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April 20, 2006 Edition

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Grand Mom
A Culture of Life

The embrace of the cross:
Christ redeemed us all

photo of George Weigel

The Catholic 

George Weigel 

Why is the cross the most apt of Christian symbols? G.K. Chesterton offered a typically, well, Chestertonian answer in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy.

A circle, Chesterton wrote, suggests infinity and perfection, but a perfection "fixed forever in its size." By contrast, the cross "has at its heart a collision and a contradiction." And because of that, it "can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing. The circle returns in upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers."

Chesterton's insight into the universal embrace of the cross has a long pedigree in Christian theology; the Latin and Greek fathers of the church spoke of the cross in analogous ways. Thus that late first century manual of Christian prayers and practices, the Didache, describes the cross as a "sign of expansion."

Reaching out

St. Cyril of Jerusalem picked up on that image, noting that only God could be so expansive: "On the cross," Cyril wrote, the Son of God "stretched out his hands to encompass the bounds of the universe."

Lactantius, a Christian apologist of the late third and early fourth centuries, saw in the cross a foreshadowing of the universal church: in Christ's suffering, "God stretched out his arms and embraced the world, thus prefiguring the coming of a people that would, from East and West, gather under his wings."

St. Athanasius, one of the greatest of the Greek fathers, pondered the cross of Christ surrounded by two other crosses, and saw in that scene on Calvary the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile into the one People of God: Christ, God made man, and thus made a creature capable of standing erect and extending his hands, reaches out to the two thieves, who figuratively represent the two peoples to be gathered into the one church.

And in his reaching out, the God-man tears down the walls of division between Jew and Gentile and extends God's covenant of faithful love to the whole of believing humanity. The cross, by pointing in all four directions, symbolizes the radical inclusivity of God's redeeming purposes.

Eternal fountain

And thus Hans Urs von Balthasar, the 20th century Swiss theologian from whom I've borrowed these patristic images, suggests that the cross of Christ is the ultimate ground of solidarity: solidarity among the members of the human race; solidarity between humanity and God.

Chesterton saw a "collision and a contradiction" at the heart of the cross. Balthasar takes a different tack and sees, at the center of the cross, not so much colliding wood but the sacred heart of Jesus. The heart of Christ crucified is, Balthasar writes, the fountain of the church: "It is at the moment when Jesus suffers the most absolute thirst that he dissolves, to become an eternal fountain."

And from that fountain pour forth water and blood, Baptism and the Holy Eucharist: the sacrament from which the church is born, and the sacrament from which the church lives. In handing over his sacred heart in a perfect act of obedience to the will of the Father, Jesus redeems our wayward hearts, and makes it possible for us to make a gift of ourselves - to hand over to others, in love, that which is most intimate and personal to us.

Sacred heart of Christ

Three times in my life, I have had the privilege of praying at the 12th station of the cross - Calvary - in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The memories of jostling one's way through the Old City's narrow, winding streets, the noise of the tourists, and the cacophony of contending rites and sects in the basilica all fade away.

It is, perhaps, the easiest place to pray in the world - and not so much prayer in the sense of formulated words, but prayer as "practicing the presence." At the 12th station, we are immersed in the sacred heart of Christ.

And there we find the center of the world, and the truth of the world's story. That is why it's "Good" Friday.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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God's humor: Redefining grace

photo of Audrey Mettel Fixmer

Grand Mom 

Mettel Fixmer 

When I first retired from full time teaching it was 1990; I was 62 years old, a mere youngster it seems now, but already I was worried about growing old gracefully.

Our 10 children were reared, Bob and I were in good health, we would have adequate income to live comfortably, and best of all, I could finally turn to what I always felt destined to do. I could write.

What would I write about? The two best resources I had from which to draw were my experience of rearing a ridiculously large family and my Catholic faith. The two were so tightly intertwined that I could not separate one from the other.

Was the world at my doorstep breathlessly awaiting my words of wisdom? I thought not. Could I write the Great American Catholic Novel? Probably not.

What were the tools I possessed? Well, I had developed a sense of humor, thanks to Sister Gregory, my high school English teacher. She it was who brought in a bowl of popcorn for the two of us one night when we were staying up late to "put the Madonna News to bed."

Discover God's gifts

She told me that she delighted in popcorn because it reminded her of God's sense of humor. Couldn't I just imagine God chuckling as he created the ear of corn and saying, "Just wait until they see what happens when they drop one of these kernels into the fire"?

I learned from her to find God's humor in a lot of things. I could imagine him going about like some Giant Easter Bunny hiding His gifts all over the place for us to discover: penicillin in mold, great shrubs of tomatoes and huge pumpkins in little seeds, and beautiful babies from human love. All miracles for our delight and His pleasure!

I wondered how we could have survived "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" if it had not been for our well-developed sense of humor. So I wrote about many of those experiences that today seem funny.

I found my audience when Mary Uhler, God bless her, agreed to publish my Grand Mom columns in our diocesan paper, the Madison Catholic Herald. I truly found my voice in such fertile and friendly territory.

I could make wise cracks about being a veteran of the Great Rhythm Wars, calling my generation of mothers "The Big Guns of the Baby Boomers" and calling us an "Endangered Species." I knew there were countless women out there who were in that same league or came from families that were.

Definition of grace

My first book, published in 1995, was a collection of those first three years of columns, and I called it Growing Old Gracefully and Other Likely Stories. By then I was already aware, of course, that if one takes the first dictionary definition of grace as "beauty of form and movement," those of us with arthritis even in our 60s need not apply.

So I focused on the second definition of grace, "a characteristic or quality pleasing for its charm or refinement." To achieve that kind of grace a sense of humor and a positive outlook, and an enjoyment of the beauty surrounding us, are the basic requirements. So I used those tools as well.

Divine Love

Now in my later years as I approach my 80s, I look more to the eighth definition of grace as found in the American Heritage Dictionary. "Divine love and protection bestowed freely on people; a state of being protected or sanctified by the favor of God; an excellence of power granted by God."

Wow! That's the definition that applies to us more and more as we age. Now I see how my life is "full of grace" or grace-full. As we face more and more losses - family, friends, mobility, hearing, memory - we do feel warmed and protected by that Divine Love.

Neat little trick

My daughters have taken over the family entertainment for holidays, and even our grandchildren come to our rescue several times a week, just a phone call away. I remember how important it is to accept help graciously and gratefully the way my mother always did.

We no longer have to prove ourselves or earn money. We have one son that earns a hundred times more that I ever did writing his column. We have one daughter that earns a hundred times more than I ever did for her talks, and has written twice as many books.

We have another daughter who is well on her way to writing that Great American Novel that I thought I had to. And we have seven others who are caring, loving adults who serve their fellow men and us in many divergent paths.

God is chuckling over that neat little trick He played on us.

"Grandmom" likes hearing from other senior citizens who enjoy aging at P.O. Box 216, Fort Atkinson, WI 53538.

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Total commitment: Openness to life

photo of Kimberly Hahn

A Culture 
of Life 

Kimberly Hahn 

Over supper one night I told Scott about my Christian ethics class. We were both candidates for a Master of Divinity Degree; he was a year ahead of me.

He was amazed that I had selected contraception as my topic for the class and that several others had as well. The previous year, no one had opted for that issue.

Amazement grew

As the course progressed, his amazement grew. I began to share the reasonable argument in opposition to artificial contraception not only from Catholic authors but from Scripture as well.

I, too, was amazed at the simple yet profound explanation of the act of marriage in the context of Christian faith that I discovered in Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, required reading for class. Though I was not a Catholic, Humanae Vitae spoke to my heart, capturing a splendid vision of how our marriage could better reflect truth and love.

Noted chastity speaker Molly Kelly calls it "the most prophetic document of the century because Pope Paul VI told us that the contraceptive mentality would lead to the abortion mentality - because when the child is not perceived as a gift but rather as something to put off, prevent, or if all else fails, abort, then our children are not gifts but burdens."

Real life challenge

One day I spoke with a good seminarian friend who challenged me to consider these things more deeply. He could tell from my responses that I seemed convinced that contraception was wrong.

"Kimberly, you sound convicted against contraception. Are you still using it?" That stopped me in my tracks. "It's not that easy," I answered, thinking his challenge was rather direct for someone who wasn't yet married. "It reminds me of the old story about the chicken and the pig."

The chicken and the pig were walking down the road when the chicken commented to the pig about the generosity of the farmer. "Let's do something special for Farmer Brown," said the chicken. "Like what?" asked the pig. "Let's give him a ham-and-eggs breakfast." "That's fine for you," said the pig. "For you, that's just a donation. But for me, that's a total commitment."

"My point is, as a single seminarian you don't have the consequences I might face should I throw out contraception tonight. But you're right to challenge me to live what I believe."

I left the library knowing I was persuaded, but there were two people in our marriage. I needed to have a thorough talk with Scott about all that I had discovered.

Praying, researching

Scott and I talked and talked. We prayed. We sought counsel from others. We read and prayed and researched some more. Finally, we believed that God's design for marital love has at its heart a marital embrace unencumbered by devices or selfish designs. Our act of self-donating love was to be nothing less than an imitation of God's total self-donation.

To delay obedience is disobedience. Once we were convicted about the truth regarding openness to life, we brought our practice into conformity with our conviction. On April 1, 1981, we threw out artificial contraception for good.

No more drugs, plugs, jams, or jellies! That year, April Fool's Day meant no longer playing the fool with contraception but embracing the role of a fool for Christ. I wrote in my journal, "God be praised, we are now honoring him more in seeking to be consistent. Lord, your will be done in terms of timing."

Kimberly Hahn, mother of six, is co-author of the bestseller Roman, Sweet Home, Our Journey to Catholicism, with her husband Scott Hahn. This column, syndicated by www.OneMoreSoul.com, is reprinted from her book, Life-Giving Love (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

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