Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Presence

It's always a struggle at this time of year to keep one's priorities straight. We're bombarded with messagesdisguised as thoughtful, generous ideasthat essentially come down to the same thing: buy, buy, buy.
     The radio in your car, the TV, the ads running along your email inbox, the billboards you pass, even your cell phonebeneath the noise and colorful graphicsall whisper that same message.
    A really good boss needs to do this for her employees, a really good rep should do that for his clients; a really good neighbor should drop off homemade cookies; really good parents must shower their children with gifts to make Christmas "magical".
     You go to a store to get a present for someone, and on the way to the department you see something your spouse needson sale. You already bought your spouse a gift, but how can you pass up such a deal? And on something your spouse needs?
     Then you do some online shopping. Trying to keep up at work and with all the Christmas preparations, you're a little behind on this one. You find what you want, but discover that it's not guaranteed to arrive on time unless you pay double for expedited shipping.
     At the grocery store, you try to stick to your list—which is already a good bit longer and more exotic than usual. Then you see the apple cider. It's not on the list, but, gee, it sure would be nice. Everyone likes it so much, and you picture the family warming themselves and their hearts over hot mugs of the stuff, and by the time you check out, there are half-a-dozen impulse items in your cart.  
     You think you're almost done, then you remember stocking stuffers! It's hard enough to find nice but not-too-pricey things for everyone, but then you have to keep it fair between the kids. You see a perfect item for one person, but it's more expensive than what the others will get, so you start adding to everyone else's stockings to even it up.
     Meanwhile, you know that the season shouldn't be all about buying. You want to reach out to people too. So you stay up late working on Christmas cards. Then there are the decisions to make: should you include photos, or even have a special Christmas photo shoot? What about an annual Christmas letter? Whether you send hand-signed, old-fashioned cards or pre-printed postcards, either choice requires time and planning (and money). Do you have enough stamps? So-and-so moved, where's her new address? When will you have a chance to go to the post office? The whole thing can turn into a task as momentous as filing your taxes.
     Then there's the tree; the decorations, indoor and out; the parties; the traveling or preparing for guests. The last-minute trips—after fighting traffic, circling the parking lot, and waiting in line—turn into two-hour ordeals.
     Our consumer society ceaselessly tells us that the best way to enjoy life and even show love is through spending. The credit card commercials cleverly acknowledge that the best things in lifethose that produce wonderful memories and foster relationships—are "priceless." But subliminally the message is also clear: you need to whip out that credit card to buy the things or the trappings or the fun times to gain those priceless intangibles.
     And yet all this is taking a toll. We find ourselves—despite all our efforts and our best intentions to show our love through this hectic activitygrumpy or touchy. It's no surprise really. Our clothes are getting tight (which is depressing); we're stressed and low on sleep; we're worried about fitting it all in or forgetting something; and the anxiety about paying for all this is gathering like a gloom in the back of our minds.
     It is annual struggle for anyone living in society such as ours to keep the focus on Christ.  
     On a practical level, it helps to remember that the Christmas season doesn't end on December 25, but begins on Christmas Day. The Incarnation is too great an event to celebrate for only a day. Hence we have Advent, not for pre-Christmas parties, but to prepare our souls for the coming of Christ. And hence we have the weeks following Christmas to celebrate this incredible feast. And since Christmas is a Season, not just a day, we can spread out the parties and the cards and the giving, so we're not so frazzled. 
     On a spiritual level, any year, every year, we need to stop and spend time with Him, or we will get sucked up into the spending-splurging-scurrying whirlwind. Any year, every year, we need to step back to make sure we're not crowding Christ out and seek ways to simplify, see what we can do without, to make room for Him in our celebration. Even this year, with Christmas only two days away, it's not too late to recalibrate,  to get things back in balance.
    Any year, every year, if not this year, then next year, we can approach it this way.

    But this year, we have two additional things to contemplate. 
    A few days ago, there was a lot of joking about the predicted end of the world. Unlike most people I imagine, my husband and I thought, however, how wonderful it would be if the world really were to end. We're eager to go home to the Lord, but not to leave in grief each other or our children who still need us. But for us all to go together? Sounds great! Or it did, until we remembered those loved ones who perhaps are not ready to meet Christ on Judgment Day.
     Secondly, every year there are, sadly, people who must bear the heightening of grief that comes with celebrating Christmas without someone. That sorrow is more accessible to all of us this year, when we think of the many families suffering such a loss in Newtown, Conn. Such a tragedy! and for so many. No presents can make up for the presence missing this year.
     Yet these things can help us remember the point of Advent, the point of Christmas. It's not about the presents, the decorations, the goodies. It is about showing love, and we can show love through those things, but not merely with things. There are other, better, deeper ways. 
      The point is to be thankful that He came onceglory, hallelujah! Let's celebrate!   
      And since He's coming again—though we know not whenthe point is also to be ready, and help others to be ready, to meet Jesus, so we can celebrate His coming again, whenever it may happen. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Purple = Penitential

(Today I'm re-posting an Advent piece from last year... )

This title is not a statement of a personal dislike for the hue— actually most shades of purple are among my favorite colors. Nor am I making a clever remark about the disadvantages of being royal or ruling (purple traditionally being considered “regal”), such as, that it can be a royal pain.
      No, I'm actually trying, in the midst of Christmas music and escalating visions of red, green, and gold, to remember that it's Advent. And the liturgical color of Advent is purple (the same as Lent). A visual reminder of an almost forgotten fact: Advent is meant to be a penitential season.
      Before grappling with the question Why would Advent be penitential? it seems more pertinent to ponder Why do penance at all?
      Didn't Jesus on the cross take away for us all the punishment due to sin? In a sense, yes, and yet, Paul says, “In my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).
      How could anything be lacking in Christ’s sufferings for His Church? He’s God! He’s perfect, so His sacrifice had to have been perfect, and if perfect then complete. Right? Yes and no. If His sacrifice is “lacking” or “incomplete,” it’s not due to a failure on His part. Rather, it’s because He left room for us to be a part of it. After all, we are His Body. How can the Head suffer and not the Body?
      If after dinner, I only do the dishes, and wait (somewhat impatiently) for my children to bring them to me, as well as to put away the leftovers, clear and wash the table and counters, and sweep, it is not because I am incapable of doing those tasks. In fact, I could do them a lot better and faster by myself! But I purposely leave them undone, so my children can participate in the job. This is primarily for their sake. I want them to learn what it means to be a family, to be responsible, to be disciplined, and the different tasks involved in keeping a home clean. Similarly, God is perfectly capable of cleaning up the universe all by Himself, but He leaves some of the work to us.
      Because we need it and justice requires it.
      Wait a second, why does justice require it? Didn’t Jesus pay the price for us on the cross? He most certainly did. He paid the eternal penalty for our sins—something we could never have done, no matter how hard we tried. However, there is also a temporal penalty due, which we are obligated to pay.
      Look at it this way. If the ten-year-old son of a billionaire managed to get hold of some powerful explosives and blow up a mall one night, no one would expect the boy to pay for it, because, obviously, being ten, he couldn’t. If his father stepped in and paid the damages, the boy wouldn’t owe the debt anymore, right? His father wouldn’t expect him to pay him back. But wouldn’t it be wrong for the son to do nothing? Mowing the lawn and taking out the trash cheerfully every week for years and years wouldn’t make much of a dent in a debt like that, but it might make an impression on his father. Wouldn’t it be only right for the son to do whatever he could to show his gratitude to his dad? Wouldn’t it be the just and loving thing to do, and a sign of his true repentance? And the state would still require something from the boy himself—community service of some kind, as a way to make reparation for the damage he had caused.
      Similarly, our sins have not only eternal effects but temporal as well. Sin is not committed in a vacuum, but affects other people, even the most private and hidden sins (weakening our character, for instance, which affects how we treat others). 
     We likewise need to make reparation to our fellow man and to show God our true repentance and gratitude. There is a temporal debt that we owe, and if we do not “pay” it in this life, then we’ll need to do so after death, in Purgatory. This is where penance comes in, “community service” not for the state, but for the Kingdom.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Have Yourself a Grimy Little Christmas?

As an adolescent, I was once invited to go horseback riding with a friend. We had a great time, riding along trails in the California desert.
      Afterward my friend and I were chatting happily in the car driving home —I thought—when her mom stopped in the parking lot of a ritzy country club. Apparently I didn’t get the memo about this part of the day. The club was equipped with fancy private showers, and my friend had brought along a fresh outfit, but I all had were my dirty, horsy clothes.
     That day came back to mind recently when I read these words of St. Catherine of Genoa:

To see God when full satisfaction had not yet been given to Him, even if the time of purgation lacked but the twinkling of an eye, would be unbearable to the soul. It would rather [suffer] a thousand Hells to rid itself of the little rust still clinging to it, than stand in the divine presence when it was not yet wholly cleansed.[1]

I found that rather too much of a hyperbole at first … until I remembered how mortified I’d felt that day at the country club.
     Now for those of you who don’t know, when you ride a horse on a warm day, not only will you sweat, but so will the horse. And the two of you will especially sweat where you come in contact.  And though horses are brushed daily, they aren’t bathed that often. So I had swaths of brown along my pants, which bore the distinct odor of horse.
     While I don’t remember anyone looking at me strangely or turning up their noses, I still felt about as welcome as a skunk. I couldn’t get comfortable anywhere we went in the club, and I certainly didn’t want to sit down.
     If I felt so contemptible and out of place amongst other human beings—well-to-do and fashionable (and clean!) as they might be, still strangers whom I never saw again—how would I feel appearing, grimy with my own sin, in the presence of God, whose opinion is the only one that counts, who is the true desire and only satisfaction of my heart, whose beauty and glory and power are beyond my imagination, and who is perfectly holy?
     Yes, God’s love is infinite, and He will love us no matter what. But it is we who desire the purgation. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”?  Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.”
“It may hurt, you know.”
”Even so, sir.”[2]

     November, the month when we remember the souls in Purgatory, is just behind us. Perhaps I’m not the only one who forgot or was unaware of it (with the distraction of that historic election). But our remembrance of the holy, suffering souls should not be limited to a single month anyway. Some say that All Souls’ Day is not day of the year that the most souls are released from Purgatory, but Christmas.
      And today is the first day of Advent, which—despite the decorations everywhere and the Christmas carols blaring from store radios—is meant to be a penitential preparation. 
      Advent, which means "coming," is not just about His first coming at Christmas. He is coming again, and we need to be ready. Whether or not His Second Coming is in our lifetime, Christ will come to each of us at the end of our lives—which could be any day.
     So now is a splendid time to reflect on the souls in Purgatory and to offer up sacrifices and Masses for them. At the same time, those sacrifices can make reparation for our own sins and prepare us to meet our Savior.
     A beautiful tradition and helpful reminder is to set up the stable with the animals and the manger (no Holy Family yet) and set nearby a basket of straw. For every little sacrifice offered, one can place a straw in the manger (or stable) in preparation for the Infant Jesus.  
     Advent is a time to focus on what we should remember all year round: the Bridegroom is coming! … only we don’t know when.
     You've gotten the memo. Don’t get burned. Get that grime off now, so you’ll be ready and eager to greet the King whenever He arrives.

     [1] St. Catherine of Genoa, Fire of Love: Understanding Purgatory (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press), p. 75.
     [2] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1963; repr.: Orlando: Harcourt, 1992), pp. 108-9; emphasis in original.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Electing a Kingdom

Amid gloomy predictions about the economy and the precarious state of our religious liberty, after weeks of Gospel readings on the End  Times, along with the autumnal passing from warmth and verdure to bare branches and crumbled brown leaves, it is easy to feel a little despondent these days.

