Archive for December, 2014

Pope Francis Says New Year Celebrants Should Take Time to Reflect on Our Mortality

December 31, 2014

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Vatican Pope New Year's Eve

Pope Francis delivers his speech as he celebrates a new year’s eve vespers Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014. The traditional Mass on Dec. 31 contains the thanksgiving hymn ”Te Deum’ for the ending year and is the last public appearance of the pope in 2014.. Andrew Medichini  — AP Photo

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The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has presided over a solemn prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Eve, using his homily to stress life’s fleetingness.

The spiritual leader said, “How we like to be surrounded by so many fireworks, seemingly beautiful, but which in reality last only a few minutes.”

As humans, he said, there is a “time to be born and a time to die” and New Year’s also is a time to reflect on our mortality, “the end of the path of life.”

Afterward, the 78-year-old pontiff, wearing a long white coat, a scarf and a thin skull cap, braved frigid air to admire the life-size Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. For 20 minutes, he walked around shaking hands of people lined up behind barriers to greet him.

has presided over a solemn prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Eve, using his homily to stress life’s fleetingness.

The spiritual leader said, “How we like to be surrounded by so many fireworks, seemingly beautiful, but which in reality last only a few minutes.”

As humans, he said, there is a “time to be born and a time to die” and New Year’s also is a time to reflect on our mortality, “the end of the path of life.”

Afterward, the 78-year-old pontiff, wearing a long white coat, a scarf and a thin skull cap, braved frigid air to admire the life-size Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. For 20 minutes, he walked around shaking hands of people lined up behind barriers to greet him.

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(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Wednesday celebrated First Vespers for the Octave of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God. The liturgy at the close of the year included the singing of the Te Deum and Solemn Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

In his homily during the liturgy, the Holy Father spoke about the meaning of time, noting that time is not something alien from God, Who has chosen to reveal Himself and to save us in history, in time. “The meaning of time, of temporality,” he said, “is the manifestation of the mystery God and of His concrete love for us.”

Pope Francis recalled that we are now in “the definitive time of salvation and of grace,” and that this leads us to think about the end of our own journey. We are all born, and we will all someday die. With this truth, the Church teaches us to end the year, and in fact each day, with an examination of conscience. This devout practice leads us to thank God for the blessings and graces we have received, and to ask forgiveness for our weaknesses and sins.

The fundamental reason for our thanksgiving, the Pope explained, is that God has made us His children. It is true, he said, that we are all created by God – but sin has separated us from the Father, and has wounded our filial relationship with Him. And so “God sent His Son to redeem us at the price of His Blood.” We were children, the Pope continued, but we became slaves. It is precisely the coming of Jesus in history that redeems us and rescues us from slavery, and makes us free.

As Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis took a special look at the experience of those in his own diocese. Living in Rome, he said, is a great gift, because it means living in the Eternal City, being a part of the Church founded on the testimony and martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. This is a great gift, but it is at the same time a great responsibility.

The Holy Father noted the recently revealed cases of corruption in Rome, which he said require a serious and conscious conversion of hearts. True Christian freedom is necessary to have the courage to proclaim that “we must defend the poor, and not defend ourselves from the poor; that we must serve the weak, and not use the weak.” A society “that ignores the poor, persecutes them, makes them criminals, forces them into the mafia – such a society impoverishes itself to the point of misery, loses its freedom, and prefers the ‘garlic and onions’ of slavery, of slavery to its own selfishness, of slavery to its pusillanimity, and that society ceases to be Christian.”

Pope Francis concluded his homily by reminding everyone that this is the “final hour” and that we are living in “the fullness of time.” At the end of the year, he said, “in thanksgiving and in asking for forgiveness, we would do well to ask for the grace to be able to walk in liberty, to be able to repair the great damage done, and to be able to defend ourselves from nostalgia for slavery, to defend ourselves lest we pine after slavery.

The Vespers liturgy concluded with Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and the solemn chanting of the Te Deum, the Church’s great hymn of Thanksgiving, in gratitude for the blessings of the past year.

Following the liturgy, the Holy Father left Saint Peter’s Basilica in order to pray at the Vatican Nativity Scene in Saint Peter’s Square. Then, with the Swiss Guard marking the event with religious and secular Christmas music, Pope Francis greeted the faithful gathered in the Square, amid shouts of “Happy New Year!” and “Long live the Pope.”

http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2014/12/31/solemn_year-end_vespers_in_st_peters/1116624

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Hong Kongers Claim The Promise of True Democratic Citizenship

December 31, 2014

 

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Florence Lee says through the Occupy protests, Hong Kong’s youth found a way to exercise their natural right to participate in and shape the society they live in, for the better

By Florence Lee
The South China Morning Post

On the night before the clearance of the historic Occupy Central movement, I visited the main campsite in Admiralty. What I saw were many young people, banded together in makeshift communities, brimming with hope, frustration and unity. For me, their strong sense of solidarity, purpose and togetherness sparked questions. Hong Kong’s youth are on a mission – but what do they want? And what do they seek to achieve?

This movement embodies the pursuit of citizenship rights as young people stake their claim to the city. Much has been said about their frustration over the lack of upward social mobility and employment opportunities. Many youngsters face such anxieties during their transition to being a full member of society. It is a natural part of growing up. However, too much uncertainty, economic precariousness and a lack of socio-economic security pave the way to civil unrest.

Streets of Hong Kong filled with pro-democracy protesters, September 29, 2014

Citizens who feel excluded from their rights do not remain silent for long. Rather, excluded groups seek to challenge inequalities by widening the distribution of resources and citizenship. In doing this, Hong Kong youth are channelling their frustrations and creating new “space” where ideal forms of citizenry manifest themselves in the open.

As James Holston, an anthropology professor from the University of California, Berkeley, noted, a new form of radical, “insurgent” citizenship often arises out of an old, unequal regime. He uses the example of Brazil in the 1960s, where the working class overlooked the illegality of their actions as they built houses on unoccupied, untenured land. In this way, the poor effectively established themselves by asserting their citizen rights on housing, daily life and urban space, while transforming marginalised areas into socially organised spaces. Citizens claimed their identity and status through radical, transformative means.

Similarly, at the heart of Occupy, there is an insurgent movement led by young people wanting to change from passive citizens to active participants in society. By breaking the law with the act of civil disobedience, young citizens were “claiming” their right to expression, to be heard by the world. Gathering in Admiralty and Causeway Bay, for example, is important symbolically. Physically occupying Hong Kong’s privileged, important areas is about retaking space from the corporate world and the state.

Second, the protests provided youngsters who usually communicate via social media with a physical meeting place for face-to-face communication. Against the isolation and divisions of daily life, Occupy offered participation and interaction. It invited passive young citizens to experience a sense of what an inclusive and egalitarian society might look like.

In this sense, the movement was about Hong Kong youth forming alternative pathways for political organisation and communication ahead of the real democracy and active citizenry to come.

It helped radicalise a whole generation of previously apathetic and discouraged youth, and built “test zones” for a post-capitalist utopia based on principles that are outside the competitive and corporate world.

The movement has created an entirely new marker of Hong Kong identity.

Third, the movement aimed to create space for a conversation in which all can participate and determine what the future should look like.

By constructing mini communities, youngsters created a variety of spaces that provided room for innovation, experimentation and dissent. These civil utopias foster a form of solidarity and identity, which transcend the cultural, religious, ethnic, gender and class divisions that Hong Kong youth face in their daily lives.

Lastly, the Occupy movement provided young participants with an experience of direct democracy, where people with different views interacted directly in a civil and responsible manner.

Demonstrators made a point of cleaning up after collective action to illustrate the capacity of “the people” to govern themselves. The idea that differences should be respected is also embedded in the civil utopias created. Students respected non-students, the elderly respected youngsters and all respected the help given by volunteers. Thus, by creating a space for communication, citizens from different ideological backgrounds had the chance to experience a form of deliberative democracy.

Fundamentally, the protests represented a channel for Hong Kong youths’ frustrations in the hope of creating a collective identity and asserting their citizenship rights. My generation wants to be seen on the streets, and is not afraid of staking a visible claim to our right to be seen and heard. When young people enact their rights as citizens in public spaces, they have the collective capacity to speak truth to power. In a literal sense, it shows that citizenship is physical as much as political.

Hong Kong democracy protesters meet with Hong Kong city officials, October 21, 2014

The process of democratic reform must involve people transforming themselves from subjects ruled by others – which Hong Kong’s people have always been – to active citizens who rule themselves. That does not involve the subjects asking for citizenship rights, for the ruler will not grant them freely. It means that the subjects start acting as citizens, demand their full rights and ownership of an inclusive society that is rightfully theirs.

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Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive after the 1997 handover, left, with President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Monday, September 22, 2014. President Xi hosted a meeting of Hong Kong tycoons to encourage them to ignore the pro-democracy protesters. Photo By Rao Aimin (AP)

Hong Kong youths have reconfigured the notion of citizenship by participating in and shaping the Occupy protests. They have created for themselves an ideal notion of an inclusive, egalitarian society that they strive to live in.

In the midst of the struggle for genuine universal suffrage, these changes are occurring within my generation of Hong Kong youth.

Florence Lee, a student at the University of Cambridge, serves on the executive committee of the university’s Hong Kong and China Affairs Society

Prayer and Meditation for Thursday, January 1, 2015 — Mary, Mother of God

December 31, 2014

 

The Octave Day of Christmas
Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God
Lectionary: 18

Mary Mother of God by Sassoferratu, National Gallery, London

Reading 1 Nm 6:22-27

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The LORD said to Moses:
“Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them:
This is how you shall bless the Israelites.
Say to them:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!
So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites,
and I will bless them.”
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Responsorial Psalm Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8.

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R. (2a) May God bless us in his mercy.
May God have pity on us and bless us;
may he let his face shine upon us.
So may your way be known upon earth;
among all nations, your salvation.
R. May God bless us in his mercy.
May the nations be glad and exult
because you rule the peoples in equity;
the nations on the earth you guide.
R. May God bless us in his mercy.
May the peoples praise you, O God;
may all the peoples praise you!
May God bless us,
and may all the ends of the earth fear him!
R. May God bless us in his mercy.
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reading 2 Gal 4:4-7

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Brothers and sisters:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,
born of a woman, born under the law,
to ransom those under the law,
so that we might receive adoption as sons.
As proof that you are sons,
God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,
crying out, “Abba, Father!”
So you are no longer a slave but a son,
and if a son then also an heir, through God.

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Alleluia Heb 1:1-2

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R. Alleluia, alleluia.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

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Gospel Lk 2:16-21

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The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.

When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.

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Living Space:  Commentary on Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21
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IN JOHN’S GOSPEL Mary is twice simply referred to as the “mother of Jesus” — at Cana when the water was turned into wine and at the foot of the cross. But John’s gospel is also the one that emphasises most the origins of Jesus as the Word of God, existing before the beginning of time and through whom all created things came to be. He does not really need to spell out the implications of the term “mother of Jesus”. But they are very extraordinary implications as we shall see.
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Anti-climax.
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The Gospel speaks of the earthy reality of Jesus and his mother. “Let us go and see what God has made known to us,” say the shepherds in great excitement after hearing the message of the angel and the sudden outbreak of the first “Gloria” being sung. Perhaps what they discovered must have seemed at first an anti-climax. Just a man, a woman – the mother, and a baby lying in a feeding box in a dark and smelly cowshed. (Not that shepherds would have been much bothered by farmyard smells.)
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We are told that they were amazed – and no wonder. Is this what the angels had to sing about? No words of Mary or Joseph are recorded although they must have shared some words with their visitors.
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In all of this time Mary must have been trying to understand what was really going on. One imagines at this stage that if she had been greeted as “Mother of God” she would have been both alarmed and surprised, even shocked. So the Gospel says that during all this time Mary treasured all these words and experiences and pondered them in her heart. Perhaps a hint that Mary had shared these reflections later with the writer of the gospel..And that is what we also need to do as we kneel in front of the crib here in our church. Whatever was there, the shepherds in their simple faith saw something very special in that prosaic scene. (Many others must have seen and just passed on. They might have thought or said: “Oh, another poor feckless couple expecting handouts.”).
The shepherds went back to their fields and flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. They also told everyone around of what they had seen: the shepherds were the very first heralds of the Good News, the Gospel message. They were the first evangelisers. A strange choice as they were regarded as sinful outcasts. Or, when we think about it a little more, was it so strange?

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For them, the joy of having met their Lord, knowing Jesus, must of its very nature, be shared and communicated with others. Would that we were so filled with the same experience and the same joy that we would go around sharing it with all and sundry! Yet, sometimes even our neighbours or our colleagues at work do not know we are Christians! It is not “politically correct” to speak of one’s religious convictions.

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Then, after eight days, the Gospel says in conclusion, his pious Jewish parents had the child circumcised like any normal Jewish boy in accordance with the Law. (Jesus always observed and had the deepest respect for the Law. What he criticised were its abuses. And Christianity is not a rejection of the Law but a fulfilling of its promises and a shift to a deeper and wider level of serving God.)

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No special privileges

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If John in his gospel speaks of Mary simply as the “mother of Jesus”, St Paul in today’s Second Reading says even less: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…” Mary’s name is not even mentioned. It has been suggested that this is in the spirit of the New Testament where there is no privilege of class or individuals. People are distinguished by one thing only – by their service to the community in the name of Jesus the Lord. This applies as much to Mary as to any of the apostles, as to any other Christian disciple.

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God’s Mother

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Today’s feast, however, is called “Mary, Mother of God” and not just “Mother of Jesus”. For both Jews and Muslims who have the deepest respect for God and even his name, the idea that God could have a human being as his mother is totally and even blasphemous. It is a contradiction in terms for the Creator of all things to be mothered by a creature.

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Yet we can take an example from human experience. The president of a country has a mother. Let us say the president’s name is John Smith. Mrs Smith at some stage became the mother of John Smith. But later, John was elected president of his country; he became President Smith. John and President Smith are one and the same person so Mrs Smith is the mother of John and also mother of the president of the country.

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Mary gave birth to the human child that is Jesus. But that child is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Jesus is both human and divine: two natures as they say but only one Person. Mary as the Mother of Jesus is also the Mother of that Person and that Person is God, one with Father and Holy Spirit. Clearly we are not expected to be able to understand or explain this any further. The nature of God is quite beyond us. We need the simple and trusting faith of the shepherds.

