Thursday, December 25, 2014

From Depression and Sadness to Joy and Hope

Recently a Facebook friend (I‘ll call her “Lucy”) posted an essay on her timeline telling us that she is depressed this Christmas and why.  While it is a fairly lengthy essay, not once did she give any hint of the fact that Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus.  Additionally, not a single response to Lucy (except mine) mentioned that Christmas is a celebration of the birthday of Our Lord, the Savior of the human race.  I fear that this is a symptom of the fact that mankind has lost its focus, not just on “the reason for the season,” but on the purpose of life in general.  So My Thursday Thoughts today turn from Lucy’s depression and sadness to the joy and hope that can overtake her simply by her reading the Scriptures, specifically the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2.  In fact, I suggested that she read this chapter in its entirety, slowly, out loud to herself.  If you are feeling down this Christmas, I make the same suggestion to you.  Just the sound of the words describing what happened is good for the soul.  Luke 2:1-20 reads as follows.

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.  This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.  And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.  While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.  She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.  The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.  The angel said to them; ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.  And this will be a sign for you:  you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’  And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:  ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’ 

“When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’  So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.  All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.  And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.  Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.”

To all the Lucys in the world:  May you hear these words in a new light and glorify and praise God, just as the shepherds did that Christmas many years ago.  Amen.

The photo is of a shepherd and his flock and was taken at the holiday exhibit at the Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Conducting Ourselves in Holiness and Devotion

December 18, 2014

The second reading at Mass on Sunday, December 7, struck a chord with me.  It is from the second letter of St. Peter, Chapter 3, verses 8-14.  Commentaries I have read say that there were some in the new faith community who were growing impatient waiting for the return of Christ and were expressing a sort of “anxious disappointment.”  They were even beginning to doubt that He would return at all!  That, despite Christ’s own words to the contrary, saying that it is impossible to know when.  (How shocked would they be today, knowing that it is nearly 2000 years later and we are still waiting!)  Peter was attempting to dispel their concerns, telling them that “with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years.”  He goes on to say that the Lord does not delay his promise, as these early Christians consider “delay.”  He says that the Lord simply wants all to come to repentance and was only giving the early Christians the time to do that.  So, the Lord will come in His own time. I say “thank you” to St. Peter for nipping this disappointment in the bud!

What really got me going, though, was what St. Peter taught a few verses later.  He said that since the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and that the earth will be dissolved by fire, we should be conducting ourselves “in holiness and devotion” while we wait.  In due time, there will be “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”  So we must “await these things (with patience), and be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”  Now we could have a glorious faith/science debate over this.  What exactly will happen?  Will there be an asteroid on a collision course with the earth?  Will there be simultaneous earthquakes occurring worldwide, causing the Earth to simply explode in a fiery catastrophe?  Or maybe global warming will prevail in a fiery end to everything.  No one knows.  But what we do know is that it is important for us to conduct ourselves in holiness and devotion until that day comes, whenever and whatever it will be.  My prayer for today is this:  Lord, please give us the grace to conduct ourselves as you expect, with holiness and devotion, so that we will be found at peace before you, and without spot or blemish.  Amen

For the full text of Chapter 3 of St. Peter's second letter, click here:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

On the Extraordinary Diversity of Life

Have you ever stopped to consider the incredible diversity of bird and animal life on our planet?  While on various road trips spanning my lifetime, I’ve seen some extraordinary things.  There was the beautiful majestic bald eagle, with a its six-foot wing span, swooping down across the road in front of me somewhere in northern Kansas.  There was the single file of snorting elk galloping across the road in Yellowstone National Park as if to be demanding “Stop the car, we’re crossing here.”  There was the singular elegance of a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs exploring the wilderness off to the right as I drove down the mountain road in Glacier National Park.  There was the huge flock of American coots as they first float peacefully by in a pond in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, but then suddenly, like an airplane on a runway, take off running across the surface of the water as they prepare to take flight.  Recently, I had the privilege of visiting a zoo in Chicago and was overwhelmed with what I saw there.  As I strolled around with my camera, I saw everything from this very large rhinoceros, with its tough gray/brown leathery skin and massive horn popping up between the eyes, to this sleepy giraffe so tall that the zookeepers had to hoist a bag of hay high up in a tree in order to allow him to comfortably feed himself, and then to this flock of brightly colored flamingos with their long, lanky legs and weird bills. 

The diversity of life also includes us human beings, of course.  We are beings with the ability to think, to reason, to use our brains, our hands, and our feet to accomplish things that no other being can.  We are beings with a moral compass giving us the ability to distinguish right from wrong.  We are beings with the ability to choose to act based not just on instinct, but on laws that we are able to formulate in order to live in harmony with each other and with our surroundings.  Scientists say that our world has evolved over many millions of years in order to get to our present state.  They say that the biological makeup, or DNA, has taken different pathways over this span of time that ultimately resulted in the extraordinary diversity.  I’m running out of adjectives.  Suffice it to say that God can be described by all of the adjectives I’ve used here, but I have reserved one for Him:  Awesome!  Let us stop, smell the roses, and give him high praise, glory, and worship for being who He is and let us give Him our thanks for doing all that He has done for us.  Amen.

The photo is of a flamingo at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

On Baptism and the Newness of Life

It’s the Advent season once again, and this always conjures up thoughts of baptism and new life in the Church.  It’s the beginning of a new Church year.  The stories of John the Baptist, his calls for repentance, and his rite of baptism in the Jordan River are heard in the Gospel readings at Mass.  There are many references to Baptism in Sacred Scripture.  The one reference that is mentioned most often in discussions about baptism is in the Gospel of John, Chapter 3.  This is the dialogue Jesus had with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a Jewish leader who secretly met with Jesus at night.  The discussion is about being “born again.”  Jesus says that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from above, born “of water and Spirit.”  The Church understands this as a reference to the use of water in the rite of baptism, but it also means being born of the Holy Spirit and into new life in the Church.  Baptism takes away original sin and gives us a fresh slate to work with as we begin our new life in this Valley of Tears here on earth.  I like to think that our rite of baptism is similar to Jesus’ own Baptism in which water (from the Jordan River) and the Holy Spirit were involved.  The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descended from heaven and a voice from heaven spoke:  “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

Some Christians believe that the use of water is merely a figurative reference to spiritual cleansing and is therefore not necessary.  They say that the Jesus’ reference to being “born again” refers to a moment in our life when we accept Him as our personal Lord and Savior.  But this phraseology does not appear in Scripture and directly contradicts Jesus’ own words that we must be born “of water and the Spirit.”  In addition, Scripture tells us that immediately after the dialogue with Nicodemus, His disciples spent time baptizing and John also, in Judea “where there was an abundance of water.”  So the Catholic teaching is that the use of water is required and that being “born again” does not refer to us, as adults “accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior” but rather to the rite (and sacrament) of baptism, ie., being born again “of water and the Spirit.”

Some Christians also object to so-called “infant baptism,” the conferring of the sacrament of Baptism on an infant.  The scriptural basis for infant baptism includes passages in which it is stated that “entire households” were baptized in the early life of the Church (Acts 15:16 and Acts 16:33).  So the Catholic Church, encourages baptism being performed as soon as possible after birth.  Then, later in life, after the person passes the “age of reason,” a second sacrament, confirmation, is conferred to freely allow the individual to profess his/her Christian faith at that point.

