A transcript is commonly understood today as a written record primarily of legal proceedings. The words spoken in court by the defendant, an attorney or judge are copied by a court recorder and a transcript is produced.
In the parlance of the 19th century, when the Diocese of Hartford’s newspaper was launched, a transcript was more broadly understood as any copy of an original. One dictionary circa the early 1900s used this as an example of how to use the word in a sentence: “The Decalogue of Moses was but a transcript, not an original.” In other words, the Ten Commandments given to Moses by the Lord on Mount Sinai were a copy of God’s laws, not the original.
Monks in the middle ages spent hours – if not lifetimes – in the abbey scriptorium copying Scripture from one parchment to another, illuminating it with drawings and illustrations, writing marginalia commentary, and all in prayerful silence immersed as they were in the Word of God.
The Catholic Transcript you are reading now is the final newspaper version of the publication to be published. Since July 1, 1898, this paper has been the primary source of Catholic news and information within our archdiocese. It started out as an eight-page weekly newspaper crammed with small black type. There were no photos, just lengthy news stories about what the pope or the bishops said. There were reports of sermons delivered by local priests, and even mentions of whom was seen attending Mass at a given church, especially if it was someone noteworthy or of social prominence. The paper ran editorials and the occasional sermon-like essay on the various hot-button issues of the day. To read The Catholic Transcript of yesteryear is to see into the Catholic Church and an archdiocese of the past.
But all that has changed, so all of this is changing. Beginning next year, The Catholic Transcript becomes a color magazine that will be published 10 times a year and mailed free of charge to more than 192,000 registered Catholic households in the archdiocese. The editorial emphasis will shift to evangelization and mission. (Editor’s Note: You’ll still be able to find timely information at the Transcript’s website, including full obituaries, coverage of local/national/international news and a calendar of events.) The new print model is called “content evangelization,” which means simply that the articles, columns and images in the magazine will be used to form people who then, we pray, will go out and share the Good News of what they have read. Less news, as we have known it, and more New Evangelization.
In the magazine’s issues you will find a mix of individual or parish faith stories, columns that relate to everyday life and news and information from Archbishop Blair and our parishes. The new Catholic Transcript is just one way we have chosen to achieve the mission Christ left us when he told his disciples to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19).
Pope Francis has said that “Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization.” The Catholic Transcript is responding to the Holy Father’s call, and when the magazine arrives in your mailbox early next year, we feel assured that you will have one very important tool in the work of evangelization.
In 1983, Pope John Paul II sounded a clarion call for mis-sionary disciples, a call that has been echoed by Pope Francis and which is the foundation for the Archdiocese of Hartford’s pastoral planning initiative. What Saint John Paul II said at the time rings true to this day. He spoke of the need for a New Evangelization, which he described as being “new in its ardour, new in its methods and new in its expression.” The implication was that the usual or “classic” evangelization was not working; something new was called for.
Later this month, on Nov. 20, Pope Francis will bring an end to the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy by closing the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica. The Solemnity of Christ the King, which concludes the church’s liturgical year, will also see the closing of holy doors at St. Joseph Cathedral, and at cathedrals, shrines and other churches. The holy year will be history. Or will it? That’s up to each one of us to decide.
Pope Francis said repeatedly during the jubilee that mercy is not reserved solely for God the Father to lavish on his children through his Son Jesus. Mercy is at the heart of the Gospel message and is the foundation of the church’s life. We must make it ours. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes of Matthew’s Gospel (5:7). The corollary to that should be obvious: If through our lives and witness as Christians we don’t show mercy, we may not receive it when we need it to be shown to us.
Many commentators occasionally take Pope Francis to task for his seeming spontaneity, his off-the-cuff remarks to reporters and announcements that catch many by surprise. When the Holy Father proclaimed the year of mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2015, one could sense that it wasn’t the start of something new for him or his papacy or for the church, for that matter; rather, it was an important and prayerfully considered next step, and one in keeping with the thinking of his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and especially St. John Paul II.
Referencing John Paul’s 1980 encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), Pope Francis said that a new urgency for the “proclamation and witness to mercy in the contemporary world” had spurred him, just as a renewed urgency regarding evangelization has been guiding the church in recent years. The two, in fact, go hand in hand. Quoting Saint John Paul II, Francis has written: “The Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims mercy – the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer – and when she brings people close to the source of the Savior’s mercy, of which she is the trustee and dispenser.”
