Tag Archives: Mary

Sunday Sermon: the Epiphany of the three Magi

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Any number of times over the years the inspiration for these “Sunday Sermon” pieces has been drawn from some idea put forward by the priests at my church.

Today, Father Sean English provided that inspiration with his sermon in which he spoke of the “Three Kings” in relation to today’s celebration of the Epiphany.

The Epiphany goes by a few other names as well, depending on your cultural background or the specific church to which you may belong. The most frequent are for “Little Christmas” or “Three Kings Day” celebrations.

In today’s world, when someone is said to have an “epiphany” it means that some sudden realization has come upon them. A moment of clarity in which something fundamental is revealed to them.

The “three kings” or “three wise men” or even the “Magi” as they have alternately been known through history are credited with both having and passing on such an epiphany following the birth of Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago.

The word “Magi” is an ancient one. It referred to those who practiced what was known as magic, usually including incorporation and study of alchemy and astrology. These were extremely learned men, bordering on what today would be called scientists more than true magicians.

As Father Sean explained today, the Magi of Jesus’ time were not necessarily aligned with any particular religion. However, they were acquainted with all faith systems, including Judaism.

The Magi may have been followers or even priests of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. No matter, they certainly would know of the ancient Jewish prophecy regarding the coming of a Savior.

The western Christian churches, including the Catholic Church founded by Jesus himself, believe and teach that there were three of these wise Magi men. That theory was drawn from writings showing that three gifts were brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

One thing is almost certain, they were not “kings” in the classic sense of the word. The reference to “three kings” is almost certainly drawn from prophecies such as Psalm 72 which said “all kings shall fall down before him” in the Jewish Torah, or Old Testament.

The three were said to have come “from the east”, drawn by a star in the sky which their calculations led them to believe would lead to the Savior foretold in the Jewish prophetic writings.

In the western tradition, they went by the names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, and hailed originally from Persia, India, and Babylonia respectively. Some claim that they actually are meant to represent Europe, Asia, and Africa.

As the Magi neared the end of their long journey, possibly from a home base in the Parthian Empire, the three received word that King Herod, the ruler of Judea, wished an audience with them.

At this meeting, Herod asked that when the Magi found this newborn future “King of the Jews”, that they return and let him know the location of the child. Herod alleged that this was so that he too could go and worship the child. However, his later actions revealed that Herod was actually plotting to kill the child, thus defeating the prophecy and a snuff out a future threat to his rule.

The traditional date of the Epiphany within Christianity is January 6th. However, the Catholic Church celebrates on the Sunday falling between the 2nd and 8th. It is celebrated on other dates by other Christian churches.

When you sing or hear the Christmas song “The Twelve Days of Christmas“, January 6th is that 12th day – exactly twelve days having passed since December 25th, Christmas Day.

The traditions and teachings hold that the Magi followed the star until it came to rest over the little town of Bethlehem in Judea. There, inside of what was essentially a cave-like shelter, lying in a manger, the Magi found the child.

Surrounded by the child’s parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as shepherds who had been visiting since the child’s birth, the wise men presented their gifts.

As pointed out in an article at The Telegraph, the gifts which the three Magi bore were each presented for a specific reason:

The gifts were symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth, the gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.

The realization, the moment of clarity, the “epiphany” experienced by the Magi had come with the revelation that this child, this Jesus born in such humble circumstances, was indeed the Savior of prophecy. And this Savior came not only to and for the Jewish people, but all people.

When they had completed their visit, the Magi decided not to return to their homeland by the same route which they had arrived. This would take them past Herod, whose true intentions had been revealed to them. And so they returned to their homes a different way.

It is important that we not only accept Jesus as our personal Savior, but that we do our best to practice that faith and pass it along to our families and other loved ones.

Even should they decide not to follow our example, it remains important to continue demonstrating our faith. At some point, we changed. We accepted Christ into our lives. Our continuing example could prove to be the very thing that opens the eyes, minds, and hearts of others.

This leads us to a final important point that Father Sean made in his sermon. Each of us, having had the truth of Jesus Christ revealed to us, should return to our lives in a different way than we traveled prior to that moment. That pivotal revelation marked our individual, personal epiphany.

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Jesus ‘Lost Years’ far from a teenage wasteland

Approximately 2,000 years ago today, Jesus Christ was alive and walking the earth – and he was becoming a teenager! Wrap your mind around that one.

What must life have been like for, and with, a teenage Jesus? The last thing that we know for sure about him is just before this period, and comes from Luke’s Gospel.