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Special relationship

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We honour today then the unique privilege of Mary and her relationship with God. But where does Mary’s real greatness lie? There is a scene in the Gospel where a woman shouts out from the crowd: “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you have sucked.” It was a cry of praise to Jesus himself but also a compliment to the mother of such a Son who was doing such marvellous things for the sick and the needy. As if today she were to say: “God bless the mother that produced a son like you!”

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But Jesus replied: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” In other words, Mary’s greatness – and indeed the greatness of any person – was not in her birth, or her parents or her Son but in her unconditional response to the call of God, in her hearing and obeying the word of God. This she did from the moment of saying ‘Yes’ at the annunciation to her standing silently and in grief at the foot of the cross.

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She was “full of grace” not only for being chosen to be God’s mother but in her total openness to be filled with that love of God. We too are constantly “graced” and we too can be full of grace not because we were baptised into the Catholic community but by our own total, active identification with the way of Jesus by our opening up to the call of God as it unfolds in the unique circumstances of my own life. I do this through total and unconditional service of those around me. It is a formidable challenge but it also brings untold joys. Christianity, contrary to the opinion of some, is not for wimps.

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Unique relationship

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Mary had a unique relationship with the Blessed Trinity as daughter of the Father, mother of the Son, and spouse of the Holy Spirit. Her feelings are beautifully expressed in the Magnificat, which she spoke during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Here she is filled with joy as the recipient of God’s love and also of an awesome responsibility.

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God has looked on his lowly slave girl. Through her Yes, she became a partner, a major contributor in the work of salvation. No wonder that all generations call her blessed for the Almighty has done such great things for her – and she also, in her human weakness, for him. She nurtured and reared Jesus, God’s own Son and our Saviour.

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For this today we say a special Thanks to her. The Son is so often a reflection of the mother as the woman in the Gospel so clearly realised. He is the one who will rout the “proud in heart” but will “fill the hungry with good things”. We are, at the same time, among those who are hungry and who are called on to feed others spiritually, emotionally and materially according to need.

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Today’s feast is one of great joy for Mary herself as Jesus’ Mother and for us who owe so much to her total co-operation with God’s loving plan for us.

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Thanks and Yes

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As we leave the old year there are two things we could remember:

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– To look back at all the events, big and small of the past year and say THANKS.
– To look forward with expectation and surrender to all that will come and say YES.

And finally, let us hear said to each one of us the beautiful blessing in today’s First Reading:
“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.”

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http://livingspace.sacredspace.ie/f0101bg/

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Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c. 1490, after a composition by Hugo van der Goes of c. 1470, influenced by the visions of Saint Bridget of Sweden. Sources of light are the infant Jesus, the shepherds’ fire on the hill behind, and the angel who appears to them.

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Related:

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From the Mission San Diego

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The celebration of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, helps us to prepare for the beginning of a new year, by showering us with images of peace and joy.

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In the first reading, taken from the Old Testament Book of Numbers, we are told that the Lord’s face shines upon us, giving us peace. St. Paul tells us in the second reading that we are not slaves, but sons and daughters of God. And in St. Luke’s Gospel we see that classic picture of joy and tranquility: the shepherds coming to Bethlehem to find Mary and Joseph, and the Baby Jesus lying in the manager. And once they saw, St. Luke tells us, the shepherds understood what had been told them concerning Jesus.

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Today we pray that more of this peace and serenity, more of this calm and joy, might come into our lives and into our world during the New Year. The Scripture readings are certainly very positive today, reinforcing us rather than discouraging us.

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But as we look forward to 2015, we can easily become discouraged. Likewise, we might become discouraged if we were to stress all of our faults and failings during the past year. In many and varied ways, we have all made mistakes in 2014, and perhaps we will do the same in 2015, but that is not the theme of our celebration the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. Instead of warning us that we have to be better in the future, the Church reassures us. Instead of denouncing us all as sinners, the Church encourages us. Instead of frightening us, the Church tells us of peace and joy.

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Instead of telling us how evil we are, the Church tells us that we are not slaves, but sons and daughters of God. Rather than presenting a picture of the punishment that our sins deserve, the Church lays out before us the picturesque scene of shepherds visiting the manger and understanding what they had been told about Jesus! At this annual time of New Year’s Resolutions, the Church doesn’t focus our attention so much on our faults and failings that need correction, as on our faith that gives meaning to our lives and hope to our future.

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Today the Church challenges us to look forward to the opportunities that await us in the future. We should not look back to the failures and frustrations of the past, nor remember how sad and miserable we might have been, but rejoice in our dignity and our potential as Christians and as Catholics.

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The Church prepares us to begin the New Year by making a noble effort to help us feel good about ourselves, to build up an optimistic self-confidence and hopefulness. The past is over and done with. The mistakes that we might have made are all behind us, and once forgiven they can be forgotten. So today our task is to look ahead to the possibilities, the opportunities, and the challenges of the future. We should be hopeful for 2015, because our faith tells us that God does have a plan for us.

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Ever since God first promised to make Abraham and his descendants a great nation, each year has brought mankind closer to the fulfillment of God’s promises. Each Christmas reminds us that God has been faithful to his promise to be with his people always. And each New Year’s reminds us that we have still greater opportunities to see God’s plan for us realized in the future.

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So today, we let’s think about our New Year’s “Realizations,” rather than about the list of New Years “Resolutions” that we make and break each year. Our first New Year’s Realization is that we are all, each one of us, specially blessed by God. Our second New Year’s Realization is that our special blessing comes to us through Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God, who became flesh to teach us to call God “Abba! Father!”

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Our next New Year’s Realization is that we can all learn much more about what it means to be sons and daughters of God. Today’s Gospel reading tells us that “…she treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart.”

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As sons and daughters of God, we should stop to reflect on the truths of our faith and treasure them in our hearts. Our final New Year’s Realization is that if we are to grow as sons and daughters of God, we all need to meditate and pray. May this final New Year’s “Realization” lead us to a make at least one New Year’s Resolution that we will truly resolve keep. That we will meditate and pray fervently and more frequently in 2015! –

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See more at: http://www.missionsandiego.org/the-solemnity-of-mary-the-mother-of-god-january-1-2015/#sthash.itZSWrtd.dpuf

 

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Lectio Divina from the Carmelites

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The reason for Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem was the census imposed by Rome’s emperor (Lk 2:1-7). Periodically, the Roman authorities decreed these censuses in the various regions of their immense empire. It was a matter of registering people and knowing how many had to pay taxes. The rich paid taxes on land and goods. The poor paid for the number of children they had. Sometimes the tax was more than 50% of a person’s income.

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In Luke’s Gospel we note a significant difference between the birth of Jesus and that of John the Baptist. John is born at home, in his land, in the midst of parents and neighbours and is welcomed by all (Lk 1:57-58). Jesus is born unknown, away from his surroundings of family and neighbours and far from his land. “There was no room in the inn.” He had to be left in a manger (Lk 2:7).

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Let us try to place and comment on our text (Lk 2:16-21) in the wider context of the visit of the shepherds (Lk 2:8-21). As we read, let us try to pay attention to the following: What surprises do we find and what contrasts appear in this text?

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A division of the text to help us in our reading:

Luke 2:8-9: The shepherds in the field, the first persons invited
Luke 2:10-12: The first announcement of the Good News is made to the shepherds
Luke 2:13-14: The praise of the angels
Luke 2:15-18: The shepherds go to Bethlehem and tell of their vision of the angels
Luke 2:19-20: Mary’s attitude and that of the shepherds concerning these events
Luke 2:21: The circumcision of the child Jesus

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Some questions

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to help us in our personal reflection.

