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.
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