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Posts Tagged ‘Advent’

Today is the Memorial of St. Ambrose of Milan.  His prayer seems very appropriate to the Advent season, and in some ways reminds me of the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge (let us remember that love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable):

O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore Thee,
a heart to delight in Thee,
to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ’s sake,
Amen.

Acknowledgement

AmbroseOfMilan.jpg ‎(312 × 600 pixels, file size: 84 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg) — https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AmbroseOfMilan.jpg#mw-jump-to-license

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Please click here for parts one through four.

10. The Virgin Mary

Virgin's_first_seven_steps

(Mosaic, “The Virgin’s first seven steps”)

Less than two decades (perhaps even less than one) after the Holy Land becomes Roman territory, Israel’s most precious jewel yet is born: The Blesséd Virgin Mary.  By a special grace from God, Mary is conceived in her mother’s womb without Original Sin and perfectly preserved from all personal sin throughout her life (see post on the Immaculate Conception).  She is totally dedicated to God in all her being — heart, soul, and body.

She lives a simple, hidden life, and yet we cannot grasp just how much of a novelty is her presence in the world.  She is the first sinless human being to exist since Adam and Eve before the Fall.  Once again, remember the proto-evangelion, the prophecy of the woman and her offspring?

Well, this is the woman.

11. The Star of the Magi

Star of BethlehemWe all know the story — a group of wise men who study the heavens are led, from the east, by the light of a new star to the humble birthplace of Jesus Christ.

In the magi, representatives of the neighbouring pagan religions [at least one of whom probably inherited the spiritual tradition of Zoroaster, whom we referenced in step #7], the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. (. . .) [T]hey seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations.

(CCC 528 – bracketed comment mine)

Remember, the coming of Christ is the fulfillment of the Noahic Covenant with all the nations (cf. #3) as well as the Old Covenant.  But the magi do not find this fulfillment in a vacuum.  Rather, they find their King only among His People, the Jews.  Not only that, they find Him under the custodianship of Joseph, a descendant of King David (lineages in ancient Israel were always traced through the father, even if the child was adopted).  And to narrow it down even further, they find Him in the arms of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.

And finally…

12. John the Baptist

San_Juan_Bautista_por_Joan_de_JoanesTrue, St. John the Baptist comes onto the scene well after the birth of Christ.  But at this point, Christ has not yet publicly revealed Himself.  It was for Jesus’ public ministry that John paved the way, and for that reason he is one of the Church’s favorite figures during the Advent season.

John, the son of a Levite High Priest, comes to Israel after undertaking a long period of fasting, penance, prayer, and mortification in the dessert, preaching the urgent need for repentance and the immanence of the Kingdom of God.  He is the last and greatest prophet of the Old Testament tradition and the forerunner of the Messiah.  He preaches and administers a baptism of repentance and exhorts the people to be ready to meet their Savior…

Baptism of Christ…until at last he comes face-to-face with Him in the Jordan.

Thank you for taking this Advent journey with me.  Happy waiting!

Images from Wikipedia

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For parts one through three, click here

8. The Prophets

IsaiahThis milestone doesn’t so much follow the previous one as run alongside it. Whereas #7 dealt with the axial age among the gentiles, #8 deals with the corresponding situation among the Chosen People.

What we might call the “Age of the Prophets” begins just as the Davidic Dynasty (cf. #6) begins to decline.  The kings of Israel depart from the way of the Lord, and the people soon follow.  Idols are worshiped.  The poor and needy are abused and neglected.  God is honored by lips, but spurned by hearts.

As punishment, God hands Israel over to foreign conquerors.  The armies of Babylon and Assyria sweep into the land; Jerusalem is laid waste; the Temple Solomon had built, which was to be the privileged place of God’s presence on earth, is desecrated and destroyed; the line of David is all but wiped out; and God’s people are led into exile.

Of course, the prophets warn the Israelites of the calamity that will come upon them if they do not turn back to the Lord…but they are ignored and mocked.  By the time the people realize they should have listened, it is too late.  But in Israel’s exile, the prophets mourn with them.  They assure the exiles that though God punishes them, He still loves them and grieves over their fall.  What is more, they assure them that He will one day bring them back to their land and restore Israel.

Equally “fleshed out” during this period of salvation history are God’s sovereignty and justice, His untiring fidelity to His people (even when they are unfaithful), His absolute mastery over history (even when it seems like His plans are being foiled), the unfathomable greatness of His tender love and mercy, and His closeness to the poor, humble, and contrite of heart.

Even when the exiles are finally led back to Israel a generation or so later, God continues to send prophets to give them hope.  They foretell a time soon to come, when God will write His law onto the hearts of His people.  They speak of “a radical redemption of the People of God, purification from all their infidelities, a salvation which will include all the nations” (CCC 64).  They even foretell the restoration of the line of David:

(…) a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.

(Isaiah 11:1)

And here we have clear expectation of the Messiah — “the anointed one” — at whose hands this salvation will take place.

9. The Roman Empire

Pax RomanaLate in the first century B.C., Rome takes control of most of the known world.  Through its ingenuity in law, architecture, and government, it brings about a period of relative peace known as the “Pax Romana” and connects the various regions of the world in ways heretofore unknown, making travel — both by land and by sea — relatively safe and easy.

According to the prophets of Israel, the word of God will be carried to all nations once the Messiah has come.  With Rome’s aforementioned achievement, the stage is set for this to happen.

Three more milestones to go, and we should be able to take care of them all in the next post.

Images from Wikipedia

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For parts one and two, click here.  We are taking a “tour” of the milestones — some more official than others — by which God prepared the world for the first coming of Christ, so as to better appreciate the “waiting spirituality” of Advent.

7. The “Axial Age”

Antiokhos_IVWe step for a moment outside the history of divine revelation (though without  any chronological deviation, since the period in question begins over 200 years after King David’s reign) to take a look at how God was secretly preparing the gentile world for the coming of Christ.

“Axial age” is a term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers to describe the period between 800 and 200 B.C, during which we see unprecedented and momentous developments in human thought and religion.

In Greece, we find the the philosophies of Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others.  In Persia, we have Zarathustra and the new monotheistic (or at least monotheistic-leaning) religion of Zoroastrianism.  In India, we have the founders of Jainism as well as Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism.  And then in China, we have Confucius and Lao-Tzu.

Let’s consider the overall historical picture we are getting here.  Throughout the known world, there is a shift in emphasis from mere exterior ritual to actual interior righteousness, from superstition to conscience and right thinking, from the fatalism of many a pagan worldview to the fostering of a virtuous and well-ordered life and society.  We find a surge in passion for learning the meaning of life and for the pursuit of true wisdom.

And this is all happening in places with no discernible contact with one another, either prior to or during this 6oo-year time frame.

Axial_AgeThe Greek philosophers almost deserve their own spot on this list, given their mighty influence on the development of Western thought and culture.  Arguably, their great genius was the love of reason.  From Socrates, Plato, and many others, we learn that truth and wisdom are not esoteric realms of experience accessible only to a tribal shaman or to a few enlightened sages.  Rather, truth is knowable, and can be found by anyone who seeks it; there are even categories we can use to discuss and explore it.

IsaiahAnd then there are the Prophets of Israel, whom Jaspers includes in his analysis of the Axial age.  But they belong in a class of their own, so we’ll talk about them next time.  Thanks for reading.

Images from Wikipedia

 

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I’ve said it for other serial posts, and I’ll say it here as well: Please read part one if you have not done so already; you may find that this post doesn’t make much sense otherwise.

But if you are determined not to do so, know that in order to encourage a better appreciation of the Advent season, we are looking at the ways in which God prepared the world for the coming of Christ.  We have looked at two already.

3. The Covenant With Noah

Noah

The results of the Fall run deep, and the evil of humankind goes from bad to worse, ultimately bringing about cataclysmic destruction.  But out of this God brings new life.  He makes a covenant with all of creation and all humankind, providing assurance of His mercy and His power to bring life out of death itself.  We can see this promise in the cycles of nature, among other things.