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a) What did you like best in this text? Why?
b) What surprises and contrasts do you find in this text?
c) How does the text teach us that the little ones are great in heaven and the poorest on earth?
d) What is Mary’s attitude and that of the shepherds concerning the mystery of God just revealed to them?
e) What is the message Luke wants to communicate to us through these details?

5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme

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The context of then and of today:

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The text of the feast of the Mother of God (Lk 2:16-21) is part of the broader description of the birth of Jesus (Lk 2,1-7) and of the visit of the shepherds (Lk 2:8-21). The angel had announced the birth of the Saviour and gave a sign of recognition: “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger!” They were expecting the Saviour of a whole people and they were to recognise him in a newborn child, poor, who lies close to two animals! What a great surprise!

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God’s plan is fulfilled in an unexpected way, full of surprise. This happens today too. A poor child is the Saviour of the people! Can you believe this?.

A commentary on the text:

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Luke 2:8-9: The first invited persons
The shepherds were marginalised people, not greatly appreciated. They lived together with the animals, separate from the rest of humanity. Because of their constant contact with animals, they were considered impure. No one would have ever invited them to visit a newly born baby. But it is precisely to these shepherds that the Angel of the Lord appears to pass on the great news of the birth of Jesus. Seeing the vision of the angels, they are full of fear.

Luke 2:10-12: The first announcement of the Good News

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The first thing the angel says is: Do not be afraid! The second is: Joy to be shared by the whole people! The third is: Today! Then the angel gives three names to indicate who Jesus is: Saviour, Christ and Lord! Saviour is the one who frees all people from all ties! The authorities in those days liked to use the title Saviour. They attributed the title of Soter to themselves. Christ means anointed or messiah. In the Old Testament this was the title given to kings and prophets. It was also the title of the future Messiah who would fulfil the promises made by God to his people. This means that newly born child, who lies in a manger, has come to fulfil the hopes of the people. Lord was the name given to God himself! Here we have the three greatest titles imaginable. From this announcement of the birth of Jesus as Saviour, Christ and Lord, can you imagine anyone with a higher standing? And angel says to you: “Be careful! I give you this sign of recognition: you will meet a child in a manger, in the midst of poor people!” Would you believe him? God’s ways are not our ways!

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Luke 2:13-14: The praise of the angels: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favours

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A multitude of angels appears descending from heaven. It is heaven that bends itself towards the earth. The parts of this verse summarise God’s project, his plan. The first part tells us what happens in the world up there: Glory to God in the highest heaven. The second part tells us what will happen in the world here below: On earth peace for those he favours! If people could experience what it means to be favoured by God, everything would be different and peace would dwell on earth. And this would be to the greater glory of God who dwells in the highest!

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Luke 2:15-18: The shepherds go to Bethlehem and tell of their vision of the angels

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The Word of God is no longer a sound produced by the mouth. It is above all an event! The shepherds literally say: “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us”. In Hebrew, the expression DABAR may mean both word and thing (event), generated by the word. The word of God is a creative force. It fulfils what it says. At creation God said: “Let there be light, and there was light!” (Gen 1:3). The word of the angel to the shepherds is the event of the birth of Jesus.

Luke 2:19-20: Mary’s attitude and that of the shepherds concerning these events
Luke immediately adds that, “Mary treasured all these things (events) and pondered them in her heart”. These are two ways of perceiving and welcoming the Word of God: (i) The shepherds get up to see the events and verify the sign given by the angel, and then, they go back to their flocks glorifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard. (ii) Mary, on the other hand, carefully keeps all these events in her mind and meditates on them in her heart. To meditate on things in one’s heart means to ruminate them and throw light on them in the light of the Word of God so as to understand better their full significance for life.

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Luke 2:21: The circumcision and Name of Jesus

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According to the norms of the law, the child Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (cf. Gen 17:12). Circumcision was a sign of belonging to the people. It gave the person an identity. On such an occasion each child received his name (cf. Lk 1:59-63). The child receives the name of Jesus that had been given him by the angel before his conception. The angel had said to Joseph that the name of the child had to be Jesus “he is the one who is to save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). The name of Jesus is the same as Joshua, and means God will save. Another name that will gradually be given to Jesus is Christ, which means Anointed or Messiah. Jesus is the awaited Messiah. A third name is that of Emmanuel, which means God with us (Mt 1:23). The complete name is Jesus Christ Emmanuel!

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Mary in Luke’s Gospel

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The role of the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel:

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These are two rather well known but less deeply understood chapters. Luke writes them in imitation of the Old Testament. It is as though these two chapters were the last of the Old Testament so as to open the door for the coming of the New Testament. In these chapters, Luke creates an atmosphere of softness and praise. From beginning to end the mercy of God is sung, God who finally comes to fulfil his promises.

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Luke shows us how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament and begins the New Testament. And he does so in favour of the poor, the anawim, those who knew how to wait for his coming: Elisabeth, Zachary, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna and the shepherds. That is why the first two chapters are history but not in the sense that we today give to history.

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They were more like a mirror where those, for whom they were written, the Christians converted from paganism, could discover who Jesus was and how he had come to fulfil the prophecies of the Old Testament, satisfying the deepest aspirations of the human heart. These chapters were also a mirror of the events that were taking place within the communities in Luke’s time. The communities originating from paganism will be born of the communities of converted Jews. But these were different. The New did not correspond to what the Old Testament imagined and expected. It was “the sign of contradiction” (Lk 2:34), and caused tensions and was the source of much suffering. In Mary’s attitude, Luke presents a model of how the communities could react to and persevere in the New.

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A key to the reading:

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In these two chapters Luke presents Mary as model for the life of the community. The key is given to us in the episode where the woman in the crowd praises the mother of Jesus. Jesus modifies the praise and says: “More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:27-28). Herein lies the greatness of Mary. It is in the world where Mary knows how to relate to the Word of God that the communities contemplate the more correct way of relating to the Word of God: welcoming it, incarnating it, living it, deepening it, reflecting on it, giving it birth and making it grow, allowing oneself to be overpowered by it even when one does not understand it or when one suffers because of it. This is the vision underlying the two texts of chapters 1 and 2 of Luke’s Gospel, which speak of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

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An application of the key to the texts:

1. Luke 1:26-38:
The Annunciation: “Let it happen to me as you have said!”
Opening one’s self so that the Word of God may be welcomed and incarnated.

2. Luca 1:39-45:
The Visitation: “Blessed is she who believed!”
Recognising the Word of God in the events of life.

3. Luke 1:46-56:
The Magnificat: “The Almighty has done great things for me!”
A subversive and resistance hymn of hope.

4. Luke 2:1-20:
The Birth: “She treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
There was no room for them. The marginalised welcome the Word.

5. Luke 2:21-32:
The Presentation: “My eyes have seen the salvation!”
Years of life purify the eyes.

6. Luke 2:33-38:
Simeon and Anna: “A sword will pierce your soul”
Being a Christian means being a sign of contradiction.

7. Luke 2:39-52:
At twelve years: ” Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
They did not understand the Word of God addressed to them!

The contrasts that stand out in our text:

1. In the darkness of the night a light shines (2:8-9).
2. The world up there, heaven, seems to embrace our world here below (2:13).
3. The greatness of God manifests itself in the weakness of a child (2:7).
4. The glory of God is made present in a manger, close to animals (2:16).
5. Fear is generated by the sudden apparition of an angel and is changed into joy (2:9-10).
6. Those completely marginalised are the first invited (2:8).
7. The shepherds recognise God present in a child (2:20).

6. Praying with the Psalm 23 (22)

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Yahweh is my shepherd!”

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Yahweh is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.
In grassy meadows he lets me lie.
By tranquil streams he leads me
to restore my spirit.
He guides me in paths of saving justice as befits his name.

Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death
I should fear no danger,
for you are at my side.
Your staff and your crook are there to soothe me.

You prepare a table for me under the eyes of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup brims over.
Kindness and faithful love pursue me every day of my life.
I make my home in the house of Yahweh for all time to come.

Final Prayer

Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.

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Reflection by  The Most Rev Msgr William Goh Archbishop of Singapore
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FACING THE PAST AND THE FUTURE

SCRIPTURE READINGS: NUMBERS 6:22-27; GALATIANS 4:4-7; LUKE 2:16-21
http://www.universalis.com/20150101/mass.htm 

As we come to the end of the year we cannot but thank God for all the blessings we have received.   Indeed we have many things to thank God for, things we have taken for granted.  We want to thank God for the gift of biological life, the gift of physical health, the talents and blessings we have received.  The fact that we have survived all the trials of life and still remain sane means that God has been kind and merciful to us.

Indeed, we all know that without Christ, who is the gift of the Father, it would not have been at all possible.  It is through His grace and mercy alone.  As St Paul says, we have nothing to boast except the grace of God.  (cf 2 Cor 10:8)  However this grace would not be possible without Mary’s response to be the Mother of Christ.  Thus, as we come to the end of the Octave of Christmas, the Church invites us to contemplate on His birth like the shepherd and Mary.   “As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.”

For this reason, the Church wants to honour Mary as the Mother God who gave us Jesus.  She said “Yes” even when it was an impossible task.  We thank her for her faith in God, as was praised many times in the Gospel by the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth and even Jesus Himself.  This faith enabled Mary to serve Him quietly away from the limelight and ended with Jesus on the cross.   Hence, Mary is not just the Mother of God, the Mother of Christ who is the Head of the Church, but also in the same vein, Pope Paul VI declared her to be the Mother of the Church.  Through her maternal care for the Church, we are nurtured in our faith and grow to become more and more like her Son. Because Mary gave birth to the head of the Church, we too are her children.

Imitating Mary, the Church is called to be mother like her in her virginal devotion to the Lord and in her motherhood in caring, nurturing, loving and guiding the People of God. Like Mary, the Church is called to be a virgin, to be pure and devoted to Christ, the Son of Mary.  We are called to keep ourselves chaste and holy.  Like Mary, we are called not just to give birth to new Christians but to look after them with love and devotion.

Necessarily, when we think of the Motherhood of Mary and the Church, we cannot but also thank God for the Church, our Christian community and our brothers and sisters in faith.  As we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the mother of God, we cannot but also give thanks to God because through her maternal care for souls, many of us have been healed from all kinds of illnesses, emotional wounds, and psychological pains, spiritual and even physical ailments.  Many of our families have also been reconciled, as we are reconciled with God. All these blessings have also been made possible because of the many people in our lives.  The Church is also our mother.

How is our Christian community a mother like Mary, whose feast we celebrate today?

To be a mother is to be a teacher, the one who nourishes like the way Mary raised up the Lord.  To be a mother is to nurture those under our care.  Through the many programs in our parish, activities and organizations, especially the celebration of the Word and the Eucharist, we have grown in our spiritual life.  Through the many services of the Church and the Christian community, many have been helped to find hope and healing from all kinds of illnesses that often medicine cannot solve.  The programs in the parishes without doubt have brought many comfort and personal growth in their relationship with God and with their brothers and sisters.

Just as Mary gave us the face and the body of Jesus, many have seen the Face of God through the love of the community and therefore been blessed as Moses was taught to do so.  “This is how you are to bless the sons of Israel. You shall say to them: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord let his face shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace.”  Indeed, to have a personal encounter is the starting point of every Christian.  Without encountering the Lord, we will never be able to be healed or to have a personal relationship with Him.

The Christian community, like Mary, has given hope and renewal to those who were under the slavery of sin and the law as St Paul mentions in the second reading. Many of us condemn ourselves like St Paul because of our sins.  But as St Paul says, “When the appointed time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law and to enable us to be adopted as sons.”  We know the mercy of God and His forgiveness.  This has helped us to let go, forgive and begin a new life. 

Many of us too have rediscovered our sonship.  We have come to realize who we really are, the sons and daughters of God.  “The proof that you are sons is that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts: the Spirit that cries, “Abba, Father”, and it is this that makes you a son, you are not a slave anymore; and if God has made you son, then he has made you heir.”  Through the sacrament of initiation the Church has given us a rebirth.  Through the sacrament of reconciliation, we have been given another rebirth, as over the years we have lost our sonship.  Through her ministering and preaching of the Word, she has helped us to rediscover our sonship by giving us the Spirit of her Son.  We are now heirs of Christ. 

In the light of the New Evangelization, the Church must adopt a Marian spirituality.  What is the secret of a Marian spirituality?  From Mary, we must learn the meaning of faith in the impossible.  Miracles have been wrought through prayers and intercessions even at times when such healing and conversion were thought not possible.  Like Mary, we believe that we should simply do whatever He tells us to do.  From the perspective of praise and thanksgiving, like our Blessed Mother we must always give praise and thanksgiving to God for the wonders He has done and is still doing in our lives.  From the perspective of joy, we radiate the joy of serving the Lord and serving the Church.  This joy does not come from service primarily but from the joy of encountering the healing grace of the Lord.  From the perspective of contemplative prayer, we need to develop a deeper prayer life, rooted in the contemplation of the Word of God and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.  From the perspective of evangelization, we need to stir up the hearts of many who have been touched by the Lord to bring others to Him.  Like the angels and the shepherds, we cannot resist announcing the Good News to the world.  Like Mary, we want to carry the joy of being born in Christ to others so that they too can leap for joy like John the Baptist. 

Indeed, we have so many things to thank God for.  This gratitude of course is expressed in action either by way of serving in the Church, reaching out to society or to the poor, spiritually poor and materially poor.  So we thank God for healing our hearts, encountering Him and empowering our lives.

In the face of the challenges, have no fear.  This was what the angel told Mary, “Do not be afraid!”   This same message was repeated to the shepherds by the angels, “Do not be afraid!”  And the reason is simply because Christ is our Saviour and He will give us the Holy Spirit.  The responsorial psalm reiterates that God rules at the end of the day.  “Let the nations be glad and exult for you rule the world with justice. With fairness you rule the peoples, you guide the nations on earth.”  In the gospel we read that “when the eighth day came and the child was to be circumcised, they gave him the name Jesus, the name the angel had given him before his conception.”  Jesus means God saves!

So like Mary and the shepherds, we must continue to contemplate on His love and give praise and thanks to Him.  “As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.”   Indeed, we must on one hand look forward but we must not forget our past.  We must remember our Christ-encounter or conversion experience.  Like Mary who consecrated Jesus to the Lord, we must consecrate ourselves to the Lord as well.  Delay no longer.  Do not be afraid!   Open your heart to the Lord and His invite.  Arise in faith and with Mary, say, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord!  Let it be done according to your word.”  Give birth to Jesus!  Give Jesus to the world.  May Mary the Mother of God, the Mother of the Church and the Star of the New Evangelization lead us forward bringing hope and a new dawn to humanity!

– See more at: http://www.csctr.net/thursday-1st-january-2015-mary-mother-of-god/#sthash.GvUIeqYU.dpuf

The Christian Heart of American Exceptionalism — Understanding the relationship between religion and public life

December 31, 2014

Democrats should take note: Religious belief is strong in the U.S., and it cuts across party lines.

By William A. Galston
The Wall Street Journal

  

Getty Images

In this year-end holiday season, it is timely to reflect on American exceptionalism. Although this phrase is much abused in partisan polemics, it should not be discarded. The United States does continue to differ from most other developed democratic countries. And the heart of that difference is religion. The durability of American religious belief refutes the once-canonical thesis that modernization and secularization necessarily go hand in hand.

This is all the more remarkable because our Founders drafted a deliberately secular constitution. In 20 quietly revolutionary words, Article VI declares that “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Consistent with that prohibition, newly elected officials—from the president on down—may choose either to “swear” (that is, to take a religious oath) or simply to “affirm” their loyalty to the Constitution.

In 1789, this secular national constitution perched uneasily atop a Christian population residing in states the majority of which had established an official religion. These establishments have disappeared. But despite the enormous growth in the nation’s diversity over the past 225 years, Christian conviction remains pervasive.

If you doubt this, take a look at the survey the Pew Research Center released without much fanfare two weeks ago. Among its principal findings: 73% of U.S. adults believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; 81%, that the baby Jesus was laid in a manger; 75%, that wise men guided by a star brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; and 74%, that an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds. Fully 65% of Americans believe all four of these elements of the Christmas story, while only 14% believe none of them.

Although Republicans are more likely to espouse these beliefs than are Democrats and Independents, each group endorses them by a two-thirds majority or more. As expected, conservatives are more likely to espouse them than are moderates and liberals. But here again, majorities of each group endorse each belief. Among liberals, 54% profess a belief in the virgin birth.

What about the growth of secular thought in young Americans? As the Pew report dryly notes, there “is little sign of a consistent generation gap on these questions.” That’s an understatement. Seventy percent of adults age 18 to 29 believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; 69% that an angel announced his birth; 80% that he was laid in a manger; and 74% that the wise men made their gift-laden trek.

To be sure, the most-educated Americans are less likely to profess belief in the Christmas story. But even among adults with postgraduate degrees, 53% affirm the virgin birth of Jesus, with comparable or larger majorities for the story’s other elements.

These public beliefs have constitutional consequences. When it comes to church and state, many Americans are soft rather than strict separationists. When asked whether religious symbols like Christian nativity scenes should be permitted on government property, 44% said yes, whether or not the symbols of other religions are present. An additional 28% said that Christian symbols would be acceptable only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths. Only 20% took the position that no religious symbols should be allowed.

Democrats should pay careful attention to these findings. In reaction to the excesses of the religious right in recent decades, many secularists and strict separationists took refuge in the Democratic Party. Their voices are important. But if the party takes its bearings only from their concerns, it risks serious misjudgment.

Many Americans believe that religion has a legitimate if limited role in public life—including politics. Many Americans believe that it is wrong—not always, but usually—for laws and regulations to coerce individuals contrary to their conscientious beliefs. As Democrats pursue new policies in areas from health care to equal rights, they should work hard to minimize their intrusion on these convictions.

This will not be easy. According to the Public Religion Research Institute 2014 American Values Survey, the country is split down the middle. Forty-six percent of Americans are more worried about “the government interfering with the ability of people to freely practice their religion” than they are about “religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others,” while 46% of Americans feel the reverse. Each group offers strong arguments and poignant anecdotes. A political party that wants to build a durable majority should listen carefully to both sides and seek policies that acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns.

In this era of hyperpolarized politics, we are tempted to believe that everything right is found in our preferred party—and everything wrong in the other. It would improve the content of our policies as well as the tone of our politics to recognize that many issues are not like that. The relationship between religion and public life would be a good place to start.

 

Iran Is Getting Away With Murder

December 31, 2014

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Achieving a nuclear deal with Tehran is hugely important. But stopping Iran from slaughtering innocent Syrians is a worthy goal.

Two More Years of Global Disorder? The next two years may be the most dangerous since the Cold War ended

December 31, 2014

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Associated Press photo
Wall Street Journal Editorial

As the calendar turns toward the final two years of the Obama Presidency, this is a moment to consider the world it has produced. There is no formal Obama Doctrine that serves as the 44th President’s blueprint for America’s engagement with the world. But it is fair to say that Barack Obama brought into office a set of ideas associated with the progressive, or left-leaning, wing of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment.

“Leading from behind” was the phrase coined in 2011 by an Obama foreign-policy adviser to describe the President’s approach to the insurrection in Libya against Moammar Gaddafi. That phrase may have since entered the lexicon of derision, but it was intended as a succinct description of the progressive approach to U.S. foreign policy.

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The Democratic left believes that for decades the U.S. national-security presence in the world—simply, the American military—has been too large. Instead, when trouble emerges in the world, the U.S. should act only after it has engaged its enemies in attempts at detente, and only if it first wins the support and participation of allies and global institutions, such as NATO, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and so on.

In an interview this week with National Public Radio, Mr. Obama offered an apt description of the progressive foreign-policy vision. “When it comes to ISIL, us devoting another trillion dollars after having been involved in big occupations of countries that didn’t turn out all that well” is something he is hesitant to do.

Instead, he said, “We need to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding our schools, our roads, our basic science and research here in the United States; that is going to be a recipe for our long-term security and success.”

That $1 trillion figure is one of the President’s famous straw-man arguments. But what is the recipe if an ISIL or other global rogue doesn’t get his memo?

ISIL, or Islamic State, rose to dominate much of Iraq after its armed forces captured the northern city of Mosul in June, followed by a sweep toward Baghdad. With it came the videotaped beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aide worker Peter Kassig.

Islamic State’s rise was made possible not merely because the U.S. wound down its military presence in Iraq but because Mr. Obama chose to eliminate that presence. Under intense pressure from the Pentagon and our regional allies, the White House later in the year committed useful if limited air support to the Iraqi army battling Islamic State. Without question the U.S. was behind the curve, and with dire consequences.

Islamic State’s success has emboldened or triggered other jihadist movements, despite Mr. Obama’s assurance that the war on terror was fading.

Radical Islamists are grabbing territory from U.S. allies in Yemen. They have overrun Libya’s capital and threaten its oil fields. Boko Haram in Nigeria, the kidnappers of some 275 schoolgirls in April, adopted the ISIL terror model. U.S. allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are struggling to cope with the violence spreading out of Syria and Iraq. Mr. Obama can only hope that the Afghan Taliban do not move now to retake Kandahar after he announced this week with premature bravado “the end of the combat mission.”

The crucial flaw in the Democratic left’s model of global governance is that it has little or no answer to containing or deterring the serious threats that emerge in any region of the world when the U.S. retreats from leadership.

In February, the crisis in Ukraine began and worsened quickly, as Vladimir Putin ’s Russian forces occupied Crimea. Next came the Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine, with a Malaysian airliner shot down in July, killing 283 passengers. Through it all, Mr. Obama refused the pleas of Ukraine and staunch allies such as Poland to provide the Ukrainian army with the basic means to defend itself. He limited his support to non-military supplies, such as battlefield food rations.

The danger is that Mr. Putin, supported at home by a massive anti-U.S. propaganda campaign, will next move on Moldova or Estonia, even in the face of Western economic sanctions. The collapse of world oil prices has intervened to force Mr. Putin to confront his own weak economy, but the threat of Russian expansion remains.

In defense of his looming nuclear-weapons deal with Iran, Mr. Obama told his NPR interviewer: “I believe in diplomacy, I believe in dialogue, I believe in engagement.” He said Iran could be “a very successful regional power” that is “abiding by international norms and rules.”

Short of a miraculous change in the revolutionary Iranian leadership, such a worldview is at best willfully hopeful or at worst hopelessly naive. As former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz has repeatedly pointed out, diplomacy and engagement are always good, but only if backed by a credible threat to deploy U.S. military resources. A fist inside a velvet glove. After five years of progressive foreign policy under Mr. Obama, the world sees the U.S. as an empty velvet glove.

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The final two years of the Obama Presidency will thus be the most dangerous since the end of the Cold War as the world’s rogues calculate how far they can go before a successor enters the White House in 2017. A bipartisan coalition in Congress may be able to limit some of the damage, but the first step toward serious repair is understanding how Mr. Obama’s progressive foreign policy has contributed to the growing world disorder.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/progressives-and-disorder-1419985886

ObamaCare: Ninety Percent of New Enrollees Will Get Subsidies

December 31, 2014

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90 % of people who bought health insurance in the second year of ObamaCare qualify for government help to pay their premiums

By Sarah Ferris

 

Nearly 90 percent of people who bought health insurance in the second year of ObamaCare qualify for government help to pay their premiums, federal health officials announced Tuesday.

The new figure, which was released Tuesday by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), signals success for the government’s extensive push to promote financial assistance for millions who remained uninsured after ObamaCare’s first year.

In the government’s most comprehensive report yet on federal and state exchanges, HHS also announced that at least at least 4 million people signed up for healthcare for the first time since open enrollment began Nov. 15.

At least 6.5 million people bought healthcare in state and federal marketplaces in the first month of the new signup period, which HHS called an “encouraging start.”

Out of that tally, 600,000 signups came from the 12 states running their own exchanges.

The 6.5 million enrollment figure, which is nearly the same as the federal enrollment tally reported last week, is likely far less than the actual tally.

The report only includes state signups through Dec. 13 and federal sign-ups through Dec. 15. Two of the biggest states, California and New York, only reported new sign-ups, and seven states did not report customers who were auto-enrolled in plans.

Several states, such as Minnesota, also extended deadlines for coverage in the new year, which HHS says prevented officials from calculating total enrollment.

An analysis of state data by The Hill last week found that 1.1 million people had signed up in 11 states. A widely touted ObamaCare blog, run by statistician Charles Gaba, puts the national total at about 7.2 million.

HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell touted the higher percentage of customers who qualify for financial assistance, which she said would make “a difference in the bottom lines of so many families.” The department compares this year’s figure to the same period last year, when 80 percent of people were deemed eligible for subsidies.

The figures are tough to compare, however, because the government’s dysfunctional HealthCare.gov portal prevented so many customers from buying coverage last fall. Most sign-ups took place in the spring.

In a different report, which includes federal data through Dec. 26, HHS announced that 6.5 million people have bought coverage through the marketplace and 8.1 million people have submitted applications.

“Even with the holiday, consumers still found the time to shop, start applications and learn about their options,” Burwell wrote in a statement.

The figures include millions of people who were auto-enrolled in their same plans, HHS said.

About 60 percent of customers using the federal exchange were auto-enrolled, which means a majority of customers disregarded advice from HHS to shop around for cheaper plans.

This year’s open enrollment period runs through Feb. 15.

http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/228257-vast-majority-of-obamacare-customers-qualify-for-subsidies

Jonathan Gruber (Bloomberg photo)

South China Sea: Taiwan Worries About Growing Military Threat from Vietnam

December 31, 2014

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By Prashanth Parameswaran

Vietnam’s military expansion on nearby islands could threaten Taiwan’s lone outpost in the South China Sea, according to a new report submitted to Taiwan’s Control Yuan.

The report, published by the Ministry of National Defense, noted that Vietnam’s deployment of mobile missiles and artillery guns on island bases could pose a threat to Taiwan’s military outpost Itu Aba (which Taiwan calls Taiping Island), the largest feature in the Spratly Islands which is also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and China.

Of particular concern are moves by Vietnam to expand its troop presence in Sand Cay Island, including by deploying new shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles (known as Dunqian Sand Island in Chinese Son Ca Island to the Vietnamese) – which lies just 11 km east of Itu Aba. If Vietnam plans on deploying these portable missiles close to Itu Aba, the report says it could attack Taiwan’s C-130 military transport planes and supply ships on their routine visits to Taiping Island.

“Vietnam may plan to deploy these portable missiles to reef islets closer to Taiping Island or might carry them on patrol boats to within striking range. In such a scenario, our military transport aircraft heading to Taiping Island would be directly threatened,” The Taipei Times quoted the report as saying.

Itu Aba, the only physical manifestation of Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea, is an important feature not just because of its size, but because of its supporting infrastructure – including a large runway and fresh water supply – which makes habitation possible. As a result, experts say controlling Itu Aba could eventually help a country advance a legal claim not just on the island itself, but its immediate surroundings or potentially the whole Spratly archipelago and the resources within it.

The report, part of an evaluation of the regional security environment in East Asia, implored Taiwan to boost its defenses in the South China Sea in the face of military expansion by Vietnam as well as China and the Philippines.

In response to the report, some lawmakers have recommended that the country strengthen its own capabilities in the wake of the report’s findings. Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators Johnny Chiang and Lin fu-fang said a new-generation Tuo-Jiang-class corvette, equipped with five surface-to-surface Hsiung Feng 2E missiles, could help Taiwan increase its deterrence capabilities.

Taiwan’s Tuo Chiang stealth corvette

“We must flex our firepower muscle there to deter such threats. Therefore, I request the military to station one or two Tuo Jiang corvettes at the Taiping base on a long-term basis,” Chiang said.

But Minister of National Defense Yen Ming reminded the legislators that since Vietnam has yet to deploy the shoulder-fired missiles on Sand Cay Island, their limited range did not yet pose an imminent threat to Itu Aba. He also said preparations were already underway to help Taiwan adjust to different military contingencies and defend its claims.

Taiwan has been looking to boost its own capabilities on Itu Aba, which is administered by its coast guard, in recent months. Taiwanese officials have announced plans to improve its runway to accommodate transport and marine patrol aircraft and to construct a port that would allow naval frigates and coastguard cutters to be stationed there permanently.

