About a month ago, a good friend of mine who directs a local community theater called me in a panic. She explained that she was directing a stage rendition of C.S. Lewis' classic, The Magician's Nephew, and had one, big problem: She couldn't find someone to play Aslan. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician's Nephew parallel's the creation story from the book of Genesis. Aslan, a lion, is the allegorical figure for Jesus. Therefore, a creation narrative without Jesus would be downright scandalous in C.S. Lewis' classic!
Since I have background in theatre and opera, my friend Judine asked if I would play Aslan for two reasons: 1. I could pull it off in a short period of time, and, 2. I've been spending my whole life learning the "backstory" of the character! After prayer and discussing it with my staff, I accepted the role... and began to learn how to roar! Here's a review of another stage version of The Magician's Nephew.
The video nicely introduces you to the two main characters, Polly and Digory, and how their curiosity brought them to the attic of their devious and selfish Uncle Andrew. Uncle Andrew is a magician who makes two types of magical rings: One takes you out of the world and the other brings you back. As mentioned in the video, the children, unfortunately, have an encounter with an evil witch on their first journey before being transported to a different world - A world that is in the process of being created - Narnia!
It is at this part of the story that Aslan emerges, singing and speaking creation into existence. Aslan proclaims that what breaks the dark void of silence is the joy of life. Aslan then invites all to behold the beauty of creation - a newborn world! (Roar)
What I found interesting as one of the actors in this production, when the beauty of life is mention by Aslan, nothing is on the stage other than our ring bearing travelers. Then, slowly, life begins to take shape - hills, rivers, desert sand, mountain peaks, waterfalls, green grass, flowers that burst with pollen like sweet perfumes, and then the animals. Again, this is the stage rendition of a children's novel so I need to be a little cautious about being too theological in my interpretations. Yet, every performance we did begged a question in my heart: What is the joy of life?
To answer this question, I tried to "get inside the head" of Alsan. In other words, I prayed a lot! I've often read and prayed the story of creation from the "inside/out" meaning creation trying to understand Creator, but this was the first time I tried to put myself in the position of Creator when understanding Genesis. I reflected on the question, What would I experience when creating a new world and How was I to invite the audience, aka creation itself, into this experience?
The first thought I had was that creation would be something so personal, so inwardly inspiring to my heart I would want to share this in a real way. As a musician and painter, I know both the frustration and ecstasy of trying to bring a beautiful idea to canvas and musical staff lines. I experience frustration when the notes penned reflect nothing of my inner joy or the brush strokes refuse to reflect the image in my head. I experience ecstasy when the music and art not only express the beauty I felt, but surpass it with beauty that takes on a life of its own. As an imperfect creature, struggling to portray a creative, messianic lion creating a new world, I began to realize that I couldn't begin to fathom the immeasurable joy and love God the Creator beheld when Word became World!
As I moved to the creation of the animals of Narnia, I felt a certain playfulness emerged while reflecting on animals I find comical. However, I also felt moments of gravitas when the creation of large, ferocious, and stately animals emerged in my mind. Amid all of this, I felt an ever growing and glowing sense of love and joy. Again, as imperfect as I am, I can't begin to image the love and joy within the Godhead when you and I moved from sacred thought to sacred reality.
Predictably, I experienced a profound awkwardness in this production. No matter what theatrical tools I employed to depict creation, my stage presentation was woefully inadequate to express the dynamic between Creator and creation. Though my inner theologian was disappointment, my inner child hasn't had that much fun in a long time!
Now, how does this help answer the question, What is the joy of life? I wish to point out that this question is far different from the more basic question, What is life? To speak of the joy of life points to something that takes a more mundane reality and infuses a spark or energy into it that makes it richer. It is the difference between the statements, God Created and God Created Out of Love. One statement communicates a rather "lifeless" sentiment of creation where the other communicates not only a creative act but a quality that creation itself contains and intuitively connects it with the Creator - Love. Put another way, it is one thing to behold life and another to behold the joy of life.
What is the purpose of a creation story? This is a question I've reflected on with you in the past. Creation stories are not just a journalistic telling of the Who, What, When, Where, and How of our origins. They are not ignorant and inadequate stories that a scientific worldview can discard as arcane. They are the human person's constant desire to put into the limits of human language a deep longing we have to express our thanks and gratitude for being part of this creation to the Creator. They are, in liturgical language, an act of worship or liturgy.
From this starting point, an act of worship or liturgy can take on many forms other than the celebration of the Sunday Mass. Whether it be a scientist experiencing the joy of new discoveries while wrestling with the Theory of Relativity or a Catholic Priest dressed like a lion reflecting on God's experience of creation, there is a joy of life that makes both scientist and priestly lion rejoice (or roar), giving thanks for this profound gift to the source of the gift. A gift that points us to the three things that ultimately endure in our created world - faith, hope, and love. With the greatest of these being love.
Have a joy-filled Monday everyone!
