Catholic by Choice

Catholic by Choice

Catholics, Advent, John the Baptizer and the Way to Happiness and Freedom

John_the_Baptist Icon INSIDE.jpgThis Sunday Catholic Christians we will be introduced to one of the two main personalities of the liturgical season of Advent. John the Baptizer. The other is Mary, the Mother of the Lord. As a Deacon of the Church I will proclaim the Gospel at the Liturgy. Our Gospel text will be taken from Matthew, Chapter 3. Included are these words of the Baptizer, “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Our image of John is as the austere ascetic, the odd fellow who lived in the desert eating a strange diet and thundering to Israel about repentance. We forget the joy that was associated with his birth and the happiness which accompanied his prophetic life and vocation. Because He focused on Jesus, he experienced true freedom and happiness.  He is held out to us as an example in Advent to show us the how we can as well.  John said “yes” – to who he was and who he was called to become. In that he is an example for each one of us to reflect on during this season.

When Our Lady went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth – she carrying the Incarnate Word, Jesus,and Elizabeth carrying John – the Gospel tells us: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said:”Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” And Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” (Luke 1: 41-47)

Living in his mother’s womb, this last Prophet of the Old Testament and First Prophet of the New responded to the arrival of Jesus the Savior with a dance of Joy. St. John records John the Baptizer explaining the reason for his joy, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 1:29 – 30) He was a man of Joy because he was a man of true humility!

John understood that life wasn’t all about him. He emptied himself willingly. His humility opened a space within him for true joy to take root and set him free! John is a sign of contradiction for an age drunk on self worship and lost in narcissistic self absorption. He points to the path of true freedom, living a lifestyle of self emptying.” He must increase and I must decrease”. This is the attitude, the disposition, the way of life which can lead each of us into to true freedom. This is the path to becoming the new creation we are called to become by living “in Christ”. (2 Cor. 5:17)

John is a man to be imitated. We can learn from him how to live our lives as joyful penitents; ever aware of our utter dependency on God’s grace at every moment. It is sin which leads us into slavery and takes away our joy. Only by being freed from its entanglements can we become truly happy and free. (See, Romans 6: 6, 7 and Gal. 5:1)  John points to Jesus in his birth, his life and his martyr’s death.

We do not hear enough of a fundamental truth of the Christian faith; the Lord desires our human flourishing and happiness. He wants us to be free. The Apostle Paul proclaimed to the Galatians “It was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1) The Lord Jesus invites us to choose Him over our own selfish pursuits and to find that happiness and freedom which we desire. In a very real sense, sin fractured our freedom and it is the wood of the Cross which becomes the splint which restores it.

Catholic theology speaks of receiving the “beatific vision” when we finally stand in His presence and enter into the fullness of communion.  The word “beatitude” means happiness! Living in the Lord will make us happy; not only in the life to come, but beginning now. Too often we associate repentance with some kind of wrong- headed self hatred. To the contrary, for those who have been schooled in its lessons like John the Baptizer, the way of voluntary penitence and conversion becomes the path to freedom and happiness.

The Venerable John Paul II wrote frequently about human freedom. In one of his letters of instruction on the Christian family he wrote these insightful words: “History is not simply a fixed progression toward what is better – but rather, an event of freedom. Specifically, it is a struggle between freedoms that are in mutual conflict: a conflict between two loves – the love of God to the point of disregarding self and the love of self to the point of disregarding God (John Paul II, Christian Family in theModern World, n. 6)”

This “conflict between two loves”, this “event of freedom”, is played out on a daily basis for each one of us. The recurring questions of Eden echo in our personal histories. How will we exercise our “freedom”? At which tree will we make “our” choices? Will it be the tree of disobedience, where the first Adam chose against God’s invitation to a communion of love, or the tree on Golgotha’s hill where the second Adam, the Son of God, brought heaven to earth when He stretched out His arms to embrace all men and women, bearing the consequences of all their wrong choices and setting them free from the law of sin and death? (Romans 8:2)

Let me conclude with some words concerning true freedom from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.

