Johan's Blog

Recently, a reporter asked me whether Lent was considered passé by 21st C. Christians. Her question took me a bit by surprise. Not to be stumped I told her that Lent is more important than ever. Lent and Easter offer the perfect antidote to the barrage of negativity we face on a daily basis. So no, Lent is not passé, on the contrary.

Granted, the motivation for people’s participation in the Lenten disciplines may have changed. Visions of purgatory and Hell rarely move people anymore. I suspect it is a profound desire to be better people and the hope for a better world that motivates people to participate in the disciplines of Lent.  

After all, the essence of Lent is to right those relationships that have been wronged. Many, if not most of the world’s problems are due to wronged relationships. Different religions quarrel with one another and among themselves. Nations fight other nations. People exploit other people. All these evils are rooted in wronged relationships.

The Lenten praxis of righting relationships is rooted in the Bible. The Biblical Year of Jubilee which was called every 50 years was essentially about righting relationships. Captives were released. Slaves were set free. Those who had lost property were reinstated. Debts were forgiven. And beyond all these human relationships the relationship between humans and God was righted as well. During the Year of Jubilee God was recognized anew as the creator of the universe from whom all things come and to whom all things belong.

Every Lent is a mini Year of Jubilee and a call to right relationships. We do this through prayer, fasting and giving. And we do this not because we feel guilty or are afraid but rather because we want to do better and we want our world to be better.

During his general audience on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis called on us “to practice pardon, combat poverty and inequality and promote an equitable distribution of the earth’s goods to all.”  Our common goal is to “create a society based on equality and solidarity.” In essence, what pope Francis asks us to do; what the Church asks us to do; what the Bible asks us to do; what God asks us to do is to right relationships.

This is not an easy task. The season of Lent and the Year of Mercy offer us the opportunity to make some changes in our lives through prayer, fasting and giving that will right relationships and move us forward in the direction of this Biblical vision of solidarity, equality and peace. Equality can only be reached when we are committed to solidarity. And peace will never be attained unless we have equality.

Is Lent passé? I am sure that it is to some. I am also sure that to others it is nothing more than a cultural expression of a gone-by era. For true believers it is an exquisite opportunity to right relationships with God and with one another by advancing solidarity, equality and peace through prayer, fasting and sharing.

May this Lent be blessed for all of us.

 

Recently a young man approached me following one of our Sunday liturgies. He asked if we needed him for the liturgy. Eager to recruit I immediately said “yes, of course.” He thanked me and walked away. I was surprised he did not ask where he could sign up or how he could be most helpful. Maybe his question was more complex?

Reflecting on this interaction, I was reminded that shortly after the post-Vatican II liturgy had been implemented, Pope Paul VI said that up until then it had been sufficient for lay people to merely assist at Mass. “Before,” he said “being there was enough; now attention and activity are required. Before, everyone could doze or chatter, now all must listen and pray.” (see Documents on the Liturgy, 1963-1979 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982) 27, 401, 115).

This most major shift from ‘assisting at Mass’ to ‘actively participating in the liturgy’ has revolutionized our Catholic understanding of the liturgy. No longer is it acceptable for the laity to watch the ordained ministers celebrate the rites of the church. Since this momentous shift, all Catholics are invited, encouraged, and even required to participate in many and various ways in the celebration of the liturgy. 

However, this does not mean that everyone participates in the same capacity. The Pauline image of the Body of Christ, which is one but has many parts, helps us understand how this participation might be best understood. Though the entire Body of Christ celebrates the liturgy, different members of the Body of Christ exercise different ministries in the liturgy. 

Thus, the first ministry is that of the entire Church. We, the Church, celebrate the liturgy as the one Body of Christ. Therefore it is important that the entire Body of Christ be present at the liturgy. And it is important that the entire Body of Christ participate actively, fully, and consciously. 

Second, some members of the Body are called to participate in a more particular way relative to our gifts and talent. Certain members of the Body of Christ, e.g. have been given the talents to lead the community in prayer and are ordained to do so. Other members of the Body of Christ who have been gifted with musical talents are called to lead the community in song. Those who have the talent of public speech are called to proclaim the Word of God, etc.

