Celebrating “The Feasts” with Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina

[I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for Donald Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina's new book, "The Feasts". Thanks to the generosity of Image Books, you can register for a chance to win a free copy for yourself! Check for details at the conclusion of the review, and be sure to visit the other blogs on the tour as well.]

In their new book The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics, Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and well-known Catholic author Mike Aquilina examine not only the major and minor feasts of the Church, but the history and theological significance of these significant days throughout the Church year.  Many Christians may never have stopped to think much about why we have these commemorations, when we pause to remember particular persons, events, or truths.  With great clarity, the authors explain the language of feast days, and how they draw us back to honoring and reflecting upon our relationship with God.  Feasts are an opportunity, above all, for expressing our gratitude.

In the early chapters of “The Feasts”, the authors take the time to provide a concise, helpful background on how and why these occasions came to be.  Jesus Himself, after all, celebrated feasts such as Passover and Yom Kippur, which are still marked today by the Jewish people.  In turn the early Christian community, as it began to emerge into a full-fledged faith, adopted its own annual religious events.  Within the first five hundred years after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, there were already hundreds of feasts, some celebrated locally such as in the memorial of a particular saint, and others commemorated throughout the Universal Church.

Probably everyone’s favorite Christian holiday, even for many non-Christians, is the Solemnity of Christmas, which celebrates the Incarnation of Christ.  Today that meaning is often lost in the glitz and glitter of commercialism, when the point of why people give each other gifts at Christmas often seems to be lost.  Indeed, as the authors point out later in the book, the Puritans in this country attempted unsuccessfully to wipe Christmas celebrations from the calendar.

Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina do not deny the secular aspects of the holiday as currently celebrated in many parts of the world, since civilization and Christianity are tied together. They acknowledge the hard fact that for many people, Christmas can be an excuse for excessive materialism.  Many, including some Christians, would rather just take Christ out of “Christ Mass” altogether.

Yet the authors then remind us of something which we heard at Mass just this past weekend, in the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  St. Paul notes that the Incarnation, the coming of God in human form which we celebrate at Christmas, was not a manifestation of an overpowering being.  Rather, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”  That gift of the Divine Self through birth is, of course, the “reason for the season”, as the expression goes.  His servitude is what we ourselves are called to follow, in imitation of Him.

Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina also remind us how very ancient the celebration of Christmas is.  Unlike what you may have heard from some quarters, i.e. that Christmas is simply an appropriation of a pagan sun festival, the authors go far back into Church history.  They point out for example that as early as the 2nd century, St. Clement of Alexandria was already arguing that the Birth of Jesus should be celebrated on December 25th, based on his survey of what the Church communities he knew of were already doing locally.  This means such commemorations were taking place long before the legalization of Christianity, let along its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

For me, the date of December 25th is less of a point of interest than understanding the historical time period of the Incarnation, something which the authors also explore in their chapter on Christmas.  Although God exists outside of time, He chose to enter into our timeline. The willingness to self-limit in such a way out of love for us is, in and of itself, something which should give us pause to consider, anytime we take the celebration of Christmas as being merely for children and merchants.

Christ was born into the world of the Roman Empire, the physical remnants of which are still with us, in ruins, archaeological sites, and museums throughout the world.  At the same time, many of the ideas and principles which laid the foundations of republics such as ours here in the United States, as well as concepts in science, engineering, literature, and so on that were the building blocks of Western civilization, were being taught, debated, and written about.  To look at a Roman column from the 1st century, and reflect on the fact that it stood at the same time Jesus was being born in the little town of Bethlehem, is to become aware of God’s Presence in our own history, not just as some sort of unintelligible entity or divine watchmaker existing independently of it.

Thus Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina refer to Christmas as being the other magnetic pole to the Christian year, with Easter being the other.  Salvation history was not something vaguely understood, but rather marked by a most singular event: God humbling Himself into becoming Man.  Without the Resurrection at Easter, there is no hope for us, but if there is no Incarnation at Christmas, then there will be no Easter.  In coming into the world, we understand Christ not a concept, but as a Person, and one who promised to remain with us, particularly in the Eucharist.  Because of this, even when the Christmas season ends, “in a sense it never ends,” as the authors rightly make clear. For “at every Mass we experience the Word made flesh, dwelling among us.”

As human beings, we mark the passage of the hours from day to night, or the year from summer to winter, because we understand the world in this way.  “The Feasts” allows us to step back and see the broad spectrum of the days set aside by the Church, and the how and why we have these special occasions.  They remind us, when we are so often distracted by the things of this world, of the world beyond this one, the one to come, and of Him who is waiting to embrace us.

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For a chance to win a free copy of “The Feasts”, register with your name and email address by following this link. Only one entry per reader, please. Entries must be submitted by 11:59 pm on Thursday, September 18th. The winner will be announced on Friday, September 19th.

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Flying the Banner

Last evening at the Catholic Information Center here in D.C., Father James Bradley gave a wonderful talk on “The Way of Beauty; The Way of Happiness”, as part of the TOT (Theology On Tap) Talks organized by the Young Adult Ministry of the Archdiocese of Washington.  Pointing to examples from areas such as art, music, and architecture, Father Bradley challenged his listeners to consider the impact of beauty in our lives, and how it points us to the transcendent.  He asked the deeply important question of whether contemporary acceptance of what was formally considered ugly or demeaning, as being equal or superior to what was formally considered beautiful, is leading us away from God.  You can listen to the audio of Father Bradley’s presentation when it is archived on the TOT page later today.

While the reader may, with good reason, assume that I would have quite a bit to say on this question, I instead want to focus on a comment which Father Bradley made in the course of his presentation.  He noted that when engaging with those who do not accept the Christian worldview on topics such as beauty, we often find ourselves getting nowhere by making apologetic arguments based on doctrines and principles which have been rejected by those who disagree with us.  To put it another way, if I might, when your neighbor absolutely insists that your cat is not a cat, but rather a dog, then all of your insistence to the contrary is not going to make much of a difference.

Father Bradley asserted that when discussion proves impossible, it is through example that we can make said difference.  How we as Christians live our lives can draw people to reconsider their entrenched positions about those very important subjects on which we disagree.  If we are seen as people of joy and love, engaging in acts of kindness and charity, and surrounding ourselves with beauty in all things, we are more likely to be able to engage with those who refuse to meet us on common intellectual or philosophical grounds.  In other words, it is time for us to recover not only the thought, but the actual practice of being a Christian in a time which increasingly rejects Christianity.

An early document written roughly a century after Christ’s Resurrection, known to historians as The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetesmay give us some idea of the sort of thing I mean.  In this letter, the unknown author writing in about 130 A.D. describes how Christians are both a part of the world, yet at the same time set themselves apart from that world by the manner in which they choose to live.  Note how the distinctions which the author draws between the practices of the wider of society of his day, and the Christians of his time, seem eerily reminiscent of some of the practices and ideas of the present age:

[Christians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.  They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.  They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.  They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers.

I wonder how many of us who today call ourselves Christians, could consider this early assessment of what our ancestors in the Faith were like, and still recognize ourselves in such a description. We have forgotten that ours is not simply another philosophy among many competing philosophies, but rather a complete way of life, one which is supposed to be manifest to the world, not donned and doffed like a pair of favorite socks.  One sees this type of Christianity throughout Western Europe for example, where apart from christenings, weddings, and funerals, the vast majority of Europeans never darken the doorstep of their local church; this phenomenon is sadly becoming all the more apparent in this country, as well.

As Christians are paid increasingly less attention in the marketplace of ideas, we see that simply the removal of our voices from the din has not been enough for those opposed to Christianity.  We must be made to conform to the zeitgeist, whenever possible; when this is not possible, then we must be silenced.  Given this, and if we consider the historical roots of Christianity such as in the passage given above, then Father Bradley’s reasoning that our lives must themselves be the argument for Christianity at all times, but particularly when words fail us, makes perfect sense.

Certainly, it would be far easier to simply take down the blood-stained banner of the Resurrection, and fly instead the white, surrendering flag of relativism.  Yet to do so would be to deny Christ, something which no Christian wants to do.  The Early Church understood, despite the difficulties which they faced in getting themselves heard, that when our words are ignored, a living Faith through our actions can speak volumes, especially in a highly mutable society.  It’s high time that we recall and re-embrace this lesson for ourselves.

Easter Banner at Golgotha Monastery Orkney, Scotland

Easter Banner at Golgotha Transalpine Redemptorist Monastery
Orkney, Scotland

 

Technology and the Church: Why Can’t We Have This in America?

In conversation recently with a few friends, I brought up a wonderful online service which I have mentioned before on these pages. It always surprises me to learn that people are not familiar with it, so this is a good opportunity to extol its virtues to you.  Moreover, and more importantly to those in the U.S., I’d like to issue a challenge to those with the resources and know-how, and ask why we don’t already have something like it on this side of the pond.

Church Services TV provides both streaming and archived video from a growing number of cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and chapels around Ireland and the United Kingdom.  Each location has its own “channel” in a drop-down menu, so that one can quickly search for the feed from a particular parish, or switch between one church and another.  Visitors can check the schedule posted on the site to see what events are coming up that day, such as Daily or Sunday Mass, and there is also a special events calendar, useful for future planning purposes.  If you’re lucky, sometimes you may stumble across an unlisted event: I’ve caught concerts, talks, and things like baptisms, weddings, and funerals on the Church Services site this way.

What I find to be one of the most special aspects about this technology however, is what it can bring to the visitor throughout their day.  When you’re at the office or at home, trying to get work done and the phone, the kids, and/or the dog are all driving you crazy, it would be nice to be able to just take a break and go away and pray for awhile.  Oftentimes, that option is nowhere near practical.  Since Church Services leaves nearly all of the camera feeds on the site running all day, even though you may not physically be able to get to church for a few minutes of prayer after you’ve nearly blown your top, you’re one click away from having a live window into God’s house whenever you want it.

Although at night, most of the cameras on the site switch to black-and-white security mode, and the churches themselves often turn off all the lights, that doesn’t mean the site becomes useless.  Even then, I think there’s something profound and encouraging about seeing the sanctuary lamp burning before the tabernacle, in the midst of the surrounding darkness.  When all may otherwise appear dark, the light of Christ’s Presence is shining forth.  It’s not Adoration, but it’s not a waste of time, either, especially after a rough day.

Now of course, an image on the screen is not the same thing as actually being present before the Real Presence, let alone receiving Holy Communion.  Nevertheless, one can see how there are many positive aspects of this kind of technology, which could be put to good use.  Much as radio and later television broadcast of the Mass has helped people like shut-ins to be able to pray and worship alongside their fellow Christians, while not a substitute for Mass or Adoration, this more recent technology also provides an opportunity for spiritual growth and refreshment to those who want to take advantage of it.

So this brings me back to my original question, because it strikes me that, if the good people of the Emerald Isle can put a service like this together, why don’t we have something similar in the U.S.?  Certainly, there are some churches around the country that have had low-tech webcams for years: I know of a few in places like Philadelphia and St. Louis, for example.  Yet to my knowledge, there is nothing comparable in America to this centralized site with so many participating churches, where not only can one watch live footage, but even go back and watch previous video.  There is clearly an opportunity here, waiting to be discovered and implemented.

In the meantime, gentle reader, I highly recommend that you bookmark the Church Services TV site, as I have, because you will be able to make good use of it when and if you need to.  And talk to your parish and your diocese about whether they might be interested in doing something similar where you are.  It would be great to see this service spread to more communities around the world, both as a source of spiritual growth for practicing Catholics, and as a tool for the New Evangelization.

Screenshot of the Church Services TV site

Screenshot of the Church Services TV site