The Magnificat Rosary Companion – Booklet Review

During the month of May we pay special honor to Mary. Perhaps, we even pick up those Rosary beads, which we haven’t touched in a while, and give them a go-around. Yet, when it’s been awhile, we can tend to forget how to say all the particular parts of the Rosary. The Magnificat Rosary Companion is here to assist you! This little booklet not only reminds you how to say the Rosary, it also offers meditations on each of the mysteries of the Rosary, accompanied by pictures of art from such masters as Fra Angelico, a 15th century Italian Renaissance fresco painter.

Whether it be the Joyous, Luminous, Sorrowful or Glorious Mysteries, each decade of the Rosary is accompanied by a meditation that places you back in time; experiencing the respective mystery anew. For example, in the second Luminous Mystery, we meditate on the Wedding Feast at Cana. As we read the meditation in The Magnificat Rosary Companion, we learn:

Our parched souls long for ultimate treasures: peace, purpose, meaning, fulfillment, happiness. Yet, the more we drink in the things of the world, the more we remain wrung out, depleted and defeated. Only in Jesus can we imbibe what satisfies our infinite desires. Mary, the Fountain of Hope, leads us to her Son, “the Fountain of all Holiness.”

Rich in content, this booklet will aide you in developing a good habit of saying the Rosary more regularly. Rather than mere recitation (vocal prayer), this booklet enables you to develop your skills when it comes to meditative prayer. The Magnificat Rosary Companion enhances your prayer time, by enabling you to think more deeply about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

If you would like to enhance your prayer time, then I highly recommend getting a copy of The Magnificat Rosary Companion. You can get your copy by clinking on this link.

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.

Reconciliation and the Call to be Ambassadors of Forgiving Love

Reconciliation is a way of being that engages a person or group in an ongoing process of forgiving another or others’ debts.  A life of reconciliation is steeped in mercy.  According to Megan McKenna,

If we are forgiven and accept the mercy of God, then we are required in justice to forgive all who walk with us.  We can exclude no one from the experience of that forgiveness… whether for trivial slights or monstrous injustices.[1]

Reconciliation is a key theme in the scriptures, which portray salvation history as God’s leading humankind back to Godself after the Fall, which disrupted the harmonious relationship of all of creation with God.  The New Testament tells the story of Jesus, the Word of God, who combined the creator/creature relationship within Himself and effected the new creation of global reconciliation through His life, death, and resurrection.

At the heart of Jesus’ public life is reconciliation.  During these brief years, He spoke of the need to be reconciled to one’s neighbor before bringing one’s gift to the altar. (Mt. 5.23)  Jesus told Peter that he should forgive others seventy times seven times.  (Mt. 18.22)  In one of His beatitudes, Jesus emphasizes the importance of engaging in peacemaking activity.  (Mt. 5. 23-24)  In His parable about the prodigal son, He sketches a portrait of a contrite son and a father with a forgiving heart who provides a lavish feast to celebrate the return of his own flesh and blood who deeply offended him.

On Easter Sunday evening, the resurrected Jesus committed His ministry of reconciliation to His disciples.  (Jn. 20.23)  Thus, He commissioned all who follow Him to continue His healing mission.  Such peacemaking activity entails living a life that promotes harmony in our world.  To engage in the ministry of reconciliation is to act as Jesus acts, i.e., to say repeatedly to those who offend you: I love you.

According to Robert Schreiter, the “perspective gained in the moment of reconciliation is the perspective God takes.”[2] This is so since the reconciliation process entails consciously focusing, as God does, on the good of the other and acknowledging and affirming his or her worth.  It involves understanding that another’s doing is never the totality of his or her being.

Essential to reconciliation is humility, i.e., viewing oneself as one really is, with strengths and weaknesses, pluses and minuses, virtues and faults.  Through embracing one’s humanness, one is able to accept the humanity of others.  Prayer is of utmost importance in this regard, for in communicating with God one develops a heart like unto God’s compassionate heart.

Reconciliation is a liberating act that sets the other(s) and oneself free.  By forgiving another, one walks in the freedom of fellowship with God, for without interpersonal reconciliation, one cannot be reconciled with God.  Bernard Cooke notes the ongoing need for reconciliation when he asserts:

No human group, no Christian community is without some friction and some alienation of individuals from individuals or groups from groups.  One of the most common mistakes we make in communities is to hide such differences, to carry on as if they do not exist, to avoid admitting them lest they openly divide the community. Yet, these divisions can be healed only if they are recognized and dealt with.[3]

 

Sacraments that Celebrate God’s Forgiving Love        

From this general discussion of reconciliation, let us turn our attention now to Baptism, Eucharist, and Reconciliation as sacraments that celebrate God’s forgiving love of human beings. Baptism is the basic sacrament of reconciliation, since it is the first sacrament for the forgiveness of sin.  Birth into reconciled life with God occurs through reception of this sacrament.

Following Baptism, the premier sacrament of reconciliation is the Eucharist.  As Jean-Marie Tillard notes:

… the Eucharist is … the sacramental presence and communication of the act which remits sins; as the remembrance of the expiation of the cross, it applies that expiation to those who celebrate the memorial by putting them in touch, through the bread and the cup of the meal, with the ‘once and for all’ of the paschal event itself, and calls down on the whole world the infinite mercy of God.[4]

In the early Christian Church, venial sins committed after Baptism were forgiven especially by the Eucharist and also by personal and communal prayer, fasting,  almsgiving, good works, and fraternal correction. In the 3rd century, the Church Father Origen stressed the importance of the Eucharist as the place for the forgiveness of sins.   The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts that “Through the Eucharist those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened.  It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sins.”[5]

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, which heals the whole person, celebrates the gift of God’s forgiving, shaloming mercy and calls Christians to live in peace.  According to Megan McKenna,

To accept the forgiveness and mercy of God is to accept the demand that we live justly and mercifully, forgiving as God does, with no strings attached.[6]

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through the celebration of God’s forgiveness of the penitent’s sins, the true minister Jesus draws the person into a renewed commitment to the way of the gospel.  The ritual of this sacrament insists that one’s sins harm others in Christ’s Body and, thus, reception of the sacrament includes reconciliation with one’s sisters and brothers who have been hurt by one’s sins.

Historically, the earliest type of this sacrament was canonical penance, which emerged as a Church practice in the 3rd century.  The baptized Christian who had committed a grave sin came before the community during the Eucharistic celebration and entered into the Order of Penitents.  In a gesture of blessing, the community leader imposed hands on the penitent and assigned him or her penance that lasted several years on average.  During the penitent’s period of penance, she or he would stand or kneel at the door of the Church and request the prayers of the community gathered for Eucharist.  When the period of public penance was completed, the penitent was restored to fullness of life in the community through participation in the Eucharist.  Noteworthy is the fact that this reconciliation did not include the utterance of any words of absolution of the penitent’s sin.

By the 6th century, Irish monks developed the modality of confessing one’s sins to a lay “soul friend” from whom one received the assurance of God’s forgiveness.  There were no words of absolution involved in this ritual.  Instead, there were prayers of praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy and goodness.

The reconciliation experience that the Irish monks introduced gradually developed into sacramental confession of a penitent to a priest who pronounced words of absolution.  So successful was private confession that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 CE proclaimed that every Christian who reached the age of discernment had to receive private confession once a year.

In the 16th century, the Council of Trent decreed that, at least once a year, Christians must confess their mortal sins. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats the Council of Trent’s decree regarding the necessity of annual reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for serious sin. Regarding devotional confession of venial sins, the new Catechism asserts that it

… helps us form our conscience and fight against evil tendencies; it lets us be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit.  By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as He is merciful.[7]

The following excerpt from new Catechism emphasizes the efficacy of the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being where he regains his innermost truth.  He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded.  He is reconciled with the Church.  He is reconciled with all creation. [8]

Despite the lack of gender inclusive language in this quote, it, nevertheless, positively points out that the experience of this sacrament can contribute considerably to the deepening of one’s commitment to radical gospel living.

Conclusion

Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch author who survived the Holocaust, relates the following personal story regarding forgiveness.   After being released from the Ravensbruck camp where her sister Betsie died, Corrie lectured widely on the need to forgive enemies.  One evening after her presentation, Corrie was greeted by a man who had been an SS guard at the shower room in the processing center at the camp where she and her sister were imprisoned.  The former guard told Corrie how grateful he was to hear her message that God had washed his sins away.  Immediately, Corrie flashed back to a room full of mocking men, heaps of clothing and her sister’s pain ridden pale face. Then, as the man attempted to shake her hand, Corrie found herself frozen, unable to respond to his gesture.  As angry, vengeful thoughts raced through her mind, she saw the sin of them.  She prayed to Jesus to help her forgive this former enemy.  Feeling not the slightest spark of charity for this former SS guard, Corrie asked Jesus for His forgiveness, since she was unable to forgive the man.  When she finally took the man’s hand, she was amazed at the current of love that passed through her hand to his.  And so Corrie Ten Boom discovered that it is on God’s mercy and love that the world’s healing hinges.

Corrie’s narrative reminds us that it is only through God’s grace that reconciliation can take place. As noted in this essay, reconciliatory activities are multiple.   No matter what are our entryways into the peacemaking process, it is important to remember that God’s way of being and acting is mercy and that God calls and graces us to be ambassadors of forgiving love.

Like Corrie, Venerable Catherine McAuley (foundress of the Sisters of Mercy), modeled what it means to exercise this ambassadorship of reconciliation.   Reflecting on Catherine as reconciler, Angela Bolster writes:

Forgiveness and reconciliation were interwoven strands of Catherine’s promotion of charity in her communities.  Without this virtue, she cautioned her Sisters that their works would be ‘froth before God, devoid of all merit’.  Indeed, her success in guiding her Sisters along this path towards the perfection of charity seems to have amazed her, given the following extract from her letter of December 1839 to Sister M. Elizabeth Moore: ‘One thing is remarkable: no breach of charity ever occurred among us.  The sun never, I believe, went down on our anger.  This is our only boast’.[9]

Like Catherine and Corrie, we, too, are called by God to commit ourselves to the ministry of reconciling forgiveness and healing love and to do so to the best of our ability in a world that hungers and thirsts for Mercy.

 

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM is Professor of Theology and Chair of the On-Campus Theology Program at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

 

[1] Megan McKenna, Rites of Justice: The Sacraments and Liturgy as Ethical Imperatives (New York: Orbis Books, 1997), 144.

[2] Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies  (New York: Orbis Books, 1998), 50.

[3] Bernard Cooke, Sacraments and Sacramentality (Mystic CT: Twenty-Third Publications, Revised Edition, 1994), 212.

[4] Jean-Marie Tillard, “”The Bread and Cup of Reconciliation” in Sacramental Reconciliation, ed. Edward Schillebeeckx (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 47.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), #1436, 400.

[6] McKenna, Rites of Justice, 143.

[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1458, 406.

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1469, 410.

[9] Angela Bolster, R.S.M., Venerable Catherine McAuley:Liminal for Mercy (Cork, Ireland: D. & A. O’Leary Ltd., 1998), 20.

 

 

 

The Work of Bees

In 2011, some of the ancient imagery of the Easter vigil was restored to the liturgy.

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands…

Why mention bees? It is axiomatic in Christian theology that creation and redemption cannot be separated, and in the Easter vigil liturgy those small creatures, the bees, have a role in the liturgical drama of salvation by reminding us with images of that link. Saint Paul, for example, uses images of creation and recreation to signal the effect of the resurrection. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5: 16-17).

John’s gospel also uses the connection between creation and redemption. The Prologue recalls the poem of creation in Genesis 1: in the very beginning, God created light. And in that same eternal beginning was God’s creative Word, who becomes flesh. The light of Easter, coming from the candle, reminds us of the light of creation and our need to be a new creation.

The language of the liturgy is not (or should not be) didactic or abstract. Its symbolism functions not only to inform but to move us through an appeal to our imagination and affections. In An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) John Henry Newman distinguished between notional and real assents and observed that in real assents the mind “is directed towards things [rather than mental creations or notions], represented by the impressions which they have left on the imagination. These images, when assented to, have an influence both on the individual and society, which mere notions cannot exert.”

It was a mistake to remove the bees from the Easter vigil. Small they may be, but the mother bees create the wax for the pillar of fire that lights the way out of darkness and into the light of the Morning Star.That same pillar is dipped into the baptismal waters when we welcome catechumens on the path of faith. The imagery of re-creation is difficult to miss.


But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious…

 

May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets…

 

 

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

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.)

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday and Forgetfulness

From the perspective of those outside of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, Ash Wednesday appears odd. On one occasion, I can recall – on the campus of a Catholic college, no less – overhearing undergraduates speculate that ashes on the foreheads of students must be the product of “pledge week” for fraternities and sororities. (Yikes!) Frequently, in the classroom, I would encounter the belief that Christians should always be aware of their need for redemption, and that the practice of distributing ashes one day a year served to undercut what should be a constant mindfulness. In other words, it makes what should be a daily awareness into an annual activity. While I would agree that the disciple of Christ should always be mindful of his/her need for redemption, and Christ’s abundant love for us in bringing it about, the human reality is that we are in need of constant reminding. We forget. And we not only forget because we have poor memories, we forget because we have fallen memories.

If we take the time to reflect upon memory, we should be struck by its power. After all, it is a sort of conjuring. My Nonna (of blessed memory) passed away some years ago, and yet I can recall her image, the sound of her voice, and how the soft skin of her wrinkled hand felt against mine. Every now and again, I will even associate a particular scent with that of her home. It’s difficult to describe but, when prompted by a similar smell, I’ll say to myself: “That smells like Nonna’s house.” The substantial existence of these things has long since gone, but in my memory I experience them again. What a truly marvelous gift we human beings have been given!

Lent is that time of the liturgical year when we especially recall the gospel proclamation of Christ himself: “‘The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mk 1:14-15; see Mt 4:17). During today’s Mass, a portion of this passage is one of two that one might hear when receiving ashes; the other being: “Remember that ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’” (Gen 3:19). It is a somewhat traditional English translation to render the word “repent” in this verse from the original word “metanoeite,” but the Greek word has a much richer meaning. It is a combination of the words “mind” [nous] and “beyond” [meta], and one could interpret this word rather physically as meaning “take your head and turn it 180 degrees.” In one sense, a better English word than “repent” is “conversion.” What we remember today is that Christ calls us to himself, to live in communion with him, and that this communion requires being attuned to him in heart, soul, and mind (cf. Lk 10:27; Dt 6:5). In short, today Christ calls us to “return to [him] with [our] whole heart” (Jl 1:12).

For the disciple of Christ, this turning of heart and mind should be a daily occurrence, an ever present mindfulness. But all too often, we forget. And forgetfulness often doesn’t happen all at once, but gradually our memories erode like stones by the seashore. Prayer becomes simply rote, then neglected. Reception of the sacraments (especially confession!) becomes infrequent. One’s spiritual life becomes the discrete unit of a time-managed schedule “blocked off” on Sundays from 10 am to noon.

If the above description resonates with you, today Christ is proclaiming his good news to you. This is not because he has waited for the appropriate day on the liturgical calendar to do so (he is always calling to you). But because we fragile human beings need more explicit reminders of Christ’s call to conversion from time to time. We need Ash Wednesday because we forget. We forget that Christ’s love for us calls for our love in response. We forget that our love for him is lived out in a life of prayer, fasting, and charity. And we forget that this life – while not easy – is joyful.

And so today we are reminded of death, so that we may live. We are reminded of our mortality, so that we might enjoy immortality. We are reminded of our sin, so that we might be reconciled to God. We are reminded on this one particular day, that Christ calls us to himself each and every day

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

 

 

My Sins are Running Out Behind Me

In The Wisdom of the Desert, a text edited by Thomas Merton, the following saying from the 4th century Desert Fathers appears:

A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abbot Moses to join them. He, however, did not want to come. The priest sent the Abbot a message, saying, ‘Come, the community is waiting for you.’ So he arose and started off. And taking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet the Abbot and said: ‘What is this, Father?’ The Abbot replied: ‘My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another! They, hearing, this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him. (p. 40)

This story illustrates the theme of new life/new creation through forgiveness of sins.

In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul, a convert to the way of Jesus, describes himself as a
runner who strains forward to embrace what lies ahead. In his former life, Paul (called
Saul and a prominent Jewish rabbi) adamantly persecuted Christians. Having experienced
new life/new creation through Jesus’ forgiveness, Paul now counts all as loss, if only he can
share in Christ’s suffering and know the power of his resurrection. During his extensive Christian missionary endeavors, Paul suffered floggings, imprisonments, and, finally, was beheaded. In this way, he who had become possessed by Christ responded to God’s merciful forgiveness and love by laying down his life for the sake of the gospel.

In the Gospel of John in the New Testament, the author includes a narrative that concerns
an adulteress woman. In this story, the assembled Jewish leaders are about to fulfill the Mosaic Law that requires that this sinful woman be stoned to death. As the drama unfolds, Jesus declares that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. One by one, without uttering a word, the scribes and Pharisees depart, for who among the living is without sin? Left alone with the woman, Jesus proceeds to offer her new life/new creation through forgiveness of her sin. The woman, who moments ago believed her life was quickly drawing to an end, is now being given the opportunity for metanoia. Jesus’ words to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” require that she let go of lust of the flesh and embrace life according to the law of authentic love.

In 2006, the world witnessed another example of new life/new creation through forgiveness of sin. The pain and anguish of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pa., was extreme when five young girls in the community were murdered; in the face of this tragedy, the Amish chose to not balance hurt with hate. Hours after this horrific event took place in the one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, the Amish reached out in compassion to comfort the family of the gunman. Later, dozens of Amish attended the gunman’s funeral in support of his grieving widow and three children.

The Amish went about the somber task of burying their dead in the simple way that characterizes their lives. Each slain girl was attired in a white handmade dress and buried in a pine coffin. When asked what message they wanted to convey to the world, an Amish community spokesperson replied: “We have the richest treasure in the world and that is fraternal love.” Throughout the ordeal, the Amish bore profound witness to the incalculable
value of forgiveness and love.

The story just recounted calls each of us to follow the example of the Amish by offering others new life/new creation through forgiveness. Additionally, in the Desert Fathers’ vignette quoted at the beginning of this reflection, the Abbot’s pronouncement: “My sins are running out behind me” is a poignant reminder that we are all frail humans in need of forgiveness. As we go about our daily lives, let us remember this truth as we strive to be ambassadors of forgiveness to others in a world in need of God’s merciful compassion.

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

Saint Thomas Aquinas and Me

Today is the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas. I thought I would use this occasion to share how this great man has changed my life. Although he walked this earth during the 13th century, he had a life-changing impact on my life in this 21st century.

As I was studying for my Masters in Pastoral Theology, at Saint Joseph’s College, I needed to take the core course in Moral Theology. It was the last of the core courses to take before embarking on the electives. At this point in the process, I still had no idea what God wanted me to do with my life, after obtaining my degree. I was concerned about what electives to take, without a game plan for my future. Then, within the Moral Theology course, I met Saint Thomas Aquinas, via the study of his masterpiece, Summa Theologica. Saint Thomas Aquinas opened my eyes to see what it truly meant when Christ said that He is the “Way.” You see, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica goes into great depths to explain the various virtues. He devotes an entire subset of the masterpiece to logically explaining why we should embrace virtue. Through reading Aquinas’ masterpiece, I came to understand that by embracing virtue we can live happier lives. It is through the turning away from vice/sin, that we turn toward God and virtue, for they are polar opposites to each other.

I left a 36-year banking career to return to school to obtain my Master’s Degree, because I wanted to connect the dots for people; to show them what they can do that is right, and in the process, live a happier life. Saint Thomas Aquinas provided me with the direction I needed. He gave me the answers on how to connect the dots! With this knowledge, God began to reveal parts of His plan for me. The Holy Spirit inspired me to write a children’s book on the virtue of patience, and to start a blog, writing about virtue. Then He opened the door to teaching at St. Joseph’s College. But He didn’t stop there! He continues to use me to fulfill His plan. Occasionally, He has me speak on the virtues, or other topics, at parishes. Most recently, God asked me to be the RCIA Coordinator at my parish, where I am given the opportunity to share the Catholic “Way” of living with those seeking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.

I don’t know what else God has in store for me, but I do know this: I owe a great deal of what I have accomplished to studying the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and to receiving the grace of Christ.

The souls of Saints live on for eternity. In the case of Saint Thomas Aquinas, we are also blessed to have his literary works live on as well. What Saint Thomas Aquinas taught in the 13th century was as relevant then as it is now. When a Saint provides timeless, unwavering teaching, aimed at bringing you closer to God, then you know it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. I am grateful for all that Saint Thomas Aquinas has done for me.

May the Lord shine His face on Saint Thomas Aquinas! Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

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.

Letting God Be Found

Our Faith is rich in examples of God’s presence: in Scripture, in the lives of the Saints, in Creation itself – and most concretely in the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), which are tangible encounters with the living God. Regardless of such riches, we want more. We want proof, whatever that means. Many, many years ago I made my very first retreat, and I was in the midst of a conversion of heart in which my faith was being renewed. Woman after woman at the retreat testified to powerful moments in which the Lord “spoke” to them, (sometimes “leading” them to a particular Scripture verse) and I was amazed, and intimidated. During discussion time, I shared with my small group that I’d never heard from God. Ever. The women smiled and assured me God speaks to me, even as I insisted He doesn’t. Their looks of motherly concern didn’t inspire confidence as one of them said, “I’m sure He will. Someday.” I’m convinced this is a common concern – and complaint – even among the most faithful. We “want God,” and we want Him here and now! The trouble is, we want Him on our terms, and most times we’re not really sure what those terms should look like.

On January 6, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate the Theophany of Our Lord, a wonderful companion to the West’s feast of Epiphany. Through these feasts the Church reminds us that the Child born in Bethlehem became the Man from Nazareth, and was revealed to be the Son of God. He is Emmanuel, God with us, living – and suffering – with us and for us. The Word made flesh not only dwells among us, but is one of us. He is close to us, yet often we don’t recognize Him, don’t acknowledge Him, or don’t look for Him. That’s why these feasts of “revelation” are so important for us.

God reveals Himself in the ordinary: in the midst of family life and all of its attendant joys and worries; in our daily work and its satisfaction and hardships; and in any number of unexpected ways that surprise us in their subtlety. The problem is that we keep looking for God in the booming voice, the Burning Bush and the miraculous appearance. The truth is, He does reveal Himself in those ways, but more often He shows Himself to us in quietly, and in the ordinary. That is what’s so extraordinary about the Incarnation, and why so many people 2,000 years ago (and many today) find it hard to believe that God would enter into His own Creation as a man.  Maybe that’s why the “proofs” we look for of God’s existence in our lives aren’t there – or don’t appear to be there. We’re looking in the wrong places, and we let other voices drown out His. This is what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, especially during Advent and the Nativity, and this current feast of Theophany: where is God, and am I looking and listening for Him?

I love the icon of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in my parish of St. Ann’s Byzantine Catholic Church. In Eastern iconography the Nativity is portrayed differently from the serene, “Christmas carol” scenes in Western art (for more on the icon’s symbolism, read what I wrote in 2014). There is one aspect of the icon I found myself drawn to during this Christmas season, and it’s the two characters at the lower left (closeup left.) The icon portrays a pensive, perhaps anxious Joseph being visited by a strange looking fellow in a cloak that appears to be made of leaves. He holds a walking staff and seems to be speaking to the new father about serious matters. According to the iconographic “language,” the man is actually the Devil come to the cave after Christ’s birth to instill doubt in Joseph’s heart. Of course this part of the scene isn’t Scriptural, but it’s a symbolic way to show how determined the Devil is to introduce doubt in our thoughts: doubts about ourselves, and doubts about God’s love for us. The Devil wants us to believe that God is really far removed from us, and not as close as the Baby in the manger who allowed Himself to become small enough to be held; small enough to be contained in a particle of bread and a cup of wine. It really doesn’t matter what the Old Man is telling Joseph in the icon, because we hear the arguments against God that he presents to each of us. We all have our own anxiety upon which the Devil plays and which he uses try to lead us into sin. As I sat in my pew each week, I thought a lot about that Old Man in the icon, and how often I allow him to highjack my thoughts; how many times I believe his arguments against God’s real presence in my life. It’s that nagging feeling I experienced on retreat many years ago: God doesn’t speak to me.

The icon of the Theophany of Our Lord (right) in my parish covers a portion of the wall immediately to the left of the Nativity as you face it, and I found myself drawn to it many times over these last weeks, as if the Lord were purposely diverting my attention away from the Old Man. This icon is one of my favorites, as is the feast. Theophany is a Greek word that means manifestation of God, and this feast commemorates the revelation of God as a Communion of Persons – the Trinity – and that this Jesus (born in a cave, raised in a family, and now presenting Himself for baptism) is the Son of God. The last thing anyone who was gathered at the Jordan that day expected was for God to enter into their midst. No one expected to hear His voice or witness His Spirit. No one would have believed a small town boy, the carpenter’s son, was the Messiah, let alone God Himself. As He would many times during the life and ministry of Jesus, God offered the people the “proof” they desired with His proclamation, “This is my beloved Son….” Yet such wondrous “proofs” are not greater than the reality: that God is among us, that He loves us more than we can imagine, and that He desires to be close to us.

It turns out the women on my first retreat were right: God would speak to me. In fact, He speaks to me all the time, but sometimes I’m too busy or distracted, or too unimaginative to hear Him. The icons of the Nativity and Theophany remind me again of how important it is to look for God and His word for me in the everyday aspects of my life. He’s there in my family, in my work, and in the simple things. He speaks in Creation, in music and books – and in the words friends and enemies alike. God is with us everyday and in everything. It’s up to us to be still, be humble, and be aware of the unexpected ways He manifests Himself in our lives.

…[T]oday the Uncreated One willingly permits the hands of his creatures to be laid upon him; today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Lord and, standing before him in awe,  witnesses the condescension of God towards us; today through the presence of the Lord, the waters of the river Jordan are changed into remedies; today the whole universe is refreshed with mystical streams; today the sins of the human race are blotted out by the waters of the river Jordan; today paradise has been opened to all, and the Sun of Righteousness has shone upon us; today, at the hands of Moses, the bitter water is changed into sweetness by the presence of the Lord!

~ The Great Blessing of Water, Feast of Theophany

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.