Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bicycle Race

A few weeks ago, in the runup to the global climate summit in Copenhagen, NPR aired a story on cargo bicycles and the alternatives that they present for “green” transportation. These are pedal-powered bikes with a front bucket capable of transporting anything from beer kegs or groceries to school children too young to ride bikes of their own.

My first thought was that the practice of loading small kids into a basket on the front end of a bicycle and pushing them through traffic is never going to survive first contact with trial lawyers. The tykes will have to be properly restrained in a tested and certified roll cage and wearing approved safety devices – at which point it will be fabulously expensive and nearly impossible to move.

My second thought was climate-inspired. This was a December morning in Ohio, with about an inch of newly fallen snow on the ground. That makes the whole concept a hard sell. The last time that I rode my bicycle to work, I got caught in an afternoon rainstorm on my way home. I haven’t ridden my bike to work again since. It would take some pretty hefty incentives to get me to opt for a bicycle in sub-freezing temperatures or in any type of precipitation.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Something About Christmas

I would be negligent if I didn’t write something about Christmas. The fact is that every year, the holiday overwhelms me. Between the parties, the gifts, the atmosphere, the shopping (both before and after the big day!), the food, the drink, the house full of kids home from school, and everything else that I’ve forgotten to mention, I’m just not inclined to write much of anything.

And yet I have to write something.

Someday, I hope to be able to immerse myself in the spirituality of that Holy Night. When, in the fullness of time, God took upon himself a human nature and made his dwelling among fallen humanity, he did so in the most modest of ways. He was born into the barest of amenities, in a stable, to the wife of a carpenter. Mary and Joseph were not rich, and the census called by Caesar had required them to leave their home and travel to Bethlehem, the city of David, of whose line Joseph was descended.

The Son of God, Jesus, the “true bread from heaven” was born to descendents of David in a town whose name means “house of bread.”

The birth was not without its glory. Indeed, the event was announced by angel choirs, but not to the priests or to the sages of Jerusalem. Rather, the angels appeared to humble shepherds, tending their flocks. And so, the shepherds came to the stable to adore the new born Lamb of God. The found the Lamb, the Bread, the Son, the King, lying in a manger – a feeding trough.

The signs and symbols stagger the imagination. To think that God should come to earth in such a way!

The only gift that really matters at Christmas is the gift that God gave us 2000 years ago by becoming one of us. The circumstances of His birth demonstrate to us that the comforts of life are unnecessary luxuries. It should make us feel foolish for pouting if we didn’t find the gift that we wanted to find under the Christmas tree.

Meanwhile, the mad rush of “the season” continues. All the cheery carols flee from the radio and lopped-off trees stripped naked of ornamentation start to appear at curbside. Retailers try to squeeze the last few holiday pennies from shoppers’ purses while the media turn their attention to recapping the newsworthy stories of the last year and the last decade. The important things rarely make the top-ten lists.

There is so much more that deserves to be written, not just about Christmas, but also about the feasts that follow: St. Stephen, St. John, the Holy Innocents, the Holy Family, the Mother of God, and Epiphany. For me, however, the kids are still home from school, and once I get home from work, it’s family game time. All of the family members that we feasted with last week will gather again to ring in the New Year. I’ll be there in the middle of it, basking in the warm glow of good will, rushing to defuse ill will when siblings start to squabble, and above it all, trying to keep it all in the perspective of the greatest gift of all.

Merry Christmas, and may God bless the New Year!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Types of John

Mark Twain famously noted (or so I am told) that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The same can be said of the events recorded in Sacred Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Church, as early as apostolic times, and then constantly in her Tradition, has illuminated the unity of the divine plan in the two Testaments through typology, which discerns in God’s works of the Old Covenant prefigurations of what he accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his incarnate Son.”

Sometimes, the writers of the New Testament books explicitly link figures to their Old Testament types. In the case of John the Baptist, Jesus says that “he is Elijah who is to come” in Matther 11:14.

