Not cheap or profane, but a vulgar grace

Of the books in his lesser-known Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra is arguably the best. Taking place almost exclusively on the planet Venus, the character of Ransom explores not just a world untouched by sin but the struggle with sin itself. One of the passages I find most affecting has him reflecting on the proper meaning and end of appetites. I’ve included the passage in its entirety at the end of this post, but its final sentence has always stayed with me: “But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.”1

Profaning something special is what Ransom is rejecting here, and we are invited to do the same. But it doesn’t take a trip to another planet to see how often we make vulgar (ie, ‘common’)2 what ought to be held apart for a special moment or purpose – it is a habit that is so engrained in us that we are often blind to how regularly and unwittingly we do just that. When our eyes are opened to see others or ourselves making vulgar something that ought not to be common, we react with disgust and repulsion.

In contrast is the idea of the Holy making Itself common – a reality we will celebrate in the mystery of the Nativity of Christ. While our initial reaction may still be rejection, the disgust and repulsion comes from within. Despite the generous nature of the gift, we recoil at the collision of holiness with our brokenness: ‘I’m not worthy of such an extraordinary gift!’

Presumption and despair

One of the more eyebrow-raising lines of Jesus is found in Mark 3:28-29 : “Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.” Christians and non-Christians alike ask, quite reasonably!, what this unforgivable sin might be, this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. How can it be that there is any sin that can not be forgiven by the Lord?

The best explanation I have heard rests on the Lord’s great respect for our free will. Though God has the power to impose Himself on us, He will not do so – and that includes forgiveness. If we refuse to ask for his help – whether out of presumption (‘I don’t need His help’, ‘I can claim His gifts without even asking Him’) or despair (‘He’ll never help me, so I won’t bother asking’) – He will honor that refusal. This blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable because we make ourselves unforgiveable by refusing forgiveness.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why the Church insists on individual confession, rather than the oft-abused general absolution (which is only to be used in immediate danger of death). The Lord gives generously and graciously, but never in a way that would cheapen our relationship with Him. An apology made without specifics, ownership, or expression of sorrow is no apology at all! On the other end, a statement of forgiveness is means nothing if it is simply a dismissal as unimportant the offenses it addresses. Confession allows us – as best as we can – to make a sincere apology, while opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s forgiveness.

Humble Divinity

The recent publication of the Dicastary for the Doctrine of the Faith’s declaration Fiducia Supplicans has given members of the Church reason to revisit the meaning and end of blessings. In giving authority to the Apostles – passed on through the generations to clerics today – Christ has given extraordinary power & responsibility: to call and have God answer. When we call, He shows up! What was once unique to the Last Supper has become the weekly or even daily experience of Catholics throughout the world.

That there is fear that this declaration could be used to provide cheap grace or result in the graces of blessings being profaned is not entirely unreasonable. And sadly, we have no shortage of examples – especially recently – of clerics and laity all-to-willing to cheapen or profane God’s blessings, using them as they see fit rather than as the Lord and His Church intends.

This danger has not stopped the Lord from entrusting Himself to us. At the words of the priest at Mass, Jesus comes to us with the fragility of bread and wine – a crumb, a single drop contains Christ entire, whole to all that taste. And at the conclusion of Mass, the priest blesses all present – worthy or not – and the Lord responds.

Despite His greatness – or better said, because of His greatness – God humbles Himself such that we may direct Him. What a terrible and awesome gift! We who carry it ought to hold ourselves and be held accountable for how we use it – and so we will surely will, at the end of all things.

Needy humanity

The point of all of this – the point of the declaration, I dare to assert – is that this gift ought to be used to the point of commonality – because God Himself (and not us) has willed it so! Of course we ought to reject profaning blessings by using them in unholy ways or over unholy things. Of course we ought to recoil from cheapening blessings by using them insincerely, carelessly, or spuriously. But we should – we must – put this gift to good and regular use. To reject or recoil from using this gift, especially on behalf of those who most need it most – us sinners! – would be to frustrate the proper meaning and end of blessings: to sanctify us and make us holy.