The plans have predictably drawn protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, who have questioned both the legality of Taiwan’s expansion as well as its impact on peace and stability in the South China Sea.

http://thediplomat.com/2014/12/vietnam-a-growing-threat-to-taiwans-south-china-sea-claims-report/

Related:

North Sea Oil: New Oil Fields Pumping But Some Question Environmental Risks

December 31, 2014

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The Statoil-operated Snoehvit liquefied natural gas plant on Melkoeya island, Norway. The company is coming under pressure for the environmental damage caused by the oil and gas it produces. Credit Nerijus Adomaitis/Reuters

Sweden’s Lundin Petroleum AB (Lundin Petroleum) reported Monday that first oil from the Brynhild field offshore Norway has been achieved.

The Brynhild field commenced production Dec. 25. The Brynhild field, located on PL148 in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea, is a subsea tie-back to the Pierce field, operated by Enterprise Oil Ltd (a subsidiary of Shell U.K. Limited), in the UK sector.

The Brynhild field is estimated to contain gross reserves of 23.1 million barrels of oil equivalents and production is currently in excess of the forecast gross plateau rate of 12,000 barrels of oil per day (bopd). Drilling of the third development well is ongoing and the fourth and final development well will be completed in 2015. The production facility for the Pierce and Brynhild fields is the Haewene Brim FPSO which is owned and operated by Bluewater.

The Haewene Brim FPSO has undergone a comprehensive modification and upgrade program including the upgrading of the topside heaters, significant upgrades of metering systems, installation of upgraded subsea control systems, refurbishment of the gas turbine and replacement of the risers. The Brynhild field is the first of Lundin Petroleum’s four development projects which are scheduled to come onstream over the next four quarters and which, by the end of 2015, are forecast to increase Lundin Petroleum’s production level to more than 75,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd).

Lundin Norway AS, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lundin Petroleum, is the operator of PL148 with a 90 percent interest. The partner is Talisman Energy Norge with a 10 percent interest.

– See more at: http://www.rigzone.com/news/oil_gas/a/136539/Lundin_Commences_First_Production_from_Brynhild_Oil_Field_Offshore_Norway#sthash.87qLuhUa.dpuf

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Norwegians Turn Ambivalent on Statoil, Their Economic Bedrock

The New York Times

OSLO — This has not been a particularly good year for Statoil, the huge state-controlled oil company that has had a commanding presence in Norway’s economy and society for more than four decades.

In the spring, Statoil cut 1,000 jobs, or 4 percent of its work force. In September, it postponed a much-criticized project in the Canadian tar sands for at least three years. On Oct. 29, reflecting collapsing oil prices and a steep tumble of its stock, it reported its first quarterly loss since 2001. And in November, it announced disappointing results from the year’s program of drilling for new oil and gas in the Norwegian Arctic.

But it is not just the vicissitudes of oil markets and exploratory wells that are causing difficulties for Statoil. In an era of climate change, the company — and by extension Norway’s entire oil and gas industry, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide — is coming under increasing pressure from within its own borders.

Read the rest:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/31/business/international/norwegians-turn-ambivalent-on-statoil-their-economic-bedrock.html?_r=0

Mongstad, Norway

Mongstad refinery

 

AirAsia 8501: How Much Warning Before Aircraft Lost?

December 31, 2014

PANGKALAN BUN/SURABAYA, Indonesia Wed Dec 31, 2014 6:00am EST

(Reuters) – A body recovered on Wednesday from the crashed AirAsia plane was wearing a life jacket, an Indonesian search and rescue official said, raising new questions about how the disaster unfolded.

Rescuers believe they have found the plane on the ocean floor off Borneo, after sonar detected a large, dark object beneath waters near where debris and bodies were found on the surface.

Ships and planes had been scouring the Java Sea for Flight QZ8501 since Sunday, when it lost contact during bad weather about 40 minutes into its flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.

Seven bodies have been recovered from the sea, some fully clothed, which could indicate the Airbus A320-200 was intact when it hit the water. That would support a theory that it suffered an aerodynamic stall.

The fact that one person put on a life jacket suggests those on board had time before the aircraft hit the water, or before it sank.

And yet the pilots did not issue a distress signal. The plane disappeared after it asked for permission to fly higher to avoid bad weather.

“This morning, we recovered a total of four bodies and one of them was wearing a life jacket,” Tatang Zaenudin, an official with the search and rescue agency, told Reuters.

He declined to speculate on what the find might mean.

A pilot who works for a Gulf carrier said the life jacket indicated the cause of the crash was not “catastrophic failure”. Instead, the plane could have stalled and then come down, possibly because its instruments iced up and gave the pilots inaccurate readings.

“There was time. It means the thing didn’t just fall out of the sky,” said the pilot, who declined to be identified.

He said it could take a minute for a plane to come down from 30,000 feet and the pilots could have experienced “tunnel vision … too overloaded” to send a distress call.

“The first train of thought when you get into a situation like that is to fly the aircraft.”

Most of those on board were Indonesians. No survivors have been found.

Hernanto, head of the search and rescue agency in Surabaya, said rescuers believed they had found the plane on the sea bed with a sonar scan in water 30-50 meters (100-165 feet) deep. The black box flight data and cockpit voice recorder has yet to be found.

Authorities in Surabaya were making preparations to receive and identify bodies, including arranging 130 ambulances to take victims to a police hospital and collecting DNA from relatives.

“We are praying it is the plane so the evacuation can be done quickly,” Hernanto said.

Strong wind and waves hampered the search and with visibility at less than a kilometer (half a mile), the air operation was called off in the afternoon.

“We are all standing by,” Dwi Putranto, heading the air force search effort in Pangalan Bun on Borneo, told Reuters.

“If we want to evacuate bodies from the water, it’s too difficult. The waves are huge and it’s raining.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his priority was retrieving the bodies.

Relatives, many of whom collapsed in grief when they saw the first grim television pictures confirming their fears on Tuesday, held prayers at a crisis center at Surabaya airport.

AirAsia Chief Executive Tony Fernandes has described the crash as his “worst nightmare”.

EXPERIENCED PILOT

The plane was traveling at 32,000 feet (9,753 meters) and had asked to fly at 38,000 feet. When air traffic controllers granted permission for a rise to 34,000 feet a few minutes later, they received no response.

Online discussion among pilots has centered on unconfirmed secondary radar data from Malaysia that suggested the aircraft was climbing at a speed of 353 knots, about 100 knots too slow, and that it might have stalled.

Investigators are focusing initially on whether the crew took too long to request permission to climb, or could have ascended on their own initiative earlier, said a source close to the inquiry, adding that poor weather could have played a part as well.

The Indonesian captain, a former air force fighter pilot, had 6,100 flying hours under his belt and the plane last underwent maintenance in mid-November, said the airline, which is 49 percent owned by Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia.

Three airline disasters involving Malaysian-affiliated carriers in less than a year have dented confidence in the country’s aviation industry and spooked travelers.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing in March on a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew and has not been found. On July 17, the same airline’s Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

On board Flight QZ8501 were 155 Indonesians, three South Koreans, and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain. The co-pilot was French.

The AirAsia group, including affiliates in Thailand, the Philippines and India, had not suffered a crash since its Malaysian budget operations began in 2002.

(Additional reporting by Cindy Silviana, Charlotte Greenfield and Michael Taylor in JAKARTA/SURABAYA/PANGKALAN BUN, Jane Wardell in SYDNEY and Anshuman Daga in SINGAPORE; Writing by Mark Bendeich and Robert Birsel; Editing by Nick Macfie)