Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 28)
Lest we get to watery-eyed about the meaning of Christmas, we should recall the words of the Prince of Peace Himself, "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism that I am to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! Do you think I came to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division," (Lk 12:49-51). The message of Christmas is not peace on earth, not primarily at least; rather Jesus Christ himself is the message. Try telling people that in whatever words, and you will quickly learn what He meant speaking about causing division.
Two thousand years ago a cynical, petty tyrant named Herod ordered the slaughter of dozens, scores of innocent babes in Bethlehem and the surrounding district. He did so in the vain hope of stopping God's will, in hope of stopping the advent of the Messiah-king. To this date, including now as we sit here at our computers, hundreds and thousands of Christians are murdered each year in the vain hope of stopping the spread of the gospel, of stopping the spread of the Messiah's Kingdom. National governments collaborate to reduce the population of the developing world to "sustainable" levels. One feels that this language is a cover for a lie. Who ro what is being "sustained" by the programs of birth control, sterilization, and abortion in the developing world? Are they being built up? Or are we in the West being permitted to continue our lavish lifestyle by keeping them in firmly controllable numbers?
We in the formerly Christian West now indulge every appetite and repudiate whatever doctrines interfere with our desires. A gospel of wealth and prosperity, or a gospel of environmental stewarship, or a gospel of multiculturalism, or a gospel of nice all wrestle against and threaten now more than ever to subdue the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, we exploit and slaughter our own children in a horrifying orgy of debauchery and bloodletting, subjecting them to pornography, sexual abuse, neglect, and even outright death.
We must wonder in all the warring against children that the ages have seen, who is Satan attempting to strike? Perhaps he fears the second advent of the Messiah, and so is doing everything in his power to frustrate it.
If we reduce the meaning of Christmas to being kind, being calm, not worrying about what goes on around us, far from living in Faith, we will have abandoned it. The blood of the Darfur Christians, the blood of the Indian and Pakistani martyrs, the blood of Chinese Catholics, all these call out to us that the meaning of Christmas is Christ, and to stand for Christ necessarily entails receiving resistance. If nobody is concerned about what we are saying as a Church, we must not be saying anything very Christian, or even very interesting. Happily, this increasingly is not the case.
St. John the Beloved, Apostle, Evangelist, and Confessor (Dec 27)
Perhaps because of his youth at the time he encountered our Lord, St. John was preserved from the unchastity that creeps into adult life. For that or some other reason it was to St. John that Our Lord entrusted His Blessed Mother (Jn 19:26-27). Perhaps Our Lord trusted him the most because He knew that St. John, of all the apostles, knew His heart the best. After all, it was St. John who, with youthful ease and unabashedness, rested his head upon Our Lord's chest, where he could hear Our Lord's very heartbeat (Jn 13:22-24). This posture, resting on the Lord close to His Heart, listening quietly, is surely the exemplary posture of a Christian at prayer. It was he, who seeing in the tomb Our Lord's empty burial clothes, was the first to understand and believe (Jn 20:8-9).
St. John's writings focus heavily on the reality, meaning, and power of the Resurrection of Jesus in our lives. His writings also focus on our hope of Resurrection, and on the power of love. It is the sixth chapter of his Gospel that gives us our fullest scriptural understanding of the Eucharist - if there was any doubt about what Jesus meant later at the Last Supper, John's recollection of those Eucharistic discourses clarify the matter perfectly. For the convinced Christian, this and other passages serve as beautiful meditations for prayer. He traveled with Our Lord in his formative years, and kept the Blessed Virgin Mary as his own mother in his own home, perhaps for decades more. It was his blessing to be drawn in a very intimate way into the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Surely of all the apostles he knew best the gentle strength of love.
Exiled to the Island of Patmos in his later years, he was blessed by visions from the Holy Spirit showing him many confusing and difficult things. Perhaps only partly understanding them, he assembled them into the Book of Revelation, to finish the scriptural revelation of God to his People, to reveal God's People to themselves.
St. John, so close to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so chaste and pure, pray for us.
An assistant pastor at my parish a few years ago began a group called the Men of Emmaus. It's really a ragtag bunch of Catholic ne'er-do-well hoodlums. At our 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning meetings, our staple has been to read together the Mass readings for the following Sunday. Sometimes we have special speakers in to speak with us. It amazes me how many of them seem willing to come back and speak to us again! The men are eager - sometimes very eager - to explore the meaning of the Gospel and to encourage each other to live out its implications more thoroughly.
These are the sorts of things you might hear in a typical meeting: "How should we vote? Should we bother? I've made mistakes in my past and now I am seeing more fully how they affect my family. How much to give to the poor? Do I do enough around the parish? Let's take up a collection to help pay bills for this man who's just lost his job. Will you be quiet!? How can I witness to Christ in my office without turning people away from Him? It is hard to be the only Christian in my home. Dude, you blew it the other day. Anyone want to go for a hike?"
Sometimes the "encouragement" can stop just short of a fistfight, but what really raises my eyebrow is how even in the near-fistfights there is no (or little) rancor and much love. After our discussions (and sometimes apologies!), we head upstairs for the 9:00 a.m. daily Mass.
What raises my spirits, and gets me out of bed at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings is the effect of our dopey little group. I've been going with varying frequency for a few years now, and it seems to me that something has been changing. In the men, and in the group, I see a gradual groping toward Christ. Men are investing themselves more deeply in their families, turning off the TV and picking up spiritual books, engaging in the Church's apostolate, frequenting the confessional, learning about our holy Faith - all the sorts of things that one would expect to accompany growth in holiness. These things strike me as sure signs that the Jesus virus is circulating among the group. May it stoke in us a fever of burning charity.
Now it looks like we are going to begin to read the Catechism as a group. That's great! The Sunday scripture readings, reflections, and talks are like puzzle pieces of our faith - the raw material and power of our Faith. Organized and systematized, put together into a coherent whole picture, they gain a strength and meaning otherwise inaccessible. That's what the Catechism is for, to help us to organize the Faith in our minds so that it can structure the way we think, act, and live.
St. Stephen, First Martyr and Deacon (Dec 26)
It is telling that immediately after the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Dec 25), the Church chooses to remember and honor St. Stephen Protomartyr.
Why is that? Well, just as the First Martyr's day follows Our Lord's First Day, so we must be prepared to follow our Lord into martyrdom if we wish to honor His life and death.
A glance at the Rembrandt I've uploaded with this post, or at the biblical account of the martyrdom (Acts 6 & 7) reminds us of a young man named Saul. He held the cloaks of Stephen's murderers so that they would not get bloodied along with their hands. He approved the execution of the saint, and never really felt fully rehabilitated for his part in the crime. But he did convert when our Lord appeared to Him. The Bible doesn't say so, but it isn't farfetched to imagine that Stephen's peaceful, even eager, embrace of a holy death haunted Saul. Christ's blood, mediated through Stephen's bloody witness, brought about Saul's redemption, conversion into Paul, and sanctification into St. Paul.
As we witness and remember the birth of Our Lord in these eight days of His octave, let our witness transform us, and by His grace transform those who witness us.
St. Stephen, servant of the Gospel and first to lay down your life for it, pray that like thee, we might be blessed to lay down our lives daily in service to Christ. Amen.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent is come and gone. We've heard the prediction to the wicked king Ahaz of Judah, that a virgin should bear a child and name him Emmanuel; we've heard the account of the first fulfillment of that prediction in St. Matthew's gospel. The question is, "Has the Virgin given birth to the Christ Child in my heart yet?" He was born 2000 years ago, give or take - but has it made a real difference in the way I live my life? Has He been born into me yet? What concrete things have changed in my life as a result of loving Jesus? That's the test. Being nice doesn't cut it - who tries to be, or thinks of himself as, mean? Being a Christian means putting off the Old Man and putting on the New, putting on Christ.
Lord Jesus, in these last days before Christmas, and in these last days before your Second Coming, please come into my heart in a new way. Transform me Lord. Amen.
Mama Mary, you are the Great Mother of God and my mother as well. Please bear Him to me, and me to Him. By your gentle childbirth, please bear me gently, but more importantly, bear me swiftly. Amen.
This from Melody Beattie's Codependent No More:
ourselves, in God, in other people, and in the natural order and destiny of things in this world. We believe in the rightness and appropriateness of each moment. We release our burdens and cares, and give ourselves the freedom to enjoy life in spite of our unsolved problems. We trust that all is well in spite of the conflicts. We trust that Someone greater than ourselves knows, has ordained, and cares about what is happening. We understand this Someone can do much more to solve the problem than we can. So we try to stay out of His way and let Him do it. In time, we know that all is well because we see how the strangest (and sometimes most painful) things work out for the best and for the benefit of everyone.
I normally attend the 6:30 a.m. daily Mass at St. Martin of Tours, my home parish. If I oversleep that Mass by accident, I can always attend the 8 a.m. daily Mass at Mother Seton parish, around the corner from where I work. Today I slipped out of my office for a few minutes to attend that one because an early conference call precluded going to St. Martin. Of course, if I lived closer to Mother Seton, its 6:30 a.m. daily Mass would work too. In addition to passing St. Martin on the way to work, I pass St. Rose of Lima parish. Its 8:45 a.m. Mass is a bit later than I prefer, because I like to be out of the office by 4:30 or 5 p.m. at the latest.
Going to St. Martin has the added advantage that the priests there hear confessions after almost every weekday Mass. Only when funerals cut the schedule too close are confessions omitted. At Mother Seton confessions are heard not only at the customary Saturday afternoon times, but also Wednesday evenings. That can be handy if I am leaving work late, or after dinner, and I have a need or desire to go.
What's my point with all this babble about scheduling? Well, it's just that I am very grateful. I know in many places it is much harder to get to daily Mass, and even scheduling confession can be prohibitively difficult. I am very grateful to God and to the priests at St. Martin of Tours and Mother Seton parishes, and the other parishes in the area. These things, these sacraments, are absolutely indispensible for the steady progress in natural and supernatural virtues that is supposed to mark the Christian life. Our priests sit long hours in the box, awake earlier than otherwise necessary, and hop in the car at all hours of the night to make sure that their faithful have access to the sacraments. Their labor of love is a tremendous service to us all.
Please God, let us not forget to thank our priests for their work when they finish absolving us, when they communicate us, when they visit us. Reverend fathers, may God bless you for it.
In my heart, I feel a desire to go off someplace: to a monastery or into the wilderness; I also feel a desire to plunge into the heart of the world, and to be with my family and closest friends. These desires come from sources as conflicted as the desires are conflicted: fear and guilt, longing and love, trust and joy. With these are jumbled together our encounters and day-to-day experiences as we seek to follow Our Blessed Lord. The work of discernment, I am coming to discern, is bringing these motivations, experiences, and desires to Jesus in prayer, and asking Him to help us identify them for what they are, and sort through them, and then to understand which are worthy of a Christian.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico, Empress of the Americas, Great Protectress and Patroness of the Unborn, Queen of All Hearts, Mother of the Church, Mama, pray for us!
Some of the teenagers are very impressive as Christians. I have seen them give up their day off to help old ladies move before the Sherriff's deputy arrives to evict her. I've seen them keep vigil with Our Lord into the wee hours of the night. I've seen them pick up their grades, take responsibility for their actions, and set good examples for their peers. I've seen them have a lot of good, clean fun. Other kids going come from very unstable families with absentee fathers, lack of supervision, even drugs or violence in their homes. The amazing thing is the amount of overlap there is in the two groups: kids who come from hell on earth who have begun to fix their eyes on heaven, and so are finding even life here-and-now transformed a bit.
People want to confess their darkest secretest - the secrets about who they are and about what dark things we've done. We are made to share ourselves, and we want to share precisely those parts of us that we most fear are unlovable.
Increasingly in American culture we do not use words to mean what they mean. It starts with the innocuous example of the word cool meaning anything but "below room temperature." C. S. Lewis warned against another trend: exaggerating everything in our speech with the words we use. Everything is awesome. When we come across something that truly inspires a soul-lifting wonder and awe, we haven't any meaningful words left, because awesome has already been used to describe in a generic way the rather tasty jam we had on our morning's toast. The trend is pervasive.
More alarming than the trend of using words for anything but what they really mean, is the growing trend to say anything but what we really mean. That is, the dramatic increase in lying and dishonesty especially notable in politicians, corporate America, and in our schoolchildren. Theirs, I imagine, are only highly visible examples of a vice that is overtaking us all. More and more, we do not say what we mean and mean what we say. Instead, we say what we think will get us out of trouble, or get us what we want.
It is what they say that concerns me more. I do believe that the evacuation of content from our political discourse is an ill omen. This evacuation of content is closely connected with the hollowing of our national moral life as well. This evacuation of content is diplayed in almost daily on our national news. Reasoned debates about ideas and policies by men and women of character is replaced by shouting matches and soundbites between people who, rather than simply admit they haven't got much character, argue that personal character is somehow unrelated to one's work in society. This evacuation is more sinisterly played out in the widespread acceptance of the use of torture or enhanced interrogation techniques against enemy prisoners-of-war.
These trends interweave and unite in an especially powerful way around sexual topics. Abortions are not said to kill babies, but only to terminate pregnancies. The term making love is slapped on every one-night stand, secret tryst, and vulgar act of fornication imaginable.Contraceptives are not called what they are: devices-to-enable-me-to-do-what-I-want-without-consequences. They are simply protection. Homosexual liaisons are not called that anymore, let alone the more precise terms unnatural and sodomy. They are called alternate lifestyles, and even that term seems somehow to marginalize sodomy too much - the idea that sodomy is alternate to something more common, more normal, more wholesome is to be entirely excluded from the language of our Brave New 1984 World.
Oh, God, I am so sorry for all my sins. In choosing to do wrong and in failing to do good, I have offended You, whom I should have loved above all things. I firmly intend with your help to confess my sins, do penance for them, avoid occasions of sin, and sin no more forever. Oh Mary, please help me to love Jesus better. Amen.
More from Fr. Jean LaFrance's Give Me a Living Word:
"27. The face of Christ must become alive for you: it must have eyes that see, lips that speak and a heart that loves. This is a gift of God and there is no trick to it. Nevertheless all spiritual masters testify to it: you must seek to have the face of Christ become alive for you and that can only be the work of the Holy Spirit.
28. At one time, you felt this breath go by in your life and your eye meet that of Jesus, otherwise you would not be here. From that day on, Jesus Christ ceased to be an abstract entity for you and you had but one wish: to find him again in contemplative prayer.
29. But after that, the sea ebbs away and you are cut short! As the Fathers say, grace abandons us. Your situation is then very painful, for you are yearning for Christ like Adam when he was chased from the Garden of Eden. At certain moments, contemplative prayer may even have lost all its meaning for you or at least most of it. How can you prevent this encounter from falling into oblivion, not in the manner of Proust's "madeleines", but in the biblical sense: "Remember all that happened to you when the face of Christ took flesh in your sight." St. John Chrysostom says that at the moment of baptism, we are enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, but that grace very quickly disappears into the depths of our being and we hasten to forget it. A catechumen recently made the same remark to me," Give Me a Living Word, 9.27-29.