Sunday, December 29, 2013

Quick, No-Nonsense, and Profound - Matthew Leonard's "Pray Like a Saint"

Back in October I posted a video from the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology's Matthew Leonard where he shared how one of my favorite saints (Ignatius of Antioch) "drop kicked" him into the Catholic Church.  As the good Lord would have it, Matt attended an event here in St. Louis the next month; and I was able to meet him in person. He was every bit the down-to-earth, knowledgeable guy I had seen in the video.  So when I attended Mass earlier this week and saw his CD Pray Like a Saint in the Lighthouse Media rack, I had to pick up a copy.

Wow - you do not want to miss this.  In less than 50 min. Matt takes us through the three stages of prayer: vocal, meditative, and contemplative - and gives solid explanations of each.  He is a natural communicator who easily uses humor and plain language to deliver the insights of the greatest pray-ers known to Christianity.  He walks that awesome Catholic line of the "both/and" - showing how prayer is meant to be both communal and personal, "ready-made" and spontaneous, a discipline and a gift.  And he breaks it down into principles and steps that even the most green of beginners can understand and start using.  The message that comes through loud and clear is that God wants to take every single one of us to the absolute heights of prayer.  I listened to it again just today, with my kids in the car (ages 8 and 12) on the way to grandma and grandpa's; and it was awesome having to pause it because they wanted to chime in with their thoughts!

I hope you'll give it a listen.  Here is the direct link to Lighthouse Catholic Media, where you can hear a sample.  (Oh, and check out the FREE Catholic Study Bible app they offer while you're at it!) Happy listening!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Why 8 Days of Christmas?

To put it simply - it's just too big of an event for the Church to squeeze its celebration into one day!  The same is true of Easter.  We need an octave, eight calendar days, to even scratch the surface when it comes to appreciating these mysteries.

I thought about this last night in relation to the first Christmas.  I re-read Luke's account of how the shepherds were sent by an angel to find Jesus, "wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Lk.2:12).  It dawned on me that I had never stopped to truly put myself in the shepherds' place and imagine how they would have reacted.  In my head I had always seen them kneeling in silent awe before the manger ... and then going on their way.  But that's not what human beings do; it's definitely not what I would have done!  

Once the shepherds found Jesus there with Mary and Joseph, wouldn't they have had a million questions for Joseph?  Wouldn't the story of how they had seen the angel and then a whole angelic army have came spilling out?  And for the long-awaited Savior to actually be right there in front of them!  I bet their eyes just kept coming back to Him. 

Scripture tells us that the shepherds finally left (Lk.20), but I have to believe that they returned over the next few days.  How could they not?  If angels had appeared to you and told you where the Savior was, could you keep from going back?  Of course not.  We wouldn't be able to think of anything else and neither could they.  They wanted more! They must have looked for any opportunity to pay Jesus, Mary, and Joseph another visit.  "Boy, there sure was some nice grazing land over on the other side of the city.  And while we're out that way ..." (Anyone else feel the sudden urge to visit Jesus in the Tabernacle or Adoration Chapel?)

Christmas is a mystery and celebration that simply cannot fit into one day.  Happy third day of Christmas!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"And the Word became flesh ..."

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (Jn 1:1,14)
The scandal of the incarnation.  
It is impossible to become comfortable with it:  the thought that the eternal, all-powerful Deity would became a helpless child in the arms of His Mother.  It was too much for the Docetists, Gnostics, and Arians to take!  But the scandal of God's incarnate love didn't end there.  Not only did God humble himself by taking the form and appearance of a slave (Phil 2:5-8), He abased Himself even further, taking on the appearance of bread and giving himself to us as food! It was no accident that the only “bed” Mary and Joseph found to lay Jesus in that first night was a feed box for animals. It was divine foreshadowing of the night thirty-some years later when he blessed and broke the bread, saying, “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Loving the Stones

I prayed Psalm 102 today during the Liturgy of the Hours, and finally recognized its beautiful application:
You will arise and have mercy on Zion: for this is the time to have mercy,
yes, the time appointed has come
for your servants love her very stones, are moved with pity even for her dust ...

Let this be written for ages to come that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord ... (Ps. 102: 13-14, 18)
Today we Christians pray this Psalm as members of Christ's Body, the New Temple (Jn 2:21).  As St. Peter wrote, "like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house [a temple], to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 2:5; see also Eph 2:21).

The stones we love are our brothers and sisters in Christ - the Church triumphant in heaven, undergoing purification in purgatory, and still slugging it out on earth!  We are the very stones of the New Jerusalem which will descend from heaven when our Lord returns!  (See 1 Thess 4:15-5:2 and Rev  21:9-11)  This is our love for the Communion of Saints, the cells of Christ's Mystical Body.

Why Is Christmas on December 25th? Beyond the Myths

I was reading a post from Jimmy Akin and came upon a great quote on the matter of Christians choosing Dec. 25th as the date to celebrate Christ's birth in an attempt to re-appropriate a date already celebrated by pagans:

In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger commented:
"The claim used to be made that December 25 developed in opposition to the Mithras myth, or as a Christian response to the cult of the unconquered sun promoted by Roman emperors in the third century in their efforts to establish a new imperial religion. However, these old theories can no longer be sustained" (pp., 107-108).

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict) is certainly no slouch as a scholar, so you had better believe there is solid data behind that statement.  Reading down in the comments on Akin's post I came across this link to Dr. Taylor Marshall's article, with a stunning chronology offering an explanation for why Christians began celebrating Jesus' birth on December 25th.  Please read it to check out the details.  Here is the rough outline: "We can discover that Christ was born in late December by observing first the time of year in which Saint Luke describes Zacharias [a priest, and father of John the Baptist] serving in the temple (Lk.1). This provides us with the approximate conception date of John the Baptist. From there we can follow the chronology that Saint Luke gives and that lands us right smack at the end of December."

Very interesting.  I look forward to reading more.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Eucharist in the Crib

Compliments of Google Images and a little time spent in MS Paint
In four days we will celebrate Jesus' birth in the city of Bethlehem, an event prophesied some 700 years before by the Prophet Micah"But you, O Bethlehem Eph'rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" (Micah 5:2).  

But have you ever read the meaning of the name Bethlehem?  "House of Bread."  And we are told that when Jesus was born, He was laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.  The Eucharist - the truth that Jesus gives Himself to us as the Bread of Life - was announced there in the Cave of the Nativity!

"For My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me will live because of Me."  (Jn. 6:55-57)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Crushing the Serpent's Head - It's All Pregnancy Weight

Many of my recent posts have looked at Mary's appearance at Guadalupe in the light of Scripture.  An interesting piece of data that emerged in my research: in the Nahuatl language, in which our Lady asked to be known as "Holy Mary of Guadalupe," there are no "g" or "d' sounds.  It has led to speculation that Mary may have said something similiar to "Guadalupe," a word that the Spanish bishop, to whom the report was given, mistook for Guadalupe (a Marian shrine in his Spanish homeland).  It has led to the speculation that Mary referred to herself as Quatlasupe, "one who crushes the serpent."

That designation would be yet another point of connection between Guadalupe, Revelation 12, and the connected passage in Genesis 3:15.  The Genesis passage, as noted previously, is known as the protoevangelion, or "first gospel."  In it God addressed the serpent, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and hers.  He will crush your head while you strike at his heel."  In Genesis it's clearly the seed, the Son of the woman, who crushes the serpent's head; so what is with all the Catholic art work showing Mary standing on the serpent's head ... and her possible reference to herself as Quatlasupe?

The Douay-Rheims, a popular, older Bible translation among Catholics, rendered Gen.3:15 as "she will crush your head, while you strike at her heel."  According to Jimmy Akin, the Douay's translators followed a manuscript variant found in many early Fathers and some editions of the Vulgate (although not in Jerome's original Vulgate translation).  The modern translations we are familiar - where the woman's offspring, Jesus crushes the serpent's head - are faithful to the original Hebrew.

So again, what's up with images of Mary crushing the serpent's
head?  Isn't that theologically inaccurate, applying to Mary what should only be applied to Jesus?  If it is inaccurate, then why would the Church grant approval to the 1830 Marian apparition at the Rue de Bac, where Mary appeared to St. Catherine Laboure, crushing the head of the serpent?  (Granted, Church approval doesn't say you must believe it; but it does guarantee that there is nothing harmful in the apparition, nothing at odds with the Faith handed on by the Apostles.)

