Inklings of a New Evangelization: Lo, How a Story E’er Blooming

MiriamMarstonMiriam Marston, a freelance writer and musician, has been based in the Archdiocese of Boston since 2006, serving most recently as the Assistant Director of Theology Programs at the Theological Institute at St. John’s Seminary.  She has released two albums of original music, and is currently working on a third.

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Other columns in series:
The Beacons Are Lit
                              Of Myths and Maps
Inside the Song
                                       A Word on Wonder
A Word on Tooks
                                   Secondary Worlds and Primary Truths
Escape and the Good Catastrophe      Treebeard and the Language of Reality
The Valor of Bilbo                                 Laughter and the Logos
Our Lady and the Elves                        Puddleglum’s Dark Night of the Soul
Francis and the Houses of Healing

“It was a cold grey day near the end of December. The East Wind was streaming through the bare branches of the trees, and seething in the dark pines on the hills. Ragged clouds were hurrying past, dark and low. As the cheerless shadows of the early evening began to fall the Company made ready to set out.”  ~ Fellowship of the Ring

When it came to writing his legendarium, Tolkien was meticulous, almost to a fault. It was one of his greatest fears that he would never finish his story because it was taking so long to write, and part of that was due to his getting entangled in the details (for example, he discovered “his moons were doing impossible things”, and had to rewrite entire chapters to make sure the moon phases were accurate). If Tolkien was so careful about the moon phases, then he would have hardly been clumsy when it came to choosing the dates for the landmark moments in his plot. The fellowship walkingOne such date is the 25th of December, which marks when the Fellowship officially began the long trek towards Mordor, that miserable land where the terrible Sauron had taken up residence.

The pleasure that comes with detecting such intentionality in the plot is especially significant at this time of year, as we prepare for and celebrate the birth of Christ. While Christmas often feels like the culmination of a season, it is actually just the beginning of a story. It is a story that we have been telling ever since, and building upon as we compose countless subplots and characters, within this saga of salvation history. It started almost immediately: can you imagine the stories the shepherds told their family and friends? (“You will not believe what I just saw!!”) Already, the person of Christ was leaving a deep impression on the imagination and waking up those senses and longings that had perhaps lain dormant for many years. And as Mary, Joseph, and their newborn Son—a perfect fellowship, if ever there was one—stood at the turning point of history, and the angels’ Gloria filled the night sky, could the shepherds have guessed that we would still feel that “thrill of hope”, even two thousand years later?

A few Tolkien scholars have noted that the Lord of the Rings departs from the classic formula of the fairy story, which normally sees the characters on a quest to save or collect something or someone; for example, the dramatic rescue of a princess in distress, or the successful discovery of some long-sought-after treasure. By contrast, Frodo Baggins is entrusted with the task of destroying a piece of treasure. Frodo tries to destroy ringIt is an “anti-quest”, by which the story reaches its climax in an act of obliteration. In keeping with this theme, Tom Shippey, in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, notes that “the main action of the Lord of the Rings takes place…in the mythic space between Christmas…and the crucifixion.” When Christ stepped into human history, he did not seek riches, power, or praise.  His coming into the world was only ever leading up to one thing: His Death and Resurrection. As the road from Bethlehem led to Calvary, the road from Rivendell eventually led to Mordor.

And just as Tolkien turns the idea of the quest on its head, he puts a clever twist on the familiar legend of the Star of Bethlehem. In the days leading up to the Fellowship’s departure, Tolkien notes that one star in particular stood out in the sky:

“…but low in the South one star shone red…Frodo could see it from his window, deep in the heavens, burning like a watchful eye that glared above the trees on the brink of the valley.” ~ Fellowship of the Ring

star of bethlehemThe star which drew the Magi to Emmanuel was a thing of resplendent beauty, inviting them to come closer and pay homage to the true King.  Frodo, however, observed a star “glaring” at him from afar—more a warning than an invitation.  But Frodo would follow that star—and his task—to the bitter end, thus fulfilling his role in helping to usher in a new era that would no longer see Middle Earth held captive under the reign of an evil power.

So what can we draw from Tolkien’s unusual quest, which had its conspicuous start on December 25th?  Perhaps it is telling us that this season is an opportunity to consider the summons to embark on our own “anti-quest”. The stage has been set:  the voyage began at our birth, and the shape of our days took on an even sharper focus in our re-birth at baptism. Now the pace is picking up and the excuses are running thin. On this December 25th, we can put ourselves in Frodo’s place: what things are keeping Christ away from the center of our lives? What is holding Him at arm’s length, at a safe distance, “over there” on the margins of our daily life? In short:  what will we throw into the fires of Mt. Doom this year?

As we commit to this task of flinging away our respective rings of power, it will help us greatly to let the Lord shine his merciful light on our imperfections and sins. nativity icon[1]That light is strong enough to reduce even the worst habit or obstinate anger to harmless ash. But we have to stop shoving all of our problematic baggage under the rug or in the closet. Apart from making for a bland story, the option of simply throwing the One Ring into the deepest part of the ocean, where it would be nearly impossible to find, would have never been a satisfactory resolution. The thing needed to be destroyed. And it is no different with our sins. No use shuffling them away to some dark and deep corner where we think that no one will find them. And it’s also no use blaming our repeated failures on “just being human”; the Incarnation ruined our chances of that choice lament. Just being human, as it turns out, is a pretty remarkable thing. Christ, as the Word made flesh, has shown us the way to sanctity, and that way normally involves the serious, yet joyful, business of dying to self.

May this season of anticipation and celebration draw us closer than ever into the life-giving fellowship offered to us through Christ.  And may our journeys in this coming year take us a little closer to Home, where everything that is not truly us is destroyed, and everything that is truly us is brought to perfection.

