My Sacrifice

One of Creed’s best known songs shares the title to my article. Many people say this is a prayer song, not surprising since lead singer and songwriter, Scott Stapp, a troubled man, is a Christian.  The lyricist is actually talking to his younger self, reflecting on life experiences that form his person, and how all those bad times helped him persevere.

I chose the title because we are approaching the season of Lent.  As children in Catholic school during the 1960’s we were basically taught that during Lent you had to sacrifice something you loved.  In children’s terms that meant candy, cookies, or a favorite toy.  While we are still encouraged to abstain, emphasis should also be placed on taking on more, such as penance and prayer.  We should be preparing ourselves for Easter by attending Stations of the Cross, Mass, a weekly holy hour, personal prayer, and of course making a good confession.

Lenten practices have been with us since the earliest of times, becoming more regular around the time that Christianity was legalized in 313 AD.  What does Lent mean?  It means “Springtide” and is also the word for “March” the month in which most of Lent falls.  We leave the darkness of winter for the renewal of life that spring brings.  Trees, flowers, and plants that once lie dormant burst with life once again. Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead.

Do you remember as a child attending Stations of the Cross with your class or with your family?  Or visiting neighborhood churches on Holy Thursday?  Do you recall how mysterious the dark churches were and the statues covered up in purple cloth?  Good Friday, always a day off school, was spent in silence from Noon to 3PM before heading over to church.  Holy Saturday meant lots of baking and cooking and of course bringing the baskets of food to church to be blessed.  All we would think about was receiving our Easter baskets and indulging the next day!  Of course all this led up to Easter Sunday, which entailed dressing in your new clothes, going to church, which was once again filled with light, and then an early dinner at Grandma’s.

Most if not all of these church activities survive today.  However, there are less and less faithful attending.  If you ask any child today what Easter is all about they will tell you the Easter bunny, candy, and toys.  In fact, Easter has turned into a mini-Christmas.  The same way the culture has secularized Christmas it’s doing the same to Easter.

So why should we perform all these sacrifices?  Why fast, pray, and do penance?  Ask anyone who is getting ready for a big event in their life.  What do they do before the big day?  Prepare.  Ask any child what they do before a big test—study, eat well, and get plenty of sleep.  Or an athlete who is participating in a big game—practice, exercise, pray/meditate, eat well, and condition themselves.  The preparation can be grueling on the body but it’s needed for the soul.  You get the idea.  We need to get ready.  We need to put gas back in the tank for God.  And yes, the process can be quite draining but the reward is great.  Just think if the child or the athlete does not prepare.  What happens?  They fail.  We don’t want to fail.

If you’ve ever lived or vacationed in the southern states you’re acquainted with the Passion Play.  I attended an outdoor version in Arkansas.  Several Hispanic parishes take part in the Passion of Christ Via Crucis.  There are still a few in the Chicago area who walk the way of the Cross through busy Chicago streets.  The most well-known is in the Pilsen neighborhood.  All are amazing and if you’ve never seen one you should.  During each walk, even though hundreds of people are participating down busy city streets—you can hear a pin drop—except for the orders yelled out by the actors portraying the Roman soldiers.  For that moment, buses, cars, and all foot traffic stop and stare.

Before the movie, The Passion of the Christ, most people, including Christians, never realized the true torture and horror Jesus experienced leading up to and including the crucifixion.  Isaiah’s prophesy (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) of the suffering servant was fulfilled.  He endured it for us—for our sins.  Jesus was the Lamb of God.  It was the ultimate sacrifice.  Yet, we are not even willing to spend an hour with Him on a Sunday morning or give up a hamburger or a cookie for a few days.  A Stations of the Cross service lasts about 20 minutes—are you too busy or too tired?

A popular commercial for cold medicine shows either a woman or man popping their heads in what appears to be an office door and telling someone they need to take a sick day.  When they show who is in the room, you expect it to be their boss but it’s a very young child.  The announcer states moms or dads don’t take sick days.  Well neither does God.  We call out to Him in prayer or just expect Him to be with us in times of trouble.  What if He were too busy or too tired?

Almost all of us will partake in some festivities on Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Paczki Day, or Carnivale, whichever name you call it by, but know why we celebrate it.  It’s the last hurrah before Lent begins and it ends abruptly at midnight. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  A day when we recognize our inevitable death coupled with repentance.  Do you remember in the Old Testament when someone sinned they would dress in sackcloth and cover themselves in ashes?  It’s the same thing.  We are telling God we’re sorry for sinning against Him and promise to repent and never do it again.

The best thing about God is He’s our father.  Like all good parents we get a second chance.  In many cases, we get several chances.  You can always turn back to Him at any time and all will be forgiven.  In fact, Jesus states in Luke 15:7, “There will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who have no need to repent.”  How cool is that?

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Angels Among Us

This is the title to one of my favorite songs by Alabama.  It tells the story of a young boy who got lost coming from school one cold, winter day.  An older “man” guided him back home.  The only problem was his mother couldn’t see the man—only the boy could see him.  We’ve all had instances of complete strangers providing comfort during an hour of need.  They seem to come out of nowhere and know exactly what to say and do.  We could very easily blow it off as a goodwill gesture, but if you are in tune with God you recognize it to be so much more than that.

