Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year...or Merry Christmas?

If Jesus' Birth is meant to be the event that marks the turning of our calendar year, then what better day to celebrate Christmas than January First!

Christmas is not just one day a year. Yet it seems that all the decorations come down and all the "Merry Christmas" greetings cease on December 26. The holiday comes to an abrupt end. My neighbors have removed the Christmas lights from their houses and taken down their trees, but we haven't even rung in the New Year of our Lord - which is 2009 years since the birth of Jesus. How can we say that Christmas is already over when we have not even counted down to the end of his 2008th year? Not until January 1st do we arrive at that glorious event!

When you think about it, January 1st makes more sense as a "Christmas" holiday than December 25th. It marks the actual date of the New Year, which is counted from the birth of Jesus. How fitting that January 1st falls in the middle of the ACTUAL Christmas SEASON...and yes, Christmas is a SEASON on just ONE DAY! The season begins on the vigil of Christmas (the evening of December 24) and extends to the Sunday after January 6. With that in mind, we can see a sort of "build up" from December 25 until January 1 (when we arrive at the turning of the calendar, the climax of Christmas, the apex of the celebration) and then a winding down till the end of the Christmas celebration. New Year's Day is quite literally a central part of Christmas. Let's keep it that way! Or, let's make it so, again.

So with all the commercialization of December 25th, perhaps it is time we stake a claim on the WHOLE Christmas season and set our sights on the New Year as a Christmas Holiday - not just a secular feast of drunken revelry and the dropping of an illuminated sphere in Times Square.
Yes, let's take back Christmas...let's take back ALL of it! Let's mark the turning of the calendar with Christmas Joy!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The True Meaning of Christmas

A few nights ago the kids and I sat down to watch a Christmas movie - a cartoon adaptation of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." It was a film that they had never seen, and a story with which they were not familiar.
Before beginning the movie I thought a few words of explanation might be in order, just to lay the groundwork for what was to come. After all, the plot could be kind of confusing to a preschooler, with ghosts and restless spirits, flashbacks, flashforwards, flashsideways,
and themes that might be too complex for someone who has never experienced the harder things in life, the allure of money, providing for a family when times are tough, and the inevitability of death.
And so I began, "This movie is about a man who doesn't understand what Christmas is all about. You see, Christmas is all about giving to others. It's not just about receiving presents...we don't just 'get' things...we're supposed to 'give.' That's what Christmas is all about."
I paused there for a moment. I saw that I had their attention. I received nods of far they got it.
I continued: "Christmas is about 'giving' because God has given so much to us.
Can you think of something God has given us?" I asked.
Joey (our five-year-old) replied, "Life."
"That's right. That's exactly right, and we are happy about that, and we want to give back to others the way God has given to us," I said, excited that he was actually engaged in the conversation. "But what else has He given us? Didn't he also give us Jesus?"
They nodded.
"God is way up here, in heaven." I held one hand far above my head. "And we are way down here, on earth." My other hand reached down toward the floor. "We can never reach up to God on our own. We can never cross this huge gap between us. So instead, God came down to us."
I brought my raised hand down to the lowered hand, as though God were coming down to meet us, and I clasped my hands together.
before I could continue Joey interrupted, "Wait, Dad, let me explain something. You see, Jesus comes down to us and makes His body into bread. Then he gives us a piece of His Body, and we eat it, and He goes inside our body. Then when we die, Jesus can take us back into heaven with Him, because he's inside of us. Jesus gives us His Body to eat."
My lesson ended there.
I thought I was telling my children about the joy of the Incarnation, neatly simplifying the message that Jesus is the real reason for Christmas. But instead my son taught me about the joy of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the real reason for Christmas. Jesus came down to earth
in the form of a child to bring us salvation; we encounter that child at every Mass and He enters into us as food for our souls. That is the true gift of Christmas, so many centuries ago in Bethlehem (Bethlehem - a word which means "house of bread").
The manger leads to the Cross, and that one sacrifice of the Cross is made present to us at every Mass. The Son of God acquired flesh so that He might one day give us his flesh to eat.
I congratulated Joey on his wonderful insight.
"I'm a pretty good thinker," he replied.
He certainly is.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Christ-centered Church, Part III of V

