Thursday, November 03, 2011

Cardinal George on conscience

Cardinal George of Chicago has written an excellent column on conscience.. It's well worth reading

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Happy birthday, Mary!

In today's liturgy we celebrate the birth of Mary. There are only three birthdays celebrated in the liturgy: those of Jesus, Mary, and St. John the Baptist. Usually, the Church celebrates a saint's feast on the day of death, because that's when they entered eternal life.

But Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist played very important roles in the history of salvation, so their lives on earth were extremely crucial for all of us.

We don't have historical records about Mary's birth. The names of her parents, Joachim and Anne, come from an ancient document called the Protoevangelium of James. It is not a canonical Gospel, so we can't rely on it for historical details. But it was an important source for the development of Marian piety. It was written in the early second century, and shows that, among other things, Christians in that early time believed in Mary's virginity.

Like us, Mary lived a human life on earth. It was hard. She had to struggle, even though she was graced from the first moment of her conception and never sinned. She dealt with suffering and sorrow. But on her birthday, we can celebrate her life as one of us, our spiritual mother, our friend, someone we can always go to for help.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Easter all week

Liturgically, each day in the octave of Easter is Easter all over again. While the world around us quickly forgets, the Church keeps on celebrating the Lord's resurrection.

In today's reading from Acts, Peter tells the crowd, "Repent...and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away." And Jesus says in the Gospel that "Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name."

This coming Sunday is divine mercy Sunday. We celebrate the resurrection because it means our sins are forgiven, wiped away, when we repent of them. Scripture is so clear on this. How could we doubt it?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Wood in the Water -- What Does the Easter Candle Symbolize?

I'm reposting this now on Holy Saturday, since the Easter vigil is tonight. It's about the symbolism of the Easter Candle.
Happy Easter to all!


The question of the symbolism around the Easter candle is one of the things Dawn Eden mentions in her thesis. As I've noted before, I think she makes a good argument in this regard. Here are some further reflections on the matter. While I’ve drawn the elements of this argument from various authors, the way I’ve put it together is the result of my own reflection on this. Comments are welcome. Thanks!

1. The Candle and the Cross

Fr Hugo Rahner was an expert in patristics. In his book Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, he explains the meaning of the Easter candle in a very beautiful way. The symbolism has to do with the cross, the baptismal water, and the Church.

He cites many quotations from the Fathers, for example:
“What is water without the cross of Christ?” Ambrose asks his newly baptized, and answers, “an ordinary element.”
A post-Augustinian sermon: “Through the sign of the cross you are conceived in the womb of your holy mother, the Church.” Rahner says, “It is only by the procreative power of the cross that the church is fructified.”
He explains that ultimately the symbolism is based on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, with its relation of baptism to the cross. “Baptism is “the mystery of the wood in the water.’” (P. Lundberg)

The main point is that the mystery of the Lord’s baptism is closely related to the mystery of the cross. Rahner says, “In this baptism of Christ there was symbolically enacted all that became reality upon the cross, all that in the mystery of baptism passes back its effects from that cross to man.” St Ignatius of Antioch voiced the same idea in saying, “Jesus Christ was born and was baptized, so that he might sanctify the water by his passion.”

Rahner points out that Christian artists began to depict the cross in the river Jordan. There was also a cross put up in the river itself. In Eastern liturgies a wooden cross is dipped in the water during the consecration of the baptismal water, intended to signify the same thing as the cross in the river.

He continues, “This cross symbolizes the fact that the baptismal water has through the death of Christ been made a bestower of life—it is the tree of life.” Then he mentions another important element, that the wooden cross is also a giver of light. The same fire bursts forth from it that was associated with Jesus’ baptism:

The cross is also a bringer of light, and when men seek to express this mystery in explicit liturgical form, they do so by lowering a burning candle into the baptismal font as a sign that, by the power of the cross, the water is a source of the lux perpetua, the everlasting life of light. In a word the cross is both the tree of life and the light bringer and both symbols represent Christ himself who “by his Passion sanctified the water” by giving to it the doxa, the glory which he had won upon the cross, the power of the Holy Ghost.

