You better watch out – Santa Claus is coming.

This article (of the same name) is lifted directly from the Catholic World Report, not with permission but with love. Coming up to Christmas we celebrate the feast of St. Nicolas. Here is a great summary of his witness to Christ.

“There are hundreds of stories about St. Nicholas of Myra. He was born in Lycia on the southwest coast of modern Turkey. His wealthy, pious parents, Theophanes and Nonna, read to him the Holy Scriptures and faithfully taught him his prayers, but apparently died while he was still young. His uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara, ordained young Nicholas and made him his personal assistant. The zealous youth proved himself an inspiring catechist in the Christian community and an obedient servant to his uncle. During these dutiful years he showed great kind-heartedness and generosity by distributing his inheritance to the poor.

During this time, the three grown daughters of a formerly rich inhabitant were in danger of being sold into slavery because of their father’s pennilessness. Hearing of this, young Nicholas secretly visited the man’s house at night and threw gold in at the window to provide a dowry for one of the girls. The eldest daughter was soon married, and Nicholas again made clandestine donations for the other two daughters, with equally felicitous results. Modern children who awake to an orange or to gold-foiled chocolates in their stockings reenact this story because, by all accounts, one of Nicholas’ gifts landed in a sock that was hanging by the fire to dry.

The young Nicholas was blessed with a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. During the voyage, a storm came up that terribly frightened the crew but, through the prayers of the saint, the waves of the sea were becalmed and the passengers saved. According to Palestinian Christians, Mar Nkoula (St. Nicholas) lived in a cave as a hermit for three years after visiting the holy places. In a vision Nicholas was told to return to Lycia. Years later an Orthodox Church was built over the hermit’s abandoned cave at Beit Jala, and Palestinians still commemorate this saint by giving gifts to children on December 19.

Not long after his return to Asia Minor, Nicholas was made archbishop of Myra. Difficult years followed for the archbishop and his flock, who were forced underground by the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s brutal, expansive persecution of Christians. During this time the good archbishop, who had the charism of bi-location, often appeared to imprisoned members of his flock as a model of gentleness, kindness, and love, until the day he too was discovered in hiding. In jail Nicholas continued to sustain and exhort his fellow believers to endure torture and death for the love of Christ. After Diocletian’s death, Nicholas was released and returned to his sacramental duties as a “confessor of the faith”—a titled given to Christians who were imprisoned and tortured for their faith during this period, but not executed. They were extremely revered and respected by their contemporaries.

Archbishop Nicholas attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (325), where he allegedly assailed the heretic Arius. In the middle of his hearing, Arius stood up on his seat in order to be better heard. Enraged by Arius’ denial that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, Archbishop Nicholas strode quickly over to Arius, pulled him down by his beard, and punched him in the face. The scandalized council fathers sprang upon Nicholas, stripped him of his pallium, and threw him in prison for his brutish behavior. That night Nicholas was visited by the Holy Family who loosed his bonds and vested him again in his apostolic garb. The bishops were astonished by this miracle and realized that Nicholas’ anger was righteous. He was honorably restored to his chair—where the aged prelate slept through much of the remaining proceedings.

During one of these naps, the holy confessor of orthodoxy bi-located again, this time to save more sailors at sea. When he awoke in Nicaea he was resentfully charged with sleeping through the entire council, whereupon the venerable Nicholas is said to have answered, “While you were talking, I was busy rescuing a disaster-driven ship at sea.” Some of the pious brethren took the ship to be an analogy of the Church. Others dismissed his words as the babblings of an old man. But not long after the council, the rescued sailors returned safely home and, traveling through Myra, recognized Nicholas as their deliverer. Not surprisingly, every Greek and Slavic Christian sailor for the past millennium and a half has sailed under the protection of St. Nicholas. In the midst of a storm, Greek sea captains still keep the ancient custom of promising St. Nicholas an effigy of their ship, called a tamata, if the holy wonderworker will save them from calamity.

Archbishop Nicholas peacefully fell asleep in the Lord on December 6, 343. He was immediately recognized as a saint and as the patron of travelers. He is called upon by Christians round the world for deliverance from flood, poverty, or any misfortune. He has especially promised to help those who remember his parents, Theophanes and Nonna.

St. Nicholas’ incorrupt relics were venerated for centuries in the local cathedral church of Myra. Like those of many other saints, his bones exude sweet-smelling myrrh. This holy myrrh has been used by Christian faithful to heal all manner of infirmities. During the Middle Ages the Turks conquered Byzantine Asia Minor and hitherto pose a constant threat to Christianity in that region. Because St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, his stories have spread to every Christian nation. In 1087, solicitous for the safety of St. Nicholas’ venerable remains, Italian sailors, who were devoted to this saint, plotted to steal the body and bring it back to their home village. St. Nicholas’ relics were thus taken from Myra and translated to the city of Bari, where the saint’s body continues to exude holy myrrh (in Italian, “sacra manna”) 17 centuries after his death.

A thousand years later, Italians are still hardcore devotees. It is difficult not to envy them sometimes. They’ve not only made St. Nicholas their “tooth fairy,” but once a year they commemorate the pirating of jolly ol’ San Nicola’s bones, sailing around the harbor at Bari with giant statues of the saint in their boats followed by a solemn harvesting of his tomb oils. Bari’s annual “Festival of the Translation of the Relics” is a three-day carnival with fireworks, processions, reenactments, fire-eaters, and Holy Mass, held every May 7-9. After High Mass on the 9th, the rector of the basilica crawls into a small opening in the crypt to drain the sacra manna out of St. Nicholas’ tomb into a glass vial. The manna is diluted with water and serves as an anointing sacramental and souvenir for pilgrims to Bari from across the globe.”

The truth of St. Nicolas points to the truth of Christ. Whatever you tell children, to me this story beats any other. But why let truth get in way of a good story.

Stop; Look; Listen; Think.

There is an advertising campaign on TV which instructs young children on how to cross the road safely. The four steps are found in the title. Once you’ve approached the road you stop walking, look both ways for traffic, listen in case there is more you may not have seen and think about what to do next. (You’ve done the rest but could still walk out into traffic if you’re not being attentive.)
This sums up the attitude of Advent. Concluding our liturgical year we approach the coming of Christ. In preparation we stop, look, listen, think.

…Gathering lambs in his arms and leading them to their rest.

Stop

Advent, it is realized, is a time for slowing down. In its busyness life can pass us by – or rather we can pass it by. Stoping allows us time and space to recollect ourselves, breathe and remember the way we ought to live, the way of Jesus, without spot or stain. We begin the process of welcoming him again by separating ourselves not from the world necessarily but rather from the pace of the world. Don’t be afraid to stand still.

Let us see, O Lord, your mercy and grant us your saving help.

Look

Self examination has a long history in the church and this preparatory season is a perfect time to return to this practice. Looking internally we see our sins and our failings, our selfishness and our frailty. But this is counterbalanced with the recognition of our need of a saviour, for whom we long. Confession is a great way – I would say, a necessary way – to embrace Advent. Looking out with the eyes of Jesus we begin to see the movement of the Spirit in the world: a kind act here; encouragement there. Looking through the eyes of God we begin to recognize God; we see the great things he is doing.

The voice of The Lord has spoken.

Listen

It is no secret that we live in the age of noise. Silence is a rare commodity and is being infringed upon like logging to a forest. Our attention is demanded, our thoughts distracted. Even in prayer our minds can wonder. When we listen, truly listen, we deepen attentiveness. Enabling a connection beyond words, we listen to the tone, the rythym, the heart to which God speaks. We may be blessed to hear the still small voice of God.

Think before you do anything; hold on to what is good.

Think

Upon hearing the voice of God with our hearts we meditate, chewing them over in out mind. Are we to act? Where is our next step? Are we to remain? For how long? Despite these practicalities keeping our mind on God and being able to see where he has worked in our lives, we can be sure that we will recognize him when he comes.

And he does come. This is our certainty: that God becomes man; a mystery and reality far beyond comprehension. But we may grasp something of it if we are prepared to receive it. Stop. Look. Listen. Think.

See ya later

It was during our celebration of All Saints day and All Souls day that we farewell a visiting priest to our parish. Coming from India Father continues a series of sub-continental priests to fill in the shortage in our diocese. The next is already here and we anxiously await for his contribution to the parish life.

Nonetheless, during his final homily (his homilies are quite divisive; he uses scripture, like Hendrix uses a guitar, to call us to account which is confronting to some people) he spoke about the celebrations of All Saints / All Souls as a celebration of the Church Glorified (or Redeemed), the Church Suffering, and the Church Militant.

If these terms are new to you its basically a recognition of the three states of the people of God: those in Heaven are the Church Glorified (and is celebrated during All Saints), those in Purgatory are the Church Suffering (and is celebrated during All Souls), and those of us still working out our salvation with fear and trembling are the Church Militant, for we are still battling the evil one. (For scriptural support of purgatory I point you to 1 Cor 3:12-15).

It was, in his usual custom, both comforting and confronting to hear about the reality of Hell from the ambo. Where  much soothsaying is normally found the font runneth dry, at least for a time. But the point was clearly made that life is eternal and we end up in either Heaven or Hell which is determined by our choices. Life does not end here.

As Father was saying his goodbyes to parishioners during the week it was pointed out to him that in Australia we don’t say “good bye”, we say “see ya later.” So just as the words of scripture do not end on the page, just as the ministry of the priest does not end in the parish, life does not end on earth. In each of these cases we can truly say “See ya later.”

So while Father continues his ministry elsewhere we say a big thank you for your ministry in our parish. And we extend the prayer to include all priests in their ministry. Thank you all, and “See ya later!” Join me in prayerful thanks; Our Father…

Hey, Grab the rope!

Gradualism. In the last week it has been sweeping through Catholic circles quicker than Ebola through the USA. Rebirthed during the Synod of the Family graduality has been like a hot knife through butter dividing the bishops and the faithful into two though somewhat unequal camps. But what is it and what is all the fuss about?

Gradualism is the name given to the understanding that a person is on a journey toward God wherever their path in life leads. Atheists have a particular view of the world interpreted by the facts presented to them. People of other faiths live to the standards of that faith in which some of the truths of God are revealed. Society by and large accommodates and recognises the use of free will though not rarely the source of such a beautiful gift. To whatever their understanding of truth people live their lives. Gradualism recognizes the varied states in life.

The benefit of gradualism lies in pastorally approaching ones recognition of their journey to God; in meeting them where they are. These approaches can change dependant on their place on their journey. Like when discussing the faith one would not talk about the church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to an atheist, the recommendation of annulments do not extend beyond the Catholic community except where such things occur in other church’s law or in secular laws.

The problem with gradualism is when the person is not on the journey to God but away from him. In meeting the person where they are we hope to proclaim the mercy of God in the hope of their repentance, echoing the first proclamation of Jesus. How this is done is one of the concerns of the synod. But the teaching of the church must remain the same. Allow me to use an analogy.

Imagine a cliff with a steep but graduated slope. On the top of the cliff are the people of faith. These hold true to the teachings of the church. Anchored among them is a rope which hangs over the cliff. People are found at various places down the cliff. The rope is there to help them up.

Now the people down the cliff are the people we encounter. To them we preach. Some may choose to grab the rope on which they are saved, some may not. We can only offer the rope not make them take it. The placement of the rope is our pastoral approach. Pastoral approaches change to the need of the person; the positioning changes, the end may feed one place or another. The rope strands are the teachings of the church which together reveal the fullness of the truth. The quality of the rope is unchanging. It is rooted in the church whose hands are secure at the top of the cliff.

Gradualism addresses the recognition of the location of the people on the cliff and the need to move the rope accordingly. What seems to be occurring in the synod is that the vocal minority Kasperian camp wants to weaken the rope by removing a strand. Who wants to grab a fraying rope? The question I pose is with regard to gradualism, who is moving and closer to what?

There have been many examples of the insatiability of liberalism: the latest of these is the pressure to accept a redefinition of marriage. The various attacks against marriage calls for the church to respond. But how will it respond? This will be a defining moment in the papacy of Francis, whatever be his bias. Does he feed into the secular pressures and risk never filling their perceived need or does he hold firm to the truth that will set them free?

Two opportunities exist. First, the church reasserts itself as the bearer of all truth and still changes the pastoral approach accordingly. Second, because of such a lively debate during the synod the bishops return to their postings invigorated in their faithfulness to the church and in their fraternal fellowship. Lets hope the synod can bring consensus in pastoral approach and renewed faithfulness in its teaching. Pray the Holy Spirit guides their hearts and minds. Pray now!

Women: Excluded or exalted?

The mercy of God appears in all shapes and sizes. In the to and fro of our daily lives we often miss it. Sometimes we don’t understand it, sometimes it is not what we expect. This is more so, I think, in the long history of mankind, in particular the modern and popular understanding of the history of the chosen people of God; salvation history. Mercy, as is often the case, leads to so much more than itself as it is not an end itself but draws us into a deeper relationship with God, as does love, beauty, goodness, truth, and so on.

In the times of the Jews from not long after its inception men were considered dominant. They were the protectors and providers of their wives and their families. This was the case up until recent years, perhaps it still is in parts. When women were not protected or provided for they were vulnerable to a host of exploitations. Perhaps they still are in parts. Additionally authority, like anything else, can be abused which lead to the mercies of God being twisted for the benefit of the self and not for God. This lead to oppression and so forth.

Before the blessed self revelation of God in Jesus, God gave the Law. It is well known that some key figures in the history of the Hebrews had many wives; I think it was King Solomon who had the most. Nevertheless, this was a mercy extended by God to his people. Widows and other vulnerable women needed the protection and provisions of men. Allowing polygamy was a conciliatory mercy from God to women particularly for their protection.  The ideal would have been to create a society in which women, married or otherwise, were not vulnerable.

In comes Jesus: God’s mercy further extended. Jesus shows us the way in so many things and his example of his treatment of women, in particular widows, shows us the intrinsic dignity of all people and the protection required of the vulnerable, children included. By living the way of Jesus this ideal society is brought another step closer to reality.

Mary has a foundational and unequal role in the perception of women. The Mediatrix of mercy is uniquely exalted in the Catholic and Orthodox churches like no other human ever, male or female. Above all creation there is no one like her. Her preciousness extends to all humanity but is seen fully within the church.

Therefore, somewhat ironically, the patriarchal church Jesus left behind has in its view an example of perfect manhood in Jesus (not the lest by his treatment of those in need) and an example of perfect womanhood in Mary exalted. To uphold these examples in bringing about the ideal society the notion of an exalted person among many (or to put it another way to recognize the distinction within sameness) needs to be lived out loud and permeate through all we do. The ordinary made extraordinary: seen in Mary, through Jesus, by God.

The previous polygamous relationships now have a better example to live by. The chains, no matter how merciful their intent, have been broken and freedom reigns in fidelity to God and witnessed in monogamous marriage. The faithful example of Mary Queen of Heaven is the exaltation of womanhood par excellence. She was not given authority but is above all who have it, like a reversion of the protection and provision of the previous era.

This restored relationship – of Mary exalted, of the example of Jesus – brings together equally the prevailing faults of each of us. The reunions here on earth reflect faithfully (though not perfectly) the restored relationship in heaven. By having the exaltation of Mary, women are given an example to live by, and men are given the example of how to treat them. By having the example of a sacrificial Jesus men are given and example of manhood, and women are restored. United in Christ perfect union is more than possible, its achievable. Praise God!

Relationship and Rules: a view of Church

It was my son’s confirmation yesterday. A very proud moment in his sacramental life, and a time that I hope to write about soon, sacramentally speaking. But as soon as I returned home yesterday (after searching and thinking I had lost my son at the church when someone had already taken him home) the church’s view of women as a whole was challenged; that it was dominated my men who didn’t allow women to lead the church. This is a common accusation. But the timing was terrible and I tried to answer anyway, unsuccessfully.

I failed to address it with any coherence. After a feeble “that’s no the case” I was essentially dumbfounded after stammering some lame excuse. Quite insufficient on so many levels. I realize now what I should have said to someone quite distant from the church and someone with a genuine concern (in italics below).

The view that we get of the church on earth is not the complete picture of the church. We need to understand that in the church in heaven “the church triumphant” (triumphant because they ‘made it’) every person is equal except Jesus and Mary. (Angels I think aren’t persons they are beings but I may be wrong on that.) The saints, both male and female, stand out as giants because of their example in attaining eternal life. So what I should have said to the challenger is that their view of the church is limited to this world. But the purpose of the church is everlasting life.

The role women play in salvation is underestimated, perhaps even unrecognized. And it goes to how we are made and what we are made for. Typically women socially network better while men suffice with superficial talk. Typically men like to tinker with tools, or sport, or machinery, or some other physical / intellectual activity which grounds much of their conversation. And this is OK.

In their tinkering men come to an understanding of things. In their talk women come to understanding of people. Both of these are required for everlasting life. Let me give an example.

In understanding things men realize how things are. This can be from the natural world (environment, physics, etc.) or supernatural world (theology, philosophy, etc.) or both (sacraments, psychology etc.). These understandings become rules for a discipline, often starting out as a theory. Now, I must make it clear, this is not limited to men: women have been pioneers in many of these field. But this is the level on which men work, a level that contributes to a path to heaven. So what I should have said to the accuser was Yes. The church on earth is dominated by men. They work on the level of rules, and therefore authority. (Author; a writer of rules).

Women typically, working on a more personal level, encounter and witness Jesus at a deeper level than men. Their living testimony directs others to faith personally more than any words will. In scripture Jesus never rebuked a women because of her faith, quite the opposite: “your faith has saved you”. The apostles failed to understand yet the women had faith. Even today in the church most congregations are dominated by women. Many men attending are often disengaged. But again, this is not always the case and examples to the contrary abound, but it is typical. So what I should have said was But the women’s role is unrecognized by those inside and outside of the church. They work on relationship and witness a personal encounter with God.

 

 

Many Hands

I remember as a child visiting friends on hot summer days who had a swimming pool in the back yard which was often utilized in such climes.
On one such occasion the kids (about 12 of us) would each stand on the outside of the above ground pool, stick a hand in the water and all walk in the same direction. This creates somewhat of a weak vortex but one that had enough pull in it to centralize people and objects within it.
Once we were done with that direction we would try going the other way. Water splashes as the arms change direction. Going against the current we need to build a momentum to change the direction of the vortex.
It is a strange phenomenon but as the water changes direction there is a time when the center spins the old way while the outside spins in the new direction. There comes a time when the center catches up and spins the way anew. We would then revert to the other direction and so on. Fun for hours.

I am reminded of the popular sayings “swimming upstream” and “only a dead thing goes with the current”. The same can be said in this situation as the current changes with the direction of the flow of the bulk water.
The difference though is that the direction of the water cannot be changed from within the water.

In the world, not of it.

Many people in society are dead things. If they are “living things” many more are just happy to go with the flow and not cause any ripples – just go along with it and all will be ok. This is not for us.
As Christians we each have a part to play. Each of us, if we are true to our calling, has a hand in the pool. Collectively each single hand contributes in its own way to bringing about a change – a change that can only be created from being separated from it; a change that will be hard to go against initially and will create ripples. Yet we must persevere together (a collection of individual efforts in the same direction) to bring about effective change.