Tag Archives: salvation

Preparing for Advent: the wreath as a sign that Salvation is at hand

Prophet Isaiah GPiamonte.jpgThe new liturgical year begins tonight at First Vespers for Advent (as a point of comparison, the Church in Milan which follows its own liturgical calendar and set of customs began Advent on November 14th this year [2010]). A new liturgical year refreshes our understanding of good Catholic customs and practices, a renews the emphasis of ongoing conversion and encourages a lively following of God Incarnate — all these things are essential hallmarks of Advent.

The newness the Advent gives to us is seen as a feast for the senses (Catholics are sensual people) known through investment of our best resources and energies: the Church’s vesture changes to purple, silence is observed a little more in the Liturgy, the sacred Scriptures draws out attention to waiting and preparing the way of the Lord (think of the Prophet Isaiah pictured right), the season’s music focuses our hopes and loves on the Kingdom already present but not fully realized and our homes, the “domestic church,” reinforces our seeking God together. As Father U. Michael Lang, CO, said in a recent essay on vestments, “Divine beauty manifests itself in an altogether particular way in the sacred liturgy, also through material things of which man, made of soul and body, has need to come to spiritual realities: the buildings of worship, the furnishings, the vestments, the images, the music, the dignity of ceremonies themselves.”

As one small sign for the daily and weekly journey, our movement in this season of preparation is the Advent wreath — a tangible sign of movement to recognizing more deeply that our Salvation is at hand. The Advent wreath is, however, not a parish church custom as much as it is custom for one’s home (but you can’t persuade too many priests to move the Advent wreath out of the sanctuary these days).

A favorite historian of liturgical customs is Jesuit Father Francis X. Weiser’s 1958 Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: The Year of the Lord in Liturgy and Folklore, but I also look to Pius Parsch, Dom Gueranger and the Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy (2001) to recall the Advent sensibility given to us by the Church. These authors are particularly helpful in preparing the faithful and especially the children in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and other CCD programs about the sacred Liturgy. About the Advent wreath Weiser writes:

The Advent wreath originated a few hundred years ago among the Lutherans of eastern Germany. It probably was suggested by one of the many light symbols which were used in folklore at the end of November and beginning of December… The Christians in medieval times kept many of these lights and fire symbols alive as popular traditions and ancient folklore. In the sixteenth century the custom started of using such lights as a religious symbol of Advent in the houses of the faithful. This practice quickly spread among the Protestants of eastern Germany and was soon accepted by Protestants and Catholics in other parts of the country. Recently it has not only found its way to America, but has been spreading so rapidly that it is already a cherished custom in many homes.

Advent wreath ex.jpg

The Advent wreath is exactly what the word implies, a wreath of evergreens (yew or fir or laurel), made in various sizes. It is either suspended from the ceiling or placed on a table, usually in front of the family shrine. Fastened to the wreath are four candles standing upright, at equal distances. These candles represent the four weeks of Advent.


Daily at a certain time (usually in the evening), the family gathers for a short religious exercise. Every Sunday of Advent one more candle is lit, until all four candles shed their cheerful light to announce the approaching birthday of the Lord. All other lights are extinguished in the room, and only the gentle glow of the live candles illuminates the darkness. After some prayers, which are recited for the grace of a good and holy preparation for Christmas, the family sings one of the traditional Advent hymns or a song in honor of Mary.


The traditional symbolism of the Advent wreath reminds the faithful of the Old Testament, when humanity was “sitting in the darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 2:79); when the prophets, illumined by God, announced the Redeemer; and when the hearts of men glowed with the desire for the Messiah. The wreath — an ancient symbol of victory and glory — symbolizes the “fulfillment of time” in the coming of Christ and the glory of His birth.


In some sections of Europe it is customary for persons with the name of John or Joan to have the first right to light the candles on the Advent wreath and Christmas tree, because John the Evangelist starts his Gospel by calling Christ the “Light of the World” and John the Baptist was the first one to see the light of divinity shining about the Lord at His baptism in the Jordan. (pp. 54-55)

Zacchaeus had the opportunity of a lifetime

Zacchaeus in the sycamore.jpg

When the Lord gazes upon you, looks up you with mercy, love, and interest, are you going to grumble and run away? Or, will you invite the Lord into your home with joy?

The gaze of the Lord is nothing less than THE miracle of a lifetime. God excludes no one, his salvation is give to all people. The lost are sought after by God and offers the chance for conversion. The Lord answers our human need with Himself. His Presence, the same as His Eucharistic Presence does today. His Presence is what we all long for.
The opportunity shared in was likely once in a lifetime … the Lord came to his home.

Pope Benedict asks: does man need Christ & the message of salvation?

Pope Benedict XVI spoke to members of the Pontifical seminary communities of Las Marcas, Puglia and Abruzzo-Molise, while attending the centenary celebrations of their foundation on Saturday, 29 November 2008. While this is an address to bishops, priests and seminarians, it is worthy of us to reflect on and to seriously follow what is said by the Pope. The relevant excerpts follow with my emphasis given in the text:



Pope.jpgI would now like to address you in particular, dear seminarians, who are preparing to be laborers in the Lord’s vineyard. As the recent assembly of the Synod of Bishops also recalled, among the priority tasks of the priest is that of spreading with full hands the Word of God in the world, which, like the seed in the Gospel parable, seems too small a reality, but once it has germinated, it becomes a great bush and bears abundant fruit (cf. Matthew 13:31-32). The Word of God that you will be called upon to spread with full hands and which brings with it eternal life, is Christ himself, the only one who can change the human heart and renew the world. However, we might ask ourselves: Does modern man still feel a need for Christ and his message of salvation?


In the present social context, a certain culture seems to show us the face of a self-sufficient humanity, anxious to carry out its projects on its own, which chooses to be the sole architect of its destiny and which, consequently, believes that the presence of God does not count and so excludes it from its choices and decisions.

In a climate marked by a rationalism shut-in on itself, which considers the practical sciences as the only model of knowledge while the rest is subjective, non-essential and determinant for life. For these and other reasons, today, without a doubt, it is increasingly more difficult to believe, more difficult to accept the truth that is Christ, more difficult to spend one’s life for the cause of the Gospel. However, as we see every day in the news, modern man often seems to be disoriented and worried about his future, seeking certainties and sure points of reference. As in all ages, man of the third millennium needs God and seeks him perhaps without realizing it. The duty of Christians, especially of priests, is to respond to this profound yearning of the human heart and to offer all, with the means and ways that best respond to the demands of the times, the immutable and always living Word of eternal life that is Christ, Hope of the world.


In face of this important mission, which you will be called to carry out in the Church, the years spent in the seminary take on great value, a time allocated to formation and discernment; years in which, in the first place, must be the constant search for a personal relationship with Jesus, a profound experience of his love, which is acquired above all through prayer and contact with the Sacred Scriptures, interpreted and meditated in the faith of the ecclesial community.

St Paul Giotto.jpgIn this Pauline Year, why not propose the Apostle Paul to yourselves as model in which to be inspired for your preparation to the apostolic ministry? The extraordinary experience on the road to Damascus transformed him, from persecutor of Christians to witness of the resurrection of the Lord, willing to give his life for the Gospel. He was a faithful observer of all the prescriptions of the Torah and of the Hebrew traditions; however, after having found Jesus “whatever gain I had — he writes in the Letter to the Philippians — I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (cf. 3:7-9). Conversion did not eliminate all that was good and true in his life, but enabled him to interpret in a new way the wisdom and truth of the Law and the prophets and thus be able to dialogue with all, following the example of the Divine Teacher.


In imitation of St. Paul, dear seminarians, do not tire of encountering Christ in listening to, reading and studying sacred Scripture, in prayer and personal meditation, in the liturgy and in every daily activity. In this connection, dear ones responsible for formation, your role is very important, as you are called to be witnesses for your students even before being teachers of evangelical life. Because of their typical characteristics, the Regional Seminaries can be privileged places to form seminarians in diocesan spirituality, inscribing this formation in the largest ecclesial and regional context with wisdom and balance. Your institutions should also be vocational “houses” of welcome to give greater impetus to vocational pastoral care, taking care especially of the world of youth and educating young people in the great evangelical and missionary ideals.

Advent: the time of our Salvation is nearer

Behold, the great Prophet shall come; and He shall renew Jerusalem, alleluia.


A thrilling voice by rings

Rebuking guilt and darksome things:

Vain dreams of sins and visions fly;

Christ in His might shines forth on high.


St John the Baptist.jpgNow let each torpid soul arise

That sunk in guilt and wounded lies;

See, the new Star’s refulgent ray

Shall chase disease and sin away.


The Lamb descends from heaven above

To pardon sin with freest love:

For such indulgent mercy shown

With tearful joy our thanks we own.


That when again He shines revealed

And trembling worlds to terror yield,

He give not sin its just reward

But in His love protect and guard.


To God the Father, God the Son,

And God the Spirit, Three in One,

Praise, honor, might and glory be

From age to age eternally. Amen.


V. The voice of one crying in the desert: make ready the way of the Lord.

R. Make straight His paths.


We beseech Thee, O Lord, show forth Thy power and come, that we may deserve to be rescued from the ever-threatening danger of our sins, and be saved by Thy deliverance.

Christian ethics is born in friendship with Christ

Ben 16.jpgIn last Wednesday’s catechesis [11/19], I spoke of the question of how man is justified before God. Following St. Paul, we have seen that man is not capable of making himself “just” with his own actions, but rather that he can truly become “just” before God only because God confers on him his “justice,” uniting him to Christ, his Son. And man obtains this union with Christ through faith.

In this sense, St. Paul tells us: It is not our works, but our faith that makes us “just.” This faith, nevertheless, is not a thought, opinion or idea. This faith is communion with Christ, which the Lord entrusts to us and that because of this, becomes life in conformity with him. Or in other words, faith, if it is true and real, becomes love, charity — is expressed in charity. Faith without charity, without this fruit, would not be true faith. It would be a dead faith.

We have therefore discovered two levels in the last catechesis: that of the insufficiency of our works for achieving salvation, and that of “justification” through faith that produces the fruit of the Spirit. The confusion between these two levels down through the centuries has caused not a few misunderstandings in Christianity.

In this context it is important that St. Paul, in the Letter to the Galatians, puts emphasis on one hand, and in a radical way, on the gratuitousness of justification not by our efforts, and, at the same time, he emphasizes as well the relationship between faith and charity, between faith and works. “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Consequently, there are on one hand the “works of the flesh,” which are fornication, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, etc. (Galatians 5:19-21), all of which are contrary to the faith. On the other hand is the action of the Holy Spirit, which nourishes Christian life stirring up “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22): These are the fruits of the Spirit that arise from faith.

St Paul rembrandt.jpgAt the beginning of this list of virtues is cited ágape, love, and at the end, self-control. In reality, the Spirit, who is the Love of the Father and the Son, infuses his first gift, ágape, into our hearts (cf. Romans 5:5); and ágape, love, to be fully expressed, demands self-control. Regarding the love of the Father and the Son, which comes to us and profoundly transforms our existence, I dedicated my first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Believers know that in mutual love the love of God and of Christ is incarnated by means of the Spirit.

Let us return to the Letter of the Galatians. Here, St. Paul says that believers complete the command of love by bearing each other’s burdens (cf. Galatians 6:2). Justified by the gift of faith in Christ, we are called to live in the love of Christ toward others, because it is by this criterion that we will be judged at the end of our existence. In reality, Paul does nothing more than repeat what Jesus himself had said, and which we recalled in the Gospel of last Sunday, in the parable of the Final Judgment.

In the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul becomes expansive with his famous praise of love. It is the so-called hymn to charity: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. … Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests …” (1 Corinthians 13:1,4-5).

Christian love is so demanding because it springs from the total love of Christ for us: this love that demands from us, welcomes us, embraces us, sustains us, even torments us, because it obliges us to live no longer for ourselves, closed in on our egotism, but for “him who has died and risen for us” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:15). The love of Christ makes us be in him this new creature (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17), who enters to form part of his mystical body that is the Church.

Holy Spirit.jpgFrom this perspective, the centrality of justification without works, primary object of Paul’s preaching, is not in contradiction with the faith that operates in love. On the contrary, it demands that our very faith is expressed in a life according to the Spirit. Often, an unfounded contraposition has been seen between the theology of Paul and James, who says in his letter: “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (2:26).

In reality, while Paul concerns himself above all with demonstrating that faith in Christ is necessary and sufficient, James highlights the consequent relationship between faith and works (cf. James 2:2-4). Therefore, for Paul and for James, faith operative in love witnesses to the gratuitous gift of justification in Christ. Salvation, received in Christ, needs to be protected and witnessed “with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work. Do everything without grumbling or questioning … as you hold on to the word of life,” even St. Paul would say to the Christians of Philippi (cf. Philippians 2:12-14,16).

Often we tend to fall into the same misunderstandings that have characterized the community of Corinth: Those Christians thought that, having been gratuitously justified in Christ by faith, “everything was licit.” And they thought, and often it seems that the Christians of today think, that it is licit to create divisions in the Church, the body of Christ, to celebrate the Eucharist without concerning oneself with the brothers who are most needy, to aspire to the best charisms without realizing that they are members of each other, etc.

The consequences of a faith that is not incarnated in love are disastrous, because it is reduced to a most dangerous abuse and subjectivism for us and for our brothers. On the contrary, following St. Paul, we should renew our awareness of the fact that, precisely because we have been justified in Christ, we don’t belong to ourselves, but have been made into the temple of the Spirit and are called, therefore, to glorify God in our bodies and with the whole of our existence (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19). It would be to scorn the inestimable value of justification if, having been bought at the high price of the blood of Christ, we didn’t glorify him with our body. In reality, this is precisely our “reasonable” and at the same time “spiritual” worship, for which Paul exhorts us to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1).

To what would be reduced a liturgy directed only to the Lord but that doesn’t become, at the same time, service of the brethren, a faith that is not expressed in charity? And the Apostle often puts his communities before the Final Judgment, on which occasion “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10; and cf. Romans 2:16).

Emmaus Duccio.jpgIf the ethics that St. Paul proposes to believers does not lapse into forms of moralism, and if it shows itself to be current for us, it is because, each time, it always recommences from the personal and communitarian relationship with Christ, to verify itself in life according to the Spirit. This is essential: Christian ethics is not born from a system of commandments, but rather is the consequence of our friendship with Christ. This friendship influences life: If it is true, it incarnates and fulfills itself in love for neighbor. Hence, any ethical decline is not limited to the individual sphere, but at the same time, devalues personal and communitarian faith: From this it is derived and on this, it has a determinant effect.

Let us, therefore, be overtaken by the reconciliation that God has given us in Christ, by God’s “crazy” love for us: No one and nothing could ever separate us from his love (cf. Romans 8:39). With this certainty we live. And this certainty gives us the strength to live concretely the faith that works in love.


Benedictus XVI

Pontiff of the Roman Church

26 November 2008

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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