In our need – and often, hubris – there will be those who will presume to receive God’s blessing without any intention or desire to enter into a relationship with Him, or allow for Him to effect change in their lives. There will be others who feel so hopeless that they won’t dare to approach Him at all. It is the work and role of Christians everywhere to help others freely approach God and worthily receive Him – this is what is at the heart of the great commission. This, too, is part of the point of this.

With regards to the declaration Fiducia Supplicans, there is a key line that punctuates how these blessings might be made common but not cheaply or profanely:

In such cases [the blessing of irregular/same-sex couples], a blessing may be imparted that not only has an ascending value but also involves the invocation of a blessing that descends from God upon those who—recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help—do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Fiducia Supplicans, 31

Responding worthily

Those who recognize their destitution and need for help, who don’t legitimize themselves but beg for all that is good, true, and valid in their lives & relationships to be enriched, healed and elevated – would that ALL of us would so approach blessings from the Lord and His Church! This is no blessing of sin, but rather a blessing against the sin that binds – and surely an occasion to be celebrated.

When humanity turns what is holy into something profane, it is rightly condemned. But when the Sacred chooses to descend, to mysteriously make Himself small, when He makes Himself a commoner for our sake, our response ought to be one of grateful joy and generous sharing. May we make of this a renewed opportunity to encourage each other to receive fully the blessings of the Lord.

  1. Now he had come to a part of the wood where great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees–clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of the balloon-man and about the same size. He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed. It could not be classified. He could never tell us, when he came back to the world of men, whether it was sharp or sweet, savoury or voluptuous, creamy or piercing. “Not like that” was all he could ever say to such inquiries. As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favour of tasting this miracle again; the child-like innocence of fruit, the labours he had undergone, the uncertainty of the future, all seemed to commend the action. Yet something seemed opposed to this “reason.” It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.
    – C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (the antepenultimate paragraph of chapter 3) ↩︎
  2. from the Latin vulgaris, volgaris (common, ordinary) or vulgus, volgus (of the common people) ↩︎

Let every ‘no’ be joined with a ‘yes’

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received about leadership – even before I was a priest (probably when I was in Boy Scouts!) – was given to me by my father. I don’t remember his exact words, but the essence was that even though I might have to say ‘no’ to something, that I should always try to offer some accompanying ‘yes’.

As a priest, this has proven invaluable in pastoral care. When someone wanted ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ for their loved one’s funeral Mass, the answer was clearly ‘no’ – but we sang it outside the church as we processed to the hearse. When a divorced-and-remarried couple wanted to receive communion, the answer was clearly ‘no’ – but we talked through the possibilities laid out in Familiaris Consortio #84 and how to best pursue marriage in the Church. When my choirs wanted the Mass setting to be chosen according to their (differing!) preferences, the answer was clearly ‘no’, but we talked about how we might incorporate their desires into a larger liturgical plan.

The examples could go on and on, covering any number of situations or groups. More than the actual options at hand, the effort to find a way forward – as well as the honesty of what the options were and weren’t on the table – elicited appreciation and respectful conversation. Things didn’t always end up happily, but the effort to find something to offer rarely goes unnoticed or unappreciated.

Ministering to those wounded by the Church

Over the last several days, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released two documents: a brief letter responding to a dubia (question) from a bishop and a significantly longer declaration (titled Fiducia Supplicans1). The letter was essentially an exhortation to not deny single mothers the sacraments (or tell them they must abstain). The declaration addressed questions around blessings, particularly blessing couples living in objectively disordered lifestyles such as same-sex couples.

The first document elicited no small amount of ‘why do we need this?’ from commentators as they expressed skepticism that anyone in the Church would so mistreat single mothers. The second document has inflamed an already-polarized debate, with folks on both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ side painting it as a change in Church teaching and practice.

Lost in all of this is the real hurt of our brothers & sisters that this is all meant to address. And I must admit, I might have been right in there with the unhappy ‘why do we need these?’ crowd not too long ago. But then I started encountering people – some of them faithful Catholics – who had been told by their priest that they couldn’t receive communion because they were divorced. Not subsequently remarried, mind you, but simply because they were divorced. One woman shared an awful account of how the priest stopped her during communion at a Sunday Mass to scold her and tell her she was not free to receive due to her divorce. She obediently stopped receiving – even as she continued to faithfully attend Mass every Sunday, albeit elsewhere. It was while waiting for her daughter to finish a First Holy Communion class that she spontaneously – and tearfully – shared her sorrow at having been unable to receive in the years (!) since that encounter.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with same-sex attracted individuals – some who were couples – who desperately want to just come to Mass, but were convinced that they weren’t welcome even to cross the threshold of the church. One young man offered how he knew God was calling him back to the faith, but he didn’t know how to even start since the Church clearly disapproved of everything about him and his boyfriend. He knew that he might – probably – would have to make some hard decisions about the nature of their relationship, but he desperately wanted to know if his efforts would be met with welcome or rejection.

Lest anyone think these stories are outliers, be assured that they are not. Whether in spontaneous conversation, the sacrament of Reconciliation, or hesitant request to meet, there are many (many!) more instances where folks – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – have shared how they have been hurt by laity & clerics of the Church in the name of Church, using Church teaching as the cudgel. Even when not done with malice (though it often was), these wounds have proven to be deep and lasting.

These people need healing – and we owe it to them to actively reach out and offer what we can to assist them in that healing.

The Gospel of the Lord

It seems to me that the reactions to these latest efforts of the Church are based on a desire to get what we want – though the desires of a given ‘we’ are often at odds with those of others. Some are anxious and angry that the Church might make Herself vulnerable to being taken advantage of and abused – Her teachings twisted to permit and bless sin. Others are anxious and angry that the Church might make them vulnerable to being changed and live differently – that Her teachings would impose expectations that they don’t want to meet.

This sounds pretty Christ-like to me! He ate with tax collectors, talked with prostitutes, and gathered a group of shmucks around Himself to become His Apostles. He lovingly – usually quite gently – called out those same tax collectors, prostitutes, and shmucks – even while sharing Himself with them.

The strongest critique I’ve heard of these documents is one that is just as easily applied to the words of the Lord Himself: that people will take them and twist them to their own purposes. This has the virtue of being true….. as individuals with free will we can choose to interpret and act as we decide. Touched by sin – often clinging to it! – many will do just that.

And yet, Jesus considered that risk one worth taking. He even gave up His life on the chance that if not all, at least some might choose eternal life.

Hermeneutic of charity

Around this time last year, Deacon Greg Kandra wrote a reflection titled “One key number for the new year“. In it, he spoke about number 2478 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which starts “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way”. Remembering those four numbers has helped me immeasurably over the last year – I am certain this will continue to serve me well in the coming years.

Does that risk us making fools of ourselves? We’d certainly be in good company! Thomas Aquinas, after being mocked by his brothers for rushing to see the flying pigs they claimed were nearby, legendarily said “I would rather believe that pigs can fly than believe that my brethren could lie”.

Charity doesn’t demand that we change Mother Church’s doctrine & dogma – quite the opposite, if we truly believe that She and Her teachings are given to us by the Lord for our fulfillment & happiness! In our approach to our Mother and to those who so deeply need Her ministrations, let us say ‘no’ without compromising charity while finding the ‘yes’ that affirms the truth. Let us approach each other – both those in the Church and those wounded by the Her – with hearts open to both the yeses and no’s that the Lord presents us.

  1. In English, the declaration is titled On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings ↩︎

In Memoriam: Pope Benedict XVI (2022)

Pope Benedict XVI in Saint Peter's square (2007)
Pope Benedict in Saint Peter’s square (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday, sometime around 9 am CET, our pope emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI, was called home to his eternal reward. At 95 and after years of faithful service, he has earned his rest – but we here on earth are poorer for his passing. As many have remarked, he is the last of a generation, bridging the gap between the pre and post conciliar Church with fidelity, wisdom, and grace. Though his contributions will continue to bear fruit in the Body of Christ on earth – and we will undoubtedly benefit from his intercession in union with the saints & angels in heaven – we are nonetheless poorer for his passing. He will be deeply missed.

Cardinal Marini venerates the casket of Pope John Paul II (2005)
Cardinal Marini venerating Pope John Paul II’s casket
(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I was born under the papacy of Pope Saint John Paul II. He led the Church for so long that it seemed like he had always been and always would be around. When he died in 2005, the world shook – and me with it. Universally beloved, it seemed impossible that such a force for joyful faith could be gone. At Mundelein seminary at the time, as students and faculty alike immediately gathered together to offer Mass, praying as one. Catholics – and non-Catholics! – were united across ecclesial divisions in a common purpose: to thank God for and intercede on behalf of a beloved man who so wonderfully lived his first papal message of ‘be not afraid!’

Leading us all in our grief and our prayer was then-Cardinal Ratzinger. It made perfect sense, not only because of his prominence in the Church (having served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981) but because of his deep personal friendship with Pope Saint John Paul II. In addition to carrying his own grief at the loss of his friend, Cardinal Ratzinger stood before the world and led us through that sad goodbye. His homily was an inspiration, but it was his presence that made all the difference. Though he had been known as a staunch proponent of the faith – often compared to a bulldog by fans & critics alike – that day his fatherly heart was revealed.

So it was no surprise that when the conclave gathered for the prayerful discernment and selection of a new pope, he was tapped by his brother cardinals to succeed his friend after just one day of deliberations. On April 19, 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. I remember the announcement well, with many of my classmates gathered around the television in the rec hall beneath the chapel – a chapel, by the way, where the community Mass was being offered. I’m told that our cheering disrupted the Mass such that the rector simply paused his prayers, remarking that ‘I guess we have a new pope!’ and patiently waiting for the name to be shared with him – which he included in Eucharistic prayer of the Mass we had interrupted.

Pope Benedict XVI will always hold a special place in my heart. His faithful teaching – especially around the liturgy & worship of our Lord – continues to inform my practice of the faith and the work of my priesthood. He was a gift to the Church and we have been blessed by his generous lifetime of ministry. Thankful for all that he did and who he was, we commend him to the Lord, whom he served with such care.

Saints of God come to his aid!
Hasten to meet him, angels of the Lord!

R. Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.
May Christ, who called you, take you to himself;
may angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.
R. Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,
and let perpetual line shine upon him.
R. Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.

(during the Novemdiales – the traditional nine days of mourning at the death of a pope – consider joining in the Office for the Dead, which can be prayed at any time)

Further reading you may find edifying:

A Family for us all

The Holy Family with St. John the Baptist by Lorenzo Lotto
The Holy Family with St. John the Baptist, by Lorenzo Lotto (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. It is a bit of a liturgical oddity – the rubrics tell us that it is to be celebrated on Sunday after Christmas. However, should a liturgical celebration of a higher rank – such as the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God – land on that Sunday, the feast is to be celebrated on December 30th.

The ears of liturgy aficionados will be perking up at this point, because normally when a solemnity lands on the day of a feast, it simply trumps it but not here. In the case of the feast of the Holy Family, the Church goes to great lengths to ensure that it is always celebrated, no matter what – and that should grab the attention of us all.

In celebrating Mass today, we get to the point of this celebration quite directly:

O God, who were pleased to give us
the shining example of the Holy Family,
graciously grant that we may imitate them
in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity,
and so, in the joy of your house,
delight one day in eternal rewards.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever

Collect for the feast of the Holy Family

That the human family – and the family as an institution – has been broken & suffering is news to exactly no one. The first family, even before they had children, involved rebellion, scapegoating, and deception. The birth of their children, inheritors of their original sin, eventually resulted in the first murder – one child against the other. Things got bleaker from there. Every single one of us is affected, with many painful wounds readily visible in our lives and others less visible, though no less impactful. This is true even in the best of families, despite the heroic virtue and genuine effort that so many families put into creating a good home.

