Manger Scene #1

During Advent this year, I’m making it a spiritual/hobby project to use my digital camera more. I’ll be posting periodically pictures of various Nativity scenes. Even though it’s not yet Advent, here is a sneak peek.

Mangers 001

This is the Nativity scene in my room in the Rectory. It shows the magi off to the left of the photo. Usually these three guys are on top of my book case, on the east(ish) side of my room. There they will stay until Epiphany!

Wednesday of the 34th Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

I think for most of us, the whole idea of giving testimony to anyone or anything can be more than a little daunting. And then to be dragged in before courts, and national rulers to do it – well, that just puts fear into our hearts doesn't it? That is, however, just what Jesus promises that will happen in those cataclysmic days of the end of time. For those who are not used to speaking in front of people, that can be frightening. But Jesus also promises that we need not worry about what to say on those occasions, because he will provide us with the defense that we are to speak.

Which is why it is so important for us to always work on our relationship with the Lord. For those who don't have a relationship with him, they will never know the words they are to say, nor could they possibly recognize them if they were given those words. But for those who seek the Lord every day of their lives, they will be used to seeing God's grace and knowing the right words to say.

It's a little like the woman who was desperate for the solution to a problem in her life. She finally knew that she had to pray about it, but because she hadn't really done that very much, she didn't know how to pray. So she got the old dusty Bible off the shelf, opened it at random, closed her eyes, pointed to a verse and read, "Judas went out and hanged himself." She knew that couldn't be the answer, so she tried again. She opened up to a random spot, pointed to a verse, and read, "Go and do likewise." That frightened here a bit, so she figured she would try one more time. Opening the Bible at random, she pointed to a verse and read, "Go quickly and do what you must do."

That's an old joke, but it illustrates my point. If we want to be prepared to witness to Christ before courts and nations and rulers, we need to know who Jesus is. If we want to have the words to speak on those frightening occasions, we have to have a relationship with Him in the first place. Then we truly need not worry about what to say, because we will be able to sing God's praises before the whole world. And we can join in the song with all the victorious ones in the Kingdom of God:

Great and wonderful are your works,
Lord God almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
O king of the nations.
Who will not fear you, Lord,
or glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All the nations will come
and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.

Tuesday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

With all this talk about the harvest, and deception, and the great winepress of God’s fury, the end of time can be an absolutely frightening thought. The readings today almost make it seem like at some point, God will have had quite enough of our foolishness and return to wipe out the living and the dead. But that’s not the promise.

The psalmist today makes the promise a little more clear to us:

Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;
let the sea and what fills it resound;
let the plains be joyful and all that is in them!
Then shall all the trees of the forest exult.
Before the LORD, for he comes;
for he comes to rule the earth.

The promise of which this psalmist sings is one of great joy, a joy that will envelop and lift up all creation. The occasion for this joy is that all creation has finally come to what it was destined for: the praise of God. This makes the judgment day not at all like the great destruction of God’s wrath, but more of a celebration of creation finally developing into what it was made for.

Eucharistic Prayer III says “all creation rightly gives you praise.” This is what we were all made for; this is what everything was made for; this is the meaning of life. In these waning days of the year, we are called to look forward to the new creation, and called to partner with God in re-creating the world. We start with ourselves, by becoming the people we were created to be. That may give us stuff to work on in the coming year, but we can do that work with joy because we know that God “shall rule the world with justice and the peoples with his constancy.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ the King

Today’s readings

“My kingdom does not belong to this world.”

feastofchristthekingpaintingToday we celebrate the great feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King. Here, at the end of our liturgical year, we celebrate the one who has led us through the year. As we look back, there may have been times of great achievement, or times of failure. We may have celebrated life, or had to deal with sickness and death. We may have been blessed by wonderful, nurturing relationships or we may have had to deal with discord and strife. But if this year has meant anything, hopefully we can say that we have come through it with the help of Jesus our Savior, who is our Lord and King.

In today’s first reading, we have the promise of a king: one like a son of man with an everlasting dominion. This part of the book of Daniel comes from a series of visions. In these visions, particularly the one we have today, Daniel gives the Jews hope in persecution. This is no mere dream, and he is not just sharing his dream with a friend at work the next day. This is a vision that is spoken to lift the people up and help them to know that their hope is in God.

The Jews of his day have been being persecuted by the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes IV. He and his henchmen were certainly persecuting the Jews who insisted on living the Jewish way of life. But what is even more evil and more disastrous to the community, is that some of the Jews were starting to think that giving up their way of life and instead worshiping the gods of the Greeks was a good idea. They saw how powerful the Greeks were and attributed that to the gods they were worshipping. So, why not give up their own faith to follow one that seems to be working better? The biggest danger they faced was losing their faith to the pagans by adopting pagan ways of life.

So, when did you see your first Christmas display? I’m not sure when I did, but I know it was way before Halloween. I was also amazed to hear Christmas music on WLIT in the first week of November. And on Thanksgiving Day, I was awakened early in the morning by the sound of a heavier than usual newspaper hitting the sidewalk outside my door. I wasn’t shocked to discover the reason for this rude awakening was that the paper contained tons of Christmas-related advertisements for after Thanksgiving sales. The mad rush for the hearts and souls of Christmas shoppers has begun. In just the last week, we’ve all seen long lines waiting for the latest video game system. People camp out in tents and brawl for the first places in line. Peace on earth, good will to all. Yeah, sure.

So, we clearly are not under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, but we are definitely in danger of losing our faith to the pagan forces of this world. And there are so many other seductive ways that pagan forces weasel their way into our lives and tempt us to give in to their power over us. Everything that promises us power, success and wealth has the ability to take our hearts and souls with it. Why not just give in? Won’t paganism and evil win out in the end?

Well, Daniel sure didn’t think so. He prophesied that there would be one like a Son of Man who would triumph over Antiochus and others like him. This One would deliver them from the persecution they suffered and from the seduction that confronted them. This One would rule the world in justice and peace, and would lead the persecuted ones to a kingdom that would never pass away.

The early Church identified this Son of Man with Jesus Christ. He is the One who has power to rule over all and he is the One whose kingdom is everlasting. He even referred to himself as the Son of Man, and made it clear that he was the Son of Man who would suffer for the people. He came to deliver those first Christians from persecution with the promise that he would indeed come again, and that same promise is made to us as well.

But the problem was, he didn’t return right away. People lost faith, gave in to persecution, and just went with the powerful forces of the day. The delay in his return led some to believe that he was not returning, and so they should just do what seemed expedient. Why not go with the victorious pagan forces of the world? It’s a question that we must answer too.

As we end this liturgical year and take a look back, maybe we can see some areas for improvement in our lives. Much like the resolutions we may make January 1st, we may be able to make some resolutions for our spiritual lives in the coming liturgical year. I don’t mean losing weight or getting more exercise: those you can make in the new calendar year. But maybe in this liturgical year we could resolve to pray more or work for justice and peace, or reach out to the needy. If we were to make some constructive resolutions for our spiritual lives, we could begin to take away the hold the pagan forces in our world have on us. We could even proclaim with our lives that Christ is our King.

Jesus told Pilate in today’s Gospel that his Kingdom was not of this world. That should be the red flag for us. When we begin to worship and follow the forces of this world, we know that we are in the wrong place. Christ is the King, the Son of Man, who will lead us to a kingdom not made by human hands, a kingdom that will not pass away, a kingdom of justice and peace, a kingdom of love and mercy, a kingdom of grace and comfort, a kingdom of eternal beauty and unfathomable joy. The choice is ours, though. Will we follow the pagan forces of this world, or will we follow Our Lord Jesus Christ the King to that perfect and everlasting kingdom?

Saturday of the 33rd Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

When time runs short, we often worry about the silliest things. Maybe the reason for that is we don’t know what to do, so taking care of the small stuff makes it seem like we are getting someplace. Only we’re not. Take, for example, the recent release of some new video game systems. People were camping out in tents for days so they would be first in line. Other people got into fights defending their place in the line, or trying to move ahead. All of this while thousands of units of the systems were being held back in a warehouse someplace, so that the demand would make news. It sure did. And who didn’t watch that and think it was, well, a little silly?

For the Sadducees, the silliness surrounded what seems like a game of trivial pursuit or some early version of a math story problem gone bad. If a woman married each of seven brothers, only to have them die before they could have children, whose wife would she be in the afterlife? I think the more important question would be, if the first six brothers died before they could have children, why would the seventh one marry her in the first place? Now that’s a question worth asking!