“As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach. The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (CCC 1731 – 1733).

The choice for true freedom is ours. It has to be made over and over again. John the Baptizer shows us the way to Happiness and Freedom. Let us follow his example during our Advent of preparation and point the way to others. That Way is Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Why Do Catholics Celebrate Advent? The Call to Begin Again

Advent 3 INSIDE Beliefnet.jpgDuring the Liturgical Season of Advent, we walk through the great events of Christian history so as to inculcate them into our daily lives and offer their promise to the whole world. During Advent we are invited through our liturgical readings and practices, to clear away all that entangles us and open a space in our hearts, our homes, our relationships and our lives, for Love Incarnate to be born again.

For many of our readers in the United States of America, Thanksgiving was a day for family gatherings and for giving thanks. Sometimes, it also becomes a day of stress, as families deal with all the intricacies of those challenging relationships which come with the vocation. After all, marriage and family life is a call to holiness and to be holy is to be like the Lord. Every relationship and every challenge in a relationship is an invitation to learn the way of persevering, patient love.

This kind of love is made manifest in Jesus Christ and we are invited to live in it and reveal it to others. In his masterful hymn of love, the Apostle Paul reminds us all, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Cor. 13: 4-8)

This weekend, the Catholic Church, good mother that she is, focuses the Christian faithful on a beautiful liturgical season which calls us to live in anticipation of a new beginning, a new coming of the Lord. This season of joyful preparation is also a season of great hope. If we fully enter into its celebration, we will be constantly invited through our liturgical readings and practices, to clear away all that entangles us and open a space in our hearts, our homes, our relationships and our lives, for Love Incarnate to be born again. This wonderful liturgical season of the Church Year is called Advent.

The focus in the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church, during this Advent season will be on preparing for the coming(s) of the Lord. One of my favorite readings is taken from an Advent homily given by St. Bernard of Clairveaux. His insight unveils the special truth of this wonderful season of beginning again. He reminds us of all the Lord’s comings. He then situates us where we live our daily lives, on the road of continual conversion, the heart of the Christian vocation:

“We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible while the other two are visible. In the first coming He was seen on earth, dwelling among men; . in the final coming “all flesh will see the salvation of our God and they will look upon Him whom they have pierced”. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In His first coming our Lord came in our flesh and our weakness; in this middle coming He comes in Spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and in majesty. Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last.” (St. Bernard of Clairveaux)

I write on the First Sunday of Advent. Many of the faithful throughout the world, will bring the advent candles out of storage and set it them in a prominent place. Over these special weeks preceding Christmas, families, religious communities and all of the faithful will gather, pray and sing together- inviting the coming of the Lord into our lives, our homes, the Church – and into the world which God still loves so much that He sends His Son, through all who have been Baptized into the Body of Christ. We live in a new missionary age; a culture where the influences of Christian traditions are waning. That is why many are again asking, ‘why do Catholics and other Christians celebrate Advent?’ We need to give them an answer through the witness of our living faith.

The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin words, ad-venio or adventus, which both signify a coming. It is a liturgical season in the Catholic Church that has birthed customs and practices in daily Catholic life meant to be filled with living faith. These customs form a framework, a pattern that moves us forward in the process of continual conversion that is meant to be what the Christian life is all about. We are always invited to begin again. That is the heart of the message which Christians can bring to an age often staggering in the existential sadness which is one of the horrid after effects of the dictatorship of relativism. The Advent candles we will light symbolize Jesus Christ, the True Light of the world. It is He who can dispel the dreariness of an age which has all but lost real hope. The message we are to proclaim during this wonderful season is that Lord is always coming for those who look for Him!

The formal celebration of Advent dates back to the fourth century but the practice of preparing for the coming of theLord by living as though he is always coming goes back to the very beginnings of the Church. Through the history of the Western Church the season of Advent has become a significant part of the pattern of life, faith, culture and worship that is Catholic Christianity. During the weeks which precede the Nativity of the Lord Jesus, (“Christ-Mass”), Christians (Catholics and others) will be invited by the Church to prepare, to “get ready”, to make a place for the Lord in our lives and in our homes, to anticipate His coming(s).

Beginning with the Sunday Vigil Mass, we will sing the ever-familiar hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. That song will become the backdrop of the season, sticking in our minds – both individually and collectively. I know the tune will be hummed incessantly and do what music does when it is repeated, get down deep into our subconscious. It may even become “annoying”- as music also can. However, even that annoyance, gets to the root of Catholic life and faith. It is, as they say in the Internet world, “granular” Christianity, filled with practices that root themselves experientially into your bones. Catholicism is “earthy”, “real”, “incarnational” Christianity for “earthy”, “real” believers who understand that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ has changed everything and everyone. .

Sooner than we can imagine, the “liturgical air” will be filled with the beautiful “O Antiphons”, taken from the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures in the Prophetic and Wisdom Books. They will be sung as a part of the formal “Liturgy of the Hours” beginning seven days before the Vigil of Christmas. These short prayers in the “Liturgy of the Hours”, or Breviary, which all clergy, most religious orders, and an increasing number of lay men and women use as the structure for daily prayer throughout the western Catholic world, are also a part of the treasury of Catholic faith and life. This liturgy forms a foundation for our faith and places us in the heart of a Church that stretches back two thousand years and reaches forward to the final coming of the Lord.

As a Deacon of the Church, I will wear lavender vestments when I serve alongside of the priest at the altar. Lavender is a color that connotes both repentance, and expectation. These two actions and attitudes are the “heart”, the “spirit” of the season. Advent is a time to “get ready” and to build up the hope within our hearts for the promised coming of Jesus Christ! We do so by repenting of our sin and renouncing our wrong choices. We are invited to empty ourselves of the clutter of our daily idolatry and renounce the disordered self love that can squeeze God’s grace out of our lives.It is by His grace that we truly find ourselves, made new again in Jesus Christ!

Catholic Christians repeat together-experientially- through our “liturgy” (which means the “work” of worship), the meaning of the Christian life. We walk through the great events of Christian history so as to inculcate the “mystery” of faith more deeply within our “nitty-gritty” lives in the real world. We build a “way” -a pattern- of daily Christian living with these customs, practices, and celebrations. During Advent, the Church, as a mother, calls us all to get ready, to clean the house, to set special times aside, so that we will be ready for all of His comings!

The Scriptural texts that we will hear at “Mass” (the Divine Liturgy) will be introduce us to great figures, such as John the Baptizer, who embody the call to repentance and “preparing the way” for all who live between the first and the final coming of Jesus. These Old and New Testament passages will be beautifully juxtaposed in every Eucharistic Liturgy and in the “Liturgy of the Hours” in order to point to -and expound upon- all the “comings” that St Bernard so insightfully wrote about. The faithful are invited to experience the extraordinary graces found in the full smorgasbord of sacramental and liturgical services. However, ultimately, it will come down to each person, each family, making the choice to accept the invitation and to prepare for the coming of the Lord.

As I grow older, I love being a Catholic Christian more and more. I remember reading a newspaper article in an airport many years ago in which a priest wrote that Catholicism was “religion for the long haul.” I see the truth of that assertion more as the years seem to fly by. Oh, I know that some other Christians see practices such as Advent as “empty ritual”; and perhaps for some, that is what they have become.

But for me, celebrating Advent, indeed celebrating all the seasons of the Church year, are continual calls back to faith, repentance, conversion and holiness of life, the things that really matter. The ritual of Catholic Christian life provides a form into which the freshness of the Spirit can be poured again and again. I remember an old Pentecostal minister once telling me when I was twenty one years old “Son, we get filled with the Spirit, but then we leak”. So we do. It is time to refill!

The familiar patterns and practices of Catholic faith present an opportunity for shaping family life, customs, and inform a piety that all can help us to assimilate the beauty and truth revealed in the comings of the Lord. They help us to break from the monotony of regular daily life in order to participate in something bigger than ourselves. They connect us to the One who always comes to those who are prepared. They are, as we used to say more often, “occasions of grace.”

As my life goes on I need more than ever to hear the clarion call to “prepare the way for the Lord.” I need these special times of grace. I need these holy seasons. Unlike my youth when I thought I had it all “figured out”, I find something quite different has occurred as my hair has turned white (and sparse) and I continue in my journey of faith. I realize how little I actually do know. and how much more conversion I need to get ready for that coming when I will pass from one life to the next.

The liturgical seasons of the Catholic Church are an extraordinary gift and opportunity. After all, human beings are going to mark time. We will mark it either with the ordinary stuff of ordinary life or we will fill it as well with the things of God, thereby transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Why do we celebrate Advent? Because we need it.

Bring on the candles, the songs, the colors, and the seasons. Bring on the special liturgical times, and fill the air with all the special smells.. I love it all. Advent is a road, a way of living the Christian life and vocation, in the here and now, which enters into the eternal mysteries. We now live in that intermediate time between the first and the second comings of Jesus Christ. We are to be changed by the first and called to prepare ourselves- and the world in which we live- for the second. During this process of conversion – He continues to come to all those who make themselves ready. Happy Advent, Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Happy Thanksgiving: We Pause to Give Thanks and We are Called to Love

Thanksgiving 1 2010 BELIEFNET.jpgI write from a breathtakingly beautiful part of the United States of America, a little town called Snoqualmie Pass, located in the State of Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. My wife and I received a gift this year from our oldest son and his wonderful wife, our daughter in law. It was somewhat hard to receive at first. This is the first time in 34 years of marriage, and the raising of five children and six grandchildren, that we have not hosted the traditional Thanksgiving Feast in our own home.

They paid for our plane tickets to come and spend this Holiday with their family. They want us to be with them and delight in their beautiful children- two of our six grandchildren. They did so because they love us. That is what happens with love, you just want to give it away. We are seldom able to be with them due to geographical separation, but on this Thanksgiving, we have received their family as a gift and a reminder of what life is really all about, loving and being loved.

Surrounding me as I write is the utter grandeur of Washington’s snow capped mountains. Frankly, the beauty has enhanced my prayer and drawn me to my knees from the moment we arrived.How can anyone look at a mountain range and not worship? Only the Divine Artist could paint such a landscape and give it to us to receive. Beauty is a path to Beauty.

On the ground is something we rarely see in Southeastern Virginia, a pristine blanket of snow. It reminds me of the beautiful line from the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah, “Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.” (Is. 1:18) This is the greatest of gifts, freedom from the wounds and impediments caused by our own sins; freedom to become the men and women the Lord wants us to become and to find the fullness of joy that comes from living in Him.

My oldest son and I just returned from shopping for the turkey – which my wife, best friend, best mother and greatest grandmother in the world will soon cook. As we shopped, I was impressed with the special and spiritual nature of this “secular” Holiday in the United States. In a Nation which embraces so many different cultures and religious traditions,

Thanksgiving brings us all together. It seems to bind us together as Americans in a special way, as we respond to its invitation to give Thanks. One person after another greeted us at the grocery store with the salutation “Have a Happy Thanksgiving.” The United States of America is not unique in this. Other Nations certainly pause to give thanks.

However, even in the midst of the struggles we have faced in the United States, we really do need to stop and give thanks! We are a truly blessed people. 

This is the first time in 34 years we have not hosted of this celebration. I am having quite a response emotionally, thinking about all of our children, grandchildren and all of these years.  I suppose I am just feeling a bit sentimental. It is a prerogative of aging, so bear with me. When we strip away everything, it really just comes down to love.