Waiting with the Psalms: Week 4

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Over the past three weeks of Advent, we have looked to the Psalms to teach us how to wait for the Lord. Psalm 25 presented the image of a person who waits as a person of hope; Psalm 130 demonstrated various degrees of intensity often involved in waiting; Psalm 27 showed the connection between waiting, longing, and seeking. Advent Wreath week 4Now, during these final days of Advent, we turn to a Psalm that poignantly captures the tension of living in the “already, but not yet” of the Kingdom of God.

Psalm 40
This Psalm provides a beautiful complement to Psalm 27. The final verse of Psalm 27 exhorted the faithful to “Wait for the LORD with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD!” (Ps 27:14), and with the very first verse of Psalm 40, we see that this waiting has not been in vain. The psalmist proclaims, “I waited, I waited for the LORD, and he stooped down to me; he heard my cry” (Grail ’63, Revised Grail 2010). The Lord hears the cries of his faithful one, and, unlike a king or ruler who might send an emissary to deal with the mundane problems of commoners, the Lord Himself comes to answer that cry. So great is the Lord, and so insignificant are we in comparison; yet, like a loving parent consoling a weeping child, the Lord “stoops down” to us, comforting and consoling us, taking away our fears and shattering our darkness with His own uncreated Light. This “stooping down” is so simple, so unexpected, so astonishingly humble, that it becomes the “new song” the Lord puts into the mouth of the psalmist: “He put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God. Many shall see and fear and shall trust in the LORD our God” (Ps 40:3). Indeed, once the psalmist has witnessed the intimate, particular love that God has for each person, and the desire that God has to be in relationship with each person, how could he possibly sing of anything else? How could we? What could be more marvelous, more paradigm-shifting, than a Creator who desires a communion of love with His creatures?

Picture 191I often imagine the Blessed Virgin Mary praying this Psalm. As a daughter of Israel, she, too, looked for the arrival of the Messiah, and when the “fullness of time” had come (cf. Gal 4:4), her prayerful waiting for the Lord to “stoop down” was what enabled her to make the subsequent words of the psalmist her own when God’s will was revealed to her. The psalmist sings, “You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings, but an open ear. You do not ask for holocaust and victim. Instead, here am I. In the scroll of the book it stands written that I should do your will. My God, I delight in your law in the depth of my heart” (Ps 40:7-9). These prophetic words of the Psalm anticipate the reply given by a humble Virgin: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). They also anticipate the life of her Son, the Incarnate Logos, the Son of God, who offered Himself as the victim and gave His very life as a sacrifice for the redemption of sinners. In fact, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, writing of the sacrifice of Christ offered once for all, places those very verses of Psalm 40 on the lips of Christ Himself, thus identifying Him as the one who fulfilled God’s will most perfectly in His Passion and Death (cf. Heb 10:1-7).

What, then, does this mean for us as we enter these last days of Advent? It means that our waiting, our hoping, our longing, our seeking, will never be disappointed, so long as we keep “an open ear” to listen for God’s coming and we stand ready to do His will as Mary did, as Jesus did. God will always hear our cry, and in His own time and in His own way, He will “stoop down” to us as His own beloved children. The divine response may not occur at the time and in the manner we would choose; after all, who could have imagined that God would redeem the world by becoming a poor infant? Still, even in the midst of our waiting, God continues to “stoop down” to us, most especially in the gift of the Eucharist. How incredible this gift, and how humble our God, whose love is so immense that He remains with us even now, hidden under the forms of simple bread and wine! This is the “already” of the Kingdom; this is the pledge of the promise that will be fulfilled at the end of all things, when the “not yet” will at last come to fruition as the Lord returns in glory to gather all things to Himself. And at the end of all things, at the end of our waiting, we will discover the miraculous truth—that God has been waiting for us all along.

Waiting with the Psalms: Week 3

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Over the past two weeks, the texts of Psalm 25 and Psalm 130 have helped nuance our understanding of what it means to wait during Advent. Psalm 25 demonstrated that to wait for God is to hope in God, and Psalm 130 carried this idea farther by introducing the idea of longing for God. This week’s Psalm will enable us to go one step yet farther. We have explored what it means to to wait, to hope, to long. Advent wreath week 3Now, we will explore what it means to seek.

Psalm 27
There is only one mention of the verb “wait” in Psalm 27, and it occurs in the very last verse: “Wait for the LORD, take courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD!” (Ps 27: 14, NAB, NABRE) This beautiful exhortation is a watchword not just for the season of Advent, but for the entirety of one’s life. Our entire existence is characterized by a waiting for the Lord, who will come to fulfill all of His promises, and take us to Himself at the end of our earthly existence (cf. Jn 14:1-6). But, as we have seen with Psalms 25 and 130, this is a different kind of waiting than simply, idly, whiling away the seconds and minutes and hours. This is a waiting that hopes, that longs, that seeks. The earlier verses of Psalm 27 remind us what we long for and Whom we seek, helping us to wait for the Lord with hearts courageous, stout, and strong.

First, we must know what we long for, so that we may know how to find it. The psalmist sings, “There is one thing I ask of the LORD, for this I long, to live in the house of the LORD, all the days of my life, to savor the sweetness of the LORD, to behold his temple” (Ps 27:4, Grail ‘63 and ‘93). As we have seen in our other reflections, different translations of the Psalms can yield a richer understanding, and the various versions of verse 4 bear this out:

“One thing I ask of the LORD, this I seek: to dwell in the LORD’s house all the days of my life, to gaze on the LORD’s beauty, to visit his temple.” (NAB, NABRE)

“There is one thing I ask of the LORD, only this do I seek: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD, to inquire at his temple.” (Revised Grail, 2010)

“One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple” (NRSV).

