Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Why is Oregon Catholic Press ruining Christmas songs?

We had a beautiful Christmas in Russia, thanks to many people, including our music director and many wonderful helpers in the choir loft, and our many readers, ushers, altar servers and others who each contributed.

I was especially moved at Midnight Mass -- my favorite Mass of the year; so much so, that the sad bowdlerization of the great hymn, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" did not much dim my joy.

Here is what I'm talking about.

In verse two, we hear:

Christ, by highest heaven adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Well, that is what you ought to hear -- and sing. But increasingly, the second-last line is changed to:

Pleased as man with US to dwell...

Grr! This is poetry, and that change wrecks it. But that, at least, doesn't render it potentially heretical. That prize goes to the change wrought in verse three. Again, the more traditional version first:

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth.

Here's how the last few lines are changed:

born that we no more may die, 
born to raise us from the earth, 
born to give us second birth. 

Before I explain just why these changes -- the last one in particular -- are terrible, can you figure out the reason for them?

No? Try again. Just look at the words that were excised. Can you see a theme?

It's all about feminism; to be precise, a very narrow, humorless, insecure subset of feminism, with -- I have no doubt -- extremely few adherents. But they do get the ear of editors of music, hence these changes.

The second change I highlighted is especially bad, because it turns this great hymn from stoutly orthodox to vaguely Gnostic. That is to say, instead of singing of Christ redeeming and divinizing our humanity ("born to raise the sons of earth"), we sing of Christ coming to deliver us out of our earthiness ("raise us from the earth"). This is Dan Brown stuff. Remember the Da Vinci Code? It walked the same path, feeding the insecure fantasies of the same narrow, humorless crowd with claims of a conspiracy to keep women down by suppressing something he called the "divine feminine" and other claptrap. And in doing so, Mr. Brown drew directly from ancient, discredited Gnostic texts.

The irony of it all? Gnosticism was anything but pro women. In addition to the Gnostics thinking matter and humanity being evils we should escape from, they especially thought femininity was something to abhor. Here's one choice gem from the Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter says to them: "Let Mary go out from our midst, for women are not worthy of life!" Jesus says: "See, I will draw her so as to make her male so that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who has become male will enter the Kingdom of heaven."

The dis-incarnated text I quoted from, and which we sang at Midnight Mass came from Oregon Catholic Press, but similar poetry wrecking appears in other widely published hymnals. I was going to say the editors of these hymnals are theological nincompoops, but I don't know that. What I do know is that this is theological nincompoopery, and I am going to do what I can to stop it.

So I intend to contact someone at OCP and register my displeasure. I suspect that won't do much good, but I will try. And then, next year, regardless of what OCP does, we will sing a proper version of "Hark the Herald"; we will provide handouts if necessary.

Perhaps you know of similar mischief? Feel free to share in the comments.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

'What is the point of Christmas?' (Christmas homily)

What is the point of Christmas? What does it really mean?

Something fascinating and bewildering has happened with Christmas,
down through the ages; it has spread throughout the world,
evolving and complexifying
and spawning endless knockoffs and variations throughout the world.

In Japan, Christmas has very little to do with Jesus,
but for whatever reason,
it has a great deal to do with Kentucky Fried Chicken!

In Thailand, elephants where Santa hats.
In Oman, there are very few Christians, but a lot of Christmas trees.
Maddening, and yet delightful, too,
as is the news that just days ago, Saudi Arabia –
which prohibits Christianity and confiscates Rosaries –
recently announced that it would begin using the Gregorian Calendar:
named for Pope Gregory,
and which marks time from the birth of…Jesus Christ.

There’s quite a lot of Christmas music, Christmas specials,
Christmas movies and Christmas shopping; but I ask again:
what does Christmas really mean? What is Christmas?

The answer starts with a child, born in a particular place and time.
But we need a clearer answer. Why a child? Why was that the plan?

Christmas only makes sense if we realize this is not just a child,
but God become a child. God become human, one of us. And why?
So that you and I could see God; know God; be friends with God.
“Friends with God” – that’s a challenging idea.
I’m a priest, I study theology, read Scripture,
and prayer is my profession; and even then,
the idea of being “friends with God” is daunting for me,
as maybe it is for you. How do I be friends with God?

But another human being? Someone who wakes and sleeps,
who works and gets tired, who has a family,
who has a people and a history,
who gets up each day and prays,
who goes to the synagogue each Sabbath –
I can be friends with that Man.

