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One of my favorite activities in preparation for Christmas is the decoration of my house. It has become quite the ritualized activity. At the farmer’s market I carefully select my tree which then is wrapped and tied to the roof of my jeep. Taking side streets I slowly make my way home holding on to the ropes tied around the tree. Then comes the most difficult part: setting up the tree in its stand and making sure it is stable. I also don’t care very much for the placement of the light, yet it is one of these things that needs to be done before the real fun can begin.
As soon as the tree is in place and the lights have been hung it is time to open the Christmas closet. Over the past year, new crèches and Christmas ornaments have been added to the collection and they, together with the one’s I have amassed over the years wait to be rediscovered. I take my time unpacking everything as I recall the history of each ornament and each crèche. This intentional and careful unpacking of memories is essential to my celebration of the coming holy days. I have a couple of ornaments that were gifted to me by my grandparents and parents, all of whom are now deceased. Handling these allows me to remember them and fills me with gratitude. A set of ornaments was given to me by a friend after he witnessed my tree collapse one fateful Christmas destroying most of the ornaments. Other ornaments remind me of trips I have taken with dear friends. Yet, most important to me is the angel which sits atop the tree. Its story is too long for this article. Feel free to ask me about it when we see one another next.
After I finish the Christmas tree I start setting up the nativity scenes. By now I have collected many from all around the world. Most of them are on display at The Basilica but I do keep some of my favorite ones at home. Setting them up takes time too because I recall the history of each set and most importantly as I place the baby Jesus in the manger I ponder the reason why we do all this: God is with us.
These home activities are treasured by all of us and so are our church activities. Before I even touch my home we decorate The Basilica first for Advent and then for Christmas. This will be the 20th time I celebrate Christmas at The Basilica. Much has changed in our world and in our church over these past 20 years, for better and for worse. But, Christmas at The Basilica remains the same as does the Christmas promise: God is with us.
The Basilica is our home and I ask you to join me in intentionally and carefully unpacking our memories. Let’s treasure fond Basilica moments shared with loved ones. Let’s cherish liturgical highpoints and remember those life-changing moments we experienced in our community. But most importantly let us never forget that at the heart of all of this is Jesus Christ our Savior whose birth we celebrate and whose return we anticipate during this wonderful season.
Today we begin a new liturgical year with the first Sunday of Advent. This magical season which prepares us for the celebration of Christmas provides us with a great opportunity to pause and evaluate our lives. New beginnings always afford us new chances. I, for one am fond of new chances. They are a gift to all of us.
The English word Advent comes from the Latin Adventus Domini, meaning the Coming of the Lord. Most of us understand this to mean Jesus’ presence with us at Christmas as we commemorate and celebrate his birth. The full meaning of Adventus Domini, however embraces Jesus’ birth 2000 years ago; his presence with us today as well as his return at the end of time. Advent thus becomes a time of preparation not only for the celebration of Jesus’ birth 2000 years ago. It also is a time when we become more aware of Jesus’ presence in our lives today. And it is a time during which we prepare for his Second Coming.
When we sing Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus, Come, we not only pray for his presence in our midst at Christmas, but we also pray for his Second Coming and for the hastening of the end of time. This is a rather awesome concept: to pray for the end of time. As Christians we believe that when Christ returns he will inaugurate the completion of the Messianic Times, when according to the prophet Isaiah “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;” when “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;” when “there shall be no more ruin on all my holy Mountain;” when “the steppe and the parched land…will bloom with abundant flowers.”
Advent is that season when we are invited to dream of that perfect world without death, diseases or disasters; a world where all God’s children and all of creation exist together in perfect harmony. Advent is also the season during which we commit ourselves to making this harmonious world a bit more possible.
So, let’s sing Maranatha with full voice and let’s act in ways that will hasten the arrival of that perfect world.
Last Sunday, November 9 we celebrated the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran as well as the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since then I have been pondering the meaning of these two celebrations happening on the same day. Their coinciding seemed fortuitous the more I thought about it.
The Lateran Basilica was built after the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the early 4th C. It was dedicated as the Cathedral Church of Rome by Pope Sylvester I on November 9, 324. As such it is the mother church not only of all Catholics in Rome but even of all Catholics throughout the world. A small Latin inscription on the Lateran’s façade affirms that the “Most Holy Lateran Church, is mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world.” The world-wide observance of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica is a celebration of our unity as Catholics gathered around the successor of Peter, Pope Francis. Thus the Lateran Basilica, the Pope’s Cathedral stands as a permanent reminder of our unity.
By contrast, the Berlin Wall represented division. After World War II Germany was divided between the former Soviet Union on the one hand and Great Britain, France and The United States on the other hand. This division between West Germany and East Germany became starker as time passed. On August 12, 1961 the East German Communist leadership ordered that a barrier be built in order to prevent Berliners to cross between East Berlin and West Berlin. For almost three decades this wall symbolized the divisions between the West and the East Block countries. On June 12, 1987 President Ronald Reagan famously challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!" On November 9, 1989 Berliners from both sides took matters in their own hands and started tearing down the wall with their bare hands, in effect re-uniting Germany.
Since that great day on which unity triumphed many new walls, either physical or figurative have been erected throughout the world. The human race seems more divided than ever as race, creed, economics, education, gender, sexuality, and so much more sets us apart from one another. Even within the Catholic Church we have managed to build walls and depending on whether you pass one litmus test or another you are either in or you are out.
I am reminded of a recent photo someone took of my siblings and myself. Though there is a striking resemblance between all of us, there are also great differences. Like most families we are bound together by blood but are very diverse in most everything we do, we believe, we hope and strive for. Never-the-less, we stick together, if not celebrating, at least appreciating or sometimes just tolerating one another’s difference. Our families are a micro-cosmos of the macro-cosmos which is the human race. There are many similarities between all of us and there are many differences, yet we stick together and learn how to celebrate not only our similarities but also our differences.
Thus, taking President Regan’s words to a new level let’s tear down the walls that separate us on so many levels. And let’s imitate Pope Francis, our Pontifex Maximus or Great Bridge Builder and start building bridges from person to person, from community to community until one day all of us, no matter who we are will feel welcomed by everyone else so Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” finally come true.
A fortuitous coincidence of celebrations, indeed.
It has been 20 years since our first Icon Festival in November of 1995. You may remember that it all began with a small exhibit of icons in a former chapel which now houses the church elevator. It was a humble but important initiative as it allowed us to celebrate All Saints in a very tangible way and brought together members of two of the great Christian traditions: Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Since then, the festival has broadened to include a much larger exhibit in the sanctuary; a procession with Icons; icon classes; lectures; visits to Orthodox Churches; concerts by Basilica Choirs and Orthodox Choirs; as well as prayer in both traditions. In all of this, bringing together Christians of the East and the West has been our main focus. Icons, the saints they depict and the devotion they elicit seem to be able to do just that.
For some 1000 years, Orthodox and Catholic Christians have grown apart. This has led to centuries of suspicion and distrust. Though there has been some rapprochement, the path to unity between Orthodox and Catholic Christians is neither easy not quick. And the end result is probably not going to be how we imagine it today.
As we journey toward unity, it is good to remember that the early church saw no conflict between unity and diversity, on the contrary. The early church, e.g. was rich in liturgical diversity as the language of the service, the ritual details and the texts differed from region to region. And yet, early Christians understood themselves to be united by their strong faith in Christ. A strong sense of unity and rich diversity characterized the early church.
Since then we have sadly come to equate unity with uniformity. In order to be one, we think that we have to pray in exactly the same way, using the same rituals and texts. Diversity, which was a hallmark of early Christianity is often regarded as a threat and challenge to unity, rather than an enrichment of that same unity.
If ever we hope for unity among Christians we will have to again embrace diversity as a gift, rather than as a threat. Unity will only be attained when we not only tolerate, but even embrace and welcome the divine gift of diversity.
Walking through the streets of Paris last week I could not but notice the many signs of Halloween in the window displays. As I asked a friend about this she mentioned how important Halloween had become in Europe and she admitted to decorating her daycare center for Halloween as well. “The children love the carved pumpkins, the masks, the ghosts, and the candy,” she explained. Apparently there even is a Halloween parade in my hometown and children have taken up trick-or-treating. Not missing a beat I asked her what she was planning to do for All Saints and All Souls Day. She was a bit taken aback as she confessed that, in fact she had no plans.
