Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Great, Great Saint

Today I’m thinking about St. John the Apostle/Evangelist, my personal patron saint.  December 27 is traditionally the feast of St. John in the Catholic Church.  This year this feast fell on a Sunday (the Sunday within the octave of Christmas) and it was overshadowed by the fact that it also was the Feast of the Holy Family. 

St. John was one of the twelve apostles but he was one of just three apostles that was apparently in Jesus’ “inner circle.”  He, along with St. Peter and St. James (St. John’s brother … sons of Zebedee), seemed to have special privileges from Jesus.  Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the high mountain when he “was transfigured before them.”  (Mat 17:1-8).  These same three apostles were selected to accompany Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to witness the Agony in the Garden, though they fell asleep (because, though “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”).  (Mat 26:1-46). 

Later, John became Mary’s caretaker at Jesus’ request (when while hanging on the cross, Jesus “said to the disciple, ‘behold your mother.’  And from that hour the disciple to her into his home.” (John 19: 26-27)).  In addition, John was the author of the fourth Gospel, three New Testament letters, and the Book of Revelation.  I am especially struck by three accounts in John’s Gospel that are unique to him and by the general theme of his first letter. 

These three accounts in his Gospel are 1) the Prologue (John 1: 1-18), 2) the Bread of Life Discourse (John 6: 22-71) , and 3) the Last Supper Discourses. (John, Chapters 14-17).  In the Prologue, Jesus refers to Himself as both the Word and the Light.  It is beautiful poetry that seems to refer back to the creation account in the Book of Genesis.  The reader is left to contemplate.  In the Bread of Life Discourse, the Holy Eucharist is prefigured and many, including myself, take the dialogue there as proof that the Eucharist really is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus.  In the Last Supper Discourses, Jesus goes on and on teaching his truth about, among many other things, unity, love, and His relationship to the Father.

But as good as all of that is, the best may perhaps be found in his first letter, 1 John, where the emphasis is on love.   I especially would recommend 1 John 4: 7-21.  You know, there isn’t enough space here to write out all the verses referenced in this post, so please pick up your Bible (or go purchase a Bible) and take a look.  I think that you will agree that this St. John, my personal patron saint, was a great, great saint.  Amen.

Saint John was, of course, present at the Last Supper.  The photo here is of the last supper sculpture at the Trinity Heights Center in Sioux City, Iowa. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The First Christmas Eve

Those of you who read MTT regularly know that I often think about the gaps in the gospel stories and how I like to fill them in with made-up fictional tales.  So, today, Christmas Eve, I’m thinking about what might have happened the day before Jesus was born … the first Christmas Eve.

Joseph and Mary were nearing the end of their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  They expected to make it to their destination at about nightfall.  So here they were, on the road with just a few miles to go, meeting up with other travelers, perhaps others from the family of David who were also rushing to Bethlehem for the census.  No doubt they were friends, at least acquaintances, of many these other people.  I can imagine that they marveled at the fact that Mary, nine months pregnant, had traveled for days on the back of the family donkey while being jostled and perhaps bruised with every donkey step. 

But, knowing Mary, they also knew her personality … humble, patient, kind (to Joseph), and eager, while at the same time being anxious, worried, frightened and … calm.  Calm?  Yes.  She knew that it would all work out.  She knew about the baby she was carrying.  She knew that He was the Savior of all mankind, the lamb of God and that the sinful course of all humanity was about to change because of Him.  Of course we know what happened upon their arrival … a frantic search for accommodations, no room in the inn, and having to settle for a stable with the warmth of livestock to provide a comfortable temperature.  

This scene has, of course, been fully captured by designers of cribs and manger scenes ever since that day.  This morning I awoke to one such sight in my front yard (minus the livestock) as the heavy snow was falling. I ran back into my house to grab my camera and, wouldn’t you know it, was late for the 7 AM Mass at the cloistered Sisters convent.  But at least I got a nice picture, complete with the reflections of my camera flash off the snowflakes between me and the holy family and a halo for the Christ Child.  Merry Christmas everyone and may the love of God touch your hearts in a special way today and always!  Amen.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Honoring Mary in December

In the Catholic Church, it is widely known that May is the month of Mary, the Blessed Mother.  All the flowers that April showers bring are picked and brought to statues and shrines of Mary.  Beautiful crowns are created by school children and May crownings are carried out worldwide.  That is all well and good, but I ask, “What about December?”  From the end of November to the first of January, there are five major feast days or holy days that either directly or indirectly honor the Blessed Mother.  Today, I am thinking about these amazing days.

The first comes on November 28, the feast day of St. Catherine Laboure.  St. Catherine was a young nun in France in 1830 when she received three apparitions of the Blessed Mother.  In these apparitions, Mary asked Catherine to make known her (Mary’s) wish that a medal be struck.  The medal was to be Mary’s design and have the following prayer inscribed on it:  “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”  People who would wear this medal (now called the Miraculous Medal) around their necks were promised to receive great graces.  I wear this medal around my neck every day and say the prayer every morning as I put it on.  Catherine’s body was exhumed fifty years later as was found to be incorrupt.  Note that the prayer includes the phrase “ … conceived without sin … .”

