Friday, December 30, 2011

Was Jesus born on December 25?

One of the questions that comes up, especially at this time of year, is whether there's much, if any, connection between December 25, and the actual birthday of our Lord.

And one will very often see or hear someone say something like, "of course Jesus wasn't born on December 25," as if this has been settled.

Not so.

Yes, scholars have questioned whether December 25 is the correct day. Yes, we don't know for absolute certainty that December 25 is the right day; and the Church has never thought it appropriate to make such a statement. And she is wise not to, until such time as it really is proven clearly--because our Faith is that he was born, not just what day it happened.

But, all that is not the same as saying December 25 has nothing going for it. Moreover, admitting room for doubt doesn't validate all the arguments made against December 25--many of which are made in pursuit of an agenda by those who wish to sow doubt.

True, it's not a critical question, there is the problem that, for many people, doubt about the validity of something like this tends to spread, and sow doubt more broadly about what we believe, and the basis for what we believe.

So I think it's worth exploring--not because I aim to settle the matter; but because I think folks who adhere to Christian tradition, and give it credibility, need not be defensive or embarrassed about doing so. Even if the things we believe as a matter of tradition can't always be proven definitively, the more we look at them, the more reason we have to feel confident about their validity. I think you'll see that's the case here.

OK, let's get down to it: what are some reasons to accept the validity of December 25?

For me, the first question to ask is, where did the idea of December 25, as our Lord's birthday, come from? It surely wasn't arbitrary: some bishop didn't pull numbers out of hat.

One claim frequently made is that it was chosen to counteract a pagan celebration; either Saturnalia, which was celebrated in mid-December, or else to counteract a pagan festival called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or, the Feast of the Birth of the Unconquerable Sun.

We meet this argument throughout the year: the Feast of the Presentation on February 2 is really about a pagan day then; Easter, May Day, Hallowe'en, etc., are all about "baptizing" pre-existing pagan celebrations.

Well, it's one thing to say that Christians looked for ways to make connections, and build bridges between the experiences and beliefs of the pagans they were evangelizing, and another to say Christians simply took paganism and gave it a fresh coat of paint, so to speak. The fact is, as Christians encountered many cultures and customs through the early centuries, there was no avoiding some coincidence between the events celebrated in our Lord's life, and local observances. So noticing coincidences is no more meaningful than discovering who else was born the same day as you.

On the other hand, that's not to say that pagan customs had no influence. They certainly did; it's hard to imagine it being otherwise. So, for example, the Roman feast of Saturnalia fell on December 17, and at some point was expanded for several days, until December 23; and it involved candles and gift giving. So if pagan Romans, upon becoming Christians, continued giving gifts, what's wrong with that? But again, that doesn't prove that's why the Lord's birth was celebrated in December; because again, there were lots of other celebrations all year long they could have linked it to--if that was the motive. There's almost nothing to show that the date was picked for that reason.

The coincidence of the Sol Invicti celebration is more notable--it's the same day, and it has some surface similarities--references to light and the sun.

Well, it could be; however, that's a thin connection. Moreover, there is the fact that Sol Invicti wasn't a longstanding Roman celebration; it was relatively unknown until the 200s, when the Emperor Elagabalus (AD 218-222) instituted it But his worship of the sun god was something imported from Syria--it wasn't popular, and when he assassinated, his new feast was abolished(1)

Fast-forward to AD 274, when the Emperor Aurelian instituted the feast day; and this time, the practice took hold. But by 274, Christians had already been celebrating December 25 as the Lord's birthday for some time, although not universally. The feast of the Lord's nativity, like so many other feasts of our faith, was not imposed from above, as it were--by the pope or the bishops--but from "below"--it started as a local observance and spread(2).

We have a few written references to Christians celebrating the Lord's birth on December 25; one by St. Hippolytus, around AD 204; then we have other writings, from North Africa and Judea, that while not directly mentioning December 25, nonetheless support the date. Now this will take a bit of explaining, so stick with me here.

There was a Jewish concept at that time of "integral age"--i.e., the belief that great men or prophets would be conceived the same day they died. And it is in that context that some early Christians would tend to emphasize that our Lord died on March 25--implying they also believe he was conceived that day.(3)

In any case, all this does is show at least some basis for December 25 being chosen, other than reacting to a pagan celebration. Indeed, it could easily be the opposite: the pagan celebration was played up, in response to the growing Christian movement--which we do know was strongly disapproved of by various emperors, who--after all--repeatedly tried to suppress it.

OK, there's one argument. Not overwhelming. But there are other points to consider.

Remember, the Lord's birth didn't involve just one event on one day; it involved several events on several days, including events involving other people. Remember, the Scriptures tell us about Jesus' birth, in relation to that of John the Baptist; and then the Scriptures tell us about Jesus being circumcised 8 days after his birth; and then presented in the temple 40 days after.

The connection to John the Baptist is interesting, because it raises the question of when Zachariah, his father, as a priest of the temple, may have had his time of service before the Lord. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Zachariah "was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God" (1:8) -- there was a rotation of 24 groups who each took two weeks a year; according to this article by Darrell Pursiful, there were three weeks a year when everyone showed up--and that sounds plausible enough. In any case, this rotation would mean Zachariah would have had two weeks, approximately six months apart.

As Dr. Pursiful explains in the article linked above--and I've seen this argument elsewhere, but I can't put my hands on a reference just now--there would be several weeks when Zachariah might have been on duty; and one of them would, indeed, line up with John being conceived in September, and then born in June--six months before our Lord.

Not definitive, but supportive, is the best one can say.

Before I close this out, let me offer a different argument: from memory.

You and I are a long way from these events; we don't experience them as a personal or communal memory. But in the early Church, that's just how the events of our Lord's life would have been experienced. In the first two Christian centuries, the memory of when things happened would have been vivid; we know that the community of believers went to great effort to sustain those memories. The letters of the apostles were not only carefully preserved, they were quickly copied and circulated widely. The Gospels were written not long after the events they describe; and they, too, were both treasured and copied. And these writings didn't happen in a void; they interacted with the faith and memory of the people--both those who experienced these events first-hand, in Galilee and Judea, and then those who heard these things from them, and then, in turn, passed them along.

