Saturday, December 28, 2013

Patriarch Bartholomew I's Christmas Message

+ BARTHOLOMEW
By God’s Mercy Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome
and Ecumenical Patriarch
To the Plenitude of the Church:
Grace, mercy, and peace from the Savior Christ, born in Bethlehem

Beloved brothers and sisters, children in the Lord,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”
(Isaiah 9.5)

Many centuries ago, the Prophet foresaw and announced with enthusiasm and joy the birth of the child Jesus from the ever-Virgin Mary. Naturally, even then, there was no period of census by Augustus Caesar, no place to stay for the safety of the Holy Virgin who was carrying a child by the Holy Spirit. So the holy Joseph as her betrothed and protector was obliged to lead her to a cave, a manger with animals, “in order to give birth to a child.”

Heaven and earth received them, offering thanks to their Creator: “The angels offered the hymn; the heavens a star; the wise men gifts; the shepherds a miracle; the earth a cave; the desert a manger; and we the Mother Virgin.” The shepherds were keeping watch over their flock, protecting them throughout the night, while the angels were witnessing the Mystery in ecstasy, singing hymns to God. (From Vespers of the Nativity)

The sweetness of the Holy Night of Christmas once again embraces the world. And in the midst of human trial and pain, of unending crises, of passion and enmity, of concern and despair, it presents the mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Word as a genuine and timely solution. For He descended as dew in a field of cotton inside the womb of the ever-Virgin Mary in order to give rise to righteousness and much peace. (See Ps. 71.7)

In the silence and peace of that sacred night of Christmas, Jesus Christ – being without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, immaterial, ever existing and the same – enters the drama of history bearing flesh, being insignificant, simple, poor and unknown. At the same time, he comes as a “wonderful, counselor, almighty, prince of peace, everlasting father.” (Is. 9.6) Indeed, he comes as a human being, born of a Virgin Mother, to solve the complexity of sin and grant resolution to the impasse of life’s anxiety through His grace and mercy, while providing destiny, value, content, as well as an exemplary ethos and model for the human adventure.

The Lord assumed and sanctified all of human nature. The pre-eternal God condescended to become for us an embryo and be borne inside the womb of the Theotokos. In so doing, He both honored human life from its earliest stage and taught us respect toward humankind from its earliest conception. The Creator of all accepted to be born as an infant and be nurtured by a Virgin. In so doing, He honored both virginity and motherhood, spiritual and natural. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian exhorts: “O women, be as virgins, so that you may become mothers of Christ.” (Homily XXXVIII on Epiphany, PG36.313A)

So the Lord appointed the marriage of male and female in the blessed family. The institution of Christian family constitutes the cell of life and an incubator for the spiritual and physical health and development of children. Therefore, the manifold support of the institution of the family comprises the obligation of the Church and responsibility of leadership in every country.

In order for a child to be raised in a healthy and natural way, there needs to be a family where man and woman live in harmony as one body, one flesh, and one soul, submitting to one another.

We are certain that all spiritual and ecclesiastical, much like the vigilant shepherds of old, but also the leaders of our world, know and accept this divine truth and reality, which we once again proclaim from the Ecumenical Patriarchate during this Christmas period. We must all encourage the creation and function of natural families, which can produce citizens that are spiritually healthy and joyful, filled with sentiments of security, based on the feeling of safety provided by a strong and protective father as well as a nurturing and loving mother. We need families where God might find rest. We invite and urge the entire plenitude of our holy Orthodox Church to live in a manner that is worthy of their calling and do everything that is possible to support the institution of marriage.

Brothers and sisters, “the night is far gone; the day is at hand.” (Rom. 6.12) The shepherds are already headed toward Bethlehem in order to proclaim the miracle. They are inviting us to follow them “like other star-gazing wise men filled with joy” (From the Christmas Troparion of the 4th Ode), bringing “worthy gifts” “such as fine gold to the King of ages, incense to the God of all, and myrrh to the immortal that lay dead for three days.” (Anatolios, Vesperal Hymn at Christmas) That is to say, the gifts of love and our faith, which test us as Christians, especially as Orthodox Christians, in the ethos and tradition of the family, the Fathers, and the Church, which has always practiced the Orthodox way through the centuries and to this day holds together our blessed society, whose cell for sacred life and growth is the family.

Beloved brothers and sisters, children in Christ,
2013 years have passed since the birth of Christ in the flesh
2013 years have passed and, like then, Christ continues to be persecuted in the person of the weak by Herod and all kinds of contemporary Herods
2013 years have passed and Jesus is persecuted in the person of Christians in Syria and elsewhere
2013 years have passed and Christ still flees like a refuge not only in Egypt, but also in the Lebanon, Europe, America and elsewhere, seeking security in an insecure world
2013 years have passed and the child Jesus remains imprisoned with the two hierarchs in Syria, Paul (Yazigi) and Youhanna (Ibrahim), as well as the Orthodox nuns and many other known and unknown Christians
2013 years have passed and Christ is crucified with those who are tortured and killed in order not to betray their faith in Him
2013 years have passed and Jesus is daily put to death in the person of thousands of embryos, whose parents prevent from being born
2013 years have passed and Christ is mocked and ridiculed in the person of unfortunate children, who experience the crisis of the family, destitution and poverty.

It is this human pain, sorrow and affliction that our Lord came and once more comes to assume during this Christmas season. After all, He said: “As you have done to one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters,” you have done to me.” (Matt. 25.40-41) It is for these that He was born of a Virgin, for these that He became human, for these that He suffered, was crucified and arose from the dead. That is to say: for all of us. Thus, let each of us lift up our personal cross in order to find grace and mercy when we seek His assistance. Then, the born Emmanuel, our Savior and Lord, will “be with us.” Amen. Christmas 2013 + Bartholomew of Constantinople Your fervent supplicant before God

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The Queen's Christmas Message 2013 AD



Christmas

"One night there went out over the stillness of the evening breeze, out over those white chalky hills of Bethlehem, a cry, a gentle cry, the cry of a new born babe. 'The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.' Earth did not hear the cry, for they did not know that a Child could be greater than a man; the sea did not hear the cry, for the sea was filled with its own voice; kings did not hear the cry, for they did not know that a King could be born in a stable; empires did not hear the cry, for only the very simple and the very learned - never the man with one book - know that the heart of a God can cry out in the cry of a Child. And they came with gifts - and adored, and so great was the majesty seated on the brow of the Child which lay before them, so great was the dignity of the babe, so powerful was the light of those eyes that shone like celestial suns, that they could not help but cry out: 'Emmanuel: God is with us.'

God revealed Himself to men again. This time He shone through the prism of the Incarnation and brought Divine life to human life. He who is born without a mother in Heaven is born without a father on earth. He who made His mother is born of His Mother. He who made all flesh is born of flesh. 'The bird that built the nest is hatched therein.' Maker of the sun, under the sun; Moulder of the earth, on the earth; Ineffably Wise, a little Infant. Filling the world, lying in a manger; ruling the stars, suckling a breast; the mirth of Heaven weeps; God becomes man; Creator a creature. Rich become poor; Divinity incarnate; Majesty subjugated; Liberty captive; Eternity time; Master a servant, Truth accused; Judge judged; Justice condemned; Lord scourged; Power bound with ropes; King crowned with thorns; Salvation wounded; Life, dead. 'The Eternal Word is dumb.' Marvel of marvels! Union of unions! Three mysterious unions in one: Divinity and humanity; Virginity and fecundity; Faith and the heart of man. And though we shall live on through eternity, eternity will not be long enough for the us to understand the mystery of that 'Child who was a father and of the mother who was a child.'

For the first time in the history of the redeemed universe is the Divine Life hypostatically bound up with human nature. That very life of God that passes from Father to Son in the eternal generation of the Trinity, now passes into the world and assumes a human nature like our own, graces it with the plenitude of His Divinity, and gives us that message of hope: 'I am come that you may have life and that in abudndance' - not the physical life which dies, but the spiritual life which endureth unto life everlasting. Men now began to hear answers to those terrible questions which the Greeks had asked: If God is alone, how is He happy? If He is one, what does He think about? If He is alone, whom does He love? The answer was the Trinity, that inmost life of God, that fullness and fruitfulness of Knowledge and Life which is the sourced of the ineffable bliss of the society of the Three Persons in One God. And as He who brought the secret of the Trinity walked over the earth seeking for a place to lay His head, while the foxes had their holes and the birds their nests, the world began to understand how much God must love the world when He sent into it His only begotten Son. And when He told men the story of the prodigal son and taught them to pray thus: 'Our Fatter,' then they realized what a blessed privilege it was to be a brother of Jesus Christ, and a son of the Father. And finally when men heard a cry ringing out over the muffled sound of steel sinking through sinews and fibers of hands raised only to bless: 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,' whey began to understand the worth of a soul. It was as if the lesson were being driven in their souls like a spear into His heart: the lesson that certainly, in the words of St. Augustine, if a 'man is sufficient for a God, then God ought to be sufficient for man.'"

-Fulton J. Sheen (The Life of All Living, pp. 40-43).

The Deeper Meaning of Christmas

by Marcellino D'Ambrosio, Ph.D

In the days of Caesar Augustus, an era of peace was established in the Mediterranean world after centuries of strife. But this peace was forged by the proud ambition of emperors and the edge of their armies’ swords.

Upon this stage appears a baby acclaimed as king by eastern dignitaries. Neither Caesar nor Herod will brook any rivals. So brutal hordes are sent to slay Him at birth, though He himself comes without armies. The thugs are thwarted, but only for a season. For the royal child is laid in a manger, and the wood of that manger foreshadows the wood of the cross.

Caesar and Herod were bound to misunderstand Him. They climbed their way to the top, stepping on all who stood in their way. He emptied himself and plunged to the bottom, from the glory of heaven to the squalor of a stable. Pharaohs and Caesars strained towards immortality. Yet He who was Immortal by nature embraced mortality. The great ones of the world took every opportunity to exalt themselves. In the very act of being born, He humbled himself. To read more, click HERE.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas

When I was younger, I was always disappointed that Christmas was over so quickly and I often wished that Christmas could be celebrated for more than one day; little did I know that the Church does celebrate Christmas longer than one day. Continuing the Jewish tradition, Christmas is celebrated for eight days - so, Christmas is technically over on January 1 (the reason why we're asked to go to Mass on New Years). The feast is unofficially extended even longer because the season of Christmastide lasts until January 6, the feast of Epiphany.

I love being Catholic...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Happy Birth of the Unconquered Sun!

In our posting about the time when Christians banned Christmas, we learned that part of the Puritans' complaints was that Christmas isn't in the Bible and that it was really a holiday created by Rome - logically speaking, the Puritans concluded that "Reformed Christians" shouldn't celebrate "Roman" holidays, that to celebrate Christmas was to celebrate paganism. Let's take a look at these claims and examine them in context.

In our recent posting on the Ember Days, we discussed the Church's love and interest in nature, the harvest, and the seasons; the Church's fascination with Creation doesn't end with this world as we seek the New Creation of the world to come. In a pagan world which was mainly concerned with agriculture for work and sustainability, it would make sense that the various cultures through the centuries would be concerned with the weather and crop yield. In pagan societies, these concerns would be given over to various false deities with sacrifices, prayers, and offerings being given in order to obtain favor for the coming season or to ask for relief from drought or floods. These prayers for relief or celebrations of blessings would sometimes give themselves over to various festivals and celebrations. In parts of Northern Europe, where the winter months could be brutally cold with very short periods of sunlight available, the pagan cultures would make offerings or celebrate festivals in the hopes that the winter would be short and that the warmth and bounty of spring would soon be upon us; therefore, winter festivals were quite common in the pagan and Christian world.

The Church recognizes that "[f]rom ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history (NA, 2)" and that since God is Truth, all truth must be from him and return to him - that is why truth can never be subjective or arbitrary, because God is never-changing, so neither is eternal truth. Therefore with non-Christian religions the Church "rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men (NA, 2)." The Church believes that the truths found in earlier pagan cultures were ways in which God was starting to reveal himself to the Gentiles, preparing us in our long Advent towards his full revelation in Jesus Christ; therefore, we see that some truths in pagan thought point towards Christ, not the other way around (as so many present-day atheists think). Early Christian evangelists would use the writings of Aristotle and Plato in order to lead pagans to Christianity, as parts of their writings were not in opposition to the faith. Even St. Paul in his arrival in Athens shows that there was a bit of truth in the beliefs of the pagans.

So was Christmas originally a pagan holiday? Some Catholic scholars say yes, others say no, and still others say it's a little bit of both. It's true that the Church has often rebranded customs in order to evangelize; the Catholic Encyclopedia explains: The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. This is probably what Puritans found so offensive, but as we read earlier, the Church does not reject truths that come from other groups of people because ALL eternal truth comes from God; to rebrand something in order to teach pagans the truths of the faith is nothing new or offensive. Quite honestly, I don't care where Christmas came from - it's one of my favorite times of year and I love the liturgy during Christmastide. At Christmas we get to contemplate the great mystery that God Himself became man, humbling himself as a newborn; this Creator of the Universe was now helpless in the arms of his mother, nursing at her breast, and completely dependent upon Joseph and Mary to raise and protect him. Isn't that incredible? And he lived amongst us, laughing with us, crying with us, learning with us. He learned the psalms, he went to temple, he bumped his head and scraped his knees. He endured temptation in the desert and would sacrifice himself upon the Cross, so obedient was he to God's will. Out of love he did this, dying and then rising again to return to his place in heaven. ALL of this began to take form at Christmas and is so significant that we restarted how we count our years. The Bible doesn't say, "Thou shalt celebrate my birthday," or perhaps it's a rebranded pagan holiday - personally, I don't care because the birth of Christ is so much bigger than these arguments.

One of the pagan holidays that has always been mentioned as the "original" Christmas is the celebration of Saturnalia. This is a winter festival from Italy, dedicated to their god of agriculture, Saturn (Saturday, by the way, is also named after Saturn). The celebration originally began on December 15 in the original Roman calendar (the Kalendas Ianuarias), but when the Julian calendar was created in 45 BC, the holiday was shifted to December 17 and ran until December 23. Although this is close to the day of Christmas, it doesn't quite match up; even still, many modern-day atheists (and some extreme Calvinists) like to mention Saturnalia as the origin of Christmas.

Others like to mention the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the Birth of the Unconquered Sun). Roman Emperor Aurelian established this feast on December 25 in 274 AD, and the earliest calendar we have that shows Christmas being celebrated on December 25 was in 354 AD - many have interpreted that to mean that Christmas came after people were celebrating Dies Natalis Solis Invicti - however this is not supported by the historical evidence. For instance, Pope Saint Telesphorus (who died in 137 AD) instituted the Midnight Mass at Christmas, so one can assume that Christmas was being celebrated at least by the second century, earlier than the feast of the Unconquered Sun. Other Church Fathers have also attested to the early celebration of Christmas and you can read all about this in Dr. Taylor Marshall's free e-book God's Birthday: Why Christ Was Born on December 25 & Why It Matters.

So where did the rumor of Christmas being Saturnalia or the Birth of the Unconquered Sun come from? Sadly, the charges became most popular after the Reformation. We read in When Christians Banned Christmas that throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, various Puritan and Presbyterian ministers routinely condemned Christmas as a pagan holiday and invention of the pope. This continued in the 18th Century as Lutheran minister Paul Ernst Jablonski also tried to popularize the idea that Roman Catholicism replaced a pagan holiday with Christmas. However, the Rev. Dr. Thomas J. Talley, professor of Liturgics at the Episcopalian General Theological Seminary in New York, wrote in his book The Origins of the Liturgical Year that there is good reason to believe that the Emperor's establishment of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun was actually in response to the celebration of Christmas; it was created to diminish Christmas.

Probably the best book on the Roman Empire that I've ever read is Caesar and Christ, written by Will Durant - a man who believes that Christianity is mainly warmed-over paganism - and even he lends credence to the idea that the Empire was trying to make Roman paganism more attractive than Christianity:

The old religions still claimed a majority of the Empire's population...under Aurelian a modified Mithraism [cult of the ancient Indo-Iranian Sun-god Mithra] captured the Roman state. Around the year 178...paganism made a lusty attempt to defend itself against Christianity. We know of it only through Origen's book 'Against Celsus'...[Celsus] felt that the civilization which he enjoyed was bound up with the old Roman faith, and he resolved to defend that faith by attacking the Christianity that was now its most challenging enemy.

In other areas of the book, Durant repeats that various emperors saw the Empire's only chance of survival was to return to her ancient faith and several attempts were made at squelching Christianity so that paganism could thrive again. Honest research is starting to show that Christmas more than likely existed before the establishment of the Sun feast, which itself was established in order to compete with Christmas.

So, was Jesus really born on December 25? And if so, how do we know that? Early theologians in Rome came up with the date of Christ's birth using Scripture and the writings of the earliest Christians. In St. Luke's Gospel, he writes that Zacharia was serving in the temple during the "course of Abias” (Lk 1:5). Dr. Taylor Marshall explains that "Scripture records [the course of Abias] as the eighth course among the twenty-four priestly courses (Neh 12:17). Each shift of priests served one week in the temple for two times each year. The course of Abias served during the eighth week and the thirty-second week in the annual cycle...Josef Heinrich Friedlieb has convincingly established that the first priestly course of Jojarib was on duty during the destruction of Jerusalem on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. Thus the priestly course of Jojarib was on duty during the second week of Av. Consequently, the priestly course of Abias (the course of Saint Zacharias) was undoubtedly serving during the second week of the Jewish month of Tishri—the very week of the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of Tishri. In our calendar, the Day of Atonement would land anywhere from September 22 to October 8."

Scripture says that John the Baptist was conceived after Zacharia finished his course in the temple, about the end of September, which would make John's birthday sometime in June (the Church celebrates it on June 24). When Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John, the Virgin Mary went off to stay with her (Lk 1:24-27, 36); this makes John the Baptist six months older than Jesus. June 24 plus six months equals December 24/25; December 25 minus nine months equals March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation (the day that the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary and she said 'Yes' to being the Mother of God). The Church treated this day as SO important in the Western Christian world that at one time March 25 was celebrated as NEW YEARS! In fact, England celebrated New Years' on March 25 up until as recently as 1752!

The calculation that the birth of Christ was on December 25 seems very convincing, but we don't know the date of his birth for sure (although some are completely convinced it was 12/25). Additionally, the evidence against Christmas being an early pagan celebration seems equally convincing. The Puritans and other Calvinists were willing to reject Christmas simply because it was Catholic and not specifically addressed in the Bible, missing the entire point of the holy day. I think Pope Francis did an excellent job explaining the significance of Christmas the other day and it bears repeating here:

Christmas is the celebration of the presence of God who came among us to save us...The birth of Jesus is not a fairytale! It is the story of a real event, which occurred in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. Faith allows us to recognise in the Child born to the Virgin Mary the true Son of God, made man for our love. In the face of the child Jesus we contemplate the face of God, who did not show Himself to us in strength, in power, but in the weakness and fragility of a newborn. This is our God, who comes so close to us, as a child. This Child shows the trust and tenderness of the boundless love with which God surrounds each one of us. This is why we celebrate Christmas, reliving the same experience of the shepherds of Bethlehem. Along with many fathers and mothers who work hard every day, making many sacrifices; along with the young, the sick and the poor, we celebrate, because it is the celebration of our encounter with God in Jesus”.

That is why we celebrate Christmas. Christianity isn't just a book - it's a relationship, a living out of our baptismal promises. And so if it's not in the Bible, or it was once called Saturnalia or the Birth of the Unconquered Sun, or if it was invented by a pope, so what? The fact remains that God loves us so much that he became one of us and lived amongst us in order to save us. Shouldn't that be celebrated?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Our Lady of Coatlallope

Today is the feast day of the apparition of Our Lady to St. Juan Diego in 1531. A book on the apparition that I highly recommend is Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love. The book goes into the story of the apparition and an account of the miraculous image left upon Juan's tilma. An aspect of the apparition that I think is amazing is the name Our Lady chose when she revealed herself to St. Juan - the Spanish believed she called herself "Our Lady of Guadalupe", which is a river in Spain - however, some theologians muse if this was a mistranslation of the native word Coatlallope, which means "one who treads on snakes". This is profound, as we hear a reference of this in the protoevangelium:

I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel (Gen 3:15).

The following is a homily given by Father Samuel Medley, SOLT, is a priest of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, and is currently based in Hythe, Kent, United Kingdom & "borrowed" from Catholic.org:

Amalekites. Not very nice people. Sacrificed baby's to the god of darkness. God sent Abraham to them to make them extinct.

Aztecs. Also not too nice. Sacrificed people by ripping their still-beating hearts out of their chests to placate the god of darkness, Tezcatlipoca. For one feast they sacrificed atop of the great pyramid of Tenaochtitlan 80,000 people in three days with a line of victims stretching 2 miles long. God sent his Mother to them to save them from extinction.

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It commemorates the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a little native man, Saint Juan Diego, of the Aztec people.

Her coming to the Aztecs heralded the conversion of over 10 million people in a few years.

In a few decades the people that were a war[r]ing culture, intent on conquering different tribes of peoples to find more victims for sacrifice, had become peace loving and God fearing and had replaced human sacrifice with the Holy Sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

We need her again today.

Italy. France. Spain. They will all be extinct in two hundred years. These traditionally Catholic cultures are literally contracepting themselves into extinction.

It is a demographic fact (each couple has 1.39 children) that they will no longer exist if they continue to sacrifice their children to the devil with contraception and its result - decriminalized abortion.

With such a drastically low population rate they will undoubtedly disappear like the Amalekites because they kill their own children.

They need the Mother of God. Now.

Today, I will be standing outside an abortuary here in England holding an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, praying peacefully the Rosary, begging the Mother of God to obtain once again, the conversion of millions from murdering their own children on the temple of convenience to the god of darkness.

We need to beg the Holy Mother of God to intervene in human history and save us from destroying ourselves. It was she who conceived and bore the Savior of the human race, and she continues to bring Him again and again mercifully into different historical situations.

To not act is itself an action. It is a grave omission, a decision to ignore the mass murdering of our generation. We must all do our part, or face the ensuing disaster for our inaction.

May the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is the patroness not only of the pro-life movement, but also the patroness of the New Evangelization, obtain for mankind once again, the end of a culture of death with the dawning of a culture of life.

----- Father Samuel Medley, SOLT, is a priest of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, and is currently based in Hythe, Kent, United Kingdom. He is a speaks to groups around the world on Blessed Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Visit his homily blog http://medleyminute.blogspot.com or his blog on sexual ethics http://loveandresponsibility.org

Saturday, December 7, 2013

When Christians Banned Christmas

It's hard to believe, but at one time in history some Christians had banned the celebration of Christmas. In order to understand how this came about, we must look at some religious history and its influence on the modern Western world. I want to be clear in this discussion that any mention of the various Protestant faiths and reformers are not meant to be insulting or disparaging, but are just a historical account of the events that took place; I am not judging anyone and only want to help explain why certain things are the way they are today. It cannot be overemphasized that the influence of the Puritans and certain early American Protestant leaders greatly affected the way in which American Christians celebrate Christmas even today.

Our story starts off with the English Puritans. Most Americans are familiar with the Puritans because of the famous Thanksgiving story of their coming to the new world on the Mayflower, however most of us are unfamiliar with their presence in England; that history is very ugly. The most extreme of the English Reformers, the Puritans can trace their religious views to John Calvin. They rejected any sort of hierarchy and practiced Sabbatarianism, which devoted all of Sunday to worship, condemning any work or activities. Puritans believed that the Church of England held on to too many Catholic "corruptions" and they desired to purify English Christianity from these "unbiblical" practices. At the close of the English Civil War (1642–46), the king was executed and the Parliamentarians took over, allowing the Puritans to exert their power over the rest of England; in 1647, the Puritan government banned the celebration of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun in England. All shops and markets were told to stay open on December 25 and anyone caught holding or going to a Christmas church service would suffer a severe penalty. In London, things were so strict that soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets and told to seize any food they thought was being prepared for Christmas. All Christmas decorations were banned - like trees, wreaths, holly, and mistletoe - as well as a variety of food typical to the British celebration, such as mince pies and figgy pudding. It's hard to believe, but even ministers would be arrested for trying to preach on Christmas.

The basis for this ban was that the Puritans (and some other Reformers) believed Christmas to be unbiblical and an invention of the Catholic Church; even the name (from the Old English Cristes Maesse - 'the Mass of Christ') was found offensive. Modern-day Calvinist theologian Dr. Scott Johnson said, "Christmas was accurately depicted [by the Puritans] by such names as the Profane Man's Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man's Idol Day, the Papist's Massing Day, Foolstide, the Old Heathen's Feasting Day, the Multitude's Idle Day, and Satan's Working Day," in his book X-Mas: The Biggest Pagan Holiday/Holyday of the Year. Calvinist theologian Brian Schwertley wrote: The reason that Christmas became a church holy day has nothing to do with the Bible. The Bible does not give the date of Christ's birth. Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to celebrate Christmas. Christmas (as well as many other pagan practices) was adopted by the Roman church as a missionary strategy. Presbyterian pastor and theologian Greg Price said, "Scripture and history are brought to bear most specifically on the celebration of Christ-mass, demonstrating why it is a sin to celebrate this day," and said that Christmas was part of "paganism and Babylonian Christianity". In Kevin Reed's book Christmas: A Biblical Critique, he said that "to call yourself Reformed while you hold on to this Roman Catholic/Pagan monument of idolatry makes for a serious contradiction in your testimony -- as the best Reformed churches have always disciplined those (in accord with Scriptural teaching) who broke the second and fourth commandments by keeping antichristian festival days like Christ-mass, Easter, etc. These are modern-day Calvinists writing this stuff, so we shouldn't be surprised that their ancestors, the Puritans, felt the same way about Christmas. Let's look at some more of their teachings:

...concerning festival days findeth that in the explication of the first head of the first book of discipline it was thought good that the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, with the feasts of the Apostles, Martyrs, and Virgin Mary be utterly abolished because they are neither commanded nor warranted by Scripture and that such as observe them be punished by Civil Magistrates. Here utter abolition is craved and not reformation of abuses only and that because the observation of such feasts have no warrant from the word of God. (The Acts of the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland, December 10, Session 17, 1638)

I would to God that every holy day whatsoever besides the Lord's day were abolished...Those holy days have been so tainted with superstitions that I wonder we tremble not at their very names. (Martin Bucer, cited in William Ames, A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God's Worship, 1633)

The word Christ-mass is enough to cause such as are studious of reformation to dislike what shall be known by a name so superstitious. Why should Protestants own any thing which has the name of Mass in it? How unsuitable is it to join Christ and Mass together? i.e., Christ and Antichrist? (Increase Mather, a man partly responsible for the Salem Witch Trials, in his 'Testimony Against that Prophane and Superstitious Custom of Christ-mass Keeping')

By communicating with idolaters in their rites and ceremonies, we ourselves become guilty of idolatry...Forasmuch, then, as kneeling before the consecrated bread, the sign of the cross, surplice, festival days, bishopping, bowing down to the altar, administration of the sacraments in private places, etc., are the wares of Rome, the baggage of Babylon, the trinkets of the whore, the badges of Popery, the ensigns of Christ's enemies, and the very trophies of antichrist, -- we cannot conform, communicate and symbolise with the idolatrous Papists in the use of the same, without making ourselves idolaters by participation. Shall the chaste spouse of Christ take upon her the ornaments of the whore? Shall the Israel of God symbolise with her who is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt? Shall the Lord's redeemed people wear the ensigns of their captivity? Shall the saints be seen with the mark of the beast? Shall the Christian church be like the antichristian, the holy like the profane, religion like superstition, the temple of God like the synagogue of Satan? (George Gillespie, one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, in his 'A Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies')

The Puritan reign of terror in England and Ireland ended in 1661 with the restoration of the British monarchy. Needless to say, it was quite uncomfortable for the Puritans to stay in England. All laws restricting the celebration of Christmas were rescinded and the British people happily celebrated the birth of Christ once again. Several additional laws were passed to punish religious minorities (Catholic and Protestant) and due to this hostile environment, the Puritans (and other oppressed people of England) left their homeland for a new life in North America. The anti-Catholic beliefs about Christmas were brought to the new world by the Puritan immigrants at the Plymouth colony. Wanting to create a land where Christianity would be free from Catholic contamination, the Massachusetts Bay colony quickly made sure to ban the celebration of Christmas: ...it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county. Christmas was outlawed in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681; this anti-Christmas sentiment could be found in New England as late as almost the twentieth century, forcing children in Boston to attend school on Christmas Day as recently as 1869.

To be fair to the Puritans, they weren't the only ones who found Christmas offensive and, bizarrely enough, 'unchristian':

Christmas. This is the name of the day on which is wont to be celebrated the idolatrous Romish sacrifice of the mass, in honor of the birth of Christ. As nearly as can be now ascertained, the day was first set apart for this purpose by the authority of the bishop at Rome...But as Protestants, we long ago abjured the authority of the Pope of Rome, and we still utterly repudiate his right to legislate for us, either over our consciences or our conduct. (The Reformed Presbyterian magazine, January, 1851)

The Romish Church, in opposition to the word of God, has a great multiplicity of annually returning sacred seasons. The 25th day of December is one of those seasons; at which time, originally, a heathen festival was held. 'This day was next baptized into a Romish mass for the birth of Christ...The absence [in the Bible] both of the date and command, makes it as clear to us as a sunbeam, that the natal day of our Saviour, even were it known, should not be honored by any religious observance whatsoever. (The Associate Presbyterian Magazine, February, 1879)

Observance of Christmas, or the lack thereof, was one way to differentiate among the Christian sects of Colonial and 19th-century America. Anglicans, Moravians, Dutch Reformed, and Lutherans, to name just a few, did; Quakers, Puritans, Separatists, Baptists, and some Presbyteriansdid not. An 1855 New York Times report on Christmas services in the city noted that Baptist and Methodist churches were closed because they "do not accept the day as a holy one," while Episcopal and Catholic churches were open and "decked with evergreens." New England Congregationalist preacher Henry Ward Beecher remembered decorative greenery as an exotic touch that one could see only in Episcopal churches, "a Romish institution kept up by the Romish church." (Slate.com)

Christmas wouldn't become a legal holiday in New England until 1856 and some schools stayed open on Christmas Day until 1870, until at which time it had become a federal holiday. For many non-Catholic Americans, the celebration of Christmas seemed a foreign concept thanks to this heavy influence from the Puritans, Calvinists, and other radical Reformers. As Christmas traditions started to take on more secular tones, more and more non-Catholics started to feel more comfortable celebrating the holiday.

I find it interesting that the world is starting to reestablish this "Christmas isn't special" attitude once again; you see this by how many businesses are open on Christmas and by how many new movies now debut on Christmas Day. It seems as though, in their enthusiasm for purifying Christianity, these Reformers ushered in our current secular society by making all of these holy traditions seem "superstitious". Many modern-day non-Catholics reject the Puritans and radical Calvinists and have embraced the celebration of Christmas and Easter. Grace Communion International, in a long explanation on whether or not celebrating Christmas is a sin, stated, "Christians who keep Christmas are not pagans...They honor Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior."

However, there is one charge by Calvinists that needs to be addressed, and that will be saved for another posting; it is the claim that Christmas has pagan roots and many of our Christmas traditions can be traced back to pagan origins. I believe that this subject matter deserves its own posting, so that'll wait until next time.

Time and time again, we can attribute many of the problems we have today to our divisions. ...that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me (John 17:21). May we finally find the humility and beg for the graces needed in order to reject the notion of "the duty of separation" so that, with one united voice, we may bring the Gospel to all the world. Only in a fallen world ruled by Satan would the celebration of the birth of Christ cause so much division, hatred, and bigotry.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber

This is an unparalleled eyewitness account of just what transpired at the Second Vatican Council. The author's integrity and objectivity won him exclusive interviews with a great number of the Cardinal and Bishops, whatever their allegiance within the Council. The title neatly sums up the fact that Vatican II, and the documents of Vatican II, were shaped largely by the liberal ideas of the Fathers from the Rhine lands. In The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, the strategies of the liberals in promoting their ideas come through on every page. Father Wiltgen's journalistic masterpiece shows clearly the two main theological forces that were at work in the church before the Council, during the Council, and after the Council, and which remain very much at work in the Church today. To purchase it, click HERE.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Jolly Ol' St. Nick

"St. Nicholas the Wonderworker" is beloved by Christians of both East and West. This saintly man was born in the third century in the town of Patara, which is in present-day Turkey. The only child of his wealthy parents, they died young due to an epidemic, and Nicholas gave all the wealth and property that he inherited to the poor. A devout Christian, he was made bishop of Myra at a young age; strong in his faith, he would suffer exile and imprisonment under the persecutions of Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Whether in prison or ministering to his diocese, Nicholas was an active and tireless shepherd to his flock. In 325, the Council of Nicaea was called to deal with a rupture in the Church; Arius was a priest from North Africa who taught that Jesus Christ was not God, but was instead God's most perfect creation. This confusion grew from Arius' home in North Africa and spread throughout the Christian world; passions ran so strongly that fights would break out and there was a real danger that the heresy would divide the Church and destroy the faith. Finally obtaining political stability, Emperor Constantine didn't want to replace civil strife with religious strife, so he implored the bishops of the Church to gather together and settle the matter once and for all. Most attendees of the Council were from the East, although some in the West attended with the blessings of Pope St. Sylvester I; about 300 bishops attended altogether, many of them crippled and disfigured after surviving the last persecutions.

Nicholas at the First Council of Nicaea

The issue of the divinity of Jesus was hotly debated: was Christ God? Was he just a man? Was he both true God and true man? Arius was asked to present his teachings to the Council - perhaps once the Council Fathers heard what he had to say, they would all come to agree with his personal interpretation. Arius' teachings explained that Jesus Christ was a creation of God, that he is not consubstantial (of the same substance) with the Father, and therefore not like him or equal in dignity; Jesus was not co-eternal, and references to him being the "Son" of God were merely a figure of speech. Upon hearing these teachings, Nicholas approached Arius and struck him in the face! For his outburst, Nicholas was removed from the Council proceedings and from his episcopal duties until several Council Fathers experienced a vision of Jesus and Mary having sympathy for him.

The First Council of Nicaea would condemn the heresy of Arianism and its decrees, in part, form the basis of the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches almost 1,700 years later. (In 381, another Council held in Constantinople would "finish" the Nicene Creed by addressing a similar heresy that denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit). Sadly, Arianism plagued the Church for another 400 years before finally disappearing, but resurfacing once again in several sects of the Protestant Reformation. In my own opinion, I think Arianism is starting to spread again - this idea in the West that Jesus was a great guy with some wonderful teachings, but nothing more than that...just a man.

St. Nicholas would continue to live a life of holiness and charity, fulfilling his duties as bishop before passing away from this life on December 6, 343; his relics are interred in the church of San Nicola in Bari, Italy. Because of his reputation for charity and holiness, many stories abounded throughout the land; one famous story is of St. Nicholas bringing gifts to a poor man with three daughters. In those days one needed a dowry to marry and the better the dowry, (usually) the better the husband and standard of living. Since this man couldn't afford any dowries for his daughters, they were destined to a life of slavery or destitution and begging. One night, three bags of gold coins were tossed through the man's open window, landing in shoes that had been placed by the fire to dry overnight. Now having the dowries, the women would not have to suffer injustice any longer. This act of charity, attributed to Nicholas, evolved into the tradition of children in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands leaving their shoes or stockings out on December 6 so that St. Nicholas can fill them with chocolate coins or small gifts. In Poland and parts of Germany, children dress up as the saint and beg door-to-door for donations for the poor. While most of Europe marks St. Nicholas Day on December 6, in the United State, Great Britain, and elsewhere, the tradition of St. Nicholas' visit was moved to Christmas Eve after he was replaced by the more secular Santa Claus.

Who is Santa Claus?

So, how did a bishop of the Church eventually become the secular Santa Claus? After all, he was highly revered in the East and West for roughly 1,200 years: in the year 1126 the Vikings dedicated a cathedral to him in Greenland in the city of Garðar; on Columbus' first voyage, he dedicated a port in Haiti to the saint (Môle-Saint-Nicolas); the city of Jacksonville, FL was originally named St. Nicholas Ferry by the Spaniards! So what changed? Sadly, the Protestant Reformation is what changed. Protestants have a different understanding of the communion of saints than what Catholics and the Orthodox believe; in most Protestant faith traditions, feast days of saints were perceived to be something superstitious and from Rome, so they were usually rejected. Thus, since the United States was founded mostly by Protestants, our nation didn't grow up with a history of St. Nicholas visiting children on December 6.

However, in the early 1800s a nostalgia & curiosity grew in New York for "the old days" when the Mid-Atlantic was a Dutch colony. Rediscovering the history of the area, many people longed for books and paintings that had to do with Dutch culture and traditions (like St. Nicholas, or as the Dutch called him, Sinterklaas). Authors like Washington Irving created stories involving a new version of St. Nicholas that didn't really resemble the bishop from Turkey at all; this is where the legend originated of St. Nicholas coming down the chimney. On December 6, 1810, an artist was commissioned to create the first American drawing of St. Nicholas, and the saint was drawn putting presents into children's stockings hung by the fireplace.

In 1821, a book was released in America that told of "Sante Claus" who arrived from the north on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. In 1823, the modern conception of Santa was further developed with the release of the poem T'was the Night Before Christmas. Throughout the rest of the 1800s and into the modern era, Santa would be portrayed in magazines and newspapers as a fat man with a long, white beard, red suit, clay pipe, and large sack of toys for children. He lived at the North Pole and came in a big red sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (nine, if you count Rudolph). Although Christmas was a holiday in the Catholic & Orthodox world, most American Protestants - influenced by the English Puritans - didn't celebrate it until the 1850s (more about this in a future posting). However, as the holiday took on more and more secular tones (and less Catholic ones), many Americans started to warm up to the idea of celebrating Christmas. Today it is very common to see this secularized version of Christmas, created in the United States, celebrated throughout the world...and the most familiar "icon" of the entire holiday is jolly ol' St. Nick - Santa Claus.

For more information on the real St. Nicholas, please consider checking out the St. Nicholas Center, which has a large collection of biographical and historical information on St. Nick and the various traditions and celebrations connected with this patron saint of children, sailors, prisoners (and those wrongly condemned), and of women hoping for marriage. St. Nicholas, pray for us!



Saturday, November 30, 2013

Catholic Traditions for Advent and Christmas

by Michaelann Martin

It seems fitting that Advent is the beginning of the liturgical calendar, for it is a season of spiritual preparation marked by an eager longing for the birth of Our Savior Jesus Christ. There are age-old Advent practices, some of which are mentioned in this FAITH FACT, which will help our children and families live closer to Christ. The practices are time-tested and proven. They teach the doctrine of redemption and develop a sense of generosity toward God (cf. Catechism, nos. 2222-26). A family’s strong and living faith will become their heritage and a mode to reinforce the religious practices centered in the liturgy. To read more, click HERE.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

As We Await the Blessed Hope...

The season of Advent is soon to be upon us in the Latin church. In the Eastern world, the 'Nativity Fast' begins today (Nov. 15) and is described as "a joyous fast in anticipation of the Nativity of Christ." I believe that the Eastern churches do a much better job in preparing their people for joyous celebrations - we used to do these things in the West, but over time the fasts before feasts started to disappear. Then, when the Reformation began and much of the Church's liturgical year was removed in some nations because it was seen as unnecessary or superstitious, some of these holidays (like Easter and Christmas) just seemed like odd little 'islands' that pop up out of nowhere on the calendar. Sadly, as time continued to move on, Christmas turned into the secular mish-mosh that it is today, where it's perfectly acceptable to replace 'Merry Christmas' with 'Happy Holidays' and to reject the birth of Christ over the celebration of Winter. The television specials will explain that Christmas is nothing more than a Christianized pagan holiday, which 'proves' that Christ isn't really who we says he is. I think as Christians, especially in the West, we need to reacquaint ourselves with Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany so that we can be better witnesses to the pagan world around us, while also preparing ourselves to celebrate the birth in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ.

When I was a youngster, my family and I attended the local Presbyterian church, which uses a liturgical calendar and thus celebrated Advent. We'd put up the manger scene and every Sunday a family would light a candle of the Advent wreath and place another figurine into the manger until, by Christmas, the manger would be full, all the candles would be lit, and we'd celebrate Christmas with a candlelit worship service on Christmas Eve, complete with those beautiful hymns like Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Holy Night, and Silent Night; these are some of my favorite memories of the Presbyterian church. Years later when I had attended a local Episcopal church, I believe they did the same thing that I had seen in the Catholic church - the priest would light a candle on an Advent wreath, say a prayer, and perhaps there would be a hymn before resuming the liturgy. But, in the midst of all the Christmas decorations, candy, and commercials, here is this thing called Advent! What is it exactly and does it really matter if we observe it or not?

Origins

Nobody can really determine when Advent came about, although there is a historical record of it existing in the fourth century. This is due, in part, because Advent had to come after there was a general acceptance of the day in which to observe the celebration of Christmas (that's a post for another day). Traditions differed between East and West - in the East, the period leading up to Christmas is known as the Nativity Fast, or St. Philip's Fast, since it begins on November 15 (which, on the Eastern calendars is the feast day of the Apostle Philip). During this 40-day fast, Eastern Christians abstain from flesh meat, butter, milk, and eggs in a joyful fast in preparation for Christmas. In the earliest days of the season, both East and West fasted, although it seems as though in the West we would fast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (this tradition seems to have originated in France and would last from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas and was sometimes called 'St. Martin's Lent'). Sadly, most of Western Christianity has abandoned fasting (although the Catholic Church still asks us to do so). Why fast? Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman explain that fasting brings to us hunger and humility, which increases as we become weak. Fr. Stephen said, "Fasting is about allowing our heart to break." All too often, we are distracted by life - especially by all of the conveniences; it's easy to forget God when we're well-fed, busy, stressed, or distracted in some other way. Fr. Stephen said, "We fast because our life depends on the Word of God," not on the food or comforts of this world.

Christians also fasted for other reasons, but in order to keep this posting a reasonable length I just want to concentrate on Advent and shift my focus to the Western church.

Evolution of Advent

As was mentioned, a liturgical season developed in the West (Advent) while in the East they prepared for Christmas through a joyful fast. In the West, Advent went through many changes; at one point it was for five weeks and at another point, it was only observed by monks, but the observance spread to the laity as early as the year 567 AD. There were various changes to Advent as the centuries went on, and also depending upon in which country you lived. By the twelfth century, the Advent fast had been replaced by abstinence (no flesh meat). However, by modern times Advent became completely eclipsed by Christmas and it's a forgotten part of the liturgical year for most modern Catholics. Since I am a nerd, I wanted to change that about my life and started to look into what the Church actually says about Advent today.

How Are We To Observe Advent?

In 1966, the Venerable Paul VI wrote the encyclical Paenitemini, which does a wonderful job explaining the history of the public penance of the Western Church (such as meatless Fridays and fasting). Paul VI recommends each national college of bishops to determine the best way for the faithful of their nation to practice public penance, which the US Bishops decided in their document Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. In their comments on Advent, they say:

Changing customs, especially in connection with preparation for Christmas, have diminished popular appreciation of the Advent season. Something of a holiday mood of Christmas appears now to be anticipated in the days of the Advent season. As a result, this season has unfortunately lost in great measure the role of penitential preparation for Christmas that it once had. Zealous Christians have striven to keep alive or to restore the spirit of Advent by resisting the trend away from the disciplines and austerities that once characterized the season among us. Perhaps their devout purpose will be better accomplished, and the point of Advent will be better fostered if we rely on the liturgical renewal and the new emphasis on the liturgy to restore its deeper understanding as a season of effective preparation for the mystery of the Nativity. For these reasons, we, the shepherds of souls of this conference,call upon Catholics to make the Advent season, beginning with 1966, a time of meditation on the lessons taught by the liturgy and of increased participation in the liturgical rites by which the Advent mysteries are exemplified and their sanctifying effect is accomplished.

If in all Christian homes, churches, schools, retreats and other religious houses, liturgical observances are practiced with fresh fervor and fidelity to the penitential spirit of the liturgy, then Advent will again come into its own. Its spiritual purpose will again be clearly perceived. A rich literature concerning family and community liturgical observances appropriate to Advent has fortunately developed in recent years. We urge instruction based upon it, counting on the liturgical renewal of ourselves and our people to provide for our spiritual obligations with respect to this season.

So, the US Bishops - impressed with Christians who are observing past disciplines and austerity (fasting and penance?) - encourage us to renew ourselves through these same observations, spiritual reading, and active participation in the Sacred Liturgy. The US Bishops offer links and suggestions for assisting us in our observance of Advent in our domestic churches. Personally, I bought the book observed at the top of this posting, which offers daily reflections by the Church Fathers during Advent and Christmas. I also bought the incredible album, Advent at Ephesus, which offers wonderful hymns that mark the season, including my favorite O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Last year I bought a traditional Advent wreath and I plan on using it again this year, perhaps in conjunction with personal prayers or hymns. Starting a year or two ago, I've chosen Advent (the beginning of the new liturgical year) to make New Year's Resolutions that involve spiritual things, such as the resolution to start going to Daily Mass or the resolution to spend more time before the Blessed Sacrament. There's a little tradition that encourages the praying of only the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary during Septuagesima and Lent and I thought to myself, "Maybe I could also pray only the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary during Advent?" Also, I cannot forget that this is also a blessed time to offer alms to those who are less fortunate.

I am too unhealthy right now due to my overeating, but I would love to fast during Advent like the ancient West once did - on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - so maybe in 2015 I can offer that penance in preparation for Christmas. At least for now, the last couple of years I've abstained from Facebook during Advent, using the avatar above. I've recently learned that there are many Ecclesial communities engage in an "Advent Quiet Day", which allows people a time to "unplug" from the hustle and bustle of life and the Christmas shopping season so as to focus on what this time of year is all about. My Ordinariate Use parish will be having a Quiet Day, which will involve some instruction and then silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Another practice some people have done recently is that they will buy or put up their Christmas tree, but not decorate it or light it until Christmas so its bare presence is a reminder of our awaiting in blessed hope. People also put up their crèche, but they leave the figurine of baby Jesus out until Christmas Eve - again, the idea of waiting...anticipating. So our activities, although penitential in character, aren't meant to be as sorrowful as they are during Lent: Advent has a twofold character: as a time to prepare for the solemnity of Christmas when the Son of God’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. For these two reasons, the season of Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.

The Liturgy

Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations...Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ (SC, 7). [T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord's supper...From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way (Ibid,10).

Therefore, it is fitting that the US Bishops have encouraged the faithful to engage in a greater participation of the liturgy during the Advent season. For most of us, our only exposure to the liturgy is on a Sunday or a Saturday evening, but the Church has always encouraged the faithful to attend as often as they can, even daily. It is then that we can see the amazing mystery of God's salvific plan for our lives through the readings and imagery found in the liturgy.

You'll first notice that Advent is marked with a penitential nature; the General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) states "During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord (305)." Also, "In Advent the use of the organ and other musical instruments should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord (313)." We are also reminded (346) that "The color violet or purple is used in Advent..." and that "The color rose may be used, where it is the practice, on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent)..." - more on Gaudete shortly. During Advent, the Gloria in Excelsis is no longer prayed or sang during the liturgy. The GIRM especially recommends homilies at weekday Masses during Advent and that funerals should not be conducted on any Sunday of Advent (at one point in history, even weddings wouldn't be conducted during Advent!)

The Scripture readings during Advent are specially chosen to make us attentive to the coming of our Lord. On the first Sunday of Advent, the readings focus on the "end times" and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. On the second Sunday, the texts focus on John the Baptist, the one who came to "prepare the Way of the Lord." The third Sunday - Gaudete Sunday - is when some priests wear rose/pink and the liturgy has a glimmer of joy. On this halfway-mark through Advent, we begin to anticipate the commemoration of our Lord's Nativity, as well as looking forward to his triumphant return in the East. So while the Gospel still focuses on John the Baptist's ministry, we also reflect upon in the other readings the Christian hope and joy that is felt when contemplating the salvation of the world. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, our anticipation is at an apex - the readings reflect upon the visions of Mary and Joseph and the events leading up to the Nativity.

A hallmark of the last days before Christmas (Dec 17-23) are the O Antiphons, which are the seven antiphons that are prayed (or chanted) before the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours/Divine Office. The Second Vatican Council's constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states: The divine office, because it is the public prayer of the Church, is a source of piety, and nourishment for personal prayer. And therefore priests and all others who take part in the divine office are earnestly exhorted in the Lord to attune their minds to their voices when praying it. The better to achieve this, let them take steps to improve their understanding of the liturgy and of the bible, especially of the psalms (90)...the laity...are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually (100). I've tried to get into this habit, praying from the Book of Common Prayer (while using the readings from the Book of Divine Worship). It is my fervent hope that the Church can revise the BCP so as to further include traditions from the Roman Rite (such as the O Antiphons) and other such prayers that can help unite those from the Anglican tradition with the Roman Rite from whence it came. In the meantime, I am going to print the O Antiphons out so as to easily include them when I pray Evening Prayers starting on the 17th.

All of these things are ways in which we can shut out the secular world's destruction of Christmas, which encourages us as early as Halloween to go out and shop and forget about God. By becoming more involved in the liturgy during the Advent season, we can turn our minds to God and the mysteries of the faith. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours can help us reflect upon the Scriptures and to see how God has always been reaching out to us and promising salvation to his faithful people. We are blessed that Christ has given his Church these tools to assist us in our sanctification. In our attempts to shut out the secular world and reclaim our lives for Christ, we can refocus ourselves to what's important: "...Knowing God in truth, participating in his life, union with him through humility, prayer, love of enemy, and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I Believe in One God...

The Trinity is very confusing to explain. There is a misconception by non-Christian religions that we have three gods. The Muslims, for instance, think that Christians believe that the Holy Trinity is God, Jesus, and Mary. And my old neighbor, originally from Israel, was taken aback when I said that Jesus was God since 'Son of God' denotes that there is someone else being worshiped besides God.

F.J. Sheed did an excellent job in explaining the mystery of the Holy Trinity in his book Theology for Beginners:

Although I heavily recommend that book, if you're looking for a good explanation for free, I would check out this blog post. The Trinity, since it is a mystery, is extremely hard to explain without accidentally falling into various heresies that have been rejected by the Church; even I mess things up, so for the time being I'd rather leave this in the hands of the experts!

There's a great story involving St. Augustine. He was strolling along the shoreline, contemplating the Trinity, when he spotted a small boy who had dug a hole in the sand and was trying to scoop up water from the sea and dump it in the hole. St. Augustine asked the boy what he was doing and the boy said, "I'm trying to put the sea into this hole." St. Augustine said, "But you'll never be able to do that!" The boy said, "And you'll never be able to fully understand the Trinity..." and he disappeared. It remains an incredible mystery of the faith.

My Favorite Comics

All work and no play makes Jason a dull boy...

Agnes
Andy Capp
Arctic Circle
Argyle Sweater
Animal Crackers
B.C.
Baby Blues
Baldo
Barney Google & Snuffy Smith
Beetle Bailey
Bizarro
Blondie
Bloom County
Broom Hilda
Calvin & Hobbes
Close to Home
Cul de Sac
Curtis
Dilbert
Dilbert Classics
Doonesbury
For Better or For Worse
Foxtrot (Sunday)
Foxtrot Classics
Frank & Ernest
Fred Basset
Garfield
Garfield Classics
Get Fuzzy
Grand Avenue
Hagar the Horrible
Herman
Hi & Lois
Jump Start
The Lockhorns
Lola
Lucky Cow
Mallard Fillmore
Momma
Mother Goose & Grimm
Monty
Off the Mark
One Big Happy
Out of the Gene Pool Re-Runs
Over the Hedge
Peanuts
Pearls Before Swine
Pickles
Piranha Club
Popeye
Red Meat
Rhymes With Orange
Ripley's Believe it or Not
Savage Chickens
Sherman's Lagoon
Shoe
Soup to Nutz
Stone Soup
Stone Soup Classics
Wizard of Id
Wizard of Id Classics
Ziggy
Zits

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Trick-or-Treat

"The fifth of November,
As you well remember,
Was gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Here is the pope that we have got,
The whole promoter of the plot.
We’ll stick a pitchfork in his back,
And throw him in the fire."

The poem quoted above is part of the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day (aka Pope Day/Night), one of the most popular holidays of Reformation England and Colonial New England. On November 5, 1605, a supposed attempt was made on the life of King James I of England as he was preparing to open Parliament. James’ chief minister, Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, accused a group of Catholics - Guy Fawkes, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher and John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Thomas Bates, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen, John Grant, and Robert Catesby - of organizing a plot that would detonate 36 barrels of gunpowder underneath Parliament. These men, especially Guy Fawkes, were tortured most brutally into confessing and were sentenced to death by being drawn and quartered. King James encouraged his subjects to celebrate the disruption of the act of terrorism by making huge bonfires every 5th of November, where an effigy of the Pope would be tossed on top. Eventually, effigies of Guy Fawkes would also make it onto the bonfires. If you think this is ancient history, last year I overheard my British friend teaching her American son the stanzas, "Remember, remember, the 5th of November..."

But was the Gunpowder Plot true? England was a horrible place for Catholics during and after the Reformation and it is believable that people could be moved to such extremes after being faced with such intense torture, bigotry, and discrimination. However, recent scholarly work has started to question the official story of the Plot. The UK's History Learning Site asks some fairly obvious questions regarding that fateful day:

Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, hated Catholics and saw them as a constant source of trouble. Cecil also feared that there was a chance that James would be lenient with them during his reign and this he could not tolerate. That James only expelled priests was not good enough for Cecil. He wanted to remove Catholicism from England as he saw it as a threat. We know that James was terrified of a violent death; his childhood in Scotland had been fraught with danger including being kidnapped as a boy. What better way to get James to severely persecute the Catholics in England than to get him to believe that they had tried to kill him in this very violent manner? The government had a monopoly on gunpowder in this country and it was stored in places like the Tower of London. How did the conspirators get hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder without drawing attention to themselves? Did they get help from the government? How was the gunpowder moved across London from the Tower of London to Westminster (at least two miles distant) without anyone seeing it? The River Thames would not have been used as it could have lead to the gunpowder becoming damp and useless. Thirty six barrels would have been a sizable quantity to move without causing suspicion. Why were men who were known to be Catholics allowed to rent out a house so near to the Houses of Parliament? How did they move 36 barrels from that house to the cellar of the Houses of Parliament without anyone noticing along with hay, straw etc? Why, for the first time in history, was there a search of Parliament's cellars that conveniently found "John Johnson" (as Guy Fawkes called himself) before he lit the fuse? Why was the soldier who killed Catesby and Percy at Holbeech House in the Midlands, given such a large pension for life (10p a day for life) when their arrest and torture was more desirable so that the names of any other conspirators might be found out?

Some historians have pointed out these issues and claimed that the plotters were pawns in the hands of Robert Cecil and that he orchestrated the whole affair in his bid to get James to ban Catholics altogether.

It is a true blessing that we do not live in the same world today that existed during the Reformation. Catholics and Protestants, although still not seeing eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, have learned to live in peace with one another, which is a blessing to behold. Still, many people don't realize how these events of so long ago have contributed to the history of the world. After all, if Henry VIII hadn't wanted to divorce and remarry, the US would have been a Catholic country!The Catholic faith reached England's shores roughly around the year 597. It's hard to believe, but at one time in history England was so devoutly Catholic that she was known as "the dowry of Mary." During the early days of the Protestant Reformation, a defense of the seven Sacraments of the Catholic faith was penned by none other than King Henry VIII and dedicated to Pope Leo X! In return, the pope granted Henry VIII the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith (which the monarch of England still holds to this day). Once Henry wanted to divorce and remarry, things started to change as he imprisoned people who disagreed with him and placed his allies into the hierarchy of the Church in England. Sadly, the rest is history - King Henry VIII went on a bloody and ruthless crusade to stamp out Catholicism in the British Kingdom. Many martyrs died either defending the faith or simply because they refused to take an oath against the Pope. The English liturgical calendar explains, "the number of those who died on the scaffold, perished in prison, or suffered harsh persecution for their faith in the course of a century and a half cannot now be reckoned." However, what we do know is that Henry and his Anglican children saw Catholics as traitors to the Crown, and many suffered for choosing to stay with England's ancient faith. Churches were robbed and destroyed, statues were burned in heaping bonfires, and priests, nuns, and monks were arrested, tortured, murdered, or forced to leave the country (some estimate at least 72,000 Catholics were killed during this persecution).

Henry's children sought to remove England's memory of ever having learned the Catholic faith, passing laws that robbed Catholics of all their civil rights, including banning the celebration of the Mass. It wasn't until the year 1778 when Catholics were finally allowed to own property, inherit land, and join the army. The most significant progress made in regards to Catholic Emancipation in the UK was the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, where Catholics could finally be representatives in Parliament again (and openly practice their faith). You could literally spend hours just reading the summaries of the Catholic plight in England. This was the world in which Guy Fawkes and other British Catholics where forced to live.

"A penny loaf to feed the Pope.
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him."

Prior to the Reformation in England, a popular activity of the people during the Novena of All Souls (Nov 1 through 8) would be to go door-to-door selling 'soul cakes' and then take that money to the church for Masses to be said for the souls in Purgatory. Or they would ask for treats in exchange for singing some hymns or prayers. Oftentimes, people would dress up as their favorite saint or their patron saint. Eventually, these practices of devotion would be mocked by English Protestants who would dress as ghosts or devils to make fun of Catholic "superstition." They would in turn visit Catholic homes to ask for trick-or-treats. This anti-Catholic bigotry was passed onto the New World in our Halloween practices and the celebration of Pope Day on November 5:

"Young men, as well as boys,...constructed a huge vehicle, varying, at times, from twenty to forty feet long, eight or ten wide, and five or six high, from the lower to the upper platform, on the front of which, they erected a paper lantern, capacious enough to hold, in addition to the light, five or six persons. Behind that, as large as life, sat the mimic pope and several other personages, monks, friars, and so forth. Last, but not least, stood an image of what was designed to be a representation of old Nick [the Devil] himself, furnished with a pair of huge horns, holding in his hand a pitchfork, and otherwise accoutred, with all the frightful ugliness that their ingenuity could devise."

These effigies of the Pope, the devil, and other Catholic and/or political figures would eventually be burned in a massive bonfire set in the center of town. There are many really interesting (and sad) stories about Pope's Day on the November 5 blog and they are worth the time to read.

Thankfully, although there is plenty of anti-Catholic bigotry left in this world, at least in the West it is not violent like in the old days. People still mark the 5th of November as a day of Catholic treason and it will be hard to dispel the "official" story regardless of how many facts start to come out to the contrary. I do not want this day to go to waste, however, and will always do my best to have Mass said every November 5 for the members of the Gunpowder Plot. If true, God only knows if these people were honestly motivated by self-defense and a need to defend the Church or if they were just violent zealots out for blood; since we cannot pretend to know if they are in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, it is only right and just to ask God for mercy on their souls. In the West we cannot pretend to know the world in which they lived (although Christians in the East and Africa know exactly what it is like). I'm not making excuses for their attempt to violently overthrow their government and any such tactics should be condemned. However, they lived in a world where to celebrate Mass was a crime punishable by the death penalty and/or torture. You lost your profession, your property, your family, your rights under the law, and sometimes even your country. Let us pray that those days will never return in the West and that Christians around the world may be freed from the violence currently being perpetrated against their freedom of religion. Let us no longer see Guy Fawkes, the other "conspirators", and the government officials as the boogeymen they been portrayed as for the past 400+ years - let us instead sympathetically remember them all as the result of what happens when sinful mankind betrays the love of Christ that we've all been asked to share with one another. And let us beg God for the graces we need in order to prevent that reality from returning to our lives.