Waiting in Joyful Hope

December 6th, 2010

In last week”s post, “Christmas Don”t Be Early,” I commented on how we seem to be losing our sense of Advent, that “Christmas” begins after Thanksgiving and ends when the last present is opened on Christmas. The rhythm and profound meaning of the Advent and Christmas seasons in many places has given way to secularist and consumerist sensibilities.

Therefore, I was so pleased to read this morning the first pastoral letter of Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, entitled “Waiting in Joyful Hope: A Pastoral Letter to the Church of Salt Lake City on the Season of Advent,” issued last month. The entire letter is only a few  pages long and eminently readable.

Bishop Wester states the problem quite clearly: [more]

“Too often, the season of Advent is overshadowed by the ”holiday season” as we move too quickly into celebrating Christmas. By the time that the actual solemnity of Christmas arrives, many of us are burned out. We are already tired of all the ”Christmas hype.” Christmas has become anticlimactic.”

He then proceeds to give an overview of the Advent season, which is very good, though I disagree with his opinion that Advent doesn’2012-04-24 18:32:59′t have a penitential element to it. I think Advent”s penitential aspect complements and amplifies the theme of “joyful hope.”

He concludes with an exhortation to Catholics in Salt Lake City to embrace the season of Advent for what it is, a season of preparation and vigilant expectation. However, he goes a step further and gives some ideas for celebrating Advent and Christmas that I thought would be helpful to Catholics everywhere:

“Here are some particular examples of what this will entail. Schools should not decorate for Christmas, but can decorate with simple wreaths and greenery. They might celebrate ”Gaudete parties” before departing for Christmas break. I encourage each home to display and bless an Advent wreath where the family can gather for prayer either in the morning, at dinner, or some other practical time. I urge you to hold-off on displaying a decorated Christmas tree until the season of Christmas begins. You may want to incorporate a Jesse Tree in your family”s observance of the seasons. As the season draws to its close, I also invite you to discover the beauty of the 0 Antiphons, which are sung as part of evening prayer from December 17th to 23rd, and are most familiar to most of us in the hymn ”O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

“Once Christmas comes, the season stretches far beyond the 25th of December. It continues until the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord on January 9, 2011. We should leave the decorations which are testimonies to our joy up for the entire season. There is plenty of time for us to celebrate our joy at Christ”s birth and we should make the most of it. You might consider having a Christmas gathering in the parish, or at home with family and friends during this time.”

On a separate note, today is, of course, the feast of St. Nicholas. My kids found candy and a potato in their shoes this morning. For more on this beloved saint, check out this post.

The Last Father

December 3rd, 2010

Tomorrow the Church celebrates the feast of St. John Damascene. For many years I have considered him the patron saint of my computer and car. Of course, I’m the same guy who thinks Blessed Kateri Takeitwithya is the patroness of fast food restaurants!

Actually, St. John Damascene (died c. 750 A.D.), priest and monk, is considered the last of the Greek Fathers and one of the greatest. He was also named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII because of the timeless excellence of his writings. [more]

Perhaps his most famous work is An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, which is considered his theological masterpiece. He is known for his defense of sacred images against the Iconoclasts in the decades leading up to the Second Council of Nicaea.

St. John Damascene has several extant homilies and other writings on the Blessed Virgin Mary that are of interest to me. In particular, he wrote three homilies on the Dormitian, or “falling asleep” of Mary, that provide patristic support for the dogma of the Assumption. Here’s a beautiful quote from one of those homilies:

“Even though your most holy and blessed soul was separated from your most happy and immaculate body, according to the usual course of nature, and even though it was carried to a proper burial place, nevertheless it did not remain under the dominion of death, nor was it destroyed by corruption.

“Indeed, just as her virginity remained intact when she gave birth, so her body, even after death, was preserved from decay and transferred to a better and more divine dwelling place. There it is no longer subject to death but abides for all ages.”

Awakening Consciences

December 2nd, 2010

In case you missed it, last Saturday parishes and dioceses throughout the world celebrated a “Vigil for All Nascent Human Life.” This unprecedented event was the initiative of Pope Benedict XVI, who presided at the vigil held at St. Peter”s Basilica in Rome.

