“The higher truths” – Bishop Wiertz’s letter for Advent

Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond devotes his Advent letter to the topic of the religious, the people who consecrated their lives and themselves to God:

Bisschop Wiertz“Brothers and sisters,

In this time of Advent we begin a new Church year. A year that Pope Francis has declared as the Year of religious life, consecrated life. Religious are not some different breed of people, but just like us, faithful who are living “in the world”, according to the three evangelical counsels: obedience, poverty and chastity.

They live together in a community of brother or sisters, according to a certain spirituality. Sometimes they have come together around a common goal. The communities in which they live are often called monasteries. The religious who lead a contemplative and withdrawn life, do so in abbeys.

It may seem as if almost no one in western Europe joins a monastic community anymore. But there are some 900 religious living in our diocese. Many are elderly and with a  great service record, but there is also a significant number of young religious. Recently some new monastic communities settled in Limburg.

Many people associate abbeys, monasteries and monastic life with the long gone days of the “Rich Roman Life”. But nowadays, both in traditional monastic life and on its peripheries, interesting things are happening all the same.

From the media we may sometimes even assume that there has never been so much interest in monasteries, monastic life and products from monasteries. Our Pope Francis himself is a religious. In films and television programs monastic life continues to thrive. After the impressive films “Into Great Silence” about the monks of Chartreuse and “Des Hommes et des Dieux” about Trappists in northern Africa of some years ago, the RKK television series about monasteries and abbeys also turned out to receive good ratings.

Even more remarkable is the (re)discovery of this form of Christian life in Protestant circles. In Friesland a new Protestant monastery was established recently, based on old Catholic traditions. The ecumenical religious community of Taizé manages to draw and inspire more than 150,000 young people every year.

Religious life had and has great value for the Church. Religious were the ones to set the great developments of our western society into motion. They have also always coloured the life of the Church with their social, scientific and cultural initiatives. The Church would lose her variegation and topicality if monastic life were to disappear.

The Church, and with her also the faith, has a bad name for many people these days. But many – including young people – have a desire to connect with a deep and “higher” truth, which is more important than civil truths.

We all know these civil truths: the truth that you have to earn enough money to live or be able to do fun things in order to be happy. I am not saying that these are wrong truths by definition, but for religious and also for me other truths are more important.

Which ones? The highest truth that I know lies in the experience that there is a far bigger world that exists beyond man. A world which calls forth connectedness with God and with people. And one which is given shape in a special way in the birth of the Son of God, which we will celebrate again in a few weeks.

In the experience of the grandeur of creation and humanity the fuel for the religious life is also found. Someone who is sensitive to that experience – and becomes aware of it – feels something that makes everything human insignificant. Earthly pleasures pale in comparison. If you really accept the experience and dare to let go of civil frames of reference, you not rarely feel an appeal to connect in some way or another with that great truth.

The religious and consecrated life is a proven possibility in which the connectedness with God and people leads to unconditional service to the world, experienced from a fraternal or sisterly community.

I call upon all of you to approach both active and contemplative religious life in a positive way. To bring young people also in contact with it and to appreciate our brothers and sisters who chose the consecrated life as fellow faithful, who let the faith prevail in their lives, above all those civil truths of our modern time.

In these weeks of Advent we are at the beginning of the time of Christmas. The time in which we celebrate that God became man. In the past Christmas was concluded with the feast of the Presentation of the Lord at the Lord (2 February), traditionally also called Candlemas. Since a few years this is also the Day of Consecrated Life.

Following the consecration of God to the people at Christmas, we are then called to consecrate ourselves to God. On this day we want to especially remember the people who dedicated their entire lives to the service of Christ and His Church.

I call upon all the priests in our diocese to invite the religious in their area to take part  in the services in their parish(es) on the Day of Consecrated Life. At the same time I call upon the religious of our diocese to visibly take part in the services in the parishes on that day. Their contributions in our diocese are important.

I call upon all of you to pray together in the coming year – and especially on the Day of Consecrated Life – for religious life in our Church . A prayer for new vocations. A prayer in which we ask that the variety and the actuality of our faith and our Church will root itself in the choices of many young people for some form of consecrated life.

In my personal prayer on that day I want to thank God for all the religious, old and young, the sisters and brothers, who are always working unconditionally for the people in Limburg, be they faithful or not.

Looking forward to a year in which we focus on the religious and therefore also their choice to imitate Christ, I wish you a good time of preparation for the feast of His birth.

Roermond, Advent 2014

+ Frans Wiertz,
Bishop of Roermond”

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Morning reflection: Marylightmas

Marylightmas, the literal translation of what today’s feast used to be called in the Netherlands. The focus on the Blessed Virgin, although deemed slightly inappropriate after Vatican II, is not entirely unjustified.  In our celebration of today, which is now styled ‘the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple’, Mary, and her husband St. Joseph, are the instigators of the action. They are the ones who bring Jesus to the temple, but of course, it is His presence there that dictates what happens next:

And when the day came for them to be purified in keeping with the Law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord – observing what is written in the Law of the Lord: Every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord – and also to offer in sacrifice, in accordance with what is prescribed in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
Now in Jerusalem there was a man named Simeon. He was an upright and devout man; he looked forward to the restoration of Israel and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord. Prompted by the Spirit he came to the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the Law required, he took him into his arms and blessed God; and he said: “Now, Master, you are letting your servant go in peace as you promised; for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have made ready in the sight of the nations; a light of revelation for the gentiles and glory for your people Israel.”
As the child’s father and mother were wondering at the things that were being said about him, Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Look, he is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed – and a sword will pierce your soul too — so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.”
There was a prophetess, too, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well on in years. Her days of girlhood over, she had been married for seven years before becoming a widow. She was now eighty-four years old and never left the Temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. She came up just at that moment and began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.
When they had done everything the Law of the Lord required, they went back to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And as the child grew to maturity, he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him.

Luke 2:22-40

Christmas is forty days behind us. Jesus, like any other firstborn Jewish male, is brought to the Temple to be consecrated to the Lord. He may be God, but He is also fully human and a such part of a human community with all its customs and habits. Maybe we can say that, just as the human Christ is consecrated to God, the divine Christ takes all of humanity with Him in His consecration. He has come to us, and already does He take us into Him.

The two elderly seers, for that is what we can call them, Simeon and Anna, again display that first characteristic that we saw the day before yesterday: faith. But here it is a joyful faith, a faith that praises God. He has come, “the salvation which you have made ready in the sight of the nations; a light of revelation for the gentiles and glory for your people Israel”. But the certainty of their faith also contains words of warning. There will be hardships and pain in order for Him to be our Saviour.

Things really start going here: not only the young life of Jesus with His family, friends and neighbours, but also the road to our salvation: God has come to live among us,

Art credit: ‘Simeon’s Moment’ by Ron DiCianni, who describes his work here.

The Presentation of the Lord at the Temple

Behold I send my angel, and he shall prepare the way before my face. And presently the Lord, whom you seek, and the angel of the testament, whom you desire, shall come to his temple.

Malachi 3: 1

‘Presentation in the Temple’ by Carpaccio (1510)

And after the days of her purification, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord: As it is written in the law of the Lord: Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord: And to offer a sacrifice, according as it is written in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons:

And behold there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon: and this man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel. And the Holy Ghost was in him. And he had received an answer from the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.

And he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when his parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he also took him into his arms and blessed God and said: Now dismiss your servant, O Lord, according to your word in peace: Because my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples: A light to the revelation of the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.

And his father and mother were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel and for a sign which shall be contradicted. And your own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed.

And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser. She was far advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity. And she was a widow until fourscore and four years: who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day. Now she, at the same hour, coming in, confessed to the Lord: and spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel.

And after they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their city Nazareth.

Gospel of Luke, 2:22-40

The Presentation of the Lord

Today’s Gospel reading is among my favourites. On this day of the Presentation of the Lord, we read verses 22 to 40 from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke: 

And when the day came for them to be purified in keeping with the Law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord – observing what is written in the Law of the Lord: Every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord – and also to offer in sacrifice, in accordance with what is prescribed in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. 

Now in Jerusalem there was a man named Simeon. He was an upright and devout man; he looked forward to the restoration of Israel and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord. Prompted by the Spirit he came to the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the Law required, he took him into his arms and blessed God; and he said: Now, Master, you are letting your servant go in peace as you promised; for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have made ready in the sight of the nations; a light of revelation for the gentiles and glory for your people Israel. 

As the child’s father and mother were wondering at the things that were being said about him, Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Look, he is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed – and a sword will pierce your soul too — so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.’ 

There was a prophetess, too, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well on in years. Her days of girlhood over, she had been married for seven years before becoming a widow. She was now eighty-four years old and never left the Temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. She came up just at that moment and began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem. 

When they had done everything the Law of the Lord required, they went back to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And as the child grew to maturity, he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him. 

Simeon the Righteous by Alexey Yegorov

 

It is a very rich text. It starts out with a firm connection to the Old Testament; the Law of Moses, which Mary and Joseph intend to fulfill by consecrating their first-born to the Lord. 

In Simeon and Anna they encounter a link to the future, the coming salvation of Israel. The expectation of Simeon and the elation of Anna are touching. After a long life they find peace in God’s fulfilled promise to His people. Simeon’s prayer is one that the Church still prays every night at compline, the last prayers of the day. 

The Church sees Simeon warning to Mary – ‘Look, he is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed – and a sword will pierce your soul too — so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare’ – as a warning to the Church. Christ is indeed a sign that is opposed. We see that every day, and as such the Church will always meet opposition too. In fact, it may be one of her purposes, to lay bare the secrets thoughts of many. Christ is confrontational. 

Of course, for Mary personally, Simeon’s words are prophetic too. Her soul would indeed be pierced when she stands under the Cross. 

The Church traditionally celebrates this feast with a procession with and blessing of candles. Christ is symbolised by the candles as the light of the world, and brought into His temple, the altar in the sanctuary.