John Paul’s words are a call to action: Profess, proclaim, bring people close to mercy, he says to us. So, too, are Pope Francis’ words: “Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help.”
Physical holy doors may indeed be closing on Nov. 20 to end this jubilee year, but what is important is that the doors of our hearts have been opened, permanently and widely, to seek forgiveness and then to give, to seek mercy and then dispense it.
There is probably no Catholic churchman alive today who has sat down for interviews as often throughout his life as has Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. That’s nothing short of ironic, considering he was often depicted by the media as a shy and retiring individual more interested in the inner workings of the church than in being on center stage like his predecessor St. John Paul II or his successor Pope Francis.
But Benedict, first as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and in his role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and then as Holy Father, sat down periodically for interviews with journalists, most often with the German reporter Peter Seewald. Their conversations, beginning in the mid-1980s, became book-length explorations of a host of controversial subjects facing the church and society in the years leading up to the millennium and then afterward. To read any of these book-length interviews, captured under titles such as The Ratzinger Report (1985), Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (1997), Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times (2010), or to simply skim them from topic to topic, is to be engaged in a very personal way with one of the church’s leading thinkers and holy leaders.
This month, the last of those interviews is being published under the title Last Testament: In His Own Words (Bloomsbury Continuum). From the title and press announcements about the book, these will be Benedict’s final public words. What a shame.
Since his stunning retirement from the papacy in 2013 – the first time a pope has retired in more than 600 years – Benedict has lived a very private life, monastic almost at his request, with only a few public appearances at the invitation of Francis. They were seated together in the Vatican Gardens in 2013 for the unveiling of a statue of Saint Michael the Archangel. They have been shown praying together in Benedict’s apartment in Vatican City and perhaps, most dramatically, sharing a fraternal embrace – one pope to another! – at the canonization of two of their brother popes, John XXIII and John Paul II in 2014, surely a sight that won’t be repeated again in our lifetimes.
With the publication of Last Testament, we will have no more insights like these: “Man is clearly in danger, and he is endangering both himself and the world; we could even say we have scientific evidence of this. Man can be saved only when moral energies gather strength in his heart; energies that can come only from the encounter with God; energies of resistance. We therefore need him, the Other, who helps us be what we ourselves cannot be; and we need Christ, who gathers us into a communion that we call the Church” (Light of the World).
Those words are certainly not a snarling sermon, nor a dense theological argument, nor a stern, wagging finger from a man critics nastily and snidely dismissed as “God’s Rottweiler.” They are the words of a father … a true holy father. And they will be missed.
On Aug. 12, 1852, Michael Joseph McGivney was born to just-off-the-boat Irish immigrants Mary Lynch and Patrick McGivney. The eldest of 13 children, he would see six of his siblings die in infancy. Through such struggles, the Catholic faith became the centerpiece of the McGivney family’s existence. Michael McGivney’s parents did not give in to the “hardship” of what even then was a shortage of priests. With others from their Railroad Hill neighborhood in Waterbury, they would walk the 20-some miles to New Haven to attend Mass, often leaving at 3 a.m. in order to arrive in time to assist at the mid-morning Mass. After sharing a simple lunch carried from home in their rucksacks, the group would set out for the long walk back to Waterbury. That is the spiritual character and fortitude of our ancestors in the faith, and it should give us pause when we think about our own dedication to the faith.
On Aug. 19, Michael was baptized. Our baptismal day is the day that Pope Francis says is for each of us our “rebirth as a child of God.” Just 38 years later, however, on Aug. 14, 1890, Father Michael J. McGivney would die due to complications from influenza.
In his brief life, however, Father McGivney accomplished great things for God, the church and even the world. In becoming a priest – despite setbacks in his studies and less-than-glowing endorsements from his seminary instructors – Father McGivney strived to be an alter Christus (another Christ). He wore himself out by giving his time completely to the people he was called to serve. His daily appointment book was crowded with baptisms, weddings and visits to orphanages, convents and the city prison. His nights were packed with sharing in the wholesome entertainments he planned for his parishioners to keep them out of bars and away from activities and organizations that would lead them away from the faith.
In founding the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Father McGivney laid the groundwork in the U.S. church for fruitful collaboration between the parish priest and the laity. Though commonplace now, such collaboration was practically unheard of in the 1880s. In fact, a brother priest of the then-Diocese of Hartford and a champion of Father McGivney’s efforts and vision said some priests called such collaboration “a viper that would one day sting the church.” In hindsight, only with utmost charity can one respond, “Hardly.”
The model of parish-based charitable and fraternal outreach envisioned by Father McGivney has resulted in the Knights of Columbus being found in countries he would have never imagined: Poland, Ukraine, Mexico and the Philippines, among others. His simple program of fraternal support for widows and orphans through life insurance has grown into a highly regarded and top-rated multi-billion-dollar operation. His efforts to inspire Catholic men and their families to help alleviate the material needs of the poor and destitute now sees Knights at the grassroots level raising and contributing upwards of $175 million to charity annually and volunteering a staggering 73 million hours of service each year.
Through the leadership of Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, and through the support given to the Knights by our own Archbishop Blair and his brother bishops and priests, the Knights of Columbus is unafraid to take to the international and national stage to decry genocide in the Middle East and the infringement of religious liberties here at home; to stand up for traditional marriage and the sanctity of human life at all stages; to nurture vocations from within the family, what the Fathers of Vatican II hailed as “the domestic church”; and to build a civilization of love and mercy through their programs.
Did Father McGivney envision all this? Probably not. Is he proud of his brother Knights and families today and does he intercede for them from his place in eternity? Most certainly.
But it shouldn’t end there. If you are a Catholic man 18 years of age or older and reading this, please consider joining the Knights in your parish or community (kofc.org or ctstatecouncil.org). Everyone reading this should enroll right now in the Father McGivney Guild (fathermcgivney.org), the organization that oversees the efforts on behalf of Father McGivney’s cause for sainthood. And, most importantly, pray that God will inspire the priests of our archdiocese to serve the faithful in imitation of their brother priest, Father McGivney, and that many young men will see in him their own vocation to priesthood.
In years past, the traditional start of the U.S. presidential general election season was after Labor Day. By then, the major parties had held their nominating conventions. Summer was over and people, it was assumed, were ready to focus on the November election. The serious work of scrutinizing and then selecting a president could begin in earnest after the kids were back in school and the lazy, hazy days of summer had faded.
Not so much anymore.
In the era of the 24-hour news cycle and especially during both parties’ prolonged, surprising and tumultuous primary season this past winter and spring, every speech, every sideways glance, every nasty comment and every Facebook post and Twitter tweet have been scrutinized to determine who’s in front, who’s more trustworthy and who should be the next president of the United States.
Amidst all this churning of information, perhaps a more thoughtful investigation of the parties and their “religion” platforms, especially regarding voters who bring their faith with them into the voting booth, may be helpful.
On its national website, one of the two major parties addresses the concerns of people of faith, including Catholics, by listing its governing objectives as: the economy, ensuring “equality,” foreign policy, protecting women’s health, the climate and guns. The other party’s website lists its concerns for people of faith as: the economy and jobs; the restoration of Constitutional government; energy, agriculture and the environment; health care, and family, schools and neighborhoods.
Are any of those broad areas “Catholic” issues specifically? Obviously not. Should a concerned Catholic voter, however, be interested in learning more about the proposed policies behind these platform planks and how they agree with or stand in opposition to church teaching on economic issues, or environmental concerns, or family life, or the proliferation of gun violence in our cities? Most certainly. Our bishops address these issues; Pope Francis does, as well.
For several years now, the U.S. bishops have published a teaching document entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” The most recent edition was voted on and approved by the bishops at their November 2015 meeting. Input from Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of the Archdiocese of Hartford, a member of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, was included in the drafting of the document. In writing “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops do not intend to parse every action and statement of the two major party candidates. In fact, their aim is apparent in the title: to form the consciences of faithful citizens. Why? So that, as they write in the document’s introduction, they can live up to their apostolic mandate to be teachers.
They write: “This statement represents our guidance for Catholics in the exercise of their rights and duties as participants in our democracy. We urge our pastors, lay and religious faithful, and all people of good will to use this statement to help form their consciences; to teach those entrusted to their care; to contribute to civil and respectful public dialogue; and to shape political choices in the coming election in light of Catholic teaching.
“The statement lifts up our dual heritage as both faithful Catholics and American citizens with rights and duties as participants in the civil order. First and foremost, however, we remember that we relate to the civil order as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom, whose reign is not yet fully realized on earth but demands our unqualified allegiance. It is as citizens faithful to the Lord Jesus that we contribute most effectively to the civil order.”
