She Pondered These Things in her Heart

figurine

For the past ten years my Christmas begins and ends with the noise and frenzy of an airport, the fuss associated with air travel, and the grogginess of jet lag.

It is filled with the excitement of counting down to the days “till I fly home” and then the bittersweet countdown to the day I have to fly back.

Knowing that the number of days I have left at home is dwindling often fills me with an anxiety that leads to trying to see everyone, go everywhere and do everything that I can only see, go and do at home. Usually, as the G force of the plane taking off over the mountains pushes me into my seat, I suddenly realize “I forgot to see X.”

This past New Years day the pastor at my parish in Vancouver gave a short, beautiful homily (at the request of some of the readers and Eucharistic ministers who gave him the mandate to “keep it short and not too loud”). He spoke of the line in Gospel that tells us Mary saw everything that was happening around the birth of her son and “pondered these things in her heart.”

Maybe it was the way he paused after saying “she pondered these things in her heart” that created a deep sense of peace in the church.

I thought to myself, what if I ponder too?

What if, as the homily suggested, I ponder the year past and try to recognize the lines that were clearly not written by me, but by a divine pen? What if I try not to count the hours and minutes left at home, but absorb the experience of being at home; Of sharing coffee and cookies with my parents, of walking over to a relative’s house, unannounced, in the coastal mist, of waking up to a view of the mountains, of listening to an elderly aunt tell the story of our how our family came be in Canada, of helping to hastily organize a family dinner for 12 due to a freak power outage?

When I stopped counting and started pondering everything, even the freak power outage, seemed less like a sign pointing to an end and more like a gift.

(CNS Photo/Paul Haring)

Study the Scriptures and recapture the magic of Christmas

Nativity2I think the reason we love the Christmas season is because it evokes so many memories from our childhood, whether it’s playing board games, decorating the Christmas tree, singing carols, or just the excitement of a visit from Santa that sparks feelings of generosity and thankfulness in everyone.  But doesn’t it seem like there was a bit more magic at Christmas time when we were kids?  Things were much simpler too, but they were magical in their simplicity.

If you sense a fading of Christmas magic in your adult life, as I have at times, it can always be tested by looking at the traditions that we’ve held on to and continue year after year.  And probably the most widespread and important tradition for us as Catholics is the reading of the Nativity stories found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  I remember learning those stories in elementary school and hearing them at Mass on Christmas Eve, and they were always so heart-warming.  They were magical; at times I expected the figures in our Nativity scene to come to life.

There is something magical and simple about a child being born as Jesus was, in a humble setting watched over by his parents and, in Luke’s version that we heard this past Christmas, some local shepherds.

But, as I said, the magic and simplicity tend to weaken in potency as we enter our adult years.  And I know I’m not the only person to notice it.  G.K. Chesterton called it a loss of “elementary wonder.”  “A child of seven,” he wrote, “is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon.  But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.” (Orthodoxy)  As adults it takes much more than even a dragon to spark our sense of wonder, and even then you might succumb, as I often do, to a certain adult scepticism.  It’s as if over time we grow immune to the power of wonder and magic.

Well, an interesting thing has been happening to me over the past few years.  I’ve discovered a new, more profound sense of wonder in the same old Nativity stories.  And I attribute it, not to a recovery of the childlike reading of Scripture of my past, but to a modern, scientific reading that our Church has adopted wholeheartedly in the last sixty years or so.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.” (CCC, 109)  And following this, “The reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current.” (CCC, 110) 

Countless volumes have been written as commentary on the Nativity stories by Catholic scholars, and I do not intend to offer a modern interpretation of them here.  But this insistence on uncovering what the writers of the Gospels really wanted us to know about the birth of Jesus is both fascinating and challenging.  As I listened to Luke’s familiar narrative at Mass on Christmas Eve a few weeks ago, I asked myself these questions: do I really know what Luke is telling us here?  Am I familiar with the Church’s methods of interpreting the sacred Scriptures today?  Am I missing the whole point of the story out of ignorance?

And suddenly I was struck by a profound sense of wonder at our two thousand year old Scriptural tradition.  What an amazing thing the Word of God must be that its revelations are not static but rather perennially dynamic; that the Church, with all its rules and regulations, strict guidelines and careful assessments, does not try to impose limits on our understanding of Jesus and what his birth meant for the world.  The Church is always drawing us deeper into the mystery through the tools of our day, tools that may even have been suspect only a few generations ago.

It seems to me that our sense of wonder must grow and develop with us.  If we feel that the magic of Christmas has somehow been lost over the years, perhaps it is only a more profound invitation to know the Christ child more intimately, that is, more maturely.  And if we accept that invitation and act on it intelligently, the magic of Christmas might return in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

Photo courtesy of Catholic News Service

So this is Christmas….

ice storm
Who doesn’t know the familiar song by John Lennon?

