By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas: The Removal of Burden

Over the last few days thousands of people in central and Eastern Canada have been suffering from the effects of a major ice storm. As the ice accumulates it creates a burden of tremendous weight on roofs, tree limbs and power lines. When the weight is too heavy to bear, there is collapse, often bringing with it terrible damage and power outages. Relief comes with the removal of the burden by the warmth of the sun.

Burden is a stranger to none of us. Many things weigh heavily upon our minds, hearts, emotions, indeed our whole lives. These can be the pressures of everyday life: illness, loneliness, family strife, financial strain. They leave us feeling ready to collapse, devoid of energy. Of particular gravity is the burden of guilt for sins we have committed, together with the fear and anxiety that arise before the mystery of death. The accumulated weight bows us down and robs us of joy.

Long ago, as he spoke to his people weighed down by their particular burdens, the prophet Isaiah looked forward to a day when these heavy loads would be lifted by an intervention of God: “For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” The divine action that would bring this release would be the birth of a child: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…” (cf. Isaiah 9: 2-4, 6-7)

Christmas celebrates the fulfillment of this promise. In the child Jesus born of Mary, God has entered our history as one of us. His presence lifts our burdens and releases joy! The Scripture readings for Christmas Mass resound with joy. When, for example, the angels appear to the shepherds they announce “good news of great joy”! The source of that joy is the birth from Mary of the Saviour, the nativity of the One who would, at last, break the terrible, onerous yoke of sin and death. As the weight of ice is removed by the warm sun, the burden of sin is lifted by the tender compassion of the Son of God made flesh.

As we enter this most holy season, perhaps we could ask ourselves what burdens are robbing us of joy. Whether they be worry, frustration, powerlessness, hurt, resentment, or circumstances beyond our control, let us bring them before the child born of Mary, Jesus Christ. In faith, let us place them before Him and ask that He lift them from us, or at least give us the strength to bear them and thus lead us through the burdens to a deeper knowledge of His love and our dependence upon His mercy. Above all, let us turn to Him with any guilt we may still bear over unrepented sin, and ask His forgiveness. As we allow Jesus to “break the yoke” that weighs us down, we shall taste the joy for which he was born among us.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A New Bishop for Canada

I guess I just can't get enough of the cold. I left relatively balmy Edmonton (-18) on Saturday to fly north to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, where a windchill temperature of minus 46 degrees awaited. Mad dashes all around to warm interiors. The reason for the trip, though, would warm any heart in spite of the temperature. The northern diocese of Mackenzie - Fort Smith was about to receive a new Bishop.

Sunday afternoon was the time for the ordination. In the course of a beautiful ceremony lasting nearly three hours, Bishop Mark Hagemoen, a priest of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, was ordained and installed as Bishop. It was wonderful to see the joy on the faces of the people, and to witness the very heartfelt welcome extended to their new Bishop and all present by the local Dene people.

I was struck by the coincidence of this event and the central question in the Gospel reading of the Mass, which was that assigned for the Third Sunday of Advent. The answer to the question defines the heart of the episcopal ministry. It is the question asked by John the Baptist from prison and posed to Jesus by his disciples: "Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?" When Jesus indicated that his deeds were the fulfillment of the signs given by Isaiah of the arrival of the Christ, he was saying, in effect, "You need wait no longer; I am he." What joy and consolation this answer must have given to John, even as he lay captive in prison!

And what joy and consolation this answer should give to us. This answer is the essence of every Bishop's preaching. Today it is announced to many whose hearts are held captive to fear, despair, doubt, loneliness and lack of meaning. Such hearts are waiting for the release that is given in the knowledge of God's love, proximity, tenderness and salvation. They will continue to wait as long as they look for anyone other than Jesus Christ. Are we to wait for another? Absolutely not! There is only one who can truly set us free. He has come to us, and remains close to his people. That One is Jesus Christ; He and no other.

