Thursday, May 22, 2014

Mary - Mother of Jesus - Mother of God

Before the month of May comes to a close, it is worthwhile to provide a short reflection about Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the Catholic world, the month of May is the month of Mary, during which there are special prayers and celebrations that highlight her role in the history of salvation.

Mary has become a very special figure in all of Christian religious history. She is also the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran. (Qs 3:42) One theologian has said that she represents the feminine face of God for many people. The one thing that the Church has strongly and regularly said is that Mary is not someone to worship; rather she is someone to emulate, to pray with in approaching God, to turn to for intercession when all else fails or seems far away. In this respect, she represents the best of “motherhood” and all that this means for people.

The biological connection between mothers and children goes far beyond the physical, even beyond the emotional. A well of deep connections and unacknowledged complexities lie beyond our grasp when it comes to our mothers. Psychologists, therapists, clergy, bar tenders, and airplane seat-mates may experience the ripples of a mother’s influence on her son or daughter. As one person once told me, “Your mother knows how to push all of your buttons because she put them there.” She knows your faults and limitations but loves you nevertheless and, for the most part, unconditionally.

One can imagine how the mother of Jesus was involved in the life of Jesus, from his birth to his death. While we don’t know the details, we know the results. Much of the personality, priorities, and passions that shaped the person of Jesus are due in no small part to his 24/7 relationship with Joseph and Mary, both during his early years, his teenage years, and his twenties. If indeed Jesus did not start his public ministry until the age of 30, he would have developed a close, mature relationship with his mother.

Therefore it is not strange that we should hold Mary in such high regard and assume that her present connection with Jesus is closer than that of anyone else. Ever since the early years of the Church, her influence has been notable, concrete, and frequent. Christians have turned to her for any need, as they would turn to their own mothers when they were young. One can try to analyze and rationalize this all day, but the plain fact may simply be that she indeed has the kind of close ongoing relationship with Jesus which allows for a different sort of intercession. There is more engaged mystery here than one can simply dismiss. Just look at the history of Marian devotions, apparitions, sayings, and all the rest.

G.K. Chesterton puts Mary in appropriate light: “When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. ... You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother…. The Blessed Virgin Mary is born to be Mother. The supreme consolation that Our Lady receives at the foot of the cross of her Son is the assurance that her vocation as Mother does not end with Christ’s death. The Lord commands the world, ‘Behold your Mother.’ The resurrection begins for Mary – and for us – with these words. The Blessed Virgin’s womb remains forever fruitful. Mary leads us to Christ, but Christ leads us back to his Mother, for without Mary’s maternity, Jesus would become a mere abstraction to us.”

School Mass on Founders Day - Part 3

For today’s reflection on the Catholic prayer form known as the Mass, or the Eucharist, I would like to provide a fine quotation by Ronald Rolheiser, who sums up the multi-dimensional experience of this ritual, the source of which lies outside of and beyond all of them put together.

(Rolheiser, Ronald. Our One Great Act of Fidelity, Pg. 28-29)

“Christians argue a lot about the Eucharist. What does it mean? What should it be called? How often should it be celebrated? Who should be allowed to participate fully?

“There are lots of views on the Eucharist. For some it is a meal, for others it is a sacrifice. For some it is a ritual act, sacred and set apart, for others it is a community gathering, the more mess and kids the better. For some it is a deep personal prayer, for others it is a communal worship for the world. For some its very essence is a coming together, a communion, of those united in a single denominational faith, while for others part of its essence is its reaching out, given that it contains an innate imperative to wash the feet of those who are different from ourselves. For some it is a celebration of sorrow, a making present of Christ’s suffering, the place where we can break down, for others it is a place to celebrate joy and sing alleluia. For some it is a ritual remembrance, a bringing into the present of the historical events of Jesus’ dying, rising, ascending, and sending of the Holy Spirit, for others it is a celebration of God’s presence with us today. For some it is a celebration of the Last Supper, something to be done less frequently, for others it is God’s daily feeding of his people with a new manna, Christ’s body, and is something to be done every day. For some it is a celebration of reconciliation, a ritual that forgives and unites, for others unity and reconciliation are preconditions for its proper celebration. For some it is a vigil act, a gathering that is essentially about waiting for something else or someone else to appear, for others it is a celebration of something that is already present and is asking to be received and recognized. For some it is understood to make present the real, physical body of Christ, for othes it is understood to make Christ present in a real but spiritual way. Some call it the Lord’s Supper, some call it the Eucharist, some call it the Mass. Some celebrate it once a year, some celebrate it four times a year, some celebrate it every Sunday, and some celebrate it every day. Who’s right?

“In truth, the Eucharist is all of these things, and more. It is like a finely cut diamond twirling in the sun, every turn giving off a different sparkle. It is multivalent, carrying different layers of meaning, some of them in paradoxical tension with others. There is even in scripture no single theology of the Eucharist, but instead there are various complementary theologies of the Eucharist. …

“How does one put this all together? By letting the Eucharist be patient with us. … There is no adequate explanation of the Eucharist for the same reason that, in the end, there is no adequate explanation for love, for embrace, and for the reception of life and spirit through touch. Certain realities take us beyond language because that is their very purpose. They do what words cannot do. “

School Mass on Founders Day - Part 2

This reflection follows on last week’s regarding the upcoming Founder’s Day activities, which includes a student body Thanksgiving Mass for all High School students and Catholic Elementary School students from Grades 4, 5, and 6. For a more comprehensive rationale about this, please see