4. The Call of Abraham

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 035.jpgGod personally enters history by calling Abram (whom He will rename Abraham) out of the land of his fathers to become the forbear of the Chosen People.  The sign of this new covenant God makes is circumcision, which He asks of Abraham and all of his male progeny.

Remember the proto-evangelion?  This is a sign that its fulfillment is getting close.  With Abraham, we have the birth of a people distinguished by a mark or wound in their flesh.  From this people will come the wounded one who will “strike at the head of the serpent.”

5. The Exodus of Israel

Exodus2Several centuries later, God intervenes with signs and miracles in the sight of the nations in order to form His people, Abraham’s progeny…Israel.  He delivers them from Egypt by making a way through the Red Sea, leads them out into the dessert, and makes them into a nation of people whose lives will be shaped and guided by His Law.  In this way, they are to become a magnet for the nations.

6. The Davidic Dynasty

King DavidTime passes, and then God takes it up a notch.  He gives Israel a king in the person of David, a former shepherd boy.  He makes a covenant with David, promising that his kingdom will last forever.  As long as the Davidic dynasty endures, God will relate to the king as a son, and the king will shepherd the people in His name.

I mentioned that Israel was meant to become a magnet for the nations.  This becomes even clearer with the institution of David’s line; we can see this, for example, when the Queen of Sheba travels to Jerusalem from a great distance to the south in order to hear the wisdom of King Solomon (David’s son).

And we’ll leave it at that for now.

Images from Wikipedia

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AdventCandlesI want to remind people that we are technically not in the Christmas season just yet, in spite of what retailers and radio stations would have us believe.  Don’t get me wrong — I love this time of year, and rejoice with any Christmas-lover that it is time to sing “Fa-la-la-la-la” again.  But, technicality of technicalities, it is in fact Advent.

Is Advent counter-cultural?  Yes, but for reasons that have nothing to do with religion.  Advent is a season of waiting, a season of expectation.  We commemorate the expectation of the birth of Christ, and we anticipate His Second Coming at the end of time.

But it doesn’t matter all that much what we are waiting for, because any emphasis on waiting itself implicitly flies in the face of our instant-gratification, “now-now-now” society.

Imagine a world in which everything we want is immediate, though.  This would mean no more surprises, no more joy of anticipation, no more sense of adventure, no more wonder…

Needless to say, I don’t mind being a “sign of contradiction” here…though, of course, I’m not sure how well I succeed in it.  I am as prone to impatience as anyone else.   Nevertheless, as a Catholic, I am very grateful for this special annual opportunity to observe the expectation of the one thing most worth waiting for.

That said, I thought it might help to enhance our appreciation of Advent — or, if you do not observe Advent yourself, to better understand what it means to those who do — by offering a short outline of the ways in which we hold that God prepared a waiting world for the coming of Christ throughout the millennia.  I’ll list just two of them here, and we’ll pick up with #3 tomorrow or Wednesday.  Bear with me — you may find that you didn’t expect all of the preparatory milestones I list.

1. Creation

CreationYes, the creation of the universe is itself the first step.  All things were created through and for Christ, the Eternal Word.  Everything that happened before the first human beings appeared — from the Big Bang through the dinosaurs, ice age, etc. — was a preparation for humankind, for the world was made for man; man, in turn, was made for God.

2. God’s Solicitude About Man

 

Adam_&_Eve_02God makes human beings in His own image and establishes them as the monarchs and priests of His creation.  Our first parents disobey God and go astray…but God does not abandon them.

There are two things of note in the Biblical account of the Fall.  First, God clothes Adam and Eve with animal skins (tradition sees in this the first animal sacrifice, as an animal obviously had to be killed in order for the skins to be obtained).  Mankind’s survival throughout the ages owes itself to the mercy and providence of God, which I think is aptly expressed in this primordial gesture.

Secondly, we have the proto-evangelion, the first promise of redemption:

[Addressing the serpent] I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.

