Saturday, December 31, 2016

Honoring Mary; Celebrating Christ

Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

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On the octave of Christmas, eight days after the birth of Christ, the day when Mary and Joseph, following the Judaic law, would have presented their newborn Son to be circumcised, the Church celebrates a great feast of Mary, the Mother of God.

Do Catholics make too much of Mary? I heard a Presbyterian minister on the radio once complain of this. (I used to like to listen to broadcasts of his sermons because of his Scottish accent). He said the problem with Catholicism is that we have a "very small Jesus" and a "very big Mary." Is this true?

The mistake he made, of course, is in thinking our love to be a quantifiable thing; something that we have to take away from one pile in order to put in another. Of course any parent of multiple children can tell you this is false. You don't love one child any less because you also love another. Likewise we don't love Christ less because we also love Mary, Joseph, or any of the saints. In fact, we love these people -- as we love one another -- primarily because Christ loved them first. This is what it means to love God and love your neighbor. To love God means loving what God loves. In fact, the love we give to Mary and the saints pales in comparison to the love Christ pours out upon them. If you ever fear that you are loving Mary too much, just remember that you will never love her as much as Jesus does. 

All that being said, it is easy to see how those on the outside may get the impression that Catholics "go overboard" in their devotion to Mary. We do love our Mother and are not afraid to show it! But the key thing to understand is that our devotion to Mary is all because of Christ. We don't honor Mary for her own light, but because she reflects perfectly the light of her Son. Mary's consistent role in our faith is to point at her Son and say, as she did at the wedding at Cana, "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5).

The feast of Mary, Mother of God, is a perfect example of this. From the very earliest days of the Church, Greek-speaking Christians in the East had the habit of referring to Mary as the Theotokos, which means "Mother of God," or literally, "God-bearer."

Some thought this title attributed too much to Mary. How could Mary, a mortal woman, born in time, be the mother of the eternal God? How can a creature be mother of her Creator? This is impossible, they would argue. We can call Mary the Mother of Jesus or the Mother of Christ, but not the Mother of God. But devotion to Mary the Theotokos was strong and people were not willing to reject this ancient and revered title of our Lady.

Debate ensued, but the point of the debate was not about Mary, but about her Son. It all revolved around the question, "Who is Jesus?" Jesus is like no one else. His birth changed the world forever. He was born in a humble manger, yet that birth was heralded by angels. He was raised by a carpenter, yet foreign sages worshiped Him as a king. He is a man who could suffer and die. Yet He is also divine and will live and reign forever. Jesus Christ is like no one else and is at the very heart of our religion. How are we to understand this Jesus?

Some thought He was a man much blessed by God. Others thought He was God who took on the appearance of a man for our sake. Still others thought He must be half-man and half-God. All these theories about Jesus are flawed. All of them fall short of the full truth.

The truth about Jesus, as taught by the Church, is that He "is inseparably true God and true man. He is truly the Son of God who, without ceasing to be God and Lord, became a man and our brother" (CCC 469). The theological term for this is hypostatic union, from the Greek word hypostasis, meaning "person." We believe and profess that Jesus possess both a full human nature and a full divine nature, united perfectly in one Divine Person.

What does this have to do with Mary? Simply put, Mary is the mother of Jesus. Jesus is God. Therefore Mary is the mother of God. When we call Mary the Theotokos, the Mother of God, we profess our belief in the divinity of Christ. We affirm that the Person Mary bore in her womb is a Divine Person.

To suggest that Mary is not the mother of God implies that Jesus is something less than God. In order to defend and uphold the Catholic faith in Christ's divinity, the Church declared at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, "If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the Theotokos (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth) let him be anathema."

For the past week we have been in the "octave of Christmas." An octave is a celebration so great that it cannot fit into a single day, and so the Church celebrates that "day" for eight full days, as if it were one great feast. So the celebration of Christmas and the feast of Mary, Mother of God, are intimately linked. We began the octave of Christmas with the celebration of Jesus being born of Mary. We conclude it by honoring Mary and proclaiming that her Son is truly Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Let us never be afraid to honor the mother of our God, as Jesus honors her. And let us pray always for a heart to love Christ as Mary loved her Son.

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Hymn for the Child

The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)

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St. Romanos the Melodist was a sixth century deacon who was renowned for his superb singing voice and for the elegant hymns and poems he composed. One of his most famous a kontakion (a poetic sermon) on the Nativity of the Lord. The entire poem is 24 stanzas long. Here is but an excerpt.

On the Nativity of Christ

Prelude
Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave to him whom no one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

1
Bethlehem has opened Eden, come, let us see;
we have found delight in secret, come, let us receive
the joys of Paradise within the cave.
There the unwatered root whose blossom is forgiveness has appeared.
There has been found the undug well
from which David once longed to drink.
There a virgin has borne a babe
and has quenched at once Adam’s and David’s thirst.
For this, let us hasten to this place where there has been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

2
The mother’s Father has willingly become her Son,
the infants’ saviour is laid as an infant in a manger.
As she who bore him contemplates him, she says,
“Tell me, my Child, how were you sown, or how were you planted in me?
I see you, my flesh and blood, and I am amazed,
because I give suck and yet I am not married.
And though I see you in swaddling clothes,
I know that the flower of my virginity is sealed,
for you preserved it when, in your good pleasure, you were born
a little Child, God before the ages.

...

23
"For I am not simply your mother, compassionate Saviour;
it is not in vain that I suckle the giver of milk,
but for the sake of all I implore you.
You have made me the mouth and the boast of all my race,
and your world has me
as a mighty protection, a wall and a buttress.
They look to me, those who were cast out
of the Paradise of pleasure, for I bring them back.
May all things understand that, though me, you have been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Dream of St. Joseph

Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)

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During Advent we look for the coming of Christ in two directions. We look ahead, toward His coming in the future, at the end of time. This coming is emphasized more at the beginning of Advent. But we also look back, remembering His coming in the past, at the Incarnation. Here at the end of Advent, as we approach the great Christmas feast, it is this coming of Christ in history that receives the greater focus.

It is easy for us to take the great mystery of the Incarnation for granted. We forget how radical a thing it truly is, the Creator entering into creation, because it happened in such a humble way. Our God did not burst forth into the world in a great flaming chariot. He came as a baby, born of a woman, born in a manger; an event heralded by angels but noticed only by a few shepherds.

Our God chose a mother, Mary, who bore Him in her womb and nursed Him at her breast. She assented to be the Mother of God after being visited by the angel Gabriel at the annunciation. She, a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, gave her fiat, her "yes," to do God's will and bear His Son. "Let it be done unto me according to your word" (Lk 1:38).

But what of Joseph? What must this have seemed like to him? He was a just man, as described in our gospel reading, concerned with doing what is right. He is betrothed to Mary, but has not yet taken her into his home. He finds Mary pregnant. He must have assumed that she had been with another. He must also have known this was not at all something Mary would do. He must have struggled deeply with this seeming contradiction. He must have brought the matter to prayer.

The gospel tells us that whatever else, Joseph did not desire to bring shame to Mary, and so resolved to divorce her quietly, without bringing her before the court. But before this can happen, Joseph has a dream. An angel appears to him and says:
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
What on earth must Joseph have thought about this message? Imagine yourself in his position. Would you have dismissed it as merely a dream, or recognized it as a message from God? Would you have had the courage to follow the angel's command? Pope Benedict XVI meditates upon this encounter in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.  The Holy Father writes:
Whereas the angel "came" to Mary (Lk 1:28), he merely appears to Joseph in a dream -- admittedly a dream that is real and reveals what is real. Once again this shows us an essential quality of the figure of St. Joseph: his capacity to perceive the divine and his ability to discern. Only a man who is inwardly watchful for the divine, only someone with a real sensitivity for God and His ways, can receive God's message in this way... The message conveyed to Joseph is overwhelming, and it demands extraordinarily courageous faith. Can it be that God has really spoken, that what Joseph was told in the dream was the truth--a truth so far surpassing anything he could have foreseen? Can it be that God has acted in this way toward a human creature? Can it be that God has now launched a new history with men?  
Our position now is not that different from Joseph's in this gospel reading. We, too, hear a message that is beyond anything we might dare to hope. We, too, must choose whether and how to respond to this message.

Joseph received God's word through a messenger, and so we receive His word through messengers--ministers in the Church, the bishops, priests, deacons and lay faithful who have passed this word down to us. We, like Joseph, must discern how we will receive this message, and what response it demands of us.

Joseph was given a task; to take Mary into his home and be a faithful husband to her and a father to her child. But Joseph was also given an invitation to participate in the great mystery of God. Pope Benedict XVI notes that the words spoken to Joseph by the angel -- "Do not be afraid" -- are the same words spoken by the angel to Mary at the annunciation. "By means of this same exhortation from the angel," the Holy Father writes, "Joseph is now drawn into the mystery of God's incarnation.'

We also have a task. We also have an invitation. We also are being drawn into this great mystery. May we, like Joseph, be inwardly watchful, and learn to be sensitive to the ways of God. May we, like Joseph, be open to God's message. And may we, like Joseph, possess the courage to receive Mary and her Son into our homes and into our hearts.

St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, pray for us that we may have faith such as yours, to discern Gods will for us and to accept Christ into our hearts without fear. Amen.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Rejoice!

3rd Sunday of Advent (A)

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John the Baptist is kind of odd. In last week's readings he was described as wearing clothing made of camel's hair and eating locusts and honey in the desert. It conjures up wild-man images. In the Eastern Churches he has some of the strangest iconography. He is often portrayed with wings like an angel, and holding his own severed head.

The wings indicate his role as a messenger of God. The word angel literally means "messenger" and John shares in the angelic mission of being heralds of God's Word. His severed head testifies to the death he was willing to endure for Christ.

John is the last and greatest of the prophets. In fact, Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel that "among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11:11). High praise indeed from the Son of God!

What makes John so great? John is great for the same reason that Mary, and all of the other saints are great. He recognizes in Christ the supreme good, and he points others toward that good. Just as Mary told the waiters at the wedding at Cana, "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5), John is humble enough to say, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). Both saints are great because they recognize that they are not the greatest. Both saints are great because they recognize the greatness of Christ. 

John sees in Christ the highest good, the fulfillment of all God's promises. This is why Jesus sends the disciples back to John to tell him that the blind have regained their sight, the lame walk, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. Each of these things is mentioned by the prophet Isaiah as being signs that the time of salvation is at hand. John knows the scriptures. He knows what these signs mean. The one he has been waiting for is here.

That's why this Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, is called Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from the entrance antiphon for the Mass, which in Latin begins Gaudete in Domino semper or "Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious over anything; but in all manner of prayer, let your requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:4-5). We mark this day by wearing rose colored vestments in the liturgy and lighting a pink candle in our Advent wreath. It is a lessening of the penitential nature of the season, as we anticipate with excitement the approach of our Lord at Christmas.

There is a natural excitement we all feel when something good that we have been preparing for is about to happen. Students get excited the week before graduation. Engaged couples get excited the day before their wedding. We've been looking forward to these things with anticipation, and now they are so close we can almost taste them. Farmers feel this way as they watch their crops grow and can see that it is almost time for the harvest. St. James writes about this in the second reading. "See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand" (Jas 5:7-8). 

John felt that same excitement at the coming of Christ. He had been patiently waiting. Christ had already come in the Incarnation, being born to Mary. But now He was beginning to go out and proclaim the Kingdom. This is what John had been waiting for. This is why, as great as he is, he is happy to get out of the way once Jesus arrives on the scene. Because something greater than he had come.

In order to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, we should follow John's example. We need to wait patiently for the Lord. I don't just mean at Christmas when we celebrate the feast of His Nativity. And I don't just mean His second coming at the end of time. I mean His coming here and now into our hearts. He comes to us in our baptism. He comes to us when we receive the Eucharist. He comes to us in all the sacraments, and whenever we read the scriptures or spend time in prayer. But it takes time for Christ's work to come to fruition in our lives. While we wait, we must be patient. (And be patient with others as James advises in our second reading (Jas 5:9)).

We must also follow John's example and get out of the way. By that I mean we have a tendency to get in our own way when it comes to our spiritual lives. We may want to grow closer to Christ. We may want to grow in holiness. But we have other competing wants and desires. We have things that we cling to that separate us from Christ.  We want Christ, but we want these other things, too. We get in our own way. John teaches us that to allow Christ to reign in our hearts we need to suppress our own ego, our own selfish tendencies, and allow Him to increase in us. The saints in heaven have done this perfectly. This is why Jesus says "the least in the kingdom of heaven" is greater even than John the Baptist (Mt 11:11). 

We rejoice today for many reasons. We rejoice because Advent is drawing to an end and the joy of Christmas is within sight. We rejoice at the coming of Christ in history. But most of all, we rejoice because Christ still comes to us today, here and now, in our hearts. The one John the Baptist so eagerly awaited, and so excitedly pointed toward, is here. He has come. You and I need wait no longer to open our hearts to Christ and accept His gift of salvation. And so we rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice!

Friday, December 2, 2016

More than Chaff

2nd Sunday of Advent (A)

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St. John the Baptist
Cherubic angels. Shepherds. A babe lying in a manger. Eggnog and candy canes. These are the images we typically associate with the time of year leading up to the Christmas season. But what images do we find in our gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent? A brood of vipers. A coming wrath. An unquenchable fire. What happened to the cherubic angels?

Well, if you've ever looked up what a Cherub actually is (from the Latin cherubim), you know they are far from cute and cuddly. These angels are described in Ezekiel as having four faces (one each of a man, an eagle, a lion and an ox), four wings, and four arms. I imagine they would be terrifying to any who saw them, especially if they were not prepared for the encounter.

If that is true of God's angels, it is certainly true of God Himself. That is precisely why John the Baptist is trying to prepare us for our coming encounter with the Divine.

He describes Jesus, the Son of God, in rather frightening terms, with a winnowing fan is in his hand. Winnowing is a technique used in agriculture to separate grain from chaff. A farmer come harvest time wants to collect and save the grain, which is useful to make bread. But there is also a lot of other plant material; things like husks and straw. There may also be insects and other pests mixed in. All of this is useless; about all it is good for was burning. This chaff is separated out by winnowing.

St. John the Baptist describes Jesus as ready to winnow. He's going to "gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff" (the useless stuff) "he will burn with unquenchable fire." Jesus means business. This is scary stuff, for those who are not ready.

This is why John preaches of the need for repentance. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! ... Prepare the way of the Lord!" The word "repent" comes from the Latin poenitire, which means "to make sorry." But it is a translation of the Greek word metanoia which means "to change one's mind." So our English word "repent" means both to change your mind and to become sorry for something. That begs the question: What should we be sorry for? What do we need to change our minds about?

We want to be wheat and not chaff. We would rather be stored in Jesus' barn than be burned in an unquenchable fire. St. Johns call us to repentance implies that we are chaff and not wheat. But this is obviously a metaphor. What does it mean in real life? What makes us chaff and how can we stop being that?

Chaff is defined by what it is not. There is no part of the plant called "chaff." The farmer wants the grain of the wheat. Chaff is everything else. It's the useless bits. So let's be blunt about it. You are chaff when you are useless to God.

Why would you be useless to God? God made you, after all. Why would He make something useless? The answer is that He didn't! God made you for a reason. He made you with a purpose in mind. Your primary purpose is to know and love God, and your secondary purpose is to love your neighbor. How each of us is specifically called to fulfill this purpose in our life is called our vocation

God didn't make us to be useless, but we become so though sin. My students hear me often describe sin as "a failure to love." Each sin we commit is a failure to love God and/or neighbor (usually both). Each sin we commit is a decision to act against God's design for us. Each sin we commit is a decision to be something less than what God made us to be. Sin is useless, and it makes us useless. It makes us chaff.

St. John's call to repentance is a wake up call to stop being useless! Search your soul! Seek out and identify whatever sins lie in your heart and change your mind about them! Learn to regret these failures of love in your life. Ignore all these fell-good motivational memes telling you to live without regrets. They offer false comfort. We all have sins in our past. Own up to them so that you can repent from them. Turn away from sin and turn toward love. 

A gospel about "unquenchable fire" may not seem like good news to us. But here's the good news. Before the Master of the Harvest comes in Justice at the end of time, He comes in Mercy at the "fullness of time" (Gal 4:4). Before He comes to winnow the wheat from the chaff, He comes to lay His head in a bed of hay. I'm speaking, of course, of the first advent of Christ in the Incarnation.

St. Athanasius spoke of the Incarnation in these terms: "The Son of God became man so that we might become God." This is what is referred to as divinization. We don't literally become God, but we become like Him.We do this by cooperating with His grace.

It is interesting that John the Baptist uses the metaphor of chaff and wheat, because Jesus describes Himself as wheat. Referring to His own death and resurrection, He said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). Wheat is used to make bread, and Jesus referred to Himself as "the bread of life" (Jn 6:35). For us to become wheat, means we must become like Jesus. 

We cannot do this on our own. It requires cooperation. We must do our part and heed the call of John the Baptist. Repent from your sins! Make straight the path for Jesus into your heart! Welcome Him in! And then trust God do His work in your life. Cooperate with His will. Practice virtue. Grow in holiness. Learn to love. He did not make you to be useless. He did not make you to be chaff. He made you to be wheat, as He is wheat -- something that needs to die and be broken up so that it may bear good fruit.

A medieval depiction of winnowing.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

'Tis the Season

The page for December from a medieval
breviary calendar, depicting preparations
for the Christmas feast.
'Tis the Season! But the season for what? Our modern secular culture tends to view the entire period between Thanksgiving and New Year as "the holiday season." But the liturgical calendar of the Church is much more specific. There is a definite flow and rhythm, marked by special feasts and celebrations along the way.

This year, don't just celebrate the generic "holiday season." Savor each special moment in the calendar, taking time to pray with the Church and appreciate the individual character of each point along the way.

Advent

We begin with the season of Advent, a season of preparation, not just for the coming Christmas feast, celebrating Christ's first coming among us, but also the second coming of Christ at the end of time. And so we make ready our minds and hearts to meet our Savior.

Nov 27: 1st Sunday of Advent 

PRAYER: Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Nov 30: St. Andrew's Day

PRAYER: We humbly implore your majesty, O Lord, that, just as the blessed Apostle Andrew was for your Church a preacher and pastor, so he may be for us a constant intercessor before you. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 4: 2nd Sunday of Advent

PRAYER: Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 6: St. Nicholas' Day
PRAYER: We humbly implore your mercy, Lord: protect us in all dangers through the prayers of the Bishop Saint Nicholas, that the way of salvation may lie open before us. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 8: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

PRAYER: O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son, grant, we pray, that, as you preserved her from every stain by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw, so, through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 9: St. Juan Diego

PRAYER: O God, who by means of Saint Juan Diego showed the love of the most holy Virgin Mary for your people, grant, through his intercession, that, by following the counsels our Mother gave at Guadalupe, we may be ever constant in fulfilling your will. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 11: 3rd Sunday of Advent - Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday

PRAYER: O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord's Nativity, enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 12: Our Lady of Guadalupe

PRAYER: O God, Father of mercies, who placed your people under the singular protection of your Son's most holy Mother, grant that all who invoke the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe, may seek with ever more lively faith the progress of peoples in the ways of justice and of peace. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 17: Beginning of "O" Antiphons

December 17 marks the beginning of the O Antiphons, the seven jewels of our liturgy, dating back to the fourth century, one for each day until Christmas Eve. These antiphons address Christ with seven magnificent Messianic titles, based on the Old Testament prophecies and types of Christ.
"O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge!"

Dec. 18: 4th Sunday of Advent

PRAYER: Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
"O Leader of the House of Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai: come to rescue us with your mighty power!"

Dec. 19:

"O Root of Jesse's stem, sign of God's love for all his people: come to save us without delay!"

Dec. 20:

"O Key of David, opening the gates of God's eternal Kingdom: come and free the prisoners of darkness!"

Dec. 21:

"O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law: come to save us, Lord our God!"

Dec. 22:

"O King of all the nations and keystone of the Church: come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!"

Dec. 23:

"O Emmanuel, God with us, our King and Lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Savior: Come to save us, O Lord our God!"

Dec. 24: Christmas Eve

PRAYER: Come quickly, we pray, Lord Jesus, and do not delay, that those who trust in your compassion may find solace and relief in your coming. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Christmas

The solemnity of our Lord's birth celebrates the mystery of the incarnation by which the Word of God humbled Himself to share our humanity, in order that He might enable us to become sharers in His divinity.

Dec. 25: Christmas Day

PRAYER: O God, who gladden us year by year as we wait in hope for our redemption grant that, just as we joyfully welcome your Only Begotten Son as our Redeemer, we may also merit to face him confidently when he comes again as our Judge. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 26: 2nd Day of Christmas - Feast of St. Stephen, first martyr

PRAYER: Grant, Lord, we pray, that we may imitate what we worship, and so learn to love even our enemies, for we celebrate the heavenly birthday of a man who know how to pray even for his persecutors. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 27: 3rd Day of Christmas - Feast of St. John, apostle & evangelist

PRAYER: O God, who through the blessed Apostle John have unlocked for us the secrets of your Word, grant, we pray, that we may grasp with proper understanding what he has so marvelously brought to our ears. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 28: 4th Day of Christmas - Feast of the Holy Innocents

PRAYER: O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed and proclaimed on this day, not by speaking but by dying, grant, we pray, that the faith in your which we confess with our lips may also speak through our manner of life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 29: 5th Day of Christmas - St. Thomas Becket, bishop & martyr

PRAYER: O God, who gave the Martyr Saint Thomas Becket the courage to give up his life for the sake of justice, grant, through his intercession, that, renouncing our life for the sake of Christ in this world, we may find it in heaven. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 30: 6th Day of Christmas - Feast of the Holy Family

PRAYER: O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity, and so, in the joy of your house, delight one day in eternal rewards. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Dec. 31: 7th Day of Christmas - St. Sylvester I, pope

PRAYER: Come, O Lord, to the help of your people, sustained by the intercession of Pope Saint Sylvester, so that, running the course of this present life under your guidance we may happily attain life without end. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Jan 1: Octave of Christmas - Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

PRAYER: O God, who through the fruitful virginity of Blessed Mary bestowed on the human race the grace of eternal salvation, grant, we pray, that we may experience the intercession of her, through whom we were found worthy to receive the author of life, our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Jan 2: 9th Day of Christmas - Memorials of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, doctors of the Church

PRAYER: O God, who were pleased to give light to your Church by the example and teaching of the Bishops Saints Basil and Gregory, grant, we pray, that in humility we may learn your truth and practice it faithfully in charity. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Jan 3: 10th Day of Christmas - Most Holy Name of Jesus

PRAYER: O God, who founded the salvation of the human race on the Incarnation of your Word, give your peoples the mercy they implore, so that all may know there is no other name to be invoked but the Name of your Only Begotten Son. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Jan 4: 11th Day of Christmas - St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

PRAYER: O God, who crowned with the gift of true faith Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton's burning zeal to find you, grant by her intercession and example that we may always seek you with diligent love and find you in daily service with sincere faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Jan 5: 12th Day of Christmas - St. John Neumann

PRAYER: O God, who called the Bishop Saint John Neumann, renowned for his charity and pastoral service, to shepherd your people in America, grant by his intercession that, as we foster the Christian education of youth and are strengthened by the witness of brotherly love, we may constantly increase the family of your Church. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Jan 6 (traditional), Jan 8 (observed): Epiphany of our Lord

PRAYER: May the splendor of your majesty, O Lord, we pray, shed its light upon our hearts, that we may pass through the shadows of this world and reach the brightness of our eternal home. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Jan 9: Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

PRAYER: Almighty ever-living God, who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, solemnly declared him your beloved Son, grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, may always be well pleasing to you. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The celebration of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord brings an end to the Christmas Season and marks the beginning of Ordinary Time. The Church recognizes in Christ's baptism His second epiphany, or manifestation to the world.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Time to Wait

First Sunday of Advent (A)

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I hate waiting. I think we all do. Some of us have cultivated the virtue of patience more than others, but I would guess even the most patient among us don't actually enjoy waiting. Perhaps it is part of our fallen human nature. Perhaps it is a product of the culture we live in, the culture of "now."

When I buy something online, I'm always tempted by the option to pay more for "rush shipping" to have it by tomorrow. When I shop for groceries, the shelves are lined with promises of instant gratification -- instant coffee, instant oatmeal, instant pudding. Everyone knows these things don't taste as good as the traditional home made variety, but we are willing to trade quality for immediacy. We want our Internet connection to be fast. We want our cars to be fast. We want what we want and we want it now.

We all need reminding -- myself included -- that some things are worth waiting for. A meal prepared the proper way, with time and attention, really does taste a thousand times better. A college degree that takes four (or more) years and lots of hard work to earn is worth more because of time it takes to achieve. Waiting for marriage before giving yourself fully to your beloved is perhaps the most excellent example of something worth waiting for. If something is good, and worthy of love, then it is worth experiencing in its proper place and proper time. Don't spoil it by rushing. Good things are worth waiting for.

This Sunday the Church enters the liturgical season of Advent, or what I like to call the "It's not Christmas yet!" season. Our liturgical New Year does not begin with a babe in a manger -- not yet. The Church asks us to wait.

There is an order to things. Before summer we must have spring, before winter we must have autumn. Before a wedding there must be an engagement. Before Easter there must be a Good Friday. Before Christmas there is Advent. And before Christ comes, we must wait.

From the very earliest days of Christianity, the Church has awaited our Lord's second coming with a sense of immanence. The purpose of waiting is to make ourselves ready. St. Paul tells us in the second reading, "it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand" (Rom 13:11-12).

We wait. And we prepare.

The semester at WCU is almost over. You will all be doing a lot of preparing in the coming days; preparing for exams, preparing to return home, preparing to celebrate the holidays. In the midst of your year-end preparations, do not neglect to prepare your heart for the advent of Christ. 

St. Paul warns us that the time for the "works of darkness" are over. "The night is advanced, the day is at hand," he says. "Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy" (Rom 13:12-13). Enough of that nonsense. We are better than that. We are Christians.

Jesus implores us in the gospel reading, "Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come... So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come" (Mt 24:42-44).

Jesus is coming. Are you prepared? Let His advent reign in your heart. Never forget -- He is worth waiting for.


Friday, November 18, 2016

Remembering the Kingdom

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (C)

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One of the things I’ve always appreciated about the Catholic Church is her universality. The Church knows no borders. She is bigger than our national, ethnic and political divides. It is good to be reminded of this always, especially during times of division in our society.

This is why the Church was able to become such a powerful force in Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was the only institution that transcended the boundaries of every kingdom. And it kept the kings in check. No matter how powerful or ambitious any human ruler became, there was always the Church to remind them that there was something more powerful yet.

It’s common these days for folks to look back on the past and denounce the Church of that era for being too involved in government and the politics of secular society. And that criticism is not without historical foundation.

But when we evict the Church from the secular world, what do we leave in its place? When we no longer accept God as our Master, we don’t become free. We become slaves to other, smaller masters. When we no longer recognize Jesus as Savior, we look for salvation in other, smaller saviors.

One of the things that bothered me the most in the 2008 presidential election was the near-Messianic status that Barack Obama’s supporters endowed him with. He promised Change. He offered Hope. He was going to be the magic pill that united our nation. He was going to make everyone’s lives better. His supporters seemed almost cult-like in their following, and that worried me. I recalled Psalm 146, which warns us to “put no trust in princes.”

Fast forward to 2016. If there was one silver lining to this presidential election, it was that no one (or very few at least) was tempted to make either candidate into a Messiah.

Our campus ministry volunteers every Tuesday afternoon at the Community Table. One of the things I like about going there is that it puts me in contact with people from all sorts of backgrounds -- and I don’t just mean the people that we serve. The other volunteers we work with run the gambit from staunch conservatives to far-left liberals, with plenty of apolicital unaffiliateds. As we served meals to the hungry on Tuesday Nov. 8, all of us shared the same concerns about the election: we were afraid that someone might win.

Someone did win. Now a significant number of our population thinks it was the wrong person. There are protests and demonstrations. There has been violence. Rightly or wrongly, people belonging to certain demographics are afraid. Some of that fear may be warranted; some is no doubt overblown. But it is real fear, nonetheless. We, as Christians, do not have the luxury of belittling the fears of others. We are called to be a healing balm, to offer hope and peace.

I think one cause of our national angst is a tendency we have developed of making our political candidate into a savior and turning the opposing candidate into a demon. When this is how we practice politics, it is no wonder people despair when their party loses. We like to think of our country as paradise. Maybe we think it is paradise already or maybe we want to change it into a paradise. Either way, we don't like trouble in our paradise.

What can we do as a Church to sooth people’s fears and work toward healing in our nation? The only answer is to look beyond our nation, to direct our gaze to something -- to Someone -- who is greater than our fears. We need to remember that God is bigger than the Republican Party, God is bigger than the Democratic Party, God is bigger than America, and indeed the whole world. As St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, "For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col 1:16-17).

We may be members of a political party; we may be citizens of our country. We may be members of an ethnic class. But beyond all of that, we are citizens of a kingdom. And unlike the mighty Roman Empire, which fell, and even our great nation of America, which will also one day fall, Christ's kingdom is everlasting. It will not fade away. Is our place in that kingdom secure? If so, then we have nothing to fear.

America may be many good things, but she is not heaven. And no politician is Jesus Christ. The best thing I think we, as a Church, can offer people in this time of turmoil is a heavenly perspective; a perspective that recognizes, as we do today, that Christ is King. We should work, first and foremost, to be faithful citizens of His kingdom. Only then we will have peace, knowing that we will never be lost.

So let our prayer today and every day be that of the good thief on the cross, who recognizing his own sins and inability to save himself, called out to Christ in faith, hope and love, "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom" (Lk 23:42).

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Catholic Churches, East and West

The iconostatis inside a church in Bulgaria.
We were very fortunate last night after our Wednesday fellowship dinner to be joined by Dr. David Dorondo, professor of history here at WCU, who spoke about the various Eastern Catholic Churches. Dr. Dorondo is himself a member of the Ruthenian Catholic Church.

Most of us are only familiar with the Roman Catholic Church and so tend to think of the Catholic Church as this great monolithic body. Many students were surprised to learn that there are actually quite a few Catholic Churches, all of which are in communion with the Pope in Rome. But there was some confusion about the difference between these Eastern Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches, as well as the difference between a Church and a Rite.

Let's look into those a bit further.

WHAT IS A CHURCH?

A Church is an assembly of the faithful, hierarchically ordered. In other words, it's not just a free assembly, but one under the authority of some governing order. This can be world wide, in the sense of the Church; or it can be localized in a particular geographical territory, which we would call a particular Church. In that sense, every Catholic diocese headed by a bishop is a particular Church, even though all belong to the one Catholic Church.

Beyond this, however, there are also autonomous particular Churches, what are called Churches sui iuris (literally "of its own law"). These are aggregates of local churches (dioceses or eparchies) which share common liturgical, theological and canonical traditions. These are headed by a bishop who has been given the title of a patriarch or a major archbishop.

In the West we have the one Roman Catholic Church which is governed by the Code of Canon Law, but in the East there are 23 different Churches sui iuris, which are governed by the Code of the Canons of the Eastern Churches (the most recent being the Eritrean Catholic Church, created by Pope Francis on January 19, 2015). As they follow different law, they will have different disciplines and traditions. But all of the various Eastern Churches sui iuris are in communion with the Bishop of Rome and with one another. Thus they all belong to the one universal Catholic Church. 

WHAT IS A RITE?

A Rite can refer to a particular liturgical celebration (as in the Rite of Marriage or the Rite of Baptism) or, in a broader context, an entire tradition of how the sacraments are celebrated. While the essential elements of the sacraments do not change (the Eucharist is always celebrated with wheat bread and grape wine, baptism is always conferred via water, and so forth), the particular rituals, trappings, and symbols may differ so as to convey spiritual meaning to those of different cultures. 

How is a Rite related to a Church? 

A priest of the Byzantine Rite celebrating Divine Liturgy.
A Rite is a way of doing things. A Church is an assembly of people. Sometimes a Rite will only be practiced by one particular Church. For example, the Armenian Rite is only practiced by the Armenian Catholic Church. In other cases, multiple Churches will follow the same Rite (perhaps with minor variations). For example, there are 14 different Churches that follow the Byzantine Rite, the most common of the Eastern Catholic Rites.

Sometimes a person might say, "I am a Latin Rite Catholic," or "I am a Byzantine Rite Catholic." Technically speaking, this is inaccurate. A person belongs to a Church not a Rite. It would be more correct to say, "I am a Ruthenian Catholic" or "I am a Roman Catholic."

Sometimes there can be smaller Rites or variations of Rites which exist within a Church sui iuris. For example, within the Roman Church we have both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Latin Rite (what are commonly called the Novus Ordo and the Tridentine Masses). But there is also the Anglican Use Rite which is permitted to certain former Anglican communities now in union with Rome. There is the Ambrosian Rite which is only practiced in the Archdiocese of Milan. And certain religious orders have their own Rites, including the Dominicans and Carthusians. All of these Rites are practiced by members of the Roman or Latin Catholic Church.

Broadly speaking, the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches will follow one of the following Rites or a variation thereof: Alexandrian, Antiochian, Armenian, Chaldean, and Byzantine.

WHAT ARE SOME DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE EAST AND WEST?

With so many different Eastern Rites we can only speak in generalities. But comparing the liturgy of the Latin Rite with that of the Byzantine Rite, which is followed by most Eastern Catholics, here are some differences you are likely to notice:
  • The Byzantine liturgy is entirely sung.
  • The Byzantine liturgy uses lots of incense and bells.
  • The style of vestments is different.
  • They stand for most of the liturgy.
  • Deacons in the Byzantine liturgy are a lot more active! (They are also addressed as "Father Deacon").
  • Leavened bread is used for the Eucharist, as opposed to the unleavened bread used in the West.
  • Both species of the Eucharist (bread and wine) are mixed in the chalice and distributed to the faithful by a spoon.
  • Infants in the East are confirmed and receive Eucharist at the same time that they are baptized.
  • Eastern Churches favor icons over statues.
  • The sanctuary in Byzantine churches is enclosed by a special wall called an iconostasis.
  • The Mass is called the "Divine Liturgy."
  • In the Byzantine liturgy, prayers are repeated often, usually in multiples of three.
  • At the end of the Divine Liturgy, bread that was not used for the Eucharist is distributed to the people to consume.
There are other differences in terms of law and custom beyond what happens in the liturgy. For example, Eastern Christians use a prayer rope that looks similar to the western Rosary, but is used for saying different prayers (the most common one being, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"). They also make the sign of the cross from right to left, as opposed to left to right the way Roman Catholics do it.

Eastern Churches also have a different discipline regarding celibacy among the clergy. Whereas in the Latin Church married men may be ordained deacons, while priests and bishops must be celibate, Eastern Churches allow married men to be ordained deacons and priests. Eastern bishops, however, are selected from among celibate priests, usually in monastic communities. In every Church, once ordained a man cannot subsequently be married.


WHAT ABOUT THE ORTHODOX?

The Eastern Catholic Churches are not the same as the Orthodox Churches, although they follow similar liturgical, canonical and spiritual traditions. Most will say the split between the Orthodox and Catholics occurred in 1054, in what has been called the Great Schism. In reality, tensions between the East and West had occurred before then. And in the centuries since the Great Schism, communion between the East and West has been reestablished and broken again on several occasions.

Pope Francis meeting with Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of
Antioch, Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
The causes for the schism are many, and have more to do with politics and differences of culture than any real theological differences (though some may disagree with that assessment). Long story short: The Patriarch of the West (aka the Pope) and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other in 1054 and things haven't been the same since. As Constantinople was the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, most other Churches in the East followed them into schism. These became the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Some Eastern Churches, such as the Maronite Church in Lebanon, never separated from Rome. Other Churches were in schism but at some point in history reestablished communion with Rome. For example, the Chaldean Catholic Church reunited with Rome in 1552; the Ruthenian Church in 1646 and the Greek Catholic Church in 1829. This is the major difference between Eastern Catholic Churches and Eastern Orthodox Churches: Eastern Catholic Churches are in union with the Pope in Rome; Eastern Orthodox Churches are not.

Because the Eastern Catholic Churches are in union with Rome, they are also in union with one another. This is not true of all Eastern Orthodox Churches. Eastern Orthodox Churches are considered autocephalous, meaning "appointing its own head." They do not consider themselves subject to the authority of any external patriarch or archbishop. Thus some Eastern Orthodox Churches maintain communion with other Eastern Orthodox while others do not.

Can a Roman Catholic receive communion in an Eastern Church and vice versa?

If we are talking about an Eastern Catholic Church, the answer is yes. Because the Eastern Catholic Churches are all in communion with Rome and with one another, a Roman Catholic may receive the sacraments in any Eastern Catholic Church, and members of the Eastern Catholic Churches may receive the sacraments from any Latin Rite Catholic priest.

The same is not true of the Eastern Orthodox. From the Roman Catholic perspective, if a member of an Eastern Orthodox Church approaches a Roman Catholic priest for the sacraments, they will be given. The Catholic Church also allows for a Roman Catholic to seek the sacraments in an Orthodox Church in cases of emergency when no Catholic priest is available.

But most, if not all, of the Eastern Orthodox Churches do reciprocate. They do not allow Catholics to receive communion and would not allow their members to receive the sacraments from a Catholic priest.

Reunion between the Catholic Church and the various Eastern Orthodox Churches has very much been a concern of recent Popes, especially Pope St. John Paul II, who issued an encyclical about the Church's commitment to Christian unity in 1995 called Ut Unum Sint (That they may be one).

WHERE CAN I ATTEND AN EASTERN LITURGY

Roman clergy from the Diocese of Charlotte celebrate with
Greek Ukrainian clergy during their annual retreat in Sylva.
Once a year for the past few years clergy from the Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church have made a retreat in our small mountain town in the month of August, so you can sometimes find a Byzantine Divine Liturgy celebrated at St. Mary's Catholic Church around that time of year. Interest is currently being solicited in the possibility of a monthly typica service (Liturgy of the Word) offered by a Ukrainin Catholic deacon who would drive from Charlotte for the occasion.

Our students from the Charlotte area can attend the Byzantine Divine Liturgy (Mass) at St. Basil the Great Greek Ukrainian Catholic Mission (on the grounds of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church). There is also a Maronite Mission in Charlotte that meets at St. Matthew's Catholic Church.



Friday, November 11, 2016

Apocalypse Now?

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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Recently a student at one of our campus ministry gatherings asked what Catholics believe about "the Rapture." That term is often used to refer to the time when all the faithful will be caught up to be with Christ at His second coming, as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. Though Catholics don't often use the term "rapture" to describe the event, we certainly believe it will happen.

What we are talking about is the end times, which all Christians agree will involve the second coming of Christ. But among evangelical Protestants there is much discussion and disagreement over the timing of these events. For those who are interested in learning more, this article from Catholic Answers summarizes the major schools of thought. What most today understand by the term "rapture" involves a timeline first put forth in the 19th century by an Anglican priest named John Nelson Darby, who was an early proponent of what would later be called dispensationalism. His theology of the end times was included in the Scofield Reference Bible, which was popular among many Protestants in England and America, and so has crept into the thinking of Protestants of all denominations.

All Christians agree that the second coming of Christ will be preceded by a time of great trouble and persecution, often called the "tribulation." What Darby taught was that the rapture would occur before this time of trouble, sparing true believers the pain of persecution. This view has never been accepted by the Catholic Church. Part of the problem with Dabry's theology is that it would mean Christ would have three comings, not two: one at the Incarnation, a second at the rapture, and a third at the end of the tribulation. The Church has always understood that there would be a second and final coming of Christ at the end of time, period.

But when will that happen? All these different theories stem from a desire to know the answer to that question. This is nothing new. In our gospel reading this Sunday, Jesus is asked, "Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all this is about to happen" (Lk 21:7)? Jesus affirms in His answer that we should expect tribulation in the last days. But He gives no information about the timing. Rather, Jesus warns, "See that you not be deceived. Many will come in my name, saying... 'The time has come!' Do not follow them" (Lk 21:8)!

Elsewhere in the gospels, when Jesus is asked about the end of the world, He bluntly states that "about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mt 24:36). The Catholic position has always been to follow these admonitions of Jesus and to avoid getting caught up in specific predictions.

In a way, our curiosity about the end times is understandable. Events that are out of our control (and the end of the world certainly qualifies!) cause frustration, anxiety and even fear. Knowledge gives us the illusion of control. But knowing the day and hour would not give us the power to change those events. If anything, it would make us less inclined to prepare ourselves to meet Christ.

The owner of a factory who knows the day OSHA inspectors will arrive won't feel the need to get his factory in order until the day before. But if he thinks the inspectors may arrive at any time, he'll strive to be always ready. This is how we should be when it comes to our readiness for the coming of Christ. None of us know when our personal "end time" will be. But it will happen to all of us. As the psalmist says, "Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong" (Ps 90:10). Our time on this earth is limited.

Christ's message whenever He is asked about the end is always be ready now! We don't have to wait until the end of time to experience tribulation. The wars and plaques and famines Jesus warns of are all happening in the world all the time. We do not have to wait "to be hated by all" because of Jesus' name (Lk 21:17). There will always be forces in the world contrary to the gospel.

Jesus implores us to persevere. "Not a hair on your head will be destroyed" (Lk 21:18). We must remain faithful to Him and He gives us the strength to do this. This is true for Christians of all ages, not only the final age.

In a sense, all ages since that first advent two millennia ago are the final age. As we approach the ending of the liturgical year, the Church reminds us of this reality. We live in hope of Christ's second coming, when He will usher us into the fullness of the glory of His resurrection. Are you prepared for that day?

Friday, November 4, 2016

God of the Living

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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In this Sunday's gospel (Lk 20:27-38), the Sadducees try to catch Jesus in a trick question. They present a hypothetical situation of a woman who married and was subsequently widowed by each of seven brothers. Whose wife will she be after the resurrection?

It's a trick question. We know it's a trick question, because the Sadducees don't believe in the resurrection at all. They are trying to trip up Jesus, who preached the resurrection of the dead.

The resurrection of the dead is one of the central tenants of the Christian faith. Jesus rose from the dead as the first fruits of the new creation, and we believe that all the faithful departed will one day share in the glory of His resurrection. It is so central to our faith that it is easy for us to forget that it was not shared by all the Jews of Jesus' day.

The Jewish people in the first century did not practice one united faith. There were several different sects of Judaism, with somewhat different beliefs. One of the distinctive beliefs of the Sadducees is that they didn't believe in a life after death. This seems odd to us because the whole idea of an afterlife, with judgment and retribution, reward and punishment, heaven and hell, is so central to the Judeo-Christian mindset. Why would the Sadducees deny this?

It had to do with what scriptures they recognized as canonical. Just as there was no unified Jewish religion, there was also no universally recognized canon of Hebrew scriptures. The different sects recognized different books, and the Sadducees recognized the fewest of all. They only followed the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (also called the Pentateuch). And nowhere in the Torah does it explicitly mention life after death.

The most explicit reference to the resurrection in the Hebrew scriptures is found in 2 Maccabees. In the episode recounted in the first reading this Sunday, the seven brothers attest to their faith in the resurrection in plain language. "The King of the world will raise us up to live again forever" (2 Mc 7:9), and, "It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him" (2 Mc 7:14).

2 Maccabees is the same book where we find it said that "it is a good and wholesome thought" to pray for the dead (2 Mc 12:46). The practice of praying for the dead is strong evidence of a belief in purgatory. The souls in hell cannot be helped by our prayers, for hell is a place without hope. The souls in heaven don't need our prayers as they are already united with God. Praying for the dead implies some state after death where our prayers may be of some benefit to these souls. That is purgatory; a state after death where the souls of the faithful are made pure before they enter into heaven. 

Jesus could easily have quoted 2 Maccabees or other places in the Hebrew scriptures as evidence of the resurrection, but it would have done no good. The Sadducees don't recognize those books, and so would have rejected His claims. Instead, Jesus meets the Sadducees at their level.

The Sadducees only believe in the Torah, and so Jesus speaks to them from the Torah. He cites Exodus, where God identifies Himself to Moses as "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob" (Ex 3:15). Even though Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived generations before Moses, Jesus points out that God "is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to Him all are alive" (Lk 20:38).

The last two verses of this chapter in Luke recount the scribes reaction to Jesus' teaching. They said, "'Teacher, you have answered well,' and they no longer dared to ask Him anything" (Lk 20:39-40). 

The scribes couldn't argue with Jesus on this point, and neither should we. God is not God of the dead, but of the living. Elsewhere in the Old Testament we are told that the dead do not praise God nor give Him thanks, but only the living (Is 38:18-19). The very purpose of our being, as taught in the Catechism, is to live with God forever, giving thanks and praise to Him for all eternity.

A wise saint said once that the souls in hell glorify God in His justice, while the souls in heaven glorify God in His mercy. Either way you will give glory to God for all eternity. It's just a matter of which bit of real estate you want to inhabit.

Jesus offers us not only a share in His resurrection, but a share in His Kingdom. Let us pray that we may be found worthy on that day to reign with Him forever; and let us remember especially to pray for the souls of the faithful departed, that they may also be welcomed into that Kingdom prepared for them from all eternity.  

Friday, October 28, 2016

Seeking Jesus

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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This Sunday's gospel (Lk 19:1-10) tells the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who seeks Jesus.  Tax collectors, as I mentioned last week, are portrayed in the gospels as examples of sinful people. They were Jews who worked for the Roman government, so were viewed as colluding with the enemy. They collected money for the Roman empire, but rather than receive a salary, their income came from whatever extra coinage they were able to extrude from their fellow Israelites. So they were also viewed as swindlers and thieves.  Zacchaeus, as the gospel points out, is no ordinary tax collector. He is the chief tax collector and "a wealthy man," presumably because he was particularly adept at squeezing money out of those he collected from.

No wonder "people began to grumble" when Jesus went to dine at his house. He was a notorious sinner. The gospels are full of examples of Jesus, who came to reconcile sinners to God, associating with people that the "righteous" Jewish religious class would never go near. Of course Jesus doesn't do so to condone the sinful actions of anyone. Rather He does so in order to liberate them from their sins.  

Zacchaeus is transformed during his encounter with Jesus. He vows to give half of his wealth to the poor. He promises to repay anyone he has extorted four times over. He seeks to make amends for his sinful ways.  

The most important thing to note about Zacchaeus is not his sinful past, nor even his repentance (though that is important). The most important thing about Zacchaeus is that he sought Jesus. For whatever reason, he is drawn Christ.  Here is one who can redeem him from his sins. He sees in Christ a way out of darkness and into the light. And so he seeks Jesus.

Zacchaeus' willingness to repent of his sins leads Jesus to say, "Today salvation has come to this house." But before Zacchaeus could come to that point, he had to do something else that is so simple we might overlook it. The gospel tells us that Zacchaeus was "short in stature" (Lk 19:3). He physically could not see Jesus over the heads of the crowd.  But Zacchaeus did not let this physical obstacle overcome him. He climbed a tree, so that he could see Jesus better. This is what catches Jesus' attention, this faith that would lead a sinful tax collector to the top of a sycamore tree.

Do you, like Zacchaeus, have things in your life that are keeping you from seeing Christ?  When we think about things that are keeping us from Jesus, chances are we think a lot about our own personal sin -- as well we should. Sinful habits can indeed serve as impediments to a good relationship with Christ. We need to repent of these things. 

But notice when Zacchaeus repents of his sinful ways, he has already encountered Christ. In fact, it is that encounter with Christ which leads to his repentance. If we think we need to eliminate all sin from our lives before Christ can come to us, then we have it backwards. Jesus wants to come to us precisely to help us repent from our sins.

But are there practical obstacles that are keeping us from seeing Jesus? Are there basic things we need to do to overcome those obstacles? Zacchaeus was seeking to see Jesus and did some very practical things toward that end. First, he went to where Jesus was. Then, finding he was too short to see over the crowd, he did something about it. He climbed a tree. 

What are you doing to find Jesus? Are you going to where He is? Are you attending Mass? Are you reading the scriptures, especially the gospels? Are you praying? Are you participating in the Christian community? Are you seeking Christ in the faces of the poor? Are you visiting the sick? Are you feeding the hungry?

Perhaps, like Zacchaeus, there are some practical things in your life that are keeping you from seeing Jesus. Do you have to work on Sunday during the time we have Mass on campus? Do you not read the scripture because you don't own a Bible? Do you not feed the hungry because you have class on the afternoon we volunteer at Community Table? Do you not pray because you are "too busy?" These are all real, practical obstacles. The question is, what are you going to do about them? Zacchaeus didn't give up and go home because he was too short. He climbed a tree.

As you think about how you might overcome any obstacle in your life keeping you from seeing Jesus (material or spiritual), consider this: Zacchaeus is not the only one doing the seeking in this gospel. The final verse in our reading is, "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost" (Lk 19:10). In our relationship with God, it is first and foremost He who seeks for us. He sees us before we see Him. We seek to know Christ; He already knows us perfectly.

Let this be a great comfort to any who are seeking Jesus. The one you seek is seeking you, as well. He is not far away. He is very close, waiting and wanting to be found.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

7 Things to Consider When Voting Your Conscience as a Catholic

Early voting has begun here on campus, and many students will exercise their right to vote between now and official election day on Nov. 8. Here are seven things I hope my students, both Catholic and non-Catholic, will remember when they cast their ballots.

1. The Church does not endorse any political party.

This is very important. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. The Church does not endorse any political party or candidate. There is no one "Catholic party" that one can safely vote for without doing a bit of research first to see where the candidates stand on important issues.

2. Take your faith into the voting booth.

If your faith is something you only practice on Sundays, it is not true faith at all. Your faith should come to bear on every aspect of your life, in your family, among your friends, in your classes, in your workplace, and -- yes -- in the voting booth.

But isn't it wrong to try to legislate our religious beliefs upon others? Yes, if we are talking about matters of theology or religious practice. It would be wrong, for example, to make a law requiring everyone to be baptized (even if we truly desire everyone to be baptized). You cannot legislate belief. But you can and should legislate morality. We do it all the time. We have laws against things like theft and murder because these things are immoral. 

We tend to get uncomfortable when religion and politics seem too closely entwined, and not without reason. However, there is room for legitimate overlap. Morality is precisely that area where religion and politics overlap. Morality is all about the rightness and wrongness of human behavior. The only reason to have a law against something is because it is wrong.  This does not mean every venial sin needs to be made illegal!  However, some sinful things are so detrimental to society that, for the common good, they need to be prohibited. Where that line is drawn may vary in different times and places. This is where the prudential judgment of our lawmakers (and those who elect them) comes into play. (Read more on this subject here).

3. All moral issues are NOT equal.

A fundamental principle of morality is that we should do good and avoid evil. But we often disagree on how to do that. There are many issues of public policy where faithful people in good conscience can disagree about the best way to proceed. What sort of immigration policy is best for our country? What is the best way to address poverty in our society? What role should the federal government have in public education? In health care? These are matters of prudential judgement that good, faithful Catholics can disagree on and remain good, faithful Catholics.

On the other hand, certain actions are objectively evil -- meaning that they are always and everywhere wrong -- and therefore can never legitimately be promoted by law. Examples would include abortion and euthanasia (which involve ending an innocent human life), and same-sex marriage. It is immoral to perform these actions, and it is immoral to support others in doing so.  "A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law that contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals" (Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Notes on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life 4).  

Catholics and all Christians of good faith must avoid voting for any candidate who intends to support programs or laws that are intrinsically evil.  

4. What if there is no "good" candidate?

What happens when each candidate promotes morally objectionable policies? Compare the policies and their moral weight. Are these matters of prudential judgment, or are these matters of intrinsic evil?  Candidates who support objective moral evils cannot be supported unless their opponent(s) support more or greater objective moral evils.  When there is no "good choice" you should vote in a way you believe will limit the harm likely to be done.

5. Is it a sin to vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil?

This question is usually asked about candidates who support abortion, but it applies to support for any intrinsically evil act.  Pope Benedict XVI (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) addressed this question in 2004.
A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons (Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion).

