Friday, December 31, 2010

John's Prologue

On the last day of the calendar year, the Gospel reading at Mass is the Prologue of John, the first 18 verses of John's Gospel. Prior to the liturgical changes that followed the Second Vatican Council, the first 14 verses were read at the end of every Mass and were known as the Last Gospel. They culminated with the words: "And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth." Taking the entire Prologue or beginning of John's Gospel, as we do today, one might have the impression that verse 14 is the climax. It isn't.

The Prologue has a chiastic structure. It forms an "X" with the theme of the first verses being repeated in the last verses, and the second set of verses being repeated in the second to the last verses, and the third set of verses being repeated in the third to the last verses. This leaves the most important verses in the very middle. And those verses are not "the Word became flesh."

Take out your Bible and see for yourself, but remember that when the Scriptures were written they were not broken down into verses. The chapters and verses that we now have didn't come about until the 16th Century. So looking only at the number of verses, and not the themes, the verses of John's Prologue are not a perfect chiasm. However, the themes of the verses are what make it chiastic.

The first verses--1 to 5--speak of the Word of God who gives light and life. The last verses--16-18--echo that theme, speaking of the grace that comes to us through the only Son of God who is closest to the Father. The next set--verses 6 to 8--speak of John the Baptist and verse 15 repeats the witness of John. Finally, part three--verses 9 to 11--speak of how the Word came into a world which did not accept Him and the third to the last part--verse 14--declares that the Word was made flesh and came among us.

Which leaves, as the center of the chiastic structure of the Prologue, verses 12 to 13: "But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man's decision but of God." We, the baptized, are at the center of John's Prologue. The Word became flesh and lived, died, and rose among us so that we could become children of God. This happens through the Holy Spirit who joins the baptized to Christ, making us one with Him.

All of this is a way of saying that we are very important to God. Or, as John writes a little later in his Gospel: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son..." (3: 16). Joined to the Son through baptism, we are now very close to God. How close? The last verse of the Prologue, verse 18, tells us. Joined to Christ, members of His Body, we are, with Him, "at the Father's side."

That translation--"at the Father's side"--is from the New American Bible. There are other translations that make even more clear the intimacy that Jesus and we have with the Father. The Douay-Rheims and King James translations both say that the Son "is in the bosom of the Father." In ancient Hebrew culture, to be "in the bosom" of another described the closest intimacy possible. It was an expression that was used to describe the relationship of a mother and a child, as well as that of a husband and a wife.

The New Revised Standard and New Jerusalem translations have "who is close to the Father's heart," while the old Jerusalem Bible and Revised English Bible translate this phrase "nearest to the Father's heart."

It's natural, when we come to the end of the calendar year, to look back at all the things we've done, and to look forward, anticipating all the things we're going to do in the coming year. I'd suggest that we do our end-of-the-year reflections a little differently. Look back at all the things God has done for you this past year. And instead of looking forward, spend some time savoring your identity. As a beloved child of God through baptism, you are "nearest to the Father's heart." You are "in the bosom of the Father." If we can begin the new year convinced of that, then we will be ready. For what's most important is not so much what we do, but what God has done for us and who we are. We want all that we will do in the coming year to flow from that.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Mother's Eyes

I'm a great fan of icons and anyone who has been to my office or rooms can easily see that. I have icons all over the walls. They are reminders to me of my family, the Family of God. Many of my icons come from St. Isaac Skete, a tiny Orthodox monastery tucked away among the hills and coulees of southwestern Wisconsin near a town called Boscobel. If you can find your way there and visit their gift shop, you'll be able to purchase slightly damaged "seconds" for half price and, in gratitude for the efforts you took to get there, they'll send you away with a gift icon.

One of my favorite icons is known as The Virgin of Vladimir, The Mother of God of Vladimir, or Our Lady of Tenderness. It was created by a Greek icon writer and was taken from Constantinople to Kiev in 1183. Twenty years later it was taken to Vladimir where it remained until 1395 when it went to its current home in Moscow. What's most striking to me about the icon are the eyes of the Blessed Mother. What those eyes must have seen over the centuries and especially during the time of Communist oppression!

In the sitting area where I pray next to my bedroom, I have on the wall a copy of this icon in a reduced size that emphasizes the Mother and Child. When I pray Vespers and come to the Magnificat I look into her eyes. The Magnificat is a song of joy, but I find the eyes of the Virgin of Vladimir sad.

Lately, as I look into her eyes, I find myself thinking about the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, and today's Gospel (Luke 2: 22-35) where Simeon prophesies that Jesus "is destined ... to be a sign that will be contradicted" and, to Mary, that "you yourself a sword will pierce." We know it was the sword of sorrow, the suffering that only a mother could experience watching her son tortured and dying on a cross. The eyes of this Virgin Mother of Vladimir contain that sorrow.

It's underscored by the Child who clings to His Mother. It's almost a desperate clinging, His eyes fixed on her eyes.

As I look into those eyes I seem to hear Mary saying to me: "Do you see my Child? Do you see how they want to hurt Him and kill Him? This is what sin does to Him. Will you also threaten Him, hurt Him, and kill Him with your sins?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Animals

I remember being fascinated by my grandparents' Nativity scene when I was growing up. It was a complex arrangement with a beautiful background and all sorts of interesting figures, including animals. I wanted to play with them, but they were not to be touched.

Most Nativity scenes have animals, especially sheep. Though sheep are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the Nativity, it seems natural to include a few with the shepherds who were the first to visit the newborn infant. Nativity scenes, like the one in the main chapel of my Jesuit community, usually have two other animals--an ox and a donkey--which are also not to be found in the Gospel but which were probably the residents of the stable where Jesus was born. A few days ago I ran across a Scriptural reference to them: Isaiah 1: 3.

An ox knows its owner,
and an ass, its master's manger;
But Israel does not know,
my people has not understood.

When I was growing up and we set up the Nativity figures, my mother told me to put the animals close to the manger where they could breathe on the baby Jesus to keep Him warm. This passage from Isaiah is another reason to place the ox and donkey close to the crib. They recognize their Creator.

Pope Benedict's Mission Intention for December has been: "That the peoples of the earth may open their doors to Christ and to his gospel of peace, brotherhood, and justice." When someone knocks on our door we are reluctant to open it unless we first recognize and feel safe with the person knocking.

According to Isaiah, while the animals recognized their Master, Israel (and we could add, the world) has not recognized and welcomed Him. Is it fear that keeps us from opening the door and letting Him in?

Shortly after his election as pope, in the homily at his inaugural Mass, Pope Benedict XVI used this image of opening doors, an image that Pope John Paul II also used frequently. Pope Benedict said:

At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” ... Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you...: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.

We have spent Advent preparing to open the doors of our hearts to Christ this year. As we now celebrate His birth, let us recognize our Maker as we draw near to His manger.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

St. Ignatius' First Mass

On Christmas Day, 472 years ago, St. Ignatius Loyola celebrated his first Mass. He had been ordained 18 months earlier, on the feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 1537. He had been hoping to celebrate his first Mass in the land where the Son of God took flesh and was born, but because of the threat of Turkish pirates no ships would sail from Italy to the Holy Land. He settled for the next best place--the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. This church, one of the major basilicas of Rome, was the first Roman church built in honor of the Mother of God. In it was a chapel dedicated to the Nativity and relics from the manger where Jesus was laid after His birth. If he couldn't celebrate his first Mass in Bethlehem, he would celebrate it there, on Christmas Day.

Christmas is a Eucharistic feast. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity took flesh and was born in order to give His flesh for the life of the world. The Bread of Life was born in a town named Bethlehem, a name which means "House of Bread." His mother placed Him, who would one day say, "my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink" (John 6: 55), in a manger, a feeding trough.

After (and probably during) that first Mass and throughout his ordained life, St. Ignatius cried during Mass. Such tears are a sign of spiritual consolation which St. Ignatius describes in his "Spiritual Exercises" as "when some interior motion is caused within the soul through which it comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord.... Similarly, this consolation is experienced when the soul sheds tears which move it to love for its Lord..." (#316). His early Jesuit companions testified that St. Ignatius felt cool and without consolation if he did not shed tears three times during Mass. It got so "bad" that "his doctor forbade him to surrender to tears because it was destroying his eyesight and his overall health. As was his wont, he obeyed his doctors and received even more consolation, albeit without tears" (Harvey Egan, S.J., "Ignatius Loyola the Mystic," page 190).

If we pause and reflect, it will be clear that today, Christmas, is a day of consolation. How much Jesus loved us by becoming incarnate, being born, living our human life with its joys and sorrows, and even sharing in our death so that we who die might share in His resurrection. How much Jesus loves us by giving Himself to us in the Eucharist. If we really thought and prayed about this we would have what Pope John Paul II hoped for the entire Church in his Encyclical on the Eucharist--"amazement." It's an amazement that could even bring us to tears.

Friday, December 24, 2010

"In the Bleak Midwinter"

The other day a member of my Jesuit community asked me if I was familiar with a poem by Christina Rosseti which she wrote in 1872 in response to a request for a Christmas poem from the magazine "Scribner's Monthly." I said "no" and he not only sent me a copy of the poem but also the link to a beautiful rendition of the poem by the composer Gustov T. Holst. So, as my Christmas present to all the followers of this blog and others, here is the poem and the link, embedded in the title:

"In the Bleak Midwinter"

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

This is the spirituality of the Apostleship of Prayer and "offering it up." Jesus is the Son of God who took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mother. He loves us with a Heart that is human and divine. Having given His Heart to us, He asks one thing, whether we are rich or poor. He asks for our hearts in return.

As we celebrate His birthday, let us give Him the best present, the one that He desires most. Let us give Him our hearts.

Blessed and Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"This Tremendous Lover"

One of the nice things about this time of year, especially for someone like me, living in a large Jesuit community in a city where a lot of Jesuits return to visit their families, is reconnecting with friends. That happened last night. I was about to enter my room for the night when I ran into a Jesuit friend of mine. I was his vocation director back in 1987 and he is currently in special studies in the Washington, D.C. area. He's back visiting his family over the Christmas holidays. He was in one room of our community library, next to my room, and he had a book in his hands. It's a classic of modern Catholic spirituality called "This Tremendous Lover" by the Cistercian monk Fr. M. Eugene Boylan. I told him it's a great book that I'd begun reading a couple years ago and, for some reason, had put down after 300 pages with only 70 pages to go. So this morning I pulled out my copy to look at my underlinings and highlightings in order to see what exactly I liked about that book. My eyes fell upon two pages in particular and what I read amazed me because this book, first published in 1947, sounded just like Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

First John Paul, who in his Apostolic Letter "Novo Millennio Ineunte," written right after the Jubilee Year 2000, wrote that Christians need to go deeper in their relationship with Jesus. Look at what he says in #29 of that document:

We are certainly not seduced by the naive expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you! It is not therefore a matter of inventing a "new programme". The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Now, compare that to Fr. Boylan at the end of a chapter entitled "Conversation with Christ:"

...we are so anxious to put the beginner in touch with our Lord as soon as possible in prayer, and urge him to try to develop a sense of continual partnership and friendship with Jesus in all the works of the day. For Christianity is not a set of rules; it is a Person--the Person we call Christ.

Then Fr. Boylan goes on with words that describe the spirituality of the Apostleship of Prayer and the Daily Offering in which every work and activity of the day can be united to Christ's perfect offering:

And it is in Christ that all things are to be re-established and reuinited and reconciled to the Father (Colossians 1: 19-20; Ephesians 1: 9-10). And since Christ came on earth to do the will of the Father, He can always be found where that will is being done; and the ordinary round of the day's work is part of that will, so that this personal friendship and continual search for Christ is an excellent way to restore the unity of one's life and to supernaturalize all one's work.

And how does Fr. Boylan sound like Pope Benedict? In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, "Sacramentum Caritatis," he writes:

Christianity's new worship includes and transfigures every aspect of life: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31). Christians, in all their actions, are called to offer true worship to God. Here the intrinsically eucharistic nature of Christian life begins to take shape. The Eucharist, since it embraces the concrete, everyday existence of the believer, makes possible, day by day, the progressive transfiguration of all those called by grace to reflect the image of the Son of God (Romans 8: 29f). There is nothing authentically human – our thoughts and affections, our words and deeds – that does not find in the sacrament of the Eucharist the form it needs to be lived to the full. Here we can see the full human import of the radical newness brought by Christ in the Eucharist: the worship of God in our lives cannot be relegated to something private and individual, but tends by its nature to permeate every aspect of our existence. Worship pleasing to God thus becomes a new way of living our whole life, each particular moment of which is lifted up, since it is lived as part of a relationship with Christ and as an offering to God (#71).

Significantly, the Synod Fathers stated that "the Christian faithful need a fuller understanding of the relationship between the Eucharist and their daily lives. Eucharistic spirituality is not just participation in Mass and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. It embraces the whole of life." This observation is particularly insightful, given our situation today. It must be acknowledged that one of the most serious effects of the secularization just mentioned is that it has relegated the Christian faith to the margins of life as if it were irrelevant to everyday affairs. The futility of this way of living – "as if God did not exist" – is now evident to everyone. Today there is a need to rediscover that Jesus Christ is not just a private conviction or an abstract idea, but a real person, whose becoming part of human history is capable of renewing the life of every man and woman. Hence the Eucharist, as the source and summit of the Church's life and mission, must be translated into spirituality, into a life lived "according to the Spirit" (Romans 8: 4f; Galatians 5: 16, 25) (#77).

Now, here is what Fr. Boylan, on a page just before the previously quoted passage, wrote:

What has written in the earlier part of this book makes it quite clear that religion applies to every moment of our life. Christ wants to share every single action which we perform and what He cannot share is well nigh worthless. ... And, we may add, the solution of this general problem of making Catholicity a vital force in the everyday life of the laity is one of the most urgent needs of the day. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the fate of Christendom depends upon it.

Fr. Boylan wrote this more than 60 years ago, but it shouldn't be surprising that he and our recent popes are in such agreement, for what they propose is perennial. Our lives will have significance and meaning, and our world will find the just order that can lead to lasting peace, only when we live in union with Jesus Christ.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Retreating or Progressing?

I'm back from my annual eight day retreat and in reporting on it I can't help thinking about the word "retreat." It often carries negative connotations. Armies retreat when they are losing the battle. Going on a spiritual retreat, however, is just the opposite. I'd like to think of it as a way to make progress, to grow, or to move forward. Just the opposite of retreating. And this was certainly my experience of retreat this year.

God was very good to me, but that shouldn't be a surprise. God is always good and, when given the opportunity for quality time with us, He responds generously. My retreat was very blessed and I'll probably need a while to reflect upon all its graces.

First of all, because I was away from the city, my work schedule, and my alarm clock, I was blessed with great sleep. I must have needed it because it seems I'd go to bed around 10 PM and wake up around 7 AM every day. Secondly, I was able to take a walk after lunch every day and the meals I made for myself were pretty healthy. Since our praying spirits are enfleshed in bodies, these things--rest, exercise in fresh air, good food in moderation--contribute to helping one make a good retreat.

I followed what turned out to be a good schedule for prayer, with Mass at noon and holy hours at 9 AM, 11 AM, 4 PM, and 6 PM. In between I prayed the Breviary, cleaned the little house where I stayed, brushed snow off the car and shoveled a bit, did some other reading (back issues of "One," the magazine of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association), or prayed a Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Besides the Bible and the "Spiritual Exercises" of St. Ignatius, I used two other books that I highly recommend: 1) Fr. Michael E. Gaitley's "Consoling the Heart of Jesus: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat Inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius," and 2) Fr. Thomas D. Williams' "A Heart Like His: Meditations on the Sacred Heart of Jesus."

After my 7 PM supper I watched videos. Don't be scandalized. Here is a listing of the videos I saw: "The Island" (a Russian film about a monk who struggles with the memory a murder he thought he committed when he was a soldier in World War II); "The Pope: Life and Times of John Paul II"; "Sanctity Within Reach: Pier Giorgio Frassati" (an EWTN show about this beatified member of the Apostleship of Prayer); "Saint Therese of the Child Jesus: An Echo of the Heart of God" (a film that was created in 1997 in honor of the centenary of her death); "Clear Creek Abby: Living the Liturgy" (a promotion DVD from Benedictine monks in Oklahoma); "With God in Russia: The Story of Fr. Walter Ciszek"; "Solanus Casey: Priest, Porter, Prophet"; and "Servant of All: Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen".

I find following the stories of saintly people a good way to relax during retreat and so, in addition to those movies, at night before going to bed I began reading a book about a Jesuit who had been the director of the Apostleship of Prayer in Ireland. The book was published three years after his death in 1921 and it's called "Life and Work of Rev. James Aloysius Cullen, S.J." Fr. Mark Kirby, a friend and fellow blogger (Vultus Christi) loaned it to me last summer when I visited him in Tulsa.

It was a great retreat but I have to admit that for the last two days back in the office I've found a lot of work to "offer up."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Off to the Hermitage

I'm about to become a hermit. Later this afternoon I'll be leaving Milwaukee, driving about 40 minutes, and beginning my annual eight day retreat. I can't recall ever making my retreat during Advent but it seems like a natural thing to do. I'll be at a small house that my community owns on Lake Five in the beautiful Kettle Moraine country of Southeastern Wisconsin. It's a familiar place where I've gone for other retreats and weekends of quiet.

I give a lot of retreats during the year. It's been said that everyone who gives or directs a retreat ends up making the retreat as well. I've found that to be true, but I also know that I need time for my own retreat. I cannot give what I haven't received.

Beginning my retreat on the eve of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception seems providential. I want to be like Mary, completely open to God's presence and activity in my life. I want to slow down in order to be attentive and open to whatever God wants to do in the coming days. The First Antiphon for the Psalm in today's Office of Readings in the Breviary confirmed this for me: "Surrender to God and he will do everything for you."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Two Mountains

The readings at Mass today (Isaiah 25: 6-10 and Matthew 15: 29-37) show us two mountains.

In the Gospel, after walking along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus "went up on the mountain, and sat down there." It says that "great crowds came to him." They included "the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others" in need of healing. How did Jesus look upon them? What went through His heart? After healing them, the Gospel says that Jesus still felt compassion for them because they were hungry. Jesus told us what was going through His heart, saying, "My heart is moved with pity for the crowd." We can just imagine how Jesus, looking upon this sampling of suffering humanity, shared their pain. His human and divine heart felt all that a human can feel in the face of suffering, but with divine intensity. Thus, after healing them, He fed them.

This miracle in which loaves and fish were multiplied in abundance anticipates another meal, the Holy Eucharist. There we are both healed and fed. There we receive healing and food, not just for our physical lives on earth, but for eternal life.

These miracles--the multiplication and the Eucharist--point to the other mountain and another meal described in the first reading: "On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces...." This mountain, where death is destroyed forever, is obviously heaven where there will be a feast never-ending. On that mountain the word "good-bye" does not exist. As St. Augustine wrote: "We shall have no enemies in heaven; we shall never lose a friend."

On this weekday in Advent, the Church wants us to have longing: to long as the heart of Jesus did for healing and a life that will never end; to long for God's holy mountain where every tear will be wiped away. Come Lord Jesus! Take us to that mountain and feast!