Monday, December 31, 2007

So, What's New for You in 2008?

Let's look beyond "resolutions" for the New Year. They have their place. They can be great motivators. I must admit, though, as I get older I find fewer and fewer of them come to fruition. Not just for me, mind you! But for others, too.

How about decision we need to make this coming year? Decisions we may have delayed or ignored. Maybe we have dawdled with choosing something very important.

Perhaps a good question for this New Year of the Lord 2008 is: How is God calling YOU to live in 2008? What is God telling your heart?

This is a good time to take stock of your own vocation! How did God call you this past year, in your daily life, in your work, your study, your relationships, your family? How did you respond to the Lord this past year 2007?

There's a lot out there reviewing 2007, isn't there? Major political and historical events, celebrity events, sports events, personages who have passed away. We can actually become saturated about "them".

But what about YOU? How are you either willing to respond favorably to the Lord Jesus or avoid him this coming year? Will you say "yes" to his call this new year? His call may simply be to be attentive to the poor and the needy around you. God rarely calls us to high drama! It's usually pretty normal fare.
But you just might want to take a few minutes before the festivities begin and the New Year gets undeway to consider what Jesus is saying to your heart.

God grant you peace and every good from the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption BVM Province!

Old Year Out -- New Year In!

Another year of the Lord comes to completion and a new one is about to begin. Why "year of the Lord"? Because that is what A.D. means -- "anno Domini" (year of the Lord). It is a testimony of faith in the Incarnation of the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our salvation.

While an early Medieval monk named Dionysius miscalculated (by 4 or 6 years!) the actual date of the birth of Jesus, we have been using this designation for centuries to describe the passage of time.

Still, not everyone is a Christian believer and so many have found the terminology BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini [year of the Lord]) to be objectionable. So, a more acceptable term has been used: BCE ( "before the common era") and CE ("common era").

I think it is a "trans-religious" and "trans-cultural" term that works when we are dealing with folks from other religious traditions or non-religious traditions which do not profess faith in Jesus as Christ (Messiah) or Lord.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Witness in the Cathedral during the Christmas Octave!

As you probably know we are in the Octave of Christmas (eight days of Christmas Day). So great is the festival of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God that we celebrate the single event for eight days.

During these eight days of Christmas we have celebrated St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr and Deacon ("first born" into heaven after the Resurrection through martyrdom), St. John the Apostle and Evangelist ("beloved disciple" of the Lord, according to the Gospel of John), the Holy Innocents ("first witnesses" who unwittingly shed their blood for the Lord during his life) and today, a commemoration, in honor of St. Thomas Becket, martyred Archbishop of Canterbury), 1118-1170.

I would like to comment on St. Thomas Becket. There was a film made in the early 1960s called "Becket" starring the late Richard Burton in the title role and Peter O'Toole as his nemesis, King Henry II. It's a good film, but rather condensed as far as history is concerned. There are many sites on the Internet you can look up for historical details.

For the purpose of this Blog, I would like to reflect on Thomas' own conversion from being a rather arrogant man to learning humility and courage by his willingness to take on the yoke of archiepiscopal office.

St. Thomas Becket, 1182-1170
Martyred Archbishop of Canterbury

Please note that he was killed before the birth of St. Francis of Assisi (1182), and so this has nothing immediately to do with the Franciscan movement. Rather, it seems that Thomas was more influenced by the Benedictine tradition of monasticism, although he never professed religious vows.

Thomas underwent an ongoing conversion. First, he reluctantly accepted the archiepiscopal office and see from his friend King Henry. Apparently the election was "irregular", which Thomas later would confess to Pope Alexander.

Initially Henry thought he could control his new primate of England, but as matters between Church and State, and Thomas and Henry, became increasingly sticky and hostile, the king regretted having made his one-time friend and former Chancellor of England to be Archbishop or Canterbury.

When Thomas did meet with the pope in Rome to appeal his case and confessed the apparent irregularity, he thereupon resigned his office as archbishop. At first the pope accepted his resignation, but later on changed his mind and reinstated Thomas by returning him his bishop's ring and telling him that he was to do God's work back in England.

After a lengthy interval, Thomas and Henry made some peace and Thomas received permission to return to England to serve as archbishop. While Henry was in France, though, his advisers informed him that he would have no peace and only rivalry for authority as long as Thomas was left alive. Then the king made his infamously historical statement, which his barons took as both rebuke and directive, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

The barons understood this as a royal edict and proceeded to murder Thomas in Our Lady's transept of Canterbury Cathedral as Vespers were underway and darkness covered the land. He was canonized two years later, and Henry also did penance for his implication in the archbishop's death.

Contemporary depticion of the Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket

Our Christian vocation, which we receive from baptism, is to give witness to our faith in our daily lives, whether convenient or inconvenient.

Our vocation is to live and proclaim the truth in love (cf. Eph. 4:15), and that truth is a person, Jesus Christ!

Even during Christmastime, this requires a conversion on our part, doesn't it? From what to what?

More than a preparation for new year's resolutions, it seems to be an opportunity to call upon the Lord, like Thomas Becket did, and ask the Lord where he wants us to change! Christian life is ongoing conversion; our common Christian vocation is ongoing conversion.

Thomas allowed God's Word, the Holy Scritpures, to take root in his heart and to change his life, his attitude, his perspective and his very lifestyle!

I encourage us to take this to the Lord in prayer and let him show us. Do we need more courage in the face possible unpopularity? Do we need more compassion in the face of poverty or other people's disabilities? Do we need to work through forgiveness of someone who has betrayed us?

Let's ask the Lord for the courage of St. Thomas Becket, to let the Incarnate Son of God change us so that our lives may more fully reflect his life in us!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Countdown, Part 4 – and Final: Merry Christmas!

Well, are you ready for Christmas? Cards sent, presents purchased and wrapped, travel plans made, cookies and baked goods prepared? Little children excited about the arrival of You-Know-Who on Christmas Eve?

Even more important, though – are YOU ready? How has Advent been for you? Were you able to participate in your parish’s Penance Service and celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Have you noticed a positive change in your life since the first candle of the Advent Wreath was lit more than three weeks ago? Have you become aware of where the Lord is calling you to change?

Icon of the Nativity of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ

Since the last entry to this blog, we have celebrated the Winter Solstice (21 December), the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day the “O” antiphon was “O Radiant Dawn” (sometimes also called “O Dayspring”). Then on Saturday it was “O King of the Nations” and Sunday, “O Emmanuel”.

The countdown for Christmas comes to a close today, Christmas Eve.
With all kinds of “holiday” music at shopping malls and on the radio and TV shows (“A Christmas Story”, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life’), we can forget that we really are preparing to celebrate the Messiah’s birthday.

With this last day before Christmas Day, the Eve of the Nativity of the Lord Jesus, what is the gift that you need from the Lord?

Do you need an open heart? An open spiritual ear? A willing spirit to respond to his Word, like the Blessed Virgin Mary or John the Baptist?

What might you still need to surrender to God’s redemptive grace before you can adequately celebrate Christmas? Perhaps today, even in the midst of last minute preparations, you can spend some quiet time with the Lord and ask him what it is you need from him. He might surprise you! (I think he usually does!)

God bless you this Christmas, and all your loved ones. God bless your travels with peace and grace; God bless your gatherings with joy and friendship; God grant your worship with new power and keen awareness; God grant your Christmas with profound awe and wonder of his love and salvation.

Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia! ¡Feliz Navidad! Fröliche Wiehnachten! Mele Kelikimaka! Vesely Vianoce! Buon Natale! Christos Rozdajutse!/Slavite Jeho! Linksmu Kaledu! Nollaig Shona Dhuit! Sretan Bozić! Maligayamg Pasko! Chung Mung Giang Sinh! Mo’adim Lesimkha! Niibaa' anami'egiizhigad! ºKrismas Njema! I'D Miilad Said! Joyeux Noël!

In whatever language – Merry Christmas!
Christ is born! Glorify him!

O Rising Dawn, radiance of light eternal and Sun of Justice; come, and enlighten those hwo sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!

O King of the Nations and the Desired of all, you are the cornerstone that binds two into one. Come, and save poor humanity whom you fashioned out of clay!

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the nations and their Savior: Come, and save us O LORD our God!
(Languages used above: Polish, Spanish, German, Hawai'ian, Slovak, Italian, Carpatho-Rusyn, Lithuanian, Irish, Croatian, Tagalog [Philippines], Vietnamese, Hebrew, Ojibway, Ki-Swahili, Arabic, French)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Countdown, Part 3

Yesterday’s Advent "O” Antiphon was “O Root of Jesse” and today’s is “O Key of David”. As you can see, these are Old Testament designations of the Messiah, the Anointed of God.

Fr. Camillus Janas, OFM and Fr. Michael Surufka, OFM praying and anointing infirm parishioners at St. Stanislaus Parish, Cleveland, OH

From early times the Christian community has understood Jesus of Nazareth to be the Christ (Messiah) and Lord whom God sent for our salvation (see Acts 2:36).

Over and over again in the Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, we have references to the prophets of Israel being fulfilled in the person, life, ministry and paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.

We profess in the Nicene Creed every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God . . . On the third day he arose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures . . .”

Today’s Gospel, though, focuses on Mary’s call – her vocation – to be the Theotokos (the one who bears God, from the Third Ecumenical Council, at Ephesus in AD 431). This is her unique role, her unique ministry in the history of the human race. No one before or since has been called to be Theotokos!

The First Reading today is from Isaiah 7:10-14, in which the Prophet is instructed by the LORD to speak to King Ahaz of Judea to seek a sign from the Most High. The king balks, and the LORD reprimands him. He then provides a sign – a young woman (in Greek, virgin) will conceive and give birth to a son, who shall be named Immanuel (God is with us; literally, “with us is God” in Hebrew).

An ancient Christian icon of Mary as Mother of God (Theotokos) is Our Lady of the Sign, in which Immanuel is shown in her womb.

Greek Icon of Our Lady of the Sign

St. Francis of Assisi called upon all believers to practice penance and produce worthy fruits of penance; that is, to live holy lives in accordance with the Scriptures and the very life of the Lord Jesus Christ. He teaches us Franciscan friars, all members of the Franciscan family (religious and lay people alike),

Oh, how happy and blessed are these men and women when the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon them (cf. Isa. 11:2) and He will make His home and dwelling among them (cf. Jn. 14:23). They are children of the heavenly Father (cf. Mat 5:45) whose works they do, and they are spouses, brothers, sisters, and mother of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Mat 12:40) . . . [We are] mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body (cf. 1 Cor. 6:20) through divine love and pure and sincere conscience and [when] we give birth to Him through [His] holy manner of working, which should shine before others as an example (cf. Mat. 5:16).” (First Version of the Letter to the Faithful, 5-7, 10)

Such is the Christian vocation and the Franciscan vocation. In our Assumption BVM Province, way back in 1987 (20 years ago!), we drew up a Mission Statement, part of which reads, “Our mission in the Church is to make visible the presence of Christ in the world.”

Bro. Andrew Brophy, OFM, serving God's People at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Greenwood, MS

While Mary’s vocation as Theotokos was certainly singular, we are no less called by God through our Savior Jesus Christ to “bear God” in our world. And we make him visible through holy lives, as St. Francis exhorted and St. Clare of Assisi affirmed.

What are some ways that God is calling you (and me!) to “give birth” to Jesus Christ realistically in our world today? What are the penances and the fruits of penance in which the presence of the Lord Jesus is made visible in and through our lives?

