General

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being interviewed on Relevant Radio‘s morning show. It was an absolute blast!

I’m not one to listen to the radio while I work (I get distracted waaaaaaay too easily), so I usually only catch bits and pieces of radio shows in the car.

But for the last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to Morning Air and what has impressed me the most is the welcoming tone and understanding that we are all broken people. That ought to teach me not to pre-judge 🙂

So here’s a quick list of a few free places for you to go to help you keep God at the center of your day:

  1. Relevant Radio – listen online for free. Just click the upper right corner to launch.
  2. Catechism in a Year – Sign up for the email at the link and you will receive a little bit of the Catechism every day for the next year. I’ve signed up for this year after year and I still learn new stuff every time.
  3. Formed.org – Ok, this is only free if your parish has a membership, but otherwise is only $7 per month for individuals. I love this site because many churches do not have adult education available, but Formed has many programs that you can self-study. I highly recommend starting with the Eucharist. So call your parish office to see if they have the code for you.
  4. Dynamic Catholic – If books are more your forte, Dynamic Catholic offers paperback books if you just pay shipping – about $6 per book. Also check to see if your parish has a bookshelf somewhere back there from which to borrow books.

What free resources do you tap on a regular basis to grow your Catholic faith? Share below so we can all see!

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Creatures of Habit

Over the years of teaching, I have learned that students hate change. Once students get into their groove and figure out their classes, they really don’t want to change. I moved the desks around a couple of times one semester and each time I thought I was going have a revolt on my hands. Students are just reflecting who we all are though, because we are all creatures of habit. We get settled into our routines and don’t really stray too far from that routine.

At our church, we go to the 8:30 mass and we see the same people, every Sunday. There is a comfort to it. You get to know your fellow parishioners and feel comfort with having a familiarity about your day. For a lot of us, it also means that we probably grew up with one priest. That priest was at the parish when you were baptized and possibly even married you. Years of seeing the same face for years and years was a comfort to us and they even became a part of the family.

Shifting Priests makes for Strong Parishes

However, as Bob Dylan famously said, “The Times They Are A Changing’” While each diocese is different, most Bishops move priests around to different parishes every 6 years or so, as decreed by the USCCB, and sometimes more like 2-12 years. In the Sioux Falls diocese, it is about every 7 years or so that priests get moved around. Of course, if there is a death or some other circumstance, priests can be moved based upon the needs of the communities.

The main reason for moving priests so often is to make sure parishes stay fresh and healthy. It keeps the focus on Jesus Christ instead of the priest. If a parish was to have a priest for 20 years, the personality of the priest would be driving the parish, not the sacraments.

At our parish, Father Stevens informed us this past Sunday that he is being transferred to a different parish after being with us for the past 7 years. For me, he is the first priest that I’ve known really well that I am losing. Both being a convert and our nomadic lifestyle when we were first married meant that I didn’t really know my previous priests too well and so didn’t think about it as much. This time is different. Megan and I are very active in our parish and have gotten to know Fr. Stevens well over the past few years. We’ve even spent the last couple of years helping plan St. Therese’s 100th anniversary.

I’m going to miss Father Stevens, but know that wherever he ends up, his deep devotion to God and his wonderful homilies will inspire those who have the chance to hear them and work with him.

How to Learn to Like the New Guy

One of the problems with change is that we are quick to judge something that is different. Even if it is better, we won’t like it. That favorite chair of yours that really should have been replaced years ago “feels” better than the new one you got. It really doesn’t, but it seems that way because it’s new and not what we are used to.

I know this is what a lot of us are going to feel come July when we get a new priest. He won’t be like Father Stevens and for that, we will judge him. How are his homilies? No way can they be as compelling. What will be his focus? Will he be too lenient or too strict? Will he drive parishioners away or bring them in? These are all questions that we are going to face when we meet our new priest.

So what do we do? Deuteronomy 31:8 gives us some idea: “Yahweh himself will lead you; he will be with you; he will not fail you or desert you. Have no fear, do not be alarmed.”

I think a good way to handle a change in a priest is to do so with a clean slate.

  1. Pray –  Don’t worry about what your new priest will be like and put trust in God’s hands that He is with you.
  2. Avoid comparing your new priest with your old one. Each of us is different and have a difference in the way we see things.
  3. Reach out – there is no better time than when the priest is new to the area to have him over for dinner. Or meet for coffee. He has a lot of new people he needs to get familiar with, so why not help it out a bit?

Get Out of your Comfort Zone

One of the reasons why I do like to change things up in my classroom is to jostle students out of their comfort zone a little bit. I want to challenge them and get them to not be complacent – and not just where they sit, but also how they think. If you are going through a change in your parish, don’t fret about it, but take it as an opportunity to grow your faith. Get a little uncomfortable and push yourself. You never know, it could be a great thing.

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Stained glass window with images of chalice and crosses

The Eucharist has always meant a lot to me because it is infinitely more than just a ritual. It is the true physical presence, not just the spiritual presence of Jesus Christ. Dedicating an entire month, all of April, to the Eucharist seems not only fitting but also very special. Attending Mass or Adoration awards us a chance to encounter Jesus in a very real way. We place ourselves in His divine presence and draw on His love and guidance.

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Sedona Arizona’s Chapel of the Holy Cross

The chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona is considered one of the seven man-made wonders of the state. Located in an area famous for its surroundings (there have been many movies shot in the area), the chapel is a prominent feature, having won the Award of Honor of the American Institute of Architects, in 1957, only a year after being built. It has been drawing visitors from all over the world ever since.

A trip to the chapel would be the ideal opportunity to breathe new life into one’s faith―the scenery and setting are truly some of the most impressive of any church.

The chapel is built on a spur, 250-feet high, and it features a large stone cross inlaid in the glass side of the building that overlooks the valley below. The chapel was constructed to capture the view of the sunset shining through the valley, and it is complemented by the beautiful, sunshiny weather in the area.

It was built in only 18 months, quite a feat, considering the literally ground-breaking amount of work needed. The total cost of building would be $2.7 million, in today’s terms ($300,000 at the time). The interior is left quite bare and undecorated so as not to detract from the atmosphere of the space around it. The glass side of the chapel is supported by the large stone cross built into it. The chapel is a good example of how some churches can really keep the cross at the center of the overall symbolism of the building.

Mass is not celebrated regularly at the chapel since the local parish is served out of the church in Sedona. The chapel is now intended as a place for private prayer and reflection. It is situated in the Coconino National Forest, at 5,000 ft. above sea level.

Visitors to the chapel should be prepared for a short walk from the lower carpark, but, overall, the climate and access are quite agreeable, with not much humidity. This and the wheel-chair accessibility make the site a majestic destination where young and old can marvel at the scenery and the impressive monument to the Catholic faith.

The chapel has a very interesting history. It was conceived by local architect and artist Marguerite Brunswig Staude. After visiting the Empire State Building, the artist was inspired to create a place of worship that was in touch with modern architecture and design. One of the final wishes of her late mother was that she build a church to spread the word of the Lord and provide a place for Catholics to get closer to God.

Altar and tabernacle in Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona Arizona

Originally, the project was to take place with the help of architect Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) and be modeled on the Empire State Building in style. However, the advent of the Second World War prevented the project from taking place at either of the two sites originally intended. Budapest, Hungary was the original proposed site, but the war made it impossible, and Los Angeles was an early candidate, but it was hard to get permission from the Archdiocese there (and there were also concerns the Japanese could invade the west coast).

Staude then considered Arizona as an alternative. While visiting the local area, she saw Rx engraved in a stone below where the chapel would be built, which she took as a sign from above (the family’s business was pharmaceuticals). Also, one of the surrounding hill formations resembled the Madonna and Child, while another resembled the Three Wise Men.

Several problems stood in the way of building the chapel. Lloyd Wright withdrew from the project as the project was significantly less grand, in his opinion, than originally conceived. Obtaining a building permit proved difficult, as the state owned the land. The latter problem was resolved with the help of Barry Goldwater, who met with Staude in Washington and was so impressed with the plans that he walked over to the Secretary of the Interior and immediately received the permit.

Chapel of the Holy Cross seen from a distance

More Details

The chapel is located about 10 minutes by car outside Sedona (4 miles), which, itself, is located 30 miles south of Phoenix. Access is free, and there is free parking available, also.

Visitors are welcome every day from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas. Adequate footwear should be worn for the climb to the chapel, as the closer parking lot to the building is reserved for the disabled.

Final Thoughts

The chapel is a prime example of how hard work and dedication to one’s faith can literally move mountains. The symbolism of the surroundings of the church is in tune with nature but, existing in its own right, has had parallels drawn between it and the message of Christ to be peaceful while also standing up for one’s beliefs. It has had a colorful history, especially during its development, but it now remains as a tranquil place of reflection that might be a good place to include on any Catholic’s list of places to visit in the southwest.

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Stations of the cross graphic

Easter is on the horizon and, as I look ahead on my calendar, I am reminded of the history tied in with this beautiful holiday and the prayers it inspires. You may already be very familiar with the Stations of the Cross, but I wanted to take this space to really reflect on Jesus’ walk to His death, the moments He experienced along the way, and the moments of grace we can find in His journey.

Statue of Jesus Christ

You may already have the Stations represented in the nave or main section of your church through pictures or high relief images depicting the different moments. You may have learned about them in bible school or just read about them.

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Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish Church

Medals are an important aspect of Catholic devotion, and it’s worth exploring the topic. Since medals might be a strong and visible point of interest for very young Catholics, knowing the background of the tradition is useful.

The Value in Medals

Wearing of medals has been popular among Catholics in the United States and around the world for a long time, and it has grown more popular in recent times since Pope John-Paul II’s visit in 1979. Medals are an easy way for Catholics to connect with their faith in a discreet way, and one of the more personal aspects of medals is that they can reflect something important to the wearer—maybe you wear a St. Christopher medal if your father was a truck driver or if you were going on a long-haul flight, since he is the patron saint of traveling and transport.

So, with the wide range of medals available, they can be a good way to express yourself through your faith. Exploring the histories of the various patron saints is not only a way to explore the history of the Church, it can also make for very interesting reading!

Il Duomo di Firenze

One of the Oldest Catholic Traditions

Religious medals have been a part of the Catholic tradition for a very long time. In fact, the wearing of medals is thought to have been carried over from pagan times—the Romans of all classes wore amulets personal to their beliefs, which they believed gave them added protection. Jewelry and decoration are common to nearly every creed and religion, so it is no surprise the early Church found medals a useful way to allow the faithful to express their beliefs. The early Church elders were keen, however, to distance the practice from the magic-related pagan beliefs.

This tradition continued, throughout the early years of the Church, andmedals are mentioned in the histories of many saints and in accounts of important historical moments. They are especially associated with baptism, and many pagan kings were given medals as tokens of their baptism. However, the popularity of medals before the Middle Ages was not as strong as afterward.

During the Renaissance and Reformation eras, artistic influence on medals (with some stunning examples created) was one of the reasons for their growth in popularity. This was mainly centered in Italy, where artists such as Antonio Marescotti gave the wearing of medals new life for Popes and clergy. This was bolstered by the giving of medals to pilgrims visiting holy sites.

Modern Times

Miraculous medals are one of the more popular types, and they were designed in the 19th century based on Saint Catherine Labouré’s visions. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal

in Paris is where the visions occurred. The St. Christopher medals are also very popular, and a French saying for the medals serves as an example of how they can give solace in challenging times (especially for travelers): "Look at St Christopher and go on reassured."

The medals commemorating Papal visits have also been very popular in recent times. As mentioned, Pope John Paul’s visit to America in 1979 spurred interest in the medals here.

Nowadays, there are medals for nearly every saint available, and they can be made from varieties of materials, from low-cost pewter to gold and silver. Miraculous medals are especially popular in countries like Ireland, where they are particularly associated with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is, in fact, the largest charity in that country.

In many places, they are also strongly associated with sacraments and life events, in particular during confirmation.

It is wrongly believed by some that the Church frowns on the devotional practice of medals. This is not the case, and expressions of faith are encouraged if done correctly. Medals also serve as a useful way to open dialogue with other faiths about Catholic teachings.

Saint Faustina Medal with a high relief image of this Patron Saint of Divine Mercy

How Medals Fit with Catholic Belief

As with all practices and traditions, it is important to remember the act of taking part in a practice or wearing a medal is intended to bring us closer to God and help us explore our faith. It is not the act or the possession that we benefit from—instead, it is what theact or possession represents that is important.

This can be a refreshing reminder for some Catholics who can, at times, be intimidated by the examples ofdevotion of other Catholics, since focusing on one’s own relationship with God and not on external tokens of belief can really take the pressure off. Wearing medals can be an even more powerful way to express your belief. They can also bring a personal touch to your devotion.

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Jesus Christ Mosaic

Liturgical worship is one of the greatest traditions in western Christianity. Shared by Protestants and Catholics alike, the rites and rituals of the mass date back as far as the second century. When we worship, we sing the same songs and pray some of the same prayers as Christians have for millennia.

This liturgical heritage is more than just an order of worship. It is the most important teaching tool for Catholics who participate in the mass. For many, the mass is the only time they hear God’s word and the teachings of the church. The liturgical calendar helps to emphasize different episodes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Each season, from Advent to Pentecost, examines a different aspect of the identity and story of Jesus.

The Holy Name of Jesus

The church dedicates the month of January to the Holy Name of Jesus. It begins with the celebration of the day Jesus received his name. The gospel reading for the day contains this passage from Luke 2, “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” While the sentence is short, the details are very important.

Luke mentions the eighth day because it refers to God’s command in Leviticus 12 that all Israel circumcise their sons on the eighth day after birth. This seemingly small detail reminds us that Jesus followed God’s law perfectly, even when he was eight days old.

Jesus’ name, itself, is also significant. It comes from a Hebrew word ישוֹע, pronounced Yeshua, which means, “He saves.” In the gospel of Matthew, an angel tells Joseph in a dream to name Mary’s son Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

Jesus Reigns in Heaven

St. Paul also writes about the name of Jesus as the highest name in all of creation. Because Jesus humbled himself to the point of death on the cross, he was raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God the Father. The name of Jesus not only represents sacrifice and salvation, but it also reminds us that he rules all of creation for the benefit of his church. He will return to judge the world and raise the faithful from the dead to eternal life.

The church uses many symbols for the holy name of Jesus. We find the first symbols for his name in the handwritten copies of the New Testament. Out of respect for holy names, called nomina sacra by academics, the copiers abbreviated the Greek words for God, Lord, Spirit, and others. Most often, they wrote the first letter and the last letter with a line drawn over the top of the symbol.

IHS

IHS Symbol

IHS is one such symbol. It comes from the Greek spelling of Jesus’ name, ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, so you can read the name, Jesus, whenever you see it. This symbol almost always appears superimposed over the cross or over a crucifix. The symbolism connects the name of Jesus to his sacrificial action on the cross to save us. This symbol appears frequently in the church, most notably in the coat of arms for Pope Francis.

Chi Rho

Chi Rho Pyx

We also use other symbols to refer to Jesus Christ. Chi Rho is an ancient symbol used by the very first Christians to represent the word, Christ. It looks like a combination of an “X” and a “P,” but it derives from the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, χριστος or Christos. One of the most common symbols in the church, you can find it anywhere you might find Christian symbols like stained-glass windows, vestments, altar decorations, and pyxes. Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, used the Chi Rho in his military standards, too.

IH Monogram

The IH monogram is a similar combination of letters to make a single symbol. This one comes from the first two letters of Jesus’ name in Greek. Combined, the symbol looks like an “H” with a line struck vertically down the middle. A striking symbol, you can find explanations for it in the earliest letters in the church like the Epistle of Barnabas or from the letters of Clement of Alexandria.

Ixthus or the Jesus Fish

Jesus Fish Symbol

The fish is also a common symbol for Jesus, and it is popular today among Christians. A stylized version of a fish drawn with a simple line, the spelling of the Greek word, Ιχθυς or Ichthus, is an acrostic for the titles of Jesus, Jesus (Ι) Christ (Χ) Son (υ) of God (θ) Savior (ς). Legend has it that the early Christians used this symbol to identify themselves secretly when they were being persecuted by the Roman government.

The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus reminds the Catholic Church about the earliest days of Jesus’ life, his circumcision, and naming. Even in his first eight days, he began to fulfill God’s law, which he continued to do for the rest of his life. We use symbols for the name of Jesus Christ in art and vestments to remind us of him and the salvation he gives us.


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Fountain outside Basilica Church

Between the years 1769 and 1833, Franciscan priests founded 21 missions throughout Alta California—a province of New Spain that encompasses what we now know as California, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico—to bring Christianity to the Native Americans living in that region. Theses missions were also a part of the Spanish government’s attempts to expand their rule over their claims in New Spain.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo

The Carmel Mission’s official name is Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. Named for Carlo Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, it was originally founded in what is now called Monterey, California, the capital of Alta California at the time. Founded by St. Junìpero Serra, from 1770 to 1778, it was the site of the first confirmation of a Native American in California.

St. Serra moved the mission to Carmel-by-the-Sea after a conflict with the governor of Alta California, Pedro Fages, over how the governor treated his soldiers and the Native Americans.

They used adobe, a combination of mud and organic material, to build the first chapel at the Carmel mission, but St. Serra dreamed of having a permanent stone structure for worship. He drew up the plans for the chapel, but he was unable to build it during his lifetime.

Building the Chapel

St. Serra’s successor, Father Fray Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, convinced the government of New Spain to send qualified architects and skilled stonemasons to carry out St. Junìpero Serra’s plan for the chapel. The government licensed Manuel, an architect, and Santiago Ruiz, a master stonemason, to head up construction. The centerpiece of Manuel’s design was a series of vaulted parabolic arches across the ceiling.

Construction lasted between 1795 and 1797 when it was dedicated for worship on Christmas Day. A major earthquake in 1812 moved the Franciscans to remodel the Basilica. They were terrified by the news that the parabolic ceilings of another church collapsed on worshipers during mass, killing many. They tore down the vaulted ceiling, leaving the stone arches that had supported it, and filled the rest in with wooden planks to prevent a similar disaster from happening at Carmel.

They remodeled the exterior of the basilica between 1817-1822. Among many other improvements, they built true towers to house the bells. The original bell towers weren’t towers at all. They were just walls with arches cut out to house the bells.

Basilica Church at the Carmel Mission

The interior of the basilica was much more opulent than it is today. There were seven major side altars with more than twenty statues of saints. The most beautiful side chapel held a massive crucifix with statues of St. John the Evangelist and Our Lady. Another beautiful statue of La Conquistadora, or Our Lady of Bethlehem, was the center of the large reredos decorated with crystal and fine gilded wood.

Disrepair and Collapse

In 1833, the newly independent government of Mexico secularized the Carmel mission. The roof collapsed in 1851, and many of the statues and altarpieces were destroyed. When the Catholic Church regained control in 1864, the mission was in complete ruins.

Restoration

Father Angel Casanova began the long process of restoring the mission in 1884. Monsignor Philip Scher chose Harry Downie to oversee and to complete the restoration process in 1931. Shortly after that, the Franciscans transferred the mission to the local diocese and the chapel became a parish church. Downie worked tirelessly for the rest of his life to bring all the buildings of the mission back to their former glory.

Because of Downie, the Carmel Mission is one of the most faithfully restored of all the missions in California. It most completely represents the style and design of the original building. Some of the original decorations remain, having been rescued by Fr. Sadoc Villaras when the ceiling showed signs of collapse.

In the 1960s the Diocesan Bishop, Aloyisus Willinger petitioned the Holy See to have the church declared a minor Basilica. There are four major Basilicas in the world: St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major, and they are all in Rome.

The Holy See designates a church a minor Basilica because they have history, dignity, architectural value, and have significance as a worship site. Pope John Paul XXIII honored the Carmel Mission with this title in recognition of St. Serra’s work establishing Christianity on the west coast of North America and for the work done at the Carmel Mission. It is one of only 69 basilicas in the United States.

Crucifix carved from wood

One of the most important historical California missions, The Basilica Church at the Carmel Mission is not just a relic from the past. Its faithfully restored nave is also a parish church, where priests still celebrate mass. The Carmel Mission, like many historical worship sites, connects the faithful to the living history of the church, helping us to see our place in the long tradition that is our faith.

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As Catholics, we are familiar with the powerful sacramental holy water. Placed at the entrance in every Catholic church around the world, this sanctified water is part of our life from baptism onward.

Holy water is a very powerful sacramental and should not be taken for granted. It is blessed by God and should be used daily.

Understanding its true significance and uses is an important part of our upbringing.

The History of Holy Water

Although it has not been determined exactly when the Church first started using holy water, it was an integral part of Catholicism beginning after the death and resurrection of Christ.

The use of holy water is closely intertwined with Jewish Law. In Judaism, the Rabbis use blessed water to purify the body and the mind before conducting rituals, such as prior to entering the temple, offering sacrifice, or even eating.

In Christianity, the first uses of holy water are usually associated with Apostle Matthew. According to the writings attributed to Pope Saint Clement, Saint Matthew instituted the rite of using holy water to “protect the soul and body.” Saint Clement’s Constitutions also lists a specific prayer St. Matthew supposedly would say when using holy water.

Where Does Holy Water Come From?

Canon law has evolved, but at one point sacramentals were only blessed on the Epiphany, including exorcised salt, which is sometimes used in Holy Water. However, priests can now bestow these blessings at any time. Water is made holy when it is blessed by a priest. Once it is blessed, the holy water is reserved in a water font at the church entrance. Upon entering the church, we dip our fingers into the font and make the sign of the cross. The holy water reminds us of our baptism and union with Christ. In baptism, we are born anew spiritually, freed from our sins and brought into the covenant family of God.

The Significance of Holy Water

Holy water cleanses the soul. Sanctified by a priest, holy water repels evil and is used to bless those with whom it comes in contact. The rite of purification before entering a church and baptism, as well as many other Roman Catholic rituals, involve the use of holy water.

When a baby is baptized, holy water expunges the original sin that a person is born with and, in an adult baptism, it removes all mortal and venial sins.

By using holy water as part of mass, we are reminded how God has the power to forgive all our sins. Holy water also prepares us to receive the sacraments and protects us from demons.

The Uses of Holy Water

Baby being baptized in Catholic church

Some of the most common uses of Holy Water:

Baptism. Holy water is a fundamental part of the baptismal sacrament. Just as our Lord and Savior Jesus was bathed in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, the priest uses sanctified water to wash away original sin.

Holy Water Fonts. At the entrance of a Catholic church is a font filled with holy water. Catholics use this to bless themselves and purify their souls before entering the church, so they are spiritually cleansed prior to entering God’s house.

There are three categories of holy water fonts: stationary (as in a church), portable fonts (such as those used for baptism), and private fonts (usually found in homes).

Eastern Orthodoxy still has holy water fountains that are used to wash and hands and feet (likely derived from ancient Jewish rituals).

Home. As Saint Teresa of Avila says, there is “nothing like holy water to put devils to flight.” You can never have too much grace or blessing in your life. A holy water font in your home is a great way to renew your spirit and cleanse your home.

Cars. Though technology has created engineering marvels and changed lives everywhere, Christianity does not change. Holy water is just as effective today, despite technological advances, as it was at the time of Jesus. Many Catholics choose to bless their car using holy water. Blessing your vehicle with holy water reminds us that God is always watching over us and our loved ones.

