The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life For His Sheep

 “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday we celebrate the fact of what our Shepherd has done for us. He has given his life for ours. Consider this, there are many things and people that will try to claim your loyalty. Maybe it is a political party, maybe it is a philosophy, maybe it is the boss at work, maybe it is popular opinions. But there is only one contender for your loyalty who ever died for you. His Name is Jesus. He alone is worthy of your most fundamental loyalty since he alone gave his life for you. Freely he died, not merely as a victim of circumstances. He laid down his life of his own accord and he took it up again. Only Jesus died for you.

Picturesque Papa

I have often thought that Pope Benedict XVI is quite photogenic. Some  of the pictures I have seen are quite humorous. Here are a few photos I have collected of him that I think are funny. I set them to the music of Irving Berlin’s What do I have to do to get my picture took.

The Mass in Slow Motion – The Sign of the Cross

Now comes a gesture that is very familiar to Catholics but to the unitiated may also seem odd, (a kind of shoeing away of flies or something) and words are said that are grammatically incorrect! I’ll explain that later.

Standing at the Chair the celebrant begins the Mass with the sign of the cross. This gesture is perhaps one of the most recognizably Catholic traditions in any ecumenical gathering. You can always tell the Catholics immediately by this instinctive gesture deeply ingrained in any Catholic.

The origin of this gesture goes back to the earliest days of Christianity where it seems to have been more of sign of the cross traced on one’s forehead. Tertullian is said to have remarked in the early 3rd Century, “We Christians wear out our forehead with the sign of the cross!” This practice probably developed from Scriptural allusions to the Tau or “T” marked on the forehead of those to be saved from destruction (Ex. 17:9-14; Ez 9:4, Revelation 7:3, 9:4, 14:1). Over the years of the first centuries the practice seems to have developed of adding fingers to this tracing action. Two fingers representing the two natures of Christ were added as an act of faith against the monophysite heresy. Further developments took place to enhance the gesture. Now, by the fourth century three fingers (thumb, index and middle finger) are used to represent the Trinity and the other two fingers are folded back to the palm to represent the two natures of Christ. With all these symbolisms going on with the blessing hand it next developed that a larger area than the forehead was crossed. Now the downward motion tended to extend to the breast and eventually the whole chest was signed by reaching out to the shoulders. By the 9th Century the way to make the sign of the cross was pretty well spelled out by legislation from Rome and the Popes. As you can see the sign of the Cross became more than a way to bless oneself, it also became a statement of faith in the Trinity and in the two natures of Christ.

In the western Church as the monophysite controversy died down the Trinitarian faith has tended to take precedence and came to be spelled out with these words: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” to which all respond, “Amen.” Now have you noticed that this is not gramatically correct? Grammatically one should say, “In the names of the Father….Son and Holy Spirit.” But here too, going back to Scripture itself, the grammatical “error” bespeaks the truth that there is only ONE God, therefore one name, but there are three Persons in the One God.” So aren’t we clever here!

So the sign of the cross is an act of and a sign of Faith in the Triune God. It thus gives significance to all that is to follow in the Mass, placing it within the context of Faith. The Sign of the Cross is also a recollection of the Crucifixion. In this regard the Mass, as a making present of the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lord Jesus on Calvary, is especially suited to being opened by the sign of the cross. Lastly, and by extension, it is a visible movement into the Holy by all present since it puts demons to flight. Many of the Fathers of the Church speak of this aspect of the Sign of the Cross. For example, St. Cyril states that at the sign of the cross “demons tremble and angels recognize it. Thus the former are put to flight, while the latter gather about it as something pertaining to themselves.” (From his Catechetical Lectures). Historically the number of the signs of the cross throughout the Mass increased especially during the gothic period of the middle ages. The Old Latin Mass has a large number of signs of the cross. In the New Mass there has been the reduction of this number to two, one at the beginning the other at the end.

Now the last thing we should say about all this is that to make the sign of the cross is a bold gesture! In effect we are glorying in the Cross of Christ. We are not ashamed of it. Is this true for you? Many today are actually embarrassed by the cross. How is this you say? Well notice how they protest any time the Church articulates the demands of the Gospel. For example that we should turn away from sin, that babies  should be brought to birth and never aborted, that Euthanasia is wrong and that we cannot simply do whatever we please and call it good. Many immediately protest and speak of the need for greater compassion and less strict norms etc. And many Catholics, far from defending the demands of the Gospel refuse to hold up the cross for others to see. Instead, embarrassed by the demands of the cross they refuse to affirm its power and its demands. Be careful before you make that sign of the cross! It means something. It means that we cannot simply refuse the demands of being a disciple but rather glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 Eastern Rite Catholics make the sign of the cross a little differently than Roman Catholics as depicted in this video:

Latest Catholic News

Here’s the latest from Gloria.tv News including word of a miracle from John Henry Newman that clears the way for his beatification. Also concerns of threats on the life of the Pope in reference to his upcoming visit to the Holy Land.

The Mass in Slow Motion – The Altar is Reverenced

As the Entrance procession draws to its close something rather unusual happens! Upon entering the sanctuary, (the part of the Church where the Altar and Tabernacle are located) the priest and deacon enter the sanctuary and kiss the altar as a sign of reverence and veneration. Many of us who go to Mass all the time may hardly notice this gesture. But to someone observing Mass for the first time this gesture may seem quite unusual and raise questions. Why kiss an altar? Where did this gesture come from and what does it mean?

The significance of this kiss has had the following historical development: At first it was intended simply for the altar itself where the Sacrifice of the Lord would occur. Subsequently this idea was enlarged to include the understanding that the altar built of stone represented Christ himself, the rock, the cornerstone. (Cf. 1 Cor. 10:4). Later, as the relics of saints were ordinarily placed within the altar stone, the kiss was also seen as a salutation of the saint and through the saint the whole Church Triumphant.

But why is there a kiss, rather than a bow or some other salutation? The kiss was actually very common in ancient culture. The temple was honored by kissing the threshold. In pagan culture it was common to greet the images of the gods either by kissing it directly or throwing a kiss. Likewise it was not uncommon in the ancient world to kiss the family meal table with a kiss before the meal. Hence it was not surprising to find the practice brought into Christian worship.

Until the 13th century it was customary at Rome to kiss the altar only upon coming in for Mass and departing. However, in the later Middle Ages the kissing of the altar seems to have been multiplied. In the Tridentine Missal the altar was kissed numerous times:

  • 1. At the beginning of the Mass
  • 2. Any time the priest turned away from the altar, faced the people and addressed them. According to one explanation the priest does this on order to confirm his communion with the Church Triumphant in heaven and then turns to greet the Church on earth.
  • 3. At the words ex hac altare participatione (Then as we receive from this altar…) in the canon.
  • 4. Before the sign of peace. Again an explanation advanced is that the priest kisses the altar here in order to receive the kiss from Christ (whom the altar represents)  in order to pass it on to others.
  • 5. Upon leaving the altar at the end of the Mass.

Today the altar is kissed only twice in conformity with the earlier tradition.

The design of  Altars has varied over the years. The current widespread practice of celebrating Mass facing the people has tended to require a rather simple table form to modern altars. But Mass facing the people is a rather recent phenomenon. Until very recently Mass was everywhere celebrated with the priest and people facing the same direction toward the East or at least toward  the Crucifix and tabernacle (if there was one on the altar). This meant that altar design could be much more elaborate. Altars tended to back up onto the apse wall and had a vertical dimension that was often quite splendid and decorative. (See photo at left).  The Second Vatican Council directed that new altars should be free standing, that is they should not be attached to the wall, allowing the priest to walk around all four sides. Tragically this led some to conclude that many beautiful older altars should be removed. This was not however what the Council directed;  only that new altars should not be attached to the wall. While this tends to imply a simpler design, it is not necessarily required that this be so since it is still possible to place ornate designs and an elaborate reredos in the area behind the altar if this is desired.

The following video shows the temporary transformation of a simple table altar to an altar more suited for the celebration of the Latin Mass in the extraordinary form. It is quite a dramatic transformation but done quite swiftly.

Teaching on Prayer from the Method of St. Ignatius

Many people struggle to pray well and consistently. Here is a three minute video which summarizes the teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola and gives a brief description of a prayer method that some people call lectio divna, others just meditation. Fr. John Cihak is our teacher and he effectively communicates the method. I would quibble with one thing only. I would not use the word “contemplation” to describe this method. I am schooled more in the Spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross who reserve the word, “contemplation” to refer to prayer that is beyond words or images but is rather a deep union with God well beyond images or mediated by words. They would call the method described here “meditation” since our experience of God is “mediated” by words and images. However, it remains true that many people today use the word contemplation in a more generic and less specific or technical sense. Enjoy this very instructive video and apply it.