There is no speculation here; we know that the memory and passing on of these things was tremendously important to early Christians. Outside of the New Testament, we have a lot of textual evidence of all that people did to hold onto the memories of what Mary, Joseph, and the Apostles did, in addition, of course, to what our Lord said and did.

And there would be a lot of memory to preserve, surrounding the key events of our Lord's life: the events with Zachariah and Elizabeth, the annunciation to Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, the Lord's birth, circumcision, presentation in the temple, the flight to Egypt, the visit again to the temple when he was 12, and of course the events when he was an adult and began his public ministry, leading to his suffering, death and resurrection.

So what became of these memories, so devotedly cultivated and passed down? I submit they are with us still, in the liturgical cycle we observe. We don't just observe Christmas in isolation: it lines up with dates for the Annunciation (March 25), John's birthday (June 24), the Circumcision (January 1) and the Presentation (February 2). And, as noted, at one time the date of the crucifixion was aligned with the date of presumed conception; and notice, every few years, it still happens that Good Friday falls on March 25.

There are those who suppose that the early Christians, whether in choosing dates for observances, or else in tracking down relics such as the True Cross, were relatively easily satisfied; so, for example, I've heard people argue that when St. Helena got to the Holy Land and found a cross, she was fairly credulous about it. But that makes no sense to me. St. Helena's journey would have been a very difficult undertaking; why, with so much sacrifice and effort, not to mention cost, would she then accept whatever someone offered her as the True Cross? It makes far more sense to me that such a formidable woman would have--after all she invested in this effort--not be easily satisfied. Do you really suppose she never met a sharpie or a con man in her life until she showed up in Jerusalem?

Until some evidence comes forward, we can't establish the matter for certain, but my feeling is that the burden of proof doesn't lie with those who celebrate December 25 as the Lord's birthday, but with those who dispute it. Just because we don't have much information now about why that date was chosen, doesn't mean they didn't have it, then; so much of what they knew, even what was once written down and widely known, is simply lost to us now. Some presumption is fair to give to those who first established this feast day, on December 25, that they had good reasons for doing so. Since the evidence we do have is supportive, even if not conclusive, I don't know why that isn't good enough?

(1), (2) Carl J. Sommer, "The Festival of Lights: Hannukkah, Christmas and the early Church," in the December 2011 edition of Homiletic and Pastoral Review,.

(3) Ibid; referring to William Tighe, "Calculating Christmas," p.1.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The 'operatic farce' of the NCR

For some time, I have regularly read the National Catholic Reporter online.

I wish I could recommend the publication, but unfortunately, every word in its name is false: it isn't "national"--the publication represents only a narrow slice of Catholics; it doesn't simply "report," it has an agenda, which is fine, except it's particularly heavy-handed in its approach to it.

And, very sad to say, it isn't "Catholic." To be "Catholic" is to be embrace the whole. (The word catholic comes from two Greek words, kata and holos, meaning "pertaining to the whole. You can even see the connection between holos and the words "whole" and "holistic.")

Sadly, the National Catholic Reporter does not embrace the whole of the Catholic Faith. Its writers and editors routinely and aggressively dissent from many elements of the Faith, including:

* The essential quality of human sexuality being inseparably procreative and unifying, and thus being essentially heterosexual.

The NCR crowd (meaning its guiding lights, its editors and writers, and the audience it cultivates) rejects this, embracing as moral contraception, homosexual acts and so-called same-sex marriage.

* The essential quality of the sacrament of holy orders being conferred only on men.

This has always been the practice of the Church, it is the universal practice of all Churches who preserve valid orders--i.,e., not only the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, but also all the non-Latin branches of the Church which are in communion with Rome (such as the Byzantine and Maronite Churches, and other "Eastern" rites of the Church), and also the many Orthodox Churches and the so-called ancient "Churches of the East"--which divided from both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches over disputes in the 300s-400s, yet preserve valid sacraments, including holy orders.

This was formally and infallibly defined by Pope John Paul II in 1994, and thus is irreformable.

* The necessity of a priest to offer the Mass.

The NCR frequently gives space to the false claim that the Mass can be celebrated validly in the absence of a priest.

* The basic structure and history of the Church's creation and structure: i.e., that Christ founded the Church on the apostles, and the Church is, by his design and intention, governed by the successors of the apostles, led by Peter's successor, the pope.

The NCR eagerly provides a forum for the most contemptuous, vicious attacks on the bishops and the pope of any so-called "Catholic" site I've ever seen. And while I cannot exactly identify the governing structure the NCR folks have in mind for the Church, they never miss a chance to take a rhetorical wrecking-ball to the structure that we have, which, yes, has changed and evolved over the millenia--yet is still firmly rooted in what our Lord said and did in collaboration with his chosen apostles.

The bottom line of the NCR's position is to deny the historicity of the Church's self-knowledge (via Scripture and Tradition) of how Christ founded the Church. Thus, to the NCR's mind, it's all up for grabs.

Beyond these most serious cases of the NCR being deliberately not-Catholic, is its increasingly bizarre reaction to the newly implemented translation of the Roman Missal.

While I have been generally in favor of it, I recognize many folks weren't and I don't fault anyone who didn't like the idea, and doesn't like the result. And whatever my personal feelings, or anyone else's, my judgment was, this is coming, I do no one any favors by moaning and groaning about it, emphasizing the negative.

The truth is, the new Missal is hardest on priests; the changes that folks in the pews have had to learn involve prayers that can--and have been--printed on both sides of a book-sized card. I just took a look at one of those cards; the actual changed words (printed in bold) add up to about 100 words.

Meanwhile, the words the priest prays have changed throughout.

Now, some priests have complained--loudly. I have not. I'm not going to complain. If you ask me if I like, or would have made, each and every change that was made, the answer is no. Had the pope called me for advice, I'd have suggested some different things. But he never called! I'm not bitter about that; I don't expect the pope to seek my advice on such things; nor do I expect that any such work of translation will get it exactly right.

But I'll be danged if I'm going to complain about it, no matter what; because in the great scheme of things, this is hardly any great suffering for me. I can appreciate that other priests are finding it more difficult, but speaking as a priest, all of us chose to embrace follow the Lord, taking up his cross. We all know that being a priest involves trials and difficulties, of which this is relatively benign.

And if I'm going to complain, I'm not going to complain to the faithful. What good would that do anyone? How would that add to your sanctification, or mine?

OK, so the NCR didn't like this translation, and has, along the way, objected to both the process and the result. They have every right to voice their views, and at some point in the process, they might reasonably have hoped to have some influence. For all I know, they may have had some influence on the process.

But at a particular point--many, many months ago--the translation was finalized and adopted--and the next stop was publishing Missals and helps, and proceeding with introducing the new translation into widespread use. And that came to fruition a few weeks ago.

Most folks, who advocate for a point of view, and don't prevail, would move on. We all have a vote, and we all see the candidates we believe in, lose. We don't like it; we believed the candidate we voted for would have done better, and we can all see, as things unfold, whether we were right. But we move on.

The past few weeks, the NCR has made clear it's not moving on. First an article from Father Richard McBrien, now an article by NCR editor Tom Roberts, continuing a rear-guard action against the Missal.

The complaints are, to be candid, ridiculous.

Really, Mr. Roberts, you're going to take your stand on how awful, terrible it is to say "and with your spirit"? You seriously consider "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof"? a terrible imposition on you? When Catholics are having their churches bombed in Nigeria, they don't dare have Midnight Mass in Iraq, and in many places, they wonder if their family will be the last Catholic to leave the land of their birth?

Yes, of course it's take effort to learn something new; and we all feel a little silly when we get it wrong. If we want to make a big deal out of it, that's our choice. But we also can all have some patience and humor about it and know, before long, it'll all be behind us and then we'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

What I found interesting is the silence, so far, from the NCR on a particular point.

As the NCR "reported" on the new Missal, during the past year, a frequent claim was that Christmas, especially, would be a train-wreck--because even with all the careful explanations and preparation, churches would be filled with folks who only attend Mass occasionally, and they wouldn't be up-to-speed, resulting in (pardon the pun) Mass confusion.

Well, the retired priest who lives with me--and who wasn't enthusiastic about any of this, but also didn't engage in a dramatic temper-tantrum about it--took a much more even strain. He said--about not only Christmas but the whole build up to the new translation: this won't be that big a deal. The responses the people give aren't changing that much. He predicted no train-wreck on Christmas.

Well, at least here in Piqua, he was 100% right.

No doubt there were folks who were puzzled, but what I heard at a crowded 6 pm Mass, as well as at the well attended midnight and 9 am Masses was strong use of the new responses. No doubt some folks remained silent because of uncertainty, but I'm not sure they'd have done any differently without a new translation. At weddings, when many of the same, occasional Mass-attenders are present, they similarly don't give the responses--and this was true before any changes were in the offing.

So if Mr. Roberts and his folks have had different experiences at Mass, I am wondering if their pastors took the approach I did--focusing on the positive and trying to keep folks together--or did their pastors reflect the negativity of the NCR? I'll never know, but: I think had I chosen to get up, week after week, and complain bitterly about this, sighing and rolling my eyes over the new translation, we might have a very different experience here of the new translation. If Mr. Roberts and any of his readers are experiencing negativity around them in the pews, I wonder how much of it is the fruit of the attitude he, himself, adopted, and which the NCR fostered as much as it could, among priests and laity.

One of the truly rich claims of the NCR crowd is that the new translation represents an attack on Vatican II.

This is utterly ridiculous. It is, not to put too fine a point on it: false.

The key facts the NCR and those who take its view are obscuring is this: the "problems" they identify are not with the translation, but with the prayers of the Mass itself, as revised after--and, putatively, in accord with--the Second Vatican Council. To put it bluntly, their problem is with the prayers of the Vatican II Mass. They don't like what Pope Paul VI and those who assisted him, came up with after the Council.

The NCR and others of like mind rely on a fuzzy recollection of Vatican II and the resulting "new Mass." Here's the sequence:

* The bishops at Vatican II issued a document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in which a number of issues related to the liturgy were raised; and calling for some revision of the Church's liturgy. The Council did not get into a lot of specifics about this or that change; and the surprising truth is, many changes associated with Vatican II were never mentioned at the Council--nor, for that matter, were they ever mandated following the Council.

* Rather quickly, Pope Paul VI--who presided over the latter portion of the Council, after the death of Blessed Pope John XXIII--appointed a team of experts usually called "the concilium." This was a group of bishops, priests and others who, presumably, had the expertise to put into concrete detail what the Council called for. There was, and remains, controversy over what they did, whether it went too far, or not far enough, in relation to the Council's directives; but in any case, they produced what we can call the "new" Mass: the revised order of Mass that is still in use to this day.

* That Missal, in Latin, has changed only slightly since 1970 when it was issued. Simply put, the Missal sitting on altars across the U.S. is the Mass of Vatican II.

* It was translated rather quickly; in fact, there was a period, between the Council and the adoption of the new Missal, in which the Mass changed several times, and there were provisional translations used at that time. But it was understood that further work of translating would follow. To some degree, that's a necessary consequence of using the vernacular; the Latin doesn't need to change precisely because its not a language in active use, and thus subject to evolution or drift in understood meanings.

* The English translation adopted in 1970 is the one that was just recently set aside, after a lengthy process of adopting a new translation. The new translation, for good or ill, took a different approach, from a "freer" style to a more direct style of translating. This is where the NCR and others focus their criticism--they consider the more direct method of translating--which arose from directives from Blessed Pope John Paul II--to be wrong.

OK, they can raise those objections. No one would claim the pope's directives about translating the the liturgy to be infallible or irreformable. A future pope may take a different approach. And, as far as I know, the NCR and likeminded folks raised their objections at the time.

However; the pope was not--in the NCR's appealing terminology--being a dictator or out of bounds in giving the direction he gave. To put it simply: that's the pope's job! His letter, Liturgiam authenticam, makes his case for his directives. You can disagree; you can wish he did differently. But it strikes me as bizarre, and ultimately very damaging, to seek--as the NCR does--at every turn to undermine the pope in carrying out his responsibilities.

Now, the idea has gotten currency that choices in translating fall into neat categories: either "free" or "strict" translation. Rather, it's a continuum between these poles; you can't really go all the way to one extreme or the other, but you can be more one way, or the other. The new translation is more toward the "strict" pole, but it isn't "slavish" about it. Every translator must make choices and compromises--that's just how it works.

Also, the NCR and many of like mind, conveys the idea that Latin is so foreign, so different, that translation is guesswork, that terms in English just don't line up with what the Latin says.

This is simply wrong. Latin is a very precise language, for one; and second, English contains a vast quantity of Latin. They have so much in common, it's not that great a leap to move from Latin to English. Not being familiar with Chinese, or Hindi, or the native languages of pre-Columbian America, or of Africa, I could readily believe that translating from Latin into those languages might indeed occasion serious leaps and approximations. But this argument falls completely flat with Latin in relation to English.

* Be that as it may, the real substance of the complaints voiced by the NCR and others in agreement with its stance isn't about the inevitable zigs or zags of the translators' choices, but what the underlying prayers themselves say. Some examples:

(1) "And with your spirit"
(2) "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault"
(3) "I believe"
(4) "visible and invisible"
(5) "consubstantial"
(6) "for you and for many"
(7) "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof" etc.

Well, here's your problem, NCR: what you object to isn't original with the new, English translation, but is part-and-parcel of the Latin prayers being translated; the Latin prayers revised and adopted, after the Council. What you don't like is the substance of the prayers...themselves.

Let's grant the point the NCR makes about each of these: that in one way or the other, the ideas expressed in these parts of the prayers are inferior; misleading or somehow fail to convey what we believe. That they should be changed. I actually think this position is wrong--but let's give the NCR the full benefit of the doubt, and say each and every critique on this subject is 100% correct.

So what to do about that?

The answer is, the problem is not in the "translation" at all, but in the original prayers being translated. Therefore, fixing these problems is not the task of the translator at all, but the pope and the bishops.

The funny thing is, NCR and its crowd complains that all these represent a serious attack on Vatican II. Funny, because neither the Council itself made any such claims--none of these passages in the prayers were singled out by the Council for revision--nor did the experts, chosen by Paul VI, see any conflict between "And with your spirit" or "for you and for many" with the Council.

They recommended and implemented pretty dramatic changes in the Mass--yet these items they did not change.

So the NCR's solution is to have translators deliberately obscure the meaning of the underlying Latin prayers; to misrepresent, to you and everyone, what those prayers say. Their approach is to promote the idea that Latin, being an old, dead language, is so very hard to translate, and really, who can say what "et cum spiritu tuo" and "pro multis" or "sub tectum meam" really mean anyway?

If NCR wants to be honest about it, they won't focus on the translation--because the translation's purpose is to convey, accurately, what the prayers say. The problems they cite with the new translation as being so terrible are issues not of wording or syntax, but of substance: they don't like what the prayers actually say.

Well, fine--then take it up with the bishops, and ask them to fix the prayers, in the Latin original. Change "pro multis" to "pro omnes" the Latin; change "et cum spiritu tuo" to "et tecum," etc.

Most folks have, or will, move on. The new translation presents many opportunities for new understanding of the prayers of the Mass and of our Faith. How helpful it might have been for the NCR to focus on what's positive. But the editors and writers at the NCR just can't seem to do that. Instead it's approach is bitter and, frankly, reactionary.

In a comment I posted at NCR earlier, I referred to this continuing rear-guard action as an "operatic farce." Because it's so over the top, and both comic and tragic. One part of me finds it laughable; yet the damage is real, and there's nothing funny about that.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Humanism of Norman Rockwell

Today I stopped down to the Dayton Art Institute to see the Norman Rockwell exhibit, which goes to February I think. It cost $16, for which I imagine I could have browsed the rest of the museum; but I was ready to go once I'd been through the special exhibit.

I heard about this via the principal of Piqua Catholic; our kids were scheduled to go, and I was going to join them. But as often happens, I got busy and forgot. Had I gone, I'd have liked to help the kids see the humanism of Rockwell--his reverence for the human being and all we experience. There is something very Catholic about this Yankee Protestant artist whose artwork didn't betray much explicit religiosity.

Rockwell was--and I think still is--scorned and diminished as a mere illustrator; he spent his life creating artwork that appeared in magazines and advertisements. His famous covers for the Saturday Evening Post were constrained by the wishes of his employer. They tended to be sedate and whimsical, seldom edgy, and even then, only several decades along. They were overwhelmingly white, Waspish and middle-class--to some degree, at least, expressing the culture of the magazine.

Is this why he is dismissed? If so, I might point out how many great artists created their masterpieces for pay.

Is it that his work is not terribly original? Or that he lacked technical proficiency? I can't believe the latter. I am no art critic, but I find many things in his work to admire: his use of color, light and shade; his ability to convey so much emotion--and to tell a story. As the plaques the Dayton Art Institute placed near his works pointed out, his works seem simple, until you look more closely.

Its hard to recall everything, but there was one--which the accompanying sign said was unpublished--entitled (if I recall correctly) "War News." Four men in a diner. The cook/proprietor nearest us, his face turned away from the radio, but not toward us--he is glancing perhaps to the grill, or the door, or the cash register, or another customer out of view. But his face shows he is listening to the radio. The other three men are customers on the other side of the counter. Two men are older--the sort of men likely to be home during World War II. The third customer's face is obscured, but the features that are visible suggest a young man, and he is in uniform. I took him to be a soldier, perhaps on leave, or perhaps about to ship out. Everyone's body language shows interest. No joy; no fear exactly, but anxiety--and some signs of hope.

All our wars in my memory were such that I neither knew anyone in them, nor did I reasonably fear the outcome. In my time, war dispatches were watched on TV or read online. I cannot personally describe listening to the radio, in the context of a war which our nation might lose. Yet that is what this work depicted--and I, at least, felt it.

The written descriptions accompanying the artworks said that the Post had a policy that "people of color" could not be depicted, except as servants. If so, that is shocking--and revealing of a different world from what we know. Is Rockwell to blame for going along? Did he fail to be more prophetic? Well, let us consider this.

I noted one painting, of a boy on a train, dressed very nicely--suggesting some wealth. He is travelling alone, perhaps suggesting he is a sort of little prince. He is looking at the bill--the accompanying caption said he is figuring out the tip. Nearby stands a waiter--a tall, strong black man--who gazes down upon the boy, smiling. Supposedly he is the inferior.

Yet while he smiles and is at ease, and shows human concern--he is ready, it seems, to help the boy if asked; the boy is frowning--more out of uncertainty than disapproval--and does not seem even to notice the black man. Rockwell is sometimes diminished as an illustrator of a "Leave it to Beaver" idealization of American life. So what is this? Am I the only one who hopes the boy will notice the man, and look up to him? Is that a projection into the work--or is there something in what the artist tried to convey that evoked that in me? What do you make of the fact that I am 60 years removed from the work--and a wider, cultural gap yawns between my world and that which first viewed this work--and yet it communicates so powerfully to me? Is that not art?

Again, I am no art critic; however, I suspect Rockwell was dismissed to some degree at least, because he went against the fashion--as defined by the highbrows at least. Most of the trends in 20th century art go totally contrary to where Rockwell went.

Rockwell was keenly interested in the human person. He did not distort human beings--he discovered in them a wide range of expression. And he was primarily interested in the human being above all.

An example: in the exhibit were two portraits: of General Eisenhower and of Senator John F. Kennedy. And I noticed each featured the same device: the faces were illustrated with sumptuous detail, while the clothing was barely there. Just enough to frame the subject. It was as if the artist was saying, "let me focus your gaze on what's really interesting--what's truly revealing. And so he did.

Now, something fascinating happened after I had finished the exhibit. In the last room--where all the covers of the Post created by Rockwell were shown in succession--were comfortable couches, where several folks were relaxing. After I finished looking at the artwork, I took a seat and prayed my office. As I did, I looked up at the folks sitting in a couch catty-cornered to me--and it took my breath away.

A grandfather (I suppose) and three boys, all clearly brothers, ranging (I would guess) from 16 to 8 or 10. The grandfather's (nearest to me) head was down, eyes closed. He was napping. The older boys--furthest away--were leaning back, looking bored or tired. And the youngest was leaning forward, his back and face arced upward, gazing intently at something in front of them. All this was in profile to me.

It was a scene straight out of a Rockwell painting. As I studied them--until I was noticed and looked away politely!--I could see exactly the sorts of details Rockwell himself brought out in his works. The fascinating, appealing details of ordinary human life. Nothing exalted--except that simply being human, being alive, is truly wonderful. I consciously tried to remember what I saw, so I could describe it to you, and not forget what happened.

Now, contrast that with so much of the art of Rockwell's time--before and during--in which the human being becomes fuzzy and blurred; then becomes blobs of color or reduced to mechanisms; until the human being disappears altogether. (Look up "Nude descending a staircase" to see what I mean.) Meanwhile, Rockwell, who could have depicted anything he liked, found nothing so interesting to show us as the human being.

Which world view feels safer for your future?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Looking for a miracle? (Christmas homily)

In Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he said:
“Jews seek for a sign, Greeks look for wisdom.”

Another way to say that would be,
some of us want to be impressed with miracles;
others need to be impressed by a good argument.

Which are you looking for this Christmas?

If your faith is frayed or your hope is unsteady?

If you want a miracle, the fact is, miracles happen all the time.

I mean real miracles--things that science cannot explain.

They’ve happened to me.

I remember visiting a patient in the hospital--
arriving as the doctor said,
“your wife won’t make it, say your goodbyes.”
The husband asked me to anoint his wife,
and as everyone was sobbing, that’s what I did.

The doctors said she wouldn’t make it--
but she’s still alive today.

The other day, NPR reported on a miracle:
a boy had a terrible infection spreading rapidly over his body.
The family prayed to Blessed Kateri--
they pinned a medal for her on his pillow next to him.
Like Blessed Kateri, the boy was Native American;
like Kateri, his face was being disfigured by an illness.

The day he received the medal
is the day the infection was stopped and reversed.

I could go on…

But the point is, if miracles were what it took to convince us,
Why would we need more
than the Lord’s miracle of multiplying loaves,
or raising the dead--or rising from the dead himself?

We ask for signs--and we get them--and it’s not enough.

Or, we don’t even notice it happens…
like a child born in a stable at midnight.

So if signs and miracles won’t convince us, how about wisdom?

We could use some wisdom.

In a time when we put all our eggs in the basket
of finance and wealth,
how about, “you cannot serve God and mammon”?

When we boast of our military might,
how we can reach anywhere,
strike anything, and defeat anyone,
how about “Peter, put your sword away!
He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”?

The Light that came into the world on Christmas
is not what we looked for.
Neither do we really understand it.

It’s power--but not the kind that impresses us,
such as the power of wealth, of fame, of technology and might.
It’s wisdom--but not the kind we produce.

So when God becomes a child
and when God allows himself to be crucified,
we don’t know what to make of it.

If you came today to hear the music, it is beautiful;
but the voices will soon fade.
If you came to see the lights, the manger,
it will all be packed away before long.
If you came to kindle a memory,
how melancholy to look backward!

Just like the first Christmas,
the Light we need is easy to miss.
Just as easy as missing the miracle
of His Death and Resurrection
being made present on this altar--in front of us.
His Body and Blood given as Food, right here.

We look for a miracle--
but the truth is, the Miracle is looking for you!

You’re here because He’s seeking you.

After I’m finished speaking, what will He say to you?

“I don’t need your wisdom, and I don’t want your power.
I want your heart.”

If what you want to see is a world lit up
with the hum and energy of human power and light,
we have that; a satellite will take the picture
and you can download it when you get home tonight!