That’s why God became Man. That’s why, Christmas.

We call this a time of light in darkness, and its true:
the light that breaks into the darkness of man, closed in on himself.
Never has that been more needed.

You and I live in a time when many think God is a relic of simpler times,
when people needed a way to explain the movements of the stars
and the hidden structures of life on earth;
but now that we’ve travelled to the stars and mapped the genome,
we don’t really need “God.”

Except that in cracking all these other mysteries, one yet remains;
Indeed, it has grown ever more impenetrable;
And that is the mystery of our own selves,
Which is also the mystery of good and evil.

The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
writing about his years as a prisoner in a communist gulag,
explained it perfectly:

“If only it were all so simple!
If only there were evil people somewhere
insidiously committing evil deeds,
and it were necessary only to separate them
from the rest of us and destroy them…”

[But] “the line separating good and evil passes not through states,
nor between classes, nor between political parties either –
but right through every human heart…”

“And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”*

Man can explore and build, and crack things open;
but we are no closer to solving this mystery within ourselves
than we have ever been.

Only God, who knows us better than we know ourselves,
can disclose man to himself.
This is what the Second Vatican Council said:
only in the mystery of God become human
“does the mystery of man take on light”;
only Christ, born this day,
“fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”**

So the joy and peace we talk about so much this time of year?
It only has meaning if we can bring it to that divided, human heart;
for that is where all wars begin and end.

Until there is a death of greed and wrath and envy and hatred
in human hearts, in our hearts, will war end – and not an hour,
not a minute, before.
That is the peace that Jesus came to give,
and he freely gives it to all who ask.

This is the real meaning of the sacrament of confession.
It’s not primarily about a box, or a ritual,
or formulas or prayers;
all these things serve a greater purpose:
to invite the Prince of Peace to reign in our hearts.
That is the where all the struggles that really matter happen.

So if you want to give yourself the best Christmas present,
if you want that peace and joy of the season,
nothing beats walking out of confession,
with a soul where all is calm, all is bright, within!

So what is Christmas? God came to make friends.
God took a human face so we could see it, so we could see him.
Talk to him. Know him.

He knows the path that is dark to us.
He penetrates what we cannot fathom in ourselves,
because he created us.
Nothing about us will make him ashamed to call us “friend.”
There is no one so low to whom he did not stoop to meet;
and there is no secret we need hide or fear to share,
for he knows it already, and died on the Cross to wash it all away.

And there is nothing that will keep him from our company,
if we will have him with us.

God was born one of us today
so that we could find him and know him as a friend.
There is no other real point to Christmas without this.
There is nothing worth doing this day as much as this:
To find him. Talk to him. Know him. Let him love you.
Let him explain you, to you. Let him be with you in struggle and strife.
Let him forgive you. Let him be your Savior.

Come, let us adore him!

* This is actually two quotes from Gulag Archipelago.
** Gaudium et Spes 22.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Recipe time: Chicken Salad for Lunch

One of my best friends drove up Monday for a visit, so I had to decide, what to do for lunch?

I thought soup and salad might be nice, so I found this recipe online. Before going with it, I read the comments; often other folks have made good suggestions. Based on the comments, I decided to add a bit of cayenne pepper (I didn't measure, but about 1/4 teaspoon), and I added a granny smith apple; I compensated by cutting back a little on the celery, almonds and grapes. Some readers suggested cutting back on the mayonnaise, so I did that as well. I forgot to buy fresh parsley, so I used dried.

While this salad could easily be made with chicken from a can, I got an idea from another recipe, which described how to poach chicken breasts. So I bought some boneless chicken breasts, and poached them in some chicken broth, with some dried parsley and thyme added, as well as a cut up carrot, onion and celery stalk. I saved the broth in the freezer for later.

With the chicken salad, I had some cheddar broccoli soup, which I picked up at Panera Bread. The soup was good, but pricey -- $15 for four servings. Four? More like two! As it turned out, I'd forgotten my friend can't eat broccoli, so...no problem!

Here's how I put it together. I had some boston lettuce, and I spread several pieces on the plate; then I put the chicken salad on top of that, with some sliced tomatoes and cucumbers on the side. Then I had some bacon, and some bread at the ready. My idea was that either this could be eaten as a salad, or easily turned into a sandwich. My friend and I opted for no bread. The bacon was good in the soup.

