Jesus is Asking you for a Date

February 1, 2018

Jesus is asking you for a date: it’s February 14th. This year, Ash Wednesday lands on St. Valentine’s Day. These two observances, seemingly opposite, are both in fact dedicated to love. Little is known with certainty about St. Valentine, the 3rd century martyr buried near Rome. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, ‘the popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on February 14th (i.e., half way through the 2nd month of the year) the birds began to pair.’ Valentine’s Day is a celebration of eros, the romantic form of love that delights in loving the beloved. Ash Wednesday calls us to agape, the form of love that is willing to undergo sufferings for another’s good.

Jesus commands us to love: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself. … As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” We must give of ourselves to God and neighbor yet we can only give of what we possess; this means we must be able to say “no” to ourselves in order to give a fuller “yes” to others. Such self-mastery comes through asceticism. By disciplining our desires through mortification and penance we grow in our conversion and virtue. Internal and external acts of Christian self-denial are typically done privately, but Jesus Christ’s Church prescribes communal penances for the season of Lent.

All Catholics who are at least fourteen years old are to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, on Lent’s Fridays, and on Good Friday. Catholics at least eighteen years of age must also fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday until reaching their fifty-ninth birthday. What is “fasting?” Lenten fasting means eating just one full meal that day. Two additional smaller meals (less than one full meal when put together) are allowed if necessary, but snacking on solid foods between meals is not. Physically, mentally, or chronically ill persons, as well as pregnant or nursing mothers, are exempt from Lent’s fasting and meat abstinence rules. However, merely being in a dating relationship, engaged to someone, or married, does not.

There will be no fancy steak dinners for Catholics this Valentine’s Day. (Perhaps make romantic dinner reservations for February 13th or 15th instead – you’ll end up with an even better table.) Eros love and agape love can certainly complement each other. Jesus Christ delights in his Church as his beloved bride while also being prepared to greatly suffer and lay down his life for us. This Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, let us perfect our love for our beloveds through ascetic self-denial and elated gifts of self.

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12 Reasons Why I Quit Attending Sporting Events

February 1, 2018

This week, about one-in-five Americans (67 million) will gather across the country to share in a great cultural event. Its marvelous mixture of camaraderie, action, music, and messages is an experience for all ages. Even if they might miss out this Sunday, about 51% of Americans (170 million) say they will check it out sometime this month. I’m not speaking of the Super Bowl, but of Christian church attendance.

I have wondered how much mid-twentieth century Catholicism, with its record high vocations and Mass attendance rates, were an aberration from the norm in our country. The percentage of Catholics who tell pollsters they’ve attended Mass in the past week has declined from its highs in the 1950’s. Yet the percentage of church-attending Americans is more than four times greater today than it was in 1776. Regardless, more Catholic Americans ought to be faithfully coming to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass without fail; for the praise and glory of God’s name, for their own good, and the good of all his Church.

Here are “12 Reasons Why I Quit Attending Sporting Events,” adapted from a post seen on the internet:

1. The coach never came to visit me.

2. Every time I went they asked me for money.

3. The people sitting in my row didn’t seem very friendly.

4. The seats were very hard.

5. The referees made a decision I didn’t agree with.

6. I was sitting with hypocrites—they only came to see what others were wearing!

7. Some games went into overtime and I was late getting home.

8. They played some songs I had never heard before.

9. The games are scheduled on my only day to sleep in and run errands.

10. My parents took me to too many games when I was growing up.

11. I read a book on sports, so I feel that I know more than the coaches anyway.

12. I don’t want to take my children because I want them to choose for themselves what sport they like best.

A Parable on Pushing Boulders

January 24, 2018

Once upon a time, a Christian hermit lived in a cabin on a wooded mountainside, devoting himself to prayer. One morning, as he quieted himself and opened himself receptively to God, he sensed Jesus speaking to him – hearing him not with his ears but in his mind. The Lord said, “Go to that large boulder outside your house.” The man got up and went. Then the Lord said, “I want you to push this boulder for a half-hour every day.” The man obeyed, daily exerting his body in every manner against the smooth, massive stone, yet even after months of pushing the boulder remained completely unmoved.

The man asked himself, “Why am I failing? What am I doing wrong? The Gospels say that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, but I can’t even budge this boulder an inch. Why does God demand this of me when he knows I can’t do it?” At this, the man became quite angry and (wisely) voiced his frustration, confusion, and hurt to the Lord.

The man heard Jesus reply, “Do you have reason to be angry? I told you to push the boulder, but I never asked you to move it. Look at your arms, look at your legs – by your faithfulness to me you have become strong. Now you are prepared for my next task for you. Though you thought you were failing, you were succeeding in fulfilling my will.”

Recent Popes on the Culture of Life

January 17, 2018

“The promotion of the culture of life should be the highest priority in our societies… If the right to life is not defended decisively as a condition for all other rights of the person, all other references to human rights remain deceitful and illusory.”

— Pope St. John Paul the Great

“The fundamental human right, the presupposition of every other right, is the right to life itself. This is true of life from the moment of  conception until its natural end. Abortion, consequently, cannot be a human right—it is the very opposite. It is a deep wound in society.”

— Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

“All life has inestimable value even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”

— Pope Francis

“That is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition of her survival, yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weak and most defenseless ones, those as yet unborn.”

— Pope St. John Paul the Great

How Early Christians Celebrated the Holy Mass

January 9, 2018

Around 155 A.D., St. Justin Martyr wrote a legal petition to the emperor, Antoninus Pius. In it, he urges the Roman State to stop persecuting Christians merely for the act of professing to be Christians. “The First Apology (or reasoned defense) of Justin Martyr” answers the false rumors being spread about Christians in those days (including charges of cannibalism, orgies, incest, and sedition) by presenting Christians’ true beliefs and practices.

This ancient text gives us today a window into the Catholic identity of Early Christianity, including how they celebrated the Holy Mass. In the excerpts below, I have made note of the Catholic beliefs and practices on display using [Bold Captions].

“Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. [Sunday as the Lord’s Day and New Sabbath] For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun (Sunday), having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. [Apostolic/Sacred Tradition]

“…After we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching [Baptism], we bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, [Communal Worship] in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the illuminated person, and for all others in every place [Prayers of the Faithful], that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. [Belief that Christian Salvation is not by “Faith Alone,” but by Faith and Sacrament and Holiness of Life]

“Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. [The Sign of Peace] There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. [The Eucharistic Preface and Prayers] And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying “Amen.” [The Great Amen]

“…And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. [Closed Communion] For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, [The Words of Consecration] in order to nourish and transform our flesh and blood, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. [The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist] For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.

“…On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; [The Liturgy of the Word] then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. [Preaching] Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying “Amen;” and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. [Deacons, Communion to the Sick or Homebound, and the Enduring Real Presence of the Eucharist] And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, [The Collection] who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.”

The Name of Jesus

January 3, 2018

In Greek, the name “Jesus” is spelled “ΙΗΣΟΥΣ.” These first three Greek letters were Latinized into “IHS,” forming a symbol for the Holy Name of Jesus.

There is something surprising you probably don’t know about the name of Jesus. To set the stage, let us recount how Jesus’ Church developed and how different languages were incorporated into her worship of God and her proclamation of the Gospel.

The Church began in the Holy Land, Israel, where our Lord was born and lived, died and rose. Jesus probably ordinarily spoke Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew. Mark’s Gospel records Jesus calling God “Abba,” the Aramaic word for “Father.”

Christianity soon spread from there into Turkey and Greece. We see St. Paul ministering and writing to young Christian communities in these lands (including Ephesus, Colossae, Galatia, Corinth, Thessalonica, and Philippi.) Their language, like that of all the New Testament books, was Greek. Some vestiges of this era perdure in our liturgy: “Kyrie eleison… Christe eleison” means “Lord have mercy… Christ have mercy” in Greek.

Eventually, after years of terrible Roman persecution, Christianity prevailed. First officially tolerated in 313 A.D., Christianity then became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380. Latin remains the official language of the Roman Catholic Church to this day – many of her most important documents are promulgated in Latin with all translations into other tongues being based upon those.

The Christian Faith has now come to every nation on earth, including our own. Today the Holy Mass is typically celebrated in the vernacular, that is, the local language of the faithful. For us, this is English.

Now we arrive at the surprising thing about the name chosen by God and communicated to Mary and Joseph by angelic messages to be given to the incarnate Son. “Jesus” is the Greek form of that name, but that’s probably not what his mother and foster-father called him around the house. In Hebrew/Aramaic, his name was “Yeshua.” (The English form of this being “Joshua.”) Jesus/Yeshua shares his name with the Old Testament’s most famous Joshua; which is fitting, for both men lead God’s people into (greater or lesser) Promised Lands. The name Yeshua/Jesus means “God saves,” and he would indeed “save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

What is the value and power of a name? A relationship usually begins by knowing another person’s name. That name allows you to call upon them and to speak about them. Being on a first name basis with someone can develop an intimacy that gives you access to opportunities and good things you otherwise would not possess. So it is with Jesus’ name in whatever form it takes, “the name which is above every name” in power and glory. (Philippians 2:9)

You may have heard before of the four modes of prayer under the acronym of S.A.L.T.: Sorrow, Asking, Loving, and Thanking. Sometimes we might be too strained or suffering in body or spirit to compose long prayers to the Lord. At these and other moments, we may simply say, “Jesus, I’m Sorry,” “Jesus, Please,” “Jesus, I love you,” or “Jesus, thank you.” Even invoking the mighty, holy, and saving name of “Jesus” alone calls him to your side with a perfect knowledge of your heart. Such is the great gift of knowing the name of Jesus.

The Holy Family and Yours

January 1, 2018

Every year, Holy Mother Church presents the Holy Family for our contemplation and imitation. Some imagine life in the home of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in the soft, pastel colors of a Christmas card; so holy, so flawless, so unobtainable. We wonder, “Can the Holy Family and my family really relate to one another?” At least two out of the three members of the Holy Family never sinned in their entire lives together. We, meanwhile, could jokingly refer to the Feast of the Holy Family as “Elbow-Nudge Sunday.” Throughout the world this day, wives and husbands, parents and children, take turns gently nudging one another as they listen to God’s words about marriage and family life. The Holy Family was holy, but that doesn’t mean their lives were easy or smooth.