But how about human hearts lit up by Christ’s light?
Purified by his mercy and set aflame by the Holy Spirit?
Human hearts: reservoirs of the peace only Christ can give?
Human hearts: fountains of mercy from the one who said,
“as you have been forgiven, forgive”?

Imagine a world filled with that Light?

Christ called you here tonight:
To see if your heart was available?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Where the Christmas Tree came from

(This is a talk I gave today to the Piqua Kiwanis Club, of which I am a member.)

By now, if you put up a Christmas tree, you’ve already got it up. Actually, I have not! But I like to put it up this week, for reasons that will become clear shortly.

In any case, I bet you have heard different stories about the origin of the Christmas tree.

Some of you have heard the Christmas tree was a pagan thing that Christians “baptized” at some point--meaning they converted it from having a pagan meaning to having a Christian or at least innocuous meaning.

Some have heard that there is some connection between the Christmas Tree and Saint Boniface, who brought the Gospel to Germany.

How many simply have no idea where it came from?

In order to explain it, I have to explain something most people don’t know.

The Catholic Church assigns a day on the calendar for every saint, including saints of the Old Testament. So the Prophet Elijah is considered a saint, and his day is July 20. Moses’ day is September 4.

You may not know that Adam and Eve are also considered saints. Do you know what their day is?

December 24--Christmas Eve.

Now, I don’t know why December 24 is their day, but I would guess--and it’s only a guess--that it was done precisely as a lead-in to Christmas.

So let’s go back in history to approximately the year AD 1200. Let’s land in Europe, where many, if not most, of our ancestors came from, and where the search for the Christmas Tree takes us.

Remember, in the year 1200, there are very few books, because books must be copied by hand, which is time consuming and expensive. That’s why people didn’t read. It would be like saying, did you know in the year 1980, no one knew how to twitter? It’s true!

So…how do you teach people the Faith in those days? Well, you do what I bet Pastor Wells often does at his church--and we do in ours--we organize plays.

Just like today, a community would have celebrations through the year. What do we do in Piqua? We have festivals and parades and folks love to come, particularly with their kids. Some things never change.

They would do the same, but instead of Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day, they would gather on saints’ days and feast days. If they didn’t come into town to attend church every week, they’d come then.

And these would be great occasions to have plays to teach people the Faith. The plays would take place in the church, or the public square--and, naturally, they would be fun occasions for everyone to come together.

So, we’re in our time machine; let’s land in Germany--and imagine showing up for one of these plays; maybe some enterprising businessperson--like Peggy H____ or Gretchen R___--those are good German names!--is out selling bratwurst und streudel to feed the folks who came to the festival!

So here we are in December. And the mayor of the town--or the pastor--is organizing the celebration n of Adam and Eve day, December 24th. I’m not guessing about this, we know they did this.

But imagine you’re the person who is in charge of the play. The pastor says, “we need props for the play!” If you want a props for a play about Adam and Eve, what would you need?

How about a tree? What sort of tree are you going to find--that’s not bare--in December?

A fir tree!

Now, it is true that the story of Saint Boniface connects here. Saint Boniface, in preaching to my ancestors running around in the Black Forest, confronted those who worshipped trees. And when he saw them worshipping a mighty oak, he took an axe and brought it down, and said, “how stands your god now?” The story goes that because Thor didn’t strike him down, my great-great-great….grandfather and his brothers all listened as Boniface told them about Jesus Christ. And, the story goes, a fir tree sprung up in the place where the oak was felled.

So some claim that this is how the fir tree was involved; the trouble is, I don’t have any evidence for that. But we do know they had the plays; and we do know that, in December, in Germany, no other trees are green.

So you come back: "Hier ist ein tree!" "Gut, gut!” says the pastor. “Now, getten zome fruiten for das tree!"

Fruit? Why would you need fruit on this tree?

Adam and Eve, remember?

Now…Pastor Wells can tell us, what does Genesis say is the type of fruit on the Tree of knowledge of Good and Bad?

That’s right--the Bible just says “fruit.”

So, what fruit might you find in Germany in December? Well, nothing on trees, of course, but maybe in a basement? How about apples?

You may also be interested to know that in Latin--the Scriptures were in Latin then--the word for "bad" (as in "the tree of the knowledge of good and bad") is "malum"; and the word for apples, is "malum."

So while those are guesses about how apples came to be chosen, we do know apples were placed on the tree.

They also placed another decoration on the tree: discs of bread.

If you’re wondering why, recall that in the Garden of Eden, there were two trees mentioned by name. Not only the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but also, the Tree of Life. We know that they ate from the Tree of Knowledge; but there remained the Tree of Life--which they couldn’t eat from once they’d sinned.

And what they were attempting to teach was about the Eucharist--holy communion--being a sharing in the death of Christ; who, remember, died on a “tree”--it was Saint Paul who called the cross “a tree.“

So the “Paradise Tree,“ in these plays, was both trees in one, with the fruit that brought death, and the fruit that gives life!

Over many years, these plays were performed in Germany, but along the way they got out of hand--hmm, a play about Adam and Eve, with forbidden fruit? How could anyone take that the wrong way? So Church authorities called a halt to the plays. But folks liked the "Paradise Trees" so they continued setting them up--at home.

Now at this stage, the decorations gradually change; there are different stories about when glass ornaments came along--either in the 1500s or the 1800s. But what seems to have happened was that other fruit or nuts were placed on the trees, and along the way, the discs of bread were replaced by cookies. I’m curious: who here has, or has seen, cookies-baked to be very hard--as ornaments? How about fruit-shaped ornaments? I bet some of you even have apple-shaped ornaments; I have.

Who knows the story about the lights on the tree? The story usually told is that Martin Luther added candles; I couldn’t find any source for that, but I don’t have many Lutheran sources! My mother, who was born in 1914, remembered candles from her childhood. Has anyone here ever seen real candles on a tree?

So, with all this information, I think we can answer the claim made by some that the Christmas Tree is something pagan. It is not; it is Christian and Biblical--meant to point back to Adam and Eve, but also to Christ, and the Cross.