           Anyone already concerned about our society might even wonder if a calamity of some sort is no longer avoidable but almost certain now. What, if anything can be done, to protect our country—or if that’s too much to ask—to protect one’s own family and loved ones? What will the world be like when our children and grandchildren are grown?
           Next Sunday’s feast reminds us that we are not abandoned but have reason to hope. That day is the Feast of Christ the King. Christ has won the victory already; we know how it all will end. The only thing left to be determined is who will elect to be on his winning team. Put that way, it seems an obvious choice, but in this world, where the most important things are invisible, choosing the winning team can be tricky: it looks so much like the losing team.
           Kingship isn’t a popular concept in America; we tend to view a king as a potential or eventual tyrant. But the King of the Universe is altogether different. Though He certainly has the right to demand our obedience and allegiance—being our Creator and Redeemer—He prefers His subjects to choose Him, to elect Him their King. He doesn’t force Himself on anyone.
           The Chief Rebel, on the other hand, beguiles us into thinking that, like him, we can be servants to no one—be our own kings. But being also the Father of Lies, he is deceiving us on this point. If we voluntarily leave the service and protection of our Lord, if we reject His Kingdom, the Prince of this world will happily enslave us in his.
           The best-kept secret is that God’s Kingdom is not only future and eternal, but can be had even now. “The Kingdom is at hand” for anyone who wants it. Anyone can have a corner of the Kingdom here and now. All one has to do is to make Christ the King of one’s heart. 
           Making Him King means obeying Him and loving Him with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength.  To do this is a process—a lifelong process—that requires His assistance and our continual effort and getting up again and again and going on after falling.
           Making Him King of your heart leads to making Him King of your home.  But even that is not enough, for our King yearns to bring all people into His realm. We—His feet and hands and voice on this earth—must help in this effort.
           How do we do this? How do we reach people with the truth, persuade them to elect Christ as their King? We must attract them by being His true ambassadors.  We must bring a corner of the Kingdom wherever we go.
           One recurring joke in our family is my husband’s penchant for responding, “Love,” to any question, since “Love is the answer.” While it is not really the answer to such questions as, “Where is the concert?”  or “What time is dinner?” love is truly part of the answer to every eternal question.
           The way we attract people to the Kingdom, the way we give witness to our King, is to imitate Him, to let Him live within us, to love as He loves.
           If we keep asking for His help, keep receiving His gifts of grace in the sacraments, keep working on becoming like Him, we will radiate peace, will maintain a deep abiding joy in the midst of difficulty, will demonstrate His Love. And that will draw people, intrigue people, for everyone wants true joy.
           Our only hope for this world is the same as our hope for the next. Becoming holy is a win-win proposition, for now … and for ever.
           Christ our King, Your Kingdom come!

Monday, November 5, 2012

To Vote or Not to Vote--There Is No Question

They approach you on the street, or at the library, or any place where people gather, clipboard in hand. “Yes, yes,” I wave them off, “I’m registered to vote.” Leave me alone, I add mentally.
     I just discovered why this cadre is so active—did you know that 40 to 50% of Americans don’t vote?
     I understand that people wonder, What’s the point? One vote won’t make a difference. But if millions of individuals think this—as evidently they do—then millions of votes are not cast, and that certainly makes a difference.
     Voting is more than a privilege, more than a right: it is an obligation. Under the section “Duties of Citizens”, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that it is “morally obligatory…to exercise the right to vote” (no. 2240).
     It's not just the big races that matter. Electing the senators and congressmen who make our laws and good judges for our community is also of vital importance. (Nowadays it is chiefly through the courts that anti-Christian organizations have succeeded in eroding the Judeo-Christian foundations of our society.) Moreover, there are often critical issues and propositions that demand our getting out to vote.
     Even if you don’t like either candidate, it’s still worthwhile to go to the polls. In this presidential election, the stakes are too high to stay home.
     Many people (especially Catholics) claim to be “personally opposed” to abortion, but feel that they cannot “impose” their morality on others. (Though we impose our morality on thieves, abusers, etc.) They also point to other issues in which they feel that Obama has the higher moral ground than Romney, and speak of the importance of those issues as well as the relative powerlessness of a president to put an end to abortion.
     At the other end of the spectrum, some pro-lifers feel that in conscience they cannot vote for Romney because he’s not pro-life enough (he makes an exception for cases of rape and incest).
     For both these groups, some enlightenment might be helpful regarding (A) the hierarchy of issues, (B) what cooperation in immoral civic matters is and is not morally permissible, and (C) what the President can do.

