Sunday, December 25, 2011

God has come down from on High to appear as a Baby. Let us too come down from our high horse and bend down to see Him.

Homily of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Midnight Mass
Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
December 25, 2011

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

The reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to Titus that we have just heard begins solemnly with the word “apparuit,” which then comes back again in the reading at the Dawn Mass: apparuit – “there has appeared.” This is a programmatic word, by which the Church seeks to express synthetically the essence of Christmas.

Formerly, people had spoken of God and formed human images of Him in all sorts of different ways. God Himself had spoken in many and various ways to mankind (cf. Heb 1:1 – Mass during the Day). But now something new has happened: He has appeared. He has revealed Himself. He has emerged from the inaccessible light in which He dwells. He Himself has come into our midst.

This was the great joy of Christmas for the early Church: God has appeared. No longer is He merely an idea, no longer do we have to form a picture of Him on the basis of mere words. He has “appeared.”

But now we ask: how has He appeared? Who is He in reality?

The reading at the Dawn Mass goes on to say: “the kindness and love of God our Saviour for mankind were revealed” (Tit 3:4). For the people of pre-Christian times, whose response to the terrors and contradictions of the world was to fear that God Himself might not be good either, that He too might well be cruel and arbitrary, this was a real “epiphany,” the great light that has appeared to us: God is pure goodness. Today too, people who are no longer able to recognize God through faith are asking whether the ultimate power that underpins and sustains the world is truly good, or whether evil is just as powerful and primordial as the good and the beautiful which we encounter in radiant moments in our world.

“The kindness and love of God our Saviour for mankind were revealed”: this is the new, consoling certainty that is granted to us at Christmas.

In all three Christmas Masses, the liturgy quotes a passage from the Prophet Isaiah, which describes the epiphany that took place at Christmas in greater detail:
“A child is born for us, a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace. Wide is his dominion in a peace that has no end” (Is 9:5f.).
Whether the prophet had a particular child in mind, born during his own period of history, we do not know. But it seems impossible. This is the only text in the Old Testament in which it is said of a child, of a human being: His name will be Mighty-God, Eternal-Father.

We are presented with a vision that extends far beyond the historical moment into the mysterious, into the future. A child, in all its weakness, is Mighty God. A child, in all its neediness and dependence, is Eternal Father. And His peace “has no end.” The prophet had previously described the child as “a great light” and had said of the peace He would usher in that the rod of the oppressor, the footgear of battle, every cloak rolled in blood would be burned (Is 9:1, 3-4).

God has appeared – as a child. It is in this guise that He pits Himself against all violence and brings a message that is peace.

At this hour, when the world is continually threatened by violence in so many places and in so many different ways, when over and over again there are oppressors’ rods and bloodstained cloaks, we cry out to the Lord:
O mighty God, you have appeared as a child and you have revealed yourself to us as the One who loves us, the One through whom love will triumph. And you have shown us that we must be peacemakers with you. We love your childish estate, your powerlessness, but we suffer from the continuing presence of violence in the world, and so we also ask you: manifest your power, O God. In this time of ours, in this world of ours, cause the oppressors’ rods, the cloaks rolled in blood and the footgear of battle to be burned, so that your peace may triumph in this world of ours.
Christmas is an epiphany – the appearing of God and of His great light in a child that is born for us. Born in a stable in Bethlehem, not in the palaces of kings.

In 1223, when Saint Francis of Assisi celebrated Christmas in Greccio with an ox and an ass and a manger full of hay, a new dimension of the mystery of Christmas came to light. Saint Francis of Assisi called Christmas “the feast of feasts” – above all other feasts – and he celebrated it with “unutterable devotion” (2 Celano 199; Fonti Francescane, 787). He kissed images of the Christ-child with great devotion and he stammered tender words such as children say, so Thomas of Celano tells us (ibid.).

For the early Church, the feast of feasts was Easter: in the Resurrection, Christ had flung open the doors of death and in so doing had radically changed the world: He had made a place for man in God himself. Now, Francis neither changed nor intended to change this objective order of precedence among the feasts, the inner structure of the faith centred on the Paschal Mystery. And yet through him and the character of his faith, something new took place: Francis discovered Jesus’ humanity in an entirely new depth. This human existence of God became most visible to him at the moment when God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.

The Resurrection presupposes the Incarnation. For God’s Son to take the form of a child, a truly human child, made a profound impression on the heart of the Saint of Assisi, transforming faith into love. “The kindness and love of God our Saviour for mankind were revealed” – this phrase of Saint Paul now acquired an entirely new depth. In the child born in the stable at Bethlehem, we can as it were touch and caress God.

