Reflections on Lent – Denying ourselves we open up to God

Lent in the year of Our Lord two-thousand and twenty is well-underway. And if you are like me, it caught you by surprise. It seems only yesterday that we were celebrating the birth of Jesus and ushering in the New Year. Now with all of the decorations gone away, and the snow and cold beginning to lose its grip in the world, all of creation is springing back to life after a winter of slumber.

Lent captures the dichotomy of our faith perfectly, dare I say divinely. While the world is in enthralled in a spring bloom and “love is in the air” we Christians enter into a season of denial, prayer, penance and almsgiving. While the world triumphantly celebrates the cycle of creation, we stand back in silence, preparing ourselves for the Easter season to come. This is a dichotomy. We are both overfilled with joy at the love and beauty of our Creator and we are also aware of our sin and transgressions before Him.

When I was a child Lent was about giving stuff up. I was fortunate to attend a catholic school and every year around this time we were challenged by our teachers to give up pleasures. The usual stuff would always come up: pop, candy, television. Sometimes someone would be bold and try to give up chocolate or meat for the entire 40 day period. When I was a child I thought that Lent was about giving something up and proving to God how much you loved Him and were willing to give up for Him. But as I got older and as my faith became older as well, I learned that this kind of thinking about Lent was pointless. God knows already how much I love Him (or how little at times that I do). And the price for my salvation has already been paid, so there is little that I can do to effect that at any rate. And wasn’t Jesus clear when He told us not to go around sad and moping while fasting and not to pray in public with loud, long phrases that have empty meaning. Why then are we putting ashes on our heads and going around telling everyone what we’ve given up and how hard it is to do so during this period? These are confusing because it is not what Lent is about at all, and I fear that even many mature adults still possess child-like faiths that see Lent as this today as well.

Lent is about denying ourselves that is sure. But it is about understanding that in that denial we are opening ourselves and our lives to God. Falling to our knees and acknowledging our sin is not the end of the prayer, we fall to our knees and empty ourselves so that we can be filled up by God in the manner He wants us to be.

This Lent I took a practical approach to my Lenten obligation. I have given up all frivolous things in life. No milk or sugar in my coffee, no butter for my toast and no desserts or sweets added to my meals. This is not about giving up things, it is about denying myself pleasures so that I can open myself up to God. Each extremely hot and bitter black coffee that I make in the morning, each dry toast that I choke back is not just a badge of honour because I have given it up, but a spiritual exercise that invites God to come into my life. I am serious, during Lent my daily coffee ritual and my breakfast become a spiritual exercise, a divine movement, because I remind myself why I am doing what I am doing and what is to come. That my friends is the intent of Lent; to deny ourselves and allow God to fill the void.

So ask yourself this year, regardless of what you are giving up, are you following through and allowing God to fill the void? Are you denying yourself the harvest that you work in vain in order to reap the larger and greater harvest of the Saviour?

Look with favour on your family, Lord,
and as at this time we restrain the desires of the body,
may our hearts burn with love of you.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Cover photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash.

What is the Liturgy of the Hours?

Everyone has a manner and way in which they like to pray. Some people read the Bible and reflect on the passage, others use a Rosary or other prayer aid and move through traditional prayers. The official prayer of the catholic church– alongside the Eucharist (aka Mass)– is the Liturgy of the Hours, traditionally known as the Divine Office or Breviary. The Liturgy of the Hours is composed of psalms and canticles, readings and hymns that mark hours through-out the day. All ordained and religious people must pray the major hours (Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer) and Night Prayer and laity are encouraged to pray the same. Some religious orders pray all seven canonical hours and even wake up in early hours of the morning to do so.

The Liturgy of the Hours has been with the church for centuries but it has developed over time. The prayers initially started in monasteries through-out Europe and were used in conjunction with rules that defined the structure of the day for members of religious orders. The Benedictines under the rules of Saint Benedict were particularly influential in their development because of their own proliferation through-out Europe in the middle ages. Because these holy men dedicated themselves to God and often a life of prayer on behalf of their patrons and community, these prayers became known as opus dei (the work of God). As the prayers became more elaborate and different forms were taking shape within different monasteries and orders, the need for a single reference for the prayers became obvious and the Roman Breviary was established in no small measure from inspiration by the Holy Spirit. The Liturgy of the Hours has undergone significant changes and revisions since the middle ages, but the substances of the prayers being based on hours of the day, the recitation of psalms and canticles and the requirement that all religious pray the offices themselves, remains intact.

Prayer during certain periods of the day is not unique to Christianity. In fact, the church draws inspiration from the Biblical fact that Jesus as a Jew prayed at certain times during the day, as did the Apostles during and after Christ’s physical presence here on Earth. The psalms in Judaeo-Christian culture play a central role in these prayers. In both traditions, the entirety of the book of psalms is recited on a monthly basis via a rotating four-week psalter. The church therefore traces the roots of the Liturgy of the Hours, as a continual prayer rising before God all of the way back to Christ Himself and the Apostles and even way before that. In this sense the Liturgy of the Hours, as the official prayer of the church, is also the oldest form of Christian prayer that the church holds within her deposit of faith.

“The purpose of the Divine Office is to sanctify the day and all human activity.” – Apostolic Constitution, Canticum Laudis.

The concept behind the Liturgy of the Hours is actually mind blowing. The psalms, composed hundreds of years before Jesus walked the Earth, speak of the coming of the Messiah and the Lamb of God and of the unending hymn of praise that rises before God. The Psalmist (the person who wrote the psalm) is actually so bold in many occasions of speak for God, and on behalf of the entire human race, the Israeli nation and all of creation in the world. And since Christ entered into the world, God entered into time, physical time– the time that we talk about God existing outside of because God has no beginning and no end. And since that moment that God entered time the church, with the choirs of angels in heaven, have continually sung a hymn of praise that sanctifies the time which God has entered into. This is because God became man and existed in time, He touched and sanctified time by His mere presence within it, we are therefore required as a church to join the whole catholic church (heavenly and temporal) in the eternal hymn of praise because time itself is sacred.

Four-volume ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ books. (https://www.osvnews.com)

As each second, minute, hour and day unfolds in time– as we move forward since the time that God has entered and sanctified said time– the church is praying the Liturgy of the Hours and praising, honouring and glorifying the second, minute, hour and day that God has made holy because of His coming as man. And when you pray the Liturgy of the Hours, no matter where you are, you are joining the church here on earth with people all around the world praying the same psalms, the same hymns, the same readings and the same canticles— and not just that but you are joining all of the angels in heaven and the Saints and all who have gone before us in the catholic faith in the eternal hymn of praise that never ceases. Together with the Eucharist it is the breath of the church, always honouring God, acknowledging the sanctification of each moment of time that unfolds in the universe and continuing the eternal hymn of praise.

The entirety of the Liturgy of the Hours is from the Bible– from the opening prayers, to the Our Father– with the exception of the second reading in the Office of the Readings which comes from a historical text and the hymns (which are more like poems with Biblical phrases) and the daily intercessions in Morning and Evening Prayer. This gives a level of Christian legitimacy for the Liturgy of the Hours that puts it on equal footing with the Mass as a prayer before God. Together, the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass can become a powerful tool for living liturgically. The catholic church exists within time, and we mark this sanctified time through-out the year with solemnities, feasts and general seasons. This is why we cannot simply have a Mass where the theme is the Transfiguration if we are not celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord (which occurs on August 6). Remember that time is holy, and the church lives within time and acknowledges the sanctification of time by having a liturgical calendar that reflects this unfolding of time. The Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist (together making up the Mass) and the Liturgy of the Hours all exist firmly within the liturgical calendar of the church. When you pray the Offices, especially the Major Hours, you will naturally reflect and ponder the mysteries of each solemnity, feast and season of the church because they are affixed to the prayers, antiphons, psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is incredibly powerful and makes living liturgically a simple act of praying the Hours on your own or with your family.

I am going to be writing more on the Liturgy of the Hours but for now, if you are interested in bringing the Liturgy of the Hours into your own prayer life you can search for the “Liturgy of the Hours” or “Christian Prayer” (for a one-volume edition) and find it online without any issue. There are also many websites that offer the Hours online which is good if you can pray from your computer/phone without being distracted. You can also comment here or send me an email if you have any questions or would like help getting started.

Father,
your Son became like us
when he revealed himself in our nature:
help us to become more like him,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Featured image by Olivia Snow on Unsplash.

When should Catholics take down their Christmas decorations?

Like anything else in the catholic church– thanks to nearly 2000 years of existence in time– there are traditional rules that govern when and how Christmas decorations should be taken down around the house. Typically on the Sunday between January 2 – 8 following the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on January 1, the catholic church celebrates the solemnity of Epiphany. This is a celebration of the reign of Christ over all of mankind (traditionally focused on the subjugation of the Gentiles) and specifically the visitation to Christ by the Magi following His birth. Christmas itself is not just celebrated for one day within the catholic liturgical calendar, rather the celebration is called the Octave of Christmas and for eight days including the 25th the theme in the readings at Mass and the psalms during the Liturgy of the Hours remain the same, transfixed on the birth of Christ. The Octave comes to a close concurrently with the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God and the church then prepares for Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord (the first Sunday after 6 January).

Tradition across many catholic parts of the world dictate that Christmas decorations remain up until the eve of Epiphany. If one forgets to take down the decorations on this date, they must remain up through the week traditionally known as Epiphany-tide until Candlemas (this year, Sunday 12 January). It is certainly outside of tradition for catholics to take down their Christmas decorations before the end of the Octave of Christmas, which is probably why a secular tradition is to leave the lights up (and on) through to New Years. Because the celebration of a solemnity starts on sundown on the “day before” the actual liturgical date, the eve of Epiphany is tonight since tomorrow (Saturday evening) will be Sunday Evening I of Epiphany for the church. So if you’re a traditionalist (or desire to be) and can’t get to taking down the decorations tonight, you will have to leave them up until Candlemas on 2 Feb.

The Magi present gifts to the Lord while Mary and Joseph look on. (https://unsplash.com/photos/Y_XS34BFX00)

Traditions such as when to take down Christmas lights are not essential elements of the faith. That is something that needs to be made clear. Having local traditions around mundane things like Christmas decorations can have profound effect on living liturgically– that is, aligning your life with the seasons and celebrations of the Church. Since God came into the world, He who was when the world began, entered into time, and the Church continues to keep this time through her liturgical seasons and celebrations. As lay faithful we partake in this keeping of time when we attend Mass and memorialize different celebrations. We can also bring these liturgical themes into our daily lives through traditions that are rooted in the same manner of timekeeping. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours is a wonderful way, alongside attending Mass, to keep this time. But there are also a host of temporal ways that we can live liturgically and learning about and perhaps trying to follow traditions around things like Christmas decorations just might be the way for you and your family to experience the joys of Christmas and Epiphany-tide with greater joy and love of our Lord and Saviour.

All-powerful Father,
you sent your Son Jesus Christ to bring the new light of salvation to the world.
May He enlighten us with his radiance,
who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Featured image by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

Mary, the Mother of God

Today catholics all around the world celebrate the solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. The title Mother of God should not be controversial and yet within many parts of Christianity it is extremely controversial. And more often than not this controversy is rooted in ignorance about devotions to Mary.

To say that Mary is the Mother of God is to both honour her status (a status that is upheld many times by Jesus Himself through out the Gospels) and, more importantly, honour that status of the Christ– as fully man and fully human. How can God have a mother you ask…this is impossible as God was not created. But there is an aspect of God within the Trinity that does have a mother, that was born from a woman. He also experienced all of the other human things we experience as well, that is what makes that part of the Trinity so powerful, and worthly of honour and praise.

We have a God who humbled Himself and came down in the form of man to claim divinity and sanctity for all humans. This is extremely powerful and it is something that is profoundly unique within Christianity. Our God does not play humans and mingle in our affairs like Greek gods of old, and He does not take the form of avatars that are removed from His true nature like the Hindu gods, rather Christ becomes fully man, empties His whole self– which was present when the world was made– into our humanity. For that reason God does have a mother, because all Three Persons of the Trinity are God, one-in-three-three-in-one. And when we say Mary is the Mother of God we are acknowledging this profound miracle of Christmas.

Father,
source of light in every age,
the virgin conceieved and bore your Son
who is called Wonderful God, Prince of Peace.
May her prayer, the gift of a mother’s love,
be your people’s joy through all ages.
May her response, born of a humble heart,
draw your Spirit to rest on your people.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Feature image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash.

Merry Christmas 2019

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.

For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian.

For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:2-6 (KJV)

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The same was in the beginning with God.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John 1:1-14 (KJV)

Advent Week 4 – Love

We light the fourth Advent Candle for Love. A God who is love, who sent a Son that in the fullness of time would sanctify the entire world. A love of God that underpinned Mary and Joseph’s trust in one another and the Divine Will. And a love that sustains Christians all over the world as we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation and Birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16 (KJV)

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God our Father,
you sent your Son
to free mankind from the power of death.
May we who celebrate in the coming of Christ as man
share more fully in His divine life,
for He lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Advent Week 3 – Joy

And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said,

Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord. Luke 1:39-45 (KJV)

We light the third Advent Candle for Joy. Joy that our God loves us so much as to send his only Son to save us from our sin. Joy that Jesus comes as the Messiah and is the Lamb of God, freely giving Himself for our salvation. And joy for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, when we will all come together in praise of our Lord.

Joy is much more than happiness but at the same time it is not an increase of happiness in any way. In fact, joy and happiness are two completely different things. Happiness can be achieved through many means. It can be achieved while doing good things and while doing bad things. This is why giving some money at Christmas makes us happy, and so does drinking a glass of fine whiskey. Getting rich and living comfortably can also make us happy. But none of these things on their own bring us joy. Happiness is fleeting, joy is everlasting. That is certainly a major difference between the two.

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Joy erupts when what makes us happy is coupled with satisfaction. And not the shallow satisfaction that is linked with gratification in our modern consumer culture, but the true satisfaction of a held need– not to be confused with desire. We have a need for food and sustenance, we feel a certain sense of joy when that need is met with good, healthy food and even better when that food is joined with good company. This is when two needs of ours are met, which is undoubtedly why food and company go hand in hand.

The baby John inside of Elizabeth leaped for joy at the presence of the Lord. This was because even the child John was aware of its purpose to herald the coming of the Lord to the people of Israel. He didn’t know in the sense of knowledge and being able to articulate it– that would be silly, he is a mere baby in a womb at this point. But his spirit is alive and it is in his spirit that we find the deep need for God that the presence of the Lord immediately fills. This filling of the deep spiritual need is what draws the baby to leap with joy inside of his mother.

We approach this Gaudet Sunday with our hearts, minds and souls transfixed on the joy that the Lord brings by His mere presence. We are reminded in the Gospel reading of Christ demonstrating that He is in fact the Messiah, the one spoken about by John, because of the things He has done– things we can all bear witness to ourselves. The joy that comes from Christ is rooted in His incarnation and presence here on Earth as man, that is the meaning of joy within the season Advent.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for He has looked with favour on His lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name. He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation. He has shown the strength of His arm, He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has come to the help of His servant Israel, for He has remembered His promise of mercy, the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and His children for ever. Amen.