am can be pretty messy and, yes, vulnerable, but that is who God made me to be. If vulnerable is where Jesus started, then it is a pretty great starting place for me.
Sophia Swinford is a theology student at Saint Mary's in London, yet she is still an Arizona girl at heart. Sophia basically lives off books, coffee, rainy days and conversations about Jesus, who has stolen her heart and never given it back! Originally published at Lifeteen.com.
Ever wondered why bad things happen in life? The reason may surprise you Often, when we are faced with severe trials and sufferings, we are tempted to blame God: “Why is God doing this to me,” or “Why does a loving God not come immediately to my aid?” In the process, we conveniently forget the Bible tells us that there is also a mysterious evil Force at work in our world whose only purpose is “to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). Jesus called this evil power the Devil and described him as “a murderer from the beginning… a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44). “An enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28). Jesus specifically taught us that we must never blame His/our “Abba” for our sufferings! In His insightful parable, when questioned by the servants about the appearance of weeds among the good wheat given them to sow, the Master replied categorically, “Some enemy has done this, not I.” Choose Your Victory God is not a moody, tyrannical, or uncaring deity who causes cancers and marital breakdowns and tsunamis to plague His beloved children! The cause lies in the mysterious spiritual battle raging between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil that involves every human being! The precious gift of free will, given to us by the Creator, allows each of us “to choose life or to choose death” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20), to stay happily on the side of Good or to cross over to the Enemy’s side. And this choosing is done not only by individuals, but by systems as well. In addition to individual sin, there is systemic sin—well-organized oppressive systems and institutions which perpetuate social injustice and religious persecution. The Bible tells us that Jesus has won the victory over all the Forces of Evil, and that in the “new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21, 22) whatever turned creation away from its original purpose will be destroyed for the sake of the new creation, which will fulfill the Lord’s prayer: ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. In his 1986 Encyclical Letter on the Holy Spirit, Saint John Paul II explained this cosmic spiritual warfare when he explained how the sin of Adam and Eve allowed “the perverse genius of suspicion” into the world. This apt phrase expresses correctly that the Enemy is a genius (as a fallen angel, his intelligence is superior to ours), but a perverse genius (he uses his intelligence for evil purposes rather than for good), and his (successful) strategy has been to sow suspicion in the minds of God’s creatures (us!) against God the Creator Himself! The real Enemy goes scot-free: “For in spite of all the witness of creation, the spirit of darkness is capable of showing God as an enemy of His own creature, and in the first place as an enemy of man. In this way, Satan manages to sow in man’s soul the seed of opposition to the One, who from the beginning would be considered as man’s enemy—and not as Father. This analysis of sin indicates that throughout the history of humanity there will be a constant pressure on man to reject God, even to the point of hating Him. Man will be inclined to see in God primarily a limitation of himself, and not the source of his own freedom and fullness of good” (Dominum et vivificantem, n.38). Reason for Suspicion Don’t our own personal experiences bear this out? Throughout history, a constant pressure has indeed been exerted on humanity to suspect God! And because of this, Saint John Paul II explains, “there is in the depths of God an unimaginable and inexpressible pain. This inscrutable and indescribable fatherly ‘pain’ will bring about, above all, the wonderful economy of redemptive love in Jesus Christ, so that love can reveal itself in human history as stronger than sin” (Dominum et vivificantem, n.39). When I was the Parish Priest at Holy Family Church, Mumbai, I was surprised to learn that I was expected to insure my church against God! The insurance contract which I had to renew, contained this line: “We insure this building against floods, fires, earthquakes and such acts of God!” I protested to the agent that my God, the God revealed by Jesus Christ, could never be blamed for natural calamities, but was instead a God of surpassing love. (I eventually signed the contract, but only after crossing out the offending words). The incident taught me how a “perverse suspicion of God” has become so ingrained in human customs and traditions that a good God gets represented as a moody, tyrannical deity! Instead of recognizing that the cause of the misery and suffering that plagues our world is man’s refusal to be an obedient steward of God’s creation (see Genesis 1:28) the secular (and often even the religious) world prefers to make God the scapegoat for everything amiss! However, we cannot blame God for our human ills resulting from global warming, terrorism, wars, poverty, unforgiveness, contagious diseases, etc. On the contrary, from the mystery of His own Son’s terrible crucifixion and resurrection, we must conclude that God always desires our good, and that “wherever evil abounds, His grace super-abounds” (Romans 5:20). There is a spiritual battle being waged imperceptibly between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. Even in 2023, humanity needs to be reminded that, despite all its technological progress and scientific achievements, this spiritual battle continues, and involves every human being! “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). So please, let’s put the blame where it belongs and never blame Jesus’ and God, our Father!