The photograph was chosen to depict one’s view of the “Valley of Tears” after receiving the newness of life in the sacrament of baptism.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Sola Fide vs Works of Mercy

Some Christians believe that in order to be saved, all one has to do is believe in Jesus.  They say that all our sins, past, present, and future, were all forgiven when Jesus died on the cross.  So if we believe in Jesus, we automatically go to heaven when we die.  This idea is called “sola fide.”  In other words, they say that our actions here on earth, including acts of compassion toward the poor and disadvantaged, ie., our “works,” do not help us get to heaven.  Christians who subscribe to this idea tend to cite a number of verses in St. Paul’s letters.  Okay, what did Jesus say?  Jesus’ words that seem to address this are found in the Gospel readings at Mass for the past two Sundays.  The first instance is the parable found in Matthew 25, the story of the “talents” given to a Master’s servants.  Two of the servants performed works with their talents while the third buried his in the ground.  When the Master returned after a journey (think Christ’s second coming), he was quite pleased with the first two and said “Come, share in your Master’s joy.”  But to the third, he said “Throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”  The second instance is where Jesus discusses the end times, also in Matthew 25.  To those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the ill, and visited the imprisoned he will say: “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared since the foundation of the world.”  But to those who did not do these things, he will say:  “Depart from me you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  It seems in both instances that those who were cursed did, in fact, believe in him but did not perform works of mercy
            One might ask what Scripture passages from St. Paul’s letters support the sola fide idea.  In the interest of brevity, I will cite one such verse, one that seems to appear in most of the debates I’ve seen.  It is from Ephesians 2:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.” To say that this supports sola fide indicates to me that “works” here has been taken out of context.  If one considers the entirety of St. Paul’s discussion (including other letters), we see that he is talking about works “of the law,” probably meaning circumcision and other requirements for Jews under the Mosaic Law, not compassionate works of mercy toward the poor and disadvantaged.  My conclusion is that Jesus’ death did indeed open the pearly gates for us, but we still have work to do.  The verse cited from St. Paul says that we obtain salvation by grace through faith.  Part of what we must do, then, involves the sacraments, which are rites instituted by Christ to give us this grace.  Look for more on the sacraments in this blog in the weeks ahead. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all my faithful readers.  The photograph is of a wild turkey taken at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge near Onawa, Iowa.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Big Bang and the Existence of God

Recently I re-read one of my favorite books, “Who Made the Moon?” by Sigmund Broewer.  That, after I finished reading “Ancient Physics, Ancient Faith” by Stephen Barr.  So the Big Bang theory of the beginning of the Universe has been on my mind.  Physicists have observed that the known universe is expanding, meaning that galaxies, star clusters, and everything else out there are rapidly moving away from each other, giving the impression that everything used to be, a very long time ago, really close together – so close together that all matter and energy of the universe formerly was contained in a very small and tight space.  This tight space exploded at one point, thus sending all the matter that exists outward at a very fast clip and is giving us the impression that the entire universe is expanding.  This explosion has come to be known as the “Big Bang” and is believed by many to be the beginning of time and the beginning of the universe.  Of course this theory has been a boon to belief in God, the thinking being that the occasion of the explosion was the occasion of God creating everything from nothing.  There are many details that we could consider here, including parallels to the creation account in the Book of Genesis in the Bible.   However, I would like to suggest the Kenkel Theory of Multiple Possibilities (ha, ha … a name that I came up with just today).  I like to think that the universe is infinite and that we happen to be existing in a corner of this universe where there was perhaps an explosion way back when.  However, like the explosion of a bomb, or a fireworks display, or the popping of a balloon, the explosion may have been much more limited in scope than what the Big Bang theory espouses.  It may be that we simply have not yet been able to observe any part of the universe that is not expanding, even though it exists.  A small corner of the universe may be expanding, but that does not mean that the entire universe is expanding.  You might ask why a person like myself who believes in God, and that God created all that is, would not want to subscribe to a theory that supports His existence.  My answer is that all this work by physicists and philosophers is pure speculation and that we cannot know for certain anything more than what we can observe directly.  It’s all part of the Kenkel Theory of Multiple Possibilities.  One can make observations, and propose theories to explain the observations, but all of that may change with new discoveries.  And new discoveries do come along and change our thinking.  I’m hoping for a few more of those during my lifetime, because they create new theories and new speculations.  It is simply fun and exciting.  And one more point … God exists all right.  I can sense His Providence and fingerprints all over this mind-blowing universe, including in my life here on Planet Earth.

