On the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, I find myself reflecting on the song of praise attributed to his father, Zechariah, known by its Latin name, the Benedictus.
Who was Zechariah?
Zechariah was a priest from the family of Aaron. His wife Elizabeth was of the same family line. They were elderly and had no children. According to the Gospel of Luke, one day when Zechariah was serving at the temple in Jerusalem, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to offer sacrifice. This was the most solemn duty for any priest and large numbers of people gathered outside to pray. Suddenly, an angel appeared to him, “standing at the right of the altar of incense.” The angel announced that his prayers and those of his wife for a child would be answered. The child would be a son and was to be named John. The angel explained that this child would be filled with the Holy Spirit while still within his mother’s womb and would bring back many of the sons of Israel to God. He would prepare “a people well-disposed” for the Lord. (Lk 1:5-17)
Zechariah found all of this hard to believe, so he asked the angel for more details about how it could happen — after all, both he and Elizabeth were beyond their normal child-bearing ages. The angel, Gabriel, responded that because he questioned the message, he would remain mute until the birth of the child. Then he would see that the Lord’s promise had been fulfilled. And so it happened. (Lk 1:18-25)
Nine months later, the child was born. Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, who had also been blessed by a visit from Gabriel, had come to help her for a few months and the child within Elizabeth’s womb leaped with the joy of Mary’s coming. (Lk 141) When John was born, all the relatives and neighbors expected that he would be named for his father, Zechariah, but both Elizabeth and Zechariah insisted that the child’s name would be John. With that, Zechariah’s tongue was freed and he spoke, praising God and uttering a prophecy regarding his son’s role in salvation history.
A Prophetic Canticle
Zechariah’s prophetic song is not a statement like that of a fortune teller. Prophecy in Biblical terms refers to speaking on behalf of God of the underlying reality of what God is doing in the lives of the members of the community.
Zechariah begins by blessing God as the God of Israel who visits and ransoms his people. God raises a savior from the House of David, the royal house, as promised in days of old. This savior will rescue the people from the hands of their foes in fulfillment of the covenant established with Abraham, delivering them from fear and freeing them to serve the Lord all the days of their lives. Only after laying out the ancient promises, Zechariah speaks briefly to his own child – a child who will be called a prophet of the Most High because he will go before the Lord to announce the coming of salvation and to help the people prepare to receive it (the image used is to prepare straight paths for the coming savior). Zechariah concludes by noting that all of this is a work of kindness from the Lord, the Dayspring who in his tender mercy will visit Israel, freeing those who sit in darkness and guiding their feet into the way of peace. (Lk 1:68-79)
A World Turns
In the birth of John the Baptist, the trajectory of history began to turn. The final step of God’s plan to reclaim all of creation and return it to the initial unity with God has been initiated. God does not force this transition or the people involved in it to cooperate. But God persistently works with humans and through human history to bring it about. Zechariah reminds all who hear his voice through the ages that God keeps the covenant, rescues the people, gathers the community, and wants to bring all people back to joyful unity in Love.
The Christian church (community) remembers this song of prayer, praise and promise in the Liturgy of the Hours. As part of Morning Prayer, the People of God around the world recite or sing this canticle daily. Some chant it. Some arrange its words to fit other religious or popular tunes. One of my favorite versions was set to the tune of an English folk song by Ruth Duck. Those who really listen deeply to it find a special joy bubbling into their day as they join Zechariah in praising a God who works such wonders.
Image from Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem
The Feast of the Visitation is a celebration of the meeting of Mary with her cousin Elizabeth when both women are expecting their firstborn children. Mary, a very young woman, has given her consent to become the mother of Jesus in response to God’s request. Elizabeth, a much older woman who has never been able to have a child, has conceived a son miraculously in her old age following the visit of an angel to her husband while he was serving in the temple. Word of Elizabeth’s pregnancy has been offered to Mary as a sign that “nothing is impossible with God.” Knowing how difficult the last months of pregnancy can be, especially for an older mother, Mary hurried to help her cousin. The joy of their meeting and the song of praise Mary offers to God for the wonders they are experiencing have resonated through history. In fact, Mary’s prayer, known as the Magnificat from its first word in Latin, is part of the daily prayer of the Church, included as part of Evening Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Celebrating the Feast
This feast is remembered among the Joyful mysteries of the Rosary. Readings and prayers for the Mass celebrated on this feast are all focused on the great joy of the gift of these two improbable pregnancies and of the women themselves, as well as our joy with and for them. The prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours also remind us of the event.