Toronto is hit by an ice storm, over 600.000 households without power, large branches cover the streets and live cables are hanging loose, but in our hearts we’re confident that power will be restored soon enough, and Christmas is still some days away; no reason to panic.

The 22nd passes, no power. The 23rd, no power and the indoor temperature is eight degrees by now, no warm water, no light and nowhere to go. Hydro Toronto is working around the clock to re-establish power, but so far I haven’t seen any trucks in our dark neighbourhood, and Christmas is inching closer….

It’s Dec 24, 7.00am and I wake up in a cold house with temperature of around three degrees indoors, and at this point it’s obvious we can’t stay here any longer. During the week I have to cover shifts at work to ensure the broadcast, so I pack a change of clothes, towel and toothbrush and head for the S+L office, still hoping and praying that power will be restored during the day and all will be back to normal to celebrate Christmas later tonight.

But as time passes reality hits: It’s now 8pm on the 24th, still no power back home; I’m at work, alone, no Christmas meal planned and no warm house to go to…

“So this is Christmas…”

I ‘Google’ for the closest Midnight Mass, which turns out to be at St. Michael’s Cathedral and after Mass I pass by McDonald’s for a meal and head back to S+L where I fix the couch in our studios and prepare myself for an uncomfortable night. While I’m lying in our dark studio waiting for sleep to come, I reflect on what it is that makes christmas Christmas?

Well, earlier I had had a good laugh with the security guard to whom I usually don’t talk and I have to admit that I did feel a certain warmth at McDonald’s where we had wished each other a Merry Christmas.

I thought about the hydro workers who were without their families as well and prayed for them. I thought about all those people at Mass and wondered how many of them had power at home.

But most of all I thought about St. Joseph and how he had to take care of his family during the night, without power, without a place to go and I felt a deep love and closeness to the Holy Family like I had never felt during Christmas before.

So maybe this is Christmas; sharing each other’s hardships, paying attention to the love of those around us and making sure that that love becomes a mutual love.

jeroenJeroen Van Der Biezen is the Master Control Manager at S+L. He took the photo in his backyard during the latest ice storm in Toronto. His power came back 2 days after Christmas: Deo Gratias!

Our Christmas Gift

Baby Gianna_crop

This post was written by Richard Valenti, one of our editors at Salt +Light. He has been with S+L since the beginning. He and his wife, former S+L producer Mary Rose Bacani, welcomed their second child over the holidays.

It was a dark and stormy night. The night of Toronto’s worst ice storm. Inside the house, I was madly preparing for something far scarier for me than the ice storm. My wife was about to give birth at home to our second child! How does one really prepare for a home birth, which we’ve never done before? At 12:30 in the morning of Sunday, December 22nd, my wife told me it was time and that the midwives were coming.  I hurriedly moved the desk, linens and other materials for the birth to our bedroom.  At 1:30 am, it was all about waiting for the midwives to arrive.

At 2 am, they arrived. They apologized that the drive to our place took twice as long because of it. Power was going on and off throughout the city. Do I have flashlights, they asked while assembling their equipment.  Yes, I nervously said, hoping that we wouldn’t be giving birth in darkness. Then our primary midwife examined my wife and said, “In less than an hour, your child will be born.”

My wife was amazing; she was calm throughout the whole labour, although I knew it was so painful for her. In fact, there was such a peacefulness inside our home despite the raging storm outside. At 2:55 am, our baby girl Gianna was born, and my wife’s first words right after were, “Go get Chiara.” Our first child Chiara was sleeping in her room, and we knew she would want to see her baby sister right away.

So there we were, in the safety of our home, together as a family, and in our pajamas! There was a serenity and warmth about everything. We didn’t have to stay overnight in a hospital while Chiara was somewhere else, and then have to travel back home on icy roads. Chiara was also able to kiss her newly-arrived baby sister and enjoy time with her. Soon after the midwives left, we all huddled together around the baby and fell asleep.

I was thinking of how two days later, we would be celebrating the birth of Jesus. I felt I could relate a little bit to Joseph. He must have been nervous about the birth, too! But I felt that I experienced some of the atmosphere at Jesus’ birth — the naturalness, privacy and peace about it all. We were blessed to have been able to enjoy the birth experience. It was a great Christmas moment, a wonderful Christmas gift.

(Photo: Richard Valenti)

New Year’s resolutions

Deacon Pedro in Venezuela
I don’t know about you, but I stopped making resolutions for the New Year, years ago. It’s not that I wasn’t keeping my resolutions (well… sometimes) but that it all seemed so arbitrary. We should always be trying to improve, no? So why only do it at the end of the year? It’s sort of like Lent. We give things up for Lent as penance, but deep down inside we figure that if the penance also improves us, then we win twice.

Maybe it is just me.