The Inequality of Issues
While the human dignity of each person is equal, the importance of each issue is not. The economy, poverty, immigration, even national defense—while all important issues—are simply not as important as the issue of life itself.
     As the bishop of my diocese puts it, "we need to ... recognize that these issues [that enhance human life] only matter if human life itself is a value of fundamental priority and is always protected. If human life is expendable, then these other issues really lose much of their significance.”[1]  
     He goes on to point out that people of good will can disagree about how the lesser issues are handled, whereas there is only one morally licit stance on the non-negotiable issues.

Moral Cooperation
As Christians we must not cooperate with intrinsic evils: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ... vote for it."[2]
    Because we elect those who write the laws, this means we have to take their stance on such issues into consideration when deciding which candidate we'll vote for. “Citizens support these evils indirectly if they vote in favor of candidates who propose to advance them.”[3]
     Sometimes, though, there's no thoroughly moral choice. In such cases, the Magisterium teaches that a legislator "whose personal absolute opposition to these programmes or laws is clear and known to all, may legitimately support proposals aimed at limiting the damage caused by such programmes or laws.”[4]
     Thus when both or all candidates for an office support an intrinsic evil such as abortion, "citizens must vote in the way that will most limit the harm that would be done by the available candidates.”[5]
     In this presidential election, however, the difference between the two candidates with regard to abortion is vast. (See for instance, "Obama vs. Romney--The Choice Is Clear".) While Romney makes a small (but regrettable) exception, he is otherwise pro-life; Obama’s political record, on the other hand, shows him to be the most pro-abortion president in American history.

What Difference Can the President Make?
True, the President can’t overturn Roe v. Wade himself, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an impact on abortion.
     Whoever wins on Tuesday will most likely appoint at least one justice to the Supreme Court, and perhaps as many as three or even four justices during his term. This is huge. The next President will probably have an enormous impact on the composition of the Court for many years. This not only will affect abortion but also religious freedom and other important matters.
     The President also increases or decreases the number of abortions not only in America but also in other countries by his stance on the Mexico City Policy, the Hyde Amendment, federal support of Planned Parenthood, and U.N. proposals.
     Terrible as any deaths of soldiers or civilians in war are, they do not outweigh the deaths of the totally defenseless—the unborn—whose numbers are staggering. In the U.S., over 55,000,000 babies have been aborted since Roe.[6] More Americans were killed in abortion clinics in the year 2003 alone than in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars combined.[7]  
     The next president will also play a significant role in both the arenas of religious freedom and gay marriage. Government sanctioning of homosexual partnerships has led to religious persecution in several countries, including Canada. Putting these relationships on a legal par with marriage results in the push to give them equal status in the classroom and the public forum. Those who preach the biblical teachings on the matter from the pulpit have been arrested for hate speech. Our own religious liberties are already shrinking (see The Criminalization of Christianity for many examples.); another Obama term will surely shrink them further. 

The importance of tomorrow's election can hardly be overstated. We each have been entrusted with a single vote, like the servant given a single talent in the parable. Spend it well, for each of us will have to give an account for it.

[1]Statement from Bishop Richard Lennon regarding Faithful Citizenship and Voting.
[2] John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, no. 73, quoting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Declaration on Procured Abortion, no. 744.
[4] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 570.
[6] National Right to Life, "Abortion in the U.S.
[7] National Right to Life, "Abortion in the United States--Statistics".