Let us review what has been said in Parts I and II: There are many so-called “Bible-based” churches which derive their form and function directly from Scripture. They begin with the Bible and from it springs forth the “church” - pieced together verse by verse. For these Christians, the Bible acts as the source and focal point of their ecclesiology (“doctrine of the church”). We might call this a “Biblio-centric” (Bible-centered) view of church.
Thus far, however, we have shown that the Church, when rightly understood, is NOT derived from the Bible in this way. Rather, the Church finds its origin in the person Jesus Christ. It was Jesus (not a group people, Bible in-hand) who established the Church on earth. And Jesus built His Church as a lasting institution. “…I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Such a Church should never need rebuilt in our own time. There should be no need to “reverse engineer” a Church from the Bible. Christians who seek a “Bible-based” Church ought instead to seek the “Christ-centered” Church, the one Church that can trace itself back to the Lord.
Christians who build up these new “Bible-churches” generally do so after first scanning the religious landscape and finding themselves in sharp disagreement with existing denominations and sects. They see the divisions within Christianity and they determine (and rightly so) that there must be some source, some divinely established guide, which can solve these disagreements. There must be some final arbiter which can settle disputes and determine where the truth lies.
Disagreement between individual Christians can certainly cause pain and division. Christians are all too often guilty of great sin against one another due to doctrinal disputes or jealous strife – one faction pitted against another, each pointing to Scripture as their guide. There is no question that such division ought to be healed, but who should be the final judge? Who can point to the sin of another and rightly decide? Does the Bible alone settle disputes between Christians?
Jesus gave the answer to this question in anticipation of such strife: "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:15-18)
Jesus tells us that the Church has moral authority over the individual on earth. And God Himself recognizes this authority in the Church…God will bind what the Church binds and loose what the Church loosens. So it seems that the Biblio-centric model has ecclesiology exactly opposite: It is not up to the individual to look into the Bible and determine what the Church ought to believe, rather it is up to the Church to instruct the individual on the path truth. The individual Christian must submit to the authority of the Church or he finds himself cut off, like “a pagan or a tax collector.”

Monday, December 8, 2008

Immaculate Mary

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when we honor Mary, conceived without original sin. As a Catholic, I had always simply accepted this status for Mary without much thought to the theological reasoning behind it. When I began studying the Catholic faith in earnest (around the time of my wife’s conversion), I reflected more deeply on why Mary was granted such a privilege to be without sin since the moment of her conception.

Original sin is passed from parent to child – it is inherited. Because of humanity’s fall, we are all conceived in this state which damages our relationship with God. Because of original sin, we are all in need of salvation. There is nothing in our power that we can do to overcome this fall from grace. Only an act of God can save us.

Mary was saved by an act of God. She was preserved from original sin so that she would be spotless, the perfect vessel for carrying God’s Son. The reason this was so necessary is quite simple. If Mary had possessed original sin, she would have passed it on to Jesus, her child. Jesus would inherit a fallen human nature. To prevent this, God could have “stepped in” at the moment of Jesus’ conception to save” Him from original sin. But can you imagine a Savior in need of salvation? …the Son of God in need of grace? This is obviously not a workable solution.

Instead Mary was spared so that Jesus would be born NATURALLY without the stain of original sin. It was not an act of Mary that caused this…she still owes her salvation to God, as we all do. But without this singular act of God’s grace the birth of the God-made-man would have been a theological impossibility. Mary was spared from original sin so that Jesus (who is God) could be born without need of salvation, so that he could offer himself unblemished as a sacrifice for us all.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Christ-centered Church, Part II of V

Some Christians believe that the early Church fell into apostasy (serious error) sometime in the first few centuries A.D. Others believe that the Church faded away, disappeared from the pages of history, or dwindled into obscurity. Some believe that the Church’s failure was a part of God’s plan; that the Church was meant to be hidden for all these centuries only to resurface in our own age. They believe that it is up to us to restore the Church so that she can fulfill her intended purpose.
But if we listen to the words of Christ, we can see that the Church had its one and only start with the Son of God and cannot pass away or fall into oblivion. “…I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) The Church was built strong enough to withstand the powers of Hell. Why should anyone find it necessary to improve on such a structure? Why should such a Church ever need to be rebuilt by mortal man?

Those who do believe that the Church must be “restored” in our present age generally look to the Bible as a guide for their reconstruction. However, the Bible does not contain a blueprint for the structure and function of the Church. The Church does not arise from the pages of Scripture; rather the Church sprang forth from the lips of Jesus as He breathed life into her at Pentecost. “‘…as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:21-22) From that moment the Church has bore witness to Him throughout history. This Church, which Jesus established, is a Spirit-filled Body centered on the Resurrected Christ.

We cannot build anew what Christ Himself has already built. The Church cannot be discarded when we perceive some abuse or neglect, either real or imagined, and then re-established or re-constructed by every passing generation. And yet new “churches” spring up in every corner of the globe - “Bible-based” churches - as though the Church is a “thing” to be assembled like a jigsaw puzzle from pieces scattered throughout Scripture.

But the Christ-centered Church, the Church that was built by Jesus to withstand the powers of Hell, was built to last. Like the wise man in the parable (Matthew 7:24-27), Jesus built His Church on the “rock,” not on “sand” like the foolish man. “[U]pon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Like a “light to the world” and “a city set on a hill” for all to see, His Church is standing still.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Sunday of Advent

This marks the beginning of the Church's Liturgical year. Advent is the time of anticipation leading up to Christmas. Through four Sundays we prepare ourselves for the joy of Christ's birth but we also look forward to his triumphal return at the end of time. Advent is a time of waiting. Though not as stark as Lent (which precedes Easter), Advent is meant to be a time of pious reflection. It is not the joyous celebration, as in the joy that defines the Christmas season, but it prepares us for that joy.

Ironically, the popular cultural has adopted the pre-Christmas time as the actual celebration of Christmas - decorations go up, parties are held, gifts exchanged, and the climax is reached on December 25. For most of America, Advent has been erased from our Christian calendar. Most of my neighbors put up their decorations during Advent and then promptly remove them on December 26. Not only does this rob us of the benefit of an Advent spent in spiritual growth, but it also cheapens Christmas. The birth of our Savior becomes nothing more than a commercial orgy that ends when the last gift is unwrapped.

It is often said that we should "keep Christ in Christmas." Perhaps we should also keep Christmas out of Advent.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The New Assault on Thanksgiving

Christmas has been under attack from radical secularists for years. Easter has been reduced to a mythical bunny delivering hardboiled eggs and chocolate. Now one more holiday has been targeted for de-Christianization. In the war on all things godly, I do believe I witnessed the opening shot against Thanksgiving one afternoon as I watched a children’s cartoon with my then three-year-old son.

The story took place in late fall. The characters were eating a holiday meal which included turkey, dressing, and all the fixings, complete with pumpkin pie. It was a time of family gatherings, the retelling of old stories, and passing on long-held traditions. Everyone brought his or her own dish and shared in a common meal. It made a lovely Thanksgiving special…only they were not celebrating Thanksgiving. It was called “Fall Feast,” and it consisted of all the usual trappings of the traditional American holiday, but under a different name.

It should come as no surprise that Thanksgiving has been blacklisted by the political correctness police. After all, the person to whom we “give thanks” is God – the number one guy on the radical left’s Most Wanted List. The left knows that the popular history of Thanksgiving is thoroughly God-centered. Pilgrims and Indians celebrated the abundant fall harvest with a common meal, giving thanks to Divine Providence for their food and newfound friends, and asking God to bless them through the long winter ahead. God was the focus of the Pilgrims’ celebration and of their lives, as He was also their reason for coming to the New World in the first place. The word “pilgrim” denotes one who is on a religious journey.

Sharing a common meal as a way of giving thanks to God is an integral part of many religious faiths, especially the Judeo-Christian tradition which shapes our own cultural understanding of God. Every year observant Jews celebrate the Passover meal thanking God for delivering their ancestors out of bondage in Egypt. Christians adapted the Passover ceremony to reflect what Jesus did at His Last Supper. Christians give “thanks” to God for delivering humanity from the bondage of sin. These Jewish and Christian meals put the faithful in contact with God. And the ritualized form of these shared meals creates a visible link between all those who share the faith around the world and throughout history.

Historically Christians have given a specific name to their ceremonial meal, a name that aptly describes a key element of its purpose. Most Christians in the first few centuries A.D. were Greek-speaking converts to the new religion. Greek was the language regularly used by the early Church. And in Greek the ritual bread-breaking ceremony was often called eucharistia. From this we derive the term Eucharist which is still used today by many Christian denominations to describe the action and the object of their Sunday celebration. The Greek word eucharistia means “thanksgiving.”

