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!

A Stumbling Block for Many

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I just returned from Mass celebrating the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It was wonderful to see the church completely full on this holy day of obligation. It was my privilege to be one of the lectors, reading from Genesis 3.

Coming from an evangelical heritage I understand the issues someone from that tradition may have with a day like today. Many point to the fact that it wasn’t until 1854 that Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception to be dogma in his encyclical Ineffabilis Deus, “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”

This dogma did not come out of thin air. The Church through the centuries held this to be true, and then in defense of the divinity of Jesus Christ in the 19th century, the dogma was declared, not as something novel, but in accord with the time-honored beliefs of the Church, not to elevate Mary, but to glorify Jesus and his salvific work in and through his mother. Here is a sampling of what previous churchmen have said:

“Let us not imagine that we obscure the glory of the Son by the great praise we lavish on the Mother; for the more she is honored, the greater is the glory of her Son. There can be no doubt that whatever we say in praise of the Mother gives equal praise to the Son.”—St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090–1153.

From a sermon by Saint Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury (1093–1109)—

Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night—everything that is subject to the power or use of man—rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and are endowed with inexpressible new grace. All creatures were dead, as it were, useless for men or for the praise of God, who made them. The world, contrary to its true destiny, was corrupted and tainted by the acts of men who served idols. Now all creation has been restored to life and rejoices that it is controlled and given splendor by men who believe in God.

The universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness. Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God himself, its Creator, it sees him openly, working and making it holy. These great blessings spring from the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb.

Through the fullness of the grace that was given you, dead things rejoice in their freedom, and those in heaven are glad to be made new. Through the Son who was the glorious fruit of your virgin womb, just souls who died before his life-giving death rejoice as they are freed from captivity, and the angels are glad at the restoration of their shattered domain.

Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance. Virgin, blessed above all creatures, through your blessing all creation is blessed, not only creation from its Creator, but the Creator himself has been blessed by creation.

To Mary God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary.

God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Savior of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.

Truly the Lord is with you, to whom the Lord granted that all nature should owe as much to you as to himself. (Oratio 52: PL 158, 955-956, from The Liturgy of the Hours, December 8)

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

A Stumbling Block for Many

Overheard in the Office

Two coworkers were talking a few cubicles away from me and one said “If you believed in asking the saints to pray for you, which I don’t, maybe you should ask John Knox to pray, because he’s probably not too busy.” The insinuation is that Catholics are keeping their saints busy. If only it were so!

The conversation continued with chuckles and with an assurance that there is a hole in the Catholic theology of the “Communion of the Saints.” I listened and immediately wondered what I would do the next time one of my coworkers asked me to pray for them. Am I any more qualified to lift their concern in intercession to God? Just because I am on earth, how is my prayer more effective than the prayer of one who is in the very presence of God?

I know that the idea of asking the saints to pray with us and for us is foreign, even abominable to many who identify as Protestants or Evangelicals. The ironic thing is that the joke was being made by someone who should know better, but that is not the point of this article.

The point is that the Church is one, whether in heaven or on earth. The writer of Hebrews tells us in chapter 12, after giving us a run down of the faith of many Old Testament saints, that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Mary Healy in her commentary on the book of Hebrews writes: “As we run this race, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, as if filling the stands of a huge sports arena. They are the saints of the old covenant (now joined by those of the new covenant), who are rooting for us and passionately interested in the outcome of our lives.”

These are more than pictures or statues or memories in a dusty history book; they are real, living (more living than ever) saints who have won the victory and are in the very presence of God and of the Lamb in heaven. We are united not only in prayer, but also every time we celebrate the Mass which draws heaven and earth together through the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world for their sin and ours.

The book of Revelation gives us another clue to this amazing ministry the saints have in heaven. In chapter 5, verse 8, John writes: “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

Now of course the unfounded argument or accusation is that Catholics pray to the saints, somehow elevating them to a divine status reserved only to Jesus. This, of course, is not true. What is true is seeing the saints as any other member of the Body of Christ whose main role is to continue to be part of that Body and care for one another. So when you ask me to pray for you, you are not divinizing me, but asking me to fulfill my God-given role of ministering to you as part of the Body of Christ. When I ask St. Francis de Sales to pray for me, I am not divinizing him, but asking him to intercede on my behalf.

One of the great gifts that my Catholic faith has given me is recognizing that death does not separate us. We are in the Church Militant; the saints are in the Church Triumphant; but it is one Church and Jesus Christ is our Head. Another benefit of the gift is knowing I have earthly and heavenly intercessors pulling for me rooting for me and passionately interested in the outcome of my life.

 

Overheard in the Office