I’ve previously written about the stresses and difficulties of the holy couple leading up to the first Christmas: about Mary’s crisis pregnancy, about Joseph grappling with his wife telling him the child within her is the Son of God and Joseph contemplating a divorce, about their giving birth to that holy child in an animal stable. And their trials together continued after Jesus’ birth.

Imagine being Mary and hearing Simeon prophesy, “Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted — and you yourself a sword will pierce…” How would that make you feel about the future for you and your child? Picture being Mary as her husband awakes and says “our boy is being hunted, we need to leave tonight.” Consider Joseph, the servant-leader of his family, having to pack-up quickly and leave so much behind to take his family into hiding in Egypt. Later, an angel tells Joseph to bring his family back into Israel. So Joseph returns with Jesus and Mary, but he’s afraid to resettle in the south because the son of Herod the Great now rules Judea. With the help of another dream, Joseph decides to resettle in the north, in Nazareth of Galilee.

I mention all this because St. Joseph, the just and holy man, feared an earthly king even as he trusted God. St. Mary at the Annunciation did not know all the details of her future, but she trusted in God by saying, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Our Lord Jesus, sweating blood from stress the night before he died, trusted God to say, “Not my will but yours be done.” Their holy lives were often difficult, but God always rewarded their trust, bringing about good for them in the end.

In Genesis, Abram (whose name later got changed to Abraham) was promised a son by the Lord. But the childless Abraham looks at the old age of his wife and himself and asks, ‘Will my steward, Eliezer, be my heir?‘ God answers, ‘No, not him; your own flesh and blood son shall be your heir.’ Then the Lord took Abraham outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.” And Abraham put his faith in the Lord.

When I first heard this story (and maybe when you heard it too) I assumed this event happened at night. But the message is even more powerful if God told him to “look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can,” during the daytime. Where do the stars go during the day? We know they’re still there, even though the Sun’s brightness the sky’s blueness prevent us from seeing them. Abraham trusted in the Lord’s unwavering goodwill towards him and beheld God’s word fulfilled in the birth of Isaac. Through that son, Abraham received glory and the whole world was blessed.

One of the things Jesus says in the Gospels more than anything else is, “Be not afraid.” Sacrifice your fears. Imagine taking those obsessive worrying thoughts from your mind, placing them upon the altar, and lighting them afire like a sacrifice of old to God. “Let the peace of Christ control your heart…” Trust that “God works all things for the good of those who love him” and then “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

God not only wants peace within us, but peace among us as well. In our homes there is always room for improvement. The household of the Holy Family may have been a sinless one, but mistakes and miscommunications surely happened. Joseph probably broke or misplaced tools. Mary probably burnt an occasional loaf of bread. From the Gospels we know they both thought they knew where their 12-year-old boy was as they left Jerusalem for home; several hours passed before they realized he was missing. Even when we deeply love one another, we must learn and practice how to love and serve each other better.

We love each other in many ways, and the best modes by which we experience love can vary from person to person. The book “The Five Love Languages” lays out five major ways that we give and receive love, namely:

Gift Giving
Acts of Service
Affectionate Touch
Words of Affirmation
Quality Time

What are your top-two love languages? Can you guess the preferred languages of your spouse and children? Sometimes we try to love others as ourselves by loving them exactly as ourselves and we unfortunately miss our mark. For example, imagine a spouse complaining, “Why don’t you let me know that you love me,” when they really mean “why don’t you get me surprises anymore” (gift giving) or “why don’t you tell me that I delight you and you’re pleased with me” (words of affirmation.) At this, their spouse might reply, “What do you mean? I’m loving you all the time,” when they’re really saying “I take care of the kids and do housework” (acts of service) and “We eat and sit in the living room together every evening” (quality time.) These two loving spouses are loving past each other.

Learn the preferred love languages of your family members, and don’t expect others read your mind, sabotaging our own happiness. Tell them how to delight you. They love you and they want to make you happy. Don’t attack and criticize (“You always this” or “You never that”) but invite them to bless you. And pray together, as a couple and a family. The Holy Family surely did and its one of the most valuable things I can recommend. Some married couples, who have shared a bed for years, have never revealed their personal prayer requests to each other. Pray together, and then even whenever frictions arise, you will remember that you are on the same team, together on the same side with God.

Your home will never be perfect – not even the Holy Family’s was perfect. Life’s circumstances will go awry, and there will be sins we have to apologize for and forgive one another. But with trust in God and a daily commitment to loving and serving each other better, you too can live in the peace and joy of the Holy Family.

What if Jerusalem were in Western Wisconsin?

December 29, 2017

(Not all will personally resonate with the reference city
chosen for this reflection, but I share this article because
its device and style may be fruitfully employed by others.)

One thing I brought back with me from my first trip to Israel was a better grasp of its geography. A visit to the Holy Land yields a previously unknown sense a scale, offering new insights to the Gospel. In lieu of flying everyone abroad, perhaps I can bring its holy places closer to home. Let’s allow Bloomer, Wisconsin to represent the location of ancient Jerusalem and examine where other sites in the region would be situated relative to it.