The Church also makes clear in the selection of Advent readings for December 19 that it considers Samson a type for John. It might be more accurate to say that the wife a Manoah is a type for Elizabeth. Both were barren, until God decided to bless each of them with a son. In both cases, the son of the blessing was set aside by God for a special purpose. The similarity between Samson and John is limited, however. By Christian standards, Samson is hardly a model of righteousness. Reading Judges 14-16 is downright scandalous by today’s standards, with Samson smiting Philistines hip and thigh with the jawbone of an ass and visiting prostitutes.

A stronger type for John might be found in the prophet Samuel. His mother, Hannah, was barren until the Lord heard her prayers. “The Lord remembered her; and in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’” (1 Samuel 1:19-20) As soon as the child was weaned, he was taken to Shiloh to minister to the Lord, in the presence of Eli the priest. Samuel would go on to receive the prophetic call and then to anoint David, the youngest son of Jesse, to be king after Saul is unfaithful. Similarly, John will baptize Jesus, whose legal father, Joseph, was of the house of David.

Ya gotta love the ways in which Scripture rhymes!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Agressive Mistresses and Unfaithful Husbands

Every now and then, I read an article or column that brings me to the brink of despair. I don’t know why it should produce such a reaction, but Maggie Gallagher’s take on the whole sordid Tiger Woods scandal is one such column. Marriage is important, as an institution, because it provides the vital center of the fundamental building block of society, the nuclear family. That foundation is under attack on multiple fronts. The latest front appears to be the aggressive mistress.

The unfaithful husband is breaking vows. The mistress, however, who knows that he is married and cooperates in his unfaithfulness is no victim, and she is deluding herself if she thinks the cheat of a man is going to be true to her.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

John's Doubt

Did John doubt? One school of thought is that John the Baptist was struggling with doubts, and so he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the One. Sr. Ann Shields of Renewal Ministries, in her Food for the Journey broadcast for December 16, encourages us to confront our doubts and seek out the answers. The disciples, Sr. Ann suggests, returned to the Baptist with the report that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cured, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. John then made a conscious decision to believe. Some of the sentiments expressed by Sr. Ann can be seen in the collection of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s personal letters, Come Be My Light.

The other school of thought is that John did not doubt, but his disciples did, and in sending his disciples to Jesus, John was addressing their doubts, not his own. That’s the view adopted by Fr. Mary Mark in his EWTN homily this morning.

The scripture itself is ambiguous on the point, and individual Catholics are free to favor either view.


I have been accused of being a denier. No, not a denier of the Bishop Williamson variety – the holocaust of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis is a fact of history. What I have been accused of denying, if I understand my correspondent correctly, is climate change.

Just in case anybody reading this has been living in a cave for the last ten years, there is a wide-spread belief that humanity is bad for the planet. Human activity, so the theory goes, is causing the planet’s temperature to rise at an accelerating rate (the so-called hockey-stick curve). The main culprit, we are told, is carbon dioxide, which is produced in combustion reactions and animal respiration. Carbon dioxide is supposed to act as a greenhouse gas, allowing energy from sunlight to enter into the atmosphere to warm the planet, but trapping the heat so that less energy is radiated back out into space. Unless we do something, the polar ice caps are going to melt like Frosty the Snowman, and we’re all going to die horrible deaths.

To prevent this catastrophe, the alarmists say, we have to strictly control the generation of carbon dioxide. The “carbon footprint” of every person on the planet must be calculated and rationed. To advance the process, we must adhere to international protocols in which advanced western democracies accept upon themselves all of the responsibility for the sins of economic development and vow to do extreme penance.

For the record, I do not deny the possibility that the global mean temperature could be inching upward. Nor do I deny that man has an impact on the environment. What I do deny is the idea that punitive carbon dioxide restrictions are going to have any measurable effect, other than the utter destruction of western economies. Destroying the U.S. economy is not going to improve the economy or the environment in Swaziland.

Add to all of this the recent disclosure of emails and computer code from one of the major climate research groups, to the effect that the “science” is rigged to generate data in support of a pre-determined conclusion, and the hysteria of the global warming alarmists starts to look a little ridiculous. Much of the original temperature data from weather stations around the world has been destroyed. The only data now available from those weather stations is data that has been “adjusted” in ways that nobody seems willing or able to divulge.

