Starting a New Liturgical Year

The Catholic phrase “liturgical year” refers to the schedule of celebrations, seasons, and feast days that we commemorate throughout the year (the most famous being Christmas and Easter). It actually gives a tremendous way to bring the Gospel into every-day life and to experience the scope of salvation history.

The “liturgical new year” begins with the first Sunday of Advent (four Sundays before Christmas). This time sets the stage of waiting and expectation for the coming of the Messiah, the birth of the Christ child. It gives a chance to begin again our reflection on the life of Jesus. We then celebrate the season of Christmas for about three weeks, which covers Jesus’ “hidden” life—from His birth to baptism. There is a period of “Ordinary Time” that leads up to Lent, which gives a more general reflection on His earthly ministry. With Ash Wednesday we start the forty days of special preparation for Easter Sunday, the day on which we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. Easter Season lasts for fifty days until the feast of Pentecost, when the apostles received the Holy Spirit and went out to begin preaching. Finally, the Church returns to Ordinary Time to meditate on our Christian life until the end of the year. The final Sunday of the year commemorates Christ the King—giving us a chance to reflect on the everlasting kingdom.

That is a very brief sketch, but hopefully shows the way that the whole of salvation history is summarized in each year! Why go over it again and again? I think the best reason is because we need that to really let things sink into our understanding. Every time we walk through this path we have the opportunity for deeper insight and better application. May the Lord bless the new liturgical year, and may it bear much fruit. God bless!

Who was St Elizabeth of Hungary?

St Elizabeth of Hungary was born in 1207, and died 24 short years later in 1231. She filled these brief years with a profound vitality and love for God and neighbor. A daughter of the king of Hungary, she was married at a young age to a German nobleman. There she began to raise a family infused with a deep commitment to the poor and needy (she was strongly inspired by St Francis of Assisi, who was alive and active in Italy during the same time period). She needed a spiritual director not so much to spur her on to deeper virtue (as most of us need!), but instead to help her moderate her desires and focus them on her vocation at hand. When she was sadly widowed at age 20, she converted one of her residences to a hospital and served the sick there herself until her death.

I think St Elizabeth is a model for us of someone who let her life be directed by the Gospel rather than the expectations of the culture around her. As a noblewoman she could have been considered pious with even a passing practice of devotion. Instead, she sought to live her calling as completely as possible rather than seeking to know the minimum that was asked of her. May she pray for us that we be inspired by the same burning furnace of charity!

Why Stained Glass Windows are Wonderful

It is always a very odd experience for me to go into a church that has clear glass windows (it’s rare, but does happen). Even though I don’t think about it often, it drives home the fact that almost every church has stained glass windows. Rather than seeing the outside world, you are drawn into the story of the church you have entered. This is different than the type of story being told by a casino (which often does not give vision to the outside world, either). In that case, the lack of windows seeks to dull the mind and prevent the patron from remembering outside responsibilities. Stained glass windows, in contrast, are not about dulling the mind or trapping the person. The purpose is to elevate the soul to see past the immediate demands of daily life, and return back to our responsibilities with minds refreshed.

Stained glass windows acknowledge that we as human beings are easily distracted. We can probably all remember times in school when a window became a distraction to staying focused on the lesson! Not only does the stained glass keep us from the distraction of outside things, it also gives us something to reflect on when our minds wander. When our attention drifts from what is happening in the liturgy, the windows give us something better to contemplate than our to-do list. The Scripture scene or saint depicted in it can help draw us into prayer despite our wondering thoughts! As human beings we need more than just words to feed us. Beauty speaks to us about other truths of our faith, and can draw us to an encounter with God. Our imagination gives us another avenue to enter into reflective prayer.

So, the next time your mind wanders in church and you get sidetracked looking at windows, give thanks that the design had your situation in mind!

Counsels in Contrast to Commandments

Everyone is generally familiar with the Ten Commandments as classic guidelines of the moral life. However, it wasn’t until seminary that I encountered the concept of “evangelical counsels” (ie, counsels from the Gospels). This phrase refers to invitations that are made to us to work closer to Christ. They are not strictly required, but are avenues of new life.

I think this distinction is important because unfortunately many times we get focused on just trying to stay above the water (ie, obey the commandments). We want to balance a relationship with God with as much focus on worldly things as we can, which can be a painful battle that doesn’t bear a lot of fruit. Likewise, many people identify Christianity with merely trying to avoid certain sins. This misses the truth about what the faith really is, and what it offers us.

The counsels of the Gospel, in contrast, invite us to step away from the edge and venture more fully into the life of Christ. They invite us to go beyond what is strictly required, and experience a freedom and joy that only comes with setting aside our fear of the Cross. When someone lives out the counsels we see transformation in them and in the world. Our hesitation to follow these counsels is what often gives others the dull impression of Christian life.

One of my favorite Gospel examples of this is the encounter between Christ and the rich man (see Mark 10:17-22). He asks Jesus what he should do, and Jesus starts by listing the commandments. When the rich man says he has been fulfilling these, Jesus, “looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” The rich man goes away sad at this counsel. Notice that the Gospel points out the personal nature of this invitation from Jesus by mentioning the look and love that Christ had as He spoke these words. They did not come from a desire to take something away from the man, but from a deep knowledge of how to fulfill the desire of his heart. Unfortunately the rich man takes this as sad news. He is bound by his wealth, afraid to let it go even when it is an obstacle for him.

I might write another post described the response to such a call of entering consecrated life (as a religious brother/sister or monk/nun), but each of us experiences the call at times to live our Christian life more fully. Often this call asks us to set aside something that we have come to rely on in an unhealthy manner, and set forth with a new freedom. Are you experiencing a call like this in your life right now? We must ask ourselves if we will respond with sadness and fear, or confidence and faith.

Faith and the War Within

St James writes, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” (James 4:1). He describes something that we all experience – the fact that within ourselves we feel a battle between many different desires and emotions. This can make us feel like we are being pulled apart, and St James lists conquering this as one of the pre-requisites for true peace (both personally and in the world as a whole!). We each have to address this in some way. Should we work against any of these desires, and if so, how? I thought today I’d give some reflections on these questions from a Catholic perspective.

We see our creation as both body and soul as leading to these different sets of desires. We perceive things with our senses, and we are drawn toward the pleasurable and away from the painful. With our minds we also are drawn toward what we perceive to be true, and toward doing what we believe is good (although people use many different standards to make these judgments).

In the beginning of creation, we believe the grace of integrity was given to unite all of these desires toward a unified and true goal, but one of the fruits of sin was to introduce disorder into our heart. From here we are often drawn to seek superficial goods that are in conflict with our true and long-term goals, and we see selfishness work its destruction across the world every day.

The Christian vocation, in contrast, is to be transformed into a living image of God. Rather than a rampaging horde of barbarians (which is what our passions may seem like some times), the mission of the Church is to be more like a horde of images of Christ – people who will live with the love and wisdom of Christ, His patience, and His strength. In the “cloud of witnesses” of the saints we can see ways in which this has been successful, although we also know the great need to re-commit to this mission today.

Our first step in winning the war within as Catholics, then, is to make an act of faith in the power of God. Our biggest obstacle is our self-reliance, which hesitates to rely on the grace of God, and is reluctant to reach out for the help that we need. We want to be perfect in a day without involving others, and are discouraged when this transformation does not take place according to our time-table. It is a grace-fueled cooperation of our will with God’s, not just a passive process that happens automatically. But, moving beyond self-reliance, we are called to face this battle with trust in personal prayer, the Sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession), friendship, and perhaps other aids (e.g. counseling, small groups, etc).

This is a path of freedom and healing. It brings us back towards that unity of the initial creation – and what will be restored in the life to come. Many may struggle with the decision to enter into this battle from the point of faith, and instead choose a path that relies on human power and wisdom alone (doubting a chance for anything else). But, the faith that we are invited to is not a “blind” faith with no evidence. I am encouraged on by seeing how this has happened in others, how it is happening now, and how it has happened in my own life. I believe that Christ is alive and that I have encountered Him. May He work in my life and yours, and may we in confidence follow where He leads!

The Fellowship

The first part of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings largely focuses on the gathering together of the “Fellowship of the Ring.” (mild spoilers for this paragraph, if for some reason you are not already familiar with this story!). This is a group of heroes gathered from all the races of Middle Earth (ie humans, hobbits, elves, and dwarves – along with the wizard Gandalf) that unites for the purpose of destroying the dominion that the One Ring holds on the world. I think in that way the Fellowship is an image of the universal Church. The original Greek word for church – ekklesia – in fact means an assembly that has been called together. They set out against their opposition, and even come to a point at which the Fellowship seems to break – although in truth they stay united to their purpose despite no longer being in each other’s company.

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel describes a breaking among the disciples of Jesus: “many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6: 66). The dispute here centered on His words, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6: 53). At the end of the chapter, Jesus also speaks of the upcoming betrayal of Judas Iscariot (verses 70-71).

I think these passages give an important warning at the end of the Bread of Life discourse. Jesus is preparing this community/fellowship, and desires it to be a place of transformative encounter with Him (in a particular way in the celebration of the sacrament of His body and blood). However, our response to His invitation maintains its freedom. There is no substitute for a conversion of self, and no external proclamation that is sufficient without an interior correspondence.

At the time of this writing there is unfortunately the scandal of priests and bishops that  have used their positions to abuse (or cover up abuse) of those in their care. They took the external signs of consecration, but without a true internal correspondence. Instead of loving the Church as Christ loves her, they chose to care more about worldly prestige or personal gain. This is deeply saddening and I am so sorry for those affected. I pray for healing for those harmed directly or indirectly by the scandal, and for a true purification of the Church. I pray that I may be a faithful minister of Christ, and always do my part to protect those in the part of the vineyard entrusted to me. I am aware of my weaknesses, and ask for your prayers to fully respond to God’s call.

What inspires me at this time, though, is to meditate on that original plan of Christ for this Fellowship of the Church, and to be a part of its renewal. As ugly as scandal is, I am thankful that what has been brought to light is not continuing its growth in the darkness, where corruption breeds most quickly. May the light of Christ shine and drive out the darkness. I am reminded of the joy of living a life rooted in the presence of Christ, and renewed in my desire to fight against everything that seeks dominion in my life in opposition to it.

Do Christians have to follow everything in the Old Testament?

[Note- I know it’s long, there is a summary at the end!]

People often ask questions along the lines of, “The Bible commands people to do x/y/z. How can you believe that?” While the Bible has many beautiful parts, it is true that there are some that are challenging. Questions about these may come from Christians trying to better understand their faith, or come as challenges from non-Christians. I’ve seen billboards sponsored by anti-religious groups that put these passages on display as a way to discourage faith. However, I do think there are good answers to these questions, and already have written a little about this here.

Today I want to look at another part of the answer – the difference between the Old and the New Testaments in the Bible. Sometimes it seems that the person asking the question doesn’t have a sense of the difference in how we approach these two sections of the Bible. The “Old Testament” refers to all of the inspired books written before the time of Christ, and corresponds to the books revered by the Jewish faith. The “New Testament” refers to the writings inspired after the time of Christ written by the apostles and other disciples.

The reason that this is relevant is that most of the challenges I see based on difficult passages tend to come from the Old Testament, while the Christian scriptures would be more identified with the New Testament. Thus, it seems like an easy answer would be to say that any text quoted from the Old Testament is now invalid for Christians – like a lawyer trying to appeal to an outdated version of the law (the early writer Marcion actually tried an approach somewhat like this). This response, though, does not really fully respect the teaching of Christ. He reaffirmed some portions of the Old Testament, while not binding us to follow everything it contains. Here are a few key points about how Jesus spoke of the Old Testament.

1. Jesus affirmed that He was not abolishing everything in the Old Testament: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). In other places He teaches the continued validity of some of the commandments of the Old Testament (eg, Luke 18:20). The important word here is that He came to “fulfill.” This is different from simply repeating old laws, and different from simply creating completely new ones. It is about bringing the commandments to the purpose they had from the beginning.

2. Jesus showed that some teachings in the Old Testament needed to be understood in a deeper light. This is most clear in His “Sermon on the Mount” in chapters 5-7 of Matthew. He repeats a similar formula to this one: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44). The Ten Commandments given to Moses taught basic truths, but that did not mean that was the limit to what God desired for our behavior. There is much more to the love of God and neighbor than simply avoiding murder!

3. Jesus showed that there were commandments in the Old Testament that flowed in part from hardness of heart. For example, when asked about divorce Jesus said, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). In other words, we should recognize that the Old Testament teachings were steps along the way to perfection, not the final reality. I also think it is very important to realize that this sort of correction is already included in the Old Testament itself. For example, God says to the prophet Ezekiel, “Do I find pleasure in the death of the wicked? … Do I not rejoice when they turn from their evil way and live?” (Ez 18:23). Or, in Isaiah: “‘What do I care for the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; in the blood of calves, lambs, and goats I find no pleasure.’” (Is 1:11). So, even in the Old Testament itself we see evidence that God is preparing for a fulfillment of the Old Testament commands to coincide with their true purpose.

4. In addition to these forms of elevating/restoring given commandments, Jesus teaches that some parts of the Old Testament will be replaced. In regards to worship, He tells the woman at the well, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4: 21, 23). As The Letter to the Hebrews also shows the way that Christ’s offering on the Cross fulfills (and hence replaces) the offerings of animals in the Old Testament. As Catholics we believe that this new worship is connected to Jesus’ command to continue what He did at the Last Supper (“Do this in memory of me,” Luke 22:19), which is what we do at Mass.

5. Finally, I want to end by saying that Jesus ultimately entrusts the Apostles with the responsibility of discerning what is still required. We see this in the Acts of the Apostles as they address the dietary restrictions and the question of circumcision (Acts 11 and Acts 15, respectively). While I only referenced a small number of the teachings Jesus gives on the matter, even the full list would not address every part of the Old Testament! Here we see one of the reasons why Catholics believe in a continued teaching authority that exists in the Church.

Summary: This is one of the longest posts I have written, even though it barely scratches the surface! Therefore, I thought I’d end with a tl;dr type response from the great Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 100-105). The Church has basically concluded that commandments in the Old Testament can be broken down into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Moral commands came from the demands of doing good and avoiding evil, and still bind – often with a deeper explanation given by Jesus. Ceremonial commands had to do with the worship of God, and are fulfilled in the worship of the New Testament centered on the offering of Christ on the Cross, replacing the old practices. Judicial commands covered other aspects of life among the Israelites concerning community order, and weren’t about enduring questions of good/evil. These were only intended to remain for a time, and were annulled by the coming of Christ.

I hope this helps in some way to clarify how we understand the Old Testament as Catholics. When someone questions a particular passage, it’s essential to take the time to understand how it fits into this larger picture. God bless!