Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Spiritual Depths of Pentecost

Laborers in the Fields, First Fruits, and Torah…
… I Will Write My Law in Their Hearts.



From a liturgical and spiritual standpoint, this is a very big week! As the Easter Season comes to a close, Pentecost lifts us to the epitome of spiritual richness and maturity. This year, the Holy Father has designated a new feast for the liturgical calendar: the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church. This is actually one of the most ancient of Christian devotions to the Blessed Virgin, but now it is installed on the General Roman Calendar as an annual Memorial placed on the day after Pentecost. It highlights Mary’s presence in the Mystery of Christ and her relationship with the Holy Spirit.

Mary, Mother of the Church

The March 24, 2018, Congregation for Divine Worship Decree describes Mary as a caring guide to the emerging Church. She had already begun “her mission in the Upper Room, praying with the Apostles while awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:14). In this sense, in the course of the centuries, Christian piety has honoured Mary with various titles, in many ways equivalent, such as Mother of Disciples, of the Faithful, of Believers, of all those who are reborn in Christ….”

The Decree referred to how Blessed Pope Paul VI, “on 21 November 1964, at the conclusion of the Third Session of the Second Vatican Council, declared the Blessed Virgin Mary as ‘Mother of the Church, that is to say of all Christian people, the faithful as well as the pastors, who call her the most loving Mother…’”

As will be seen below, events in the Hebrew Scriptures prefigure and identify the deeper meaning of such New Testament events as Mary’s Fiat (Ruth’s Declaration of Faith), the mission and mystery of Christ (who is the First Fruits of God’s redemptive plan), Redemption itself, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and Mary’s role in the birth of the new Church. We begin with a little history. We can learn a great deal about these feasts of Pentecost and Mary Mother of the Church and of their importance to our personal spiritual lives by regarding them in juxtaposition beside the related Jewish harvest Feast of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), which celebrates First Fruits and the story of Ruth, who would be the ancient matriarch for the House of David.

Understanding Our Faith Through Its Ancient Hebrew Traditions

Christian tradition has consistently linked Jewish Shavuot and Christian Pentecost. However, as a student of scripture and theology, I have always wanted to have a deeper understanding of our Feast of Pentecost and its history and why we consistently relate it to the ancient Hebrew Feast. At first glance, it would seem that the association is a superficial one, simply due to the coincidence of their chronology on the sacred calendars of the two faiths. However, the confusion and perplexity dissipates surprisingly quickly after simply considering two important themes: the true nature of Torah and the spiritual importance of “first fruits” in salvation history.

Pardon the vocabulary lesson, but understanding the names of these feasts is the first step in understanding what they signify. Shavuot translates into English as “Weeks” and refers to the weeks of waiting after Passover). This Hebrew name also is translated into the Greek word, “Pentecost”, meaning 50th day. Shavuot always falls 50 days after Passover, just as the Christian Pentecost is set 50 days after Easter.

I knew it was more than just the 50 days coincidence, but what I knew raised more questions than it answered. For example: How possibly can there be a relationship between the Christian Feast of Pentecost, celebrating the birth of the Church with the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the ancient Hebrew Harvest Festival of Weeks?? Why do the Jewish people associate this harvest feast with the giving of the Torah? And, why do they associate Ruth with all of this, traditionally reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot?

So, now we go more deeply into the riches of these traditions by considering the ancient Hebrew roots of Pentecost. And, why is the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, celebrated as the two-day feast of Shavuot, associated with both the Christian Feast of Pentecost and this harvest festival?

Roots of Pentecost in the Hebrew Scriptures

In 2018, Shavuot (a two-day holiday) is celebrated this year from sunset on May 19th until nightfall on May 21st. In addition to being a harvest festival, it commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago. According to Rabbinic tradition, codified in the Talmud at Shabbat 87b, the Ten Commandments were given on this day. In the era of the Temple, there were certain specific offerings mandated for Shavuot, and Shavuot was the first day for bringing of First Fruits of the early spring harvest to the Temple.

Torah (in Judaism) is the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures (the Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, sometimes called the Five Books of Moses. In its broadest sense, Torah is the entire body of Jewish teachings.

Torah is the Law, but Not in a Civil Sense

God, as our heavenly Father, gave the Israelites, his children, the Torah in a covenant of Divine Love. The purpose of this type of “parents” law is to teach and bring His children to spiritual maturity. This very different kind of law is meant to be communicated within the context of a loving family. Children follow instructions out of loving obedience to their elders. If they fall short of expectations, they are to be commended for the effort and counseled on how to do better the next time.

 Unlike Torah, law is a set of rules from a government and binding on a community. In a civil sense, falling short of the law requires punishment. There is no room for teaching, either the law was broken with the penalty of punishment or it was not broken.

The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot for a couple of reasons. First, according to tradition, King David, Ruth's descendant, was born and died on Shavuot. Second, Shavuot occurs at harvest time [Exodus 23:16], and the events leading up to the second marriage of the widow, Ruth, also occur at a harvest festival.

Earlier in the story of Ruth, prior to their return to Bethlehem, Ruth’s conversion and her great declaration of faith in the God of her mother-in-law, Naomi, marked her decision to return home with Ruth. In an act of deep faith, she placed herself under the directives of the Torah. She did this as an act of love for her God and her mother-in-law. Hence, the relevance of her story to both the Torah and the image of Ruth as a kind of first fruits that would eventually give rise to the birth of King David.

In keeping with the true meaning of Torah, the events of Ruth’s life also foreshadow the importance to Christianity of the idea that the law be written in the hearts of believers.

The author of Hebrews says the Holy Spirit testifies:

"This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds."
(Hebrews 10: 16)



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Marie-Louise Handal is a Pauline Cooperator based in Manhattan, New York City. She is an educator and writer who has participated in organizing and hosting a number of Pauline Family special events, media presentations and educational programs in the New York Archdiocese and environs.
      Her education includes a Master’s Degree from St. Joseph's Seminary, a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from the New York Archdiocesan Center for Spiritual Development, a Master of Science in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and a B.A. in Mathematics & Science from Hunter College. She is currently a candidate for the S.T.L. from the International Marian Research Institute, the American Branch of the Pontifical Theological Faculty Marianum, Rome.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Perfect balance



When I’m done, half of humanity will still exist.  Perfectly balanced, as all things should be. -- Thanos.

We don’t trade lives.  -- Captain America.

Everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.  -- Pope Francis, Laudato Si.


WARNING.  THIS POST INVOLVES MAJOR SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.  TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.


Human beings are consuming the earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate.  We are all familiar with these issues. We are depleting our stores of fossil fuels.  Climate change is causing the oceans to rise. Something has to change.


In the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is more than just an Earth problem. Across the universe, planetary resources are insufficient to maintain current population levels in comfort. People are hungry. Wars break out over scarce resources.


The main character of Infinity War has a solution. Thanos (whose name is derived from Thanatos, the Greek word for “death”) saw his home planet Titan struggling with seemingly inadequate resources. He proposed that half the population (chosen at random) should be slaughtered, and then the planet would have plenty of resources to support the remaining half. The other inhabitants of Titan rejected this plan in horror -- and then the civilization destroyed itself fighting over natural resources. Thanos believes that his plan would have averted this devastation and now he and his henchmen go from planet to planet and slaughter half the population on each. His ultimate quest is to acquire all the Infinity Stones, which would give him the power to eliminate half the life in the universe simultaneously. The Marvel heroes band together in order to defeat Thanos and keep this from happening. Captain America repeats the movie’s theme: “We don’t trade lives.”


Thanos’ quest is horrific, but you can see some connections with many modern conversations about sustainability. Nobody is suggesting mass slaughter, but plenty of people believe the world has too many people and we should be deliberate about reducing birthrates. In 2007, science journalist Alan Weisman published The World Without Us, which also formed the basis for the History channel show Life After People. This is a thought experiment imagining what the world would be like if all human beings suddenly disappeared. For example, if nobody is there maintaining the roof of your house, it won’t take all that many decades until the inevitable leaks cause your house to fall apart. On the other hand Mount Rushmore will last for millennia. The book has a sense of wistfulness when it talks about flora and fauna flourishing with all human beings out of the way, and concludes with a proposal that procreation be restricted to one child per fertile woman. In 100 years, this would reduce Earth’s population to approximately the population of the 19th century, which the author considers much more appropriate for the planet than our current numbers. In the interim, life would progressively improve as the population decreased. The book does not mention that China had instituted a one-child policy a generation earlier and it did not exactly lead to utopia.


This book was widely reviewed in mainstream populations, won various awards, and was on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-six weeks. This is not the lunatic fringe. Of course there are many differences between this proposal to have fewer children and Thanos’s plan of slaughter, but both see human beings fundamentally as liabilities.


In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis decries human abuse of our environment, but he places the blame not on humans merely existing but on human greed and overconsumption. A sustainable lifestyle would require significant changes to the American lifestyles we have come to consider as normal. We should be reshaping our lives significantly, on both individual and societal levels.


All that of course sounds very hard. So it is much easier to think that “oh if there weren’t so many other consumers, then I would be free to continue to consume resources as much as I like.” Pope Francis will have none of this:


To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the mouths of the poor.

For Christians, a better world comes not by eliminating people but by living in harmony with all of creation -- with our neighbors as well as plants and animals.  “Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbor, for whose care and custody I am responsible, ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth.” We don’t need to trade lives when we change our ways of relating to the earth’s resources. While the process of reordering our lives to be in better harmony will be difficult, the end result is not misery but a richer and more joyful human life.

Want more from this author? Click here to listen to a discussion of Infinity War from the Christian Humanist Network.
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Kristen Filipic has been involved with the Pauline family since 2010 and completed the Cooperator Formation program in 2014.  She is a native Midwesterner but has lived in Boston for the last twelve years, where she works as a civil rights attorney.  She serves as a lector and a Bible study leader in her home church.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Wayfaring Strangers All, We Need Our Places of Normality

"Java Time"
Photo CC0 Creative Commons
Angela Yuriko Smith
Right before Christmas last year, my favourite coffee shop closed.  It was rather a dive.  There were a few locations throughout the metro and even in other states but it had no market share like everyone’s favourite feminine sea-dwelling therianthrope[1].  When I found out it was closing in just under two weeks, every table was taken and I had to raise my voice to be heard by the barista over the din.  Could she even be called a barista?  I always imagine baristas to be aproned, well dressed, and shouting drinks with descriptors of at least five adjectives.  Low-fat soy milk pumpkin spice latte with extra whip for Amanda!  This gal was the opposite.  I didn’t like her at first; she had an attitude to the world nearly matching Bob Dylan.  Most of the time I knew her she had dreadlocks which she didn’t cut but combed out. She came into work one morning with her hair half done.  She was a student at the university across the street.  This coffee shop was a hub for students from this university and they often made friends with the other patrons from the neighbourhood.  Often would I walk by on a warm afternoon to find a middle-aged man and his girlfriend holding court amongst a gaggle of college students, sipping their drinks and sharing whatever was on their mind.

"Togetherness"
Photo CC0, Creative Commons
The golden hour of this shop, however, was Tuesday morning with John and Meryl.  Meryl was a bubbly blonde with an outgoing personality and an optimistic outlook no matter what the weather.  John was a quieter man, a ‘bro’ if you will, who knew the regulars, and could crank out my medium Americano before I could reach the counter.  He had this tendency to listen well once you got to know him.  I often found myself pouring little bits of myself to him across the espresso machine and once heard Meryl quip: ‘I don’t know what I would do without John in my life.’

My last drink was, in fact, a medium Americano made by John.  Meryl had quit months ago due to frustrations with corporate.  I walked out the door and then they shut for the last time two days later.  After Christmas, the sight of the shop would tie my guts in knots.  I mourned the loss of this shop as regularly as I drank my coffee.  I began to wonder why I had such a visceral reaction to this shop closing.  After all, it was just a regular place with regular people and regular coffee.  And it hit me: all that normalcy made it a place that always made me happy.  Whatever my mood, I was better for having crossed the threshold of the door.  People were people in that place and if even for a few minutes each day, we lived together, cared about each other, wished only the best upon one another.  It was a prefiguration of something greater and beyond itself.  That is the kind of place we all need in our lives and I will always miss that moment in time on a regular street corner in my neighbourhood.  But I’ve been called elsewhere, to find and create that prefiguration someplace else, to be a neighbour to someone else, and to love everyone else just as well.

[1] therianthrope. Oh just look it up, it'll be good for you [Ed.]