For the last couple of years I’ve resolved (however) to do less during Christmas. It’s so easy to get so busy at this time that we lose focus on what the season is really about. I have to admit that my whole family has gotten really good at this: We’re holed up (literally) for two weeks. And if there is a lot of snow, cold or ice storms, even better! My resolution to spend time with family was not that hard this year.

But since my ordination in May 2012, it’s been a bit harder to do less. On top of work and family commitments, I now have Parish and diaconal commitments and at this time of the year, these usually include many parishioners inviting the deacon to dinner, coffee, dessert or whatever gathering they may be having. I can’t do them all, but my resolution is to do one of these a year.

The other thing that has changed is that I now receive many more chocolates than I used to for Christmas. It’s very important to appreciate and thank people who work for the Church and so I do not object in principle to giving gifts to the deacon, but gifts of cash do make me uncomfortable. My resolution is to take all that cash and donate it to a charity.

I also try to do a bit more reading during my Christmas break. This year I’m reading Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Envangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel. I don’t think I’ll finish it before my break is over, but I don’t have to stop reading when the break is over. So far I’ve been moved by his call to all pastoral workers (I guess that includes all deacons and all of us at Salt + Light, so it includes me) to see our call to evangelize as who we are and not just as an extension of ourselves or our work (EG#78). That sounds like, “stop complaining that you don’t have any free time or time for your family.” But what he’s really saying is that I don’t complain about having to be a husband 24/7 because it’s who I am. I don’t take a break from that. We evangelize because it’s who we are. We evangelize because we love. Evangelizing is loving. That’s all.

My resolution is to love more and complain less.

I’ve never told you, but I love preaching. It’s one of my favourite things about being a deacon. Because in my parish there are two priests and two deacons, I only get to preach about once a month. Last year I only preached once during Advent and then once again at the end of January. But this year the first Sunday in Advent found me in Venezuela where I had the chance to serve at a Mass at a local Parish in Maracaibo and then speak to the congregation after Mass. Back home, I had the opportunity to preach for two Sundays of Advent as well as for our parish’s High School Christmas Mass. This was perhaps the highlight of my Advent season. But God has a sense of humour. The Gospel reading for that day was Matthew 1:1-17, the genealogy of Jesus! Always a good Gospel reading for a high school Mass. Preachers do love a good challenge. My resolution is to take as many opportunities to preach as possible (this one actually makes me a little afraid – I guess I still have to get to that part of Evangelii Gaudium).

My parish, Holy Martyrs of Japan in Bradford, Ontario, has a Spanish-speaking community and we have a Mass in Spanish every Sunday. It is the only Mass in Spanish north of Toronto, so it is fairly well attended. Since last year we’ve been offering a Christmas Eve Mass in Spanish. It was well attended last year. This year, our priest said to me, “I’ve been a priest for 25 years and have preached at many Christmas masses. You preach this year.”

“Sure,” I said.

The issue when preaching for me is not standing in front of a group of people and speaking. I can do that just fine. The problem is having something to say. That’s really up to the Holy Spirit. And Christmas is one of those occasions when you can make your homilies a little different, a bit more creative. What to do? What to say?

I looked at the readings and I discovered that the Gospel for Christmas Eve Mass in the evening is Matthew 1:1-25: The genealogy of Jesus, and then some. Thanks.

My resolution: Let the Spirit do his thing.

And so what came out (and by this I don’t mean that I winged it – I prepared extensively) was what really had been in my heart: Family, helping those who need help and proclaiming the Word.

Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? God comes into the world into a family (and into our families) so we can get to him and calls us to lovingly proclaim that Good News in word and deed. That’s not just what Christmas is about, but what our whole Christian life is about. This is why I think the whole world is so taken by Pope Francis: He feels like he’s family and he talks the talk, but he also walks it. Those are always the best teachers, said Pope Paul VI: The ones who are witnesses first.

Today I went in for a quick, half hour meeting with my pastor to finalize our prayer service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I came out two and half hours later, with seven dates in my calendar: More opportunities to preach, to serve and to help build up marriages and families; More of preaching the Gospel with joy. No complaints. My resolution: Let the Spirit do his thing.

So much for no resolutions!

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Photo: Deacon Pedro proclaiming the Gospel on the first Sunday in Advent at San Ramón Nonato Parish in Maracaibo, Venezuela.

Mary, Mother of God, Mother for all

Madonna-and-Child

On December 31, 2013, Pope Francis prayed year-end Vespers in St. Peter’s Basilica. Vespers began at 5 PM  with Pope Francis presiding over the prayers that constitute the Church’s official, public praise of God in the evening of the last day of the year, to be followed by the singing of the great hymn of gratitude in faith, the Te Deum, and the worship of the Blessed Sacrament before the giving of the blessing of the Eucharistic Lord.

