Thursday, February 6, 2014

An End and A Beginning

I have enjoyed my experience of sharing some of my personal thoughts and what inspires me in my life. I really have only scratched the surface; however, this will be my last entry for this blog.
I very much appreciate those who took an interest in this blog. This is the 96th entry (!) and I now want to turn to sharing some teaching on-line in a new blog. I always stray into teaching anyway even in this "personal blog" because I so love sharing the Catholic Faith. In order to have a weekly teaching on my webpage, I cannot also continue this blog due to limited time.
I have labeled my entries for this blog as you can see on the left side of this page. This way, visitors might still want to read some of the entries of the past and find useful information here.
My new blog "Teachings by Fr. John" can be accessed on my webpage "Meet Fr. John" at the parish website or at this address HERE  First entry by February 14. The new blog is subtitled: "Teachings on the Catholic Faith and Culture for every Friday of the week"
I hope you’ll continue with my new blog!
Meanwhile, I close this blog with an "Amen" from Handel’s "Judas Maccabeus" HERE.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

More on the Light of Christ

This Sunday is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. It is not always celebrated on Sunday, but this year February 2, the day of the Feast, falls on Sunday.
In former days, sometimes the Feast of the Presentation was considered the last day of the Christmas Season (imagine Christmas for 40 days!) In Rome, the large Christmas Nativity Scene in St. Peter’s Square is removed after the Feast of the Presentation, perhaps a vestige of the older practice of a longer Christmas Season.
I remember when I first began to pray the Rosary (remember not until I became Catholic in College), I would reflect upon the 4th Joyful Mystery which is this Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple. I would think about the joy of Simeon the Priest offering Jesus to the Lord and the joy we have now when at Mass the Priest offers Jesus’ One Sacrifice to God for our salvation.
As I was reading the Gospel again for this Feast in preparation for this Sunday, I suddenly realized that nowhere does the Gospel of Luke say that Simeon was a priest in the Temple. Doing a little reseasch, a typical commentary states: "It is possible that Simeon was a Levitical priest, and it was to him that Mary gave the.... redemption offering, and who then pronounced the blessing upon Jesus that Luke records here."
It is not Simeon’s priesthood or not that is important to the Church on this Feast day, but rather the priesthood of Jesus, for the Second Reading from the Book of Hebrews says; "He had to become like his brothers in every way [except sin], that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest before God to expiate the sins of the people." (Hebrews 2:17).
I can relate to that. Every experience I have ever had, especially every problem and suffering, has only made me more in touch with the problems and sufferings of others. My family has also had a great many problems over the years. I think sometimes people think only very holy and "problem free" families produce priests. Not in my experience!
This Sunday’s Gospel also stirs my fascination with ‘sacred geography" (The Presentation takes place in Jerusalem and we could think about what Jerusalem represents; see what I wrote about this HERE) and my interest with architecture (the Presentation takes place in the Jewish Temple and we could think about what the Temple represents).
But this is a Festival of Light. The hymn of Simeon is recited or sung at every Compline (Night Prayer):
"Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen
the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen."   (See Luke 2:29-32)
What got associated with this Feast most was the theme of light. It is Christ Jesus who is brought to the Temple, the Son of God made flesh, the Son of God who is "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God." (From the Nicene Creed)
On this Feast in the fifth century there were processions with lighted lamps to honor Christ our Light. Then later in time, the candles used in the Church’s worship were blessed on this day and the Feast got the name Candlemas. I am inspired also by this blessing which may be given--not just over candles, but over us--on the Presentation Feast:
Almighty and everlasting God:
On this day your only-begotten Son was presented in the Temple
to be received into the arms of blessed Simeon; we humbly pray you
to bless, hallow, and kindle with the light of your heavenly benediction
these candles which your servants desire to receive and to carry, lighted in honor of your holy Name. By offering them to you, our Lord and God, may we be inflamed with the fire of your love,
and made worthy to be presented in the heavenly temple of your glory;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one, now and for ever. Amen.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bright Darkness

"The People who walked in darkness have seen a great Light." --Isaiah 9:2
Orthodox Church Easter Vigil, Toronto, Canada

Several Staff Members gather with me each week to discuss the Scripture Readings and other aspects of the Sunday Liturgy. This upcoming Sunday has the passage from the prophet Isaiah which proclaims: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." The Sunday Gospel from Matthew quotes Isaiah in regard to Jesus as this Light. (Isaiah 9:2 & Matthew 4:12-16)
I noted that last Sunday, Isaiah was also read and light was mentioned: "I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6b) Also, I noted that next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord where Simeon says of the Child Jesus: "for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel." (Luke 2;30-32) And, interestingly, the Sunday following (on February 9) also mentions light again.
My group had an interesting discussion about the images of darkness and light in the Readings for this Sunday. We tend to think of darkness as negative, a symbol of evil, ignorance, and sin; light is positive, a symbol of good, enlightenment and knowledge, and being Godlike.
But God created the day and the night. Is darkness always negative? Biologically, most humans need darkness in order to sleep and rest. We would not see the stars except at night (and the darker the place one is, the more amazingly lighted up is the night sky by the stars). Our first nine months of life is in a dark, but comforting place: the womb!
Several of my group said that they don’t like when night is falling. I, however, like dusk. When the colors soften and the light begins to dim, it has some kind of comforting effect upon me. I like very much the Evening Hymn "Day is Done":
"Day is done, but love unfailing
dwells ever here.                   
Shadows fall, but hope, prevailing,
calms every fear.
Loving Father, none forsaking,
take our hearts of Love's own making
Watch our sleeping, guard our waking,
be always near."
(Listen to the Hymn HERE )
As I later privately reflected upon the darkness and light symbolism, which I am sharing about now, I remembered an interesting thing I read many years ago and had to research again to refresh my memories: it is the concept of "bright darkness" in Christian mysticism.
I had been reading the fascinating account written by a 12 century Benedictine monk, Abbot Suger, who renovated the French Royal Chapel of St. Denis in Paris and is credited with beginning the Gothic style of churches in the Middle Ages. Suger is also credited with using more stained glass in a church building than previously, especially cobalt blue. This wasn’t just because of aesthetic reasons; and curiously, blue had very little religious symbolism before Abbot Suger. However, light shining through the dark blue was a perfect physical manifestation of the mystical theology of a Christian write now called Pseudo-Dionysius: It created a vision of "bright darkness."   For example, Pseudo-Dionysius wrote "Let us enter into the divine darkness – the light so bright it cannot be seen – and lose ourselves in the presence of God "
Tim Blanning in a Book Review published in the Times Literary Supplement (21 September 2011) notes:
"Christian disapproval of the night is as old as the New Testament. Unsurprisingly, St Paul’s epistles equate darkness with evil, as does John’s Gospel – ‘I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness’. However, there was another albeit less obtrusive theological tradition advocating a path leading to God that was not brilliantly lit. Especially influential was Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the fifth-century Syrian thinker, who proclaimed: ‘I pray we could come to this darkness so far above light!’. Those words are taken from his treatise The Mystical Theology and in the early modern period, too, it was the mystics who valued darkness. To the fore were two sixteenth-century saints – Teresa of Avila (1515–82) and John of the Cross (1542–91). In his poem ‘Dark Night’, John praised his subject in language eerily anticipating the second act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: ‘Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!’."
This "bright darkness" in Christian mysticism cautions against trying to explain everything in the "light" of rational thought only. The period of history we tellingly call the "Enlightenment" (17th & 18th centuries) tried to do just that, and God and religion hardly had anything praiseworthy in the "light" of such rationalism. The Middle Ages got called the "Dark Ages." Reason was deified by the French Revolution. The Catholic Church was particularly seen as "benighted."
But God cannot be limited by our limited human understanding, as wonderful as reason can be. There must be room for mystery and the paradoxes of "bright darkness" and knowing God also through unknowing (sic). The early Church called baptism "enlightenment" and also as "initiation into the mysteries." Sometimes night and darkness are indeed at the service of God. Witness the Exultet, sung at the Easter Vigil, when the Church is in darkness and the Paschal Candle is brought in and our congregational candles are lighted; then is sung in part: "This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness!"
A Church in Pittsburgh
This photo from a church in Pittsburgh captues what the Gothic Church renovatators like Abbot Suger were trying to capture: a certain darkness illuminated at the same time. Most Gothic Cathedrals are dark, or would be so now without modern lighting, and yet there was a soft glow of light from the stained glass. 
Here is a photo of the night sky illuminated with stars. It, too, is a "bright darkness." 
Abbot Suger's Church of St. Denis, though much has been added since the 12 century. The bootom rows of windows behind the altar was considered revolutionary in his day.
One of Abbot Suger's original windows. Note the cobalt blue, considered a dark color in his time. Many of the stained glass windows at St. Denis were destroyed in the "Enlightment" French Revolution. The windows were later replaced.
"Let us enter into the divine darkness – the light so bright it cannot be seen – and lose ourselves in the presence of God "

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jesus Coming to US

This Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:29-14) has a detail that I have not appreciated in past readings of this passage; it is: "John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him..." (Verse 29a)
So often I focus on my coming to Jesus, my taking time to come to him in prayer and spiritual reading and in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist. But really he is first coming to me (and all of us). This is the message of Christmas which we just celebrated:
"And the Word [the Son of God] became flesh and dwelt among us." (John :14a)
"And they shall call him ‘Emmanuel,’ meaning God with us." (Matthew 1:23)
We think of ourselves seeking Jesus; but he has first sought us.
We are called to give ourselves to him; but he has first given himself to us.
We are called to love him; but he has first loved us.
What I want to learn to do more is recognize Jesus when he is coming to me!
C. S. Lewis wrote:
"When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others—not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one."
I suppose the question is, "How can we clean up the mirror of our soul?" And John the Baptist says: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29b)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

About an Old "College Friend"

I came across the above quote and picture of J.R.R. Tolkien. It seems a good conclusion to the Christmas Season, since Christmas for me is marked by "food and cheer and song.".
"John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was a major scholar of the English language, specializing in Old and Middle English. Twice Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford, he also wrote a number of stories, including most famously The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), which are set in a pre-historic era in an invented version of the world which he called by the Middle English name of Middle-earth. This was peopled by Men (and women), Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, Orcs (or Goblins) and of course Hobbits."  (
I was first introduced to Tolkien in my University years. Today his popularity has grown again through the movies of his writings. I first read his epic high fantasy work, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy in those days (and in those days of the late 70's/early '80's there was a wine and cheese café called "Bilbo and Gandalf’s." I had a number of pleasant evenings there with friends). I lived with Catholic College students at the time and my social life was surrounded by committed Catholic peers. In the house I lived in a few blocks from St. Augustine Church and the University, there was no TV. Thank God! I had fun with my roommates and the Catholic circle, and I got to read works like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
From the first page of the Trilogy I was hooked. One of my professors, Dr. Corbin Carnell taught a course that dealt with media and imagination. He advised us that we needed to regularly rejuvenate our lives with good resources for the imagination. The Trilogy was that for me and its themes of good versus evil and the triumph of good after much struggle inspired my "religious imagination." (For more on the role of imagination in faith see entries for July 5, 2012 HERE and July 12, 2012 HERE)
Tolkien was Catholic and was a friend of C.S. Lewis and was partially responsible for Lewis’s conversion from atheism to Christianity (Lewis didn’t become Catholic but joined the Church of England). Tolkien was influenced by his Catholicism in the writing of the Trilogy.
"Tolkien acknowledged this himself:
‘The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’
Here is another quote from Tolkien that fits the end of a Season of feasts:
"Well, you can go on looking forward," said Gandalf. "There may be many unexpected feasts ahead of you." (The Fellowship of the Ring)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Hidden Life of Jesus

Over the years I have reflected upon the first 30 years of the life of Jesus lived in Nazareth. These years are typically called "the Hidden Years at Nazareth." I am reminded every year of these Hidden Years by the Feast of the Holy Family (this past Sunday) in the Christmas Season.
The time of Jesus’s childhood and youth in Nazareth is called "hidden" because we have no information about these years. What marks these years at Nazareth is how ordinary the life of Jesus was before his baptism at age 30 and the beginning of his public ministry from that time.
Young Jesus in the Carpenter's Shop
He was referred to as a carpenter’s son and a carpenter himself and we assume he worked a carpenter’s job with Joseph. He would have lived by manual labor; he would have worked every day except the Sabbath when he attended the synagogue; we are told he could read, which is not something one could assume in his economic class; he would have celebrated the religious festivals and events of Jewish life–such as weddings, funerals and the Jewish holidays (his family traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover each year (see Luke 2:41); and he would have shared family meals and life in the simplicity of Nazareth, which was such a backwater town that there was a saying; "Can any good come out of Nazareth?" (See John 1:46. Nazareth may have had less than 500 residents at the time of Jesus; today it has a population of 210,000)

