Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Last Week of Advent - December 23rd

John the Baptist is born, and when Zechariah writes the words the angel instructed, "His name is John" his tongue is freed, and he begins to praise God.  This is the gospel for today.  Everything about this gospel points to the fact that God works outside of the natural order of things, even the fact that the other relatives protest. Elizabeth says the child is to be named John, but there is no one else in the family with that name.  The child's name, like the child's birth, is given by God.  We are part of a world of nature, we function within that world, and so often we are trapped by that world, when we encounter problems and difficulties we seek natural solutions rather than turn to God in prayer.  The person of faith should never have any reason to be discouraged, because that person knows that even though things might be impossible in the natural order, God does not work that way, God's ways are not ours, and God sees the bigger picture.  The person of prayer knows there is never any reason to be discouraged because through constant prayer we begin to see God's hand at work in our midst, outside the natural order of things.  When we are faithful to prayer, it's like turning a tapestry around and seeing how all the threads are woven and joined together, even though we may only see a few threads at a time.  Pray always!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Peace of Christmas

Recently I have been reading two different books on the subject of 'peace of soul', "Searching for and Maintaining Peace:  A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart" by Fr. Jacques Philippe and "A Treatise on Peace of Soul" by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli (incidentally, both are rather short and definitely worth a read).  The principle of peace of soul finds it origin in the encounter of the prophet Elijah meeting God at Mount Horeb (cf. 1 Kings 19).  There was a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but God was not found in any of these, God was found in a sound of sheer silence that followed.  Later spiritual writers came to understand that if we wish God to find a permanent dwelling in our souls, then we must make our souls a place of peace and silence as well.

So much today seems to distract us, pulling us in one direction or another, flustering us, angering us, all disturbing our peace of soul.  We lose our peace of soul ultimately through desire (desire of anything other than God).  We can lose our peace of soul even desiring good things, we can desire to be holy, then lose that peace of soul when we find ourselves not making as much progress towards holiness as we would like.  This total peace is described with the Hebrew word "shalom", this is the peace God wishes us, this is the peace the angel proclaims to the shepherds at the birth of Christ when he says, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests." (Luke 2:14)

It seems today though that Christmas produces the completely opposite effect, as we run from place to place, store to store, party to party.  Normally nice and calm people start to get frustrated and angry, shout expletives at one another, fight over something as ridiculous as a parking space at the mall.  The devil is constantly trying to rob us of our peace of soul, because if he succeeds we push God out, and start to make room for him instead.  The rampant secularization, and commercialization of Christmas seems to have that double effect, not only are we encouraged to forget the real reason for Christmas, but in the madness that ensues we lose that peace of soul in the hustle of the crowds.  From now on, let us all strive to be more aware, let us strive to rise above the Christmas craziness, let us strive to maintain that peace of soul even in the face of the madding crowds, then we will know the true peace of Christmas.

The Last Week of Advent - December 22nd

Today Mary proclaims her Magnificat in the gospel.  After receiving Elizabeth's greeting, Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit burst forth into this hymn, a hymn to humility.  The Incarnation itself is an act of utter humility, the Almighty and All-powerful God hiding his divinity, becoming a human being to dwell with us.  In every celebration of the Holy Mass, God engages in an even greater act of humility, hiding his divinity to come under the appearance of bread and wine.  These acts of humility are ultimately motivated by love, God's love for us.  God calls us to humility as well, as I said in another post, God does not ask much from us, but he does call us to be humble.  Pride seeks the self, pride is self-love in the extreme, humility is always focused on the other, putting the other before self, and it is always an act of love.  I once heard the definition of Joy as Jesus, Others, then You, in that order, true humility motivated out of love leads us to find true and lasting joy.  May we be humble, so that God might raise us up.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Last Week of Advent - December 21st

Today we find the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth in our gospel for Mass.  Notice the dynamic at work, Mary goes to Elizabeth, the mother of God to the mother of the forerunner, the greater goes to the lesser.  Even Elizabeth herself acknowledges how out of place this all seems when, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she says, "And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?"  But isn't this the perfect symbol of what God was doing at that moment, the Incarnation had just happened a short while before, in Mary's womb, God had come to us, the great God to the creatures he had made from the dust of the earth.  God still comes to us even now, most especially in the Holy Eucharist, but he comes in other ways too.  Whenever we go to pray, pick up a prayer book, pick up a bible to read and meditate, go to the church to visit Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, it may seem as though we are the initiators, that we are the ones going to God, but not so.  God comes to us first, he tugs on our heart to inspire us to pick up that book, or to make that visit to the church.  In theological language we call that 'prevenient grace'.  Whenever you feel that tug on your heart, that inspiration to pray, it is God coming to you at that moment, don't ignore him, just marvel at how this happens, that the Lord should come to us, his unworthy creatures.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Last Week of Advent - December 20th

Today in the Diocese of Hamilton we celebrate a feast day for the Dedication of the Cathedral of Christ the King, but like yesterday, this brief reflection will be on the gospel proper to December 20th.

In today's gospel, we Annunciation to Mary, the moment of Christ's Incarnation in her virgin womb.  The angel tells Mary that "nothing is impossible to God."  Quite true, God can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants, but God always respects our freedom, God will never act unless we let him.  Our gospel also shows us once again, that God's ways are not our ways.  The event of the Incarnation is completely outside the natural order, it is a supernatural event.  When we encounter those times when God seems not to be acting, we might ask whether what we are hoping for, what we want, is part of God's will.  We might also consider though, if God seems not to be acting, are we letting him, or are we getting in the way.  Let me tell you from my own experience that it is harder to get out of God's way than we might think.  If we really want God to act in our lives and in our world, we need to learn how to really get out of God's way, and to let him act.

The Last Week of Advent - December 19th

This posting will be focused on the gospel proper to December 19th, rather than the gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (especially since it is the same gospel we heard yesterday).

Today the gospel presents us with the scene of the Annunciation to Zechariah.  Zechariah, we are told, was praying for a son, but now in his old age he no longer believed it possible.  The angel Gabriel appeared and told him that his prayer would be answered, God was going to give him exactly what he wanted, but Zechariah strangely, still did not believe it could happen, and so was rendered speechless until after his son's birth.  How often do we have to accept those times when God sends us trials, when God answers our prayers but the answer is "no", but in those rare moments, when God does say "yes", when God gives us exactly what we want, why do we still have trouble, why do we still fail to believe?  Is it just our own weak faith?  Is it just part of our human nature to question, to doubt, to wonder why we don't get what we want, and to doubt even more when we get it?  I don't claim to have an answer for this one, but the question is certainly worth pondering.

The Last Week of Advent - December 18th

Today our gospel passage introduces us to St. Joseph.  St. Joseph, it tells us, was a righteous man.  St. Matthew's audience was primarily Jewish, and they would have understood that term in its proper context.  To be righteous meant to carry out the law of Moses fully and faithfully, and that his life was judged to be pleasing to God.  Our gospel though, goes beyond, and tells us that not only was St. Joseph a righteous man, but he was a holy man as well.  If he were perfectly observant of the law, he would have been well within his rights to expose Mary to public humiliation perhaps even to stoning when he found her to be pregnant, and knew that he was not the father.  His concern however was not for his own wounded pride, his concern was for Mary, and so he planned to dismiss her quietly.  This humility, this concern for Mary's well being over his own, shows forth that deeper holiness, a holiness no doubt born from a deep life of prayer, which is probably why St. Joseph not only recognized God's word in the dream, but carried it out without question.  We too are called not just to live out the externals of faith, but to true interior holiness, a holiness that looks to the good of others over ourselves, a holiness born out of a real prayerful relationship with God.  St. Joseph was not a rabbi, not a religious scholar, he was a carpenter, a working man.  Prayer is not just for priests and monastics, it is for all of us, to grow in our relationship with God.

The Last Week of Advent - December 17th

As we enter the final week of Advent, our Church's liturgy begins to move away from its focus on the second coming of Christ, and toward preparation for the celebration of Christmas, the commemoration of his first coming among us.  I think it would be very worth while to offer just some brief prayerful reflections for each day of this week.

Today, our gospel is the genealogy of Jesus as presented by St. Matthew.  It is a list of names and not much more, a list of kings and commoners, heroes and scoundrels, but they all played a part in God's plan of salvation, they all lead to the Messiah.  What does that tell us?  We think we know who the important people are in the world, and who the bit players are, but when it comes to God's plan, we need to look differently.  The standards by which the world judges who and what is important simply is not the way God judges.  Our goal should not be to be a star in the world's drama, but a star in God's drama and, quite often, a bit player as far the world is concerned.  When the final account is taken, it won't matter how many pages we occupy in history books, it won't matter if we had fame and fortune, but it will matter if we fulfilled the role God gave to us, it will matter if we carried out God's will, and it will matter if we were faithful to the call to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ our Risen Lord.

RCIA Wednesday - A question about Confession

[Sorry folks, getting a little behind on publishing, this article was intended for December 15th] 

Like most Associate Pastors I am in charge of RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) here in the parish, and like many places we have our RCIA sessions on Wednesday night.  It seems like very fruitful ground to offer some reflections, since RCIA is all about learning and growing in the faith.  I can't hope to cover everything that we discuss in a two hour session of RCIA in this space, but I hope to be able to reflect upon at least one issue that comes up every week.  We are on hiatus from RCIA until after Christmas right now, but I thought I'd start with an interesting question that we posed to me last week in RCIA, a question about Confession.

Our topic last week, just before the Christmas break was an Introduction to the Sacraments, which included just a brief overview of each of the seven Sacraments.  When we got to the Sacrament of Confession, the question was posed, "Will the priest think less of you because of the sins you confess?"  A fair question, especially at this time of year when so many are heading to the confessional as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas.  Now, I can't claim to speak for every priest in the world, but as for myself, and for other priests I have spoken to about the subject, an honest, sincere, thorough confession will never cause your confessor to think less of you.  Most confessors simply try to forget what a penitent has told them, and with the great volume of penitents, especially at this time of year, that is fairly easy to do, but if your confessor does have a lingering opinion, it will usually be to think more highly of you, because you have come before the Lord in humility to ask for his help and forgiveness.

That being said, there are a few confessional don'ts that I'd like to offer for your consideration:

  1. Don't argue moral theology with your confessor.  This is the penitent who comes in to confess "x, y, and z", but then says, "But I don't really think x is a sin", or some variation of that opinion.  One might ask the question, "if you don't think it's a sin, then why confess it in the first place", ultimately though, we must remember that the confessional is a place for acknowledgment of sins and for God's healing power to wipe those sins away.  If you sincerely have questions about the Church's teaching on a particular matter, feel free to ask your priest to see if he can clarify the issue, but the confessional might not be the best place to do it.
  2. Don't mitigate your sins.  The Sacrament of Confession is there to remove the stain of mortal sin, venial sins don't require sacramental confession, a sincere Act of Contrition will suffice (note here I'm not speaking of devotional confession, that is a different subject altogether).  Occasionally a penitent will come to confess "x", but then give a long story why it really wasn't that bad.  Again, if it was not really that bad, in other words not a mortal sin, then you have no need to confess it, but if your conscience is telling you to confess it, then just be honest and straightforward, acknowledge the wrong, and listen for your confessor's advice.
  3. Don't tell your confessor that you're not a sinner.  Again, occasionally a penitent will come, confess a couple of things, then say "I don't really have sins to confess."  Certainly there may be saints in our midst, but real saints are those who are usually most keenly aware of their sinfulness.  To say that "I don't remember anything else", or "I honestly can't think of anything else, but am sorry for any sins I cannot remember" is fair.  Some may simply not have as intense a level of self-knowledge regarding sinfulness as others, because of where they are in their spiritual lives, but to still acknowledge that I am a sinner even though I don't recall all the specifics is probably much closer to the mark for most of us, than to say I have no sins to confess.  
Incidentally, I myself seek out the Sacrament quite frequently, and at times I am tempted to employ one of the above, but if we get right down to it, all of these devices are aspects of one reality, pride.  Pride is the Original Sin, and it continues to be the biggest stumbling block in the spiritual lives of most people.  Pride seeks to build up the self, to the point where we don't think we need God any more, and isn't that what we are saying in all of the above instances, I don't really need the Sacrament, and thus I don't really need God's forgiveness, because I don't really think I've done anything wrong.  God doesn't really ask for much from us, at least in comparison to all he is willing to do for us, but he does ask for real sincereity and humility, particularly in acknowledging our sinfulness, and our need for his forgiveness and grace.  Next time you step into the confessional just be honest and open, and you may find God's grace is much more powerful and effective in your life.

I realize that I have strayed somewhat from my initial consideration of what the priest might think of you, but just to conclude, a truly humble penitent, regardless of their sins, will always be a source of joy to the confessor, because true humility goes hand in hand with true holiness (perhaps a subject for a later post).

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Musings on the Mass - The Sign of the Cross

Those who know me well, would be able to tell you that one of my great passions is liturgy, liturgy done well, done according to the mind of the Church, and in continuity with her liturgical traditions.  To that end, I'm hoping to offer a series of postings on the Mass, with a combination of the Church's teachings and tradition, and some of my own prayerful reflections, and what a better place to start, than with the Sign of the Cross.

When I was in high school I had a group of friends who were all former Catholics who had become "Born Again" Christians.  They were constantly trying to "convert" me; it was great practice for my apologetic skills.  I mention this because one day they questioned why Catholics make the Sign of the Cross when they pray.  They asked me what we would do if Jesus were hanged instead of crucified, would we imitate putting a noose around our necks to pray.  Of course what I struggled to answer then, is a very easy answer now.  I don't believe there is anything accidental or incidental about the way Christ died.

The Cross was the perfect symbol of who Christ was, and what he was accomplishing while he hung for three long hours of suffering before his death.  The mystery of the Incarnation means that Jesus Christ was both God and man, completely God and completely man, not something in between, not half of one and half of the other, but completely both, joined together in a perfect union.  Our Tradition sees in the Cross a symbol of that union, the vertical bar of the Cross representing the divine nature of Christ, and the horizontal bar representing the humanity of Christ.  But it is more than that!  Christ became incarnate, that he might redeem us from our sins, atone for the price of Adam's original sin, and reconcile us with our God from whom we had become separated through Original Sin and personal sin.  The Cross is symbolic of Christ's redemptive work as well, the union of divine and human.  As Christ was crucified at the centre of the Cross, he was reuniting humanity with God, uniting the vertical and the horizontal.

For the practising Catholic, tracing the sign of the cross on oneself is almost second nature, it is something almost as natural as breathing.  In the third chapter of De Corona, a book by Tertullian (one of the Fathers of the Church), he states "At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign".  This book was written in 204, attesting to the long tradition of Christians making this sign.  Of course, today it is not made on the forehead, but traced from forehead to breast, from left shoulder to right shoulder.

As we trace the cross upon ourselves we are acknowledging publicly the sign of our salvation (cf. Galatians 6:14), and we show forth our desire to unite ourselves to our Lord's saving death on the cross (cf. Colossians 1:24).  A thought I'd like to offer though, is the fact that as we trace the Sign of the Cross on ourselves, we acknowledge our own dual nature, we acknowledge the fact that we human beings are incarnate spirits, that our complete nature is body and spirit.  There is a great temptation today to think of ourselves just in the spiritual sense, that when we die our spirit is freed somehow from this prison called a body, and consequently what we do to our body really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things.  The truth however, is that we are indeed body and spirit, joined together to make the complete person, and the Sign of the Cross we trace on ourselves reminds us of that fact.

When we begin the Sign of the Cross, we touch our forehead then over our heart to make the vertical arm.  The vertical arm represents the divine, the spiritual, as we have already said.  What are the two functions of the spirit, to know and to love, mind and heart, isn't that what we are connecting by this gesture?  What about the horizontal arm, the physical dimension, this is traced on our shoulders.  Think about how much the shoulders represent our incarnate dimension, we shoulder a burden, we offer a shoulder to cry on when we offer comfort, when we are feeling good and confident our shoulders are upright, when we tired our shoulders stoop and hunch over.  As we make the Sign of the Cross upon ourselves to begin our prayer, we are acknowledging our dual nature, spirit and body, and we unite our whole selves to the saving work of Christ on the cross, reconciling humanity with God.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sunday Homily - A Rose by any Other Name, Except Pink

The following is the text of my homily for this past Sunday, (the image is not of the chasuble I wore, but it makes the point):

"By now you would have probably noticed that I'm wearing a new vestment, one that you would not have seen before.  I acquired it over the summer, but I'm willing to venture a guess, that most of you here have never seen a priest wearing a vestment of this colour before.  Certainly we're aware of the candle for this Sunday in the Advent wreath, but rarely do we see a priest wearing a vestment in this colour.  That's likely because, following the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council, this particular liturgical colour, which we only use two days a year (the third Sunday of Advent, and the fourth Sunday of Lent) became optional, and sadly, so often when things become optional, they tend to become obsolete.  If we take the principle, though, that in her liturgy, the Church never does anything without a reason and explanation behind it, we have to ask the question, why does the Church give us a liturgical colour that we only use on these two occasions, what is the significance behind it?  To answer that question, we need to first make a very fine, but very important distinction.

So often, when we see the third candle in the wreath, and on those rare occasions when we see the priest wearing vestments of this colour, we describe it with the word 'pink', but the Church says that the colour we may use today is not pink, but 'rose'.  So what's the difference?  Well I don't want to turn this into a lesson on colour theory, but how do you get the colour 'pink', you combine the colour 'red' with the colour 'white'.  How do you get the colour 'rose', you combine the colour 'violet' with the colour 'white', and there is the key distinction.  Two weeks ago we examined what the colour 'violet' means, that it is a colour associated with 'penance'.  What does the colour 'white' symbolize, to answer that, all we need to do is look to those occasions in our liturgical calendar when the colour is used, Christmas, Easter, the feast days of saints; the colour 'white' symbolizes 'joy'.  So in this rose colour, we have that combination of penance and joy.

You might be asking yourselves right now how can we combine these two seemingly opposite things, penance and joy.  However, so many of the important beliefs and truths of our faith are a combination of things which seem to be opposites, even contradictions.  All we need to do is look at the person of Jesus Christ himself, is he God, or is he a human being, well he's both.  How is that possible, that is the mystery of the Incarnation, but he is fully God, and fully a human being.  Is God one, or is God three, again he's both.  He's one God in three divine persons, how is that possible, that is the great mystery of the Holy Trinity.  What about the Holy Eucharist, is it a symbol, or is it the real presence of Christ?  Again, it is both, it is the real presence of Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity, it is the sacrifice of the Cross made present to us on the altar, but all we see is bread and wine, a symbol pointing to the greater reality.  So how can we have this combination of penance and joy, two seemingly opposite and contradictory things, very easily, we just call it Hope!

If we think about it, Hope, by its very definition is something that is unfulfilled, something that we are waiting for, something that we are longing for, and we human beings really don't like to wait.  Particularly now in our fast paced, instant gratification culture, it so often seems that if we have to wait for something, it's almost not worth getting.  That can be a penance in itself, but if it is a spiritual reality that we are waiting for then we must prepare ourselves as well, and that preparation takes the form of prayer and penance.  As we wait though, we do not do so in fear and trepidation, we wait with joy, because what we await is the glorious return of our Lord, a day when, as our gospel tells us, 'the blind will see, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear, and the dead will be raised'.  Even more than that, we wait with joy, because our Lord has already come, and by his sacrifice on the Cross, he has already freed us from the power of sin and death.

We are called to be a people of Hope, which means that we need to have both of these elements.  If we eliminate the penance, the waiting, the longing, the preparation, then all we are doing is living for the moment.  It may seem good for a while, but ultimately we know that it will prove to be unfulfilling.  If we eliminate the joy, then all we have left is despair, we wait, but we do so with fear and trepidation, we don't look forward to a glorious reality.  Not only are we called to be people who live in hope, but we are called to proclaim that hope to a world so often filled with despair, sadness, and fear.  As the prophet Isaiah says in our first reading, 'Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God."'  We are called to proclaim the hope we have to all those around us, the hope we have in Christ Jesus, and the glorious day of his return.

So why does the Church give us this colour, this rose colour, in the mid-point of this Advent season.  In the midst of this time of penance and preparation, as we wait for the coming Christmas celebrations, and as we wait for our Lord's glorious return, it is a reminder that we do so in a spirit of Hope.  What we await is a glorious day, when all things will be made new.  We look forward in joy, knowing that Christ has already freed us from the power of sin and death.  We proclaim that hope to all those we meet, in this world marked by fear and despair.  Above all, we proclaim our need to prepare ourselves worthily and well, to celebrate the glorious day of our Lord's return, so that we may be truly ready to greet him when he comes."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Great and Glorious - A Beginning

So what is Great and Glorious all about, and what's so great and glorious about it.  Let me begin by introducing myself, I am a priest of the Diocese of Hamilton in Ontario, Canada.  Among many of our young priests and seminarians, our diocese is affectionately referred to as the "Great and Glorious Diocese of Hamilton".  However, even though that may be the origin of the title, this blog will not be focused on my diocese.

Our beloved former pope, Servant of God John Paul, the Great, in his Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, put forth the call for a "New Evangelization", a call to bring the work of evangelization to those countries which were evangelized many centuries ago.  By extension, this work of evangelization needs to include those people who may be Christian by baptism, but have never really embraced or practised their faith, and have never encountered Jesus Christ in their lives.  The pope notes, quite observantly, that the need for this new evangelization comes from the lack of a real Catholic or Christian culture in our modern world.  In generations past, I don't think people were particularly holier than people are today, I don't think people were necessarily more knowledgeable about scripture and theology than people are today.  So why is it that in generations past so many more Christians were in Church every Sunday, and practising their faith throughout the week, because there was a culture that supported them.  People had developed customs and practices that allowed them to live out their faith concretely in everyday circumstances.  Now that the culture has shifted, and become much more diverse and secular, most of those customs and practices have all but disappeared.

Many people who know me, know that my mind tends to be a storehouse of arcane and little known facets of Catholicism, and so my purpose for this blog, is to be about Catholic culture.  Which is a bit of a round-about way of saying that this blog will most likely be a bit of a hodgepodge of Catholicism, from liturgy to spirituality, old customs and new traditions.  It's my small effort to share the richness of the Catholic Christian faith, for those who may know very little about it but want to know more, and for those who may be faithful Catholics but want to continue to deepen their knowledge and practice.  I hope in some small way to share the faith that has meant so much to me, and the person at its centre and summit, our Lord Jesus Christ.  While we may not see a true Christian culture again, at least in our lifetime, as Catholic Christians I think we do need to maintain our own distinct culture and traditions, we need to maintain a real Catholic identity, if we are to live our faith for more than an hour a week, and if I can be some small help in that effort, I can think of nothing more great or glorious than that.

At the outset, I wish to dedicate this blog to the patronage of Our Lady of the Annunciation, the patroness of the Diocese of Hamilton.  Mater viventium, ora pro nobis!