All of these translations simply reiterate what we have seen in Psalms 25 and 130: there is an intimate connection between longing and seeking. But more important than the understanding we gain by looking at the differences between translations is the reinforcement we gain by noticing what they hold in common. There is one thing the psalmist asks of the Lord—to dwell in in the house of the Lord forever. To participate in the beatific vision. To gaze on the face of the Lord and behold His glory. Jesus-Hagia SophiaThis is the telos, the end of one’s entire life: to be with God forever. This is the one thing for which our hearts should long. “There is one thing I ask of the Lord.”

This verse anticipates the words of Jesus to Martha, distracted by the obligations and attachments of the world: “There is need of only one thing” (Lk 10:42). He reminds Martha—and us—that there is only one thing we need ever ask of the Lord, and he also promises that our desires will be fulfilled: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you” (Jn 15:7b). Those who long for the Lord, who seek him with a sincere heart, those who keep their hearts fixed on the one thing, will not be disappointed. And not only will those who seek the Lord be brought to the glory of His temple at the end of their lives, but they can also experience a foretaste of this communion even now. “‘Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him’” (Jn 14:23). As St. Paul reminds us, our very bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6:19), and the interior grace of the Holy Spirit enables us to create within our hearts a place wherein the Father and Son may dwell, until the day when we may dwell with them in the fullness of glory.

To long for the Lord’s temple is the first step toward seeking the Lord. Once we know what it is we long for, we know how to find it, and in order to reach the house of the Lord, we must seek the One who is Himself the Way. As the psalmist sings later, “Of you my heart has spoken, ‘Seek his face.’ It is your face, O Lord, that I seek” (Ps 27:8). This is the prayer of the lover in the Song of Songs, who, longing for “him whom my soul loves,” sought the beloved throughout the night, throughout the city (Sgs 3:1ff). This is the prayer of John the Baptist, who sent disciples to ask Jesus, “‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” (Mt 11:3). Shepherds and the Angel-PolasekThis is the prayer that impelled shepherds and wise men on their journey to the stable in Bethlehem, and that would later urge Mary Magdalene to a tomb on Easter Sunday morning. This is to be our prayer. “Of you my heart has spoken, ‘Seek his face.’”

This exceptionally beautiful verse is particularly apt during Advent, when we prepare to celebrate the mystery of the God who assumed our human flesh, who took on a human face in Jesus. The psalmist did not yet know the One whom he sought; the psalmist sang of the Messiah to come. As Christians, we believe that Jesus of Nazareth is that Messiah, and we continue to seek His face in the world as members of His Mystical Body, the Church. It is as members of Christ’s Church that we take heed of the psalmist’s exhortation, “Wait for the LORD, take courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD” (Ps 27:14). We continue to wait for His return in glory, when He will fulfill all promises to those who have spent their life’s pilgrimage seeking His face in the hope of “[gazing] on the beauty of the Lord, [and visiting] his temple.” We wait, we hope, we long, and we seek, so that we may dwell with Him forever.

Of Nativity Sets, Mary Worship, and Missions

RichardBeckerRichard Becker, RN, MS, MA

Associate Faculty, Bethel College, School of Nursing

Co-Director of Religious Education, St. Matthew Cathedral 

Editor’s note:  Richard Becker is a blogger who we appreciate here at Oblation, a local member of the South Bend community, and someone we wanted to feature with greater degree of regularity moving into the future.   This article first appeared on the blog God-Haunted Lunatic.  

Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.
~ William Wordsworth, “The Virgin

During Advent, every Christian is a Mary-worshiper.

Naah, just joshing you. Not even Catholics worship Mary, despite appearances to the contrary. We pay her tribute and honor her – even reverence (dulia) her in a singular, intense manner (hyperdulia). But worship (latria)?  That’s reserved for the Persons of the Trinity alone.

Our hyperdulia can get pretty darn close to latria I suppose – rosaries and icons and processions and statues, et cetera  – and it’s understandable that outsiders might get confused.

Let’s set the record straight then. Mary is not God – she was a human being.Immaculately Conceived, to be sure, but a human being in need of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice as much as anybody else.MaryMotherofGod

That being said, the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (AD 431) did bestow on her the title Theotokos – mother of God. It was a way of combating Christological heresy, but also a way of putting into words what the whole Church had long embraced and celebrated. As the mother of the incarnate God, Mary shares His flesh – in fact, it could be rightly said that He shares hers. She played a unique role in salvation history, she continues to play a role in the life of the Church today, and we are devoted to her as any child ought to be devoted to his earthly mother.

Can that devotion go off the rails? Perhaps. Chesterton admitted as much when he wrote this of Mary:

If Catholics had been left to their private judgment, to their personal religious experience, to their sense of the essential spirit of Christ and Christianity, to any of the liberal or latitudinarian tests of truth, they would long ago have exalted our Lady to a height of superhuman supremacy and splendour that might really have imperilled the pure monotheism in the core of the creed. Over whole tracts of popular opinion she might have been a goddess more universal than Isis.

Still, it’s a truism that virtually all Christians, Catholic and otherwise, honor Mary in their homes this time of year, even going so far as setting up a statue of her in their homes – sometimes more than one!

You know what I mean. It’s only brought out this time of year, and it’s usually in the context of a larger Nativity set (or several). Elaborate crèches feature Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at the center surrounded by shepherds and sheep, magi and their servants, an angel, and a host of farm animals that would be the envy of any homesteader.Nativity

Simpler Nativity sets might include just the Holy Family and a single shepherd with sheep, along with a single representative Wise Man – or maybe just the Holy Family and a crib. And the simplest? The Occam’s Razor of Christmas decoration? Mary and her baby. That’s the essence of Christmas.

Jesus, the Son of God, is always the central character in these miniature figurine dramas, as He should be. But consider that rarely is the baby Jesus depicted without His mother – unless you count all those gaudy images of the Infant of Prague, with the frills and the trappings and the lace. Even then, Mary’s presence is felt, because who else but a mother would dress up an infant boy like that?

Oh, but it’s all just Nativity sets, right? Practically toys, or possibly family heirlooms that have been passed down over a couple generations or more. They’re just illustrations of a Bible story in which God the Father is the primary actor. No special credit is meant to be given to Mary just because her image is on display.

Yet, skittishness about excessive Marian devotions and fears of Mariolatry are part of the air non-Catholics breathe, so you’d think there’d be at least some hesitation about Nativity scenes – but there’s none. Come November every year, graven images of Mary are on display everywhere, and nobody gives it a second thought.


Sentimentality plays a part, I suppose. St. Francis set up the first life-size crèche in 1223, and we’ve been oohing and aahing ever since. But even for Christians quite conscientious about such matters, it’s a natural, healthy instinct to honor the Holy Family with a Nativity scene. To be able to see and touch Jesus, Mary, and Joseph isn’t just for kids. It’s also a tangible expression of a theological truth that is itself about tangible expression: The Incarnation. Given that the Nativity is all about making the spiritual and unseen into something – Someone – very physical and see-able, it seems only fitting, even OriginofNativitySetto the most rigorous fundamentalist, that the Holy Family and the Christmas story be depicted in a manner accessible to all our senses.

But perhaps there’s another element as well, one that is a bit more subtle and less readily acknowledged by our Protestant kin.

It’s this: Mary is the first Christian – the first to literally accept Jesus as her Saviour. That makes her a template and model for all Christians, and it’s good to have images to remind us of her –and not just at Christmas, but year round.

I pondered all this the other day when leading devotionals for my clinical group. I teach nursing at an Evangelical college that was founded primarily to prepare young people for the mission field. Almost all my students are Protestants; few of them have much familiarity with things Catholic. So I teach them.

It was the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I talked a little about Mary and her special place in our common Christian heritage. There are two Gospels to choose from that day, both from Luke. For my students, I read aloud the Nativity story itself, including Gabriel’s declaration that Mary would play a singular role in God’s wild rescue plan for the world.

Instead of freaking out, Mary asks an honest question: How can that happen? – that is, how is it possible for her to get pregnant at all, let alone get pregnant with the God-man Himself?

As if to reassure the young girl that “nothing will be impossible for God,” Gabriel relates that her cousin Elizabeth had conceived a son despite her advanced years. Mary’s “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” was not just acquiescence to the Lord’s weird scheme, but also a signal of active engagement. She was to be no mere vessel or medium, but a determined player as well.Annunciation2

Same with us.

So what?, my students might ask. What makes her any different than any other Christian responding to truth and God’s call? From their perspective, Mary is simply one in a series of biblical characters that became instruments in the hands of a God determined to save His fallen creatures.

That brings us to that second Gospel choice for last Thursday’s Feast: The Visitation. Mary, filled with Jesus at the Annunciation, turns around and brings Him to her cousin – the first mission trip! Elizabeth confirms Mary’s mission, and John has what may be truly said to have experienced a Christian ‘con-version’ (from the Latin for ‘turn about’) in the womb:

For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.

It makes sense that the first Christian would be the first missionary, and Mary fits the bill in every respect. Compare, for example, what we see of Mary in Luke’s Gospel with the qualities expected of missionary candidates by Wycliffe Bible Translators:

  • Am I flexible in working with others in the body of Christ? (Mary rushes to assist her cousin in need [Lk 1.39-40])
  • Can others see Christ at work in my life? (Elizabeth testifies to Mary’s divine maternity [Lk 1.42-43])
  • Do I have healthy, growing family relationships? (Mary’s care for her cousin [Lk 1.39-43])
  • Am I ready to trust God to provide for me financially? (“He has filled the hungry with good things” [Lk 1.53])
  • Am I living within my means? (“For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” [Lk 1.48])
  • Am I living, and committed to continue in living, a lifestyle that is set apart in service to God? (“Let it be to me according to your word [Lk 1.38])
  • Am I ready to explore how God can use my specific interests, experiences, and job skills in Bible translation?

This last is especially applicable to Mary, and it connotes another point of contact for Christians of varying traditions. For, although Wycliffe is referring to translation of the written Word into various languages, Mary devoted her entire personhood – body, soul, and spirit – to ‘translating’ the Word (logos) of God into human flesh.Theotokos

And that’s what all Christians are called to do: Take the Jesus we receive – in church, in Scripture, in Sacrament, however that happens – and translate Him for those around us – incarnate Him again and again through our own words and actions and lives.

This is why we like to have Mary around throughout the year: To jog memories of our mission and jolt us into action. This Christmas, as you put away your Nativity set, maybe keep out the mother and Child a little longer than the rest. See if their visible presence doesn’t help you remember what we’re all called to be: Pregnant couriers of Christ, just like Mary.

Of Purple Pentecost and Pugilism

RichardBeckerRichard Becker, RN, MS, MA

Associate Faculty, Bethel College, School of Nursing

Co-Director of Religious Education, St. Matthew Cathedral 

Editor’s note:  Richard Becker is a blogger who we appreciate here at Oblation, a local member of the South Bend community, and someone we wanted to feature with greater degree of regularity moving into the future.   This article on confirmation first appeared on his blog God-Haunted Lunatic.

Tomorrow, we’ll feature one of his pieces on Nativity Sets, Mary Worship, and Missions.

Our son Crispin was Confirmed on December 8th, praise God — chrismation and a bishop, sealed in the Spirit and “Peace be with you,” the Fruits and the Gifts and the whole shebang! Amen!

Still, it wasn’t your typical Confirmation.  For one thing, it took place during a regularly scheduled Sunday morning Mass — a departure from every other Confirmation I’ve ever attended. Not a problem, really, but definitely different.  And this time, it was just kids from our own school and CCD program — again, not a problem, but in a Cathedral parish, we’re accustomed to Confirmations that include multiple parishes, and sometimes in multiple languages.AdventWreath

The most tangible difference, however, was the purple. Liturgically, the Advent Sunday took precedence over Confirmation, so the church was awash with purple linens and vestments. I’m used to red at Confirmation, and, frankly, I missed it.