May The Lord bless Canada's newest Bishop with deep joy and strength as he now undertakes his episcopal ministry, at the heart of which is the call to rejoice, because Jesus is near and we need wait for no other.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Our Last Day

Pilgrim discovers you do indeed
float in the Dead Sea.
As I write this final blog post of our pilgrimage, many of our pilgrims are swimming in the Dead Sea. Not a bad place to be today, when news from home tells us the temperature in Edmonton is -46 degrees (yes, MINUS 46)!!!!!

In Bethany, beneath the home
of  Mary, Martha & Lazarus.
We set out first thing this morning on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Out first stop was in Bethany to visit the site of the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. This is where Jesus, prior to raising Lazarus from the dead, pronounced himself as the Resurrection and the Life. It is also the place where he would spend time with these sisters and brother since they were his friends. This juxtaposition gave us pause. Jesus, who is our Lord and God, our Saviour, the Eternal Son of God made flesh, seeks friendship with his people, with us. A friend is someone you like to spend time with, and Jesus rejoices when we choose to take time just to be in his presence. There are times to be active like Martha, but our actions as disciples must spring from a contemplative listening at the feet of Jesus, as Mary did.

Fresco in the church at Bethany.
As we set out from this place we were conscious of traveling the same road to which Jesus refers in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Such a parable makes it clear the type of action to which a contemplative listening to Jesus leads: to works of mercy.

Soon we arrived at the Jordan River, near the place where Jesus was baptized by John. Our Lord underwent this baptism of repentance not because he was in need of it but in order to express his solidarity with the humanity he had come to save. This was to "fulfill all righteousness", that is, to manifest obedience to the saving plan of his Father.

Pilgrims renew baptismal promises
at the Jordan River.
Here we reflected upon the significance of the sacrament of our own Baptism. Standing near the place where our ancestors in the faith crossed over into the promised land, we recalled the essence of baptism as a "crossing over" from the old to a new way of life, a life in union with Jesus Christ. As such it imprints upon us as a way of life the pattern of his own: death to self and living for God and others. With this in mind we joyfully renewed our baptismal promises, and prayed that we will continue to be intentional about appropriating the full meaning of baptism and living it out in our lives with consistency and integrity, as Pope Francis is calling us to do.

Church of the Good Shepherd, Jericho.
From there we went into Jericho, where Jesus visited Zacchaeus and healed blind Bartimaeus. We celebrated the Mass for the Second Sunday of Advent at the local parish church of the Good Shepherd. It was a remarkable experience to be in the Judaean wilderness as we listened to Saint Matthew's account of the preaching of Saint John the Baptist that he delivered in the same place! We considered our call, as agents of the new evangelization, to bring the joy of the Gospel to the vast wilderness areas of the human heart today.

Mount of Temptation.
Next we drew near to what is called the Mount of Temptation. To this lonely place Jesus had been led by the Holy Spirit to fast for forty days and nights and then to be tempted by the devil. We could easily imagine how weak he must have been when the devil came to him, and this reminded us that the evil one will also come to us when we are most weak and vulnerable. We asked The Lord for pardon for the times we have succumbed to the devil's seductions, and asked that henceforth we might face and overcome temptation not by our efforts alone but above all with the Lord's strength.

Qumran, site of discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls.
Our final site to visit was Qumran, site  of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. This is of far more importance than just archaeological or historical interest. These scrolls, 2000 years old,  pertain to the Old Testament, and as such are previous to both Jew and Christian alike. On this itinerary of conviction we have appreciated in new and wonderful ways how all that God has done throughout history has been to prepare the world for the gift of his Son, after whose coming all of time and all of history unfolds under his Lordship.

A final blessing – rainbow over the
Dead Sea, looking toward Jordan.
One of the  great signs of God's covenant love given in the Old Testament is that of the rainbow (cf Genesis 9: 8-13). This is precisely what awaited us as we left Qumran – a beautiful rainbow over the Dead Sea. As we leave now this sacred land and return home tomorrow, this sign reminds us that we are never distant from the ever faithful Love of God that has been revealed in Jesus Christ, his Son and our Lord.