I had some leftover chicken salad that I shared with the staff, and one of them asked for the recipe, so I promised to post it here.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

'Closed heart, open heart' (Sunday homily)

The theme of this homily could be summarized as, 
“Closed Heart, Open Heart.” 

In the first reading, we have a closed heart, in King Ahaz. 
The background is this: his country is in deep trouble, 
and he has set his mind on a course 
that Isaiah has come to talk him out of. 
That’s why Isaiah offers to give him a sign – any sign he chooses. 
But Ahaz refuses. A closed heart.

But Joseph, in the Gospel, has an open heart. 
Joseph has just found out something that is shocking: 
Mary, his wife-to-be, is expecting a child! 

Now, Joseph knew when he became engaged to Mary, 
that she had taken a vow of virginity. 
Their marriage was going to be different in that regard. 
Joseph was probably older, and it may be 
he was doing so as a way to provide her protection and security.

So when he heard about Mary being pregnant, 
Lots of things might have gone through his head.
Hurt, betrayal, anger.

Now, the question is, how do we have an open heart, 
rather than a closed one? And I’d suggest three things:

First, set aside anger and hurt. You may feel it, but move beyond it.
Second, fight the temptation to make rash judgments. 

For me, when I find myself playing that script in my head, 
trying to fill in all the blanks, I turn to some other project. 
Or, I start praying. It may take a while, but that helps.

Third, remind yourself – hourly, if necessary! – 
that God is in control, and you aren’t.

Let me say more about anger. 
This is something a lot of people struggle with, 
ranging from the little irritations and sharp words, 
all the way to really explosive anger. 

Let me suggest two major causes of anger – 
not the only ones, but two major ones.

First, we get angry when we feel we’re under attack. 
Think about how we respond if someone attacks us physically: 
the instinct is to defend ourselves, and, with a surge of adrenalin, 
we may suddenly strike back. 

Something similar happens when someone 
is criticizing an idea or project of ours; or kidding or mocking us. 
And it also happens when the attack isn’t on me, 
but on someone I care about.

The issue isn’t whether the criticism is fair or intentional; 
But whether getting angry is really the best move.
Most of the time, we regret it, because we lost control. 

So if that’s you, and if you want to do something about it, 
here’s my suggestion. 

Stop and really analyze the last few times you got angry. 
Look and see if it wasn’t a case of feeling attacked in some way. 
Making a habit of this kind of examination will help disconnect 
that button that other people always figure out how to push.

The other major reason we get angry is because we want control, 
and we don’t have it. 

Think of what happens when you’re a child, 
and the game doesn’t go your way; what do you do? 
You might cry, throw down the cards, scatter the pieces off the board, and stomp away. 
In a word: anger; and why? 
Because you’re not having your way.

Now consider what dad or mom does when driving somewhere. 

Someone is in the wrong lane; driving too slowly; doesn’t signal properly; 
doesn’t go on green soon enough. What do they do? 
Do they ever get red in the face? 
Shake their fist or say not-nice things about that other driver?
Try to get around that car, just to make a nasty face?

It’s the same thing. Anger, because we can’t get our way. 

And, if you think about it, it may explain a lot of the anger 
that shows up between spouses, parents and children, and so forth.

So if this is you, here’s the simple answer – 
simple, but not necessarily easy: 
accept that the things you can control are far, far, far fewer
than you think or expect. 
I say it’s not easy, because this isn’t something 
you just say to yourself one time. 
It’s a daily, even hourly confession: I am not in control. 
There is a prayer, many of us have heard of it, and it goes like this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; 
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

This isn’t only a prayer, it’s a way of life. 
And I think Joseph must have understood it, 
because he was serene in the face of things he didn’t control, 
and that helped his heart be open 
to the message of the angel who came to him.

Behind this prayer – and behind Joseph’s whole story – 
is another saying you’ve heard: There is a God – and I’m not him. 
Recognizing, and trusting, that God is in control 
helped Joseph keep his gaze steady and his heart open, 
and the same is true for us.

Now, if you’re still with me on all this, 
and you would like to see these things happen in your life, 
then I have one more suggestion: Go to confession! 

And I don’t mean, go once.
I mean, if you aren’t in the habit of coming pretty regularly, 
make the decision that you will form a habit of coming to confession. 
How often is up to you, but a good rule of thumb is once a month.
And if you’re wrestling with some bad habits, 
you may need to come more than that in order to break them.

