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Question of the Day for Friday, December 21, 2007
Q. My teenage daughter recently asked why we have Christmas trees. She pointed out that a tree doesn’t appear anywhere in the Nativity story. I didn’t know how to answer. How did the custom originate?
G. B., Lincoln, Neb.
A. Though Christians in our culture tend to take Christmas trees for granted, your daughter’s question is a good one: What exactly does a decorated tree have to do with Jesus’ birthday?
We don’t really know for sure how this holiday tradition began. What we do know is that about 500 years ago, Christmas trees began showing up in homes throughout Germany. Small fir trees were decorated with apples, wafers, nuts, dates, pretzels, paper flowers and sugar ornaments, which children collected as gifts on Christmas Day. (The apples were a symbol of the original sin of Adam and Eve, who ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The wafers were reminders of the Eucharistic Host, pointing to Christ’s victory over original sin by His death on the “tree” of the Cross.)
Over a period of several centuries, the Christbaum, or “Christ tree,” as it came to be called, spread to other nations, including the United States.
However the first Christmas tree came to be, today it has become a beautiful symbol of the Nativity. Like the evergreen branches, God’s love never withers. The lights remind us that Christ is the light of the world. Bells, a sign of joy, make us think of church bells calling us to worship Him.
An angel atop the tree points to the angels that announced His birth. A star on the highest branch represents the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the Wise Men. Gold-colored ornaments remind us of the gold they brought to Jesus. Candy canes look like a shepherd’s crook; they recall that shepherds visited the stable, and that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Their red stripes remind us that “by His stripes [when He was flogged] we were healed” (Is 53:5).
Why, then, do we have Christmas trees today? Perhaps the best answer is simply that they help us remember who Jesus is and why was born.
Question of the Day for Thursday, December 20, 2007
Q. I have been a Catholic all my life and went to Catholic school, but I recall when in school I was taught there were only five sacraments, and now there are seven. When did this change?
R. G., via email
A. There are indeed seven, a number that was officially confirmed by the Church a long time ago. Either your schoolteacher was misinformed, or your memory is playing tricks on you.
In the early centuries, the number of sacraments named by various Catholic writers depended on how they defined “sacrament.” In the twelfth century the theologian Peter Lombard enumerated the seven sacraments as we now understand them, expressing in a concise way what apparently had become the consensus in the Church about the nature of a sacrament. This list was accepted by St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74) and formally affirmed by the Church at the ecumenical councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (1545-63).
The seven sacraments are the Eucharist, Baptism, Reconciliation (also known as Confession or Penance), Confirmation, Matrimony, Anointing of the Sick (also known as Extreme Unction), and Holy Orders (ordination).
Question of the Day for Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Q. Last week when we celebrated the feast of St. Ambrose (dec. 7), I read that he is the patron of beekeepers and chandlers (candlemakers and sellers). Ambrose, of course, was the fourth-century Bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church who made such a deep impression on St. Augustine. Any idea how he got connected with bees and candles?
L. T., Savannah, Ga.
A. St. Ambrose (c. 338-397) has the nickname “Honey-Tongued Doctor” (“Doctor” in the sense of “Teacher”) because his preaching was said to be mellifluous, as sweet as flowing honey. It’s also a pun on his given name; the Latin word ambrosia (from which we get the name of our dessert) refers to a mythical honey-sweetened food of the Greek and Roman gods.
St. John Chrysostom, we might note, received the latter name for similar reasons; it means literally “Golden-Mouthed.” St. John Chrysologus means John “the Golden-Worded.” Both were famed for their brilliant, compelling preaching.
According to legend, when Ambrose was a baby, a swarm of bees settled on his mouth. This was taken as an omen that he would one day be a great orator. In Christian iconography, he is often depicted with a beehive or bees; these are also symbols of wisdom. (I’m especially happy to know that, since my family’s ancient coat of arms includes a bee.)
St. Ambrose is not only the patron of beekeepers and chandlers; he’s also patron of domestic animals, learning, students and the city of Milan, Italy, which he served as bishop.
Question of the Day for Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Q. I recently received an email saying that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is trying to get headstones with crosses removed from government cemeteries. Is that true?
Q. A., via email
A. Welcome to the world of email hoaxes! This one is like many other emails floating around out there; it makes a sensational but false (or, at best, exaggerated) claim in the hope that you’ll “forward it to as many people as possible to get the word out.”
Other popular email hoaxes claim that someone is trying to stop Marines from praying; that a petition before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seeks a ban on the mention of God on the airwaves; that Proctor and Gamble’s logo is a Satanist/occult symbol, and so on. I remember writing a magazine article debunking the P&G hoax nearly 30 years, long before the advent of email. The Internet has given these old rumors new life.
Some other hoaxes that might be of special interest to Catholics include “Mother Theresa’s Deathbed Prophecy” (click here) ,“NASA Finds Bible’s Missing Day” (click here) and “Middle of the Bible” (click here) The last one, I should note, is merely inaccurate in its calculations; it reminds us that such generalizations about the Bible don’t hold up, because Catholic Bibles have more books than Protestant Bibles.
I’d urge anyone who receives emails of this sort just to delete them. I hate it when people add my email address to a long list of addressees in the “To” field of an email and then send it on to dozens of others, who may forward it again to countless others. That means my email address is now out there circulating among total strangers, some of whom may harvest the addresses for commercial purposes. If you feel you must forward an email, it’s better to address it to yourself, then put the other addresses in the “BCC” filed, where no one else has access to them.
For more about particular email hoaxes and urban legends, click here, here , here and here. Click here for an analysis of specifically religious urban legends often making the email rounds.
Question of the Day for Monday, December 17, 2007
Q. Is it true that the Pope’s new encyclical has some things to say about purgatory? Where can I find the text of the document?
Y. H., Pittsburg, Pa.
A. The new papal encyclical, published Nov. 30, is called Spe Salvi, from the first words of its Latin text: “Spe salvi facti sumus” (from Romans 8:24, “in hope we were saved”). Yes, it does have a section on purgatory, and there’s a whole lot more in this profound document that you’ll want to read. You can find the official English text at the Vatican website (click here).
In the paragraphs dealing with purgatory (44–48), Pope Benedict XVI begins with a reference to the Gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31). This story, he observes, takes up “a notion found … in early Judaism, namely that of an intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state in which the final sentence is yet to be pronounced. … These souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God” (44, 45).
Benedict notes that these early Jewish concepts were taken up by the early Church and then gradually developed in the West into the doctrine of purgatory. What this doctrine “actually means,” he says, is this: “With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the Judge.” Some have chosen definitively to reject God, love, truth. “In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.”
“On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors — people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfillment what they already are” (45). These souls go immediately to heaven.
“Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people — we may suppose — there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil — much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur?” (46)
The Holy Father goes on to cite St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the purging process (1 Cor 3:12–15), with its image of a cleansing fire. “In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through ‘fire’ so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast” (46).
Benedict continues this section with several important observations:
Benedict concludes this section with a compelling challenge: “As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: How can I save myself? We should also ask: What can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well” (48).
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