The Ascension of the Lord

When a life is wholly lived for ‘another,’ when it unfolds as an embodiment of justice and sacrificial love for the ‘other,’ it becomes the fullness of life, a perfect antidote to death (the absence of life). This is what we, together with the first disciples, witnessed, learned, and celebrated in Christ’s death and resurrection during the Easter Triduum. As it turned out, however, this was not the final teachable moment in Christ’s earthly ministry.

The Risen Lord teaches us in his post-resurrection ministry, as he taught the first disciples, that the ‘new life’ he has been raised into not only destroys death, but it cannot be contained by space and time either. A life fully lived for ‘another’ (i.e. the fullness of life), is actually a participation in Divine Life itself, which transcends any limitation, including that of space and time.

The ascension of the Lord, therefore, is not a move in space and time, from earth to heaven, which is often depicted as a corner of the universe. Rather, it is a demonstration of, and a witness to, the fact that the fullness of life (a participation in Divine Life), is the substratum, that is, the foundation of all there is.

Christ is Risen – Happy Easter

Rejoice in the new life God has given through the Risen Lord!

During Lent, we have been invited to recognize, face, and act against the many temptations that prompt us human beings to be and act in a less-than-human way. At the heart of every temptation is an urge to turn to and become preoccupied with the self. By so doing, the one acting inevitably neglects, acts against, or harms the ‘other’: the environment, one’s neighbour and, ultimately, God. This at times irresistible self-centering urge prevents human beings from giving the ‘other’ its justice, which is the minimum measure of love.

In his suffering, death, and resurrection, Christ gave us the solution that can enable everyone to overcome this weakness or sinfulness. He showed us that, even in the greatest of difficulties, it is possible to overcome the temptation of turning to the ‘self.’ He demonstrated that, even in the seemingly most hopeless situations, one does not have to act like a drowning person, capable of harming even those wanting to help. Indeed, he showed us that, in the act of dying to one’s self-centredness and selfishness, human beings will arise as he did to a new life: a life lived for the ‘other’.

This, however, might appear like a tall order, and understandably so. Still, by recalling Christ’s example, and God’s many other gifts and signs of love for us, with gratitude in our hearts, it is not only possible but crucial that we give it our very best effort. Indeed, we are all destined to live the mystery of this new life, because this is the form of life that makes us fully human and allows us to participate in the divine life at the same time.

This is the reason that we can say that Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection is the essence of the Christian message of salvation. Indeed, all are invited to live this new life, which is the only cure for the many troubles of our wounded world.

In this Easter season, let us contemplate and practice this mystery of dying to oneself and rising to a new life, lived for the ‘other’.

Lent – A Time of Transformation Leading to New Life

After the Exodus, the People of Israel experienced the forty years of wandering in the desert towards the Promised Land as a time of testing. Prior to starting his public ministry, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he prayed and fasted for forty days and was tempted.

These two turning-point events in the history of Israel and humanity as a whole had a common location: the desert. The desert is traditionally understood as a desolate place where the human being is deprived of every possible comfort and protection. There is no place to hide from the merciless attacks of the inhospitable elements. Heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and isolation quickly drive home the human being’s complete dependence, and the centrality of trust, hope, and love as sources of meaning in one’s life.  

The forty-year period (symbolic in itself) in the desert for the Jewish people was comparable to a boot camp of sorts, in which they gradually grew into their new identity as the People of God. During this time of trial and tribulation, of vigorous exercise and testing, God, like a good coach, stood by them, and their trust, hope, and love became strong enough to be able to recognize the fulfillment of God’s promises as they were entering the Promised Land.

In Jesus’ desert experience, he was tempted to the core. In his humanity he was enticed by the enemy of human nature to reject his complete dependence on God, to take matters in his own hands, and save himself from the adversities of the desert environment. He was prompted (“if you are the Son of God”) to deny his human condition and claim powers that would cancel out his radical dependence on God. He was prompted to turn stones into bread and become self-sufficient, defy gravity by jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple unharmed, and become an instant celebrity. Finally, he was offered great political power by worshiping anything other than God. By consistently rejecting the temptations of undue power, he prepared the rest of his human life on earth to become the perfect revelation of God. In his life, death, and resurrection he revealed what it means to be a fully alive human being, a true image and likeness of God, namely, to act as if everything depended on him, but trusting in God as if everything would depend on God alone.  