Some people are skeptical of this, and maybe that’s you, 
and you aren’t going to do it unless I can convince you. 
And I could spend the next few minutes offering several reasons. 
But I want to wrap this up. So let me say it this way.

If you asked me, how often should a field be plowed and fertilized, 
not being a farmer, I don’t really know. 
So I would call some of the farmers here, and ask them. 
And since this is what they do, I’d believe them.

Well, as a priest, confession and conversion are things I do know about. 
And I’m telling you, if you don’t turn over the soil of your heart 
often enough in the sacrament of confession,
your heart will be like soil in the ground that doesn’t get tilled: 
hard and resistant to change. 
But with regular confession, 
our heart becomes better ground for God’s word to grow, 
and grow well.

Going to confession isn’t the only thing we need 
in order to have open, receptive hearts – 
there are other steps needed as well – 
but it’s hard to get anything happening without regular confession.

This week, in preparation for Christmas, 
we’ll have extra confessions on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, 
as well as on Thursday and Saturday at the usual times. 
And then, after Christmas, 
we’ll still be having confessions every week, 
so we can keep tilling our hearts, 
and let the word of God take deep root.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Ohio Right to Life torpedoes prolife bill, then lies about it

This past week two prolife bills passed the Ohio legislature and reached the governor's desk at the same time. One was a ban on abortion after 20 weeks; the other was a ban on abortion after a heartbeat is detected. Governor John Kasich promptly vetoed the more prolife of the two bills, while signing the bill that would protect far fewer unborn children.

Here's the shock: he did so at the behest of Ohio Right to Life, which later tried to cover its tracks.

Now, it should be pointed out that neither bill is what prolifers want. It isn't prolife to say that some babies should die because of an arbitrary delineation by law; whether that's birth, "viability" (a moving target), 20 weeks, 10 weeks, upon hearing a heartbeat, or anything else. The only rational and morally defensible law is one that protects all life once conceived, without exceptions. (This is why many committed prolifers during the recent election raised concerns about Donald Trump -- precisely because he supported keeping it legal to kill babies whose fathers committed rape or incest.)

Here's what the Columbus Dispatch reported:

But in a bitterly divided "pro-life" movement, Ohio Right to Life opposes the Heartbeat Bill as likely to be held as unconstitutional in federal courts and possibly detriment to other recently passed laws paring back abortion rights. The group asked Kasich to sign only the 20-week abortion ban.

Further, on its Facebook Page, an unidentified representative of Ohio Right to Life made this claim:

...the Heartbeat Bill hasn't saved any lives anywhere it's been tried. The Supreme Court actually rejected the opportunity to hear the Heartbeat Bill earlier this year. The only thing that has changed since that time is the tragic passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. The Supreme Court is stacked against us--and Ruth Bader Ginsburg has already told reporters that she is itching for the opportunity to write an opinion worse than Roe. We don't want to give her that opportunity--an opportunity that could set the pro-life movement back decades and lead to more deaths.

Well, no.

As currently constituted, the U.S. Supreme Court has four justices that are entirely pro-legal-abortion: Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan; plus one who waffles, Kennedy. There are three who are presumed to be votes to overturn Roe: Chief Justice Roberts, Thomas and Alito. Assuming President-elect Trump keeps his promise when he names a Supreme Court justice (and his pick is confirmed), that breakdown becomes 4-1-4.

So the reasoning of Ohio RTL seems to be that the Heartbeat bill loses Kennedy, but maybe he'll go for the 20-week ban, and it'll be upheld. However, this ignores two things:

1. Neither bill will reach the U.S. Supreme Court directly. The first challenge would happen in federal district court. The next stop would be the federal appeals court; and only then -- if the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to take it up -- would the case come before the High Court.

But that doesn't happen automatically. At least four members of the Supreme Court must agree to hear a case. Is that likely?

Probably not. The Heartbeat bills enacted in North Dakota and Arkansas were both struck down at the district level, and those rulings were affirmed by the appeals court.

But couldn't the U.S. Supreme Court still take up the case? Sure, anything's possible, but why would they? Assuming it's true that Justice Ginsberg is itching to do it, that's only one vote for review; she needs three others. In theory, the other pro-abortion justices would want to revisit the current precedents, but realize -- whatever outcome they hope for must win the vote of...Justice Kennedy; and to the extent anything is clear about Kennedy's position on...anything, it is that he doesn't want to go where Ginsberg presumably wants to go.

But here's the main thing: if five justices of the Supreme Court are eager to liberalize abortion law, why does it matter which of these bills reaches the court? Are we really to suppose that there are five justices, ready to issue a new, expansive pro-abortion decision...only to be deflated because, golly, the wrong anti-abortion law reached them? That's ridiculous!

So the claim by the unnamed Ohio RTL operative is false. A five-vote majority on the Supreme Court, eager to strike down prolife measures, will strike down either of these bills; and write whatever decision it wants.

On the other hand, if circumstances allow, either bill might be upheld. These cases take several years to work through the courts. Who knows if there will be yet another new justice on the High Court? Who knows but that our prayers for the conversion of those justices who have distorted our laws to protect killing unborn children may not work?

Ohio RTL's tactics drew a lot of protest from other prolifers, which may explain the attempt to cover it's tracks. On the same Facebook post cited above, someone acting for the organization posted this:

Ohio Right to Life was neutral on the Heartbeat Bill and supportive of the one strategy that could swing Anthony Kennedy to a pro-life decision. The Heartbeat Bill hasn't saved any lives anywhere it's been tried. Sadly, the Supreme Court actually rejected the opportunity to hear the Heartbeat Bill earlier this year.

Sorry, but backing a veto is hardly "neutral"!

The too-clever tactics of Ohio Right to Life are bad enough; but not being forthright about their actions make it worse. I'm sorry to see it.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Clericalism? Are the Traddies guilty?

I've been wanting to link to something by this admirable blogger priest, and I think this is it.

While there, be sure to browse around.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

How you can be like John the Baptist (Sunday homily)

You probably didn’t notice, but a Gospel reading about John the Baptist 
comes up every year during Advent. 
We don’t know much about John, but we do know that at some point, 
John went out to live in the desert, 
wearing simple clothing and eating whatever he could find there. 
And he began preaching repentance, 
and he attracted a lot of attention; 
lots of people came out to the desert to be baptized. 

After this, John ends up in prison, 
because he publicly scolded King Herod for entering into marriage 
with his brother’s wife; and, finally, he is beheaded.

Now why would John even want to go out into the desert like that? 
Why would anyone?
And the answer is, for some people, that’s how they draw close to God. 
Getting away from noise, from distractions, 
from the world: alone with God.

This is an impulse many of us can’t understand; 
but I suspect there are many of us who do understand it – 
and we wish we could do it. 
But what holds us back are the obligations to our families, 
or to our businesses or farms; or fear of what others might say.

Maybe we put it off for another day.
Or, maybe we can’t bring ourselves to give up 
the creature comforts we like – 
like refrigerators full of food, and hot showers, 
and heat and air conditioning, and beds!
By the way, this is the value of making little sacrifices, 
like getting up early, or giving up chocolate and beer and cookies 
and video games – and I don’t mean just during Lent, either. 

I saw a program about Saint Thomas More the other day, 
and it mentioned that he wore something called a “hair shirt” – 
which was designed to be uncomfortable. 
That may seem odd, but when he ended up in prison 
because of his witness to the faith, 
I bet those little sacrifices he made, day by day, paid off – 
don’t you think?

The point is to free ourselves, so we can seek what really matters.

We might wonder why people go out into the desert like John.
There is a longing that some people feel – 
to put everything else aside so that they can draw closer to Christ – 
and for thousands of years, people have been going out into the desert, 
or into monasteries and cloisters, 
so that they could give themselves entirely to the Lord.

There may be some here who feel that longing, 
and you may not be sure what to do with it. 
If that’s you, you’re welcome to come see me, and we can talk about it.
But don’t simply ignore it; try to understand what it means.
It could mean many things.

Wherever it leads, don’t be alarmed, be grateful: 
because if you follow that longing, 
nothing will make you happier.
Now, back to John the Baptist. 
We know very little about what he did with his life, 
apart from a few details. So what makes him so great?
And the answer is really simple: he had a call from God, 
a unique role to play in God’s Plan, and he answered it. 

As measured by worldly standards, 
his accomplishments might not seem like much. 

Let me put this in modern terms. 
Suppose someone we knew decided to walk away from everything, 
and go out into the woods and build a shelter, and live there. 
Your friend, your relative, 
decides to live off of whatever he can find to eat there, 
and to wash his clothes in the creek. 

We all know what we’d think about that. 
Who wouldn’t try to talk our friend out of doing this?

There’s a funny detail that shows up over and over 
in the lives of the saints, whether it’s Thomas Aquinas, 
or Joan of Arc, or Francis of Assisi, or Dominic Savio, and hundreds more. 
There were family and friends who tried really, really, hard 
to talk them out of it.

And I’ve often wondered, what would it be like, 
to be that person who tried to talk a saint out of being a saint? 
Who wants to go down in history that way?

Picture the scene in heaven; you’re meeting people, 
and you ask this guy who is.
“I’m Thomas Aquinas; I was one of the greatest philosophers in Western Civilization.”

Nice! And you, who are you?

“Um, I’m his father. I tried to stop him.”

Chances are, God isn’t calling you to go live in a cave or up a tree; 
but he may be calling you to something very different 
from what everyone else thinks makes sense. 
He may call you to give your life totally to him 
as a sister, a brother, a priest. 

And if you wonder what difference it will make, 
think of John the Baptist. 
God chose him for one brief, shining moment in history: 
to be the voice who cried out, “Behold the Lamb of God.” 
It might not have been much, 
but it was enough for Jesus to say of John, 
“among those born of women 
there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”

Whatever our task may be, whatever sacrifice we might have to make, 
won’t it be worth it, to have Jesus speak words like that of us, 
when we stand before him some day?

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Hail, Kecharitomene! (Immaculate Conception homily)

In what way does this depict the Immaculate Conception? See note below!

There is frequently confusion about what we are celebrating today. 
I am determined to correct this mistake every chance I get.

Pop quiz: whose conception – whose beginning of life – 
are we commemorating today? 
If you answer, “Jesus,” I’m sorry, that’s wrong.
Rather, it’s Mary’s conception; 
it’s Mary who is conceived immaculately, or, without sin.

We mark Jesus’ conception on March 25, 
nine months before Christmas.
Today we recall when Mary was conceived 
in the womb of her mother, Ann. 
Mary’s birthday comes nine months later, September 8.

So, again, the Immaculate Conception is about how Mary began her life. 

The mistake is understandable, 
in part because the Gospel reading 
talks mostly about Jesus being conceived. 
Even so, this Gospel reading is still the right one, 
because it is the place where the Bible 
most clearly points to Mary’s Immaculate Conception. 

First, we have a single, powerful word, in the original Greek: 
kecharitomene. This is the word we translate, “full of grace.”
Biblical scholars like to point out that kecharitomene
is a very unusual word – unique, in fact; 
it appears nowhere else in the Bible 
or even in secular literature of the period. 
That’s because it’s an unusual construction of the Greek verb 
meaning “to grace” or “to favor.”

Let’s notice a couple of things. First, it’s a greeting. 
This isn’t a statement about Mary; 
it’s the name Heaven gives to Mary; it’s who God says she is. 
And it isn’t something she did, but rather, something God did in her. 

So here’s the thing: “full of grace” is true, as far as it goes; 
but it doesn’t actually go far enough. 

Here’s a more literal sense of what the Archangel Gabriel said to Mary:
Hail, You who have been, and now are, 
perfectly, completely, and uniquely graced.
Get that? Mary was, and remains, 
perfectly, completely, and uniquely graced by God.

So here’s why that means Mary was untouched by sin, 
even from her first moment of existence:
Because if she had ever been touched by sin, even for a moment, 
it would not be true that she was “perfectly and completely” graced. For that to be true, she had to be completely free from sin, 
and completely full of grace, as full as full can be!

Then there is another detail in this passage that confirms this. 
Later, Gabriel says, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” 

This is an unusual phrase, used only a few times in Scripture, 
as  when the Glory of God overshadowed the tent of meeting, 
which was where God’s People gathered to worship the Lord. 
Let me quote a part of that:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting,
and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
Moses could not enter the tent of meeting,
because the cloud settled down upon it
and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:24-25)

Now, that primarily refers to Jesus being conceived in Mary, 
which, again, we commemorate on March 25. 
But here’s the thing. The tent of meeting, 
before it was filled with God’s Glory, 
was already perfectly prepared. 

In the chapters before this happened, 
God describes in great detail exactly 
how the tent of meeting was to be built 
by the artisans and craftsmen of Israel. 
Remember, Moses was up on the mountain for 40 days and this is why – 
God described everything in exact detail. It had to be perfect. 

