Why We Kneel

When we hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game, we stand up.  We may remove our ballcap and place our hand over our heart.  Likewise, when we meet an important person, we stand up to shake their hand.  Our British cousins may bow in the presence of their Queen.  We use the posture of our bodies to show respect and loyalty.  In effect, what we do with our bodies gives evidence to others of what we believe in our hearts.  This is why Catholics kneel during Mass.  We kneel because we are in the presence of Christ.
 
There are many dozens of instances of kneeling described in both the Old and the New Testaments.  Sometimes, kneeling is an act of supplication, of asking for something from God in a humble way.  “And at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle rent, and fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands to the Lord” (Ezra 9:5).  In other examples, kneeling is an act of worship, of reverence and humility to God.  “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker”(Psalm 95:6).  In the New Testament, many people would kneel before Jesus, some asking Him for healing. “…and behold, a leper came to Him and knelt before Him saying, ‘Lord, if You will, You can make me clean’ “(Matthew 8:2).  Jesus Himself often knelt in prayer to His heavenly Father.  “And He withdrew from them (His disciples) about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed”(Luke 22:41). 
 
Kneeling is the ultimate posture of submission and surrender and is the exterior sign of our interior posture before Christ.  It humbles us before God and reminds us that Jesus must increase and I must decrease.  Kneeling takes us out of our usual postures of sitting or standing and radically changes our world view.  We are vulnerable and a bit uncomfortable.  We are saying to the world: “I am not in control anymore.”  Kneeling makes us look up, both physically and spiritually, to the One Who is in control.
 
When we worship together, all our gestures and postures are meaningful.  As Catholics, the Bishops of the Church instruct us regarding our posture during Mass.  In this way, we worship together as a unified family, both in our words and in our actions.  Our unity is affirmed when we stand together, bow together, and kneel together.  Catholics kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  Kneeling at this moment is also kneeling at the foot of His Cross, on that Friday at Calvary.  Kneeling together is a sign of our unity as Catholics.  We kneel together in reverence and adoration, as a family, in the presence of our Lord and Saviour in the Blessed Sacrament.
 
How beautiful it was to see the late Pope John Paul II, aged and racked by Parkinson’s disease, slowly and painfully kneeling in prayer.  Towards the end of his public life, he could only kneel with the help of other people.  This “Servant of the Servants of God” showing humility, reverence, and obedient love to the God he had served so faithfully throughout his life.  Like him, our posture reveals our soul.  When we kneel beside the bedside of a dying person or stand up for the dignity of an unborn child, or genuflect before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we say what we believe louder than with any words we could speak.  Our posture tells others what we are willing to live or die for.
 
If we are called to imitate Christ, then are also called to kneel in prayer.  In the garden of Gethsemane, on His knees, He prayed “Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from me; still not My will but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  Kneeling is not mere piety.  It is a fundamental act of faith in Christ.  Kneeling is a strong expression of Who stands at the center of your life and Who stands at the center of all creation.  There is nothing passive about kneeling in humility and love.  When knees bend in response to a heart that loves Christ, there is unleashed a force so great and so strong that it can change the face of the earth.  We call this force “grace.”
 
In the fourth century, a Catholic priest named Abba Apollo described the devil as having no knees at all.  He cannot kneel, cannot adore, cannot pray.  He can only look down his nose in contempt.  St. Paul, in his letter to the Phillipians, believed otherwise.  In his beautiful hymn to Christ, he tells that “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:6-11).  When we kneel at Jesus’ name, we imitate the Magi who knelt at His birth.  Instead of gold and fragrant spices, we offer Him our humble hearts.  When we bow down to serve others, we imitate Christ as He washed the feet of His disciples,  We give Him our hands to do His will.  When we kneel in adoration of Christ, we imitate all the angels and saints kneeling at this very moment around His throne in heaven. 
 
“Kneeling does not come from any culture, it comes from the Bible.”
                    —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI (b. 1927)

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The SEASON of Christmas

The gifts have been opened and the feast has been shared.  All the hurried weeks of shopping and planning and preparation are over.  Families have come together for gifting and reunion, some good and others maybe not so good.  Christmas is over.  At least that’s what the world would have us believe.  But for us Catholics, Christmas only BEGINS on Christmas Day.  For us, Christmas lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which falls on Sunday, January 8. It’s not just a single day, but an entire liturgical season.  And when Christmas is celebrated over weeks instead of just one day the enormity of the Incarnation can begin to be experienced.
 
Christmas is about new beginnings.  In the birth of Christ, God’s plan for our salvation begins to unfold before our eyes.  What was foretold throughout the Old Testament as the coming of the Messiah is now an historical fact.  Christ is our new beginning.  Our hope for heaven has come to a manger in Bethlehem.  God has a face and a name.  He has a mother and a foster father who love Him beyond measure and who will, in just a few weeks, be forced to flee into Egypt with Him when King Herod sets in motion a plot to have Him murdered.  But in those first few days, it’s just Joseph and Mary and Jesus together — the Holy Family.
 
And I think maybe family is what these late December days should really be about.  We look at the baby Jesus and we see His innocence and His dependency.  Just like any baby, He reaches out for warmth and food, for comfort and for love.  He is as captivated by the shepherds and their lambs as He is by the famous Magi and their expensive gifts.  Everyone is welcome in His nursery.  Right now, as we look upon Him, we don’t see the trials and sufferings yet to come, we see only the newborn and His family. 
 
In the Holy Family of God we see everything a family needs.  We see Mary, whose sinless heart humbly found perfect favor with the Lord and below that heart, made room for the Messiah to enter into time and become one of us.  Today in America 40% of all our babies aren’t allowed to be born at all, but are aborted by their mothers.  Many young women, finding themselves as Mary was, pregnant and unmarried, are pressured by their boyfriends or their family to abort their child.  St. Joseph heard God’s message and stood by Mary and her baby.  He loved the Lord and he loved Mary, in that order. He put his own concerns at their service and was rewarded with the Son of God.  Both Mary and Joseph centered their lives on Jesus and though suffering came to them as it comes to all our families, they grew together in love and in faith.
 
Every Christmas is another visit to Bethlehem to enter into the newness of Christ.  It’s an opportunity to look within our own families and see if we have our priorities straight.  Do we pray and worship together every Sunday?  Do we regularly encounter God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Confession?  Do we keep Christ at the center of our decision-making?  Are we making sure our children are educated in the Catholic faith?  Do we support the Church financially and the pro-life causes of adoption and foster-parenting?  The Infant Jesus calls to us in His innocence.  He asks us to stay a while with Him in the manger tonight and to keep watch over Him with His family.  He doesn’t ask for gifts or tribute, just your time and attention.  Just to be with Him.  Just to love Him.  And He’d love it if you brought your family with you.
 
“Let the stable still astonish:  straw, dirt floor, dull eyes, dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen:
Crooked, crumbling walls;
No bed to carry that pain, and then, the Child.
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry in a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said:  “Yes, let the God of all the heavens and the earth be born here, in this place?”
Who but the same God, Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts and says,
“Yes, let the God of heaven and earth be born HERE—in this place.”
                                                                  —-by L.L. Fields

Born to Be Slain

We love the manger scene at Christmas, don’t we?  Ever since St. Francis of Assisi made the first one in 1223, Christians of all sorts have loved seeing the tender scene of the stable at Bethlehem.  Tiny Nativity sets on our coffee tables.  Carved wooden family heirlooms under our Christmas trees.  Large realistic statuary in front of the altar of our church.  We love the sight of all the animals gathered into the stable around the manger.  We see the shepherds there, running in from their flocks to worship the newborn baby.  The angels who proclaimed His birth hover nearby, trumpets in hand, trailing banners that read, “Gloria In Excelsis Deo.” The sweet old man leaning on his staff must be St. Joseph.  A misreading of Scripture sometimes places the three wise men in the Nativity scene too, though it was probably at least a couple of years later that they made their appearance.  Every manger scene features the Blessed Virgin Mary looking down lovingly at her newborn son.  Even the most spartan Christian denominations trot out a Nativity scene at Christmas.  No one could object to these warm and fuzzy images.  And then, there’s the baby—tiny and perfect and cooing up at His mother and foster father.  Just looking at Him gives us a warm glow, a feeling that all is right with the world once more.  We look at this idyllic scene and smile.
 
And yet to view His birth as only a kind of Disney cartoon filled with little lambs and singing cherubs is at least a misunderstanding and maybe even a heresy.  This is not just the miracle of another birth to another poor couple in desperate circumstances.  This is the Creator God Whose birth is cleaving creation in two.  By being born as a baby, He is dividing time itself.  We measure time as either before or after the Incarnation.  This cooing infant has all the power and knowledge of the great “I AM” in Him from the moment of His conception.  Fully human and fully divine, this newborn is the Word made flesh.  Look closely at Him and you’ll see much more than just a babe in swaddling clothes.
 
Nestled in His mother’s lap in the stable, does He also imagine the last time she’ll hold Him, as He is taken down from the Cross?  Looking around Him there in the manger, does He notice the donkey patiently chewing some hay nearby and does he see that other one that He’ll ride into Jerusalem for that last Passover?  Does His borrowed stable remind Him of the borrowed tomb yet-to-be?  Does He wonder why so many want to see Him in the crib, but so few will want to walk with Him to Golgotha?  Crowds come to pray at His birth, but He knows that in Gethsemane, He’ll pray alone.  The stable filled with love and homage will one day be a lonely hill, rocky and barren and full of suffering.  Does the baby know this?  Surely.  And yet He chooses to come to us anyway.  He comes to be one of us so that we can know how to be more like Him.  He comes because He knows we have nowhere else to go and no one else who can save us.  He comes because it is His Father’s will and He and the Father are One. He comes out of love because He IS Love. The baby in the manger is already sacrificing Himself for you and for me.  The star shining so brightly overhead throws a shadow on His face, the shadow of a Cross.  We can never truly know the joy of that Bethlehem night unless we also embrace with Him that long afternoon on Good Friday.  Our beloved manger scenes at Christmas hold the promise of Easter morning within them, if we only choose to make the journey with our Savior.  It begins here in Bethlehem as we kneel by the baby.  Mary’s little lamb is already the Lamb of God “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).
 

A Shepherd’s Heart

“And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8).  It was the shepherds outside Bethelehem who first heard the news of Christ’s birth.  These men and boys often lived at the edge of society, doing hard and lonely work in all sorts of weather.  In many ways, the shepherd was the “average working-class Joe” of Jewish life.  To some people, being a shepherd was among the lowest kinds of work.  It was physically demanding but vital to the economy of the Jews.  Shepherds lived mostly in the wild with only a wool wrap and a simple cover to protect them from rain, wind, scorching heat and freezing cold.  Shepherds ate only what they could carry:  bread, cheese, olives and if they were lucky, some figs and raisins.  They had to be versatile and adaptable to all kinds of situations; ready to rescue any strayed sheep and carry any injured one back to safety to nurse it to health.  Dangerous predators roamed the hills around Bethlehem and shepherds armed themselves with slingshots and heavy mallets to ward off the attacks of bears, lions, wolves and jackals.  Sometimes they would pull thickets of thorns and brambles together to make a pen for their sheep at night.  The shepherd would then lie down in the gate opening to close it off and protect his flock. 

 

The connection between a shepherd and their sheep was so close that he could recognize the sounds made by each of the ones in his flock.  Likewise, the sheep knew and would respond to the voice of their shepherd.  “My sheep know My voice and I know them and they follow Me” (John 10:27). This “closeness” to their work also meant that shepherds were often unbathed, dirty, and smelly.  The nature of their desert work meant that they had little access to water and could only very rarely keep the elaborate cleanliness rituals of faithful Jews.  They were in some ways, outcasts and loners, dirty and looked-down upon by others.  In a word, they were God’s delight. Because God delights in choosing the lowly and marginalized to do His work and receive His blessings.

 

The Bible is full of references to sheep and shepherds.  Old Testament saints like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds at one time or another.  Jesus as our “Good Shepherd” is a beautiful image from Sacred Scripture.  In our time, the words “pastor” and “bishop” both derive from ancient words meaning “shepherd” and “guardian” and the staff of the bishop is still the shepherd’s crook.  It was appropriate then, that shepherds became the first Christmas guests.  We don’t know the names of the shepherds out on the hill that night with their flock surrounding them.  Because they were just those “average Joes” working the night shift, their legacy is anonymous.  But for a moment, try to imagine what it must have been like for them.  It’s a cold, quiet evening, talking with your friends around a fire.  The conversation always seemed to come back to the Romans, to politics.  Occasionally, the bleating of a sheep causes eyes to scan the hills for any sign of wolves.  Not tonight.  No, it’s just another cold quiet night on the job.  And then—–LIGHT!  Not just the light of daylight, but daylight a million times over!  The night sky blazes with an army of huge, shining men in armor surrounding and overwhelming them with their light and song.  “Do not be afraid,” the clear and beautiful voice rings out from the one closest to the shepherds.  “A Savior has been born to you!”  The angels spread out their arms and the glory and radiance of heaven is spilled out over the whole sky.  “Glory to God in the highest!” rang out the thunderous cry of the army of God.  The joy of heaven flowed down to earth that night and into the lives of the shepherds of Bethlehem.  For our great and almighty God has the heart of a shepherd.  So it was fitting that shepherds be the first to know.  And what did the shepherds do?  They didn’t stop to debate what it all meant, to argue over theology or form a committee.  No.  They ran.  They ran to the manger, ran to meet their King, ran to the Baby, to fall down on their knees and worship Him, Emmanuel, God Is With Us.  May we all have the heart of a shepherd tonight.

The Light of Christ

It’s the middle of another December and the darkness of the winter season is all around us.  The oak leaves are brown and crunchy underfoot on the cold ground.  Frost has burnt the leaves of the rose bush.  The nights are long and the blue-white stars shine with a steely cold light.  And yet we know that after the depths of winter, spring will come again.  At the root of that empty oak tree is the spark of life that will force the green leaves in just a few months.  Inside the frost-bitten bush is the sleeping rose bud that will awaken in the warmth of spring.  Memory consoles us in winter with the hope of new life.  We remember summer’s warmth of long days and soft nights; the abundance of our sun-kissed gardens and the green lushness of field and valley.  Even in winter’s darkness, we carry in our hearts the light of summer.
 
God formed our remembering hearts, to seek Him and to long for the light of His love.  He knows how very much we need Him and yearn for the Truth which only He can give us.  And so He chose to come to us in the darkest days of winter, when His light would shine the brightest and when the consolation of His coming would be most welcome.  Heaven came  to earth in the Blessed Virgin’s holy womb; her sacred “yes” inviting the Infinite to make His home among us.  But this King of all Kings didn’t come to rule, but to serve.  He doesn’t demand homage, but seeks to be in a relationship with each one of us.  The great “I AM” comes to us as a shivering baby in a backwater manger.  That very night, the winter skies were filled with angels and the light of heaven used a star to shine forth the way to Him. The light of that singular star is reflected today in every twinkling bulb on our Christmas trees, and in every candle flickering on our altar.  The sanctuary lamp burns brightly near the Tabernacle of every Catholic church in the world and proclaims that Christ is here!  Just as He was in the manger, or the Upper Room, or on the Cross, or arising from the tomb.  The uncreated Light that rolled away the stone and banished darkness forever, that made the earth and hung the moon in place, that raised Lazarus from the dead and cured the sick and walked on the water—that same Light comes to us at every Mass.  And the angels that dance around His heavenly throne, and who heralded His birth to the shepherds, kneel with us around the altar in loving adoration.
 
And so in these darkest days of winter, again He comes to us.  In the darkness of our lost and sinful world, again He comes to us.  In the sinful, secret corners of our guilty hearts, He comes to us.  “The Light of the world” (John 8:12) comes to love us, to know us, and to save us.  He comes to bring us to Himself in all-embracing Light.  He comes to heal our broken souls and bind up all our wounds.  In the winter darkness of our sins and failings, our addictions and our weakness, when we can see nothing before us but cold, barren ground and the loneliness of doubt, He comes to bring us new life and hope.  Christ, our Light, conquers darkness forevermore.  Come, Lord Jesus!

Making Room

We all know the story.  A cold December night in a small town.  Every available room was already taken by travelers.  Mary was about to give birth and Joseph was anxious to find them a warm and safe place for the night.  St. Luke tells us he chose a spot where animals were kept, probably a cave, “because there was no room for them” (Luke 2:7).  We hear the story and we say to ourselves that the innkeeper was hard-hearted and the townspeople were thoughtless and self-centered.  How could anyone turn away a family in such need?  And certainly now, knowing who this family is and Who is about to be born—there’s no way we’d turn them out into the night.
 
Jesus knows us perfectly.  He knew that someday we’d be telling ourselves how much more compassionate and accepting we are than that jerk of an innkeeper.  He knows our hearts because He made our hearts.  That’s why He tells us in Matthew that whenever we see a poor person, a sick person, an immigrant, a prisoner, or anyone in need that we are seeing Him in disguise.  The innkeeper’s heart is our heart, too.  When we turn away from the ones who need us most, we’re telling Christ:  there’s no room in my life or in my heart for You.  Advent is the season of making room.  In the womb of the Virgin.  In the life of St. Joseph.  In the stable with the shepherds.  In a sinful, lost and hurting world.  What has to move over when we make room for Christ?  Our fears of what will happen if we’re no longer the one in control of our lives. Our distrust of people who don’t look or act or pray exactly like we do.  Our impatience for the slow, the weak, the old, the smelly.  In a word:  ourselves.  As we hear in the cry of John the Baptist:  “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  Making room for Christ is radically counter-cultural.  It means practicing humility in a world that values fame; it means sacrifice in a world that craves “more” of everything.  Christ in our hearts sees Christ in our world, in every person, every relationship, every moment.
 
When we make room for Christ we crowd out intolerance.  We push aside envy.  We uproot prejudice and we plant the seeds of hope and charity, of justice and faith.  That “making room” is how we participate in the saving work of Christ, as members of His Body.  Each Advent we’re reminded of how much God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us.  He left heaven to be with us and live in our hearts.  If we’ll only make room for Him.
 
“We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.” –G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

The Immaculata

A man is walking through a park and falls into a deep, dark pit.  Someone reaches down, grabs him and pulls him up and out of the pit.  The man has been saved.  Now imagine that a woman is walking through the same park, towards the same pit.  Just as she is about to fall into it, someone holds her back and stops her fall.  She too then was saved from the pit, but in even a better way than the man.  She wasn’t simply rescued, she was prevented from being stained by the muddy pit in the first place.
 
That’s an illustration that’s been used for more than  thousand years to explain how Mary received her salvation through Christ.  Christians believe that every human being is freed from sin —original sin and personal sin— through the saving grace of Jesus.  Catholics believe that Mary was the first person to be saved by Christ.  This doctrine of our faith is that of the Immaculate Conception and we celebrate it each year on December 8.  Lots of folks, even many Catholics, confuse the Immaculate Conception with Jesus’ Incarnation.  When Mary said “yes” to God, she was overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit and Jesus was conceived in her womb.  This is the Virgin Birth.  When Mary was created by her parents in the usual way, her conception was preserved from the stain of original sin.  This is the Immaculate Conception.  Mary was preserved from original sin by the merits of Christ’s sacrifice, even before the Cross.  How can this be possible?  Because with God, all things are possible.  God exists outside of time.  For Him, past and future exist in the ever-present NOW.  So in God’s great plan for the birth of His only Son, He provided Mary with the cleansing grace of baptism so that, in her, Christ would find a perfect sinless vessel.  And when you think about it, how could it be otherwise?  How could God be present in sin?
 
What wondrous love God has for Mary and for us!  The earliest Church Fathers described Mary’s special holiness and God’s distinct protection of that holiness from the moment of her creation.  While Catholics believe that Mary was saved by God before falling into that pit of original sin, we also believe that Mary needed a Savior, just like the rest of us.  It was Christ’s sacrifice that allowed Mary to be “full of grace” as the Angel spoke in his greeting to her (Luke 1:28).  And Mary remarked at that moment that “my spirit rejoices in God, my savior” (Luke 1:47).  Mary knew she needed a Savior and she knew that Savior was the infant she carried in her womb.  While the Church has believed and taught the Immaculate Conception for almost 2000 years, it did not become dogma until 1854.  This doctrine of Mary’s special protection from sin glorifies Christ’s redemptive work by revealing His remarkable power to save and sanctify His people.  Mary is the new Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant, the God-Bearer.  She gave herself completely to the Lord, and in that “yes” brought Light to the world.  This Advent season, as winter’s long nights envelop us, may we all pray to become more like Mary and prepare ourselves for the coming of our Light at Christmas.
 
“The Glorious Virgin did not have a stain in her birth because she was sanctified in her mother’s womb and safeguarded there by angels.”                    —St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231)