And when you enjoy looking at your Christmas Tree this year, think of the passage from Revelation, that describes the New Jerusalem, the City of God, with no sun or moon, because the Lamb is its light; and in the center, along the River of Life, is the Tree of Life, giving twelve kinds of fruit all twelve months of the year.

“In Defense Of The Christmas Tree,” by the Very Rev. Daniel Daly, published in The Word Magazine, December 2002; accessed online at:

“The Christmas Tree,” by Rayn Blair; appearing in Celebrations: a social studies resource guide for elementary teachers, Fall, 1996, published by Department of Elementary Education, College of Education, Utah State University; accessed online at:

The Christmas Tree, by Daniel J. Foley, Chilton Co., 1960.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My day so far...

Up at 6 am for 7 am Mass...

After 7 am Mass--with help from the seminarian--we began cooking eggs for parish breakfast. (I love eggs-in-a-bag! Real eggs, broken by elves somewhere, mixed and sealed in bags. All you have to do is boil them for a good while--about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. They need salt and pepper, and maybe a little fat or butter.) The seminarian kindly tended the eggs whilst I picked up the donuts, coffee and juice, quickly got myself some early breakfast, then had the next Mass...

...At which we received some folks as catechumens--meaning they are preparing for baptism at Easter. That is a ritual I don't do often so I had to review it a few minutes before 9 am Mass.

Mass went a little over; back to the other parish to finish preparing breakfast--slated for after 10:30 am Mass. We spread about 200 sausage links on trays and put them in the oven while the eggs finished up; we perked coffee and otherwise hung out till the end of the next Mass.

The seminarian and I served about 120-150 folks we think. I do this each year at this time at each parish. It's my gift to the parishes.

About 1 pm we served the last folks--some guys who set up the creche following Mass--and I sent the seminarian home with the leftover sausage and eggs and I finished cleaning up. Home around 2 pm.

I've been surfing the 'net for news since then; in a moment I'll head back to St. Boniface to meet with the junior high group; they are having some sort of pizza-competition.

At 6 I'm meeting with the high schoolers to go caroling. I'll have dinner around 8 pm, and that'll be when I can really rest.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Joy, as opposed to happiness (Sunday homily)

There’s a word we hear in the prayers
and in the readings for Mass today:
“Rejoice.” We hear it a lot this time of year.

Sometimes we equate “joy” with being happy.
While they often go together, they aren’t the same.

The way we often figure this out
is when what makes us happy is taken away.

I remember being at the bedside
of one of our parishioners this year,
as she peacefully died.
She and her family were praying.
And when she passed, her husband of so many years,
who didn’t want to let her go,
yet knowing where she was headed;
still holding her hand—and with eyes brimming with tears,
said, and I quote: “I’m broken-hearted; but I’m joyful.”

And there it is.

“Happiness,” at any given moment,
we may or may not have.
But joy—true joy—isn’t a mood,
and isn’t a measure of the things we have.
True joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

We all have the Gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism.
But we can easily take it for granted,
until everything else is at risk.

In the first reading,
Isaiah describes himself as anointed with the Spirit
to heal the broken-hearted
and to liberate those in bondage;
on one level, it’s about
his message to God’s People in his time;
but it’s even more about Jesus—
who liberates as no else can.

One of the most powerful ways to experience
that is in the sacrament of confession.
We’ll have our Penance Service
at St. Mary, this Tuesday, at 7 pm.

There’s no defeat or shame
like feeling bound up in a habit of sin.
And there’s no liberation
like having sins forgiven and gone!
And they really are taken away just that fast:
as fast as the priest speaks the words of absolution!

There are many things that are hard being a priest,
But this isn’t one of them.
This is one of the best things I get to do.
Passing out gold like St. Nicholas did doesn’t hold a candle
to assisting Jesus Christ as he takes away sin.

I get the privilege of witnessing that;
Some people will say they feel a tremendous freedom;
But even if the person gives no sign at all,
I’m telling you, sometimes I can just tell
That a tremendous weight has been lifted.

And I’m telling you:
guys, if you’re thinking about being a priest—
there is no Gift you’ll ever give anyone
anywhere as awesome as that.

There’ll be six priests here Tuesday night
giving out pure gold—for free!
Forgiveness! Come and get some!

This joy, that comes from the Holy Spirit,
Not only sustains in times of trouble,
But also makes it possible, even easy,
to do what otherwise would seem impossible.

As you know, this weekend we take up a collection
for our retired religious brothers and sisters.

When we look at those who take vows,
if we see only as the world sees,
it can be hard to figure out why they do it.
Voluntarily embrace poverty and chastity?
Work hard for others; take risks? Why do this?

I think of Sister Dorothy Stang, of Dayton,
who was trying to help the poor in Brazil,
she dismissed the threats, and finally they did kill her.
She didn’t care.

And I think of Father Saint Damian,
who served lepers in Hawaii,
until he died of the same disease.

What makes that possible?
The joy that only the Holy Spirit can give.

Of all the special collections we have through the year,
this one is the best received. And it’s obvious why.
The same Holy Spirit that works in our dear religious
rises up in our heart in gratitude.

So I ask you to be generous;
but I already know you will be.

So I come back to where I started.
“Happiness” as opposed to joy.

If your health is good, you have all you need,
you are surrounded by love and blessings—
you have every cause for happiness.

Even so, some around us don’t have all those things.
And if they lost someone special,
the ache is worse this time of year.
If “happy” isn’t a word you want to use right now…
that’s OK.

But know that with or without
what usually counts as “happy,”
the Holy Spirit is still yours.
That is the true joy that counts.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

'It's not [only] about Mary' (Immaculate Conception)

We often speak of the “mysteries” of our Faith.
There is a “mystery” in this particular Feast
we celebrate today;
a “secret” that I’m going to share with you—
that I hope you will try to reflect on.
Here’s the “secret”—are you ready?

This feast—of Mary’s immaculate conception—
is not about Mary.
Or, I should say, there’s a lot more it’s about.

The first reading tells you this.

It reminds us of the moment, untold ages ago,

when the enemy of souls induced the human race
to choose sin the first time.
That is when humanity was corrupted; shipwrecked.