Talents are entrusted to us by God for the betterment of the world and the church. Liturgical talents are entrusted to us for the betterment of the liturgy and the proclamation of the Gospel. As members of the Body of Christ we are called to use those talents. 

Like the young man who stopped me after Mass, you may wonder if we need you for the celebration of the liturgy at The Basilica of Saint Mary. The answer is plain and simple: “Yes we do!” First of all we need you to participate actively in the liturgy through praying, singing, listening, etc. Second, we need you as a minister of hospitality (usher); as a lector; as an Extraordinary minister of Holy Communion; as a cantor; as a choir member; as a sacristan; as a server; etc. Whatever your talents are, they can surely be put to the service of the liturgy.

As you serve in one of those capacities you will discover a new and deeper appreciation for the celebration of the liturgy; you will learn how to better serve the Church and ultimately you will assist with the bringing about of the Reign of God. And if you think our community is too large, this is a great way to make it smaller. So, do not hesitate. Please go to www.mary.org/liturgicalministry and start the process. And remember: ‘don’t ask what the liturgy can do for you. Ask what you can do for the liturgy!’

On the feast of the Epiphany, one of the children in our Learning programs asked when we could go back to being “original.” Kelli Kester, who coordinates our children and youth programs asked if he meant “ordinary?” He said “yes, ordinary! Green!” I marvel at this great interaction. Is our “green” season “original” or “ordinary?” As Catholic allegorist Guillaume Durand a 13th C. bishop of Mendes in France suggested the green seasons are neither original nor ordinary, they are “in-between” seasons, nothing less and nothing more.

Up until the liturgical renewal promulgated by the Second Vatican Council there was no “ordinary” time on our liturgical calendar. The two “in-between” seasons we now call “ordinary” were known by different names. First, the Sundays between the end of Christmas and the beginning of Lent were generally known as the first, second, third, etc. “Sunday after Epiphany”. The Sundays between the end of the Easter Season and the beginning of Advent were generally known as the first, second, third, etc. “Sunday after Pentecost.”

The reform of the liturgy initiated by the Second Vatican Council sought to give the liturgical calendar a clearer structure in order to highlight the importance of the Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter seasons. To that end the time between Christmas and Lent roughly speaking January-February and the time between Easter and Advent, roughly speaking June-November were given a name independent of the preceding season. These two sections of the liturgical year were to be known in Latin as Tempus per Annum or “Time throughout the Year” instead of Sunday after Epiphany and Sundays after Pentecost.

Literally translated the Sundays in Ordinary Time should be known as e.g. “The Fifth Sunday throughout the Year.” Sensing this was a somewhat awkward translation it was decided to translate the Latin more freely as “The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.” This may or may not have been a happy decision as the word “ordinary” implies something that is common, not special, or even trite. Moreover, this word says absolutely nothing about the season it names. By comparison, the name of the other seasons either directly or indirectly speaks to the meaning of the season: Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter. A better name for this season might have Ordered Time or Tempus Ordinarium in Latin as during Ordinary Time we move from one counted Sunday to another in an ordered numerical fashion.

From a theological point of view one could describe Ordinary Time simply as a time ordered by Christian prayer for Christian living. Thus, despite its name there is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time, either in its content or in its calculation. And as the young lad suggested, “ordinary” or “green” time is indeed rather “original.”

 

In a few weeks we will celebrate Ash Wednesday and thus begin Lent. That is the time when Lucinda Naylor’s contemporary Stations of the Cross will be hung beneath the traditional Stations, once again. I know that many of us love these mono prints and are anticipating their return. Others simply tolerate them. And some of us really wish I would forget about them or that I would “donate them to the Vatican Museums” as someone suggested. Since I will neither forget about them nor donate them I thought I might ponder the role of contemporary art in the church in preparation of Ash Wednesday.

For starters, let’s be clear that all artists were contemporary artists at one point and like today’s contemporary artists they were revered by some and reviled by others. Take e.g. celebrated French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Out of gratitude to his teacher Gabriel Fauré (1845– 1925) Ravel dedicated a newly composed string quartet to him. Fauré told him that this was very kind but that he could not accept since the piece was ugly, had no meaning and was completely unintelligible. Publicly humiliated Ravel doubted his talents and he almost stopped composing. Thankfully, fellow composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) who loved Ravel’s work encouraged him to continue writing music. Today, String Quartet in F is considered one of the great examples of French string music and Ravel’s work is known and loved throughout the world.

The vision of artists is often experienced as complex by their contemporaries because they are visionaries. Their art can be unusual and is sometimes not inviting. And their style may be abstract or at least stylized. All of this means that it is often more difficult to appreciate and understand contemporary art than traditional art. Traditional art is mostly pleasing and at least on one level more accessible because it is figurative. How often have you heard people say or maybe said yourself: “I don’t understand it.” And that is often why people don’t like the art.  Yet, our inability to understand and our consequent dislike of certain works of art do not make them bad art.

Figurative art has served our church well throughout history as it clearly tells our Christian story. However, figurative art runs the risk of imposing imagery. Take e.g. the Conversion of St. Paul. The most popular depiction of this important moment in Paul’s life shows him falling off his horse. And though Scripture does not make mention of a horse that is how most people visualize Paul’s Conversion. And even those of us who have never seen one of these paintings or sculptures very likely imagine a horse as part of this scene as the horse has become part of our shared memory.

This is of course an innocent example, but what about Mary and Jesus being depicted with blond hair and blue eyes. What does that image do to our religious imagination? How does this “color” Christianity? And how does it perpetuate evil stereotypes?

By contrast, abstract art does not impose images, rather abstract art invites imagination. That makes it less obvious and more difficult. Yet, because of this abstract art enjoys the potential of a deeper and more genuine understanding of the Gospel message.

So, when you see our abstract Stations of the Cross please take some time with them. Read the mediations we post next to them. And while reading these, let the colors, shapes and lines speak to your religious imagination. You might be surprised how much you like them if only you would give them a chance.

[Based on an entry in my book “What’s the Smoke For? and Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy.”]

God-with-us

It was January 6, 1972 - Epiphany. The day had been mostly quiet but as the sun started to set our excitement began to build. Finally, the doorbell rang. “It must be the three kings” one of my brothers exclaimed. We all went into the foyer and through the opaque glass windows of our front door we spotted the silhouettes of three kids. My father stepped forward and opened the door. Wearing some old, torn sheets for royal robes and with a paper crown on their heads there they stood: the first set of numerous “kings” expected to parade by the house all evening. As was the tradition, one of the kings carried a cardboard star which was affixed to a broom stick borrowed for the occasion.  They sang a carol. Then the kid with the star stuck out his hand. My father reached into his pockets and gave him some money. We wished one another a merry Christmas and off they went to our neighbor’s home. 

Throughout the Christmas season, but especially on Epiphany children in Belgium and in many European countries honor this centuries old custom of Star Singing. The star singers take their name from the star they carry, a reference to the star which led the Magi to the Christ Child. The origin is a 15th C. medieval mystery play that tells the story of the three Magi, albeit a bit enhanced. Essential to the play was the procession from home to home with the request that the star be allowed in. If permitted then the young actors entered the home and performed the play. After receiving refreshments and monetary gifts they moved on to the next home. These days the play is no longer performed but the procession of the kings is retained.

Beyond the nostalgia evoked by this memory, I find this simple custom to be profoundly symbolic. On the one hand, these kids testify to the birth of Jesus which happened some 2000 years ago. As such they are an example to all of us as we are called to proclaim to the world that in Jesus we have recognized Emanuel, God-with-us. On the other hand, this simple procession also symbolizes the search we all undertake to find God-with-us, Emanuel here and now. For as God was born in Jesus, so he is present among us today.

