25 March 2015

The Annunciation: a Marian Feast for Catholics and Protestants

Today, March 25, the Catholic Church across the world celebrates the Solemnity of the Annunciation--commemorating the time when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary to announce to her that she would bear the Son of God to the world. As she gave her simple fiat, all of history, all of creation was altered forever.

While there still exists much uneasiness and division between Catholics and Protestants over views of Mary, the Annunciation is a celebration with a deeply Marian character that offers a place for conciliation between people of both Catholic and Protestant traditions. This is true for at least a few reasons:

1. The event it celebrates is explicitly biblical. Although Catholics would argue that other Marian feasts--such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption--are built on strong biblical foundations, Protestants are often suspicious, because the events these other feasts commemorate are not explicitly found in Scripture. Not so with the Annunciation--it is right there in Luke 1:26ff.

2. The focus is clearly Jesus. Again, Protestants tend to be reluctant to embrace some Catholic views on Mary because they seemingly detract from the focus on Jesus. (Perhaps the quintessential example of this would be the Catholic view of Mary as "Co-Redemptrix.") The Catholic Church clearly states that she believes what she does about Mary because of what she believes about Jesus (Catechism, #487), and this is clearly evident in the Annunciation--while Mary plays a central role, the focus of the narrative is the Incarnation of Jesus.

3. Mary plays a central role. While the focus of the Annunciation is the Incarnation of Jesus, it is also clear that Mary plays an indispensable role in the whole event. Catholics need not fear that Mary is a "throw-away" character or a random choice. Mary is clearly graced by God. She is "blessed among women." Her fiat is freely given. It is her blood that runs in Jesus' veins, her DNA in his cells.

4. Incarnation is key. While doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants abound, both see the Incarnation of God as the profoundly central teaching / mystery of the Christian faith. The Annunciation is the great feast of the Incarnation--the Word-made-flesh. Moreover, since nearly all Protestants celebrate the birth of Jesus, surely there can't be much opposition to commemorating his conception.

While Catholics might be hesitant to sit down at a feast in honor of Reformation Day (October 31) and Protestants might shy away from toasting the Blessed Virgin on the Assumption (August 15), it stands to reason that we can come together in prayer and celebration on this holy day.

15 March 2015

Making an Enemy of Death

When it comes to preparing for death, very many respected and intelligent--as well as devoutly Christian--people have proposed the virtue of "making friends with death." I believe I do understand the sentiment--to put away all fear of death and embrace it (as one would a friend) as an inevitable and natural reality. I also see the pastoral value of such a sentiment.

But the Scriptures portray death in a much different way: death is the enemy--the final enemy, in fact, to be destroyed by Christ. Death is the "wages of sin," and only enters the natural order when catalyzed by blatant disobedience of the God who is life itself. Further, Jesus came that we may have life, and have it in abundance...to take away the sting of death. 

In this Lenten season, now halfway gone, I propose we be careful not to make death too close a friend. Is death inevitable? Yes. Is it natural? It is now, yes. But living as creatures united to Christ and his death through baptism, we are called to live the heavenly reality in the here-and-now. We are to be blessed (and to receive comfort) by mourning sin and death. Because of the friend we have in Jesus, death, still the enemy, is made supremely impotent. Christ's perfect love, evermore being perfected in our hearts, drives out the fear of death. Indeed, Jesus' own death on our behalf transforms death from being a terrible end to being merely a transition to a new beginning--from being the hopeless dead end to being the entrance to eternal life. As Christians, our role is not so much to become friends with death as it is to laugh in its face, for it has been exposed as what it truly is--the powerless enemy of Almighty God.

16 December 2014

The O Antiphons

     Quite likely, the best-known Advent hymn is "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," probably because it is considered by many a Christmas carol and makes its way onto numerous Christmas albums. The hymn's haunting and memorable melody complement well its beautiful lyrics, which resound with a deep sense of longing--for ransom, freedom, redemption.
     But these wonderful lyrics are actually derived from what the Church knows as the O Antiphons. Beginning on December 17, and continuing on through December 23, the Church's longing for the coming of Christ grows particularly acute, and that longing is expressed through the singing of these seven O Antiphons, each sung on successive evenings as the antiphon to the Magnificat (Gospel canticle) at Vespers (Evening Prayer) on those days.
     Each of the O Antiphons consists of two parts: a title or quality ascribed to Jesus Christ and a prophecy from the prophet Isaiah fulfilled in the coming of Christ. While the exact origin of these antiphons is uncertain, there is reference to them as early as the sixth century, and they were in widespread use by the 900s. And, as you may know if you are a Vespers pray-er, they are still used today!
     The seven antiphons begin (in Latin and English),
  • O Sapientia / O Wisdom...,
  • O Adonai / O sacred Lord...,
  • O Radix Jesse / O Flower of Jesse's stem...,
  • O Clavis David / O Key of David...,
  • O Oriens / O Radiant Dawn...,
  • O Rex Gentium / O King of all the nations..., and
  • O Emmanuel / O Emmanuel (God with us)... 
      To find out more about the O Antiphons and to read them in their entirety, click here.

      To pray the (Catholic) Liturgy of the Hours (including Vespers/Evening Prayer) each day, visit divineoffice.org.

25 November 2014

Christmassed Out?

Recently away at a personal retreat, I joined other retreatants at a common dinner. Not surprisingly, one of our topics of conversation was Thanksgiving plans. It was then we learned that two of our companions happened to be chefs. "Ugh!" one exclaimed. "I'm 'turkeyed out.' I've been cooking turkeys for about two months now." The other agreed...come early October, turkey becomes the featured item at restaurants and grocery delis. The first chef emphatically stated that she was not making a turkey for her own Thanksgiving celebration.

Which, of course, immediately made me reflect on the treasure that is the Holy Season Advent.

Our society--including retailers, to be sure, but also offices, restaurants, radio and television stations, neighbors, and yes, sadly, even some churches--is convinced that Christmas begins (in 2014, anyway) sometime around the first week of October and continues, full-bore, until December 26 (when the post-Christmas sales begin). The problem? When we are thus saturated by Christmas (music, "spirit," decorations, flavors, colors, traditions, etc.) for weeks on end, the actual celebration loses a lot of its meaning. It can even become distasteful. We only come truly to treasure something when it is out-of-the-ordinary.

I love pizza. It's easily my favorite food. But if I were to have pizza every day or night for a few days, I would find I'm not enjoying it as much...I may even begin craving other foods! Pizza always tastes best, and is most a treat, when I haven't had it for a good long while--especially when I know pizza night is coming a few days in advance!

Similarly, Christmas is so much richer when we take the time to prepare for it without actually celebrating it. That's what Advent is all about...our anticipation and preparation for the celebration of Christmas (which, incidentally, in church reckoning, actually begins the evening of December 24 and continues for a minimum of 12 days).

Perish the thought we should arrive at December 25 and people are so 'Christmassed out' that we cannot properly celebrate the birth of God-made-flesh, or worse--that we are tired of Christmas and are ready for it all to be behind us. What a sadness that would be.

Instead, this year, take a trial run through Advent...coming this Sunday to a liturgical church near you!

25 March 2014

Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae

     Today is the great Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, commemorating the visit the Archangel Gabriel paid to the Blessed Virgin Mary, announcing to her the privilege she would have, given her consent, of bearing the Son of God to the world.
     I am captivated by the Great Mystery of the scene: a heavenly messenger visits a lowly young woman (girl, really) essentially to bring her laud and seek her cooperation with God--her permission, one might even say--in bringing about the Incarnation: the cardinal event of human history and the salvation of the world. The humble servant nature of God is revealed not only in the Word-made-flesh, but also in the very act of the Annunciation itself.  

Our loving Father seeks
our permission for,
our cooperation with, 
his work in our lives.

     And when that cooperation, that permission, is given, and the unbridled love of God is let loose in our lives, things happen! Redemption! Transformation! Salvation! Behold, New Creation! 
     So, if today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. Rather, fiat! ...be it done unto me according to thy word.

03 December 2013

The Unsettling Silence

There is a great deal of noise in my life. A small part of it is a welcome addition, such as the joyful shrieks of young family members, the playful growl of my dog as we wrestle, etc., but most of it clamors to steal my attention away from things of greater importance. What's worse, I not only put up with this noise, I actually invite it in—I use such noise as an escape from the pressures of job, school, relationships, responsibilities.

In yesterday’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 8:5-11), the centurion, upon telling Jesus of his servant who is ill, and Jesus expressing his willingness to come and cure him, says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.”

Only say the word.

Advent is a season of entreating the Word to say the word, of asking the Spoken to speak comfort and joy, health and life, love and mercy. But I fear that, with all the noise in my life, I may not be able to hear this word when it comes in a still, small voice, in the cry of a babe.

This Advent, my prayer is that I might bring personal determination to the centurion’s prayer, which the Catholic faithful claim for our own at each Mass just before receiving Christ, and that I may sacrifice the empty ease of noise for the unsettling silence—eagerly listening for the word, that my soul may be healed.

19 March 2013

A Life of Lent

I have heard from many a devout Catholic that Lent is their favorite liturgical season. At first, this assertion seems counter-intuitive. Why would one prefer a season of penitence, abstinence, and discipline (like Lent) to one of celebration, exultation, and abundance (like Easter)? After seeking to engage the practices of Lent ever more fully each successive year, I think I’m beginning to understand.

The season of Lent, with its discipline, is a time of intentionally, mindfully resisting the innate human tendency of pridefully casting God aside and humbly letting go of those things which inhibit our perfected relationship with God—bad habits and stubborn sins, yes! These should be the first to go. But also any obstacle, even “good” things, anything that would seek to take the life-giving place of God in our lives. This is the intent, the spirit, of Lenten fasting and abstinence.

To identify these obstacles in one’s life, one need only ask: What is it that I can’t live without? If your mind, like mine, is flooded with ideas (coffee, chocolate, ale, Netflix, Facebook, my car, my iPad…), indeed, if your answer is anything other than “God,” “Jesus,” or “the Most Holy Eucharist,” then God has graciously given us suggestions for Lenten abstinence.

This may seem extreme. It may appear as if I am saying that living Lent is tantamount to living like cloistered monks and nuns. If you are thinking that, let me reassure you: that’s exactly what I’m saying…at least inasmuch as religious sisters and brothers take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

By way of explanation, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what virtues we are cultivating through our Lenten abstinence. To be sure, there are many, but three that rise to the fore are detachment, holiness, and love…virtues which coincide particularly well with the traditional core Lenten practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Now consider how religious vows coincide to these Lenten practices and to Lenten virtues:
·         Poverty – to eradicate the attachment to worldly goods. Money is not my Lord.
·         Chastity – to master one’s desires and direct them to God. My desires are not my Lord.
·         Obedience – to forsake the worship of the self-God and to learn humility. My will is not my Lord.

Hence, we have a diagram that looks something like this:
If the correspondence seems somewhat forced, I would argue it’s because of the intimate interrelation of each of the disciplines, vows, and virtues: they all work together to cultivate Christlikeness.

Scripturally, I find Hebrews 13 to be a great witness to all of this:
Hebrews 13: 1 Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison…and those who are ill-treated…5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have …16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have… [almsgiving; poverty; love]
Hebrews 13:4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled…9…it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods…14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. [fasting; chastity; detachment]
Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith ...17 Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls …Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you. [prayer; obedience; holiness]

So, why a post on Lenten disciplines on the brink of Holy Week, so near the end of Lent? Of course, monks and nuns do not take their vows only for Lent, any more than the author of Hebrews intended that his words be observed only during Lent! No. The author of Hebrews, those who take religious vows, and yes, my devout brothers and sisters who favor Lent above all—they all understand the Great Lent…which is none other than our earthly life! Just as Lent is the gestation period for the Easter Triduum, Lenten discipline practiced throughout our lives forms us, remakes us into the image of Christ, and thus prepares us to live in the eternal Kingdom of God—to live united, in Christ, with the God who is love. Spending our days here on earth in living out the disciplines of Lent is actually equivalent to receiving the life—life abundant!—that God gives. And this is exactly what God wishes for us and from us: an earthly life dedicated to God by gratefully receiving the life that God gives!

This is what Lent is all about.
This is what Catholicism is all about.
This is what a personal relationship with Jesus is all about.
This is what faith is all about.

Therefore the author of Hebrews can say:
…let us also [like those who came before us] lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

When Easter arrives, let us celebrate and feast, in anticipation of being eternally united with God through Christ. But throughout our earthly lives, let us cultivate the spirit of Lent in our thoughts, words, and actions, that we might humbly be incorporated into the pioneer and perfecter of our faith and thus receive life abundant.