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.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Scariest Phrase in the Bible?

A good candidate could come from todays Gospel reading for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary time:
Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. - Matthew 25:28-29
Wow. In how many ways do I "not have"? How many "talents" has the Lord given me, that I have buried in the ground - to lose them forever. For that is clear - unless we use what we are given to "earn interest" for God, we will lose even the little we have. Fr. Robert Barron says this week that "talents" = gifts from God - can only ever be ours if we give them away. The more we hoard them for ourselves - at the bottom of dusty holes in the ground - the more we guarantee that they will be taken from us.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A quick thought

The Eucharist is like a two-way mirror. When held up for us (either during the consecration at Mass or in Eucharistic Adoration) we see, with our senses, only bread. In the same way, a man in a room with a two-way mirror sees only the mirror - and in it, a representation of himself, warts and all.

But on the other side of the mirror - in some sense, i guess, the "real side" of the mirror - whole groups of observers may be there, watching from the other side, questioning, encouraging, cheering on the man in the mirror to do the right thing.

In just this sense, the Eucharist is viewed and adored in Heaven - this same Eucharist we call "bread" here - as the Holy Lamb who was Slaughtered, as it says in Revelation.

We look into the mirror side (as St Paul tells us) they see Him as He really is. And through Him, they see us - His Body, the Church. They cheer for us, they pray for and encourage us.

I'm not so sure I captured well here what I was trying to say. Ill have to think and pray about it more.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Eternal Sacrifice

In the Catholic faith, we speak of the Mass as the "re-presentation" of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. This is often a tough thing for non-Catholics to get their head around - indeed, it's tough for Catholics as well. Whenever you hear a Catholic talk about something as a "mystery" - you know they don't really understand what they are talking about. In fact, in Catholic theology, a mystery is something you can't understand. It is a piece of God's divine revelation to mankind that only He fully understands. We are not meant to be able to fully understand or fully explain such things.

But, by thinking, praying, and puzzling out some of these mysteries, we can say some more things about them than that - "we don't know and we can't know". This business of "re-presentation" is one of these mysteries that time, prayer, and thought have opened up a little.

Protestants often mistakenly believe that Catholics are repeating Christ's sacrifice at every Mass, in contradiction of 1 Peter 3:18
Because Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust: that he might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit
This is why careful catechists always say "re-presents", clearly pronouncing each side of the hyphenated term: "re" <pause> "presents". As in, "makes present once again." And this isn't a foreign concept to most people - a common home video re-presents your child's 8th birthday party; a favorite photo album re-presents the memories of a great vacation.

So are we saying that in the Holy Mass, we are "reenacting" Christ's sacrifice? Presenting it in the distant way a photo re-presents a memory? Well, if Christ were simply a man, then I believe the answer would be, "yes".

But, of course, we know that Christ was both fully God and fully man. And this alters the equation. Theologists say that the actions of Christ were "theandric" - a Greek term that means "actions of the God-Man (theos = God, andros = man in Greek). So the sacrifice of Jesus on the Holy Cross to redeem us was a theandric action - it contained human properties (such as pain, suffering, and death) and God-based properties.

One of the key properties of God - one that I trip over all the time - is that God exists separate from time. He is not bound by the way His created world works - He exists both within and outside of time. As a theandric action, the sacrifice of Calvary also, in a mysterious way, exists outside of time. In this sense, Christ's sacrifice, while occurring at a specific place at a specific time, also exists in all places at all times, by virtue of the theandric action of Christ.

Does this make your head hurt? Good - because it is supposed to. It is a mystery of God that only He understands fully - but - that doesn't make it any less true. It is this fact that allows an ordained priest or bishop of the Catholic Church to reach across time and space and truly make present again the sacrifice of Our Lord on the altar during Holy Mass. When we see the Body of Christ lifted up by the priest at Mass, we are actually seeing the crucified Christ, lifted up for our sins on His Cross.

As Bishop Sheen famously said, "If you want to see a miracle, go to Mass."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Original "Seamless Garment"

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments and made four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom; so they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be." This was to fulfill the scripture, "They parted my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots." - John 19:23-24
This is familiar scripture at this time of the year, as we hear the Passion according to St John. But when I hear it I often wonder, what is a "tunic woven without seam, from top to bottom"? John uses the Greek word chiton (χιτών) for this garment.

This garment is special - it is not the usual item you would expect to find on an itinerant preacher.  This fact, I think, is expressed in the Gospel by the soldiers obvious surprise and reaction to the item. The were Roman soldiers in an occupied, restless country and probably often presided at executions - they were used to taking the rags their victims were wearing and reselling them for a little extra cash. Rags were almost certainly the things they found clothing their victims.

But this garment, this χιτών, is most certainly not a rag. It is, in fact, the seamless garment worn by the High Priest of Israel! Tradition says this tunic is woven from top to bottom, with no seam, of only a single (obviously very, very long) thread.

In practical terms, this is very interesting. Where would Jesus have acquired such a tunic? The Gospel says He had friends among the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem (Nicodemus, who came to him in the night (John:3) and Joseph of Arimethia, his secret dsiciple) - perhaps they gave him this expensive present. His friends from Bethany, Martha, Mary and Lazarus were obviously not ordinary peasants - remember the perfume worth a years wages, and the large number of hired mourners wailing over Lazarus' death. Maybe his tunic was a gift of joy for the life of Lazarus.

In religious terms, there is much to consider here. Our Lord wears to His death the traditional garment of the High Priest. The priestly class in Israel had only one function - to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people. Jesus is also the High Priest, offering a sacrifice for the sins of the people. But this is not the vicarious animal sacrifice of the Temple - this High Priest offers himself as sacrifice - as foretold by Abraham in Genesis: "God will provide himself the Lamb for sacrifice".

The long, single thread of the garment represents the church - single, whole, and intimately related to Jesus. And, in the end, it remains uncut, un-torn, as He promised.

His clothes show, to those who will see, who He is. They were even foretold in the Psalms, as is referenced in the Gospel. The garment was fitting for the Man, and the task He came to accomplish.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Understanding Divine Revelation

In my last post, I wrote a little about the idea of Divine Revelation. As Catholics, we are privileged to be members of Christ's own church, instituted directly by Him. As members of His body the Church, we have the fullness of the faith in Christ, and the fullness of His Divine Revelation.

One thing you might notice as you study the Faith is that there are many repeating patterns (often called "Types" in religious literature) - each referring back to a fundamental truth about God. One of these types is the prevalence of the number three - not just a collection of three objects, but rather a grouping of three objects that are deeply, intimately connected with each other. The model for this is of course the Holy Trinity. God's revelation is also given to mankind in three profoundly related ways. Each of these methods of revelation depends upon and is revealed and explained by the other two. None can stand by themselves, and when people try to take one of the three methods of revelation and stand it up by itself, the result is inevitably not God's plan.

The three methods God chose to reveal Himself to mankind are Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and Magisterial Teaching. I will take a post to explain each of these methods of revelation more fully. But at this point, it's enough to understand that they are all related - Sacred Scripture is the Divine Word of God, Sacred Tradition explains the fullness of that Word in the life of God's people, and Magisterial Teaching explains how to read an understand the realities of Sacred Scripture and Sacred tradition with the mind of the Church - which is the mind of Christ.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A sure and certain norm

Vatican II brought many changes to the way Catholics practiced their faith around the world. Many of these  were good, and perhaps necessary changes. Unfortunately, most people are very much unaware of exactly what the Council taught. Very soon after the Council, the phrase "in the spirit of Vatican II" became a pass-phrase to wholesale experimentation with the liturgy, with the lifestyles of religious, and with the day to day religious practices of everyday Catholics. The vast majority of these changes had nothing to do with anything that the Council taught - and many of them were directly opposed to the documents of Vatican II and the teachings of Holy Mother Church for the preceding 2000 years.

And here the Church stood, for nearly thirty years - blown one way by the "spirit of vatican II", another way by the turmoil that both proceeded and followed Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, the social and political upheavals of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, religious crisis in Iran and terrorism in the Middle East. Until in 1978 arrived on the scene Pope John Paul II - a father of the Council and key contributor to many of its most critical documents - most notably the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudiam et Spes.