And Jesus makes it clear that the answer to their question involves focusing on what’s really important. And that is eternal life. Now the Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death. One of my professors used to tell us that that’s why they were sad, you see. But Jesus’ message to them is that they are dead wrong on their belief that there is no afterlife, and it’s time they got it right. The most important thing worth striving for is eternal life, and Jesus is there to give it to them, and us, if we will but ask the right questions and live the Gospel.

So as the year nears its end and time is running short, we have to ask the right questions and attend to the important stuff. Maybe this involves standing in shorter lines during the Christmas shopping season, and spending more time with our families, or in prayer, so that the real message of the end of the year – eternal life through the incarnation of our Savior – can be first in our minds and hearts.

Saint Andrew Dung-Lac & companions

Today's saints | Today's readings

St. Andrew Dung-Lac was a priest in Vietnam in the early nineteenth century. He and his 116 companions, including Spanish Dominicans, members of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, and 96 Vietnamese, including 37 priests – of which Andrew Dung-Lac was one – were all martyred around the year 1839. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 Catholics were martyred in Vietnam during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

These martyrs knew well the dilemma that faced St. John in today's reading from the book of Revelation. The scroll – the word of God – tasted sweet on the tongue, but became sour in the stomach. The sweetness of receiving the Gospel very often becomes sour when one now has to live it. But live it we must, and quite often at a price. For St. Andrew and his companions, it was at the price of their very lives. For each of us, the price may be different.

Whether we have to pay by having to give up a job promotion because it does not allow us to live the Gospel, or of having a strained or broken relationship with someone in our lives because they do not share our beliefs, or even just the social stigma of not giving in to the peer pressure that leads us to consumerism, the call of the Gospel can turn our lives sour indeed. This is often called a "white martyrdom" (as opposed to the "red martyrdom" of those who paid with their blood) and we are all called to suffer it at some point.

But may we all step up and eat the scroll, proclaiming its message by our very life's witness.

The Presentation of Mary

Today's feast | Today's readings: Zechariah 2:14-17, Luke 1:46-55, Matthew 12:46-50

You know, I'm not sure how my mother would react to my not acknowledging her presence like that, but I know it wouldn't be good! But, lest we impute the wrong motives to our Savior, we should understand that He was well aware of Mary's contribution to the will of God. St. Augustine reminds us that Mary was extremely obedient to God's will and singularly cooperative with God's plan of salvation. He says: "Indeed the blessed Mary certainly did the Father's will, and so it was for her a greater thing to have been Christ's disciple that to have been his mother, and she was more blessed in her discipleship than in her motherhood."

Jesus was holding up Mary as an example of discipleship to all of us. Our constant efforts and prayers should be directed at being as open to the will of God as she was. By her fiat, saying yes to God through the angel Gabriel, Mary opened the world up to the possibility of salvation through Jesus Christ.

The feast of the Presentation of Mary goes back to around the sixth century in the Eastern Church. It appeared in the Latin Church around the eleventh century and was made a feast of the Universal Church in the sixteenth century. This feast is not historical, but is based on a tradition from the early church of Mary having been presented in the Temple to God by Joachim and Anne when she was around three years old. This was to fulfill a promise made to God when Anne was childless. The tradition continues the theme which begins at Mary's Immaculate Conception, continues through the celebration of her birth, and through the Presentation we celebrate today. This tradition teaches us that Mary's destiny to fulfill God's will began before she was born and continued through her early childhood.

We call on the intercession of Mary our Mother today, that she would guide us to lives open to the will of God, and that she would lead us always to proclaim the greatness of the Lord in soul and in spirit.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God;
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Monday of the 33rd Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Lord, please let me see.”

What a wonderful prayer. Certainly in the blind beggar’s life, that prayer was for the gift of physical sight. But maybe that’s not the kind of sight we need. Maybe the kind of sight we need in our lives goes a bit deeper inside.

There are those of us going through difficulties in life: problems at work, family issues, personal stuff. These kinds of things can be so frustrating, especially when there is no end in sight. The blindness here is that maybe we can’t see the solution. Perhaps we’ve prayed so often about it, and nothing seems to change. “Lord, please let me see…” the solution to the problem, and give me the grace to see the answer to my prayers.