A simple thought occurred to me the other day as I was preparing a talk on Our Lady of Guadalupe.  I was looking at our Lady, clearly pregnant with the Lord Jesus, thinking about how Mary's appearance and image on the Tilma dealt a death-blow to the Serpent in the New World, when it struck me - it was pregnancy weight, that's how "Mary" could be represented crushing the Serpent's head.  The weight that crushes the Serpent beneath Mary's feet is the weight of her Son's glory.  It's all pregnancy weight!

This goes right back to the gospels.  Look at the authority Jesus granted to His seventy-two disciples, "Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you" (Lk 10:19).  We read of it in John's first epistle too, "He that is in you is greater than he [Satan] who is in the world" (1 Jn 4:4).  Jesus was there within His Mother, the Ark of the New Covenant, crushing the enemy's head beneath her just as He decapitated the idol of Dagon before the Ark of the Old Covenant!

Jesus is within His Church, fighting the ancient serpent.  And He was clearly within His Mother, the Church's preeminent member and icon.  Stay pregnant my friends! (Mt 12:50)

O Jesus living in Mary, 
come and live in Thy servants,
in the Spirit of Thy holiness,
in the fullness of Thy might, 
in the truth of Thy virtues,
in the perfection of Thy ways,
in the communion of Thy mysteries,
subdue every hostile power
in Thy Spirit, for the glory of the Father.  

Total Consecration to Jesus - What's Mary Got to Do With It?

What does it mean to be consecrated to Jesus through Mary? St. Louis De Montfort wrote the book on the subject. It is popularly known as True Devotion to Mary. De Montfort himself though, spoke of the devotion to Mary he prescribed as being "a perfect consecration to Jesus Christ." As difficult as this may be for some Christian brothers and sisters to understand, that is Marian devotion's raison d'etre. What De Montfort espoused was entrusting ourselves to Jesus' Mother, our Mother, totally and completely. We ask the Holy Spirit to join our hearts to Mary's - that the grace that was in her, the complete and total commitment she had to her Son Jesus, will be participated in by us as well. Sounds heretical? It sounded very foreign to me too, but after years of looking at it and seeing its fruits in others, such as John Paul II, I espouse it as well.

The Apostles themselves gave us the doctrinal foundations! Listen to this beautiful image given us by the Apostle Peter, "Come to Jesus, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:4-5). The Apostle Paul developed it further, teaching that "we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another" (Romans 12:5). In being fused to Jesus, we find ourselves then, at the level of the soul, mysteriously joined to one another. As a result, Paul could teach that "If one member of the Body suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Cor.12:26); and could even claim, "in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24).

And so, the grace that is in one member of the Body can be of benefit to all. And who received the grace to love Jesus with a perfectly pure heart from the moment of conception? Who was a disciple to Him like no one else in the cosmos? Our Mother Mary! As the angel Gabriel said, she is the "Kecharitomene," the one who is "completely filled" with God's grace. She is the Church's ultimate success story, God's greatest masterpiece of grace! Now that's the living stone that I want to be fitted to, the cell of the Body that I want to be functioning alongside. The grace that God gave her disposed her to overcome every difficulty and give herself to Him without reserve, so that the Holy Spirit could fashion Jesus within her. I want that grace that God poured into Mary, to yield to Him as she did! My soul, of itself, is still so underdeveloped, has so many impediments that prevent the Holy Spirit from moving it the way He wishes.

Do you remember your Old Testament? The great prophet Elijah told his pupil Elisha to ask a favor of him before he (Elijah) was assumed into heaven. Elisha's request? "I pray you, let me inherit a double share of your spirit" (2 Kings 2:9). And that was exactly what Elisha got! Well, there's no way we can receive a "double" portion of the grace Mary did - since as Mother of the Incarnate Word she received more than all of the angles and saints put together! - but she and the Holy Spirit sure want us to participate in it! They want us to tap into it to accelerate our spiritual growth. Again, as Paul said, "we are members of one another." To share in the grace given to Mary's soul is to make ourselves ever more docile instruments of the Holy Spirit, more perfect disciples of Christ Jesus! And this brings me back to that thought I was struck by earlier this week:

I was meditating on the third Luminous Mystery, Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom. My mind turned to that episode when Jesus was preaching, and He was told that His Mother and family were outside. He looked at those sitting around Him and said, "Here are my mother and my brethren! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Matt.12:49-50). I've always understood Jesus to be saying that we are to share in the mission of His Mother, the mission of doing God's will by giving Him our flesh and allowing Him to "enter the world" through us. And that's true. But for the first time, I recognized Jesus' words as having a deep fulfillment in this idea of being consecrated to Him through spiritual union with Mary. It is "common" to think of ourselves as Jesus' brothers and sisters, but mother strikes us a bit strange. Not when we conceive of it as our souls being knit to Mary's by the Holy Spirit though. Not when we understand it as being allowed to share in that beautiful grace that was hers - becoming completely fluid in the Hands of the Spirit, so that He can form Christ Jesus in our souls as He did within the womb of Mary.

We become completely Mary's (as Jesus did in the Incarnation), so that we may become more perfectly Jesus'. Our Lady stands before us today as she did Juan Diego, "Am I not here, who is your Mother?"

Friday, December 13, 2013

Interpreting the Symbolism of Our Lady of Guadalupe

The imagery displayed in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe comes from Revelation 12, but it bore special meaning for the Nahua, or Aztecs.  Their language Nahuatl, was pictographic, and so the image of our Lady is a multi-layered one announcing the one, true God to the people of the Americas:

Rays of the sun
Symbol of the Aztec’s chief god, Huitzilopochtli - the of the sun and warfare.  The Woman announces the God Who is greater than the sun god.
Standing on the moon
Moon was god of night; she is greater than their god of darkness.
Turquoise color of mantle

The color of the gods and royalty
Stars on the mantle
The Woman comes from heaven
The research of Fr. Mario Rojas S├ínchez and Dr. Juan Homero Hern├índez Illescas of Mexico (published in 1983) shows that the stars on the Lady’s mantle in the image are exactly as the stars of the winter solstice appeared before dawn on the morning of December 12, 1531.
Leo (the Lion, symbol of Judah) would fall on the our Lady’s womb.
Stars are symbol of end of one civilization and birth of a new, often accompanied by astronomical phenomena
Angel supporting the Lady
Royalty – only kings, queens, and dignitaries were carried on others’ shoulders.  She wanted to come to them; royalty told their bearers where to take them.
Rose-colored gown
Color of earth; she is of the earth.
Eyes looking down in submission
The Woman is not God, but his servant.  The gods of the Aztecs always represented looking straight ahead with large eyes.
The Woman’s complexion – she is a mestiza; a person of mixed birth, both Nahua and Spanish.  Face the window to the soul, and this face said to show great compassion.  Age appears to be 15
Hair parted
A maiden, a virgin
We interpret as gesture of prayer; but to the Aztecs it was the manner of offering – she is offering a gift
Maternity band
Sign of a pregnant woman – Someone is coming. The bow forms a four-petaled flower, the nahui ollin, the flower of the sun, a symbol of plenitude.
Jade broach marked with black cross
When a woman bore a son, her husband gave her a gift made of jade.  The Cross on the broach told them that the Spanish missionaries were speaking of her Son.
Cuffs of dress
White fur is a sign of nobility … however, not among the native people, but the Jews.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Mary - the Mother of EVERY Christian, Intercedes for Us in Heaven

In my last post on the Blessed Mother I shared the Catholic conviction that Mary has been empowered by the Spirit to act as mother, not just to Jesus, but to every member of His Mystical Body.  We saw how in the Book of Revelation (12:1,17) the Woman, the Mother of the Messiah, was the Mother of all believers.  We saw it in John's Gospel when Jesus looked down at Mary and John from the Cross, “Woman, there behold your son! ... Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26-27).  

Of course, Revelation's mention of "the Woman," and Jesus addressing Mary as such, takes us back to the first pages of the Bible, to the prophecy of the Woman whose seed would crush the head of the serpent, Satan (Gen 3:15).  We are taken back to Eve, the "mother of all the living" (Gen 3:20), and led to recognize Mary as the New Eve, the Mother of all those raised to life in the New Adam, her Son (Rom 5:12-21). The early Church understood this clearly. When we look at the writings they left behind, the contrast between Mary and Eve immediately comes to the fore:
Eve, a virgin and undefiled, conceived the word of the serpent, and bore disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced to her the glad tidings that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 155 A.D.)  
The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith. (Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, Against Heresies Book III, 180-199 A.D.) 
Eve had believed the serpent; Mary believed Gabriel. That which the one destroyed by believing, the other, by believing, set straight. (Tertullian, The Flesh of Jesus Christ, 210 A.D.). 
The main way Mary exercises her maternal care for us is to intercede, to pray for us and with us, to her Son.  I know this sets off alarms for my Protestant brothers and sisters - and I was right there with them a couple of decades ago - so let me take some time to explain how this belief comes to us from Scripture:

Each of us, at some point, has asked someone else for their prayers. Prayers, offered for the ones we love here on earth, are acts of love. This does not interfere with Jesus’ sole mediation (1 Timothy 2:5) between the Father and humanity in the least; we intercede as members of Jesus. If that is true for us still being formed in His image, then how much more so for our brothers and sisters in heaven? This was the belief of God’s people even under the Old Covenant. We are told of the vision granted to the Jewish freedom fighter, Judas Maccabeus (although tragically, this text is no longer found in Protestant editions of the Bible):
He cheered [his soldiers] by relating a dream, a sort of vision, which was worthy of belief. What he saw was this: Onias, [the deceased] high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. Then likewise a man appeared, distinguished by his grey hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. And Onias spoke, saying, “This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city, Jeremiah, the prophet of God” (2 Maccabees 15:11-14). 
It is my conviction that Scripture gives us many additional reasons to believe that those around God’s throne have our prayers “in hand.”
At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, there a throne stood in heaven with one seated on the throne!...Round the throne were twenty-four thrones and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders (Revelation 4:2,4)… each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the [earthly] saints (Rev 5:8).
So who are the twenty-four elders around the throne? “Elder” is used in the Bible only in reference to human beings. In the passage of Scripture just quoted John related his vision of heaven: members of the Body of Christ surrounding the throne of God, offering up the prayers of the earthly saints.

Since our departed brothers and sisters are even closer to the Lord, they have a perfected capacity to love us. What better way would there be for them to love us then to intercede on our behalf? The saints in heaven do have the earthly Church in mind; in the Book of Revelation John also said:
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” Then they were… told to rest a little longer, until their brethren should be complete, who were killed as they themselves had been (Rev 6:9-11).
We find the martyrs crying out to God to bring judgment, to intervene on behalf of the Church and vindicate those who had already given their lives. God revealed to them that more brothers and sisters would be martyred before judgment came. Did you catch that? God allowed the heavenly saints to have information about the earthly saints, that more were to be killed. It is a precedent, a biblical example of those in heaven having information about us on earth.

I think it is reasonable to assume the heavenly saints are often interceding before we even ask. But isn’t that the case with Christians we know on earth as well? Surely you have asked someone, maybe your mother, to pray for you - knowing full well that you are always in her prayers. So why do you ask? Because it brings you relief, as well as calls her prayers to focus on a particular matter. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox asking their heavenly brothers and sisters to pray has a variety of benefits: it assures us of powerful intercession; it gives us the security flowing from agreement in prayer (Matt.18:20), and it fosters our love for siblings we will spend eternity with. Against such things there is no law, no Scriptural mandate to the contrary. Instead we find St. Paul teaching about the interrelation of all Christians:
I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family, in heaven and on earth derives its name (Eph 3:14, NIV). 
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit… there [should] be no discord in the body…the members [should] have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor 12:12-13; 25-26).
Think about the image of the Body. When your hand is injured and in need of care, doesn’t it send the message to your brain via a series of neurons? When in need I want as many neurons in the Body of Christ firing as possible. Consider these two passages in light of each other:
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect (Heb 12:22-23). 
The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (James 5:16; NIV). 
They don't come any more righteous than our Blessed Mother!

When some people talk about Mary and the other saints' intercession, they make it sound as if they somehow change God's mind.  "God might be saying 'no' to your prayers, but if Mary asks him, then He'll say 'yes' to her."  That is horrible theology, and not the position of the Church! No one twists God's arm.  Why does God sometimes delay in answering a prayer until we invite Mary and the saints to pray with us?  My own belief is that God leads us to these prayer partners, and responds to our combined intercession, to build bonds within His family - bonds we will live out for the rest of eternity. One of the reasons praying with Mary is so widespread is because God wants each of us to know our mother!

How can you start praying with Mary?  I can't think of a better, more Scriptural place to begin than the Hail Mary:

Hail Mary, Full of Grace,
The Lord is with thee [Luke 1:28].
Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus [Luke 1:42].
Holy Mary, Mother of God [Luke 1:42]
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.