Today is the day the Lord has made! Oh, how I love the great feast of Pentecost. It is exciting, it is invigorating, it is challenging.
We all know that the Church has three great feasts – Christmas Day, the Nativity; Easter Sunday, the Resurrection; and Pentecost. Those first two Church celebrations get a lot of attention because the secular world likes them too but for the wrong reasons. I think that the followers of Jesus Christ ought to draw just as much joy and enthusiasm out of the Feast of Pentecost as we do at Christmas and Easter. On Pentecost Sunday a spotlight in heaven swivels around having been shined lo these many months on our Lord that spotlights slowly swivels around on us and WE are under the spotlight.
On Pentecost Sunday each one of us should recommit ourselves to our baptism, call for the grace of Confirmation and endeavor to make knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth our Lord and Savior better known on this battered and sinful world. Just before his return to his Heavenly Father, Jesus commissioned the apostles to be preachers of his word in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. In some limited sense, that command has been fulfilled. Communities of faith are now everywhere on the planet but in varying conditions.
As we think about the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity descending upon the apostles and the other disciples who were present on this awesome day. Since we should be conscious that the Holy Spirit has been given to us as well as to the apostles, we should look inside ourselves and ask if we ever do anything to move forward the message of Jesus. There are many ways to do this. You don’t have to go to the Congo or Guatemala as a fulltime foreign missionary. The main way to teach people about Jesus of Nazareth is to try as best as we can to live like Jesus of Nazareth, namely to be honest, sensitive, generous and when necessary courageous. To the extent that we find ourselves more and more like our Savior, we can then say like St. Paul, “I live now not I but Christ lives in me.”
It is a wonderful job. It is a wonderful opportunity. Let’s thank God that we have it.
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As you drive by practically any Catholic church in the world, you will see a cross atop the steeple or over the front door. A cross will be on the back wall of the Sanctuary. Beautiful walnut pews will have crosses carved into them. As we go into the church, we bless ourselves in the sign of the cross, reminding ourselves of our baptism- but more importantly- of the fact that Jesus suffered for us. The cross is everywhere. Sometimes, it’s deceptive. You see crosses that are elaborately designed to be works of art. There is nothing wrong with that, but we should remind ourselves that the first cross was simply two large beams attached to each other, large enough to have a body nailed to it. The verb is nailed. Sometimes we don’t like to think about that fact. We don’t want to visualize a human being hanging in agony for hours until death slowly overcomes that person. It may make us uncomfortable, but this is what Good Friday is all about. This wonderful Jewish carpenter- this rural preacher- is executed to atone for the failure of the human family. He offers His heavenly father infinite obedience and love, and He does it for you and me today. We wont dwell too long on this agonizing scene, because our faith and our hope pulls us forward to the greatest of all events in history- the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Sunday we will cry out, and sing, and laugh! But not yet…
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Two weeks ago, I wrote with shock in this space about my disbelief that the German bishops had issued a decree refusing the sacraments to Catholics who stopped paying a Church membership tax. I was not the only one who was incredulous. That reaction has spread across the world. Global media coverage has brought into clear focus the unique situation in Germany that most people knew nothing about until this issue arose.
Since the middle of the 19th century, the German central government has collected a small tax on both the Lutherans and the Catholics in Germany, transferred the funds to the churches for use in providing schools, hospitals, youth centers and other excellent programs. Today in Germany many Catholics are angry with the Church and don’t like the tax and they have signed documents taking themselves out of the Church. So much for that but now the bishops say that such persons can be denied the sacraments!
I have no doubt that this situation creates a real financial problem. In a short period of time, the Church has to do a better job of raising its own money but it is hard to imagine the Catholic Church denying someone baptism, the Eucharist or a funeral because of a failure to pay a government tax. Something is wrong and I hope that it will be corrected very quickly. Until then, I pray with all my heart for the German Church which is truly a great Church but faced with organizational difficulties.
Luther, there is still tension on the Rhine!
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Recently, I attempted to describe the beauty surrounding the Sacrament of the Last Anointing. At least it is beautiful when circumstances allow it to be carried out in the fullness of its liturgy. I think that came into my mind because of late I have been saying goodbye to a number of lifetime friends. That happens when you are in your 80’s!
Today, permit me to go in the other direction. I would like to talk about baptism which centers around birth and new life. Today we celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism more effectively than we did before the Second Vatican Council. It may be that in the past many saw baptism as a sweet, cute little ceremony involving this beautiful baby and a family that was so happy because of that child’s arrival. There is nothing wrong with that but there is much more involved. In baptism, the mother and father have given birth to another wonderful human being. Their life has been passed on to the next generation and there is more to life and more levels of life than simply that of natural birth. When the parents have faith they want that child to have their faith which is belief in Jesus Christ and a desire to live a life walking in the footsteps of Christ.
Today baptism is seldom celebrated with just one child or for one family. More properly, families are clustered together so that five, six sets or even maybe ten or more babies may be baptized at one time. Many parishes conduct baptism on one particular Sunday of the month with the entire congregation present. This can produce some logistical problems for families on a tight schedule but it is a reflection of a profound reality about baptism. When a person is baptized he or she enters into the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. He or she is absorbed into the community of faith which binds us to God the Father through Jesus and binds all of us together at the same time.
In baptisms, symbols abound! Candles are burning, the priest or deacon is vested, a large baptistery is present containing water that was blessed by the bishop during the previous Holy Week. The baby or babies are anointed which is a traditional way of declaring the sacredness of the child’s body and the sacredness of the soul that is soon to be joined to Jesus of Nazareth. The central symbol, of course, is water. Water is a symbol of life and was used even in the Old Testament to symbolize a new life, a life that is closer to Yahweh, a life that now makes us one with Jesus. Following the actual Rite of Baptism, the newly baptized is clothed with a beautiful white garment, again symbolizing a change in state of life and of its relationship to God through Jesus, and then finally, an Easter candle is lit which symbolizes Christ’s resurrection, and now symbolizes that the effectiveness of Jesus’ resurrection transcends time and reaches out to embrace this new baby. Altogether it is a beautiful and meaningful ceremony.
I am happy about the fact that people instinctively understand this and you usually find that people are exuberantly happy when present at the celebration of baptism.
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January 15th, Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Well, here we are – back in Ordinary Time! That is the term the Church uses and I think that it could be improved upon to describe those Sundays of the year or those periods of the year that are not special. The special seasons are Advent, Christmas, Lent and the time after Easter.
But these Sundays are not really ordinary. They are special. Each one contains a very important message that the followers of Jesus need to study, think about and act upon. We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus and his revelation to the rest of the world with the Feast of the Epiphany and today’s Gospel beautifully picks up from there. We have Jesus already as a grown man getting ready to begin his public ministry and he is introduced into that ministry by John the Baptist. We see John baptizing on the river Jordan and as Jesus approaches and John exclaims, “Look there! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It is he of whom I said, ‘After me is to come a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”
John had been preparing the way claiming that a time for redemption was at hand and now it is. It is only a few weeks since Christmas. Let’s don’t forget the awesome reality that Jesus is not simply a historical figure but, most importantly, a manifestation of God’s presence in the human story joining humanity and divinity forever. For that, we thank God.
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There is a great deal of diversity among the many, many different churches that place themselves under the name “Christian”. They differ in organizational structure, and important aspects of theology and in relationship to the world around them Despite all this diversity, the one great unifying factor of all of these “Christian” churches is acceptance of the importance and necessity of baptism. Catholics baptize. Lutherans baptize. Baptists baptize, etc., etc., etc.
Having said this, most of us are aware of the fact that although baptism is a great unifier, it is practiced in several different forms. Many of today’s fundamentalist churches practice by immersion- that is, the person being baptized is actually submerged briefly beneath the water, only to emerge quickly as a baptized Christian.
Some of the older churches such as the Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians, use a simpler form, namely pouring blessed water over the head of the person being baptized, whether that person is an infant or an adult.
Those using immersion properly see baptism as symbolically entering into the death and resurrection of Jesus and this is wonderfully symbolized by the person being baptized going beneath the water (symbolizing death) only to rise from the water (symbolizing return to life). Personally, I think this is truly meaningful symbolism but it has some logistical problems connected with it. Rivers are not always convenient. The churches using flowing water over the head of the person hold that water is the essential matter and form of baptism, as long as it is poured with the one baptizing doing so in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is interesting that immersion has made a come back in many Catholic parishes.
Regardless, Catholic tradition accepts both forms, so the choice is yours!
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Catholics are famous for using “holy” water. When you enter one of their churches there are fountains at the door and the parishioners dip their fingers into that water and make a sign of the cross as they proceed into a place in the pews. When someone gets a special sacred object, such as a rosary or prayer book or missal, blessed, if it is convenient, the priest or deacon will sprinkle the object with water that was blessed back in Holy Week. The Catholics are all used to that but for those outside the Church it certainly seems strange. They ask the intelligent question, can water be holy?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, water is holy because everything that God has created is holy. Holiness merely means to be in some sense in union with God. For human beings, it is using the gift of free will correctly. In nature, it is just living according to a being’s nature. In that sense, every sunrise, sunset and flood is holy. Is water that is blessed by the Church holy in the sense of being better than other water? Not at all. Its substance, its physical makeup is in no way changed. It is just that it has been set aside for a special…holy…purpose.
The essential aspect of holy water is that we use it with the sign of the cross to remind us of our baptism, that day years ago when, either by the decision of our parents and sponsors or by we ourselves, we turned and committed ourselves to Jesus Christ, to faith in him, to walk in his footsteps and to live by his teachings. I am willing to admit that many Catholics don’t think about that as they come tripping into Church a little bit late, dip that hand, splash that water, make a fast sign of the cross, genuflect and get on their knees. All of those gestures reflect at least an explicit desire for holiness. It is just that the Church would like us to do them a little more slowly, a little more thoughtfully and with a little greater appreciation of what they stand for and symbolize.
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This is Christmas week. The infant Jesus dominates the Gospel readings in this short one-week period. We celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord at the beginning of the week and the baptism of the Lord on January 9th, the end of the week.
The liturgical year moves very rapidly at this time of the year. January 2nd had Jesus being adored by the mysterious strangers from the East and by January 9th he is an adult being baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Remember, we have to cover the whole story of salvation history in a mere 52 weeks, so let’s hurry on!
Each of these Gospel scenes have many messages but let’s just take one from each Sunday. On the Epiphany, Jesus is symbolically presented, unveiled to the whole human family . Secondly, at the Jordan River, he steps into the water humbling himself to be like all those human beings for whom he has come to bring salvation. All in all, it is a great week!
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The annual November meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference can sometimes be a quiet, slow, administrative drag. Doing the necessary work connected with trying to keep a very large and complex organization working together in unity is not usually very exciting. However, occasionally there is a breakthrough and something surprising happens. A few weeks ago, the bishops voted to join a group of Protestant churches in the “common agreement on mutual recognition of baptism.” The Presbyterian Church has already ratified the agreement and three other large Protestant communities will be considering this document at their national meetings in the coming months. This agreement was drawn up over the last six years by a group of ecumenical scholars. The document calls baptism “the sacramental gateway into the Christian life.” There are conditions for baptism to be mutually recognized by the five churches. The rite must use water and the Trinitarian formula – “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Think about it – we are of one mind on the sacrament of baptism and because of that we will be working more closely together in the future than has been the case in the past. Our Lord’s prayer for the unity of his followers is on the distant horizon but it is at least within view.
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