The Pope”s homily for the occasion beautifully tied together the themes of Advent (the event coincided with the beginning of Advent) and a resounding pro-life message. The following paragraph from the transcript of the homily seems to be getting the most play, and deservedly so:

“There are cultural tendencies that seek to anesthetize consciences with misleading motivations. With regard to the embryo in the womb, science itself highlights its autonomy capable of interaction with the mother, the coordination of biological processes, the continuity of development, the growing complexity of the organism. This is not an accumulation of biological material, but a new living being, dynamic and wonderfully ordered, a new unique human being. So was Jesus in Mary’s womb, so it was for all of us in our mother’s womb. With the ancient Christian writer Tertullian we can say: ”he who will be a man is already one” (Apologeticum IX, 8); there is no reason not to consider him a person from conception.”

For the full text of the Pope”s homily, click here.


Christmas Don”t Be Early

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!

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

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.

Every Day Is Thanksgiving

November 23rd, 2010

At least in my experience, God’s will has not always been easy to discern, even with the assistance of prayer and spiritual direction. Sure, I know the boundaries of moral decision-making. Under no circumstances may I lawfully choose to do evil.

Further, I must fulfill the duties and obligations that go with my state in life. But what exactly does God want me to do? The answer usually isn’t black and white. We make what seems to us to be the right choice, and pray that God will bless our sincere desire to do His will and that He will continue to make His will for us known with ever greater clarity.

For this reason, I think that one of the most remarkable verses in all of Scripture is 1 Thessalonians 5:18, in which Saint Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, writes: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” [more]

So while we might struggle in discerning our vocation in life, whether to take a certain job, or even how to spend our next vacation, when it comes to giving thanks–in other words, manifesting the virtue of gratitude–God’s will is right there in Scripture for all to see. There’s absolutely no mystery or guesswork about it. God explicitly wills that we give thanks in all circumstances.

The truth is that everything in our lives, even the tragedies, failures, inconveniences, and sufferings, are part of God’s plan. He doesn’t make mistakes. Everything in our lives affords us an opportunity to grow in the love of God. Of course, when seemingly bad things happen to us, our first response may not be an expression of gratitude, and even if it is, it may be dripping with sarcasm: “Gee, thanks a lot.”

But make no mistake, God wills that we develop the virtue of gratitude–at least if we want to be happy in this world and, even more, in the next. The Eucharist, as the supreme sacrifice of thanksgiving (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1359-60), continually opens us more fully to God’s superabundant gifts.

In this spirit, I wish all our readers a most blessed Thanksgiving holiday.

Long Live Christ the King!

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!

A Moral “Condomdrum”?

November 22nd, 2010

The initial wave of misinformation regarding Pope Benedict XVI and the issue of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS has already passed, and now people are actually examining the Pope”s statements and realizing that there has been no change in the Church”s teaching on contraception.

I think this is the key sentence in the book interview that has produced such controversy:

“[The Church] of course does not regard [the use of condoms] as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

First, note that Pope Benedict says flat out that the use of condoms is not a real (i.e., practical, effective) or moral solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis. It”s not a moral solution. And btw, it doesn”t work.

But what about the second part of the sentence? Let”s consider a homosexual male prostitute (in which case there would be no issue of contraception), who is on the journey to conversion. He should not be in that profession, and he should find a ”more human way” of living his sexuality that respects the good of the human person. As possibly a step in that direction, he may begin to use condoms so as to prevent possible harm to his clients. That does not make his conduct morally good. In fact, statistics show that this doesn”t even make his conduct particularly “safe.” However, it could signal that he’2012-04-24 18:33:12′s becoming more open to the good of others, which could eventually lead him to Christ and liberate him from his bondage to sexual sin.  

Janet Smith compared it to bank robbers who started to use blanks in their guns out of concern for others” safety. It doesn”t make the bank robbery morally good, but it does represent a little more concern for all the innocent bystanders, tellers, etc., which in itself is a positive step that could lead to conversion and restitution. In affirming that element of goodness in the decision not to use bullets, one would certainly not be encouraging criminals to practice “safe robbery.” Yet it is possible that the impulse of responsibility that led to not using bullets may be part of a much greater transformation leading the criminals to repent and to be open to God”s mercy.

The message–echoing the Ten Commandments–remains the same: Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal.

I guess when you throw together (a) widespread societal rejection of the Church”s teaching on moral issues, (b) journalists covering the Church who really have no understanding of the Church”s teaching on contraception, (c) quotes from the Holy Father that are incomplete and taken out of context, and (d) Pope Benedict using a popular forum to provide a very nuanced theological opinion on a delicate subject–and one on which our own society is completely out to lunch–then you have the recipe for, well, what we”ve seen the past few days.  

Here are some additional links on the subject that shed more light on the subject:

What Pope Benedict actually said

Jimmy Akin

Janet Smith  


New York, New York!

November 18th, 2010

I was unable to attend this year”s fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). All the same, I”d like to offer a few thoughts on the election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan as the new president of that body.

(1) Image may not be everything, despite the Andre Agassi commercials of the 90s. But it is very important, and Church leadership at home and in the Vatican has been notoriously inept when it comes to public relations. With this election, however, the U.S. bishops got it right. They bypassed the successor-in-waiting (USCCB VP, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson) and chose arguably the best communicator among current bishops, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. To borrow from the song, he is “making it there” in the most prominent U.S. see, so there is every reason to believe that this gregarious, eminently likable prelate will project the right public image for the USCCB.

(2) Commentator John Allen of the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter likens Archbishop Timothy Dolan to a high octane, populist American version of Pope Benedict. So far, so good. However, from there he asserts that his election is not so much the victory of a conservative over a liberal, but rather a victory of the kinder, gentler “affirmative orthodoxy” of Pope Benedict over the harder edge of conservative ideologues. Those looking for a “no spin zone” may want to look elsewhere!

The main problem with Allen”s assessment is the fact that Archbishop Dolan”s main opposition was Bishop Kicanas, who is unmistakably on the “left,” and who had the distinct advantage of being the current VP of the conference, which usually signals victory. Archbishop Dolan is clearly more “conservative” than Bishop Kicanas. Plus, “conservative” here generally relates to degree of the prelate”s being in step with the Pope and curia. Any and all “conservatives” would vote for Dolan over Kicanas, and they did, despite the (very) small “t” tradition of simply voting for the VP.

(3) The clerical sex abuse issue still trumps just about everything. The bishops clearly were concerned about voting for Bishop Kicanas in light of the troubling revelations regarding Fr. Daniel McCormick, a  sex abuser who was ordained under Bishop Kicanas” watch, despite indications that McCormick was engaging in homosexual activity while in seminary. The facts are still being sorted out, and perhaps the evidence will eventually show that Bishop Kicanas acted appropriately and in good faith. That’2012-04-24 18:33:15′s hardly a foregone conclusion, though, and in light of the Church”s already tarnished public image in that area (see pt. 1) the USCCB wisely went another route. Already activist groups like SNAP–hardly allies of the “conservatives”–are applauding the election of Archbishop Dolan.

(4) George Neumayr of Catholic World Report makes a strong case that the vote for Archbishop Dolan is in part a repudiation of the controversial “seamless garment” approach to life issues. As summarized at the CWN site, New York”s Cardinal John O”Connor pushed for a clear focus on the fight against abortion in the 1980s, while Chicago”s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin preferred the “seamless garment” approach, in which abortion was only one of a number of issues to be weighed in political discussions. For years the “seamless garment” approach has had the upper hand in USCCB discussions–reflecting the dominance enjoyed by the late Cardinal Bernardin and his allies. But now Bishop Kicanas, a Bernardin protégé, has been defeated by Cardinal O”Connor”s successor in New York.

(5) This isn”t like American politics, where the president gets to choose his VP. Still, the election of incoming VP Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville–a “centrist” who is now the odds-on choice to become Archbishop Dolan”s successor–deserves some comment. I”ve always liked Archbishop Kurtz, and I”m eternally grateful that he offered a Mass for my Mom in his cathedral the weekend she died.

What I like most about his election as VP, though, is that he is so forward-looking when it comes to the battle against same-sex marriage. We have to admit that we were asleep at the switch in the years immediately before Roe v. Wade dramatically shifted the landscape. Archbishop Kurtz has been a superb leader in building up Catholic marriage, and he is an able spokesman against contemporary attempts to redefine marriage.

We”ll see how all these points play out, but I think there are some solid grounds for optimism here.