Most people are used to images of angels as beautiful, feminine, flowing, graceful creatures that invoke calm and tranquility and they always have wings and a halo.  There are few descriptions of angels in the Bible and none of them resemble that.  We do know angels were around when God created the world and they cannot die.  Many times they were sent as guides and they usually disguised themselves to look like a local.  They are fast and appear to fly or appear out of nowhere, but there is no mention of wings, halos, or flowing garments.  Others were messengers who ushered in a time of great change.  Still others were fierce warriors.  When you have a minute take a look at the likeness of St. Michael.  He’s always depicted in battle against Satan.  In Daniel 10:13, Daniel is told by an angel that he (the angel) was detained from visiting Daniel 21 days because he was doing battle with the prince of the Persian kingdom.  He had to call in Michael for assistance.  In the Bible, Michael is described as an archangel and “one of the chief princes.”  In fact, archangel comes from the Greek “archangelos” meaning chief angel.  So in the army of God, Michael is probably a five-star general, ranked highest and in charge of other angels.  Hardly feminine and wearing flowing garments.

However, there is no question in times of trouble angels are sent to minister to us or keep us safe.  There have been several films and television shows based on this premise.  My favorite, The Bishop’s Wife, portrays Cary Grant as the perfect angel, Dudley, who answers the prayer of a bishop.  Other favorites are Highway to Heaven and Touched By An Angel.  I admit I faithfully watched both shows.  Roma Downey and Michael Landon both looked exactly like the angels from my childhood imagination.  Both had sidekicks.  Della Reese was an “older” and wiser, rough around the edges, seen it all, angel supervisor to Roma Downey, while Michael Landon had a human partner in Victor French.  Landon took his orders from “the Boss”.  Even the Angel of Death was depicted as a kind, comical, young man.  However, in the NBC series, Constantine, we find a more rugged angel in Manny.  However, no matter how dark Manny seems, he still has wings!  But enough of Hollywood angels.

What about real-life encounters?  We’ve all heard accounts of people in a near death situation who were saved by a strange being—and in a few cases even by an “angelic” animal.  One of which was witnessed by several people in a busy hospital emergency room.  A man, who was being treated for a heart attack, had a mysterious canine visitor in the ER.  Patients, nurses, and doctors all saw the dog enter the ER and go straight to the man’s room.  Once the man was stabilized the dog calmly walked out of the hospital.  After hearing the description of the dog a family member recognized it as the man’s deceased pet.  The odd angle is when hospital staff played back the tape of the ER that evening, there were no images of the dog.  Google real life angel experiences and you’ll find a plethora of books, blogs, and angel stories from around the world.

When my Dad passed away in the hospital after a long illness my sister and I were inconsolable.  A young African-American woman approached us out of nowhere, hugged us, and led us in prayer.  She stayed with us, holding our hands and consoling us like a best friend until my husband arrived.  We were convinced she was a hospital chaplain.  I told my husband about her but when we turned around she was gone.  The nurses didn’t know who we were talking about.  We never saw her again.  A friendly stranger or an angel sent down to help us?

One of the most profound experiences happened to my youngest daughter and her friend.  Both girls had attended Mass with us one Saturday evening a couple of years ago.  The prayer to St. Michael was recited after Mass.  My daughter’s friend, a Muslim, had never been in a Catholic Church so she had several questions for our pastor.  They then left us and drove off.  Later that night, my daughter phoned us that she and her friend had been in a car accident.  The car was totaled but they were both OK.  My husband went to the scene and reported back to me that he was amazed that both girls had survived the crash let alone escape unscathed.  We felt very blessed.

The next day our insurance company called.  I heard my husband arguing on the phone.  The insurance agent was asking for the information on the young man who was a backseat passenger in my daughter’s car.  My husband stated there was no man in the car, only her girlfriend who was in the front passenger seat.  The insurance man stated that the policewoman on the scene stated clearly in her report that she spoke to a man who was in the backseat of my daughter’s car, and he gave her his name, Michael.

I’m convinced St. Michael was with my daughter that night.  How else could she have steered a 3-wheeled car into ongoing traffic after hitting a concrete wall with an airbag in her face obstructing her view to the safety of a side street?  How did she and her friend escape injury?  My atheist or skeptical friends would call that lucky.  The policewoman was merely mistaken.

I’ve had few acquaintances look at me sideways when I tell that story, but most people gasp and confess to having goose bumps.  There is no question in their eyes.  All they ask for is more information.  What did Michael look like? Is the most common question.  Unfortunately I have no additional information to share.  I never met the policewoman to ask her what Michael looked like.  I’m sure he didn’t possess wings or a halo or the entire CPD would know.  As true believers we don’t need to see an angel or have them reveal themselves to us.  We just know when we’ve encountered one.

As the song says, they wear diverse faces, show up in odd places and grace us with mercy in our time of need to guide us with love.  Yes, I believe there are angels among us and even if nobody else can see them we know they are there.