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Posts Tagged ‘miracles’

By: Deacon Marques Silva

This time of year tends to present a quandary for parents concerning Santa Claus. The issue at hand is what do we tell our kids? Many struggle with the notion that they are lying to their children if they tell them that Santa brought some of their Christmas presents.

stnicholasI thought I would provide a different perspective as a parent and deacon. The fact is that to be a Catholic in good standing you must believe in Santa Claus – and by the end of this article, I think you’ll agree. I would first suggest that the American version we see on the street is more catechetically accurate than the icon above. No need to call the Bishop yet… read further.

Some insist on calling him Saint Nicholas while others prefer Santa Claus. At the end of the day, we really are talking about the same person. There is no difference except by way of semantics because of language translations.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand the reason. It is done in the hopes of separating a secular notion from the saintly Metropolitan Bishop of happy memory. But I don’t understand why.

santaclausConcerning his vesture, many prefer to only see St. Nicholas in a tall miter and cassock to show his true ecclesial standing, but in doing so, we lose the catechetical moment that secular society has provided us. Evangelization is taking what is handed to us and showing its place in revealing the love of the Father. We do need to honor St. Nicholas as he truly is but without brushing aside the insights that society has provided us.

We all know that St. Nicholas of Myra is a historical figure who lived in the fourth century. Secular history records that he was present at the Council of Nicea and earned a night in jail after punching Arius’ lights out. Secular historical records also indicate that Emperor Constantine sent a letter to Bishop Nicholas warning him never to threaten him after pleading – by threatening the emperor’s life – a stay of execution for three of his soldiers (even if it was in a dream). We also know that his connection with the youth is attributable to giving away his wealth by tossing bags of gold through windows to pay for dowries. Ecclesial history shares that His Excellency was a Metropolitan Archbishop of Myra (Modern day Demre in southern Turkey). For a more complete treatment that also includes the legends, Catholic Online does a good job.

 

The Man, the Myth, the Saint

Let’s really get to the crux of it. The American image of Santa we have come to know and love was created by Haddon Sundblom in 1931. This began a thirty-five year Coca-Cola Santa advertising campaign that forever established Santa’s “look and feel” for the commercial culture. Interestingly enough, Mr. Sundblom was Eastern Orthodox, which clearly influenced his artistry as we will soon discover.

Much of the legend of the American Santa is pulled from several sources, but most particularly the 1822 English poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas (otherwise popularly known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) by Clement Clarke Moore. From this point forward I would like to demonstrate how the “secular” Santa is a Catholic catechesis waiting to happen.

 

Dress for Success

What we wear says a great deal about us. Santa Claus’ “uniform” is no different. Let’s take a closer look.

popebenedictermineWe find Santa in his fur-trimmed red jacket and pants. This would be quite appropriate and accurate. Amaranth Red is the color for Bishops. In antiquity, the ermine (or fur trim) also demonstrated the metropolitan rank. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was known to use this ancient vesture by using the simple red, fur-trimmed cape. History also teaches us that St. Nicholas was a hermit and spent much time in solitude even as a Bishop. It was tradition, at the time, that clergy (who at times were also hermits or monks) when they worked out in the fields, would set aside their cassocks for more appropriate attire… say…pants. Additionally, who could forget that monster belt. Even today, as with the Augustinians and Dominicans, the leather belt is a sign that the individual is a mendicant, penitent or hermit. A buckle was part and parcel of a Bishop’s ceremonial dress on their shoes until set aside after the Second Vatican Council. It was a symbol of their duty to be a guardian of the truth.

birettaThen there is the cap which warrants a short discussion. The secular version is the fur-trimmed cap that comes to a point with a pom-pom on the end. As you know, Western miters are tall and come to a point. Seems that the artist forgot the cardboard. But what do we do with the pom-pom? In the Eastern tradition, many of the miters are caps or crowns. Some even have a pom-pom on top (though a cross is far more common). The Western church also uses the pom-pom but with the biretta. Could it be that Mr. Sundblom leaned a bit upon his Eastern liturgical tradition? I would like to believe that it was intentional to combine the East and the West, but I am content with providence.

Heaven a Winter Wonderland?

The sleigh and the reindeer come from the 1821 publication of the first lithographed book in America, the Children’s Friend. Suddenly, St. Nicholas comes from the North in a sleigh with flying reindeer. And really, what is so unbelievable about this? We have no problem believing that St. Joseph Cupertino flew around while holding steeples in his hand or St. Ignatius flying from the entrance of a Church to the tabernacle. What about all those other flying saints: Sts. Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila, Padre Pio, Francis of Assisi, etc.

Considering Santa’s address, Scripture says that God dwells in the North and since he is a saint – I see no problem here:

“Out of the north comes golden splendor; God is clothed with terrible majesty.” (Job 37:22)

“I stirred up one from the north, and he has come, from the rising of the sun, and he shall call on my name; he shall trample on rulers as on mortar, as the potter treads clay.” (Isaiah 41:25)

Snow is also a Scriptural symbol. Isaiah and the Psalmist use snow to describe the redemptive grace the Father offers through forgiveness:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7)

Frankly, he has to travel somehow. With all that snow, a sleigh just seems logical. Turns out that in early-European history, a reindeer and a sleigh were given to dignitaries. Granted, Myra was a rocky mess and a sleigh would not be useful. The reindeer on the other hand (with a side of mint) especially during a famine, might….nah, never mind (don’t tell the kids).

 

Santa and Quantum Physics

And then there is delivering everything in one night. Parents, no need to panic! See, society just needs a class in Theology 101. As you know, saints are in heaven. Therefore, since heaven (and all its citizens) is outside of space and time, there is not an issue with making sure every gift is delivered on time. There is also that long-forgotten quality of agility that we gain back once we have our resurrected bodies.

 

Angelic Elves

I am sure you are saying by now, “Well, what about the elves?” What about them? Easier to explain them than an angelic being to a two year old. Try explaining how angels fight or even move material objects when they themselves do not have material bodies. Tolkien, through the Lord of the Rings, presented a thoroughly Catholic worldview and no one ever complained. I’m sticking with the elves because I believe in the Catholic imagination that has always been used for us to begin to understand mysteries.

 

The Mrs. Claus

One societal aberration I would like to correct: Mrs. Claus. Sorry, Tim Allen, there is no Mrs. Claus. Why? Even in the Eastern Rites that allow for married clergy, this privilege does not extend to Bishops. In fact, Bishops are only chosen from among those priests who have never been married. However, it was customary that a family member would live with the Bishop to assist in the “rectory” upkeep. I guess there could be a Mrs. Claus on his paternal side if you like.

 

Reading the Signs of the Times

All of this has a very catechetical purpose. Catholicism uses signs, symbols, and yes, even her saints to communicate important truths. And to kids, that is not easy. We have to find ways to teach complex truths with noble simplicity.

For instance, we ask our kids to write a list to Santa which can be a first step to understanding prayers of petition. And when they receive a grace or gift, we may begin to teach the intercession of the saints. It also teaches them to ask for whatever they want – with guidance of course. Does not our Lord encourage this?

Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. (Psalm 37:4-5)

We shouldn’t fear that they do not get everything they want. I certainly do not get everything I pray for either.

A fat, jolly Santa is what Catholic theology demands. We teach our kids that heaven is eternal happiness and a huge feast. Rotund does not equal gluttony and Santa is always jolly (Would it be easier if we called it evangelical joy?):

He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly…

And then the gifts. Are they not just tangible answers to prayer? Do we not say that the saints and angels deliver the graces that come from the hand of God? This is plain and simple good Catholic catechesis.

 

What Do They say about Santa? He Delivers!

In my house, we have a HUGE devotion to Santa. You pass his icon as you enter our house. I have parents ask me all the time, “Which one of your kids still believe?” All of them. Seriously, all of them and my oldest is 18. A few though have matured in their understanding of this mystery and it is all the more glorious. Their faith now has depth that started with a simple belief in Santa.

 

Practicum

The majority of my married life, I have never been able to afford Christmas. I’m not talking about a huge Christmas but a simple celebration with the family. A few gifts here and there. That being said, as is our custom, my wife and I start praying to St. Nicholas in November for wisdom and something to provide for Christmas. A few years ago, he assisted us in ways that I could not imagine.

After 9/11, many non-profits went belly-up. The one I was working for was no different. I woke up on December 6th with no job, a full tank of gas, and $40 in the bank account. My wife and I had made a promise to buy a Christmas tree with the kids and we intended to keep our promise. As is our tradition on the Feast of St. Nicholas, we went out to cut down the tree.

When we returned, my best friend was helping me carry it into the house. We decided to cut more of the trunk off so we dragged the tree back out on the front porch. I noticed a white envelope on the porch and asked him to pick up what he had dropped. He said it wasn’t his. I opened it up and there was $1,500 in cash. The next morning I came out to get in my car (I now could afford groceries and gas) and there was another envelope with an additional $1,500 in cash. The following day, I received a letter from a friend who said he had been praying for me and was prompted to send the enclosed: $10,000. And lastly, my Pastor sent an $1,800 check because he knew we were struggling. Thankfully, three months later, I started a new job. The money that just appeared paid my monthly rent, school loans, house bills, food, gas, and gave my family a beautiful Christmas –with $10 left over.

Keeping it Real

I know we need to teach our children that there is more to Christmas than what society offers. In the case of Santa, this is best done by using the raw material that the Church, and ironically society, has provided. If we continue to deepen the understanding of who he is and what he does, we will continue to catechize our kids and develop an authentic Catholic spirituality. It is your job to keep everything in perspective. With society’s idea being twisted, we need to persevere ensuring that dual holy days and holidays do not toss out our theology on prayer, communion of saints, ecclesiology, etc. We need to untwist the idea not rip it to shreds.

Santa Claus is not a legend. He is quite real and visits our house every Christmas Eve and sometimes more frequently. Your children are starving for sacramental mystery and truth. On a day that celebrates the birth of our Lord, isn’t it interesting that he has an evangelist in St. Nicholas who comes to teach us joy and charity? Lastly, why do we feel that our Lord is dishonored by asking to provide a nice Christmas? He desires to give us not only what we need, but like any parent, what we desire – within reason of course. Let’s be honest. Like my wife and I, you too pray just as hard for how you might provide a simple Christmas in these tough economic times. So, tell them the truth: To be Catholic is to believe in Santa…

Here is a short PowerPoint below to help fill in the gaps.

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By: Fr. Paul Scalia

Real miracles bother people…They rebut every rule we all good citizens take comfort in…People fear miracles because they fear being changed…

Healing of the demon-possessedThese words from Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River would certainly resonate with the Gerasenes of our Lord’s day (cf. Lk 8:22-39). Those confused people did not like His miracle.  Upon arriving in the area He exorcised “legion,” the demoniac that had terrorized their town for some time. But the Gerasenes were not grateful.  Instead of thanking Jesus and inviting Him to remain, they asked Him to leave.  His miracle disturbed them.  They would have preferred even the torment of a demoniac to the change demanded by such a miracle.

What applies to miracles in particular applies to faith in general.  Faith has a certain disturbing, disquieting aspect.  It brings comfort, to be sure.  But it also makes us somewhat uncomfortable.  The encounter with God – which is what faith brings us – does not allow us to remain where we are.  The Pope has precisely this holy disturbance in mind when he writes about Abraham, our father in faith: “Something disturbing takes place in his life: God speaks to him; he reveals himself as a God who speaks and calls his name” (LF 8).

Now most of us piously think that it would be wonderful and consoling if God spoke to us as clearly as He has to others, like Abraham.  And such intimacy with God certainly would bring consolation and peace that no one else can bring.  But here is another paradox of Christianity: such an intimate encounter with God would also disturb us.  Our lives would not be the same at all.  Do we really want that? Are we able to endure the disturbance faith would bring, the changes it would require? To have faith as Abraham did we must be willing to be disturbed as Abraham was.

If we do not understand and accept the disturbance of faith, then we inevitably settle for less than God desires for us.  Saint Paul writes, “This is the will of God, your holiness” (1 Thess 4:3).  But we put piety in place of holiness.  That is, we settle into a routine of pious practices that we – not God – control.  We – not God – set the terms of our relationship.  We can even use our pious practices to keep God at arm’s length.  “I will make my Morning Offering, say my Rosary, and do my night prayers…just leave me alone.”  Piety is good…as a means to holiness.  But we cannot rest there.

If we want to grow in faith, we must be willing to be disturbed by God – to have our lives upended, as was Abraham’s.

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By: Fr. Paul Scalia

A close friend from high school went to Paris during one of our breaks. He came back enthused by what he saw at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Since he was not Catholic he did not understand what he encountered there. But that did not stop him from breathlessly describing everything: the architecture, the images, the candles, the incense (“A boy with a smoke machine!”). What really got my attention was his talk about a piece of bread that had become “some man’s body.” Now, that’s amazing, I thought. He handed me the brochure from the basilica and I read it with great excitement. Then, to my shame, I was disappointed to learn that he was only talking about the Eucharist. Only.

eucharistThat embarrassing exchange came to mind in light of reactions to the “mystery priest” news item a couple of weeks ago. Now, there were a lot of things to like about this story. First and foremost the survival of Katie Lentz, the young woman trapped in her wrecked car. Her prospects did not look good until the priest came, prayed with her, and reassured her. Then there was the mystery of it all: Who was the priest? Where did he come from? Where did he go? When we encounter mysterious good works, we rightly intuit that God is near. And for us priests there was the simple fact that this was a favorable report. It is nice to get those every now and then.

But now that the priest has come forward and acknowledged his role, we are tempted to disappointment. Oh, we think, just a priest. It was only a priest coming forward to help – praying, consoling, bringing hope, then humbly stepping back. Only. Not so miraculous after all.

We like miracles, but usually for the wrong reason. We chase after them because we think they will be the cure-all for our lack of faith. If I have a constant experience of the miraculous then I will have to believe, right? In effect, we expect miracles to do the believing for us: If God works a miracle in front of me then I will believe. It is, of course, a form of putting God to the test. And the attitude fails to realize that many who saw miracles still did not believe. Every morning for forty years the Israelites woke up to the miraculous gift of the manna. But that miracle did not force faith on them. In fact, they grew tired of it. They failed to believe.

When God works miracles (and, yes, He still does), it is to help our faith – but not by doing the heavy lifting for us. Such extraordinary occurrences are intended to awaken our faith to the ordinary working of His grace. Our faith grows more when we believe the unseen than when we are forced to acknowledge the miraculous. Jesus brought health to the sick and sight to the blind – and people still did not believe in Him. He made the deaf hear and the mute speak – not so that we would expect that as a common occurrence but so that we would expect His grace to heal us spiritually.

We are like Naaman the Syrian. He wanted to be healed of his leprosy by a dramatic display of God’s power. But his faith grew only when he set aside his desire for the dramatic and took a simple bathe in the humble Jordan. And he was healed. Only when we trust in the ordinary and undramatic (water, oil, bread and wine, words spoken through a screen) will we grow in faith – and find healing.

So if the story of a supposedly mysterious priest grabs our attention, perhaps it is so that we can appreciate the greater mystery of the priesthood. That a man should come and go unnoticed might be remarkable. That a man possesses the sacred power to confect the Eucharist and absolve sins is truly extraordinary. God’s glory is not found in a mysterious appearance and disappearance of a priest. It is found in the fact that He humbles Himself to use simple (and at times clumsy) men as His instruments of grace.

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By: Rev. Paul Scalia

What does it mean when a miracle is not, well, miraculous? That is, when a miracle does not have the drama, excitement, or big production qualities that we might expect? Certainly, some miracles have plenty of drama – voices from heaven, seas parting, fires descending, and so on.  But we also know of simple, subtle miracles. Elijah, after all, encountered God not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire but in the still small voice (cf 1 Kgs 19:12).  Indeed, the two most important miracles – the Incarnation and the Resurrection – are notable for their subtlety and hiddeness: the quiet of Bethlehem, the simple presence in the upper room.

Image

Our Lord’s raising of the widow’s son provides another example (cf. Lk 7:11-17).  Yes, our Lord did something extraordinary in raising a man from the dead.  Yes, “fear seized them all.” They exclaimed, “God has visited his people,”and the “report about him spread through the whole of Judea and in all the surrounding region.”  Nevertheless, the miracle possesses an extraordinary simplicity. Our Lord encounters the funeral procession.  He is “moved with pity” and tells the mother, “Do not weep.”  He steps forward, touches the coffin, and says, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”  The man sits up, begins to speak, and then, in the most touching detail, “Jesus gave him to his mother.”  No angels, no voices from heaven, no earthquakes, no lightning.  Only the man Jesus giving two commands.

What does it mean when a miracle is not miraculous? First, it calls our attention to our Lord’s humanity. By His divine nature He performs the miracle.  But He is moved to do so in His human nature.  That He was “moved with pity,” refers to His Sacred Heart and His capacity to be moved with human love.  Saint Luke tells us that the deceased was “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.”  This describes our Lord Himself, and His mother.  So it should not surprise us that He turns first to the widow, in whom He sees the anticipation of Mary’s sorrow.  “Do not weep,” He tells her – as if to tell His own mother. Yes, our Lord is all-powerful.  But in His sacred humanity He places Himself within our reach, so that our misery moves Him to act on our behalf.

Second, the unremarkable miracle reminds us of grace’s power working through simple means.  Our Lord raises the dead with a simple command – spoken in regular, human words.  No choir of angels, no thundering voice, no divine megaphone. He continues to do so today through the ministry of the Church – through the all too simple words of Her ministers.  We should not doubt the power of words – of truth spoken in charity – to console, heal, transform…and raise.

We find this miraculous simplicity especially in the Sacrament of Penance, in which Jesus uses the humanity of the priest to raise a soul from the dead.  First, by simply receiving the penitent, the confessor in effect steps forward and touches the coffin.  That is, he halts the procession of death that sin has begun. By the words of absolution the priest commands the soul to arise.  And just as in Nain Jesus raised a young man, so in the confessional the priest – or, rather, Jesus through the priest – restores our youth, literally rejuvenates our soul.

Nor did Jesus allow the miracle of raising a man from the dead to obscure the importance of the man’s human relationships.  He “gave him to his mother.” So also now, the miracle of Reconciliation is also attentive to our relationships.  It accomplishes not only our spiritual resurrection but also our restoration to one another, the healing of relationships.  Or, viewed differently, as our Lord gave the man back to his mother, so Penance restores us to Mother Church, to her who – like the widow of Nain for her son – brought us to new birth, nourished us, and mourned our death in sin.

Yes, God at times works through the extraordinary.  But His preferred way of acting is through the simple ministries of the Church – the Faith taught, the Sacraments celebrated.  While we should not reject the possibility of the dramatic, we should tune our souls to find our Lord in His subtle approaches, in the humble gestures and simple words that console and give life.

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I don’t know if you’ve signed up to read the entire Catechism in a year (a daily dose delivered by email), but I am woefully behind. I should be setting time aside daily, but it hasn’t really happened, so I often find myself catching up and reading four or five sections at a time. This morning, in one of these catch-up sessions, I read a section on faith (articles 153-159), which perfectly corresponded to a conversation I was engaged in over the weekend.

In a nutshell, I was discussing with a friend whether any faith traditions were valid; if they all were; or if they were all fake. From her (agnostic) perspective, religions are merely methods people used to make themselves happy on earth, but aren’t actually based in reality. I argued that my faith was real (not just an excuse to give structure to my life), and that reason could show that the universe was created. What she said that I couldn’t prove with reason alone – and she was right – is that God (a Catholic God) was real and present in my life.

I can’t prove God’s presence to her by reason alone because it is faith that allows me to know, love and serve God. Yet somehow to unbelievers, to say “I believe” is not enough. Sadly, too many people think that faith is neither credible nor reasonable.

The Catechism section I read this morning, however, reminded me of several very helpful things about how faith is real, how it builds on reason and how it is, in fact, reasonable. It says:

 

  1. Faith is a Gift: I cannot just argue someone into believing in God. The Catechism says, “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.”
  2. Trusting in God is a free, human act: People who have faith have not given up their freedom. Rather, they have chosen to accept this gift from God and believe in Christ. The Catechism says, “Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed is contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason”
  3. While one cannot reach Faith by reason alone, we have proofs that Faith is reasonable: Revelation that we have seen in our own lives and throughout Church history allows us to even more reasonably claim our faith. The Catechism says, “The miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability ‘are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all’; they are ‘motives of credibility’ (motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is ‘by no means a blind impulse of the mind’.”
  4. Faith is a certainty: There can be no doubt in the tenets of faith once we have faith because, as the Catechism says, God cannot lie.
  5. Faith seeks understanding: Faith implies a love of God. When we love someone, we naturally seek to know him or her more. The Catechism explains that this is a cycle of growth: out of faith, we seek to know more about God, and as we learn more about Him, we grow even more in our faith.
  6. Faith and Science will never contradict each other: God created the world and therefore created science. True scientific discoveries will not contradict the faith, and faith will not contradict science. The Catechism says that science “can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.”

 

Too often, I am swayed by our agnostic culture into somehow forgetting that faith is the most reasonable position we can possibly hold: believing in God Who created me, Who sent His Son to save me and Who demonstrates His love for me time and time again.

 

During this Year of Faith: Lord, increase my faith.

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