An Invitation to Attend a Roman Catholic Mass this Christmas

Many people are curious about what goes on at a Catholic Mass. Some think they know what goes on but have never been to a Mass. Some are hesitant to see for themselves for fear of being evangelized or of standing out from the Catholics present because they do not kneel or stand at the appropriate times. Still others are hesitant to visit because they don’t know what to wear or are not sure whether their race or color will limit access or seating. Mass is for everyone. Come and see.

The Catholic Mass, at its most basic, follows the same format, day in and day out. There is the entrance by Priest, lector and altar servers, followed by the opening prayers. (Those who know their Bible well will be surprised to hear just how much scripture is read and prayed in every Mass.) Then scripture is read: two selections on weekdays and three selections on Sundays and Holy Days. The first one or two readings are taken from the Old Testament, the Epistles or the Acts of the Apostles. The last reading is always from one of the Gospels. This is unvaried. The readings are set for the day and published in a Lectionary that is used worldwide. Therefore, every Mass, everywhere in the world, will have the same readings on the same day. Between the first readings and the last is a Psalm. Readings are followed by a homily by the Priest who tries to tie in the message in all the readings. This is followed by general prayers and the offertory or collection.

Unlike some other Christian denominations, the Priest does not set the scripture readings upon which to base a sermon. He does not pick and choose the passages most amenable to his personality. His topics are set for him and he is expected to teach the meaning of the readings.

One thing you won’t hear in a homily is a diatribe against another religion or religious group. So have no fear of having your faith attacked from the pulpit. Catholic Christians consider all people the children of God and loved equally by God. Since each person is free to choose how they worship God, or not, why should non-Catholics be afraid to experience what Catholicism offers.

The second half of Mass is more intricate in detail but again is taken from Scripture. It is called the Eucharistic prayer and celebrates both the last Supper and Jesus sacrifice on the cross.  The rite of communion for the priest is followed by communion for the people. Closing prayers are said and the Priest leaves the sanctuary.

This basic format may or may not be accompanied by music. Different parishes have different customs regarding music. Small parishes that offer one or more Masses may not have enough musical talent in the parish to support more than one choir so may offer music at only one Mass. Other, larger, parishes may have a music ministry for every Mass. As a visitor, you may join in the singing or not, as you choose. Many Catholics do not sing at Mass or give the responses. You would not stand out as being different if you do not sing.

You will notice that there are times when the congregation says or sings prayers, responses to the Priest, or hymns. Don’t be embarrassed because you don’t know what is going on. It takes time to learn the ritual being observed.

There are set times during Mass when Catholics stand, sit and kneel. If you decide to sit throughout Mass, you are free to do so. There are handicapped Catholics who sit during the entire Mass, so you would not stand out.

You may feel uncomfortable arriving before Mass begins as some parishes have official greeters who shake your hand and welcome you. If it is a small parish, the greeters will know certain people by sight. The same people generally attend the same service week in and week out so their faces become familiar. Nevertheless there are many who attend a particular service sporadically, are visitors to the area, or are Catholics who have been away from the church for a long time. No one will know you are not a Catholic and are just curious about the Mass. You will be welcomed just the same.

If you decide to avoid the possibility of greeters before Mass, and decide to arrive late and leave early, you will find others doing the same thing. You will fit right in.  If you feel you would be less conspicuous by sitting in the back of the church, you will find many Catholics there with you.

What about proper clothing, gender or racial restrictions?  You will find a wide variety, especially in large city parishes. People tend to show up for Mass in an eclectic range of dress, from shorts and halter tops to suit and tie. As a stranger to Catholic Mass, however, it would be more respectful to wear everyday clothes that would be worn to school or work.

In relation to gender and race, all are welcome. None are segregated to certain parts of the church. Men and women sit together to worship, and color or race are simply considered a variation in God’s children. There are no class distinctions at Mass. All God’s children are welcome to worship and sit wherever they wish.

During communion when you see many walking up the aisle to receive communion, you should remain in your seat and observe. You are asked to abstain from receiving communion. You may, however, go up and receive a blessing. Again, you will not stand out as unusual. There are many reasons why people do not receive communion, only one of which is because they are not Catholic.

These are the basics of what you will observe at a Catholic Mass. There will be variations from parish to parish. In North America, Mass is in usually English although Masses can be heard in English, Spanish, French or Latin. If another language is used for a particular Mass, it will be specified.

You may feel uncomfortable attending a Sunday morning Mass, but you have other choices. You may attend a Mass during the week (except perhaps on Mondays which is frequently the Priest’s day off) or you may watch it on television. Being at Mass in person is a richer experience than watching it on TV but if you are hesitant about being physically present, you will find a TV Mass follows the same format.

Consider this an open invitation to come to a Catholic Mass. Come and see.

Reflections on the Christmas Story in the Bible

Most Christians are familiar with the Christmas story. Every year on December 25th, Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, and listen to the tale of how Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, how they could find no lodging for the night so had to make do with the stable; how the baby Jesus was born and celebrated by angels who announced his birth to nearby shepherds who visited him. (Luke 2:1-20) Some include the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) in the story; others celebrate the visit of the Magi on twelfth night or twelve days after Christmas.

The central mystery of this story is how God could even want to become a human being and live and walk with us as a normal, everyday person with all the trials associated with being human. He was willing to come as a helpless infant rather than as a triumphant kingly presence. The eternal God wanted to experience humanity from its beginnings, as a fertilized ovum, to a brutal and seemingly senseless death. He lived most of his life in obscurity until he burst on the scene at his baptism (Matt 3:13-16, Mk 1:9-12, Lk 3:21-22). Judging from some of the comments made in Nazareth (Matthew 13:53-57, Mark 6:1-6), no one saw him as special or out of the ordinary. He was just a neighborhood boy who grew up to be famous.

Imagine yourself writing the script for a movie. Where would you begin? Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem while Mary was in the last uncomfortable stages of her pregnancy. Did they walk or did Joseph find a donkey for Mary to ride? They must have joined with a caravan traveling to Jerusalem and then found another group traveling further to Bethlehem. How long did the trip take? We can assume it took several days at least. Did they travel all day, only stopping at nightfall, or did they stop during the day as well?

When they arrived in Bethlehem, they needed to find lodging. Imagine Joseph’s frantic search for a place to stay as Mary starts labor pains. Bethlehem is crowded and others have found lodging before them. Someone takes pity on them and offers them the stable yard. We can imagine a cave-like place where the animals are housed, out of the wind and protected from rain. Here Mary and Joseph try to find a comfortable place for the night. This is the place where Mary gives birth to Jesus.

Was Joseph able to find a local midwife to help Mary or was he left alone with his wife to help out as best he could? Did Mary have to give birth to her baby alone and with no help? We are not told whether Mary’s labor was long or short, whether it was painful or pain free. We are not told who cut the cord or with what instrument. Some believe Mary’s birth process was pain free and very short while others believe it was a normal birth in every way. Who cleaned up the newborn when he arrived and what was the custom for cleaning a newborn in those days? Was he roughly toweled dry or did Joseph find some water to bathe him? He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger. Mary had to have brought the swaddling clothes with her. Did she sew them herself? What kind of material was used? How long was the cloth? Tightly wrapping the baby Jesus must have given him warmth as well as a sense of security. We imagine he falls promptly asleep. Did Mary nurse him first?

In the meanwhile (Luke 2:8-20), angels are singing praise to God, and telling shepherds the good news of what has happened. The shepherds, as good Jews, knew of the coming of the Messiah. They set off to see a king. What did they expect to find? How shocking it must have been for them to find Mary and Joseph in a cow-shed. Is this the place where we will find the Messiah, they wonder? Yet, we are told they stayed to admire the baby. They accepted, on faith, that this baby was indeed the Messiah, the savior of the Jews. How they must have laughed and rejoiced as they left to tell the news to everyone they met.

The reflection can end here or the scene can shift to the story of the magi (Matthew 2:1-12). Whether the magi were stargazers or astrologers or magicians is not really important to the meditation. Matthew tells us that they first stopped at Herod’s palace to find out where the “newborn king” could be located. After all, kings are supposed to be in palaces, not in stables. Imagine Herod’s consternation at hearing about the birth of a contender to his throne! He must have been shocked as well as threatened. He was obviously a skilled politician; however, as he sent the magi away with assurances that he was pleased with the news and wished to pay homage to the baby himself.

The star reappeared as they left Jerusalem and we are told they easily found the “house” where Mary and the baby Jesus were staying.  Had they moved out of the stable? The magi left gifts for the baby and began their return journey. Once more, divine intervention protects Jesus by telling the magi not to return to Herod.

How many months had the magi been on the road, following the star? Where did they come from? Where did they go after their visit? Some have imagined the magi as kings and very wealthy men. Others have depicted them as coming from different cultures and racial groups. None of this information is in Matthew. Is it imagination or does it have a different source than the Bible? The Gospel of pseudo-Matthew (16) gives many details about the magi left out of Matthew’s account, beginning with the sentence “And when the second year was past, Magi came from the east to Jerusalem, bringing great gifts.” This statement would tend to change our view that they arrived twelve days after the birth of Christ. These stories have become part of Christian folk lore.

The reflection is over although, in a sense, it is not over. There is more to reflect upon. Does the story include Jesus circumcision eight days after his birth? We are told Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. Since Mary could not leave the house for forty days after giving birth, according to Jewish law, where did they stay all that time? Did they have relatives in Bethlehem who gave them a home? Did the stop in Jerusalem on their way home to Nazareth? Or did they pause in their journey to stay in Jerusalem a little longer? We are left with many gaps in the Christmas story, many questions.

The wonder of the Christmas story remains. God became human for our sake. It is the greatest gift we could receive. It is a gift that fills us with wonder.

Considering a Low-carb Diet?

Beginning a new diet is an adventure. Beginning anything new can be exciting and absorbing, but it does take preparation. Whether you are taking a trip, starting a new exercise program or starting a new diet, you need to learn all you can before you begin. Beginning a low-carbohydrate diet requires the same kind of thoughtful planning.

Read before you start

Are you convinced that a low-carb diet is the right diet for you? If not, you may want to explore the origins of the diet before you begin. The most comprehensive literature review on low-carb diets was written by Gary Taubes. Published in 2007, Good Calories, Bad Calories is a monumental work covering the research and politics behind the prescribed American diet. Newer books, also based on thorough literature reviews are: Nina Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise, in 2014, and Zoe Harcombe’s books especially The Obesity Epidemic, What caused it? How can we stop it? 2015.

The first decision you need to make is which low-carb diet is right for you. Not all low-carb diets are the same, so it’s best to learn as much as you can before you begin. There are many books on low-carb dieting from which to choose. A good place to start is Jonny Bowden’s book Living the Low Carb Life (Sterling, 2004). Bowden reviewed the best known, best advertised low-carb books on the market. Not only does he give an overview of each program, he also reviews the science base for the diet. He then gives his opinion on which diets are worth exploring further and which are junk. If your local library does not have a copy, you can find one on amazon.com. Another source for decision making, is the on-line discussion forum called Active Low-Carber Forums. This forum welcomes people who have questions about all low-carb diets.

After looking over the diets, choose one or two you think you can follow. Whichever diet program you choose, the author will have written at least one book and will also have a web-site that expands upon the book and answers questions that readers have asked. If your local library does not carry the book, try to find a copy of the book to read. Look over the website. Does the author read and report on the latest research on low-carbohydrate diets? Does the author have an open forum for those trying to follow the program or only provide a question/answer?

If the author has more than one book on the diet, read them all. Start with the first one published and read all subsequent books. If the author keeps up with the research, the new books will contain that new material. Usually, the first book is not repeated in subsequent books. Based on new facts, the authors will have re-thought some suggestions and added others.

Buy the book that most appeals to you. Not only should you read it from cover to cover, you will need it as a continuing reference as you follow the plan.

Clear out your pantry

There is nothing worse for a low-carb dieter than to have a large supply of high carbohydrate foods in the house. Your first Herculean task is to get rid of it all. Whether it’s canned, in a box, frozen or fresh, high carbohydrate foods have to go. You can either donate them to the local Food Bank or have a large party and eat it all at once.

Getting rid of undesirables is critical to staying on track. Your will power is constantly challenged when you see carbohydrates in the pantry or freezer. If many carbohydrates are not good for your health, they are probably not good for your family’s health either. Clearing out your pantry notifies everyone that healthy eating is in the future.

Plan your grocery list

Learning what to eat on a low-carb diet is critically important to the success of the diet. Each low-carb book will contain recipes, menus and food lists to eat or avoid. Based upon the menus and food lists that appeal to you, you now need to make up a new grocery list to re-stock your pantry, freezer and refrigerator. Planning a grocery list for your new diet will make the difference between success and failure.

Go shopping

Don’t forget to take your list with you when you go to the grocery store or you will make poor choices. Remember, also, to shop when you are not hungry, as temptation is greatest when you smell the bakery goods fresh from the oven. Not only should you have a list of basic foodstuffs, you should also have a list of basic daily supplements. For many first time low-carb dieters, a supply of low-carb snack foods or meal replacement bars is also helpful. You may not find them at your local grocery store. Some purchases may come from specialty nutrition stores.

See your doctor

If you are on any kind of prescribed medication for any health problem, you need to forewarn your physician of what you are about to do. If you can, get a physical exam and have all the usual laboratory tests. This provides you and your physician with baseline data on your current state of health. If your physician does not believe in the low-carbohydrate diet, and many do not, having this data against which to evaluate your progress will help to alleviate fears for your health.

Starting your new diet

You are now ready to begin your low-carbohydrate diet. Don’t wait until Monday. Start tomorrow with breakfast. If you have done all the necessary pre-planning, you will have the foods you need to prepare all meals and snacks for the day.

The hardest part of beginning a low-carbohydrate diet is the food choices. If you are clever, you will have written down your menus for the first day including your snacks. This way, making food choices simply requires following your own created plan. The worst part is over. Follow your plan; do not deviate even a little bit. Whenever you start tinkering with the basic plan, you are setting yourself up for future failure.

Drink plenty of water

You have heard this one before. You may not realize why drinking water is helpful on a low-carbohydrate diet. A low-carbohydrate diet is diuretic. You will make many trips to the bathroom. You need to replace that lost fluid or you may experience dizziness and faintness from dehydration. It’s also the reason for the huge initial weight loss when beginning any new diet. You are simply losing fluid.

This fluid loss also means your body will be eliminating many necessary nutrients. Your diet book will have specified the vitamins and mineral supplements you need to replace the ones lost.

Keep a record

Whether you prefer the paper and pencil method or computer programs, my favorite is Diet Power, keeping track of exactly what you have eaten every day is critically important to your success. Not only can you see just how many carbohydrates you have eaten you can also track your body measurements and weight loss. If you are not losing weight, you may be exceeding your carbohydrate allowance or your calories are much too high. Keeping track honestly is the best way to manage a new diet.

A word of caution

Low-carbohydrate dieting creates a change in your metabolic processes. You are converting your body from using incoming carbohydrates for energy to digging into your fat stores. (This is, after all, the whole point of the diet). Because of this shift, you cannot go back to eating as much carbohydrate as you want to eat without an immediate weight gain. For this reason, most low-carbohydrate diet books advocate only small incremental carbohydrate additions to prevent this rebound effect.

If you have decided to try the low-carbohydrate diet, good luck and good eating.