Now, the Christian worship service and the American celebration of Thanksgiving are not directly linked in any tangible way. I do not mean to suggest that Thanksgiving is in any way equal to a Christian Sunday service. Our November holiday does not rise to that level of worship and is at best a pale reflection of the Communion meal or any religious feast. But the word “thanksgiving” carries with it a wealth of religious meaning that should not be lost on any Christian (or any member of any faith). To give “thanks” to something greater than ourselves implies that there exists a Being to receive that thanks and bless us in return. And our celebration of Thanksgiving should retain that vital element. Without God, there is no one to receive the "thanks" we "give."

The secular atheists realize all of this, which is why they see the word “thanksgiving” as such a threat to their agenda. A happy “Fall Feast” can be had without any mention of God and without the religious implications of the word Thanksgiving. So before this annual tradition becomes just another “Happy Holiday,” take time this year to be with those who matter most, get out the best china, roast the bird, and remember to give thanks in whatever way your faith guides you.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Solemnity of Christ the King

Today is the Feast of Christ the King. This is the final Sunday in the Liturgical Year. Next week begins Advent.
The Church has established this feast day with an eschatological outlook, that is, with a view to the end of time. As it falls at the end of the Church’s liturgical year, it points toward the end of time itself, and celebrates Christ’s final triumph as King of kings and Lord of lords, when all things will be brought into submission, and He will reign for all eternity.
This feast caps off the entire liturgical cycle and prepares us to enter the new year, which begins with the First Sunday of Advent. The Feast of Christ the King is given the title “Solemnity,” which is the highest rank for a feast celebrated by the Church.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to tradition, Mary's parents presented her at the Temple to be consecrated to God as a virgin. She then lived at the Temple until the time of her betrothal to Joseph, who promised to honor her commitment to virginity. This event is not recorded in the four canonical gospels but is found in apocryphal texts. While the Presentation itself may not be authentic historically, its celebration, which dates back to the early centuries of the Church, reminds us of Mary's special place of honor in God's plan for our Redemption. She was called from the moment of her conception to be the Mother of God, and today's feast is one way the Church reminds us of this important role she fulfilled. It also reminds us that we too are called to commit ourselves to doing God's work in whatever capacity that might be. We too are called to present ourselves to God as his loyal servants.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Christ-centered Church, Part I of V

Many Christian churches describe themselves as “Bible-based.” Their structure, their organization, and their method of worship are all woven together from various biblical passages to form their own brand of “ecclesiology” (their theological doctrine of the church). These churches are “biblio-centric” – that is, “centered on the Bible.” Using the Bible as their starting point, they have constructed Christianity as they believe it is found in the pages of Scripture.

There is, of course, no end to the types of Christian churches this method yields, and no two churches look exactly alike. There exists a multitude of differences in how these ecclesial groups function, which doctrines they believe are essential for salvation, and how specific Scriptural passages ought to be applied. Biblio-centrism offers us a plethora of competing churches with no sure way to distinguish which one is practicing authentic Christianity. They simply begin with the Bible and derive from it their own idea of “church,” whatever that might be.

Obviously it is commendable when Christians wish to imitate the early Church. It is wise to seek our roots in ancient Christianity, to be grounded in the historic foundations of the faith. And it is certainly correct to use Scripture as a guide to govern doctrine and maintain sound teaching. But is the Bible the true “starting point” for the formation of the Christian Church? Did God give us first the Bible and from the Bible springs forth the Church? Is this the true order of things? Should the Church be biblio-centric?

I would propose instead that the Church ought to be “Christo-centric” – centered on Christ. God gave us Jesus Christ and from Christ springs forth the Church. Those who call for a “Bible-based” Christianity should instead seek a “Christ-based” Church. This does not mean that the Bible must be rejected. Far from it! The Bible is the primary source for Jesus’ own words about the Church (in the Gospel), and an excellent record of how those words were applied in the early Church. The Bible must be a key in any search for Christian Truth. It is after all the very Word of God, His revelation to mankind.

But as “the Word of God made flesh,” Jesus is the truest revelation of God to humanity. It is in Jesus that we must search for the Church, for it is in Jesus that God searches for us. We must not seek a “Bible-based” Church; to find the true Church of Christ we must find the Church that has its origins in Jesus Himself.