Last weekend, the Gospel we reflected upon was Luke's version of the Beatitudes. What makes Luke's presentation of those who are blessed unique is his emphasis on the immediacy of those who are blessed in contrast to the Gospel of Matthew. Let's take a look at a side by side comparison of the beatitudes from both Gospels.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.” (Luke 6:20-26)“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3-12)
One way to approach these differing texts is to explore the subjective and objective nature of each. With Matthew's beatitudes, they ring more subjectively, using broader language that can be applied in many ways, making it easier to reflect on questions like, "How am I called to be poor in spirit?" Luke, on the other hand, is radically objective, using language that begs an immediate recognition those who are blessed by God this very moment. Whether it be the stark use of "Blessed are you who are poor" or the insertion of the word "now" when we hear "blessed you who are now hungry," Luke forces us into an immediacy of finding in this very moment those who are blessed by God.
In regard to blessed are you poor, it reminded me of an experience I had while at a homeless day center in St. Louis, Missouri. I had taken a group of college students from the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse on a spring break mission trip to this day center. We stayed there all week, sleeping on the floor, and serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the homeless who would come to the shelter. The staff was trying to break those who came of the habit of gambling, so they would not allow card playing at the shelter. However, they would let them play chess. Throughout the day, the day center looked more like an ongoing chess tournament instead of a day shelter for the homeless.
There was one gentleman I had the honor of meeting that shared his life story with me. He grew up in some of the more impoverished areas of St. Louis, but he worked hard, got an education, went to college, and then began his own business. He was married and had two wonderful daughters. As we spoke, my first thought was, "So, how did he end up homeless?" In that moment, the fact he was homeless seemed to disappear. Instead, I felt like I was playing chess with one of my parishioners or students. When I finally found the courage to ask him what led to his homelessness, one word came from his mouth with an expression that was twisted with emotional pain: Heroin.
As he recounted how Heroin destroyed his business, his marriage, and his relationship with his daughters, he suddenly remembered, "It's my daughter's birthday today!" He rose from the chess game as if we had never made a move, called her to wish her a happy birthday, and his daughter hung up on him. He came back, sobbing, and told me the heartbreaking end to his conversation.
It was then that Luke's version of the beatitudes spoke fresh to me when the Gospel proclaims, "Blessed are you who are poor... Blessed are you who now are weeping... Woe to you who are rich... Woe to you who laugh now." It became clear to me that Luke pointed to the man across the chess board as being blessed in the immediacy of that moment with poverty and grief. And I felt God tug at me, asking,"The blessing of the poor is before you rich young man, how will you assist him in his need?"
I am not qualified to assist him with his heroin addiction. However, I can help him find food to eat, clothes to wear, the basic necessities of life. And this is where we can see Care for Creation in the Catholic Church as not only a question of whether or not we recycle, but to acknowledge that if we are to take care of the poor in our mist to provide food, shelter, and the basic necessities of life, we need an environment that can provide us with the raw materials to make real these Works of Mercy.
As I have shared with you in the past, one of the most hopeful areas of collaboration I see between faith and science are the areas of Care for Creation and the Corporal Works of Mercy. The beatitudes from the Gospel of Luke clearly state that the blessed are ever present, identifiable if we allow our eyes to see them. Yet, for those of use who fit clearly into the "Woe to you" part of Luke's Gospel, there is a clear call to comfort the poor, to comfort those who grieve, and provide for those who hunger and thirst.
I see a clear connection with the Gospel's call to care for those in need and the work of NASA and ESA when it comes to monitoring our environment. When I heard of NASA's Tom and Jerry satellites, I first thought of one my favorite cartoons from my youth. Though I haven't watched an episode of this ongoing cat and mouse chase for many years, the metaphor was clear and fitting: Two satellites that are constantly chasing each other through the night sky. And what, might you ask, is the purpose for this astronomical game of cat and mouse? The answer is simple, but crucial: Water.
When reflecting on the changes occurring in our environment and the impact it has on drinkable water, I can think of few more important and urgent points of collaboration between faith and science then to ensure water for the peoples of the world. Water, obviously, not only speaks to what we drink, but also is necessary for healthy ecosystems and stable food production. When natural resources become scarce, poverty deepens, homelessness rises, desperation robs the human person of their moral capacities, choosing to justify immoral and criminal behavior for the purpose of survival. This type of social environment can lead to hopelessness and the rise of addictions to cope with reality.
The homeless man I played chess with was a victim of addiction. Yes, one might argue that he made the initial decision to take illegal drugs. At the same time, what started as a free decision became a debilitating addiction and disease. This devastating cycle of choice, impact of the choice, and long term ramification of the choice that robs the person of the ability to choose is at the heart of most addictions.
I see a similar trend in Care for Creation. We can choose to either use the best science set before us to inform our decisions on care for creation or ignore the science and do what we know will harm our environment, similar to someone experimenting with illegal drugs. Whether we want to admit it or not, those decision will have an impact upon not only ourselves, but also those around us and the world we live. In time, if those choices do not change, the environment becomes overwhelmed and the ability to choose what is best for our common home does little to no good for the environment. Similar to addiction, the dangerous part of not caring for creation is that we don't always see the impact of our decisions immediately. It is only when we become painfully aware that something must change that we find ourselves staring at a mountain many fear they cannot climb. This begs a stark question: What is the mountain we are standing before as a global community that needs to be overcome to properly care for creation?
Spiritual Exercise: Do we see Care for Creation being intimately connected with the moral choices we make? Do we see the call to care for the poor in our midst as including ecological choices to protect our ability to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy? Pray with these questions and, together, let us embrace a life of beatitude that we may both be blessed by God and bless those we have to opportunity to support as fellow sojourners in Christ, sharing the gift of our common home.
This is one of those posts I almost dread to write. The reason I say almost is because I have come to peace with my understanding of global climate change. The reason I feel a hint of dread is because of how the people I know who live in Wisconsin will react to this post.
These past three weeks, we have experience wind chills that have dropped to -51 degrees Fahrenheit, multiple snow storms that shut down local schools for days at a time, and so much cloud cover that those with seasonal affect disorder are going a little nutty. Am I simply complaining about the weather as many in the Midwest United States enjoy doing? Perhaps. However, my primary reason for reflecting on this is because NASA, the United Kingdom Met Office, and the World Meteorological Organization have found that 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record. After reading the reports, I have no problem embracing these findings. For many I know in Wisconsin, I'm sure I'll be greeted with, "Hey Father, I read your post on climate change. So, I've got this bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you!"
World Meteorological Organization Findings
United Kingdom Met Office Findings
There are many things that can and will be said about this data. Some will find enough information to argue against the adverse effects of climate change while others will find information to say global warming is so bad that all is lost. Regardless of what the interpretation of this data will be, for or against global warming, as Catholics, it wont change the fact that a foundational part of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is to protect the environment.
I must admit that Care for Creation has been one of the biggest challenges I have faced in my priesthood both personally and ministerial. On a personal level, I struggle to shake my own apathy to embrace care for creation. I have made many good steps, but I know I have a long way to go to embrace every aspect of care for creation within my own ability. In regard to the ministerial dimension of care for creation, it has been difficult, dare I say nearly impossible, to stir a communal ethos to take care for creation seriously. I find hope in many individuals, primarily my former students, who are passionate about sustainability. However, finding a vision in which most people can embrace remains elusive in my ministry.
Discussion: How can the Catholic Church, both locally and universally, do a better job to develop an ethos to inspire people to care for creation? Is there something the Church is missing in the discussion that could help show the importance of caring for our common home? Share your thoughts and, together, let us pray that all people see the importance of care for creation, regardless of climate data. May we see, as have our last few Popes, that care for creation is foundational for human rights and peace in our world.
As I mentioned last week, God blessed me with a wonderfully restful vacation after the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. Restful, that is, until my cellphone died and lost all ability to use the navigation software. When it first happened, I thought, "I've been driving these roads in Phoenix, Arizona for four days now - I'll be fine without Siri." Four hours later, I thanked God for helping me find the house I was staying at, exhausted from the mental stress of asking, "What is this place, how did I get here, and how do I get home?!"
In my defense, even parishioners who spend a great deal of time snow birding (a term used to identify primarily retired people from Wisconsin who spend the bulk of winter in Arizona) complemented me on my courage to try to navigate the city of Phoenix with no GPS. Nevertheless, there is something of the rural kid in me that felt like I failed to use my "natural" directional instincts to find my way home.
What does this have to do with faith and astronomy? One of the tensions I live in as a hobby astronomer is to balance the limited time I have to give to astronomy (given my "day job" as a priest) and the time consuming nature of doing astronomy. I feel blessed with the emerging technologies of automated telescopes that figure out your position for you or augmented reality star charts you can download for free on your cellphone that point you (sometimes) in the right direction of a star or planet. These gifts of technology can help maximize what little time I have to observe the night sky... when they work properly. And therein lies the problem: What happens if we become so codependent upon technology to enjoy the night sky that a dead battery, a worn gear, or a program that becomes corrupt can bring a screeching halt to enjoying the heavens?
The question of how codependent we have become on technology points to another foundational question: Do we even know the "neighborhood" of the night sky?" The first telltale sign that we are too dependent upon technology when observing the heavens is if we look up and can't identify constellations and planets. If our ability to know the night sky can only be done with an app or an automated GPS tracking system, we've put the cart before the horse. Therefore, a first principle of understanding the proper relationship between technology and astronomy would be the following: Does technology act as something that assists us to deepen a preexisting knowledge of the night sky or is our knowledge of the night sky completely dependent upon the technology we use?
The next question we need to explore is whether or not we understand both the limits and the capabilities of the observational tools we already have access to in our homes? For example, I've been slowly moving into doing photography as a hobby - both astrophotography and basic nature photography. When you begin to explore this world, you can be intimidated by camera/lens packages that run in the thousands of dollars, mounts that have directions that you need a couple dictionaries to decipher, and "suggested" telescopes that might be perfect for people who have done astrophotography for years, but would be a waste of money for those who do not know how to use the gear they have sunk a couple paychecks into. In short, as is true with most things in life, we need to start with the basics!
The best way to start with the basics is to ask, "Do I know how to take a good picture?" The advancement of cellphone cameras has given to every person the ability to take really, really nice pictures. Not only do they take nice pictures of landscapes, but also simple images of the night sky. One of the things I enjoyed doing at FAW2019 was to wake up very early and watch Venus, Jupiter, and sunrise. There are few things more beautiful than an Arizona sunrise!
Now, looking at these pictures, they're not the best and wont be winning any photography awards, but they are meaningful to me because they take me back to those experiences. The pictures are not the experience, but help me experience again those sacred moments. This brings up another important question when it comes to the technology of astronomy: What are you trying to accomplish with the technology, given the understanding of the heavens you have?