The town of Bethlehem is about five and a half miles (in a straight line, as the crow flies) south-southwest (SSW) from Jerusalem. So, allowing Bloomer to be Jerusalem, Jesus was born not far from St. John the Baptist’s Catholic Church in Cooks Valley, Wisconsin. If the Holy Family, retracing the steps of their Hebrew ancestors during their flight into Egypt, passed by the Great Pyramids of Giza (273 miles WSW from Jerusalem) they fled almost as far as Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After King Herod the Great’s death, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to their hometown of Nazareth, 64 miles north of Jerusalem. Each year, Jesus’ parents would pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem, as from Hayward, Wisconsin to Bloomer and back, for the Jewish festival of Passover.

One of the things that struck me about seeing the Old City of Jerusalem in person is how very small it is. There is just 0.35 square miles – only twice the area of Vatican City – within its high stone walls. The locales of Jesus’ Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension are all reasonably short walks from each other.  If we take St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Bloomer as the location of the Jewish Temple, the Cenacle (or “Upper Room” where the Last Supper was celebrated) is located to the southwest at the intersection of Riggs Street & 19th Avenue. The site of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) is almost due west of the church, in the middle of Bloomer’s Lake Como behind the A.J. Manufacturing building. And the traditional site of Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven from the Mount of Olives would be almost due east from the church, in the first field south of the Bloomer Public Elementary School.

As the young Church spread, a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus obtained authority from the Jewish High Priest to arrest any Christians he might find in Damascus, 134 miles NNE from Jerusalem in Syria. However, the Lord Jesus enlightened him on his journey as to (quite fittingly) the Apostle Islands off of Wisconsin’s northern shore. This Saul, who became St. Paul, would go on to preach and win converts as in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba & Saskatchewan (i.e., Turkey & Greece.) Just like St. Peter, St. Paul was martyred for Christ far from home, 1,432 miles from Jerusalem in Rome, a distance like that of Seattle, Washington from Bloomer.

Following the Apostles, Jesus’ Church continued to grow through the centuries and around the world, winning new souls in new lands, including our own. Our Christian Faith has come to us today from ancient Jerusalem to St. Paul’s Catholic Church, wondrously spanning a distance equaling that of Bloomer, Wisconsin to Kyoto, Japan.


The two gray domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher appear behind the Islamic Dome of the Rock shrine atop the Temple Mount
in this photo I took in November 2016 from the western slope
of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Jesus Christ, the Center of History

December 25, 2017

If you had walked through the streets Bethlehem or Rome asking people on the first Christmas Eve, “What year is this,” the answers you’d hear might vary. The Sun numbers our days, the Moon tracks our months, and the seasons indicate the passage of years, but answering what year it is requires people to make reference to some shared historical event.

If you had bumped into one of the ancient world’s many sports fans on the first Christmas Eve, they might have told you that it was 3rd year of the 194th Olympiad. Once every four years, famous athletic competitions were held in Olympia, Greece. Freeborn Greek men would compete in footraces, chariot races, wrestling matches, javelin tosses, discus throws, and other events; for the honor of the Greek god Zeus, for the pride of their home city-states, and for their own personal glory. The winners received crowns or wreaths made of green olive leaves that would fade. All that remains of some of those ancient sports superstars today are their names in texts read less often today than last month’s newspapers.

If you had run into a merchant on the first Christmas Eve who used the Roman coins and roads to trade goods, he might have said that it was 752nd year since the founding of the City of Rome. Considering the wealth and influence of Rome at that time, it might have seemed like that empire would live and reign in the world without end. However, from decay within and barbarian attacks from without, much of what that empire built remains today, if at all, only as ruins for tourists.

If you had encountered someone enamored with power and celebrity on the first Christmas Eve, they might have answered that it was 42nd year of the reign of Emperor Caesar Augustus. It was a census he decreed that sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Early in his reign, Caesar Augustus claimed that the passage of Halley’s Comet over Rome was the spirit of his predecessor, Julius Caesar, rising into heaven. And so, since Julius Caesar had been a god, Caesar Augustus, as his heir, presumed to call himself “the son of a god.” Caesar Augustus would go on to die at age seventy-five and never be heard from again.

If you had spoken on the first Christmas Eve to someone focused on the politics and current events of the land of Israel, they might have replied that it was 38th year of the reign King Herod the Great, the King of Judea under the Romans. Herod the Great was a very controversial figure, with some Jews praising him and still more despising him: he expanded and gloriously refurbished the Temple in Jerusalem but was also a murderous tyrant, like when he ordered the deaths of the innocent baby boys in Bethlehem. Because the Roman Senate had appointed him as “the King of the Jews,” and since he was not descended from King David, nobody mistook Herod for being the Christ.

On the first Christmas Eve, some two thousand and eighteen years ago, only a handful of people on earth had any clue of the world-changing significance of what was about to occur. The baby born that night was the source of the universe and the center of human history.

In the year we call 525, a new way of numbering years was introduced by a monk named Dionysius the Humble. Dionysius numbered years using this baby’s birth as the starting point, naming it “1 A.D.” A.D. stands for the Latin phrase “anno Domini / in the year of our Lord.” 1 A.D. was dubbed the first year of our Lord on earth, and this is currently the 2,017th year of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Now I should mention that Dionysius has reason to be humble here as well. He estimated the time of Jesus’ birth as best as he could, but he seems to have been a little bit off. The best evidence today points to Jesus being born in 2 or 3 B.C. But regardless, it is most fitting that we mark and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ as the center of human history and the most important person who has ever lived.

