Advent looks forward, not backward
We have entered the Season of Advent and most of us are thinking of Christmas; in fact, I began my Christmas cards yesterday. But Advent is not about Christmas, at least in the Extraordinary Form readings; it’s about Christ’s Second Coming. The Epistle today clearly warns us to prepare ourselves, and the Gospel foretells a terrifying end of the world. The next three Sundays of Advent are less apocalyptic but no less focused on the Second Coming. They say nothing about the birth of the baby Jesus, nor do we hear any Messianic prophecies, as in the Ordinary Form readings. Advent, at least in the Extraordinary Form, is meant to focus us on the Second Coming of Christ, not his First Coming. What if Christ were to return to earth during this “Holiday Season.” Would we be ready for him? Would the world, which has removed the very name of Christ from Christmas, be ready for him? Here he comes, and there we are, waiting in line at Macy’s, or fuming with road rage on the way to the mall. If Christ knocked on your door an hour before your big Christmas party, would you let him in? “Honey, tell whoever it is to come back next week—I’ve got so much to do before the guests arrive!” I’m not forbidding Christmas parties, but let’s try to keep Advent in focus. Our priority during Advent, and Christmas, is not social fun, but prayer and Christian love and almsgiving, some measure of penance. Our Christmas parties and shopping and tinsel are fine, if we keep them within the authentic purpose of the liturgical season. The coming Kingdom of Jesus Christ is the guiding purpose of Advent.
People will die of fright
On the First Sunday of Advent, as I said, we hear of confusion and terror: the sea and the waves will roar; the powers of the heavens will be shaken. “Nations will be in dismay; people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming.” It is for these days that we must prepare, because they will surely come. At His First Coming, God came as a darling baby on the lap of his childlike mother Mary. At His Second Coming, Christ will come on the clouds with power and great glory, his authority fully manifest. “When these things begin to pass, look up, because your redemption is at hand.” We are preparing for our redemption, for we are not yet redeemed—it is “at hand,” it is near, but not yet here. God’s judgment on our lives, His sentence on our time, has yet to come. Everyone in this church today (especially me) could end up in hell, and it would be an unspeakable tragedy if even one of us were eternally damned. Advent calls us to keep this danger in mind during our Christmas parties and shopping adventures, but also to keep in mind the proximity of our redemption. Now is the time to prepare for judgment; now is the time to hope for redemption.
How do we keep a good Advent? Many Americans begin the “Christmas Season” with the new civic holiday we call “Black Friday.” The very name indicates a culture that was once Christian but has become the negative image of what it once was. Children of the light, St. Paul says, “throw off works of darkness.” If we’ve thrown Christ out of Christmas, then indeed it is a “Black Friday.” Do we prepare for Christ by eating and drinking? Again, St. Paul: “not in orgies and drunkenness, rather, make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” Folks, we are supposed to lose weight in this season, at least before December 25. But we do live in a time that ignores and despises the Word of God. Yet everything but the Word of God will burn in the universal fires at the end of human history.
There is a true Advent, and there is a false Advent. The false is the negative image of the true. The true Advent has gradually been turned upside down, and we don’t often stop to think about it. Christians are to practice deeper prayer, charity, and mortification in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Funny thing is, we mostly do just the opposite. We pray less and we eat more. We waste more money at Christmas on more banalities, precisely at the time the Church urges us to simplify, to spend less time and money on distractions. Let’s try to refocus, to direct that time and money this time of year on the things that last: on deeper prayer, on sacrificial and heartfelt charity. Advent is a time to remember the neediest, to give gifts without expecting a return.
In the end, Advent prepares us for our own death, and the death of our world as we know it. Deep down, we long for the death of all that is imperfect and sinful, so that we can enter into a new and perfect life. Death is hard, and more than anyone, we need our Blessed Mother at the hour of our death. Our mother brings us to birth, and God has ordained that she be with us at the hour of our death. If Advent points us to the end of all things and the beginning of a new Kingdom, then Our Lady must be a large part of Advent and Christmas. And indeed she is, on almost every Christmas card and still (Deo Gratias) on US Postal stamps. Even as we shop and have parties and write cards, let us bring Jesus and Mary to every Advent activity—a decade of the rosary or the Angelus and some real Christmas carols at every Christmas party—so that we will be prepared to meet Christ when he returns to earth.
In 2008 Archbishop Charles Chaput, then of Denver, now of Philadelphia, wrote a little book entitled Render Unto Caesar. He was alluding, of course, to Jesus’ prescription that we render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God. The Archbishop asks: What belongs to Caesar? This belongs to Caesar: Respect for his office, respect for the civil law, obedience to proper authority, and service to the common good—he didn’t mention paying taxes specifically, but that’s what comes immediately to mind. “It’s a rather modest list,” Archbishop Chaput notes. He then asks, what belongs to God? Everything else, he says, including our work, our homes and families, our hearts, bodies and souls, and our first loyalties. We serve Caesar best by not confusing him with God, by rendering witness to something greater than Caesar not simply as loyal citizens but also as faithful ones. As the Year of Faith draws to a conclusion this week, we might reflect on what it means to be a loyal and faithful American.
“We are citizens of heaven first,” Archbishop Chaput writes. “But just as God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so the glory and the irony of the Christian life is this: the more truly we love God, the more truly we serve the world.” Catholics should not be less involved in politics, but more; not less visible but more visible as Catholics
in the public square. We have both a mandate from Our Lord to work in and through politics for the Common Good, and a divinely-revealed magisterium with 3000 years of Judeo-Christian experience to guide us. The entire Western system of democracy, law, economics has developed from Christian principles, and has been adopted by the entire world. Who best can guide politics to the Common Good than Catholics guided by Christian principles? “The Catholic Church,” concludes Archbishop Chaput, “cannot stay, has never stayed, and never will stay out of politics…. Living our Catholic faith without excuses and apologies, and advancing them in the public square, are the best expressions of patriotism we can give to the nation.”
I say this because Christ’s two parables in the Gospel today depict not just the keeping, but the dissemination
of the Gospel: first, a man sows mustard seed in a field. The seed grows into a large tree, and the birds of the air (peoples of every class, tongue, and nation) come to dwell in its branches. The Church is a kind of spreading tree, uniquely suited to serving the Common Good, affording shelter to all who ask. But one must propagate
that seed, as we must propagate the gospel in the political order. In the second parable, a woman kneads yeast into three measures of flour—that’s about fifty pounds
. Have you ever kneaded even one pound of flour? I used to knead dough with my mother, with rather sore wrists, forearms, and shoulders afterwards. We finally got Mom a bread machine one Christmas…. Imagine fifty pounds of flour! Kneading God’s word into our culture, persistently and patiently, is long and hard work, and the particular job of the laity, once you’ve all been “kneaded” by us clerics from the pulpit (!).The Coming Wrath
St. Paul loves the Thessalonians in the Epistle, because they put in this work of evangelization. “We thank God for your unceasing
work of faith and labor of love…receiving the word in great affliction; from you the word of God sounded forth from Macedonia to Achaia, in “every place” your faith gone forth, your faith in Jesus, who delivers us from the “coming wrath.”
Last week, Hawaii became the 15th state to legalize so-called “gay marriage.” The wrath is surely coming—the chaos and retribution that will inevitably result from our rejection of marriage and family life. It happened to the Romans when they gave up on marriage, and it will happen to us. Like the early Church, we must labor, perhaps go to prison, and even die, in order to propagate the saving Word of Life. It seems obvious, as American culture collapses, one state after another, that today’s American Catholics compare rather poorly with First Century Catholics. As Archbishop Chaput emphasized in his 2008 book, the times demand not less but more overt political involvement by faithful Catholics, providing that which only faith can provide for our nation. Let us turn to Our Lady, the first evangelist, both for inspiration and intercession. One simple bit of evangelizing you can do this time of year is to go to buy a hundred Madonna and Child stamps from the US Postal Service (before it goes bankrupt), and put them on all your letters—including the electric bill! We have every right, we have every duty, to keep Christ, and his Holy Mother, not only in Christmas, but in every aspect of the public square.
Jesus teaching in the temple
Seven Brothers and One Mother: The Resurrection of the Body
As we come to the end of the Liturgical Year, Holy Mother Church gently directs our attention to our own end. Our first reading takes us to the famous Seven Maccabees of the Jewish persecutions from 167-160 BC. The Syrian Greeks under Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to force the children of Israel to deny the living God. Seven brothers refused to blaspheme. They were tortured and executed in front of their mother. The third does not wait for them to cut off his hands: he holds them out and declares: “I received these from God, and I hope He will restore them in the next life.” A good meditation on death is to look at your hand and reflect that someday that warm and rosy hand will be nothing but a dried-up bone. And yet, God will restore that shriveled bone someday. Many mock our belief that these bodies of ours, after decomposition in the grave, will be raised up faster, stronger, more beautiful than before. The Greeks taught that men become ghosts after death, mere shadows, joyless because they are bodiless. The Jews, however, believed in a bodily existence after death, either a shining glorified body in heaven, or a putrid horrifying body in hell. But not all Jews believed in the resurrection of the body.
