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The Advent of Unrealistic Expectations

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

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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American culture loves programs for self-improvement. We idolize celebrities, who are able to turn over a new leaf in their lives. We subscribe to magazines that show us how to live more simply (by finally organizing our cabinets). We watch with tear-stained eyes as contestants on reality TV are physically or emotionally transformed.

This program of self-improvement leading to happiness is part of American religion as well. Within Catholicism, the season of Lent is that time par excellence in which projects of self-improvement are taken up. We pray more. We fast from electronics or food. We engage in works of mercy. And we hope, through it all, that we will find a space in our hearts to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord with fervent devotion.

This desire for self-improvement is indeed important to the Christian life. The Church herself encourages us to take up practices that renew us in divine love. The Eucharistic preface for the First Sunday of Lent notes:

By abstaining forty days from earthly food,/he consecrated through his fast/the pattern of our Lenten observance/and, by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent,/taught us to cast out the leaven of malice,/so that, celebrating worthily the Paschal Mystery,/we might pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast.

The importance of “practice” is at the heart of Advent as well. In the first week of Advent, we are urged in the prayers of the Church to take up a posture of watchfulness. This watchfulness is an invitation toward conversion as Benedict XVI notes in his 2011 Angelus address:

Therefore, John’s [the Baptist] appeal goes far beyond and deeper than a call to a sober lifestyle: it is a call for inner change, starting with the recognition and confession of our sins. As we prepare for Christmas, it is important that we find time for self contemplation and carry out an honest assessment of our lives. May we be enlightened by a ray of the light that comes from Bethlehem, the light of He who is “the Greatest” and made himself small, he who is “the Strongest” but became weak.

HeComesAdvent is a time for us to consider where we stand before the living God, who in the first weeks of this season, we ask to come once again. Not as a babe in Bethlehem but in his glory, offering that definitive judgment of the humanity that will renew heaven and earth. We take up practices of watchfulness and self-reflection that prepare us for this coming of the risen Lord. As John Henry Newman writes in a sermon during the season of Advent:

When we kneel down in prayer in private, let us think to ourselves, Thus shall I one day kneel before His very footstool, in this flesh and this blood of mine; and He will be seated over against me, in flesh and blood also, though divine. I come, with the thought of that awful hour before me, I come to confess my sin to Him now, that He may pardon it then, and I say, ‘O Lord, Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, in the hour of death and in the day of judgment, deliver us, O Lord’ (Worship: A Preparation for Christ’s Coming, 964).

Kneeling in prayer becomes a preparation for our encounter with the living God. In this way, the practices of Advent are occasions of learning the proper disposition of humble love that must possess the human being, seeking to encounter God at the end of time. It is learning to become small and weak in imitation of the Word made flesh who became small for the redemption of the world.

Yet, the danger of American religion is that these practices of watchfulness, these preparations for the coming of the risen Lord, become about preparing us to have a great experience. We want to have the “best Advent ever” so that, as Matthew Kelly notes in a primer for a program run by Dynamic Catholic, we can have “the best Christmas ever.” He is right to note that Advent often passes too quickly, swept up into the holiday preparations that occupy American religion. He is right to emphasize that preparing the heart for the coming of the babe at Bethlehem is integral to the proper celebration of Advent (and thus Christmas).

But, the language of “best ever” (although potentially rhetorically effective for the contemporary American) may also lead to the advent of unrealistic expectations. The reality is that Advent preparation often involves coming to the recognition that to prepare for Christ’s coming is surprisingly uncomfortable. As the prophet Isaiah notes in the very first lesson in the Office of Readings for Advent Week 1:

I cannot endure festival and solemnity./Your New Moons and your pilgrimages/I hate with all my soul./They lie heavy on me,/I am tired of bearing them./When you stretch out your hands/I turn my eyes away./You may multiply your prayers,/I shall not listen./Your hands are covered with blood,/wash, make yourselves clean.

Take away wrong-doing out of my sight./Cease to do evil./Learn to do good,/search for justice,/help the oppressed,/be just to the orphan,/plead for the widow…

As we prepare for God’s definitive judgment in history, we realize that it is our very selves that are part of the problem. Though I pray each morning, I somehow find myself annoyed at the driver doing five miles under the speed limit. I lie to myself on a regular basis about my compassion for the widow and the orphan, instead preferring the comfort of my home. I am impatient with my sick toddler, often not considering the mercy I should offer in such a moment. The horrors of violence portrayed regularly on the news leave me often cold, uninspired to do something about the needs of others. I am a sinner, one of those in Matthew 25, who may not be able to recognize the presence of the coming Christ in my midst.

Realizing that one is part of the problem of sin itself is not a “best-ever” experience. It is a humbling one, a recognition of one’s total weakness before God’s triune love revealed in the Christmas creche. The season of Advent opens up a space in the human heart to receive God’s healing mercy in the midst of our poverty. It is often in the midst of the worst Advent, immersed in one’s total failure, that the healing of Christmas might matter most.

