Preparing for Mary”s Visit

December 21st, 2010

Today”s Gospel, the first part of the event commonly known as the “Visitation” (Luke 1:39-45), is very familiar to most Catholics. It”s read a few times during the year at Mass, and of course it”s one of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.

Sometimes we hear a passage over and over again, and it can be a challenge to open our minds and hearts to allow the Holy Spirit to give us new insights.

In hearing this Gospel anew today, I was struck by how much we should be devoted to our Blessed Mother, especially on Christmas.

When Elizabeth greets Mary, John the Baptist leaps for joy in his mother”s womb at the sound of Mary”s voice (vv. 41, 44). After all, Mary has brought Jesus to him! (The best baby shower gift of all time!) But there”s more.

All Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Even more, Scripture says that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when she cried out: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb . . .” (vv. 41-42). When we turn to Our Lady, when we pray the “Hail Mary,” we are simply making our own the doubly inspired words of Elizabeth.

Okay, but enough already, right? Perhaps we’2012-04-24 18:32:40′re a little hesitant or unsure about turning to Mary. But what were the next words out of Elizabeth”s mouth? She said, And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Instead of obsessing over whether she should make such a fuss about Mary, she does pretty much the opposite: She marvels at the great honor bestowed upon her that Mary would actually come to her.

Mary wants to come to each one of us this Christmas, as the definitive bearer of our long-awaited Savior. Let us run to greet her, and leap for joy in the presence of the Gift she has brought to the world, the Gift that, as the saying goes, is the “reason for the season.”

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December 20th, 2010

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The Roots of the Messiah

December 17th, 2010

December 17th marks the beginning of the “O Antiphons” in Evening Prayer, which focus on various biblical titles of our Lord and Messiah. Today’s “O Antiphon” theme is Wisdom: “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, You govern all creation with Your strong yet tender care. Come and show you people the way to salvation.”

December 17th represents a turning point in the Advent season. We are now unmistakably in the home stretch. As we heard at Mass last Sunday, “the Lord is near”–Christmas is just around the corner.

Also on December 17th, the Gospel readings at Mass undergo a significant shift. Instead of hearing about John the Baptist, we are now unpacking the infancy narratives from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Today we start at the beginning, with the genealogy of Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham, found in the opening verses of St. Matthew’s Gospel. [more]

There is much more to this genealogy than meets the eye. For further study, I recommend Ted Sri’s Mystery of the Kingdom and the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible for the Gospel of Matthew.

One common question involves apparent discrepancies between Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus and the genealogy found in Luke. Here is what the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible says about this in its comments on Matthew 1:2-17:

“The Abrahamic and Davidic ancestry of Jesus establishes His credentials to be the royal Messiah of Israel (1:1, 16). God long ago promised that ‘kings’ would stem from Abraham’s line (Gen. 17:6) and later swore a covenant oath that David would always have a dynastic heir (2 Sam. 7:16; Ps. 89:3-4). Note that Matthew’s genealogy reaches back to Abraham, the forefather of Israel, whereas Luke’s genealogy of Jesus stretches back to Adam, the father of all nations (Lk. 3:23-38). The difference is heightened by numerous discrepancies between the two genealogies, especially in the generations spanning from David to Jesus. More than a dozen solutions have been proposed to harmonize them. At the very least, it should be recognized that gaps are a common feature in genealogical registries from antiquity. There are also many examples in Scripture of one person having more than one name–a fact that must be considered when attempting to identify the ancestors of Jesus (e.g., Solomon/Jedidiah, 2 Sam. 12:24-25). As one early Christian writer (Julius Africanus) reminds us, neither Matthew nor Luke is in error, for both record Jesus’ genealogy intricately and yet accurately.”

For more information on the reliability in general of the Infancy Narratives (i.e., Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2), I highly recommend the tract entitled “The Historicity of the Gospel Accounts of the Nativity.” To view and/or download this tract, click here.

I think that given these two themes for the day–wisdom and genealogy–we might benefit from taking some time today to look back on our own lives, praising God for His wise timing and providence, and thanking Him for the many people who have helped us in our own journeys of faith.

Catholic or Jesuit?

December 16th, 2010

When I was in seminary in the 1980s, I was blessed to have Dr. Peter Kreeft as my principal philosophy professor. One time he told me he was teaching a class at nearby Boston College, and there was a football player sitting in the front row. At one point, the football player asked, “This Descarte guy, was he a Catholic, or was he a Jesuit?” Without missing a beat, Dr. Kreeft responded (truthfully), “He was a Catholic,” and moved on with the class.

