An Advent tradition: ‘Roráte’ Masses

Father Aaron Williams

SPIRIT AND TRUTH
By Father Aaron Williams
Early on the morning of Dec. 7, I offered Mass at St. Jude Pearl for a small group of people so we could take part in a old, but less well-known Advent tradition. On Saturdays in Advent, it has been customary in some places to offer a Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary early in the morning before dawn and entirely by candlelight. This has come to be known as a ‘Roráte’ Mass — taken from the words of the Entrance Antiphon: Roráte cæli desúper et nubes pluant justum (Drop down dew, you heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness).
The liturgical year often makes good use of the natural seasonal movements of the earth. The summer solstice occurs just before the feast of St. John the Baptist (June 24), while the winter solstice falls right before Christmas day. On the summer solstice each year, the days begin to grow shorter as we receive less and less light until the winter solstice when the days begin to grow longer. If we compare this natural occurrence with the two feast days that fall near those days, a symbolic meaning comes forward.
After St. John baptized our Lord, his followers came to him and said, “Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him.” And John said to them, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 2:26,30). Jesus Christ revealed himself to be the Light of the World, and so it is only fitting that when we reach the feast day of his Birth, that the amount of sunlight we receive each day grows longer and longer.
By offering Mass in total darkness in these last days before Christmas, the interplay of light and darkness in the church building can further underscore this feeling of longing for the Messiah — especially when the Mass is timed just right so that the Sun rises toward the end of the Mass. Something special happens when you are standing in a dark church hearing all those readings which prophecy a Messiah and then right around the time for Holy Communion light is beginning to fill the church from outside through the windows. You no longer need to hold a candle, for instance, so you can read from the hymnal. Saint Augustine makes reference to this symbolism in one of his sermons, “Let us celebrate this day as a feast not for the sake of this sun, which is beheld by believers as much as by ourselves, but for the sake of him who created the sun.”
Though the custom in the United States was to offer these Masses on Saturdays of Advent when the Mass texts was taken from the votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, other similar customer exist elsewhere. In the Philippines there is a tradition, dating at least to the 16th century of offering “Misa de Aguinaldo” (‘Gift Mass’). Each day from Dec. 16 to Dec. 24 the daily Mass is traditionally offered before dawn and entirely by candlelight. The same custom exists in some Latin American cultures under the name of “Misa de Gallo” (‘Rooster Mass’). These daily masses occur each day until Christmas when it is called the “Misa de los Pastores” (Mass of the Shepherds).
The custom of offering these Advent and Christmas Masses during the night hours is recorded as early as the 4th century by Egeria — a Galician historian who traveled to the Holy Land particularly to record the way in which Christians celebrated the liturgical year in Jerusalem. She writes that on the night before Christmas, it was custom in Jerusalem for the people to process through the streets with torches and candles leading to a dark church where Mass was celebrated before dawn. Pope Sixtus III was inspired by this tradition and instituted the first celebration of the ‘midnight’ Christmas Mass at St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome.
Roráte masses may be offered with or without music, on any day when it would be acceptable for the people to gather at an early hour. If a parish wanted to preserve the tradition as it was kept in America, the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary for Advent as found in the Roman Missal could be used. Because there is little light, parishes could use commonly memorized songs such as ‘O Come, O come, Emmanuel’ — which can even be sung without instruments both for the ease of musicians who might have difficulty playing in the dark, but also to further underscore the anticipation of the season.

Silence is also another important element to these Masses. Silence denotes an expectation of sound, while darkness denotes the expectation for light. And, because enough light needs to be present on the altar for the priest to read the missal, those who decorate the sanctuary should make use of whatever candlesticks and candelabra the parish has available. These many lights add to the beauty of the celebration and help emphasize the altar as a common center for worship.

