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Luke's 'Subversive Christmas Story'

PEACE ON EARTH: Roots and Practices from Luke's Gospel, by Joseph Grassi. Liturgical Press. 174 pp. $15.95.

Reviewed by HILARION KISTNER, O.F.M., editor of Sunday Homily Helps, a homily service of St. Anthony Messenger Press. A former teacher and retreat master, he has degrees in theology and Scripture.

IN HIS INTRODUCTION, Joseph Grassi tells us he wishes to “trace the theme of peace through Luke’s Gospel, emphasizing the very practical means Jesus suggests to make it a reality.” He wishes to “focus on the inner empowerment available for all who wish to make true peace a priority in their own life and in the world of today.” This reviewer thinks the author has succeeded quite well.

The author does not compose a word-by-word or section-by-section commentary on the Gospel. Rather, he provides us with 15 chapters that look at his theme from various angles.

For example, Chapter 1 is entitled “‘Peace on Earth’—Luke’s Subversive Christmas Story.” In Luke 2:1 we read about Caesar’s decree that the whole world be registered. In this way Caesar fosters the so-called “Roman Peace.” But that is a false peace, built on tyrannical power and oppression. Caesar claims to be Lord and Savior. In the little town of Bethlehem, a child is born in obscurity; he will be the true Lord and Savior of the world. He will establish true peace in the world.

In this chapter we find references to Micah (Bethlehem), Isaiah (Prince of Peace), 1 Samuel (David the child-king), Wisdom (Solomon’s birth). In fact, the book constantly refers to the Old Testament to show how Jesus fits into God’s plan for peace.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Jesus, Messiah of Peace and Nonviolence in the Passion Story.” The author maintains that the ending of Luke’s Gospel reflects its beginning. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the people recognize him as a king who brings peace, fulfilling Zechariah 9:9-10. He weeps over Jerusalem because it failed to recognize what would bring the people peace. He stops the violence of the disciples after his agony in the garden. He prays for those who put him to death and promises paradise to the repentant criminal.

The whole Passion account recalls Isaiah 52:13—53:12 where the Servant of God suffers for his people and brings them peace. After the resurrection, Jesus greets his followers with “Peace be with you.”

As the book continues through 13 more chapters, the author describes the peace process. By God’s grace and the call of Jesus, people are empowered to repent. Repentance brings forgiveness. A forgiven person is led to forgive others. Justice is thereby established and justice is the foundation of peace.

Constant references to Luke’s Gospel (and sometimes to Acts), as well as frequent references to the Old Testament, develop the theme of peace and motivate the reader to become a champion of peace.

Chapter 14 calls for special mention. It is entitled “Jesus’ Compassion for Animals: A First Step Toward a Nonviolent World.” The author wishes to make his readers more sensitive in this area. He marshals facts and figures to fashion a very persuasive case. He accepts the fact that Jesus was not a vegetarian, but wonders if Jesus lived today whether he would eat meat.

Every chapter ends with a fine synthesis of the chapter and some pointers for becoming peacemakers.

I have two negative observations. First, I think the author unfairly contrasts Matthew with Luke. Rather, they should be seen as complementary. For instance, Matthew’s Jesus does tell us to love our enemies (5:44). And, in fact, Matthew alone in all of Scripture uses the word peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (5:9).

Second, the editing of this book left much to be desired. Instead of saying that Pilate freed Barabbas, for instance, the text has Jesus freeing Barabbas. Again, we read: “This Herod is the son of Herod the Great at the time of the birth of Jesus”—obviously, something is missing from the sentence. Some Scripture citations are inaccurate. Usually, a reader can figure out what the author is saying, but such errors can be distracting and irritating.

In spite of these negatives, I recommend the book. Bible-study groups could profitably use it. Anyone interested in peace—in other words, all of us—will find inspiration and motivation in the words of Joseph Grassi. This professor emeritus of Santa Clara University has written a simple and understandable book that anyone can enjoy.

You can order PEACE ON EARTH: Roots and Practices from Luke's Gospel from St. Francis Bookshop.


ALL THE POPE'S MEN: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks, by John L. Allen, Jr. Doubleday. 392 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by JOHN F. FINK, author, columnist and editor emeritus of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

HOW THE VATICAN REALLY works has sometimes been a puzzle for many Catholics. At times it seems clear that there’s a cultural gap between the Church in the United States and the Vatican.

Few people are in a better position to explain how the Vatican thinks and works than John L. Allen, Jr. He has been the Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter for four years, as well as an analyst for CNN and National Public Radio.

Allen’s good reputation as an objective reporter enabled him to conduct 35 interviews with officials of the nine congregations, 11 councils, three tribunals and other offices that make up the papal bureaucracy. In addition, his acknowledgments, just the list of names, take up two full pages of the Introduction.

He starts with the basics: the difference between the Holy See and the Vatican (the former is the authority of the papacy to govern the Church while the latter is the 108-acre territory in Rome) and the function of the Roman Curia.

He then tries to demolish five myths about the Vatican: that there is a creature called “the Vatican” with a single mind; that there’s someone, or a small cabal, that is really “in charge” and pulling the strings for the pope; that the Vatican is secretive; that the Vatican is wealthy; and that it is full of people most interested in climbing the career ladder. He obviously is impressed by the dedication of the people who work in the Vatican, at absurdly low salaries.

He also shows how the Vatican is influenced by its location in Rome, in Italy and in Europe.

Other chapters focus on the Vatican’s psychology, its sociology and its theology. Allen then ends with a chapter on the American sex-abuse crisis and a final chapter on the Vatican and the war in Iraq.

Allen defends the Vatican against those who thought that the Vatican was slow in doing anything about the sex-abuse crisis. First, he points out that the pope did indeed make statements about the crisis. Besides, he says, the Vatican was taking its cue from U.S. bishops who were advising Rome that “premature papal statements might backfire, keeping the story alive artificially or even providing fodder for civil litigation.”

Also, while the scandal was making front-page news in the United States, European newspapers scarcely mentioned it. The front-page news in Europe at the time was the 39-day standoff between Israelis and Palestinians at Bethlehem’s Basilica of the Nativity, which didn’t get nearly as much coverage in the United States. Some Vatican officials were annoyed that the fate of the holy sites did not seem important to the American Catholic community.

As for the differences between the Vatican and the Bush administration regarding the war in Iraq, Allen devotes 53 pages to a 10-month chronology of all the statements made by the pope and other top Vatican officials condemning the war, and their efforts to prevent it. The Vatican consistently said that a unilateral and preventive war is never justified, that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the United States, that a war would increase terrorism in the world and that it would damage relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

The Vatican believes that, although it was unsuccessful in preventing the war, it was able to prevent the anti-Christian backlash in the Muslim world it had feared. That’s because, although the pope’s statements didn’t get much coverage by the media in the United States, they received extensive coverage in the Arab press and praise from Islamic leaders.

In trying to explain how the Vatican thinks, Allen has, wittingly or unwittingly, become a defender of the Vatican’s positions. Unlike most Americans, who think that the U.S. Church should be uppermost in the mind of Vatican officials, Allen points out that Catholics in the United States make up only six percent of Catholics around the world.

This is an enlightening book about the Vatican.

You can order ALL THE POPE'S MEN: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE PASSION: A Photographic Companion to the Movie The Passion of The Christ, Foreword by Mel Gibson. Icon Distribution, Inc. 143 pp. $24.99.

Reviewed by JEANNE CONTE, a photojournalist from Powell, Ohio.

ON THE COVER of the book The Passion are the words: “He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief.” These words from Isaiah 53:3, written hundreds of years before Christ’s crucifixion, epitomize the feeling of Christ’s last 12 hours before his death on earth—the focus of the book and film.

The Passion is filled with biblical quotes explaining clearly the meaning of the photos. There can be no doubt here about what was happening.

In Mel Gibson’s Foreword, he mentions the Greek word aletheia—“unforgetting.” He goes on to say, “It has become a ritual of our modern secular life to forget.” He says that in this sense the film was not meant to be a “historical documentary,” but a means of “unforgetting.”

The advantage the book has over the film is that one can go at a slower pace, feeling and contemplating this awful sacrifice.

Powerfully and poetically, photographers Ken  Duncan and Philippe Antonello captured the scenes, some not in the film. They are magnificent on-site shots by highly talented artists. Particularly striking photos include: a cross with chains dangling set against a blood-red lowering sky; a photo of the face of Christ, his eyes showing foreknowledge of what is to come yet determination; a black-and-white shot of a dying Jesus on the cross against a gray swirling sky; a scene showing on one side Jesus as a child being comforted by Mary, and on the other Mary again trying to comfort him as he falls under the cross; another showing his hand lifting up the woman caught in adultery.

Pages between the photos are filled with relevant biblical quotes in English, Latin and Aramaic from the New Living translation of the Bible.

The book is divided between shots of the film and shots of the filming itself. A number of the latter show a deeply serious Gibson drawing the story from those who perform. Never are they named in this book. The entire thrust is, in Gibson’s words: To “help many more people recognize the power of His love and to let their...lives.”

You can order THE PASSION: A Photographic Companion to the Movie The Passion of The Christ from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS , by Joseph F. Kelly. Liturgical Press. 145 pp. $11.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review and managing editor of this publication.

CONCISE AND READABLE, this fascinating little book explores such questions as:

How was the date of Christmas fixed?

Why do the Gospels differ about Jesus’ birth?

Why did Matthew give so much attention to the “begats,” the genealogy of Jesus?

Why is Joseph often portrayed as an old man?

Was the star of Bethlehem real or metaphorical?

How did the Bible’s “Magi from the East” become Three Kings named Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar who rode camels? Why does the Syrian Church speak of 12 Magi?

How did the first Christmas art and music arise?

Why is a sound Christology and Mariology needed to understand and celebrate Christmas correctly?

Who was St. Nicholas? (After mentioning the famous depiction of him of a 1931 Coca-Cola ad, Kelly concludes, “It is unlikely that the historical St. Nicholas would be able to recognize himself today.”)

Why did the Puritans try to ban Christmas celebrations?

Why are secularization and commercialization of Christmas not new phenomena?

Dr. Kelly is chairman of the religious studies department at John Carroll University in Cleveland. He has also written The World of the Early Christians and two books on the problem of evil.

This new book is a polished diamond: sound scholarship rendered in clear prose.

You can order THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS from St. Francis Bookshop.


SPINNER McCLOCK AND THE CHRISTMAS VISIT, by Rick Dacey, illustrated by Hallie Gillett. Ambassador Books, Inc. 32 pp. $13.95.

Reviewed by SUSAN HINES-BRIGGER, an assistant editor of this publication, and her five-year-old daughter, Madison.

IT’S RARE in the world of children’s books to find a catchy story, humor and lesson-to-be-learned all wrapped in one. So I’ll admit that when I picked up this book, with its tagline of “A young boy, a heaven-sent letter, and an unforgettable Christmas visit,” I was expecting to explain a heavy-handed Christmas tale to my daughter.

Boy, were we surprised! From the very beginning, the book draws you in with its catchy rhyme scheme—“reminiscent of Dr. Seuss,” according to the book’s press release. And the main character, Spinner McClock, is someone to whom my daughter could relate with his over-the-top antics and messy room.

One day Spinner receives a letter from Jesus saying he is coming for a visit. Spinner immediately begins to panic and hurries to prepare his home and himself. The process produces some funny moments that elicited chuckles from both Madison and me, such as when Spinner finds a half-eaten hamburger in his room from the Fourth of July.

The illustrations also add to the story, conveying what the words don’t. For instance, as Spinner sits and waits for Jesus’ arrival, we are treated to a two-page spread of his various poses on a chair.

In the end, Spinner learns an important lesson about what it means to be open to Jesus. My daughter didn’t get that lesson at first, but with a little explanation she seemed to understand.

Overall, Spinner McClock and the Christmas Visit is a fine Christmas tale. Its use of humor, great illustration and solid story make it worth keeping on your bookshelf.

You can order SPINNER McCLOCK AND THE CHRISTMAS VISIT from St. Francis Bookshop.


SAVORING GOD: Praying With All Our Senses , by Kathleen Finley. Ave Maria Press. 154 pp. $12.95.

Reviewed by the REV. ROBERT KUS, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena in WakeForest, North Carolina. He is also an associate consulting professor in psychiatric mental-health nursing at Duke University Medical Center.

A HIGHLY CREATIVE BOOK, Savoring God invites us to explore the depths of God’s creation in a novel and challenging way.

Unlike many books on meditation that ask us to shut out the world, this book wants us to use our senses to examine common elements of God’s creation to find God there.

To help the reader meditate, the author guides the reader through 29 “exercises.” Each exercise follows the same template: lighting a candle; praying a Centering Prayer; savoring or using our senses to focus on the object at hand; listening to God’s word by reading Scripture passages related to the object; considering or reflecting on the meaning of the object; and finally, responding or asking ourselves the question, “So what?”

Besides the candle, the author presents exercises built on elements of nature (water, a plant or flower, soil or dirt, sunshine, rain, a rock, clouds, seeds, snow and wind), on personal objects (mirror, hand, comb or brush, underwear, shoe, bed or pillow, glasses, ring, lotion, favorite food and address book), and on everyday objects (bread and flour, salt, facial tissues, earphones, pen and paper, keys and money).

This book is a treasure trove for preachers and anyone who would like to meditate on the common things all around us. As I was going through the book, I could not help but think of other things one could use as the basis of such exercises, things such as shapes, colors, letters, numbers, traffic signs and many more.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone from adolescent to adult who likes to meditate or who is looking for a new way to pray. These exercises would also lend themselves well to retreat masters and catechists who could use these to help focus the group. And this book should be able to stimulate preachers looking for a fresh approach to helping people see God, who is always with us in millions of ways.

The prayer template that Kathleen Finley has created is dynamic, exciting, refreshing and terribly creative. I especially found the exercise called “Underwear: Celebrating the Body” to be very novel.

I enjoyed savoring this book. I will use it in the future for myself and for the groups that I lead.

You can order SAVORING GOD: Praying With All Our Senses from St. Francis Bookshop.


Book Briefs

To have a “good” Christmas, we should spend some time in spiritual preparation and make room in our hearts for a little wonder.

THE CHRISTMAS PLAY: A Fable for the Holidays, by Carol Lynn Pearson. Illustrated by Anni Betts (Loyola Press, 32 pp., $12.95). The narrator auditioning for a Christmas play learns it never involves playing just one part. The message is inspiring; the simple drawings, delightful; the total effect, charming.

DAILY REFLECTIONS FOR ADVENT & CHRISTMAS: Waiting in Joyful Hope 2004-05, by Robert F. Morneau (Liturgical Press, 103 pp., $2), explores key Advent ideas like come, hope and Nativity. The poet-auxiliary bishop of Green Bay packs a lot into short reflections.

STEPPING STONES TO BETHLEHEM: Daily Reflections for Advent, by Jack McArdle, S.S.C.C. (The Columba Press/Dufour Editions, 118 pp., $9.95), is an Irish priest’s take on the season.

A CHRISTMAS PROMISE: A Cape Light Novel, by Thomas Kinkade and Katherine Spencer (Berkley Books, 298 pp., $19.95, U.S.; $29, Canada), is bathed in the kind of light that pervades Kinkade’s paintings. Here in this fictional Massachusetts town, a Protestant missionary on medical leave from Nicaragua meets a pregnant divorcée fleeing a nasty husband, while a couple copes with childlessness. It’s unabashedly sentimental in a season made for it.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 7.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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