Epiphany

January 6, which is 12 days after Christmas, is the feast day of the Epiphany, also known as Theophany (manifestation of God), or Three Kings’ Day because it marks the visit of the Magi or Three Wise Men to the crib of the baby Jesus. Epiphany means “manifestation” or “showing forth”. It celebrates the revelation of God in his human and divine Son, Jesus Christ.

The kings are important visitors to the crib of the baby Jesus because their visit illustrates that Jesus was the King of kings who came for Jew and the Gentile alike. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi found the baby Jesus by following a star across the desert to Bethlehem. The three wise men – named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – represented Europe, Arabia and Africa respectively. The Magi offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gold represented the royal standing of the Christ child, the frankincense marked His divine birth, and myrrh, used for embalming the dead, symbolized Christ’s mortality.

Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian feasts. It has been celebrated since the end of the second century, even before the Christmas holiday was established. Like other Christian celebrations, the church appropriated Epiphany from an old pagan festival. As early as 1996 BCE, Egyptians celebrated the winter solstice, which then occurred on January 6, with a tribute to Aeon, the Virgin.

In the West, Christians began celebrating the Epiphany in the 4th century, associating it with the visit of the Three Wise Men to Jesus. During the medieval period, Christmas was celebrated for the 12 days from Christmas Eve on December 24, until the Epiphany on January 6th. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night (1601) was actually called What You Will but it was to be performed as Twelfth Night entertainment for the close of the Christmas season and so appropriated its festive play date as its title. Even up until the 19th century, January 6 was as big a celebration as Christmas Day.

The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches emphasize the visit of the Magi when they celebrate the Epiphany, but in the Eastern Orthodox Church the Epiphany marks when John the Baptist baptized Christ in the River Jordan, which is the first event in Christ’s life that led to his crucifixion. In the Orthodox Church, Epiphany refers not only to the day itself but to the church season that follows culminating in Lent.

In Greek Orthodox tradition, a priest will bless the waters by throwing a cross into it as worshippers compete to retrieve it. In Prague, there is a traditional Three Kings’ swim to commemorate Epiphany Day at the Vltava River. The three kings make an entry in many cities in Spain on Epiphany Eve, accompanied by military bands and drummers in medieval dress.

In some European countries, children dress as the three kings and visit houses on January 6th, singing about the birth of Jesus and paying homage to the King of kings. They are rewarded with sweets. Some leave their shoes out the night before to be filled with gifts, while others leave straw for the three kings’ horses. In many Latin American countries, it is the three wise men and not Santa Claus to whom children write letters telling how good they were and asking for what they would like. It is the three kings who then bring gifts for children. In France Le Jour des Rois (the Day of Kings) is celebrated with parties for children and adults.

Epiphany is a public holiday in many countries, but not in Canada.

 

 

 

Best. Christmas. Ever.

 

When my mom’s brother called from Scotland with the news that their father had died, my mother made high pitched wailing sounds and rolled on the living-room floor clutching the phone to her breast.

“Oh no, no,” she wailed. “No!”

I stood watching not knowing how I might comfort her.

My mother decided not to go home for her father’s funeral. Rather we would go home to Scotland as a family at Christmas to fill a void for my grandmother.

My mother’s youngest sister took me Christmas shopping in Glasgow. I bought my dad a watch for five pounds and we bought black crepe paper and canned snow to make a crèche at my gran’s. When I went to place the infant Jesus in the manger, my auntie told me that I had to wait until after midnight on Christmas Eve.

“Can I place Him then?” I asked, certain that honour would be bestowed upon the eldest or the youngest rather than the middle sister.

“Aye, you can dae it, hen,” she told me.

To make sure it would be me, I pocketed baby Jesus and didn’t let Him out of my sight.

We gathered for sing-songs at the homes of various family members.  My sisters and I received simple presents from some of our relatives. We walked in a soft snowfall as a family to St. Stephen’s Church for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and returned to my gran’s to the sound of pealing bells, the clock having struck one. I took baby Jesus from my pocket and placed Him in the manger as soon as I burst through the front door.

On Christmas Day, we snapped open Christmas crackers to find colourful tissue-paper hats, which we wore at dinner, as knells of laughter competed with my grandmother’s weeping.

“Ma mon, ma mon, ma poor deid mon,” she cried.

My mom, embarrassed at her mother’s show of emotion, told her to be quiet. “Och, mother,” she said. “Shush-up.”

My grandmother never gave my grandfather a minute’s peace when he was alive. When she wailed for ‘her poor deid mon,’ I didn’t understand. I thought they hated each other.

New Year’s Eve was my dad’s birthday. With my sisters and cousins, I helped my gran make my dad a Hogmanay plum pudding with money baked into it. We wore paper hats that night too and at the bells, the children went outside to bang pot lids together and yell, ‘Happy New Year!’ in the streets.

My father flew home before we did. The night he was to depart, I was asleep with cousins in my gran’s back bedroom as the adults had a farewell party for my dad in the front room. Hearing a commotion, I crept out of bed and saw my dad’s face through the frosted pane of the front door. He went to say cheerio to the Gannon family up the road and my gran deliberately locked him out. My auntie tried to pry the long, iron door key from my gran who held it behind her broad back. I screamed at my gran to let my dad in and seeing me there, she quickly handed my auntie the key. When the door was unlocked, my father rushed towards me and swept me into his arms to soothe me, returning me to my bed. I begged him to take me home to Canada with him, but he left without me.

That Christmas I was surrounded by kin, no matter how poorly behaved at times, and I had my father’s love. The holiday wasn’t lonely for ten-year-old me. It was my best Christmas ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silent Night, Holy Night

In September 1914, British soldiers headed for the front lines in France and Belgium said they’d be home by Christmas.

The German attack through Belgium into France was thwarted outside Paris by French and British troops at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. In the subsequent Battle of the Aisne, the Allied forces were unable to push through the German line. Each side dug trenches and the fighting quickly sank into a stalemate.

As the first Christmas of World War I approached, a hundred British suffragettes wrote an open Christmas letter to the women of Germany and Austria pleading for peace and the return of husbands, sons, and brothers on both sides of the conflict. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV asked that guns fall silent at least on the night upon which the angels sang – Christmas Eve.

There were many spontaneous truces throughout World War I, but the most notable armistice of that conflict started on Christmas Eve 1914. German troops decorated the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium and particularly in Saint-Yves with Christmas trees and candles. By all accounts, the night was bitter cold, the air crisp with a thick, white frost. After dusk the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to the British troops. The British men returned the Christmas greetings of the Germans and then both sides left their trenches, unarmed, and exchanged food and souvenirs, like buttons from uniforms, in no man’s land. There were joint burial ceremonies, prisoner swaps, carol-singing and football matches.

Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in the unofficial cessation of hostility along the Western Front. Indeed, not a single shot was fired. The truce continued until St. Stephen’s Day at which time the men were ordered to return to their trenches and pick up their weapons. The silence ended and the killing resumed. One soldier reported that the Christmas Truce of 1914 was a short peace in a terrible war. Many of the men present described that Christmas Day as the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable.

The December 1914 Christmas Truce remains the most vivid example of non-co-operation with the spirit of war. The Bible says, “When a man’s ways please the Lord he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Men on both sides refused to fight that Christmas Eve. For the remainder of the war, unofficial truces continued to break out along the front lines as did mutinies, strikes, and peace protests.

I often wonder how different the world would be today had those 100,000 troops refused to pick up their rifles again once ordered to do so and simply left the front lines and went home. The total number of military and civilian casualties in WWI was more than 41 million: there were over 18 million deaths and 23 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

President Kennedy famously remarked that world peace was possible because all men inhabit this small planet, breathe the same air, cherish their children’s future, and are mortal. The Christmas Truce proves that human beings, though ordered to be hostile, chose instead to be tender. Mankind is capable of the most heinous acts imaginable, but so too is it adept in performing the highest acts of human decency. Humanity can lift up the lowliest amongst us with Christ’s grace and love.

