Archive | December, 2011

The First Marian Dogma

29 Dec

The first and foremost revealed truth about our Blessed Mother, from which all her other roles and honors flow, is that she is the Mother of God. Quite fittingly, we celebrate this beautiful mystery of our faith during the Christmas season, on January 1st, which this year falls on a Sunday. (And you just thought it was New Year’s!)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 509) summarizes the teaching as follows: “Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God himself.” The title “Mother of God” points to the sublime truth of the Incarnation, that Jesus Christ is true God and true man.

The Church’s teaching concerning Mary’s divine maternity is deeply rooted in Scripture and Tradition, and was dogmatically defined at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

For many Catholics, Mary’s “divine maternity”–in other words, her status as the “Mother of God”–is almost second nature. One of our oldest and most recited prayers, the Hail Mary, explicitly invokes “Holy Mary, Mother of God.” We typically call Mary our “Blessed Mother,” which points to our participation in the divine life as adopted children of God (cf. Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:4-7; Rev. 12:17). Yet we could not call her our Blessed Mother unless she was first and foremost His Blessed Mother.

Since the fifth century, Mary’s title as “Mother of God” has been firmly established, and is easily the least controversial of the Christian doctrines concerning Mary. This teaching is a good starting point for ecumenical discussion and, as will be shown below, preserves correct teaching concerning who Jesus Christ is.

Now that we celebrated Christ’s birth last Sunday, let’s take a closer look at His mother, from whom “the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14). Continue reading

End of the Innocents?

28 Dec

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the little boys who were massacred by Herod in an attempt to put the Christ Child to death. These “innocents” are now venerated as martyrs.

There is an obvious connection between the Holy Innocents and the victims of abortion, whose deaths are also made possible by political regimes that really want to kill God. After all, not only does Christ present Himself as an alternative to Caesar, but His Church is the definitive bastion of the natural law, objective truth, and moral goodness in the public square.

In other words, the Church is the leading voice against the “tyranny of relativism” imposed by modern-day Herods.

But there is another set of innocents. I’m thinking of today’s youth, whose psychosexual development has largely been left in the same hands as those who wanted them killed in the womb.  And so, in the name of “sex education,” today’s youth are robbed of their human dignity, their reproductive capacity, and ultimately the spark of the divine that makes them capable of receiving the gift of eternal life.

Against these odds, we have the Feast of the Holy Innocents to remind us that God’s mercy and goodness will triumph, though our witness requires courage and possibly martyrdom.

Do We Really “Become God”?

21 Dec

Perhaps one of the most provocative statements in the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church is found in no. 460, which says that Jesus “became man so that we might become God.” Really? Do Catholics really believe that we can become God?

It’s a great question–especially in this season as we celebrate the mystery of the birth of the Son of God. Let’s begin by looking at the context of the Catechism’s bold statement. In nos. 456-60, the Catechism is providing answers to the question, “Why did the Word become flesh?” He came to save us, to show forth His love for us, and to be our model of holiness.

But there is one other motive. In 2 Peter 1:4, we learn that Christ came to enable us to “become partakers of the divine nature.” As He saves us, He incorporates us into His family, of which He is the firstborn (Romans 8:29). We truly have become God’s children (e.g., 1 John 3:1), and one can’t truly be a child if one doesn’t share the same nature as the parent.

That doesn’t mean that we become God by nature. We have merely a human nature. Christ is God’s only-begotten son (which is why, incidentally, “only-begotten” was put back into the Gloria and Creed at Mass). Rather, by grace, we partake of the divine nature. We participate in the very life of God through adoption into His mystical body (see Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:4-7).

Being God’s children “by adoption” doesn’t cheapen the wonderful, undeserved gift we received at Baptism. Nor is our status as God’s children merely a legal fiction.

Rather, the term “adoption” reflects the fact that through grace we are able to participate in the very life of God. If we were “gods” in our own right, we wouldn’t need to be adopted. If God were distant and uninvolved with us, we would not truly be His children. The truth is that through Christ God is calling all of us to Himself.

And by the way, the quote from the Catechism is a direct quote from St. Athanasius (see above icon), a heroic fourth-century bishop and Father of the Church, known as the champion of orthodoxy. The Catechism didn’t make it up!

Christmas, Don’t Be Early

19 Dec

As a child I really liked the Chipmunks’ Christmas album, including the classic “Christmas Don’t Be Late.” What little kid isn’t eager for Christmas day to finally get here?

However, as Christmas has become more of a secular holiday than a religious celebration in the minds of many, some of the liturgical and theological nuance of the feast has become obscured. In particular, we don’t know exactly what to do with Advent anymore. Our society doesn’t fully appreciate the season as one of joyful anticipation, of vigilant expectation, of penance and spiritual renewal, of recalling Christ’s first and second coming. Heck, the Jews had to wait thousands of years for the first Christmas, but we can’t even wait four weeks!

Where I see this most acutely is in the way we celebrate with Christmas lights, parties, and carols throughout all of Advent, as though it were already the “Christmas season.” In fact, the pc way of greeting people this time of year is by saying “Season’s Greetings.” I’m all for lights, parties, and carols, but not if they take away from the actual celebration of Christmas. By the time Christmas finally rolls around, we’ve had our fill of all these things.

I pray that isn’t the case for us!

In reality, Christmas season only begins on Christmas!  That’s why we have songs like “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Like Easter, Christmas is too important of a feast to celebrate on one day, so it has its own octave (week-long celebration) and season. Yet, once we open our gifts on Christmas, we’re all partied out. We take our trees to the curb on the second day of Christmas, and then we begin the “pseudo-Second Advent” of preparing for New Year’s Day and bowl games.

Everyone celebrates Christmas differently, and that’s wonderful. But I invite all of us to see this present time of Advent as more of a time of preparation, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

And when Christmas finally arrives, let the celebration really begin–in our hearts, in our homes, and in our parishes and neighborhoods!

Prepare for a Merry Christmas

15 Dec

Ten days til Christmas. Are you ready? If you’re like me, you probably still have cookies to bake, presents to wrap (or buy), a menu to plan, a house to clean (or suitcases to pack)… and on and on. The parents I talk to these days are buried under their fa la la la lists. At the risk of adding one more thing to your list I am going to, well, suggest you add one more thing to your list. Don’t worry, this thing is free, and it just might be the most valuable thing you do to ensure a merry Christmas.

Often, after all the material and even spiritual preparations we do during Advent to make the season bright, we still end up having arguments, blow ups or melt downs when the big day comes. Since they tend to happen every year, we may be tempted to just accept them as “just how things are”, or we may become discouraged and upset by them every time, as if we didn’t see them coming. Instead of either of these responses, I’d like to suggest a third: foresight. Continue reading

Don’t Let the Grinches Steal This Christmas

14 Dec

I have to admit that my favorite Christmas movie, far and away, is It’s a Wonderful Life. However, I’d have to say that How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is in my top three. I’m not talking about the more recent Jim Carrey version, but the older, animated version that has been a Christmas-time favorite for decades.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is truly an endearing story—all the more so for me as my daughter Abigail Rose has always reminded my wife and me of little Cindy Lou Who.

But is the story real? In other words, are there really any Grinches in the world? Is there anyone so foolish as to want to destroy Christmas?

On one level, the Grinch is in each one of us, just as each of us shares in the burden of Frodo’s ring, to borrow from another classic, The Lord of the Rings. The sheer weight of human brokenness and sin impels us at times to perversely reject what is good. It all started in a garden, where our first parents rejected paradise.

For that reason, Christmas is for everybody. We all need good news. We all need divine grace to heal the “Grinch” in us, so that we may be filled anew with awe and wonder as we celebrate the birth of the Christ child.

In another sense, there are still Grinches around today, but they’ve largely changed their approach since the day the first Grinch graced the pages of children’s literature. We might recall that the original Grinch attacked Christmas by taking away all the external decorations and gifts from the Whos of Whoville. What the Grinch didn’t realize was that the spirit of Christmas would continue to live on in the hearts of the people.

Today’s Grinches don’t want to take away the externals, but rather to magnify them. They want to embellish the commercial aspect of the holiday. They may not explicitly deny the “spirit” or “true meaning” of Christmas, but they render it irrelevant amidst the shopping frenzy and the mantra “Season’s Greetings!”.

Rather than use the liturgical season of Advent to mark the time of preparation for Christmas, we’re now taught to diligently keep track of the number of shopping days until the blessed event. Instead of celebrating the season of Christmas between December 25th and the feast of the Epiphany (i.e., the visit of the Magi—January 8th this year), today’s Grinches see this time as one for returning gifts, flocking to after-Christmas sales, taking down Christmas decorations, and viewing approximately 35 bowl games (but who’s counting).

These Grinches, of course, are those who want to exploit Christmas, not celebrate it.

While the commercialization of Christmas in most instances is simply motivated by economic gain, there unfortunately have arisen pseudo-philosophies–like that reflected by the Ayn Rand Institute–that actually propose a Christmas without Christ. In other words, they’re offering us the shell without the pearl of great price. Continue reading

“Pink Candle” Sunday

9 Dec

This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. It is “rejoicing Sunday,” as “Gaudete” is the first word of the Entrance Antiphon, taken from Philippians 4:4-5: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.”

Gaudete Sunday, along with Laetare Sunday in Lent (as an aside, to avoid confusion, remember Laetare and Lent begin with L), are the two days in which rose-colored vestments may be worn. And that’s why on our Advent wreaths we light the rose (okay, pink) candle this Sunday.

But what is this day all about? Sure, we’re getting close to Christmas, but what really is the Church teaching us on Gaudete Sunday? Continue reading

Blue Advent

8 Dec

I admit it. Most days I pay precious little attention to what I wear. As long as it’s clean and presentable–and still fits–I’m satisfied.

Last night, however, I sought out my best blue dress shirt for this morning. After all, it’s a holy day, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and I thought it would be fitting to wear blue to Mass in honor of Our Lady.

All this brought to mind a discussion some time ago about the propriety of blue vestments for the sacred liturgy. In light of that discussion, I think a few points are worth revisiting. Continue reading

Season’s Grievings

7 Dec

My 3 month old son Peter died on the Feast of Christ the King, 2006. That year, it was the Sunday following Thanksgiving. As we buried him right before the start of Advent that year, many people commented to us on how the impending holidays must have compounded our grief. I won’t pretend that it was fun to pass by the “baby’s first Christmas” sleepers, or to see TV commercials where rosy-faced children are snuggling up to the hearth with homemade sugar cookies and cocoa. Our secular culture has labeled December “the most wonderful time of the year.” Needless to say, grieving the sudden death of a baby is in stark contrast to these images and can make grief seem a little fresher.

All that being said, that year I entered into Advent in a deeper and richer way than I think I ever had before. For four Sundays, we could leave the jingle bells of the outside world and enter into a sanctuary where all was quiet, and expectant, and still. Our souls were mirrored in the hauntingly beautiful liturgies. We heard Isaiah speak of the longing of God’s people to be brought back from the land of exile. We heard them pour out their sufferings and their fears. And God’s reply? I have not forgotten you. A day is coming when every tear will be wiped away, when “no longer will there be an infant who lives but a few days” (Isaiah 65:19-20).

Advent is a time of waiting, a time of penance, which I think is uniquely suited for those who suffer. Continue reading

The Real St. Nick

6 Dec

As we prepare for the sublime feast of the Nativity of Our Lord during these weeks of Advent, we can’t help but notice the trappings of our secular culture that continually impose themselves on the “holiday season.” Meanwhile, more overtly religious expressions, such as créches or Nativity scenes (or should we call them “holiday scenes”?), are systematically excluded from the public square.

As the father of six and a grandfather of one, the 800-pound gorilla in my living room–or, should I say, the jolly 300-pound man in the chimney–is Santa Claus. Through the years, how have I explained this peculiar man in the red suit to Brenda, Mary Kate, Virginia, Abigail, Samuel, Raymond, and Alex, not to mention my godchildren, nephews, and nieces? Why does he always show up this time of year?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. His real name is St. Nicholas, and the universal Church celebrates his feast today. He was a fourth-century priest, abbot, and eventually Bishop of Myra, Lycia (modern Turkey). There is no doubt that he existed, and that he was universally recognized as a holy and generous Church leader who suffered for the faith.

Two episodes from St. Nicholas’ life form the basis of the folklore concerning Santa Claus. Continue reading