Red is the color of fire, of course, which is why it’s associated with Confirmation. It’s the Sacrament that seals the recipient with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit — the same Spirit who manifested his arrival on Pentecost in tongues of flame. We might not have had the red vestments today, but, as the bishop pointed out, at least we had fire in the Gospel which quoted John the Baptist:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
He will clear his threshing floor
and gather his wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

John himself was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he demonstrated it by his fiery prophesy: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”


Red is also the color of blood, and we usually associate its liturgical use with martyrdom and sacrifice. In this sense, it has Confirmation associations as well, for there’s a commission inherent in the firming up of baptismal dignity that demands boldness in living out the faith. The Catechism puts it this way:

[I]t gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross.

Apparently, this dimension of Confirmation was not lost on my son, for Cris chose St. Isaac Jogues as his Confirmation saint — a bloody saint if there ever was one. Jogues and his IsaacJoguesJesuit confreres were among the first missionaries to the native peoples of North America. Jogues was known as the Apostle to the Mohawks, and, like the original Apostles, the Jesuit witnessed to his love for Christ in laying down his life in service. Here’s how the old Catholic Encyclopedia summarized St. Isaac’s demise:

The Iroquois met him near Lake George, stripped him naked, slashed him with their knives, beat him and then led him to the village. On 18 October, 1646, when entering a cabin he was struck with a tomahawk and afterwards decapitated. The head was fixed on the Palisades and the body thrown into the Mohawk.

And it’s not as if Jogues wasn’t prepared for this end, for here’s what he wrote in a letter shortly before it all came about:

I shall be happy if our Lord will complete the sacrifice where He has begun it, and make the little blood I have shed in that land the earnest of what I would give from every vein of my body and my heart. In a word, this people is “a bloody spouse” to me (Exodus iv, 25). May our good Master, who has purchased them in His blood, open to them the door of His Gospel.

Fire. Blood. Confirmation is not for the fainthearted. And this brings us to a third association with the color red: Warning. Red stop signs, for example, and, in my line of work (i.e., nursing and healthcare), bio-hazard containment. The warning sign of Confirmation is hinted at in the Catechism where confirmandi are compared to soldiers “marked with their leader’s seal and slaves with their master’s” (CCC 1295). To be Confirmed is to be enlisted, to fight, to be put to work. Pretty much it means to take it on the chin, and come back for more.

So, perhaps the purple of Advent isn’t such a jarring departure after all, for it directs our attention forward to Christmas — and Christmas is immediately followed by a sea of red: St. Stephen, the first martyr, on the 26th, followed by the Holy Innocents on the 28th, and Thomas Becket the next day. Liturgically, it seems that the Church doesn’t want us to miss that connection every year — i.e., that following the Prince of Peace will entail a bloody battle. Christmas brings joy, but it also brings a brawl, and we can think of Confirmation as supernatural conditioning for following through on our Christmas convictions, come what may.

During the Civil War,Admiral David Farragut faced a heavily mined Mobile Bay that stood between him and the Confederate base he meant to attack. In defiance, Farragut ordered his fleet to proceed through the Bay, shouting out, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” This is good advice, spiritually speaking, for the newly confirmed — it’s what I’m telling my son in any case.

And it’s in keeping with the gift he received from his sponsor: A Notre Dame boxing hoodie. I’ll bet Isaac Jogues is pleased.

The Utopian Idol and the Advent Person

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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As human beings, we tend to dream in the ideal.   Adolescent women and men, considering the prospect of entering a university, imagine college life as studying on idyllic quads, succeeding in classes that will open up future careers generative of income and personal happiness, and attending athletic events in which one’s alma mater conquers on the field. Few consider that studying might in fact become a drudgery in the most resplendent of settings, that they’ll struggle with the very classes required for their future career, that a recession might strike in the midst of their studies, and that what though the odds be great or small, your team will still find a way to lose it all.  No matter what we envision for our lives, there is the reality of an unfolding world that is not interior to us.

The problem of the ideal does not simply operate at the individual level.  In politics (particularly in elections), the tendency to focus on this utopian ideal becomes even more pronounced.   Republicans and Democrats alike offer a messianic kerygma in which a singular political figure will find a way to unite the country in a common mission, in alleviating the plight of poverty and joblessness, in articulating a foreign policy that leads to international peace, in ending U.S. involvement in war, etc. Of course, reality intervenes.   UtopiaThe other side is not interested in dialogue; the problem of poverty and joblessness proves trickier to manage than one had first hoped; the international community tends to involve irrational actors, who disrupt every occasion of diplomacy with bombast; fear and the desire for security overcome the best laid plans for peace.

Often enough, the Church suffers from this same temptation.   We seek to erase the past that has come before us, in order to focus on the future.   Forget the liturgy of the past, we’ll make one for the future that will really mean something to people (or retrieve one from the past, which will become the liturgy of the future).   Forget the previous popes, we have one in the present that will guide the Church into the future.  Forget the “conservatives,” forget the “liberals,” the future of the Church is my vision.

RahnerSuch thoughts came to mind as I was reading Karl Rahner’s sermon on Advent, “Advent as Antidote to Utopia.”   The response of the Christian to the idol of the utopia is not a pragmatic realism of the present or a conservative holding onto the past for its own sake.   Rahner preaches:

If then the Christian’s basic attitude is given a formal expression, it cannot be described as conservative.   For he cannot regard heaven as a reward for conserving the present and at the same time consider the restlessness of time, the continual decay of every present moment, and calculated dissociation from earthly things as signs that the world and he himself are still really on the way, making these things the criterion as to whether he really wants to be on the way and whether he accepts the constant alternation of interior and exterior life as material for faith in the future still to come (10).

There is a way that idealism, yearning for a future that is still coming into existence, is essential for the Christian.  The structures of the Church, methods of catechesis, liturgical rites, and specific concerns of the bishops and other pastoral leaders become idols if they are perceived as the full reality of divine life here and now.  This temptation to conserve the present at all costs is not reserved for those who self identify as “conservative” or “liberal” Catholics.  It is a human temptation to see present projects, present approaches, as the fullness of the reign of God.   It is idolatry.

Of course, there is an another form of idolatry that concerns Rahner:  the idolatry of the utopia.   He writes ,”The Christian is awaiting the real future, the future that is the consummation of God’s deed, of the coming of his kingdom, of his grace, not the mere fruit of intramundane history which the human being herself makes and controls. And therefore she cannot be a fanatic in pursuit of her own objectives in the world” (11).   This temptation is a very real one for all those who give themselves to the life of the Church:  from Pope Francis to the novice pastoral worker.  My vision of what preaching could become, my insight into what constitutes a culturally efficacious liturgy, my understanding of a robust form of catechesis, my articulation of the social vision guiding the Church–well, it’s not necessarily God’s.   Further, to embrace this idol of utopianism is likewise to risk hating the person whose vision is different than your own.  For such a person stands in the way of allowing the Church to become what you know that it should be; he or she is an obstacle in the enactment of what you think is God’s plan.

For Rahner, the antidote to these two temptations is the season of Advent.   He writes:

The person of the Advent of God is already aware of the future within the present:  he calls it grace, love, and God’s Holy Spirit. He has no need therefore to sacrifice the present to the future, but for the same reason he does not need to explain the present as the permanent, as the consummation never to be surpassed.   He will see intramundane recessions as signs that we have no lasting home here and will welcome all the immense advances of the intramundane future–which certainly exist–as promise and test of the eternal future of God, which they will never overtake (12).

The person of Advent recognizes that he or she is not God.   That human life is full of unknowns, areas in which our vision of the future cannot compare with God’s.   This is notPaxVobis simply because human beings lack omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, etc.   Rather, God’s plan for the human condition, for the salvation of the world, is more daring, more merciful, more radiant than our own.

During the season of Advent, we hear in the liturgy of the Church, the following messianic text from the prophet Isaiah:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,/The leopard lie down with the kid;/The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together,/With a little boy to herd them./The cow and the bear shall graze,/Their young shall lie down together;/And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw./A babe shall play/Over a viper’s hole,/And an infant pass his hand/Over an adder’s den./In all of My sacred mount/Nothing evil or vile shall be done;/For the land shall be filled with devotion to the LORD/As water covers the sea (Is. 11:6-9).

Through God’s initiative, through the messianic kingdom of peace and justice, of mercy and love, unity is possible.   This is not the plan that most of us would think of, creating a utopia through getting rid of the viper, through destroying the adder’s lair.   The viper remains viper.  The adder is still an adder.   The natural is not destroyed, humanity does not get to dictate what nature will look like.  God alone brings such peace, transforming nature in the process.  God makes this peace possible not through the power of empire, of leaders that have their way at all costs.   Rather, it is through the God-man, born as a poor infant,Nativityjesuschristintroduced at the margins of society, that God’s own peace now reigns supreme.

Advent is the season where we learn again to look past the idols of our own utopias, our own temptation to see our vision of the present as God’s plan for everyone.   It is a season of penance because this act of learning to see the world aright, to perceive the hidden signs of God’s own future coming into the present, requires discipline.  It necessitates that we become aware of when our vision of God’s reign may be too small, not yet measuring up to the fullness of God’s own love revealed in the mercy of the Son.

In this way, the season of Advent exemplifies an attitude that we must constantly cultivate throughout the rest of the year.   We must be aware of when our utopian idols, whether political or ecclesial, become obstacles to making room for Christ to dwell in the Church, in our hearts, in the world itself.  Whether our utopian idol is our own limited vision of progress or our desire to hold onto the present at all costs, Advent challenges us to prepare our hearts for the sudden and surprising ways that the Word even now is seeking to become flesh and dwell among us.


A New Series on Preaching: 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Advent

The Notre Dame Center for Liturgy is happy to feature each week a new series on preaching by Fr. Charlie Gordon, C.S.C., co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland.   Fr. Charlie, who UniversityofPortlandteaches in theology at Portland, is a brilliant homilist, bringing a robust theological, pastoral, and literary imagination to the art of preaching.   His interest in literature, in art, in the unfolding of the spiritual life, is evident in his homilies.   These homilies are part of a larger seriesFrCharlieGordonCSC (entitled Fractio Verbi) in which Fr. Charlie will provide homiletic content during every Sunday of Cycles A, B, and C.

You may access audio of the homilies on the Garaventa Center blog.   Here are excerpts of the homilies.  We’ll be featuring Fr. Charlie’s homilies in the future.  Happy reading.

2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A

When they found John, they focused their attention on his every word and gesture, hoping for some sign that even now, it might not be too late to restore their relationship with God. If John called them “a nest of vipers,” if he told them that even now the ax was laid to the root of the tree, they were not inclined to take offence or to despair. On the contrary, these were hopeful words, for they indicated that the prophet hadn’t written them
off completely. They might still be able to get back into God’s good graces.

They were eager to embrace any alternative to destruction that John would offer them. If he said they needed to be baptized they would throw themselves headlong into the river. If he had told them to eat grasshoppers and wear camel’s hair that would have been fine too. While John’s words were harsh, they, and his baptism, gave hope to his hearers
— a hope that would finally be fulfilled in Christ.  They could shed their consuming anxiety, and be human beings again.  Jesus, when he came, would reveal to them that the God they regarded as a wrathful judge, was a loving Father, eager to be given the chance to forgive. But John couldn’t have told them this.  They had to experience it for themselves.


3rd Sunday of Advent, Year A

Advent is a season when we wait with eager expectation for the coming of Our Lord in Glory. In light of our readings today, I’d like to suggest that the miracles residents of a homeless shelter experience in their lives are evidence that his coming will not be long delayed. Our first reading from Isaiah announces that the least fortunate will be the first to experience the promised blessings:

“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

Our psalm makes much the same point about the oppressed, the hungry, widows and captives. In the Gospel, Our Lord offers a similar list to John’s disciples as evidence that he, Jesus, is the one who is to come. In each instance, it’s clear that those who suffer most are to be the first to be aware of Our Lord’s presence, and the first to benefit from it. If my experience at the homeless shelter is representative, it’s happening already. As for the rest of us, we can pray in this holy season, that if we look and listen, Christ will allow us to hear and see.



Waiting with the Psalms: Week 2

Carolyn Pirtle Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Last week’s reflection on Psalm 25 explored the linguistic connection between the words “wait” and “hope,” and the implications such a connection might have for one’s observance of Advent. This week, I hope to build on that foundation by turning to what some might consider an unusual Psalm for the Advent season: Psalm 130. Just as Psalm 25 is considered a seasonal Psalm in the context of the Mass (one can substitute it for the proper Responsorial Psalm throughout Advent), so too is Psalm 130 a seasonal text. However, Psalm 130, with its emphasis on sinfulness, penitence, and the need for mercy, is a seasonal Psalm for Lent, not Advent. So why focus on it here? To begin with, Advent is also a season of penitence, though our focus tends more toward preparation for the birth of Jesus. Advent Wreath week 2Additionally, and more relevant for this week’s contemplation, Psalm 130 presents us with a speaker who is waiting for the Lord to act. And we who are waiting to celebrate the birth of the Messiah can continue to learn from the psalmist how to wait more prayerfully, more fruitfully. Once again, I will be exploring different translations of this text in an effort to understand it more fully in light of the Advent season.

The text of Psalm 25 presented us with the image of a person who waits in hope. The text of Psalm 130 presents us with a beautiful image of the necessity of our hope-filled waiting. The human race is mired in the wasteland of sin: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” (Ps 130:1). In these first lines, the psalmist recognizes that it is we who have turned away from God through sin, and that God is the only One who can fully restore the breach. But the events of salvation unfold according to the divine plan, not according to a human construct; thus, in the divine wisdom, our waiting for the Lord to act forms a necessary part of salvation history. Waiting becomes part of the human journey toward redemption. It is only in waiting for the Lord that we can truly realize our need for His redeeming presence, and as we enter into the act of waiting, with each passing moment, the flame of anticipation glows ever more brightly, burning away the imperfections and distractions that keep us from desiring the Lord with a pure heart. Thus, the longer we wait, the better we become at waiting, and the more ready we become to welcome the object of our waiting into our hearts.

The psalmist, and we along with him, follows a trajectory in which his desires for the Lord are purified and intensified by the very act of waiting. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Ps 130:5, NRSV). In this verse we have yet another example of the connection between waiting and hoping found throughout Psalm 25, yet here the psalmist continues: “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps 130:6, NRSV). Different translations beautifully enrich this image of waiting for the Lord and watching for the dawn. Verses 5-6 have also been rendered: “I wait with longing for the Lord, my soul waits for his word. DaybreakMy soul looks for the Lord more than sentinels for daybreak” (NAB). This translation presents an interesting complement to the one cited previously, and the two versions together invite us especially to ponder the difference between “looking for” and “watching for.” “Watching for” something conjures images of gazing attentively toward a fixed point, as in watching for the face of a loved one to emerge from an airport terminal. “Looking for” something conjures images of seeking out a lost precious object, as in looking for a misplaced ring or a set of keys. In life, we wait for, watch for, and look for things with varying degrees of intensity, but the psalmist reminds us here that nothing, not even the arrival of daylight, should distract us from anticipating the arrival of the Messiah, the true light of the world: “More than sentinels for daybreak, let Israel look for the Lord” (Ps 130:6b-7a).

It is perhaps The Grail translations that best capture this idea of waiting on a trajectory. The earliest version of The Grail reads: “My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak” (Ps 130:5-6a, Grail 1963). A later revision translates the verses: “My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than those who watch for daybreak” (Ps 130:5-6a, Grail 1993). In both of these versions, one readily sees the intensification of the psalmist’s desire for the Lord and for his mercy as we move from “waiting for the Lord” to “counting on his word” to “longing for the Lord more than watchmen for daybreak.” The most recent iteration reads: “I long for you, O Lord, my soul longs for his word. My soul hopes in the Lord more than watchmen for daybreak” (Ps 130:5-6a, Revised Grail 2010). Unlike the previous two versions, this translation already places the speaker in a position of heightened desire for the Lord through the exclusive use of the verb “to long” in verse 5.

Throughout Psalm 130, the intensification of the language as compared to that found in Psalm 25 speaks to the focus on humanity’s estrangement from God and the need for redemption. We are not standing at a diverging path waiting for God to guide us as the imagery of Psalm 25 might suggest; we are calling from the depths—we are crying out in the desperate realization that our only hope for survival is to be found in the compassionate mercy of a forgiving God. In the face of our need for redemption, and in the realization that redemption comes from God alone, our desires are purified. Watching for sunriseThe idea of waiting in hope found in the text of Psalm 25 reaches a new level of profundity in Psalm 130 through language of longing, of looking for. We await the Redeemer. We hope for the One who will lift us from the depths of our misery and bring us to the heights of new life. We long for Him who will bring the light of day and shatter the darkness of sin and death, and we look for His coming as eagerly as the watchman looks for the first rays of dawn in the eastern skies.

“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation, the Profession of Faith, and the Treasure of the Soul

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor

Master of Theological Studies Candidate,
University of Notre Dame

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Previous posts in this series:
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Notre Dame, Liturgical Formation, and the New Evangelization
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation from the Outside Looking In
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation, Penance, and Self-Giving Love
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation, Scripture, and the Heart of Christ


“We—[ah!] I—believe in one God, the Father Almighty…begotten not made,
one in—[oh gosh] consubstantial—with the Father…”

I vividly remember my discomfort while stumbling through the new translation of the Nicene Creed for the first time at Mass a couple years ago. Despite my best efforts to try to memorize it before the new translation took effect (as any enthusiastic theology student would), when the time came to utter the words aloud in the liturgy, my confidence faltered. Something that had been so ingrained in my subconscious was now a disarming, uncomfortably new struggle to articulate the profession of faith I had recited on a weekly basis since I was old enough to clamber onto a pew and read from the Breaking Bread missalette at a little military parish in Germany in the early 1990s. Many supporters of the new translation praised the fact that we had to re-learn how to pray the Mass, that we had to actually think about the texts and their meanings—and so we did. Congregation 2We have just begun our third liturgical year with the new translation, and although all of us may have experienced our own hiccups here and there, or perhaps even some slightly awkward moments when the priest momentarily lapsed into the old translation and the whole congregation hesitated, exchanging sheepish glances…somehow, we are back to reciting the Creed as effortlessly as we did before November 27, 2011. Perhaps the ease with which we gradually fell back into routine should pique our curiosity.

St. Ambrose of Milan once wrote that the Creed is “the spiritual seal, our heart’s meditation and an ever-present guardian; it is, unquestionably, the treasure of our soul.”[1] The treatment of the profession of faith in the Catechism lasts over 250 pages—for to say the Creed with faith is “to enter into communion with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and also with the whole Church which transmits the faith to us and in whose midst we believe” (CCC, §197). In the liturgy, we gather as a community of believers, and it makes sense that we should have a common language with which to express the faith that binds us together. Before we partake in the ultimate unification of ourselves with Christ in the Eucharist, we first unite ourselves in communion with each other by uttering the articles of our faith.

And yet, we cannot try to confine the Creed to its place in between the homily and the Prayer of the Faithful—it overflows from the liturgy and seeps into every corner of our lives as Christians, saturating our conversations with God even in the silence of our hearts. St. Anselm of Canterbury exemplifies this when he beautifully encapsulates the creed in one of his prayers:

“So, as much as I can, though not as much as I ought, I am mindful of your passion, your buffeting, your scourging, your cross, your wounds, how you were slain for me, how prepared for burial and buried; and also I remember your glorious Resurrection, and wonderful Ascension. All this I hold with unwavering faith, and weep over the hardship of exile, hoping in the sole consolation of our coming, ardently longing for the glorious contemplation of your face.”[2]

Surrounded by music and the Word of God, which we receive aurally, this one moment forces us to stand up before the Church and the world in the liturgy to publicly announce our identities as Catholic Christians. The beauty of it all? No one else can speak the words for us, and the momentum of our speech—robotic or not—is ours alone. When the priest calls upon the Lord “to look not on our sins but upon the faith of your Church,” I’d like to imagine he sees a ragtag community of believers standing together, voicing the words of faith from deep within their hearts, blazing with hope.

Recently, though, I’ve become painfully aware of how much I tend to rush through the long, spoken communal prayers at Mass without thinking—so many incredible moments to take ownership of my faith before the Church and the world, and I just let them slip away! But again, St. Anselm reassures us with the perfect response:

“My prayer is but a cold affair, Lord, because my love burns with so small a flame, but you who are rich in mercy will not mete out to them your gifts according to the dullness of my zeal, but as your kindness is above all human love, so let your eagerness to hear be greater than the feeling in my prayers.”[3]

Our profession of faith may indeed seem lukewarm or lack any conscious momentum to us sometimes, but it burns with a crackling intensity all the same, inflamed by God’s infinite mercy and unconditional, self-giving love. Nicaea 1St. Irenaeus, the great defender of the faith against early Christian heresies, wrote that when we recite the Creed “we guard with care the faith that we have received from the Church; for without ceasing, under the action of God’s Spirit, this deposit of great price, as if an excellent vessel, is constantly being renewed and causes the very vessel that contains it to be renewed.” It is what we meditate on in our hearts—not just at Mass, but unceasingly, imbuing our days with the richness and the joy of faith.

And so, the Creed—the very one we all stumbled through two years ago, the one we now often hurtle through at a breakneck pace—could be a miraculous opportunity for us to slow down and allow ourselves to be formed by the liturgy even in the midst of it. Remembering the words of Irenaeus, a profound, deliberate way of professing our faith may be one way through which we can renew the liturgy, and even ourselves, in the process. Remembering the words of Ambrose, the Creed is the treasure of our soul. The next chance you get to speak those words in the liturgy, think of the precious gift of faith you guard and protect in your heart, and let it shine forth.

[1] Ambrose of Milan, Explanatio Symboli. 1: PL 17, 1193.

[2] Benedicta Ward, trans., The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion (London: Penguin Books, 1973), 95.

[3] The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, 214-215.

Art in the Season of Advent

MetroLutheranThose of you looking to pray with art during the Season of Advent may find it fruitful to explore a resource by Loyola Press by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, an assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University, New Orleans.

Daniella, a graduate of Notre Dame, St. John’s in Collegeville, Yale, and Boston College, embodies a form of catechesis that Pope Francis addresses in his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:

Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis).  Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus (EG 167).  

We here at Oblation are embedding several videos from Daniella on art and catechesis.   The full resource may be found at Loyola Press’ website.