One way to celebrate this feast is to make cream puffs and share them with family and friends. Praise God for coming to share life with us through the Incarnation of his son. Give thanks for all the women who have courageously born and raised children, treasuring the wonder of sweetness and life hidden within their wombs.
JESUS MAFA. The Visitation – Mary and Elizabeth meet, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48279 [retrieved May 31, 2013].
The first Sunday after Easter (the whole season) is Trinity Sunday. We celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection at Easter for fifty days, beginning with Easter Sunday and finishing with Pentecost. Before we move ahead with the counted Sundays known as Ordinary Time, we pause to celebrate the mystery of the interior life of God, the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
With our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers, we Christians believe in one God. However, as Christians, we believe that God is a very complex Unity. We speak of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: three persons yet still one in being. Efforts to explain this reality in any sort of logical fashion always fall short. God is so much more than we can conceive. Nevertheless, through the centuries, Christians have offered many models and analogies to help each other appreciate the wonder of our God’s life — a life which we are gifted to share. Some early models speak of the Trinity as a dance. Some speak of a God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Some speak of the Father as knowing “himself” so totally that the divine self-knowledge becomes the Son, with the Father and Son so accepting of their relationship of knowing and being what is known that that acceptance itself becomes the Holy Spirit. We are told that God is Love, with the Holy Spirit then being the Holy Spirit of Love. Add in the notion — a fundamental belief of the Church — that God became a fully human being in Jesus and we have even more to ponder. How can the Divine One become human? What is it to be human and divine? How does divinity make a human even more fully human? How can it happen that through the life and death of the man Jesus, who is fully human and fully divine, God pours out God’s own life into the lives of all humans?
Fr. Ron Shirley suggests that our efforts to understand the Trinity are much like those of the proverbial blind men who try to describe an elephant based on feeling only one aspect of the animal. Each of us has a unique experience of God and brings that experience to the community to share. God is bigger than any one of us can comprehend and none of us can put God into a box and tie it up with a ribbon of satisfied comprehension. God will always burst out from our boxes and surprise us with another facet of the reality of what it is to be God.
For a scholarly consideration of the Trinity, the history of development of our understandings of the Trinity, and the importance of understanding God as a community of being inviting us to enter into the Divine community, Catherine LaCugna’s work, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life is well worth reading. For a thought-provoking exploration of the Trinity in the life of individuals today, William P. Young’s novel, The Shack, offers a compelling vision of the Trinity and the divine perspective on human life, death, suffering, and forgiveness. C.S. Lewis’ novels of Narnia offer yet another vision of the relationship between God and all of creation, including the insight that the divine is not tame. Jose Antonio Pagola’s work, Jesus: An Historical Approximation, offers an engaging look at Jesus’ life in the context of his culture and religious tradition, with the contemporary scholar’s eye distinguishing among factors such as known historical facts, the probability of accuracy in quoting Jesus’ words, and the theological reflections that combined to form the Gospels as we know them today.
Regardless of how we try to explain the interior life of God, we are continually invited to enter into that life. May we have the courage to step forward and let ourselves be drawn into the wild dance of Love.
Orion Nebula – Space Galaxay – NASA image
Living a Christian life requires a great sense of adventure, curiosity, trust, and a recognition that some things are too serious to be faced alone. In a real way, Christian life is like going to the library with a cat.
This morning, my grandson and I set out walking to our local library for story-time. Our cat noticed our departure and began to follow after us. She often follows us around the block or to the local park, so it was not out of character for her to come along. None of the cats that normally give her an argument about passing through their territory were around today, so it was smooth sailing until we got half way around and surprised her. Instead of turning the second corner, we walked across the street and down the next block. She was a bit surprised, but gamely followed, probably thinking we simply planned to walk around two blocks instead of one. By the time we had crossed two more streets and were still going away from home, she was getting a bit nervous, but now she wasn’t sure she wanted to let us out of her sight. We were getting to be a long ways from her territory. A few more blocks and she was positive she was on very thin ice.
One block from the library, two relatively busy streets meet at a four-way stop. We waited for the cat to catch up with us just before the corner. My grandson carried the bag with the book we were returning and I picked up the cat. This in itself was quite a feat as she and I have had a rather rocky relationship through the years due to differing opinions regarding the place of a cat in a household. Nevertheless, she was quite willing to be carried across the the first street and tolerated being carried across the second. Then she wanted DOWN. NOW! So I let her down.
