Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Christmas Dog

While the Scriptures do not mention a dog at the first Christmas, it makes sense that there was one there. The shepherds probably had a dog or two to help them guard their sheep and the dog would have naturally followed them to Bethlehem. Yet, few Nativity scenes show a dog.

This year, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, Msgr. Robert Ritchie added a dog modeled after his own dog "Lexington." In fact, Demetz Art Studio in Ortisei, Italy, the same studio that carved the other figures in the Cathedral's Creche, created the Christmas dog as well.

One of my favorite places in the Holy Land is the church at Shepherd's Field. The paintings in the corners of the rounded ceilings show the various scenes of Luke 2: 8-20 where an angel appears to shepherds as they were tending their flocks and they go to Bethlehem to see the child about whom the angel had spoken. In each of the scenes there is a dog, barking at the angel

when it appears, racing off with the shepherds, and then adoring the Christ Child with them.

Here's a poem I ran across recently in a 1952 book edited by F. J. Sheed, The Book of the Saviour. It's by Sister Maris Stella and it's entitled "Christmas Carol for the Dog."

This is a carol for the dog
that long ago in Bethlehem
saw shepherds running towards the town
and followed them.

He trotted stiffly at their heels;
he sniffed the lambs that they were bringing;
he heard the herald angels sing,
yet did not know what they were singing.

With tail erect and tilted ears
he trotted through the stable door.
He saw the shepherds kneeling low
upon the floor.

He found St. Joseph watching by
Our Lady with her newborn Boy,
and being only dog, he wagged
his tail for joy.

There stationed by the Baby's crib
he kept good guard through the long night,
with ears thrown back and muzzle high
and both eyes bright.

When the three tall kings came at last
he barked a warning to each one,
then took his stand beside the Child,
his duty done.

Down into Egypt went the dog
when Herod slew the innocents.
He was not wise. He did not know
why, whither, nor whence,

but only, being dog, he knew
to follow where the Family led
to Egypt or to Nazareth.
And no one said

a word about the sharp-nosed dog
who stuck close to the Family then.
And yet, there must have been a dog.
This is a song for him. Amen.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pope Benedict's Three Christmas Wishes

On December 7 Pope Benedict used a tablet computer to light the world's largest "Christmas Tree" stretching more than 2,000 feet up the slope of Mount Ingino near Gubbio, Italy. As he did so, he shared with the world his three Christmas wishes. As we approach the birthday of our Savior, let's make these three wishes our own as well.

Before lighting the tree, I would like to express three wishes. … Looking at it, our gaze is naturally drawn upwards, toward heaven, toward the world of God. My first wish, therefore, is that our gaze, that of our minds and our hearts, not rest only on the horizon of this world, on material things, but that in some way, like this tree that tends upward, it be directed toward God. God never forgets us but he also asks that we don’t forget him. The Gospel recounts that, on the holy night of Christ’s birth, a light enveloped the shepherds, announcing a great joy to them: the birth of Jesus, the one who brings us light, or better, the one who is the true light that illuminates all. …

My second wish is that this reminds us that we also need light to illumine the path of our lives and to give us hope, especially in this time in which we feel so greatly the weight of difficulties, of problems, of suffering, and a veil of darkness seems to surround us. But what light can truly illuminate our hearts and give us a firm and sure hope? It is the child whom we contemplate on holy Christmas, in a poor and simple manger, because he is the Lord who draws near to each of us and asks that we receive him anew in our lives, ask us to want him, to trust in him, to feel that he is present, that he is accompanying us, sustaining us and helping us.

But this great tree is made up of many lights. The final wish I’d like to make is that each of us carry a little bit of light into the environments in which we live: our families, our jobs, our neighborhoods, towns and cities. May each of us be a light for those who are at our sides; may we leave aside the selfishness that so often closes hearts and leads one to think only of oneself; may we pay a little greater attention to others, give them a little more love. Each small gesture of goodness is like one of the lights of this great tree: Together with the other lights it is able to illuminate the darkness of the night, even the darkest ones.

And from the Apostleship of Prayer in the United States: A Blessed and Happy Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

More Magis Reflections

Here are the last three of the daily reflections that I wrote for the Magis Center for Catholic Spirituality.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

We are made for union with God. We are made for a spousal relationship with God. In the Song of Songs and the Prophets of the Old Testament, we find this truth in vivid terms like the following verse from Isaiah 54: 5: “For he who has become your husband is your Maker; his name is the Lord of hosts….”

This goal of human existence begins to find its realization in the Eucharist. It is there that the union between each individual and the Lord is most closely attained on this side of eternity. There the Church is formed. St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, taught about marriage by quoting from the book of Genesis: “For this reason a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Then Paul goes on to say, “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (5: 31-32). Marriage is sacred because it reveals something of the intimate union that Christ has with the Church and with each of her members. It is a union that transforms. As Pope Benedict said in his final homily at World Youth Day 2005: “The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood.” The two—Christ and each one who receives him in the Eucharist—become one flesh.

This is another way of viewing the “First Principle and Foundation” in the Spiritual Exercises and it is what answers a question that arises from today’s Gospel (Luke 7: 24-30): how can it be that “the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than” John the Baptist? John, the great Forerunner and Martyr-Witness to the Messiah, did not have the privilege of the union that we have every time we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Can we ever be sufficiently grateful for this privilege?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Jesus called John the Baptist “a burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35). The Lord calls you to be like John, to be a lamp that “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5: 16).

You are called to burn with the love of the Sacred Heart which Jesus revealed to St. Margaret Mary, saying: “My divine Heart is so passionately fond of the human race, and of you in particular, that it cannot keep back the pent-up flames of its burning charity any longer. They must burst out through you.” To be on fire with the burning love of God requires you to draw near to the Heart of Jesus. It means being a “burning” lamp that is fed by the oil of the Holy Spirit who prays with you and within you. It means especially becoming one with the Sacred Heart that is given to you in the Eucharist.

You are also called to shine. Jesus called himself “the Light of the world” (John 8:12) and as he unites himself to you he calls you to be light as well (Matthew 5: 14). The light of a “shining lamp” is very humble. You don’t light a lamp and then stare at it. A lamp is lit not to draw attention to itself but to help people find their way. So it is with you. You are to be the light of the world in order to show people the way to the final destination for which God created the human race—heaven.

According to St. Ignatius, the goal of his Spiritual Exercises, and indeed the goal of all prayer, is to help us seek and find “the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul” (#1). It is God’s will that you be one with him forever in the Kingdom of Heaven. Through prayer you are united one day at time with this loving will of God that fills you with warmth and light, that makes you “a burning and shining lamp” that will guide others to the Lord just as St. John the Baptist did.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

We begin today the final days of preparation for Christmas with the “O Antiphons” (found in antiphon for Mary’s Magnificat at Vespers and in the Alleluia verse at Mass). We also have the Genealogy of Jesus according the Matthew. Besides giving us the human origins of the Messiah, it reminds us of the Providence of God which, in St. Paul’s words, can “make all things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8: 28).

The Genealogy does not paint a pretty picture. It includes a number of kings who led Israel away from God to the worship of idols. It also includes the names of four women, an unusual addition in the genealogies of the time. The childless and widowed Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute in order to have intercourse with her father-in-law Judah. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a foreigner. And Bathesheba was the unfortunate recipient of King David’s attention, leading to his committing adultery with her and orchestrating her husband’s death.

The Genealogy or Family Tree of Jesus included sinners in need of mercy and healing. This shouldn’t be surprising since it was to save sinners that Jesus took flesh and came into the world. Or, as St. Ignatius puts it in his contemplation on the incarnation, the “Three Divine Persons look down upon the whole expanse or circuit of all the earth, filled with human beings. Since They see that all are going down to hell, They decree in Their eternity that the Second Person should become man to save the human race” (#102).

In this final of Advent, imagine the Blessed Trinity looking out over the world. Out of love for lost humanity, God sent the Son to live and die and rise for your salvation. He wants you to be filled with “an intimate knowledge” of His love so that you may “love Him more and follow Him more closely” (#105) and in this way to continue the work of salvation.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Magis Reflections

Here are some more reflections, for today and tomorrow, that I did for the Magis Center for Catholic Spirituality. While I was able to put in a word for St. Lucy today, I regret that I didn't say anything about one of my favorite Carmelite saints, St. John of the Cross, whom we celebrate tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Several years ago a radio station took a survey and asked listeners to call and answer the question: “Is love a feeling or a decision?” Almost 90% called to say that love is a feeling.

St. Ignatius would say that love is more than a feeling and it’s more than a decision. The second son in today’s Gospel (Matthew 21: 28-32) decided to work in his father’s vineyard and said he would do so, but didn’t actually go. The first son decided not to go and said so but in the end changed his mind and went. Who fulfilled the will of the father? Clearly the first son. Who, can it be said, loved the father more? While both would perhaps declare their love for the father it was the first son who proved that love by his deeds. As St. Ignatius wrote in the Spiritual Exercises, at the beginning of the “Contemplation to Attain the Love of God”: “love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.”

This is the way God, whom St. John wrote is Love (see 1 John 4: 8 and 16), operates. God, as St. Paul wrote, “proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 8). The Son of God took flesh and offered his flesh on the cross for the salvation of the world. The Light of the world entered into its darkness and calls each of us to be one with him, sharing in the light and being light for the world (see Matthew 5: 14-16).

Today we honor a virgin-martyr of the early Church, St. Lucy, whose very name means Light. Like Lucy we must be lights for our world of darkness, but we are only able to be such in so far as we grow in union with the Light, in so far as we love God and our neighbor in deed and not just in words or feelings.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The disciples of John the Baptist approached Jesus and asked him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” In other words, “Who are you?” Jesus answered by telling them to report what they had “seen and heard,” what they had experienced. What about you? How do you answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” Do you rely on what others have said or taught, or can you report what you have “seen and heard” of Jesus in your own experience? This is the goal of Ignatian contemplation: to not just think about Jesus as you read the Gospel stories but to meet and experience him there. Imagining the Gospel scenes and putting yourself into the scene, conversing with the various figures, can help you to know the Lord in a deeper way so that you can answer the question “Who is Jesus?” from personal experience rather than from what others have said.

Pope Benedict made a similar distinction in his Wednesday Audience of October 8, 2008. He said:

Only with the heart does one truly know a person. Indeed, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were externally acquainted with Jesus, they learned his teaching and knew many details about him but they did not know him in his truth. … On the other hand, the Twelve, thanks to the friendship that calls the heart into question, have at least understood in substance and begun to discover who Jesus is. This different manner of knowing still exists today: there are learned people who know many details about Jesus and simple people who have no knowledge of these details but have known him in his truth: "Heart speaks to heart".

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Old St. Joseph's Church

I've been having a busy Advent. On the First Sunday of Advent I was still in Rome for the meeting of the International Advisory Council of the Apostleship of Prayer. Last weekend I was in Alhambra, California at Sacred Heart Retreat House for their annual Advent Retreat. And this weekend I'm preaching at all the Masses at Old St. Joseph's Church in Philadelphia. I'm here to lead a parish mission which begins this evening.

Today, at 5 P.M., we'll celebrate Vespers for this Gaudete Sunday. My talk is entitled "Heart Calls to Heart: Deepening Our Personal Relationship with Jesus." Tomorrow evening at 7:15, in the context of an Advent Reconciliation Service, I'll talk about "Meeting the Merciful Heart of Jesus." On Tuesday we will close the mission with Exposition and Benediction and a talk entitled "Take, Lord, Receive: Living a Eucharistic Life."

Old St. Joseph's Church is the Jesuit church in Philadelphia and its oldest Catholic church. It was built in an alleyway at a time in U.S. history when most of the original 13 colonies did not allow Catholics to practice their faith.

Periodically the Magis Center for Catholic Spirituality asks me to write a daily reflection for their subscribers. Below I've included my brief reflections for today and tomorrow.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

“Pray without ceasing.” Thus wrote St. Paul and over the centuries people have tried to figure out how to do this. For some, primarily in the Eastern Churches, it has meant praying “The Jesus Prayer”: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” uniting each phrase with one’s breath.

The Apostleship of Prayer encourages another approach—the Morning Offering. Here’s how the great Jesuit Fr. Walter Ciszek, whose cause for beatification has been opened, described this prayer in the account of his imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag and exile, He Leadeth Me:

In my opinion the Morning Offering is still one of the best practices of prayer—no matter how old-fashioned some may think it. For in it, at the beginning of each day, we accept from God and offer back to him all the prayers, works, and sufferings of the day, and so serve to remind ourselves once again of his providence and his kingdom. If we could only remember to spend the day in his presence, in doing his will, what a difference it would make in our own lives and the lives of those around us! We cannot pray always, in the sense of those contemplatives who have dedicated their whole lives to prayer and penance. Nor can we go around abstracted all day, thinking only of God and ignoring our duties to those around us, to family and friends and to those for whom we are responsible. But we can pray always by making each action and work and suffering of the day a prayer insofar as it has been offered and promised to God.

The Morning Offering, combined with an Examen or Evening Review of the day we have offered, can help us to seek and find God in all things, in all the people and events of our daily lives. In this way we better able to “pray without ceasing.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! Viva! Today we honor our Blessed Mother under her title “Our Lady of Guadalupe” and we remember how in December, 1531 she appeared to a humble Indian, St. Juan Diego, and gave him a miraculous image of herself as proof for the bishop of her appearance. The image, on material that should have disintegrated long ago, can be seen today in Mexico City.

When she appeared to Juan, she affectionately called him “Juanito” or “Johnny,” and said:

Know for certain, smallest of my children, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God through whom everything lives, the Lord of all things near and far, the Master of heaven and earth. I am your merciful Mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all humanity, of all those who love me. Hear and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little one. Let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you. Let nothing alter your heart, or your face. Am I not here who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else that you need? Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.

St. Ignatius had a deep love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and he often turned to her when he needed special help. He recommends the same to us during key meditations in the Spiritual Exercises. As Jesus could not refuse his mother’s request at Cana (see John 2: 1-11), so, St. Ignatius was convinced, that if we go to Jesus with his mother and then with Jesus and Mary to the Father, we will receive what we need.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

On Fire with the Love of God

The prayers at today's Mass in honor of the great Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier speak of fire and zeal and longing. The Collect or Opening Prayer asks that "the hearts of the faithful may burn with the same zeal for the faith" that burned in the heart of Francis Xavier. The Prayer over the Offerings reminds us that this missionary "journeyed to distant lands out of longing for the salvation of souls." Finally, the Prayer after Communion asks that the mysteries just celebrated may "kindle in us that fire of charity with which Saint Francis Xavier burned for the salvation of souls."

What was the source of this ardent zeal and longing for the salvation of every soul, every person? It was Francis Xavier's awareness of God's love for him and for all. It was the love of God revealed in Jesus whose heart, as we hear in today's Gospel from Matthew, "was moved with pity" for the crowds who followed him. Through the "Spiritual Exercises" of his closest friend, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis was captured by the love of God. His heart was set on fire and he could not keep the fire within but had to spread it to India, the Islands of the East, and Japan. On this day in 1552, on an island just off the coast of China where he hoped to spread the Gospel, Francis died.

Through Baptism we are called to be missionaries as well. We may not be called to leave home to evangelize people who have never heard of Jesus. We are certainly called to pray and offer sacrifices for the work of evangelization in the manner of St. Francis Xavier's co-patron of the missions, St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. We can only do this if we, like St. Francis Xavier and St. Therese, are so captured by the love of God that we cannot keep the knowledge of this love to ourselves. With hearts on fire with the longing of the Heart of Jesus for the salvation of all people, we offer ourselves one day at a time for the salvation of souls.

On this day in 1844, a group of Jesuit seminarians who were on fire with the desire to be missionaries, were challenged to follow that call immediately by making an offering of themselves and their day for the spread of the Gospel. This was the beginning of the Apostleship of Prayer. Happy Feast and Happy Anniversary!