In his homily, Pope Francis focused on the sense of history that permeates the life of those whose lives are signed by faith in Jesus Christ. “The biblical and Christian vision of time and history,” he said, “is not cyclical, but linear: it is a path that leads towards a conclusion.” He explained that the passing year does not represent an end in itself, but a step on the way towards a reality that is to be completed – another step toward the goal that lies ahead of us: a place of hope and happiness, because we will meet God, the Reason of our hope and Source of our joy.

Pope Francis went on to say that, as the year 2013 comes to an end, we collect, as in a basket, the days, the weeks, the months that we have lived, to offer everything to the Lord.

Pope Francis concluded, inviting everyone to look toward the new year, in a spirit of gratitude for that, which we have received, repentance for that, in which we have failed, and resolve to work with God’s grace to better our lives, our communities and ourselves.

On Wednesday, January 1, 2014, Pope Francis welcomed the new year with a solemn morning mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, calling the faithful to look to Mary as a Mother to all and messenger of hope.

Here is the official English translation of the Holy Father’s Homily:

In the first reading we find the ancient prayer of blessing which God gave to Moses to hand on to Aaron and his sons: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26). There is no more meaningful time than the beginning of a new year to hear these words of blessing: they will accompany our journey through the year opening up before us. They are words of strength, courage and hope. Not an illusory hope, based on frail human promises, or a naïve hope which presumes that the future will be better simply because it is the future. Rather, it is a hope that has its foundation precisely in God’s blessing, a blessing which contains the greatest message of good wishes there can be; and this is the message which the Church brings to each of us, filled with the Lord’s loving care and providential help.

The message of hope contained in this blessing was fully realized in a woman, Mary, who was destined to become the Mother of God, and it was fulfilled in her before any other creature.

The Mother of God! This is the first and most important title of Our Lady. It refers to a quality, a role which the faith of the Christian people, in its tender and genuine devotion to our heavenly Mother, has understood from the beginning.

We recall that great moment in the history of the ancient Church, the Council of Ephesus, in which the divine motherhood of the Virgin Mary was authoritatively defined. The truth of her divine maternity found an echo in Rome where, a little later, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major was built, the first Marian shrine in Rome and in the entire West, in which the image of the Mother of God – the Theotokos – is venerated under the title of Salus Populi Romani. It is said that the residents of Ephesus used to gather at the gates of the basilica where the bishops were meeting and shout, “Mother of God!”. The faithful, by asking them to officially define this title of Our Lady, showed that they acknowledged her divine motherhood. Theirs was the spontaneous and sincere reaction of children who know their Mother well, for they love her with immense tenderness.

Mary has always been present in the hearts, the piety and above all the pilgrimage of faith of the Christian people. “The Church journeys through time… and on this journey she proceeds along the path already trodden by the Virgin Mary” (Redemptoris Mater, 2). Our journey of faith is the same as that of Mary, and so we feel that she is particularly close to us. As far as faith, the hinge of the Christian life, is concerned, the Mother of God shared our condition. She had to take the same path as ourselves, a path which is sometimes difficult and obscure. She had to advance in the “pilgrimage of faith” (Lumen Gentium, 58).

Our pilgrimage of faith has been inseparably linked to Mary ever since Jesus, dying on the Cross, gave her to us as our Mother, saying: “Behold your Mother!” (Jn 19:27). These words serve as a testament, bequeathing to the world a Mother. From that moment on, the Mother of God also became our Mother! When the faith of the disciples was most tested by difficulties and uncertainties, Jesus entrusted them to Mary, who was the first to believe, and whose faith would never fail. The “woman” became our Mother when she lost her divine Son. Her sorrowing heart was enlarged to make room for all men and women, whether good or bad, and she loves them as she loved Jesus. The woman who at the wedding at Cana in Galilee gave her faith-filled cooperation so that the wonders of God could be displayed in the world, at Calvary kept alive the flame of faith in the resurrection of her Son, and she communicates this with maternal affection to each and every person. Mary becomes in this way a source of hope and true joy!

The Mother of the Redeemer goes before us and continually strengthens us in faith, in our vocation and in our mission. By her example of humility and openness to God’s will she helps us to transmit our faith in a joyful proclamation of the Gospel to all, without reservation. In this way our mission will be fruitful, because it is modeled on the motherhood of Mary. To her let us entrust our journey of faith, the desires of our heart, our needs and the needs of the whole world, especially of those who hunger and thirst for justice and peace. Let us then together invoke her: Holy Mother of God!

The Tedious Journey to Truth and Joy

Magi cropped

Solemnity of the Epiphany – Sunday, January 5, 2014

The word “epiphany” means “to show forth.”  Epiphanies, both large and small, tend to be private events- yet events with great significance for the public.  Trying to share the details with another of an epiphany is fraught with complications.  The words are never quite right, and even the most sympathetic listener cannot fully bridge the gap between description and what is was like being there.  Most of us keep our personal experiences of the Holy to ourselves.  Who would believe it?  And who would really understand?  The irony is that epiphanies are made for sharing, even as they are impossible to communicate fully.

Jesus is Messiah and Lord from the beginning

This is certainly the case of today’s extraordinary Gospel story for the solemn feast of the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the feast par excellence of the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. Today the Church celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, and also commemorates two other important moments of public revelation of Jesus to the world: at his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.

The purpose of the whole magi story is clearly Christological.  The foreigners are Gentiles, illustrating the universal breadth of the good news brought by the “king of the Jews.”  They are people of good will, open to God, ready to hear and follow the call of God.  They are people willing to follow a star, wherever it might lead.  Open and starry-eyes, they are naive, guileless, easily taken-in by self-serving priests and murderous kings.  They are romantic and lovable figures, pursing the truth and searching for a deep and abiding joy that the world cannot give.

A tragic, adult story

If we read Matthew’s Gospel story carefully, we realize that far from being a children’s tale, it is a tragic adult story.  Matthew’s shows us that right at the beginning of the story of Jesus, the one who is to rule Israel is greeted with the cheers of some and the fearful fury of others. The future rejection of Jesus by Israel and his acceptance by the Gentiles are retrojected (read back) into this scene of the narrative.

Matthew begins his story of the magi with the words: “In the days of King Herod…[2:1].”  Herod reigned from 37 to 4 B.C.  “Magi” was originally a designation of the Persian priestly caste, and the word became used of those who were regarded as having more than human knowledge. Matthew’s Magi are astrologers, searching the heavens for new signs and wonders.

Matthew draws upon the Old Testament story of Balaam, who had prophesied that “a star shall rise from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17), though there the star means not a phenomenon of the distant heavens but the king himself. Unlike the poor shepherds, the Magi had to travel a long road; they had to face adversity to reach their goal. It was anything but a romantic, sentimental pilgrimage that we often see in our manger scenes!

The Magis’ coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations.  Their coming to Jesus means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

What does the story mean for us?

When we read the story of the turmoil the child Jesus brought into the lives of Mary, Joseph, the Magi, Herod, the whole of Jerusalem, and all the newborn babies of Bethlehem — we are forced to ask ourselves whether the adult Christ challenges and moves our lives in the same way.  When we read the story of the shepherds and their vision of angelic choirs, we discover anew how God can break into our life as well.  In remembering and reliving the angelic roles in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the veil that separates us from the world of the spirit is drawn back.  The experience of the Magi reminds us that all who make the tedious journey to the truth will finally encounter it and be changed in the process. They can never go back to a “business as usual” way of life. When we meet Christ and see who he really is, we will never be the same — and only then can we hope to begin to share in his mission.

True joy

The great English Christian writer and apologist C.S. Lewis is associated more than anything else with his use of the word “joy.” It is interesting that he used it, not so much to describe his sense of the abiding presence of God, as to speak of the ongoing longing for God.  The story of the Magi and the brightness of the star in the heavens evokes profound feelings despite the fact that, as with many other signs of the sacred, it runs the risk at times of being emptied of its meaning.  The star we contemplate in the manger also speaks to the mind and heart of the men and women of our time.  The journey of the Magi and the star speak to our secularized culture, awakening in our contemporaries the nostalgia of our condition as pilgrims in search of truth, of the absolute desire, and of a deep, abiding joy.

Speaking of joy, I encourage you to read section #123 of Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini about the “The word and joy.”

“…In God’s word, we too have heard, we too have seen and touched the Word of life. We have welcomed by grace the proclamation that eternal life has been revealed, and thus we have come to acknowledge our fellowship with one another, with those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, and with all those who throughout the world hear the word, celebrate the Eucharist and by their lives bear witness to charity. This proclamation has been shared with us – the Apostle John reminds us – so that “our joy may be complete” (1 Jn 1:4). 

“The synodal assembly enabled us to experience all that Saint John speaks of: the proclamation of the word creates communion and brings about joy. This is a profound joy which has its origin in the very heart of the trinitarian life and which is communicated to us in the Son. This joy is an ineffable gift which the world cannot give. Celebrations can be organized, but not joy. According to the Scripture, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 5:22) who enables us to enter into the word and enables the divine word to enter into us and to bear fruit for eternal life. By proclaiming God’s word in the power of the Holy Spirit, we also wish to share the source of true joy, not a superficial and fleeting joy, but the joy born of the awareness that the Lord Jesus alone has words of everlasting life (cf. Jn 6:68).”

The true work of Christmas

In the end, the Magi went their own way, and because they refused to be seduced by cynicism, because they allowed themselves to be surprised by this great joy, the star to which they had committed themselves appeared again. This is not only the description of the times into which Jesus was born, but also our times. When we have found our lasting joy in the midst of the encircling gloom, cynicism, despair, indifference and meaninglessness, the only thing to do is to kneel and adore, as did those foreign seekers long ago in Bethlehem.