At that moment, what should arrive but two large, noisy dragons, screeching in protest as they bore down on the intersection from opposite directions. (Humans might have said they were garbage trucks, but she knew the truth of the matter. They were definitely fearsome dragons.) She tried to escape through a picket fence but found that she was too big. So in a moment of total panic, she turned and raced across the street in front of the dragons, hoping they would not turn and chase her. Fortunately, they did notice (or at least their drivers did) and they patiently waited for her to make her escape.
We followed after her when it was safe, calling to her reassuringly, but she remained safely hidden in the bushes in front of one of the houses. So we left her there and went to story-time, where we enjoyed some lovely tales of children’s gardening adventures. The librarian had bean seeds for the children to plant after decorating a pot in which the seeds could sprout. We returned our library book and found another before leaving the library about 45 minutes later.
Crossing the street again, we called and whistled for our cat. (Yes, she does come when we whistle for her.) With obvious relief, she emerged from the bushes and once again began to follow us, but the cars zooming down the street clearly were frightening to her. When we got to the corner, we waited and again called her. She came and allowed me to pick her up once more to cross the street. By the time we got to the other side, she was jumping out of my arms with nervousness, wanting to be sure she could find a safe place if necessary. We continued on our way home and she followed a little ways behind. Sometimes she stopped to explore something interesting, then hurried to catch up with us. By the time we got home, she was one tired cat. She spent most of the rest of the day sleeping close to the screen doors on the deck, not wanting to be far away from me at all. Once she even invited me to pet her.
Reflecting on our adventure, the thought struck me that our Christian lives are not all that different from the experience of that cat. We may start out our daily journey with an idea of what is ahead of us. We’ve been down this road in the past. We know where we’re going and what to expect along the way. But then someone throws us a curve ball. Something is different and unexpected. We trust the Lord, so we keep going forward, but we look around nervously, watching for those who might challenge or hurt us. Sometimes we hide for a bit until we’re sure it’s safe to come out. Sometimes we try to stay very close to anything or anyone familiar to us, even those who haven’t been our favorites in the past. When things get really dangerous or hard for us, sometimes the Lord picks us up and carries us across to a safer place. But then we get scared again and run away to hide. Always, though, the Lord sticks around and waits for us. He calls us by name and carries us to safety again and again. Then, when we reach our home again, he strokes us kindly and smiles at us fondly. And who would not melt with joy to be safely at home with such a One.
Yes, the Christian life can be like going to the library with a cat.
Orange Tabby Cat by Robert & Mihaela Vicol, PublicPhoto.org
Easter season is a time when we rejoice in Jesus’ Resurrection. We celebrate God’s great love in becoming human, living a totally human life, and being faithful in obedient love even through torture and a shameful death on the cross. We speak of salvation for all resulting from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Yet sometimes we also beat ourselves up for our sinfulness and responsibility for Jesus’ sacrifice and death. But beating ourselves up is not what Jesus wants for us. Jesus comes bearing forgiveness and that forgiveness requires a response. The evidence is clear in Scripture and we need to remind ourselves of it regularly.
Jesus’ disciples did not expect that he would be raised from the dead. In those first hours and days after the crucifixion, they must have been terribly upset with themselves. If only I had … If only I hadn’t … We should have …. We should never have allowed him to … What will I say to my family when I go home? I’ve been such a fool. I should have known it was all too good to be true. They all said I was chasing a dream. On and on their thoughts must have raged. When the first reports came in regarding the resurrection, from the women of all people, their response was natural. The women must be hysterical. Such a thing could not happen.
Nevertheless, throughout that first day of the week, the risen Jesus came to them. They did not recognize him at first. He looked like a gardener. He looked like a fellow traveler on the road and potential dinner companion. Once they recognized him, — when he came into the room despite locked doors it was pretty clear who he was, — but the feared they were seeing a ghost. Always, however, Jesus reassured them. “Peace,” he said to those hiding behind locked doors. “Do not be frightened,” he said to the women in the garden who first found the empty tomb. “What little sense you have! How slow you are to believe all that the prophets have announced!” he said to the travelers on the road to Emmaus. Then at supper with the travelers, he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and shared it and they knew it was the Lord. Immediately they walked back to Jerusalem to tell the others.
As the days passed, the disciples left Jerusalem and returned to Galilee as he had told them to do, through Mary Magdalene and the other women. They had been fishermen and so they went fishing. Anything to bring some sense of normality again! Yet early in the morning, after fishing without luck all night, a man in seen on the shore. The man calls out to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They do and the nets are filled. “The disciple Jesus loved” told Peter, “It is the Lord” and Peter threw on some clothes and jumped into the water to swim to the Lord. The others brought in the boat with its marvelous catch. Jesus may not have looked like the man with whom they had lived for the past three years, but this time they knew it was he. He cooked breakfast for them and then spoke directly to Peter, three times asking “Do you love me?” Each time Peter responded that he did and Jesus instructed him with slightly different words each time, “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.”
Each time Jesus appears, he reassures his friends and he reassures us as well. All is forgiven. All is OK. We need not dwell on the past. We must move ahead and tell others what we have seen and experienced. We are not to beat ourselves up about what we have done wrong or the times we’ve failed to do the right thing. We must recognize those times as having happened and accept forgiveness for them. Forgiveness is always offered to us. Then we must move forward rejoicing — carrying that peace, love, and forgiveness that comes from our Lord God into our world. There’s plenty of bad news there already. Our job is to carry the Good News, spreading it far and wide through our actions and our words.
Alleluia! He is Risen!
Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus this week. We sing “Alleluia, praise the Lord,” with great gusto. We rejoice in God’s power over death and the promise of new life. We call out to all who will hear, “He is risen.”
In the midst of such celebration, I find myself thinking about the experience of the disciples during the final hours before Jesus’ passion and the first days following his resurrection. As Catholics, we don’t skip over those experiences in the race to celebrate Easter. Begining with Palm Sunday, we spend an entire week remembering those crucial events of salvation history, as well as the promises and prophecies that were fulfilled during that week so long ago. From the excitement of seeing Jesus greeted with hosannas and hailed as the one who had been so long expected as he entered Jerusalem in a procession, to the devastation of his death as a condemned criminal in a place of public execution, his followers then and now experience a roller-coaster of emotions. By the time we reach Holy Saturday morning, there is a certain emotional numbness that sets in. What more could there be that will happen?
On Holy Saturday morning, I usually feel a bit detached and quiet. There’s so much to be done before Easter Vigil and then Sunday morning’s celebration. Yet there is that numbness that follows Good Friday’s liturgy and the recognition of what happened to Jesus, as well as what continues to happen to so many who follow his lead in serving the poor and announcing God’s command that we love and care for each other and our world.
Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows the numbness that follows. Whether death was the final moment of a long or painful illness, or release from a period of mental/physical decline, or the peaceful final breath of a person who has lived long and well, those who remain experience a certain emotional pain and numbness to other concerns and activities. When death occurs unexpectedly, through violence or accident, the devastation is extraordinarily powerful. We question how God could let something like that happen. We may yell at God or turn away. We may also turn to each other in faith: giving and receiving support.
For the disciples on that Saturday morning, when they couldn’t even hold a proper funeral for Jesus, I suspect “numb” would not begin to describe the way they felt. Their hopes and expectations had been dashed. They feared for their own lives. They didn’t know how they would ever be able to face their families and friends, many of whom had probably warned them against leaving home and jobs to follow an itinerant preacher around the country. Unlike our experience, based as it is on knowledge of the Easter event, there was no hope of redemption in the suffering they were experiencing or that Jesus had endured.
Yet into the midst of this experience, on the first day of the week, the women took spices to the tomb and discovered that death cannot hold the author of life in its snares. The stone had been rolled away; the tomb was empty; angels asked why they sought the living among the dead; Jesus met them in the garden and sent them to tell the others that he was risen and would meet them in Galilee. The news was greeted with disbelief. The women must be mad with grief, maybe a bit hysterical. The men went to see and discovered for themselves that the women had not been mistaken about the tomb: it was definitely empty. Later that day, Jesus came into the locked room where his disciples were gathered: fear and sorrow had by this point been joined by confused concern about the story told by the women and others who claimed to have seen the Lord. He invited them to touch him. He ate with them. He instructed them about the new reality that had burst forth into their world and all of creation. Life does not end with physical death. God is not defeated. We are children of God who will share in new life forever.
The numbness of loss turns to the numb wonder of gain. Could it really be true? Could God really love us that totally? Can all be forgiven? Does life continue unended? Is death really a passage into newer, more abundant life? Are we really the ones who will bring the good news of this reality to our world?
If all of this is true, and with the early Christians we believe it is, then thankful rejoicing is the most appropriate response. So we move from the rejoicing in a promise of earthly power (Palm Sunday processions), through the mandate to serve each other and feast on the Lord’s own Body and Blood (Holy Thursday), into the mystery of death (Good Friday), and out the other side to the assurance of new, more abundant, unlimited life in the Resurrection. For this we shout, Alleluia! Rejoice and be glad! The Lord is risen, He is ruly risen!
Happy Easter – all fifty days of it!
Easter Lily by Boston Public Library – George Cochran Lambdin 1830-1896 (artist); L. Prang & Co. (publisher)
Faith is passed from generation to generation through simple gestures, songs, foods, and activities. As children live the activities of daily life in the cycles of the year, they notice more than we realize. Life, especially for the little ones, is heavily focused on the present moment, but they too become aware of the changing seasons in our church life and come to look forward to the next celebration.
I was reminded of this yesterday when a sweet four-year-old boy asked me if it were time for the “singing leaves” yet. It took me a moment to realize that he was referring to Palm Sunday. In our parish, as Catholics do in parishes around the world, we all gather in a courtyard outside the church on Palm Sunday. Each person has a palm frond and members of our parish youth group wave large palm branches, leading the congregation out of the church building to hear the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on that Sunday morning so long ago. Then, singing “The King of Glory Comes,” we all process back into the church for the Passion Sunday liturgy. (Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday occur on the same day.) This little boy remembered waving the palms last year and the singing as we re-entered the church. He was quite excited when I responded that this was the Sunday for the singing leaves.
As parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, or simply friends, we share our faith best through the examples of our lives. Do we pause to thank God and ask a blessing before we eat? Do we greet the morning with a prayer? Do we remember to give thanks for our day and ask God’s blessing on our families, friends, and activities before we go to sleep at night? Do we gather regularly as a community of faith to celebrate Eucharist? Is Reconciliation (sacramental or simply interpersonal) a part of our lives? Do we pause in times of joy and times of sorrow to call the Lord into our midst? Do we time our holy day activities to match the liturgical timetable, not jumping to celebrate major feasts before their time but rather savoring the periods of anticipation and preparation for the feasts as well? Do we do these things with the children in our lives?
Children learn by observing and imitating. Only in later childhood and early adolescence do children begin to hunger for the meatier reasons for why we believe and do certain things. For a young child, “because that’s what we do now” can explain quite acceptably the timing of an activity. An older child will want to know that we do it “because that’s what Jesus told his friends to do before he died.” As adults, we too have opportunities to learn and grow more deeply in our faith and understanding of it — through both intellectual and spiritual practices. However, to reach our children, we do well to rely on activities, stories, songs, and celebrations.
As we move into this Holy Week and then on into Easter-tide, let’s remember to celebrate each in its own time. Holy Week is a good time to make and enjoy traditional Lenten dishes including Hot Cross Buns. It’s not time yet for Easter eggs or chocolate bunnies!
Mass on Holy Thursday can be a special time to celebrate caring for each other and the gifts of the Eucharist and the priesthood. Have a special meal, enjoy time together on this day, then join with your community to celebrate Eucharist and enter into the mystery of Jesus’ Passion — His great love for us.
Good Friday brings many opportunities to share faith with children. Little ones don’t need to know in great detail of the tortures inflicted on Jesus. They just need to know that Jesus loves them totally. So as we fast and reflect on the events of the day, let’s remember to be patient and peaceful. If the Solemn celebration for Good Friday is going to be too late or too “heavy” for the little children, then do something peaceful and loving at home with them. As they get older, take them with you to enter more deeply into the mystery.
Holy Saturday is a quiet day of preparation and anticipation. Coloring eggs, baking special breads or desserts, getting the house in order for the Easter celebration — all will become part of the faith tradition for our children. Happy memories or sad ones will remain with them based on the love they see through our bustle of activities and the times we stop for reflection or story-telling.
Easter Vigil brings the story of salvation history and its culmination in the Resurrection alive. Children from 3rd or 4th grade and older can appreciate this celebration, particularly if the passages from Scripture are proclaimed in an engaging fashion.
If we remember to celebrate each of these mysteries of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection during this week each year, our children will learn to treasure them as well. They may not always celebrate them as they move through adolescence and into adulthood. There may be times in their lives when they move away from the community and travel their own road to God, but the foundations will be there, always calling them to the Lord.
May this week, from the Singing Leaves to the Alleluias of Easter Vigil be a time of rich blessing for you and for your families and communities.
The Gospel readings for the Saturday and Sunday immediately prior to the beginning of Lent 2013 speak deeply of two themes that can sustain us as believers during Lent and the transition of leadership in the Roman Catholic Church that will result from the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Theme one is the importance of taking time to rest and be with the Lord in prayer. Theme two is the call to go with the Lord into “deep water” to find an abundant catch.
In Saturday’s reading from the sixth chapter of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Mk 6:30) They all get into a boat and head off across the water. The people see where they are going and follow along by land. By the time Jesus and the disciples arrive at the “deserted place” they find it full of people. Jesus takes pity on them and begins to teach and heal. It was a very short time that he and the disciples had to rest and recharge their energies, yet with God’s help it was enough.
Sunday’s Gospel reading (Lk 5:1-11) presents the story of Jesus’ call of Peter and his brother. Jesus came to the seashore. People were crowding closely about him, so he asked Peter to pull his boat out a bit from the shore and sat there to teach them. When he’d finished, he told Peter to “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Peter and his crew had been working all night and caught nothing. He informed Jesus of this fact, but agreed to do what had been requested. When they lowered the nets, the nets were filled with fish to the point of breaking. They had to call another boat to help bring in all the fish and get safely back to shore. When Peter asked Jesus to leave him because he was not worthy to be with such a powerful person, Jesus instead called Peter to follow him and become a “fisher of men.”
Time out to rest and pray
As a people, we have dealt with some difficult issues in recent years, in our Church and in our local communities. Taking time to rest and pray a bit seems a good place to start the next chapter of our story. Many of the world’s people have experienced more difficult economic times than normal. Far too many live lives of dire poverty despite working long hours. The poor, the elderly, the children, the ill, and so many others struggle simply to survive. Yet despite the great needs of the world around us, we are called to take time to find deserted places where we can be alone with the Lord. Only with the Lord can we hope to reach out consistently with compassion to serve those most in need of help. Only with the Lord can we hope to find wise solutions to the economic and environmental challenges we face. Only with the Lord can we strengthen our families in the many forms they take and support each other in our commitments of fidelity, mutual love, and support for a lifetime together. Only with the Lord can we choose life consistently from womb to tomb: safeguarding the lives of women, children, the elderly, the ill, the imprisoned, the immigrant, and all others who are most vulnerable.
Deep waters and transitions
And what of that “deep water?” Deep waters are places of danger. Storms develop quickly. Waves can overwhelm a small boat easily. Psychologists note that deep water in dreams stands for the depths of our unconscious mind — places where we deal with difficult issues and create a new synthesis and basis for our daily activities and beliefs. The expression, “He’s gotten himself into deep water,” is used to describe a situation in which there is some real risk of failure, regardless of how sincerely or with what good will the person embarked on a course of action.
Times of transition are always times of being in “deep water” in one way or another. Certainties of the past may no longer hold. Future patterns and realities cannot be described with any assurance. Old ways pass away. New ways are not yet here. We are in a liminal or threshold state: neither here nor there, waiting to see what will unfold and what new wisdom will be gained as we move into the next phase of our lives. The truly great news is that the Lord is here with us in our little boats out in deep water. Because the Lord is here with us, an abundant catch awaits our labors. As we trust his word and move ahead, the Lord calls each of us with Peter and his brothers, to become fishers of men, following faithfully and moving beyond the life we know and with which we are comfortable into the unknown future of service in God’s Kingdom.
As we move forward towards Holy Week, the celebration of the Triduum, and Easter, may we remember to take time to be alone with the Lord and then move with him back into our worlds to care for God’s people with His compassion.
Let this be our prayer:
Come Holy Spirit. Rekindle the fire of love within each of us and our Church. Guide those who will elect the next Bishop of Rome to carry out the mission of St. Peter as leader of the community. Gift them with wisdom and understanding as they evaluate potential leaders, as well as the courage to trust that the Lord will always be with the Church as we move into the future with all its challenges and joys. Help us to be people of prayer and reflection, as well as people willing to move out of our comfort zones into the deep waters of faithfulness in discipleship, knowing that with the Lord’s help, regardless of who is chosen to be the next Holy Father, all will be well in the end.
Happy, Joyful, and Peaceful Lent!
Public domain image: Transportation boat on water by John Cossick
The readings for the Feast of the Epiphany and the week that follows ring out with joy at the coming of the Lord, not just to the Jewish people, but to all the world. “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” (Is 60:1) “… the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph 3:6) “… behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” (Mt 2:1-2) “All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.” (Ps 72:11)
Yet amidst all of this joy and talk of kings and splendor, the reality of God’s kingdom quietly peeks out. Where has the child been born? Not in Jerusalem, the center of political and religious power. Those in Jerusalem — kings and priests alike — have not heard of the birth of a child to inherit the throne. The priests and teachers remember the prophecy of his birth: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (Mt 2:6) Bethlehem, city of David, home of another child who grew up to replace an earthly king to whom he was not related, is once again to produce such a king! The news was not a source of joy to the rulers of the age; an attempt to thwart the prophecy was duly launched, leading to the massacre of all of the boys aged two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. (Mt 2:16) The birth of a child to be the new king brings terrible suffering to many innocent children and their families.
The king of the prophecy will be different: he will be a shepherd for God’s people, Israel. A shepherd takes a different approach to governing and to leadership. The shepherd will govern with justice, protecting the afflicted ones and bringing peace “til the moon be no more” to the land. (Ps 72:7) The kings of the nations will pay homage to this king and all nations will serve him because this king rescues the poor who cry out for help. He takes pity on everyday people and the poor, rescuing them from all who would oppress or take advantage of them. Such a king would indeed be welcomed and his glory would truly shine forth. This king, blessed by God, will bring glory to Jerusalem — the center of the Lord’s presence among His people.
This great feast of Epiphany, the shining forth of the Lord’s splendor from Israel into the world at large, reminds us of our call as the People of God: a call to care for each other so that the splendor of love in all its practical applications will be a witness everywhere to the presence of the Shepherd, leading us in bringing justice and peace to our world.
Singing echoes through the softly lit streets of the towns, cities, and neighborhoods of Mexico as residents prepare for Christmas, through the para-liturgical tradition of Las Posadas. Processions of townspeople, led by a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph, wind their way through the streets, going from home to home asking for “posada” (shelter). Finally, the procession is welcomed into a home, and the people pray together as the “fiesta” commences.
Las Posadas is a Mexican Catholic Advent tradition that marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Taking place from the 16th-24th of December every year, Las Posadas is a nine day community celebration in preparation for the birthday of Christ; a novena that is a mix of religious devotion and relaxation. Ultimately, Las Posadas is about accepting Christ, the Bread of Life, into one’s home and heart. It functions as an extension of the Eucharist, catalyzed by the fiesta culture. Food, both physical and spiritual, is an important element of the fiesta, because it is nearly impossible to have a Christian festival without food.
Las Posadas is a fiesta; a religious fiesta in the sense that it provides sacred time and space to show a sacred event. The fiestas of Las Posadas reenact Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, a journey that is considered sacred because it directly led to the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Also, the fiestas gather the community in a ritual that parallels the structure of a Mass, emphasizing two more sacred elements of Las Posadas: the community and the Eucharist.
Evangelization in a New World
Las Posadas began in 1578 in Mexico in the village of San Agustín Acolman. Augustinian missionaries received permission from Pope Sixtus V to celebrate special Masses in order to make Christianity more attractive and to evangelize the Aztecs. Because of the syncretism that occurred when the missionaries introduced Catholicism to indigenous Americans, Las Posadas resembles the Aztec celebration of the birth of the sun and war god, Huitzilopochitli. The missionaries wanted a way to teach the gospel and extend the Eucharist to a large, illiterate population and needed a way that the Aztecs would accept, so they took advantage of the timing of the birth of Huitzilopochitli to introduce the birthday of their own important, sacred figure, Jesus Christ. In las misas del Aguinaldo (special Masses for the Advent season), they included nativity scenes and lights, sang villancicos (Christmas carols), and broke a piñata. The celebration of Las Posadas grew from these original Masses. Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, as told in Luke 2:1-7, is featured in Las Posadas, a celebration that includes elements similar to those of the celebration for Huitzilopochitli. (All night and during the day after Huitzilopochitli’s birthday, people customarily had parties in many houses throughout the town, at which guests delighted in foods and statues of their gods made from blue corn dough.)
Days of Prayer and Celebration
Las Posadas begins on the evening of December 16th and ends on Christmas Eve. These nine days dedicated to prayer are called a “Novena.” Originally, a novena referred to the nine days of prayer before the Feast of Pentecost, but in Las Posadas it also represents the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. Each night, a young woman and a young man – usually teenagers – dress as Mary and Joseph and go to three different, predetermined houses, asking for posada (shelter). They are accompanied by a candle-lit procession that includes musicians, children dressed as angels and shepherds, and anyone else who would like to join. At the first two houses, the procession of peregrinos (pilgrims) is turned away by groups of people inside the houses, who play the part of the innkeepers who denied Mary and Joseph shelter. The interactions between the peregrinos and the “innkeepers” happen in the form of call-and-response songs. Through several verses, the peregrinos ask for shelter and are denied entry by the innkeepers. The last verse is sung only when the procession is welcomed into the last house.
