07 April 2013

I don't know why it has taken me so long to write an Easter post.  Fortunately, it's still Easter Day (at least for the next hour and a half), so we're all good!

The period from the Triduum through Easter Sunday was probably the best in my decade of being Catholic.  I can't really point to a concrete reason why -- Lent felt particularly long this year, and it wasn't because I undertook some crazy fasting regimen or something.  In any event, I was very ready for Easter.

So, I found myself at the Vigil, trying my best not to become excited too early, but knowing that pure joy was right around the corner.

The Easter Vigil (and I mean the full-blown, candles everywhere, deacon-chanted-Exsultet, all-seven-Old-Testament-readings Easter Vigil) is the best.  Seriously.  Find me something better, I dare you.  It has been made even more awesome by the new English translation of the Mass, which has made the text of the Exsultet so much better:

I think I might even prefer this to the Latin now (I am as surprised as you are, believe me).

Having done the Vigil for many years now, I knew that the serene joy that I get by holding a candle lit from the Paschal Candle and listening to the Exsultet is often lost during the next hour sitting in the dark listening to the rather lengthy Old Testament lessons.  I just want to go straight in to the Gloria from the Exsultet! I was determined not to allow myself that letdown this year, so I threw myself (figuratively speaking) into the lessons and the psalms, absorbing all that I could of the wonderful salvation history proclaimed in these parts of Holy Scripture.  I still became somewhat agitated by about the sixth lesson, but my annoyance was short-lived -- we soon began the Gloria and the organ pipes rang out with joy.  Looking back, it does not make much sense that the Gloria should have brought me that much joy -- after all, we had just sung it and used the organ only two days prior on Holy Thursday.  It isn't like we had done without these things for all of Lent.  And yet, it felt as if I was singing the words for the first time in ages.  My eyes brimmed with tears of joy as I exclaimed God's praises.

Easter Sunday was a whirlwind -- going to Mass as a family in the morning and heading off to sing at noon, with as much family time as possible squeezed in for the rest of the day.  Mass on Easter Day brought yet another bit of liturgical awesomeness: the Sequence.

What made this Easter especially awesome for me was the fact that it was the twentieth anniversary of my baptism (Easter Sunday, 1993) and the ten-year anniversary of my reception into the Church (Easter Vigil, 2003).  I had vaguely realized that these anniversaries were happening this year, but it didn't really click until Easter morning -- meaning that I spent Mass on Easter Day with a big smile on my face, as had been the case for most of the Vigil.

After Mass, when almost everyone had left to go spend time with their families, I took a few minutes to kneel in front of the tabernacle and recite the Te Deum in thanksgiving for the gift of faith and the countless other blessings God has bestowed on me.

All in all, it's been a fantastic Octave.  And, we get yet another solemnity tomorrow -- it's the (transferred) Annunciation!  Nine days of solemnities in a row -- that's almost too much joy to handle...almost :-).

31 March 2013

Christos Anesti!

Alithos Anesti!

I have way too many thoughts swimming around in my head right now to form a coherent post, but it boils down to this: best.  Easter.  Ever.  The best possible thing I could have asked for to celebrate my ten year anniversary in the Church.

30 March 2013

Today there is a great silence over the earth...

I first came across the following ancient (ca. 2nd century) homily from Holy Saturday last year.  It remains extremely powerful each time I read it.  Since the text is so powerful, I am posting the whole thing here -- I challenge you to read it without tears of joy coming to your eyes and chills running down your spine.

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled. 
Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam's son. 
The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: "My Lord be with you all." And Christ in reply says to Adam: "And with your spirit." And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: 'Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. 
"I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise. 
"I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person. 
"For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden. 
"Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image. 
"See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one. 
"I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you. 
"But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God. 
"The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages."
This text creates a vivid image in my mind of Christ descending to the righteous dead, who had been waiting millennia for this moment.  Jesus comes to everyone from Adam and Eve to St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph and says "Come with me, you blessed by my Father, and inherit the kingdom created for you from the foundation of the world."

I can only imagine the patriarchs' joy when the long-expected Messiah came to free them from the bondage of death.  Jesus himself told us that Abraham rejoiced to see His coming (I take this to mean that God the Father granted Abraham a vision of Christ's coming into the world) -- how much more joyful Abraham and all of the righteous dead must have been to finally be able to enter into eternal happiness in heaven that Easter morning.

An excellent precursor to tomorrow's Easter joy, no?

29 March 2013

Behold the wood of the Cross...

And we come to it at last: the one day of the year when the Holy Mass is not celebrated anywhere in the world.  And yet this day, on which we remember the most awful event of human history and are filled with utter despair, is called "Good" Friday?

The Baltimore Catechism answers this paradox thusly: "We call that day 'good' on which Christ died because by His death He showed His great love for man, and purchased for him every blessing."

In addition to remembering Christ's wondrous love for us, we also have occasion to remember something else "Good" today: the holy cross.

One of my favorite things about Passiontide is being able to hear the Preface of the Holy Cross (from Passion Sunday through Maundy Thursday), which I think sums up perfectly the awesome power of the cross:
It is truly meet and just, right, and for our salvation, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to Thee, holy Lord, Father almighty, eternal God: Who didst establish the salvation of mankind on the tree of the cross: that whence death rose, thence also life might rise again, and that he who overcame by a tree, by a tree also might be overcome . . . .
The ultimate irony, expressed above, is that Satan was conquered by the same thing by which he originally drew mankind away from God -- and on that day, he may have thought that he had won.  By all appearances, it looked as if evil had triumphed on that "Good" day.  But the Father's plan, ordained from the beginning of time, called for the ancient foe to be vanquished by a tree.

St. Ephrem the Syrian expresses this in one of his homilies on the Crucifixion:

He who was also the carpenter's glorious son set up his cross above death's all consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of mankind, it was upon a tree that mankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.
We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge, by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal man, and made it the source of immortality for every other mortal man.

Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit... Venite, adoremus.

"A new commandment I give you: Love one another"

On a night when we remember the institution of the most wondrous thing ever given to man, it might seem a bit odd for me instead to reflect on the gift of the priesthood, but I have to share some of the homily I heard at Holy Mass this evening.

Father began by pointing out how "This is my body, which is given for you" can be used outside of the realm of the Holy Eucharist -- both of the transformative vocational sacraments, matrimony and holy orders, also contain this complete gift of one's own body.  In matrimony, the gift is truly of one's body to provide the instrument for God to create new life.

He then spent a while explaining how the priesthood is a complete gift of self in service of the people of God, though in a different manner.  Priests cannot do anything for themselves -- they cannot absolve, anoint, or counsel themselves.  As he put it, every priest needs a priest, just as every Christian needs Christ.

Pope Francis touched on the relationship between priest and people in his homily at the Chrism Mass this morning:
People thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes. And when they feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord: “Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem”, “Bless me”, “Pray for me” – these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into prayer. The prayers of the people of God. When we have this relationship with God and with his people, and grace passes through us, then we are priests, mediators between God and men.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI expounded even further on priests' gift of self during his homily for the Chrism Mass in 2012:
“Are you resolved to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to him, denying yourselves and confirming those promises about sacred duties towards Christ’s Church which, prompted by love of him, you willingly and joyfully pledged on the day of your priestly ordination?” After this homily, I shall be addressing that question to each of you here and to myself as well. Two things, above all, are asked of us: there is a need for an interior bond, a configuration to Christ, and at the same time there has to be a transcending of ourselves, a renunciation of what is simply our own, of the much-vaunted self-fulfilment. We need, I need, not to claim my life as my own, but to place it at the disposal of another – of Christ. I should be asking not what I stand to gain, but what I can give for him and so for others. 
. . .  
We are concerned with the salvation of men and women in body and soul. And as priests of Jesus Christ we carry out our task with enthusiasm. No one should ever have the impression that we work conscientiously when on duty, but before and after hours we belong only to ourselves. A priest never belongs to himself. People must sense our zeal, through which we bear credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us ask the Lord to fill us with joy in his message, so that we may serve his truth and his love with joyful zeal.
On a personal note, it was a great joy for me to be present at my own diocese's Chrism Mass this morning and to see almost all of our priests renew their priestly vows to the bishop, and, by extension, to all of the people of the diocese.  May we lay Catholics always pray for our priests to Jesus, the great High Priest, and ask Him to keep all of His priests close to His heart.

27 March 2013

"And he, from that time onwards, looked about for an opportunity to betray him"

Today, the Church celebrates Spy Wednesday, so named because this is traditionally the day when Judas betrayed Jesus to the chief priests and began plotting to hand him over to them.  This event is recorded in all of the Synoptic Gospels (St. John only mentions that Satan had entered Judas by Chapter 13).

Spy Wednesday also brings one of my favorite liturgical happenings of the year: the Tenebrae service.  Technically speaking, Tenebrae is celebrated on each day of the Triduum (traditionally very early in the morning, as it encompasses both Matins and Lauds), but most parishes only do it on Wednesday night.  The format of the Tenebrae service is very loose these days, but traditionally, there are set readings for each nocturn of the Matins service.  The first lesson from the first nocturn is the beginning of Lamentations, which I think is among the most beautiful text in all of Holy Scripture:
Alone she dwells, the city erewhile so populous; a widow now, once a queen among the nations; tributary now, that once had provinces at her command. 
Be sure she weeps; there in the darkness her cheeks are wet with tears; of all that courted her, none left to console her, all those lovers grown weary of her, and turned into enemies. 
Cruel the suffering and the bondage of Juda’s exile; that she must needs dwell among the heathen! Nor respite can she find; close at her heels the pursuit, and peril on either hand. 
Desolate, the streets of Sion; no flocking, now, to the assembly; the gateways lie deserted. Sighs priest, and the maidens go in mourning, so bitter the grief that hangs over all.
Exultant, now, her invaders; with her enemies nothing goes amiss. For her many sins, the Lord has brought doom on her, and all her children have gone into exile, driven before the oppressor. 
Fled is her beauty, the Sion that was once so fair; her chieftains have yielded their ground before the pursuer, strengthless as rams that can find no pasture.
The utter desolation present in these words is almost overpowering.  Given that we are about to embark upon the most sorrowful time of the Church year, it is a good time to reflect on these words.

This beautiful text has inspired some breathtaking musical compositions.  For the past two years, we have done the setting by Tallis at the parish where I sing:

Seriously, one of the richest and most profound pieces of music I have ever heard.  I also came across another setting by Victoria on YouTube that also sounds lovely.

And off we go into the Triduum.  In just three days from now, we will be celebrating the Paschal Vigil...hard to believe, isn't it?

26 March 2013

Lion's Heart in the Lion's Den

I know this will come as a surprise, but I really like Archbishop Cordielone.  I think Pope Benedict did a fantastic thing in appointing him to the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

In light of today's events, I came across an excellent interview he did last week with USA Today.  In this interview, +Cordileone does an excellent job of articulating the best arguments in favor of maintaining the traditional definition of marriage.  He does so with surprisingly few references to the religious arguments in favor of traditional marriage and instead focuses on some of the more pragmatic issues.

The whole thing is worth a read, but here are some snippets:
To legalize marriage between two people of the same sex would enshrine in the law the principle that mothers and fathers are interchangeable or irrelevant, and that marriage is essentially an institution about adults, not children; marriage would mean nothing more than giving adults recognition and benefits in their most significant relationship.
. . . 
So there are really two different ideas of marriage being debated in our society right now, and they cannot coexist: Marriage is either a conjugal union of a man and a woman designed to unite husband and wife to each other and to any children who may come from their union, or it is a relationship for the mutual benefit of adults which the state recognizes and to which it grants certain benefits. Whoever is for one, is opposed to the other.
. . . 
Notice how there is no controversy in this country now over the evil of Jim Crow laws. Shortly after the Civil Rights Act the cultural change was complete. This is because it was the right thing to do. The truth cannot be suppressed indefinitely. 
Draw a contrast here with the pro-life movement: After the Roe decision, it was commonly thought that our society would soon easily accept the legitimacy of abortion. But what has happened? The pro-life movement is stronger now, 40 years later, than it ever has been. This is because of the truth: Abortion is the killing of an innocent human life. That is not a matter of opinion or religious belief; it is a simple fact that cannot be denied. 
The same principle applies with marriage: It is simply a natural fact that you need a man and a woman to make a marriage and that a child's heart longs for the love of both his or her mother and father. Even if the Supreme Court rules against this truth, the controversy will not die out, as it hasn't on the abortion issue.
That first point is one that I always want to make - since when did marriage become a state-sponsored valentine?  The only reason that the state is involved in marriage to begin with is for self-preservation: marriage is the one institution that can produce new members of society.  If that is taken out of the equation, the state is left regulating people's sex lives.  How can that be justified?

Hosanna filio David...

True story - I sat down to write a Palm Sunday post last night and promptly fell asleep with the computer in my lap (only to wake up an hour later when it fell on the floor...).  Ah, the life of an overworked father of small children.

Most of what I was going to write yesterday I formulated during Mass.  Now, of course, I can't remember a lot of it, so here are a few random Palm Sunday thoughts:

  • Aside from Christmas and Easter, the two days that get the most people to show up for Holy Mass are Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday.  I can only surmise that for some reason, more people come when they can get something at Mass.  Because, y'know, the Eucharist isn't anything special.

(Not as important as a piece of tree, apparently.)
  • Someday, I'm going to write a whole post on processions and why they are such a marvelous expression of our faith.  Suffice to say, if you have never experienced a real procession, find one at the next opportunity (I hear Corpus Christi is coming soon).
  • The bulk of what I was going to post for Palm Sunday wasn't about Palm Sunday at all, but about the Passion, which I got to hear chanted in Latin in all of its twenty-minute glory yesterday :-).  It struck me as I was reading along that the Passion story really encompasses all of human relations with God in the behavior of the various persons in the story:
    • The crowd, which bullies Pilate into sending Jesus to his death, is like the world, which hates Jesus and the Gospel message (though, of course, we have heard this already from Jesus himself).
    • Judas, who pays lip service to Jesus but ultimately betrays him, is like those who claim to be part of the Church, but betray her teachings on abortion, same-sex "marriage", contraception, and a whole host of other issues.
    • Peter, who stands with Jesus for almost all of his public ministry but becomes weak and ashamed when Jesus is arrested, is like so many of us, who are faithful to the Gospel when it is in season, but do not boldly proclaim the truth when it is out of season. 
    • And through it all, Jesus remains faithful.  He did not become angered with the crowd's intransigence, Pilate's indifference, or Judas's betrayal.  After the Resurrection, he allowed Peter the chance to make amends for his denial and affirms Peter as shepherd of the Church.  As in all of salvation history, God is infinitely faithful, loving, and patient even when we do not deserve it.
On the topic of faithfulness, I leave you with a beautiful part of an ancient hymn:

Crux fidelis,
inter omnes
arbor una nobilis;
nulla talem silva profert,
flore, fronde, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulci clavo,
dulce pondus sustinens!

Faithful Cross!
above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!

23 March 2013

Vatican II: Gaudium et Spes VI

Into uncharted waters here -- the sixth post on one of the Vatican II constitutions!  This has to be the last one, though...the tentative plan is a Palm Sunday post tomorrow, Dei Verbum Monday and Tuesday, and the remaining days of Holy Week as they come.

After marriage and the family, the Fathers next examine economic development and political order through the lens of the Church's teachings.  Much of this section is fairly predictable and reminiscent of earlier papal writings on economic matters: economic progress should be for the betterment of the whole world, not just wealthy nations.  The Fathers make it clear that the Church has a role to play in the world order that is separate from that played by civil governments, but still related:

It is very important, especially where a pluralistic society prevails, that there be a correct notion of the relationship between the political community and the Church, and a clear distinction between the tasks which Christians undertake, individually or as a group, on their own responsibility as citizens guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience, and the activities which, in union with their pastors, they carry out in the name of the Church. 
The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. 
The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other. Yet both, under different titles, are devoted to the personal and social vocation of the same men.
From here, the Fathers turn to a discussion of war and peace.  It should not be surprising that the Fathers plead for peace in the world.  However, this is not the free love hippie idea of peace -- true peace comes from knowing God the Father and Our Lord Jesus Christ:
That earthly peace which arises from love of neighbor symbolizes and results from the peace of Christ which radiates from God the Father. For by the cross the incarnate Son, the prince of peace reconciled all men with God. By thus restoring all men to the unity of one people and one body, He slew hatred in His own flesh; and, after being lifted on high by His resurrection, He poured forth the spirit of love into the hearts of men.
While not explicitly calling for the establishment of a worldwide government, the Fathers do state that cooperation among nations and international organizations are vital for the establishment of peace.

That's all for Gaudium et Spes.  The end is in sight!

Vatican II: Gaudium et Spes V

Wow, I'm running out of time here.  I can't believe that Holy Week is almost upon us.

The second major part of Gaudium et Spes addresses "problems of special urgency" in the modern world and what the Church teaches on these issues.  They begin with marriage and family life, which is the cornerstone of society.

Though the push for same-sex "marriage" had not yet begun at the time of the Second Vatican Council, there still were plenty of challenges to traditional notions of marriage and family life: widespread divorce, the "free love" movement, etc.  Acknowledging these problems at the outset, the Council Fathers provide a very nice exposition of the basis of Christian marriage:
The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other a relationship arises which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one. For the good of the spouses and their off-springs as well as of society, the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone. For, God Himself is the author of matrimony, endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes.
In this area as well, the Fathers state that the most effective means of changing the culture around us is to give faithful and authentic witness to the ideals of Christian marriage:
Authentic conjugal love will be more highly prized, and wholesome public opinion created about it if Christian couples give outstanding witness to faithfulness and harmony in their love, and to their concern for educating their children also, if they do their part in bringing about the needed cultural, psychological and social renewal on behalf of marriage and the family. Especially in the heart of their own families, young people should be aptly and seasonably instructed in the dignity, duty and work of married love.
The primary function of married couples, as the Church has always taught, is to bring new life into the world and form it according to God's will.
Hence, while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account, the true practice of conjugal love, and the whole meaning of the family life which results from it, have this aim: that the couple be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior. Who through them will enlarge and enrich His own family day by day.
Recognizing that, even at that time, the problems of abortion and contraception had already taken hold of the modern world, the Fathers devote a lengthy paragraph that prefigures what Pope Paul VI would write in Humanae vitae:
For God, the Lord of life, has conferred on men the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner which is worthy of man. Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes. The sexual characteristics of man and the human faculty of reproduction wonderfully exceed the dispositions of lower forms of life. Hence the acts themselves which are proper to conjugal love and which are exercised in accord with genuine human dignity must be honored with great reverence. Hence when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspects of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards. These, based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love. Such a goal cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced. Relying on these principles, sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.
I wonder if the "Spirit of Vatican II" crowd knows that the Council documents contain a prohibition on birth control.

I will wrap up tomorrow with the Fathers' words on economic and foreign relations matters.