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New year, new liturgical seasons

By Josh Perry

As we began Advent, the Church throughout the world ushered in a new liturgical year. We began again the annual observances with which we are very familiar. Advent, a time of hopeful waiting, gives way to the joyous celebrations of Christmas. Soon enough we find ourselves in the Lenten Season, with its disciplines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. In the midst of spring, we celebrate the Resurrection of
Jesus at Easter, extending our feasting 50 days until Pentecost where we especially celebrate the Holy Spirit in our Church and in our lives. The long span of Ordinary Time follows; it is this time that points us to the life of Jesus Christ in all its aspects — not just His birth, not just His Passion, not just His Resurrection — but all of His life. And the cycle of the year comes — once again — to winter, and we find ourselves entering another Advent. Another Christmas. Another Lent. Another Easter. The cycle continues.
The occasion of the new year encourages us to look back on the year just passed and ahead on the year to come. We recall the past year — the joys and sorrows that we faced, the rights and wrongs that we may have done. Many of us then resolve to do something different in the coming year. A little more exercise. A better diet. Being nicer to siblings or children or parents. Maybe we resolve to go to church more, learn more about the faith or go back to confession. One of the most important reflections we can make is on how God was present in our lives in the past year and how might we respond to God’s presence in the year to come.
This process of looking back and looking forward is, I believe, essential to our personal growth and our growth as a Church. Without this reflection, the cycle of the liturgical year remains simply that — a cycle. If you “draw” the liturgical year on a piece of paper, you get a circle. But this process of looking back and looking forward — of reflecting on the past and making resolutions for our future — transforms that
circle. The circle becomes a spiral.
You see, a spiral is cyclical, but it doesn’t end up in the same spot. We celebrate Advents and Christmases, Lents and Easters year after year, but we are not the same people. Our past has shaped us, and our future might give us reason to hope (at least for a few weeks before we break our resolutions). I am not the same person I was five years ago, 10 years ago. My experiences have shaped me. Herein lies the beauty of observing the liturgical year. Passages from Scripture are repeated every three years both at Christmas and at Easter. The themes and disciplines of Advent and Lent do not change. But you and I have changed. And perhaps we will experience those same stories and experience those same disciplines in a different way, simply because we are different.
The upcoming diocesan synod is an extraordinary time for our Catholic Church in Vermont to reflect on its past and look forward to its future. In order for the synod to be fruitful, however, we need to take seriously the call to reflect on past, present and future. We can’t leave all this work simply for other people to do, just as we can’t delegate our own personal reflections over our lives in the new year (and
God forbid we have someone else make New Years resolutions for us!). As a Church, we reflect together with the help of the Holy Spirit. That reflection may lead to difficult conclusions and challenging resolutions ahead — just as our personal reflections might lead to challenging resolutions in our lives. Without these reflections as a Church, however, we can only hope to remain stuck in the same circle.
In this new liturgical year — and beyond — my prayer is that all of us are resolved to be involved in the life of our Church. It’s the time to reflect. As Church, where have we been? Where should we be going? And how shall we get there?
--Josh Perry is director of worship for the Diocese of Burlington.
--Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of 
Vermont Catholic magazine.