AdventOf course, this is not an apology for doing nothing during Advent. It is not a dismissal of practicing watchfulness, which should mark the season. But it is a warning that promising “best-ever” experiences, even for the sake of inviting Catholics to return to a robust practice of their faith, comes with a cost. The cost is that we confuse the liturgical year with a program of self-improvement. We invite those on the margins of our parishes to unrealistic expectations that Christian life is a series of “best-evers” rather than occasions of hidden love in the midst of a God who did not seem to mind remaining hidden in the Bethlehem manger. The Christmas we celebrate may be mundane, lived out in ordinary parish life, still full of the trials and tribulations of family life; but that does not make it less “best-ever.” In fact, the Christian life (and thus the season of Advent) is learning to see (a normally painful process) the hidden ways that the Word still remains flesh among us.

What the Church promises is not that practicing Advent will lead us to the “best Christmas.” Rather, as John Henry Newman hopes: “May each Christmas, as it comes, find us more and more like Him; who as at this time became a little child for our sake, more simple-minded, more humble, more holy, more affectionate, more resigned, more happy, more full of God” (The Mystery of Godliness). And we may find that the more full of God we become, the more we are open to his presence among us, we are led not into “best-ever” experiences. But more and more into that longing for redemption, that anxious awaiting of the God who will put an end to Advent and Christmas itself: Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus, Come! 

Problematic Pop: Steinfeld’s “Love Myself”

Molly Daily

Molly Daily, ND ’14

Intern, Washington University & Webster University Catholic Student Center Campus Ministry

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I have only been able to find two radio stations so far in St. Louis. The first is a 1970s rock station – certainly filled with talented musicians, but not my scene. So instead, I spend most days driving to and from work listening to the pop music station. One song has been played over and over in the past few days, written by “up and coming” artist Hailiee Steinfeld, and it is particularly disturbing to me – both in its content and in its indication of the attitude prevalent among young adults and those on college campuses.

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The song is called “Love Myself.” Every time it comes on the radio, there’s a blurb by the artist telling listeners that she just wants them to know that they can do whatever they’re doing on their own – they don’t need anyone else to tell them they can. The song itself consists of Ms. Steinfeld proclaiming that, any time, she is just going to love herself, and she doesn’t need anyone else. Perhaps the most startling lyric: “I’m gonna put my body first/ And love me so hard til it hurts.”

Now, don’t get me wrong – the idea of self love and self worth is not only beautiful and important, but extremely Catholic. In order to truly worship God and submit to the truth of His works, one must recognize him or herself as the Lord’s creation and see the inherent beauty in that. While difficult, this is an entirely necessary step for anyone expecting to love creation and others. However, this true, humble, loving of oneself is entirely different than that which is espoused in the aforementioned song.

The loving of oneself in the Christian tradition is inherently communal – the love of self, rooted in the acceptance of Christ’s redemption of all humanity and humankind’s adoptive sonship with God, compels the believer to recognize that same beauty, that same divine sonship, in those around him or her. Self-love, and Christianity in general, are inherently other-centric.

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This song proclaims entirely the opposite. Steinfeld confuses the purpose and nature of loving oneself, proclaiming that her love of self is not only separate from the other, but that this self-love in fact leads to separation. Perhaps even more fearful is her assertion in her “introduction” of the song, which suggests that correction and suggestion, two concepts rooted in the Catholic tradition in the love of the other and the desire to see the other at his or her best, are detrimental to one’s love of self and should be brushed off. This attitude is one I have seen on a broader level in the secular world, both within my campuses and in adults. We shrug off the obligation that comes with the Catholic idea of love of self – after all, that’s too hard. It precludes me from my ability to judge others and to do what I want, when I want. It makes it incredibly difficult to keep up with the immediate satisfaction of desires that has become so common, so advertised, and so valued. Instead, we would rather define self-love as the complete and total acceptance of how we are and how we act based entirely upon ourselves, our relative idea of truth, and what is easier in the short term. Quite frankly, it’s a tempting and glamorous view of life.

However, this is a view of life and of love with perilous consequences for the soul. When I hear the lyrics of this song, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ interpretation of Hell in The Great Divorce – I hear this young singer shrug off any responsibility other than her own, and I see the Hell-dwellers who became so stubborn, so set in their own ways and their own versions of the truth, that they couldn’t break out of themselves long enough to see the beauty that awaited them. This self-centric view of love and life leads to isolation, to judgment, and to a long-term lack of fulfillment.

This attitude is one that is incredibly hard to crack, but one that we must commit ourselves to resisting – after all, our souls, and those of the rest of the world, are at stake. In the Eucharist, we are reminded over and over again of the true meaning of Love, a Love that draws us in and raises us up, one that compels us to go forth and serve the whole world. This dangerous mindset, one which will certainly be present with me for the rest of my life, is one that can only be conquered by participating in that living and eternal sacrifice.

Sep 8, 2013; Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R. of Indianapolis celebrates Spanish Mass in Dillon Hall. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Reflection From Prayer Service for Sexual Assault Victims

Rose Walsh ’16

Resident Assistant, Lyons Hall

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance. In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.

We know that all things work for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.                   (Romans 8:18-30)

Does that happen here?  Does that happen here?

When I walked into one of my freshmen quads the other night, that was the first question they asked me.  “Hey Rose — those sexual assault emails were pretty scary — does that happen here?”  As a new RA in Lyons hall, a few things went through my mind – first, I was horribly embarrassed that during their first week of class here at Notre Dame, they had already received three notifications that this new home we’re trying to bring them into and create still has a serious problem keeping students safe.  And as much as I wished I could sincerely answer that no, Notre Dame students are above this crime, I knew that the emails were a critical reminder to us all that we are not past our own history of sexual violence.  More importantly, these emails came as a sign of incredible bravery and progress toward a community where any sexual assault is reported and taken seriously.

I thought of the girls’ parents whom I’d met last week, ensuring them I’d help them loft, find classes, and make sure they got home safe at night.  They had come from all over the country and the globe to bring their children, their most sacred gifts, here to South Bend, Indiana, at a school where nothing goes wrong, and there are single sex dorms and parietals and rules and police and RA’s and so many nice brochures; yet without fail, every couple of weeks we still get that email with the subject line, Crime Alert: Sexual Assault and that same body text that starts “Sexual assault can happen to anyone.” And my last thought, looking at the girls in the room I asked myself, are they afraid to be here? Are they afraid of the men’s dorms and the environment and the upperclassmen because this kind of crime regularly happens on campus? Have we tolerated or even created an environment that causes our newest students, our youngest brothers and sisters to be afraid of Saturday nights?  And it broke my heart to think that these new students, my newest residents could be afraid of a place that I love so much — I love the dorms and the people and faculty and beautiful spirit that is Notre Dame.  I know that we are all blessed to be here and Notre Dame has blessed me with the most beautiful friendships and relationships that I’ve ever had, — but why is it that we, as students in this beautiful place continue to fail each other in this grievous, repulsive way?

I am proud to be gathered here with you today because it demonstrates our will as a student body to end this history of sexual assault on campus and beyond, however, while prayer and reflection and awareness are so important, absolutely nothing will guarantee the future safety of the students of Our Lady’s university besides a sincere and relentless effort by each and every student and classmate and roommate to step in, speak up and respect one another.  As we reflect upon the words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we grow in faith and hope with the knowledge that “in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” and that through the united strength of our student body, these crimes against our friends will become a thing of the past.   And I am confident that one day we will all be ready to answer that question — does that happen here?  Does sexual assault happen at Notre Dame? One day we will answer confidently It absolutely does not.  Because if God is for us, who, then, can be against us?

Practicing Lent: The Practice of Commitment

Tim KenneyTimothy J. Kenney

’14 MTS Candidate 

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

Finding the right thing to give up for Lent is tough. Obviously it has to be something that will not harm you, physically, emotionally, or otherwise. It has to be something that would actually be difficult for you to do (you can’t give up meat if you’re a vegetarian or chocolate if you haven’t had any since Christmas). There are of course the more obvious choices, the Lenten standards: chocolate, ice cream, pop, snacking between meals. For some these are a real challenge, but for others this isn’t so much a sacrifice as a second chance at their New Year’s Resolution to exercise more often. But something even harder than picking a good Lenten Sacrifice is repeating the process the next year. When I’ve managed to give up something that was really difficult for me, I always end up complacent the next year. I say, “It was really hard giving up ____ last year, I’ll do it again since it was so tough.” The problem is, that never goes as well the second time around. Either it’s not actually that hard to do because I didn’t pick it back up post-Easter or, as is more often the case, I don’t have the same commitment and dedication as I did the year before and give up after a week. Lent takes a serious amount of reflection, focus, and commitment to make this sacrifice significant and meaningful. Otherwise we’re just going through the motions.

RomeWhen people ask me how grad school is going I often tell them it feels like all I do is read. But that’s a little misleading, because I do other things too. I binge watch shows on Netflix, take Buzzfeed quizzes to find out which European city I am (at least twice) or until I get Rome, stalk people on Facebook I haven’t talked to since high school, half-write blog posts that I never submit, watch Disney songs on YouTube more times than I care to admit. The list goes on. So in reality I should say all I do now is read and procrastinate from reading.

As such, it seemed pretty obvious what I should give up for Lent. “Wow, self,” I said to myself, “think of how much more time you’d have to actually get your work done if you cut out all these distractions!” In the lead-up to Lent I so excited to start cutting things out that I started removing apps from my phone two weeks early. But when I woke up on Mardi Gras I took a step back and thought about why I was actually giving these things up. If the day was supposed to be a big party on which I did or ate or watched as much of what I was giving up as I could, a day immersed in all of these distractions would be a waste of time, not a party. I realized these weren’t neutral or positive things I was giving up as a sacrifice for a little while, they were bad habits I needed to cut out period.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time recently, and mostly how I don’t seem to have enough of it. Often I fill my time with as much clutter as I can manage to scrap together. That way at the end of the day I can complain about how unproductive I was. It is pretty clear to me that, were I to cut these little distractions out, I could get a lot more done and probably be a much better student. Lent seemed like the perfect occasion for this purge, but when the time came I realized I wasn’t really doing anything for Lent. I was opening all of this time, which is great, but then I was filling it with schoolwork. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great thing to do. Personally I think if everyone made a commitment to spend one less hour with their phone everyday we’d all jump up 30 IQ points. But in creating the vacuum in my day by removing distractions, I wasn’t filling any of it with Christ.

We model these forty days on Jesus’ time in the desert before he began his public ministry. It was a time of prayer, quiet reflection, and solitude spent with God. What about my sacrifice was providing for any of that? Where was I making the commitment to spend more time in prayer or to build my relationship with God? After all, what is the point of a sacrifice if it’s entirely self-serving and doesn’t come with a commitment to God?

Catholics tend to irreverently joke about how quickly their Lenten promises fail. I think for the most part this is because we’ve stopped taking seriously just how serious Lent is. It’s not God wanting you to suffer and it’s not something you do to make your grandma happy. It’s a beautiful commitment to God, making oneself a witness in a world that has not simply scorned its Savior, but in many ways has forgotten him. And I don’t want you to think I’m writing this from some self-righteous pedestal of virtue. I failed at my Lenten promise within about two hours of waking up on Wednesday. And that isn’t something to be laughed at; it’s a promise to God that I wasn’t strong enough to keep. But I have to ask myself, how much of this is because I didn’t even involve God in the first place?

And so I ask you, dear reader, to take a second today, tomorrow, next week, or whenever you find it difficult to keep whatever promises you chose to make this Lent, and reflect on two things:

1. How has Lent been for you? Have you been keeping up with your promises, commitments, and fasts?

2. How has Lent been for you and God? Have you involved God in your promises, commitments, and fasts? It’s important to ask not only where has God been present in our lives, but also to reflect on where have we failed to invite him to join us.

It’s never too late to start a new  Lenten promise or sacrifice and its WorkersVineyardnever early too to restart an old one. When Easter comes, whether we’ve been going strong for forty days, thirty-nine days and eighteen hours, two weeks, or just one day, a commitment made to God sincerely, even for the shortest amount of time, is still a commitment to God. When you’re struggling or feel like you’ve failed to keep your promise, I’d invite you to spend some time with Matthew 20:8–16.

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I came across this passage recently and it spoke to me for all of the reasons listed above. Sacrifice, hard work, and commitment are all important. But if we’re doing these things for ourselves or out of fear of someone else or for a reward, what will the fruits of that labor be? What a joy it would be instead to work in the Vineyard of the Lord and have that be reward enough. I’ll be praying that you all have a blessed and nourishing Lent and I’d ask you to do the same for me, one in which we keep our minds, hearts, and souls focused on Christ’s ultimate sacrifice and salvation coming at the end of these forty days.

Three Things We’re Reading Today: The College of Cardinals, College Football, and Thomas Merton

Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1. Writing for Time Magazine, Christopher Hale explains the significance of Pope Francis’ new additions to the College of Cardinals:

By naming cardinals from the geographic and existential peripheries of the modern world, Pope Francis is showing us that’s he serious in his mission to rebuild the Church as “a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.” To do this, Pope Francis realizes that he must lift up the voices and experiences of those who have been excluded from governance and decision-making authority in both modern-day political and ecclesial structures.

2. In anticipation of the NCAA Championship football game between Oregon and Ohio State this weekend, First Things‘ Senior Editor Mark Bauerlein observes some worrying trends with regard to college football players’ comportment both on and off the field.
(
As a proud—slightly-biased—alumna of Kansas State University, I couldn’t help but agree with his assessment of a certain opposing team’s behavior during the Alamo Bowl.)

Sadly, [media attentiveness to poor sportsmanship and show-boating] also sends a message to young athletes from middle school to high school: this is the way super-competitors act. And college players who think they have a chance in the NFL draw another conclusion from the abundant coverage of outlandish conduct on the field. If you want attention, if you hope to show up on SportsCenter, add a dance move after you score, be a big mouth on the field, scuffle with opponents. The media will love you, which means the sports industry will, too.

Ultimately, Bauerlein insists, “Coaches need to instruct their players in a different model,” thereby asserting that forming moral character is every bit as important as honing athletic ability.

3. Perhaps an odd follow-up to the previous link, perhaps not: Daniel P. Horan writes a feature in America Magazine entitled “Merton (Still) Matters: How the Trappist Monk and Author Speaks to Millennials.” Particularly attentive to the ways in which Merton’s conversion continued throughout his life, manifesting itself in action and interreligious dialogue, Horan sees in Merton an example for today’s young adults:

Merton’s turn toward the world and the prophetic shift in his priorities seems to offer a timely lesson for today’s young adults. . . . Millennials can look to Merton as a model of someone who remained open to continual conversion, open to the challenge of God’s spirit, open to doing something more and risking much for the sake of another. He used his social location within the monastery, on the margins of society, to critique the injustices of his time—racism, nuclear armament, poverty—and then reach out to support, comfort and guide his readers and help to organize change.

In this centennial year of Merton’s birth, perhaps all of us would do well to recall his particular narrative of conversion and compassion as a model for our own interior lives and our interactions with others.

Crèches From Around the World, 1st Stop: Central America

Over the past month, crèches (nativity scenes) from all over the world have been displayed at various locations throughout the Notre Dame campus. These crèches are on loan from The Marian Library International Crèche at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and the exhibit has provided many different points of contemplation for the mystery of the Incarnation to the many who have viewed them during this Advent season. On Sunday, December 7, more than 200 people gathered at Notre Dame to participate in a pilgrimage, viewing the crèches on display in four different locations. Through the magic of technology, we invite you to make a digital pilgrimage, as over the next several days, we will be posting images of these beautiful crèches. We are also including descriptive reflections written by Fr. Johann Roten, SM of the University of Dayton, and we hope that this will be an opportunity for you to contemplate anew the mystery of the Word made flesh as he is depicted in these unique and extraordinary crèches.

By way of introduction, we would like to share a reflection from the pilgrimage itself, written by Institute for Church Life Director John Cavadini:

For God so loved the world that he gave his Only-begotten Son. When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law (Jn 3:16; Gal 4:4). In these beautiful words, Scripture solemnly proclaims the great mystery of the Incarnation. We learn that it is a mystery of God’s love for the world. The sign that it is a mystery of God’s love for the world is that it occurs not outside of the world, but at the heart of the world, in the womb of a woman, in the midst of God’s people. In the crèche, we see this heart of the world, the world which God so loved. We see the Only-begotten Son, and the woman of whom he was born. We see them received into the hearts of all those who come, in these crèche scenes, from all over the world. We see here depicted the fullness of time, the intimate meeting of Creator and creation. We see the world taken into the heart of God, living in the heart of God, right there before our eyes, and we see God living in the heart of the world, and received gladly by so many global citizens . . . in a mystery of welcome, the welcome of the world into God’s heart, and the welcome of God into the heart of the world.

By gazing upon these artistic representations of the Incarnate Word of God, may we enter more deeply into the mystery of his birth, so that he might continue to take flesh in our hearts and in our world.

CENTRAL AMERICA

El Salvador: Upland Living by Fernando Llort (b.1949, San Salvador)
glazed terracotta

El Salvador

From the mountains of Chalatenango close to Honduras, these tiny figures in sparkling black, red, and green tell the story of upland living. Though sparse and harsh, life is a constant reminder that grandeur and riches are from above. Llort’s figures speak the common sense of humility, the language of the little ones.

Mexico: Wonders of Life by José Tomás Esparza León
ceramic

The artist of this set is from Tonalá in the state of Jalisco (Mexico). He has won Mexico’s presidential award for his art, and this nativity set was awarded first prize in the 1996 International Crèche contest in Bellingham, Washington. Esparza makes his nativity sets using pre-Columbian techniques inherited from his ancestors. The clay is dug from the hillsides near his town, and the dyes are all natural materials. The distinctive features of this set are the lively and varied design elements, mainly floral and animal figures interspersed with geometric ornaments. The ornamental figures are the real reason for this nativity set. Christmas rose, peacock or rabbit: they all proclaim, in so many voices, the wonders of life.

Mexico: Hymn of Creation by José Tomás Esparza León
painted terracotta

This second set by José Tomás Esparza León reflects one of many styles of Mexican nacimientos.  Its figures are rounded and sturdy, providing the painter with much surface to demonstrate his skills. Influenced by pre-Christian indigenous culture, the personages are covered in front and back with artful ornaments, luxuriant flora and mythic animals. This hymn of creation, showing fish and fowl, rabbits and deer, is also a hymn to life and its manifold plenty. The figures, representatives of life in its various forms, are gathered respectfully around the very source of life, the Christ-child. In contrast with life as it should be, exuberant and plentiful, the setting is humble and sober. It conveys the frequent opposition between material poverty and the riches of the soul, or, life as it could and should be and its fallen present reality.

Unto Us a Child is Born

Jessica Keating_headshotJessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

As part of our preparation for Christmas, the Institute for Church Life invites the Notre Dame and South Bend communities to a “Crèche Pilgrimage” this Sunday, from 2:30–4:30pm. quimper_saintsBeginning at the Eck Visitor Center, pilgrims will make the make their way to five locations on campus where a total of thirty crèches are on display. On loan from the Marian Library International Crèche Collection at the University of Dayton, home to thousands of crèches, the thirty crèches currently on display at Notre Dame invite us to meditate on the profound mystery of the Nativity and to encounter the ways in which men and women around the world have welcomed the intimacy and mystery of the Incarnation into their hearts.

In his lecture introducing the Notre Dame exhibit, “The Crèche: A Celebration of Christmas and Culture,” internationally renowned Marian scholar, Fr. Johann Roten, R.M. proposed that nativity scenes, as visible images of the mystery of the Incarnation, provide a deeply theological and cultural way of seeing. The Catholic tradition is a visible tradition; thus men and women of faith continually strive to make visible the Incarnation. Originating from icons of the Nativity and influenced by mystics and saints, such as St. Bridget, crèches communicate rich theological and ecclesial vision within their very structure.

The variety of ways in which the nativity has been depicted present particular facets and insights about the mystery of the Incarnation. According to Fr. Roten, the tradition of representing the nativity at the bottom of a mountain developed as way of visually representing that “in order to come into the world, all of creation had to become his.” Hans BladungThe Italian tradition of depicting the birth of the Christ-child among the city ruins, as Hans Baldung does in “Adoration of the Child” (see right) demonstrates the supersession of the pre-Christian world by Christ in the Incarnation. Nativities set against a vast landscape, such as “Nursing Mother Painted by St. Luke” (below) by Rogier van der Weyden, are intended to extend the viewer’s vision beyond the small audience gathered in adoration and to see that the entire world is called to adore the infant Christ. With fruit-laden trees, Giovanni di Paolo’s “Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds” (below) shows us that even nature participates in the miracle of the Incarnation. Canadian crecheThe French tradition of depicting the entire village processing to adore at the manger, which is found in “The Santons of Charlevoix” (below) depicts ecclesial communion, the in-gathering of a diverse people—sailors, farmers, the local clergy, children—in unity around the infant Christ. Finally, some depictions of the nativity anticipate Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Like the Gospel narratives which were composed in light of the mystery of Christ’s Crucifixion and raising from the dead, these visual representations include elements which make available the multivalence of the incarnational mystery. The triptych panel at Saint Clare Cologne in Munich, for example, shows Mary and Joseph kneeling and pointing to the infant Christ, who lies swaddled in the manger. Interestingly though, the manager in this panel is also representative of the tomb and the altar. Saint Clare triptychThus in the piece below, the Incarnation of Christ is seen to anticipate His death and His presence in the Eucharist.

In the vast variety of nativities, we encounter the global inculturation of the Gospel, the welcoming of the Good News of Christ into the human heart. Fr. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., the founder of the University of Notre Dame, expresses our awe and wonder at the crèche:

The month of the Holy Infancy brings us in close contact with the Crib; Bethlehem is becoming daily more and more a delightful rendezvous to our faithful souls – a House of Bread in which every want of our eager and panting hearts is satisfied. Each time we approach it, in silence and in faith, we find in it the Divine Babe lying in the Manger, stretching out to us his loving little hands, soliciting our love and, as it were, saying with an accent of heavenly sweetness which none can resist: ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. …’ Here is what fastens us to the mysterious Crib.  (Octave of the Epiphany, January 13, 1882)

We are invited into this most intimate and tender moment of family life, to draw close to the crèche and to meditate on the mystery of Word of God Who became a speechless infant, who took on our flesh, not in appearance, but in its fullness so that we might become like God.

Disembodied Texts and Sex

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

This weekend in The New York Times Style Section, I happened upon two articles that seemed to take up the theme of disembodiment and technology. The first (Katherine Rosman, “On Twitter and Instagram, Hiding in Plain Sight”), perhaps no surprise to those of us who frequent the world of social media pointed out the growing trend among smart phone users to ignore family and friends, all the while updating the digital universe about every moment of one’s life:

The dynamic can end friendships, too. Jen Singer, a 47-year-old mother and blogger from Kinnelon, N.J., is a text messager. “Three words and an emoticon is often all you need,” she said. She grew estranged from a close friend who called too often, asking questions and telling stories that Ms. Singer felt could have been put to pixels. Her friend would call to tell her it galled her that Ms. Singer hadn’t called her back even as she LOLed with others on Facebook. “A phone call is an intrusive thing, and it created a rift,” she said. “If you’re not communication-device compatible, it can cause problems in your relationship.”

What precisely is more intrusive about a phone call or a text message (than a general updating of one’s life on Instagram or Twitter)? In some ways, a phone call or a text message interrupts us, reminding us that there are actual embodied human beings in our lives who need tended to. The virtual universe, whether we’re aware of it or not, forms us to forget that the avatars we gaze upon, the tweets we devour, are produced by women and men who exist in time and space. They are not mere characters upon the screen but human beings who have a history. The relationships that we are involved in necessarily involve a degree of embodied intimacy (if these relationships are to contribute to human flourishing) that social media too often seems to remove us from. Sure, social media can enable us to perceive suffering across the world, to know the plight of communities that we are not apart of. At the same time, ournowhereelse-iphone-6-concept-gold-1131x753 concern about the welfare of these communities lasts for only as long as the digital images appear on our screen. These are not embodied creatures, demanding our love. They are virtual bits that pass before our eyes, not demanding the bodily hospitality that love alone demands.

The other article was more disturbing for those of us who work with millennials (Teddy Wayne, “With Some Dating Apps: Less Casual Sex Than Casual Text”). Letting the piece speak for itself:

Jason Sprung, a 26-year-old comedian in Brooklyn, connected last year on the location-based dating app Tinder with a Tennessee woman who was visiting New York. The two didn’t get a chance to meet up while she was in town, but that didn’t deter them.

“We talked on the phone every day for almost a month and sent a lot of texts and photos and videos and sexts,” Mr. Sprung said. “We’d have phone sex. It felt close to a relationship without actually seeing the other person.”

The couple grew so intimate that the woman promised she would move to New York in six months. Mr. Sprung couldn’t wait that long. “So I broke up with someone I’d never even met before,” he said.

 

 

Baseball, Love, and the Liturgy

Chris LabadieChris Labadie

MA Candidate, Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary

Director of Liturgy, Saint John’s University Campus Ministry

I love baseball. I love the precision, I love the numbers crunching, I love the way a ball sounds off a bat or smacking into a glove. What I love the most about baseball though is the brotherhood that builds up in a clubhouse and spills over onto the field. There is no wonder why players are referred to as “the boys” of summer.

As the Major League season was coming to a close last week with the seven game World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals, the game took somewhat of a back seat. Last Sunday, Oscar Taveras, a 22-year-old outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, died in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. Oscar-Taveras-St.-Louis-Cardinals-John-Jay-The outpouring of grief from fans and players around the league was immediate and heartfelt. It was not until the next afternoon that a statement came from Mike Matheny, the manager of the Cardinals and a man who has been very open about his Christian faith throughout his career. As I read the statement, I became more and more convinced of my love for the game, especially as I read the final heart-wrenching words:

In my opinion, the word ‘love’ is the most misused and misunderstood word in the English language. It is not popular for men to use this word, and even less popular for athletes. But, there is not a more accurate word for how a group of men share a deep and genuine concern for each other. We loved Oscar, and he loved us. That is what a team does, that is what a family does.

Matheny did not mean that the team loved Taveras because he could catch a ball or hit home runs, he meant that they loved each other because there is a bond that extends beyond the game.

Love often is the “most misused and misunderstood word in the English language.” The world tells us that love is something temporary, something fleeting. We can choose to love someone today, but if they make us angry tomorrow then we just shut off the love. We are conditioned by the media to “love” celebrities or products, but only insofar as they give us pleasure or make us feel good about ourselves. How quickly does our society move from one fad to the next? From one failed celebrity marriage to the next? Love has become synonymous with instant gratification and pleasure.

When Christians think about love, our first place to look is in the First Letter of John: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 Jn 4:16, NRSV). God is not temporary or fleeting. God does not love us one day and turn away from us the next, because He is love! His love is offered to us freely, for all of eternity, and without any conditions attached—even if we choose not to love God, God will still love us because we were created by the One who is pure love. god-is-love-2Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, reminded us that this love can be expressed in so many different ways, but all of them require us to be actively responsive to the love given to us first by God. This is what sets Christian love apart from the transient “love” that our modern world enjoys spreading around to anyone who will pay attention. For Mike Matheny and the St. Louis Cardinals, this Christian love meant sharing “a deep and genuine concern for each other,” for the people who had become teammates, friends, and brothers. In a time of loss they are able to rely on that concern for one another in order to move forward.

I was greatly struck by Matheny’s comment that it is not popular for men, especially athletes, to use the word “love.” As a Catholic man, I find it necessary that I love something—my family, my friends, my God, my Church. All of these are worthy of my love and, if I do not express that love, I am not fulfilling my duty to God or to those people. There is an excellent blog that I read fairly regularly called “The Catholic Gentleman” (www.catholicgentleman.net). In a post on the true meaning of St. Valentine’s Day, the author expressed his understanding of why love is so important for the Catholic man:

If we really love others, we will care about their salvation. If we care about their salvation, we will share the Catholic faith with them. St. Valentine had the courage to share the Gospel with the man who had the power of life or death over him—and yet most of us won’t broach the topic of faith with our friends out of fear of disapproval. Let’s choose to courageously share the faith we have received with others as God provides opportunity.

The author of the blog knows that in order for us to be good Catholic men we must not be afraid to love and be loved, we must not be not afraid to express that love to God and to those around us.

How do we express our love of God? As a liturgist I admit that I am a little biased here, but I truly believe that the liturgy is the ultimate expression of love. Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred HeartWe can see the love given to us when we witness the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist. God loves us so much that He suffered and died for us on the Cross, but also left us a “memorial of his death and resurrection,” so that we can continue to see that love on a daily basis. At the same time, the liturgy is our ultimate act of giving our love to God. Sometimes that love is imperfect and we are not as fully invested in the words and actions taking place before us. Sometimes our love is hiding underneath anger or pain or a need for reconciliation. Sometimes we are fully invested in what is happening and we are singing, with full heart and voice, the praises of our God. The Lord loves it all and accepts whatever we bring that day. So in a world where the media tells us that men are not supposed to show our feelings, especially love, the liturgy is once again a counter-cultural movement that says: Love. Love with everything you’ve got. Love through your pain and your joys. Love when your young friend and teammate has been killed in a car accident. Love with a genuineness that no one will be able to deny. That is how we abide in God and God abides in us.

Say What You Really Mean: The Common Language of the Church

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 11.03.46 PMTimothy J. Kenney ’14

MTS Candidate, Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

When I was in 3rd grade I was confronted with the reality of my “expressional” ignorance. After a hard math lesson in which we were first exposed to the imposing object known as the multiplication table, I was informed that I was to report to a room down the hall where a week earlier the entire class had met one on one with the Speech teacher. When I got to the room I was confused when told I would be starting Speech classes for my lisp. “What lithp?” I asked. I was so confused because I had no idea what the teacher was talking about when she patiently explained to me that the way I pronounced my words was different than everyone else. “I don’t think I thound different.” I remained indignant until I met my Mom at the bus stop and she confirmed that, though I knew all the notes, I was not playing the same tune as everyone else.

And so I returned to class every week determined to amend my speaking issues. After all, The West Wing had just started its run on NBC a few weeks before all this and I had set my heart on being president some day. I had to be able to communicate with people. Despite the added challenge that in fixing my lisp I developed a reverse lisp (I worked so hard on “s” not sounding like “th” that my “th” started to sound like an “s,” prolonging Speech class well into the spring semester), I am proud to say I now speak as clearly as possible given that I mutter everything.Kid President

There are a lot of words, many of them quite large, that I don’t know. I have never had much of a handle, for example, on the proper meaning of the word “irony.” I thought I did for a long time and was quite content with how I used it. My personal definition does not, however, change the fact that things I call ironic are in fact not even close. Is my usage of irony ironic? I’m honestly asking here, like I said I haven’t a clue how to really use it. This definition seems to limit what I can say. There is something I am trying to express and I am told that the word I thought summed up a situation is in fact completely unrelated. In much the same way, most of the time people literally use the word “literally” in a completely different way than its intended.

Why did I have to correct my lisp? Why can I not use “ironic” or “literally” the way I want? Why should I listen to other people when they correct my means of expression? Who is to say there is not something wrong with everyone else and not me? It’s not my speaking that is the problem but their hearing. We all feel this tension at times, probably daily, in our own way. We resent others for telling us what to do or expressing their ideas, opinions, and vision of reality that run counter to how we want things to work. We want to say no to “the way things are” and make things the way we want them to be. It is a sentiment as old as Eden.Matrix

The Church calls us out of this self-oriented approach to the world and into community with those around us. Instead of responding with aggravation or resentment, we are called to express ourselves through love. Love witnesses and appreciates what is special and unique in others and seeks community with them. The Church does not call us to silent obedience or to live identical lives, but rather to express our quirks and differences using a common language. When Christians share their unique gifts through the language of virtue and orient their lives toward Christ and his Church, we make this love present. To express ourselves as part of the community and choose not to, as Avery Cardinal Dulles describes it, exalt in personal autonomy, we need a communal understanding through which we can communicate. By using shared means of expression such as prayer, the sacraments, and a creed of common beliefs, we can understand one another and in turn grow with one another in our relationship with God.

I no longer speak with a lisp because I accepted in my own 9 year old way that to be a member of my community I needed to be able to express myself in its own language. There are still times when I get tongue-tied, especially when speaking in front of a lot of people or in class discussions, and the lisp makes a brief return, but even then I am usually the only one who can hear it. And despite my best efforts, I literally could not pick an ironic statement off a page if you paid me. Following the grammar and language of our community can be challenging, but I still embrace the power and possibility contained in expression. Using this language that confuses me as a vehicle for understanding theology, faith, and God, I have found that the biggest words are not in fact the hardest to define. The most profoundly beautiful things are often expressed in the simplest terms. “This is my body.” “Peace be with you.” “Behold the man.” “Amen.” There is a mystery tied up in these words that gives them deeper meaning that we could ever fully grasp. What the Church does offer us, however, is a place to start, from which the possibilities are literally endless.