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Pentecost

Today is Ascension Thursday, but in most of the United States celebration of this feast has been moved to this coming Sunday. Our Easter Season will soon be coming to a close.  In the first reading for today’s Mass, which we will hear on Sunday, the evangelist Mark tells us in the Acts of the Apostles that Our Lord was “taken up” after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He appeared to them on several occasions throughout the 40 days after His resurrection. Before he left, he instructed them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for “the promise of the Father; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Was Our Lord afraid that they might scatter after his Ascension? Perhaps, but He told them to remain in Jerusalem.  They all arrived in Jerusalem some 30 days earlier to celebrate the Passover, the Jewish feast celebrating the events in Egypt when the Angel of Death passed over their homes, sparing the lives of the first born.  It was during this Passover celebration in Jerusalem that the First Born of Creation passed from human death to life for all eternity, opening the gates of heaven, and providing our salvation.

The fulfillment of the promise – the baptism by the Holy Spirit – was planned for the second most important of the great Jewish feasts – the feast of Pentecost, which was celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover.  It is referred to in the Old Testament by several names, including “the feast of weeks” (Exodus 34:22) and “the day of firstfruits” (Numbers 28:26).  It commemorates the time when the first fruits of the wheat harvest were brought to the temple, hence the name “first fruits”, and was celebrated on the day after 49 days (or 7 weeks) had passed since Passover, hence the “feast of weeks”.

While it seems that this feast was originally focused on giving thanks for agricultural success, as Judaic customs developed, a new significance was attached to this celebration. Since the close of Biblical times, the Pentecost has been held to commemorate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, which according to the Book of Exodus, took place on the fiftieth day after the departure from Egypt.

It appears that in Jesus’ time, the call to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Pentecost was as strong as it was for the Passover. As Luke relates in the second chapter of Acts when speaking about Pentecost: “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2:5)

Jesus of course was Jew, a devout one, a teacher. He kept the Judaic Law and customs. As our Catechism tell us, “The Jewish people and their spiritual leaders viewed Jesus as a rabbi. He often argued within the framework of rabbinical interpretation of the law.” (CCC 581).  In his message in the Sermon on the Mount He makes it clear: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)

What better time to fulfill the law and the prophecies than on the great Jewish Feasts? As our Catechism explains: “On the day of Pentecost when the seven weeks of Easter had come to an end, Christ’s Passover is fulfilled in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit….He, then, gives us the ‘pledge’ or ‘first fruits’ of our inheritance: the very life of the Holy Trinity, which is to love as ‘God [has] loved us’. (1 John 4:11-12) This love (the ‘charity’ of 1 Corinthians 13) is the source of new life in Christ, made possible because we have received ‘power’ from the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:8)” (CCC 731-736).

So the birthday present that we, the Church, were given on that Pentecost was God’s love, and the inspiration to love others as God loves us, something we call Charity, the first principle of our Order.

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Divine Mercy Sunday

When I attended the vigil Mass this past Saturday, there was a prominent display of the painting of Jesus as Divine Mercy in the sanctuary, since this was the first Sunday after Easter, also known as Divine Mercy Sunday.  I was a bit troubled, because the image of Our Lord was not the same as the original painting described by St. Faustina.  As you may know, St. John Paul II had a special devotion to Sister Faustina and the image of the Divine Mercy, and it was during his pontificate that Sister Faustina was beatified and canonized. Sister died in 1938, probably from tuberculosis, in a convent in Krakow, Poland when she was only 33 – the same age as Our Lord when he was crucified.

As we are familiar with the cause for canonization of our own Father Michael J.  McGivney, any such cause begins with an investigative process to assess the live and virtues of the individual. In 1965, Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Kraków Poland began, with the approval of the head of the Holy Office, the informative process on Sister Faustina’s life and virtues. In 1967 he submitted his findings to the Vatican and officially requested the start of the official process of her beatification. Sister Faustina was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday (April 18) 1993 and canonized by him on Divine Mercy Sunday (April 30) 2000, also on that date declaring the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday for the Universal Church. Pope John Paul II died in April 2005 on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, was himself beatified by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2011 (May 1), and was canonized by Pope Francis on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2014 (April 27).

But what about the image? The image with which we are all familiar, since it is the most reproduced, hangs in the Basilica of Divine Mercy in Kracow, Poland, where Sister Faustina’s remains are also interred. It was painted in 1943 by Adolph Hyla as a votive offering in thanksgiving for his family’s survival during WWII. The original image, the only one which Sister Faustina ever saw, was painted by Eugene Kazimierowski at the direction of Sister Faustina. Today it hangs above the altar in what was a small parish church in Vilnius, Lithuania.

I found the story of the image of Diving Mercy fascinating. Its story begins with a 19 year old girl named Helena Kowalska attending a dance in the city of Łódź, Poland in 1924. Helena later said that while at the dance, she had a vision of a suffering Jesus. She then went to the Cathedral. From there, she said Jesus instructed her to depart for Warsaw immediately and to join a convent. She took a train for Warsaw (around 85 miles away) without gaining the permission of her parents, knowing anyone in Warsaw, or bringing any belongings other than the dress she was wearing. After she arrived, she entered the first church she saw [Saint James Church in Warsaw] and attended Mass. She asked the priest, Father Dąbrowski, for suggestions, and he recommended staying with a Mrs. Lipszycowa, a local woman whom he considered trustworthy, until she found a convent.

Helena approached several convents in Warsaw, but was turned down every time, in one case being told that “we do not accept maids here”, referring to her poverty. Helena could read and write, but had only three or four years of education. After several weeks of searching, the mother superior at the convent of Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy decided to give Faustina a chance and conditionally accepted her, if she could pay for her religious habit. Helena knew nothing of the convent she was entering except that she believed she was led there.

For the next year, she worked as a housemaid to save money, making deposits at the Convent throughout the year, and finally gained acceptance. On 30 April 1926, at the age of 20 years, she received her habit and took the religious name of Sister Maria Faustina of the Blessed Sacrament.

For the next few years, Sister Faustina served the religious community, typically working in the kitchen or the vegetable garden.  Then it happened. As Sister later recorded in her diary for February 22, 1931:

“In the evening, when I was in my cell, I became aware of the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment. One hand was raised in blessing, the other was touching the garment at the breast. From the opening of the garment at the breast there came forth two large rays, one red and the other pale. In silence I gazed intently at the Lord; my soul was overwhelmed with fear, but also with great joy. After a while Jesus said to me, ‘paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the inscription: Jesus, I trust in You.'”

Later, Our Lord again spoke to her:

“The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous; the red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls. These two rays issued forth from the depths of My most tender Mercy at that time when My agonizing Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross….Fortunate is the one who will dwell in their shelter, for the just hand of God shall not lay hold of him.”

As instructed, since she was not a painter herself, Sister tried to find someone to paint the image.  She was finally successful when she was assigned to the convent at Vilnius.

Shortly after arriving in Vilnius, Faustina met Father Michael Sopoćko, the newly appointed confessor to the nuns. Sopoćko was also a professor of pastoral theology at Stefan Batory University (now called Vilnius University).

When Faustina went to Sopoćko for her first confession, she told him that she had been conversing with Jesus, who had a plan for her. After some time, in 1933 Father Sopoćko insisted on a complete psychiatric evaluation of Faustina by a psychiatrist and a physician associated with the convent. Faustina passed the required tests and was declared of sound mind.

Thereafter, Father Sopoćko began to have confidence in Faustina and supported her efforts. He also advised Faustina to begin writing a diary and to record the conversations and messages from Jesus that she was reporting. Faustina told her confessor, and now spiritual advisor, about the Divine Mercy image, and in January 1934, Sopoćko introduced her to the artist Eugene Kazimierowski who was also a professor at the university.

The first public exposition of the painting was on 26–28 April 1935, at the church of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius. In 1937, on the Sunday after Easter, the current Feast of Divine Mercy, the picture was put on display beside the main altar in St. Michael’s Church, Vilnius. Due to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania after the Second World War, the painting remained hidden from public view for many years. It was during this time that the Hyla image was painted and gained notoriety. Amazingly, though in the possession of the atheist Soviet authorities all during the Cold War, the original image was saved from destruction. Finally, in 1986, it was rescued from an abandoned church in Belarus near the Russian border by a local parish priest, who today is the archbishop of Moscow.  In 1970 the Soviet authorities had closed this church and removed the entire contents of the church, but by some extraordinary miracle they overlooked the Image of Divine Mercy.

The image was secretly returned to Vilnius, where today, the painting is displayed above the altar in Holy Trinity Church, a Gothic single-nave church built in the 15th century. On Divine Mercy Sunday, 18 April 2004 under the care of his Eminence Cardinal Audrys Bačkis, the church was restored, blessed, and given the title Shrine of Divine Mercy.

Regardless of which image of Divine Mercy is venerated, we have it on good authority that the image itself is not of utmost importance. As Sister Faustina tells us in her diary:

“Once, when I was visiting the artist [Eugene Kazimirowski] who was painting the image and saw that it was not as beautiful as Jesus is, I felt very sad about it, but I hid this deep in my heart. When we had left the artist’s house, Mother Superior [Irene] stayed in town to attend to some matters while I returned home alone. I went immediately to the chapel and wept a good deal. I said to the Lord, “Who will paint You as beautiful as You are?” Then I heard these words: Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace.

Lent

So who invented Lent anyway? It’s been around for as long as I can remember.

Our Lenten observance is based on tradition, and certainly our church is traditional. So where did this tradition originate? Looking to the Scriptures, we find numerous examples of a penitential time lasting 40 days and 40 nights.

In Genesis, the Lord cleansed the world of its sins by sending the great flood, with rains lasting 40 days and 40 nights, saving only Noah and his family.

In Exodus, the Lord saved His people Israel by rescuing them from slavery from the Egyptians and sending them into the desert. Near the beginning of their journey he called Moses to Mount Sinai. On the mountaintop the Lord provided Moses with detailed instructions on the construction of His sanctuary, and the method of worship. The detail was such that it took seven Chapters of Exodus to record. As we know, Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountaintop receiving these instructions, but the people Israel got tired of waiting, so they constructed a golden calf to worship. When Moses found out, he was pissed. So much so that he smashed the stone tablets containing the laws that he received from the Lord on the ground. Seeing what happened, The Lord again called Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, where, as we learn in Exodus:

“And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”  [Exodus 34:28] And we know that Israel then wandered about the desert for 40 years.

In the Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah was visited by an angel, “And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.” [1 Kings 19:8]

And of course in the New Testament, Matthew relates that after His baptism in the Jordan, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus went into the desert, “And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.” [Matthew 4:2]  Matthew certainly had a knack for understatement.

While some of the earliest references to forty days of fasting before Easter date back to the time of Sts. Leo and Jerome in the fifth century, we are certain it was recognized at the end of the sixth century, and was quite strict at that, since we find Pope St. Gregory writing to St. Augustine of England advising him, “We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.” As time went on, the rules loosened up a bit.

Historically, Lent has varied from a week to three weeks to the present configuration of 46 days. The forty-day fast, however, has been more stable. The Sundays of Lent are certainly part of the Time of Lent, but they are not prescribed days of fast and abstinence.

Our requirements are handed down in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which specifies the obligations of Latin Rite Catholics, since the Eastern Rite Catholics have their own penitential practices as specified by the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches.

  • Canon Law proscribes that all Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days throughout the entire Church. [Canon 1250:]
  • Of course, we have to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but Canon Law still provides that we must also abstain from eating meat on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities, as proscribed by the conference of bishops. [Canon 1251:] Here in the United States the American Bishops have allowed us to choose a different form of penance rather than abstaining from meat on every Friday, but there must be some form of penance. The bishops stress that “[a]mong the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance…we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat.” [Pastoral Statement on Fasting and Abstinence].
  • Everyone above the age of 14 is bound by the law of abstinence; fasting is required up to the age of 60. [Canon 1252]
  • Finally, it leaves it up to the bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety. [Canon 1253:] Since St. Patrick’s Day normally falls during Lent, those of us who are Irish, or who celebrate as if they were, are grateful for a dispensation when his feast day falls on a Friday, so we can enjoy our corned beef and cabbage.

The Lord’s Prayer

This past December, when it was reported that our Holy Father suggested that the Lord’s Prayer be changed, I was deeply concerned. How could a prayer that was taught to us by our Lord and Savior be wrong? Pope Francis indicated that he was troubled with the phrase, “and lead us not into temptation”, because certainly it was not God that leads us into temptation, but the evil one.

Once again, this subject inspired me to further investigation. I looked to Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and prominent theologians for guidance.  In Matthew, Chapters 5-7, we find the Sermon on the Mount, of which the Lord’s Prayer is an integral part. Luke (11:1) introduces the Lord’s Prayer with Peter’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray”.

We are reminded of His instruction every time we celebrate the Eucharist, when, after the Eucharistic Prayer, at the beginning of the Communion Rite, we stand as the Celebrant says, “At the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say,”…

Yes, the very words our Savior gave us, when he was asked by his Apostles how to pray to God our Father, form the very words of the prayer we learned as children, and continue to pray this day.

In the original writings of the Evangelists, the language used to transcribe the words our Savior spoke in Aramaic was Greek. Translating the text from Greek to English has caused some issues and confusion.

Saint Augustine, one of the Doctors of the Church, sheds some light on this very topic, when he writes about the Lord’s Prayer, explaining:

“The sixth petition is “And bring us not into temptation” (cf. Mt. 6:13). Some manuscripts have the word “lead,” which is, I judge, equivalent in meaning, for both translations have arisen from the one Greek word that is used. But many who pray express themselves thus: “Allow us not to be led into temptation,” explaining in what sense the word “lead” is used. For God does not Himself lead, but allows that man whom He has deprived of His assistance to be led into temptation, in accordance with a most hidden arrangement, and with what he deserves. Often, for manifest reasons, He also judges him worthy of being so deprived and allowed to be led into temptation.” (St. Augustine of Hippo, On the Sermon on the Mount, Chapter 9).

In the Letter of James, we find the author saying, “No one experiencing temptation should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one.” (James 1:13)

After the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Our Lord told his disciples twice to pray to the Father to be protected against temptation: When they first arrived at the garden, He said to them, “Pray that you may not undergo the test.” (Luke 22:40).  Again in the garden, after praying to the Father to let this cup pass if it be His will, He returned and found his disciples asleep, and said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test.” (Luke 22:46). The “test”, of course, is temptation.

Christ himself was not exempt from temptation.  At the beginning of his ministry, after his baptism in the Jordan, Matthew tells us: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1).

It is interesting to note that the Greek verb for “lead” is different here from the one in the Lord’s Prayer, and the idea is more emphatic. The Gospel of Mark tells the same story; Mark says that “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert” (Mk. 1:12).  Modern-day theologian Dr. Scott Hahn, Chair of Biblical Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, points out: “the Greek verb translated as “drove” means, literally, “threw”! If Jesus Himself was “thrown” into severe temptation, we should not complain that we are unloved by God when He “leads” us into temptation. For, like God’s other beloved, we will shine more brightly when we, with God’s help, have struggled successfully.”

Our Creator has created us in His image, providing us with free will – to choose to love and obey Him and thereby to enjoy eternal life – or not. He wants us to choose Him but has given us the opportunity to choose otherwise. He did not lead Adam and Eve to temptation by providing them with the fruit from the tree of life in the garden of Eden, but he made it possible for them to accept or reject Him by endowing them with a free will.

He provided Abraham with a free will and instructed him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham certainly could have opted to ignore this command, but instead Abraham chose to trust completely in the Lord and was rewarded with “descendants as countless as the stars in the sky.” (Gen 22:1-19)

Every day we are provided with choices. We are tested, as were the ancient Hebrews, to accept God Our Father or to turn away from Him.  The correct choice is the one for which we will be eternally grateful.

The Epiphany

This past Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of the Epiphany of our Lord. We have long associated this feast with the visit of the Magi. In the early church, however, this feast was associated with not one, but three events: the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of our Lord, and the Wedding Feast at Cana. It wasn’t until 1955 that Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of the Baptism as a separate liturgical commemoration, which this year we celebrated on Monday.

Although we frequently sing, “We Three Kings” when we celebrate Mass on the Epiphany, there is no evidence that those who visited our Lord in Bethlehem were kings, or even that there were three of them.

The evangelist Matthew, who alone provides the narrative of the Magi’s visit, simply tells us that “magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem” and they “offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “…the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come, bearing gifts of gold and frankincense…”

So who are “magi”, anyway? A reading of the works of the Greek historian Herodotus suggests that the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes that provided priests throughout the Arabian Peninsula for several hundred years. Although some suggest that the Magi were sorcerers or magicians, the religion of the Magi was fundamentally that of Zoroaster and forbade sorcery; their astrology and skill in interpreting dreams were what led them to find our Lord.

What is significant about Matthew’s narrative is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and the good news that Christ’s appearance was not only for salvation of the Jews, but for the whole world. The Magi represent all of us. This event is what Pope St. Leo the Great referred to as “the day of our first harvesting, of the first calling of the Gentiles.”

Getting back to the Magi, where did they actually come from? Isaiah’s prophecy referred to Ephah, Midian and Sheba. Midian is the Old Testament name for what was, in Jesus’ time, the Kingdom of the Nabateans.  It lies directly east and south of Jerusalem — in present-day Jordan. Ephah was a city of Midian further south in the Arabian Peninsula, and the ancient Kingdom of Sheba was centered in what is present-day Yemen, also to the east and at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

So if the Scriptures are any indication, Isaiah suggests that the Wise Men, “coming from afar” probably came from what is now Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  If so, they undoubtedly traveled on camels, since Midian especially was known for its abundance of camels.

The gifts offered also provide a clue as to the origin of the Magi. Yemen is the present-day location of the ancient civilization of Sheba.  The kingdom’s fabulous wealth was based on gold mines in Ethiopia, which lies just to its west, across the Red Sea. The Arabian Peninsula — especially the area of Midian and Sheba — is the only place in the world where the specific plants grow from which are harvested the resin to make both incense and myrrh.  These two rich gifts — used for their aroma and for medicinal purposes — were, in those days, equivalent in value to gold, and were the “cash crops” in this part of the world.

The Old Testament Book of Kings chronicles the visit of the queen of Sheba who came to bear gifts to the Jewish king Solomon. During Jesus’ time, the Kings of Sheba were Jewish. Given their faith, they certainly would have an interest in a newborn King of the Jews that had been prophesied. Traveling to Bethlehem (or to Jerusalem) to pay him homage – or more likely sending their emissaries to do so – would not be surprising.

Even the New Testament hints of this, when in Matthew 12:42 Jesus refers to the queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, and then – referring to himself – says, “there is something greater than Solomon here.”

The distance from Sheba, or today’s Yemen, to Jerusaem is about 1400 miles. To travel that distance by camel would take anywhere from three to twelve months, depending on the weather, availability of water, and the disposition of the camels, who are useful as a beast of burden, but are renowned for their ornery disposition. Besides the travel time, there were probably many weeks of preparation after the star’s appearance. Rather than arriving a few days after His birth, it is far more likely that the Magi arrived about the time of His first birthday. This timing also seems to make sense in light of two events recorded by Matthew:

  • In Chapter 2, verses 10-11 we are told that the Magi “were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.”

Note that they did not find Him in the stable, but in a house with His mother. By this time, the Holy Family had apparently taken up residence in the area.

  • Then there is the matter of Herod’s decree. As Matthew relates in 2:16: “When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.”

Herod did not order the killing of all newborn infant boys in Bethlehem, but all of those two years and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity, since the Magi provided Herod with the approximate time of Our Lord’s birth, which coincided with the appearance of the star.

So whether Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar actually made the trip from Sheba to the Jerusalem/Bethlehem area (they are only about 6 miles apart), or whether other individuals came from a different country, we are not certain. What we are sure of is that our Lord and Savior was miraculously born to a Virgin over 20 centuries ago, and we continue to celebrate his birth today.