Pope's Easter message

Jesus is the risen shepherd who takes upon his shoulders "our brothers and sisters crushed by evil in all its varied forms," Pope Francis said before giving his solemn Easter blessing.
With tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square April 16, the pope called on Christians to be instruments of Christ's outreach to refugees and migrants, victims of war and exploitation, famine and loneliness.
For the 30th year in a row, Dutch farmers and florists blanketed the area around the altar with grass and 35,000 flowers and plants: lilies, roses, tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, birch and linden.
Preaching without a prepared text, Pope Francis began -- as he did the night before at the Easter Vigil -- imagining the disciples desolate because "the one they loved so much was executed. He died."
While they are huddling in fear, the angel tells them, "He is risen." And, the pope said, the church continues to proclaim that message always and everywhere, including to those whose lives are truly, unfairly difficult.
"It is the mystery of the cornerstone that was discarded, but has become the foundation of our existence," he said. And those who follow Jesus, "we pebbles," find meaning even in the midst of suffering because of sure hope in the resurrection.
Pope Francis suggested everyone find a quiet place on Easter to reflect on their problems and the problems of the world and then tell God, "I don't know how this will end, but I know Christ has risen."
After celebrating the morning Easter Mass, Pope Francis gave his blessing "urbi et orbi," to the city of Rome and the world.
Before reciting the blessing, he told the crowd that "in every age the risen shepherd tirelessly seeks us, his brothers and sisters, wandering in the deserts of this world. With the marks of the passion -- the wounds of his merciful love -- he draws us to follow him on his way, the way of life."
Christ seeks out all those in need, he said. "He comes to meet them through our brothers and sisters who treat them with respect and kindness and help them to hear his voice, an unforgettable voice, a voice calling them back to friendship with God."
Pope Francis mentioned a long list of those for whom the Lord gives special attention, including victims of human trafficking, abused children, victims of terrorism and people forced to flee their homes because of war, famine and poverty.
"In the complex and often dramatic situations of today's world, may the risen Lord guide the steps of all those who work for justice and peace," Pope Francis said. "May he grant the leaders of nations the courage they need to prevent the spread of conflicts and to put a halt to the arms trade."
The pope also offered special prayers for peace in Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, Congo and Ukraine, and for a peaceful resolution of political tensions in Latin America.
  • Published in World

An empty tomb and a bodily resurrection

Catholics and other Christians have grown up believing in the Resurrection, but the Apostles themselves were among the first who were skeptical that Jesus arose from the dead.
They didn't believe it at first when they were told by the women who had come to anoint the crucified Jesus' body but instead found an empty tomb.
"To be fair, you can say the men didn't believe the women, but who could believe that story? Let's be fair to the men. They would have to see for themselves," said James Papandrea, a Catholic who is associate professor of church history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois.
"I think anyone would want to see for themselves. We believe what we see, we believe our senses, and it's only natural that if somebody says the Lord is alive and you knew he was dead, you'd say, 'Show me.' The disciples, even after all of Jesus' teachings and all his hints about death and resurrection, they seem not to have expected him to rise from the dead. They automatically went into skeptic mode. We have Peter and John running to the empty tomb, to see that it's empty," Papandrea said.
"For believers, the significance of the tomb is that when Christians were talking about the Resurrection, they weren't just claiming Jesus' soul went to heaven. Or that Jesus lives on in our heart," said Brant Pitre, a Scripture professor at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. "They're saying something happened to Jesus' corpse, Jesus' body. That's the other essential story of the Resurrection."
Some skeptics, Pitre told Catholic News Service in an April 11 telephone interview, talk about the concept of life after death as being just "the immortality of Jesus' soul. They would have said that about anybody in the Old Testament."
That is what makes the Resurrection not just different, but unique, according to Pitre, author of "The Case for Jesus."
"The empty tomb is a necessary condition for the Resurrection, but it's not sufficient," Pitre said. The other element is Jesus' appearances to the Apostles. "They needed to see in the flesh that he was alive again in his body, but in a transformed and glorified state," he added, citing the account in Chapter 24 of St. Luke's Gospel in which the Apostles initially think "they saw a spirit -- which shows you the Apostles believed in ghosts." But Jesus tells them, "Look at my hands and my feet," which had been pierced with nails when he was crucified, "for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, but I have."
Even though the Apostles -- even doubting Thomas -- came to believe, it was not easy to convince others. "One of the things skeptics will say: 'The Apostles were simple fishermen. They would believe anything, out of their simplicity,'" Pitre said.
The case even holds true for the women who found the empty tomb. "In the first century A.D., the testimony of women in a courtroom was not considered reliable," Pitre said, adding that for more believability, "you'd want the chief priest to find the (empty) tomb." As Papandrea told CNS, "If something is in the Gospels, it's in there for a reason. If they were ashamed of the fact that the women were the first ones to find the tomb, they could have easily left it out."
The Apostles at first "met with opposition, mockery and even doubt on the part of the disciples," Pitre said. "Even as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the Resurrection was one of the stumbling blocks," he added, noting that St. Paul preaching about Christ in Athens to the Greeks had his audience "until he says Christ was raised from the dead. They mock him. It's impossible; even ancient people knew that dead people stayed dead."
"Many of us have the advantage where it's normal to believe in the Resurrection," said Papandrea, whose books include "Handed Down: The Catholic Faith of the Early Christians." "We grew up and our parents believed it, and why wouldn't we?"
He added that popular culture now holds up many Christ figures. "If you watch the superhero movies, they make liberal use of Christian themes, death and resurrection. These themes recur, but they also use themes from Greek and Roman mythology, Nordic mythology, as if they have equal cultural value. A lot of people treat the story of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ as just one more myth."
The real difference about Jesus and superheroes, according to Papandrea, is that "the resurrection of Christ is not something that happened on top of Mount Olympus before time, but God broke into time."
The bromide that "you can't have Easter Sunday without Good Friday" is true as far as it goes, but "it would be just as valid to wear a little gold empty tomb around your neck," Papandrea said, noting how Protestants tend to wear a cross rather than a crucifix "because they know Jesus didn't stay on the cross. Both make perfect theological sense."
"Without Easter Sunday," Pitre said, "Good Friday would just be one more tragic death, one more tragic execution of one more poor Jewish man crushed by the Roman Empire. Easter Sunday is the vindication of what happened on Good Friday -- the atoning death of the Son of God for the whole world."
  • Published in World

Easter message from Bishop Coyne

"Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" (John 20:15)

Early in the morning of the third day after Jesus was crucified and died, his disciples had returned to the tomb where he had been laid to finish the burial rites, cleansing and anointing his body. When they arrived, they found the tomb empty and Jesus’ body missing. Distraught, they began their search but they found they were not alone. In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene meets two angels, quickly turns away and sees a man standing in the garden, someone she does not recognize at first — Jesus. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” He then speaks her name, “Mary.” Now she knows who he is and she rushes and embraces him. Suddenly her grief, her loss, her fear is lost in amazement as she meets her Lord and friend, Jesus, standing alive once more.

How often in our lives when we face moments of grief, of loss, and of confusion do we find ourselves just as adrift as the early disciples on that Easter morning? When a loved one dies, we can wander through the burial rites, feeling numb or overwhelmed, doing what needs to be done as we lay them to rest. But, we can also stand in the hope of the resurrection, occasioned by the truth of the empty tomb, as a person of faith. And there is the rub — a person of faith. For if we are going to seek Jesus in our moments of need and truly possess the hope of salvation, we need to know Jesus as our friend and brother, true God and true man. My encouragement to all of us on this Easter morning is that we all seek to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this life so that we may know Him perfectly in the next. It is a call to mission:

"It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.

It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal" (St. John Paul II).

Eco-friendly Easter

The co-opting of holy days into secular holidays often results in an emphasis on consumerism, which is contrary to the teachings of the Christian faith and has negative effects on the environment and those who call it home. Keep your Easter celebration a little more holistic this year with these simple suggestions.
Dyeing Easter Eggs
  •  Buy eggs from a local farm with pasture-raised chickens.
  •  Look for biodegradable cardboard cartons instead of plastic or Styrofoam.
  •  Instead of using chemical dyes, create natural dyes from vegetables and spices.
  •  Don’t waste food! Use dyed eggs in recipes once you’re finished enjoying them as décor.
Easter Egg Baskets
  •  Reuse plastic eggs and grass if you already own them. Most facilities can’t recycle these items.
  •  If purchasing new items, seek biodegradable options, like ecoeggs™ and ecograss™, which are made in the United States from plants. They look like plastic and are reusable.
  •  Use existing baskets, buckets or jars. If buying new, consider local artisans.
  •  Avoid useless trinkets and fill eggs with Fairtrade chocolates (support sustainable living), jellybeans and nuts (they don’t require individual wrappers), seeds to plant a garden, coins, and inspirational messages.
Easter Meal
  •  Shop for local ingredients, which require less packaging and shipping.
  •  Use up dyed Easter eggs with a new recipe.
  •  Try to prepare the meal with zero-waste.
  •  Avoid single-use dishes and utensils.
  •  Separate food scraps for composting.
  •  Donate excess food or extra money not used on excess food to charity.

Originally published in the 2017 Spring Issue of Vermont Catholic Magazine.

Easter Vigil 'mother of all vigils'

The Catholic Church pulls out all the stops for the Easter Vigil, the Mass celebrated on Holy Saturday.
The Roman Missal, which spells out specifics of how the vigil is to be celebrated, describes it as the "mother of all vigils" and says it is the "greatest and most noble of all solemnities and it is to be unique in every single church."
That quote, "mother of all vigils" comes from St. Augustine's Sermon 209, which is pretty old, since the saint died in the year 430.
In other words, the tradition of the Easter Vigil and support for it, goes way back in the Church. But there was a falling out over this tradition for a long time and only in the 20th Century did the Church recover what "got lost in the Middle Ages," said Jesuit Father Bruce Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.
The priest said the vigil's origins were in the early Fourth Century, but by the late Middle Ages, the celebration moved from a nighttime vigil to a Saturday morning Mass. Also around this time, the Church also placed more emphasis on infant baptism than adult baptism. It became the norm until the liturgical and sacramental renewal of the Second Vatican Council led to a revival of the ancient catechumenate with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
But even before Vatican II, the move to revive the Easter Vigil began with Pope Pius XII in the 1950’s restoring the celebration to the Saturday night before Easter and making additional changes.
Father Morrill said documentation of the ancient Church celebrating the Easter Vigil in Syria and North Africa notes that the sacraments of initiation -- baptism, confirmation and first communion -- took place in a separate area while the congregation listened to words from Scripture and then the newly baptized were brought out to the congregation.
"It was very elaborate," Father Morrill said. "If you wanted to see the risen Christ, you saw Him in the newly baptized." And that symbolism continued after Easter. For the next eight days, the newly baptized were required to wear their white baptismal gowns to daily Mass where the bishop would give instructions about the meaning of baptism.
And even though the newly initiated no longer wear their baptismal gowns for a week, baptisms remain a very key part of the Easter Vigil.
"In fact, a vigil where no one is going to be initiated kind of falls flat," the priest told Catholic News Service April 5, noting that all the readings lead up to it.
The Easter Vigil is loaded with symbolism. It must take place after dark and begins with the lighting of the fire outside and the inside lighting of the Paschal candle, whose light is passed on to individual candles. There are eight Old Testament readings telling the salvation history, sung responses between readings and a sung proclamation called an Exsultet.
The Mass also includes the baptism, confirmation and first communion of catechumens who are joining the Church, having prepared for this moment through the RCIA. Candidates, who are already baptized, receive confirmation and first communion at the vigil to enter full communion with the Church.
Paulist Father Larry Rice, director of the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas at Austin, said the idea of the Easter Vigil, by its nature, means "staying up through the night waiting and watching for the Lord's resurrection."
He said the first part of the vigil, gathering around the outdoor fire, is reminiscent of being around a campfire, telling stories, which in this case are the stories of salvation history. The congregation is "not waiting, shivering cold in dark" but is reminded by the fire that "God has always come to our aid." And then during the Mass, the readings continue this story, from creation to the Israelites' flight from Egypt and the message of a messiah from the Old Testament prophets.
When Father Rice hears people say the Easter Vigil is just too long, he says it doesn't matter if it's two or three hours because it is so rich.
Part of the reason so many people love the vigil, he told CNS April 6, is that it "hits us on a primal level." Today, people rarely keep watch through the night, nor do they tell stories. He also said the vigil is a sensory experience with the smell and the crackling of the fire, the music between readings and the stark images of darkness and light.
Father Morrill said the congregation at the Easter Vigil tends not to be "dressed in Easter finery" and is not the same as the packed church on Easter Sunday. Father Rice had a similar view, noting the Mass "doesn't draw an enormous crowd," but he said once people have experienced it, they usually want to come back because Easter Mass in comparison can "feel like the after party, not the actual party."
  • Published in World
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