Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened While Waiting for Christmas

The First Sunday of Advent

The Word:
Isaiah 2:1-5 (O house of Jacob, come - let us walk in the light of the Lord!)
Psalm 122 (Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord)
Romans 13:11-14 ("It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep")
Matthew 24:37-44 ("Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come")

It should be no surprise to anyone that human beings are the most impatient of all creatures God put on this earth. Further, it should not surprise anyone that American humans - and I'm not speaking of the original natives -  are more impatient than other humans. Let's face it: Americans invented fast food, and online banking and shopping. Now you can handle all your financial and business transactions from your computer at home while in your pajamas, and then get dressed and grab a burrito at Taco Bell.

It's my understanding that in some locales one can attend a drive-thru wake. Here you don't get out of your car; you pass by the deceased's casket displayed in a bay window to pay your respects, and then head off to your next activity, be it the gym or the pub or your kid's basketball game.

Advent is a big part of what I call the "Season of Light," which starts with the fourth Thursday in November (US Thanksgiving Day) and ends with the Twelfth Day of Christmas, January 6 - the traditional date reserved for the solemn feast of the Epiphany.

Now here's a story in itself. Even Holy Mother Church has not been totally immune from the madness of impatience. Nearly fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council stood Catholicism on its ear by making a number of rather profound changes, most if not all of them important and necessary. But in the process of doing so, she may have inadvertently thrown out the Holy Babe with the Holy Bath Water.

Case in point: Epiphany moved was moved in the US from January 6 to the first Sunday following January 1. Why? At one time it was considered a day of obligation - and still is to most of the rest of the world's Catholics. But not here. We're just too busy. Our jobs are too demanding; our bosses won't let us take time off to attend Mass. Oh, and not to cast aspersions on my non-Catholic but still devout Christian friends, they don't observe any of the Catholic obligatory feasts; simply because that's one thing that their hierarchies decided dogmatically that they don't have to do.

Second case in point: The religious education program (which Catholics over age 50 will probably know as the Baltimore Catechism No.1) vanished into some sort of vacuum, leaving a huge void in its wake. Now the reasons at the time for abandoning the BC1 seemed sound; people just seemed too savvy and inquisitive to be handed the pat answers contained therein. Q: Where is God? A: God is everywhere. Kid in class: If God is everywhere, why doesn't he see all the bad stuff going on and do something about it? (And that's a nicer question than most kids might ask.)

The Christian Church is very, very rich in tradition. Unfortunately, much of that tradition has been swept aside in favor of minimalism; minimalism caused by impatience - ultimately, a failure to wait upon God in faith. My wife is a treasure trove of understanding this accumulated tradition, or at least knowing where to look it up. She knows more about the depth of Christian tradition than I - and she does not subscribe to the practices of Christian worship. She will keep my sense of duty in relative loving balance by reminding me that in another time, this first Sunday in Advent went by other names. It's been called "Stir-It-Up" Sunday in the British Isles, as on this day the batters for such holiday treats as plum pudding were prepared (and then allowed to ferment before the final preparation and baking).

It turns out that each of the four Sundays of Advent had a Latin name, each derived from the text of the Introit prayer of the Mass for that day. Here's the rundown, along with my wife's humorous commentary, lest I become too holy:

  • 1st Sunday of Advent: Ad te levabi animam meam (Psalm 25:1 - To you I lift my soul), which she calls 'Ad Te Levi' and states that today you relax in your jeans after surviving the Target 2-Day Sale and read the ads from the Sunday paper
  • 2nd Sunday of Advent: Populos Sion (Isaiah 30:19 - People of Zion, the Lord will come), which is locally translated as 'people make me sick' and seems rather appropriate given some shopping behavior at about this point in the season
  • 3rd Sunday of Advent: Gaudete (Philippians 4:4 - Rejoice in the Lord always); this is the only one that's easily remembered because the priests still wear gaudy or God awful pink vestments - priests will quickly reply that the color is rose, not pink
  • 4th Sunday of Advent: Rorate coeli (Isaiah 45:8 - Let the heavens rain down the Just One), loosely translated as 'someone hand me some Rolaids, and deliver me from this madness'
A vast library of music existed for these ancient Latin texts, and their use was more or less mandatory until the Second Vatican Council; after that, although the English translations of these verses still appear, they've been generally discarded for a (hopefully) well known hymn; again, in the name of simplicity or convenience; whatever, so long as we don't have to spend extra time preparing or even think about preparing.

A large subset of my so-called "Season of Light" contains the "Season of Wait." Waiting for Christmas. Waiting for it all to pass so life can resume to relative normal productivity. But most importantly, waiting for the prophesied and promised Second Coming of Christ - an event of which God has not given a timeframe to anyone; not to any of the Church Fathers; not even to Jesus as he walked upon the earth in 1st Century Palestine. However, when it is recalled and observed, the vast accumulation of tradition associated with this time of year does a great deal to take the burden out of the wait - and can even make the waiting fun, as you want to linger in some of them for awhile. Over the course of the last few years I've written a few things down about many of them; I'm going back to read them, and I'll try my best to point to them so others can read them for perhaps the first time. Why? Because in these days when daylight can seem not to exist, and while our bodies may start complaining of the need to sleep, there's too much to do to even consider it, we need to take up the slack, as it were, and 'be' light and comfort to others. That's the significance of the candles, the inviting light displays, the exchanging of gifts, the caroling, the foodapalooza gatherings laden with treats you should only eat once a year.

Please consider at least one of the above this year. Immerse yourself in it. God has never made it easier to enjoy the wait.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Do You Plan to Indulge in "Bird From India?" and Other Musings for Which I Am Thankful

Thanksgiving Day (US) 2010
The Beginning of The Season of Light

The Word:
Sirach 50:22-24 (Now thank we all our God):
And now, bless the God of all,
who has done wondrous things on earth;
Who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb,
and fashions them according to his will!
May he grant you joy of heart
and may peace abide among you;
May his goodness toward us endure in Israel
to deliver us in our days.

Psalm 136 (Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever)
1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (I give thanks always to God for you)
Luke 17:11-19 ("Ten lepers were cured - where are the other nine? Was there no one to return and give thanks to God except this Samaritan?")

I present a hodgepodge or potpourri of past and present thoughts as we enter the six week period I call The Season of Light (if for no other reason but to hold my sanity in place).

Evidence holds that what most of us look to as the first idyllic celebration of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims at Plymouth in Massachusetts in 1621 was a three-day foodapalooza with 100 last-minute guests (the natives)  prepared by five women. Yes, I'm oversimplifying. Those five women had no time to complain, which may be one reason why this festival has such endearing attachment to family and home, two things of which we should be thankful by default.

But back to those five ladies - I'm thankful for their culinary expertise, such as it was nearly four centuries ago. Their endurance eventually won out over Yankee vs. Southern political quirkiness - and due to the persistence of a sixth fine lady, Sarah Hale.

Now about that food fest - it came to my attention this morning that the average intake for the "traditional" Thanksgiving dinner is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4500 calories. Notwithstanding, my dear wife has signed on to an 80/20 plan when it comes to holiday dinners; meaning stay on a balanced eating plan 80% of the time, and simply enjoy the spread the other 20%, which usually falls around holidays and other significant personal events. (I'm not a nutritionist or a doctor, and I don't pretend to be either, so understand that certain conditions can rule out the 80/20 concept.)

I had a chance meeting with my sister while doing grocery shopping last weekend. She's one of the people for whom I've come to be very thankful, as she takes care of my Mom every day, most times twice a day, at the nursing facility Mom has come to call home in the progression of Parkinson's Disease. I found out that there's nothing special on the menu for the residents this Thanksgiving; so my other sister will pop in and bring her and my Dad more traditional fare.

By the way, I presume you know that the turkey is a native American bird. Benjamin Franklin attempted to promote it as a national symbol at the founding of our nation. But the reason it came to be called turkey had nothing to do with anyone living on the continent, natives or colonists. It has more to do with how the bird made its way across the Atlantic, as National Public Radio reported some years ago.

In the 1500s when the American bird first arrived in Great Britain, it was shipped in by merchants in the East, mostly from Constantinople (who'd brought the bird over from America). Since it wholesaled out of Turkey, the British referred to it as a "Turkey coq." In fact, the British weren't particularly precise about products arriving from the East. Persian carpets were called "Turkey rugs." Indian flour was called "Turkey flour." Hungarian carpet bags were called "Turkey bags." If a product came to London from the far side of the Danube, Londoners labeled it "Turkey" and that's what happened to the American bird. Thus, an American bird got the name Turkey-coq, which was then shortened to "Turkey."