The world, it seems has been turned upside down. Today, Halloween has clearly overshadowed All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Whereas, growing up in Belgium we did not even know about Halloween. Our undivided attention was given to celebrating All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, two of my favorite days on the liturgical calendar..
On All Saints Day the entire family gathered at our parish church for a solemn liturgy celebrating all the Saints. Then it was off to my grandmother’s house for a day of festive leisure culminating is a sumptuous dinner. The highpoint of the afternoon was the simple play the children put together for the adults, illustrating the life of our favorite saints. My favorite Saints were the ones depicted with the child Jesus. So, I often played Saint Joseph, Saint Anthony and Saint Christopher, carrying the child Jesus (one of my cousin’s dolls) on my shoulders or in my arms, across the improvised stage.
All Souls Day was marked by a certain sober solemnity as we remembered all those who had died. After Mass we walked to the cemetery to place flowers on the tombs of our ancestors and to pray for them as well as for ourselves. The dinner that day was fine, but not nearly as festive as the day before. The stories around the dinner table were about the great or funny things our deceased ancestors did.
Thus these two days which are very intimately connected allowed us to tell the story of our beloved saints as well as the stories of our beloved ancestors while we looked at their portraits and paintings which were interspersed with images of the saints fastidiously collected by my grandmother. Though I did not realize it at the time celebrating these two feasts, the church and my family instilled in me that we are all part of the Body of Christ because all of us are one in Him, saint and sinner alike by virtue of our baptism.
As we rejoice in the Icons of the Saints placed in the Sanctuary this month, let us celebrate all the Saints, those who have gone before us, those who live among us and those yet to be born. As we write the names of our loved ones in the Book of Remembrance and place their photos on the side-altars let us celebrate their lives and remember that all of us are one. And as we celebrate Vespers for All Souls, let us pray that all of us may meet again before the Heavenly Throne at the end of time.
So, dare I ask? What are your plans for All Saints’ and All Soul’s Day?
It was October 1979, my second year in seminary when I had the great opportunity to spend the feast of St. Francis in Assisi. I had never been there and I fell in love with the place immediately. Not only is this the loveliest of Umbrian hill top towns, more importantly it is truly the town of St. Francis. His presence can be felt everywhere as his spirit permeates the skinny cobbles stoned streets, the grand and small churches alike, the hills he walked with his early brothers and the forests where he communed with “brother sun and sister moon.” I remember closing my eyes and almost seeing him walking the streets of Assisi.
On the morning of October 4, after having celebrated the liturgy of the hours at the Basilica of Saint Francis near the resting place of the saint’s mortal remains we made our way to San Damiano. It was in the church of this small but lovely monastery that in 1205 Francis had a vision. He saw Jesus on the cross come alive and he heard him say: "Francis, don't you see my house is crumbling? Go, and restore it!" Thus he and his brothers took it upon themselves to restore not only the church of San Damiano itself but many other dilapidated churches in the region. This physical work, however, was but a symbol for Francis’ real mission: assuring that the Church was true to its mission. He praised people whenever he saw fit, and he did not shy away from chastising anyone, lay people, priests or bishops alike when they claimed to be Christian but embraced values that were incompatible with the Gospel.
San Damiano is also the place where St. Clare founded her monastic community. The spiritual bond between Clare and Francis was very strong and lasted throughout their lives. Both wanted the same: a church true to the Gospel. At first Francis was the leader of the community of sisters, until Clare assumed the role of abbess. Once named abbess, Clare wrote a rule for her community rooted in the Franciscan spirituality. This is the oldest known rule written by a woman. Strong in faith she managed to resist the pressures by some prelates who tried to impose the Rule of St. Benedict on her and she scared off many an invader by simply facing up to them monstrance in hand.