Genesis 3:15

Here we have the prophecy of a mother giving birth to a son who will save the human race, defeating the serpent (“He will strike at your head…”), though it will cost him something to do so (“…while you strike at his heel”).  This promise lies near the root of humankind’s deepest (if forgotten) memory.

And I think that’s a good place to stop for now.

Images from Wikipedia

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First of all, let me assure my readers that the film reviews will resume soon.  I just wanted to touch on this time-sensitive topic as early as possible.

Menorah

I’d like to think that it is providential that we Christians celebrate Advent during the same time that our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights.”

Both peoples — that is, Christians and Jews — have known God’s faithfulness and care throughout the millennia, and the flames of the menorah and the Advent wreath alike call to mind the hope that comes from this faithful God — a hope carried through many turbulent centuries in the midst of turmoil, darkness, and uncertainty.

I’ve discussed the focus of Advent already, if you recall.  But what exactly is Hanukkah all about?

Antiokhos_IV

Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean Revolt, which took place in Israel in the second century B.C. and is chronicled in the Old Testament books titled 1 and 2 Maccabees.  At this point in time, Israel was under the rule of the Seleucid Empire, which inherited the conquered territories of Alexander the Great.

Under Seleucid rule, the Israelites were forced to worship the Greek gods in the Jerusalem Temple.  Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes IV desecrated the Temple, set up an altar to Zeus there, and outlawed the traditional Jewish religion.

Temple

In order to fully understand why this was such a big deal, we have to understand a couple things.  First, the Temple, for the Jews, represented the entire universe.  It was a place where the Creator, the One Who made and sustained all things, could be given proper worship.  It was here that the Sabbath proclaimed in Genesis, which points to worship as the “vocation” of the whole created world, could be eminently celebrated.

Second, the allegiance of the Israelites to Yahweh, their God, was fundamental to who they were as a people.  If we peruse the Old Testament, we will find that faithfulness to the One True God was absolutely non-negotiable for them.  Fidelity was rewarded with blessings, infidelity with punishment.  Israel was to acknowledge God as her loving Lord and sole source of life, and as the only God in existence:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! (Deuteronomy 6:4)

A revolt against Antiochus’ tyranny was led by Judas Maccabeus (“The Hammerer”), whose followers became known as the Maccabees.  Though Judas himself was killed, the large scale rebellion was ultimately successful.  The Temple was cleansed of its pagan influence and rededicated, and the Jews were able to resume their religious practices.

Hanukkah2

Almost everyone is familiar with the legend in which the victorious Maccabees, upon entering the Temple, could only find enough oil to light the menorah for one night; miraculously, it lasted for eight days and nights, until more oil could be found.

The important thing to remember is that this would have happened in the context of the Temple’s rededication — that’s what the Jewish people celebrate every year when they observe the eight days of Hanukkah.

Advent

Our Jewish brethren light the Hanukkah candles one by one during the season in which we Christians light the Advent candles one by one.  Again, I believe this to be providential.

As we prepare for Christmas, we celebrate and look forward to the coming of the One Who comes to rededicate the real Temple — the world.

Jesus Christ, that strange King born in poverty and weakness, comes to free His cosmic temple from the desecration of the devil, the one who brought death, war, hatred, selfishness, suffering, and turmoil into the world so very long ago.  With His precious Blood, He has ransomed His People and all of creation from death and decay so as to present them to God the Father renewed in Himself.

Yes, we wait for the full realization of this redemption, but:

We know that all things work for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28)

This was true for the Maccabees, and it is true for us.  Just as the ancient Israelites had enough oil to last them until more could be procured, we have enough hope to last us until our Savior comes in glory to renew all things.

And so we have reason to light candles.

Special thanks to my friend, Tom Talbot, for sharing the top photo.  The rest of the photos are from Wikipedia.

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100_3482

Many people might be surprised to learn that the Christmas Season starts on December 25th — even if from a retailer’s perspective, it starts the minute kids hang up their trick-or-treating costumes.