O Root of Jesse, you stand for ensign of humankind; before you rulers shall keep silence, and to you all nations have recourse. Come, save us, and do not delay!

O Key of David and Scepter of the House of Israel: you open and no one closes; you close an no one opens. Come, and deliver from the chains of prison those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Countdown, Part 2

Today’s “O” Antiphon is “O Lord of Might”, from the Hebrew, Adonai (the respectful name for the LORD in Hebrew).

This is the title that the LORD gave to Moses (cf. Exodus 3) when he called him from shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks in the land of Midian to be the deliverer – and lawgiver – of the Children of Israel.

Two things need to be kept in mind as we continue our Christmas Countdown.

The first is remembering our sacred heritage. Just yesterday at Mass we heard the genealogy of Jesus according to the flesh (so Romans 1:3) from the Gospel of Matthew (1:1-17). And we remember our own sacred heritage -- the one that the Lord has given to us through our family and through his Church (we call this Tradition).

The second is how we respond to God’s call in our own lives, that is, our vocation. This week, in particular, the Gospels refer to a number of calls – Zechariah, Joseph (the Annunciation in Matthew) and Mary, the Blessed Mother of God (the Annunciation in Luke). Look at how each responded to his or her vocation.

They each were perplexed and uncertain. Each chose to believe the message given, even if (with Zechariah) there was some doubt at first. They chose to believe that the God of Israel, who promised and fulfilled the promises from one generation to the next would again fulfill the promise – this time of sending the long-awaited Messiah!

Franciscans prepare for Christmas with particular relish as we set up our Christmas cribs after the example of St. Francis of Assisi at Grecchio way back in the early 1220s. We joyfully celebrate the Incarnation of the Word of God in human history, believing in God’s great love for us and all creation (the whole world) for having sent us his only-begotten Son (see John 3:16).

As Christians we believe that the Law of Moses and the ancient Covenants God established (beginning with Noah, then Abraham, then Moses and again David, concluding with the prophetic hope of a new and eternal covenant [cf. Jeremiah 31]) are fulfilled in the coming of the Lord of Might, Adonai, the one we call Jesus Christ!

He who revealed himself to Moses in the Burning Bush and gave the Law (Torah) to Moses at Mt. Sinai is the same who became incarnate for us and for our salvation.

How do you sense the Lord of Might (Adonai) calling you? How do you respond? Let's re-read the Gospel stories of Joseph’s dream (Matthew 1:18-23), Zechariah’s call (Luke 1:5-25; 57-79) and Mary’s call (Luke 1:26-38). And let's ponder how God is speaking to us as Advent is drawing to a close and Christmas is quickly approaching!

“O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel,
you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and on Mount Sinai gave him your Law.
Come, and with an outstretched arm redeem us!”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Countdown

T:he Lord Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God -- "O Sapientia!"

We are quickly approaching Christmas Day! Liturgically, we “count down” to Christmas from 17-23 December each year. We use the “O” Antiphons.

Perhaps the hymn that is most associated with Advent is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. It is based on a 9th century Gregorian chant. It was used by Benedictine monks originally and was initially intended only for the final days of Advent. However, as it became more popularly used in the modern era, it also became extended throughout the Advent Season.

Today is the first of the “O” Antiphons – O, Wisdom! O Sapientia! These antiphons are used as the opening and closing antiphon for the Gospel canticle for Evening Prayer (Vespers), called the Canticle of Mary, or by its Latin name, Magnificat.

In considering one’s vocation in life, it is always important to seek the Lord’s wisdom. The Book of Wisdom from the Old Testament acclaims God’s wisdom. Like the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified. The early Church saw Jesus Christ as the Wisdom of God and used this book as a reference to the Lord Jesus (esp. Wis. 2:12-21). In the Scriptures, wisdom is a hallmark of the person devoted to God; it is a gift from on high (see Isa. 11:2; 1 Cor. 12:8 and Jas. 1:5). And the person who chooses the path of the Lord chooses wisdom; God's Word is wisdom (see Psalm 119) and they who seek it, follow it and live it are wise! Jesus uses this motif when preaching (cf. Matt. 7:24-27).