A favorite story about Servant of God Dorothy Day goes something like this. Once, during the early days of the Catholic Worker movement in New York City back in the 1920s, Day and others took part in a rally to support department store workers who had been on strike for just wages. Day and her compatriots carried placards on which they had hand-written quotes from Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical on social justice, Rerum Novarum (1881). In her memoir The Long Loneliness, Day recalled that when the mostly Catholic police officers were sent to break up the protest, they took one look at the signs, the words written on them and the author of the words, and then refused to arrest her or her associates. She said one of the police officers told her that arresting her for carrying a placard with the pope’s words on it “would have been like arresting the pope himself.”
Laws prohibit anyone from carrying a campaign or advocacy sign anywhere within 75 feet of a polling place. More important than a sign is a well-formed conscience, and an understanding of what it means to be a faith-filled citizen. The elections are still weeks away, but now is the time to review “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” to study the major parties’ platforms on faith issues and discuss these topics with your pastor, among your family and friends, perhaps in your Knights of Columbus council or among all people of good will.
“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” can be downloaded from the U.S. bishops’ website at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/upload/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship.pdf.
This editorial first appeared in the Catholic Anchor, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska. It was written by Joel Davidson, the editor, and distributed by the Catholic News Service
Remember the Sabbath? If you do, you’re part of a rapidly shrinking block of Americans.
An extensive report by Pew Research Center reveals that Americans who regularly attend religious services are steadily declining. After surveying more than 35,000 U.S. adults, Pew reports that the religiously unaffiliated – those who do not attend church of any kind – have grown from 36.6 million in 2007 to 55.7 million in 2014. They now account for 23 percent of the adult population.
What’s more, the religiously unaffiliated are increasingly likely to say they seldom or never pray and that religion is unimportant to them. To put things in perspective, this group is mainly younger, which means that steady churchgoers are graying and dying off. That has led to an overall decline in Americans who pray or even believe in God.
Even among churchgoers, no generation of Americans reports becoming more religious as measured by church attendance, frequency of prayer or valuing religion’s importance in their lives.
In fact, the share of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists has dropped sharply from 71 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2014.
That’s the statistical summary of Pew’s massive survey. What does it mean?
In sum, as Americans drift away from church, they begin to pray less and eventually lose faith in God. While there are always exceptions, Pew’s finding cuts against the common claim that we don’t need church in order to have a relationship with God. By and large, as one distances himself and herself from the larger church community and embarks on what might be called a “Lone Ranger” path to spirituality, the prayers come less frequently, then thoughts of God fade into the background and eventually faith shrivels up and dies.
While churches of all denominations will find the Pew report disturbing, Catholics should be most troubled by the growing unease Americans have with “belonging” to a church.
Catholics don’t separate an individual’s very real and personal spiritual journey from their membership in the larger body of the church. That would be like claiming to be an American while renouncing all geographical, cultural, legal and historical ties to America. One may continue for a while with some vague American sensibilities, but eventually one will drift into some other national identity, or none at all.
The reason Christian faith relies so heavily on the church is that the church is the very source of our faith through the ages. We would have no Bible, no understanding of the Trinity or the belief that Jesus was both God and man, if it were not for the early church faithfully recording Jesus’ teachings, proclaiming this good news and preserving it against all error through the centuries.
Moreover, Christ established the church as the place where his individual followers come together to partake of the sacramental graces he pours through the church and out into the world. The church is where we gather for the eucharistic meal. It is where we receive the gift of baptism, where we are instructed in the faith, where we raise our voices and bend our knees in praise and honor of our maker and redeemer. It is also the place where we are challenged to surrender all to God and when we do not, we repent through the sacrament of confession and embark anew toward the heavenly kingdom.
Severing oneself from all this is akin to packing one’s bag and heading off into the desert for good. Eventually provisions run dry, which for most means death.
We were not made to be spiritual Lone Rangers. The Pew study shows in no uncertain terms that outside Christ’s mystical body – the church – we cannot long endure in faith.
It’s an old saying: Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.
I•den•ti•ty: the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Let’s add to that official definition how we carry our beliefs and owned qualities into the world around us.
The English architect Sir Christopher Michael Wren’s (1632-1723) epitaph reads: “Lector, si monumentum requiris circumspice,” roughly translated in English to “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.” Sir Christopher rebuilt many of London’s churches after the Great Fire of 1666, including St. Paul’s Cathedral where he is laid to rest. Our “monuments” are built by way of the bricks and mortar of our beliefs, words and deeds. Like Sir Christopher, we too should wonder if the monuments we create truly represent our innermost beliefs – our true identity.