So what Gabriel’s words mean is that Mary is that tabernacle, 
first made perfect by the Divine Craftsman, 
in preparation for being “overshadowed by the Most High.”

Here’s a beautiful quote by Blessed John Duns Scotus, 
who played a major role in understanding 
Mary’s conception without sin. He asked:

"Would the God of justice and mercy grant the first Eve, 
who He foreknew would betray Him, a greater glory in her creation 
than He would give the second Eve, 
who He foreknew would be His handmaid forever?"

And, of course, the answer is no!

St. John Chrysostom wrote a hymn about Mary; here are a few lines:

Hail, Kecharitomene, unreaped land of heavenly grain.  
Hail, Kecharitomene, virgin mother, true and unfailing vine.  
…faultless one carrying the immutable divinity.  
…habitation of holy fire. 
…golden urn, containing heavenly manna.  
…spiritual sea who holds Christ, the heavenly pearl.  
Hail, Kecharitomene, pillar of cloud containing God, 
and guiding Israel in the wilderness.

Yes, it can be a little confusing today, but it can’t be helped, 
because Mary’s creation, as the Immaculate Mother, 
is all about her Son. 
She was lovingly created, without any stain, 
in anticipation of the day she would give her loving consent 
to be the Mother of the Messiah.

Today is like a little Christmas.
Today, Mary begins her life, filled with light.
On Christmas, that light dawns into the world.

How does the image above depict the Immaculate Conception? I learned this when I was preparing a presentation for the people of Immaculata Church, in Cincinnati, about the lovely art that graces that church. This image is meant to show Mary's soul, at the instant of its creation.

From the cutting-room floor, some notes I didn't include in my homily, for the sake of brevity:

Contrast between first and second Adam:

1st Adam retreats from evil; 2nd Adam goes into battle against evil in the desert, and again in the garden.

1st Adam says nothing when enemy lies and seduces; 2nd Adam is always silencing demons.

1st Adam shrinks from fear of harm; 2nd Adam accepts the cup of suffering.

1st Adam lets his bride be ruined, and follows her; 2nd Adam sacrifices himself for his bride, and thus purifies her.

This doctrine and this feast is a powerful answer to all who demean women, or who think Christianity demeans women. It is not God, but sinful Adam, who demeans the woman. Notice how, when God confronts Adam about his failure, he doesn’t own up to it, but rather blames God and the woman for the catastrophe.

God puts a woman at the center of the drama of salvation, first in Eve; finally in Mary.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

What is hope? Where is our hope anchored? (Sunday homily)

In the second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Roman Church, 
he said that the Scriptures were written for us 
“that we might have hope.”

What is hope?

Elsewhere in this same letter, Saint Paul explained that 
The gaze of hope is fixed on that which lies ahead--
it isn’t something you already have.
That’s why it’s true to say that in heaven, there is no hope!

Sounds strange to say, doesn’t it?
But it’s true: if we make it to heaven, and we have the fullness of life,
the enjoyment of God’s love and beauty and truth--
if we have all that, then at that point, what would we hope for? 
Heaven is the hope!

So: hope looks forward.

But then the question comes to mind:
just what do we fix our hope on?
Is it really true that heaven is what we are hoping for?

I think a lot of folks around us set their hopes a lot lower.
A few years ago, I saw a survey about the British people,
that something like a quarter of them say,
well, there might be a God,
but they don’t think they can know anything about God for sure.

I didn’t find a survey for the U.S.,
But lots of people here think the same thing, don’t they?

So what that means is that if we have
some hope of good after this life,
it ends up being pretty vague.

So let me ask you – is that really hope? 

In the meantime, what we see around us,
what we can obtain here, all that is pretty definite.
So that’s what a lot of people focus on.

Let me give some examples of how we do that.

When we look at what’s on TV, or in the movies, 
or in whatever else we turn to for entertainment: 
how much is about what heaven is like – 
versus, what your next meal, or your next vacation looks like?

How much of our time do we spend with reading or entertainment 
that turns our gaze to what ultimately matters?
How much of our time is about the ephemeral and not the eternal?

Hope is an anchor we cast forward. 
Where have we anchored our hope:
In our job? Our own abilities and plans? 
In political candidates and causes?

Without realizing it, we fix our hopes here, in this world..
We set our sights on finding happiness here.
And the more we do that, do you realize what that means?
We’re people without hope--
because, as Saint Paul said, hope is what we look forward to;
but if we have everything we think we want,
there’s nothing left to hope for.

