A reader writes:

Jimmy could you please tell us about the origin of the word “Christmas? What did the first Christians call what we today know as Christmas?

Is writing X’mas okay? As in today’s language X means “nothing.” I know that X is the 22nd letter of Greek alphabet known as chi. This chi is the first part of the word chirios or expanded to Christos, which means to anoint.

Thus we say that Christos & Messiah are the same. We accept Christos, why not Messiah? Just because St Paul called Jesus Christ?

Also Yuletide? Since Yule is a pagan rather a Gentile term for winter solstice in the northern regions, and a period dedicated to Saturnalia, how come we Christians have adopted this word? What are its implications?

Happy to oblige! Let’s take the questions one by one . . .


1) What is the origin of the word “Christmas”?

The word “Christmas” comes from the Old English phrase Christes maesse (“Christ’s Mass”)—that is the Mass celebrated in honor of Christ’s birth.

From this original reference to a particular Mass celebrated in the Church’s liturgical year, the term came to apply both to the day on which the Mass was celebrated and to the liturgical season associated with it (i.e., the Christmas season, aka Christmastide).

The term Christes maesse began to be written in English as one word in the mid-1300s.


Note that this only applies to English and languages that English has influenced. Other terms are used for this day (and season) in other languages.

For example, in Spanish, “Christmas” is Navidad, in Italian it is Natale, and in French it is Noël. These terms are derived from the Latin root nativitas, from which we also get the word “Nativity” (i.e., birth).



2) What did the first Christians call what we today know as Christmas?

The first Christians do not appear to have had a word for this day, because the first Christians do not appear to have celebrated this day. It took some time for the practice of celebrating Christmas to emerge.

Benedict XVI explained:

To understand better the meaning of the Lord’s Birth I would like to make a brief allusion to the historical origins of this Solemnity. In fact, at the outset the Liturgical Year of the Church did not develop primarily from Christ’s Birth but rather from faith in his Resurrection. Thus Christianity’s most ancient Feast is not Christmas but Easter; the Christian faith is founded on Christ’s Resurrection, which is at the root of the proclamation of the Gospel and gave birth to the Church. Therefore being Christian means living in a Paschal manner, letting ourselves be involved in the dynamism that originated in Baptism and leads to dying to sin in order to live with God (cf. Rom 6: 4).

Hippolytus of Rome, in his commentary on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, written in about a.d. 204, was the first person to say clearly that Jesus was born on 25 December. . . .

For Christianity the Feast of Christmas acquired its definitive form in the fourth century [General Audience, Dec. 23, 2009].


3) Is writing “Xmas” okay?

Yes, it is “okay” to write “Xmas.” It’s just an abbreviation, and there is nothing sinful about abbreviating a word, even one containing the term “Christ.”

In fact, the earliest Christians did frequently abbreviate sacred terms. Scholars studying early Christian manuscripts are familiar with a phenomenon known as the nomina sacra (“sacred names”; singular = nomen sacrum) in which terms like “God,” “Jesus,” “Lord,” and “Christ” were regularly abbreviated precisely because they were sacred.

This happens in our earliest manuscripts of the New Testament documents. Thus, “God” (Greek, theos) was abbreviated with a theta and a sigma (its first and last letters in Greek), “Jesus” (Iesous) was abbreviated iota-sigma, “Lord” (Kurios) was abbreviated kappa-sigma, and “Christ” (Christos) was abbreviated chi-sigma.

The appearance of the nomina sacra is one of the ways that we date when a Christian manuscript was written, because this practice characterized the early centuries.

Similar abbreviations have appeared later, though. Concerning “Xmas,” the Online Etymology Dictionary says:

Xmas (n.)

“Christmas,” 1551, X’temmas, wherein the X is an abbreviation for Christ in Christmas, English letter X being identical in form (but not sound signification) to Greek chi, the first letter of Greek Christos “Christ” (see Christ). The earlier way to abbreviate the word in English was Xp- or Xr- (corresponding to the “Chr-” in Greek Χριστος), and the form Xres mæsse for “Christmas” appears in the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” (c.1100).

At the same time, I understand the squeamishness many folks have about the abbreviation, particularly if they don’t have this background info.


4) Do we accept the term Messiah as well as Christos?

Whether “Christ” or “Messiah” is used depends largely on the language one is speaking. The New Testament is written in Greek, and so it normally uses the term christos, though it does use messias (a Greek version of the Aramaic mshiha) in John 1:41 and 4:25.

The prominence of christos compared to messias in the Greek New Testament is the reason that in much of Christendom the term “Christ” is used more frequently than “Messiah,” though in languages like Aramaic, Arabic, and Hebrew (which are all related to each other) variations on “Messiah” turn up more frequently.

Since the terms mean the same thing, they are both used, and which is used in a particular case is a matter of custom.


5) What about “Yuletide”?

“Yuletide” is simply a contraction of “Yule” and “tide” (i.e., time), meaning “Yule time” or “the time of Yule.”

When we dig deeper than this, the answer becomes more complex. You will find sources out there that say Yule was a pre-Christian pagan holiday in Scandinavia.

Unfortunately, lots of what gets said about pre-Christian holidays is absolute bunk, and so such claims are not to be simply accepted. They must be tested.

When you do that, the claim that Yule was a pre-Christian holiday starts to appear shaky.

What seems certain is that the term Yule was used to refer to a an extended period of time (e.g., a month or two months), but it is not at all clear that it referred to any particular holiday in pre-Christian times.

British historian of paganism Ronald Hutton states:

In the eleventh century Danish rule over England resulted in the introduction of the colloquial Scandinavian term for Christmas, ‘Yule’, which provided an alternative name for it among the English.

It became popular with them in the next century, and in the thirteenth is first recorded in Scotland, where it had become standard in vernacular speech by the end of the Middle Ages.

In Old Norse it is jol, in Swedish jul, and in Danish juul.

The derivation of the name has baffled linguists; it is possibly related to the Gothic heul or Anglo-Saxon hweal, signifying a wheel, or to the root-word which yielded the English expression ‘jolly’.

Nothing certain, however, is known, and there is equal doubt over whether it was originally attached to a midwinter festival which preceded the Christian one (Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, p. 6).

Regardless of the origin of the word, it’s just a word. What matters for what a word means is how it is presently used, not where it came from. (Thus “nice” means nice, it doesn’t mean ignorant, even though it came from the Latin word nescius, which means not knowing).

Sounds do not carry “evil vibrations” from how they may or may not have been used before.

Today, in English, Yule refers to Christmas, and Yuletide refers to Christmas time.

That’s what counts for speakers of modern English.

Also, Yule and Christmas (both) have nothing to do with Saturnalia, which was a Roman holiday, not a Norse or Christian one.


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popefrancisThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 20 November – 13 December 2014.

Note: The Vatican has translated very few documents into English for the month of December.



Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

Papal Tweets

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puppy-yawnThe news networks are abuzz with stories saying that Pope Francis has said pets go to heaven.

They’ve even “helpfully” noted how this contrasts with the position of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

But the thing is . . . the whole story is false.

Here are 7 things to know and share . . .


1) What is being claimed?

Among other things:

Pope Francis has declared that all animals go to heaven during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square.

The Pope made these remarks after he received two donkeys as early Christmas presents. During his discussion, Pope Francis quoted the apostle Paul as he comforted a child who was mourning the death of his dog.

Francis quoted Paul’s remarks as, “One day we will see our animals again in eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” [Source.]


In his weekly audience in St Peter’s Francis quoted the apostle Paul who comforted a child who was crying after his dog died.

“One day we will see our animals again in eternity of Christ’, Francis quoted Paul as saying. The Pope added: “Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” [Source.]

Right there we have multiple reasons to be suspicious of the story.


2) Why do we have reason to be suspicious?

First, because the common theological opinion for centuries has been that the souls of animals do not survive death.

Second, because this is just the kind of sensationalistic story that the media loves to get wrong.

Third because we have the same words being attributed to two different events: The Wednesday audience at which the remarks were allegedly made occurred on November 26, but the donkey-giving event occurred later.

Fourth, because the Apostle Paul never wrote anything comforting a child who was morning the death of his dog.

Anybody who has read his epistles knows this.

In fact, just do an online search of St. Paul’s epistles, and you’ll see what I mean.

There is only a single passage (Philippians 3:2) where St. Paul refers to dogs, and there he isn’t comforting a boy. He’s using the term as a way of referring to people who do bad stuff.

Fifth, St. Paul certainly never wrote that “One day we will see our animals again in eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.”

That’s just not in the New Testament. Anywhere.


3) Do the reasons for suspicion deepen if you look further into the story?

You bet. While many secular news agencies are carrying this story, you know who isn’t?

The Vatican’s own news agencies. You can do searches on for terms like animals or dog and you won’t find any articles about Pope Francis saying that animals go to heaven.

You might even find a story denying this if they get around to posting a denial for the benefit of the world press.

You can also read the entire text of the Wednesday audience where Pope Francis allegedly made the remarks. He doesn’t say anything like what is attributed to him.

And, if that’s not enough, you can watch the video of the entire papal audience, including the stuff before and after it, like where he’s riding around St. Peter’s Square in the popemobile, and you can see for yourself that at no point does Francis make such remarks—nor is a crying child ever brought to him for words of comfort.


4) What did Francis actually say?

Pope Francis’s audience was devoted to the subject of creation and the new heaven and earth. What he said was:

At the same time, Sacred Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this marvelous plan cannot but involve everything that surrounds us and came from the heart and mind of God.

The Apostle Paul says it explicitly, when he says that “Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).

Other texts utilize the image of a “new heaven” and a “new earth” (cf. 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1), in the sense that the whole universe will be renewed and will be freed once and for all from every trace of evil and from death itself.

What lies ahead is the fulfillment of a transformation that in reality is already happening, beginning with the death and resurrection of Christ.

Hence, it is the new creation; it is not, therefore, the annihilation of the cosmos and of everything around us, but the bringing of all things into the fullness of being, of truth and of beauty.

This is the design that God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, willed from eternity to realize and is realizing.


5) Where did the stuff about animals going to heaven come from?

That was an interpretation that put upon Francis’s remarks by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, which then got garbled in translation and picked up by the international news media.

The New York Times, after writing a gushy, slanted, and inaccurate story on the topic, subsequently issued this correction:

Correction: December 12, 2014 

An earlier version of this article misstated the circumstances of Pope Francis’ remarks.

He made them in a general audience at the Vatican, not in consoling a distraught boy whose dog had died.

The article also misstated what Francis is known to have said.

According to Vatican Radio, Francis said: “The Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us,” which was interpreted to mean he believes animals go to heaven.

Francis is not known to have said: “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”

(Those remarks were once made by Pope Paul VI to a distraught child, and were cited in a Corriere della Sera article that concluded Francis believes animals go to heaven.) 

Got that?

Francis didn’t say anything to a grieving boy. Neither did the apostle Paul. It was (allegedly) Pope Paul VI.

Francis didn’t say that animals go to heaven. Corriere della Sera leapt to unjustifiable conclusions because Pope Francis said that God has a plan to renovate the world.



6) So this is another sensationalistic story about Pope Francis with no basis?

Yes. This is another case of the media getting the story utterly wrong and hyperventilating about Pope Francis for no reason.

The media is functioning as a vast echo chamber where reporters who don’t know beans are simply repeating what other reporters who don’t know beans have said.

The reasons for suspicion that I cited in point #2 (above)—and particularly the thing about the apostle Paul comforting a boy who’s dog had died—should have told any knowledgeable reporter that something was wrong with the story.

They then should have done just what I did and discovered the problems mentioned in point #3.

Memo to reporters: This isn’t a matter of rocket science. It’s a matter of checking your sources before shooting off your mouth.


7) Did Pope Paul VI say to a bereaved boy what is attributed to him?

Who knows?

If you search the Vatican web site for the relevant quote, you get nothing.

At this point, I don’t see why anyone should trust anything attributed to a pope about animals going to heaven—not without a solid reference to a checkable, primary source document.

As we’ve just seen, the dangers of getting bad info by relying on the papal rumor mill are too great.

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Dec. 8th is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. What is the Immaculate Conception and how do we celebrate it?

December 8th is the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

It celebrates an important point of Catholic teaching, and in most years it is a holy day of obligation.

Here are 8 things you need to know about the teaching and the way we celebrate it.


1. Who does the Immaculate Conception refer to?

There’s a popular idea that it refers to Jesus’ conception by the Virgin Mary.

It doesn’t.

Instead, it refers to the special way in which the Virgin Mary herself was conceived.

This conception was not virginal. (That is, she had a human father as well as a human mother.) But it was special and unique in another way. . . .


2. What is the Immaculate Conception?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way:

490 To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace”.  In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.

491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin. 


3. Does this mean Mary never sinned?

Yes. Because of the way redemption was applied to Mary at the moment of her conception, she not only was protected from contracting original sin but also personal sin. The Catechism explains:

493 The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God “the All-Holy” (Panagia), and celebrate her as “free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature”.  By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long. “Let it be done to me according to your word. . .”


4. Does this mean Mary didn’t need Jesus to die on the Cross for her?

No. What we’ve already quoted states that Mary was immaculately conceived as part of her being “full of grace” and thus “redeemed from the moment of her conception” by “a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race.”

The Catechism goes on to state:

492 The “splendour of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son”.  The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love”.

508 From among the descendants of Eve, God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. “Full of grace”, Mary is “the most excellent fruit of redemption” (SC 103): from the first instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.


5. How does this make Mary a parallel of Eve?

Adam and Eve were both created immaculate–without original sin or its stain. They fell from grace, and through them mankind was bound to sin.

Christ and Mary were also conceived immaculate. They remained faithful, and through them mankind was redeemed from sin.

Christ is thus the New Adam, and Mary the New Eve.

The Catechism notes:

494 . . . As St. Irenaeus says, “Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.” Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert. . .: “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.”  Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary “the Mother of the living” and frequently claim: “Death through Eve, life through Mary.”


6. How does this make Mary an icon of our own destiny?

Those who die in God’s friendship and thus go to heaven will be freed from all sin and stain of sin. We will thus all be rendered “immaculate” (Latin, immaculatus = “stainless”) if we remain faithful to God.

Even in this life, God purifies us and trains us in holiness and, if we die in his friendship but imperfectly purified, he will purify us in purgatory and render us immaculate.

By giving Mary this grace from the first moment of her conception, God showed us an image of our own destiny. He shows us that this is possible for humans by his grace.

John Paul II noted:

In contemplating this mystery in a Marian perspective, we can say that “Mary, at the side of her Son, is the most perfect image of freedom and of the liberation of humanity and of the universe. It is to her as Mother and Model that the Church must look in order to understand in its completeness the meaning of her own mission” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Libertatis conscientia, 22 March, 1986, n. 97; cf. Redemptoris Mater, n. 37).

Let us fix our gaze, then, on Mary, the icon of the pilgrim Church in the wilderness of history but on her way to the glorious destination of the heavenly Jerusalem, where she [the Church] will shine as the Bride of the Lamb, Christ the Lord [General Audience, March 14, 2001].


7. Was it necessary for God to make Mary immaculate at her conception so that she could be Jesus’ mother?

No. The Church only speaks of the Immaculate Conception as something that was “fitting,” something that made Mary a “fit habitation” (i.e., suitable dwelling) for the Son of God, not something that was necessary. Thus in preparing to define the dogma, Pope Pius IX stated:

And hence they [the Church Fathers] affirmed that the Blessed Virgin was, through grace, entirely free from every stain of sin, and from all corruption of body, soul and mind; that she was always united with God and joined to him by an eternal covenant; that she was never in darkness but always in light; and that, therefore, she was entirely a fit habitation for Christ, not because of the state of her body, but because of her original grace. . . .

For it was certainly not fitting that this vessel of election should be wounded by the common injuries, since she, differing so much from the others, had only nature in common with them, not sin. In fact, it was quite fitting that, as the Only-Begotten has a Father in heaven, whom the Seraphim extol as thrice holy, so he should have a Mother on earth who would never be without the splendor of holiness [Ineffabilis Deus].


8. How do we celebrate the Immaculate Conception today?

In the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, December 8th is the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and it is a holy day of obligation.

In the United States, the obligation to attend Mass exists even though it immediately follows a Sunday this year.

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benedict-at-deskSince Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy and began his retirement in seclusion, he has said nothing publicly.

There’s a very good reason for that, and that’s why the most recent thing he’s written is so amazing.

He’s just publicly weighed in on Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to give Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

Here’s the story . . .


1) Why is Benedict XVI so silent these days?

To give his successor a free hand. If a pope emeritus continued to speak out and play a substantial role as a public figure, it could cause all kinds of problems for his successor.

If the two were perceived as being in opposition to each other, it could be extremely traumatic for the Church. Hypothetically, it could even create a schism.

That’s why, when St. Celestine V resigned, his successor kept him imprisoned in a castle until he died.

By choosing to live in a monastery at the Vatican and staying out of the public eye, Benedict is deliberately staying out of Francis’s way.

He’s also setting a precedent for future popes emeritus.


2) What has Benedict said since retirement?

Very little. We know that he has been writing letters. In one letter, he took an atheist mathematician to the woodshed, and the mathematician later published the letter.

He also wrote a speech that was read at a Roman university by his aide, Archbishop Georg Ganswein.

But, in general, he has written very little that has come to public light.

And none of what he has written has dealt with controversial issues in the Church.

Until now.


3) What does Benedict think of “the Kasper proposal”

Over the last year, the Church has been wracked by a revival of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to give Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in some circumstances.

Cardinals have been publicly debating each other in the press.

We don’t need to rehash the whole, sad history of that here.

As we’ve watched that situation play out, I’ve repeatedly wondered what Benedict must be thinking—and doing.

Since Pope Francis allowed public discussion of this subject to continue, and since it’s a source of controversy in the Church, you wouldn’t expect him to speak out publicly on the subject.

That would be precisely the kind of interference in his successor’s affairs that he set out to avoid by going into seclusion.

But this issue is so important, with such high stakes, that it’s also precisely the kind of situation that would test that resolve.

I thought, perhaps, he would play a background role—giving advice to Pope Francis off the record at an opportune moment. We know that kind of thing happens.

But he’s now done much more than that.

He’s told us what he thinks.

And it happened through an unusual chain of events that seems providentially structured.


4) What happened?

Back in 1972, when he was still a theology professor, Joseph Ratzinger wrote an essay on the indissolubility of marriage in which he tentatively floated a variation of the Kasper proposal.

This was one of several ideas that Prof. Ratzinger tried out in the days of theological experimentation after the Council but later abandoned.

Indeed, he became a leader in the opposition to the idea that Holy Communion could be given to the divorced and civilly remarried.

Thus, when Cardinal Kasper and two other German bishops floated the proposal in 1993, Cardinal Ratzinger—as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—wrote a paper forcefully rejecting the idea.

You can read it here.

But that 1972 essay was still out there, and when he revived his proposal last year, Cardinal Kasper started quoting it.

I can only imagine that this deeply displeased Benedict.

Nobody likes having his words thrown back in his face—particularly when they are words that one has disowned.

For Cardinal Kasper to publicly cite the 1972 essay in an effort to associate Benedict’s name with and thus promote a position that Benedict has rejected must really come across as twisting the knife.

And yet it would seem that Benedict’s hands were tied by his seclusion.

Only they weren’t.


5) Why not?

Because, for the last few years, there has been an effort underway to re-publish collected editions of all of Benedict’s theological writings. (His private ones, that is; not his magisterial documents.)

This effort has been led by Cardinal Gerhard Muller.

And now they’ve published—in German—a volume of Benedict’s writings that includes a revised version of the 1972 essay.

The publication of this series of volumes thus allowed Benedict, from one perspective, to yank the rug out from under Cardinal Kasper’s use of the 1972 essay.

From another perspective, it allowed him to weigh in on the present controversy without having to make a new, public statement that could be perceived as deliberately interfering in the affairs of his successor.

The fact that this set of volumes was underway, and that that particular essay had not yet been republished when Cardinal Kasper started using it for his own purposes, is a providential blessing.

And what Benedict said is extremely encouraging.


6) What did he say?

You can read the full text of the part of the essay that changed—and the 1972 original—at Sandro Magister’s site (ht: Fr.Z).

Of course, the initial variation of the Kasper proposal is gone. There is no trace of it.

Benedict says a number of very interesting things, and the section dealing with divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion reads as follows:

The 1981 apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” of John Paul II . . . states: “Together with the Synod, I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church […] Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.”

This gives pastoral care an important task, which perhaps has not yet been sufficiently incorporated into the Church’s everyday life. Some details are indicated in the exhortation itself. There it is said that these persons, insofar as they are baptized, may participate in the Church’s life, which in fact they must do. The Christian activities that are possible and necessary for them are listed. Perhaps, however, it should be emphasized with greater clarity what the pastors and brethren in the faith can do so that they may truly feel the love of the Church. I think that they should be granted the possibility of participating in ecclesial associations and even of becoming godfathers or godmothers, something that the law does not provide for as of now.

There is another point of view that imposes itself on me. The impossibility of receiving the holy Eucharist is perceived as so painful not last of all because, currently, almost all who participate in the Mass also approach the table of the Lord. In this way the persons affected also appear publicly disqualified as Christians.

I maintain that Saint Paul’s warning about examining oneself and reflecting on the fact that what is at issue is the Body of the Lord should be taken seriously once again: “A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:28 f.). A serious self-examination, which might even lead to forgoing communion, would also help us to feel in a new way the greatness of the gift of the Eucharist and would furthermore represent a form of solidarity with divorced and remarried persons.

I would like to add another practical suggestion. In many countries it has become customary for persons who are not able to receive communion (for example, the members of other confessions) to approach the altar with their hands folded over their chests, making it clear that they are not receiving the sacrament but are asking for a blessing, which is given to them as a sign of the love of Christ and of the Church. This form could certainly be chosen also by persons who are living in a second marriage and therefore are not admitted to the Lord’s table. The fact that this would make possible an intense spiritual communion with the Lord, with his whole Body, with the Church, could be a spiritual experience that would strengthen and help them.

He thus proposes pastoral care for those in this situation and finding ways to further involve them in the life of the Church—including allowing them to serve in church associations and perhaps as godparents.

However, he recommends no change on the question of administering Holy Communion.

Instead, he asks us all to engage in serious self-examination and not to receive Communion unthinkingly.

And he recommends the custom of approaching the minister for a blessing when—as with the divorced and civilly remarried—one is not able to receive Communion.


7) How significant is this?

Benedict’s revision of his 1972 essay is extremely significant.

It makes the general lines of his thought publicly known, and this is bound to be a great encouragement for those who wish to see the Church’s traditional teaching and practice maintained.

It also makes it harder to use Benedict’s name in association with the contrary proposal—as Cardinal Kasper and others have been doing.

It’s a net gain. It’s a gift from God. And, with the former pope weighing in on the issue publicly, it may even be a game-changer.

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Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration mass on 19 March 2013.This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 13–30 November 2014.


Apostolic Letters

General Audiences




Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

Papal Tweets

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advent-wreath-1Advent began this last Sunday.

Most of us have an intuitive understanding of Advent, based on experience, but what do the Church’s official documents actually say about Advent?

Here are some of the basic questions and (official!) answers about Advent.

Some of the answers are surprising!

Here we go . . .


1. What Is the Purpose of Advent?

Advent is a season on the Church’s liturgical calendar–specifically, it is as season on the calendar of the Latin Church, which is the largest Church in communion with the pope.

Other Catholic Churches–as well as many non-Catholic churches–have their own celebration of Advent.

According to the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar:

Advent has a twofold character:

  • as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered;
  • as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time.

Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation [Norms 39].

We tend to think of Advent only as the season in which we prepare for Christmas, or the First Coming of Christ, but as the General Norms point out, it is important that we also remember it as a celebration in which we look forward to the Second Coming of Christ.

Properly speaking, Advent is a season that brings to mind the Two Comings of Christ.


2. What Liturgical Colors Are Used in Advent?

Particular days and certain types of celebrations can have their own colors (e.g., red for martyrs, black or white at funerals), but the normal color for Advent is violet. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal provides:

The color violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead [346d].

In many places, there is a notable exception for the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday:

The color rose may be used, where it is the practice, on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent) and on Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent) [GIRM 346f].


3. Is Advent a Penitential Season?

We often think of Advent as a penitential season because the liturgical color for Advent is violet, like the color of Lent, which is a penitential season.

However, in reality, Advent is not a penitential season. Surprise!

According to the Code of Canon Law:

Can.  1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

Although local authorities can establish additional penitential days, this is a complete listing of the penitential days and times of the Latin Church as a whole, and Advent is not one of them.


4. When Does Advent Begin and End?

According to the General Norms:

Advent begins with evening prayer I of the Sunday falling on or closest to 30 November and ends before evening prayer I of Christmas [Norms 40].

The Sunday on or closest to November 30 can range between November 27 and December 3, depending on the year.

In the case of a Sunday, Evening Prayer I is said on the evening of the preceding day (Saturday). According to the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours:

96. Evening prayer, celebrated immediately before Mass, is joined to it in the same way as morning prayer. Evening prayer I of solemnities, Sundays, or feasts of the Lord falling on Sundays may not be celebrated until after Mass of the preceding day or Saturday. 

This means that Advent begins on the evening of a Saturday falling between November 26 and December 2 (inclusive), and it ends on the evening of December 24th, which holds Evening Prayer I of Christmas (December 25th).


5. What Is the Role of Sundays in Advent?

There are four Sundays of Advent. The General Norms state:

The Sundays of this season are named the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Sundays of Advent [Norms 41].

We have already mentioned that the Third Sunday of Advent has a special name–Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for “Rejoice,” which is the first word of the introit of the Mass for this day.

The Church ascribes particular importance to these Sundays, and they take precedence over other liturgical celebrations. Thus the General Norms state:

Because of its special importance, the Sunday celebration gives way only to solemnities or feasts of the Lord. The Sundays of the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Easter, however, take precedence over all solemnities and feasts of the Lord. Solemnities occuring on these Sundays are observed on the Saturdays preceding [Norms 5].

You also cannot celebrate Funeral Masses on the Sundays of Advent:

Among the Masses for the Dead, the Funeral Mass holds first place. It may be celebrated on any day except for Solemnities that are Holydays of Obligation, Thursday of Holy Week, the Paschal Triduum, and the Sundays of Advent, Lent, and Easter, with due regard also for all the other requirements of the norm of the law [GIRM 380].


6. What Happens on Weekdays in Advent?

It is especially recommended that homilies be given on the weekdays of Advent. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states:

On Sundays and Holydays of Obligation there is to be a Homily at every Mass that is celebrated with the people attending and it may not be omitted without a grave reason. On other days it is recommended, especially on the weekdays of Advent, Lent and Easter Time, as well as on other festive days and occasions when the people come to church in greater numbers [GIRM 66].

The General Norms also point out a special role for the weekdays of the week preceding Christmas:

The weekdays from 17 December to 24 December inclusive serve to prepare more directly for the Lord’s birth [Norms 41].

This special role is illustrated, for example, by the Scripture readings used in the liturgy on these days.


7. How Are Churches Decorated During Advent?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal notes:

During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts [GIRM 305].


8. How Is Music Performed During Advent?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal notes:

In Advent the use of the organ and other musical instruments should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only in order to support the singing. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts [GIRM 313].


9. Is the Gloria Said or Sung During Advent?

Neither. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal provides:

[The Gloria or “Glory to God in the highest”] is sung or said on Sundays outside Advent and Lent, and also on Solemnities and Feasts, and at particular celebrations of a more solemn character [GIRM 53].


10. What Private Devotions Can We Use to Grow Closer to God During Advent?

There are a variety of private devotions that the Church has recognized for use during Advent. The most famous is the Advent Wreath.

You can read about these devotions in the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (starting at no. 96).

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SHEPH_FIELDS_ORTHODOXSt. Luke records that when Jesus was born an angel of the Lord directed a group of shepherds to go find him.

Luke introduces this group of shepherds by saying:

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night [Luke 2:8].

This has led to a common argument that Jesus couldn’t have been born on December 25th.

Why? Because it was supposedly too cold for the shepherds to be pasturing their flocks at night in late December.

Is this true?

Not on your life.


Shepherds’ Fields

Sheep definitely were pastured in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Luke is correct about that. In fact, they are pastured there today.

There are even two fields (one Catholic, one Greek Orthodox) that are known as the “Shepherds’ Field,” where pilgrims go to commemorate the events that Luke records. Both have shrines today.

The Orthodox one is pictured above.

You can read more about the Shepherds’ Fields here.

Neither can be established as the site Luke mentions. (Indeed, the site may have been at another nearby location entirely.)

Now about the argument that it was too cold to be grazing sheep on December 25th. . . .


Too Cold?

You know those fashionable fleece jackets that are really popular that people wear to keep from being too cold?

The ones that return between five and six million hits on Google?

Yeah those!

You know where the stuff those fleece jackets are made of comes from?

That’s right! Sheep! (And/or goats.)

It turns out that God decided to have sheep grow this amazing stuff called wool.

This wool stuff not only makes sheep soft and fun for children to touch at petting zoos, it also keeps them warm—just like it keeps us warm once we shear it off them.

In fact, wool is one of the main reasons that we keep sheep in the first place.

Sheep also need us to shear them, because if we don’t then their wool will overgrow and make it very difficult for the sheep to go about its normal sheep business.

Here’s a picture of a sheep whose wool has been allowed to grow to the point that, when it was finally sheared, it produced enough wool for twenty men’s suits . . .


Anybody want to say it was too cold for that sheep to withstand the rigors of a December night in the vicinity of Jerusalem, where the average nightly low for such nights (today) is 43 degrees Fahrenheit?

Of course, average temperature changes over times, but the first century was well after the close of the last Ice Age.

So maybe we want to be a little careful about declaring it “too cold” to keep sheep outdoors in the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area without, y’know, actually checking the facts.

Speaking of which . . .


Let’s Check the Facts!

Whether or not Jesus was born on December 25th, the claim that sheep were not being grazed at this time of year is false. In fact, sheep are still grazed there at this time of year.

In biblical circles, there is a famous letter written in 1967 in which a visiting scholar noted that sheep were, in fact, being pastured in Shepherds’ Field on Christmas Eve itself.

Biblical chronologer Jack Finegan writes:

William Hendriksen quotes a letter dated Jan. 16, 1967, received from the New Testament scholar Harry Mulder, then teaching in Beirut, in which the latter tells of being  in Shepherd Field at Bethlehem on the just-passed Christmas Eve, and says: “Right near us a few flocks of sheep were nestled. Even the lambs were not lacking. . . . It is therefore definitely not impossible that the Lord Jesus was born in December” [Jack Finnegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (2nd ed.), no. 569, quoting Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), 1:182].

So the idea that Jesus couldn’t have been born on December 25th because of Luke’s reference to the pasturing of sheep on this night is false.


What about the shepherds?

Of course, Luke also says the shepherds were out in the fields. Would it have been too cold for them?

After all, shepherds are not naturally covered in wool. (Well, not most of them.)

But they do tend to have access to wool clothing and wool blankets, and they can lie down together to keep warm (Eccles. 4:11; cf. Eccles. 4:9-12) and build fires (John 18:18), etc.

And, y’know, 43 degrees.

So yeah. Not too cold for them, either.

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nativityWas Jesus really born on December 25th?

You’ll find strong opinions on both sides of this question, with some saying definitely yes and some saying definitely no.

I don’t have strong feelings on this question. Although the Church today liturgically celebrates the birth of Our Lord on December 25th, whether this is the exact date of his birth is a question that the Magisterium has not settled. I would be fascinated if it turned out he was born on this date, but it would not upset me if it turned out he wasn’t.

The important thing is that he was born!

Over time, I want to look at some of the arguments (good and bad) about the day of Christ’s birth, and I’ll use this page to keep track of those posts, since the subject is too broad to be dealt with in a single, initial post.

Oh, and before we begin, a note for those who wonder if I’ve seen the Star of Bethlehem documentary (I get asked about this regularly when I talk about Christmas). Yes, I’ve seen it. It has both positive and negative aspects. Some of the things it argues are correct, but not everything it says is perfectly argued. I’ll try to deal with it in the fullness of time.

Here goes . . .


What Year was Jesus Born?

In this sequence of posts I deal with the chronology of the year in which (thought not the day on which) Jesus was born.

The 100-year old *mistake* about the Birth of Jesus

Here I point out the flaws in the argument made by Emil Shurer that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. This argument has skewed New Testament chronology for a century!

Jesus’ birth and when Herod the Great *really* died

Here I describe the reasons that point to the actual date of Herod the Great’s death in 1 B.C.

What year was Jesus born? The answer may surprise you

Now I add up the evidence, which reveals that Jesus was born in the year that the Church Fathers held Jesus was born: 3/2 B.C.


The Infancy Narratives

How the accounts of Jesus’ childhood fit together: 6 things to know and share

Here I argue that, despite claims to the contrary, the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke do not contradict each other. Instead, they fit together amazingly well.


The Enrollment of Quirinius

Does St. Luke contradict himself on when Jesus was born?

Here I deal with an alleged contradiction between Luke’s statements that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, given the connection he makes to the enrollment of Quirinius.


The Star of Bethlehem

Was the Star of Bethlehem a myth? A UFO? Or something else?

Here I argue that the Star of Bethlehem could have been an ordinary, if uncommon, astronomical phenomenon and that we need not suppose that it was a myth or something preternaturally strange.

Responding to the “Go To” Skeptic on the Star of Bethlehem

Here I respond to arguments posed by Dr. Aaron Adair, a skeptic who thinks that the way Matthew describes the Star of Bethlehem aren’t consistent with ordinary astronomical phenomena.


The “Integral Age” Theory

Is the “integral age” theory an apologetics myth?

Here I look at the claim that the date of Christmas and the Annunciation were determined by an alleged Jewish belief that prophets live in whole year units. In it, I point out the lack of clear evidence for this and ask for further help researching the idea.

“Integral Age” update!

Here I record the results of further research that I was able to do with the help of various individuals who responded to the above post. Conclusion: The most that can safely be claimed is that some Jewish sages from approximately this period in history had the idea that some holy men (at least Moses) lived in whole year units and this may or may not have played a role in the thinking of early Christians in fixing certain feast days.


The Sheep Argument

Do sheep prove that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th?

Here I deal with the argument that Jesus couldn’t have been born on December 25th because it was too cold for sheep to be pastured on that night, as Luke records.

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mosesdeathRecently I blogged about the common apologetics claim that the dates of Christmas and the Annunciation were based on the idea that Jesus lived to an “integral age.”

In other words, that Jesus died on the anniversary of his birth or conception.

According to some authors, it was popularly believed among ancient Jews that prophets and other holy men died on their birthdays.

But my own research into the topic did not back this up.

I therefore asked if others could shed any light on the subject, and they did!

With the generous help of various individuals, mostly on Facebook, I’ve been able to get further information on this subject.


The origin of “integral age”

Jon Sorensen noted that the phrase “integral age” may have been coined by William J. Tighe in this article. Tighe writes:

At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.

Tighe provides no documentation for the claim that the idea of integral age “seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ,” though he correctly notes that it is nowhere taught in the Bible.


Duchene’s proposal

Sorensen also pointed out that a variation of the argument was used by Louis Duschene in his book Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution. You can read his discussion of it here, starting on page 263.

Duschene admits that no text from the correct time period states that this is the way the dates of Christmas and the Annunication were determined, and so he says that his theory must be put forward as a hypothesis, although one he thinks can be defended.

It should be noted that Duschene is discussing early Christian sources, not Jewish ones, and so he is not claiming that Christians got this idea from Jews of the period.

His proposal is also picked up by the Catholic Encyclopedia, which attributes the idea to a “popular instinct, demanding an exact number of years in a Divine life” (source). Again, such an instinct would have been on the part of Christians. It is not claimed that this was picked up from Jewish individuals of their day.


A good day to die

One contact pointed to a statement in the Jewish Encyclopedia, which states “It is a good omen to die with a smile on the face, or to die on one’s birthday” (source).

Unfortunately, the text is not clear on the origin of this claim (though it may be Tur Yoreh De’ah 353; I have not been able to locate an online source to check this).

The idea that it’s a good omen to die on one’s birthday, though, does not establish that it was an ancient Jewish belief that the prophets or other men of God typically did so.


Moses’ Birth/Death Day

Several contacts pointed to statements in the Babylonian Talmud that claim that Moses died on the his birthday.

This appears to be stated in at least three places (b. Rosh Hashanah 1 [1:1, VIII.3.X], b. Sotah 12b [1:8, III.38.Q], b. Kiddushin 39a [1:9, II:9:B])

The least informative of these is the reference in Sotah, which simply says that Moses was born and died on the seventh of the month of Adar but does not go into why.

The reference in Rosh Hashanah appears to say that Moses died on his hundred and twentieth birthday, and it may indicate that the same was true of the patriarch Abraham, though this is less clear.


Finally, an argument!

The clearest discussion is found in Kiddushin, where Moses is said to have was born on the seventh of Adar and that he died on his hundred and twentieth birthday.

This passage cites two texts in support of this. The first is a statement Moses makes when he is about to die:

And he said to them, “I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I am no longer able to go out and come in. The LORD has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan” [Deut. 31:2].

The Talmud argues that if Moses was merely in his hundred and twentieth year, he would not need to say that he was that old “this day,” and it tries to find additional meaning in this statement.

It then proposes another biblical passage, where God is promising blessings on those who obey him, as an explanation:

None shall cast her young or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days [Ex. 23:26].


Bad exegesis

The argument that the Talmud is making is not exegetically sound. The text in Deuteronomy need not be taken as Moses referring to his birthday. The “this day” in his statement that he is a hundred and twenty years old may just be a way of underscoring the impressive age he has achieved.

Even less plausible is the interpretation of the passage in Exodus to mean that those who obey God will live in whole year units. Understood naturally, it just means that those who obey him won’t die young but will live a full life (all things being equal).

What is significant for our purposes, though, is not whether the argument is exegetically sound. What matters is the fact that the Talmud uses the argument to support the idea that Moses died on his birthday.

This provides at least the kernel of something that could be applied more broadly.


Was Moses thought to be unique?

We have already noted that Rosh Hashanah may apply this reasoning to Abraham, however this is unclear. In more recent times, it has been applied to David and perhaps other figures. However, the only person that the Talmud clearly applies this reasoning to is Moses.

Further, while the Talmud dates the claim that Moses was born and died on the seventh of Adar to the period between A.D. 10 and 220 (b. Kiddushin 1:9, II.9.A-B), the argument involving those who obey God living in whole year units may date to a few centuries later.


Apologetic implications

As a result of all this, we should be careful in claiming that there was a widespread belief in ancient Judaism that prophets or other holy men died on their birthdays. The matter is too uncertain for that.

The most that can safely be claimed is that some Jewish sages from approximately this period in history had the idea that some holy men (at least Moses) lived in whole year units and this may or may not have played a role in the thinking of early Christians in fixing certain feast days.

I want to say a special thank you to all who provided assistance in this matter. It helped me carry the issue further than I was able to on my own!

I’ll post any further updates to this page to keep it current.

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