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!

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!

Fr Georges Lemaître

If you went to Google’s homepage on July 17th you would have seen the picture of a Catholic priest! Google changes its graphic (“doodle”) from day to day to commemorate various individuals or events, and on the 17th decided to honor the 124th birthday of Fr Georges Lemaître- a Jesuit priest. Why?

In addition to being a priest, Fr Lemaître was a distinguished astronomer. He studied at Cambridge, Harvard, and MIT in the course of his education. He is most famous for proposing what is now called the “Big Bang Theory” of the development of the universe (although that was not his phrase for the theory). I have mentioned this before, but it is interesting that this theory is so often considered the epitome of an atheistic view of creation, when in fact it was proposed by a Catholic priest! Fr Lemaître did not construct it as a specific argument for the Catholic understanding of creation. It flowed from the fruits of his academic study. However, he saw that it was not in conflict with our faith. Although the theory is often described as a theory of creation (especially by those that might see it in opposition to belief in creation by God), it is actually a theory about how pre-existent matter developed into the universe as we know it. It does not require one to deny that the universe has a Creator, order, or purpose.

In my experience so much of the popular opinion of the opposition of faith and science flows from a mistaken understanding of one (or both!) of the elements. As Catholics we see them as two different ways to come to know about the same universe. They can mutually enlighten each other with their own specific emphasis. In Fr Lemaître – along with so many other examples – we can see this process in action.

A Famous Quote from St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena (feast day April 29th) lived in the late 1300’s and is considered one of the masters of the spiritual life despite her simple life and training. She also worked vigorously to correct the disunity and dysfunction of the Church at her time. This letter was written to her friend Stefano Maconi, who she believed was resisting God’s call to enter monastic life. She saw this as emblematic of the problems of the time, and wished his help in the work she had undertaken. After her death Stefano did become a Carthusian, eventually being named General of the Order. A quote from the end of this letter has become somewhat famous, and I think knowing this context makes it even more powerful! If we are what we ought to be (i.e., if we follow the call God has for us), we will set the world on fire! God bless-

From a Letter of St Catherine Sienna to Stefano Maconi

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest son in Christ Jesus: I Catherine, servant of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you with desire to see you arise from the lukewarmness of your heart…  For in truth, if we did see [the utter love of Christ], our heart would burn with the flame of love, and we should be famished for time, using it with great zeal for the honor of God and the salvation of souls. To this zeal I summon you, dearest son, that now we begin to work anew…

Be fervent and not tepid in this activity, and in encouraging your brothers and elders of the Company to do all they may in the affair of which I write. If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder. I say no more to you. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God….

What is Divine Mercy Sunday?

The second Sunday of Easter (i.e., one week after Easter Sunday) is celebrated in the Catholic Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. The day has had a long history as a special occasion since it is the “octave” (eighth day) of the great feast, including celebration for the newly baptized. Also, it corresponds to one of the Biblical apparitions. The Gospel read at Mass is always John 20:19-31, which recounts Jesus’ appearance to the Apostles after His resurrection. It includes Jesus’ initial words of “Peace be with you,” and when He breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles to commission them for the forgiveness of sins. Another important part is the absence of Thomas and his statement that he will not believe the resurrection until he sees the wounds. Jesus appears the following Sunday to make this revelation, which corresponds to this second Sunday of Easter.

The specific Divine Mercy devotion comes from St Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun that lived from 1905-1938. She received many messages in prayer of Jesus’ desire to spread the truth of His mercy throughout the world. She recorded these in her diary, but was always very cautious about discerning to make sure this was truly the will of God. Over time her writings were approved, and have borne great fruit! Considering the World War that occurred during her life and the second that came just as she was passing, there certainly was a great awareness of this need for mercy. She wrote many beautiful prayers and reflections which have helped many (including myself!) to gain a great awareness of the greatness of Divine Mercy. She commissioned an artist to draw an image of Christ with rays of blood and water coming forth from His heart (as happened when He was pierced on the Cross) as a symbol of this mercy, with the phrase “Jesus, I trust in You” written at the bottom. In particular, her message was very dear to Pope John Paul II, who officially introduced the title into the liturgy.

To return to the Gospel of the day, we see the way that Jesus pours out His mercy on the Apostles (who were well aware of their lack of faithfulness during His suffering and death), and at the same time commissions them to go forth and spread this mercy. I think this is such an important truth—the awareness of God’s mercy in our own life is a powerful foundation for our mission in the world. I encourage you to learn more about her if this message is of interest to you. May we continue to open ourselves to the mercy of God, and to spread this to the ends of the earth!

Learning from Fr Mullen and Deacon Vince

This week holds the funerals for two distinguished members of our clergy, Fr Richard Mullen and Deacon Vince Slomian. I thought I’d take a few minutes to write down some of the lessons I learned from the time I was blessed to spend with them.

Fr Mullen was a retired priest in the area (in fact the oldest priest in the diocese at the time of his death), and I had gotten to know him through my first assignment even before coming back to town. One of his enduring legacies was starting the practice of Saturday night dinners among the priests in our vicariate. Each weekend one of the rectories hosts a dinner for the other priests. This has been such a blessing to me, and to our vicariate in general! It’s kind of a like a family dinner where all of us can get together (retired priests, pastors, newly ordained) to talk and share fellowship. The conversation usually includes everything from humorous stories to bits of wisdom, practical discussions, current events, and brainstorming for the future. The dinners help us to support one another and work together despite our hectic schedules. They give time to pray and develop friendship. Mull will be greatly missed at these gatherings! I think it can be a reminder for all of us to consciously make time for community with family and friends.

Deacon Vince was a permanent deacon at my previous assignment, and I was blessed to get to spend quite a bit of time with him. He was in our second class (ever) of permanent deacons, and so had a lot of wisdom! One part of his ministry that I would like to highlight is his work with the Peterstown TEC retreats (“Teens Encounter Christ”). These are held for young men/women, age 16-23. Deacon Vince brought so much leadership, fun, and energy to this program. It has born phenomenal fruit in the course of 200+ retreats (I was honored to be the priest for TEC #200 itself!), and I think a large part of that fruit is due to Deacon Vince’s efforts. Perhaps the greatest work he has done, though, is build the program without centering it on himself. With his great personality and length of time in the program it would have been easy for him to do this. Instead, he chose to invest in other leaders and make sure that the retreats stayed focused on the transformational encounter with Christ. In these last years, when his health had begun to fail and he wasn’t able to do everything that he had in the past, I think a great joy of his was to see the retreats continue to go forward. He encapsulated this forward momentum with the phrase “keep coming back.” Re-investing what we have received keeps the program strong for future years. Likewise, staying connected helps to support us in our efforts to live our faith in the midst of a culture that pushes against the freedom and life of the Gospel. Peterstown TEC will miss him greatly. But, it will survive and continue the mission that he gave so much of himself to support.

Thank you, Fr Mullen and Deacon Vince. You will be missed. May your souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen!