The Deepest Mystery

As a psychology major in college, my understanding of biology and chemistry was (and is) tenuous at best. I remember the day we were reviewing the research that had led to our model of DNA, the so-called “building blocks of life.” We stood around the double-helix model as our professor detailed the way that DNA works. To me, it was a pure miracle. I wanted to shout, “Here is the proof for our Creator God!” Surely, only God could have made the world work in this delicate, precise way. After all these years, I might understand DNA just a tiny bit better, but it will always be a miracle to me.  

There are countless profound miracles all around us every single day. They exist whether we realize them or acknowledge them as miracles. Sometimes we mistakenly believe that the world revolves around us. But it’s we who revolve around the miracles. A sunrise. A butterfly’s wing. The curve of a baby’s cheek. In all our human endeavors, we can’t duplicate any of these miracles. Because at the heart of creation is something even more unknowable. The mystery of God Himself. The Creator of the universe, Who lived and died as one of us, His creatures. But why?

Why would an omnipotent, all-knowing God leave heaven to live as a man? And not as a rich and powerful man, born into the privilege of an easy, modern life of wealth and power, but born in an animal’s feed trough, in a poor, occupied outpost of the Roman Empire. He was a Jew in a land where Jews were the problem. And He was even a problem for His fellow Jews, especially for the king who viewed this baby as a threat to his kingship. So, to escape being killed, St. Joseph was forced to take Jesus and the Blessed Mother out of the country until things quietened down. Why would God choose such a humble and fearful childhood for His Son?

The only answer is love. You see, our God is not like any other god. No other religion describes a god who loves his children so much that he suffers for them, in their place. In fact, most gods are known for their fickle cruelty, quick tempers and easily-offended sensibilities. They spend a lot of their time watching their subjects from afar so they can be ready to punish or strike them dead when they mess up. But the God of Abraham is not like those gods. To begin with, our God created the minds that imagined those lesser gods. He made the universe and all that is in it, but He didn’t create us and then walk away to watch us from some far-flung Olympus. In fact, His very thoughts are what keep the universe in existence. That’s love. When you realize that the God of creation is thinking of you at every moment (and yes, even at your very worst moments) you begin to know the immense love that flows from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

That relationship of the three Persons is Love itself. It creates and affirms, sacrifices and upholds. It is Love that made us and Love that sustains our existence–and the birds and the flowers and the DNA that unfolds into every living thing. The Love of God holds the universe in place and the stars in their courses.

And because of Love, the deepest mystery of all was presented to a little Jewish girl one day two thousand years ago. Not by force, but by invitation, almighty God looked to the Virgin Mary to bear His Son. She could have declined that invitation. But she was “full of grace”(Luke 1:28) and her heart embraced the mystery of bringing our salvation into the world. Her “yes” is our great model of how to follow the Lord. When God invites you, say “yes.” It won’t be easy, and there will be pain, even pain unto death on a Cross, but with God, death is only the beginning and never the final word.  

So now, as we enter into another Advent, we find our hearts drawn once again to that little family in Bethlehem. We pray to be like them, to gather in the hope of the Lord’s invitation to love and to be loved, to allow the mystery of His will to unfold in our lives. We light candles against the dark night and sing old familiar hymns about angels and wise men and babes in a manger. We are grateful to be held in the palm of His hand, loved beyond our knowing, treasured and adopted children of the King of Kings.  

“God has stepped into our world to dig us out of every prison we disguised as snug burrows and cozy hobbit holes.”


The Waiting Season

“Well,” said Pooh,”what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” –A.A. Milne

I would have told Pooh that these weeks before Christmas were like that moment before you taste the honey. When I was a child, this was a magic time. There was a flurry of preparation that seemed to transform everyday chores into something special. Everyone was busy with shopping and decorating and school activities. There was an energy that felt electric underlying everything we did. It was happy and fun and full of the anticipation of Christmas. Not being a Catholic family, we didn’t call these weeks “Advent,” but that’s what we were feeling—as if we were holding our breath for the great gift of Christmas. Like Winnie the Pooh, those moments before the big day were as sweet as honey.