The second is the holy day, the Immaculate Conception, on December 8.  Catholics are obliged, under pain of serious sin, to attend Mass on this day.  It celebrates the fact that Mary was conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, without original sin, hence the reference “Immaculate Conception.”  Protestants oppose honoring Mary in this way, saying that the idea of Mary conceived immaculately is unbiblical.  Catholics agree that it is not in the Bible, but honor her for this nonetheless because it is found in Sacred Tradition.  Besides this, Mary herself made reference to her Immaculate Conception in two of her apparitions.  One was to St. Catherine Laboure (see above) and the other was to St. Bernadette at Lourdes when she said “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

The third is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12.  This feast celebrates the apparition of Mary to St. Juan Diego near Mexico City in 1531.  During this apparition, Mary left us an image of herself on St. Juan Diego’s tilma.  His tilma is still on display near Mexico City in the chapel that Mary asked to be built and has shown no sign of deterioration after nearly five centuries.

The fourth is Christmas Day, December 25.  This, of course, is the day we celebrate Mary giving birth to the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, as told in the Gospel of St. Luke.  To give birth to the Savior of mankind is the highest honor that has ever been given to a human being.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

Finally, on January 1, we honor Mary for all that she is and all she represents.  It is the day we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.  Protestants do not like to call her the Mother of God, but that is a beautiful title given her by the Catholic Church.  For all that we know about the Blessed Mother, even if you want to limit her to just the biblical accounts, it is mystifying to me that some people do not want to honor her.  These people say that they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  I say I have a personal relationship with both Jesus and his mother and I’m lovin’ it.

In the Photograph, a man and his daughter sit in front of the giant statue of the Blessed Mother on the grounds of the Trinity Heights Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Filled With Expectation

Today, I’m thinking about the following passage in Scripture:  “Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John (the Baptist) might be the Messiah.”  (Luke 3:15).  My question is, after all these centuries of waiting for the Messiah, why were the people now suddenly filled with such expectation?  It seems to me that they would be going about their business as usual, yes, but with the same expectation as their ancestors, until now when they heard the preaching of this stranger.  The stranger was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist while feeding on locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6).  Who would listen to such a man preaching repentance at this time, unless there was more to the story?  Well, there may just have been more to the story.

Flash back for a moment to the night Jesus was born (just thirty years earlier).  A group of Jewish shepherds experience a vision of an angel who give them a message saying that the Messiah had been born that night in Bethlehem.  The vision includes a multitude of heavenly host praising God (Luke 1:8-13).  Like anyone who might experience such a vision, they were afraid, but then curious.  They went to see if they could find this newborn.  They found Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in the cave, Jesus lying in the manger.  Luke then says, “When they saw this they made known the message that had been told them about this child (by the angel).  All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.”  (Luke 2:17-18).  It would seem that yes, thirty years later, “all who heard it,” quite possibly the entire Jewish population, would have had high expectations.

Along the way, their expectations may have blossomed further what with Herod’s massacre of the Holy Innocents.  (Matt 2:16).  Certainly, it would seem that their expectation would have blossomed even further with the story of Simeon and Anna at the presentation in the temple.  We are told that Anna “… gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem,” which quite possibly again was the entire Jewish population of Israel.  (Luke 2:38).  And then there was the story of the finding of twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple after He missed the departure time of Joseph, Mary, and the others, for their journey back to Nazareth from Jerusalem after the feast of the Passover.  (Luke 2:41-52).  Luke says that “they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers” and that “all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.”  At least these teachers would have experienced some sense of expectation.

Now consider again the attention John the Baptist was getting, despite being dressed camel’s hair and feeding on locusts and wild honey.  With expectations running rampant by this time, it seems to me that this was not really an odd phenomenon.  John said the right things and, for a time, they thought John was the Messiah, until the moment when he baptized Jesus.  Luke says, “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”  (Luke 3:21-22).  Wow!  It would be an understatement to say that the expectations were satisfied!

Lord, be at our side this Advent season so that our hearts may be filled with expectation for what is to come.  Amen.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Building on Solid Rock

The Gospel from today’s Mass (Matthew 7, 21-27) got me thinking again about the false teaching that says that we are justified by faith alone.  Specifically, I’m thinking of the passage “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  Those that call upon the Lord obviously have faith and, by the “faith alone” doctrine, should be saved.  But Jesus says that this is not enough, saying that such believers must also do the will of the Father.  To me, this implies faith and action, not just faith alone.  The same message also come through loud and clear later in this same Gospel, when Jesus says “And everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise man who built his house on solid rock. ...  And everyone who listens to these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a fool who builds his house on sand.”  Apparently it is foolish to simply believe and not to also act.  This idea if further supported by quotes from Jesus in Luke, Chapter 6, verses 46-49.

I’ve read that the faith alone doctrine originated with Martin Luther.  I’ve read that Luther actually added his own idea (on justification) to Scripture by adding the word “alone” after the word “faith” in various Scripture passages.  So the inspired word of God was changed in this way.  He apparently thought that the Catholic Church made salvation too difficult for people and thought that justification should just be accomplished by simply believing and not by acting on this belief.  Many people then followed Luther right out of the Catholic Church because it made things easier for them.  How sad!  My thought is this:  Should not something as important as salvation require more than just believing?  Should we not prove our faith by proper behavior?  Should we not be free from sin to achieve salvation?  Should we not also be purged of our offenses against God before we can enter paradise where we see God face-to-face?  Makes perfect sense to me.

My prayer for today:  Lord, please strengthen our faith so that we live our lives not just by simple belief but also by acting on this belief, by avoiding sin, by asking your forgiveness from the sins that, in our weakness, we do commit and thus by building our faith lives on solid rock rather than shifting sands.  Amen.