Seven Brothers and One Bride: the Wedding Feast of the Lamb
The Sadducees, who deny the resurrection, mock Jesus in today’s gospel. They were upper class, wealthy and well educated, a kind of “liberal” Jewish denomination compared to the “conservative” Pharisees. Like today’s cultural elites, they sought bodily health, social position, and political power as ends in themselves. In their wealth, they belittled the spiritual aspirations of the poor and ridiculed life after death. Jesus describes them as short-sighted, because this life, as good as it is, cannot satisfy us for long. To be happy on earth, we must set our sights on a further horizon, on the life of the world to come.
A few years ago I bought an “LG” flat screen TV for the rectory. Do you know what LG stands for? It stands for “Life is Good.” And life is good, but life is more than a flat screen TV. I looked up the biggest baddest TV I could find on the internet—it was a 100” Laser HD TV with octaphonic sound (retails at $9000). Guess who makes it? You guessed it—Life is Good (LG). The Sadducees, like most wealthy elites, were relatively satisfied with their giant screen TVs, so to speak, and could not see beyond them. Jesus tells them to expect more than the flatness of this life, to expect the glorification of this beautiful but imperfect body in another life.
The Sadducees tell another story of seven brothers who died one by one, but these brothers had all married the same woman one after the other before dying. The Sadducees smile condescendingly at Jesus: “So, in heaven, if there is a resurrection, whose wife will she be—remember, all seven married her!” Jesus sighs. You are quite mistaken, he tells them. You can’t see any further than your flat screen TVs. There’s another world coming, compared to which this world is hell. Look to that world. Because if you don’t, you will end up in real hell.
Interestingly, the Sadducees speak of marriage. For the Sadducees, as for the social elites of today, marriage is about two things: sex and social position. These are good things, but even the greatest goods of marriage (spousal love and procreating children) will not be needed in heaven. Espousal to the eternal God—and the perfect harmony among the saints—will infinitely surpass any joy on earth. Just beholding the face of God (the “beatific vision”) satisfies every human longing. Do you think we will need flat screen TVs in heaven?
The Month of the Dead; the Month of the Living
November is the month of the dead: All Saints Day and All Souls Day urge us to cast off our fear of death and vigorously expect a life of glory beyond the grave. A few years ago my bishop ordered all us priests to write our last will and testaments, to draw up end-of-life healthcare directives, and to plan our own funerals. We all put it off—who wants to plan your own funeral at age 35? But I finally got it done just before the deadline. What a joy I felt as I dropped that envelope in the mail—I was packed and ready to go. Just say the word, Lord, and I’m on my way!
Life is good down here, but it’s only a shadow of what awaits us up there. Those who lie in Santa Paula cemetery with crosses over their graves—they are the living, and we are the ghosts, stumbling blindly through this Vale of Tears and disappointments.
Holy Mary, Pray for us at the Hour of our Death
We do well to turn to Our Lady, Our Mother, at the end of our lives: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” There’s a beautiful third verse to the Hail Holy Queen:
And when our life’s breath leaves us, O Maria!
Show us thy son Christ Jesus, O Maria!
Our Lady stands ready to receive us at our last breath. Accompanied by angels and saints, she will bring us to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to the eternal and perfect community that awaits each one who lives his life on earth in preparation for the life of the world to come.
Recent funeral Mass for the Founding President of
Thomas Aquinas College, Dr. Ronald McArthur
Frailty & Death
November is the month of the dead. We begin this month with All Saints Day, rejoicing in their holy death, which is their birth into eternal life. Indeed, Mother Church celebrates a saint’s feast day on the day of their death to this world, that is, the day of their birth into heaven. On November 2, we “celebrated” All Souls Day, the so-called Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Mother Church celebrates the decease even of those who were not saints at their death, but who entrusted themselves to God with their last breath. Their earthly death also saw them into eternal life, albeit by way of an arduous journey through Purgatory, but they are with God. November is the month of the dead, as days grow shorter and winds grow colder, as leaves fall dead from the trees and nights grow longer and blacker. Nature herself reminds us that we will die one day, but Mother Church instructs us not to fear the enfeeblement and death of the body. Fear only sin, the sins of our frail and wounded humanity.
The Collect for today’s Mass, and the readings, amply articulate this. “Deus, qui nos in tantis perículis constitútos, pro humána scis fragilitáte non posse subsístere: da nobis salutem mentis et córporis…” O God, you know that we live in such peril from our human frailty that we cannot sustain it: grant us health of mind and body that we may someday gain the victory….
