Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Symbols

In postings I wrote last year, we covered how Christmas is not the pagan festival of the birth of the unconquered sun; we also covered how the original "war on Christmas" was fought by the Puritans of England and continues on through fundamentalists in the United States. This year I thought I'd tackle some of the Christmas symbols that we know and love.

While it is true that some of the symbolism we hold dear might have pagan origins, this does not change the fact that we have fully Christianized them, "re-baptizing" them into things that point the way to Christ. Prior to his Incarnation, everything outside of the Jewish faith was pagan - it would be insane to stop using nearly everything because at one time prior to our knowledge of Christ we used certain foods or practiced certain customs. When we "test all things" in order to find the truth contained therein, then we can take a deep breath and say, "This is a tool (or event) that leads us to Christ." And, as St. Paul said, once we test something, "hold fast what is good." So, for Catholics the symbolism we love at Christmas isn't a continuation of pagan holidays, but re-baptized symbols that point the way to Christ.

Christmas Trees

It is true that many pagans worshiped trees - there are many today who do just that, whether they realize it or not. But this (mainly Germanic) tradition of tree worship took a significant change in direction in the 700s when St. Boniface chopped down Germany's "holiest" tree, the Oak of Thor. A small fir tree was starting to grow out of its base and St. Boniface said, "This humble tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your comfort and your guide."

By the Middle Ages, Christmas plays would be held on Christmas Eve, which in those days was marked on the liturgical calendar as the feast day of Saints Adam and Eve. A tree would be used in the play, called a Paradise Tree and often decorated with apples, and this symbolized the tree in paradise of whose fruit we ate; it also doubled as the Tree of Life, of whose fruit we are promised to eat at the end of time. Much like how we have Advent wreaths and nativity sets in our homes, people desired to have this tree brought into their homes, as well. By the 15th Century, having a Paradise tree in your home was a common practice in certain parts of Europe. In the 1500s, Christmas trees were being decorated with candles to symbolize the light of Christ, and by the 1800s this custom was firmly established throughout France, Germany, and Austria. Needless to say, it spread throughout the world and symbolizes all the trees of our spiritual heritage: "the original Tree of Paradise, the burning bush which spoke to Moses, the branch of Jesse from which Jesus was born, the life-giving tree of the cross of Christ, and the tree which St. John the Apostle saw in the Book of Revelations whose leaves have medicine for the people and which yields fruit each month for the healing of the nations."

We also see in Christmas trees, often taken from evergreens (pine, fir, etc.), a symbolism that reminds us to stay steadfast in the faith; since evergreens withstand the harshness of the winter, they persevere, as we should persevere in our faith. There is also the thought that Christmas trees can remind us of Christ's death and resurrection (the tree is chopped down, but then rises again in our homes).

We will see this "hardy steadfastness" of the various plant life we use at Christmas as a common theme.

Other Christmas Plants and Flowers

Laurel is sometimes used in Christmas wreaths. The plant was once used in Roman times to symbolize victory and the plant began to symbolize Christ's victory over death. A wreath of laurel was a Roman symbol of victory and, like the plant, wreaths began to be used at Christmas to symbolize Christ's victory over death. Not having a beginning nor end, wreaths symbolize God's reign, as well as everlasting life. Ivy, since it grows by clinging onto other things, became a symbol at Christmas that represents our reliance on God, that we must cling to him. Holly (the green leaves with their red berries) became a symbol of the burning bush, as well as Christ's crown of thorns. Poinsettias are actually a Christmas tradition from the New World; the shape of the flower is supposed to represent the star of Bethlehem, and the red color is supposed to represent the blood of Christ (white flowers represent his purity).

The Yule Log

The Danish ruled over England in the 11th Century and they left behind some of their words and traditions, like a word they used for Christmas: Yule. By the 13th Century, it was in the common vernacular in England and Scotland to refer to Christmas as Yuletide. For Anglicans and Catholics, this seems familiar to us because we use similar words, such as Christmastide, Eastertide, Embertide, Passiontide, Whitsun tide, and so on. There is always the charge that the Yule log and the word yule is associated with Scandinavian paganism, but the leading British historian on paganism, Ronald Hutton, said, "Nothing certain, however, is known, and there is equal doubt over whether it was originally attached to a midwinter festival which preceded the Christian one," so they don't know for sure; I guess it depends on your bias. At any rate, the yule log is a large log intended to burn for the twelve days of Christmas (from Christmas till Epiphany).

Kris Kringle

The other day I was wondering how Santa Claus got the moniker "Kris Kringle". As it turns out, it was another Americanization of the traditions of other lands. St. Nicholas, as we discussed last year, was a real person - a bishop from the 300s. Devotion to St. Nicholas spread throughout Europe and the Middle East and he became known to the Dutch as Sinterklaas; we Americanized the pronunciation to be Santa Claus. Well, Kris Kringle is sort of the same thing. In many Catholic areas (like Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Austria, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Portugal, Switzerland, Slovakia, Hungary, France, and Upper-Silesia in Poland), Christmas gifts are brought by the Christ Child. This figure was adopted because Catholic nations were feeling uncomfortable about the secularization of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus. Called 'Christkindl' by the Dutch, the Americanized version of the name became 'Kris Kringle' - in America, the name became an alias of Santa Claus and by modern times, and in Europe the figure 'Christkindl' is no longer the Christ Child, but is now played by a woman dressed up like a queen, so sadly their attempts to fight the secularization of Christmas symbols has been a failure.

The Creche, or Nativity Scene

St. Francis of Assisi (b. 1181, d. 1226) started the first nativity scene. By the time of St. Francis, Islam had spread over a large portion of the world, including areas that were at one time Christian. As part of devotion or penance, many Christians traveled to the Holy Land on pilgrimages, but the Muslims were often robbing or killing pilgrims. Eventually, the Holy Land would become off-limits to Christians; St. Francis' solution was to bring the Holy Land to Europe! For Christmas he assembled the manger scene, allowing Christians to pray in devotion to the place of Christ's birth without making the harsh and dangerous journey to Bethlehem. (In a similar way, the Stations of the Cross, which we pray during Lent, is also a Franciscan devotion he created for the same reason).

These are just some of the symbols we've come to embrace at Christmastime. Regardless of their origin, they've become symbols of our faith and remind us at every glance that our Lord is with us and he is victorious. As the evergreens and holly survive the harsh winters of the north, we are called to survive this harsh winter on earth until the Lord, victorious over death and the devil, will reign in power and glory forever and ever. Amen!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Adeste Fideles

Christmas Eve Service of Holy Eucharist at Westminster Abbey, broadcast live on BBC One, 24th of December 2013.

This leaves me awestruck. Full screen, full volume, and just absorb it all. Exquisite beauty that of which I've never experienced before. I must go there...

Friday, December 19, 2014

Stopping a War for Christmas

My older brother is very interested in World War II, as am I to a point, but over the past few years I've started to get really interested in the stories surrounding World War I instead. In my opinion, WWI is the war where the "old world" was exterminated. Kings fell, empires broke apart, and new nations were born. Nationalism, compounded by a family spat (the royalty of England, Germany, and Russia were all related) became one of the most devastating wars in modern history: 52% of the Allied Forces were killed or injured, as was 67% of the military of the Central Powers; and let's not forget the damage done to the countryside, the historic towns and cities of Western Europe, and the poor citizens that quite often have to bear most of the burden of these conflicts. In all, it is estimated that more than 35 million people, military and civilian, were killed or wounded in World War 1.

So, in the wreck of this carnage we have the story of Christmas 1914. Trenches were dug throughout great areas of Western Europe; there are patches of forest that are still off limits due to the amount of unexploded mines and bombs that still exist, and there are many areas in France, Belgium, and Germany that still bear the great craters and trenches of this war. The area in between the trenches was known as "No Man's Land". This is where death could be found. Trees, if left in the ground at all, were devoid of their branches, having them ripped off from the machine gun fire and bombs between enemy combatants.

At the time of this conflict, many Western Europeans were very religious - Protestant or Catholic, the Christian faith was still alive at this time. Pope St. Pius X and Pope Benedict XV both worked hard at promoting peace and begging Europe for dialog instead of warfare. The common story is that St. Pius, who died at the onset of World War I and already weakened from advanced age, died from the heartache over seeing Europe plunged into war. In 1914, his successor (Benedict XV) tried desperately to convince the European powers to broker a peace deal. Not finding anyone interested in peace, on December 7 he asked the European powers to consider at least a ceasefire for Christmas. Russia rejected the plan, so everyone rejected the plan.

As is often the case, the people don't want war as much as the various idiots in power do. Acting on God's grace, the soldiers themselves decided to engage upon a temporary truce for Christmas. An English soldier writing of the incident said that it was unauthorized, but most welcome; "the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable!" He said it all began just after midnight, Christmas, when the German soldiers started shouting across No Man's Land, "Merry Christmas, Englishmen!" The English shouted Christmas wishes back to them and then a miracle occurred - soldiers from both sides, unarmed, left their trenches and met together in No Man's Land, swapping cigarettes and stories in the light of a half moon. They all agreed that not a shot would be fired until midnight that night. A member of the Foreign Legion said, "Men laughed and cheered. There was Christmas light in our eyes and I know there were Christmas tears in mine. There were smiles, smiles, smiles, where in days before there had been only rifle barrels."

A Christian work of mercy is the burying of the dead; men from both sides knew it was the right thing to do. Germans and Legionaries met to bury the dead and breathe a sigh of relief. Handshakes, laughter, and brotherhood abounded. Allies posed for pictures taken by Germans, who promised to send them copies after the war. After the dead were buried, the men lingered in No Man's Land, talking and playing cards. The men of both sides agreed that war was foolish, and that everyone had wives and children at home that they missed terribly and wished to see again. For the rest of the day, they spent the time reminiscing about home, sharing stories, and enjoying the peace and quiet of the day.

As the sun went down, soldiers returned to their trenches, but a band had been invited to the German trench, where they started playing French music, sending the French soldiers into wild cheers. Then the band started playing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Afterwards, one of the cooks with the Legion took out his harmonica and played a popular German song for the Germans to enjoy. Peace and joy remained with all the soldiers for the rest of the night and even until sunrise the next day.

The day in which we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace ushered in a day of peace that has been unparalleled in modern war. Especially in today's secular and pluralistic world, where less and less people know the Man who is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life", I cannot imagine a similar truce occurring. Would we really stop killing each other and embrace in friendship and brotherhood for a secular version of the holiday that celebrates presents, winter, and ugly sweaters? But, when the Western world knew that the only way to God was through Jesus Christ and that Christmas was the day to praise God for his Incarnation...that is worth dropping your weapon and embracing your enemy. After all, Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of the Saviour who told us that we are to love our enemies and pray for them. For one brief Christmas Day in 1914, Christians from all walks of life and various faith traditions were able to follow that commandment to a 'T'.

Updated Reading List

Monday: A History of the American Episcopal Church (1935 edition)
Tuesday: The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer
Wednesday: Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History
Thursday: Strangers to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of Saint Benedict
Friday: Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration
Weekends: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

My "bathroom book": The Rapture Trap: A Catholic Response to "End Times" Fever

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Our Lady of Czestochowa

The most famous icon in Poland is Our Lady of Czestochowa, which became known throughout the world after Polish-born Pope St. John Paul II visited it four times during his pontificate. Kept at the Pauline monastery at Jasna Gora, founded in 1382 in Czestochowa, millions of visitors from around the world pay a visit to her every year. This “Queen of Poland” became a symbol of the Polish people, often persecuted by their invaders and conquerors. Lech Walesa, face of the famous Polish labor union Solidarity, always appeared in public with a small lapel pin of “the Black Madonna”, seeking her intercession as he fought for freedom in Communist Poland. This storied icon has a fascinating past, caught in the middle of Poland's challenging history, and to this day remains a symbol of this proud nation.

Modern-day experts disagree on exactly how old the icon is, although most agree that it originated sometime in the ninth or tenth century. Popular devotion insists that the icon is much older than that, dating back instead to the time of Jesus. The most famous legend surrounding its origin is that St. Luke, author of the Gospel that shares his name, painted the icon upon planks taken from the table top used by the Holy Family. According to the oldest manuscript, the Translatio Tabulae written in 1474, the icon made its way from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the fourth century by the efforts of St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine. The icon was found to possess miraculous effects when, during a Muslim attack upon Constantinople, the icon was hung on one of the walls of the city; the attackers were then routed by the city’s defenders.

In the ninth century the icon would eventually find itself in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Great – Charlemagne – and he would retain ownership of the icon until it was passed on to Prince Leo of Ruthenia, who would possess it until the eleventh century, when it was given to Prince Lev of Galicia, where it would remain in a fortress in Belz until the fourteenth century. The Tartars invaded and attacked the fortress; with arrows raining down upon the fortress, the icon was hit in the face and throat. Finding the damaged icon, Ladislaus of Opole took it from the fortress in an attempt to save it from future destruction, bringing the icon to Poland in 1384. Staying in the town of Czestochowa, Ladislaus felt guided to leave the icon there upon a hill named Jasna Gora, inviting the Hungarian Order of St. Paul the First Hermit (the Paulines) to Poland to take care of the icon. A monastery and fortress were built on Jasna Gora and the Paulines have been entrusted with the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa ever since.

In 1430, Hussite raiders attacked the monastery with viciousness, hoping to rob it of the riches they believed were offered as gifts of devotion to Our Lady. Not finding any riches, the raiders killed several monks, ornaments and votives attached directly to the icon were broken off and stolen, and Our Lady's face was slashed several times with a sword. Upon leaving the monastery, they took the icon, broke it into several pieces, and threw it on the ground in front of the chapel. Horrified by this blasphemous act, Greek icon writers from Rus were brought in to restore her. They fixed the wood together, repainted the icon, and adorned it with gold and silver before returning it to the monastery. She was restored several more times since the fifteenth century in order to remove the dirt and oil, soot, flaking paint, and damage done through climate changes, touching, and even tremors.

Scientists are still fascinated with the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, taking x-rays of her in order to learn more about her. They have found that the linden wood of the icon was older than the icon itself, and their x-rays have located several of the original holes in the icon that were used for holding votive candles. The encaustic technique was used on the original icon, which means that colored pigments were added to heated beeswax in order to create the icon6. When the icon was put back together after its destruction, the iconographers created an icon using multi-layers of tempera paints on a chalk primer, which was applied on a canvas pasted to the original boards of linden wood; however, the original damage done by the arrows and swords remain on the surface of the wood, so they were transferred to the new icon, as well.

The broken icon is held together with a Gothic-style frame that is “painted in vermillion with ornaments of stylized acanthus leaves entwined around a gnarled staff”. On special occasions the icon will be displayed covered in silver and gold-plated engraved sheet metal, which depict scenes of the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Scourging at the pillar, and the Crowning with thorns. In the icon Mary's mantle and dress are blue, a color that is often associated with Our Lady, and they covered in lilies – fleur de lis – which are symbolic for Mary, purity, virginity. Above Mary's head on her mantle is a six-point star, which is also a traditional symbol for Mary - Stella Maris - as well as King David. Jesus and Mary, both with halos, also have skin that’s darkened and discolored due age, people touching the icon, and soot from burning candles and votives.

For many Western Christians, especially non-Catholics, the use of icons is something that is unknown or perhaps misunderstood. Whereas the predominant devotional tool used in the Catholic West is statues, for Eastern Christians it has been the icon. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicaea in 787 AD, reaffirmed the veneration of icons in prayer and their use in the liturgy. St. John of Damascus (b. 676 AD, d. 749 AD), staunch defender for the veneration of icons, wrote in his Apologies that devotion to images is really devotion to the persons depicted, which traces itself ultimately to devotion to Christ.

When we contemplate the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, we meditate upon what the icon is trying to tell us. The imagery of this icon is known as ‘hodegetria’, Greek for “she who shows the way”; it is an iconographic depiction of Mary holding Jesus. The Virgin Mary is depicted holding Christ in her left arm, forming a throne for him, and pointing to him with her right hand, always leading us ultimately to her Son. Our Lady gazes at us; the Child Jesus, holding the Gospels and giving us a blessing, has his head turned towards Our Mother, but his eyes turned towards us, inviting us to him. We see the New Adam and New Eve beckoning us, drawing us closer, where Christ blesses us, he who reveals himself to us in the Scriptures. The physical characteristics of the icon also speak to us: the sword slashes on Our Lady's face are seen as a sharing in the suffering of her Son; their darkened faces are seen as the effects of being wounded by our sins.

Our Lady of Czestochowa is intertwined with Polish history. In 1655, the Swedish Lutheran Army invaded Poland in order to “save” it from the Catholic religion. The Swedes, working with the cooperation of many Polish princes eager to obtain larger fiefdoms, much of Poland fell to the invading army – until they reached the monastery at Jasna Gora; barely 300 defenders repelled multiple attacks by 3,000 invaders, and after 40 days of failed assaults, the invaders retreated. Many attribute the monastery’s miraculous defense and the repulsion of the Swedish invaders from Poland to Our Lady’s intercession.

In 1920, Russia amassed a large army on the Vistula River, planning an invasion of Warsaw. On September 15, on the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows, an image of Our Lady appeared in the clouds above Warsaw. Worried that this was proof that Warsaw would be protected by Our Lady’s intercession, the Russians withdrew their troops. Our Lady of Czestochowa has been credited with this ‘Miracle of the Vistula’. She has also been credited with saving the city of Czestochowa from plague and pestilence; “the original accounts of these cures and miracles are preserved in the archives of the Pauline Fathers at Jasna Gora”.

As Poland continued to struggle under invasions and being partitioned, it was their firm Catholic faith that kept them going, leading them to believe that they would be free from oppression one day. Jasna Gora became the spiritual capital of Poland and Our Lady was declared the Queen of the Polish Crown in 1656. The Second Vatican Council gave a new term to Our Lady – Mother of the Church – and Poland’s own St. John Paul II would routinely refer to her as such. Mary has had such a pivotal place in Polish history, most notably in the devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa, that it is hard to find a Pole who doesn’t know and love this icon. The symbolism of the icon, with its call for us to come to Christ through his mother and through the Scriptures, reaches into the heart of all mankind. Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Mother of the Church, please pray for us.



Catholic Encyclopedia. (1910). The Second Council of Nicaea. Retrieved from

Duricy, M. (2013). Black Madonnas: Our Lady of Czestochowa. Retrieved from

Lorene, G. (1989). American Czestochowa. (Doylestown, PA: Polstar Publishing Corp. 1989).

Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary. (2006). Miraculous Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Retrieved from

Simmons, S. (2002). Star of David. Retrieved from

Trinity Iconography Institute. (2011). Virgin Hodegetria; The Wayshower. Retrieved from

Walsh, B. (n.d.). The Black Madonna of Poland – Our Lady of Czestochowa and Jasna Gora. Retrieved from

West, P. (2013). History of the Black Madonna. Retrieved from

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Christmas Favorites

It's the second week of Advent and Christmas will be here before you know it! So, I've dragged out all those great DVDs that I've been collecting over the past few years:

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Frosty the Snowman
A Garfield Christmas
Claymation Christmas Celebration
Mickey's Christmas Carol
Pluto's Christmas Tree
A Christmas Story
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Laurel & Hardy in March of the Wooden Soldiers
Miracle on 34th Street (the original)
It's a Wonderful Life
A Christmas Carol (with Patrick Stewart)
The Honeymooners Christmas Party

Thanks to the internet and Netflix, I can also enjoy some movies and shows that I don't own just yet, such as:
Ernest Saves Christmas
A Muppet Family Christmas

Here's to getting into the Christmas spirit!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Current Reading List

I have a ton of books, all collecting dust; I'm forcing myself to read them. I want to read them, but always find excuses to not; even if I can only read a page's worth in a day, I still want to make it a point to pick up a book every day, even for a moment or two.

Right now I've devised a daily reading plan and so far it's worked (it's only been a week, though). I hope to follow a plan like this - reading a different book each night - in order to work my way through several books at once (which helps keep things fresh night-to-night).

Here's my current reading list...

Monday: A History of the American Episcopal Church (1935 edition)
Tuesday: The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer
Wednesday: Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History
Thursday: Strangers to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of Saint Benedict
Friday: Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration
Weekends: Kateri Tekakwitha

Not to be gross or give out too much information, but I also have a "bathroom book": What to Do When Jesus Is Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy

As each book finishes, I'll add another book. Next time, I want to try to have my weekends be a fictional book, like a literary classic or something, and I want at least one of my daily books to be an inspirational writing of a Church Father or a saint or something that will help me live a more faithful Catholic life. Wish me luck!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

O ALMIGHTY God, who hast committed to the hands of men the ministry of reconciliation; We humbly beseech thee, by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, to put it into the hearts of many to offer themselves for this ministry; that thereby mankind may be drawn to thy blessed kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. --Ember Day collect, 1928 Book of Common Prayer

I just love this time of year. I love it. I love all the seasons, but I think I enjoy Autumn the most. The weather is usually nice, with brisk temperatures, warm sunlight, little to no humidity, cool nights and mornings. The perennials are for sale, the leaves start changing color, that chimney smoke smell is hanging in the air again...I love it!

This week in both the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinariate Use of the Latin Rite, we mark the Autumn Ember Days. As a reminder, these are days of fasting and prayer in order to ask God for a plentiful harvest, as well as to ask for his guidance on our priests (and I would add our deacons, as well).

Another reason why I love this time of the year is that this begins the "holiday countdown" of the year: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Adding to that, I also love the religious aspects of this time of year: All Saints Day, All Souls Day, praying for the souls in purgatory during November, marking wonderful holy days like Christ the King, and then entering my favorite time of the liturgical year, Advent and Christmastide.

Halloween & the Holy Souls

I love Halloween, although there are a lot of Christians who reject it as something evil. Yes, if you use the day to worship demons or Satan, of course it's evil, but I don't look at it as evil for two reasons: we never used it as a negative day, and I understand its origins. As kids, we never used Halloween to endorse, practice, or celebrate evil - it was all in good fun. Our costumes were homemade (bravo, Mom!) and were loads of fun - to us, all we wanted was to have fun and get free candy. Even as teens, we never got into the demonic stuff - a couple kids at school did, like the fortune telling stuff or Ouija boards, but my friends and I never did. One of my favorite parts of Halloween is that this is when all those good television specials and movies come out. Again, not the gore-fest that people are into today, but the less harmful stuff of yesterday: Halloween specials from Garfield, Charlie Brown, Simpsons, and other cartoons; those old B&W horror movies from the 30s, like the original Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolfman. I usually marathon these DVDs throughout October. I even take out my copy of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.

For anyone who knows me, it goes without saying that I love Halloween candy, like popcorn balls, candy corn, and mountains of "fun size" candy bars. This month also begins three months of home decoration: first with pumpkins and witches, then with harvest corn, cornucopias, and turkeys, and then with all those amazing Christmas decorations; October is the gateway, the beginning, of all that festivity. Because I rent, I don't do all of that outdoor decorating, but if I ever own a house I would like to think that I would decorate for every season. When I was a kid we sold things called "Stickies" for a school fundraiser and they had some for every holiday; Mom used to always let me put them up on the picture window during the holidays.

As I've mentioned before, Halloween was really called All Hallow's Eve (or Evening) in English; it was the day before All Souls Day. What we know as "trick or treating" was how non-Catholics made fun of us, for on All Hallow's Eve, Catholics (especially children) would often go door-to-door, asking for donations for the poor or giving/receiving treats (like soul cakes in England); the kids would often dress up like their favorite saint. Because Catholics were seen as superstitious, non-Catholics would tease us by dressing up as devils and demons and trying to scare people who were out that night. So, because I know Halloween is really just the day before All Saints Day, it doesn't offend me like it does others.

Thanksgiving and All Saints

This brings us to the month of November, which All Hallow's Eve has ushered in: praying for the souls in purgatory. While we should always pray for the souls in purgatory, the Church makes special mention of it in the month of November. This is the end of our liturgical year, so the Church calls to mind in a special way the fact that we're coming to the end of our earthly life with each passing day; we think of our own mortality and our situation with God and, by praying for the souls in purgatory, we finish the liturgical year with great acts of charity. In November, the Church offers special indulgences for the souls in purgatory when we offer prayers while in a graveyard, and there are special novenas and prayers so that we can offer them for the souls in purgatory all month long. We begin November, however, by remembering all of those whom have met their final reward in God's heavenly kingdom - we celebrate All Saints Day on November 1 to celebrate God's mercy and his fidelity, that although we are all sinners we also may share in eternal life with the Holy Trinity, the angels, and the Blessed Mother.

November weather is great. The leaves are falling, the air is crisp, and you might need to pop on the heat at night. Out come the sweatshirts and sweatpants, football is in full swing (as well as hockey), and everyone's making plans to take vacation and see family. More holiday specials are on and warm thoughts of Thankgivings past abound; I often think about all those wonderful holidays with relatives that are no longer with us, or have moved far away - how much we took those holidays of years ago for granted.

As readers of this blog know, there are several events all competing for the title of "First Thanksgiving": the pilgrims in Massachusetts (1621), French missionaries in Toudessac, Quebec (1615), Pedro Menendez de Aviles in St. Augustine, FL (1565), and Don Juan de OƱate in El Paso, TX (1598). Regardless of whom we view as celebrating the "first" Thanksgiving in North America, one thing is for sure: we rightly thank God for our blessings. In 1789, President Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for the nation, "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God...that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country...for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed...and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us."

In 1863, President Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as an annual day of thanksgiving. "The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God...No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People."

In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, there are certain prayers and verses that are selected for us because of Thanksgiving. Honour the LORD with thy substance, and with the first-fruits of all thine increase: so shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine (Proverbs 3:9-10).

Advent & Christmastide

After the major feasting of Thanksgiving, the holiday sales are in full swing (I still refuse to even THINK about Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving). Houses become decked out in lights, decorations, and manger scenes. Christmas specials fill December programming on television and I take out a TON of my Christmas DVDs and watch them. Only once since my wife left have I decorated the house, but I plan on decorating this year: a real Christmas tree, perhaps some garland, and definitely Christmas music (especially traditional carols). I hate all the generic "winter holiday" songs they pass off as Christmas carols these days, or the love songs that are considered Christmas carols because they said the word 'Christmas' once or twice, or because they put some jingle bells in the background. I'm not against secular Christmas music, because I really love the classics: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, White Christmas, Holly Jolly Christmas (it HAS to be from Burl Ives), and all of that good stuff from years ago. But also the traditional hymns that I grew up with: Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Holy Night, etc. And the more traditional the arrangement, the better - these songs lose their effect when modernized or made into pop tunes.

Growing up Presbyterian, we had Advent at church; I remember the nativity scene and lighting the advent wreath. In the Episcopal church, we had the same thing. Many non-Catholics reject Advent as "papist" and not Biblical, but thankfully during my youth I saw Advent being marked year after year. Most families, even Catholic ones, don't bring Advent into the home, though. You don't have to, but it is actually a nice tradition if you can do it. Now, I know I'm too affected by the culture - I cannot wait until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to have my Christmas decorations up (since that's when Christmastide actually starts), so I usually start decorating soon after Thanksgiving. But during Advent I'll do things like not have my tree decorated until maybe a week before Christmas, or I'll have my manger scene set up, but it won't have the baby Jesus until Christmas. Plus, we can mark Advent liturgically through the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours or going to daily Mass. One of the great things that came out of the liturgical reform of the 1960s was that Advent became more of a season than it was before. As an altar server in the Extraordinary Form, I was disappointed to see that during Advent there were no special Collects or Prefaces, but they now exist in the new Ordinary Form. Also, we mustn't forget about the traditional 'O Antiphons' that mark the last days of Advent. Even with a house covered in Christmas decorations, bringing these few things into your life during Advent will help you pace yourself so that you won't have that "Christmas burnout" that so many of us have in December (especially since they start selling Christmas stuff as early as September now).

Advent is also a good time for penance - you'll notice that the colors of the vestments change to purple/violet during Advent. I used to wonder why - after all, we're eagerly anticipating Christmas, as well as Christ's Second Coming, so why the penance? Shouldn't we be feeling joy? And the answer is the glorious "both/and" of Catholicism - yes, we should feel joy, but also at the same time we need to remember that Christ WILL come again to judge the living and the dead and he promised that he will come at a time we least suspect; our death is usually always a surprise to us, no? And so we also remember to get right with God during Advent - many parishes offer an increase in Confession times for Catholics (especially the ones who only show up at Christmas and Easter) because the Church is eager to have all her children back home.

I think of penance in Advent in this manner: it's like not eating when you're hungry because you're going to have a wonderful meal in a few hours. Think of Mom cooking that delicious Christmas meal, but it's not going to be ready for a couple more hours and you're really hungry now. Instead of having a snack or a meal now, ruining your appetite for later, you make the decision to wait until dinner is ready before you eat. Now, you're not doing that with sadness, are you? No, you are making a small sacrifice now with the joyful anticipation of that yummy meal yet to come! And that's how I view penance in Advent. So, I usually unplug from Facebook during Advent, using that liberated free time to take care of personal things, engage in more prayer, or whatever. Maybe I'll also give up another activity or a particular food - or perhaps I'll try to go to daily Mass during Advent. It's not the penitential time of Lent, so you don't go into it with the same mindset - it's this joyful anticipation of the Nativity (and the Second Coming) that you are marking in Advent.

One of the things I absolutely love about Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy) is that Christmas isn't over on December 26; we've entered into a Christmas season. First there is the fact that Christmas is such an important feast that we liturgically celebrate it for eight days (Dec 25 through Jan 1). This octave is included in the infamous twelve days of Christmas, from Dec 25 through January 5 (during which we're still singing Christmas carols at Mass) - the evening of Jan 5 (and the day of Jan 6) is the feast of the Epiphany. In Catholicism, this is mainly marking when the Magi and Shepherds come to adore the Christ Child; in Orthodoxy, it's the day of Christ's baptism when Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all present and reveal themselves to the world. So, the twelve days of Christmas mark when Christ was revealed to the world (to the shepherds, to the Magi, at His Baptism, to Simeon and the prophetess, Anna, etc.) and in the East, up to His baptism; in the West, we mark his baptism on January 13 (which concludes the 'octave' of Epiphany). By this time, even the churches have removed all the Christmas decorations and poinsettias from the sanctuary; however, the Christmas "season" doesn't truly end until 40 days after Christ's birth with the celebration of Candlemas, when Mary went to the temple for purification.


To me, October ushers in my favorite time of the year. Through the holidays of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas - along with all the spiritual holy days, seasons, customs, and events of these months - I am feeling my happiest. Maybe it is also because at this time of year we got to spend so much time with family. I miss my grandparents (RIP) and one of my uncles lives so far away now. When I was younger, the holidays always meant family, so maybe I also love this time of year because of those memories and the blessing that I can still get together with some of my family. Whatever the reason, I am excited with each passing day because, unlike that annoying song they play only at Christmas, October begins what I will always consider "the most wonderful time of the year."

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sacntified: hear our prayer which we offer for all thy faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry each may serve thee in holiness and truth to the glory of thy name; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. --Ember day Collect, Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham

Saturday, August 23, 2014

What the Saints Said About Overeating

Although I believe a large part of my overeating was due to the emotional toll of the death of my marriage, it's also developed into a bad habit, an addiction, that I'm finding hard to break (which affects my actual culpability). Even still, I thought it was important to look at a few quotes from the saints regarding overeating and how it affects one's spiritual life:

St. Josemaria Escriva: Overeating is the forerunner of impurity.

Saint Asterius of Amasia: The strictness of the forty-day fast puts to death the passions, extinguishes anger and rage, cools and calms every agitation springing up from gluttony. And just as, in the summer, when the burning heat of the sun spreads over the earth, the northern wind gives a welcome blessing to those who are scorched, by dispersing the heat with a tender coolness, so fasting also provides the same by driving out of bodies the burning which is the result of overeating.

St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle: It is so natural for people to seek pleasure in eating and drinking that Saint Paul, teaching early Christians to perform all their actions for the love and glory of God, is obliged to mention eating and drinking specifically, for it is difficult to eat without offending God. Most people eat like animals to satisfy their appetite.

St. John Climacus: If you have promised Christ to go by the strait and narrow way, restrain your stomach, because by pleasing and enlarging it, you break your contract. Attend and you will hear Him who says: "Spacious and broad is the way of the belly that leads to the perdition of fornication, and many there are who go in by it; because narrow is the gate and strait is the way of fasting that leads to the life of purity, and few there be that find it.

St. Paul (Philippians 3:17-19): Be followers of me brethren: and observe them that walk so as you have our form. For many walk whom often I told you of (and now weeping also I tell you) the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction: whose God is the belly: and their glory is in their confusion, who mind worldly things.

