Thursday, February 14, 2019

14 Tips for a Catholic Celebration of St. Valentine's Day

Catholic reactions to Valentine's Day range from a whole-hearted embracing of the day with all of its commercialized dimensions, to utter disdain, wishing nothing more than that the day might be obliterated from our calendar. But I would propose an approach different from both of these. I would, instead, advocate for an intentionally Catholic celebration of the day. After all, whether Valentine's Day is a Christian holiday that was secularized, or a pagan holiday that was Christianized and then re-secularized, or simply a commercial holiday made up for the benefit of merchants, the day is tied to the date of a Catholic feast. As Catholics, let's claim, or reclaim, this day as St. Valentine's Day, and let's celebrate it as one of our special Catholic days.

Below are 14 tips for how we can do so (plus a bonus one at the end). These suggestions are intended for Catholic couples, but others might benefit from them as well.

1) Remember Our Eternal Calling: The focus of Valentine's Day is a celebration of human romance, but if we think of the day as St. Valentine's Day, it is also a great day to remember our eternal calling. God calls each of us into an enteral relationship of love. God is love and has created us to share his love with us. We can find ultimate, existential fulfillment only by accepting God's love and requiting his love by giving ourselves to him fully. As someone once said, Christianity is not a religion; it is a proposal of marriage. On St. Valentine's Day, let us reflect on God's call to each of us, whether single, dating, engaged, married, to enter into an eternal relationship of love with him.

2) Learn About St. Valentine: Many articles have been written about the history of St. Valentine's Day, so I will provide just a few details here and will include links for further reading below. St. Valentine was a third century priest or bishop who was martyred for his Christian faith during the persecution of the Christians in Rome, on February 14. A number of theories have been advanced as to why his feast day later became associated with romantic love. One theory posits that St. Valentine helped Christian young men and women get married in secret when the Emperor Claudius II banned marriages in order to bolster participation in his military campaigns by young men. The custom of exchanging tokens of love on St. Valentine's Day dates back to Medieval times and is first mentioned by the poet Chaucer. The holiday was commercialized by enterprising merchants in the 19th century.

Further reading:

History of St. Valentine

3 Things You Might Not Know About St. Valentine

What You Might Not Know About St. Valentine's Day

Shrine of St Valentine, Whitefriar Street Church

3) Pray to St. Valentine: Quite a few groups of people and causes are included under the patronage of St. Valentine. Among them are the young, those in love, those engaged, and the cause of happy marriages. Catholic couples would do well to pray to St. Valentine for help and protection, particularly on February 14, since prayers to saints are especially powerful on their feast days. Below is a suggested prayer.

Prayer to St. Valentine
St. Valentine, glorious martyr for Christ,
Patron of those in love,
We pray that you bless our relationship,
Help us to stay holy, always focused on Christ,
That we may love each other with the love of Christ,
Unselfishly, willing to sacrifice for each other,
Willing to carry the Cross for each other,
So that we may help each other
To grow in faith, hope, and love,
Reaching ever closer to full union with our Lord,
Giving him honor, glory, and praise in all that we do.

4) Visit a Martyr's Shrine: If you live near a church or shrine dedicated to St. Valentine, make a point of visiting it on St. Valentine's Day. If no such places are to be found in your area, visit another church or shrine dedicated to the memory of a martyr.

5) Focus on Martyrs: Use this day as an opportunity to develop a relationship with the martyrs of Catholic history. Unfortunately, the word martyr is sometimes used in a negative sense in colloquial language, signifying someone who is overly dramatic in their self-sacrifice. But the original meaning of the word martyr is witness. Throughout Catholic history, martyrs have made the ultimate sacrifice to give witness to Christ, even to the shedding of their blood. They would rather lose their lives than deny Christ.

On St. Valentine's Day, commit to learning more about the lives of martyrs. Spend the next fourteen days reading about the life of a martyr every day. Also, start including prayers to the martyrs of our faith in your daily prayers.

6) Reflect on Self-sacrificial Love: A reflection on the lives of martyrs is very appropriate on a day that celebrates romantic love. True love is about unselfishly offering of ourselves for the benefit of the other, making sacrifices for the other, and if necessary, even laying our lives down for the other. Of course, in a healthy relationship, this sense of self-giving is from both sides. If only one person has a sacrificial outlook, and the other person just takes and does not give, the relationship will become toxic and abusive. But in a true love relationship, both sides foster an attitude of sacrificial self-giving, and it is precisely through such a disposition that they find lasting joy in their relationship.

