Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Spirit of the Season


The last week of Advent is really when Christmas gears up for me. I’m at home, the house is decorated, there is a series of goodies streaming out of the kitchen, and I spend the evenings watching the same Christmas movies every year. The fourth week of Advent feels pretty much the same every year, and that’s a good thing. It’s comfort, it’s tradition, it’s Christmas.

The Christmas movies, and the plethora of commercial breaks, reminds me that Christmas has become a primarily secular holiday. Secular Christmastime is the day after Thanksgiving to December 25. And all the TV specials, movies, and advertisements feed into the reasons for that season: family and caring for others. These aren’t bad virtues by any means. Secular Christmas promotes goodwill and charity and peace on earth. But it leaves out the Christ and Mass part of Christmas. Where is faith in secular Christmas?

Well, after my movie watching this week, I think faith is still there. Jesus isn’t going to be mentioned by name, and church is rarely going to be shown. Those topics are still too controversial for mainstream audiences. But Christmas special after Christmas special calls on its characters to believe. Believe in Santa, believe in the spirit of Christmas, believe in a purely generic, unspecified sense for no reason except that it’s Christmas. Even for those that ignore the religious origins of the holiday, there is an innate sense that the season is one of belief. Feelings of goodwill and charity do not have to be scrutinized under logic and empirical testing. People give in to desires of peace and hope and faith. That’s the beauty in the spirit of Christmas.

Beauty and magic always win out in Christmas movies. Santa is always proved to be real, even if he defies logic. Miracles always save the day, and the characters accept the miracles, because it’s Christmas. So even when I get a bit down about how secularized the message of Christmas has become—to the point that Christ isn’t mentioned by name at all—I am comforted by the fact that secular Christmas just can’t let go of the message of Christmas: Believe.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Joy in the World


 
It’s easy to think that the world is awful. And that it’s only getting worse. It’s easy to cite the violence and hunger and poverty. The protests over institutional injustice. The continuing military conflicts. The overconsumption, overmedication, oversexualization. On Sunday/Monday, there was the hostage situation in a cafĂ© in Sydney. It’s easy to look at the news and fear for the future. 

One way to deal with the awful is to be prepared. Fight the odds, be cautious, don’t be a statistic. Have a 3-month food supply, buy a gun, take off your shoes at airport security. The show Doomsday Preppers shows the extreme of this. Those people are preparing for the complete dismantling of civilization. The end is near—be afraid.

Advent is all about preparation. But it is the complete opposite of fear. The angels said, “Be not afraid! I bring tidings of great joy!” The future that Advent promises is one of increasing terror; it is of victory from that terror. The Savior is coming; the future is one of victory and joy! Preparation does not mean hiding under a desk, waiting for a blast. Preparation means cleaning the house, opening the doors—embracing the change about to arrive.

Preparation requires reflection and work, which is why this is a season of penance. But we are preparing for a very good future, which is why Gaudete Sunday reminds us that joy belongs there too. Yes, the world can look pretty awful and bleak. But the story isn’t over yet. We can be redeemed. The end is near—be joyous!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Put on a Yarmulke



Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light. So many cultures celebrate light during the darkest time of year. Gentiles probably know more about Hanukkah than other Jewish holidays for the fact that it is always tacked on to Christmas greetings when holiday parties need to appear ecumenical. But Hanukkah isn’t Jewish Christmas. It celebrates a military victory and the restoration of the temple.

But that doesn’t mean that Christians should ignore it completely. It is, after all, Biblical. The two books of Maccabees chronicle Judas Maccabee fighting off foreign invaders and protecting Israel’s temple. He and his small band of fighters liberate Jerusalem from Syrian-Greek rule and cleanse the temple, which had been profaned during the occupation. Following the dedication of a new altar, Judea celebrated for eight days. Judas and his brothers declare that the festival will be observed annually (1 Macc 4:54-59, 2 Macc 10:6-9).

The Hanukkah story of the oil in the temple lasting eight days (when it wasn’t expected to last that long) isn’t found in these books and is part of the Jewish Talmud, written much later. However, it was customary to light lamps during the celebration of the temple’s dedication. The word Hanukkah means "to dedicate." The lamps, and light, signified the Law. And as with most festivals of light taking place in winter, light represents a victory over the darkness, a liberation from an oppressor.

This victory and dedication meant so much to the Jewish people that they made the celebration an annual festival of light. And almost 200 years later, Jesus celebrates it as well. One winter, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and the temple for the feast of the Dedication (John 10:22-23). Now, just because Jesus celebrated it doesn’t mean Christians are called to celebrate it. We’re not called to celebrate any Jewish holidays, seeing as we’re not Jewish. But since Jesus did come to us in a Jewish context, and because so much of our symbolism and typology rely on Jewish tradition, it is good to understand it.

For all the stories of military battles and conquering in the Old Testament, this is one that seems so easy for Christians to relate to. There’s a dominant culture in charge that many Jews find alluring. Several have left the faith for the novelty of this other faith or for the political convenience of going along with those in power. It shows the dangers of not being true to the faith. And then, once the oppressors are fought and conquered, there are still the scars; the temple has been profaned. It takes time to bring the people back, to build a new alter, to rededicate the temple. Finally, the story ends in victory; light conquers darkness!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mary, Did You Know That Your Feast Days are Confusing?


So yesterday I made it home from my very busy weekend. I started to unwind and unpack and get organized for the chaotic finals week ahead. My thought process was something like this: Monday: papers, presentation. Oh, crap, I need to figure out when to fit in Mass since it’s a holy day. But wait; it’s a holy day on a Monday, which means it’s moved to Sunday. Whew. One less thing…But wait; isn’t the Immaculate Conception the U.S. patron? Doesn’t that mean that the holy day that shouldn’t be moved but is actually isn’t? To the Google machine.

Turns out that yes, the Immaculate Conception is still a holy day of obligation, even if it’s on a Saturday or Monday. Americans just have to suck it up and go to church two days in a row. Yes, it was kind of an inconvenience for me; even with 5 mass times offered in town today, I had to decide on whether to go into work an hour late or leave an hour early.

But in all honesty, I didn’t mind going. I like going to Mass, especially when the music is decent. I particularly like going on weekdays, because it feels like my faith is more interwoven into the rest of my life that way. I miss being able to get to daily Mass like I did this summer. Would have I gone today had it not been an obligation? No. I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t have chosen this Monday or this feast day. But that doesn’t mean I went unwillingly. I like obeying. I like going to Mass. I like unmoved movable holy days. I like singing the Gloria in a season of penance. I love my weird, confusing faith.

SimchaFisher wrote a great article about holy days of obligation and giving into the obligation part with the right attitude. The American in me wants to only attend when it’s good for me. The Catholic in me knows it’s good to attend whether I want to or not. She says:

“I would be wonderful if we simply always wanted to go to Mass. It would be Heaven on earth if we enjoyed doing all the things we ought to do…But knowing how you ought to be is not the same as being that way. The Church gives us obligations because she knows we need them. This is an idea which sets the Church apart from so many other religions: the much-derided ‘rules and regulations’ that the Church lovingly imposes show that the Church understands human nature…All the same, it’s a good idea to remember that I obey, it’s because the thing I’m doing is good for me but also because obeying itself is good for me.”

So I go to Mass twice within 18 hours, even though I didn’t want to either time. I enjoy it both times. I receive the grace of God and the body and blood of Christ and the security of the Church. I get showered in blessings, because I have to. Obligations are freeing.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Give Peace a Chance



Today was a long day. After a good but tiring weekend in D.C., I spent most of the day in a van driving back home. Once there, there was laundry and lots of schoolwork. I didn’t get to Mass until the 6 p.m. service. I usually like going in the early morning, but that was the only one I was able to get to. I got there a bit early and got to enjoy the pianist and cantor practicing Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus while I said a Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The pre-Mass moments helped shift me from my tiring, chaos, loud weekend back into the reflective beauty of the Church and Advent.

As I looked at the Advent wreath, I couldn’t remember what the second week was supposed to represent. First is hope; third is joy, but what was second? After I got home, I finally remembered: peace. Of course I’d forget peace, I thought. Despite the pleas for peace on earth during this time of year, I’m always feeling frustrated and chaotic. It’s the end of term, so I’m always preoccupied with school, hoping to get everything turned in so that I can finally start thinking about the season a couple of weeks late. It’s just hard for me to feel peaceful during one of the busiest weeks of a student’s year.

And I have it easy. I’m beyond privileged. How difficult it must be for people who are living in danger of violence, of discrimination, of hunger, of illness, of loss. How can people find peace in their day to day lives when life is war? How can peace on earth mean anything when the earth is seeped in pain and violence? Is peace attainable now, or must it only be a future state, a hope to get us through the present?

As part of Advent, we’re supposed to be looking at the future. The present is bleak; that is why he need a savior, why we’re calling for Jesus to come. But we cannot wait in chaos waiting for the season to change. We have to break through the business, the stress, the dangers, toils, and snares. We have to have hope now. We have to bring about peace now. The chances at peace pass by if we are too caught up in our own problems. Help is at hand. God is not absent, even while we wait for him.

Friday, December 5, 2014

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 95)



1. I didn’t post last Friday because I was still in post-Thanksgiving coma. My Thanksgiving meal included three kinds of meat (although none fried). 


2. In case you live under a rock, the new Star Wars trailer was released. Now, I’ve never been a huge Star Wars fan, and obviously people are worried that Episode 6 will just be like the prequels with extra lens flare, but the trailer looks really good. It surprisingly does what trailers are supposed to do: get you pumped up without giving away the plot. Seriously, John Williams.


3. So now everyone is optimistic and nostalgic about Star Wars—truly an Advent miracle.

4. Speaking of Advent and Star Wars, I thought the only place they crossed on the Venn diagram was at the word hope, but then I saw this.

5. The trailer shows a new version of the light saber that has generated some criticism. I was unsure of a new saber too; fortunately, top analysis has been done.


6. And speaking of seasonal miracles:
7. I’m spending this weekend in Washington, D.C. for one of my classes. I'm excited for the opportunity, but at the same time, I have lots of work for next week piling up. I will be extremely rushed to finish up the semester.

Monday, December 1, 2014

St. Januarius


St. Januarius lived in Italy during the Diocletion persecution. He became a priest at a very young age and eventually became the bishop of Naples around the end of the third century. While visiting imprisoned Christians, he was also arrested. He and his deacon were thrown to wild beasts, but the beasts did not attack them. The men were then beheaded.

A vial of his blood is kept in Naples as a relic. In one of the more bizarre miracles I’ve read about, his blood liquefies and bubbles when exposed in the cathedral. The blood miracle occurs three times a year. Liquefaction can be immediate or take hours. The Church has no official statement on the blood miracle.

St. Januarius is the patron of blood banks and volcanic eruptions. Naples has several patrons, but Januarius is considered the principal patron of the city. His feast day is September 19. 

Of course, the name Januarius makes me think of the Roman god of transitions Janus, from whom we get the month of January. Janus had two faces, one looking into the past and one looking into the future. While January is still a month away, it seems appropriate to reflect on Janus/Januarius as we begin a new Church year.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent: A New Hope


The beginning of Advent is the beginning of the Church year. And like other New Years, it is a time to both look at the past and the future. The story of Christianity, depending on how one frames it, is one of looking to the past or looking to the future. Through grace, sins of the past are washed away, and we are given new life and promised new earth. We await Christ’s victorious return, the second coming, the restoration of creation to God. But return, second coming, restoration…all of those imply that what we anticipate once was already. We are not moving forward so much as arriving back home.

In the nineteenth century, some Protestant groups began identifying as restorationists, believing that they were returning Christianity to the beliefs and practices of the earliest churches. But surely one could see the futility in such a proclamation. 1,700 years had passed. Empires had risen and fallen. What these nineteenth-century Americans thought they knew about first-century Jews and Greeks was obscured by language, cultural differences, missing information, and most of all, time. To say one could return to first-century Christianity is to ignore the vast influences of the world for the past few millennia.

Even when we say that we follow traditions, handed down through the centuries, we are not living in a temporal vacuum. Greek gave way to Latin which gave way to the vernacular. Traditions, while still honored and passed on, acknowledged the changing of people and culture. In post-colonial studies, one of the first tasks of a post-colonial state is to figure out its cultural identity. Is the culture what existed 400 years ago before the empire arrived? Or must the empire’s influence now be incorporated? Is that a betrayal to the ‘authentic’ culture? Returning to a pre-colonial time is not realistic; the empire left its mark, and even if it didn’t, no culture stands stagnate for hundreds of years. Change is always happening, and there is no one 'authentic' culture. A return to some perfect past is an illusion.

There is no going back.

Judaism is marked by Babylonian captivity. Christianity is marked by Roman persecution. Humanity is marked by our own sin. We can never return to a pre-Fall state. A reconciliation does not erase the history we have experienced. A return to God is not going into the past; it is going into the future. It is arriving home with the battle scars and being healed. The first week of Advent is about hope. We acknowledge our bondage and anticipate our liberation. And when that day comes, when that Savior arrives, we will take on our new identity.