Tuesday, December 29, 2009

God as Popster

I'm a big fan of Fr. Larry Richards. I have listened many times to a couple of wonderful CDs by Fr. Richards: Confession and The Mass Explained. I am currently reading Fr. Richards' book, Be A Man: Becoming the Man God Created You to Be. It's a wonderful book so far. He talks about Jesus telling us to call God not merely our Father but "Abba," a child's term for "father" in Aramaic. In his darkest hour, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays: "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mark 14:36). St. Paul reiterates this intimate relationship in two different places. First in Romans: "When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Romans 8:15-17). Then in Galatians: "And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir" (Galatians 4:6-7). Fr. Richards reminds us that in the Jewish culture of the first century (and among the Orthodox Jewish faithful today), one could not say aloud the name of God out of reverence for him. However, Jesus told people to call God by the same kind of name a small child would call his or her father. As Fr. Richards puts it, calling God Abba is "not something you decide to do. It's something that the Spirit of the Living God, which was given to you the day you were baptized, cries out to you for you to do" (p. 44).

My second-grade daughter has taken to calling me "poppy" or "popster," depending on her mood. I don't know where she heard these terms; from a cartoon most likely. But she has been calling me these for a while now, and it is very sweet when she does it. If she doesn't physically give me hug when she says it, the way she says it sounds like a vocal hug. As I was reading Fr. Richards, I thought of how my daughter addresses me as "poppy" or "popster," and thought of Jesus telling us how to talk with God. As I seek to take my prayer life to another level, I realize that I need to go down to go up, to become more simple to become more profound. I need to get to the point that Bob Dylan speaks of his in song, "My Back Pages," where he says: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Holidays vs. Holy Days

The phrase "Merry Christmas" seemed to make a comeback of sorts this season. That was good to see. Something that I think is important for religious folks to understand, as well as secular folks, is that "Happy Holidays" does not address what religious people observe during this time of year. For those for whom Christmas is Santa and nostalgic images, then Christmas is indeed a holiday, on par with President's Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, etc. However, for those for whom Christmas is the birth of the Savior of the World, or for those for whom Hanukkah is the remembrance of the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees after the desecration of the Temple by the Seleucid Empire, then these are not "holidays" but "holy days." While semantically the words are related, the ideas they represent could not be more different. Holy Days represent opportunities to connect with the sacred, to grow closer to God, while holidays are a day off from work and an opportunity for stores to sell more products. People who are "cultural" or "nominal" Catholics treat Holy Days like holidays and are already almost completely secularized. But even for those who are very observant Catholics, there is still the danger that we will make Christmas too much like the secular, eviscerated version. That is why observance of the Advent and Christmas seasons are so important. The four weeks of spiritual preparation (rather than focusing primarily on the shopping, the decorating, and the card-writing) for Advent, and the two-plus weeks of celebration of the Christmas season (from Christmas Eve to the Baptism of the Lord on January 10) are liturgical antidotes to the binge-and-purge mentality of the secular approach to this time of year. So let us celebrate and contemplate the great joy of the coming of Christ, and share that joy with all we meet.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Reason for the Season

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus had a conversation with Pontius Pilate. Part of this conversation concerned the reason for His Incarnation. Jesus said to Pilate:

"For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice." Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" (John 18:37-38)

The reason we celebrate Christmas is because God was born as a human being. The reason He was born was to "bear witness to the truth." The problem is we are too often like Pilate, and, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men, we "can't handle the truth."

On this Christmas night, may we draw closer to the One Who is Truth itself. And in the coming year, may we bear witness to the truth to all we meet.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Gimme Shelter

I continue to think of the theme of shelter in the birth of Jesus. I wrote about this earlier today. I then began to think about different ways in which we give shelter to Jesus. Mary sheltered Jesus in her womb, which is why she is sometimes referred to as a "living tabernacle." Visiting Jesus in the tabernacle for Eucharistic adoration is another setting where Jesus is being sheltered. Of course, receiving Jesus in Holy Communion is a crucial way of sheltering Jesus. Yet another way that we give shelter to Jesus is through spiritual Communion, where we ask Jesus to come into our heart.

We must also not forget those fellow children of God who do not have shelter. Fr. Benedict Groeschel has a recording of the Rosary (The Rosary is a Place) where he meditates on the the Third Joyful Mystery, the Birth of Jesus, as a reflection on how Jesus came in poverty, and how we are to be moved to help those in need. We should be especially mindful of the homeless during this Christmas season. Not only was the Holy Family without a home at Jesus' birth, but they were refugees in Egypt as they sought to escape Herod's slaughter.

While I would not generally look to the Rolling Stones for spiritual inspiration, I find the title of their song, "Gimme Shelter," to be relevant here. Jesus is asking us to give Him shelter. How can we say no?

Christmas Greetings from St. John of the Cross

I've been reading the poetry of St. John of the Cross. Here is one titled "Christmas Refrain":

The Virgin, weighed
with the Word of God,
comes down the road:
if only you'll shelter her.

The Spanish word translated here as "shelter" is "posada." Today we think of the Mexican tradition of Las Posadas, where during the nine days prior to Christmas (a physical novena, of sorts), people go from house to house re-enacting the wandering of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay so Mary can give birth to Jesus. During Las Posadas, neighbors form a procession and knock on the doors of various houses but are not admitted entrance, until one house lets them in, and the neighbors come in to celebrate with a party.

Mary is Jesus' mother, and our mother. If we let her, she will show us the fruit of her womb, Jesus. Pray this Christmas that we will give the Holy Family shelter.

Friday, December 18, 2009

College Football and the Peace of Christ

Those who are college football fans know Tim Tebow, the amazing quarterback for the University of Florida Gators. His accomplishments in the arena of football are already legendary. However, what I find most interesting about Tebow is his faith and the way he wears it on his sleeve. Actually, he wears it on his eye black. Eye black is the black strip that football players often wear under each of their eyes. Tebow puts scripture verses in white on his eye black. A couple of weeks ago he wrote "John 16:33" on his eye black. That passage reads: "I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."

Peace is important to Christ, and to us. However, peace as Jesus speaks of it does not mean the absence of conflict. Jesus talks about giving us peace in the midst of tribulation, not as a replacement of it. Think of the peace that so many martyrs experienced in the midst of their martyrdom. St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp spring immediately to my mind. The peace of Christ helps us to oppose the world, and to transform it, because Jesus has overcome the world. John begins his Gospel with this crucial message of Christ's supremacy:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

John also focuses on peace elsewhere. When Jesus is telling his disciples about his departure from this world and the coming of the Holy Spirit, he addresses the worries and fears of his followers:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

Again, we are told that the world is not to be our guide, but Jesus. He often speaks in the Gospels of not being afraid (which Pope John Paul II reiterated throughout his pontificate). Peace does not eliminate trouble, but it does eliminate fear, because we put our trust in the One who is wholly trustworthy.

On the evening of Jesus' resurrection, he appears to the disciples in their closed room and his first words to them are: "Peace be with you" (John 20:19). They were certainly facing tribulation that day, and would in the foreseeable future, but Jesus greets them with a message of peace and trust.

Tim Tebow put John 16:33 on his eye black before Florida fell to Alabama and would not play for their third national championship in four years. Jesus did not promise that there would not be disappointment. He did promise that if we place our trust in Him rather than in the world, we would not be disappointed, and in that trust we would find peace. Tim Tebow understands that, and I appreciate his reminding us all of that promise.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

St. John of the Cross on the Eucharist

I have started reading the writings of St. John of the Cross in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. After reading St. Therese, I find myself going to her Carmelite forebears as I seek to increase the fervor of my spiritual life. This is a struggle for me, because my spiritual life (such as it is) often stays on an intellectual, abstract plane (this is my comfort zone).

I was reading St. John's poem, Stanzas of the soul that suffers with longing to see God. The first stanza begins:

I no longer live within myself
and I cannot live without God,
for having neither him nor myself
what will life be?
It will be a thousand deaths,
longing for my true life
and dying because I do not die.

The goal of our spiritual lives must be to go outside of ourselves and into God. The paradox of dying to ourselves and living for God is that we find ourselves, our "true life." As St. Matthew writes, "Then Jesus told his disciples, 'If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it'" (Matthew 16:24-25). The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that this is not an either/or proposition, but a both/and one. Quoting St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the Catechism tells us that immersing ourselves in God puts us fully in touch with our humanity: "The grace of the Kingdom is 'the union of the entire holy and royal Trinity...with the whole human spirit'" (CCC, paragraph 2565).

St. John has an interesting perspective on Eucharistic adoration in stanza 5 of this poem:

When I try to find relief
seeing you in the Sacrament
I find this greater sorrow:
I cannot enjoy you wholly.
All things are affliction
since I do not see you as I desire,
and I die because I do not die.

We learn about how deep this affliction was by how much he loved Jesus in the Eucharist. In the Biographical Sketch in The Collected Works, we are told that Corpus Christi was one of his favorite feast days (p. 27). "On arriving at a monastery he always made it a point first to greet the sick after his visit to the Blessed Sacrament" (p. 24). "His greatest suffering during the imprisonment in Toledo was being deprived of the Eucharist. The Blessed Sacrament was 'all his glory, all his happiness, and for him far surpassed all the things of the earth.' The one privilege he accepted when major superior in Segovia was the cell closest to the Blessed Sacrament" (p. 27).

I find such solace and peace most of the time in Eucharistic adoration. However, St. John reminds me that if I truly perceived (as much as we finite creatures can perceive) Who is before me and how much He loves me, then I would ache with love to be united with Him.

While I enjoy the solace and peace, I pray for the ache and longing, so that I may progress along the road of spiritual growth.

Monday, December 14, 2009

St. Louis Bertrand Parish - Louisville, KY

My wife and I spent the weekend in Louisville, KY. On Sunday, we went to mass at the Dominican parish, St. Louis Bertrand. It is a beautiful, Gothic-style church with amazing woodwork in the sanctuary. The parish website has some pictures of the church. I have posted one of those pictures above, although it does not do the sanctuary justice. St. Louis Bertrand Church made me think about how the surroudings of our worship matter. I like both modern and past architectural styles. God did not ordain Gothic architecture as the truest expression of faith in form, although it is certainly an important one. What matters in our worship spaces are at least the following aspects: 1) does the building express important truths of our faith (transcendence and immanence, for example), 2) is beauty used to reflect and glorify God, and 3) does the physical building help us to worship and grow closer to God. Sometimes going to different parishes helps us to pay more attention to how the building helps us to build up our faith and increase our fervor for God. The building matters. However, in the most beautiful parish church, cathedral, or basilica, the beauty of that space is but a dim reflection of the center of that church, of the Church, Jesus in the Eucharist residing in the tabernacle.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Is Christmas for Children?

Each year I hear at least one person say, "Christmas is for the children." Unfortunately, this view trivializes Christmas. Yes, Christmas is for children, as it is for all of humanity. But Christmas is so much more than presents. St. Paul reminds us that there are some things we outgrow: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Corinthians 13:11). Our faith, and our understanding of Christmas, must do the same.

Christmas is the comingling of the divine and the human. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (John 1:14).

Christmas is Jesus as the fulcrum of salvation history. The advent practice of creating a Jesse Tree reminds us of how God has acted in human history and prepared Israel for the coming of the Savior. The world changed when Jesus came into it. That is why Christians view time in terms of "Before Christ" (BC) and "Anno Domini" (AD - "In the Year of the Lord"). We also see a similar divide regarding Christ's first coming and His anticipated Second Coming.

Christmas is the road to the Cross. There is an interesting Christmas decoration of a nail, to be hung deep within the tree, as a reminder of Jesus' Passion. Imbedded in the joyful mystery of the birth of Jesus is the sorrowful mystery of His crucifixion. We see this in the carol, "We Three Kings," in the verse which reads: Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/Breathes a life of gathering gloom;/Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,/Sealed in the stone-cold tomb."

Christmas is a Eucharistic revelation. In Hebrew, Bethlehem, means "House of Bread." In Arabic, it means, "House of Meat." Jesus was laid in a "manger" (Luke 2:7), which is a trough where animals eat. The bread that is transformed into flesh is the Eucharist, and it is our food for salvation. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have not life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him" (John 6:53-56).

Is Christmas for children? Yes. Christmas is for helping children to understand that the things of this world cannot satisfy them, but there is One who can.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Gift - A Piece of the True Cross

One day a while back my daughter gave me a gift. It was a piece of foam wrapped in facial tissue and tied with a rubber band. The foam was part of a cross that she had made at church as a craft and later tore apart to make a bridge for some imaginary adventure. So here was this ugly, worthless pile of things that she gave me. Quickly I was reminded of how everything that we offer to God is objectively worthless, deficient, even pitiful compared with the One to whom we offer it. This is especially true when we think of the gift He gave us of His Son. And yet, it is precisely because of His gift to us--the clear sign of His prodigal love for us--that we know that our worthless gift has value in His eyes. So my daughter helped build several bridges: her play bridge, a bridge between her and me, and a bridge between me and God. The use of a cross as a bridge to God was rather inspired. Not bad for a day's play.