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Kellen O’Grady is Director of Liturgy & Music at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Hastings, Minnesota.  He holds a Masters in Catholic Studies and chairs the Association of Liturgical Ministers for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  He has a reputation for enjoying the finer things in life from hipster cocktails to dance and yoga.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Meaning in Life and the Christian Narrative

Call to a Journey of Growth 

The call to be a Christian is a call to grow. This is not a message we hear as often as we hear warnings against doing something. “A primary concern with sin rather than with growth appears when we define prudence as being cautious or being hesitant,” says Fr James Keenan in his book Virtues for Ordinary Christians.[1] “In the Scriptures,” he continues, “the call to follow the Lord has always been understood as a call to advance.”

St Paul writes: “I don’t consider that I have won yet, and for this reason I forget what is behind me and reach out for what’s in front of me. I stain toward the goal to win the prize – of God’s heavenward call in Christ Jesus” Phil. 3:12-14.
“Paul’s reliance on journey imagery stems from his own experience of Christ, who literally breaks into Paul’s own life as Paul moves toward Damascus to persecute the Christians.  Paul is a traveler, both before and after his conversion.  After meeting the risen Lord, Paul is sent on the true way, but he still understands that all journeys require one to press on. Paul’s journeys, narrated in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, mirror the Gospel journeys of Christ who heads for Jerusalem.  Following in Jesus’ footsteps becomes the disciple’s call: the first traveler, the Lord himself, beckons each pilgrim to advance.”[2]
In the Church’s spiritual tradition the saints and mystics have always reminded us that to stand still is to go backward and to not advance is to regress in our call to holiness. Thomas Aquinas describes our journey starting with God’s movement toward us and our responsive movement toward God. In the divinity and humanity of Jesus, Aquinas explains, these two movements are met.

“It is essential to ask ourselves, each other, and our churches too,” Brian Mahan challenges us in his book Forgetting Ourselves On Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition, "what it is we are living for and what it is we think is keeping us from living fully for the thing we want to live for.”[3]

The Personal Call – Meaning in Life 
Another theme that runs through scripture is “called by name.”  In his book Discovering Your Personal Vocation; Fr. Herbert Alphonso characterizes this call as a “personal vocation.”  When we pray, we open our hearts so that God can give himself to us. Our hearts open from the core of our being where each of us in unique. God shows us our uniqueness and his unique love for us. Jacob discovered the Lord as “his” shepherd.  Fr Alphonso calls this discovery the “unique God-given meaning in life.”  In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl talks about people in the prison camps dying physically because they were dying psychologically – they had no “meaning” to live for. 

In spirituality, we realize that there is a unique God-given meaning to a person’s life. “The personal vocation is, in fact, the secret of unity and integration at the heart of a whole life precisely because it is the unique God-given meaning in life,” says Fr. Alphonso, “For nothing so unifies and integrates in depth as meaning….”

As Christians, we respond to God’s call in the person of Jesus Christ. We are baptized, plunged into Christ. This is the mystery of Christian spirituality. Our journey is one of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” to become fully mature in Christ. This goal is well expressed by Paul who said that God’s plan for us is “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29) to grow “to mature person-hood, to the extent of Christ’s full stature (Eph 4:13).  Paul could say “It is no longer I who live but Christ,” and “I have died my life is hidden now in Christ.”  He knew the will of the Father was “To bring all things together in Christ” (Eph. 1:10). Because for the Father there is no meaning outside of Jesus Christ.[1]



[1] Cf. Alphonso, Herbert, S.J. Discovering Your Personal Vocation, Paulist Press: New Jersey, 2001 
[1] Keenan, James F., S.J.  Virtues for Ordinary Christians, Sheed and Ward
[2] Ibid page 21
[3] Mahan, Brian, Forgetting Ourselves On Purpose. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: 2002, page 161
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Sr. Margaret Charles Kerry, FSP, celebrates 40 years of life and mission as a Daughter of St. Paul. With a Masters from Boston College School of Theology & Ministry, she gives presentations on the vocation and mission of the laity, media literacy, and evangelization. She directed the Association of Pauline Cooperators for 15 years and was creative editor of The Pauline Cooperator magazine. An author (St. Anthony of Padua: Fire & Light; Strength in Darkness: John of the Cross), Sr. Margaret Charles is working on a young adult book. You can reach her at mkerry@paulinemedia.com.