Being Present

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Catholics, and Orthodox, lay special claim to being sacramental churches.  Both these communities honor the celebration of seven rituals that are efficacious in linking us to God.  They commence early in the development of a church member, and accompany a person throughout his/her life.

Catholics especially have gotten into the practice of tracing the origins of the sacraments, which takes us back to our beginnings, usually in the life and ministry of Jesus, or at least in the practices introduced by the early church.  So we become historically oriented, and try our best to reconstruct just how it was back then.  This is especially evident at this time of the year, which we call Advent, and which melds into Christmas time.  The original historical Christmas event is not a sacrament, except in its Eucharistic component, embedded in and amid all the church trimmings of Christmas.  These latter elements provide the familiar signs of a Christmas awash with strong historical overtones centering on the manger set up in a prominent place in church, where it resembles a ramshackle structure with straw on the ground, a small crib with an infant lying in it, a man woman kneeling on either side of a baby, and often some bedraggled looking shepherds, and, eventually, some regal looking figures.  There will be a few animals rummaging around, and maybe an angel or two hovering in the rafters.  That’s the way we make Christmas as present an event as possible.

And such a scene is usually pretty accurate, historically.  But Christmas is more than reconstructing, as best we can, the way it “was”.  Christmas is the way it “is”, and so functions somewhat like a sacrament.  And this means bringing about the re-birth of Jesus into our lives here and now.  This entails capturing the original meaning of Jesus’ birth (more than just the original historical setting) as a here-and-now happening.  What does this mean?  It’s somewhat like talking on the phone with someone.  His/her voice is present to me right now.  It’s not just me imagining a conversation.  It’s a real event happening right now.  But even if my phone is equipped to capture and provide me an image of my conversation partner as speaking to me here and now, it’s still a different way of that person being present t me than if she/he stood next to me, just five feet way.  So the person is truly present to me– sort of.

Or, to take an example even closer to home: myself.  Here I am, in 2013, a rather corpulent self at 175 pounds (or more), standing 5’8” tall, with graying hair, celebrating Christmas.  Should I wish,  I can surround myself with photos of myself in earlier Christmases, when I was 3 months old, 5 years old, 12 years old, 18, 25 and 33.

But, can I faithfully re-present  myself, at this very moment, so as to be a total replica of my infant self, my childhood self, my teen self, my young adult self, etc.?  Of course not. That part of my life is gone forever.  I can’t reproduce it.  So, I’m  different person?  No, of course not.  I’m the same person but “in a different way”.  It’s the same with Christmas (and every sacrament operates this way, too).  The same event (the birth of Christ) is present right now, but in a different way.  This is worth pondering.  It’s not a matter of trying to wearing diapers again, or knickers, or a short skirt,  We can’t repeat the past this way.  But being open to a new birth of Christ taking place within me here and now is quite plausible.  That’s how sacraments work—and our Christmas celebration too.


Saints Come and Go

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

It might sound scandalous to say that saints are IN or OUT of style, given that the world “style” has taken on rather secular and even rakish meaning.  It seems to suggest that movements or people have become popular by saying the right things, wearing the appropriate clothing, associating with the movers and shakers of society.

Whereas a saint is someone who is other-worldly, disinterested in transient affairs, and focused on “things of God”, which are largely elsewhere than here and now.  And so, if such a one is a woman, she wears a long, sweeping dress, some kind of veil for a head-covering, and plain, unadorned faces and hair styles.  And men too are pictured in black robes (no levis), with a full head of hair (no baldness or crew cuts) and usually good eyesight (very few wearing glasses).  In such ways saints are set aside, apart from the crowd, and presumably from its viewpoints and value systems.

In this way saints transcend time and place.  They can’t be identified or localized, lest too much similarity be found with the rest of us, jeopardizing their status as saints.   Two things are wrong with this picture: it is too critical about ourselves, and too unrealistic about the saints.  Saints come and go, not only in terms of life-spans, but also in terms of pertinence and relevance for us in the church of today.  For men and women are raised to “the honors of the altar” by reason of the example they provide for other members of the church.   Their lives are honored for being “useful” to the rest of us. So, in this day and age, the church doesn’t propose a hermit or an anchorite who lived on bread and water in the solitude of the desert, as a model of holiness for us and as a way God would have us live.  For it would be out of kilter with what we need to live as Christians in the contemporary world.

