Archive for the ‘Liturgy and Sacraments’ Category


Christmas Don”t Be Early

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

As a child I really liked the Chipmunks” Christmas album, including the classic “Christmas Don”t Be Late.” What little kid isn”t eager for Christmas day to finally get here?

However, as Christmas has become more of a secular holiday than a religious celebration in the minds of many, some of the liturgical and theological nuance of the feast has become obscured. In particular, we don”t know exactly what to do with Advent anymore. Our society doesn”t fully appreciate the season as one of joyful anticipation, of vigilant expectation, of penance and spiritual renewal, of recalling Christ”s first and second coming. Heck, the Jews had to wait thousands of years for the first Christmas, but we can’2012-04-24 18:33:03′t even wait four weeks!

Where I see this most acutely is in the way we celebrate with Christmas lights, parties, and carols throughout all of Advent, as though it were already the “Christmas season.” In fact, the pc way of greeting people this time of year is by saying “Seasons Greetings.” I”m all for lights, parties, and carols, but not if they take away from the actual celebration of Christmas. By the time Christmas finally rolls around, we”ve had our fill of all these things.

In reality, Christmas season only begins on Christmas!  That”s why we have songs like “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Like Easter, Christmas is too important of a feast to celebrate on one day, so it has its own octave (weeklong celebration)  and season. Yet, once we open our gifts on Christmas, we”re all partied out. We take our trees to the curb on the second day of Christmas, and then we begin the “pseudo-Advent” of preparing for New Year”s Day and bowl games.

Everyone celebrates Christmas differently, and that”s wonderful. But I invite all of us to see this present time of Advent as more of a time of preparation, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Come, Lord Jesus!

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

This morning I was all set to post on today”s saint, St. Andrew the Apostle. As a disciple of St. John the Baptist and the brother of St. Peter, St. Andrew is one of the more prominent Apostles in the Gospels, as he is mentioned by name 13 times. On top of that, there are his vast missionary efforts, which culminated with his martyrdom (symbolized in Christian art by the x-shaped cross), during which he preached the Gospel for two days while hanging on a cross. And then there are the fascinating devotions, legends, and patronages. Golfers will be interested to know that he is the patron saint of Scotland, which explains the name of the famous golf course there.

However, early (for me) this morning I attended an Advent study produced by Catholic Scripture Study, a partner of this blog”s sponsor, My Catholic Faith Delivered. The study includes videos by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J. of EWTN. If the first video is any indication, this is going to be a great study. Here are a handful of Fr. Pacwa”s insights (I”m sure there were many more, but did I say it was early?): [more]

–The four weeks of Advent parallel the 4,000 years between the biblical account of creation and the coming of Jesus. He tied that in with the biblical passage that one day is like a thousand years for God (2 Pet. 3:8).

–He discussed the two comings that are part of Advent: the first coming of Jesus on Christmas, and also His coming back at the end of time. Speaking of which, Father also contrasted scientific calcuations as to when the world should naturally end (millions of years from now) with Our Lord”s actual return, which isn”t dependent on such scientific processes.

–We are certain that Our Lord is coming back. We echo the concluding words of the Bible: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

–While we are certain that Our Lord is coming, we do not know the day or the hour. Every prediction that has been made so far has been wrong! But even more, the end of the world is a management issue, and God alone is “management.” 

–He also said that knowing the day and time of Our Lord’2012-04-24 18:33:05′s return is “not on the test.” We don”t need to know. We just need to be ready.

The Advent of Christmas

Monday, November 29th, 2010

The reason we celebrate Christmas at all should be obvious: The birth of Christ in the “fullness of time” is the most significant event in human history. Despite secularist efforts to change how we reckon time, even our calendar is divided by what occurred “Before Christ” and After Christ, “in the year of the Lord” (anno Domini, or A.D.).

But why December 25th? And when did the Church work this into her own liturgical calendar? After all, the Bible is far from clear on the point. [more]

The conventional explanation is that December 25th was chosen by the Church as a means of “baptizing” the pagan worship in ancient Rome and thereby evangelize the culture. It is true that on December 25, 274 A.D., the Roman emperor Aurelian declared the sun god the principal patron of the empire. This gave rise to the feast of Sol Invictus, or the Birth of the Unconquered Sun. The celebration took place on the Winter Solstice in late December, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, which of course would be a fitting date to celebrate the birth of the sun.

And so the common view is that the Church adopted this date to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the fourth century. Christians of all generations have understood Christ to be the “light of the world,” the “Sun of Justice,” and “morning star,” so selecting this date would be in essence a counterpoint to paganism. If that in fact is the case, that doesn’t render Christmas a “pagan feast.” But rather than pursue that line of discussion, the more interesting question to me is whether in fact this is really how it all came about.

