Holy Mary, Mother of God and Queen of Peace, Pray for Us

January 1st, 2015
Lorenzo di Credi, The Annunciation and Three Stories from Genesis (Annunciazione e Tre Storie della Genesi), ca. 1480–85; Tempera on wood panel, 34 5/8 × 28 in.; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; inv. 1890 n. 1597

Lorenzo di Credi, The Annunciation and Three Stories from Genesis (Annunciazione e Tre Storie della Genesi), ca. 1480–85; Tempera on wood panel, 34 5/8 × 28 in.; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; inv. 1890 n. 1597

As we today conclude the Octave of Christmas and begin the New Year, it seems natural to honor the Blessed Mother in a special way with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. This very ancient feast dates back to the fifth century when the Council of Ephesus affirmed Jesus’ true divinity and true humanity and also declared Mary to be Theotokos, which is Greek for “God-bearer.” All Marian feasts are feasts of Jesus Christ for Mary has no privilege that she has not received from God. Marian feasts teach us something about the identity and mission of her Son.

This theological concept that we honor Mary for the way in which she leads us to her Son is depicted beautifully in the exhibit Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, now showing at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. In many of the paintings, Mary is the largest figure in the work and the one to whom the viewer’s eyes are initially drawn. However, as one looks closer, it is clear that in almost all the paintings her eyes are fixed on her Son and so, even in the paintings as in life, Mary directs us to Christ.

Not only in art, but also in some of the honorific titles for Mary, we see a parallel in titles for Jesus. This is true for this feast as well. Since 1968, the Catholic Church also celebrates January 1 as a World Day of Peace. To link the celebration of the Mother of God and peace brings to mind two titles that Mary and Jesus share: Mary, Queen of Peace and Jesus, Prince of Peace.

We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Earthly peace is the image and fruit of the peace of Christ, the messianic ‘Prince of Peace.’ By the blood of his Cross, ‘in his own person he killed the hostility,’  he reconciled men with God and made his Church the sacrament of the unity of the human race and of its union with God. ‘He is our peace.’ He has declared: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’” (CCC 2305, cf. Isaiah 9:5, Ephesians 2:14).

This year in particular the Church’s call for peacemaking is very timely. Across our country, the past few months have been marked by unrest and protests calling attention to the relationship of trust and peace. We realize that peace is rooted in strong communal bonds expressed in respect for the dignity of every human person. The Catechism explains, “Peace is not merely the absence of war, and it is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries. Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity. Peace is ‘the tranquility of order’” (CCC 2306, Gaudium et Spes, 78).

The demonstrations that have unfolded reveal that in some of our communities there is a fundamental lack of trust and experience of fraternity. Not just in the exercise of authority meant to safeguard peace, but also among neighbors there exists a lack of charity in certain situations. For this Day of Peace, Pope Francis has chosen to reflect on the importance of this fraternity to stable peaceful communities. Our Holy Father writes, “…fraternity also embraces variety and differences between brothers and sisters, even though they are linked by birth and are of the same nature and dignity. As brothers and sisters, therefore, all people are in relation with others, from whom they differ, but with whom they share the same origin, nature and dignity. In this way, fraternity constitutes the network of relations essential for the building of the human family created by God” (Message for the World Day of Peace 2015).

In addition to the turbulence in our country, some of it violent, there continues to be aggression and bloodshed in the Middle East, particularly against Christians.   These long suffering people are greatly in need of our prayers on this World Day of Peace and every day. Each one of them is a sister, each is a brother, and we cannot remain silent to their plight.

Today, I hope you will join me in seeking the intercession of Mary, Mother of God and Queen of Peace, for peace in our communities and for peace in the world. Let us resolve to be peacemakers first and foremost in our homes and in our local communities. Let us seek ways to strengthen the fraternal bonds that bind us as families, parishes and communities by sharing the Good News of the birth of the Prince of Peace who is with us always in the Risen Christ.

The Rich Vocabulary of the Feasts

December 30th, 2014
Feast Day Blog

Photo Credit: Fr. Mel Ayala

Today we celebrate the sixth day within the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord during the season of Christmas. Yesterday was the memorial of Saint Thomas Becket. Tomorrow evening, more than reveling in New Year’s Eve, we celebrate the vigil of the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

Day, octave, season, memorial, vigil, solemnity – the Church uses a rich vocabulary to mark the passage of time. What does it all mean?

Every feast day on the Church calendar celebrates Jesus and makes the saving events of God a living memory. The holiest day of the week is of course Sunday – the Lord’s Day – a weekly commemoration of Christ’s passion and resurrection in which we celebrate the Eucharist. It is the primordial feast and model for all others.

Today, the liturgical day generally runs from midnight to midnight. However, in ancient Israel and at the time of Jesus, the “day” began and ended at sunset, following the creation account set out in the first chapter of Genesis. This custom is still used today for some liturgical purposes. Thus, the observation of a solemnity begins the evening before with the “vigil,” and attending a vigil Mass fulfills the Church’s obligation for that Sunday or other solemnity.

The same Mass readings and prayers for Sunday are used for the vigil on Saturday evening. However, some solemnities have a particular vigil Mass with special prayers and readings, for example, the Vigil of Pentecost.

The “solemnity” is the most important Christian celebration, the first rank of liturgical days. A solemnity commemorates one of the principal mysteries of the faith and important events in the life of Jesus, Mary or the Church. Examples include Easter, which is the “solemnity of solemnities,” Christmas, Immaculate Conception and All Saints Day. Some of the feast days celebrating the lesser mysteries of Jesus or Mary, however, are technically designated as “memorials,” although most memorials are dedicated to particular saints.

Some solemnities are so important that, like Sunday, they deserve to take priority in the busyness of our lives. We call them “holy days of obligation.” They are the holidays when Catholics are expected to celebrate with the Lord at Mass. Canon law currently specifies ten such holy days for the Church Universal, but bishops’ conferences may modify the practice by dispensing with some days of obligation or transferring their observation to a nearby Sunday (Canon 1246). For example, in the United States, celebration of the upcoming Solemnity of Epiphany is transferred from January 6 to the Sunday after the completion of the Christmas Octave, which this year will be January 4, 2015.

Do not let the word “obligation” lead you to believe that this is a grim task. It is an opportunity to spend time joyfully with God in a special way and experience Christ’s love. On these days we are also asked to abstain from those works and affairs which would hinder the worship rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.

Some solemnities are so great that they cannot be contained within a mere 24 hours. For Christmas and Easter, the Church celebrates for eight days, called an “octave.” The liturgies celebrate all eight days as if they were that solemnity. The eighth day is a special day in its own right, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and Divine Mercy Sunday, respectively.

But even eight days is not enough. A “season” in the parlance of the Church calendar is an extended period associated with a great solemnity, either in preparation for it or as a celebration of it. Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, like Lent is for Easter. The Christmas season itself begins Christmas Day and continues until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The Easter season is celebrated for 50 days, until Pentecost.

Whether it is a single day or an entire season, each feast makes the Lord’s works of salvation a present reality, including both the events of the past and the great eternal banquet to come. When we feast, we show our confidence in the promises of heaven.

This blog post is adapted from the book that Mike Aquilina and I wrote, “The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics” (2014).

The Holy Family and the Synod on the Family

December 28th, 2014
The Holy family by Raphael (1518)

The Holy family by Raphael (1518)

One year ago on the Feast of the Holy Family, Pope Francis reflected on the important role that families play in living, passing on and sharing the faith – the work of evangelization to which we are all called. “The proclamation of the Gospel, in fact, is promoted above all by families so that it then reaches the different areas of daily life,” he said. It is no wonder, then, that our Holy Father has called on families today to look upon the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as role models.

What the Church calls the Gospel of the Family unfolded in the life of Christ. Our Savior entered the world through a family, and it was through the sanctuary of love and cradle of life that is the family that his work of salvation began and holiness would spread over the earth.

Like many families throughout history, Jesus’ family endured challenges, including their flight to Egypt, the death of Joseph during Jesus’ hidden life, Christ’s passion and death on the Cross as Mary suffered too, his glorious resurrection and his later ascension to heaven. It all began with the love and faith that Jesus experienced in his home in Nazareth.

Fittingly, Pope Francis asked the Church Universal to pray to the Holy Family for the success of the recent Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization. Among the things that the Synod sought to highlight was the beauty of marriage, the wonderful blessing that marriage is and how God’s grace is so much at work in the man and woman who have come together to share their lives with each other, to give themselves to one another and to the Lord. We rejoice in the gift of enduring married love and the great blessing it is and the testimony of God’s grace at work among us that marriages represent.

The Synod’s final report serves as the frame of reference for the next Synod in the fall of 2015, which has the theme, “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world.” Now as we prepare for that gathering, the task of us all is to reflect on how we proclaim in all its fullness the received, permanent, revealed teaching of the Church concerning marriage and family, while going out and meeting people where they are so that we can walk with them. How do we help others to see the beauty, mercy and joy that is the Gospel of the Family as proclaimed by the Church throughout history?

At a time when the family is in crisis throughout the world, our Holy Father has invited us into a process to reflect on how best can we reach out and help. At the same time, he is asking the whole Church, bishops, lay faithful, everyone to speak with clarity, listen with humility to the voice and experience of one another and open our hearts in prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. For all of us this calls for a great deal of patience, our own spiritual renewal and much prayer. The year ahead can be a grace-filled time of inviting people to hear once again the words of the Gospel and accompanying them as we journey together, trying to draw closer to the Lord Jesus.

The announcement that Pope Francis will attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September 2015 demonstrates his commitment to make the Church, an expert in humanity, present to families and help them know the healing love and liberating truth of Christ. Such families can then be small domestic churches themselves, bringing Jesus to the world, just as Mary and Joseph did at the stable in Bethlehem and then in their home in Nazareth.

Pope Francis lifts up for us the Holy Family to enlighten, comfort and guide today’s families, praising them as an example that helps families “increasingly to become communities of love and reconciliation, in which tenderness, mutual help, and mutual forgiveness is experienced” (Angelus, December 29, 2013). Making his prayer our own, we can turn to the Holy Family to help today’s families: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love, to you we turn with trust.”

The Light of the World

December 26th, 2014
Adoration of the Child by Gerard van Honthorst

Adoration of the Child by Gerard van Honthorst

Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that, as we are bathed in the new radiance of your incarnate Word,
the light of faith, which illumines our minds,
may also shine through in our deeds.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

                                          – Collect for Christmas Mass at Dawn, Roman Missal

How fervently do we pray that the light of faith would bear fruit in our lives, spurring us on to love our neighbor as ourselves?

Today in the City of David a Savior has been Born for You Who is Christ the Lord

December 25th, 2014

Madona-and-Child

O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature
and still more wonderfully restored it,
grant, we pray,
that we may share in the divinity of Christ,
who humbled himself to share in our humanity,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

                     – Collect for Christmas Mass during the Day, Roman Missal

How often do I consider the real depth of the gift we receive in Christ, and how can I make a gift of my own life back to God?

Behold, I Make All Things New”

December 24th, 2014
The Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerrit van Honthorst

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerrit van Honthorst

Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that we, who are weighed down from of old
by slavery beneath the yoke of sin,
may be set free by the newness
of the long-awaited Nativity
of your Only Begotten Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

                                 – Collect from Mass for December 18, Roman Missal

How can the mystery of Christmas deepen our confidence that God can still make our lives new, even when we least expect it?

His Mercy is from Age to Age

December 23rd, 2014
Annunication by Fra Angelico

Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Almighty ever-living God,
as we see how the Nativity of your Son
according to the flesh draws near,
we pray that to us, your unworthy servants,
mercy may flow from your Word,
who chose to become flesh of the Virgin Mary
and establish among us his dwelling,
Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

                                              – Collect from Mass for December 23, Roman Missal

What areas in our lives most need God’s mercy, and how will we give those over to God this Christmas?

The Word Became Flesh and Made His Dwelling Among Us

December 22nd, 2014
Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds by Govert Flinck

Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds by Govert Flinck

O God, who through the child-bearing of the holy Virgin
graciously revealed the radiance of your glory to the world,
grant, we pray,
that we may venerate with integrity of faith
the mystery of so wondrous an Incarnation
and always celebrate it with due reverence.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

                                       – Collect from Mass for December 19, Roman Missal

As Christmas approaches, how can we open ourselves more to the wonder of the Incarnation, so that our faith might grow in the days ahead?

Rejoice! The Lord Our Savior is Near

December 21st, 2014
The Two TrinitiesBartolomé Esteban Murillo

The Two TrinitiesBartolomé Esteban Murillo

Hear in kindness, O Lord, the prayers of your people,
that those who rejoice at the coming of your only Begotten Son, in our flesh
may, when at last he comes in glory,
gain the reward of eternal life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

                                       – Collect from Mass for December 21, Roman Missal

How can we appreciate more fully the gift of eternal life that is given to us in the birth of Our Savior?

Hanukkah and the Eternal Light of God

December 19th, 2014

light of the world

Jesus was formed by the feasts of old. A devout Jew, he was raised by parents who dutifully observed the Jewish calendar, and in his ministry he observed the holy days with his disciples. However, more than simply celebrating these days which remember the marvels God has done, Christ embodied them.

Since the Apostolic Age, the Church has seen that what is foreshadowed in Israel comes suddenly into the light with Jesus. The Catechism teaches, “The economy of the Old Testament was deliberately oriented so that it should prepare for and declare in prophecy the coming of Christ, redeemer of all men” (CCC 122, quoting Dei Verbum 15).

From a Christian perspective, then, the feasts of ancient Israel have found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This includes Hanukkah, which Jesus observed and which began this year at sunset on Tuesday, December 16, and culminates on December 24, Christmas Eve.

The festival of Hanukkah, which is Hebrew for “dedication,” celebrates the second-century B.C. defeat of Assyrian Greeks who had captured Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple, and the rededication of the Temple with a new altar and purification of the sanctuary (1 Maccabees 4:36-59, 2 Maccabees 10:1-8). Today, however, this holiday is perhaps better known as the Festival of Lights.

Light and flame have always served as signs of God’s presence. When Moses first experienced the nearness of the Lord, it was at the burning bush. When Moses received instructions for the decoration of Israel’s sanctuary, he was told to make the Menorah, a bush-like seven-branched lampstand, which would light up the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept (Exodus 25:31-40). Solomon also set up ten golden lampstands in the Temple (2 Chronicles 4:7). The light in the Temple sanctuary was likewise a sign of God’s presence.

After the Temple was retaken, according to Jewish tradition as recounted in the Talmud, only one vial of consecrated oil for the sanctuary lamp was found, sufficient for one day only. However, the light miraculously burned for the eight days it took to make more oil (Shabbat 2).

As our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah, this time can be an occasion for Jews and Christians together to remember that it is God himself who is Light that is everlasting. More than light from oil, which runs out, God is the Eternal Light which cannot be extinguished. The rededication of the Temple that we read about in Maccabees reminds us that even if evil has defiled the good, evil will be defeated. This is a time of hope.

As Christians, however, we can see something more. In the divine mystery of God, we recognize that Jesus himself is the Light. Saint John attests in his Gospel, “through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). Jesus confirms this testimony, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12).

During this season of Advent, we decorate our homes, Christmas trees and streets with lights, joyfully awaiting the coming of our Savior. At Christmas, we profess that God “made this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of the true light” (Collect for Midnight Mass). Likewise, the Easter Vigil will begin with light, with the paschal candle being lit from a new fire as the priest prays, “May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” Meanwhile, candles adorn the altar in our churches and a sanctuary lamp burns perpetually near the tabernacle when the Blessed Sacrament is in reservation, to indicate the presence of the Lord.

When we know Jesus Christ is the Eternal Light, that he is “God from God, Light from Light,” we will see all things in his light. Joyfully then we sing in the Alleluia refrain on Christmas Eve, which is the culmination of Hanukkah this year, “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.”