Note the distinction between formal cooperation and material cooperation.  Formal cooperation would mean, "This candidate supports abortion; I also support abortion, therefore I am voting for this candidate." In this case you are morally culpable for your actions in support of an objective evil. Material cooperation means, "I am voting for this candidate despite their policy on abortion because even though I disagree with them on this issue in my judgment the other candidate would cause even greater harm." In this case you are still cooperating in a way with the evil their policy supports, but without the same moral culpability.

Cardinal Ratzinger says that this material cooperation with evil can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.  What constitutes a proportionate reason is left to our prudential judgment. Given the grave evil of abortion (the taking of an innocent human life), the only proportionate reason to vote for a candidate who supports this would be if the opposing candidate had policies even more detrimental to life (i.e. a candidate who supports abortion in the first trimester only vs. a candidate who supports abortion at all stages of pregnancy).

6. Consider all your options.

The Catechism points out that citizens have a moral obligation to participate in the political life of their country (CCC 2239) and exercise their voting privileges (CCC 2240). However, exercising your right to vote also involves the obligation to inform yourself and to vote according to your conscience. 


In this particular election cycle, some plan to vote for a third party candidate, even though they are not likely to win, due to serious moral concerns about both of the two major candidates. Some people plan to stay home on election day because they cannot, in good conscience, support any candidate on the ballot. Some plan on voting for the candidate that they consider "the lesser of two evils."

Does a Catholic have to vote when their conscience will not allow them to support any candidate on the ballot? No.

Must a Catholic only vote for those candidates most likely to win an election, when their conscience tells them to support a third party candidate whose views are less morally objectionable?  Again, no.

You are morally responsible for voting your conscience; that may mean voting third party, voting for the "lesser evil," or not voting at all. You are responsible for the vote you cast. Cast your vote in the way that your conscience tells you will do the most good for our society, and to the greatest extent possible does not support any grave moral evils. You should do all you can to form your conscience responsibly, but only you can determine what that means for you in the voting booth. 

7. Remember: You are a citizen of a Kingdom.

People say this is the most important election of our times. They also said that last time. And the time before. The important thing -- the one thing that I hope all my students remember -- is that we are not to put our trust in princes. 
Put no trust in princes, in mere mortals powerless to save. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth; that day all their planning comes to nothing. Happy those… whose hope is in the Lord, their God, the maker of heaven and earth… (Ps 146:3–6a).
We live in this world and so have an obligation to participate in the political life of our country. But we cannot pin our hope on any politician or political party. First and foremost, we are citizens of Christ's Kingdom. The faithful Christian knows, at the end of the day no matter who sits in the Oval Office, that Christ is King.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Prerequisite to Prayer

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

click here for readings


Jesus continues to teach us about prayer in this week's readings.  This week, we are taught that humility is an essential element in prayer.  From Sirach we are told that "the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds" (Sir 35:21), and in our psalm we proclaim that "The Lord hears the cry of the poor" (Ps 34).  

The gospel (Lk 18:-14) offers a parable about two people who go to the temple area to pray. One, a proud and haughty Pharisee, offers God thanksgiving that he "is not like the rest of humanity." The Pharisees, we must remember, were a very observant sect of Judaism, following strictly the laws of Moses. Indeed, the Pharisee in the parable followed them so well he felt he had nothing to ask forgiveness for.

By contrast, we have the tax collector. Tax collectors are frequently seen in the gospels as examples of sinful people, a despised class. A tax collector earned his living by collecting taxes from the Jewish people for the Roman government; his pay was whatever additional money he could squeeze out of the people he collected from. The tax collector was seen as a criminal, a thief, and a traitor to his people. And in this parable, he also provides for us the model of our prayer. Unlike the Pharisee, who tells God how good he already is, the tax collector stands far off, eyes downcast, beating his breast and praying, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

This simple prayer of the tax collector has come down to us today as The Jesus Prayer.  Its most common form is, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  The only change made to the prayer from the gospel reading is to add the name of Christ, the one to whom we pray for mercy.

This prayer has been called the perfect prayer, and it is easy to see why.  It is short, and therefore easy to memorize, and repeat often.  It is an effective "arrow prayer" (a quick, short sentence one can pray in a time of need), as well as a wonderful tool for contemplation.  Despite its brevity, it contains within its few words all the essential elements of prayer.

It begins by addressing the object of our prayer, Jesus Christ, and identifying Him rightly as the Son of God. Just as importantly it identifies the subject of our prayer, that is ourselves, correctly as sinners. Finally, it asks for the one thing that a poor sinner truly needs from God - mercy.  It is all there.

What makes the prayer of the tax collector so much more effective than the prayer of the Pharisee? The tax collector, lowly as he was, had one thing that the Pharisee lacked, which ended up being the most important thing of all - humility. In fact, our Church teaches that if we don't have the virtue of humility, we cannot truly pray at all.  

Just look up "humility" in the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Humility is always mentioned in conjunction to prayer. The Catechism calls humility "the foundation of prayer" (CCC 2559).  Humility brings us back into communion with God and one another, enabling us to ask for forgiveness, which is a "prerequisite for both the Eucharistic liturgy and personal prayer" (CCC 2631). Finally, when talking about contemplative prayer, that prayer which God conforms man to His likeness, the Catechism says it can "only be accepted in humility" (CCC 2713).

Why would this be? Humility is the virtue by which we understand ourselves as we truly are before God. Before God, all souls are lowly.  When we compare ourselves to other human beings, we are always tempted to be like the Pharisee in the parable. We are tempted to think, I'm so much better than everyone else, or At least I'm not as bad as that person. But when we see ourselves in light of God, we realize how silly this way of thinking is. What does it matter if I am better or worse than anyone else? It's not my job to judge other people. It's not even my job to judge myself! Only God will judge us, and in light of His perfect goodness, who could withstand His judgment? No one stands before God Almighty and thinks, I'm pretty good compared to Him!  We are all lowly before God. Humility allows us to recognize that.

Humility allows us to look critically into our hearts and identify our failings. Humility allows us to then lift our sins up to God and ask Him to remove their burden from us. Humility allows us to ask for forgiveness, for without humility we would not know we need forgiving.

As I stated last week, the purpose of prayer is not to change the way God thinks about us, but to change us to become more like God. And this transformation, this divinization, requires humility. If we are to be formed more perfectly into His image, we must be soft and malleable, like clay or the soft wax of a seal, ready to bear God's impression.  

St. John Chrysostum had this to say about the Jesus Prayer.
A soul that forces itself to pray the Prayer of Jesus can find anything by this prayer, both good and evil. First it can see evil in the recesses of its own heart, and afterwards good. This prayer can stir the snake to action, and this prayer can lay it low. This prayer can expose the sin that is living in us, and this prayer can eradicate it. This prayer can stir up in the heart all the power of the enemy, and this prayer can conquer it and gradually root it out. The name of the Lord Jesus Christ, as it descends into the depths of the heart, will subdue the snake which controls its ranges, and will save and quicken the soul. Continue constantly in the name of the Lord Jesus that the heart may swallow the Lord and the Lord the heart, and that these two may be one. However, this is not accomplished in a single day, nor in two days, but requires many years and much time. Much time and labor are needed in order to expel the enemy and instate Christ (Letter to Monks, PG 60).
So I encourage you to make the tax collector's prayer your own. Commit the Jesus Prayer to heart. Repeat it often throughout the day. Eastern Christians make a litany of this prayer, the way we do of the Hail Mary prayer in the West, repeating it on every knot or bead of their prayer ropes.  You can repeat this prayer several times in your mind and on your lips as an addition to your morning or evening prayer routine. Or you can use the prayer at various times throughout the day, in times of need or simply while engaging in semi-automatic tasks such as walking to class, driving, washing dishes, or folding laundry. Make this prayer part of the rhythm of your mind. Plant this prayer in your heart and it will bear great fruit in your soul.