The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! While most consider Christmas to have that honor, I think the Easter Triduum takes it – hands down.

In the next few days, the universal Church will celebrate the reason for her existence. We will remember the moments in the life of Jesus that make the kingdom of God our reality. I use the present tense intentionally here because the memory of these events is of a very particular kind – an anamnesis. Such a remembrance implies a making present of the event, as well as a participation in the event. Though we have this experience at every Mass, during the Easter Triduum, we have the opportunity to travel the road of the disciples in the same time frame that they did – over the course of three days. The Easter Triduum is actually one extended liturgical celebration, not three separate ones. For me, the most powerful moments come in the waiting between our times in the church.

On Holy Thursday, we sit with Jesus at the Last Supper. Here, Jesus gives new meaning to the Passover ritual gestures that fulfill God, the Father’s plan of salvation. The sharing of bread, which bonded those present at the Passover celebration, is “My Body”, indicating that the unity of his disciples lies now in His Person, not merely common food. The cup of wine blessed by Jesus is the Cup of Elijah, the Messiah. This cup is “My Blood”, by which Jesus both claims his Messianic identity and indicates the way in which salvation will be won. Furthermore, the cup is shared, indicating the sharing in Christ’s suffering that the disciples will undergo – suffering which will have the same redemptive effect as that of Christ’s own. Thus, we can say with St. Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24)

We then go off with Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane. Traditionally, we visit local parishes to visit with the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night – entering into the mind and heart of Jesus, pondering the thoughts and feelings that caused him to sweat blood, staying awake with him as best we can. I always appreciated not having to go to work on Good Friday because it enabled me to truly enter into this moment, and, the next morning, to feel the anticipation of the trial of Jesus to be remembered at the Good Friday service.

tomb mosaicOf course, on Good Friday, we are present at the trial, condemnation, and crucifixion of Jesus, playing our role in His suffering, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Leaving Good Friday service, I am always left with a keen awareness that the tabernacle is empty, that all tabernacles are empty. I must admit, it scares me a bit – to think that Jesus is not here! Yes, I know he is in my thoughts and in my heart, but that makes his presence dependent on me. In the Eucharist, he is here in a much fuller capacity (indeed, the fullest) than I could ever imagine spiritually – and I can feel that presence in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It is a grace far beyond me. With that presence gone, I feel the inadequacy of my own memories of Jesus.

Holy Saturday is a very long day for me. I imagine what it must have been like for the disciples and Mary during that time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. What they hoped for had never been done before – a man would rise from the dead. Plus, the Romans would be after them soon, too. What if this really was the end? What if they had been duped? What was it all for? What if they stopped trusting themselves and their own experience of Jesus? Did he really heal and feed all those people? Could they trust their own memories? What if it was all in their imaginations?

Slowly, the church illuminates with the light of the Easter fire, then pew by pew until the darkness is lifted, and we are bathed in the light of Christ at the Easter Vigil. Halleluah! He is risen! Jesus is the Messiah. He has conquered sin and death. The kingdom of God IS our reality! And we are here, present in this anamnesis, at its founding. We can trust our own memories of Jesus because we have been present to and participated in the Paschal Mystery.

So tell me, is there a more wonderful time of the year?

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs and teaches sacraments and liturgy for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

This post originally appeared on April 14, 2014.

Holy Week, Chrism, and Priesthood

Being a professor of theology, people often ask me for recommendations when introducing the Catholic faith to others. What’s the best book to use? Is there a video I can suggest to someone? For years now, my answer to these questions has been the same. If you want to introduce someone to the Catholic faith, attend as many liturgies during Holy Week as possible. Take Thursday and Friday of Holy Week off from work, and live in church. That’s my advice.

Though, in Western Christianity, we have come to see Christmas as the “high holiday” of the year, theologically speaking, it isn’t. Those three days which celebrate the Lord’s passion and culminate in his resurrection, hence the phrase Paschal (Passover) Triduum (three days), are the Christian “high holidays.” They not only re-present the mysteries of the Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection, but – if I am to be counted among the saints – they are the story of my salvation. If I am saved, it is because I am mystically joined – through faith and baptism – to Christ on Calvary. St. Paul makes this same point to the Christians at Rome. “[A]re you unaware,” he asks them, “that we who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). To use another reference, on Good Friday many of us no doubt will sing the African-American spiritual “Were You There?” Well, if I am united to Christ, the answer is “Yes”!

The Sacrament of Confirmation (a.k.a., Chrismation)

Many of these liturgical celebrations are very familiar to us: Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday’s Celebration of the Lord’s Passion (not Mass), and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Along with the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) – traditionally celebrated during the day on Good Friday – these are the most well-known and heavily attended liturgical celebrations during Holy Week. There is, however, another Mass during Holy Week that ought to be added to this list. The Mass celebrated during the day on Holy Thursday is known as the Chrism Mass. It is at this Mass that your local bishop will consecrate the oils used for sacraments (e.g., Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, etc.) and liturgical celebrations (e.g., the consecration of a church, anointing of catechumens, etc.) in your diocese throughout the year. It is a rich liturgical celebration, and I would recommend that you find the Mass schedule of your local bishop in order to attend; it is not always celebrated, according to the tradition, on Holy Thursday.

But there is more to attracting one to attend the Chrism Mass than just experiencing something new. Customarily, we are used to commemorating both our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Holy Orders at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This makes perfect sense, since “[o]n the night before he died, Jesus instituted the Eucharist and at the same time established the priesthood of the New Covenant” (Sacramentum Caritatis 23). Further, the celebration of the Eucharist is at the heart of the priesthood itself (see Pope St. John Paul II, General Audience, 9 June 1993). But while the sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders are most certainly intimately linked, the Chrism Mass – more than the Mass of the Lord’s Supper – is a celebration of the priesthood. In addition to the Blessing of Oils, this Mass contains within it a Renewal of Priestly Promises; and the scriptural readings point to the biblical use of oils for consecrating, i.e., ‘setting apart,’ a person for a holy task or office.  

While the Chrism Mass is perhaps the annual celebration of Christ’s institution of the priesthood, it should also remind us of the holy task to which we are all called. It is a celebration of the ministerial priesthood, established in the sacrament of Holy Orders. But it should also remind us all of the priesthood of all believers, established in the sacraments of initiation. All Christians, by virtue of their Baptism, are called to preach, govern, and sanctify in the world; just as those who have received Holy Orders are called to preach, govern, and sanctify in the Church. All Christians have been set apart for this task, and made “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex 19:6; cf. 1 Pt 2:9). The ministerial priesthood and priesthood of all believers both participate in the one priesthood of Christ, and together form one Church (see Lumen Gentium 10).

So if you happen to see a priest on Holy Thursday, it would be an appropriate day to thank him for his ministry. Then consider your own call to holiness, and the grace you have received through Baptism in order to fulfill this call. That’s your priestly vocation!

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Reflections on Saint Joseph in St. John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos

In 1989, Pope John Paul II (a recently canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church) promulgated Redemptoris Custos, an apostolic exhortation “On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church.”  In the Introduction of this document, the Pope notes that, in composing the exhortation, he wished to highlight the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Quamquam Pluries by offering reflections regarding St. Joseph, into whose guardianship the Father entrusted the precious treasures of the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus.  Additionally, the Pope hoped that his thoughts would evoke greater devotion to St. Joseph, the Patron of the Universal Church and the one who served the Savior in an outstanding way.  

Section I of Redemptoris Custos, which is entitled “The Gospel Portrait”, focuses on Joseph’s marriage to Mary.  The Pope refers to the angel’s annunciation to Joseph that he need not fear to take Mary as his wife, that she is pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph should name the child to be born – Jesus, that is, God saves. (See Mt. 1:20 – 21)  The Pope notes that Mary was already betrothed, that is, married to Joseph so that the angel’s words to Joseph that he “not fear to take Mary as his wife” meant that Joseph should not hesitate to take Mary into his home, which was, at the time, Jewish practice after a year of betrothal. The Pope explains that before the angel’s annunciation to Joseph in a dream, Joseph was faced with the possibility that Mary had committed adultery.  If this were the case, Jewish Law demanded that Mary be stoned to death and, since Joseph was legally her husband, he would have to cast the first stone at his wife. Before the angel’s appearance to Joseph in a dream, Joseph had resolved his dilemma: he would quietly divorce Mary. However, when Joseph awoke from his dream, he acted in faith; he settled Mary into his home in Nazareth (though this was before the year of betrothal was completed) and awaited the unfolding of the mystery of her astonishing maternity.   

In Section II of his apostolic exhortation, the Pope discusses Joseph as the “Guardian of the Mystery of God.”  With Mary, Joseph assented to the revelation he received concerning the Incarnation of the Word of God and the mission of Redemption associated with it.  The Pope stresses that, by virtue of his marriage to Mary, Joseph was able to enjoy great intimacy with her son Jesus and that, in the shared life of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, the true meaning of family which is  “to guard, reveal, and communicate love” (p. 5*) was eminently evidenced. As the head of his family, Joseph provided for his wife and exercised great fatherly care of Jesus. In regard to Joseph’s latter role, the Pope states

Since it is inconceivable that such a sublime task would not be matched by the necessary qualities to adequately fulfill it, we must recognize that Joseph showed Jesus all the love, all the affectionate solicitude that a father’s heart can know. (p. 6)

Section II of the apostolic exhortation also includes reflections on  the census, the birth at Bethlehem, the circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, the flight into Egypt,  Jesus’ stay in the Temple, and the support and education of Jesus. Because Caesar Augustus had declared an empire-wide census, Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town.  It was here that Joseph became an eyewitness to Jesus’ birth, which took place, as the Pope describes “in conditions that, humanly speaking, were embarrassing – a first announcement of that ‘self-emptying’ (cf. Phil. 2:5 – 8) which Christ freely accepted for the forgiveness of sins.” (p.7) Also, in Bethlehem, along with Mary, Joseph watched shepherds adore the newborn baby and later witnessed magi from the East pay homage to him. Of note is the fact, as the Pope explains, after Jesus’ birth, Joseph officially inserted the name Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth (cf. Jn. 1:45) into the registry of the Roman Empire. In effect, in this civil way, Joseph secured the legitimacy of Mary’s son.   

Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph met his religious obligation to have his adopted son circumcised.  During the ceremony, Joseph declared that the boy’s name was Jesus. In his exhortation, the Pope explains that “In conferring the name, Joseph declares his own legal fatherhood over Jesus, and, in speaking the name, he proclaims the child’s mission as Savior.” (p. 8) Forty days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph met his fatherly obligation to present his son in the Temple in Jerusalem.  According to the Pope, in this Jewish rite, “Represented in the first-born is the people of the covenant, ransomed from slavery in order to belong to God.” (p. 8) As the Pope notes, since Jesus already belonged to God by virtue of his being the Word of God, while formally fulfilling the Jewish rite, in actuality Jesus transcended it.

After the presentation in the Temple, in a dream Joseph received a message from an angel that King Herod, in fear that the newborn child would usurp his throne, had ordered the mass murder of all boys in Bethlehem two years old or under that age. Given the angel’s instruction to flee to safety in Egypt, Joseph immediately departed from Bethlehem with his family, where he sought asylum until after Herod died.  As the Pope indicates, this experience fulfilled the words of the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Hos. 11: 1)

After returning to their homeland, Joseph settled his family in Nazareth, a quiet village wherein it was improbable that Herod’s son, Achelous, who, like his father sought to kill Jesus, would succeed in his plot. When Jesus was twelve years old, as was customary in the Jewish religion, Joseph arranged for his family to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast.  After a day’s travel back to Nazareth after the feast, realizing that Jesus was nowhere to be found, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem. Three days later, they discovered Jesus in the Temple conversing with learned Jewish teachers. Jesus’ reply to his mother’s statement that she and Joseph had anxiously been searching for him: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2:49 – 50) was Jesus’ way of communicating to his parents that he understood that his Father in heaven had sent him to earth to fulfill the messianic mission of redemption. After this Temple encounter, Jesus returned to Nazareth and was obedient to Joseph and Mary.  With his wife, Joseph raised Jesus to adulthood. In keeping with a father’s responsibilities, Joseph made sure Jesus was educated in the Law and apprenticed his son as a tekton, a highly skilled artisan who worked in wood, iron and, perhaps, stone.

Section III of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation is entitled “A Just Man, A Husband”.  As the Pope indicates, that Joseph was a just man is most evident in his decision to take his pregnant wife Mary into his home.  In so doing, Joseph chose to protect his wife’s honor and to honor her virginity as communicated to him by an angel who explained Mary’s mysterious pregnancy.  According to the Pope, as a spouse “Through his complete self-sacrifice, Joseph expressed his generous love for the Mother of God and gave her a husband’s ‘gift of self.’” (p. 11) Just as Mary’s motherhood was taken up in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, so, too, was Joseph’s fatherhood and, as the Pope notes, this was possible as a consequence of the hypostatic union, that is, “humanity taken up into the unity of the Divine Person of the Word-Son, Jesus Christ.” (p. 12)