Yet, where can we find God-with-us in a world which seems to bring despair to so many people? Where is God in all of the misery we have created? The answer is simple, God is right here in the thick of it all. Emanuel can be found among the refugees who are fleeing their war torn countries. Emanuel can be found among those who live under the bridge and have nothing to eat. Emanuel can be found among the elderly who are dying a forgotten death. Emanuel can be found among the victims of wars waged in God’s name. Emanuel can be found among the children, women and men who are exploited and enslaved. God can be found in many places, but above all among those people who are most in need. That is where we can find Emanuel, God-with-us. That is where we are to honor God with our gifts of incense symbolizing respect, myrrh symbolizing dignity and gold symbolizing support.

One of the best cues to finding God-with-us has been given to us by Saint Athanasius (ca 298–373) who famously wrote: “God became human so that humans might become like God.” If only we were able and willing to recognize God in others we might find God-with-us. Sadly, like many of today’s kings or star singers, we go from door to door in an endless quest for God, blinded to the very presence of God all around us. So, let’s take up the star, put on some old sheets and a paper crown and let’s open our heart, mind and soul to God’s presence in one another, most especially in those we fear the most. Only then will we truly find God-with-us and will our world have a chance at peace.

Over the years, I have amassed a substantial collection of nativities. New to my collection are several images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph on their way to Egypt. Some depict the Holy Family in the traditional way with Mary sitting on a donkey. She holds the baby Jesus in her arms. Joseph leads the donkey. Others are less traditional depicting them in a boat, in a car or on a plane. Regardless, in each of these cases they are on a journey. Theirs was a journey that led them from danger to safety; from darkness to light; from death to life.

The Holy Family’s journey exemplifies our own journey, for life indeed is a journey. For some people it is a long journey. For others, it is short. Some people’s journey is straightforward. Other people’s journey may be more circuitous. Some people’s journey is easy. Other people’s journey can be very difficult. But what all of us share is that we are on a journey from birth to burial.

For Christians this journey is more than just a journey. We consider it to be a pilgrimage. The English word pilgrim is a translation of the Latin peregrinus which means “stranger,” more precisely “from another country.” Being a Christian means being a pilgrim, being a “stranger” even when living in a Christian land. For myself, living and working in the United States, my adopted homeland I have often had the sense that I am a stranger. I sense that not only literally for I do come from another country. Being a Catholic I have sometimes felt a spiritual stranger in this country. I don’t consider this a bad thing, on the contrary. Lest we become complacent, Christians always should feel a little “out of place” and a little restless. For as St. Augustine said: “Our hearts will be restless until they rest in God.”

The Year of Mercy which we began December 8th is an invitation to all of us to rediscover this sense of restlessness; a sense that we don’t really belong; a sense that we are strangers; a sense that we are not at home, yet. The Year of Mercy offers us an opportunity to break out of our complacency and rediscover the riches and the challenges of the Gospel. The Year of Mercy invites us to renew our spiritual journey or pilgrimage.

Some of us will literally leave our homes this year to go on a pilgrimage to a sacred place. Some will take a pilgrimage to Rome during this Holy Year to walk through the Holy Doors. Most of us will stay near our home and make a pilgrimage to The Basilica or the Cathedral to walk through the Holy Doors here. No matter how far or near our pilgrimage takes us our shared goal is to rediscover what it means to be a pilgrim, a stranger, “from another land.”

I love looking at the sculptures I have of the Holy Family. Each one is different. One of them is from Mexico, another from Kenya, another from Palestine… in each one of them the Holy family is depicted in the image of the people who made them. It is a constant reminder to me that The Holy family’s treacherous journey is a pre-figuration of all our journeys. The journey and indeed, the entire life of the Holy family is a symbol of the life-long pilgrimage all of us are asked to undertake. May we be inspired by their faith, their trust and their endurance.

So, let’s pack our satchel and continue our pilgrimage from darkness to light; from death to life as we journey to that Promised Land where we will be strangers no more.

On a Pilgrimage

Over the years, I have amassed a substantial collection of nativities. New to my collection are several images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on their way to Egypt. Some depict the Holy Family in the traditional way with Mary sitting on a donkey. She holds the baby Jesus in her arms. Joseph leads the donkey. Others are less traditional depicting them in a boat, in a car or on a plane. Regardless, in each of these cases they are on a journey. Theirs was a journey that led them from danger to safety; from darkness to light; from death to life.

The Holy Family’s journey exemplifies our own journey, for life indeed is a journey. For some people it is a long journey. For others, it is short. Some people’s journey is straightforward. Other people’s journey may be more circuitous. Some people’s journey is easy. Other people’s journey can be very difficult. But what all of us share is that we are on a journey from birth to burial. 

For Christians, this journey is more than just a journey. We consider it to be a pilgrimage. The English word “pilgrim” is a translation of the Latin peregrinus which means “stranger,” more precisely “from another country.” Being a Christian means being a pilgrim, being a “stranger,” even when living in a Christian land. For myself, living and working in the United States, my adopted homeland, I have often had the sense that I am a stranger. I sense that not only literally, for I do come from another country. Being a Catholic I have sometimes felt a spiritual stranger in this country. I don’t consider this a bad thing, on the contrary. Lest we become complacent, Christians always should feel a little “out of place” and a little restless. For as St. Augustine said: “Our hearts will be restless until they rest in God.”

The Year of Mercy, which we began December 8, is an invitation to all of us to rediscover this sense of restlessness; a sense that we don’t really belong; a sense that we are strangers; a sense that we are not at home, yet. The Year of Mercy offers us an opportunity to break out of our complacency and rediscover the riches and the challenges of the Gospel. The Year of Mercy invites us to renew our spiritual journey or pilgrimage. 
Some of us will literally leave our homes this year to go on a pilgrimage to a sacred place. Some will take a pilgrimage to Rome during this Holy Year to walk through the Holy Doors. Most of us will stay near our home and make a pilgrimage to The Basilica or the Cathedral to walk through the Holy Doors here. No matter how far or near our pilgrimage takes us our shared goal is to rediscover what it means to be a pilgrim, a stranger, “from another land.”

I love looking at the sculptures I have of the Holy Family. Each one is different. One of them is from Mexico, another from Kenya, another from Palestine… in each one of them the Holy family is depicted in the image of the people who made them. It is a constant reminder to me that The Holy Family’s treacherous journey is a pre-figuration of all our journeys. The journey and indeed, the entire life of the Holy Family is a symbol of the life-long pilgrimage all of us are asked to undertake. May we be inspired by their faith, their trust, and their endurance. 

So, let’s pack our satchel and continue our pilgrimage from darkness to light; from death to life as we journey to that Promised Land where we will be strangers no more.

On September 13, 2015 we ended Mass by processing to the most western doors of the Basilica’s façade. Covering that door was an image of the Divine Mercy. We paused and prayed for God’s mercy on all of us and declared the doors closed until December 13, 2015 when we opened these Holy Doors in celebration of the Holy Year of Mercy.

The opening of the Holy Doors was a beautiful celebration. After reading from the Proclamation of the Holy Year of Jubilee by Pope Francis we processed to the Holy Doors while singing the Veni Creator Spiritus. Fr. Bauer pronounced the prescribed Psalm verses and opened the Holy Doors. Immediately the Te Deum was sung and nearly everyone in attendance entered The Basilica through our Holy Doors.

At least since the mid-15th C. the major Basilicas in Rome (St. Peter, St. John Lateran, St. Paul-outside-the-Walls and St. Mary Major) have had a designated Holy Door. In order to avail the spiritual benefits of a Holy Door to the entire church Pope Francis has extended this privilege to all Cathedral churches. Thus, for the first time in the history of The Basilica of Saint Mary we have been granted the privilege of a Holy Door.

Doors mark thresholds and provide entryways. Some doors lead to great beauty. I marvel at the faces of our guest who walk through the Basilica doors for the first time. Some doors lead to freedom. Just think of refugees who walk to freedom through the doors that lead into our country. Some doors lead to sanctuary. Illegal immigrants, e.g. walk through church doors in the hope of finding sanctuary.

Doors can also present barriers and blockades. The gates to our church sanctuaries were intended to keep the non-ordained out. The gates we have at our boarders are intended to keep unwanted people out of the country. And gated communities take their name from the gates that allow certain people in and keep others out.

It is this human experience of doors that inspired our Judeo-Christian experience of the gates to Paradise and the gates to Hell. Our hope and prayer is to enter the former which lead to eternal bliss and avoid the latter as those lead to eternal damnation.

The custom of Holy Doors grew out of our human and spiritual experience of doors. When closed, they symbolize our sinful human condition epitomized by the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. When opened, they symbolize how Jesus opened the gates to Paradise for us by virtue for his life, death and resurrection. In His own words: "I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture." (John 10:9)

There is nothing magic about passing through these doors rather it is a profoundly symbolic act which embodies our faith and our commitment to Christ. When we walk through these doors we acknowledge that Christ is indeed the door to paradise. At the same time we commit ourselves to living according to the Gospel and to open doors to others as Christ has opened the Doors to Paradise for us.

In a sense, the Jubilee Year of Mercy is all about opening doors. The Holy Doors in all the catehdrals thoughout the world are most important, however they are also symbolic of many other doors which need to be opened.  As Pope Francis opened the Holy Doors of Mercy he asked that in response all of us open the doors to our hearts, the doors to our homes, the doors to our country, the doors to our churches. Only when we are willing to do so will his great wish for the Year of Jubilee be realized: a Revolution of Tenderness.

The best laid plans sometimes don’t work out. And once in a while that turns out to be for the best. Last week I was in Rome for a meeting of the Vatican Council on Art and Technology. The council ended on December 5. Since Pope Francis was scheduled to open the Holy Year on Tuesday, December 8 I decided to stay on a couple more days, a sacrifice I happily made.

Through my work with the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums I was able to secure some great tickets for front row seats and a special entrance permit so as to avoid all the waiting in line and the numerous security checks. At the appointed time we made our way to the assigned Vatican entrance. As we approached the Vatican it was obviously not business like usual. There were police cars and army vehicles everywhere. Field hospitals with numerous first aid workers were set-up around the Vatican perimeter. No-one could approach the Vatican without being checked numerous times. Police boats patrolled from the Tiber and army helicopters from the air. The irony that all these barriers were set-up as we were gathering to open a set of Holy Doors was not to be missed.

Getting to the assigned entrance was not an easy task. At every turn we encountered barricades and officers who were not to be persuaded to let us through. Only after much ambulating did we end up close to where we were to enter. Still, we could not get there for the thousands of people waiting to go through security. By now I was a little worried so I called my Vatican contact asking for advice. She apologized for the hassle and suggested we just wait in line and show our VIP tickets to security. “What tickets” I asked. “Oh no, had we not picked them up at the Porta Santa Anna the day before?” she replied. We had not.

At that very moment a “hospitality minister” asked us for our tickets. Since we had none we were told we would not be able to enter there. Moreover we were waiting in the line for the concelebrating bishops and priests and were to move immediately. Embarrassed we started to walk away as the gentle mist turned into veritable rain. Since the predictions were for a sunny morning we had no umbrellas to protect us from the rain and my increasing frustration.

“Strange who you run into in Rome” I heard someone say behind me. As I turned around I noticed it was Fr. Ubel, the rector of our Cathedral. He was in line with concelebrating priests. We spoke for a while before his line started to move and he disappeared in the crowd. I did not quite know what to do. Maybe it was time to give up and return to the hotel where we could watch the Mass on TV.

Knowing to tread carefully my travel companion offered to buy me a coffee. He gently nudged me not to give up and suggested that we enter with the many other people who had no tickets. Admittedly, I did not look forward to joining thousands of people waiting in line to squeeze through tiny security gates under the scrutinizing eye of Italian police. Nevertheless, we walked back to the Via della Conciliazione and joined the thousands of other pilgrims who either forgot to pick up their tickets or never got any.

It turned out to be ok. We recited  the Rosary and we sang the Salve Regina as we waited. By the time we got to Saint Peter’s Square the liturgical procession had begun. We stood for the entire service and my eyes went back and forth between the giant screens and the actual celebration which took place in miniature form far away.