7) Wear red: Red, of course, is the color associated with St. Valentine's Day. What many people don't realize is that red is the liturgical color commemorating martyrs. So wear red not because it is the color of romance, but because we are commemorating a martyr. If someone comments on your red attire, you could weave in a mention of honoring martyrs into your response.

8) Go to Mass Together: Many couples go out to eat on St. Valentine's Day. Romantic candle lit dinners can be wonderful. But before you eat out, take part in Mass, which is the anticipation of our eternal banquet with Christ. At Mass, we partake in the holy sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which gives meaning to our own self-sacrificial love. At Mass, we receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord, which gives us eternal life and the strength to persevere in our day-to-day lives. What could be a more beautiful celebration of love on St. Valentine's Day than to share Mass together as a couple?

9) Spend Time in Adoration Together: Praying together as a couple is fundamental to strong, healthy, lasting relationship. If you are not already spending some time in prayer together every day, make a commitment to do so. The best place for personal prayer is in Adoration, whenever possible. While Adoration is not always accessible, make a point of going to Adoration together as a couple on St. Valentine's Day. Spending time in prayer together before our Lord is an inexhaustible source of blessings.

While in Adoration on St. Valentine's Day, read and reflect on biblical verses about love and marriage. Many websites have compiled such verses, but I would especially recommend the following:

44 Refreshing Bible Verses About Love and Marriage

10) Turn to Our Holy Mother: The best way to strengthen your relationship is to bring it under the guidance and protection of our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. On St. Valentine's Day, take some time to consecrate your relationship to Our Lady. After your consecration, pray the Rosary together. The Luminous Mysteries would be most appropriate, since the second Luminous Mystery is the Wedding at Cana. Below is a suggestion for a prayer of consecration. If you can make it to Adoration and are alone together in the Adoration chapel, there is no reason why you couldn't say this this prayer and the Rosary, as well as the other prayers recommended in this article, out loud. But if others are present, say the prayers somewhere else, where you are not disturbing the prayers of others.

Prayer of Consecration to Our Lady for Couples

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God,
Queen of Angels, Queen of Peace,
Queen of Martyrs and of All the Saints,
Today we consecrate our relationship to you.
Guide us, guard us, help us, and protect us.
Keep us safe from all attacks of the enemy,
All evil spirits seeking to destroy us.

Dear Mother,
Guide all our thoughts, words, and actions,
So that in all things we may live out God's will in our lives,
And that at all times we may draw closer to your Divine Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Help us help each other grow in holiness, advancing each day
On the way of salvation and sanctification
So that we may join you and all the holy angels and saints
In giving glory, honor, and praise to our God
With our whole being, with all that we are.

11) Pray Over Each Other: Say a special prayer of blessing over each other for St. Valentine's Day, invoking our Lord, our Holy Mother, the martyrs and saints, and the holy angels. Pray to each other's guardian angels for each other. Below is a blessing prayer you could use.

Prayer of Blessing (Female Version)

Lord Jesus Christ, glorious King of Kings,
I pray that you bless [name] my [girlfriend, fiancée, wife].
Send your Holy Spirit upon her, and anoint her.
Cleanse her spiritually,
Keep her safe from all evil, all attacks of the enemy.
Heal her and keep her whole in body, mind, and spirit,
Help her love you with her whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Let her experience your infinite love for her,
Let her always say yes to the promptings of your Holy Spirit,
And let her be a shining beacon of your love in the world.

I pray also for the protection of our Holy Mother,
The Blessed Virgin Mary over [name],
And of all the holy angels, martyrs, and saints.
I ask all the holy souls in Purgatory to pray for her.

I also ask you, holy guardian angel of [name]
To watch over her, help her, guide her, and protect her,
And help to lead her to full union with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Prayer of Blessing (Male Version)

Lord Jesus Christ, glorious King of Kings,
I pray that you bless [name] my [boyfriend, fiancé, husband].
Send your Holy Spirit upon him, and anoint him.
Cleanse him spiritually,
Keep him safe from all evil, all attacks of the enemy.
Heal him and keep him whole in body, mind, and spirit,
Help him love you with his whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Let him experience your infinite love for him,
Let him always say yes to the promptings of your Holy Spirit,
And let him be a shining beacon of your love in the world.