At the last house, the peregrinos are welcomed and the whole community gathers for prayers and a party. Once all the peregrinos have entered, everyone prays the Act of Contrition, asking for forgiveness for their sins. Often, they will also pray the rosary, and/or hold a short prayer service. This part of the fiesta mirrors the Liturgy of the Word (the first part of a Mass). Soon the prayerful ritual gives way to food, games, and dancing. Nevertheless, ritual that promotes spiritual communion is still present in the fiestas, and parallels the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the second part of a Mass) — sharing a meal and celebrating the forgiveness of sin in the Eucharist. The fiestas grow in excitement with each passing night, but at each are ritual elements, including food and drink, candles, Nativity scenes, and piñatas filled with fruits, nuts, and candies.
Piñatas, Sin and Forgiveness
Traditional piñatas are shaped like stars and have seven points, each point representing a cardinal sin. People swing at the piñata with their eyes covered by blindfolds to signify their true faith in God and His mercy. Thus, when they break the piñata and are showered with sweet candies, the people act out the experience of conquering sin and receiving forgiveness and blessing from God. This is also a dramatization of how everyone’s sins are forgiven during the Eucharist, when Catholics remember how Christ died so that the sins of the world would be forgiven and confess their own sin through the Confiteor. Although perhaps not broken every night, the piñata nevertheless demonstrates the way food is used to teach religion, extend the message of the Eucharist into the home, and catalyze the fiesta spirit.
Sharing Food and Creating Communitas
The fiesta spirit continues through each of the nine days, never seeming to lag. On Christmas Eve, the final stop for the peregrinos is the church, where they celebrate La Misa de Gallo, a Midnight Mass, in which they share in the Body and Blood of Christ – a shorter but still powerful religious fiesta in which a sacred meal is re-enacted. After the Mass, the longest fiesta of Las Posadas commences. Along with a piñata and the small dessert items served at the fiestas on each of the previous nights, people prepare and share their favorite foods at the reception after Mass. Typical foods include tamales, pozole (pork soup), sopa de albóndigas (meat-ball soup), pollo con mole (chicken in mole sauce), bacalao (codfish stew), natillas (a type of thick custard), and buñelos (deep-fried pancakes sprinkled with sugar). Champurado (spiced hot chocolate), atole (a corn based drink), and ponche (punch) are also served. Although these are some of the more traditional foods consumed during the Advent and Christmas seasons, there are no foods that are specifically reserved for Las Posadas. Therefore, it does not matter what food is served, since the sharing of food itself symbolizes and strengthens the community.
Las Posadas makes the Gospel come alive in a cultural experience of spiritual communion in which the people welcome Christ into their homes and lives. This spiritual communion results from the transformation of Jesus’ body, “…the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51), in the Eucharist into spiritual food. The ritual of Las Posadas reflects the mystery of the Eucharist because the people of the community act as living bread through their acts of hospitality and generosity in caring for others. Additionally, the fact that Las Posadas is a religious fiesta, and thus directly tied to Catholic Hispanic fiesta culture, draws the community together and builds the spirit of communitas. Communitas is a deep spirit of community – a spiritual communion where all the members are united in the same consciousness, usually through a ritual. Las Posadas is a way in which Mexican Catholics realize communitas through the Eucharist and fiesta. Thus, the fiesta catalyzes, yet also results from, the ritual of Las Posadas and is thoroughly intertwined with food, both spiritual and physical; physical food is the visceral symbol that gathers the community and provides the base for rituals, in which it is transformed into spiritual food. Therefore, it nourishes the body and the spirit.
Although there are traditions around the world in many different religions that fulfill the same functions, Las Posadas is one of the best examples of the way Mexican Catholics have taken the Eucharist and made it part of their cultural experience through the fiesta. Today, the fiesta spirit is spreading beyond Mexicans and Latinos. In some cases non-Latinos are attracted to the religious and spiritual aspects of Las Posadas. For others, Latinos and non-Latinos, a more secularized version of Las Posadas, in which the prayerful aspects are downplayed or ignored and the focus is on family and community, is more comfortable and attractive. Nevertheless, although those who celebrate a secular version of Las Posadas think that they are leaving Catholicism behind, they cannot escape the fact that even in any secular form, Las Posadas is still a religious fiesta celebrating and strengthening the spiritual connection between community members. Despite dropping all of the prayers, they are living the communitas of the Eucharist in their celebration, since even the secularized ritual parallels the structure of a Mass. Thus, without realizing it, many people are attracted to the religious and spiritual aspect of Las Posadas. What they experience is a community dimension of the Eucharist as seen in the transformation of profane (non-sacred) food into sacred nourishment for the spirit and community. Through that shared experience of celebrating a religious fiesta, people of all cultures strengthen their bond with their communities, uniting community, religion, and food.