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St. Blaise

“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.

Click on the link below or paste it into your browser to find to the readings for this weekend: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/020914.cfm

In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus tells his disciples:  “You are the salt of the earth.”  “You are the light of the world.”  These words are so familiar that it would be easy to miss their meaning.  Specifically, I think they remind us of two very important things.   First, notice that Jesus didn’t say you “will be” the salt of the earth, or you “will be the light of the world.  Rather he said: “You are.”   This reminds us that in our lives --- in the here and now and not at some point in the future --- we are to be salt and light to the world around us..  Second, though, both salt and light have an impact, and it doesn’t take much of either for that impact to be noticed.   A little salt can add flavor to a meal, while too much salt can ruin it.  In the same way even a small amount of light can guide us on a dark night, while too much light can blind us.   Clearly, even in small ways, we can be salt and light to our world and can make a difference. 

Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.    It shares the theme of the Gospel and tells us very practically how we can be salt and light in our world.   “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn………………… If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness,”

Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.  In the section we read this weekend, Paul reminds the people of Corinth.  That he did not speak to them with “sublimity of words or of wisdom …………… so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom, but on the power of God.”   

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

1.    Where are you called to be salt and light in your life?
2.    What concretely and specifically do you need to do be salt and light? 
3.    Have you ever encountered someone who spoke with “sublimity of words and wisdom,” but really didn’t say much?  

Candles at Mass
Photo provided by: 
Michael Jensen
Candlemas

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.

Candle procession
Photo provided by: 
Michael Jensen
Procession with candle

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.

The essence of the feast is this: Christ is the Light of the world and we are to witness to the Light in word and deed. The candles are a tangible symbol of the light of Christ. And  the procession is not just a pretty parade rather it symbolizes and rehearses us in our calling to bring Christ’s light to the world.

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.

The realities of our world today can be overwhelming. Local and global news show catastrophes and disasters each day. Yet, we also know there is kindness and healing in the world. People have tremendous capacity for good.

One of the greatest challenges of living faithfully today is reconciling the good we know is possible with the often harsh realities of the world around us. We are invited to stand in this “tragic gap” between the heartbreak of our world and the inherent goodness of creation. The tension can be exhausting. It is easy to fall into a corrosive cynicism when we hear the constant pain of the world. We can become bitter or numb to misfortune experienced around us. Conversely, we can shut out the news and the real struggles and become disengaged through an irrelevant idealism. We can shut everything out and live simply without knowing what is going on around us.

A challenge of our faith is to stay in the “tragic gap” between the world as it is and the world as we believe it should be. We are invited to find a way to stay there for the long haul, resisting the slide to either extreme. As people of faith, we are called to stay engaged—to be drawn into the darkness while holding the light of hope, love, and reconciliation.

How can we avoid “compassion fatigue?” How can we avert the experience of indifference or disconnect with all that makes us uncomfortable. The challenge is to stay engaged, to remain compassionate amidst the constant bombardment of pain.

At a daily Mass on May 22, 2013, Pope Francis addressed this struggle of the faithful. He suggested that our answer can be found through a simple guideline: create a “culture of encounter.” Pope Francis encourages everyone to engage in the world together. Simply see what needs to be done in front of you today, and respond by doing good. Rooted in the knowledge that we are created in the image and likeness of our God, Pope Francis encourages everyone to do good, and to meet one another there.

Pope Francis states that this “culture of encounter” is created when all humanity simply seeks to do the good that presents itself.  This uncomplicated act unites all humanity. It creates the “culture of encounter” that is the foundation of peace. He states, “If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good.”

Simple, but not easy. When we feel compelled to withdraw or ignore—engage. When we are tired or weary—do good. Rooted in prayer, strengthened by community, we commit ourselves to the “culture of encounter” and stay involved and engaged.

On February 9th The Basilica will hold a Local Stewardship Fair from 10:30-1:30 in the Lower Level. Representatives from organizations will be present to highlight ways we can be engaged in our community through Liturgy, Sacred Arts, Social Service partners, environmental and community organizations. Together, in small acts of love, we can transform the world. 

On January 27 we observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorating the 69th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. It meant the end of the most horrific and extensive form of Genocide the world has ever known as 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti) and 15,000 homosexual people were systematically killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Millions of others were also killed or otherwise victimized.

To most of us those days seem so far off and almost unreal. Therefor this day of remembrance is of the utmost importance. On the one hand it invites us to honor the memory of all the Nazi victims. On the other hand it forces us to confront the evil reality of genocide that still exists in our world today.

A few years ago I happened to be in Paris on January 27. Though I had been there before I had never visit the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, the memorial to those deported from France during World War II. There could be no more fitting day to make a pilgrimage to this impressive yet often forgotten monument in the shadows of the more famous cathedral of Notre Dame. As I made my way, my heart was heavy with worry for the human race, given our capacity to inflict unthinkable horror on one another. I also pondered the impact the Nazis had on my own family.

My grandfather and the other men working in my grandmother’s shoe factory were deported to Nazi camps because she refused to make shoes for the Nazi army. The family home was occupied by Nazi officers. When my grandmother died, I inherited her papers including the moving letters my grandfather sent from the camp as well as letters from one of the officers who had occupied my grandmother’s house. The latter include his thoughts on the horrors of the war and his striking plea for forgiveness.

Holocaust Memorial in Paris
Photo provided by: 
Johan van Parys
Holocaust Memorial in Paris
At the edge of one of the islands (Ile de la Cité) in the river Seine a narrow and steep stairway leads down to the memorial courtyard. A low-level fenced-in window is the only place that allows a glimpse of the outside. A severe sculpture representing imprisonment and torture hangs in guarded by two oppressive columns barely allows entrance into the memorial itself.
The main installation, on the far end of the foyer, is a long front of this window. On the opposite side, a narrow door narrow corridor lined with 200,000 quartz crystals, one for each man, woman, child deported from France during the Second World War. A rod-iron gate prevents entrance. An eternal flame burns at the very end of the corridor.

This extraordinary building captures those who enter it from the very first moment, guiding them down the narrow steps, through the courtyard, into the foyer, to the wall of remembrance and the eternal flame. This journey makes visitors face the reality of the suffering of the 200,000 victims who are honored here and beyond them all human suffering. It also provides a timid light of hope for humanity which too often seems untenable and almost absurd.

My walk back to the hotel that day took me past Notre Dame Cathedral. I could not but enter and light a candle for all those who are suffering at the hand of other people. I stayed for Vespers and prayed “Thy Kingdom Come” with more fervor than ever before.

 

Readings:          Malachi 3:1-4          Hebrews 2: 14-18          Luke 2: 22-40  

This weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.    This Feast is celebrated on February 2nd each year.   Our Gospel for this Feast is the story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple in accordance with Mosiac law. 

When Mary and Joseph came to the Temple they encountered Simeon, who was “righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.”   Simeon blessed Mary and Joseph and then said to Mary: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be sign that will be contradicted --- and you yourself a sword of sorrow will pierce --- so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”  

Mary and Joseph were fulfilling the prescription of the law of Moses when they presented Jesus in the Temple.   As is often the casein the scriptures, though, things have a much deeper meaning than is immediately evident.   Simeon’s words prophesy both Christ’s ministry and his passion and death.  

Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of the Prophet Malachi.  In the section we read this weekend God announces:  “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me………”  From our Christian perspective we see this prophecy as referring to John the Baptist who came to prepare the way for Christ.  

Our second reading this weekend is from the Letter to the Hebrews.  It reminds us that Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, the he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people.  Because he himself was tested through what he suffered he is able to help those who are being tested.”   

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

1.    Simeon said that Jesus was a “sign that will be contradicted.”  What does this mean to you? 
2.    Have you ever waited, as Simeon did, and eventually found your waiting rewarded?  
3.    I loved the words from Hebrews that “because he himself was tested through what he suffered he is able to help those who are being tested.”   When and how have you felt Jesus’ help in time of need? 