Knowledge of our identity is not only big business – just ask Ancestory.com – but the answer to “who am I?” can satisfy the desires we have for knowing our ethnicity; or if we hail from a long line of lords, ladies or pirates; or even answer wonderings about our chances of developing cancer, diabetes or some other life-threatening illness. Indeed, identity is everything and helps create who we are and who we shall come to be.
What about our religious identity, our Catholicity? Our faith forms how we will interpret the situations of our life and act as God so desires us to act. Our support or lack thereof for the mandates of the Affordable Health Care Act and its impact on the Little Sisters of the Poor; our stance on the Holy Father’s encyclical “Laudato Si’” or our take on the moral teachings of the church in the midst of ever-changing cultural mores all begin with our knowledge of the faith and our Catholic identity. And likewise, our concern for and participation in the works of mercy, as well as our belief in the seven sacraments of the church, depend on Catholic identity. Our Catholicity touches and forms our understanding and practice of our faith, both spiritual and corporal.
Our Catholic identity becomes the portal through which we view and understand and participate in cultural discussions around the dining room table and in the public arena. Our Catholic identity is important as it forms how we come to view and then live out our faith through our daily activities of life. “The Mass has ended, go in peace” is not just a tagline to wake up and prepare parishioners for the recessional hymn, but rather highlights the Great Commissioning from Christ who asks his disciples to transform the world through a lived and active faith, breathing our faith into our family, our community and the workplace.
But it is not enough to have a light or superficial knowledge of our faith, i.e., knowing the “Thou shall nots” of the Catholic faith. Rather, we are called to have a well-formed understanding of the truths of our faith, what our church teaches and why it teaches it.
Saint Catherine of Siena is quoted as saying, “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world ablaze.” Saint Catherine calls us to have real knowledge of our God who created us to be his light and love in the world. This requires an understanding of who Jesus is and what the Catholic Church teaches as the truths of Christ. There are seven wonderful gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord) and these gifts are given to us to enable us to know what God desires of us and how we then grasp our faith and apply it to our daily activities. These gifts of the Holy Spirit open the door through which we are able to become active co-partners, albeit junior partners, in carrying Christ’s truths.
To be well-formed in our faith, thus causing us to live our faith according to the desires of God, originates from the truths of Christ. We all need to be fed through the Eucharist and to be nourished by the wellsprings of Christ’s teachings, understanding how we are called to continue his mission and ministry in our time and place.
The righteous goal here is to form our Catholic identity through educating ourselves in the depth, breadth and beauty of our Catholic faith, making God’s church – the Mystical Body – all God has called it to be. Understanding our rich Catholic faith – its teachings and its traditions – begins with heavenly wisdom. Many of us believe that we know our Catholic faith well enough. But do we?
To know our true identity, we must know Christ’s true identity. When it comes to the difficult issue of abortion, do we see every human life possessing his divine image? When we search for the excellence that is our Catholic identity, we must delve deeply into the church’s teachings. This lifelong journey begins with Scripture and accompanying Catholic commentary. It grows more deeply with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It expands exponentially through programs and seminars at both the parish and archdiocesan levels (Bible study, lay ministry and more) as well as through a host of wonderful Catholic sources and resources.
The gift of God’s faith is given to all, yet if we really want to know our truest identity, our Catholic DNA, we must be willing unwrap that gift of faith and delve into the source, the summit and the font of all that there is: Jesus Christ. When we are nourished by his truth, then we grasp the courage to proudly be Catholic in our lived-experiences of life. Just imagine that transformative power in our world. The Catholic Faith: Believe it. Live it. Share it!
Our faith journey must begin with a discernment, a sort of “What am I doing well? What am I not doing so well?” in one’s faith life. It is an investment to be sure, but just look at the dividend: life eternal with the Creator of the world; unending joy, heavenly wisdom and peace beyond belief.
One cannot celebrate the Resurrection without first being grounded in the Passion and death of Christ. During Holy Week, we journeyed through these inseparable experiences in an effort to enter into Christ’s encounter with his Passion, death and Resurrection. Although it is difficult for us to understand what Christ experienced, we can somehow glimpse the experience through our own encounters with this mystical experience of death and Resurrection.
As we have recently seen, witnessed, or heard about, our ancient yet always new Catholic Church has just followed Pope Francis and our own Bishop into the sacred aula of another Jubilee Year, this time within the sacred cloud of divine mercy. Beginning with the great Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and extending to the Solemnity of Christ the King in 2016, God’s love for us sinners – the classical definition of Divine Mercy – will be on our minds and within our hearts.