And so the liturgical year acquired a second focus in a feast that is above all a feast of the heart. This has nothing to do with sentimentality. It is right here, in this new experience of the reality of Jesus’ humanity that the great mystery of faith is revealed. Francis loved the child Jesus, because for him it was in this childish estate that God’s humility shone forth. God became poor. His Son was born in the poverty of the stable. In the child Jesus, God made Himself dependent, in need of human love, He put Himself in the position of asking for human love – our love.

Today, Christmas has become a commercial celebration, whose bright lights hide the mystery of God’s humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity. Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light.

Francis arranged for Mass to be celebrated on the manger that stood between the ox and the ass (cf. 1 Celano 85; Fonti 469). Later, an altar was built over this manger, so that where animals had once fed on hay, men could now receive the flesh of the spotless lamb Jesus Christ, for the salvation of soul and body, as Thomas of Celano tells us (cf. 1 Celano 87; Fonti 471).

Francis himself, as a deacon, had sung the Christmas Gospel on the holy night in Greccio with resounding voice. Through the friars’ radiant Christmas singing, the whole celebration seemed to be a great outburst of joy (1 Celano 85.86; Fonti 469, 470). It was the encounter with God’s humility that caused this joy – His goodness creates the true feast.

Today, anyone wishing to enter the Church of Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem will find that the doorway, five and a half metres high, through which emperors and caliphs used to enter the building, is now largely walled up. Only a low opening of one and a half metres has remained.

The intention was probably to provide the church with better protection from attack, but above all to prevent people from entering God’s house on horseback. Anyone wishing to enter the place of Jesus’ birth has to bend down.

It seems to me that a deeper truth is revealed here, which should touch our hearts on this holy night: if we want to find the God who appeared as a child, then we must dismount from the high horse of our “enlightened” reason. We must set aside our false certainties, our intellectual pride, which prevents us from recognizing God’s closeness. We must follow the interior path of Saint Francis – the path leading to that ultimate outward and inward simplicity which enables the heart to see. We must bend down, spiritually we must as it were go on foot, in order to pass through the portal of faith and encounter the God who is so different from our prejudices and opinions – the God who conceals Himself in the humility of a newborn baby.

In this spirit, let us celebrate the liturgy of the holy night, let us strip away our fixation on what is material, on what can be measured and grasped. Let us allow ourselves to be made simple by the God who reveals Himself to the simple of heart.

And let us also pray especially at this hour for all who have to celebrate Christmas in poverty, in suffering, as migrants, that a ray of God’s kindness may shine upon them, that they – and we – may be touched by the kindness that God chose to bring into the world through the birth of His Son in a stable. Amen.

Venite Adoremus

Adeste fideles laeti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Natum videte Regem angelorum.

Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,

Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine,
Gestant puellae viscera.
Deum verum, genitum non factum.

Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,

Cantet nunc io chorus Angelórum
cantet nunc aula caelestium:
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,

Ergo qui natus die hodierna.
Jesu, tibi sit gloria,
Patris aeterni Verbum caro factum.

Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Birth of He Who Makes All Things New is Not Something from the Past, but is Ever in the Present

Catechesis of Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience, 21 December 2011

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am happy to welcome you to the General Audience just a few days from the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. The greeting on everyone's lips these days is 'Merry Christmas! Best wishes for the holidays!"

Let us do it in a way so that, even in our present society, the greeting we exchange does not lose its profound religious value, and that the celebration does not get absorbed by its exterior aspects but that they should touch the heartsrings.

Of course, the external signs are beautiful and important, as long as they do not take away from Christmas, but rather help us to live Christmas in its truest sense -- the sacred and Christian sense -- and cause our joy to be not superficial, but deep.

With the Christmas liturgy, the Church introduces us to the great Mystery of the Incarnation. Christmas, in fact, is not a mere anniversary of Jesus' birth -- it is also this, but it is more -- it is the celebration of a mystery that has marked and continues to mark mankind's history -- God Himself came to dwell among us (cf. John 1:14), He made Himself one of us; a mystery that concerns our faith and our very lives; a mystery that we experience concretely in the liturgical celebrations, especially in the Holy Mass.

One might ask: How can I live out now an event that took place so long ago? How can I take part fruitfully in the birth of the Son of God which took place more than 2000 years ago?

In the Holy Mass on Christmas Eve, we say the following refrain in the Responsorial Psalm: "Today the Savior is born to us." This adverb of time, "Today," which is used repeatedly throughout the Christmas celebrations, refers to the event of Jesus' birth and to the salvation that the incarnation of the Son of God comes to bring.

In the liturgy, this event transcends all the limits of space and time and becomes actual, present. Its effect continues, even amidst the passing of days, years and centuries. In indicating that Jesus is born "today," the liturgy does not use a meaningless phrase, but underscores that this birth affects and permeates the whole of history -- even today, it remains a reality to which we may attain, precisely in the liturgy. For believers, the celebration of Christmas renews our certainty that God is really present with us, still "flesh" and not far away: being with the Father as well as with us. In that Child born in Bethlehem, God drew near to man: we can encounter Him now -- in a "today" whose sun knows no setting.

I would like to stress this point, because modern man -- a man of "the sensible," of the empirically verifiable -- finds it increasingly more difficult to open his horizons and enter the world of God. The Redemption of mankind certainly took place at a precise and identifiable moment in history: in the event of Jesus of Nazareth. But Jesus is the Son of God -- He is God Himself, who not only spoke to man, showed him wondrous signs and guided him throughout the history of salvation -- but became man and remains man. The Eternal entered into the limits of time and space, in order to make possible an encounter with Him "today."

The liturgical texts of Christmas help us to understand that the events of salvation wrought by Christ are always actual, and of interest to every man and of all mankind. When we hear or proclaim in the liturgy the words "Today a Savior is born to us," we are not using an empty conventional expression, rather, we mean that God offers us "today" -- now -- to me, to each one of us, the possibility of acknowledging and receiving Him like the shepherds in Bethlehem, so that He might be born in our lives and renew them, enlighten them, transform them by His grace, by His Presence.

Christmas, then, while commemorating Jesus' birth in the flesh of the Virgin Mary -- and numerous liturgical texts put before our eyes this or that event -- is an efficacious event for us. Pope St. Leo the Great, in presenting the profound meaning of the Feast of the Nativity, issued an invitation to the faithful with these words:
"Let us exult in the Lord, o my dear ones, and let us open our hearts to the purest joy, because there has dawned for us the day of ever-new redemption, of ancient preparation, of eternal bliss. For as the year rolls round, there recurs for us the commemoration of our salvation, which promised from the beginning and accomplished in the fullness of time, will endure for ever." (Sermon 22, In Nativitate Domini, 2,1; PL 54,193)
And again, in another Christmas homily St. Leo the Great affirms:
"Today the Maker of the world was born of a Virgin's womb, and He who made all things made Himself the son of a woman whom He Himself had created. Today the Word of God has become clothed in flesh, and That which had never been seen by human eyes was made visible and palpable. Today the shepherds learned from angels' voices that the Savior was born in the substance of our flesh and soul." (Sermon 26, In Nativitate Domini, 6,1; PL 54,213)
There is a second aspect that I would like to touch upon briefly. The event of Bethlehem should be considered in the light of the Paschal Mystery: The one and the other are part of the one redemptive work of Christ.

Jesus' incarnation and birth invite us to direct our gaze to His death and resurrection: Christmas and Easter are both feasts of the Redemption. Easter celebrates it as the victory over sin and death: It signals the final moment, when the glory of the Man-God shines forth as the light of day. Christmas celebrates it as God's entrance into history, His becoming man in order to restore man to God: It marks, so to speak, the initial moment when we begin to see the first light of dawn.

And just as the dawn precedes and presages the light of day, so Christmas already announces the Cross and the glory of the Resurrection.

Even the two times of year when we mark the two great feasts -- at least in some parts of the world -- can help us to understand this aspect. So, just as Easter comes at the start of spring, when the sun triumphs over fog and cold, and renews the face of the earth, Christmas falls at the start of winter, when the light and warmth of the sun are unable to reawaken nature, wrapped in cold. Under this blanket, however, life throbs and the victory of the sun and warmth begins again.

The Fathers of the Church always interpreted Christ's birth in the light of the whole work of Redemption, which finds its summit in the Paschal Mystery. The incarnation of the Son of God appears not only as the start and condition for salvation, but as the very presence of the mystery of our salvation. God becomes man, He is born a babe like us, He takes on our flesh to conquer death and sin.