If we are truly wise, let us do what the wise astrologers did. When we hear the voice of the old king of death and fear and cynicism, let us have the courage to go our own way — rejoicing. The star and the journey will send us onwards, by newer paths, to come into the presence of the Child of Light and the Prince of Peace, who is the fulfillment of humanity’s deepest hopes and desires for light, justice, love and peace.

Today we can truly exclaim, with deep and abiding joy: Lord, every nation on earth will adore you!  This poem from the Shaker tradition illustrates what the real work of Christmas and of Christ is all about:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings are back home,
When the shepherds are once more with their flocks,
When Simeon and Anna have gone to their Master in peace,
Then the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, to heal the broken,
To release the prisoners, to rebuild nations,
To bring peace to all people,
To make music in the heart.  Amen.

[The readings for the Solemnity of the Epiphany are: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; and Matthew 2:1-12.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Christmas and Pope Francis

top and pope crop

The following is an article written by Fr. Thomas Rosica for The Windsor Star, looking at how Christmas at the Vatican was different this year with Pope Francis at the helm.

Nine months after the momentous papal election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Vicar of Christ on earth, Supreme Pontiff and Bishop of Rome, many in the world stand in awe at how this 77-year-old man has captivated humanity in such a short period of time. His free gestures, his connection with people, especially those who are broken, sick, poor, destitute and living on the fringes of society have made the world stop and listen.

Working in the business of media in my role as head of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Television Network, many of my more cynical colleagues in the “secular” world have teased me about the Pope. They say: “You folks did it well! You must have paid a fortune to fix the brand, market the product and get your message out! It must have cost you a fortune!”

I smile and tell them that it cost us nothing. No one could have ever planned such a thing and a result as what we have witnessed since that cold, rainy, March night when Pope Francis made his debut on the world stage. If ever I believed in the Holy Spirit, it was during that conclave and on that night … and I saw it all up close as I was working in the Holy See Press Office a the Vatican throughout the Papal transition. This was God’s doing and the Holy Spirit’s action and not ours.

The heart and soul, the spirituality of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is about human faces: the face of Christ, of Joseph and Mary, of Saints Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and Peter Faber. And the Pope sees the face of God in the face of the poor, the weak, the broken, the elderly and helpless children. Over the past nine months, his words both attract and perplex. They are an unvarnished call for the church and every Christian to undergo reform by standing under the gaze of Christ. In the transforming light of that face, everything else follows.

Pope Francis is a world leader preaching a global transformation, a new stimulus to international activity on behalf of the poor, inspired by something more than mere goodwill, or, worse, promises which all too often have not been kept. He acknowledges a “globalization of indifference” that has swept over the world and made us turn our backs to those most in need. He disarmingly makes us deeply uncomfortable in a way that allows us to recognize and confront the alienation from our own humanity that occurs when we seek happiness in objects rather than in relationship with God and others.

Pope Francis rejects an elitist church. He also rejects the reduction of Catholicism to hot-topic moral issues. He does not want to reduce the church to discussions of abortion, gay marriage, contraception and homosexuality. In his comments, he makes a distinction between dogmatic and moral teachings, reminding us that they do not hold the same weight. With Pope Francis, the church must re-enter public discourse with a full-throated defense of the common good that rises above bitter partisan divisions.

To be a church for the poor, the Church must elevate the issue of poverty to the very top of its political agenda, establishing poverty alongside abortion as the pre-eminent moral issues the Catholic community pursues at this moment in our national histories. Each of those issues, poverty and abortion, constitute an assault on the very core of the dignity of the human person.

Pope Francis sees and understands the Church to be a reconciler and a house of reconciliation. For him, faith enters the church through the heart of the poor, not through the heads of intellectuals. “Only the beauty of God can attract.” He reawakens in us a desire to call strangers neighbours in order to make known his beauty.

He wants the Church to speak a simple message. “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people” he says. The Church must present Jesus as the compassion of God.

“We need a church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a church capable of meeting people on their way. We need a church capable of entering into their conversation.”

In a recent interview with Italy’s La Stampa newspaper, Pope Francis spoke about the meaning of Christmas. He said:

“God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving. If he gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it. All of us from the holiest of saints to the greatest of sinners; from the purest to the most corrupt among us. Even a corrupt person has this ability …”

He continued: “Christmas in this time of conflicts is a call from God who gives us this gift. Do we want to receive Him or do we prefer other gifts? In a world afflicted by war, this Christmas makes me think of God’s patience. The Bible clearly shows that God’s main virtue is that He is love. He waits for us; he never tires of waiting for us. He gives us the gift and then waits for us. This happens in the life of each and every one of us. There are those who ignore him. But God is patient and the peace and serenity of Christmas Eve is a reflection of God’s patience toward us.”

We waited patiently for you, Pope Francis. On March 13 this past year, you were an early Christmas gift to the Church and the world. Thanks for making Christmas a daily occurrence for us all.

.

New Years message from Canadian Bishops

family crop

On this New Year’s Day of 2014, Pope Francis has published his first message for the

celebration of the World Day of Peace, focusing on the theme of brotherhood. As President of

the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Canada, I want to relay Pope Francis’s intervention to my

fellow citizens by taking a look from our own Canadian perspective at some of the questions he

has chosen to raise.

Families: The Pope identifies the family as the first school of brotherhood. Unfortunately, too

many Canadian families live in poverty, suffering from unemployment, experiencing violence,

breakdowns and indifference. Should we not commit ourselves to the full flowering of our

families as a genuine social priority?

Aid to poor countries: Francis reminds us that rich countries have a special responsibility in

building a common future for humanity. He suggests that human brotherhood presents itself in

this regard under three aspects: the duty of solidarity, the duty of social justice and the duty of

universal charity. When we consider our foreign policy, the role of our ambassadors, our

international commitments and our economic agreements, should we not consider these three

duties as foundational?

Poverty in Canada: The Pope recognizes that our world is experiencing a reduction in absolute

poverty. However, relative poverty is increasing, that is to say “inequality between people and

groups who live together in particular regions”. This certainly describes Canada, one of the most

prosperous countries of the world, where we unfortunately find too many soup kitchens, drop-in

centres and neglected, unhealthy neighbourhoods. And what about our Indian reserves where

overwhelming and devastating poverty is unfortunately rampant? Could we not foster true

brotherhood among us, a brotherhood made concrete by our care of others and our sharing with

them as well as the development of government policies and programs that make a greater

difference in people’s lives?

Voluntary Simplicity: The Pope salutes those families and individuals who intentionally choose

voluntary simplicity in their life style. This is a testimony that speaks to all, a gesture that makes

a difference. As we begin this New Year, could we not all reflect on our lifestyle, our

consumption and our priorities?

Ethics in business and finance: Francis invites business leaders to uphold the traditional virtues

of prudence, temperance, justice and perseverance as they engage in commercial and financial

activities. Otherwise, we may find ourselves beset with the continuing financial and economic

crises that have shaken our country and our world. Should not all Canadian business leaders

strive to be international models of these ethical principles?

The arms trade: The Pope’s words are incisive: “As long as so great a quantity of arms are in

circulation as at present, new pretexts can always be found for initiating hostilities.” Should

Canadian companies be complicit in the many fratricidal wars that hurt our world and kill

children? Do not our governments have an obligation to consider this question more seriously?

Organized crime: Our Pope deplores the presence of criminal organizations that profit from the

sale of drugs, corruption, human trafficking and prostitution. Persons involved in such

organizations or doing business with them should seriously listen to the call of Pope Francis: “In

the heart of every man and woman is the desire for a full life, including that irrepressible longing

for fraternity which draws us to fellowship with others and enables us to see them not as enemies

or rivals, but as brothers and sisters to be accepted and embraced.” How shall we help our

brothers and sisters free themselves from the scourge of organized crime?

The ecological challenge: Francis warns us of greed and the arrogance of domination,

possession, manipulation and exploitation. It would be more helpful to consider nature as “a

gracious gift which we must care for and set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including

future generations”. Since Canada is recognized for its natural beauty and its rich natural

resources, we have an even more serious obligation in this area. Harmonizing economic

development and respect for nature is not easy, yet social and political will must rise to the task.

Will we leave our grandchildren and great -grandchildren a healthy and ecologically rich

environment?

In conclusion: When I look at the state of the world today, I cannot help but count myself lucky

to live in a prosperous and peaceful country like Canada. This prosperity and peace allow us to

strive even more radically towards the ideal of brotherhood. Yes, let us rejoice in the path

already travelled, but let us also remain clear-thinking as we face the path ahead. Citizens,

governments and community organizations, I call on you with Pope Francis: let us once again

take up the pilgrim’s staff. Together, let us journey ever further along the path of brotherhood,

the true road to peace.

+ Paul- André Durocher

Archbishop of Gatineau and

President of the Canadian Conference

of Catholic Bishops

(CNS Photo)

God is a God of family


It’s Christmas and all our worries- the food, the dinner guests, our families, the presents- seem to be multiplied. Jesus’ birth is supposed to bring us peace, but instead, during this time of the year, it seems that what we have least of is peace.

And we go to Christmas Eve Mass looking for a little bit of peace. We hope to listen in the Gospel that beautiful Christmas story that we all love with the starry night, the angels, the shepherds and the little lambs (or at least we assume that there are lambs if there are shepherds). But instead of that story, we have to listen to a long list of names: the geneology of Jesus! (Matthew 1:1-25) All these unpronounceable names. Names like Jeconiah, Zerubabbel and Rehoboam. Forty-two names. What does that have to do with Christmas?