Chiara Lubich was the beloved foundress of the Focolare movement, one of a growing number of ecclesial movements flourishing within the Catholic Church. The modern Pope’s have called these predominantly lay movements the “finger of God” for this new missionary age. They are what the late Servant of God John Paul II and his successor Benedict has call the “signs of a springtime of world missions.”

Chiara was born on January 22, 1920 and went home to the Lord on March 14, 2008. Those who knew her say that she lived her life animated by love and in a constant attitude of thanksgiving. Inspired by her heroic virtue, men and women were drawn closer to Jesus Christ and, in Him, into a deep relationship with one another to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus. This movement spread to more than 180 countries and had 140,000 members and 2.1 million affiliates at the time of her death. She was 88 years young, still in love with Jesus and filled with joy.

It was Chiara’s intimate relationship with the Lord which gave her the grace to love as He loves. It was also the source of her continual gratitude. It can be just that way with each one of us. That is really what this Holiday invites us to consider. A readiness to give thanks in all circumstances – and for everything and everyone – is a sign of holiness in the lives of so many of the great saints and heroes of the Christian tradition.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I wanted to share a few of Chiara’s words as a gift for our readers:

“Yes, love makes us be. We exist because we love. If we don’t love, and every time we don’t love, we are not, we do not exist. There’s nothing left to do but to love, without holding back. Only in this way will God give himself to us and with him will come the fullness of his gifts.

“Let us give concretely to those around us, knowing that by giving to them we are giving to God. Let’s give always; let’s give a smile, let’s offer understanding, and forgiveness. Let’s listen, let’s share our knowledge, our availability; let’s give our time, our talents, our ideas, our work; let’s give our experience, our skills; let’s share our goods with others so that we don’t accumulate things and everything circulates.

“Our giving opens the hands of God and He, in his providence, fills us with such an abundance that we can give again, and give more, and then receive again, and in this way we can meet the immense needs of many.”

This beautifully simple yet profound truth was also regularly expressed by the late Servant of God John Paul II. In his 1979 Encyclical Letter “The Redeemer of Man” he put it this way:

“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer “fully reveals man to himself”. If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity. In the mystery of the Redemption man becomes newly “expressed” and, in a way, is newly created.” (Par. 10)

The Feast we celebrate in the “secular” arena today, Thanksgiving Day, reveals that there really is no separation between the secular and the spiritual. After all, God is the Creator of all and the Author of life. He is also the source of all that is good – whether He is acknowledged to be so or not. As the beloved disciple John said “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.” (1 John 1:4-7)

We will love today. We will reach out to one another and to the less fortunate. When we choose to love, we participate in the love of God. This is true even those who do not – yet – acknowledge Him. We will give thanks today, for all the great gifts we have received. As we do, we draw His presence more deeply into our daily life together. Love and gratitude are the keys to unlock the deeper meaning of life and the true goodness of this day.

The smell of turkey will soon fill this home, this domestic church into which our oldest son, his wife and their young family have invited us. It arises from the early preparation of the gravy and dressing. This year, our other grown children will gather without us. However, they will gather as a family, at the home of one of our beautiful daughters, her husband, and three of our other grandchildren. Thanksgiving is a day for family.

She will make the meal, using her mother’s recipes, and adding her own. The table will soon be set for the Feast. And what a wonderful Feast it is – this unique American celebration called Thanksgiving. It is a rather extraordinary tradition. An entire Nation, in the beauty of all of its rich diversity and pluralism, pauses as one – to love and to give thanks for all of our blessings and our bounty.

We gather to express our gratitude for our health, our happiness and our life together. Around tables throughout America, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will gather with mothers and fathers, Grandpas and Grandmas, extended family, neighbors and friends to thank God and one another. And then, we all feast; not only on the food, but even more importantly, on the gift of the love which informs all family relationships and true friendships, the real source of lasting joy.

As Chiara Lubich, John Paul II and now Pope Benedict remind us, we were indeed made for love. It is no accident that the first encyclical letter authored by Benedict XVI is entitled “God is Love.” Love is the very meaning of life and loving is the very essence of what it means to be a human person.

Love will call us to share our stories in countless homes throughout the United States and abroad this Thanksgiving day. Even the times that seemed so painful and difficult when lived in love, take on new beauty. Time has a way of revealing the mysterious plan of a loving God who was at work – not in spite of those problems but through them – drawing us closer to Him, to each other and to what really matters most in life.

On this “secular” holiday, infused as it is with such profoundly religious meaning, Catholic Christians should remember that the Greek word from which we derive the word “Eucharist” is rendered “Thanksgiving” in English.

How appropriate. In that Sacrament of Sacraments, we receive Jesus Christ in His fullness, the greatest gift of the Father. And, we are called to give thanks. In the words of the Apostle Paul to the early Christians we are reminded to “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18) One of the ways Christians do this is to become people who choose to live our lives for others.When we give thanks we learn to love.

Today the Church calls her faithful sons and daughters to give thanks in her Liturgy. St. Teresa was fond of saying “We will not learn how to love if we are not grateful.” The Readings for the Mass for Thanksgiving call us to gratitude. Jesus, in His Sacred humanity shows us how to live a life of gratitude and, through the gift of Himself – makes it all possible.

Pope John Paul II affirmed in a message he gave on July 29, 1987, “In the truest sense we can say that the prayer of the Lord and his entire earthly existence become a revelation of the fundamental truth: Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (James 1:17). Thanksgiving is the source of all blessings from on high. ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God’ is (the) invitation the Church places at the centre of the Eucharistic liturgy.”

Cultivating a disposition of gratitude and a way of living our lives in love for others – such as what was demonstrated in the lives of Chiara Lubich, the Venerable John Paul II and now in the life of Pope Benedict XVI – is the key to living our earthly lives to the full. It also prepares us for eternity. We will be reminded again in the prayer of the priest in the Preface of the Mass for Thanksgiving Day:

“Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks through Jesus Christ our Lord. We offer you, Father, this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the gifts you have granted us. Help us to recognize them as the benefits we have received from you through no merit of our own” (Prayer over the Gifts)

Let us choose to make this prayer our own today. Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers, may it be a day for love and gratitude. No matter how difficult the challenges we face, we have so very much to be grateful for. As we give thanks, we find the strength we need to love even more fully.

As we give thanks, we discover how to be faithful to our call to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ, Love Incarnate, in an age hungering for the fullness of God’s love. Christians are called to take the kernel which lies at the heart of this Holiday and plant it in the field of the world; so that it can bear the fruit which it points toward. We are called to give thanks and we are called to love with the very Love of God in which all human love is revealed and through which all human love is perfected.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Every End is a Beginning. Christ the King, Thanksgiving and Advent

Christ the Ling newest 2010 3 BELIEFNET.jpgThe Catholic liturgical year follows a rhythmic cycle which points us toward beginnings and ends. In doing so, it emphasizes an important truth that can only be grasped through faith. This past Sunday was the Thirty Fourth or last Sunday in the Western Church year and we celebrated the Feast of the Solemnity of Jesus Christ the Sovereign King. This week is the last week of the Church year.

Then, no sooner than we have celebrated the last Sunday of the Year, the feast of Christ the King, we will celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, and begin the time of preparation for the great Feast of the Nativity of Our Savior. Our Catholic faith and its Liturgical practices proclaim to a world hungry for meaning that Jesus Christ is the “Alpha”, (the first letter of the Greek alphabet) and the “Omega” (the last letter), the beginning and the end. He is the Giver, the Governor and the fulfillment of all time. In Him the whole world is being made new and every end is a beginning.

Our Liturgical seasons present a way to receive time as a continual gift and change the way we actually live our daily lives. Our choice to celebrate them helps us to grow in the life of grace as we say “yes” to their invitations. They invite us to walk in a new way of life which becomes infused with supernatural meaning; to enter into the mystery of living in the Church as the New World and thereby become leaven in an age which has lost its soul. Human beings have always marked time by significant events. The real question is not whether we will mark time, but how we will mark time? What events and what messages are we proclaiming in our calendaring? What are we saying with our lives in an age which needs the witness of God’s loving plan?

For the Christian, time is not meant to be a tyrant, ruling over us. Nor is the passing of time to be experienced as an enemy, somehow stealing our youth and opportunity. Rather, time is meant to become a companion, a friend and a teacher, instructing us; offering us a series of invitations to allow the Lord to truly become our King by reigning in our daily lives. Our conscious awareness of time makes it a path along which the redemptive loving plan of a timeless God is revealed and received. In Christ, time is now given back to us as a gift. It offers us a field of choice and a path to holiness and human flourishing.

As we view time with this lens of faith, we discover that life is a pilgrimage to Life. The Lord invites us, beginning now, to participate in His loving plan through His Son Jesus to recreate the entire cosmos. Time becomes the road along which this loving plan of redemption proceeds. Those Baptized in Christ continue His redemptive mission until he returns to establish His Reign. We do this by living in His Body, the Church, and drawing the whole world into the New World beginning now.

The Christian view of time as having a redemptive purpose is why Catholic Christians mark time by the great events of the faith in our Liturgical calendar. Like so much else that is contained within the treasury of Catholic faith and life, the Church, who is an “expert in humanity”, invites us to live the rhythm of the liturgical year in order to walk into the deeper encounter at the heart of Catholic Christian faith. As we learn to “live liturgically”, moving through life in the flow of the liturgical calendar we can find the deeper mystery and meaning of life.

Christians believe in a linear timeline in history. There is a beginning and an end, a fulfillment, which is, in fact, a new beginning. Time is heading somewhere. That is as true of the history of the world as it is our own personal histories. Christians mark time by the great events of the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are always moving forward and toward His loving return.

The Church, to use the beautiful imagery of the early Christian fathers, was birthed from the wounded side of the Savior on the Cross at Calvary’s hill. This new family of the Church was then sent on mission, when, after the Resurrection, Jesus breathed His Spirit into them at Pentecost. In our celebration of a Church Year, we not only remember the great events of the Life, ministry and Mission of the Lord, we also celebrate the life and death of our family members, the Saints, who have gone on before us, in the worlds of the Liturgy, “marked with the sign of redemption.”

They are models and companions for the journey of life and are our great intercessors; that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) whom the author of the letter to the Hebrews extols. This is the heart of understanding the “communion of saints”. As St. Paul reminded the Roman Christians, not even death separates us any longer. (Romans 8:38, 39) They will welcome us into eternity. However, from that eternal now, living in the Communion of love, they now help us along the daily path of time through both their example and their prayer.

As we progress through liturgical time we are invited to enter into the great events of faith. So, on this last week of the year, through our readings and liturgical prayer, we are invited to reflect on the “last things”- death, judgment, heaven and hell. We do so in order to change, to be converted; to enter more fully into the Divine plan. The Western Church year ends. On the Feast of Christ the King we celebrated the full and final triumph and return of the One through whom the entire universe was created – and in whom it is being “recreated” – and by whom it will be completely reconstituted and handed back to the Father at the “end” of all time. That end will mark the beginning of a timeless new heaven and a new earth when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death …” (Revelations 21:4).

As we now move from one Church year to the next, we also move along in the timeline of the human life allotted to each one of us. We age. The certainty of our own death is meant to illuminate our life and the certainty of the end of all time is meant to illuminate its purpose and culmination in Christ. For both to be experienced by faith we must truly believe in Jesus Christ, the beginning and the end. When we do, death can become, as we move closer to it, a second birth. Francis of Assisi prayed these words in his most popular prayer “… it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” He referred to death as a “sister” implying that he had a relationship with it. So too did all the great heroes our Church, the saints. So can we, that is if we choose to walk the way of living faith, immersed in the life of grace.

