Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Real Meaning of Advent

Dear Theophilus,

As Advent approaches Catholics the world over are called to make preparations for Christmas. Like the world over, those preparations usually involve making plans to travel, creating menus and shopping for grandiose meals, and, most importantly it seems, heading to the mall with lists if gifts for under the tree. With Christmas music playing over store sound system since mid-November, I’ll be Christmased out long before I make it to the vigil Mass on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes I find I need to take a moment away from the Christmas chaos to stop, pause and reflect on what Advent is all about to make sure I’ve got my priorities straight. I had one of those moments recently when I came across Jonathan McGovern’s blog, Scattered Thoughts of a Roam’in Catholic. In his post Where is the line??? he comments on the commercial pandemonium that is Black Friday and how North American society has strayed from the spiritual preparation that Advent is meant to be.

Like Jonathan’s blog did for me, we need to be reminded as a society as to Advent’s purpose. Yes, it is a time to prepare ourselves for Christmas, but this needs to be done in a spiritual way, not the materialistic, commercial way that some how takes over our lives come December. To be able to achieve this spiritual preparation, we need to remember what Christmas is all about – the birth of Jesus, the coming of Christ the Messiah, the Word becoming flesh and walking among us. If this is the case, shouldn’t the thought that occupies our minds during Advent be to ask ourselves why God sent his only Son to walk among His creation and not what to get the aunt we only see once a year.

To answer the question ‘Why did God become the Word incarnate?’ we need look no further than the first public announcement of Christ’s ministry on earth by his cousin, St. John the Baptist. Upon seeing Jesus for the first time the voice calling out in the wilderness pronounced:

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (Jn 1:29)

The Youcat expands on this by stating:

Why did God become man in Jesus?

In Jesus Christ, God reconciled the world to himself and redeemed mankind from the imprisonment of sin. “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son” (Jn 3:1`6). In Jesus, God took on our mortal human flesh, shared our earthly lot, our sufferings, and our death, and became one like us in all things but sin. (YC 76; ref. CCC 456-460)

Amidst all of the Christmas joy, this is a very sobering fact. The baby Jesus is born because we are sinners. The cute infant in the manger in Bethlehem has been conceived to die on Calvary for our sins. As sombre as it may seem, this is, however, something you can rejoice in – the forgiveness of sins is at hand through God’s saving grace.

As we go about the hustle and bustle of preparing materially for Christmas, we need to take the time to prepare spiritually for what it is meant to be. We need to take time out from preparing meals to prepare our hearts for God’s saving forgiveness become incarnate in the Christ child. We need to tune out the noise of the world around us and tune into the silence needed to examine our conscience to make sure we are ready to welcome Christ anew into the world.

And when we become despondent that we are alone in the world with our spiritual preparations, know that our gentle witness will send a ripple through society, calling all hearts to prepare for the coming of Christ.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Behold the God that Loves You

Dear Theophilus,

My wife, son and I spent the weekend in London (Ontario) recently with my wife’s family to celebrate her niece’s first birthday. With the 3-hour drive through rush-hour traffic on Friday evening, the 3-hour return on Sunday afternoon and all the festivities and preparations in between, it was a very tiring weekend – but it was a happy tire.

One of the many highlights from the full weekend was Sunday morning Mass at Mary Immaculate parish. I always look forward to going to Mass at Mary Immaculate because it is the parish where we got married. Joyful warmth always comes over me when I remember looking up at the large crucifix behind the altar and I think of how Christ was, and still is, looking down in benediction on our marriage.

Fr. John Comiskey added to the joyful spirit stoking in my heart that particular Sunday with his homily. I was pleasantly surprised that Fr. Comiskey wanted to talk a little bit of the theology of the Eucharist in his homily, more specifically the words said by the priest just before the distribution of the Eucharist to the congregation:

Behold the Lamb of God. Behold he who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

Father began his homily by sharing the scriptural sources of The Supper of the Lamb in the Book of Revelations:

Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out to all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the lamb, (Rev 5:5-8)

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and the testimony they had given; (Rev 6:9)

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Rev 19:9)

Fr. Comiskey then went on to explain that the Book of Revelations isn’t exactly what the modern media would have us to take it as – an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. An interpretation I myself once fell into in a feeble attempt to write pop-fiction murder-mystery novel. In hindsight, perhaps it’s a good thing I was never able to find a publisher. Instead, much like Dr. Scott Hahn in his book titled The Lamb’s Supper, Fr. Comiskey reminded us that the Book of Revelations was written at a time when the nascent Christian Church was under extreme persecution by the Roman Empire, and that the imagery in the Book of Revelation was used to give hope to Christians suffering from this state sponsored persecution. Taken in this context we can see the supper of the Lamb as the Eucharist, Christ’s Passover meal, marrying himself to his church and conquering the evil of the world’s sin through Christ’s broken body on the cross.
Throughout the homily I was cheering inwardly. This is the kind of knowledge that Catholic’s need as they are mocked in the world for their devotion to their faith. This is the kind of knowledge that sets my heart on fire each time I approach the Eucharist that brings tears to my eyes, sets a fire in my heart and physically draws me towards the Tabernacle.

“There is so much more!” I wanted to add to Fr. Comiskey’s homily. I wanted to share what I’ve learned from reading Dr. Hahn, Fr. Barron and especially Dr. Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist that has helped me heighten my love for the Eucharist. Although all of this is too deep and complex to unpack in a single blog post, there are still a couple of things I wanted to add.

Firstly, in citing St. Jerome’s Dialogue with a Jew, Dr. Pitre recounts how, in the time of Christ, the sacrificial lamb that was too be eaten at the Jewish Passover meal, the Passover meal which Jesus ate himself, was roasted on a cruciform spit. So when Christ referred to himself as the Paschal Lamb while instituting the Eucharist, he was referring to the way he was going to die.

Both Dr. Pitre and Dr. Hahn explain and show how the Gospels of the New Testament are the fulfillment of the Old Testament. In linking the Eucharist to the Old Testament both make reference to the Bread of the Presence or the Bread of the Face. The Bread of the Presence of the Bread of the Face (both referring to God’s presence or God’s face) was the Old Testament sacrifice of the priest Melchizedek. The Bread of the Presence, in the form of Manna, was central to Old Testament Jewish worship, being kept in the Ark of the Covenant alongside the tablets of the 10 Commandments and the Rod of Aaron – it was that important to the Ancient Jews.

Although I’m amazed by this Old Testament link to Christ’s Passover, the supper of the Lamb, it’s what would happen with the Bread of the Presence at the time of Christ that completely floors me. In his Dialogue with a Jew St. Jerome recounts how, during the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem, the temple priests would bring the Bread of the Presence out of the Holy of Holies to present it to the Jewish faithful. Holding the Bread of the Presence aloft for the crowds to see, the priest would proclaim: “Behold the God who loves you.”

Now, every Sunday, when the priest holds aloft the Eucharist and proclaims:

Behold the Lamb of God. Behold he who comes to take away the sins of the world.

I also hear:

Behold the God who loves you.

and, although I am not worthy that he should enter under my roof; blessed am I to have been called to the supper of the Lamb.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Search of the Sacred

Dear Theophilus,

“Is nothing sacred anymore?”

I seem to be hearing this question a lot more these days. The funny thing is that it usually has to do with the secular world.

No hockey this year! Is nothing sacred anymore?
Texting at the dinner table! Is nothing sacred anymore?
The mall is closed for a holiday! Is nothing sacred anymore?

I find it interesting, though, that none of these are truly sacred in the real sense of the word.

As Catholics we are lucky to come into weekly contact with the sacred through the Eucharist. But even with this it can, at times, seem difficult to find the sacred in the Mass.

Last week at my parish celebration of our patron saint, St. Leo the Great, I was fortunate enough to rediscover a sense of the sacred in the Eucharistic liturgy. With a Knights of Columbus honour guard, incense and holy water sprinkling, the congregation was wholly engaged for the sacredness of the Eucharist to come.