Section IV of the apostolic exhortation is entitled “Work as an Expression of Love”. Here, the Pope stresses that Joseph’s work as a tekton gave expression to the sanctification of daily life through his labor of love in support of the life of his family at Nazareth.  Referring to Joseph and Jesus’ co-laboring in the carpenter/artisan trade, the Pope asserts:

Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way.  At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption. (p. 12)

In Section V of his exhortation, “The Primacy of the Interior Life”, the Pope discusses Joseph’s mature spirituality that enabled him to consistently respond positively to the graces he received in his life as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father.  In regard to Joseph’s latter role, the Pope stresses that “Joseph experienced … that pure contemplative love of the divine Truth which radiated from the humanity of Christ and the demands of love … required for his [Joseph’s] vocation to safeguard and develop the humanity of Jesus, which was inseparably linked to his divinity.” (p. 14) Furthermore, the Pope reflects upon the fatherly love of Joseph and Jesus’ filial love as mutually beneficial in the ongoing deepening of their relationship.  

In the final section (Section VI) of Redemptoris Custos, the Pope highlights Joseph as the “Patron of the Church in Our Day”. Just as Joseph kept watch over the Holy Family so, too,  he safeguards the Church in its ongoing history. Referring to Joseph’s role in the “economy of salvation” and to him as a model for all Christians, the Pope writes:

Recalling that God wished to entrust the beginnings of our redemption to the faithful care of St. Joseph, she asks God to grant that she [Church] may faithfully cooperate in the work of salvation; that she may receive the same faithfulness and purity of heart that inspired Joseph in serving the Incarnate Word; and that she may walk before God in the ways of holiness and justice, following Joseph’s example and through his intercession. (p. 15)

Conclusion:  

In Redemptoris Custos, Pope St. John Paul II depicts St. Joseph as an icon of faith, that is, one whose life exemplifies what it means to listen to God’s words and, in an unwavering way, act courageously upon them.  Redemptoris Custos marks a watershed moment in reflection on the role of St. Joseph in the history of Christianity.  In this document, the Pope interweaves biblical exegesis and profound theological insights regarding Joseph’s pivotal role in God’s plan of salvation.   In an outstanding way, the Pope highlights St. Joseph as loving father, faithful spouse, laborer, and patron of the universal Church. It is most fitting that the Pope concludes his exhortation with the following prayer:  “May St. Joseph obtain for the Church and for the world, as well as for each of us, the blessing of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, is Professor of Theology and Chair of the on-campus Theology Department of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

In this essay, all references to Redemptoris Custos (August 15, 1989) – John Paul II are taken from the online document at http://w.2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_15 retrieved on 1.22.2018.

Bibliography:  Gary Caster, Joseph, The Man Who Raised Jesus, Servant Books, 2013; Francis L. Filas, Joseph Most Just: Theological Questions About St. Joseph, The Bruce Publishing Co, 1956; J. . . B. Midgley, Companion to Saint Joseph, CTS Publication, 2002; Pope Leo XIII, Quamquam Pluries: Encyclical on Devotion to St. Joseph, 1889,  Libreria Editrice Vaticana; Joseph, The Silent Saint [DVD], Art and Design, 2008, A&E Television Networks. (Note: In composing the above essay, the author read all texts in this listing and watched the DVD.  Hence, the essay reflects the author’s study of Redemptoris Custos viewed through the lens of insights gained from these other sources.)

 

 

 

Seeking God’s Forgiveness During Lent

Lent is an excellent time for seeking God’s forgiveness via the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this sacrament, God cleanses us from our sins and reunites us to Christ. Although you may be apprehensive at the onset of disclosing your sins to priest, it is really Christ to whom you are confessing your sins, as the priest is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. You will exit the confessional filled with God’s graces of gratitude, humility, joy and peace.

As a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) Coordinator for my parish, I work with people coming from other Christian faiths (or even no faith) who wish to consider becoming Catholic. One of the most common questions I get is “Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest? Why can’t you just ask God directly for forgiveness?” To answer these questions, this video from Bustedhalo.com gives the best answers:

Seeking God’s forgiveness, along with that of the community, brings us back into union with God and neighbor. Lent is the perfect time to do that, as Jesus is at the ready to issue His pardon for our sins. So, make the time to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation in preparation for the Easter celebration. Open your heart, not only to God’s forgiveness, but that of your neighbor as well. By doing so, you will make your Lenten season more fruitful, not just for you, but for those around you. Then, be a witness for others to the saving grace of Christ received in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

This post first appeared on www.virginialieto.com.