Saint Paul, in his letter to the Romans,
tells us that when humanity became corrupt,
it wasn’t just the human race that was damaged;
all Creation was changed.

So the first thing this feast is about is sin:
the infection that,
once it contaminated
humanity and Creation, made this is a different world.

The second part of the mystery this feast is about
is God’s plan.

If you listened closely,
in the first reading, God said:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike at your head,
while you strike at his heel.”

At the very beginning, when humanity fell,
God already was planning his response:
There would be another Eve,
and her Son would do battle with the enemy for our sake.
That second Eve is Mary.

Now, there is a point of confusion.

The conception we celebrate today
is not Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb.
Do the math: how could Jesus be conceived
on December 8, and born on December 25?
Jesus’s conception is celebrated on March 25:
nine months before Christmas.

Today we celebrate the conception of Mary,
in the womb of her mother, Ann.

Just as God created Eve without any stain of sin,

so he intervened to ensure that Mary, the Second Eve,

would also have no stain of sin: immaculate.

Although Jesus is the one
who truly does battle for us—on the Cross;
in a real way, Mary also did battle for us.

Just as Eve said “yes” to the serpent,
and allowed sin to enter Creation,
So Mary said “yes” to God,
and allowed the Messiah to become part of Creation!

So many things to notice here!

Notice that what happened in Mary was God’s doing:

God is the one
who prevented Original Sin from touching her.
So when we talk about God’s grace saving us—
not we ourselves—Mary is exhibit A!

Mary being conceived without sin
wasn’t absolutely necessary—
God could have found another way— but it was entirely fitting and appropriate.

How fitting that if God’s People would create,
in the Old Testament,
a beautiful container,
called the Ark of the Covenant, to carry the Ten Commandments;
then how much more fitting that God would prepare
so beautiful a vessel for himself:
Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant!

And how right that Mary,
who would be the first to accept Jesus as Savior,
would be able to respond with perfect devotion—
because no shadow of sin held her back!

As Saint Augustine said,
she who conceived him in her womb,
first conceived her in her heart through faith.

I said at the outset that this Feast
is only partly about Mary.
It’s about Jesus of course; and it’s about us.

When we see Adam and Eve fall, we cringe;
because that’s our story.
Well, when we see Mary, full and radiant with grace,

our hearts surge with joy—because that’s our destiny!

Mary—all the saints really, but Mary above all—
is a like a mirror:
We love her, among other things,
because of how perfectly she reflects the glory of her Son.

And we are filled with hope,
because we see in her what we can be.
All we have to do is say “yes.”

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Christ asks, 'Comfort my people' (Sunday homily)

If you have ever wondered why we get the readings we do,
in Advent, here’s why:

The first reading is a prophecy
and it describes what God’s people need
and what we have hoped for.

The Gospel shows us how that longing is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

So in Isaiah’s time, God’s people are in a bad way.
Depending on just when Isaiah said this,
either his people are facing the destruction of their country,
or else they are already in exile.

And God sends Isaiah to “comfort my people.”
They will be forgiven; and what’s high will be brought low;
what’s lowly will be lifted up.
In other words, it’s a promise of true justice.

In Isaiah’s time—and in ours—
People who down low, out in the cold,
look up and see the heights—and they wonder…

Then—and now—they wonder:
Can I be lifted up? Is there a way out?

Centuries later, John the Baptist comes,
And God’s people are still down low.
Now it’s the Romans who invade God’s City, Jerusalem—
To curry favor with the Roman overlords,
King Herod installed a Roman Eagle on the gate of God’s Temple.

Imagine our church were in Europe not too long ago;
and here come the Nazis and tell us:
put a swastika on the front of your church?

That’s what God’s People saw on God’s House
every time they worshipped.

God’s People were ready to be lifted up.

But John tells them something they may not have expected.
He doesn’t tell them, Christ is coming to destroy the Romans.
Christ will conquer—but not destroy.
And it starts in the heart—in your heart:
That’s where the path for the Lord begins.

It’s been a long time since John told us to seek that fire—
that conversion—
And there is still a lot of lifting up to do.
And there’s a lot changing in us still needed.

While we’re still waiting and asking, “When Lord?”
Christ is waiting for us—he invites us to do some of the lifting.

Let me apply this to a problem we face right here and now.
People who walk the streets and have no place to sleep at night.

We don’t huge numbers of homeless people in Piqua,
be we have some. Sometimes families with children.

And for some time, Wilma Earls and Cathy Large,
and others involved in the Bethany Center,
Have been trying to do something
about providing shelter at night.
There’s been talk of the Bethany Center becoming a shelter—
but that isn’t possible yet.

In the meantime, they’ve organized a “cold shelter” system
for the winter months,
for those who otherwise would sleep outside.

Several area churches are taking turns,
with a different church providing shelter each night of the week.

You may be wondering,
will St. Mary and St. Boniface be sites for this?

At the present time we’re not.
The pastoral councils and I are looking at it,
but there are some hurdles to overcome before we can do that.

In the meantime, other churches in Piqua are ready to go—
but they need volunteers!

Remember: it’s the Lord who is waiting to see what we’ll do.

We need volunteers to help welcome guests and check them in.
Some can help with preparing food or cleaning up;
some to stay overnight;
and some to put things in order in the morning.
And there are ways to help as well.

Not only is the Lord waiting o see what we will do,
Remember he told us, he’s the one waiting outside,
in the cold, for food and clothing and shelter.

And he told us, he’s also the one we don’t help,
who sleeps under a bridge in January.

Sometimes we make it complicated; we think of all the angles.
But in the end, it’s pretty simple.
We are confronted with Christ’s own words:
“Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers…”

So Christ is asking for this—not me.
What are we willing to do?

There’s a form in your pews, along with a pencil,
where you can say, I’m willing to consider it;
I am willing to be contacted with more information.

If you put your name and address down,
And put it in the collection basket,
it doesn’t mean you’ve promised anything;
it only means you’re willing to hear more.

There’s still a lot of God’s promises that need to be kept—
to comfort his people.

Christ is waiting for us—and calling us—to help him do it.