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

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Some Assembly Required

It is pure delight to watch young children as they receive their presents on Christmas morning. Full of anticipation, they rip through any wrapping to get at the gift they have long awaited. Sometimes they can make use of the present without delay. At other times, the gift is accompanied by the words: “some assembly required.” The gift is fully given, yet it requires engagement on the part of the recipient (and usually also Mom or Dad) for its full realization. The child is usually impatient to get working at it, and, eager to make full use of the gift, will not rest until the assembly is complete.

This analogy can help us appreciate the gift we have been given at the birth of Jesus Christ, and the challenge that it places before us. This gift, long anticipated and earnestly sought, is peace. As Christ was born of Mary, the angels announced “peace on earth.” This gift of peace is fully given in Christ, yet there is “some assembly required,” i.e., the gift calls forth from us deep personal engagement for it to be fully realized.

The profound and beautiful texts of Sacred Scripture proclaimed at the solemn Christmas Mass of Midnight teach us why Jesus Christ is our peace. He is announced by the angels as “Saviour,”, which in the Bible means the one who will free us from the disease of sin by the balm of mercy. Precisely because Jesus forgives our sins, he is what Isaiah calls the light that dispels the darkness blinding our minds and hearts, the One who breaks the yoke of oppression and injustice. Sin shatters; love unites. Jesus Christ is the Son of God who breaks into human history with the love of God that destroys sin and thus restores people to unity with God and with one another. Jesus, and only Jesus, is our peace. In him, the long-anticipated gift is fully given.

Yet, there remains some assembly required; the gift of peace becomes real in our lives only when we invest ourselves fully in its realization. Here again, Sacred Scripture is instructive. It reveals a simple, yet very challenging, two-step assembly process.

When the shepherds heard the message of the angels, they went quickly to find Mary, Joseph and the newborn child. The astonishing message was of such importance that they had to see and experience it for themselves. This teaches us that Jesus Christ came to be encountered personally by everyone who hears the message. Here is step number one in the assembly of the gift: turning to Christ so that we each come to know personally the joy of a life-transforming relationship with him.

Step two is provided by St. Paul in his letter to Titus. Not only must we hasten to encounter Christ as did the shepherds, but also we need to receive and heed his teaching. In Jesus Christ, Paul says, God’s grace has appeared, “bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly….” Step two in the full realization of the gift of peace is to do what Jesus commands. To receive him as God means necessarily accepting his teaching. Only his words lead us to peace.

Here, though, we encounter a very strong temptation. The teaching of Christ calls us to repentance, to change, to give up all patterns of thought or behaviour that contradict it. There is no other way to peace. Yet, we instinctively resist such change, and from this resistance arises the temptation is to put up the sign, “No room in the inn.” Sadly, we see this all around us and within us. Our contemporary “inns” of political strategy, scientific research, economic policy, and philosophical anthropology all remain closed to his revelation. Even in our homes and our hearts we are experiencing a growing tendency to close out Christ and his teaching by the adoption of a cultural mindset distant from the Gospel. By making no room for our Lord and his instruction, we avoid step two, and the peace for which we long, the peace fully given in the birth of Christ, remains unrealized in us.

So, we know what we need to do for the full realization of the gift of peace: turn to Christ and accept in humble obedience and trust all that he asks of us. It is possible to do this. Aware of our weakness and tendency to sin we may be tempted to despair of our inability to follow Christ. Well, in spite of our weakness, it is possible because Christ makes it possible. He who was born of Mary in Bethlehem, he who gave his life on the Cross and rose from the dead, he who is our peace, makes himself present to us in the gift of the Eucharist. The Lord we receive in the Eucharist is the same Jesus born of Mary. He continues to come to us so that, by the gift of his grace, we can turn to him and follow his teaching. In other words, he not only shows us the assembly required to realize the gift of peace but also walks with us and enables us to do the assembling.

No wonder the angels gave their announcement to the shepherds as good news of great joy! Joy springs from the realization of true peace. This gift is fully given in the child born of Mary. With Christ and in Christ, let us assemble it as a reality in our day by turning to him and doing what he asks. Like the children eager to put their gifts together, let’s not rest until the assembly of Christ’s gift to us is complete.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

From Snowshoes to Smartphones

This past week the Archdiocese of Edmonton launched Grandin Media. A dimension of our Office of Communications and Public Relations, Grandin Media is a digital news portal aiming to tell the story of the beautiful things that happen when we discover the difference that Jesus Christ makes.

This initiative takes its name from Vital-Justin Grandin, the Oblate missionary who was appointed the first Bishop of the Diocese of St. Albert, which later became the Archdiocese of Edmonton. When established in 1871, the Diocese covered a vast territory: large parts of the present Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. Bishop Grandin needed to go where his people were, and much of his travel - thousands of kilometres over the years - was by snowshoe. Today we are motivated by the same need to reach people where they gather with the life-transforming message of the Gospel. However, the gatherings of today are increasingly virtual, largely facilitated by the omnipresent smartphone. Well, if this is where people gather today, we want to be there with them. Hence, Grandin Media.

The circumstances in which our evangelical task unfolds have changed dramatically, yet its urgency has in no way diminished. The exigency is underscored by a rich biblical image that we encountered in the Gospel passage on Sunday: the wilderness. The passage from the Gospel of John records the self-identification offered by St. John the Baptist: a voice crying in the wilderness (cf. Jn 1: 6-8, 19-28). The wilderness in which the Baptist lived, preached and baptized was the dry and barren Judean desert. That traversed by Bishop Grandin, though different, was often equally harsh. In our day, the Church, too, speaks into a wilderness, yet one of an entirely different order.

On the weekend after one of the masses I celebrated, I met a man who told me that his step grandson had died of fentanyl poisoning and would be buried later that day. How terribly and deeply sad and tragic. It is also darkly symptomatic of an underlying malady. Beneath all the glitz and glitter, the falsehood and pretence that mark Western culture lies a vast wilderness of the soul, to which not only drug addictions but also the growing pervasiveness of pornography, the feverish pursuit of material wealth, and the general experience of angst all point. It is the broad desert of sadness that arises from an inability to find truth, peace and happiness.

Into this wilderness we are called to speak. It is a mission that Grandin Media willingly undertakes, yet it is incumbent upon all disciples. Our message is simple and clear: things need not be this way! There is an alternative to the rapid desertification of the human spirit that is harming so many lives. The difference is given in Jesus Christ. His Incarnation and birth from the Virgin Mary, his death and resurrection, and his bestowal of the Holy Spirit has forever changed human history. His is a victory that no evil can diminish or take away. When we allow him to enter our lives, we share in that very same victory that he won on the Cross and our lives will never be the same; what was once barren wilderness becomes abundance of life.

From snowshoes to smartphones. The modalities differ but the message remains always the same: turn to Christ and find in him the truth that sets us free, the peace that nothing can take away, and the happiness for which we are made.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Ending on a High (Holy Land Blog 10)

Well, it just cannot get better than this.

Our final day of the pilgrimage began early - really, really early. We left the hotel at 4:30 AM and made our way into the Old City of Jerusalem to walk the Way of the Cross. The absence of light in the streets underscored rather dramatically the dark night of sin through which Christ walked and endured his passion for the sake of our salvation. In the silence of those early morning hours, we sang quietly “Behold the Wood of the Cross” as we moved from station to station. The hymn was well chosen. Not only by the prayerful re-tracing of our Saviour’s steps along the Via Dolorosa, but also by the faithful itinerary of conviction that marks the remainder of our lives, we lift up the Cross for all to behold as the instrument - once terrible, now glorious - of the world’s redemption.

Following this sacred route brought us to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the stations ended. Contained within the church are the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Upon entering this extraordinary site, we mounted the stone of Golgotha in order to touch the rock and so venerate the place where Christ gave his life on the Cross. We descended from there to the tomb, the emptiness of which proclaims the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. There, we celebrated solemn High Mass in the company of Franciscan priests, who offered the chants of the mass in Latin. When mass was completed, our group was able to enter the tomb individually to venerate the place where Jesus was buried and from which he rose again. Following a tour of other sections of the church, we walked back to our hotel for a very welcome breakfast.

The final visit of the morning and of the pilgrimage was to the Israel Museum. We saw some of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran and were given an explanation of an enormous scale model of Jerusalem as it would have been at the time of Jesus. This is enormously helpful for placing all the sites in the Old City into proper historical perspective.

Now, our task, once we return home, is to keep all of the experiences we have had here in their proper spiritual perspective. It has been a very brief and highly concentrated itinerary of conviction, one that must now extend through the months and years ahead. We have been blessed - wondrously so - by an encounter with Jesus Christ in the land where he himself once lived. Henceforth, we must continue to seek the encounter in the land where we live. The encounter is not only possible but also desired, both by ourselves and by the Lord. He is risen, and he is with us daily. Only through a deep personal encounter with Jesus Christ can we understand and live the Christian life; only through knowledge of and communion with him can we know the fullness of joy he came to give. Something of that joy inhabited us as we journeyed in the Holy Land. By God’s grace, may we find ways to share that joy with others, and thus point them to its source; Jesus Christ, who came to us from the heart of the Father and “pitched his tent among us” in this land made holy by his presence.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Children of Our Heavenly Father (Holy Land Blog 9)

Today's events gathered around the theme of the relationship of Jesus with his Father in heaven. At the outset, we situated the whole day by reference to a line from the Gospel of John which has always caught my attention and left me thinking. At 14:31 we hear Jesus say, "I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father." In all that Jesus did and said during his earthly ministry, the purpose was to reveal to the whole world the unique relationship he has with his Father. The reason in so doing was to open our hearts to receive from him the wondrous gift of participation in that same relationship! Here we touch the heart of Christian revelation. In virtue of the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured forth upon the apostles at Pentecost and now first bestowed on us in Baptism in order to unite us to Jesus, we become by adoption what Jesus is by nature: children of our heavenly Father. Our appreciation of the significance of the sacred sites we visited today unfolded in this context.

The first was the Church of the Pater Noster (Our Father) on the Mount of Olives. It is built on the site of a cave, which tradition identifies as the place where Jesus would have often spent the night with his disciples, as was not unusual at the time, and where he taught them the Our Father. It was wonderful to gather as a group in that same cave and pray the Lord's Prayer, conscious that what we were doing was possible only because of Jesus's own gift to us of adoption. We prayed first together in English and then each in his or her mother tongue. What a beautiful sound that was! Then we visited the church, which has every available nook and cranny displaying the Our Father in about 170 languages. Among them we found the Our Father in Nakota Sioux, placed as recently as 2016 and the result of the hard work of our own parishioners from the Alexis First Nation!