God’s mercy for us is encapsulated in one of the most stunning sentences of Sacred Scripture; specifically, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) Devotionally, this most profound revelation has from time memorial been expressed in one of our most powerful prayers: “Holy God; holy mighty one; holy immortal one, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
God’s mercy for us is especially tangible at Christmastime, the annual sacred commemoration of the Incarnation, one of the two key dogmas of Biblical Faith. Nothing that man could do – could do – could render us deserving of so meaningful a gift; the reason for such a grace is, in theologian Karl Barth’s unforgettable theologism: “God; God alone; God himself.”
Symbolically, therefore, the formidable door to the Divine audience allows for an open door – the sacred portal of the ceremony of the open door with which this Jubilee was inaugurated by the Holy Father and our own Bishop. God “lets us in,” as it were, despite our sinful states of soul. Vertically downward, one great theologian has reminded us, descended the Mercy of God – at midnight, when the world in darkness lay.
That darkness, though visited by the light at Bethlehem, remains a formidable obstacle to countless searches for truth and goodness. There are those, for example, for whom the very sense of sin has been dulled. In other words, the very “sense of sin has vanished.” Yet, as Saint Pope John Paul II once put it, when moral conscience is in eclipse, so is any sense of sin. What need have we of a savior, were it not necessary that we – each of us – need saving?
Again, as the Christmas carol pleads: “Fall on your knees…” Merciful Lord, free us from our sins, Lord, God, Savior!”
“Oh Holy Night!” These familiar opening words to one of our best loved Christmas carols alert us to a key paradox of Christian faith; specifically that Jesus, the Lord of Lords, chose to be born not in a palace, but rather a stable; not attended by fawning courtiers but welcomed simply by shepherds who, “with glowing hearts by his cradle,” stood and knelt in adoration. “Noël! Noël!... Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth…”
“O Holy Night…” Sacred Scripture repeatedly resounds with this theme, especially as it pierces and dissipates primordial darkness, symbolic of ignorance, superstition, confusion, chaos and a host of terrifying forces.
Light, as opposed to the darkness of night, is a perennial Biblical metaphor for God and for divine intervention in our world and the universe.
In the Biblical story of creation, we learn that in the beginning “darkness was upon the face of the deep” when God said, “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1-3) Moreover, light is described as “good,” and that it is not the same as darkness. (Ibid., 3) Indeed, the very first act of God in calling forth the “earth” and cosmos from nothing was separating light from darkness. This light, we are also told, is destined to become the ever-unfolding light that is God himself. (Revelation 21:5; First John 1:5)
Darkness, therefore, is not the world’s determined destiny. It is revealed with certainty that humankind’s final destiny is light, light impossible to reduce to darkness. The truth is that Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, personifies the Light of the World, in and through which all persons and the cosmos find ultimate, permanent, total fulfillment.
Indeed, all of the above is projected mysteriously in the scene of Christ’s birth while the world was all but frozen in darkness. The shepherds of Christmas were keeping night watch over their flocks. (Lk 2:8) And an ancient Scriptural tradition underlying the Midnight Christmas Mass depicts the darkness of the first Christmas. (Wisdom 18:14-15) A fourth-century Latin hymn reads, in translation: “When the midnight, dark and still, wrapped a silence vale and hill… God the Son… Started life as Man on earth…”
Since that first Christmas, the shades of darkness have revisited the world, everywhere, it seems, and repeatedly.
This Christmas, tentacles of death, dark evil ideologies and actions are beginning to choke the soul of our world. Everywhere, from Paris to Mali and beyond, destructive, barbarous shadows can be seen crossing whatever is morally good. There is darkness everywhere: human slavery, direct abortion, mass murders, beheadings, home invasions, the destruction of ageless artifacts, the kidnapping of children and youths, church and school burnings, massive thefts and more.
Darkness, shades of night everywhere, are slowly creeping into the observance of Christmas, which tells us that such darkness cannot possibly win the day; Satan and his cohorts have been vanquished in principle. Meanwhile, they are still at work. The key to victory is already alluded to in the first chapters of the Bible; namely, that God and his forces ultimately separate light from darkness. “Fall on your knees, / Oh hear the angel voices…” Indeed, night, by Jesus’ birth, becomes as if it were day. Thus it becomes Godlight, in which the Son of God Incarnate is transfigured, and to whom we pray, “Lead, kindly Light.”
There is no other way to a merry – blessed – Christmas. It is no wonder that some languages have named Christmas, “Holy Night.”