Artist Rendition of 1st Century Narareth by Wm. Holman Hunt 1827-1910
The birth of Jesus is recorded by Matthew and Luke as anything but ordinary; but then, when the family located to Nazareth, we are told nothing more about Jesus, except for one story (Luke 2:41-52), until he begins his public ministry. In those Hidden Years he presumably did not teach anything. He performed no miracles. He didn’t seem to stand out in anyway. We can be fairly certain of this because when he did begin to teach and perform miracles, his own family and townspeople were surprised. They thought they knew him, that he was a carpenter’s son only, and yet now he does things he apparently never did before. (See Mark 6:1-3 HERE)
In that one story of childhood (besides the infancy narratives) found in the Gospel of Luke (2:41-52), the twelve year old Jesus shows awareness that God is his Father; but he returns with his parents to Nazareth and Luke 2:52 simply says "And Jesus grew in wisdom and age and grace with God and men."
I derive encouragement from these Hidden Years of Jesus. It tells me that our ordinary lives, our ordinary work and family life, our lack of doing anything particularly extraordinary, is also a sharing in the life of Christ. I am not condoning under-performing or not seeking excellence when achievable; but most of our lives are ordinary and also grace-filled, as were those first 30 years of Jesus’ life. Prior to the extraordinary aspects of the life of Jesus foreshadowed by his conception and birth, the ordinary days of Jesus were how he grew in grace for 30 years.
I think of my life and ministry. A typical day for me is performing the ordinary tasks of my priesthood. For example, I celebrated an early Mass today, prayed, worked on some parish matters, did a funeral, met with a couple preparing for marriage, met with a family to prepare another funeral, went to visit some parishioners in Nursing Homes, and so the day went. Nothing dramatic, nothing that would be published in the news, but those things were important to the people involved and it is important that I stay close to Christ in order to be grace-filled in his "ordinary" service.
The same for each of us. There is something very rich to be discovered in the Hidden Years at Nazareth.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

ON the Feast of Stephen

When I became a Catholic I no longer held the mainly Protestant view that Christmas is only one day of the year; rather I learned that Christmas is a season that extends from December 25th to Epiphany and beyond to the Solemnity Baptism of the Lord.
(The Christmas Season was originally 12 Days and ended with Epiphany on January 6. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord was added to the Season in 1969 to be celebrated the Sunday after Epiphany. In the United States Epiphany is celebrated on the first Sunday after January 1)
“The Stoning of St. Stephen,” by Pietro da Cortona, C. 1660
So it seemed odd to me at the time that on the second day of the Christmas Season, i.e. on December 26th, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Martyr Stephen. (I wasn’t familiar with the Christmas carol "Good king Wenceslas": "Good King Wenceslas looked out/ On the feast of Stephen...") We are supposed to be celebrating a Christmas Season of joy and yet the second day of this Season is about a martyr’s suffering and death?
A number of years after I became a Catholic and had been ordained a Priest, I began to understand Christmas in a deeper manner than simply the birthday of Jesus in Bethlehem, as important as this is. I began to understand the purpose of this birth much better, though it had always been there in the Angel’s message to the shepherds: "Unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
Thus, the Son of God took flesh and was born of Mary to be our Savior: to grow up and lead us God through his life, and his death on the Cross and his Resurrection to new life. All this is the mystery of God’s love which forgives and converts us from sin’s refusal to love as God loves. One way I heard this described is that the Creche is always in the shadow of the Cross. I would add that the Creche is also illuminated by the Resurrection.
So, the martyrdom of St. Stephen is in imitation of following the suffering and death of Christ. Stephen even says: " "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60. Compare to Jesus’s words on the Cross: "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing") Christ’s death demonstrated the great love of God for us; Stephen’s death demonstrates his love for God.
This puts me in mind of how God’s love is a sacrificial love: it gives to the other and this sometimes includes suffering for the loved on. So this love is what brought the Son of God to us, and this was already being revealed in Bethlehem at his birth.