Wrong tactic

Canada’s First Nations have legitimate grievances that warrant sympathy and government action, but hunger strikes are an unacceptable tactic to bring about change.

The truth of Christmas: it’s hard to believe

The event we celebrate at the feast of Christmas is mind-boggling: the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God in a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth.

God comes to us in the ordinariness of a child

The Greek god Janus, after whom the month of January is named, is said to have two faces, one looking to the past and the other looking to the future. The end of the year challenges us to look to the past and future as we take inventory of the choices we’ve made and the goals and direction of our personal and group life.

Some questions in particular should come to mind at year’s end:

What have I done for my God through the life I am living and the choices I make?

What have I done for my neighbour without counting the cost?

What have I done with my life this year?

What should I do through my faith to bring joy and peace to my troubled soul and to heal the wounds of sin, divisions in my family and conflicts and deceptions in my private and public life?

The Year of Faith particularly offers Catholics the grace to embrace anew the treasures of the faith and to journey into the future with Jesus as our guide.

Whether or not someone believes in God they approach life through a centre of meaning and value. Religious faith is a centring of life’s meaning and value on God as the beginning and end of all things. Religious faith not only centres our lives on God, but it grounds our understanding of human identity and human destiny. Faith is my centre of meaning and value.

Indeed, religious faith shapes our beliefs, ethics, spirituality, history, future and happiness. Religious faith, then, is the centring of one’s life on God from an experience of God’s love. It floods the soul with a knowledge of God based on one’s personal encounter with Him.

Religious faith, within the Christian tradition, is not simply emotions, perceptions and feelings about the presence of God in our lives. It is trust in God, a conviction about the certainty of the things we hope for and the promise of things we do not yet see (Hebrews 11:1-3). It is a commitment to God and a God-centred ethics.

More than the accumulation of propositions, religious truths and creeds about God, religious faith means personally embracing those truths out of love, confidence and conviction in the God who concretely reveals these truths in our daily personal encounters. Religious faith is an encounter with God, a union with God, a friendship and intimacy with God and an immersion in God’s love.

This is particularly so in Christianity, which professes that God’s interaction in our lives has been revealed through His Son, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. Christ’s birth is not simply a yearly ritual, but is an opportunity to encounter God again by re-centring our lives on what is necessary to realize our purpose on Earth. The Catholic faith provides a narrative of God interacting in human lives. It upholds that faith is a loving encounter with our God who reaches out to us in love and reveals Godself to us. Our faith is a loving invitation to be in relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters and the world of nature because of God.

In his book Letters from the Desert, the monk Carlo Carrotto tells Christians that it pays once in a while in our busy lives to stop and reflect on what God is saying to our world through the events and tragedies in life. Carotto says that if we pay attention to God, if we focus life’s goals on God, then we can hear God gently telling us: Be patient with yourself, learn to wait for each other, learn to wait for God, and learn to wait for love, for happiness and for answers from God for whatever burdens your soul.

If we realize that God is within us and that we are in God, then we can trust that God has written a wonderful plot for our lives and will work with us to face the challenges and joys of tomorrow. God is present in our lives not as an angry, vengeful God waiting to punish us when we fail, but as a loving and merciful God who lifts us up when we fall.

And He comes to us at Christmas in the ordinariness of a child.

Word was made flesh that first Christmas

The Gospels of Mark and John provide no account of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew’s Gospel gives an attenuated account, but it is from the physician-disciple, Luke, that we get the birth narrative that has come to dominate Christian iconography for 20 centuries.

The story is so familiar we can easily miss its wonder: the Holy Family’s exhausting journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the angels, the shepherds, the stable birth and the wise men, all narrated in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel.

There are three particular phrases in Luke’s account that fairly vibrate with authenticity and poignancy.

The first is “In those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…” Always, everywhere, there are government decrees. This particular one was for the relatively innocuous twin purposes of census and taxation. How many decrees, before and since, have sent people packing on needless and dangerous journeys. And it is not just tinpot dictators but sometimes duly elected officials who dispatch people from their homes to a far country where no one knows their name.

Of the fathomless depths of human misery, how much is attributable to Caesar? Who knows? But it is to government decree that we owe the wrenching phrase “displaced person,” which is how Luke portrays the Holy Family on that first Christmas — displaced persons abandoned by everyone but God.

The second phrase comes after the Holy Family arrived in Bethlehem: “(Mary) laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” When one reads this, the first response may be indignation. That dastardly innkeeper — how dare he turn them away! No doubt if there had been an Occupy Judea movement, protests would have been made, a tent city might have sprung up outside the inn and we would have heard talk about the one per cent and the 99 per cent.

The birth of Christ occurs in anonymity, outside the city, outside respectability, in a manger of hay or straw. Now, flash forward about three decades to Christ’s crucifixion: another barren place, Golgotha, “the place of a skull,” outside respectability, outside the city.

There was no room for the birth of Christ in a Judean inn and there seems little room for Christ in contemporary Canada. He has been tossed out of the schools and the public square is kept resolutely secular.

Christians maintain that on that first Christmas God clothed Himself in the lineaments of human flesh. Yet it is difficult to catch a glimpse of Him today. Not at the United Nations nor in the corridors of power. Certainly not in television studios or the echoing halls of academia. He is not to be found seated among the powerful.

Back then it was shepherds, “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (in the King James language) who first realized something unprecedented was happening. Not many shepherds, then or since, acquire celebrity status, and certainly not these. Their first reaction was fear. Then fear gave way to curiosity, and they decided to go to Bethlehem “…to see this thing which has come to pass.” And what did they find? Not Caesar’s laurel crown but a baby.

The third tingling phrase in Luke’s account is found in chapter one. It’s a phrase that tries to make sense of all that will follow, to answer the shepherd’s question before it was posed: “Through the tender mercy of our God whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.”

This is the biblical definition of the Incarnation. Many books and treatises clutter the shelves of theological libraries seeking to explain this phrase, but there it is, the actual biblical definition.

It may be that dates and details are a bit off. Perhaps the three wise men who came were more or less than three (although in the absence of a Judean affirmative action program, the modernist contention that it was actually three women seems a bit far-fetched!). But the message transcends detail. The message is that at a specified point in human history, God became man, took upon Himself human flesh, so that man might more intimately relate himself to God.

So what did happen that first Christmas night? Well, it is not St. Luke but St. John who gives the answer that I find most satisfying: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

That is good news. May the presence of the incarnate Word bring all of us a Christmas filled with joy.

You can never give too much to baby Jesus

Giving and receiving are part of Christmas, but don’t forget the spiritual gifts

Oh Christmas tree!

I am not a convert. Yet. But I confess to having taken meaningful steps away from my ancient iron-clad convictions.

The steps are, in fact, inevitable since they lead me from my dark, cramped basement office past the living room where my wife has set up, decorated and illuminated a beautiful Christmas tree. There I’ve said it. We have a beautiful Christmas tree in our house.

Not long ago — I’m talking, oh, last week — it would have been easier for Oliver Cromwell to beg the Pope’s blessing at Midnight Mass than for me to bring the words “beautiful,” “Christmas tree” and “our house” within a light year of each other.

I grew up loving Christmas. And loathing Christmas trees. Always hated them. Never could abide the wretched things. When I was about five, I got smacked across the face by an evil branch on some odious Yuletide sapling my father was bringing home. When I was about 25, I suffered agonizing frostbite on my ears one brutal December night in Edmonton after being forced outside to buy a ridiculous lump of pine.

Going bareheaded was my defiance of the whole reprehensible ritual of tree shopping. It was tactical defiance. My plan was to make it essential that we grab the first tannenbaum at hand, no matter how scrawny or mangled, and vamoose before my head froze. The glowing white circles of pain on both my ears gave proof how well that scheme worked.

Frankly, I would now rather go shoe shopping with a three-legged woman than endure the torments of touring the local Christmas tree lot. Indeed, the two adventures bear a remarkable resemblance. In both, everything must be circled, touched, inspected, hoisted and balanced, sized, deemed worthy and then suddenly and inexplicably unworthy, several times before grudging approval and final settlement are reached. For a dead strip of leather. Or a dead stretch of tree.

My wife, you’ll have guessed, buys our trees. That’s because she insists we have a tree. I go along — as long as I don’t have to have anything whatever to do with the thing itself.
I have never, Cromwell-like, tried to ban Christmas trees from our house just because someone else might enjoy them. I am not a Christmas tree dog in the manger. On the contrary, I once got a tiding of great joy from a Christmas tree when one of our three cats took a flying leap, put what looked like a professional wrestling hold on the angel at the top, and rode the whole collapsing mass down to the living room floor below. I still give that kitten extra supper just to say thanks for a job well done.