When I would do apostolic work at Boston-area campuses at that time, Harvard and MIT students and faculty were receptive, but we met with intense hostility at Boston College. 

Unfortunately, and not to pick on the Jesuits (though they deserve it!), there is something of a choice today between truly “Catholic” colleges and several prominent “Jesuit” colleges. [more]Okay, there are some really outstanding Jesuits past and present, and there are some other religious communities that haven”t well preserved a robust Catholic identity for their institutions, either, but you know what I mean.

With that context, I wanted to share with readers a snippet from an address earlier this month by Cardinal Raymond Burke, the courageous American prelate who serves as Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome. He gave the address at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, on the subject of Catholic higher education. The following candid remark hits the nail on the head:

“According to the ancient canonical wisdom, corruptio optimi pessima est, ‘the corruption of the best is the worst.’ Sadly, we have witnessed the truth of the axiom in so many Catholic colleges and universities in our nation, which once gave pride of place to their Catholic identity and the Catholic life of the campus, but now are Catholic in name only, usually qualifying their Catholic identity by another name, for example, calling themselves a Catholic university in the Franciscan or Jesuit tradition. What the tradition, with a small ‘t,’ means, in practice can have little, if anything, to do with Tradition, with a capital ‘t.’ The word, ‘Catholic,’ in the name of a university has its full qualification, that is, it accepts no modifiers.”

For the full text of Cardinal Burke”s address, and for more information on Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, which Cardinal Burke praised, click here. For sound guidance in selecting a Catholic college for yourself or for your children, click here.

And by the way, out of curiosity I just visited Boston College”s website. As expected, the opening line on the “About BC” page said, “Boston College is committed to maintaining and strengthening the Jesuit, Catholic mission of the University . . .” Sounds good on paper (because if it”s authentically Jesuit then it”s authentically Catholic), but I really don”t think the “American Jesuit college experience” today is quite what Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola would have desired or envisioned!

Grinches 2010

December 15th, 2010

I have to admit that my favorite Christmas movie, far and away, is It’s a Wonderful Life. However, I’d have to say that How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is in my top three. I’m not talking about the more recent Jim Carrey version, but the older, animated version that has been a Christmas-time favorite for decades.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is truly an endearing story–all the more so for me as my little Abigail Rose has always reminded my wife and me of little Cindy Lou Who.

But is the story real? In other words, are there really any Grinches in the world? Is there anyone so foolish as to want to destroy Christmas? [more]

On one level, the Grinch is in each one of us, just as each of us share in the burden of Frodo’s ring, to borrow from another classic, The Lord of the Rings. The sheer weight of human brokenness and sin impels us at times to perversely reject what is good. It all started in a garden, where our first parents rejected paradise.

For that reason, Christmas is for everybody. We all need good news. We all need divine grace to heal the “Grinch” in us, so that we may be filled anew with awe and wonder as we celebrate the birth of the Christ child.

In another sense, there are still Grinches around today, but they’ve largely changed their approach since the day the first Grinch graced the pages of children’s literature. We might recall that the original Grinch attacked Christmas by taking away all the external decorations and gifts from the Whos of Whoville.

What the Grinch didn’t realize was that the spirit of Christmas would continue to live on in the hearts of the people.

Today’s Grinches don’t want to take away the externals, but rather to magnify them. They want to embellish the commercial aspect of the holiday. The “spirit” or “true meaning” of Christmas may not be explicitly denied, but it is seemingly rendered irrelevant amidst the shopping frenzy and the mantra “Season’s Greetings!”.

Rather than use the liturgical season of Advent to mark the time of preparation for Christmas, we’re now taught to diligently keep track of the number of shopping days until the blessed event. Instead of celebrating the season of Christmas between December 25th and the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (or at least Epiphany), today’s Grinches see this time as one for returning gifts, after-Christmas sales, taking down Christmas decorations, and approximately 35 bowl games (but who’s counting).

These Grinches, of course, are those who want to exploit Christmas, not celebrate it.

While the commercialization of Christmas in most instances is simply motivated by economic gain, there unfortunately have arisen pseudo-philosophies–like that reflected by the Ayn Rand Institute—that actually propose a Christmas without Christ. In other words, they’re offering us the shell without the pearl of great price.

Perhaps a gospel of selfishness is attractive to some people today, given the rampant consumerism of our society. And if it’s really about the “stuff,” then we might as well be honest about it.

