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As Holy Week begins, I am reminded of an unforgettable experience which happened some 20 years ago. That year I had decided to celebrate the Sacred Triduum at the motherhouse of a religious community. Having arrived early I spent some quiet time in the monastery chapel in preparation for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. From my chair in the back row, I watched the sisters arrive for the service. Most of them were elderly. They used wheelchairs, walkers or another sister’s arm to make their way into the chapel.
The service was simple, yet very beautiful. At the time of the washing of the feet, the priest explained that we were going to wash one another’s feet. As a liturgical purist, I was simply mortified at the thought. What could this mean? Why were we straying from the custom of the priest washing the feet of twelve men symbolizing Christ washing the feet of the apostles?
I swallowed my liturgical pride and tried to enter into the experience. As I was pondering all this, I noticed a sister being helped to the front of the chapel. When she arrived at the row of wheelchairs, she was helped to her knees in front of one of her sisters. Gently and with great difficulty, she took the slippers off her sister’s gnarled feet. A bowl with water was brought to them. She placed her sister’s feet in the water and tenderly washed them. Then she dried them and kissed them. I felt tears running down my cheeks. These feet, which had walked in the service of the church for more than seventy years, were tenderly washed by these hands, which had served the church for more than sixty years. I quickly slipped off my shoes and waited in line to have my feet washed so I could wash someone else’s feet.
Witnessing this I finally grasped why Jesus told us to wash one another’s feet. The washing of the feet is not a superfluous ritual gesture or a simple reenactment of what Jesus did 2000 years ago. Rather it is an efficacious ritual rehearsal of what all of us are called to do every day of our life: to serve one another as he served us.
The Stations of the Cross have always been very meaningful to me. My earliest memory of the Stations goes back to my childhood. On Good Friday the whole town came together for a communal celebration. Different neighborhoods were responsible for the creation of each one of the fourteen stations. Following incense, cross and candles, clergy and religious, we processed from Station to Station singing songs and praying the Sorrowful Mysteries. Some people carried a candle, others flowers to leave at one of the stations, while a few carried a cross. This experience touched me deeply and it is forever engrained in my memory.
I have always been particularly drawn to Station V: Jesus was Helped by Simon of Cyrene. Simon intrigued me. Who was he? Why was he forced to help Jesus? Did he do it willingly or begrudgingly? What happened to him after they reached Golgotha?
The Scriptures are very brief in their description of this occurrence. They just reference in one verse (Matthew 27: 32, Mark 15: 21, Luke 23: 26) that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the cross behind Jesus. Mark expands just a bit by adding that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus.
Some scholars suggest that the Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13 was the son of Simon. Others hold that Mark’s mention of Alexander and Rufus implies that they were well-known in the early Christian community.
Simon who was from Cyrene was a visitor to Jerusalem whose curiosity was probably peeked by all the goings-on? He may have watched Jesus fall before he was pressed into helping him, buttressing the weight of the cross.
As a child I did not identify with Peter or even John, my patron saint. I wanted to be like Simon. He was my hero. He was the perfect helper when Jesus was in the greatest of needs.
Little did I know that in my youthful enthusiasm I had touched on the essence of Christianity. In the same way as Simon helped Jesus bear his cross, we are called to alleviate the pain and struggles of our sisters and brothers. We are called to help those who suffer, in their need.
Simon is still my hero, though I may have outgrown my youthful enthusiasm. Eagerness to follow Jesus and to imitate Simon comes and goes. Sometimes I do it willingly and out of conviction, other times begrudgingly and out of a sense of obligation. Like most of us, saints included we experience times of deep faith as well as moment of profound doubts. Yet, like Simon was pressed into helping Jesus, by virtue of our baptism we are pressed into helping others. This is our calling. It is our mission.
Next time you celebrate Stations of the Cross, I invite you to imagine yourself in the different people who accompany Jesus on the way to the cross. Who do you identify with the most? Maybe you identify most with Peter, or Veronica, or John, or Mary? This exercise may give you some new insight into your own spiritual identity.
This morning I had my monthly interview with Sean Herriott from the Morning Show on Revelant Radio. Today we discussed the date of Easter. It was a timely discussion as several people have asked me why Easter is so late this year. Some even suggested that it might be better to have a fixed date for Easter, similar to Christmas.
As to the latter, Easter by definition has to fall on a Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. Therefore, it cannot be celebrated on a fixed date. Still, this very question was discussed at the Second Vatican Council. The resulting document suggests that the Catholic Church would be open to a fixed date for Easter as long as all Christians would agree on that date.
Until then, Easter will remain a moveable feast. And because Easter moves all feasts and seasons that are related to Easter move relative to the date of Easter. Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent and Pentecost which marks the last day of the Easter season are obviously dependent upon the date of Easter. However, Holy Trinity which falls on the Sunday after Pentecost and Corpus Christi which falls on the Sunday after Holy Trinity are dependent on the date of Easter as well. Even the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart which is celebrated on the Friday following Corpus Christi and the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary which is celebrated the day after the Sacred Heart of Jesus are dependent upon the date of Easter.
It took a while to decide on the all-important date for Easter. Early bishops celebrated Easter on different dates based on different theologies. Some opted for the celebration of Easter on the 14th day or the day of the full moon of the month Nissan in the Jewish lunar calendar as they believed it to be the day on which Jesus was crucified. Others desired to celebrate Easter on the following Sunday, the day of the Lord. Still others desired to disconnect the celebration of Easter from the Jewish calendar all together.
It was not until the first Council of Nicea (325) that the current formula for calculating the day of Easter was established. Since then Easter has been celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. The Council of Nicea also established that the date of the spring equinox was March 21though meteorologically it often falls on March 20. Using this method, the earliest possible date for Easter can be March 22 which happened last in 1818 and will not happen again till 2285. The latest possible date for Easter is April 25 which happened last in1943 and will not happen again until 2038.
And to complicate matters just one bit more, let me tell you about Orthodox Easter. The Orthodox churches follow the same computation system established by the first Council of Nicea. However, because they still use the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar we end up celebrating Easter on different dates. March 21 on the Julian calendar corresponds to April 3 on the Gregorian calendar. Thus Orthodox Easter falls between April 4 and May 8. Sometimes, Orthodox Easter and Catholic Easter fall on the same date as is the case this year. The protestant churches follow the same calculation system as the Catholic Church.
P.S. if you are wondering about the differences between the Julian and Gregorian Calendar, watch for another blog entry on this topic.
As I was pondering our Lenten call to greater generosity I was reminded of a Russian folktale about charity and the lack thereof. The main character in the story is an aging woman who lived on the edge of a small village. She had neither family nor friends and was not very kind. As a matter of fact, children and adults alike were afraid of her. Not surprisingly, she died alone and that is how she would have wanted it.
After her death she found herself in hell. Thinking that she deserved better she complained and insisted that she should be accorded a place in heaven. St. Peter was consulted, but he was unable to find any reason in the Book of Life that would allow the woman into heaven. Because she would not stop complaining St. Peter eventually asked God about the situation. God told Peter to review her case in greater detail and pour over her entire life.
Thankfully, St. Peter was able to find something that remotely resembled a good deed. One day, a beggar had come to her home asking for food. She was working in her garden at the time and just pulled out some rotten onions intending to toss them. Annoyed by the beggars request she threw the bad onions at him so as to chase him away. The beggar, gratefully accepted the onions and ate them. God and St. Peter decided that though she might not have intended to do so, in effect, she had fed the hungry.
Because of this one deed, God asked St. Peter to pull the woman out of hell using the onions she had thrown at the beggar. Holding onto the onion the woman was pulled out of hell, slowly but surely. When the other people in hell realized what was happening they held on to the woman so they too might be pulled out of hell. And so it seemed that by virtue of the one unintended good deed everyone would be saved from hell as slowly but surely the woman and everyone who was holding on to her were pulled out of hell.
Soon the woman noted that other people were profiting from her good deed. Fearing that the onion would break under the weight she started to kick and scream causing everyone else to fall down. It looked as if she and she alone was going to be saved. However, not the weight but her uncharitable kicking caused the onion to break. As she caught a glimpse of heaven she fell back into hell where she remains to this day.
Something to ponder...