“The Mass is not merely a meal which reminds us of the Last Supper, or a Passion play which helps recall Good Friday, or a Sunrise service which celebrates the Lord’s resurrection. In the Eucharist, when we recall these mysteries of redemption, ‘the Church opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age in order that the faithful may lay hold of them and be filled with saving grace’ (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #102). At every Eucharist, in a real yet mystical way, we become present to these central mysteries of our Faith.“ (Thomas Richstatter, OFM)

It is important to recognize that all Christians seek to relate to, and enter into, God’s mysterious, loving, constant, and intimate presence through the life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, who introduced, defined, and became “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) really and truly, actually and practically, up to today and into the future. This is crazy to some, foolish to many, incomprehensible to most, and difficult to all. But to those who have lived into this subtle yet oddly familiar mystery, this too-easily-dismissed historical conviction on the part of billions of people, the truth of God’s loving and saving presence in Jesus Christ becomes more and more firmly entrenched through the practice of reflective, genuinely engaged experience, the kind of intentional experience that the Gospels call us to again and again. The question is no longer “Is this true?” In some ways you come to realize that this is the wrong question. The question becomes “Where in my life does this remain not true?” Perhaps it is similar to what happens whenever love blossoms, when “Does she/he love me?” gradually becomes “Where or in what ways can I love her/him further?” What was first seen more in reference to self is reframed through the sometimes difficult expressions of sacrificial love into being for the most part referenced in terms of the other. Parents will know this dynamic well. God knows it best.

For Catholic Christians, the focal invitation, expression, and sustenance of this dynamic – what we call the “paschal mystery” of Jesus – is centered in the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving” in Greek and refers to the ritual that through the centuries has most profoundly and best touched our inner lives in ways that are undoubtedly unique to each person who has taken its invitation to heart. Robert Taft, SJ, one of the greatest scholars of the Eucharist (the Mass), who also happens to be an Old Boy of the Brothers, summarizes things well: “The purpose of the Mass isn't to make hosts so people can go to Communion. The purpose of the Eucharist isn't to change bread and wine into Jesus Christ. It's to change you and me into Jesus Christ. That is not only supposed to happen, it's also supposed to be represented.” ( If at the end of each Mass Catholics attend, we emerged with greater conviction and ability to be more like Jesus towards others, its rationale and substance would be self-evident.

For those who may not be fully familiar with the parts of the Mass, which can certainly include many Catholics, or the reasons why this ritual has developed as it has over the last 2000 years, I have uploaded two short articles that walk through what it all means and provide a succinct summary worth reading. You may just find that this ancient yet modern ritual is more relevant than you had thought. You will certainly find it all very interesting. The link to the document is this one:

School Mass on Founders Day - Part 1

[The entry below is one that was part of the school's newsletter this year. I have left it "as is" in order to preserve its continuity with the reflections that follow.]

In a few weeks the school will be celebrating Founder’s Day. This is part of the Lasallian Spirit Week, during which we highlight the qualities of the school that make it a special place to be. All of it comes together on May 15th when we take the whole day to appreciate our founding, our roots, our way of doing things, our educational community, our context, and our life.

The reason that May 15th is celebrated by many Lasallian schools is because it was the date in 1950 that De La Salle was declared in Rome as the Special Patron of All Teachers of Youth. As the Patron of Teachers, he belongs to everyone who takes on teaching as their vocation. As such, in a school, it’s appropriate to take that day – which conveniently falls near the end of a term – as the day to celebrate his life and legacy.

This year, there will be several components to the day, in recognition of De La Salle’s life, influence, and ongoing inspiration among the 1,096 institutions and 80,000 educators around the world that are part of the educational “Lasallian” movement he began. In the Sports Hall at the beginning of the day, we will begin with a student body Mass, the common form of prayer expression for Catholics, and central to both De La Salle’s life and the lives of all those who live out the love of the Gospel through their educational endeavors. This Mass will be for all high school students and selected elementary school students. For non-Catholics, it is an educational exposure opportunity whereby they may learn about this unique Catholic service and witness its expression as part of our Catholic school identity on this special day. Just as we encourage and include exposure opportunities to other religious traditions for our students, this is the one opportunity during the year to provide an educational exposure opportunity of our Catholic worship traditions for all of the students who attend the school.

In the next few Lasallian reflections prior to May 15th, I will use the opportunity to provide some background information as to the core meaning and elements of the Mass, so that it is not a total mystery for our non-Catholic (and perhaps Catholic) students and staff. Among the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, there are 420,000 priests who “celebrate” (that’s the verb usually used) Mass daily and several times on Sunday in 220,000 “parishes” (churches). Such churches could be anything from the grand Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome to a very simple, drafty wooden or mud building in parts of very poor areas. So it would not be far from the truth to say that every Sunday a million of these “Masses” are “celebrated” all over the world. And almost all of them have the same structure, prayers, rituals, actions, and words (in different languages), although the level of formality may be vastly different, from the ornate to the simple, from inner-city parish to monastery, from huge crowds in large buildings to a small group gathered in a small chapel.

In all of these various settings and formats, they are all about the same thing: expressing, sharing, celebrating, recalling, adopting, and bringing to the fore the loving and saving presence of God in our lives. It’s the love of God made present, shared, and drawn out in each person, with the invitation and directive to do likewise outside of church, especially among people in need. Annie Dillard, a great (non-Catholic) writer, said it best: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” - Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk