Wednesday, February 13, 2013


L'Chaim! To Life!

Today's readings resound with calls to Life. I think it's interesting to see how the various Biblical Authors address the topic of life in these readings.

In Deuteronomy, Moses speaks of a "long life for you to live on the land that the LORD swore
he would give to your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (Dt 30:20).  He also promises, "and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy" (Dt  30:16).

For Moses, and in the Old Testament in general, the concept of "Life" often refer to "life on the land" - life lived here in the earthly kingdom - lived richly and well in the praise of God. Think here of "a land flowing with milk and honey"(Ex 33:3)! Promises also extend to the earthy future to the decedents of Israel living in the promised land.

David, too, picks up this theme in Psalm 1:
He is like a tree planted near running water, That yields its fruit in due season,and whose leaves never fade.Whatever he does, prospers.
These are beautiful promises, and they inspire us as they did hundreds of generations of Israel. But to our Christian ears, they probably sound a bit funny, right? Christ's promises do not sound this way.

In today's Gospel reading from St Luke, Jesus describes for us a very Christian view of Life. 

Jesus said to his disciples:“The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected
by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.” 
Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?”
To live the life of a Christian is to accept the challenge of the Cross ... To live the life Our Saviour lived and to die to self to live for others. What a great reminder for the beginning of Lent.

This is a GREAT promise! Christ lays out for us the way of Life - enternal Life. His call to deny self AND follow him thru this Lent is exactly the right message for these forty days. Think of this Gospel when you make Lenten sacrifices of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. The denials of Lent are meant to help us follow Christ - to "lose our life to save it." Lent isn't a personal challenge, a diet plan, a time to "see how much we can do." Lent is time to follow the Gospel, to follow Jesus.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The mystery about Mysteries

We often hear about the "Mysteries" of the Faith. What exactly does that mean?

Here in America we love mysteries. Television shows such as "Columbo" and "Monk" are very popular; novels by Jonathan Kellermen, and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sell very well.

In these kind of mystery stories, the smartest among us interpret clues and produce "theories of the crime" that win the day.

Divine Mysteries are not like that. The nature of a Divine Mystery is that, in the end, a "solution" is not completely knowable. Divine Mysteries:

                                     i.     Cannot be deduced by man
                                    ii.     Must be revealed by God
                                   iii.     Can never be fully comprehended by finite human mind

In the end, Divine Mysteries are the work of an infinite mind, with infinite capacity. It only stands to reason that people with finite minds cannot fully comprehend infinite plans. They simply dont fit.

There are three great mysteries of the Christian faith:

                                     i.     The Holy Trinity
                                    ii.     The Incarnation
                                   iii.     The Paschal Mystery

Monday, December 26, 2011

So, what happened next? An after-christmas story

Yes, an after-Christmas story, not involving returns, exchanges, sales, or store credit!

In A Gospel of Christmas according to St Luke I talked about the period from the Annunciation to Mary through the birth of Our Lord in the stable of Bethlehem, and the arrival of the boisterous shepherds. As my friend Fran Rossi Szpylczyn reminded us in her Christmas blog post Dependent Small and Powerless , Jesus, tho certainly still God, was completely dependent on His earthly caregivers for protection and care.

And the first item of that care was an important one. As the Gospel of Luke reminds us,
at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
One line. But how much is behind that! In one act, Jesus, who is the Law Giver, is placed under the Law. He who presented the Law to Moses on Sinai is now subject to it! And, in becoming subject to it is shed the first of His blood for a sinful world. He receives the Holy Name given to Him by Gabriel, "Jesus" - which in Hebrew means "God Saves". It is a name, and it is also Him. It is a sign, that effects what it signifies. In modern times we celebrate the Feast of Mary the Mother of God on that eight day, which is New Years Day. But in the past, that feast was also rightly called the Feast of the Circumcision, and the Feast of the Holy Name.

Now we must talk of Herod. Herod the Great was the Roman-installed (and maintained) King of Judea. He was not a Hebrew, but rather an Edomite, one of the descendants of Esau, brother of Jacob - a traditional enemy of the Jewish people. As such, he was proud of the title "King of the Jews" - given to him by the Roman Senate. And very jealous of that title. He is called "the Great" primarily for the extensive building campaign he completed during his reign - no one who knew him or had to live with or near him would ever call him "great" because of his actions. He was insanely jealous of his title and position, and killed all who got near that power - including his wife and his own sons. 

And Herod was beginning to be concerned. First, there was a wild tale of an old temple priest, performing his duties in the Holy of Holies, who had reportedly conversed with an angel of God and was struck deaf and dumb. Then this same old man had reportedly fathered a child, and recovered his speech, setting the hill country of Judea ablaze with rumors. He had attempted to capture the man and his son, but the son had been taken directly into the desert after his birth, and had eluded his spies.

Then the news from Bethlehem - a new, bright star over the town, and more angels! There had been no angels, no prophets, no divine communication in Judea for nearly five hundred years! And worse yet was the message - a King and Savior! This was a direct threat to his power.

Next, news from the Temple itself - his Temple, into which he had poured the wealth of his kingdom. Spies there had reported that two old prophets had declared that a child - was to be "The downfall and rise of many in Jerusalem"!

And lastly, the appearance of visitors from the East in his court - specifically looking for "the new born King of the Jews" - his very title! And even these visitors had given him the slip - not returning with the information he desperately needed to stamp out this threat.

Ever a man of direct and violent action, Herod orders the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, in one last-ditch effort to remove the threat. All children under the age of two are put to the sword in Bethlehem. But as we know, Herod is unsuccessful. Once more an angel comes to Joseph in a dream, and the Boy and His Mother are taken away from danger, into Egypt.

There is an interesting post-script to the story. Shortly after this, Herod dies - a particularly horrible death. He is buried in a large, opulent tomb. In 2007, Israeli archeologists discovered this tomb, right where the first century historian Josephus said it was. And from this tomb, across the valley about five miles away, is clearly visible the Church of the Nativity, which covers the Cave of Bethlehem.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

It was a high, round hill where they slept. It had stood there for almost a million years - ever since that part of the world had been formed. Its crown of grass was cropped short by the repeated grazings of their flocks.

They lay in a rough circle around the remains of their dying campfire - crude, home-made bows and slingshots lay by their sides, with a few strategically placed cairns of fist-sized rocks. Nothing discouraged the wild-dogs preying on the flock like a well-hurled rock to the ribs. Each of them had a  place to hide away these weapons when the Roman soldiers came up their hill, looking to steal from them a mutton dinner, still on the hoof.

Far below, on the Jerusalem road, lay Bethlehem, the Town of Bread. Usually a quiet, sleepy place, tonight it had been loud and raucous, stuffed to overflowing by travelers. All through their lower grazing lands in by the town, fires twinkled from hastily assembled campsites.

This was a cold, clear night - the coldest of the winter season so far. A new, incredibly bright star hung in the sky over the town. It shone with a blueish light bright enough to cast a slight shadow when they moved away from their campfire on their rounds around the flock. Surely this was a nine-days wonder, appearing over the town just this evening - a new star, something that had not happened in the memory of even the oldest of them.

They were rough and ready men, living and working in the field all year long, sleeping in the grass and washing in the (too infrequent) rain. But, they were employed, when so many were forced to beg for their bread. And every one of them was instantly ready to tell the story of that *other* shepherd from their town - the one who had gone on to be the greatest warrior and king the world had ever known.

The youngest of them drew the middle watch that night. He sat huddled in his cloak, and wrapped in blankets, looking down over the town and at the strange, bright new star. In the clear air he heard the  faint cry of a baby coming from below.

And, there, in the dark, a man stood next to him.

"Yeahhh", he cried, throwing off his blankets and springing up, a rock already in his strong hand. Behind him he heard the others, instantly awake and alert for some threat to their flocks.

"Be not afraid!", said the stranger.

The shepherd could not see the stranger's face - just the outline of his shape, silhouetted against the light from the new star, but his voice was strangely comforting; nothing like a thief or a soldier's voice.

"Be not afraid!", he repeated. "For I bring you tidings of great joy, for you, and for all on whom God's favor rests. For to you is born in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!"

As the stranger spoke, the sky behind him, all around the star, grew brighter, and brighter. The young one summoned his courage, and asked the stranger, "A Savior? The Christ? The anointed one? But how shall we know him?"

"This shall be the sign for you", the stranger replied. "You will find the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laying in manger."

At this, the sky, unable to hold back the infinite joy of heaven, was split in two over the shepherds. Too afraid to move, or even fall on the ground, they watched the very flood-tide of heaven spill over the sky. Stars, faint and twinkling the moment before, blazed forth with unspeakable brilliance. And in front of, and around, and between each star was a myriad of angels, dancing and singing in joy, clothed in more colors than the world can contain.

The power of their song echoed back and forth across the hills, filling the valleys, and spilling out over the plains and deserts - and the angels sang,

Gloria! Gloria in Excelsis Deo! Glory to God in His Highest Heaven!
and on Earth, Peace! Peace to men of goodwill!

After a while, the overflowing river of light, and sound, and joy began to flow back into its normal, heavenly banks. The sky grew quieter, and darkened once again, although the new star shone brighter than ever. But it seemed to the shepherds that the echo of that song could still be faintly heard, coming back ever more quietly from the hills around the town. And for each of them (although they never mentioned it to each other) it was true that on later nights throughout the whole of their long lives a faint echo of that song could be heard, if only they became quiet enough.

When it was fully dark, they realized that the man (if, indeed, he had been a man) who had spoken with them had departed with the angels, and they were alone. Their fear was gone with the joy of the song they had heard, and seen, and felt. Drawing lots, they selected one of their number to remain with the flocks, and the rest ran down the hill towards the town, following the herd-trails they used to bring the sheep for water, morning and evening.

They pelted through the make-do camps the travelers had set up in the fields around the town, shouting the good news and the message of the angels behind them as they ran. Just as they reached the edge of the town, once again the youngest heard the cry of a baby. "This way! This way!", he shouted, and sprinted to the front of the pack, leading them toward the cry.

There, at the very edge of the town, they found a cave, with a wooden fence surrounding its entrance. The small yard in front of the cave entrance was brightly lit by the star, directly overhead, and they heard once more the small, crying sound of a newborn infant.

And suddenly, they became shy, as rough men will do in the presence of newborns, and gentlewomen, and Kings. But a voice within the cave, a fine, young woman's voice, called out to them.

"Come! Come and see!", she said.
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.  And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
  "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Gospel of Christmas according to St. Luke

So Advent has been here for its short while, and this coming Sunday will find all the candles lit on the giant Advent Wreath we have at IC Glenville. Which means I think the time has come to speak about St. Luke (anyway, I managed to convince iTunes to cough up my Christmas playlist and have been bombarding my Facebook account with links and lyrics to my favorites - so its time to write about Christmas).

One of the classes I have taught a few times for RCIA is on the Mystery of the Incarnation; in teaching it I have been struck with several things from the Gospel of St. Luke that never fail to impress me at this time of the year.

For me, the Christmas story always begins in March - at the Feast of the Annunciation. Our Blessed Mother is approached by the Angel Gabriel ("in the sixth month" - bonus prizes if anyone can leave me a comment on what that refers to). Mary has this fantastic choice to make about her ability to trust in God.  I prefer to believe that the Incarnation of the Son was not only the work of God (the Father), of His Power and His Spirit: it was also accomplished thru the will and the faith of the Virgin.

This then was indeed the most momentous moment of all time. It was as if all creation held its’ breath and waited on Mary’s response.  St Bernard of Clairvaux speaks  about it:
“Answer, O Virgin, answer the angel speedily; rather, through the angel, answer your Lord. Speak the word, and receive the Word; offer what is yours, and conceive what is of God; give what is temporal, and embrace what is eternal.”
To her eternal credit Mary uttered her great act of faith: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your Word.” Mary entrusted herself completely to God and totally accepted God’s design in her life. Truly, she, “Gave what was temporal and embraced what is eternal.”

But now she has a large problem. She is an unwed, pregnant young women in first century Galilee. Certainly she will not be believed if she tells the circumstances of this miraculous Conception. The Gospel makes no mention of her parents - they may even be dead by this time. How can she reveal what she has been told? What she has agreed to? The penalty for unwed pregnancy at that time was stoning.

Gabriel gives her the answer: “You remember your kinswoman, Elizabeth. The fine, upstanding old women. She is pregnant, who was called barren.”

It is not hard to picture: she hurries to the hill country of Judea, as fast as her feet can carry her; the whole way, imagining how she will tell this news to the old woman - perhaps rehersing the strange, incredible news in her head (don't you do that when you have "big news"? I certainly do).

And what happens? Luke tells us:
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah,  and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord. 

She knows! She doesn’t have to be told, to be convinced … miracle of miracles, she knows! What relief must our Blessed Mother have felt? She expresses this in her Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, … He has done mighty things for me, and holy is His name!”
Mary stays with Elizabeth until John is born, then returns to her home. But what now of Joseph? St. Matthew tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and tells him, "Do not fear to take Mary into your household." Fear? Would Joseph fear Mary? Wouldn't hurt or anger be the more natural reactions? I think Joseph was a little afraid of this young girl - who was plainly very holy. I think he may have been afraid to upset the plans that God had for her.

This leads us to the Great Enrollment, and the trip to Bethlehem and the Nativity,

Mothers, imagine the fear, the stress – you are 16 – you have seen and conversed with an Angel! Your most precious child –  also happens to be the Son of God – the promised Messiah destined to sit on throne of his father David. You have been consecrated to God since your birth, and know well what this means, and what it will mean for your child. You know that the child will be born on this trip – the Messiah must come from Bethlehem (as prophesied in the Book of Micah) and you know this well.

Imagine their joy at finally ariving in Bethlehem – she must have been exhausted – only to find no place to rest. How many doors did Joseph knock on before settling on the cave? – Explaining, again and again with growing anxiety; Mary standing behind him, hearing the refusals? How sorry she must have felt for him!

Pehaps is was her idea to take shelter where they could find it. She probably encouraged him, telling him not to worry, that they would make do. So they made their lodging in the stable, with the few belongings they had been able to carry from Nazareth: the swaddling clothes, some items that she herself prepared with that joy only a mother can experience in preparing for the birth of a child. What must that place have been like? – Cold and damp – Imagine the smells of the animals, of the hay in the manger...

Fathers, imagine the stress – an angel (Gabriel?) has told you the truth about this child in a dream. You love Mary - and you have to take her to a stable to bear this holy child. I was in full fledged panic in the heart of Albany Medical Center when my children were born! About one in ten women in first century Palestine died in childbirth. The child might have supernatural guarantees – you are not sure of that. But Mary, as far as you know, has no guarantees. You have no help, no light, no “boiling water”.

What happens next is not recorded. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church have debated how the actual Birth of Christ happened for many centuries. The only definitive doctrine here is the Perpetual Virginity of Mary - that Our Blessed Mother remained a virgin "before, during, and after the birth of her only Son".

But this birth does not go un-noticed, or unheralded. Angels appear to the shepherds in the fields. Shepherds in those days were considered rough and ignorant "people of the land" - the modern equivalent of how a New Yorker might feel about a country bumpkin. But Oh! do they turn up to see this miracle, proclaiming loudly as they come what they had seen and heard in the field about a newborn King and Lord.

Which is also a big, big problem. The whole town will turn out to see this. And sitting on his throne a mere seven miles away in Jerusalem is that malevolent spider, Herod the Great. Herod will brook no-one else bearing the title "King", or "Lord". They must get the Child out of the cave and away from the commotion raised by the shepherds.

There is much to say about this - about the Circumcision of the Lord, His Presentation and Epiphany, and the Holy Innocents - but that will need to wait until the next post.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

I was driving with a Protestant friend of mine the other day, and he asked me about our parish at Immaculate Conception.

"Oh, the Immaculate Conception, hey?", he said, " ... that is when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and she conceived Jesus."

"No, no," I said. "The Immaculate Conception refers to the great truth that Our Lady was conceived in her mother St. Anne's womb without the stain of Original Sin."

"But, doesn't St. Paul say in the letter to the Romans that all men have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God?" (Rom 3:23).

"Right!", I said. "And also, Our Lady herself said, 'My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.'" (Luke 1:46)

So if these bible quotes are true, and all people fall to sin and Our Blessed Lady herself talks of her Savior, how could it be that Pope Gregory XVI declared infallibly* that Our Lady was immaculately conceived?

This is a serious, serious problem - it tripped up many of the great thinkers of the Church throughout the ages, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux (founder of the Cistercian Order), St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure;  Doctors of the Church all.

It fell to Blessed John Duns Scotus, OFM, to puzzle out the answer. According to Duns Scotus, the answer to the riddle is that Our Blessed Mother in fact did need redeeming as per Romans; did need a Savior, as per Luke. But, in her case, the method of redemption was different. Duns Scotus realized that Our Lady was saved prior to her Immaculate Conception.

A story I heard one time might help illustrate this. Picture yourself walking down a jungle path. Ahead of you is a bottomless pit - but it is covered with vines and leaves and is invisible. You take a step - and fall headlong into the pit, screaming "AHHHHHH!" and calling out, "Jesus, save me!". And Our Lord does that - He reaches out, grabs your arm, and pulls you from the pit and sets you down on firm ground. You have been saved.

Now imagine our Blessed Mother on that same path. Her foot reaches out as she steps over the pit - and Our Lord pulls her back, and keeps her from falling. He has saved her.

Is there any significant way in which the saving act is any different? No! In each case Our Lord performed a saving Act that preserved the person from the depths of the pit. Except in Our Lady's case she doesn't fall - she doesn't get muddy or torn up by her fall as we all do. To stretch the metaphor a little, she doesn't experience the after-effects of the fall, which tend to lead to more mud, more scratches, more torn white garments for us - what the Church calls concupiscence.

This truth is a Doctrine of the Faith - a Truth that all Catholics are obliged to believe. And I don't find it hard to believe at all. Could Jesus do something like that? Sure he could! All power under Heaven and Earth has been granted to Him. And, of course, He is not subject to time in the way we are. As God, there is no reason to suppose he could not have been present at His own Mother's conception. And finally, it just makes sense. What son doesn't love his mother? And wouldn't do something special for her, if he could? I know I would. We can be sure, with the sureness of Holy Faith, that Jesus did.

*It's important to note that while Ineffabilis Deus declared this doctrine officially in 1854, Catholics have been celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception since at least the 5th century, and that this truth has been known since apostolic times. So why do Popes (and Councils) write Catechisms and Professions of Faith and papal encyclicals on things Catholics have always believed? Good Question! and one I'll write a post on later.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Awaiting with eager anticipation

It's here! It's here!

Shopping season? Black Friday? Cyber Monday? Well, yes, all of those have been here and gone.

The beginning of Advent? closer ...

How about the introduction of the New Roman Missal! or, if you are following the coverage in the secular media, the "Biggest, Most Stupendous Change in the History of Catholicism!"

Well, probably it is not that. Now that we all have been through it for a week, what is your reaction?

I, for one, am pretty thrilled. I think the new language is challenging, and I love the new Eucharistic prayer. For the first time in my 47 years I am hearing things in a new way, and certainly that forces me to listen more carefully, to follow along, and to ditch the "Catholic Auto-Pilot" we all fall into from time to time. Talk about "active participation"! I believe the folks in the pews last week had a much more "active participation" with the Holy Mass than they have had in years.

So why am I so excited about the new translation? Let's cherry-pick a few things and look at them a little more closely.

First, how about a show of hands of all those who had an "And also with you" moment last week? I certainly did - first time I heard "The Lord be with you", the Catholic Auto-Pilot kicked in and I responded, in my loud, booming voice (and much to the delight of my kids) "And also with you!"

But how about if we take a closer look at the new phrase, "And with your Spirit". Nothing is more challenging to our Catholic Faith in the modern age than the spirit (small "s") of materialism. For many of the people who inhabit the English-speaking world, the only things that matter are the things that can be touched, seen, and/or measured. And in this world-view, other people are just other "things" - to be used as desired until they are no longer useful. "And also with you" does nothing to elevate this world view. "Right back at ya!" might almost do as well.

But "and with your Spirit" - well, that is a whole other prayer. It acknowledges that the other *has a spirit*! No materialism allowed - you are praying for an immortal soul - a soul that will exist for all time. This prayer acknowledges that there are things beyond the immediate touch of our five senses. And that the fondest desire we can have for another is that the Lord is with their Spirit.

This leads to one last (at least for this post) observation - the acknowledgement of "invisible" things. In the old translation, we used to acknowledge God as the "maker of all things, seen and unseen." A bad translation of the official Latin visibílium ómnium et invisibílium. Something that is unseen can later be seen - if I hide in the Sacristy, I am unseen; but if I come out, I can then be seen. As the Latin states, God is in fact the maker of all, visible and invisible. Something that is invisible is not just unseen - it is unseeable. It is not just hidden from us, to possibly be revealed later - it cannot be seen - it is invisible.

In each of these new prayers, we see a concrete reminder that the world we live in is not the only world - is not, to our true Catholic sensibilities, even the important world. The new, corrected translation makes this explicit, in the prayers we say every week.