A Spiritual Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
As humans, we have a deeply rooted need to see, touch, and experience places of personal, historic or religious importance. Football fans for instance, think nothing of crossing the country to visit the football stadium at Notre Dame and to touch the statue of Knute Rockney. Many Catholics have a pilgrimage to Rome, Lourdes or the Holy Land on their bucket list. Jews, Christians and Muslims alike visit Jerusalem, an important location on the spiritual map of all three major monotheistic religions.
Driven by the desire to walk where Jesus walked and to pray in the places where he suffered, died and rose from the dead early Christians from around the Mediterranean traveled to the Holy Land. One of the most famous among these early pilgrims was St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. She provided the resources for the construction of churches over the Holy Sites and brought many holy relics back that are still venerated in Rome today. It is believed that they include parts of the Holy Cross, the crown of thorns and the stairs Jesus used on his way to Pilate to name just a few.
During the Middle Ages, the number of pilgrims to the Holy Land increased substantially. Christians not only desired to visit the Holy Sites they were also determined to keep them out of the hands of non-Christians. Regardless of their intent, those who returned to their homelands brought back compelling stories and vivid descriptions of those Holy Sites.
These captivating stories told in times of pestilence, famine and war resulted in a growing emphasis on the salvific passion of the Lord. Shrines were built to commemorated and honor Jesus’ suffering and death. Sometimes these shrines comprised a series of chapels reminiscent of the different Holy Sites in Jerusalem. There, people identified with Jesus’ pain and found solace in his suffering which brought salvation. It should be noted that the Franciscan Friars who promoted pious practices were instrumental in the quick spread of the devotion to the Lord’s Passion.
Though the underlying intent was similar the way this devotion was celebrated differed from region to region. Thus the Stations of the Cross developed with variations in the number of stations ranging from 7 to 30. The fourteen Stations of the Cross we know today were codified by Pope Clement XII in 1731.
These traditional Stations are still most popular yet others exist as well. Most notable are the Stations introduced by Pope John Paul II on Good Friday, 1991in the Coliseum in Rome. This version differs both in content and in number from the traditional 14 Stations. In terms of content, Pope John Paul’s stations are entirely based on the Scriptures. Such stations as “Jesus meets Veronica” or Jesus’ three falls which have no Biblical reference have been replaced. By ensuring their Biblical foundation the late pope’s intended to make the Stations accessible to all Christians. In terms of number, Pope John Paul II added one more Station: the Resurrection. His reasoning was that without the Resurrection, the passion and death of Jesus make absolutely no sense.
Unlike Saint Helena, most of us will not have the opportunity to ever visit the Holy Sites in Jerusalem. The Stations of the Cross provide us with a great alternative. As we physically walk from station to station meditating on the meaning of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection we are able to make a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Sites in Jerusalem.
As we continue our Lenten journey toward Easter, please join us on the Fridays of Lent for the celebration of the Eucharist at 5:30pm in the St. Joseph Chapel, followed by a soup supper in the Teresa of Calcutta Hall at 6:00pm and Stations of the Cross at 7:00pm in The Basilica.
Growing up I dreaded Lent. I did not particularly care to fast and abstain from things I enjoyed. What was the point? More emphasis on prayer seemed impossible. Almsgiving I did not quite get. Banning all decorations from church and covering statues with huge cloths seemed silly. And the Lenten sermons were downright scary. It all made for an unpleasant and gloomy experience. I had the sense that a dark cloud covered me for six weeks as I lived under the heavy burden of Lent, trying to do everything I was supposed to do.
It took me a while to understand what Lent was really about. My first mistake was that I thought Lent was all about me. I had to pray more. I had to give up things. I had to give alms. I failed to realize that Lent was not about me, but rather about the entire body of Christ. My second mistake was that I idolized the disciplines of Lent: praying, fasting, almsgiving while I failed to see that these were mere mechanisms toward the greater goal of bringing about a change of heart for the betterment of the Body of Christ.
Lent helps us to break out of the safety of our comfortable and self-centered world so we may encounter those around us. Our Lenten prayer then is not to be about ourselves. Rather, we pray for the well-being of others and we pray that we may be more generous toward others. Our Lenten fasting is not about depriving ourselves but rather about embracing a simpler lifestyle which in turn profits those who are in need. Our Lenten almsgiving is not about the satisfaction of giving from our excess but about freeing ourselves from worldly possessions which in turn allows others a greater share in the world’s riches.
Recently, Pope Francis asked a very poignant question: do we toss alms at a beggar, from afar or do we look him in the eyes as we place the money in his hands. This seemingly simple question touches on the essence of our Lenten journey. The moment we look a beggar in the eyes and touch her hand she becomes a person rather than a problem. It takes little effort to give alms. It is much more difficult to acknowledge the person asking for alms. Yet in that moment, in that encounter we cannot but be changed and become more like Christ.
Our Lenten experience will be fruitful only when we turn toward one another, look one another in the eyes, touch one another’s hands and recognize that all of us together make up the one Body of Christ. Once we truly embrace this, then we will be ready to fully celebrate the Easter mysteries.
First, early Christians displayed a general timidity toward imagery at best and engaged in the occasional full-fledged period of Iconoclasm at worst. It was not until the second council of Nicea (878) that matters were settled once and for all. After tumultuous debates, this council not only denounced iconoclasm it also called for the depictions of Christ, Mary and the saints with the admonition that when one adores an image one really adores the one represented by the image.
Second, the death of Jesus on the cross was neither expected by his followers nor was it readily embraced. Death by crucifixion was one of the worst condemnations. Roman citizens, e.g. could not be punished by crucifixion. In a sense, the cross was experienced as a scandal and an embarrassment. So they concentrated on the Resurrection, rather than on the death of Jesus.
Gradually the Christian community came to embrace the scandal of the cross as the paradox of the mystery of salvation. By the early 3rd century the cross had become closely associated with Christianity. Clement of Alexandria who died c. 215 referred to the cross as τὸ κυριακὸν σημεῖον or the Lord's sign. And according to Tertullian who died c. 225 Christians are crucis religiosi or devotees of the Cross.
Today the cross is ubiquitous and it is undoubtedly the most recognizable symbol in the entire world. We top our church steeples with crosses. We hang crosses in our homes, in our cars and around our necks. We even tattoo crosses on our bodies. Most often this is done in good faith and in good taste. Sometimes it is done in a misguided attempt at unfortunate fashion. In some instances the cross is intentionally desecrated.
Let’s take consolation in the fact that by the cross we have been saved and nothing can take that away, not even ill-advised use or worse, malicious abuse.
Is there such a thing as bad sacred art?
Living in the proverbial ivory tower I was convinced that only “high art” could be considered sacred art. The occasional accusation of elitism had little impact on my thinking. Surely, no-one could ever deny that such world famous art as the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are sacred art of the highest quality? And who would dare to argue that glow-in-the-dark statues of Mary were sacred art? The lines between good and bad sacred art were clear to me and they needed to be drawn.
Thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe and all she stands for I became less rigorous and more forgiving when it comes to sacred art. Nevertheless, not everything goes. I still hold that there indeed is such a thing a bad sacred art.
When considering sacred art I look for three qualities. First, sacred art needs to be authentic art. This requires an authentic esthetic as well as the use of authentic materials. In the past I thought certain esthetics or styles superior to others. Today I realize that the church is quite correct when upholding that there is no superior style, but that each period and region necessarily provides its own form of authentic art in response to the needs of each specific time and place.
Second, sacred art needs to have a sacred message. This is easily accomplished in figurative art that depicts the life of Jesus, Mary or the saints. But what about abstract art that deals with such religious notions as light and darkness or life and death? Can this be considered sacred art? Since certain abstract art forces us to deal with deeply religious matters like life and death it truly has a sacred message, though this may not be obvious to everyone, at least not at first.
Third, sacred art needs to be able to communicate its sacred message. In other words, people need to be able to be inspired by sacred art and receive its sacred message. What makes this aspect of sacred art difficult to grasp is that all of us have different intellectual interests and spiritual sensibilities. As a result we are moved by different kinds of art. Some people may be inspired by a bad print of bad religious art while they are supremely untouched by a great work of sacred art. Other people may find abstract art intensely spiritual while a graphic depiction the martyrdom of an obscure saint, though by definition sacred does nothing for them. This reality ought to make us more generous when considering sacred art because the fact that one person is spiritually moved by an image does not necessarily make it sacred art. At the same time, the fact that a person is not moved by a certain image does not necessarily make it bad sacred art. In either case, the beholder should not absolutize his or her personal experience of the art.