My opposition to Christmas trees is, in fact, rooted in cold logic. What, I have always asked, is the point of dragging a tree into the house just because it’s December? Do we carve up slabs of lawn and slap them down on the kitchen floor because it’s April? Do we pile autumnal leaves over the flat-screen HDTV because it’s September? No. We do not. We leave outside what belongs outside. Right?

Yes. Except this year my wife lost her mother in January, her father in mid-November. Early in December, she brought home a box of decorations that had been on virtually every tree put up in her family’s house for the past 50 Christmases. Suddenly, the quintessential Santa that I would have scorned as emblematic of Christmas commercialization became a symbol of childhood magic and memory. Suddenly, the glittery guitar, violin and harp that I would once have derided as tchotchkes are all that is left of the music my father-in-law filled the house with each Christmas. The bright red and yellow glass balls for the tree branches went from baubles of banality to fragile reminders of loving hands that will lift and place them no more.

“The great light, of which the Christmas tree is a sign and a reminder, not only hasn’t dimmed with the passing of centuries and millennia, but continues to shine on us and enlighten each person who comes into this world, especially when we go through moments of uncertainty and difficulty,” Pope Benedict said last week at the lighting ceremony in St. Peter’s Square.

Beautiful words that are, I confess, entirely made manifest by our beautiful tree. I am not yet a convert, Holy Father. But give me a few more steps.

A special gift on Gaudete Sunday

Clothes may make the man, but vestments don’t make the priest. The Mass is holy whether the priest is wearing beautiful vestments or something akin to a picnic blanket. That being said, liturgical vesture does matter; it doesn’t make the priest or the Mass, but it can make both the priest and the offering of the Mass more worthy of the right worship of God.

We have emerged from a long period in which the norm in many Canadian parishes ranged from merely adequate to hideous. Happily though, in recent years one rarely sees the detritus of the 1970s, chasubles made out of rough fabrics and felt and apparently decorated by small children with poor motor skills. The same renewed care for the liturgy that resulted in the vastly improved new translation of the Mass is also manifest in priests choosing vestments that are elegant and evocative of Catholic devotions. Vestments ought to inspire the faithful to lift their vision toward divine things, not to avert their eyes altogether. It may even be that a priest more suitably adorned for the Mass might inspire the faithful to dress more elegantly too.

I think about vestments in a particular way on Gaudete Sunday, when the liturgical colour is rose, not the usual Advent violet. I am blessed to have more vestments than priests usually do. Some were made by my own mother, and others were made or purchased abroad, where vestments can be had at a fraction of the prevailing prices in Canada. Many of them have stories — made for my first Mass, for my sister’s religious vows, bought for an anniversary or at a particular holy shrine — but my Gaudete Sunday rose chasuble has the best story of all.

In 2002, I was studying in Rome and Msgr. Charles Elmer, a long-time faculty member and spiritual father at the Pontifical North American College, had his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination that Dec. 20. The College celebration was set for Gaudete Sunday, and I asked Msgr. Elmer, both a friend and mentor, if there was anything he wanted. The old priest, who lived very simply, said he would like to offer his anniversary Mass in the same kind of Roman chasuble that he wore at his ordination in 1952 at St. John Lateran in Rome. The College did not have a rose-coloured Roman chasuble, so to honour a priest greatly beloved and admired, I bought Msgr. Elmer a new one, simple but elegant, from Gammarelli, the Roman ecclesiastical haberdasher. He was touched and happy.

We did not count on the objection of the College’s then liturgical director, a younger priest. Whether he objected to using something the College did not own, or whether he objected to the Roman vestment, or whether he took perverse delight in asserting his authority against a priest more senior than he, I do not know, but he told Msgr. Elmer that because the dozens of concelebrants could not all wear rose, the rose chasuble could not be worn. He was wrong on liturgical grounds, and it was wrong to deny the modest request of a venerable priest. (When a few years later he suffered the acute embarrassment of being dismissed in mid-semester, I thought it well-deserved, though I regretted it was for other behaviour, and not for how he had treated Msgr. Elmer.)

In any case, Msgr. Elmer, a D-Day veteran, handled the situation with humility and grace. He declined to do what I advised, which was to show up in the sacristy clad as he wished and dare anyone to tell him otherwise. Instead, he took me aside, thanked me for the gift and said that he would do that if I insisted, as I had bought him the gift he had desired. But his own preference would be to obey the whims of the liturgical director. I was disappointed for him, and angry too. I was quite eager for a fight. Msgr. Elmer taught me that one goes to Mass not eager for a fight but ready to receive a gift. And so he gave me one.

“Raymond, I am an old man now and not many years are left. You are just newly ordained. I am grateful for your gift, but now do me another kindness and receive this gift back from me to you, from an old priest to a young one,” Msgr. Elmer told me. “You will have many Sundays to wear it, I will have few.”

Msgr. Elmer actually had eight more Gaudete Sundays; he died in September 2011. This year would have been his 60th anniversary. I received back the gift I had given, and every Gaudete Sunday I wear it, remembering a great priest who knew how to rejoice in the Lord always.

Give kids some credit — they’ll figure bullying out

Bullying is taking up an awful lot of space in our public and private conversations, making an old duffer wonder if some sort of qualitative change really has taken place regarding this age-old . . . phenomenon. I almost called it a “problem” but that would be to buy into the current thinking about bullying, which is unrealistic, not very helpful and dishonestly coercive.

Certainly it’s no fun to be on the receiving end of bullying. And in extreme outbreaks there can indeed be cause to enlist the help of school and even police authorities. But in the general run of things, I don’t believe we’re ever going to eradicate bullying and, furthermore, shining a spotlight on behaviour that will usually burn itself out in a few days can do more harm than good both to perpetrators and victims by commemorating that which might more beneficially be forgotten.

It might be pleasant (if a little boring) to believe that children could find a way to grow up without ever coming into conflict with one another, but they never shall. In the furiously churning, soul-shaping cauldron of adolescence, young people look for models of behaviour they might want to emulate and they also look inside as certain characteristics emerge, some of which they discover cannot be jettisoned, even if it might be “cooler” to do so.

During this process young people can be mercilessly judgmental of everyone, including their peers, some of whom (for today at least) they’ll decide they like and some of whom they’ll dislike. If someone watches the wrong TV shows or listens to the wrong bands or wears the wrong shoes — these are not some blameless and inexplicable whimsy of taste as most of us regard them later in life when we are comparatively sane. No, these are social, indictable offences that must be commented upon, put down and even punished.

Most instances of bullying soon blow over with no input necessary from the authorities. Sometimes the perpetrators themselves come to realize that their actions are over the top and modify their behaviour. Often, the victims discourage its continuance by standing up to their bullies — verbally or physically — or else they remove the sting of bullying by sloughing it off and not rising to such cheap and inflammatory bait.

Either of these approaches is infinitely superior to letting elders get involved, mostly because young people deal with things more directly and honestly. Once you get the authorities involved, everybody has to start playing nice and affirming one another’s okayness. Smothering in officially sanctioned indifference probably doesn’t seem to matter much if the underlying disagreement is about Justin Bieber or high-topped running shoes. But there’s a danger that the lesson being learned is that it’s wrong to ever voice disagreement or disapproval and one should always strive to please everyone else.

When busybody authorities start refereeing disputes, Catholic youth are particularly at risk of being bullied (in the blandest possible way, of course) into soft pedalling important tenets of their faith. Being cowed in this way in their developing years is bad training for standing up to the bullies we all inevitably encounter as adults — whether its bosses, unions, a hectoring media with a virulently secular agenda to promote or the atheists and over-sensitive multicultural types who emerge from the woodwork at about this time of year to throw a blanket over public expression of Christmas celebrations.

A near-constant element in the modern concern about bullying is the magnifying impact of the Internet and social networking gadgets which, we are told, makes it seem like the victims can never escape their tormentors. They could, though, if they’d just summon the will to unplug the darned things. Last summer my wife and I were dining at an outdoor patio and saw six young people sitting together at a table across the way, each one of them ignoring their flesh and blood friends so they could noodle away on their nefarious handheld thingies.

Our kids, thankfully, made it through school just before the use of such devices became so pathetically ubiquitous. And significantly all three of them have at various times recognized that their dependence on that virtual world was becoming disproportionate and unhealthy and have made a point of going off-line for a season or two until they got their equilibrium back.

Young people have a way of figuring these things out. The same would apply to bullying.

Living the Christmas mystery with The Hobbit

Making Jesus the centre of Christmas is an important and worthy endeavour, if also a challenge in our increasingly secular culture.

Putting Christ back into Christmas evokes St. Paul’s reminder of what it means to live as a follower of Christ. “Put on Christ,” he encourages us in his Letter to the Romans (Rom. 13:14).

The ways that we seek to focus on Jesus’ birth this Christmas can help us develop some spiritual practices to make Christ the centre of our everyday lives.

One of my guides this Advent has been Bilbo Baggins, the unlikely and humble hero of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. (I re-read this childhood favourite so that I could fully appreciate the film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure, currently playing in theatres.) Despite the lack of an overt Christmas theme, Bilbo’s adventures can offer some insight for our spiritual journey.

Christmas celebrations are full of great art — or at least imitations of great art. (We have all had occasion to shudder at an off-key rendition of our favourite Christmas hymn.) Great art — whether visual, literary, musical, cinematic or narrative — reminds us of our true human nature, as God created us. When a work of art expresses the best of what it means to be human, this goodness can be a starting point for dialogue with our secular culture. It can also become a doorway to spiritual awareness for the believer and non-believer.

Engaging with a great work of art becomes an adventure of the kind that Bilbo Baggins goes on. The newness of his experiences makes the little hobbit keenly sensitive to the beauties and dangers around him. His dwarf companions seek to regain lost treasure, but Bilbo goes on the journey for entirely different reasons. Ultimately, he is transformed — by the beauties he experiences, the goodness he witnesses in others, the dangers he faces and the choices he makes.

We can choose to engage our secular culture with a similar sensitivity: both to the seeds of the Gospel it contains and to its innate dangers. Especially at Christmas when the artistic expression is often clearly Christian, we can highlight the best of these expressions of faith. Instead of just listening to the radio, we can play a mix of religious hymns, letting their awe and wonder flood our hearts. We can look more closely at the masterpieces on our Christmas cards, even using them in our prayers as a way to meditate on the amazing mystery of the Incarnation.

Throughout the year, we can become like the magi, seeking Christ in the secular corners of our culture.

Gift-giving in a consumer culture easily becomes an exercise in impressing others, a way to “prove” our love by how much money we spend, or a way to “use” one another — gift-giving in the hopes of getting something back. Consumerism falsely fulfills our insecurities through the acquiring of more and more material things.

In The Hobbit, the dwarves’ attitudes toward the dazzling treasure are quite consumeristic. Bilbo is the one who sees the gold for what it is: useful only up to a certain point. His brushes with gold help him to see with a spiritual vision and to choose friendship over treasure, honesty over deception, justice over greed.

As Bilbo clearly saw, material things are gifts to be used and shared. We can strive to make our Christmas gifts more authentic expressions of love, more personal and meaningful: a homemade gift card for going out for ice cream together; a hand-crafted item; a favourite spiritual book. This personal approach shifts our focus from the gift to our relationship with the person receiving the gift. Gift-giving then takes its proper place as a celebration of God’s abundant love for us.

Throughout the year, we can continue to shift from our consumeristic, “gotta-have-it” attitude to a deepening perspective of gratitude. We can seek to share what we have received, giving of ourselves with greater love.

Christmas Mass is where we celebrate the ultimate gift: God’s coming to us. This coming of God is a mystery and a grace to be celebrated year-round with a humble and brave “hobbit-like” heart that views the spiritual life as a quest for a more abundant life. Every Mass — not just Christmas — becomes an invitation for us to cherish the coming of our God, to welcome Him, and to respond to His coming with love.

Christmas wishes

The birthplace of Jesus will be quieter than usual this Christmas. Many Christians who had planned pilgrimages to Bethlehem cancelled their trips when war flared last month between Israel and Hamas. Bethlehem was spared the rockets, but many missiles were aimed at nearby Jerusalem and so, unlike a year ago when Bethlehem had 140,000 December pilgrims, the lineups will be shorter this week at the Church of the Nativity.

St. Joseph, a small but great man of history

At his Angelus address on Dec. 9, Pope Benedict commented upon the Sunday Gospel, in which St. Luke carefully lists the various rulers, sacred and profane, when St. John the Baptist began his preaching.