The point is for 500 years now, this proud (if not exactly brilliant) American animal has never had a truly American name.  And just to keep this ball rolling…all over the world, people now can eat American Turkeys, but they don't call them Turkeys.
Across Arabia, they call our bird "diiq Hindi," or the "Indian rooster."
In Russia, it's "Indjushka," bird of India.
In Poland, "Inyczka"— again "bird from India."
And what, we wondered, do the Turks call our turkey?
Well, they call it "Hindi," again, short for India.
While on that shopping trip over last weekend, and in the presence of my sister, my dear wife suffered her knee giving out on her, and she took a fall behind my car. She's developed arthritis particularly in that area stemming from injuries long ago, before I knew her. She's recovering as expected, but can't stay on her feet long or unsupported; which means this year my son and I will do a lot of the cooking. My wife will direct us both, and will do some prep work from the table where she can remain seated; so it will be a team effort. I am deeply thankful that my wife didn't get hurt to the point where she would require hospitalization or surgery. I'm also thankful that my son has been able to step in and assist her. He's shown how much of a man he will be.

Yes, I'm thankful - very thankful - that my parents are still living, and managing the challenges set before them at this stage in life. I'm very thankful that my wife does what she does and is who she is, and that we morph and adapt and do whatever we can to make the best out of the challenges before us. I'm thankful that my son willingly accepted the call to be giving in need. He understands more than he lets on at times, and it makes all the difference in the world. I love them all.

Somehow, saying "thank you" in and of itself doesn't begin to cover how much you appreciate the love and connections you have with others. Sometimes you have to be brought to a very low place in life to fully appreciate the strengths you have. The rejuvenated spirit of that tenth leper made a big splash, and we don't even know his name! Still, I believe that sense of total gratitude was somewhere in Abraham Lincoln's thoughts when in 1863, as a war-weary nation was finding itself, he gave this address to the American people:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth."

--Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, 3 October 1863.

That, to me, is how the Season of Light should begin. It begins with understanding, even in the midst of whatever troubles we have, that there are people that share some degree of their life intermingled with our own. It should also serve to remind us that we should share something of ourselves with those in need; giving thanks by giving to others. In the overall scheme of the universe, there are many ways to do this. It is right that we offer thanks and praise, with hearts, and hands, and voices.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Finding Fault or Finding Faith?

We as people love to blame someone or something for the inability to deal with the troubles we run into from the challenges we face.

Let's take a look at the political arena for just a moment. The Democratic Party went to great lengths to blame Dubya's administration for the massive debt, the near collapse of the worldwide economy, and the rush to war on two fronts - Iraq and Afghanistan - which to date has really resolved nothing besides removing Saddam Hussein from power. Yet when given the opportunity to make change, the current Democratic administration under President Obama has scored only slightly higher than impotent, as judged by the Republican Party gain in congressional seats from the recent election.

The Church is not immune from similar seeking of scapegoats, or things or people to blame. The 16th Century Reformation was a result of finding fault with Catholicism of the time, and abuses of the Church therein, most namely a degree of scandal among the celibate clergy, and the selling of indulgences - the thought of buying someone's way into heaven, even posthumously. In the wake of the more recent clergy scandal spread over the last half-century, the finger pointing began again. Then there's been the ongoing issue of women's ordination. And what does our Catholic hierarchy spend it's time debating? Revising the English translation of the Latin liturgical rites, to make that translation less of a transliteration. It doesn't seem like that should take an upper position on the totem pole, as it were.

But if you thought Catholicism was the only denomination among Christians with unresolved issues, you'd be very much wrong. Episcopalians are going through their own schism due to the elevation to their office of bishop an openly gay man. And now I read most recently of my Methodist friends' troubles: Concerned that their numbers are dropping way too fast, their recent national conference debated a 'Call To Action' plan, filled with their own sense of pork projects and goals to 'revitalize' that Branch of the Vine.

I think somewhere along the way, the priorities got messed up. These are all issues to be sure, but it's obvious they aren't going to be easily resolved. The reasons for this are two-fold; there are two issues that seem to have become lost along with the general direction all Christian denominations share and should be following.

The first question that comes to my mind is: Where is the Holy Spirit in all this? Do we call upon the Holy Spirit for discernment and direction? Do we even acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit working in the world and among us? Should we not call as one of the first part of our action plan a suitable period of silent reflection to listen to what God is saying about our issues, and whether or not they stand up in a divine sense?

The second question is asked by Jesus himself, through Luke the evangelist: When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth? (Lk 18:8) It would seem we have lost a great deal of our sense of faith, and while there would be great reason for it to be so, it is only that way because We the People of God have allowed it to be so. We have allowed the actions and positions of a relative few take center stage. And We the People always get what they bargain for when they don't participate fully in an informed process. (Our elections are the best examples of this confusing smokescreen created by even the best well-meaning individuals.)

Let us pray that we stay focused on the two main issues while working toward resolution on the others that man has created in the wake of trying to do it all himself.

What A Concept

Daytime TV seems to have the answers to everything.

And when the subject matter isn't as shocking as it used to be, let's spice it up a bit by not only showcasing some new gimmick or product on the market - and proceed to give it away to everyone in the studio audience. Oh, and let's allow the first couple of hundred viewers at home to text something from their cell phones so they get in on the giveaways, too. Nice touch; keeps people watching.

First Oprah, then spreading to Ellen (DeGeneres) and even Dr. Oz - are all giving away stuff on a regular basis on their TV shows; and this isn't throwaway stuff, either. To start her most recent season (and her last on over-the-air TV), Oprah announced that she was taking everyone in the audience that day with her to Australia. Other big-ticket items have been cropping up as giveaways on the daytime shows, too.

So what if the concept spread to our churches?

How would you feel if on, let's say the First Sunday of Advent, the presiding minister announces that everyone in attendance at Mass or worship services has just been gifted with a new bedroom set? Or a car? Even the idea of a "Golden Ticket" randomly placed under one of the seats or in a bulletin? I solemnly assure you, attendance would go way up. And isn't that what our Church leadership wants - packed services every week?

(Now this is an offshoot of another subject about which I want to write more extensively, and I'm still formulating how to get it out there. Bear with me, it will get in the blog.)

The idea of attracting someone with a free gift is not new, you know. It's been around a long time...and it even has divine origins.

Think about it. God gifted the people of 1st Century Palestine with His very Presence. All those miracles Jesus performed, recorded in the Gospels - those up close who witnessed them were gifted with the grace to see that this was no one-time flash-in-the-pan experience. This was a paradigm. This was life-changing, with the potential for more life-changing, even to those who weren't present.

As people of God we are given the ability to shape our own destiny and influence that of those around us. We don't have to have amassed huge resources or sponsorships to do so - we've already been given them, and we don't have to go out of our way to share them. There are plenty of places to be better than we are right within our grasp.

God, let me be open to that concept today.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Name - Calling

The Solemnity of All Saints

What's in a name?

I don't really know and I can't guess how many times that question gets asked. In our modern society where everyone is represented by several strings of disparate numbers (Social Security ID, telephone numbers, bank and other account numbers, addresses and postal zip codes), it seems that unless you're among the famous, you're in a place far removed from that TV pub 'where everybody knows your name.'

The point gets hammered home on this eve of the midterm elections here in the US of A. Those of us planning to vote have been hit with a barrage of campaign ads, flyers, and blind robo-dialed phone calls urging us to vote for this or that candidate. Most of us probably know the major candidates running for office in their respective place; those running for state governor, US senator or Congress. Some may even know people running for office at the county level. But there's usually a lot more on your average ballot. There are judges to be retained or replaced, and propositions or referendum to be accepted or turned down. A list of names and items, from which one must choose with little or no knowledge of the people or issues and what the ramifications are.

One of the significances of this time of year is brought to mind quickly at the hand of Nature and her God. The daylight grows shorter, the temps get colder, and many plants go dormant as winter approaches. Ultimately this leads to reminders that we're not getting any older. The Catholic observances of All Saints and All Souls Day, the celebration of the D├Čas de los Muertos in Mexico, and the marking of Samhain in ancient Celtic culture all point to the bridge that, sooner or later, all of us will cross.

Yesterday, my Catholic congregation was read a list of the thirty-two parishoners who had died over the last twelve months. As the music minister most readily available on weekdays, I attended at least half of their funeral Masses. While I won't mention their names here, it did remind me again - much like my visit to the ancestral graves three weeks ago - that there's more to life than a string of numbers.

My given name (apart from my surname) and each of the myriad aspects of my life can be tied to the name of another who in some part did or had an impact on who I am and what I do today. These are, according to Catholic teaching, my patron saints. Their lives and their contributions are held as examples and inspiration to call upon as needed as each new day unveils its blessings and challenges.

My given names may have come from other ancestral family members, but they are also names of saints. One name is shared by both an apostle and a deacon. And my life aspects hold more:
  • Joseph  - husband and father
  • Stephen and Lawrence - deacons
  • Cecilia and Gregory the Great - musician
  • Benedict  - bereavement (he is the patron of a peaceful death)
Add the four from my given name, and there are ten whose lives all those centuries ago are at my disposal to guide and inspire me. These are toward the top of an much longer list of names; names of people I know or at least know about more than letters in a peculiar order on a page or screen.

Because the pace of life picks up speed in these last weeks of the calendar year, it is important to me to remember all of these influences now. I may be bringing them to mind with more frequency in the future.