War is manmade. The solution to all conflict also resides within man. The right to live without the devastation of war is a basic human right.

Let us pray for an end to conflict everywhere this Remembrance Day, so that all may live in peace.

 

Hallowe’en Has Its Roots in Pagan Celtic Tradition

When I was a child growing up in London, Ontario, the neighbourhood streets were packed on Hallowe’en with costumed children seeking sugary treats. When I bought a house in London, Ontario as an adult, I noticed that the streets were empty of trick-or-treaters on October 31st resulting in me having far too much leftover candy.

Hallowe’en has its roots in a Celtic pagan festival called Samhain (Irish pronunciation sow-in). Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

When converting Celtic pagans to Christianity, the Church used pre-existing festivals to lessen the changes in the lives of its converts. After Christianity was introduced, Samhain was replaced with All Saints’ Day celebrated on November 1st, while November 2nd became All Souls’ Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merged to create the modern Hallowe’en, a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening.

Samhain was seen as a time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. Spirits more readily visited the physical world. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place was set for them at the family table.

Samhain also involved people going door-to-door in costume or disguise, often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes were a way of imitating or disguising oneself from spirits. Guising is recorded in Scotland at Hallowe’en in 1895 where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips (the forerunner to jack-o-lanterns), visited homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.

In Britain, from the medieval period up until the 1930s, people practiced the Christian custom of souling on Hallowe’en, which involved groups of soulers, both Protestant and Catholic, going from parish to parish, begging the rich for soul cakes, in exchange for praying for the souls of the givers and their friends. Souling then, the custom of baking and sharing soul cakes for christened souls, is the origin of trick-or-treating. Allhallowtide soul cakes were often marked with a cross, resembling contemporary hot-cross buns, indicating that they were baked as alms.

With mass Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century, Halloween became a major holiday in North America. It was assimilated into mainstream society by the first decade of the 20th century. The practice of guising at Hallowe’en in North America is first recorded in 1911, where a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario reported children going guising around the neighborhood. The earliest known use in print of the term trick-or-treat appears in 1927, in the Blackie Herald in Alberta, Canada.

In parts of Britain, these customs came under attack during the Reformation. Protestants did not believe that the returning souls were journeying from Purgatory on their way to Heaven, as Catholics frequently believed. Instead, the Protestants believed that the so-called ghosts were evil spirits to be feared.

The modern imagery of Hallowe’en comes from many sources, including Christian traditions, national customs, works of Gothic and horror literature such as the novels Frankenstein and Dracula, and classic horror films such as Frankenstein and The Mummy. Imagery of the skull, a reference to Golgotha in the Christian tradition, serves as a reminder of death and the transitory quality of human life. Elements of the autumn harvest, such as pumpkins, corn husks and scarecrows, are also prevalent. Homes are often decorated with these types of symbols around Hallowe’en. Black, orange, and sometimes purple are Hallowe’en’s traditional colours.

Happy Hallowe’en! Happy Trick-or-Treating!

 

Vocation of a Catholic Educator

I was privileged to attend and graduate from a wonderful Catholic high school. Though I loved the Catholic high school of my youth, like many Catholic teens I argued with my parents when they forced me to go to Mass on Sunday, but I never won those arguments. I am grateful for that today. I attended Mass each week and on Holy Days of Obligation. Though I may have resisted going to Mass, I never questioned my belief in God, and while I was in university, my faith became central to my life. 

When I went to teacher’s college in 1990 in Glasgow, Scotland, I chose to specialize in secondary as opposed to primary education, and requested that at least one of my four teaching practicums be within a Catholic high school. I was there to become a Catholic high school teacher because I wanted to teach in a school like the one I had been privileged to attend as a teen. I wanted to share with other Catholic teens my own faith journey and inspire them to open their hearts to our Catholic faith. I knew then how important my faith was to me. It alone sustained me in times of struggle, and lifted me higher in times of joy. I wanted to inspire other Catholic teens to rest in their own faith because I knew that my faith had been the one thing that had sustained me throughout my adolescence. 

At the Catholic high school where I am privileged to teach in Yellowknife, École Saint Patrick High School, morning prayer sets the tone of respect and community for the day. Not every student and staff member at École Saint Patrick High School is Catholic; however, the École Saint Patrick High School community – staff, students and parents – value a system of education that nurtures the whole child – body, mind and spirit. 

It  has been my experience in these thirty years as a Catholic educator, that students want to believe in miracles and infinite power. Catholic educators are there to impart to their students a sense of that magnificence. We’re there to help them become men and women of integrity, to give them a sense of the commissioning of their entire selves.

What is there to cling to if one never has that rock of Christ to rest upon in times of crisis or to look to as an example of true character? How do we know what to return to as a point of grace when we have been blown off course if no one ever gave us a moral compass in the first place? If to be in existential crisis is to be ‘separated from God’, at least those of us who have met Him can find our way back to His loving embrace.

Catholic education lays an important foundation of faith. Faith provides children with a compass of hope sorely needed for their future. Faith is trusting in a support that is unconditional and unwavering. That faith in a higher power always translates into a belief in oneself. Many students don’t have that faith in themselves so sorely needed, and faith alone encourages a devout love of God, a true love of self and an abiding love of others.

When the formal expression of their faith does not appeal to youth, I urge them never to let anything stand between themselves and God. Their Catholic faith is a gift from God, always there for them to draw upon. As they become men and women, they must decide to adopt their faith in a unique and personal way. When times are dark and they feel abandoned by humanity, they will grow to realize that their faith alone will sustain them, and they will come to see that in fact, they are never alone. Christ walks with them and He carries them when they fall. In my own life, it was the realization that I could turn to God for the love and approval for which I had longed craved that allowed me to truly live. 

My parents placed me in God’s care on the morning of my baptism in Scotland’s St. Stephen’s Church on St. Valentine’s Day 1965, when I was precisely two weeks old. My Catholic faith is the greatest gift my parents have given me. It has proven to be a life force that anchors me. My feet have rested firmly on that rock that is Christ and I have survived because of Him and my Blessed Mother. It is this that I wish to share with my students as a Catholic educator. 

I have learned that one cannot insist that another come to a sense of faith or celebration of that faith. One cannot give faith to another. God alone stirs men’s hearts; however, we can share our faith stories with the young, and then trust that those seeds of faith once planted, will blossom in the beautiful hearts of God’s children, our children, in God’s good time. Be assured that if you lay a strong foundation of Catholic faith when they are young, children will rest in Christ as adults, and that is the most important thing. 

 

 

 

        

 

            

Apple of My Eye

My Grade 5 teacher picked on me, encouraged my friends to turn away from my leadership, and even accused me of cheating when I continued to excel in school. I started to hate school. My older sister, only 2.5 years my elder, refused to share a room with me and so I was put in a room with my baby sister, five years my junior. My little sister coughed, wheezed and snored all night because she suffered from terrible allergies, and I couldn’t sleep because of those noises. This lack of sleep exacerbated stress at school in that already horrible Grade 5 year.

Nightly, once everyone in the house was asleep, I’d take my blanket from my bed and creep into the living-room to sleep. One night, my dad found me there and nudged me awake.

“Come on, hen. Back tae yer bed.”

Taking my hand, he escorted me to my room where the wheezing, snoring and coughing of my sleeping sister prevailed.

“It’s her allergies, Dad,” I sobbed. “I can’t sleep.” I cried in frustration and was shocked to see that my dad too had tears in his eyes.

“Ye know yer th’ apple o’ ma eye, don’t ye?” my father said, patting my hand.

His lower lip quivered, and he looked away from me discomfited by this rare show of emotion. I stared at my dad’s handsome face. I hadn’t known that. How could I? He never said it or even told me that he loved me. I felt deeply loved by my dad in that moment.

I didn’t know then, as a child, that the phrase ‘apple of my eye’ refers to something or someone that one cherishes above all others. It appears in the Bible on at least four occasions. “Keep me as the apple of the eye; Hide me in the shadow of Your wings” (Psalm 17:8). “For… he who touches you, touches the apple of His eye’” (Zechariah 2:8). “He guarded him as the pupil of His eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10). “Keep…my teaching as the apple of your eye” (Proverbs 7:2).

