And Yes! It’s Still Christmas!

Merry Christmas! Yes! It’s still Christmas—the sixth day of Christmas! There has been Christmas chatter since before Halloween if you think commercially, or since the day after Thanksgiving if you think musically on secular and pop Christian radio stations. But for me and my house (Charlotte and I), Christmas began at midnight going from December 24 to 25 with the procession of the midnight Mass. And we continue to celebrate especially during the Christmas Octave that goes from December 25 through January 1.

What a liturgical lineup the Church has given us in this Christmas season!

December 25: The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
December 26: The Feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr
December 27: The Feast of Saint John, apostle and evangelist
December 28: The Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs
December 29: The Feast of Saint Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr
December 30: The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
December 31: The Feast of Saint Sylvester I, pope (314–335)
January 1: The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

All of this came together for me as I was reading the final entries in A Year with the Church Fathers: Patristic Wisdom for Daily Living, compiled by Mike Aquilina. (If you were given any Amazon gift cards this would be a great addition to your library, especially if you’ve only dabbled in the Church Fathers.) The reading I refer to came from Day 359 and is entitled “Honoring the saints goes back to the Apostles.” It is written by Saint Basil and is taken from Letter 360.

According to the blameless Christian faith which comes to us from God, I confess and hold that I believe in one God, the Father almighty: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. I adore and worship one God, the Trinity.

I confess the incarnation of the Son in the flesh, and that St. Mary, who gave birth of him according to the flesh, was Mother of God.

I also acknowledge the holy Apostles, prophets, and martyrs, and I invoke them to pray to God, so that through them—that is, through their mediation—God who is merciful may show me favor, and a ransom may be made and given to me for my sins.

For that reason I also honor and kiss the faces of their images, since they have been handed down from the holy Apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.—St. Basil, Letter 360, (A.D. 329–379).

St. Basil is honored as a saint by all expressions of Christianity and he is considered a doctor of the Church. He was writing his letters at the same time that the New Testament canon was being determined by the Catholic Church.

In this Christmastide, give thanks for the Incarnation, give thanks for the Apostles, prophets and martyrs and join with the historic Church and St. Basil in invoking them to pray to God for us.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

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And Yes! It’s Still Christmas!

The Holy Innocents

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One of the most disturbing stories in the Bible comes to us during the Octave of Christmas. Jesus is born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great. He is not a legitimate heir to the Jewish throne; he’s not even fully Jewish. He has been placed on the throne by the Roman emperor as payback for his support of Rome. And with all that he is very possessive of his throne and will do anything to keep himself in power, including killing his favorite wife and his son, his heir apparent.

So when magi come from the east and ask about the newborn King of the Jews, Herod and all his palace are obviously upset. Herod will do anything to wipe out this rival to his power. A little palace intrigue has him declaring his desire to pay homage to the infant king and asking the magi to report back to him so he can do just that. Whether they were wise to Herod before or totally relied on the dream from God, they didn’t return to Herod, so Herod had to take drastic measures. Drastic for us, but not for him, it actually fit right into his “modus operandi.” He ordered all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be slaughtered, determining the age of the new king by when the magi saw the star announcing his birth.

“When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi” (Matthew 2:16 NABRE).

The work of art by Leon Cogniet depicted above captures the agony of one mother who will surely lose her son to Herod’s marauding henchmen. It’s hard to say how many baby boys lost their lives, but many place the number around 20 based on the size of Bethlehem at that time. For each son and his family this was a tragic loss. Down through history these baby boys have been considered martyrs for the cause of Christ. Today’s collect in the Mass has us praying this way:

O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed and proclaimed on this day, not by speaking but by dying, grant, we pray, that the faith in you which we confess with our lips may also speak through our manner of life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The plan to exterminate the Christ Child was bigger than something hatched up by Herod. It was a diabolical plan from the pits of hell to squash the eternal plan of salvation by taking out the One who was born to be Savior. Jesus found refuge in Egypt and at the appointed time willingly gave His life for our redemption. Thanks be to God!

The Holy Innocents

Stepping back into the Sepia of Nostalgia

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I spent the final days of Advent, Christmas, and the first two days in Christmastide in my old stomping grounds. It was familiar territory, but it had the feeling of stepping out of life in “living color” into a portrait of sepia tones.

Stepping back into an old familiar place tends to do that. You never truly can go back. Going back 35 years means that more than landmarks have changed; people have passed on (as I discovered in the local cemetery); and most importantly I have changed. When I left with my young family, young myself (26), I had no real clue what I was doing and where it would all lead.

Our life thereafter took us to another state, two foreign countries, New York City, and finally, South Jersey. Now our children are grown, there are nine grandchildren, and my wife and I are truly enjoying this stage of our life together.

On top of the usual changes that a married couple experiences over 40 years, a major change came into our lives about three years ago. As meaningful as our lives had been and as fulfilling as our ministry had been, we found ourselves following God’s leading into a new expression and dimension of faith. The sepia tones of faith and experience that occasionally flashed with color, shifted dramatically to the multi-colored tones of historic Christianity.

Even daily existence is punctuated with the joy of partaking of the Holy Eucharist early before the day begins. The prayers of the Church in the Liturgy of the Hours join me to the men and women who have gone before and who now join me in prayer from heaven. Advent is more than a time of Christmas preparation, but a time to prepare my heart to celebrate the birth of our King and my soul for His Second Coming in glory.

I’m heading home today—back to the routine of life—but with the certainty that a little baby came and our lives are forever changed. Today’s Gospel reading on this feast day of St. John the Beloved reminds us of his encounter with the truth that brings us life.

Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed. (John 20:8 NABRE)

Christmas is more than a nostalgic trip, something I tried to make it for many years. Today it is a glorious reality. We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.

Stepping back into the Sepia of Nostalgia

What Child Is This?

I’m sitting next to my week-old grandson on Christmas Eve while he peacefully sleeps. His three older brothers are occupied in pretend battles and other pursuits common to little boys. But back to baby Peregrine…

On the eve of the celebration of our Savior’s birth, little Peregrine gives me insight into the fragility with which our God entered our world. He was totally dependent on his mother for everything that he needed. He subjected himself to our weakest and most vulnerable state to become one of us and offer us his greatest gift–our salvation!

This morning I read a quote from St. Hilary of Poitiers that captures the essence of this Christmas miracle:

“What worthy return can we make for so great a condescension? The One Only-begotten God, ineffably born of God, entered the Virgin’s womb and grew and took the frame of poor humanity. He who upholds the universe, within whom and through whom are all things, was brought forth by common childbirth. He at whose voice archangels and angels tremble, and heaven and earth and all the elements of this world are melted, was heard in childish wailing. The Invisible and Incomprehensible, whom sight and feeling and touch cannot measure, was wrapped in a cradle.”

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Thank you Jesus! Merry Christmas!

What Child Is This?

Sitting in the Philadelphia Airport

I’m on my way to Lexington, Kentucky, to meet my new grandson Peregrine Sage Haas. So far I have only seen pictures, videos and a couple of live snoozes on FaceTime. He’s cute! He’s the fourth of four brothers, the ninth of nine grandchildren, and the eighth of eight grandsons. I am indeed a blessed man! My grand quiver is full of arrows!

I got to the airport by Uber. The driver Shawn congratulated me when I told him the purpose of my trip, then proceeded to tell me that his first grandchild had been born the day before mine and on his birthday! What a special gift to receive. Our 20-minute trip was a joyful conversation between two proud grandfathers.

We marveled over the gift of life and how much richer Christmas would be because of these two babies.

This morning’s Gospel reading references two baby boys and their mothers:

Mary set out in those days and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:39-45 NABRE)

Those two babies forever changed the world, accomplishing the purpose for which they were born. I pray that Shawn’s granddaughter and my grandson will accomplish the purpose for which they were born: To know and love God and serve Him forever!

Sitting in the Philadelphia Airport

Your Prayer Is Heard! Say What?

I love the Advent season, something I have mentioned here before. I love how Scripture introduces us to the main characters of the story that culminates with the birth of our Savior Jesus the Christ. How different that story is from the mind-numbing songs and stories that are paraded out right after Thanksgiving. What more can you tell me about Rudolph or Frosty or the Grinch or even Santa Claus?

But the ancient story is ever new. I never tire of hearing the Old Testament prophecies and reliving the anticipation that Israel must have felt as the people awaited their Messiah. The angel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and to Mary leave me with wonder. The hurried visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth and the intrauterine celebration of John the Baptist filled with the Holy Spirit when he hears the voice of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of our Lord.

And just as certainly as we relive the “old favorites,” as is always the case with Scripture, there is always something new to discover. That happened to me today. The Gospel reading is found in Luke 1:5-25. It is the story of Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah while he was serving in the temple. Now just a quick backstory: Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had been getting their Denny’s discount for many years. They were certainly senior citizens. They had no children because Elizabeth was barren all those many years. Then suddenly, while Zechariah was offering prayers in the form of incense on behalf of the multitude of people who were waiting outside, the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared.

You know the story: Zechariah is afraid; Gabriel tells him he will have a son; Zechariah is incredulous; and Zechariah is told that because of his unbelief he will not speak until the baby is born. Most of us know the way the story plays out. But today I saw something I had never seen before. I almost wonder if it was there before. Okay, I know it was, but I hadn’t noticed it until today.

And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. (Luke 1:11-13 RSV)

Say what? Gabriel’s appearance and announcement to Zechariah was in direct response to Zechariah’s prayer. He had prayed that his wife would bear him a son. God had delayed the answer until the right time. Zechariah, Elizabeth and their son would become part of the great developing story of the coming of God’s salvation to the world in God’s time.

I tend to wonder why Zechariah reacted as he did, especially after the angel laid out all the particulars about this son that would be theirs:

“And you will have joy and gladness,
and many will rejoice at his birth;
for he will be great before the Lord,
and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink,
and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit,
even from his mother’s womb.
And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,
and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah,
to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,
and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:14-17 RSV)

What do I do when God assures me he has heard my prayer? I usually keep praying and wondering and sometimes doubting and looking for backup plans. Sound familiar? How does God assure me he has heard my prayer? I can only answer in one way. If God lays a prayer burden on my heart and makes it clear that he wants me to spend time in intercession, then I can be assured that he will also answer. You and I both know that it may not look exactly like what we imagine, but God will answer and it will be something he will use for his glory.

Zechariah expected a child from Elizabeth when they first married and for many years afterward. Yet the answer came when Zechariah was more fit to be a grandfather or even a great-grandfather. But the son did come and Jesus said of him, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11 RSV). By that time, no doubt, Zechariah had passed from the scene. He would not see John be used by God to announce the coming of Jesus. Mercifully he would also not witness his son’s martyrdom, but his prayer was answered.

That gives me great hope for the deep prayers that God has placed on my heart. With Zechariah I sing:

“And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God
    by which the daybreak from on high will visit us
to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,
    to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79 NABRE)

 

Your Prayer Is Heard! Say What?

Bring Them In!

This morning I remember a song we used to sing at the little white frame church by the railroad tracks in the little town I grew up in. The song was sung when all the Sunday school classes came together before being dismissed to their individual teachers.

Hark! ’tis the Shepherd’s voice I hear,
out in the desert dark and drear,
calling the sheep who’ve gone astray
far from the Shepherd’s fold away.

Refrain:
Bring them in, bring them in,
bring them in from the fields of sin;
Bring them in, bring them in,
Bring the wand’ring ones to Jesus.

On a regular basis we get reports from Barna, Gallup, Pew Research, or our own visual assessments that people aren’t going to church like they used to. We remember the good ole days when people knew that the Sunday place to be was in church. I am not minimizing that reality. Church attendance is way down. Yet sometimes we need perspective and maybe even a holy “kick in the pants.” I’ll let St. John Chrysostom (d. 407 A.D.) do the honors today in his homily To Those Who Had Not Attended the Assembly:

It seems I did no good with the long harangue I addressed to you a while ago, hoping to rouse up your enthusiasm for the meetings here. Once again our church is destitute of her children. So once again I have to annoy and burden you by reproving those who are present and faulting those who are left behind—faulting them because they have not overcome their laziness, and you because you have not lent the salvation of your brothers and sisters a helping hand.

My remarks are not so much directed at them as at you, because you haven’t brought them in—you don’t rouse them from their inertia and bring them to this table of salvation. How many fathers are here whose sons aren’t standing next to them? Was it so hard for you to bring some of your children with you?

So it’s clear that the absence of all the others who stayed away is not just because of their own laziness, but also because of your neglect.

But now, even if you’ve never done it before, stir yourselves up. Let each one of you enter the church with one of your family. Prod and urge one another to the congregation here—the father should urge his son, the son his father, the husbands their wives, the wives their husbands, the master his servant, the brother his brother, the friend his friend. In fact, let us not call only our friends but also our enemies to this common treasury of good things. If your enemy sees that you care for his welfare, he will doubtless give up hating you.

—St. John Chrysostom, To Those Who Had Not Attended the Assembly, 1, 3
A Year with the Church Fathers: Patristic Wisdom for Daily Living, p. 342

Wise words from a wise Church Father! “Bring them in, bring them in, bring them in from the fields of sin. Bring the wand’ring ones to Jesus!”

Bring Them In!