The quality of wisdom is opposed to folly; that is, wisdom vs. foolishness. Seeking a vocation is basically seeking God’s wisdom in life. “Lord, what do you want me to do?” as opposed to, “Lord, help me do what I want to do!” Such a prayer is by no means passive. Rather, it is an act of trust in the day-to-day happenings of our lives.

As Franciscan friars we seek God’s wisdom for our decisions. But even at a deeper level, like St. Francis of Assisi before the Cross of San Damiano, “Lord, what you have me do?” In his famous Prayer Before the Crucifix, St. Francis asked the Lord for the grace needed (". . . true faith, certain hope and perfect charity, sense and knowledge . . .") to lead a wise life in following the Lord and living for him alone.

We all need to seek God’s wisdom in order to truly live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a manner that is pleasing to the Father and relying on the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

“O Wisdom, you came from the mouth of the Most High,

and reaching from beginning to end,

you ordered all things mightily and sweetly.

Come, and teach us the way of prudence!"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, on Juan Diego's tilma ,in the Basilica in Mexico City

La Virgen Morena is the famous celebration of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. She appeared to Juan Diego at Tepeyac, near the former Aztec capital and holy sites, over a series of days in December 1531, about 10 years after Hernán Cortéz and the Spanish conquistadores vanquished the once-proud Aztec people and several the other native peoples of México.

She spoke to Cuauhtlatoatzin, his Nahuatl (Aztec language: “one who speaks like an eagle”) name, in his native tongue, not in Spanish. Similarly, she appeared to him as one of his own, not as a European. She was swarthy, la Virgen morena (the dark-skinned Virgin).

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is very rich in symbols. Hers is an “icon”, if you will, not made by hands. Her image was miraculously imprinted on Juan Diego’s tunic, the tilma (a piece of clothing fashioned from the fibers of the maguey plant).

Unbeknownst to Juan Diego, when he displayed his tilma with the freshly picked roses, Bishop Juan Zumárraga, OFM (1st bishop of Mexico and a Franciscan friar and priest) was astonished, as were his friars!

The wonderful result of this heavenly visit was a powerful wave of evangelization. Millions of indigenous peoples, Aztec and beyond, professed faith in Jesus Christ and embraced the Catholic faith through the proclamation of the Gospel and were baptized. The story of the Blessed Mother’s arrival to their land and her message swept the land around Mexico.

Here was someone with whom the native peoples could identify. And still do to this day! When I am among Mexican Catholics, in their homes, businesses and even cars, I see Mary’s image, la Guadalupana! The story and her image are deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Mexican Catholics. And, December 12th is a national holiday in all of Mexico! Ser mexicano es ser guadalupano (to be Mexican is to be a devotee of Guadalupe!).

As we celebrate her feast day today, let us recall that Mary, the Mother of God, continues to intercede for us (as the position of her hands displays) and especially considers the poor and the downtrodden to be her special children. She is the pregnant Mother (the black sash around her waist) who came to a conquered people, the Aztecs. It was to them, not their conquerors, that she gave her message; to a peasant, not to an aristocrat or friar or bishop; in Nahuatl not Spanish.

To me, at least, it becomes another example of “minority” – the quality which was so dear to St. Francis of Assisi and which he tried to inculcate among his brothers, to whom he gave the name “minors” (friars minor – lesser brothers). The fruit of minority is solidarity. And this is our vocation as Franciscans!

We are preparing to celebrate the great festival of the Incarnation -- Christmas -- when the Word of God takes on human flesh, in solidarity with us. So great is God's love (see John 3:16).
God in Jesus Christ identifies with us! He becomes flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, blood of our blood. Is this not true of what we celebrate sacramentally in the Eucharist, when we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus? The Lord himself feeds us with himself.

We ourselves might be quite surprised how the Lord desires to enter into our lives, to be in solidarity with us. Through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Lady of Guadalupe, may we all come to know the power of God’s grace in our very real human experience.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What’s With All the Killing?

Prayer Service after shooting incident in Omaha, NE

An Amish school near Lancaster, PA in 2006, Virginia Tech this past spring, and now just recently a shopping mall in Omaha, NE and a church and missionary school in Colorado Springs, CO. It seems too frequent now – deliberate shootings at innocent people. It seems there have been increasing numbers of shootings most often random.

What is happening?

Wounded victim being removed from the mall in Omaha, NE

I don’t presume to have an answer, but I’d like offer some thoughts on the matter.

First, it seems that all the assailants are, at the very least, psychologically disturbed. From the evidence I have read, they tend to be loners and disconnected from human interaction.

They seem to have found some kind of weird “connection” with people by killing them!

Perhaps the “connection” is really about power.

The individuals involved in these violent acts also seem to have no concept of how these acts hurt not only their victims, but the families of the victims and their own families!

There doesn’t seem to be any sense of conscience; hence, no remorse.

It seems to be a question of power – power over others whom they perceive at least represent those who have wronged them, excluded them, betrayed them or otherwise ignored them. It appears to be a rage that turns into a vicarious vengeance.

And it also seems to be nihilistic. There seems to be no apparent thought (who can interview someone who has committed suicide after the killings, or who has been slain?) about their future, either temporal or eternal.

There is apparently nothing for them – no hope, no apparent relationships to hold them, no reason to go on. And where, if it exists at all, does faith come into the picture?

The young man who opened fire on the horrified shoppers in Omaha and then killed himself apparently left a suicide note which concluded, “Now I’ll be famous.”

A very touching scene for me, at least, was an image of the prayer service at a local Catholic Church in which people lit candles in memory of the slain, and someone included the assailant’s name among the deceased.

Young people among horrified shoppers at mall in Omaha, NE

In this Season of Advent we read and hear the marvelous Scripture passages, especially from the Prophet Isaiah, which foretell the reign of Messiah, when there will be an end to violence and peace will flourish. But we continue to see the evils of violence all around us!

Name of assailant is included among the names of the nine deceased persons at Prayer Service, Omaha, NE

What is this all about?

We Christians affirm that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and the Lord. We also claim to believe, as we profess in the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

What we claim is mighty bold – we claim that we believe, in prayer and our celebration of the Sacraments, that God is establishing his kingdom among us, even in the midst of warfare, terror and violence.

We Franciscan friars say to a mad world that seems more and more nihilistic and sees no purpose for existence that life is a gift from God and precious to God, even the life of someone who commits unspeakable violence and affronts common human sensibilities with senseless rage. We struggle to focus on Jesus Christ, even when tempted to surrender to the insanity of violence or the stunning silence of apathy.

Like our founder St. Francis of Assisi, who loved Jesus as the Center of his very life, we believe and proclaim that real power comes not from doing violence against another, whether a vendetta against another or others. Yes, one may have power to take another person’s life. But for what? Death? Then what?

Instead, real power comes from God who is the Author of Life. And this power is to give life, to forgive, to renounce grudges, to seek out those who are oftentimes abandoned by society, who are “benignly neglected” because they are different or odd or just don’t “fit in” to our notions of belonging. Maybe even those who reject society because of mental illness or other affliction.
Would someone’s outreach to these loners have possibly stopped a massacre? I don’t presume to know an answer to that. And I don’t think trying to assign guilt is helpful.

Rather, it seems to me, the Christian vocation – and as a Franciscan friar and priest of the Catholic Church I particularly feel this – our life in Christ is to allow God’s grace, already within us from our baptism and confirmation, and from our reception of the Holy Eucharist, to become visible in our society.

That can readily become healing in our world. To take the Lord at his Word and believe those powerful texts of Sacred Scripture, like St. Francis and St. Clare did, and to believe that God is, indeed, effecting them in our lives – that is the hopeful message of Advent.

How can we respond as Christians to such evil? How do you think God is calling you to respond? How do you think you can bring God's hope into this world?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

St. Juan Diego (Cuauhtlatoatzin)

This Sunday, 9 December, is the Second Sunday in Advent. We continue our preparation to celebrate the Lord’s birth in human history even as we anticipate his return in glory.

This date is also important, because it is the memorial (outside of Sunday, of course!) of Juan Diego, the Aztec peasant whom the Blessed Mother of God chose to carry her message to the Spanish bishop of Mexico.

St. Juan Diego, official image from his canonization

She appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego, and spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language. He is the first indigenous Saint of the Americas canonized by the Catholic Church. He was canonized in 2002 by the late Pope John Paul II who had a special fondness for the Mother of God under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe and for the Mexican people.

The Mother of God spoke tenderly to Juan Diego, whose Nahuatl name was Cuauhtlatoatzin, which could be translated as "One who talks like an eagle". The irony in this is that Juan Diego was a poor peasant of the recently conquered Aztec people and he was no public speaker.

The native peoples were often enslaved by their Spanish overlords. Some had converted to Catholic Christianity, but not very many. These were a proud people who, though broken militarily and even in spirit, would not succumb to the new religion and customs of the conquistadores. Cuauhtlatoatzin, however, did embrace the Lord Jesus and the Catholic Faith brought to his land by the Spanish missionaries; he was baptized Juan Diego.

While Juan Diego was no orator, the Blessed Mother called upon him to speak to the Spanish Bishop-elect, Juan de Zumárraga, OFM, a Franciscan friar and priest, now Bishop of Mexico, a rather prestigious position. When the first Franciscans arrived in Mexico in 1524 they sought to evangelize the native peoples. They had little success at first, but they also sought to protect them from their Spanish overlords. One of the bishop’s titles was “Protector of the Indians”.

According to the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bishop Juan de Zumárraga was not inclined to pay much attention to this peasant native nor certainly to abide by his directives to build the Mother of God a chapel as Juan Diego indicated, according to the message Juan Diego received from the Lady. He hardly felt like "one who talks like an eagle!"

Nevertheless, as the story goes, the Lord prevailed by providing Juan Diego with roses and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on his tunic, or tilma (the original tilma, made of biodegradable cactus fiber, with image still hangs in the new Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City).

St. Juan Diego holding his tilma with the roses and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe

In conformity to the Scriptures and to Franciscan spirituality, God chooses the poor and despised (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29) for his own purposes. This is the value of what St. Francis of Assisi would call “minority.” Hence, he called his brothers “friars minor”, or “lesser brothers.” And in doing so, God chose to eventually raise his servant, Juan Diego, Cuauhtlatoatzin, to the altars of the Church by his canonization over 450 years after his death in 1548.

St. Juan Diego is a powerful example to us of how God chooses the lowly and exalts them and confounds those who are considered great in the eyes of this world, just as Mary’s Magnificat proclaims (Luke 1:46-55).

Friday, December 7, 2007

Immaculate Conception Often Misunderstood

Mary, the Immaculate Conception

As a Catholic priest I have been surprised by the number of Catholics who seem unaware of what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is all about.

Many seem to think that it refers to Mary’s conception of Jesus, but that is celebrated on March 25th, the Annunciation of the Lord to Mary.

As a Franciscan friar, I am delighted to celebrate this solemnity, together with all the members of the Franciscan family, because she is the patroness of the Order of Friars Minor!

The Eastern Churches call this the Feast of the Conception of St. Anne, referring to the mother of Mary (traditionally called St. Ann) conceiving Mary in her womb. The Eastern Christian approach seems a bit clearer in so far as we are referring to Mary being immaculately conceived in the womb of St. Anne. Nevertheless, the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception is about Mary being conceived without original sin.

The English were already celebrating this festival in the 12th century. The Franciscans of the Middle Ages took up this teaching and the Franciscan friar and priest Blessed John Duns Scotus, a brilliant theologian at the end of the 13th century, gave sound underpinning to the teaching of the Immaculate Conception.

He emphasized God’s goodness and love for us by sending us Jesus by teaching that God preserved Mary to be the Mother of God from the very beginning of her life, at her conception, from all sin. Hence, Mary is conceived without original sin, unlike the rest of humanity, so that she could bear God Incarnate in her womb.

Blessed John Duns Scouts, OFM (ca. 1265-1308)

Not only that, because Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world, and God is not bound by time and space like his creatures are, the merits of Jesus’ obedience on the Cross and the salvation he won for the human race, were pre-eminently given to her prior to the events, so that she could fulfill her singular vocation as Mother of God.

This teaching was not universally accepted and many prominent Medieval theologians disagreed. However, the Franciscan school persisted, believing that this was a very positive approach to God’s Providence and salvation history.

While not a Franciscan novelty and believed in by many for ages, the teaching of Mary’s Immaculate Conception gained greater and greater acceptance over time because it
was understood to magnify the truth of the Incarnation as professed in the Creed. (Some feared that it would super-exalt
Mary as a kind of deity; that was not the intention).

Finally, in 1854, Pope Pius IX declared Mary’s Conception in the womb of St. Anne to be Immaculate and to be henceforth considered an infallible dogma of the Church.

Of course, this became widely popular after the apparitions of the Mother of God at Lourdes, France, to the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous (later canonized a Saint), when “the Lady” (Mary) declared to the youthful Bernadette in her Pyrenean dialect that she was, in fact, the Immaculate Conception! (The Lourdes Hymn, Immaculate Mary, celebrates Mary's Immaculate Conception.)

The Catholic bishops of the USA declared Mary as immaculately conceived to be the patroness of the nation already in 1846. Hence, it is celebrated almost always as a Holy Day of Obligation in our country, like tomorrow!

What a wonderful festival to keep! God is faithful to his promises, even from the beginning until now. He promised us a Savior, and he delivered, through the Immaculate Virgin Mary. Having preserved her from original sin, God has crushed the power of the enemy through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and has defeated the ancient curse against us. We are no longer cursed – we are blessed!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Lights in the Darkness

Advent Wreath

I think it’s curious that December becomes a month of increasing darkness and at the same time a series of light festivals. Both religious and secular communities celebrate the growing darkness, eagerly awaiting the return of the sunlight and springtime! At least up here in the northern hemisphere! (in the southern hemisphere they’re in spring and getting ready for summer).

Tonight the Jewish community begins the ancient festival of Hanukkah which is the commemoration of the rededication of the Temple (see 2 Maccabees 10;1-8) Western Christians mark the four Sundays preceding Christmas with the lighting of the successive candles of the Advent wreath. And for eight days following Christmas many African-Americans celebrate traditional family and tribal values with Kwanzaa, again, lighting a series of candles.
Hanukkah lights

St. Francis of Assisi took significant time in prayer and preparation for the great festival of the Incarnation, Christmas. He knew the darkness that could penetrate one’s heart, and he knew that Jesus Christ, the Light of the World alone could enlighten him. He prayed before the San Damiano Cross, “. . . enlighten the darkness of my heart.”

We who are baptized have been enlightened by Christ. That is why we are given the baptismal candle, which is lit from the Easter Candle at each baptism. We have been delivered from the ancient curse of evil and sin, the Powers of Darkness. We have been brought into the Kingdom of Jesus, God’s incomparable Light (cf. Colossians 1:12-14).