Some people seem to be under the mistaken impression that those, like me, who don’t see global warming as an existential threat must want instead to remove all emissions controls and pollute the atmosphere. That’s simply not true. I like to breathe clean air – I just don’t think that carbon dioxide is a pollutant. Other pollutants can and should be controlled. We are stewards of God’s creation, and we have a responsibility before Him to care for the planet.

That is a responsibility that I do not deny.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

One of Many

Yes, it's regrettable that it only happens twice a year, but that doesn't make it any less glorious. I attended a reconciliation service Monday evening. What's particularly nice is that every Advent and Lent, approximately two weeks before Christmas or Easter, the communities of New Bremen, Minster, and Fort Loramie, each have a reconciliation service. The service is held on Monday in New Bremen, Tuesday in Minster, and Thursday in Fort Loramie. A smaller service is also held on Wednesday in Egypt. At each service, approximately six priests are available to hear individual confession of sins and give absolution. The lines are generally long.

It is a cause for joy to think of all the souls recognizing that their sins have damaged their relationships with God and seeking to be reconciled. It is glorious to think of all the sins being absolved. It is humbling and just a little bit comforting to know that I'm just one more in a long line of sinners to whom God offers his love and mercy.

[Clarification 12/18/09: What happens twice a year, once in Advent and once in Lent, is the penance service with multiple priests and long lines. Individual confession with shorter lines is available at various times and places throughout the week, and I try to make it every few weeks. Maybe I'm weaker than most, but twice a year isn't enough for me.]

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kingdom of Violence

Back in 2001, after the horror of the terrorist attacks on the morning of September 11, I sought solace by attending mass at a nearby parish. On that Tuesday evening, and in the days that followed, the priest prayed that we might be delivered from men of violence.

Last week, during the 2nd Week of Advent, the words of Matthew 11:12 stood out, and they continue to occupy my thoughts, begging for some interpretation that fits in with the entirety of God’s revelation.

My RSV translation gives the verse as “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.” A note in the text informs that some sources read, “has been coming violently” in lieu of “has suffered violence.” The two alternate texts have meanings that are almost completely out of phase with one another if parsed grammatically. I can sympathize with the translators, who had to try to decide which of two ancient Greek texts was more authentic – especially since Greek was not the language in which the words were spoken. The NAB translation used for the mass is similar: “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” The NIV, however, translates it a little differently: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forcefully men lay hold of it.” My NIV translation contains no mention of alternate texts, or of violence.

I am aware of two interpretations of the passage. One is that violence isn’t violence. That is to say that the verse refers to men who are willing to take extreme action in pursuit of sanctity. If there is violence to be done, it is to be self-inflicted. This interpretation sounds to me an awful lot like the jihad-as-internal struggle interpretation of the Koran. I will take it into consideration, but I’m not sure that I’m ready to buy it.

The second interpretation that I’ve heard is that of violence done to those who seek the kingdom. The prophets were put to death, and Jesus promises persecution to any who follow him. This interpretation tracks with the aphorism that the Church grows from the blood of the martyrs. This interpretation is also provided in the NAB note at the USCCB website, which states, “The meaning of this difficult saying is probably that the opponents of Jesus are trying to prevent people from accepting the kingdom and to snatch it away from those who have received it.”

Pope John Paul II referenced the verse in his 1979 encyclical Redemptor hominis. In section 11 of the letter, John Paul discusses the mystery of Christ as the basis of the Church’s mission and of Christianity. The Holy Father notes that “the mission seems to encounter greater opposition nowadays than ever before,” and salvation and grace are linked with the Cross in the mystery of the divine economy. “It was not without reason that Christ said that ‘the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.’” He goes on to write, “We gladly accept this rebuke, that we may be like those ‘violent people of God’ that we have so often seen in the history of the Church and still see today, and that we may consciously join in the great mission of revealing Christ to the world. John Paul appears to start out with the second interpretation (violence to the kingdom), but then shifts to the first interpretation (violence for the kingdom).

