Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An Unjust War: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies // Movie Review

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was released several weeks ago, so I got to this one late, but I'm afraid not late enough. I should have held out for the video release, if even that. This third and, thankfully, last installment of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit is an unnecessary anticlimax, the first fifteen minutes or so of which should have been stuck on to the end of movie two. Five Armies resolves the heart of the story rather quickly, then meanders for another two hours rehashing themes from the earlier movies without really developing them any further.

Not having read the book I'm not sure how much this battle between the five armies (though I could only count four) really mattered to the resolution of the story. I always understood that the dragon attack on Laketown was the story's climactic event, and if not, it should have been for the sake of the movie. Everything in the first two films leads us to this encounter, and after that is resolved (rather quickly) the rest of the action, and there is plenty of action, seems tacked on.

Briefly, Five Armies takes up exactly where last year's The Desolation of Smaug leaves off; with Smaug the Dragon flying out of the mountain to get his revenge of Laketown. I'm not sure it's a spoiler to mention that after his attack our not so friendly neighborhood dragon leaves the story and the dwarfs get their mountain back. But Thorin the would be dwarf king, unsatisfied with the positive turn of events, is obsessed with hoarding the mountain city's vast stores of gold and jewels, as well as getting possession of a magical stone that will legitimize his claim to the throne. The human inhabitants of Laketown assemble in battle formation, wanting their promised cut for helping the dwarfs, along with an army of elves who want the return of precious jewels that are a part of their heritage. This standoff is ended, and foes become allies when an army of evil orcs descends to take the treasure for themselves.

My guess is that, at this late date, if you are a true believer you've seen Five Armies already, and nothing I write will change your mind about the film one way or the other. And this is not a bad movie, per say. But I see a justice issue with this film that out weighs any of the production's artistic merits or lack there of. I understand that Hollywood is in business to make money, and that sequels represent a sure fire way for doing just that. Adapting books for the screen has long been a Tinseltown staple because, as the thinking goes, a built in audience is ready to buy tickets before the film is even made. With the rise of young adult novel series like Twilight and the Hunger Games we have a perfect storm of adapting known commodities coupled with the promise of sequels along the way. But lately we have seen studios milking the practice, turning trilogies into four part series, and in this case making three movies out of one, relatively sort, novel. Much like the latest Hunger Games from a couple of months ago, this had nothing to do with director Peter Jackson having more to say, or some great themes of J.R.R. Tolkien that needed to be translated to the screen to complete the journey. This was about making money, and bilking the public, fan boys in particular, pure and simple. I do not begrudge anyone making a buck, as long as it's an honest one, and Thorin is not the only one here afflicted with dragon sickness, its main symptom being greed.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Robert Barron: Mark's Gospel and the Victory of God

Back on the first Sunday of Advent we began a new liturgical year. Basically it means we begin again, starting with Christ's incarnation, our yearly meditation on the mysteries of the faith. After Christmas Time, we will have a brief period of Ordinary time before entering into Lent. We do this every year, but the big difference will be that we move from hearing Matthew's Gospel on most Sundays to getting readings from Mark. There are exceptions, like today, the Feast of the Holy Family, we heard from Luke, and in Lent and Easter we will hear a lot from John. But for most of 2015 we will be working our way through the Second Gospel. Here Fr. Robert Barron gives a rather detailed analysis of the first words of the Gospel of Mark, and why they are so radical.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What's So Difficult About Believing in the Virgin Birth?

I grew up Catholic. I grew up with a manger scenes in the house at Christmas time. I grew up hearing the story of the Annunciation from Luke and the account of Jesus' birth from Matthew, and never questioned it. It's true that my credulity had as much to do with my natural childhood innocence as with any supernatural virtue of faith that I may have had. But even after finding out about the birds and the bees, Jesus' origin story never gave me pause to question.

I was into adulthood before I found out that there are many people who find the Virgin Birth troublesome. Some are total skeptics, but others believe in the Resurrection, in the miracles, and even call Jesus Lord and God. But that Jesus was conceived outside the regular way is a bridge too far. I have to be honest, I don't understand the doubts. The skeptics or the atheists I get. They've drunk a different kind of Kool-Aid, so there's a certain period of intellectual detox that they need to go through before we can even get to discussing something like the Virgin Birth. But that some accept the other mysteries of Jesus' life and reject the Virgin Birth is a total non sequitur to me. I think part of the problem is that many people take the event of Jesus' conception in isolation when it needs to be seen in light of the reason Jesus, the eternal Word of God, took flesh in the womb of the Virgin to begin with.

Everything needs to start with the Paschal Mystery. That Jesus died and rose again is the core of our Faith. It is the reason that 10 of the 11 surviving Apostles suffered martyrdom, and John suffered torture and exile. Countless others suffered the same fate in the first decades and centuries for their refusal to deny that Jesus is risen, like the first 11. No one died, that I know of, for refusing to denounce the Virgin Birth. But whether we're discussing this doctrine, or the veracity of the miracle accounts or the belief in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we always have to see these things in light of Jesus' dying and rising. If we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then other supernatural claims we make about him shouldn't be difficult to accept, or at the very least shouldn't be dismissed as impossible.

The Resurrection is the ultimate validation that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Whatever other things he did, they were building to that moment when the fullness of the Kingdom was revealed: a Kingdom where illness is unknown, where the power of Satan is banished, where death is defeated. And it is a Kingdom where life is unending. All this is made possible because Jesus, who was sinless, came and stood with sinners, even dying in their place, to make our Redemption possible. Could an ordinary human person have accomplish this? Even one who is blessed by God in a special way? No. Jesus' claims to have existed "before Abraham was," or that he shared in the glory of the Father "before the world began" preclude that Jesus was an ordinary man, or even a special man. This all points to Jesus as a divine person. So if we believe these claims of Jesus, then the idea that he came into the world in an ordinary, natural fashion is harder to believe than the Virgin Birth.

So, I continue to have no problem with the Virgin Birth. I have no problem with it because, from how I see it, it isn't only possible, it is essential when we take all the claims that Jesus and his followers made concerning him. If this was the only extraordinary claim made about Jesus, then the idea that Jesus was miraculously conceived would be a stretch. But taken together it makes perfect sense.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Our Lady of Guadalupe 2014

One of the great things about being a priest and being forced, in a way, to constantly reflect upon the Word of God in relation to the liturgical times of year is that new levels of meaning become apparent over time. It's not necessarily a yearly unfolding, but I can say that my preaching this Advent is very different than it was, lets say, ten or even five years ago. This year I have noticed a clear shift in my homilies, though. I've become much more focused on the eschatological meaning of these weeks than previously. I won't go into the whys right now, but it's just to say that "it is what it is." My preaching is a reflection of my prayer life, and this is where the Spirit is moving me. I will go as far as to say that I don't have any strong feeling that we have entered the "End Times." But I do believe that this has been a neglected topic, one that many Catholics have been content to let our Evangelical brothers and sisters tackle, much to our detriment and confusion for those who are only hearing that perspective and think it's authoritative for all Christianity (which it isn't). Again, a topic for another day.

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and serving a predominantly Mexican immigrant community, it's kind of a big deal. We had several pilgrimages leave from parish last evening, heading to a shrine about 15 miles away for a special Mass with Archbishop Cupich, returning between two and 3 in the morning. Then the traditional Mañanitas at 4:30 A.M., complete with mariachi's, and Mass at 6. Tonight we'll have the Rosary, with more mariachi singing starting at 5, with Mass, and the blessing of the roses at 7pm.

I don't mention all this to boast about how busy we are here at Bosco (O.K., maybe just a little). The main point is that with this major Marian feast, along with the Immaculate Conception on the 8th, it can be easy for Advent to get lost a bit. But I would say that actually this feast fits in just fine, especially when this theme of the End Times is taken into account. .

The Blessed Mother appeared to Juan Diego at the very moment that his society had experienced an apocalypse. Only twelve years previously the Spanish had arrived in what we call today Mexico City, and nothing was ever to be the same. Their religion, culture, economy and governance were replaced in an instant. But the indigenous peoples didn't now how to take this new religion. Sure, there was no more human sacrifice, but the Spanish conquistadors weren't exactly kind and gentle. Mary came with a message of hope for Juan Diego, who had already become Christian, and for all the people. They had experienced great change, revolutionary change in the deepest sense of the word, but they were not to worry. She was their mother, and she was bringing them Jesus Christ. The God who gives us His blood so that we may have life, as opposed to their old gods who craved human blood to keep themselves appeased.

We are in a time of transition as well. We should not expect that social orders or political institutions will last forever, not even our own. We shouldn't be surprised if in the decades, or even years ahead, epoch changing events take place. But the message of Our Lady at Tepeyac is the same: she is our Mother who loves us, who protects sum who guides us. She brings us her Son, who will make all things new, and indeed already has. While we await his coming in glory, we should not despair if there are ups, down, progress and reversals along the way. All history is moving toward one goal: the fullness of life in Jesus Christ.

Word on Fire in Mexico: At Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady Guadalupe as Star of the new Evangelization from AOP

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Detailed Study of Our Lady of Guadalupe by Fr. Luis Fernando Castañeda Monter

These are rather comprehensive conferences on the story and science of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  These are rather long talks (I usually try to only post short clips of no more than ten minutes), but these are worth the time. These talks explain the cultural and religious background of the Aztecs and how the image fits with that.

What was most impressive to me is Fr. Castañeda explaining the symbols on Our Lady´s dress and mantle and how she used religious and cultural symbols familiar to the indigenous peoples to evangelize and catechize.  The Spaniards thought that there were "mistakes" on the image, because the symbols were so foreign to their way of thinking.  As Fr. Castañeda keeps on saying, God makes no mistakes, and the Blessed Mother makes it clear that she herself is human, but is greater than the Aztec's most powerful god.  She is sent from heaven, but walks the earth to bring the the all powerful God to them, of whom she is mother.  She is our mother too, and wants to bring her us "the one true God for whom all people live."  May our hearts be open to this great grace.

Just as a note: Fr. Castañeda makes some statements concerning cultural anthropology that may or may not be accurate.  For instance at one point he says that all Native American groups practiced human sacrifice.  I'm assuming he means the indigenous groups of Mexico and Central America.  I'm not sure even that would be true, but I never heard of Sioux or Cherokees engaging in sacrifices of the kind the Aztecs did.  Plus, I'm pretty sure that by the time of Columbus the majority of educated Europeans understood the Earth to be round.  Some certainly still held to a belief that the Earth was flat, but science had progressed enough for people to figure it out.   

These are quibbles though.  This is a very fascinating study.  Enjoy!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fr. Barron visits Lourdes: Mary, the Immaculate Conception

Pope Francis explains the Immaculate Conception from Catholic News Service

Pope Francis, Cardinal George, Advent and the End Times

Robert Hugh Benson

Cardinal Francis George, who just stepped down three weeks ago as Archbishop of Chicago, had an interview with Crux's John Allen published the day before he left office that made some headlines. While he's been long respected for his coverage of the Vatican by figures on both sides of the ideological divide, it is in this age of Pope Francis that Allen has emerged as the go to American Catholic journalist (this fact alone drew attention to the piece). It's a far reaching interview that covers many topics including George's reputation as a "culture warrior," (which he rejects), and whether the appointment of Archbishop Blase Cupich, a perceived moderate, to replace him is a "course correction" or "repudiation" of his legacy (notions he also rejects, but with caveats).  He also seeks to clarify a now legendary statement about a future persecution of the Church that he said was taken out of context. Most of the attention drawn by the interview focused on his desire for a heart to heart with the Holy Father over perceived ambiguities in the pontiff's statements. The Archbishop Emeritus doesn't question the pope's orthodoxy or intentions, just that he feels that his off the cuff comments have left many in the hierarchy, and in the grass roots, wondering what exactly is expected of them.

But what got my attention was Cardinal George's exploration of the pope's fascination with the end times. He points out that one of the pope's favorite books is The Lord of the World, a novel written in 1907 by an English priest Robert Hugh Benson. In it Benson, the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury who converted to Catholicism, looks ahead a hundred years and envisions a secularized, socialist one world order. (I'm reading it myself right now, and while it gets details wrong, the big picture of a radically secularized West threatened by the rise of "Eastern" religious movements, and a stubborn Catholic Church that won't go away is uncanny). Cardinal George admits to his own interest in eschatology, and finds the pope's references to this novel, in particular, and the end of the world, in general, fascinating. Is Pope Francis moving so fast because he believes that we are living in the final age before the great confrontation between Christ and anti-Christ?

My interest in The Lord of the World stems from the fact that I've seen it referenced in several articles about the Holy Father lately, which might come as a surprise considering the eccentricity of the book. The general perception is that Francis is a social justice pope, which he is, but I would argue not in the vein most think. As I've written many times in this space, the great tragedy of contemporary Catholicism is this artificial divide created between orthodoxy (right belief) and ortho-praxis (right action), as if one is more important than the other. Francis' genius is that he can talk about the plight of the poor and the need to reform unjust political and economic structures, but also say that Satan is working behind the scenes of this injustice (and not mean this in some ironic or figurative way). Yes, he wants us to give alms, but he also talks about getting the unemployed, especially teenagers who need work, proper jobs (not something I usually hear my progressive brothers and sisters talk about). He's a man who prays two hours a day the first thing in the morning, and also works to alleviate the suffering of the poor and marginalized. He will criticize those who put abstract ideas and complex theology ahead of serving people's needs (something "conservatives" are usually accused of), but has traditional minded cardinals as the heads of the congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith and Divine Worship. Even Cardinal Burke's replacement is said to be a by the book prelate, in spite of the talk of a traditionalist purge in the Vatican. My point being is that Francis can't be pigeonholed, and the idea that a very down to earth, practical, socially conscious pope is also looking to the skies for the return of Christ in His glory shouldn't shock us.

What does all this have to do with Advent, you might be asking about now.

Amid the Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays, premature Christmas decorating at shopping malls and endless loops of "Jingle Bell Rock" on the radio, we can forget that these first weeks of Advent are meant to focus us on Jesus' second coming. In CCD as children (showing my age, I know), we were told that Advent was the four weeks of preparation for Christmas (which it is). You might have been told that we were preparing to "receive" Jesus, or getting ready for his "arrival." But things were kept somewhat vague as to what this meant. This could be interpreted in a spirtiualized way (i.e. making room for Jesus in our heart), or in a more concrete way (going to confession so you could receive Holy Communion with a clear conscience). But rarely, if ever, did I hear the escatological significance of this liturgical time of year explained. Maybe it was because they thought we couldn't handle it, or maybe it was the '70's and '80's tendency away from teaching doctrine, but we simply weren't educated to this aspect of Advent's significance, at least not in any pronounced way.

When in last week's Sunday Gospel reading (November 30) Jesus tells us to "be alert," it's a warning. We don't know when He will return, so the need to be vigilant in prayer. This past Sunday Peter tells us that the heavens and earth will be destroyed by fire and the elements melted. All the physical world around us will not so much be destroyed as transformed. So the need to distinguish between what is lasting and what is passing, holding firm to the true and eternal.

When this end will come is a mystery. To paraphrase Malcolm X, those who say that they know don't, and those who might have an inkling wouldn't dare say. While I hold Pope Francis is high esteem, I'm not saying he has some special private revelation about these things. As many saints have said, every age is permitted to think theirs is the final age so that they will remain vigilant, firm in the faith. So, he is reading the signs of the times, bringing it to prayer, and acting in accordance with how the Spirit is moving him.

Whether we are entering in to the final stages before the Second Coming or on the verge of a change of historical epoch (which is my belief), we are being called to be vigilant, united in prayer and charity. We shouldn't get caught up in politics, of the church variety or otherwise. We shouldn't get so caught up with the material preparations for the holidays that we lose sight of the deeper meaning of this time. It is a time to prepare for something greater than the anniversary of a birth, it is a time to be made ready to truly meet our Lord in his glory.

A Girl from Nazareth: On the Immaculate Conception from AOP