It was at this holy place, on this holy day that we hoped to participate in the Eucharist. To our great surprise Eucharist was to be celebrated in the courtyard of the monastery. As we sat around waiting for everything to begin neighboring farmers arrived, carrying baskets full of vegetables and fruits. They also brought in a veritable menagerie of farm animals. The courtyard quickly turned into what looked more like a bustling market square than the proper place to celebrate the Eucharist. Nevertheless, that is where we celebrated the Eucharist. By the end of Mass I was profoundly moved by this highly spiritual experience. The liturgy brought home the fact that all of creation is sacred and that we are to honor, respect and protect all of creation as it is of God.
Today we celebrate the Blessing of the Animals at The Basilica of Saint Mary on the Sunday closest to the feast of St. Francis. To some this is the silliest thing imaginable, even bordering on disrespectful. To others it is as spiritual as the experience I had some 35 years ago in Assisi. Regardless of people’s thoughts about this event or their reason for participating or not, the fact is that with this celebration we do what Francis and the Franciscans have done for centuries: we honor all of creation as sacred because it is of God. And we remind ourselves of our responsibility to care for creation and to protect it as that is what God has tasked us to do.
I fondly remember one of my teachers in Louvain pointing out that children occasion their parents to return to church. Having been involved in parish work for over 20 years I know this to be true. I have also come to realize that sometimes it is the animals that bring their humans to church. And in the great realization of the sacredness of all creation this, perhaps this is not all that strange.
What a marvelous week we just had. Being able to enjoy the outdoors in these waning days of September has been an absolute blessing. Personally, I am grateful because they have afforded me some terrific late summer gardening time. And every extra day of gardening before the winter forces us indoors is a bonus.
I simply love to work in the garden. I find it inspiring and rejuvenating; energizing and restorative. That I love to garden should not be a surprise as I come from a family of gardeners. My father was a landscape architect as are two of my brothers and my sister is a master gardener. Growing up we always had the most amazing gardens and we did all the work ourselves.
Having practically been raised in the garden-apart from the occasional foray to the Royal Opera House or Royal Museum of Fine Arts-my daily routine still involves the garden, weather permitting. On busy days this means a simple walk-through. Most days, however I spend at least 30 minutes in the garden often watering plants. Recently, after seeing me go through this ritual day after day, my neighbor suggested I install an automatic watering system. I told her that apart from the cost I would really miss watering the plants. She seemed surprised by my response, but truly, I like to water the plants. In a strange way it allows me to connect with the garden and feel part of creation.
At the risk of being thought a liturgical nerd I confess to having ritualized my watering routine. Not only do I follow a certain pattern, I also have a liturgical way of measuring the water each plant or planter receives. I gauge the amount of water by the time it takes to pray a Hail Mary. Each plant or planter gets one, two or three Hail Mary’s. Saying the Lord’s Prayer in between flowerbeds it takes at least a whole rosary to water the entire garden. Thus, my watering routine not only connects me with creation it also provides me with some quiet prayer time. Sometimes I wish for a bigger garden so I as to extend my prayer life.
On my day off I spend the better part of the day in the garden, clipping, dead-heading, relocating plants or just digging around. Though now I have taken to wearing gloves, I used to dig in the soil with my bare hands. Feeling the soil between my fingers always reminded me of creation when God at the beginning of time molded Adam out of dirt. Digging in that same dirt, watering the plants, adding another tree, etc. gives me a profound sense of sharing in God’s creation. In a profound sense, gardening has become a metaphor for my sharing in God’s creative work, even outside the garden in my day-to-day life. And more than that the restorative power of time spent gardening affirms, albeit in an earthy way my participation in salvation gained for us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.
Who knew that when my father taught me the Latin names for the different plants, showed me how to trim trees and prune bushes and instilled in me a love of gardening he also created a permanent reminder of the share we all have in God’s creation as well as in Christ’s salvation. Tending the heavenly gardens he probably smiles at a job well done.
Every other year I gather with some of my former classmates from university. They are all priests who serve in dioceses throughout the country. Our routine is always the same. We spend a week in one of our national parks or forests. During the day, we hike, mostly in silence as we rejoice in God’s creation and try to hide our increasing fatigue from one another. In the evening we make dinner and engage in theological debates and discuss church politics.
This year we had the great opportunity to spend a week in Zion national park. The weather was just perfect. The hikes were invigorating. The sights were magnificent. And our conversations were unusually deep.