Two important texts of St. Basil illustrate this well. St. Basil tells the faithful:
"God assumes flesh precisely to destroy death, which is hidden in all flesh. Just as the antidotes to a poison annul its effects once they are ingested, and just as the shadows in a house are dissipated by sunlight, so death which dominated human nature was destroyed by the presence of God. And as ice remains solid in water as long as night endures and darkness reigns, but melts at once by the sun's heat, so was death -- which had reigned until the coming of Christ -- as soon as the grace of God our Savior appeared, and the Sun of Justice arose, 'swallowed up in victory' (1 Cor. 15:54), being unable to coexist with Life." (Homily on the Birth of Christ, 2: PG 31,1461)
And again, in another text St. Basil issues this invitation:
"Let us celebrate the world's salvation and mankind's birth. Today Adam's guilt has been remitted. Now we need no longer say: 'you are dust and to dust you shall return' (Genesis 3:19), but rather: united to Him who descended from heaven, you shall be admitted into heaven. (Homily on the Birth of Christ, 6: PG 31,1473)
At Christmas, we encounter the tenderness and love of God who stoops down to our limitations, to our weaknesses, to our sins -- He lowers Himself to our level. St. Paul affirms that Jesus Christ "though He was in the form of God ... emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:6-7). Let us look upon the cave of Bethlehem: God lowers Himself to the point of being laid in a manger -- which is already a prelude of His self-abasement in the hour of His Passion. The climax of the love story between God and man passes by way of the manger of Bethlehem and the sepulcher of Jerusalem.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us joyously live the feast of Christmas, which now draws near. Let us live this wondrous event: The Son of God again is born "today"; God is truly close to each one of us, and He wants to meet us -- He wants to bring us to Himself.

He is the true light which dispels and dissolves the darkness enveloping our lives and mankind. Let us live the Nativity of the Lord by contemplating the journey of God's immense love, which raised us to Himself through the mystery of the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of His Son, for -- as St. Augustine affirms -- "In Christ, the divinity of the Only Begotten was made a partaker of our mortality, so that we might be made partakers of His immortality" (Letter 187,6,20: PL 33: 839-840).

Above all, let us contemplate and live this Mystery in the celebration of the Eucharist, the heart of Christmas, in which Jesus becomes truly present, true Bread descended from heaven, true Lamb sacrificed for our salvation.

To you and to your families, I wish a truly Christian celebration of Christmas, so that even your exchange of greetings on that day will be expressions of the joy of knowing that God is near and wants to accompany us along life's journey.

Thank you.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas is Family Time -- So Come Be With Your Family For Christmas

We've got ten, count 'em, ten Masses to choose from.


Christmas Eve - Saturday, December 24th ~
4:00 pm - Vigil Mass
6:00 pm - Vigil Mass
11:30 pm - Lessons & Carols ~ 12:00 am - Midnight Mass
9:30 pm - Misa Noche Buena (Spanish)

Christmas Day - Sunday, December 25th ~
7:30 am, 9:00 am, 11:00 am, 12:30 pm, 5:00 pm
2:00 pm - (Spanish)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On the Existence of Santa Claus

Over at Conversion Diary, the always great Jennifer Fulwiler asks the Santa Clause question.

Guilty confession: We do Santa at our house, but I have misgivings about it. In theory, I think it’s a great tradition. . . . I’m trying to like Santa here. But in practice it just feels kind of weird. On the one hand, I don’t want to associate Santa too closely with Jesus, since, well, one is more real than the other. On the other hand, it’s a constant battle not to let the guy with the shiny gifts overshadow the humble baby in the manger. As much as I try to emphasize Santa as Jesus’ helper, a Christian saint, etc. the pop culture images of him as THE AWESOME DUDE WITH THE INFINITE GIFT-GIVING POWER seem to trump in my children’s collective subconscious.

There are many good comments regarding children and Santa Claus. One mother pointed out a danger about Santa, when her daughter told her, "you told us the Tooth Fairy and Santa were real, and they’re not. So, it’s hard for me to believe God is real.” I responded,

Santa is real, just as God is real. But one is metaphor and the other is the real deal.

Properly understood, “Santa” is not the commercialized guy of the materialistic modern world, but is instead an icon of the Son of God Himself and, hence, a model for us.

Another comment said, "My husband said yesterday, 'This whole debate is crazy. No one is LYING. Santa IS real. He’s a mythical character who represents the spirit of anonymous giving.' Pretty wise, I thought." In response, I wrote,

This is largely right. A better word would be metaphorical or symbolic, rather than mythical.

“Santa Claus” is indeed real — he is representative of the giving and joy that we are each called to, and which originates in God giving Himself to us on Christmas morning.

The only problem is in not locking yourself in by presenting Santa in such a fashion that one cannot then later explain exactly who “Santa” is. Yes, he was an actual real historical person by the name of Nicholas, whose feast day is December 6 (see below). And the clothes that he wears (red suit, white lining) are the real historical clothes worn by bishops. But the “Santa” of today is you and me. Santa is us, who are called to give to others.

Thus, it is probably wise, when kids see all the various “Santas” at the mall, to explain that that is not really Santa, but “Santa’s helper.” That can bridge the gap to later telling the children that “Santa” is symbolic, that the real Santa is each of us and, more importantly, that they are Santa too, they are called to self-giving.

Maybe this is where the Easter Bunny can play an invaluable service.

Like Santa, the Easter Bunny is filled with Christian symbolism. But, generally, it is rather transparent that the "Easter Bunny" is mom and dad, what with him leaving the very same eggs that the kids were painting a couple of days before. Nevertheless, there is, in the Easter Bunny, that symbolism and message of giving (even if it is the giving of eggs and candy). And if kids can "believe" in the Easter Bunny without having a crisis of faith, knowing that it is really just fun and games, that he is really mom and dad, perhaps the example of the Easter Bunny can be used to later explain how Santa is really representative of Jesus and us.

If done right, parents can avoid the two extremes of teaching fantasy and lies to children on the one hand and being a grumpy wet-blanket Grinch on the other. Fostering a belief in "Santa Claus" can be a teaching tool if carefully done, a tool that leads children to Christ and His call to love one another.


The Real Saint Nicholas
Father, hear our prayers for mercy, and by the help of Saint Nicholas keep us safe from all danger, and guide us on the way of salvation. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
St. Nicholas was born in Lycia, Asia Minor, and died as Bishop of Myra in 352. He performed many miracles and exercised a special power over flames. He practiced both the spiritual and temporal works of mercy, and fasted twice a week.

He is undoubtedly one of the most popular saints honored in the Western world. Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Peter Damian called him the glory of young men, the honor of the elderly, the splendor of priests and the light of Pontiffs. In the United States, his memory has survived in the unique personality of Saint Claus — the jolly, rotund, white-bearded gentleman who captivates children with promises of gifts on Christmas Eve. Considered primarily as the patron saint of children, Nicholas is also invoked by sailors, merchants, bakers, travelers and pawnbrokers, and with Saint Andrew is honored as the co-patron of Russia.

St. Nicholas was born in the last years of the third century in Asia Minor. His uncle, the archbishop of Myra in Lycia, ordained him and appointed him abbot of a nearby monastery. At the death of the archbishop, Nicholas was chosen to fill the vacancy, and he served in this position until his death. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted the Christians, St. Nicholas was arrested, taken away from his home by the pagan soldiers, and thrown into a prison at the beginning of the fourth century. He suffered the hardships of hunger, thirst, loneliness, and chains. Released by Constantine the Great, he returned to his city, and he later attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. He died in Myra about 345.

Popular legends have involved Saint Nicholas in a number of charming stories, one of which relates Nicholas' charity. A man of Patara had lost his fortune, and finding himself unable to support his three maiden daughters, was planning to turn them into the streets as prostitutes. Nicholas heard of the man's intentions and secretly threw three bags of gold through a window into the home, thus providing dowries for the daughters. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. The three bags of gold are also said to be the origin of the three gold balls that form the emblem of pawnbrokers.

Saint Nicholas labored in his domains to stop the worship of false gods, still practiced there as elsewhere. With his own hands he cut down a huge tree, site of a sacrilegious cult of the goddess Diana. During a famine his prayers multiplied the provisions of wheat which he had ordered for the port of Myra, to such an extent that what would have sufficed for his people for only a few days, was found to be sufficient for more than two years. He rescued from death, just before they were hanged, three innocents condemned by a judge who had been corrupted by money, reprehended the latter for his crime and sent these liberated ones home, entirely exonerated.

After Nicholas' death on December 6, his body was buried in the cathedral at Myra. It remained there until 1087, when seamen of Bari, an Italian coastal town, seized the relics of the saint and transferred them to their own city.

By the year 1200 St. Nicholas had captured the hearts of all European nations. Many churches, towns, provinces and countries venerate him as their patron saint. Merchants, bankers, seamen and prisoners made him their patron, too. But his main patronage is the one over little children. Countless miracles were attributed to the saint's intercession. His relics are still preserved in the church of San Nicola in Bari; an oily substance, known as Manna di S. Nicola, which is highly valued for its medicinal powers, is said to flow from them.

The story of Saint Nicholas came to America in distorted fashion. The Dutch Protestants carried a popularized version of the saint's life to New Amsterdam, portraying Nicholas as nothing more than a Nordic magician and wonder-worker. Our present-day conception of Santa Claus has grown from this version.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah and the Light of Christ
The Rededication of the Temple and the Festival of Lights

Hanukkah begins this evening, December 20, 2011, at sundown (remembering that the Jewish day begins at sundown).

The Jewish Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) was instituted in the year 165 B.C. It is celebrated annually as a memorial of the rededication of the Temple with a new altar and purification of the sanctuary. Three years earlier, Antiochus Epiphanes had caused a pagan altar to be set up at the altar of burnt offerings in the Temple and sacrifices to be offered to his idol, called "Zeus Olympius."

The Maccabean revolt followed, led by Judas Maccabeus (Yehuda HaMakabi, "Judah the Hammer"). After many battles, the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Temple were recovered.

1 Maccabees 4:36-59
Judas Maccabeus and his brothers said, "Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it." So the whole army assembled, and went up to Mount Zion. They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a forest or on some mountain, and the priests' chambers demolished.

Then they tore their clothes and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes and fell with their faces to the ground. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.

Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law; these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the Abomination to an unclean place.

They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar of holocausts that had been desecrated. The happy thought came to them to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar. They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple hill, until a prophet should come and decide what to do with them.

Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one. They also repaired the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and purified the courts. They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple. They also put loaves on the table and hung up curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight, they arose and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar of holocausts that they had made. On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had defiled it, on that very day it was reconsecrated with songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals. All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.

For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered holocausts and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests' chambers and furnished them with doors. There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace of the Gentiles was removed.

Then Judas and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev. (see also 2 Macc 1:18-2:19; 10:1-8)
Hanukkah, from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration", is also known as the Festival of Lights due to a miracle that allowed the Eternal Light of the Temple to burn for eight days, even though there was only enough oil to last one day.

This miracle is recounted in the Talmud (Shabbat 2),
The rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, Hanukkah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Asmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to feed the holy lamp in the sanctuary) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God's wonders) were to be recited.
The Eternal Light of the Temple represented God's everlasting presence, just as the sanctuary lamp placed before the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament in Catholic churches is always kept lit to indicate and honor the constant presence of Christ. In the synagogue, a perpetual lamp signifies the Lord's presence in the Torah, the Word of God. (Similarly, the candles at liturgical services, candles for the Advent wreath, votive candles, candles during Sabbath prayers, etc., are lit to signify the presence of God, as He was present in the burning bush, during those ceremonies.)

Although a Jewish holiday -- one celebrated by Jesus -- Hanukkah can also be a time for Christians to remember that it is God Himself who is a Light that is everlasting and can never be extinguished. These days of rededication and the manifestation of God's eternal light remind us that evil will be defeated and, even if the evil has defiled the good, in the meantime, God cannot be defeated. His light is everlasting. More than light from oil, which runs out, His is the Eternal Light which cannot be extinguished. Thus, this is a time of hope.

It is fitting, then, that we observe this celebration of the Light as we await in Advent the birth and revelation to the world of the Light Incarnate -- God from God, Light from Light.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be. What came to be through Him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Why Christmas is Celebrated on December 25

The Gospel reading for today's Mass, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, is on the Annunciation. And a timely reading it is, too, because it provides an answer to the questions of --

Why is Christmas on December 25? Do we really know that that is the day when Jesus was born?

It turns out that the fixing of Christmas Day on December 25 is not an arbitrary decision, nor is it based on the widespread modern belief that the date was picked in order to displace the celebration of a pagan festival on that date. Rather, the date of Jesus' birth was determined by reference to Jesus' conception which, in turn, was calculated by determining His crucifixion and death.

Now, if you subtract nine months from December 25, you get March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord. On that day, the Church reflects upon Mary's fiat, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me acccording to your word," and upon the Incarnation, the mystery of God coming down from heaven and merging Himself with Man, making Himself small and becoming flesh in the temple and virgin womb of Mary the Immaculate.

So, the question presents itself --
Why do we celebrate the Annunciation on March 25?

Well, that date was fixed in ancient tradition and it is based upon a widespread belief in Judaism at the time of Christ that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception. By the time of Tertullian, scholars researching the various dates of Passover had concluded that Jesus died on the Cross on March 25. Wrote St. Augustine,
"He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since." (On the Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 5).
Additionally, some Jewish scholars had calculated that the date of Creation was March 25, and it made sense to believe that, since a new creation began upon the Incarnation, Jesus was conceived on the same day as the first creation.

Hence, the tradition arose that, because He was crucified on March 25 and the universe was created on that date, Jesus was conceived on March 25. The day that Mary took her Son's Body into her arms beneath the Cross is the same day that she had taken His Body into her womb at the Annunciation.

And if you add nine months to the date of conception, March 25, you get . . . December 25, Christmas Day.


See also: Andrew McGowan, How December 25 Became Christmas
William J. Tighe, Calculating Christmas

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pray for Christopher Hitchens

We previously considered the question of praying for one such as the late Christopher Hitchens, who at times was not merely atheist, but antitheist.

Love Your Enemy, Pray for Those Who Persecute You
Today, the Anchoress raises again The Hitchens/Prayer Debate. Recently, Christopher Hitchens has learned that he has cancer of the esophagus. Now, Hitchens is a writer who is not so much an atheist as he is an antitheist, he does not simply not believe, he attacks the belief and believers, and often disingenuously so. Nevertheless, we are called to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. On that issue of whether to pray for Hitchens or not, the Anchoress writes:
It seems the New York Times has noticed the debate as to whether people of faith should pray for Christopher Hitchens. I like this; it reflects my feelings, exactly:
    Jeffrey Goldberg, a colleague of Hitchens’s at The Atlantic Monthly, consulted the rabbinical authorities and decided that prayer was O.K. On his blog, Goldberg quoted the advice of David Wolpe, a Los Angeles rabbi who has publicly debated Hitchens on a number of occasions: “I would say it is appropriate and even mandatory to do what one can for another who is sick; and if you believe that praying helps, to pray. It is in any case an expression of one’s deep hopes. So yes, I will pray for him, but I will not insult him by asking or implying that he should be grateful for my prayers.”
The Anchoress wrote on this earlier, Hitchens' Challenge, where she said that she had been called to pray for him, and her post generated a lot of comments, including some opposition.

So, to pray or not to pray? What should one do?

The New York Times story notes, "While Hitchens himself doesn’t seem to have issued any official directives, prayers have rolled in from [the Anchoress] Elizabeth Scalia (no relation to the Supreme Court justice) at First Things, Greg Kandra at The Deacon’s Bench and Pat Archbold at The National Catholic Register."

“While Hitchens himself doesn’t seem to have issued any official directives . . .”

This is the real sticking point.

There are at least three points or perspectives, all of which need to be considered, in answering this question –
(1) Us, the one potentially offering the prayer. That is, do we have a moral obligation or permission to pray (or to not pray)?
(2) Hitchens (or any other person for whom it is to be offered). Is the prayer welcome or unwelcome? Is he receptive or at least neutral, or is he adamately opposed?
(3) The content of the prayer. Just exactly what does one pray for? His physical health, his spiritual health, his conversion?
We are obligated in faith to be charitable toward Hitchens, i.e. to love him, as we love ourselves and as Jesus loves us. BUT, part of love is respecting the free will of the other person. Love, even when expressed by prayer, cannot be forced upon the other against his will. The Samaritan dragging the wounded man out of the ditch when the man demands to be left alone is not “good”; what he does is an act of violence, not charity. Not even God forces His love upon people.

Hence the dillema. Does our prayer end up being a true act of love or an act of unlove against the will of the person? It depends.

Of course, the Samaritan can both love the man in the ditch and still respect his will by doing something else, call 911 perhaps, and let the EMTs come and offer their assistance. Perhaps the man will accept it then.

So, we have an obligation to love Hitchens. The question is how? For many people, we might in good faith and conscience simply assume that our prayers are welcomed. And since Hitchens has not publicly said “no,” perhaps we might assume the same for him, but we might be presuming too much. Which get us to (3) the content of the prayer.

Just exactly what do we or should we pray for in the case of Hitchens? If he welcomes prayer, then we have no problem, we can pray all out for whatever good thing we might want.

But if he does not welcome prayer, what then? We can still be charitable, and still pray, but we would seem to be limited in what we pray for, or at the very least, would need to make the petition conditional (e.g. “if he is willing to accept it Lord . . .”). We cannot go so far as to drag him out of the ditch and pour oil on him against his wishes, but we can call 911. We can stand by, ready to assist if he later wants it. We can tell him that lodging is available to him when and if he is willing to accept it.

It is not as easy a moral question as it might seem. It would be a lot easier if all we had to consider was (1) us. But (2) and (3) are factors we must consider as well.

The one thing that we CANNOT do is reflexively and arbitrarily say, “to hell with Hitchens, he’s only getting what he deserves.”

Love Your Enemy, Pray for Those Who Persecute You: Part Two
Some questions and objections have arisen with respect to the prior post Love Your Enemy, Pray for Those Who Persecute You.

You're confusing me. How do you pray for someone like Hitchens?

That's what I mean, it's not as easy a question as it first looks.

Love means respecting the other person as a person, as one with free will, and not as an object, a thing that we can manipulate or ask God to manipulate.

Hitchens is a person, not a puppet, and we should not treat him like a puppet. And God is Love, and we should not pray that God act contrary to Himself.

The same Jesus that said “pray for your persecutors” also said “shake the dust from your feet.”

To pray for a gross violation of another person’s free will is NOT an act of love. It is an act of violence.

Love cannot be forced upon another and still be love. And we are called to love, not to force ourselves on others. That means respecting their free will.

God gave them free will. We should respect His will to give them their will.

By no means am I saying “screw him, I’m not praying for him, period.” No, we should pray. But what I am suggesting is that we should actually think about what we pray for. That we make our prayer an act of love, and not an act contrary to love.

Of course, EVERY prayer of ours should include the proviso — “if it be thy will.” Maybe that in itself solves the dillema?

I respectfully disagree that it is not an easy moral question. On the contrary, it is quite simple to pray for Christopher’s mercy and forgiveness. We should even pray that God forgive against Hitchens’ will. After all, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Jesus did not simply say, “forgive them,” and stop. He added “they know not what they do.” This additional aspect is important.

He previously taught on blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Church has understood this to mean that forgiveness is something that must be accepted in order to be accomplished, and consistent with the understanding that God is Love, and love cannot be forced upon someone, and that God gave us free will precisely for that reason, to freely choose to love Him or not to love Him, the Church has consistently taught that God will not, indeed, cannot forgive such person (Mt. 12:31-32).

Sure, pray that God forgive Hitchens — but NOT against his will. That is not love, that is the theological equivilent of rape. It is contrary to Love, it is contrary to Truth, the truth of God.

Rather, pray that God forgive Hitchens, but adding the proviso, if and when Hitchens accept it. Pray that God offer forgiveness, but do not pray that God act contrary to Himself and impose that love upon Hitchens. God cannot do so, being Love, He cannot act contrary to love, and it is important that we understand that.

Okay then – specifically – tell me how you would offer a prayer to God for him. And how does that differ from, say, someone who has left the church but maybe not left God?

One could simply pray that God be who He is — Love and Truth — and that He act accordingly. One could pray that God be there for him, that God, who is Divine Mercy, be merciful and loving and compassionate.

I would suppose He can be compassionate (from the Latin “to suffer with”) with or without Hitchens’ consent, but implicit in that prayer is our understanding that love and mercy, from the Latin miserere, meaning to allievate misery, cannot be imposed. Those who have chosen Hell over Him must be respected in that choice. Of course, it is still not yet a definitive choice for Hitchens, but it is his choice to make, not ours.

Or I suppose one could pray for whatever one wants to pray for, so long as there is the added provisos of “if it be Thy will Lord” and “if he is willing to accept it Lord . . .” That might accomplish the requisite need to respect the other’s free will.

I disagree that the other person’s feelings should be considered. Hitchens’ free will is not involved in this matter. Nobody is pointing a gun at him or conning him into anything.

If someone tells a non-believer that they don’t care what he thinks or wants, that they are going to “pray” for him even against his wishes and consent — does that sentiment cause him to want to draw closer to God? Or does it cause resentment and drive him away?

Respect for the other person -- which is a part of love -- requires that one consider his wishes. To be sure, "love" means seeking the good of the other, and not necessarily what makes him happy, but if going against his wishes leads him away from the good, then it obviously needs to be taken into account.

Consider the younger son who asked his father for his inheritence and then left home. What did the father do? He gave the son his interitence and let him go. He did not bind the son in chains, he did not lock him in his room. And the father did not go after him and drag him back home. Rather, the father respected his son's decision.

Had the older son implored their father to go after his brother and forcibly try to bring him home, it may have only served to set the younger son permanently against their father.

Sorry, I think you are over-thinking this one. We should not have to think twice about this one: pray for Hitchens, and trust God’s wisdom.

Ours is not an unthinking Faith. Rather, ours is a Faith that seeks understanding, that seeks to know the Logos.

Believer #1: “I’ll pray for you.”
Nonbeliever: “What does that mean?”
Believer #2: “Yeah, I’m curious too. What does that mean?”
Believer #1: "It means . . . um . . ."

“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” 1 Pet. 3:15. Furthermore, we should be ready to give ourselves a reason for our hope, for our faith.

It is not enough to simply hear Jesus say, “love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you.”

We should ask “What does that mean?” Before praying, we should actually think about what it is we are praying for and why. We should think about what “love” is, what it means.

As set out in the prior post and above, I submit that “love” is not self-centered; it is not merely a matter of what we do. We MUST consider the other person. We cannot simply stop at (1) ourselves, we must also take into account (2) the other, in this case, the non-believing if not anti-believing Hitchens. But that brings into our consideration (3) as well — what to pray for and how and why.

Maybe the first prayer of petition we offer should be for ourselves, to ask for the grace to understand how best to love, how best to simultaneously offer up prayers on behalf of another and still respect them as a person, that is, respecting their freedom to reject us and our love expressed in prayer.

But we cannot, I further submit, not even bother to think about such things.