We know that we need a savior, personally, but Jesus goes above and beyond individual healing (though that too!). Not satisfied to simply conquer sin & death, He formed an earthly model for new and renewed family life for all mankind – the Holy Family. They offer to us both an example and an invitation, an example to inspire us and an invitation to join them. This is true on the domestic and ecclesial level – individual families and the family of the Church alike are meant to look to the Holy Family for guidance.

The first step to healing is acknowledging we need it – this is sometimes the hardest step to take. With that done, however, we mustn’t simply dwell in our brokenness. All too often, we make the mistake of focusing solely or primarily on what is flawed or lost. The Holy Family offers us another way: a chance to enter into a holy relationship with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, be transformed into the kind of family member we are meant to be, and to help others experience the same. Let us focus on Jesus, and the family He built around Himself – His earthly parents and later, the Church. It starts with spending time with them, meditating on their lives together, and responding to the call to join in their relationship with each other, through the presence & love of the Lord.

If you’re interested in further reflections on the Holy Family, you may find these helpful:

Commemorating Saint Thomas Becket

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” – with these words, Saint Thomas Becket was condemned by King Henry II and martyred.

Canterbury Cathedral - stained glass of the murder of Saint Thomas à Becket
Murder of Saint Thomas, stained glass at the Cathedral of Canterbury (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to this, Saint Thomas had butted heads with the king by refusing to approve the his Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have removed the rights of clerics to be tried by the Church and appeal to Rome. Apparently, Saint Thomas was open to some kind of compromise as the king was, ostensibly, trying to address a real problem of corruption among clergy (conveniently grabbing power at the same time), but ultimately rejected the constitutions. This sent him into exile, fleeing to France for several years. Some time after he returned to England, he refused to lift censures he had placed on bishops that the king particularly favored – prompting the famous words above.

There is some doubt as to whether or not the king actually intended that his angry utterance to be a call for execution – both King Henry and Saint Thomas Becket were known for their fiery temperament, and willingness to express themselves freely. Despite the clashes between them in their positions of authority, they had had a friendship that had started many years prior – with the two of them even serving in war together. Nonetheless, four knights, upon hearing their king’s words, went to Canterbury and killed Saint Thomas Becket in the cathedral.

Today’s commemoration is the last of the martyrs celebrated during this octave of Christmas. Brother Cassian Derbes, O.P. at Word on Fire has a thoughtful reflection on the school of martyrdom. While we hope to never be enrolled such that we must suffer as the martyrs did, may we yet follow the martyrs example of faithfulness and commitment to Christ.

My friend Thom Ryng, having a particular love for Saint Thomas Becket, has taken a neat dive into the liturgical oddity of today’s commemoration (and has links to his reflections on the saint from prior years). I highly recommend his writing on Saint Thomas – and in general!

A wealth of Christmas feasts

Merry Christmas! I pray that these days of the nativity of the Lord are joyful, refreshing, and relaxing. After the four weeks of Advent preparation, it is wonderful to finally (!) celebrate the birthday of Christ and the beginning of His work of salvation in the world.

Like most – if not all! – of my brother priests, I spend the days immediately after Christmas recuperating from the holiday rush and visiting with family. It is a sad reflection of our current crisis of priestly vocations in the Church that this means many of our parishes simply shut down during this time. While this is understandable (priests are human too!), the vision of each parish having two, three, or even four priests is far from being realized.

Before continuing on, lets take a moment together to pray for priestly vocations and the young men who are being called to hear & answer the Lord’s invitation.

The Stoning of Saint Stephen, altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice
Stoning of St Stephen, altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As a result of the shortage of priests, most parishioners will not have daily Masses this week. And this is a real shame, because the first three days after Christmas are big celebrations! December 26th is the feast of Saint Stephen the Martyr, December 27th is the feast of Saint John the Apostle, and December 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Each in their own way, according to their own call, were close to the heart of Jesus. Saint Stephen is the first Christian martyr, which is to say, the first to have been killed in the name of Christ after His death & resurrection – professing His name and Gospel even as he was stoned alive for doing so. The second reading from the Office of Readings for this day, a sermon by Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe – is an extraordinary reflection on the relationship between Jesus, Saint Stephen, and his persecutors – especially Saint Paul.