I pray also for the protection of our Holy Mother,
The Blessed Virgin Mary over [name],
And of all the holy angels, martyrs, and saints.
I ask all the holy souls in Purgatory to pray for him.

I also ask you, holy guardian angel of [name]
To watch over him, help him, guide him, and protect him,
And help to lead him to full union with our Lord Jesus Christ.

12) Learn About the Theology of the Body: If you haven't already done so, St. Valentine's Day is a great day to start learning about the Theology of the Body, a systematic expression of the Catholic understanding of God's vision for human relationships, based especially on the teachings of St. John Paul II.

For further reading, please see the following site: Theology of the Body

13) Give a Spiritual Gift: Some people are put off by the commercialized gift-giving on St. Valentine's Day. But giving gifts is fun, and there is nothing wrong with the practice as long as we do so in moderation and with good judgment. In addition to, or in place of, customary gifts like chocolates, flowers, jewelry, and the like, why not give a spiritually oriented gift? How about a holy picture, statue of Our Lady or of a saint, a holy medal, a beautiful Rosary, or something similar?

If you are good at crafts, you could also make something of a religious significance, like a Rosary. Or consider having a Mass said for your beloved. Also, if you plan ahead, you can order some of the more conventional gifts, like chocolates or jewelry, from a religious supplier, like a convent or monastery, where they earn their living by making such items for sale. You can then help to support the life of a religious community while getting something nice for your sweetheart.

14) Enjoy Yourself: The Catholic Church has never had a problem with merrymaking, as long as we have fun responsibly, in moderation, and in accordance with the boundaries of our state of life. So have some wholesome fun. Just don't do anything that you will need to mention in Confession later.

15) Bonus Tip: Since the stores are full of heart-shaped candies and chocolates, put some aside in the freezer, and bring them out for the feast of the Sacred Heart and the feast of the Immaculate Heart in the summer as a special treat to enjoy on those days.

Photo: Tomb of St. Valentine in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Whitefriar Street in Dublin by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018.

Monday, February 11, 2019

An Angel in the Dark: How Help Came to Me on My 8-hour Journey Home in the Snow

Another heavy snowfall hit the Seattle area on Friday, February 8, and I had quite an adventure. I left my work at 1:05pm, just as the snow started to fall, but I didn't get home until 9:00pm. What is normally a 35-40 minute commute turned into eight full hours.

Seattle comes in for a lot of mockery whenever we get snow. But we have some unique conditions to deal with in our area. For one, we have a high concentration of homes and businesses on very steep hills. Add to that fluctuating temperatures that lead to a cycle of freezing, uneven thawing, and refreezing, making for patches of ice in unpredictable places. What is more, the many hills and mountains create a large variety of microclimates, which makes it hard to plan, since one neighborhood might by slushy, while a few blocks away there could be inches of snow. Given that snow rarely falls in the area, our local governments cannot justify spending a lot of money on machinery and chemicals to clear all of the roads when a snowstorm does arrive. Nor are most drivers prepared for such weather, since we could go a year to two without seeing snow. All of which sets us up for the worst possible driving conditions...

As I headed home on February 8, I knew things were not working out well when it took me over 3 hours to go just five miles. At that point, I decided to stop for a break and a bite at the local Fred Meyer. As I headed out again, I tried to pick the best route on the basis of the traffic indications on my phone map. But, as it would turn out, I had made the wrong choice.

Throughout my trek, as I sat in traffic and later drove in the heavy snow, I kept my mind occupied by listening to music, talks, and an audiobook. I was determined to keep a good attitude. I was sure I would get home sooner or later and didn't panic as that later became much, much later.

But there was one pretty scary moment. After about six hours of trying to get home, as I was heading up a dark hilly area, I suddenly found that the road had a ton of snow, much more than just a short distance away. I definitely needed chains to navigate this section, but just then I also realized that one of my chains had come apart in one place, and I was not able to fix it without a tool, which I didn't have with me.

I was standing by my car in the snowfall, in the cold and dark, thinking that this time I was going to get stranded. Without the chains, I would not be able to go forward, nor would I be able to turn back. Nor was there any city center within walking distance. Perhaps I could ask for help at one of the nearby homes, but I was surrounded by large properties, where the houses were far from the road.

During my drive, I said various prayers as I progressed through the especially stressful parts. In this moment, I said a very simple, specific prayer. I simply said, "Mary, I really, really need some help now. Please help me out."

Not a minute went by, when a pickup truck came up the road and stopped. A young man got out and asked: "Are you doing okay there?" I told him my predicament, and he soon produced a tool that could get the chain fixed. Within a few minutes, I was able to get back on the road. He told me that he was just out and about testing his truck, so he had been on a number of routes. He gave me some good suggestions for how to proceed and recommended that I turn around and follow a different route. He blocked the road with his truck so I could take my time carefully jostling back and forth in the snow in order to change directions safely.

The rest of the drive was long but uneventful. I got home safe. I will probably never meet the young man in the truck again. If I did, I wouldn't recognize him, because I didn't get a good look at his face in the dark. I didn't even get his name in the midst of everything. But he was just the right person sent my way just at the right time. I am sure that his driving by and stopping when he did was no coincidence...

Picture: Our Lady of the Snow. As the first snowfall came this winter, our outdoor statue got an usual snow cover, making it look like someone is hugging Our Lady.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

February 2: Candlemas, the Purification, the Presentation, and the End of Christmas

In the Catholic Church, February 2 has traditionally been known as Candlemas, because the priest would bless candles at Mass, for use both at home and in the church.

Historically, this feast was celebrated as the Purification of the Virgin Mary, that is to say the end of the period of ritual impurity that a woman was considered to have after giving birth. In the new calendar, the day is celebrated as the Presentation of the Lord, when Mary and Joseph present the baby Jesus in the Temple, which concludes the ritual purification of the Virgin Mary. The two feasts are really the same, just approaching the same event, described in Luke 2:22-38, from different angles.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is the Fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. At the same time, the same event is also the First Sorrow of Mary, because it is at this time that Mary first learns, through the prophecy of Simeon, of the suffering that her son must later endure. The Seven Sorrows Rosary starts with a reflection on the Presentation.

In an old Catholic tradition, February 2 is also the day when the last of the Christmas decorations are taken down. Specifically, in many areas, including in the Vatican, the Nativity scene is kept out until February 2.

Further reading:

What is Candlemas Day?

The Tradition of Candlemas

Please note: The image above is from the web and is not my own.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Ember Days Offer a Sense of Focus Before Christmas

Keeping the Ember Days is an old tradition in the Catholic Church. The Ember Days are four sets of three days of fasting, abstinence from meat, and extra prayers, undertaken during different weeks of the year, known as Ember Weeks, scheduled as follows:
- Between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent
- Between the first and second Sundays of Lent
- Between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday
- During the week following the first Sunday after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is held on September 14.

The Ember Days were originally associated with agricultural festivals, and they appear to have developed as the Church sought to Christianize pre-Christian traditions when possible, so that as the people of Europe were converting to Christianity, they could still maintain some of their old customs, now filtered through the perspective of their new faith. As practiced by Christians, the Ember Days had three specific goals: 1) to give hanks to God for the gifts of nature, 2) to teach the faithful to use those gifts in moderation, and 3) to assist the needy. Traditionally, Ember Days have involved fasting and abstaining from meat on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week in question. Special Masses would also be said on these days. Additionally, the Church developed the custom of performing ordinations during Ember Weeks.

The Ember Days are no longer mandated in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Catholic Church. However, nothing prevents rank and file Catholics from observing the Ember Days as a private devotional practice. The Ember Days of Advent (which this year are December 19, 21, and 22) can be an especially good way of focusing on spiritual priorities just before the celebration of Christmas. Below are some suggestions for how you can observe the Ember Days of Advent:

Fast: Fasting has always been an integral part of Christian spirituality. Fasting helps us to gain a deeper sense of self-control and helps us to reorder our priorities. Fasting is also an essential weapon in spiritual warfare. Regrettably, since the Second Vatican Council, the Western part of the Catholic Church as effectively abandoned fasting as a discipline, leaving only two fast days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, when Catholics are obliged to consume no more than one meal, supplemented by two small meals that add up to no more than one full meal, with no snacking outside of these three meals. You might choose to observe the Ember Days by applying these fasting rules to the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week during Advent. Or you might choose to do more. For example, you might choose to have only bread and water on one of the days. Alternatively, you could have bread and water only on Wednesday and Friday, while applying the less stringent rules on Saturday. Or, if you are experienced at fasting, you might engage in a stricter discipline on all three days.

Abstinence from Meat: If the fasting rules you apply to Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week would allow you to eat a meal with meat in it, take on an additional sacrifice by giving up meat as well. Treat this day as a Friday during Lent.

Prayer: Say some extra prayers on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week. For example, say an extra Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet. Do some extra readings from the Scriptures. If possible, go to Mass on each of these days. Also, if possible, spend time in Adoration at least one of the three days. Go to Confession on the Saturday of Ember Week.

Thanksgiving: List at least five things you are grateful for on each of these three days.

Helping Those in Need: On each of the three days, do something to help those in need. Perhaps a member of your family needs some extra help. Perhaps one of your friends is struggling and could use some sort of assistance. Or help someone you don't know.

If you embrace the celebration of the Ember Days of Advent, and allow yourself to have this altered sense of focus, you can be sure that Christmas will be a much more spiritually fulfilling time, and you will receive an abundance of blessings.

Sources and further reading:

Fr. Alek Schrenk's Thread on the Ember Days

How observing the Ember Days can enhance your spiritual life

Wikipedia Entry on the Ember Days

Photo credit: Forest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Have Yourself a Very Blessed Advent: How to Reclaim the Catholic Character of the Advent Season

Our culture starts to celebrate Christmas at best at midnight after Thanksgiving, but more and more at midnight after Halloween. However, in the Catholic Church, we do not start the Christmas season until the evening of December 24. Instead, we have a four-week preparation time leading up to Christmas called Advent, which begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew's Day, celebrated on November 30th. In the Catholic Church, the Christmas season then continues into January, until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In fact, in an older Catholic tradition, Christmas celebrations didn't end until Candlemas, which is February 2.

I'm not an Advent purist. I realize it's impossible not to engage in some early Christmas celebration, since our culture is awash with all things Christmas all the way through Advent. But in the midst of all that Christmas cheer, we can do much to reconnect with the original purpose of the Advent season and to reintroduce Advent customs developed in the Catholic Church throughout the centuries, throughout the world. Below are some suggestions for celebrating Advent in the Catholic way.

Reclaiming the Focus of Advent
The first step is to intentionally reconnect with the original focus of Advent, which is threefold:
- Preparing for the liturgical celebration of the birth of Christ, the incarnation of God.
- Becoming spiritually purified so that we can be more fully opened to the presence of Christ in our daily lives.
- Preparing ourselves and the world for the Second Coming of Christ.
When we enter into the Advent season with this focus, the many different Advent traditions fall into place naturally.

Advent Traditions
Please note: For this section, I relied heavily on the following article:
How to Celebrate Advent Like a Catholic

Advent Wreath: One of the most beloved Advent traditions is the Advent wreath, made of evergreen boughs, with four candles – three purple and one pink. On the first Sunday of Advent, you light one purple candle. On the second Sunday, you light two. On the third Sunday, you light the first two purple ones and the pink one. Pink or rose color is used on the third Sunday of Advent, which is known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for rejoice. We are rejoicing because we are halfway to Christmas. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, you light all four candles. The increasing light of the candles symbolizes that the coming of Christ, who is the light of the world, is closer and closer.

If you do not have a custom of praying with your family at home each day, Advent is a great time to start. Gather around the Advent wreath each night, light the appropriate number of Candles, and say some prayers. Once you start in Advent, it is easier to continue with the evening prayers the rest of the year.

The Jesse Tree: The name of the Jesse Tree references the biblical prophecy that the Messiah will come in the line of Jesse, the father of the great King David (Isaiah 11:1-4). This hands-on Advent custom uses a small tree or a specially designed display board to trace our biblical history leading up to Jesus. Each night of Advent you add an ornament representing a biblical figure or event preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. You can order a Jesse Tree kit with ornaments online, or you can make them yourself if you are good at crafts. If you set up your Christmas tree already at the beginning of Advent, you can also add the Jesse Tree ornaments to you Christmas tree, though it might be fun to have a separate Jesse Tree corner.

As you add each ornament, you can read a few verses from the Bible corresponding to the symbol on the ornament of the day. Some premade ornaments will come with the relevant Scripture verses inscribed on the back. You can also find online guides for which passage to use with which symbol, as well as books that include the readings with reflections. The links below provide some leads.

The Tradition of the Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree

Advent Calendar: You can find a variety of Advent calendars in different places – both Catholic and secular stores and online. Advent Calendars typically start on December 1 and go through Christmas Day. Each day, you open a door, which leads you to some sort of surprise. Some calendars provide a chocolate for each day. Others, like the Lego Advent calendar, might offer a toy. In fact, I see from the posts of my Hungarian friends that they have gone beyond just a simple calendar. At the beginning of Advent, they display 24 little gift bags for each of the children somewhere in the home, and the kids get to open them as the Advent season unfolds.

Some Advent calendars have an adult theme, such as one I saw recently, which held a different type of beer for every day of Advent. While I don't think that an alcohol Advent calendar is inherently wrong, we do need to be careful not to turn the custom of the Advent calendar into something sacrilegious.

By contrast, the more spiritually focused Advent calendars will reveal a new Scripture passage, a blessing, or some other meaningful saying as you open up the door each day. If you have kids, the chocolate or toy calendars can be a fun tradition that can help them look forward to the Advent season. However, whatever kind of calendar you end up using, I would suggest opening each door in the context of an Advent prayer for that day.

Sunday Dinners: During the season of Advent, make a point of having Sunday dinner with family or friends. If you invite friends, you can make it a potluck. Or you could all go out to eat, especially if eating out is more of a special occasion for the family or circle of friends. Intentionally connect the dinner with the celebration of the Sunday in Advent. Start the dinner with an Advent prayer or Scripture passage, such as the Gospel reading for that Sunday. At home, you could place the Advent wreath in the middle of the table, with the appropriate number of candles lit.

Set Up Nativity Set in Stages: You can start setting up your Nativity Set at the beginning of Advent, but don't put everything out at once. Do it in stages, as a way of symbolizing that we haven't yet arrived at Christmas, but are gradually drawing near. For example, set out the animals the first week. Then add Mary and Joseph the second week. Add the angels the third week. Add the shepherds the fourth week.

Wait until Christmas Eve to place the baby Jesus in the manger. Some churches offer a Bambinelli blessing during Advent, when parishioners are encouraged to bring the baby Jesus figure from their Nativity Set to church for a blessing by the priest. If your parish doesn't celebrate this custom, perhaps you could ask your pastor to consider offering this blessing.

Finally, wait until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (sometimes celebrated on the nearest Sunday) to set out the three wise men. As mentioned above, traditionally Catholics would keep celebrating Christmas until February 2. Even if you put away all the other decorations by then, leave your Nativity Set out until February 2 to rekindle our connection with this older tradition.

Blessing the Christmas Tree: Christians use the Christmas tree as a symbol of the coming of Christ into the world. The many lights on the tree symbolize Christ, the light of the world, bringing light into our darkness. The evergreen tree symbolizes rebirth, renewal, and eternal life in Christ. The triangular shape of the tree is seen as referring to the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The ornaments on the tree represent Christ's gift of grace to us, as well as our worship being offered to God.

As we prepare our Christmas tree, we should bear in mind the symbolism that Christians associate with this custom, and we should avoid ornaments that would take us in a different direction. Once our tree is set up, we should also bless the tree, thereby reminding ourselves of the sacred purpose for which we have set it up. Most priests probably do not have enough time to bless each Christmas tree in their parish, but Catholics are welcome to bless their own tree, using blessings provided by the Church. See for example the blessing recommended by the United States Conference of Bishops:

Blessing of a Christmas Tree

Leave a Candle in the Window: During the Advent season, leave a candle in a window that can be seen from the street. You could use a purple candle holder, and then switch to a red one for the Christmas season. Just make sure you burn your candle safely. Consider using an electronic tea light, which does not pose a fire hazard.

Advent Foods: One way to celebrate liturgical seasons is to partake of foods traditionally associated with each season. Advent foods have disappeared from mainstream Catholic consciousness in the United States, but we can certainly bring them back. Various blogs offer suggestions, complete with detail recipes. I will link to two here, but you can easily find more on the web.

Advent Foods for Feast Days and Everything Else

Recipes for December ~ Month Dedicated to the Divine Infancy

Listen to Advent Music: Throughout the month of December, our culture is awash with Christmas music. We cannot avoid hearing Christmas music during Advent, nor do I think that we need to try. However, we should also make a point of intentionally listening to specifically Advent music. The link below offers a list. Most of these songs are on YouTube, so you can select the ones you like and create a playlist.

Resources for Liturgy and Prayer for the Seasons of Advent and Christmas

Celebrate the Feasts during Advent: The Catholic liturgical calendar offers a rich variety of saints to celebrate during the year. Advent is no exception. The two most prominent are St. Nicholas (Dec 6) and St. Lucy (Dec 13), both of which have specific traditions associated with them. Furthermore, two major Marian feast days also fall in the Advent season: The Immaculate Conception (Dec 8) and Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec 12). Advent is also enriched by various cultural traditions, such as the Filipino Simbang Gabi and the Mexican Las Posadas celebrations. Take part in these various festivities in your community, if they are offered. If not, you have a good chance of finding some of these customs in neighboring Catholic churches.

See also:
The major feasts of Advent

The Penitential Dimension of Advent
Historically, the season of Advent had more of a penitential character, much like Lent. We would do well to recapture some of the penitential aspect of the season. Penitential practices can help us to free ourselves from sinful habits and to refocus our lives on the love of God. Through penitential practices, we can also atone for our sins from the past. Below are some suggestions for penitential practices during during Advent:

- Abstain from meat one day during each week, for example, Friday.
- Fast one day each week during Advent on bread and water. If full one day does not seem possible, fast for portions of one or more days.
- Commit to having only three meals a day, with no snacking in between on certain days or during the whole of Advent.
- Give up a food or drink you especially love from the beginning of Advent until Christmas Eve.

Making Advent More Prayerful
Advent is a great time to get into the habit of more regular prayer. If we establish a custom of prayer over four weeks, we have a good chance of continuing beyond the season. Below are some suggestions for making Advent more prayerful:

- If you don’t already pray the Rosary, commit to praying one full Rosary every day during Advent. If that does not seem possible, then at first commit to saying at least one decade of the Rosary per day.
- Follow the Mass readings of each day of the Advent season. You can find various reflections on the daily readings, such as those of Bishop Barron.
- You might also follow another program of Scripture readings designed for Advent. You can find various sets, often with commentary.
- Read more Scripture in some other way, for example, by reading one chapter from the Gospels each day.
- Pray the Christmas Anticipation Prayer, also known as the Christmas Novena Prayer during the season of Advent, which can be found here.
- If you are married, pray a blessing over your spouse every day during Advent, preferably while he or she is present, but you can do so in their absence too. Pray to the guardian angel of your spouse to help him or her be fully open to the love of God in her life.
- If you have kids, pray a blessing over your children every day during Advent, preferably while they are present, but you can do so in their absence too. Pray to the guardian angels of your children to help them be fully open to the love of God in their lives.
- Commit to praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet each day during Advent.

Engage in Good Works
As a part of making Advent more spiritual, make sure that your spiritual commitment shows in your actions too. For example:
- Give alms.
- Perform works of service for family, friends, or strangers.
- Think of ways that you can continue these works of service beyond the Christmas season, during the months when charitable organizations get less attention from the public.
- Help kids get excited about doing good works by doing one of the following:
1) For each good deed they do, they get to put a piece of candy on the Christmas tree as decoration. (Some individually wrapped chocolates for example are easy to attach with ornament hooks). On Christmas Eve, they can start taking off all the candy and eating it.
2) Prepare an empty wooden box as the manger into which the baby Jesus will be placed on Christmas Eve. Whenever the kids do a good deed, they get to put a piece of straw into the manger. If they do a lot of good works during Advent, the baby Jesus will have a very comfortable manger.

Spiritual Cleansing
As we get closer to God, our spiritual enemies will work extra hard to try to derail our progress. They especially want to draw us away from moments in which we can experience the grace of God in a powerful way. We can expect intensified spiritual attacks during Advent. Therefore, it is especially important to use the time of Advent to turn away from sin and to seek the healing power of Christ to cleanse us from negative spiritual influences. I suggest the following spiritual practices.
- Examination of Conscience: Reflect daily on ways in which you have fallen away from Christ, and pray for the grace of complete repentance.
- Confession: Go to Confession at least once during the Advent season.
- Say spiritual binding prayers to cast our evil spirits that are attacking you and your family. For example, say aloud daily: “I repent of (name sin), and I close all doors that I may have opened through this sin. In the Holy Name of Jesus, I bind, rebuke, and cast out all demons that are attacking me and my family. I invite in the Holy Spirit into my family, into our hearts, our homes, and our lives. I invoke the protection of our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy angels, especially our guardian angels, and all the saints, especially the martyrs who shed their blood for the Lord.”

Drawing Closer to the Sacraments
The Seven Sacraments are at the heart of the Catholic life. Use the time of Advent to draw closer to each of the Sacraments either through your participation or through your prayers. I would recommend the following:

- Make a commitment to attending Mass more often than just on Sunday during Advent.
- On days when you cannot attend Mass, unite yourself spiritually with the Eucharist.
- Go to Adoration at least once a week during Advent.
- Remember that each Mass is like Christmas, because during each Mass, Christ comes to us in physical form in the Blessed Sacrament.