From this site, pilgrims began the walk down the Mount of Olives, following the Palm Sunday road toward the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as Jesus did when he approached Jerusalem, we stopped at the place where Scripture tells us he wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). Prompting the sadness of Jesus was the fact that the people had not recognized "the time of [their] visitation from God." Signs abound still today that this recognition has yet to happen in many peoples and nations: the tensions surrounding us during our visit; the directions taken by our own country that demonstrate estrangement from the Gospel; decisions by our own family members to stray from the practice of the faith, and so on. These are, indeed, reasons to weep, but do we? Children of the Father will have hearts and minds attuned to the suffering of the day. Do our hearts weep, or have we grown cold and indifferent? Here we prayed for the grace of tears that would unite with those of Christ, poured out from the infinite depths of the Father's compassion.

As we continued along the Passover Road, we sang our Hosannas, just as the crowds did that accompanied Jesus along his triumphal entry to the city. At the foot of this roadway, we reached the Church of All Nations, built in the Garden of Gethsemane directly over the rock on which Jesus prayed on that fateful night following the Last Supper. Here our call, as children of the Father, to trust fully in the Father's wisdom and providence, was brought dramatically into high relief. At this place, Jesus fell prostrate upon the rock and poured out his entire self into the prayer he made to his Abba. Fully aware of the pain and death that assuredly awaited him, Jesus asked that the cup be taken away. Once he placed his full trust in the love of the Father, he was able to stand up and face his destiny. Upon entering the church, we, too, approached the rock. In our minds was the teaching of St. Paul that the Holy Spirit within us enables us to make the same prayer that Jesus offered, calling out Abba! Father! (cf. Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6) As we touched the rock, we brought to the Father all the burdens that weigh heavily upon us, all the circumstances from which we would prefer to escape but cannot, and sought from him the grace and strength to stand and face with confidence and trust whatever is before us.

The next site we visited was the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, erected on the site of the house of the high priest. Jesus was brought to this place following his arrest to be judged by the Sanhedrin. It was here that Peter denied Jesus. We reflected upon this, noting that it was the look of Jesus that brought Peter to a terrible awareness of his sin of betrayal. Although it is a difficult grace to seek, nevertheless we prayed that Jesus would so cast his gaze upon us as to give us whatever "salutary shock" we need to grow in our conversion to Christ, our love for him, and our commitment to him.

Especially moving at this venue is a dungeon discovered by archaeological excavations beneath the high priest's residence. This discovery answers the question about the "missing hours" in the Scriptures pertaining to the time between his judgment by the Sanhedrin at night and transfer to Pilate the next morning for Roman condemnation. The answer is that Jesus would have been lowered down into this small dark hole to await, bereft of all companionship save that of his Father, the encounter with Pilate. We gathered together in this dungeon and prayed Psalm 88.

In early afternoon, we celebrated the Eucharist at Dormition Abbey, site of the end of Mary's life and her assumption into heaven. This was a double blessing, given that today the Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Here we pondered the example she gives to all of God's children, namely, to live out our adoption by constant docility to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Our final stop was to the Upper Room. Well, not THE upper room, since that, sad to say, was destroyed like so much else in Jerusalem, during the destruction of the city in 70 AD. Available to the pilgrim is a room, dating back to the crusader era, built over the site of the original cenacle. Nevertheless, this was an occasion to thank God for the gift of the sacrament of the Eucharist, without which we cannot live fully our identity as the children of our Father. Since the event of Pentecost also occurred while the apostles were gathered in the upper room following the ascension of Jesus, we offered thanks as well for the gift of the Holy Spirit that animates our life of discipleship.

Final day tomorrow. We are really tired, mostly from the emotional exhaustion that comes from trying to absorb all that has been offered to us. Yet, that fatigue, I know, will stand as no obstacle to the grace that awaits our tracing of the Way of the Cross and solemn High Mass at the empty tomb.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Trust and Obey (Holy Land Blog 8)

These three words form the theme that united our experiences today. They arose out of our reflections at the ancient ruins identified as the pool of Bethzatha, located today next to the church of St Anne just inside St Stephen's Gate, one of the entrances into the Old City of Jerusalem. We meditated upon the account of the healing of the paralytic by Jesus here at this pool (cf. John 5: 1-18). I have always been fascinated by what must have been going on in the mind of the crippled man when he heard Jesus say to him, "Take up your mat and walk." He knew he couldn't walk, and so did everyone else who had seen him next to the pool for thirty-eight years. Who was this man Jesus to command him to do the impossible? More to the point, what moved within the man to trust Jesus enough to obey him? That is exactly what he did: he trusted and he obeyed. From this profound act of trust and surrender he found himself miraculously healed by the power of Jesus. Trust and obey. Jesus calls forth the same response from us. He summons us outside of and beyond ourselves, often in ways that we know are impossible on our own. Trust and obey. As St Augustine taught, we ask the Lord to give us the grace to do what he commands and to command us to do what he wills.

(Before leaving the area we visited the church of St. Anne, built upon the place identified by tradition as the birthplace of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This perfectly preserved church from the crusader era is 1000 years old, and famous for its wonderful acoustics. So, we gathered in front of the altar and became a choir, singing loudly from our hearts Immaculate Mary so as to have the melody resound and echo throughout the edifice. Beautiful. And as to the theme, trust and obey, who could equal our blessed Mother? Only her son, of course.)

The need to trust and obey was in high relief also at the site we visited to begin the day, namely, the birthplace of John the Baptist. A moving Latin inscription marks the spot where he was born: Hic precursor Domini natus est (Here the precursor of the Lord was born). John trusted and obeyed all that was asked of him in his mission to prepare the way of the Lord and to point him out when he came, even at the cost of martyrdom. We reflected upon our own call to prepare the way for others to meet Christ and to make him known by our witness. John's example teaches that we do so by deflection. "He must increase but I must decrease" (John 3:30) are words that summarize John's entire life; we know they must also mark our own. We are precursors to the degree we point away from ourselves and toward Christ. Not easy in a self-obsessed culture. Yet, trust and obey.

We could not leave this particular place without also meditating upon the example of John the Baptist's father, Zechariah. He received an announcement from the angel Gabriel that, in her old age, his wife Elizabeth would conceive a son, who was to be named John. He did not immediately trust the message, for which he was rendered unable to speak. With this as background, we read the account of John's birth and subsequent naming (Luke 1:57-66). Zechariah's confirmation at that moment that the child, against all expectation, was to be named John was his act of faith (trust and obey) in what he had heard from the angel. From that moment he could speak, and his first words were the beautiful prophecy known as the Benedictus (Luke 1: 67-80). The important connection we observed here is that between faith and speech. In our culture, we find ourselves surrounded by a barrage of superficial banality and chatter. The human mind and heart long to hear substantive speech that enlightens and points to meaning; we ache, in other words, for true prophecy. The precursor of Christ must be able to offer such words, and Zechariah teaches that this much-needed speech arises out of the act of faith. It was a privileged moment to be able to proclaim the Benedictus together, in this place where it was first uttered by Zechariah himself.

Late morning saw as at the Ecce Homo pilgrimage house for mass and lunch. The building is built over the area where Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death, just after presenting him, scourged and crowned with thorns, to the crowd, with the words Ecce homo! (Behold the man!) In his willing submission to his passion, Christ trusted the wisdom and love of the Father, and obeyed, even to the point of death on a cross. Our pilgrim journey has entered a new stage. Until now we have visited places linked with his birth, miraculous healing, and wondrous teachings. Now we are in Jerusalem, the place where he met his destiny of suffering and death. Today we visited the site of the condemnation. Tomorrow we follow more of the painful journey, up to and including his arrest and imprisonment.

All that Jesus endured for us was undertaken in order to engage fully the power of evil and overcome it in his Resurrection. Where the grace of the Cross has not yet been accepted in the human heart, the gateway is open for evil to have terrible sway. A heart-wrenching reminder of this was given in our tour of the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, to which we made our way following a visit to the Western Wall, the holiest site of Judaism. Visiting the Holocaust Memorial is not easy. Encountering here images and artifacts associated with this cruelest of atrocities usually leaves one without words. We make our own the words of St. John Paul II, spoken during his visit to Yad Vashem on March 23, 2000: "In this place of solemn remembrance, I fervently pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people suffered in the 20th century will lead to a new relationship between Christians and Jews. Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews, but rather the mutual respect required of those who adore the one Creator and Lord, and look to Abraham as our common father in faith."

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What to Do with What We've Heard (Holy Land Blog 7)

We spent today in Bethlehem. Excitement filled the buses as we set out. In ours, we sang some Christmas carols while en route, which was a beautiful preparation for the Christmas Midnight Mass we celebrated at St Catharine's church, adjacent to the grotto of Jesus's birth. (This is the same church from which midnight mass is broadcast around the globe every year.) Thereafter, we went next door to the Church of the Nativity and venerated the actual birth site of Jesus. Added to this wondrous blessing was the rather more mundane gift of being able to do this in relatively short order! (Only a month ago groups were having to wait six hours to visit the grotto; our wait was less than one.)

Our next visit was to Shepherd's Field. We gathered in a cave that would have been used by shepherds in the time of Jesus. There we sang Christmas carols that recalled the angelic announcement to the shepherds of the birth of the world's Saviour. We won't forget that anytime soon!

At the same time, we could not help but notice the very sobering circumstances in which our visit to these holy and joyous sites was occurring. To enter Bethlehem from Jerusalem we had to pass through a high and heavily fortified security wall. The birthplace of the Prince of Peace is today surrounded by a visible symbol of separation and division. Tensions in the area are not far from the surface. This became immediately evident to us as the local people here worried about the regional and global fallout from the anticipated recognition by the United States of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

All of this left us wondering about what to do with what we were hearing. Today we heard and celebrated the Gospel's announcement of the birth of Jesus Christ as Saviour. Yet, it is clear from the physical and moral walls that continue to separate people that the evangelical message has yet to be heard and received. What are we to do? The holy sites themselves give us some direction.

At Shepherd's Field, we listened to the account of the announcement to the shepherds (Luke 2: 8-20). Instructive, as always, is the example of Mary. We are told that, when the shepherds had reported to her all that they had heard from the angels, she "treasured" the words and "pondered them in her heart." These expressions mean that she received them and sought to look deeply into their meaning. Well, we've been hearing a lot of words, not only here but also throughout the places visited by this pilgrimage. It is clear that Mary is showing that the appropriate response is to receive them with the utmost seriousness by allowing them to sink in and transform our lives. Furthermore, the haste of the shepherds to make known to others what they had heard reminds us of our duty as followers of Christ not to hesitate in bearing witness to the Gospel.

Our reflection is carried further by two other aspects of Bethlehem. Immediately upon arrival and just prior to the mass, we visited some caves beneath the church. One is where St Jerome lived for thirty-eight years, translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. The other is identified by tradition as the place where the angel warned St Joseph to flee from danger to Egypt with Mary and the child Jesus. Each has a message.

We may not be able, like St Jerome, to translate from Hebrew to Latin, but we do have the responsibility of translating God's Word into a life of virtue, marked by worship, witness and service. St Joseph's dream reminds us that political and cultural dynamics inimical to the Gospel's message of reconciliation and peace are nothing new. What is new, in every generation, is the power of the Gospel to engage and transform our world, if only it be received in the depths of the human heart.

This, though, requires courageous witness on the part of those who have, in fact, received that Word. Well, that's us! Bethlehem teaches us what we have to do with what we've received. Our prayer is that the Holy Spirit will give us the wisdom and boldness to be faithful to our duty.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

From Ruined to Realized Hope (Holy Land Blog 6)

Our day began at the mountaintop fortress of Masada, or, to be more precise, at what is left of it. Herod the Great had built a palace and fortress for himself on this site between 37 and 31 BC. It is perhaps most famous as the place to which Jews sought refuge from the Romans, who laid Jerusalem waste in the year 70 AD after the rebellion of the people a few years prior. When the Roman legions caught up to them at Masada, laid siege and began to breach the defenses, the Jews there chose suicide over slavery.

It is a site of ruined hopes. Herod, in his overweening arrogance, had built magnificent monuments to himself, out of the hope of ever-growing self-aggrandizement. Nothing but ruins now. The Jews had hoped to escape the Roman vengeance. Neither hope found fulfillment.

When at the end of the day we visited the site of the Visitation, we arrived at a place where realized hope was proclaimed. In her Magnificat, sung after having been greeted by Elizabeth, Mary proclaimed the fidelity of God to His promise of mercy, a pledge upon which our ancestors in the faith had placed their hope for centuries. Hope in God does not disappoint; He is forever faithful.

In fact, out of that same fidelity God had been preparing His people for centuries to anticipate and receive Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all his promises. Evidence of that long preparation was found at Qumran, which we visited immediately upon leaving Masada. In 1948, scrolls containing ancient manuscripts were found (some would say by chance; I’m inclined to credit Providence). Among them the most important was a scroll on which the Book of Isaiah was inscribed. This is the prophet most often cited by the Christian Church in reference to the promises of the coming of the Christ. He and the other prophets are wonderful witnesses to hope. Although they did not live to see God’s promises realized, nevertheless their conviction that they would be was unshakeable, their trust being rooted in the fidelity of God to His covenant love for His people.

Soon thereafter, we had occasion to reflect upon the ever-present temptation not to trust in God. Just outside of the city of Jericho is the Mount of Temptation, held by tradition to be the hill in the wilderness where Jesus, immediately following his baptism, was led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil (cf. Matthew 4: 1-11). Our timing was appropriate, since it was just yesterday that we renewed our own baptismal promises. We considered how the Evil One was weaving through his three temptations of Jesus the same original seduction with which he tempted Adam and Eve, namely, to allow trust in God’s wisdom and providence to die and thus set oneself apart from and in competition with God. How often does that same temptation to trust self over God come to us to draw us away from living our baptismal identity with integrity! Worse, how often do we succumb to it! We acknowledged our need to live in communion with our Lord so as to share in his fidelity to the Father and his victory over sin.

(Near this site, we found some less serious “temptations,” such as the opportunity to ride a camel. After some rather persistent encouragement by our guides, I climbed up on the beast. Now those same guides dare not come to me for confession!)

The final word of the day belonged to Our Lady. Our celebration of the Eucharist occurred at day’s end in the magnificent Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, just outside of Jerusalem. Not only does she teach us to trust without condition in the providence of God, but also she demonstrates what it means to live from God’s love. When she received the annunciation of Gabriel, she learned also from the angel that her cousin in Elizabeth had in her old age conceived a child. Knowing immediately that Elizabeth was in need, she set out “with haste” through the hills of Judaea to visit with her for as long as necessary. Visiting this land and seeing for ourselves the nature of the terrain, we realize now how full of meaning this is. The journey would have been very arduous for Mary. Yet she did not hesitate, because true charity neither admits of delay nor yields to obstacles. Her example teaches us that as we magnify the Lord for his greatness and rejoice in the realization He gives of our deepest hopes, our surrender in trust to God’s love will impel us to be ready agents of mercy and love to any in need.

Tomorrow we head to Bethlehem.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Welcoming with Thanks the Unexpected (Holy Land Blog 5)

Things today did not go according to plan. Well, at least not according to our plans; God’s plan, perhaps, since the day unfolded in a way far better than we had imagined.
It began with one of the buses running into a mechanical failure that necessitated bringing in a substitute. Needless to say, that meant a delay, and we were not sure when it would arrive. What to do? What else to do but to spend more time on the shore of the Sea of Galilee?! An unexpected gift that we welcomed with great thanks. A common experience when one arrives at the Holy Land for the first time is to wish one had more time at the sites for prayer and contemplation. Well, that’s exactly what we were given, and we lapped up every moment.

As it turned out, we left about an hour and a half behind schedule. The plan had been to celebrate mass at a small parish church in Jericho prior to proceeding to the site nearby of Jesus’s baptism to renew our baptismal promises. Our delayed departure meant that mass at the church at the pre-arranged time would not be possible, given the tight bookings for mass there by other groups for the rest of the day. What to do? The guides knew there was an outdoor altar area next to the baptismal site, and it was available! The decision to celebrate mass there was an easy one to make. What a gift to be able to celebrate the Eucharist while gazing upon the Jordan river, where we had just renewed our baptismal commitment and thus recalled the sacrament through which we were initiated into the Christian life! This reminds us that it is a good idea generally in life, and not just during a pilgrimage, to stay connected with Heaven’s travel agency. Allow God to do the planning, and life will be filled with joy-filled surprises.

The moment of renewal of baptismal promises is of immense importance. We do it annually at the solemn mass of Easter Sunday, and we recognized with gratitude the special blessing we were given to do so here at the Jordan river itself. In the background of our minds was the call of our Holy Father, Francis, to take with utmost seriousness our baptismal identity. This sacrament makes us disciples of Jesus Christ, an identity we are called to live daily with integrity. To help us appreciate what this means, we made an analogy with our passports. We are accustomed to showing this document of citizenship at border crossings, where an agent will compare the picture in the passport to the real person presenting it, in order verify that the picture and person match. Our “document of citizenship”, is our baptismal certificate, since by Baptism we are “registered” as citizens of heaven, even if in an anticipatory manner. The picture ID is the Creed. From this arises the question: if people were to compare the profession of faith with the daily life of the one making the profession, would they see that picture and person match? By a regular and heartfelt renewal of the promises made at baptism to utterly reject Satan and to live entirely for our Triune God, we can see where our lives need reform, where we need to return to the integrity of life to which Baptism calls us. Following the renewal, we were blessed with water taken from the Jordan itself.
After this, we made our way down to the southern end of the Dead Sea, where we will spend the night. Many of us wasted no time getting down to the water for the famous floating on the Dead Sea. In case you're wondering, yours truly was not among them. There is also a strange attraction to the mud around these parts. I know, I know, I’ve been told many times that this mud is good for the skin. Yet, mud soap remains for me an oxymoron. The logic of it all escapes me. I guess I’ll just have to live with the wrinkles.
Lots happening tomorrow, so this brief respite is very welcome. Yet another gift to top off a blessed day.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Mountaintop Experiences (Holy Land Blog 4)

In the Christian’s journey of faith and conversion, there are moments of profound encounter with the Lord. They are often referred to as "mountaintop experiences." Well, we had two collective ones today, literally!

The day opened with our ascent to the top of Mount Tabor, site of the Transfiguration of Jesus in the presence of Moses and Elijah, and witnessed by the apostles Peter, James and John. There, in the beautiful Basilica, surrounded by mosaics depicting the event, we celebrated Eucharist using the prayers for the liturgical feast of the Transfiguration. (Even though today is the First Sunday of Advent, we could do this since at the holy places permission is granted to celebrate the mass associated with the event commemorated by the site.) Just as we were gathering for the Eucharist our attention was drawn to a mosaic Latin inscription that conveys the words spoken by St Peter: "Lord, it is good for us to be here!" Indeed. That exclamation pretty well sums up the sentiments of our heart, not only on Mount Tabor but as we find ourselves at every place associated with Our Lord and his Blessed Mother. The Gospel passage (Matthew 17:1-13) recalled the voice of the Heavenly Father confirming the identity of Jesus as his well-beloved Son, and commanding us: "Listen to him!" This focused our reflections upon the many voices that compete today for our attention, many of which seek to seduce us away from Christ and thus lead us down wrong paths, sometimes dark and dangerous. We prayed for the grace to discern and listen to the voice of Jesus, since he alone speaks "the words of everlasting life" (John 6:68).

Top of Mt Carmel looking over Haifa.

We then went west across the country to Mount Carmel. On this holy mountain, the prophet Elijah is commemorated. At the city of Haifa, we ascended to the summit of the mountain to Stella Maris monastery. A Carmelite site, dating back to the origins of the Carmelite order in the twelfth century, its church has the main altar built over the cave in which the great prophet lived for some time. Leaving there we went across the range to the place on the mountain associated with Elijah’s destruction of the prophets of the false god, Baal. Reading and praying the narrative (cf. 1Kings 18: 20-40) gave us pause. Our attention was drawn to two aspects of the event. First, we reflected upon the grievous sin of idolatry, likened by the prophets to adultery in order to underscore its gravity. What are the idols in my own life? How am I being called to return to right worship of the Living and True God? What false prophetic voices influence me to turn away from God’s covenant love?

Second, we pondered silence. Striking in the narrative is the silence with which the false prophets were greeted as they cried out to Baal; silence, because there was no one there to answer, nothing. It was the silence of emptiness. In this kind of silence, we find a key to understanding the noise of our current culture, the babble and banality that daily surround us. The cacophony covers over a truth that many fear, namely, that reliance upon the false gods of our day is dependence what is not there, what cannot answer because it is no more than an illusion. By way of dramatic contrast is the silence filled with the presence of God. This, too, is taught to us by an episode in the life of Elijah, not on Mount Carmel but far to the south on another height, Mount Horeb. There the prophet encountered the Lord in the "sound of sheer silence." (cf. 1Kings 19: 11-13) We, who are called to listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, must learn to cultivate, with the help of grace, a space for silence that we allow to be filled not with false idols but with the One who alone is God.

On our way from here back to our hotel in Tiberias, we pulled into Cana, the place of Christ’s self-manifestation at a wedding feast. Here we gave thanks to God for the gift of marriage. Even though our secularizing culture seems to have less and less appreciation for it, marriage will always be the object of the Church’s esteem. As Christ made himself known at Cana through a miracle of transformation, changing water into wine, so, too, does he in marriage manifest himself in the miracle of transformation by which man and woman become one flesh in the eyes of God. Husband and wife, by their assuming of the indissoluble bond, their exclusive and unconditional love for each other and by their openness to the gift of children, serve as a sign within the Church and before the world of the love of Christ for the Church and world. This is something worthy of our greatest respect. At this site, the married couples in our group renewed their marriage vows. This may have taken place on the level ground of Cana, but I think it was for them the third "mountaintop experience" of the day.

Tomorrow we leave Galilee and head south into the Judaean wilderness.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Tracing a Path of Understanding (Holy Land Blog 3)

Whew! A full day. It unfolded around the shore of the Sea of Galilee, stopping at a number of places where Jesus himself spent time to teach and heal. Our prayer from the outset of the day’s journey was that Jesus would do for us what we remember he did for others in these places, namely, draw us into a deep relationship of love with him, a communion of friendship in which we would know his healing grace and hear his promise of life and salvation.
Our first visit was to the locale known as the Primacy of Peter. This place directly on the shore is where the Risen Lord met his disciples who had returned to the Galilee region following the crucifixion. The heart of the event is the meeting between Jesus and Peter, when the Lord asks him three times, “Do you love me?”
To help us fully appreciate what was happening in that dialogue, we turned to the insights of Pope Benedict XVI, who commented on this encounter in his general audience of May 24, 2006. There he pointed out that our one English word, "love", is used to translate two distinct Greek verbs. The first two times that Jesus poses the question, "Do you love me?", he uses agapao, which refers to a total and unconditional love. Jesus begins by asking Peter if he loves him with this kind of total love. However, Peter replies with the verb fileo, the love of a friend, implying affection, certainly, but not a total gift of self. In other words, Peter, acutely aware of his recent betrayal and his weakness, tells Jesus that all he can offer is his weak human love. Strikingly, the third time Jesus poses the question he changes the verb to Peter’s and asks "Fileis me?", that is to say, "Will you at least love me as you can? I am willing to accept and work with that." Pope Benedict observes how Jesus adapts himself to Peter and not the other way around. The Lord accepts us, as he accepted Peter, where we are, and works in and through our weakness to transform us, strengthen us, and make us true disciples. All he asks is that we love him as we can and leave the rest up to him.
From there we went to Capernaum, site of the ancient synagogue where Jesus preached his Bread of Life discourse, and of the house of Peter. On our way from the Primacy to Capernaum, our guide pointed out a pathway that led along the shore from one to the other, a route that Jesus himself would often have traced. This path provided us with a helpful interpretive key to the teaching of Jesus, since it brought to mind the path of understanding along which he led the people into his teaching about himself as food for God’s people. Such a “pathway” led from Bethlehem, where the baby Jesus was placed in a feeding trough (manger), to Tabgha, the venue of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, to Capernaum, where he pronounced himself to be the Bread of Life, and finally to Jerusalem at the event of the Last Supper, where in the institution of the Eucharist, he made possible the gift of himself as nourishment unto eternal life.
In a church built directly over the ruins of Peter’s house, we celebrated the Eucharist. It was a moving experience, to say the least, to proclaim as the Gospel for the mass the Bread of Life discourse, first pronounced by Jesus himself only a few feet away from where we were.
Next was the Mount of the Beatitudes. There we paused on the summit to read and reflect upon those first verses of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. To bring to the fore their essential meaning, we went back in our minds to the Book of Genesis, that speaks of God looking upon his creation and pronouncing it good. Since Jesus is God incarnate, he brings directly to all of his encounters with people and their practices the same divine vision. Thus, Jesus sees and points out that which is good in God’s sight, as well as that which is no longer in accord with God’s way of seeing things and needs, therefore, to be restored. This is why Jesus frequently challenged purely human ways of thought and behaviour, including human misinterpretations of God’s Word and law. In this context, we appreciated the Beatitudes as the Lord’s great pronouncement of reversal. The human standard of measure pertaining to happiness is set on its head as Jesus pronounces blessed those who, by God’s measure, are truly happy (the poor in spirit, the meek, those hungry for righteousness, and so on). As we read (and later sang!) the Beatitudes we asked the Lord to challenge and free us from all skewed vision and disordered priorities.
At Tabgha we visited the site of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Before entering the church to see there the rock upon which tradition holds Jesus placed the bread and fish and the beautiful fourth century floor mosaics that surround it, we gathered in the courtyard to read the account of the multiplication. Since at mass we had already pondered the place of this event along the pathway of understanding traced out by Jesus toward the Eucharist, our attention was drawn to two temptations against which the event warns us. The first temptation is to draw back from any efforts as followers of Christ to help others because of the paucity of our resources. The Gospel calls us to do what the apostles did, i.e., to give to Christ the little we have and trust him to multiply it to superabundance for the sake of others. The second temptation highlighted by the event is to instrumentalize Jesus. That’s what the crowds did. Hungry, they simply implored him to use his power to satisfy their felt needs; entry into relationship of discipleship with him was far from their minds. We, too, can instrumentalize the Lord when we implore him to to satisfy what we think we need while our hearts remain far from him. Jesus is not our instrument; we are his. He draws us into his love and, from that communion, empowers us for the fulfillment of his will.

After lunch, we headed an hour north to Caesarea Philippi. This is where Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?”, where Peter pronounced the definitive Christian confession (“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”), and where Jesus in reply bestowed on him supreme authority for the guidance of the Church: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” At this site, there exists an enormous rock face, in the sight of which Jesus likely made this pronouncement. The imposing rock wall underscores powerfully why the Church has perdured throughout the centuries while countless worldly kingdoms and powers come and go.
Then, back to the Sea of Galilee for a boat ride on the lake (the “sea” is, in fact, a large lake). We embarked at sunset and continued until after night had fallen. Very appropriate, this, since we above all wanted to recall and reflect upon Jesus walking upon this same body of water at night towards his disciples. Being out upon the dark waters after sunset and hearing Jesus ask Peter step out of the boat brought home to us in dramatic fashion the depths of faith by which Peter responded. We know we all have to “step out of the boat” at many points in our lives of discipleship. It was comforting to be reminded to keep our eyes fixed not on the storms but on Christ, and to know that he will reach out and catch us, as he caught St. Peter, at those times when, for fear, we begin to sink.


Friday, December 1, 2017

The Dawn from on High (Holy Land Blog 2)

These were the words that came to me as I gazed out upon the Sea of Galilee this morning at sunrise.  The words come from the song of Zechariah, proclaimed at the naming of his son, John the Baptist. He recognized that God was fulfilling all of his promises to come and set the world free from slavery to sin, and knew from the depths of his heart that soon, very soon, the “dawn from on high” would break upon the world in the child to be born of Mary to dispel the darkness of sin and shadows of sadness enveloping the people (cf. Luke 1:68-79). 

Sea of Galilee
As Zechariah realized, the role of Mary is pivotal in the accomplishment of this saving plan of God. She was our particular focus today as we set out from Tiberias to Nazareth, the place of the Annunciation, and the locale where Jesus grew up under her watchful eye and with the protection afforded him by St. Joseph.

Fa├žade of the Basilica of the Annunciation

Upon arrival in Nazareth we went directly to the stunning Basilica of the Annunciation. Here we encountered the particular word that, every time we make this pilgrimage, becomes the very heart of the adventure: hic. Latin for “here”, it is inscribed upon a plaque fixed to an altar erected in a first-century grotto held by tradition to be the home of Mary, where she received the announcement from the angel Gabriel. The inscription reads: Verbum caro hic factum est (the Word was made flesh here). In this small locale, Mary gave her “yes”, which set everything in motion. My mind goes to the famous sermon of St Bernard of Clairvaux:
You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.  

The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.  

Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.  

Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.  

Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word. (Hom. 4, 8-9: Opera omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 4 [1966], 53-54) 

Through the fiat of Mary, God became man, the Word became flesh, and the world received the gift of the Saviour. And it happened “here”, right where we find ourselves. Hard to take in.

Then our attention shifted to another one called to give a “yes” that was decisive not only for his life but also for ours: St. Joseph. While waiting to celebrate mass at the Basilica, we visited the adjacent Church of St. Joseph, built over what tradition identifies as his workshop. Then, following a tour of the Mary of Nazareth International Centre and a viewing there of a moving multi-media presentation, we made our way to the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth. Beneath this religious house are excavations that have brought to light evidence of earlier Crusader and Byzantine church construction, below which is what is most likely the home of St. Joseph where he lived with Mary and Jesus. Particularly stunning is a first century tomb, complete with a stone rolled away, and spoken of locally for many years as “the tomb of the just man”, i.e., Joseph. Moving for anyone to see this, of course, but it is especially so for us, whose Archdiocese has as its patron St. Joseph the Worker. 

Chapel in the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth
I’m beginning to see the tears flow. It happens in every pilgrimage, and there is no telling when or where it will happen. A word, a sight, a touch can bring about a flood of awareness of the reality of the love of God, and the heart is moved to its depths. But these are not just passing emotions. Nazareth teaches us that implicit within these encounters with the love of God is a call to give our own fiat, our own yes, and to do so hic, here, indeed, here and now.
“Yes” to what? Pondering the example of Mary and Joseph helps us understand what is happening to us here. Each was summoned by God to surrender to his plan and to His personal intervention in their lives. Theirs was a surrender to wonder and mystery. We need to highlight this. The modern mindset will restrict the understanding of truth to what is visible and empirically verifiable, thus leaving no room for mystery and transcendence. Here we experience just how sadly limiting is such a worldview. What comes flooding in upon one as certain when we visit the holy sites is that God is real, that He has acted in history in particular persons and places, and that He continues to unfold the mystery of his saving plan in the particularities of the lives of each one of us. What floods us, in other words, is Truth. What the Gospel proclaims is felt and known deep within the heart as undeniably true. Small wonder that the tears flow! Pondering Mary and Joseph we realize that our call is to fully surrender our lives to Truth, which the Gospel reveals to be a person: Jesus of Nazareth.

One final thought, and this to my mind is another lesson from this holy place. Each time I visit here, I listen to the expert guides recall how, at the time of the Holy Family, Nazareth was a very small village, considered by many to be of no particular significance. Yet it was here that God entered history! The lesson of Nazareth’s obscurity is that nothing escapes God’s notice; nothing in his eyes is insignificant. I like to insist on such a lesson because I am meeting many people today, especially among the young, who fear that they do not measure up, who wonder if they count, because they often experience themselves as unnoticed, treated as lacking in any significance. Nazareth teaches how false that all is. The truth is that each person counts, that everyone matters, and that, therefore, we need to be very careful not to measure ourselves by human standards but learn instead to embrace with joy and confidence the wondrous fact that we are each the beloved of God.