It has to do with God’s patience; with his faithfulness and with his plan. And that’s what Christmas is about: God’s patience, his fidelity and his plan. It’s a Scripture reading that reminds us that God is bigger than all of us and bigger than our plans. In Jesus’ ancestors we have all the heroes and all the gangsters of Hebrew history. We have all the saints and all the sinners. These are the protagonists of the story of God’s love for his people. Beginning with Abraham, the greatest of them all. Abraham was a great one, the father of all the Jewish (and Arab) people. He had a great faith. And his son Isaac was also great. But Isaac’s son, Jacob was a bit of a liar and Jacob’s eldest, Judah was the darling brother who had the brilliant idea of selling his little brother, Joseph into slavery. The one who follows Judah, Perez was conceived because Judah slept with his daughter-in-law, Tamar thinking she was a prostitute. And so, we continue, with a long line of not-so-perfect ancestors until we get to King David, the great King David. He was great and also had great lust. He sleeps with the wife of Uriah (who, by the way, was David’s good friend and one of his generals) and when David finds out that she’s pregnant, he arranges to have Uriah killed in battle. Still, after all the adultery and murder, it is one of the children of David with the wife of Uriah who grows up to be the great King Solomon, one of the greatest kings of Israel. But then we continue with Solomon’s children, grand children and great-grand children whose sins led to the division of the Kingdom and the Babylonian exile. And from the exile, fourteen generations later, St. Joseph is born. Joseph marries a young woman who was already pregnant…

It’s just like our families, eh? We all have, in our families, sinners and saints; heroes and gangsters – everyone has in their family someone who’s divorced or struggling in their  marriages. Everyone has a great uncle who was an alcoholic and some cousin, sister or aunt who was unmarried and pregnant. All families struggle though lies, insults, yelling and tears. Living in family gives us lots of opportunities for forgiveness and for patience; for “putting on love” (Col. 3:12-17). All of us sometimes are sinners and sometimes are saints. And it is into that human family that our Saviour is born. Into a family like yours and like mine. And that’s the family with which we sat down for a not-so-perfect Christmas dinner a few nights ago, to celebrate with food, drinks, music and the exchange of gifts.

That’s how we celebrate the birth of God-made-man. That’s how we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the king of kings. But this king’s birth is not celebrated with drinks, music, presents and so much food that we have to waste it. The birth of this king comes to us through the womb of a young woman who is pregnant before marriage. This king is not born in a palace. This king is born in a stable because no one has a place for them to stay. This king has no place to be born in and so he is born in a dirty, stinky stable next to the animals that let him sleep in their manger. This is the God-of-gods and yet he comes as a defenseless baby whose diapers have to be changed. And the news of this king’s birth does not come first to the rich, the powerful or the educated. The news comes first to the poorest of the poor, to the shepherds. And after this king’s birth the Holy Family has to flee to another country because Herod wants to kill the child. This king-of-kings doesn’t have were to live and so he lives his first years as a refugee in a strange land… This is our God: The God of sinners, the God of adulterers, of liars and those who do not trust in God. He is the God of the poor, of those who don’t have much, those who have no education and those who have no place to stay. Recently Pope Francis said that “the faith of the Church comes to us through the heart of the poor.” I am not entirely sure what he means by that but I think that it has to do with the fact that even though God comes as a human being in order to save everyone and the Good News is for everyone, this news usually comes to us through the small ones. It’s always been that way. And if we have problems finding God, perhaps it’s because we are looking in the wrong place.

God is made incarnate in our poverty. God makes himself flesh in our pain and in our fear. God finds his birthplace in the stable of our insecurities and our feeling inadequate. We can find God when we feel tired and lost. If you cannot find God, look for him in the poor, in the oppressed and the afflicted. Look for Him among the refugees and the captives. Look for him in your hunger, your stress, your sickness, in your ignorance and your unemployment. Look for Him in your brokenness; that’s where you will find Him.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. We celebrate the fact that God chose to come into the world through a family; a family like yours and like mine; with all the joys and struggles that come with being family. At Christmas as well, we are reminded that one day Jesus will also come again in Glory. That is the second coming that we await in joy. But we also celebrate a “third coming”. Christ comes to us every day when we ask him to and especially when we gather as  family to receive him in the Eucharist.

This God, the God-of-gods, who is bigger than all; the King and Creator of the Universe, God who can carry all creation in the palm of his hand, just as He makes himself so small so as to be inside the womb of a teen-aged girl, He makes himself small, in the form of unleavened bread, so that we can gaze at him, so we can adore him and so that we can receive him as food; so that He can really come into us and feed us and nourish us. Let us not be like the inn-keepers of Bethlehem and let’s receive Him. Let’s let him come and be born inside of our tired and weary hearts.

And this God who is a God of family, this God who brings us peace, will enter into your life and into your family and will fill you with peace so that we can truly sing with the angels, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill!