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Christ, the Light of the World
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


Q: Last year as I was taking down my Christmas tree, I began to wonder: What does it represent, anyway? When I asked friends and relatives the same question, nobody had a very clear answer. Many of them simply said that this is a tradition. But not all religions put up Christmas trees. Why do Catholics and other Christians?

A: Actually, decorating evergreen trees with lights at Christmastime is not a universal Christian custom. It began in northern Europe and spread from there. There are no evergreen trees on South Pacific islands or in equatorial Africa. Other trees can, of course, be decorated but that changes the original symbolism. Even if you decorate an evergreen tree in Australia in December, that is their summer season.

Placing lights on evergreen trees in December originated among pagan groups in northern Europe because they considered these trees to be symbols of unending life. They saw lights as symbolizing hope—a virtue much needed during the long hours of darkness that the winter solstice (December 21/22) brings to that region.

Christian missionaries in northern Europe decided that, instead of trying to stamp out evergreens and lights as pagan customs, they could retain these elements but change their symbolism.

Missionaries encouraged new Christians to see evergreens as symbolizing God’s eternal love for all creation and to associate light with Jesus, the light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6) and the light of the world (John 9:5).

A few Christian groups continue to regard customs such as Christmas trees as flirting with idolatry and, therefore, things to be avoided. Catholics and most other Christians see them as legitimate symbols of a God whose love is so great that the Son of God became a human being in Jesus, while remaining fully divine.

Q: Recently, a deacon from another part of the country was "incardinated" into our diocese. I’ve been a Catholic for 40 years, but I have never previously heard that term. What does it mean? Is it a step toward ordaining married deacons to the priesthood?

A: "Incardination" is a legal term meaning that a priest or deacon has formally joined the priests or deacons of a particular diocese. This practice dates back to the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) and emphasizes that a person cannot be ordained except for service to a local Church or to a religious congregation. This also applies to a married Protestant minister who becomes a Catholic and then is ordained as a Catholic priest.

Incardination establishes to whom a diocesan priest or deacon promises obedience, one of the pledges made at ordination. Members of religious congregations cannot be ordained deacons or priests until they have made their permanent profession in that congregation. They likewise cannot exercise a public ministry in any diocese unless they have obtained "faculties" from that local bishop.

If a diocesan priest transfers to another diocese, his incardination normally takes five years. The bishop of the previous diocese must agree to the transfer. Canons #265-272 of the Code of Canon Law give the requirements for excardination (transferring permanently out of a diocese) and incardination. By agreement between two local bishops, a priest could remain incardinated in his original diocese while working in another one.

Deacons follow the same excardination/incardination process. Canon #267 allows for this to happen without a waiting period, but that option is becoming less common

Q: I am trying to figure out when Lent and Easter fall in 2004. I have tried several search engines but have found no luck.

A: In 2004, Ash Wednesday is February 25 and Easter is April 11. Most yearly pocket calendars have these dates for the current year and the following year. The yearly liturgical calendar, available in December at most parishes, also contains this information. I encourage you to obtain one.

At, you can find the general 2004 liturgical calendar for the United States. A local diocese, parish or religious community may celebrate some additional day with added solemnity because it is the feast of their patron, their title (for example, the Visitation) or their founder.

If you need to know these dates several years in advance, there is a multiyear calendar in the front of most editions of the Lectionary (the book of Scripture readings for Mass).

Q: In trying to explain the idea of Original Sin to a non-Catholic friend, I began to wonder: Where did this idea come from? Is it based on the Bible? Is it a specifically Catholic belief?

A: The Catholic Church’s teaching about Original Sin is a way of saying that all people are in need of salvation—even before they have committed any personal sin. No one living presently enjoys the complete harmony with God that we were originally intended to have.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the ‘reverse side’ of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all [people], that all need salvation, and that salvation is offered to all through Christ. The Church, which has the mind of Christ, knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ" (#389).

The term Original Sin describes what the New Testament calls the human family’s universal need of redemption (Jesus’ constant call to conversion, as well as John 1:29, Romans 5:12-19, Ephesians 2:3, 1 John 5:19 and 1 Peter 5:8, for example).

In the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo explained that the Church baptizes infants not because of sins they have committed but because they have already inherited a human condition stained by sin, polluted by the sin of Adam and Eve.

Without an idea of Original Sin, evil must result from a defect in God’s creation or a conflict between two equally strong gods. The authors of the two creation accounts in the Book of Genesis (1:1—3:24) vehemently reject the sin-as-defect explanation. Although the first account does not address the issue of sin, the second one clearly identifies it as coming from a misuse of human freedom.

If you agree, as all mainline Christians do, that all people are wounded by sin, then you are really accepting the basic concept of Original Sin, by whatever name.

Q: I am getting conflicting information about Sunday weddings. Can you have a Sunday wedding that is a complete Mass? I have been told that the readings must be the ones set for that Sunday, and that concelebration is not permitted at wedding Masses. Are there different rules for different parishes?

A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (#372) and the Rite of Marriage (#11) establish the basic rules for celebrating the Ritual Mass for Weddings (with its unique prayers and readings). A local bishop can make additional regulations.

There are 45 days in the Church’s universal calendar when the Ritual Mass for Weddings can never be used (for example, Sundays in Advent, Lent and Easter, plus Holy Week, Easter Week, Ash Wednesday and solemnities of Jesus, Mary and several saints in the worldwide calendar).

Although a Ritual Mass for Weddings is not permitted at parish Masses on Sundays, a wedding can occur within most Sunday Masses, using the prayers and readings for that Sunday. The nuptial blessing after the Lord’s Prayer may always be used.

Most U.S. dioceses and parishes highly discourage weddings on Sundays because they are concentrating all their energies on the Sunday Mass. That celebration is a "little Easter" and forms the basis of the Church’s liturgical year.

Also, the interests of the parish community and of the couple getting married can conflict in a major way (reserved pews, placement of flowers, time needed for pictures, etc.).

Even so, Sunday weddings are common in some countries. Concelebration is always permitted at wedding Masses.

If you have a question for Father Pat, 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: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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