The photo is of a fireworks display, a minor explosion in a remote corner of our universe.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Hearts, Sacred and Immaculate

For a very long time, the Catholic Church has had special devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  In fact, the first Friday of every month is set aside to honor the Sacred Heart of Jesus while the first Saturday of every month is set aside to honor the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  I know of Catholic churches and schools in Nebraska and elsewhere that are named Sacred Heart Catholic School and Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  And how many Catholic homes have a picture of Jesus with His Sacred Heart, and/or a picture of Mary with her immaculate heart, exposed for all to see?  So why is special attention given to the hearts, calling one “sacred” and the other “immaculate?”  As far as  Mary is concerned, she called herself "the Immaculate Conception" at Fatima and then requested the First Saturday devotion at that time while asking that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart.  She also had this to say:  "My Immaculate Heart will be your refuge and the way that will lead you to God."  The book “Catholicism for Dummies” explains it this way:  “The focus of the heart is merely a romantic and metaphorical way of describing the love of Jesus and the love of Mary.  It’s just like sending hearts to loved ones on Valentine’s Day even though you know that, biologically, the brain does the thinking and the heart merely does the pumping.  Even in the 21st century, you hear the words ‘heartache’ and winning someone’s ‘heart. ‘ ”   So it has to do with love, and I say why not have these devotions?  The thought of God’s extraordinary love permeating our own hearts, minds, and souls gives me great hope and joy.  And the thought of Mary, through her Immaculate Conception, interceding for us in heaven as an expression of her motherly love simply gives me goosebumps.  Today I pray that all of us will recognize the love of Jesus  and Mary for us and respond with prayer and thanksgiving, perhaps as an expression of our own love for God even if it can be but a small fraction of the love He has for us.      

The photograph is of the large statue of the Sacred Heart at the Trinity Heights Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Gross," or an Extraordinary Gift?

Recently, I had a back and forth with a Facebook friend who took issue with my belief in the Eucharist being the actual body and blood of Christ.  This person is a professed Evangelical Protestant and he described the whole concept of Christ’s followers literally feeding on the body and blood of Christ as simply “gross.”  I couldn’t help but think that those in the audience that Christ had when he first introduced the concept to his disciples in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, could have used this same word to describe what they were hearing.   They were probably thinking it, at least, as John tells of how they were “murmuring” (could they have been saying “Oh, man, this is really gross!”) and how “many of His followers returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him.” We know that one thing they did say was “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”  Jesus could have taken control of the situation.  He could have said “Hold on!  What I will actually do is consecrate bread and wine and turn them into my body and blood.  It will still look and taste like bread and wine, but it will actually be my body and blood.  So, you see, it won’t be as gross as you are thinking.”  But He didn’t do that.  He apparently wanted them to realize that he would indeed be giving them His body and blood to eat and drink.  He even said “for my flesh is real food and by blood real drink.”  So, He let them walk away.  He then queried his twelve apostles, wondering if they, too, wanted to leave.  Peter answered Him with another question:  “To whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to know and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God.”  They continued to follow Jesus believing that they would indeed feed on His flesh and blood one day and that this is what He wanted them to do.  It wasn’t until much later, at the Last Supper, that what Jesus had in mind for this would become clear and that the very first transubstantiation would take place.  How exciting it is to realize that over 2000 years later, I am among those who are saying to the Lord “We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God.”  What an extraordinary gift it is to be able to share in the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist at a Catholic Mass!
The photo is of the sanctuary of the chapel of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters in Lincoln, Nebraska, at a moment during the perpetual adoration of the body of Christ.