The forty days of Lent are an invitation to enter the desert with the Jewish people and, especially, with Jesus. During this time of transformation and growth, Christians are invited to dare to accept and embrace their complete dependence on God. By growing in inner freedom from those inordinate attachments in life that prevent them from trusting and loving God and neighbour, Christians become able to make significant sacrifices in acting out this trust and love.

To this end, when answering the call of Lent and creating mini-desert experiences, many Christians often choose to give up things or practices that give them comfort and joy in everyday life. Others may commit themselves to correcting or unlearning bad, selfish habits, or, to becoming better at doing acts of justice and charity. In general, however, all are invited to try to turn to God in prayer more intensely and earnestly. All these, one by one or combined, help to facilitate growth in inner freedom that enables a person to act as if everything would depend on that person, and to trust in God as if everything would depend on God alone. In short, the forty days of Lent are a time of testing or practice, during which Christians are invited to become better images and likenesses of God who will bring meaning and joy into the lives of their neighbour.

Wishing you and your loved ones a grace-filled Lent. 

The True Gift of Christmas

‘Christmas’ (from Crīstesmæsse or Christ’s Mass), also known as The Nativity of the Lord, is one of the most important celebrations in the Christian tradition.

The meaning of this feast, however, can only be understood fully when viewed through the event of the passion (suffering), death, and resurrection of Christ, which remains the central mystery of the Christian experience.

In and through the birth of the Christ-child, divine life became grafted into human existence, into the human form of life, resulting in its transformation or salvation. Think about it this way: When we insert a shoot or twig of a rose as a graft into a wild rose, the wild rose eventually becomes transformed into a new plant with new, enhanced characteristics. In a similar way, then, Divine Life (in Christian terminology, the Second Person of the Trinity) entering human existence, became grafted into the human form of life and, from within, changed it for ever. Christ’s life became the standard of human life.

The meaning of this became fully articulated and shown in the life of Christ. His teaching, in word and action, is the form of human life that all human beings, as images and likenesses of God, are called to participate in by imitating it. At the heart of this revelation of the new and enhanced human life – of who God is for us humans and who are we for God – is sacrificial love, the minimum measure of which is justice. 

The full and ultimate nature of this sacrificial love has been demonstrated in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Christians refer to this as the ‘Easter experience.’

The true gift of Christmas, therefore, transcends every form of sentimentalism or commercialism, no matter how well intended. The true gift of Christmas is a new form of human life that is truly worth living.

Merry Christmas!

Is Advent Worth Keeping?

It has become so difficult to celebrate Advent as a liturgical season distinct from Christmas that one sometimes wonders if it’s worth observing it at all. Already, at least by mid-November, the stores are full of Christmas decorations and ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ is playing constantly in the background. Although COVID-19 has put the kibosh on many of the usual December festivities, in years past, this month has been full of Christmas or holiday parties, and (I know from experience), you can’t find a Christmas tree anywhere on Christmas Eve. If you want one to decorate, you have to buy it now.

Historically, Advent has had a complex development, sometimes penitential in emphasis. Now, however, Roman Catholics observe Advent’s twofold character as “a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; [and] as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation” [Sacred Congregation of Rites, General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, (March 21, 1969, no. 39]. We recall the historical birth of Christ, but more importantly, the implications of that birth for human history, human life, and human destiny right now. We give thanks, for example, for Christ’s continual presence in his Church and in human hearts through grace, we seek to welcome him expectantly with joy each day, and we look forward to his return in glory.

Advent is not at all a time to pretend Emmanuel (God-with-us) has not yet come. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “the coming of God’s Son to earth is an event of such immensity that God willed to prepare for it over centuries….[E]verything converge[s] on Christ: all the rituals and sacrifices, figures and symbols of the ‘First Covenant’” (no. 522). Through Israel’s prophets, the greatest of which was John the Baptist, God announced Christ’s coming and awakened in human hearts an expectation of this coming. “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’” (no. 524). During Advent, we Christians “re-read and re-live the great events of salvation history in the ‘today’ of the liturgy” (CCC, 1095).

So, how can one focus on this when all around us is focussing on the ‘season of giving’? Here’s a list of suggestions, which I’m calling the ‘Twelve Doors to Christmas”:

  1. Pay close attention to the gospel readings in Advent (you can find daily readings here: The First Sunday focuses on the Lord’s Second Coming at the end of time, not on his birth at Bethlehem. The Second and Third Sundays focus on John the Baptist. Only the Fourth Sunday recounts events that immediately precede the Lord’s birth.
  2. Learn about Israel’s prophets, especially Isaiah. The Old Testament readings (Hebrew Scriptures) remind us of the fulfillment of the Messianic Age yet to come. They speak of justice and mercy, peace and righteousness, joy and fulfillment. Learn more about our Jewish brothers and sisters who still await with longing the coming of the Messiah.
  3.  Make a family Advent wreath and light its candles at family meals (you can use all white candles, if you like, or three purple and one rose; other countries use different colours). Use Jesse tree symbols at home, and read the Bible stories that go with each symbol. They tell the story of our salvation.
  4. The second readings from the New Testament exhort us to live in a way which pleases God. Advent can be a special time to take account of how we ourselves are living and to work for justice and peace in the world, in our families, and in all of our human relationships. Proclaim Christ by fostering dialogue with those who follow the world’s other major religions. Do what you can to heal family wounds, to care for others, and to work on your marriage so that Christmas can be an occasion of harmony and joy, rather than bitterness, division, and sorrow.
  5. While October and May have long been considered traditional months for Marian devotion, the season of Advent includes the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12. These liturgical feasts provide some of the solid foundation which should give shape to our private devotions.
  6. Meet the Mary of the Magnificat and ponder with her the coming of the Messiah. Pray Evening Prayer if you can, a special feature of which is the (singing of the) Magnificat.
  7. Throw off the yoke of Christmas debt before you take it on. Prepare instead for a Christmas which speaks of the liberation for you and yours Christ has come to bring. Consider giving a gift which can help to achieve justice and peace in our world (a donation to a suitable charity, for example), and feed the soul at the same time.
  8. Learn and come to appreciate the seasonal psalms for Advent, the ‘O antiphons’ (like those in ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’), sung between December 17 and December 24, and the large repertoire of Advent hymns.
  9. Plan to celebrate the full Christmas season, which begins with Evening Prayer on Christmas Eve and ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord which, in this upcoming liturgical year, falls on January 10, 2021.
  10. Buy your Christmas tree a little later this year so you can keep it up until January 10, 2021. If you use an artificial tree, delay putting it up until a little later in the Advent season. Choose a mild day to put up outdoor lights but hold off turning them on until it gets closer to Christmas.
  11. Dig out the Christmas music (find the traditional religious carols, not just the secular songs) for use during the Christmas season. If you can’t sing them, at least play Christmas carols that celebrate God-with-us at family gatherings throughout the entire Christmas season.
  12. Although it is difficult to know whether attending Church will be possible or not, due to COVID-19 and associated public health regulations, plan to at least become aware of all the celebrations included within the Christmas season. In the week after Christmas (the ‘Octave’ of Christmas), we celebrate the feasts of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, St. John the Evangelist (of the Fourth Gospel), the feast of the Holy Innocents, and the feast of the Holy Family, among others. Of course, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (the day on which we celebrate the World Day of Peace) is the Eighth day of the ‘Octave’. When it is possible to gather again for worship, consider also celebrating the Divine Liturgy in an Eastern Catholic Church near you, if there is one. This fulfills the Sunday obligation and expands one’s appreciation for the richness of the Catholic community.   

It would be a shame to eliminate or ignore Advent before even sampling the season’s richness. We say, as a Christian community, that we cannot appreciate the full meaning of Christ’s Incarnation, celebrated at Christmas, unless we have also experienced the longing for salvation and the hope instilled by God’s saving deeds in the past, and the final consummation of the mystery of Christ at the End of Time. Is Advent worth keeping? Yes, indeed! It’s worth keeping in the Church’s liturgical calendar, and worth keeping in our hearts, too. May our worthy observance of Advent “remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy” (Opening Prayer, Second Sunday of Advent).

Advent – A Time of Waiting and Hope

Reflections on the primal human experience of openness and desire for the ‘more’ and the ‘better’, that grounds all aspects of human life. In the Christian tradition this is often referred to as waiting and hoping for the fullness of ‘salvation’.

Did it ever occur to you, that we human beings are never sa’tisfied with what we have? We always seem to desire, hope, and search for something more, something better, something greater. We want not only more and better material things, but we also desire more and better knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and, perhaps, most of all, more acceptance, meaning, and love in our lives. We constantly reach out to the ‘beyond’, the unknown, and the ultimate. 

This constant openness and reaching out to the ‘beyond’ and the unknown is an ongoing display and witness to a fundamental faith and trust in that ‘beyond’ and ‘unknown’. Although we lack any tangible or logical certainty and proof, we are prepared to sacrifice, in some cases, almost anything, to discover, understand, and become familiar with the ‘beyond’. In the Christian experience, St. Augustine of Hippo is said to have put this succinctly in this way: “Our heart is restless, O God, until it rests in you.”

It is this genuinely and fundamentally human attitude or posture of desiring the ‘more’ that is at the heart of the season of Advent. This intrinsically human sentiment has been expressed very strongly in the Jewish scriptures. The Jewish people, in their lives as a group or community, were not satisfied with their situation marked by trials, tribulations, and sufferings. They reached out, waited, and searched for the ‘Ultimate Beyond’, whom they refused to name, to break into their lives, and make present to them the ultimate meaning, wisdom, and love that would transform their world, level mountains and raise valleys, lift up the poor, and exalt the oppressed. Their dream and expectation was that God’s love would govern everyone’s heart and mind. They waited and searched for the arrival (advent) of the Messiah, who would proclaim this ‘good news’.

Today, we humans are still struggling, searching, waiting for the ‘breaking in’ or arrival of the ultimate, (God’s knowledge, wisdom, meaning, and love in our midst). We wait and search for the ‘good news’ that will somehow end the flood of bad news showered on us 24/7, that attests to the abundance of distrust, greed, selfishness, and hate in our lives. Think of how many people, communities, nations, and races seem to turn on one another, of how the division between the poor and the rich is fast increasing, and of how human beings abuse one another and their environment.

The essence of the Christian experience is the recognition that the ‘good news’ desired by all, has actually already arrived in our midst, in the person of Jesus Christ more than two thousand years ago. His life, death, and resurrection introduced a form of life into the collective life of humanity that, when lived, discovers, grasps, and becomes familiar with the ‘Ultimate Beyond’, with the ultimate knowledge, understanding, and meaning of all there is, with God’s love and life itself.

The Christian experience, however, also knows that this discovering, grasping, and becoming familiar with the ‘good news’, requires our openness, trust, and faith. These are expressed in an ongoing search, in humility, and in a fundamentally selfless attitude towards God, the ‘Ultimate Other’. This attitude is not easy to maintain, especially when elements of our society strongly, and even militantly, advocate the opposite.

Advent, therefore, is a time of preparation for the arrival of someone important. It is a period of time when we can prepare ourselves, refocus our lives and priorities, and sharpen our senses that we might become better equipped and prepared to find the ‘good news’ already present in our everyday life but not fully recognized, in the person (life, death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ.

The core sentiments that underlie the experience of the season of Advent are trust, hope, and faith, expressed in the yearning for, and reaching out to, the ‘Ultimate Beyond’. The Christian tradition, therefore, rightly puts the season of Advent at the beginning of the liturgical year, the cycle of the Christian salvation experience. In the next four weeks, we are invited to revisit these fundamental human sentiments. What, or who, is worthy of our trust, hop, and faith?