… And Peter

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I will admit that I have had a long fascination with the Apostle Peter.  When I was entering the novitiate at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham Massachusetts, I was asked by the Abbot to select three names one of which I would be given on the night I entered.  Now I could have chosen my name, Michael, and much to the chagrin of my mother, I chose Peter as one of the three names.  The others were Philip and Stephen.

When I submitted the names to the Abbot, I had to include a justification for why I wanted one of these names.  He would remind us that he could names us anything like “tabernacle door half open” or “tabernacle door half closed” but would usually choose from the three names we submitted.  In my justification for Peter it is was quite simple, his feast day was the same as my birthday, so it would be easy to remember, and like me Peter always seemed to catch on a little late and was always putting his foot in his mouth, that was until Pentecost!

On the morning of the Resurrection of Jesus, Scripture tells that all of the Apostles, except Thomas, were in the upper room.  It is believed that this is the same room where the last meal took place with Jesus and his Apostles.  The women had gone to the place where they laid Jesus to finish the burial ritual that had to be rushed the earlier.

The women were numb and still trying to figure it all out.  Jesus, their friend, and the teacher was dead.  He had been arrested and tried and crucified right before their eyes and their grief was still hard to deal with.  Perhaps they were silent as they made the journey to his burial place.  They had brought everything that they would need, except someone to roll the stone away, for his burial.  Their hopes were dashed!  Jesus was dead, never to return, or so they thought.

They arrive at the tomb to find it open, the stone had been rolled away, and they feared the worst, someone had taken his body.  A young man, dressed in white, was sitting there, confusion and pain struck them.  Who could have done such a thing?  Why would someone take his body away and where did they put it?  But this is the essence of the Gospel, Jesus rises, he is not here, you are looking for him in the wrong place.  The man, we later learn it was an angel, tells them to go and tell his disciples and Peter.

Tell his disciples and Peter…  The Angel wanted to make sure that the women told Peter, the man who had denied Christ not once but three times prior to his crucifixion.  Peter had fallen into the depths of sin and despondency, and he needed the assurance that what Jesus had told him had come to pass that his sins were forgiven and that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead!

Peter was bold in his assertions of his love for Jesus.  Jesus attempted to warn him that he was going to be tempted by Satan, but Peter did not heed his words in fact Peter tells Jesus that it may happen to others, but it will never happen to him.  Was this arrogance?  Perhaps pride, pride the sin that brought down our first parents and the sin that is the root of all of the others.  Peter is the one that Jesus singles out and tells him that it is his faith, the faith of Peter, upon which he will build his Church.  Peter is one of the first to recognize Jesus as the Savior and in the hour of Jesus’ humiliation, when he needed his friends the most, Peter denied him.

Tell his disciples and Peter… Peter must have been feeling pretty low at this point.  Sitting in that upper room, perhaps in the corner all alone, thinking about what had happened and trying to make sense of it all.  He had tried to defend Jesus with his sword in the garden at his arrest and then a few hour later denied that he knew him.  Jesus was crucified, dead and buried, and now the women come with this tale that he is no longer in the tomb.  They take off to the site, and Peter runs ahead of them and reaches the tomb first.  He peers inside to find the burial clothes lying there folded neatly.   How could this be?  The Jewish burial cloth is rather long and why would someone take the time and effort to unravel it just to steal the body?

Tell his disciples and Peter… His words come back to haunt him, “I do not know him.”  Standing there, gazing into an empty tomb, perhaps feeling empty himself, Peter is trying to figure it all out.  For Peter, the story becomes very personal.  Peter realizes, perhaps for the first time that he, like us, is a sinner, but the story does not end there.  Because he is no longer in the tomb, because death was not the final part of the story, Peter, and all of us, have been forgiven and given a way back.

Tell his disciples and Peter… Jesus wanted his disciples, and especially Peter, that he had risen and that he had overcome death by his death.

This is a story of love, the love that God has for all of his creation.  Yes Peter denied Christ at a time when he needed him most, but we know that he is forgiven and when the Holy Spirit comes it Peter who testifies to the masses about the power to transform lives and forgive sins, this is the message of the Resurrection for all of us.

Tell his disciples and Peter and all of the world that there is no more sin, no more sorrow, and no more death.  There is only life!  He is risen, and he is the resurrection and the life.  All of us who believe in Jesus, though we are dead to sin, shall live through Christ.  And we know that if we believe in him we shall never die but have eternal life!

Christ is Risen!

What Are You Willing to Sacrifice?

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Fr. Peter discusses the sacrifice of Abraham in light of what we are asked to do as Christians.

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Pastoral Vision

 

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I was asked recently to share what my vision was for pastoral ministry in the 21st century world we live in.  Pastors have many responsibilities and casting a vision is one of those responsibilities.  We can cast the vision, we can even sell it, but there has to be a community of believers willing to follow that vision.  This is a rather interesting task, to put down on paper one’s vision for their pastoral ministry and if done right, it should get you to think about where you have come from and where you are going.  One thing I learned in this process that I have a much different vision now than I did when I started 10 years ago, and we cannot be afraid to adjust our vision to the world around us changes.

There are two books that I would highly recommend all pastors, and others in church leadership for we do not do this alone, read, study, and discuss.  They are both written by Pastor Mike Slaughter, who is the Senior Pastor of the Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church.  Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus and Renegade Gospel: The Rebel Jesus.  I am not sure that he presents any new ideas, but more of a calling back to what it supposed to be all about and that is following Jesus.

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In January of 1992 I was sitting in a class at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy learning about missions and evangelism.  We were focusing on a small group of students from the college who had traveled to Romania to work in an orphanage there.  During the course of this month long class, I came across a song that in some ways transformed my life and how I would practice ministry in the future.

The chorus of the song was “I want to spend my life mending broken people.”  This became the anthem of my life and the music of my soul and all these years later is the guiding principal of what I feel pastoral ministry and the ministry of the Church is all about.

The Church of the 21st century faces some unique challenges.  For the first time in American history, there are more people unaffiliated with organized religion than affiliated.  How do we motivate people and what does the church need to do to attempt to reverse this trend.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to read the book, “Everything Must Change” by Brian McClaren.  McClaren charged his readers with thinking about church in a new and different way for a new and different society.  The old ways might still work but in order to stay fresh and relevant we have to find new ways to reach people with the transformative message of the Gospel.  So this got me thinking about church and how we “do” church, and this is what needs to change.  We need to stop “doing” church, and we need to “be” the church.

By and large I think we do church very well but I am not so sure we can be the church.  We are called, all of us, to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in this world.  Jesus was a renegade who flipped the tables over in the temple.  He showed people a new way to live, not just a new way to “do” church but a way to “be” the church.  Reaching out in the places that make us uncomfortable, it has been said that the role of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  The role of the church, any church, is not to make us feel good about ourselves but to convict us and motivate us to love God truly and love our neighbor.

When I heard the song I quoted above, my first thought was that I needed to go into the world and find the broken people and fix them.  Then I realized I am one of the broken people, and I need fixing myself.  In order for us to be an effective witness to the world and hope to mend others, we have to first mend ourselves.  We have to strive to be a healthy, welcoming community for all people.  We need to be relevant in the ever changing world while at the same time honoring the past and the rich heritage we come from.

My pastoral vision is simple, we seek to be instruments of God’s peace, bearing witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ for all people, at home, in our local communities, and beyond to the wider world.

Church has become a noun, a stationary place that we visit once a week, rather than a living, functioning working community of Jesus-following believers. We need to make the church real and alive in a world that so desperately needs the transformative message of the Gospel.  This will require a revolutionary lifestyle and a connection to a radical community of Jesus followers where we live a life centered on Christ and not on the world.  Our communities need to become radical, risk-taking communities that once again reflect the directives of its renegade leader and passes the movement on to the next generation.  If we are truly going to be followers of Jesus, then we must die to self and rise to new life, not just on Sunday, but each day and accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

To quote Pastor Mike Slaughter from his book Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus, “To Jesus, the church was an active verb and not a passive noun. His followers practiced mission evangelism. The understood that the mission was not to get the world into the church but to get the church into the world.”

To accomplish this we must preach to convict and to change, there must be an intentional willingness to have our lives transformed by the message of the Gospel.  We need to move past the conventional meaning of church and be transformed into a living and breathing entity that becomes the hands and feet of Christ.

May pastoral vision is that we recapture the missionary zeal of those who first came to this new world where Christ and His Church would be the center of their lives.  Where we will put Christ first in all, we do and make Him and His desire first in our lives.  My vision is for a rededication and sanctification of every part of our lives and through that we will be able to transform the world.

The Humanity of Jesus

 

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I am not a big fan of biblical movies.  Now I will admit I do like the 10 Commandments, but the recent, so-called, biblical movies have been more movie than the bible.  However, I recently had the opportunity to watch Jesus Christ Superstar, and I find it somewhat interesting.  The movie was made in the 1970’s, so it has that flavor to it, but the thing that I like about it is that it does not come across as Gospel, if you know what I mean.  I think the same can be said about the 10 Commandments, but not so with recent biblical movies.

While watching the movie, I got to think about the humanity of Jesus.  I think we sometimes forget that he was both human and divine and that his humanness gets lost in the miracles and the resurrection but Jesus becoming human is the point of the whole story!  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14

With this in mind, I have begun to meditate on the humanness of Jesus.  After all, we are supposed to follow his example and I don’t know about you but no matter how hard I try I cannot walk on water or raise anyone from the dead.  Strip away the miracles, and we are left with a very human Jesus, who is just like you and me.

One of the human stories of Jesus that I believe we all can relate too is the story of Jesus and Lazarus.  Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus has died, and so he sets out to see his sisters Mary and Martha.  He goes to the tomb of his friend, who has been dead for four days, and, in one of his most human moments Scripture tells us, Jesus wept.  He knew that he was about to raise his friend from the dead, but he was so overwhelmed with grief, perhaps for those around him, perhaps for himself, perhaps for the world we do not know, but so overwhelmed was he that we wept for his friend.  Grief and pain are all part of this life even though we know death is not the end.

For the Orthodox Christians, we are in the middle of Holy Week where we follow Jesus, as other Christians did last week, on his journey from glory to glory.  He enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as a king and shortly after he is betrayed and denied.  He faces a mock trial and an angry mob.  The political leader of the day, Pilate, tries to hand him back over to the religious leaders, but they convince him that it is his duty to crucify him.  In the end we have an image of a crucified Jesus, beaten and bloody from a week that none of us will soon forget.

With all of the events of Holy Week, we see Jesus at some of his most human moments.  In one scene from the movie, Jesus is having a conversation with God about why he has to die.  The divine part of Jesus knows full well the reason, but the human Jesus has questions.  He knows what is coming, and he is scared.  Scripture tells us that in the Garden of Gethsemane he is praying so hard that drops of blood fall from his forehead.  In the end, his prayer is that God’s will is done and not his will, and that should be our prayer.

Hanging on the Cross Jesus looks down and sees those who have just crucified him and his prayer is that God will forgive them.  This is the example of forgiveness that is for all of us.  Looking upon those who have killed him, for lack of a better phrase, he is granting them forgiveness, and that is what we are required to do.  If you are a long time reader of this column this should come as no surprise to you as I believe that the entirety of our spiritual journey is about forgiveness and Jesus give us the perfect example in these last moments of his death.

As we continue our Easter journey, and yes it has nor ended but only begun, meditate with me on the human Jesus and the example he left for us.  Could he have accomplished what he wanted by not becoming human, possibly, but by becoming human he left us a much better example to follow.

The Sacrifice of Abraham

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In previous essays, I asked you, dear readers, to meditate on the cost of the cross.  The cross of Jesus had a cost, and each of us must think about what that cost is if we are going to truly be followers of Jesus in our lives.  If there is no cost, there can be no cross.

Sacrifice is the theme of Great Lent and Holy Week.  On Palm Sunday, we join Jesus on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he is hailed as King of the Jews but shortly will be branded a criminal and executed.  One of his handpicked followers will betray him to the religious leaders, and another one will betray him.  In the end, all of them will abandon him to take his journey alone.  Fearing for their lives they turn their back on him at the time when he needs them most.

The hands that created the universe will be pierced with nails and hung on a tree.  Our theology teaches us that death came into the world through a tree, the tree of the Garden of Eden, and now we see that death has been vanquished by a tree, the Tree of Calvary.

But what of sacrifice, what are we being asked to sacrifice?

We turn to the Book of Genesis and the story of Abraham and Isaac for the answer.  In the opening verses of the story, God is calling Abraham and he immediate answers “here I am.”  There is no hesitation; there is no “not now God I am too busy for you.”  There is no “not now God I have sports practice.”  There is no “not now God it’s not Sunday, and I only have time for you for an hour on Sunday.”  The answer is immediate, and that is the first sacrifice, we sacrifice our desire for that of God.

God asks Abraham to sacrifice what is most precious to him, his only son.  Now reading the story this might take us a back a little, why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son?  But we need to push on and keep reading for this is not the end of the story this is a prefiguring of what God is willing to sacrifice for all of us!

Just like when God called Abraham, he responds immediately and without hesitation to do what God was asking of him.  Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son simply because God asked him too.

Abraham leads Isaac to the place of the sacrifice; he takes the wood for the fire that they brought with them and places it on the back of Isaac for his to carry to the place of his pending execution.  Along the way, Isaac asks his father where they animal is for the sacrifice and Abraham answers that God will provide the sacrifice.  This is all very symbolic language.  The wood on Isaac is the wood of the Cross and in the end God does provide the sacrifice, the perfect sacrifice, his only son!

Abraham passed the test that God had given him; he showed that he was willing to do whatever it was that he was being asked to do, and he did it without hesitation.  God is not asking us to sacrifice our children, but he is asking us to sacrifice a little time and our will.  God is asking that we crucify the will and passions of the flesh and live for him and him alone.

Are we ready to pass the test?

New England Churches: The Methodist Episcopal Church of Prescott Massachusetts

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Located on the grounds of the Swift River Valley Historical Society is the former Methodist Episcopal Church of North Prescott Massachusetts.  Built in 1837 this building was slated for demolition during the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir.  The people of the former town of Prescott Massachusetts did not wish to see their church demolished and so the pooled their resources and purchased the building.  The Building was quickly mover to a nearby parcel of land in Orange Massachusetts and in 1985 it was moved to its present location in New Salem Massachusetts.

Today the church is used as a museum holding artifacts from the Town of Prescott as well as Society office space in the basement.  It is also used for programs and the occasional wedding.

I wrote about the story of the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir in 2014 and you can read that article here.

Christ IS Risen!

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For most of you reading this, okay probably all of you reading this, this Sunday will be Easter.  On this, we celebrate the reality that the grave could not hold the savior of the world.  We recall the events of more than two thousand years ago when the grasp that death had on humanity was broken once and for all.  This is not just some historic event that we recall like some battle reenactment, but it is a living reality, or at least it should be, a living reality in our lives.

At the Liturgy of Easter, celebrated the night before, Orthodox Christians will gather outside of the Church and read the Gospel of the Resurrection.  At the conclusion of this Gospel, holding lit candles in their hands, they will triumphantly sing Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”  This is the reality of the entire Christian life but is it?

Notice the line is Christ IS risen not Christ HAS risen.  Again, this is not just some historical event but a present reality.  The risen Christ is still here with us, although not in His physical appearance, He is here, and the promise that He will never leave is as important today as it was in the first century Palestine.  But I often wonder if we believe that.

Recently, I was involved in a discussion about the saying “What Would Jesus Do?”  Several years ago this was a very popular question and was included in bumper stickers, bracelets, and all manner of media.  Through the course of the discussion, I brought up the fact that I think we are asking the wrong question. The question should not be what would Jesus do because we are not Jesus.  The question should be what does Jesus want us to do?  We will come back to that in a moment.

Prior to the celebration of Easter, we have to go through Good Friday, in order to have the Resurrection we have to have the Crucifixion there is a cost to Easter and that cost is death.  The movie The Passion of the Christ was released while I was in seminary.  A group of us went to see the movie at a local theater and then returned to the seminary for a discussion of the experience.  This movie is not for the faint of heart, and it breaks the stereotypical view of the passion.

Until that movie, we only had the sterilized view of passion of Christ.  Sure we listen to the Gospel story, and our minds paint a picture, but I am not sure we truly understood just how powerful the scene was.  Thirty-nine lashes with a whip would be enough to kill most people let alone carrying the cross on your back.  The cross beam that would have been lashed to his back weighed approximately 100 pounds and the distance he carried it was about 650 yards.  With the amount of blood loss from the whipping, it is understandable that he needed help carrying this burden.  There is a cost to the cross!

So back to the question, what does Jesus want us to do?  The answer is simple, love God and love our neighbor.  It does not get any simpler than that the problem is we have made it very complicated.  However, in order to do this we have to die to self, we have to crucify our desire in order to live for another.  I am not saying we need to go live in cardboard boxes but being a follower of Jesus requires us to look at others in a whole new way.  We can no longer look upon the homeless person as lazy and dirty, but we have to look upon them as a person that s loved by God and is our neighbor.  He does not need our pity he needs our help.  If you walk by that person and pretend you do not see him, then you are not following Christ!

Being a follower is a call to a radical lifestyle that has to rise above red or blue, right or left, Democrat or Republican, and just simply be human!  This is the cost of the cross, and we are either all in or all out we cannot be halfway about this.  Christ IS Risen!

Podcast: Where is Our Focus?

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Are we spending time on the wrong things in our spiritual lives? Do you want to get focused on the right things?

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Fear of Flying

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I have an intense almost paralyzing fear of flying.  I have not always had this fear, and I am not sure when I developed it but sometimes, like now, just thinking about flying turns my hands moist and I start to shiver.

I understand that fear, like all of the emotions and passions, are irrational, but I just cannot help it. Some people fear spiders or heights, for me it is flying.  I am uncomfortable with the entire process from the buying of the ticket to the boarding of the plane and as the process continues the more anxious I get.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on the psychological effects of working a fatal fire scene.  The seminar was held at the Massachusetts Fire Academy, and I was in attendance in my role as a fire chaplain.  As chaplain, it is my role to help the men and women of the fire service deal with the horrible things that they encounter in the course of their job, and there are many.

The presenter of the seminary is a fire investigator the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Fire Arms of the US Government.  He shared stories of past fatal fires that he investigated and some of the tricks he has learned to deal with the horror of what he sees as part of his job.  He mentioned that he can clearly see each and every event that he has ever investigated where there was a fatality and that the picture is stored in the Rolodex of his mind.

This got me thinking about my fear of flying and where this has come from.  I have had some close calls in the air but nothing real serious, but I began to think about an event that I thought I had long dealt with.

After Hurricane Katrina had hit the United States, I was sent to New Orleans with the Orthodox Christian Charities as a first responder to work with folks on the immediate needs in the wake of devastation. Most of the work consisted of making sure the supplies that were on the way got to where they were needed most.  I worked in an office with a telephone and white board and spoke with truckers and other relief workers in the field, but I was not in the field, until one night.

We had received word that there were thousands of people at the Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans; the government was denying this of course.  It was next to impossible to get permission for anyone to enter New Orleans in those early days but somehow we were able to obtain permission.  We rounded up a few school buses and set off from our base in Baton Rouge to assess the situation at the airport.

When we arrived, it was a scene from a war movie.  People were living on some of the worst conditions that I had ever seen.  Gate area had been turned into bathrooms, and the small was just unbelievable.

Our party entered the airport through the baggage claim area and a doctor ran up to me grabbed me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes with absolute horror on his face, and shouted “did I do the right thing?”  Come to find out he had to make decisions about who was going to live and who was going to die because the few supplies they had were running out.

He took me to a former gate area that had been turned into a nursing home.  This was called the “black ward” where they brought the people they did not expect to live.  At this point, there were 65 people, lying on army cots; around the gate area (I can see this in my mind as clear as if I was right there as I write this.)  The nurses and the doctor with the horrified look on his face were doing what they could for those in their care. I was informed that no minister of any kind had been there, and he asked me if I would pray for them.

When we were getting ready to leave Baton Rouge, I ran back to my room to grab the bag that had my stole and my anointing oil and I took it with me.  I am not sure what reminded me to do that but at that moment I was glad I had it with me.  I knelt down beside each person, said a short prayer for peace and to help them as they transitioned to the next phase of their life.  I put my thumb in the small vessel that held the oil of anointing, and I made the sign of the cross on their forehead.  At that moment, I did not care if they were Christian, Jew, Muslim, or non-believer.  I did not care that my Church only allows me to anoint those of my own faith.  For that moment, I was their minister, and I was going to do what needed to be done to bring them comfort.

As I made my way around the room praying and anointing each one, I noticed that the medical staff had stopped what they were doing and had bowed their heads.  These people had become their family, and they were praying for them as I was.  It came to my mind that not only was I bringing comfort to the people on the cots but I was bringing comfort to those whose care they were now in.

After my rounds of prayer, I spoke briefly to each one and prayed with them and thanked them for what they were doing.  I assured the doctor that he had done what he needed to do and that God would understand.  He asked me for absolution, and I placed my stole on his head and I read the prayer of absolution over him.

When I was sitting in a class all of these memories came flooding back to my mind, and I saw each face as if I was kneeling beside them again.  The smell came back to me as if I was back in that place, and I thought maybe this is why I am afraid to fly!

Memories are a powerful thing and memories that have not been dealt with can, and will, affect us in the future.  I thought I had dealt with them, and maybe I had, but they are still with me.  In one way I am glad I carry those memories with me and I am glad I remember those faces, faces of people that had been left to die by those who were only thinking of themselves and were now in the care of people that would see to their needs.

Where do I go from here?  Well not to the airport I can tell you that!  Just writing about my experience helps me to find peace with it.  I hope I never forget that experience, I hope those faces stay with me for the rest of my life, and I thank God that I was able to bring them some measure of comfort in their last hours or days.

Mary of Egypt a Saint for all of us

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The 5th Sunday of Great Lent is set aside to commemorate St. Mary of Egypt.  Born in the 4th century this day is to remind us of the great power of reconciliation in our lives.

At a young age, St. Mary left her home and traveled to Alexandria where she lived a life as a prostitute.  St. Mary decided to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land not so much to visit holy sites but to ply her trade along the route.  Upon arriving in the Holy Land, she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross.  Her way was barred by some force that she did not know.

She saw an icon of the Theotokos on the wall and stood before it and prayed.  She had come to the realization that she was a sinner in need of the mercy of God.  When she finished praying, she was able to enter the Church where she venerated the relics of the true cross.  While in the Church she heard, a voice telling her to cross over the Jordan River where she would find peace.

On the way, she stopped at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist and received absolution and communion.  She entered the desert and lived and ascetic life for many years.  There is much more to the story, but the recognition of her need for the mercy of God is the key to the story.

The season of Great Lent is designed for us, all of us, to come to this realization that our lives need to change.  If we are to be authentic followers of Jesus Christ, then our lives have to change, and this is what Mary discovered.  Turning over of one’s life to Christ is an important part of the journey, in fact, the journey cannot begin until we do this.

The life of St. Mary is put here on this 5th Sunday of Lent to remind us of this important fact, and it is now up to us to take the next step.  As we continue the journey of Great Lent, and the start of Holy Week, let us come to the same realization that Mary did, that our lives need to change, and rededicate our lives to Christ and to follow His way.