Mary as the Woman

At the wedding feast of Cana, Mary notices that the wine has run out and makes this need known to Jesus. His response to this request might strike us as a little harsh: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). It doesn’t take very developed social skills to know that referring to your mother simply as “woman” is not considered polite! However, Mary responds without taking offense, and tells the servers to do whatever Jesus tells them. So, maybe there is more at work in His comment than a sharp rebuke…

In fact, the title of “Woman” has a wide Biblical significance. The first use of it is to refer to the first woman, Eve. It is then used again shortly after the Fall in the first promise of the Redeemer. God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers…” (Genesis 3:15). This title, then, points to the mother of the Messiah. The beginning of the first creation was a husband and wife, while the beginning of the re-creation will be a mother and son. Therefore, it speaks of Mary as the new Eve – the new “Woman.”

Jesus refers to Mary as “Woman” a second time later in the Gospel of John. While hanging on the Cross, Jesus entrusts His apostle John to Mary with the words, “Woman, behold, your son” (John 19:26). Here we again can see a connection with Mary as the new Eve. Jesus is entrusting her with the care of the infant Church (just as He likewise entrusts us with the care of her in the next verse).

The common link between these references is her role as the new Eve. Since the miracle at Cana is Jesus’ first public sign (John 2:11), it is the beginning of His work of redemption that will conclude with the arrival of His “Hour” on the Cross and His Resurrection on the third day (on that note, I think it’s also important to notice that the account of the miracle begins, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana…”). What might first strike us as a rude comment, then, is in fact a reference to how this request ties into the whole of God’s plan. Hopefully this post has helped you to better understand this passage, and some of the Biblical foundation of Catholic devotion to Mary. God bless!

The Christmas Octave

The Catholic Church celebrates Christmas as an “octave.” What does this mean? It refers to extending the feast from a single day into an eight day celebration because there is just too much to fit into twenty-four hours! Octaves have a long tradition, and in the past many other feasts received this treatment (Easter is the only other Octave in the Church right now). The practice flows from a number of Old Testament feasts that celebrated the “eighth day,” as well as the eight-day dedication of the Temple. Here are some highlights from the Christmas Octave – these days help to extend the grace of the 25th, and draw out more aspects of its meaning!

December 26th commemorates St Stephen, the first martyr (see Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6). This is referenced in one of my favorite Christmas carols, Good King Wenceslas, which is set “on the feast of Stephen!” Stephen shows the strength of the Gospel being put into practice, as well as a powerful symbol of forgiveness. St Paul (before he was St Paul) was present at the stoning of Stephen, and the Office of Readings on this day reflects on this in light of Paul’s later conversion. It quotes a sermon by St Fulgentius, who wrote, “Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.” (You can find the full text here towards the end of the page: http://www.liturgies.net/Liturgies/Catholic/loh/christmas/stephen/officeofreadings.htm).

December 27th marks the feast St John, the Apostle and Gospel-writer. His books of scripture give a special insight into the heart of Christ, and emphasize that Jesus is the Word made flesh (born to save us and offer us the opportunity for encounter with Him). He alone among the Apostles stood faithful at the Cross, and was entrusted with/to the care of Mary, the mother of Jesus. As Stephen represents those who give their life by martyrdom, John represents those who give their life by fidelity to the end of natural life.

December 28th remembers the “Holy Innocents,” the children killed by Herod in his attempt to kill the Christ-child.  In a way they represent all of those that gave their life before the arrival of the Messiah, as well as all those that suffer unjustly. This event required Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt with Jesus for a time. So, although Christmas is a joyful time, this day invites us to remember those who suffer and wait for the full peace of the Kingdom (As an interesting cultural note, in Mexico this is the equivalent of April Fools’ Day. The idea is that everyone wants to be seen as a “holy innocent” even while pulling the pranks!)

The Sunday after Christmas (or, December 30th if Christmas is a Sunday) is the feast of the Holy Family. We focus on the dynamics of the relationship of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In their home at Nazareth they began to embody and live the Gospel. I always appreciate this feast as a day of gratitude for my family, and to pray for all those that are in particular need at this time. It is also a time to reflect on what I can do to support my family and those around me.

Finally, I want to say a little about the “octave day” (January 1st). It is celebrated as the feast of Mary, the Mother of God (this day has a history of many names, which may be its own blog post at some point!). The title “Mother of God” was strongly promoted after the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) in contrast to the preaching of Nestorius (who denied the unity of Jesus as one Person, true God and true Man). We believe Mary gave birth to a Person, Jesus – who was the Son of God from all eternity, and took to himself a human nature in his birth in time from Mary. This is a key point because the whole work of redemption was to reunite fallen human nature with the abundance of the divine nature. Jesus realizes this in His person. Therefore, this feast brings us back to the beginning by reinforcing the full impact of what happened on Christmas Day; not just the birth of a good human child, but the birth of Salvation itself!

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!