These days, in my advancing middle years, Advent is so much more than my childish anticipation of Christmas day. I treasure more dearly the reality and the mystery of the Holy Child born to save us. The sense of sweet anticipation is stronger than ever for me. There’s still so much to be done, but now my “doing” involves more prayer and service and less shopping and decorating. The time spent with loved ones is so much more precious, since many are no longer here with us. And, it seems this Advent is calling us beyond the limits of our community and into the world beyond our borders.  

It seems the world itself is anticipating something, too. We’re waiting for the next news report, mostly with dread. Will more innocent blood be spilled? We’re holding our collective breath, hoping and praying for peace, while we’re still in mourning for the latest victims. And into our broken and hurting world, our Savior will once again be born to bring us hope. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great Light”(Isaiah 9:2). Are there any more beautiful words in all of Sacred Scripture?  

You see sometimes I think we forget that the Light has always come into a world darkened by sin. It’s our faith that allows us to bear that Light to others. We step out beyond our fears and see the needs of our neighbors, illuminated for us by the light of Christ. That light allows us to love the unloveable and to forgive the unforgivable. Whenever it seems the darkness is winning, the Star reminds us that there is more to this life than struggle and heartache, than war and loss and fear. Christ comes to bring us a way out of all that binds us to sin. In Him, we find our purpose and the answer to all our questions. In a world torn by terror and war, His Light shows us the way.

He first came into a land of occupation and repression, filled with poverty, torn by war. And He’ll come again into our own world, so much the same as that first time. He didn’t wait until everything was perfect and everyone got along before He was born. He came into our mess, into our sin and anguish. And just like Him, we can’t wait until someone else fixes everything before we love and comfort and heal the wounded among us. We have to be like Jesus and love now, today, this person, this family, this brother and sister right in front of us. The real anticipation we feel in the weeks leading up to Christmas isn’t about the presents we’ll receive but in the joy of giving ourselves away. Advent calls us to love as Jesus loves, and catch the world unawares.

“We cannot wait til the world is sane,

To raise our songs with joyful voice,

For to share our grief, to touch our pain,

He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

        —-Madeline L’Engle 

A Stain Like Rust On Our Hearts

We watched it all unfold on television. Again. Another terrorist attack on hundreds of innocent people, just going about their lives. This time it was in Paris. Like it was last January when the Charlie Hebdo office was hit. But we’ve seen this before. Of course, in New York, but also in London and Madrid, in Sweden and Jerusalem and so many other places. We’ve seen the videos of men dressed in black with their victims on their knees, about to be martyred. We saw even worse happen to our ambassador at the raid in Benghazi. In Paris, it happened at a concert hall filled with young people, in cafes, and at a packed soccer stadium with the President of France in the stands. ISIS has claimed responsibility and they’ve reportedly said their reason was because France “carries the banner of the Cross in Europe.” They’ve said they’re coming to London, and Munich, and Rome, and Moscow. And Washington, D.C. And I believe them.

It seems we’re on a collision course with Islamic terrorism. When we see so many innocent victims slaughtered and raped and tortured, we get angry. How many more of these attacks do we have to endure? Are we going to stand by wringing our hands until those men dressed in black show up on our own front doors? In America? Isn’t it time we took this war to them? After all, we’ve fought Muslim armies before, and on their own turf. Remember the Crusades? And the Ottoman Empire?

How did those wars work out for the Christian West? Temporary victories in many cases. We see the shape the Middle East is in today. And the decline of the Ottoman Empire was a long, slow, ethnic slaughter that devolved into World War I. A war today would guarantee an extraordinary loss of life on both sides. So what do we do? As Christians, what can we do to defeat ISIS?

As individuals, we pray. We pray for peace and conversion. We pray for our political leaders, that they’ll protect us and keep our country safe. As a Church, we continue to preach the Gospel and show love and mercy to the least of our brothers. We continue to send out missionaries who are called to be Christ to anyone who needs to hear it. Including ISIS. Europe and the Americas were made Christian by the examples of our missionaries (sorry, Conquistadors).  

Does being a follower of Christ mean that we never take up arms to defend innocent life? No. For thousands of years, the Church has understood and taught that there are legitimate reasons to fight. This is called the “just war doctrine.” I’m no theologian, but I understand it like this: Violence should never be the first option. War must be carried out by the legitimate civil authority which seeks the common good. War must be in self-defense and to stop further violence. It must carry a reasonable possibility of success. The terms of war must be proportional to the threat. The people must support the action. War can’t target innocents or kill hostages. War is the last resort, when all efforts at dialogue and negotiation has failed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church details this teaching in paragraph 2509. No matter how you define it, one of my all-time least-favorite people got it right when General Sherman said: “War is hell.”

So here is where we find ourselves. Watching a growing, concerted and effective terrorist army declare war on the West, and on Christians in particular. Innocent people, including babies, are being murdered every day in many countries. Hundreds of thousands are fleeing the very parts of the world where ISIS is coming to power and they want to be our neighbors. Can we let them in, and still be safe? Can we turn them away and still be Christian? Is a war our next step to stop the terrorists who have declared that we are in their crosshairs? We’re less than a year away from electing our next President in what will be an historic election for our country. And every day we hear the call of Christ in our hearts: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”(Matthew 5:9). I don’t have the answers. I just know that we have to protect the innocent without forgetting the Gospel. And we’re running out of time, standing in a river of blood, praying for peace.  

“The purpose of all wars is peace.”

              —St. Augustine 

I’m No Theologian¬†

Let me begin by saying this: I’m not a theologian. While I did attend two Catholic universities and graduate schools, I don’t have a degree in theology. And while I completed more than just the basic requirements in theology and philosophy, still, I’m no theologian. I’ve taught RCIA at my parish and written a weekly column on the Catholic faith in my local newspaper for almost ten years—But I’m no theologian. So while I may be only a well-informed amateur, I have the cheek to write about Catholicism and even to teach others about it. Why? Because I love my faith and I trust in the Church that Jesus Christ left for us. I’ll bet I’m not alone. I’ll bet there are a lot of faithful Catholics out there who aren’t theologians.  

Recently, the Catholic Church completed a meeting of bishops in Rome in which various topics regarding the practice of our faith were discussed. Lots of people, both inside and outside of the Synod, have spent energy promoting their own opinion about what might or might not have happened there. Pope Francis will have the final word on all of it and so far, he’s not released his report. So, I’ll go first. Despite the fact that I’m certainly no theologian.  

Marriage, divorce, and who can receive Holy Communion were some of the issues the bishops were said to have discussed. We know what Jesus believes about these topics because He has told us. He’s pretty clear, even if you’re like me and you’re not a theologian. When He spoke of marriage, He said: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”(Matthew 19:4-5). Marriage, then, is between one man and one woman. Not two men or two women or two men and one woman or one man and five women. It’s not a civil union, it’s a sacrament that is so transformative that the man and the woman become “one flesh.” It’s a mystery. But it’s also quite simple: marriage is between one man and one woman.  

As for divorce, Jesus taught us that: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her…”(Mark 10:11-12). So, if someone has entered into a sacramental marriage (see above) and then divorces and remarries, that person commits a grave sin. Divorce, in itself, may not be sinful, so many divorced persons can remain in a state of grace. However, divorce and remarriage is a serious sin. This seems simple to understand, even if you’re not a theologian.  

Following on that, the reception of Holy Communion by someone who is divorced and has remarried would seem to be an example of what St. Paul refers to as doing so “unworthily”(I Cor 11:27). As Canon Law clarifies: “A person who is conscious of a grave sin is not to receive the Body of the Lord without prior Sacramental Confession…”(Code of Canon Law, 1983). I suppose this is too complex for a non-theologian like me to understand. Maybe it’s why I see these issues as settled. Simple.  

There was another time when the followers of Jesus puzzled over very simple teachings that He shared with them. After hearing our Savior describe Himself as the Bread of Life on many occasions, they continued to shake their heads and scoff. When He told them that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life, they mumbled among themselves. Many of them just could not grasp that He really meant for our communion to be His Body and Blood. “As a result of this, many [of] His disciples returned to their former life and no longer accompanied Him”(John 6:66).

Maybe the teachings of the Church on marriage, divorce, and holy communion seem simple to me precisely because I’m not a theologian. Maybe my faith is less complicated and intellectual than the faith they teach at some universities. I’d be surprised if that wasn’t true. I guess I identify with St. Therese of Lisieux. My “little way” tells me to trust in the words of Jesus and to put my faith in the Church which He gave us.  

…Master, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.” 

           —John 6:6-68

Our Redeemed World

Now that November is here, I suppose we’ve entered into the holiday season, at least as far as the big box retail stores are concerned. Culture affects and influences the way we celebrate the holy days of our faith, especially Christmas and Easter. Why else would we cut down a tree and bring it inside our home each year? Surely this isn’t Biblical. Many well-meaning Christians protest that our faith has incorporated too many pagan influences. They point out that Jesus wasn’t born in December and that Easter Eggs are pagan fertility symbols and that Halloween was originally a celebration of native Celtic beliefs. And they’re probably right. But does that make Christmas or Easter or Halloween any less Christian? Absolutely not.  

You see, we live in a world that has been redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus. Whatever makes up our broken world and all of us who live in it, is infused with the grace of God. Surely sin and darkness still exist. Death and suffering is all around us. But the Cross has brought Light to a world of dark and pagan creeds. Through the Cross, we have hope. And hope changes everything. All those old pagan myths and Celtic celebrations were our ancestors’ attempts to understand and make sense of a world that was often harsh and cruel. It was their way of seeking God. They found His goodness in the sun and moon and earth, in the animals of the forest and the sky, in the springs that bubbled forth. We do the same thing today, only we worship the Creator and not the world He made for us.  

It’s a mistake to classify myth or stories or nature religions as rubbish. Everything that speaks of a god is seeking the true God. The matter of the world, down to its very atoms, pulses with the grace of Calvary. Jesus loved creation enough to enter into it and live as a man. He loved eating and drinking and the beauty of the mountains and the desert. He used spit and mud, water and wine, fish and bread, to make miracles. He embraced our broken world and His saving grace is in every breath that we take. He loved our world so much that He died to redeem it, on a tree that He created, at the hands of men He knitted together in the womb.  

The Catholic Church understands this well. Over the centuries, it has condemned heresies which would have denied Christ’s humanity or attempted to portray matter as evil. Life in Christ isn’t an intellectual pursuit. It involves all of what He made. It’s engaging creation in service to one another and in glory to our Lord and Savior. It’s why we build beautiful churches and fill them with amazing art and breathtaking music. We know that beautiful things point us to the Source of all beauty. It’s why we love the beautiful things of the world. Like a glass of good wine or a hearty meal, as our Savior enjoyed. And it’s why celebrating Christmas at the winter solstice is a good thing. By claiming what was pagan, we proclaim: “We know what you were looking for in worshipping the sun—because we know the One Who made it.” It’s the same with Easter eggs proclaiming new life and a green tree filled with twinkling lights that remind us of the Light of Christ and our new life in Him.  

Everything is redeemed by Christ. Creation is a gift to us, given by God as a foretaste of heaven. So hang those lights on your tree. Drape the garland and stand under the mistletoe. Give thanks that spring will come again and we can dye those eggs in celebration. All of this and more might have pagan roots, but guess what—you and I have pagan roots, too. Our redemption began at baptism, and just like God has made the world a new creation in Him, He’s doing that with you and me, too, And there’s joy in that journey which draws other to the Light and Love of Jesus Christ.  

“God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.”

      ——Genesis 1:31