Pilgrims take advantage of
Dead Sea mud and minerals.

Pilgrim tempts a camel on Mount of Temptation.

Gift presentation by Gabriel, president
of Guiding StarjTours, in Jericho.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

An Emptiness that Heralds Joy

A section of the Via Doloroso.
This morning we set out so early I think we woke up the rooster. Wakeup call at 4:00 am (!) and on the bus at 5:00 in order to begin the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) at 5:30. The early start was definitely the right call by our guides. As we walked and prayed along the Via Dolorosa throughout the Old City of Jerusalem, we had it practically to ourselves. More significantly, while the darkness of early morning was a fitting companion to our solemn remembrance of the Lord's suffering as he carried the Cross to Calvary, the rising of the sun at the moment we began our solemn celebration of the Mass of the Resurrection recalled nature's witness to the in-bursting of light upon the world when the Lord rose from the dead (cf. Matthew 28:1).

Mass at the Tomb.
Our Mass was celebrated at the Lord's empty tomb. The key word here is "empty". From the beginning the Church's proclamation has held up the emptiness of the tomb as indicative of the Lord's resurrection. The tomb is empty because he is risen and has appeared to his disciples! Yet he remains with us, especially in the sacrament of the Eucharist. One of the pilgrims told me he found this powerfully expressed in the very way this unique Mass is celebrated. The congregation assembles outside of the tomb, while the priest celebrant(s) enters the tomb for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, using an altar just above the slab on which the body of The Lord had been placed when he was buried. When the priest next appears to the congregation it is to present the Eucharistic Lord ("Behold the Lamb of God ..."). I admit I had not thought of this at the time, but it does express in striking fashion that the same Jesus who died on Calvary and who rose from this very tomb is present to, with and in his people through the mystery of the Eucharist.

Both the hill of Calvary and the tomb are enclosed within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Immediately following the Mass each of the pilgrims was able to go inside the tomb and reverence this holy site, and then to go up to the place where the Lord was crucified and touch the very rock surface on which his Cross had been raised. At such a place, reflecting upon the infinite love of Jesus for the Father and for us that took him to the Cross, and the power of that love over all evil as manifest in the resurrection, we knew that, because of that same love, we need have no fear. What joy! As the Holy Father Pope Francis has said more than once, no Christian can be a "sourpuss" when we know the love of the Risen Lord and the hope it gives.

An icon in the cave where Mary was born.  
Following a pause for breakfast, we went to the Church of St. Anne, near the city entry variously known as Sheep Gate, Lions Gate, or St. Stephen's Gate. This is a twelfth century church built over the place identified by tradition as the home of Saints Joachim and Anne and, therefore, the birthplace of Mary, marked by a cave beneath. There are astounding acoustics in this building, so we gathered inside to sing some hymns to our Lady. Next to the church is the pool of Beth-zatha, where Jesus cured a paralyzed man (cf. John 5:1-18). We read aloud the Gospel passage, and asked the Lord to heal us of anything that keeps us paralyzed and unable to move forward, such as fear, guilt, shame, etc.

Archbishop Smith reads
a scripture passage.
From there we made our way to the Western Wall, the only part of the Temple of King Herod that remains following its utter destruction by the Romans in 70 AD. It is thus the holiest site in Judaism, and on this Sabbath Day we saw many devout Jewish families praying at this famous wall. For our part, we read the narrative in the Gospel of John that recalls the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus and his prediction that the Temple would be rebuilt in his Risen Body (cf. John 2: 13-22). This gave us occasion to remember the teaching of Saint Paul that each of us is a Temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1Corinthians 3:16), so we prayed that the Lord cleanse us by his mercy and rebuild us into his authentic and joyful disciples.

Tomorrow we head out to the desert and the Jordan River, where we look forward to the renewal of our baptismal promises.

Janelle sings Ave Maria in St Anne Church

Friday, December 6, 2013

So That the World May Know

A message among the ancient
olive trees of Gethsemane
Today our itinerary of conviction followed a pathway of love, namely, the love of Jesus for his Heavenly Father. From the Gospel of St John we learn that Jesus is the Son who dwells eternally in the bosom of the Father (1:18) and from that place came to earth and was obedient "so that the world may know that I love the Father" (14:31). His purpose in making known his love for the Father was to enable us to share in it by the gift of the Holy Spirit! (Cf. Romans 8:14-17) So it was that, as we re-traced today the steps of Our Lord during his final days in Jerusalem, we reflected upon this wondrous love and his will to draw us into its embrace.

80 Languages are represented
at the Pater Noster church,
including Cree
First we visited what is called the Pater Noster church, built at the top of the Mount of Olives over a cave where Jesus would have spent time with his disciples and identified by tradition as the place where he taught the Our Father to them. The possessive pronoun is revealing. Jesus has come so that the one he called his Father would also be ours in virtue of our union with him in the Holy Spirit.

Walking down the Palm Sunday Road
From there we followed the Palm Sunday road, the steep downward path taken by Jesus from the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley en route to the ancient city of Jerusalem, singing our Hosannas all the way (and not failing to jump out of the way of cars as they careened hurtled past us!!). We stopped at the Church of Dominus Flevit ("The Lord wept") to remember the tears shed by Jesus over the failure of his people to recognize the time of their visitation from God (cf. Luke 19:41-44). There we prayed in repentance for the times our own recognition is lacking, and lifted up to God's mercy any who have yet to know Jesus and encounter in him God's love and peace. Before leaving this site with its stunning view of the Old City of Jerusalem, our guide pointed out to us the various places in the city associated with the events of Our Lord's passion.

Inside the Church of All Nations
(Basilica of the Agony)
At the foot of the Mount is the Garden of Gethsemane. There, in the Basilica of the Agony (also called the Church of All Nations in honour of the many countries who funded its construction), we celebrated Mass at the altar built next to the stone on which Jesus prostrated himself and, with earnest and anguished prayer, entrusted himself entirely into the hands of his Father as he faced his destiny (Cf. Mark 14: 32-42). Here we reflected on the meaning of Abba, the name used uniquely by Jesus to address his Father. So complete was his trust in the love of his Father that he surrendered completely to his will. He did not flee from his destiny but rose from that rock to begin his passion. Offering the Eucharist at this place was an occasion for us to bring our burdens through Christ to the Father with trust in his love and surrender to his purpose.

Pilgrims reflect in the Upper Room,
the site of the Last Supper
After Mass we ascended the other side of the Kidron Valley to the top of Mount Zion. There we visited the Upper Room, the place of the Last Supper and the venue of Pentecost. We read Saint Matthew's account of the Last Supper and paused to thank The Lord Jesus for his abiding presence with us in the mystery of the Eucharist, celebrated on our altars by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Fresco at Church of the Dormition
depicts the Assumption of Mary
Among the most beautiful of the churches we visited today was the next one on our itinerary: Dormition Abbey. This is built over the site where tradition tells us Mary's earthly journey came to an end and from where she was assumed body and soul into heaven. She, the mother of the Lord and our mother, is also the first and perfect disciple, the Church's greatest treasure and sure sign of hope. In the grotto beneath the Church there is a touching icon portraying Jesus, the Risen Lord in heaven, receiving his mother and wrapping her tenderly in bands of cloth as she had done for him at his birth. We honoured her with song and sought her intercession in prayer, and then proceeded to the church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu.