If you want to take a picture of a nebula, but don't even know the basics of taking good pictures, let alone night photography, it would be best to avoid buying any expensive equipment. Rather, take a good pair of binoculars or a field scope that is collecting dust in your closet, go out on a clear night and begin to get accustomed to the night sky. Find the objects that interest you, find them again, find them routinely, and then venture into the question of how to take pictures of the moon, then the planets, then stars, and then deep space objects. In other words, fall in love with the night sky first, navigate its streets without a gizmo, and then try to create meaningful reminders of your experience of the night sky. Personally, I know I will never be someone who will be shooting professional pictures for magazines, so I usually use my smartphone, a field scope, and an adapter to take images. If I want something a little more professional, I rent a quality camera and lens.
Four pictures taken with the rent-a-camera I never used before. I am particularly happy with the eclipse images since I took them through light clouds. Unfortunately, the clouds thickened just before totality.
Lunar images taken with my smartphone. Not bad!
As you can see, whether it's renting a rig for the weekend you can't afford to buy or buying an adapter for your smartphone and field scope that costs less than the rental, you can take some wonderful pictures of the night sky! The key, again, is to ask, Why are you taking the images? When I look at these pictures, I am reminded of two events: 1. My vacation in Arizona, and 2. A family that invited me over to their house because their daughter wants to get into astronomy, but wasn't sure where to start. If I want a poster for my wall, I'll go to the store and buy one - they're cheaper and higher quality. If I want to have personal, iconic reminders of some of the meaningful moments of my life, my love of the night sky, and my priesthood, I'll take these pictures any day!
Now, I'm not just trying to give you a slideshow of my adventures, but I'm trying to make a point - These pictures are wonderful, but even if I didn't have them, I would still treasure the experiences they capture. These images fail to come even close to what I experienced when I took them. I can't smell the night or morning air, I can't hear the faint calls of the birds, and I can't hear the conversations I had with the people who joined me in these moments. Photos, in my experience, always fail to grasp the essence of the moment, no matter how good they are.
Nevertheless, no matter how grainy, out of focus, or off center the image is, images like this take me back to the love I already had for the night sky. Put another way, I don't love the night sky because of the technology I use to observe the heavens - I use technology to help me remember what it was like to dream under a dark central Wisconsin night sky as a child, gazing into beautiful darkness saying profound things like, "There's Venus... There's Jupiter... There's the Big Dipper... Draw the line from the front of the cup... There's the North Star... There's the Little Dipper... Follow the arc to Arcturus." And so fourth.
Spiritual Exercise: Do you know the night sky? Are you willing to fall in love with gazing into the heavens? Does your technology limit you to what it allows you to experience or does technology deepen a love that already exists? Some may complain, "Ah, today's post was from a hopeless romantic!" A hopeless romantic indeed. And even if our technological genius someday comes crashing down, I will still be a hopeless romantic because I don't need a motor mount to point me home. I am already home in the wonderment of God's creation and the beauty of God's universe.
First of all, my apologies for my brief absence from The Catholic Astronomer. I was at the Faith and Astronomy Workshop in Tucson and then was blessed with a week of vacation in Arizona the week after. Though it was a bit of a shock to fly out of Phoenix at 73 degrees and arrive at Minneapolis/St. Paul at -3 degrees, it's good to be home!
FAW2019 was a wonderful success! Now that we have had four workshops, I feel as though we're "finding our groove." The main takeaway I had this year was the theme of faith and science not as dueling ideologies, but people developing relationships (both healthy and dysfunctional).
It is through these relationships that the true bridge between faith and science emerges through people exploring the wonders of our universe and our common home - both natural and supernatural.
We discussed how the strongest bridge between faith and science is not a series of apologetic arguments, but people who are searching for truth and meaning. In that exploration, we can either strive for a relationship of honesty, transparency, and charity or continue the unfortunate culture of distrust that has arisen from what I would call the "faith and science industry" - an industry in which both people of faith and people of science are responsible for the dysfunction.
A question that wasn't directly explored, but emerged in my heart during and after FAW was to shift away from exploring how one builds a bridge between faith and science and instead explore why do people "do faith" and "do science?" What motivates them? What inspires them? I felt this approach hit a highpoint when Chris Corbally presented on Fr. Angelo Secchi. Here is a brief video put together by Br. Bob from the Vatican Observatory of the most important priest scientist you probably have never heard of!
The skies were cloudy the last night of FAW, making observation impossible. So, we did what became a major theme of FAW2019 - Developing trust and friendship with one another.
I'll offer some more thoughts in the weeks to come on FAW2019, but, for now, I have some suitcases to unpack from my travels. In week two, I was lucky enough to rent a very nice Nikon camera to take some pictures of the lunar eclipse! It would have given me wonderful pictures of the astronomical event, but clouds cut my observing short. Still, I put together a brief video of my vacation adventures.
A personal project I did on vacation was as a musician. Being I was first trained as a saxophonist, I have had a dream of playing my saxophone in the Grand Canyon. It turns out I don't have enough star power to get permission to play in the Grand Canyon. However, there were a lot of smaller Canyons that were elated that I wanted to record at their sites. The music of this video is "yours truly" on the soprano saxophone. Enjoy!
Fr. James, did the star of Bethlehem really exist? This is one of the most common questions I get as a priest who also loves to gaze into the heavens. There was a time I would try to explain the multiple theories of what the star might have been. Christopher Graney posted a wonderful reflection on some of these ideas just a couple of days ago. Br. Guy has also put together a wonderful video on The Star Bethlehem. I am so happy that these two brilliant minds, along with others I have read and seen, have put together these reflections to share with you. One of the reasons I'm so happy is because I feel less inclined to delve homiletically into questions of star conjunctions, supernovae, and noonday phenomena at this point of my priesthood. Instead, I find it more fruitful to ask a different kind of question: What did the Magi seek? Stated another way, What did the Magi find?
On the surface, the answer to this question (or questions) seems rather simple: They were looking for Jesus. Yet, a powerful lesson I have learned from faith and science is that it is one thing to encounter or "find" something, but another thing to understand that encounter to its depths.
For example, I sometimes encounter well-educated parishioners who presume Jesus was a zealot in light of a popular book that embraces this thesis. The question often is stated, "Father, how can we, as Catholics, square an ethic of peace and non-violence with a Savior who was a political revolutionary?" I would agree that Jesus is revolutionary, but my retort usually begs the question, "How can an author claiming Jesus to be zealot square this thesis with Jesus' call to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us?"
When reading Scripture, it becomes clear that Jesus' innermost circle did not understand his mission and his person until after the resurrection. Some thought he was a teacher. Some thought he was a prophet. And, dare I say, there were some that wanted Jesus to be a zealot who would establish a "New Jerusalem" through military conquest. These misunderstanding of Jesus come to a head when he asks his own followers, "Who do people say that I am?" Even when Peter gets the answer "right" by saying, you are Christ, the Son of the living God, his insight is quickly met with chastisement when he tries to tell Jesus that Messiahs shouldn't suffer and die. This reminds me of another lesson I've learned from faith and science: Even when you get it right, you probably got it wrong.
Returning to our stargazing Magi, what were they looking for? An insight into this question comes by way of the gifts they bear of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold was the customary gift to present to a king. Therefore, it becomes clear that the Magi were looking for a newborn king.
At first, the gift of kingly gold may seem to support the thesis that Jesus was a militaristic zealot. However, when we add frankincense to the gift registry, things start to take on a different shape. Frankincense was the gift that was customary to give to a priest. In light of this, the Magi were not just looking for a king, but a king who also was to have a priestly ministry.
Still, these gifts don't give us the full picture of Jesus. I could easily think of a priest-king who would justify military violence through divine interdict. That is where the gift my myrrh comes in. Myrrh was used in the ancient world as a preservative and fumigant for a body after death. If we were to recast the three gifts in modern terms, Jesus would have received gold, frankincense, and embalming fluid. I don't know about you, but if a complete stranger would give a child of mine embalming fluid as a gift, I would be suspicious of these Magi to say the least!
What was the symbolism of myrrh? When read with the gifts of gold and frankincense, it points to a prophetic promise from Isaiah of a priest-king who would suffer vicariously on behalf of the people, making of himself the sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. He would be gentle and quiet like a lamb led to the slaughter. We would experience healing through the suffering he endured. I could go on, but the conclusion would still be the same: These eastern stargazing Magi who were not of the tradition that was looking for Jesus got it right!
This reflection points to yet another lesson from faith and science: Though our faith firmly embraces that all things came from the same Creator, the way we come to know the Creator can be achieved in various ways. Some may find this statement suspicious, wishing to remind me that Jesus is the sheep-gate, the only pathway to salvation. I would agree with this statement. Yet, we also need to remember that Jesus identifies himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Therefore, any sincere investigation into truth is ultimately an exploration of the source of truth. Any time we step outside of the darkness of our ignorance and sin, seeking a moment of illumination through studying the natural world or the supernatural world, we are seeking him who is the light guiding our journey: Even if that light is too intense at first and causes us to spiritually squint in our ignorance. Yet, in time, our spiritual eyes adjust, allowing us to slowly see him who is our source and summit, our Alpha and Omega, and him who is the destination of our journey. Let's face it - We're all Magi!
Spiritual Exercise: What do you seek in your life? What is the light that guides you through the darkness of our world? Do you presume to know the full extent of the light you seek or are you willing to humble your heart, presume ignorance, and allow this light to penetrate your innermost being? Pray that your quest toward truth be met with the source of truth. May you find not only the historical infant Christ, but him who is priest, prophet, and king, establishing a Kingdom of love, peace, and nonviolence.
I want to let you in on a little secret. It's a secret that, for those who are Christians that observe Advent, was reflected upon this past weekend. It's a secret that was shared between Mary and Elizebeth from the Gospel of Luke. As Scripture shares with us, Mary went in haste to see her cousin Elizabeth since the angel announced to Mary that both she and her cousin were pregnant. Is the secret I speak of about two women who just found out they are expecting a baby? Don't get me wrong, I have had a taste of that excitement as former students of mine have called me in the past to share with me that they are expecting a child and ask me to do two things: The Baptism after they are born and not to tell anyone - especially their parents. However, that isn't the secret I speak of.
So, then, what is this great "secret" that I'm trying to tantalize you with? The answer that would have been plainly understood by both Mary and Elizabeth is hidden in the song Mary sings to Elizabeth after Elizabeth tells Mary that she is humbled to be in the presence of Jesus' mother.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-55)
Some often think of this song to be an extemporaneous, charismatic prayer by Mary. It wasn't. Similar to when you drive to work and that one song comes on that speaks deeply to who you are, Mary was singing a song that would have been know to any of the Children of Israel at that time: The Song of Hannah that was sung long before Mary's praise issued from her lips, giving praise to God for the birth of her son Samuel.
My heart exults in the LORD,
my horn is exalted by my God.
I have swallowed up my enemies;
I rejoice in your victory.
There is no Holy One like the LORD;
there is no Rock like our God
Speak boastfully no longer,
Do not let arrogance issue from your mouths.
For an all-knowing God is the LORD,
a God who weighs actions.
“The bows of the mighty are broken,
while the tottering gird on strength.
The well-fed hire themselves out for bread,
while the hungry no longer have to toil.
The barren wife bears seven sons,
while the mother of many languishes.
“The LORD puts to death and gives life,
casts down to Sheol and brings up again.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich,
humbles, and also exalts.
He raises the needy from the dust;
from the ash heap lifts up the poor,
To seat them with nobles
and make a glorious throne their heritage.
“For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
and he has set the world upon them.
He guards the footsteps of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall perish in the darkness;
for not by strength does one prevail.
The LORD’s foes shall be shattered;
the Most High in heaven thunders;
the LORD judges the ends of the earth.
May he give strength to his king,
and exalt the horn of his anointed!” (1 Samuel 2:1-10)
Again, you might ask, "What is the secret these 'songs' sing that has got Fr. James so jazzed up?" To recast the secret in today's language: Mary and Elizabeth knew the secret that Christmas had already come - it was in their wombs - John the Baptism in Elizabeth's womb - Jesus in Mary's womb. Now, similar to my former students who swear me to secrecy about the baby to come until they can announce it to their families, so, too, is this secret a hidden one. Mary and Elizabeth were the only two, save Joseph and Zachariah, who would have fully grasped the power of this moment. Nevertheless, we have the honor to sit with Mary and Elizabeth and share in their excitement of both the joy of newborn children to come and the keeping of a promise that God had made throughout all of human history after the Fall.
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as Sheol, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then he said: Listen, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7:10-14)
During Advent, we light four candles, three purple and one rose. They symbolize both our waiting for Christ's final return in glory and our preparation for Christmas. The history of the symbol is from the northernmost parts of Europe and the Yule season. The tradition was that the people would light candles during the time the sun would disappear in the northernmost regions, marking time until the Sun would return over the horizon again.
For Christians, this symbol is transformed to show that in a world of "darkness" that knows brokenness, we wait for Christ to break in with his "light" and "re-order" our world. Put another way, our nights that knew no stars turns to the rising Son of God, a star so bright that even night is turned to day. Our world NEEDS Christmas. Not the Christmas of how much was spent on the diamond neckless or the Christmas of whether or not the kids got all the toys they wanted. We need a Christmas to allow the love and mercy offered in Jesus Christ to turn our spiritual nights into day. On this Christmas, then, let us look to the morning star. Not a celestial object that we know well and admire, but to the risen Son - Jesus Christ. And I wish to extend to you a most Blessed Christmas and Happy New Year!
The image above is a representation of three dispositions of heart the human person has toward creation:
Consume, Conserve, and Curate.
From the standpoint of Consume, it is a basic fact that the human person does need to consume certain things from creation to survive and advance as a people. Yet, we also know that consumption without moral restraints can lead to exploitation, wastefulness, and harming human dignity as the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" gets wider and wider. Consumerism also leads to an isolationist mentality in which the more we consume the more "self-centered" we approach life. Regard for how our life choices impact others is lessened, replaced by the ethic of "What is good for me is what is morally correct." This radical relativism creates deep conflicts between people and nations.
From the standpoint of Conserve, the call of Pope Francis to care for creation is deeply rooted in conservation. In the United States, what is often missed in the debate between renewable energy sources and fossil fuels is conservation. The cultural debate I often hear is, "We will have so many more people in our country in the future, so we need more energy, so we can't rely on fossil fuels alone, so we need robust renewables so we don't run out of fossil fuels." There is nothing in this statement I would disagree with. I would simply point out that there is no mention of a very important first step: How can we reduce our level of consumption, conserving our current energy production first, then explore the question of renewable versus fossil fuels? My fear is that the mere development of renewable energy sources with no attention given to conservation will simply lead to a more ramped consumerism, not addressing the core disposition of heart that has created our problem in the first place.
From the standpoint of Curate, this is where we move from the functional and moral to the spiritual. Something that needs to be added to our reflection on the relationship between consumption and conservation is the human person's call to be Curator, or steward of creation. When I think of a curator, they live a life of painstaking attention to masterpieces that have been created so that the integrity of the creator's work is protected and generations to come will have access to the master's original masterpiece. Every good curator knows that if they do their job, the works of art they care for will outlive them. In a similar way, we need to have a curator's heart when it comes to care for creation. We need to realize the painstaking attention needed to protect the integrity of the Creator's work, allowing it to sustain, support, and delight generations to come. We can see a "Sacred Canvas" emerge in our world when embracing this mentality, understanding how we are both creature in and curator of our common home.
Spiritual Exercise: What is your level of consumption? How do you conserve? Do you have a curator's heart, willing to protect the Creator's Canvas? Pray with these questions and, together, let us protect this masterpiece we call our common home. Let us reverence the artistry of God.
Corporal Work of Mercy:
To build a better world through choices that avoid violence, exploitation, and selfishness.
Reflect on the collage of images below. At the center is a person deep in thought. Around him is the world in which he lives and the world that his choices impact. He is placed at the center because his choices will ultimately impact him as well.
How does humanity's choices impact the different parts of creation depicted in each image?
What are the implications for humanity when those choices are made?
What are the choices you face on a daily basis that either support or challenge our call to Care for Creation?
The heart of Pope Francis' Corporal Work of Mercy for Creation is choices: Choices that you and I make and their moral implications. The heart of selfishness toward creation is when we adopt the ethic of, The only choice that matters is what I want to use creation for to better myself. Though there may be an initial short-term gain for an individual or country, a selfish disposition of heart can lead to a profoundly negative impact upon others, creates violence between nations over access to natural resources, and reduces people to things that we simply use, exploiting their lands for one's own benefit.
Spiritual Exercise: Reflect on the above image and ask, How can I practice the Corporal Work of Mercy that calls us to Care for Creation through our daily choices? Pray with this question, practice mercy toward creation, which is mercy toward your neighbor, and, in the spirit of Advent, invite Christ to come into our broken world, renewing our hearts and our lands so we can deepen our spiritual lives by having access to the natural resources necessary to care for all people's material needs.
Spiritual Work of Mercy:
The Contemplation of God through the Contemplation of God's Creation.
To begin, take a few minutes and simply gaze at Michaela's first photograph titled, Contemplation.
How does it speak to you?
Next, look at the second image that provides you with questions for reflection.
Pope Francis has added two new Works of Mercy pertaining to Care for Creation. The Spiritual Work of Mercy can be summarized as: The Contemplation of God through the Contemplation of God's Creation. How do the images above speak to you about the need to care for creation? Do you find your view of creation to be more functional or sacramental, seeing a sacred character to creation or simply a collection raw materials to be used as we desire? What are the moral and ethical responsibilities that awaken in us as was gaze upon God's creation?
Spiritual Exercise: Take some time today, get outside (weather permitting), and practice The Contemplation of God through the Contemplation of God's Creation. What questions emerge in your heart as you gaze either at beauty or tragedy? If you would be comfortable, share what emerges in your practice of this Spiritual Work of Mercy in the comment section of this post. May all of us be stirred to love God and neighbor through the contemplation of God's creation, helping us understand how creation contributes to supporting human dignity for current and future generations.
This past weekend, the readings the Catholic Church used for Mass had a clear apocalyptic overtone. For those of you who are not familiar with apocalyptic literature, it is a series of texts that oftentimes speak of the end of the world. At the same time, we cannot reduce these passages to mere doom and gloom. True apocalyptic literature always points to something from the past, something that is going on in the present, and something that is pointing to the future.
Many who interpret the Book of Revelation fixate on future events, trying to guess when the end of the world will come. Christ, himself, in this weekend's Gospel, dissuades this approach. Rather, we need to stop and first ask, "How would the people of Jesus' time have experienced these texts?" The problem is, living over 2,000 years after these texts were penned, we don't have the common experience of Jesus' time to see the clear connections to what was being addressed in the first century. This is why trying to understand the cultural context of this literature is so key.
There is much, much more that could be said of apocalyptic literature, but one thing that is universal, regardless what interpretive lens you adapt, apocalyptic literature does tend to have the effect of scaring the "H-E-Double Hockey Sticks" out of us. (For those unfamiliar with this "americanism," it's a way of speaking of where we hope none of us end up after dearth for all eternity without.... you know.... using a certain word.)
In those days, I Daniel,
heard this word of the Lord:
"At that time there shall arise
Michael, the great prince,
guardian of your people;
it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress
since nations began until that time.
At that time your people shall escape,
everyone who is found written in the book.
"Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
some shall live forever,
others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.
"But the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever. Daniel 12:1-3
Jesus said to his disciples:
"In those days after that tribulation
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
"And then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds'
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.
"Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.
"But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Mark 13:24-32)
When we read these passages, it is typical for us to fixate on the darkness of life: Wars, murder, the death of innocence, and cultural polarities. There is merit to gaze into this darkness, but not simply to make sure we occasionally ruin our day. Rather, we gaze into apocalyptic imagery and the sadness of our world to find light and hope.
Years ago, NASA and ESA scientists pointed the Hubble Space Telescope into what appeared to be a dark, empty part of the night sky. Some even questioned if this exercise was a waste of time, fearing that nothing would be seen other than more dark skies. What was captured was one of the most stunning images ever seen by Hubble. Thousands of unseen galaxies popped out of the darkness like Christmas tree lights. Applying this to our spiritual lives, it's an odd paradox that, sometimes, to allow the light of faith into our hearts, we must first peer deeply into the darkness of our lives, even when it seems there is no light to be found.
This past Wednesday, I shared with my parishioners at Saint Olaf Parish's bible study how St. Bede, in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, saw these apocalyptic images not as a dark night getting darker with the Sun and Moon losing their light. Rather, he flipped the common interpretation and said that the reason the firmament losses its luminosity was because when the light of Christ enters our world, no other light is perceptible.
For the stars in the day of judgment shall appear obscure, not by any lessening of their own light, but because of the brightness of the true light, that is, of the most high Judge (Jesus Christ) coming upon them; although there is nothing to prevent its being taken to mean, that the sun and moon with all the other heavenly bodies then for a time are really to lose their light, just as we are told was the case with the sun at the time of our Lord’s Passion. But after the day of judgment, when there shall be a new sky and a new earth, then shall happen what Isaiah says: “Moreover, the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold.” (Cantena Aurea - St. Thomas quoting St. Bede - Chapter 13 of Mark)
As the season of Advent approaches, I shared with them that the image of Sun, Moon, and Stars not shining due to the joy of Christ breaking into our broken world is a perfect backdrop for the season of waiting. Also, in the spirit of seeing these images as poetic metaphor, we are to allow the light of Christ to shine through our thoughts, words, and actions, becoming, in the imagery of the prophet Daniel, like the stars of the firmament. As I have shared with you before, we encounter in these texts the true meaning of stars and celestial objects in the Bible: Symbolic of angels and people, of you, of me, and our common call to allow Christ's light to shine through us, waiting in joyful anticipation for the one true light that will chase away all of our darkness.
Spiritual Exercise: What are the "darkened skies" you see in the world today? What are the areas of personal darkness you struggle with and desire the love of God to heal? As we prepare for the beginning of Advent in two weeks, beg the Lord to break into our world with his light of hope. Let us joyfully anticipate the coming of Christ into our hearts to dispel the darkness of sin and illuminate us with the light of forgiveness. And may we allow the light of Christ to shine through us, avoiding the tendency to see apocalyptic literature through the lenses of gloom, darkness, and fear, choosing, instead, the true interpretive lenses of faith, hope, and love.
What is your opinion of global warming? Though this question usually leads to a plethora of dueling political, theological, scientific, and personal ideologies about climate change, most people do believe we should be good stewards of creation. The point of division is what care for creation should look like and how should it be done? The more I write, pray, and reflect on the question of care for creation, I think that one of the struggles of getting on the same page with the environment is the use of a language of extremes to accentuate subtlety of change.
For example, smoking is not allowed in any public building in the state of Wisconsin. When this policy was enacted, there was much debate about the relationship between personal freedom and public health. Years later, while on vacation, I was surprised to learn that smoking is not banned in public buildings in the state of Oregon. When a good friend of mine joined me for a few days in Portland, we observed how each of our hotel rooms clearly carried the remnants of past patrons who smoked, giving us a deep appreciation for Wisconsin's smoking ban. However, we also observed that this "small change" of Wisconsin's smoking ban was far more impactful than we realized. It wasn't until we reentered a "contaminated environment" that we could appreciate a clean environment.
Part of me wonders if this experience of Wisconsin and Oregon is part of the reason why developing ethos to support care for creation is so difficult. When what is experienced by many are "subtle changes" to climate, the full impact of what is happening in creation can often go unnoticed. When attempts to create ethos gravitates toward language of "radical change," I wonder if there is something almost intuitive that questions this language since it seems to be so out of step with daily experience (at least in the state of Wisconsin where fellow blogger Christopher Graney rightly points out the local numbers can be interpreted in a way that questions whether or not global warming is happening in the Badger State).
Could it be that much of the apathy found when trying to promote care for creation is lack of attention to the subtleties of the environment, in contrast to the more culturally fashionable language of radical, diametrically opposed realities dueling with each other? Put another way, can we develop ethos to care for creation by emphasizing the small changes that end up having a major impact on the future of our common home and humanity?
In the weeks to come, I will be exploring these questions in a creative way. Since moving back to Eau Claire, I have had the joy of reconnecting with some of my former students I was teacher and/or chaplain for at Regis Middle and High School. Michaela Pittenger, a middle school student when I left Regis, is now working on a degree in photography (gosh, I'm feeling older than I should). Michaela has a love for artistic photography, is one of my parishioners at Saint Olaf Parish, and has a deep passion for ecology and sustainability.
I asked Michaela if she would be open to explore a project with me by taking some of the key principles I have explored in my writing on care for creation and have her bring her artistry as a photographer to those principles to create visual stories based on those principles. She eagerly agreed to this project and tomorrow we will be meeting to see the first stories Michaela has put together based on my writing. I can't wait to see her work!
Basic examples of some of Michaela's Photography
I will be sharing these visual stories of care for creation with you in an attempt to help develop ethos for care for creation not only through words calling for significant change in our daily lives, but images that can draw our mind and heart into the particulars and "smallness" of care for creation. What excites both Micheala and I is that this project wont just be meant to create beautiful pictures, which I'm sure they will be, but to help us be attentive to creation through visual storytelling. Both of us are excited to share these stories with you.
Images inspire inquiry, inquiry builds knowledge, knowledge leads to truth, and truth leads to appreciation and action. This is the trajectory I pray can be developed in these visual stories. Will they accomplish this lofty goal? Time will tell. Nevertheless, my hope it that the efforts Michaela and I put forward in this project will inspire the readers of The Catholic Astronomer to not only embrace care for creation on a personal level, but will inspire you to actively promote this ethic of Catholic Social Teaching in the world you live.
Spiritual Exercise: Is there a story in creation you would like Michaela and I to explore? Leave your suggestions and, together, let us strive to enact positive changes in creation, inspired by attentiveness to the subtle beauty of creation's story.