Monday, January 8, 2018

The Baptism of the Lord: An Icon of Grace

The Baptism of Christ by Tintoretto
Today we observe Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and so on the last day of the Christmas Season we celebrate the first event in the Public Ministry of Jesus.  All four Gospels tell of John’s baptism of Jesus, but all present a slightly different view.  Mark’s account is the sparest, except that he gives us the most vivid picture of John himself: "Now John was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey" (Mark 1:6).  Luke's account starts with the people "filled with expectation", eagerly anticipating the Messiah, whom they take John to be.  John’s Gospel recounts John the Baptist hailing Jesus with the title "Lamb of God".  They all tell of John’s recognition of himself as a merely the forerunner to Jesus, to whom he is inferior, but only Matthew records his reluctance to baptize the Lord:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13-15)

John knows that Jesus, being sinless, requires no Baptism, but Jesus seeks it out in order to show his commitment to being one of us, and to demonstrate to us the path which we should follow.  In this account we see Jesus acting out what St. Paul tells the Phillipians:

. . . though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phillipians 2:6-7)

In all the Gospels, we see the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus and the voice of the Father proclaim him to be the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased.  And so Christ’s Public Ministry begins with an icon of all three Persons of the Trinity working together, and an image of Grace in action.  This scene sums up the meaning of the Nativity we have just celebrated, and tells us something about the agenda for the ministry that is begun.
 As always, there is more, which we see with particular emphasis in Matthew’s Gospel. We are reminded that it is all Grace, a word for which the Latin root gratia means not just favor, but favor freely bestowed (hence related English words “gratuity” and “gratis”); Grace is completely, absolutely, free. God needs nothing, nothing is necessary for Him: He does it all for us, He gives us a share in His own life, as a completely unnecessary gift.  Because He loves us.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Epiphany: The Lord Made Manifest

Happy Epiphany . . . and a Merry Christmas!

   Yes, it is still the Christmas Season: the season officially ends tomorrow with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  Today we celebrate the Great Feast of Epiphany (although many of you no doubt observed the traditional date of January 6th, which was yesterday). In the Western Church today Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi, whom we often call “The Three Kings”, Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar by name.  Scripture, however, neither crowns, nor numbers, nor names them, but simply describes them as “wise men from the East”.  The word Epiphany means “a manifestation” or “a revealing”.  In this context the name of the Feast refers to the fact that the gifts and adoration of the Magi make manifest that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God.  This ancient feast (which Christians were celebrating even before there was a formal observance of Christmas) has at times also been connected  to the Nativity, the Baptism of Jesus and other manifestations of his Divinity.

It is interesting how many epiphanies of “God With Us” can be found in Scripture, how many different ways he reveals himself: the examples above barely scratch the surface. And yet it’s still so hard for us to accept (a theme of my post for the 10th day as well). Mary and Joseph themselves, after visits from Angels and after what they knew full well was a Virgin Birth, “marveled at what was said about him (Luke 2:33)”  when they hear the old man Simeon prophesy over Jesus as he is presented in the Temple. A full dozen years later, they still seem to have a hard time taking it all in:

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously." And he said to them, "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.  (Luke 2:46-50)

   It is so difficult for us to grasp the reality of the Incarnation. Even the human parents of The Lord seem to struggle with it – and who could hope to have faith equal to theirs?  
    But even here, as always, the Blessed Mother is the model disciple: “his mother”, the Evangelist tells us, “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).  She doesn’t let her initial human reactions have the last word, but patiently waits for the meaning of all these events to become manifest.  One might even say that she demonstrates the classic definition of theology: faith seeking understanding.

Friday, January 5, 2018

12th Day of Christmas: Adeste Fideles

Nativity scene in snowstorm at Principium et Finis World HQ
     Merry Christmas! On the 12th Day of Christmas my true love sent to me . . . Luciano Pavarotti!
  Today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and so the last of my Twelve Days of Christmas posts. I always close the twelve days with this rousing version of Adeste Fideles by our old friend Luciano.
   Tomorrow is the traditional date of the great feast of Epiphany, although in most Catholic dioceses the official liturgical celebration will be held this coming Sunday.  The next day, Monday, will be the Baptism of the Lord, and the beginning of Ordinary Time.  Some of us, however, will keep the decorations up until the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd . . . and we all should carry at least a little Christmas Joy with us throughout the year!
     O come, let us adore Him!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

11th Day of Christmas: I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1868
Merry Christmas!  Today is the Eleventh Day of Christmas.  Today I’d like to take a look at a particularly moving Christmas song. There's a story behind the creation of every song, and sometimes knowing the story can make the song all the more meaningful.  This is one of my favorites. 
The story begins on Christmas Day, 1863, when the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells”. His poem begins with church bells ringing out the joy of Christmas:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Henry, Charles, Ernest, and Frances Longfellow

The poet, however, was not filled with unmixed good cheer.  His wife had recently died a tragic death in a house fire, and he had just received news that his son Charles, who had left without his knowledge or consent to fight in the bitter Civil War that was then embroiling the United States, had been wounded in battle.  Longfellow, himself struggling with sorrow in the midst of our most festive season,  juxtaposes the joyful ringing of bells in “The belfries of all Christendom” with the manifest lack of peace among men:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

These images of war and shattered homes seem to give the lie to the joyful promise of the Christmas Bells:

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Christ did not come, of course, simply to bring joy: he came to free us from the power of sin.  Our Faith is grounded in Christian Hope, which is the confidence that the Power of God is greater the the power of hate, and stronger than hate's master.  Longfellow's closing stanza resolves the conflict between Christmas joy and the sin and violence of this world with a ringing assertion of Christian Hope:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

"My Friend, The Enemy" by Mort Kunstler

Longfellow, who had very powerful incentives to turn to despair, instead created a poem that shows us that the joy of Christmas is not a denial of the brokenness of this world, but God's answer to it.

Longfellow’s poem has been put to music numerous times over the past century and a half (usually under the title, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”); my favorite is Johnny Cash’s rendition.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a good video of Cash performing the song, so the clip below will have to do (good recording, no video).

One curious note: all the musical adaptations that I have found have left out Longfellow’s 4th and 5th stanzas, with their references to thundering cannon and forlorn households.  The version below also moves stanza 3 (“Till ringing, singing . . .”) behind Longfellow’s concluding stanza (“God is not dead . . .”), and then repeats the “God is not dead” stanza.  The effect is to de-emphasize the reasons for the speaker’s cry of despair, and give greater emphasis to the redemptive conclusion.  It seems to me that the change robs the song of some of it’s narrative coherence (why should the speaker “bow his head in despair” after hearing "peace on earth, good will to men"?), and, by replacing those concrete examples of suffering with the abstraction "hate", deprive it of much of its dramatic power.  I suppose the song-makers thought those images too heavy for a Christmas song, but in fact they are a stark reminder of why the coming of the Messiah is "Good tidings of great joy" (Luke 2:10).

For all that, the sense of Longfellow’s poem still comes through in the song: the joyful celebration of Christmas seems to be mocked by the all-too-evident evil in the world (and is there any one of us who is not, right now, directly aware of some reason for anger or sorrow?).  The conclusion reminds us that the Child lying in the wooden manger will one day hang upon a wooden cross, precisely so that he might carry us through those evils to the feet of His Father. When we learn about the real suffering that the author of those words was experiencing as he wrote them, we can experience the song, not as sentimentality or empty platitude, but as a true triumph of Christian Hope. Let the bells peal loud and deep!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

10th Day of Christmas: The Christ Child & St. Genevieve

"Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:14)

. . . and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6)

    Merry Christmas!  Today is the 10th Day of Christmas, as we continue to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Creator as a little human child.

    We need to remember when we consider the Nativity that our ancestors generally did not fully share our sentimentality towards children.  Our God, however, as I point out in today’s post on Nisi Dominus, never fails to surprise us, and the quotes above, from Our Lord Himself and from the prophet Isaiah, would indeed have been startling to their hearers. All the same, throughout the Old Testament we see that God has a way of working in the world through small and apparently innocuous instruments: through Joseph, a young boy sold into slavery (Genesis 37:18-36), or David, who was so young and unimpressive that his father Jesse left him in the fields when the prophet Samuel came to choose a new king from among Jesse's sons (1 Samuel 16). When God shows Himself to the prophet Elijah, he comes in the form of a tiny whisper (1 Kings: 11-13; see my post on this passage here).
    The quote from Isaiah, “and a little child shall lead them” suggests that there is more going on here than mere imagery. And in fact, not long before the quote from Matthew’s Gospel above, we see this:   

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-4)

    So, we ourselves need to become like children - but how is that supposed to work?

    We see an example in one of today’s saints, St. Genevieve.  Attracted by the sanctity of the man who is today known as St. Germanus, Genevieve became a consecrated virgin at only seven years old. She lived to an impressive old age of 89 years, through which her faith was tried in many different ways, but she never lost her child-like trust in her Lord. Her steadfast faith earned the respect of the pagan Frankish king Childeric, and turned aside the ravaging horde of Attila the Hun from Paris (for which reason she is Patroness of that city). Miracles attributed to her intercession have continued for more than a millennium and a half since her death.
    While St. Genevieve’s faith was child-like, it did not remain childish: as she grew older, her understanding deepened, and she took on the role of a mature, responsible woman in matters such as the performance of charitable deeds and the supervision and instruction of other consecrated virgins (undertaken at the request of her mentor St. Germanus). As we saw above, she even knew how to deal with kings. What did not change was the absolute trust she had in Jesus Christ, from her first vow as a seven year old until her death more than eight decades later.  From her teens when her piety and sanctity earned her scorn and persecution, through her later years when she serenely faced the menace of the Huns, she put herself unreservedly in the hands of God.
    Such steadfast faith does not come to us easily.  It doesn’t come at all, in fact, without the gift of God’s Grace.  But who can we trust if we can’t trust the God who became a little child among us, and showed us how to say, even in the final extremity, “Into Your hands, Lord, I commend my Spirit”? Just as little children have an unquestioning confidence that their parents will take care of them, we are called to follow the example of St. Genevieve in putting ourselves in the hand of the God who came to us as a little baby in a manger.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

9th Day of Christmas: Two Doctors and the Light in the Stable

 Merry Christmas!  Today is the 9th Day of Christmas; the Christmas season officially ends one week from today, with the Baptism of Our Lord. It is also the Memorial of two Doctors of the Church, St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen.

Nativity, Petrus Christus
    Let's keep the Christmas lights burning a little longer.  This is the first day of the Christmas Season that is not a solemnity, and for some of us (particularly if we are teachers or students) it's the first ordinary work day since the Feast of the Nativity itself.  Today seems a good day for the clip below, a lovely little Christmas song written in 1975 by Steve and Elizabeth Rhymer, and first recorded that year by Emmylou Harris (with some vocal help from her friends Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton): 

Hail, hail to the newborn king
Let our voices sing him our praises
Hail, hail to the guiding light
That brought us tonight to our savior

Ale, alleluia, alle, alleluia
Ale, alleluia, alle, alleluia

Come now, there it shines so bright
To the knowing light of the stable
Lean close to the child so dear
Cast aside your fear and the thankful

Ale, alleluia, alle, alleluia
Ale, alleluia, alle, alleluia


Monday, January 1, 2018

8th Day of Christmas: The Solemnity of Mary and Marian Songs

We have all probably heard the term “The Scandal of the Cross”, Christianity’s shocking claim that the Eternal God Himself was tortured to death in a manner usually reserved for the lowest of human beings. That is only one, however, of a whole interconnected collection of truth claims that are equally shocking and scandalous.

    We celebrate one of those claims today, on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The title might not sound quite as presumptuous in the original formulation adopted at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., Θεοτόκος (theotokos), literally, “God-bearer”, but it’s still asking a lot of human credulity.  That old rascal Napoleon supposedly claimed to find Islam preferable to Christianity because it was “less ridiculous”, that is to say, less reliant on miracles and difficult concepts like the Trinity . . .  or Christ’s being, at the same time, a descendant of David and the Son of God.  But of course, Napoleon really believed in little other than himself.
    As Christians, on the other hand, we know that we are called to conform ourselves to the Truth, not to the impossible task of somehow conforming Divine Truth to ourselves. And so we find that the Divine Motherhood of Mary becomes a source, not of perplexity, but of profound awe and wonder. Along the way we also find ourselves pondering less profound but still compelling questions such as, "What is it like for a human mother, even one who is 'full of Grace', to bring forth and raise up the Second Person of the Trinity as her child?"
    That particular question is explored in the first of the three songs performed by Hayley Westenra in the clip below.  “Mary Did You Know?”, written by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene, was first recorded in 1991. In the subsequent twenty-five years it has been recorded by at least 30 different artists over a wide variety of genres.  It has also become much beloved of homilists; I first heard of the song ten years ago in a Christmas morning sermon delivered by Richard Malone, then-Bishop of Portland, Maine. A large part of the song's appeal, I think, is that it captures the awe and wonder of the Incarnation in such a personal way:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know
Your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know,
That your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

    The second song in the medley is the old Basque carol “The Angel Gabriel’s Message”.  This lovely Marian song brings us back to the Annunciation.  We know that God gives us the freedom to say “no”, but the refrain “Most highly favored Lady” reminds us that he gives us all the Grace to do his will should we choose to say “yes”.  Mary was given the Grace to do something that God had never asked of anyone before her, and would never ask again . . . and so all generations call her “Blessed”.
    Finally, “O Holy Night”, one of my favorite Christmas songs. “Holy” means “set aside for God”. What night could be Holier than that on which “Christ was born”, the Night on which the Eternal Word became Flesh and came into our world through the agency of a human mother, a young woman who dared to say “yes” to God?

    Holy Mother of God, Pray For Us!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

7th Day of Christmas: Holy Family, Pray for Us

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family, celebrating the little family group of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. This is a very recent observance, as Holy Days go: the Church added it to the liturgical calendar less than a century ago, in 1921, because she was beginning to discern some troubling trends facing the institution of the family in the modern world.  The Feast of the Holy Family reminds us that the family as traditionally understood is an integral part of God’s plan for humanity, and also that the family was sanctified by the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity when he came to us through that institution.

The Holy Family: The Flight into Egypt,
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
   It will perhaps not shock you to hear that the trends that merely troubled Mother Church a century ago have become so powerful that they now threaten to overwhelm the institution of the family all together.
The fact is that even the way we commonly think of family, and children, is very different than it was for most of humanity before us.  
   Here’s an interesting example of how attitudes are changing.  It’s a tradition in our family that together we read Charles Dickens’ 1843 Christmas Classic A Christmas Carol every year at Christmas time. We also watch the 1951 film version of the same story, featuring Alistair Sim as the main character, Scrooge.  The film adds some detail about Scrooge’s early life, but in general sticks closer to the original book than is common in the movies.  There is one change, however, that always gives me pause.  When the Ghost of Christmas Past is showing Scrooge scenes from his earlier life, we see him breaking off an engagement to a beautiful woman named Belle because she doesn’t share his growing obsession with money.  The spirit later shows Scrooge the same woman years later.  In the original book we see her happily ensconced with a loving husband (not Scrooge) and a big bunch of raucous, happy children; the implication is that Scrooge could have been enjoying this delightful domestic scene himself if he had chosen another path.  In the film, however, we see no husband or children: instead, we see Scrooge’s former fiancee (here named Alice) ministering to the needy in a shelter.  The message for Scrooge in this case is, look at the wonderful woman you lost through your greed.

Young Scrooge & Alice, from the the 1951 film Scrooge
   Now, there’s nothing wrong with the film version of the story; charitable works are quite commendable (and, of course, required of Christians: see James 2:14-26), and charity is in fact an important theme in the original story.  But why the change? Most likely by 1951 the makers of the movie were afraid that a house full of children, with which Dickens’ mid-19th century audience would have connected immediately, simply wouldn’t have looked as appealing.
   This is something I’ve noticed before, in another context.  Let’s go back (briefly) to a decade or two before the Holy Family came together, to 17 B.C.  That year saw the publication of Vergil’ Aeneid, one of the world’s great literary works  (which also claims the distinction of having made the young St. Augustine cry; look it up if don't believe me). At one point in the the story the devious goddess Juno is trying to bribe the wind god Aeolus to help in one of her schemes, and promises as his reward the most beautiful of nymphs, who will be his forever and, she promises, “make him the parent of beautiful offspring” (pulchra faciat te prole parentem).  Later in the same story, Anna, sister of Queen Dido of Carthage is trying to persuade her royal sibling to abandon the vow of chastity she had made after the death of her first husband so that she might marry Aeneas, the hero of the story. Anna urges her to forgo “neither sweet children nor the rewards of Venus” (nec dulcis natos Veneris nec praemia noris).

