Was Mary Magdalene in love with Jesus? Wouldn’t you be?

We recently celebrated the feast day of Saint Mary Magdalene. You know MM (If she were my friend, I can imagine that I’d be calling her M&M; she’d probably hate that.), she is the redhead you see at the foot of the cross in old church stained glass windows. She, The Blessed Mother and John the Apostle were the only ones brave enough to stay and watch Jesus’ execution through to its bitter end. Mary Magdalene was also the one who first saw Jesus risen from the dead, and who earned the title, “Apostle to the Apostles” because she ran to Peter, John and the rest and told them, “He is risen!”

Over the centuries, there has been speculation about whether Mary was more than just a follower of Jesus. Some, mostly modern fiction writers, suggest that they were secretly-married, with one author taking it so far as to suggest that Jesus had a child by Mary.

Nothing in the Bible supports that. Furthermore, Jesus’ brief 3-year ministry on Earth oftentimes didn’t include time for him to eat, let alone court a woman and marry her. And then there’s the whole self-discipline thing. Jesus was here to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven and to create a Way for us to attain it. He spent 40 days fasting in the desert; he was the King of Self Restraint. An unintended union with a woman is more than highly-unlikely.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Mary Magdalene was wildly in love with Jesus. He was a good, upstanding man who attracted thousands of followers. She was close to him, so she would have seen what incredible love he had for his fellows. How would she not fall in love?

I once met a young woman from our parish who was discerning the religious life. Although she hadn’t at that time made the commitment, she was clearly in love with Jesus. Her love was both personal and passionate, and many a young man discovered that it was also exclusive. She simply wasn’t interested in anyone else. That particular woman had a long path ahead of her before she would even know whether taking vows are a possibility. And that seemed to be okay. Jesus is worth it.

So, was Mary Magdalene in love with Jesus. Probably. After all, wouldn’t you be?

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The reason for our hope? Love.

Last week we talked about the idea that evangelization for most of us is the simple exercise of acting like a Christian with everyone we meet. Be kind, be loving, be helpful. For the former Boy Scouts out there, carry Lord Baden Powell’s admonition with you and, “Do a good turn daily.” It’s Jesus’ second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But remember that loving your neighbor is the second commandment. As important as loving your neighbor is, Jesus did not list that one first. God comes first. We are absolutely commanded to “Love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength.” (see Mark 12:30). When we’ve done that, we can move on to loving one another. But God comes first.

Recall last week’s conversation from the First Book of Peter. In Chapter 3, Peter asks us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” The reason for our hope is pretty straightforward: Jesus came into the world and gave himself up in exchange for our sins. We will live forever if we believe and live with Jesus.  And that takes us right back to Commandment’s #1 and #2. Love God. Love our neighbor.

We exist in this earthly place for one simple reason: to spread love. God’s plan is to save as many of his beloved children as possible, and to do that, he has enlisted us to spread this simple message. Love God and love one another. It doesn’t get more complicated than that. We can think about it, study on it, debate it for millennia. And we have. It still comes back to five words, and two of them are “love.”

The first commandment doesn’t ask us to “understand” God. It doesn’t say, “Study about God,” or “Give all your money to God,” or “Shout God’s name from the rooftops.” It says “Love God.” Love God the way you love your worldly partner: with everything. Your heart, your mind, your soul and your strength.

I love my wife. We’ve been married nearly 38 years and her smile still makes me weak in the knees. She knows I love her. But I still have to tell her. I still have to make coffee for her in the morning and write her little love notes now and then. And I still have to give her hugs. Love needs to be shown.

Love for God is no different. God knows you love Him. But we have to say it. We have to pray it. We have to spend time with Him. We have to do what He’s asked us to do. Love is not a noun or an adjective; it’s a verb. Love is action. Or it’s not love. And love is everything.

Okay, He’s Risen. Now what?

I look around our home and see that the Easter decorations have been stored away. Gone are the pink bunnies, the baskets with green plastic grass and the Lenten reminders to do this, abstain from that, and pray thus. God is risen and we’re moving on. Moving on to do what?

This in some ways is my favorite time of year, because the daily scripture readings come from the early chapters of The Acts of the Apostles. If you want to be inspired by early Christians, read that book! Immediately following Pentecost, Peter, James, John and the rest of the 12 started preaching and healing. Unlike during Christ’s passion, the Apostles were fearless. They knew that Jesus had risen, and that knowledge, coupled with a double dose of the Holy Spirit, put them beyond fear of anything the authorities could do to them. The apostles were repeatedly threatened, arrested, beaten and jailed. Through it all they laughed, prayed, and told everyone the Good News. More than their words, their courage and spirit built the Church that has thrived for two thousand, one hundred seventeen years and counting.

I got to thinking about that yesterday when I came across something Pope Francis had said. In a homily from a couple years ago, the Pope was talking about St. James comment that “Faith without works is dead.” The Pope said a person can have a great knowledge of scripture and theology, but if that knowledge wasn’t put into practice, it was worthless. “A faith that doesn’t get you involved isn’t faith,” he said. “It’s words and nothing more than words.” Faith, according to Francis, always leads to action. It can’t help itself.

That’s how I see the actions of the Apostles in the early days of Christianity. Peter stood up to the Jewish authorities not because he had somehow found the courage to do so. Rather, Peter couldn’t have done anything else. He could not have stopped talking about the tremendous news of Christ. Have you ever known something that was so awesome that you couldn’t wait to tell your spouse or your  friends? It’s like that, times ten. Peter was so filled with the Holy Spirit that his teeth would have burst if he tried not to speak.

For many, many years I tried to get my Christianity out of books. I love to read and study, and there have been lots of authors who inspired me. But what really lit my fuse was a men’s retreat. Spending time with a small group of men in prayer, study and sharing lifted me up in ways that can’t be described. The Holy Spirit blew through that church basement, lighting fires in hearts right and left, including mine. This, I thought, is what the earliest Christians must have experienced. Living in small clusters, sharing ideas, experiences and insights. Holding one another up and building one another up.

The Catholic Church is many, many things. It is God’s visible place on Earth. It has thousands of years of wisdom of saints and saintly people. It has a rich and long history.  But the true “catholic” Church is you and I. It’s the network of human beings, all connected to each other and to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The life of the church lies in our interactions with one another, not with the books and the history. Those are important guides, but they are only guides. Guides to our real work, which is to love God and one another.

Easter is over. Christ is risen. The Holy Spirit has come. Let’s get to work.

Have you hugged a Samaritan today?

Sunday’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The story, like all good Bible stories, makes a number of really good points about the sort of world God wants from us. The point that struck me this time is how bold Jesus was, talking to a woman who belonged to a tribe the Jews hated. The Jews wouldn’t take anything from Samaritans, and here Jesus was, asking for a cup of water. Jesus even accepts their invitation to..ewww…stay with the Samaritans for a couple of days.

Samaritans were among the early Israelites, but split from the Jews hundreds of years before Jesus arrived on the scene. Along the way there were religious disputes; political and territorial disputes, battles, etc. Once we decide to dislike a group of our brothers and sisters, it doesn’t take long for us humans to come up with all sorts of ways to make the rift permanent. Sound familiar?

The lesson is clear. Jesus has no use for the worldly things that separate God’s children. He wants us to reach across human-created barriers, whether religious, ethnic, political (yes, political) or economic. And that’s the point. Who is your Samaritan? Is it the people who voted for Trump? Or Hillary? Is it the well-meaning 7th Day Adventist who dropped off a seven page anti-Catholic screed in an attempt to save your soul? Immigrants? The rich? The poor? We all have Samaritans in our life; a family or group of people who look different or espouse something that we disagree with and so we avoid them. That’s not Jesus’ way.

Our Father created each and every person on the planet, including you and your Uncle Ralphie who talks too loudly about politics. God loves you and Uncle Ralphie equally, and His desire is that we love one another so we can help one another reach the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s think about that in our hyper-politically-divided America. Maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be so hard to share a cup of water with a Democrat. Or a Republican. Or a Lutheran. Jesus did.

Searching for the right words

Some time ago, one of my sons called looking for advice. His wife’s grandmother was very ill and the prognosis was not good. She had lived a long and full life and had been a blessing to her family. She would be missed and my son knew it would be hard on his wife. He wanted advice on helping her through this difficult time. “What are the right words to say?” he asked me.

More recently, I was in conversation with a young woman who was in a dispute with her husband. Things were complicated as such things often seem to be, and she was struggling to understand how to unravel the knot they’d tied themselves into, or at least how she could avoid making matters worse. “I just wish I knew the right words,” she repeated.

Let’s face it. Sometimes there are no “right words.” No matter how hard we plan or rehearse, what comes out of our mouth seems to be exactly the wrong thing or just so much gibberish. Often we think to ourselves that we could have made a bad situation perfect if only we had said the right thing. Still more frequently we think that our words made things worse.

Foolishness. Life is not a 2-hour movie written by a team of dramatists and filled with witty, professionally-timed conversation. Life is lumpy, bumpy and uncertain. Each individual is listening and receiving at his own unique speed. Words are powerful and can have positive impact, but we seldom know exactly what another person needs to hear or when he or she needs to hear it.

And besides, it’s usually not about the words, it’s about presence. It’s about being there. To both of the young people, my advice was the same. “Just be there. Love them and let them know you love them. The rest will take care of itself.” Love is the only thing we can offer that works every time. Words spoken in love are never the wrong thing to say. We may not see the impact they have or get the response we had expected from our rehearsal, but that’s fine. It’s the love that matters, not the words.

“My word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:11

God knows what needs to be said.

A cure for dead souls

Saint Maximillian Kolbe said, “A single act of love makes the soul return to life. Let us often make use of this means.” Father Max just gave you the secret to raising yourself from the dead.

One of the weird things about being one of God’s children is how frequently we can die. Unlike our earthly bodies, which have a one shot warranty; our eternal souls can, and do, die often. We die whenever we fall into a mortal sin. Our soul loses its eternal life when we feed it the poison of greed, lust, pride, jealousy, anger, sloth, or gluttony. If our soul is dead on the same day our body dies, we have lost the key to heaven.

But God does not want us to end this way. He equipped us with a spiritual reset button. No matter how many times we fall (and for most of us, there will be many), we can pick ourselves back up. We can spiritually pull our souls out of the grave. By loving our neighbor.

This the greatest deal in all of creation! The price of eternal life is nothing but love. Not riches, not brilliance, not thousands of hours of painful toil. Just love. Free, renewable, heartwarming love. You don’t even have to feel it; you just have to do it. Hold the door for a shopper with his arms’ full. Help a little girl find her mom in a crowd. Call your mother to say hello. The action is what matters. Do it. And live.

Forgive to live

God’s pretty sneaky sometimes. Take forgiveness for example. Jesus told Peter to turn the other cheek not seven times, not seventy times, but seventy-times-seven times. In other words, always. But what Jesus didn’t tell Peter, at least not directly, is that the forgiveness was for Peter’s benefit, not the benefit of the other person. We have to forgive to live.

Anger, resentment and jealousy kill us from the inside. According to an article posted on WebMD.com, one study said people who are frequently angry are 19% more likely to have a heart attack, and within the group of people with heart disease, angry people are more likely to have worse health outcomes than people who are calm. Anger kills.

Negative emotions are also contagious. In my own case, I have often seen that my mood impacts how I interact with other people. If I’m feeling grouchy, I’m more likely to snap at my wife, grandchildren, the dog, squirrels, other drivers, et al. And guess what happens to them? Yep, they are more snarly and snappy. Anger begets anger.

Today’s Gospel has Jesus telling his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. So, along with your Fitbit and your goal of fewer sugar snacks today, if you really want to be healthy, follow Jesus advice. In the words of St. John, “Little children, love one another.”

A fun new activity for you and your spouse

Here’s something new that you and your spouse ought to do: pray together at bedtime. I suspect many of you figured this out a long time ago; I’m a bit of a slow learner in some areas. Couples should pray together. Linda and I attend mass regularly, say prayers at meal time, etc., but a regular moment of bedtime prayer was not part of our routine. She went her way with spiritual readings and I went mine (prayers followed by a junky novel).

But then I read the Book of Tobit. Specifically, the story of Sarah, who’d been married seven times only to have each of her husbands killed by a demon on their wedding night. Sarah was at her wit’s end and considered hanging herself in shame. Rather than do that, she prayed to God, who sent the Archangel Raphael. Sarah married Tobit’s son, Tobias. At Raphael’s instruction, they prayed together on their wedding night, and lived. The demon was banished, Tobit was healed of cataracts that had blinded him and they all lived happily ever after.

So, am I worried that I’m going to get strangled by a demon when I go to bed at night? No. The story triggered a memory of something else I’d read, something more modern. You’ve all seen the grim divorce statistics, right? But if you dig around you’ll find another statistic out there that couples who pray together are far, far more likely to remain married. In fact, one version of the statistic says that the rate of divorce among active Christians who pray together as a couple is less than one-percent. Prayer works.

Linda & I are coming up on our 36th wedding anniversary. After three-dozen years, I’m not too worried that I’ll come home one day and find my stuff on the lawn and a handful of papers from a divorce lawyer in her hand. But one of the reasons I’m not too worried about that is that we never assume we have learned everything there is to know about being in love and being married. Making a little more time for a little more prayer sounds like a perfect thing for a married couple to add to their love life.

19.625

It’s time for your next assignment, Christian warriors. Today, Jesus is assigning each of us a patrol area. We will each be given a plot of ground to monitor. Our job is to make sure that charity and love prevail over this entire patch of ground. Are you up for it?

Great. Your patch of ground is 19.625 square feet. That is a circle about five feet across with you in the middle. It’s roughly the area within reach of your outstretched arms. Anyone that comes into your Christian Defense Zone is your responsibility. Whether you hug them, shake hands with them, listen to them, lend an ear or lend ten bucks is up to you, but in the words of Mother Teresa, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.”

We spend too much time fretting over the Big Problems in the world and not enough time acting on the Little Problems within our grasp. I have nothing against solving Big Problems, and I think we all should do our part. But often, our part in solving the Big Problems requires doing the seemingly-little stuff that is within our reach. Concerned about poverty? Donate more to the church or St. Vinnies. Upset about income inequality? Pay your workers more, or spend your money supporting companies that do. Heartbroken about abortion? Pray and write a check to a pro-life pregnancy crisis center.

But beyond even these problems is a world full of small challenges that could dissolve in an instant with just a word, or a hand, or a moment of time offered by the billion or so of us who are Catholic. Most of the time, the incredible power of Christian love is not headline material. It won’t require a new national tax or international treaty. Just a helping hand, a kind word or a moment of that gift of time you’ve been given. Simple problems often require the simplest of solutions and all simple solutions come down to this: love your neighbor.

I am a big believer in the power of the pond principle. The pond principle is the notion that even the smallest pebble dropped into a pond starts ripples that can make a big difference. Your simple hand, word or gesture will start ripples that quickly spread beyond your 19.625 square feet. Jesus didn’t have a megaphone, a microphone or even a Popemobile, and yet his simple message of love covered an entire globe and continues to spread after 2,000 years.

Keep an eye on your Christian Defense Zone today. Don’t let love disappear from that zone even for an instant. You’ll be amazed at the huge difference you’ve made in the world.