Why do we have the Advent Wreath?

iStock_advent_wreathll1The European origin of the Advent wreath predates Christianity. In the Germanic countries, as the daylength would shorten, there had always been a custom of lighting fires and lights, much as for the Christmas tree. In the 1500s, some Germanic Lutherans adopted the practice of lighting a wreath during Advent and it was soon adopted by Catholic and Protestant Germans alike. The German immigrants than brought it to North America where it was introduced to the liturgical movement in the 1900s.

As a child, we always had an Advent wreath set as a centerpiece on the table. The smell of the evergreens would permeate through out the house.

The Advent wreath is circular having no beginning and no end, symbolizing the eternal nature of God. Evergreens remind us of everlasting life as their greenery does not fade in winter. The lights show us that as we wait for the birth of Jesus, the darkness is slowly overcome by the light.

Traditionally there are four candles, three purple, symbolizing a time for prayer and reflection and that we need to wait and watch for the coming of the Saviour.  We prioritize a life of simplicity and giving to others. The candle of the third week or Gaudate Sunday is pink and reminds us of joy which is the first word in the entrance antiphon of that Sunday. Some wreaths have a white candle in the middle that is lit on Christmas Day.

The wreath can be made at home and each Sunday, special prayers can be said to remind the family that Jesus is coming. The Advent wreath is a concrete reminder that Advent is a special season of waiting that brings hope, the hope of a new Saviour to come in his simplicity and poverty. Each time the candles are lit, we remember that the light shines in the darkness and that the darkness cannot take away the light. The ritual of lighting an additional candle each week is a sign of us patiently waiting for the Christ Child to come.

What are some of your Advent memories? How can you create a spirit of Advent waiting in your home?


The Origins of Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas of MyraOne of the central figures of the Christmas season in North America is Santa Claus. He is pictured as a jolly old man, round and smiling with a red suit and black boots. Living in the North Pole, he mounts his sleigh pulled by reindeer and bring toys to all the children on Christmas Eve. There are songs, poems and even movies produced about Santa Claus.

So where does this mythical figure come from and how has he become connected to Christmas?

The origins of Santa Claus stem from St. Nicholas whose feast day is celebrated on December 6. My parents have memories of the tradition of St. Nicholas in their native Germany. Someone in the village would dress up as St. Nicholas and he would go from house to house giving the children oranges and candy.

The real St. Nicholas was a bishop in a part of Asia Minor, now near Demre, Turkey. Born around 270 AD, his parents were devout Christians at a time when Christians were being persecuted. Nicholas’s parents died in an epidemic when Nicholas was a young boy and he was raised by his Christian uncle. Already at a young age, he showed signs of great holiness. Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, and his love for children.

He was a key player in the advancement of Christian thought during the fourth century after the conversion of the Roman Emperor, Constantine. The many stories now told about him alude to his desire to serve his people with loving kindness and compassion. One of these stories tells of how he gave gold balls to a family of poor young girls to pay their dowries. In some European countries, on the feast of St. Nicholas,  they give children oranges that represent the gold balls. In North America, this custom became St. Nicholas or Santa Claus who brings gifts to children on Christmas Day.

St. Nicholas can be an inspiration to us in the way that he saw Christ in the poor and needy. Whenever we see a Santa Claus, let us remember the true Christian roots of this mythical figure.

Advent: Season of Wonder

Advent WreathA few months ago, I visited with my daughter and her family. After a rainy day, my grandsons, 2 and 4 years old, and I went for a walk with the intention of looking for all of the slugs and snails that had come out onto the sidewalk as a result of the rain. We would marvel at the different sizes of the snails and slugs, their various colors, how they moved and their shapes. Each one was a source of wonder. Looking with fascination through the eyes of my grandsons made me realize that this is the way that God looks at all of his creation, even snails and slugs.

Advent is the beginning of the church year and an opportunity to begin again to look at the world with the same sense of wonder that God looks at his creation. The Advent stories of the Bible begin when Mary receives the visit of an angel announcing to her that she would be the Mother of God. It is a story of promise and wonder. We can only imagine her amazement at what is happening to her. The readings in this season are full of the stories of wonderful things that happen to ordinary people. They vary from the arrival of a son to an old couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah, to a dream that comes to Joseph, betrothed to Mary. The stories remind us that nothing is impossible with God.

How can we cultivate the sense of wonder this Advent? None of us are expecting any miracle births, but when we pay attention, that which is most often seen as ordinary, becomes a source of wonder. The night sky arrives earlier and the streets and homes are being decorated in preparation for Christmas. There is a sense of something special happening as we prepare for family to come, friends to visit and helping the less fortunate. All of these can be opportunities for looking deeper within ourselves to wonder at how God may be present in our lives.

This Advent, I invite you to discover the joy God brings as we cultivate the sense of wonder.

Nov. 11 | How the Church Should not depend on the state

This is an interesting National Catholic Register article on the situation of the church in Germany, which collects church taxes for distribution to the country’s Catholic bishops conference and the Protestant churches. There would seem to be a very important lesson here for all churches concerning the risks of becoming dependent on external authority for financial governance. The result seems to be a peculiar and deeply serious situation for the Catholic church in Germany. Once again, the result of the church and state being too intertwined is not necessarily so bad for the state, but it is disastrous for the church. I hope and pray that the German bishops can look for and press the ‘reset’ button on how the Catholic church in Germany is governed. The status quo looks untenable.