Juno and Aeolus at the Cave of the Winds, Antonio Randa

I’ve read the Aeneid with high school students many times over the last couple of decades, and the same thing always happens.  They get the appeal of the good looking nymph, and they live in a social and media environment that is constantly trumpeting the “rewards of Venus”. But “beautiful offspring”? “Sweet children”? In a society that all too often depicts children as mere hindrances, and where even a president of the United States is on record as referring to young women being “punished with a baby”, we need to explain a thing which was obvious both to the pagans of ancient Rome and Victorian Christians eighteen centuries later: that a child on the way is indeed a “blessed event”.
The difference between the genuine pagans of 2,000 years ago and today’s neo-pagans is telling.  The family is part of God’s original plan for humanity, and so people all over the world have always recognized it as a natural good. Beyond that, when Jesus chose to come into the world as part of a human family he made the institution itself holy, just as he sanctified humanity through his incarnation. When modern day secularists reject and even attack the traditional family, they are not simply denying the obvious worldly benefits of an age-old institution, they are opposing something that they, unlike Vergil and his compatriots, know has been established and hallowed by God.  It’s of a piece with Satan’s defiant Non Serviam!, “I will not serve” . . . and is therefore diabolical.

St. Joseph with the Infant Christ, Clemente de Torres
That’s the challenge the family faces today, and as the family goes, so goes society. It’s an all-out spiritual assault.  The Holy Family, fortunately, not only gives us the model, but also provides some powerful intercessors. We all know, I think, that we can always call on the Blessed Mother, but we shouldn’t forget St. Joseph, a Holy Advocate we need more than ever:

Glory of home life,  
Guardian of virgins,  
Pillar of families,  
Solace of the afflicted,  
Hope of the sick,  
Patron of the dying,  
Terror of demons,  
Protector of Holy Church, pray for us.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

6th Day of Christmas: God is Light

God Is Light, And In Him Is No Darkness (1 John 1:5)

Christmas lights remind us that 
Christ is The Light
     Today is the Sixth Day of Christmas, the mid-point of the twelve days (although not, strictly speaking, of the Christmas Season; more on that tomorrow). Our Sunday Visitor has published a pamphlet which I ran across at our cathedral a few years ago that offers suggestions on how to keep the Twelve Days; on the sixth day they recommend lighting all the candles on your Advent Wreath and praying the antiphon from December 21st:

            O Radiant Dawn, splendor of Eternal Light,
                 Sun of Justice;
            Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
                 And the shadow of death.

Now in my case the advent candles have all given way to Christmas candles, and I would prefer not to use one of the “O Antiphons”, since they are so closely connected to Advent.  I understand why they make the suggestion, however, because at this point in the Christmas season it is appropriate to start extending our joy at the coming of Jesus to contemplation of Who and What He is.  The identification of the Messiah with Light is deeply embedded in the Tradition, as in the well-known passage from Isaiah that also figures prominently in our observance of Advent:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

We also see it in the opening of John’s Gospel, as a part of what is perhaps the most important New Testament passage for understanding Jesus Christ:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

Light has also been a big part of our liturgical practices, as anyone who has attended the Easter Vigil can attest, and this also goes back to the beginning: from the earliest days of the Church, the priest has traditionally celebrated Mass ad orientem, “toward the rising (Sun)” (which, sadly, is most often no longer done in the Ordinary Form of the Mass).  Not coincidentally, in the antiphon quoted above, the English words “O Radiant Dawn” are a translation of the Latin O Oriens.

     You may notice our Texts and our Tradition spend more time and effort telling us that Christ is Light than in explaining how and why. There are certainly connections that immediately spring to mind: darkness is emptiness, sin, despair, death; light is abundance, purity, love, life.  But these only scratch the surface, and often we come to a true understanding of something, and really absorb it, by working with it and wrestling with it.  I propose that we observe the Sixth Day of Christmas by praying over the passages of Scripture above (and others like them), by lighting up our Christmas candles, and thinking about the ways in which Christ is Light, about what that means for us and for our lives, and how we make that Light a reality for others.  Merry Christmas!