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The Message Is Written in the Stars

What Do the Stars Mean?
Why Curse the Fig Tree?
What Is to Be Done With the Ashes
John the Baptist and Original Sin
Communion Twice on the Same Day

What Do the Stars Mean?

When I say the Fourth Glorious Mystery of the rosary (the Assumption), the meditations I use quote Revelation 12:1, "A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars."

Can you tell me what the 12 stars in her crown represent?

The Book of Revelation teems with signs and symbols. It was written as a kind of insiders' book. The use of symbols made its meaning obscure to enemies and persecutors of the Church while those for whom the book was intended got the message loud and clear.

Chapter 12 in Revelation, containing the verse you quoted, reflects the struggle between Satan and God's people in both the Old and New Testaments. The woman clothed with the sun represents--or is seen to represent--both the People of God pictured by the prophets (an ideal sign), and the Church of the New Testament. The dragon who seeks to destroy her is Satan, the devil.

In writing, John may have had in mind the dream of Joseph in Genesis 37:9-10 when he saw the sun, moon and 11 stars (the other brothers or tribes) bowing down to him. And John almost certainly was recalling the woman in Genesis 3 whose offspring would crush the head of the serpent.

Over the centuries some commentators have believed that John also had in mind Mary, the mother of Jesus and God's people, when he wrote this passage in Revelation. Whatever John's immediate intention, the words you quote are repeatedly applied to Mary in Christian writings and interpretations of Revelation.

On the first level, with the woman as the image of an ideal Israel and the Church, the sun can be seen to represent Christ or the light of Christ. The Church is clothed in the light of Christ; in and through the Church shines the light of Christ. The moon represents the presence of heavenly glory. The stars represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles.

The symbols have much the same significance when the woman in Revelation is seen as Mary or the passage is applied to her as the queen assumed into heaven, the queen of patriarchs, queen of prophets, queen of apostles and queen of all saints whose praises we sing in the litany of the Blessed Virgin.

John the Baptist and Original Sin

I heard a priest say John the Baptist was born free of original sin. Is that so?

In his account of the Visitation, St. Luke says, "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant [John] leaped in her womb" (Luke 1:41).

Luke earlier states that when the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah--while he was offering incense--and announced the coming birth of John, Zechariah proclaimed, "He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15).

Some infer from these texts that John was cleansed from original sin in his mother's (Elizabeth's) womb and thus born without original sin.

One is free to believe this, but it is not a necessary conclusion or a matter of faith, something that must be held.

While some believe John was freed from original sin while still in his mother's womb, the Church proclaims as a matter of faith that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without original sin, that she was never from the first instant touched by original sin.

Why Curse the Fig Tree?

In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 11, verses 13-14 and 20-26, Jesus sees a fig tree having leaves but no figs. Therefore, Jesus "curses" the fig tree which subsequently withers and dies.

My question is, why so harsh a penalty? What purpose did it serve as regards his disciples?

To fully appreciate the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, we should bear several things in mind.

For one thing, the Old Testament prophets often performed symbolic acts to gain attention and convey their message. Jeremiah, for instance, was ordered to break a potter's flask in Israel's sight, as a symbol of how God will smash Israel (Jeremiah 19).

The Prophet Ezekiel packs his bags, digs a hole in the wall and departs through the hole carrying his baggage, symbolizing the exile to come.

The Hebrew Scriptures often use figs or the fig tree as a symbol of Israel. In Hosea, for example, we find God saying, "Like grapes in the desert, I found Israel. Like the first fruits of the fig tree in its prime, I considered your fathers" (Hosea 9:10).

And in Jeremiah we find, "I will gather them all in, says the Lord: no grapes on the vine, no figs on the fig trees, foliage withered!" (Jeremiah 8:13). And, again, Jeremiah compares the repentant Israelites who will return from the exile to a basket of good, edible figs while he compares Zedekiah and the princes to a basket of bad figs which cannot be eaten.

Finally, we should put the Gospel incident back in context. Mark's story of the fig tree is sandwiched around his account of Jesus' cleansing of the Temple.

It is interesting to note that when Matthew tells of Jesus cursing the fig tree he omits the fact figs were not yet in season. Admittedly, this is a bothersome detail and something of a distraction. But it should not lead us away from the point. Whatever is to be said about figs being in season, Jesus wants to teach a lesson in the here and now. He can't wait around for two or three months until the fig crop is due!

The point, then, for the apostles is the fruitlessness of the Temple worship and piety at Jesus' time. Like the fig tree's abundance of green leaves, the activities of the Temple give the impression of religious vitality, but the Temple worship is barren. Henry Wansbrough, O.S.B., points this out in his commentary on Mark in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nelson).

Jesus is hungry for the fruit of good works. As Wansbrough says later, commenting on the text in Matthew, Jesus' action is a warning to the religion's leaders not to reject the grace of God present in Jesus.

Jesus' action, then, is prophetic and symbolic. And in the dark days ahead, the apostles are to recall the power of Jesus' word. They are to continue to have faith in Jesus and act out of faith. Faith in Jesus and the power of their prayer will enable them to overcome all obstacles.

Communion Twice on the Same Day

Can you tell me how often I may receive holy Communion on the same day?

The new Code of Canon Law, published in 1983, states in Canon 917, "One who has received the blessed Eucharist may receive it again on the same day only within a eucharistic celebration in which that person participates, without prejudice to the provision of Canon 921, #2."

That means, whenever, wherever, however a person has received holy Communion, he or she may receive a second time on the same day if the person is participating in the celebration of Mass.

So, if the person has already received Communion in or outside of Mass, he or she may receive a second time if it is during a Mass in which he or she is participating. A person may not just walk in at Communion time and receive a second time. Canon 921, #2, however, allows anyone in danger of death, from any cause (a heart attack, missile attack, natural disaster, etc.) to receive Communion as viaticum a second time during the same day whether in or outside of Mass. In fact, the Code strongly suggests that the person receive again in such circumstances.

Cases where these canons might most frequently apply are those in which a person has attended Mass on Saturday morning and then attends a Mass on Saturday evening to satisfy the Sunday obligation. The person may receive at both Masses. The same applies for someone who attends a daily Mass in the parish and then attends a wedding or funeral Mass in the evening. Again, the person may receive in both instances.

What Is to Be Done With the Ashes?

A relative of mine recently was cremated. I have requested the ashes to have them interred in the consecrated ground of a family cemetery. Others have also requested the ashes to scatter in the ocean.

The new Catechism states that cremation (and donation of organs) is permitted so long as it does not demonstrate "a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body."

What is the Church's position as to the disposition of cremation ashes? Is scattering of ashes ever appropriate?

With the changes in Church legislation now permitting cremation--if it is not chosen as a means of denying the resurrection or Christian doctrine--more and more questions about the practice are emerging.

A common question has been about the presence of the ashes at the Mass of burial. The general law is presently interpreted as being against the presence of the ashes at a funeral Mass. The usual directive given is that the body should be brought to church for a funeral Mass and then taken away for cremation. But an exception to that interpretation might be coming for dioceses in the United States.

Many people find it difficult to appreciate the argument that the funeral rites are predicated on the presence of the body and the liturgy continually speaks of the body, therefore the body must be present. They are upset at the idea that, if cremation has already occurred, the ashes should remain in the hearse while a Mass is celebrated in the church. As a consequence, some dioceses and countries have obtained permission for the ashes to be present at a funeral Mass. The bishops of the United States are in the process of requesting this permission for the United States. The U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy has drafted prayer and ritual adaptations for Mass in the presence of cremated remains. These changes are being submitted to the Vatican for review and approval.

A second question now being frequently asked concerns what is to be done with the ashes after cremation has taken place. All kinds of stories are being heard about sprinkling ashes on golf courses, racetracks, mountaintops or lakes.

The Code of Canon Law does not state clearly what is to be done with the ashes after a body has been cremated. But the Rite of Committal in the Order of Christian Funerals approved for the dioceses of the United States by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Apostolic See contains an alternate prayer when cremation has taken place and it clearly expects burial or entombment. It begins by being directed to those present and saying, "My friends, as we prepare to bury (entomb) the ashes of our brother (sister),...." And in the second section the celebrant prays, "Comfort us today with the word of your promise as we return the ashes of our brother (sister) to the earth."

The Guidelines for Christian Burial in the Catholic Church, prepared by the Liturgy Advisory Committee of the National Catholic Cemetery Conference, states, "Unless otherwise directed by the diocesan bishop, the cremated remains should never be scattered or disposed of in any manner other than a dignified interment or entombment." Those directives also state, "The cremated remains must always be treated with respect. They should be either interred or entombed, preferably in a Catholic cemetery."

The Wise Man welcomes your questions. If you have a question, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Wise Man, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.
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