And again, in the “secret prayer”: “Concede, quǽsumus, omnipotens Deus: ut hujus sacrifícii munus oblátum, fragilitatem nostram ab omni malo purget semper, et múniat.” Grant us almighty God, we beg you, that this sacrifice might forever purge and protect our human frailty from all evil. We cannot save ourselves, but we can call upon Almighty God to save us from sin and death.
The Boat Incident
The disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat, and a violent storm comes up. Jesus is asleep in the stern, and they cry out to him: we are perishing! He arises, rebukes the wind, and says to his disciples: “why are you terrified?” We think of another time when Jesus said to the parents of the little girl: “why are you weeping? The girl is not dead, but asleep,” and he lifts her up by the hand saying Talitha, cum, “little girl, arise.” The disciples were terrified of the screaming wind, and the girl’s parents wept in the face of death, but Jesus commands us to fix our hope on his providential strength. We are weak, but he is strong; we will die, but he will raise us up. In the words of Blessed John Paul II: “Non abbiate paura”—do not be afraid to fling wide the doors of your hearts to Christ, our only hope.
The Holy Souls
November is the month of the dead, and our acts of charity this month must be to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Yesterday we offered Mass at Santa Paula cemetery, with the graves of those we love around us. To the left was Ron McArthur and Marcus Berquist, just in front of us was Rosie Grimm and John Blewett, to the right was the beautiful stone cross marking Tom Dillon’s grave. God gave us the joy of loving these people on earth; now God gives us the joy of praying for their souls in eternity. In the back of the chapel is a book on a table: the Book of the Dead. It is, we hope, the book of the living: dead to this world, but alive in Christ Jesus. Someday, perhaps soon, we hope someone will write our name in that book, and offer Masses and prayers for our soul. Inscribe the names of your faithful departed in that book, if you wish, but be certain that you pray for those who have died. Eternal Rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. May their souls, and the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.
A Triduum for the Three Parts of the Church
All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day make a sort of autumn Triduum. As the dying leaves fall to earth, as the daylight fades, as the wind turns colder, the Church helps her children make sense of the inevitable and confusing fact of death. Each of us will grow older, grow feebler, and die, what the poet Homer 3000 years ago called “hateful old age” and “miserable death.” In the last words of Ecclesiastes: “the silver cord is snapped, the golden bowl is broken, the pitcher is shattered at the spring, the pulley is broken at the well, the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it.” The autumn triduum of October 31, November 1, and November 2 point to a truth deeper than death: the life breath will return to God, who gave it. “For in him,” Jesus declared, “all things are alive.” The saints are those who live and die in Him.
Those of us who still live on this side of the grave must realize that we are only the tip of the iceberg. The Church consists of three parts, of which we are only the smallest. We make up the Church Militant, those in daily combat against the destructive powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil. But above us, below us, and all around us a great multitude fills the air, invisible to us, but more real than anything on earth. The saints in heaven (the Church Triumphant), and the holy souls in purgatory (the Church Suffering), have entered into real life, and we are shadows compared to them. We are the ghosts; they are the living--substantially alive in Christ Jesus. “After this,” St. John writes in our first reading, “I saw a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” We believe in the other two worlds, and we depend on the strength of their intercession, even as we intercede for the souls in purgatory.
Destined for Purity
And yet earthly death saddens and frightens us. Death is dirty and putrid and loathsome. We avoid it like the plague and scrub our hands after touching a corpse. But, in fact, the carnal impurity of death is only a consequence and manifestation of spiritual impurity. Before sin, there was no death, and after sin, there will be no death.
“Who are these” asks St. John, “wearing white?” The angel replies: “These are the ones who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” We hope that one day we will be so washed, that the sadness of sin will never again touch us. “Everyone who has this hope based on Him,” writes St. Paul in the Epistle, “makes himself pure, as He is pure.” “We are God’s children now,” he continues. “What we shall be has not yet been revealed.” Jesus directs us to this purity in the eight beatitudes: poverty of spirit, meekness, thirst for righteousness, and cleanness of heart. Only the pure of heart can see God, and can see him in other people. The pornography epidemic, for example, ruins human relationships, especially marriages, because one addicted to pornography can no longer see God or his image in other people. Holiness is first and foremost purity of heart, so as to see God in every person and in every circumstance. One day, in heaven, we will be absolutely pure, absolutely holy, absolutely content.
Saved in and for Community
God reveals himself in the people around us, and God saves us with the people around us. We are the Church Militant, but we are saved with and through the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant. We are One Church, and no one is saved in isolation. “There is no isolation in heaven,” writes Pope Benedict, and the Communion of Saints begins on earth, to be perfected in heaven. St. John’s vision of heaven in the Apocalypse is “a great multitude,” crying out with one voice: “blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be to our God forever and ever.” “We are God’s children,” writes St. Paul, all members of his family. We have a Father in heaven, and we have a Mother in heaven. As we think on the fact that we all must undergo our own death alone, and the hope that God will sweep us up into the glorious multitude of saints, we put ourselves into our Holy Mother’s arms. She will lead us over the waters of earthly death and bring us at last to her Son and his kingdom, where we will live with the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, and all of those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, forever and ever. Amen.