Beginning the first day of my incarceration, I have been building a relationship with God. I often feel regret that it took such a tragedy for me to submit to my need for Him, but even more often I feel grateful that I have found a burning passion for life in the Lord. My desire to seek Him sprang from prayer. I prayed intently for those suffering the crushing consequences of my dangerous actions driven by addictions. It was during this prayer time that God revealed His unconditional love for me and called me into kinship with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. My journey, building a relationship with God during these years in prison, reminds of the techniques needed to build the foundation for a camp-fire, a skill I had developed in the past when I was free to spend my time enjoying the outdoors. I cleared the ground to make room for my new love. Like the stones I placed around the fire pit, I surrounded myself with others seeking self-improvement via divine guidance. Church became the bedrock on which my foundation was laid. I listened carefully to The Word, and did my best to apply it in my daily activities. But my fire pit was empty. I set out to add elements to build my fire pit. Small portions of time were dedicated to communal prayer, Bible study gatherings and group recovery sessions. These small additions, like kindling were needed to start the fire burning, but I knew that I needed something more substantial to add, or my fire would be sure to burn out quickly. I fervently sought for something I could dedicate my life that would consolidate my bond with God. The answer came in the form of service work. It was service to others, whether in the simple form of a listening ear, or working in leadership positions dedicated to teaching my peers, that brought me true joy. I piled the giant logs of service positions onto my nest of kindling. Now I needed something flammable for ignition. Much to my surprise, unique accelerators were express delivered by the Lord Himself. Counselling sessions with our Chaplain, professional mentoring with my work supervisor, and the loving support of my family back home, gave me the encouragement I desperately needed to ask forgiveness for my past and believe in my future. I poured all their loving guidance onto the firewood with eager expectation. The time had finally come to set my constructed masterpiece ablaze. I found the perfect spark in the Living Word. For an entire year I cupped this crucial element. I fed it oxygen while digesting God’s teaching, direction and wisdom and carefully placed the spark near the base of my structure. God assisted by gently blowing against the spark, and a fire of love for Jesus roared into life in my heart. Today, this fire burns warm and bright. The love I share with the Lord has satisfied all that I have ever longed for. Prior to incarceration, I was lost and distracted by worldly pleasures, trapped in its pitfalls, feeling desperately drained and directionless. As someone lost in the wilderness of life, there is no survival without fire. My life is meaningful in the Lord, and it is so much easier to see hope in opportunity by the light of this fire.
Q – My pre-teens are clamoring for a phone so they can get social media, like all of their friends. I feel so torn, because I don’t want them to be left out, but I know how dangerous it can be. What is your opinion? A: Social media can be used for good. I know a twelve-year-old who makes short Bible reflections on TikTok, and he gets hundreds of views. Another young person I know has an Instagram account dedicated to posting about the saints. Other teens I know go on Discord or other chat rooms to debate atheists or to encourage other young people in their Faith. Without a doubt, there are good uses for social media in evangelization and forming Christian community. And yet…do the benefits outweigh the risks? A good maxim in the spiritual life is: “Trust God immensely…never trust yourself!” Should we entrust a young person with unfettered access to the internet? Even if they start out with the best of intentions, are they strong enough to resist the temptations? Social media can be a cesspool—not just obvious temptations like pornography or glorifying violence, but even more insidious temptations like gender ideology, bullying, becoming addicted to the “high” of getting likes and views, and feelings of inadequacy when teens start to compare themselves with others on social media. In my opinion, the risks outweigh the benefits of allowing young people access to a secular world which will try to form them away from the mind of Christ. Recently a mother and I were discussing her teenage daughter’s poor behavior and attitude, which was correlated to her use of TikTok and her unfettered access to the internet. The mother said with a sigh of resignation, “It’s just so sad that teens are so addicted to their phones…but what can you do?” What can you do? You can be a parent! Yes, I know peer pressure is tremendous to allow your kids a phone or device with endless free access to all the worst humanity has to offer (aka social media) – but as a parent your job is to form your children to be saints. Their souls are in your hands. We must be that first line of defense against the dangersof the world. We would never allow them to spend time with apedophile; if we knew they were being bullied we would try to protect them; if something were harming their health, we would spare no expense to rush them to the doctor. Then why wouldwe allow them a window into the cesspool of porn, hatred, and time-wasting trash that’s readily available on the internet without offering careful guidance? Study after study has shown the negative effects of the internet in general—and social media in particular—but still we turn a blind eye and wonder why our teenage sons and daughters struggle with identity crises, depression, self-hatred, addictions, aberrant behavior, laziness, a lack of desire for holiness! Parents, do not abdicate your authority and your responsibility! At the end of your lives, the Lord will ask you how well you shepherded these souls He entrusted to you—whether or not you led them to Heaven and preserved their souls from sin to the best of your ability. We cannot use the excuse, “Oh, well everyone else’s kids have one, so my kid would be strange if they didn’t! Will your kids be angry with you, maybe even say they hate you, if you put restrictions on their devices? Probably. But their anger will be temporary—their gratitude will be eternal. Recently another friend who travels the country speaking about the dangers of social media told me that after her talk she always has many young adults come up to her with one of two reactions: “At the time I was furious with my parents for taking away my phone, but now I’m grateful.” OR “I really wish my parents had protected me from losing so much innocence.” No one has ever been grateful that their parents were so permissive! So, what can be done? First, do not give teens (or younger!) phones with internet or apps. There are plenty of dumb phones still in existence! If you must give them phones that access the internet, put parental restrictions on them. Install Covenant Eyes on your son’s phones—and on your home computers while you’re at it (almost every Confession I hear involves pornography, which is mortally sinful and can lead your son to view women as nothing but objects, which will have huge ramifications on his future relationships). Do not allow them to use their screens at meals or while alone in their bedrooms. Get the support of other families who have the same policies. Most importantly—do not try to be your kid’s friend, but be their parent. Authentic love requires boundaries, discipline, and sacrifice. Your kid’s eternal welfare is worth it, so do not say, “Alas, I can’t do anything—my kid needs to fit in.” It’s better to stand out here on earth so we can fit into the Communion of Saints!
The world’s greatest treasure is within the reach of every person! The reality of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is something great and marvelous. I know that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist from my own experience not just because the Church teaches this truth. The First Touch One of the experiences I had that helped increase my faith in the Lord was after I was baptized in the Holy Spirit in my early days in the Catholic Charismatic renewal. I was still not a priest at that time. I was leading a prayer meeting and during this meeting, we were praying over people. We had the Eucharist exposed for Adoration and then people would come one by one to be prayed over. A woman came asking me to pray over her with folded hands and I thought she was praying. She asked me to pray for her husband who had a problem with his foot. But as I was praying, I felt in my heart that the Lord wanted to heal her. So I asked her if she needed any kind of physical healing. She told me, “My hands are like this because I have frozen shoulder.” She had a problem of mobility with her hands. As we were praying for her healing she said that a great heat came out from the Eucharist, descended on her frozen shoulder and she was healed then and there. That was the first time I actually saw such healing taking place through the power of the Eucharist. It’s exactly as we have in the Gospels—people touched Jesus and power came out of Him and healed them. Unforgettable Moment I have had another powerful experience of the Eucharist in my life. Once I was praying with somebody who was involved in the occult, and she needed a deliverance. We were praying as a group and there was a priest with us. But this woman, who was on the floor couldn’t see the priest who was bringing the Eucharist inside the church to the sacristy. The exact moment the priest brought the Eucharist, from her mouth, a male violent voice said these words: “Remove Him whom you’ve got in your hands!” It choked me because the demon did not say ‘it’- a piece of bread, but “Him”. Satan recognizes the living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. I will never forget that moment of my life. When I became a priest later, I kept those two incidences in my heart to really believe and preach the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Unspeakable Joy As a priest I had one another experience which I will not forget. I attend prison ministry when I am not preaching around. Once I was giving communion to a particular division in the prison and had the Eucharist with me. Suddenly I felt in my heart the joy of Jesus in giving himself to the prisoners. This is something I cannot explain to you. If you could only experience and know the joy Jesus has in the Eucharist to come into each and every one of us! Another experience I have had of the Blessed Sacrament was a personal, emotional healing for myself. Once somebody who was in the church really hurt me with his words. It wasn’t easy and I was starting to get angry. Although I am not aggressive by nature, this hurt stirred up a lot of feelings and bad thoughts against this person. I fled to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and just cried. In that moment I felt His love, for that person who hurt me, radiating out from the Eucharist and entering into my heart. Jesus in the Eucharist healed me, but more than that, as a priest it helped me to realize where the real source of love and healing is in our lives. Not only for me as a priest, but for married persons and young people - who can really give the love that we are looking for? Where can we find love that is greater than sin and hatred? It’s in Him, present in the Eucharist. The Lord gave me so much love for the person who hurt me. On the eve of the day I was going to make my first vows, a sudden darkness entered into my heart. I went straight to the tabernacle instead of finding my new room in the community. Then from the depths of the heart I heard the Lord telling me, “Hayden, you are coming here for me.” And suddenly all the joy came back. In the Eucharist Jesus taught me one very important thing about my life as a Franciscan priest—He has called me for Him, I exist for Him. The Eucharist teaches every one of us that we can do nothing apart from Jesus—it’s not about us, it’s JUST ABOUT HIM. We are in the Church to be with Him! As a priest, celebrating the Eucharist is the most wonderful moment I have with the Lord and it also brings me closer to the Christian community. It is Jesus in the Eucharist who is the source of communion between us. As a priest, I cannot live without the Eucharist. What is the greatest thing we can ask Jesus when we receive Him in our hearts? It is asking Him to fill us with His Holy Spirit once again. When Jesus was resurrected, He breathed the Holy Spirit into the Apostles. When we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, He gives us once again the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Ask Him to fill you with the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit. Broken for you Once when I was lifting up the Host and breaking it, I got this deep conviction regarding the priesthood. We look at the people through the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which is a broken body. A priest should be like that. He breaks his life so that he can give it to the community and the rest of world. One can also discover this beauty in the married life. Love is like the Eucharist. You have to break yourself in order to give yourself. The Eucharist has taught me how to live a celibate life, how to be Jesus for the community, giving my whole life for them. The same thing has to happen in married life. Finally, I can tell you that whenever I have felt lonely or down, just going near him—is enough to receive all the strength that I need, even if I am tired or sleepy. I can’t count the number of times I have experienced this in my travels and in my preaching. The best rest is to get closer to Him. I can assure you; He can renew us physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Because in the Eucharist Jesus is ALIVE—He is there for us!
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