But let’s make no mistake. The joy, festivity, and goodness that we associate with Christmas isn’t found on the Internet or at the mall. Rather, our cause for celebration is found in a manger in Bethlehem, where the eternal Word of God was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There simply is no Christmas without Christ.

Some secularists consider unbridled selfishness and consumerism without “Christian guilt” and “self-sacrifice” as enlightened, virtuous behavior, but it’s really an empty, self-destructive path. In fact, that’s why Christ took on human flesh–to save us and to show us a better way.

Our ultimate happiness entails giving of ourselves to God and others in imitation of Christ. Sure, we give gifts as signs of our love for others. Of course, we hang lights to celebrate Christ as the light of the world. But we ought not confound the signs with the realities they signify–that’s exactly what the Grinches want us to do.

How we reflect the glory of Christmas in our external celebrations is important, because we’re material, social beings. But woe to us if in the process of exchanging gifts this Christmas we fail to recognize the presence of the Giver of all gifts, who so loved us that He sent His Son to be our Redeemer.

May we bear witness to this reality and in the process melt the hearts of Grinches everywhere.

This article has appeared in various print and electronic media in recent years, but is reprinted here because of its timely and timeless message.

Discussion starters:

(1) How do I celebrate Christmas? What traditions are most meaningful to me?

(2) What external symbols of Christmas are most compelling to me? Are there any that I don”t understand?

(3) Am I a Grinch? If so, how? What can I do to deepen my appreciation of the true meaning of Christmas?

A Special Christmas Light

December 13th, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Lucy. She was martyred at Syracuse (Sicily, not upstate New York!) around the year 300 during the persecution of Diocletian. From antiquity she has been revered by Christians, and she is remembered today in Eucharistic Prayer I.

St. Lucy”s name means “light” (from the Latin lux). She is the patron saint of those with afflictions of the eyes, as pious legend says that she received the miraculous restoration of her sight in the midst of her persecution. And as Scripture says, the eyes are the light (“lucy”) for the body (Matthew 6:22).

Advent, as a time of preparation for the light of Christ, is a fitting time to celebrate the feast of St. Lucy. Several countries, notably Sweden and Norway, turn on their Christmas lights for the first time on this feast (fairly late, by American standards!). [more]

Also, Marcelino D”Ambrosio reports that before the Gregorian calendar was revised, December 13th fell on the shortest day of the year. The faithful lighted “Lucy candles” in their homes and burned “Lucy fires” outdoors to celebrate that the tide of darkness and winter was turning with the return of the sun. There is another tradition of making special “Lucy cakes” to celebrate the day.

One of my daughters has a devotion to St. Lucy, and as a child she made it her practice to get up early to make breakfast for everyone on that day.

I”ll leave you with the following reading from today”s Liturgy of the Hours. It”s a selection by St. Ambrose, which describes how holy virgins such as St. Lucy light up their grace of body with the radiance and splendor of their souls:

You are one of God’s people, of God’s family, a virgin among virgins; you light up your grace of body with your splendor of soul. More than others you can be compared to the Church. When you are in your room, then, at night, think always on Christ, and wait for his coming at every moment.

This is the person Christ has loved in loving you, the person he has chosen in choosing you. He enters by the open door; he has promised to come in, and he cannot deceive. Embrace him, the one you have sought; turn to him, and be enlightened; hold him fast, ask him not to go in haste, beg him not to leave you. The Word of God moves swiftly; he is not won by the lukewarm, nor held fast by the negligent. Let your soul be attentive to his word; follow carefully the path God tells you to take, for he is swift in his passing.

What does his bride say? I sought him, and did not find him; I called him, and he did not hear me. Do not imagine that you are displeasing to him although you have called him, asked him opened the door to him, and that this is the reason why he has gone so quickly; no, for he allows us to be constantly tested. When the crowds pressed him to stay, what does he say in the Gospel? I must preach the word of God to other cities, because for that I have been sent. But even if it seems to you that he has left you, go out and seek him once more.

Who but holy Church is to teach you how to hold Christ fast? Indeed, she has already taught you, if you only understood her words in Scripture: How short a time it was when I left them before I found him whom my soul has loved. I held him fast, and I will not let him go.

How do we hold him fast? Not by restraining chains or knotted ropes but by bonds of love, by spiritual reins, by the longing of the soul.

If you also, like the bride, wish to hold him fast, seek him and be fearless of suffering. It is often easier to find him in the midst of bodily torments, in the very hands of persecutors.

His bride says: How short a time it was after I left them. In a little space, after a brief moment, when you have escaped from the hands of your persecutors without yielding to the powers of this world, Christ will come to you, and he will not allow you to be tested for long.

Whoever seeks Christ in this way, and finds him, can say: I held him fast, and I will not let him go before I bring him into my mother’s house, into the room of her who conceived me. What is this “house”, this “room”, but the deep and secret places of your heart?

Maintain this house, sweep out its secret recesses until it becomes immaculate and rises as a spiritual temple for a holy priesthood, firmly secured by Christ, the cornerstone, so that the Holy Spirit may dwell in it.

Whoever seeks Christ in this way, whoever prays to Christ in this way, is not abandoned by him; on the contrary, Christ comes again and again to visit such a person, for he is with us until the end of the world.

“Pink Candle” Sunday

December 10th, 2010

This Sunday, the third Sunday of Lent, is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. It is “rejoicing Sunday,” as “Gaudete” is the first word of the Entrance Antiphon, taken from Philippians 4:4-5: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.”

Gaudete Sunday, along with Laetare Sunday in Lent (as an aside, to avoid confusion, remember Laetare and Lent begin with L), are the two days in which rose-colored vestments may be worn. And that’s why on our Advent wreaths we will light the rose (okay, pink) candle this Sunday. [more]

But what is this day all about? Sure, we’re getting close to Christmas, but what really is the Church teaching us on Gaudete Sunday? Why on a day that we’re supposed to rejoice, we hear a Gospel passage about John the Baptist in prison wondering whether Jesus truly is the one?

In this regard, I highly recommend Archbishop Joseph Naumann’s homily for Gaudete Sunday 2007. Here’s a sampling:

“I was reminded recently of the remarkable power of Jesus to give His disciples joy and hope, even in the most dreadful circumstances, while reading Advent of the Heart, a collection of Advent homilies and reflections by the German Jesuit, Father Alfred Delp. Like John the Baptist, Father Delp found himself incarcerated for his opposition to the Nazis. On February 2, 1945, Father Delp would be executed, as was John the Baptist, for his refusal to compromise the truth.

“Writing with handcuffs around his wrists from his prison cell in December of 1944, Father Delp reflected on the meaning of this Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday: ‘The conditions for true joy have nothing to do with the conditions of our exterior life, but consist of man’s interior frame of mind and competence, which makes it possible now and again for him to sense, even in adverse circumstances, what life is basically about.’”

For the entire homily, click here.

I’d like to make an additional comment here, as the liturgy calls us to contemplate St. John the Baptist during these days. When I think of St. John the Baptist, I think of yesterday”s verse from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “From the days of John the Baptist the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away.”

This verse motivates me to avoid getting too comfortable or complacent here, as the Gospel call is always radical and demands our resolve to go against the grain–not only on a societal level, but even more, to do battle within ourselves. Within the context of this spiritual battle, Our Lord continually sustains us with His presence, His joy, and His peace.  

And so as Gaudete Sunday 2010 approaches, I’ll say it again: Rejoice! The Lord is near!

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December 8th, 2010

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Blue Advent

December 7th, 2010

I admit it. Most days I pay precious little attention to what I wear. As long as it’s clean and presentable–and still fits–I’m satisfied.

This evening, however, I sought out my best blue dress shirt for tomorrow morning. After all, it’s a holy day, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and I thought it would be fitting to wear blue to Mass in honor of Our Lady.

All this brought to mind a recent discussion about the propriety of blue vestments for the sacred liturgy. In light of that discussion, I think a few points are in order. [more]

(1) The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), nos. 345-46, in its discussion of liturgical colors, does not make allowance for blue vestments. At this time, blue simply is not a liturgical color.

(2) Liturgical color, given its intimate connection with sacred seasons and mysteries, is a matter of “traditional usage.” This is not something the Church will change easily.

At the same time, it is a matter of liturgical discipline that can be changed by appropriate Church authority, and even now more latitude is given in the celebration of special feast days: “On more solemn days, sacred vestments may be used that are festive, that is, more precious, even if not of the color of the day” (GIRM, no. 346).

(3) When I was in seminary in the 80s, I encountered liturgists who were pushing hard for the use of blue vestments during Advent, instead of (or perhaps as a legitimate alternative to) the traditional purple vestments. One of the main reasons that was advanced was the desire to rid Advent of its penitential character as a “little Lent,” a time of preparation and patient expectation for the arrival of the Messiah.

It is true that Advent isn’t penitential to the same extent as Lent, but proponents of ”blue Advent” seemed to be the same ones who supported a host of other liturgical changes that seemed to minimize, if not undermine, traditional values such as penance, sacrifice, and reverence. This is not the mind of the Church on these matters, and given this dubious theological foundation for a “blue Advent,” one should not expect a change along these lines.

(4) The last time I checked, there were Dioceses in Spain that had permission to wear blue vestments for the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. While blue does not seem appropriate for Advent, I think a case could be made for blue on days/seasons connected to Our Lady, such as Marian feasts, the Christmas season, and even Saturdays during Ordinary Time. That’s because Catholic sensibilities do “connect” blue with Our Lady, just as I did this evening. This is seen not only in Catholic art and iconography (e.g., the popular image of Our Lady of Grace), but also in the fact that many religious communities devoted to Our Lady wear blue habits.

(5) Some Catholics are suspicious of any changes or “novelties” in Church practice because of the many unauthorized changes and aberrations that have occurred in the “spirit of Vatican II.”  This mindset is understandable, but a reactionary approach that fails to make appropriate distinctions isn’t helpful.

And at the same time, there is the legitimate concern that renegade parishes will just do what they want in violation of Church discipline as a way of pushing for change. In this regard, they might cite the situation with altar girls or Communion in the hand. The current Church discipline–whatever it may be at a given point in time–should be followed, and when it isn’t, the faithful have the right to make their concerns known to the appropriate Church authorities.

(6) There’s no accounting for taste. A couple years ago I saw a photo of very loud blue vestments that many would find distasteful and distracting even if blue vestments were otherwise permissible. That tacky chasuble isn’t an argument against all blue vestments, but it certainly points to the care that should go into the manufacture and selection of all religious vestments. One thinks of the flaming pink vestments one sometimes sees on Gaudete and Laetare Sundays, instead of a joyful, but more subdued and dignified, rose color.

(7) I have a son in kindergarten who likes coloring by numbers. Using the liturgical colors provided by the Church is not rocket science, and even my young son can figure out what color vestments the priest should wear. I realize that negotiating with liturgists can be an iffy proposition, but let’s do our best to promote a reverent, commonsense approach to following liturgical norms.

And above all, let’s not let these considerations distract us from the sacred mysteries that are being celebrated in our midst this holy season.

A Bishop”s Bishop

December 7th, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Ambrose, a remarkable fourth-century bishop and saint, who is considered a “doctor of the Church” because of his excellence as a teacher of timeless Catholic truth.

Many saints have their feast day on or at least near the day of their death, which is understood as the day they entered eternal life in heaven. Interestingly, St. Ambrose’s feast day is the day he became Bishop of Milan in 374. In a real way, that was the day of his death to self, as he committed the remainder of his life on this earth to serving the Church in Milan as its courageous shepherd. [more]

St. Ambrose certainly is an important figure in Catholic apologetics. He was, after all, the Catholic bishop who received the great Augustine into the Church. Here’s a sampling of his writings, from today’s Office of Readings:

“The Church of the Lord is built upon the rock of the Apostles among so many dangers in the world; it therefore remains unmoved. The Church’s foundation is unshakable and firm against the assaults of the raging sea. Waves lash at the Church but do not shatter it. Although the elements of this world constantly beat upon the Church with crashing sounds, the Church possesses the safest harbor of salvation for all in distress.”

He also wrote beautifully on Our Lady: “For her part, Mary did not fail to live up to her station as the Mother of Christ. When the Apostles fled, she stood before the Cross and gazed tenderly on the wounds of her Son, because she was waiting, not for her Son’s death, but for the salvation of the world.”

St. Ambrose is considered one of the great Fathers of the Church in the West, during the crucial era between the Council of Nicaea (325) and the Council of Chalcedon (451). Bishops must courageously speak out when the faithful’s spiritual welfare is on the line, especially on controversial issues concerning the family and human sexuality. Perhaps in making our own the opening prayer for today’s liturgy, we could especially intercede, with St. Ambrose, for our bishops:

Lord, you made Saint Ambrose an outstanding teacher of the Catholic faith and gave him the courage of an apostle. Raise up in Your Church more leaders after Your own heart, to guide us with courage and wisdom.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

St. Ambrose, pray for us!