There are those of us who have to deal with difficult people in life. Whether they be co-workers, neighbors, or even members of our own family, the issues between us may cloud any ability to God at work in our brothers and sisters. “Lord, please let me see…” other people through your eyes, eyes that see the goodness of others and not just the obstacles between us.

Whatever it is we are frustrated about, we can bring that to our Lord today. As we offer our gifts, may we also offer our frustrations and give them to the Lord. And, as we receive our Lord in the Eucharist today, may we our prayer for grace be the words of the blind beggar: “Lord, please let me see.”

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time: Nobody Left Behind!

Today’s readings

Today’s readings make me think about the Left Behind series of books. Written by Evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, these books take a fictional look at what might happen if the end-times were to happen in our lifetime. While they are fictional, there is a theology underlying the fiction that is very intentionally being fed to their readers. And their readers are not just a tiny group. Over sixty million of the books have been sold worldwide; there are also movies, video games, and a whole bookstore of stuff to buy based on the series. I myself read them for a while, mostly for entertainment since I didn’t agree with the theology. Later on they just became too much and I gave it up.

If you haven’t read any of these books yet, good. There are so many reasons not to read them, not the least of which is that they have the end-time theology all wrong. If you have read them, and were able to get past their fiercely anti-Catholic undertones – apparently LaHaye and Jenkins lump Catholics in with the vast non-Christian masses who will be left behind – you need to know these books should be left behind because they miss the point in a huge way. The whole idea of the “rapture” – in which those who are “saved” are taken up and just disappear one day and those who are not saved are left behind wondering what happened – this idea has never been part of Catholic theology. It hadn’t been part of any Protestant theologies either until the nineteenth century.

But the success of these books points out a very important thing about our culture, and maybe just about human nature. As humans, we are intensely concerned about the end of things. Whenever we let ourselves stop and think about it, we wonder things like how and when we will die, what the afterlife looks like, and how things will all work out at the end of time. I think it’s just natural that we would want to know where we’re going and when we’ll get there.

This is such an intense fascination for some, that there have often been some very strange interpretations and responses. Those who have tried to figure the end times out have certainly not been right, and have had tragic consequences as well. We might think of people like Jim Jones and David Koresh to realize how tragic it can be when we give in to this curiosity in a way that leads us apart from others. A good litmus test of these ideas is whether they take the group apart from others or not. If the idea causes people to leave their families and join a cult-like group, it’s probably an idea that is tragically flawed. We may not know much about the end times, but we do know this: if we don’t go together, we’re not going at all. The Kingdom of God is about unity, not separation.

So having said all that, what are we supposed to do with these readings? How can they possibly make sense for us? The imagery is just astounding, I think we would all agree. The first reading from the prophet Daniel speaks of a time “unsurpassed in distress” but promises that those who are wise, that is, those who have a relationship with God and heed his commandments, will “shine brightly” and be “like the stars forever.” In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of a time of great darkness, a time where everything that seemed so firm: the moon, planets and stars, shall be destroyed and come falling out of the sky. Having passed through that, his angels will gather up the elect. The imagery we hear in these readings is absolutely frightening, but also gives us a future worth looking forward to.

But I wonder, really, if we can even relate to these readings. Both readings are examples of a specific Scriptural genre called Apocalyptic writings. Apocalyptic writings are a type of prophecy that is written to or for a community in great distress. They foretell future events, especially about the end times. Both the Israelites to whom Daniel was prophesying, and the early Christian community who received the Gospel of Mark, were undergoing persecution. The early Christians were being thrown out of their synagogues and often enough being killed for their beliefs. Apocalyptic writings then minister to these communities by foretelling a bad end for their persecutors, and a time of relief and salvation for the persecuted community.

The early Christian community, in particular, enjoyed the prophecy of these apocalyptic words because they expected the return of Christ to be very immanent, within their own expected lifetimes. They needed the words Jesus spoke in this Gospel to get them through the intense persecution they were undergoing in order to remain faithful until the time of Jesus’ return.