Jesus & Saint John, the art Bible (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Saint John the Evangelist – the ‘beloved disciple’ – holds special distinction for his closeness to the heart of Jesus. Alone among the Apostles in not suffering martyrdom, he is set apart in Scripture as being especially close to the Lord. This is most poignantly illustrated in the accounts of the Last Supper, where he reclines against Jesus chest – a closeness to which we are all invited.

The Virgin and Child Surrounded by the Holy Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens
The Virgin and Child Surrounded by the Holy Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Though last in the order of celebrations, the Holy Innocents were the first to share in the suffering & sorrow of Christ – without knowing His name, they nonetheless died for Him and are the first martyrs of the Church. Their feast day calls to mind the many souls whose lives have been similarly cut short by the evil of abortion. They, too, suffer without knowing the cause – though they join the Holy Innocents in being received lovingly into the arms of our heavenly Father.

There are sorrows and consolations alike to be found in each of these celebrations. All now share in the Father’s joy, together with all the saints and angels. Each entered into the suffering of Christ, albeit in different ways according to the vocation given to them by God. While they may not have chosen the suffering they endured – indeed, so many were not given that choice! – the Lord ensured that their suffering was not in vain. And through Him, they suffer no more, instead enjoying His presence forever and interceding on our behalf.

As we continue through this Christmas season, may we ask their prayers on our behalf and on behalf of all the world. May we each embrace our vocation, with all its accompanying sorrows and joys, so that we by sharing in His life, death, and resurrection, we might win eternal life for both ourselves and others.

Last Holiday (2006) – the best Christmas movie ever?

In the field of Christmas movies, competition – and the war of opinions – is fierce. From classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to movies that fail to even mention Christ (looking at you A Christmas Story), a person can find any number of offerings to fill the holiday season. But after you’ve watched all the standard Christmas movies – yes, even Die Hard – I would like to recommend one that might have slipped past your radar when it was released some fifteen years ago.

The Last Holiday movie poster
Last Holiday movie poster (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Last Holiday is one of those movies that really shouldn’t worked. The writers basically rehashed a bunch of old tropes, added some ridiculous circumstances, and copy-pasted familiar caricatures of several types. It could easily have been a shoo-in for a Razzie Award, at least on paper.

What makes this a success, nearly single-handedly, is the pure charm and charisma of Queen Latifah in the character of Georgia Byrd, a saleswoman from Louisiana. The movie wastes little time establishing her as a caged bird, living life carefully portioned out while dreaming about possibilities that seem just beyond her reach. But after being diagnosed with a terminal illness guaranteed to take her life within weeks, she decides that there’s no time like the present to experience all that she can before the clock runs out.

I think it is fair to say that no new ground is being broken here. So well worn is this path that I can hardly blame anyone for taking a solid pass on the movie as described – as moviegoers did at the time of its release (it didn’t even recover the costs of making it, much less show a profit or gain critical acclaim). The trailer, by the way, misrepresents the movie so horribly that I found myself getting angry watching it before writing this. If you intend to watch this movie, don’t watch the trailer beforehand – or at all, frankly.

But really – and I’m not alone in my conviction – you should watch the movie

Here’s my pitch: Take a heavy dollop of the joie de vivre – particularly food-related – from Ratatouille‘s Remy1, add a generous helping of the fish-out-of-water situation of Pretty Woman‘s Vivian Ward, season with the down-home flavor of Louisiana culture & piety, and sprinkle with just a touch of the exoticness of a European Downton Abbey and you’ve got the base recipe. Set within it the fullness of the person of Queen Latifah, uncontainable but never overwhelming – embodying a person who you most want to be, or at least, want to be friends with, a person who knows who she is and what she wants even as she is held back by insecurities and limitations, though chasing them with an admirable humility and verve when finally set free from those chains.

For some, the movie may be cloyingly earnest, a touch on-the-nose, its conceit pushing just past the point of believability, and its resolution a little too neat. I would suggest that this movie is deliberately positioned to break through our cynicism. What is so delightful, so wonderful about Last Holiday is that even in addressing the most skeptical among us, it does so with the gentlest of rebukes and an easy smile – scolding not us but the insecurities & limitations that keep us from enjoying it, and life, while inviting us to rediscover the wonder of savoring the experiences and people that are right in front of us.

Last Holiday is rated PG-13. Though kept to a minimum (indeed, our hero has no patience for foul language), there are several swear words – at least one of which is a narrowly averted f-bomb. There is no nudity, though an extra-marital affair between two secondary characters is acknowledged (and satisfyingly, if belatedly, addressed).

For those looking to stream the movie, it is currently (as of December 2022) included with Amazon Prime (no ads) or to Paramount+ subscribers (with ads).

Christmas homily (2022) – ‘Nevermind all that’

Merry Christmas! May the celebration of the nativity of Christ bring you & your loved ones many blessings now and throughout the new year.

The short version of my preaching this Christmas is that I have been inspired by a parishioner’s approach to getting bogged down by the crazy of life, faith, and everything in between. Though particulars matter, very often they don’t matter at that moment, which he cuts to with a simple saying: ‘nevermind all that!’, before focusing on whatever is most important in the moment at hand.

It strikes me that Christmas may be a form of God doing the same for us. The particulars of salvation, the call to holiness, the weight of our sins and that of the glory that awaits us – all of these, though extremely important, are not the point. The point is this: God has come to us, to be in our midst, so that we might receive His friendship and – if we are willing – to offer Him ours.

There are plenty of related elements – some of which will rightly demand our attention in the near or far future – but for today, nevermind all that. The Word has been made flesh, God is with us, and He invites us to focus on Him, and what He is offering to us right now: a friendship that will buoy us up, provide for all our needs, and fulfill us. Start with that, and everything else will fall into place, with His gracious help.

Yes, I do believe

Every year, there is a question that sends a shiver down the spines of parents, teachers, priests, and any grown-up who encounters it: ‘is Santa real?’. This simple question seems fraught with danger. Fears of being complicit in the commercialism that has seeped into the Nativity of Christ, of emphasizing a myth over the Word incarnate, of advocating a lie in the midst of a season dedicated to the One who is the source of all truth – all of this, and more, weighs on the adult to whom an innocent child looks up and presents this simple inquiry.

It is by strange coincidence – I daresay providentially so – that the most famous answer to this question comes from Church – not Holy Mother Church, but a man named Francis Pharcellus Church. It is he who is the author of the now famous response published in the New York Sun in 1897, titled simply ‘Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’ (I’ve included it in its entirety below). In five brief paragraphs, he answers this question so well that his response has become perhaps the most famous editorial of all time, and deservedly so.

I don’t know if Francis Church was inspired by the Church Herself, but he echoes – consciously or not – the language of the likes of Tolkien in his On Fairy-Stories, Lewis in his dedication to to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and even Thomas Aquinas, who famously reminds us that “Faith has to do with things that are not seen, and hope with things that are not in hand”, reminiscent of the similar words found in the Letter to the Hebrews.

We’re all assuming this is Mrs. Claus, right? (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

If the title didn’t give it away, you’ve probably guessed by now how I answer this question – that I, too, do believe in Santa Claus. Oh, my image of him is not the one of popular culture, though the history of how Saint Nicholas came to be associated with a sleigh, reindeer, and chimneys is fascinating all in itself. But that relatively modern (1823) conceit has its roots in an actual living, breathing person – whose story is far richer and more Christ-based than secular society might care to admit.

And so, finally (!), we come to the crux of the matter: Santa Claus is in fact Saint Nicholas (from the Dutch feast of Sinterklass or Sint-Nicolaas, celebrating his name day). In the Roman Catholic tradition, Saint Nicholas has his own liturgical feast day on December 6 (or on December 19 by those who follow the Julian calendar, such as various Orthodox Churches), though the season of Advent trumps him liturgically. Nonetheless, Christians worldwide celebrate his memory with small gifts – traditionally putting out shoes the night before and filling them with tangerines or oranges overnight.

Saint Nicholas, by Jaroslav Čermák
Saint Nicholas, by Jaroslav Čermák (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Why? I’m glad you asked! We start with with the basics: Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. He famously attended the Council of Nicaea – there is a story about him punching Arius, which though satisfying, was neither encouraged nor condoned. In fact, he was stripped the signs of his office and thrown into jail for the offense. It seems that divine intervention may have played a part in convincing Constantine and his brother bishops to restore him.

But the story of Saint Nicholas that most captures his character centers not around his ardent defense of the faith and its doctrine & dogma, but the charity which it inspired. The most famous story involves saving three children from a terrible fate. There are several versions of the story, but essentially a father of three girls was intending to sell them into prostitution, seeing no alternative that would save them from the poverty that afflicted the family. Saint Nicholas, apparently hearing about this, discreetly gave from his own wealth. Legend has it that he tossed in bags of gold through an open window, with them landing in the shoes that were placed to dry overnight in front of the fire.

From that simple act, not only were girls saved from a life of physical and spiritual impoverishment, but was borne a tradition of gift-giving that continues to this day. This also explains those tangerines or oranges on his feast day, representing the gold balls or coins that he gave away so generously.

I could go on and on (and so I have already!), but the point is this: we Christians have no reason to be afraid to affirm Santa Claus. If you’re struggling to find ways to celebrate the very real man behind it all, I would commend you to the wonderful St. Nicholas Center website. They’ve got a whole section on how to celebrate Saint Nicholas and the Christ to Whom he was devoted. Santa Claus is not a threat to Jesus or faith in Him – far from it! Armed with the truth of who he is, we can celebrate all the more richly the season of the Word incarnate and be inspired to to greater love of God and neighbor.

(also, if you’re looking for a bit of whimsy and fun, NORAD’s Santa Tracker is a delightful tradition, started entirely by happy accident. They have a dedicated website and apps for you & the children in your life to follow Santa Claus. It’s lovely.)

Is There a Santa Claus?

We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of THE SUN:

“DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
“Papa says ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
“Virginia O’Hanlon.

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, VIRGINIA, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beautify and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there was no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank GOD! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, VIRGINIA, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

“Is There a Santa Claus?” September 21, 1897. The Sun (New York, NY), Image 6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

O Emmanuel (December 23)

Today we come to the end of the O Antiphons – perhaps the one that most people know, thanks to the Advent hymn inspired by it: “O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law: come to save us, Lord our God!”

The name ‘Emmanuel’ – meaning ‘with us is God’ – comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah. After Ahaz refuses the invitation of the Lord to ask for a sign to reassure him that God will deliver on His promise, the Isaiah makes this proclamation:

Then he said: Listen, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.

Isaiah 7:13-14

Ahaz needed reassurance that he and his people would not be torn apart by their enemies. The Lord exhorted him – and through him, his people – to stand firm, to trust in Him. But He spoke not only to Ahaz, but to all mankind. Isn’t it the case that we often need reassurance that we will not be torn apart by the Enemy, from attacks without and within? Who of us hasn’t trembled at the weight of our own sin and the pressure of temptation!

The message given through the prophet Isaiah speak more profoundly in light of this spiritual battle: “Thus says the Lord God: It shall not stand, it shall not be!” God will not permit His beloved children to stand alone.

What is required of us is neither power nor strength, but instead trust. Some two thousand years ago, our heavenly Father sent His Word to us, incarnate in the person of Christ. By the Father’s will, Jesus sent us His Holy Spirit – and assures us that where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there with them. May we confidently call on the Lord, knowing that He has already come, is with us, and will bring us through our present struggles to eternal joy & peace.

And if you’re looking for good version of that eponymous hymn, here is one of my favorite popular renditions of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’: