Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

My gift to you: Corregio's Nativity (Holy Night). Click on it for a better view.

Monday, December 24, 2007

What Christmas is all about

I've posted this before, but I just can't not post it again now.



(Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14, King James Version, if you're wondering.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Lectio Divina

I found a website today dedicated to lectio divina, a way of prayerfully reading and meditating on Scripture. The site is run by the Carmelite Order, and it seems to have commentaries and reflections on the Gospel readings for every Sunday of the year, as well as some weekdays. It looks like it could be a great aid in reading and understanding the Gospels and drawing closer to God. Here's the entry for today:

1) Opening prayer

God, we tend to lose ourselves
in the bustle and stir of the day,
in our work and our petty worries.
Give us the freshness of heart
to look for the things that matter,
those that make our lives deeply human
and at the same time open us
to your world and to your values.
Make us long to encounter you with joy,
that we may discover again the quality
of gratuitous giving, of respect,
and of carefree, self-forgetting love,
through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

2) Gospel Reading – Luke 1, 39-45

Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah.
She went into Zechariah's house and greeted Elizabeth. Now it happened that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
She gave a loud cry and said, 'Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? Look, the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.'

3) Reflection

• Luke stresses the readiness of Mary in serving, in being a handmaid. The Angel speaks about the pregnancy of Elizabeth and immediately, Mary rises and sets out as quickly as she could to go and help her. From Nazareth to the house of Elizabeth there were more than 100 km, the minimum, four days of travelling!, There were no buses, no trains. Mary begins to serve and fulfils her mission in behalf of the people of God.
• Elizabeth represents the Old Testament which was about to end. Mary represents the New Testament. The Old Testament accepts the New one with gratitude and trust, recognizing in it God’s gratuitous gift which is going to be realized and is going to complete the expectation of people. In the encounter of the two women is manifested the gift of the Spirit. The child leapt with joy in Elizabeth’s womb. This is the reading of the faith which Elizabeth makes of the things of life.
• The Good News of God reveals his presence in the most common things of human life: two house wives who visit each other to mutually help one another. Visit, joy, pregnancy, children, mutual help, house, family: Luke wants us and the community to perceive precisely this and that we discover in this God’s presence.
• Elizabeth says to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Up until today, these words form part of the best known Psalm and most prayed in the whole world, “The Hail Mary”.
• “And blessed is she who has believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled”. This is the praise of Elizabeth to Mary and the message of Luke for the community: to believe in the Word of God, because the Word of God has the force to fulfil all that which it tells us. It is a creative Word. It generates new life in the womb of the Virgin, in the womb of people who accept it with faith.
• Mary and Elizabeth already knew one another. But in this encounter, they discover, one in one another, a mystery which they had not known as yet, and which fills them with great joy. Today also, we meet persons who surprise us because of the wisdom they possess and the witness of faith that they give. Has something similar happened to you already? Have you met persons who have surprised you? What prevents us from discovering and from living the joy of God’s presence in our life?
• The attitude of Mary before the Word expresses the ideal which Luke wants to communicate to the Community: do not close yourselves in self, but get out of self, be attentive to the concrete needs of persons and try to help others as far as possible according to their need.

4) Personal questions

• Placing myself in the place of Mary and Elizabeth: am I capable to perceive and experience the presence of God in the most simple and common things in the life of every day?
• The praise of Elizabeth to Mary: “You have believed!” Her husband had difficulty to believe what the angel was telling him. And I?

5) Concluding Prayer

We are waiting for Yahweh;
he is our help and our shield,
for in him our heart rejoices,
in his holy name we trust. (Ps 33,20-21)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A journey through John - 15:12-14

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you."

Note: So it's been about two months since the last installment in my "journey" through the Gospel of John, but I'm getting back on track now.

There's a whole lot packed into these three little sentences that Jesus speaks to His apostles at the Last Supper. Jesus makes the astounding promise that we can be His friends -- we can be the friends of God. But, it seems, there's a condition. We must do what Jesus commands us. And Jesus commands us to love each other, and to love each other as He has loved us. That's a tall order, to say the least, because -- as Jesus here suggests and will prove the following afternoon -- He loves us enough to die for us.

That is the kind of radical love that Jesus calls us to have for each other, and I don't know anyone who could live up to such a standard by their own power. Luckily, no one has to -- indeed, it is only by the grace of God that any of us can do anything. And Jesus continually offers us the grace we need to fulfill His commandments and become His friends. Our job is to cooperate with that grace.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Where is happiness to be found?

I really liked this commentary on the readings for the third Sunday of Advent by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Pope's personal preacher. (It was posted on zenit.org.) It's good food for thought and reflection, so here it is:

"Let us take the point of departure for our reflection from what Jesus says to the disciples of John to reassure them he is the Messiah: 'Glad tidings are announced to the poor.'

"The Gospel is a message of joy: The liturgy proclaims this on the Third Sunday of Advent, which, from the words of St. Paul in the opening antiphon, has taken the name 'Gaudete Sunday' -- Rejoice Sunday, the Sunday of joy. The first reading, taken from the prophet Isaiah, is a hymn to joy: 'The desert and the wasteland rejoice ... They sing with joy and jubilation ... They will be crowned with everlasting happiness; they will meet with joy and felicity and sadness and mourning will flee.'

"Everyone wants to be happy. If we could represent the whole of humanity to ourselves, in its deepest movement, we would see an immense crowd about a fruit tree on the tips of its toes desperately stretching out its hands in the attempt to lay hold of a piece of fruit that constantly eludes it. Happiness, Dante said, is 'quell dolce pome che per tanti rami / cercando va la cura de' tanti mortali' -- 'that sweet fruit that mortals seek / and strive to find on many boughs.'

"But if all of us are searching for happiness, why are so few truly happy and even those who are happy are only happy for such a short time? I believe that the principal reason is that, in our climb to the summit of the mountain, we go up the wrong side, we decide to take the wrong way up. Revelation says: 'God is love,' but man has tried to reverse the phrase so that it says: 'Love is God'! (That is what the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said.)

"Revelation says: 'God is happiness,' but man again inverts the order and says 'Happiness is God'! But what happens here? On earth we do not know pure happiness, just as we do not know absolute love; we only know bits and pieces of happiness, which often become mere passing stimulation of our senses. Thus, when we say, 'Happiness is God,' we divinize our little experiences; we call the works of our own hands or our own minds 'God.' We make happiness into an idol. This explains why he who seeks God always finds joy while he who seeks joy does not always find God. Man is reduced to looking for quantitative joy: chasing down ever more intense pleasures and emotions, or adding pleasure to pleasure -- just as the drug addict needs bigger and bigger doses to obtain the same level of pleasure.

"Only God is happy and makes happy. This is why a psalm says: 'Seek joy in the Lord, he will fulfill the desires of your heart' (Psalm 4). With him even the joys of the present life retain their sweet savor and do not change into anxiety. I am not only speaking of spiritual joys but all honest human joy: the joy of seeing your children grow, work brought happily to conclusion, friendship, health regained, creativity, art, leisure and contact with nature. Only God was able to draw from the lips of a saint the cry 'Enough joy, Lord! My heart can hold no more!' In God is found all of that which man usually associates with the word 'happiness' and infinitely more, since 'eye has not seen nor ear heard nor has it entered the heart of man that which God has prepared for those who love him' (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9).

"It is time to proclaim with greater courage the 'glad tidings' that God is happiness, that happiness -- not suffering, deprivation, the cross -- will have the last word. Suffering only serves to remove obstacles to joy, to open the soul, so that one day we can receive the greatest possible measure."

That's a challenging message, at least to me. I know, intellectually, that true joy is found only in God. I would never say that happiness is God -- but what does my life say?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Christmas trees and Nativity scenes

There's a little blurb on the Catholic News Service website about Pope Benedict XVI's speech about the significance of Christmas trees and Nativity scenes. I thought it was interesting, so here it is:

"Displaying the Christmas tree and a Nativity scene can help create a loving, warm, spiritual atmosphere in a world bent solely on making material gains, Pope Benedict XVI said. Christians 'must preserve' the spiritual heritage of the decorated tree and Christmas creche, he told representatives of Italy's Val Badia region who donated the 86-foot spruce tree adorning St. Peter's Square. The pope met with civil and religious leaders from this Dolomite region in a special audience Dec. 14 at the Vatican. 'Christmas is a Christian holiday and its symbols ... make important references to the great mystery of the incarnation and the birth of Jesus,' the pope said. The evergreen is an important symbol of the birth of Christ 'because its evergreen boughs recall everlasting life,' he said. Together with the Nativity scene, the decorated tree creates 'an atmosphere replete with religious feeling and domestic intimacy,' he said."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Giving gifts

There is so much emphasis at this time of year on buying, giving, and receiving gifts. While the over-commercialization of Christmas that has grown out of this practice is somewhat dismaying, the impulse to mark this holy season with the exchange of gifts dates back to the very first Christmas, when the Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:11).

One thing that Jesus' Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection teach us is that the greatest gift one can give is the gift of oneself. This week, The Catholic Northwest Progress features several stories about people who are sharing themselves and their gifts with others. I was lucky enough to be able to write a few of those stories. The first is about a group of Microsoft employees who take time out of their busy schedules to serve the poor with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. I also wrote a story and a sidebar about college grads who teach in under-resourced Catholic schools as part of a program called ACE at Notre Dame.

It was inspiring for me to see some of the many ways that people share their gifts with others out of love, and to remember the One Who is the ultimate Source of all gifts.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Jeanette and I watched The Muppet Christmas Carol tonight. I think it might be the most wonderful movie there is. Perhaps that's hyperbole, but maybe not. I'm not sure how many times I watched the DVD during the Christmas season last year, but far too many to admit publicly.

It's a beautifully filmed movie, and it's full of typical Muppet humor and catchy songs. It's also quite faithful to Dickens's original story, often using Dickens's dialogue and even his narration (performed by Gonzo). Michael Caine is excellent as Ebenezer Scrooge, completely unfazed by his Muppet costars.

I think my favorite scene is Christmas present at the Cratchit house. In addition to the song "Bless Us All," it contains one of my favorite lines of the movie, which comes straight out of Dickens. When Mrs. Cratchit (played by Miss Piggy), asks how Tiny Tim behaved at church, Bob Cratchit (played by Kermit) replies, "Aw, as good as gold and better. He told me that he hoped the people saw him in church because it might be pleasant for them to remember, upon Christmas day, Who made lame beggars walk and blind men see."

Even in movies with a positive message about "the true meaning of Christmas," it's so rare to find any reference to Who Christmas is all about.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Biblia Clerus

The Vatican Congregation for the Clergy just launched a new site called Biblia Clerus that has a whole lot of resources for studying the Bible in the light of the Catholic Church's magisterium, or official teaching, and the writings of the Church fathers. I just found it, so I haven't had a chance to explore too much of what it has to offer, but it looks like it could be extremely valuable for anyone interested in increasing their understanding of the Bible.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Free rice

On the off chance you haven't heard about freerice.com, I thought I'd tell you. It's a website where you can play a game that tests your vocabulary. For every question you get right, 20 grains of rice are donated to the United Nations World Food Programme to help fight hunger and starvation around the world. (The rice is paid for with money from companies who advertise on the site.) If you get a question wrong, the game isn't over -- your next question is just easier, and you can go on donating and improving your vocabulary.

The site was created by a guy named John Breen, who also created thehungersite.com, another site where you can contribute to worthy causes just by clicking on a button. Since it launched on October 7, freerice.com has donated more than 7 billion grains of rice.

I like situations where everyone wins, and this seems to be one of them. Companies get exposure, visitors get learning and fun, and hungry people get food.

Jesus said that whatever we do for the least of His brethren, we do for Him (Matthew 25:40). So if you've got some time to kill, check out freerice.com and help feed some hungry people, and Jesus.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Immaculate Conception

December 8 is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary (the mother of Jesus) in her mother's womb and not to the Incarnation of Jesus in Mary's womb.

Though belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception had been widely held since the early centuries of the Church, it was only defined dogmatically by Pope Pius IX in 1854 in the document Ineffabilis Deus, in which he wrote:

"The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin."

So, basically, Mary was conceived in the normal, sexual way (unlike Jesus), but God protected her from the stain of original sin that has plagued the rest of us ever since Adam and Eve first turned their backs on God in the Garden of Eden.

A friend once told me that one of his major problems with Catholicism was the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the idea that Mary was sinless. If that were true, he argued, then Mary wouldn't need to be saved, which doesn't square with Scripture, where, in her Magnificat, Mary calls God "my Savior" (Luke 1:47). At the time, I didn't know enough about Catholicism to know that Mary's Immaculate Conception and sinlessness did not imply that she did not need to be saved. Jesus is the Savior of all, including Mary. Mary did not remain sinless by her own power. Rather, Christ saved her from sin at the moment of her conception and filled her with God's grace. Scott Hahn explains this idea in his book Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God when he writes, "The immaculate conception is a divine act of preservation -- a work of God, and not a work of Mary herself." He continues:

"The immaculate conception, then, was a fruit of the redemption applied to Mary by way of anticipation; for the redemption was always in view for the eternal God, Who is not bound by time as we are. Thus, Christ's redemption applies to you and me, though we could not be there at Calvary -- and it applied to Mary at the moment of her creation, though Christ's saving death was still years away. Her redemption was an act of preservation, while for all others it is an act of deliverance.
"If Mary was sinless, did she really need Jesus to redeem her? Yes, she did. Her singular preservation could not have taken place without the redemption won for all men by Jesus. Jesus is God, and so He is both our creator and our redeemer. In the very act of creating Mary, he redeemed her from any limitations of human nature or susceptibility to sin. She is a creature, but she is His mother, and He has perfectly fulfilled the commandment to honor her. He honored her in a way that is singularly beautiful."

For an extensive treatment of the Immaculate Conception, check out this entry in the old Catholic Encyclopedia.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

St. John Damascene

Today is the feast of St. John Damascene. Here's a little blurb about him from a little blue Advent book I'm going through:

"Born about 676 in Damascus, Syria, John's Christian education from a captured Italian monk was supplemented by Muslim schools.

"He became chief counselor for the caliph, but when the new caliph became hostile to Christians, John left Damascus to become a monk at St. Sabas Monastery, southeast of Jerusalem.

"After ordination, John lived a quiet life of prayer and writing. He wrote commentaries on St. Paul, adapted choral music for liturgy, and composed hymns. He also successfully defended the use of icons (painted or mosaic religious art) against critics who felt venerating icons was akin to worshipping idols.

"John died in 749, and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1890."

Monday, December 3, 2007

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

This is a great Advent hymn. I love its evocation of the history of God's people and the theme of hopeful and eager expectation.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go. Refrain

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan's tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory over the grave. Refrain

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death's dark shadows put to flight. Refrain

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery. Refrain

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai's height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

O come, thou Root of Jesse's tree,
an ensign of thy people be;
before thee rulers silent fall;
all peoples on thy mercy call. Refrain

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace. Refrain

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear. Refrain

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Pope on Advent and hope

There's a nice little article on zenit.org today in which Pope Benedict XVI reflects on the nature and importance of hope and the season of Advent. Here's an excerpt:

"The world needs God, otherwise it remains without hope, said Benedict XVI when he summarized the central message of his encyclical 'Spe Salvi.'

"The Pope said this today before reciting the midday Angelus with those gathered in St. Peter's Square. He also spoke on the meaning of Advent, which begins today.

"Advent, the Holy Father said, 'is the propitious time to reawaken in our hearts the expectation of him "who is, who was and who is coming."'

"The Pontiff regarded the First Sunday of Advent as 'a most appropriate day to offer to the whole Church and all men of good will my second encyclical, which I wanted to dedicate to the theme of Christian hope.'

"Benedict XVI noted that in the New Testament 'the word hope is closely connected with the word faith.' Hope, he added, 'is a gift that changes the life of those who receive it, as the experience of so many saints demonstrates.'

"He asked: 'In what does this hope consist that is so great and so "trustworthy" as to make us say that "in it" we have "salvation"?

"'In substance it consists in the knowledge of God, in the discovery of his heart as a good and merciful Father.'"'With his death on the cross and his resurrection,' added the Pope, Jesus 'has revealed to us his countenance, the countenance of a God so great in love as to communicate to us an indestructible hope, a hope that not even death can crack, because the life of those who entrust themselves to this Father always opens onto the perspective of eternal beatitude.'"

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Spe Salvi

Pope Benedict XVI's second encyclical, Spe Salvi, was released yesterday. The subject of the encyclical is hope. I haven't read it yet, but just to get an idea of what it's about, I thought I'd scan the headings for each of the sections in the letter. They are:

1. Faith is Hope
2. The concept of faith-based hope in the New Testament and the early Church
3. Eternal life -- what is it?
4. Is Christian hope individualistic?
5. The transformation of Christian faith-hope in the modern age
6. The true shape of Christian hope
7. "Settings" for learning and practicing hope
-- Prayer as a school of hope
-- Action and suffering as settings for learning hope
-- Judgement as a setting for learning and practising hope
8. Mary, Star of Hope

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Birth of Christ

Last night I stumbled across a new piece of music called The Birth of Christ. It's a Christmas cantata by Seattle composer Andrew T. Miller. It was recorded by Anglican and Catholic choirs in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and it's narrated by Liam Neeson. It's being aired around the US during the weeks leading up to Christmas (here's the schedule). You can check out a video preview of the piece here.

It sounds like an exciting piece, and I'm looking forward to watching it in its entirety. The story of Christmas is just so fascinating -- I know that no matter how long I contemplate it, I'll never do more than scratch the surface of its beauty and mystery. So I take every chance I can get to experience someone else's take on the incredible night that changed the world forever. Here's what the composer has to say about his rationale for writing The Birth of Christ (from his website):

"The biblical chronicle of the Christmas story has always moved me. It is the tale of how God sent His son to us as a child. Most Christians know the rest of the gospels as the foundation of their faith—Christ ultimately grew to adulthood, lived a human life not unlike ours, performed miracles, gathered followers, was the example of how to live, endured many of the trials we do on earth, gave himself freely for our sins in the most selfless way and finally rose from the dead after three days, opening the gates of heaven for all who believe. The story is powerful, and has converted many just in its telling. But it has always been important for me to remember that Christ came to us as a little child, a helpless and defenseless tiny little baby. He was not born to nobility. He did not come to the throng of cheering crowds. He did not come as a conquering hero. He was born to a young and vulnerable woman and a carpenter who both said 'yes' to God’s call. He came in the manner He did, with the aid of the people He called so that all might know, as I’ve written in the conclusion of the cantata, He came for each and every one of us.

"I have likened The Birth of Christ to 'Mr. Andy’s Opus.' It has been many years in the making, but it is a story I’ve always wanted to tell through music. I have examined the scriptures and have juxtaposed them to what I feel must have been the human reaction by these very lowly and humble people to these amazing events. Bottom line, they must have been in awe and probably even a bit terrified: to encounter an angel in a dream, to receive instructions that you would conceive out of wedlock (a stoning offense in that time), seeing not just one angel, but a multitude in your field, or to encounter a few kings led by a star showing up to pay homage to an infant. These unbelievable events unfolded in this incredible tale and occurred to ordinary work-a-day folk who just responded to God’s call and said 'yes' in some way. It has been my desire to express, through the most powerful medium I know, a testament to God’s divine wisdom and power, and to share the reverence I hold for the holy people of this grand story.

"It is my great honor to have our special guest narrator, Liam Neeson, share this powerful scripture, have Catholic and Anglican choirs assembled en masse singing their hearts out, and enjoy six of the most talented soloists I know, sharing this new work with you. May it inspire you and usher in this Christmas season with a renewed sense of awe and wonder."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

World AIDS Day

December 1 is World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic. According to the latest estimates from the UN, there are 33.2 million people living with HIV worldwide, and 2.1 million people have died of AIDS this year.

To help raise a little bit of awareness about this tragic problem and the ways that ordinary people can help, I've written an article for The Catholic Northwest Progress about a recent college grad who's volunteering in Tanzania serving AIDS orphans. You can check it out here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Advent is coming

This Sunday, December 2, is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year. Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation, as we wait for the celebration of Jesus' birth on Christmas, as well as for His second coming. I've never observed Advent very seriously in the past, but I'm hoping it will be a season of growth and reflection for me this year. It looks like americancatholic.org has some decent ideas for the Advent season. Anyway, here are a few paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that are relevant to Advent:

"The coming of God's Son to earth is an event of such immensity that God willed to prepare for it over centuries. He makes everything converge on Christ: all the rituals and sacrifices, figures and symbols of the 'First Covenant'. He announces him through the mouths of the prophets who succeeded one another in Israel. Moreover, he awakens in the hearts of the pagans a dim expectation of this coming.

"St. John the Baptist is the Lord's immediate precursor or forerunner, sent to prepare his way. 'Prophet of the Most High', John surpasses all the prophets, of whom he is the last. He inaugurates the Gospel, already from his mother's womb welcomes the coming of Christ, and rejoices in being 'the friend of the bridegroom', whom he points out as 'the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world'. Going before Jesus 'in the spirit and power of Elijah', John bears witness to Christ in his preaching, by his Baptism of conversion, and through his martyrdom.

"When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor's birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: 'He must increase, but I must decrease.'" (CCC 522-524)

P.S. I am the king of inadvertent plays on words. The word Advent basically means "coming," but I did not have that in mind when I titled this post. I've never been a fan of puns and such, so maybe my subconscious makes me use them without realizing it sometimes just to mess with me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Praying to Saints

Note: Before I get started, I'm just going to clarify that when Catholics pray to Saints, we are not worshiping them. Worship is reserved for God alone, as the Catholic Church has always taught and will always teach. And Saints are certainly not God. They are simply people -- real, sinful people -- who sought to live lives of faith and holiness and who are now in Heaven with God.

Moving on: Jeanette asked me tonight what the point of praying to Saints is. I told her that was something I'd often wondered about myself. I tried to give her a decent answer at the time, and maybe this post will help clarify things a little more.

Many non-Catholic Christians have a big problem with the idea of praying to Saints, largely based on 1 Timothy 2:5, which says, "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." By praying to a Saint, Catholics are putting a mediator other than Christ between themselves and God, these Christians argue.

I guess now would be a good time to talk about what Catholics do when we pray to a Saint. I've already said it's not worship, but what is it? Basically, it's asking the Saint to intercede for you, to pray to God on your behalf.

If you think about it, that's really not so different from something that many Christians do all the time. We all go through difficult times in our lives, and during those times of trial it's very common to ask our friends and relatives to pray for us. Now, I've never heard anyone make the objection, based on 1 Timothy 2:5, that this practice is unbiblical. And yet it is practically identical with the practice of praying to the Saints. In both cases you are asking someone other than Christ to pray to God for you.

Of course, the reason you never hear anyone worrying about circumventing or usurping the unique mediation of Christ by asking their friends to pray for them is that asking others to pray for you is a perfectly biblical practice. It's true that Jesus is the one mediator between God and men, but He can effect that mediation however He pleases, and He allows us to participate in His mediation. Jesus has not arranged things such that we cannot intercede or mediate for one another. This is clear enough from moving just a few verses back from 1 Timothy 2:5 to 2:1, where Paul writes, "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men." Indeed, in Romans 15:30, Paul specifically asks others to pray for him: "I appeal to you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf." James is more explicit still when he tells his readers to "pray for one another" (James 5:16).

So it seems pretty clear to me -- since God inspired Paul to write both that Christ is the one mediator and that we should pray for each other -- that asking a friend to pray for you is not in conflict with 1 Timothy 2:5. And if we can ask our friends to pray for us, why not the Saints? The Saints are our friends in Heaven. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us. They're not dead -- they're more alive than us, and more closely united to God. And since "nothing unclean shall enter" (Revelation 21:27) Heaven, we know that God has made the Saints in Heaven fully righteous. Now, James 5:16 tells us that "the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects," so it seems like the Saints would be good people to have praying for you.

Praying to the Saints is not about circumventing Christ or avoiding Him or replacing Him -- it's about enlisting others who love Him and who know Him far better than we do to pray to Him along with us.

Now, when it comes to how prayer in general works, that is a mystery whose depths I have barely begun to plumb, so you'll have to give me some time if you'd ever like me to speak to that with any kind of clarity. For the time being, since I do not understand it, I must walk by faith in the amazing promises of Christ.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King

Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King, a feast that, in the current Church calendar, falls on the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quas Primas. Pope Pius XI was concerned with the many problems of the world, which he saw as stemming largely from man's rejection of the sovereignty of Christ and the fact that "the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives." He wanted to see a "restoration of the Empire of Our Lord," as he explained:

"15. This kingdom is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things. That this is so the above quotations from Scripture amply prove, and Christ by his own action confirms it. On many occasions, when the Jews and even the Apostles wrongly supposed that the Messiah would restore the liberties and the kingdom of Israel, he repelled and denied such a suggestion. When the populace thronged around him in admiration and would have acclaimed him King, he shrank from the honor and sought safety in flight. Before the Roman magistrate he declared that his kingdom was not of this world. The gospels present this kingdom as one which men prepare to enter by penance, and cannot actually enter except by faith and by baptism, which, though an external rite, signifies and produces an interior regeneration. This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.


"
16. Christ as our Redeemer purchased the Church at the price of his own blood; as priest he offered himself, and continues to offer himself as a victim for our sins. Is it not evident, then, that his kingly dignity partakes in a manner of both these offices?

"17. It would be a grave error, on the other hand, to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power. Nevertheless, during his life on earth he refrained from the exercise of such authority, and although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them."

The questions I think we have to keep asking ourselves are, "Is Christ true?" and "If so, what does that mean for me?" Because if Christ is true, if He died and rose again, if He is the Son of God, then He is the King, whether we like it or not. He either is or He isn't. And if He is, then He is the Standard by which all else is measured, He is our Savior, He is the Source and Sustainer of our very being.

It's hard to believe that, and it will take eternity to understand it, but the most difficult part is to submit to it. It takes great humility to submit to the sovereignty of Christ, and we can't do it without His grace. Even with His grace, none of us can do it perfectly. We will all inevitably stumble, and often. Yet we are still called to submit ourselves to Christ, to continually strive to surrender our own desires to His perfect will.

It sounds scary, and it sometimes is, but this submission to Christ is ultimately liberating. Because Christ the King is not a tyrannical dictator, but an extravagantly loving Good Shepherd Who desires nothing but the best for all of us.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI's second encyclical

Pope Benedict XVI is going to be releasing his second encyclical (kind of official letter) next Friday, and it's going to be about hope. Here's an announcement from zenit.org:

"Benedict XVI's second encyclical, 'Spe Salvi,' will be signed and released to the public Nov. 30, the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. The Pope's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said Thursday that the Holy Father would sign the document next Friday. The Vatican further confirmed today that the encyclical will also be released that day in eight languages, including English.

"The Holy See said 'Saved In Hope' will be presented by Cardinal Georges Cottier, retired theologian of the Pontifical Household, and Cardinal Albert Vanhoye, retired professor of New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

"As the Church prepares for the Year of St. Paul, the title, 'Spe Salvi,' refers to Paul's Letter to the Romans, 8:24: 'For in hope we were saved.'

"Hope has been an important theme in this pontificate. For example, in the homily the Pope delivered in Naples last Oct. 21 at the inauguration of the interreligious meeting for peace, he spoke of hope 11 times.