Inside the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu
The word Gallicantu is based on the Latin noun for "cock-crow". Here, the site of the house of the High Priest Caiaphas at the time of Jesus, the denial of Jesus by Peter occurred and was signalled by the cry of the rooster. Excavations beneath the church here have uncovered an ancient dungeon, where prisoners of the high priest would have been kept. This is where Jesus would have been held in the middle of the night, following his arrest and condemnation by the Sanhedrin and prior to being sent to Pontius Pilate for trial and judgement. We were able to descend to this same place. Calling to mind the total darkness and utter isolation experienced by Jesus in those terrible hours, we read aloud Psalm 88 and heard in it the cry uttered from the depths of his heart to his Father in heaven. As we left we prayed for all those who today feel lost, alone, and captive to forces more powerful than they.

This wondrous pathway of love continues tomorrow when we walk the Via Crucis.

The Garden of Gethsemane

A message for modern pilgrims
at the Church of All Nations

A view of the old city from  Dominus Flevit

The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu

Pilgrims pray at the rock where
Jesus prayed before his Passion

Singing 'Immaculate Mary' in
Benedictine Church of the Dormition

A joyful ride for this pilgrim

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Joy and Hope Grounded in Mercy

Franciscan custodian prepares for
Mass at Church of the Visitation
As Gabriel made his announcement to Mary that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, he indicated that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, had also conceived a child and was in her sixth month. St. Luke tells us that, following the annunciation, Mary "set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country." Hill country is right! We were there today, in the area known locally as Ein Karem, and experienced for ourselves just how hilly the countryside is. Praying the Rosary, we climbed a steep hillside on foot to reach the Church of the Visitation, built at the place where the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth took place. More than a little huffing and puffing accompanied the climb, but it was well worth it.

The story of the Visitation is presented
beautifully on the chasuble
Mary came to the aid of her relative in need, and her urgent and arduous journey contains within it an important lesson: charity admits of no delay and yields to no obstacle. In this act Mary lived out in anticipatory fashion the clear commandment later given by her Son regarding love of God and neighbour. From the beginning, she modelled authentic discipleship.

Embracing figures of Mary and Elizabeth
in courtyard of Church of the Visitation
At the holy site itself, the pilgrim is surrounded by the message of joy. Mary's great hymn of joy, the Magnificat, is posted in beautiful tile panels around the entrance courtyard as an invitation to everyone to share in her rejoicing. This magnificent prayer grounds the joy of the Christian in the loving and merciful fidelity of God to his people. God looks upon us in our lowliness, he pours out favour, he remembers his promises to us, above all the promise of mercy. Our faithful God deals mercifully with his needy and sinful people, and will never abandon us because he remains always faithful to his covenant promises. Herein lies the source of our joy!

This church marks the birthplace
of John the Baptist
The first to leap for joy at the presence of the Saviour was St. John the Baptist, a testimony given even from his mother's womb as she heard the voice of Mary. His place of birth is also in the area of Ein Karem, not far from the Church of the Visitation, and we went there next. It escaped none of us that we had the great blessing of visiting the birthplace of the Precursor in Advent. In this liturgical season of waiting and expectation, we reflected on what John has to teach us about living in anticipation of the Lord's coming. He teaches us to expect it. His whole ministry was given over to an intense expectation of the coming of the Christ, and a desire to point him out when at last he appeared. This expectation was based entirely on God's covenant fidelity and in no way on human merit. We, too, can expect God to intervene and act in our lives because he has promised to do so, unworthy though we are. Furthermore, John teaches us to expect to be surprised by the Lord. John's public description of the manner in which the Christ would come (cf. Matthew 3: 11-12) left him puzzled when Jesus acted otherwise. The Lord works in our lives, certainly, but on his terms and in his own time according to his saving purpose for us. What is important is that he does, in fact, act in our lives, and does so with love and mercy.

Church of St. John the Baptist
at Ein Karem
In the afternoon, our joy at the truth of God's mercy changed to sorrow at humanity's lack of it.  A number of us visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial here in Jerusalem. The horrors perpetrated against the Jewish people by the evil and merciless Nazi regime are there on full display. When Blessed Pope John Paul II visited this place in March of 2000, he put into words the emotion within each of us as we viewed eh exhibits: "The heart feels an extreme need for silence..." Indeed, I noticed we all grew quiet as we visited this memorial site. At the same time I was encouraged by the presence of many young Jews visiting the site while we were there. One can reasonably hope that by coming to terms with so great a tragedy in the past they will be inspired to create a much different and better world in the future.

Pilgrims head down the mountain
after Mass at Church of the Visitation
We, too, must take up our part, and we learn how to do so through the witness of Our Lady of the Visitation. When Mary received word of the great mercy God would show to the world in the gift of the child conceived within her, she immediately became an agent of mercy to Elizabeth. Mercy is the only way forward. It is the only effective antidote to the cycles of violence which continue to plague us. By Mary's intercession, may we, too, be ready agents of mercy wherever there is need.

Deacon Pat Hessel proclaims the Gospel account of the Visitation

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Prayers for the Healing of Division

Mass at St, Catherine's Church, Bethlehem
We spent the day today in Bethlehem. Our journey into the mystery of Christ's birth of Mary in this very place began with the celebration of Christmas Midnight Mass (special permission is given in the Holy Land to celebrate the proper liturgical feast commemorated by the holy site being visited when on pilgrimage). At midnight (Edmonton time) we gathered in the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria for this solemn Eucharist. This parish church is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the grotto marking the place of the Lord's birth. We sang Christmas carols as we gave thanks to the Father for the gift of the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Graffitti inside the security
wall around Bethlehem
At the same time we were painfully aware of the lack of peace surrounding us. Any pilgrim to Bethlehem cannot fail to observe and feel the jarring contrast between the meaning of the nativity of our Lord and the present-day reality of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. On our short eight kilometre ride from our hotel in Jerusalem to the Manger Square in Jerusalem, we encountered the sad reality of the huge concrete wall erected by the Israeli authorities as a security perimeter around the Palestinian Territories. This is an area marked by division, symbolized in dramatic fashion by that wall. The separations that drive people apart are both political and religious, operative at multiple levels. What is common to them all is their source: divisions within the human heart. We set up physical, political and religious walls because we have first erected within our hearts barriers of mistrust, fear, and bitterness. It is to heal our divisions at that level, the level of the heart, that Jesus Christ was born for us. Thus did we find ourselves praying during our Christmas celebration that all hearts, including our own, would be healed of their fissures by the transformative power of God's mercy, revealed and active in the One born of Mary at Bethlehem.

St. Catherine's Church
Following this Eucharist, we visited the ancient grottos beneath that same church. At the cave where Saint Jerome lived for thirty-eight years in the fourth century as he translated the Bible into Latin, we prayed for that same sacred Word to take deep root in our hearts. Standing near the catacombs of the Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered by order of an insane King Herod, we prayed for the holy innocents of our own day, whose lives are ended through the insanity of abortion.

Praying at the site where Jesus was born
From there we moved to the Church of the Nativity and the sacred grotto where the birth of our Lord occurred. After we each knelt individually to reverence this most holy ground, we assembled together in this wondrous space and sang O Holy Night in both English and French. More than a few tears and sniffles accompanied our singing. The awareness of where we actually were was very moving, to say the least!

The Shepherds' Fields
Then on to Shepherds' Field and Grotto a few kilometres east of Bethlehem. This site contains caves identified by tradition as the place where shepherds were startled by the angels' annunciation of the birth of the Saviour. After singing another carol there in one of the caves, we visited a church built on the site (Sanctuary of the Holy Angels) and funded by donations from Canadians.

Graffitti inside the security wall around Bethlehem
After that, lunch and an opportunity to do some shopping in Bethlehem. As we left the city we had to pass, once again, through a checkpoint at a gate in that security wall. Thus did our day end as it began: with prayers for a healing of divisions and a lasting peace here in this land we call holy.

Manger Square
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Visiting sites beneath Church of the Nativity

Time for reflection in a cave at Shepherds' Fields

Nativity fresco at Shepherds' Fields church

Altar at the Canadian-built church at Shepherds' Fields