An Evil Holiday?

All Hallows Eve.  That’s where we get the word “halloween.”  The day after Halloween  is the feast of All Saints when we remember and celebrate all those who are in heaven.  It’s a holy day in the Catholic Church when all Catholics attend Mass and honor the saints who are models of Christian virtue and perseverance.  So how did the eve or vigil of All Saints Day become associated with goblins and ghouls?  The simple answer is that if you believe in God and Holy Scripture, then you also believe in the reality of evil in the world.  The devil and his army of demons contest for our souls as the “principalities and powers” described by St. Paul (Ephesians 6:11).  But today a lot of people don’t believe in the devil anymore.  Evil has become just one more outdated idea like the flat earth.  In America, the Puritans made it illegal to celebrate Halloween, mostly out of their anti-Catholic prejudices.  Anything associated with Catholic belief or practice, like the holy days of worship, was outlawed.  The popular customs we associate with Halloween, like carving vegetables and lighting them inside with candles and celebrating the night before All Saints Day are largely Irish Catholic traditions brought to this country with the immigrants.
With diminishing cultural beliefs in the reality of evil and the suppression of Catholic beliefs and practices, Halloween had all but disappeared in America until 1923 when a novelty company in Framingham, Massachusetts began to market costume kits and instructions on pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating that quickly became popular.  Over the following decades, Halloween became a secular holiday that most families embraced.  Unfortunately the rich, instructive faith history of the holiday has been ignored, forgotten and even rejected outright.  If we relegate goblins and demons to the real of mere superstition or harmless diversion, we empower evil.  Satan’s influence in the world grows greater whenever he can convince someone that he doesn’t exist.  We are still engaged in the battle against him, but instead of calling him by name, we attribute evil to social causes like a bad childhood or poor interpersonal skills.  And so we don’t confront evil with the truth of Christ crucified anymore.  This truth is at the heart of what we celebrate on All Saints Day.
My Catholic faith teaches that evil is rejecting God.  It is a real force that can have very real and eternal consequences for those who choose to turn away from the Lord.  Just as heaven is a real place, hell is also real.  Both are everlasting.  We choose hell over heaven when we reject God’s love for us.  Saints are people whose hearts are filled with God’s love and grace and who consistently chose God’s truth over the lies of the evil one.  They lived in the joy of the Lord, not in the anxiety and fearfulness which Satan wants for all of us.  While we believe in the reality of demons and fallen angels, we don’t fear them because we live in the power of the risen Christ.  Some Christian parents are hesitant to allow their children to dress as witches or devils when they trick-or-treat.  Certainly this is a decision each family must make for themselves.  But Halloween is a great time for parents to answer their children’s questions about goblins and devils and to reassure them that God’s love is more powerful than anything “spooky.”  Jesus is our Light and when we follow Him, the darkness of the world is dispelled.  God hears their prayers and never lets any of His children walk without His loving protection.
So set out your jack-o-lanterns and thank the Irish Catholic immigrants whose traditions we imitate.  Enjoy the evening with your children and be generous with all the little tricksters who come to your door.  Most of all, remember that the next day’s  light brings with it a holy day of prayer and thanksgiving in remembrance of the servants of God who have shown us the way to heaven.  These saints are our brothers and sisters in faith and their lives are examples to us of how to love and serve God with humility and joy.  These darkening autumn days hold within them the bright light of All Saints Day and the greater, uncreated light of Christ, our Savior.
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do Thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God,
Thrust into hell Satan and all the spirits
Who prowl the world seeking the ruin of souls.
                —-Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel

Carrying Your Cross

We all have one.  Mine is different than yours.  Most of us have more than one.  Some are bigger than others.  Some are tiny, but very very painful.  Some are so huge they seem impossible to bear.  Some are obvious, but many are hidden from view.  What are they?  They’re our hurts and pains, our sufferings, and our burdens.  They’re the wounds we all carry each day.  Some are physical like an illness or injury.  Others are addictions or compulsions.  Still others are the emotional pains of mental illness or the damage done by an abusive relationship.  Many times we’ve caused the pain ourselves.  Fear, anger, bitterness, jealousy—a broken heart.  These are our crosses.  Jesus carried a heavy wooden cross to Golgotha.  He told us if we want to be His disciples, we have to deny ourselves, pick up our own crosses, and follow Him (Luke 9:23).
Catholics aren’t afraid of the Cross of Christ.  Every Catholic church in the world has a crucifix displayed prominently near the altar.  My own church  has a near-lifesize crucifix behind the altar.  The large wooden cross with the dying Christ nailed to it dominates our sanctuary space.  It’s not merely an ornament or decoration.  Neither does it reflect a morbid fascination with death or physical pain.  The Cross of Christ is Love.  Our crucifix is a constant and holy reminder to us of Jesus’ great love for us.  Carried in His arms and across His flayed and bleeding back, the Cross became salvation for the world.  His invitation to us is to embrace our sufferings and to unite our pain with His.  This is love embracing Love.  “When the Cross is embraced it becomes a sign of love and total self-giving.  To carry it behind Christ means to be united with Him in offering the greatest proof of love,” wrote Pope John Paul II.  There’s no greater proof of God’s love for us than Jesus’ own suffering and death for our sake.
Everyday life for each of us is full of crosses we can carry behind our Lord.  You know what yours are just as I know my own.  We carry them in union with Jesus, as He leads the way for us.  He is our model.  He invites us to follow His example, to share in His life and in His choices—to stake our life for the love of God and neighbor.  This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote to the Colossians “who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting in the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His Body, which is the Church” (1:24). Any of our sufferings can be prayerfully united with Christ’s own Passion and Death.  This is redemptive suffering, or what Catholics mean when they say, “I’m offering it up.”  What we are offering up is to share in Jesus’ suffering out of thanksgiving and love for Him.  This unity is part of our personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Eucharist which lies at the heart of our Catholic faith.  He is our first Love.  We claim a share of His Life in all His fullness of divinity and humanity.  As much as our Love calls us to meet Him in the manger at Bethlehem, we’re also drawn to meet Him at Calvary and later, at the empty tomb, or the road to Emmaus.  Being Catholic means walking with Christ every day, faithfully assured that He opens up for us His way of life and abundant love.  Suffering is necessarily a part of that faith journey for us, just as it was for Him.  Yet no one knows more about my crosses, my pains, my sins than Jesus Christ.  When I see a crucifix, I see Love’s arms open wide, embracing all my pain, forgiving all my sin.  My crosses seem so small in comparison.
“Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the Cross that He can kiss us and He can show that He is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in His Passion.”                                                                                                                  –             –Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)

Our Mother

I’ll never forget the day she died.  And me, two days after when I thought I might be able to bear it, standing alone at the raw wound of her fresh grave, wondering how I might go on.  My heart felt as cold as the bitter November wind that plowed through the cemetery.  Mother.  Gone.  She’d suffered twice with cancer and then a series of strokes that had left her unable to think clearly or speak more than a few disjointed words.  In the end, she’d died at home with her husband and children at her bedside—the way she’d wanted.  But what now?, I thought.  This force of nature and my best friend–silent and gone.  Today, within a month of the ten-year anniversary of her passing, not a day goes by that some memory of her doesn’t burst into my heart.  In that way, she’s still very much with me.  A mother’s love isn’t stopped by death or the passing of years.  Love persists. Love triumphs.
The relationship between mother and child is at the core of our earthly lives.  It’s so foundational and so important that God planned for every human person to come into the world through a mother.  No other human relationship is as laden with meaning and implication as that between a child and their mother.  It’s this way with God’s mother, as well.  The Blessed Virgin Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of the Word, Jesus, the Incarnation of God.  Some Christians may chafe at the title of Mother of God as if being His mother made her to exist before God somehow or makes Mary to be the equal of God.  Neither of these is true, of course.  God could have saved us without being born as a man,without need of a mother at all.  Yet that was His plan.  And when we look at God’s plan for our salvation, we can come to know more about His heart.  And having a mother meant so much to God that He put her at the center of the greatest love story ever known.
St. Paul writes so beautifully of a doctrine called “the Mystical Body of Christ”(Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 4:15).  Through Paul, we understand that Christ is the Head of this Body, which is the Church.  Head and Body, then make up the Mystical Body of Christ.  The Body is one and cannot be divided.  The various parts survive in relationship to one another.  Mary gave birth to the Head of the Body, Who is Jesus.  She didn’t give birth to a theory or an idea but to a baby.  If we believe Scripture, we believe that through Mary, salvation came into the world.  Her total cooperation with God and conformity to His will is the perfect model for all Christians.  Her final words recorded in Scripture are a five-word summary of the Christian life:  “Do whatever He tell you”(John 2:5).  Just as Mary nurtured, fed, guided, and protected Jesus, she does the same for us as our mother (John 19:26-27).  This isn’t some new belief but one present since the earliest Church.  Indeed, St. Paul’s doctrine illuminates the unity of Christ’s Mystical Body and the maternal relationship between Mary and the Church. Simply put, if God willed and allowed for Himself to be born of her and chose her as His mother, shouldn’t we choose her for ourselves?  God put His complete trust in Mary.  That’s good enough for me.
Just as in a human family, a mother is not optional, Mary’s role as mother of the Mystical Body of Christ isn’t optional.  She is at the heart of God’s plan for our salvation.  He created her with Himself in mind.  He formed her sinless in her mother’s womb as the perfect vessel to bear the Word.  He made her as the model of mothers.  And for us, her children, when we neglect our relationship with her, we miss out on the fountainhead of grace which fills her, as the angel revealed (Luke 1:28). Just as the child Jesus rain to her for help and comfort, it pleases God when we do the same thing.  This isn’t “just another Catholic doctrine.” This is God’s love for us, revealed in Holy Scripture and in the practice and teachings of His Church since the very earliest years of the Apostles.  Mary always leads us to her Son.  From the stable in Bethlehem to the foot of the Cross, her eyes were ever fixed on Christ.  A mother’s love for her children is never lost.  We may be separated for a while from our earthly mothers, but we’ll be reunited again.  Mary’s love for us is as fierce and immediate as it is for her Son.  Through Christ, the Virgin reaches out to us to draw us ever closer to the heart of God.  I don’t know about you, but I can never have too much of a mother’s love.
“With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable disappeared from my life.  There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security.  It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”    
                                                                                   —C.S. Lewis
(In loving memory of my mother, known to all as “Scooter,” (1924-2002)

Change Your Heart and Change the World

A young man that I know is considering becoming a Catholic priest.  He’s a junior at a fine college, studying electrical engineering.  He’s been offered graduate scholarships to some of this country’s most prestigious universities.  He’s handsome, athletic, and has a great sense of humor.  In short, he’s one of those guys you could easily imagine happily married with kids, making a six-figure salary and living in a gated community on a golf course.  But he believes that God has called him to another kind of life, a radically different life.  He believes that Jesus Christ has called him to the priesthood.  While his friends are dating and planning for life and work after college, this young man spends his weekends visiting seminaries and volunteering at a local soup kitchen. 
Two thousand years ago, a group of men also heard the call of God to His greater purpose.  Simple men, flawed and imperfect men, whose “yes” to God changed the world.  They left their lives, their jobs and their families and, owning almost nothing, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving and hostile world.  For living out their call, they were imprisoned and tortured.  Every one of them was killed for their belief in Christ.  Their lives were laid down for the Savior they loved and Who had loved and died for them.  Looking at this young man I know, I can see some of that same commitment and faith which empowered the Apostles to become more than the fishermen or tax collectors they had been before their calling.  Does that make this young man unusual in today’s world?  I don’t think so. 
Young people want to change the world.  They want to give themselves over to a great cause that will give meaning and purpose to their lives.  So why are so few young people being called to religious life today?  Why do we have a shortage of priests in America?  In my own opinion, it’s because we Catholics aren’t teaching our children the Gospel of Christ.  To begin with, we don’t know our own faith well enough to discuss it with our children.  We can’t expect a couple of hours of religious education classes each week to ground our kids in the faith the Apostles died for.  We have to know and to live out our faith each day as examples to them.  When they come to us with questions about Jesus or His Church, we need to give them the right answers, or at least know where to find the right answers.  Talking about Christ and our faith should be a natural part of family life, as natural as talking about school or sports.  And yet how many of us have talked with our kids about Christ during the last week?
While family life is the garden that grows vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the larger Church also has to live up to her responsibility as the depository of our faith.  Sunday homilies need to challenge us more.  We need to leave Mass inspired by the truth of Christ and convicted of the changes we need to make in our lives in order to live out the truth of His Gospel.  We need more Jesus and less Oprah, more courage to live as Christ and less fear that what we say or do as Christians might offend someone.  Sometimes the truth isn’t easy to hear, but truth is what saves us and transfigures us into the God we adore.  The Church needs to focus less on appearing “relevant” to a modern congregation and courageously proclaim Christ crucified.  If we preach the Gospel, we’ll have vocations to the priesthood.  If we live out that Gospel, we won’t be able to build enough seminaries to hold all the men called to serve Christ and His Church.  We need fearless leadership within the Catholic Church in this country, to stand up for the Gospel, to challenge the Church to preach Jesus Christ to the modern world.  As Catholics, we should pray that God will send us this leadership, these shepherds who can guide us out of the doldrums of the past generation.  Throughout the history of our Church, God has raised up Saints among us whenever His Bride is in need of reformation.  May our prayer for the Church our children will inherit be:  “Lord, send us your Saints!”
Where there is no vision, the people perish.”    —Proverbs 29:18

Hungry. Thirsty. Lost.

Who exactly did He come for?  He tells us He came for the hungry.  Have you ever been hungry?  Sure, hungry for food.  But what else have you hungered for?  Love?  Acceptance?  Happiness?  Then He came for you.  He came for all the starving, the anxious, empty, famished and unfilled.  He came for anyone who’s ever felt weak or hollow or faint.  He came for the unfed, the undernourished, the ones yearning and pining and wishing for more.  For the one’s who’ve never felt good enough, or smart enough, or pretty enough, or just, enough.  He came to feed you with Himself.
He came for the thirsty ones.  The ones whose hearts are dry and parched and lifeless.  He came to bring living water to the burning, dusty souls of the hopeless and the barren.  Your breathless, parched, baked and exhausted dreams will find a place in Him.  He came to flood you with hope, to submerge you in new life, to drench you in love.  He came to drown you in Himself.  He came for the strangers among us.  The outsiders who look different, talk differently and pray differently.  The visitors we didn’t expect.  The guests we didn’t invite.  He came for the interlopers, the intruders, the migrants.  He came for the wandering and the transient.  The ones not like us.  The ones who ought to learn English and try to fit in.  Only they don’t and they make us uncomfortable.  He came to make a home for Himself in that uncomfortable wound in our hearts that we allow our fears and judgments to make.  He came to draw us all to Himself.
He came for the naked.  He came for the defenseless, the helpless, the hopeless and the threadbare.  He came for the most vulnerable ones:  the baby in the womb, the disabled in the shadows, the elderly in empty rooms down long hallways.  He came for anyone who’s been stripped of hope, peeled of joy or divested of their rightful place.  For all of us left raw and wounded by the ways of the world.  He came to clothe us with Himself.  He came for the sick.  For anyone ailing or confined, broken down or diseased of body, mind, or spirit.  He came for the defective, delicate and disordered.  For the feeble, feverish and frail.  He came for anyone whose sick and failing attempts at doing it for themselves just haven’t worked out.  He came for the ones who are weak from trying; for the ones infected with the “me” virus; for the ones who just can’t do it anymore.  He came to save us from our suffering with Himself, hung on a Cross, dying for Love.
He came for the prisoners.  The ones captured by sin, barred in by despair, sentenced to death.  He came for the caged and the closeted, the apprehensive and the impounded.  For the shut-in, the shut-out, the locked up, the put away, the ones told to shut up.  For anyone who’s felt detained, constrained or forgotten.  For the ones who’ve made their own prisons, He came to be the key.  He came to be freedom for us all.  Jesus came for all the people who know what it feels like when we say “sin.”  The ones who hunger and thirst, the ones who feel alone and vulnerable, for everyone who is heartsick and imprisoned by a mess of their own making.  For the ones who’ve given up trying to find the answer.  Jesus came with the question:  “Will you marry me?”
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
                            —The Gospel of St. Matthew, 25:35-36

Frozen and Forgotten?

The older I get, the more I dislike cold weather.  These first crisp, cool autumn mornings, though beautiful, whisper to me of freezing winds just around the corner.  These days it seems I’m cold from October until June.  I can understand why the English writer C.S. Lewis depicted the forces of evil in his Narnia books as living in perpetual winter.  Cold seems evil to me, too.  In Dante’s Inferno, he imagines the depths of hell not as a lake of fire, but as a dark and frozen abyss—cold beyond all imagining. So cold that all movement stops, all change halts, all promises fail.  It sounds like hell, doesn’t it?
And yet there are more than 400,000 Americans who live in an environment like this day after day, year after year.  In total darkness, the temperature remains a steady -196 degrees Celsius.  The scientific term is “cryopreservation” but it resembles Dante’s hell.  It’s where thousands of people have chosen to place their unwanted embryos.  As a Catholic, I have to call them what they are:  babies.  These babies are created primarily by the process of in vitro fertilization and most of them have been stored for years in plastic vials submerged in tanks of liquid nitrogen.  The vast majority of them will never be allowed to be born.  Their lives, barely begun, are forever frozen and suspended in time.  Their parents couldn’t conceive a child naturally and so medical professionals conceived a handful of children for them in a laboratory.  The “extras” were frozen, probably never to be born.  Yet, there they stay in the cold and dark, a sort of by-product of our technology.
Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean to underestimate the pain of infertility or the anguish of wanting a child that drove most of these parents to try anything to have a baby.  Their pain is very real and very understandable.  And I’m not some sort of Luddite who is opposed to scientific and medical advances, far from it.  What I oppose, what my Church opposes, is anything that treats human life with disrespect, including the IVF process.  “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.  From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized has having the rights of a person” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).  Why do we believe this?  Because we are bodies and souls created in the image of God.  We believe that “every spiritual soul is created immediately by God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).  What scientists make for parents isn’t a mass of cells or bits of tissue—it’s a baby, uniquely created by the Lord. “I knit you together in your mother’s womb.  You are fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). 
The infertility industry in America has become an embryo mass-production line with almost no legal oversight or national regulation.  Babies are created and stored as commodities, like computers or automobiles.  “Excess inventory” is hidden away in the cold and dark where we don’t have to think about them.  We use words like “snowflakes” to mask the truth of who lives in those tanks.  And the truth is that we’ve allowed the creation of a human being to become just another business.  Our technology has outpaced our morality.  Once again just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. The Catholic Church remains a strong voice on behalf of these voiceless children who are the innocent and defenseless victims of our ability to manipulate human life.  So what do we do with these 400,000 frozen babies?  I don’t know.  I think a more urgent question is how we go about stopping the relentless manufacturing and freezing of new embryos which occurs every day in every major city in our country.  We used to believe that children were a gift from God.  Now we believe that children are a right we can purchase.  We have forgotten His words:  “I am your Father, and I love you even as I love My son, Jesus” (John 17:23).
“For you were made in My image.”  (Genesis 1:27)

The Holy Name of Jesus

I’m confounded by something that’s been happening to me since my twenties.  Though my given name is “Judith” I’ve always been known to family and friends as “Judy,” which has been just right as far as I’m concerned.  “Judith” sounds far too grown-up for the person I imagine that I am.  But something odd began to happen once I was out of graduate school and working as a psychotherapist.  People began to call me “Miss Judy.”  It started out slowly enough.  The occasional bank teller.  The seldom-seen convenience store clerk.  Then I noticed even some of my friends and family were doing it, too.  Where had this odd title come from?  And who had given it to me?  It sounded strangely antebellum to me.  Out of a different age.  And I didn’t much like it.  I never said that I didn’t like it, though.  People seemed to just naturally want to call me “Miss Judy.”  Last week I was introduced to the mother of an acquaintance at a luncheon.  This woman, who is about my own age, had adopted me as—-that name.  In a matter of minutes!  I don’t understand it. And it’s gotten me thinking about names and titles and things.  Why do we call people what we call them?  And, of course, all the names of God.  Does He like them all?  Is there one He prefers above the rest?  And what do all His names tell us about Him?
Our God is one God in three distinct Persons–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Each of these Persons has their own Name.  In the Old Testament, by far the most common name of God is “Jehovah” which is used more than 6000 times.  Others, like Yahweh, Adonai, Eolohim and El-Shaddai are also used.  Jehovah comes from the Hebrew meaning “to be” or “He Who is.”  It reminds me of the passage in Exodus where God reveals Who He is to Moses by instructing him to tell the Israelites that “I am that I am”(3:14).  To me, this is God’s profound “unmoved mover” philosophical name.  All existence flows from and rests in Him.  In God, creation both comes into being and is sustained in being.  God wills the universe and everything and everyone that is in it. I like knowing that God thinks of me at every moment—and has since the beginning of time.  We can all rest in that knowing.  Our Lord loves to think on us and from that, we draw our very lives.
The Second Person of the Holy Trinity is the Word of God, Jesus (John, Chapter One).  Jesus means “God saves” and is the name the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary (Luke 1:31).  Jesus is both Who God is and what God does.  He saves.  Whom does He save?  “…all who call on the name of Jesus (Romans 10:13).  The name of Jesus is the name of salvation.  St. Paul holds the Holy Name of Jesus to be above all other names as he writes in Philippians (2:10) “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow…”  We Catholics have a beautiful prayer called the “Litany of the Holy Name” which meditates on all the beautiful names and titles given to Christ (“the anointed One”).  Glorious and tender names like “brightness of eternal light,” “meek and humble of heart,” “good Shepherd” and “King of Glory” among many more.  It’s no wonder meditating on the Holy Name of Jesus has been a centuries-old prayer tradition in the Church.  In that Name is our life and our hope.  Our redemption.
The name of Jesus that is dearest to my own heart is “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”  A prophetic title first used by Isaiah (7:1-8; 15) it is the name St. Matthew references in his infancy narrative (1:22-23).  God with us.  Jesus is God with us, in us, living through us.  In the Temple, there was a beautiful seamless curtain which enclosed the Holy of Holies which was, for the Jews, the very presence of God Himself in the Ark of the Covenant.  At the moment of Jesus’ death on the Cross “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Matthew 27:51).  Everything that had separated us from God under the law was made accessible to us through grace, through Jesus.  He opened the way to heaven for us by opening His arms on the Cross.  God with us.  Emmanuel.  In just a few weeks we’ll sing my favorite Advent hymn:  O Come O Come Emmanuel.  Whenever we sing those words it reminds me that He, my Lord and Savior, is with me.  He left heaven to save me and you–to ransom captive Israel, as the hymn says.  To love us and to take us home to Himself.  This year, before we rush headlong from Halloween to Christmas, let’s take some time to think and pray on the meaning of the “holy days” and the Holy Name of our Lord.  Emmanuel.  Good Shepherd. Brightness of Eternal Light.  King of Glory.  Jesus, the Christ!
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
          ——O Come O Come Emmanuel, author unknown, 12th century

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