"Benedict XVI's second encyclical continues with a reflection on the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. His 2005 encyclical, 'Deus Caritas Est,' considered charity."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

. . . to everyone. I'm tired.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving is coming

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.
--Psalm 118:29

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, which means that I should take some extra time to give thanks to God for all the ways that He has blessed me. It also means that I've got two football games to play and a whole lot of food to eat. Those are great blessings in themselves.

More immediately, it means that I'm back in my hometown of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and that I'll probably see most of the people I've ever known in my life at Curly's tonight.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Gnostic Gospels

I've been reading a rather well-known book called The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, who is a professor of religion at Princeton University. The book is based on a large batch of so-called "gnostic gospels" that were discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945. The writings include texts from groups that were considered heretical by the orthodox Christian Church during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. In her book, Pagels explores the theological differences between the orthodox and "gnostic" groups and the apparent reasons for them.

The book has been interesting so far. I do disagree, however, with some of Pagels's argumentation. For example, she believes that ulterior political motives were behind the development of much of orthodox Christian doctrine. Though she does not seem to base this conclusion on anything more than speculation and coincidence, she asserts it as plain fact.

Though this assumption of bad faith is irritating, The Gnostic Gospels is valuable for -- if nothing else (which is not the case) -- the window it occasionally provides into the breathtaking world of early Christianity. An excerpt from "The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp" brought tears to my eyes. Polycarp, a 2nd-century bishop, was faced with certain execution unless he renounced Christianity and honored the Roman gods:

"The governor persisted and said, 'Swear and I will let you go. Curse Christ!' But Polycarp answered, 'For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong . . . If you delude yourself into think that I will swear by the emperor's genius, as you say, and if you pretend not to know who I am, listen and I will tell you plainly: I am a Christian.'"

"Polycarp was burned alive in the public arena," Pagels adds.

What a badass. What a faith.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Chesterton's Orthodoxy and Jesus' secret

I finished reading G. K. Chesterton's book Orthodoxy today. I thought it was a great book, and one that will bear repeat readings in years to come. Chesterton is a big-picture thinker. He is sometimes given to over-generalization, but more often than not, his insights ring true. One of Chesterton's great gifts is his ability to take the assumptions and beliefs of the modern world and turn them on their heads, usually by their own logic. His reasoning is utterly rational, his sense completely common.

Anyway, I found the conclusion of Orthodoxy particularly interesting, so I've included it below. I'd heard people remark before about the phenomenon Chesterton here considers, but I'd never heard such an intriguing and appealing explanation for it proposed. Anyway, here it is:

"Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The value of work

Brothers and sisters: You know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you. Not that we do not have the right. Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us. In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.
--2 Thessalonians 3:7-12

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Pope's personal preacher, gave a commentary on today's Mass readings that I found interesting. (It was translated and posted on zenit.org.) I've often struggled with the question of whether there would be any real meaning in a lot of the things I could do with my life, work-wise, and it was good for me to read his perspective. Here's an excerpt:

"This Sunday's Gospel [Luke 21:5-19] is one of the famous discourses on the end of the world, which are characteristic of the end of the liturgical year.

"It seems that in one of the first Christian communities, that of Thessalonica, there were believers who drew mistaken conclusions from these discourses of Christ. They thought that it was useless to weary themselves, to work or do anything since everything was about to come to an end. They thought it better to take each day as it came and not commit themselves to long-term projects and only to do the minimum to get by.

"St. Paul responds to them in the second reading: 'We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.' At the beginning of the passage, St. Paul recalls the rule that he had given to the Christians in Thessalonica: 'If anyone will not work, let him not eat.'

"This was a novelty for the men of that time. The culture to which they belonged looked down upon manual labor; it was regarded as degrading and as something to be left to slaves and the uneducated. But the Bible has a different vision. From the very first page it presents God as working for six days and resting on the seventh day. And all of this happens in the Bible before sin is spoken of. Work, therefore, is part of man's original nature and is not something that results from guilt and punishment. Manual labor is just as dignified as intellectual and spiritual labor. Jesus himself dedicates 17 years to the former -- supposing he began to work around 13 -- and only a few years to the latter.

"A layman has written: 'What sense and what value does our ordinary work as laypeople have before God? It is true that we laypeople also do a lot of charity work, engage in the apostolate, and volunteer work; but we must give most of our time and energies to ordinary jobs. If this sort of work has no value for heaven, we will have very little for eternity. No one we have asked about this has been able to give us satisfactory answers. They say: "Offer it all to God!" but is this enough?'

"My reply: No, the value of our work is not only conferred on it by the 'good intention' we put into it or the morning offering we make to God; it also has a value in itself, as a participation in God's creative and redemptive work and as service to our brothers. We read in one of the Vatican II documents, in 'Gaudium et Spes,' that it is by 'his labor [that] a man ordinarily supports himself and his family, is joined to his fellow men and serves them, and can exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing divine creation to perfection. Indeed, we hold that through labor offered to God man is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ' (No. 67)."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Planet Earth

Over the next few weeks, the Discovery Channel is going to be showing an "encore presentation" of Planet Earth, a documentary miniseries that BBC spent an exorbitant amount of time and money to shoot and produce.

I saw several of the episodes on DVD this summer, and I thought they were wonderful. The technology, technique, and obvious care that went into making them resulted in some absolutely breathtaking results, and I don't say that lightly. The series reveals things in nature that no one had ever seen before, and I found myself appreciating God's creativity and creation more and more as I watched. The episode lineup is:

1. "From Pole to Pole"
2. "Mountains"
3. "Fresh Water"
4. "Caves"
5. "Deserts"
6. "Ice Worlds"
7. "Great Plains"
8. "Jungles"
9. "Shallow Seas"
10. "Seasonal Forests"
11. "Ocean Deep"

Anyway, do yourself a favor, check out the schedule, and watch Planet Earth.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Man for All Seasons

Jeanette and I just watched A Man for All Seasons, a 1966 film about St. Thomas More that won six Academy Awards, including best screenplay, best director, best actor, and best picture. Here's the synopsis from the box:

"In 16th-century England, the corrupt King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) betrays the Roman Catholic Church to divorce his wife and marry his latest conquest Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave). Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) is then forced to choose between his principles and duty to his heretical king, who has begun executing the treasonous with increasing frequency. The historically profound battle of ideals also involves Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles), Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern), and More's valiant wife (Wendy Hiller)."

I thought it was a great movie, and it gave Jeanette and me a lot to think and talk about. If you haven't seen it, you should see it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Identity crisis in Catholic higher education

My first freelance story appeared today in The Catholic Northwest Progress, a newspaper serving the archdiocese of Seattle. It's about a lecture given recently at Seattle University about how Catholic colleges and universities can maintain or recover their distinctively Catholic identities. You can check out the article here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

More on Peter J. Gomes

Perhaps the highlight of my college career was the time when, during a Wednesday afternoon tea (yes, tea), Peter J. Gomes, Harvard's Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, said to me, in reference to my thirty-plus-year-old pastel striped necktie, "I like your tie."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus

Peter J. Gomes, Harvard's Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, has a new book out entitled The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good About the Good News? I haven't read it yet, but I can tell you already what the book's main weakness is -- that you can't hear Gomes speak it.

Gomes was one of my favorite professors at Harvard, largely because he was just such a joy to listen to. The best way I can explain his speaking skill is that my parents went to hear him give a talk during a parents' weekend at Harvard, after which my dad told me, "He talked for an hour and a half, and it felt like five minutes!"

I enjoyed Gomes's lectures so much that, after taking a course of his during the fall semester of my junior year, I audited his spring term course despite the fact that I had no interest in the subject matter. (The name of the course, just to give you an idea of how disgusting Harvard can be, was -- I'm not kidding -- The History of Harvard and Its Presidents.) Gomes is an old-school lecturer, and he speaks in what I've often called an affected (and inimitable) pseudo-British accent.

Now, I don't agree with all of Gomes's theology, but I have a great deal of respect for him, so I was very interested when I saw his new book the other day. Here's what the dust jacket had to say:

"Jesus came preaching, but the church wound up preaching Jesus. Why does the church insist upon making Jesus the object of its attention rather than heeding his message? Esteemed Harvard minister Peter J. Gomes believes that excessive focus on the Bible and doctrines about Jesus have led the Christian church astray. 'What did Jesus preach?' asks Gomes. To recover the transformative power of the gospel—'the good news'—Gomes says we must go beyond the Bible and rediscover how to live out Jesus' original revolutionary message of hope:

"'Dietrich Bonhoeffer once warned against cheap grace, and I warn now against cheap hope. Hope is not merely the optimistic view that somehow everything will turn out all right in the end if everyone just does as we do. Hope is the more rugged, the more muscular view that even if things don't turn out all right and aren't all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.'

"This gospel is offensive and always overturns the status quo, Gomes tells us. It's not good news for those who wish not to be disturbed, and today our churches resound with shrill speeches of fear and exclusivity or tepid retellings of a health-and-wealth gospel. With his unique blend of eloquence and insight, Gomes invites us to hear anew the radical nature of Jesus' message of hope and change. Using examples from ancient times as well as from modern pop culture, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus shows us why the good news is every bit as relevant today as when it was first preached."

Obviously, I can't extrapolate the whole message of Gomes's book from this brief summary, but I have a few thoughts on what this blurb suggests (keeping in mind that the blurb may just reflect the publisher's over-sensationalized spin). It's true that many Christians would do well to pay more attention to the radical nature of Jesus' teachings. We should always be trying to better understand and live out all that Jesus taught. But I don't like the suggestion that there must be some trade-off between focus on Jesus' message and Jesus Himself. Because Jesus was more than a teacher; He was God incarnate. He didn't come just to teach us the way; He is the way, and the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. That's a pretty important aspect of Jesus' message, if you ask me.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Coming to America

Pope Benedict XVI is making a visit to the United States next April, according to an article on zenit.org. Here are the logistical details from the article:

"The dates for Benedict XVI's upcoming trip to the United States were confirmed today; the Pope's visit is scheduled for April 15-20.

"Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, confirmed the dates for the six-day trip when he participated in the opening of the U.S. episcopal conference's fall meeting under way in Baltimore.

"Ban Ki-moon, U.N. secretary-general, last April officially asked the Pope to visit the United Nations.

"The Holy Father will arrive in Washington on April 15. The next day, his 81st birthday, he will receive an official welcome at the White House. Later that afternoon, he will address the U.S. bishops' conference.

"On April 17, after celebrating Mass at the Washington Nationals' stadium, the Pope will give an address at the Catholic University of America.

"Benedict XVI will be in New York on April 18, for a visit to the United Nations in the morning and an ecumenical meeting in the afternoon. His time in New York will also include Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral on April 19, the anniversary of his papal election, and a meeting with youth. On April 20, the Holy Father will visit ground zero, where the twin towers stood. That afternoon, the trip will officially end with Mass at Yankee Stadium."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Holy water and sacramentals

So as we were leaving Mass tonight, Jeanette asked me, as she has a few times before, what the deal is with holy water. She asked in reference to the bowl of water at the back of the church that people commonly dip their fingers in before making the sign of the cross as they enter or leave the church building.

I told her, helpfully, that holy water is water that has been blessed by a priest. She asked what does it do? I said holy water is what's known as a sacramental, and that I wasn't entirely clear on what exactly sacramentals do, but that I thought they were supposed to have some symbolic/reminderly value. Anyway, since no one should have to go off of my vague notions and semi-educated guesses, I told Jeanette that I would do some research about sacramentals, and holy water specifically. So here are the fruits of my research.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section on sacramentals which starts off thusly:

"Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy." (CCC 1667, quoting Sacrosanctum concilium)

I didn't quite understand all that, so I kept reading to try to find out exactly what sacramentals are and what they do:

"They always include a prayer, often accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water (which recalls Baptism)." (CCC 1668)

"Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church's prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it. 'For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.'" (CCC 1670, quoting Sacrosanctum concilium)

So, broadly speaking, it sounds like pretty much any material thing can be a sacramental, as long as it helps us to receive God's grace and cooperate with it. But apparently not all sacramentals are material:

"Among sacramentals blessings (of persons, meals, objects, and places) come first. Every blessing praises God and prays for his gifts. In Christ, Christians are blessed by God the Father 'with every spiritual blessing.' This is why the Church imparts blessings by invoking the name of Jesus, usually while making the holy sign of the cross of Christ." (CCC 1671, quoting Ephesians 1:3)

Exorcism is also covered in the section on sacramentals, but now we're a long way from where we started, I think. Here's what the Catechism says "in brief" about sacramentals, and then we'll get back to holy water:

"Sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church. They prepare men to receive the fruit of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life." (CCC 1677)

Jimmy Akin, a great Catholic apologist, gives this explanation of sacramentals on his blog:

"Like the other sacramentals, holy water thus serves as a means by which we can to something to signify our desire to consecrate ourselves and our circumstances to God, striking a connection with him in response to his grace and asking him to give us of his grace. They are, if you will, a kind of acted out prayer in which we and the Church implore God's blessings."

So, holy water. As I said, holy water is water that has been blessed by a priest, and it is a sacramental. And the bowl that it is kept in is properly called a font. Holy water is used for baptism (which is itself a sacrament, not to be confused with a sacramental) and, as I said, for making the sign of the cross as one enters a church. Dipping your fingers in holy water and making the sign of the cross is intended to be a reminder of baptism. A priest will also sometimes sprinkle holy water over the congregation at the beginning of Mass. You can even put some holy water from church in a bottle and take it home with you.

Anyway, to close, here is the rite of blessing said by the priest at a baptism to make water into holy water. I think it's wonderful.

"Father, You give us grace through sacramental signs, which tell us of the wonders of Your unseen power.

"In baptism we use Your gift of water, which You have made a rich symbol of the grace You give us in this sacrament.

"At the very dawn of creation, Your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness.

"The waters of the great flood You made a sign of the waters of baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.

"Through the waters of the Red Sea, You led Israel out of slavery, to be an image of God's holy people, set free from sin by baptism.

"In the waters of the Jordan, Your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Spirit.

"Your Son willed that water and blood should flow from His side as He hung upon the cross.

"After His resurrection, He told His disciples: 'Go out and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'

"Father, look now with love upon Your Church, and unseal for her the fountain of baptism.

"By the power of the Spirit give to the water of this font the grace of your Son.

"You created man in Your own likeness: cleanse him from sin in a new birth of innocence by water and the Spirit.

"We ask You, Father, with Your Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the waters of this font.

"May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with Him to newness of life. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy

I was at Barnes & Noble today and I found a nice little hardcover edition of G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy with a foreword by one of my favorite Christian writers, Philip Yancey, who calls Chesterton the "Prophet of Mirth." I'd tried reading Orthodoxy in an online once before, but I always find it hard to read things on a computer screen for extended periods (not nearly so easy as writing . . . ) and so I gave it up a couple chapters in.

But I think that Chesterton is just such a funny and fascinating character, and I've never heard a bad thing about his book, so I want to finish reading it. Here is Chesterton's preface to Orthodoxy:

"This book is meant to be a companion to 'Heretics,' and to put the positive side in addition to the negative. Many critics complained of the book called Heretics because it merely criticised current philosophies without offering any alternative philosophy. This book is an attempt to answer the challenge. It is unavoidably affirmative and therefore unavoidably autobiographical. The writer has been driven back upon somewhat the same difficulty as that which beset Newman in writing his Apologia; he has been forced to be egotistical only in order to be sincere. While everything else may be different the motive in both cases is the same. It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it. The book is therefore arranged upon the positive principle of a riddle and its answer. It deals first with all the writer's own solitary and sincere speculations and then with all the startling style in which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian theology. The writer regards it as amounting to a convincing creed. But if it is not that it is at least a repeated and surprising coincidence."

Friday, November 9, 2007

Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran

I found out at Mass this afternoon that today is the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran. To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure who St. John Lateran was, or what he was dedicated to, so I decided to do a little research. Turns out I was on the wrong track. From americancatholic.org:

"Most Catholics think of St. Peter’s as the pope’s main church, but they are wrong. St. John Lateran is the pope’s church, the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome where the Bishop of Rome presides.

"The first basilica on the site was built in the fourth century when Constantine donated land he had received from the wealthy Lateran family. That structure and its successors suffered fire, earthquake and the ravages of war, but the Lateran remained the church where popes were consecrated until the popes returned from Avignon in the 14th century to find the church and the adjoining palace in ruins.

"Pope Innocent X commissioned the present structure in 1646. One of Rome’s most imposing churches, the Lateran’s towering facade is crowned with 15 colossal statues of Christ, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and 12 doctors of the Church. Beneath its high altar rest the remains of the small wooden table on which tradition holds St. Peter himself celebrated Mass."

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Intercessions

I thought intercessions from this morning's prayers in the liturgy of the hours were beautiful:

Let us joyfully cry out in thanks to God the Father whose love guides and nourishes his people: May you be glorified, Lord, for all ages.
Most merciful Father, we praise you for your love, for you wondrously created us and even more wondrously restored us to grace.
At the beginning of this day fill our hearts with zeal for serving you, so that our thoughts and actions may redound to your glory.
Purify our hearts of every evil desire, make us intent on doing your will.
Open our hearts to the needs of all men, fill us with brotherly love.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

St. Jerome and the Bible

Pope Benedict XVI today gave a brief teaching on the life of St. Jerome, who was born in the 340s and died in the year 420. St. Jerome is best known for translating the Bible into Latin from the original Hebrew and Greek. "To ignore Scripture," he said, "is to ignore Christ." That's a message all Christians would do well to remember. Here's the English portion of the Pope's teaching:

"In our catechesis on the teachers of the early Church, we now turn to Saint Jerome, who was responsible for the Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate. Jerome made the Scriptures the centre of his life, translating the inspired word of God, commenting upon its teaching and, above all, striving to live his life in accordance with its precepts. Born in Dalmatia in the middle of the fourth century and educated in Rome, he embraced the ascetic life and devoted himself to the study of Hebrew and Greek. After a sojourn in the East, he returned to Rome as secretary to Pope Damasus, who encouraged him in his work of translation. He then retired to the Holy Land, where he founded monasteries and a hospice for pilgrims in Bethlehem. Jerome’s entire life, his vast erudition and the spiritual wisdom born of his ascetic lifestyle were devoted to the service of God’s word, the refutation of heresy and the encouragement of Christian culture. Let us take to heart the words which this great master of the spiritual life once addressed to Saint Paulinus of Nola, and 'seek to learn on earth those truths which will remain ever valid in heaven'."

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Beowulf

I had high hopes for Robert Zemeckis's "digitally enhanced live-action" film adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, which is set to be released next Friday. I read Seamus Heaney's wonderful verse translation of the poem in high school, and I got to study it in the original Anglo-Saxon at Harvard. Beowulf has a reputation for being unbearably boring -- and it is, at times -- but I found it absolutely fascinating for the most part, mainly because Beowulf is such a captivatingly cocky character, and he's got the goods to back up his numerous boasts. There's also the poem's strange mix of pagan and Christian worldviews, not to mention the pulsing power of Anglo-Saxon poetry itself. The one passage that sticks in my mind whenever I think of Beowulf is the introduction of Beowulf's primary foe, Grendel, in which the monster's biblical genealogy is explained. Here it is in Heaney's translation:

So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until he gave them their reward.

Just fascinating, at least to me! I also have to include one of Beowulf's fantastic boasts:

"When it comes to fighting, I count myself
as dangerous any day as Grendel.
So it won't be a cutting edge I'll wield
to mow him down, easily as I might.
He has no idea of the arts of war,
of shield or sword-play, although he does possess
a wild strength. No weapons, therefore,
for either this night: unarmed he shall face me
if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit."

Grendel, by the way, had earlier "grabbed thirty men" and dragged their "butchered corpses" back to his lair, just to give you an idea of what Beowulf was up against. What a great story.

So I had high hopes, as I say, for the film adaptation of Beowulf, but I'm a little bit nervous after seeing the trailers, which look, in my opinion, silly. Fidelity to the original text certainly doesn't seem to have been a high priority for the filmmakers. I can't make heads or tails of what many of the plot differences are between the poem and the movie, but I'm fairly certain, for example, that Grendel's mother is not portrayed in the poem as looking anything like Angelina Jolie. I tried to embed one of the TV spot videos here, but it was way too big and it looked silly, so here's a link to the movie trailers and such.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A new short-lived interest

So I've decided that if everything else falls through, I'm going to be a professional ocarinist.

I got an ocarina (a kind of funny little wind instrument that's apparently been around for thousands of years) this week at Pike Place Market in Seattle, and I'm pretty excited about it so far. It's small, it has four holes, it's in the key of F#, and it can play a chromatic scale over a range of one octave. Oh, it's also high-pitched and loud, which means that Jeanette groans every time it makes an appearance.

But I'm not discouraged. So far I've been able to fake my way through "Amazing Grace," "My Song is Love Unknown," "Joy to the World," "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," and a barely recognizable rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

With that kind of encouraging success, I probably won't lose track of my ocarina for at least another week or two.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Here we go . . .

Don't disappoint me, guys.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

If Your Mind Wanders at Mass

Thomas Howard has given the world a wonderful gift in his beautiful little book If Your Mind Wanders at Mass. Even those whose minds never wander at Mass should read it. Howard aptly leads the reader through a step-by-step tour of the Mass, pausing along the way to explain the heavenly significance of each minute detail of the liturgy.

This book would not be particularly appropriate as a primer for someone who had never been to a Catholic church before, but Catholics and non-Catholics alike who have always wondered why Catholics do things the way they do will find their appreciation of the Mass greatly increased by reading this slim volume.

I read this book during the summer and then lent it to my grandma, and it was so good that I'm going to read it again now that I've gotten it back.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The universal call to holiness

There's a brief article on zenit.org about Pope Benedict's All Saints' Day Angelus address, in which the Pope reminded his audience that all people are called to sainthood. An excerpt:

"Before praying the Angelus on Thursday, All Saints' Day, with those gathered in St. Peter's Square, the Pope clarified the misconception that sainthood is only for the 'chosen few.' In fact, he added, 'to become a saint is the task of every Christian, and what's more, we could even say it's the task of everyone!'

"The Holy Father said that that the Christian is already holy, 'because baptism unites him to Jesus and the paschal mystery, but at the same time he has to become holy, conforming himself to Jesus ever more intimately.'

"He said that God invites everyone to form part of his holy people, and that the path to holiness is through 'Christ, the son, the Holy One of God: No one reaches the Father if not through him.'"

The thing to remember is that no one can become holy on their own. It is only through God's grace that anyone can become holy. God continually offers that grace to all of us, but we are free to refuse it, as most of us usually do. What we have to do, in order to become all that we were created to be, is accept God's grace and cooperate with it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

All Saints' Day

As I mentioned yesterday, today is the Feast of All Saints. I just wanted to share a very nice prayer for today from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All Hallows' Eve

Growing up, I heard every once in a while that the word Halloween was derived from a contraction of the phrase All Hallows' Eve, but that never had much significance for me since I had no idea what All Hallows' Eve meant in the first place. It makes a lot more sense now that I realize that hallow is an old word for saint and that October 31 is the day before the Catholic solemnity All Saints' Day, a day when the faithful on earth remember and honor all those members of the Mystical Body of Christ who have gone before us and are now in Heaven. This feast has its roots in the Catholic understanding of the communion of saints. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

"We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church." (CCC 962, quoting Paul VI)

(Almost entirely unrelated side note: I have a vague memory of being chastised by my kindergarten teacher for spelling Halloween like this: Hall-o-ween. Come on. I think she should have been impressed that I got that close as a five-year-old. Or maybe I was in third grade . . . )

Happy Halloween

I was once a clown baby:

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Religion and politics

I read a big article this afternoon from this Sunday's New York Times Magazine that was rather interesting. It presented a lot of anecdotal evidence for a number of trends in the political activities of American Evangelical Christians, including the possible disintegration of the so-called "religious right."

The article, written by David D. Kirkpatrick and entitled "The Evangelical Crackup," covers a number of influential Evangelical pastors who are moving away from their traditional loyalty to the Republican Party and starting to "lean left" in their politics and their preaching.

I'm not going to say whether this leftward trend is a good or a bad thing, because I think that the alliance of Christianity with any specific political ideology is a dangerous and foolish enterprise. This is not to say that I believe that religion should be completely divorced from politics, that Christians should not take a stand on "political" issues, or that one's religious convictions should not have an influence on how one votes. This is because to take Christianity seriously is to hold certain beliefs that cannot be compartmentalized and contained within the "religious" portion of one's life. Likewise, there is no such thing as a purely political issue, since politics influence the lives of everyone, not just of politicians.

As I say, though, I think that it is dangerous for Christianity to ally itself with any specific political ideology, whether Republican or Democrat. The main reason for this is that the beliefs of Christianity -- at least as I understand them -- do not fit neatly with the platforms of either of the prevailing political parties in the United States. While both parties support policies that Christians can and should get behind, they both also get it wrong on plenty of important issues. For a Christian to give his or her unreserved loyalty to either party for the sake of some element of that party's platform is thus to give implicit assent to a whole host of positions indefensible from a Christian perspective. This situation, I believe, leads to the temptation to modify one's theology to fit one's political positions, rather than the other way around.

I think it's a much safer practice for Christians to support specific policies or candidates -- regardless of their "conservative" or "liberal" pedigrees -- rather than committing themselves to a given political party and all its baggage.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Awesome

I first saw a choppy version this video on Saturday night, and soon afterwards received multiple e-mails about it. So, in case you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and check out this video of the final seconds of a Division III college football game:



Yes, that was 15 laterals. Ridiculous.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A journey through John - 14:15-17

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth."

Rather than give any thoughts on this passage, I'm just going to post it again in musical form. Specifically, this is a recording of "If Ye Love Me" by Thomas Tallis, a 16th century English composer and lifelong Catholic. It's a simple, beautiful little choral work, and it's one of my favorites, so I hope you enjoy it:

Saturday, October 27, 2007

More "historical" nonsense

Sorry to rant, but I just wanted to point out my other main objection to much of the field of historical Jesus scholarship, which is illustrated in the opening paragraph of the course description for Thomas Sheehan's Historical Jesus course at Stanford University, the lecture audio of which is available on iTunes U:

"Who was the historical Jesus of Nazareth? What did he actually say and do, as contrasted with what early Christians (e.g. Paul and the Gospel writers) believed that he said and did? What did the man Jesus actually think of himself and of his mission, as contrasted with the messianic and even divine claims that the New Testament makes about him? In short, what are the differences -- and continuities -- between the Jesus who lived and died in history and the Christ who lives on in believers' faith?"

I think the most startlingly arrogant aspect of this paragraph is that Sheehan grants that the writers of the New Testament actually believed that Jesus had said and done the things that they wrote about Him saying and doing. It would be one thing for Sheehan to argue that Paul and the Gospel writers had fabricated fictional yet edifying stories about Jesus to fit their quasi-mystical experience of His whatever. But he doesn't. He concedes that they wrote what they "believed . . . he said and did."

And yet he contends that modern historians nearly 2,000 years removed from the lifetime of Jesus have a better grasp on what Jesus said and did than the people who lived at the same time and in the same place as Jesus and who were writing within a few decades of His death!

And these modern historians can know what Jesus really said and did, "as contrasted with what early Christians . . . believed that he said and did," despite the fact that the only historical data about Jesus that these modern historians have to work with are the writings of those stupid early Christians who knew so little about what Jesus said and did!

I would say that this is pure arrogance, except that there's a good amount of nonsense mixed in there, too.