Have you made any New Year's resolutions yet? If you have, did you formulate a plan that will help you stick with them as the weeks and months pass by? Sociologists and psychologists agree that those who make plans and set realistic goals are far more likely to succeed than those who just go through life relying only on good fortune and hoping for the best.
A number of Gospel stories highlight people who saw marvelous things happen because they had plans and goals. The woman who pressed through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment clearly had a goal and would not rest until she had accomplished it. And she was healed (Mark 5:25-34)! The Canaanite woman whose daughter was being harassed by a demon had a goal, too. Quick-witted and determined, she kept pressing Jesus to deliver her daughter. And it worked (Matthew 15:21-28)!
The Pharisee Nicodemus needed a plan. Aware of the opposition Jesus was stirring up among some religious leaders, he took precautions. He didn’t want to be caught asking Jesus about his teachings. So he planned a secret nighttime meeting with him. And he was rewarded for his efforts with new insights into God’s desire for all of us to be born “from above” (John 3:1-17).
Over and over again, we see people planning, persevering, even pushing forward, just so that they could meet Jesus. And in every instance, their encounter led to a new outpouring of grace: deeper faith, a powerful healing, or the forgiveness of their sins. His grace built up their human nature.
A Deliberate Savior. At the same time, Jesus had his own plans. He didn’t just wander here and there, hoping that people would follow him. He knew he was destined to go to Jerusalem, and so he “resolutely determined” to make his way there, preparing himself for the conflicts that would follow (Luke 9:51-52). He sent messengers ahead of himself to tell people in the various towns and villages that he would be passing through. He planned out how he would enter the holy city—in a manner that would fulfill the Old Testament promise of a king coming to rule over his people (Matthew 21:1-10). He even had a plan for where and how his disciples could celebrate their final Passover meal together (26:17-19).
Of course, all of these episodes fit inside of God’s overarching plan to redeem us from our sins. Everything that Jesus said and did was part of this grand design. From the moment of his baptism in the Jordan River to the day when he returned to heaven in triumph, Jesus’ primary concern was to do the will of his Father (John 6:38). Every healing, every sermon, every act of mercy, every confrontation with his enemies—each of them advanced God’s plan a little more, until its climax in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Even better, God is still unfolding his plans. From the day of Pentecost, when he gave us the Church, until today, God has been at work, deliberately, carefully, and strategically moving history toward that day when Jesus will return to usher in his eternal kingdom. He is also at work in all people’s lives, offering them the grace they need to embrace his plan for them, a plan to give them “a future of hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
What’s Your Plan? So if God has plans and strategies, and if all these New Testament heroes and heroines had their plans, maybe it’s a good idea for us to come up with our own plans.
Pope Francis has repeatedly told us that the Eucharist “enlarges our heart.” He has told us how the Eucharist opens us up so that we can receive more of God’s grace. So let’s make it a point this year to give the Eucharist the best chance to do its job in us by coming to Mass with a plan—a plan that will allow God’s grace, which is embodied within the Eucharist, to build up our natural gifts and talents.
To help you devise a plan for Mass, we want to focus on two important ways that God pours out his grace during the Eucharist. Of course, we could list many, many more, but these two encompass so much of the liturgy, so looking at them can help us the most. The first is the grace to see Jesus’ love more clearly in the liturgy. And the second is the grace to find greater freedom from sin and guilt.
The Grace to Love. From start to finish, the Mass is a celebration of God’s love. The entire liturgy is meant to focus our hearts on the Father who loved us so much that he sent his Son into the world. It focuses our hearts on Jesus, who loved us so much that he gave us his own Body and Blood in the Eucharist. And it focuses our hearts on the Holy Spirit, who speaks to us in every Scripture reading and who consecrates us as we receive Communion.
Considering how sharp this focus is, you’d think it would be easy to receive this grace every time we come to Mass. But we can become so familiar with the words and gestures, the signs and symbols of the Mass, that we forget about how powerful and grace filled the liturgy is. That’s why we need to come with a plan, with a deliberate decision to seek and find the grace that is waiting for us.
Every time you enter the church, take a few moments to fix your eyes on the crucifix. Then, as the Mass progresses, let the thought of Jesus sacrificing himself for us be the focal point of your mind. As often as you can, repeat these words to yourself: “God loves me. God loves all of us.”
When we fix our attention on what Jesus has done for us on the cross, we open ourselves up to his grace. Contemplating God’s love softens our hearts. It enlarges our hearts. It empowers us to treat the people around us with greater love, mercy, and compassion.
So come to Mass with a plan. Expect God’s love to enlarge your heart. Ask yourself, “How can I be open to this love today so that his grace will make me more loving?” Then, after Mass, ask yourself, “What did God show me today? What did I feel him doing in me during Mass?” There is no end to the love he wants to pour out on us!
The Grace of Mercy. Have you ever noticed how many opportunities for repentance there are in the Mass? First, there is the penitential rite, when we confess to almighty God and to our brothers and sisters that we have sinned. Then in the Gloria, we cry out to God, “You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,” and again, “You are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.” Then in the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest prays, “Have mercy on us all, we pray, that with the Blessed Virgin Mary . . . we may merit to be coheirs to eternal life.” In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us our trespasses. We cry out, “Lamb of God, . . . have mercy on us.” And just before Communion we pray, “Lord, I am not worthy . . . but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”
That’s at least six opportunities to tell God we are sorry for our sins! Each opportunity opens us up to receiving his mercy and healing power. Each opportunity puts us in touch with a Father who is always ready to run and embrace us, a Father who loves to throw a banquet for us. It offers us the chance to be forgiven of all our venial sins (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1393-1395, 1436).
But mercy isn’t the whole picture. At Mass, we also receive the grace to stay strong in the face of temptation. Every time you receive Communion, you are receiving divine strength, grace, and help for every troubling situation you face. You are receiving Jesus himself, with all of his holiness, purity, and power. In the words of St. Ambrose, “This daily bread is taken as a remedy for daily infirmity.” So when you pray the penitential rite or when you come to any other words of repentance, don’t just recite them. Speak them from your heart. Know that at that moment, you are being forgiven, and your nature is being built up and strengthened.
Come Prepared. It’s too easy to come to Mass without a plan, to go through the liturgy without expecting anything significant to happen. This year, don’t let that happen! Every time you come to Mass, come with a plan. Come looking for the grace of his love and the grace of his mercy. Come expecting to find the grace to stand firm against temptation. Set these as your goals for this year, and then watch as your life changes.