If I really want to know what’s going on in this little snippet of scripture, there are a few things I can do. First, I have to keep in mind the context. John is in prison, and he has sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the messiah. After telling them (without actually telling them) that he is indeed the One, he sends them off, then addresses the crowd concerning John. The question that needs to be answered is whether John, the eccentric aesthetic in the desert, or Herod, the man responsible for imprisoning John, is practicing the violence to which Jesus is referring. Is it possible that Jesus is contrasting Herod in the first clause with John in the second?

A lot has been written about what Jesus means when he refers to the “kingdom of heaven” in the gospels. Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, argues for a Christocentric meaning: the kingdom of heaven refers to the incarnate person of Christ himself. That meaning might not fit in all places where the phrase is used. To be thorough, we would have to cross-reference every other use of the phrase in the gospel of Matthew.

It could come down to a matter of language and translation. The NAB and RSV translations both say that the kingdom suffers violence. An English-Greek concordance should provide the actual words used in the Greek for “suffer” and “violence”, along with any other places in scripture where those same word are used.

Finally, there should be some commentary available for just what Pope John Paul II means when he praised those violent people of God. I am fairly certain that he was not praising those who resort to physical violence in the name of religion.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Wisdom 13:5-9

by Timothy Murphy
Copyright (c) 2008 First Things (May 2008).

We worshipped moon and sun,
comets, the circling stars,
Venus and bloodstained Mars,
ignorant of our duty
owed to the unnamed one,
kindler of every beauty
and fire by which we find
the hand, the designing mind
of heaven’s artisan

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Kingdom Of Heaven Is At Hand

Rejoice! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!

What’s that? You mean that’s not what John the Baptist proclaimed? No, John came preaching a baptism of repentance. The Gospel of Matthew has him proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2).

Every year, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we hear about John the Baptist, and we can’t point to others in the crowd and say to ourselves, “He’s talking about them.” We are all called to repentance. We are all called to make straight the path of God by filling in the valleys of despair with hope and bringing low the mountains of pride with humility.

Advent might not be a season of penance, but it is certainly a season of repentance. It is a season not of atonement for sins, but of re-orienting ourselves in preparation for His glorious return. Contrition has its part to play, as we empty ourselves of our selves. Many parishes will celebrate communal penance services, in which the emphasis should probably be place on reconciliation between God and the penitent.

God came to us over 2000 years ago, and we celebrate His birth on Chistmas. He will come again, though we know not when. Let us use this time to prepare, that His path to our hearts might be straight and smooth.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Deaf Shall Read

There is a line in today's mass reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah: "On that day, the deaf shall hear the words of a book." It made me think of a Cochlear Implant recipient using the read text feature of his Kindle to listen to the latest best seller.

The prophecy has been fulfilled!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Advent and Health Care

In my quest to enter more deeply into the spirit of Advent, I was delighted to read (via CNA) that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops "has created an Advent and Christmas website with suggestions for daily prayers, readings, reflection and action. A collection of Lessons and Carols is also provided for live listening or download."

I've visited the site a couple of times this week, but was disappointed with today's offering. The reflection was from an address by Pope Benedict XVI to the Jesuits on the subject of St. Francis Xavier. The prayer and action items had to do with the uninsured and health care reform.

I'm visited the site for Advent-specific content. I don't think that I got it today. I hate to think that somebody at the Conference is running a bait-and-switch.

Grasping at Advent

So often, I hear people say that the Church’s liturgical calendar ends with the Solemnity of Christ the King, as if the year ends with a bang. Not so. There’s a whole week of Ordinary Time left after Christ the King. New Year’s Eve, as it were, occurs on Saturday of the 34th Week of Ordinary Time.

The First Sunday of Advent kicks off not the Christmas season, but the Advent Season. Our culture, however, has swallowed up Advent. Christmas begins as soon as Thanksgiving is over and ends as soon as we return to work. Radio stations that go to an all-Christmas format for the shopping season return to playing light rock on December 26.