Admittedly, there is a largely unused liturgical book called The Martyrology containing hundreds, even thousands, of saints’ names, the vast majority of whom we have never heard.  And Butler’s Lives of the Saints  has much the same impact on us.  For saints are creations of the church at a given time and place to help the rest of us, showing a pathway along which to move on our way to God.   So she looks over a variety of candidates, possibly contemporaries, who have caught her attention, and she picks and chooses certain ones meeting her interest in inspiring and motivating the rest of us.

There are exceptions to this.  Francis of Assisi seems to be a perennial.  He is a saint for all seasons.  The Little Flower holds out promise of being an enduring model for years to come.  But our own Passionist St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, canonized by Pope Benedict XV just a few years ago (1920) and declared Patron of Youth, while extremely popular among young people at the time, is now a largely forgotten saints (except for his shrine in Italy).  Other young men and women have, since then, caught the church’s attention, and she now holds them up before our eyes as models.

So saints, for the most part, come and go.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  In fact, it is encouraging to realize that the church has such a treasury of outstanding men and women that she can constantly call to our attention as examples for our lives.


I am Spiritual but not Religious

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

“I am spiritual but not religious.” This is the mantra voiced by a number of people, Catholics included. It means that such people savor the inner qualities of their faith in Jesus Christ but not the outer framework in which those qualities are contained.

They respond warmly to the Christmas scene of Mary and Joseph kneeling close to Jesus as a newborn infant. They may resonate with the teaching of Jesus on the beatitudes, describing the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers. They may treasure His words on loving one another as he has loved us.

But when it comes to graphically depicting these sentiments in ritual, music, art, architecture, vestments, ceremonies, processions, incense—this is a different story. They find such a discrepancy between thoughts and feelings, and the attempt at giving tangible expression to them fails miserably in the opinion of some people. The sermons are boring, the collection is scandalous, the singing is outdated, the prayers formulaic and out of touch with people’s needs and desires.

In other words, a beautiful soul but an ugly body. This seems to be a version of what happened centuries ago on Mt. Calvary: a grotesque corpse hanging on a cross, and then the emergence of a glorious body three days later from a nearby tomb. It was very difficult for the apostles and the women to put these two forms of the body together. Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize the risen body of Jesus—neither would Thomas even admit this was possible.

So what results from this but the beautiful body of the risen Jesus—a body still sharing the ugly wounds? This is putting spirituality and religion together. The Jesus who ascended into heaven did so in a wounded body, and so will our resurrection be—a spiritual event in a wounded humanity.

The resurrection is not just a spiritual event. It is a religious occurrence where any ugliness involved is beautified in the spirit accompanying it.

Which Came First?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

When we reflect on the life and mission of Jesus, do we think that He came to found a church on the twelve apostles, and that then they were to go out on mission throughout the world, preaching about Him? Or do we think that His primary purpose was to send the apostles throughout the world, on mission, of which the outcome would be that churches would spring up as a result across the world? Or, in other words, which came first: church or mission? Did Jesus want to get the church underway first, and then have it go out on mission throughout the world? Or was He first of all intent on sending the apostles out on mission to various places, so that local churches would then spring up as a result of their preaching? This is a variation on the chicken and the egg quandary: which came first, the chicken or the egg? On the one hand, we see Jesus, early on, sending out His disciples to preach, expel demons and handle deadly vipers, but on the other hand, on Pentecost Sunday, we find the Apostles all gathered together in the upper room where they received the Holy Spirit and then went out on mission onto the streets of Jerusalem. Are we to first get our own act together before we try to help others, or do we first try to help others, and in the process find that we get our act together? Did Jesus establish His own community first, before going out on mission? Or did He first go out on mission and in the process gather followers? When missionaries go out on mission, do they first gather a church together, or do they first find other helpers to send out on mission?