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?


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...

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


"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.