Pope St. Gregory the Great: As long as the vice of gluttony has a hold on a man, all that he has done valiantly is forfeited by him: and as long as the belly is unrestrained, all virtue comes to naught.

St. Maximos the Confessor: Love, self-restraint, contemplation and prayer accord with God's will, while gluttony, licentiousness and things that increase them pander to the flesh. That is why "they that are in the flesh cannot conform to God's will" (Rom. 8:8). But "they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh together with the passions and desires." (Gal. 5:24)

St. Nilus of Sinai: Why do demons wish to excite in us gluttony, fornication, greed, anger, rancor and other passions? So that the mind, under their weight, should be unable to pray as it ought; for when the passions of our irrational part begin to act, they prevent the mind from acting rationally.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux: Take even bread with moderation, lest a loaded stomach should make you weary of prayer.

St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori: It is almost certain that excess in eating is the cause of almost all the diseases of the body, but its effects on the soul are even more disastrous.

St. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney: He who lives in sin takes up the habits and the appearance of the beasts. The beast, which has not reason, knows nothing but its appetites. So the man who makes himself like the beasts loses his reason, and lets himself be guided by the inclinations of his body. He takes his pleasure in good eating and drinking, and in enjoying the vanities of the world, which pass away like the wind. I pity the poor wretches who run after that wind; they gain very little, they give a great deal for very little profit -- they give their eternity for the miserable smoke of the world.

St. John Climacus: Struggle with all your might against the stomach and restrain it with all sobriety. If you labour a little, the Lord will also soon work with you.

St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori: Let us then take care not to be conquered by this brutal vice. St. Augustine says that food is necessary for the support of life; but, like medicine, it should be taken only through necessity. Intemperance is very injurious to the body as well as to the soul.

St. Maximos the Confessor: It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. This being so, it is only the misuse of things that is evil, and such misuse occurs when the intellect fails to cultivate its natural powers.

St. John Cassian: I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite to gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies...A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.

St. Maximos the Confessor: Overeating and gluttony cause licentiousness. Avarice and self-esteem cause one to hate one's neighbor. Self-love, the mother of vices, is the cause of all these things.

St. Thalassios the Libyan: The thought of unchastity follows that of gluttony; of pride, that of self-esteem. The others all follow the three most common forms.

St. John Climacus: Know that often a devil settles in the belly, and does not let the man be satisfied, even though he has devoured a whole Egypt and drunk a River Nile. But after one has taken food, the unclean spirit goes away and sends against us the spirit of fornication, telling him our condition and saying, "Catch, catch, hound him; for when the stomach is full, he will not resist much.

Venerable Simeon, the New Theologian: Fasting is the mother of health; the friend of chastity; the partner of humblemindedness (illnesses are frequently born in many from a disorderly and irregular diet).

St. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney: O my children! Let us no longer live for the pleasure of eating; let us live as the saints have done; let us mortify ourselves as they were mortified.

Venerable Louis of Granada, OP: Gluttony is an inordinate love of eating and drinking...When you feel the promptings of this shameful disorder, subdue them by the following considerations: Call to mind that it was a sin of gluttony which brought death into the world, and that it is the first and most important passion to be conquered, for upon the subjugation of this vice depends your victory over all others. We cannot successfully battle with enemies abroad when the forces within us are in a state of rebellion. Thus we see that the devil first tempted Our Saviour to gluttony, wishing to make himself master of the avenue through which all other vices find an easy entrance.

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Baptism Day

To know the date of our Baptism is to know a blessed day. --Pope Francis

This is a wonderful day. A happy day! On this date in 1991, I became baptized into Christ Jesus (Rom 6:3-4). I was 13 years old and wanted to become a a fully-functioning, decision-making part of our Presbyterian church and that would involve my being confirmed; that couldn't happen, though, until I was baptized. My parents had left it up to each of us to decide for ourselves if we wanted to be baptized, so when I got old enough to decide I asked the church to baptize me.

It is an untrue perception that once a person enters full communion with the Catholic Church that they reject or condemn the Christian life they held in the past - on the contrary, we often build upon our former lives and often look towards those essential days with fondness. During these days we were first exposed to the wonder and glory of the Gospel and to the fantastic mysteries of the faith. Our Sundays were filled with countless wonderful hymns of the past and our lives were filled with devouring the Scriptures. I smile whenever I think of those early days of Christmas Eve candlelight services, Christmas pageants, and my first exposure to Lent and Advent. I can't thank enough my family and all the countless wonderful people from my Presbyterian and Episcopalian days who loved me and helped guide me in the Christian life, since their efforts helped put me on the path towards the fullness of the Catholic faith. So, on a date like today's, where I was born of water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5-6), it all started in the bosom of the Presbyterian church and I couldn't be more thankful.

"Through Baptism each child is inserted into a gathering of friends who never abandon him in life or in death...This group of friends, this family of God, into which the child is now admitted, will always accompany him, even on days of suffering and in life’s dark nights; it will give him consolation, comfort and light." --Benedict XVI

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Translating the Bible

There is a lot of confusion regarding translation of the Bible and, as this photo shows, there continues to be a little bit of ignorance regarding the complex history of Biblical translation. I think that Christian unity in the West will be hampered as long as these misunderstandings continue to be taught from generation to generation. I have written about the Church's role in the writing of the Bible before, so I will not go into details here - just very broad statements that I encourage further investigation into. I believe we can all learn from one another and work towards reconciling the mistakes of our past so that we can grow closer in communion. In my recent reading of the Lutheran-Catholic joint document on the commemoration of the Reformation, it is painfully obvious that Catholics and Protestants have reacted very poorly towards one another, allowing our past to dictate our future (which always ends in pain, separation, and hurt feelings). Although many non-Catholics might disagree with how the Catholic Church has interpreted the Scriptures, let us start off this conversation by acknowledging the fact that 1) Catholics are Christians and 2) all Christians feel reverence towards the Scriptures. To understand more about how the Catholic Church reveres the Scriptures, I highly recommend Dei Verbum, Verbum Domini, and at least paragraphs 101-141 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In the early days of the Church the primary use of the Scriptures was liturgical, so it made little sense for the faithful to have a copy of them in their homes. For nearly the first 400 years of the Christian Church's existence, "the Scriptures" consisted of the Old Testament (the canon of the Septuagint) and several writings and letters that may or may not have been divinely inspired. Around the year 400, a local - then Ecumenical - council codified the canon of the Bible, including what books belonged in the New Testament. You can read more of the history here.

There is a fascinating little book entitled Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church. The book was written by a convert to the Catholic faith, one Rt. Rev. Henry G. Graham. Born in 1874, his family were firm believers in the Church of Scotland, the Kirk. Born and raised in "the Manse" - the clergy house used by the ministers - he followed in the family footsteps and became a Presbyterian minister and theologian. In fact, his family was from a long line of ministers, father-to-son, for over 200 years from 1685 until 1903. When he was fifteen years old he went to St Andrews University in 1889, graduated master of arts in 1893, and then studied divinity, graduating with a bachelors of divinity in 1896, and for a year was assistant to the professor of Hebrew. This was a devout, God-fearing, Bible-loving man - and after being attracted by her liturgy, he came to believe the Catholic faith, entering full communion in 1903. He would eventually become a priest and then a bishop. Bishop Graham would go to his eternal rest in 1959.

Bishop Graham's book is very interesting in regards to the history of the Bible (especially the English Bible). Raised believing in the misconceptions we've all heard - that the Catholic Church didn't want people to read the Bible and refused to translate it into the vernacular - Bishop Graham gave a collection of speeches in an effort to correct those misconceptions; this book is that collection of speeches.

It bothered me to see that photo of Voice of the Martyr's monument to Tyndale's "martyrdom" - it shows that the misconceptions are still there today, harming our chances of Christian unity. Taking some highlights from Graham's book, let's briefly look at Tyndale and his "martyrdom".

William Tyndale was born in 1484, studied at Oxford, and was ordained a priest. Although he admitted to being "speechless and rude, dull and slow witted," he decided he was the person to translate the Bible into Middle English. No one asked him to do this; he decided to do this on his own accord. Tyndale's contemporaries saw him as a man "who was exceedingly insulting in his manner, unscrupulous, and of a most violent temper." He "repeatedly abused and insulted Church dignitaries", he believed the Pope was the anti-Christ and whore of Babylon, and called monks and friars "caterpillars, horseleeches, drone bees, and draff." It is no surprise that the English bishops told him that he wasn't the man to translate an English Bible. Tyndale left England for the continent where he continued to work on his Bible, smuggling copies into England in 1525. Filled with anti-Catholic notes and Lutheran theology, copies of Tyndale's Bible were ceremoniously burned at St. Paul's Cross, London. In 1522 he declared, "I defy the Pope and all of his laws!"

Anglican historian Canon Dixon wrote, "If the clergy had acted thus [burning Tyndale's Bible] simply because they would have the people kept ignorant of the Word of God, they would have been without excuse. But it was not so. Every one of the little volumes containing portions of the sacred text that was issued by Tyndale contained also a prologue and notes written with such hot fury of vituperation against the prelates and clergy, the monks and the friars, the rites and ceremonies of the Church, as was hardly likely to commend it to the favor of those who were attacked." The bishop of London declared that he easily found 2,000 errors in Tyndale's Bible, while St. Thomas More wrote a treatise against it, saying that "to find errors in Tyndale's book was like studying to find water in the sea."

Burning copies of books perceived to be detrimental to the faith and the security of the state was common in this time period. Luther would burn copies of Canon law and the papal bull from Pope Leo. Calvin would burn every copy of Servetus' Bible in Geneva he could find because he viewed some parts of that translation as unorthodox. Sadly, this is what we all did.

Tyndale's translation was so corrupt that the secular forces of Britain felt compelled to act - nearly twice as many royal proclamations as ecclesial ones were given denouncing Tyndale's copy. In 1531, Henry VIII would eventually publish an edict demanding that Tyndale's version be "utterly expelled, rejected, and put away out of the hands of the people." Not having the desired effect, in 1543 Henry VIII would once again pass a law "for the advancement of true religion and for the abolishment of the contrary," and demanded that the "crafty, false, and untrue translation of Tyndale" (among other works of falsehood) "shall be clearly and utterly abolished, extinguished, and forbidden to be kept or used in this realm." Still not being satisfied with the results, in 1546 Henry VIII would demand that all copies of Tyndale's and Coverdale's Bibles be publicly burned.

As for Tyndale's burning at the stake, it was not because he translated the Bible into English. Graham's book (and those of other authors) will testify to the fact that accurate vernacular Bibles and passages were available for centuries before the Reformation. Fr. Dwight Longenecker wrote, "The Catholic Church approved of Gutenberg's German Bible in 1455. The first printed Flemish edition came out in 1477. Two Italian versions of the Bible were printed in 1471, and a Catalan version came out in 1478. A Polish Bible was translated in 1516, and the earliest English version was published in 1525. Most of these were editions of the entire Bible. Individual books had appeared in the vernacular centuries earlier. The first English-language Gospel of John, for example, was translated by the Venerable Bede into Anglo-Saxon in the year 735." Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, in researching this posting I had to sift through pages and pages of websites hailing Tyndale as a hero, a martyr, a "man whose eyes were opened to the errors of the Roman Catholic Church" and "a man who died so we could have the Bible." Dozens of pages claimed that "translating the Bible into the vernacular was punishable by death in the Roman Catholic Church" even though that couldn't be further from the truth.

Tyndale would be tried by secular authorities in 1536, being condemned to death for heresy by the Holy Roman Emperor. Just 46 years later, the Douay-Rheims New Testament would be released - a Catholic English translation - followed by the Old Testament in 1609, two years before the King James Version.

It is a sad chapter in the Christian church that we've had these moments, especially moments which cost people their lives. May God have mercy on William Tyndale's soul. Still, we must honestly and humbly explore these events if we're ever to fulfill the prayer of our Lord that we all may be one. It was not a crime to translate the Bible into the vernacular and Tyndale was not executed for doing so. History can easily prove that the Church had provided Bibles, passages, and partial copies in the vernacular for centuries before the Reformation. The problem with Tyndale's copy (and others produced in that time period) was that purposeful mistranslations were allowed to be used in order to attack Catholic theology. I would suppose that if accurate translations were provided without biased notes, and the people started to reject the faith, then that would be a different story; however, that is not what happened. Tyndale filled his copy with angry vitriol aimed at everything Catholic that he saw, regardless of how inaccurate his translation was. Sadly, in those days a person deemed to having heretical views was considered a threat to the state, so many people - Catholic and Protestant - paid with their lives at the hands of secular governments in order to supposedly keep the peace. May God always grant us the grace to never return to such barbaric times. And may God also grant us the grace and humility to forgive one another for these past grievances so that we may discover the truth about one another, engaging in dialog and brotherhood until we can once again sit at the same Eucharistic table.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Pius IX vs John XXIII

The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1)

Most people are unaware that 63 non-Catholics attended the second session of the Second Vatican Council, representatives from the Russian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East (India), the Apostolic Armenian Church, the Old Catholic Church, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, the Anglican Communion, Lutheran World Federation, World Presbyterian Alliance, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany, World Methodist Council, the International Congregational Council, Friends World Committee, the World Convention of Churches of Christ (Disciples), the International Association for Liberal Christianity, Church of South India, the World Council of Churches, along with additional guests of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. Catholic critics of the Council are quick to accuse these non-Catholic groups of influencing the Council into being vague, liberal, and "modernist", however that doesn't seem to be true. Their presence at a Catholic council is an interesting milestone in ecumenical dialog that hasn't always been easy.

Leaving out the centuries of mistrust, anger, and fear that divided Christianity has caused itself, let's instead look back to the First Vatican Council's invitation to non-Catholics. The First Vatican Council was called in 1868 by Pope Pius IX. It opened in December 1869 and would be suspended in October 1870 when Italian troops invaded Rome and annexed the city (which was independent at the time). Pius IX issued a papal bull, suspending the Council indefinitely. Vatican I would never be concluded and would officially be considered closed in 1960 during the preparation of the Second Vatican Council.

Prior to Vatican I, the same desire for Christian unity was present; however, the manner in which it was expressed was a failure. In Pius IX's letter Iam vos omnes, addressed to "Protestants and other non-Catholics", Pius IX urged other Christians to "make use of the occasion of the Council" in order to "dissipate the haze of errors". In sincere hope, Pius IX urged separated Christians "to strive to free themselves from that state in which they cannot be certain about their own salvation." Needless to say, nobody showed up!

However, by the time the Second Vatican Council was announced, the Holy Spirit was drawing separated Christians closer together through common ecumenical interests, such as Scripture study and biblical archeology. Christians from around the world actively pursued the idea of unity, at least in action, through the creation of the World Council of Churches. The threats of neo-paganism via the Nazis and state-enforced atheism by the Communists found Christians from all backgrounds uniting with one another in defense of religious liberty. By the time John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council, he announced, "a renewed invitation to the faithful of the separated churches to follow us in friendship in this search for unity and grace, desired by so many souls in all parts of the world." He shortly thereafter created the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (which would one day be turned into a permanent pontifical council). Unlike in the uncharitable mindset that prevailed prior to the First Vatican Council, by this point in time there was a feeling of humility and charity toward separated Christians. Augustin Cardinal Bea, leading the Secretariat, was amazed by the attitude of the non-Catholic observers; he said it was a true miracle that so many non-Catholic Christian churches had asked their members to pray for the Council.

How much respect did the non-Catholics get during the Second Vatican Council? According to the testimony of a guest of the Secretariat, the non-Catholic observers had received all the Council texts, were able to attend all General Congregations, could make their views known at weekly meetings with the Secretariat, and they actually had personal contact with Council Fathers, the periti, and other leaders in Rome.

Despite how amazing this all is, there are many Catholics who disagree with - even despise - the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and they blame the non-Catholic presence for what they see as vague wording of Council documents so as not to offend others. However, most Catholics reject these detractors as irrational people having a bad reaction to reform. Sadly, many of them take on the attitude of Pius IX, an attitude that was natural for that day and age, but that will not work today. Browsing a "traditional Catholic" Facebook page, I saw that during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, they did so with wording straight out of the 19th Century in saying, "Lord, that the Anglicans will submit in obedience to the bishop of Rome, we pray for Christian unity." And each day they would replace the non-Catholic group with a new name. Smooth.

Over time the manner in which we dialog changes as attitudes change. In our day and age, charity and heartfelt discussion are what's needed in the ecumenical journey. Through dialog, we've been able to make some progress, such as the Lutherans, Catholics, and Methodists agreeing on justification or that the Reformed Christians in America now recognize the validity of Catholic baptism. There is a lot of ground to cover in order to fulfill the will of God by uniting as one Body, but if we drop the attitude and realize that it's not the 1860s anymore, we can go into this conversation knowing that there is indeed more that unites us than divides us.

For more about the workings of the Second Vatican Council, consider the book The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Christmas Season

Growing up, I always wished that Christmas lasted longer - we'd usually put up the decorations Thanksgiving weekend and then put them all away the first weekend after Christmas at the earliest, or by New Years. What always disappointed me as a kid was that prior to Christmas you got inundated with Christmas tv specials and music on the radio, but by December 26 all of that disappeared. When I converted, I found out that although the Christmas season didn't begin (liturgically) until the vigil Mass on December 24, it actually lasts longer than a day:

The Christmas cycle has a fixed character, and the feasts of the Nativity and Epiphany fall always on December 25 and January 6.

Currently, we are now in the season after Epiphany. This period, which begins the day after the Octave of Epiphany, is an extension of Chrstimastide.

Jesus asserts His Divinity - not by the appearance of angels or the star of the magi, but speaking Himself as God. He subjects our hearts to His teachings, explaining His divine doctrine with parables and manifesting the truth of His words and works by many miracles.

Usually Catholic parishes and Christian families take down their Christmas decorations after January 13, the Commemoration of the Baptism of Our Lord. Often, the manger scene is kept up until February 2nd, the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Feast of Candlemas, which derives its origin from the local observance of Jerusalem, marks the end of the feasts included in the Christmas cycle of the Liturgy).

(copied from the blog Orbis Catholicus Secundus)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Wanting to be Left Behind

...Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. (Gen 7:23)

When I was in high school I started to become interested in "the rapture", an event that I believed would happen at the end of this age when the believers of Jesus are to be brought out of this world prior to the Tribulation, which is when God would punish the unbelievers who were left behind. I even watched one of the Left Behind movies that portrays what this might look like, as believers are taken up and cars they were driving crash and unbelievers wander around the earth trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together before the eeeeeeeevil pope, who is obviously the antichrist, tries to establish a world church for Satan.

Yes, for a couple short years I was taken in by the theology of "the rapture" because a couple of my friends started to convince me about it. I hadn't heard the Catholic version of the end times, since I wasn't a Catholic until recently, but thankfully over the last few years some Catholic authors have started to refute the idea of a "rapture", an idea that didn't appear in Christianity for over 1,800 years; Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and some "Old World" Calvinists generally reject this supposed future event. The idea of a "rapture" didn't exist until the 1830s when it was expressed by Englishman John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren; it was then popularized in fundamentalist groups of the United States in the early 20th century by the Scofield Reference Bible (although some 18th and 19th century Calvinists in America were starting to develop similar theories to Darby's). I admit, when they quote Jesus talking about people being taken and others being left behind, it's quite convincing! And I cannot condemn these people who honestly believe these things - they've been taught error from the past and their love and fear of the Lord drives them to hope in their rescue from the unbelievable evil they see in this world; we all wish to be delivered from these things! However, the "left behind" errors need to be corrected if we're to truly get a sense of the "end times". I know many people - even family - who refuse to lift a finger to change the wrongs of society because "the end is coming" and the more chaotic and evil, the quicker "the rapture" can take place. So, this is a serious discussion that needs to take place in our ecumenical efforts. Let us begin by looking at the Bible quotes that have been misinterpreted - for ecumenical reasons, we'll read the Authorized Version (the King James Version) of the New Testament (I hope that in the future we'll be able to settle this by going over the subject in the original Greek).

The context here is that Jesus is telling his disciples about the end of the age as he is about to return to earth:

But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe [Noah] were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe [Noah] entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. (Matthew 24:36-42)

Similar details can be found in the Gospel of St. Luke (17:34-36):

I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

St. Paul mentions being "taken up into the air" in his letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:15-18):

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

Pretty scary stuff, right? It definitely sounds like the "saved" will be brought up out of the earth so that God can rain justice upon the earth. However, let's look at the context here for a moment. What was being discussed when these quotes were made? In Matthew and Luke, Jesus was discussing the end of the age with his disciples and what was his warning? To be prepared. What is it that we all do? We put off the things of God to the end, don't we? I do it all the time! I sin and then I add evil to evil, all the while Jesus implores us to be prepared. We put off praying. We put off reading the Scriptures. We put off being holy. We procrastinate, always thinking that "there will be time for that later." But in Jesus' discussion with his disciples (especially in Matthew), he is explaining how the kingdom of heaven is a treasure and that those who discover it give up everything to pursue it (selling everything to buy the field, the pearl of great price, etc.). He puts all of these things - about how awesome heaven and salvation is - and then shows us through parables how we usually act instead: we ignore the treasure we have found. He explains to us how if the homeowner knew when the thief would come, he wouldn't have been caught off guard and would have remained awake to be prepared for when he came - he then compares himself to that thief, that Christ will come when we least expect it and so we should be prepared. He then tells us of the wise and foolish virgins, the wise being prepared for when the groom came, but the foolish having put off the important things so that they missed it when he appeared. You can see that Jesus was emphasizing preparedness throughout this discourse. So then, when he gets to the part about some being taken and others left behind, how does he start that discussion? But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe [Noah] were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. So, let's go back to Genesis and look at parts of the story about Noah: And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually...But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord...The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. (Genesis 6:5-8, 11-13)

Christ insists that "as the days of Noe [Noah] were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be." And he rhetorically asks in Luke 18:8, "...when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" So, we can see that in both instances, "The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence" and that with man "every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Look at our present-day world, especially Western culture and its protection of contraception, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, pornography, homosexuality, fornication...while mankind is inherently good, the thoughts of our culture have indeed become evil. And what do we do? Just as Christ said: "...they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe [Noah] entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away..." The people killed in the flood acted the same way we act today when we ignore God; we go about living our lives, being the foolish virgin and the man who didn't realize the thief was on his way. So, Christ's discourse is about being prepared for when Christ comes, either personally (when we die) or as part of the Second Coming. He's telling us, "When the end of the world was about to happen in the days of Noah, the people of the world went about their normal lives - never repenting - never being prepared for that day when the end would come. Don't be like those people who weren't ready, or like a homeowner unprepared for the thief or a virgin unprepared to meet her groom. Be ready, because Christ could come calling at any minute."

But what about the whole "one will be taken and one will be left behind" thing? Let's once again go back to the story of Noah, since that is the context in which the Lord is speaking: ...Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.

Noah and his family were left behind. This seems to agree with what Christ said in Matthew: For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe [Noah] entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.

As it turns out, we've been concentrating on the wrong person! In the days of Noah, the evil people on the earth were taken (the flood came and took them all away), and the righteous were left behind (...only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark). This makes a lot more sense since Revelation explains that Christ will renew Creation, where there will be a new Jerusalem on the earth and God shall dwell with man forever - not in some far off place surrounded by puffy clouds, but on earth with the people that are left. Psalm 37 even alludes to what happens to the people who delight in the ways of the Lord compared to those who adore evil: Wicked doers shall be rooted out and they that patiently abide the LORD, those shall inherit the land. Yet a little while, and the ungodly shall be clean gone: thou shalt look after his place, and he shall be away. But the meek-spirited shall possess the earth, and shall be refreshed in the multitude of peace. Even in St. Paul's first letter to the Thessolonians, he says: ...we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air...

And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them...(Rev 20:13).

Which brings us to St. Paul's discussion about being taken up; he's speaking about the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. We can see in the Gospels and the Book of Acts that there was some debate in those days about whether or not there was a resurrection of the dead; there's a great story in Acts where St. Paul uses this debate to his advantage by causing an argument between the Pharisees and the Sadducees because they disagreed with one another about the subject. So Paul spends some effort in many of his epistles trying to explain to the early Church how we, as one people of God, can be saved from sin and death and be resurrected. In this particular passage, Paul is explaining that when Jesus comes again, even the dead shall rise to meet him. The part that is confusing for us is Paul's description of the living and the dead going up to meet Jesus in the clouds - it's very hard to understand the tradition of people going out to meet their king before he arrives back at his castle. However, this was a common sign of respect and honor due to a king or great military leader:

So the king returned, and came to Jordan. And Judah came to Gilgal, to go to meet the king, to [escort] the king over Jordan. (2 Sam 19:5)

...the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick. (1 Sam 18:6)

Then the king arose, and sat in the gate. And they told unto all the people, saying, Behold, the king doth sit in the gate. And all the people came before the king... (2 Sam 19:8)

And David came to the two hundred men, which were so faint that they could not follow David, whom they had made also to abide at the brook Besor: and they went forth to meet David, and to meet the people that were with him: and when David came near to the people, he saluted them. (1 Sam 30:21)

Even more examples can be found outside of Scripture when people went out to greet a king or general returning from battle. So, when Christ the King comes the second time in order to destroy evil and death once and for all, all the people of the world that remain - the quick and the dead will arise to meet him in the clouds, an honor truly deserving for such a great King! And then what happens? The king and his people return to the city together in triumphant celebration! We who remain shall return to earth with our King, "and so shall we ever be with the Lord."

For more information on the Catholic response to "the rapture" and the end times, I would highly recommend the following resources as a start: Bible Christian Society's Rapture and the Bible (mp3), St. Michael Media's The Rapture (mp3), Catholic Education's article Questioning the Left Behind Rapture, the various articles and tracts on the rapture from Catholic Answers, and the following books:

Will Catholics be Left Behind?
The Rapture Trap
Catholics & the Rapture
What Does the Bible Say About the End Times?
Rapture: The End Times Error That Leaves the Bible Behind
The End of the Present World & the Mysteries of the Future Life
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament

Upon these reflections, perhaps it's best for us to hope to be left behind instead of taken.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Epiphany / Theophany of Our Lord

The Magi came from the East. How did they know about Christ? Probably from the prophecy of Daniel concerning the seventy weeks of the years; they counted the revolution of the stars. In any case, they knew, and they brought gold because he was a king, incense because he was a priest, but also myrrh. That’s the way he was buried, with a hundred pounds of spices and myrrh. What would our mothers have thought if the neighbors brought in embalming fluid when we were born?
--Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Epiphany is one of those solemnities that I am still getting used to. Growing up Protestant, we didn't have this holy day; now that I'm Catholic - and learned that there are 12 days of Christmas - I'm starting to appreciate what I have been learning about this day. There are many beautiful traditions from the East and West that occur in honor of this day. For instance, some Catholics might have chalk blessed and will write about the door frame of their home 20 + C + M + B + 14 and have their houses blessed. In Orthodox nations, many brave souls will plunge themselves into freezing cold water to retrieve a cross that's been tossed in by a priest.

The day is called the Theophany by our Eastern brethren and in their tradition, it focuses on the baptism of our Lord. In a homily of Hippolytus (died 235 AD), he used the word theophaneia for the day as he preached to people about to be baptized. Other observations started to "piggyback" on this day; OrthodoxWiki explains: Originally, there was just one Christian feast of the shining forth of God to the world in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth. It included the celebration of Christ's birth, the adoration of the wise men, and all of the childhood events of Christ such as his circumcision and presentation to the temple as well as his baptism by John in the Jordan. There seems to be little doubt that this feast, like Pascha and Pentecost, was understood as the fulfillment of a previous Jewish festival, in this case the Feast of Lights. The Armenian Apostolic Church still keeps January 6 as a feast of both Christ's Nativity and baptism. Both East and West used this time of the year to baptize new Christians; however a movement began in the West (originating in Spain) where baptisms were reserved for only Christmas and Easter. As the West continued to embrace the Theophany, it moved further away from Christ's baptism and focused more on his manifestation to the Gentiles (the visit from the Magi); this was heartily influenced by Pope St. Leo the Great's homilies on Theophania, which concentrated mainly on the visit from the Magi. This complicated history of the holy day was encapsulated by the Daily Office (prior to the reforms of the SVC):

The antiphon to the Benedictus runs: "Today the Church is joined to her celestial spouse, because in Jordan Christ doth wash her sins; the Magi hasten with gifts to the royal marriage-feast, and the guests exult in the water turned to wine." O Sola refers to the Magi only. The Magnificat antiphon of Second Vespers reads: "We keep our Holy Day adored with three miracles: today a star led the Magi to the crib, today wine was made from water at the marriage, today in Jordan Christ willed to be baptized by John to save us." (from the Catholic Encyclopedia) The 1928 Book of Common Prayer refers to January 6 as "The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles". Sadly, there is no longer an Octave for Epiphany, although the Ordinariate will continue to use Time After Epiphany to mark the weeks leading to Lent.

In the beautiful custom from the East, it is explained: The feast is called Theophany because at the baptism of Christ the Holy Trinity appeared clearly to mankind for the first time — the Father's voice is heard from Heaven, the Son of God is incarnate and standing physically in the Jordan, and the Holy Spirit descends on Him in the form of a dove. Benedict XVI wrote about the baptism of our Lord in his book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordon to the Transfiguration. He writes:

The Eastern Church has further developed and deepened this understanding of Jesus' baptism in her liturgy and in her theology of icons. She sees a deep connection between the content of the feast of Epiphany...and Easter. She sees Jesus' remark to John that "it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt 3:15) as the anticipation of his prayer to the Father in Gethsemane: "My Father...not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Mt 26:39). The liturgical hymns for January 3 correspond to those for Wednesday in Holy Week; the hymns for January 4 to those for Holy Thursday; the hymns for January 5 to those for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. These correspondences are picked up by the iconographic tradition. The icon of Jesus' baptism depicts the water as a liquid tomb having the form of a dark cavern, which is in turn the iconographic sign of Hades, the underworld, or hell. Jesus' decent into this watery tomb, into this inferno that envelops him from every side, is thus an anticipation of his act of descending into the underworld: "When he went down into the waters, he bound the strong man" (cf Lk 11:22), says Cyril of Jerusalem...[As] Jesus came up from the water, heaven was "torn open" (Mk 1:10) or "was opened" (Mt 3:16, Lk 3:21); that the Spirit came down upon him "like a dove"; and that in the midst of all this a voice from heaven resounded...Heaven stands open above Jesus. His communion of the will with the Father, his fulfillment of "all righteousness", opens heaven, which is essentially the place where God's will is perfectly fulfilled. The next aspect is the proclamation of Jesus' mission by the Father. This proclamation interprets not what Jesus does, but who he is: He is the beloved Son on whom God's good pleasure rests. Finally, I would like to point out that in this scene, together with the Son, we encounter the Father and the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Trinitarian God is beginning to emerge, even though its depths can be fully revealed only when Jesus' journey is complete. For this very reason, though, there is an arc joining this beginning of Jesus' journey and the words with which he sends his disciples into the world after his Resurrection: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19). The baptism that Jesus' disciples have been administering since he spoke those words is an entrance into the Master's own baptism - into the reality that he anticipated by means of it. That is the way to become a Christian.

I'd like to take a brief moment to reflect on the tradition celebrated today in the West, the visit from the Magi. One of the things I have contemplated regarding this feast is that perhaps it's an image of science's relationship with faith. Ever since the Reformation and the "Enlightenment" which followed, there appeared for the first time in the Christian world a divorce between faith and reason, whereas up until this time faith and reason worked together for both had truth as their goal and both were used in order to learn more about God. So here we have the Magi, wise men, who studied the stars and understood their usefulness in navigation (and, I'm sure, in predicting seasons). We have no reason to believe that they were ignorant of the sciences of the day and were therefore learned men - and yet here they were, prostrate before the Creator of the stars of which they studied.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: Faith and science: "Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth." "Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are." (CCC, 159)

So we get to see in this moment of adoration a proper relationship between faith and reason (see also Benedict XVI's 2006 Regensburg address). I think we can also find in the visit of the magi the proper relationship between church and state, as these kings fell at the feet of the newborn King of kings. Regardless of our position in life - even as the head of a family, corporation, or nation - we are all under the kingship of Christ; no exceptions. The humility and adoration of the Magi highlight that beautifully.

So, regardless of whether or not you're observing Christ's baptism or the visit from the Magi, may our encounter with Christ in the liturgy and traditions of the Church lead us ever further into the transforming mystery of the Holy Trinity.