The Feast of Christ the King
Today Holy Mother Church celebrates In Festo Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Regis: Christ the King. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 to help correct the world’s tilt toward the chaos of secularism. The Great War (which ended in November 1918) made terrifyingly evident that universal devastation is the price we must pay for casting God out of public life. A few years after this war, and foreseeing the next global war to come, Pius XI wrote the encyclical Quas primas: “These manifold evils in the world are due to the fact that the majority of men have thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; [with] no place either in private affairs or in politics: as long as individuals and states refuse to submit to the rule of our Savior, there will be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.” Before Christ, the world knew no peace, but on a certain year in human history, the Son of God became incarnate and established his Kingdom. It is at this moment we enter today’s Gospel reading. Jesus Christ faces Pilate. The Roman king of Judea stands in judgment over the eternal King of heaven.
A King faces the King
Pilate was not a bad king, as earthly rulers go. He had nothing against God—he just didn’t know him. He was only trying to keep order in the best way he knew. He was like most political officials in our day—non-Christian, with no recourse to a higher moral authority—for our social order has lapsed into its primitive, non-Christian state. Like Pilate, Christ has nothing to do with our decision-making, and we are trying to maintain peace without God.
Pilate asks Jesus: who are you? Are you a king? Jesus answers Pilate’s question with a question: “Do you say this on your own?” In other words, do you really want to know who I am, and what it means to be a king? Pilate becomes a little frustrated with these deeper questions, which seem like riddles to his crudely political mind: “Do I look like a Jew to you?” he flings back at Jesus. “How am I supposed to know about your weird religion? Just tell me who you are and what you’ve done to cause a riot in my district.”
Pilate Doesn’t Get It
Then Jesus gives Pilate, and all humanity, the answer we have been longing to hear: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Every worldly political order will fail to the degree that it refuses to have reference beyond the world. We can’t keep order by ourselves. What do you think will happen if you put three children in a room by themselves for five hours? They need an adult to keep from hurting each other. We “adults” need a Father greater than any earthly father. Deep down, we all know this, and we know that the answer to our political conflicts is not found in this world.
Jesus continues: “I came to testify to the truth.” Every politically mature person asks whether an earthly ruler ever be completely honest. And Jesus answers that question: No, he can’t. The world is ruined; it is lost to original sin. Only the ruler who is beyond this world can bring peace and order. Only God bears the fullness of truth, and the only way to rule this world is to refer beyond it. Pilate doesn’t get it, and, with all due respect, Barak Obama doesn’t get it. Few rulers have ever understood this; most politicians who call themselves “Catholic” don’t get it, and I’m not sure how much we get it either. It is enormously difficult for anyone in our society, soaked as we are in secularism, to grasp how empty, how frail, how vain is any attempt at a peaceful order divorced from God’s laws.
Are We Taking Earthly Politics Too Seriously?
Many good Catholics complain to me that they struggle with despair over our country. American leadership, and world politics, becomes more anti-Christian, more irrational and chaotic, more dishonest, every day. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and we can’t do anything about it.
But remember this: Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world. So why do we expect order, peace, and honest politics from this world? The world as we know it is passing away. Our hopes are not in this world, but in Jesus Christ, the Lord of a Kingdom not of this world. If we are discouraged by earthly politics, we probably think too much of them. If you never miss the evening news, whether it’s Fox or CNN or NPR, but you do miss your evening family rosary, you are bound to be depressed. But don’t you know that the rosary is far more real than the news? Turn the TV and computer off, and pray the rosary together, and you will gain courage and hope.
Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King to remind us how transitory are this world’s rule. The Lord Jesus Christ reigns over heaven and earth; nothing and nobody can topple him. We put our hope in him, we commit our allegiance to him. With our Lady, we work to bring about his Kingdom in this world, but with our heart set on the Kingdom that is not of this world.
Pope Francis entrusts the word to the Blessed
Virgin Mary Oct. 13 2013. Credit: Lauren Cater / CNA.
In every culture, and in every age, people admire valiant and virtuous military commanders: men who put their strength, courage, and intelligence at the service of their country. Such was Naaman in the first reading, commander of the military forces of Syria, a giant of a man, expert in battle, loyal to king and people. Valiant though he was, the Bible tells us, he was a leper. A little Jewish slave girl tells him of a man of God in Israel, so Naaman goes with an impressive retinue, loaded with gifts, to Elisha for healing. The man of God, however, refuses even to meet him, but tells him to bathe seven times in the river Jordan. At first Naaman refuses, but then plunges into the waters. “His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child….” If someone asks you why you dip your finger into holy water upon entering a Catholic Church, you tell them this story. It’s to keep your skin as young as that of a little baby. Have you ever seen a nun with wrinkles?
Blessed water is a “sacramental”—a simple element that communicates God’s healing power: a drop of olive oil, a splash of water, a flickering candle flame, a waft of sweet-smelling incense. If we were angels, we would not need sacraments or sacramentals, but we poor human beings learn through our senses, so God gives us these little helps to our faith. In the Gospel, not one but ten lepers come to the Man of God, Jesus Christ, who is God himself. Like Elisha, Jesus does not heal them directly. He tells them to “show themselves to the priests,” to perform the simple sacramental rituals of Jewish law. It was not the ritual that saved them, but their humble obedience, their faith, in God, who gives us these sacramentals. Jesus says to the one grateful leper that returned: “your faith has saved you.”
Many people—Catholics and non-Catholics alike, do not take sacramentals seriously. They don’t put crucifixes and statues in their homes or build little “altarcitos” in their homes. They don’t make the sign of the cross in public, or carry a rosary, or say traditional prayers. But these simple expressions of our faith are most important: at least Jesus thought so; he would not heal without them. My mother used to remove the little holy water font in our house before our Protestant cousins came for dinner so as not to offend, but one day she just left it up and said “I can’t help it if the Catholic Church has all the good stuff!”
Naaman goes back to Elisha, after bathing in the river, to ask for two mule loads of dirt. He intended to bring the soil back to Syria, so he could kneel on holy ground while worshipping the true God. Do we have to go to a consecrated chapel to pray to the living God? Jesus says we should pray not on this mountain nor that mountain but in spirit and truth. And yet Jesus himself goes to Jerusalem for the Passover, and follows traditional rituals, directing his disciples to do the same. Holy things and times and places are important to our faith. Can you pray to God without candles, statues, and rosaries? Yes, but they certainly help. They are biblical, and Jesus uses them.
The simplest and most effective Catholic sacramental is the rosary of the blessed ever-virgin Mary. October is the month of the Holy Rosary (the feast of the Holy Rosary is Oct 7), and a good time to resolve never to leave home without a rosary. If you have a rosary, you are more likely to pray it. It’s a simple prayer, but as John Paul II said, “marvelous in its simplicity and its depth.” In my last parish, I tried many ways to pray with my staff, but nothing worked until we began praying the rosary together once a week.
Pope Consecrates world to Our Lady
Today is “Marian Day” in the Year of Faith, the day the sun danced at the final apparition of Our Lady of Fatima. Today Pope Francis consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Rome. Let us also consecrate our city and our families to the Blessed Mother today, using the words like he used at St. Peter’s today: Holy Mary Virgin of Fatima, with a Mother’s benevolence we beg you to accept our act of consecration today, which we offer before your image, so dear to us. We are certain that each of us is precious in your eyes and that nothing in our hearts is unknown to you. Bring everyone under your protection and entrust everyone to your beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus. Amen.
The First Mystery of the Rosary
Today Church allows us to celebrate an “external feast” of the Holy Rosary, which the Church celebrates tomorrow, October 7. Also called “Our Lady of Victory,” this feast commemorates the Battle of Lepanto, but more of that later. The Gospel for this Feast is the First mystery of the Holy Rosary, the Annunciation. This mystery announces and contains all the other 19 mysteries within it, and indeed, stands at the center of our creed, which stands at the center of our Mass.
In center point of the Nicean Creed, which is the center point of the Mass, which is itself the center of our lives, we chant these words: “Et incarnatus est… de Spiritu Sancto… ex Maria virgine… et homo factus est.” Indeed, we kneel at these words, because it marks the moment of humanity’s redemption. God reached down from heaven to touch man, but He first asked this man, who was a woman (Mary), if she would allow him. She said yes, and the Holy Spirit rushed upon her. Eternity stepped into time; the infinite, almighty God becomes a tiny, helpless babe; the floodgates of grace burst open; the Word becomes Flesh. This central article of the Nicene Creed mentions the three persons of the Holy Trinity: “Incarnatus est” points to God the Father, creator of the incarnate, material world; “de Spiritu Sancto” points to the Holy Spirit, by whom the Son is made incarnate, and “et homo factus est” points to the Son, who became man. But there is a fourth person named in the Creed: “ex Maria virgine.”
God is eternally perfect, three in one, needing no one to “complete” or perfect Him. But at the center of the Creed a fourth person, a human being, enters into the Trinity. God “needed” her; that is, He wanted to “need” her. In receiving love from this person, God completes the circle of love, because love cannot always give; it must also receive (as Pope Benedict wrote in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift”). What kind of friendship or love is one-sided? What love would spouses share if they did not receive acts of love from each other? In receiving Mary’s love, God reveals the inner life of the Trinity, an eternal exchange of giving-receiving-giving.
The Battle of Lepanto
The First Joyful Mystery captures this encounter between God and humanity in the maiden Mary of Nazareth. The rosary is a sacramental reminder of God’s desire to love and be loved by us. It is a powerful defense against the forces of fear and hate. We celebrate Our Lady of the Rosary because of an epic sea battle at Lepanto off the Greek coast 450 years ago. The Ottoman Turks had attacked Cyprus and positioned themselves to strike deep into Christian Europe. The Christian nations assembled an allied navy to defend themselves, but with fewer ships and soldiers, the Christians had little hope of defeating the seemingly invincible Ottoman navy. Pope Pius V ordered all of Europe to pray the rosary on that desperate day, October 7, 1571. He himself went to St. Mary Major in Rome to pray. Back at Lepanto, hundreds of miles away, the morning wind blew from the east, driving the Turkish fleet full into the Christian ships. But as the day wore on, as Europe prayed the rosary, as the Pope prayed in Rome, as the soldiers themselves prayed as they fought, the wind shifted to the west, giving the Christian ships the advantage. It is said that, about that time in Rome, Pope Pius interrupted a meeting with some cardinals: "Let us interrupt this business!” he exclaimed, peering out a window. “Our great task at present is to thank God for the victory which He has just given…." And indeed, after 5 hours of engagement, the Christian fleet had overcome the Muslim navy, and Islam was prevented from enslaving Christian Europe.
The rosary works. It draws us into the mystery of God’s inner life, and replaces fearful hatred with loving trust. Sadly, Christian Europe is all but dead, not from Islamic conquest, but from secular atheism. The Muslims who were stopped at Lepanto in 1571 are now taking over Europe by default, for any faith is better than no faith. But we can still pray to Our Blessed Mother, committing ourselves to God’s will, as she did in today’s Gospel: “Let it be done to me as you have said.” Let us pray the rosary as Americans, lest our own nation be overcome by the irrational forces of God’s enemies. Let us pray for Europe, that it may yet gain victory over the dictatorship of relativism. Pray the rosary, in your families, every day. If you think you cannot pray the entire rosary, pray at least a decade, every day. After the Mass, it is the most beautiful, and the most rewarding, means of spending your time.
St. Michael the Archangel
The Guardian Angels
Today Holy Mother Church celebrates the Feast of the Archangels, especially the Dedication of St. Michael the Archangel, along with Gabriel and Rafael. Their very names derive from the name of God, “El” in Hebrew. Micha-el means “who is like God,” his war cry to rally God’s hosts—whom can we serve other than God, for who is like unto Him? Gabri-el means “the strength of God” and Rafa-el “the healing of God.” On Wednesday, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, to whom our Gospel refers today: “I say to you,” Jesus says of the little children, “that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly father.” Those who do not respect children, or any “little ones” who are pure of heart, should keep in mind that, though children may look defenseless, an angel of unspeakable power hovers just above them with drawn sword. One should fear scandalizing, abusing, or even treating them with impatience out of simple self-preservation. “Better,” Jesus says, “to be cast into the ocean with a millstone lashed about one’s neck than to corrupt a child.” Jesus loves the little children. Who preys on children? As the media constantly reminds us, a small percentage of Catholic priests prey on children. In addition to these, however, just about everyone in the entertainment industry makes a good part of their living corrupting children, and all of these will wish they had respected the frailty of a child’s innocence when their guardian angels lay hold of them.
The Catechism tells us in paragraph 336: “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” I consecrated myself to the guardian angels some years ago and renew my consecration each day with this prayer:
Holy Guardian angel, you continually behold the face of our Father in Heaven. God has entrusted me to you from the very beginning of my life. … I beg you: protect me from my own weakness and from the attacks of the wicked spirits. Enlighten my mind and my heart, that I may always know and accomplish the will of God. Lead me to union with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“Enlighten my mind,” I pray each day. Angels are pure spirits, and so understand truth intuitively, not needing to arrive at truth through a laborious exercise of the senses. Again, from the Catechism number 330: “as purely spiritual creatures, angels have intelligence and will. They are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.” Consider the most excellent created being imaginable: the body and soul of a great hero, such as we study here in the Greek epics. Imagine the intellect and imagination of a great mind, such as Socrates or Einstein. Consider the heart and will of a great saint, such as Augustine or Aquinas. Imagine any other thing of beauty that amazes us: a spiral galaxy 300,000 light years across, the pacific ocean whose depths dwarf anything we know on earth. Angels surpass in perfection all of these created things. Each angel is a distinct species of itself, and it far surpasses any other species in the visible world.
Angels Help us to Adore Him
There are nine choirs of angels: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Archangels, Principalities, and Angels. Angels help us “to adore Him,” in the words of the traditional hymn: “You behold him face to face.” The principle role of the highest choir (the Seraphim), in fact, is to incessantly cry out the Trisagion hymn found in Apocalypse 4:8: “Holy Holy Holy” we too sing at every Mass. At this Mass, know that myriads upon myriads of Seraphim worship with us.
If we at TAC wish to “carpe veritatem,” we should pray each day to the angels to help us know God and the whole of his creation: to know Him, in order to love Him, in order to serve Him. Your guardian angel not only protects you from physical danger, but defends you from intellectual harm. I recommend praying to your guardian angel every day, as we already pray to St. Michael every day, to defend us in battle, to help us know God and the things of God, so as to love Him, to serve him, and to be with him forever in the life of the world to come.
A “scholar of the law”—in other words, a lawyer—asks Jesus a tricky question: “Of the ten great commandments of Moses, and of all the 613 commandments found in the Torah, which is the greatest?” he asks. Which is the one God is really serious about? Which is the commandment I really cannot break if I want to get to heaven?
And Jesus takes his question seriously: “This is the One,” he replies: “Love God.” Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love God with everything you’ve got, from the heart. St. Augustine famously said, “Love God, and do what you will.”
But, Jesus continues, “There is a Second Commandment. You, my dear scholar of the law, didn’t ask for it, but you need it as much as you need the First Commandment.” And that second commandment is this: love your neighbor as yourself. “Neighbor” comes from the German nachbar, meaning, “he who is near you.” The guy next to you at that moment. Could be on a bus, could be in class, could be at home in the living room. Whoever is right there, at that moment: he’s your neighbor, and he’s the one you’ve got to love. You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your “neighbors”—they mostly just show up, and often enough, at rather inconvenient times.
Jesus thinks we need this second commandment; in fact, he insists on it, even though the lawyer only asked for one commandment. I wonder why? Perhaps because, well, how do we know if we are actually keeping the First Commandment? God after all is a hidden God, a God of silence. If I don’t love him, he doesn’t throw a fit. If I don’t visit him at Mass or say my morning prayers, he doesn’t frown at me. But, if I neglect to call my mother on Sunday, she might mention it during our next phone call. If I give my roommate the silent treatment, he will reproach me sooner or later (in fact, I don’t have a roommate, but I speak hypothetically). If I don’t pay my electric bill, someone will let me know. Loving our neighbor can be measured. Neighbors keep us accountable, because how I love my neighbor is how I love God (“whatever you do to the ‘least’ of my brethren,” Jesus said—you know, the ones who always get picked last for basketball teams—“you do to me”). Show kindness to that nerd at school, and you show kindness to me. Love your wife when she’s screaming at you, and you love me, Jesus says.
One Law; Three People to Love
So we have two commandments, two people to whom we must show loving kindness: God, and the guy next door. But there’s a third person, and Jesus names that person too: yourself. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But how much do I love myself? A person who treats others badly might observe that he is loving others as he loves himself. He just doesn’t love himself very much. Each of us, after all, is God’s son or daughter, and we are commanded to love each person God has made, including that person who lives inside my own skin.
So, we have three to love: God, neighbor, and self, in that order. Some people, especially those who have had rough childhoods, may need to learn to love themselves before they can love others, but it is certain that love of God comes before everything and everyone. We fulfill that First Commandment first and foremost by praying. “Love consists in this,” wrote St. John in his first letter: “Not that we have loved God, but that he first loved us.” Love of God is essentially receiving his love, not fighting it—receiving it like a little baby receives milk from his mother’s breast, or like a little girl lets herself be scooped up into her daddy’s lap. And that happens in prayer, in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, or in our room with the iPod turned off, or even on a freeway stuck in traffic, listening, and loving Him back.
This is how Our Lady received God, when the angel came to her. She listened, and she asked a few questions, and she surrendered her whole heart, her whole soul, her whole mind to God’s perfect will. “Let it be done to me according to your word,” she said. Easier said than done, but not impossible for anybody. So let’s follow Our Lady, and give ourselves to God, as he gives himself to us.