The contrasts of Advent 2015

Archbishop Aquila

I can’t remember another Advent when the contrast was so stark. As Catholics we are preparing our hearts and homes to celebrate the wonder and mystery of Jesus at Christmas – the innocent God-Man who by his birth, life, death and resurrection heals our brokenness. In contrast to this light stands a darkened culture that breeds violence, callousness towards others and dissatisfaction with life.

On the night that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, an angel appeared to shepherds who lived in the fields and were watching their flock. The angel told them not to be afraid because he had “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). That angel was then joined by a multitude of others, who declared, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

This past year has been anything but peaceful. Every time an attack occurs, people rightfully lament the lives that have been taken and those who have been wounded. But very few people ask why. Instead a chorus of calls for stricter gun control laws or government monitoring is heard.

The answer to why people carry out these atrocities is the same as it was when Christ was born. The human heart needs to be healed, and only God can do that, only Jesus Christ can do that. Sadly, though, Western society is pushing Christ out of its laws, public debates and culture. Banishing God from the conversation leaves only atheism. And so, without true healing, the war within our hearts continues claim victims.

During his Nov. 14, 2012 general audience, Pope Benedict XVI described the consequences for cultures that engage in this kind of practical atheism. “Were God to lose his centrality,” he said, “man would lose his rightful place, he would no longer fit into creation, into relations with others. What ancient wisdom evokes with the myth of Prometheus has not faded: man thinks he himself can become a ‘god,’ master of life and death.” And the violence of today, as in past history, occurs when man makes himself “god.”

This void is easily filled with numerous destructive ideologies that promise to fulfill us but ultimately fail, sometimes with devastating consequences. In their analysis, “Paris: The War ISIS Wants,” authors Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid argue that ISIS is one movement that attempts to fill this vacuum. They write, “ISIS’s theatrical brutality—whether in the Middle East or now in Europe—is part of a conscious plan designed to instill among believers a sense of meaning that is sacred and sublime, while scaring the hell out of fence-sitters and enemies.”

Catholic scholar Ross Douthat agrees, writing in his Nov. 23 column “The Joy of ISIS,” “The deep reality here … is that many human beings, especially perhaps young human beings, still crave a transcendent purpose, even in a society that tells them they don’t really need one to live a comfortable, fulfilling life.”

Not all forms of godlessness cause such obvious physical damage. I regularly encounter people who have discovered that material possessions, sexuality disconnected from God’s design for it, various addictions, and self-absorption are in fact idols that enslave them and lead to bitter disappointment, loneliness and broken hearts. These are the fruits of God being pushed away and replaced.

But every Advent and Christmas we celebrate the fact that God refused to leave us in this state. Unlike the highly coordinated marketing that competes for our attention, God chose to offer us salvation with powerful simplicity. Jesus was born in poverty, in a shelter for barn animals. He was announced first to simple shepherds, not to the privileged.

The contrast is becoming greater as God and the Gospel are pushed further away. This Advent let us make a conscious effort to welcome Jesus into our homes and hearts with prayer, gratitude, and joy. Let us give our infant Savior the kind of welcome that is heard in the opening line of the St. Andrew Christmas Novena prayer. “Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born Of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold.” May he be born anew in our hearts and souls this Christmas!

COMING UP: Local artists choose life in pro-life art show

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For someone who’s always been in love with art, it’s not surprising that Brett Lempe first encountered God through beauty. Lempe, a 25-year-old Colorado native, used his talent for art and new-found love of God to create a specifically pro-life art show after a planned show was cancelled because of Lempe’s pro-life views.

Lempe was “dried out with earthly things,” he said. “I was desperately craving God.”

Three years ago, while living in St. Louis, Mo., Lempe google searched for a church to visit and ended up at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.

“I was captivated by the beauty of the 40 million mosaic tiles,” he said.

Lempe is not exaggerating. This Cathedral is home to 41.5 million tiles that make up different mosaics around the sanctuary. Witnessing the beauty of this church is what sparked his conversion, he said, and was his first major attraction towards Catholicism.

Lempe continued on to become Catholic, then quit his job several months after joining the Church to dedicate himself completely to art. Most of his work post-conversion is religious art.

Lempe planned to display a non-religious body of artwork at a venue for a month when his contact at the venue saw some of Lempe’s pro-life posts on Facebook. Although none of the artwork Lempe planned to display was explicitly pro-life or religious, the venue cancelled the show.

“I was a little bit shocked at first,” he said. “Something like me being against abortion or being pro-life would get a whole art show cancelled.”

Lempe decided to counter with his own art show, one that would be explicitly pro-life.

On Sept. 7, seven Catholic artists displayed work that gave life at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Denver.

“Catholicism lends itself to being life-giving,” Lempe said.

The show included a variety of work from traditional sacred art, icons, landscapes, to even dresses.

Students for Life co-hosted the event, and 10 percent of proceeds benefited the cause. Lauren Castillo, Development director and faith-based program director at Students for Life America gave the keynote presentation.

Castillo spoke about the need to be the one pro-life person in each circle of influence, with coworkers, neighbors, family, or friends. The reality of how many post-abortive women are already in our circles is big, she said.

“Your friend circle will get smaller,” Castillo said. “If one life is saved, it’s worth it.”

Pro-Life Across Mediums

Brett Lempe’s Luke 1:35

“This painting is the first half at an attempt of displaying the intensity and mystical elements of Luke 1:35,” Lempe said. “This work is influenced somewhat by Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ painting as I try to capture the moment when the “New Adam” is conceived by Our Blessed Mother.”

Claire Woodbury’s icon of Christ Pantokrator

“I was having a difficult time making that icon,” she said. “I was thinking it would become a disaster.”

She felt Jesus saying to her, “This is your way of comforting me. Is that not important?”

“Icons are very important to me,” she said. “I guess they’re important to Him too.”

Katherine Muser’s “Goodnight Kisses”

“Kids naturally recognize the beauty of a baby and they just cherish it,” Muser said of her drawing of her and her sister as children.

Brie Shulze’s Annunciation

“There is so much to unpack in the Annunciation,” Schulze said. “I wanted to unpack that life-giving yes that our Blessed Mother made on behalf of all humanity.”

“Her yes to uncertainty, to sacrifice, to isolation, to public shame and to every other suffering that she would endure is what allowed us to inherit eternal life.”

“Her fiat was not made in full knowledge of all that would happen, but in love and total surrender to the will of God.”

All photos by Makena Clawson