My dad and I fought when I was a teen. My dad saw an angry, rebellious teen take the place of his beloved daughter. I went from being a real Daddy’s girl to being a shutdown teen. He never understood why. When I was late for curfew in high school or when it was obvious to him that I’d been out partying as a teen, he’d brutally strike me the moment I walked through the door. There was anger between us for years.

The night my father died, I was writing the law school entrance exam at the University of Toronto. Inexplicably, I suddenly felt surrounded by my father’s love the way I had that night he told me that I was the apple of his eye. I felt that he could see me and was proud of me. I didn’t yet know that he’d passed, but I felt his presence. He was there with me and I felt his love.

Once I confided to my dad that I couldn’t sleep in that room with my younger sister, my dad made me a bedroom in the basement. I chose lavender floral wallpaper and a lilac carpet to finish it off, and it became my haven, somewhere I had peace and quiet.

My APPLEOFEYE license plate is for my earthly dad but also for my Heavenly Father; I’m the cherished daughter of two beloved kings.

Wingspan

In 1966 Scotland, Catholics must indicate religion on job applications, thwarting another work opportunity for them in Presbyterian Scotland. Billboard, radio and television advertisements invite worker Scots to go to Canada. In Glasgow’s Canada House, my father enquires about this place: Canada. A tall man with a soft Canadian accent rolls a map of Canada before my father and asks him where he wants to live and what sort of work he would like to do. Scotland has no place for him while Canada is a Proverbs’ bride offering hope, prosperity, and the optimistic future that has been denied him in his sectarian homeland because of his religion.

We live in newly constructed apartments on Hamilton Road in London, Ontario. A Dominion grocery store stands behind the apartments, its neon-lit red maple leaf brandishing its mocha-colored brick, and the Thames River flows nearby. At Easter, as I hunt for chocolate eggs, I find a bird trapped in the gold draperies over the glass patio doors. It swoops above my head and I feel air on my face from its frantic wingspan. I yelp and run down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom, my tiny feet padding the cold linoleum. I sneak to my father’s side of the bed, and poke at his bare shoulder. My dad opens his big eyes and wants to know what’s wrang. I tell him there’s a bird trapped in the house.

“Och,” he says. “That’s a wee birdie yer mammy brought hame way her last night, hen. It has a broken wing.”

“Its wings are working now,” I tell him.

My dad climbs from his bed, and takes my small hand in his hard palm as we walk together into the living-room. The bird careens at a rapid speed above our heads.

“See, Dad?”

“Aye, pet. I see right enough.”

My dad opens the patio door.

“Fly away, little bird,” I say.

“The wee thing’s frightened, darlin’. He’ll f’un his way oot when he’s ready tae gae.”

The cold air from outside invades the apartment and I shiver in need of a pee. My dad asks if I want cereal, and I say ‘yes’. He pulls a small, blue plastic bowl from the cupboard and fills it with Cornflakes, sugar and ice cold milk.

“Sit up here, pet-lamb,” he says.

I climb onto the stool next to the countertop. On the chipped formica lies a shoe box, holes pierced in its lid. Inside the shoebox is a terry facecloth. I want to know what the box is for.

“Yer mammy made the wee birdie a bed.”

My dad asks me if I managed to find any Easter eggs, and I shake my head no. I look up at the bird as I eat my cereal. He flies too fast for me to get a good look at him. I don’t want to be afraid, but I cover my head with my hands each time he plunges past.

“Och, he’ll no hurt you, hen,” my dad says. “He’s a harmless, wee sparrow.”

The bird finally finds an opening through the gold drapes and escapes into the April sky pregnant with the promise of an icy, Easter morning rain.

“That’s him away,” my dad says.

“Where to?” I ask, relieved the bird is gone.

“He’s away back hame,” my father says, following the bird’s flight with his bright, blue eyes. My dad turns, winks at me and smiles.

We’re home already, I know. Canada gave us the life denied us in Scotland.