At age 12, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem during the Passover festival. When the festival was over they left, and at some point realized that Jesus was not with their traveling party.

The worried parents returned to the city and searched for three days. Finally they found him, sitting in the courtyards at the Temple, questioning the teachers.

It was at this point, if they didn’t already have an idea, that Mary and Joseph got some sense of what was in store for the family. Jesus was amazing the teachers with both his questions and with his own comments in his understanding.

But while they were themselves impressed to hear their pre-teen son, they were also worried parents. Have you ever lost a child, even for a moment? Remember how frantic those few moments were? How about three days lost?

Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you!” said Mary, his mother. And what was Jesus’ reply? An apology? To run crying into his mommy’s arms? Not even close. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?

By all accounts, his tone was innocent and matter-of-fact, not wise-cracking. Luke relates that he returned to Nazareth with them, and was obedient to them, and that Mary treasured all she had seen and heard in her heart. So she obviously took it well, not as an incidence of insolence or disobedience or disrespect.

Luke then goes on to tell the only ideas that we know about Jesus from that point until his public ministry begins a decade and a half later: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” What must those years have actually been like? Especially those next few teenage years, with puberty and hormones and body growth for our Lord?

Anything that anyone tries to say, and many have, is purely speculation. But there are some things that we should be able to surmise as being fairly certain, especially in light of Luke’s glowing words about his apparently steady growth as a young man.

Jesus did not grow through those teen years in isolation. His mother and father were with him, of course. His mother for the entirety, and his father for a significant portion of his teenage years. Various accounts of his later life also refer to brothers and sisters. This could, however, mean almost anything.

A respected account written in the years immediately after Mary’s lifespan known as the ‘Protoevangelium of James’ teaches that she was indeed a virgin for life, raised holy by her own mother Anne, to be devoted in service to the upbringing of the Lord. It is not hard to accept that Mary, a teenager herself when Jesus was born, would remain a virgin devoted to raising, educating, and serving him. A real key to his teenage years lies with his earthly ‘father’, Joseph.

So what was Joseph’s role and why was it so vital? James tells that even though Mary was dedicated to her purity, her family still required a guardian, or a chaperone of sorts, to guarantee this reputation of her cleanliness. Joseph was a respected elderly widow in the community who already had children, and was chosen for all these reasons by the family for the role.

So Jesus was raised in a household that included his mother and father, his stepbrothers and sisters, and possibly even more children from extended family such as cousins, as put forth by Jerome in his fourth century scholarly writings. A bustling home where Jesus got to play, work, learn, and otherwise interact with others in a family setting.

It is not too hard to understand how Jesus spent his time in these years either. With Joseph known to have been a carpenter, likely a highly skilled and well-paid one with a strong professional reputation, Jesus would have been taught this craft from his earliest years. He and his male family members would have been raised to be such craftsmen as well, and they would likely have been working regularly.

So for those who need a clearer picture of the teenage Jesus, and then on into his early-mid 20’s during his pre-ministry life, the picture is simple: a young man growing in an active, large family setting, working in his father’s business, and also being trained religiously and spiritually by his mother. It is a decade and a half to be noted for it’s normalcy in the human world of 1st century Palestinian Judaism.

As Jesus emerged into his public ministry, we can also glean another important incident that happened at some point during those ‘missing’ years: the death of Joseph. Such an important event would absolutely have been documented by his followers during the Gospel years. And at his crucifixion, he entrusts Mary’s care to one of them, not to Joseph.

Joseph was much older than Mary. He took on the role as protector of her honor. When she turned up pregnant due to the Incarnation of Jesus, he continued to fight for her honor, and in part thanks to his own spiritual awakening and inspiration he raised Jesus as his own. And then at some point, most likely when Jesus was well-trained, Joseph passed away.

It is not hard to imagine the family, with Jesus around 20 years of age, having been formally trained and working with his father and his ‘brothers’ for years in the surrounding community, suffering the loss of this elderly patriarch. They would have mourned and buried Joseph together, and Jesus would have provided both emotional support for his mother, but also material support in continuing his earthly work.

This was the life of the teenage Jesus of Nazareth: learning the carpentry and artisan craft from Joseph, gaining a familial and spiritual foundation from Mary, interacting with his adoptive brothers and sisters in this setting. He helped support his family during the period around the death of Joseph, and into his early adulthood.

It is here that we formally pick up the story in the Gospels. Jesus’ life will change forever with two primary spiritual events: his baptism at the river Jordan by his cousin, John the Baptist, and his subsequent 40-day and night stay in the Judaean desert where he meditated and where he was tempted by the devil. On emerging from the desert, Jesus will begin his public ministry.

Sunday Sermon: The most powerful prayer

Give me an army praying the rosary, and I will conquer the world” – Blessed Pope Pius IX

The rosary has been called the most powerful of prayers. In her appearance on May 13th, 1917 at Fatima, Mary herself said that a daily praying of the rosary could bring an end to war. In this month of October, it is an especially good time to review this unmatched prayer experience, since it is also the Month of the Holy Rosary in the Catholic Church.

On October 7th, 1571, the historic Battle of Lepanto took place. In this battle, a vastly outnumbered Christian fleet led by Don John of Austria faced off against and defeated the mighty Ottoman Muslim fleet led by Ali Pasha to halt the Islamist westward expansion in the Mediterranean.

At the time, Christian Europe was being torn apart by internal strife and the Reformation from the inside, and was being threatened by the relentless expansionism of the Muslims from the outside.

The victory in this pivotal naval battle against superior forces was attributed to the fact that on the day of the battle, many rosaries were offered and processions made in Rome to the Blessed Mother for her intercession on behalf of the united Christians. The victory was thus attributed to her, and those rosaries.

In honor of this victory, Pope Pius V instituted the ‘Feast of Our Lady of Victory’, and following another victory over Muslim forces in 1716, Pope Clement XI extended the Feast to the entire Church, making it the ‘Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary’.

In 1883, Pope Leo XIII released the first in a series of encyclicals on the rosary, urging Catholics to increase their devotion to Mary, especially through the rosary, and dedicated the entire month of October to the prayer.

So what exactly is the rosary, how does one say the prayer, and why is it considered so powerful?

The word “rosary” comes from the Latin meaning “garland of roses”, with the rose traditionally being one of the flowers that symbolizes Mary in the Church. The rosary is a devotion in her honor, one in which we are petitioning her to intervene on our behalf, and on behalf of our prayerful intentions, with the Lord.

To facilitate the saying of the rosary, a petitioner utilizes “rosary beads”, a series of beads linked together along with a medal representing Mary and with a small crucifix at the end of the chain. Each bead, the medal, the crucifix, and even some of the chain links are used as placeholders at which a specific prayer is said.

The main prayer said is the “Hail Mary“, which is actually recited 10 times each over a series of 5 ‘decades’, meaning that one who completes the prayer will say the “Hail Mary” some 50 times. One of the beads marks each saying of the prayer.

A person who undertakes praying the rosary will also say “The Lord’s Prayer” (“Our Father“), the “Apostle’s Creed“, the “Glory Be“, and may insert certain other prayers along the route around the full chain. Also, a brief reflection on different mysteries of the faith is done at a handful of points.

Doing so much praying at one time may seem daunting to individuals who are not used to the process. But the fact is that saying a complete rosary takes no more than about 20 minutes for an experienced person.

A great idea when first starting out is to try saying the rosary along with others more experienced, but this is not in any way necessary. It’s 2013, there is indeed “an app for that” if you search on your digital device, and there are many online resources to help guide you.

Rosary beads themselves come in all shapes, colors, and styles. You can find your favorite color if you search around, and can find a theme that fits your lifestyle.

Years ago, I was given an Irish rosary as a gift, complete with green-colored beads, and I use this rosary to pray from time to time. I know that I don’t pray it enough, and saying the rosary more is something that I have begun to incorporate into my personal faith experience.

During a number of her apparitions over the years since it’s institution by the Church, Mary herself has passed along the confirmation of the power of saying the rosary. Among it’s benefits, she promises powerful graces and her special protection.

Mary promises that it will be an armor against hell itself, and that it will destroy vice, reduce sin, and defeat heresy. Among the many other benefits, she has promised to deliver from purgatory anyone who regularly says the rosary during their lifetimes.

In April of 2003, Father Gabriel Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, said that during a particular exorcism, the devil himself had said that “If Christians knew how powerful the rosary was, it would be my end.”

All one needs to do is undertake a reasonable Google search, and you will come across hundreds of stories where the saying of the rosary is credited with direct aid and intervention in the most hazardous, dangerous, deadly, and hopeless of situations that humans have encountered.

If you’ve never considered it before, look more closely at the rosary. Stop by a religious store, or go online, and pick out and purchase one for yourself. Purchase or research and print out a short guide to saying the rosary. And then undertake actually saying it a couple of times over a few days.

See what all the fuss is about first-hand. I promise you that you will never feel the same, and you will see a positive change in your life and situation.

Sunday Sermon: Intercessory prayer

Welcome back to the “Sunday Sermon” series, a former regular feature here, yet another that was allowed to drift by the wayside. Previously, the series was the one time each week where I was sure to post something of a spiritual nature.

Beginning with today’s post on “intercessory prayer”, these weekly featured posts will become more focused. Each Sunday, opportunity allowing, I will be writing on a specific element of the Christian faith experience.

There are few better places to begin than that most basic element, something that should be a part of every Christian’s regular lifestyle, prayer. In particular, I want to examine “intercessory prayer”, those times where we pray on behalf of others.

Is intercessory prayer effective? Can you really pray for someone else? Where does that idea, that tradition come from, and is the idea supported by the Church? If intercessory prayer is both accepted and effective, for whom should I be praying? Don’t I have enough going on in my own life to pray for – why don’t they pray for themselves?

To speak of intercessory prayer we must first define prayer itself. While there are many forms and functions of prayer, the Church teaches that vital to the prayer experience is attentiveness of the heart. One needs to be entirely submissive to the Word, willing and able to be obedient to God. With a right heart, prepared to accept whatever is God’s will, you begin your prayers.

The Christian begins his or her prayers, in fact will begin each activity, their very daily life, by making the Sign of the Cross. As you enter into the form of your prayer, let God know that you come to him, not for yourself, but for another or others, in prayer humbly and fervently.

Let him know that you are fully repentant in the knowledge that you yourself are a sinner. Also, you are willing to accept whatever His plan will be, even if that should be something other than what you hope to see as a result of this prayer.

Then tell God plainly what it is that you request: healing for a sick loved one, guidance for a wayward child, wisdom for a life or work partner, success of your team or group, peace on Earth among nations. This can be a quick process undertaken in seconds. It can go on for any length of time that you choose, and can incorporate formal prayer such as the Our Father, or the rosary.

For the source in authority on the validity of intercessory prayer, you need turn only to the Bible and read the stories of Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel and many more, who regularly prayed such prayers. In the New Testament’s ‘Acts of the Apostles’, it is said that while Peter was in prison, the church made earnest prayer to God on his behalf. Paul consistently asked the church to pray on his behalf, that the doors to men’s hearts might be open to his teaching.

Throughout the New Testament we read of the Holy Spirit as an intercessor. It is always appropriate, if one wishes, to pray for the Spirit to intercede on our behalf with the Father, knowing that the Father and the Spirit are actually One. The Church also teaches that we may pray for our Blessed Mother, Mary, to intercede with Jesus on behalf of our intentions. The same with the saints and other holy deceased.

Some have a problem with this idea of praying to Mary or a saint. This is a complete misunderstanding on their part. No one prays “to” Mary. All prayers are directly to God, or to Jesus Christ, the only true intercessor directly to God. Our prayers of intercession, whether by ourselves on behalf of another human, or calling on Mary or a saint or a holy person in heaven on behalf of our intention, are always directed through ourselves or that spiritual intercessor to Christ.

So who can and do we pray for, and what are the limits of effectiveness to our prayers? Those are actually the easiest questions to answer. The “who” of your intercessory prayer is individual and personal to you: who or what is so important to you, so vital, so beloved that you are driven to prayer on behalf of that person or cause? Fervent prayers on behalf of an ill or injured loved one are something recognizable to every Christian.

As to the limits on the effectiveness of our prayers, the simple answer is that there are none. Every one of your prayers when offered in the correct spirit will be heard by God. In fact, He will answer every prayer as well. You may not get the exact result that your human heart would hope for, but you need to accept that your prayer was indeed heard, and that God will indeed act on it as best for you as possible within His greater plan.

Who should we pray for? Pray for your loved ones in need: physical need when ill, especially when mortally wounded or deathly ill. No one will live forever. We all have a time. Our prayers should be, if it is possible in God’s plan, that our loved one be healed and returned to us, but that if God has a greater plan, may our loved one be free of pain, and if taken from us, that they be forgiven of any sins and taken into the peace of God’s kingdom.

Another important prayer of intercession is for lost loved ones. It is one of our responsibilities as a Christian to be regularly praying for those who we love who appear to have turned their own backs on the Lord. We should pray, of course, that they be inspired to return to Him, and to openly embrace the love that God wants for their life here on Earth. We should also pray that, should they be taken, their sins be forgiven, and that God might have mercy on their souls and make a place in His kingdom for them.

So pray for your loved ones, and for your friends, and for your co-workers. Pray for your fellow parishioners, your priests, your teachers. Pray for your teammates, your political leaders, your spiritual leaders. Pray for your family, your nation, the Church. It is always good and right to pray those intercessory prayers. But a final thought: pray for yourself. We all need it, and there is nothing selfish about it. In fact, it is your first responsibility, to make sure that you yourself are right with the Lord.

God bless you.

The Nativity story

On December 1st, 2006, one of the most underrated Christmas movies of all-time was released, and if you have never had a chance or made the time to watch “The Nativity Story” you should make this the year. I’ve noticed that it is playing a few times in the coming days.

The movie features a starring performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes, the young Australian actress who was just 16 years old at the time of filming.

She delivers a commanding yet understated performance as Mary, the mother of Jesus, in a manner that anyone familiar with her story would find credible.

Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac takes on the hurt skeptic-turned strong and loyal supporting partner Joseph role well here.

The strongest male acting performance is turned in by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, familiar to many from his starring role as Caesar in the HBO epic series ‘Rome’. Hinds gives perhaps the finest performance of Herod to ever grace the silver screen.

Brought to life here by ‘Twilight’ director Catherine Hardwicke, ‘The Nativity Story’ is, as always, all about the story itself.

As one of the film’s taglines tells it, the story is about “a message foretold in the heavens…a prophecy that would threaten an empire…a miracle that would change the world.”

There is nothing overly dramatic about that tagline. It is the simple truth.

No matter what your view in your own life towards Christianity in particular or religion in general, there is no valid way to argue the fact that the life and death of Jesus Christ and the message that he delivered has changed and shaped the entire world over the ensuing two millenia.

This film and the whole of the Nativity story covers that period in the life of Mary and Joseph from the time of their engagement on through to the birth of their child.

The story is far from comfortable. Mary is a teenage girl from the small town of Nazareth who is forced into an unwanted engagement with a much older carpenter whom she barely knows.

During the time of their engagement and while still a virgin, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel who tells her that God has chosen her to bear His Son. Mary is also told that her cousin Elizabeth, believed far too old to bear a child, is also pregnant. Both pregnancies end up coming to fruition.

Joseph becomes understandably angered by the fact that his young fiancee, with whom he knows he himself has not had relations, has turned up pregnant. Prepared to set her aside quietly, he is also visited by an angel who tells him of God’s special purpose in their lives. In staying together despite the scandal, both are ostracized by their community.

During this same time, King Herod, who had been appointed as the Rome-backed ruler of the small Jewish nation of Judea, was fearing the realization of an ancient Jewish prophecy. This prophecy revealed that a ruler would emerge from the lineage of the ancient King David.

Herod decides to command a census of all people in which they must return to their ancestral homes in the hopes that he could sort out the identity of this future challenger to his rule.

Joseph was from the town of Bethlehem, known as the City of David, and so was forced to return there for the census. He took Mary along with him, and during the trip she began to appreciate him for his good nature and their affection for one another grew.

On arrival at Bethlehem they can find nowhere to stay thanks to the increased population due to the census, and they are forced to stay in what amounts to a cave-like stable.

While Herod is fretting and Mary goes into contractions, three ‘Magi’, or wise kings, arrive from Persia at Herod’s court in Jerusalem. They have been studying the prophecy and also believe that the time is at hand for the birth of this special king. Learning from them that the king is a child to be born and not a grown man, Herod orders the murder of all babies in Bethlehem.

As we all well know, Herod’s plan is unsuccessful. Mary gives birth in the stable, laying her boy child in a manger and naming him Jesus. Shepherds tending their flocks nearby have been told of the miraculous birth by an angel, and they show up to greet the newborn. They are quickly followed by the Magi, who come bearing gifts for the young king and the family.

Just as Herod’s troops arrive and begin their unimaginable slaughter, Joseph is again visited in a dream by an angel who warns him of the pending attack. Joseph rouses Mary from sleep, they gather the infant Son of God, and make their way out of Bethlehem just ahead of the wave of death falling across the city.

This is the story of the birth of the baby Jesus, who would grow to become the Christ, the saviour of mankind, a great king as foretold in the prophecies. A king not of this world, but of a higher kingdom ruling over all mankind based on God’s laws and His own teachings of love and peace.

It is the story of Mary and Joseph saying “Yes” to God’s calling, and overcoming numerous obstacles placed in front of them by family, community, and royalty to bring Jesus into the world. It is simple and yet commanding and compelling.

It is ‘The Nativity Story’, the beginning chapter in the greatest story ever told in the entire history of humanity. It is a film suitable for  the whole family, and one that everyone would enjoy, whether for its value in faith, or its value to history.