Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas 2017

                                  The Nativity of the Lord 

Christmas Vigil
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 1-5
Reading II. Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25
Gospel. Matthew 1:1-25 (Genealogy of Jesus Christ).

Christmas Midnight
Reading 1. Isaiah 9: 1-6
Reading II. Titus 2: 11-14
Gospel. Luke 2: 1-14 (she gave birth).

Christmas Dawn
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 11-12
Reading II. Titus 3: 4-7
Gospel. Luke 2: 15-20 (the shepherds).

Christmas Day
Reading 1. Isaiah 52: 7-10
Reading II. Hebrews 1: 1-6
Gospel. John 1: 1-18 (the Word was with God).

There are four Masses that we could attend on Christmas. There is the Vigil Mass celebrated in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Then there is the Midnight Mass. There is a Mass celebrated at dawn. Finally, there is the Mass for Christmas day. Each Mass has a different set of readings and so unless we get to church real early and read them all in the missalette, we will never hear the whole story.

All of the Masses begin with a joyful, exuberant reading from the prophet Isaiah. The reading from the Midnight Mass is typical:

            The people who walked in darkness
            have seen a great light;
            upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
            a light has shone.

In the gospels we hear the story of the birth of Christ as told by St. Matthew and St. Luke. Little by little the characters in the Nativity scene are introduced. In the vigil Mass on Christmas eve, Matthew presents us with Mary and Joseph and tells us of Joseph's decision to take Mary into his house after finding her pregnant. In the Midnight Mass we find the stable and the manger, and the angels appear to the shepherds. At dawn, the shepherds go down to Bethlehem to find the child "lying in the manger." 

Finally, the gospel on Christmas Day is the famous beginning of the gospel of John, where John tries to explain the significance of the great event. In the beginning was the Word,

            and the Word was with God,
            and the Word was God.

No matter what Mass we attend all the readings testify that something unique and earth shattering occurred 2000 years ago. From Isaiah to John we hear that at that moment the darkness was pierced by a shaft of light and that because this tiny shaft of light entered the world, the world would never be the same.

Years ago I remember reading a novel by a little known Russian author about a day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet concentration or prison camp. The book was written by a man who had himself spent 20 years in camps such as the one he described. He wrote the book secretly while in prison on little scraps of paper which had to be carefully hidden from the watchful eyes of the prison guards. The book was called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" and its author was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would go on to become one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.

When Solzhenitsyn's book first appeared, it was like a shaft of light cutting through the darkness of the vast Soviet empire. Until that time there were still those who defended that empire as a noble undertaking, or as the dawn of a new era in human history. Once the light appeared it exposed the rottenness, corruption, and brutality of that regime. The world would never be the same. Twenty years later the whole edifice came crumbling down.

Whatever Mass we attend today the readings all say the same--the light has come into the world and the world will never be the same. For each of us this Christmas it can be the same. A light can come into our hearts and we might never be the same. In the Vigil Mass we heard how Joseph after his dream, "did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." For each of us who will take Mary and her child into their house this Christmas there is the possibility that our world will never be the same.

Below find two paragraphs on the significance of the Christmas tree from "the Owl, the Raven, and the Dove", a wonderful study of children's literature by G. Ronald Murphy, S. J.

"In a northern world in which every cold and snowy winter could be seen as a dangerous and prophetic vision of the end of the  world, it is not surprising that trees which could remain perceptibly alive and green, all through the cold of winter would be regarded as sacraments, visibly containing the real presence and life force of the unseeable Tree of Life. One tree, down to our own day, has retained in its very name in English the sacramental reverence that the Germanic people of England, Germany and Scandinavia had for it: the holly. "Holly" is, of course, "holy," and thus it was known as the "holy tree," since its holiness enabled it to keep itself alive--green--all through the time of winter cold. All the evergreens in the forest, including the more lowly ivy and laurel, must have been regarded with the same reverence.

The evergreen tree has found its most lasting and most emotional place in our culture, without a doubt, in the Christmas tree, an amalgam of Germanic legend and the Cross. In December of every year the tree comes into the house. A tree inside the home after all the centuries that have passed is quite miracle enough. To glorify and celebrate its ancient, compassionate magic power, it is decorated with lights (with burning candles in Germany!) and with tinsel, to make sure it looks radiantly stolid and happy despite the cold and ice. Then a star is placed at its peak, since Wise Men must surely find their way to this tree. Below the tree, as if he had just emerged from its trunk, the true source of the warmth of the Tree of the Universe and its power to renew life, encouragement, and protection against all the kinds of cold, is lying in a manger: the newborn child.

                        O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
                        how faithful are your leaves.
                        you are ever green, not only during the summer,
                        but even during the winter when the snow falls.
                        O Tannenbaum, O tannenbaum,
                        how faithful are your leaves."

From "The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove," by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Assumption of Mary

                                    Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Titian: Assunta
Friar, Venice

In 1950 when the world was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Now Catholics didn't start believing in the Assumption only in 1950. Think of how many churches were constructed before 1950 dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Belief in Mary's Assumption can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers and for centuries artists have delighted in rendering the scene of Mary being taken up into Heaven.

Of course, Catholics have always loved images of Mary. In the first reading from the Mass of the Assumption, we have the famous image from the Book of Revelation of "the woman clothed with the sun" who was about to give birth to a son, "destined to rule all the nations." In tthe gospel of the day we have St. Luke's account of the Visitation. Almost immediately after the Annunciation, Mary embarks on a journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is herself expecting. Artists have loved to portray this tender scene of the meeting of the two women. The young Mary, barely pregnant, greets her elder cousin whose pregnancy is well advanced.

St. Luke is the only evangelist to describe this meeting but, of course, he wasn't present. How did he get his information? It's possible that he was merely relating an earlier oral tradition and giving us an account of what the early Church believed Mary would have said on this occasion. Perhaps he talked with the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son. In that event, this passage would represent her profound recollection of the Visitation in the light of everything that came after.

Nevertheless, what image does St. Luke give us of Mary? We certainly can't take from his account that Mary was a bewildered, frightened teenager. The very name, Mary or Miriam, means "the exalted one." Scholars tell us that the expression "leaped for joy" is only used in the Bible when one is in the presence of the Almighty, such as the time King David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Elizabeth's greeting,

            Blessed are you among women,
            and blessed is the fruit of your womb...

which we repeat every day in the "Hail Mary," proclaims that from Mary will come the Savior of the world.

The beautiful prayer of Mary which we call the Magnificat is a collection of verses from many sources in the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms, those beautiful hymns of praise. We all know the beginning,

            My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
            my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
            for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
            From this day all generations will call me blessed:

This is the song of a great Queen who has accepted a great mission.

In artistic renderings of the Immaculate Conception Mary is portrayed as the woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, and stars in her crown. Her dress is white but she is covered with a blue mantle. Ordinarily, she is pictured with a red dress covered with the blue mantle. Now "red" is the symbol of earth or humanity but "blue" is the symbol of divinity. The artists follow the teaching of the Church. Mary is human but she has been cloaked with immortality. In the vigil Mass for today's feast, the words of St. Paul apply not only to Mary but to any who put on the mantle of her Son.

            When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
            then the word that is written shall come about:
            'Death is swallowed up in victory.
            Where, O death, is your victory?
            Where, O death, is your sting?


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Feast of All Saints

                                    All Saints Day

The month of November is sometimes called the month of the dead. As we look around we see the leaves falling from the trees, the sun riding lower in the sky and setting earlier and earlier. Animals are preparing for the long cold winter. The Church year also follows the cycle of nature. We begin this month with the great feast of All Saints, and then remember all the departed on All Souls day. Throughout the month we will remember our beloved departed and at the end of the month we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King where we will come face to face with the end of the world and the Last Judgment.

This weekend’s two great feasts deal not with death, however, but with triumph over death. The first reading for All Saints day is taken from the Book of Revelation. In his vision John sees an angel who holds off the powers about to destroy the world.

Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees
Until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.

John numbers these servants as 144000 but who takes time in a vision to count. Twelve is the mystical number that signifies completeness and 12 times 12 equals 144, as if to say completeness squared. Multiply 144 times 1000 and we realize that the vision includes a multitude. John says as much in the next verse,

After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
Which no one could count,
From every nation, race, people, and tongue.

The gospel for All Saints is the account of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus identifies the Blessed who will inherit the Kingdom. The are the poor in spirit, they who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

The second reading for All Saints is from the first Letter of John. John identifies the saints not as marble or plaster statues but as the children of God. He says “we are God’s children,” and as such holds out the hope that we all can become like our Father in Heaven.

High up on the wall in the back of many churches, we can observe a great stained glass window that is often called a rose window because it is shaped like a flower with a central core with twelve petals surrounding the core. In the core there will be either the figure of the resurrected Jesus, or the symbolic Lamb of God. Symbols of each of the twelve Apostles will be found in the petals. There is that number 12 again signifying that the Apostles represent all the saints. Like the Apostles the saints were ordinary men and woman who by the grace of God were able to overcome their weaknesses, and become good and faithful servants.

In a small chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome the great painter Caravaggio portrayed two of these ordinary men across from each other. He portrayed St. Peter about to be crucified at the end of his mission, and St, Paul at his conversion, the start of his mission. He portrayed them as ordinary human beings like us or our brothers and sisters being persecuted even today all over the world.

Reading 1. Revelations 7: 2-4, 9-14
Reading II. 1 John 3: 1-3
Gospel. Matthew 5: 1-12a (Blessed are the…)