A reader sent me a link to a wonderful speech by Archbishop Chaput of Denver. As always he is an excellent speaker and this speech is no exception. From talking of the whimsical, to secularism and the use of words, and once again focusing on the meaning of Christmas this is a rousing call to Advent and the preparation for Christmas.
The Archdiocese link is a PDF file which I have converted to HTML and formatted to make it easier to read.
+ Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., 12.7.06, 1st annual Orange County Prayer Breakfast
Garden Grove, CA
Each year, as we move toward Christmas, a friend of mine puts together a list of his
favorite Christmas songs. Every year it’s the usual mix of Silent Night, The Shepherds’
Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem things like that. But every year he also includes Dr.
Elmo’s great Christmas classic, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.
The lyrics go like this:
Grandma got run over by a reindeer,
Walking home from our house, Christmas Eve;
You can say you don’t believe in Santa,
But as for me and Grandpa — we believe.
I finally asked him why he puts this song on his list. He said, "For the pagans. A little
belief is better than none at all."
I haven’t been able to get this song out of my head partly because it’s so goofy, but also
because it raises a couple of questions. Who really owns Christmas? The pagans? The
Christians? Toys-R-Us? The ACLU? Why are we supposed to be happy this month?
And what exactly are we celebrating?
Let me answer the questions this way.
The Louvre Museum in Paris holds about 35,000 pieces of art from the 14th to the 20th
centuries. And one of the most beautiful collections in the Louvre is the paintings of the
Medieval art is Christian art. One reason for that is obvious. The Church had the
influence and the resources to pay for great art. Another reason is that the political
leaders of that age shared that same Christian faith. So did the people. And so did the
artists. As a result, paintings from the Middle Ages combine beauty, simplicity and faith
in a very powerful way.
Most Medieval art tried to do two things: touch the heart with its beauty and teach the
mind with its story. It opened a window on the Bible to people who couldn’t read. The
recurring scenes in Medieval art are events like the Annunciation, the Visitation, the
Birth of Christ, the Gift of the Magi, the Baptism in the Jordan, the Temptation in the Desert, Judas’ Kiss, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The paintings had power not
just because they were ways of teaching the faith. They had power because they
connected the human condition with Christian hope and Christian purpose.
We’re born, we grow, we suffer, we die. So do the people we love. Do our lives mean
anything? And if they do, what do they mean? These are the questions that really matter
to all of us. They mattered even more urgently to people with shorter life spans 700 years
ago. Medieval art is about birth, growth, suffering, death and the hope of new life, all
viewed through the person of Jesus Christ. It’s about God. But it’s also about us as
human beings — because Jesus Christ is not only God; he’s also human.
When a Medieval artist painted Pilate showing a beaten and bloody Christ to the mob
with the words ecce homo — "behold the man" he spoke to the suffering of every man
and woman who viewed the painting. That’s the genius of the Gospel and the art it
inspires. Christian art is about the dignity of the human person loved and redeemed by
God. It’s about meaning.
Some of you may be thinking, if Medieval art was such a big deal, how come nobody
does it anymore? That’s a fair question. I have a one-word answer: perspective. It’s an
interesting word, "perspective." It comes from the Latin verb perspicere, which means," to see clearly."
In art, perspective is the technique of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-
dimensional surface. Medieval painters didn’t know how to do this.
Starting in the 14th century, painters began figuring out how to put depth of field in their
work. They learned how to create the illusion of a round apple on a flat piece of canvas.
It’s basically a math problem with horizon lines and vanishing points.
Within a hundred years, every painter used the new perspective techniques in his work.
Nobody painted the old way. And very soon nobody looked at or experienced a painting
the same way. There was a different perspective.
Seven hundred years ago, a painter might take months or years to finish a scene like the
Nativity. Seven hundred years later, a teenager of our time can do a three-dimensional,
photo-realistic image of the same scene in a few hours with a free piece of software
called Blender 3D. But their perspectives are not at all the same.
The word "perspective" has two different meanings. It’s not just a technique in art. It
also means our frame of reference. It’s our basic way of looking at people, ideas and
events. Our perspective not only shapes how we understand the world; it also reveals a
lot about what we believe and who we choose to be.
Here’s the point. As we finish 2006, we know a lot more than we did 700 years ago. We
eat better. We live longer. We have nicer clothes. We own more stuff. But are we happier? Are we wiser? Do our lives have more beauty and harmony and meaning? Are
we more humane with each other?
Our perspective on the world has changed in fundamental ways. But is the soul of
modern life any deeper or holier? Given the wars and injustices of the last century, we’d
better think very carefully before we answer.
I believe that Americans are a blessed people. Most of us believe in God. We go to
church at higher rates than any other developed country. We still work hard. We still
have a deep love of family and personal integrity. And most of the good things we have,
we’ve labored honestly to earn.
Americans enjoy more freedom, more mobility, better education, better career choices
and better medical care than any other country in history. We have more personal
wealth. We have more leisure time. We have a society genuinely based on law that at
least tries to ensure justice for everybody. And in science, technology, commerce and
military power, the United States has no equal.
But Americans also have a growing inequality of wealth, education and opportunity. We
face a decline of ideas and public service; growing moral ambiguity; a spirit of
entitlement with rights exalted over responsibilities; a cult of personal consumption; and
a civic vocabulary that seems to get more brutish and more confused every year.
This last point about our civic vocabulary is important. The language we use in public
discourse matters. Words are like a paintbrush. They’re a very powerful tool. They can
form or deform the human conscience.
Words like "tolerance" and "consensus" are important democratic working principles.
But they aren’t Christian virtues, and they should never take priority over other words
like charity, justice, faith and truth, either in our personal lives or in our public choices.
Here’s another word: choice. Choice is usually a good thing. But it’s never an end in
itself. Choice is worthless in fact, it’s a form of idolatry if all the choices are
meaningless or bad.
Here’s another word: pluralism. These days pluralism usually serves as a codeword for
getting Christians to shut up in the public square out of some misguided sense of
courtesy. But pluralism is just a demographic fact. It’s not an ideology. And it’s never a
valid excuse for being quiet about our key moral convictions.
Here’s another word: community. Community is more than a collection of persons.
Community requires mutual respect, a shared future, and submission to each other’s
needs based on common beliefs and principles. It’s not just an elegant name for an
interest group. Talking about the "abortion-rights community" makes as much sense as
talking about the "big tobacco community."
Here’s another couple of words: the common good. The common good does not mean
the sum of what most people want right now. The common good is that which
constitutes the best source of justice and happiness for a community and its members in
the light of truth. The common good is never served by killing the weakest members of a
community. It’s also not served when the appetites and behaviors of individual members
get a license to undermine the life of the wider community.
Finally, let’s take one more word: democracy. Democracy does not mean putting aside
our religious and moral beliefs for the sake of public policy. In fact, it demands exactly
the opposite. Democracy depends on people of character fighting for their beliefs in the
public square legally, ethically and non-violently, but forcefully and without apology.
Democracy is not God. Only God is God. Even democracy stands under the judgment of
God and God’s truths about human purpose and dignity. The passengers in a car can
democratically elect to go in the wrong direction. But they’re still just as dead — with or
without a majority opinion — when they go over a cliff.
The fallout from this confusion in the language of American life can be summed up in
five trends: first, the rise of an unhealthy individualism among citizens; second, growing
tribal warfare among interest groups; third, more and more cynicism toward public life
and service; fourth, a decline in democratic involvement; and fifth, image over substance
in public debate, which results in politics as a kind of cynical sound-bite management.
In recent years, some people in both political parties would like to blame the conflicts in
American public life on religious believers. The argument goes like this. Religion is so
powerful and so personal that whenever it enters public life in an organized way, it
divides people. It repels. It polarizes. It oversimplifies complex issues. It creates
bitterness. It invites extremism. And finally it violates the spirit of the Constitution by
muddling up the separation of Church and state that keeps Americans from sliding into
The same argument goes on to claim that, once they’re free from the burden of religious
interference, mature citizens and leaders can engage in reasoned discourse, putting aside
superstition and private obsessions to choose the best course for the widest public.
Because the state is above moral and religious tribalism, it can best guarantee the rights
of everyone. Therefore a fully secularized public square would be the adulthood of the
That’s the hype. Here’s the reality.
First of all, key differences exist between public institutions which are simply non-sectarian, and today’s secularist ideology. Everybody can live with the former. No
Christian in his or her right mind should want to live with the latter. Whenever you hear
loud fretting sparked by an irrational fear of an Established Church, somebody’s trying to
force religious believers and communities out of the public discussion of issues.
Second, the American Experiment — more than any other modern state — is the product
of religiously shaped concepts and tradition. It can’t survive for long without respecting
the source of that tradition. A fully secularized public life would mean policy by the
powerful for the powerful because no permanent principles can exist in a morally neutral
Finally, secularism isn’t really morally neutral. It’s actively destructive. It undermines
community. It attacks the heart of what it means to be human. It rejects the sacred while
posturing itself as neutral to the sacred. It ignores the most basic questions of social
purpose and personal meaning by writing them off as private idiosyncrasies. It also just
doesn’t work — in fact, by its nature it can’t work — as a life-giving principle for society.
And despite its own propaganda, it’s never been a natural, evolutionary, historical result
of human progress.
Certain beliefs have always held Americans together as a people. Christianity and its
Jewish roots have always provided the grounding for our most important national
principles, like inalienable rights and equality under the law. But as a country, we’re
losing the Founders’ perspective on the meaning of our shared public life. We have
wealth and power and free time and choices and toys — but we no longer see clearly who
we are. Material things don’t give us meaning. We’re in danger of becoming the "men
without chests" that C.S. Lewis talked about in The Abolition of Man people sapped of
their heart, energy, courage and convictions by the machinery they helped to create. And
if we can’t find a way to heal that interior emptiness, then as an experiment in the best
ideals of human freedom, America will fail.
I began by talking about Christmas. Who owns it? Why are we supposed to be happy?
What are we really celebrating?
Good will, joy, peace, harmony, the giving of gifts these are beautiful and holy things
deeply linked to Christmas. But not to Santa Claus. And especially not to a politically
correct, secular Santa Claus. Joy is not generic. Good will needs a reason. We don’t
suddenly become generous because the radio plays Jingle Bells.
Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is the messiah of
Israel, the only Son of God, the Word of God made flesh. We believe that He was born
in poverty in Bethlehem in order to grow and preach God’s kingdom, and suffer, die and
rise from the dead all for the sake of our redemption, because God loves us. Christmas
is a feast of love, but it’s God’s love first that makes it possible. Christmas begins our
deliverance from sin and death. That’s why St. Leo the Great called it the "birthday of
joy." What begins in the stable ends in our salvation. That’s why we celebrate Christmas, and it’s the best and only reason the human heart needs.
Catholics observe these last few weeks every year before Christmas as the season of
Advent. It’s a time when the Church asks us to prepare our lives to receive Jesus the
child at Christmas, and Jesus the king at the end of time. How can we best do that? The
tradition of the Church tells us by vigil and by prayer.
The season of Advent is a vigil. The word "vigil" means to keep watch during normal
sleeping hours, to pay attention when others are sleeping. It comes from a very old Indo-European word "weg", which means "be lively or active." So to keep vigil or to be
vigilant does not mean passive waiting but active, restless waiting, expectant waiting for
the Lord. It means paying attention to what is going on in the world around us, and not
being asleep. It means acting, living out our mission to be God’s agents in the world.
Every truly Christian life is a kind of martyrdom, because what martyr means is witness.
That’s our task — a life of conscious, deliberate witness for Jesus Christ and our Catholic
faith, in our families, our friendships, our business dealings and our public actions. When
Jesus said, "make disciples of all nations," and "you will be my witnesses," He didn’t
mean the guy down the road. He was speaking to you and to me.
The Advent tradition of the Church is vigil and prayer.
There are two places in the New Testament 1st Corinthians and Revelation where we
find a prayer in the Aramaic language, the Semitic dialect spoken by Jesus. Since this
prayer is in Aramaic it must come from the very earliest days of the Church. The prayer
is "Marana tha" and means "Lord, come!"
St. Augustine tells us that God is indebted to us, not because of anything we have done,
but because of His promises. God always keeps His promises. So we call on Him to
Our Advent prayer is "Lord, come!"
Lord, come into our world!
Lord, come into our lives!
Lord, come — and purify our longings!
Lord, come to free us from our compulsions and sins!
Lord, come into our relationships!
Lord, come into our work!
Lord, come into our sufferings!
And into the darkness of our troubled world.
We speak these words "Marana-tha" with a real and confident urgency, not only for
ourselves and our personal lives, but also for our Church and our nation.
Earlier I mentioned the power of perspective in painting, and the power of perspective in
our lives. I hope the meaning of that word stays with you in the coming days of Advent –
– perspicere, "to see clearly."
Twelve months ago, on Christmas Day, Pope Benedict XVI published his first encyclical.
He called it Deus Caritas Est "God is love." Here’s a line from it that I want to share
with you as I close: "The Christian program the program of the Good Samaritan, the
program of Jesus — is `a heart which sees.’ This heart sees where love is needed and acts
accordingly" (31, b).
Being faithful to your spouse and family; defending the unborn child; helping the poor;
visiting the sick; respecting the immigrant; protecting the dignity and meaning of
marriage; working for justice; leading with character this is the Christian program, the
result of hearts which see.
What I ask God to give to you and to me, to our nation and to our Church this Christmas,
is the one gift that really does matter: hearts that see, and see clearly.
God grant all of us a blessed Advent and a joyful Christmas.