In the four weeks leading up to Christmas we observe the season of Advent, which is the beginning of the new Liturgical Year.  It is best described as a season of joy, preparation, and expectation.

Yes, Advent is a time to commemorate the birth of Christ, to celebrate His First Coming over 2,000 years ago.  Many are familiar with the image of the Advent wreath and its four candles, one lit each week; these candles are intended, in part, to remind us of Israel’s expectation of the Messiah and the successive Covenants whereby God prepared them for His arrival.

But Advent also has the purpose of anticipating Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time.  In that sense, the way we tend to approach this time of year is a little ironic.  For us Westerners, it is a time of profound attraction to material possessions and to the “spirit of the world,” when in fact it should be a time of preparation for the world to come.

Fittingly, Advent is situated between two key periods: November and the beginning of the post-solstice time of year.

For Catholics, November is the “Month of the Dead.”  We kick off the month with the celebration of All Saints’ Day, which reminds us of our communion here on earth with the saints in heaven.  Throughout the month, we remember our relationship with all of our departed brothers and sisters, whether in heaven or in Purgatory.

“Month of the Dead” may sound morbid, but its purpose is to help us keep our eyes on the big picture and prepare for our final “exodus” into New Life.

On the other side of Advent is the post-solstice time of year.  On December 21st comes the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year.  Once this passes, the days begin to slowly get longer and brighter.  Many ancient cultures had festivals to mark this time of year, celebrating the return of the light and the banishment of the darkness.

Christ came into this world to die on the Cross, and that was the worst and darkest thing that ever happened or ever will happen on earth.  But because of the victory over death that He won by His death and Resurrection, the Kingdom of God has come.  Since the Resurrection, the light of God’s Kingdom has been breaking into the world and history slowly (from a Catholic perspective, this has been happening through the growth of the Church, Christ’s Body and extended presence on earth).

And so during Advent, we take the time to “put our affairs in order.”  It is a time to grow in love for God and neighbor, to “open our shut-up hearts” (to borrow a phrase from Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, a beloved character in Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol”), to forgive others, to spend time with family, to be less possessive and more generous with our time, talents, and treasures, and to recognize what is truly of value in life.

Imagine that you are getting ready to go on a big trip, and you have all your bags packed.  That’s how Catholics are called to see Advent.  We are not to attach ourselves selfishly to the things of the world; rather, we are to make sure we have “packed” all we need for the upcoming Journey.

I think you can say that the “suitcase” is the human heart.  Through generosity, and through the spirit of waiting and hope that characterizes Advent, we enlarge our hearts to receive all that God wants to give us.

To that end, I want to conclude with a brief video from Fr. Barron further explaining this aspect of the season:

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I am a big fan of Brandon Vogt, a popular Catholic blogger, writer, speaker, and advocate for use of the new media.  Every Friday, he holds a “Weekly Giveaway” on his blog.  I can do no better than to share his description:

“Since I’ve built up a large collection of extra books and resources, every week I give some away absolutely free, no strings attached.

“Each giveaway lasts seven days with a new one beginning every Friday. You can enter any time during the week. Check out past giveaways here.

I’m using Rafflecopter to help with the giveaway, which is cool because it allows you to gain multiple entries by commenting, posting on Facebook, sharing on Twitter, etc.”

This week, Brandon is giving away five copies of Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent book, “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.”  So if you like to read and you like free stuff, go for it!  Catholics and other Christians should find the book to be a a helpful resource.  Others might find it interesting from a world religions perspective.  Either way, you have nothing to lose!

More from Brandon Vogt:

“The five winners will be randomly selected next Friday and the giveaway item will be sent out, free of charge, shortly thereafter.

In the future I’ll be giving away more books and resources, sometimes multiple items per giveaway! So subscribe via feed reader or email to ensure you never miss your chance to win.

(Since I’m covering the shipping costs, only residents within the continental United States are eligible to win.)

Brandon has given me permission to share his Weekly Giveaways on “Into the Dance” every Friday, so stay tuned for future opportunities.

For more information and for directions on how to enter to win, click here.

Photo from http://www.brandonvogt.com

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