Pope Francis, in the letter he wrote a few years ago,
called the “Joy of the Gospel,”
talks about the “great danger in today’s world,
pervaded as it is by consumerism,”
which leads to “the desolation and anguish
of a complacent yet covetous heart…

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up
in its own interests and concerns,”
he writes--and with the “pursuit of frivolous pleasures,”
there is no longer “room for others,” for doing good;
and in fact, God’s voice is no longer heard.

This is where celibacy, in Christianity, is unique.
In other religions, it’s about denial.
In Buddhism, the goal is the negation of all desire.
But not in Christianity!

For us, celibacy is about the resurrection.
It’s about expectation--and hope!

If you’re on your way to a great dinner,
You don’t stop and eat on the way.

And therefore, when people see that you passed up
a really splendid, extraordinary dinner,
then that means
what you’re waiting for must be truly awesome!

That’s what it means for a brother, a sister and a priest 
who passes up marriage and family; 
it’s a sign that they’ve cast their anchor all the way to heaven.
Which reminds each of us to do the same in our own lives.

And, speaking of our religious sisters, 
remember them in the second collection next week; 
this is for their retirement fund, which needs bolstering. 

It isn’t for the parish – we have needs too, 
as I explained two weeks ago. 

It isn’t for priests of the archdiocese, 
it isn’t for my retirement; but rather, 
for those sisters and brothers 
who gave everything away to serve Christ. 
Many here were taught by nuns, 
including in Russia School at one time!
This is a way we can repay them.

But to return to the theme of hope, 
I want to say something about eternity.
It’s hard to know what eternal life might be like; 
it’s hard to visualize. 
But let me offer a theory: if we aren’t looking for something,
it’s a lot less likely that we’ll find it. 
Do you think that’s true? 
If we aren’t looking for something, we are far less likely to see it.

If someone told you there was a mineral, a rock, 
in the ground, around here, 
that’s very valuable – it’s needed for computers and medical research – 
and if you could find just small quantities of it, 
you would make a really big profit. 
And if you decided to go into that business, 
what would be the first thing you’d do?

Wouldn’t your first step be to find out 
what that mineral looked like?
In fact, wouldn’t you try to find out 
everything you could about it?

Well, there’s a place called heaven, 
and there’s a Savior named Jesus, 
whose our only sure way to get there. 
So our first step is kind of obvious, isn’t it?

Friday, December 02, 2016

Rorate Mass in Russia

An ancient tradition was revived in Russia, Ohio, this morning, at Saint Remy Church. I offered a Rorate Mass, although it was in the Ordinary Form, rather than the usus antiquor.

What is a Rorate Mass? Here's a nice explanation (pictures at the link):

The Rorate Caeli Mass is a traditional Advent devotion wherein the Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary for Advent is offered just before dawn. In many instances families and individuals travel an hour or more, rising and arriving very early for this stunningly beautiful Mass. The interplay of light and darkness speak to the meaning of Advent and the coming of the Light of the world.

The Mass takes its title, Rorate Caeli, from the first words of the Introit, which are from Isaiah 45:8:

Rorate, caeli, desuper, et nubes pluant justum, aperiatur terra, et germinet Salvatorem.”

“Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened and bud forth a Saviour.”

The Rorate Mass is lit only by candlelight. Because it is a votive Mass in Mary’s honor, white vestments are worn instead of Advent violet. In the dimly lit setting, priests and faithful prepare to honor the Light of the world, Who is soon to be born, and offer praise to God for the gift of Our Lady. As the Mass proceeds and sunrise approaches, the church becomes progressively brighter, illumined by the sun as our Faith is illumined by Christ.

We didn't need to have Mass at a special time; Mass on first Friday, during the school year, is always at 7 am, so I figured that would work. It was certainly before dawn. I told people ahead of time, of course, and I kept a few lights on in church before Mass. It would have been even nicer to have everyone enter church without lights, but that's a bit impractical.

We did use the proper chants, in English, which you can find here; our music director sang them beautifully, despite a nagging cold. I'm told the altar was lovely, light only with candles; it was striking to see everyone's faces, lit only by candlelight. I'm sorry I didn't think to ask someone to take a photo.

While this was a votive Mass for our Lady, I elected to use the readings of the day; they fit very well.
I pondered using incense, and maybe we'll do that next year; as well as trying it at the high altar (i.e., ad orientem).

Were you there? What did you think?