The Sick. Holy water has the power to heal. Blessing someone with holy water is a spiritual work of mercy. You can use holy water to bless their hospital room and help bring comfort to them.

Font for holy water

Your Pets. Pets are beloved companions and can be blessed with holy water because all creation gives glory to God. On the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, many parishes have a rite of blessing for pets. This blessing can be given to farm animals, too.

Holy water can truly work miracles, and it can help you remain clean, pure, and closer to the Light of God.

Holy water is an integral part of what it means to be Catholic. When you dip your fingers into holy water and make the sign of the cross, you should be mindful of the significance of your baptism and renunciation of Satan. Remember, holy water receives its power through the authority and sanctity of the Church.

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Nativity scene with Three Wise Men and animals

As one of the most powerful and popular symbols of Christmas in the Christian world, the nativity scene is familiar to everyone. Nativities can be carvings, art, ceramics, or even living depictions of the night of Jesus’ birth.

The scenes contain the same five basic elements: Baby Jesus in a manager, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and barn animals. Often the Three Wise Men are added to the scene.

This iconic symbol of Christian hope and redemption celebrates one of the most important events in the history of mankind: the birth of Jesus.

The Story Behind the Nativity Scene

Saint Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene, or crèche (these terms are used interchangeably), to promote the true significance of Christmas. He wanted to remind everyone that Baby Jesus was born into a humble, poor, but loving environment. He felt Catholics were missing the message of the Gospel because they were ensnared in materialism.

On Christmas Eve in 1223, Saint Francis started what would later become one of the most widespread and familiar Christmas traditions of all time. Outside Greccio, in a cave, he re-created Jesus’ birth and its modest conditions to remind people of how Christianity has never been (and never will be) about material richness. Rather, Christianity revolves around spirituality and worship. Catholicism has nothing to do with earthly wealth, and everything to do with God’s love and the forgiveness of sin through His sacrifice of His only Son.

A few decades later, in 1260, Saint Bonaventure described the beauty and awe in the scene created by Saint Francis. His description and praise resulted in St. Francis’ nativity scene becoming a permanent part of Christian tradition.

Christ Child in manger scene

The Common Symbolism of the Nativity Scene

Saint Francis created the original nativity scene using live animals and hay in a cave. Today, live nativity scenes are still very popular, but other methods of reenacting the birth of Jesus are more common, whether it is an olive wood carving or an elaborate icon.

The presence of animals is an important element of any nativity scene. Saint Francis used an ox and an ass in the original because he wanted to portray the extremely humble conditions under which our Lord and Savior Jesus was born.

Most believe the ox represents patience and the people of Israel. The donkey represents Gentiles, humility, and readiness to serve. Brought together, these animals tell the story of Christianity—and, ultimately, the story of a world united under the name of God and his Son, Jesus.

The central character in the nativity is Baby Jesus in his manger. Most scenes depict him with open arms inviting us to accept salvation.

The Virgin Mary is sometimes larger than other characters and usually wears a red gown representing blood. Her cloak is blue, symbolizing the sky and heaven, conveying she is the link between heaven and earth.

The Three Wise Men represent different continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe—and sometimes they are portrayed in different age groups, representing the various life stages. Their gifts are also significant. Gold represents Baby Jesus’ kingship, incense symbolizes His divinity, and myrrh foreshadows His death.

The shepherds represent the common man.

Nativity scene with Three Wise Men and animals

Some Not-So-Common Symbolism Expressed in the Nativity Scene

Sometimes there are some subtle differences in various versions of the nativity scene that have important symbolic meaning. For example, the Virgin Mary is often depicted with her hand clutched over her heart. This refers to the verse in St. Luke that states “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Final Thoughts

The most important thing about the nativity scene is its message. Our Heavenly Father sent His own son to earth to be sacrificed for our sins. Those who believe in Him may receive forgiveness and eternity in heaven.

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