First Things has re-printed (re-posted? What is the proper thing to say in the digital age for something that was originally produced in print and is re-produced in pixels?) an essay by editor Joseph Bottum entitled, The End of Advent:

“Christmas has devoured Advent, gobbled it up with the turkey giblets and the goblets of seasonal ale. Every secularized holiday, of course, tends to lose the context it had in the liturgical year. Across the nation, even in many churches, Easter has hopped across Lent, Halloween has frightened away All Saints, and New Year’s has drunk up Epiphany.”

I disagree. Lent kicks off in a big way on Ash Wednesday. Not only do we go to mass and receive ashes (in the middle of the week, no less!), we fast and abstain from meat. We give things up. For six weeks we look ahead with anticipation not to Easter, which we know is coming, but to the Good Friday that preceeds it. Having reached and passed through Good Friday, we burst into Easter with full joy. Lent is penance and anticipation of the Passion; Easter is joyful celebration that death has been conquered. The seasons are distinctly different, and rightly so.

Advent has been swallowed up by Christmas. It requires a conscious, counter-cultural effort to make the season into what it is supposed to be. Bottum, in his essay, notes, “What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it towards its goal.” Some well-intentioned souls want to turn Advent into another Lent, but I don’t think that the seasons share the same character. There is no analogy to Good Friday and the remembrance of the Crucifixion at the end of Advent. Christmas is the great celebration at the end of Advent, but immediately after celebrating the birth of our Savior, we remember the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, and the slaughter of the innocents at the jealous hand of Herod.

Advent is harder to embrace – harder to keep separate from Christmas. We shouldn’t try too hard to keep it separate, lest we become scrooges to the Christmas frivolity that surrounds us. Yet, at the same time, we should not forget that Advent is all about waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Professional Priests

Earlier this week, I read a Russell Shaw column prompted by the remarks of Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy. The Cardinal spoke to a gathering of priests at the shrine of Fatima in Portugal and cautioned them against turning their ministries into “a kind of ecclesiastical profession.” Shaw then takes both sides, defending the idea that the priesthood is more than just a job, but at the same time defending it as a profession.

My biggest objection to the remark as reported concerns the slighting use of the expression “ecclesiastical profession.” What I suspect the cardinal meant – and what’s true enough – is that the priesthood isn’t just one more job alongside others. In making this perfectly reasonable point, however, it’s a mistake to say or imply that there’s something intrinsically wrong with, or at least inferior about, professions and jobs in general.

He then goes on to point out he need for priests to execute their duties and live out their vocation in a professional manner.

It should come as no surprise that my thinking on the matter of vocations is focused by the lens of my own vocation as husband and father. When the priest is ordained, he undergoes an ontological change. He takes the Church as his bride in the way that I took my wife as my bride. From the beginning, God has revealed that in marriage, the man and the woman become one. The husband, the wife, and their offspring become a living icon of the Trinity. The priest, in taking the Church as his bride, becomes a living icon of Christ.

The idea that I would approach my vocation as a husband and father in the same way that I would approach a profession seems a little inappropriate. Professionalism just doesn’t embody the kind of outpouring of self that is required. I can and should be professional in my job, and in fact, the State of Ohio has given me permission to call myself a Professional Engineer. But the idea that I could get a certificate proclaiming me to be a Professional Husband is a little creepy.

Every priest has a job, whether it’s pastor, professor, or vocations director. They should execute the duties of their job professionally. But the exercise of their priesthood demands something more. Professionalism just doesn’t cut it, for priests or for husbands and dads.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Advent Carol

From the December 2009 issue of First Things.
By Julie Stoner

Hush that anguished hymn you're humming:
"Come, O Come, Emmanuel."
Trumpet Christmas! Fix his coming
firmly at "The First Nowell."

He's already come in glory!
Why plead, "Savior, come at last"?
Let's talk Christmas! Tell a story
safely in the distant past.

Drown out John the Baptist. Edit
out "Prepare! Make straight the way!"
Cut to Christmas! But on credit.
Square things up another day.

Advent's dreary. Let's start living.
Christmas now! Wear red and green!
While we're at it, skip Thanksgiving!
Deck the halls at Halloween!

Then, when the Incarnate Verb
overnight becomes passé
carry Christmas to the curb.
Pack the Prince of Peace away.