Reasons to Pray

When I was growing up, I was taught that there were four reasons to pray:  1. Adoration, 2. Contrition, 3. Gratitude, and 4. Petition. We still believe these four things are the reasons behind, as well as the motivation for our prayer. My problem, though, is that I never seem to adore God, or tell God I am sorry for my sins, or express my gratitude to God as earnestly or as deeply as I entreat God. My prayers of petition are long, heartfelt and sincere. My prayers of adoration, contrition and gratitude on the other hand, while sincere, tend to be brief and more often than not, superficial. 

Now I know that adoration, contrition and especially gratitude are really what my prayer should be all about. God is so good, so faithful and so loving, that this alone should fill my life with thanksgiving, praise and sorrow. And yet I continue to be embarrassed at the many times I am indifferent and ungrateful. It is so easy for me to take God for granted, telling myself that God certainly must know how grateful and how sorry I am. And yet, while God does indeed know this, it is binding on me as one of God’s creatures to give voice to my gratitude, praise and sorrow.   

I am not sure why it is easier for me to pray for the things I want or think I need, than it is for me to be grateful for the many blessings I enjoy in my life. I suspect, though, that a big part of the reason is that the blessings are so abundant and so pervasive that they sometimes become part of the background and they fail to stand out for me. If I only occasionally knew blessings, they would stand out much more clearly. Because I am surrounded by blessings, though, they don’t always, or even often, stand out as they should.   

The fact is that we all live in a world imbued with God’s grace. God’s love for us is ever present and always being offered to us. We are always held firm in the embrace of our God’s love. If God should forget about us for even a moment, we would cease to exist. It is easy, though, to grow so comfortable and complacent with this, that we can forget that it calls for a response on our part. God’s love for us is not just to be enjoyed, but responded to. And our response needs to be adoration, contrition, and gratitude. Petition should follow after these three. 

I suspect I will continue to petition God more than I praise, thank or tell God I’m sorry for my sins and failures. Prayers of petition are deeply rooted in my life. 

I am hopeful, though, that as I grow older I will recognize the many blessings I enjoy in my life, the love that God constantly pours forth on me, and the forgiveness that is without end, and that this in turn might lead me to be more thankful and contrite, and lead me to give praise to the God who made all things possible.   


Our Gospel this weekend comes in two sections.  In the first section we read that Jesus “left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.”   We are told he did this “that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled:  Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light………….”

In the second section of this Gospel we read of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry with the call of Peter and his brother Andrew: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  and James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John:  “He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.”    Notice that in both cases Jesus did not give them any information or even an idea of what following him would involve.  

Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.   It is the passage that was referenced in the Gospel.  “First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the end he has glorified the seaward road, the land west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles.”   The word “degraded” refers to the fact that these lands had been conquered by the Assyrians.  In his prophecy, though, Isaiah foresees a time of restoration and glory for these lands. 

Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.  In the section we read this weekend Paul, hearing of some rivalries and divisions within the community at Corinth, urges the Corinthians to be “united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” 

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

1. When Jesus called his first disciples, why do you think he didn’t give them any specifics regarding what following him would entail?  
2.  Have you ever been surprised at what it has meant for you to follow Jesus? 

3.  Divisions within the Christian community have been around since the beginning of the Church.  Why do you think this is?

Unlikely Pietá

Pietá by Steve Olson
Photo provided by: 
Johan van Parys
Pietá by Steve Olson
Art is of the greatest importance for the mission of our church. Art, of course is essential to the celebration of the liturgy. In addition, art tells the story of our faith. Art soothes our restless souls. And art invites us to face the ever-pressing questions about our faith, our society and our very selves. The ultimate goal of the use of music, art and architecture by the church is the ultimate goal of the church herself, namely that we become more and more like Christ in everything we do.

As a result, we take the arts very seriously both within the liturgy and outside the liturgy. That is why we opened our Art Gallery 15 years ago, under the protection of Blessed (soon to be Saint) Pope John XXIII. Local artists as well as national and international artists have exhibited in our Gallery. We have presented art in practically every medium and from every continent. We have mostly exhibited Christian art but have also have hosted interfaith exhibits and have ventured into the broader Sacred Art realm. 

Though each of our artists deserves to be written about I selected just one, Steve Olson whom I believe to be representative of all artists who have exhibited in our Gallery. Steve is a local artist with a national following. His work, though not always easy is strong and purposeful. It reveals his search for answers to the more difficult questions of life, and even life itself. John’s work commands your attention and when you finally can pry yourself away it remains with you and calls you back, over and over again. It is not the kind of art you see and promptly forget about. It is the kind of art that stays with you forever.

I clearly remember the moment I encountered the work of art by Steve that is depicted above this text. It has not let go of me since and in return, I have not let go of it either. The colors, the shapes, the textures and the intriguing way in which John made the heads and bodies interchangeable commanded my attention. Even today, 10 years later I cannot walk by it without stopping and pondering its meaning.
When I first saw the work I immediately thought of it as a Pietá, disregarding what John’s intentions might have been. The word Pietá comes from the Latin Pietas which was used in the Roman Empire to refer to “dutiful conduct” toward the Gods. Our word piety is clearly derived from this. The most famous Pietá is undoubtedly the one in St. Peter’s Basilica, carved by the young Michelangelo (1498-1499). In this masterpiece Michelangelo shows a young and serene Mary holding the body of Jesus which does not seem tormented but rather given in abandonment to God. Jesus accepted death as the ultimate consequence of his mission. In other words this Pietá truly reflects Jesus’ pietas or “dutiful conduct” toward God.

Throughout the centuries, artists have created Pietás inspired by their own age. Some renditions are very serene while others, including some later versions by Michelangelo reveal more of the pain suffered both by Mary and Jesus. Some renditions do not even show Mary and Jesus but rather depict unnamed people who like Jesus and Mary fulfilled their pietas or their “duty to God.” 

Olson’s Pietá depicts two unnamed people who hold one another. By making the heads and bodies interchangeable he suggests that as humans we take turns in supporting and being supported. Like Michelangelo’s first Pietá, Olson’s Pietá  is not really about pain and sorrow, but rather emphasizes our pietas or our “dutiful service” to God. Like Michelangelo’s Pietá, Olson’s Pietá is not about the underlying division and discord, but rather about support, sustenance and in the end about salvation or eternal life.
 

The Journey of the Refugee

When we envision the journey of a refugee, the most visceral images are fleeing a country in strife and finding refuge in a new place. But for many refugees, this is only the beginning and the end of a long journey. Many refugees are placed in refugee camps until their applications for asylum in foreign countries are approved. This can be an arduous process, because the majority of developed countries have a limit to the amount of refugees they can accept in any given year. For example, the United States accepted 76,000 refugees in 2012. There are currently roughly 10.4 million refugees in the world.  Given the disparity between the number of refugees in the world and the number that countries accept annually, many refugees have to wait in refugee camps, in limbo between their home country and their future home.

As a result, there are countless refugee camps across the world, some larger than Minneapolis, that host refugees until their application for asylum is approved. Dadaab, Kenya is currently the largest refugee camp in the world, hosting approximately 402,000 people. While the camp is meant to be temporary, there are now more than 8000 Dabaab grandchildren – children of children who were born in the camp. There is simply nowhere for these people – husbands, mothers, children – to go, as they wait for countries to approve their asylum application. 

There are thousands of stories in Dadaab, and millions of stories of refugees across the world that are displaced in refugee camps. There’s Meddy Okoth, who played for the Ethiopian national basketball team until he was forced to flee from conflict. He now hopes to play abroad and return to help those in his community. Or Opiyo Sufuri who uses spoken word poems to raise awareness amongst men in his community to equal rights for women. Or Mohamed Ali Ahmed, the father of nine children. He was a professional football player and coach before being forced to flee his home. He’s now the sole caretaker of his severely disabled son, Abidirsack, whom he adores. 

There are countless stories like this across the world, of people who have fled from their homes and are making due in refugee camps. Many of those in our community have spent time in these camps, waiting to start a new life in Minnesota. It’s important to know these stories of resilience and perseverance, so we can understand what those in our community have been through.

About the columnist: Luke Olson is a Basilica parishioner and choir member.  A third-year law student at the University of Minnesota, upon graduation Luke will join the firm of Dorsey and Whitney in Minneapolis.

 

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