- As mentioned above, go to Confession at least once during the Advent season.

- During the Advent season, reflect on your baptism and Confirmation. Reflect on the following questions: “How would my life be different if I had not been baptized and Confirmed? What blessings have I received through my baptism and Confirmation? How can I share those blessings with others?”

- If you are married, focus on some form of marriage enrichment with your spouse during Advent. Assuming your spouse agrees, you could do the following:
1) Get an Advent calendar that has room for things to be placed inside. For every odd day on the calendar, place a small note inside in which you compliment your spouse somehow. For every even day, your spouse would then put inside the calendar a note complimenting you in some way. For each day until Christmas, you read the note that was placed inside. For Christmas Day, you would each place a note of compliment inside the calendar. This way, the whole Advent season can become a time of bonding.
2) Each night during Advent, both you and your spouse each place a new ornament on the Christmas tree, and as you do, you each say something positive about the other. If you have children, you can adapt these exercises to involve them too.

- Pray for a priest by name (or several priests) during the Advent season, as well as for vocations to the priesthood. Pray for all of our ordained ministers and the healing of the Church during these times of crisis.

- Pray for all those who are ill in mind or body, especially those who do not have access to the Anointing of the Sick for whatever reason. Pray in a special way for those who are struggling with loss or grief during a time when the world around them is so festive.

Share Your Own Ideas
I hope that the above list has given you things to think about and to do during the Advent season. If you have Advent ideas of your own, please share them with me, so that I can expand this list (giving you due credit of course). In closing, I am also including a list of links that you might find helpful.

Advent Resources:

How to Celebrate Advent Like a Catholic

The History of Advent

Resources for Liturgy and Prayer for the Seasons of Advent and Christmas

Catholic Apostolic Center Advent Resources

CatholicMom Advent Resources

Word on Fire Advent Reflections

The Best Advent Ever by Dynamic Catholic

Archdiocese of Seattle Advent Resources

Unites States Conference of Bishops Advent Resources

Advent Reflections from Formed

The Religion Teacher’s Advent Activities

National Catholic Education Association Advent Resources

Christmas Anticipation Prayer

The following prayer is recited 15 times per day from the Feast of St. Andrew on November 30 to Christmas:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment
In which the Son of God was born
Of the most pure Virgin Mary,
at midnight,
in Bethlehem,
in the piercing cold.
In that hour vouchsafe, O my God,
to hear my prayer and grant my desires,
[here mention your request]
through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ,
and of His blessed Mother. Amen.

Photo credit: Advent Wreath in St. Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2017

Sunday, November 11, 2018

In Bosnia, Hell Was Unleashed Upon the World. But Now the Peace of Heaven Is Also Coming From Bosnia

Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, marking the anniversary of the end of World War I. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918, the guns fell silent in Europe. Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

The war was the result of very complex dynamics, but the immediate trigger was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Above is a picture of the pistol that was used to kill him, thereby sparking World War I.

World War I ushered in a horrific sequence of events. While the war raged, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia led to the rise of Communism as a global force in the world, inflicting destruction of unprecedented historic proportions on the world. After the war, the Great Depression ravaged the nations, followed by World War II, which brought unspeakable horrors never yet seen. Then followed the Cold War, with its threat of global nuclear annihilation. Though much has changed, the world has by no means yet recovered from the consequences of that fateful pistol shot in Bosnia.

I find it an interesting coincidence, if coincidence we can call it, that Medjugorje is also in Bosnia. The visionaries who claim to see the Virgin Mary there say that in the visions Mary speaks of herself as the Queen of Peace. Today, she is honored there by that title, or, in the local Croatian, as the Kraljica Mira. Indeed, on my two trips to Medjugorje, I experienced a profound, penetrating, otherworldly sense of peace in that town. I feel that the Queen of Peace truly reigns there.

Perhaps Mary came to Medjugorje, just a few hours away from where World War I began, to share with us that sense of peace that we need to end the wars and conflicts of the world and to heal the deep wounds of the past.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Birthday Party for Mother Mary

September 8 is the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church. Tonight, my wife and I attended a birthday party for our Holy Mother at the home of fellow parishioners. We started with a Rosary, then had dinner, cake, and a toast in honor of Our Lady. Such a wonderful evening!