There is evidence that the early Church was interested in the date of Jesus’ birth quite apart from pagan feasts. There was a widespread belief among Jews of Jesus’ day that great prophets were born or conceived on the same day on which they died. This belief carried over into the early Church.

There were two competing dates in the early Church as to when Jesus actually died on the Cross. The Jewish calendar date of 14 Nisan translates to April 6th in the Greek solar calendar and March 25th on the Roman calendar.  Early on, the second date won out, and the feast of the Annunciation–which marks the date of Jesus’ conception by the power of the Holy Spirit–was established on March 25th. Yet we still see the effects of the two separate traditions.

The East celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 6th, the West chose December 25th, which as noted above are nine months after the calculated date of the Passion of Jesus and thus the date of His conception. Eventually East-West cross-pollination brought us December 25th as Christmas and January 6th as the Feast of the Epiphany, or “Three Kings.”

The belief of the early Church that Jesus was conceived the same day He suffered may well have played a key role in dating the Nativity on December 25th. The idea is best attested in the Church in North Africa where Tertullian asserted that Jesus’ conception took place on March 25th. The idea is echoed a century later in an anonymous North African treatise called On Solstices and Equinoxes, where March 25th is again put forth as the day the Lord was conceived.

In De Trinitate, no less an authority than St. Augustine wrote, “Jesus is believed to have been conceived on March 25th, upon which day he also suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried . . . but he was born according to tradition, on December 25th.”

This treatise by Augustine can be dated to about 400 A.D. But it is unlikely that Augustine believed this “tradition” of December 25th to have been established in his own lifetime. In other writings of his against the Donatists, he mentions that they remained attached to Christmas festivals on December 25th while they rejected January 6th as an innovation. Since the Donatists were the fierce “ultra-traditionalists” of their day who came about as a result of the Diocletian persecutions of around 312, it is likely that the December 25th date was well established by then. If this is true, the date of Christmas did not arise in response to paganism.

Other factors support this theory as well. Aurelian’s establishment of the birth of the sun feast at the Winter Solstice was a type a pan pagan revival to unify the various cults around a common holiday and thus shore up divisions and decay within the empire. Of the various cults then in existence many, such as Persian-based Mithraism, had a devotion to the sun. None, however, had any record of a feast associated with the Winter Solstice. This feast appears to be an innovation of Aurelian himself and it is not unthinkable that he adopted it to co-opt Christmas (can anyone say “Kwanzaa”?), even though there are no explicit records of Christmas being celebrated as a liturgical feast in 270 A.D.

While this point merits further research, in the first centuries of her history the Church was not in the habit of “baptizing” pagan customs. Rather, the pastoral priority was to draw a sharp division between paganism and Christianity, as the latter was a persecuted minority religion that could only survive by jealously guarding its identity. The pattern of “baptizing” pagan practices did not generally arise until after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire later in the fourth century.

And of course, a source no less than St. John Chrysostom (347-407) advanced the date of December 25th based on elaborate calcuations stemming from Zechariah’s priestly service in the Temple as described in Luke 1.

But I guess regardless of how the feast eventually ended up on December 25th, whether on biblical or historical calculations, because of the Winter Solstice or to co-opt a pagan feast, the key is that all Christians, from very early times, have known full well what–or Whom–we celebrate on Christmas. May we remain focused on Him as we prepare yet again for His coming into the world.

This article, in edited form, originally appeared on the CUF Blog in 2007.

Long Live Christ the King!

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

This past Sunday we began the last week of the liturgical year with the Solemnity of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI initiated this feast day in 1925, at a time of growing secularism, which led to a loss of respect for the Christ”s sovereignty. I think the same concern is applicable to contemporary debates regarding the role of faith in political life. I especially like this quote from Pope Pius XI”s encyclical Quas Primas, which introduced the new feast:

“Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast [of Christ the King] that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment, wherein Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected, and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education.”

As one of today”s saints–Bl. Miguel Pro–said at the moment of his remarkable martyrdom, “Viva Cristo Rey!”  Long live Christ the King!

Cloaked in Holiness

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Martin of Tours, a fourth-century bishop and patron saint of soldiers (the last point comes in handy for All Saints” Day parties). Many people especially love St. Martin because of this story that has been handed down through the ages:

Martin was a young soldier stationed in Amiens. On a cold winter day, he noticed near the gates of the city a poor, half-naked beggar. Martin was overwhelmed with compassion for this man. He proceeded to draw his sword and he cut his woolen cloak in half. He handed half to the freezing man and he put the remaining half over his shoulders. The half he kept, known as “St. Martin”s cloak,” was preserved for many centuries as a Christian relic.

That night, Martin dreamed that he saw Jesus wearing the half mantle he had given the beggar. He heard Jesus say, “Martin, as yet only a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak.” After this incident, he immediately went to be baptized. He then hastened to Poitiers where he became a disciple of St. Hilary, one of the greatest doctors of the Church of that era, and from there he became a bishop and one of the most beloved saints in the Church.

While St. Martin’s feast is always a cause for celebration because of his holiness and Christian witness, next year”s feast will be special for yet another reason: It will take place on 11/11/11.

Time for Confession?

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

I’m frequently asked how often Catholics should go to Confession. Many people just want to know the minimum requirement. In that regard, the Church provides that all Catholics who have reached the age of discretion (approximately the age of seven) are required to confess their mortal sins once a year. In addition, if one has committed a mortal sin, he or she must go to Confession before receiving Holy Communion.

While that is the minimum requirement, the Church strongly recommends frequent reception of the sacrament–even when one has not committed a mortal sin (see 1 John 5:16-17) since the previous Confession–as a means of growing in holiness (see Catechism, no. 1458). The Introduction to the Rite of Penance puts it this way:

“[T]he frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that, as we bear in our body the death of Jesus Christ, his life may be seen in us ever more clearly. In confession of this kind, penitents who accuse themselves of venial faults should try to be more closely conformed to Christ and to follow the voice of the Spirit more attentively” (no. 7).

As for what might constitute “frequent” reception of the sacrament, monthly or even weekly Confession can make a significant difference in the spiritual lives of those who hunger and thirst for holiness.

After all, Christ’s first gift to His Church after rising from the dead was the gift of Reconciliation entrusted to His Apostles and their legitimate successors (John 20:19-23), so that we may personally experience God’s mercy and peace.

How often should we go to Confession? Whenever we want to experience anew the mercy and peace of Christ.


An Inconvenient Faith

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

“What do you expect to achieve by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors” (2 Macc. 7:2).

The foregoing quote, from today”s Mass, is from one of the seven brothers who were tortured and killed in succession because they would not act against their religious beliefs.

We know that to deliberately choose to do evil separates us from God, such that we risk damnation if we don”t turn back to Him. Do we really believe that? Very often we act as if we don”t. We”re not faced with torture and death like the young men in Second Maccabees. For us, oftentimes it”s simply a matter of convenience.  We”ll believe so long as our faith doesn’2012-04-24 18:33:26′t challenge or inconvenience us in any way. However, once the faith calls us not to do something we”re inclined to do, then it must give way to what we want. 

Am I willing to stake my life on the Gospel? My answer speaks to how “real” my faith actually is.

Martin the Charitable

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Today the universal Church celebrates the feast of St. Martin de Porres, one of my family”s favorite Dominican saints. He lived in Peru at the turn of the sixteenth century, born of a Spanish father and a Black mother, and lived a remarkable life as a lay brother devoted to the poor and the sick.

Many stories attest to St. Martín”s exceptional piety. Sometimes he was surrounded by a bright light when he prayed, while other times he levitated off the floor of the chapel in a state of ecstasy. He lived for days on bread and water, and undertook other severe penances. Martín was said to be capable of bilocation (being in two places at once–wouldn”t that come in handy!), and individuals from both Africa and Mexico swore that they had encountered him in their home villages even though he was never known to have left Lima. Patients under his care spoke on several occasions of his having walked through locked doors in order to render medical help–help which sometimes produced miraculous results. [more]

Here”s what Pope John XXIII said at St. Martin”s canonization in 1962, which is found in the Office of Readings for today:

The example of Martin’s life is ample evidence that we can strive for holiness and salvation as Christ Jesus has shown us: first, by loving God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and second, by loving your neighbor as yourself.

When Martin had come to realize that Christ Jesus suffered for us and that he carried our sins on his body to the cross, he would meditate with remarkable ardor and affection about Christ on the cross. He had an exceptional love for the great sacrament of the Eucharist and often spent long hours in prayer before the blessed sacrament. His desire was to receive the sacrament in Communion as often as he could.

Saint Martin, always obedient and inspired by his divine teacher, dealt with his brothers and with that profound love which comes from pure faith and humility of spirit. He loved men and because he honestly looked on them as God’s children and as his own brothers and sisters. Such was his humility that he loved them even more than himself, and considered them to be better and more righteous than he was.

He did not blame others for their shortcomings. Certain that he deserved more severe punishment for his sins than others did, he would overlook their worst offenses. He was tireless in his efforts to reform the criminal, and he would sit up with the sick to bring them comfort. For the poor he would provide food, clothing and medicine. He did all he could to care for poor farmhands, blacks, and mulattoes who were looked down upon as slaves, the dregs of society in their time. Common people responded by calling him, “Martin the charitable.”

The virtuous example and even the conversation of this saintly man exerted a powerful influence in drawing men to religion.  It is remarkable how even today his influence can still come us toward the things of heaven.  Sad to say, not all of us understand these spiritual values as well as we should, nor do we give them a proper place in our lives.  Many of us, in fact, strongly attracted by sin, may look upon these values as of little moment, even something of a nuisance, or we ignore them altogether.  It is deeply rewarding for men striving for salvation to follow in Christ”s footsteps and to obey God’2012-04-24 18:33:33′s commandments.  If only everyone could learn this lesson from the example that Martin gave us.

For a recent photo of “St. Martin de Porres,” check out my Facebook wall at!/profile.php?id=1075165711

Message for All the Saints

Monday, November 1st, 2010

It”s November 1st, the great solemnity of All Saints, in which we celebrate the glory of all the saints who now enjoy eternal life with the Blessed Trinity. And tomorrow is the feast of All Souls, in which we call to mind and pray for the deceased, which Scripture describes as being a “holy and pious” thing to do (2 Macc. 12:36).

Taken together, these feasts do much to enhance our awareness of our connectedness in Christ, in what is called the “communion of saints.”

While November begins with a flourish, really the whole month has a distinctive character all its own. The readings at Mass walk us through the end times and the last judgment, culminating on the feast of Christ the King at the end of the month (and liturgical year). What I”d like to focus on briefly today, however, are three virtues that are especially significant this month. [more]

(1) Charity While charity is the greatest of virtues and always necessary, it takes on a particular significance this month. As alluded to above, it is a spiritual work of mercy to pray for the deceased. This particular act of charity is especially recommended this month.

Also, it”s a time of loving service to our neighbor. We see this at play in the various soup kitchens, collection drives, nursing home visits, and service projects that are undertaken as the weather gets harsher this time of year. These are called corporal works of mercy. Our Lord very pointedly reminds us that when we do these things for others, we are doing them for Him (Mt. 25:40).

(2) Generosity The acts of mercy and service mentioned above surely are also acts of generosity, as we give of our resources and, even more, of ourselves to others. Generosity literally means “full of giving life,” which stands in stark contrast to the wintry desolation of late November. 

We may have to keep track of our monetary gifts for tax purposes, but we can”t keep a mental record of our acts of generosity. If we do that, then we weren”t really generous in the first place, as we”re expecting something in return.

Also, some of us may be really generous in giving to others, but out of pride or other reasons we don’2012-04-24 18:33:37′t always accept others” generosity well. The Christian, the recipient of God”s superabundant generosity, must be a conduit of the grace of Christ, able to give and receive easily. 

(3) Gratitude The secular holiday of Thanksgiving gives us a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the many blessings we have received. We should strive to thank others often, even for little things. Such acts build virtue, and they create a more human, wholesome culture (or counterculture) in our midst.

Even more, we should make a point to thank God often: upon arising, throughout the day, at dinner, and before retiring for the evening. We thank Him easily enough when something really good happens, but we should thank Him even more in the face of struggles, as He”s purifying us and preparing us for even more profound blessings. This quote from St. Paul might be a good memory verse this month:

“In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”         –1 Thessalonians 5:18

And if you haven”t yet had your fix of “For All the Saints” (one of my favorite hymns this time of year), check this out.  


Living Fatima

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

On this date in 1917, the Blessed Virgin Mary made the last of a series of monthly appearances to three children in Fatima, Portugal. This apparition was different from the others, as it included what would become known as the “miracle of the sun,” which was witnessed by tens of thousands of people.

One of the primary messages of our Blessed Mother to Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta was that she wanted people to pray the Rosary daily and with great devotion. She especially called upon the faithful to pray for peace and for the conversion of sinners. If we follow her request, we can be confident that we will experience peace in our hearts, families, communities, and world, and that many people will turn their lives over to Christ.

For centuries the Popes have exhorted the faithful to pray the Rosary, most recently in Pope John Paul II”s apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae. In a particular way, October has been set aside as a month of special devotion to the Rosary, as Pope Leo XIII of happy memory stressed in his encyclical letter on the Rosary (Octobri Mense). Fittingly, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary is celebrated on October 7th.

For that reason, this month at Catholic Hour we are featuring a weekly series on the Rosary. Last week, the focus was on the importance of praying the Rosary as a family. The next installment will be tomorrow, in which I will give some tips on introducing the Rosary to our children.

But while reading articles on the Rosary is good, praying the Rosary is even better!  When it comes to the Rosary, I urge people to take the “Nike approach”: Just do it!