This isn’t to say that the usual celebration of the Eucharist without these elements is any less sacred than when they are present. We cannot, and should not, sustain such a high level of expectation when we meet Christ in the Eucharist. We need to recall that Christ’s own Passover meal was a simple affair. As Catholics we are called to understand that there is nothing more sacred in our faith than the Eucharist (CCC #1324). When it comes to the sacred in the Eucharistic liturgy the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states:

It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that the celebration of the Mass or the Lord’s Supper be so ordered that the sacred ministers and the faithful taking part in it, according to the state proper to each, may draw from it more abundantly those fruits, to obtain which, Christ the Lord instituted the  Eucharistic Sacrifice of his Body and Blood and entrusted it as the memorial of his Passion and Resurrection to the Church, his beloved Bride. (GIRM #17)

This is a logical progression from Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium:

Nevertheless the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord's supper. (Sacrosanctum Concilium #10)

All of this pondering on the sacred in the liturgy of the Eucharist reminded me of an article I read a few years ago in Adoremus Bulletin. I had been looking for a quote for a staff meeting reflection when I stumbled upon the following from Alvin Kimel Jr.:

The re-enchantment’ of the Catholic Liturgy”, declares Father Aidan Nichols, “is the single most urgent ecclesial need of our time”. I like the use of the word enchant to describe the Divine Liturgy of the Church.

I still vividly remember my first visit in June 1975 to St. Paul’s Church, K Street, in Washington, DC. I had just finished college. Earlier that year I had become a believing Christian. Upon returning to Washington, an old high school friend invited me to join him one Sunday at St. Paul’s. Solemn High Mass, with a visiting African bishop to administer Confirmation; solemn procession, with two thurifers; chanting, crossings, bowings, genuflections, incense -- all of this was completely new for me.

My only prior experience with the Lord’s Supper was as an addendum to the Methodist preaching service, with cubes of bread and shot-glasses of grape juice. Here was something utterly different. I was taken up into a sacred world. On that day I discovered the Eucharistic Christ. I was enchanted.
I found it possible to believe the Eucharistic promises of Christ because of the enchanting beauty and power of the Divine Liturgy that I experienced that first summer at St. Paul’s. I was enchanted into faith. I experienced the glories of heaven and thus came to know the truth of the Eucharist. I will always believe that the consecrated elements are truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And it is the liturgy that has sustained and generated my faith for the past thirty years.

You can read the entire article here.

Keeping all of this in mind, I’ll ask you the same question I asked my colleagues 7 years ago: “Where do you find a sense of the sacred in practicing your Catholic faith?”

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Power of Prayer

Dear Theophilus,

I can’t count the times that I’ve heard the questions: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “How can a loving God allow evil to happen in the world?” I’ve always enjoyed answering these questions with another question: “Why does a blind man look in the mirror?” I find, however, that trying to explain my question to raised eyebrows can take more effort than my little chuckle is worth.

I should have known that I’d have better luck finding an answer to all three questions in scripture. When I had the opportunity to think about it this weekend, I was amazed at how self-evident the answer is:

As he walked along he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (Jn 9:1-3)

What got me to thinking about this was a visit to Sick Kids hospital in Toronto with my son this past weekend. We were there to visit friends whose son had recently lost his right foot in a tragic accident. These are God fearing people, very involved in parish life, and would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it (I’ve seen them do it, though perhaps not literally). When news of the accident spread through the parish there was shock and sadness. Then people began to pray.

In our family we didn’t pray for a miraculous healing. Although that would be nice, we know not to question the will of God. Instead, we prayed that God would allow the Holy Spirit to descend upon our friends, giving them the strength and courage to see themselves through this crisis. Whether it was during our individual morning prayers, as an addition to our mealtime prayers, or silently in bed before falling asleep at night; we prayed for my son’s friend and his parents.

Arriving at the hospital Saturday afternoon, like most people in that situation, I was left searching for what to say to the young boy and his parents. Nothing ever seems right in those circumstances. As the boys wheeled and walked ahead of us down the hall, hangin’ out as only 8 year-old boys can, I turned to the mom and said, “You look good.” to which she answered in a soft Irish lilt: “If it wasn’t for everybody’s prayers, I don’t know where I would find the courage to get through this.”

As we continued chatting through the visit, talking about looking after the boys, the animals on their farm, or parish events, every time the conversation meandered back to the reason why we were there she would voice how her courage was buoyed by everyone’s prayers.

It wasn’t until the subway ride home that it hit me; that’s exactly what we had been praying for: strength and courage for the family to get through this tragedy. Our prayers were being answered. Knowing this, my heart burned stronger in prayer later that night.

So, returning to my opening questions: “Why did God allow such a horrific thing happen to such good people?” I doubt it was to punish them for their sins, but rather so that this blind man (and hopefully others) could see God’s works revealed in the answering of our prayers.