Pope John Paul II was determined to recapture not just the "spirit", but the actual meaning of the documents of Vatican II for the Church as it made its way into the third millennium of Christiantity. And he thought he had exactly the right way to do that - by issuing a new, comprehensive Catechism of the Catholic Church - a definitive compendium of the totality of belief, truly representing what the Church believes - as defined by the three equal, balanced components of Divine Revelation to man, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterial Teaching of the Church.

Begun in 1985, the first version of the Catechism was released in the French language in 1992, and the definitive Latin edition was promulgated by the Holy Father in the summer of 1997. The Apostolic Letter LAETAMUR MAGNOPERE ("Greatly Rejoice") was the document which officially promulgated the Catechism to the world. In this letter, the Holy Father indicated that this Catechism of the Catholic Church was "a sure norm for the teaching of the faith."

At last, there was (and is!) a reference that details the essential facts of the Catholic faith. All teaching materials, all instruction manuals and books, all classes and lesson plans for instruction in the Catholic faith must ultimately be reconciled with this "sure and certain norm." If ever there is a conflict between one of these sources and Catechism, we know definitively that source must be modified and brought into compliance with the Catechism.

"But Wait!", I can hear my Protestant brothers and sisters say. "Doesn't the Bible say that:
All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)
Certainly it does, and certainly this is true - if you know how to read and interpret scripture appropriately, which is to say read it with the mind of the Church, which is the mind of Christ. Next time, I will explain how exactly to do just that.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The job of the catechist

I am an RCIA catechist. Easy to say, but "catechist" is not a work you run across in ordinary speech, except maybe in catholic-oriented crossword puzzles.

What does it mean? Well, like a lot of "church words" the word catechist has its origins in Ancient Greek. I know almost no Greek - just a smattering from a seminar senior year in high school. But for blog purposes I am taking a shot at it. Greek scholars should feel free to comment.

There are two important Greek words that will shed light here I hope - κατέχειν (katēchein) which means "to echo back faithfully" and κήρυκας (kirikas) which means to "herald".

Most folks in the ancient Greek world were not literate - and yet the king obviously had a vested interest in making sure his commands were spread far and wide. So the messenger of the king, his herald (κήρυκας) was sent to the main meeting place in every town, to "echo back faithfully" (κατέχειν) the words and commands of the king.

And you better believe the herald had a vested interest in getting the message right - as the penalty for any screw-up was likely to be death.

Thus, catechesis is serious business! It is our job to echo back faithfully the words of the king we have learned, bringing them to those who have not heard them yet.

In my opinion - this also leaves opinion out. The kirikas' job was not to editorialize, or speculate on what the king's message might mean. I believe this is why theology students often make lousy catechists. Many times I have heard theological theories - often highly speculative ones at that - taught to students and catechumens who lack the basis to be able to determine what is sound (the message of the king) and what is mere speculation or theory.

Getting it right - helping our students find the truth and fullness of our faith - requires a faithful rendering of the king's message, free from distractions, and both taught and received in the Holy Spirit.

Where do we as catechists get the "message of the king" to pass on? That's the topic of my next post - "A sure and certain norm".

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Better Angels of our nature

I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." Jn 16:33

Certainly it is true that in this world, we often have troubles. These can be (and often are) of our own making - but also often come on us from outside; without warning or without time for preparation. My old mother often has a saying for times like these - "Offer it up!" she would say. The exclaimation point isn't a literary device - she means it - offer it up with joy.

When "bad things happen to good people," often our first response it to ask, "why?"

The spirit of "offer it up!" does not ask why. It says, when I have suffering, instead of asking "why?", ask "how?", as in, "how can this suffering work for the greater glory of God?"

In this, as in everything important, we are following the Lord. Through His suffering, He redeemed the world. And He said, "where I am, there my servant will be." Well there He is, lifted up on a Cross. And so then there we should be, uniting our physical, mental, spiritual suffering with His. Be assured, at least in some small way, our suffering, united through an act of the will, "offered up!" with His, places us with the Master. And He promised, if we die with Him, so too will we rise with Him.

To paraphrase Thomas Merton (sorry, I don't have the quote right in front of me):
Living in Christ is not complicated; but it is difficult.

"Offering it up!" may end up being one of the most difficult things we ever do. But I think it is still easier than suffering without result, our only consolation an unanswerable "Why?"