  • Christ is the undefeated champion whose glory does not fade. Even when he seems to be down, he triumphs in overtime. (And, unlike Aaron Rodgers, “not one of his bones shall be broken.”)
  • Christ’s holy kingdom has outlasted the Romans. In fact, he conquered them peacefully by converting their hearts. And today, his kingdom extends to all lands and people through his Holy Catholic Church.
  • Christ is greater than Caesar, he is stronger than death. When Jesus died, he rose again. And now he reigns, because he is truly the Son of God.
  • Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is our leader untainted by sin, who is truly wise, and cares about me and you.

Even those without any Christian faith must acknowledge Jesus’ positive influence on the world: in children treasured; in women respected; in slaves freed; in strangers welcomed; in millions and millions fed, clothed, treated, or taught, around the world and across centuries, all because of the baby born on Christmas.

A.D. does not stand for an “Arbitrary Date.” Anno Domini is no accidental demarcation of before and after. Jesus Christ merits more than our apathetic dismissal. Jesus deserves to be at the center of our years and the center of our lives. As he, this Christmas night, so humbly gives himself to you, please give yourself to him anew. He is the Christ, yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, all time belongs to him and all the ages; to him be glory and power, through every age and forever, in you and in me. Amen.

The Ox, the Ass, & the First Manger Scene

December 20, 2017

In the year 1223 A.D., about two weeks before Christmas and three years before his death, St. Francis of Assisi shared an innovative idea with a beloved friend: “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.” With Pope Honorius III’s approval and his generous friend’s help everything was ready for Christmas Eve.

Blessed Thomas of Celano (writing just six years after) recounts the unveiling of that first manger scene, or crèche:

“With glad hearts, the men and women of that place prepared, according to their means, candles, and torches to light up that night which has illuminated all the days and years with its glittering star. Finally the holy man of God arrived and, finding everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced. … The manger is ready, hay is brought, the (live) ox and ass are led in. The brothers sing, discharging their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night echoes with jubilation. The holy man of God stands before the manger full of sighs, consumed by devotion, and filled with a marvelous joy. The holy man of God wears a deacon’s vestments, for he was indeed a deacon, and he sings the holy gospel with a sonorous voice. Then he preaches sweetly to the people standing about, telling them about the birth of the poor king and the little city of Bethlehem.”

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth make no mention of an ox or donkey, but St. Francis included them in his scene because the duo had so commonly appeared in Christian imagery and writings since the Early Church.

Like the crucified thieves beside Jesus’ cross, this pair of creatures beside Jesus’ crib can represent two types of people in our world. Some respond to the birth of God among us like a donkey, with a foolish, stubborn resistance. But others, like an ox, humbly take the yoke of Christ upon their shoulders, learn from him, and produce a great harvest. Some attend Christmas Mass eager to leave early and without plans to soon return, like Judas Iscariot at the Last Supper. Yet Jesus calls us to attend to him week in and week out as his faithful oxen so that we may have peace in this world: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

The Temptations of the First Christmas

December 19, 2017

If I were a demon prowling about the world seeking the confusion, discouragement, and ruin of souls, how might I have tried to wickedly snare God’s beloved ones in the events leading up to the first Christmas?

If I were a demon, I would say to St. Elizabeth during her early months of pregnancy, “Did people suppose that your husband had some kind of vision when he took so long in the temple and came out unable to speak? He simply had a stroke. Zechariah will never speak again. Now you’re feeling sick every day and your abdomen is expanding. How could it possibly be a baby at your age? A cancer is growing inside of you. You’ll be dead soon. It’s hopeless.

If I were a demon, I would say to the Blessed Virgin Mary soon after the Annunciation, “You think you saw an angel? That’s crazy! You only dreamed or imagined it. Who are you to be the mother of God’s son? Who do you think you are! Don’t bother going to visit Elizabeth – you’ll only embarrass yourself. You had better hope this isn’t real, because none of your family, friends, or neighbors will believe you. Joseph will divorce and abandon you. You’ll be all alone.

If I were a demon, I would say to St. Joseph after he learned that Mary was with child, “Do you really believe she conceived by God’s Spirit? Who ever heard of such a thing? She’s lying and taking you for a fool. Even if it were true, who are you to be a foster-father to the Messiah? True or not, the best thing is for you to just get a divorce. Whatever you were thinking when you married her, you certainly made a terrible mistake.

Even once Christmas arrived, my diabolical efforts would not cease. I would caution Bethlehem’s shepherds to steer safely clear of that holy child and to keep watching over their flocks. I would counsel the Magi to dismiss the starry signs as coincidences and not to hazard a long, uncertain journey from the East. I would pressure Joseph to ignore the dream directing him to take his family into Egypt, and I would goad Mary not to trust in her loving husband’s lead: “God surely would have told you instead of only telling Joseph.” Thankfully, none of these people were kept from doing God’s will, tripped-up by these or other temptation traps, in relation to the first Christmas.

Some people think of temptation strictly as promptings to immoral pleasures. But temptation comes in many forms. We can be led to harmful inaction or disaster by temptations such as fear, doubt, sadness, and despair.

Some people assume that saints do not know temptation like the rest of us. But were Mary, Joseph, and Elizabeth oblivious to thoughts and unassailed by feelings like those I realistically described? Saints come to understand temptation quite well as they discern and persevere through the trials of life.