Rahner mentions an inscription found on a baptismal font at St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome:
A tree bears fruit. I am a tree but I bear light.
Christ is risen. Such is the gift that I bring.

So according to Rahner, the Easter candle is a symbol of the cross of Christ. We can see this also from the five grains of incense that are put into the candle in the shape of the cross. And the candle represents not only the cross, but the light that comes from the cross.

2. The Spirit and the Cross
On the cross, Jesus hands over the Spirit

The Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus died, “he handed over the Spirit.” (Jn 19:30b). What does this mean?
Several very good Scripture scholars say it means that Jesus handed over the Spirit to his disciples who were standing there by the cross. In other words, at the moment of his death Jesus is giving the Holy Spirit to the Church. (Francis Moloney, The Gospel of John, pp. 504, 505, Liturgical Press, 1998; also R. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, p. 1082, vol. 2).

A look at the Greek text shows why this is a very plausible interpretation. The Greek is paredōken to pneuma. The word paredōken is an intensified form of the verb meaning “to give.” It indicates that a person or thing is being transferred to someone else’s possession. The Greek text also uses the definite article to, which points to the Spirit. It means that Jesus is giving the gift of the Holy Spirit, “handing over” the Spirit.
At the Last Supper, Jesus told the apostles, “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (Jn 16:7). When the hour of Jesus’ death had come and he fulfilled his mission, he handed over the Spirit to the disciples, just as he had promised.

In chapter 7 of John’s Gospel, the evangelist had said “There was, of course, no Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.” (Jn 7:39) It wasn’t yet time for the Holy Spirit to be given to the disciples. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is glorified through the cross. He reigns from the cross. So at the moment of his death he is already glorified and can hand over the Holy Spirit.

And who was there? “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” (Jn 19:25-27)

The two principal figures are Mary and the beloved disciple. When Jesus died and handed over the Spirit, they were the first ones to receive the Spirit. At the Annunciation, the Holy Spirit had overshadowed Mary and made her virginity fruitful. She became the Mother of Jesus. Now, at the foot of the cross, the Holy Spirit again overshadows Mary, and she again becomes a mother, not physically, but as the spiritual mother of the beloved disciple. John here anticipates what Luke brings out in Acts on the day of Pentecost. Mary was present with the disciples in the upper room when the Holy Spirit was poured out on them.

In John’s Gospel, the beloved disciple is never named. It’s possible that this is because he represents the disciples of all times. (That’s not to deny he was a real person.) He is the ideal disciple, and is the example of what we are called to be. So we can see in this profound Marian text the biblical basis for calling her Mother of all the faithful, Mother of all the baptized.

Shortly after this scene, the soldier comes and pierces the heart of Jesus. Blood and water flow out, symbolizing the fountain of sacramental life in the Church. “Through the blood we have the water of the Spirit” (St. Hipppolytus).

3. Our Lady of the Font
The Marian symbolism of the baptismal font

The ideas in this section are again drawn from Fr Hugo Rahner, this time from his book Our Lady and the Church (Bethesda: Zaccheus Press, 2004). Chapter 6, “Mary at the Font,” is a most beautiful explanation of Our Lady’s connection with baptism. Fr Rahner quotes a wonderful thought from a sermon of St. Leo the Great, referring to Christ: “He bestowed on the water what he bestowed on his Mother” (Dedit aquae quod dedit matri).

Keep in mind all the points above about Jesus handing over the Spirit when he died on the cross. He bestowed the Holy Spirit on his Mother. So too, he bestowed the Holy Spirit on the water of baptism.

Going back to the Easter Vigil, what is the symbolism of the priest dipping the Easter candle into the water blessed for baptism? The candle represents the cross. Dipping it into the water symbolizes what Christ did as he died—he handed over the Spirit. The power of the risen Christ, given through the Spirit, is now communicating to the blessed water the power to bring the new life of grace to those who are baptized. In the water that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side we can also see a reference to the waters of baptism. The imagery here is so rich.

At the cross, Mary stands there with John, and becomes the mother of the Church as Jesus hands over the Spirit. Just as she was a virgin in conceiving Christ, Mary is a symbol of the virginal Church bringing life to those who are baptized.

At the Easter vigil, dipping the candle in the water symbolizes the Holy Spirit flowing forth from the cross of Christ and consecrating the water to be used in baptism. Mary is mother; so too the Church is mother. That is why the baptismal font is compared to the immaculate womb of Mary.

Fr Rahner mentions an inscription found on an ancient baptistry at the Lateran, written by Leo the Great when he was still a deacon:

The Church, Virgin Mother, brings forth from the river
The children she conceived by the breath of God.

The breath of God, of course, is a reference to the Holy Spirit. After citing a few more texts, Fr Rahner states, “And it therefore follows in the strict symbolism of theology, that the womb of Mary is a true symbol of the baptismal font, from which Christians go forth as newborn children of God.”

He cites another beautiful quote from St. Peter Chrysologus:

Therefore, my brethren, when the Spirit of heaven through his mystical light has given power to the virginal womb of this water, by this power all who are made from the dust of the earth and are born earthly, are reborn heavenly, into the likeness of their Creator.

Note that the saint specifies that it is the Spirit giving power to the water. The prayer of blessing over the water at the Easter vigil also brings this out, for example, “At the very dawn of creation, your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness….. By the power of the Spirit give to this water the grace of your Son, so that in the sacrament of baptism all those whom you have created in your likeness may be cleansed from sin and rise to a new birth of innocence by water and the Holy Spirit.” Then, precisely at that point, the priest lowers the candle into the water, saying, “We ask you, Father, with your Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the waters of this font.” Thus, the prayer of the liturgy confirms that this action represents the sending of the Spirit.

Again, this is about the action of the Holy Spirit sanctifying the waters. With that in mind, it becomes very clear that any kind of sexual symbolism in regard to the candle is completely out of place. Christ’s handing over the Spirit is not analogous to a sexual act. Let’s briefly recap the sequence of what is happening:

The candle represents the cross.
At his death on the cross, Jesus handed over the Spirit.
Lowering the candle into the water symbolizes the Holy Spirit sanctifying the waters.
The Holy Spirit empowers the Church, through the waters of baptism, to become the mother of the newly baptized Christians.
Mary as a type of the Church is also in this picture, the spiritual mother of believers. The Church is a virginal mother, just as Mary is a virginal mother.

So the action of dipping the candle into the water is not a sexual symbol, because Christ’s sending of the Spirit is not analogous to a sexual act. There is no basis for saying the Easter candle is a phallic symbol, or that dipping the candle into the water is meant to symbolize a sexual act. Such an interpretation would go against the meaning of the liturgy itself as well as the meaning of the Gospel.

Some Clarifications

All of this is not to deny the spousal imagery of the Church as the bride of Christ, the Bridegroom. That too can be a rich and fruitful source of reflection. But it seems clear that any spousal imagery in relation to the baptismal font seen as a womb concerns the mystery of virginity. It concerns the Holy Spirit imparting the life of grace through the baptismal water. Those who say that the symbolism of the womb requires a phallus are missing the point: this is a matter of a virginal conception, one that takes place through the power of the Holy Spirit. The proper comparison is when Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s power at the Annunciation. It is an overshadowing of the Spirit.

When it comes to particular elements of the liturgy, there has to be some basis for making a connection with the spousal mystery. It can’t just be something haphazard that happens to strike our fancy, like the shape of a candle. The candle could have been designed in another shape. In fact, James Monti points out, “During the Middle Ages, paschal candles more often than not were made with a square cross-section, rather than the cylindrical shape we are familiar with in our own day” (This Week of Salvation, p. 330).

Using the spousal analogy could be compared with reading Scripture. Any sound exegesis of a Scripture text has to have some basis in the text itself. If it does, we have exegesis, or a reading drawn out of the text. It it doesn't, we have eisegesis, or a reading into the text. We can’t just dream up our own interpretation of Scripture based on something we see in it that we like, or what it reminds us of. It's not like looking at clouds and imagining shapes. So too, in the spousal mystery in the liturgy, there has to be some basis in the liturgy itself for making a particular connection. As Fr Hugo Rahner points out concerning the Easter candle,

What we witness here is a symbol of Christ crucified giving to the water the illuminating power of the Spirit, and those who insist on seeing a phallic symbol in the candle appear to be completely oblivious to what not only the Roman, but all other liturgies have to declare on this particular point, of what, in point of fact, they declare with considerable emphasis. It is that the baptismal font is immaculatus uterus, and that, like Mary, the Church bears her children solely by the power of the Spirit. (Greek Myths, p. 83).

Another important point to keep in mind is that made by David Delaney in his blog post about analogy in reference to the Easter candle: “The marital act reflects the eternal Trinitarian embrace but as a pale foretaste. Thus the visible liturgical imagery must not point to the pale foretaste but to the perfect Source from which it has drawn its participated perfection.” Any analogies made have to work in the correct direction. The Trinity is the fullness of life and love. Our human loves and its expression are only a pale shadow. Our love can resemble and point to that of the Trinity, but not vice versa.

In summary, then, I have hoped to show:

1. The Easter candle is a symbol of the cross of Christ, and indeed of Christ himself.

2. On the cross, as he died, Jesus handed over the Spirit to the Church, represented by Mary and the beloved disciple.

3. At the Easter vigil, the action of dipping the candle in the water symbolically represents the sending of the Spirit to sanctify the waters of baptism. Mary, Our Lady of the Font, is a symbol of the virginal Church bringing life to the baptized.

4. This meaning excludes any supposed phallic symbolism of the Easter candle.

A Concluding Prayer

I beg you, holy Virgin, that I may have Jesus from the Holy Spirit, by whom you brought Jesus forth. May my soul receive Jesus through the Holy Spirit by whom your flesh conceived Jesus.... May I love Jesus in the Holy Spirit, in whom you adore Jesus as Lord and gaze upon him as your Son. (St. Ildephonsus, On the Perpetual Virginity of Holy Mary)


Friday, April 08, 2011

St Peter the Gatekeeper

For spiritual reading during Lent I've been using The Hour of Jesus in the Gospel of John by Ignace de la Potterie, SJ.
The passage concerning Peter's denials took on a new meaning for me. When the servant girl asks Peter if he was one of Jesus' disciples, he denies it. The word the Gospel uses for the servant girl means literally in Greek "gatekeeper."

Suddenly the irony of it all jumped right out. John uses a lot of irony, and here consider what's going on. Peter holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus had commissioned him to do that. So Peter was the gatekeeper to heaven, or he would be eventually. That was the role he was destined for.

But he was afraid of a servant girl who was keeping the door to the palace of the high priest Annas. Peter cowered before this girl. John's Gospel speaks much of the theme of darkness. So we see it here: the kingdom of darkness taking over to the point where the one holding the keys to the kingdom of God quakes in fear before the one holding the keys to an earthly place. And out of fear, Peter denies the Lord.

And what about today? Doesn't this continually happen? As baptized Christians, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and the grace of God. Yet do we sometimes cower in fear before those who would ridicule our faith? But in the Spirit, we are stronger than the power of evil. The devil's greatest lie is to get us to believe that evil is stronger than good. It is not; it may gain the upper hand for a while but in the end, God will scatter the forces of darkness. Christ has already won the victory for us.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sr Cecilia's funeral

Yesterday we had Sr Cecilia's funeral. It was a wonderful experience of faith and hope. At the wake the evening before, the sisters had prepared a truly beautiful slide show of pictures from Sr Cecilia's whole life. It also included a recording she had made shortly before her death, when she knew she was approaching eternity.

She said that even though after death she would no longer be present with us physically, she would be with us spiritually, united in Christ and the Holy Spirit. She added that she wanted to be able to help those she left behind, and encouraged us all to ask her to intercede for all of our special intentions. It reminded me of what St Therese had said, that she wanted to spend her heaven doing good on earth.

Finally, she summed it all up by saying that the most important thing is to love each other. Looking at the imminent end of her life, she commented that everything looks so different when we approach death. Love is the goal, love of God and love of one another. This message was printed on her memorial card: "There are in the end three things that last; faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians, 13:13).

Thank you, Sr Cecilia, for this beautiful legacy of your life, a life so well lived with such a great example of holiness. We will miss you!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sr Cecilia Paula Livingston, RIP

This morning around 3:30, Sr Cecilia Paula died of complications from cancer. She was 57 years old and had battled cancer for the past few years.

I got to know Sr Cecilia a little better when she was the local superior of our Boston community about, in the late 90s. She was always a very conscientious sister, careful to observe the vows and a spirit of poverty.

Sr Cecilia had a good sense of humor too. One summer I went with her and a couple other sisters (including her blood sister, Sr Jane) to the Courage conference in Ottawa. We had a book display and recorded the conference talks, as we do every year. It was an eventful trip when a lot of funny things happened. On the way up we stopped at a friend's house in Vermont. As we drove into the parking lot of a nearby plaza, our car conked out. Right at that moment, our friend just happened to drive in and saw us. Then the car mysteriously started up again and was fine for the rest of the trip. We got stuck in a huge traffic jam on a bridge in Montreal because a lawn mower had fallen off someone's truck. Sr Cecilia had a really good humor about the whole thing. Then when we arrived at the conference, we found we were staying in a remoter part of an old retreat house. The hot water to that part had been shut off, naturally. Then a bat got in and was flying around the hallway near our book display. On the way home we narrowly avoided an accident when some lady went through a red light and barely missed us, but looked at us as if we had no right to be on the road. It was a funny trip and Sr Cecilia kept her good humor throughout the whole thing.

Now she is with the Lord. I am grateful for the gift that she was in my life. May she rest in peace, and enjoy the eternal reward she so richly deserves.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus

Today, Shrove Tuesday, is the feast of the Holy Face of Jesus. This feast is not on the liturgical calendar anymore, but it may be observed privately through prayers and devotions.
The devotion was popularized by a nun, Sr Pierina. She died in 1945 and was beatified in 2010 by Pope Benedict.

Some prayers to Jesus honoring his Holy Face are here. This devotion was a favorite of St. Therese, whose full profession name was "Therese of the Infant Jesus and of the Holy Face."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ask a Catholic Nun is Facebook finalist

I haven't blogged as much lately but have been doing more on Facebook. We have a site called "Ask a Catholic Nun" in which Sr Susan and I answer questions people have about the Catholic Faith. Now it's been nominated as one of the 5 finalists for the best Catholic facebook page!

Please help us by voting at this link. Thanks very much!

The site is part of our evangelization efforts. At least one person has told us that she came back to the Catholic faith because of it. Praise God!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas is one of the greatest doctors of the Church. He was a masterful theologian and philosopher,who wrote an amazing amount of material in these fields.

Thomas was also a poet and hymn writer. He wrote the famous Latin hymns for the Office of the feast of Corpus Christi (Catholic favorites such as Pange Lingua, Tantum Ergo, etc.)

But Thomas was a religious first of all, a humble Dominican friar. He spent his entire religious life carrying out the work of preaching and teaching that St. Dominic started.

Thomas is not a saint because of his intellectual brilliance. He is a saint because he practiced the virtues of faith, hope, and charity to a heroic degree. That's something we can imitate.

It's said that one day Thomas had a mystical vision of Jesus on the cross, who said to him, "You have written well of me, Thomas! What would you like as a reward?"
And Thomas replied, "Only you, Lord, only you!"

That was the secret of his holiness.He didn't seek honors or fame, but to do the will of the Lord in humble obedience and service.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sr Briege McKenna on the sacraments

I haven't blogged in a while -- due to some computer problems and other things. But now that's fixed.

This interview with Sr Briege McKenna is about her recent book on the power of the sacraments. Sr Briege has such a marvelous way of putting things. I love what she says in the interview about confession. She points out that people today feel a need to unburden themselves, and do it everywhere, even the internet. She says that people have told her their sins countless times, even on airplanes. But -- and here's the key point -- she can't give absolution. Neither can anyone on the internet. Only the priest can in confession.