The opening of the Holy Doors happened at the end of Mass. Apart from the cardinals and a few select bishops who entered St. Peter’s Basilica with the pope all of us watched the opening of the Holy Doors on the giant screens around the square, including the people who I was sure had taken up my prime seat. Not that I was holding any grudge.

When Pope Francis opened the Holy Doors after reciting the prescribed prayers,  a thunderous and sustained applause erupted through Saint Peter’s Square only to be followed by a profound silence as everyone saw Pope Francis pray in silence at the threshold of the Holy Door. He stood there for many moments steeped in prayer. Then he walked through the holy Door to more applause. Tears ran down my cheeks.

Having passed through the Holy Doors and walking with great vigor, his shepherd’s staff in hand Pope Francis then led a procession of cardinals and bishops to the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. This altar is erected above the tomb of the first among the apostles and the first pope, Peter. Usually the pope walks at the end of a procession. This time he led the procession. At the tomb of St. Peter he prayed for the fruitfulness of the Holy Year for the Church and all of humanity. Though I wish laypeople, women, men and children would have been part of this procession, seeing him lead the cardinals and bishops was a striking image of the strength and conviction with which Pope Francis is leading the church, without any sense of fear.

I never made it through the Holy Door. There simply were too many people and rather than first I was now last in line. As I watched cardinals and bishops, presidents and diplomats walk through the Holy Doors I found myself praying for the many people who experience the harsh reality of closed doors. Sometimes these closed doors can be literal doors – doors to homes, doors to work opportunities, doors to hospitals, even doors to churches. These can also be symbolic doors: obstacles such as war, famine, inequality which prevent people from accessing needed opportunities. And these can be spiritual and emotional barriers. There simply are too many closed doors in our world. And as time goes by more and more doors are being closed.

Maybe the shared human experience of opened and closed doors was the reason for the thunderous applause as Francis pushed open the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. In that very gesture he not only reminded us that Christ is the Door to Mercy. He also strongly affirmed that the doors of the Church are to be kept open to everyone rather than to a select few. And he invited all of us to open the doors of our countries, our cities, our homes and our hearts especially to those most in need. This is not an easy task, but it is one that must be embraced for the sake of the church and the well-being of all people.

Why celebrate a Holy Year of Mercy? Because we need it! We need it very much, indeed!

Advent is one my favorite seasons of the liturgical year. Not only is this time of preparation for Christmas full of anticipation and the promise of new things. This is also the time to indulge in some great cultural traditions such as Messiah and the Nutcracker.

                I love Messiah for its beauty and its spirituality. I love Nutcracker for its warmth and playfulness. Both require great commitment on the part of all performers. And everyone has to work together: performers, stage hands, light engineers and donors. Even the people in the audience play an important role as their receptivity is vital to the success of any performance. Both Messiah and Nutcracker provide moments of joy; they cause the occasional tear; and in the end they leave us profoundly moved. Somehow, December without these great artistic traditions seems incomplete.

                From a faith perspective, the liturgical celebration of Advent in preparation for Christmas is of course much more important. And yet, there are some similarities. During the season of Advent and Christmas all of us work together to create the most moving and most uplifting celebrations we possibly can. Our priests, our musicians, our staff, our liturgical ministers and our assembly come together to celebrate in the best possible way the greatest mystery of all: the birth of God in our midst

                On occasion I take a reluctant guest to experience Messiah or the Nutcracker. More so than not the performance converts them to these artistic greats as they make them part of their own December experience. Similarly, during Advent and Christmas many new people join us for worship. For them it may be their only experience of the mystery of our faith as celebrated in the liturgy. Hopefully, some of them will be re-introduced to our community or even converted to our faith.

                And for those of us who gather weekly for worship, may this holy season be a time of deep spiritual renewal. May we find great joy and even experience the occasional tear as we celebrate the mystery God’s mercy which is embodied in the birth of Jesus. And above all, may we take to heart that in Jesus, God became like us so that we may become more like God. To that end, during this Year of Jubilee in celebration of God’s mercy let us show mercy to one another as God shows mercy to all of us. No need for wrapping paper as this is the best gift ever.

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