Discerning your yes

Reflections on Life
By Fran Lavelle
I was at Mass at the Cathedral on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. At the end of his homily, Father Anthony, in reference to Mary’s fiat, asked, “What ‘yes’ is Jesus asking of you?” I kicked that question around in my mind for the balance of the day. It spilled over into the next few days. Jesus is asking all of us for a “yes.” He is asking each one of us to say “yes” to loving and serving His people in our own unique way. With a heavy foot on the gas pedal of life, I realized this question needed to be seriously considered as the days of Advent were passing quickly.
It is my practice to be introspective at the end of the year. I took Father Anthony’s challenge as an opportunity to look back on where I’ve been spiritually and emotionally. It is always an affirming and challenging exercise. Without a doubt there are things on my personal to-do list that did not get done. I still need to Marie Kondo every closet in my house. There were also challenges for me spiritually. Some people refer to these challenges as periods of dryness. Maybe you too have experienced times when you felt like you were just going through the motions. I was able to identify when I felt an emptiness in my faith life, as well as identify the periods of great consolation when unexpected gifts and graces were received that were not anticipated like a colleague’s baby announcement or a visit from dear friends.
There was an ebb and flow to 2019 that at times felt like a bad plane ride with jarring turbulence and other times felt more like a gentle tail wind. This year’s evaluation was the foundation I needed to examine the question Father Anthony posed. My personal need for a decluttering specialist became apparent. When one is overwhelmed with stuff (figuratively or literally) one has two options, one can live with the stuff/chaos that clutters our lives or we can get rid of it. Physically getting rid of clutter (unless one is a true hoarder) is easy. It takes time, boxes and a trip to the nearest second-hand store to dispense with the physical stuff.
The emotional stuff/chaos is harder to get rid of. It is hard to lay down past hurts. It is hard to forget the times we have been dismissed by a colleague or family member. It is hard to make the tapes that recall the litany of hurts from our past to stop playing over and over in our heads. One can’t Marie Kondo those emotions, but one can overcome them. It became apparent to me that Jesus is calling me to let go of the chaos. It does not mean that it no longer exists, but that I have a choice to look like Pig Pen in the Peanuts cartoon or I can claim my peace amid chaos. My “yes” is an affirmation of my desire to not let the chaos and clutter gobble up precious time. The love of Christ, His peace, forgiveness and understanding cannot be manifested if it is not lived. I realized it was time for a hard re-set. To align my desire to love and serve Christ I must clean up the emotional clutter that gets in the way of me being my best self.
I was reminded of the Cherokee story of the two wolves. “One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said ‘my son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good. it is joy, peace love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: ‘which wolf wins?’ The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘the one that you feed.’”
We are on the cusp of yet another year. It is the perfect time to seek and discern what “yes” Jesus is asking of you. We are assured in the gospel of Matthew to “… seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Take the time to seek Him.
Peace and blessings to you this Christmas and throughout the new year. May you discern His call and may your “yes” bring you abundant joy and much love. As I sit in the peace and quiet of my home in Starkville, I am looking at the newest ornament on my tree. Yes, it is a wolf. A very, very good wolf.

Called by name

Father Nick Adam

There is no quick fix to any big issue. Good solutions require good planning and execution. This means we must put a good plan in place for priestly formation in this diocese and then execute the plan. I may have mentioned in this space that this past summer, Director of Seminarians Father Aaron Williams and I attended the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors. It was pretty overwhelming at first. We went to conference after conference where information was flying faster than a weekday homily. I was inspired and somewhat intimidated by what I learned. There are so many great ideas floating around out there, but which of the practices could be implemented in our diocese?
I left that conference with a goal. I want to dig a trench before trying to install a pipeline. A rise in priestly vocations does not happen overnight. But we have to start with the fundamentals. We have to build a strong foundation of accompaniment, collaboration and formation. I want to explore these three preparatory parts of the “pipeline” as 2020 nears.
Accompaniment is listed first because for a trench to form, we have to dig. We have to move raw material, change the lay of the land and make space for something greater. The raw material that I have the responsibility and joy to work with are young men who are seeking to follow God’s will and are open to the possibility that God may be calling them to serve as a priest. Young men first of all need priests and parish leaders to accompany them in their journey to the seminary. Pastors, parochial vicars and retirees alike must be willing to encourage, answer questions and show our priesthood to them. One of the ways to do this is by offering young men a place in the liturgy. I have trained several MCs who serve in liturgies at St. Richard. They may have never been an altar server, but MCs are seen as role models for the younger kids and they help to keep the liturgy running smoothly for the priest celebrant. Of course, not every parish in our diocese has a resident priest-pastor, and I encourage LEMs and other parish leaders to identify young men who seem to want to go deeper in their faith and walk with them. Ask them if they’ve ever considered being a priest, so often that’s all it takes to allow God to gain a foothold in a young man’s heart. And remember, seminary does not equal priesthood! The seminary is simply the place to best discern whether one is called to be a priest and entry into seminary does not mean that the candidate is now obligated to advance to ordination.
Accompaniment, however, stretches beyond the parish and into the family of a young man. Are parents willing to open a discussion with a child about the possibility of priesthood? Do they regularly make it clear that they would love to have a priest in the family? Families are the seedbed of vocations. If parents actively encourage their sons to consider priesthood, vocations can flourish. If, however, priesthood is never brought up, or indeed, if faith is rarely made manifest outside of Church on Sunday, then our efforts at accompaniment could fall short. Again, I can only share my experience. My time in the seminary was the best six years of my life. I learned more about myself and the world then I could have ever imagined. I am willing to accompany young men on the road to priesthood and I pray that priests, parish leaders and parents in our diocese are just as willing. There are no quick fixes, but accompaniment is the first step to building a pipeline that will provide priests in Mississippi for the next generation.

Vocations Events

Friday, Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 2020 – Annual Notre Dame Pre-Discernment trip. Open to men of any age who are open to a call to priesthood, we will spend three days on the campus of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

Contact the Office of Vocations if interested in attending any of these events.
vocations@jacksondiocese.org
www.jacksonpriests.com

Saints for a new situation

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Everywhere in church circles today you hear a lament: Our churches are emptying. We’ve lost our youth. This generation no longer knows or understands the classical theological language. We need to announce Jesus again, as if for the first time, but how? The church is becoming evermore marginalized.
That’s the situation pretty much everywhere within the secularized world today. Why is this happening? Faith as a spent project? Secularity’s adolescent grandiosity before the parent who gave it birth, Judeo-Christianity? The “buffered self” that Charles Taylor describes? Affluence? Or is the problem mainly with the churches themselves? Sexual abuse? Cover-up? Poor liturgies? Poor preaching? Churches too liberal? Churches too conservative?
I suspect it’s some combination of all of these, but I’ll single out one issue here to highlight, affluence. Jesus told us that it’s difficult (impossible, he says) for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. No doubt, that’s a huge part of our present struggle. We’re good at being Christians when we’re poor, less educated and on the margins of mainstream society. We’ve had centuries of practice at this. What we haven’t had any practice at, and aren’t any good at, is how to be Christians when we’re affluent, sophisticated and constitute the cultural mainstream.
So, I’m suggesting that what we need today is not so much a new pastoral approach as a new kind of saint, an individual man or woman who can model for us practically what it means to live out the Gospel in a context of affluence and secularity. Why this?
One of the lessons of history is that often genuine religious renewal, the type that actually reshapes the religious imagination, does not come from think-tanks, conferences and church synods, but from graced individuals – saints, wild men and women who, like Saint Augustine, Saint Francis, Saint Clare, Saint Dominic, Saint Ignatius or other such religious figures can reshape our religious imagination. They show us that the new lies elsewhere, that what needs fixing in the church will not be mended simply by patching the old. What’s needed is a new religious and ecclesial imagination. Charles Taylor, in his highly-respected study of secularity, suggests that what we’re undergoing today is not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of imagination. No Christians before us have ever lived within this kind of world.
What will this new kind of saint, this new St. Francis, look like? I honestly don’t know. Neither, it seems, does anyone else. We have no answer yet, at least not one that’s been able to bear much fruit in the mainstream culture. That’s not surprising. The type of imagination that reshapes history isn’t easily found. In the meantime we’ve come about as far as we can along the road that used to take us there, but which for many of our children no longer does.
Here’s our quandary: We’re better at knowing what to do once we get people into a church than we are at knowing how to get them there. Why? Our weakness, I believe, lies not in our theological imagination where we have rich theological and biblical insights aplenty. What we lack are saints on the ground, men and women who, in a passion and fidelity that’s at once radically faithful to God and fiercely empathic to our secular world, can incarnate their faith into a way of living that can show us, practically, how we can be poor and humble disciples of Jesus even as we walk in an affluent and highly secularized world.
And such new persons will appear. We’ve been at this spot before in history and have always found our way forward. Every time the world believes it has buried Christ, the stone rolls back from the tomb; every time the cultural ethos declares that the churches are on an irrevocable downward slide, the Spirit intervenes and there’s soon an about face; every time we despair, thinking that our age can now longer produce saints and prophets, some Augustine or Francis comes along and shows that our age, like times of old, can too produce its saints; and every time our imaginations run dry, as they have now, we find that our scriptures are still full of fresh insight. We may lack imagination, but we don’t lack hope.
Christ promised we will not be orphaned, and that promise is sure. God is still with us and our age will produce its own prophets and saints. What’s asked of us in the moment is biblical patience, to wait on God. Christianity may look tired, tried and spent to a culture within which affluence and sophistication are its current gods, but hope is already beginning to show its face. As secularization, with its affluence and sophistication, marches unswervingly forward we’re already beginning to see a number of men and women who have found ways to become post-affluent and post-sophisticated. These will be the new religious leaders who will teach us and our children, how to live as Christians in this new situation.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.)

“The Christmas Cradle”

Tony Rossi

LIGHT ONE CANDLE
By Tony Rossi
Kids are used to getting presents for Christmas, and likely giving a few themselves. But Meadow Rue Merrill wants to expand their horizons by making it a fun family tradition to also give gifts to Jesus in a special way. That’s what inspired her children’s book The Christmas Cradle.
Merrill won a Christopher Award last year for her memoir Redeeming Ruth, about her adoption of a disabled orphan from Uganda. The mother of five joined me on “Christopher Closeup” recently to discuss The Christmas Cradle, which tells the story of a girl named Molly and her family who visit her Aunt Jenny to celebrate the holiday. Molly comes across a Christmas cradle in a box and asks her aunt its purpose. Aunt Jenny explains, “Growing up, we played a game to share God’s love with others. Each December, we sang carols, delivered meals, and visited people who were lonely. Then we wrote each act of love on a card and put it in the cradle as a gift for Jesus. On Christmas morning, we read the cards and prayed for each person we’d served.”
In writing the book, Merrill said she contemplated the questions, “How do we give a gift to Jesus, who has everything? I feel like we can do that best by giving gifts to other people in His name.”
Merrill doesn’t just approach that idea from the standpoint of a giver, but also a recipient of kindness. She recalls, “One of my favorite Christmas memories was when we truly had very little to give our kids, and a neighbor encouraged them to write letters to Santa. I was thinking, ‘Why? We don’t even have the ability to [afford anything].’ But on Christmas Eve, [this neighbor] invited our family over to her home, and there in the middle of her living room was a pile of Christmas gifts [for my family], including for the baby that I was pregnant with. As my husband and I brought those home that Christmas Eve, it really was the kind of magic that we all hope for – but somehow spending it on ourselves doesn’t make it happen. It’s when we find someone with a greater need than ourselves to give it away.”
Part of Merrill’s awareness of poverty stems from her experience adopting Ruth. She says, “Ruth won our hearts with her bright smile and the laughter in her eyes. It took a great amount of sacrifice to meet her physical needs, and yet the joy she brought us was so incredible.”
Unfortunately, Ruth passed away due to health complications, but her legacy lives on. Merrill says, “Getting to know Ruth and meeting her needs opened our eyes to the needs of children around the world, and in our own communities, who don’t have what they need. I realized how far our gifts, donations, and even time, can go when we invest those in the lives of someone else. Ruth changed our hearts forever in the way we look at things, and we want to reach out and share what we have with others.”
Merrill hopes that people don’t just read The Christmas Cradle, but act on it. She concludes, “When [families] have the opportunity to do a good deed for someone else, they can write it on a little piece of paper and put it in the cradle. Then on Christmas morning, we can remember those people who we served by taking out their names on the cards and praying for them.”

(Tony Rossi is the Communications Director for The Christophers, a Catholic media company. The mission of The Christophers is to encourage people of all ages, and from all walks of life, to use their God-given talents to make a positive difference in the world. Learn more at www.christophers.org.)

“Oh, Tidings of Con-on-flict and Joy, Conflict and Joy”

Sister alies therese

From the hermitage
By sister alies
Advent prepares us and heightens our longing. Our longing finds its place alongside our ancestors and God’s expressions of longing in the Hebrew Bible. Consider what our Catechism says: “The coming of God’s Son to earth is an event of such immensity that God willed to prepare for it over centuries. God makes everything converge on Christ: all the rituals and sacrifices, figures and symbols of the ‘First Covenant.’ God announces Christ through the mouths of prophets who succeeded one another in Israel. Moreover, God awakens in the hearts of pagans a dim expectation of this coming.” (522) Further, “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present the ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for Jesus’ second coming. By celebrating John the Baptist’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘Jesus must increase, but I must decrease.’” (524)
Depending on how I live and celebrate Advent, I am at least either a pagan with a ‘dim expectation’ or part of the faithful with an ‘ardent desire’ to fully meet Jesus. I should like to be the latter, but alas I find within myself blocks and winding paths that seem to veer right away from an ardent desire. Lazy? Fearful? Hopeless? Whatever the blocks in me might be, or in you, they will eventually be removed by Jesus. I suspect that’s the point of Advent so that when we do come to reflect more deeply upon the story of Christmas our hearts might be ready to entertain some of its cost.
I was reflecting that Christmas is both joy and conflict when I came across a book I’d read some years ago, The First Christmas, What The Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. It made me continue to consider longing and conflict. Simply put, Jesus was a refugee Child forced from His country of birth, crossing the borders into a foreign land, Egypt. Other children were being killed and it would be some two years before the Christ Child returned home with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth.
This past year we have been plagued for many and various reasons with raids, separation of children from parents, immigrants and refugees being expelled, deported or jailed. In both cases we see the conflict and battle of speaking truth to power. There is nothing wrong with a just immigration policy. But for thousands of tiny children scared and made mute by the trauma we have to wonder how Jesus and His parents faired in Egypt.
Christmas, its story, facts and symbols, points to the conflict within and the conflict to come. Most of us have a pretty complete understanding of the Christmas story so our reflection upon it might be too swift. Let’s consider some of Matthew’s story you might have skipped over. Borg and Crossan share: “Mathew’s story sounds the theme of fulfillment but its emotional tone is ominous. Driven and dominated by Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, it is dark and foreboding. It speaks of the murderous resistance of the rulers of this world to the coming of the kingdom of God.”
I like the Catechism’s explanation of the ‘Christmas Mystery:’ “Jesus was born in a humble stable, into a poor family. Simple shepherds were the first witnesses to this event. In this poverty heaven’s glory was made manifest. The Church never tires of singing the glory of the night: The Virgin today brings into the world the Eternal and the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible. The angels and shepherds praise Him and the magi advance with the star, for You are born for us, Little Child, God Eternal. To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this we humble ourselves and become little … Christmas is the mystery of marvelous exchange.”
Equally the text in the Catechism tells us of the conflict midst the beauty: “the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the innocents make manifest the opposition of darkness to the light: ‘He came to His own home, and His people received Him not. (John 1:11) Christ’s whole life was lived under the sign of persecution. His own share it with Him. Jesus’ departure from Egypt recalls the Exodus and presents Him as the definitive liberator of God’s people.”
Venture deeper into Advent and begin the Christmas season, alert to both the joy and conflict and see how it plays out in our world and in our own hearts.
Blessings.

(Sister alies therese is a vowed Catholic solitary who lives an eremitical life. Her days are formed around prayer, art and writing. She is author of six books of spiritual fiction and is a weekly columnist. She lives and writes in Mississippi.)

Called by name

Father Nick Adam

It is intimidating to promote vocations. It is difficult to encourage groups of young men and women to think about something that perhaps they’ve never thought about before, or even considered. It is easy to get discouraged and become timid. In prayer the other day I was reassured that even the saints had their doubts. As the Lord is asking Moses to go back to Egypt and free the Israelites from bondage, Moses exclaims “O my Lord, please send someone else!” (Ex. 4:13b) This feeling of fear must be acknowledged and then fought. It is based on a false notion of what we are on this earth to do.
We are not called to be comfortable all the time or to never put ourselves out there in vulnerability. By our baptism and confirmation, we are called to “go, make disciples.” (Mt. 28:19) Calling forth young men and women and encouraging them to consider religious life is a vital part of that mandate and it is one that will bear fruit if we are stubbornly, doggedly and courageously persistent.
The first week in November was Vocation Awareness Week. I had a wonderful time with our Springfield Dominicans who hosted a social for vocations at their house at St. Dominic. I played dodgeball with sixth graders at St. Richard School. I spoke to the youth group at St. Jude Pearl. I attended and assisted at a “Come and See” retreat at St. Joseph Seminary College. I don’t know which of those young people that I interacted with has a call within his or her heart to dedicate themselves to the Lord in Holy Orders or consecrated life, but all I have to know is that my call is to ask and encourage and accompany. I ask for your prayers in this effort. I ask you to encourage young men and women in your parishes and schools and tell them to contact me if they have any questions or just want to talk about vocations. Again, we have a brand new website www.jacksonpriests.com with tons of information and opportunities for discernment. For me, it is not Vocations Awareness Week, it is Vocations Awareness Life! May it be the same for all priests and religious in our diocese, that we fearlessly promote a life that reminds the world that God is real and that literally brings His grace into the world.

Vocations Events

Friday, Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 2020 – Annual Notre Dame Pre-Discernment trip. Open to men of any age who are open to a call to priesthood, we will spend three days on the campus of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

Friday, Feb. 7-9, 2020 – Nashville Dominicans’ Jesu Caritas Retreat. Retreat is open to single, Catholic women, ages 17-30. These weekend retreats explore different topics, offering spiritual insight for those who love the Church. There are opportunities to speak with the sisters and to meet others who have an earnest desire for God.

Contact the Office of Vocations if interested in attending any of these events.
vocations@jacksondiocese.org
www.jacksonpriests.com

Faith and dying

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
We tend to nurse a certain naiveté about what faith means in the face of death. The common notion among us as Christians is that if someone has a genuine faith she should be able to face death without fear or doubt. The implication then of course is that having fear and doubt when one is dying is an indication of a weak faith. While it’s true that many people with a strong faith do face death calmly and without fear, that’s not always the case, nor necessarily the norm.
We can begin with Jesus. Surely he had real faith and yet, in the moments just before his death, he called out in both fear and doubt. His cry of anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” came from a genuine anguish that was not, as we sometimes piously postulate, uttered for divine effect, not really meant, but something for us to hear. Moments before he died, Jesus suffered real fear and real doubt. Where was his faith? Well, that depends upon how we understand faith and the specific modality it can take on in our dying.
In her famous study of the stages of dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, suggests there are five stages we undergo in the dying process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Our first response to receiving a terminal diagnosis is denial – This is not happening! Then when we have to accept that it is happening our reaction is anger – Why me! Eventually, anger gives way to bargaining – How much time can I still draw out of this? This is followed by depression and finally, when nothing serves us any longer, there’s acceptance – I’m going to die. This is all very true.
But in a deeply insightful book, The Grace in Dying, Kathleen Dowling Singh, basing her insights upon the experience of sitting at the bedside of many dying people, suggests there are additional stages: doubt, resignation and ecstasy. Those stages help shed light on how Jesus faced his death.
The night before he died, in Gethsemane, Jesus accepted his death, clearly. But that acceptance was not yet full resignation. That only took place the next day on the cross in a final surrender when, as the Gospels put it, “he bowed his head and gave over his spirit.” And, just before that, he experienced an awful fear that what he had always believed in and taught about God was perhaps not so. Maybe the heavens were empty and maybe what we deem as God’s promises amount only to wishful thinking.
But, as we know, he didn’t give into that doubt but rather, inside of its darkness, gave himself over in trust. Jesus died in faith – though not in what we often naively believe faith to be. To die in faith does not always mean that we die calmly, without fear and doubt.
For instance, the renowned biblical scholar, Raymond E. Brown, commenting on the fear of death inside the community of the Beloved disciple, writes: “The finality of death and the uncertainties it creates causes trembling among those who have spent their lives professing Christ. Indeed, among the small community of Johannine disciples, it was not unusual for people to confess that doubts had come into their minds as they encountered death. … The Lazarus story is placed at the end of Jesus’ public ministry in John to teach us that when confronted with the visible reality of the grave, all need to hear and embrace the bold message that Jesus proclaimed: ‘I am the life.’ … For John, no matter how often we renew our faith, there is the supreme testing by death. Whether the death of a loved one or one’s own death, it is the moment when one realizes that it all depends on God. During our lives we have been able to shield ourselves from having to face this in a raw way. Confronted by death, mortality, all defenses fall away.”
Sometimes people with a deep faith face death in calm and peace. But sometimes they don’t and the fear and doubt that threatens them then is not necessarily a sign of a weak or faltering faith. It can be the opposite, as we see in Jesus. Inside a person of faith, fear and doubt in the face of death is what the mystics call ‘the dark night of the spirit” … and this is what’s going on inside that experience: The raw fear and doubt we are experiencing at that time make it impossible for us to mistake our own selves and our own life-force for God. When we have to accept to die in trust, inside of what seems like absolute negation and can only cry out in anguish to an apparent emptiness, then it is no longer possible to confuse God with our own feelings and ego. In that, we experience the ultimate purification of soul.
We can have a deep faith and still find ourselves with doubt and fear in the face of death. Just look at Jesus.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com. Now on Facebook www.facebook.com/ronrolheiser)

Are we truly grateful?

Melvin Arrington

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
As the year begins to wind down, it’s only natural to look back and reflect on all the memorable moments, both the highs and lows of the last twelve months: births, new friendships, personal achievements, health matters, family gatherings, financial windfalls/setbacks, deaths, community events, natural disasters, etc. But above all, it’s a time for giving thanks.
How quickly our modern world races from Halloween to Christmas! As a result, Thanksgiving has become little more than a brief respite from the mad dash to the big end-of-year holidays. Perhaps it’s because the merchandisers haven’t yet figured out how to market it for more than a day or two. Or maybe the fact that it’s usually considered a low-key, family affair has something to do with it. Now, think about how long we make merry for Halloween. When I was a child it was one day, really just one night, and that was it, but these days it’s practically a whole month of parties and hype, and then on Nov. 1 the big advertising push for Christmas begins.
Even though our culture downplays Thanksgiving, we shouldn’t let that derail our celebration of this important holiday. So, what are we truly grateful for? First and foremost, we should give thanks to God, the One who, according to St. Paul, knew us and loved us and chose us to be His adopted sons and daughters from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-5). That means we are adopted members of the family of God! That awe-inspiring statement should cause jaws to drop. I experience a sense of wonder every time I read those verses.
But let’s not forget all the “gifts” we receive every day of our lives, those daily endowments we often take for granted, such as each new day, the sunshine, the rain, water to drink, food to eat. Every breath we take is worth more than silver and gold. Also the treasure of family, friends and health, as well as the freedoms we enjoy in this country, especially our freedom to worship as we please. The list goes on and on. Life itself is a gift.
Did you ever try to recall all your blessings beginning as far back as you can remember? Did you ever attempt to count them? If you’ve ever tried this, you know it’s an impossible task because, since God is infinite, so are His favors; they just keep on coming. I’m reminded of that marvelous story called The Book of Sand, by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. No matter how many pages the main character flipped over, he never got any nearer to the end of the book. Such is God’s love for us – infinite and unending.
So one of the ways we can respond to these heavenly favors is with prayer, specifically ones of thanksgiving. In the spirit of “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17) we pray at mealtimes, whether at home or elsewhere. Consider the Norman Rockwell painting “Saying Grace,” which appeared on the cover of the Nov. 24, 1951 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. It shows a young boy and an older woman, perhaps his grandmother, seated at a table in a restaurant. As they bow their heads to ask God to bless the food, the other diners look on, as if they were witnessing something odd or out of the ordinary. If prayer is viewed as an oddity, what does that say about our culture? Is gratitude becoming a lost virtue? Maybe it has already disappeared from sight in some areas of the country.
The act of expressing gratitude, implies the person doing the thanking, the thing he is grateful for and the one he acknowledges for this favor (“Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts”). Giving thanks fulfills a psychological, as well as spiritual need, and completes the circle by joining gift, giver and recipient. All humans have an innate desire to participate in this circle of giving and receiving and expressing appreciation for the gift as well as the giver. It’s part of what it means to be human. No one is sufficient unto himself.
Fr. Romano Guardini calls gratitude a basis for community. We thank our parents for raising us and our teachers for educating us. Also, we give recognition to those who help us when we need assistance and those who give us presents. Theoretically, it’s a concept that encompasses the whole world because everyone has someone to appreciate for something.
This season let’s all give thanks to the ultimate source from whom all good things come and also to those who in some way have enriched our lives.
Gracious God, may we be truly grateful not just this time of year but all year long.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of Oxford St. John Parish.)

Kingdom of God

Tony Magliano

MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Tony Magliano
When we pray Christianity’s most important single prayer – The Our Father – do we really attempt to understand and meditate upon the challenge of its words – especially “thy kingdom come?”
What is this kingdom of God that we are asking the Father to bring forth upon the earth? And what part do we play?
To put it in Jesus’ words, “What is the kingdom of God like? To what can I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that a person took and planted in the garden. When it was fully grown, it became a large bush and ‘the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches.’ ”
Giving us another example, Jesus added, “It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed [in] with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened.”
The kingdom of God continues to grow large from tiny beginnings like a little mustard seed which becomes a shrub that may reach nine feet high. And a small bit of yeast which stimulates the dough to expand several times its original size.
Therefore, we don’t need to be rich and powerful people to build up God’s kingdom.
But entering in, living in, and laboring to advance the unfolding kingdom of God takes much prayer and great effort on our part. However, we should not be discouraged facing such a huge and difficult task.
A complimentary Chinese proverb encouragingly puts it this way: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” A great accomplishment, an ambitious goal does not come about easily. It requires much effort. But over the course of time the goal can be reached.
But it will never happen if there is no effort to get started. It will never be accomplished if the first step is not taken. But it is encouraging to know that the great accomplishment, the ambitious goal – the journey of a thousand miles – only takes one step to begin.
The greatest accomplishment, the most ambitious goal that we can pursue, is doing our best to enter evermore deeply into the kingdom of God and advance its wonderful presence in our wounded world.
From abortion to war – and the arms industry which feeds it – from poverty to sickness, from human trafficking to child labor, from homeless people on our streets to fleeing refugees at our borders, from pollution to climate change, from corporate greed to militaristic nationalism countless fellow human beings are enduring tremendous suffering in a world that is largely indifferent to their cries.
But contrary to this indifference, those of us desiring to live in the kingdom of God need to be growing in the fruits of his Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – and to actively use these fruits to end the suffering of our heavy burdened brothers and sisters. And we need to tirelessly work to transform the structures of sin – as St. Pope John Paul II called them – which exist in our culture, government and corporations into structures aiding the building up of God’s kingdom.
Our self-centered kingdoms must go, so that God’s kingdom may grow.
At Sunday Mass and every other time we say the Our Father, may we pray with an ever-fresh compelling desire: “thy kingdom come!”

(Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist. He is available to speak at diocesan or parish gatherings. Tony can be reached at tmag@zoominternet.net.)