Some people believe that God only watches over and guides a few, favored saints – while having less care and concern for the rest of us – but this is also a temptation. Even if your life takes a shocking turn and you don’t know what to do, even if you have a stroke, or cancer, or your mind begins to fail, even if you are betrayed or abandoned by everyone, you are his dearly beloved one. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise, even if they speak to you in your own voice.

Sometimes we envision the first Christmas and all the events surrounding it in idyllic postcard pastels, as if they were flawless occasions of comfort and joy. But imagine being far from home and not being able to find a room for your very pregnant wife, or having to undergo labor and delivery on the floor of a stable. God was with Mary and Joseph and both experienced unforgettable happiness that night, but it was not a time preserved free from hardship or trial.

Sometimes we hope or expect our Christmas to be perfect, and strive for everything to go just right. Yet circumstances never fully cooperate. Things are less organized, less harmonious, less supremely happy than we wished them to be. From its beginning, Christmas has never been “perfect,” but its intrinsic goodness is always present for us — for Jesus Christ has come. This year, do not allow disquieting or perfectionistic temptations rob you and yours of Christmas joy.

Holy Days: Jesus’ Gift List — 1st Sunday of Advent—Year B

December 5, 2017

The prophet Isaiah, who pairs with St. John the Baptist as the one of the two most prominent prophets of the Advent season, cries out in our first reading today:

“Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants, [your people.]”

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…
Would that you might meet us doing right,
that we were mindful of you in our ways!”

Can you relate to that? Does that resonate within you? Do you long for such things, too? We know that Christ has already come, that he will come at Christmas like he did last year, the re-celebration of his first coming some 2,017 years ago. Jesus has already been granted to us, and we too often take him for granted. He told his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings [and righteous people] desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Many ancient peoples waited and longed and hoped and prayed for the Christ to come. In the season of Advent, we cultivate a deeper longing for God like those generations past. This longing leads to devotion, and this devotion to more perfect love. Our long, devotion, and long prepare us for the Lord.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel:

“Watch… you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at [the wee hours], or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!'”

In Jesus’ parable, a man travels abroad, leaving home and placing his servants in charge of their duties. The gatekeeper is ordered to be on the watch, and all are told to be prepared for whatever hour the Lord might arrive. His parable teaches us to be always ready, for either the day of Jesus’ Second Coming or the hour of your death.

Allow me to somewhat alter and re-imagine the parable Jesus told: Imagine the master and lord gathering all of his servants together and saying, “I want each of you to return to meet me here, at my house, on such-and-such a day, at a particular time.” This commandment would be even easier to keep than the instructions in the original tale. Knowing what we know of Jesus’ parables, what could we expect of the wise servants and what would the foolish ones do? A scenario much like this one faces us.

At the Last Supper, when Jesus said “do this in memory of me,” he willed for all his Church to often gather together as one to celebrate his sacrifice, his sacrament, the Eucharist. Through his Church, he instructs us when to gather; on Sundays (that is, the Lord’s Day) and other Holy Days. Unless there exists some grave or serious reason, like sickness, dangerous travel conditions, the need to care for another, or inescapable work, he expects us all to come. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “we should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some…”

In Old Covenant, there were three annual Jewish pilgrimage festivals held in Jerusalem: the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths. The Lord obliged his often-busy people to journey far to Jerusalem. Luke’s Gospel tells us the Holy Family journeyed to Jerusalem each year for Passover. The road distance from their Nazareth home to Jerusalem is about 120 miles (or 90 if you cut straight through Samaria.) So, every year, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus walked or rode between 180 and 240 miles round-trip. God insisted on his people’s attendance so they would experience the gifts these Holy Days were. Some Jews may have felt this obligation an unwelcome burden, but their faithful observance gave their hearts an opportunity to be transformed by celebrating the festival and by encountering the Lord at his house, his temple.

The paradox or problem of preaching on the importance of attending Mass is that the people who need to hear it the most are least likely to. The family that comes half of the time has a 50% of hearing; the person who nine out of ten weekends is elsewhere has only a 10% chance; but maybe God’s providence will provide for them to encounter this message, perhaps you could pass along to them the main points.

Our Lady of Vladimir, icon c. 1130 ADI’m preaching about this topic on this First Sunday of Advent in light of the Holy Days of Obligation in this season. For instance, this Friday, December 8th is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the creation of he Virgin Mary free from sin and filled with grace. Jesus wants us to celebrate this feast together with him and his mother. This year, Fourth Sunday of Advent (Dec 23rd / 24th) comes right before Christmas (Dec 25th.) So people are wondering, “Do we have to come to Mass twice?” Some ask in order to plan accordingly out of love for our Lord, while some ask hoping to get out of something. Either way, the answer is yes.

Maybe you feel a temptation to rebel, or an involuntary interior groan at that news. But remember how it goes for the wise in Jesus’ parables and the rewards they receive. Jesus says, “To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Instead of regarding the call of this binding obligation (which it is) as merely a rule, re-frame it as a gift on Jesus’ list this year. Our faithful observance is a gift to him that may entail some small measure of sacrifice from us, but Jesus hopes to give us far surpassing gifts in return; the gift of himself and every good thing that comes with him. Our Lord is never outdone in generosity, so let us give him the generous gift of ourselves on Holy Days and throughout this Advent season.

You May Be Wondering…

November 29, 2017

Q: This year the 4th Sunday of Advent (December 23rd/24th) comes right before Christmas. Do we have to come to Mass twice?
A: Yes. This is on Jesus’ gift list this year.

Q: How can we fulfill our Holy Day obligations?
A: We have six options. Come to Mass:

(1) Saturday PM & Sunday PM (Christmas Eve)
(2) Saturday PM & Monday (Christmas Day)
(3) Sunday PM & Monday
(4) Sunday AM & Sunday PM
(5) Sunday AM & Monday
(6) Sunday PM Twice (see comments below)

Q: Will the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God also be a Holy Day of Obligation?
A: No. New Year’s Day is not a Holy Day of Obligation in 2018.

St. Anthony of Padua Quotes

November 14, 2017

With 28% of our students’ votes, St. Anthony of Padua was selected to be St. Paul’s Catholic School’s 2017-2018 special patron in a tight, four-saint race. (He edged out the Blessed Virgin Mary by just two votes.) Our children will be better getting to know this 13th century Franciscan friar, preacher, wonder-worker, and patron saint for finding lost items in the year ahead. These are my favorite St. Anthony quotes:

God’s Glory is Reflected in his Creation: “If things created are so full of loveliness, how resplendent with beauty must be the One who made them!”

Find Jesus in Quiet Reflection: “The Lord manifests Himself to those who stop for some time in peace and humility of heart. If you look in murky and turbulent waters, you cannot see the reflection of your face. If you want to see the face of Christ, stop and collect your thoughts in silence, and close the door of your soul to the noise of external things.”

Jesus said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life”: “Christ is our way in example, truth in promise, life in reward; a way that is straight, a truth that does not deceive, a life that never ends.”

How we Live: “The life of the body is the soul; the life of the soul is God.”

Riches are Hollow and Dangerous: “Earthly riches are like the reed. Its roots are sunk in the swamp, and its exterior is fair to behold; but inside it is hollow. If a man leans on such a reed, it will snap off and pierce his soul.”

The Saints Reveal our Flaws: “A ray of light enables us to see the dust that is in the air. In the same way, the lives of the saints show us our defects. If we fail to see our faults, it is because we have not looked at the lives of holy men and women.”

The Saints Show us Perfection: “The stonemason and the bricklayer are careful to use measuring lines, pendulums, and bobs to make walls straight. Can we not say that the virtuous lives of the saints are the measuring lines stretched out over our souls to make sure our lives take the proper shape and measure up to their good example? Whenever, then, we celebrate the feast of a saint, let us look to them as giving us the pattern our lives should take.”

Learn From Everyone: “The creator of the heavens obeys a carpenter; the God of eternal glory listens to a poor virgin. Has anyone ever witnessed anything comparable to this? Let the philosopher no longer disdain from listening to the common laborer; the wise, to the simple; the educated, to the illiterate; a child of a prince, to a peasant.”

The Cross Reveals our Great Worth: “Christ who is your life is hanging before you, so that you may look at the Cross as in a mirror. There you will be able to know how mortal were your wounds, that no medicine other than the Blood of the Son of God could heal. If you look closely, you will be able to realize how great your human dignity and your value are…. Nowhere other than looking at himself in the mirror of the Cross can man better understand how much he is worth.”

“The Ten Virgins & Wedding Party Prudence” — 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year A

November 13, 2017

Learning about first century Jewish marriage customs helps us understand the Gospels better, including the Parable of The Wise and Foolish Virgins. In Jesus’ day, when a young man wished to marry a woman, he would journey from his father’s house to hers. He and her father would agree upon a dowry and once this dowry price was paid the marriage covenant was established. This event was called “betrothal” and the man and woman thereafter were considered husband and wife. The groom, however, would not then begin to live with his bride. He returned to his father’s house for twelve months, manifesting his respectful self-restraint and honorableness toward her. (Betrothal was the situation St. Matthew described: “When Mary… was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” So Mary was never an unwed mother, but she knows the experience of having a crisis pregnancy.) During their year apart, the man and woman would prepare for their new life together. One of the groom’s most important tasks in this period was to prepare living accommodations for them at his father’s house.

Once their time of separation was over, the groom would return to his bride’s house with his groomsmen, usually at night with a torchlight procession. She would be expecting him but not know the exact hour of his arrival. That is why the groom’s second coming would be preceded by his messenger’s shout. Then the bride and her female attendants and the groom and his groomsmen would return to his Father’s house (their new home) for a wedding feast with their other gathered friends, family, and neighbors. There the husband and wife would consummate their marriage, and seven days of feasting and merriment would begin.

In the Gospels, Jesus is declared and calls himself “the bridegroom.” The New Testament names the Church his “bride.” The relationship between Christ and his Church parallels a Jewish marriage. For instance, in the Incarnation, God the Son left his Father’s house in Heaven to journey to our dwelling place on earth. Jesus paid our dowry price with his own blood. And after establishing his covenant, Jesus ascends to his Father’s house for a time until his second coming. This is why Jesus says at the Last Supper:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”

This Sunday’s second reading describes this return.  As St. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “The Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven…” Notice how the Lord’s angelic messenger announces to the bride that her bridegroom is at hand. St. Paul continues, “And then the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

In the Book of Revelation we see this nuptial union of Christ and his Church continues above. St. John hears Heaven sing:

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready. She was allowed to wear a bright, clean linen garment.” (The linen represents the righteous deeds of the holy ones.) Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.‘”

The virgin, young women in today’s parable are the bride’s attendants awaiting the bridegroom. Five are called wise and five are called foolish. The important distinction between them is not one of I.Q.—of being naturally intelligent or unintelligent—but in being thoughtful versus thoughtless. In the 1994 Best Picture Winning film, Forrest Gump is a man of below-average intelligence who, by his simple virtue, lives an admirable and remarkable life. A couple of times he’s asked, “Are you stupid or something?” and Forrest replies, “Stupid is as stupid does, sir.” I didn’t know what this meant when I was a kid, so I asked my dad. He explained that if you’re blessed with intelligence, but keep doing bad or foolish things, then you’re stupid. On the other hand, even if you’re not that bright but you make good and smart choices, then you are wise.

What is the meaning of the oil lamps that play such a significant role in Jesus’ story? The consensus of the Church Fathers is that they represent good works. Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus likens lamps to good deeds:

No one lights a lamp and then put its under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

(But doesn’t Jesus warn us, just a few verses before in his Sermon on the Mount, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father”? What reconciles these two teachings The answer is in whose glory is being sought. If I pray, fast, and give alms for my own glory, then some people may think well of me for a little while until they forget, and I will have received my reward. But if I do good works for the glory of God, then he will be glorified and he will reward me and I will share in his glory.)

The two types of virgins in the parable represent two types of people awaiting Christ the bridegroom. All the virgins fall asleep. Likewise, all of us (unless Jesus comes again first) will experience the falling asleep of death. They virgins are roused from sleep. Likewise we will be roused from sleep in the Resurrection. All of the virgins have at least a little oil, some light. At the Judgment, I suspect everyone will have some good deeds to point to – even murderous dictators have loved their dogs. But is that love sufficient? Are those good deeds enough? For the thoughtless, foolish virgins, their little oil is not enough.

They say, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise ones reply, “No, for there may not be enough for us and you.” (Apparently, their oil and abundance is not something that can be shared or transferred between persons.) “Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.” That’s where the wise virgins would have bought their oil in preparation, but remember what time it is. The bridegroom’s arrival was announced at midnight. All the stores are closed. Where are the foolish virgins going to find a merchant to sell them oil? They won’t. It’s too late.

Who are these merchants that we must buy our oil from now, before it is too late? These merchants are your neighbors in their need. At the judgment of the world, the Lord Jesus will say the righteous, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked & you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’Then these righteous ones will wonder when this happened. And our king will say in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” And elsewhere, Jesus tells us, “Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple — amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” Our neighbors, near and far, are the merchants from whom we obtain the oil of good works now for our lamps of glory later. We pay our neighbors with our time, our talents, and our treasure to purchase our good deeds.

This opportunity to do good on earth will not last forever. In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” old man Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley.

[Standing in his bed chamber, Scrooge] became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The [ghost of Jacob Marley], after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night. Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out. The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few…were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.”

We know the souls in Heaven can help effect good on earth – that’s why we pray for their intercession. The souls in Purgatory may or may not be able to pray and intercede for us – that’s an open question in Catholic theology. The souls in Hell definitely do not help us, but both they and those in Purgatory regret and lament having failed to do more good on earth when they had their chance in life.

When the foolish virgins finally arrive late to the wedding feast they find the door is locked. They cry, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” But the bridegroom says in reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” This echoes what Jesus teaches elsewhere:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’”

Jesus is teaching us that we are not saved by faith alone, by the mere acknowledgment that he is “Lord, Lord.” Nor are we saved by the vast accumulation of good works, for one could even prophesy, drive out demons, or do mighty deeds without having a saving relationship with him. We are saved by Jesus’ love for us and our loving him in return; by both faith in him and good works in him.

So what was the foolish virgins’ great sin? Who hasn’t accidentally forgotten to pack something on occasion? It’s hard to imagine Jesus condemning people for a mere accident. I think the virgins’ oversight in this parable suggests a far more serious fault. These young women heard there was going to be a big party and that a lot of people were going. They jumped on the bandwagon but were just going along for the ride. They did not really know the bride or groom and didn’t really care about them. If they had loved the couple, they would have put more thought into being their good guests and true friends, they would have been more serious in their personal preparations, and that prudent diligence would have saved them from being locked out in the end.

I do not wish to unsettle you, but Jesus preached this parable to the crowds and ensured that it was included in Matthew’s Gospel because he wanted us to consider this question: am I loving the bridegroom and his bride, am I loving the Church and her Lord? Are you dedicating your time, talents, and treasure to God and your neighbor? Are you striving for the narrow path and the narrow door that Jesus tells us few attain? Or are you, like many, just going with the flow in comfortable complacency? Jesus’ final warning in today’s gospel is, “Stay awake, (be vigilant, be diligent,) for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The bridegroom and bride request the honor of your presence at their banquet. So let us wisely be diligent, doing good works in Christ, while this precious daylight remains.