Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Suffering is inescapable in human life. From the moment we are conceived we possess a body that is fragile - susceptible to illness, disease, injury and eventually death. Indeed, birth is the first stage in the process of dying. It is unavoidable. As surely as new life begins, we know that that same life will someday end…

Today is Ash Wednesday. The ashes on our forehead remind us that, no matter our circumstances in life – rich or poor, young or old, sick or in good health – we are all destined for the grave. “You are dust and unto dust you shall return,” – these words are among those spoken as the ashen cross is traced upon our heads.

But the cross is not only a symbol of our death, but of suffering itself. The cross is not merely a symbol of our common end, but also the path we must tread to arrive there. We “take up our cross” and follow Him. It is a process, a march to our graves. Between conception and death, the life we live is filled with ups and downs. All life contains suffering. All life is marked with the sign of the cross; and the cross gives us hope.

The cross gives us hope, not because it brings an end to suffering, but because it redefines our suffering. Jesus agony and death do not remove suffering from our lives. Jesus did not come to end all pain. Jesus came to give our suffering new meaning!

There is no doubt that Jesus knew suffering of the worst kind. But His suffering transformed the world. If there is to be meaning in our life we must not reject suffering but embrace these moments of pain as channels of grace…just as Jesus embraced the cross for the salvation of the world. If we unite our suffering to His, then we can share in His plan of salvation, and become channels of grace to the world.

When we accept the cross of ashes we seek solidarity with the lowliest and most wretched of humanity. We search out those who suffer and find spiritual companionship. We even seek ways to suffer alongside them. As we look around us and see all those fellow travelers marked with their own crosses today, we see Christ walking beside us.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Saint Valentine's Day

Saint Valentine was a Third Century priest and martyr who was beaten and then beheaded on this day in the year 269. According to some sources there were at least two St. Valentines who died on this day – one was a priest, the other a bishop. However it is likely that the two were in fact the same person – a priest who became a bishop and then was martyred.
Regardless of the precise circumstances surrounding this saint, it has always fascinated and somewhat puzzled me that the popular culture has adopted this day to celebrate “romance.” Here we have the anniversary of the death of a *celibate* man, who was brutally killed for his faith (he was beaten with rakes and had his head lobbed off) and we are supposed to commemorate that event by exchanging sexy negligees and decadent chocolates…? I don’t understand.
Now, I realize that the custom of celebrating “love” on Saint Valentine’s Day traces back to the Medieval belief that on this day the birds choose a mate for the coming Spring. And I know that there were many pagan rituals involving fertility and the pairing off of young lovers that were much easier to suppress by the Church once incorporated into an innocuous feast such as the martyrdom of a saint. It is a much more Christian practice to send a “Valentine greeting” to a prospective mate than to engage in some pagan ritual of questionable morality. In that regard I fully appreciate the significance of Valentine’s Day. It certainly has firm Catholic roots. But have we perhaps gone back to some of the pagan rituals that were supposed to be abandoned? Don’t get me wrong. I can be a romantic – I give flowers and chocolates on this day. But there is *romance* and then there is *smut.* Unfortunately, I see a lot of *smut* for sale on this day of Saint Valentine’s death. Is that appropriate when we honor a man who lived his life for Christ?
And besides that, how does one involve the kids in this “holiday” (HOLY –day)? My children – 5 years old and 2 1/2 years – are certainly too young to have significant others. They can hardly appreciate the “romance” of Valentine’s Day – with or without the smut. Yet they are blasted from all sides with chocolates and teddy bears, toys and candy, that all scream “Happy Valentine’s Day!” It all seems like such a commercial, materialistic ploy. But how do you keep it away from them?
So this year we started something as a family that allows us to celebrate the holiday and yet keep it CATHOLIC. Just as Saint Nicholas brings a few treats for us on Saint Nicolas Day (December 6), so too does Saint Valentine on February 14. This morning we awoke to find cookies and candy and other goodies awaiting us on the dining room table, with a rose for Mom, who was prepared to fix us heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast.
Thankfully, I am now certain that the kids realize this is more than just a day to get silk boxers and a kiss on the cheek. As proof…When asked by a friend what our son hoped to get for Valentine’s Day, he responded: “You know that Valentine is actually a saint! He got his head cut off!” – Not exactly a romantic thought, and not what our friend expected…but it is about LOVE.