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 Unprecedented Challenges for Neophytes

 by Joyce Stolberg

 In normal years, as we complete the seven week Mystagogia series and anticipate the celebration that concludes the catechetical year, I prepare a class which centers on the Church's social teachings and on vocations to the priesthood, religious and consecrated life. This year, in contrast, I did something much more urgent and unprecedented, because the challenges facing our neophytes are far more intense than they were just a year ago.

 These are some of the challenges. Although the specter of legalized abortion has been with us for 40 years, the federal Health and Human Services mandate now attempts to force most Catholic institutions as well as other Christian based businesses, notably Hobby Lobby, to fund abortion and contraception in the process of insuring their employees, even though such payment violates Catholic and Christian conscience. This has surfaced ominously just within the past year. In addition, unrelenting pressure from secular society to accept intrinsically evil homosexual activity in the name of "tolerance" and to support "homosexual marriage" as a "right" has been front and center on the judicial agenda. The casual acceptance of "living together before marriage" and the high prevalence of divorce in our society are other issues on which we as Catholics must take a stand. While we make strenuous efforts to preserve the life of unborn children, we must also protect the life of the aged and disabled from the steadily encroaching use of euthanasia, stealthily disguised as "care protocols" or "comfort care" in clear violation of Pope Pius XII's instructions on the appropriate use of analgesia for the dying. Many other issues could be cited in conjunction with the rapidly increasing secularization of society; however, I centered my attention on a few of the most egregious violations of our Judeo Christian moral code.

 I discussed this stunningly rapid societal change in my autumn essay, Catholics Must Rise above Conventional Morality, in which I cited Kohlberg's theory of moral development. I also incorporated this concept into my class. I demonstrated how, in 1963, Kohlberg's definition of conventional morality was essentially in line with the 10 Commandments and with Natural Law. Today, many concepts that society may classify as conventional thinking, behavior, and morality encompass serious sin against the same 10 Commandments. First among these, of course, is the grave sin of murder, which encompasses all deliberate taking of innocent human life, from preventing a newly conceived embryo from nesting in its mother's womb, to deliberately hastening the death of an elderly patient. Then, while affirming the sacredness of human sex within the bonds of holy matrimony, we must hold that any sexual activity outside these bonds is gravely sinful. This includes homosexual acts: yet today, opposing these can result in accusations of bigotry and intolerance. It includes any sexual activity outside of marriage, including pre-marital sex, fornication, adultery, and masturbation. In how many ways does society try to tell us that these behaviors are normal? Contraception follows the acceptance of uncommitted sex. Moral deterioration in our society is evident in other ways, including fraud, theft, greed, and material excess. We normally commission our neophytes to proclaim the gospel and to become part of our Catholic family. Now we must also prepare them to stand up for their beliefs even in the face of persecution, and we have no idea to what extent they will be required to do this.

 This was an extraordinarily tough lesson and I apologize for posting it so late in the Mystagogia season, but I have just compiled it for our own neophytes. In preparing this lesson, I used Chapter 9 in my own book, God Calls You by Name, but I have also gone way beyond the scope of that chapter to include issues that never even surfaced when I wrote it. I cannot cut and paste copyrighted material, therefore I will provide some references and Internet links which I used in developing this class.

 Allocution To Doctors On The Moral Problems Of Analgesia (especially Question 3) Concern about the proper use of pain medicine was addressed by Pope Pius XII in 1957.

 standupforreligiousfreedom.com This site provides a good one-page poster describing the urgent need for action to stop the HHS mandate.

 gwhatchet.com/2013/04/04students-mobilize-to-remove-priest/ GW Hatchet is an independent newspaper of George Washington University.

  This story tells about two students who want their Newman Center priests fired for their moral stance against homosexual activity. You can find many other news articles on this story.

 Look up: Are you being targeted for Euthanasia/ by Mary Therese Helmueller, R.N.

 Look up "Stealth Euthanasia" and you will be astonished at the prevalence of euthanasia in our medical systems.

 Type a keyword for any moral issue into your search engine, and you will be flooded with an abundance of materials.

Retreat on Holy Saturday Morning:
Immediate Preparation for Receiving the Sacraments

 

by Joyce Stolberg

 

To RCIA Leaders and Catechists:

 

Our team has used this meditation for our Holy Saturday morning retreat for the past four years, and we have found it to be a wonderful preparation for the Easter Vigil. The Elect will be very excited on Holy Saturday evening, and we can well assume that they will not absorb all the teachings that the liturgy is designed to offer them. This lengthy meditation presents your elect with the Paschal journey through salvation history in a relaxed environment, while at the same time coaching them to respond loudly and clearly to the questions asked immediately prior to their baptism. Of course these readings are presented at the Easter Vigil, but what is repeated sticks in the memory.

 

We usually follow this meditation with a question and answer session, no holes barred. It was this session, attended by our (now emeritus) Bishop Hanifin in the year 2000, which inspired him to ask for "some type of manual" that would incorporate sound, well-researched answers to the frequently asked questions. That is the request that inspired me to begin writing God Calls You by Name. We generally continue by dealing with logistics and some practical things, such as double-checking to make sure that the purple and white robes are ready; we may conduct a dry practice for receiving Holy Communion.

 

Director or Leader

 

This retreat day begins with a morning of riotously clashing emotions. Holy Saturday dawns with intense sadness, as we linger at the tomb of our deceased Savior; nevertheless no one can suppress a joyful, excited, celebratory atmosphere. We have peeked at the end of the story, and we anticipate the outcome! Today is a day of preparation for Baptism when new life bursts forth from the local baptismal fountain and for Confirmation and First Eucharist.

 

 

 

From Matins for Holy Saturday

The Lord's Descent into the Underworld

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

 

Concluding Prayer

Almighty and ever-living God,

your only-begotten Son descended into the underworld,

from which he rose into glory.

In your kindness, grant that your faithful people,

who in their baptism shared his burial,

may advance to eternal life by sharing in his resurrection.

He lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

God forever and ever.

Amen.

 

 

 

Leaders and Readers

 

Meditation

 

Read the scriptures listed below: they are proclaimed at the Paschal Vigil. Conform the Gospel to the current lectionary cycle. Allow time for reflection, nourished by meditative thoughts, between readings. Sing psalms or hymns, or play recorded music. This meditation will place each participant’s individual journey within the context of the millennial trek of salvation. It bridges the emotional chasm between lingering over the death of Jesus and anticipating the resurrection. It also provides a sound preparation for Baptism and Confirmation. Elements of the Apostle’s Creed and the baptismal liturgy are incorporated. Add pauses between the readings and meditations.

 

Important: Here, elicit a strong "I do" to each response. The first response may likely be weak. Hold your hand to your ear (as if you couldn't hear) and ask the question again. You are now coaching your elect to make this response loudly and clearly so that the whole worshipping community will hear them when the pastor or bishop asks the all-important questions.

 

The word, “Baptize” actually derives from a word meaning “plunge.” You have been looking at the Catholic Church, and preparing for some time now. Search your heart while pondering the following questions. If you can answer a deep down, "Yes" or "I do" to the following questions, you ready to “take the plunge”.

 

Do you reject sin to live in the freedom of God's children?

 

If so, answer loudly and clearly.

 

Elect: I do.

 

Do you reject the glamour of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin?

 

Elect: I do.

 

 

 

These readings are all from the Easter Vigil. Team members and sponsors are usually chosen to read them.

 

Read
Genesis 1:1-2:2

The one all-powerful God created heaven and earth out of nothing yet waits for a “Yes” from you. Have you set aside all other “gods” in your life to worship this ONE God? Are you ready to worship with your Catholic brothers and sisters every Sunday?

Do you believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth?  

If so, answer loudly and clearly.

Elect: I do.

 

Read
Genesis 22:1-18

Reflection

Focus your thoughts, and imagine the following scenario for a moment. You are at work or in school, when suddenly a gang of terrorists stampedes into the building and takes 50 people hostage. You all are quickly blindfolded, tied down and rendered helpless. Your captors start making demands, and promise to kill one hostage every hour until these demands are met. Yet the demands are morally, ethically and physically impossible to meet. One hour goes by. One hostage is pulled up from the floor. You hear pleading. Bang! Dead silence! A second hour goes by. Bang! The third hour is approaching. How do you feel? Terrified? Who’s next?

Suddenly the school principal or top CEO of the company walks in, holding his own son by the hand. He addresses your captors, “Would you let all these hostages go if I give you my own son, my only son, so that you may do whatever you want with him?” The terrorists accept the offer. You are all free to walk out of the building. Then it rings one more time. Bang! It did not go well for the son of that leader. How much did the school principal (CEO) love you? Read John 3:16.

Jesus Christ is the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son of God who became a total and complete human being without losing his divine nature. Hence he became a perfect mediator between God and humankind, able to redeem human beings by bridging the chasm created by sin. St. John phrased it most powerfully in his gospel. (John 3:16) (Pause)

God spared the life of the son of Abraham, and blessed, beyond imagination, Abraham’s willingness to offer up his son in sacrifice. However, God did not spare his own son, Jesus, but delivered him up to death to make satisfaction for our sins. The sacrifice of the cross is the sacrifice of the new covenant between God and humankind. (Pause)

This sacrifice was made once for all on the cross, but it is commemorated in the Mass, a sacrifice and a ritual meal. At Easter, I will have the wonderful privilege of receiving Jesus as a guest under the roof of my humanity for the first time. I hardly feel “worthy” to receive my Maker and Savior into my humble being, yet Jesus himself desires my heart for his dwelling place. (Pause)

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,

who was born of the Virgin Mary,

was crucified, died, and was buried,

rose from the dead,

and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?

Elect: I do.

Read
Exodus 14:15-15:1

 

God saved the Israelites from the Egyptians through signs and wonders. Can you believe in his power and goodness? Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, who rescued a people from slavery and made them a great nation?

Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?

Elect: I do.

Read
Isaiah 54:5-14

The Lord loves Israel as a husband loves his wife. The Lord is “crazy” about you and will never leave you! Do you believe in the tender love of kind and gentle Father?

Do you reject the glamour of evil

and refuse to be mastered by sin?

Elect: I do.

Do you reject sin to live

in the freedom of God's children?

Elect: I do.

Read
Isaiah 55:1-11

God filled the Israelites with good things, and invited them to a rich banquet. Do you believe that, in the sacrifice of the Mass, the bread and wine actually BECOME the Body and Blood of Christ?

Do you believe that Jesus gave himself to us in the banquet of the Eucharist, and remains with us always under the appearances of bread and wine?

Do you eagerly await the moment when you will be invited to the table to partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ for the first time?

Spend a moment in silence, anticipating your first reception of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Read
Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4

The Lord gave wisdom to the exiles of Israel. The Lord will sanctify you and fill you with wisdom and grace through the Holy Spirit. Do you believe that you are justified through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity? Do you anticipate being sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, and being filled with the gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear, or awe, of the Lord?

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints?

Elect: I do.

Read
Ezekiel 36:16-17A, 18-28

The Lord forgave the exiled Israelites, time after time. The Lord will pour clean water upon you and give you a new heart. You will be absolved from your sins and no longer live in slavery to them, regardless of how grave they may have been. The Lord desires nothing more than to forgive you and cast your sins away.

Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting?

Elect: I do.

 

Read
Romans 6:3-11

Your old self will be crucified with Christ. You will be buried with him through baptism into his death. Do you believe that Jesus Christ died: that his soul separated from his body and he entered the realm of the dead, where all the all the heroes of Old Testament times awaited him? Do you believe that he was laid in a tomb?

Do you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day, that he ascended into heaven, and assumed his rightful place at the Father’s right hand? Do you believe that he will judge everyone at the moment of death and at the end of time? Do you believe that you yourself will rise with Christ on the last day? Does your faith make you ready to become fully incorporated into the Holy Catholic Church and a member of the Communion of Saints?

Director or Leader

When you enter into the waters of Baptism wholeheartedly you will receive a clean slate, free of sin and free of any punishment due to sin.

(Here address your elect by their first names.) If your faith makes you ready to ask for the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist, stand for a prayer of blessing.

Director or Leader

Dear friends, let us ask God to be merciful to our sisters and brothers who are asking for Baptism. God has called them and brought them to this moment. May God grant them light and strength to follow Christ with resolute hearts and to profess the Faith of the Church. May God give them the new life of the Holy Spirit.

Our response is: Risen Lord, hear our prayer.

That we, the Church, will be renewed by those claimed by Christ in baptism this night and boldly proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection, we pray…

That leaders of nations will care for the garden that we call home—this planet created by our loving God, we pray…

For innocent victims of war and oppression: may violence be banished and righteousness with prosperity be restored, we pray…

That those who will be baptized here and throughout the world, especially (names of your elect) will forever be a sign of the light of Christ, a light that dispels the darkness of sin, we pray…

That those received into communion with the Church and confirmed this night, especially (names of your elect) will be filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we pray…

For the sick, suffering, grieving and for those that have died: may they know the joy of the risen Lord, we pray…

May we allremain faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ

forever and ever. Amen

Leader or Reader

This is the message we are all waiting to hear!

Read Year C:
Luke 24:1-12

The women went to anoint the body of Jesus, but were told by angels that he had risen. You will be united with Jesus in the resurrection, and you will live forever.

Note

The Nicene Creed is recited at Mass, but interestingly, the Apostles’ Creed was refined for use in baptismal liturgies. (Catholic Encyclopedia) It carries the truths of the Faith in more direct, concrete language, easily grasped and recited. The ideal time for presenting a copy of the Creed is the week after the first Scrutiny (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Study Edition). It should be pondered during Lent. It may be recited at the conclusion of this meditation. This meditation reviews our study of doctrine and also previews the responses to be made at Baptism and Profession of Faith. The questions ARE the Apostles' Creed.

 

For "Just One Person"

by Joyce Stolberg

How special is "just one person?" God has called each catechumen or candidate by name, and the Church has honored this call at the Rites of Election and Recognition/Call to Continuing Conversion. We are now progressing through the Scrutinies during the middle of Lent and preparing for the awesome Sacraments of Initiation conferred during or near the Easter Vigil at the end of March. Some of you leaders are managing multiple sacramental preparation processes for many within a dynamic parish structure.

How often have you heard it said --- or perhaps said it yourself: I don't want to ________ for just one person? Fill in the blank. Perhaps you have heard someone say that they don't want to run an RCIA process "for just one person" or heat up the baptismal pool for "just one catechumen" (pouring water over the head will do). Perhaps someone hasn't wanted to plan a distinct First Communion celebration for a single youngster with special needs, or advance a daughter's Communion prior to a mother's deployment. Note: the RCIA process unfolds better within a group, but isn't that one person important enough for you to design a flexible solution to the dilemma? You can plan individual pedagogy for a single person or incorporate that person into the RCIA process of another parish in your deanery or cluster. In our military town, we have accelerated baptismal preparation for catechumens facing scheduled deployments and postponed First Communion for a child who desired to wait for her father's return. In decades past, predominance of the Combined Rite brought the whole RCIA group through the sacraments at the Easter Vigil: today, according to the direction of the Bishop of your diocese, the rites for catechumens and candidates may likely be separated. Each sacramental rite should bear the weight of the mystery that is being celebrated, even when a small number or even one person is involved.

Has your parish staff ever grumbled about needing to reallocate space to meet the needs of one physically impaired individual? (Understandably, every parish that blooms with life will have normal conflicts when scheduling the use of space.) Have you been willing to tutor, or find a tutor for someone who is mentally challenged, or an ASL signer for a deaf person? Was a single catechumen perhaps recently prevented from meeting your Bishop because there was no ramp access to the sanctuary area and the Cathedra? After all, only one person might need it! Has someone ever been barred from accessing a diocesan meeting because it was held upstairs in an old non-adapted building, and the moderator did not want to move the set-up downstairs "just for one person." Christ knows the pain of those who are different in any way.

When recruiting potential sponsors, at least in our parish, we ask them to be present for didactic sessions every week, and to attend a specific Mass with the catechumens and candidates. This is a significant commitment but it bears wonderful fruit. Responses I have heard include, "I don't want to do all that for just one person." Married couples direct all their love and energy for nine months into preparing for the arrival of one precious tiny person. Should we not do even a little to incubate spiritual life? Sponsoring requires one to concentrate some energies on traveling the journey of faith with a single person, usually for about nine months. Watching new life germinate, then burst forth in that person is a stunning experience. Those who do it are renewed in their faith themselves.

Now, is it really one person? That person likely has or (if a young adult) will have a family --- spouse and children, perhaps, and possibly parents, in-laws, and maybe even grandparents. That "one person" with whom the volunteer sponsor initiates a catechetical relationship could lead up to four generations of a family plus future grandchildren toward the Catholic Church. What if it is only one single adult? Perhaps a single young adult will be called to the priesthood or religious life, and influence thousands of others in his or her lifetime. That person could become a saint or a Pope! How important is that particular person in God's eyes, even aside from anything he or she might accomplish in the future?

Both theologians and mystics tell me that if I or one of us were the only person in the world, and stood in need of redemption, Jesus Christ himself would have made his entire agonizing sacrifice on Calvary just for me or for that one person. This is a point on which I often meditate, especially during Lent. Jesus would have done it for me if I were the only person in the world. Because Jesus would have made his total sacrifice on Calvary just for me, I must leave no stone unturned in my effort to make available the pathway to sacramental grace whereby Jesus' sacrifice is applied to one other person.

 Temptation, Good & Evil: The Desert and the Shire

  Deacon Rick Bauer

Gospel Luke 4: 1-13

Filled with the holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and
was led by the Spirit into the desert 
for forty days, to be tempted
by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they
were over he was hungry.

  The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this
stone to become bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One
does not live by bread alone.’”
  Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the
world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to
you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to
me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if
you worship me.”

    8 Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written:

You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.’”
   Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet
of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw
yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’
    and:

With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the
Lord, your God, to the test.’”
   When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed
from him for a time.

Jesus' going into the desert is in many ways the perfect picture for us to prepare for the Lenten season. The desert is sparse, needs are primal, there is no excess baggage. The brutal heat and barren landscape have been the solace of many of the church’s greatest saints and theologians. The Desert Fathers, they were called, for they preserved the church from the mixed blessing of the legitimization of Christianity by the Roman Empire. While the persecution and martyrdom of the first three centuries was not an endearing way to begin the Christian religion, it turned out that having the government recognize the church was not always the best thing, either. The temptation to use earthly power for divine ends was powerful; the desert experience of these men and women constantly called the church back to here piety, to her purity, and to her real source of power.

Jesus' temptation in the desert teaches us what sin is disobeying God and refusing to embrace his will because we don't trust him. In many ways, this encounter shows us the heart of the nature of sin and temptation. At the beginning of Lent, we need to rediscover our sense of fallenness, so we can appreciate the power and strength—and most of all forgiveness—that Christ offers us. Christ comes—as John the Baptist, the forerunner did—with the challenge that begins with “Repent and believe the gospel.” Our world today says, is a self-affirmation of the innate power to do good, that if we just try a little better, that if we each cooperate a little bit more, and if Washington DC could just get the law and the policy right—it’s going to be OK. Jesus says repent and trust, our slogans are all pretty much a form of “Be all you can be.”

Each of the devil's temptations tries to get Jesus to stop trusting his Father and so veer off the path of his Father's will.

Lack of trust is the first great sin. It leads to pride and rebellion and fear. Of this we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):

397 Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness

1707 “Man, enticed by the Evil One, abused his freedom at the very beginning of history.” He succumbed to temptation and did what was evil. He still desires the good, but his nature bears the wound of original sin. He is now inclined to evil and subject to error.

Gaudium et Spes, that powerful document from Vatican II, says “Man is divided in himself. As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.”

We have lost the sense of magnificence and awe in this battle between the Tempter and Jesus. We have become so inured by the Tempter’s wiles that they do not even pull against us. Good versus evil—for some it seems so quaint. We often need to look at things differently to see just how brutal living for self and for sin can be. So thought a young man, deployed overseas in one of the bigger wars of the 20th century. And so in his letters home to his son, he created a world where good and evil were given free rein, and the characters were challenged to live by these codes. And those letters of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien described a world we simply know now as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. We see that great conflict between good and evil in this world, strangely more clearly than in our own, and perhaps that’s why it arrests the imagination of countless millions—it is as if we were born to understand it and appreciate it and to live it in our own lives. The conflict between the good and evil—often portrayed as an overpowering and overwhelming force that is unstoppable until it brings death to all—is the same dramatic conflict we see in the desert wilderness between Christ and the Tempter. 

The Ring, the one Ring that is at the heart of the story, at once symbolizes and personifies Evil, presents all those who are confronted with it with the essential ingredients of Temptation and Fall. It is a primal reality, in the story, in the wilderness we read about this morning, and in our own lives, if we are awake and aware to the conflict. The Ring tempts, subverts and finally, if taken, dominates the individual in the same way as Sauron wishes to dominate and control the world. Promising power and liberation, and the lure of “one ring to rule them all”, the Ring paradoxically removes choice and conquers free will. It is always the nature of Good to allow this to happen, for at all times Good permits the free person to elect whether or not to follow the Good or Evil path, and in this way Good relies upon the inherent goodness that exists within an individual to make the correct choice. We ask, “how could God allow this senseless slaughter of innocent children in Connecticut to happen? It is the design of this world that humanity, as free moral agents, are in play with a world and with each other—some for unspeakable evil, others—often unknown and unsung—for the cause of good. Likely as not, most are unaware of the struggle. Most are comfortably numb. For many of us hobbits, we are simply going about our lives, cleaning our homes and enjoying the blessings of this wonderful creation, oblivious to the larger picture of life.

But for some, they are brought into this conflict by contact with the one Ring of Power. The Ring is a source of temptation.

First,It tempts those who do not have it to seek and obtain it. It was that tempting power that tempted the sons of Lord Denethor, first Boromir, and then even Faromir, to take the Ring in order to do good. It is the nature of the first temptation of Christ. “If you are the Christ, turn these stones to bread.” The tempter tries to seduce Jesus into thinking “I don’t trust that God can feed me.” “I must take care of myself.” I must try to work out life’s battle for good with my own wisdom, my own thinking, my own way.” Don’t you trust that you can be delivered by the destruction of the Ring? Use trust in power—even malevolent power—instead of trust in the good, to win the day. It is a seduction that goes on every day in our world. In our places of business, the temptation to cheat, to inflate, to play the politics, to be Saruman, allied with evil though thinking himself above it—finding out too late that you can become so controlled by Sauron that only in the end do you realize it.

But others in Tolkien’s world are seduced by the Ring, this source of temptation, we read of Boromir’s vision of what the Ring could provide: “The Ring would give me the power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner.”

Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly. Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benevolent and wise.”

Don’t we hear the words of the Tempter there?

Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the
world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to
you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to
me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if
you worship me.”

Yet we see the other side, too, for Boromir is redeemed, in that he acknowledges to himself his wrongdoing. Yet his is a tragic realization, for his wrong choice has been manifested in destructive action which cannot be undone. It is only by his death that he can wipe the slate clean, and in dying the heroic death can he say confidently that he has paid for his sin, and the payment is complete and redemption may follow.

The Ring also tempts those who have it to use it—it was the temptation that Frodo faces when he is threated at Rivertop and by the Nazgul—it is the final temptation in Mt. Doom—appropriately named by Tolkien—in Mordor.

We also see this in the temptation of Christ:

Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet
of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw
yourself down from here,
      for it is written:

      He will command his angels concerning you,
      to guard you,’
      and:‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash
your foot against a stone.’”
     Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the
Lord, your God, to the test.”

This is the ultimate temptation: to lack trust—to not see a way that God can redeem our situation, and to use our freedom of choice to disobey what we have been taught in the hope on not suffering in this life.

The Ring also tempts those who have had it to recover it as a key to happiness, and that pursuit only disfigures our lives, our families, our culture, and our world. It is the temptation of Gollum. The ring is liberation at first, but it them becomes control and destruction.

The essential morality that rules Middle-earth, and indeed which is the basic indicator of freedom in our world, and the choices that Jesus faced in the desert, and the ones we face every day, is the freedom to choose. All have the freedom of choice, and this is an essential attribute of Good. As we have seen of the Tempter in the Desert, Evil seeks domination, rule and control. The forces of Good allow for free will and free choice, even although this may lead to a disastrous end.

The whole Tale of the Ring, especially from Frodo's point of view, is a story of choice and the exercise of free will. Frodo chooses to take the Road to the Fire at the Council of Elrond. In making that choice, he is not only exposing himself to a path fraught with extraordinary danger, but also he is making a choice to expose himself to the continued temptation and challenges of choice that the Ring presents to him.

Certainly, that is life for us. We wish at times that we did not have this terrible freedom of choice, but there can be no love without freedom, and God certainly wants us to love Him, to trust Him, and to experience the freedom that comes—not from having all our choices taken away—but in experiencing the complete freedom to do both good and evil, and finding the reinforcement and the grace to endure during the most difficult of times. We do not see these characters perfect in any dimension—both Boromir and Faromir and even Frodo all succumb to the power of the Ring—just as we succumb to the temptations in our lives—but in each way there is redemption, there is learning, there is grace, there is forgiveness.

What are the take-aways from these lessons, and how can we be fortified for the Lenten Journey?

1. To resist temptation, we need to strengthen our trust-we do that as Jesus did, by feeding our souls on God's Word (Jesus quotes Scripture to combat the devil.). Three times he is able to defeat the Tempter by the words “it is written.”

2. To resist temptation, we need to tap into Christ's own strength, the strength he provides to us in the sacraments. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, good Confession, allows us to tap into Christ's strength and so resist temptation in the future. You see that every time that Frodo confesses his weakness and inability to fulfill his mission, he is provided strength for that journey. “Man does not live by bread alone” Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel this morning, and he provides a living bread, illustrated in the Elven Lembas Bread, miraculously nourishing far beyond its modest appearance to the eye, in the Holy Communion of which we will soon partake. We too feed ourselves at the table of Christ to receive viaticum, food for the journey, for it is a trying and dangerous world to which we return to this morning.

3. We need to see and expose the ways in which temptation comes into our lives. The Three P's—Pleasure, Power, and Popularity—are used by the Tempter in the desert, and this is where 3 times pierces through the allure of the temptation with the clarity of Divine Reality—and that can be a reality for us as well.

 

From Sacraments to Election

by Joyce Stolberg

"The Littlest Angel," my favorite Christmas story, still brings a tear to my eye. Without agreeing with the imaginative theology behind the story (that a boy who died at the age of four became the young angel) we can appreciate the wholeheartedness of the little one's intense effort to present a valuable gift to the newborn Christ. The Lord God expressed so much pleasure in the things of earth, lovingly chosen and wholeheartedly offered, that he turned them into the Christmas Star that led the Magi to the manger. Christmas is the eternal God penetrating time, the omnipresent God taking on the restrictions of human nature. As we continue to celebrate the Christmas season we honor Christ, grown into manhood, submitting to a baptism of repentance, even though he was sinless.

By taking on a human body, Jesus became the sacrament, the efficacious sign of God's tremendous love for us. The sacramental economy is the means ordained by God through which the saving merits of Christ are applied to each and every one of us. It renders material things sacred. The essence of teaching the sacraments is the emphasis on the use of material things (the matter of the sacrament) combined with the form (the words of the priest or sacramental minister) to effect the conferral of grace. Sacraments actually DO what they signify. Jesus reaches out in the person of the sacramental minister to touch us. Chapters 11 through 15 of God Calls You by Name present you with essential details concerning each sacrament.

When you reconvene your RCIA class following Christmas, you have a very limited number of sessions to complete your instruction on the sacraments before your catechumens and candidates are greeted by your Bishop in the Rites of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion. In the past, I have recommended harnessing the energy surrounding the secular celebration of Valentine's Day in the teaching of the holy Sacrament of Matrimony. This year it must be done prior to February 14, simply because Valentine's Day follows Ash Wednesday.

As you journey toward the Rite of Election on February 17, make sure that your sponsors and participants (candidates and catechumens) are spending time getting to know each other. Your sponsors must be able to stand up and say, in essence, to the Bishop, "Yes we have journeyed with these catechumens/candidates enough to know that they are living according to the moral requirements of the Catholic Church, that they embrace the teachings of the Church, they choose to worship consistently with their Catholic community, and they desire to receive the sacraments and live as Catholics for life." It is good at this point to contact each sponsor personally and in choir from them how their candidate or catechumen is progressing. This will give you a good idea about who has been in contact and who needs to be encouraged to develop a closer relationship with the person whom they are sponsoring. By the time you present your pre-election retreat, participants' decisions regarding entering the Church and becoming Catholic should be fairly well settled. They should be looking forward with eager longing to receiving all the graces God intends to confer on them when they receive their sacraments.

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