So, again, what do we do with these readings? It seems like we are not the intended audience. I mean, it being a Catholic is probably not intensely popular these days, and the message of the Gospel seems to get lost in today’s secular society, but, let’s face it, people in Naperville aren’t dying because they are Christians. Those who insist on worshiping God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit aren’t being cast out of the community. And let’s not forget that in these readings, the drastic events they foretold, which they expected to happen immanently, have not taken place in two thousand years. The sun did not fall out of the sky. The moon was never darkened. So these readings may not even have much of a ring of truth to them. Well, then, how do we understand them today?

But, you know, when we take a deeper look at them, we can see the truth in these words. Back in Daniel’s day, the Israelites probably felt like their time was that period of unsurpassed distress. The persecution they were undergoing was probably the worst thing they could possibly imagine. For the early Christians, too, there was horrible distress. They were being cut off from the community and murdered, so it probably felt like the darkest time of all, a time when the heavens and the earth were all collapsing so fast and they couldn’t do anything about it.

We’ve had some of that in our day, haven’t we? This past September, we had the fifth anniversary of 9-11, a day that we will never forget. Who didn’t feel like everything was crashing in around us in those days? What about the vast cloud of darkness and fear that has lingered ever since, making us afraid to travel at times, or even go out in public? What about the devastating hurricanes in the south last year that destroyed New Orleans and all the areas around it? Talk about your world crashing in on you – most of these areas will take years and years to be rebuilt. Add whatever you’d like: tsunamis in Asia, earthquakes in many places, and the list goes on. When we hear about all that, we have to know that people affected by these tragedies feel that their world has come to an end. What could be worse than what’s happened to them?

And I really believe that if I were to ask for a show of hands or go around and ask people about how their lives were going, we’d see a lot of cataclysm right here in the lives of the people sitting around us. Who hasn’t felt like everything that was solid and sure has crumbled to pieces when we’ve experienced the untimely death of someone we love? Who hasn’t felt persecuted when they have had to go through lay offs on the job, marriage troubles, domestic violence, alcohol or drug abuse, or any one of hundreds of possible calamities? The truth to be found in these readings today is that life will rarely leave any of us unscathed. At some point or another, everyone goes through something horrible, and it seems like everything is falling apart.

If that’s what you’ve been going through this past year, maybe these readings are speaking directly to you. If your life has been unraveling in some way, then these readings are offering you hope. They speak the truth that we will indeed have to go through trials and distress, but they also speak the truth that God is our salvation. Even if everything is crashing down around us, God is our sure foundation. We can trust that the Kingdom of God will have no end, and that Christ will come again to save his people.

And when it comes down to it, the knowledge that our God is in control and is faithful to us is worth more than knowing when the end of time will come. If we remain faithful in persecution and unite ourselves to Christ our Savior, we don’t have to worry about details like that. We know that of that day or hour no one knows, and we don’t really care. Those who trust in God as their allotted portion and cup can truly trust in his mercy and grace and salvation, even when it seems the whole world is falling apart.

Saturday of the 32nd Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Whenever the time grows short, it can be tempting to give up the mission. Especially if it seems like there is a lack of results. That’s where we find ourselves on the issue of prayer very often, I think. We may have prayed for a loved one or a situation until our knees are raw and our throats are parched. We may have prayed fervently, shedding tears. And now, maybe, with the time growing short, those tears may be tears of frustration, or anger, or abandonment.

But God is decidedly not an unjust judge, right? We know he loves us and cares for us. That’s why I think it can be so frustrating to have prayed and prayed and prayed, and never see anything happening. We get to this point in our spiritual lives all the time.

The Gospel today is calling us to be persistent. We know that God loves us and we know that he will act for our good. We probably don’t know what the answer to our prayer will look like, but rest assured, if we pray persistently and with openness to God’s will, we will know the answer when we see it. It can be hard to be that trusting and open when the life of someone we love is at stake. Whether it’s disease or addiction or a job situation or family problems or any one of thousands of afflictions, we just can’t bear to see our loved ones go through it. Especially when we’ve been praying.

But if our prayer means anything, then it’s got to be persistent. We have to trust that God will render a decision that is just and right. It may take time to see that happen, but we have to see it through in prayer.

The time is growing short. So when Christ returns, will he find faith on earth? May his return find us fervently and persistently in prayer.