Johan's Blog

It is probably safe to say that most of us love the season of Advent and that Christmas is one of our favorite celebrations of the year. But what about Epiphany?

The word ‘epiphany’ is the English transliteration of the Greek epiphaneia, meaning appearance, revelation, manifestation. In our Christian context the word refers to the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. This feast which has traditionally been celebrated on January 6 is now often celebrated on the first Sunday of January. Its origins can to traced back to the Church in the East and is older than the celebration of Christmas on December 25. 

While Christmas focuses on the Birth of Jesus, the feast of the Epiphany focuses on the Baptism of the Lord in the East and the visitation by the Magi in the West.  In both instances, Jesus is revealed to the world as the Son of God. Both of these revelations were rather grand experiences. At Jesus’ baptism, e.g. a voice from heaven proclaimed him to be the beloved Son of God. And the Magi successfully followed a star in search of the Son of God.

In addition to the Gospel stories, saints too seem prone to great and life altering revelations. Sometimes I wonder why such experiences have not befallen me. This has led me to think that saints have reached such a high state of holiness that God deems them worthy to receive such revelations. But maybe it is better to look at it a little differently. Maybe revelations are not a reward for saintly lives, rather saints reach such a high spiritual sensitivity that they have an extraordinary sense of God’s presence in the world so that small revelatory moments can become great experiences. By contrast, many of us are so dulled down by the hustle and bustle of our lives that we might not even recognize God, even if we were breaking bread together. 

That is why the celebration of the Epiphany is so important. It is an invitation to all of us to open our hearts and minds to God’s presence in the most ordinary as well as in the most extra-ordinary aspects of our lives: in the love between to people; in the beauty of a mountain range; in a playful herd of sheep and in a lonely row of cypress trees; in the people who risk their lives to save the life of others and in those whose lives are being save; in the people who work toward justice for all; and above all in the liturgy and the sacraments.

And if we are able to pause long enough, we might even recognize God’s presence in ourselves? After all, we are created in the image of God and by virtue of our baptism we are called to be a manifestation or an epiphany of God’s love in this world.

Thus the solemnity of the Epiphany not only celebrates that God was revealed in Christ some 2000 years ago; the Epiphany also invites us to open ourselves up to discover God’s presence among us today; and  the Epiphany remind us that each one of us is are called to be a revelation or epiphany of God in our world.


My penchant for collecting religious art is nothing new. It all started with the three porcelain Infants of Prague I received when I celebrated my first communion. I placed them on the dresser in my bedroom and thus my home altar and religious art collection was born. Though my tastes may have changed and the original Infants of Prague may have been lost in the attic I continue to collect.
Among the early statues was a porcelain blessed mother painted in pastel colors and equipped with a music mechanism which rendered “Immaculate Mary” beautifully. I have written about her before. Another favorite was a holy family that was part of the same porcelain collection though without the music box. It portrayed a very serene Holy Family. Mary was seated with a scroll in her hands teaching the young boy, Jesus. Joseph, depicted as a carpenter was standing behind both of them. 
I loved the warmth and dedication of Mary and the protective presence of Joseph. To this young beholder, the statue embodied the perfect family. I totally identified with the young Jesus and wanted my mom and dad to be like Mary and Joseph. Though I consider myself very lucky, having grown up in a loving family there were moments when we strayed from my ideal. At those times I would go to my room, overcome with feelings of guilt and disappointment and would gaze upon the Holy family asking that my family be just like them. 
Once I entered my teenage years I boxed up my religious art collection and put it in the attic. Posters and paraphernalia of Alice Cooper took its place, not so much because I liked Rock and Roll but rather because I felt the need to fit in with my classmates. When that did not work I gradually returned to my religious art collection. However, the porcelain ideals I had collected as a young boy remained in the attic, where they are still today. I had come to realize that the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph could not have been purely pastel and porcelain. If they were truly human, there must have been moments of disagreement, anger, misunderstanding, etc. because that is what real people do. We laugh together and we cry together. We lift one another up and we put one another down. We take pride in one another’s accomplishments and at times we disappoint one another. Family life is not just pastel and porcelain, it is filled with ups and down, leaps forward and setbacks. Family life is real, not ideal. This holds for our nuclear families, our extended families, our neighborhoods, our Basilica community and the church at large.
The feast of the Holy Family celebrates the notion of family as it was realized in the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and not the porcelain and pastel caricature we have made it out to be. The Holy Family reminds us that family life and all Christian relationships for that matter are pathways toward holiness. The feast celebrates that holiness is attained in our day-to-day relationship with others. The feast affirms that all of us are called to holiness, no matter how far we might think ourselves removed from holiness and no matter how little we resemble the porcelain and pastel image of the Holy Family.  
I have a new sculpture of the Holy Family in my collection. Rather than porcelain and pastel the new one is made our of partially glazed clay, and semi abstract. When I am disappointed in myself or others I spend some time with this new sculpture of the Holy Family and I console myself that it is holiness we are after, not perfection.


Yesterday, an electrician stopped by to do some repair work. He commented on the many nativity scenes that are exhibited in the house. Never had he seen anything like it. He asked how many I had and where they were from. We walked around the house to view all crèches. With the help of my catalogue I was able to talk about each one of them. When we were done I invited him to go to The Basilica to see the many crèches we have on exhibit in the John XXIII Gallery.

All these crèches together make for a great collection. Some of them are carved in wood or stone, others are made from scrap materials such as newspapers, bottles cap or soda cans. Some are made of fired clay, either colorfully painted or not at all. One of my favorites I found in a small town in Provence. The artist uses pebbles found in a local river. On them she paints the figures of the nativity.

What is remarkable about each one of these handmade crèches is how individual artists have represented the familiar story of the birth of Jesus in their own image. Jesus, Mary and Joseph and all the other figures in the scene often look like the artist who made them. As a result we have African, American, Asian, Australian and European versions of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The animals surrounding them usually are the sheep we read about in Scripture. Sometimes the artist augmented or even replaced the sheep with more local animals such as llamas, warthogs or lions. In some of the crèches the artist has traded the traditional gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for gifts that are more typical to the culture of the artist such as monkeys and an armadillo which are given to Jesus by the Magi of the Amazon.

As he left my house the electrician asked me why I collect nativity scenes. I told him that beyond the fact that all these crèches are exceedingly beautiful and interestingly diverse they also pointedly testify to the reality of the Incarnation which we celebrate during Advent and Christmas. At the beginning of time we were created in the image of God.  In Jesus, God took on our image and became one of us so we could be shown how to become more like God. This is really the essence of what we celebrate at Christmas: Jesus became one of us so we might become like him. This is what these crèches are all about. They show Jesus as one of us in our great diversity so all of us together may become like him. And that, I told him, is why I collect them.

He looked at me with a slight sense of bewilderment. Then he smiled, shook my hand and without asking any further questions went on his merry way.

The Basilica of Saint Mary has a magnificent set of bronze doors. Mgr Reardon commissioned them in the 1950s to replace the original wooden doors.  Twice a year they are waxed so they retain their sheen. They are grand and shiny and inviting. Weather permitting they are open.

All sorts of people make their way through those doors. They vary in race, age, gender, creed. Some almost run up the majestic stairs toward them. Others approach them very hesitatingly wondering if they will be allowed inside. Still others move slowly, bent under the weight of many burdens. Once inside they stand in awe, kneel down in payer, light candles, bless themselves in the baptismal font or simply lie down in a pew to take a nap or hide from the cold.

There was a time when only Catholics in good standing would dare to enter through these doors. Today we are much more inviting and welcome anyone who is in need of prayer, quiet, rest or solace. There was a time when our majestic doors stood as a warning to all who were about to enter, today they are a shiny symbol of our commitment to hospitality.

During this beautiful season of Advent we mediate on the fact that the doors were shut on Mary and Joseph as they were looking for a place to spend the night. They were forced to retreat into a cave or a stable which they shared with farm animals. The one who became the door to salvation for all humankind found the doors closed to him

As we mediate on what happened to the Holy Family, Advent thus offers an invitation to all of us to open wide our doors: the doors of our souls to Christ, the doors of our heart to all who need our love and the doors to our homes to all who need shelter. And our church is to show the way by example. Too often, the beautifully crafted door of our cathedrals, churches and chapels have closed to too many people.

Christ, the one who found the doors closed to him yet opened his heart to all asks us to do the same. As we prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus let us take Jesus’ example to heart and open wide the doors of our souls, our hearts and our homes.

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.