Daddy, What Did You Do During Advent of 2008?
When I was growing up in the 1950’s, a question asked by many children of their fathers was “What did you do in the war, daddy?” Most American men had been called into the military during World War II. They fought against a clearly defined enemy which threatened the peace, security and freedom of the millions of people living on Earth at the time.
Although wars still rage on the planet today there is another war in our midst in America to which many of our people, especially men, seem to be oblivious. The war I am speaking of has been called the “Culture War” and it concerns the American way of life. Our late Holy Father John Paul II coined the phrase “Culture of Death” and “Culture of Life” in his Encyclical letter “the Gospel of Life” to describe two opposite ways of life to which the people of a nation can give allegiance.
Our Catholic Church through its constant teaching and pastoral practice points us to a way of life which will lead us to a civilization of love and truth on this side of eternity and to eternal happiness with God in the next life. The Culture of Death, on the other hand, leads to personal destruction both now and in eternity. Our children and grandchildren are the stakes in the Culture War. In order to win this war all Catholic men need to be focused on the part they are called to play as they live their day-to-day lives.
One battleground in the Culture War concerns the American celebration of the Christmas Holiday. In our Catholic tradition the Christmas Season begins on Christmas Day and lasts for twelve days. Before Christmas the Church has given us the Season of Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas. In recent years there has been an attack on the public celebration of Christmas by militant atheists. However, many Catholics have themselves abandoned the practice of Advent and they start celebrating Christmas on “Black Friday” at our nation’s shopping malls and downtowns. Their “Christmas” parties are celebrated throughout December with “ Christmas songs” and a spirit of materialism in the air. Many people say it is the most busy time of the year. Christmas is finished on December 25 to be followed by Kwanzaa.
Mother Church offers Advent to her children as a time primarily “to be” not a time “to do”. A time to think, reflect, and listen especially to listen for the voice of the Bridegroom. John 3:28-30.
During the second week of Advent 2008 twenty “Daddies” living in the Diocese of Scranton responded to our Bishop’s call to holiness and mission by attending the first annual Advent retreat of the Guardian of the Redeemer Catholic Men’s Fellowship at Fatima Renewal Center in Dalton, Pa. The “ Daddies” represented 15 different parishes in the Diocese located from Pennsylvania’s boundary with New Jersey to Central Pennsylvania.
The retreat, led by “Abba” Leo McKernan., Preacher for Holiness and Mission for the Diocese of Scranton, focused on the passage in the Gospel of John which quotes John the Baptist’s statement about his cousin Jesus while he was baptizing in Aenon, near Salim. “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom, the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice, so this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase, I must decrease.” John 3:28-30.
We were invited to see Jesus through the eyes of John the Baptist and to hear the Bridegroom’s voice. We were challenged to become the “best man” of Jesus; a term which can be translated from the original Greek as “friend”. We become the friend of Jesus when we respond to his love for each one of us by doing what he commands us. We become that Best Man by allowing Jesus to increase in us by decreasing our ego and self will so that when people see us they will see Jesus.
I encountered Jesus numerous times during the retreat. I was surprised to meet Him in the hallway of the Retreat Center both days after breakfast. We shared the Retreat Center with a group of Haitian Catholic Women from the Bronx. Their priest led them both days in procession with the Blessed Sacrament from the Main Chapel to a room where they worshiped Jesus in his Eucharistic presence.
Our Fellowship group met our Eucharistic Lord at Mass and again in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We also adored Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament on Saturday night and Abba invited us to spend a few minutes with Jesus at His altar face to face.
We also encountered Jesus in His Word and in song and in our encounter with one another over the 36 hours we were together. What a blessing to be with men who are the “wheat” and not the “chaff” as described in Psalm 1.
On Saturday evening, the vigil of the Lord’s Day, we had a Lord’s Day Dinner. The tables were set up as at a wedding banquet .Father McKernan, “Alterus Christus”, among us played the part of Bridegroom. I sat next to him and played the part of the “Best Man”. We toasted the Bride “the Church” present there in the Catholic men assembled with us.
One reading during the weekend had a profound effect on me. The Book of Nehemiah describes the Jews’ return from Babylonian exile and the resettlement of the Promised Land. During the time of rebuilding, Ezra the Priest found the lost Book of the Law of Moses which he read to the assembled people- the men and women and children old enough to understand. “Today is Holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad and do not weep. For all the people were weeping as they heard the Words of the Law.”
The New American Bible’s commentary on the Books of Ezra/ Nehemiah states that the Law of Moses a/k/a the Torah was Judaism’s authentic way of life given by Adonai through Moses and regiven by Ezra the Priest. The remnant of the People of Israel had forgotten that way of life and were weeping because they had been convicted of their sin. As Jesus would later teach “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. “ In our tradition it is the Holy Spirit who convicts us of our sin and then comforts us when we mourn over our sins and resolve to turn away from them.
On the way home from the retreat I listened to a CD recording of a talk given by Bishop John Magee to seminarians attending Mt St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg Maryland. Bishop Magee served as Secretary to three Popes: Paul VI , John Paul I and John Paul II. His talk related personal stories about the Popes he had served. One incident concerned John Paul II soon after he became Pope. One day Bishop Magee could not find the Holy Father in the papal residence including the chapel. He finally went back to the chapel where he found the Holy Father lying prostrate on the floor before the Blessed Sacrament in deep prayer. This is the posture of the priest at ordination and it is a gesture signifying Kenosis or the self emptying. The talk helped me realize that all three of these men imitated Christ in expressing His self emptying love for His Bride the Church.
I found myself weeping as I listened to this talk. I did not quite understand why I would be weeping. Perhaps it was the realization of the great sacrifices each of these Popes had made for me as a member of the Church.
I then recalled my confession during the retreat that I had failed to consistently love my wife as Jesus loved the Church. By listening to Bishop McGee’s talk, I received a new understanding of what is required to fulfill the command of Ephesians 5:25. Husbands are not only called to a self giving love rather we are called to a self emptying love for our wives if we are to love them as Christ loved the Church. It is a more difficult standard to meet but we know that nothing is impossible with God’s help especially through frequent visits to the confessional.
This is the vocation that is set before us as Catholic men. I believe we are called to extend this self emptying love to every member of our families, to our Church and to our Neighbors as defined by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the final analysis this is the only way we can hope to win the Culture War that rages in our midst. “But have no fear then. Keep in mind the Lord who is great and to be feared, and fight for your brethren, your sons and daughters your wives and your homes.” Nehemiah 4:8
Merry Christmas and may the New Year find us more in fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and with each other as we draw Catholic men together in the Diocese of Scranton through the Guardian of the Redeemer Catholic Men’s Fellowship.