With a few exceptions, Christians celebrate the death of Saints because death is not an end but the beginning of an eternal life with God. In the final book of the Bible we read: “Here is what sustains the holy ones who keep God’s commandments and their faith in Jesus. I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” said the Spirit, “let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them. Then I looked and there was a white cloud, and sitting on the cloud one who looked like a son of man, with a gold crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. Another angel came out of the temple, crying out in a loud voice to the one sitting on the cloud, “Use your sickle and reap the harvest, for the time to reap has come, because the earth’s harvest is fully ripe. So the one who was sitting on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.” (Revelations 14: 12-15)

As the Apostle John recorded in that Revelation he received on the Island of Patmos, our “use” of time is meant to bear good fruit. We are called to bear a harvest which will accompany us into eternity. It will – if we have an intimate relationship with the One who both gives and governs time. Time is the opportunity for the Christian to bear that “fruit that remains” to which Jesus referred: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another” (St. John 15: 16, 17).

We decide whether we will use time for the bearing of good fruit or allow it to become a tyrant who frightens us as we fruitlessly try to resist his inevitable claim on our perceived youth. This act of choosing rightly, daily, helps us to develop a disposition; a way of living that involves the proper exercise of our human freedom aided by grace. When time is perceived as a gift from God and welcomed as an opportunity for bearing the fruits of love and holiness, we learn to receive it in love and perceive it as a field of choice and an environment for holiness. We choose to fill our lives with love and pour ourselves out for the God of love. When we live this kind of life, Jesus can find a home within us from which He can continue His redemptive mission, in time.

The ancients were fond of a Latin phrase “Carpe Diem”, which literally means “Seize the day.” For we who are living in communion in Christ Jesus, that phrase can take on a whole new meaning. We always journey toward the “Day of the Lord”, when He will return as King. We should seize that day as the reference point for all things on this last week of the year and the Feast of Christ the King. We can live our lives as though His day is the milestone and marker for all that we do, revealing the path along which we become new. Almost two thousand years ago the ancient Greek writer, Seneca, wrote: “It is not that we have so little time, but that we have wasted so much of it” St. Paul wrote to Greek Christians, centuries later in Ephesus: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men (and women) but as wise making the most of the time…” (Ephesians 5: 15ff).

As we consider the timeline of God’s unfolding plan, the redemption of the whole cosmos, the God who gives and governs time, invites us to re-dedicate ourselves to living differently on this great Feast. We are to live as though time really does matter. We are invited by grace to give ourselves away for others; to imitate the One who gave Himself for the entire human race. We are invited to pour ourselves out as Jesus did. If we live life this way, when we face Him on that final day, we will do so with our arms full of gifts borne in time. These gifts will have paved the way for eternity.

That is why I suggest that it is no coincidence that the Feast of Christ the King and the last week of the year pass through the “secular” Feast of Thanksgiving. There is no separation for the believer between the secular and the Sacred. In the great event of the Incarnation and the fullness of the Paschal Mystery, all is made new. We do not bring God into time; He is the Creator of time. In the mystery of the Incarnation, the Eternal Word through whom the universe was created entered into time to re-create it from within! We are invited by grace to come to acknowledge this mystery and then receive his creature time as a gift, a good, to be given back to Him through living our lives in Christ for the sake of the world.

Thanksgiving is a great Feast made even fuller in meaning for the believing and practicing Christian. The word “Eucharist” means Thanksgiving. Let us walk through this last week of the year and join with those whom we love around the table of Thanksgiving, and then let us walk the way of faith into the new Liturgical season, Advent, getting ourselves and the world of our own time ready for the final coming of Christ the King. On this last week of the Church Year, let us remember that every end is a beginning because in Christ the King, Thanksgiving and Advent become a way of life.

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