So, what to do about the questionable religious art you harbor in your home? Please consider the three above mentioned qualities of sacred art. Should you find your art lacking I suggest you do one of two things. Either you store it with your beloved, yet secret velvet image of Elvis Presley. Or you send it to me and who knows, one day it may appear in an exhibit. And as my friend and I discovered, when placed in a glass vitrine under beautiful lighting, what was once thought a mere tchotchke may turn out to be fine art.
“Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, Bishop and martyr may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and any other illness. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Blaise, a 4th C. bishop and martyr with the traditional blessing of the throats.
The little we know about St. Blaise comes from descriptions of the lives of saints which were written several centuries after his death. From these writings we learn that Blaise was a celebrated medical doctor when he was elected as bishop of Sebastea, Armenia, today’s Sivas, Turkey. He was brutally martyred around 316 during a wave of Christian persecution.
From the 6th C. on in the East and the 8th C. in the West the intercession of St. Blaise was invoked by people who were ill. By the 12th C. St. Blaise had become one of the most popular saints in Western Europe.
Two stories told about St. Blaise relate to the custom of blessing throats on his feast day. According to the first story a distraught mother rushed her child to St. Blaise. The child was choking on a fishbone. After St. Blaise said a prayer the fishbone dislodged and the child was saved. Based on this miracle the intercession of St. Blaise is invoked when suffering from ailments of the throat and to present such ailments.
According to the second story a poor widow’s pig had been saved from a wolf by St. Blaise. Out of gratitude the widow brought 2 candles to prison so St. Blaise could have some light in his dark cell. Thus two candles are used during the blessing of the throats. These candles are blessed the previous day on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. They are often held together by a red ribbon and placed around the neck of the person being blessed. The red ribbon refers to the martyrdom suffered by St. Blaise.
Even in our postmodern society, which is suspicious of any hint of superstition this blessing not unlike other sacramentals such as the sprinkling with Holy Water remain popular among Catholics. They are the visible signs of a deep yet invisible reality. The blessing of the throats is a tangible reminder of God’s healing and saving presence among us. It is also an acknowledgement that we entrust ourselves to God’s providential care.
The feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2) or Candlemas is one of the lesser known feasts in our church today. Its history is complex and rich yet because it most often falls on a weekday very few people even are aware of it. Nevertheless, I have very fond memories of this feast which go back all the way to my childhood.
Our family would attend early morning Mass on that day. Upon entering the church we received a candle, one per family. After the priest said a prayer and sprinkled Holy Water we walked around the church in procession. As the oldest child I was tasked with carrying our family’s candle. My current fondness of processions probably dates back to those Candlemas celebrations when I carried the candle under the watchful eye of my parents and the envious glances of my siblings. After Mass we were encouraged to take our candle home and to care for it with reverence. The priest told us to light the candle in times of need. I distinctly remember lighting our candle when my great-grandfather was mortally ill while we prayed for his recovery. We also found some solace in this candle once he died. We even would light the candle and huddle around it during bad storms. It made us less afraid.
Many years later, when living in a Benedictine abbey we celebrated the day with even greater ceremony as the candles were bigger, the procession was longer and the sung psalms were more numerous. We started the celebration in the chapter room. After the lighting and blessing of our candles we processed through the entire cloister into the church while singing Lumen ad revelationem gentium or A light of revelation to the Nations. I can still hear the sounds, see the sights and smell the burning wax which even overpowered the copious amounts of incense used for the procession.
Memories are great yet they need to be interpreted carefully. My childhood experience of the feast reveals profound truths but maybe there was a hint of superstition which tainted the use of the candles at home. Or was it the result of a more generous and less complicated faith? My monastic memories, again revelatory of deep faith undoubtedly suffer from some liturgical romanticism.
As a child I always wished we could keep the candle burning throughout the liturgy and even on our way home. I did not quite know why but I thought it made sense. I still imagine this grand procession of all Christians leaving their respective churches on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord or any feast for that matter with lit candle in hand, proclaiming to the world that Christ is the Light and we bear witness to Him in word and deed.