Being in nature, away from all electronic distractions I always seem to learn something new about myself. This time around, facing the prospect of climbing up to Angel’s Landing I realized I simply could not do it. I was almost dizzy with fear even at the thought of climbing the very narrow path with a steep mountain on one side and a deep ravine on the other. Feeling defeated I sheepishly convinced my friends to turn around and walk back to the trailhead. All the way down we observed our customary silence. This time, however I did not delight in the sights but rather pondered my fear. It did not take long for me understand my fear of heights to be emblematic of all the fears we face in the course of our lifetime.
There are so many different kinds of fear. On the one hand there are the kinds of fear that impact no-one else but ourselves. On the one hand, there are the fears that impact others, sometimes even in a truly adverse way.
Some of us are afraid of growing old. Some of us fear becoming ill. Others are afraid of losing their job or not finding a new job. Most of us fear the loss of a loved one. And who does not face the fear of death? These kinds of fear are very real and they can consume us entirely if we allow them to do so. These fears, however mostly affect ourselves. My fear of heights, e.g. did not really affect others, apart from the fact that it prevented my friends from reaching Angel’s Landing. They did not seem to mind too much as it provided them with great material for endless teasing.
Other fears include the fear of people who are different from us in race, creed, gender, sexuality. This kind of fear is often translated in hatred and discrimination. Some of us are afraid of speaking up when we don’t agree with something. We may even be afraid of challenging a wrong. Clearly, these kinds of fear do not only affect us, they also affect others.
Overcoming a fear of heights is not easy to do. Overcoming a fear of people who are different from us or overcoming a fear to challenge wrongs is even more difficult to do.
The prophet Isaiah tells us not to be afraid not matter what we are facing as God is always with us. Jesus also teaches us not to fear as he assures us that he is with us until the end of time. So, when facing any kind of fear I recall one of my most powerful mantras as I repeat to myself: “Be not afraid.” It is a great and absolutely freeing mantra. It makes me realize that I am not in this by myself. I have my sisters and brothers who stand by me. And I have God who is on my side.
Though it may not have helped me as I was facing a sure death at the bottom of the deep ravine in Zion National Park I still believe in it. This mantra gives me strength. These words shield me and guard me. They give me peace.
Today I wish I had not given in to my fear of heights but rather would have climbed all the way to Angel’s Landing. Maybe some day I will get another chance. Until then I will try to strengthen my faith in my Biblical mantra as I repeat it over and over again: “be not afraid.”
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14) on the one hand celebrates the profound reality that “by the cross we have been saved” and on the other hand it speaks to our evolving understanding of the meaning of this statement as reflected in the diverse depictions of the cross throughout Christian history.
Early Christians refrained from depicting the cross as they wrestled with the reality of Jesus’ horrific and humiliating death. Rather, they focused on Jesus’ resurrection and our salvation. Thus the earliest artistic references to Christianity are not crosses, but sacred initials such as IC being the first letters of the name of Jesus Christ in Greek; or sacred symbols such as a fish. The latter was adopted as a Christian symbols because the Greek word for fish, Ichthys also happens to be the acronym for: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, meaning, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”
The first crosses do not appear until the mid third and early fourth century, although there is at least one earlier depiction of the crucifixion which was however satirical in nature, making a mockery of Christianity. After the discovery of the True Cross by Empress Helena during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 326 and 328 the depiction of the cross quickly gained in popularity. Often a victory wreath or other Christian symbol decorated these early crosses. The depiction of the crucified Jesus remained extremely rare.
In the late fourth century the portrayal of Jesus on the cross became more widely accepted. However, in these early rendition of the crucifix Jesus is depicted as completely in charge, standing on the cross using a wooden footstool that is attached to the cross. Both hands and both feet are nailed to the cross. His eyes are wide open and he looks directly at the beholder. The emphasis of these depictions was on the resurrection and salvation gained for us, rather than on the suffering Jesus endured.
After the fall of the Roman and then the Carolingian empire, Europe sank into the so-called dark ages which were characterized by political anarchy; war and violence; famine; and diseases such as the plague which decimated more than half of the population of many cities. Suffering was an overwhelming reality for most people in the Middle Ages. It is during these times that a shift took place in the depiction of the crucifixion and the underlying theology as the feelings of despair and suffering on the part of the people were clearly reflected in the way they depicted Jesus. Rather than standing on the cross, Jesus hangs from the cross. His feet are placed on one another and one nail is used for both feet. His body shows signs of torture and he often wears the crown of thorns as described in the Gospels.
The Renaissance with its interest in realism keeps depicting the suffering Jesus but with less of the exaggerated gore so typical for many of the medieval depictions. Although Christ still is shown as dying on the cross there is a quality of stillness surrounding the cross. And although there is realism in the depiction there is also rational restraint.
The Baroque renditions which were part of the counter-reformation efforts of the Catholic Church are all about the drama of the moment as they show Longinus, one of the Roman soldiers, piercing the side of Jesus. Mary, the mother of Jesus faints into the arms of John, the beloved and Mary of Magdala embraces the foot of the cross. The sacrifice of the cross is emphasized in these depictions to support the theology of the sacrifice of the Mass.
The late 18th and 19th century which are characterized by a return to earlier artistic styles embrace the medieval depiction in the Romanesque and Gothic style but the neo-versions lack the over-emphasis on the suffering of the images they are inspired by. Rather there is a romantic softness and a form of idealized spiritualization in the crucifixes that are typical for this period
The 20th and 21st centuries have all of the above and much more, for better or for worse. Though there was a clear trend in the Catholic Church to move away from the crucifix in favor of a simple wooden cross which may or may not have had a risen Christ it, new directives indicate that a crucifix needs to be placed in each sanctuary and processional crosses need to actually be processional crucifixes.
As we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross let us remember the words we sing every Good Friday: “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” That is the essence of the theology of salvation and should be the inspiration for our depictions of this profound reality.
The recent deaths of Michael Brown, James Foley and Douglas McAuthur McCain are deeply troubling. They were not just three more killings reported on the news and mourned over by their families and loved ones alone. More than that, they have become a barometer of our society.
The death of Michael Brown, a black man who was killed by a white officer forces us to face the racial discrimination which persists in our country and throughout the world. The killing of James Foley by ISIS fighters draws our attention to the potential for evil that is inherent in most religions. And the death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, a MN resident who died while fighting on the side of ISIS leaves us wondering about the growing religious radicalization of young people.
What has become of us? The beautiful vision God had for creation and the Good News which Jesus brought to our world seem much less attainable today than ever before. Politicians, historians, sociologists, social scientists and students of religion offer complicated and complex reasons why the world is so divided. To me, it seems very simple: we are selfish and greedy and we fear that which is different from us, i.e. skin color, religious affiliation, cultural expressions, etc. And when pushed to the edge we chose hatred over love and even death over life.
There is another way and a better one at that. I used to visit with an elderly Dominican sister on a regular basis. She was deeply devout and very concerned about our world. After she offered me coffee and cookies she would lead me into the chapel where we prayed together for the needs of the world since as she always reminded me: “there is so much misery in this world.” Her prayer today is more powerful than ever as she is praying with the heavenly hosts.
She was right, we need to pray for the world, however, prayer is only one side of the coin. On Holy Thursday we do two things: we pray as we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist and we wash one another’s feet as we commemorate Jesus command to love one another in word and deed. Prayer and action go hand in hand. The one cannot exist without the other. Thus as we pray for peace in the world, we must work toward peace. As we pray for an end to racial divisions we must work toward equality for all. As we pray for coexistence of religions we must reach out, get to know one another and work toward trust and respect between religions.
Racial and religiously motivated hatred are ruinous to our society and to humanity as a whole. They are profoundly shameful. They are not becoming of God’s creatures. So, let’s resolve to pray and act so that racial division and religious hatred might end. Let’s choose love over hatred and life over death. Let’s break the destructive cycle of selfishness and greed and let’s open our hearts and minds to the wonders of God’s rich and diverse creation.
May Michael Brown, James Foley and Douglas McAuthur McCain be embraced by the mercy of God. And may their deaths help us to open our eyes and change our ways.