October 25 | On (Reporting on) the Synod

There is so much that has been said about the synod that finished up one week ago in Rome concerning the family. And for that reason precisely, there is much more that needs to be said. It is difficult to know where to begin. So, I won’t. Chickening out here, due to time constraints.

But, here is the passage of the year that is ‘the take away’ regarding this synod, and it comes from a speech by Philadelphia Archbishop Chaput:

We have deep respect for people with same-sex attraction, but we can’t pretend that they’re welcome on their own terms. None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’ terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian – you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality.

For a precise and exacting (and not long) analysis of exactly why the Synod was a media disaster, go to the always reliable Terry Mattingly, who has a good piece here, in which Chaput’s comment is quoted.

Nov. 1 Update: Here are a couple of articles (one great, the other a bit off the mark) of analysis that go beyond the misleading headlines of the past two weeks:

1) John Gehring, What the Left and Right Get Wrong About Pope Francis

2) Ross Douthat’s “A Church, Not a Party” in which he defends current practice of not allowing communion for the remarried and divorced. While his instincts are correct, I would suggest that he has not made a good theological argument in defense of current practice. And so, he ends up discrediting, to a certain extent, current church practice, since some of his readers will take his view to be “the defence” of current practice. Douthat  (whose columns on culture, the role of religion and society and interpreting history rightly – I regularly applaud) confuses doctrine with discipline by focusing too much on an oversimplified view of authority. It’s still worth reading however.

Road to Peace

iStock_quai_eau_calmeXSmallThe disturbing events in St. Jean sur Richelieu and Ottawa during the last week have made me think about the safety of our country and how I take peaceful living for granted. I was finding myself becoming more and more anxious as I listened to the news reports of the killings of the servicemen by two very angry young men. I realized that my gut reaction was a response to the fear that I felt.

And yet how to respond in a way that is healthy and does not perpetuate the cycle of violence and hatred that these actions by others ignite? I was consoled today by a reading in the liturgy that stated “I … beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you are called, with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3) Saint Paul is encouraging his readers to look at each other in a spirit of love and to try to understand each other.

When our lives have been turned upside down, these might be hard words to swallow, but they are words that lead to the road of wisdom and peace. If we react with violence to situations of violence, the cycle will never end.

But in the concrete, how can we bear with one another in love? When we see people consoling those who have been hurt, the families who have lost a loved one, even the families of the perpetrators, we are on the right track. Whenever we try not to judge others by their appearances or belief systems and see them as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, then we see them in a spirit of love and peace. When we forgive others for past hurts, then we grow in humility and gentleness. These are some of the keys to becoming a person of peace.

All are called to be people of peace within our own communities, workplaces and families. It is only in working towards peace at the grassroots level that we can model a society that reflects the suggestions from Saint Paul.

Can you think of situations where you can be a carrier of peace? Where might you be the messenger of the unity of the Spirit?


SONY DSC« In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy ». This phrase written by the well-known contemporary spiritual writer, Brother David Steindl-Rast, reminds us of the importance of gratitude in our daily lives.

Gratitude is not only an important virtue for our spiritual lives, but there is even a more recent school of psychology that recognizes the benefits of gratitude for leading a satisfied life. We have much to be thankful for and yet our natural tendancy is to focus on what is missing in our lives instead of what is good. When we give thanks, we change our perspective and see life through a different lens.

Giving thanks is central to the Catholic faith. The term « Eucharist » means thanksgiving and we have many instances in the Bible where we witness Jesus giving thanks to his father as part of his blessing of the bread.

How can we give thanks? Some families give thanks before meals, others have bedtime rituals that include giving thanks for the events of the day. We can also give thanks in the morning before the day begins.

This year as you gather around a Thanksgiving dinner, maybe you can ask each person what they are thankful for at this time of their lives. Even small children can participate.

Walter Rauschenbusch offers us a Thanksgiving Prayer in appreciation of our senses and the natural world. He acknowledges that we are people who experience life in many ways.

Do you have a favorite Thanksgiving prayer? Are there some rituals in your family in which you offer thanks to God for what is good in your life?

May you have a blessed Thanksgiving Day!



On a Retreat

DiaryThe last few days I have been reading a feature from the new e-publication from the Boston Globe entitled Crux. The spirituality column is presently chronicling the “Diary of a Retreat” in which the author describes her first time experience of going on a week long retreat at a retreat centre near her. I admire her frankness and transparency as she writes about her thoughts, feelings and insights.

One of her opening lines as she recounts her first day goes “OK, maybe this was a mistake, I’m telling myself. OK, maybe the “death and dying” part should’ve warned me about whom this would attract: old people. OK, maybe after a day or two, I can claim some family emergency and make a run for it.”

Don’t we all at one point or another feel that sense of panic when embarking on something new? We can identify with her desire to just opt out as quickly as she can and pretend that it never happened. Luckily for us, she does decide to stay in spite of her fears and we are blessed with her story.

As the retreat progresses, she realizes that she is learning a lot about herself and her relationship to God and the world. She discovers how difficult it is to slow down, but opens herself up to the quiet and begins to notice the beauty of the retreat grounds. The retreat master introduces a more contemplative form of prayer that assists her realization of her need to let go. This process of letting go brings her peace. Her way of looking at others is changed as she gets to know her co-retreatants and lets go of previous assumptions of the elderly and those who are different.

These diary entries remind me of the different graces that I have received on past retreats. Getting away from our everyday activities can open up a space for us to pray and reflect on what is going on in our lives. That space allows God to speak to us more freely.

Have you ever been on a quiet retreat? What was it like for you? What did you discover?


photodune-3538134-crisis-xsLast June, an article entitled “When Crisis Strikes: 5 steps for praying when you’re overwhelmed”, caught my attention.  Personally, I am more vulnerable to being overwhelmed in the fall as I  transition from the slow days of summer into the more hectic and busy days of the fall. It always takes about a month or so to get into the beat of the more intense pace of work.

For a quick read, below is a summary of the 5 steps, but you can also access the unedited list.

Step 1: Find a safe and quiet place to become aware of God’s Presence. It is important in times of crisis to step away for a few minutes or a half hour to take time to breathe and get in touch with God and his voice.

Step 2: Review what has occurred through the lens of Gratitude. The saints remind us that our relationship with God is linked to gratitude. We are all given gifts, but we need to take the time to take stock of them. Talk to God and share with him the feelings and thoughts that you have experienced since the beginning of the crisis.

Step 3: Pay attention to your emotions recognizing they are sacred. St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us that God can speak to us through our emotions and feelings. Think back on your stronger feelings since this crisis. Thank God for speaking to you through them.

Step 4: Ask God to speak to your open heart. Pray for insight concerning these experiences. What is God asking you to pay attention to? Can he be telling you something?

Step 5: Look toward tomorrow. When we are stressed and overwhelmed, it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. What kind of strength do you need to face the challenges of tomorrow? End this time of prayer with an Our Father or another prayer of offering.

These steps will not take away the crisis that is triggering your sense of being overwhelmed, but it may bring you some sense of connection to God. May it also bring you peace.


Sept. 2 | On Catholic architecture

In a city such as Montreal, where Catholic heritage so easily overwhelms the still vibrant yet less visible contemporary expression of faith, one can be forgiven for not thinking about how to build a Catholic church. The churches, they are already built. Well, nonetheless, there were a number of churches built in the recent past, mostly in the suburbs. The architectural quality of these churches – many built in the 1960’s – is, to put it charitably, debatable. There are some positive fetures to these churches. For instance, I do appreciate the wood panelling in some of these suburban churches – such as the wood (is it oak?) in the over 50 yrs. old St. Edmund’s, Beaconsfield.

Architecure is a hot topic when it comes to Catholicism’s reception of what is termed modernism. One architect in particular, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), better known as “Le Corbusier,” is the bête noire of modern architecture. He is associated with many projects in Europe involving lots of concrete, other heavy materials and flat surfaces. (Think of ugly aprtment blocks built circa 1962 and you have it.) This article by Denis McNamara does a nice job, I think, of detailing how and why Le Corbusier has had some direct influence on Catholic church (religious) buildings: notably the Dominican Monastery of Sainte-Marie-de-La-Tourette (1957-60) in Eveux-sur-L’Abresle outside Lyon. Take a look at the pictures in that article and see how this architecture squares with the more traditional monasteries that we know and love, whether it be the relatively recent Benedictine abbey at St. Benoit du lac here in Quebec (see below…tip: go there in early October for the amazing apples, cider, Mass and cheese …. not necessarily in that order) or the fantastic new Trappist monastery, Val Notre-dame, which is also open to visitors at select times/days.

What got all this going for me was a read through this article in a secular blog, New Geography, which details why Catholics need architecture that is vibrant and alive, not deathly plain as in the new brutalism that is associated with the name of Le Corbusier. What Catholics also need are leaders who appreciate the specific needs of Catholics for beauty that speaks to the tradition rather than a banal sense of the spiritual. This contrast is spelled out in the McNamara article on Le Corbusier and his influence on the Dominican Marie-Alain Couturier (1897-1954). One wonders what contemporary Dominicans think of the Sainte-Marie-de-La-Tourette monastery given Couturier’s controversial embrace of the ideas of LeCorbusier, the religious skeptic.

Yet, according to the author Julien Meyrat, it is possible for *some* reconciliation on the part of Catholics with modernism. He cites the convent at Ronchamp (France) and the Cistercian chapel near Irving, Texas. Interesting side note: the picture of the Texas chapel (go to the bottom of the article) reminds me of the rough stone at St. Benoit. The beauty of the rock and the careful way in which natural light is brought into the chapel seems to redeem some of the extra simplicity that would otherwise dim the illumination of the prayer and worship that unfolds within.

Building Catholic churches will, I hope, be carried out with some critical distance to what transpired in the 1960’s. We know more now than we did then, apparently. Although you can never tell for sure.